Atonement, Eucharist, Good News

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve been on here. What can I say? Life has been busy. Since I last checked in, I’ve hit several walls and come pretty close to a few break-downs. For now, though, things are going OK.

Shifting gears.

For Lent, as we’ve been doing for the last several years, we’ve had “guest preachers” from the pews share their perspectives on the texts we use in worship, how they impact the lives of those who are doing the preaching, things like that. I love this practice, not only for the practical reasons (mainly that it gives me a break from writing a couple of sermons in an already busy season), but also and especially because it gives the rest of the congregation a different perspective than mine all the time,  plus I think it raises people to different positions of leadership in the congregation. It’s not that everyone is called to become a preacher or a pastor, but those gifts DO exist among the saints in the pews, even if not on a full-time basis. I just really love doing this, and I’m always impressed with how the lay people who feel drawn to preach on occasion are able to work with the texts and communicate with the rest of the congregation just what it is in those scriptures that moves and shapes them in their lives.

One of the other benefits of the lay preacher series is that I wind up with some more time to pursue other things in the congregation. Things like teaching. Which I also love to do.

This Lent we decided (on the urging of Augsburg Fortress, who produced a new version of this publication) to study Luther’s “Small Catechism.” We spent a week going over the 10 Commandments, a week looking at “The Lord’s Prayer,” a week on the Apostles’ Creed, another week on Baptism. This week we’ll be wrapping up with the Sacrament of the Table.

As I’ve been thinking about this, even though I’m teaching primarily in line with traditional Lutheran thought, my own theological life has been deeply touched by Girardian thought, especially as interpreted by theologians like Michael Hardin. With that said, I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been digesting from Michael and others. That’s what follows here. Feel free to comment, agree, disagree, call me a heretic, whatever. I hope it gives you some, er, food for thought.

__________________

In the ancient world – let’s pick a date of 2000 BCE, just for argument’s sake – people in every culture believed in God, or more properly, in “the gods.” This wasn’t about intellectual assent to a god-concept or to a set of doctrines, but rather it was a set of practices including offering sacrifice to the deities. “Believing” equaled “making sacrifice.” Not making a sacrifice or making a poor one was a mark of infidelity and it brought about the curse or the wrath of the gods. But making a good sacrifice yielded blessings. The better the sacrifice, the greater the blessing. Firstborn boys and virgin girls made excellent sacrifices in most cultures.

Sacrifice, then, was practical theology. It was the way in which religion and culture were both formed and practiced.

This is no less true of the ancient Hebrews. The first major modification in their culture/religion is that they stopped sacrificing to the many gods, and began offering sacrifice to the One, True God. At first, this God they saw as the greatest among many, but eventually (perhaps because they stopped sacrificing to the many gods?) they came to believe in and sacrifice ONLY to the One God, seeing the many gods as mere idols. After some time, they stopped offering human victims to this One God (see the linguistic shift in the story known as “The Binding of Isaac”), moving to a “lesser” sacrifice of animals, especially goats, cattle, and sheep, but also turtle doves and other small animals.

By the time of the Prophets, even this lesser sacrifice was being called into question. Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, Hosea, and even some of the Psalms begin to speak negatively about sacrifice.

While theologically-speaking, this diminished emphasis on sacrifice was occurring, on an anthropological, sociological level, the idea and practice of sacrifice carried on – not only among the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews, of course, but in all cultures — in other, less overt forms, especially through the practice of “scapegoating” a victim in times of tribal/cultural conflict or anxiety. As group cohesiveness would begin to appear threatened and anxiety began to rise, groups could find unity in locating and naming a guilty Other, then casting that person from the group, either by expulsion or by murder (usually carried out anonymously in mobs, so that no one person would bear the burden of murdering the scapegoat). Following this, the identified “problem” was “taken care of,” and unity would be restored … for a time. It would have to be repeated over and over again, but the more often it worked to restore unity, the more cemented the practice became.

There is also within this practice of scapegoating, a move by which the expelled/murdered victim moves from being seen as “the guilty one,” in terms of taking blame for the original problem, to being seen as holy, heroic, godly, because their death solved the group’s problem. They move from victim to rescuer of the people. The “sacrificial” killing of our victims gives us life.

It doesn’t require much of a stretch to see this applied to Jesus. The Gospel witness even attests to the unlikely friendship that developed between Herod and Pilate on account of the disposal of Jesus.

But Jesus was not to be the typical victim-turned-savior because this particular scapegoat returned from his expulsion “on the third day.” And in discontinuity with what most people would expect from a murdered victim, when he returned, rather than seeking revenge on his victimizers, he bore a message of peace. In forgiving those who denied and betrayed him, Jesus not only exposed the violent, murderous scapegoating process as a trap, thus giving humanity a chance to break the cycle of such violence, but also he took away the possibility for humans to use scapegoating as a means of seeing their violent activity as God-ordained. A murderous humanity actually attempted to sacrifice God to God, and as CS Lewis put it, the stone table (the altar) of death was shattered. The spell was broken. And a new possibility for living as non-violent, non-scapegoating, forgiving humanity grew up through the fissures.

This is a model of atonement most recently made popular by French sociologist Rene Girard, but the idea stretches back to the early church’s understanding of what God was up to in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, this is actually an ancient understanding of “atonement,” at-one-ment – the way God in Christ heals the broken relationship between humans and God, as well as between humans and their fellow creatures.

But this understanding became eclipsed in the church over time, and by the 17th century, a theory of penal substitutionary atonement, as espoused by John Calvin and others, came into vogue, both in Europe, and then through European resettlement to the North American continent, in the New World.

Part of this Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory reaches back into archaic religion/culture, and views the death of Jesus as a self-sacrifice to an angry God, as a means to appease this God’s wrath. This God is so holy and so honor-demanding that He (sic) cannot bear the sight of sin. He demands a sacrifice as restitution for the disobedience of sinful humanity. And so Jesus, although himself sinless, offers his own blood in place of ours, bears God’s wrath in his own person so that we don’t have to, thereby effecting our salvation. Jesus bears the penance (hence “penal”) in our place (hence “substitutionary”), stilling God’s anger so that we can be saved or brought back into God’s favor (“at-one-ment”).

Now, there are all kinds of problems with this view of what God was accomplishing for us in Christ on the cross, but that’s another discussion for another time. The reason I bring it up has to do with the ties between the Passion of Jesus and the meal we call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

St. Paul writes (and we hear again each week in the “Words of Institution”):
On the night in which our Lord Jesus was handed over
he took the bread and gave thanks.
He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said,
Take this all of you and eat.
This is my body, which will be given up for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.

And after the supper was ended,
he took the cup and gave thanks,
then he gave it to his disciples, saying
Take this all of you and drink.
This cup is the new and everlasting covenant in my blood
which will be shed for you and for all people
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.

According to Jesus, then, his body will be broken and given up “for you.” Likewise, his blood will be shed “for you and for all people” – for what? For the forgiveness of sins.

TO whom is Jesus being handed over to have his body broken and his blood shed? To God?
No. To the authorities: To Pilate as a representative of the occupying forces of Rome. To the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities. From Pilate to Herod, back to Pilate, to the people, who all cry “Crucify him!” It’s not God saying that. It’s the people, the powers, the principalities. But it’s not God.

FOR whom is he doing it? For God?
No. He explicitly says, “for you” and “for all people.”

This has nothing to do with appeasing a wrathful God, and everything to do with appeasing a wrathful, vengeful, violent humanity.

