are you a public disciple of jesus?

This morning I asked my congregation:  When asked, "who are you?" why do most of us proceed to answer with something about our work? "I'm a teacher... a doctor... a therapist... a cook, truck driver, mom or dad" rather than say, "I am a disciple of Jesus?"  This was followed, of course, by an awkward pause as often happens in liberal/modest Protestant congregations when asked to self-identify as a person of faith. But it is a question worth some discomfort - so I will probably start next Sunday's conversation with it, too.

My point was to first help us feel our true discomfort about making our Christian faith the core of our identity; and, then second, wrestle with what to do about it. If our intimacy with God and our trust in the way of Jesus is essential to us, than why are so many of us antsy and awkward in claiming the way of Jesus in public? I then continued with the following worship notes...

We have, in my analysis, been seduced by the powers of this world – the same powers and temptations that challenged Jesus in today’s gospel – addicted to the dominate story of our culture and economy rather than informed and empowered by the alternative wisdom of God in Scripture. Brother Walter Brueggemann, whom I reference often as the wisest Old Testament scholar in our tradition, once noted: The crisis in the US church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; and has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our baptism and settling for a common generic American identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence and part affluence. And much of the crass reality of our day reflects this sad truth.

This Lent I would like us to learn how to do applied theology - using the words of Scripture and tradition in a practical way - to help us shape our lives as disciples. And there are three reasons way:

First, theology – literally the study of God talk as revealed in Scripture from the Greek words, theo + logos (God words) – both shapes how we hear the stories of the Bible and what we choose to do with them. True theology is never abstract; it is always ethical and grounded in how we treat one another and the fullness of God’s creation. Former pastor and professor, Barbara Brown Taylor, cuts to the chase about why this is essential when she notes: Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware, therefore, those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad decision. And when chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the Sherriff’s office, watch out. Someone is about to have no other Lord or King than Caesar. Theology as ethics that take the flesh and blood of our neighbors seriously gives us a lens through which to understand religion and shape our own behavior.

+ Second, unlike other spiritual traditions, ours celebrates stories –

our own and those in Scripture – as testimonies of faith rather than tests of what is right and wrong. Sadly, this wonderful distinction is often fuzzy for contemporary people who have sometimes reduced it to: oh, in the Congregational or United Church of Christ, you can believe whatever you want to because we do not follow the historic creeds. Oh Lord, save us all! I actually heard that said to a new member class in my early days of leadership back in Cleveland: you can believe whatever you want! WRONG! Thanks for playing, but that is so troubling and mistaken that it must be challenged. Our radical freedom and expression of faith is creative, but it is rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And while we can appreciate science and the truth found in other religions, OUR charism – our gift to the world – is learning how to name God’s still speaking blessing from within our own story. We, in other words, have been called to become personal theologians within the Christian tradition.

And third, most of the people who are coming into our faith tradition have roots in other faith experiences or none at all. You have heard me say that most of the people who are affiliated with the United Church of Christ in the 21st century come from formerly Roman Catholic backgrounds. And once we leave the cultural bubble of New England, we discover that there are mega-churches in the United Church that were formerly Black Baptist – or Charismatic LGBTQ Christians – or even liberation theology centers like President Obama’s former home church in Chicago. There are so many other ways of being the church than what we know in New England that we have come to summarize the challenge like this: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

These three reasons – the ethical value of theology, the centrality of God’s love within our own stories of faith and the unique ways we in the United Church listen and claim God’s grace and justice for our time within a sea of religious diversity – are why I felt called to focus our Lenten journey on the Statement of Faith. Bonhoeffer put it clearly when he wrote that theology is all about listening to and following Jesus. And that is what Lent urges, too:

+ Last week on the Feast of the Transfiguration the gospel closed with the disciples hearing a voice from beyond that said: This is my Beloved… listen to him.

+ The first gospel story in Lent gives us three temptations faced by Jesus during his prayer and fasting in the wilderness: In the first, the devil invites Jesus to prove his intimacy with God through a display of power; that is, by establishing his authority and value through his own abilities. In the second, the temptation is to test God's fidelity: is God worthy of trust? And in the third -- more an out-and-out bribe than temptation -- Jesus is promised all the power and glory the earth can offer if he will give his allegiance and devotion to the Tempter. In each case, Jesus rejects the temptation and lodges his identity, future, and fortunes on God's character and trustworthiness.

