Monday, June 18, 2007

Preaching to the Choir?

I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago of preaching to a group of 10, I think that includes me and my wife in that count. I have preached to small groups like this before, at nursing homes and even at small services, but something struck me about preaching this time. Part of it was that this preaching experience was coupled with preaching the same sermon and hour before to 150 people. In many ways I felt I gave a far better sermon to the smaller group than the larger one, but what was most striking to me was how it felt to talk about "you" or "some of you" in reference to the congregation. Suddenly you meant something more, like I was actually asking something directly of people. I often want to ask something of people as I preach to them, but this time it was as though I was asking people directly, face to face. I was preaching about the need for us to give first to God and count on God to provide for the rest. Implied in the sermon was the idea that in general we tend to give to God after we first provide for ourselves, something I know I am often guilty of. I wanted to challenge people to change how they thought about giving and work instead on giving to God first and foremost, but when preaching to ten people it felt very different. Suddenly it was as though I was implying that each person in the group needed to change how they were living. I do not know the giving patterns of that group and do not know therefore if the sermon applied to them. I felt a temptation to soften the language of my sermon to this smaller group. The only reason I can give for these feelings was that I felt like I was actually asking something of people directly, like I expected them personally to change because of my message. Oddly enough that would seem to be one of the points of a sermon is to affect change in individuals, but when given the chance for that, I felt uncomfortable. I am still struck by the experience of actually feeling I was asking something of people personally. So my question in all of this that I am musing on, and still pondering, is whether a sermon is meant to be general, providing a topic for thought that people can take or leave as it strikes them, or whether it really is meant to be a call for personal transformation in people's lives. I am not sure yet how I feel about it, but I feel that challenge echoing inside as I reflect upon my weekly messages.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trees of Hope

A little over a month ago Light of the Lakes UMC, the small church I serve at planted a series of trees along the part of its property that borders houses. It was done both in an effort to improve the neighbor, but also in response to the excessive and unintentional logging that occurred when the church was built two years ago. There is something powerful to me about planting those trees, watering some of them, and watching them grow. These trees are here for the future. As we planted them we talked about what the trees would look like twenty years from now when the six year old in the group might be getting married. It was fun to look that far into the future.
The reality of churches in general today, but this church in particular is that the future is very much uncertain. Who can say who will still be a part of the church then, or if the church will even still be around, and if it is if it will still be at its present location. I recently walked along the line of trees we had planted and saw all the new life that is apparent in the bright green shoots of new growth that each pine tree exhibits. It is a powerful statement of hope and faith that we planted these trees. They will not have a noticeable effect for ten or twenty years on the landscape, and the church may not last three, but trusting in God, we plant the trees, symbols of our commitment to the neighborhood, and our faith that God will find ways to keep us growing one way or another.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bless be the tie that binds

The ideas behind this post have been building in my mind for three years. While reading about the 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church I discovered wonderful picture. It was off Bishop Ott picking up the pieces of a broken communion chalice. The chalice had been broken in frustration/protest of a vote that as taken during the conference around the issue of homosexuality. For some reason the image of the broken chalice connects in my head with the image of a broken church. I had the honor of taking a course with Bishop Ott while I was at seminary and the idea of him helping to pick up the broken pieces of the church is particularly fitting.
Anyone who has ever tried to pick up broken glass knows how easy it is to get cut. I think the chance of getting cut is just as great in the church. Homosexuality is not the first issue to divide the church, all the way back to Paul and Peter, there has been a struggle between who we should let be a part of the church and on what terms. The climax of the 2004 General Conference was the a resolution of church unity that came in response to much of the hurt and talk of separation that took place that year. The statement did not try and gloss over the differences in the church but instead focused on the greater value people felt in unity.
How do we stop the pain that occurs around these issues of division? How do we find a way to live into unity in the midst of diversity without hurting someone too much. I felt the tension again this year as the church prepares for another General Conference. How do find a way to end the conflict without more people getting hurt? It is easy to talk about unity and working towards a time of peace, but are we able to do that now? The Presbyterian church is considering legislation during its national session that would call for a end to legislation seeking to change ordination. The hope is that this would but an end to usual struggles around homosexuality and ordination. It is not meant to maintain the status quo, but instead to let people find a way to heal before continuing the conversation.
I see great deal of pain in the church around this issue and wonder if this might be the best thing for all of us. At the same time however I know there are people who are already hurting, pain that is already being caused by people who are being excluded from their call to ministry because of their sexual orientation. No matter what we do, people are being cut on the jagged edges of our broken church. I don't know the answer to all that is at stake in this. The image I am still left with, is of a Bishop, kneeling on the floor, picking up the pieces of a sacred vessel, working to repair or lives, just as God does.