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“I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.
“But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.”
At our church we have been talking about Faith Formation for a couple of years, ever since we engaged in a process called “appreciative inquiry” that helped us identify some of our passions.
Faith Formation is a phrase that was introduced to the ‘focus’ group that sorted out all the responses to our data gathering to sharpen our sense of the most important ‘passions.’ There are two reasons that this term was introduced.
First, Faith Formation was used to describe a group of activities. It is not the same as Christian Education, in that Faith Formation is not only learning about ‘faith matters.’ It is not the same as Faith Practices, in that Faith Practices are activities and rituals that Disciples participate in to ‘practice’ their faith. In short, Faith Formation is both learning about and engaging in faith practices so as to grow deeper in our relationship with God and with others. Faith formation includes worship, service, learning, prayer, and giving…sometimes all at the same time!
Second, Faith Formation is expected to be an ongoing experience that shapes our faith for the better our whole life. There is not a body of knowledge that can be completed. There is no list of activities that can be achieved. It is developmental, in that different age groups need different activities, content, and style to meet their own needs and questions at the time. Sound complicated? It isn’t really, but it is multi-faceted.
This is what Faith Formation looks like in action:
“…when Youth (or other learners) develop deep learning and engagement with their faith, they need to experience and choose and participate more in their learning. Most of us have seen a teenager who has become passionate about an issue be able to preach about it, raise money for it, and bring others into the conversation.” (Shannon Kelly, The “C’s” of Education Today.” This involves a vertical relationship with older adults who can provide relationships that support this journey, and a horizontal relationship which is the initial environment for fun, worship, and service.
In his book Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids, Robert J. Keeley explains that faith and moral development are both important…but aren’t the same thing. “Faith development is about helping children come to know and trust God as the Lord of their lives. Moral development is about helping children learn how to behave,” he writes.
It isn’t that we are disinterested in helping our kids live an authentically Christian life where some behaviors are to be avoided. More than this, Faith Formation is interested in helping to grow within a sense of God’s presence and care, no matter what is going on.
Here’s an analogy to explain why churches are talking less about Christian education and more about faith formation. Good cooks often love reading cookbooks. Yet reading those cookbooks won’t make you a great chef. Nor does reading about worship guarantee you’ll experience yourself as part of a community gathered around the risen Christ. You have to participate to cook or worship well.
John Roberto describes Faith Formation this way,
This emerging vision of lifelong ecclesial faith formation has several defining goals of this process:
• To utilize the whole life of the church as the faith formation curriculum through church year feasts and seasons, sacraments and liturgy, justice and service, prayer and spirituality, and community life.
• To engage all generations in more active participation in church life, especially Sunday worship.
• To develop an events-centered core curriculum for all generations in the church community, while offering age-appropriate programming to address specific life cycle learning needs.
• To involve all of the generations in learning the core curriculum together through intergenerational learning.
• To equip and support families, and especially parents, to practice the Christian way of life at home and in their daily lives.
To transform the church community into a community of lifelong learners.
(John Roberto, “Lifelong Faith Formation For All Ages, Lifelong Faith, 2008, p. 41)
This is a new way to think about growing disciples of Christ – to nurture, to tend, to oversee, to sustain, to grow those around them in the faith and love of Jesus Christ. They do this by practicing their faith in the presence of other disciples on the same journey. So, this is not only their way of life, it is the way of life for us all. We are all called into the life with God and along the way we have been fed when we were young, tended to when we were maturing, and fed more when we were older. It is the practice of lifelong formation, of lifetime learning, of generational faith development.
Kendra Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, in their book The Godbearing Life, point to this very kind of ministry with youth. They examine a ministry of presence, nurture, feeding, and tending that is more about relationships than about programs. It is about being a “god-bearer” in someone’s life, being the shepherd that tend to the sheep, being the advocate that will speak up, being the mentor that is there when you need them, being present and being real. Godbearing ministry is about tending to the heart, mind, and soul of the person, because we are all people of God and worthy of being fed.
She writes elsewhere:
Young people need practice in multiple “faith languages” — words and actions, art and prayer. Young people today live in a participatory culture, where they create cultural content as well as consume it. Treating youth primarily as consumers of worship, programming, and mission fails to recognize their creativity and makes church seem unwelcoming and archaic. (Kendra Creasy Dean, “Characteristics of a Healthy Youth Ministry”, Leading Ideas, March 14, 2012)
So Faith Formation is not so much a thing we do. It is a process, a lifelong movement, for discipleship, praxis, theologians call it – where together the whole church puts into action what we believe and through that experience revise what it is believe based on how and where we experienced Christ in the activity, in the prayerful reflection, in each other.
THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
August 4, 2013
“God, whose love is not for sale, is still abundant, but hard for us to find.” – Nancy Rockwell
The Parable of the Rich Fool
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
CHILDREN’S SERMON (from ‘worshiping with children’, Carolyn C. Brown): Behind this parable is the question, “how much is enough?” One way to explore just a part of this is to ponder the size of the servings at communion. Children often have trouble connecting all the language about feasting with the tiny piece of bread and sip from the cup. Those bits don’t even rate as a snack, much less a feast. So, at some point present what is offered and admit that it is not very much. Then recite and laugh about some of the feast language in the ritual words. Finally, ponder the fact that it really is enough to do what it is meant to do. Just a taste of bread and a sip from the cup remind us of God’s enormous love and our place among God’s people. Insist that sometimes just a little is not only enough, but a feast. Wish aloud that the barn builder in the parable had known that.
