Born of God

Sermon on 1 John 4:7-21 – Born of God

A revelation washed over me Friday.  Not a new revelation, but a reminder from God.

My grumpiness defined last week.  Poor communication and my desire to achieve “Super-Pastor” status came to a vicious head when Alan asked me to lead communion at presbytery and gave me two days to prepare the liturgy.

If you spent any time in the church this last week, I need to apologize to you.  I complained way more than the situation warranted.  I allowed that one request to define and ruin my week.  I felt angry, frustrated, and miserable; every day I wanted to scream at nothing in particular while I worked in my office.

Despite me and my drama, the Spirit use my labors to give me God’s reminder.  As I put together the liturgy, a verse jumped out at me and reminded me of why we do this, why I do this, and the wonder communion should give us: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8a NIV) I knew immediately that verse need to lead the liturgy because it reminded me something.

That first Sunday we worshiped without Sue, nothing quite went to script but the Holy Spirit made her presence loudly known.  Tamara and Cathy played wonderfully, I remember giving a good message, we laughed with joy, a wonderful service just appeared from our struggles, and I, for the first time, fully felt the awe of leading communion.  I remember I could not stop smiling.  I worried smiling did not fit into proper communion decorum, but that worry could not stop my smiling.

I still have the new-pastor shine on me, but I know that communion will remain one of my most joyful; I truly felt like I lead our meal with Christ that day.

We over-complicate faith and church.  Good Presbyterians will rip anything apart to its smallest piece so we worry greatly about what bread we use and which kind of bread matches best with our intent when we gather around the table and how big the pieces should be cut or if we should cut them at all before the service because are we taking or giving and does it feel natural or manufactured and continue ad nauseam until the pastor bashes in head into the brick wall.

Like I said, we over-complicated faith, and frankly, I might as well stop using the plural pronoun.  Over-heady and borderline-insane Presbyterianism defines me.  Wanting perfection and high-gloss shine on my pastoral ministry defines me.  Tearing apart every action, complicating every decision, and second-guessing every step I take defines me.

I forget that God, first and foremost, called me as “Loving Pastor.”  Not “Super Pastor,” not “Perfect Pastor,” not even “‘Acts Like an Adult Over 50% of the Time’ Pastor.”

God calls me as “Loving Pastor” above all else, and I correctly and fully respond to that call 27.6% of the time.

If someone sees and recognizes a Christian, what do they recognize?  Do we—or should we—wear signs around our necks labeling us “Christian”?  Do they know our God by the ichthyses on the back of our cars and Christian radio blaring on our speakers?  Do we show ourselves as Christians by knowing what words to say in worship and what times the stand?

Do those things define a Christian?

Bubble-bursting time.  I know people who wear the label of Christian like badge of honor, have all the paraphernalia, only have the right music coming out of their speakers, and attend church every week that drive people away from God.  I have examples in my mind, but we do not need my examples; I have confidence each and every person who reads knows that person, and we each have numerous examples.

The label means nothing without love.  If someone recognizes you as a true Christian—a true follower of Christ—they recognize your love.  Your theology and ichthys means nothing without love.

I realized—or remembered—we should define Christianity by love.  Christianity as a label requires a few other things—those things often dependent on who currently fills the pulpit—but without love, those other means nothing.

We have misplaced our concern with making sure we believe the right thing and aligning our belief with the doctrines of the particular church.  Yes, belief itself gives life, absolutely—believing God in the form of Jesus Christ walked amongst us and willingly gave his life for us gives me hope in the midst of this dark and frightening world—but without love, it means nothing.

Love with doubt—even profound doubt leading to unbelief—still has God present and means something; faith without love means nothing and does not have God.

What is God?  God is love.  Period.

You cannot be Christian—even if you proclaim faith and do the proper things and know the words and have the appearance of righteousness—if you do not love.

Interestingly—and really, really obviously—the letter says nothing about theology beyond basically believing in Jesus, and absolutely nothing about orthodoxy or proper denomination or church attendance.  It does not say God requires absolute and rock-solid faith.

It does say, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

God gave birth to all who love.  Read through the rest of the passage.  It literally defines true faith as believing in Jesus and, almost more importantly to my eyes, showing love.  The author really wanted to drive that point about love home.

Love or you do not follow Jesus and do not believe in God.  Period.

Do you see Jesus as call to love, or as a weapon and path to power?  Do you see God as love, or as vengeance against those you hate?

