Archive for the ‘Preaching’ Category

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.

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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. . .

I preached a sermon, a few weeks ago, entitled “EVILution or CRETINism” about the relationship of religion (Christianity, in particular) and science. Not only am I proud of my cleverness with the title (in much the same way I was when, as a 12 year old, a buddy and I discovered the fun of tying firecrackers to eggs, throwing them up over a street and watching scrambled eggs rain down on the passing cars), the title exposes my feelings about the two polar positions in the debate. I’ll touch on this below.

I intended on a follow-up piece to “EVILution or CRETINism” that address some big questions raised by the sermon. Because I took the positions that the Creationist young-earth, catastrophism, dinosaurs & humans together, notions fail to pass rational and experiential muster, that the Bible does a great job of telling us why something happened (its meaning) but a lousy job of how it happened, and that science is a great tool for learning how things work in the real world, I unintentionally raised the question of the Bible’s reliability (even though I said it is true and authoritative). So, my purpose here was to deal with this question.

I found a blog entry (posted on MinistryMatters.com but linked directly below) that does all I was going to do and better. Check it out if you are wondering if your Bible still gets things right (don’t worry, it does) —

If Genesis Isn’t Literal, Is the Bible Reliable?

Okay, back to “EVILution” and “CRETINism”.

About “EVILution” — Because I accept that scientific inquiry yields facts and plausible theories about the way the world works, I have no problem with the theory of evolution, just as I accept the fact that the earth is a 4.5 billion years old sphere orbiting the sun. But science has the impassible limit that it cannot speak to what it cannot see, either empirically or theoretically, thus it is quick to claim as fiction things that go beyond its vision, for example, God. I believe there is room for openness about what we do not or can not know through science. To insist that “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI ?) is narrow minded.

About “CRETINism” — Creationism would be amusing if it weren’t so broadly accepted by so many people. If science is narrow minded about what it cannot see, then Creationism is blind, deaf, and dumb to the world right in its midst. I’ll not say more here, the piece linked piece above does a thorough job.

I gave the bottom line about the Bible in my sermon, which I’ll repeat here: For me, the Bible is entirely true and authoritative.
. . . And I don’t need to try to discredit science.

Right there in the middle (plotwise) of the first three gospels, something magnificent, profound, and bizarre happens. Upon reaching the top of a mountain, Jesus’ appearance changes. His clothing becomes brilliantly white and “his face shone like the sun.” (Matt 17.2) To add to the freakiness, Moses and Elijah appear and the three have a convivial chat.

Theologians and the Church have managed to obscure the strangeness and wonder of this event behind the awkward title, “Transfiguration.”

Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him. In addition to what they saw, they heard the voice of God say that Jesus is his Son and is to be listened to.

One purpose of this scene in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is to nail down Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and Messiah who fulfills the expectations of both the Mosaic Law and the visioneering of the prophets. It is centrally placed in each narrative to highlight the pivot from an almost directionless roaming ministry among his own people to a straight and intentional journey to the cross and the salvation of the world.

Another purpose of this mountaintop event has just recently worked its way into my thick head. It’s about Jesus unbinding himself from human attempts to categorize, co-opt, and control him. It’s Jesus telling us that we cannot define him or his saving work. And this becomes even more clear when we pull back and read the passages just before the mountaintop experience, particularly in Matthew. There, Jesus tells his inner circle of disciples (the Twelve) that he is headed to his death at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious leaders and will be raised from death just a few days later. Peter goes ballistic and scolds Jesus for even saying such a thing. Jesus returns a verbal body blow by calling Peter “Satan” (meaning “Tempter”, among other things), and telling him not to be a stumbling block.

Shifting gears just a bit, Jesus teaches that “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matt 16.24) In other words, Jesus has a job to do (saving the world) that needs to be done a specific way (through his suffering and death), and to follow him requires becoming ready for a similar sacrifice by letting go of one’s own life to make God’s redemptive purpose the higher priority.

Before we’ve even begun to climb the mountain with Jesus, he has made it clear that only God and God’s redemptive, world-saving purpose defines who he is and what he does. We can make no claims on him and what he is about. Pretty powerful and jarring stuff on an era when we try in many ways to shape God in our own image and tell Jesus his business in order to protect or give advantage to the Church or our politics.

So. . . for the next few Sundays, I’ll be trying let Jesus tell us who he is through the passages mentioned above while also identifying how we try to define Jesus in some rather unhelpful ways.

Of course, this means I’ll be talking about religion and politics, two of three things one should never discuss at a dinner party. Praise God we’ll be in a church.

I thought I was tossing my congregation a softball Sunday morning. For several Sundays I’ve been pushing them pretty hard with some challenging preaching, such as two Sundays ago when I took on the relationship of religion and science (which, by necessity, pulled in biblical interpretation, Creationism, and evolution). To give us all a break I offered up a bread’n’butter sermon entitled “What Does Jesus Christ Want Us to Do?”

I came up with the idea for the sermon while thinking about the many times I’ve been asked by a parishioners what Jesus wants us to do within various difficult situations. Throwing together Scripture from Matthew and John, I came up with a preachable list of general tasks that outline the Christian life:

  1. Believe in and believe Jesus (which means not just cognitive assent but change of heart; John 3:16 & various other bits from the 4th gospel).
  2. Let go of our worldly attachments, especially to wealth and possessions (I.E. remove the competition for who gets our loyalty… our stuff or God; Matthew 19:16-22).
  3. Learn to love as Jesus does (John 13:34-35).
  4. Put that love to use serving others, especially the “least” (Matthew 25:31-46).

This is boilerplate stuff, as preaching goes.

About mid-afternoon Sunday, I had an “Oh My GAWD!” moment when it hit me how counter-cultural and subversive this stuff really is. Believing in Jesus (in particular, as Lord) coupled with letting go of attachments to things that might compete for our loyalty to Jesus, pushes to the backseat our nationalism (patriotism, if one prefers) and even family. This is especially subversive, especially for conservative Evangelicals in my country (America) whose majority of concerns seem to be around family and patriotism.

Letting go of attachments is also very dangerous to our consumption-based economy. What would happen if millions of Americans decided that we don’t need to buy so much stuff so frequently?

Loving as Jesus does and serving the “least” are at least as dangerous and subversive. I live in a nation that idolizes the mythical rugged, self-sufficient, individual who wouldn’t think of burdening those around him. Since the Reagan years, the driving economic theory is supply-side. Even though the American middle class has been economically static, if not slipping, we as a society seem to buy in to the idea that wealth will trickle down from wealthy, lightly regulated corporations to the rest of us, especially if we can find more ways to give them more money. We idolize the rich and powerful. Moreover, we blame the poor for their poverty and resist doing more to help them, whether that help is a higher minimum wage or continuing welfare for the long-term unemployed (to name a few). So, the idea that we should help the “least”—the poor, powerless, disenfranchised, and needy—runs against the grain.

A favorite mental experiment is to imagine how Jesus Christ would be received today. I suspect that the mildest reaction might be to ignore him and laugh him off. The strongest reaction would probably a good-ole-fashioned lynching, corporately funded using tax-sheltered income and cheered on by a gang of conservative Evangelicals (or even United Methodist clergy who disagree with Jesus’ stand on homosexuality… but that’s another story).