And if you know the story – and were paying attention – you can’t help but notice that Jesus replied to the one who tries to seduce him with ego, wealth and political power by doing theology: to each of Satan’s challenges, Jesus quotes Scripture. But not as a game, but as a call to ethical living: God is my creator and the source of what I know love means in the real world. And just as Jesus was able to affirm this after his time of fasting, prayer and purification in the wilderness, Lent gives us a chance to do so, too. That’s the Lenten tradition, right: Prayer, fasting and sharing our resources with those in need? So before I ask you to consider the wisdom offered to us for Lent in the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ, let me pause for any questions and concerns. Are you with me about why I sense this could be useful for us as Lent begins?

Today we’ll consider some of the many layers of insight contained with the

opening verses of the Statement of Faith, but before we even look at the text, let me ask you two crucial questions:  1) We call this a statement of faith rather than a creed: what’s the difference?  2) We also understand faith to be the fusion of thought and action rather than mere intellectual assent: it is the difference between trust and belief – so how to you grasp that distinction?

The first stanza, if you will, speaks of God – the Triune God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit in traditional language – Eternal Creator, Inspiration for Jesus and essence of spiritual power and truth in more contemporary terms – each unique but always equal at the same time. Now let me say something quickly about the Christian commit-ment to God as Holy Trinity because many have noted that the blessings of Trinity have largely been forgotten by contemporary Christianity. And here’s the key: God lives in community. 

+ Not a privatized, individualized way of existence, but living in relationship – a relationship of creativity and love – which has profound implications for you and me. For if we have been created in the image of God, then we, too are to live beyond selfishness into relationships of meaning and compassion.

+ This is perhaps one of the most truly counter-cultural insights of the Christian tradition. Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this: Our starting place with God as Holy Trinity is always original goodness, not original sin. This makes our ending place—and everything in between—a quest for an inherent capacity for goodness, truth, and beauty.” Human strength has traditionally been defined in asserting boundaries. God, it seems, is in the business of dissolving boundaries into the paradox of community and relationship.

There’s more to say about the Holy Trinity, but let’s look specifically at the opening of the Statement of Faith. If you want to follow along with me, the words are printed in your worship bulletin.

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, 
God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God,
and to your deeds we testify: You call the worlds into being, 
create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death. 
You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets and apostles.

And here’s what I want to highlight:

+ First, our tradition affirms that we trust that God IS God because of God’s deeds – that is, our knowledge of God is not only observable and verifiable, it is also experiential: the creation of life, forming us in the image of the holy and giving us free will to advance the ways of life or death.

+ Second, the urge and goal of God is to free us from aimlessness and sin by love, grace and relationship.

And third, all of creation – people, nations and the whole cosmos – experience God’s judgment as articulated through prophets and apostles.

Is that clear? Three broad insights about God and why they matter: First, God’s reality and truth are both observable and experiential. What does that say to you? Where do you observe the essence of God? How have you experienced God’s presence?

Second, life has a purpose established by God since before time – existence is not random – but grounded in creative love. Not only do we live into our deepest origins by loving relationships, but we were created to do so. What’s more, our lives only have their richest potential when we express love, creativity and compassion in flesh and blood relationships. What does that say to you?

And third, our choices have consequences. That’s what the judgment is all about as expressed by Israel’s prophets and the early Christian apostles: if we live as good neighbors, there is shalom. If we live as bullies from a core of selfishness, we have chaos, poverty and injustice. How does Walter Brueggemann put it? The prophetic tasks of the church as informed by the Old Testament are: to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion – or fake news – to help one another grieve in a society that practices denial – especially about loving relationships – and express hope in a society that is addicted to despair.

So what are you thinking and feeling about what I’ve shared with you so far? Questions? Rebuttal? Solidarity? Concern? I don’t know who it was that said a preacher is not lifting up Christ’s gospel on Sunday if at least one person doesn’t want to stand up and shout… BS! This is counter-cultural stuff, so what’s going on for you?

Temptation and the lure of leaving God’s way for a self-centered life has been a constant.Whether it is ancient Israel’s wisdom tale of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the chaos and pain that ensues, or, the sneaky bait dangled before us like Jesus confronting the seductive decoys of abundant wealth, political power or idolatry: God sets before us the ways of life and death. There are consequences to living into God’s harmony and judgments when we choose aggressive individualism. Such is the first insight that our tradition celebrates on this first Sunday in Lent. Take a moment to sit with this in quiet and then we’ll pray this together…

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom...


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