The Sermon I Should Have Preached: On Holiness and Romans 12-15

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This post is part of an ongoing series where after completing a sermon series I go through the main points I wish I would have had time for.

In mid August I faced a difficult dilemma.  Word had seemingly gotten out to several friends, strangers, congregants and family members that the Church of the Nazarene stands in the holiness tradition.  I want to be very clear that we are not more holy than any other group but we do feel a particular calling to think, talk and preach about holiness.  With that said, our calling has come with a very interesting piece of baggage that we call “The Doctrine of Christian Perfection.”  We believe grace comes with the gift of making us perfect.  And we have now spent 108+ years trying to explain to outsiders and each other just what we mean by that.

Over the summer I was asked by several people about the doctrine.  And I was in a unique place to both defend and describe just what we mean by “perfection.”  I found myself saying, that perfection does not mean faultless but it does mean blameless.  It does not mean inerrant but it does mean mature.  It does not mean perfect at golf but it does perfect at loving.  And, if you will allow me one more, it does not mean perfect at showing our love but it does mean perfect at trying to show our love.

If you are confused, I totally understand.  It was the inadequacy of those descriptions that caused me to launch into a 12 week series about holiness last fall.  As I went to put those 12 sermons together, I realized that underlying the confusion was a misunderstanding of the gospel.  So I decided to split the 12 weeks up into 6 weeks on the gospel and 6 weeks on holiness.

So in mid-October we transitioned from gospel to holiness.  At that time a limitation presented itself.  I have chosen to be faithful to Scripture.  Therefore, I don’t just preach what God “lays on my heart.”  I begin every week in one particular passage of Scripture and then let God speak to me through it.  The passage I chose for the holiness sermons was Romans 12-16, which I thought was a very concise, clear picture of what holiness looks like.  And it is.  There is some wonderful stuff in there and I put together some good sermons.

However, Romans 12-16 doesn’t address the unique difficulties of the Nazarene Doctrine of Christian Perfection.  So with that brief background in mind, here are some things I wish I would have had time to go over in more detail but which the constraints of time and Scripture prevented:

1. Individual Holiness vs. Corporate Holiness:  The first thing I realized when I dug deep into Romans 12-15 is that Paul in that passage offers very little help in understanding how individuals are holy.  After much study I realized that Paul is talking about how a community of people are made holy, not one individual.  It got worse when I consulted a myriad of other passages from both Testaments and realized that almost always when God says, “Be holy” or “Be Perfect” God is talking to a community, not to an individual.  Now there are a couple exceptions but not many.  This is problematic because the Church of the Nazarene is almost entirely obsessed with individual holiness and perfection to the neglect of the church.  I will be honest and admit I am not sure how individual perfection and community perfection fit together in every situation.  There are some things we can say, like “holy individuals don’t steal things and murder people” but if you move beyond that to attitudes and hearts, it becomes a bit more difficult.  This is perhaps why I only alluded to the problem in my sermons and then moved on to the bulk of Romans 12-15, which was about the community.  But just to not lose my ordination let me state very clearly I do believe God calls individuals to a life of holiness, it just isn’t emphasized as much in Scripture as God’s call to communities to organize themselves in holy ways.

2. The Process of Holiness:  Once again, the process by which individual people become holy has been a Nazarene infatuation for the last century, if not more so.  And once again Romans 12-16 kind of let me down.  The only real process verse you get is right at the top in Romans 12:1-2 and I did spend an entire sermon on those two verses.  However, Romans 12:1-2 is more about the process by which a church becomes holy.  For those of you who do not know Romans 12:1-2 has some crazy singulars and plurals going on in the Greek text.  Paul writes that we should present our plural bodies as one singular living sacrifice.  This is your (plural) act (singular) of worship.  Then at the beginning of verse 2 Paul does it again.  You (plural) do not conform to the patterns of this world but you (plural) be transformed by the renewing of your mind (singular).  This verse is not about how individuals become holy.  It is about how the church community becomes holy.  That is a great sermon but as a Nazarene pastor it left me up a creek without a paddle concerning how individuals become holy and I was unable to address the doctrine of Christian perfection issues.