There are times when it is best to begin at the end, not the beginning. I think that today is one of those days.
The final sentence in the reading for today is: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
Here at the end, all we are left with is a sad case. You may receive this parable in a variety of ways. It may seem that Jesus is speaking to someone else, someone richer, better off. It may seem to be a backhanded affirmation as you have no stockpile of resources.
But here at the end, for sure, we are left with a great reversal. Rich or poor: Jesus implies the biblical truth that we ourselves begin with God and return to God. That is the long and short of the matter. The old story about the substance of the dash between dates on the tombstone being important is emphasized here. If that space, that dash, is not spent in the work of garnering riches toward God we may be disappointed at the end of the story.
This is not one of those “speak up now or burn up later” kinds of sermons. There will not be an altar call. Nowhere does Jesus say that wealth is bad, a sin.
Still, this is one who says, “It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” (Luke 18:24-25)
This is the one about whom his mother said,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)
Just recently, Jesus asked his disciples to consider, “what does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:25)
What he does say, and emphasizes here, is that wealth can get in the way of your relationship, your richness toward God.
St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things. One way to be rich toward God is to use some of your resources, your time, your talent, your treasure…that stuff saved up in the barn…to benefit your neighbor in need. That’s what the Good Samaritan did, right?
Another way to grow our riches toward God is to work at increasing our discipleship. Even in the midst of lives whose calendar is all too often a brutal task master, there is time. See that calendar is often driven, as Martha’s calendar was, by the expectations of the society in which we live. Max Weber’s classic text “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” identifies the sin we fear most…sloth…laziness. So now, not only our work, but our play is not adequate unless it is structured and scheduled to a frenzied pace. Still, do you remember, just recently, Mary was complimented for what appeared to be a ‘royal waste of time’ (Marva Dawn, A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (Eerdmans, 1999)) sitting at Jesus’ feet; which can mean study, worship, prayerful reflection on his words. This, part of discipleship…prayer, studying the bible, worship with the congregation, to develop wealth toward God is a needful thing.
When you begin at the end of the story and move backwards you always have another chance. I began with harsh words, ‘you fool,’ and harsher realities, that death and the end of life is not only near, but is here. We have traveled backwards with this narrative time machine and now we are left here alongside the ‘rich fool’, comfortable and content. And, knowing what we know now, that you cannot take it with you, we face a choice.
Jesus came to tell us that God wants so much more for us than simply more stuff. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community, and we are in control of creating and receiving these very things that make us rich toward God. This is the new clothing St. Paul urges us to put on.
One thing is clear: ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ If we do not learn this lesson, we will make our possessions into the heaviest of burdens which we will carry everywhere and they will get us nowhere.
THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
June 9, 2013
1 Kings 17:8-16
Easter faith is indeed revolutionary in the world. The Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of new life, the force not stopped, even by our fear of that newness. ~ Walter Brueggemann
What wonderful images we have in today’s passages. We have prophets, raisings from the dead, a never-ending supply of food, onlookers being both amazed and terrified. It’s the Easter story over and over – amazing and terrifying for the people of that day.
In the text from Luke’s gospel, the woman loses her son; she has already lost her husband. It’s great that her son comes back to life. It’s great that she’s likely saved from living on the streets. It’s great that the crowd rejoices and glorifies God…and that the celebration is heard all across the countryside, from Nain, throughout Galilee, and even on down to Judea. It’s just great.
But there’s one thing about this text that, if not troubling, is at least a little annoying.
I am a bit annoyed that Jesus intervenes in death only three times, according to the memories of his friends. All four gospels tell the story of the restoration of Rabbi Jairus’ daughter. Only John tells the tale of the raising of Lazarus from his grave. And only Luke tells the story assigned for this week, of Jesus raising the son of a widow from the pall on which he is being carried to his grave. People were suffering and dying all over the place in Palestine and only 3 get the special recitation treatment.
Jesus heals a lot of people in the Gospel of Luke. He interrupts despair here, there, everywhere. A woman approaches him at a dinner party and pours perfume on his feet. Another woman battles through a crowd to touch the hem of his garment. Just before today’s story, a centurion sends word through his friends that his servant is ill. “Just give the word,” the man says, “and I know he’ll be healed.” Jesus praises all three people and attributes their healing to their faith.
But the woman in today’s story? She doesn’t ask Jesus to raise her son. She has given up to the realities around her, as she sees them. She doesn’t fall on her knees and beg for her son’s life. All she does is cry. That’s what realists do. They cry.
