Friday, July 31, 2015

Hungering for the Right Life (John 6:35-50)

           Some shows on television follow what is called a serialized format.  In other words, each week’s episode builds upon a plotline that takes several weeks to tell.  Each individual episode develops the plot, sometimes a great deal and other times, well, the term “filler” comes to mind.
            The worst thing about a serialized show is the last moment, when the story builds to a certain high point, a great big “reveal” you were not likely expecting and then the words come up on the screen that I have yet to like seeing:  “To be continued”, the dreaded cliffhanger ending!  

To this day, I still remember a certain television show getting me on the edge of my seat, my mind spinning with big reveal after big reveal, and then the screen fades to black.  The words “To be continued” flashes across the screen, and I’m now stuck waiting the entire summer to see what happens next!  (Note:  The summer of 1990 could not get over fast enough….)

Reading John 6, we experience a “to be continued” moment, or a cliffhanger, in the gospel reading, yet I imagine not too many folks would have thought it necessarily so.  We read a good portion of John, chapter 6, one of the lengthier passages of the four gospels.  We covered a good deal of ground:  Jesus is healing the sick, and the crowds gather.  Jesus decides to feed the multitudes, the disciples panic, and Jesus shows what is possible with five loaves and two fish.  Jesus even calms the disciples’ boat when the seas get rough at night.  All of this happens, yet the disciples and the crowds around Jesus keep asking questions.   Jesus straightens them out with some teachings about what God is doing in the signs of bread and fish feeding a crowd with loads of food left over.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This might be the highest point of John 6.  Everything has been leading to this moment, even if some of John’s cast of characters does not know it.  These words offer a challenge as well as an invitation. If you wish to be fed, do you settle for mere bread or do you hunger for something greater?  Is it possible to believe in God’s abundance when you are just like the disciples, seeing the impossible task at hand even if they have spent all this time already at Jesus’ side?

Can you really believe these words?  Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

“To be continued.”

Like a good serialized TV show, the gospel reading today reminds us of where things left off.  Verse thirty-five sets up the next “episode” of John 6, building upon what’s gone on previously, though spinning things in a different direction.  Jesus raises the stakes in the conversation.  If you do believe in Jesus, you will not go hungry and you will not thirst; yet it will not be so for those who do not believe.

In John 6, the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes becomes an edgier affair, as the puzzlement of the disciples is joined by the disputes coming from the crowds.   Now remember last time we read this.  There’s some heavy irony at work here.  Bellies full from the meal, seeing the disciples toting the baskets of leftovers (again, five loaves, two fish, and thousands of people later, they count more than enough remaining!), the crowds ask the type of questions that confirm that some people can see just about anything and still look around and wonder what happened.  Jesus presses home a point that says a little less tactful, yet firm:  “You have seen me, yet you do not believe”, and he adds further words that point to such disbelief coming with consequences.

The story begins with Jesus at his most benevolent and welcoming, feeding all who come and insisting that no leftover be wasted, yet he is said to be testing the disciples when he asks them to feed the multitudes without any provisions readily in their hands. Jesus will speak very plainly about his lack of patience for those who keep asking even when the answers are given to them.  What’s going on in this text: time to ring the dinner bell or is it time to talk about a reckoning to be had?

Behind this story of Jesus feeding bread and fish in abundance is the echo of a much older story of ancient Israel when the people wandered in the wilderness.  When they hungered, God provided manna.  When they ate it, they grumbled about its sufficiency.  Like children, they were given food to nourish yet they wanted something better and tastier.  Both the manna and the feeding of the multitudes remind that humanity has an infinite capacity for complaint and self-serving desires, yet very little patience for what God has to offer, even when it’s the better choice or path.