This post is all ready entirely way too long and heady.  However, the entire theme of my blog is about grace and about how God works in my life.  So what I hope I have illustrated is that it is hard for a pastor to preach under the authority of the Scriptures.  It is hard to go into a sermon series thinking I am going to talk about one thing and then get sidelined when I realize the Bible passage for the day is not about that at all.  Yet therein lies the grace.  I could preach whatever I want to preach on Sundays mornings and I might get away with it.  However, I have chosen to be a man under authority.  Therefore I must faithfully interpret what God has provided in the living words of the Bible.  Most times that means sidelining my agenda, or even my denomination’s agenda and opening up new pathways into the life and mission of God.

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Why Ministry is About Slavery and Why That is Not That Bad a Thing

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Over the last year I have gone through a very uncomfortable and vexing process of losing my religion and finding it again.

I hope it goes without saying that “my religion” isn’t the Church of the Nazarene and her doctrines, polity and preferred ethic.  I did not lose or even really question any of those in the last year.  I also hope it goes without saying that “my religion” is not a set of doctrines or creeds or religious structures.

My religion is humble love a love that submits to all, (see Ephesians 5:21 and also 1 Corinthians 13 and also 1st John and also the entire Bible).  Not surprisingly, this sinful world has still not come to grips with humble, submissive love.  In fact, there many who still crucify those who dare preach it and I have been crucified more times than I can count.

This world is also filled with a variety of self help leadership books and “self made” leaders.  As I dealt with my crucifixions, I read those books and talked to some of those leaders.  They all give the same basic and well meaning pep talk.

“You are the leader.  You have the title.  You have God given authority!  So just tell them your vision and force them to follow it no matter the cost!”

The problem with the pep talk is that isn’t biblical.  It flies in the face of the humble, sacrificial love prescribed to us in Scripture and modeled to us by Christ.

There are also practicality problems that stem from a total lack of respect for positional authority in the 21st century.  Titles are liabilities, not assets.  If you have one you are immediately suspect.  The Church of the Nazarene is even worse.  In our polity , I am the only person who is actually paid money to be at church.  The church board cannot fire me outright but they can vote to change the locks of the church so I can’t get in and they have no legal binding to continue to pay me to be their pastor.  They can vote to reduce my paycheck to zero and throw my family out of the parsonage.  Furthermore, the members of my board are more liked and respected than me and have more relational authority simply because they have been around longer and don’t have pesky authoritarian titles like, “preacher” or “senior pastor.”

Still, the pep talkers sounded wise enough and what they advised was being reinforced in well marketed leadership books that are given to me for free.  So I gave in.  I cast my vision and tried to force people to follow it, not backing down from the brutal fights that ensued.  Things got bad, really bad.  There were four hour long conversations that went nowhere and ended with all parties offended.  There were accusations and gossip.  There were long sleepless nights, not so much caused by the conflict but by the reality that I had just taken everything I believed in and flushed it down the toilet for a model of leadership that is not biblical and does not work in the 21st century.

Don’t listen to the pep talkers or even read the books.  If you are in ministry, you are a slave.

But that is a great thing because that is exactly what Jesus became.

Paul spells it out poetically in Philippians 2.  “Though Jesus was in very nature God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be added, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”

A chapter later Paul infers that because of Jesus’ slavery, he is also a slave.

The role of ministry, dating clear back to Jesus, is not about having authoritarian titles and using them to cast vision and force people to follow them.  It is about slavery.

To be a pastor means absolutely no freedom except the freedom of knowing the suffering of Christ through enslaving myself to the following:

First I am a slave to God.  This means that even if I did have the luxury of positional authority (and some pastors still do) I absolutely cannot use it without violating the ethics of the Bible.  To “lord it over” others is contrary to the heart of God.

I am a slave to my family.  This is one of the most frustrating and debilitating, but also one of the most life giving.  I am certain that I would be 30 times more effective in ministry if I were single.  I do not say that lightly.  I really believe it.  Over the last month I have tried to be pastorally present to no less than 6 people or groups of people.  These were people who were going through very tough situations, situations that needed attentiveness.  In every case my children were screaming in the background or running up to me begging me to fulfill their latest desire.  I constantly have to cancel important things because my kids can’t thrive in those settings and we can’t afford child care or baby sitters.  I am not complaining though because there is this horrible day not too far on the horizon when my children will move across state lines and forget to call me on my birthday.  When that happens I at least want to know that I cancelled important things to play with them at the park and that their relationship with God is strong enough to see them through the situations life will throw at them.

