Better Angels: Church Council was just talking about this!

We talked last night about an opportunity for our church to host a Better Angels workshop.  Just today, David Brooks (conservative columnist from the New York Times) wrote about it in his column.  (Strange piece, he begins talking about gun control and then wanders off….)


Lenten Series: What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Week one (Feb 18.): Our Fear of Death?


I give an extended introduction to the whole series below, which may have gotten a bit tedious.  But there’s a complicated bit of Christology involved: we follow Christ but can never be Christ.  Anyway, I thought the meditation on mortality came together pretty well.  But I received absolutely no feedback, good or bad, this morning.  I’d love to know what people thought, either way.  The hymns circled around this theme perfectly, I thought: “40 Days and 40 Nights,” “Abide with Me,” and “Rock of Ages.” 

Anyone who wants to hear the interview I refer to can find it here.  

Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22

Every year we journey together through this amazing array of liturgical seasons, each offering a very different window into our one faith in God through Christ Jesus. At Christmas we received the surprising gift of God’s presence in our own flesh, with the joy that all humanity has been honored by God’s incarnation. Then after Epiphany, we heard this babe come-of-age, Jesus, call his disciples, and we wondered if we also were being called to leave everything to follow him into the Kingdom of God. Last week at the Transfiguration we saw Jesus glorified on the mountaintop before his choice, closest disciples. Even if we can’t like them claim that we’ve left everything to follow Jesus, at least the clumsiness and confusion of those elite disciples made them seem a little more down to earth. All of these different windows upon what faith in Jesus means deal with a common question: what about Jesus pertains to all humanity, and what pertains to a chosen few?

We have arrived at Lent, but today we begin by revisiting the start of Jesus’ preaching: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” When we first heard this verse a few weeks ago, we were focused on the good news, on the coming near of this Kingdom of God. But Lent is our time to repent, to turn back to God. We see from our Call to Worship why Lent is 40 days long: Lent is patterned on the 40 days Jesus spent after his baptism in the wilderness with the wild beasts, tempted by Satan. Unlike the other gospels, Mark gives us no other details. It is a time of testing in solitude for Jesus before he begins his ministry, ending with his destiny on Calvary; for us, Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday.

Lent invites us to put ourselves in the place of Jesus for these 40 days—in the wilderness; in solitude; vulnerable; surrounded with wild beasts, tempted by Satan, but also waited on by angels. What a shame Lent has often been trivialized as a time to ‘give something up,’ some petty indulgence like chocolate. That’s all I ever heard about it, growing up. Now, I’m not sure what it means to be tempted by Satan, but I think there’s more involved than being tempted by Hershey’s. Lent is not about sensual desires; not about the way innumerable dessert ads talk about “temptation;” it’s about deep spiritual testing. What is your life with God really made of? By our baptism into Jesus Christ, God has called to us, also, “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Lent asks us: Are we really that? And what does that mean to us? And how then should our lives look different?

Now, every time we think about following Jesus or imitating Jesus or asking “what would Jesus do?” we need to catch ourselves, hold up for a minute, because we are not Jesus, individually—at best we the whole church are called Jesus’ body. First Peter will be helpful for reminding us why not. The letter points us ahead to Good Friday and Easter—which we always must come back to as our center, anyway. “Christ …suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” “Once for all” is key. It was for Jesus alone to atone or set right all of humanity before God. We can barely understand that; but surely we can’t do it, and we don’t have to. We never have to suffer unto death for sin; for Jesus has freed us from the power of sin and death.

So we are here at the very beginning of our Lenten journey, preparing to be tested as Jesus was tested, but as we look ahead at the end of the road, we see Jesus is going somewhere that we cannot follow. No one here will be nailed to that big wooden cross on Good Friday—dramatic as it may seem. (Maybe I’d be the first to be nominated.) Seriously, to sacrifice a human being for our sins would be the most heinous of crimes. But Jesus’ execution, only after it could be seen from the perspective of his resurrection, allowed those of faith to see it as God’s self-sacrifice for our sins. This is the greatest mystery of Christian faith, one on which many stumble. Today is not the day to explore it. Peter doesn’t explain it; he just invokes this mystery and connects it to our baptism (through a kind of bizarre reference to the story of Noah and the flood).