As Pastor Brian Zahnd puts it, “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive: It’s what God endures in Christ as he forgives.”
The prophets were right: God doesn’t demand sacrifice, never mind sacrifice of the Father’s beloved Son, in order to forgive sinful humanity. But humanity DOES demand the sacrifice of the rabble rouser Jesus, who flagrantly violates religious laws and traditions of the elders; who refuses to pay homage to Caesar, but remains faithful to the Abba alone; who stands out as differentiated from the common people. There’s nothing worse in any human society than someone who dares to be different. They make themselves conspicuous, easy to pick out, easy to place blame on when the going gets rough.

In short, WE are the ones who break Jesus’ body. WE are the ones who shed his blood. WE are the ones who demand a sacrifice. God doesn’t command this or demand it in order to restore his pristine name, but rather God endures it. God doesn’t put Jesus on the cross in our place so that he can take the brunt of God’s righteous anger. We put Jesus up there. What God does is to allow himself to be pushed out of the world on the cross, as Bonhoeffer says. By us. And in the end, instead of wiping us out a deicidal sinners, he is persistently present with Jesus on the cross “in the world, reconciling all things to himself.”

So, when we come up for Communion, we’re coming forward not only with nothing to offer God (as beggars with empty hands, as Luther put it), but as a vengeful mob, looking once again to kill our scapegoat, to brutally consume his body and gorge on his blood so that we can suck eternal life out of his bones. And what does God dole out to us in this meal? Is it vengeance? Is it retaliation? That would be justice, but No. God’s response is forgiveness. Nothing but forgiveness.

UPDATE: In my original post, I inadvertently left a big chunk of material from Michael Hardin’s 5-part series on the Eucharist on here, uncredited. As I say, this was accidental. Here’s a link to his original material. Please read it. It’s fantastic! And while you’re at it, please also check out Rob Grayson’s response on his blog. These two guys are just awesome.

 

A Revised Order of Service for Terence

Prelude
Community Welcome
A Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness

A Prayer of Lament for Those Who Cannot Breathe
by Rev. Prince Rivers
(Slightly adapted by Rev. Rob Martin)

Holy God,
a cloud of grief hangs heavy over my head
and I feel like I cannot breathe,
so give me the strength to pray.
I raise my hands toward the sky
and I lift my eyes to the hills
which is where my help comes from.
Lord,
when the names of people who have been
choked,
shot,
and assaulted
is too many to count
I know that not one sould has been forgotten by
mothers and fathers,
sisters and brothers,
cousins and friends.
They remember …
… laughs and smiles,
… dreams and struggles,
… talents and personalities.

Now these men and women are gone.
Father,
how long must we listen
to the cries and screams
as blood stains the sidewalk?
How many videos must we watch
before we begin to see a change?

Help me, God.
Help us.
Help the people of St. Paul, MN
[Help the people of Tulsa, OK
Charlotte, SC
Baltimore, MD
Ferguson, MO]
Help Baton Rouge, LA.
Help our nation.

Help us examine ourselves.
[Silence for examination]

Help those of us who are sad and angry
not to let these deaths be in vain.

We do not pray for vengeance,
but we do thirst for justice.
We hope for healing
between neighbors and officers called to protect and serve.
We long for the day
when young men will live long enough to be old men
and parents will not have to say Good-bye too soon.

[Our] hope is in you, God.
Deliver [us] from all [our] fears.
Oh God,
come quickly to help us.
O Lord,
come quickly to save us.
In the nameof the one who came
that we might have life
and have life more abundantly
[, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord].

Amen.

Gathering Song:
“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” (ELW 719)

Pastoral Greeting
Kyrie
[Congregation, please be seated.]

Psalm 146

Gospel Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Sermon

In 2007, David Kinnaman,
President of the Barna Group,
released a book interpreting a survey of young people,
ages 16 – 28,
about their views on the Church
and Christianity in general.

The study group consisted of young people
both within and without the institutional church.

Of those outside the church
91% reported that they find Christians to be judgmental.
85% reported that they find church people to be hypocritical,
and their biggest complaint
was that we no longer “look like Jesus.”

That was in 2007
so those young people are now 25 – 38 years old.
And the older end of the spectrum is now
a generation of people with young kids
whom they are raising with this negative view of Christians,
who fail to look like the One they claim to follow.

Now, this is devestating for the institution of the Church.
But that’s not the Bad News.

The truly Bad News is that,
we who have an interest in passing on the institution
seem to care more about how people view us
and how that view is causing people to stay away from our congregations in droves
than we do that we’ve forgotten what it means to look like Jesus,
what it looks like to FOLLOW Jesus.

“By this people will know you are my disciples,
that you are self-righteous and judgmental?
that you’ve faithfully carried on your denominational doctrines and dogmas?
that you have a really nifty theology?
that all your members tithe
and have an excellent intellectual grasp
of what it means that the Real Presence of Christ is in the Eucharistic elements,
properly distributed according to your local traditions?

NO!

By THIS people will know you are my disciples:
That you have LOVE for one another!

What is the greatest commandment?
“You shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and soul,
and mind,
and strength.”

And the second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

On THIS, Jesus tells us,
hang ALL the Law and the Prophets.

The church
followers of Jesus
MUST be known
by our love of God
and our love of neighbor.

This is a radical stance
in a world where we are taught to be divided
into in groups
and out groups.
Where the our institutions and systems are designed
just for that purpose.
And much of the time, we don’t even realize our part in the game.

So Love of God and Neighbor is a radical stance
and it’s one that requires us to do a LOT of introspection.
I’m not talking about navel gazing
but rather introspection that causes us to see our complicity
and draws us to work for change
to work for justice
and to work for reconciliation
for the sake of God’s kingdom.

I know this is hard for Lutherans to swallow.
We have a phobia
an irrational fear
of kingdom work,
because we’ve been taught to be wary of “works righteousness.”

Sometimes it seems like the only time we ever paid attention in Confirmation
was the lesson on works righteousness.
We took that one to heart
and forgot just about everything else.
It’s a pity.

On top of this,
Lutherans tend to be a quiet people.
Ironic, I know,
since the reason that Lutherans exist
comes down to a priest who refused to be quiet.

But we have been quiet for too long.
We were too quiet in the 1920s and 30s
as the Nazi party came into power
with virtually no resistance.

We were too quiet until quite late
in the face of South African Apartheid.

And now we seem to be pretty quiet in the face of our OWN Apartheid:
systemic racism in the United States of America.

Why are we quiet?
Maybe we don’t recognize the reality.
Maybe we’d like to fall back on the luxury of waiting
until we hear “all the facts.”
And meanwhile, unarmed Black and brown men and women
are dying in the streets and on the sidewalks
and on their own porches.

That quietism is proof of our privelege.

What’s the matter? Don’t Lutherans get angry?
I can tell you first hand that we do.
When to pastor changes the liturgy at the last minute,
we get plenty angry.
When children are recruited to serve the already consecrated Communion elements,
we get angry.
When we are asked to sit together as a congregation
instead of sitting in our places of comfort during worship
oh, we get angry at that, too.

That’s the problem.
It’s not that we DON’T get angry:
We get angry about all. the. wrong. stuff.

I don’t want to drag on too long, so all you’re doing is hearing my voice.
In a minute I’ll close my mouth,
we’ll finish the service,
and then I’m going to invite you to stay
and begin the conversations that need to happen
about race in this country.

It’s going to be uncomfortable.
I can guarantee that.
And it will be long, hard work.

But I do want to say just a couple of things about our Gospel reading first.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus
is a very provocative story.
It can be
and has been
read as a cautionary tale about wealth.

