LENTEN SERIES 1998 - "In The Thick of Things!"
Overall Theme: The Season of Lent is a great time to reflect on the genius of Christian Faith. Jesus is with us in the "Thick of Things". He is there when we are tempted, when we fall on our face,and in the everyday experiences of our lives. He is present in the heights of joy and the depths of despair. The gospel stories of this Lenten season show Jesus involved in powerful "slice of life" episodes. Using the lessons, we can help our listeners open their daily lives to the presence of the One who is with us "In the Thick of Things."
A prayer upon entering the pulpit:
In the Thick of Blindness
You are stuck at a stop sign trying to turn on to a busy street. Doesn't it sometimes seem as though the folks driving on that busy street are terribly inconsiderate. Not one wants to slow down and let you in. But, the strangest thing happens. Now you are the one on the busy street and along the way people are at stop signs trying to get in.Seems like they are rude and pushy trying to force their way in. Hmmm-- the identity of the "bad guys" is very dependent on where I happen to be stuck!
Some years ago, an assistant pastor at a large church I attended held the opinion that God rewarded "good" Christians and punished "bad" Christians. When people didn't tow the line the way he thought they should, he would comment, "The Lord's going to whip you, he can give you a heart attack just like that!" If he used that line once, he used it a thousand times. A young couple that had missed church for three months because they weren't ready to bring the baby to church was told, "You had better be careful. The Lord can take a baby away as easily as he can give one you know."
I must confess that it was no easy task to hold the tiniest sense of satisfaction in check when this fellow was taken to the hospital with a massive heart attack! Personally, I don't think God gave him the heart attack. It was much more likely his well known love of greasy fried foods. One good thing did come out of this episode (which he survived). Never again was the phrase, "The Lord's going to whip you..." heard to emerge from his mouth.
Jesus is talking about blindness in today's gospel lesson. Not physical blindness, but the kind of blindness where you shine a bright light on other people's sin and keep your own in a perpetual brownout. It calls to mind the old saying, "The other guy's headlights are always brighter than your own."
Honest now... Have you ever thought or even said something like, "I sure hope he (she) gets what's coming to him!" Of course you have. Jesus is talking to people who are saying in effect, "Sure something about those folks in Galilee huh? They must have really screwed up!"
Jesus' answer grabs our attention -- if we're paying attention. I think about my two and a half year old daughter. When she senses a bit of correction is coming her way, she closes her eyes and holds her hands over her ears. "I'm outa here! I don't want to hear it! When Jesus responds, "...I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did..." There's a challenge here. We might not want to hear it.
Maybe we can get on board with what seems to be a tough message if we think of it this way. Would you feel comfortable walking into the presence of God Almighty, shaking your fist and demanding, "I want what's coming to me!" Neither would I! There's a reason. When we are alone with ourselves, without our usual defenses, we realize that we are very much in need of the grace of God.
At least most of us are. You have likely heard about the pastor who really wanted to get a message through to one of her stubborn deacons that he was a stumbling block to the diaconate because he was so argumentative in the meetings. The pastor did a sermon in which she really came down hard on stubborn argumentative folk. At the conclusion of the sermon, the deacon said, "That was a wonderful sermon pastor, too bad there weren't more people in worship to hear it. She tried again, with a slightly different slant at a small prayer group when it was time for the devotion. The deacon called her aside after the meeting and said, "That devotion touched my heart pastor, I think the people could really use more of that. Why don't you preach on the subject some Sunday." "Just can't win," the pastor thought. But finally her chance came. It was a cold Sunday morning when one of the worst blizzards to ever hit the area hammered the town. No one was able to get to the worship service -- except for one person. You got it! It was that stubborn old deacon. "Thank you Lord, here's my chance!" the pastor prayed within as she rushed back to her office to dig out her notes on the theme of stubborn, argumentative people and how they harm the church. She delivered her sermon with commanding enthusiasm. At the close of worship, the deacon came to the pastor with a downhearted look on his face. A hard won sense of accomplishment began to swell within the pastor when the deacon said sadly, "Pastor, that is one of the finest sermons you've ever preached. It's just a darn shame they weren't here to hear it!"
Hopefully, you and I are not quite so impervious to correction, but it is sometimes difficult to hear the word God would like for us to hear. In plain talk, Jesus is saying to us in today's lesson: 1) Do you really think you are better than others? 2) Take a serious look at yourself! 3) God's grace offers you an opportunity to change!
1) Do you really think you are better than others? Think back to the beginning of our scripture. "...there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." How did that come up? If you looked back just a bit in Luke 12 you would see Jesus coming down pretty hard on hypocrisy. He is warning people that his coming will bring division and conflict. The listeners were likely feeling the heat and wanted to change the subject. You know how that works! Remember the woman at the well? When Jesus asked her to produce her husband, she didn't really want to talk about her five ex husbands or current boyfriend so she changes the subject with something like, "So what's your take on the Presbyterians?"
Jesus levels the playing field. The Galileans who suffered were not worse than other Galileans. People who endured Hurricane Andrew, the 97 floods or starvation or any other disaster are not the bad guys. They are not worse than the rest of us. Bad things, indeed do happen to good people. The next time you are tempted to look down on someone -- no matter how desperate they may be, try this adaptation of Jesus words, "When you looked with scorn on the least of these, you looked with scorn on me!"
2) Take a serious look at yourself! Jesus moves right into our insides when he says, "I tell you, unless you repent..." You see, when I'm looking at the Galileans or the Sodomites, or the terrorists or the thieves... I don't feel like such a bad guy. Most people I've ever heard compare themselves with others always do it in terms of, "Well I've never hurt anyone or robbed a bank or taken a life." Do you recall ever hearing something like, "You know, when I look at Ghandi, or Mother Theresa, I feel a little selfish..."
