Powerless Preacher, Powerful Word

I think every preacher worth more than his salt has a memory chest full of moments like mine from this past Sunday.  It had been a tight week, the sermon had puzzled me all week, and when it was finally together, I wasn’t particularly pleased with it. I never really came to a sermon structure I particularly liked, and the sermon teetered between being too simplistic and useless and overly dramatic and bullyish. It was a tricky sermon to get out, partly because the text (Luke 6:27-36) is so raw that it seemed to be defying me to do anything but read it slowly.  It didn’t want to be massaged or tweaked, it just wanted me to listen to it.

Anyway, whatever the cases for my unease, I just didn’t feel like I had my A-game that day.  I just wasn’t feeling great about what I had put together.

But nonetheless, people were, in that instance still able to hear the Word of God in the sermon moment.  I felt like I was at my least effective moment, but the effect of the word was clearly felt by many in the church.

Look, count me among the people that gets a little gagged when I hear things like “God really showed up!” when we talk about stuff like this.  I usually don’t like it because it feels really trite and cutesy.  I’m not a robot, but I just don’t like that kind of emotional stuff.  It’s probably because I really value intentionality and control.

But this past week was one in which I really did feel as though the power of the word of God was functioning in a powerful way in our community, regardless of my performance.  For someone that flirts with hubris, that’s a good thing.  (I have a website with my name in the domain, people.  I’m more vain than I should be. If I didn’t realize I had arrogance issues, that would be an issue.) It’s a good thing to realize that preaching, even when I am practicing my craft well, isn’t really about how well I perform.  Preaching is about how honest I am with the word, and how well people hear the word. So, this week I want to do the best I can, but I know that the best part of the sermon won’t be some cute saying I made up with or any smoking hot exegesis.  It’ll be in the moments with the Word, when we simply listen together to the Word.

That’s where the power is.  That’s where the power has always been.

The Other Beatitudes—A Sermon from Luke 6:20-26

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  Unfortunately, if I got up this morning and started reading, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who [yawn] mourn, for they will be…”, it wouldn’t be long before I’d see your eyes glaze over, and we’d have to have a coffee break for everybody to stay awake for the rest of the sermon.

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  It is familiar, beautiful, and powerful.  It is full of language that is burned into our conscious consciences, a part of our ethical core as disciples.  And it should be well known!  It is, after all, the living and powerful word of God! It deserves a place in our ethical core!  But unfortunately, like is often the case, familiarity breeds contempt. In our familiarity with the Sermon on the mount, we have lost something of our ability to really listen to what it really says.

But, what if the sermon on the mount had a little brother?  I have a couple of little brothers.  They’re both tough as nails.  They don’t mess around much, say what they mean and mean what they say.  To top it off, they’re stubborn as all get out.  If you can get that mental image in your head—the little brother, fists up, ready to get nasty if need be—I’d like to introduce you to the little brother of the sermon on the mount.  It’s name is “the Sermon on the Plain”, and it waits for us in the middle of Luke 6. (The sermon doesn’t even get its own chapter!  It shows up here just after Jesus has named his twelve apostles.  It almost seems to function as their introduction into what being a disciple of Jesus is really going to be about.)

The Sermon on the Plain is really a distilled version of the sermon on the mount.  They have a lot in common, but the sermon on the plain is shorter, tougher, punchier.  Maybe it’s just because it is less familiar that it feels a little more stubborn and unrelenting than its big brother does.  But instead of talking about it too much in generalities, let me show you what I mean, and let’s read a little bit of it together.  It starts out with a set of beatitudes, just like the sermon in Matthew.  They read a little bit differently, though.  We’ll start in Luke 6:20. These are the “other beatitudes’.

And He lifted his eyes to his disciples and said, “Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry now, because you will be filled.  Blessed are those who are crying now, because you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you and when they exclude you and insult you and throw out your name as something evil because of the son of man. Rejoice in that day and jump for joy! Because, listen—your reward in heaven will be greater, because their ancestors did the same sorts of things to the prophets.

