Friday, February 24, 2017

When Glory Overwhelms (Luke 9:28-45)

Can any image do justice to this text?
The Transfiguration of Jesus. How do you describe such a powerful scene? Is it all “Hollywood” with bright lights and everything’s a soft, just out of focus blur? Or, is this scene best left to the imagination of the audience, with the film maker only opting to focus on the stunned faces of Jesus’ disciples?  However you picture it, probably it was just like that as well as something far greater. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in divine glory. You will forgive the Gospel writers if they try to use words to capture what happened that day. You just cannot capture the moment.

Vague attempts at describing the Transfiguration of Jesus might be as follows: overwhelming glimpses. Sounds a bit like an oxymoron: seeing more than you can handle but in just a brief, fleeting moment. But perhaps that’s for the best. In the biblical texts, any time you encounter even just a moment of God’s presence, the experience just cannot be tamed into easily recountable words or images.

Nonetheless, when one encounters God, there is good reason to speak of the experience. It may come in the oddest of moments or at the most appropriate times, yet you know that in the midst of things, you have encountered God. The best way to enter into the Transfiguration narrative is to hear about those times when God has been experienced. You might call them “mountain top moments” or “God sightings” as a pastor I know used to call them.  

The writer Robert Coles shares a wonderful story of an argument he once had with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day was an advocate for the poor and the church’s calling to identify and live with those in need. Dorothy Day was also a person accustomed to staring down her opponents (bishops included). A formidable servant of God is the best way I would put it after reading her story! Thus, an argument with Dorothy Day would be quite memorable.
Coles and Day were arguing about how the spiritual life really worked. Coles said that he pressed Day on how she knew spirituality worked. Dorothy Day explained that we live long, secular days and experience short sacred moments.

In the religious world, “secular” is a word that we tend to use as “the opposite of something that is sacred.” Day had experienced in her own life this knowledge that no matter how long things went on that seemed mundane or not necessarily out of the ordinary, there were always times, even if brief, when you experienced something unmistakably evident of the sacred at work.

Of course, there is another dimension to experiencing “sacred moments.” When we are suddenly in the midst of such a spiritual time, it is more than just feeling. The Bible tells of many times of mere mortals experiencing time in God’s presence. The most intense of these experiences is called a “theophany”. When Moses stands before the burning bush or Isaiah is taken up into the highest heavens to be called as a prophet, again, words seem so shallow to capture the moment. But look at any decent Bible dictionary, and you’ll read about theophanies as always ending, no matter where they occur, with a call to serve.

Jesus took these disciples up the mountain to pray. As you will remember, Luke’s talk of the prayer life of Jesus is always on the fervency of Jesus ‘ prayers. Jesus withdraws to pray not because of being overwhelmed but because of his connection to God. Jesus invites his disciples to a life not fraught with duties and obligations, but one of passion, and devotion even if it is shaped by sacrifice and simplicity.

The disciples fall asleep and miss out on the beginning of the transfiguration of Jesus. They wake up to see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, and Jesus caught up in divine glory. As they scramble to their feet (and their brains are a little scrambled too!), they start trying to figure out how to mark this occasion. Peter even suggests that they set up a marker to commemorate the event.
Then the divine voice rumbles from above: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And suddenly all that talk of drawing up a holy monument goes to the wayside. The disciples fall silent.  Their first response is not to speak.  They are overwhelmed by the Holy. 

Yet, in true human fashion, as soon as they are silent before God, the disciples start trying their best to come up with something to explain the moment.  Sometimes, God cannot be explained, yet we will exhaust ourselves trying to explain God and God's ways.

To make sense of the Transfiguration, or any moment that is God-suffused, we need to wrestle with the “so what?” question. We see a brilliant sunset, receive a wise word at just the right time, or experience a moment that suddenly makes sense of the knot our life seems to be in. To experience God is not about “feelings”; it is about “knowing” that God is prompting us to something beyond our imaginings. The disciples are overwhelmed by the moment, confused by the moment, and even try to make sense of the moment by offering to build something commemorative. Then the voice of God speaks, and they realize that there’s something much bigger going on. In the true fashion of a holy experience, they realize that words just cannot make up explaining what has taken place.

