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At a denomination meeting I saw a colleague. I said, “Good to see you.” He said, “it is better to be seen than viewed.” Part of the purpose of this meeting was to bring into conversation 4 different judicatories so that, because of the current situation, we might begin to discuss how to share some ministry. Based on the context of our encounter, I wondered if in some sense, the church today is not ‘seen,’ but ‘viewed.’ Is it, as the Spirit who spoke to the seven churches, who said to the church in Sardis, “These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead.”
No one will say that it is easy to be the church in these times. No one, at least, who has any experience in church leadership.
The days are long gone when there was a social undercurrent that supported the church culture and which promoted congregational life as a place to center your social life.
I would also say that now is a good time to be about the work of ministry. The Gospel and its resultant mission is as needed as ever. Folks define the purpose of the church in a variety of ways. H. Richard Niebuhr described it as “increasing love of God and of our neighbor.” We human beings always need to be worked on by this idea.
But in times when resources are stretched as tight as ever, the tendency is to wring our hands over declining revenues and volunteers, empty pews and weak programs. On this situation, Walter Brueggemann commented:
Old modes of power, old patterns of certitude – liberal and conservative – and old claims of privilege on which we commonly count are in deep jeopardy. In place of such power, certitude, and privilege, God is doing a new thing, the shape of which we cannot yet see. And not seeing makes us anxious, and then greedy, and then brutal. (Brueggemann, Walter Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope; Augsburg, 2000, p.36)
As I’ve been thinking about this, I have gotten a phrase in my mind, and I don’t know if I stole it or if I made it up. Still, here it is: “We do not grow by subtraction, but by addition.”
This applies in a variety of ways. We do not grow by seeking to (only) reach out to those who are in our congregation but absent for some reason. We do not grow by reducing opportunities and alternatives for worship and spiritual growth. We do not grow by reducing the opportunities for service.
Here then is the most dangerous reduction: We do not grow by reducing ministry so we can maintain maintenance. We grow by growing.
A dear friend told me that there was discussion in his congregation about eliminating two worship services on the Sunday after Christmas and going to one service. She said that there was a big reduction of attendance in the Sunday School, so that was cancelled, and the 10:30 service was a shadow of what was normally there. This scenario is familiar to most of us.
I wondered what kind of message the cancelations sent. Do they communicate that, “well, this isn’t that important, just sleep in that day.” If one service was kept and the other cancelled, does it say that one is more important than the other? If a new time is used, does it say that your preferred time for worship isn’t important? Someone once commented that because of small offerings, maybe a summer evening worship service shouldn’t be held. Is that why we hold worship services, to get money?
I understand that we are not called to be everything to everyone. That just isn’t possible. Still, it seems to me that churches who are on the downside of decline are partly there because they have forgotten what the point is. Institutional survival is not the point. Diana Butler Bass describes our situation this way:
Some things will cease to work, no longer make sense, and fail to give comfort or provide guidance. Institutions struggle to maintain only themselves, concentrating on their own survival. Political parties wither. Religions lose their power to inspire. But that only means we have work to do here and now – to find new paths of meaning, new ways to connect with God and neighbor, to form new communities, and to organize ways of making the world a better place. These are hard times, not the end times (Butler-Bass, Diana, Christianity After Religion, Harper Collins: New York, 2012, p. 31)
The end times, of course is when God in Christ returns to ‘set the world to rights.’ In the mean time, it means we have something to do. This is not so much kingdom building as it is participation in the kingdom here and now. I want to ask folks, “is there some part of the gospel you hear in our life together that you appreciate, strengthens your faith, connects you with God?” This is what is worth maintaining. This is the substance we invite others to participate in.
Throwing out beloved traditions and practices is not what I am talking about. In doing that, you suggest that there was nothing good about church prior to 2013. What I am talking about is allowing room for that “new thing” to find root and grow. I am not advocating adding things willy-nilly. This has to be a prayerful process of discernment. I say this because I believe God is calling us to a new day.
I say this is fundamentally about addition, not subtraction. It is about inclusion, not exclusion. It is about widening the margins, not circling the wagons. It is not about giving up central tenets of our faith; it is about inviting others in to join in our practices of worship, prayer, and service, way before they can give assent to a certain theological idea; and as they join us, we need to be open to the possibility that the Spirit is speaking through these new voices and, indeed, some things must change.