Of course, maybe the reason she doesn’t ask Jesus for a resurrection isn’t from a lack of faith. Maybe she just thinks it’s too late. Her son is dead. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t she at least say “thank you?” Or if she did say “thank you,” why doesn’t the gospel writer record her response? Or what about the woman’s son? When he sits up on the bier, the gospel writer says that the man begins to speak. But if one of the things he said was “Thank you,” we don’t have a record of it. It could be that mother and son joined in the celebration with the rest of the crowd. More than likely they did. But why didn’t the gospel writer tell us that? In other stories in Luke, people’s healing is attributed to their faith. Or if the healing happens without a request for it-like the bent-over woman a few chapters later-they at least say thank you or begin praising God.
But in today’s story? Not one word about faith. Not one word about gratitude or praise. Just a mother’s tears before the raising, and a son’s random talking after it.
So, maybe this story isn’t about faith. Maybe it’s not about gratitude. Maybe it isn’t even about those of us who are such unadulterated realists that we simply accept the bumps and grinds of life as the predominant ‘fact of life’ and those who go on their way even when grace kisses them on the forehead.
No, this story is about grace-pure, unadulterated, undiluted, unbidden, unearned, un-asked-for grace. Here we have one of the worst case scenarios we can imagine. This woman faces absolute destitution. Beyond the fact that these two men, whom we presume she loves, are dead; society in the ancient world will put her out on the street. All she can do is cry, and who can blame her.
This raising doesn’t happen because of a mother’s faith or her son’s worthiness. It happens because Jesus has compassion for her. Period. The mother didn’t have to act faithfully. The son didn’t have to live gratefully. It could be that both mother and son were faithful and grateful. But my point is that the point of this story is not the mother and her son. The point of this story is Jesus’ compassion. The point is that when grace comes into our lives, it requires nothing of us but a choice: to receive it or not.
Now notice, with me, the crowds response: “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” This is the key to understanding this text. God has come, in this person Jesus, to help his people.
In the wake of hurricane Katrina, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Alice Walker was so moved by the scenes on her television she packed up and went to New Orleans. She said, “I decided that I would try to go there, to make clear to the people who were suffering so deeply that the slander of them was not just insufferable. We couldn’t get into New Orleans, but we got as far as the Astrodome in Houston. We took money, books, and things for an altar ~ we created an altar in the Astrodome…If that had happened to me, I would want people to come and say, you are very dear to me, and whatever they say about you that is hurtful and damaging, I am here to nullify that impression. It was the joy of my life to walk around and hand out envelopes with money in them, because this is what you do with money; you give it to people who really need it. We had a wonderful time – in the midst of all the devastation – talking to people, hearing stories, eating oranges.
The help that comes to God’s people, I believe, is when we find the strength to refuse to sink into ignorance and unawareness of God’s presence. The help comes to empower us to bring a glimmer of God’s love to a desperate situation. I am not talking about raising the dead here. But this help allows God’s people to be the bearer of love, to offer an orange, to be a brave and courageous flower in the desert.
The church word for that is ‘incarnate,’ as in the ‘incarnation.’ So when we do these things, we will not only be a reminder to someone else that God is good, even in the most difficult of times, but also, in action, remind that the “beauty of the world is much more present than the evil of the world. The evil of the world is so big, but at the same time the beauty of the world overwhelms it. When you participate in beauty, in the grace of God, you’re not necessarily healed, but the world will be changed.
There are plenty of scriptural texts that point us toward hope in the midst of despair. Yet, because I do not want to sugar-coat the tragedies in these texts, or the texts of our lives, I admit that I struggle with these stories. I have conducted too many funerals, been at too many bedsides, been called to too many accident sites, to suggest there is something good to say or some perfectly faithful thing to do in situations like these. I cannot write instructions on a 3×5 card describing what to do. But I can tell you my favorite line in the story of the widow of Nain, I repeat it in my head: “And the bearers stood still” (vs.14). May my heart stand still.
If somehow we can avoid becoming calloused and indifferent by the 24 hour cable news cycle; If then we are moved to become people who are diminished by the suffering of others, we may begin to understand what it means to be but one of God’s children among many. And we may also learn what it means to be bearers of the grace of God, by being prayerfully still with those who grieve or suffer, peeling the rind off an orange, and offering what we have: ourselves for another.
In the old days, letters like this one came in the mail. They were often hand written on that lined notebook paper. What each had in common was that my initial impulse was to write two or three hundred pages on each question.
Now, they come via email. Praise The Lord they don’t come via twitter…140 characters? I couldn’t do it for even one of these questions. Still, sincere questions deserve sincere responses, so here’s the questions and responses. As they used to say on Dragnet, “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
My family is looking for a new church home. The church we have recently left has very conservative views on several issues that we do not agree with. After some research it seems that the UCC could fall more in line with our core beliefs but I understand that each congregation has differing stance on some of these issues. Please let me know how your church feels about the following issues:
Gay Rights and God’s view of homosexuality. Do you feel that God can love a homosexual couple as they are or that He would feel their way of life is sinful and needs to change? What do you think would happen if a Gay couple came to your church?
The Bible. Do you feel we must take every part of the bible as the inerrant word of God or can it be viewed less literally?
What is your stance on God and Science. Can they work together or do you believe that faith requires you to deny science?
