Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Sermon for June 3, 2007

How Far Will You Go?
2 Corinthians 4; 1 Samuel 17

Have you met Goliath? Goliath is that immense giant of an obstacle that seems unbeatable and impossible to defeat. Goliath is that one huge problem that just might be your undoing -- a difficulty so great that it has you entertaining the thought that you are close to giving up.

Have you met Goliath? Perhaps you have met him in the past. Or maybe Goliath is troubling you even now. Sooner or later all of us have to face the giant. Maybe it is a giant sickness that threatens life, or a giant wound that festers in a broken heart. Maybe it’s a giant wedge in a relationship that keeps you trapped in lonely silence. Maybe it’s a giant amount of work that stands between you and your dreams, or a giant injustice you have to confront The question is: how do you respond? Are you going to give up the call to live as a person of faith and let Goliath win, or are you going to take a stand?

Have you met Goliath – the enemy who robs your life of hope and joy? 1 Samuel 17 contains some ideas we can use to confront and overcome giants. There can be power in this story if we can let it play out on the backdrop of our imagination. As you listen to the story, imagine Goliath as a symbol of the giants you face.

Setting the Scene
For most of his life, King Saul of Israel had been fighting for every inch of the Promised Land. Even though the land was “Promised,” it did not come easy. Most promised lands are that way - we have to work and struggle for them. Lately, the Philistines had been gaining the upper hand. King Saul grew old and weary and the battles with the Philistines had taken a turn for the worse. The Philistines unveiled their “secret weapon” - a nine foot nine inch giant named Goliath. Every day, this powerful, fearsome gargantuan taunted the Israelites, issuing a challenge that had King Saul’s army cringing behind their shields. There wasn’t a soldier in the camp who wanted to take on Goliath. Fear and despair took hold in the camp and ate away the courage of every soldier. Each day Goliath looked bigger and King Saul’s army felt smaller. On one particular day, Goliath began shouting insults to the soldiers of Israel and he challenged them to a fight. Let’s pick up the story in 1 Samuel 17:8-11.

Goliath stood and bellowed to the ranks of Israel, “Why bother using your whole army? Am I not Philistine enough for you? And you’re all committed to Saul, aren’t you? So pick your best fighter and pit him against me. If he gets the upper hand and kills me, the Philistines will all become your slaves. But if I get the upper hand and kill him, you’ll all become our slaves and serve us. I challenge the troops of Israel this day. Give me a man. Let us fight it out together!” When Saul and his troops heard the Philistine's challenge, they were terrified and lost all hope.

After hearing these threats, an adolescent shepherd boy named David looked around and asked, “Who is this person who is insulting the armies of God?” You see, David wasn’t afraid of the Philistine giant.

King Saul sent for David and this is the conversation they had:
David said to Saul, “Don’t give up hope, King. I’m ready to go and fight this Philistine.” Saul replied, “You can't go and fight this Philistine. You're too young and inexperienced—and he's been at this fighting business since before you were born.” But David said to Saul, “I've been a shepherd, tending sheep for my father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I'd go after it, knock it down, and rescue the lamb. If it turned on me, I'd grab it by the throat, wring its neck, and kill it. Lion or bear, it made no difference—I killed it. And I'll do the same to this Philistine who is taunting the troops of the Lord. GOD, who delivered me from the teeth of the lion and the claws of the bear, will deliver me from this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you” (1 Samuel 17:32-37).

Instead of putting on armor and a sword, David chose to dress casually, carrying only a sling in his hand, with five smooth stones that he collected from the stream. He was ready for war.

Listen to what David said when he confronted Goliath:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down. Today I will serve up the carcasses of the Philistine army to the crows and coyotes, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and God will give all of you into our hands” (vs. 45-47).

David took out a stone, and slung it and it struck Goliath on the forehead and killed him. The young, weak boy defeated his Goliath.

Goliath is going to stand before you in life. And not just once. When one conflict is over, another will come. Goliath will stand in your way and mock you. I need you to know something. When Goliath stands in your way, GOD will never leave you. When David fought Goliath, he didn’t put his trust in the standard resources of war. David believed that God would defeat Goliath. If David had bought into the standard thinking, he would have been killed.

When we come to those times of confrontation with Goliath, our first line of defense is our relationship with God. We must trust in God’s matter what others may consider the best way out of our difficulties. No matter what giants we may be facing, our problems can be solved by using the tools God has given us to defeat giants. God gives us five smooth stones.

