Archive for January, 2012

[No audio is available from this week’s sermon.  Some of the continuing computer gremlins we dealt with this past week. So, the notes….]

I heard a story recently, I thought I’d share with you.

It was time for a high school senior to start thinking about the school she was going to attend.  She wanted to go to a prestigious business school and so she sent off for the application. The school asked for an essay on the issue of how she had been a leader in her time in high school.  And it presented a real dilemma for her.  She was very active in many groups and clubs but she had never served as the leader.  In fact, she had been pretty content to be the one behind the scenes who did the things that others wouldn’t do.

And now she had a dilemma.

  • If she told the truth, there’s a good chance this school wouldn’t take her.
  • And if she beefed up her credentials then she would be lying, but the lie might improve her chances to get in.

Finally, she decided to tell the truth and she sent in her essay and application fully expected to receive a rejection letter. A couple of months the letter came and she nervously opened it up and began to read:  In the fall, 3000 students will join the freshman class of our school.  Of those, 2,999 describe themselves as leaders.  It would make sense that we would admit at least one follower.  See you in the fall.

Are you a follower? Our world likes leaders. We like people who take initiative, who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, who make it on their own despite their humble beginnings.

They can receive the star treatment, the stories in the news and the spotlight.

We don’t talk so much about the one who follows, or is the one behind the scenes.  Following just doesn’t seem as glamorous.

So maybe that’s one of the reasons that we can struggle with the teaching images that Jesus uses in the Bible.  In a culture that values leaders, entrepreneurs and self-starters, Jesus reminds us that we’re sheep that follow some kind of shepherd.

So there we reach this tension.  On one hand, culture says that what is important is leadership and doing it your own way and being your own person. And then there’s the message of scripture that everything starts with following a shepherd.

How do we resolve this conflict between culture and scripture?  Is it really even a conflict?

And since we’re on this subject of sheep and shepherds, we’ll return today to the book of John. In John 10, Jesus offers some teaching that uses this idea of sheep and shepherds.  Join me as we read beginning in verse 10.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Jesus offers a definition of what it means to be a good shepherd in this passage.  He’s going to do it again in a couple of verses.  But the Good Shepherd makes a real sacrifice.

12 When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

Here’s a comparison then.   Remember, if you’re reading John then look for the imagery and the comparisons.  They are huge throughout the book. Jesus is the good shepherd who sacrifices himself.  The others are just hired hands and they run away at the first sign of trouble. So the Good shepherd lays down his life and the sheep belong to the Good Shepherd.

 14 “I am the good shepherd.  (When things repeat, make sure you pay attention)!  I am the good shepherd.  I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

Last week, when we talked about Jesus and God, we had a reference that if you know God, then you know Jesus and if you know Jesus, then you know God.  We have that same tie here again today.

17 “This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”

  • The word of God for God’s people.
  • Thanks be to God.

So how do we take a passage such as this and sum it up.  Let’s go with the thought that, “We need a GOOD shepherd.” Say that with me, but make it personal: “I need a good shepherd.”

So Jesus lays out this imperative for us in John 10.  We need a Good Shepherd.  Let’s take a few moments to unpack it and see what it looks like.  This is a passage loaded with images, but we have 20 minutes or so to talk about it, so let’s concentrate on a couple that stand out.

Take a look again at Verse 14, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me.”

We can talk about knowing a lot of people. We know some things about them and they can know some things about us.  But there are some things that we just don’t share.  It might be the things that we think and the things that we feel or things that have happened in the past.  Sometimes, maybe we really wonder if the other person really knew me, would they still want to be around me?

So it’s easy to sell ourselves short, to settle, to have a warped view of who we are and what we are worth.

But read that verse again.  Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own sheep…”

We might be great mask makers when it comes to everyone else in our life. We might be grade A wall builders and closet closers.  But there’s someone who knows everything about you.  He knows your heart, your intentions. He knows how you’ve messed up and how you’ve done well.  He knows about every skeleton you have in your closet.

And guess what, he doesn’t run away? The good shepherd knows you, knows all about you and STILL loves you.

How’s that for good news?

Keep that thought in mind as we look at the second statement: Verse 11 reads, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary.”

Let’s think hypothetically for a moment.  You have been charged with watching over a herd of animals.  And a wild animal comes to attack.  Would you sacrifice one of the flock if it meant that everyone else including you would escape harm.  Or, would you sacrifice yourself to save all of the animals?

And that’s a real dilemma.  John is a book of contrasts and I don’t think Jesus would be using this image if this was the norm for the world in which he lived.  In fact, in this passage, he uses this term, “hired hands,” to describe what might be the norm.  If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the hired hands are probably an image for the religious leaders of his time.  And the comparison between the hired hands and the good shepherd is a stark image.