My point in bringing up the mystery of Christ’s atoning death is that, as much as we can try in Lent to follow Jesus as our model, by the end of Lent we’ll see that Jesus must go where we cannot follow. And that gave me the idea for our sermon series during Lent: What must we give up to follow Jesus? Every week we’ll follow the lead of the lectionary scriptures to ask a new question, a kind of testing: does following Jesus mean giving up something? It may. It’s a question each of us must consider individually. Then we may discover we are under an obligation to change and give up something dear. But Jesus did not come to take away our lives, but to give us life, a new life within the Kingdom of God. So the answer is not always, yes, you must change everything. God makes us all, each in a unique way, both recipients of the gifts of creation and participants in the shared life of redemption in Jesus, which inevitably involves giving of ourselves, and may involve giving things up. What must we give up, and how much? are the questions we will put to ourselves. We’ll each find our own answer. So what we seek is not some one-size-fits-all answer, but the assurance that we’ve tested ourselves and been proven faithful by the grace of Christ. I think that’s what Peter means when he describes baptism not a washing as of dirt, but “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Lent began with Ash Wednesday. Putting on ashes is a biblical sign of repentance, and also a reminder of the curse caused by sin: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a reminder of our mortality—and not just death, but all of the strife and sorrow that comes with life. And so we ask ourselves today: Must we give up our fear of death?

Ok, I’ll confess that I’m not very happy with my title so far. It needs some explanation. I can hear you saying, “No problem, Pastor. I’ll gladly give up my fear of death. I was afraid you were going to ask me to give up chocolate.” But by fear of death, I mean the fear that makes us pretend that we are not going to die; to pretend that our natural state is a life free of suffering—we might even think we have a right to be free of suffering. But in truth we live on borrowed time, and we never absolutely know what tomorrow brings. It is a frightful thing. That fear itself can effectively kill us—it can paralyze us so that all we can do is live in anxiety. That’s no good. More often we simply live in willful ignorance of our own mortality, and the mortality of those we love. It’s a temptation more for those of us on the younger side of things; we can thank the clothing chain “Forever 21” for enshrining the vanity of youth in denial of mortality. Our older members amaze me by the wisdom that comes when you are no longer under illusions of mortality, both their own and the ones they love. Check it out, young folk. And you know who else is under no illusions about mortality? Jesus. He seems to know that living his life solely out of the love of God is going to be the death of him.

But when fear makes us turn away in willful ignorance, we become drunk with the illusion of being in control. My time is not borrowed; it’s all mine to make of it what I want. Life is all about possibilities, and we see the future as this thrilling realm of possibilities and adventure. And this can be genuinely beautiful, too. Our lives become this exciting project we create; and we are encouraged to see our life that way by our career-driven, consumerist society. Don’t we constantly send that message to our young people: Find and pursue your dream of what to make of your life! Does our secular culture have an Ash Wednesday? Perhaps now it does, in the daily news of school shootings.

We can honor the gift of life by making the most of it. But sometimes we become so thrilled by our personal life-project that other people, and entire communities, including churches, become secondary or even inconvenient. Others are ignored or even made instruments of our own advance. We put off hard reckonings and reconciliations with those we love or those we’ve hurt. We shrug and say, “The world has its own problems.” Now I’m not saying that you are being called this Lent to give up on having a life-project. But you might want to test how deeply you are invested in that, because your dreams of endless possibility will inevitably be put to the test.

I heard a very moving interview with Kate Bowler the other day on NPR; at 35, and still alive for now, she has stage IV cancer, and wrote a book about how this changed her faith. She found in her rude awakening to mortality not just an end to her vision of life as this great project to construct, and she is a promising scholar, but also the opening of a window to the suffering of others.