What this will mean for some of us mainline protestants is that we will need to take some resources that have been keeping bricks and mortar going and direct them into ‘boots on the ground mission and ministry.’ How important is a well manicured facility if the Spirit there is silent?
I do not believe that this cute little phrase will fix anything. I am quite sure, however, that subtraction will not be helpful.
THE TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
October 13, 2013
“When Reaching Out is a Stretch”
4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’
A conventional way to interpret this passage is to take up a tone of criticism of the nine lepers who have been healed, but who fail to return and give thanks. I believe that this is an exegetical error. It is too easy to once again, assuming that we are the ones who have the good sense to turn and give thanks, criticize those who do not pay the Master his due honor of gratitude.
This would be a mistake. It would be a mistake because as Jesus himself says, “were not ten made clean?” There is no clause here that requires thankfulness for the miracle to have occurred. The scene in fact is too much like our own world where some people are healed and others are sick and there is no good, moral, reason for either condition. The point of this text and the point of the blessing itself cannot be to move us to gratitude. Neither is the blessing dependent upon the gratitude.
In fact, the point of this miracle of healing is not healing. It is a sign. By witnessing it, those around Jesus get special information about who he is. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of God, sent by the Father to redeem the world. The prophet Jeremiah is busy revealing the nature of God and so the nature of God’s people when he tells them:
seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
So it is likelyI the scene upsets some commonly held beliefs. That is, this messiah does not only serve the chosen people of God. This messiah works both sides of the street. Did you notice? It is almost a throw away phrase. Luke tells us what every observer already knows, just in case we missed it. This person is a Samaritan. It is bad enough that Jesus is messing around with lepers. Even worse is that the one leper who recognizes the situation for what it is, can you believe it, is a Samaritan. It is that bad cousin, the one crazy relative that isn’t welcome at our house any more. It is one of those folks with the weird religious practices. Samaritans were the unlovely outsiders of Jesus’ day, and we can think about who that might be for our congregations and ourselves. This is the one, two strikes, a leper and a Samaritan, who is thankful. Yeesh.
What this text is about is informing everyone who will listen, where the boundaries of participating in the Kingdom of God lie. We should be reminded that the boundaries of grace and restoration are way beyond our conventional wisdom about such matters.
It is also demonstration. If you say, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one,” this is what you’d get. The truth of the gospel is shown in Jesus’ action. This is what you do, my disciples. See, when it is said of me that I have come to save the world, it is the WHOLE WORLD. No exceptions. If this guy is included, everyone is included.
And so there are two things that this pericope is really saying. The first is that if you are really my followers you will reach out people who do not, at first glance, appear to be people who deserve our help, even though they want it. This is a lesson that reaches beyond the limits of religious outreach into social convention as we as a nation serve the poor. We do not ask questions first. We see a need and we help.
Secondly, this pericope is a judgment. It is a judgment on every follower of Jesus who will not reach out to those whose lives are beyond our understanding of proper and healthy. There is no doubt something to be understood here about the people who live on the margins of our communities, who are treated as invisible or unlovely because of how they look or who they are or where they come from. Jesus clearly notices and loves them and calls us to do the same.
If we cannot follow this example, reaching out even when it is a stretch, can we really call ourselves followers of Jesus?
Finally, this judgment also says something about ourselves. We are often our harshest critics. I suspect there are places in your life that you think are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Consider the parts of us that are hidden in the borderlands of ourselves where we may least want to be seen and most need to be touched. Jesus, who is not afraid of borderlands, does not mind meeting us in those places, and it may be that by recognizing him there, we will find in our deepest selves a new outpouring of the grateful love that makes well.
THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 15, 2012
“A Sure Saying”
1Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked, Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business.
The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstances imitate is the only thing that can save us. The parables are, one and all, about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They apply to no sensible process at all – only to the divine insanity that brings everything out of nothing.”
― Robert Farrar Capon, “Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace”
Today I’d like to offer you two sermons for the price of one.
Don’t get nervous. I promise that I will do my best to have you out of here so the chicken in the oven will not be overcooked.
The first sermon is for any of you who think you are not worth much. Perhaps you have been the recipient of criticism; so much so that you cannot think of yourself as better than the garbage at the curb on a Monday morning. Perhaps your self-image is so low because you are a realist. Nobody knows you better than you, yourself. Some of us dwell on our shortcomings and our failures.
