Tag Archives: sermons

Podcasting Made Easy… Even for Small Churches

Yes, your small church can set up a podcast---no knobs or whatsits required.

Yes, your small church can set up a podcast—no knobs or whatsits required.

Some pastor friends and I got to talking recently about sermon podcasting. I’m always disappointed when gifted preachers I know, whose sermons I’d like to listen to, aren’t available as a podcast. Some congregations put their sermon audio on their church’s website, but that’s not the same as setting up a podcast that can be searched for and subscribed to via iTunes.

Many medium-sized and large congregations have folks to record the service and take care of this technical detail. But what about small congregations? Yes you can! We’ve been podcasting at Tiny Church for a few years now. (Search Idylwood Presbyterian on iTunes, or click here.)

In my experience with a small church, many decisions are inevitably weighed in terms of stewardship of time and resources. Or to put it crudely, a cost/benefit scale. Is it worth going through the effort of podcasting if only a couple of people will avail themselves of it?

It is absolutely worth the effort because it doesn’t take very much effort at all. It’s also an easy and important method of evangelism—a way of being in the world, exactly where people are searching for inspiration and ideas.

Thinking about setting up a sermon podcast but not sure where to start? Let me put on a very old hat of mine, that of technical writer.

There are three basic steps to podcasting: recording the sermon, converting the sound file, and uploading it to a podcast service. Here is how I handle those three steps in a small church without an A/V team.

1. Recording. I use iRecorder Pro, which is a $2.99 app for my iPhone. I put the phone on the pulpit and hit record when I start preaching and stop when I’m done. (Protip: Write start/stop reminders into your manuscript or notes.) The phone’s microphone works fine whether I’m using a microphone or not.

2. Converting to mp3. Most recorders I’m familiar with save the recording in some other format. Podcasts require mp3. I download the audio from my phone to my MacBook Air and use Switch to convert. It looks like there’s a paid version of Switch, but the version I use is/was free. There are a ton of audio converters out there.

3. Uploading the mp3 file to your podcast service. I use SermonDrop, which I’ve been very happy with. The free version keeps the 10 most recent sermons. If you want more than that, you can pay. You upload the file to their site, and there are places to type in scripture text, name of preacher, whether it’s part of a series, etc. You can even upload PowerPoint slides or PDFs. Here is IPC’s SermonDrop page.

You do those three steps every time. There’s also an intermediate step that you need to do once, which is to register your podcast with iTunes so it shows up in their listing. Here are some instructions. Basically you’re telling iTunes “hey, my podcast exists, here it is.” So anyone who searches for your church name will find it.

As a pastor of a small church, you could certainly find someone to take care of this each week. But honestly? It takes me 10 minutes per week, and that’s mainly waiting for the computer to convert and to upload. There is no reason not to do it.

Does your congregation podcast? What tools or suggestions do you have?

~

Coming soon: Evernote for Pastors. In the meantime, here’s an old post on that topic. (And have you signed up for my email list?)

photo credit: TimWilson via photopin cc

A Sermon in 272 Words

gettysburg-address-2

We don’t have an actual photograph of Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address because the speech was over before the photographer had time to take one.

I’ve been talking about it on Facebook and Twitter for weeks, and here it is, today’s “Gettysburg sermon.” At 272 words, it is the same length as Lincoln’s masterful address, delivered 150 years ago on Tuesday.

Err… let’s just say he had a gift.

(Preacher nerds: you’ll notice I couldn’t resist trying a Lowry loop, even with so few words! Old habits die hard.)

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
November 17, 2013

Psalm 98

O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

~

Here is a psalm for the month of thanksgiving! It is infused with gratitude as the psalmist rhapsodizes about God’s glory, the wonders of creation, and the thankful songs of the people of God. We are sailing along on a swelling sea of words like joy, steadfast love, faithfulness.

And then, like a thud, or like a needle scratching across the record, we’re told:

God is coming to judge us. To judge.

What comes to mind when you hear that word?

Maybe you’re rubbing your hands together imagining “bad guys” getting what they deserve, and “good guys” getting their reward, courtesy of God’s perfect justice.

Maybe you’re making a mental tally of your secret transgressions, squirming, wondering what side of the ledger sheet you will come out on.

Maybe you’re disturbed by the idea of a judging God.

