Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What I've Learned From Church Planting, Part Two

One of the religious blogs that I follow, well, religiously, is the blog by Bob Hyatt, an evangelical church planter in Portland, Oregon. For those who think that all American evangelicals are all like James Dobson, you will be surprised. (But then, there are many types of evangelicalism out there.)

Bob is revisiting some old posts from 2006 and he talks about "Burger King Christianity," or trying to make church attractive to people. He writes:

...the goal is not to pack a room, and it's not the Pastor's job to get your friends saved. And shame on any pastor whose model allows people to think it is...The attractional model of church is perfectly designed to create consumers of church rather than covenant community... Give them (newcomers) the option/responsibilty of creating a community that makes sense to them, that works for them. Still individualistic? Sure... We're not saying that church should just be "This is what we offer- take it or leave it." But when we make allowances for individualism in healthy ways like creating open source community and allowing people to have a hand in shaping what happens, rather than the unhealthy ways of trying to figure out what it is people want and then working like crazy to give it to them, I think we end up creating more covenant communities and less consumers. And when we call people to create a community that not only works for them but for those around them as well...

When I think about Community of Grace, I think we worked too hard in trying to make CoG attractive and not about making a community and allowing people to have a role in fashioning this. It was there buzzing around in the back on my mind, but the whole jist and thrust was about getting butts in the seats.

I'm still thinking about this. More to come...

Monday, December 18, 2006

I Don't Know. Hallelujah!

I don't know if you heard this on Morning Edition this morning, but they had a wonderful essay on their This I Believe segment from Richard Rohr, a well-known Catholic priest, who decide to talk about his belief in mystery. Here's a snippet:

"...many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love
closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of "faith"!
How strange that the very word "faith" has come to mean its exact opposite.

How very true. You can read or hear the rest, here.

What I've Learned from Church Planting, Part One

Community of Grace is facing a crossroads of sorts. Attendance has fallen off significantly, and the leadership is just plain exhausted. We have decided to enter a time of discernment and see what happens in the next few months. If nothing changes by May 2007, we will make a decision to end the current form of ministry.

As that time draws near, I’ve wondered what things could have been done differently. I’ve been thinking that if I do this again, or even continue this is some other form, there are some things I would do that I didn’t do this time around.

Gather a group of committed people willing to help plant a church with you. When I started CoG back in 2004, I asked some people who were interested in starting a church and people did show up. However, many of them were not people who committed. That’s nothing against them, it was just this was something they were curious about, but not interested in doing this in the long term. I would spend some time finding people from all walks of life who are interested in planting a church. I wouldn’t only look for church going people, but even those who are curious and willing to stick it out in the long run.

The thing is, having more people that are church planters put less pressure on the pastor and make it a more community building event. Having to carry a church on your shoulders only leaves you tired.

Pray. Yeah, I know this sounds pretty pathetic, but I failed to spend a lot of time in prayer and I didn’t encourage those who were with me, like my co-pastor, to come together in prayer. Prayer isn’t some kind of magic, but it does keep us grounded in God and without it, you start to get really frustrated, really easily. And I did.

Have no other churches before you. Another problem is that I was still involved in another church, as was the co-pastor. It gave the idea that CoG was more a hobby than a real ministry. If I did this again, I would give up membership with my old church and focus on the new church.

Make sure to secure funds for the church. The fact that we had no way to pay staff hurt us. We relied on our denomination for money, but they could only give so much. It was also hard to get others to give, because many thought that was the denomination’s job. Evangelical churches can do a whole lot better in getting financial support. If I did this again, I would basically come up with some kind a spiel that would give people a vision and a way to latch on. A church staff does this for love of God, but they have to pay bills like everyone else.

Build community, NOT a church. One of my favorite verses is Acts 2:42-47. It talks about those first believers coming together as a community. That is what church should be: about building community. Too often we were focused on building a church, a place where people come and get a little God once a week and move on. A community is a place where we learn to be followers of Christ, not just on Sunday, but everyday. We needed to be a people who prayed together, worship together, study the word together and just be together. I’m not talking about a cult, but about trying to be the body of Christ.

Another related thing was that we were trying to do certain things that would draw people. If we used a projector…if we move to this location…if we meet at this time…all of this turned church into a commodity. We should have focused more on being the church.

That’s all I have for now, but I’m sure there are others. Stay tuned…

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sunday Sermon- Second Sunday in Advent, December 17, 2006

Oscar Romero.