What are your five smooth stones? What resources has God given you to fight Goliaths? I’ll tell you mine with one reservation. I don’t want you to assume that my resources will work for you. Yours may be different. Or, you might find that these work for you . . .
1. The stone of trust - trust not in my own power, not in the world’s weapons, but in God.
2. The stone of calling. When I get discouraged, I take time to reflect on my call to ministry. God chose me for a special purpose, in this special time and place. No one else gets to define that calling. It comes from God. I was given a distinctive Christian identity in the waters of baptism. God nurtures my identity at the Communion Table, and God continues to direct my steps.
3. The stone of outrageous hope - Emily Dickinson got it right when she wrote that hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.
4. The stone of courageous confrontation - understanding, studying analyzing discussing debating isn’t enough. There comes a time when courageous action is called for – a decisive moment when we take our stand.
5. The stone of contagious creativity. We are created to be co-creators with God. Being in touch with me creativity helps me come up with ways to face the giants

A PBS program on the Library of Congress some time ago revealed something very interesting about one of our former Presidents. Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress, brought out a little blue box from a small closet that once held the library’s rarities. The label on the box read: CONTENTS OF THE PRESIDENT’S POCKETS ON THE NIGHT OF APRIL 14, 1865. April 14, 1865 was the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. There were five things in the box: A handkerchief, embroidered “A. Lincoln,” a country boy’s pen knife, a spectacles case repaired with string, a purse containing a Confederate $5 bill and some old and worn newspaper clippings

The clippings were concerned with the great deeds of Abraham Lincoln. And one of them actually reports a speech by John Bright proclaiming Abraham Lincoln as “one of the greatest men of all times.” Today that’s a common assumption. It wasn’t common knowledge then. In fact, Lincoln had more than a few critics during that time. He received an overwhelming amount of discouragement and ridicule. Lincoln carried around with him a few clippings from a few people who just happened to believe that he was not a failure.

Here are Lincoln’s five smooth stones. A few clippings in his pocket to remind him of who he was and what he could do. What are your five smooth stones when you face the giants?

God does not leave us to face challenges alone without something to help us. That’s why The Apostle Paul can say what he did in our first scripture reading: We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best! We’re not keeping this quiet, not on your life . . . We’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever (The Message).

Friday, June 1, 2007

Sermon for Pentecost, 2007

Life in the Spirit
Acts 2:1-21

When Chelsea Cawley sets her tongue on fire, people watch with rapt attention. Holding a small, homemade torch in each hand, the 26-year-old opens her mouth wide and touches the end of one torch lightly to her tongue, blotting it with a coating of fuel. With the torch in the other hand, she sets her tongue ablaze and sticks the flaming appendage out as far as she can. Some people in the audience scream, others cheer her on, but the majority just watch, spellbound, their own mouths hanging open.

Fire is an attractor, a narcotic visual force laden with potent symbolism. Combined with music and motion, it creates a dramatic, mesmerizing vision. Spectators can't take their eyes off those fiery orbs, licking brilliant tongues through the darkness, the intense heat and flame just inches away from scorching human flesh.

When I read this article on the Internet, I thought of the words of the prophet Jeremiah who said “God’s word was in my heart as a burning fire, shut up in my bones and I cannot hold my peace.” I can understand Jeremiah. I understand what happens to you when the Word gets in you; you forget yourself. You cannot hold your peace because God’s word cannot be contained. When God’s word gets in you, you must tell somebody what God has done for you. You must speak it, write it, sing it, hand-sign it, preach it through musical instruments. It is like a flaming fire within our bones that eternally burns and will not let us rest.

Have you ever felt that way – like your tongue was on fire with a message that needed to be shared? “A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

The first Pentecost was like this. One hundred and twenty people were gathered together in a larger upper room. The disciples were moping around and trying to figure out what they were going to do now that Jesus was gone. All of a sudden, the Holy Spirit came upon them. Scripture says that there were tongues of fire above their heads. There was a wind blowing. In that wind and fire, the Spirit came upon the disciples. They began speaking in different languages so that all who were gathered together heard the message of God’s love in their own language. Some of the other people who were on the outside looked at them and said “ Those folks are all drunk”. The disciples defended themselves, “You know, it’s ten o’clock in the morning. We’re not drunk. This is something different. This is the Holy Spirit.”

Imagine a prairie fire in you mind. Pentecost was like a prairie fire, flaming across the Midwest on parched dry fields of grass. It was like a forest fire being driven by the wind, in a very dry forest with tinder wood. It was like a fire on an oil slick on the ocean, flames leaping across the water. It was like the flame of Jesus Christ was spreading across the whole world.

How did that happen? I know how it happened. “A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

Those first Apostles who were filled with the Holy Spirit started a church, and then went to a second village or town, and started another church. They went to a third village or town and planted another church. Then they would go back to the first village or town. Do you know why? Every time they started a church, they left a group of people in that village who were committed to Jesus Christ. In the original Greek, they were called the laos, which means “the laity,” “the people,” “the people of God.” The Apostles always left people whose hearts were on fire, whose tongues were on fire, who hadn’t gone to the seminary, who hadn’t seen Jesus face to face, who hadn’t talked with him in the flesh. These were not the Apostles. These were not the twelve disciples. These were the people of God in each town who spread the Gospel from house to house, and neighbor to neighbor and friend to friend and family to family. This fundamental principle is always true; it is the laity, the people of God, who become inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are the ones, not the twelve, not the Apostles, not the pastors. It is the laity, the people of God, who go about winning souls to Jesus Christ and nurturing those souls into maturity.