It has also been read as a proof text for the existence of heaven and hell.

That’s fine.
I don’t care to debunk or discuss either of those right now.

But I do want to point out
that there is a clear message here from the lips of Jesus
about a fate that exists
whether you believe this relates to life now or an afterlife
for privileged people
who ignore the plight of those who are suffering in this world.

Check this out:
We don’t know the name of the rich man,
but the rich man definitely knows Lazarus’s name.
He’s aware of Lazarus’ presence
but is indifferent to his plight.

The only comfort that Lazarus has in this world
is that the dogs come and lick his sores.
But the rich man, who wears fancy clothes
and dines richly every day
can’t be bothered to care about poor Lazarus and his suffering.
Can’t be bothered with Lazarus at all
except until they’re both dead and in the place of the dead.
Even there, the rich man still can’t see Lazarus as anything
but a fetch-it boy,
a servant who ought to know his place,
which is to bring relief to the rich man.

In his indifference to Lazarus and his suffering
and in his desire to remain in his privileged position as a man who desires to live in comfort
a great chasm is fixed between him
and the place where Lazarus now resides,
namely, the bosom of Abraham.

Even his plea to Fr. Abraham is self-serving:
Send Lazarus to my brothers.
Not send ME to my brothers to warn them.
Not even send someone to tell my brothers to find their own Lazaruses
and serve THEM,
but serve ME,
serve my FAMILY.

The tragedy of the story
is that the rich man never sees his privilege
and that is what creates the chasm between him and the suffering ones.

Abraham’s reply to the rich man is just,
Look. Your brothers have the Scriptures.
They know what the Scriptures instruct them to do:
To act justly,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with God.

Or as Jesus put it, following the Scriptures
to love God
and to love one’s neighbors.
And not only the neighbors, but also the ones we perceive as our enemies.

Dear Lutherans,
Dear Christians,
Dear disciples of Jesus,
We already know what we’re supposed to do.
We already know what we’re supposed to prioritize.
Our scriptures tell us that.

If we don’t believe them
and if we don’t act on them
then neither will we be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.
Amen.

Prayers of the People

Offering [To be donated to the family of Terence Crutcher for unexpected funeral costs]

Anthem
“For the Least” by Wayne L. Wold

Holy, Holy, Holy

Words of Institution

Lord’s Prayer

Communion Hymns
“Son of God, Eternal Savior” (ELW 655)
“Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service” (ELW 712)

Table Blessing and Prayer after Communion

Announcements

Blessing

Sending Song
“God of Grace” (ELW 705)

Brief discussion on racism

The Church’s Role in Resurrection

Well, I’ve been thinking provocative thoughts again.

This time, it was spurred on by a guy named Chris Hoke, who is a prison chaplain in the Pacific Northwest. I’m currently waiting for his book (Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders) to show up. It’s not really a how-to for prison ministry, but rather a series of testimonies by Chris involving his deeply relational work in the jail system. I’ve heard him reading chunks of it, and can barely wait for the book to get here. Crazy powerful.

In any case, what inspires Chris Hoke to do the kind of ministry he does and to recognize it as Church begins with Hades. In Matthew’s Gospel (16:18), Jesus says to Peter, “You are Petros, and upon this rock I will build my ekklesia” (Ekklesia is some kind of assembly, and we usually translate that word as “church.” Rightly or wrongly.) But Jesus also said, “and the gates of Hades/hell shall not prevail against her.”

Different translations approach the text a little differently. “Gates of hell,” “powers of death,” or simply “gates of Hades.” This isn’t an afterlife imagery for Jesus. Hades is now. Hades is the realm of the dead. We kind of need all of those different translations to give us an idea of the multiple connotations Hades carries. What’s clear: it’s about death. It’s bad. Jesus is against it.

So Jesus has commissioned Peter with imagining how the ekklesia opposes these gates/powers of Hades/hell/death. In 1st Peter, we have the image of Jesus showing up there on Holy Saturday (and in the Orthodox traditions, there are extended stories about this), busting down the gates and setting all of death’s prisoners free. It’s the conclusion of what Jesus’ resurrection does for us: We die a death like his, and we shall have a resurrection like his.

The big idea here is that Jesus has commissioned Peter with the task of moving the church, not toward heaven, but toward the gates of Hades, which shall not prevail against the assembly. That’s freaking amazing imagery, isn’t it?! It makes church so, so, so much more than coming to a building once a week (or even twice a week) to sing some old songs and “get our Jesus” in a wafer and a sip of bad wine, just so we can go home and forget about church again until next time. It’s a job! And it’s MORE than a job: it’s a COMMISSION!

“Go!” says Jesus. And the Lutherans say, “Here we stand.” Ugh.

Chris Hoke’s imagination is what we need. We are a Resurrection people. We’re not just people who have been resurrected (or just resuscitated), but rather we’re people who are called together (assembled) to storm the gates of death. Not in the hereafter, but NOW! TO-DAY!

Where we see the power of death, we need to go knocking down some gates. Or else we’re not the church that Jesus imagined and charged Peter with. We’re … something else. Maybe a really poor version of a country club.

In John 11, we read the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus brings back from the dead.  When Jesus arrives in Bethany (lit. House of the Poor), Lazarus is already dead. He’s in the realm of Hades, locked behind the gates. Jesus speaks his name and tells him to come out.

Then he enlists ordinary people to remove the stone – a hand-crafted artifact designed NOT to be moved, so that the barrier between the dead and the living may be kept intact. But Jesus tells them to move it. This part is critical, because if Lazarus is resurrected behind the stone, he’s still stuck in the realm of the dead, isn’t he?

So the people move the stone. But Lazarus is still wearing his smelly grave clothes, so Jesus tells these same ordinary people, “Unbind him.” And finally Lazarus is able to return to the realm of the living.

Chris Hoke sees in this story a great metaphor for the work of the church. If we are called to crash the gates of Hades and to roll away stones and to unbind the dead so that they may live, it’s important for us to see where the realm of the dead exists for people living today. For hoke, it’s the prison system, especially people confined to solitary imprisonment with no human contact, no human community (except where they are able to subversively build it themselves. There are stories in the book.).

Once people are out of the jail system, it’s like being called back to life with the grave stone still in place. Unless there are willing people who will move the stone and help unbind the death cloths, the prisoner will just die all over again, fall back into the realm of death. For Hoke, those stone obstacles are things like: getting a driver’s license, paying off debt and debt collectors, paying bills, finding a job with a prison record, finding transportation to that job so that one can work and pay all the bills. All of these things, unless someone is able to help move the stone (ordinary people), the prisoner will just go back to prison.

And unless ordinary people will help the revived identify and understand the ways in which they are tied up in a mummy’s clothes, they can’t really be unbound. The gates of Hades will keep a hold on them.

These things are what the church was commissioned for. Moving the stone, unbinding the dead, knocking down the gates of hell. But we need to know where these things are located. For Hoke, it’s the prison system. For Comunidad de Esperanza, for example, it’s the immigration system, the health system, things of this nature.

What do we, as the ekklesia at First Lutheran, recognize as the stones and the grave cloths in people’s lives? If we can’t see where the gates of Hades are, we can’t very well get there to stand against them.

What say you? 

Sermon manuscript (more or less accurate)

Pentecost 13 or something C
28 August 2016
Luke 14: 1-14ish

In John’s Gospel
Jesus defines himself as the True and Living Way
Or as our translations usually state it:
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Both of those are valid translations from the Greek
And they can both mean the same thing.

