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 (apostereĊ) 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.