Sunday, May 20, 2007

John 17:20-26 - "Through Their Message"

7th Sunday of Easter (Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Saturday, May 19, and Sunday, May 20, 2007


For the first time in my seven years as a pastor, and really going all the way back to seminary and vicarage (internship), I preached a sermon without any written manuscript. Let me clarify: I have preached without a manuscript in the pulpit, used only notes, spent time away from the pulpit without any notes, etc., but I have ALWAYS written out the manuscript. I have ALWAYS wanted to have a written version of what I said. I like having a written version, as evidenced by this website.

However, given the fact that I was writing the sermon for May 19 & 20 while trying to adjust to our new household of a 3 year old, 1 year old, and a newborn (born on May 12), I "wrote" the sermon in my head while changing diapers, feeding the baby, playing with the older kids, etc. I had the sermon in my head--including how to use my props of a ladder, signs, and string--but I had precious little time to actually type out what I was going to say.

Therefore, I climbed the ladder without a manu-net (manuscript). You can listen to the audio of the sermon, however. After all, this is 2007 where a written text isn't always necessary. You can stream the audio through a newly created page by our webmaster, Walter Lukitsch. Click here and play the audio with your favorite media player (iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.).

However, let me explain. The sermon begins on top of a 10-foot ladder. I preach from up there until I start handing out spools of string--all attached to the top of the ladder. The keywords in the beginning of the sermon were scrawled in black marker on poster board, and as I rejected the sentiments, I cast off those posters like Bob Dylan in "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (mimicked by INXS with "Meditate").

In our June/July newsletter, I spent a little more time explaining my thoughts behind constructing a sermon in this way. It wasn't just because I was busy at home. The props helped me create a structure (flow, narrative) to the way I was preaching, and the props--I hope--draw attention to the Word of Truth that is our focus.

From the Redeemer Lutheran Church June/July 2007 Newsletter:

On Wednesday, May 2, I attended the Day of Homiletical Reflection at Concordia Serminary, St. Louis (my alma mater). Homiletics is the big, fancy word for preaching, and this annual, one-day conference brings together pastors and students to hear speakers about the art of preaching. This year’s main speaker was Leonard Sweet, a leading name in postmodern Christian circles. His books include The Gospel According to Starbucks which uses the Starbucks experience as a metaphor for a rich life connected with Christ. Sweet’s presentations were very challenging in how different he sees what sermons will be like in our technological, post-postmodern, interactive, searching, post-Christian world.

I also attended a session by Rev. Tony Cook, Director of Educational Technology at Concordia. He spoke about the use of visuals in preaching. He compared the idea of images to letters. Letters are image codes for words, and if we have learned how to read the language used, we understand those image codes. In that same way, our world is full of visual codes in the form of pictures, art, logos, and more. Cook encouraged us to harness that level of communication in our preaching.

The reason I would say this Day of Homiletical Reflection wasn’t just one day is because I’ve been thinking about all of these things ever since. It was a lot to process in one day, and I continue to go back to the discussions as I contemplate how to craft future sermons. I hope I have never acted as if I had this preaching thing all figured out, and I hope I never feel like I have it figured out. Preaching is a constant learning process—learning God’s Word, how to communicate God’s Word, and how to understand the listeners.

Perhaps you were in church on May 19 and 20 when I preached a sermon on John 17:20 called “Through Their Message.” It was the sermon I partly preached from the top of a ladder—-emphasizing that the Church isn’t a top down organization with a small group of leaders who have all the power. The only One at the top is Jesus, and we are all connected to Him through faith—-equipped to share that message with others.

The ladder was an important visual code—-immediately getting us to think of climbing the ladders of success, the way powerful people seem high above us, but then I used spools of string to show that we’re directly connected to the top, to Jesus. I said, “You may not like when I climb on ladders or use spools of string in my sermons, but the reason I do this is to get your attention—-attention on the incredible faith that Jesus gives us.” That is something I learned from the Day of Homiletical Reflection: visuals are only effective if they are used to powerfully point to the truth of God’s Word.

Yet, another important thing happened during that Sunday sermon, something I hadn’t anticipated. Leonard Sweet had talked about how he designs his sermons to be interactive-—encouraging congregation members to add their thoughts during the sermon and allowing those thoughts to shape the sermon itself. I am still not exactly sure how that fits within our tradition, congregation, and worship service, but it happened anyway.

