Book of Order

water bonding

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  Have I ever mentioned that I like all of the Star Trek series, as well as the movies?

I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people that it has influenced my theology!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And reflecting that, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman who is killed leaves a son who already, at a very young age, had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

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As the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Okay, are you still with me?  Watching that show, I realized how very important ritual is to the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in our universe.  It helps in many different aspects of life.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Still, I think we all can agree that various rituals have various levels of value.  Some rituals are good.  They communicate life and strength and courage.  Some rituals do the opposite; they are bad.  Some rituals reinforce fear and oppression and bigotry.  They should be fought against; they should be resisted.

This Sunday is Baptism of the Lord.  This year the gospel reading is from Mark.  Later on, we’ll look at Jesus’ participation with John in the ritual of baptism.  Baptism is the sacrament of entry into the church.  But before we get to all of that, I want to tell another story.

After Banu and I graduated from the seminary, the first church we served was in Nebraska.  One of the members was a lady in her seventies.  After we had been there for a little while, she asked us if we would baptize her.  But she didn’t want to do it the usual way, in a worship service.  She wanted what was basically a secret baptism, on a Saturday afternoon when no one would be around.

We explained that baptism isn’t a private matter.  It’s a joyful act of the church.  After the sermon, during the baptism, the congregation reaffirms their baptismal covenant.  For there to be a covenant, there has to be more than one person—more than one party involved.  When there’s a baptism, we promise each other things, in the sight of God.

My impression was her request came from a sense of embarrassment.  This lady had probably lived her entire life in the church, but without ever being baptized.  I tried to reassure her that’s okay; this is a cause for celebration.  She wasn’t persuaded, so Banu and I compromised.  Besides the presence of some of her family, we arranged for a couple of the session members (representing the congregation) to attend her baptism.  She was okay with that.

One thing I never found out, though, was how she was able to join the church to begin with.  “Have you been baptized?” is one of the first things to ask.

At any rate, I find interesting what I figured her underlying feelings were.  Somehow, it was communicated to her—probably many times and in some unintentional ways—that baptism is, in some way, a sign of merit.  It’s an accomplishment!  And if you haven’t undergone it, then there’s something wrong with you.  At some point in her life (and I admit this is speculation), raising the question of baptism became uncomfortable.

Again, I can’t say for sure that was part of her life story, but it does happen.  When it does happen, it turns baptism, and the entire Christian life, on its head.  It’s not an occasion for pride; it’s a matter of humble, loving gratitude.

UCC minister Bruce Epperly sounds like a fellow Star Trek fan when he says, “Sacraments create a field of force around us and our loved ones that enable God and us to become partners in creative transformation and personal and planetary healing.”[2]  Baptism is about love and healing.  It’s not about jockeying for position; it’s not about grandstanding.

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He continues, saying that “baptism is not an occasion for Christian superiority or exclusivism.  There is salvation—and revelation—outside the church.”  The mystical, invisible body of Christ is larger than the visible church.  “While sacraments awaken us to God’s love, they don’t define the scope of God’s love.”

Earlier, I spoke of the Klingon ritual of R’uustai.  I added that Lt. Worf explains its meaning to the boy Jeremy.  This enables him to benefit from it.  It becomes more than a series of actions involving candles and strange symbols; instead, the ritual becomes a way for him to experience a whole new dimension of life.  Losing his mother and becoming an orphan means the end of life as he’s known it.  The ritual of R’uustai offers the promise of new life.

New life is what the sacrament of baptism is all about.  But just as with the Klingon ritual, if there is no understanding and no intention of embracing that new life, then the waters of baptism do little more than simply get us wet.

Our Book of Order says this about baptism:

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church. In this new covenant of grace God washes us clean and makes us holy and whole” (W-3.0402).  That’s what I was saying earlier about it being the sacrament of entry into the church.

Sometimes people get an impression about baptism.  It may sound like, “Hey that’s a pretty good deal!  I can get baptized, and totally forget about it!”  Not exactly!  There’s still that bit about the covenant.  There’s still that bit about loving, healing relationships.  As we continue with the Book of Order, we also hear this:

“Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ. When we are baptized, we are made one with Christ, with one another, and with the Church of every time and place.  In Christ, barriers of race, status, and gender are overcome; we are called to seek reconciliation in the Church and world, in Jesus’ name.”

The body of Christ is one.  We are one!  Baptism is the bond of unity in Christ.  The community of the baptized is not bound together by nationality, gender, sexual orientation, political orientation, and all of the other junk we come up with.  Christ liberates us from that.

There is another reason for being baptized, but I hesitate to mention it, because it involves a concept that has too often been abused and distorted.  But here it is: we are baptized because we are obedient.  We obey our Lord, who says, as part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (v. 19).

I hesitate to mention obedience, because it’s very easy to get the wrong idea about it.  Obeying the Lord isn’t the obedience demanded by one who’s just waiting to smack us down.  It isn’t blind or mindless obedience.  It’s the mutual, loving obedience of one whose eyes are wide open and has come to serve.

In our scripture text, Mark says that John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).  (I said we would look at Jesus getting baptized.)  So why is Jesus baptized?  Does he need to be forgiven of sin?

In Matthew’s gospel, John is reluctant to baptize him.  He’s wondering about this, too.  “But Jesus [answers] him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’” (3:15).  Or as the Revised English Bible puts it: “it is right for us to do all that God requires.”

Remember, “all that God requires” is not satisfying the whims of a bully or a tyrant.  It’s not dealing with one who says, “On your knees!  Kiss my boot!”  It is, however, working along with one who lovingly chooses us in bringing all creation to a glorious fulfillment.

Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus is baptized as directly as Matthew does.  He does tell us that “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (vv. 10-11).

Baptism is a public identification with the people of God.  It is expressing solidarity!  Of course, Jesus’ identification—his bonding—with God’s people receives quite a dramatic display of acceptance.  The “heavens dividing” doesn’t occur every day!

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

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There’s something that Matthew in the Great Commission, and Mark in today’s reading, tie with baptism.  Luke does the same in Acts 2.  On the day of Pentecost, after Peter tells the people about Jesus, they ask, “What should we do?”  His response?  “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).

All of them link baptism with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the greatest gift of God.  The Spirit is God, constantly being given to us—constantly being poured into us!  The Spirit is everything good and wonderful that we can imagine—and everything that we cannot imagine.

We are baptized once, but repentance is a lifelong journey.  We are called and invited, over and over again, to repent.  That means to have a change of mind, to turn around.

(Speaking of turning around, turn around right now.  Look at everyone here.  Do we welcome each other?  Have we locked horns with anyone?  Is there anyone we ignore?  The Spirit of God calls us and helps us in fanning the flames of holy love, and if need be, lighting the spark!)

John baptizes with water.  We baptize with water.  Jesus baptizes with the Spirit.  The Spirit is the one who makes that bonding in water effective.  The Spirit is the one who gives it power.  The Spirit is the one who takes a bunch of dripping wet people and fills them with faith, hope, and love.

[1] www.startrek.com/database_article/bonding-the

[2] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-01-08/baptism-jesusfirst-sunday-after-epiphany


take each other off the menu

I’m sure we all have places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  Some people dread the dinner table on special occasions, like Thanksgiving, when lots of family and friends gather around.  There might be the family member who’s always itching for a fight about politics or religion—or the life choices of someone who is present.  Then there might be the one who simply makes inappropriate comments about anything under the sun!

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There is a place I remember with a less than fond feeling.  Actually, there are several, but one place in particular sticks out.  It was my junior high school cafeteria.  If there’s somewhere you learn about the social structure of a school, it is the lunchroom!  (That also goes for high school lunchrooms.)

You might find this shocking, but I was never among the popular kids in school.  On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the peak of popularity, I was usually at about 2 or 3.  On rare occasions, I might creep up to 4.  Fortunately, I was never one of the poor souls people made fun of; I was just there, not paid much attention.  It was difficult for me to be at ease in social situations.  I was plagued by shyness.  To put it bluntly, junior high was hell!

There was a curious thing I sometimes felt.  I sometimes felt like I wasn’t real.  Again, it’s not like I was picked on; it’s that I often felt like I was in my own little world.  People who are real don’t have so much trouble making friends, do they?  Privately, I knew I was real.  I was sure of it.  Within myself, I sensed there was nothing really wrong with me, although the outward evidence seemed to suggest the opposite.

But I imagine that’s enough of my sob story and irritating introspection!  I’m sure no one else has felt the way I did—and sometimes do.

Still, I’m fascinated by that sense of not being real, of existence being called into question.

2 Ga 5Earlier this month, Umair Haque wrote an article called, “The Rage in America’s Soul: The Dilemma of Nonexistence.”[1]  It’s a fascinating, insightful, and disturbing take on today’s society.

He sees the problem of “nonexistence” as flowing from, and a part of, the “rage” we have.  Haque has lived all over the world, and he’s noticed something he claims is unique to the US.  I have not lived all over the world, so maybe I’m not the best person to comment.  I don’t believe we’re the only country filled with rage, though perhaps we’ve learned to perfect it in our own way!

He says he “would like to gently confess: I have never seen a place with so much rage in its soul — not even an iota as much — as America.  If we are wise, we will ask, instead of becoming defensive, simply, why?”  As a people, as a nation, why are we filled with so much hate?

(And don’t worry, I’ll include the church, hearing reflections by St. Paul in a few moments!)

It seems when almost anything is reported on the news, the finger pointing soon commences.  Before the dust has settled, people are wondering, “Who’s to blame?”  And even more troubling, we too often see opposite groups as believing the others are not only mistaken—they don’t have the facts straight—but they’re morally wrong.  It’s not simply a matter of intelligence, but of character.  We can automatically assume that someone isn’t acting in good faith.  And sad to say, I have at times found myself falling prey to that temptation.  It is not a good thing!