On the other hand, [this might be a good time to pull your toes in] cursed are you who are rich, because you have received every bit of your comfort. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will go hungry. Cursed are you who laugh now, because you will mourn and cry. Cursed are you when everyone says good things about you; because that’s how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

I find these “other beatitudes” to be intense, raw, and inescapable. I look into them, and I easily see myself.  Unfortunately, I see myself on the wrong side, not among those who are blessed, but among the cursed.  Jesus paints two pictures.  One is of a group of people who are poor, hungry, saddened.  They are outsiders, and everyone talks and thinks badly of them. Jesus looks at that group and says—you are blessed! In his eyes, they’re the lucky ones!

and then there is another group.  They are rich.  They have full bellies.  They are happy and laughing, and everybody likes them because they’re easy to get along with.  Doggone it, that’s a pretty good picture of just the kind of guy I’ve wanted to become my whole life.  Isn’t that just a cup of cold water to the face?  The very kind of person I’ve spent my whole life—Jesus says they’re cursed.  He looks at them and says, “Man.  Gotta feel sorry for you guys.”

This set of beatitudes says that in Jesus’ eyes, the reality of the world is the opposite of everything I’ve ever known.  He takes all my assumptions about the world, and politely blows them to pieces.

Anybody else bothered by that?

If we’re really reading it, we’re bothered by it.  It’s so unrelenting and demanding.  It’s so physical that it won’t let me spiritualize it and shoo it away.  no “poor in spirit” here.  It’s the poor that are blessed.  No hungering for righteousness in this sermon, only the really physical feeling of hunger that comes from not having enough food to eat.

Faced with such a demanding text, I think two options present themselves.  “Option 1” is that we take these simple sayings and tease them out, dissect them down, gradually interpreting them in ways that dull their sting a little bit.  In option 1, we interpret them away, and I have to admit that this is a pretty compelling path.  I would love to do that, to employ whatever sophisticated exegesis and interpretation methods might promise to soften the blow a bit.  I wish I could take these things that Jesus says and turn them into what I think he should say.  I would love to somehow transform these beatitudes and woes into something interesting.  But they aren’t that, are they?  Not on their own.  This text isn’t interesting—its dangerous.  It is sharply critical of my vision of my very life.

Option 1 is to interpret them away.  In Option 2, we let them interpret us. What if we could let these words diagnose us?  What if I could let them shape me into the kind of person that Jesus admires? What if I could let them really challenge my idea of what the good life is really all about, and provoke me into letting Jesus teach me about his way of life, his vision of life.

This week, sometime when you’re by yourself in front of a mirror, I want to ask you to take a few moments and let these other beatitudes challenge you with a couple of questions.  Stop and look, literally, into your own eyes and ask yourself a few questions.

First, “Who am I becoming?” What kinds of things characterize who you are, both inside and out.  What dominates your life?.

Second, and more interesting, “Who gets to decide who I am becoming?” Looking at where you’re headed is a good start, but for people who claim to be disciples of Jesus, a more basic question is whether or not we are really letting him determine the vision for our lives.  The guy who said these beatitudes is really painting a radical vision, but am I willing to let that vision really affect me.  Drive me?

Finally, “What about everybody else?” It’s not just about me. These beatitudes not only change the way I see myself, but the way I look at almost everyone I see.  People aren’t good or bad, lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed in the same ways I normally think about it.  My ideas of status and value just don’t hold up in the face of these beatitudes.  But, it’s not my ideas of value that really matter anyway.  It’s what Jesus values that really matters.  After all, he is the master.  I am the student.

I’ve got a lot to learn.

(Audio version here: The Plain Beatitudes. This is part one of this series.)

Sermon on the Plain—Cedar Lane Edition

This past Sunday’s sermon was our introductory foray into the sermon on the plain, an extremely distilled dose of Jesus’ vision of what his disciples are like. Part of the challenge of this past week’s sermon was to get in a mirror, eyeball to eyeball with ourselves, and think about three questions:
1. Who am I becoming?
2. Who decides who I become?
3. How does Jesus’ message change the way I see other people?

I shot a little video of some Cedar lane folks reading through Jesus’ sermon on the plain, as a way of helping us hear it.  I want to invite you to settle in, hear these words, and spend some time meditating on those questions. May God bless the hearing of his word.

The Call – A Sermon from Exodus 3

(This is part two of the Exodus Sermon Series.  The Sermon audio for the series is here.)

Today, we move in our series on Exodus to a well known section, the appearance of God to Moses in a burning bush.

Exodus opens with the birth of Moses, and the stories of his early life are full of promise, perhaps even destiny.  His mother defies her oppressors in the act of saving his life.  She claims the opportunity to raise as her own, but shrewdly creates the opportunity for him to live and learn as part of the Egyptian aristocracy.  Early on he rejects the safety of his social situation to identify with his oppressed people. He interjects himself to fight injustice against them and between them, but is forced to flee when his own people reject his authority and reveal his vigilante actions.

