Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Embracing the New Covenant in Community

There is a story told by old Clarence Jordan, founder of the Koinonia Farms Christian community in Americus, GA and birthplace of Habitat for Humanity, about the time he was invited to preach at a new, large, suburban Atlanta congregation. The proud pastor took Jordan on a tour pointing out the majestic, air-conditioned state-of-the art Sanctuary, the costly meditation fountain and reflecting pool, the expensive sound system with its resources for the hearing impaired and all the rest. As the tour ended, Jordan’s host took him outside and pointed to a stunning 20 foot stainless steel cross atop the church saying: “Isn’t that beautiful? Cost us over $20,000.” To which Jordan replied, “You know there used to be a time when a Christian could get one of those for free.”

My friends, it is easy for a local church or its minister to get out of focus: If you’ve been following the political campaigns this week you’ll have seen a pastor get out of focus and let his ego and tongue get the best of him at the National Press Corp in Washington, D.C. on Monday. If you’ve paid attention to the local news you’ll also know that our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers must close six of their local churches because there are neither the priests nor the money to keep them going.

And in her very insightful book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass chronicles what has happened throughout the United States to churches very much like our own stating that over time many forgot that the church is not a place where the congregation congregates and the minister ministers. No, the church is the place where both beams of the Cross are put into practice: the vertical connecting the individual with God in a quest for grace and inner strength; and the horizontal uniting each person with the other in a community we call the Body of Christ.

Bass writes that over time congregations like our own have often forgotten the cross so that “by the middle of the twentieth century,” she writes, “we forgot how to be both a gathering of the saints and a hospital for sinners. Instead… we became a kind of Christian version of the Rotary Club, understanding the church as a religious place for social acceptability and business connections.” She continues: In a very real way, (we) retained the ideal of comprehensiveness while jettisoning the idea that people are spiritually sick and need healing. Everyone was welcome in our churches, of course, but there were no spiritual demands other than to conform to some sort of generalized Protestant morality. As a result, many congregations forgot the practices that originally formed their traditions, making participation in these churches optional at best and irrelevant at worst.

So much so, she concludes, that “by the time I was born in 1959, church was an extension of post-war middle class aspirations, run by bureau-cracies in the faith business.” Ouch! Gone was the ideal of the church as a counter cultural community grounded in the Cross – both a hospital for sinners and a community for saints – all striving together to experience and express the goodness of God’s love in our flesh.

So… we have some work to do, Christian friends – and part of that work requires that we reclaim the horizontal connection given to us in Christ’s cross. I’ve told you before that one of the issues facing us has to do with folk believing that Sunday morning worship is all about “me and God” “I want quiet time for meditation,” some say while others tell me. “Church should be a time for me to get right with God – a time of quiet, gentle beauty, heavenly music and helpful, gentle prayers.” Listen: I believe in meditation and quiet time, I love beauty and sweet, sacred music and I affirm the importance of authentic personal prayer. But church – ecclesia – is about the assembly – the community – the body of Christ made flesh among us.

Church isn’t about me and Jesus – or better said – it is about me and Jesus only now Jesus looks like you and you and you and all of us all together. Remember how the Bible put it? The Word of God – the Idea and Ideal of God – became flesh and blood in Christ Jesus and moved into our neighborhood… John the Baptist pointed him out saying, “This is the One I told you about…!” And now we all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. We got the basics from Moses and then God shared this exuberant giving and receiving – this endless knowing and under-standing in community – through Jesus the Messiah. (The Message, John 1)

Did you hear that? Did you grasp its truth – that God’s way for us who follow Jesus Christ is grounded in flesh and blood – the Word made flesh? That’s why we’ve changed the way we do communion, you know? It is not some preacher ego trip about preferences; it’s about helping us reclaim the horizontal connection of the Cross at the heart of our life together.

The old “me and Jesus” way of being the church is so antiseptic and privatized that it is killing congregations all across America. But what is reviving and renewing churches just like ours is living into the time tested practices of making God’s word flesh among us. That’s why I’ve asked you to come up to the table in clusters – or “clumps” as some have said – where you have to look at one another in the eye and serve one another real bread and wine. It has to do with actually seeing that you are a part of the body of Christ – not a solitary pilgrim waiting upon the Lord – but a real living, breathing, hurting, beautiful, sinful and saintly member of the Body of Christ. And that wigs some people out: it doesn’t look pretty – or ordered – and God knows it doesn’t give us time to be quiet and alone in the presence of Jesus.

But such is the challenge that has always confronted the company of the committed: to live our faith in such a way that it becomes flesh and blood – incarnational as the theologians like to say – always makes some people uncomfortable because it is messy – human – and leads to the Cross. What does Jesus say to the people who stand before him – the wounded, the lonely, the sinners, the arrogant, the forgotten, the abused, the discarded and oppressed – what does he tell them?

Go sit by yourself in the beauty of our Sanctuary and listen to some pretty music? Go get yourself right with God in private? No – if you have your Bibles you can turn to the key passage in Matthew 11: 28 – and I will read it to you out loud. He says: Come to me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Get away with me and you will recover your life. I will show you how to take a real rest if you walk with me and work with me and watch how I do it. You will learn the unforced rhythms of grace because I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you will learn to live freely and lightly.

Can I get an “Amen” from the church? To follow the way of Jesus is to be connected – really connected – with one another so that we bear one another’s burdens and celebrate one another’s joys. In fact, being connected in our tradition is how we see God and meet God and find our way into healing and wholeness. Let’s do some Bible study: John’s gospel begins with that great poem about incarnational living: in the beginning.

What do those words remind you of in scripture? Genesis, right? That’s not an accident, beloved, John seeks to evoke the heart of the Old Testament so that we learn something important about living the Jesus life. First, he wants us to know that since before there was time, the very idea of Christ was with God and was in God.

Second, John wants us to understand that the Word – which is a poetic way of talking about the way God communicates most clearly with humanity – is always creative and compassionate. You see, in tradition, the word always refers to God’s creation of life. Psalm 33 tells us: God’s Word is solid to the core; everything God makes is sound inside and out. God loves it when everything fits, when his world is in plumb-line true because the earth is drenched in God’s affectionate satisfaction. Remember that the skies were made by God’s command; he breathed the word and the stars popped out. He scooped the Sea into his jug and put the Ocean into his keg.

The word has to do with the creation of life, or, it speaks to us of the way God communicates with humanity through the holy prophets. Jeremiah 1 tells us: The word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. Same is true for all the prophets – take Ezekiel 1: the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar the hand of the Lord was on him here. Are you still with me?

Well, the point John is trying to make is that there came a time when this creative and prophetic word of the Lord became… flesh – literally John tells us that the essence of God took up residence among us and pitched his tent right next to ours – in order to bring light – that is enlightenment and hope – into the darkness. And light in our Jewish roots is always a messianic event. Isaiah 9:2 – The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and those who have lived in a land of deep darkness on them a light has shined… for the Lord our God will increase their joy. Isaiah 60: 1-3: Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth… but the Lord will arise upon you… and nations shall come to your light.

