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Opinion and Editorial


Un-handicapping Church

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

The pulpit at County Line

February 10, 2013. Transfiguration Sunday. No one stood up to read scripture, so I offered an invitation to the whole congregation “Who will offer our scripture today?” It was silent for a moment, and then [our adult female member with MR/ID – I will call her Betsy] shot her hand up. I welcomed her up to the pulpit. She took several moments to gather her belongings and hobble to the front. I offered to read along with her. Betsy can read, but not very well out loud. She mumbled every word as I read for her from the pulpit. She read from Exodus 34 – Moses brought the tablets of the covenant down from the mountain. The story of Moses played out before us right in church! Recall that Moses could not speak well and when God called him; God empowered him with Aaron who could speak. I was her Aaron in that moment; validating her role in the Body of Christ. She also read form 2 Corinthians 4:1 “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Betsy was, herself, the scripture she proclaimed that day. And beyond that she showed us at County Line Church that God will not wait up for us. When we are unwilling to say yes to his call (even something as simple as reading scripture); God will go on with or without you and find someone who will – even those who make us uncomfortable. And God calls the unexpected among us- all…the…time.

A Fishy Sermon Illustration

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

What makes for a good sermon illustration?

I heard a cute story on the radio last week where the $3,000 prize for an ice fishing contest was for a 4.5 oz perch! It won because it was the only fish caught that day. There were more prizes that had to be given away by a random drawing. Here’s the story by a local radio station.

My little sermon-illustration-alarm went off in the back of my head when I heard the story. It’s cute, there is a punch-line, and it’s easy to remember. I filed it away to look up later on the internet and save for the next time a fish story comes up in one of the Sunday morning readings. I immediately thought of the disciples who cast their nets and caught no fish. It fits perfectly, right?

But what is the point of a sermon illustration anyways? Is it supposed to be a cute story that relates to the bible lesson in some tangential way? I don’t get the opportunity to hear very many other preachers, but I sure can picture a preacher telling the story, embellishing with full detail perhaps even describing the weather, the participants, and the tiny little fish, taking 2 or 3 minutes perhaps (that’s a tithe of a 20 minute sermon!) And the point the preacher seems to make is “well I heard this other story about some other folks who also didn’t catch any fish.” But is that what the text is about?

Are sermon illustrations meant to fill time? Maybe to entertain? I think illustrations are meant to uncover the meaning of the text at hand. I tend to write a theme sentence for my sermon – sum up the entire message in a single statement. Then, an illustration only makes it in if it furthers the main idea of the sermon’s theme sentence. My illustrations are often short – sometimes even a single sentence “It’s kinda like…” Often context does need to be added to an illustration in order to make it effective, so it becomes a bit longer. For those disciples in the boat, they had given up and went back to their old unfulfilling careers they had before they were called by Jesus. Kinda like Mr. Incredible (Pixar’s The Incredibles) who gave up super-hero-ing to become an insurance adjustor. See what I mean? Or maybe I am off track and I should have gone with the fish.

So, preachers (and those who receive sermons): What is the purpose of a sermon illustration? And what makes for a good one? What causes an illustration to “flop?”

Is the Baptism Agreement true?

Monday, July 4th, 2011

Today, The 28th General Synod of the United Church of Church was the final Reformed tradition to approve the “Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism.” This agreement is the fruit of many years of dialog between various Reformed traditions: UCC, Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America, Christian Reformed Church, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The vote was not without debate at Synod. Those speaking against the resolution focused primarily on the language of the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” from Matthew 28. They argued for an alternate formula “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” suggesting that the traditional formula is gender exclusive. The agreement is clear that baptism using this alternate formula is not recognized by the Catholic Church nor by many Reformed Churches.

Those advocating for the alternate formula seem to ignore the Trinitarian problems it presents. These are not names, but functions in which all three persons of the Trinity participate. All Three persons create, redeem, and sustain. It’s a 21st century modalism, and it makes God impersonal.

Calling God “Father” does not mean we believe God is a male (though Jesus certainly is male – there are no two ways around it; Jesus was born a Jewish, middle-eastern man. Does recognizing Jesus’ ethnicity make us racist? Why would recognizing his gender make us sexist?). There are plenty of feminine images God uses – God nursing Jerusalem, Jesus wishing to gather the brood under wing; and yet Jesus calls God father.