Jesus offers more than the moment’s need, a daily bread of a different kind, one that shall not perish.  Taking what Jesus offers with trust and gratitude is more than just satisfying the belly.  It is a way of living your life differently, giving yourself over to what God offers rather than the vague stirrings we tend to harbor otherwise where we crave something “more” than what we really need.
As I read John 6 and get into the drama of the teaching, I recall the lyric of a worship song from the Iona Community of Scotland.  They capture this sort of discipleship well in the lyrics:
“We will take what you offer, we will live by Your Word,
We will love one another and be led by You, Lord.”

In these words meant for the gathered people to sing together, we get a glimpse into the type of followers John 6 presumes.  Jesus is calling on people to trust in God’s provision.  No wonder we have the line in the Lord’s Prayer where we are asked to pray to God for our daily bread, trusting that which sustains us (be it our version of five loaves and two fish or an outright abiding belief) shall come from God.  Such words said in prayer are not to be taken lightly or trusted tritely.  The Christian does not complain or dismiss what God offers us.  In our passage this morning, we see the stakes in this line of thinking when the complaints arise from a particular group within the crowd.

Here, I have to stop and give a warning that I often give when teaching from John’s gospel.  In the New Revised Standard Version in the pews as well as the majority of English translations, the translation falls flat on its face and really should be emblazoned with “Caution!” stickers until we get to a New Testament translation that is far more sensitively prepared.  As this sub-section of the crowd steps up, the NRSV and other English translations label this group “the Jews”.  (Cue well deserved theological heartburn here!)

The better way for this phrase to be translated is to examine the Greek word actually used in the text.  The Greek word describing this group of complainers is rendered better as “Judeans”.  By this term, the gospel of John means to talk of a certain mindset and ideology within the Judaism of the day.  Judeans are those who live in Judea, where Jerusalem and more importantly the Temple are located.  In John’s gospel, these complainers are those closely tied to the powerbase of the religious establishment.  The Judeans appear in John’s gospel as those who place their trust in the status quo, who do not take kindly to Jesus’ criticisms of the Temple and the religious ways advocated by those with power and privilege.  Peek ahead to John chapter 7, and it is this group plotting and planning Jesus’ demise.

In other words, the critical edge to Jesus’ teaching here becomes clearer.  Just like when people receive more than enough food yet refuse to believe it is satisfying, so are those who claim to seek God’s ways yet do not believe in the claims of Jesus, the One sent by God to dwell among us.  Discipleship is not about receiving what God offers and rejecting it.  By their complaints and their keeping to the ways of the Temple (certainly questioned by Jesus in his words and ministry), the Judeans grumble just as the ancient Israelites receiving God’s provision yet wanting something of their own choosing.

The argument being made intensifies.  Those who eat the bread that perishes will perish.  Those who eat the bread of life shall not perish.  So it shall be with those who trust in the religious institution more than the faith that inspired it.  So it shall be with those who hunger and thirst for the convenient or the “right now”.  So it shall be for those who take what Jesus provides and take what God offers.

Curiously, the end of the story this week is not that much different from last week’s ending.  John 6 is one of the longer chapters of the four gospels and certainly one of the most complex, laden as it is with such theological language.  Yet, the same question lingers no matter where you read John 6’s narrative.  The question is the ending of every “episode” of this long chapter.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Eating Responsibly (John 6:51-59)

               It seems that every time you turn around, the medical experts have a different study proving or disproving the health benefits of certain foods.  Today, cut back on your salt.  Tomorrow, add salt.  The day after that, avoid salt at all costs.
               Then there’s the dieting craze that seems to sell thousands of books or program kits.  Do you trust this one or that one?  Do the diets help or do they suggest some habit that down the road you will regret?
               Earlier this year, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested a ban on sugared drinks sold over 16 oz. per cup.  The late night comedians were quickly on the case.  One show depicted the easiest way around the proposed laws:  buy two 16 oz. sodas to get that 32 oz. buzz.  (No word on the likelihood of Jersey mob moving into the City to corner the 17 oz. or more market like it is Prohibition all over again….)
               Then there’s the public enemy #1 of any diet:  the food you can buy at a State Fair.  We’re not talking the lightweight stuff, the nearly venial sins of cotton candy or a bag of popcorn.  No, we’re talking hardcore, artery-clogging deep fat fried goodness (maybe not the best term), that type of food Julia Child never wrote about….food on a stick!