Note that, in the midst of God coming as judge, the psalmist doesn’t tell us to shape up…
or beg us to repent.
He doesn’t even urge us to get to work doing what God commands.

Instead, he asks us to sing.

God will come—God does come—among us. But we don’t worry or calculate. We don’t try to measure up or crack God’s code. We simply inhale deeply, breathing in God’s spirit, and sing—with our voices, with our lives, and here with this community.

Yesterday’s health fair, and last week’s CROP hunger walk, are more than mission activities. They are songs of praise, joyfully offered to a God who promises to be with us always, who calls us not to despair, but to offer a new song.

Thanks be to God.

~

UPDATE: Here are three additional Gettysburg sermons, from Jason Cashing, Rob Jackson, and Jen Hackbarth. Thanks for sharing, everyone!

The Rule of Three

This is a slight adaptation of what I preached yesterday…

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
July 14, 2013
Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

~

We’re going to start with a little quiz this morning. Now I know it’s summertime, and for those of us who follow the school schedule, we’re on a bit of a mental break… but let’s see how awake we are this morning, eh? I will give you a list of two items; your job is to fill in the third. We’ll start out easy:

Larry, Curly, __________
The Good, The Bad, _________
This one is too hot, this one is too cold, and ________
Who’s on first, What’s on second, __________________

Let’s kick it up slightly:
Can anyone name the three musketeers? (Athos, Porthos and Aramis)
How about the three races that make up the triple crown?

Now let’s get biblical:
Gold, frankincense and ___________
Father, Son, ______________

What we’re seeing here is the rule of threes, which is a basic structure used in literature, folktales, and yes, scripture. Master storytellers know this structure and use it either to provide a predictable pattern, or to disrupt the audience’s expectations… although good ones do that carefully and intentionally.

Here’s one more:
Priest, Levite, ________________.

We say Samaritan because that’s how the story goes that we’ve received. But that’s not what Jesus’ audience would have been expecting. According to Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament, the expected order at this time would have been Priest, Levite, Israelite.

Priest, Levite, Israelite.
Boom, boom, boom.
Expected.

So imagine Jesus spinning this yarn, as the lawyer and other people listen on. They know what’s coming. And they’re probably starting to feel pretty good about themselves, until:

Samaritan. Boom again.

“Samaritan” would have been a complete reversal of expectations. It’s the last thing they would have expected Jesus to say.

We often hear about the Samaritans as the down and out, the persecuted; but according to Levine, Samaritans were not just the downtrodden people. They were enemies of the people of Israel.

Imagine if I had disrupted the rule of three in our little test… if I’d said, “Larry, Curly, and Bubba.” Or “gold, frankincense, and paper towels.”

That would be a little uncomfortable. It would feel a bit wrong.

Now imagine if I stood up at the end of the service and blessed you all in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Prophet Muhammad. Boom.

Now, as I’ve said many times to you, I do not see Muslim people as our enemy. The problem is with fundamentalist radicals, regardless of their religion. Still… that benediction coming from me would be… concerning. That’s not what the Christian minister is expected to say. At best, you may wonder if I made a slip-up. Like you would question my theology and fitness for ministry.

That is the level of disruption that Jesus’ words would have elicited in his listeners.

How dare he elevate one of “those” people? How dare he make the priest and the Levite the villains and the Samaritan the hero of this story?

And yet there he is. The person who fulfilled the greatest commandment—to love God and love neighbor—is the last person you’d expect it to be.

*          *          *

Why do we not go and do likewise?
What keeps us from behaving as the Samaritan does in this parable?

In keeping with our rule of three, I’ll suggest that three things keep us from “showing mercy”:

The first is time. I’ve shared with you before about the Good Samaritan study at Princeton Seminary. Read about it here, but what the researchers found is that the primary predictor for whether someone will stop to help someone else is whether they think they have time to do so. The busier we get, the less likely we are to respond with compassion to someone in need. That’s not good news in our world of perpetual motion.

The second is the sheer immensity of the need. Who is our neighbor? Potentially everyone and anyone. We know that. Technology has connected us in amazing ways, but it also connects us to tragedy like never before. It gets to be too much sometimes. So we shut down, tune out, ignore. Pope Francis preached recently on the Good Samaritan story and lamented “the globalization of indifference,” which “makes us all ‘unnamed,’ responsible yet nameless and faceless.”

