15 July 2014

Continuing Ed Day One: Review of the past year

I loaded up the mystery van with the contents of the ACME Q46 Sermon Generator and trundled up to the library of the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (me and four other people occupied the building for the day).  I'm not sure what was going on but there were some painters working in the main hall (which is not unusual, it is low time a perfect time for sprucing up the place) but, they were playing the Pointer Sisters really loud (which is not odd either, but the volume level was - for the record it is impossible to be in a bad mood with the Pointer Sisters welcoming you to a theological library).  And for the record I will be an adjunct faculty member at UTS this Fall (Baptist History and Polity) don't believe me?  Check this out.

I started the day off by reviewing a year's worth of sermons and writing.  It was painful and kind of sad to be done with my review in 90 minutes, especially knowing that it took me countless hours to produce them.  Verdict: some of the sermons were so good I couldn't believe I wrote them and some of them were so bad I was ashamed to have my name associated with them.  I also realized that I start off strong but tail off by the end of the month.  I also try to do too much with my sermons.  I also have some good ideas but not enough time for them to flourish (thus the dedicated week of sermon prep).  Finally, I repeated the theme of a sermon in consecutive weeks.  Which again punctures my nascent theory that everyone pays attention to every word I say.  Which again proves my theory that preachers can never repeat themselves enough!

After a period of review I went to work mapping out the year.  I identified 12 themes for the 2014-15 year.  Armed with my themes I went digging in the stacks for books.  It was a good day.

Today I'll be at the Central Mpls Library continuing the quest and reading.

08 July 2014

My Sermon Writing System: The ACME Q46 Sermon Generator

Warning the following blogpost is about the only time you will find me operating on a highly organized level.

While on the mission trip/pilgrimage in WV a couple of weeks ago one of the youth asked me what do I do all day.  I answered with a question, "What do you think I do all day?" The youth replied, "Well, I figure you write your sermons on Saturday evening then have a part-time job during the week at Dairy Queen or someplace like that."  I used it as a teachable moment to explain the ins and out, the pluses and minuses, the heights and depths of pastoral ministry.  I hope it sounded like more fun and more rewarding that a part-time gig at Dairy Queen.

I am not a Saturday evening sermon writer, although there have been a few moments when I have had to rewrite a sermon on Saturday evening.  Using our time together I would like to reveal the Travis Norvell method of preparing to write a sermon, or the ACME Q46 Sermon Generator

Next week I will start a five Sunday vacation (including a week of continuing education).

I start off by writing all of the Christian, secular, solar/lunar, church specific, agricultural, Baptist dates I can think of on my giant pad of paper.  I also list all of the themes I'll be preaching on for the year.
please note this is a dated picture.  

Then I set off for the first few days letting my mind & soul get lost in libraries, bookshops, museums, galleries,  hikes, movies, and the like all the while picking up artifacts that I place in my "special box."  (For the record I really do have a "special box,"  Like Rock Baptist gave me this special box as a going away present.)  In addition to the artifacts collected during my continuing education week the special analog box includes artifacts from the year: newspaper articles, New Yorker cartoons, New Yorker articles, New York Review of Books articles, poems, song lyrics, NPR stories/interviews, quotes from books, quotes from parishioners and life, movie scenes, works of art, any and everything that I find interesting, funny, thought provoking, stimulating, or down right amazing.  (For the record my practice of collecting artifacts drives my spouse absolutely bonkers because I refuse to recycle any scrap of paper until I have looked it over carefully and evaluated its potential.)

Near the end of my continuing education week I dump all of the contents from my special box out onto a large table.  Then I start sifting and sorting the contents into theme piles.  Then I match up them up to the themes for the coming year: longing, brokenness, grace, hospitality, belief (that is all I at the moment).  Each theme has a folder, all the folders go into a 1970s era binder which I will then carry with me to work and the library throughout the year providing me with further clarity and direction.

This method enables me to research material throughout the year.  How many times have you been writing a sermon on Wednesday and thought to yourself, "this would be a damn good sermon if I had read X or had more time to think about Y."  Now you do.  I am sure this method could be adapted for use on an email machine but I like my analog box.

This method will not produce stellar sermons but it will hopefully lift the determining third.  Determining third?  Tommy Lasorda once said that all baseball teams win a 1/3 of their games and lose and 1/3 of their games, it's that third 1/3 that separates great teams from average teams.  I apply the same theory to my sermons: a 1/3 will be great, a 1/3 will be not so great, and the other 1/3 will hopefully be pretty damn good.

At the end of the preaching year you could have something like this (if you write out your sermons).

This year I included all of my sermons (even the outlines of a few that I preached without a script), the prayers, letters to the editors, submissions to magazines, wedding homilies, blessings, and opening words at special events.  I did not include newsletter articles or my weekly paragraph in the church email (maybe this year I will).  Why do I keep all of these?