As our story this week opens, Moses has been living in Midian as a fugitive from a crime committed forty years ago in Egypt.  He’s started a new family, gotten a new job, a new life. He still lives in a measure of fear, fear that his past will catch up with him.  Instead, in this story, Moses is forced not to confront his past, but his future.

Here, at the burning bush, God beckons Moses to join him in an outlandish mission.  God shares his own mind with Moses, the Lord reveals his plans and vision of the future, and even his very name.

It is profound that God’s identity is revealed in this story of calling. It is in the context of this story, where God calls Moses to join him in plan of redemption and deliverance, that the Lord reveals his personal name. It is when God acts that we discover what he is to be called, who he is.  This is a story about identity.

But it’s not just the Lord whose identity is revealed in this story.  This is the definitive story in the life of Moses, the moment in which his identity must forever be determined.  It is the most important question he will ever face: how will he respond to the call of God? From this moment on, his life will not be defined by the promise of his early life, his status as a fugitive or failed advocate for justice. His role as a shepherd or even his identity as son, husband, or father will ultimately take a backseat to what is decided this day, this confrontation with a God who demands his future. Whether or not he obeys God’s call will determine Moses’ identity forever.  Much depends on this encounter.

In chapter 3, God reveals to Moses what God is going to do.  The conversation between Moses and God begins with God making this announcement (Ex. 3:7-8):

I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Caananites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

God reveals to Moses what God is going to.  There is no doubt who is taking action here.  The Exodus will be God-powered. The exodus is not to be an act of Moses’ strength or will, but God’s. God declares, “I have come down to deliver them.” Of course, it must be this way. Who else but God could stand against Pharaoh? Who else but God could command the powers that are to definitively defeat the armies of Egypt? Moses had already tried his own at bringing justice, years ago, and failed.

Perhaps it is for this very reason that it is so surprising that God immediately follows his declaration that “I have come down” with the stunning bid to Moses in verse 10, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” The God-powered Exodus depends on Moses.

It is a demonstration of Gods power, but God freely chooses to invite Moses to participate.  God makes Moses what he could not become on his own, a deliverer, a force of justice and redemption. The Lord chooses to act through Moses.  It’s an incredible affirmation, but not an unusual one. Lord chooses to act through Moses, just like later he will choose to act through Joshua, Gideon, David, Saul, Elijah, Peter, James, Paul, Epaphras and Timothy.  Just like he chooses to act through you and me.

“But, wait a minute,” you say. “Isn’t that stretching things a bit?  After all, this is Moses we’re talking about here. Don’t you think the call of Moses is a different deal, an exceptional occasion? Perhaps, but you have to realize:

The call of Moses is not the call of Moses.

Confused? Fair enough.  But think about it: is it just Moses that is called here to participate in God’s plans? Aaron, too, but that’s the easy one. After all, he’s the one God tells Moses to take with him when he makes his demands to Pharaoh. But is he the only one?

What about in the elders of Israel? Here at the burning bush, in 3:18, notice that Moses isn’t going straight to Pharaoh, but to these elders, and then they’re all going to go together to meet with Pharaoh.  What about Joshua, who becomes Moses’ assistant and successor? What about Hur, who along with Aaron holds up Moses’ hands while Joshua fights the Amalekites in Chapter 17? What about those are selected as judges over the people in Chapter 18? What about Bezalel or Oholiab, who end up being in charge of the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, or the Levites who are charged with taking care of it? What about the scores of men and women who contribute to building the Tabernacle, or the entire nation that gave generously for the project?

Moses is just the first domino.  He’s the one God speaks to first, but the call of Moses is not just the call of Moses.

The call of Moses is the call of all Israel.

And so it often is with us.  Somebody begins to hear and act on the word of God, begins to respond to their calling, and sometimes it turns out that others join in and discover their own calling there as well.

[The following is very congregation-specific.

As part of encouraging that process, we want to have a forum to have some of those conversations, so on

July 18 we’re going to have an event called “Outreach Sunday”. The whole idea behind it is the recognition that Your calling may not be just for you.

Here’s how it’s going to work.  After class on that Sunday, we’re going to gather for a potluck in the gym. Around the gym, we’re going to set up some booths, tables where people can share in some of the ways they’ve become involved in outreach ministries, and perhaps share some opportunities for you to come alongside and join them in that effort.  I’m very excited about the possibilities of what can happen when we dedicate this time to listening to the ways God has already started to move us into action here at Cedar Lane.

