Friday, January 29, 2016

Lent is coming!

Part of the church's life is keeping up with the changing of seasons, sacred as well as secular.  For example, I have been talking with pastors who feel wiped out.  Advent and Christmas finished up and suddenly, the Annual Meeting looms large on the radar in a few short weeks.   And more to the point, some congregations went into the Christmas season with promises that they would work on the necessities of a church's annual meeting (agenda, nominations, agreeing to a finalized budget), only to get to January 1st and realize that those promises went unfilled.

This year is especially trying for church leaders as the season of Lent begins earlier than we sometimes imagine it should.  The date for Easter Sunday is a moving target, so unlike Christmas where "December 25th" is synonymous with the holiday.  Easter this year will be on March 27th, which means in turn that Ash Wednesday is February 10th!  (And if this is the first you've thought about it in late January, I join you in saying, "Eek!")

So, if you have followed the pattern outlined above (and let's not forget that many churches also hold a number of events around the MLK Civic Holiday weekend as well!), you've gone from one thing to another to another to another to another.   And let's be honest, none of these events are ever "low key" or "easily planned and implemented".

So, a word for the wise.  Planning matters greatly!  I know some weeks are full of unexpected, unplanned for events and needs within the average church (large or small).  Procrastination can be one of the deadly sins of clergy and worship planners, however, there is indeed hope when you get into the habit of looking well in advance to sketch out possibilities.  You can still leave room for last minute adjustments, but with a little forethought, you can have a better experience of the Lenten season (or any other time sacred or secular) that needs attentiveness yet should also be an enjoyable, meaningful experience for the participants and the planners alike!

For the Lenten season, here are a small number of resources that I have found helpful in getting my heart and mind in the mood and the mode of the season as well as some books I hope to read soon that are new to the market and look quite promising:
Bartlett, David, Barbara Brown Taylor and Kimberly Bracken Long.  Feasting on the Word, Lenten Companion: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship.  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014.

Blair Gilmer Meeks.  Season of Ash and Fire: Prayers and Liturgies for Lent and Easter.  Abingdon Press, 2004. 

Cunningham, David S.  Friday, Saturday, Sunday:  Literary Meditation on Suffering, Death and New Life.  Westminster/John Knox, 2007.

Maitland, Sara.  A Year in Silence.  Counterpoint, 2010.

Martin, James, SJ. Seven Last Words of Christ: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus.  HarperOne, 2016. 

Rutledge, Fleming.  The Crucifixion:  Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  Eerdmans, 2015.

Williams, Rowan.  Meeting God in Paul: Reflections for the Season of Lent.  Westminster/John Knox, 2015.

ONLINE:   Textweek provides a weekly resource for pastors and worship planners who follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  It takes awhile to understand the various treasures routinely linked each week in different sections, but it will help you in the long run as a well curated source for planning needs.  A Lenten guide published by the Calvin Institute of Worship, cross referencing a variety of resources.  A Wiki article about the dating of Easter (historical and theological debates await!)

And last but not least, ecumenical discussions are being held between religious leaders to fix the date for Easter's observance.  The "second Sunday of April" may very well become synonymous with Easter!   Read more:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Hearing the Prophet: Luke 4:14-21

When I served in Vermont, our interfaith council hosted the MLK Day observance along with the Peace & Justice Center.  One year, instead of finding a speaker to talk about King, we opted to invite people to listen to a recording of King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from 1964. His words were stirring, but his preacherly cadence electrified the moment. People listened because he spoke with the humble certainty of the prophet.

 Even as we near fifty years since his assassination, King keeps instructing us through his speeches and his life. He was a person who used nonviolent methods to transverse a turbulent era. A man given many opportunities to claim celebrity, settling instead for his modest self-description of being “nothing more than a Baptist preacher.” King was a powerful person of faith, thanks to his formation in a faith community, growing up, learning the refrain of scriptures, living out his faith journey.