At the first sign of trouble, the hired hands flee. They don’t stick it out.

In the statement we just talked about, Jesus knows his sheep and he loves them.  The hired hand, the bad shepherd, doesn’t care to know the sheep.  They just aren’t that committed.

  • Jesus knows you and loves you.
  • Jesus knows you and the Good Shepherd chooses to give up his life to save you.

We can talk about hypotheticals about situations where we might give up our lives or make some sacrifice to protect others.  Very few of us actually find ourselves in the places where that hypothetical becomes a reality.

Jesus didn’t just talk in hypotheticals.  He fully intended to give up his life for the sheep.  And as this passage states, his life wasn’t taken.  It was given!

We’ve already read a couple of statements in this series on Jesus where the passage reads something like, “Jesus left because his time had not yet come.”  Jesus chose the time, he chose the cross and he chose, out of his love for us, to be the Good Shepherd who sacrifices for his sheep.  In fact, to take it a step further.  Jesus knows me and made the choice to sacrifice his life for me.

So what does this mean for us?

I was thinking about a picture another pastor shared with me.

Eric Shepard is a pastor of a couple of Methodist Churches in Abbeville and he was on his way to a class in Clemson one day when he passed a church sign. For a moment it didn’t register.  Then, it hit him and he knew he had to get a picture of it.

Here it is.

Since that’s how he spells his last name, this sign speaks to him in a way that it might not speak to others.  And he had to call the pastor of this church up and give them a little good-natured ribbing.  I’m guessing he wasn’t exactly the “Shepherd” they were referring to.

The next time he drove by the church, he saw that the sign had been changed.

And it made me think for a moment.  We are the sheep and we need a shepherd, but how many times do we settle for the wrong shepherd instead of really committing to the Good Shepherd?

We settle for the wrong shepherd when we listen to people who lead us away from God.

  • When we let people and things get in the way of our relationship with God.
  • We look for the wrong shepherd in money, in jobs, in status, in appearances.
  • We follow the wrong shepherd when we look to other sources for salvation instead of the shepherd that brings us salvation.

The wrong shepherd doesn’t know you and doesn’t really care to.  The Good Shepherd, knows you and still loves you.

The wrong shepherd sees you as just another number number.  The Good Shepherd sees everyone as the one sheep worth leaving the rest of the flock to chase after.

The wrong shepherd is only in it for the moment.  The Good Shepherd is in it for eternity.

The wrong shepherd wants you to make the sacrifice and lay down your life for him or her.  The Good Shepherd chooses to lay down his life in sacrifice for you.

Which shepherd are you following?  In your spiritual life, are you settling?  Are you settling for the wrong shepherd, a hired hand, a knock off, a false hope?  Or are you following after the Good Shepherd?

It’s really this simple:

There’s one Shepherd who knows you and still loves you.

  • There’s one Shepherd who freely chooses to sacrifice himself to save you.
  • We need a shepherd.
  • Choose the Good Shepherd.

This sermon comes from John 8:12-20 and is Jesus’ statement that he is the light of the world.

The book of John contains a lot of comparisons and there’s probably no starker comparison than light and darkness.

This sermon begins with all of the lights out in the room.

One of the key thoughts behind this sermon is the idea that we all live in some kind of darkness, light reveals all, and Jesus is God’s Light in our darkness.

Jan 22: Jesus is the Light of the World

Text: John 6:22-40

Title: I AM: The Bread of Life

We’re continuing through a series on the I AM passages at St. Mark UMC in Greenwood and this is the second in that series. Linked below is the audio file from the sermon.

This sermon was recorded in the 11 AM traditional worship service.

Jan 15, 2012 Sermon: I AM: The Bread of Life

It’s not about the shoes

Posted: January 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

I did something amazing this week.  I threw away a pair of shoes.

It’s not just any pair of shoes.  I know this pair — we’ve been together through a lot of ups and downs.

It’s the pair of shoes that I was wearing on Jan. 8, 2007 when Grace Elizabeth Lollis came into the world.  That morning, I was in intense prayer as I waited for Denise to be prepared for surgery. I opened my eyes and remember seeing those shoes.

And for a long time, five years in fact, I’ve held on to that pair of shoes.

But I bought a new pair of brown shoes and we have a rule for me — if I buy a pair, I get rid of a pair.  And so this pair, this pair that I wore on Jan. 8, 2007, was the pair I finally decided to bid farewell.