I've been supply preaching the last two Sundays at a Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. Here's the sermon I gave there this morning:

“Not A Tame God, Part Two”
Luke 3: 7-18
December 17, 2006
Edgcumbe Presbyterian Church
St. Paul, MN

From the time I was about seven until maybe I was old enough to drive, my Dad would get me up at about 6am on a Saturday morning once a month to get to the barber shop before they opened around 7:30 or so. A line would form and Dad wanted to be among the first.

I hated doing this. Saturdays were for sleeping in and not trying to get to the barber shop before the other guy. However, we did it and maybe as a token of my patience, Dad would take me to breakfast where I would have pancakes.

I always got the same haircut; short, but not too close. For years, Dad would tell the barber what I wanted. I think when I got around 11 or 12, I started telling the barber what I wanted. Well, one Saturday, when I was about 13, I told the barber I wanted it cut short. So he went to work and I sat not paying attention. When he was done and spun me around, I was shocked; he had cut my hair really short. I mean were talking the next step was looking like Kojack. Now, these days, that is my standard haircut, but back then it wasn't and I thought I looked horrible. I remember just crying like crazy. Here it was, I wanted a little off the top; and I what I got was a buzzcut.

This got me thinking about today's passage; some people wanted a little off the top and John the Baptist was preaching a total buzzcut.

If you remember from last week, I said John the Baptist is not anyone's favorite Biblical character. He's rude and can't say anything nice and he certainly lives up to that in today's gospel, if you can it that. The passage opens with the crowds who were listening to John. Many in the crowd decided to come forward to be baptized. Now, I just celebrated the 30th anniversary of my baptism and I've learned that baptism is about being reminded of God's love for us. I don't think John was sitting in on my seminary class, because he calls those coming forward a “brood of vipers.” He tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance and to not rely on religious or family ties for salvation. He talks about an ax that is getting ready to cut down poor producing trees and throw them into the fire.

When was the last time you saw a preacher say that at a baptism? If they did, I can bet they didn't stay in the pulpit very long.

You know, in the past, when I have preached this sermon, I would have said that poor John was off his rocker. He was preaching a message of hell and damnation, a message of what my Lutheran friends like to say, “works-righteousness.” On the other hand, Jesus preached a message of grace. Of course, I said this because John's message is so harsh and seems mean-spirited. But these days, I'm beginning to think John was preaching a message of salvation and grace, but he reminds us this grace isn't cheap, but costly. John, like Jesus, was concerned with how we live. Yes, we are saved by grace not by works, but the eveidence of our faith relies on how we live. The best testimony of being a follower of Christ, is how we live our lives. Do we live them in the same way Jesus did, welcoming all, forgiving others and helping those in need?

A few weeks ago the election of a congressman caused a bit of a controversy. As many of you know, Keith Ellison was elected to fill the seat of Martin Sabo in the US Congress. Mr. Ellison will represent Minneapolis and some its suburbs in Congress and by doing so he is a trailblazer. He is the first African American from Minnesota to go to Washington and he is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. When Mr. Ellison was asked about taking the oath of office, he opined that he would take that oath on the Koran, the Muslim holy book. That seemed to be a no-brainer since many Christians who serve in Congress as well as the President and Vice President take their oaths on Bibles. However, this didn't set well with radio host Dennis Praeger. Mr. Praeger retorted in a column “Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.”

Okey dokey.

Mr. Praeger, who is Jewish by the way, seems to think that the only book any person in public office must take their oath on has to be the Bible. Now, personally, believing in the separation of church and state, I don't think that public servants should take the oath of any holy book, but if someone wants to and they are Muslim, why can't they take an oath on a book that means so much to them?

What distrubed me and many others was that Mr. Praeger seems to put the Bible in such high regard and yet ignores its message. Shouldn't he be more concerned with the biblical injunction of helping those in need or not putting anything, including the Bible before God as an idol?

I think if John was around today, he would probably be calling all of us snakes as well. There are too many people, especially Christians, who will shout loudly that they are religious, holy people and yet their actions say sharply otherwise.

That was what John was getting at. Simply believing that God loves us and then turning around and treating your neighbor like crap makes you out to be liar as John the writer says.

There are a lot of people out there who think that to be a Christian means accepting certain truths; Jesus is God's Son, Jesus died and rose again, Jesus is coming soon. If you believe that, then you are all set. But John seems to be saying that's not enough. Of course Christians must believe in all of this, but if those beliefs aren't lived on in our daily lives, are they real to others? If we say we believe in Christ, and yet ignore the poor, or turn people away because they are different, will people really believe us?

Christianity isn't just about accepting certain beliefs; it's also about living as a Christian. John the Baptist told those in the crowd to share with those who have none, don't extort and don't overtax the populace. He was telling people that if they were coming to be baptized; they need to live lives of repentance and not do this just for show.

