Some would say that the trajectory of the Jesus story takes us from a manger to an empty tomb. The imagery of this is striking. At the beginning there is a baby lying in a manger. At the end the Risen Christ is no longer lying in a tomb. Many sermons have been preached on this provocative imagery.
I like to take this one step further. The Jesus story actually begins in a manger and ends at a table. I'm not talking about the table at the fabled "Last Supper," although that is the inspiration for what I'm talking about. Instead, I'm talking about our table, the table we gather around on every first Sunday of the month and special worship services such as Christmas Eve.
Put another way, the Jesus story begins in the squalor of a piece of barn furniture and concludes with the most important piece of furniture in every home: the table. The table is the place where we eat, talk, do our homework, and any number of other activities that require a flat surface and accommodations for more than one person. The table is community-inspiring and community-forming. The table is where hopes and dreams are summoned, discussed, sometimes discarded, and sometimes planned.
The Lord's Table is important because it is the one Christian sacrament that crosses over into every important Christian holy day. Whether we are celebrating the arrival of the Christ child on Christmas Eve, the empty tomb on Easter, or the birthday of the church on Pentecost, we are compelled to sit at the Lord's Table and eat from the "bread of life." It is the cornerstone of all celebrations in the Christian journey. The reason for this is obvious: Tables of food nourish and sustain our lives. Symbolically, the Lord's Table nourishes and sustains our spiritual lives.
Notice how important food and feasting is during our holy days (i.e. "holidays"). Like all of you I have food on my mind quite a bit these days. As I'm writing this article, folks are bringing food to our home in order to assist me and my family as Annie recuperates and rehabs from knee surgery. After you read this many of you will have gobbled up some gobbler (i.e. turkey) and have begun making plans for holiday party food preparations, including Christmas and New Year's feasts.
Of course, it goes without saying that we need to be careful on the amount of food consumption so that we don't have to make extra visits to the treadmill and feel coerced to add "dieting" to our next list of New Year's resolutions. Fortunately, the same is not true in terms of our spiritual nourishment. We can and should visit the Lord's Table as much as we possibly can and enjoy the nourishment and community that occurs when a group of like-minded folks on a similar journey sup together.
So . . . let's eat. Amen.
We have two opportunities to be “inspired” this month. The first opportunity is our Monday evening program called “Faith Exploration” (FEX). On the first Monday of this month, November 4, we will begin reading and discussing the latest book by the late Rachel Held Evans, titled Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Evans passed away earlier this year due to an unexpected illness. She was only 37 years old and left behind a husband and two small children.
Here are the words written on the back of her book: “If the Bible isn’t a science book or an instruction manual, then what is it? What do people mean when they say the Bible is inspired? When Rachel Held Evans found herself asking these questions, she began a quest to better understand what the Bible is and how it is meant to be read. What she discovered changed her—and it will change you too. Drawing on the best in recent scholarship and using her well-honed literary expertise, Evans examines some of our favorite bible stories and possible interpretations, retelling them through memoir, original poetry, short stories, soliloquies, and even a short screenplay. Undaunted by the Bible’s most difficult passages, Evans wrestles through the process of doubt, imagining, and debating Scripture’s mysteries. The Bible, she discovers, is not a static work but is a living, breathing, captivating, and confounding book that is able to equip us to join God’s loving and redemptive work in the world.”
I hope you will consider joining us on Monday evenings as we make our way through this book.
The second opportunity to be inspired this month will be on Sunday, November 17. After worship that morning we will share a potluck meal in the Fellowship Hall and then participate in a presentation by my good friend, Jerry Bruder. Jerry is now retired, but for over fifty years he traveled the country as a motivational speaker for countless corporations and schools. His presentation is called “Ethical Issues in a Changing World.” Jerry writes,
“With the current focus on morals, shared values, and doing the ‘right thing,’ this presentation resonates with individuals both organizationally and in their personal lives. Unlike many ethics seminars that vary from the focus on laws and rules to the teaching of philosophical theory, this program encourages the group to examine concepts of right and wrong in an enjoyable way. Hopefully, participants are stimulated to THINK about behavioral ethics—the need to balance legal obligations with human needs involved in personal dilemmas. It differs from other training of this kind that focuses only on compliance, and in which people are often told what to do and not to do. Instead, the audience is actively involved in a motivational, entertaining, and thought-provoking learning experience.”
I hope you will also consider joining us for Jerry’s presentation and the potluck lunch beforehand.