               Back in the day, I thought a State Fair was based on how good the meat loaf was.  In Kansas, the local United Methodist churches put together a fantastic sit down meal that I remember fondly, where you could have the best meatloaf and potatoes and vegetables, all served with the white or brown gravy that one wished you could buy at the door to take home.  (We are but a simple people in Kansas….)
               My folks did not encourage us to eat the “bad” good stuff at the State Fair.  I am most grateful, as I avoided getting a taste of the forbidden fruit that is “Food on a stick”.  Y’know, foot long corn dogs or a frozen banana dipped in chocolate could be bought just anywhere on the fairway.   I stayed true to the Methodist meatloaf, which appropriately left my heart strangely warmed.
               Culinary-wise, you would not know the State Fair in many states nowadays.  With less emphasis on “sit-down meals”, the main food attractions are decidedly in the realm of “food your doctor shudders to think about”.

                State Fairs routinely make the national headlines not for their prize-winning cows or amusement attractions.  No, the media cannot wait for State Fair season so they can show the rest of the country how the brave and hardy people of Minnesota choose to consume something fried to heavenly yet deadly perfection.
               We’re talking:  deep fat fried Twinkies, deep fat fried Oreos, deep fat fried Onion blossoms, deep fried hamburgers (particularly the one that takes a hamburger patty and two Krispy Kreme doughnuts, adds some batter and then you tempt fate while enjoying it.  They call it the “Better Burger”).
               Yet, one summer, the Iowa State Fair broke all the culinary rules, and perhaps even a few dietary laws from the book of Leviticus, to introduce a State Fair food for the ages.  You see, it begins with some butter.  Add a stick to it, and then….Need I continue with this story?
               Food is not something we should trivialize.  Yet we do.  We tend to buy up the food that has very little nutritional value, fill our carts with such things at the grocery store and then wonder how we gained, rather than lost a pound.  What we eat has a direct impact on how we live.   Eating too much or too little could cost us our lives, if not our health.  What we eat is not a trivial matter!

               In John 6, Jesus feeds the multitudes, yet he speaks of belief, not a miracle, providing the nourishment for which the world hungers.  Belief and disbelief are compared starkly, as one leads to the bread of abundant life and one leads to the bread that feeds us just for the moment.  As the disciples, the crowds, and the religious opponents keep asking questions, even complain about his teachings, Jesus sharpens his words further, not making it any easier for someone to follow him.
                As this passage goes on (and some would say on and on), the questions of John chapter 6 keep returning to Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes yet raising up the greater sustenance of the bread of life.
                 The bread of heaven sounds great, yet we still have our reservations.  Again, the older story of the ancient Israelites out in the wilderness complaining about hunger comes to mind.  They get what they need in the provision of manna, yet it is not what they want.  We have the bread that Jesus gives and the bread of the moment.  Yet the question still lingers: which one actually shall feed us, as the old hymn says, ‘til we want no more?

                Over the years, I have read, and better yet, known of Christians whose life story is well acquainted with the ups and downs of life as we know it, yet as they look back at their lives (or others help tell their stories as faithful second hand witnesses), there emerges a thread where faith played more than one might suppose, if you consider faith just a Sunday morning affair.

                I recall the story of Sara Miles, who found her faith kindled when she discovered a congregation where she could get involved in community ministry.  Soon, she had a thriving food distribution ministry that brought her into friendship with a variety of people, some of whom she might have never guessed she would befriend.  Church became less of a structure for worship and more a place for the neighborhood’s needs to be met.  The bread served at the Lord’s Table and the bread she is able to distribute to many in need becomes a common holiness for Sara Miles.  When I read her reflections on faith, I find someone who partakes of the bread of life Jesus provides, and such faithful discipleship is multiplied in her food distribution initiatives.

