Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas and Happy 2016!

Merry Christmas!
Happy New Year!
(Updates for "Preaching & Pondering"
will return in early January.  For now, it's time to snuggle down and read a good book!)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent Four: Hope Descendant (Luke 1:36-56)

“What planet are you on?”

This phrase is not necessarily about the question mark at its end. When somebody poses the question to you, they mean to say something to you more than ask. Such a question might come when you’ve said something that the other person finds a bit misguided, off the beaten path or not really tethered to reality.

“What planet are you on?” can be said in jest. More likely, the question can be thrown at you in the heat of the moment while arguing differing views. Indeed, if you have it said to you, there’s a good chance the other person has heard something that they simply cannot believe in.

Belief….It’s part of the challenge of being a religious person, yet for some, it’s a matter of absolutism (all in or faith loses all worth). A fundamentalist is quite comfortable on this side of things. For others, the experiences of life bring doubt where one has to choose whether or not to honor the questions that disturb or disrupt our trust and ardor. Here, we will find the majority of believers, sorting out where faith and life intersect, diverge and sometimes conflict deeply.

I honor when doubt enters into a situation, as it strengthens a faith able to navigate the world’s uncertainties. Doubt asks us to consider carefully how faith is a matter of the heart and mind and how we can shortchange ourselves by not wrestling with the questions and refraining from letting life in the real world be seen with honest eyes, not obscured with your head in the clouds.

How one navigates the heights and depths of faith may be a different experience for you and me in small and great ways alike. Each of us encounters hardship and triumph, uncertainty and certainty at a different pace and differing circumstances. Nonetheless, a faith that insists on seeing only in part keeps us from living faithfully while we live out our days in the present and wait faithfully God’s promised future for the old to pass away for the New Creation promised to us.

Unfortunately, too often Christianity has wrestled with visions more about “the End” or not engaging as thoughtfully the present day challenges, implying that the world somehow has a disposable shelf life that does not matter in the end. After all, we live in an era where humanity can wreak havoc indeed on a global scale. With nuclear weapons and a world of natural resources overtaxed by unchecked (and particularly American) consumptive habits, we are at a point where we cannot stop thinking about consequences.

We can wreak much havoc on the fragile web of life and humanity. We should not dismiss the responsibility that comes in such an era, though it seems we live otherwise more often. How can a word worth following ask us to take leave of the world and stop addressing the much more pressing questions of our daily existence, where so many are without basic human needs being met. How can faith become so disconnected with “pie in the sky” futures that no Christian engagement happens with the matters of food insecure households, who are often also the ones struggling to have adequate heat, shelter and healthcare access?

With Mary, we are invited to sing these words of faith as well. Indeed, you could say that the beginnings of faith can be in learning this song and letting its power move within us. We hear her song as a spiritual and a protest song all mixed into one. It has that same edge as an old song from Bob Dylan called “A Song for Woody”. Dylan was deeply influenced by singer Woody Guthrie, whose music spoke to the deep pain of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era as surely as Dylan’s songs engaged the tumultuous 1960s:

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that's coming along
Seems sick and it's hungry, it's tired and it's torn
It looks like it's dying and it's hardly been born.

So arises the Song of Mary in the midst of difficult times and economic disparities. Mary lives in the midst of a country under outsider rule (the Roman Empire) with its economic disparities (only a select few owned land and had the majority of ancient Palestine’s assets while most lived at or below subsistence level) and social and religious differences (only men determined by rigorous standards to be without health or religious defect had the most standing in society and at Temple). Here a peasant woman whose pregnancy is suspect and likely to be a shameful matter for her household is belting out a song about how “everything’s gonna be all right”.

Does such a text inspire faith or fuel skepticism? Is this a text to believe in or a bit of the Bible that we should appreciate yet not count on as a vision able to come to full fruitfulness?

Does the song of Mary (often referred to as “the Magnificat”) too up in the clouds or really talking about the world we live in? What planet is the gospel on when it offers such a teaching as this one?

In the face of a world inattentive and unjust, and in spite of religious faith sometimes distanced from reality in favor of a narcissism religious fervor, Mary’s Song as told by Luke’s gospel is a word of challenge passed down the generations of those who read and seek to live out the gospel’s message. Mary imagines a world that is unlike the world she knows best, yet her faithful “Yes” to God in bearing the Christ child is not a mere song and dance routine. We are given a great word that summons us to lean forward into the world being reimagined and reprioritized by Jesus’ message, made known through his teachings, parables, healings and miracles.

In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Mary’s canticle praises God for the kind of salvation that involves concrete transformations.” Johnson challenges centuries of historic and hagiographic interpretations of Mary by drawing us closer to Mary in her historical context: a peasant woman living in the margins of society in whom God entrusts bearing the very Hope of the world. Mary’s song becomes the voice of the otherwise voiceless, proclaiming God’s just blessing for all while declaiming the “powers that be” that perpetuate an unjust world. Johnson claims,
People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded—all who are subjected to social contempt are encompassed in the hope that Mary proclaims. (Truly Our Sister, p. 269)
Such words just before Christmas ask us to be mindful of what this holiday is all about. It’s not the tree and the merriment (though they are delightful traditions). We are coming to Christmas Eve not necessarily for the Christmas carols we can sing without opening the hymnal. We come to reaffirm our faith in Jesus, the son of Mary whose birth is part of the greater story of his life, death and resurrection. From this faith, we hear the good word rising up to encourage those who despair and those who hunger, those who have no welcome and those who yearn for even a taste of God’s good and just world that is surely coming. And in hearing this good news, we dare further to let it transform how we live out the faith of Christ, born in lowly circumstance and yet the One who rules in ways that the world has yet to match with all its vast empires and aspiring potentates.

I recall the creed (the statement of faith and belief) offered by the Christians among the Massai, a tribal group from East Africa. These Christians live a life where they just keep moving along, nomads who have no fixed abode and keep their existence frugal without much need for establishing dwellings or urbanizing.

As some of the Massai people practice Christianity, a creedal statement arose among them in the 1960s. In turn, the creed became much admired among many Christians around the globe as a statement blending the Massai’s life with their faith in the gospel way of Jesus Christ. They confess:
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari, doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together

in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent Three: The Song That Goes On and On and (Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Zephaniah.  It is not one of the more popular baby names nowadays.   It makes me think of those relatives in family pictures from many years ago.  A man named Zephaniah conjures this image of  a great-great-great grandfather staring at you in an old 19th century family photo, a man who looks like he bit nails for fun (and by nails, we mean “ten penny”).  He’s surrounded by the requisite 19th century family of near a dozen children and a wife who looks even tougher than him, able to send the kids off to the one-room school house and then plow the back forty before heading to the kitchen to peel a gunny sack of potatoes to get supper going.  (For the record, I have no relatives named Zephaniah, though I do have an aunt Zelda.)

            The prophet Zephaniah serves as one of the “minor” prophets, the prophets whose writings are shorter in length compared to the “major” prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, but by no means are the minor prophets to be considered “lesser” than the others.   They may have written less, but these “minor” prophets still carry the edgy vocation of prophet, bring a word that challenges and a life that moves against the grain of the world.  Just as last week’s readings from Malachi, the readings from Zephaniah appear in the midst of our anticipation of Christmas, the grumpy street preacher out in the cold on the corner as people bustle by, in search of presents, his message sounding an odd note.

            Zephaniah spends much of its time railing against the excesses of the nation.  The king Josiah reigned, yet Zephaniah’s prophetic work happened in the years before Josiah enacted religious reforms as one of Israel’s last “good” kings.  At this point, no one, from crown on down, had faced up to its breach of covenant loyalty with God.  Zephaniah’s critique of the politics, society, and religion of the day would have been vindicated only after the fact.