When I handed one of the spools of string to Don Hafeman as an example of how he is connected to Jesus through faith, Don saw where I was going with the sermon. Before I could even talk about how there is more string on the spool, that Christ gives us a faith to share, Don was passing that spool of string back. I looked over and saw this string stretching from pew to pew, from person to person. I hadn’t planned that, but Don contributed to the sermon to clearly show what the Word of God is teaching us: Jesus has prayed for the people who will believe through our message.

I’m not done learning about how to preach and how to communicate God’s Word. I ask for your continued prayers—-prayers every time Pastor Miller or I step into the pulpit—-that God’s Word will be clearly and correctly taught. However, I also ask that you will keep growing and learning how to hear God’s Word and how to communicate it in your own lives.

Because preaching is a passion of mine, that means I love to talk about it. If you ever have questions about what I preach, why I said something, why I did a certain thing during a sermon, please don’t hesitate to talk to me. Misunderstandings (on either side) can often be cleared up with conversation, and as I said, I want to keep learning. You sharing your thoughts continues to shape how I preach and communicate God’s Word to you.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Psalm 148 - “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Worship”

5th Sunday of Easter (Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, a pinnacle of horse racing and pageantry. Today I’d like you to consider that the Kentucky Derby is also the most exciting two minutes in worship. Yes, those horses running around the track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, are praising God with all of their might.

That’s essentially what today’s psalm, Psalm 148, is saying: the whole Creation praises the Lord. And the Derby horses are part of that worship as they run for the roses.

In a book titled, Nature, God and Pulpit, the Rev. Achtemeier wrote a sermon which wonderfully looks deeper into Psalm 148. Not being able to do better, I am going to borrow heavily from this sermon, because it explains the Creation’s praise so well. To give Rev. Achtemeier proper credit, the sections of this sermon that I preach from the music stand will be the sections that Rev. Achtemeier wrote [blue text]. When I’m in the pulpit, those are my words. Together these words are our sermon today, an expanded look at God’s Word.

When we look about us at this universe in which we live, it is not difficult to believe that God made the world [out of love]. We are surrounded on every side by works of extravagant beauty and variety and intricacy. The lowly housefly bears on his wings colors of breathtaking beauty, as anyone knows who has ever looked at them through a microscope. The turtle drags along in the mud a belly plate marked with intricate pattern. The head of an ordinary caterpillar contains 228 separate and distinct muscles. And that’s just speaking of very common creatures. What are we to say of wildflowers and scarlet tanagers and dogwood trees, of pink coral reefs and wooded hills and waterfalls, except that they are stamped with the love of a God wildly enthusiastic about his work?...[As explained by author] Annie Dillard’s phrase: “The Creator loves pizzazz!”…

The answer to the love of God is to be the creation’s echoing praise. The whole universe is to praise its Creator for the existence he has given it, for the good life he has made. In [Psalm 148], there is a universal call to praise:

Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!...
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!...
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created. (English Standard Version)

…The response of the creation to its Creator is to be a thankful praise, a ringing hallelujah for the good life that God through His Son has made.

And God waits for that song of his creation to rise up to him, waits to hear the thankful affirmation “Yes, life is very good,” waits to hear the praise and know that all is right with his world. God is a music lover who wants to hear his creation sing, because when it sings he knows that his creation is as it should be, stamped with his love and overflowing with good, in a perfection of harmony.

All creation does try to sing a song of praise to its Maker. We think it is just poetic license and exaggeration when our psalm talks about the universe singing and praising God….But we now know that there is a regular energy pulsing from quasars ten billion light-years away, in a remarkable rhythm, that there is a kind of music of the [galaxies].

…[Missionary/theologian] Lesslie Newbigin gave [a talk] one time about the night he spent in the jungles of India. He said the dark was full of sounds—the roars of lions and shrieks of jackals and jabbering of monkeys. “And,” asked Newbigin, “who hears all these things—there in the depths of the jungle of India, night after night?” Well, God hears them. His creatures sing him songs in the night, and God loves the music and is very pleased that his creation is very good.

