Posts Tagged Jesus

Field of Dreams – Rev. Susan Sparks – Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC

Here are two ways to see life during times of trouble: pain or possibility. Don’t believe me? Then, believe Jesus and Kevin Costner.

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the story of a landowner who entrusts his three servants with talents (currency) while he is away. He gives five talents to the first servant, who invests it and returns ten talents. Two talents are given to the second servant, who also invests and doubles his money. But the third servant, who receives one talent, is afraid, and he buries the money and returns only what he was given. The landowner shames him for not investing his gift.

Jesus’ lesson from this parable (among many) is that you must share, not bury, your God-given gifts. But there’s another important aspect of this story: There are NO exceptions. As with the third servant who buries his talent, fear is not an excuse. We might be unemployed, mourning the loss of a loved one, sitting in a chemo chair, or facing the prospect of a long, hard winter living through a global pandemic, but we still have the duty of making something of the gifts we’ve been given.

This brings us to our second piece of evidence: Kevin Costner who plays Ray Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams. Kinsella’s Iowa farm is in crisis, and in that place of fear, he has two choices (similar to what we see in the parable): sell the farm back to the bank as is or take what his family has and build it into something more—a baseball diamond in their cornfield, a field of dreams.

Ray chooses the latter—taking what they have and building it into something more—thanks to three lessons whispered to him by a mysterious voice coming out of the cornfield.

The first thing the voice says is “ease his pain,” which for Ray means looking past his own fear to ease the pain of his late father. This lesson sounds counterintuitive, as it’s easy to think that when we are in pain, we should hunker down and focus on our own misery. However, the best way to ease our own pain is take our eyes off ourselves, and use our gifts to ease the pain of others.

A second lesson offered by the voice is “go the distance.” Like Ray and his farm, we, too, are in crisis—our lives turned upside down by COVID-19, our schools and children struggling, wildfires running rampant, and racial tensions at record highs. But even in the worst of circumstances, we must go the distance to live our gifts fully. As Hebrews 12:1 tells us, “We must run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The third and final lesson is a phrase familiar to us all: “If you build it, he will come.” In the movie, that means building a baseball diamond in a cornfield where players of past eras would return, including his father. But what does it mean for us?

Here’s what it meant for a dear friend of mine. Pastor Ned Lenhart is the father of a beautiful, talented teen-aged daughter who also happens to have Down syndrome. When she auditioned for her high school choir, she was told that there was no place for her. Ned and his wife Jill then took that pain and made it into their own field of dreams by forming Hearts in Harmony, an adaptive show choir for special needs kids throughout their Wisconsin community.

-What pain are you in right now?

-Who else is suffering like you?

-How can you use your gifts and talents to ease their pain and build something great?

Whatever you are facing right now, know that there is a way to turn your pain into possibility. Go the distance. Ease someone’s pain. Share your talents no matter what the circumstances. Truly, if you build it, they will come.

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How not-so-random acts of kindness from strangers – Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall

transformed my latest air travel odyssey

Molly T. Marshall

One thing any experienced traveler learns is that other travel veterans can always trump your “worst trip ever” stories. I just endured one of those “eventful” overseas flight experiences, but this journey also introduced me to strangers who offered this Baptist theologian a few reminders about kindness and compassion.

My annual pilgrimage to Myanmar did not have an auspicious start. I left Kansas City early Friday morning headed for Seattle, then Seoul and then ultimately Yangon. Fog shrouded Seattle and planes could not land, so our flight was diverted to Eugene, Oregon, where we sat in the plane nearly four hours waiting for fuel and a landing time.

Trying not to be too anxious, reluctantly relinquishing control over the logistics, I kept my eyes on my app. Sure enough, I received notification that my flight to South Korea had taken off without me.

One of the flight attendants demonstrated impressive emotional intelligence. She came by with water and empathy in generous servings, and she helped us see the humor in our situation. Who would not want to spend time viewing the surrounding mountains through the small windows of our plane?

At this point I wondered if I should have heeded the admonition of friends who thought perhaps this trip to Myanmar was ill-conceived as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread. With my usual stubbornness, I said all will be well.

Indeed, all would be well, thanks to the kindness of strangers who use their professions as a place of caring and service.

Arriving in Seattle, I headed to an airline club to get rescheduled, if possible. Many had missed connections, and agents were pressed to fulfill our requests. A young woman of Asian descent took up my case and worked for several hours to get me re-booked. She told me to go get some food; she would find me when she had completed the task.

It takes fortitude to do methodical work pleasantly when you are facing a long line of anxious, weary and impatient customers clamoring for attention. I had plenty of time to observe her as I spent the next eight hours awaiting my flight.

“It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way.”

Flying back to Detroit on a red-eye would allow me to catch a midday flight to Seoul; it was my best option. Again, with a long stint in an airline club (I’m thankful for the thousands of frequent flyer miles that qualify me for this amenity), I met a remarkable person. As one of the attendants who collects the cups and glasses and newspapers of the guests in the travel lounge, this tall, African American woman circled around to check on me several times.