                I consider the story of a fellow seminarian.  Once he sold drugs on the urban streets.  Experiencing Christianity turned him from his ways, leading him to a different life path.  Now he is an insurance agent and studied for Christian ministry to be a bi-vocational pastor.  Jokingly, he told one of his professors his life story and noted “Now the stuff I sell is legal!”  (Cf. Molly T. Marshall, Joining the Dance, p. ).

              Taking the bread of life found in Jesus is not a trivial matter.  Eating well may nourish us in ways we did not know.   The most dangerous thing we can do to our sense of where our life is going is to listen to teachings like John 6 and explore what happens when we follow Jesus.  The bread of life might be the death of “you”, that “you” that is everything we would be if not for the benefits of the gospel made known in your life.   The “you” that the Christian becomes is far more interested in “God and neighbor” than “me, myself and I” that tends to be the story otherwise.

               As Jesus responds to his dissenters, he does not mince words: Will you eat my flesh and drink my blood?  The other gospels use softer imagery of “This is my body”.  John’s gospel says bluntly, “Eat my flesh”, leaving little room for doubt that crunching and chewing is part of the experience.  The more visceral language of flesh and blood is scandalous, especially considering the dietary religious prohibitions practiced in the era.  Bread and cup may be nicer terms, yet for John’s gospel, he presses the reader:
              Will you heed the gospel of John’s edgy word on the matter: that this flesh and this blood are to be consumed, transforming you into something more than the sum of your desires?
                Will you consume, indeed sink your teeth into this flesh and drink this blood?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Sermon: Feed me 'til I want no more (John 6:1-21, 24-35)

As I hear from churches around the Region, the season of VBS and church picnics is in full swing. A church picnic can be delightful: the food’s all out, the children cannot wait for the first hot dog, and the casseroles and salads, the desserts and the other goodies seem to stretch down the length of the picnic table, all tempting you to fill your plate (and then fill it again…and maybe again).

Of course, the thing the organizers hope for is not necessarily for a lack of raindrops or insects buzzing overhead. Those hosting the meal hope everything was remembered when it comes time to ring the dinner bell. Did we bring along enough serving spoons, enough plastic silverware, enough hamburger buns, and the questions go on.

No getting around it—a meal takes preparation. For some, a picnic that may last an hour or two at the most has been on our minds for quite awhile. For others, you just started thinking about the picnic once you read about it in the bulletin and remembered that you had forgotten it was today. (These are the folks who will pray that Colonel Sanders come to their aid.)

All jokes aside, we know that meals are not magically available. After all, even “fast food” or “frozen dinners” take time. A meal takes time to prepare. You know it. I know it. The disciples know it.

So why doesn’t Jesus know it?

You can imagine the panic and the puzzlement of the disciples. Jesus is healing the sick, and a large crowd has gathered to learn from him. Jesus asks about making the necessary arrangements, and the disciples look a bit dumbfounded. To feed this many would be quite costly, yet Jesus seems quite serene in asking them to do the impossible. Doesn’t he know that you have to prepare?

The disciples are very matter-of-fact. It would take six months’ wage to buy enough bread just to feed each person a small bit of bread, cries one. Another disciple points out the only person in sight with food, just some kid with five loaves and two fish. It’s not much, and that’s the point they try to make.

Now for the reader, the gospel writer offers a little aside: Jesus asks about feeding the crowd to test the disciples. He knew what he was about to do, but did they have the faith that could see such an impossible challenge met so readily? They see the problem at hand and worry about the last minute nature of things. How in the world can we do anything with so little time, so little preparation, and so little food?