Autumn is upon us, the time of year we marvel at the beauty of changing colors and falling leaves. We know that this is when nature’s flora slowly begins to die. The grass on our lawns decides to more closely resemble the color of dirt. I usually think of the spring as the time for things to blossom, but there are many fruits and vegetables that are harvested in the fall. Pumpkins obviously come to mind. The fall is by no means a “dead season.”
Spiritually speaking, the fall is also a good time to harvest the “fruit of the Spirit,” especially the list that the Apostle Paul so graciously provided for us in Galatians 5. In my opinion, October is always particularly “fruitful” in terms of my faith and spiritual growth, as well as the growth of my congregations. The oppressive heat of the summer has subsided, thus we are less physically drained, and we feel better and more energized. This naturally translates into a rejuvenated, almost perkier, spirituality.
My prayer is that this will hold true for October 2019. To help us bear more and better fruit in our spiritual lives, I would like to mention three things that are on my mind.
First, some of you expressed concerns about something that was written in the minutes of the August council minutes. I had approached the council about writing and adopting a non-discrimination policy for our congregation, a policy that would apply to both membership and staff. In the minutes I am quoted as saying that we would be doing that “rather than moving forward with becoming a recognized open and affirming church.” This is my fault. I should have edited the minutes more closely. However, let me be clear: We will continue to move forward through the ONA process. We have had a couple of setbacks, and it will take some time, but we will move forward. In the meantime, I think of my proposed nondiscrimination policy as akin to someone driving a new car for a while before they purchase it in order to see if they really like it. This policy will help us determine if, in fact, Immanuel is ready to become not just nondiscriminatory, but affirming of all the varieties of human beings that come through our doors.
The second item on my mind is the beginning of the Stewardship campaign that will conclude on November 10, Stewardship Sunday. Beginning October 13 for four Sundays, excluding October 20 (Annual Meeting), we will have either a mission moment or a sermon/presentation related to some of the “big” things we do with our resources. I am always amazed at the great work we do here at Immanuel.
Finally, the idea has come through my desk of calling together interested folks for a membership task force. This volunteer group will look at issues related to growth and sustainability of our membership. If you are interested in being a part of what I perceive will be about a year-long task force, please let me know.
Dear Immanuel Family & Friends,
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:20)
I get into a conversation with folks on occasion about television viewing habits. Because of the way we watch television nowadays, it is difficult to find two people who are watching the same program at the same time. Like most of you, I remember going to school or work and discussing with almost everyone what had been on the "tube" the night before. There were only three stations from which to choose-CBS, NBC, and ABC. To change from one station to another-without the aid of a remote control!-I had to walk outside and turn the large pole so that the antennae that sat above our rooftop would point toward the city that had one of the network affiliates. I can still hear my dad yelling through the window, "Just a little more, a little more, whoa, go back a little, stop, that's just right!"
Although this was not as convenient as what we have today, at least we would all wake up the next morning ready to discuss the blatant ignorance of Archie Bunker or how fast Matt Dillon could draw his weapon against the latest bad guy to set foot in Dodge City. With the advent of cable and satellite television, and now with live streaming, DVR, "on demand," etc., we all get up in the morning feeling largely unattached to the cultural habits and norms of the masses. It is actually kind of exciting when we talk to someone and discover we are watching the same program at the same time. It almost makes us feel spiritually connected.
Our television viewing habits is just one example of a larger cultural problem that is growing: a disconnectedness, an un-togetherness, and a disunity. In our political climate we refer to this as "polarization." It just means that we're not on the same page. Heck, we're often not even reading the same book!
Almost every aspect of our culture is characterized by human beings living distinct lives. We sonder off into different directions, working jobs disconnectedly in our own little cubicles, rooting for opposing teams, listening to music from contrasting genres, and, of course, watching television programs that no one else has even heard of.
With all that in mind, here's why I love the church of Jesus Christ. It is the one place in society where people who are vastly different in their values, habits, skills, interests, practices, etc., can come together in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds, to encourage one another, to be united in faith, and to be gathered in Jesus' name. When we gather on Sunday mornings, we are all watching the same station, so to speak, and that's something that is sorely needed in our culture.
Dear Immanuel Family & Friends,
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. (Mark 6:30-32)
Speaking of a deserted place . . . while I was writing this article I was in a rustic Inn in Lander, Wyoming. Annie and I spent several days traveling coming and going through some of the most diverse countryside a person could ever experience, from the green, lush trees of Missouri, to the endless grassy plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado, to the mountains, ridges, ravines, and giant sky of Wyoming.
