Sunday, May 22, 2011

Just One More Thing

I grew up on Colombo reruns. Detective Colombo was famous for finishing up questioning someone and then turning back to ask "one more thing." That thing usually had to do with some sort of bombshell evidence that showed that someone to be guilty.

Well this isn't likely to be that dramatic but I had "one more thing" that I thought of about last week's sermon before I moved on to this week. You may want to go back and read my last two posts to catch up because this is on the same subject.

Jesus says to us in Matthew, 5:21-22:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

For good or for bad, last week's sermon, "I Forgive You," hit a nerve. I am glad about that. The Gospel tends to do that. I always worry though because there is a fine line when proclaiming the Gospel in a way that unsettles us. Have I represented the Gospel in such a way that it unsettles us or was it just my representation itself that was unsettling? Whenever there is a lot of feedback from a sermon I think more about that sermon in the light of this question.

As I have read scripture this week I have seen some clarity that the Gospel really wants to unsettle us about this. Whether or not I did scripture true justice in my representation this week, only God can tell me. But I do believe that, on this subject, we all, me included, need some unsettling.

Well that is enough about that. This morning, we finish the sermon series with something a little lighter, "I love you."



Wednesday, May 18, 2011

More on Sunday's Sermon

I mentioned in the post yesterday that sometimes when I am preaching I am still working on the sermon. Actually, often I am still thinking about it on Sunday and Monday. That was especially true this week, especially in light of some comments and emails about the sermon. If you didn't get a chance to hear the sermon, you might want to listen, otherwise this may not make sense. It should be available soon at:

The number of comments and emails this week have been about the invitation I gave. We offered people cards to take and write the names of people that they needed to speak the words "I forgive you" to. There are people in our lives that we hold grudges against and we need to forgive them to release them and, perhaps more importantly, release ourselves from the baggage of not forgiving. I warned people that this work is often strange and wondrous. When you call someone up and say "I forgive you," the response is often, "For what?" Often they have no idea what you hold against them. Maybe they don't remember any more. Maybe they never knew they offended you. Maybe, in retrospect, they never really didn't anything to offend you.

This seems to be exactly where the hang up is. Someone walked up to me during the closing hymn and asked "Isn't this sort of arrogant?" Someone else asked in a little more subtle way, "Am I being judgmental to that person in assuming the discourse was their fault?" My answer, yes and yes. BUT... that doesn't let us off the hook. There is something larger going on here. If we are holding onto a grudge, if we haven't forgiven someone, it really no longer matters whose fault it was. Let me try it this way: Yes, to offer forgiveness to someone who hasn't asked for it may be arrogant but that sin may not be as grievous as having an unspoken grudge against them.

Matthew 18:15-16 gives us scriptural guidance for dealing with people when they have offended us or sinned against us,

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses."

But, realistically, we don't often do that. Most of us don't like conflict so we just let it pass and sometimes that seems to work but sometimes it just grows inside us. We can, at some point, decide to let it go but, if we never go back and address the person, is it really taken care of? Maybe. But I am not so sure. I think there are a lot of cases where we need to care of the messiness of admitting we held the grudge in the first place. We may need to work through the issue, especially if there is any hope of restoring a relationship.

Isaiah 43:25

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

The note for that verse in the Wesley Study Bible reads, "God not only declares forgiveness and willingness to forget, but declares that it is "for my sake." Forgiveness is not a favor done for the other but is needed by the forgiver as well to restore wholeness to relationship." (Wesley Study Bible, Abingdon Press, p. 867)

As I said in the sermon, forgiveness is tough stuff. It is sticky and messy.

Have you taken the invitation? Has it been messy? Are you still struggling with the idea? I would love to hear your comments below.



Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Preaching and the Spirit

More often than not, as I am preaching, I am still thinking. I am still hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit and the echoes of scripture in my head speaking to the topic at hand. There are some preaching opportunities when it is appropriate to just go with this, follow the Spirit's leading and diverge from what I had planned to say. However, it is not always appropriate. Let me suggest two reasons. One is very practical. In preparing a worship service, I work with a team of people who have together prayerfully prepared a lot of different pieces . We have planned the musical and liturgical elements to bring the scriptures alive and praise our creator. If I, on a regular basis, just "followed the Spirit's leading" is would have the potential of dishonoring the Spirit led work they had done. Sometimes it is just an issue of time. "Sorry, we won't be hearing that anthem you prepared." Sometimes it is an issue of special elements of worship. We may have a planned response to the word but I so changed the message that it doesn't make sense anymore.

For those who wouldn't want practicality to get in the way of the Holy Spirit, there is another reason. I believe that the Holy Spirit is present in every aspect of sermon preparation. I have a chance to contemplate scripture, read it in the community of my fellow preachers and in the community of theologians both modern and ancient. I get to test where I think the Spirit is leading me against other voices to be sure it is the Spirit and not just my own imagination. In the moment, there is no device to do that. So, while it might feel good to "Just go where the Spirit leads me," there is always the danger that was is leading me in the moment is not the Spirit at all.

Okay, I said two, let me add another. When one stand to preach in front of a congregation, there is a great responsibility. Sometimes, when I am preparing a sermon, I go down a certain line of thinking. Sometimes when I get to a point on the line, I realize it is the wrong line. Sometimes, in reading and reflecting and praying, I realize that it is a dead-end perhaps even one of those dangerous dead-ends that ends with a cliff. If I am leading a small group or sharing thoughts in a Bible study, sometimes those are interesting paths to travel together that we might discover together where the wrong turn was. However, I don't think that works in congregational preaching. "Forget everything I just said, that was wrong. Let's back up." Some may be thrilled my that sort of u-turn but I am afraid it would leave many lost and confused.