            The book of Zephaniah is structured around nine long teachings, or oracles.   Eight of the nine oracles are laden with talk of divine judgment for the people’s neglect of covenant commitments to God and the excesses of the day.  The book offers a fairly firm word that such behavior has not gone unnoticed by the Divine, and quite frankly, there will be a reckoning that no one will be escape, from the guy on the street all the way up to the royal court.

            The ninth oracle is astonishing in its content.  During the last section the prophet’s tone changes.  He speaks of God saving those who listen to the prophet and take it to heart.  I find it quite remarkable to find this section at the end of the prophetic roar, this tender appeal to join voices together and sing of the great hope that God has in store for the faithful.  Suddenly fierce Zephaniah softens, just like a “tough as nails” old man melting into tears as he is given that first grandchild to hold.

The dominant image of the prophetic utterances moves from the earth under divine judgment to a gathering of the faithful, singing of their faith at the top of their voices.   The people are called to sing of a faith that shall endure the world’s hardships and foresee the future as God brings about a reign of justice and peace, not just for some or a chosen few, but for all peoples of the world.

At first glance, you might be skeptical:  what good does this call to song really do?  The world is no less fractured as it was in the day of Zephaniah’s prophetic work.  One of the college students taking the comparative religions course I helped instruct awhile back noted the disparity.  At the final class session this past week, the question was asked:  After learning of various religious traditions this semester (beliefs, rituals, theological reflection on contemporary issues), what questions do you still have?  The student earnestly shared, “Each week, people go to religious places of worship, yet the headlines really never change.”  He noted wars, disasters, economic and social disparities still abound.  I appreciate the student’s observations.  It can seem a bit impossible.  The bright visions of a better world seem a bit detached from reality.  What good can a bunch of people at worship really do in this messed up world?

The song of Zephaniah is yet another reflection of how the season of Advent helps us live in the “now” and the “now yet”.   The Advent texts tell of people living faithfully in times of great challenge, not as those who believe in some sort of wishy-washy “pie in the sky” but rather as those who know you have got to keep your eye on the prize.  To sing Zephaniah’s song, you do not find the imagery of a life lived in pursuit of the afterlife.  Instead, this song imagines a different take on the world, where the nations shall be gathered together, where all persons will be given dignity, where the lost shall be found.

Such a song, invoked in the midst of the praise of God, maps out a different way of looking at the world.  We hear the disparities of a people who claim to be the chosen, the exceptional, yet they kept some folks invisible or at the margins.  Zephaniah is the counter witness to the official script of the day:  the nation was getting a little stronger under Josiah, regaining some international alliances, making a few strides toward new economic stability, yet some folks were kept second class citizens.  The vision of the prophets (major or minor) imagines a people not separated by status or privilege.  (A people holy and devout do not leave anyone out.)

Reading the full text of Zephaniah, you experience the full and necessary indictment of a society that tried its best to be the city set on a hill yet never gave full account for its misdeeds and myopias.  Yet, and I love that word “yet”, as it seems to be the necessary word for describing the prophets:  The people have sinned mightily against God, yet God shall bring about a different End, one of love, justice, and peace.  Accordingly, Zephaniah moves from indignant to tender in his prophecies.  The last section claims you can indeed sing a different tune and become the beloved community of God.  This song of Zephaniah presents where God will bring all things in the end, and singing this song inspires you to be part of the effort to bring the world more into line closer to what God intends.

In 2009, Baptists from around the world gathered for the 400th anniversary celebration of the first “Baptist” congregation forming in Amsterdam in 1609.  The service ended with the gathered people singing “We Are Marching in the Light of God”.   The song is also known as “Siyahamba”, reflecting the song’s origins in South Africa.  Originally, the song arose among Christians living in the long entrenched apartheid era.  The tune is quite easy to pick up, the words easy to remember:

We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God.

Getting a few hundred Baptists singing it at the end of a celebratory worship service, well, that church was rocking.  Better said, when the rest of the world joins in the song, even us relatively staid U.S. Baptists, who have mixed feelings about even clapping in church, find ourselves dancing.

The song “Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God” is not just “idle words” set to a catchy tune. The song mirrors the faith of a people who look to God for their strength and encouragement.  For people living under an oppressive government, dealing with hunger, poverty, and other forms of blatant disregard for people based on the color of their skin, this song pointed to a path through this world. Michael Hawn, a leading proponent of sacred global music, notes the power of this hymn, “Singing "Siyahamba" says that liturgy is not hermetically sealed from daily life, but is a place to mend the wounds of oppression, and to receive a blessing to return to the streets in hope for freedom.” (C. Michael Hawn, )  Not only for Sunday, this song provided a vision for the lives of people working to change a society.

The band came to a stop, as the BWA president came to the pulpit to give the benediction.  The crowd at the Baptist World Alliance meetings could not stop singing.  The president smiled and just waved his hand, conducting the crowd as we sang the song one more time.

I think back to that summer day in Amsterdam as I read Zephaniah.  The BWA singing together reminded me of the prophet’s vision of the nations of the world being gathered together, with no partiality given, gathered to sing of God’s just future coming about.  Siyahamba brought the people to worship and prepared them to return home to places where difficulties abound.  I stood alongside persons who would return to countries where poverty abounds and clean water is in short supply, where human trafficking (the 21st century version of slavery) is a critical problem, where the world’s resources are scarce because the West, particularly this country, over consumes.  These folks sang “We Are Marching in the Light of God” with the same conviction as those who composed it while living in difficult times.  Admittedly, I have sang “We Are Marching in the Light of God” at a few church services and ecumenical gatherings over the years, but this is the first time I felt the words and the tune work down into my soul.

What did that song say to me?  How does a Baptist serving in a country of veritable privilege, feel able to join in that song?   In response to the student’s pondering whether or not worshipping people can make a difference in the world, I would share with them about First Baptist, Cuba, and your commitment to become the best answer to that question.  Your church is investing its energies in discipleship far beyond just what happens on a Sunday morning. 
May we continue learning to sing a new song that harkens back to the prophets of God, who saw the dysfunctional present yet could foresee the bright future God alone holds for the world.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent Two: Being the Least Likely Character (Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4)

Over the years, the nativity set has been a challenge to put together.  You would think it wasn’t.  After all, you place the manger stable on the mantle or hall table, perhaps under the Christmas tree, then you put the little baby in the crèche in the middle.  Mary’s easy to spot, kneeling and smiling upon the newborn. Poor Joseph, though, sometimes gets short shrift.  Some nativity sets are so generically designed, I have spent a good deal of time trying to sort out whether this figurine is Joseph or if he is a shepherd!  After you’ve arranged everyone around the manger, you attach the angel of the Lord to the roof.  Then, sprinkle with sheep, and you’re done.

Often, the nativity set features the Magi, traditionally three kings wearing turbans and bathrobes and carrying gift boxes.  (Of course, most kids don’t get gold. They would settle for Wii gaming consoles.  And if you think they dislike socks and sweaters, just look at their faces when they open the myrrh.)    Oddly enough, while we add the shepherds and the Magi, nativity sets forget to add some important folks:  the prophets.

Read the gospels, and the texts cite the prophetic writings regularly.  In fact, the book of Isaiah is sometimes called the “fifth” gospel as Jesus and the gospel writers alike connect Jesus’ ministry with the prophetic word.  Christian interpretation has claimed Jesus’ birth, his messianic identity, his humble servanthood, and his suffering for our redemption, referencing the prophetic texts.  So, if there are any “extra” guests at the Nativity, why not the prophets?  They are the ones who proclaim the One who is to come.  Christians confess the messiah to be Jesus of Nazareth, and especially recall prophetic texts at times like Christmas and Easter as we celebrate Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.