The brilliance of the Gospel traditions, Luke and Mark alike, is evident here. When the disciples descend to the places down below the mountain, Jesus and the disciples are asked to help people in need. The call to serve is made quite clear when the disciples come down from their high places and encounter the needs below.

One error that the Church often makes is keeping faith all about the high moments. Over the centuries, Christians have tended to put their energies into building big monuments that are commonly called “church buildings”, “cathedrals” or “church campuses”.  We do this for the glory of God, yet we tend to forget that the church is really about people, not buildings, and if we are ignoring the needs of people around us, we are missing the gospel that Jesus preached and modelled.  Even when affirmed by God, Jesus did not ignore the needs awaiting him down below.

The healing of the child at the bottom of the hill symbolizes our own call to be disciples who can have these “God sightings” AND know how to live out a life shaped by the call to serve God and tend the needs of this world.   We must remember that even in the blessings and joys of encountering God at work in the little and big things of this congregation’s life are indeed blessings and joy, but they are also calls to serve.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Explorations in Baptist history: Adam Clayton Powell Senior

Rev Dr Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
In the history of New York City churches, surely the Abyssinian Baptist Church is among the great congregations to rise up and minister to the urban multitudes.  Among their past ministers, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. is among the most visionary, leading the church to move to Harlem to replant the congregation in the midst of the neighborhoods changing rapidly with the influx of African Americans moving into the City as part of the Great Migration in the early 20th century. 

Among those Powell influenced was a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose worldview was reshaped by hearing Powell's sermons and experiencing the ministry of Abyssinian during his brief sojourn in the United States.  Certainly, many biographers connect Powell as a main motivator of Bonhoeffer's decision to return home to Germany as part of the resistance to Hitler and Nazi Germany.  [A more in-depth study of the Bonhoeffer/Abyssinian connection is found in Reggie L. Williams' Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014).] 

Powell was not without his detractors.  In his award-winning book The New Abolition: WEB DuBois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale University Press, 2015), historian Gary L. Dorrien recalls Powell's challenges within the congregation and among his fellow African American Baptist clergy.  Early on, he dealt with a faction of the church that wanted to bring back his predecessor, even going as far as to ensure the provided clergy housing was in a building across from the church and with a working brothel in the apartment above.  The church was resistant to his vision to relocate the church out of mid-town Manhattan, even as Powell rightly predicted the shifts of the City's African American populace to Harlem. 

As part of the social gospel movement of his time, Powell envisioned the church far more engaged in the community and dealing with social needs and challenges.  Holding a meeting for potential stakeholders, Powell found stiff resistance among the one hundred black Baptist leaders, including "one minister [who] delivered a fifteen-minute tirade against the idea of a community center before asking what it was" (Dorrien, 438).  Powell's vision of "a place where the people of the community could learn things and be together" did not match many clergy's vision of the church as a place for evangelism alone.  All but eight of the visiting African American pastors declined further involvement with this project, leaving Powell primarily dependent on partnership with the then predominately Euro American organization the Baptist New York City Mission (presently known as the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, one of the ABCUSA's most diverse Regions).  

Powell would found a food pantry, create programs and grow Abyssinian's presence in Harlem throughout his ministry.  Nonetheless, the lack of support from his fellow pastors must have been painful.  He did not seek further outreach to his black church colleagues for the next eleven years (Dorrien, 438). 

While the social gospel is often associated readily among Baptists with Walter Rauschenbusch's body of writings, Powell incarnated the precepts of a progressive and evangelizing ministry in his many years at Abyssinian.  Perusing the website of Abyssinian's current day ministries and mission, the legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., is well evident (

Powell credited his ministry and pastoral passion to the experience of growing up in difficult circumstances.  At nineteen years old, Powell was living hard and playing hard as a miner in Rendville, Ohio.  A chance encounter with a powerful preacher on a Sunday morning "sent an arrow of conviction to his heart" (Dorrien, 426). He credited his rediscovery of faith as a key element to his rising up from a troubled youth and becoming a pastor. 