One cannot give enough importance to the role of faith formation. It is a necessary part of making a person more grounded in the faith that they believe in. That is one distinctive of Luke’s Gospel. Throughout his story of Jesus, Luke demonstrates that Jesus was raised in a household that took faith seriously. In infancy, Jesus is circumcised and presented at the Temple. As an adolescent, Jesus remains in Jerusalem while the family returns home from pilgrimage. From the time of his baptism to nearing his death, Jesus is often found in fervent, reverential prayer. Jesus keeps the faith well, immersed in the traditions and customs, and most importantly, the sacred text of Law, Wisdom, and Prophets. Jesus spoke with an authority from above, but he also spoke from a place within himself that only comes from keeping the faith seriously. He listened to these scriptures and let them simmer deep down in his bones. That humble certainty fueled his ministry as surely as the power of the Spirit empowered Jesus.

In the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Book of Acts, the Spirit, the Spirit of God, provides the spirit that drives the Christ and the first Christians. It is Luke that holds that the Spirit brings the power to speak, to act, and to go forth, bringing about the good news. Jesus is empowered, and likewise the Church that follows the Christ is dependent on the enlivening force of the Spirit. He speaks prophetically, as one with authority and grace.

So, when you read a passage like this one, we preacherly types feel just a tinge of envy at how this “sermon” unfolds. Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah and gives an opening line that gets the crowd talking: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Preachers would give most anything to have folks on the first line! (Oftentimes, the sermon is a bit like watching a baseball game. You hope that it doesn’t go into overtime!)

Jesus goes on in his commentary on Isaiah by anticipating some of the criticism that he would get. There were some who expected Jesus to provide the same help he was giving elsewhere. Others were skeptical that Jesus had the abilities to heal and teach that was spreading around. He invoked stories from scripture about the “outsiders” being the most likely to follow God. Jesus disturbed this crowd by reminding them of what they ought to know: the ongoing refrain within the scriptures that made provision for those in need.

Jesus is about the work of God, bringing the good news. The promise of Isaiah is being fulfilled in Jesus’ work. Yet in rustic Nazareth, it took people a little by surprise to hear that sort of authority in their midst. After all, they knew Jesus as the son of a carpenter. Jesus was not considered learned by these folks. No Ivy League credentials. Not even a divinity school degree. Jesus befuddled the home crowd to no end. How did this boy of Joseph develop this ability? And a few started to mutter, “Who does he think he is?”

In her book on the spirituality of raising children (perhaps you will find it to be most appropriately entitled “In the Midst of Chaos”), author Bonnie Miller-McLemore tells of worshiping in a Lutheran church where the sanctuary was adorned with a large sign that said “May the Spirit of God disturb you.”

Miller-McLemore writes,
These words were posted to honor Gertrude Lundholm, a Lutheran woman who deeply shaped and inspired all generations in the community and who had died only the week before. During Eucharist, she would pass the peace in just this way. “May the Spirit of God disturb you,” she’d say as she embraced her neighbor.

What did Lundholm mean? “Many Christians, she told a friend, “seem to think the peace of God is just about their own internal peace of mind, as if being a Christian is kind of like being a kind of tranquilizer. But God intends to stir us make us notice new things, to keep us from being complacent.”  (In the Midst of Chaos, p 16)

The erring of many churches is to settle for comfort and familiarity, thus negating the ongoing need to evaluate their ability to be a faith community that is able to reach out and to include others, especially those who are really “other” in various ways to the majority of the congregation. Christ is a confounding figure for us. He spent time in the midst of those who were forgotten or made to feel forgotten by the majority around them. Yet there is a certain degree of taming that happens when we read the Gospel from a place too secure or within a community of faith too self-assured. “May the Spirit of God disturb you” sounds like a bit of ire at first. Perhaps it is the word of blessing we need most. It may allow us to hear anew the hope found in “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The reading from Isaiah is stirring, again, perhaps you hear the thunder of a Dr. King delivering these lines. The trick for us, however, is to ponder these words of Isaiah for ourselves. How do these words challenge? How do these words give hope? How do these words prompt us from hearing to doing?
The Nehemiah reading from earlier in the service reminds us that it is important to spend time together reflecting on the scriptures. In a time of renewal and rebuilding, the people of Israel took opportunities to hear and contemplate the reading of sacred text.