Did God give birth to you, or did the Earthly desires of greed, power, and hatred?

You answer this with what you worry about.  Do you worry most about looking righteous or showing love?

You know the correct answer.  You know your actual answer.  Do they match?

Show love; mark yourself as born of God.  Amen.

I’m a Thomas Apologist

Sermon on John 20:18-29: I’m a Thomas Apologist

It fascinates me when I notice something new in passages I preach on regularly.  Every year I preach Thomas’s understandable response to his friends telling him Jesus rose from the dead and understand his doubt a bit more.

I noticed something I cannot believe I missed before.  I seriously questioned if I had ever actually read the passage critically before, it jumps out that obviously:

I saw this.  Read verse 20 again:

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.
– John 20:20 CEB

 Now read verse 25:

25The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
– John 20:25 CEB

See something similar?  The disciples did not rejoice when Jesus said, “Peace be with you!”  They rejoiced after Jesus showed them his wounds.  They needed the same proof Thomas demanded, and yet we remember Thomas’s doubt vividly and gloss over the other ten disciples not fully believing Mary Magdalene.

Listen to the story in a slightly less flattering light for “The Beloved Disciple.”

When Mary came to find Peter and the author, they ran to the tomb to verify what she said, concluded that Jesus had gone missing, and then ran and hid like cowards.

No judgement – I would run, too, and hide like the coward I am – but the author glosses over his cowardice, instead saying they “went back to their homes.”

After Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene, she tells the disciples the amazing news and yet Jesus still has to show them the wounds for them to rejoice what Mary had told them.  No mention of why they paused and did not immediately start rejoicing.  Mary only needed to hear Jesus say her name to believe; the disciples need to see the wounds to believe.

Again, I cannot judge.  I cannot grasp their level of fear.  An unrecognized man appeared behind the locked door they hid behind from people who wanted to kill them.  They should have screamed like children.  They get a pass for not recognizing Jesus in that moment, but author glossed right over the fact that they needed to see the wounds while making sure we know Thomas needed the same thing.

Verse 25 paints the image of “Doubting Thomas” as written, but read it again, only with some transliteration by me:

 Unless [I get literally what you all needed to believe, even though Mary Magdalene had already told you he was alive], I will [continue to doubt the same way you all doubted].
– John 20:25, Pastor Rob’s Transliteration

Then Jesus appears, encounters Thomas where he stood, and Thomas responds to Jesus exactly as anyone would: “My Lord and my God!”  A recognition, a celebration, an acknowledgement of the truth of Jesus.

How I wish I could experience Jesus responding to my doubt as he did for Thomas.

I have more sympathy for Thomas than a significant portion of the church.  Some of the western church loves to make verse 29 the judgmental lesson of this passage:

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me?  Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
– John 20:29 CEB

They make verse 29 into this lesson: do not doubt; just believe.

Some like to condemn doubt as proof of weak faith and weak relationship with God.  Some call doubting the work of the devil and struggling with faith the devil making us weak.  If we simply had stronger, most wholesome faith, we would not doubt.

I do not believe that in the slightest.  If the devil causes doubt and wrestling, the devil has written more than a couple of my sermons.  If the devil makes people wrestle with scripture, the devil made seminaries.  If the devil causes doubt and makes us wrestle with scripture, the devil is giving us all the deeper meaning we find in scripture beyond cursory reading.

Me personally, I give credit to the Holy Spirit for my doubt and wrestling because it makes me a better student of scripture.  I refuse to believe the devil makes me think about scripture critically, and I find that thought process fascinating because Jesus does not respond to Thomas like that.  Jesus does not scold Thomas – or the other 10 – for doubting

What he gives speaks to a reality: faith without doubt can be a blessing.

He tells them to desire the faith of a child, the faith of innocence without doubt, but he does not condemn them because they cannot have that faith anymore.

I miss the faith of my youth.  I have three years of academic study basically in faith, I have written hundreds of sermons, and I pray multiple times a day, and yet I have a much more fragile faith than I did in my youth.  How wonderful does believing without seeing feel?  How much blessing and comfort does it provide?

But I cannot have that faith anymore; that faith cannot mature into deep faith.  You must wrestle and think more critically as you mature, making the innocent faith of childhood impossible in adulthood.

Look at what actually happened in the story.  Thomas doubted – with good reason as we all would do the same – and Christ encountered him where he stood and deepened his faith through that encounter.

Thomas’s doubt lead to deeper faith.