Two reasons.  One, to give myself a visual reminder of how crucial writing is to my profession.  Good writing is essential.  Two, I have a way to checking/reviewing my writing.  Am I repeating myself?  Do my paragraphs balance (short sentences followed by long sentences)?  Where are my weak spots?  What do I need to work on?  Bonus reason: it proves (to myself) that I do not JUST write sermons on Saturday evening and work at Dairy Queen during the day. :)

What is your method?  Please share.

14 May 2014

Why Mess with Perfection?

My late father used to bemoan every time he heard about new and improved chocolate chip cookie recipe, or when my mother tried a new and improved chocolate chip cookie recipe.  In his mind the chocolate chip cookie was perfected in the 1950s.  Why would people mess with perfection?  I've pretty much adopted this mindset concerning chocolate chip cookies, and black clergy shirts.

Several months ago I decided to sell my car and use only my bike and public transportation for my job as a clergyperson (I have, however, been known to drive the new van to a meeting or two).  Riding my bike changed my life in many ways; one of those ways: my choice of clothing.  I couldn't very well ride my bike and wear a suit with dress shoes.  So I simplified.  I switched back to khaki pants, hiking boots, and clergy shirts.

Can a Baptist wear a clergy shirt?  Sure we can.  Yet I've always been a little uncomfortable wearing a black clergy shirt with a tab collar because of the immediate association of imitating Roman Catholic priest (but with Pope Francis, that aint such a bad thing).  So I tried to forge new ground with a blue and white striped and a plain white clergy shirt.  I really like these shirts but no one has any clue what they are.  No one recognizes them as clergy shirts, I should ask someone what they think they are.  Therefore, I have been wearing my old threadbare blue clergy shirts until I order some new black shirts.

The other day after dinner I had a revelation about the wisdom of black clergy shirts.  Here is my revelation: Not only are black clergy shirts the uniform for clergy, not only do they hide wrinkles, not only are they Protestant (yes they are), not only are they visually thinning (at least folk say black hides a few lbs.) but, are you ready...they hide stains!  I've only had my new clergy shirts a few weeks and they already have stains on them.  I love chocolate and red wine, two things that my non-black clergy shirts love to reveal.

Why mess with perfection indeed?

12 May 2014

2014 State of the Church Address: Why I'm Not Worried: Numbers and Soul

Judson Sermon 20140510 "State of the Church Address: Why I'm Not Worried" from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

2014 State of the Church Address: Numbers & Soul: Why I’m Not Worried
Third Sunday of Eastertide - 11.May.2014
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

            First Lesson: Jeremiah 10:17-25

            Why I/We Should Be Worried

            Of the 250,000 Protestant congregations in America, 200,000 are either stagnant or in decline.  200,000 out of 250,000, that is 80% are either stagnant or in decline, 80%. 
Every year 4,000 churches close, that is roughly 76 each week.
Every day 3,500 people leave the churches they call home.
Since 1965 each of the seven denominations that makes up Mainline Protestantism –  United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church, USA, Episcopal Church of America, American Baptist Churches, USA, United Church of Christ, & Disciples of Christ – has reported a decline.  Some have called for the end of the term Mainline, instead using Oldline or Deadline. 
There are 25 million less Mainline Protestants since the 1950s.
This year Alban Institute closed.  The church consultant agency, that has focused on forming healthy mainline congregations closed. 
This year the American Bible Society is selling its 12 story building in downtown Manhattan.
There are no more brick and mortar Cokesbury stores! 
And most seminaries are either hanging by a thread or operating at a membrane thin margin.  In last few years every Mainline seminary has either had to cut faculty and staff, sell buildings, or like Seabury Western and Bangor Seminary closed. 

            Many biblical scholars have turned to the theme of exile as the metaphor to describe the current state of decline amongst Mainline Protestantism; tradition that has been torn from the land, left blowing in the wind, and composting in the dustbin of history.  And that is what keeps me up at night: to think that a life-giving tradition with names such as Roger Williams, Harriet Bishop, Martin Luther King, Jr, Henry Ward Beecher, William Sloane Coffin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Howard Thurman, Vida Scudder, Georgia Harkness, or Sallie McFague would up and die. 

Sometimes I feel like a member of the rear guard who is still fighting a battle when the war was long ago lost. 

A few years ago I decided maybe my future as a clergy person is to hold onto liberal Protestantism by serving communities that were willing to persevere…and had a large endowment. 

Why I’m/We’re Not Worried

            Then for reasons I am still trying to figure out, we stumbled upon each other and ever since I have given up on the idea of Exile as the working metaphor of our tradition; and I’ve given up on the idea that a healthy, robust, and vibrant liberal Protestant church is a relic and a thing of the past.  Furthermore, each time my mind starts to think that we are not going to make it, something beautiful and amazing happens here and I think what I fool I was for thinking otherwise. 

            This is not a period of Exile, this is a time of flourishing, of hope, of imagination, of promise, of homecoming, of restoration, of new beginning. 

