Saturday, September 19, 2015

"The Essence of Christian Leadership"

           Last Sunday, I began a new sermon series on “Christian Leadership.”  In that first message, I suggested that we broaden our conventional understanding of leadership.  Instead of thinking of leadership as the sole privilege of the “person in charge,” I suggested that we look for leadership opportunities in all sorts of different roles that we have.  For instance, leadership should include the role of parents with their children; the role of older siblings with their younger brothers and sisters; the role of schoolchildren on the playground; the way we conduct ourselves at work; the way we treat our neighbors; the way we treat those who are marginalized and suffer from a lack of housing, food, or medical care; and the way in which we engage others as members of society. 

            When we broaden our view of leadership to include the possibilities that exist in our various roles and relationships, then it is clear that God calls all of us to be leaders much of the time through our various roles.  So, when we examine what it means to be a Christian leader, then we should begin by recognizing that Christian leadership includes everyone.

            This week, I want us to focus our reflections on the essence of Christian leadership, which I believe involves visionary leadership.  We might pause here and ask what exactly is visionary leadership?  I would define visionary Christian leadership like this:

            Visionary Christian Leadership is the art of picturing God’s preferred future for Christians in terms that inspire our souls and invigorate our wills.

            I base my definition on the Christian conviction that something profound and earth-changing occurred with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Through the person Jesus of Nazareth, the Divine breaks into human and natural history, beginning the transformation of the universe.  In this transformative event, God’s Reign is established here on earth.  Jesus’ Resurrection provides the confirmation that God’s Reign has begun. 
Yet, even though God’s Reign has clearly begun, it is not yet completed.  We continue to live in a world torn by conflict; broken by injustice; marred by hunger, homeless, and inadequate healthcare.  We live in a world where there is pervasive spiritual darkness, along with much fear, guilt, and loneliness.  We live in a world confronted with myriad ecological challenges, including global climate change and a growing shortage of potable water.  While God’s Reign may already be established in the heart of individual Christians along with spiritual communities, much needs to be done before we can say that God’s Reign has been completely established.
As persons of faith, we live in a world full of darkness, yet through our faith we can see the glimmers of a new sunrise and a new day on the horizon.  As persons who see this new day through faith, God calls us into a sort of junior partnership, in which we work to expand God’s Reign until it is completed and extends to the ends of the earth. 
Visionary Christian Leadership, thus, is the art of the “big picture;” that is, looking beyond the darkness of this broken world to see the emerging sunrise of God’s eventual Reign.  In addition, visionary Christian leadership is the ability to articulate and share this bigger picture, so that those around us catch a glimpse of this bigger picture and are, consequently, inspired and invigorated to work towards achieving this goal.
My understanding of visionary Christian leadership is grounded in the scriptural account of the early church, as contained in the Book of Acts.  My scripture for this Sunday comes from Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2:  12-24.  Peter’s sermon begins in response to persons who witness the unfolding of Pentecost, but don’t understand what is happening.  These persons joke that the followers of Christ must be drunk.  Peter stands to defend himself and the other Christians.  He notes that since it is only 9 am, it is unlikely that everyone has had enough wine to become drunk.
Then, Peter explains how the whole world has been transformed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He begins his explanation with a quotation from the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves; both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
                -- as quoted by Peter in Acts 2:  17-18
Peter recognizes that this in-breaking of the Reign of God into human and natural history forms a tipping point.  Peter’s reference to the “last days” indicates that we have now entered into this new period of transformation.   Even though God’s Reign has yet to be fully established, nothing will ever be the same again because the seed of God’s Reign has been planted by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  For Peter, the Reign of God has already been established within the hearts of Christ’s followers through the in-flowing of the Holy Spirit.  This in-dwelling of God’s Reign through the Holy Spirit means that Jesus’ disciples view the world differently; our worldview has been transformed—and we, ourselves, are transformed.
Powered by God in the form of the Holy Spirit, followers of Christ are called to work towards expanding God’s Reign throughout the world.  Followers of Christ begin to envision a different world; a world of peace, justice, human and environmental flourishing, as well as spiritual fulfillment--all under God’s Reign.  That is, “sons and daughters shall prophesy” … “young men shall see visions” of the possibilities for God’s Reign… “old men dream dreams” of a world transformed through God’s Reign.
            Peter’s sermon provides the basis for my understanding of visionary Christian leadership.  Visionary Christian leadership is the ability to look beyond the present reality in many different relationships and see the latent possibilities for those relationships through the power of the Holy Spirit to transform and create something new.  It is the ability to look at seemingly intractable conflict and see the possibilities of peace through the power of the Holy Spirit; to see the possibilities for justice in the face of injustice; prosperity despite overwhelming hunger and homelessness; hope in spite of despair; a sustainable natural world despite global climate change and many other forms of degradation. 
Fundamentally, visionary Christian leadership is the ability to see the first rays of sunlight, even at the darkest night.  It is the ability to transform relationships, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit and a vision of what God’s Reign will be.
Come, join us this Sunday (September 20th), as we explore in more depth what visionary Christian leadership is and how it can transform our lives and our world.  Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Tingling Ears"