In calling our rage as Americans a rage of “the soul,” Haque points to a number of things.  He says the rage is omnipresent.  “It does not come and go like the tides, but is more like a background hum of constant fury.”  One example that comes to mind is reading the comments to stories or posts on the internet.  The illogical and irrational venom people write makes me think all of us have taken crazy pills!

He also says it’s merciless.  “It is not merely the shout of a sulking child, but points to a kind of profound agony, one so deep, that there can be no possibility of forgiveness.”  We hold on to grudges with a vengeance.  There is a spiritual reality at work here.  If we haven’t experienced forgiveness, that is, forgiveness for something that really needs to be forgiven—then it’s almost impossible to extend forgiveness.  We have to feel the love.

That goes along with something in 1 Peter: “maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (4:8)!

The third thing Haque mentions is “the rage is murderous.  It doesn’t contain the anger of a scorned lover, but the exhilarating, dizzying fury of a killing field.  There is kind of pleasure, a satisfaction that seems to linger in it.”  There really is a dark delight, a twisted joy, in slaying the enemy, whether with weapon or word.  That’s especially true if we feel ordained by God in our enterprise.

When we view others through a lens of contempt and hatred, we don’t see them as simply human beings.  We don’t see the joys and hopes and fears that we have.  We don’t see them as real.  Haque continues, “The only thing that I know that can produce such rage is to not to be seen to exist at all, which is the first kind of murder that there is, really.”  In effect, we kill them.  We deny each other’s existence as the beloved of God, as those for whom Jesus Christ died.

3 Ga 5So there’s a good segue; I follow up on my promise to bring this to the church!

The apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is possibly the earliest one he wrote.  To put it lightly, he is befuddled at some of the stuff they’re doing and the peculiar things they believe.  He is “astonished;” he calls them “foolish”; he is “perplexed” (1:6, 3:1, 4:20).  And it would seem from the scripture reading in chapter 5, we don’t have to wonder why.

He begins the chapter by reminding the Galatians of their freedom in Christ.  He warns them against using their freedom to go back to slavery, as crazy as that sounds.

Now we see how the apostle tells them “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence [literally, “the flesh”], but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (vv. 13-14).

A moment ago, I mentioned viewing others through a lens of contempt and hatred.  If we do that, it hampers our ability to see them as real.  It also twists our ability to know the truth.

In our Book of Order (F-3.0104), there’s a saying, “Truth is in order to goodness.”  Part of what that means is truth isn’t always a neutral concept: 2+2=4.  Truth is to be in service of the good.  There is a way of presenting the truth that tears down, that destroys.  There is an evil way of telling the truth—the devil’s truth.  It brings death, not life.  If we tell a truth in rage, if we have a malevolent purpose, if we want to do harm, it’s not really true!  It’s not God’s truth.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Galatian church is in danger of becoming infected with hate.  Paul wants to get ahead of that.  He warns them about using their freedom to indulge the flesh.  And here, the “flesh” is not simply our physical bodies.  It is the tendency to use the gifts of God for purely selfish intent, to not care what happens to others or to the rest of creation.  The “flesh” is self-indulgence.

The apostle gives them some advice, some Spirit-inspired advice.  “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).  Take each other off the menu!

In recent years, zombies have become very popular.  That is, stories and movies and tv shows about them—not the zombies themselves!  Zombies go around eating people, but they don’t know why they do it.  After all, they are dead.  Some people see the fascination with zombies as a commentary on our society.  We mindlessly consume each other, and it’s reflected in art (if portrayals of zombies can be considered art).

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Richard Rohr says something interesting in a reflection on Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in her twenties at the end of the nineteenth century.[2]  She came to have the nickname “The Little Flower.”  She spoke of the “science of love.”

Rohr makes a reference to John the Baptist saying of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29).  He says, “the sin of the world” is “ignorant killing, and as we see today, we are destroying the world through our ignorance.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The sin of the world is behaving like those zombies, who kill and have no idea what they’re doing.  The sin of the world is behaving like the devil, who was “a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44).  However, and there is a “however.”  “When we love, we do know what we are doing!”  We wake up.

Paul wants the Galatians to wake up from the drowsiness and the haziness of self-indulgence.  They need to see what they’re doing.  They’re eating each other alive.

Can we see any of this in the church today?  Can we see any of it in ourselves?  If we can, that’s okay, and here’s one example why.

I started by talking about places we remember with a less than fond feeling.  I put forth the supposition that one of them might be Thanksgiving dinner.  And I speculated one reason might be arguments over religion and politics.  Mind you, I enjoy talking about that stuff, but it’s important to do so without speaking the devil’s truth.

At its very best, the church embraces those with various viewpoints.  One thing I like to mention is Jesus’ inner circle.  It included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot: a collaborator with the Romans and a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow the Romans.  (I wonder how their dinners went.)

We can have those different groups—conservative and liberal—rich and poor—popular kids and kids like me, in Christ, and do it with gratitude.  Live with thanksgiving.

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And thankfully, we have help in taking each other off the menu.  We have help in not submitting to the rage which would have us licking our chops and sharpening our knives.  We have the freedom in Christ to treat each other as real, as the beloved of God.  We have the freedom in Christ to taste and see that the Lord is good.

 

[1] umairhaque.com/the-rage-in-americas-soul-494a285cb633

[2] cac.org/therese-lisieux-part-2-2017-10-04


an offer you can’t refuse

Weddings can be strange things.

I’ve told Banu I almost prefer presiding at a funeral more than presiding at a wedding.  Of course, it depends on how demanding the family is.  Sometimes it seems like everybody and their Aunt Edna has an opinion on how things should go.  Sometimes it feels like crowd control.

1 Mt 22Our Book of Order has something to say about this.  “The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the minister of the Word and Sacrament and the supervision of the session” (W-4.0603).  And notice that it uses the word “marriage.”  Too often, there’s more focus on the wedding than on the marriage.

But I mention how weddings can be strange things.  Banu’s and my wedding might fit into that category.

We decided to make our vows in Turkish.  Our Old Testament professor, who we asked to preside, wrote them down so he could pronounce them properly.  Things were going fine until I said a particular line.  As soon as it came out of my mouth, I noticed Banu’s sister, who was sitting in the front row, begin to quietly laugh.  Afterwards, I was informed that my intended statement, “I promise to love you forever,” actually had the meaning, “I promise to explode.”  At least, that’s the way she explained to me.

(Hearing the story later, a friend of ours told me since I messed up the vow, I didn’t have to keep it.  Banu was not amused.)

When I’ve done weddings, I sometimes tell the couple it’s not a real wedding if something doesn’t go wrong!

In Matthew 22, Jesus speaks of a wedding that is extremely strange.  Actually, this is the wedding feast, so it’s not just the wedding; it’s the party that goes with it!  And calling it “strange” is a vast understatement.  In fact, the entire parable is worse than strange.  You can’t help but notice the violence and craziness.  One writer has called it “this bizarre little story.”[1]

You’ll notice this isn’t a case of wedding crashers.  It’s the exact opposite.  The invitations have been sent out, but nobody wants to come!

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I like how the story gets started.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (v. 2).  This is a parable.  The Greek word (παραβολη, parabolē) means “comparison.”  The kingdom of heaven may be compared.  Some say it’s also an allegory, a figurative story.  It has things which represent something else, so it’s not a direct comparison.  Maybe that lessens the embarrassment of what follows!

The wedding day arrives, and the king sends the word.  We’re ready to start!  Still, as you heard, no one shows up.  So he sends some more servants, and they describe the delicious food on the menu.  Everything is ready—we even kept in mind the vegans and the gluten-free folks!

Even this doesn’t work.  They go back to their business, and some of the invitees grab the servants and give them a sound beating; some of them are even killed.

Lance Pape, professor at Brite Divinity School, says “things go completely off the rails…  [T]he weirdness and violence are just getting started.”[2]  The king goes ballistic.  He doesn’t send any more of his servants.  This time, he sends his soldiers!  And they lay waste to the town.

While the fires are burning, the king says, “Forget those ungrateful fools.  Just grab people at random and bring them to the banquet.  And you know, let’s do that before the food gets cold!”

Okay, what do we have so far?  All of this is being compared to the kingdom of heaven.  If the king is supposed to be God, what does that say?  Is it like The Godfather, where Marlon Brando as Don Corleone uses the phrase, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  Is God a kingpin in the mafia?

3 Mt 22If it seems things can’t get any crazier, hold on to your hats, because they do!  The king sees a guest without wedding garments, and he gets completely unhinged.  Now in fairness, it’s been pointed out in Middle Eastern cultures it was common for guests to be provided with proper attire.  Maybe that’s true, and it would suggest the unfortunate fellow was guilty of refusing the king’s gift.  Still, we might be forgiven for thinking there’s a tiny bit of overreaction on the king’s part.

Bind him hand and foot!  Toss him out into the dark!  Let him wail and grind his teeth while experiencing the pain and the loneliness!  As I said—just a tiny bit of overreaction.

Having said that, this is the way the story is often presented.

Lutheran pastor Janet Hunt suggests another way to approach it.[3]  A big part of it is asking if the God of Jesus Christ in any way resembles the king in our parable.  I ask that question as well.

She wonders if those who refuse the invitation do it “as a sign of protest.”  Is it beyond the realm of possibility that the king is a tyrant?  His actions might seem to suggest so.  Could it be the people don’t believe he is worthy of the title “king”?  Maybe his motivation to have a big crowd at the banquet is to prevent suffering shame in front of everyone, to boost his ego.

Hunt also speaks more directly about Jesus.

She says, “I cannot help but believe that Jesus was, in fact, more like those who would never have been among the first invited…but would have found himself in the second batch of invitees.”  Jesus isn’t a part of the fancy crowd who received the first batch of invitations.  He’s part of the rabble, the ordinary folk.  That would seem to go along with the upside-down, inside-out way Jesus tells stories and engages with people.