In seminary, our studies of the “Old Testament”, or Hebrew Scriptures, were given over the course of two semesters.  Half of the “502” course explored the prophets, and students sometimes grumbled at the requirement to spend half a semester just on the prophets.  Why spend so much time on these texts?

For starters, if you wish to understand the Bible, you have to spend time with the prophets, whose writings comprise a significant portion of the Bible.  The God of the Old Testament is not the angry caricature sometimes perpetuated in some popular Christian thought (i.e. the God of the Old Testament was angry and the New Testament speaks of a God of love).  Including the messianic hope, the prophetic books interweave that hope with commentary on the relationship between God and God’s people, the challenge of a broken world and the hope the prophets see God providing even in the most difficult of circumstances.  The prophets are passionate, declaring God’s decisive word and radical vision for a people gone astray but forever beloved. 

For example, take the prophet Malachi.  Look the book of the Bible up on a biblical history timeline, and you’ll find the prophetic book is thought to be written seventy years after a very traumatic period in ancient Israel’s history.  Seventy years prior, the people returned to Jerusalem after a long exile, captive by the Babylonian empire.  The city was in ruins, the religious and political power built up during the years of monarchies gone.  The book of Isaiah begins the story of a people trying to get back on their feet.  The book of Malachi is further down this timeline, when the people have gotten a chance to rebuild, to find a fresh start.  And where do we find the people of ancient Israel two generations later after the veritable miracle and grace of being allowed to return home after years away in the Exile?

Still in need of being saved from themselves!

By the era of Malachi, the nation is under the control of the Persian Empire, considered at best a backwater imperial holding, of little consequence.  The city has been rebuilt, yet the people themselves are in bad shape.  The prophet Malachi moves among a people who have lost their way yet again, falling back into the same self-destructive ways, going down pathways seemingly attractive.  The economic and the religious life of the people crumbled away.  Despite being given a second chance, the people have lost their way yet again.

The prophet Malachi rails against the people’s failings, yet do you hear the great hope offered by the prophet?   The prophets are often remembered for their sharp words of criticism and indictment against the sin of the people, yet such texts as the Malachi reading need to be recalled as the counter-balance.  In the beginning and the end, God never gives up.  The prophets speak of the anger of God, the disappointment God has in our failings, and the accountability to which God holds us. The imagery of Malachi 3 is one of incredible splendor.  God shall work and rework this sinful, broken people until they shine like refined gold or silver.

The prophetic tradition sees each and every person as worth God’s tenaciously hanging onto, the God who shall working tirelessly to redeem, restore, and reconcile.  The incredible word of this recurs throughout the prophetic texts, envisioning with the prophetic imagination, the future that only God can bring.  Human history is cluttered with many failed attempts by nations, ideologies, and worldviews that claimed to be that next great vision that would bring about a world deemed “better”.  In the prophetic tradition of the Bible, God alone has the last word, not the kings, the empires, or the leading conventional wisdom of the day.  In the end, God shall redeem, restore, and reconcile.

In the gospels, John the Baptist is traditionally hailed as “the last of the prophets”, connecting John with these prophetic writers and claiming that his short ministry and death bring to an end, or a culmination, the long standing prophetic line.  Just as Malachi and the others, John the Baptist stands in the midst of a society and culture that has lost its way.  He preaches a baptism rooted in repentance, calling the people away from the world’s vanities and temptations.  His gruff demeanor and dress underscore how at odds with the world this prophet intends to be. Luke’s gospel begins the third chapter with a description of the rulers of the day, noting who could be counted among the powerful and influential.  Then, we hear John’s voice, perhaps a bit hoarse from his shouting to the crowds, cutting through the narration with his prophetic word.  Luke cites this odd figure as fulfillment of the hope found in the prophetic words of Isaiah:  a man who looks like he has left his fashion sense and probably most other senses behind when he went out into the desert to begin his contrary ministry, preaching of the excesses of the Temple and the people, claiming authority that few would believe he had.

A 20th century hymn recalls John’s prophetic ministry.  The hymn text, written by 20th century hymnist Carl Daw, encourages us to hear John the Baptist:
“Wild and lone the prophet’s voice echoes through the desert still,
calling us to make a choice, bidding us to do God’s will.
So we dare to journey on, led by faith through ways untrod,
Till we come at last like John – to behold the Lamb of God.”

So, back to the fireplace mantle, where the shepherds, the angel of the Lord, the kings, the animals, and even Mary and Joseph gather around this little wailing child, a newborn in a corn crib, born so lowly yet as Christians confess, is very God of very God.  I wonder if we should start adding a figure to the nativity set, one of a prophet.  Perhaps John the Baptist would suffice.  He probably would be the one character a bit sheepish to be getting so much attention.  (The sheep would be sheepish, no matter what they thought of being there with the shepherds.)  I imagine old John perhaps peering around the corner of the stable, that glint in his eyes perhaps softened a bit in the way old “hard as nails” men tend to be when seeing a newborn child.  He stands there, trying not to draw much attention to himself, yet he points one long, bony finger to the Christ child.

Indeed, the prophet would be just as welcome in the midst of this manger scene. Kings seek him, humble shepherds proclaim him, and the prophet adds to the joyful proclamation,
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Advent One: Being the Church Expectant

The liturgical scholar and theologian Laurence Hull Stookey wrote a series of books oft used in seminary classrooms. Among them is his book on the liturgical year, fleshing out the theological rationale for the rituals and practices common among many Western Christians. His book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) is especially helpful in dispelling many misconceptions or thin understandings of the ancient patterns of Christianity marking its days and years faithfully.

For example, when Stookey arrives at the Advent section, he observes,
The primary focus of Advent is on what is popularly called “the second coming.” Thus Advent concerns the future of the Risen One, who will judge wickedness and prevail over every evil. Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God; the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of this destruction of the powers of death, the inauguration and anticipation of what is yet to come in fullness. As such, the opening Sundays of Advent bring to sharp focus themes that in the lectionary system have been accumulating for some weeks; for as the lectionary year closes, the Gospel readings, in particular, deal with signs of the end. (Calendar, p. 121).
For many in worship this Sunday, it’s the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Or, worse, it’s the Sunday when the local church should be just like the local radio station, expecting to open the hymnal to the “greatest hits”. Indeed, a liturgically observant worship planner comes off like Scrooge himself, explaining (hopefully patiently!) that the most popular Christmas Eve service hymns are indeed only for then. For now, enjoy the pondersome somberness of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, for “the primary focus of Advent” is about “signs of the end”.

The longer I have observed the Advent season, the more I love its contrary spirit, drawing us away from the immediate gratification brought on by Black Friday sales and sometimes challenging times of family gatherings or one’s first bout of “blue Christmas” depression. On the first Sunday, we hear texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament calling us to remember that the world is not measured by the “powers that be” but by the faithful witness of the Church anticipating, even as the texts of Advent gain another year’s distance from the first time such texts were heard and inspired hope among God’s people in captivity, oppression or just enduring the long doldrums of years turning into decades into centuries into millennia.

I would hope from the pulpits this Sunday that the Good Word of Advent’s first Sunday is heard. It will be a slower start than most expect, yet we need the time to ponder, to wait and to receive at God’s pace, not our own.

We need faithful Christians who do not rush by the needs of the many in our neighborhoods and nations and engage in ministries of compassion, justice, solidarity and peacemaking on grand and local scales alike. We need churches to rise up from worries about poinsettia placement and enter into the aching questions vexing the hearts of the first-time worshipper in the pews and welcome the stranger at our doors and borders.

Waiting for the Lord is not just fairytale talk for a Sunday morning four weeks before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This first Sunday of Advent is a time not to be the church complacent, but the Church Expectant, acting out in the here and now the fullness of the Gospel that shapes us.

