Growing Into A Spiritual Redwood Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve had great interest in our upcoming small groups organized around our Lenten theme – Growing Into A Spiritual Redwood – as well as some questions. We eRedwood Logoncourage you to sign up for one of the small groups by filling out one of the signup forms available at the church or by completing the sign up sheet in the newsletter and returning it to the church. I’ll answer the frequently asked questions now and hopefully cover yours. But if you have another question, please email me.

Who is leading the small groups?
The elders, current and some past elders, have stepped forward and taken on the responsibility to be our spiritual leaders. The elders have practiced the model of the small group in their Thursday morning circle. They have great experience in this model. As many of them have shared, they have grown more from this experience than any other in their lives. The elders will also continue to meet on Thursdays to receive small group facilitation training, engage in bible study, and coaching for leading their small groups.

How long of a commitment are you asking me to make?
We are asking you to make a commitment to the small group through the season of Lent. We hope that you will have a significant spiritual growth experience and will consider extending your engagement in your small group beyond Lent. The elders and pastoral leadership believe that on-going groups offer participants at First Christian Church a tremendous opportunity to deepen their spiritual journeys.

What if there isn’t a time listed when I can participate?
We listed times that elders are available to lead small groups. We also have some alternative times available that we can work with and will develop groups around those as you share those other best times with us. So, please list other times if you don’t see a time that will work in your schedule.

What is the theme for the Lenten Small groups?
Growing into a Spiritual Redwood is the theme for the small groups. Here’s how this theme breaks out in a more expanded form:

Reading scripture daily
Engaging in daily prayer
Devoted in spiritual relationships
Worshiping weekly
Openly sharing the Good News
Demonstrating God’s love to our neighbors
Sharing our financial resources, time, and talents.

What will be the structure of the small group sessions?
Groups will gather and include a time of welcome and orientation. There will be a scripture reading for each week of the group that will also serve as our preaching text for Sunday worship. You will share in a discussion of the scripture text as it relates to your daily lives and your relationship with God. We will open and close each session with prayer.

Will there be a weekly devotional to accompany the theme and small group material?
We will provide you with a daily devotional and series of scripture readings to use each day of the week as a part of your experience in the small group.
Do you have a question, that didn’t get answered? Please email me and we’ll get it answered for you.

A Table Prayer Based on John 1:43-51

O God of ancient promises
You come to us in unexpected places and in unexpected people and so again reveal your grace and love to us. Prophets point us toward you but we bear another direction. So you cross that distance and come to us in your Son Jesus of Nazareth. Pour out your spirit upon this bread and this cup, that we may remember again the presence of grace and love that you pour into our lives. May these elements strengthen us to carry your grace and love into the world so others may know you.  We pray in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, your son, we pray. Amen.

New Year’s Resolutions

About 50% of people in our society make New Year’s Resolutions. These resolutions Forest of Redwood Treesinclude things like weight loss, exercise, stopping smoking, drinking less alcohol, money management and debt reduction, and volunteering. I’m one of these people and perhaps you are too. The beginning of a new year, after all, seems like a great time to make such changes in our lives. I’ve discovered myself, though, that often by my birthday in February that my resolutions have been forgotten. Researchers say that is about average for most of us – that by February, the resolutions are in our rearview mirrors.

Why is it that our best intentions don’t carry us farther down this path? One piece of the challenge is about the nature of change. It takes time and intentionality to make changes in our living habits. Another element is the need for accountability. We need someone or a group of others that can help us stay focused and offer encouragement. Small steps that build on one another also help us be successful in realizing our resolutions.

We make similar resolutions about our faith journey – read the bible daily, pray more, worship regularly, give more, serving our neighbors, and build deeper relationships. But we may find it is as difficult to make these changes in our lives as we find it to visit the gym 3 days a week. In other words, we may long to grow into a deeply spiritual person but we find it difficult and can get discouraged along the way. Perhaps the Giant Redwood trees can offer us a way to think about this desire a bit further. Redwoods, the great sequoias, on the California coast grow well above 300 feet and some reach close to 400 feet. Some of the redwoods in the forests today are close to 500 years old. The oldest of the old growth forests include some redwoods that are 2,000 years old. These forests grow to such heights and to such ages because of their environment. And it takes time for such a giant of a tree to grow. If we want to grow in this same manner, then we have to attend to our environment and commit time to the process. Spiritual redwoods don’t grow overnight.