She continues, “Indeed, as this parable comes to its conclusion, I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is not the one without the wedding robe—the one who could not, would not pretend to honor a tyrant king by putting on that wedding robe—who in behalf of all of us was thrown into the outer darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

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Hunt admits she might be way off base.  She might be dead wrong.  But she does offer a thought.  “[I]sn’t it just as likely that the kingdom of heaven is more like any one of us who refuses to bow to the powers that be when innocents suffer than like a king who throws his power around and destroys those who would not do his will?”  Maybe that’s the comparison between the kingdom of heaven and the parable.  I’ll leave you to mull over it!

I would like to go back to the thought of refusing gifts.

We come to the end, verse 14.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Many are called—many are invited to the party—but few are chosen.  Maybe they’re not willing to be chosen.  How many times have we been unwilling to be chosen?  I can think of way too many times I’ve been in that place!

I was baptized when I was 21.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I really opened myself up to matters of faith.  I made discoveries, but I too often wanted to control how they were made.  I even started going to church, though on an infrequent basis.  I knew I was being called to go deeper, to let go.  It was the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  But I didn’t want to be chosen; I didn’t want to go to that party.  I didn’t want to taste the food at that banquet.

Eventually I surrendered and submitted to the waters of baptism.  I RSVPed the Spirit and said, “Count me in!”  But that’s not the end of the story.  As the years have gone by, there are still parties I don’t want to attend.  There have been times when I have refused the king’s invitation.

Our friend Lance Pape chimes in.  “The doors of the kingdom community are thrown wide open, and the invitation extends literally to all.  But once you come in, there are standards.  You can’t go on acting like you are not at an extraordinary party.”  This party, this wedding feast, is serious business.

5 Mt 22

He says about the fellow without the wedding garment that “his problem is a failure to party.  The kingdom of heaven…is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program.  The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor.”

In all honesty, I need to practice getting on the dance floor, but maybe learning to laugh at yourself and being a fool for Christ is the perfect first step in that dance.  There is plenty of sorrow and pain in the world, but accepting the invitation to the wedding banquet opens us to the joy of the Lord.

I would say that’s an offer you can’t refuse.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

[3] dancingwiththeword.com/the-wedding-banquet-turning-it-inside-out


gracefully correct

There are many cases of conflict and need for forgiveness in our world.

We could recite a laundry list.  One on the international level that in recent months has appeared with a vengeance involves the US and North Korea.  I wonder, if our leaders considered themselves to be brothers, would it make a difference?

It is unusual to hear competing sides refer to each other as “brothers” or “sisters.”  Still, if we recall Cain and Abel, we should be aware of how the Bible presents the very first homicide as a fratricide, one brother killing another.  (I suppose we could make the argument, taking the really broad view, that every murder is a fratricide or a sororicide, killing a brother or sister.)

In Matthew 18, Jesus addresses the conflict, the offense, the sin that goes on in the church, the Christian community of faith.

The Lord addresses his disciples, posing a scenario in which a brother or sister sins against another.  Some manuscripts don’t even include the words “against another.”  They simply say if someone sins.  Period.  If someone commits an offense.  Full stop.

As I just said, Jesus places all of this in the church.

1 Mt 18How about if we start with a less serious situation?  (Although I must confess, some might consider this one to be a matter of life and death!)

When we recently spent a year in Tennessee, Banu and I worshipped with two different Episcopal Churches.  I’m pretty certain we sat in someone’s “spot” once or twice.  Nobody made an issue of it, but I wonder if anybody was thinking about it!  I’m sure that’s never been a problem here!  I’m sure if anyone noticed someone in their spot, the reaction would be, “Welcome to worship!  I’m so glad you’re here!”

But for a moment, let’s assume it were a matter of serious importance.  What would be the first step in addressing the offender?  Publicly berate the person?  Enlist others to give stern looks?  Perhaps make derogatory comments about their mother?

Again, assuming the action would qualify as sin, what does Jesus say?  Verse 15 reads, “If another member of the church [or your sister or brother in the faith] sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Going first to the person alone says and requires a number of things.  One thing it requires is a certain level of maturity.  Being willing to lovingly confront, to face them alone in person, rather than talking about them behind their back—or spreading gossip—means you’re willing to “own” your complaint, to take responsibility for it.  You’re not playing the game of reporting what anonymous “others” have said.

Going first to the person alone suggests you don’t want to shame the person.  It says you have a greater desire for reconciliation than proving you’re right.

But isn’t it so much fun proving you’re right or getting the last word in?

2 Mt 18

The late Wayne Oates, a congregational consultant, said when we go to the person first, we “[g]ive the person the benefit of the doubt by saying, ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’  The news bearer may not have reported accurately or may have misinterpreted…  Give ‘the offender’ an opportunity to say it in [his or] her own words.”[1]

There’s usually two sides, or even more sides, to every story.

It’s not much fun when your words are taken the wrong way, is it?  When you’re misunderstood?  On the internet and in emails, a lot of people use emojis, like a smiley face to show they’re not angry.  Or maybe they use a wink, letting people know they’re just being facetious and playful.

Think about the Bible.  We can’t hear the tone of voice, so we don’t always know if something is gravely serious, or if it’s a good-natured comment.

There can be another benefit to going to the person first.  Our friend Wayne goes on, “Word of your initiating this private conversation might well spread through the church system.  If so, it can lift the level of ethical responsibility of the whole congregation.  Members will know that they, too, will face you alone if they sin against you.”[2]

This should be a happy coincidence.  If you make a big show of saying, “Hey everyone, I first went to So-and-So all by myself,” that kind of defeats the purpose of working stuff out privately.

I want to include a disclaimer about a private meeting.  In cases where people have been abused or threatened, it is almost never a wise thing to do.  That’s when others should be called in.  It is probably a case in which other people are necessary.  It’s important to let them be witnesses, or even be advocates on behalf of the abused party.

So, with that in mind, sometimes lovingly going to the person first doesn’t always work.  That’s where verse 16, with its call to bring one or two wise people with you, comes into play.  You notice I added “wise.”  It’s important that these others know how to keep confidence—that they’re not going to go and blab to somebody else.

Confidentiality and secrecy aren’t the same things.  Sometimes there’s confusion about that.  Among the differences between the two is confidentiality maintains the other person’s integrity and helps build relationship.  Secrecy works against both of those.  Another difference is confidentiality builds respect; secrecy destroys respect.

Oates points out an additional aspect of this second level of going to the person.  “By bringing in one or two others, you can check your own behavior with the wisdom of other Christians.”[3]  It’s extremely important to hold ourselves accountable.  Engaging in self-deception is easier than we think.

But again, what if even this doesn’t work?  What if the presence of others still doesn’t convince the person to listen?

According to Jesus, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17).  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds pretty harsh!  There are those who say there’s no way Jesus would have said something like that; it was added by Matthew or somebody else.

Our friend Wayne agrees Jesus sounds rather callous, but he reminds us that when Jesus was presented as an infant in the temple, his “mission in the world [according to Simeon]…was to be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’” (Lk 2:32).[4]  It’s hard to be a light for someone if you can’t stand them!

3 Mt 18
Wayne E. Oates, 1917-1999

He adds that Jesus “took great initiative toward Zacchaeus, the tax collector.”  Now that’s a guy who was far from popular!  It wasn’t so much that he collected taxes (though that was part of it), but he did it for the hated Romans.  He was thought of as a traitor.  And yet, Jesus welcomed him.

So, when comparing the offender to a Gentile or a tax collector, the hope is that the “congregation can sustain a caring relationship” to the one being corrected.  The church might say, “We believe what you’re doing is wrong, but we still love you.  We still hope for restoration.”

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”  So he would seem to go along with what we just heard.

Now, after Matthew does his three-step approach with someone being cautioned, in verse 18, he ties it with binding and loosing.  Jesus says, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Some say that’s about exorcism, casting out demons, but it’s more likely he’s talking about a practice of the rabbis.  Basically, they would “bind” the law, a scripture, if it fit, if it applied to a certain situation.  They would “loose” the scripture if they decided it really didn’t apply.

Jesus passes that authority to bind and loose on to the church.  It’s not because Christians are worthy of doing so; it’s because the Spirit of Christ lives within the church.  As he says: “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (v. 20).  Please note.  That’s not about worship; it’s about reconciliation and dealing with offenses.

This whole matter of correction by the church obviously is a tricky business.  In our own Book of Order, the section called “The Rules of Discipline” takes that on.  It says church discipline “should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” (D-1.0102).

And it’s not something to rush into.  We’re told it “remains the duty of every church member to try (prayerfully and seriously) to bring about an adjustment or settlement of the quarrel [or] complaint.”  We should “avoid formal proceedings…unless, after prayerful deliberation, they are determined to be necessary to preserve the purity and purposes of the church” (D-1.0103).

When we lived in Jamestown, an administrative commission was formed to investigate a pastor in one of our presbytery’s churches.  (Quick note: administrative commissions are groups of people formed with a single task.  Usually they help with installing new pastors.)

Banu was part of that commission.  There apparently was evidence the pastor had porn on the church’s computer.  It turned out to be true.  Faced with the prospect of disciplinary procedures, the pastor figured it was time to hit the road.  He did what the Book of Order calls “renouncing the jurisdiction of the church.”  That means leaving the Presbyterian Church.  He was protected from ecclesiastical charges.  The pastor literally hit the road.  He wound up moving out of state.

A year or two later, I was part of a similar commission.  There had been a long-going dispute within the session of that same congregation.  It was our job to attempt reconciliation.  It’s safe to say, that church had a lot of problems.

That brings up a related issue.  Is there any action that is utterly unforgivable?  Can you think of anything we might do that is beyond forgiveness?  Is there anyone who Christ does not and cannot forgive?  How does that apply to us, we who pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?