Technically we were on a vacation, although at times it felt more like fulfilling a responsibility toward family. In fact, the primary purpose of our journey was to take Andrew to a wilderness training site in Lander. Still, we were able to "rest a while," just as Jesus did on occasion when the demands and responsibilities of ministry threatened to burn him out faster than a Kansas grassfire.
"Vacation" is a funny word because it shares the same root word as "vacate," "vacant," "vacancy," "vacuum," and "vacuous." At its deepest, it refers to emptiness. When we vacation, we empty ourselves (supposedly) of work responsibilities. A vacant lot refers to an empty lot. A vacancy sign in front of a motel means there are empty rooms available. A vacuum refers to a lack of air. A vacuous mind suggests that someone is empty-headed. Wyoming makes for a good vacation destination because there are a lot of "empty spaces" in the sense of land that is pristine and largely untouched by human enterprise.
Of course, to go on a vacation often requires substantial resources, so not everyone is able to vacate their homes and journey to far-off lands. At the height of the Great Recession in 2008 a new word was invented: "staycation." That word, in the midst of dwindling funds, is not only self-explanatory, it is also a very practical concept.
Nevertheless, if Jesus can be trusted as a reliable role model (and I think he can), it is imperative that human beings find ways to empty their minds and calendars and try to get away on occasion. Due to its insufferable heat, August might not always be the best choice for such an endeavor, but we don't always have a choice in the matter.
There are at least four reason why vacations, no matter how long, no matter how expensive, and no matter how far away one travels, is good for us.
First, it makes us better stewards. Preparing for a vacation often requires much forethought and planning, saving and managing of resources, and optimal use of time. We can then apply the practical things we learn in this regard to more ordinary events in our lives.
Second, vacations can reduce our overall stress level. Notice I said "can" rather than "will," because if our approach to planning and going on a vacation is not accomplished in thoughtful and practical ways then our stress level might actually increase!
Third, vacations can turn us into more creative people because it allows us to slow down and think outside the box. Mother Nature's "deserted places" in particular have a way of helping us to see the bigger picture.
Finally, vacations help to prevent burnout, especially if we have demanding occupations or responsibilities, professional or domestic. Most of us cannot keep doing the same thing, day in and day out for years on end with the same passion and energy we had at the beginning. So, put up the vacuums and plan a vacation, even if only a staycation.
Dear Immanuel Family & Friends,
"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9)
While working on my Superpower Sermon Series for this summer one day the thought occurred to me that while we do have "superpowers" in a faith sense (you have to hear my sermons to learn about them), we also have our fair share of Kryptonite. As Jesus said to his sleepy disciples, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Yes, fatigue can be our Kryptonite.
For the unschooled-in-comic-books among us, Kryptonite is a green, crystalline material that comes from Superman's home planet. For some strange reason, whenever Superman is exposed to Kryptonite he is weakened. Because of Superman's popularity in superhero fiction, Kryptonite has become synonymous with that which makes us weak, like an Achilles' heel.
So the question I pose to us is, "What is it that makes us weak in faith?" The answers to that question vary, depending on our own particular vulnerabilities. In addition to general fatigue, our spiritual Kryptonite might include such things as an inability (or no desire) to pray, finding the Bible "boring," or a lack of good stewardship practices. It could also include such things as poor physical or mental health, a critical attitude about other folks (for whatever reason), or failure at relationships. In other words, there is an abundance of Kryptonite out there, ready to weaken our faith and wellbeing.
But here's the great truth rooted in our spiritual tradition: Despite our weaknesses-sometimes because of our weaknesses-we can become strong. The Apostle Paul was no stranger to weaknesses. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, he admitted that he had "a thorn in the flesh." No one knows what that was-Paul seems to have been vague on purpose-but we can surmise that it was his Kryptonite. It made him vulnerable, tested his faith, and could very well have weakened him.
Instead, it made him stronger. He prayed that God would take this "thorn" away, but the response he received is something we all need to hear over and over again as we also struggle with our own personal Kryptonite: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
Power is made perfect in weakness. Mull that over for a moment as you are taking your daily meds or checking out your diminishing bank account. Apparently Paul believed wholeheartedly in the message he was receiving in his prayer life, for he says, "Therefore I am content with weaknesses," which in his case included insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (all for the sake of Christ). And then he offers the mic drop statement: "For whenever I am weak, then I am strong." Now, that is faith!