There is a proven way that help us attend to our environment and the practices we need to do in order to grow a deeper faith. Small groups, meeting on a weekly basis, and engaged in prayer, study, and sharing provide the environment and the practices that lead us into deeper relationship with God and one another. They create an element of accountability at the same time they provide the necessary encouragement to help us grow as we desire. These groups also create a path where small steps build on one another and lead us to be successful in realizing our resolutions to grow deeper.

The elders have for many years gathered on Thursdays to engage in this small group experience. Recently, an elder described her experience on Thursday mornings as the most enriching adventure of spiritual growth that she has ever experienced. In conversation with them between October and December, I proposed to the elders that we expand the opportunities for small groups so that the whole congregation could have this experience. We agreed that these small groups offer our congregation a tremendous opportunity to enrich the spiritual journeys of all our participants. So as Lent begins this year, we will begin a series of small groups centered around prayer, study, and sharing. Beginning this Sunday, January 11, you will have the opportunity to sign up for a small group. We will offer multiple days and times that groups will be meeting. If you have questions, I invite you to talk with me or another staff member and we’ll be glad to talk further with you about this opportunity.

A Table Prayer Based on Luke 1:26-38

Inviting God,
As we take another step closer to Christmas Day, the light of your love grows ever brighter. It illumines our lives and we recognize the presence of hope, peace, and joy as you intend for creation. The light touches also the broken and hurting parts of our lives and because it begins in your love it shows us a path into new life. Your light, O God, invites us to walk along a path of discipleship, like the path Mary chose, that is challenging but that is defined by your love and grace. Pour out your Spirit now on this bread and cup that they may shine your light even more deeply into our lives. May this bread and cup strengthen us to say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” In the name of the coming Christ, we pray. Amen.

Getting Ready to Open the Gift of Possibility

I heard a story earlier this week that inspires me as we continue to talk about spending less and giving more presence at our house. The story comes from a family that made the decision a few years ago to only give hand-made gifts. The family consists of adult children and grandchildren of mixed ages. As the family member who shared the story with me made clear, the whole family is excited about Christmas and the family celebration coming up in a little over a week.

So here’s the story I heard. They draw names, at least the adults do, and they do this earlier in the year. They tried doing drawing names at Thanksgiving one year but discovered it didn’t allow enough time. Then after they’ve got the family member for whom they are making a gift, the family goes to work. One member of the family is an artist and so this year is using her abilities and talents to create a sketch or print that connects with a sibling’s love of a nearby team. Another member of the family knits a scarf and hat. These efforts are acts of love as the family members think about one another and consider what gift to make.

I told the person sharing the story, that this sounds like they’ve found something special in this practice. But I wondered to him if it is as easy as it sounds. He told me that it wasn’t at first and that sometimes it takes some effort to come up with a gift idea. But what I know is that such time and effort leads to more conversation and engagement with family members and so opens the path to deeper relationships. This year, for example, he told me that his dad was struggling to come up with a gift for another son. As they talked about what might be a good gift, the son suggested to his dad that he give the gift of a Super Bowl pot of chili since that is always a favorite of the family.

We’re not at this point in our family – we’re getting there, just not yet. But this idea inspires me and helps me imagine what it might be like to make additional changes to how we celebrate the gift of Christmas.

Such efforts don’t fix or heal family relationships like magic in some Christmas movie. But what it does is to begin opening paths that can lead to deepening relationships, fuller expressions of love, and a stronger foundation upon which to do the healing work if it is needed in a family. I think these things become possible and happen because when we give of ourselves then we have invested ourselves in the gifts whether the gifts are art or a scarf or a pot of chili. This invested time can lead to deeper relationships and then communicate a mutual commitment. Those seem like good things to me that I want to be part of my relationships.

A Table Prayer Based on Matthew 1:18-25

Holy and gracious God, giver of light and life. Even as darkness envelops us in sleep, you impose yourself into our dreams, as with Joseph. In these visions our trust in you is strengthened so that we might imagine the ways the ordinary may become vessels to carry your divine love into the midst of the world. May your Spirit now infuse this loaf and cup with your steadfast love, pointing us toward that most precious gift, Jesus the Christ, and sending us in the path of your Way as vessels of reconciliation and wholeness in the midst of a broken world. In the name of the one who is Immanuel, God with us, Amen.