We’re going to try an experiment during the sermon. Rather than me talking, we’re going to let the Isaiah text simmer a bit. We’ll hear the passage from Isaiah read twice. Between each reading will be some silent time to reflect. After the second reading and a time for silence, I will invite you to share what words, phrases, or thoughts are on your mind as we close out the sermon time.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What did you experience in hearing and thinking about these words? What does this story of Jesus help you see as important to the life of faith lived by yourself or this congregation?

Let us pray...

Call us, O God, to become deeper disciples of our faith in You.
Confound us, O Christ, to live the Gospel more inclusively.
Disturb us, O Spirit of God, that we might be more vulnerable and attentive.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, AMEN.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Being a Good Guest (John 2:1-11)

This Sunday, I am the guest preacher for the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica, NY.  Tabernacle has an abundant ministry among Karen speaking persons, some of whom are refugees resettling in the Mohawk Valley from places within and near the country of Burma (Myanmar) and others who are first generation American born Karen.  The worship services at Tabernacle are offered in English (where I will be preaching) and in Karen at a second service afterwards.  (I bring greetings from the ABCNYS Region with the assistance of a translator at the beginning of the Karen service.)

This Sunday, the lectionary explores the first sign of Jesus' ministry, commonly called the "miracle at Cana" with water being changed into wine.  I also have spent this week considering what I would say in order to be sensitive to preaching in a context where English may be a second language for many, cultural idioms and colloquialisms may not have the same resonance or common understanding, and I also find John's gospel (like many preachers) a more languid narrative, enriched by meanings upon meanings in the text, yet you still have to preach within the confines of the average Sunday morning service.  (I am most grateful longer passages, the norm for John's gospel, are not among the texts for this Sunday!)

So, here's my sermon for John 2:1-11, written with the hope that I can be a good pulpit guest for a marvelous and vibrant congregation:

           Planning for a wedding celebration can be an anxious experience.  You never know if you have planned enough or thought through all the details.  Some people even have friends help them out, and others will hire a person (“a wedding planner”) to take all of the details over and make sure everything goes smoothly.
            But does a big celebration ever go smoothly?   I have worked with many couples preparing for marriage.  Sometimes, I will ask a question about the wedding service, and they will look at one another, and I realize that I have asked them about something they did not think about yet.  One time, the couple started arguing in front of me about a wedding planning decision.  I had to calm them down and spent the rest of the time talking not about the wedding but how communication and trust might be some things to work on before they got married.  Is it helpful to be planning a wedding when you may not be married after a few weeks of being married?   If choosing wedding decorations and whether or not cupcakes or cake should be served creates a big fight between the two, you need to think about your compatibility as a couple.
            Sometimes, no matter how long you plan, how carefully you work out details, there is still something that can wrong that nobody could have anticipated.  A bride wanted at her wedding reception a certain large glass bowl for punch (a sugary tasty drink).  The bowl had been in her family, passed down for at least three generations and used at family weddings and other occasions.
            However, after the wedding, the bride came out of the church with her new husband to find that the old glass bowl had simply broken apart, the red punch all over their refreshment table.  Nobody had checked the table, as they were inside the church witnessing the wedding.  Suddenly, they discovered they had no drinks to offer the wedding guests!
            Such a problem could be called an embarrassing moment.  Probably people had a laugh, and then for years, this story would be told at other times, even in a pulpit on a snowy Sunday morning in upstate New York!
            In the Gospel of John, the same situation (no drink was left for the many guests of a wedding) was understood as embarrassing as well as very dishonorable.  For the culture of Jesus and his disciples at this wedding in Cana, having not enough to share with your guests was a matter of shame and a dishonoring of your guests. 
Hospitality is a high value in the New Testament, just as it is in many cultures today and throughout history.  Some scholars suggest that a wedding was often a test of how well you and your neighbors got along.  To host such a big event was too much for one family, so it was more likely that people agreed to share their resources so a big celebration could happen.  If you helped out this neighbor, when it was time for your family to have a wedding, they would be obliged to help you. 
Thus, when the wine ran out, it was not an inconvenience.  It was a crisis that made you as host appear rude and inconsiderate. Good hospitality was expected. And people would remember this embarassment for years to come! 
            And into the fray, we find the mother of Jesus coming to Him for help.
            The mother of Jesus did not wish to see this happen.  I can imagine her watching the servants rushing around, trying to find if a jug of wine in hopes it was mislaid or hidden away.  In the midst of servants looking high and low around the household, the mother of Jesus moves through the crowd and finds Jesus with his disciples. 
            And Jesus is just like the rest of us:  He has a mother who expects Him to do the impossible!    
            After some discussion, Jesus does what is often called a miracle.  He turns water into wine.  If you didn’t know better, you would not believe that such goodness could come out of  as if somebody had taken a bottle long in storage, dusted it off, opened it up to breathe for a while before serving.  The taste was unmistakably from the best year of a vineyard, aged to perfection and therefore a sign that the wedding party had spared no expense in treating its guests so well.
Even more impressive was the water itself.  Six large jugs of water were on hand, not for drinking but for purification purposes.  He turns the water used for washing your hands—not even water meant for drinking!—into what’s declared not only drinkable but the best tasting wine!  
            Further, the wine is now so plentiful that nobody could ever complain that they did not have enough.  Every single person, even the servants and Jesus’ disciples alike, are able to enjoy the abundance. 
            The story of Jesus turning water into wine is often called “a miracle”, meaning something that should not be possible is made possible.  Jesus’ miracles are often described in terms of their spectacle.  Turn six jugs of water into wine, feed 5000 with just some bread and fish to start with, and the list goes on.  
            For John’s gospel, he does not use the word “miracle”.  It’s not that these moments like turning water into wine are not miraculous, but John calls these miracles “signs”.  It is written, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” 
The disciples are not caught up in the question of “how did this happen?” which is one way many modern readers would treat this story.  The disciples experience God at work through Jesus, and it deepens their understanding of who Jesus is.  The disciples are learning to answer the question, “Why did this happen?”  
While it is remarkable, spectacular and unexpected, the miracle of the water into wine creates a moment of great abundance where there was otherwise only lack, worry, failure and social shame awaiting the wedding party.    With Jesus, we will learn throughout John’s Gospel again and again that abundance, more than enough good to go around, is what God makes possible, even when we think nothing else could happen, let alone something so marvelously as a wedding party with a serious hospitality shortage  suddenly surpassing everybody’s expectations with great rejoicing and no thought of complaint.
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus will offer signs of his glory, yet few will be able to perceive and understand them.  One scholar of John’s gospel claims that when these moments happen in the story, the signs Jesus provides are “acts that require interpretation, evoke discussion and demand decision” (Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship, Orbis Books, 1994, p. 80).   Jesus’ disciples, beginning at Cana and certainly long into the Gospel story when the disciple Thomas cannot yet believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, will struggle to understand. Yet slowly, one way or another, their eyes and then their hearts are opened to belief in Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, the Word made flesh, who dwelled among us. 
Only those who first see water, then taste the finest of wine, or who follow only the voice of the Shepherd who is truly their keeper, can understand and believe what is said at the beginning of John’s Gospel:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
And seeing and believing in this Good News, we follow the disciples of Jesus into a life of discipleship. Jesus offers abundance to the world, yet individual Christians and churches can be too slow or willing to help share God’s good abundance with the world.  Too often, churches struggle (or sometimes outright refuse) to welcome others to join them or be accepted graciously and hospitably as honored guests.  
Then I come to a church like Tabernacle, and I know that the Gospel is being lived out.  You provide welcome to people who have arrived from far away, uncertain of the language and customs and not quite ready for the extremes of a Mohawk Valley winter.  You provide opportunities for worship, education and opportunities to serve.  Certainly, our entire American Baptist Region experienced your generous and warm welcome and hospitality when we had our Region meeting here at Tabernacle in 2014.  And certainly, if anyone attends a meal at this church, you will never go away hungry or thirsty.
            You could say that at Tabernacle, there’s enough to go around, even if you are a long-time member of the church family or a guest who just happened to show up quite recently.  Indeed, when I come here to visit, it’s like the wedding of Cana, where the celebration of God's abundance takes place and never seems to end!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A New Year to Be Good Old Baptists