4 Mt 18

A couple of examples from church history might be helpful.  Aside from doing this to others, Christians have burned each other at the stake.  Presbyterians, on a number of occasions, dealt with Baptists in a dreadfully appropriate way.  Responding to their insistence on another baptism, in addition to infant baptism, Presbyterians would tie heavy stones to them and toss them into the river.  You want another baptism?  Here you go!  (Splash!)

Maybe we no longer fit people for concrete galoshes, mafia style, but we still do some pretty terrible things to each other.

Peter comes to Jesus and wants to know about forgiving.[5]  He wants to make it really personal.  He asks Jesus, not what to forgive, but how often to forgive.  Peter offers, “As many as seven times?” (v. 21).  To Peter, this is a lot.  He feels like he’s bending over backwards.  Again, a teaching of the rabbis applies here.  It says [and please pardon the male-oriented language], “If a man sins once, twice, or three times, they forgive him; if he sins a fourth time, they do not forgive him.”[6]

So with his response, Jesus blows Peter’s mind.  He says to forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven]” (v. 22).  This huge symbolic number says, “Don’t keep count.”  It’s not up to you to keep track of how many times to forgive.

Here’s a complicating factor that can arise: do we wait until someone asks for forgiveness?  What if they never come around, like the offending brother or sister we looked at earlier?  Are we still compelled to forgive?  And by the way, I’m not talking about forgiving in a back-handed or snarky way—as in, “I forgive you for getting offended when I called you a jerk and made disparaging remarks about your mother”!

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean we’ll automatically have a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling.  Forgiving isn’t about emotions.  And it’s not about conjuring up something by ourselves.  It is very much about the grace of God enabling us.  And it is a grace that removes a heavy burden from us.

Pamela Cooper-White picks up on this idea of the grace of forgiveness.[7]  She says, “To be gracious is to be graced.  It is a charisma, a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It enables a person to let go of the person who wounded him/her, and perhaps, in time, to be less preoccupied with both the perpetrator and the wound.”[8]  Forgiving is not easy.  In fact, it can be the hardest thing in life.  But if we can get there, we can find a freedom like none other.

Picking up on the earlier theme about church discipline, if we can wrap our minds and hearts around forgiveness being an act of God’s grace, then we can gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  Faithful discipline is done with a view toward forgiving.

Faithful discipline offers a challenge.  It offers a challenge to practice being a community of accountability and forgiveness.  It doesn’t happen instantly; it isn’t one and done.  It is a practice.  It is a discipline.

5 Mt 18

Henri Nouwen says, “Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another ‘seventy-seven times’…  Forgiveness is the cement of community life.  Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.”[9]

I know I need the grace of God to be part of that cement.  I need that grace to gracefully correct and be gracefully correct.  How about you?

 

[1] Wayne E. Oates, The Care of Troublesome People (Alban Institute, 1994), 5.

[2] Oates, 5.

[3] Oates, 6.

[4] Oates, 7.

[5] αφιημι, aphiēmi: “I send off,” “I forgive”

[6] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981), 381.

[7] χαριζομαι, charizomai: “I favor.”

[8] Pamela Cooper-White, “Forgiveness: Grace, not Work,” Journal for Preachers (32:2 Lent 2009): 20.

[9] henrinouwen.org/meditation/forgiveness-cement-community-life


interwoven

A few years ago, Banu and I lived about a half hour’s drive from some Mennonite markets.  One time, I noticed a sign saying they would be closed for Ascension Day.  It’s always the Thursday forty days into the Easter season, so it was this past Thursday.

I told Banu I found it interesting that the Mennonites actually take the day off to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord.  For many of us, I imagine the day came and went this week without our even being aware of it.  That shouldn’t be entirely unexpected; Ascension is one of those days it’s hard to wrap our heads around.  Ascension—what the heck is that about, anyway?

1 ascension

In his gospel, here’s how St. Luke puts it: “Then [Jesus] led [the disciples] out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:50-53).

In ancient times, people tended to think of the universe as though it had three stories.  Some people still do.  We might imagine a three-story house.  The heavens were the top story, maybe the attic; our world was the first floor, and as for the underworld, as the name suggests, it’s down there below the surface.  It would be the basement.

Well, we’ve been in outer space, where there is no “up” or “down.”  And as for the nether regions, I once heard a traveling evangelist tell an interesting story about that.  He claimed workers in France doing deep well drilling made a bizarre discovery.  He said they could hear the screams of the doomed rising up to them!  Apparently, the location of hell is under France.

(I’m not so sure.  I think the evangelist’s comments were based on a subconscious aversion to the French!)

Anyway, today we wouldn’t describe the Ascension of the Lord as someone floating up into the sky.  We no longer perceive the cosmos in the “three story” way, as did the ancients.  We don’t see ourselves the same way.  You do realize we are mostly empty space?  At the atomic level, there are electrons spinning around the nucleus, like tiny solar systems.  Smaller and smaller particles are being discovered.  A few years ago, evidence of the speculative Higgs Boson particle was detected.

2 ascension

Going in the other direction, by using ever more powerful telescopes, we’re gazing deeper, toward the edge of the universe itself.  We’re looking at light that has taken billions of years to arrive at Earth.  (It appears we have a new “three story” image:  macrocosmic, mesocosmic, and microcosmic!)

Luke is speaking of the resurrection body of Christ.  Imagining the physics of that is enough to get your head spinning!  We might think of him as becoming interwoven with our space and time.  Earlier in chapter 24, that could be how he appears and disappears to the disciples at will.

However we conceive of it (and I won’t belabor the point), why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  I promise you—this isn’t just abstract theory.  This has very “real world” meaning for us.

There’s an Australian missiologist named Michael Frost.  At a conference in Budapest, Hungary, he said he’d spoken with some Christian surfers a few years earlier.[1]  When he asked who their favorite surfer was, he described it as “pandemonium.”  They were yelling different names, but he got them to narrow it down to Kelly Slater, who was described as the greatest surfer ever.  He was able to get them to describe him in detail.

3 ascensionThen he asked them to describe Jesus.  Aside from stuff like, “Son of God” and “died for our sins,” they couldn’t say very much.  Frost said he’s noticed the same thing in the church and even in the seminary where he teaches.  He’s noticed people being unable to talk about Jesus the person.

But as I watched the video of the conference, what really caught my attention was something else he said.  Frost spoke of a “spirituality of engagement.”  This is a spirituality of engagement as opposed to a spirituality of retreat, of withdrawing.  That is, retreating or withdrawing from the world.

It’s the idea that the only way to really connect with Christ is by retreating to worship services, or by going on retreats, or by going to places specifically labeled as “Christian.”  He doesn’t reject those experiences; he very strongly affirms them (as do I).  But he also emphasizes engaging with Christ in the world.

For those who care about connecting with Jesus, there can be the danger of living in a Christian “bubble.”  There’s the danger of not being able to see Jesus in the cinema, in art, in the workplace, in school, in science, in everyday life.  As he was talking about this stuff, it dawned on me that this is what Ascension is all about.

As the Nazarene professor Andy Johnson puts it, “our very flesh is constantly interchanging elements with the rest of the material universe.”  There’s that subatomic particle stuff again!  At that level of reality, it’s hard to draw a line between “us” (our bodies) and “not-us.”  Thinking about that theologically, with God’s raising the body of Jesus, “the redemption of the cosmos as a whole has begun.”[2]

(You know, the difficulty in seeing a line between “us” and “not-us” gives a whole new spin on describing people as “joined at the hip.”)

Because of the Ascension of the Lord, Jesus as the Christ is everywhere.  What that means is there are no “God-free” zones.  Nothing is truly godforsaken.

Frost also talks about “prevenient grace,” that is, the way God works prior to anyone’s action.  God extends grace before we decide to do this or that.  The question is not: “Will we bring God into a godless world?”  The question is: “Will we find out what God is already doing in the world and get involved?”  Again, there are no “God-free” zones.

So, here it is again, just in case what I’ve said isn’t crystal clear: why is the Ascension of the Lord so important?  Why must Jesus depart?  Why does Jesus say, in effect, “It’s time for me to fly!”?

Jesus must depart, because frankly, it’s time for the disciples to grow up.  In John 16, Jesus tells them, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (v. 7).  He’s told them they will do even greater things than he has done (Jn 14:12).

Without Jesus around, even the resurrected Jesus, the Spirit of Christ pervades—is interwoven—everywhere.  The Spirit of Christ indwells us.

It can be difficult to understand.  Earlier in Luke 24, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are downcast; they’re crestfallen.  Jesus comes up and speaks with them, though they don’t recognize him.  They say “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21).  But notice what happens.  “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27).

Now we have today’s scripture reading.  When he appears to the gathered group of disciples, he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44).

Our friend Andy Johnson points out, “the Old Testament never directly says that the Messiah will suffer, die, or be raised from the dead.”[3]  That’s true, and that’s why Jesus was such a problem, even for well-meaning people.  The disciples need to understand.  So Jesus repeats what he did on the road to Emmaus.  For the disciples who think they’re seeing a ghost, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45).

Johnson says, “Jesus begins reshaping their imagination, reshaping the categories they had used to make sense of what God was doing in their world.”  Their culture has shaped them to think in a certain way.  Then here comes Jesus, completely turning that stuff on its head!

There can be a difference between translating and interpreting.  When we translate, we go from one language to another.  For example, we take the English word “dog” and go to the Spanish word “perro,” or to the Turkish word “köpek.”  However, when we interpret, we assign meaning, and sometimes that meaning can be quite different from what we expect, or want, to hear!

For the disciples to understand who Jesus is, it will mean “reinterpreting the entire biblical narrative, ‘all the scriptures.’”[4]  Jesus knows what he has to do.  He has to open their minds.  He has to blow their minds.  He has to rock their world!