Here’s how she put it: “But it did feel like cancer was this secret key that opened up this whole new reality. And part of the reality was the realization that your own pain connects you to the pain of other people. I don’t know. Maybe I was just a narcissist before. But all of a sudden, I realized how incredibly fragile life is for almost everyone. And then I noticed things that felt like a spiritual – I don’t know – like a gift. You notice the tired mom in the grocery store who’s just like struggling to get the thing off the top shelf while her kid screams, and you notice how very tired that person looks at the bus stop. And then, of course, all the people in the cancer clinic around me. It felt like I was cracked open, and I could see everything really clearly for the first time.”

Her cancer marked her with the ashes of mortality, but receiving this in faith and trust, it was not at all debilitating—though maybe it was for her life project. It helped her to see others in a way she couldn’t before. And it brought her closer to God. She reports, “I was not feeling nearly as angry as I thought I would. Granted – I have been pretty angry at times. But mostly I felt God’s presence like the way you’d feel a friend or like someone holding you. I just didn’t feel quite as scared. I just felt loved.” There is wisdom and love in the ashes of repentance.

We are not all being called to this, to giving up our fear of death, our desire to feign ignorance and, at least for today, just to live. To live with the innocence of children and see life as full of possibility. We are not all called to follow Goethe’s advice: “Live everyday as if it were your last.” Most of us need to get on with the business of living; laying plans, setting goals, hatching ambitions, expecting rewards. God wants us to enjoy the fruits of creation, and to exercise the powers of our potential. Some of us need to get off our duffs and do more of that! But the Olympics, with all those stories of those very young Olympiads, will give us plenty of reminders of striving to “Be all that you can be.” The Olympic torch burns bright but somehow produces no ash.

So let us this Lent watch Jesus as he sets his face toward Jerusalem, towards his own death, and his own glorification, and let us be tested to see whether we can follow him. But let us begin with thanksgiving that by the grace of Christ, we do not have to.



Please improve my next book by commenting! Topic: What’s lacking in mainline theology

I thought I would post this, taken directly from the Spire (February 2018), so that folks could have some place to register feedback.   I’ve included some questions for personal reflection below, but what I would love are thoughts (using the “comment” feature below) on whether I am correctly describing the typical views of a church like ours. I’m trying to figure out in my current work what about people’s views of God and faith need to be pushed in a new direction or stretched; or put otherwise…   

…What is holding back mainline churches like ours from experiencing the presence of God “with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). Here’s a sampling (I’m still in the “early draft” phase, so I welcome feedback!):

  1. We lack a sense of God as a reality above and beyond us; the presence of God is for us easy and comfortable, rather than a reality that weighs heavily upon us and must be taken with the seriousness and gravitas that the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.” Is that true for you?
  2. We treat church as a worldly, secular affair, often thinking of church as bringing us (and our children) the same kind of benefits we can get elsewhere: values and moral guidance, socializing, volunteer opportunities. Is that you, or are you seeking something else?
  3. We have lost the drama of the Christian story, especially the story of being saved from a terrible plight—what we used to more often call “sin.” True? Do you think of faith as “saving” you? From what?
  4. We still have a hard time understanding grace as the center of Christian faith; often we think of “good works” first. How central is grace to you?
  5. We are pretty confused about Jesus. Was he divine, and how? What did the cross do? Did he rise from the dead? C’mon, I know you are out there!
  6. We have many questions about what the goal of a Christian life is: Is the goal in this life or in some afterlife? Is it about personal spirituality, or living in community? Is it about seeking justice, or worshipping God? What do you think? Am I missing some options?