She asked what I was doing, and I told her a bit of my travel challenges. She said God had placed her there to work so that she could notice God’s people and encourage them. While others may render her invisible as she goes about her routine tasks, she is perceptively observing those who come through her section of the club.

I teared up at her kindness and witness of faith, and she offered a prophetic word as if she could peer into my very soul. Sensing that I was burdened about some matters, she firmly said, “God has got this.”

She disappeared to complete other tasks, and I could not find her when I needed to leave for my flight. It was as if an angelic messenger had been sent my way; and, of course, God had her busy noticing and encouraging some other inconvenienced traveler.

When I arrived in Seoul, I met another ministering spirit. The usually bustling Incheon Airport felt a bit like a ghost town as fear of the virus has slowed travel dramatically. Everyone was wearing masks, trying not to get too near anyone else, and viewing others with furtive suspicion.

Once again, I had to spend a couple of hours waiting in an airline club. Upon entering, I encountered a mask-free, smiling young Korean man with a most hospitable attitude. His capacity to welcome guests, anticipate their needs and seem genuinely interested in each was contagious. I asked him why he served as he did, and he said it was because of his faith in Jesus. He wanted to be like him in how he treated people.

Finally, there is no greater kindness than to be met by a friend at the end of a long journey. By now, my travel had lasted about two-and-a-half days. Arriving in Yangon, there was a flurry of activity as a medical agent took each passenger’s temperature, and an extra step was added as a medical form was examined prior to going through customs.

Emerging from the chaos of collecting baggage and the throngs of persons awaiting their passengers, I searched the crowd for my Myanmar Institute of Theology colleague. Soon he was by my side helping me thread our way to find our driver.

“You must be tired,” he said, acknowledging that I was arriving a day later than originally planned. His kind words and pastoral attention reminded me yet again how important our caring is in helping others manage their challenges.

During the first week of this Lenten season, I have been the beneficiary of unanticipated, but not-so-random acts of kindness from sisters and brothers who are my fellow travelers in the compassionate way of Jesus.

I wonder what the trip home has in store.

 

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Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

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Sinners at the Laundromat* – Rev. Susan Sparks – Shiny Side Up

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, while all good Christians were congregating in church, all evil sinners (including me) were congregating in the laundromat.

I thought we were safe until somewhere mid-spin cycle when the door to the laundromat opened, and a scarily clean-shaven gentleman walked in and said, “A blessed morning to you, brothers and sisters” (a warning sign, if ever there was one).

I could see he had a number of brochures in his hand, but I tried my best not to make eye contact. Sure enough, he came to me first. I think it was because of the t-shirt I was wearing that read: “Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.”

“Sister,” he asked in the most earnest of tones, “have you met Jesus?”

Not wanting to get into a whole thing about how I was an ordained Baptist minister on vacation in Wisconsin skipping church because I wasn’t Lutheran and, more importantly, was planning to go pan fishing afterward, I simply said, “No sir, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Jesus this morning.”

He then handed me a tract with a picture of Jesus holding a tiny lamb that was looking a bit queasy, and said, “You know, Jesus can wash your sins away better than any of these machines.” And with that, he went to the sinner next to me at the industrial-sized dryer and started his pitch again.

Later, I thought about my new friend and his earnest attempts to save us. Was there a lesson here? Spiritual laundry, perhaps?

Consider the three categories of dirty clothes. First, things that don’t really need to be washed. If you are like me, you tend to occasionally leave clothes on the floor that aren’t dirty–ones you can put right back on and wear with pride. Similarly, there are things in our lives that don’t need cleaning, like our physical traits (signs of aging included), our ethnicities, our race, our gender. These are gifts from God that do not need to be washed; they need to be celebrated and worn with pride to celebrate our maker. As Psalm 139 tells us, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Then there is the second category of laundry which just needs the delicate cycle with the least agitation. In regular laundry, these would be things like silk or polyester. In life, these would be things like mistakes, hurt feelings, or use of colorful language because you couldn’t get into your jeans that morning.

Don’t waste time getting agitated over this stuff. Use a short and delicate wash cycle. Acknowledge that you’re wrong; say you’re sorry and move on. And do it now. If you wait, delicate stains can become hard to get out.

Which brings us to category three: the industrial-strength stuff. These are the heavy stains that have been ground-in over time. Things like anger, shame, resentment, and self-loathing.

The only thing we can do with this nasty pile of laundry is to get ourselves an industrial-strength spot remover—a spiritual OxiClean—something or someone that will go deep into those buried places and release the stains.

Again, the Psalmists have the answer. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

When we allow God to work—when we accept God’s forgiveness, something profound happens. The stains start to break up, we begin to forgive ourselves, and we walk back into the world clean and fresh, ready for the work ahead.

The next time you are doing laundry, ask yourself three questions:
1)    What in my life does not need washing?
2)    What in my life just needs a delicate cleaning?
3)    What in my life needs an industrial-strength stain remover?

Do a little spiritual laundry. In the end, it will all come out in the wash.

*Sunday morning sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York City

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