Finally, I am a slave to my congregation.  As I detailed above they have all the power.  I am a slave to their political and theological views, having to be constantly worried about offending them.  I am also a slave to their calendars.  If they don’t want to show up or don’t have time to show up to very important meetings, they will not come.  I am a slave to their expectations for a pastor.  I am contractually and morally obligated to analyze how I am measuring up to them.

All this means that when they schedule an event right over the top of my birthday, an event I believe will provide long term benefits for my congregation, I humbly submitted myself to it, knowing I wouldn’t get any birthday present, birthday cake or even anybody singing “Happy Birthday” to me but also knowing that the church would benefit from it..  What did happen was an angry congregant stormed into the church first thing on my birthday, in the middle of the event, and told me, “I thought God would kill you for what you said in your sermon a couple Sundays ago.”

I was frustrated about that for a couple days.  How could a pastor have their birthday on a Sunday and not have it acknowledged, not have the church make a cake or give cards and presents and have a leader chew him out over one stray line from a sermon, all while several people looked on and not one came to my defense?  In the moment I apologized and changed the subject, defusing the situation.

Then I spent time in prayer and self reflection and remembered that God didn’t call me into this gig to invent new ways of “lording it over” or find new means of being offended, but to be sacrificial and humble.

God has used situations like that to slowly restore my religion.  I have recommitted myself to letting God work humble love in me and reject the constant calls to “lord it over.”  In so doing I have re-found the freedom I once had, the freedom that the Apostle Paul calls, “participation in his sufferings,” so that we might obtain “the resurrection from the dead.”

The Psalms sing it better, “those who sow with tears with reap with joy.” (Ps. 126:5)

Autumn Sermons Now Live

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Hey everybody, I just received word that my sermons from Autumn through Advent #1 are live.  You can also check out the sermon series from Exodus last summer.

In the past I made little youtube videos of them but that was horribly tedious and not a good use of time.  But now they are on my church’s website so you can follow the link if you dare.

I would make a list of recommended ones and not recommended ones but then the more sinister of you would listen to the “not recommended” first and try to figure out why I hated them so much.  You know who you are.

So just let the Spirit guide your finger or mouse arrow to the sermon for you or something religious like that, or maybe spiritual.

Either way, enjoy!

Here’s the link:

http://www.rosewoodlane.org/index.php/sermons

A Sermon Somewhere: Utah Road Fatalities

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This is the latest post in an ongoing series where I examine the menial stuff of life to try to find a sermon illustration.  .  .and fail miserably!

Last week I drove the 20 mile stretch of I-15 between my house and downtown Salt Lake City three times.  In that 120 miles of driving, I saw more people and cars than I probably saw in one year living in Eastern Oregon where there are few people and even fewer vehicles.

The roads are 5 lanes wide.  Those 5 lanes are surrounded by every vehicle we have yet invented from massive semis to tiny motorcyclists.  Some cars are going 80.  Others are going 40 for no discernible reason.  Every time you change lanes, there is a car in your blind spot.  Every time you go under an underpass there is a traffic cop hiding there.  I am not entirely sure why as it is impossible to speed in Utah, given that even in the city the speed limit is 75.

And there are signs everywhere.  There are merging lane signs, exit signs, mileage signs, speed limit signs and billboard signs.  Awhile back the highway administration, again for no discernible reason, decided to install a bunch of digital signs right above the lanes with messages they can change whenever.  They must have decided we didn’t have enough to look at.

Granted, some of the time those digital boards tell you how long they estimate it will be to important landmarks or junctions.  Other times they put really passive aggressive seatbelt warnings up like, “Click it or Ticket!” or even (and I am not making this up) “That Seat Belt Looks Really Good on You!”

But last week some guy at the highway administration must have lost a bet because the signs read, “There have been 4 fatalities on Utah roads in the last 7 days.”

I have no idea why I needed to know that.

Were they bragging?  Did we set a new record?  Did we beat Idaho and Wyoming who must have had 5 in 7 or, worse, 7 in 7 days?  Is there a ranking somewhere of state traffic fatalities and we are winning it?  After all Utah wins the other records like happiest state and most prosperous state and most Mormon state.

Or where they warning us?  We have a death every other day and we did not have one yesterday!  Today is day 8, watch out!  It could be you.  Under the likelihood that that was the case, I buckled my seat belt and slowed down to 40 behind a gray haired couple driving a white Buick who were doing the same.