There are some good reasons behind our confusion and doubt with regard to traditional Christian beliefs. In the book I will give some direction on these questions, but not always a simple answer. But what I’ve outlined above hopefully explains our tendencies that make Christianity look kind of flat, unessential, and not very compelling.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Feb. 4): “A Teachable Spirit”

This sermon met with very different responses.  Some people really loved it and told me so.  One person really disliked it and told me so; I’m sure there were others.  I worry in such a case as this that the sermon and the pastor will become a rallying cry for dividing the church.  (“The Pastor is great!”  “No, he’s terrible!”)  That has to be our first concern. The church is bigger than any of us, certainly me.  (See Paul’s first few chapters of Corinthians.)  

I can see where some people might not like the accusatory tone of the sermon, although I think my main point was to make us all aware of the situation we face and what we can do about them, not our personal failings.  I’m pretty rigorous about never preaching guilt or shame.  It is possible that the sermons reflects a defensive posture toward a line of criticism that I’ve heard a lot (that I’m stuck in my own head). I’m not sure if my insecurities are coming through in this sermon; but it would be a serious mistake to let my personal feelings get in the way of preaching the Gospel.

One person did an admirable job at confronting me right after church with a concern: that when I say “You are not scholars,” I am making it sound like the congregation are thoughtless lunkheads, as though I am looking down on them.  (This person had also found my former blog motto objectionable.  See my explanation for it and why I changed it here.)  

Writing sermons that step out on a limb is a dangerous business.  When I wrote about how my parishioners are not scholars (and actually a few of them are), that was in no way meant to be a put-down.  (For one thing, my book contains a lot of criticism of academic theology.  I value academics but I really believe that theology has to revolve around what happens at church.)  As is typical, I came to my ideas by way of many conversations I’ve been having with a variety of people.  I’ve been told I lecture to the congregation like a professor to a college-level class.  I learned from this criticism, and most people have told me that I’ve made my sermons much more approachable.  So when I say, “You are not scholars,” my intent was to acknowledge that I should not assume people are looking for erudite theology–and indeed I’m glad they are not!   (Well, a little of that might be fun.)  But people not privy to the conversations I’ve been having (and no one would be except me) could easily conclude I was looking down on the congregation.  I’m sorry about that; I could have foreseen that misunderstanding and avoided it. 

The Granby folk really are very thoughtful and spiritually minded; that’s what drew me to them.  But I don’t think they realize just how differently we all understand what the faith is all about.  While we are a thoughtful bunch, we really don’t talk about our faith and what we believe in (as someone pointed out at the new Sermon Discussion Table).  I heard some confirmation of my analysis of our church, and would welcome alternative views in the comments. 

1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:21-28

We have in our readings today two remarkable passages about teaching and authority. From Mark, a story about Jesus teaching in the synagogue. Jesus taught “as one having authority,” and the synagogue crowd is astounded. Since he has no degree and no training, his authority seems to come right from God. His authority is such that it provokes a demon lurking in one of those attending to taunt Jesus, and the demon is cast out. That astounds the crowd even more, although the fireworks of it might have distracted somewhat from what Jesus was trying to teach them.  And from Corinthians we have Paul’s moving and deeply personal testimony to his sense of vocation as a teacher of the Gospel. He says, in essence, that his rights, his self-interest, and his whole ego have been absorbed into teaching the gospel. “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more.”

Now, this is going to get tricky. I think we have a problem with teaching in this church, and specifically with my role and authority as a teacher. I think we, as a congregation, need to work on developing a teachable spirit. The Gospel would never have taken hold if it weren’t for the teachable spirit we see in our readings. The people around Jesus allowed themselves to be astounded, and Paul found that non-Jews were suddenly believing in a Jew who was crucified. There was a hunger for a powerful message in the time of Jesus and Paul; and we need that hunger today.