Some people will say that it means
There is no other way to God than through Jesus.
I can get on board with that,
And John seems to bear that out in other places,
But that’s not what I want to focus on today.
It’s a good discussion for another time.

What I DO want to highlight here
Is that Jesus is telling us
That he has an ethic —
A way of behaving in the world.
And as his followers
His disciples
His students
He is the one we’re called to imitate.

We imitate one another all the time,
But that doesn’t do a lot of good
Because our imitation of one another all too often turns to rivalry
Which can lead to resentment and damaged relationships
And even, in extreme cases, to violence and death.

But we’re called to learn from Jesus,
This living and true path
To turn away from imitation of one another
And towards HIM.

Case in point,
The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading.

When you are invited by anyone to a marriage feast,
do not sit down in a place of honor.

First of all, I should point out this idea of a marriage feast.
When Jesus talks about a marriage feast,
We ought to keep in mind that he’s talking about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like a marriage feast.
There’s an eschatalogical component to Jesus’ teachings about weddings
And feasts and banquets
And it goes back to Isaiah’s prophecies
Concerning feasts where the poor and hungry will be fed and so on.

Anyway, we should always keep that in the backs of our minds.

But
When you’re invited to a marriage feast
Don’t sit down in a place of honor.

Why?

Lest someone greater be invited to take YOUR seat
And you will be shamed and will be seated at a less honorable place.
That would be awkward, wouldn’t it?

No, when you’re invited, go to the lowest place
So that when the host comes and sees you there,
He’ll say, “No, you move up to a higher place.”
That way you’ll be honored in front of everyone.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that you’ll displace someone else,
Causing THAT person DISHONOR or SHAME:
Just that you will be invited to greater honor.

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled
And he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Whoever claims honor for himself will find shame
But those who begin in humility will be honored.

See how Jesus is playing honor and shame off of one another?

We Westerners don’t really understand honor and shame
In the same way that people in other cultures do.
We’re too individualistic to really “get it,”
Because we care less about what THE GROUP
Or the rest of the culture thinks about us,
As long as we have our self-esteem, right?

Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.
C’est la vie.

Adolescents probably get shame more than we adults do.
When we’re teenagers, our peers’ opinions matter a LOT,
Which is why so many people despair when bullies
Fat shame them
Or thin shame them
Or slut shame them
Or any permutation of that phenomenon.

It feels like permanent judgment to adolescents
But most of us,
When we get out of high school
Learn to take all that stuff in stride and move on.

That’s what Western society teaches us to do.
And there’s some good in that.

But that’s not the case in the Middle East, for example.
To be moved from a place of honor to a LOWER status
Meant social death.
That’s what THEIR society taught them.
Do this, avoid that, so that you may maintain honor and stay away from shame.

Our imitation of culture in the west teaches us to blow it off
Because the individual is more important than the group.
The imigation of culture in the Middle East
Teaches people to take what the group says seriously
Because the collective is more important than the individual.

Imitation.
Jesus, the living and true way,
Is telling us to learn – not from culture, but from him.
Go to the place of least honor first.
Not because dishonoring ourselves is good,
But because claiming honor for oneself means the dishonoring of others.
It creates rivalry
That can lead to discord and violence.

Take yourselves out of that system
Is what Jesus is telling us.
Go to the bottom of the heap
And you will be exalted.

The last shall be first
And the first shall be last.

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.
Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is the ethic of God’s Kingdom.
Pour yourself out for the sake of the other.
That’s what Jesus did for us.

He had every right to claim the throne,
But instead he chose the cross.
And in doing so, he was lifted to the Father’s right hand
And given the name above all names.

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.
Not because it’s noble to suffer.
Not because it’s Good to be dishonored.
But because it’s the only way out of human rivalry that threatens to doom our species
And maybe all species on the planet.

As Americans, where do we claim the place of honor?
Most powerful nation on earth?
Maybe.
Once upon a time that was Rome.
Once upon a time that was Britain
And France
And Spain.
Where are they now?

Where else do we claim the place of honor?
In our rights?
I have the RIGHT to free speech.
I can say whatever I want, no matter how much it defames you.
There may be consequences to that, but I have the RIGHT to it!

I have the RIGHT to open carry my sidearm (and to dare and call it a peacemaker)
Even though the presence of this lethal technology might terrify and intimidate you.

I have the RIGHT to sue your ass off for some petty infringement on my liberties,
Even though doing so may bankrupt you and put you on the streets.

Our government has the RIGHT to defend its political and economic interests at home and abroad,
Even if it means a whole lot of “collateral damage.”

I have the RIGHT to an abortion,
Even though it snuffs out a human life,
Even while my neighbors might be suffering from infertility and wanting to share their love with an adopted baby.

(See, I’ll skewer the left as well as the right. Just so you know I’m trying to be “Fair and Balanced.”)

The point is,
We very often insist on our rights
Even when having them upheld means that others will suffer for it.

We’re ALL guilty of taking a seat in the place of honor
When taking a lower place would eliminate the curse of imitative rivalry.

The lowest place Jesus went was to the cross and to the grave,
Although he was God
He did not consider equality with God something to cling to
But rather he emptied himself
Taking the form of a slave
Taking the spot without honor at the table
He EMPTIED himself.
Of honor
Of dignity
Of his RIGHTS.

Let THIS mind be in you
that was also in him.

Amen.

[Inspired primarily by Michael Hardin’s lectionary commentary at Preaching Peace, and by Paul Neucherlein’s commentary on the Girardian Lectionary site.}

Success as a Less Faithful Goal

Last week I went with a friend to a conference in Lee’s Summit, MO. It was fantastic, by the way. The 3 main speakers at this conference (“The Crucified God”) spoke with us from 3 different perspectives about what it means for a community or a person to hold to a theology of the cross (as Luther called it), or a cruciform theology, if you will — however you want to slice it, we’re talking about beginning all theology with the reality that the God we worship … died. Gave himself up to death. By the world’s standards, this looks like failure, like weakness. But the crucified God stands at the very center of our faith.

I may wind up writing about the overall conference at some point in the near future, but today I wanted to focus on one of the break-out sessions that the organizers offered for us. The one I attended had to do with the church growth model we’ve been following for the past 40 years (give or take). Author and pastor Tim Suttle led our session, which he based on his book, Shrink. (Here’s a link to a video overview of the book, in case you’re interested.)

Before I talk about the meat of our session, I wanted to mention a little side remark that Tim made regarding a study of Olympian medal winners’ emotions. In the study, it came to light that Gold Medal winners were the happiest, which makes sense. One would expect Silver Medalists to be the next-happiest, since silver means that they placed second of three, but it turns out that Bronze Medal winners were happier than Silver recipients. Why? In terms of “success,” the silver placers outperformed the bronze placers; however, it seems that the Bronze Medal winners were thankful that they placed, realizing how precarious their victories had been, while the Silver Medal winners focused more on how close they came to getting gold. (Here’s an article in the Washington Post that alludes to the study, and here’s a link to the study itself.) Ah, comparison to the other. Such a treacherous beast, eh?

So, to the session:

Tim was talking about how, for the past 40 or so years, most of our approaches to church growth have been based on business models. We came about it honestly as people like Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and other megachurch pastors took the talents they had been gifted with and tried to apply them for the sake of the church. NB I used a lot of their wisdom back in the days when I worked for not-for-profit museums — especially management strategies that they and folks like John Kotter and Steven Covey offered for us to move from Good to Great and all that jazz.

They base their approach on business models, strategies, and techniques that aimed to bring about success. Bigger, better, faster, more efficient, yadda yadda yadda.