Now all of this is background – important to grasp but prelude – because what John says next is crucial. John observes that one expression of God’s light came into the world through Moses; this is a reference to the Exodus, the 10 Commandments and the totality of the Law and the Prophets in Judaism – in Israel the light of the world came to the people through Torah. But he doesn’t stop here and I ask you to pay careful attention:

John goes on to say that the way of Judaism is one loving and powerful expression of God’s light, but it is not the only way for grace and inner truth – charis – have come to us through Jesus. That is, there is another way light has entered creation – Jesus – who has not abrogated the Old Covenant nor replaced it – he has offered another way. Another way first prophesied by Jeremiah back in the 7th century BCE. And this expression of God’s light – this spirituality grounded not in Torah but in grace and inner truth offers the world a New Covenant. Jeremiah tells us that:

The time is coming when I, the Lord your God, will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won't be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant even though I did my part… no this is a brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them—write Torah on their hearts – so that I will their God and they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They'll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. And I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I'll forget they ever sinned!

The loving word of God’s light, Jeremiah says, will be carved and cut into the hearts of those who follow this New Covenant – his words remind us of the words of the First Covenant carved into the stone on Mt. Sinai and given to Moses – and let’s be honest: our hearts are no less hard than those old stone tablets. Are you still with me? Ok, because what the prophet Jeremiah saw in a mystical vision came to pass when God’s word became flesh and blood in Jesus.

And we who walk in this covenant – a covenant grounded in the forgiveness and grace made flesh in Jesus Christ – have been called to stay in focus through building up our community. The Body of Christ, you see, our horizontal connection in the Cross is how Jesus taught us mature in the way of his compassion, creativity and commitment. Do you recall what Jesus told those who gathered around the Passover table with him? The gospel of Matthew puts it this way: As they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to his friends saying: “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then he took a cup and after he had given thanks to the Lord he shared it with his friends saying: “Drink this all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many… for the forgiveness of sins.”

There are different ways to walk in the light, beloved; there are different paths into God’s compassion and creativity. Our spiritual cousins in Judaism celebrate one – Torah – and we give thanks to God for how it brings blessing and healing to creation. At the same time, let us be clear that we, too, have a path to walk – making the word of forgiveness and grace flesh within and among us – and it can’t happen unless the horizontal connections between us in the Cross are strong.

Let’s sing together our affirmation of the New Covenant made flesh in Jesus:

Be known to us in breaking bread, but do not then depart;
Savior, abide with us and spread thy table in our heart.
There sup with us in love divine; they body and thy blood,
That living bread, that heavenly wine be our immortal food

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Another one bites the dust...

Remember the old song by Queen?

Well, it seems that the good Reverend didn't know when to quit: he was spot-on with Moyers, he was powerful and prophetic at the NAACP, but I guess three times is a charm for when he went before the National Press Club on Monday, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright became a"wackadoodle"caricature of himself and lost all credibility with the dominant culture. So much so that Senator Obama had no choice but to cut his old friend and mentor loose.

To be sure, Jeremiah will still have street cred back in Chicago; Minister Farrakhan does in the "hood" even when his wacky ideas get the best of him because he continues to do good for those at the bottom of the barrel. And because he continues to see conspiracies around every corner, he will sell books and gather a following amongst those who are in despair.

What's more, the Rev. Dr. Wright will still be a great and prophetic preacher - always has been and always will be - but he is now also a total political liability so Obama had to do what he had to do. Like Senator McCain and the whole Fundamentalist loonie bin endorsements or Senator Clinton pandering to middle class gasoline anxieties, Senator Obama had to do what needs to be done to win. If you enter the game, you need to play for keeps. I remember Reinhold Niebuhr writing about the children of light and the children of darkness and needing to learn how to be wise as serpents. So, I don't blame the politicians 'cuz they are just doing what politicians do.

But I do blame Jeremiah Wright who seems to have forgotten what the New Testament book of James says so clearly: If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (1:26)

Chapter Three continues: Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our God and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt[a] water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Two Kinds of Wisdom Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

I stand by what I have written before because I have learned a great deal from the Reverend Dr. Wright. But like Obama, I am angry and saddened that this wise, hip and savvy man let his ego and tongue get the best of him - and it tarnished a decent soul in the process. Hang tough, Barack, it may be Friday, but Sunday is coming!

Monday, April 28, 2008

And so it continues...

As the controversy and angst continues in the wake of Brother Obama's campaign and the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright's comments (see the media furor over Jeremiah's comments over this weekend at the NAACP and National Press Corps) I thought back to the origin of this blog: BB King and U2's song, "When Love Comes to Town." This song was written for a Black man by 4 White Irish boys from Dublin - but it is grounded in respect and tenderness - and when both artists perform it separately, it sounds very different. But when they do it TOGETHER... man, it is a blessing! It made me think of what Dr. King said about speaking out - and living out - for the truth.

It also hit me that nothing communicates like seeing the difference in these songs:

Check it out: Black and White together:

White Boys Alone:

B.B. King on his own:

To be sure, each version has a charsim of its own.. but for my money it works best when U2 and B.B. King do it TOGETHER.

No wonder the scripture tell us that in Christ we are neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free... and dare I add Gay nor Straight, Black nor White, Male or Female, Republican nor Democrat... we are children of God. So, let the pundits piss and moan - let them try to pull us apart - just know this moment calls us to STAND TOGETHER. So whether the media - or even the candidates - get it: we shall overcome! From the time I was a small child until today I have always found solace, hope and succor in this song... it is my prayer for this moment in time.

So take a long, loving listen to this blast from the past and then get ready for the long walk - because now that we have opened the door on talking about the REAL differences between the dominant culture and the forgotten American people of color... it is going to be a hell of a ride and we need to stand together!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

God can make a way where there is no way

Last night I watched an old media friend, Bill Moyers, talk deeply, quietly and honestly (what a blessed change of pace) with another old spiritual friend, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Like many I have felt wounded by the way Dr. Wright has been villified of late. (Go to the PBS interview by clicking on this site:
You see, I have known the Reverend Wright since before my ordination 26 years ago - not well, to be sure - but when I was a young pastor in the Michigan Conference of the United Church, Jeremiah came and shared his story, wisdom and reflections with a number of urban clergy over a two day retreat. When I was doing urban ministry in Cleveland, Ohio I regularly heard updates about Jeremiah's remarkable ministry in Chicago, I heard him preach the closing sermon of our General Synod in 1985; and later, after I had become a strong ally with the African American clergy and community through my work as the Vice President of the Cleveland Board of Education, I studied with him (and other Black clergy) in a midweek Bible study in which I was the only white clergy invited. What's more, I have met and worked with young ministers raised up and trained in Dr. Wright's church - Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago - and know them to be clergy of the highest integrity as well as the most able to build strong, faithful and transformative congregations in the African American community.