The problem is, I’m not Paul. And I’m sure not Jesus. There will never be another to teach as Jesus did. And I do not have Paul’s incredible rhetorical gifts (you really appreciate that when you study him closely), nor do I have his total selfless passion for the Gospel. (By the way, he’s telling the Corinthians in this chapter why he is not exercising his right to be paid for preaching; you won’t hear that from me!) He was able to become all things to all people, he was able to reach people who were not Jews like himself, facing all different kinds of concerns and problems, and connect with them so that they could all come to submit to the same one truth, the Gospel, the good news of Jesus the Christ. I am awe-struck at his achievement, and while I am thankful for my own gifts, I can only feel inadequate next to Paul.

Now, where are we: we need to figure out how the power of teaching is going to work with us. We have two passages about the power of teaching in the Bible. But we’ve seen that I’m not a teacher like Jesus or Paul. What about you? Are you all the searching and eager synagogue of Capernaum, or the enthusiastic church at Corinth? Back then, hearts and minds were dramatically changed by the Gospel and a whole new way of living before God took off. Why does that magic seem so rare today?

I think there are lots of good reasons; so that even if a Paul or a Jesus were to arise today, I’m not so sure they would find the same success. Our culture is largely the product of Western European history. 500 years ago, Western Europe began to be rocked by modern science, which brought many advantages, but tended to undermine traditional religious beliefs. And there’s much more. 500 years ago, Western Europe had one Pope. But after the Reformation, Christianity split up into almost innumerable voices, each with a distinctive teaching. Many of those Protestant groups divided again over slavery, and then again and again starting about 100 years ago over science and biblical authority, and nowadays over political and cultural issues like gender equality and homosexuality. The Christian world today is a mess. All these opposed churches, and they all believe they know the Gospel.

And that is kind of like what we have in this room. I sometimes feel like each of you has your own unique take on Christianity, which you picked up from here and there, not exclusively from the church, but also from your own experiences, your reading of the Bible and contemporary works of spirituality, whether from Christian authors or others. Where do your views come from, anyway? Some of you have been influenced by Catholicism, some by a strong reaction against Catholicism. Some of you have been influenced by evangelical, born-again Christianity; others by a strong reaction against that. So some of you love your Bible, you read it every day and you trust it as a direct word from God. Others just find the Bible confusing and unhelpful, maybe even backward, and would rather get your wisdom from somewhere else. And frankly I don’t think any of you has a very solid grasp on the classical creeds and beliefs of Christianity. Some of you have been influenced by progressive Christianity and the social gospel or even liberation theology—me too, somewhat. Others abide in a conservative blend of patriotism and Christianity that starts from a belief that America is a special agent of God’s providence. Some of you believe God is a voice of inclusion and tolerance, who frees women and oppressed people and GLTB folk from the shackles of traditional morality; others of you believe God is the pillar and bedrock of solid, old-fashioned family values.

In one way, you all are a wonderful tapestry of diversity, displaying all the varieties of what it can mean to be a Christian today. In another way, you’re just a sloppy mess. Please, laugh with me. I need you to laugh with me, laugh at the absurdity of trying to be a church today. Imagine what it looks like to me, when I look out and see you folks coming from all different directions spiritually, religiously, politically, theologically, or maybe you don’t have much direction, just befuddlement. I recognize these different places you’re coming from, because I’ve studied Christian history and American religious history, and I know something about how we got in the pickle of all these different ideas about our faith. I look out and see wonderful people individually, but collectively this mess, and I ask myself, how do you pastor to this motley crew? How do you teach when there is so little of a shared belief structure to begin with? I look out and am confronted with an absurd task.

So what do we do? What do I do? You have called me your teacher: our Constitution says, “It shall be the duty of the Pastor to preach the Word of God; …to exercise the privilege of teacher and counselor in public and in private.” How is this going to work? I’ll tell you what won’t work. You can’t all expect me echo back to you’re your own peculiar and unique take on Christianity. Would that I could be all things to all people! I mean, I hope you’ll hear something that sounds familiar and affirms something of your own understanding, because you all have valid insights. But you’re not going to get only that every week. It’s impossible. I can’t give each of you your own personal version of church, especially when they might sharply disagree.