The problem with using these models – these pragmatic models deigned to increasify our effectability and embiggen our impactfulness (yes, I know those aren’t real words, but if you’ve worked in business, you’ll know a lot of the jargon they use aren’t real words, either) — specifically in the Church, well … they’re all models of Empire, aren’t they? The biggest concern is the bottom line, the profit margin, the return on investment, etc. Those are business/Empire values. “Success” charts under those models show a straight line of increase, moving left to right in an upward direction.

In contrast, the Church — the cross-shaped community, gathered around a crucified God — looks different. “Success” for us looks like compassion. It looks like human flourishing and a healthy creation. Our success chart isn’t a straight arrow pointing up, but rather an undulating wave that reminds us of inhaling and exhaling, like a pumping heart, like a living thing, not a sterile growth chart or something.

Tim recalled for us the words of John the Baptist: “I must decrease, that he might increase.” The church isn’t about bigger, better, faster, but about obedience and faithfulness. “Where 2 or 3 are gathered” looks a lot different than a successful business, yeah?

So, Tim is suggesting that we move away from “growth models” to a healthy ecclesiology. You know: What IS the Church, anyway? What do we exist for? What did Jesus command?

He suggests that we move from “growth strategies” to telling stories and trying to understand meaning.

He suggests we move from “growth techniques” to the Church’s historical virtues (and we could just as easily say “values”): Broken-ness, Self-giving (kenosis), gentleness, humility, co-suffering, patience, and all those other things Paul talked about.

The faithful approach isn’t pragmatic (whatever it takes in order to be effective) as it is meant to be practical, embodied by real, living people, who are called to be the image of Christ for their neighbors.

It’s less about doing, and more about being.

It’s less likely to produce anxiety, and more likely to bring peace.

Being a business/Empire requires conformity, uniformity, order. Living under the lordship of Jesus is often chaotic; it frequently involves conflict (which is NOT a bad thing, fellow Lutherans! Without conflict, nothing would EVER change! Wait, maybe that wasn’t a strong selling point. Hmm.) And yet it can be very, very productive.

This was the gist of the presentation. It wasn’t so much a take-down of megachurches and the last 40 years of church growth efforts as it was a way of calling us back to think about what’s necessary NOW. We can’t compare ourselves to megachurches. We’re just not like them in any way. In our small communities, there’s no way to stay anonymous. If you’re not in community with us for a couple weeks running, we’re going to notice. That means we’re also vulnerable, because our lives are more laid open to the other folks who do community with us.This is a Good Thing!

It also means that we can’t be mere spectators. The church of Now is a participatory church. It HAS to be! We need every man, woman, and child – and everybody in between — to help any way they can. This is also a Good Thing!

As society changes, the church needs to change. And the church needs also to remember that God is trustworthy. This “shrinkage” (apologies for the image for all you Seinfeld fans) could very well be the work of the Holy Spirit, who is shrinking our numbers SO THAT we will: lose some of our baggage; reach out to one another; grow spiritually; learn again to trust that God knows what God is doing.

The old model has been, for the past century or more, primarily about US. The church is no longer an alternative way of life compared to Empire, but has come to mirror the thing that God calls us to “come out of” in Revelation. People outside the church see this about us, and they’re opting out. Let’s give up, as Tim Suttle suggests, on the idea of “church growth” and begin thinking more about the flourishing of lives, the flourishing of our communities. Let us be, as Jesus calls us in Matthew’s Gospel, to be salt and light. It only takes a small amount of salt in a recipe to flavor an entire dish. It only takes a bit of light to scatter darkness.

This is what the world needs from us. This is what God has called us to. Let’s be faithful to that call.

Of Shipwrecks and Rescues

Standard greetings apply: Long time, no see and all that. The truth is, I’ve been too depressed to write. Overwhelmed, tired, bummed out, sapped of strength. Church conflict wears me out. It’s not that we’re always in conflict here, but the fruits of conflict are never far away.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about today. Shaking that dust from my feet for now.

What I DO want to write about is a new book I’m reading by Jonathan Martin (of Sanctuary Tulsa). He’s called this book How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here.

I’m still on the first chapter, and already “my mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.”Ahem. Yes.

The first chapter is called “Losing your ship without losing your soul,” and Martin talks here about the experience of what we would call “drowning” in the secular world, but which Christians might describe as “baptism.” It’s about the death of the old, not simply for death’s sake, but death out of which comes New Life, Transformed Life. The shipwreck is the overarching metaphor or the event that leads to this drowning.

At first I was simply thinking about this kind of baptismal drowning in terms of the ritual of Baptism, which is officially a Big Deal among Lutherans (and other sacramental denominations). For us, along with the Eucharist, it’s one of the Two Biggies.

Recently I did some counseling with a woman who brought to me her two adult children whom she had never had baptized. It hadn’t been a priority for her husband, and she had gone along with his apathy until now, when she will be moving out of state. Now she wants to make sure she “does the right thing” by having them dunked. We talked about how this isn’t a ritual that magically solves people’s life problems, and how one really needs to make this decision on their own as an adult. (NB I truly believe that God is the active worker in Baptism, not the person being baptized, but if you have no desire as a grown-up to undergo the drowning, what would your motivation be, aside from superstition?)

In that event I made an invitation to the adult children to learn more, and I do hope they follow up, but it got me thinking about the rite of Baptism, which the Church used to consider necessary for salvation, almost as if it WERE a magical ritual.

Jonathan Martin’s book basically affirms what I had been thinking, but it takes me to a whole new depth of understanding. He writes about the shipwreck in a person’s life that – intentionally or otherwise – leads to baptism/drowning. It cuts one off completely from a person’s old life, and there is no going back. “The shipwreck is upon you.”

“The waters that drown are the waters that save.”

And then he turns to the creation story in Genesis 1.

“Before there was a human, there was a sea; there was a watery, shapeless chaos, a blackness that had no form and no meaning. Spirit came and hovered over the black, liquid night of the waters; the dove brooded over the anarchy we call sea. And she stayed there long enough, breathed into her deep enough, for life to come up shimmering out of the ocean.”

Martin brings us from our primordial, mythical beginnings to our actual, physical entrance into the world, and then into the mystery of the return:

“It is these primordial waters that we come from, the same water that poured out of the woman you called mother in the hours before you were born. It is into these dark waters that you must return, into this primitive abyss, into this watery grave. You must return again to the chaos of the world you knew before you started trying to build a world you could control — back to the bottom of the ocean where you once lay, submerged.”

This return, Martin says, feels like death. Probably because it is, in a way, maybe in a real, literal way, maybe more symbolically. The old, beloved, comfortable things that once helped us form our identity are now sinking into the murky depths, never to be reclaimed. But their absence makes possible new realities, new identities! It’s ultimately Good News for the old to die, otherwise the old chokes out the potential for New Life, New Growth.

This is about so much more than a simple ritual cleansing. It’s a real-life facing of death. And out of that death, we’re dragged coughing and gasping into something wholly new, wholly clean. Next to this, superstition seems so … superficial. Right?

——————————

As I was thinking about this whole drowning and rescue mission, I got to thinking about our congregation and redevelopment. We have sort of officially come out of that phase. We aren’t receiving any more money, which I look at as a good thing. This is our moment of truth, because we can no longer kick the can down the road, but instead we have to face the reality of death for this congregation.

I’ve quoted our Bishop before and will keep quoting him, because his words are truly wise: As a congregation, you can either die, or you can die. In other words, you can keep doing what you’ve always done and sadly watch ourselves fade away; OR, we can allow our old selves — our old way of being church, our old everything — to die, so that something new may be reborn from the ashes.