Being a body of believers who is found not yearning for the “sweet bye-and-bye” but looking expectantly for the Lord to come and be involved in the here and now pain of the world as well.

NOTE:  I share with gratitude what is likely the "last word" while in office for the retiring General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches/USA.   Rev. A. Roy Medley offers a powerful word about the current politics of Syrian refugee acceptance and resettlement.   LINK:

Without a doubt, it is a good graceful word that makes perfect sense as a last public writing in this role as Roy retires.  (We're a small denomination, so anyone who calls him "General Secretary Medley" must be surely among the uninitiated or at least failed Baptist polity....)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Confluence of Faith and the World Right Now

The liturgical observance coming up this Sunday is called traditionally "Christ the King" Sunday.   For most congregants, it's the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  And among a few churchgoers (and most certainly all clergy!), it's remembered that the Sunday after that will begin the Advent cycle, though the majority in the pews will dream this next week not of candles but Black Friday deals….

Any preacher aware of the headlines, however, will find this an odd time to think of civic festivity or sacred seasons.  The anxieties, fear and political posturing following the explosion of a Russian plane and the tragedies befalling Paris and other countries less covered by mainstream US media occupy the minds of many pastors and congregants.  The French President speaks of being "at war" after the attacks.  Within a few days, over thirty governors of U.S. states vowed no interest in Syrian refugee resettlement citing security and immigration screening concerns.  Social media posts continue to fill my Facebook feed with cross-posted news stories of persons being beaten or verbally harassed in retaliation for happening to be a Muslim, appearing to fit a stereotype in the attacker's mind, or otherwise somehow suspect.

Perhaps right now is the best time for the Church to hear the texts, sing the hymns and offer prayers  focused on Christ the King Sunday with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday around the corner.  For the former, we celebrate Christ as a benevolent, peaceable ruler, not aloof but alongside the suffering of the world.  The marks of pain and suffering are to be found readily on the glorified Resurrected One, so why not call the Church be summoned and even chastened into action and solidarity with the suffering people of the world?   The refugee, the stranger, and the person who we define in oppositional terms to ourselves (and our sense of safety and security) is indeed said to be the Christ walking to us, yearning for our welcome.

In turn, the civic holiday of Thanksgiving should remind us that the majority of U.S. citizens are themselves the descendants of a multitude of nations, races and ethnicities.  We are a plurality of ideologies, theologies and moralities.  There is no one singular American archetype, even as our culture and politics tend to privilege the Euro/white, male and affluent as the arbiters of the status quo.  The celebration of Thanksgiving is a reminder of civic pride as well as a reminder that our nation's history is built upon ideologies that have their shadow sides (i.e. colonialism, Manifest Destiny and no small dose of American exceptionalism).   A refugee or immigrant should be welcomed, as our forebears themselves were welcomed. 

As I noted on my Facebook status earlier this week, I try to move in the midst of these troubling times with profound sorrow for the hurt and the anger and the violence occupying our minds and fueling our fears.  My family name (Hugenot or Huguenot) is synonymous with religious conflicts between Christians.  I am the descendant of immigrants who arrived in the US from France in the 1830s.  Subsequent generations moved across the country as it developed and opportunities for a better life beckoned.  I humbly suggest we start looking beyond present day panic and welcome the stranger, the refugee and the "other" at our door.

Thus we are living into the positive side of the Thanksgiving civic holiday.  And at Sunday morning worship this weekend, we are hearing of the true Kingdom/Reign and how to ensure our Ruler knows us when coming to separate those who lived the gospel ways of compassion and care from those who chose to live as if nobody else mattered.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Affirming the ministry of the many not the one

Members of the congregation gather around
to lay hands and bless their newly called lay pastor
at the South New Berlin Baptist Church (NY).
Part of my work involves celebrating the "big moments" in the life of a local church or a pastor's ministerial journey. Recently, I was asked to represent the ABC New York State Region at two installations of local church pastors. One pastor is in the midst of the Lay Study program and serving in a rural central New York congregation where he grew up. Another pastor attended seminary as a second career student and was called in recent months to serve as a pastor shared by two congregations in the Adirondacks.

Here are some thoughts I have shared with these recent churches celebrating the call of a new minister and the commitment such work takes for the part-time pastor and the many called to be "church".   (NOTE:  In both cases, I contextualized these remarks to reflect the individuals being called to these churches and celebrating unique strengths of their respective congregations.  This version is reset for a general audience readership.)

Often, we talk about ministry as a vocation, a calling to sacred work, particularly in the case of a minister who is ordained and spends her life serving the needs of Christ and the Church. Alas, the word “vocation” was not meant just for the ordained pastor. Indeed, every Christian is called to be a minister, and we Baptists affirm the priesthood of all believers. Yet in practice, many churches become accustomed to the priesthood of the believer, that is, the pastor who is implicitly or outright told “do the ministry for us”.

Understanding that pastors do suffer from a habit of taking on more than they should (or taking on everything but Sabbath and rest), the pattern becomes problematic, and very little ministry gets done, as it is left increasingly to the “one” rather than the “many” working together.

I give this cautionary tale at the outset to remind us of why when we talk of God’s call in our midst, it is not just to those who go and study to be a minister of the Gospel. This word on vocation is for the whole people of God, for we are all gifted uniquely and particularly for furthering the gospel. Each of us has something to add to the work of the ministry. From the pulpit to the person in the back pew, each of us has a vocation, a calling, to serve God and make the gospel known. Some of us may be ordained to this work, dedicated and set aside to a lifetime’s worth, but no Christian is without a call from God to serve in some manner in a way where those gifts of the Spirit are active and engaged in ways that serve God and neighbor alike.

So a sense of call for all congregants is especially important as a church involved with a bi-vocational pastor (that is, one who is part-time in active ministry and the other part is a matter of earning income elsewhere to help make ends meet for their household). The pastor was called to serve as your pastor, yet the call of God on each of you has not gone away once the pastor arrived on the scene. Your gifts to help the ministry and mission of this church flourish are needed and also, the church could not reach its higher potential if it was just left up to the “priesthood of the one”. All of you are called into this, especially now and in this model of ministry.

So you are here today not only to affirm your pastor’s gifts for ministry. You are here today to affirm to one another and to your pastor that you will be committed to the work of the church. You are installing a pastor as well as holding one another in prayer and accountability that you too will help with the ministry. A pastor cannot do much alone. None of us can. Indeed, hear the good news that the Lord has sent workers into the harvest fields, and the answer to your prayer of “Who will do this work?” is already answered in you, and you, and you, and you, and the pastor as well!

Let this day be a celebration of a new pastor who will care, teach and lead, yet also a day to celebrate that you are learning to live in a way that harkens back to the earliest days of Baptists. Our earliest generations of forebears did not have a largely well heeled, educated clergy. No, the early Baptist preachers, hymn writers and missionaries may have been closer to “bivocational pastors” in training and a sense of vocation. So, you are being the best of your past as you move into your future.

And futher more, the bivocational ministry is not a matter of one doing what they can part-time (or being at least paid a part-time wage with full-time service given to them). You are claiming your congregational identity as a partner in ministry with your pastor. You are claiming to God and these witnesses from other churches that you intend to be more committed and more involved in the life of this church, even as active attendance, financial resources and volunteer time to serve are at a thinner margin than most can remember.