Stop ignoring and denying your doubt.  Thomas spent three years with Jesus, he saw the miracles and had 11 trusted friends tell him Jesus came back to life, and yet he doubted.  You are not somehow less broken or less human than Thomas.

And Thomas’s doubt did not violate his love of God and did not violate the love he felt for his friends; he did not sin by doubting despite what the gospel of judgement would love us to believe.

Jesus did not condemn or even scold Thomas; he responded to Thomas’s doubt and deepened his faith.

Lean into your doubt, wrestle with scripture and with God, even shout to God with what you need to deepen your faith and what you need to believe.  I can guarantee that your faith will become more fragile and you will doubt, but wrestling and doubting will also make your faith more honest, more real, and it will open you up to deepening your relationship with God.

Blind faith is shallow; faith built from wrestling and doubt is deep.  More fragile, more confused, but deeper and built with God, not dictated by humanity.

Doubt, wrestle, and build your deep faith with God.  Amen.

My Stupid Expectations

So I have this voice in the back of my head that won’t stop repeating itself over and over again.

“It’s Easter; you’re sermon better be perfect!”

This voice never shuts up; every week, it’s either criticizing me because the sermon got done late, is going to be too long or too short, it is poorly exegeted, ad nauseam until it tries to convince me I’m a giant fraud.

I hope that’s not just me because otherwise this turned into a giant confession.  Oops.

Anyway, most weeks I can point my finger at the voice, tell it that it’s a dirty liar, and then go on with my life.  It never shuts up, but at least I convince it I’m actually in charge.

This week is different.  That voice is loud, and it has the advantage; Easter is important, and it decided to use that to break down my confidence.

“It’s Easter; that isn’t an Easter sermon!  You aren’t talking about salvation enough!  Now you’re looking only at salvation and missing any other message!  Wait, now you’ve forgotten salvation!  Where’s the empty tomb, moron?!?  That’s the same sermon they hear every year!  That’s a sermon they’ve never heard because it’s terrible!”

It’s like the importance of the day gave it a shot of steroids and made it mad.  And I listen because I’m a people-pleaser and the voice in the back of my head is someone to please, I suppose.

I swear this has a point other than me whining.

That voice has a purpose.  It does, in fact, make me strive for better sermons.  Every once in a great while the voice hits the nail on the head and makes me re-evaluate.  Even today it made me look deeper into a passage I’ve probably read a thousand times and find that thread I had never seen before.

But then it started yelling at me that I’m not allowed to preach on that!

I have this expectation that I will give the very best sermon of my career every week, and that my sermon will be the best sermon anyone hears in any congregation anywhere in the world.  I’ve worked on that expectation somewhat, but still the voice that makes me expect that of myself still lingers.

Growing up, my pastors always said that if they weren’t nervous walking into the pulpit, it was time to quit, and I have taken that to heart and applied it to myself.  And every week, painfully over-prepared or woefully under-prepared, I feel about the same level of nerves.

But my CPE supervisor said something to me that I have wrestled with since: he doesn’t get nervous preaching.  He said there’s a 50% chance he gives a great sermon, and a 50% chance he gives a terrible sermon, and that’s pretty much irrelevant because of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t take that to the farthest conclusion, but I know if I’m being faithful, the Word will be preached.  I just need to drop the expectation that every week will be a master-class in preaching.

Or any week.  They can’t all be zingers, or even most.

Drop the silly perfection expectations for this week.  Yes, the Easter event defines our salvation and makes us Christians.  No, my Easter service does not.

Shut up, voice in the back of my head.

Peace,
– Robby

A Difficult Sermon

Note: When I preached on this passage, I realized I hadn’t preached on it since taking “Preaching” in seminary, and I almost quit seminary due to that course.  I never titled this sermon, and I can’t think of a title while I post some previous sermons to the archive, so the title has more to do with me than the sermon.

Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (and 1 Samuel 2:12-25)

If we just read the 10 verses the lectionary recommends, we get a Sunday School lesson.  Now, I usually say something like that when the passage misses something huge, but this passage gets most of the story.  Samuel does not know the Lord yet, but he is attentive and ready to fulfill his duty.  Eli helps Samuel understand who called him, much the same way he has helped Samuel become the beloved prophet he has already become.

The passage has a strong lesson: listen for when God calls, and willingly do what God calls you to.  The passage tells a very relevant passage for literally every moment in human existence, and we should tell it regularly.