One situation from that summer comes to mind. In one church I worked with, we were asked to provide a funeral dinner for a church family. On Monday, the request was fairly low-key: sandwiches and salads for a dozen people with the food brought by the family home rather than in the fellowship hall. Not much to worry about, until the next day brought news of the request changing. Now it was about thirty people and the fellowship hall would be needed. By the end of the week, when it came time to say the word of welcome and the blessing for the meal, I counted an attendance of about a hundred. It was trying, yet the board of Deaconesses made everything happens. Perhaps a grumble or two along the way, yet we had enough food left over to send “to go” packets home with various people.

One wonders at times when everything seems to be going not to plan or with little preparation how things will turn out. I made it through that summer with a pastor on sick leave just as surely as the Deaconesses survived a week of the ever-growing dinner. At the time, all of us would have preferred things not surprise us like it did, yet we made it through one way or another. It was not just me running the church while the pastor was unexpectedly sidelined, though it took a little bit for folks to realize that they had to step up and cover things. The Deaconesses probably still tell the “war story” of a funeral dinner that went from 12 to 100 with less than four days’ notice, yet they rang phones and made the food appear one way or another. Perhaps this was a bit of divine testing at work or just coincidence, yet I’d like to think each of us involved grew a bit in our faith in God’s provision, even when there seems not much likelihood.

In John’s gospel, the stakes for faith area raised a bit higher. What Jesus is testing the disciples (and really anyone else in earshot) regards the question of their ability to believe that Jesus can provide for their needs by the power of God. In John’s gospel especially, we read of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus, God’s Son, including Jesus’ assertion that if you see him, you see God. The disciples are told of this, yet they struggle to understand. They see only a multitude that Jesus says must be fed. Jesus sees an opportunity to feed everyone a good fulsome meal with enough leftovers. The disciples see only five loaves and two fish, enough provision for a child. Jesus sees more than enough to feed five thousand people, with leftovers galore!

This story is often called a “miracle”, yet John’s gospel has a certain spin on these events. Such events are referred to as “signs”, a term with a great deal of meaning for John’s gospel. Declaring these miracles as “signs”, John uses these moments as symbols for something greater than just the spectacle that has occurred. Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding at Cana. It’s great tasting, unexpected and downright miraculous, but John shakes his head at the speculative questions of “how did this happen?” Instead, John poses a theological question to the reader: “Why did this happen?” The impressive part is secondary to the challenge this sign gives the reader. Do you believe in Jesus, the one who can do these things? What do you believe is happening: a free lunch or God’s abundance made known in Jesus, the Bread of Heaven?

Talking of events that seem gleefully in their contradiction of the way the world works (science, the laws of physics, etc.) often make people turn away, asking how these things are possible. One cannot instantly feed five thousand. Surely the generosity of this young boy’s offering of five loaves and two fish inspired everyone to share. Surely the water into wine trick is some wishful thinking on the part of the gospel writer. Shouldn’t we leave these stories best behind in elementary level Sunday school?

The story does not take the “how” as its reason for being told. Instead, the story asks, perhaps tests the reader to ponder what one believes about Jesus. If we take the text as “wishful thinking” about God, though we don’t see how in the world this could be, we may lose a bit of the wonder and the mystery innate with the Christian faith. Not everything is known, not everything can be explained, yet we can be people who look at the world with a different prism, a different understanding of what is possible, we take these texts at a different sort of face value, inspired rather than doubtful about what is doing God in the midst of the world and how we can be faithful disciples of Jesus.

This story tells us that when there's an overwhelming problem staring you down, do not run from it, or put it off due to a lack of preparation time. With God, we are a people who look for abundance when most cry scarcity. We are also a people who presume with God, there will be more than enough abundance to meet our needs.

For Christians, we keep the faith that God is in the midst of all things. Churches worry less about whether or not they are "big enough" to get involved with making a difference in the world, they just get going, looking for ways to help and partner. We find ourselves ruled less by the bottom line and more by the spirit of John 6's exuberance. Such good news is indeed needed today, just as surely as those who heard Jesus and ate their fill with great abundance left over.