The disciples have their vision radically expanded, re-imagined.  They must learn “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (v. 47).  The old categories no longer work.  They can’t presume to “have” or “own” Jesus.

Can we think of ways in which we do that?  Is it possible others are turned away if and when we present Jesus as our property?  (I include myself in the question.)  Do we too rarely ask the question, “How can we as the church serve the community?”  Or do we too often wonder, “What can they do for us?”  Remember, there are no “God-free” zones.

Having said all that, I believe the desire to serve the community is in evidence here.  I believe it was evident on the day of the presbytery meeting.  You are building on the past and allowing a new vision to form.

In my sermon eight days ago, I quoted part of a prayer we used earlier in the service.  “Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”  I like that: empty slogans or senseless controversy.  (Not the slogans or controversies themselves, but being made aware of them!)

I also quoted our Book of Order’s warning about “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), and how that might appear in us.  Do we ignore prophets, avert our eyes from visions, and disregard the dreamers?  Possibly, but it looks like good progress is being made on encouraging the dreamers—paying attention to our own dreams.

ThinkingmanAre we pushing the boundaries, even as it dawns on us the ascended Christ is everywhere?  Therefore, do we understand that we are interwoven with everything around us?

Today’s affirmation of faith is based on Ephesians 1, which is the epistle reading for Ascension.  The end of it comes from verses 22 and 23.  God “has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”  The one whose body fills all in all.

We are the church of Jesus Christ, and the fullness of Christ fills us.  So, let us weave our stories into the visions that are forming and transforming us.  Let us not disregard the dreamers, but rather encourage each other in following our dreams.  The Spirit who has been promised gives us strength.  Like those first disciples who witnessed the Ascension, we can go out with joy.

 

[1] vimeo.com/22699742

[2] Andy Johnson, “Our God Reigns: The Body of the Risen Lord in Luke 24,” Word and World 22:2 (Spring 2002) 141.

[3] Johnson, 136.

[4] Johnson, 136.


have you not known? have you not heard?

Have you not known?

Our Book of Order, when it calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05), agrees with Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah, if you like).  An idol is the creation of workers, goldsmiths, and artisans, as the prophet tells us (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.  By the way, how many of us have turned off our phones, or at least, set them on vibrate?)

Have you not heard?

With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

1 isaiahWe’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  Still, going from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, we have to be careful about overestimating the worth of our own efforts, our own accomplishments.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?

There’s something I read in Doug Pagitt’s book, Flipped.  (I imagine he’ll say a couple more things about it this afternoon!)  It’s something I’ve used as a devotional.

About halfway through the book, he brings up the story of the poor widow.[1]  Jesus points out that the wealthy are contributing to the temple fund out of their abundance, money they won’t even miss.  However this widow, with her two coins, is putting a major dent in her finances.  The moral of the story, the way it’s often presented, is that we should praise and imitate the widow; she’s making a big sacrifice for God.

Our friend Doug speaks about a visitor to their church while they were having a discussion about this story.  I love the line this fellow comes up with.  “I think you have that story totally wrong.”  Well!  Would I be mistaken in saying that somebody needs to do a flip?

But it’s true.  The system of the temple, with the religious and political structure that go with it, can be a beast.  It can chew you up and spit you out.

2 isaiahDear friends, I have to tell you: we are the system!  We are part of the religious and political structure.  I must confess (and I’m likely not alone in this) that I’m not fond of being part of the system.  I think that feeling was especially heightened in college when I started reading those revolutionary and counter-cultural authors.  And it was also in college that I started reading the scriptures, and for the first time in my life, I really began to understand them.  Talk about revolutionary and counter-cultural!

Still, being part of the system is neither good nor bad.  The system is how things operate; it is how things happen.  It occurs to me I might rephrase what I just said.  The system actually is a good thing.  Think of the ecosystem.  It’s how life operates.  I think that’s a good thing!

The question is, what do we do with the system?  Do we make it into a beast?  Does it turn us into beasts?  Do we give in to cynicism?

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (v. 27).  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, giving power to the faint, strengthening the powerless.  Isn’t that amazing?  We don’t have to be beasts!

Therefore, if we have a God who makes such promises, who follows through on those promises, what is our response?

My wife Banu and I have been in this presbytery for a little over a year, so in that time, we’ve gotten a pretty decent lay of the land.  Part of the lay of the land is rather obvious: we are a presbytery in transition.  It’s a transition in structure; it’s a transition in terms of several folks retiring.  And regarding structure, the Leadership Team is an expression of that transition.

Because of all of that, we are in a special position.  This is something you learn as interim pastors.  Transition presents us with new opportunities.  We are given permission (as if we don’t already have it!) to try new things.  Unfortunately, sometimes when presented with new opportunities, we are too quick to say “no.”  We try to find ways it won’t work.  We try to find ways to get out of doing it ourselves.  (Or could it be I’m the only one here who’s ever done that?)

In Acts 2, St. Peter, drawing on the wisdom of the prophet Joel, says, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17).

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.

3 isaiah

I wonder, do we quench the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh?  Do we as a presbytery do that?  Do we idolize our system and make it an agent of tyranny?  I understand: we don’t throw people into an iron maiden or have them drawn and quartered!  Even so, does tyranny reveal itself among us by ignoring prophets, averting our eyes from visions, and disregarding the dreamers?  I don’t know.  Maybe.

In our opening prayer, we asked God, “Be with members of our presbytery.  Help us to welcome new things you are doing in the world, and to respect old things you keep and use.  Save us from empty slogans or senseless controversy.”

Empty slogans and senseless controversy?  What’s wrong with them?  They’re so much fun!  They make us feel like we’re getting stuff done.

Again, we have to heed the warning about idolatry and tyranny.  That’s our challenge as a presbytery.  That’s our challenge as congregations.  That’s our challenge as Christians.  That’s our challenge as those in Christ, those who love Christ.  Is our love sufficient?  I don’t think so; it always falls short.

4 isaiah

But here’s the good news.  We are promised that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

 

[1] Doug Pagitt, Flipped (Convergent Books: 2015), 97-102.


living in exile

Banu and I were ordained in February 1997.  Both of our pastors, just before the benediction, gave us a charge.  Banu’s pastor charged her “to fail.”  He wasn’t wishing ill on her, rather, he wanted her to take risks that would probably end in failure.  Still, keep pressing on.  That’s advice I need to remember.

Using imagery from the parable of the prodigal son, my pastor charged me to tell my story of being in a “distant land,” a “far country.”  He might have thought of several things, like my worshipping with Christians of many different stripes.  (One example would be going from the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church, to going to the Presbyterian Church.)  But his main meaning of being in a “far country” was my experience with brain cancer.

1 exile

The charge to fail from Banu’s pastor also has that sense of exile, of not belonging.  His church was in an inner-city neighborhood of Philadelphia.  The streets around the church were not in good shape.  There were even what you might call ditches.  He spoke of a pansy that he saw growing in one of those ditches.  That pansy didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be there, but we might think it was in exile, a place where it didn’t belong.

We can see that sense of exile, of being in a far country, in our epistle reading in 1 Peter.

In the very first verse of our letter, Peter calls his audience “exiles.”  The Greek word (παροικια, paroikia) can also mean “sojourning” or “living in a strange land.”  For them, being exiles, being refugees, is something they can relate to.  For us, it’s no doubt less likely.  But it is possible.  It’s more likely we would at least feel that way.  Have you ever been—or are you now—in a far country?  Can you see yourself as an exile or as a refugee?  In this season of Easter, can we see ourselves as resurrection people?

I want us to think about that.  If we can’t imagine or feel the need to live another way, then it will be pretty difficult to in fact live any other way!  If we have no longing to live more deeply, more fully, then in a sense, we’re already dead.  We need to be resurrected!

Peter picks up the theme of exile in verse 17.  “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”

There are Christians in this country who actually claim the identity of exile.  It isn’t such a stretch for them to see themselves as living in a strange land.  That’s “strange” as in “foreign,” but I suppose “strange” as in “weird,” would also apply!  I imagine all of us could testify to times when we’ve felt like we’re living in a strange land!

2 exile
the chapel at Emmaus Community in Victoria, BC

When I speak of Christians who claim the identity of exile, I’m thinking especially of those who might be called neomonastics, the “new” monastics.  From every tradition and denomination, these are Christians who really do put into practice the idea of “blessed be the tie that binds.”  They don’t live in monasteries, but as communities of faith, they make a commitment to follow Christ in a particular way, which I’ll get to in a few moments.  They do this as communities, not just as a collection of individuals.

They take Peter quite seriously when he says in verse 22, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  That last line in the Good News Bible says to “love one another earnestly with all your heart.”  How about Eugene Peterson’s The Message?  It’s “love one another as if your lives depended on it.”  The original word (εκτενως, ektenōs) means “intensely.”

Kyle Childress, a long-time Baptist pastor in Nacogdoches, Texas, tells an interesting, and sobering, story.[1]  In September 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, Hurricane Rita slammed into East Texas.  There was plenty of destruction, but their church building avoided the worst of it.  They were able to house some evacuees from Houston, as well as some of their own church members.

During the day, people would be cleaning up from the hurricane.  At day’s end, they gathered at the church, eating delicious meals—then playing games, having conversations, and getting ready for bed.  It was, as Rev. Childress says, “a good time of sharing life in Christ” (p. 33).  Now, here’s the story he tells.