Particularly, Powell credited  the mentorship of G. M. P. King, President of the Wayland Seminary and College (later known as Virginia Union University).   Under King's influence, Powell recalled:

"To me, [King] possessed the magnetism of the polestar.  His life radiated beauty, goodness, courage, honesty, truth and love.  These virtues cannot be taught by words.  They can only be imparted by a life which possesses them in abundance." (quoted by Dorrien, p. 427).

Exploring the life and legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., we discover how a good mentor helped a young person connect with the ways that move many, not just the one, forward.  Influenced by such a "polestar", Powell multiplied the gospel message through the many ministries coming out of Abyssinian and into the neighborhoods around Harlem and well beyond. 

NOTE:    For more on the Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson conducted years of interviews and a great deal of research to author her Pultizer Prize winning book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great Migration (Random House, 2010). 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Learning to Breathe Again (Psalm 146)

This Sunday morning, I am the guest preacher at a church in a time of pastoral transition.  Led by a very able interim minister, the church has benefited from the careful time of being in discernment about its future and processing how it understands its identity, mission and its past history.  

As a Region staff member involved with the pastoral search and call support to the church, I thought about the best text for the Sunday morning service with such a context outlined above.  I opted to share a sermon around the 146th Psalm that calls us to praise and to remember to Whom we have our very breath--if we remember to breathe!