As I was thinking about this whole shipwreck metaphor, the image of our church as an overturned boat (look at how our sanctuary is built) seemed apt. We hit the rocks somewhere along the line — whether the winds carried us there, the currents, bad navigation, intentional self-destruction — whatever the specifics are don’t matter because we’re there.

And in the shipwreck, we had an option to cling to the flotsam of the wreckage — our building, our “Lutheran heritage,” “the way we’ve always done things around here,” our music program, our manner of following the liturgy … there’s a LOT of flotsam — and we’ve tried to drag ourselves to shore in order to be resuscitated. We also had the option to let ourselves drown, let ourselves go under the water and trust God to drag our dead bodies out of the water. We could have stopped the wild flailing of a drowning person, and look into the deep, “into the depths of God, into the depths of [our] own souls, into the depths, of life itself.”

To do that would have meant “linger[ing] at the ocean floor, where the sea monsters live, and confront[ing] everything in [us] that [we]’ve constructed a whole life out of avoiding … confont[ing] the mysteries that lie at the bottom of [us].”

We didn’t really do that. We made some attempts to do that. But we never did.
What we needed was Resurrection. What we settled for was mere resuscitation.

I would like us to radically rethink and re-process our last 3 years together. Let’s reconsider letting ourselves drown. Even though it’s a terrifying proposition. The things we cling to, the flotsam, isn’t saving us. The only thing that will save us is to lose our lives. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever will die for my sake will find it.”  Martin writes about this baptismal kind of death, that, “to almost everyone’s surprise, until an invisible hand holds them underwater long enough, the most beautiful things in all of creation are down here — below, beneath, under the world you knew.” We can’t know what beauty we’re missing out on by hanging on to the ship’s wreckage.

“The waters that drown you are the same waters that will save you; and the same sea that is pulling you under is the sea that will make you new. The things you’e been holding on to cannot keep you afloat any longer. There is no going back down the birth canal when the Spirit of life is pushing you forward, despite yourself. The only way to lose yourself forever is to keep hanging on to the life you had before. The storm rides you hard, but the Spirit whispers into the ptich-black that surrounds you, carrying the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in the wind: You must be born again.”

Reformations and Liturgical “Magic”

There are two things I wanted to share from my devotional reading from this month. Both of them come from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. [If you purchase this from Amazon Smile and set up First Evangelical Lutheran Church as your preferred charity, we will get a small donation from Amazon for every purchase made.]

The first is from the monthly header article entitled “Marks of New Monasticism.” The second comes from the devotional on April 19 and is called “Liturgy is Magical, but Not Magic.”

April Marks of New Monasticism: “Submission to Christ’s Body, the Church”

Discontentment is a gift to the church. If you are one of those people who has the ability to see the things that are wrong in the church and in the world, you should thank God for that perception.. Not everyone has the eyes to see, or to notice, or to care. But we must also see that our discontentment is not a reason to disengage from the church but a reason to engage with it. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Our invitation is to “be the change” we want to see in the church. There are things worth protesting, but we also have to be people who “pro-testify,” proclaiming the kingdom that we’re for, not just the evils we’re against.

Jesus offered an alternative to Caesar’s empire not by mounting a rebellion but by teaching people that another way is possible. That way is summed up well in Jesus’ triumphal entry, the inaugural parade of a new kind of king for a new kind of kingdom. Church history is filled with holy dissenters, rabble-rousers, and prophets — disturbers of the peace who’ve helped to show us a better way. As some church historians have pointed out, every few hundred years the church gets cluttered by and infected with the materialism and militarism of the world around it. We begin to forget who we are. One bishop said, “And so every five hundred years or so the church needs a rummage sale,” to get rid of the clutter and to remember the true treasures of our faith.

Church history is filled with reformations and renewals. It was in the middle of Italy’s wealth and crusades that St. Francis heard God whisper, “Repair my church which is in ruins,” and he began to repair the ruins. At one point the pope had a vision that the church was beginning to crumble, but the corner was being held up by Francis and the little youth movement in Assisi. The call to repair the church is a call we continue to hear from God, and a movement we are invited to participate in. 
….

“Liturgy is Magical, but Not Magic”

As we pray to and worship the God of the universe, there is something that remains at some level incomprehensible. It gives us a taste of something dazzling and transcendent. Historians say the phrase hocus pocus originated from liturgical worship services, in which the priest held up the bread and proclaimed, Hoc est corpus Christi. There were lots of folks on the fringes of the church who looked through the doors and windows, marveling at the mystery and magic of the moment. Many of them were unfamiliar with liturgy and had little education, so all they picked up was hocus pocus, and it seemed quite magical.

Although the liturgy is not magic or illusion or sorcery, it captures our imagination — this idea that God came to earth and died and now lives in us. It is a mystery. So while there is nothing of a magical formula in the liturgy, there is plenty that points us toward a world beyond this one. Perhaps one of the sure signs that we have worshiped God is that we walk away saying, “I didn’t understand everything that happened there. It must be bigger than my comprehension.” Too much of our worship has boxed God in as if we were going to see a play on Broadway. But in worship we become a part of the play. Though we can’t understand it all, we can come onstage and participate in the divine drama.

Apocalypse and Conversion

Whew! It felt to me like it had been a Really Long Time since my last post here, but WordPress tells me that my last entry was on March 7, just a little over a month ago. That’s nice. Helps me feel a little less like a slacker.

In any case, here’s the latest “poop.” I hope this doesn’t bleed over too much into tomorrow’s sermon, but please accept my apologies if it does.

Recently in our parish we’ve been embroiled in a bit of a “controversy” over whom we may or may not allow to serve Communion elements. I don’t really care to rehash all of that here, but I bring it up just to repeat what I said in the recent Town Hall meeting: This has become a matter of upholding the gospel for me.

What is the gospel? (I’m making a distinction here between the “Capital G” Gospel genre belonging to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John on the one hand, and the “small g” gospel, meaning the content of the “good news of God in Christ.” Most of you probably are aware of that distinction, but I wanted to make it explicit here.)

Again, what is the gospel? I believe that a lot of people will answer this differently. We had the assignment in seminary to boil it down into kind of an elevator speech, knowing that HOW we as pastors would proclaim the gospel in different contexts would need to look or sound different than in an academic paper at seminary.

For me, the core message of the goespel is the revelation (apocalypsis) through Jesus Christ that “God” is “good,” meaning that “God” is “for us.”

I put “God” in quotes because it’s a bit of a loaded term. Like “gospel,” if you ask 100 people what it means, you’re likely to get (at least) 100 answers. What *I* mean by God is the Abba witnessed to in the Gospels by Jesus.

I also put “good” and “for us” in quotes. Unpacking that a little, I would say that God being good and for us means that God desires that we, as a species, should flourish. I’m not talking about a “prosperity gospel,” but rather about a commitment by God to us the Creation that we should live abundantly, a desire that we belong to the Kingdom, etc.

Abundant life does not mean, of course, that “anything goes.” Instead, we need to look at everything through a gospel lens: Does what we believe — or more importantly, what we do *liberate* people? Does it *promote human flourishing*? Or does it *bind* people, *accuse* people, seek to *control or exclude* people? Does it *inhibit* human flourishing? Everything we do, espacially as a people who draws our identity from Jesus, needs to be scrutinized in light of those gospel questions.

As I’ve been thinking about this in recent weeks, it has occurred to me that, what I seek to do in my ministry in the parish, is to confront people with the goespel — to shine a gospel light on our congregations (and sometimes personal?) practices and ask, “Does the gospel confirm this? Does it call for us to re-evaluate what we’re doing? Does it outright oppose what we’re doing?”