So, to watch how both the Clinton/McCain campaigns have cherry picked sound bites designed to malign Dr. Wright in the hopes of discrediting Senator Obama, and, to listen to the media's constant misinterpretation of both African American preaching as well as the real relationship between a pastor and her/his congregation has been heartbreaking. It doesn't matter if it is Fox Noise or Chris Matthews: they get this whole thing SOOO wrong that I am often filled with tears.

But Dr. Wright said something last night during the Moyers interview that put this whole ugly episode into the perspective of true faith. He briefly alluded to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis (see Genesis 37-50 for the details) noting that "God can work evil into good." That is, sometimes those things that look and feel evil and hurtful to us - and are evil and hurtful in the moment - can also be used by God (and sometimes may even come from God) to work out a greater good. Dr. Wright pointed to Barack Obama's beautiful speech on race relations as one of the good things that have come out of his recent vilification. A deeper national conversation on our truest hopes and dreams about America, racial diversity and compassion is yet another blessing to come from this hatred.

This brings to mind a few other insights from scripture: First, is the word Jesus gave to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 11-12. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets you were before you." We used to be told in seminary that the job of the preacher is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Brother Jeremiah has simply been doing the Lord's work when he points out what hatred brings to flower - and he is not speaking hatred about America or Israel or any other nation. He is simply saying: if you act with violence against the blessings of life, you will often reap what you sow. So if we who love the Lord aren't getting into hot water when it comes to race and national priorities and all the rest... could it be that we aren't doing our job?

I came to faith in the summer of 1968: the year that Dr. King was assasinated, the year that Bobby Kennedy was gunned down, the year my high school youth group from Darien, CT. spent the summer learning how the church was changing the world - including spending time in Washington, DC just after the riots. It was the integrity and commitment of the Black church in partnership with White allies that touched my heart. It was critical reflection on the ministry of Dr. King - and those who influenced him - that led me to open my heart to God in Christ. And it was the deep and passionate preaching of African American church leaders that gave me a sense of hope for what America could become if we were open to the Spirit of the Lord. This inspiration took me into work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union, organizing Black woodcutters in rural Mississippi, serving two urban congregations (Saginaw, MI and Cleveland, OH), working as part of in inter-racial team to transform the Cleveland Public Schools (I was the Vice President of the Board of Education under the leadership of Larry Lumpkin), the founding of an inter-racial network in Cleveland to fight for quality education (WE-CAN) and 10 years of work in Tucson, AZ supporting and expanding the civil rights of the GLBT community. It is clear to me that part of the calling into ministry is exactly as Jeremiah Wright put it -- and Jesus was clear that when you follow in the footsteps of the prophets there will be costs.

Second, there are the words of Rabbi Paul in his summary of the mysterious Joseph stories in Romans 8: Those who enter into Christ's being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. And the moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. God knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

So…with God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God's chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ's love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Until the PBS interview, it had never hit me how Rabbi Paul is retelling the heart of the Joseph story for those without an Old Testament background. He said much the same thing in Romans 5: We can boast in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. If the Black church can teach those in the majority anything, it has something to do with how God can make a way where there is no way - so STOP your whining and pick up the Cross and follow, for God's sake!

And third, is something John Dominic Crossan said about the Lord's Prayer (which I heard Marcus Borg paraphrase.) When Jesus was asked to teach his disciples how to pray - and gave them the Lord's Prayer - he was telling them two essential truths: 1) They are to imagine what creation would look like if God were the king and Caesar (or the President or whomever) were not; how would that make our lives different? 2) To say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is an invitation to confront injustice and intolerance on earth because earth is where the problems exist. Bigotry, segregation, sexism and poverty don't exist in heaven, in other words, they are truth on earth - so to pray in Christ's spirit is also to work against everything that separates us from love.

As a pastor who has served the local church for over 26 years - and as a white man of faith who has been an active part of the church for over 50 years - I know what happens when you preach and pray like Jesus: some people get excited and motivated, some stay asleep and others are offended. Sometimes those who are offended take you seriously enough to talk to you about it (most of the time they don't) and when this happens, something truly unique occurs: we learn how to be different - even disagreeing vigorously - without becoming disagreeable. We learn to practice listening - and patience - we learn to walk a mile in an other's shoes before judging - and we agree to disagree. Believe me, just because I say something on Sunday does not mean my congregation is going to do it! Or accept it! Or even want what I have to say!

As my friend, the president of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, likes to say: We can honor the value of different life experiences and cultivate an openness to others because we desire to see the face of Christ in everyone. Further, our unity is not dependent upon uniform agreement, but in our shared commitment to Jesus Christ. One of our key understandings is: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity. Ours is a risk-taking church because ours is a risk-taking God. In our tradition there is complete freedom of speech in the pulpit, but that also applies to the pews! You see, this is a dialogue - a dynamic conversation over time - that ebbs and flows and is more paradoxical than linear. It is church - the body of Christ learning how to be salt and light for the world - as John 3: 17 says: for God so loved the world... that Christ came to save (heal/repair) the world - not condemn it.

This is a sacred moment in American culture - a time when we could take another step forward towards reconciliation and understanding - if we can tune out the distractions of media manipulation, hatred and half truths. I have been blessed by my interaction with Jeremiah Wright. I have been strengthened and encouraged in my walk of faith by the people of color who have taken a risk on befriending a white boy of privilege. And I pray that I might be a faithful ally in the struggle for justice and peace. It is a complicated walk to love both God and country - a challenge I hold dear to my heart - and sometimes mistakes are made in loving both. But we must never confuse our beloved America for the Lord, for that is what the Scriptures call idolatry and those who worship false idols have hell to pay.

One of my tradition's greatest scholars, Walter Breuggeman, likes to remind us that whenever God's people find themselves at a moral or ethical crossroads, the way to find the heart of the Lord is to go to the sacred texts and stories that have been pushed to the periphery. The insights and experiences of those on the fringes will help us hear both the cry of the poor as well as discern what must be done to welcome and embrace the outcast. Jesus was explicit - and in so many ways the Black church has heard the Lord better than most - when he said: you will see me... in the hungry whom you fed, the thirst with whom you shared drink, the stranger you welcomed, the naked you clothed, the sick you comforted and the imprisoned you visited. (Mt. 25: 31-36)

I leave you with this clip, not from the Rev. Wright, but from Brother Bruce who took the old Civil Rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome," and made it a love song, a prayer and a lament during the Seeger Sessions tour that looks towards all God holds dear for America. It is my prayer, too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Making the Bible Our Own

One of the unexpected joys of being a pastor often comes to me when people get to tell me their favorite Bible story. It is a joy and wonder to behold and a riot to hear how children and adults so often hear a reading from the Scriptures only to repeat it… with a twist. Take, for example, the little guys who came across a dead robin on the ground out in front of their house. Feeling that a proper burial should be performed, they secured a small box and some cotton batting, dug a hole in the back yard and made ready to dispose of the deceased. The minister's 5-year-old son was chosen to say the prayer. So with great dignity, he intoned, "Glory be to the Father...and unto the Son...and into the hole he goes."