“A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

Well, that’s what happened in that first century. The year is now 2007, and the flame of Jesus Christ is still spreading like wildfire. The spreading flame of Pentecost is greater in this century than in the first century. It’s true! The spreading flame of Jesus Christ is greater in this century than in any other century of Christian expansion. Let me give you several examples of this spreading wildfire on our planet today. Today, on the average, how many people on this planet were baptized? 63,000! How many new congregations were formed today? 1600! Last Easter Sunday, how many people were gathered together in worship to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ? More than one billion people. 25% of the Earth’s population.

This flame of Jesus Christ is spreading all over the Earth like wildfire. Let’s talk about Africa. Africa is rapidly becoming a Christian continent. Namibia, for example, down in the southern tip of Africa; 50% of the people in Namibia are Lutheran Christians. 85% of black Namibia is Christian. That’s 20% “more Christian” than good old USA. Tanzania. Madagascar. These are Christian nations. The flame of Jesus Christ is spreading all across Africa. Every pastor and missionary knows this. Whenever the flame of Jesus Christ is spreading across village to village and town to town and city to city, across all of Africa, we know why: The laity always spark the great missionary expansions in every century. “A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

Let’s go to South America – to Sao Paulo, Brazil. It is one of the largest cities in the world, at around 10.5 million people. That great city is heavily Roman Catholic, and the Roman Catholic community is very much alive. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, there are more than 80,000 Base Christian Communities. Each community is like a home Bible study group. Can you imagine it? In one city there are 80,000 home Bible studies groups. Do you think there’s a pastor in any of them? No! Each has a layperson who leads the Bible study and organizes of each of these 80,000 Base Christian Communities. It is a movement led by the laity. It’s spreading like wildfire. “A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

Let’s go to another continent. Let’s go to Korea. A generation ago, Korean was 99% Buddhist. Today, 2007, it is 20% Christian...within one century! And the largest Christian congregation in the whole world is found in Seoul, Korea, with a membership of more than 500,000 members. This church didn’t begin as a missionary church from a mother denomination. It was founded and spread Korean lay people. The flame of Korean Christianity now spreads to Indonesia, and the Philippines. The Koreans are even sending missionaries to Japan. “A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

Let’s talk about the good old United States. No, let’s talk the Town of Trumbull where we live, work and do ministry. Trumbull has a population growth rate of about 3.3%. The rate has been consistent over the past decade. You know how many members we gain in our church each year over the past decade? We don’t gain any. We lose about 6-8%. This is happening all over the United States. The proportion of the American population that can be classified as Christian has declined from 86% to 77% in one decade. The truth is that the mainline protestant churches have been on a steady decline from their high-water mark in 1955. Can it be possible that the laity is no longer on fire by the power of Jesus Christ? Is it possible for a church to gradually become a self-contained unit that has lost all sense of spiritual fire?

The big question for our congregation is this: Do we all understand, not only with our heads but with our hearts -- do we truly understand, that for us to be the church in the town of Trumbull, that “A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

Welcome to Pentecost in the Year 2007! It’s time to open up to the mind‑blowing, heart‑ warming, life‑changing power of God.

The power of God can invade the body,

inflate the mind,

swell the soul,

lift the Spirit

and make us more than we ever imagined.

It'll make you young when you're old,

and it'll make you live even when you die.

The power and presence of the Spirit will disturb, delight, deliver and lift.

When God sends forth the Spirit amazing things happen:

barriers are broken,

communities are formed,

opposites are reconciled,

unity is established,

disease is cured,

addiction is broken,

towns are renewed,

races are reconciled,

hope is established,

people are blessed,

and church happens.

So be ready...God is up to something...

discouraged folks are cheering up,

dishonest folks are 'fessing up,

sour folks are sweetening up,

closed folk are opening up,

gossipers clam up,

conflicted folks make up,

sleeping folks wake up,

lukewarm folk, fire up,

dry bones shake up,

and pew potatoes stand up!

But most of all, Christ the Savior of all the world is lifted up.[1]

The Holy Spirit wants to ignite us to proclaim the gospel, to worship with awe, to serve the world with the passion of Jesus. Don’t miss out on what God wants to do in your life, because the Spirit is moving. So how about it? “A burning heart will soon find for itself a flaming tongue.”

[1]Rick Kirchoff, Germantown United Methodist Church, Opening remarks to the 2000 Memphis Annual Conference.

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