“After most of the people from Houston had left town,” he says, “I went down to put gas in my car.  By this time, the lines were short and I waited behind a man and his wife in their one-ton pickup with a dual-wheel rear-end.  Guns were hanging prominently in the truck as they got out.  She glared at everyone and kept the door open on the truck with the guns in easy reach, while he proceeded to fill up his two twenty-two-gallon tanks on the pickup and then fill up his many gas cans and two fifty-five-gallon drums in the back-end.  I watched them, gave them a wide berth, and I felt a shiver.  I was not only looking at American society in microcosm, I was also witnessing what the Church is up against.  Here was an apocalyptic moment, when our society’s pretense, politeness, and orderliness were blown aside.  Clearly, this couple believed they were on their own; they did not need anyone or want anyone to interfere with their individual lives, and they were going to make sure they got what they wanted or needed, by any means, including the use of violence.  Meanwhile, down the street was a church full of people who believed that the good life was found in sharing a common life in Jesus Christ” (34).

When Childress speaks of that “common life in Jesus Christ,” he isn’t referring to something that happens by accident.  He isn’t talking about something that just comes up out of nowhere.  He’s talking about a rule of life.  A rule of life is something that people agree together to follow.

He continues, “Since it is rare to see local congregations share such a common life, and most church members have no idea such a life exists, much less is desirable, it is imperative that we look around for other glimpses and models of what a common life might look like.  One of those places is among the communities of the New Monasticism movement.  As a local church pastor I am interested in what the new monastics might teach us” (34).

He’s not proposing that his local Baptist congregation become a neomonastic community, but he’s convinced there are things to learn from them.

A rule of life isn’t so much a set of beliefs; it isn’t so much a confession or a creed.  It’s about how we behave in the world.  Probably the best-known rule of life is the Rule of Benedict.  This goes back to the early sixth century.  Saint Benedict is known as the father of western monasticism.  He wrote his Rule to govern life within the monastery, but it has principles that can be applied in every walk of life.

One good example of this is in chapter 53.  Benedict says, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”  That’s the spiritual foundation for Christian hospitality that extends throughout the Rule, and for that matter, throughout life itself.

3 exileWhat a revolutionary, and counter-cultural, thought.  Imagine if we welcomed every visitor as Christ!  Imagine if we welcomed each other as Christ!

There isn’t any one single way to arrange a rule of life.  At the institutional level, our Presbyterian Book of Order does that in some respect, at least in how we govern ourselves.  It’s a way of helping us follow processes that are laid out.  It’s a way of making sure that we’re all on the same page, so to speak!

Childress notes, “Whenever there is conflict or misunderstanding—and living in close proximity to others, there always is conflict—the rule is part of the conversation among the members.  Over time the rule is often clarified or modified…  What is essential is that the rule is used in service to sharing their common life in Christ and not as a form of domination” (36).

This is an extremely important point.  If we are to follow Peter’s mandate to “love one another deeply from the heart,” the way we go about it cannot be “a form of domination.”

This might be a shock to you, but there are churches which seek to control and coerce their members!

To embrace a common life in Christ, the American church has to resist that “lone wolf” mentality that is so much a part of our culture.  One last quote from Childress: “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life, then they had better do it as a body or else they will never make it.  Lone individuals trying to live faithfully cannot stand against sin, death, the Powers, and the overwhelming pressure of society.  Church members, as individuals, are easy pickings for the Powers of Death; they will separate us, isolate us, dismember us, pick us off one at a time, and grind us down into the dust” (39).

That is an awesome statement, and I couldn’t agree more with it.

What are the “Powers of Death” he refers to?  What are the forces that kill us inside and turn us against each other?  What are the things that distress the Spirit of Christ, and bring suffering?  These are some of the “Powers of Death.”

Sometimes events happen, and we are compelled to say something about it, because it’s right there in our faces.  I remember when we all heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I guess like most people, I did feel a sense of relief when I heard the news.

4 exileHowever, my real preference would have been for him to be captured and then put on trial before the entire world.  Still, I have to say that I didn’t shed any tears because he was dead.

But when I saw the images of people dancing in the street, having parties, I was saddened.  On 9-11, the terrorists were doing the exact same thing.  Imitating that kind of behavior is, in my opinion, probably the very least Christian thing we could do.  It is the most un-Christlike way to go.  I would dare say that we could see the “Powers of Death” at work.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult thing to apply Jesus’ call to love our enemies when the enemy is a mass-murderer.  It’s difficult to know what that would look like.  Still, if we would be people who love Jesus, we need to learn to love what Jesus loves.

Verse 23 says, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”  The powers of death, the forces that have us living in exile (whether we realize it or not), can do nothing when faced with the living and enduring word of God.

It’s kind of like the old country gospel song, “This World is not My Home.”  “This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue / The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

We are living as refugees in our homeland, but we also need to remember what Psalm 24 says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (v. 1).

One thing that is sure; we belong to the kingdom of God and its exhibition to the world.  That’s paraphrased from the Great Ends of the Church in our Book of Order (F-1.0304).  When we commit ourselves to follow the one who leads us out of exile, we automatically invite others to join the journey.

“‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  That word is the good news that was announced to you” (vv. 24-25).

That’s the good news.  When we fail, and fail we will, in that far country, in the place of our exile, the Lord fails with us, only to raise us up.

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After all, even in a ditch a pansy will grow.

 

[1] www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/116016.pdf

(“Ties that Bind: Sharing a Common Rule of Life”)


boring you with law and love

“I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus.”[1]  That’s what a professor said one of her students told her.  I think that’s just crazy.  If there’s anything that keeps you breathlessly holding onto the edge of your seat, it’s stuff like:

Snore

“When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil” (2:4).  Hey, am I right or am I right?

Check out this one.  “Flesh that touches any unclean thing shall not be eaten; it shall be burned up.  As for other flesh, all who are clean may eat such flesh” (7:19).  Pretty exciting!

“When a man or woman has a disease on the head or in the beard, the priest shall examine the disease.  If it appears deeper than the skin and the hair in it is yellow and thin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is an itch, a leprous disease of the head or the beard” (13:29-30).  [snore]

Okay, maybe there’s a point to what her student said.

At the same time, we need to remember that the vast majority of Leviticus is not narrative.  It isn’t meant to be spellbinding story telling.  It’s mainly codes of law; it’s legislation.  It is ritual.  Kathryn Schifferdecker, who made the comment about the drowsy student on a treadmill, concedes the point, but says that “the person who is willing to enter into the book with imagination, and with an eye for detail, will find profound insights there.”

Look at how today’s reading in chapter 19 starts.  “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2).  If there’s any single quality that best describes our Lord, it would be “holy.”  It’s a word that means “separate,” “set apart,” “completely other.”  The holy is something beyond our understanding.  And like the Israelites, we also are called to use that as our model, our image, for life and existence!

How does that work?  How are we set apart?  How are we completely other?  What does it mean to be holy?

Well guess what?  We have here a long list of what Leviticus is famous for.  Rules and regulations!  The lesson picks up again at verse 9, skipping over the revering of parents, the worship of idols, and the offering of a sacrifice of well-being, a covenant meal with the community.

Verse 9 says to not gather in every scrap of your crop in every inch of your land.  It’s normal to miss some of it.  In fact, you should leave those scraps behind.  There are some who depend on those leftovers to feed themselves and their children.  This is a way of building charity into the economic system.  In our terms today, it helps prevent the excesses of cutthroat capitalism.

I must confess, someone who has needed to hear this correction would be me!  As a freshman in college, I was basically a disciple of the writer Ayn Rand.  She was an advocate of removing government regulation of the economy—all regulation, that is.  To say she was a fierce advocate of that would be like calling a lion a kitty cat!  She had extremely little tolerance for anything resembling a social safety net.

Taking myself way too seriously, I wrote a letter for the campus newspaper lauding her values.  On a sunny afternoon, as I was leaving a classroom building, I encountered one of my professors on the steps.  He was the perfect image of the kindly old man, with a gentle and winsome sense of humor.  (In those days, my sense of humor was on life support, so the joy he exuded just bugged me.)  He mentioned my letter in which I railed against Social Security, and he simply said, “You still have to care about people.”

Eventually, looking back on that quick conversation, I realized that was when my foolish admiration of Ayn Rand had gone way too far.  It had warped and twisted me in ways I did not like.  Bringing this back to the scripture, I needed to hear that corrective.  And what better vehicle for carrying the message than that wonderful and loving man?

Before we leave the subject, I was grateful for public assistance when Banu and I were at seminary.  My diagnosis of a brain tumor meant that we quickly used up the insurance we had through the school.  We signed up for the Pennsylvania state welfare insurance.

I’ll go through a few more verses, but I won’t spend as much time on them as I did this last one.

Two faced

Verse 12 says, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.”  We can think of putting our hands on the Bible and swearing to tell the truth, but there are other ways to look at it.  In simple terms: do not be duplicitous.  Do not be two-faced.

“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (v. 13).  Do not keep the wages of a worker until morning.  When you’re a day laborer, waiting until tomorrow is a serious matter!  This is a prohibition of wage theft.

“You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (v. 14).  Do not mock those with disabilities.  They have a heavy enough burden to carry; they don’t need others adding to it.  And incidentally, that bit about “fearing your God” implies that one who does fear God doesn’t engage in that activity to begin with.

Here’s verse 16.  “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.”  That first part about not slandering has an especially current day feel to it.  We hear about fake news, which is completely made up, or if not fake, at least news that is decidedly slanted.  That’s the news which reaffirms what we already believe and what we want to hear.  We don’t learn anything new about the world around us.

Yellow journalism

Do not engage in yellow journalism.  But that’s so delicious; it’s so salacious and scandalous!  It gets the blood flowing.  It bypasses the part of the brain that houses higher consciousness and triggers that reptilian instinct.  But also notice how the verse ends: “I am the Lord.”  This goes back to my question, “What does it mean to be holy?”  There is something about being set apart that calls us to challenge ourselves, to not simply accept whatever we are spoon fed.

Just think about how many times the phrase, “I am the Lord,” or “I am the Lord your God” is used in this passage.  It speaks to how intertwined our relationships with God and with others really are and what role law has in the mix.