When I moved from Kansas City to Bennington, Vermont, years ago for a new pastoral call, I joined the local Choral Society. It was the first time since college to be part of a choir singing really more demanding material.  After the first night, I came home exhausted. We rehearsed for two full hours.  While it was stimulating and engaging, my feet hurt from standing, my voice hurt from singing a few notes I had forgotten how to reach up above the comforts of the bass clef.
One of the key elements of singing is whether you can breathe well. Finding the pitch, being able to carry a tune—these are helpful, but you also have to be able to breathe so that what you are trying to sing has adequate support. Good breathing skills are needed to sing, but they take practice, and that night in September, I realized how out of practice I had become with these skills. Nonetheless, to be able to keep up with the demands of singing the music well, you have to improve your breathing skills.
When the psalms speak of praise of God, the ability to breathe is part of the act of praise. Praise and breathing are intertwined in the Psalms, and for good reason. The Hebrew Scriptures remind us, particularly in the Psalter, we breathe only because God has given us breath.
          As the Creation narratives unfold, the book of Genesis refers to the wind and breath that enlivens Creation as that of the Spirit of God being imparted. Without God’s activity, Creation has not come alive. In Genesis 1, the winds that move over the waters and the very act of bringing to life the first human is about God breathing life into Creation, humanity included. (Even the Hebrew word used for wind or breath as well as describing the Spirit of God, called by Christians as the Holy Spirit, is breathy in its pronunciation: ruach.)
Thus, the 150th Psalm calls out, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” reminding that all of Creation breathes together the same breath of life. Thus, the 140th Psalm’s vision of God as “provider of all” refers to death as when God’s breath is taken away such is the Psalter’s notion of how dependent we humans are on God. Thus, the melancholy of the 144th Psalm as it refers to humans as those “who are like a breath; their days like a passing shadow”. The Psalms come from a theological worldview that ties breath and life together as gifted to us by God. Thus, in turn, the act of praise comes about because we have breath, and especially when the created finally remember with all due reverence the Creator who has given us the breath!
The failing of humanity, however, as the 146th Psalm puts it, is when we falter in remembering from where our praise and breath comes from. Psalm 146 gives a criticism here that should be noted: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” The Psalmist offers a contrary word to the way things tend to work in this world. It is in God alone that we find our hope and trust.
See the first two verses of Psalm 146. These are the type of verses of the Bible that you encourage people to memorize and keep close to heart: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (Ps. 146:1-2) If you are able to keep these praises close to heart, and these “princes” or “powers that be” at arm’s length, you have begun to live a more authentic life, getting away from those things that may seem to sound good now, but later and inevitably run out of air.
The psalm turns us away from the foolishness of this world and reorients us to the way of life that helps us breathe again. The spiritual life is not just for emergencies only or the deeply pious. The Psalms are to accompany you by the bed stand, the dashboard, the cubicle at work, the places where you find a moment’s respite, just as they have been there for ancient Israel and all those generations afterward who seek wisdom. In reorienting ourselves back to God, we remember that the only gift we have in this life, the only asset is life itself. What we make of it can be wonderment as well as disaster, but we are better off starting with the simplicity of the Psalm, geared to that which helps us breathe and give due praise rather than disdain or disregard to God.
In my exploits of rejoining a choir, I found myself assigned to sing one of the solos during one of the programs.  For most of us who sing but have no designs at being a professional, it's not just something you go out and belt out like it is American Idol.  I found myself obsessing about number of last minute things. Moreover, I pray the worst not to happen: the unmanly thing of having your voice crack. The most important thing to remember: breathe.
I started with the Choral Society as a way to have something beyond the church on a weekly basis.  (Pastors need something like that.  Some find it on the golf course.  Others find it in the choir room.)  Most weeks, I found myself dragging on the way there for a Monday night practice, wore out still from Sunday and frankly sometimes I found myself sometimes pondering, “Should I just go home and hide?” or worse, “Should I go back to the office and keep working?”  (For others, you might find this a familiar conversation with yourself regarding going to the gym.)
However, I kept going, just to give me something that does not involve the rigors of parish life. Ironically, the group sang mostly sacred music, but it is nice just to concentrate on the music without having to think of leading worship, answering email, and figuring several impossible parish matters out before breakfast, because the choral rehearsal is able to turn me back to praise.
During most Monday rehearsals, I would go home with my feet hurting, my back hurting, my voice is weary, but at choir, I find myself breathing more easily. The same could be said for the work of ministry: feet hurt, back hurts, voice weary, but if I can learn to breathe, I’ll find myself leaving behind stress and the seduction of “getting things done” or worse, trying to be “the best”. Instead, I might just find myself getting around to the most important thing: praise.
One other deft movement within this Psalm is also noted. While the Psalmist appeals to the individual to turn away from the tempting personal gain thought to be found in this life, the Psalmist reminds us of whom God is. It is not enough that God’s people get themselves straightened out and reoriented to their own little journey in faith. It is also about being able to praise God, the One who is steadfast in support and care of those otherwise marginalized, usually by those same “princes” or “powers that be”. The thing to keep in mind about the “powers” that try to get us to run our lives by their desire is this: they may not last, but their policies and practices can create a world of hurt for the less fortunate of the world that lasts sometimes over the generations.
The God of Psalm 146 is deeply concerned with those who are less fortunate in this life: the oppressed are given justice; the hungry are fed; the prisoners are liberated; the blind are given sight; the righteous vindicated; the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner are tended. This is the song that ancient Israel and all the generations thereafter are called to sing. As Water Brueggemann says when ancient Israel, the community first called to this psalm’s performance, takes up the Psalm of the day, “Israel sings, and we never know what holy power is unleashed by such singing”. This sort of praise music is not for the faint of heart!
God is not like that puff of air that disappears. God is steadfast, or “keeps the faith forever”. Steadfast is a word that the Psalmist uses that you do not use lightly in the vocabulary of the Hebrew Scriptures. To be steadfast means to be undeterred and unshakeable. Again, the Psalmist revels in the irony of human life: we chase all manner of things, only to find that they, and even ourselves, are like a puff of wind. God, the very wind of Creation, is the only stability, and so, again, the Psalmist says, “Pay attention to what God cares about. It might tell you something.”
I encourage you to talk to one another about ways that you feel God calling you to breathe together as a church.  When you catch your breath, it’s often because you are winded, but it also helps you return to a time where balance can be restored.  When a church has a pastor depart, it can be a time of breathlessness—anxiety, nerves and residual feelings left unprocessed as a pastor departs and the “what’s next?” questions mix together.  During your transition with Pastor Bill, he has encouraged you to think about these concerns and feelings, work through ways to address short-term and long-term needs, and to feel strengthened by the transition and its opportunities for change more than frightened or overwhelmed by them.
You have done this because you have remembered to breathe.  You have done this because you remembered to breathe together.  You have done this because you know from Whom your very breath comes.
Let’s sing our praises to the Lord!  AMEN!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Wise teachings to ponder

Reading the Sunday Gospel text, I recalled two different stories that have some connection with one another. 