Bivocational ministry is about calling. What is God calling you to do with your pastor and one another? Bivocational ministry is about commitment. Are you really ready to live within a model of ministry that asks for “believers” than “a believer” being that priesthood? Bivocational ministry is about collaboration. Are you ready to share of your own unique giftedness to help others learn and grow so that they too may join you in discovering the Gospel in all its fullness? 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Book Review: Baptists in America

Kidd, Thomas S. and Barry Hankins.  Baptists in America: A History.  (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015).  ISBN # 978-0-19-9977536.  $29.99.
To attempt a book on the story of Baptists in the United States is in itself a challenge.  Among themselves, Baptists will be quite aware of what separates and differs, and many of us will find the interpretation of past events a matter of contention.  Fewer will be dedicated to foster intra-Baptist (internal) relations, though that number seems to be growing in recent decades.  To tell a story of Baptists in this country, as well as any global history, necessarily opens up long-held wounds and rivalries.   Indeed, when mentioning this book had been received for review, more than a few Baptist clergy colleagues asked how certain angles of the history were told or expressed concern that there might be “southern” bias when discovering the authors are faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  Yea verily, the divides between “North” and “South” are felt still among Baptists.
I admit I pick up any Baptist polity or history text with similar wonderings, though I have learned over the years to be an appreciative reader of any Baptist identity resource.  While it may not be written from a perspective I readily embrace, each text reveals a little more of the bigger patchwork quilt that Free Church ecclesiology encourages.   Also, I have long appreciated the work of Barry Hankins, who has written perceptively about the rascals and charismatic figures of early 20th century evangelicalism including his book Jesus and Gin (St. Martin’s Press, 2010).  His co-author Thomas Kidd offered a great text in recent years, exploring the issue of religion and the American Revolutionary period (God of Liberty, Basic Books, 2012).
Taking up the task of writing a text, Hankins and Kidd acknowledge that they are themselves Baptists of differing perspectives from one another.  With such awareness of the personal and political dimensions of writing history, especially to be read by other Baptists, they offer an insightful short history of the Baptist movement.  Marginalized at their beginnings in colonial times and quite influential and prolific by the late 20th century, Baptists are woven into the political and social fabric of American history.  One can appreciate how Baptists spent the last four centuries, reflecting the growth and development of the United States as well as sometimes improving or bedeviling the public square with the particular mindedness of various Baptist luminaries who were intent on keeping the Gospel at the forefront of their engagement with society.
The book traces a variety of stories and events familiar to many Baptists, yet the authors take the opportunity to highlight the ironies of history’s unfolding.  Caught up in the crossfire of Revolutionary battles in upstate New York, one town’s Baptists find themselves of divided political loyalties, with some defecting to the arriving British forces.  In turn, some are forced by the British to take up arms against their fellow congregants (p. 53).  Missionaries to the Cherokee tribes in Michigan find themselves struggling to learn the language of the people, and then they scramble to keep connected to the tribes as they are uprooted and forcibly relocated to other parts of the country.  The zeal of mission is confronted by the machinations of governmental policies and the brutality of the Trail of Tears experience (p. 107-10).  Disturbingly over the passage of time, some Baptists will forget their roots as a persecuted minority and become part of the Establishment with implications religious and political alike).
Kidd and Hankins explore efforts among some Baptists to enforce doctrinal and creedal standards. As a minister within the American Baptist Churches/USA, I knew of the difficulties experienced in my denomination’s early 20th century battles over fundamentalist/modernist views.  The co-authors revisit the source material, bringing arguments from long ago into sharp relief, demonstrating how the divergent perspectives among some Baptists are a hard won reality.  Such tussles over biblical interpretation and the autonomy of local churches continue to flare up within ABCUSA circles just as equivalent battles continue within other mainline Protestant polities).  Certainly, the growth of fundamentalism among Southern Baptists could have taken root just as easily within the Northern Baptist Convention (now ABCUSA) if it were not for some quick thinking on the convention floor and a broader sense of the criterion for being counted among the faithful.  

Friday, October 30, 2015

A People of the Last Word (Revelation 21:1-6a)

A few saints never make the official lists
 yet keep the Church and even you and me
honest before God and neighbor alike.
Graphic novels are a big seller in bookstores.  Most often the titles you find will be the more familiar adventures of Batman, the Avengers, Superman and other spandex clad super heroes.  But look more closely, and you will find a variety of works by illustrators who are telling an unique story, blending the conventions of a novel with a comic book.

Among these more unique graphic novels The Book of Genesis.  Long time comic book readers might be surprised to find out the illustrator is the “underground comic” artist R. Crumb, whose body of work makes an odd statement indeed to add the title of “bible illustrator” to his resume.  Crumb spent the past four years drawing the book of Genesis, taking care to read biblical scholarship to develop his take on Genesis. 

Surprisingly, for such an iconoclast, Crumb offers a fairly earnest depiction of Genesis, demonstrating his skill as an artist as well as the complexities of the actual text of Genesis.  For a book about God, creation, and humanity’s “origins”, Genesis does not R. Crumb’s help being controversial.  On its own, Genesis is a challenging set of tales replete with human failings, violence, and an “R” rating.  Sacred stories are closer to our lives than we sometimes want them to be.

On the other end of the Bible, we encounter a story of “the End”.  Ironically, some folks tend to sugarcoat Genesis, yet people tend to remember the Book of Revelation more for its violence than its scenes of great hope.  I grew up in Kansas churches that loved the rainbow over Noah’s ark yet lived in fear of Revelation’s scenes of “the End Times”.  (You would not believe some of the books I found in shopping mall Christian bookstores growing up out in the Midwest….)  

The book of Revelation is filled with stories of the nations of the world going into disarray, armies battling, and Evil’s forces battling it out with the heavenly powers.  To say the book of Revelation tends to be inscrutable and difficult to understand is an understatement.  Nonetheless, if you read the whole book, you see a different story at work, not like the version of Revelation you might hear preached about on many AM radio stations in parts of the Midwest and the South.  The violence, the battle between forces above and below, all of this is in the text, yet a powerful theme resounds throughout: not of fear, but of hope.

The end vision of Christianity is hope.  In the End God shall have the last word.  After much tumult, suffering and pain, the world described by Genesis shall pass away and a new heaven and earth, a new frame of reality, shall take its place.  Reading Revelation, the careful reader recalls T.S. Eliot’s poetic line:  “In my end is my beginning”.  The book of Revelation unveils the brokenness of our world and the transformation, the magnificent future, God alone shall bring about.  Revelation is a passionate book, calling the reader not to live in fear or speculation.  Rather, the Christian is encouraged to live in anticipation and hope.   We live as a people who already know what the last word shall be.  It will not be “anxiety”.  It will not be “fear”.  It will not be even “death”.  In the end, we shall hear “Behold, I make all things new”.  This is the story that Christians live by.  You cannot understand us without it.

Stories have a powerful way of shaping our lives.  Over the years, I still remember my Grandmother Hugenot reading the story of “Stone Soup”.  I have the book among my books, and I will never part with it.  The physical book is precious to me.  The story of “Button Soup”, a tale of a miser who learns to be generous by sharing of his abundance with his neighbors, is one that I claim as a “core story” I retain from my childhood.  I remember with great fondness my grandmother reading me many stories over and over, yet that particular story, a variant of “Stone Soup”, is the one that nestled down deep within me.  The story makes sense of the world, or the way the world ought to be.
 As a grownup, I find myself telling people another story, one that I find deep down in my bones just like “Stone Soup”.  You heard our lector tell that story to you a bit earlier, as told by the book of Revelation.  Where I tell this story as a preacher is less a matter of standing in a pulpit and more when I stand on a hillside.  It’s a quiet time when I tell this story.   It’s time for that final ritual up there among family and friends.  We have been telling stories already, sometimes told with rollicking detail during an eulogy delivered by a friend (clergy sometimes blanche at the stories of the deceased that get told at funerals).   Now it’s approaching time for that last word.  What will it be?