A few lines from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning speak of this sort of faith another way:

Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware.*

 (*As referenced by theologian Douglas John Hall in his lectionary reflection for John 6, as quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, Westminster/John Knox Press. Note: he does not quote the final line in his excerpting).

Friday, July 17, 2015

Common Ground or Conflict: Choices for Churches

In her book Leaving Church, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor recounts her time as a parish minister, serving Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in rural Georgia. She writes,

In a big city they might have found homes in five markedly different parishes, but in a county with only one Episcopal church they learned to live together—the Yellow Dog Democrats, the National Rifle Association boosters, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the League of Women Voters. Once, when I asked a newcomer what had brought him to Grace-Calvary, he shook his head. ‘I know people who come to this church,’ he said, ‘and I finally had to come to see for myself how they got through a Sunday morning without assaulting each other.’

Perhaps as you did, I found myself taken aback by the newcomer’s response. That’s a fairly strong and negative image that this newcomer harbored about the idea of people who differ occupying the same pews. Just like the Corinthians, just about any congregation today has a variety of people under the same roof and with different convictions, perspectives, opinions, and biases. And, yes, there are many opportunities for diversity to become a stumbling block rather than the mark of good ecclesial identity.

The challenge for congregations, however, is not to figure out who is right or wrong. It is whether or not they begin from a place of common ground. Paul begins treading into difficult conversations with the Corinthians by reminding them of why they are together, called to be saints, the people of God, followers of Christ Jesus. When we remember our identity, we can begin talking about our differences.

It is frustrating when churches become mirrors of the same tensions and anxieties that drive our society to privilege or enable the partisan behavior out to capture votes. Indeed, when this happens, churches are mirrors all right: those carnival funhouse ones that distort the real image of who we are. We become less like the One who made us.

At such times, the problems that often get named immediately are a matter of opinion, bias and sometimes denial or anger. What I wonder is when a time of conflict arises, is it really for Christians a case of collective amnesia, as people forgot to seek that common ground first before wading into more troubled waters.

When Paul wrote a letter, he followed the custom of his day: a word of salutation as well as closing remarks, and he filled most of his epistles with responses to the situations occasioning his writing. Before the teaching, however, Paul offered a wonderful word that is indeed well named: he indulges in a bit of thanksgiving. In Paul’s day, letter writers would offer thanks for the recipients of the letter. In the midst of the praise, Paul put things into perspective: 

 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  (1 Corinthians 1:3-9)

I find this an uplifting word, even if we’re just eavesdropping a bit on the conversation between Paul and these early Christian believers. Paul reminds us that we have this great blessing found in each and every member of the fellowship. We gather together as believers from different walks of life, yet we are enriched and nurtured by the grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus. Paul offers a word that reminds us that our strength is grounded in God.

This is such a good word when oftentimes many congregations operate out of a sense of lack. We think about the pews being half-empty, when we have such good folks already in the pew gifted by God. We sometimes wish for more and worry about having not much, and we fall into the trap of thinking it all depends on a key figure or two, or a healthy cash flow, or the right “fill in the blank”.

Congregations thrive when they are able to move from a deep appreciation of the Spirit working in their midst, kindling diverse gifts, the ardent desire to follow Christ, and attentiveness to the signs—seen and unseen—of God’s measureless grace.

The Corinthian church needed to hear this word wounded and fractured by controversy. There are some who hold some strong views, and others who are left out of the fullness of the fellowship because of the controversies at hand. Yet here is Paul, addressing the factions from afar, offering a word of greeting: To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. Despite the anger, the conflict, the splintering happening to the Corinthian Christians, Paul claims at the end of the day, God is the one who brings us together. The lifeline that Paul throws the floundering Corinthian congregation is not “advice” but “good theology.” Remember your identity as believers in Christ and let the grace of God shape your fellowship and its inner life.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Pope and a Table full of Baptists

Over the years, I have read a great deal of theology, particularly in the various branches of liberation theology, which arose first in the late 1960s/early 1970s among Roman Catholic scholars, particularly in Spanish speaking Latin American countries. Gustavo Guiterrez's landmark Teologia de la liberation (A Theology of Liberation) continues to resound as a major moment in late 20th century theology, an engagement of "history, politics and salvation".

