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April 20, 2014

“An Upworthy Story”
Matthew 28:1-10

We have gathered to celebrate the resurrection. But a close reading of the Gospel lesson reveals we have been invited to a funeral. Jesus is dead. He has hastily been placed in a tomb by one disciple, a secret disciple, a man who had one foot in the opposition and another amongst the disciples, just like most of us.

The women come to the tomb. It sounds as if they have come to sit there, a ministry of presence, to keep vigil there. Customs related to the passing of our loved ones have changed over the years. One such custom was the “sitting up” of loved ones and friends in the home of the deceased with the body until burial. Some cultures still keep a family member with the body of the deceased until burial as is their custom.

In our past, the night after death when the body had been prepared and displayed was accompanied with many people visiting and some staying all night. They consumed lots of coffee and snacks throughout the night. A member of the family usually took turns with the sitters in keeping the vigil so that the deceased was never left unattended. 

The women have come to sit. It is foreign to us but there is a Jewish tradition of sitting with a dead body until burial, This is called shemira. The women have come to keep watch.

They do not have to sit long.

Suddenly, the earthquake takes place, and the angel rolls back the stone. As a story, the stage is now set for a marvelous event. We might expect Jesus to rise and come out of the tomb (as Lazarus does in John 11:41-44). Yet that does not happen. The resurrection has taken place already, while the tomb was sealed. The tomb is empty (28:6).

Like the women, we too arrive too late. The resurrection has already happened, even though we don’t realize it, even though there isn’t any visible evidence that anything has changed.

In this gospel, as in the others, we do not actually have a “resurrection account” in the strict sense, but a “post-resurrection account.” The transformation of the physical to spiritual body has taken place (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:42-57), an act of God that took place apart from human view.
The angel commissions the women to tell the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and to let them know that they shall see him in Galilee (28:7). He is coming to them.

Since Galilee is the “doorway to the world” in the thinking of Isaiah, Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, the light of the gospel is then for the whole world, not just the Jewish people, not just the original disciples, and not just for us. It is to be taken to the world. God seeks to have fellowship with all people, not just us.

When the disciples meet Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, Matthew tells us “but some doubted.” That’s okay. The resurrection is big enough to handle our doubt. “Thus the same elements of worship, doubt, and little faith exist in the church after Easter as before. Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshiping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.” (New Interpreter’s Bible) It is to these ‘little to normal faith folk’ that Jesus comes.

This is what is exciting. The resurrection hasn’t ended. It is still going on in your life and in mine. We have the opportunity to participate in it by our life lived in the name of Christ. That’s why it is so beautifully fitting that we gather around this table, being with Christ even while we do not see him. This is a story worth remembering and re-telling!

You may remember that many things have happened in the gospel before this moment. For some, the excitement of this event so overshadows the rest of the good news that it is nearly dismissed, rejected as if it is only a prelude to what is important. Don’t you hate that! You are going to see a movie. For me, it is more likely I say “I am reading thus and such a novel.” A friend blurts out, “the butler did it, in the servants quarters.” Really? Does the whole of the story matter, or only the conclusion?
If so, then what happened along the way to the poor who were to have the good news preached to them? What about the captives in prison? The paralytics, the hungry, the anxious, the storm-tossed? And what of the victims of corrupt institutions? And those whose souls need washing? Are they just some kind of stage dressing in this drama? What of the fate of humankind; does it no longer matter?

It does matter. You see, the Romans killed lots of people. Often right on the spot; no muss, no fuss. No time consuming, expensive trial, flogging, mocking, marching off to Golgotha, stripping naked, nailing to a cross, more mocking and taunting, poking with a spear to make sure he’s really dead.
So why the showy death for Jesus?

Because they wanted to kill more than the person of Jesus. They wanted kill what Jesus stood for. They wanted to kill any thought in any followers of carrying on. They wanted to kill any future; any hope. The Romans tried to erase Jesus’ words and deeds from the face of the earth forever. But God raised Jesus to resurrected-life then, and now. This is a story worth remembering and getting involved in!

