Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Text:  Luke 19:12-26

. . . The readings are NOT getting any easier!

I need to read this passage every time I want to sit back, soak in, and do nothing else with that warm’n’fuzzy,  comfortable, and satisfying feeling of spiritual fulfillment that can come from reading a favorite Bible passage or being present for an uplifting worship service.  It’s all well and good to have a feel-good and/or profound experience through my spirituality, but such an experience is not meant to be merely taken in, like watching a movie or eating a pizza. There is always the need to answer the unspoken but ever-present question, “So . . . now what?”

As much as we want or claim our faith, church, and especially worship to be counter-cultural, we are more often than not driven more by the culture of consumerism that shapes us. If we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we’re into spirituality and worship for what we get out of it, and we sometimes get a bit cranky when we don’t get out of it what we expect or want.  Moreover, we can forget that spirituality and worship are not therapy.  Worship, especially, is not about you and me (fill in the blank: Christians worship ___________ .  If you filled in anything other than “GOD” please see your pastor, confess your idolatry, ask God for forgiveness, and sign up for remedial Christianity).

The problem with turning our spirituality and worship inward is that through them God gives us an abundance we should grow and share.  Like the good servants in Jesus’ parable, we’re called to invest the blessings of our spirituality, BIble reading and study, worship, and prayer into spreading the love of God and Good News of Jesus Christ around our parts of the world.  Especially with worship, when we merely consume the experience, we become like the servant who hid his master’s money, doing nothing with it. Don’t know about anyone else, but I want to be reckoned a good servant for sharing the abundance God gives me every day.

Howsabout you?

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Text:  Luke 17:26-37

It will happen.  No preview of coming attractions (suitable for all age groups).  No series of announcements in bulletins and newsletters.  No email or text blast.  No notification on Facebook, Twitter, et. al. social media.  “Thy kingdom come” will be answered without fanfare or pomp and circumstance.  Without warning, the old, established, comfortable for some, hard-scrabble for many, reality will be gone, transformed into God’s new reality.  The prophetic imagination that throughout the Bible offered views of an alternative reality to our own will be itself realized.

Are we ready?
Can we let go the old?    What will we be giving up?
Are we willing to embrace the new?

Today’s reading, with its recollections of Noah and the flood, the fiery end of Sodom, and vultures gathering around a corpse, has a fearsome tone.  God’s kingdom will come and all the broken-world stuff we cling to, but which dominates and plagues our lives, will be swept away, and with it all those unwilling to let go.  For the really scary bit is that we will not simply wake up one morning in the new kingdom but be confronted with the new reality that calls us to give up all the ways we live high on the hog at the expense of others and the health of our planet, all the ways we inflict violence in the name of national interest and security, all the ways we profit from injustice, all the ways we take it upon ourselves and our churches to judge who is loved and who is condemned by God.  In other words, we will be confronted with giving up our lives and gaining Christ and kingdom or saving our lives as they are and losing everything.

We had better get ready.
We had better be able to let go the old.
We had better embrace the new.

After all, it’s not just some delusional Camelot but the Kingdom of God and God is good!

Text:  Deuteronomy 8:7-18

Poised to enter the Promised Land where the wilderness-wandering Israelites would experience a prosperity they had never known, they received a warning:  When you get fat and happy, don’t forget the Lord your God who made it all possible!  Furthermore, do not deceive yourselves into believing your success is your own doing.

A trope within our culture is the increased attendance in churches and an associated low-level religious revival that come when there is a major crisis.  A response to disaster is to seek out God.  While we may argue whether this is still a widespread phenomenon, there is, will likely always be, something within us that looks to whatever we think of as more powerful than ourselves for help in times of trouble.

Peace and prosperity bring about the opposite–a comfortable, self-satisfied complacency in our relationship with God.  For the nominally spiritual, this is expressed as religious apathy.  For those more engaged with the divine, being fat and happy can be a spiritual disaster.  Prosperity can stimulate a fat-headedness that ranges from a wholly self-centered belief in one’s own success to a delusion that God has given a special dispensation of wealth and privilege to the faithful.

Today’s passage reminds us that our success, our prosperity, and the good that we experience is not just our own.  Indeed, we participate by farming our crops and writing and testing our source code, and more, with as much excellence as we can muster, but without God all our efforts would not amount to much.  We can become rich, powerful, and even famous without God, but such prosperity as the world know it is fleeting and eventually meaningless.  But in God’s rich grace, we can be rich without money and prosperous without wealth, power, and privilege.  The riches of God are neither fleeting nor meaningless.  Thanks be to God!

