1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) – The Lord calls to Samuel, who thinks it is Eli. “Speak your servant is listening.”

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – Lord you have searched me, and know me… Where can I go to flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. You knit me in my inner parts…

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 – All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. Your bodies are members of Christ… You were bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your body.

John 1:43-51 – Jesus finds Philip and says to him, “Follow me.” Philip goes and tells Nathaniel. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Come and see.”

January 15, 2018 – Martin Luther King Day

Another option for January 14 is to call out the heresy of racism, mourn the division of Sunday morning, preach the dream of justice so embodied in the Scriptures. This theme goes well in Epiphany, which focuses on the nations coming together around Christ.

January 23, 2018 – Mark Allen Powell: Preaching Lent and Easter Sunday

Zion Retreat Center
Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 8:30-3:00 PM

$30, includes a continental breakfast and lunch.
Stay overnight on Monday the 22nd and/or Tuesday the 23rd for $45 a night.
Register with Lutherhill by Epiphany, January 6, 2018

January 18-25 – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – Texts at this link

January 21, consider preaching on Jesus’ high priestly prayer in which he prays that his followers will be one.

January 25, 2018 – 5th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service
Thursday, January 25, 7:00 p.m.
St. Paul Methodist Church in Houston

Epiphany B Gospels at-a-glance

Epiphany 1B (1/7): Mark 1:4-11 –Baptism of Jesus
Epiphany 2B (1/14): John 1:43-51 – Phillip and Nathaniel. Follow me. Come and see.
Epiphany 3B (1/21): Mark 1:14-20 – Jesus calls Simon and Andrew
Epiphany 4B (1/28): Mark 1:21-28 – Jesus rebukes unclean spirits on the Sabbath
Epiphany 5B (2/4): Mark 1:29-39 – Jesus goes away to a lonely place
Transfiguration (2/11): Mark 9:2-9 – Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured

Follow the Dream

The text for this week is focused on Jesus’ call for Phillip to follow him, and Phillip’s invitation to Nathaniel. It’s a great evangelism text. I’m going to offer two reflections. The first picks up on Martin Luther King’s call to follow the path of non-violent justice. The second one, below, talks about becoming a disciple-making congregation.

Jesus’ call to his disciples in this morning’s gospel reading is shockingly simple: Follow me. No bells, no whistles, no fancy marketing technique. Just, “Follow me.” “Do as I do.” There are too many leaders out there who say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Gracious God, give us leaders that can say, “Follow me.” Do as I do. Perhaps the children’s message could be a quick game of follow the leader. Do as I do.

Pastors and deacons need to hear this. People are more likely to follow your lead, than just do what you say. If our words and actions don’t align, our words will sound hollow. This goes for praying, serving, giving, and studing. I am reminded of a Shakespeare quote that Phil Harris, General Counsel for the ELCA shared:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

And what did Jesus do? He traveled around the countryside listening to people, proclaiming God’s love, offering grace, forgiveness, and healing. He blessed children and welcomed outcasts into mainstream society. He had a vision, and he was willing to give his life for the vision. “My hour has not yet come. The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be tortured and crucified and on the third day rise.” He knew who he was and what his life was all about. His life had purpose and direction. He had clarity on his mission:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

– Luke 4:18-19

Sight to the blind. Justice to the oppressed. Proclamation of jubilee. Jesus knew what he was called to do. What are you called to do?

Everyone needs purpose and direction in life. Without it, we falter. The Bible says, “Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) Without vision, we are like boats tossed on the water with no direction. What’s your vision?

You say, “I, I don’t know what…” If you don’t know, then pray, and pick something and go after it. Any vision is better than no vision. That’s probably not true, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there. Families die for lack of vision. Churches die for lack of vision. Countries die for lack of vision.

Set a vision for yourself. Set one for your family. Set one for your extended family. Set one for your church. Sure, you’re going to have to do the hard work of convincing others of your vision, but that’s half the fun. It’s a lot more fun than no vision, right.

Think of the people you know who have had a clear sense of vision. Who are they?

