Monday Muse: Lenten Sermon Series 3

For preachers and worship planners, I’ve been outlining various sermon series ideas for the upcoming season of Lent. The advantage of a sermon series in any liturgical season is the opportunity it affords to build a story arc or develop a faith lesson across several weeks in the life of a congregation. Planning a sermon series also assists with advance worship planning, as liturgies, hymns, music and prayers can be guided by the themes and scripture already identified for the sermon series.

Last week on the Monday Muse, I outlined a sermon series based on the Old Testament readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Two Mondays ago, I shared the idea of using artwork to inspire a sermon series. For today, I had promised to offer a sermon series idea based on Gospel readings; by request, the following sermon series idea for Lent uses the Gospel readings from the Narrative Lectionary rather than the Revised Common Lectionary.

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A Lenten Sermon Series on the Gospel of John
“Who do you say that I am?”

The question comes from Matthew 16:13 and Mark 8:27, but the theme of it runs through the Gospel of John both in questions (e.g. John 6:42, 9:17, 14:10) and in the answers of Jesus’ “I AM” sayings (e.g. John 6:48, 8:12, 10:11).

To raise this question in a Lenten sermon series — “Who do you say that I am?” — focuses the life of the congregation on two elements of the Christian faith: (1) belief in Christ and (2) testimony to Christ. In other words, Who do we believe about Jesus? and What do we say about Jesus? For the Gospel readings outlined below, I offer brief notes and questions related to belief and testimony for your sermonizing muse.

One additional note: The Gospel readings in the Narrative Lectionary are looong. In your worship planning, give serious consideration to whether the whole reading is needed and, if it is, how you can best support congregants’ hearing of the scripture. Consider using more than one reader if a passage has multiple characters/voices, for example, or take the time (before Sunday morning) to work with & encourage readers to speak the scriptures in such a way that stories come alive for hearers.

Ash Wednesday, March 5 — John 10:1-18

What does Jesus say about Jesus? In these verses, Jesus identifies himself as both gate and shepherd, and the actions that he attributes to the gate and the shepherd run subtly counter to some common beliefs about Christ! The gate (unlike a gatekeeper, which is a frequent if implicit image for Christ) functions as an avenue to abundant life & community. The shepherd “leads the sheep out” for adventure rather then keeping them in a small pen for security. Do we testify to Jesus as a bouncer or as an invitation, as a hiking partner or as a security blanket?

First Sunday in Lent, March 9 — John 11:1-44

What do we say about Jesus? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” both Martha and Mary say to Jesus. Their admonition simultaneously reflects their deep belief in Jesus’ power…and their (our) misconception that faith should privilege us to live without struggle. Too often, our testimony to Christ is spoken in platitudes: “God does not give us more than we can handle,” for example. Even worse are the public voices who tout catastrophe as a sign of God’s abandonment. We are called to testify in such a way that we help others walk in the light rather than causing brothers & sisters to stumble in darkness.

Second Sunday in Lent, March 16 — John 13:1-17

How do we nurture our faith in Jesus? “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” We believe in Jesus who lived his life in service to others; we testify to Jesus in our service to one another through church potlucks and community breakfasts, serving as church nursery volunteers and as global volunteers, investing in God’s world through clean water projects and fair trade efforts. Yet our testimony to Christ is incomplete if we neglect to let Jesus wash our feet — to welcome Jesus’ attention to the daily dirt and fatigue in our lives, to allow Jesus to touch and soothe what we so often hide (like a daily pedicure for the soul)!

Third Sunday in Lent, March 23 — John 18:12-27

Where and to whom do we testify to Christ? We are familiar with speaking of Jesus and of faith during Sunday worship. This passage lends itself to a sermon on our witness (or lack thereof) in less tidy places — courtrooms or homeless shelters or prisons, for example. But I’m reminded of two other places where church folks are notorious for neglecting Jesus’ name: in church parking lots and at church meetings. How do we talk about Jesus with one another? Where is our testimony needed — both within and beyond our church walls?