At the graveside, I tell one story.  It’s really the best one for times like these.  As the liturgy draws to a close, I am nearing the amen, but I still have this story to tell.  I say in the midst of the sadness and as that sense of finality hangs a bit thick in the air:
“We look forward to that time, when the one who has made us shall not leave us in the dust.  For as scriptures promise, there shall be an end to death, and to crying and to pain, for the old order has passed away”.

The Christian cannot speak of any other last word.  We sometimes forget when the anxieties of the day make us think things are otherwise contrary to our knowledge of the promised End.  Indeed, there are times when we lose sight of that which is promised, or we let another story take precedence.  Those who are able to stay the course, those who are able to keep “their eyes on the prize”, we have a word for these sort of folks:  saints.   The book of Revelation mentions saints quite frequently, the people who live a faithful witness on the earth, even in its broken down state, and once up in the heavenly choirs, just can’t stop praising the Lord.

The saints are those who live in this world with the same frailty and fallibility as any other human being, yet they are able to live a faithful and unshakable witness to Christ.  It does not happen overnight for these folks: the process varies, yet the result is the same:  people who are able to be the faithful and beloved of Christ.  They take the long view, knowing that God will have the last word, not the powers and ideologies of the day, or the belief that things will end in disarray or without meaning.  They see the world as a place where the gospel can indeed take root, no matter how tough and stubborn the soil appears to be.  The Baptist saint Clarence Jordan lived through the difficulties of mid-20th century racism as a witness to racial reconciliation and peace.  Only a saint could take the long view, despite the many forces against him.  Jordan spoke prophetically when he observed, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.  In other words, God shall have the last word, and it shall be one that is glorious and just.

Now the Church has various traditions and practices about counting the saints.  Some parts of the Church have quite a process to declare a person officially a “saint” of the Church.  The New Testament, though, takes a fairly broad definition of the term, depicting the saints of the Church as those who live a faithful life, one testifying to the gospel.  In other words, no list shall be ever exhaustive of the saints.  Saints are great and obscure alike.  Saints are plentiful, yet not all of them can ever be named adequately.  So, I want to make sure that we remember “All Saints” aright this day.  We are not just looking at the people known far and wide.  We are looking within the range of our own faith journey as well, recalling those saints who made the gospel come alive in your witnessing of their lives. 

Let us remember “all saints” this day, those who know how the story shall end, and remind ourselves that we are likewise called to be a people of the last word.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Powerful Witness to Power: Malala Yousafzai

Earlier this week, my wife and I attended a documentary featuring Malala Yousafzai, recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.  Malala was recognized for her contributions to education and educational access as a right for all children.  The Nobel Committee notes, "for [her] struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education".  

The documentary "He Named Me Malala" tells her story as a child growing up in Pakitstan's Swat Valley region.  The daughter of a father who valued education greatly and a loving and supportive mother, Malala flourished in her educational pursuits.  Yet, the bitter irony of her upbringing and developing passion for education coincided with the ascendance of the Taliban and its deepening influence around the region.  Soon, girls and young women were being discouraged to attend school and cease their studies. The Taliban's local leader preached an increasingly hostile message about women's education with schools being bombed with increasing frequency and any dissident voices being named in daily radio broadcasts and often hurt or killed on the street or attacked in their home.

Like many prophetic voices, Malala discovered her potential in the midst of such crisis.  She drew strength from her namesake, a late 19th century Afgani woman who rallied her people against the British colonial forces.  Malala's namesake demonstrated great bravery, even as it put her life in danger.  Malala became a frequent speaker and blogger about children's education and the right of all children--male and female alike--to receive access to education.

In October 2012, a Taliban assassin shot Malala while on a school bus along with two other young women.  Malala was sent for emergency surgery, however, the danger to her life from further attacks as well as the needed advanced medical care soon found Malala in Birmingham, England.  The international outrage further raised the profile of Malala and other women in communities where education and other basic rights were being abridged by ideologies, religious and otherwise.

The documentary shares Malala's story to date, weaving documentary crew footage with various speeches and ceremonies where Malala offers her powerful words against inequality and the great potential of children and youth if they are able to access education.  She visits refugee camps, schools in remote villages around the world and brings their voices as well when asked to visit dignitaries and other world leaders.  She is also shown to be a mischievous sister to her two brothers as well as a young woman struggling to navigate various cultural values and religious expectations as the family lives now in the United Kingdom yet yearns to return home to the Swat Valley.

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize is certainly a great accomplishment for a young woman.  Without a doubt, many more honors and many more years of speaking truth to power for the vulnerable and marginalized are surely in Malala's future!

About her best-selling biography:  "I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban" (Little Brown, and Company, 2013)

About the documentary:   Visit its website and view the trailer:


An intimate portrait of Malala Yousafzai, who was wounded when Taliban gunmen opened fire on her and her friends’ school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The then 15-year-old teenager, who had been targeted for speaking out on behalf of girls’ education in her region of Swat Valley in Pakistan, was shot in the head, sparking international media outrage. An educational activist in Pakistan, Yousafzai has since emerged as a leading campaigner for the rights of children worldwide and in December 2014, became the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.  89 min.  PG13

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Lessons in Power (Mark 10:35-45)

                All of this sounds so familiar:  the disciples have an internal scuffle about the pecking order among them, and some barely veiled jockeying for position takes place.  Who among us the greatest?  Which one of us gets the choice seat by Jesus’ side?  Haven’t we already dealt with this story a few times over of late?
                You can rest assured, if you have been here most Sundays lately the gospel readings have tread down similar paths.  In Mark, chapters 8 through 10, the narrative prepares to move into the critical days of Jesus drawing near the fateful time in Jerusalem, and three times Jesus predicts what will unfold.   Each time, the same pattern occurs:  Jesus predicts his passion.  The disciples miss the point.  Jesus gives a corrective word.   The repetition might seem a bit redundant however we see in each instance, the disciples are not quite ready to embrace the fullness of Jesus’ discipleship.  Jesus asks them to follow a path that is not easy. 
                As the old hymn asks, “Are you able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?”  The response to Christ comes from disciples the hymn calls the “sturdy dreamers”, the ones who will say yes to a life shaped by a cross-carrying, gospel attuned life.  Unfortunately, for the disciples in Mark’s gospel, they daydream of power and influence.  They do not know that the real story of discipleship unfolds in sometimes harrowing ways.  As Gandhi said in more recent times, people tend to want a religion shaped by worship without sacrifice.

                The disciples keep falling back into familiar ruts or “scripts” innate to human nature, grasping the ways they know rather than risking themselves fully and taking up the way of Jesus.  Even after hearing of the passion about to come, James and John, the Zebedee boys, are more worried about the seating chart in the glory and power to come.  I find it remarkable that Jesus did not bawl them out on the spot.  No, Jesus keeps it gentle.  To follow the way of Jesus Christ, the power that the world lifts up is not what you learn with Jesus’ teachings.  He gives a lesson about power that the Zebedee brothers might not catch onto right now.  Be careful what you ask for, as the way of Jesus will be one of sacrifice.  Behold the rest of the gospel after this, as Jesus stands up for principles and evidences unshakable obedience to God. 
               By the gospel’s end, it is unmistakable: Jesus’ difficult way and the bravado (the false or untested bravery) of the inner circle followers.  As Jesus dies on the cross, his disciples have scattered, Zebedee boys included.  Those at his right and left are two anonymous men, two criminals, who die alongside Jesus.  The way of Jesus is not easy, shaped by a glory strangely unknown amid the competing views of fame and power.
               The brothers Zebedee need a lesson in humility.  They ask for favor when Jesus comes into his glory.  Jesus tells them of the difficult days ahead and his foreknowledge of the same difficulties await those who follow.  For all he knows, for all he teaches, Jesus still reserves the last word, the final authority to God alone.