Mennonite pastor Joanna Harader has some thoughts about this.[2]  She says, “I wonder whether ‘liberal’ ‘progressive’ Christians don’t tend to give the law a bit of a short shrift.  There are distinct advantages to having a set of rules to govern our lives.  Rules can help us ‘pre-make’ some of our decisions so that we do not allow our feelings to dictate what we do, how we treat people…

“Law and love. That’s what I’m thinking about this week.”

Admittedly, as she says, she’s approaching from a more liberal / progressive point of view.  Still, I think folks who are more conservative might also be able to see themselves here.  Regardless of where we appear on the spectrum, there does seem to be an inherent contradiction between law and love.  We might respond, with a bit of irritation, “You can’t force me to love!”

And just in time, we come to the end of the passage.

“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (v. 17).  Do not hate any of your kin.  As the faith has expanded and evolved over the centuries, we can recognize “kin” as the entire human family.  Likewise, “your neighbor” can mean someone across the street or across the world.  And going along with that second part, if we don’t reprove our neighbor (that is, in a holy, loving way!), we can let injustice run wild.

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (v. 18).  Jesus would later join loving God and loving neighbor as the two points that sum up the law (Mt 22:34-40).  So Jesus takes this boring book and shows us how law and love come together.

Love your neighbor

This is a good day to consider the law and loving one’s neighbor.  In our service of ordination and installation, we take vows before God to abide by certain things; we pledge ourselves.  Those vows act as laws we agree to follow.  Those vows commit us to love and care for each other.

We are asked what are known as “constitutional questions,” because they are derived from our constitution as Presbyterians: the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order.  Among the things we agree to is trusting in Jesus Christ, accepting the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, abiding by our church’s polity, and one that Banu and I especially appreciate, “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

That’s a good way of taking love of God with all our heart and soul and mind and directing it toward each other.

There are also questions for those called to various offices in the church.  Here’s one for deacons.  “Will you be a faithful deacon, teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the people’s help to the friendless and those in need?  In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”

What jumps out at me is the request to direct the people’s help to the friendless.  What a great and wonderful ministry.  Of course, that is directed to all of us.  It’s difficult to befriend the friendless without a love and concern that motivates us.

And how about that last question?  “In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?”  That’s one which is also directed to elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament.  (I’m sorry, I should say, “ruling elders and teaching elders”!)[3]

I’ll leave us with some questions to ponder.  (No ready-made answers.)  Again, how can we be holy?  Today, we all make vows.  How can those vows help us?  Maybe I should ask, can they help us?  And if so, what do those vows mean as you move forward with your own unique emerging ministry for the sake of the law and love of the Lord?

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2186

[2] spaciousfaith.com/2011/02/15/pre-sermon-ponderings-law-and-love

[3] Terminology used in the new Form of Government, which began with the 2011-2013 Book of Order!


gifted to be partners

“Where are you in your walk with the Lord?”  “How has God been guiding you?”  “Have sensitive are you to the leading of the Spirit?”  Throughout my life as a Christian, I’ve been asked those questions, or something like that.  Sometimes they really bug me.  (Well, a little bit more than “sometimes.”)  I often have trouble coming up with a coherent and honest answer.  But I need those questions.

Those questions probably aren’t meant to be answered too quickly.  Those questions need meditation and reflection and prayer.  But then, we have to act on them.

An extension of those questions might be, “How are you using your spiritual gifts?”  Spiritual gifts?  I’m not sure I have any.  Our Book of Order, drawing inspiration from St. Paul, says, “the Holy Spirit has graced each member with particular gifts for strengthening the body of Christ for mission” (W-2.5002).

Spiritual gifts aren’t for us alone; they are primarily for increasing life to the body of Christ.  1
They enhance communion; they enhance fellowship; they enhance sharing.  God “has called [us] to be partners with…Jesus Christ” (v. 9, NJB).  All those terms are different meanings of the Greek word κοινωνια (koinōnia).

So after all of that, we can say that we have been gifted to be partners.  We have spiritual gifts, and they are meant for koinōnia.  But hold that thought; we’ll get back to it!

The epistle lesson is the introduction to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  We see he’s joined by Sosthenes, who he calls “our brother” (v. 1).  We’re not sure who he is.  Maybe the apostle is dictating his letter to him.

It looks like Paul’s laying out what he wants to accomplish in the letter.  He tells the church in Corinth how he sees them (he’s thankful for them)—and even better, how they could be.  He encourages them, warts and all.  Immediately after the introduction, he dives into it.  In verse 10, he appeals to them “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

The first thing he mentions are divisions.  This doesn’t mean to think the same thoughts.  It doesn’t mean to have the same opinions.  We have brains.  We aren’t supposed to shut them off in service to some totalitarian ideal.  In biblical terminology, we aren’t supposed to serve idols.

Paul’s argument is with divisiveness, to use a term familiar to us.  That is, the thriving on division.  Divisiveness is not the same as division, which simply happens because we have those brains I just mentioned.  Divisiveness is, to be honest, a sinful refusal to look beyond differences.  It’s the refusal to acknowledge, “I don’t have to agree with you to love you.”

The divisiveness that encourages division is, sadly, no stranger to us.

Last month, the TV show Face the Nation had an interview with comedian Stephen Colbert.  He’s the host of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  (Just in case you hadn’t figured that out!)  John Dickerson spoke with him in reflection on 2016.[1]

Dickerson asked him, “What was the good news in 2016?”  Colbert hesitated a moment, and then mentioned their Thanksgiving dinner.  Then he altered the question a bit.  He said just before saying grace, he asked himself what he was thankful for.  He spoke of family and friends and dear ones who have passed away.

2

Then Colbert spoke of people he does not agree with.  He said “they make me think about what I do.  They question my beliefs.  And an unquestioned belief is almost vestigial.  It doesn’t motivate you in any way.  It doesn’t serve you in any way if you don’t question it, because a belief is a filter.  You have to run things through it, you know, so you know how you see the world.  It’s a lens; it’s not a prop.”

He speaks of the tendency to engage in divisiveness.  He says “divisiveness is a vice.  But like a lot of vices, super seductive.  And so you indulge in it until it bites you, and then you go oh, darn—oh, darn, the wages of sin is death.  And it makes you question having indulged in the vice.  And I think that political divisiveness is a vice; picking sides is a vice rather than picking ideas.”

He speaks specifically of political divisiveness, but it can apply to anything.  And Paul wants all of us to be aware of that.

We can see that sentiment in verse 2 when he addresses the Corinthians, those called to be saints, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”  Another translation says, “along with all who invoke the name of our Lord Jesus Christ wherever they may be—their Lord as well as ours” (REB).  Wherever they may be.  Whoever they may be.  We have the same Lord.

A few moments ago, I said that we have been gifted to be partners.  But these aren’t partners in the sense of, “Hey buddy!  Hey pal!  Hey amigo!”  Or if you’re addressing a woman, “Hey amiga!”

There’s an almost sinister force at work in creating divisions.  That’s what Stephen Colbert was hinting at.  And for partnership in the sense of koinōnia to exist and to flourish, spiritual giftedness is needed.

Paul tells the Corinthian church “in every way you have been enriched in [Christ]…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (vv. 5, 7).  As a church, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.  It might not seem like it; we might look around and say, “Woe is us!  What can we do?”  Sometimes we might not even want to hear about that multitude of gifts, but the Spirit is here, waiting for us to ask.

Again, here’s a case in which Paul is giving a preview of his plan.  He talks about spiritual gifts in chapters 12 to 14.

The apostle begins this long passage by going to the doctor’s office.  He performs a physical examination of the body.  I mean the body of Christ and the gifts of each part which function for the benefit of all.  It’s what keep us healthy.  He concludes with what we might call the charismatic gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying.

By the way, our Book of Order says in a section called “Expressing Prayer” (W-5.4002), “One may pray in tongues as a personal and private discipline.”  So we at least acknowledge the personal and private part!

Those two sections bracket chapter 13, which speaks of the greatest gift, love.  He doesn’t mean something gooey or romantic or warm and fuzzy.  This isn’t the sole domain of wedding services!  Read through that chapter; he covers all of life.  All spiritual gifts converge in love.  It never ends; it has absolutely no limit.  We never grasp the entirety of love in this life.

2a

Paul doesn’t talk about spiritual gifts in a vacuum.  He links them to waiting for “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He speaks about being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 7-8).  He’s drawing on references in the Old Testament to the “day of the Lord,” which is both warning and blessing.

The prophet Amos chastises the people for their hypocrisy in worship.  They pay special attention in making sure the worship service is done properly, but they fail to use that diligence in seeking justice.  They love lies, but hate the truth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!” Amos says, “Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).  They have chosen darkness, and that’s what they’ll get.  I think that qualifies as a warning!

The book of Isaiah is another place where we see the day of the Lord.  “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” says the prophet, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (61:1-2).

In the midst of all that blessing, “the day of vengeance of our God” seems quite out of place.  Something to bear in mind is that God’s vengeance, God’s justice, is not the way we usually think of those words.  God’s vision is about restoration; our vision is about retribution.  Aside from that, the word for “vengeance,” נקם (naqam), can also mean “deliverance.”[2]  So there’s the blessing!

Getting back to Paul, he says spiritual gifts are to be exercised with a view toward the coming of the Lord, that is the Lord Jesus Christ.  That is the perspective the church has as its orientation.  Jesus is magnetic north on our compass.

Our scripture reading ends, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).  We are called into koinōnia with Christ.  As I said earlier, that word also means “partnership” or “communion.”  That’s a deep partnership, not a shallow one in which we never get past small talk.  What does it mean to have that deep partnership, true communion, with the Lord?

Well, look around.  Loving God also means loving our neighbor.  The way we treat each other, the way we treat all of creation—plants, animals, the earth itself—is how we treat the Lord.