It all began with a realization that maybe there’s something better that defines that day.  That day included prayer and anxiety.  But that day was really about the triumph and the presence of an amazing God.  And, I have a living, breathing reminder of the gift of Jan. 8, 2007.  Her name is Grace.  And a pair of worn-out shoes pales in comparison to the power of Grace.

And since I’m a pastor, I think about these things in spiritual terms.  It just comes with the territory.

It has led me to ask some questions:  Where have I become focused on the wrong thing?  When am I fixated on the wrong part of the memory?  Where have I exchanged that power of God’s presence for something that, in the end doesn’t mean so much?

The life of a Christian is not about stating all of the right beliefs, adhering to the correct doctrine, going to the “right” church, voting for the right candidates in an election, or saying the appropriate things at the appropriate times.  The life of a Christian is about following after Jesus and moving things from simply thinking about what we believe to living Christ-like lives now.

I had a lightning-bolt moment when I decided to throw away a meaningless pair of shoes and give thanks for the incredible gift of Grace (and her name is not a coincidence!).

I wonder what my life as a Christ-follower would be like if I could let go of some of the meaningless things that I settle for and truly give thanks for Jesus, the one who truly loves me?

The power of “Invitation”

Posted: January 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

Have you ever been the one that didn’t receive the invitation?

It was the big birthday party and it seemed as if everyone else you knew received an invite.  You, however, were left out.   There’s a sinking feeling that comes with being left out, with not being invited, with being the last one picked or with being ignored.

Yeah.  I’m speaking from personal experience.

An invitation changes everything. It lets us know others see us, recognize us and want our presence.  It gives us the nudge to do something we might not otherwise do.  It opens us up to a new range of opportunities and experiences.

An invitation is a powerful experience.

We know this in every area of our lives and invitation is essential for what we do in church.

  • We have the constant invitation of the Holy Spirit to experience Christ.
  • We have the invitation of church ministries to come and be a part of what is going on.
  • We have the invitation to experience God in worship.
  • Our liturgy of Holy Communion includes an invitation.
  • Many surveys tell us that most people who aren’t in a church now would be there this Sunday if someone would simply invite them.

Invitations make a difference.

And the more I’ve wrestled with this idea of invitation, the more it has started to change the way I approach worship and, especially, the way I approach the sermon.

There’s a natural flow in worship.  There’s a gathering time when the community of faith comes together.  Then there’s the proclamation of the word — the sermon, the scripture.  Following that, there’s a time of response and a sending forth.  It seems then that if we want a response to the word that an invitation is essentially important.

I’m not talking about playing “Just As I” a dozen times  until someone comes forward, but, what about times of silent prayer?  Maybe even an invitation to wrestle with the Word and Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts?  It could be some concrete ways to take what we hear to day and put it into practice this next week.

I suspect that a lot of people are looking to go deeper in their faith.  What if I can be more intentional in inviting them (us, me include) to take a step in the journey?

The consultants sit across from their nervous client.  This meeting today is the culmination of countless hours of research, observation and interpretation.  The task has been enormous and now is the moment of truth.  Will this client appreciate all that they have done?  Will he accept their findings?

Their client motions for them to go ahead with whatever it is they have to present.  Why wait any longer?  It’s time to hear your news.

“Well, it’s a tough world out there,” the lead consultant begins. “We’ve been analyzing the available media and making countless notes.  And so let’s look at what we’ve found.”

The projection screen lights up behind them and it’s the image of political candidates from varying parties.  The parade of images includes world leaders, presidents and kings. There are candidates and angry voters.  Then there are images of the centers of political power.

“Most mass media is consumed with this story of an upcoming election and of political conflict around the globe,” the consultant says. “You have 24-hour news channels that give incredible amounts of coverage to debates and speeches and particular candidates.  It’s tough to compete with that message.  It’s what people are interested in hearing right now. If you want to capture the attention of those you are trying to reach, maybe you should get more involved in politics.”

The client chuckles at the suggestion and the head consultant is stunned. How could the client not like this idea?  The consultant nervously reaches over, picks up another folder and hands it to another consultant.

“Oh, and then there’s the type of things that people like to watch,” another consultants says. “People read and watch stories about violence and murder and mayhem.  A story about a KKK store being in a building owned by an African American church makes worldwide news.  People thrive on conflict and controversy. Maybe you should take your message and make it a little more edgy.  Maybe people would listen if you gave them what they really wanted and poured on the violence and conflict.  What do you think about that?”

The client pauses for a moment and shakes his head as if to say, no.   The consultants are getting very anxious. These were the two big ideas and now, well, now, they have have to circle the wagons.

Another consultant begins to speak.

“Sir, I have a thought,”  she says. “What if you decided to go into sports to get your message?”