The globalization of indifference.

The third is a sense that we can’t do anything. The needs of the world are great, and our abilities seem so small. And yet… take a look at the Samaritan’s response. He goes to the man, tends his wounds, takes him to a safe place…

…And then he leaves.

My whole life with this story, I’ve always wondered where he goes. Isn’t he supposed to drop everything and devote himself to this man’s full-time care and healing? He’s the Good Samaritan, after all!

Well, apparently not. The Samaritan helps him, he pays for the man’s care, and then he goes about his business. His part in this drama, important as it is, is over.

What does this suggest about our call in such situations? What does it suggest about God’s ability to work through the lives of many, many people, neighbors to one another? We respond as we are called and able, and we do what is ours to do. But we don’t do it all. We cannot be God… and we do this work together.

We think we have to do everything, which too often keeps us from doing anything.

*          *          *

About 12 hours ago, a jury reached its verdict in the George Zimmerman case in Florida. As you’ve no doubt heard, Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder (and a possible verdict of manslaughter) of Trayvon Martin. It’s very hard to comment on the case itself, because only two people know what really happened that night, and one can no longer speak for himself. It’s also hard because I was not in the courtroom and I did not hear every last bit of evidence offered.

What I can comment on—and as a minister of Jesus’ gospel, I feel I must comment on—is the reaction, and the emotions and pain this case has unleashed. Many people I know are heartbroken, or downright irate, at what looks like a travesty of justice. And I also know people feel satisfied with the decision was made. So what do we do now?

My friend Ashley-Anne Masters, a pastor and a writer, wrote late last night about an experience of being called a racial slur. Ashley-Anne is white. Her husband, Reggie Weaver, also a pastor and a friend of mine, is black. She wove together her experience with that of the Zimmerman verdict and spoke directly to this business of feeling overwhelmed and indifferent to our neighbor, of going something rather than nothing:

Choosing to raise children teaching them that all faces are equal and valued regardless of color can change something. Not standing for being called a racial slur, or calling out others when they use one in our presence, can change something. Not categorizing every person in any given race as the same as one particular person of that race can change something. Not being afraid of each other can promote equality among races. Killing negative stereotypes and racial profiling would change something. Not killing each other would change a lot.

My face is white. My husband’s face is the same color as Trayvon Martin’s. Our future children’s faces will likely be some shade of mocha or khaki similar to George Zimmerman’s biracial coloring. One day they will hear about the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial and ask us about it. We will be aware that how we respond as representatives of two races will directly impact our children’s view of multiple races. And that changes everything.

*          *          *

About a month ago, a woman named Eliza Webb found her car ransacked near her home in Seattle. The car had been left unlocked—no windows broken—so at first she thought her husband must have been looking for something. Then she saw the unfamiliar cellphone on the seat and discovered that her gym bag had been rifled through, and her running shoes and sunglasses were missing.

She opened the phone and began going through text messages and phone contacts. She pushed the contact listed as “Mom” and reached the prowler’s mother. The owner of the cell phone was 19 years old and of course, had left it behind by accident.

At that moment, Eliza faced a choice. The normal course of action would be to call the police, but something stopped her. Instead, she showed the boy mercy. She asked the woman whether she might meet with him, ask him to acknowledge what he’d done, and seek some kind of alternate resolution. The mother said she would support whatever Eliza decided.

When she arrived at the house, she met the teen, who quickly and tearfully confessed. He said his actions had been fueled by alcohol and boredom, and he apologized.

Webb’s husband, who had come along with Eliza, then told the teen his own story.

When he was 20, Blake Webb was charged and convicted of underage drinking after he went out partying with friends. Now, 12 years later, that stupid mistake follows him on every job application, rental and school application. The Webbs wanted to spare the boy that outcome.

But there were consequences for the boy. He had ransacked many cars and had lots of items to return to their owners. So the Webbs went with him, house by house, to explain what he’d done and ask for forgiveness. At the neighborhood block party, he and his friends who’d been involved read a letter of apology to the neighborhood.

The boy later said, “It felt terrible to hear that people are worried and feel like they have to lock the door because of what I did. In a funny way, I feel closer to my neighbors and kind of look forward to seeing them around in different circumstances.”