The background does not change the message: the message remains “Answer when God calls and do what God says,” but the background makes it stronger and shows consequences of not doing God’s will.

What happens before this shows why God needs Samuel, and why God needs someone other than Eli.

Eli is worthless.

I preached on this passage last in my first Preaching class in seminary.  I said something to that effect, and the professor and class responded poorly to it.  Their struggle came from me not giving Eli any credit, how Samuel’s coming of age gave pain and sadness to Eli, how God’s message to Samuel felt like a birth pang for Eli, how he grew Samuel and now he painfully gave birth to Samuel’s ministry.

That rings of truth, but incomplete truth.  The full story tells it differently: Eli did not control his family, especially his sons, and allowed travesties to happen to those under his care.  This painful experience of Samuel coming into authority was precipitated by Eli’s inaction and ineffectiveness, and had he taken a stronger position, one of Eli’s sons would take his place.

Samuel does not become a prophet if Eli does his job.

But Eli did not do his job.  In fact, Eli grossly ignored a call I harp on every week: protect and love the vulnerable.

Eli’s sons are evil.  Wicked, despicable scoundrels, according to scripture, depending on how you translate the word.

They first abuse their power by forcing people to give the best of their sacrifices, a large, uncooked portion with fat instead of the portion of the boiled meal they should.  I think about this, and immediately I think about the number of people who came through that had spent every spare coin they had to purchase this meat for sacrifice.  Eli’s sons not only took from God, which sounds pretty darned awful in and of itself, and took from people who had to spare, but they took from every person who came to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice, including those who had nothing to spare.  The priests, those called to a live of servitude and humility, demanded the finest cuts for their own use.

It can get worse, though.  They also had sex with the servant girls at the city gates.  These are servant girls who certainly cannot say no to the powerful priests serving Shiloh.  Scripture does not tell us if they did this by physical force or through coercion or through taking advantage of vulnerabilities–probably because it does not matter.  No matter how they did it, they sexually took advantage of the women at the gate.

The sons are evil, and Eli does nothing.

Well, Eli does something.  He basically says, “You boys stop it!” and then does nothing.  His words have no teeth, he will not actually make them stop taking advantage of the vulnerable.  Under his watch, people who cannot resist suffer abuses at the hands of his sons.

This goes beyond just not being able to control his sons.  All parents have times when their children do terrible things.  We do not blame the parent for the sins of the child unless you can see that no actions were taken to correct what was happening.  Eli’s sons did not just start raping and stealing.  They did not go from perfectly mediocre priests to evil men.  They had to progress from one sin to a more painful sin to a more painful sin to get to the point they arrive at when Samuel is called by God.

And Eli effectively did nothing.  Eli is worthless to protect and help the people of Israel, especially the poor and vulnerable who could not help themselves.  This swan song comes not just because Eli painfully gives birth to Samuel’s ministry, but because Eli fail and his failure caused abuses of the vulnerable.

It sounds familiar.  Listen to the cries of the vulnerable around you today.  We are coming up on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and racial tensions have grown in recent years instead of declining.  The church has a call to protect the vulnerable yet stories come out regularly about people in about abusing those God called them to protect.  The poor, the vulnerable, the “less than” are currently, today, right now, being abused.

We can be Samuel, answering the call of God, listening to the cries of God’s people, and reacting.  God has called us to protect the weak and vulnerable, the feed the poor, to live out what Christ lived out while he walked the Earth despite his own poverty.  We can do good in the world and actually act to prevent evil in the world.

Or we can be Eli.  We can have good intentions, say, “Don’t do that!” and do nothing more.  We can allow abuses to take place under our watch, speaking the right words but taking no action, doing nothing to actually protect the vulnerable.

We can do either.  God calls us to one, but Eli clearly chose the other.

Now, we may not fully recognize God’s call at first.  Samuel needed guidance and did not recognize God’s voice at first.  But once he listened for God, he did what God needed and helped the weak and the vulnerable.

We can listen for God and help the vulnerable, or we can do what we have always done, not listening for God’s direction, and just let darkness win.

I recommend we listen for God.  Amen.

Doubt (and Hip-Hop)

So as a 30-year-old, VERY white, rural-raised and rural-serving pastor, I am finally getting into hip-hop.

Really.  I’ve listened to DAMN. quite a few times, HNDRXX and FUTURE have made it into my rotation, and obviously Coloring Book and Awaken, My Love have been listened more than is rational because I’m a white guy just now getting into hip-hop.