Or how about these exquisitely fractured tales shared by a small group of Roman Catholic school children with a visitor when asked to share their favorite Bible stories: One little girl said, “Lot's wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night.” A little boy said: “The seventh commandment is that thou shall never admit to adultery.” Another announced that Jesus was born because Mary had an immaculate contraption. And still another said that the people who followed the Lord were known as the 12 decibels and the epistles were their wives. But my current favorite was the little boy who announced to the visitor that the “Holy Bible tells us that the Jews were a proud and spiritual people throughout history but wherever they went they had trouble with the unsympathetic Genitals.”

Today, in what is part two of a series of messages about the Signs of Discipleship for This Generation, I am going to ask you how it is we might make the Bible our own so that its wisdom can guide us and its spiritual truths shape our living? You see, a lot of contemporary people talk about getting back to basics – reclaiming the guiding truths that have helped others grow strong in faith and integrity – and then act like discipleship is a pill to be swallowed – something easy and accomplished without effort – only to wonder why nothing changes. Writing in a recent Christian Century magazine, Paula Huston, put it like this as she talks about why it took her so long to start practicing the commitments of discipleship:
We live in a society that is no longer capable of giving (the marks of discipleship) a home. Western culture has been deeply affected by the 19th-century Romantic belief that we are born naturally good and are ruined by society-inflicted moralizing. Freud helped convince us that training up a child in the way he should go means raising repressed, conventional automatons instead of vibrant, creative individuals. And the social revolution of the 1960s, with its focus on eliminating moral hang-ups in service of self-expression, increased our aversion to the notion of moral exemplars. Liberation certainly has had its benefits. The danger of moral scrupulosity has been pretty much eradicated. But we have also been walled off from the great adventure that was once Christianity – that deep struggle that comes with trying to become more and more like Christ who saved us. This is a struggle that young people are almost desperately longing to enter whether or not they can put a name to their urge to be better. (Huston, CC, April 8 2008 p. 35)

So what I would like to try to do this morning is broadly sketch a way of claiming the wisdom of the Bible for this generation – think together about how we can both learn and live into God’s grace as expressed in Scripture – so that creativity, compassion and commitment grows within and among us, ok? And one of the ways I think we can do this is to borrow the words “faith, hope and love” from St. Paul and allow them to become a living foundation upon which we might construct our understanding of the Bible.

You see, we live in a hyper-texted era where most people just don’t have the time to become serious scholars of the Word; and it doesn’t matter whether you are a working mom or a retired grandpa, a teacher, a business exec or a student working nights: at the end of most hard, earned days it is enough to find a few quiet minutes to pray for our loved ones and the world. In this generation of high speed Internet, 24/7 cable news and the demands of a shaky economy it is simply not likely that real people will take time for Bible study in their homes on a regular basis.

“Our calendars,” writes Henri Nouwen, “are filled with appointments, our days and weeks are filled with engagements and our years are filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, so we move through life in such a distracted and hurried way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say and do are worth thinking, saying and doing.” He concludes that most of us, “ simply go along with the many “musts” and “oughts” that have been handed to us and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord” without realizing how horrendously secular our sacred lives tend to be. (Nouwen, Way of the Heart, pp. 27-28)

Even Sundays, which used to be times of true Sabbath rest, are now filled to overflowing with things we have to get done and many of us have to go right back to work after worship. Which means, dear friends, that how we use our time at church has to change: It is not 1950 – or even 1984 – it is the 21st century and worship must reflect the way times have changed so that we help one another grow as disciples. To my way of thinking this means we must embrace a time for quiet in worship as well as song and prayer; we must carefully share tradition while weaving into the fabric of worship contemporary sounds of hope and justice.

And above all, we must claim Sunday morning as the central teaching moment in the life of God’s people because we are just too tired, busy and overwhelmed to do anything more. Don’t get me wrong: there is still a place for midweek conversation and study, but most folk just can’t participate in ways that use to be normative; so rather than accept spiritual and biblical illiteracy, Sunday has to change. Paul’s words of “faith, hope and love” can help: each offers us a path into the heart of Biblical wisdom – call it the USA Today short hand or crash course in the Gospel – but as he says in I Corinthians 13: faith, hope and love, these three abide – so why not organize our thinking around these three eternal truths?

Take faith: faith means trust in the Bible – most of us think that faith has to do with what we believe intellectually – but Biblical faith is not about ideas and doctrines. It is not intellectual assent as the scholars like to say; rather, Biblical faith is about trust. And trust – in real life as well as the scriptures – has to be… earned. I really believe that: trust has to be earned – there has to be real life evidence that I can count on – so how do you find out whether a person or a group or a bank or a car dealer can be trusted or not?

You do some research, right? You watch, wait and test – talk with others with experience – and go on the Internet and see what the reports look like. How did President Reagan put it with the former Soviet Union: Trust – but verify? That’s only common sense. Bible study is one of the ways we can trust and verify whether the God made flesh in Jesus Christ is the real deal. And let me say as an aside that it is okay – in fact, it is essential – to raise questions and argue with the God we meet Scripture. Faith is not about sheep being led to the slaughter or parroting the company line. No, faith is about finding enough evidence of God’s love over time so that in those other times when we can’t see the light or even discern if the Sacred Presence is still within and among us we can still hang tough.

That’s part of what the psalm explores: Psalm 37 invites us to learn how to wait and rest in the Lord – especially when it looks like evil is winning and hope is at a premium – in these moments (or eras) the wisdom of the Lord is to wait. To rest. To refrain from anxious activity... hmmmmm? What are you like when you are anxious? What do you feel like? What do you sound like? What do you tend to do when you are anxious and afraid? Does it help?

Patrick Henry Reardon writes: “In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, cautions the other, encourages the other… “I believe, yes, but help my disbelief”… it is an inner conversation of the soul communing in the presence of God. And this inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked often seem to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.” (Christ in the Psalms, p. 72) So the soul quietly insists that we look deeper – discern the evidence of the heart – and here, more often than not, there is an emptiness and despair at the core of those who turn away from that which is good, noble and pure. How does the old folk song put it? “How many times have you heard someone say? If I had his money, I’d do things my own way. But little they know that it is so hard to find, one rich man in 10 with a satisfied mind.” (Check out Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama version:

Quiet down before God, be prayerful before him. Don’t bother with those who climb the ladder and elbow their way to the top. Bridle your anger, trash your wrath, cool your pipes – it only makes things words. Before long the crooks will be bankrupt; God-investors will soon own the store. Before you know it, the wicked will have had it… and the down-to-earth people will move in and take over… Wait passionately for the Lord and don’t leave the path. God will give you your place in the sun. (Peterson, Psalm 37,The Message)

The faithful testimony of scripture and the wisdom of watching, waiting and resting in the Lord is clear: Yes, there is oppression and violence, but as Moses trusted in the Lord, he was empowered to lead his people out of the land of slavery in Egypt and into the land of milk and honey – that’s the Passover story which our cousins in Judaism have been celebrating this week – and it is part of the evidence of faith. The same evidence is clear with Jesus – yes, the Cross took his life – but the world’s “NO” was trumped by God’s eternal “YES” and Jesus was raised from the dead by the glorious love of God and continues to live within and among us now.