Moreover, where did these accidents happen?  Notice the sign didn’t say Utah interstates.  It said Utah highways, which I think included most roads in the entire state.  If they all happened in southern Utah, then I don’t really care.  But if they all happened on the I-15 corridor, than I definitely am buckling all the seat belts in my car, whether or not they are occupied, and slowing down to 20.

Another possibility is that there is a geographical rotation of some sort?  Maybe the first one happened in northwest Utah (where I drive), the next in southeast Utah, then in southwest, then in northeast.  If that is the case, it is our turn again!

Whatever the situation I decided I am not going to cause or be fatality number 5 on day 8!  So I slowed down to 25 and took the next exit to use the back roads.  Based on the huge line of cars at that exit, I am guessing I am not the only one.

This might mean this was all a manipulative scheme to try to reduce traffic on the interstate.  Whatever their plan, it seems to have worked and I am praying for the families of fatalities 1 through 4 and avoiding the Interstate and all highways so my family won’t be joining them.

Meanwhile, did you know back roads are delightful?  There are houses, stores, schools, hospitals, and pedestrians everywhere.  I might get to where I am going a half hour late, but at least I will have had a bunch of people to wave at and houses to admire.  I also might get lost back there but at least I won’t die and after all, there has to be a sermon on those roads somewhere!!

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 4: Keep it Short, Stupid

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When I took my first church my Grandma gave me some great advice.  She said, “The mind will only hold what the seat can withstand, so preach until noon and let those poor souls go eat!”  This is the same Grandmother who prays for an hour everyday, reads Scripture quite religiously, never misses a church function and can recite about 300 Scripture verses off the top of her head.  I love my Grandmother.

So when I started preaching, I followed her advice.  I found that on any given Sunday I did not have that much to say.  I wrote manuscripts that were about 5 pages long and when I recorded my sermons, I found they were almost exactly 22 minutes long.

I am not sure what changed or why but somehow my manuscripts began inching up slowly by slowly so one week I was 5 and a half pages leading to a 25 minute long sermon.  Then there was a 30 minute one here and there and suddenly a 40 minute one.  I don’t know if I thought I had more to say or if I just started being lazy or if I ran out of the time needed to do the difficult task of cutting superfluity out.

When I moved I decided to cut back down to five page manuscripts and 22 minute long sermons.  A lot of it had to do with shorter services.  My prior church had an hour and fifteen minute long services.  My current church’s services last only an hour.  Another reason was that I also decided to spend at least five minutes at the end having the congregation do something creative (see my last post).  But the big reason was that as my sermons increased in length, they decreased in quality.  I was rambling more and telling more stories and scattershotting more metaphors.  So the last few months I have been working hard at focusing on one point and one story or one metaphor.

It might surprise you (or it might not) to know that this one commitment has caused the most painstaking labor of any other preaching practice.  In any given week I have read one book, 2 or 3 news or magazine articles and 4 or 5 blogs.  I have had conversations with 10 people.  I have sat for hours in my office, or my car, or on my bed just thinking.  On top of that, at heart I am a communicator who gets all kind of thrills and chills while sharing data and telling stories.

So when I get up for my 22 minutes of glory every Sunday, it is very easy to stretch that into 25 minutes and then to 30 and then to 40.  Pretty soon we are getting out at 1, long after my poor Grandma’s seat has given out.

So now I time my sermons when I practice them and then I delete, delete, delete.  Often times I feel entirely stuck.  I don’t know what there is possibly left to cut out.  Then I go for a run and suddenly realize the whole 6 pages are superfluous.  Then I delete half of the manuscript and rework the rest.  I practice it again and find that now it is 25 minutes and still too long.  Then I go for another run and come back the next day, deleting more stories and data.

This week I deleted an entire church history out of my sermon.  It is stuff I badly want my congregation to know, but not something they needed to know on Trinity Sunday, except that my understanding of the Trinity is deeply influenced by the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  Last week I deleted four or five metaphors after I realized the first one did just fine.  I did the same thing a week before that.  After all, you really just need one good story or one good metaphor to sell an idea.

It is a lot of work, but like the other commitments, this one seems to have helped so far.  The sermons are not just shorter, they are more coherent and easier to follow and my grandma’s back side is always left wanting more, not less.