(Note: I believe Awaken, My Love is one of the greatest albums ever released, and it will age like Abbey Road and Kind of Blue.  But again, super-white and super-uncool.)

I found myself listening to Logic’s Everybody and specifically “Confess” with Killer Mike last night and the speech that Killer Mike does at the end of the song stopped me cold.

The whole song is wonderful (if rough and clearly NSFW) but here’s the speech in question.

Lines like this just dig so deep into everything that I am thought in my doubts and my struggles:

But tonight, I am in this church
Asking you to show yourself, to reveal yourself to me
Because I’m tired and I don’t know what else to do
– Killer Mike

Go right to Thomas.  Go right to any prayer that goes unanswered.  Go right to begging God to save the body and life of the people you love most, and God not giving you a “Yes.” to that prayer.  Go right to seeing violence and hatred and the powerful forgetting God and believing in their own divinity while the weak yet faithful are sacrificed and slaughtered.  Go right to see the new nation of South Sudan tear itself apart, like so many other African nations.

Go right to a world covered in darkness after that glorious Easter event, and tell me you don’t want to scream those exact words at God.

Killer Mike captured Job, captured the Samaritan woman at the well, captured Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, captured every pained cry every hospital and hospice everywhere.

If only I could have that much vulnerability in the pulpit.  How much more powerful would our preaching be if those words – universal words of pain and doubt – would not just come from our lips as we deliver God’s Word, but be a norm of our preaching?  How much closer would I be with the people I serve if that sort of vulnerability would so effectively come from my tongue in the pulpit?

So if you out there, do something about this
‘Cause I can’t take it no more
Help me
– Killer Mike

That’s soul-baring prayer.  That’s bringing everything to God, out loud, not hiding behind being proper or PC, but just brining everything to God.

May I be that vulnerable.

Peace,

– Robby

Seeking Unity

I realized a long time ago that, along with all of the writing I do here, I also do about 1500 words of writing every week for my sermon.  Most weeks they aren’t really something that translates that well into reading on a blog – or maybe I’m just over-critical – but this week I really liked when I wrote.  I also have had the idea of unity and disunity and wanted, at least subconsciously, to touch on the subject here.  It worked out perfectly, I suppose.

Here is my manuscript, edited a bit after I gave it yesterday:


The Unifying Act of Pentecost

Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.

Every year, when I approach my Pentecost sermon, I find myself focusing on the gifts of the individual.  Each one of us is part of the Body of Christ.  We have have a talent, a gift, a skill that we contribute to that Body.  We are each important.  Every year I tend to find myself focusing on the individuals.

That is a valid focus.  There will always be times that we find ourselves wondering if we are a necessary part of the Body of Christ.  Do we contribute?  Does Jesus actually desire us to be in his Body?  Can we even contribute to this Body?  What can we contribute?

Every year come to the same conclusion.  We each have gifts to share, we each have something that we contribute.  We each are part of the Body of Christ.  As faithful believers, we each have a roll that we play.  We fall short, we deny that role from time to time, but we each have a role in furthering Christ’s message, showing Christ’s love, and growing the Body of Christ.  We each are a part of the Body of Christ.

Every year I preach the same sermon.  Every year I talk about talents and gifts and how even the most miniscule act that do that is done in love and out of our faith in and love of Jesus Christ has radical effects.  A balloon has just a bit of air and yet it grows from something ugly, dull, and boring into something large, fun, and beautiful.  It does not take radical action to change the world.

Every year the same sermon.  I fear, though, that we miss something with that same sermon.  We need to reverse the lens that we are looking through.  We need to look not at each of us individually, but at the entire Body of Christ.  We need to do this because I’m afraid we miss an incredibly important part of the Pentecost day and what it did for our faith.

When we look at the Pentecost story, we see that Jews from every corner of the Earth, from every country, and in every language hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  In this one act they were unified by hearing one Word.  They were one people connected to one message at one moment in time.  The Pentecost was as much a unifying act as it was an act of talent and gifts.  In that moment, the world of believers became one united Body of Christ.

Those who heard and understood were brought into the Body of Christ, becominf followers of the true Word of God expressed through Jesus.  They saw and heard the works of the Holy Spirit and were moved to follow Christ.  They were made better, their souls more whole, when they entered into the Body of christ.

It is better and joyful to be part of the Body of Christ.