Women in Leadership. Do you feel that Women can be capable leaders in the church or do you belief this is against God’s plan?
Sorry, I know these are very weighty issues. You can respond in email or call me (XXX-XXX-XXXX) to discuss them. If you would prefer to meet in person instead, I would be open to that as well. I do not feel that a church needs to agree completely on every theological point but I do feel there needs to be an open mindedness and willingness to discuss issues without condemning.
I hope to hear from you soon!
Thanks for your interest in our Church. I am happy to speak to you personally, sometime, but felt that a fairly quick reply was in order.
First, let me say that I sometimes describe my perspective on faith this way: “I take the bible seriously, but believe every time we read it we are in ‘interpretation’ mode. I am theologically moderate; what I mean by that is that theology (how we understand God) begins with the ‘trying on’ of a particular theological tradition and as we grow in our faith we may (and ought to) change our perspective. Socially, I am a progressive and I half-jokingly say these perspectives go together: “just like they did for Jesus.”
Our Church is a mixture of perspectives. We are not diverse racially or culturally, but our faith views are diverse. I realize that we have some folks whose perspectives on these matters are quite conservative. Others seem to fall in the camp of what I refer to as ‘progressive.’ What you have below is my response, not a prescription from the congregation.
To your questions:
Gay Rights: The United Church of Christ as a denomination has been on the leading edge of this issue. It has caused no small amount of strife in our region, but personally I think our progressiveness is on the right side of this argument. This congregation (I’ve been here almost 4 years) seems to have a ‘don’t ask –don’t tell’ policy on this. We have members who are gay, whose children are gay, who participate regularly, and who are in positions of leadership. It saddened me that recently a UCC congregation in New Orleans was denied the opportunity to advertise because of this kind of progressive message. I was proud of the church, however. I do know of at least one person who doesn’t feel comfortable bringing their partner to church…but i feel that is slowly changing. I do know that the issue of sexual orientation is non-issue to my 20 something children; even while issues of promiscuity, and marriage fidelity are. On the issue of sin; if someone does believe it is a sin, I would refer them to Jesus’ words on the subject (which were…nothing). He did, however, say “let those without sin cast the first stone.” John 8:7. This issue is not unrelated to my next response.
The Bible is important, as we are a church from the ‘Reformed’ side of the UCC family. My own feeling is that if someone (which our adult bible study did a year ago) studies ‘how the bible came to be,’ the inerrancy stance cannot stand. This is not the same thing as saying that the bible is without authority. We believe it is “God’s Word.” The fact of the matter is that everyone interprets the bible and sections there in. For instance, I enjoy a cheeseburger as well as a shrimp cocktail…both of which are clearly forbidden by the ‘Holiness’ code in Leviticus. Interpretation of the biblical texts has been part and parcel of the lives of Christians since the beginning. It continues. In 1620, when our spiritual forebears prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” Even those who want to cling to a ‘literal’ reading of the bible are hesitant to go down to the local jail, to deliver Jesus’ promise to “set the captives free.”
Science: I spent the first six years of my working life as an engineer. My own feeling is that, for instance, the Bible and a Science Textbook are not seeking the same truth. Put another way, I find no inconsistency with Science’s observation and claims about our physical world, and at the same time, Faith’s description of the Ultimate forces at work in it. To put it bluntly, when people ask me about affirming the ‘creation story,’ I generally ask them “which one, Genesis 1 or Genesis 2?” I do, however, accept that God is the Creator.
Women: The United Church of Christ was one of the first denominations to ordain a woman (Antoinette Brown, 1851). At my previous call, early on, someone said to me “we are glad we got you, and not a woman.” From that point on, nearly every time I was away I made sure that the supply pastor was a woman. After my departure to come to Hain’s, they called a very talented woman as their new pastor. We have women who serve at every level of leadership in our congregation. Our current (and some past) President is a woman.
I hope that this brief response was helpful. I encourage you to visit our congregation on a Sunday Morning for worship. In June we move to one service at 9:30 am. If the ‘feel’ is right for you, let me know…I am happy to chat in person. On our door it says, “Everyone Is Welcome.” I pray that is true.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr
May 26, 2013
“A Hard Road”
Today is Trinity Sunday. This should not be a surprise, as it is every year, the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. It is also a demonstration that God is merciful and just; in that because we join our ecumenical partners today at 11 in the grove for our Memorial Day service, I do not have to try to explain the Holy Trinity to a mob of children during the ‘children’s sermon.’ All sorts of heresy and blasphemy is uttered when pastor’s like me try to distill down the idea of the Trinity to a simple object lesson. Fortunately, I only need to remind you what this observance is all about.
Before the church moves into that long, not-so-ordinary time of hearing about the mission of the church and the ministry of Jesus, weeks of Green Paraments, we tip our hat to this theological construct that is as old as the church itself.