Now, what I could try to do is to go for the least common denominator. I could try to say something every week that sounds more or less familiar and acceptable and comfortable to most of you. That would make for inoffensive sermons, I suppose. But there wouldn’t be much to it. My message would have to be pretty thin and watery. In fact, that’s what a lot of preachers resort to, probably some of your former pastors. It may be the reason that the message coming out of mainline churches like ours is often so…blah. Such sermons never sat well with me.

Now, there is a wiser path to make church work amid so many different understandings of our faith; and we’re already doing this. Instead of focusing on learning together, we put our energy into doing together. We get involved in mission work and church work together. We also share in fellowship and enjoy each other’s friendship. This is wise and to the good. A sermon cannot carry a church. You can have church without sermons. Now I love thinking about the faith, but we put too much emphasis on the sermon.

So we must continue to live out our unity among a common work and common fellowship. But not everyone can take an active part in this work, and not everyone chooses to. We can also rally around our shared worship or liturgy; but that’s trickier, because I think all those different views on Christianity is all about lead us to expect different things out of worship. (Look at my report on your views of worship from the Spiritual Inventory series.) I wish more than anything that we had a liturgy that was powerful, compelling, moving, formative—that shaped and changed us. I wish we felt like our life depended on our liturgy. I don’t think we do. I’ve tried some new things, which met with mixed success.

Let’s keep searching for that liturgy, and keep building ourselves us by working and fellowshipping together. Still, I think there is no powerful and effective future for us as a church without a strong effort at teaching and learning together. Without a common understanding and even common language for what we are doing, our common work will be weak and scattered. Our efforts to run the church together will be plagued by dozens of personal agendas and sometimes trivial differences in opinion—sound familiar? And our efforts at crafting good liturgy will collide with a hundred different expectations of what worship is for. So let’s really work at coming together and by learning together, try to share a common understanding.  We’ll never all agree and understand God in the same way; I wouldn’t want that. But who knows how far we’ll go toward unity in the mind of Christ.

This might not be what you signed up for. But think of it this way. Many of you will be members of this church long after I’ve moved on. Your next minister will have different gifts and present different challenges. I’m your chance, for a few years, to really rethink what Christian faith is all about. That’s not my only gift, but it’s the best gift I got. If you are ready to learn about the faith, about God, and about how to live as Christians in our world, you’ve got the right guy. More than your typical minister, I’ve had to think about how the Gospel relates to the views of all kinds of experts and scholars—scholars writing about science, psychology and sociology, philosophy, history, sexism and gender, racism, capitalism and economics, colonialism, and so on. /No, you are not scholars. I know that, and I’m good with that. I didn’t want to sequester myself with other scholars; I wanted to preach to ordinary folk like you. Sometimes my scholarly training gets in the way of my being all things to all people.

But if you go a little ways with me, you’ll find I am a very flexible teacher. I don’t have a narrow view of our Christian faith. To me it’s like a beautiful jewel with many facets. And each of us has insights into at least one of those facets. Where we get into trouble is when we think our one facet is the whole. So I use the diversity of the liturgical seasons to explore all these different facets; that’s what my next book is about—and you all will be in this one. You will probably find yourself at home in one or another of those seasons; but the next one to come along might stretch you and challenge you to grow and experience a different side of our faith. But it won’t work if you are only satisfied with something that already speaks to you, but then the rest of the time you say, well, this isn’t for me.

The jewel of our faith is beautiful for all those facets; but it’s complicated. And this gospel jewel is being bombarded by all kinds of different lights, the different sources of knowledge and wisdom in our day, many of them flashing and twirling like disco lights. Our jewel is also swathed in patches of thick darkness, the sources of ignorance and godlessness of our day. It’s hard to get a good, steady, clear perspective on its beauty. We need to have compassion on each other—I for you, you for me—because we’ve all been dealt a very messy hand of being the church in a time of great upheaval and confusion.