            Second Lesson Jeremiah 31:7-14

            I want to offer you some numbers.  Now I know that y’all do not look to me as a numbers person, but believe it or not, on certain days of the year I can be a detailed oriented person. 

            Simply put, look at the numbers.  The benchmark for what a church can look like is to take the average attendance for Christmas Eve and Easter over the course of a few years.  In normal years Judson has averaged 200 for both Christmas Eve and Easter services.  Last year our average Sunday attendance was 108.  So the goal is within five years to have our Sunday attendance be the same as our Christmas and Easter average.  That would take an average of at least 18.4 new members each year. But we know some people will move, others will disassociate, and some will die, so the number is more like 25 each year. 

            Keep in mind, about 200 maybe up to 250, that would be the maximum we could go for Judson to still be Judson.  Any bigger than that and we’d have to talk about spinning off and starting another church, which would be exciting too.  But that is a good piece off. 

Now that number of 200 for weekly worship may sound insurmountable, but look at it this way:

Each Sunday we average at least one visitor.  Over the course of the year that’s 52 visitors.  We can attain our magic number just by retaining ½ of our visitors.  I know, I know, some are visitors from out of town, some are family members on vacation, and for others Judson just aint what they’re looking for.  Okay but don’t get down yet. 

Each week the parents and caregivers of 119 preschoolers walk through our doors (not to mention special events when grandparents attend). 
Each week roughly 100 volunteers for Meals on Wheels enter our building. 
Each week visitors and friends attend yoga, painting groups, community events, book groups, bible study, to rehearse, to play musical instruments, to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, to deliver supplies, drop off correspondence, check on things, nose around, and seek help. 
And what about the folk who attended concerts (over 200 were visitors). 
And what about those who stop by at Street Fest? 
And those who attend, or listen in on at the Bandshell? 
And those who visit us in a virtual way on our webpage or via facebook?  And those who find out about us via Pride events,
while we are at public events at the state capitol,
or various venues in and throughout the metro area? 

            Numbers are on our side.  Each day, week, month, season, and year we come in contact with more than 25 prospective members of this community.  They find us with little or no effort on our part – and that is an amazing fact!  Maybe the most amazing fact of all. 

It means we do not have to devote thousands of dollars in marketing, branding, and outreach. 

It does mean, however, we have to do an intentional job of making sure we hold onto those 25 future members: connecting with them in meaningful ways, inviting them, integrating them, and letting them help shape the future and mission of this church.  No matter what the event, how big or small, if everyone there is a friend or not, we have to keep the steady drumbeat of invitation going again and again and again and again. 

            Sure, it would be great if our financial numbers were a little bit stronger.  But again, I’m not worried.  It would be different if we had to shake the bushes, call and beg people to find their way to Judson.  It would be different if we out of hand budget deficits, it would be different if we weren’t growing.  The budget may not be balanced, we are looking at somewhere in the range of $8,000 in the red.  But that numbers would happen if every committee and entity spent all of their budget and it assumes that there will be no growth numerically: new pledges and givers, or grants.  So balance the budget with a simply line of faith: expected growth!  We expect as a congregation to grow this year, we expect new members, we expect new streams of revenue and funding for ministry.  I, for one, expect growth. 


Now a focus on the soul of Judson.  I simply want to highlight some of what happened here last year.

            Bandshell service in the freezing cold, with Wayne and Cheryl throwing snowballs for the time with children. 
            The different summer musicians we heard, the exchange of the Episcopals and the Gospel 5.
            Judson presence at the American Baptist Biennial in Kansas City
            Youth Mission trip where they learned about youth homelessness
            Brent Walker from the Baptist Joint Committee visit and Twins game with UBC.
            Sundaes on Sundays
            Installation of the Little Library
            Seniors Luncheon
            Table at Pride
            Hiring of Brett as Children & Youth Coordinator
            The new life created by Marriage Equality
            Char and Barbara singing This Land Is Your Land with a new verse celebrating marriage equality!
            And that was just last Summer.

            Rally Day
            The use of Ranked Choice Voting for best hotdish offering.
Mac Chatfield winning the Silver Lamb award
We needed space for a new Sunday School Class
Blessing of the Animals
Wedding Celebrations at second hour
Shower of Stoles
            AWAB 20TH anniversary
            Michaelmas service with Struan bread and Celtic music
            Great Gatherings – and the amazing amount that involved alcohol and that they were all overflowing with attendees.
            The amount of people who ended up getting flu shots on the Sunday we offered them!
            The Rutter Requiem!  And let us give thanks to the choir, Jim and John!
            The arrival of David Bloom
            The dedication of Chip’s stained glass window and blessing of Chip’s endeavor in Thailand.
            End of Liturgical year service with candles
            Advent  The kid’s bulletin covers
            The Christmas pageant
            Sara Thompsen Solstice concert
            Christmas sing-a-long
            The lutefisk sermon
            The White Elephant party and the amazing surprise of Silver Lamb that Mac Chatfield won in the Fall. 
            As the calendar year closed: the amazing amount of stuff on the Lost and Found table. 