Bible study – making the scriptures our own – is about faith: it is finding the evidence of God’s grace now so that we might rest, watch and wait when grace is obscured. First, there s faith; then there is hope: the key Bible passage in our tradition about hope comes from Romans 8 – and if you want to look at it now I will share a few quick thoughts – traditionally it goes like this: We believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because we know that in everything God works for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose. Not that everything that happens IS good – we know that – and not that everything that happens always works out for good – we know that, too. The Bible isn’t a sappy collection of sentimental aphorisms and affirmations; for what the Scripture says is that God can and will take even the worst situation – the Cross – and turn it into a blessing IF we allow God to be God in trust and love the Lord patiently.

Peterson’s translation in The Message brings this alive: Those who enter into Christ's being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. And the moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. God knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good So…with God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God's chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ's love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

This is what Christian hope is all about: it is grounded in Christ’s resurrection, born of God’s love and experienced through the evidence of faith. What’s more, nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from this hope because it starts and ends with God. Do you know the corollary to Romans 8? Look at Romans 5 - is golden - and reads: We can boast in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because hope is God's love being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
First there is trust and evidence - faith - then there is God's love being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit - hope - and that leaves... what? Love – Jesus spoke of his love like this in John 15:

I've loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in this love. If you keep my commands, you'll remain intimately at home in my love. That's what I've done—kept my Father's commands and made myself at home in his love. Now I've told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I'm no longer calling you servants because servants don't understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I've named you friends because I've let you in on everything

What is this story’s context, do you recall? It is the Passover supper – and Jesus has just washed the feet of his friends – he has shown them the love of a servant – and what had they been talking about and arguing about before the foot washing? Who was the greatest? They were interested in status and power – they were obsessed with themselves – but rather than scold them or shame them he took a towel, got on his knees and scraped the crap off the soles of their shoes. This is how you love – this is how you live – this is how integrity, joy, faith and hope become flesh he said.
Biblical scholars are clear that in the Mediterranean society in which Jesus ministered, every internal condition "entailed a corresponding external action; love always meant doing something that revealed" the state of your heart. In Malina and Rohrbaughs, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, they write:
(In the world of Rabbi Jesus)... love takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness to the (community)... the phrase 'love one another' presumes the social glue that binds one person to another... it is social, eternally manifested and emotionally rooted in actions of commitment and solidarity. (p. 228)

And what is the scripture that most clearly expresses the contours and commitments necessary to make these words flesh? I Corinthians 13 – and let me share it with you from Peterson’s translation because so often the ancient words of tradition become lost in habit and familiarity:

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have… doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, looks for the best and never looks back, because love keeps going to the end. Today we don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! So until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward the Lord: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly and love extravagantly. And know that the best of the three is love.

Faith, hope and love – these three things remain – abide – or last forever. I have been persuaded, sweet people of God, that if we let these three truths guide our scripture study on Sunday morning (and at other times, too) the Lord will lead us into the realm of trust and patient, healing love and we will make the ancient words our own.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mixing It All Together

From time to time people ask me – or wonder privately – why I am so committed to weaving contemporary secular music into the fabric of worship? The obvious answer (to me) is that popular music is how I have been hearing our still speaking God talk to an increasingly secular culture for over 45 years. Ever since my first youth band played the songs of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Frank Zappa in worship at First Congregational Church, UCC in Darien, CT. I have been listening for God’s voice in popular culture. In fact, after hearing Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at my first ever rock concert at the old Garrick Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1967 we did his "Trouble Comin' Everyday" in worship as our prayer for racial harmony.

(I love You Tube which had this clip from my very first prayer song from secular culture:

Another answer has to do with my radical understanding of the Incarnation: God becoming enfleshed in history. This did not simply happen one, discrete time in the body of the historic Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, it is an on-going and deep commitment from the One who is Holy to fill creation with God’s healing presence. Consequently, I search for signs both obvious and mysterious re: the living presence of our Living God and clearly experience and encounter them in music. Take, for example, this clip from Eric Clapton's tribute to his friend George Harrison: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Throughout the concert, Clapton is understated and gentle; but when he comes to Harrison's most passionate prayer/song at the end of the show - a song which Clapton played with the Beatles in 1968 amidst war, riots, fear and hatred - Brother Slowhand let's his guitar preach and pray a lament that is as holy as it is awesome. THIS is what makes secular music in sacred worship essential - the unity of real life and God's heart - and you have to experience it with all your senses. And let's not stop at popular music (although that is an important arena as more people listen to rock, rap and country than classical) but let's embrace all forms of creative art from painting and dance to sculpture, poetry, prose and film in worship, too.

Yesterday, for example, I used the song “Change” written by Tracy Chapman (see below) to synthesize what a spirituality of repentance might mean - especially as understood as challenging the status quo. Born into a family of poverty in Cleveland, Ohio, Chapman was selected as a promising musical scholar by A Better Chance, the national resource charged with identifying and supporting academically gifted students of color. Chapman was awarded a Doctor of Fine Arts from Tufts University. Since 1988 she has been recording progressive, thoughtful songs that encourage repentance, integrity, racial/sexual justice and solidarity with the suffering of others. She has per-formed with Eric Clapton, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, the Lilith Fair team and Ziggy Marley; she has also served as an international spokesperson for Amnesty International. In 2005 she released “Change” which embraces the spirituality of repentance as a dramatic shift in the direction of our lives.

If you knew you would die today,
If you saw the face of God and Love,
Would you change? Would you change?
If you knew that love can break your heart,
When you’re down so low you cannot fall,
Would you change? Would you change?

How bad, how good does it need to get?
How many losses, how much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around, makes you try to explain,
Makes you forgive and forget makes you change?

If you knew that you would be alone,
Knowing right, being wrong,
Would you change? Would you change?
If you knew that you would find a truth,
That brings up pain, that can’t be soothed,
Would you change? Would you change?

How bad, how good does it need to get?
How many losses, how much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around, makes you try to explain,
Makes you forgive and forget makes you change?

Are you so upright you can’t be bent?
If it comes to blows are you sure you won’t be crawling?
If not for good, why risk falling? Why risk falling?

If everything you think you know,
Makes your life unbearable,
Would you change? Would you change?
If you’d broken every rule and vow,
And hard times come to bring you down,
Would you change? Would you change?

If you knew that you would die today,
If you saw the face of God and Love
Would you change? Would you change?
Would you change? Would you change?

St. Paul wrote in his most tender voice: Do not be conformed, beloved, to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and mature. (Romans 12)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Repentance as Challenging the Status Quo

The blessed season of Passover will come to pass this weekend for our Jewish sisters and brothers - and as the Christian community wrestles with Eastertide I am drawn to a consideration of what are the marks of true discipleship in the 21st century?