Jesus is a mirror. A crystal clear, undistorted reflection of who we are. In him we see everything we could be if we lived our lives in closer harmony with him. The words from the Godspell song, Day by Day, were to the point. "Day by day, O dear Lord three things I pray; to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly... That's the meaning of repentance. To look at ourselves in the person of Jesus Christ and have a genuine heart's desire to have his spirit shape our lives.
Otherwise, we perish! "Wait a minute, you say, "That sounds a bit like, 'the Lord's going to whip you'!" -- Not really. Jesus is simply affirming a changeless spiritual truth. "It doesn't matter what anyone else does or what happens to anyone else. You are responsible for your own spiritual life. Unless you live your live in harmony with the One who made you, you are headed for spiritual disaster!" It's not a matter of vengeance or an angry God waiting to get hold of you. It's simply the way it works. A fish out of water will perish and a human spirit without God perishes. This isn't cruelty or even punishment -- it's reality. But wait... there's more.
3) God's grace offers you an opportunity to change! Jesus tells a story. The story says the authenticity of our inward relationship with God is expressed in our actions. James said it this way, "You must be doers of the word and not hearers only..." In the gospel of John it's Jesus saying, "I am the vine and you are the branches.." The fruit that is borne by the branches is the result of the life of the vine. The actions of our living demonstrate the reality of the life of Christ in us. Thus, "No fruit, no root!" If there is no fruit, there is no authentic life in the branches. If there are no figs, there is no real "fig life" in the wood. The wood is just wasting space in the orchard.
The owner of the vineyard in Jesus' story has every right to ask that the barren tree be removed. As a matter of fact, as a business person, he would be foolish to let barren trees take up valuable production space.
Here's grace. The one who tends the vineyard asks for an opportunity to nourish the tree into a turnaround; that's repentance. "Give me a chance to help this tree become what it was created to be," the gardener says.
Do you see? Jesus is the one who comes from God to nourish us and to help us become what we were created to be. But we must allow him to penetrate our tendency to spiritual blindness.
1. Give yourself the gift this week of time to reflect on a fundamental question for your life. Does the outward expression of my life reflect Jesus Christ in any way? How exactly?
2. Are there any areas of my life which not only do not show the reality of Christ, but actually hinder Christ in me? How exactly?
3. List the most important change you would like to see in your life that would represent a turnaround (repentance) for you?
4. Ask God to help you build your inner life in a way that will enable you to allow the life of Christ to show through your life!
"Get a Grip!" - Isaiah 55: 1-9
Theme: How many ways do we invest ourselves in things that don't matter and exhaust ourselves with agendas that don't count? The prophet sounds a warning we need to hear. "Get a grip people! You are missing the boat. Stop and think about what really counts and turn your lives around." We find ourselves living the words of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, "I can't get no satisfaction." Some call it the "rat race", others call it "necessity" but the theme of "stop and smell the roses..." is a chronic condition of our generation.
Ask your listeners to make two mental lists: 1) List the five most important things in your life. 2) List the five things in your life that get most of your time and attention.
Now go through the Isaiah passage with this outline.
I. God wants you to have the best vv.1-3
II Stop and take a serious look at your life vv. 4-7
III God's wisdom on this surpasses ours. ("Father Knows Best")
Consider using Psalm 63:1-8 as a unison prayer of commitment at the end of your homily. When we are seeing clearly (repentant), this reading shows what it is like when we've "gotten a grip".
A Call To Worship (Based on Is. 55:1-9)
[Or Responsive Prayer of Invocation]
Leader: We gather today, O Lord of Life, seeking fullness.
People: Not the fullness our world offers, but fullness that comes from You.
Leader: We spend so much of our lives on things that do not count.
People: Things that promise much and give little.
Leader: Help us now... today, to find fulfillment in Your love,
People: May we discover all you have to give,
Leader: And seek You while we yet have the gift of days.
All: Lift us O God, to a higher plane of living, as we lift our hearts and minds and souls into Your Holy presence! Amen! Make it so Lord! Amen!
A Prayer of Dedication
It is amazing, O God, that You should depend on our gifts to build the kingdom of your Son Jesus. How much You must value us to invest such trust in our family of faith. May our giving finally bring much honor and glory to You. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
A Pastoral Prayer
O Divine Redeemer, Your love toward us came at such a cost. How much you must love us! We can not begin to fathom just how deeply we are loved. Can a child possibly become aware how much a mother or father loves them? They are so unaware. Do they fully understand what grief and sorrow comes to a parent's heart when they are wounded?
O God, it is in our experience as parents that we more fully understand Your love for us. How it must break Your heart when we persist in doing the things that finally erode the meaning and the joy of our lives. When we see our children heading in directions that will be their undoing, it worries us so. Yet, we can not control the what, where, how, when, or why of their living without doing damage to their persons. Is this what free will does to Your heart?
God... help us to listen today. Not only with our ears. We've seen the faces of our children when they are listening with their ears alone. Help us to listen with our hearts. And hear with our souls. And act with our wills.
Finally, may we allow the light of Your Holy Spirit into the dark recesses of our spirits that Your Son Jesus might break the stubborn rebellion of our souls. And we will give the glory, the honor and the blessing to You.
And You will give us joy! Amen!
[Or... Do a sermon on Isaiah 55:1-9 From the Divine Parent's Perspective:]
["Listen Up My Children!]
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