Here’s what we need to pull this thing off:

We need people willing to share their calling and their food.

We need people willing to pay attention.

Paying attention is really critical to this event, and truthfully, it’s critical to our episode with Moses as well.  ]

In the version of this story that is in most of our heads, I think this whole thing starts when God’s booming voice calls out, “Moses, Moses”.  However, notice how particular the text is in how the story actually unfolds in 3:2-4.

“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.”

Often I wonder, what would have happen if Moses had just turned the other way. I wonder if this was the first time it had been there, or if maybe the bush had been in these familiar grazing grounds for a long time, but this was the time Moses finally got up the courage to check in out.  Doesn’t it seem like the Lord waits for him to investigate t before speaking to him in a clear voice?

But what if Moses had just said, “Whoa, that’s scary!” and hurried back home, or “This bush makes me feel uncomfortable.” What if Moses said, “I’m not comfortable with the difference between this bush’s culture and mine?” Okay, that last one’s unlikely — for Moses.

But for us, I think we come up with all kinds of reasons to turn away from burning bushes, those places where if we stopped and looked for a moment, we would easily hear the voice of God calling us to serve.  The truth is, our world, our community, is full of burning bushes, waiting to be recognized. But we have to learn to pay attention to burning bushes.

This sermon started with the concept of Identity. This is a story that reveals god to be an acting God, a calling God.  It is the episode that brings Moses into the action, forever shaping his identity.  It can do the same to us, if we listen.

A Note about Sermon Manuscripts

I’m going to publish sermon manuscripts here from time to time, and I wanted to say a little bit of how the manuscript functions for me.  It is rarely a word-for-word version of what actually gets delivered from the pulpit, but its part of my preparation cycle when I’m taking the parts of thesermon and working out how they might fit together, how they might sound.  It gives me a chance to tweak the sermon structure and do some word-smithing with particular parts of the sermon.  It’s a part of crystalizing the sermon itself, part of the discipline of preparation, but I don’t usually think of the manuscript as the final version.  and it might sound like a weird nuance, but I want to be clear that between the manuscript and the actual spoken word event, the real sermon is the latter.  The manuscript is a written document reflecting the sermon, the sermon itself is a spoken word.  I think they are both useful, although not exactly the same thing.

I welcome any feedback on either versions of the sermons I intend to post here. As with any post, if there’s an element in the sermon that leads you to another though, please share in the comments.  The more voices, the better!

Cry Out – A Sermon from Exodus 2:23-25

(This is the first in the Exodus Sermon series. The audio for the entire series is here.)

Israel was indeed a nation born of promises.  It was an entire nation that traced its lineage back to one man, Abraham, a man who had received an outlandish set of promises from God.

At the beginning of Exodus, though, it seems as though those promises were merely empty words.  We find Israel, who had been promised Canaan as a homeland, living as slaves in Egypt.  How they got there was simple enough to explain. A long time ago there was a famine in Canaan, and the only place to get food was in Egypt, so, to Egypt they went.  They stayed there until the famine passed, and went it did they decided they liked it well enough, and stuck around. Why not, right? They were comfortable, they were provided for, and after a few decades, they were as at home in Egypt as they had ever been in Canaan anyways.

Eventually, though, they fell prey to the fears of the powerful in Egypt. To prevent them from becoming a threat, a Pharaoh enslaved them, using them to build his own wealth and power. And so, their not-homeland became a home of oppression for them, one in which they lived without dignity, humanity, or possibility. Even Moses, the man who is to be God’s instrument of deliverance, sees no other way.  He is willing to fight the injustice himself, and he does but, he is quickly forced to recognize that he is no match for the injustice his kinsmen face, and he flees.  While in exile, he starts a family and gives his child a most telling name, Gershom, saying that this name was because  “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

Do you see what’s off key there?  Doesn’t it sound like Moses has bought into his current situation as an exile from his real home, which he seems to think is back in Egypt.  See, that’s part of the problem.  Israel was too at home in Egypt.  It becomes clearer and clearer as the story goes on that while Israel didn’t really want to be slaves, they also didn’t want to leave Egypt.  They really don’t even understand how extensive, how radical, God’s deliverance would be.  His actions in the Exodus would completely redeem and redefine Israel.

The Exodus is a story of complete and utter redemption, God’s way.  It is the story of how God responded to the cries of his people, how he called out an unlikely leader to help him utterly defeat the forces that were against his people.  It’s a story of how The same God who collides with the powers of Egypt brings his people into covenant with himself, for the sake of living in community with him.  It is a rich story, and over the next five weeks we’re going to see how this remarkable story of redemption can redefine us, just as it did Israel.