There is a story the mystics of Islam – the Sufis – like to tell about a group of believers “whose hearts were set on pilgrimage.” No matter what their spiritual elder told them, these folk were certain that they would experience a change of heart by visiting the sacred places of tradition. So as they were preparing to leave, their sage told them to “take this bitter gourd along with you. Make sure you dip it into the holy rivers and bring it into all the holy shrines.” When they returned, the bitter gourd was cooked and served to the pilgrims. “Strange,” the elder said slyly after they had all tasted it, “the holy water and the shrines have failed to sweeten it.”

“All the prayer in the world,” Joan Chittister writes, “is fruitless and futile if it does not translate into a life of human community made richer and sweeter by a change of heart.” It would seem that both prayer and community – the inward and outward life of the spirit – are necessary for an authentic spiritual life and we may not neglect either. (Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, p. 127) It has something to do with the “Word becoming Flesh” and not abstract. No wonder the gospel of Mark tells us that when Jesus began his public ministry after his baptism, he said: “The time is up! God’s kingdom is here. Change the direction of your life and trust the Message.”

And that commitment to repentance as a way of life – that disciplined choice to challenge the status quo within and among ourselves as well as in our society – is what I want to talk about with you this morning. I’m going to call it the first mark of discipleship, not in a hierarchical way, but simply to claim a starting point so that we might organize our thinking about living as disciples of Christ. You see, the whole point of the spiritual life is to nourish sweetness and strengthen within so that we can share it beyond ourselves and bring hope and healing to a broken world.

That’s what the gospel for today suggests in Mark 1: 9-14 – and if you remembered to bring you Bibles or want to use the pew Bible – you can follow along with me in the story of our Lord’s baptism and preaching ministry. And let me just add before we really get going that the reason I am urging you to bring your Bibles to church – and use them with me – is not to turn you into a bunch of Bible-thumpers. We’ve already got too many of those sisters and brothers throughout the world. No, what I want you to do is both become familiar with the essential scriptures concerning discipleship, and, have a visual learning tool to work with, ok?

Let’s start with the story of Christ’s baptism in Mark 1. First, it tells us that the Lord’s baptism came only after Jesus was trained and encouraged by John the Baptist. John was a Jewish holy man like Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17/II Kings 13). And holy men in this tradition were given visions by the Lord and practiced a type of mysticism that helped them find God’s presence in ordinary experience. They were simultaneously prophetic and practical; that is they both spoke about love and justice and helped everyday people find physical and spiritual healing in their lives. So let’s be clear: the ministry of Jesus did not falleth from out the sky without a context nor did it pop up into first century Palestine without roots. And the scripture tries to help us understand this by the very placement of today’s story: Jesus begins his ministry only after we hear from John the Baptist, right?

And what does the Baptist tell us? Another is coming who will be a greater holy man than himself. (vs. 7) This holy man of Israel will be called God’s beloved. (Vs. 11) And Jesus’ ministry will start where John’s left off as he shows us what God’s kingdom and repentance look like. (vs. 15) John spoke and taught about repentance – and so does Jesus. John made it clear that repentance is about changing the direction of our lives so that they reflect and embrace the kingdom of God – and so does Jesus. And John lived as a practical and prophetic holy man in Israel – and so does Jesus. What I am trying to say is that choosing to challenge the status quo within and among us is less about feeling badly – which is how some understand repentance – and more about changing the direction of our lives so that they reflect God’s kingdom.

Now I want to share with you three examples from scripture of what it looks like and means to choose to challenge the status quo with the values of God’s kingdom. I want to consider a public, a personal and a spiritual insight as we go deeper into wrestling with repentance, ok? A good example of changing direction in public can be found in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19: do you know that story? Now the scripture tells us that Zacchaeus was the chief toll collector in the region who had become very, very rich by this work which means that to most people – who were poverty stricken – he would have been “stereotyped as a greedy, dishonest” collaborator with Rome with no local credibility.

Jesus turns this stereotype on its head by breaking bread with Zacchaeus, doesn’t he? Here is a Jewish holy man sharing table fellowship with a public sinner – what does it say in Luke 19: 7? The very example of Jesus points to one of the truths about challenging the status quo: stereotypes and first impressions – even a person’s social history – are not the whole story and living only on such surface knowledge is often ugly and mean spirited.

So Jesus challenges the social status quo and eats with this so-called sinner – and what happens? We don’t really know, do we? The story doesn’t tell us what took place at dinner. We can guess – Jesus talked with Zack about how it felt to be so hated and lonely and asked him why he thought he was so isolated – I suspect that as a good rabbi Jesus also taught Zack about compassion and justice and suggested ways to reconnect with the wider community. But we don’t really know: all we can say for certain is that when the supper was done, what does Zacchaeus tell the crowd in verse 8? He will give away half of his possessions to care for the poor – and – if he has hurt anyone in a financial deal he will pay him back four fold.

The story ends with Jesus proclaiming that Zacchaeus has been healed – he is now truly a son of Abraham – an authentic member of the tribe who should be welcomed back into community for now true kingdom living is taking place. Repentance in public, it would seem, is all about justice and compassion – restoring right relations – and strengthening the public good.

What do you think about this way of challenging the status quo? It reminds me of Bill Gates and his father William Henry Gates. Young Bill is quick to remind us that it was his father and wife who helped him see the light and create the Gates Foundation. Left to himself he would have kept all that money – but his father, a strong and active Methodist layman and his wife, an authentic woman of justice – convinced him that justice and compassion could be better served by sharing than hording – and now $38 billion is endowed for acts of healing and hope throughout the world. What’s more, the encouragement of Poppa Gates has helped push Warren Buffet into the mix who has anted up another nearly $3 billion to the kitty.

So challenging the status quo with kingdom values has a public face; it also has a private one: do you know the story of the woman at the well in John 4? There are three key insights that happen in this story. The first is what we are told about the woman: she is a Samaritan – which makes her an outcast to the Jews – she is at the well at 12 noon – the hottest time of day which means she is an outcast to her own community – and she is a woman – which makes her an outcast for a Jewish holy man.

Let’s talk about each of these: Why was a Samaritan an outcast to a Jew? Historically, the Samaritans were thought to have emerged from the poor and lower classes of Israel who inter-married with non Jews after Assyria carted into exile the best and the brightest in 721 BCE. When the Jews return to Israel in 531 BCE they found people of mixed race and theology claiming to be God’s chosen. These so-called “mongrels” were eventually pushed out of Jerusalem, shunned and relegated to and the margins. So first there is racial and religious antagonism taking place here.

What does the fact that this woman was at the well at 12 noon tell us? Well, apparently she wasn’t allowed to go to the well with the other women at the break of morning when it was cooler. The story says she was there all by herself because she is being shunned at the hottest moment of the day. Scholars tell us this has to do with her promiscuity so there is a moral reality taking place, too.