When I was serving a church in Lebanon County, our local ministerium sponsored what was called ‘the Weekday School of Religious Education.’ It was a remarkable program that, based on voluntary participation, released children from school for an hour, once a week, for religious education in one of our churches. We contracted our own bus transportation. Our teachers were all volunteers from the local churches. Children who would never go to church were happy to go if it meant getting away from their classroom for an hour.
It came to pass that this exuberance to be out of the classroom flowed over into the bus ride. It went so far as to require the town’s police officer to pull over a bus that had children hanging from the windows. So we started having other volunteers ride the bus to keep the craziness to a minimum.
I took my turn. I learned pretty quickly where to sit to quench as much craziness as possible. One child was particularly disruptive. I asked him one day, “Mikey, why are you harassing these other children?” “That’s easy,” he matter of fact said, “everybody knows I am a bad kid.”
My heart broke. I freely admit that I’d of liked to given him a good paddling on more than one occasion. But to have a sense of self, provided by others, at such a young age that my identity is a “bad kid,” whew. Who can overcome that?
Like a character in Flannery O’Conner’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, this child may one day say: “I call myself The Misfit,” (he said,) “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” And he would be right.
The God who is revealed in the Epistle and Gospel reading this morning is one that will have no such talk.
The second sermon is for any of you who think you are worth something. Some people fall into this second camp, like some complainers, “…the Pharisees and the scribes (who) were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
I am not sure anyone would self-identify with this second group. To identify yourself as someone with an overflowing portion of hubris, of self-righteousness, would require a self-awareness that would probably ipso facto eliminate you from this crowd. Instead folks in this category are like those in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. The Pharisee who said, ‘thank goodness I am not like this poor wretch over there…’ While the poor wretch over there recognized his own sin and begged forgiveness from God.
There are some people on the outside of the church who have had a bad experience with those inside the church. They say, “The Church is full of hypocrites.” I say, “no, we’re not full, we have room for more.” This stereo type of the ‘goody-two-shoes’ church goer keeps others from our door, and with good reason.
In O’Conner’s Story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” the grandmother is a woman who tries to lead a Godly life. I believe she is sincerely doing so, and believes she is doing her best. Still her racist comments, her petty concerns, her manipulation of the family, and her judgmental views of the folks the family meets along their journey betrays her efforts. Her actions disclose her stated intentions.
Along the family’s journey on vacation, Grandmother selfishly insists they take a side trip to visit a childhood home. It is there they happen to bump into escaped murderer called the misfit.
At the end of the story, after The Misfit shoots the grandmother, he says to an accomplice Bobby Lee, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” He is saying that he noticed that she was trying to preach the gospel to him, but that it only happened because she was threatened by death. According to The Misfit, if the grandmother had lived her life held up at gunpoint, she might have lived a more righteous life.
Luke reminds us through the story of the self-righteous son; that none of us are as good as we think we are, and even in doing what we believe we are supposed to do, we can betray God. Still, God is like these stories say, “meticulously pursuing confused and rebellious creatures.”
Some of you need to know that those people who God loves are the very people you detest. “The minute we decide that some horrible sin is unforgivable, we challenge God to forgive it — and God answers our judgmental edicts with the promise of unexpected, unreasonable, overflowing mercy.”
Then there are some of you need to know that you are not outside the reach of the compassion and grace of Jesus. This is how you overcome the labels and taunts that society might place upon you. Over and over again, Jesus reaches out to those who are lost or shamed, and says ‘no, you are mine.’
The convenient thing is that the lesson from first Timothy applies to both sermons. “15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Here lies the cutting edge of the passage: Jesus embraces the very people the rest of religious society rejects.
I was not ready to spend too much time remembering 9/11 events yesterday. I am thankful for first responders and am in awe of their dedication and courage. It’s just that sometimes remembrances like this keep a deep hatred simmering, and I would rather not participate in that.
Last night at the dinner table we talked about where we were that day. I was the Assistant Administrator at one of our long term care Church Homes. After the initial shock, I went out to the nursing floor to check on the residents who at that time of day would have been watching the morning news. I found one of our residents, a 97 year old, comforting a distraught nurses aide, caressing her head, saying, “we have been through difficult times before, God will help us get through this.”
Hers was not a pollyanish response, but one born of experience: the Great Depression, world war 2, unknown personal and family trials and tribulations.
On this date I will always remember this lady’s realism, but also her faith and hope.
“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.