Like my native Baptist tradition and its mixed acceptance of the writings of Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, the Roman Catholic Church has its varying level of embrace for such connection of faith and the social justice found in Gutierrez and the many theologians who continue to explore these connections.

With the arrival of Pope Francis, a native son of South America with European heritage, the Roman Catholic Church and the rest of the world has been surprised, stunned, inspired and certainly challenged by the different approach of this new pontiff. Indeed, Gutierrez himself has been a much more welcome figure in Rome, recently participating in events held at the Vatican. One wonders what the retired Pope out in the back gardens made of this development, given his role during the John Paul II papacy with increasing scrutiny of liberationists.

This week in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the Pope offered a powerful speech at a gathering prompting Jesuit journalist Fr. James Martin, SJ, to post it on his Facebook account with the following commentary: "A stunning speech, Pope Francis has just used the strongest language I can remember a pope using about the rights of the poor and of social justice, called "land, lodging and labor" "sacred rights" and apologized, clearly and forcefully, for the "grave sins" and "crimes" that the church committed against native peoples during the colonialist period. Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you to read this entire talk, which is sure to be a landmark of his pontificate."

In the speech's conclusion, the Pope writes,

In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you. Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age. Keep up your struggle and, please, take great care of Mother Earth. I pray for you and with you, and I ask God our Father to accompany you and to bless you, to fill you with his love and defend you on your way by granting you in abundance that strength which keeps us on our feet: that strength is hope, the hope which does not disappoint. Thank you and I ask you, please, to pray for me.

The full speech is available:

The Pope's words resound well with my Baptist formed heart, which leans with Rauschenbusch and his inheritors. This past month at the ABCUSA Biennial and Mission Summit in Kansas City, I participated in the Mission Summit Conversations, helping facilitate two table discussion groups. The conversations centered on issues of Poverty, gathering together pastors and lay leaders who care deeply about God's call to serve neighbors in need. I appreciated the chance to hear about the different ways local churches and their community/ecumenical/interfaith partners are addressing the income inequality, access to affordable housing, food and healthcare needs and other challenges affecting persons of all generations.

Baptists historically have referred at times to themselves as "the gathered people". In the Pope's speech and a few Baptists gathered around a table, I hear powerful words about the importance of connecting faith and common good. While our institutional structures and their aims and purposes sometimes turn inward or "miss the point" of the world's deep need, I am deeply grateful when people of faith, Catholic, Baptist and otherwise, live out a faith that seeks to be engaged in the world and share abundance where scarcity otherwise might reign.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pondering the 4th weekend sermon or Sabbath

On the road home from the ABCUSA Mission Summit in Kansas City, I have little time to write given the long haul drive between Kansas and upstate New York.   I am preaching at FBC Hamilton, NY, this Sunday morning, which falls on "4th of July" weekend.

For many clergy, a civic holiday weekend can be a little bit like small-town football. One year the home team shows up. The next year it's mostly traveling away games.  I tend to cover civic holiday Sunday services as part of my ministry to our regional pastors. It can sometimes be the only time the clergy family can get away as a spouse may have the Monday off.  

For the 4th of July,  I tend to cover civic holiday Sunday services as part of my ministry to our regional pastors. It can sometimes be the only time the clergy family can get away as a spouse may have a job where the pastor's Sunday duties shorten if not negate time enough to travel.  Sabbath keeping matters!

I will offer some thoughts on the age old "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" as it provides a connection with every generation of disciples struggling with what it means to follow Jesus and seek God's reign while still part of a world where partisanship, nationalism and ideologies compete for our attention and alligence.

May we ponder well as we preach (or lay out on the beach, wander the woods or try to survive several hours with the in-laws!).