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30 — John 18:28-40

Who informs our beliefs? “Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourself and judge him according to your law.'” The conversation between Pilate and “the Jews,” and then between Pilate and Jesus, betrays Pilate’s reluctance to take responsibility for Jesus’ fate. “Judge him yourselves,” he tells the religious officials. “Implicate yourself,” he practically begs Jesus. Our beliefs are shaped by personal study and experience as well as community wisdom and revelation. Pilate wants no part of either. Do we take responsibility for our spiritual growth and beliefs? Do we ask others to hand us a pre-packaged theology? Do we consume others’ faith rather than investing in our own?

Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6 — John 19:1-16a

Who do you say that I am? “We have no king but the emperor.” If it were up to me, I’d actually start Lent with this passage, perhaps using it for Ash Wednesday. Our beliefs in Jesus and our testimonies of Jesus are merely daydreams and idle talk if we “throw Jesus under the bus” at the slightest threat to our way of life. Pilate thought that Jesus posed no threat to religious establishment or imperial government. The angry mob knew better: “He has challenged our hierarchies and undermined our securities; crucify him!” If we say that Jesus is someone who will let us live contentedly with the status quo, we deceive ourselves.

Palm Sunday, April 13 — John 12:12-17

How does our testimony continue? “The crowd that had been with Jesus when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.” Belief and testimony are not built upon one story; they are built upon the continuation of stories: in our own lives, in the lives of those we know, in the life of the Church, in the life of the cloud of witnesses. The crowd’s story includes the resurrection of Lazarus and now this celebratory parade. How is our testimony continuing and building? What new thing is God doing in our lives?

As I indicated above, I’d be tempted to reorder the Narrative Lectionary Gospel readings for Lent, so that “Who do you say that I am?” has a more logical progression to its theme. However, “logical” may be in the eye of the beholder, and the questions Who do we believe Jesus is? and What do we say about Jesus? run strongly throughout these Gospel readings regardless of sequence.

Next week for the Monday Muse: a Lenten sermon series idea on PRAYER.

Sunday Prayer

Bless your people, O God of light and glory. Bless your people across land and sea, from north to south, with your healing and peace. No matter the names and nationalities and races and religions by which we call ourselves, we are yours. Work out a reconciliation among us that extends to the heavens and draws together all creation.

We pray for those in anguish, whose hearts are broken and weary with weeping. We pray for those overwhelmed by despair, struggling for hope, desperate for life. We pray for shelter to those who need a hiding place, and relief to those who are weighed down by burdens. We pray for our brothers and sisters sitting beside us in the pews. We pray for our brothers and sisters in this town and around the world.

With the strength of your rock beneath our feet and the joy of your call giving wings to our spirits, we set our faces to follow you through all of life. Make us foolish for you and for the work of the cross. We pray this in the name of our Light and our Salvation. Amen.

Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.

Colossians 1:15-20

Christ is the image
the appearance of What Cannot Be Seen
the revelation of the Eternal Mystery

Christ is the channel
through whom life is born
by whom life is illuminated

Christ is the definition
the foundation for understanding
the commonality revealed in us all

Christ is the fullness
of God’s life drawing close
of peace forged with heaven and earth

Christ is the glory
the hope of which is born in us
the joy of which calls us onward

Red Heels and Purple Boots

I miss the congregation I pastored.

I miss the space and the voices, the community as a whole and the congregants individually. Sometimes I wonder how the church is doing. Sometimes my throat tightens with loss and I have to distract myself before crying.

The loss hits home for me in predictable moments (receiving communion in an unfamiliar church gets me every time) and in some very surprising moments … like shoe shopping. I bought purple boots recently, my concession to the severity of Cleveland winters. They’re warm and practical, but most of all they’re purple, which makes them fabulous!

You know who would crack up over the fact that I bought purple boots instead of settling for regular old boots? My former congregants. Across every generation in that church, there are some folks who would both tease and admire these fabulous purple boots of mine, just as they teased and admired and shared my delight over a pair of ridiculously fabulous red heels that I wore occasionally while leading worship.IMG_4126

And now I can’t figure out what to do with this keen awareness that I used to be in a relationship with a 150-odd people, in which we noticed everyday things together like shoes and coffee and births and deaths and even budgets … except to be aware of it, and to hold up the church to God’s light, and to keep tissues close at hand.