Most of all, I need you to strive to have what John Calvin called a teachable spirit. I have been so blessed by some of you who receive me so openly and eagerly as a teacher; and not because you already agree with me. I could use some more of that. The church needs more of that.

How do you get a teachable spirit? Well, you have to confess that what you now know and understand is not enough. It has probably served you well, although sometimes I see your understanding of the faith making your life more difficult. But most of you have an understanding that keeps you going. But look next to you. Your views probably don’t agree with that person (whom you might be married to, by the way). Maybe you can get by with your own understanding, but how are you going to bridge the disagreement with your sister or brother? That’s why I’m here. I can help us do that. But you have to let go of at least some of your own understanding of the faith and admit that we don’t have it all figured out. I can’t set out for you a banquet if you content yourself with your favorite snack, and don’t come hungry to our common table, ready to join in a shared feast together. Get hungry! Get teachable.

From the Questions for Further Thought: 

Do you come to church hungry to learn? To be challenged? To expand your understanding of God’s ways? Should you? If that is not what you are looking for, why not?

From the sermon: “I think there is no powerful and effective future for us as a church without a strong effort at teaching and learning together.” Agree or disagree?



Fourth After Epiphany (Jan. 28): “Love It and Leave It”

I’m still one week behind the lectionary, so this sermon is on the calling of the disciples.  The Joel Osteen sermon in question can be found here.  It really makes me wonder why so many people are attracted to his message.  Any thoughts?

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 ; Mark 1:14-20

“God is way into you.  You should say to yourself, ‘I know God loves me. I know I’m the apple of his eye. I know he’s smiling down on me.’ When you wake up in the morning, say, ‘Good Morning Lord. It’s the one that you love.’

“Now I love my daughter. She’s my favorite. That’s the way God feels about you. Can I tell you a secret: you’re his favorite. If God had a cell phone, you’d be stored under ‘Favorite:’ Favorite Rodriguez, Favorite Smith.”

Lest I be accused of plagiarism, those were the words of Joel Osteen, the mega-church televangelist whose sermons are watched by 7 million each week. (No inferiority complex here!) Osteen urges us to think of God as the ultimate doting and indulgent parent. He encourages everyone to see himself as the direct and individual object of God’s very special love. And so, as Osteen tells it, in the same way his children confidently ask him for $20 to go out with friends (having some idea of his salary, perhaps), we should ask God for whatever we want: “When you see yourself as God’s favorite, you’ll ask him for your dreams.” Be confident in God’s love, and he’ll give you whatever you want.

I just don’t buy it. I’ve felt the love of God, and it was definitely love, but it did not feel to me like the love of an indulgent parent, who makes me feel special, me alone. While we call God Father or Mother, I don’t think we should take indulgent parental love and project it onto God. How could such a God also be just? Two weeks ago I made the case that God’s love isn’t the opposite of God’s justice, but these two are one in God, and last week this was confirmed in the line from Revelation: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love.” But for Osteen justice is nowhere in view, as far as I can see. I suspect that God’s love for Osteen is really just about the power of positive thinking—if you believe you are good and life is fair, you’ll do your best. Clearly this appeals to a lot of people, who I guess are looking for an ultimate Father figure to make them feel secure, special, and maybe spoiled.

I can imagine why people could get Osteen’s idea about that love in their head.   It’s nice to have a divine security blanket to go with you wherever you are, starting from your own living room in front of the TV. And we live in an era when the most common and popular display of love, as seen all over our pop culture, in movies and songs, is an exclusive and singular love that makes the beloved feel very special: “I love you and only you.” That’s the love we know from romantic love and parental love. It’s good love. And the Bible does apply parental love as a way to describe the mystery of God’s love, but we’d have to say that it applies it first and foremost to Jesus as God’s only begotten son. We are made recipients of that parental love, but we don’t receive it directly and exclusively. We are the adopted children of God, not the only begotten.