Ach, that’s a bunch of nonsense, say our literalistic and pedantic minds. Maybe it is. But did you know that nature seems to [detest] a silence, and that somewhere, underlying all the other signals, is a continual music? Lewis Thomas, the biologist, tells us, for example, that even lowly termites “make percussive sounds to each other by beating their heads against the floor in the dark, resonating corridors of their nests.” Bats, as we all know, make sounds almost ceaselessly to sense, by sonar, all the objects in their surroundings. But they have also been heard to produce strange, solitary, and lovely bell-like notes while hanging at rest upside down in the depths of the woods. Fish, says Thomas, “make sounds by clicking their teeth, blowing air, and drumming with special muscles against their tuned inflated air bladders.” Animals with loose skeletons rattle them. Even leeches tap rhythmically on leaves.

We know that humpback whales sing, because recordings have been made of their songs, and we rational humans have concluded that their long, complex, insistent melodies are simply practical statements about navigation, or sources of food, or limits of territory. But how strange it seems, notes Thomas, that they should send “through several hundred miles of undersea such ordinary information as ‘whale here.’” Sometimes, “in the intervals between songs,” they have been seen to breach and to leap clear of the waves, “landing on their backs, awash in the turbulence of their beating flippers.” It is as if they were showing pleasure and jubilation for the way their songs went, and yes, perhaps their praise for the joy of life.

Bird songs, of course, have been analyzed into nothing more than warning calls and mating messages and pronouncements of territory. But as Thomas has put it,

The thrush in my backyard sings down his nose in meditative, liquid runs of melody, over and over again, and I have the strongest impression that he does this for. . .pleasure. Some of the time he seems to be practicing, like a virtuoso in his apartment. He starts a run, reaches a midpoint in the second bar where there should be a set of complex harmonics, stops, and goes back to begin over, dissatisfied. Sometimes he changes his notation so conspicuously that he seems to be improvising sets of variations. It is a meditative. . .kind of music, and I cannot believe that he is simply saying, “thrush here.”

Yes, all creation praises its Maker. We hear only a few of the sounds at one time, but Thomas has further suggested that if we could hear the combined sound which rises from the universe, it would lift us off our feet. But God hears it, and he is pleased….

This is what I mean by the Kentucky Derby being the “most exciting two minutes in worship.” We think of thoroughbred horses as being bred to run, that’s why they’re chomping at the bit to burst out of the gate. We think of them almost like machines that owners, trainers, breeders, and jockeys have somehow manipulated into running.

But watch a horse run. Watch those horses as their legs fly in perfect succession, their hides barely containing the muscles that flex and stretch to move their 1,000 pound bodies at 40 miles per hour. There’s a lot that humans have no control over; there’s a lot of beauty, joy, praise, and worship in the movement of a horse. That horse running around the track is doing what God made him to do. With every pounding hoof, with every breath, with every stretch of his neck, those Derby horses are praising their Creator with every sinewy muscle in their bodies. It is truly the most exciting two minutes in worship.

The Kentucky Derby is a holiday that I accepted after becoming part of Susan’s family who lives in Louisville. While the nation may tune in for the race itself, the Derby in Louisville is a two week festival. The Derby is more than a race; it’s a huge celebration of Kentucky. In fact, in many years, I have asked to have this day off from preaching so I could watch the race at home as we hosted a Derby party.

Yet, I have often been reluctant to talk about our Derby holiday, because the Kentucky Derby also means gambling. I mean, that’s what going on at Churchill Downs and every other horse track. The people aren’t just there to watch horses run in praise to God; they’re at the track to pick a horse, place a bet, and wait to win. Gambling can become such an addiction, such a poor stewardship of our money, gambling can lead to so many different sins, that I have been reluctant to talk much about the Kentucky Derby for fear that someone would think that I, as pastor, was endorsing all of the gambling, drinking, cheating, underhanded schemes that get associated with horse racing as the stakes get so high.

I hope you would know that I wouldn’t ever endorse those parts of the Kentucky Derby. It’s like I said, I watch the race because it’s a holiday, a part of Louisville, Kentucky, culture, and I see those horses praising God with their bodies. Yet, as Rev. Achtemeier continues the sermon, “The difficulty is, of course, that we have interrupted the praise….”. All of the sins associated with the Kentucky Derby have interrupted the praise, the way those horses are worshipping God in a most exciting two minutes. We interrupt the Creation’s song to God. Besides making the Derby all about gambling, there are far more serious ways we do this.

