19 August 2007

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost - "Signs of the Times"

Preaching Text: Luke 12.49-56

Let us pray: Holy, almighty and ever-living God, You bring a word that shatters us into pieces, so that we may be remade in Your image. You bring a word that burns us with its intensity, so that we might be set ablaze with Your passion for the world You have created. You break the relationships we cherish, so that You can rebuild them in love that is deeper than we can imagine and grace that stretches far beyond our ability to give. Shatter us – set us ablaze – rebuild us as the grace-filled body of Your Son, Jesus the Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

I have not particularly enjoyed the last week. As a matter of fact, I’ve been dreading this moment since about 9:00 Tuesday morning (give or take a few hours). There are Sundays when the preacher’s mantle is a joy to carry: weeks when the words of Jesus are filled with love, compassion, mercy, kindness and peace.

Then there are Sundays like today. There are Sundays when I feel like the Word is hounding me into saying something I’m scared to say. There are Sundays when I feel like I have to choose between being the honest pastor or the well-liked pastor, because the Word I’ve been given won’t let me be both at the same time. Today is one of those Sundays.

I have written and re-written this sermon 100 times in my head this week, testing different ways of saying what needs to be said. Some of those sermons in my head started out angry, got angrier and devolved into full-on temper tantrums by the end. Others avoided the clear crisis of Jesus’ time, and in so doing they avoided our own crises today as well. As some of you know, it’s hard to be honest about crisis without getting upset OR upsetting someone else. But sometimes we NEED to get upset. Sometimes we NEED to get angry. Sometimes we NEED to have a crisis, because “crisis is the edge where change is possible.” And friends, there’s some things here in our church that are building into a crisis. The time has come for us to recognize and admit that the crisis is there – otherwise, we can’t change, and if we can’t change, then we die; it’s as simple as that.

When Jesus confronted the crowd with these hard words about the “signs of the times,” He was talking about recognizing danger in its many forms. If he’d been speaking to us in Barrett, He might have said, “you know that when it rains in Fargo, there’s a good chance it’s going to rain in Barrett, and when there’s a strong wind from the north, you know the temperature is going to drop. How is it you will protect yourself from the weather, but you won’t do anything about the spiritual danger all around you?” How many of us knew enough to put on a sweater before we left the house this morning? How is it, then, that we can’t admit that there are problems in our church that need addressing as well?

Let’s be honest and get some of the signs of our times out in the open this morning, shall we? Can we talk openly about the dangers we face as a congregation? I hope so, because the alternative is continuing down the path we’ve chosen, and that path isn’t going to lead us anywhere good. What are some of the dangers you see as a “sign of our times” here?

At this point I opened the floor for suggestions: the numbered items in BOLD below are the ones our congregation members identified without any assistance from me.

1. We have become a church that bleeds our most dedicated volunteers dry. We depend far too much on a group of people that is far too small and far too tired to keep up the present pace.

2. If our present financial patterns continue, we will soon be forced to cut back on programs. Our savings are almost depleted, and while our giving has increased over the past few years, it hasn’t increased enough to keep pace with the expense of doing quality ministry in Barrett.

3. Our Sunday School program has come to a screeching halt. I don’t have any statistics, but I do know that the average attendance in Sunday School has dropped precipitously in recent years, and the vast majority of the families who do bring their children to Sunday School do not attend worship regularly afterwards: the kids are dropped off at 9:00 and picked up at 10:00.

4. We have come to believe that “faith” means agreeing with the Apostle’s Creed and the Ten Commandments, and that Confirmation marks the end, not the beginning, of faith development. Adult faith education and exploration in this congregation is, from what I can see, almost completely non-existent.

5. Inter-generational conversation and fellowship is a huge problem here. Seniors receive graduation quilts from quilters who don’t know their names. Confirmation students sit at tables with neighbors they don’t recognize. We choose to remain strangers instead of asking each other who we are and how we’re doing.

6. Community outreach is coming to a halt as well. We’ve traded welcome wagon visits for complaints about how many strange people there are in Barrett these days, and folksy reminiscing about the days when everybody knew everybody else.

7. Finally, there is a marked deficiency of trust within these walls. Leaders are second-guessed at nearly every opportunity. Triangulation, where person A goes to person B to complain about person C, runs rampant here. Instead of addressing issues and problems honestly, face-to-face, we engage in gossip, we bury our disagreements under passive-aggressive hostility, and all the while we hamstring the ministry we could be doing if we could just get past our fear and learn to trust each other again.

