Information vs. Experience (con't)
2010-04-22 by Roger Gustafson

Our pastoral intern this year is from Ethiopia, and I’m learning a lot from him.  His nation’s experience of the Christian movement is very different from North America’s; Christianity survived – and thrived – during Ethiopia’s oppressive communist regime, while the faith has enjoyed privileged status here in the United States. 

We were talking about church leadership the other day, and he was asking about the qualifications of those serving on church councils.  We are a predominantly white, middle-class congregation in America’s heartland; many of our members cast their livelihood nets in the seas of mid-level management.  Our church council reflects that demographic. 

Qualifications?  Well, they have to be willing to ask the question, “What is God up to, and how can we help?” and then be able to follow through with some long-range planning based on the answers that we discern.  Specifically, they have to promise to “work together with other members to see that the worship and work of Christ are done in this congregation, and that God’s will is done in this community and in the whole world; to be diligent in your specific area of serving … ; and to be examples of faith active in love, to help maintain the life and harmony of this congregation.” 

“Oh,” he said.  “It’s different in Africa.”   

“How so?  What’s the qualification for congregational leadership there?”   

“There’s only one main criterion: ‘Can you preach God’s word?’” 

Forget about those agonizing discussions about the budget or about the appropriate age for first Communion or what color to paint the sanctuary.  “Can you preach God’s word?” 

How different would our church governing bodies be – in makeup and function – if that question was the qualifier for who leads?  The question addresses, of course, primarily an experience of faith, not knowledge about faith. 

What will we communicate this Sunday?

Shepherds I Have Known
2010-04-21 by Guy Kent

Acts 9: 36-43, Psalm 23, John 10: 22-30

There’s a pastor I know who has a reputation for preaching. He has a way with words. He has the ability to coin a phrase and reshape a familiar thought, to demand the listener’s attention. Every Sunday his church is full. Every year his church superiors get letters stating how important he is to the life of that congregation. He’s known among his colleagues, respected by those in authority.  When he walks into a room of preachers everyone knows who just entered.

There’s a second pastor I know who has not a reputation for preaching. He fumbles over his words. He tends to become academic in the pulpit and rare is the listener who follows his sermon to a logical end. Every Sunday the faithful attend as they have attended no matter who was the preacher for all the years of their membership. This preacher is barely known by any of his colleagues though he and the first pastor have served the same number of years, and, indeed, graduated from seminary in the same class. Those in authority are always on the lookout for where they can send him next. And when he walks into a room filled with preachers hardly anyone knows who just entered.

One Friday night I was being rolled down the hallway of Emory University Hospital on a gurney. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m in a movie.” Because the lights overhead were passing by as they did in so many films I’d seen. I was conscious of the panic in the doctors who had been performing a procedure on me that had gone badly wrong. And now we were headed to surgery, open heart surgery. Suddenly the passing lights in the ceiling were obstructed by the face of that second preacher. “Hold on,” he said, “everything’s going to be okay. Let’s pray.” And he prayed in a huffing voice as he tried to keep up with the speeding gurney. I remember thinking, “Where the hell did he come from?” And then I was in surgery and everything was black.

When I awoke from that surgery my wife was holding my left hand and that first preacher was holding my right hand. My wife was crying; the first preacher was saying, “’Bout time you woke up.” And he smiled a reassuring prayer. I went back to sleep. When I awoke my wife was in the chair on my right and he was in the chair on my left.

A week later, at home, I got ready to go for a walk as part of my recovery. I headed down the driveway just in time to meet an unfamiliar car coming up. Inside was that second preacher. He went to walk with me and when we got back to the house he prayed, again, with me. When he left that day I remember thinking he couldn’t preach his way out of a wet paper bag, but boy could he show Jesus in his life.

That night the first preacher showed up at my house. He brought some Chinese food with him. We sat in the dining room laughing and remembering the past while looking forward to the future. He left about eight, and I remember thinking he wouldn’t be getting home until after eleven.