I know that Edgcumbe is in the midst of trying figure out where to go from here. You have been a faithful community for over 50 years and you'd like to know what kind of community you want to be in the next 50 years. I know there are a lot of meetings and planning and questioning going on. Well, let me add one more question. When people pass this church, what should they see? Will they see a community that puts their faith into action, helping the less fortunate in St. Paul and around the world, one that welcomes the stranger, one that practices the love and compassion of Jesus? I know that this community has been concerned with the widow and the orphan in the short time I have known you. I pray that as you enter this time of discernment, that you continue this practice and seek God's guidence to be more and more God's people.

Advent is a reminder that we need to be stirred to live into God's way of justice. It is not simply the coming of a little baby, but the coming of God who not only saves us, but wants us to join the effort of bring heaven to whole of creation.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a concert by a local choral group. The designed it the style of a Lessons and Carols service. Between the songs we heard readings from Scripture and passages from poets and authors. One memorable passage was from the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. He summed up nicely what Advent is all about:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.

God isn't interested in shaving a little off the top. God wants us changed, to live lives for others.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sunday Sermon- Second Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2006

Not a Tame God, Part One”

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

December 10, 2006

Edgecumbe Presbyterian Church

St. Paul, MN

I have two cats. You'll hear about Felix next week, but this week I want to tell you about Morris. I've had Morris for about five years. He's a beautiful Russian Blue mix. If you've ever seen a Russian Blue cat, you will notice that they have this wonderful grey-blue fur that is just plush. Morris is a definitely a people-person; he loves to be loved and to give love. But, Morris has a dark side. I remember a time shortly after I brought him home from the shelter. He gets on his back, revealing his tummy. He obviously wants someone to run his stomach and he gives you that sweet, innocent look that is just so inviting. So, I started petting his stomach, when out of nowhere I see these two fangs heading towards me. Morris decided to bite me hard enough that I drew blood. I was not pleased.

Then there was the time I had a mouse in my old apartment. I had a recurring problem where the little visitors would end up in the cabinets. As I fretted about it, a friend suggested I open one of the cabinet doors and see what Morris does. So, I did just and that and the next morning, I got up and found a dead mouse; a little present for me.

Cats are cute. Because they look so cute with their fur and purrs, people tend to think these creatures are weak. In reality, the common housecat is a fierce predator not unlike their larger feline cousins. We are fooled by their appearance until they show their true nature.

In today's gospel, we are introduced to John the Baptist, or I should say the adult John the Baptist. Today's gospel doesn't say alot except that he was out proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. And yet it does say a lot. You see, he is the guy that we would not want to invite to our holiday party because he's so uncivil. He isn't polite, he's boorish, probably not playing with a full deck and just an all around jerk. We will find out next week his message of repentance isn't that easy for people to hear.

I don't like John the Baptist and I think there are a lot of you out there that might agree. This isn't a guy who plays well with others and you'd rather just ignore him.

He reminds me of one of those traveling preachers I would hear in the center triad during my college days at Michigan State University. The man would rant and rave about sin and the devil and basically provide a good laugh for the students making their way to the next class. Maybe some saw John the Baptist that way and ignored his message.

But the thing is, you can't ignore his message; not the folks back then and certainly not now. John is preparing us for God's entry into this world and when God arrives, valleys would be filled up, mountains would be made low and people would see that salvation comes from God. John is saying that God is coming and you better be ready, because the very foundations of the earth will be shaken with God arrives.

In popular culture, when we think of Christmas, we think of Jesus being born in a stable, and about shepherds and the Three Wise Men for good measure. We've all seen or participated in those Christmas pageants where the kids dress up as Bible characters and Jesus is usually portrayed by a doll. I sometimes think we want to make Jesus a lot like that doll; sweet, quiet and definitely harmless. Of course, in reality, Jesus' story is 180 degrees different from our quiet image. A ruling king is threatened by this small baby and proceeds to kill all male newborns under two in Bethlehem to make sure no one challenges his authority. This Jesus would grow up and confound his family, saying that whoever does his Father's will is his brother and sister. This Jesus would offend the religious authorities by associating with tax collectors and other sundry folk. He would overturn the tables of the money changers in the Temple. This man would then die the death of a theif, and just when you think everything is over, he confounds death by rising from the dead.

So John knew what he was talking about when he said that people need to get ready for Christ's coming. Valleys would be filled and mountains would be made low by his presence, so we need to be prepared. God's arrival is not a pleasant occasion, but an upheaval, that will demand we get ready and get right.