In the Matthew reading, Jesus is offering the crowds his Sermon on the Mount.  Just after he gives the Beatitudes, Jesus says,

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:13-16, NRSV)

In my ruminations, I recalled a bit of rabbinic lore that I believe has some parallels to the Gospel reading:

The rabbis tell a story about a student asking a teacher when it is dawn.
The student asks, "Is it dawn when you can see well enough to tell a sheep from a dog?"

"No," the rabbi said.
"Is it when it is light enough to tell one kind of tree from another?"

"No," the rabbi said. "It is when you can see the face of a stranger and recognize it in the face of a brother or sister.  Until then, no matter how light it is, it is still very dark."

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Church and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

                 If you were to survey most Christians, I would imagine the Sermon on the Mount would rank up there as one most remembered of the gospels.  Jesus has a crowd gathered, eager to hear his teaching.  The scene could not be more appropriate:  Jesus ascends to a place where he can speak to the masses.  The little cues of Matthew’s narration set up what is about to unfold.  Jesus assumes the posture of teacher, sitting down, attended by his disciples, and then what sounds like a minor detail:  he opens his mouth to speak.  This phrase cues Matthew’s reader that Jesus is one who speaks with authority, just like the “greats” who have gone before.
                  Speaking with authority is a difficult concept for us nowadays.  We live in the midst of a 24 hour news cycle, where matters of public discourse get turned into the grist mill of news commentary and pundits battling ideological differences, and then Stephen Colbert and others end the night, poking fun at the pundits.  (They do not want for comedy-worthy material from either side of the fence.)
                 Authority does not carry much weight.  We live in a time of distrust that any authority has much good to say, or if it sounds good, such talk needs scrutiny.  We look for bias.  We presume a subtext at work.  We frown, arms folded, skeptical that much good can come of this political speech or that ideological way of thinking.
                 Jesus has gathered for a multitude with very little distrust.  In fact, he seems to be rather harried with the adoration and praise.  He has started his ministry, gathered some disciples, but the groundswell of people interested in hearing more and receiving his healing touch is overwhelming.  He has struck a deep chord among the people of rural and coastal Galilee.

                 Fast forward to the end of this story called “gospel”, however, and you find that Jesus is alone, walking (as best he can) towards another place, one called “Golgotha”, or that is, “the place of the skull”.  The crowds that are around him are mostly hostile.  The disciples are nowhere to be found.
                 It could be said that what he says up there on the Mount is the first of many things that will not sit well with his detractors.  It is said that he is too controversial, too against the grain.  It angers them enough to the point they conspire to get rid of him.
                 Some people, called Christians, say that Jesus spoke with authority, unlike any other.
The Sermon on the Mount is part of that unusual message of Jesus.  In these nine short sayings, Jesus begins his task of imagining a different sort of world.   Imagine if you will that a major political speech began not with a critique of Wall Street, but with a story from a soup kitchen, or if a Congressional panel interviewed peace activists, rather than military generals, about the defense needs of the country.  Yeah?  I know, it sounds pretty far-fetched.  While it is not part of the world as we know it, the Beatitudes proclaim it gladly.

               Here, we find that different world of the Beatitudes at work.   For example, the grief-stricken are given promise of comfort.  The earnest humble type will be received gladly into God’s kingdom-reign.  Those who live in fear of persecution will have safety.  And the list goes on…..
The Beatitudes are an extension of what Jesus was first saying as his ministry began:  “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near”.  The crowds have gathered as Jesus has brought hope to the rural, mostly forgotten places of Galilee.  He is willing to share this teaching beyond his “faithful” inner circle.  Everyone is welcome to hear this word, yet the response will be mixed.  Can we live in such a world as Jesus’ beatitudes put forth?
              With Jesus’ teachings, there is an innate tension between the present and the future.  How will we be comforted from our grief?  How will we feel vindicated when the world seems against us?  How do we manage when there’s not much hope to be found around us?