What is the single greatest challenge facing the Church in the Twenty-first Century?
            Many Christian thinkers believe that the biggest challenge is competent, visionary, passionate leadership—by both laity and clergy.  Since strong leadership is so essential for the Church’s future vitality and growth, I am going to offer a six-part sermon series exploring “Christian Leadership.”  The first three messages will occur in September, with the second three coming later in the fall.  The first three leadership topics explore the following areas:

1.      September 13              Who does God call to leadership”
2.      September 20              “The Essence of Christian Leadership”
3.      September 27              “The Roles of Power and Vulnerability
                                             in Christian Leadership”
            We begin this series on leadership with the simple question of, “Who?”  “Who does God call to leadership within the Church?”  Does God call the persons who have studied the Bible the most to be the leaders?  Or, does God call the most spiritual persons to be the leaders?  Or, does God call the most educated and credentialed persons to be the leaders?  Or, does God use completely different criteria in calling persons to Christian leadership?

            It seems reasonable to ground our exploration of this question with one of the “call stories” in the Bible.  These are accounts of how God called various persons to special leadership and ministry in the Bible.  These call stories include:

Ø  Moses is called by God to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt.  See Exodus 3.
Ø  God calls David to become the next King of Israel.  See 1 Samuel 16:  1-13.
Ø  Isaiah is called to become a prophet, speaking for God.  See Isaiah 6.
Ø  Mary of Nazareth is called to be the mother of Jesus.  See Luke 1:  27-55.
Ø  Jesus calls the disciples to join him. See Matthew 4: 18-22; Mark 1: 16-20; Luke 5: 1-11; and John 1:  35-51.
However, to explore the question of whom God calls into leadership this weekend, I will focus on 1 Samuel 3:  1-11.

              The story of Samuel’s call to leadership is set in the early years of Israel, just before the reign of Saul, who was the young nation’s very first king.  During that period of history, Israel was led by the religious authorities, or priests. The scripture passage begins by noting that it was a period of spiritual bankruptcy:  “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” (v. 2b) This suggests that there was a distance, perhaps a chasm, separating the people of Israel from God.  In other words, the people did not experience the presence of the Divine in their lives; there was a form of spiritual bankruptcy which pervaded the society, casting a dark pall across the land.  (As an aside, we might ask if the word of God is rare in our days?)

           The Book of 1 Samuel begins with the account of how a woman named Hannah was unable to conceive and have a child for a very long period of time, even though she desperately wanted to have children.  So Hannah prayed to God, asking for a son and promising that she and Elkanah, her husband, would dedicate him to God.  Hannah and Elkanah eventually had a son, whom they named Samuel.  True to their word, the couple dedicated their young son to God, placing him  under the care of Eli, who was the chief priest and religious leader of Israel at the time. 

              Samuel spent his childhood, living and serving as an assistant to Eli.  One night, when Samuel was about 12 years old, God called him to become the religious leader of Israel.  The story in 1 Samuel 3:  2-9 takes place in Shiloh as Samuel is sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant in the “temple,” or tent sanctuary.  Samuel’s mentor, the chief priest, Eli, is also sleeping nearby. 
During the night, God calls to Samuel.  Thinking that it was Eli who was calling for him, Samuel went to Eli and answered, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Eli, who was probably wakened from a sound sleep by Samuel, reassured Samuel that he was fine and had not called for him.  So, thinking that he had perhaps dreamed that he was being called, Samuel went back to his place by the Ark of the Covenant and tried to get back to sleep.
Again, God called Samuel, with the same result.  And, a third time, God called Samuel.  On the third time, Eli the priest realizes that Samuel is not just imagining things.  Instead, Eli suspects that God is calling to Samuel.  So, if Samuel is again awakened by someone calling to him, then Eli instructs Samuel to respond with the words, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
Sure enough, God calls to Samuel a fourth time, and Samuel responds as Eli has suggested, saying:  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  God then explains to Samuel that God has new, exciting plans, saying:  “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”  God has chosen Samuel to become the next religious leader, after the priest Eli passes away.
Just as with all of the “call stories” in the Bible, so also in this story.  God has a role for Samuel to play as a leader of God’s people.  God bestows upon each of us a unique constellation of gifts, talents, and expertise to serve in various ministries within the church and beyond the church.  These constellations of gifts and talents means that God calls each of us to positions of leadership in life, while at other times God calls someone else to leadership and asks us to follow the leadership of that person.
In this first sermon on Christian Leadership, I want to broaden our understanding of leadership beyond the conventional assumptions.  So, for me, Christian Leadership would apply to a wide variety of contexts and circumstances both within the church and beyond the church walls.  Christian Leadership would include the role of parents; the role of schoolchildren on the playground; the way we conduct ourselves at our jobs, as neighbors, as members of society.  At various times, all of us are thrust in positions, where we can become Christian Leaders.
  Come, join us this Sunday (September 13th), as we begin this fascinating exploration of Christian leadership.  Our church, Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