His mother said, “I’m deeply grateful to Eliza for taking the time to become personally involved with my son and giving him the chance to go face-to-face with the people he victimized and make amends. Kids need somebody besides their own parents looking at them and holding them accountable. She did a beautiful thing.”

~

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
A teenage boy was shot in Florida.
A young man in Seattle made a very stupid mistake.

A holy man walked by.
A lawyer threw the book at him.
And then a follower of Jesus showed up.

What happened next?
You get to decide.

Monster Friday Link Love: Link Love’s Out for Summer!

Yes… I’ve decided to take a break from Friday Link Love through the summer, at least. I will still link to stuff at Twitter and Facebook, and will probably drop a link here and there occasionally. But this summer is too squirrelly to commit to a regular posting schedule, so I’m hanging out my Gone Fishin’ sign on this feature.

But we’re going out with a bang! TON of stuff today. A couple of gleanings from social media and some other random stuff. Away we go:

~

Here We Are Now Entertain Us — Running Chicken

This week Jan blogged about TED Talks, the Moth, and sermons and said, “one of these is not like the other”. Why are sermons viewed as boring? she asks. How can we sharpen our proclamation by listening to these other forms of communication? As a huge fan of The Moth, and a semi fan of TED, this is a great question and one to explore. Good discussion in the comments of her blog.

But I am also compelled by this post, which questions the rise of edutainment:

Most importantly, is the central claim [by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, in a recent interview] that the test of education is whether or not it’s entertaining. Wales asks, “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” Is there evidence that the most entertaining lecture is the one that gets “knowledge into people’s heads”? Again, I’m not suggesting that a boring lecture is going to do the trick, but I’m arguing that entertaining students doesn’t necessarily equate with teaching them something.

When I lecture on Kant, I don’t think I’m really entertaining my students. In my opinion, Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals doesn’t lend itself to entertainment; it’s a dense text that needs some serious explication. Now, I don’t speak in a monotone and I try to find relevant examples to help them make sense of the material, but I’m not standing in front of the class hoping that they’ll all have a great time; I’m standing there with the express purpose of teaching them about Kant.

At the risk of a “get off my lawn” moment… Yes.

I read a New Yorker profile about TED not long ago and came away a bit soured. TED talks are very formulaic—not necessarily a bad thing, I’ll admit—but the organizers work with presenters to make their content fit their rigorous. This includes dumbing down some material. Do we really want to go down that road?

~

Why Rituals Work — Scientific American

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work.

A nice argument for living “as if.” Which is what I see in a lot of church work.

…We found that people who wrote about engaging in a ritual reported feeling less grief than did those who only wrote about the loss.

~

Arts and Faith — Loyola Press

This site is just getting going but looks very promising: “Explore stories about musicians, crafters, dancers, painters, and more, who demonstrate the many inspiring (and surprising) ways art can deepen your relationship with God.”

~

Orchestra Hidden Camera Prank — YouTube

Somebody asked me recently where I get all my links for FLL. The fun thing is that people have started sending me stuff. Here’s one example. Pretty cute:

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Keep Your ‘Someday’ List from Being Clutter — David Caolo, Unclutterer

A little bit of Getting Things Done jiu jitsu—this is good advice even if you’re not a disciple of David Allen as I am:

In GTD, “visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps. In breaking down the project, two things happen.

First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project completely. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggested. If I have an increase in interest that will suggest motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.

~

Photo Series of a Young Girl Dressed Up as Great Women Throughout History — Peta Pixel

A photographer wanted to commemorate her daughter’s fifth birthday:

My daughter wasn’t born into royalty, but she was born into a country where she can now vote, become a doctor, a pilot, an astronaut, or even President if she wants and that’s what REALLY matters.

The resulting photo series has Emma dressed and posed as five influential women from the history books, with a presidential photo thrown in at the end. Click the link to see.

H/t Facebook friend Jeanny House.

~

While we’re on photography:

The Art of Being at the Right Place at the Right Time — Colossal

If you’ve seen Dewitt Jones’s now-classic DVD, Everyday Creativity, you know he talks about putting yourself in the place of most potential. This photographer has clearly done that—as Christopher notes on Colossal, she must never be without a camera, because she’s able to capture amazing images.