Martin Luther King had a clear sense of mission. Pastor King and his flock experienced first hand the institutionalized racism that was all around. There were separate black and white drinking fountains, separate black and white schools. Blacks were required to sit in the back of the bus so that whites could sit in the front. What does one do when one is confronted with injustice? Do you take up arms? King believed in Jesus’ nonviolent way. He had read about Gandhi. He was convinced there were other ways to combat injustice. Maybe you boycott the busses, the system itself. In 1955, King became involved in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. The boycott worked, bringing the bus company to its knees.

In the coming years, they applied the nonviolent protest model to many other situations, in various places. Albany, Georgia. Birmingham, Alabama. Selma. In 1963 the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom brought together a quarter of a million people who called for desegregation of schools, civil rights legislation, protection from police brutality, a minimum wage, and more.

It was at that march that King preached his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech was laced with images from years of preaching the gospel.

I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brother­hood…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…

I have a dream today … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.

The work was hard, but productive. So much so, that in 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. His faith was not an armchair faith. It was a faith meant to be lived out in the world, whatever the cost.

King unveiled the scourge of poverty. He decried the Vietnam War in a 1967 speech entitled, “Beyond Vietnam.”

In 1968, King was planning the Poor People’s Campaign. On April 4 he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis Tennessee. The museum there is worth your time. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later in London, and sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder.

Why is it, the nonviolent leaders always get assassinated? Jesus, Gandhi, King. They fought with words. With kindness. They took blows, but did not return them. And it cost them. Jesus says, “Count the cost. Take up your cross and follow me.”

Later, King would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for his work, which is still maligned in the racist corners of the U.S. His birthday is now a national holiday.

There is plenty of injustice today. Racial injustice. Gender inequality. Income inequality. Hatred and prejudice abounds. Which injustices bother you most? To what ministry is God calling you? Are you willing to respond? Put your life on the line?

“I’m no saint,” you may say. That’s okay. Dr. King was far from perfect. Don’t let that stop you. The Bible is filled with stories of imperfect people that God used for God’s purposes in the world. Moses and Paul were even murderers! Don’t wait for perfection before responding to God’s call.

Follow me, Jesus calls. You.

Phillip and Nathaniel: From Crowd, to Committed, to Core

This is our last text from the Gospel of John until Lent 3, John 2, the Cleansing of the Temple.

In Epiphany the gospel moves outward, centrifugally. The coming of the Magi is about the gospel for the Gentiles, the nations, not just the disciples’ own people. In John 1 this week, Philip shares the gospel with Nathaniel. There is a lot to learn about evangelism and witnessing in this text.

Charlie Brown cartoon
Rebecca McDonald, our former office manager in the Gulf Coast Synod, now Director of Music at Covenant, Houston, once shared this cartoon with staff:

Perhaps this week, and the weeks to come, would be a good time to talk about how we share our faith. Thursday begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This week we have Philip witnessing to Nathaniel. Next week Jesus tells his disciples he will teach them to fish for people.

We can see in today’s text that witnessing is not arm-twisting, but simply sharing what you’ve found. It’s hard for people to argue with your personal experience. It is what it is. Philip’s comments are a kind of fishing for people (next week’s text). He dangles the bait, and Nathaniel bites.

Know that when people bite, it may be snarky: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If you share what God is doing in your life or in your church or in the world, don’t be surprised if people are a bit leery. Some have been burned by religious folks. They’re likely to be suspicious. Expect skepticism. I’m impressed that Philip is not put off. How do you respond to a snarky question like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” or “Can anything good come out of the institutional church?” My gut, as a lover of the church, is to say, “Of course!” Perhaps Philip’s response is better, “Come and See.”