And we know that a woman could render a Jewish man ritually unclean and impure – especially a woman who was a stranger to him – yes? But once again if you follow the rhythm and movement of the story you can sense how challenging the status quo creates a safe place for personal repentance. Jesus greets this outcast – treats her like a real person. He speaks to her of deep things and doesn’t patronize or marginalize her. And when she feels safe, he invites her to get her life in order. It is a beautiful and gentle story of how hospitality paves the way for moral change – and I would almost like to say that radical hospitality is the necessary pre-condition for repentance.

And please pay careful attention to what Jesus asks of her: not to quit sleeping around or go to confession; Jesus simply speaks the truth to her in love after already welcoming her as a full person of integrity. He recognized her wound, spoke truth to her in loved and then invited her to change direction. And this woman was so overcome that all she could do was talk about the goodness of God to those who had once cast her away. This is another healing story – a moral healing, a community healing and a healing of integrity – that is a delight to behold. Does that make sense?
Repentance has precious little to do with lecturing or shaming people – telling them what we dislike about their words, ideas or deeds – for that is self-righteousness – and self-righteousness is always empty and hurtful. Rather, true righteousness born of repentance is much more about challenging the status quo that categorizes people – that is extending radical hospitality beyond race, class and gender – so that the wounded can taste God’s grace and then share what has nourished them. You can’t give what you don’t have…

So, there is public and there is personal repentance. There is also spiritual repentance – and for this let’s look at the words of another Jewish holy man: the prophet Micah in 6: 8. Here is one of the key Bible verses for understanding the spiritual, prophetic and practical roots of repentance: what does the Lord require but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.

In Hebrew that is mishpat – justice – restoring dignity, hope and integrity to the wounded and forgotten. It is all about right relations between people in the community. It is also loving kindness –or sharing mercy as some translations put it – which in Hebrew is hesed – or more accurately compassion – which is living in solidarity with those who are hurting so that they never feel alone. And there is walk humbly with the Lord – in Hebrew tsana – which might be described as modesty or the awareness that we don’t really understand all that much about God.
In terms of a spirituality of repentance – the real life practice of challenging the status quo with the values and habits of God’s kingdom – we discover that it has its roots in righting wrongs with compassion and clarity, welcoming and embracing the outsider tenderly all the while being aware that we might not know the whole story – or at the very least trusting that there is still more to be revealed in God’s justice, compassion and humility.

This is a repentance that heals the world – tikun olam in the Hebrew holy man tradition of Micah and Jesus – it joins with God in restoring dignity and health to the broken: It lives and breathes the Biblical truth that human unity is not something we are called to create, only to recognize. And it celebrates and honors the life altering nature of changing directions and challenging the status quo.

Old William Sloan Coffin at Riverside Church in NYC used to say about this type of repentance:

Most churches get nervous when you start talking about a repentance that can change the world because most church boats don’t like to be rocked; they prefer to lie at anchor rather than go places in the stormy seas. But that’s because we Christians view the Church as the object of or our love instead of the subject and instrument of God’s. Faith cannot be passive; it has to go forth – to assault the conscience and excite the imagination. Faith fans the flames of creativity altogether as much as it banks the fires of sins… so let’s go! Let’s let faith and real repentance kick us in the pants lest we domesticate God’s word so much that we… evade the big problems by becoming mesmerized by the little ones.

Jesus was clear: times up! If you are going to follow me… you have to change direction and challenge the status quo with the Kingdom of God.
(For a kick, check out Tracy Chapman's musical version of this sermon: Change)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Choosing to Challenge the Status Quo

We know that the book of Acts is, in some important ways, a critical foundation for Christian history. Eugene Peterson writes, “Because the story of Jesus is so impressive – God among us and speaking a language we can understand, God within us healing and helping and saving us – there is always the danger that we will be impressed but only be impressed with the love of God in Christ… we could easily become enthusiastic spectators – admirers of Jesus… instead of disciples.” So Acts speaks to us of discipleship. (Eugene Peterson, The Message) Clarence Jordan makes the point that the Acts of the Apostles is really part two of the gospel of Luke: the miracle that began in Mary’s body by faith and the Holy Spirit is born again into the world only this time it is through the flesh of the young church. “You will note a very close similarity between these two biographies,” Jordan writes.

Both give birth narratives: in the first volume, Mary is his mother. In the second volume, the Church takes the place of Mary so that God implants the Holy Spirit into the Church to bring forth a new kind of Son of God on the face of the earth… So the book of Acts is going to tells us all about Jesus who has been raised from the dead, who is alive and still up to his old works, but now he’s not working through one body – Jesus of Nazareth – now he’s working through many bodies – his Church – which we call the Body of Christ. (Jordan, The Substance of Faith)

But in addition to these truths, the Acts of the Apostles is also a fascinating example of first century spin control for the early believers had to make peace with a brutal occupation army from Rome: using the loftiest terms possible, Acts describes the birth of the Jesus Movement as if it were a combination of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Christmas morning and the movie, “Godspell” all rolled into one.

All the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person's need was met… and their numbers grew daily.

OH COME ON: we’ve read St. Paul – those early Christians were just as cranky, ornery, afraid and confused as… you and me, right? We’ve read other parts of the Bible, too: think of the fights that took place between James and Paul - or James and Peter - or the zealot disciples and the tax collectors! Do you recall the story of Ananias and Sapphira? It’s a great one for Stewardship Sunday – it comes from Acts 5 and tells what happened when two of those early pillars of the church decided NOT to throw all their resources into the common kitty and hold everything in common.

But a man named Ananias—his wife, Sapphira, conniving in this with him—sold a piece of land, secretly kept part of the price for himself, and then brought the rest to the apostles and made an offering of it. Peter said, "Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. So what got into you to pull a trick like this? You didn't lie to men but to God." Ananias, when he heard those words, fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard of it. The younger men went right to work and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him. Not more than three hours later, his wife, knowing nothing of what had happened, came in. Peter said, "Tell me, were you given this price for your field?" "Yes," she said, "that price." Peter responded, "What's going on here that you connived to conspire against the Spirit of the Master? The men who buried your husband are at the door, and you're next." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than she also fell down, dead. When the young men returned they found her body. They carried her out and buried her beside her husband. By this time the whole church and, in fact, everyone who heard of these things had a healthy respect for God. They knew God was not to be trifled with! Acts 5 (The Message)

So what’s going on just below the surface of this morning’s lesson? What is the point of telling us that all the believers were together living into the teaching of the apostles, the breaking of the bread and prayer? What is the Bible trying to teach us? The obvious answer, of course, has to do with the teaching of the apostles, the breaking and sharing of the bread and the cultivation of an inner spiritual life: these are marks of what it means to be Christian people of faith. But that presupposes that modern people know what the apostles’ teachings are… to say nothing of what it means to break the bread of Christ together and deepen our spiritual lives in prayer.