I read with interest and resonance Trudy Cusella’s recent column lamenting the departure of her pastor. She writes about sitting in the pew and waiting — just waiting — for her grief to run its course. Yup. I’m doing that too.

It seems important to note that I kept very appropriate boundaries with the congregation I was serving. And I don’t second-guess or regret the call that led me to resign my pastorate. At the same time, I miss the habits of worship we shared, the life stories continuing from one conversation to the next, the children hiding under the pews and growing too quickly, the hard work together over how to live as a church. Even with professionalism and boundaries, the very nature of the pastor-parish relationship is intimate — she is called to love her congregants and to witness to the heights & depths of their lives; when she leaves, the routine of those relationships is interrupted … not only for the church, but for the pastor too.

When we talk about it, my kids acknowledge that they miss the church as well. Despite the dubious distinction of church = mommy’s work, this community was their church home. In the congregation’s support of their pastor, people connected with and invested love in my children. There’s the couple who took my son to a soccer tournament that conflicted with Sunday worship, the woman who taught my kids a trick for cracking eggs, the friends they would sit with in a pew, the homebound member who would make sure that I took cookies home to my kids.

Of course, the pastor-parish dynamic is different for every minister and congregation (in the long-run, perhaps I’ll be surprised to discover that the dynamic is quite similar from one church to the next); in any case, the grief at the end of a pastor-parish tenure varies according to the relationship. I don’t mind knowing that some parishioners may be relieved that I’m gone. 🙂 Certainly I’m aware that, in my remembrance and grief, I gloss over the difficult days and the long hours of that work.

What stands out for me at this moment, half a year later, is that I lost my church home.

Two weeks after announcing my resignation as their pastor, I preached a sermon on how we can’t go back — not to who we used to be, not to how life once was. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples tried to go back to fishing; without Jesus around to fill their days, what else were they supposed to do? On that Sunday, I encouraged: “But there is a voice calling across the water, calling us not to be afraid in meeting the changes of life, pointing us toward an unimagined abundance that will take us beyond our boats.”

I’ve been rereading that sermon lately, trying to pay attention to the ever-calling voice and remembering that we are continually called to love anew. Although it’s still hard for me to imagine, for me this call means learning to love a new congregation (and from the pew rather than the pulpit). For the church that I pastored, this call means learning to love a new pastor. Welcoming someone new into our faith journeys does not dishonor those who have already shaped those journeys; rather, it trusts God’s abundant ability to multiply our love and faith.

It may take me awhile to love a new church and call it “home”; between you and me and God, I’ll just admit that. I may cry through a few more Communions. But love will come, and I will trust in that hope while I grieve.

And I will continue to wear fabulous shoes.

Monday Muse: Lenten Sermon Series 2

The liturgical cycle functions both as a reassurance and as a challenge: it deepens our spiritual foundations to recall the stories of faith … and it challenges us to experience & live those stories afresh (preachers and congregants alike).

In hopes of encouraging a compelling & relevant Lenten season this year, I’m posting a variety of sermon series ideas for the Monday Muse. Last Monday, I suggested the use of artwork by Dutch painter Anneke Kaai with one’s Lenten sermons. Today, I offer a  sermon series theme using the Old Testament lectionary readings of Lent (Year A).

Generally speaking, following the Old Testament lectionary readings through a sermon series is rich for any time of year because of the opportunity to retell and reteach the major events of ancient Israel’s life & faith. When preaching an Old Testament series, do not neglect to frame each sermon within the larger story. This Lent’s OT readings, for example, trace ancient Israel’s story from Abram through the Babylonian exile. Connect the dots of this narrative each and every Sunday.

For Lent (Year A), the Old Testament readings suggest to me a sermon series entitled Reclaiming “Sin.” Among some progressive Christian traditions, the word “sin” has become anathema for its collusion with the image of a mean, judgmental God. Yet the Lenten spirit of confession requires us to make some accounting for those ways in which we do not love God and neighbor as we ought. A Lenten sermon series on Reclaiming “Sin” invites discussion around this potent word and deepens our religious understanding.