Years later I sat again in a hospital. This time I sat in a “family room” next to the room where my wife’s dead body lay. The first preacher showed up within hours of her death and he stayed there until he drove me home. And when I got home that second preacher was on the front porch waiting. Both had driven halfway across the state to be where they were. They directed the visitors to me. They talked to the family. They handled all those horrible details. And when my children arrived they gathered them into the warmth of their care.

Today’s Psalm is about that Shepherd. It carries me back to those days when a really polished orator and a somewhat fumbling preacher gathered me into their care.

Whenever I’m at a meeting of preachers and either one walks into the room, I know who they are for as surely as Peter, through Christ, raised Tabitha I was raised from the depths of my suffering. And in that raising I knew the living Christ.

GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermon Award
2010-04-21 by David Howell

Donna Olivia Powell is the winner of the 2010 GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermon Award. She receives a complimentary registration to the Festival of Homiletics, a room at the Scarritt Bennett Center, and $200 in expense money. Runner-up Sarah Pomerantz receives a one year subscription to

Read the 2009 and 2010 seminarian sermons:

GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermons 2009

GoodPreacher Seminarian Sermons 2010

Information vs. Experience
2010-04-21 by Roger Gustafson

The Judeans want information from Jesus: “If you are the Messiah, tells us plainly.”  There they stand, recording devices in hand, waiting.  But Jesus isn’t offering information; he’s offering an experience.  Big difference. 

At the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Baptist’s followers who want to know about him: “Come and see.”  That’s a standing invitation in the gospel, to enter the experience of Jesus and see for yourself who he is.  That’s how the learning is to be gained, through the heart, not the head. 

Therein lies the more subtle “stone in the road” in this text.  Jesus is more than a title; his significance cannot be captured in words and concepts.  His identity must be experienced, and he – not we – is in charge of that experience. 

This is not to soft-pedal the role of the intellect in faith.  All of our faculties are gifts from God, and we are to employ all of them in faithful living.  After all, Jesus himself reinforces the Shema of Deut 6:5 as “the first and greatest” command.  There are variations in the Synoptics’ report of Jesus’ words, but each of them includes “with the mind” as one of the ways in which he says we are to love the Lord. 

But in the years following Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the Christian movement did not grow because the Church’s creeds were convincing; it grew because Christ-followers stood up in the midst of a culture of oppression and fear and said, “We live differently.  Come and see how we live.”  They offered not information but an experience. 

What are we offering in our churches?

God and Us
2010-04-20 by Stephen Schuette

We often think of Revelation as being exclusionary and demarking an “in” group from an “out” group – names written in books, countable numbers, etc.  And yet here is diversity and inclusion and “a multitude that no one could count” – not even Deloitte.    This overcoming of boundaries is even more strongly affirmed, I think, in the closing chapters.  Funny that so often this book is not read through to the end!

Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism is, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”  Answer:  “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…”

In between the lines of the text I’m hearing the suggestion that we don’t quite know who we are until we fully appreciate who God is and until we find our true purpose in praising God, continually.  Part of this has to do with putting things in order.

That may lead to the false assumption that we’re responsible for all order everywhere.  But that assumption is, actually, “out of order” and just creates more disorder rather than resolving it!  Ever tried to play the game where you’re hitting the moles in the holes?  The more you hit the more they pop out.

The realized eschatology of both Revelation and John suggest that the order is already given.  God is in the right place.  The only question is whether we are in the right place…with God.  If we are that relationship lived fully, in and of itself, is enough.  It will put us at odds with other “principalities and powers.”  We will not need to seek them out or start a campaign of our own anymore than Jesus purposefully sought to antagonize.  The “ordeal” is simply a part of the witness.  But the ordeal, in this world turned right side up is actually cleansing and opportunity to witness to the real source of life.

These verses seem to press us to some of the deepest commitments and to require our deepest trust.  But if God is God then we have nothing to worry about.

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