And there is empirical evidence, my friends, that American Christians of every stripe and hew – in every age group and denomination – really don’t know what it means to practice authentic Christianity in this generation. In their ground-breaking National Study of Youth and Religion funded by the Lilly Endowment… sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) document that teenagers overwhelmingly admire their parents as the single greatest influence in their lives, and gladly imitate their religious beliefs. Further, their study showed that teenagers actually like church. The conventional wisdom of teenage alienation from parents and hostility toward religion is an entrenched but erroneous stereotype, they argue. (Dan Clendenin, Apostolic Devotion, Journey to Jesus, 4/11/05)

That’s the good news – but there is also bad news for when these same sociologists asked these same teenagers to describe the particulars of their religious faith: they were "incredibly inarticulate" about even the most basic tenets of their beliefs and practices. Rather, the vast majority of kids were abysmally ignorant of the religion they espoused… For example, one 15-year-old who attends church four or five times a week, said this when asked to articulate her faith: [Pause] I don't really know how to answer that. ['Are there any beliefs at all that are important to you? Really generally.'] [Pause] I don't know. ['Take your time if you want.'] I think that you should just, if you're gonna do something wrong then you should always ask for forgiveness and he's gonna forgive you no matter what, cause he gave up his only Son to take all the sins for you, so...
From their scientific survey of 3,290 teenagers (ages 13-17) and parents – and 267 personal interviews conducted across four years (2001–2005) – Smith and Denton conclude that most "Christian" kids really operate with a vague sort of Moral Therapeutic Deism: be nice, don't do bad, for a remote deity wants you to be happy and feel good about yourself. In other words, says Smith, "we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of 'Christianity' in the U.S. is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.

And… this “epidemic of ignorance” has its roots… where? With mom and dad and extended families and congregations all across American that no longer really know what it means to be a disciple of Christ anymore. Now some people want to ascribe blame – and spend a lot of time and energy pointing fingers at straw men and women – but the simple truth is the genie is already out of the bottle. The PCBs are already in the river – and we can’t go backwards, right? So rather than make a lot of noise, I think we need to embrace what the old German mystic, Miester Eckhart said: reality is the will of God – it can always be better – but we must start with what is real.

And what is real in 21st century America is that fewer and fewer folk in our churches and families know what it means to follow the teachings of the apostle, almost all of us are confused about what communion is all about and many of us don’t really know how to pray. And I say this not to blame or point fingers or waste your time: it is just a simple fact, Jack which means that part of our work and ministry together is to reclaim what has been forgotten or lost or even discarded so that we train disciples of Christ rather than mere admirers.

Take the statement: the teaching of the apostles – what does that really mean – any ideas? At its heart, the teachings of the Apostles has to do with knowledge of the Bible – but not as a collection of factoids or as a series of random moral pronouncements: to follow the teaching of the apostles as articulated in the Scriptures means cultivating a life that makes Jesus visible in our generation.

St. Paul put it like this in Romans 12: So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. I'm speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it's important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what God does for us, not by what we are and what we do for the Lord.

Are you with me on this? The teaching and lifestyle of the apostles has to do with disciple-making – bringing the heart of Christ into our ordinary lives – because disciples are made not born. Do you know that? Another way of saying it is that the Church is always just one generation away from extinction because you can’t inherit faith – you have to choose it.

The sociologists I mentioned earlier said that without training and practicing the Jesus life it should come as no surprise: That our profound ignorance about Christian specifics results in life-styles that are barely distinguishable from those of non-believing people. Social-scientific surveys document that evangelical Christians divorce as often as the general population, if not more. When a Gallup poll asked people if they would object if a black neighbor moved in next door, fundamentalists and Southern Baptists gave the most racist responses. Physical and sexual abuse in conservative Christian homes mirrors that of the general population. (Smith/Denton in Clendenin, op. cit.)

So what does it look like to be committed to the teaching of the apostles? Minds greater than mine have suggested that there are 6 key elements:

1. Repentance
2. The study and application of Scripture
3. Fellowship – Koinonia
4. Holy Communion/feeding those in
5. Bringing joy, beauty and hope to the world
6. And prayer – cultivating and interior life

One scholar put it like this: “It began to dawn on those first disciples in the early days of the Church, and it should dawn on all of us who stand on their shoulders, that "apostolic devotion” to Jesus entailed a commitment to a holistic way of living and thinking, what today we might call faith and practice, or in fancier parlance the development of a distinctively and comprehensive Christian world view…. a Christian style of living that prizes intellectual vibrancy, economic generosity, and communal caring does not happen casually or automatically. It requires intentionality, effort, and choice, or what the apostle Paul called "working out your salvation" (Philippians 2:12).” (Clendenin)

The time has come for us to really start going deeper – to develop a distinctively and comprehensive Christian world view for this generations – so that we can claim the mission of First Church clearly and live into it boldly as spiritually alive disciples of Christ. Jesus put it like this in this morning’s gospel lesson: “Let me set this before you as plainly as I can… I have come so you can have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of.” So for the next four weeks – during worship and afterwards – I’m going to talk with you about the six marks of the Jesus Movement:

+ Choosing to challenge the status quo
+ Making the Bible real for our generation
+ Embracing the horizontal commitments of Christian community
+ Celebrating the presence of Jesus in Holy Communion
+ Sharing joy, beauty and hope – creativity/compassion and commitment – in the world
+ Nourishing the inner life

And let me be clear about why a distinctively and comprehensive Christian world view matters: when I was in Tucson we hired a music director – a talented, fun and creative man – who unbeknownst to us at the time was beginning to experience the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It was slow in its development but it was troublesome and most of us believed that he was just an “airhead and a flake.” It was exasperating to work with him but we loved him and wanted the best. After about 5 years of this crazy making, however, it got to the point where there was no short term memory and he was unable to do his job.

So I met with him and after carefully and tenderly discussing the problem told him that as a condition of continued employment with us he needed to see a specialist – and because I knew he had no health insurance I added that the congregation was committed to carrying the cost of this examine and most likely treatment. He burst into tears: this big bear of a gay man – who was all by himself – wrapped his arms around me and wept like a baby because he was terrified. He knew full well that things weren’t going well, he understood that something was wrong and he had nobody to turn to for help. (NOTE: some of the hard nosed business types wanted to fire his ass - the "sloppy agape" types wanted us to just carry him and let others pick up the slack - none of which was fair to our friend or the Body of Christ. What we needed was a way of being creative and compassionate as well as accountable.)

So… we worked with him – kept him as our music director for another 2 years, got him treatment and help - and found ways to grow together. And when he was no longer able to do his job we also made arrangements for his long term care and then celebrated his ministry as a gift from God – not just for his music which was brilliant - but also because he gave us the chance to become our best selves as the body of Christ and we found a way to become people of compassion, creativity and commitment.

When a congregation puts on the full mind of Christ and lives as Jesus to the world, others notice. Healing starts to spread – and joy and hope begins to replace fear and doubt. That is the promise I believe God is offering to us: Let’s pray together in song:

Jesus, Jesus, let me tell you what I know,
You have given us your Spirit, we love you.

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...