Importantly, each of those who were brought into the Body of Christ were sinners.  Each had their flaws, each fell horribly short of the glory of God.  They were unworthy of being in this Body, and yet through Christ they were brought into one Body, showing mercy and love, and given their salvation.  Only faith, love, and submission to Christ was required.

No one was turned away, each was brought into the Body of Christ.

I see this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the unifying actions of those who followed Jesus, the creation of a Body that requires only faith in Christ to be part of, and I cannot help but contrast it with the world we live in.  This world is not a world that is modeled after the actions of the Pentecost; it is the exact opposite of it.

When you look at politics, what do you see?  Do you see a unified Body working towards the good of the people, or a disunified Body whose concern is individual and selfish?  What do political ads say?  Do they speak to what good can be done, or what evil someone else has done?  What do we hear from our leaders?  Is it that they want to sacrifice for those who have elected them, or that they can help us if we just follow them and not that other person who has a different letter after their name?

But this goes beyond these divisions we’ve made for ourselves; we don’t just divide, we actively work to exclude people.  The world is set up in a way that we can only act like adversaries.  We are divided as “Us vs. Them” and the only ones who deserve to be part of the Body of Christ are the ones who fit in our “Us”.  The Body of Christ is universal and yet we like to see it as only those who minister like we do, talk like we do, and sin like we do.  Those other sinners have more black marks and different black marks on their souls so they cannot possibly be part of the Body of Christ.  They aren’t good enough.

We live in a world and we live lives that are anti-Pentecost.  We live in intentional disunity, we divide ourselves into groups that look and act and sound and sin the same, and we are glad to do it.

Glad to do it, joyful when we do it, and celebrative when it is done.

Disunity saddens me to a deep degree.  We are all called to be part of one Body and yet we are so divided.  If we disagree, we are more likely to battle, flee, or separate versus trying to solve the disagreement.  If something fails, we are ready to oust the person responsible and remove them from the Body.  If someone sins in a way that scares us, disgusts us, or just makes us feel uncomfortable, we are ready to cut their part of the Body of Christ away and make a more “pure” Body of Christ.  We are so ready to do this, so very ready.

Even denominations have the same issue.  I am not a huge fan of denominationalism as a whole, but I am even more angry at the denominations, my own Presbyterian Church included, that create more disunity in the Body of Christ over issues that are not that large, mostly issues that make people uncomfortable.  They split instead of trying to find a way to live within the same Body.  Martin Luther in no way wanted to divide the church and split it apart; he wanted change, he wanted discussion, but he realized that one of the calls of the gospel is unity within the Body.  His 95 Thesis was not supposed to be a wedge, even if the church treated it as one.

The Body of Christ is so divided, both as Christian bodies dividing themselves into fractured individual bodies and Christian churches denying entrance into the Body of Christ to those who are “different”, and those who contribute to this fracturing are denying everything about the Pentecost.  We were unified in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and we have done our best to deny that in our lives.

What is the solution, then?  What are we called to do?  We are divided, we are broken, we are fractured, and we live in a world of disunity; what are we supposed to do about it?

We can only work towards unity and wholeness of the Body of Christ in our own lives.  We need to recognize that all are called to the Body of Christ, including those whose ministries are different than our own, whose appearance is different than our own, and even those who sins are different than our own.  We have to act in a way that is accepting, loving, and unifies of the entire Body.  This is not to say that we need to turn a blind eye to sin but that sin does not exclude from the Body of Christ because of Jesus; we are redeemed, saved, and called to this Body despite of our shortcomings and our failures and our sins.  Christ makes us more than ourselves, and he makes everyone else more than themselves to be part of this one, unified Body.

Above all, the most unifying thing that we can do is love.  I talk about it every week, and I will every week.  One of the greatest things that Jesus gave us was an example of how to love.  Every action that we take must be made out of love, love of God and love of neighbor.  If we desire unity within our world, if we desire unity within the Body of Christ, we must love at every intersection and every waypoint.  We must love in everything we do.  We cannot have unity if we don’t.  Period.

We can only be unified if we love.  So love.  At all times and in all things.  Amen.


As always, comments encouraged (including homiletics comments if you are so inclined)!

To preaching the Word and being part of the Body of Christ,

– Robby

Fire and Ice (or, Robby Rambling about Preaching)

Last night we had a bonfire because…well, I cut up a lot of firewood Friday, I haven’t had a chance to have a fire since then, and we’re leaving Wednesday for a wedding and I wanted to actually benefit from my labors instead of just longingly looking at the wood and being sad a fire wasn’t burning.

