Monday, February 23, 2009

An uncomfortable sermon

Yes, yesterday I did preach on Luke 6:46 "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord', and do not do what I say?" There's too much to report on in detail (far too much!) In the passage Luke 6:43-49 this question acts as a bridge between two tests:
1) Words show character - the two trees (verses 43-45)
2) Action shows obedience - the two builders (verses 46-49).
It wasn't comfortable to preach. Our conversation and our conduct reveal the truth about us.

Towards the end I mentioned a gerontologist I met at a conference last month. I had heard about how ageing often reveals true character. The bitter angry person becomes increasingly bitter and angry, while the kind loving person does the opposite. I asked her if this was true. "Yes," she said. "We often lose the ability to regulate our feelings as we age, and so the real person emerges!" That sounds scarey!

But it raises such big issues about how we progress (or regress) in the spiritual life, not only as individuals, but as churches. We are called to develop as God's people and "become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." (Eph 4:13). How can we help each other to grow better in word and deed, to display more fruit (Gal 5:22) by God's grace?

I don't think the contemporary church is very good at this. A challenging book on ethical preaching (David J. Schlafer and Timothy F. Sedgwick, Preaching what we practice - proclamation and moral discernment, Morehouse 2007) suggest six practices that Christians need to develop for moral formation. These contrast markedly with the world's values:
  • prayer and worship
  • forgiveness and reconciliation
  • formation of households as communities of faith
  • hospitality as the embrace of the stranger and those in need
  • citizenship and political responsibility
  • reverence for creation

Together these call congregations to engage in corporate accountability and mutual moral responsibility, and to mature in their practices through God's grace. As the old hymn puts it: "Changed from glory into glory."

There is much to chew over here. Certainly, should I remain exactly the same as I was five years ago raises a vital challenge. And for a church to be exactly the same is a profound challenge too. Jesus expects people who call him "Lord" to show it by the way they put his gift of a new way of life (John 3:7, 2 Cor 5:17) into practice. And this means us together.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

World Premiere

I was so excited just a couple of hours ago to be present at the world premiere of a new choral piece by my friend Tony Payne, (who happens to be Director of the Conservatory at Wheaton College). It was commissioned to celebrate the Sesquicentiennial of Wheaton (1859-2009).

A mass choir (a combination of fifteen local choirs) filled the stage, with brass and organ, and sang out - gloriously filling the auditorium:
O Lord our Lord
How exalted is your name in all the world.
This chorus cascaded with wonder and praise and was followed by three stanzas by the poet Jill Baumgaertner. Some of the lines were delicious:
For you the moon and stars are mere fingertoys, and you spin them like gyroscopes. And here we sit in the turn of creation, our minds agape, stupefied by your love for us.
The music danced and shimmered - at a repeated phrase "stupefied by your love" it registered shock waves of wonder. Time and again it surprised by its beauty and power.

I was thrilled to be there. I suppose we all admire people whose talents are let loose on a stage that we couldn't begin to enter. But how Tony gave his best and how proud I am of him with grateful for his gift shared like that.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Another Question

What count among the saddest words in the New Testament? One scholar says Luke 6:46 is incredibly sad, when Jesus asks his disciples: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?" Jesus has just talked about a "good man bringing good things out of the good stored up in his heart...for out of his heart his mouth speaks." That a person's character shows, and you can trust good words because they reveal a good heart. Character will out. And, then, Jesus has to reprimand some who have not acted seriously on the good things he has shared with them.

It's brutal reality that you can say Jesus' name, ernestly claim to believe him and follow him, but not actually do anything to prove it. Surface claims! Remember that old challenge: "If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" Talking, believing, feeling don't impress Jesus when there's no action. That's why the story of digging down to rock so appropriately follows (verses 47-49).

I am working on the implications of this question for a new sermon, this coming Sunday (for First Baptist Church, Downers Grove, Illinois). As always, any insights are welcome.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Christian (trans)formation

Yesterday I took a break and went to the gym. I have been attending erratically over a few years, undertaking the same ritual of exercises – occasionally increasing expectations. One routine involves lateral pulldowns. Sitting down, I reach up for the weights and pull them down to my chin. Gradually I have increased the weights, and felt some progress.

As I worked away, a trainer interrupted me. “Do you mind if I say something?” he said, (already having interrupted!) “Not at all,” I replied. “Well, you are not using the machine properly. Do you mind me sitting down?" he asked. Replacing me, he explained, and modeled, how utterly wrong my stance was. "You need to sit upright with head slightly tilted, and pull down the weights vertically. You are pulling outwards and the weights just won’t help your muscles, " he said, while adding: “Probably, you need to decrease the weights as you try again.” Rather self-consciously I began pulling afresh. Yes, it felt completely different. Other muscles between my shoulder blades were complaining. “Now, it’s helping you properly,” he said.

I marveled at this appropriate reminder. Christian development doesn’t just happen. Old habits have to be unlearned and new ways of living need intentional development. To grow as God’s person, with others, requires time, consistency and commitment together. People do not learn to be forgiving, show grace or live with integrity without long-term shaping worship. And churches do not learn to be missionary communities without such worship.

This experience coincided with current work on how worship actually shapes people into belonging in God's community. Perhaps, I can post some ideas for your feedback?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Being with the Father" in Kohl's

Last Sunday I preached at Grace Bible Church in Aurora, for the first time. I worked on a new sermon which focused on Luke 11:11: Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish will give him a snake instead? It's a surprising question, (followed by another), that spins you around to look afresh at the first ten verses of Luke 11 - all about prayer. Jesus contrasts human fathers with the best - how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (verse 13). So I preached about the secret of prayer as: being with the Father, asking the Father and receiving the Father's gift of the Holy Spirit.

Last night Carol and I rushed into Kohl's Department Store to try and get a bargain for our grandchildren. Heads down,charging for the right section, a man stopped me." Hi," he said. "You preached in our church on Sunday, didn't you?" And, giving his name he added: "Being with the Father - I remember!" We stopped in our tracks. We were a long way from that church. In an unlikely setting, between racks of clothes, this man reminded me what it's all about. Yes, in Kohl's, being with the Father is what counts.