That’s what happened to Mary. If fear and joy struggle for mastery of Mary’s heart. That is how the text describes her departure toward Galilee. Even with the knowledge that God has gone ahead there is fear and joy. God waits for her – and us – to get moving. So, like the women at the tomb, we find that God is not only a fond memory from the past. God is ahead of us – in our future – as the one who will yet forgive sins, free paralytics, feed the hungry, make peace, wash our feet, comfort the grieving, raise the dead.

See, the women may have gone to the tomb so his body was not unattended. Instead, he came to them so that they would never be unattended. Along with his real presence at this table and day by day in our lives, what he stood for is with us still whenever the church does these things. That is the good news.

March 16, 2014

“When We Were Saved”
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

4 Well then, what can we say about our ancestor Abraham? 2 If he became acceptable to God because of what he did, then he would have something to brag about. But he would never be able to brag about it to God. 3 The Scriptures say, “God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in him.”
4 Money paid to workers isn’t a gift. It is something they earn by working. 5 But you cannot make God accept you because of something you do. God accepts sinners only because they have faith in him.

13 God promised Abraham and his descendants that he would give them the world. This promise wasn’t made because Abraham had obeyed a law, but because his faith in God made him acceptable. 14 If Abraham and his descendants were given this promise because they had obeyed a law, then faith would mean nothing, and the promise would be worthless.
15 God becomes angry when his Law is broken. But where there isn’t a law, it cannot be broken. 16 Everything depends on having faith in God, so that God’s promise is assured by his great kindness. This promise isn’t only for Abraham’s descendants who have the Law. It is for all who are Abraham’s descendants because they have faith, just as he did. Abraham is the ancestor of us all. 17 The Scriptures say that Abraham would become the ancestor of many nations. This promise was made to Abraham because he had faith in God, who raises the dead to life and creates new things.

More than a quarter century ago, a young chaplain walked into a hospital room. He was assigned to this floor. It was oncology. Most of the patients on this floor were not very talkative, the ravages of chemotherapy and radiation being what they were then and now.

Perhaps it was his condition, the illness, the disease, that caused this particular patient to have such an existential focus. I do not know why or how he was so talkative.

Walking into the room and before he could introduce himself, the chaplain was questioned: “When were you saved?”

The chaplain thought that it was a compliment for the patient to assume this status of justification. He didn’t ask ‘are you,’ he asked ‘when.’

‘Are you’ is an entirely different question than ‘when.’

‘Are you’ questions your status, ‘when’ accepts your status but wonders about timing. When is like this: There you are at the family reunion. All the regular characters are there. But you notice one unfamiliar face. You walk over with a glass of lemonade to this mop haired young man standing off on the edge of the tribe. You say hello, introduce yourself. He tells you his name, and then adds that he married your second cousin Susie last August. (Ah, that’s why you don’t recognize him). You chuckle and say ‘you’re new to the family.’ and he asks how long you’ve been here and you tell him ‘forever.’ I was born into it. You tell him ‘there never was a time when I didn’t know I was a part of this family.’

The way of ‘Are you’ is not as bad as it sounds. If the reunion was based upon the ‘when’ rather than the ‘Are you,’ the story would play out entirely different. The ‘Are you’ that Paul answers with a resounding yes is this: Salvation is received as a gift before any good works are done, it is not a reward, it is not a wage paid for work performed. It is predicated on trust. “… you cannot make God accept you because of something you do. God accepts sinners only because they have faith in him.” This is a God who does the unexpected – forgives rather than condemns the sinner.

The scriptures say that God accepted Abraham because he had faith in Him. We all know of the many acts of faithfulness that Abraham demonstrated. In his tent, in the mid day heat, his faith in God moved him, literally, to go to an unknown place only on the basis of a promise.

When was Abraham saved? When he had faith in God. Abraham was saved at the same moment you were. When you had faith in God.