            First Jazz Sunday – king cake, chicory coffee, king cake babies
            Pancake Brinner – folk eating like it was the last supper
            Trust MLK, Jr service
            Renewal of Baptismal vows/promise
            Second Jazz service, (who can enough jazz?) the premiere at Judson of Josh Johnson’s original composition Cora.
            The GSA Drag Queen/King ball/party
                        Lenten reflections on the Psalms
            Ash Wednesday service (interesting that more people attended the showing of the Life of Brian than attended the Ash Wednesday service, not sure what that says about Judson…)
            Locking up of the Alleluias
            Taize services
            Maundy Thursday service
            Good Friday with UBC
            Easter Morning and the release of the Alleluias
            Dinner and a Show
            Low Sunday & Hendrix’s second hour with his doctor!

            Blessing of the graduates
            You heard 74 different musicians
            You heard over 30 different liturgies.
            You heard 13 different people offer Time with Children
            You heard 8 different preachers
            You heard at least 72 voices reading psalms, reading scripture, & leading prayers.

            For Second Hour
9/22, 9/29, 10/6, 10/13: Kate Brady & Katherine Barton on meditation/Reinventing your future
10/20 Norvell reflections on weddings
10/27, 11/3, 11/10 Rev Julie Neraas on Stages of Life
12/1 Trust Parish Nurse
12/8 Chuck Dayton  Interfaith Power & Light
12/15 Dr Carolyn Pressler UTS on Advent
12/22 Prof Mark Sealy Climate Changes, we had Mark Sealy here!  Just imagine if would have had Carl Kasell here on the same day!
12/29 D Moore on ABC Biennial on social justice
1/5  Norvell on epiphany
1/26 Sr Stories  ? re: Gracie Jones 100+ yrs
2/2, 2/9, 2/16/ Rev Bloom & TN Social Justice
2/23 Doug Wallace Academy Awards films
3/2 Kate Brady Loving Kindness
3/9 Kate Brady Loving Kindness
3/18 Rev Dr. Eric Baretto
3/23 Missions on Youth Link
4/29 Hendrix Johnson & his MD
5/4, 5/11 Judson Youth DVD
We celebrated the weddings or recommitments of
R and R, K & L, M & G, J & M, N and S, the surprise wedding of S and M, and the not surprising, but lovely, wedding of D and A!

We dedicated C and G
We baptized J and L
We welcomed new members: Garrio and Joanna, Sand, Rich, and Jeff.

A dozen of you were at the state capital for the MN Interfaith Power and Light rally for the environment

What about the food we donate for Joyce’s Food Shelf? 
The funds for Starfish
Funds for mission, we’ve already given over $24,000.

The countless visits, cards, phone calls, and meals delivered to those in need.
The hours given to Meals on Wheels, making Judson look great, The Gathering, decorating for the season, correcting my grammar, moving things, hours given to meetings, personnel reviews, the sincere and heartfelt greetings.  The hours and hearts given in service on the Worship, Mission, Christian Education, Adult Education, Property, Personnel, Finance, Building Use, Planning and Policy, Membership/Leadership/Stewardship, Congregational Care, & Street Fest Committees, in addition to the Soup Group, TRUST representatives, Loaves and Fishes, Spiritual Voyageurs, Ushers, Second Hour coffee and treats, Church Officers, and historian.  The way you uphold, inspire, and push each other to be better human beings.  The way we embrace our mixture of Northern Exposure and Vicar of Dibleyness.  The freedom to cry & laugh on Sunday morning.  And maybe the most telling sign of your health as a congregation: the willingness to talk through difficult places. 

 From my own perspective: on several occasions I have said things in such a manner that if taken the wrong way could have been hurtful, rather than let that sit and fester, you approached me and asked for clarification.  On all accounts we laughed off the unintended message but that does not undercut the amount of courage and trust that took, for that I am extremely thankful.  Let us not stop this partnership, it is a work in progress. But well worth the time and effort.  I describe it as slow church.  I have intentions of being here a long time, I want to continue to take my time, when I can, on developing and nurturing relationships for the long term.  This is frustrating, probably, for both of us but it will be worth it. 
This is an amazing and beautiful place.  On the one hand it is a sanctuary, the last stop for many on the journey of religious life, helping them get through life. On the other hand it is a dynamo of religious power and grace propelling others to change the world. 

It is true I’m not silver with wisdom but I’ve been around and a part of enough different religious communities in this nation to know this is a special and unique place – do not take it for granted, let us build and expand making sure this is a vibrant, robust, and thriving community.  Amen. 