This comment suggests that evangelism is a community effort. Philip is not saddled with the burden of proving or convincing. His role is only to invite. He is not responsible for Nathaniel’s response. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

I would observe that while Philip was prepared for Jesus’ deeper invitation into discipleship: “Follow me,” perhaps Nathaniel was not. Not yet, anyway. Most newcomers are not ready to make a deep commitment. They’re checking you out. Their only commitment so far is to “come and see.” They might not even stay to the end of the service, small group or activity they’re visiting. When inviting people into a life of faith, we need to be intuitive enough to not under-challenge people, or over-challenge people.

community crowd congregation committed coreRick Warren suggests we are dealing with five different groups of people: the community, the crowd, the congregation, the committed and the core. Or at least five stages that people find themselves in at one time or another. Each requires a different approach. You can’t relate to these folks the same way. Jesus didn’t. To one he says “Follow me.” To another, “Come and see.” To another, “I’m coming to your house today.” To another, “How about some water from that well?”

As leaders of congregations, we need different strategies to reach people at different stages. To the community you say, “Come and see.” They may have no commitment to the mission of the church. They’re not ready to be invited to tithe. They’re probably not ready to be invited to join. I have yet to see anyone join a church before visiting. Evangelism begins with an invitation. “Come and see.”

This means, of course, that a congregation intent on making disciples needs to have something people can actually come and see. Come and see our committee meeting, or worse, come and see us fight about something inconsequential at our congregational meeting, is not going to appeal to anyone. It’s more like repellant. There need to be multiple, compelling, life-giving entry points.

Where does the gospel meet the world in the life of your congregation? Come and see us play with children. Come and see us serve those in need. Come and see the joyful worship life we have. Come and see how we gather in homes to study, to eat, talk about life, and care for each other. Come and see how we make life-long friends.

Big events can also be “Come and See” opportunities. Easter is a great time to invite. Shape worship so that every Sunday is a super time to invite. Let preaching be compelling, life-giving and relevant. Let ministry be vibrant and enticing. Have an event once a quarter off of Sunday morning that’s fun and inviting. Include food, free food, or at least free will offering, so that the poor can eat and guests find hospitality. Some folks will come to a social event long before they’ll ever step foot in worship.

Doing evangelism as a team can be fun. There is no magic to it. It’s inviting people to be part of something worth being a part of. It’s inviting people to make friends, something most people want. It’s inviting people to be in relationship, with one another and with God.

The church evangelizes one-on-one, but one or two conversations aren’t going to be life-changing. Evangelism in community is much more effective and long-lasting. Phillip doesn’t have to convince Nathaniel. He just invites him to “come and see” what they are doing.

This is where large seminal events can be helpful. Jesus invited Philip to follow him, one-on-one in this Sunday’s text, but later his reach expanded as he fed the five thousand. John the Baptist had mass baptisms. Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Evangelism takes place both through one-on-one interaction, but also through seminal events that allow people to bump into each other, so that good things (including one-on-ones) happen. Invite the community in. Neighborhood gatherings. Oktoberfest. VBS. Your preschool. Christmas concerts, programs, worship. Organize a prayer vigil around a community concern. Find a way to draw a crowd.

Once you have a crowd, your message shifts. Draw the crowd into a deeper place. Invite them to help with a Habitat House. Many people come into the church through the servants’ entrance. They become a part of what the church is doing before they become a part of the church. People want to participate in ministry, not become members of an institution. Invite them to have a low-commitment opportunity to participate in something that matters. Invite them to a small group Bible study. First find a way to draw a crowd, then make sure every event you have that draws a crowd has an invitation to go deeper. Have fliers about the various ministries and small group opportunities of the congregation laying around so guests can’t miss them. Be sure to give a verbal welcome and invitation at every event. This is how evangelism works. It’s gradual, organic, communal. It takes a community.

Once people are a regular part of the crowd, invite them to a deeper commitment: to become part of the congregation. Frequent invitations to a new member class or forum let people know they are welcome to be part of the family. If you use the catechumenate or Alpha, be sure fliers are everywhere and people are verbally invited regularly. Be sure your new member class is more than club orientation. Don’t assume everyone knows what the church is, or the Bible or the Christian faith. Feed them. Teach them about daily prayer. Introduce them to faith practices like table prayer, Scripture reading, generosity and serving. That way, by coming into relationship with the congregation, they are also coming into relationship with Christ.