When Michael Hardin came to visit us last September, he put into words something that has been on my heart especially since the last year of seminary, but was a seed planted way, way back in my Catholic school experience. Michael said that he felt part of his call was “to convert Christians to Jesus.” 🙂 When he said that, it really hit me that this has ALWAYS belonged to my call to the church! I just never knew how to articulate it.

Now, there’s a little caveat I need to add, and I know Michael would agree with this: Converting people isn’t my job. It’s not Michael’s job. It’s not any of our job. Conversion belongs to the work of the Holy Spirit. BUT, what all of us are called to do — some perhaps more than others — is to help people listen to the Holy Spirit so that they can get out of her way and allow themselves to be converted. THIS is what I mean by confronting people with the gospel.

Now, a lot of this work is necessarily deconstructive. A good deal of it is saying, “OK, this is what you believe” or “this is what you practice, but WHY?! Where did you get that? Is it because ‘we’ve always done it that way’? Is it because you’re building this on a solid biblical foundation? Or is it simply an unexamined belief or practice? What happens to it when we scrutinize it under a gospel light?”

Some people are going to resent this work. None of us likes to be confronted. Most of us don’t like to undergo that kind of scrutiny, especially when we’re dealing with long-held or dearly-held beliefs or practices or traditions. I remember a LOT of people getting really angry at professors in seminary, who would force us to bear witness to the WHYs of our beliefs. For a lot of folks, it had to do with things they learned in Sunday School that were just wrong. Or they learned it from beloved pastors or elders, but it had no grounding in truth or reality. Sometimes the arguments got pretty ugly. That happens during a deconstructive phase. But it doesn’t mean it’s bad to have it happen. It’s a GOOD thing, when it leads to REconstruction on more solid ground.

But people hated it in seminary, and they hate it in parishes, too.

The other day I had a good conversation with someone about the Communion server incident, and we got to talking about how I have come to realize that my heart lies with people who have been excluded from the Table. This person said, “Yeah, I’ve noticed that! So-and-so and I were talking about that, and …” At this point, my conversation partner kind of let slip that the two people who had been talking about my passion for the homeless, the addict, etc. felt that it was in that kind of street ministry where I “belonged.”

I can’t say for certain that there was anything to read beneath the surface of that comment, but as I reflected on it for the next couple of days, the thought occurred to me: “Did they mean that I belonged with the street folks INSTEAD of in the congregation?” If so … and this is a HUGE “if,” the implication is “and then you’d leave us alone and let us be comfortable in our tried and true traditions.”

I’ve heard people say that about other pastors folks don’t like, and about pastors who confront congregations, trying to move them to a different place than where they are. Please hear this: I understand discomfort with change. It’s universal. But so is change. Universal and inevitable. It doesn’t make it any more comfortable to know that, but it’s also not helpful to think we can wish change away. It’s GOING to happen, one way or another. Adaptation is change. So is death. It’s going to happen. I would prefer that people choose adaptation, even if it’s painful, to death.

Anyway, got off track there. I’ve heard people talk about pastors that way, saying, “Oh, she was hard to deal with. She really belonged in the seminary teaching. That’s where she would have been the happiest.” The unspoken part of that sentence: “And she would have been out of our hair.”

And this leads me to this last bit: We have a vicious circle going on here, at least in our denomination. We have good seminarys, staffed by good faculty teaching good and enthusiastic seminarians, whom we are ordaining and sending them into parishes that are unwilling to receive them, especially when those newly-minted pastors start asking the “Why” questions, the “how does that square with the gospel” questions. And so we end up with unhappy parishioners AND frustrated pastors, some of whom actually do end up “doing their time” in a congregation, high-tailing it back to get their Doctorates, then heading back to seminary to teach and start the whole thing over again.

What the Church needs is people who are willing to stick it out in the parish, even when the seas get rough. We need people who will work as change agents — not for change’s sake, but for the sake of the liberating, inclusive gospel. Parishes need to learn to listen to the movement of the Spirit who, being the Spirit of Jesus, meets them first where they are, but isn’t satisfied to leave well enough alone. Instead, the Spirit of Christ calls us BEYOND ourselves, our inward-focused budgets, our inward-focused missions, our inward-focused, individualistic, pietistic theologies. The Spirit calls us BEYOND religion into REVELATION. We get apocalypsed. This is the beginning of our deconstruction. And then we get converted. Converted from “Christians” to followers of The Way.

If you want to learn more about this, please consult the book of the Acts of the Apostles as well as Paul’s letters. And of course, don’t forget about the Gospels.

Lost Sheep, Lost Coins, Lost Sons & Ambassadors of Reconciliation

The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough on a personal level. Lent is one of those seasons that I really, really love. It’s typically quieter than the rest of the year, and I find that the midweek contemplative services we offer at church help fill out a sense of prayerful, meditative contemplation, and that kind of thing really feeds my soul.

This year we’ve been doing a round-robin preaching cycle within our Synod’s “cluster.” (For us, that means the ELCA congregations in and just outside of Tulsa.) While this is a great idea and I think we should keep doing it in the future, this is really exhausting to me. It’s not extra work, per se: Each preacher writes a single sermon, then delivers it every Wednesday in a different congregation. Pretty simple, really, but for me it’s very anxiety-inducing. I need to meet and make myself vulnerable to a brand new set of people every Wednesday evening, and this gets ratcheted up when I’m expected to come and make small talk at the simple suppers beforehand. I’m not complaining about this. Just being honest.

So, yeah, I support this and will keep on doing this kind of thing in the future. As much as I ask our congregation to stretch their comfort zones, I need to also be willing to stretch. And I think the whole thing has been very positively received in each of the congregations so far.

But it’s tiring. And it makes Lent less worshipful for me, somewhat ironically. Combine this with both of my kids entering different phases of independence at the same time (again, a good and healthy thing, but tiring for Mom and Dad), all of the bureaucratic junk that comes with pastoring a congregation, all the time spent meeting with folks inside and outside the congregation, a couple of online classes I’m taking, etc. etc., … Well, it gets to be a little much after a while. Don’t worry. I’m taking a vacation right after Easter, so I should have some time to refill my energy reserves (and take in a couple of movies I’ve been meaning to see).

All of this goes just to say that, in a busy season like this, one has to look for highlights and uplifts wherever they might be found. I found a gem of one on Sunday.

Let me back up a touch. Fridays are generally my sermon-writing days. I spend the first part of the week looking at the texts and letting them sink in, as well as entering “conversation” with some of my favorite study resources. All of this marinates together until Friday morning, when I put it in the oven and pull it out, hopefully less half-baked than the week before.

But this Friday I just wasn’t feeling it. I wrote down some thoughts, but couldn’t bring them together. Synapses weren’t firing well. So I thought to myself, “Well, tomorrow’s Saturday. I hate writing sermons on Saturday, but I just can’t get it done today. I’ll wait until Chris is outside playing with the neighbor kids and Emily is down for her nap.”

Well, Saturday came. Chris went across the street to invite the kids to play. They were getting ready for a trip to their grandparents’ place and wouldn’t be back until Tuesday. Crap. I put Emily down for her nap. 10 minutes later, she’s wide awake. I spent the next 40 mintues trying to put her back down, but she just won’t stay asleep. Double crap.

By the time Christy got home from the book fair she was working, it was time to eat, get the kids ready for bed, and I was wiped. the heck. out.