05 May 2014

Embracing a Vocation: Graduation Time at Judson

A few weeks ago I realized that again no institution of higher (or lower) learning was calling to offer me an invitation to be a commencement speaker.  I thought by now, surely, my high school would have asked me.  Nope.  Commencement address, honoraray doctorate, having summers off, and personal assistant are all personal professional goals I have for my life.  Rather than wait for the commencement address invitation I decided to use the sermon time on the Sunday when the church recognized the graduating seniors to deliver my version of a commencement address. 

I think it went well.  I had the seniors come up to the platform and sit so they could face the congregation. 

Here is the video:
Judson Sermon 20140504 "Embracing a Vocation, Not Pursuing a Job" from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

And here is the text:

Embracing a Vocation, Not Pursuing a Job
Deuteronomy 8:1-10 & 2 Corinthians
text: “this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7)
Recognition of Seniors – Second Sunday of Eastertide – May 4, 2014
Judson Memorial Baptist Church – Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

            When I was in seminary, in the Fall of ’96, driving in Richmond, VA I heard a Johnny Cash song on the radio.  After the song I headed home, put all of my cds into a large cardboard box, went to Plan9 down in the Fan neighborhood, and traded them all in for the Johnny Cash box set and any other Johnny Cash cds they had.  I now pass onto you my essential Johnny Cash cd.  I know your parents meant well, but if you do not know these songs, well, ur, I just couldn’t bare the thought of someone knowing you were from Judson, that I was your pastor, and you didn’t know these songs. 

            Now for a few questions.
            How many of you switched your majors in college?
            How many of you switched professions more than once?
            More than twice, three times?
            The book of Deuteronomy subscribes to the conditional theory of life, if you do X then Y happens.  Deuteronomy, as you all know, is the second (duetero) telling of the law (nomos), from the Greek, the name coming from the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew, Tanak, into Greek.  The Biblical authors knew human beings have spotty memories, thus the second telling of the law – Exodus was not enough, I suppose.  Remember, remember the forty long years you wandered in the wilderness, remember, remember, remember.  There is also a tinge of fear in the voice of Moses.  Perhaps he was scared that since he would not be with them in the promised land the Israelites would forget their experiences with God.  Likewise, there is a bit of fear in this day.  We are scared, somewhat, that you too will forget all that happened in your years here at Judson.  Not really, but kind of . 

            Years ago your parents either here, or at another faith community, or in the privacy of their hearts made a promise with God to raise you in a way so that you too would develop a vibrant, life-giving, and liberating faith.  And I must say they, and Judson, have done a helluva job.  And now it is time for you to take what we’ve given you and expand, recreate, thicken, customize, and place your own creative/imaginative mark on it.  And yes, you can reject it as well.

            But what is it that we have given you?  A list.  Here is what we hope you take with you.   First, why a list:

When Roseanne Cash was 18 years old in 1973 she spent the summer on a tour bus with her, finally, clean and sober father, Johnny Cash.  As they were trundling through the South they started talking about songs.  She remembers the conversation this way, “he mentioned one, and I said I didn’t know that one.  And he mentioned another.  I said I don’t that one either, Dad, and he became very alarmed.”  In response that afternoon Johnny Cash compiled a list of 100 essential American songs for his daughter’s education.  I hope this short list sums up your formation of your time growing up at Judson.

1.      We hope we have given you a model of authenticity. 

I am sure you take this eccentric, idiosyncratic, bizarre grouping of individuals that make up Judson you take for granted.   Let me say they are living proof that there is a balm in Gilead.  We are living examples of folk trying their best to follow and make real the way of Jesus in this world, sometimes we do an amazing job and other times not so much.  We’re not seeking perfection, we are seeking wholeness. 
2.  We hope we have given you permission to fail. 

We hope you know it is okay (and you’re even expected) to fail.  The sooner you caress this idea the easier your life will be; better to fail now and realize it is not the end of the world then to let the fear of failure run (and ruin) your life.  Fail and know that God will be present; fall flat on your face and know it is not the end of the world, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “God can use even the wrong road to get you to the right place.”  Start reading Lewis, but first read your Parker Palmer book, then Unto Me by Walter Rauschenbusch

            One more thing about failure, specifically grades.  Here is a little secret the other tour guides wont tell you, “other schools are the only ones who care about grades.”  According to my calculations I graduated at the top of my class in divinity school.  The school even put a nice little gold foil stamp on my diploma that reads with distinction.  But guess what?  Not one search committee has ever asked me for my GPA.  When I go to see a doctor, or a dentist, or a lawyer I never ask them for their GPA or a copy of their transcripts.  When I read a novel it never crosses my mind to think, “I wonder if they were at the top of their class?” 

How many here have had a meaningful conversation about your grades in the last five years?

Once you graduate you, for the most part, will stop talking or even care about your grades.  Author Malcolm Gladwell has even suggested we put a moratorium on talking about our grades or where we went to school.   You’ll be surprised how far you can get in life with a little knowledge, some interpersonal skills, and passion for your vocation.  I’m not saying don’t do your best, but always remember you are more than your GPA.  We know it.  We hope you know it and we hope you make sure others know it. 