If we use our giftedness to be partners, then we will respect each other.  We will honor each other.  In Romans 12, Paul says to “outdo one another in showing honor” (v. 10).  Now that’s setting a really high bar!  We are to compete with each other in showing love.

And revisiting Stephen Colbert’s comments, that means showing love, even when we strongly disagree.  In the book of Proverbs we read, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (27:17).  In other words, let’s get out of our bubbles.  Don’t simply listen to people who tell us what we want to hear.  We actually can learn from, and love, people who are different!

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The official holiday is tomorrow.  If there is someone who loved people who were different, people with whom he passionately disagreed, it would be hard to find a better example than King.  He demonstrated the giftedness of partnering.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he speaks to his critics who are concerned about “outsiders coming in.”[3]  He writes, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

3

Unfortunately, it is also true that King was more puzzled and disappointed by white moderates than outright segregationists.  Of those who would claim to be in fellowship with him, he said too many “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

We don’t have stained glass windows, so that can’t be us!

He later says, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church.  But be assured that my tears have been tears of love.  There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes, I love the church.  How could I do otherwise?…  But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.  If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.”

I think that’s always a danger.  And I certainly don’t exclude myself from this.  We can claim to be open, welcoming, affirming.  Admittedly, it’s easy to welcome those with whom we agree.  We can either explicitly or implicitly reject and be divisive.  But what pain we cause each other!  And what pain we cause our Lord.  When we reject and divide, we deny God’s faithfulness, and we reject our calling into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Still, God is faithful.  As we open ourselves to God and to the gifts that are in store, to our amazement we make discoveries.  What once seemed unlikely, or even impossible, now begins to happen.  We find that we are loved, and that enables us to extend love.  We find that we are forgiven, and that enables us to extend forgiveness.  We find that God actually likes us, and that enables us to……  Well, maybe I’m jumping the gun on saying that we can like everyone!

But we find ourselves making progress in our call to be partners in Christ.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcript-december-25-2016-colbert-correspondents-panel

[2] John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 179.

[3] www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html


make way for the weak

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Most of you have no doubt heard that prayer before.  It has been attributed to St. Francis.  There’s a lot of good stuff in it.  There is so much that is praiseworthy about it.  And none of it is easily reflected in our lives.  But there’s one thing in particular that I find challenging—and irritating.  It’s the part of the prayer which says “grant that I may not seek so much…to be understood as to understand.”

Misunderstood

I don’t know about you, but I hate being misunderstood.  It’s too easy to take things the wrong way, to take someone the wrong way.  Maybe that’s why emoticons (or emojis) have become popular online.  It might be difficult to distinguish between a comment being snarky or good-natured.  (Though, I think the overuse of emojis suggests a poor grasp of language!)

As for St. Francis, it seems clear he doesn’t believe that he has arrived.  He knows that he still prefers to be understood.  And that isn’t good for his spiritual growth.  To be honest, it isn’t good for simply living together in society.

This idea of understanding, instead of striving to be understood, is part of the background of our epistle reading.  St. Paul wants to emphasize the humility involved in that.  Learning to be humble means it becomes more difficult to throw our weight around.  As we’ll see, he uses our Lord Jesus Christ as the icon of humility and welcoming.

But first, here are some brief comments about Paul’s letter to the Roman church.  It is the longest, most theologically packed, and influential of his works.  Some people can’t praise it enough.  Its main theme is justification by faith.  In the letter, Paul covers a wide variety of topics.  Among other things, he talks about Abraham as a model of being justified by faith and not by law.  He addresses life in the Spirit and the role of Israel.

When we get to chapter 12, there is a big turn in direction.  This is where he starts applying what he’s already said to specific ways of living.  The apostle is talking about acting on what we believe, or at least, what we say we believe.

Again, among many other things, Paul says to not take revenge.  (Even though it’s a dish best served cold!)  He tells the Christians to be good citizens of the empire, and that includes paying your taxes!  He warns them against squabbling with each other over matters that divide them into factions—matters which at the end of the day, aren’t exactly of earth shattering importance.

Today’s scripture is part of that last section, which begins with chapter 14.  He kicks things off by talking about the “strong” and the “weak.”  That goes back to what I said about throwing our weight around.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” the apostle says, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1).  Why not?  Doesn’t he know how much fun it is making other people look bad?

Strong and weak

And there were all kinds of ways they were doing this.  For example, there were arguments about food.  Actually, those arguments never seem to end.  I like what he says.  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (v. 2).  My guess is that Paul heard other people calling those vegetarians “weak.”  I don’t imagine he had a beef with them.

(I should add:  those folks’ abstaining from meat wasn’t necessarily for reasons of health or helping the environment, as they tend to be today, but for reasons of ritual purity.)

The point is, they were arguing over what they thought is vital to the faith.  At least, that’s the presenting issue.  There’s much more going on below the surface.

The so-called “strong” have knowledge, and they might dismiss the concerns of the “weak” as irrelevant.  The so-called “weak” want to defend the faith, and they might condemn the self-appointed “strong” as too cavalier, too casual.

As Paul continues through chapter 14 and then into today’s reading in 15, he yearns for them to get some perspective.  Don’t cause each other to stumble.

Our text begins, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  (By the way, isn’t it convenient that Paul counts himself among the strong?)  Another version puts it this way: “Those of us who are strong must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (Revised English Bible).  The strong must accept as their own burden the tender scruples of the weak.[1]  Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

When I was a kid, my mom told me to not set things out where they could be a temptation to others.  Something really blatant would be, “Don’t show up at an AA meeting, and plop a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table.”  In a similar way, if the cops do something like that to get you arrested, it’s called entrapment.

We are such fragile creatures.  In the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we ask that we won’t be led into temptation?  St. James says in his letter, “all of us make many mistakes” (3:2).

I like a prayer by St. Philip Neri, who lived in 16th century Italy.  He was known for being both humble and for having an offbeat sense of humor.  This prayer seems to sum up his approach to life: “Lord, beware of this Philip or he will betray you!  Lay your hand upon my head, for without you there is not a sin I may not commit this day.”

Sometimes I insert my name into it.  Lord, beware of this James or he will betray you!

Taking all of that into account, Paul presents Jesus as the model of humility and welcoming I mentioned earlier.  He tells them to emulate Christ, who didn’t put himself first.  He is the example of understanding, rather than insisting on being understood.  He “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (v. 3).  He accepts insults; he accepts weakness.  In a way, he gives us permission to be weak.  He becomes weakness.

During Advent, we prepare the way; we make way for the weak.  The voluntarily weak one is the one of understanding and welcome.

But we aren’t to be left floundering in weakness.  This passage is shot through with hope.  Verse 4 says by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we discover hope.  They aren’t dusty, stale documents of times gone by.  They are brimming with life.

In the book of Isaiah, the scriptures promise that “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is, David (and the son of David).  One day, the Gentiles will find in him hope (v. 12).

And of course, our passage ends with the awesome blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13).  These aren’t empty words.  They provide the sure basis of the hope that doesn’t disappoint.  Though at times, to be honest, that hope might feel like it’s a million miles away.

Our scripture passage hinges on verse 7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Welcome one another.  Practice hospitality.  That can be just as tough as the petitions in the prayer of St. Francis.  Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.  And do it, not for your glory, not for our glory, but for the glory of God.

Sometimes I see on church signs, “All are welcome.”  Really?  Do they sincerely mean that?  All are welcome, without any preconditions?  If so, that’s great.

Some people say that Paul’s appeal to welcome one another applies to welcoming both the strong and the weak.  Others say it’s about both Jews and Gentiles.  Maybe it’s about both meat-eaters and vegetarians!  Whatever the case, it seems to be a pretty expansive, wide open statement.

image from 2.bp.blogspot.com

This business of welcoming one another also has certain ramifications, certain implications, for congregations in transition.

Banu and I have mentioned these on several occasions, so let me review the developmental tasks for interim time.  Five are usually cited.  They are (1) Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, (2) Discovering a New Identity, (3) Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, (4) Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and (5) Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.

Right now, I want to look at number 3, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders.  This is where Paul’s appeal to welcome one another is especially relevant.

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  It’s a strange committee, I have to say.  It’s like an ugly duckling.  It is mandated by our Book of Order (G-3.0103).  And there are a good number of presbyteries which list it, but in name only.  They don’t function; there are few, if any, people who staff them.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  A Committee on Representation can feel like a quota system.  We have to check off boxes in various categories.  What can get lost is the call to welcome one another, to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call to welcome all voices.

In congregations, leadership changes and empowering new leaders might be easier said than done.  We might feel like we’ve tried that, to no avail, or we might feel like we’re filling spots with warm bodies, so to speak.  In the nominating process, creative approaches are often called for.  Too often, we neglect a valuable resource, or at least, we don’t take it seriously enough.  We neglect bringing the matter before the spirit of creation, the Holy Spirit.  Where we don’t see a way, the Spirit of God does.

Sometimes those creative approaches might mean letting a position remain vacant.  Sometimes certain ministries or activities fade away, due to lack of interest.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, it’s not about us.  It really isn’t “our” ministry.  It is the Lord’s ministry through us.

It can be difficult to commit to empowering new leaders.  It is important to be open to the fresh wind of the Spirit.  The wind blows where it chooses.  We use our gifts and abilities, but the true empowerment doesn’t come from us.  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Our task is to create the space where the glory is not ours, but God’s.

So as we move deeper into the season of Advent, let us be mindful of our call to welcome one another, in both our strengths and weaknesses.  Let us dare to seek to understand, rather than to insist on being understood.

[1] “accept as their own burden”: βασταζω (bastazō), “bear,” “carry”

[The bottom image is from the movie Antwone Fisher, starring Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. It’s from the powerful scene near the end, when Antwone finds his extended family. They are gathered for a banquet when the matriarch calls him over. She places her aged hands on his face and says, “Welcome.”]