Holy crap, I love bonfires.

Anyway, as the fire was burning I couldn’t keep something out of my mind.  A couple of summers ago I worked with a pastor who has a very intellectual mind.  Very organized, very regimented, clean desk and set schedule.  This isn’t to say he is horribly inflexible – successful pastors can’t be inflexible and unsuccessful pastors don’t stay at a church happily for 30+ years – but his mind is very much logical and rational.

Anyone who knows me in my personal life could tell you that it was only destined that we would get along very well.  We just kind of clicked when I started my rotation at that church.  I’m less regimented than him, and I’m certainly not a clean-desk sort of guy, but the logical and rationality he showed in his ministry makes sense to me.

Another thing that worked with just getting along is he is a musician and a fan of jazz. Our lunches would be a sandwich at his kitchen table and then 20 minutes or so listening to jazz records CDs before we went back to work.  I can tell you, there isn’t much in the world I enjoy more than something like that; just listening to even part of a beautiful record like Kind of Blue as a break from whatever work you are doing can reset your engines and clear your mind (especially if you are an introvert).

One of these lunch sessions we got to talking about his violin playing and he mentioned something that a conductor had given as inspiration to the orchestra he as performing with: “Hearts on fire, minds on ice.”

Something about that has resonated with me since that day.  An idea that, even in the midst of our deepest intellectual moments, the midst of the coldest logical thinking, our hearts can still be on fire.  The fire of passion and desire does not require the brain to be shut off or even reduced at all; in fact, an expression of a heart “on fire” can be a brain working at its fullest and coldest.

Last night it popped into my head because of the fire because the fire didn’t want to start.  The leaves were damp, the wood a bit wet, and the wind a bit strong to be conducive to starting a fire in a small fire pit.  I couldn’t just have a spark to easily light a fire; it required work, it required thinking, and it required maintenance.  It just wouldn’t become the raging fire that burns anything easily; even when it got hot and the wind was making it bigger than the fuel said it should have been, a small misstep could have reduced it to smoldering.

In a lot of real ways, a fire in optimal conditions is better than my fire last night.  In optimal conditions, with dry kindle, dry wood, and properly sized logs, you are only limited to the size of the fire pit and the time you want to spend with the fire.  It burns bright, it burns warmly, and it just works on every level.  It just comes out.

I’ve had sermons like this.  You sit down at the computer and suddenly 2000 words are on the page and it flows perfectly.  It’s theologically sound, artful, and just a good sermon.  I’ve had this happen to me, I’ve had it happen when I didn’t deserve it, and I’ve had it happen when I deserved to have nothing sit on the page because of the lack of preparation I’ve had.  Sometimes it just happens that way.  Some of it is obviously the Holy Spirit, the flame of our souls, and some of it is the training and experience we’ve had.

A world of change can happen to a sermon between printing Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning.  I’ll use a fire I built at camp to explain.

One night I had one of those nights that young, angst-filled college students have.  I decided that I needed to build a fire to get through it and it was a darn good fire. Literally, it is one of the best bonfires I’ve ever built.  It just burned well, stayed lit, and it was a beautiful fire.

No one enjoyed it.  I was alone, and I was angst-filled in particular that night; this beautiful fire seemed wasted because no one enjoyed it.

I’ve written beautiful sermons I was proud of, and I still love despite the need for a couple of tweaks.  I can think of one in particular that just felt right.  It was artful, different, followed a homiletical style, and I just enjoyed writing it.  I had a solid interpretation of the scripture in use, backed up my commentaries, and it was just what the spark of the Holy Spirit lit in me.  I was ready to be lauded for my beautiful effort.

It is, in my opinion, lack on small word change, the best sermon in terms of art form I have ever written.  And my church enjoyed it immensely.

That C I got on it in Preaching Class showed me exactly how much a good sermon can completely miss it’s mark.  The best manuscript, the best delivery, and the best preacher – abstract, not specific in my case – can be heard wrong, suffer from the distraction of those listening, and have a small phrase that is mostly irrelevant to the message of the sermon derail the entire thing.  The beauty of that “fire” that I wanted to share ended up putting a sour taste for preaching in my mouth.

If I’m honest, both that fire I built at camp and that sermon I gave in class nearly caused me to quit.