            If that wasn’t enough then always remember the wisdom shared by our 43rd President at the 2001 commencement of Yale University.

            To those who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say well done.  And to the C students I say, you, too, can be President of the United States.  A Yale degree is worth a lot, as I often remind Dick Cheney who studied here but left a little early.  So now we know: If you graduate from Yale, you become President; if you drop out, you get to be Vice President. 

3.  We hope we have give you a model of Christianity that focuses on human flourishing, that takes the bible seriously, not literally, that can stand caricatures, and that is overflowing with visions of peace & reconciliation & hope.  We hope you take your studies and integrate them with a social gospel fire.  If we could have be assured and gotten copies in time we would have also got you copies of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Your life has been shaped by a financial collapse and the awareness of the 1%, income inequality will touch every inch of your life.  You will have to do your part to make sure the world is a just and equitable world. 

            We hope this way of Judson has been as thoughtless as your next breath.  This is the Horace Bushnell model, the erudite antebellum & abolitionists Congregational pastor.  We are hoping osmosis works.  Speaking of osmosis, my Greek and Latin professor encouraged us to sleep with our readers under our pillows; he advocated academic osmosis.  When asked if it will work, he replied, “it cant hurt.” 
4.  Finally, we hope you embrace a vocation and not use your time over the next few years just pursuing a job.  Listen to your life, your choices, your loves, your passions they all are parts of the voice of God.  And I hope you too will consider the ministry.  Like I’ve told my kids, you can be anything you want to be as long as you are radical Baptist pastors.  When they roll their eyes, I reply, how else are we going to create a theological dynasty?  In all seriousness I hope you embrace a life in the service of others.  For 18 years of Sundays you have been surrounded by a community that has given of itself in the service for others. 

            How many of you are ordained?
            How many of you are married to someone who is ordained?
            How many of you went to seminary?
            How many of you have worked on a church staff?
            How many of you are counselors or social workers?
            How many of you are PKs or MKs?
            How many of you have passed on higher paying jobs to remain in a
meaningful vocation?

We have given you a fragile treasure in an earthen vessel, we trust it with you now. 

            In closing.  Because churches like Judson are few and far between you have our blessing to seek a non-American Baptist church, if you cannot find another Judson.  However, if we hear that you have either started attending an evangelical campus group and are going around declaring that you have found the truth and now see the Judson way as wicked & heretical or you are attending a Presbyterian church and loving it, I will form a posse and will arrange an intervention. 

The Lord Bless You and Keep You.  Amen & Amen. 

23 April 2014

Blessing Those Who Bless You: Easter 2014

The Beginning 

Where to start...I suppose in divinity school when I learned if you didn't want communion you could be blessed by the priest. I suppose during a seminar discussion at Hinton on the need for blessing.  I suppose it had something to do with my Jazz Fest Prayers/Blessing station.  I suppose while reading Gilead.  I suppose on Ash Wednesday when I felt as a vessel of spiritual power (I have no way of communicating this other than I felt the power of God passing from me to those who came forward for the ashes).  I suppose during the "stations" on the 5th Sunday in Lent when I had this desire to go around and bless every congregant.  I suppose when I realized there was no communion bread.

What in the World Am I Talking About?

Leading up to Lent I had been on a streak of preaching for social justice.  I was saying things I had always believed but never spoken out loud.  Then Lent came and no matter how hard I tried to preach on social justice I couldn't, every sermon dealt with personal religion: loving what God loves. Only when we start loving what God loves (ourselves) can we begin to love our neighbor and enemy.  I was surprised by this turn but thought for sure I would be able to gather back by social justice momentum for Easter (especially with the proximity of Earth Day).  But that sermon never arrived.

The sermon that arrived was about blessing.  And that is what I am talking about.


On Good Friday the question and comforting thought occurred to me, "I wonder if the woman who prepares the communion bread received word that there will be communion for Easter Sunday?  If not, no big deal I'll either make a loaf or pick one up this weekend."  Saturday evening I thought, "Be sure and start a loaf of bread before you go to bed."  But I forgot.  Then Saturday night my youngest child was up sick.  Easter morning, it was all I could do to get ready and peddle to church.  As I coasted down Lyndale Avenue and crossed 46th St. I knew for sure that there would be no communion on Easter.  Why?  I decided to bless everyone.

Major thanks needs to go to the Rev. Dr. Kirk B. Jones for encouraging all to adopt a more playful, spontaneous, and experimental aspects into pastoral ministry.  

The Ritual

I preached my sermon on blessing (which is my interpretation of Resurrection)
Judson Sermon 20140420 "The Unfinished Business of Easter" from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

After the sermon I invited those gathered to come forward and receive a blessing.  I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, said their name, followed by the simple blessing: The Lord Bless You and Keep You.