Because of Paul's personal experience with his own person Kryptonite, he was very sensitive to the vulnerabilities of others and he gave a fair amount of attention to this. I will quote him here with a slight change of wording:
"Likewise the Spirit helps us overcome our Kryptonite" (Romans 8:26)
"Welcome those who become weak in faith because of their Kryptonite." (Romans 14:1)
"The body is sown in Kryptonite, it is raised in power." (1 Cor. 15:43)
I'm pretty sure if Superman were an actual person he would agree . . .
Dear Immanuel Family & Friends,
I've very excited to participate in a pulpit exchange this Sunday with St. Paul UCC, Old Monroe, Missouri. They are celebrating their 130th anniversary this year and have invited former pastors to fill their pulpit. Because I live close enough for a pulpit exchange, their pastor, Rev. Michael Kasevich, will be here Sunday morning for both services. Please welcome him!
We are also excited about VBS that will be held here at Immanuel on Monday through Friday of next week. Sarah Klasing is once again heading this community-wide effort to bring our children closer to God.
Keep in your prayers our Camp MoVal campers. Next week Brenton Winterberg, Emily Lanfer, and Nora Seeley will be representing Immanuel at camp.
In the meantime, Unleashing Potential (UP) is need of the following items for their summer day camp here at Immanuel: swimming volunteers, paper towels, art supplies, Uno cards, index cards, Connect 4, left-right-left game, paint, duct tape, and masking tape.
Don't forget: Breakfast at Cracker Barrel at St. Charles on Tuesday morning at 8:00 a.m. All are welcome!
Dear Immanuel Family & Friends,
I want to address an issue that has come to my attention in the last few days concerning my preaching. I have heard some criticism that my preaching is either not as good as it used to be, not spiritual enough, or too academic or intellectual. I think this is an accurate assessment. For whatever reason (burn out, health issues, or just a bad run of preaching), my sermons have been lacking lately, especially on Easter and last Sunday. Concerning Easter, I have to say that after thirty years of Easter sermons I struggle finding something "new" to say, which means that I probably need to go back and see what I've done in years past for some inspiration. Admittedly, I rarely if ever go back and see what I've done in the past, but maybe I should be open to that.
In terms of my sermons not being spiritual enough or too academic, this is a criticism that I have heard on occasion from every congregation I have ever pastored. When I hear this criticism sometimes I have to be able to "dial it back" a little. I just need a reminder from time to time I guess. On the other hand, I hope that even when my sermons seem too dry and intellectual that you, the congregation, can get something out of it. All I can say is that I will try my hardest to produce sermons with more heart and soul.
Another thing that has come to my attention is that there is some confusion about what I'm doing this summer. Admittedly, I sort of "sprung it on you" last Sunday about my summer series titled "Superpower Summer." Let me be clear about what this is. I found a book a few months ago called "Hope and Other Superpowers" by a Christian writer named John Pavlovitz. In this book he uses some of the superhero genre to highlight some of what he calls "Christian powers." Utilizing his book and the scripture lessons for this summer, I have come up with the following preaching schedule of "superpowers" connected to biblical stories:
June 2 - "gratitude" based on Acts 16:16-34
June 9 - "wonder" based on Acts 2:1-21 (Pentecost Sunday)
June 16 - Youth Sunday
June 23 - Pulpit exchange with St. Paul UCC, Old Monroe - their preacher will be speaking here that morning
June 30 - "sacrifice" based on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 and Luke 9:51-62
July 7 - "humor" based on Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 and 2 Kings 5:1-14
July 14 - "kindness" based on Luke 10:25-37
July 21 - vacation
July 28 - "persistence" based on Luke 11:1-13
August 4 - "creativity" based on Colossians 3:1-11
August 11 - "courage" based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40
August 18 - "honesty" based on Luke 12:49-56
August 25 - "compassion" - based on Luke 13:10-17
As you can see, these are thoroughly biblical sermons with references to mainly biblical superheroes and exclusively biblical superpowers.
The other thing that I heard is that some of you are under the impression that I am requiring everyone to wear superhero costumes or tee-shirts or that I might be wearing a cape on Sunday morning. Nope! This is mainly for the children and young at heart who might want to do something like that just to go along with the superpower theme of the summer. There will be nothing that is irreverent or disrespectful in worship.
If you have any questions about anything I have written, please don't hesitate to contact me about it. I'm looking forward to this Sunday and all future Sundays with my church flock!