Text: Romans 15:14-21

“[So] in Christ Jesus I brag about things that have to do with God.  I don’t dare speak about anything except what Christ has done through me to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles.”  (Romans 15:17-18)

The Apostle Paul could easily have touted his own success in a way very familiar to us in 21st-century America:

“I’ve travelled the farthest for Jesus Christ.”
“I’ve planted and grown more churches, and brought more Gentiles to Christ than anyone.”
“No one is a more effective communicator about Jesus Christ than I.”

By contrast, Paul gives credit for his success to God working through him.  When he does engage in self-promotion, it is always with regard to issues tangential to the promotion of “Christ crucified,” such as in 1 Thessalonians 1 when he touts how hard he worked to support himself in order to not burden those in the church.  Indeed, Paul’s view of himself and what he helped accomplish is clear-sighted, balanced, and realistic.  If Paul sounds at all fatheaded about the success of his ministry it helps to reread Romans 7 and his painful confession of his own sinful human condition.  It also helps to read him more closely.  For when we do we see that it is God, not Paul, who has truly advanced the Good News of Jesus Christ, and Paul has been God’s servant and conduit.

Paul neither egotistically self-promoted nor self-abased.  He maintained a healthy self-image, lifting up those things he had done that were good while admitting to his own faults.  And in regard to the success of his mission for Christ, he gives the credit to God in a way that is not patronizing but sincere.

God works through us, too.  How, then, do we perceive and characterize the good works of evangelism, compassion, and faith-building which we participate?

Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  (mission statement of The United Methodist Church)

It’s that last bit—“for the transformation of the world”—that has driven my ministry since I retired from software engineering a baker’s-dozen years ago to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And it’s that last bit that obliges United Methodist preachers to bring the affairs of the outside world into the church, a place where a good many would prefer to be a sanctuary away from the conflicts and anxieties of the world.  If we are to be a Christ-following people of world transformation, we must engage the world and do so within the context of Christian community (i.e. the church).  Bit, never have I known this imperative to be so difficult as it is today.

In this winter of our divisive discontent, having just elected a president unlike any other, and whose leadership is decisive, unconventional, and results-oriented (bypassing the red-tape to fulfill campaign promises), yet sometimes dysfunctional and too-often immoral (lying and promulgation of prejudice against Mexicans and Muslims), a Christ-centered perspective on current events is necessary.  We need to sort out and clarify who we are and what we believe as Christians (individually and as a church), and then interact with our world from that identity.

My first impulse, not unlike that of the bazillions of commentators and trolls on social media, is to speak and preach directly to our current situation.  But to do so would allow me to drift too far into preaching political and social opinion rather than interpretation of the Bible.

My solution to this problem, and I hope it works, will be to focus first on the Bible and its theology.  Our turbulent world will always be in the background, but with the Bible and Jesus Christ in the foreground, those to whom I preach and teach will receive from me tools for making their own decisions about the world around us.  In other words, I want to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.”  They will, in turn, go forth and impact the world around them in their own unique ways.

Part of me feels like this is a bit of a cop-out that allows me to avoid conflict, and it may be, but I do not see how we get to “the transformation of the world” without first “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  And it will be those disciples who, out of their own deep faith and Spirit-stoked inspiration, will do whatever they do best to make a difference in the world.  I intend not to get in the way of that by alienating the very people whom I am trying to help become more devoted disciples of Christ.

As voices within The United Methodist Church (UMC) continue to argue human sexuality, vis-a-vis, homosexuality, they continue to do so while ignoring the proverbial 800 pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room.  A good example of how some of our more thoughtful UMs miss the most crucial point is exposed a quote from Rev. Jeff Greenway, who led Asbury Theological Seminary while I was matriculating there.  In a piece he wrote explaining  the purpose of the newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative forum for UMs, and offering thoughts on the Council of Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, which will try to sort out our issues of human sexuality, Rev. Greenway said (emphasis mine),

“Let me be clear—human sexuality is not the cause of our differences—it is the presenting symptom. The real causes of our division are related to the nature, role and authority of Scripture—the nature of salvation—and the work of sanctification in the life and conduct of a follower of Jesus. We are miles apart in these basic beliefs and it makes our covenantal relationship untenable. We use the same language, sometimes quote the same scriptures or Wesley sermons, but we are speaking about entirely different expressions of faith”