While attending a MCC worship service ten years ago I cried when I heard the minister offer communion to all those who were gathered.  She voiced the invitation in such a tender and sweet way, nothing like the judgmental way I had experienced the call to the table.  Since that day I have advocated that on "high holy days" we offer communion because I am sure there are those present who have been turned away from the table.

On a practical note, by offering a blessing instead of communion we did not have to fret over gluten free or gluten full bread options.  We also bypassed the debate of the nature of communion.  As Baptists I like to think our theology of communion as the lowest common denominator, but not everyone agrees with me on this.  

The Reaction/Response

I thought maybe 20 people would come forward (there were 200+ in worship).  I believe almost every person in attendance came forward.  I should say before the service I approached a congregant and asked if she would help me bless people too (one of the many perks of having a bakers dozen ordained folk in the congregation).

People came forward crying (I cried too).  New people came forward and told me their name before I blessed them.  Kids that heretofore had not come forward came forward.  And to my surprise people blessed me back.  Some people put their arms on my shoulders, around my waist, or on my forehead.  It was an amazing moment.


Marilynne Robinson is correct.  Perhaps the most meaningful act we, the ordained, can do is bless people.  But why do we not do it more often?

Here is a text of the sermon.

The Unfinished Work of Easter
Genesis 12:1-5 & Mark 16:-8
Resurrection Morn – April 20, 2014
Judson Memorial Baptist Church – Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

I don’t know how & why chocolate became associated with the Resurrection of our Lord, but I’m glad it did.  And I’m glad three women went to the tomb early one morning with expectant bodies, minds, & souls.  Tuned with the ears of our hearts, may the expectancy continue this morning.

            Let us pray.  Rising, Living, & Courageous God
In this moment, place your love on our lives, blessing us, reminding us of your trust in us.  Take our eyes and see through them, take our hands and work through them, take our minds and think through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.  Amen. 

Let us start off with a few questions?
How many of you were (or are) the favorite child of your parents?
How many wish they were (or are) the favorite child of your parents?
How many had a relative, a boss, a professor, a neighbor that you liked but they never really liked you? 
Do you have a favorite child, grandchild, or person in your life?
How many of you are living your days with an unmet need for a blessing? 
Or how many are withholding your blessing from someone?

he Old Testament, especially the book of Genesis, is full of cagey, sneaky, and conniving stories of folk trying to obtain a blessing.  Right from the get go the Torah reveals the journey of humanity as one seeking, being denied, and living with or without a blessing.  We are the heirs of that journey, seekers of that gift, always holding out the hope of Abraham to be blessed/to bless.  We spend our days doing amazing and surprising things trying to obtain a blessing.  I would say all of us here this morning are seeking a blessing, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

At the conclusion of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer winning book Gilead, the elderly Rev. John Ames blessed his middle aged godson John (Jack) Ames Boughton.  After the blessing Rev. Ames reflected, “I told him it was an honor to bless him.  And that was absolutely true.  In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.”  The act of blessing for all involved is a liminal and luminous moment, it is to be present in those “thin places” where the distance between heaven and earth is palpable. 

About 15 years ago I began the ordination process at my home church in West Virginia.  I knew at the start that it was a terrible idea, but I reckoned with some charm, good-old-boy-glad-handing, and smooth talking I could wiggle my way through slippery details of theological disagreement.  They saw right through me.  Before anyone could say no, I withdrew. I spent the next few years trying to come to grips with the situation, sleepless nights, bouts of melancholy, talks with chaplains and counselors, etc.  I knew the gulf between what I believed and what they believed was deep and wide, but they were the ones with whom I began my journey.  Looking back on it now, I didn’t expect us to agree, I hoped we could acknowledge the gifts of one another. 

One day while at a retreat I asked the spiritual director, without fully knowing what I was asking, if she would bless me.  She did.  We held hands, she prayed for me, and blessed me.  By blessing me she did what I desired/needed my home church to do.  This act did not solve all of my problems but it did untie the knots in my soul.  I felt like a new person, like I was reborn, I experienced Resurrection.

Technically, resurrection is the physically raising of a previously dead person into the bosom of God. 

Figuratively, it is the surprising pronouncement of discovering the imaginative acts of God:
where there is death, life;
  where there is war, peace;
    where there is hate, love ;
      where there is alienation, community ;
        where there inequality, justice;
          where there is enmity, reconciliation. 

Practically, it is announcing a blessing to the world in action, and in words, and with our bodies
that God has not given up on us,
  that God continues to put God’s trust in us,
     that God has us wrapped in a love that will not let us go. 

To be truly blessed by God –
  to feel in your bones, marrow deep,
    it is to know with every cell that you are loved by God,
      that you are good in the eyes of God,
        that you are one in whom God trusts. 