Tons at the link.

~

The Threat of Literalism — Ken Kovacs

A friend and colleague pens this:

James Hollis, Jungian analyst and writer, suggests that literalism is actually a form of religious blasphemy because it seeks to concretize (nail down, define) and absolutize the core experience of the Holy, of God – a God, if God, who cannot be controlled or defined; a God, as theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) insisted, who was Wholly Other, a God who remains ultimately a mystery.  And a mystery is not the same thing as a puzzle (which can be solved); a mystery is always enigmatic and is therefore inherently unknowable.  The German theologian Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) reminded us, “A God comprehended is no God.”

~

How about closing with two links from my alma mater, Rice University?

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Grads: Future of Exploration in Your Hands — Rice.edu

HOW LUCKY IS THE CLASS OF 2013 TO GET NdGT AS COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER?!?

We got Elizabeth Dole, which… eh.

Tyson, whose wife, Alice Young, is a Rice alumna, challenged the new graduates to become part of the new drive to discover. “There is no solution to a problem that does not embrace all we have created as a species,” he said. “The original seeds of the space program were planted right here on this campus, and I can tell you that in the years since we have landed on the moon, America has lost its exploratory compass.

Also: some straight talk about what motivates humanity to explore:

War, money and the praise of royalty and deity. He noted Kennedy’s speech at Rice that laid out the plan to go to the moon followed one a year earlier to Congress that first proposed the adventure.

“We haven’t been honest with ourselves about that,” he said, reciting the part of JFK’s 1962 speech to Congress that appears in a monument at the Kennedy Space Center. What’s missing, he said, is a reference to the war driver: in this case, Yuri Gagarin’s orbital mission for the Soviet Union six weeks earlier.

“No one has ever spent big money just to explore,” he said. “No one has ever done that. I wish they did, but they don’t. We went to the moon on a war driver.”

(And in case you missed it, here’s a bonus link that had a lot of social media buzz: John Green’s commencement speech to Butler. Top-notch.

~

Shimmering Chain-link Fence Installation by Soo Sunny Park — Colossal

How exciting to see the Rice Art Gallery featured on Colossal! Wish I could see this in person. Plexi-glass and chain link.

~

Peace be with you, friends.

The Hour Has Come: A Sermon for NEXT Church

Cross-posted at the NEXT Church website.

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

I was honored to preach at the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley at their stated meeting on May 9, 2013. It was a bit of an introduction to NEXT Church. I share it here in hopes that others will find it a helpful taste of what we’re about: 

 

The Hour Has Come

John 2:1-11 

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

medium_475424169Many preachers I know have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John. The Jesus in John is just so muscular. I don’t mean that in the sense of brawny, I mean… he’s so capable. Confident. Free of angst. Every move he makes is deliberate. There is no sweating blood in the garden in John, no cry of anguish on the cross, no “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Yes, he does say “I’m thirsty,” but John is quick to assure us: He didn’t really need a drink; he just said that to fulfill the scriptures.)

This is a man who knows what he’s doing at every moment. And that’s a comforting thing. But it’s also what makes John’s Jesus really hard to relate to. Jesus is never, ever caught off guard.

Except… here. Here, in this story, we get a little bit of a different picture than the Jesus we meet in most of John. He seems caught a bit off guard. Plus, this is Jesus’ first sign, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:

–       Walking on water.

–       Three healings.

–       Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.

–       Raising a guy from the dead.

–       And… restocking the bar at a wedding.

One of these signs is not like the other.

*          *          *

Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.

Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.

And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so. Anyway, my hour has not yet come.

And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: Yes, your hour has come. You are needed, right now, right here.

I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.

Jesus, it seems, had a plan. He had something in mind for his first sign. I’m not sure what he hoped his first sign would be, but water into wine wasn’t it. I bet it was something great. Maybe he was planning to heal an entire household in one fell swoop. Maybe a nice juicy exorcism. Later he would walk on water; maybe he was going to kick things off by flying through the air like Superman.

But instead he realizes that when it comes to sign #1… mother does know best. And of course, it’s not just about the wine—it’s about hospitality, it’s about providing something amazing for a whole village of people. It’s about God’s abundance. So yes, he’s in.

He looks around: What’s here that I can use? He scopes out his provisions like some kind of Palestinian MacGyver, and he finds 6 water jars.