             The Beatitudes have a curious grammar.  On one hand, Jesus names people who “are” in a certain predicament or live in a way less desirable to others (i.e. do you really want to be known as “meek” when the culture says, “be strong!”?).  In the same breath, he draws them into the future, a much brighter, hopeful time.  How hopeful is this future?  It is astonishing!
How so?  Let’s again look at the meek.  Imagine the quieter, less competitive type as the person ahead of you in the line to Heaven’s gates.  It goes against the story (or perhaps better said, myth) of life as we know it that you need to be aggressive and competitive to get ahead.  Yet, Jesus says those who are not the best players of that sort of game, or who choose not to be, are the ones who “get ahead” in God’s realm.
              In these beatitudes, Jesus is reshaping our expectations of what the future holds.  For those who feel like perpetual students of “the School of Hard Knocks”, there will be a reckoning, and for once, it will be one you want to come about!  The burdensome issues of the present shall give way to a future where the playing field is level, and a truly peaceable kingdom, one remarkably unlike Rome, shall reign.
             The grammar of the Beatitudes is subversive.  We are given a vision of the future as God will bring it about.  Jesus also intends for those hearing these beatitudes to work in the here and now as if that future is the pattern we follow in our present day actions.  We live as a people who decline to give in and let the “lesser” folks or the forgotten or the bereft or the condemned or the unjustly treated be left to arbitrary treatments.  The Beatitudes swing back and forth between “what will be” and “what we need to get things to be”.
             In our most common English translations, the Beatitudes describe various people in crisis getting their liberating word about God’s future for them by being called “blessed”.  In truth, the concept underlying the Greek word Jesus uses (Gk. makarios) is better translated as “esteemed” or “honored”.  The persons who have already lost the most stand to gain greatly, not only in alleviation of their predicaments or impoverishment but in their standing in the kingdom that shall last: the kingdom of God.  “Esteemed are those who grieve” or “honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” places a different spin on the Beatitudes.  The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann claims that such teachings of Jesus highlight the gospel’s belief in “the dignity of the poor” (The Way of Jesus Christ, pp. 99-102).  When Jesus pronounces blessings upon the vulnerable, he also provides a word about how strong the “weak” shall be when the Kingdom of God draws near.  Without these esteemed and honored peoples, the Kingdom/Reign cannot live up to its potential (cf. Moltmann, 101-2).   Such a far cry from the world where those perceived as “weak” are marginalized or tossed aside.
            A few years back, I became acquainted with a pastor who serves an American Baptist congregation in Florida.  The church named itself the “Church of the Beatitudes”.  It is known as one of the few ABC/USA congregations in Florida.  It is also known for its commitments to the community, social justice, and its stand with those less fortunate.  Over the years, the congregation has grown into the name they chose all those years ago.   They became who they called themselves to be.  They endeavor to be the followers that Jesus was looking for when he gave these beatitudes long ago.
           Sometimes, we Baptists name our congregations based on a variety of factors.  “Second Baptist” can mean they were the second one to form, or in many cases, the first one to split off of the “First” Baptist congregation.  (We have a habit of church planting by way of church split.) Other times, we name a church based on a neighborhood or a community name (I used to serve a Kansas City congregation named Brenner Heights.)  A few Baptist churches are named after noteworthy people (i.e. there are more than a few “Judson Baptist Churches”, so named after the renowned missionary).
          Curiously enough the same challenge is given to each congregation, regardless of its name or even its denomination.  For those who follow Christ, the question arises about the Beatitudes:  will you be part of the proclaiming of Christ’s word?  Do you live alongside those considered inconsequential by larger society?  Is your faith community a place where dignity is understood to be granted without exception by God, and not by whatever prevailing societal politics or ecclesiastical polity might say?  Each congregation that follows the gospel has to ask itself whether or not it is also “a church of the Beatitudes”.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Adventures in Repenting (Matthew 4:12-23)

"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
These words of Jesus come at the end of a very long introduction to Jesus and his identity as the Son of God and Messiah.  Up until this passage, Matthew’s gospel has been largely about “setting the stage”:  a lengthy genealogy with all those names from the Bible, meant to show Jesus as the culmination of God’s long involvement and investment in human history, as told by Israel.  (Really, that list is one of those passages we all hope isn’t scheduled the Sunday when you have to read scripture.  As we used to say back home when lists of tongue-twisting names came up in the readings, we would say, “And there were people”.)