There was a pause in the room and the other consultants nodded in unison.  This is brilliant, they said to one another.

“Millions of people attend live sporting events and millions and millions more watch them on TV,” she said. “They talk about them, they get in fights over them, they are passionate about them and they lift up their favorite coaches and players and teams as shining role models.  In fact, 80,000 to 100,000 can gather on a Saturday for a football game.  Have you heard how incredible it is when that many people are joined together in a common cause, worshiping a team and hanging on every action?  They’ll even stay for overtime and extra-innings and sudden death just to find out how it ends.  You need to get into sports, sir.”

The consultants look at their client and wait.  This has to be it!  He smiles and then shakes his head slowly from side to side.  Now what?

The consultants huddle up together in desperation.  What do they do now? How do they proceed?  One tells the others, “I have one last thing.”

They turn back to face him and all force a smile.

The young man begins, “Sir, I think the problem is your message itself.  It just doesn’t speak to the world we live in today.  We want to do things that get us ahead and get us more stuff. We want to be in positions of power and control.  We like being the ones with everything and living the life.  We want to be rock stars and movie stars and have our moments of glory on reality TV.  And your message, sir, is so first century.  It’s out of date and out of touch.  It doesn’t speak to this world.

“Sir, if you really want to get your message out today,” he says, pausing for maximum impact, “you’re going to have to change the message.”

The other consultants nod in agreement.  Yes, yes, yes, they say in unison.  You must get a better message.

The client stares at them for a moment and sits up at the table. He rests his chin on his hands and looks across the table at this group.  They’ve studied everything he asked them to study.  They’ve interpreted everything they were asked to interpret and yet, they seemed to miss the point entirely.

He pushes his chair back and stands up.  He places his strong hands on the table and looks the head consultant in the eyes as he addresses the group.

“You’re right about politics,” the client says. “It’s always been a competitor to my message.  Many think that it was through politics that I would do my best work and I am there.  Unfortunately, some have claimed to be my friend in politics and have done lots of things that I find, well, offensive.  Yet, I am still there and still working.  What you missed is that I’m not here to establish a political power base or sit on a throne, or grab control of a nation.  I’m here to establish a different kind of kingdom and my kingdom works on the laws of love and grace and mercy.”

And then he turns to the second consultant.

“Yes,” he says, “people are captivated by violence and by the displays that show the level of evil to which a person can sink.  From the beginning of time, people have done evil against others and me.  Violence always escalates and people thirst for more and more.  Yet, my message is about peace in the middle of conflict.  It’s about the innocent who suffer at the hands of the wicked.  It’s about the messiah walking a path to a cross and enduring everything that is humanly possible.  And because, three days later, he walked out of a tomb, my message shows you that you are no longer a slave to violence.  No, I don’t need more violence in this message. There’s plenty of it already.   What I need is for people to see a better way, a way of love, a way of peace and way of hope, even in the middle of a 24-hour news cycle.”

He turns to the third consultant.

“Yes,” he says, “there’s a great deal of interest in sports. Some of the biggest single gathers of humanity have come in the form of sport.  It’s amazing the way that people will pull together to pull for a team and then use it as an excuse to be absent from other assemblies in their lives.  No, I’m concerned with far more than sports.  Yet, there are some among those teams and coaches and players who spread my message. They take it seriously and they tell others about it.   No, my message is bigger than sports.  I just wish people wouldn’t worship at that altar the way that they do.”

And then he turns to the last speaker, the final consultant.

“Yes, the world has changed considerably,” he says.  “Culture has advanced considerably over the many years of humanity’s existence and the culture that is here 25 years from now will be dealing with some different issues than you are dealing with today.  But the problem isn’t the message.  The problem is the culture. In culture, people start to get the ideas that they can save themselves and be gods with a little “g.”  They quickly find out that there’s never enough and they are never satisfied.  That part of the story has never changed and it will continue to plague people in the future.  No, my message doesn’t need to change.  It still answers the basic questions that everyone asks:  Why am I here?  What about the bad things in my life?  What happens when I die?  My message of active love, of peace, of hope, of grace and mercy and redemption speaks as loudly today as it did when it was first spoken.  It might speak even more loudly today.”

He thanked the group of consultants and started to walk toward the door. As he was about to exit, he paused and turned back toward them.

“What this world needs,” he says, “isn’t a group of people who can interpret the trends and tell me what is happening.  What this world needs is a group of people who can defy the trends of this culture with my message.  Hope, love, grace and mercy still come on top.  This world still needs those who speak the good news.”

He turns and walks away, leaving the consultants left to ponder the meaning of his message.