Opening Space to Breathe New Life

John the Baptist showed up in our scripture reading this past Sunday calling us to make the way straight for the coming of God. Mark takes us out into the desert to hear this message. I think he takes us there because in wilderness places everything else gets stripped away and we can see more clearly where we’ve been and where it is that we are going. It provides us a chance to change our direction. Mark calls it repentance.

The world around us can seem like a wilderness place as we try to keep up in what is sometimes the madness of Christmas as celebrated by our culture. As we journey through Advent, we have an opportunity to slow down and do things a little differently. That’s what the Advent Conspiracy is all about. So I’m inviting you to spend less and take that time, energy, and money saved and give more presence to those people who help you live a meaningful life.

The concept is simple, the impact can be profound. It can be like John’s message in Mark’s gospel, when we spend less and give more presence, it can change our path and help us encounter the Love that transforms the world.

A Table Prayer for Advent 2B, Based on Mark 1:1-8

God who brings light into the midst of darkness,
We sing, comfort, comfort your people.  We long for the day when you will make a path for your people so we can find you and know your ways.  We listen for your tender words spoken to all whose hearts are wounded.  Into these tumultuous time, bring your strength and hope to all who fear.

Like your people who wandered in the wilderness leaving Egypt, we are hungry and thirsty, O God, for your good news. Feed our hunger and quench our thirst Lord with this bread and cup. Through your Spirit, may they become instruments of comfort and healing in our lives and strengthen us to walk in the new paths towards your Garden of Love.  Amen.

A Table Prayer Based on The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-54)

O God, who redeems all of creation and all of humanity, we magnify you with every fiber of our being. Your mercy touches more generations before us than we can count and beyond every generation after us, beyond even those that we can imagine. Your unwavering love blesses the world. Even when it appears the seams of the world are coming apart, you are present in the midst of these moments working to bring wholeness and your justice. We give thanks for this bread and cup as symbols of your wholeness and justice. They remind us of your unwavering love shared in Jesus the Christ. Now, with the gift of your Spirit poured out on these symbols, use them to strengthen us that we may bear the hope of Christ into the world. Amen.

Parable of an Invest Banker

(I preached this sermon on November 17, 2002 at First Christian Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.  It is based on Matthew 25:14-30.  As I read through the parable again, I find that it confuses and challenges me, teasing my mind into active thought and seeking after God.  In that way, it continues to do its job.)

Three years ago (1999) at just about the same time in November, this reading from Matthew was the lectionary gospel lesson. At the time, all the media was a buzz about Y2K with stories discussing the viability computer safeguards put in place to prevent a worldwide meltdown of technology, communication, and financial institutions. I remember receiving, almost weekly, mailings from the bank assuring me that they were ready to protect my accounts. There seemed to be some fear that folks were going to withdraw all their funds and bury them in the backyard. It all seems kind of funny now, doesn’t it?

Some didn’t think so at the time. Time magazine ran an article that fall telling the story of a family who planned to do just that (1999). They withdrew all of their money from the bank and planned to enter an underground bunker for a month as the year 2000 began. This family was so concerned that terrible events were going to occur that they weren’t only going to bury their money, they were going to bury themselves in the backyard. Fear drove everything that family did.

So it is with the third servant in today’s reading. He knows his master to be a hard and demanding man. So when he receives his bag of money, which was about 20 years worth of wages or about $200,000 in today’s terms, he goes and buries it so that it will all be there when his master returns. He fears this man and his fear drives all his actions.

I’ve also always read it as an allegory. An allegory briefly defined is a fictional story in which each element represents something else. Reading it this way, the master represents God, the trip and then the master’s return represents the coming of Christ, the talents represent various gifts, and the servants represent us – the church – some which use the gifts wisely and some which do not. Allegorizing the parable in this way, the message seems to be an admonishment that the Christian life cannot be lived without risk. This is a message within scripture and even one that we need to hear at times. We need to hear it when we become sedentary and fall into the pattern of thinking that everything needs to remain just as it has always been.  We need to hear this message when we keep things going in the church just to survive. Out of fear of change or maybe even out of fear of God’s hardness, we go and bury our talents, our gifts. But as the church, we have been given much and as such we are called to risk it in proclaiming the Good News. Upon those who have been given much, there are great obligations placed. To not risk means to lose the gift and to be banished. “To the one choosing security over risk,” as one commentator describes it, “the Lord remains a hard master, one who seems to reap where he does not sow and gather where he has not planted” (Gaventa, Texts for Preaching Year A, 1995, p. 570).