“The Man with the Water Jar”

           This Sunday (September 6th), our congregation will celebrate “The Lord’s Supper” (or “Eucharist”) as we do on the first weekend of every month—and during other special worship services throughout the year. 

But, why do we celebrate The Lord's Supper every month?

            In my message this weekend, I will focus on The Lord’s Supper.  We will explore its origins in the scriptures and why it is fundamental to the life and practices of the Christian church.

            Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper is described in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, 26: 26-29, Mark 14: 22-25, and Luke 22: 7-20) as well as in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11: 23-26).  My sermon this Sunday will be grounded in Luke’s account of the Eucharist.

            The three synoptic Gospels describe Jesus as instituting The Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) as part of his celebration of the Jewish Festival of Passover with his disciples and other closest followers.  Luke begins his account of the evening with Jesus sending Peter and John into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover meal. (Luke 22: 7).  Jesus says, “when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’”

Now, in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time, the sight of a man carrying a jar of water would have been very startling because carrying water was a task usually fulfilled by women within each household.  At any rate, Peter and John do as Jesus has instructed and the home owner directs them to a large, upper room for their Passover celebration.  At the time for the meal, Jesus and his disciples gather together in the Upper Room.

            In order to fully understand The Lord’s Supper, it is important to remember that the Jewish Passover celebrates the Israelites’ escape from bondage and slavery in Egypt.  The Passover celebration was a very important and meaningful religious observance for Jesus and his followers, who were all devout Jews.  The Passover consists of special foods and a liturgy which is followed during the meal.  According to historians, the celebration of the Passover in Jesus’ time would have taken a form similar to this:

A.    Preliminary Course.  A word of declaration, with a preliminary dish (an appetizer) consisting of greens, bitter herbs, and a sauce of fruit puree.  The first cup of wine is shared.

B.     Passover Liturgy.  Here the story of the first Passover and the Israelites’ escape from slavery and bondage in Egypt is re-told, beginning with these words:  “A wandering Aramean was my father…”.  A second cup of wine is shared.

C.     Main Meal.  Grace is spoken over unleavened bread, and then a meal is shared.  The meal consists of the Passover lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, with fruit puree.  During the meal, a third cup of wine is shared.

D.    Conclusion:  A fourth cup of wine is shared.

             According to the accounts in the three synoptic Gospels, during the Passover meal Jesus takes a loaf of bread, blesses it and gives it to his disciples, saying:  “‘Take; this is my body.’”  Then, he takes a cup of wine; after blessing the wine, he offers it to his disciples, telling them:  “‘This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many.’”  (Luke 22: 19-20)

In The United Methodist Church we recognize The Lord’s Supper and Baptism as sacraments.  A sacrament is an outward, visible, and physical sign of an inward and spiritual gift or assistance from God.  Both sacraments are established in the Bible and we are encouraged to practice them as part of our spiritual lives.   

When we celebrate The Lord’s Supper, I frequently feel especially close to the Divine.  In my sermon on Sunday, I will share a special story of how I intensely felt the Divine presence with me and the congregation during a celebration of the sacrament on Easter Sunday. 

This is why we celebrate The Lord’s Supper:  it allows us to be healed from all that separates us from the love of God and re-connect with the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives.  The Lord’s Supper should not be a ritual that we periodically go through.  Instead, it is a spiritual—sometimes mystical—connection with the love and presence of Jesus which is already present in our lives. 

But, there is more.

The Lord’s Supper is also that spiritual moment which points us to the future and reminds us of our ultimate destiny; that moment when Jesus will keep his promise to the original disciples as well as all of his followers.  As recorded in Luke, Jesus says:  “‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it [again] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 22: 15-16)  The Lord’s Supper never ends.  Instead, it always points the way forward to the “eschaton,” the time when Jesus will come again; when God will transform us and everything else into a New Creation; and when God’s Reign will be fully established.  At that time, Jesus will join us and all of his disciples at a heavenly banquet and celebration.

Come, join us this Sunday, as we explore and celebrate The Lord’s Supper.  Our church, Christ United Methodist Church, is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.