“Sin,” after all, is not a word that is relevant only to conversations on eternal life. Its definition is not limited to personal transgressions nor bound by incantations of scripture verses. Just as the life of faith is communal, just as God calls us across the whole of scripture to discipleship for the sake of one another, so too the best definitions of “sin” include (even emphasize) the corporate life. The following sermon series idea reclaims this collective understanding of “sin” in order to provoke us to more faithful living as the Body of Christ.

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RECLAIMING “SIN”

Lent 1 (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7). We confess that we crave what we don’t need.

Our neighbor has a newer car, newer clothes, a newer house. The church down the street has a bigger youth program. Iraq has crude oil, Indonesia has gold, the Congo has colton. People of other ethnicities and cultures have music that we want to appropriate, traditions that we want to incorporate, styles that we want to imitate. The grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Adam and Eve crave the one & only fruit that God has not granted to them. We confess that we crave what we don’t need.

Lent 2 (Genesis 12:1-4a). We confess that we are comfortable.

God said, “Leave home. Say goodbye to all that is familiar. Wander without a map until I tell you otherwise.” Meanwhile we idolize home ownership and patriotism, we sanctify liturgical traditions and church buildings, and we suspend our trust of those who lack a history among us. Crossing borders, making our homes in unfamiliar places, welcoming life changes are not often our spiritual gifts. We confess that we are comfortable.

Lent 3 (Exodus 17:1-7). We confess that our memory is short.

In the face of uncertainty, when it seems that the numbers and resources are falling short, we are quick to forget the ways in which God has remained with us and blessed us through both drought and harvest, famine and feast. When life is hard and the world’s chaos seems particularly painful, we are inclined to stomp our feet and pout, “Is God among us or not?” We confess that our memory is short.

Lent 4 (1 Samuel 16:1-13). We confess to profiling one another.

Samuel sizes up Jesse’s sons by their appearance; “Does this son look like a king? Does this one?” God admonishes Samuel, indicating “God looks on the heart.” And — God knows — David’s heart is imperfect, but in truth we are all capable of exquisite praise and terrible harm. Do we approach one another believing that here is a person whose life glorifies God, or do we approach one another suspecting harm? We confess to profiling one another.

Lent 5 (Ezekiel 37:1-14). We confess that we live as though without hope.

Here’s my confession: I doubt that any government can be fully just; I worry that humanity will always designate a scapegoat; I’m afraid that “world peace” is just a phrase for stump speeches and beauty pageants. Just two weeks before Easter, the Ezekiel text challenges us to set our minds & spirits: will we remain as dry hopeless bones even after the good news of Easter, or will we respond to the breath and come alive with hope? We confess that we live as though without hope.

Lent 6/Passion Sunday (Isaiah 50:4-9a). We confess that we believe shaming lies.

We give great lip service to Jesus’ commands that we turn the other cheek, love our enemies, forgive seven and seventy times. Concurrently, we live in and we reflect a society that believes in a strong, aggressive offense in international affairs, on sports fields, in political posturing, and in gender roles. Compromise and emotion are signs of weakness; emasculation is the greatest shame of all. Yet from his arrest to his crucifixion, our hero and savior Jesus Christ was stripped bare, exposed, shamed, and taunted as a failure. We confess that we believe shaming lies.

Easter Sunday (Jeremiah 31:1-6). We confess that we long to dance.

Our steps are made weary by daily routine, sadness and death, cynicism and violence, anxiety and oppression. We long for the freedom to kick up our heels, to grab our tambourines, and to dance as though death has no hold over us! Our Lenten confessions and our reflections on “sin” are not meant to beat down our spirits but to bring us mindfully, sincerely to this moment: the liturgical words of assurance, the good news of Easter, that even humanity’s collective sins cannot quench God’s enthusiasm for love and God’s radical action for life! We confess that we long to dance.

Next week’s Monday Muse: sermon series ideas on Lent’s gospel readings.