,000 years ago three women - not Peter, James, and John and definitely not Paul – began sharing the gift of blessing with the surprising good news of the Resurrection: he is risen.  We have their names: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – that is all we have.  Take all the nouns to describe these women and add a few verbs and you can contain all we know about them in a few short sentences, that’s it. 

Yet what they did was so powerful and amazing the gospel authors made sure their names were kept for eternity by including their witness in the Easter story.  We read them each and every Easter keeping their witness alive and present. 

Although we do not hear or see any mention of these tree women until the middle of the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel we know they were with Jesus since the inception of his ministry in Galilee in chapter 1.  They were Jesus’ shadow, disciples with equals.  Therefore, it is only natural and right that they are the first evangelists of Easter – announcing the gift of God. 

            On the one hand you may view their act as a brave and courageous act, which it was.  Three women defied the authorities when they lingered around the cross, when they watched from afar while Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body to the tomb, when they bought spices to anoint Jesus’ body, and when they went to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for eternal rest.  All of their actions were commendable, copious, and courageous. If we only came to that conclusion all would be fine and good. 

But there is a subterranean movement missed if we stopped there.   
            On the other hand, their act was even more astonishing.  They bought spices to anoint Jesus, with no intention of using them.  They went to the tomb knowing full well they could not move the stone from Jesus’ tomb. And when they do not find Jesus in the tomb, drumroll please… they were scared, yes, but, but not disappointed. 

            They went to the tomb expecting resurrection.

Let us linger with their fear for a moment. 

Who wouldn’t have been scared? 

Have you ever held a new born baby?  The little thing all scrunched up & wriggling, covered with afterbirth, simultaneously you are overjoyed and terrified that you will drop it. 
Or have you held the hand of a loved one when they die.  That last breath, rising like wafting incense you are so thankful to be there but also deeply saddened that you will never feel the warmth of those hands anymore. 

            A better translation of the word fear would really be something like an ecstatic state.  They were on an emotional, spiritual, bodily high.  Their holy moment, it is what the bible refers to when it says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
To stand in awe of the holiness of life,
  to feel grace unfolding before your heart,
    to feel within your loins that your only response is
thank you. 
            In the moment of ecstasy the messenger of God shoos them away, now get you going, go and tell the world that Jesus is risen, he is not here.  The directive from the messenger echoes the conversation/deal between God and Abram eons ago, get you going, get busy sharing the gift of blessing with creation.  Get out of the empty tomb and get busy announcing to the world of Jesus’ resurrection, get busy sharing the gift, get busy blessing the world. 
 don’t know how much time you spend analyzing the scriptures each week, my hunch is not that much – no judgment here, just stating the obvious.  So maybe you do not know that the gospel of Mark that we read this morning has not one, not two, but three endings. 

            The most obvious ending, the longer ending of Mark, which ends at verse 20, then there is the shorter ending, which ends at verse 9.  Then there is the original ending which ends where our reading ended this morning, at verse 8.  Most of the ancient sources of Mark’s gospel end at the end of verse 8, but some in the early church found that ending too drastic because there was no appearance of the resurrected Jesus, just an empty tomb! 

            I wish they would have left the original ending at verse 8.  Because it places the onus on me and you to continue the work of Easter,
to announce,
  to bless,
    to do whatever it takes to affirm in others that God loves them,    
      that God has not given up on them,
        that they too are created in the image of God,
          that God trusts them to carry on the work of healing and
mending the world. 

            Mark’s original ending invites us to take up the unfinished & open-ended work of Easter – for there is a world in need of resurrection, in need of blessing, in need of being loved into a new existence.

n closing, the past few Easters I have taken advantage of this day to make bold announcements for justice, for healthy liberal theology, and calls for action.  This year when I took in account of the renewed vigor for social justice in this congregation I felt I needed to go as deep as possible on this day. 

Much will be required of us, we will have to offer the world bread not stone;
something deeper and truer than yelling;
  something deeper and truer than just being angry;
    something deeper and truer than just being against policies,
    practices, and people. 

We will not change the world by shaming others, by yelling, or always reacting. 

We will change the world with Easter as our guide:
loving with surprise,
  gracing with imagination,
    hoping with wonder,
      blessing with fascination,
        resurrecting with astonishment
          freely sharing/announcing the gifts of God. 

This morning I ask that you receive the gift of blessing, or resurrection, of new life, that you begin again, or anew, viewing your self as a creature created in the image of God. 
For if you can love what God loves, if you can love yourself, then you can love others, your neighbor, your enemies; if you can bless what God has blessed then you can bless others; and if you walk your days looking for resurrection, you’ll find it. 

Let us open the ears of our hearts to the open-ended and unfinished work of Easter. 

            The Lord bless thee,
and keep thee:
            The Lord make his face to shine upon thee,
            and be gracious to thee:
            The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee,
            and give thee peace,
            both now and forevermore.

Brothers and Sisters Happy Easter.  Amen & Amen.