              A few years ago, psychologist and writer Robert Coles recounted a conversation he had as a young man while working with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.  Day was a fiery spirit, comfortable staring down civic and religious authorities if it allowed the basic needs and rights of people to be met, particularly for those who were poor and marginalized.  Day noted that such a life of service and advocacy was not easy.  Some days, it seemed as if the work was endless and the results were minimal.  Day observed that it can be a long stretch of time before one has a sacred moment, a time when one has great clarity about one’s purpose and service to God.  You have to learn how to live in the times of “sacred moments and long secular days”.  (AMERICA, Nov. 1996)
             The Zebedee brothers want confirmation they are on the right path and indeed will experience a great payoff in the end.  The life of faith does not work that way, though we sometimes try to make faith about what we would like to have rather than what the way of Jesus asks us.  We are called as the finite and fallible people we are, people with individual strengths and weaknesses.  We follow, taking leave of the world’s scripts about what matters as well as our own ego, desires, passions, and myopias.  It is a challenge to put into checks our fears, anxieties, pretenses, and sinfulness, so that we can live out our lives in Christ.  (And that’s just the list of things I need to work on!) We follow, working out the edges of our lives all the days of our journey on this earth.  And to live the life of faith, one able to wait, to watch and pray, this takes a fair acquaintance with humility.
To be humble is to know your place in the scheme of things.  The saints of God, those who followed Christ and are remembered by the Church, were not people with their heads up in the clouds.  They practiced a form of obedience to God and a witness to the gospel that each one of us is called to undertake. 

             As we near “All Saints” in the church calendar, think of those “greats of the faith” known to you in your life, and you will see a common thread:  persons who were merely human yet lived a life of trust in God.  They might be among those some parts of the Church has put on a list declaring them “saints” or they could be people just known to a few.  There have been saints among us, those who follow Jesus intentionally.  And pray for yourself and for these others around you this day that you might too be in this good company.

             Humility often gets elevated to a high and unattainable standard or confused with a veneer of piety people put on so as to appear important or “holy”.  Humility is a stripping down of self, allowing the goodness of Christ to suffuse and reshape us.  You cannot follow Christ without being humble in your discipleship.  From the ancient witness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we are reminded of a wise Christian woman named Syncletica, who observed, “A ship cannot be built without nails and no one can be saved without humility”.  (The Desert Fathers, edited by Benedicta Ward, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003, 161)

             A few years back, I heard an interesting pair of people speak about their faith.  One was Roman Catholic and the other was a Quaker.  The Quaker lecture was given by Bain Davis, the Bennington, Vermont, Friends (Quakers) Meeting.  Bain’s task was to explain Quaker ways, especially in relationship to the tradition’s social activism and pacifism.  For most of the outside world, Quakers are known for being silent in worship (something admittedly puzzling to Baptists) and their commitments to be a “peace testimony church”.  As Bain explained Quaker ways, he noted that the tradition aims to bring the best out in a person by helping a person develop religious habits that enable a more peaceable life.  In turn, a person who is so attuned enables others to discover this goodness within them.  Quakers strive to see the goodness in all persons, even those who might be considered less good or without much good at all.  Humility brings the best within us to the surface and empowers us to move through the world with peace, love, and grace.  We give ourselves over to becoming the person where the label “humble” just seems to fit.

              One of the books I treasure is Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus, a small book he wrote on Christian leadership.  Nouwen’s book is a quick read, yet he traces a model for ministry that still serves as a touchstone in my own work.  I read it for the first time on a college choir tour, however, I read it from time to time even today as a reminder of what I am called to do.  Nouwen wrote the book after a period of life where he felt a bit lost.  His successful career in academia had grown less attractive, and Nouwen found himself searching for new meaning in his life and ministry.  Nouwen was invited to live among disabled persons as part of a communal living approach to disability care.  Nouwen served as a chaplain to a gathering of disabled persons and their care providers, learning a markedly different way to serve and care as a minister.  As he recounted later, he was not the Ivy League professor or noted author to the members of this community.  He was called simply to be Henri.

              Humility is not easy.  It disarms us of our pretenses.  To be humble admits the Christian story ends in a way shaped by the cross and points to the new life Christ gives us in his resurrection glory.  We do not seek out the seat at his right or left.  We allow ourselves to flourish in our simplicity and our devotion, not in the pursuit of matters seeking to self promote.  We are humble because we have chosen to be nothing else.

              It is similar to the story drawn from Nikos Kazantzakis’ book about St. Francis.  As Francis instructs his followers on living simply and trusting God alone.  Francis tells his disciples,

              Strengthen the world that is tottering and about to fall:  strengthen your hearts above wrath, ambition, and envy.  Do not say: “Me! Me!”  Instead, make the self, that fierce insatiable beast, submit to God’s love.  This “me” does not enter paradise, but stands outside the gates and bellows.” (St. Francis, p. 309)

               To illustrate his point, Francis tells of a holy man who goes to the gates of heaven after living a devout life.  Each time the holy man comes to the gate, a voice cries out, “Who is there?”  And the holy man says, “It is me.”  The voice says, “There is no room for two here.  Go away.”  The holy man winds up plummeting back to earth, given a chance to learn again and approach the gates when he has learned his lesson.

               Finally, after a number of times approaching the gates with the same result, the holy man realizes his error.  When he approaches the gates, the voice calls out again, “Who is there?”  And the holy man says, “It is you.”

                With that, the gates to paradise open.   (See St. Francis, 309-10).

Friday, October 9, 2015

Measuring Our Worth (Mark 10:17-31)

Michael Rosenbaum memorably portrayed
a young Lex Luthor in TV's Smallville series.
Truly a "rich young ruler" in need of Mark's gospel!
NOTE:  In 2009, I wrote a sermon for my then congregation (First Baptist, Bennington, Vermont).  It was as much an exploration of the text as it was the context of writing one year after the Recession of 2008 began to be felt, so "money" was really on people's minds, especially in the anxieties of not having enough.   I share it with you as the Mark 10 reading returns in the Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday.  (FYI: Subsequently, this sermon was reprinted in the Lent 2011 issue of The Journal for Preachers.)

You may have seen the commercial on television during primetime or while surfing the ‘net.  It depicts a man in a baseball cap and jacket running around the front entrance of a skyscraper in New York.  He stretches police tape across the grounds, as if securing a crime scene.  Guards from inside the building look nervously at the camera crew following this man around, trying to politely remove the man from the premises.  The man holds up a bullhorn to his mouth and announces he is “here to make a citizen’s arrest of the directors of A.I.G.”

            At home, some viewers watch the commercial and chuckle.  Others get the remote and turn the channel with disdain.  Like it or not, audiences at home or in front of the screen are getting the word.  Another film is coming from the controversial documentary director Michael Moore, whose films are geared to critique the political and social issues of the day.  His new film is entitled “Capitalism: A Love Story”.  Hailed by some, scorned by others, the film represents Michael Moore’s perspective on the ways that the U.S. and global economy have been handled, the federal bailout efforts, and the political finger pointing that goes along with it.

            Stepping aside from the headlines and the cinema box office, do you know where the word “economy” comes from?  The word “economy” comes from the Greek:  Oikos (house) and nomos (rule), quite literally, an economy deals with how a household is structured or organized.  And just as we struggle with 21st-century ideological differences regarding the structure and stability of an economy, rest assured, talking about the economy was just as volatile and ideological in Jesus’ day.  The first century economy of Palestine differs remarkably from our present-day U.S. context.  Nonetheless, talk about money long enough, and there will be strong disagreements arising.  Talk about money and religion, and well….