Rev. Greenway almost sees the 800 lb. gorilla. He is spot on that the arguments we have over homosexuality are proxies, carrying the water for deeper issues that a few, like Greenway, are either insightful or bold enough to raise to the surface. As Greenway, and a good many others who claim the “conservative” label see it, the real issue is a difference of opinion about the authority of the Bible. Alas, this is where we get stuck again because we haven’t yet dug deep enough to unearth the core issue.  Moreover, when conservatives claim that they support the authority of Scripture, then they are also claiming that the same authority is being ignored by progressives (those who support the full inclusion of homosexuals into membership and ordained ministry, and who advocate defying The Disciple in those places where it lists proscriptions against homosexuality).  This is not a debate but an indictment that gives progressives no way to respond.

The very debate that we are neglecting–the 800 pound gorilla–is not human sexuality, or even the authority of Scripture (which faithful people on both sides will say is all important and inviolable), but how we interpret the Bible.

Competent, critical interpretation of the Bible is a basic required skill of all UM clergy.  The preaching, teaching, and spiritual guidance that is our business are dependent on our ability to do more than skim a page of the Bible and then simply parrot back what it says (although some scripture allows for this, e.g. “Jesus wept”). However , we can interpret the Bible using various rubrics. One common rubric is a literalist rubric that assumes what was written a long time ago in a land far away is absolutely universal in meaning. This contrasts with the kind of interpretation many of us are trained to do by using the tools of literary criticism, historical criticism, social/psychological criticism, coupled with the commentaries of the church throughout its history. Nor surprisingly, these varying interpretive rubrics can render differing interpretations of a text.

Until we begin sideline accusations about who does and does not recognize the true meaning and authority of Scripture so we can discus how we interpret Scripture, we will progress no further, and, worse, our differing positions will entrench.

Let’s stop ignoring the 800 lb gorilla—It’s not invisible.

While accompanying the seminary choir on bass (guitar) during worship one Wednesday, things were going well for the first two and a half measures.  The choir sounded musical, passionate without melodrama, and articulate, and I was playing with smoothness and subtlety so that the bass became another voice in the choir.  And then I hit a B. The Asbury Seminary chapel range like a large bell. It sounded like I had replaced my modest combo bass amp with a big Ampeg stack and turned it up to 11.  It was ridiculously loud . . . but only when I played B.  I made it through the choir anthem by consciously playing that note very lightly.  As I explained to the choir director (who already knew what the problem was), the brash and bold B was at the resonant frequency of the chapel’s interior, its only architectural design flaw. My bass guitar’s B was at just the right wavelength to bounce around the room in a way that made it sound a lot louder than any other note.

I had a psychological experience of such resonance while at the School for Pastoral Ministry this over the last few days.  Listening to one of the two excellent keynote speakers, Nadia Bolz-Weber, talk about her calling in ministry, something she said—probably several things—rang like that bass B through the cognitive and emotional mess that is my consciousness. The resonance was with my own calling into ministry—my religious raison d’etre, the “why I got into this ministry mess in the first place”.

I have been struggling for a while with a sense of direction in my ministry, which has led to a bit of paralysis and a lot of frustration as I feel pushed to get the church I serve to grow in numbers and figure out something a somewhat elderly church can do to fulfill the United Methodist Church’s slogan (part 2): “transformation of the world.”  I’ve tried blending contemporary music into worship and preaching about social justice and changing the world. The problem is that I am just not called to, or capable enough at, either engineering church growth or prophetic preaching.  Some pastors, such as Adam Hamilton, are greatly adept at providing a worship and discipleship environment that attracts a lot of people of all ages.  Others do a lot of social justice work, preaching about the issues of society and leading mission work. These are all great things and important, but they are not why I entered ministry.

My calling to preach the Gospel (Good News of Jesus Christ), offer the sacraments, and help sinners realize God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness. It’s these things that I am here to do and mean to return to doing with focused intent.  I don’t need to engineer church growth or figure out how to transform the world.  If I help people deepen find their home in the house of God’s grace, embrace God’s forgiveness, and discover for themselves what Christ crucified means for them, then the other stuff will just happen.  Forgiven and grace-filled people who “get it” about what God was doing suffering on the cross and dying for us will go out and transform their world as well as bring others in to experience that God can do for them as well. I need to simply do what matters most and get out of God’s way.

What will this mean for my work as a pastor?  Past changing the direction of my preaching and how I approach the sacraments, I haven’t a clue. But I’m sure God knows. . .