Sometimes theology comes from the intellectual activity of some very smart people who have time to wonder about things, and argue…in the best greek sense of that term…about their thesis. In the case of the Trinity, it did not happen that way. It seems that very early in the life of the church, when they were still not sure that the government was going to tolerate their existence; early on when they were gathering in peoples houses, sitting around the table and breaking the bread and drinking the cup together; early on someone listened to their worship and accused them of straying from the faith. Someone said, “It sounds to me like you no longer worship the single God of the Universe, the God of Abraham and Issac and Jacob.” You sound like you worship three Gods: The Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
The answer came swiftly, from those around the table. See the idea of the Trinity did not come from an ivory tower, then given to the church, saying, ‘ok, now do something with this.’ No, the idea of the trinity came from Worship. It came from what the church was already doing at the earliest days of its existence when the people gathered to praise God.
Then, and now, everything hangs on the pattern of love-in-communion that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity names the truth of both God’s vulnerability and God’s power–or, rather, that God’s vulnerability is–through the suffering death of the Son–God’s power. And, as Nicholas Lash has said, the Trinity names “the mystery that constitutes, transforms, and heals the world.” Trinity permeates the church’s life and witness. When we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we name the Trinity as the church’s “determining reality” In the Eucharist, the gathered community “incarnates and realizes its communion within the very life and communion of the Trinity” In the Athanasian Creed, The justice, generosity, and equality we seek to embody in our life together all have their source in the Trinity, in which “none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal”
Now do you get it? No? That’s not surprising. Don’t beat up on yourself.
The Trinity is a concept that very bright and faithful people have tried to explain (in great detail) for a millennia. What makes me think that I can adequately do this for you? Yet, as I prepared for today, I opened my bible to the Roman’s text, read this morning, and written by the Apostle Paul, and I had an idea.
I do not know the challenges that the Apostle Paul faced. His imprisonment in Phillipi and his thrashing before it are things I know nothing about. But I, for one, believe that suffering is relative. A colleague once told me about an urgent pastoral call. He was in his office late one Friday afternoon, preparing for Sunday worship when a frantic call came in. The woman, obviously distraught, said, “Pastor, it’s an emergency, can you come right over?” So he jumped in his car, fought the ‘Durham triangle’ traffic across town. The woman greeted the pastor at the door, box of tissues in hand. They sat down and the pastor asked just what was going on? She proceeded to tell him that on Thursday night their hot water heater failed, “Pastor, do you have any idea how awful it is to go without hot water for 24 hours?”
I do not wish to trivialize whatever someone else has deemed at a tragedy. But I am not sure that the resources of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity can come to bear, constructively, on this situation.
Still, long ago I promised myself that I would never tell anyone, “I know what you are going through.” The fact of the matter is that I do not know what you are going through, but I do know what I’ve been through. And I know that it is in the mysterious completeness of God we describe as the Trinity that there are resources for us.
So when I read what the Apostle tells the Romans,
“3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,”
I felt that he was speaking to me.
And there was a part of me that wanted to simply tell each of you that which Paul proclaims. Unfortunately, I know how cheap that may sound on ears cauliflowered by the pounding some of you have taken. But listen to how Eugene Peterson translates these verses in “The Message:”
3 …We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, 4 and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. 5 In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!
We know that God, who created all that is and who loves each one of us, this same God has already marked each one of us for salvation by Jesus Christ through our baptism, this same God strengthens us for life by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This we affirm, this we believe.
Still, it doesn’t mean a hill of beans unless it means something on the difficult days. The miracle of the trinity is not found in understanding the mysterious way that God was revealed to the disciples long ago. It is about this same mysterious revelation in our lives, in the life of the church that says “ For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
So it is my deepest desire that you will come to know, if you don’t already, this tippy-toe-stance where we perch in the midst of our own hardship in alert expectancy of what God will do next.
The fullness of God is beyond our comprehension. Our speech may be halting and tentative as we talk about the Trinity. But God is much more than a doctrine and much more than a mystery. In His great love affair with us, God decided that the best way He could build a relationship with us was with three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit; Parent, Savior, and Presence. And the more we understand that we are all children of God, God’s beloved, the better we can relate to one another, and the better we can relate to God.
And, we relate better to one another.
And, we relate better to one another .
And, we relate better to one another .
…Because with God it’s all about relationship – relationship with us – God who is one, God who is three, God who is all. The God who we stand in awe of as we look upon our world, the Son with whom we walk in our struggles, failures, and joys, and the Holy Spirit with whom we remember all that is good and wonderful in God.
It is good to rehearse this in your mind when the road is rough.
May 19 2013
“This is It”
A friend and I were talking over the weekend. I told him we had big doings here this weekend. Pentecost, confirmation, “each one bring one Sunday.” My friend asked, “what do you hope these folks get out of church?” He is a pretty smart guy, a keen observer of organizations, particularly churches. He’s also a ‘wisenheimer’.
At first, I was a little put off by his comment. After all, it is the bane of our American existence that we always ask ‘what do I get’ more quickly than ‘what can I give.’ But the longer I thought about this question, the more sense it made to me.
The appropriateness of the question, “What do they get out of it,” hinges on what it is we seek. After all, no one enters into any commitment without some expectation of the outcome of that commitment. The rightness, if you will, of that expected outcome is what we must discern if we are to engage in valuable activity.