After the “begats and begots”, then it seems a bit like Christmas, telling the story of magi wandering over the territory and Herod conniving to assuage his insecurities about competition, if it weren’t for that dreamer named Joseph who navigated the difficult social and political challenges of a miraculously pregnant virgin wife in a stone-throwing society and a royal court not beneath slaughtering innocents to protect the king’s petty fears.

Then it’s the pyrotechnics of baptism, as John the Baptist chastens the masses with his call to conversion and then gets a shock when it’s time to baptize Jesus.  It’s not just every day when the heavens open, a dove comes down and James Earl Jones does the voice over.  Toss in forty days and forty nights of testing and temptation out in the desert (dude with pitchfork included), you’d think the prelude is most of the story, yet the gospel is just getting underway.

Jesus steps to the center of the stage and in one short sentence, summarizes what has come before and what is just about to unfold.  The agenda and the tone for the gospel are set in these ten words, inviting those who listen to consider a new way of looking at the world and themselves.  These ten words constitute a challenge to those ‘kingdoms’ of the earth that their power and interests are not the timetable that Jesus and his followers will be living out their lives.  It’s the beginning of a story that continues to this day, the story of Jesus and those who would follow him.

Despite what you might think, the first word, repent, is all about a journey getting underway.  When I hear the word, I usually think of how the word is used among those who I would call the “evangelically strident”, Christians who use the word with a bit of edge in their voice.  When living in Kansas City, I would see them occasionally at a prominent traffic stop, walking up and down the street with microphone cords trailing back to small amplifiers.  The word “repent” was oft-used in the 30 seconds one might spend waiting for the light to change, and your lane of traffic just starting to get underway.  Such fervor really did not make much of an impression on most people waiting in traffic.  They sat there, trapped by the red light, trying not to make eye contact with the street preachers, perhaps cranking up their car stereo to drown out the preaching.

The word “repent” gets a bad rap, thanks to the sometimes artless ways the word is communicated.  Shorn of interpretative baggage usually framed by images of “sorrow and remorse”, the New Testament word “repent” by itself is quite a powerful word, as the word Jesus uses in the gospels (Gk metanoia) means “to change the direction of one’s life” (“Matthew”, New Interpreter’s Bible).  Such a concept asks much of the believer, yet such a concept can be that lifeline we have been looking for, a word that gets in edgewise of the “stuck” feelings we have about our lives, or when we dare to engage possibilities previously unexplored in our lives.  To repent is less the image of the penitent coming forward at a revival’s altar call.  To repent in the metanoia sense means that you’ve decided to go a different path with your life.  Repenting means you ain’t going back to the way things used to be, and you couldn’t be more satisfied with this new direction.

Could we think of “repenting” as the best thing that ever happened to you?  I recall a guest preacher at our seminary chapel.  As he spoke of repentance as “change”, he would talk about things that kept us down and then through a positive change in one’s life, how one could feel renewed or unburdened when making good choices about how one lives life.  He flourished it with a little leap in the pulpit, left to right, speaking of ways one lived before and then after repentance took place.  Making that leap, that change is indeed an occasion for feeling like life has stopped getting too heavy for its own good.  In joy, we can change our attitudes and habits, our sense of feeling stuck or unmoored.  Repentance is the beginning of an adventure you would not have found yourself on otherwise.  To repent is literally a transformative act

For the Christian believer, to repent means turning one’s life to the way of Jesus.  Rather than wearing oneself down running the well-trodden path of the rat race, the Christian seeks to trace her way through the contours and questions of the gospel.  Reading one’s way through Matthew’s gospel, you encounter a variety of people who decided to follow Jesus rather than stay in the midst of what they knew, even those things in life they were most comfortable doing.  Matthew gives up tax collecting, a life of easy money by extortion and graft, taking up the way of Jesus, who said “you should love your neighbor as yourself” and that the poor are the most blessed in God’s eyes.  (Don’t we all wish the IRS repented in such a manner?)  Peter’s headstrong attitude is given a test when he realizes he cannot walk on water.