Once people are part of the congregation, make sure they get connected with a small group or choir. If folks don’t make friends, or get connected to a ministry group within six months, they will fade away. Use the new member class to introduce them to opportunities. Many churches, effective at welcoming newcomers, turn the new member class into a new small group. It’s often very hard to graft newcomers on to an existing group with history. Members of the congregation need to be challenged to “Follow me.” “Come and see” no longer works. They already have. They need meat. Help people not just join a group, but to find their calling in life. Where do my gifts and passions meet the worlds need? How is God calling me to serve? People will find fulfillment when they make sacrificial commitments to things that have holy significance. This is the deeper invitation Jesus gives to Philip and Andrew, James and John: Drop what you’re doing and follow me.

Not everyone will take this plunge. The road becomes increasingly narrow. Some will choose the way of the world over the way of the gospel. This is an irrefutable reality experienced by the church of every age, and even Jesus himself. Consider the rich young ruler. If you are going to invite people to give their lives away for the sake of the gospel, prepare yourself to be disappointed more often than not.

For those who move from the congregation to the group of committed folks, some will have high-level leadership capacity. They will not only be committed, but be prepared to lead others into commitment. Some will be prepared to spearhead groups of the committed to efforts that cannot be done by individuals alone. Some will be called to be part of the core. This will be the smallest group. Choose carefully.

I’ve invited newcomers to become part of the core too soon. It’s not pretty. They may be new to the faith. They have fallen in love with grace, with Jesus, with mission. We then invite them into the inner circle of leaders and they are exposed to the dark underbelly of the organization. They hear the complaints, mediate the angry divisions, struggle with the organizational deficits, bottom lines and other realities. They become overwhelmed and potentially sour. And frankly, ministry for the sake of the world can lead us to the cross. I could imagine hearing Nathaniel say, “I didn’t sign up for this.” Not everyone is ready. Not everyone has the stomach for the rigors of leadership. They are like the seed that feel on the shallow soil, sprung up quickly, then withered in the sun because they had no root. Jesus knew what he was talking about.

Everyone in the wider community should be invited to join the crowd. Everyone in the crowd should be invited to the congregation. Everyone in the congregation should be invited to deeper commitment. Not all of the committed, however, should be invited to be part of the core. An enthusiastic man once wanted to join Jesus’ inner circle of itinerant disciples. Jesus declined the request, telling he man to focus on ministry where he was. Jesus didn’t go running after the rich young ruler. Don’t invite all of the committed to be part of the core, and certainly don’t invite the uncommitted or nominally committed, with the hopes of jump starting them. Your core will set the course for your congregation’s ministry. Choose those who are spiritually mature, with a demonstrated track record of faith, commitment and follow-through. In 1 Timothy 3:6, the apostle says overseers of ministry (episkopoi) should not be recent converts. This sounds like wisdom borne from experience.

Epiphany is a great time to rethink our evangelism efforts. There are congregations that are disciple-making organisms, but this takes a team effort. It requires preaching, organization and training. This coming Sunday’s John 1 “come-and-see” and “follow-me” gospel and next Sunday’s Mark 1 “drop-your-nets-and-learn-to-fish-for-people” texts lend themselves to this theme. They also lend themselves to messages about hearing God’s call in our lives.

If your annual meeting is coming up, think about it evangelically. Think of it as a celebration of what God is doing in your community, and what you believe God is calling you to do in the coming year. Show pictures that bring people to tears – tears of joy at what God is doing, not tears from being part of a family squabble. Make plans to go into the world. We are missionaries who are sent. Jesus didn’t sit in the Temple. He went out into the world. We follow a “GO” God. Abraham and Sarah were called to GO from their home and kindred to a place they did not know. Moses was called to GO to Pharaoh. Jonah was called to GO to Ninevah. Isaiah was called to GO to Judah. Samuel, in today’s Hebrew Bible reading, was called to go. Jesus told his followers, “GO. Make disciples.” So, just as Jesus was called by God to go into the world, we in the church are also called to GO into the world, inviting them to come and see, inviting them to find joy and challenge in following Christ.