In the text from Luke’s Acts this morning, we have what I believe is the most important account of Pentecost: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Here we have the Apostle’s (and I suppose the other 108 people who were ‘followers’ of Jesus) gathered together. There was some question in town about what had gotten into these people. They were ‘energized,’ on ‘fire’ even. They were speaking in strange tongues, but not so strange that others could not understand. It is hard to determine exactly why these folks began following Jesus three years ago. There were a few who joined this group because he told them to. There were others who joined this group because they were attracted by his message. There were others, still, who joined because of the miraculous deeds this rabbi accomplished amongst them. Mixed motives. But now, they are all ‘getting something out of it.’
What are they getting? We might immediately say, “The presence of the Holy Spirit,” and that would be correct. People join groups for immediate gratification. Some people join a group because the group provides an opportunity to yield power in a way they cannot be powerful in their own lives. I don’t know. You remember that even the disciples were jockeying for position in those final days before the Crucifixion, saying, “let me sit on your right hand when you come into your kingdom.” But the outcome in this group is not one of seats of power or authority. The gift is what someone described as a ‘mystical’ presence that empowers and guides these believers to do the will of God.
Confirmation students join the church for a mixture of motives. That’s a nice way of saying, “Mom and Dad made ‘em come.” But what do we hope they get? If we were to pay close attention to the words in the liturgy, we would hear a subtle hope expressed: It is the hope that we would all receive the presence of Christ, to be joined with him through his church. We expect that he, and he alone, will shape their lives, our lives.
What Peter tries to explain is that this is the very thing they have ‘gotten out of this;’ God’s promise is now realized in a way far beyond the expectations of even the most faithful disciples. He says something like this:
While we were praying and meditating, it seemed like flames of fire darted from the air and fell on all of us. We couldn’t stay in that room. We had to come down. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I remembered the words of a prophet named Joel. He quoted God by saying, “In the last days I will give my Spirit freely to all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. At that time I will give my Spirit, even to my servants, both men and women. And they will prophesy.”
Well, this is it! It is what God promised. A new age has come upon us. God is doing a new thing with us. It must be the power that Jesus promised. We can’t control it. It is controlling us. This is it. New life for the church! New life for people within the church!
What are we hoping we get? The same as 2000 years ago. We pray that a miracle will occur and that God will create people who are on fire for Jesus Christ, who have energy to do God’s work in the world, whose lives demonstrate a radical openness to others, hope and grace, justice and peace, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
New life through the Spirit of God! This is it! This is the message of Pentecost!
THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
April 28, 2013
“Us and Them”
For congregations to continue to grow, spiritually, all new forms of togetherness ultimately must be in service of a more enriched individuality, and not the other way around. (A paraphrase of Edwin Friedman “A Failure of Nerve,” p. 169.)
All are welcome, we mean it! (A phrase seen on a church flyer).
John Wimber, a musician, a charismatic pastor, and one of the founders of the Vineyard Church movement; “insisted that Christian bodies (read, church) must take the position that everyone who wants to come thereby belongs just because of the wanting and without regard to how he or she may behave or claim to believe.” (Tickle, Phyllis Emergence Christianity, Baker Books, 2012, p. 81)
Luke records for us today an account that some of us are quite familiar with. The situation is not unlike a time when a certain event occurred in what was usually an orderly third grade classroom. I do not recall the precipitating circumstances but what I do remember is that in a moment of failed judgement, Mrs. Falahee told the class to read quietly for a moment while she left the room. What the principal saw was only the very tail end of longer episode in the classroom. Because I was caught in a, lets say compromising position, arm cocked with an eraser in hand, he looked at me and said: “You, come with me.” I was summoned to the principal’s office. No one is comfortable with a summons like that.
In the presence of Mr. Willbanks I did not make excuses for my wind-up to throw that eraser. Up until that point I had not done anything. So I simply explained to him what happened. Our teacher was not gone from the room for 5 minutes and bedlam ensued. Throwing chalk and erasers. Jumping around, running, pulling the girls pig-tails, I don’t remember what all. I did not name names, but explained what happened and when. I still got the paddle. Substitutionary Atonement is what the theologians call it.
If you listened carefully to the reading from Acts this morning you noticed some of this going on. See, the first followers of Jesus were still part of the synagogue, in Jerusalem, and like all faiths defined themselves by certain practices. They are called the ‘circumcision’ group.
Peter, one of the group, has been out of town. Word has gotten back to church that while Peter was away he was engaged in some bad behavior. It is a scene out of any Hollywood parody of the business woman on the road who lets her hair down, maybe has a few drinks, the next thing you know she’s dancing on the table. As long as word doesn’t get back home she’s fine. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. You know what happened. Somebody saw what was going on there, recognized Peter, and the word got back to Jerusalem.
It seems while Peter was on his road trip he had dinner with some acquaintances. Not the same folks he’d be dining with back in Jerusalem, they say he was with folks he should not have been with and eating food he should not eat. These are not lapses in judgement or that somehow he misunderstood the menu. He understood he was sent there.
Still, the church leaders want to know what the heck was going on. He was summoned to explain his actions.