Uh-oh. Six.

You remember the number 7 as a holy number in scripture. It is a number of perfection, completion. The seven days of creation. Seventh day as the day of rest. Seven signs in the gospel of John, seven churches in the book of Revelation.

But there are only 6 jars. Not good. In the ancient world, 6 was not a holy number. Far from it. Six was seen as a deficient number, imperfect, lacking. So we can see why Jesus would be reluctant to act—wine from seven jars would be a fabulously meaningful sign, dripping with significance. But the tools aren’t right. Things aren’t quite right. Six jars is somehow not enough.

I serve a small congregation in Northern Virginia that has grown from about 70 to about 85 in the last few years. We rejoice at this growth. And we are grateful to have a number of things going for us. We own our building; it’s not too big for us, not too overwhelming for the budget. We have a small endowment. We have great people and an excitement about the future.

And yet… and yet… even with all of those gifts, it is still hard to move forward.
It’s difficult to find the money to do what we want and need to do.
It’s tough to find the people power to move forward on projects and ministries that we feel passionate about.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out how to cut through the noise of the DC area so that our neighbors will know who we are and what we believe and why we’d like them to be a part of it.

It feels sometimes like a six jar situation.

And I wonder if you, too, look around your congregation, or your presbytery, and see six jars.
If we could just catch a break,
if we could just finish that camp,
if we could just get a few more young people to join our church,
if we could just hire a pastor—then, then, we could be the sign that we really want to be, the sign we’ve always dreamed of being.

Maybe you, like Jesus, feel like the timing is off. Jesus says his hour has not come, but for many of us, we feel like our hour is past. The statistics about membership decline in the PC(USA) are repeated so often that they have become a cliché. So many churches, here and around the country, are doing faithful ministry but without the means to call a pastor. Our buildings need maintenance. Meanwhile, a recent Barna survey of pastors and found that 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.  And an astounding 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

We’re discouraged.

We’re a day late and a jar short.

Unless.
Unless it’s not up to us to perform a sign, but simply to be the sign.
Unless we worship a God of possibility.
Unless John’s Jesus, our Jesus, can take our jars and look at the clock on the wall and say, “Forget what time it is. I can work with this.”

For the last couple of years I’ve been honored to be a part of the leadership of the NEXT Church. This is a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has been working to celebrate the places of health in the church and to support those places and help them propagate. The premise of NEXT Church is that the church is not dying. The church is changing, and changing quickly. And we are capable of change, but we can’t wait for Louisville or presbytery or our pastors to do it for us. We are the church.

Last year we hosted half a dozen regional events around the country where ruling elders and teaching elders came together not to transact business or kvetch about presbytery, or argue about ordination standards or gay marriage. They came together to share resources and inspiration. They formed relationships and partnerships.

NEXT Church recently had our national gathering in Charlotte, and we heard about churches that were on life support who turned their worship life around through improv and storytelling. We heard about a large church partnering with a small church through an adminstrative commission. We heard about congregations coming together through community organizing to transform entire neighborhoods.

You can hear these stories and many more on our website. What’s interesting is that many of these folks were reluctant to speak at the conference because they felt like what they had to offer wasn’t all that radical. I’m no expert, they would shrug. They might as well have said, “Eh, I’ve only got six jars.” But their testimonies set the place on fire.

When we offer up those jars… when we fill them to the brim, like those servants did… well, that’s when the good wine starts to flow.

*          *          *

We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. But it’s significant to me that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or a sermon or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t a life or death situation at all. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, but otherwise it had very little utility. It was just an act of pure beauty. The party needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.

Water into wine is such a small sign. But maybe this sign is just the sign we need. Jean Varnier, founder of the L’Arche Community, reminds us: “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”

We get mixed up sometimes. We want to save the church. We want to save the world! But maybe it’s enough to keep the feast going for as long as we can—not cautiously, not fearfully, but brimming over with hope and trust that the wine will flow as long as God means it to.

Maybe God is preparing us for something really, really—small:

Beauty, joy, community, friendship, hospitality.

I will drink to that. How about you?

~

MamdMaryAnn McKibben is co-chair of NEXT Church. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time. She blogs at The Blue Room.

 

photo credit: Paco CT via photopin cc