This post is a sort of preface to another post I hope to write later. It was going to be part of this one but the preface got to long. Since Sunday, I have been having some additional thoughts on the sermon that may be worth sharing. I will try to post them soon.



Sunday, May 8, 2011

Unfinished Business

There are a number of steps in my process of sermon development. I often translate the passage from its original language. I read it a number of contemporary translations. I read and consider other theological voices that have interpreted the scripture through commentaries and scholarly journal articles. One occasional part of my process that I likely wouldn't mention to my seminary preaching professors is the time I spend on Google. I am not sure they would be upset. It is not like I am doing my biblical or theological research there. This is what it looks like: often in the creation of sermon or series a theme comes to the surface. Sometimes this is in my own work or the work we, as pastors, do together when working on the common sermon calender. Sometimes, I like to throw that theme out in the pop culture of cyberspace to see what I might be missing in how the theme relates to the world.

Let me be honest, this is not the most fruitful part of my overall process. However, it probably takes about two minutes unless I get sucked down some rabbit hole. This is a long way of explaining how I stumbled on the book Unfinished Business by Lee Kravitz. The sermon title for Easter Sunday was "Easter is Good News for Unfinished Business." I googled "unfinished business" and there it was at the bottom of the page under the listing for books. Thinking I was actually teetering on the edge of a rabbit hole, I clicked on the link. Finding the descriptions and reviews compelling, I found myself buying the Kindle edition and, on the day I was supposed to be actually working on my Easter sermon, reading a book I had never heard of from an author I had never heard of. Cue the white rabbit.

Kravitz book is about a journey, both mental and geographical. Upon losing his job, he feels
called to pursue a quest to attend to the major loose ends of his life. He writes (in a paragraph that actually made it into my Easter Sunday sermon,)

There are acts and nonacts that prosecute you from within. They trouble your soul and cast aspersion on your character. They tell you that you are callous, small-minded, less than you want to be. Isn’t it strange how small these things can seem on paper, yet how large they loom in your head?

These things that we wish had done or not done end up being heavy burdens that we carry around and we become enslavesdto them. The author found much freedom by attending to the sometimes messy work of going back and tying up loose ends.

What starting out looking like a rabbit hole for me ended up being quite helpful not just for Easter Sunday but as we launched into a new sermon series. We are now in the midst of a series called "11 Words" based on Leonard Sweet's thought that there are eleven words we all yearn to hear before we die. It occurred to me that, if Easter is good news for unfinished business, the words that we need to hear and the words that we need to speak are some of the most important unfinished business we need to take care of. Through that lens, the "11 Words" series became the perfect follow through for the Easter sermon and I became more thankful I stumbled on the book.

In my sermon for the Sunday after Easter, I shared,

I have been fascinated by this book that I starting reading right before Easter, Lee Kravitz, Unfinished Business. In it, he finds himself on a journey of trying to finish up all the stuff he has left undone. It has made me rethink unfinished business. I guess I used to think of it as though there were certain things that I wanted to do before I die or someone else dies that I would feel guilty if I didn’t accomplish. And there is a certain truth in that. There is a lot of stuff I wish I had said to my Mom before she died. But there is more to it than that. In the book, the author realizes that it is more than freedom from guilt. There is a great joy and restoration in taking care of these things that we inherit now. As he reconnected with an beloved Aunt that he hadn’t spoken to in 15 years, as he finally made a condolence call that he should have made 3 years ago, as he repaid a debt from over thirty-years ago he found great joy in restored relationships, new beginnings and rekindled memories. Kravitz writes, "My psychologist friend gave me another way of looking at it: 'Our unfinished business isn’t about resting in peace,' he said. 'It’s about moving forward. It’s about optimizing our potential as human beings.'"

This unfinished business is big stuff, Kravitz also writes,

The items on my list of unfinished business were linked to my deepest feelings of helplessness, disappointment, and fear. It’s ironic: We consign our most essential business to the bottom of our to-do list because we lack the time and energy to do the things that matter most in our lives well. It makes sense: The most important things take the most time and energy and we have only so much time and energy in a day. You let things slide. But I would also discover the corollary to this in the coming months: that, if one can attend to these things, great rewards will follow.

Maybe it is a reflection of my own baggage that I am carrying around, my own need to attend to some things of my past, but I really thought this book was amazing. It brought into focus just how life draining it can be to hold onto unfinished business and how rewarding it can be to reach back to some things in the past to sort them out.

Two little cautions I give in my review: 1. Kravitz is not, nor does he claim to be a mental health professional; neither am I. Some of us have some unfinished business that we need help sorting out. Some self-awareness might be a helpful tool before trying this at home. 2. This is a not an explicitly Christian book. In fact, Kravitz is a fairly non-observant Jew. I don't see this a stumbling block to the power and purpose of the book. I just have to write it because some people who read my blog assume because I read it and wrote about it that it must be Christian.

You can read more about the book, the premise and the author at



Wednesday, May 4, 2011

So, How Did it Go?

I have been offering lots of challenges in worship lately and forgetting to provide a place for people to share their stories. That is too bad because I love to read the stories. This week in worship, I challenged us to think of some people who need to hear the words from us, "You have mattered in my life. If you were gone, I would miss you."

If you missed the sermon, you can hear the podcast here: 11 Words, I'll Miss You

If you took my invitation this week, I hope you will consider sharing a little in the comment section below.