Pride sucks and can kill everything about you.  It just is that way.  Especially when you think you’ve done this amazing thing, no one may notice and it may feel worse after than before.

That isn’t to say that every good sermon – or every good bonfire – that went like that was wasted and caused me grief.  I’ve written good sermons, preached them, and they hit exactly where I was aiming.  I felt good, the sermon had its message heard, and it was obvious that the Spirit was guiding my lips and the congregations ears.  I don’t always fail when the sermon came out easy and came out good.

What I will also say is that the sermon doesn’t always hurt when it is a grinder.

Sometimes the fires in non-optimal conditions are so much more meaningful than fires in the best of conditions.  Last night I just felt good that I got that stupid fire to burn.  The flames never got big (expect when the wind blew and they were way bigger than I wanted them to be) and it was hard to keep a flame at all.  Yet it was good and mind-clearing to be outside, to feel the warmth of the flames, and to have time with my wife without distraction other than the constant need to keep up with the fire.

Sermons can be like that.  There are certain passages that you decide to preach on early in the week (or weeks before) and Saturday comes and the sermon just won’t come out. Even passages that lend themselves to easy sermons just don’t have a message for you every time.

But Sunday morning doesn’t wait for you.  At 10:30 I have to have a worship service planned, bulletins printed, and something to say when I get to the sermon.  I can’t just say, “Screw it!  No sermon this week!”

Okay, maybe I could, but I like not being asked to not return.

It is amazing to me, though, how often those sermons hit the mark they needed to. Even more amazing – and annoying, if I’m honest – is when that mark is nowhere near where I was aiming.  It’s not that I didn’t prepare, it’s not that I didn’t try to hit a good message, but the sermon lent itself to another message and another point without my intervention.  Often times I don’t even know how it did it, and can’t find it when I read my manuscript again, but it worked on a spiritual level.

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.  With or without me.

I’ve also been burnt by those sermons.  Sometimes you talk for 15 minutes just to have the message, “Jesus loves you and the pastor loves the sound of his own voice” come through.  I know it’s happened; my congregation would never tell me, but I know it.  It happens.

So what about that quote, “Hearts of fire, minds on ice?”  It seems like I got derailed – and I did – but there is a point.  The first is obviously that the Holy Spirit can fix my brokenness from the pulpit.

But that isn’t the end.  Despite how many times the Holy Spirit has saved me from myself, it always works better when I’m in study and thought about my sermons.  There is a definite correlation between my working through a sermon before Friday or Saturday and the sermon coming out good and hitting its mark.  And there is a correlation between a grinder sermon actually working out and me having spent time with the scripture.

Compare it to my fire last night.  If I had just left it up to what was there without work, I would have burnt some wet leaves and then watched TV all night.  If I have no preparation and just grind out whatever will come, nothing will come of it.  “Jesus loves you and I love the sound of my own voice” is not a good or useful message.  If I had just relied of the little bit of flame I had starting on its own, it would have died.

If I rely on just the Holy Spirit to give me a message without the brain work, I am going to fail as a preacher.  Period.  I will fail as a preacher if I don’t let my mind be on ice and think through this stuff.  Passion, emotion, and fire are all good things in a preacher, but they don’t come together as a whole, cohesive piece on Sunday morning.  I offer 1 Corinthians 14 as proof of what I am speaking of; speaking in tongues is a bit different than just standing up and speaking on Sunday without preparation but the whole idea of one just using the heart while the other uses both the heart and the mind stands true.

So here is my interpretation of that ideal, “Heart of fire, mind on ice,” in a ministry standpoint.  There are people who believe we should just go out and do and let the Holy Spirit guide on the fly.  I disagree.  I believe the Holy Spirit guides my preparation, my study, and my thinking.  Preparation is holy and good, and can also lead to a refined message instead of a rough one.  Rough wood can be beautiful, but refinement can make it shine.

So I guess I’m saying let your hearts be on fire.  It requires passion and love to preach the gospel and share Christ’s love.  But when the time calls for it, set your minds on ice and allow them to do what they do: process, think, and analyze.  Both can, and should, work complimentary, not oppositionally.  Let them.

Not preaching this week so you kind of got an extra-Biblical homily. Hopefully I’ll get the second part of the sin series flushed out sometime today (but I wouldn’t bet on it).

To preaching with our minds and loving with our hearts, and also visa-versa,

– Robby

P.S.: I used four words that WordPress’s writing checker doesn’t recognize.  Either I’m brilliant or arrogant…