                The person who approaches Jesus is referred to as “the rich young ruler” in popular recollections of the gospel narratives.  The difficulty, however, is when we gather together the three similar stories told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and combine them together.  We will look at the differences and similarities during Adult Forum after services today, but for now, note a key difference of Mark’s gospel.  Mark notes little about the man, saying only that he has many possessions.  Instead of thinking of this fellow as a rich young ruler, we will call him “the man of means”.

The man asks Jesus a question that sounds primarily theological (“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”), however, the question is aimed at sniffing out Jesus’ thoughts on the economy.   Just as the Pharisees and the Sadducees have come forward, asking questions to test Jesus’ teachings on religious orthodoxy, just as the Herodians will step forward to help entrap Jesus in a question of politics, the man of means appears on the scene as a representative of another sector of society unnerved by any upstart religious teachers:  the financial elite of the day.

            The gospels are told from the perspective of a limited good society.  Very few people owned land.  Very few people controlled the commerce of the day.  And in turn, many people lived under the rule (and whim) of the very few:  certain families inheriting great ancestral power and privilege, members of the ruling establishment, especially those in collaboration with the Roman Empire’s resident government.  The man of means who presents himself to Jesus wears the robes of the upper echelon, a far cry from most of the other characters who interact with Jesus.  Most everyone, Jesus and the twelve included, are part of the peasantry.  No “middle class” exists in the New Testament.  A select few enjoy the high life.  Everyone else scrapes by at the subsistence level, working day and night and having very little to show for it.  Some New Testament scholars would label the man of means kneeling before Jesus as part of the “elite”, one who keeps a style of life largely denied to anyone who is not already part of the power and financial base.  When one lives in a limited good society, a person with significant finance is a person not to be trusted.  There is a deep suspicion of the elite, as they have not evidenced anything less than self interest and self preservation at the expense of the multitudes.

            The economic background is helpful, as we hear the exchange between Jesus and this man with a bit more barb to it.  The edge to this gospel story is economic and theological:  what is the measure of a person’s worth?   Who has the last word on economics?  Will the “house rules” be determined by the elite, the “powers that be” that work with Rome and the Temple, aka “the established powers that be”, or the Lord God whose kingdom Jesus is proclaiming?

            Initially, the man of means would claim “God” is the determiner of all things.  After all, he claims, the man of means is an observant man.  The commandments Jesus cites are all agreeable to the man of means, yet he does not realize Jesus has cited only part of the Ten Commandments, those focusing on those commandments dealing with one’s behavior toward others.  Like many opponents before him, the man of means has stepped into the snare awaiting him.  As New Testament scholar Bill Herzog notes, the man of means is “moral, but selectively moral” (Prophet and Teacher, WJKP, 2005, p. 138).  The man of means has been so vested in maintaining his own economic privilege that he has claimed to be observant of a religious faith steeped in traditions of protecting the poor from exploitation and decrying covetous behavior and been part of the effort to create a different economic reality that left most of the populace in systematic impoverishment.

            There is a common myth that the New Testament has no use whatsoever for persons who are wealthy, and this story of “the rich young ruler” (as we tend to hodgepodge the three stories together) is cited as the final word.  In truth, the New Testament depicts the earliest Christians as socio-economically diverse, including persons who are well to do.  Nonetheless, the Christian teachings would side with those who are vulnerable and condemn those whose wealth has been attained by exploitative practice.   Thus, the man of means who kneels piously before Jesus represents a class of people who have not lost a wink of sleep over their exploitation of others.

            Bill Herzog cites Jesus’ reframing of the commandment about covetous behavior.  Jesus slips it in the midst of the commandments, a sly word in Greek (apostereō) we would render in English as “do not defraud”.  The man of means has visions of the good life continuing in the life to come.  He is not bothered in the least that he has spent this life taking advantage of others.  He wants the free pass he has enjoyed since being born into the right family or being at the right time at the right place with the sweetheart deal that sets him up for life.  He claims faith, yet he does not know the economy (house rules) of God, the One whose law provisions for all persons as part of the most sacred covenants of God with the people Israel.  This man’s wealth is at the cost of covenant obedience.  His faith extends only so far.

            As for the disciples, their response to Jesus makes sense.  We usually stop with the incredible image of the camel squeezing itself through the eye of the needle and chuckle a bit.  (Indeed, this part of the story has kept me amused since third grade Sunday school!)  The disciples wonder how anyone can get into heaven. 

Hear Jesus’ response again: Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

The economy (house rules) that matter most to Jesus are the ones ensuring the covenant is kept:  no one is left out in the cold while others kick back and reap the benefits of kicking others.  The little people of the rural villages are not the lower rung functionaries of the elite’s monopoly or Rome’s all consuming empire. 

Indeed, the economics of Jesus are astonishingly defiant of the way things usually work out with humanity.  We can craft our economic theories down the generations, yet we still have the all too human tendency to create chasms between the “haves” and the “have nots”.  The early Christians practiced a way of life that we still struggle to be at peace with and follow, for we are too much a product of the economics we devise, craft, and inhabit.

The house rules set up by the gospel look out for those who are told to stand at the back of the line.  In fact, Jesus turns the order of things around, just as the covenant and the Ten Commandments described before.  Persons who are of means have their place in the kingdom of God, yet there are no “gold card level memberships” to be found in Jesus’ vision.

 Persons of all means, great and small are welcomed into the kingdom, or as I like to say it, there are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God.   The system that keeps elite elitist and the peasant majority invisible shall not stand.  The early Church became a subversive alternative, providing a place where all folks from all levels of socio-economic status learned to live together as a counter-testimony to the ways of Empire.  And indeed, those accustomed to being told they are the last will have the last word.

In the meantime, the followers of Jesus have to ask pressing questions of the economics of the day.  What should be the house rules of a country that consumes more than its relative share of the world’s resources?  What should be the house rules of a nation that can write a blank check for warfare yet balks at the provision of healthcare?  What should be the house rules for Christians who live in the “first world” while most others (even fellow Christians) live in the hell of the two-thirds world?  My friends, the Church has much to ponder in the first century or the twenty-first.  What are our house rules?  Where does the economy we live under diverge from the economy of the gospel?

How do you get a camel to fit through the eye of the needle?

You cannot....

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pilgrims on the Way of Jesus

Pondering the faith
In the contemporary era of the Church, we often wonder why congregations are struggling to make it. Diana Butler Bass, a leading expert on mainline church renewal, notes some wise words from a pastor of a Lutheran church that is going through a process of renewal:

It’s not rocket science. You preach the gospel, offer hospitality, and pay attention to worship and people’s spiritual lives. Frankly, you take Christianity seriously as a way of life.

 From her spiritual memoir Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells of taking her son Sam, then an elementary age child, each week to church, even though Sam does not want to go. Lamott writes, “The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.”

Lamott recounts those she knows in her Presbyterian congregation as well as persons of other religious persuasions as good examples as why the journey is worth it. She writes, “They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.” (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 100).

Lamott credits her Presbyterian congregation for helping her become more grounded in life. They took care of her in a variety of ways, supporting her when she became a single mom. This congregation was on a pilgrimage of sorts.

Our funky church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelter with giant platters of food. When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. (ibid.)

How is your congregation a place for pilgrims to gather, those who seek out God’s goodness through living the faith in deepening (and yes, even differing) ways? Oftentimes, the temptation has been to worry about why the pews are half-empty.  All too often, budgets and buildings can overshadow the gospel's simplicity and any sense of your fellowship as a place for "spiritual grounding".

When we embrace faith's practices of hospitality, worship and spiritual care,  we can be a place where God is found, whether we seem a bit withdrawn from the world or right in the thick of things. And others will see us as God wishes us to be: pilgrims on a journey.