In closing, a university chaplain friend of mine once told me that the chaplain of another university told every guest preacher that they only had 20 minutes to preach.  This was a university that regularly hosted big names like Shane Claiborne, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Leonard Sweet and others.  Some would protest and say, “But I am fill in the blank!”  And the chaplain would say, “but we are the college.”  The chaplain concluded that the greats of our present time preached the best sermons they had ever preached because they were forced to actually say something and to say it succinctly and intelligently and let the students out after 20 minutes.

I only hope my sermons gain the same reward.

A Preacher’s Commitments Part 3: The Need for a Response

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When I consider the standard evangelical worship service, two things bug me more than anything else.  The first is how they begin.  The second is how they end.

I have lately been captivated by the High Church processionals that begin the worship of our more liturgical siblings.  If you have never been to one, find one tomorrow.  Here is what you might experience.

In the stained glass sanctuaries (many of them designed in the shape of a cross) people are milling about, finding places to sit and connecting with friends and neighbors.  Then the pipe organ plays one definitive note and everybody knows to find their seats, open their hymnals and quiet their hearts.  The organ follows up the first note with the lines from some triumphant hymn.  Then all manner of worship leaders (priests, altar boys and girls, scripture readers, incense bearers, servers and the like) parade in while the congregation sings the glorious hymn.

My services begin with a “hi, how y’all doin?” and that just doesn’t cut it.

So, too, last fall I grew quite discontent with how my services ended.  What usually happened was I preached, then prayed, then gave a benediction.  Some days I forgot the benediction.  On those days the congregation stared at me blankly, waiting for something more that was not there.  So I feebly said, “oh, uh, go in peace.”

I tried to placate my growing frustration by telling my music team that we would always do a closing song.  We sang it between the sermon and the benediction and always tried to choose that song well.  It worked well enough but could only slow the growth of my frustration, not dispense with it entirely.

Because the worship service was never supposed to end with the sermon.  Historically, the sermon was a means to another end, a piece of a growing crescendo that found its fulfillment in the Eucharist.  Thus my sacramental friends would say that the Eucharist should be the congregational response to every sermon and they are right.  I would love to end every service at the table of the Lord.  However, my congregation is not there yet

So when I moved, I realized I would have to double down on my creativity and come up with other unique, symbol based, movement oriented responses to my sermons.

Even if and when we do get to the point where we eat at the Table every Sunday, I think it is still fitting to have some other symbol based, movement oriented response to the sermon because everything I am reading about performance, entertainment, worship and the arts says that we now require all senses to be engaged.  Under this thinking, when we focus so much on the audible, in say a spoken sermon, then we cut out 4/5ths of the worship experience.

With that in mind, my final step in preparing a sermon is to come up with such a response that will allow the congregation to do something to connect with the message.

In a sermon on fear, we sang, “Cast All Your Cares” while the congregation wrote their fears on sticky notes and stuck them to the altars.  (Bonus: I had several things to pray for all week long!)

In a sermon on regret I had the congregation write letters giving their younger selves advice.

In a sermon on God shredding the heavens to be present to us, I had my congregation write down things that were inhibiting their worship of God and then shred those things in shredders lining the altars.

In a sermon about being in the world but not of it, I identified four key tensions and had the congregation divide into four groups where they could pray for wisdom to live into that tension.

Last week in a sermon about loved ones who are living in ignorance of the great treasures God has for us, I had the congregation light candles as they prayed for those loved ones.

And of course, once a month we gather around the Lord’s Table.  On those Sundays the sermons build towards the table so that the table is the necessary response to the message.

The problem, of course, is that it usually takes a bunch of creativity to just write a sermon, let alone come up with some creative response to follow it.  However, I trust that as I work hard at interacting with the text and the congregation than God will reward that work by giving me a response.  And so far God has not let me down, though some weeks the response has come flying into my brain on Sunday morning at 9am.

With all that said, it would very remiss of me to not mention that the ultimate response to the spoken word is not just a creative, tactile response or even just the Eucharist.  The end of worship is ultimately the sending.  When we have gathered to hear the written word and commune with the Living Word, we are sent to be the Body of the Living Word to a world in need of a savior.

So after the response and the song, I always put great emphasis on the sending with the hopes that my congregation will understand that church does not end at noon Sunday but rather the church is sent at noon Sunday to love God and love their neighbors every day of the week.

Recently Recorded Sermons: Lent To Easter and a Bit Beyond!

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In the spirit of my series this week on preaching, here are six live recordings of recent sermons.  The first one is from Job.  The next several are from the gospel of Mark and the one at the end is on the road to Emmaus.