One more thing about that reunion. It has to do with the ‘Are You?’ question. As in, ‘Are You’ really a member of this family? Whispered under the breath is ‘couldn’t be’ or ‘really?” If we go back there we might remember that there were some people who were missing. They didn’t come. Why? It was too difficult. They had made mistakes, maybe they had disappointed Mom-mom or Pop-pop, I don’t know. The message to them may have been direct or indirect, I don’t know, but the message was ‘you’re not welcome here.’

Sometimes the hardest part isn’t what other people think about you but what you think about yourself. So then you don’t go to the reunion at all. The family gathers at that same grove they always gather at. The date is the same, there aren’t any surprises; third Sunday in August. Two pm. The family has gathered. After everyone has had their fill of aunt Alice’s fried chicken and sister Andrea’s macaroni salad, after that while they are playing quoits, a couple of the fellas ask, “where is Jon? I wonder why he isn’t here this year.” They all know about what you have been up to, but if you showed up they would have welcomed you. At least they say they would. And if they didn’t, well they must have forgotten that part about ‘forgive as we forgive those who sin against us…’ Maybe they will call next week to check up on him, I don’t know.

It is good to remember the most important point in this text. The most important point for everyone to remember is that this faithful God justifies the ungodly, not waiting for them to shape up first. In verses 5 and 17, God is identified as the one who justifies the ungodly, the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. There is no break in their invitation. They are welcome, even before everything is straightened out.

Back in that hospital room, way back when, that young chaplain paused for a moment, thinking about the question that patient asked him. Then he replied, ’33 A.D.’ that’s when I was saved, ’33 A.D.’

Here, via Diana Butler Bass, is an article that helps describe our current situation and how we got here:

Just yesterday an old friend commented on the death of Philip Semour Hopkins, saying something to the effect: “what sort of God takes PSH from us and leaves the lego movie?”

My friend is a fine musician and conductor. He is an artist who understands the angst that sometimes produces great artists. Nevertheless, expressing sorrow over the loss is not the same as assigning the blame or cause to God.

I have heard similar comments throughout my ministry. Without directing a response to my friend, specifically, the perspective deserves a pastor’s attention.

One way to describe this understanding of the world is theodicy. Theodicy is the problem of the coexistence of a good God and evil experiences. The gist of such a perspective is that God somehow permitted this evil to occur. The existence of evil (or even natural disasters, disease, ‘accidents’) can threaten notions that God is ‘all powerful’ (omnipotent), ‘all knowing’ (omniscient), ‘and all present’ (omnipresent). The question is if God has all these qualities, “how could this happen?” One of these assumptions must be false.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that a SimpleCountryPastor could sufficiently answer a question that theologians and philosophers have struggled with for thousands of years. And chock full of hubris. I offer nothing new. But don’t each of us have to come up with some sort of answer for this?

For me, the question is personal. My own experience of God is not capricious, or vengeful, but is rather loving and full of grace. This experience is a combination of reading the church’s texts and life in the trenches. This doesn’t mean that the question doesn’t come up, or that I am able to dismiss it with a wave of the hand.

My own perspective is borrowed, and a patchwork of other thinkers. Specifically, I would probably fall into the Plantinga camp, understanding that the existence of suffering and the existence of God are not mutually exclusive. Alvin Plantinga’s position hinges on a view of free will that allows these two seemingly incongruent ideas to coexist. Plantinga insists that God created a world in which creatures were primarily free, and while God did not create evil in the world, neither did God disallow the creature’s ‘bad behavior.’ A simple review of the church’s texts is consistent with this premise.

Without getting too technical, Planinga’s idea of ‘transworld depravity’ floats the notion that while it is possible that the creature could make not morally evil decisions, and a world could exist up to the point of the decision making, without moral evil, it is at the point of decision that the creature generally fails and makes the wrong decision. Christ, however, is the example of humanity without ‘transworld depravity,’ or the ability to perpetually make decisions for the good.