I went to bed early, but oddly unconcerned. I figured I had enough stuff stewing in my brain to pull together a sermon. Went into the office early, realizing I was under a deadline: I usually pick up a friend who can’t drive and bring her in to church at around 8.

A quick glance at my clock (OK, the clock on my phone, truth be told), I realized I only had about 15 minutes to finish. Just then I get a text. My friend couldn’t make it that day. I felt bad for her, but internally grateful that I had a few more minutes to write.

Cranked out the last little bit and hit “print.” As I got up to retrieve the freshly printed manuscript, the door buzzer sounded. “Great. Now what?” I thought. It was my friend L – a guy who lives on the streets. We’ve known eachother a couple of years now. He comes by to use the phone, the bathroom, and occasionally the shower, but also to hang out and tell me about what’s going on with his life. He’s a very nice guy, especially when he’s sober.

But on Sunday morning, he was schnookered. He could barely stand, but somehow he made it up the stairs to our door. I went out to meet him, and he was half frozen. So he came in and we had some coffee together. His hands weren’t working well, so I helped him wash them, and he asked for a foot washing. How can I turn that down?! Then he wanted to wash MY feet. Boy, did I ever feel like Peter! But he did it, and we prayed together a while.

I offered him one of the prayer blankets our congregation has begun making. It’s a cool ministry. Not only does prayer go into the making of these items, but also we bless them as a community, so they are just infused with prayer. It’s pretty awesome.

By the time I gave him the blanket, he was a little less drunk and almost coherent. I asked him if we wanted to stay for church. Our street friends almost never do that. I think they feel out of place in a worship space where they’re the only ones not dressed up, unshowered and unkempt. Plus, we’re a liturgical church, and while most of our friends from the street are people of faith, they tend to come from a less formal worship setting. Lots of baptists, lots of pentecostals and the like, most of whom feel judged by God and Man for their alcoholic and other moral transgressions. (This is a big reason I think our city – and every city! – needs a voice like the one our denomination has, at least on some level. We know there’s nothing you can do to EARN God’s favor, and there’s nothing you can do, no sin big enough to overpower God’s mercy.)

Anyway, L stayed to worship with us. I knew our Middle Class Lutheran congregation might need a little prep for what could happen with a drunken L among us, so I introduced him as a charismatic friend who is living on the streets. I asked people to go with the flow, and to set aside for a moment our Lutheran shyness and formality, and to come and lay hands on L as we prayed for him.

I was overwhelmed by the positive response. People really went with it! I think the only people who didn’t stand up were those with physical limitations that prevented them from doing so.

Then we worshipped together. The music was great. I preached a sermon on the so-called parable of the prodigal son (in relation to the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin). During the sermon I encouraged folks to notice that, unlike the lost sheep and coin stories, which have a happy ending, the lost son story has NO ending: it winds up with the father and the son standing in the field, with the father urging/pleading with the elder son to come into the party.

I asked people to imagine what will happen in the end. Will the older brother steadfastly refuse to join the banquet? Or will he give in to grace and rejoice with his family? What about when the father eventually dies? Will the older brother follow his father’s wishes and keep the younger son within the fold, or will he excommunicate him as he so richly “deserves?”

We finished the service, and I discovered that L’s brother from Oklahoma City had come to pick him up. We spent a few minutes chatting about L, his recovery issues, where he seems to do better and where his pitfalls are. L’s brother didn’t hold out much hope for recovery. He told me that the other siblings have given up on him entirely, then he said, “All I can do is take him home and sober him up. It might not last long. Sometimes he gets violent with me and I have to turn him out again.”

I said to him, “Well, thanks for taking him back today.”

He responded, “He’s my brother. What else can I do?”

Perfect ending to that parable, don’t you think?

In the midst of a very hectic season, both in the church and at home – a season where my Depression has returned in the past few weeks with a vengeance, and so much of life seems dark and foreboding, something like this happens, and it breathes new life.

I’m thankful for L, for his brother, and for our church community. I don’t know that we’ve done everything we could, and I don’t know what the results of our efforts will be, but I think we’ve all been faithful to St. Paul’s admonition that came in our second reading on Sunday, to become what we were called to be: Ambassadors of reconciliation.

Peace!

I Saw the Sign…

Some of you locals may have seen our church marquis and wondered about it. Right now it says, “The Bible is not the Word of God; that’s Jesus.”

Hyperbole? Sure. A cheap shot at biblical literalists? No, not intentionally. But it is meant to provoke conversation. A church sign doesn’t always do that, but it can. Many of the messages you’ll typically see on church a church marquis are strictly informational: Name of church, worship times, maybe the pastor’s name, maybe the web address and/or phone number. We’ve got that covered on one side.

Sometimes a church sign will have a little whimsical musing, a message, a verse of scripture. All too often, these become unintentionally hilarious. (For example)

Every once in a while, a sign will provoke people to wonder, “Now just what the heck are they talking about?!” This seems to be the case this time around. We’ve already had some inquiries. The most notable was from a gentleman who has studied Scripture, but says he’s not a believer at all. That was a valuable conversation!

But some of us sitting in the pews might also wonder what the heck it means. Today we were asked for a 30 second run-down, so here goes:

According to John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with (or face-to-face with) God, and the Word was God (or divine).” This does NOT refer to the Bible. The Bible, as it’s currently assembled in our particular faith tradition, hasn’t been around for more than 1700 years, let alone from “the beginning.” John is referring here, as he unfolds in his Gospel, to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, who dwelt among us, who is the perfect image of God. That is the beginning of our understanding about what the Word of God means or is.

In the Lutheran tradition, proclamation about Jesus (aka preaching) is secondarily the word of God. In a tertiary place stands the Bible as the word of God.

That’s the 30 second answer, and so far, that has seemed to satisfy those who felt provoked enough to inquire.

But in case people care to dig a little deeper, we’ll add about another minute and a half worth of run-down, because people might object: “But don’t we know about Jesus in the first place because of the Bible?” Yes, more or less that’s true. Although there still was not “Bible” within the Church for around 200 some years after Christ. Still, that Scriptural witness to Jesus is one of the primary ways we come to know about (and perhaps to know) Jesus. So, we’re not throwing out the Bible entirely as the “word of God,” but we are putting a caveat on it and hoping people will ask what we mean.

The Bible is our authority, but the Bible is complicated. It’s not so much a book as it is a library of books, containing multiple viewpoints, a number of voices – voices that contradict one another in many places. Part of what it means that Jesus takes precedence as the Word over the Bible comes from that contradiction. We have to ask as we read our Scriptures: “Does that sound like something Jesus would say or do?” If the answer is no, we have to follow the Jesus thread as authoritative.

If Scripture says we should dash the heads of our enemies’ babies against the rocks, and we ask the question, “Would Jesus command that?” I’m pretty sure most of us would say, “Absolutely not!”

Some might object, appealing to dispensations or appealing to God giving different messages to different people at different times, but that requires a lot of mental gymnastics, whereas simply asking the cliched-but-valuable question WWJD really simplifies it. If Jesus Christ is, as Scripture attests, the perfect reflection of the Father, and if Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (again as Scripture testifies), that leads us to ask serious questions about the multiple voices in Scripture. And it must lead to the conclusion that either the Bible is schizophrenic (of that God is two-faced, sometimes wrathful, sometimes merciful), or that our view of the Scriptures needs a serious corrective.

So, neither this post nor the sign are meant to be conclusive statements, but are meant to provoke conversation, reflection, maybe even a little consternation and unsettlement. It’s Lent, after all. What better time for some deep mind and soul work?