It would seem that these alternate words are by no means rare in the UCC. One speaker against the resolution even went so far as to say “We shouldn’t care if other churches recognize baptisms preformed in our churches, we should only care if God recognizes it.” Are we no longer the United (and uniting) Church of Christ? What of John 17 which is incorporated in our logo “That they may be one”?

Those who spoke in favor of the resolution reminded us that Synod resolutions are not binding. “The General Synod speaks to but not for the UCC.” In other words, we can pass this resolution and yet not expect pastors to use the universally recognized formula.

There is my concern about this agreement. What does this agreement do, if pastors refuse to follow the ecumenical formula – not even for the sake of unity? Agreeing to disagree on these very basic elements of Baptism is no agreement at all – it’s a false irenicism. As long as the alternate formula is used, we cannot assume that a baptism preformed in all expressions the UCC will be recognized by the ecumenical partners of this agreement. So is this agreement true?

Ultimately this agreement did pass, 751 yes; 45 no; 13 abstain – that’s 93% approval. But ultimately pastors will continue to baptize in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” not caring if those baptisms performed are universally recognized or not. At the very least the agreement clearly explains how to preform a baptism which is recognized in the universal church (if that’s something you want).

I hope for this agreement to be true. I am sadden that it is not – at least not among what I hope is a small minority of UCC pastors who find gender inclusive language for the name of God to be more important than unity in the Body of Christ and the directive given by Christ in the Great Commission.

Flash Communion at General Synod 28

Monday, July 4th, 2011

Here is a communion service that happened at the United Church of Christ General Synod this weekend.

I appreciate the underlying desire for an unpredictable in-breaking of the spirit through a spontaneous worship service. And an extra communion service in the UCC? I know UCCers who go kicking and screaming at any suggestion of more Communion than is absolutely necessary. So yeah, I am all for the celebration of communion.

But I have my reservations about this particular service. It would appear that the main thrust of this service was welcome alone. Is that all that happened at the Last Supper? I seem to remember something else going on that night…but am having a bit of difficulty recalling…

I did not hear an institution narrative nor eucharistic prayer. The words at the fraction were “This is the body of Christ broken in love for you…” And the presentation of the cup: “This is the cup of the new covenant poured out for you and for many.” Did she share Jesus’ communion words, or was she offering words about Communion?

What message is convened when a Juicy-Juice bottle is placed on the communion table; and a disposable plastic cup is used to hold the Blood of Christ?

Does spontaneity require a loss of reverence?

Was this service meant to be a spectacle? What was it’s purpose?

What do you think about the Flash Communion?

Revive Us Again

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

I sang this hymn for the first time about a month ago at St. Luke’s (Favorite Hymns of Praise #268), and when our musicians learned how much I enjoyed it we’ve sung it three more times since then. Below is the best arrangement I could find on YouTube. A note to others: less is more! This hymn just needs a single acoustic instrument to really shine.

I think the refrain would serve as a great Gospel Acclamation.

(Lyrics from CyberHymnal.com)

We praise Thee, O God!
For the Son of Thy love,
For Jesus Who died,
And is now gone above.


Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Hallelujah! Amen.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Revive us again.

We praise Thee, O God!
For Thy Spirit of light,
Who hath shown us our Savior,
And scattered our night.


All glory and praise
To the Lamb that was slain,
Who hath borne all our sins,
And hath cleansed every stain.


All glory and praise
To the God of all grace,
Who hast brought us, and sought us,
And guided our ways.


Revive us again;
Fill each heart with Thy love;
May each soul be rekindled
With fire from above.


Small Church Worship

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Small Church

I found in my notebook today just a few thoughts concerning worship in a small church.

  • What if we simplified “the front”: less clutter, removed the altar walls, (maybe even removed the pulpit!), and brought the altar closer to the worshipers? I wonder if this would help to remove the illusion that worship happens “up front.”
  • What if we all came forward for communion at the same time? gathered around the table – there’s only 30 of us; thats a large family reunion size. What if the communion table was used as an actual table?
  • What if everyone processed into the worship space? (Not just the preacher and choir) What if we viewed all the assembled faithful as the ministers of worship?
  • What if I sat in a pew?