Peter does not defend himself. He doesn’t make excuses. He turns to his interrogators and says, ‘let me tell you what happened.’ He tells them that he received the invitation, recognized that he should not participate, that he has never…not up to now anyway…varied from the straight way. Then he tells them something surprising, God speaks to Peter, saying, “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.”
Peter is not saying, ‘yeah I know it’s wrong but everybody else is doing it.’ He isn’t saying that. He also is not saying that he didn’t know better. He did know better. Peter is not saying that they tricked him. There was no charade by the other to be someone they are not. The food was not disguised in such a way that he didn’t recognize it. No, from the very beginning of this event Peter knew that travel down this path would lead to this uncomfortable summons.
What Peter tells the leadership is essentially this: I know what the rules are as well as you do, but God tells me that those rules we have used to make judgements about others don’t amount to a hill of beans. It was as if Peter heard God say, those people are as much my people as you are, so stop making distinctions I don’t make.
Peter has learned that God shows no partiality. As the sign says on our door, “All are welcome.”
At first, those with nice and neat barriers and boundaries were silenced when they heard that people who did not ‘fit’ the expectations for God’s people had received the Holy Spirit. That’s what the text says, they were quiet.
St. Luke does not describe what was going on in that silence. We all know that silence does not necessarily mean consent. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some folks questioned the authenticity of this alleged ‘falling of the Holy Spirit.” It is much easier to maintain your own strict guidelines for salvation if you insist that those who don’t follow them didn’t really experience The Holy Spirit in their midst. That can and is done.
There may have been some who said, ‘well, good for them!’ Which is another way of saying that whatever it is they experienced it certainly wasn’t the real thing like we get over here. There may have even been a few who would be willing to receive these outsiders, technically, under the umbrella of the church, just so long as they stay over there in Joppa and don’t try any of that new stuff here in Jerusalem.
There may not have been anything said. that doesn’t mean the situation wasn’t talked about. The Holy Righteous Church of the Parking Lot is a recognizable feature of the church landscape. I bet that even in Jerusalem groups of self-appointed guardians of the faith who gathered in the meeting after the meeting to protect the church from the invasion of, well, openness and good ideas.
This may be well and good if followers of Jesus were expected to be divided by particularities of custom, of behavior. But we are not. We are to be one; one in the Spirit, one in The Lord. No isolationist practices.
As if to explain how this might be possible, in John’s gospel, chapter 13, Jesus gets as direct and prescriptive as we will ever hear him. As he approaches Jerusalem in his final days, he tells them: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Thus the challenge for the church is laid down in plain and simple terms. If you want to be a part of this community, if you want to claim a place in among those who call themselves Christian, you must love. I suppose that it goes without saying that you love God. Then there is this second part that cannot be separated from the first, it is that you love your neighbor as yourself.
I think that we can agree that to love God is an essential requirement to being a religious person, a faithful person. For the most part, religious people further define themselves by doing some things and, perhaps not doing other things. Some times we say, ‘this is what we do.’ At other times we say, ‘I never did it that way before.’ Every faith does this and if they try and tell you they don’t they are either lying or they don’t believe in much.
Are there things that each of us do that displeases God? Sure. But I cannot help but notice that what was certain is now, changed; for the better, for everyone, for the better.
On this day in Joppa the church is not defined by what it believes, or what it does, but by loving those who have been somehow drawn to her doors. And the church is defined by going out into the world and sharing the Love of God without prejudice. The simple truth is that the church is for everyone, insiders, outsiders, everyone. It isn’t hard to believe this. What is hard is to do it.
The controversy about opening the church was settled only temporarily in this passage. The issue was raised again and again in Acts, and it continues to be raised to this day.
But there is a real church that is living and growing and breathing. The Spirit is present and the people are alive. Shall we be silent? We can be a part of that church, or in silence we can be part of the group that thinks it is the church, that is more preoccupied with meetings and minutes and rules than the action of the Spirit and message of salvation for all? Are our doors open wide enough? As the Spirit moves, let’s open them, and to tell our community and the world that we are church for everyone.
How exciting is that! The Spirit of of God is working is places we can barely imagine! And we can be a part of that too! Through sharing God’s gracious love we are going to be the most welcoming congregation around! How can we not praise God?
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March 31, 2013
Today is Easter. I suppose you do not need to be reminded of this fact. The church is entering into 50 days of joy. It begins with 40 days until the Ascension where we celebrate Christ’s presence within the church until the Ascension; then ten more days until Pentecost. It is a ‘high ol’ time’ in the life of the church.
So we have pulled out all the stops. Dr. Hagness has assembled a fine group of musicians to strengthen what was already a fine morning of music. She has been rehearsing, I suppose the feeling will return to her arms sometime about Thursday. The choirs, don’t forget the choirs; they have been rehearsing too. I am thankful that we have so many folks who help lead us in worship. Pastor Johnson has been busy, feverishly attending to all our sick and shut-in that they might have the Eucharist in this season of Lent.
I haven’t really been working very hard, not as hard as the rest. Preaching on Easter Sunday has a rather short list of themes.