A few years ago in Kansas City, my wife and I attended a large Greek food festival held by a local Greek Orthodox congregation. If you like Greek food, you went away quite stuffed with good food. If you felt like you needed to burn calories quickly, you could join the crowd dancing in the tent. (As the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding might have put it, if you are Greek, you eat, you dance, and when you hurt, you spray a little Windex on it.)

The congregation offered tours of their sanctuary as well as a brief greeting from the priest. As we sat in the sanctuary listening to the priest’s remarks, Kerry passed me a card in the pew rack. The card explained the origins and beliefs of the Orthodox Church and where the Orthodox fit into the story of Christianity in comparison to the Catholic and Protestant movements. Each denomination had a brief explanation, and under “Baptists”, the card read:

“Baptists believe in baptism by immersion for adults only.
Their founder is English reformer John Smyth.”

In the late 16th-century, John Smyth was a part of the English Separatist movement, persons who did not accept the Church of England’s authority or teachings. In turn, neither the Church nor the English court tolerated Separatist movements. With a small group of Separatists, Smyth fled to Amsterdam, a safe haven for religious dissidents. Over their years in the Netherlands, the congregation developed their beliefs further, taking some of their theological influences from interactions with the early Anabaptist, or Mennonite, groups also in Holland.

Historians consider Smyth’s congregation to be the first “Baptist” church, as by 1609, the congregation evidenced beliefs and practices clearly “baptistic”. The congregation, Smyth included, came to believe the true Church, as described by the New Testament, was not in existence, refuting their baptism within the Church of England. William Estep writes, “The church was then reconstituted on personal confessions of faith and baptisms”. (The Anabaptist Story, 3rd ed., revised and enlarged) Hence, Smyth baptized himself (admittedly this part of the story gives many, including myself, a case of theological heartburn) and then he baptized the rest of the people!

By 1610, the congregation had developed twenty statements about their theological beliefs. Here are two of these statements: “The Church of Christ is a company of the faithful; baptized after confession of sin and of faith, endowed with the power of Christ”. The second statement of note here: “Baptism is an external sign of the remission of sins, of dying and of being made alive, and therefore does not belong to infants”. (Quoted in Brackney, Baptist Life and Thought: A Source Book, revised and expanded).

On a side note, you will be surprised to learn, however, that these “first” Baptists did not baptize by immersion. This early congregation practiced baptism by triune affusion, pouring water over the person three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It would not be until later in the mid-17th century, when the Baptist tradition was developing further that the New Testament described baptism by “dipping”, or immersing, the person. The main concern for Smyth’s congregation was a person receiving baptism after he or she professed belief in Christ and renounced his or her sinful nature. This is “believer’s baptism” indeed!

For today’s Baptists, there are some differences of opinion on how we look back at our roots. In case you have not realized, Baptist churches differ, even within their denominational traditions. Indeed, we are like snowflakes: no two Baptist churches are exactly alike!

For example, some congregations like our own welcome persons baptized as infants into the membership without another baptism. We describe this way as “joining by Christian experience”. Other Baptist congregations would expect a candidate for membership baptized by immersion only and hold a very firm line that any other form of baptism was invalid. (Most of these congregations I knew in the Midwest had a low opinion of churches baptizing infants or baptism by sprinkling. Some churches even refuse communion to persons not baptized in a Baptist church. In one case, persons not baptized specifically within the fellowship of that specific church can partake in communion. That particular church brings new meaning to the term “closed communion”!)