Critics point out that Pantinga’s theory does not address what philosophy describes as ‘natural evil,’ or those aspects of the biosphere that we creatures interpret as evil: storms, illness, accidents. Plantinga actually does address this issue, (in my view unsatisfactorily), by suggesting that everything that appears at first glance to be natural evil could in fact be moral evil committed by freely acting supernatural beings, such as ‘fallen angels.’ In either case, the absence of natural evil, or natural evil generated by supernatural forces, the question remains ‘why doesn’t a good God who has the capacity to stop it, stop it?’

In Evil and the Justice of God, N. T. Wright raises two objections against the project of theodicy: that it minimizes the badness of evil, and that it manifests a kind of hubris. In addition to recommending the abandonment of theodical efforts, Wright suggests that we turn our attention instead to biblical narratives in an attempt to more fully understand and appreciate what God is doing to deal with the evil we find in this world.

My own view of such things follows N. T Wright’s prescription: God did create the world and all that is ‘seen and unseen.’ However, God also granted creatures a certain ‘free will’ that allows some independence even if the creature is never really autonomous. Also, there is a basic and elemental ‘gone wrongness’ in the world that taints everything. God’s plan, revealed in the church’s texts is to redeem all of creation to the original condition that was good; indeed, very good. Salvation history, then, points in this direction.

Still, on a day to day basis creatures are dependent upon a somewhat orderly set of natural laws that determine the processes of the world. I, for instance, depend upon gravity to drive over to the church in the morning. It is good that gravity is not suspended, however briefly, in the answer to someone’s prayer during my commute.

That is not to say that the creature cannot effect the creation in a way that is destructive. Pollution, for starters, has catastrophic effects on both creation and creature (I am old enough to remember “Love Canal”). Our altering of the biosphere, wetlands, for instance, has had terrible and initially unpredicted effects on life.

[One of Pantinga’s points is that even ‘natural evil’ can be traced in many cases to ‘moral evil.’ e.g. the effect of climate change on weather and storms.]

Oops. I have somehow wandered far from the original question about Philip Semour Hoffman. I am grieved that anyone somehow has a predilection for addiction and dependency. I am frustrated whenever I have urged and coached my children to make a ‘good choice’ and as I allow them to choose they make a ‘bad choice.’

While I believe that God does intervene in creation, and that the ‘watchmaker’ notion of God (that God created the world, wound it up, and started it up, and is now hands off) is inadequate, I do not believe that we can depend upon God’s intervention denying the free will of individuals. I wish it was otherwise. What I have come to believe is that this same God, ‘bending the trajectory of the world toward redemption’ chooses to participate in this life with us.

I know that many people prefer a simplistic, simple answer. ‘There must not be any God.’ or, ‘God must not be good.’ I for one believe that the creation does not allow for such a simple answer. I especially do not believe ‘there is a reason for everything.’

What I do believe is that the Incarnation reveals that God has eternally decided on the side of creature and creation, entering into it, perpetually, that there is the promise of redemption for all of it. in the meantime, I agree, it is a great loss. It stinks. it isn’t right.

I might also add that to just wish for the future of redemption is an inadequate response. Not everything should be put off “until the Lord comes.” N. T. Wright goes further, saying,

The call of the Gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world. The cross is not just an example to be followed; it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example nonetheless, because it is the exemplar, the template, the model, for what God now wants to do, by his Spirit, in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won. The suffering love of God, lived out again by the Spirit in the lives of God’s people, is the God-given answer to the evils of the world. (N. T. Wright, “God, 9/11, the Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil” from May 18-19, 2005, lectures at the Church Leaders’ Forum, Seattle Pacific University)

What we do, more often than not, is silently walk this difficult road with a friend who is grieving. We offer someone else’s prayers because they are so overwhelmed they cannot pray. Looking carefully and listening intently, we sense we are not alone and that God is with us in this work.

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.

October 13, 2013

“When Reaching Out is a Stretch”
Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah 29:4-7
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.

Luke 17:11-19
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.

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.



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