Repentance stretches a person, as you continue down a path that you could not have previously imagined.  To choose repentance, the decision to reshape one’s life, is necessary if one is to choose Jesus.  Over the next few Sundays, we’ll hear the Sermon on the Mount as our reading from the gospel.  As we shall see, teachings that seem “simple” will ask very hard questions of persons as they live in the tension of the world’s ways and the ways of Jesus.

This mindset is needed if you are to live in the kingdom of Heaven.  To live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is to live in tension with the kingdoms of the world, especially those to whom you would otherwise claim close allegiance.  Matthew’s gospel warns a follower of Jesus about maintaining a too-familiar relationship with the kingdoms of Herod and Rome.

This kingdom of heaven shall be a different sort of reign, where local demagogues (i.e. Herod who just hauled John the Baptist off to certain misery and death) and even the ones ruling from Rome are going to be declared second fiddle to this movement called “the kingdom of Heaven”.  Jesus selecting fishermen as some of his first followers demonstrates the “otherness” of the Kingdom of Heaven raising up those that the Empire and Herod’s court exploited and disregarded.

In turn, those following Jesus’ way are called to be just like him, living out his teachings and calling others to do likewise.  The disciple will be not only evangelizing the good news, the disciple will be the example for why Jesus’ teachings matter. In other words, a repenting and faithfully following Christian has many difficult choices to make about how to live faithfully in the world.

Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we have a choice: are we admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus?  Admirers might like Jesus from afar, yet followers are the ones who take up the Cross and follow the way of Jesus.  To illustrate, Hauerwas recounts a story from Clarence Jordan, a Baptist who worked for desegregation in 1950s era Georgia.

Jordan led a group of people committed to racial integration, living as an intentional community in Americus, Georgia. When his religious community experienced some legal problems, Jordan approached his brother who was a lawyer.  Jordan’s brother refused as it might harm his law practice and his political aspirations.  In their argument over the matter, Clarence pointed out that the two of them joined the Baptist church on the same Sunday when they were boys.  Clarence wondered if his brother had missed something along the way about Jesus being his Lord and Savior. Jordan wanted his brother to answer this question:  Do you just admire Jesus or do you follow Jesus?  (Cf. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 57).

A man walks down the shoreline and summons fishermen to follow him.  They leave their lives behind and follow.  Were these fishermen in their right minds?   What sort of religion asks for such commitment without it veering off from “faith” to some type of fundamentalism or cult-like behavior? 

How do ordinary folks like you and me claim to follow rather than admire Jesus? The gospel narrative offers puzzling questions and leaves unsettling questions within us.  Is it bravery or bravado that one makes when choosing to follow Christ?

How does one repent and live to tell about it?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Remembering the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

This Monday, the legacy and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated as a civic holiday around the United States this Monday.  And it's more than "one day" alone.  For many churches and other religious and civic groups, the "MLK Weekend" is a time for advocacy, prayer, marching and initiatives promoting volunteerism and community building.
From my earlier days as a bookstore clerk, I know early January is the target date for many publishers to release their latest "King" related book.  Such releases are timed to educate and help readers enter into the tumult of the Civil Rights Era through the lens of scholarly retrospect and the efforts of a multitude of biographers and writers inspired by King to engage his thought while offering contemporary critique of what parts of the "Dream" have yet to be realized or are in danger of retrogression.

Personally, I gravitate toward reading again the modern epistle to America written by Dr. King while sitting in a jail cell.  The "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" speaks like the rest of the King corpus of sermons, interviews, writings and speeches:  searing words meant to evoke the prophets of old while not letting today's generation off the hook (that of King's day and those we live these days).  Here is one of the many links to the full letter online so you can read it as well:

In particular, I recall a section where King engages in a matter of rightly remembering the past. Too often, we tend to yearn for nostalgia and forget how things really played out, especially for those marginalized by the victor's narrative.  King preaches to the choir here, calling his fellow Christians to remember rightly:

"There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century...."

Powerful words from the 1960s continue to summon the Church and society alike.  Ponder with me what it means to be part of the faithful these days.  And do not keep Martin's legacy "past tense" (or worse yet, only remembered once per year with a service of worship or honored by just a single day of service).