These crises aren’t caused by the world around us. These crises live in our walls and in our houses. These signs of the times come within our families. Jesus said that His word would cause division between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Our crises involve precisely that group: our family. Our children are the ones who don’t bring their kids to Sunday School or worship. Our brothers and sisters are the ones who have chosen to remain strangers to the people in our congregation. Our friends are the ones who think that 10% of whatever you’ve got in your wallet when you do come to worship once a month is the tithe God asks. We are the ones who think that Barrett just ought to go back to the way things were in some imaginary paradise from 50 years ago. We are the ones who think that everyone else needs to change – and so we ignore the signs of the times and choose the sin-slicked path of self-righteousness and fear.

Is it any wonder Jesus loses his temper with us? Do you understand why I struggle against losing my own? On top of dealing with Jesus’ angry words this week, I’ve been dealing with my own guilt when it comes to these signs of the times. I’ve seen some of them coming, and done little to change. I’ve played the passive-aggressive game, too, avoiding unpleasantness because I want to be the town pastor with the good reputation, the guy with the quick wit and the pleasant disposition who never says a bad word about anyone and, most of all, never rocks the boat. That guy I’ve wanted to be has taken a lot of blows this week: some from God’s Word, some from honest folks right here in the church who see the signs of the times as clearly as anyone. God has a reason to be angry with us, to be the hammer breaking the rocks of our false hopes and reckless dreams into pieces; that doesn’t mean, however, that the process is comfortable or particularly enjoyable.

But there are other signs, you know. There are signs that stand against this litany of danger. What are the signs of hope for you here? What makes you think that God is still among us?

  1. We’re here this morning – there’s an expectation that God has a word for us and will not let us down today.
  2. Confirmation camp: our youth ARE interested in God, they ARE asking some of the same questions we are, they ARE sure that God is up to something in their lives.
  3. We’ve seen the need for change in our past and have been willing to step into that need boldly. We aren’t captive to “we’ve always done it that way;” if we were, I’d be the pastor of Bethesda, Our Savior’s and Fridhem Lutheran Churches.

Finally, there’s one gigantic sign of the times that tells me it’s not too late. It stands on the wall behind me, I wear it around my neck, it gives me comfort in times of sorrow and peace in times of insecurity. That sign is the cross. The cross is where the signs of the times are conquered by the sign of God’s love and power. When the world refused to change; when we put Jesus to death instead of listening to the truth of His message, when we the church turned inward and chose a course of self-righteousness instead of forgiveness, God refused to let us have the final word on the matter. The cross was the hammer that broke all our pretenses and pleasant dreams into pieces. The cross was the word that confronted us, divided us, burned us with its condemnation of every way we had gone wrong. But that cross also shows us that resurrection is possible. When we killed Jesus, the one who revealed the signs of the times, God raised him to new life and promised the same resurrection to us as well. God took the sign under which we thought we had conquered and made it a sign of all that is good and righteous and life-giving and joyful and miraculous. The sign of our times is the cross, a reminder that when we were dead in our sins, Christ died for us, gave his life for us, and just as He was raised to new life, so we shall be raised to new life as well.

But that’s the big picture: the question is, where do you fit into the little picture? Where do you change and grow and serve and love under this sign of the times? What is your next step? Now that you know that Jesus died for you, now that you know that the sign of the times is the cross under which your life was redeemed and through which you are set free, what are you going to do? Will you answer the call and discover how your gifts might be used in this place for the sake of the gospel? Will you live as one who’s been set free from fear and doubt and give yourself away for the sake of your neighbor? The signs of the times bring us to the point of crisis, where we are asked these questions: what change is possible? What might happen? Now that the cross has claimed me, where do I go from here? The choices we make tell the world which sign we have chosen as the sign of our times: may your choice be the cross, and freedom, and service, and change for the sake of the gospel in this place. Let us pray:

Holy, almighty and ever-living God, You bring a word that shatters us into pieces, so that we may be remade in Your image. You bring a word that burns us with its intensity, so that we might be set ablaze with Your passion for the world You have created. You break the relationships we cherish, so that You can rebuild them in love that is deeper than we can imagine and grace that stretches far beyond our ability to give. Shatter us – set us ablaze – rebuild us as the grace-filled body of Your Son, Jesus the Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.


  1. Sounds like you (and your congregation members brave enough to speak out) hit the nail on the head. A great sermon for a tough text!

  2. Pastor Scott: This is a great sermon! I was not there to hear it but it is so very true. I need to be a part of the change not only for my congregation but for myself. This is really tough stuff to hear when it is so true. I do know we have to talk honestly to each other and make the changes. I forget that I am part of the church and that the church is only as strong as it's members. This is alot to think about. c.

  3. My prayers will be with you, it appears we may be in similar situations.