From time to time I have had confirmation students and others wonder what they are supposed to do during the sermon. What happens when we get to a day like today when the pastor has to use a bunch of filler to get the whole 15 minutes in. I gave them this suggestion, so as to not waste their time. You might benefit from it.
Everybody whose last name ends in A through F, I want you to think about this: Jesus rose from the dead. That’s your thought. Now take this idea and let it bump up against the happen chance occurrence that somebody came here this morning by accident. This person was simply in town visiting some relatives and when everybody else got up and got in the car they tagged along. The whole idea that someone died – this person also said in advance this would happen, as a sign of sorts – and after three days was alive. This was not one of those Hollywood stories where the lens goes all fuzzy and the story takes some imaginary turn. This person is breakfast on the beach alive and present with those who knew him best. I am asking you to take this thought, Jesus rose from the dead, and consider what it might lead this person to think. Make a list of possibilities.
If your name begins with the letter G through M, here is your thought. Jesus rose from the dead. For this group, I’d like you to consider how this thought might have some effect on those who are here today, not so many days from another day at the graveside. Someone who was near and dear to them has died. Think about how this idea insists that death is not the final word on anything. There was sadness, there always is, but this idea also carries with it another idea, where death might never be the worse thing that could happen to anybody. This is your idea.
Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” inspires me to hear the this idea as an invitation to “practice resurrection.” We practice resurrection when we are open to God’s call to seek life on the other side of death, hope on the other side of despair, and peace on the other side of fear.
Then there are some people who are like The disciples here in the text this morning. So N through S, Think of this idea, Jesus rose from the dead; Peter knew this, saw him like everybody else, and the text says he went home. Let this idea rub up against this reality. For Peter and the rest, this idea eventually meant that being his disciples was not a spectator sport. They went out and served others, widened the circle, shared the good news, and in some cases they had to tell others, but mostly they showed them. You could come and hear this idea, Jesus rose from the dead, alleluia, and all that stuff and get the idea that this was just one more fact to put in the memory bank and then go home. This is what I want you to think about. N through S. Jesus rose from the dead.
Now, for those of you who are T through Z, think about this idea, Jesus rose from the dead. In one of the readings, you might notice that this idea, Jesus rose from the dead, is for everyone. Think about this for a bit. If, during the sermon you begin to find that your mind wanders, focus on this idea that applies to everyone. It is tempting to privatize this idea, to restrict it to people whose faith dots the same ‘I’ and crosses the same ‘t’ as yours does. Let this universal application stretch the idea, Jesus rose from the dead; not just for the eleven and the women who had been hanging around, but for the whole world. Anybody left out? No. Very inclusive, the effect of this idea, Jesus rose from the dead. Think about this idea, in this way, it is for the whole world. No exceptions. The good, the bad, everyone.
These are you assignments, and if you will carry them out I will feel much better about the sermon on this one idea, Jesus rose from the dead. It is something we think about regularly. You do have to consider it. It’s out there, it isn’t new. Its in the public domain. So if somewhere between breaking the bread and the receiving the cup you need something to do, take up that one idea, Jesus rose from the dead.
This idea often lies there unconsidered among everything else that goes on in worship. today it’s all I got. So I hope you will pick it up, turn this idea over in your mind. Think about this, just one thing.
(The structure of this sermon is stolen from a sermon by Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, “Witnessing to the Resurrection”)
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A rare event, my wife and I went out to breakfast this morning.
She noticed that I have descended into my Triduum funk.
This condition is an annual affair, even though I do my best to strike it from my calendar. I suspect that the reason for it is other events that dominate my calendar.
The liturgical calendar demands that I immerse myself in the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem to Golgotha. I wish that there was a way to keep one foot planted in present realities, pleasantries of my choosing, and just dip a toe into the Triduum tide. Apparently I cannot manage this dialectic.
What is strange is that it isn’t as if I don’t know the entirety of the story. Our bible study group has been reading Luke. Miraculously, the series ended yesterday, Maundy Thursday, with our reading and contemplation of chapter 24. Two weeks ago, the group wondered if we should cancel our meeting this week, what with it being Holy Week and all. I said, “no, the timing is perfect. I am happy to meet if you are willing.”
I suspect that my consternation is due to my observation that most folks do not travel the whole route. It could be this avoidance is because it is just to hard a route to take. Another reason is that this part of the story tells us something about ourselves we’d rather not face. We, after all, are sensible, progressive, modern folk.
I hope that I am not bitter. Who can blame those who would rather not make the entire trek. We could all be spared what is by any estimation a few days that chronicle the worst human traits; betrayal, violence, greed, self-righteousness. The large crowd of Palm Sunday will not be repeated until the following Sunday, despite the best efforts of musicians, liturgists, and preachers.
I guess that, as clique as it sounds, I wonder if the fullness of the good news can be received if the fullness of the bad news is not paused over, considered, and taken up as part of our own story.
“One little problem with our attempts to be thoughtful, prudent, reflective, and careful people: we are also the ones who on a Friday – just rationally following the best of western jurisprudence – tortured to death the Son of God.” (“The Best of William H. Willimon: Acting Up In Jesus’ Name”)
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