Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Quotations for Worship and Reflection

Each week I put a quotation on the cover of the worship bulletin to help get folks thinking about the theme of my sermon and the service. It's been a while since I've put any here on my blog, so for those who like quotations, here you go.

On March 8, I preached on Mark 8:31-38 where Jesus declares that his followers must "deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him." So I asked the question, "Does Jesus want us to Suffer?" I've known of cases and read of many more where ministers and priests told women married to abusive men that since Jesus suffered on the cross, they could suffer the blows of their husbands. Obviously, this is the wrong lesson to take away from Jesus' suffering. So, I found helpful Douglas John Hall's book God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross. He writes:

“One can suffer for the wrong reasons. . . One can also take s special interest in suffering as an end in itself—and then it must be called what it really is, masochism. The only suffering in which the “church of the cross” can find a reason to rejoice is his suffering, the suffering of the One whose cross signifies identification with a suffering God and a suffering world.”

On Sunday, March 1, the First Sunday in Lent, I preached on Mark 1:9-15 which gives Mark's account of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. I spoke of Lent as a time for self-reflection and cleansing in preparation for Easter. I used a quotation by Edna Hong which I found in a nice little book of reflections for Lent called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. This volume which contains essays from a variety of good authors including Bonhoeffer, Merton, Nouwen, Augustine, Updike, Tolstoy and others took its excerpt from Hong's book The Downward Ascent. She writes:

“Few of us have looked long enough into ourselves to see what seems to us and to others as normally attractive is actually as graceless as a scarecrow and even repulsive. It is an easy matter for the physical eye to spot physical deformity and blemishes in others and in oneself. It is not so easy for the eye of the spirit to spot deformities, although it is easier to see them in others than in oneself. This X-ray look at others is called “naked truth,” “unvarnished truth.” But to spot it in one’s self is not only difficult but painful, and no one wants to take the descending path to that naked, unvarnished truth. . . Yet it is to this path that Lent invites us.”

Looking back on it, the quotation I used on February 22 doesn't excite me much, so on to Feb. 15 when I preached on Mark 1:40-45. Here we are confronted with one of the mysteries of Mark's gospel--what is called "The Messianic Secret." Why was it that Mark's Jesus tells everyone to keep quiet about what he is up to and who he is? I've read quite a few articles and subjects on this subject, but it finally made sense to me when I read Brian McLaren's The Secred Message of Jesus. McLaren writes:

“What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form—as a kingdom “not of this world”—is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms—so they, having been exposed can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom? What if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?"

On February 8, I preached on Mark 1:29-39, which tells the story of Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law. Many writers describe her as the first deacon of the church, because as soon as she is healed she goes to work serving Jesus and the disciples. So, the theme of my sermon was the idea of Jesus enabling each of us to serve. I chose to venture outside the Christian realm when I used a quotation by the Dalai Lama, because although expressed by a Tibetan Buddhist the idea is certainly Christ-like:

"In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being."

On Feb. 1, I preached on Mark 1:21-28, where a man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus in the middle of a synagogue service. I took as my starting point the idea that if such an occurrence happened today we would think the person was mentally ill and then went on to talk about how all of us have to be a little crazy to be followers of Jesus. I took the following quotation from John Austin Baker's The Foolishness of God.

“All our thoughts about God are conjectures. . . The change brought about by the first Easter is still not a proof in the ordinary sense. . . It carries conviction only to those who are willing to be the fools of love, who feel in their heart of hearts that, however far their own performance may fall short, sacrificial love is the highest of all values. . . If I cannot accept this, then the whole affair remains an irrelevant enigma.”

On Jan. 25, I preached on Mark 1:14-20 where Jesus calls his disciples. I titled the sermon "The Undiscovered Country" after the famous "To be or not to be" speech in Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1. In it Hamlet contemplates suicide but rejects the idea out of fear of what happens after death--"the undiscovered country." I offered in my sermon that thanks to Jesus we know what happens after deat and therefore what remains undiscovered is what kind of life will we lead on this plane of existence?

But that the dread of something after death,
That undiscover'd country from whose bourne
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolutionIs sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

On Jan. 18, I preached a sermon in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I, as a white minister, asked an essentially white church, "Are We Afraid to Embrace MLK's Dream?" Doing so, after all, would involve giving up quite a lot of white privilege. My text was Mark 6:1-6 where Jesus declares “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” So, I took the following quotation from the collection of King's sermons entitled Strength to Love in a sermon called "Antidotes to Fear."

“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but, rather to harness and master it.”

On January 11, I preached on the baptism of Jesus which is the custom on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Mark's version of the event occurs in 1:4-11. My sermon title was "God is in the Broken Places" referring to the tearing open of the heavens at Jesus' baptism that mirrors the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus' death. My point was that God is present in the places where the barriers that separate people from one another and from God are being broken down. I used a quotation from Barbara Lundblad, preaching professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It comes from her sermon "Torn Apart Forever."

The torn place is where God comes through, the place that never again closes as neatly as before. From the day he saw the heavens torn apart, Jesus began tearing apart the pictures of whom Messiah was supposed to be-- Tearing apart the social fabric that separated rich from poor. Breaking through hardness of heart to bring forth compassion. Breaking through rituals that had grown rigid or routine. Tearing apart the notions of what it means to be God's Beloved Son. Nothing would ever be the same, for the heavens would never again close so tightly.

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