Looking back at the events of 1609, what have we learned? Four hundred plus years later, what is our spiritual DNA indebted to Smyth and others? I like the phrase “spiritual DNA” as religions have unique traits passed down from generation to generation. Some traits helpfully ground a religion, while other traits remind us of the need for “gene therapy” from time to time. From the story of John Smyth and his congregation, let me suggest some helpful insights:

Let us return to where the essay began: being a tourist at the Orthodox Church. Technically the Orthodox Church’s pew card about various Christian origins had the Baptist information arguably incorrect. Smyth was among the earliest Baptists, however, he is not “the” first Baptist in the sense of a Luther or Calvin. In Baptist Ways, the current “key” text for Baptist history, Bill Leonard observes, “Baptist have no single founder whose life and thought identifies the historical and theological origins of the movement.” If you are Lutheran, you can stock your bookshelf full of Luther’s writings. If you are a Presbyterian, Calvin’s Institutes is a touchstone. The Methodists have Mr. Wesley. The Baptists have, well, literally potluck.

We have a variety of early progenitors, those who help get the tradition underway, but it is not necessarily neat and tidy history or theology alike to claim John Smyth as “the” founder of Baptists. I would stress instead that even in their origins, the Baptists are true to form. To understand Baptists, you do not look to one key figure. Hence, the early stories of Baptists speak well to our abiding witness: the Church is the company of the faithful, or the many people, great and small, or in English Baptist parlance, “the gathered people”. We respect Smyth and the other pastors who gave shape to Baptist proclamation and thought. Nonetheless, to tell the Baptist story is not to recite the cavalcade of a few key voices, or as some historical surveys tended to do in a (hopefully) bygone era: to celebrate history as the achievements of “old dead white men.”

Looking at our roots, perhaps we should claim ourselves heirs of Smyth AND his congregation. The earliest Baptists affirmed that our belief in Christ and our discipleship matter greatly as signs of our faithfulness to God. It is not Smyth alone, in writings or in his acts, making this mark in history. The perseverance of the little congregation kept the Baptist faith from dying out in the years of hardship that followed.

The significance of the events in 1609 and the leadership of John Smyth are just part of the story. What happened after that seminal year of 1609 needs its due. The original group fleeing England with Smyth was approximately 150 persons. By 1612, the congregation had whittled down to ten persons, the membership fractured by theological disagreements among the faithful.

The remnant returned to England in 1612, now led by Thomas Helwys. Smyth left the fellowship sometime after 1610, seeking membership among the Mennonites, among whom Smyth came to believe were practicing the most authentic ways of being a New Testament church. Despite Smyth’s own ironic short-term adherence as a Baptist, his congregation persevered, establishing the first Baptist church in England in 1612. Four centuries later, Baptists have spread out across the world as a global Christian tradition. Indeed, as we celebrate our roots, we do not look to one lone individual. Rather, to tell the Baptist story aright, you must tell many stories of ministry, the work of the laity and the ordained. To speak of Baptists, you tell of mission, local and global alike. To celebrate, you tell all these stories. Then, you eat, you dance (if your batch of Baptists approves of such things), and then, well, you eat again.

As we start out a new year of opportunities for ministry and mission, let us also to remember and strengthen our understanding of our Baptist history and heritage. We can begin appropriately with our own local church, taking advantage of a variety of resources for Adult Study about Baptist history and polity, many published by Judson Press. We can also look for ways to improve our local church's ministry by asking and identifying how our congregation empowers all members for ministry. Baptists of any era and context are all called to help the whole people carry out the ministries and mission of the church, as we realize that not any one person lay or ordained is solely responsible for the ministry and mission of the church.

This is how 21st century Baptists echo the spirit of 1609: Each of us is part of the whole people, the gathered people, “the company of the faithful”. Together, we listen for God’s calling. Together, we seek Christ’s path. Together, we are gifted by the Spirit to be the diverse and gathered people called “church”.