It is a message that makes sense to us. It emphasizes that we are given responsibility according to our abilities, that where you begin doesn’t have to determine where you end up, and that sin is not failing but a lack of effort. It sounds a lot like some of our American ethos – hard work will be rewarded; you can be anything you want to be; nothing ventured, nothing gained. So in the end, we are right at home with this reading of the Parable of the Talents. It is comfortable to read it this way because it makes sense and even affirms our way of life.

But, is this how we should read this parable? Or for that matter any parable? Should we read them as simple affirmations of our chosen way of life?

“At its simplest [a] parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 1961, p. 5). Jesus’ parables often tease our minds into active thought as they challenge the present order of the world. Sometimes he takes very different things and puts them side by side to make a comparison. Other times he takes common experiences of life and casts new light on them so that his hearers come to understand the status quo in a new way and in turn their relationship to the status quo. In short, Jesus’ parables tend to upset the apple cart. Commenting on Jesus’ parables, Robert Capon says, “Some of [them] are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding” (The Parables of the Kingdom, 1985, p. 1). More succinctly, Capon says that Jesus’ parables “set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat of people’s religious expectations” (Kingdom, p. 10).

When we invest our resources, financial or otherwise, we want to see growth. So, we might be predisposed to favoring the first and second servants as the heroes of this parable.  But, what if the servants who double the capital aren’t the heroes of the parable. What if instead we understand the third servant as the hero, as the good guy, as the one who does the right thing?

How do we hear it this way? Perhaps, we consider how the gospel’s first century audience would have heard this story then we try to hear it in our terms. Maybe it sounds something like this…

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…” (Matthew 25:1).  It is like an investment banker going abroad, who called his brokers in to the office and put his capital at their disposal; to one he gave $5,000,000, to another he gave $2,000,000, and to one he gave $1,000,000, each according to his ability. Then he left the country . The man who had the $5,000,000 bought Enron and managed the company until he had doubled the investment. The one who had the $2,000,000 bought WorldCom and managed the company until he had doubled the investment.¹   The man with $1,000,000 returned to his office and placed the capital in the office safe.

After a few years, their boss returned from his travels around the world and scheduled a meeting with his three brokers to see what they had done with his capital. The one who had been given $5,000,000 and produced five more arrived first and said, “Boss, you left $5,000,000 with me; look here on these balance sheets, I have made five more.”
“Well done, my good and trusty broker,” said the investment banker. “You have done well with this small amount; now, I will put you in charge of even more. Come sit down, have a drink and call your wife, we’re going to dinner tonight.”

Then the one with $2,000,000 arrived and said, “Boss, I have doubled what you left with me.”

“Well done, my good and trusty broker,” said the investment banker. “You have done well with this small amount; now, I will put you in charge of even more. Come sit down, have a drink and call your wife, we’re going to dinner tonight.”

Then the man who had been given $1,000,000 came and said, “Boss, I knew you to be a hard man: you make money without working, and you raid corporate pension accounts; so I was afraid and I went and hid your money in the office safe. Here it is, all of it – you have what belongs to you.”

“You lazy rascal. I made you. I showed you how the game works, how to make money. And you do this to me?” said the investment banker. “You knew that I make money while producing nothing, and that I enjoy raiding corporate pension funds. Then you should have put my money in a CD or money market, and on my return, I would have gotten it back with at least 1.5% interest. Take the money from him and give it to the one with the $10,000,000. For the rich get richer until they have more than they need, and the poor get poorer. Then call the brokerage house and tell them to fire this one. For he will never work on Wall Street again. And they can eat him for lunch.”

Reading this parable in this way, maybe it is a little more parabolic – it challenges the status quo, it challenges business as usual.

So if we read this parable in this way, can we still understand the master to be an allegorical representation of God? I don’t think so.

Instead, the story leaves us with more questions than it gives answers. What is God like? How does God act? Does this parable invalidate the image of a gracious, generous God? Where is God in this story? What does it say about God if the talents aren’t gifts to the church and its members? What does this parable say about how business functions in the world today? What does it say about how the church operates today, how should the church do its business?

Reading it with the third servant as its hero, the parable does its job. It teases our minds into activity and leaves us a little uncertain where we are at its end.  Maybe it even leaves us hungering for more and seeking after this God who continually confounds us.


¹Enron & WorldCom both received significant news coverage because of accounting scandals that led to corporate bankruptcy.  If I were preaching this sermon in 2014, I would change this reference to connect with the mortgage scandals related to the 2008 financial crisis in the United States.