What other ways could small churches use their size as an advantage in worship?

What’s possible because we are a small church

Friday, March 11th, 2011

We have two youth, a brother and sister, who are preparing for baptism this Pentecost. We are presenting Bibles this Sunday as they begin the formation classes. Because we are a small church (about 30 on a Sunday) We are able to invite the members to write a personal message in the presentation bibles – I know that would have been impossible in the 500 member church I grew up in. What a treasure for these youth in the years to come.

Because we are a small church, the entire board of elders and pastor (which we call the spiritual council) will be involved in the formation classes. Along with their parents this still makes for an intimate group of nine! An inter-generational nine at that. What a blessing we have to share the faith in such a personal way!

Collaborative Preaching

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

I was listening to a replay of Jon Stewart’s Oct. 4, 2010 interview on Fresh Air this morning. During the portion I heard he was talking about his daily schedule to develop his fake news show. There is a morning team meeting, writing assignments, and rewrites. Jon may be the face of the show but it is truly a collaborative effort. This is the case in many forms of communication; teams of writers and researchers work together to develop their message. Talk shows, news programs, sit-coms, late shows, dramas, movies, musicals, and more. Have you ever sat down to watch the entire line of credits roll after tv shows or movies?

It made me wonder why preaching seems to be such an individual effort. I don’t have teams of researchers and writers. I don’t have a team meeting and re-write sessions. Sure, I attend a lectionary group and collaborate with other preachers but at the end of the day, the responsibility seems to come down to just me. Research, study, exegesis, story development, and delivery. A lot of work for one person. Plenty of preachers do it week in and week out. I try my best.

Perhaps preachers in our modern day simply follow the example of Jesus, the solitary preacher on the mount; and the long tradition of solitary preachers to follow him. But is this the only way to develop a sermon?

I wonder what the process of a collaborative sermon would look like.

Imagine a congregation which gathered on Monday to look at the scriptures for the coming Sunday. They discern together the text to focus on for the homily. Someone might compare all the gospels, another may look up all the old testament references, some one else may do some word studies to get a sense of what this text may mean for this faith community. Perhaps on Wednesday they would gather again and share stories, develop analogies and parables, and share examples from their own lives which illumine the text. They would ask “what does this have to do with us today?” Later it would be written by those with a craft for words, to say it in just the right way. Some writers may have a gift for wit and humor. Others perhaps would offer a quite potent phrase they have been ruminating on for the week. They would gather again to develop a single, unified, strong message of God’s truth found in scripture. The message would then be rewritten in order to be refined by the collaborators; demanding more precise language, more detail in a section, cutting unnecessary tangents.  Finally it is given to the one tasked with delivering the message. The preacher would give voice to the thoughts and words but it is not a project of the preacher alone. The people of God gathered together to celebrate the word of God.

Working together, perhaps a congregation can offer a better homily. The process in itself may prove to be a spiritual benefit. Maybe it wouldn’t work but it sure would be fun to try some day.

Have you ever heard a collaborative sermon preached? How did that work?

The Sunday after World Communion Sunday

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Its sad that this Sunday, Oct 10 I don’t think any churches in my local community will celebrate the death & resurrection of Christ, the remedy of sin, union with God, union with fellow Christians, the re-membering of the Last Supper.

I pray Christian churches everywhere would rediscover the power of this sacrament and celebrate it more frequently, making World Communion Sunday every Sunday.

Pew Forum Religious Quiz – Trick Question

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

I am taking the Pew Forum Religious Knowledge Quiz [link]. I think I need to use a phone a friend life-line; this one is hard! Here is question 6:

Which of the following best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?

A)The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
B)The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The correct answer which is not one of the choices is “C) All of the above.” Holy Communion is a Real Symbol (see Karl Rahner, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, et al). I would also say that this belief is not exclusive to Roman Catholics.

When symbols work (like in the Eucharist), they are what they symbolize, with a plurality of meanings, without the need to explain the symbol. It just is. Eucharist is the Body of Christ. It is also remedy for sin, communion with Christians, sacrifice, re-membering of the Last Supper. It is all of these things all at once, along with many other realities left unspoken.

Flattening Eucharist to one aspect only (the aspect of memorial, for example), obliterates the reality of the symbol.

Good luck on your quiz.