Our culture likes to skip those times of reflection. Some churches ignore Lent and Holy Week going straight to Easter. Good Friday becomes just a stopover to what happens Easter morning. We do the same with Advent. Advent is time of preparation; a time to take stock and wait for God. However, we skip that and go to the little baby born in a manger. When we do that, we miss why that little baby comes to earth in first place, because their are mountains and crooked roads blocking us from being with God. The sin, the injustice found in the world keeps us from communing with God. God comes to be with us, to save us, to redeem us through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Outside of the walls of this church today, there are many people dealing with mountains that seem to big to cross. Some are dealing with little resources to buy food and shelter. Some are dealing with the terrors of war. Some are being abused by someone who was supposed to take care of them. Some are dealing with those who opress them because they are different. There are mountains and valleys and crooked roads everywhere. This is what Advent reminds us. But this is also a time of hope, because we know that God is coming to bring down the mountains and make the crooked ways straight. We who follow Christ, must share that message with those who feel that all hope is gone. They must know that day of the Lord is surely coming and injustice will soon end.

So, I'm waiting until the end to tell about the meaning of my sermon title. Some of you might know where it comes from: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. When the children are first told about Aslan the Lion, they wonder if he is safe. One of their their hosts, the Mr. Beaver, responds, "Safe? Course he's not safe. He's good. But he's not a tame lion."

God is not a safe God. God comes and upsets us, disturbs us and saves us. God is good and wants to bring healing to the world. But get ready for a bumpy ride.

We are not done talking about this disturbing God. Stay tuned. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Face of Christ?

Congresswoman-elect Michelle Bachman.

On Saturday evening, I went to a concert by a choral group that my partner, Daniel is in. It was structured in the style of a Lessons and Carols serivce, with songs interspersed with readings from Scripture and writers. One reading was from the Bishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran priest that was assinated in the early 80's. He describes what Advent is all about:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.

I think it's a powerful statement, especially in this time when those who call themselves Christians are working hard to not be Christ-like to those who are gay. But, in some way, that's too easy for some of us. I mean, for those of us who work for justice by feeding the hungry or practicing radical welcome to agree with this and even think we are sitting damn pretty in God's eyes. We love those who are different and welcome them into our lives. We are not like those horrible people who don't help the less fortunate, or practice hospitality to those who don't look like ther rest of us.

But the thing is, we are not simply called to see Christ in the poor single mother, or the young gay man, we are also called to see Christ in those who are...well, assholes.

Here in Minnesota, a woman has been elected to Congress that is not loved by many in this state. Here name is Michelle Bachmann and she's made quite a name for herself as a state senator. For several years, she has tried to put forth a bill that would put the definition of marriage up for a vote in a referendum. If that passed, same-sex marriage and its equivalents would be banned (no matter that there is already a law that bans gay marriage). Luckily, the bills were bottled up serval times and never been voted on by Minnesotans.

Needless to say, she hasn't made many friends among the gay community and their allies and rightly so. She has been called many things, none of them kind.

I don't like Ms. Bachman. I think she is a mean and spiteful person and I don't understand why she is now becoming a congressperson. But the fact is, Christ died for her. She is loved by God and as a follower of Christ, I am called to love her.

In the Bible, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. It's funny how often I hear about that verse and how people hurl it towards others, but how seldom it's followed. When Jesus uttered those words during the Sermon on the Mount, you have to wonder if people were offended by his words. Jesus was asking the people there, most of them Jews, to love their Roman oppressors. That would be a hard thing to hear, something that seemed almost callous. How could they love the Romans?

How could I love Michelle Bachman? It's not easy, but I think I am called to. That's what a follower of Christ does. That doesn't mean I will ignore her actions, but it does mean that I see her as a child of God and respond in love.

During Advent, we talk a lot about Christ becoming incarnate, or becoming flesh and blood and living among us. I sometimes think we really don't understand the full implications of that. We like to talk about Christ becoming a sweet baby or that Christ came to the poor (we tend to romanticize the poor, instead of seeing them as humans just like everybody else). We make Christ kind of sweet and nice and pitched his tent with these nice people. It's kinda like Christ joined the PTA or something. Christ becomes incarnate with a buch a of nice people, but not those mean and nasty homophobes or racists or gasp...Republicans.

But the fact is Incarnation means Christ became one with a humanity that was corrupt and dark. A man who knew no sin made his way on earth with some truly bad people. Christ did this because God loved all of creation, even the rotten apples, which would be all of us in reality.

So, I'm going to love Michele Bachman knowing she has the face of Christ. Yes, I work against her actions which harms people, but I will also see her as a child of God and pray for her salvation.