We have interrupted the praise….[T]hink what we have done to the song of praise from grizzly bear and coyote, from whale and manatee, from eagle and whooping crane—all those endangered species. We are slaughtering off the sound of their singing. Indeed, we human beings have ravished the world with our bug sprays and poisons and technology, with our bulldozers and concrete and earthmovers, and now the day seems not far distant when God the music lover will listen and hear from his good earth nothing but a deafening silence.

It is profound the way the prophets of the Old Testament picture the end of the world. Jeremiah talks about the time when there shall no longer be the sound of mirth and of singing, when no voice of feasting or merriment will interrupt the stillness caused by sin. His last apocalyptic picture of judgment is a picture of awful silence, when there is no bird left to sing on a bush and no human and no light. It is a picture that could very well portray our world after the final hydrogen bomb explodes….“This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but with a whimper.” Silence. Because we are destroying the song of praise.

…[W]e have systematically failed to praise God for the life he has given us, and we have systematically and wantonly destroyed his good earth. But God will not have done with us! There is the final miracle—that he will not rest content with our sin and silence. He will not deliver us into the dominion of darkness and its stillness into death. Instead, he has sent his own son into our wasting and wasted lives, to walk this world with us, and he has said, “Here, here is the measure of my love for you; here is my forgiveness of your sin. You have laid waste my world and ignored my love, stamped on earth and sea and heavens. But you are more important to me than my sparrows, than the grass that clothes my meadows. You are of infinitely more worth than my lilies in the field.”

…That is a fantastic thought. God loves you more than all the wonders of his world. Think of the care he lavishes on the birds—clothing them in gorgeous colors, providing them trees for nests and infinite melodies in song, guiding their instincts year by year in their seasonal migrations, feeding them with bug and berry and giving them drink from the rain. And yet Jesus says, “Are you not of more value than they?” God lavishes on you more care and love in his Son Jesus Christ than he has lavishes on all his creation through him….God loves you more than he loves all creation. And so he gives his very Son for you on a cross to restore to you abundant life, that you may have joy and hope and learn once again what it is to sing. And Christ is raised from the dead, that you may truly [praise God forever]….

But then, good Christian saints, is our feeble praise sufficient to laud the love of such a God? Or do we not, with our Psalmist, need to be joined in our praise by a universal chorus? When our voices are feeble in their song to God, [we need] the mighty whale’s jubilation. When we sleep tonight, [we need] the night creatures’ roars and shrieks of joy—the endangered tiger, the wolf, the Rocky Mountain grizzly.

When we [aren’t constant in our praise], [we need] the steady pulsation of the distant stars, beaming their energy through an unpolluted sky. And when we are dissonant and divided in our praise,…our disharmony [needs to] be drowned out by the liquid melodies of lark and wren, or the roar of pure waterfalls. When we turn horses running into a reason for gambling and other vices, we need those horses to worship God with their running that shines brighter than gold.

I think of last year’s Derby winner, Barbaro, who just a few weeks later broke his leg in three places while running the Preakness Stakes. After many surgeries, he eventually died this past January. You watch video of the race, listen to people talking about Barbaro’s injury, and all of our ways of corrupting horse racing got erased for a moment. His jockey didn’t hesitate to try to stop Barbaro from running as soon as he noticed something was wrong, jumping off the horse as soon as possible and going to support his broken leg. Trainers and track crew raced to Barbaro’s aide; fans watched and cried from the stands. I don’t know who won the Preakness; I could have looked it up I suppose, but no one seemed to care. Gambling was no longer important, because we finally realized that Barbaro was running in worship to His Creator and now he was suffering in this world messed up by our sin.

So today beyond everything we try to do to interrupt the praise of the horses at the Kentucky Derby, still those horses are there running with joy and wonder for their Maker. Despite all of our attempts at interrupting the praise of this world, the Creation continues to find ways to lift up its own music to God. And despite all of our attempts at silencing the Creation’s song, God still loves us, still sent His Son to die for us, still raised His Son victorious from the grave, still has promised to return to give us eternal life on a new earth where we will join the Creator’s choirs in praise forever. There the horses will run all day, and we will not stop them. We will cheer and sing with them, raising our voices to the Lord our Maker.

Nature, God, and Pulpit, Elizabeth Achtemeier, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992, pp. 41-48. All rights reserved.