[Let us pray together.]

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel-and God knew.

-Exodus 2:23-25

This is the true beginning of the Exodus story.  While it seems clear enough that God was behind the earlier story of Moses’ birth, the text makes it abundantly clear that it is the crying out of Israel that triggers the Exodus event. In the next chapter, Moses is twice told that God is acting because he has heard the cry of Israel.  Later on, in chapter six, after being initially rebuffed by Pharaoh, Moses is told again, “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel, whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.”

Israel had become too at home in Egypt, and had disregarded their identity as people to whom God had made incredible promises.  They had become complacent, had fallen asleep.  But when their suffering became unbearable, when they could no longer stomach the status quo, they cried out to God.  And while it may be that they really didn’t know exactly what they were asking for, the simple act of their crying out to God provoked the Lord to action.  It signals to the Lord a crack in their complacency, a readiness for redemption. Their cry means that they are stirring from their slumber.  Crying out is waking up.

It means waking up to all the things around us that shouldn’t be tolerable, but have become so.  It means waking up to our own sins, to our own limitations.  It means realizing that we are not at home in Egypt, that things aren’t just fine, that things must change.

As we begin this journey together, I want to simply ask you to cry out to God with me. Let us cry out to God that, even though we don’t yet know what needs to change around and within us, we are indeed desperate for his intervention, and we rely on his redemption.  Let us cry out, not just in this moment, but habitually, as we continually encourage each other to abandon the things that would enslave us, to prepare ourselves for God’s redemption and redefinition.  Let us be a people that cries out to God. Let us be a community that is always waking up.

We can do this, because crying out doesn’t require much of us.  It doesn’t require us to be courageous or wise, pure or particularly holy.  We don’t have to be smart, or eloquent. Crying out only requires one thing of us, honesty.  Our cry to God, just like Israel’s, flows from an honest assessment of who we are before God.  It requires us to be hints about our flaws and weaknesses, about our limits and sins.  When we cry out we confess ourselves, we confess who we are and what we cannot do on our own.  And so, it requires us to be honest with ourselves as we speak to the one who already knows the truth about us anyway.

We may take that honest cry to God, knowing that we cry out to a listening God. Exodus affirms that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God of action, who responds to the cries of his children.

And lest we think that God only hears the cries of his people, that he only acts here because it is actually Israel, let me share with you another passage, Isaiah 19. Isaiah will not allow us to think about God’s listening ear in exclusive terms.  Like Jonah, Isaiah blows open the limits of God’s attention and care.  Speaking of Egypt, Isaiah writes, “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them.” The Lord will hear and respond to the cries of even the enemies of the Lord’s people, the original oppressors themselves, the Egyptians! Don’t be afraid that you are too far gone, to distant from God, that he can’t or won’t hear your cry to him.  The Lord is a listening God, and is ready to respond, even to Egypt, even to you and me.

One more thing.  Everything I’ve said before assumes that when we read the story, we identify most with the part played by Israel.  But what if, in reality, we actually are best represented by the Egyptians? Maybe not Pharaoh, or even actual slave drivers, but just run of the mill Egyptians.  Innocent of direct oppression, they are complicit with the system, and destined for the same destruction as Pharaoh. What if we, who are used to being on the top of the world’s power structures, are more like these Egyptians than we are God’s oppressed people?

It’s a horrible, offensive thought, isn’t it? But the more I think of it, there is really only one way to be sure. If we don’t want to be like the Egyptians, we have to learn to be like God. And this story gives us a clear picture of one important way to become more godly.

If we want to be like God, we have to learn to listen like God. We have to be willing to stop and hear the voices of hurting people, the voices of people who cry out against all the things which oppress them, to the things that enslave them.  The God we serve is an attentive God. This texts affirms that God does in fact hear, he does in fact care, and he does respond! This simple fundamental fact is one of the first places we must meet God if we truly wish to be a people like him, who model our lives after him. We know we have to listen to God, but have we not learned to listen like God? We must hear people, give attention to people, be willing to respond to the needs of people.  We must work to hear what he hears.

And so, let us all cry out to God.  Let us cry out for our own redemption.  Let us cry out on behalf of those around us who need redemption, and let us cry out that we may have open ears to the cries of those suffering around us.  Amen.

(Please feel free to comment, or see this note about sermon manuscripts)