"For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," says Paul in his letter to the Romans. I'm not perfect. I fall short. The glorious fact is the Christ came and saved me, and not just me, but all of creation.

Michele Bachman, child of God. May you love as Christ love and may I as well. Amen.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Midnight is When the Day Begins." Sunday Sermon- First Sunday in Advent, 2006

“Stir It Up!”
Luke 21:25-36
December 3, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

This week has been hell.

Not a good way to start a sermon, I know, but I need to be honest, this week has been sheer hell for me. It's not been a bad week event wise per se, unless you count the apparent death of my iPod because it went plop into my cat Felix's water dish. But emotionally, it has been damn hard. It took a lot of energy to finally get excited enough to plan today's sermon.

What was the source of my unhappiness? It was being the pastor of a new church. We haven't been able to get new people to come, and it sometimes seems like we can't get other churches to help us grow and prosper. We are coming to a time when we may have to close the ministry. If that's not bad enough, you start to wonder if you did something wrong to cause all this. It doesn't help that I suffer from clincal depression, so when I get down, I really get down. I feel like I'm in a deep valley with now way of getting out. There is no chance of hope.

We really don't live in very hopeful times. Take a look at the news today and you will see the headlines filled with dire news. The signs of global warming are becoming more evident daily and will wreak havoc on the earth's climate for our future ancestors. HIV/AIDS is still rampaging the planet, especially among some of the world's poorest people in places like South Africa or Uganda. Iraqis and American soliders live in daily fear of a car bomb going off while they are at the market or going to worship. The opening years of 21st century seem very bleak and we wonder what kind of world we are going to leave for the children who follow behind us.

Today's gospel text is doesn't seem like an Advent text. Here we are, waiting for Christ's coming into the world, and Jesus decides to take a page from “Left Behind.”

The thing is, I think Jesus was right. He talks about a time that is very dark, indeed. Jesus isn't trying to be cute, he is being realistic. Bad times were on their way, if not already here. In Jesus time, the Jews were dealing with Roman occupation. There is not much hope here. When Jesus talks about being weighed down, I can relate. Depression in many ways is like a weight that is pressed on your heart and you can't see that there is any tomorrow at all.

And yet, there is hope. There is hope in the midst of this darkness, just as the Winter Soltice tells us that that the days are getting longer. In this text, he says that the Son of Man is coming and that creation's redemption is near. That Son of Man is Jesus himself. His coming into the world bring us hope and not just that, it bring us salvation, healing.

The birth of Christ changed everything. This was proof positive that God was not against us, but with us and walked among us. Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are redeemed and when Christ returns we will be made new.

This is the hope that we have. It's the thing that keeps us going; the fact that Christ made us whole before we were born, is prefecting us now and will redeem us on that final day.

Since cold weather is up on us, this is the time of year that I start making chili. One of things I've noticed is that if I leave the chili to cook, all the indredients will settle to the bottom. On the surface, it looks like I'm cooking a big pot of tomato soup. So, of course, I get the spoon out and start stirring things up and lo and behold, all the ground beef, chopped tomatoes and onions end up on the top. Before, the soup was weighed down, after I stirred things up, the chili was alive with color and textures.

You've noticed that the theme for Advent is “Stir Up Your Power, Lord Christ and Come.” Advent is a time to remind us to be watchful for Christ's coming into the world. We are stirred out of our boredom and fear and in it's place given hope. We are stirred to share this message with a world that doesn't have much hope at all, especially at this time of the year. We are called to stir up the hearts of those facing the first holiday season without a loved one, to stir up those who are facing unemployment, to stir up those who are dealing with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, to stir up those who are facing a cold night with no place to call home. We are called to share this message of hope in word and in deed.

That is what we, this small community called Community of Grace, must do. We must go out and share that message of hope with others. Tell them about hope. Tell them that God is with them and show that by befriending them. I want people to know that Community of Grace is a place where we share hope with a world that doesn't have much hope.

A few years ago, the Irish rock group, U2 released a song called “Lemon.” This is one of the few songs, where the lead guitarist, the Edge, actually sings. During one part of the song, while lead singer Bono is singing in a falsetto voice, the Edge sings, “midnight is when the day begins.” Wow. How true that is. Midnight is the darkest of the dark and yet it is the beginning of the day. In a few hours daybreak comes.

We all deal with our dark times. And yet, hope is on its way. It doesn't mean the problems will go away, but we know that God is with us, there to hold us and remind us that he will be with us for always.

Midnight is when the day begins. Thanks be to God. Amen.