This does not seem sufficient for Osteen. But there’s really nothing in the Bible that describes God’s love in the way he does. The love of God we see in today’s Gospel reading, instead of affirming us where we are, calls us away from where we are. Instead of helping us cope with work stress (although God’s love can do that), the love of God calls us to leave our nets and follow Jesus.

Now, Jesus reveals God’s love to us; with this we agree. But his message isn’t always about love in a typical way. In fact, the Good news that is first announced in Mark’s gospel doesn’t mention God’s love at all: “The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” We would not do well to replace these admittedly cryptic phrases with a simple, “God loves you.” (Or “Hear the good news: He is way into you.”)

No, when Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled,” he means the same thing as “The Kingdom of God has come near.” He means that God’s promise is ready to be fulfilled; the old, corrupt way of life in this world, the old world order, is being replaced by the new way of life that we call the Kingdom of God. The message isn’t, “God is going to help you cope with the old order;” it’s “God is freeing you from the old order.” Jesus doesn’t tell Simon and Andrew, “I’m going to make you really successful fishermen.” He ironically promises to make them fish for people, which is to say, he directs them to a completely new life.

And “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They didn’t stay and feel more secure and confident in what they were doing; they left it and followed. I’m guessing they didn’t love their job that much; back then you didn’t have much choice. But there must have been something so immediately compelling and appealing about Jesus that they didn’t have to think twice. James and John were so compelled by Jesus that they left their own father to follow a complete stranger, just because he called them. And to those two he made no promises.

But, you might wonder, doesn’t God love the world? And surely God loves fishing; what’s not to love about fishing? (I know some of you believe that with all your heart!) And God loves the father, Zebedee, and wants James and John to stay with him, doesn’t he? Why wouldn’t God’s love help us stay where we are and love what we do and the people we are with? Why would God want to tear us away from all that?

Well, sure, God’s love normally helps keep us within our ordinary bonds of family love. If you suddenly left your family and job to follow some purported messiah, I’d be worried. That’s not what God usually tells us to do. God commanded God’s people to honor mother and father; Paul commands married people to love one another. Paul has been known to say that his flock should “work quietly and earn their own living.” (2 Thess 3). That sounds a little more normal, does it not?

Well, today we are listening to the story of Jesus and his disciples. We should expect to find a great and abiding truth of our lives in this story. But it doesn’t mean that we should act exactly like Jesus, or even exactly like his disciples. We’ll have to figure out as we go how to apply these stories to ourselves today. But stay with the story a little bit. Don’t rush back to your life, to the normal, the ordinary. Come away for a little while, and lose yourself in the story.

Because these stories tell us something about the love of God that is mysterious and not just like the love we are familiar with, the love of a parent or spouses. So what is this love of God, if that is what is on display in Jesus as he begins to announce the good news, that tears away his disciples from their lives, or maybe frees them? How and why does God’s love take them away from everything they presumably held dear: home town, family, livelihood? What does God’s love mean, if it is one with God’s justice, as we saw before, and if it doesn’t necessarily affirm us right where we are and make us feel secure in the life we are living? What is God’s love if it draws us away and propels us toward this strange new world called the Kingdom of God?

It’s not a love that tells me, “I’m special” or, “You’re great just the way you are.” It is a love that says, “You are mine. You belong to me.” We should not assume the next words will be, “Now keep being wonderful you.” That’s conceivable. But we might instead hear, “Now leave your nets and follow me.” What we can be sure about is that God always begins with, “You belong to me.” We can’t be sure what God will tell us next. Maybe we’d love to hear God next say: “You’re my favorite; and I’m here to give you your dreams, whatever you want.”

But Jesus didn’t come to bring us our dreams. He came to bring us the Kingdom of God. This is good news, a true manifestation of the love of God. The right response to that good news, according to Jesus, is “repent.” When Jesus meets me and tells me that the Kingdom of God is at hand, there’s no formula for what that will look like. You are responsible for figuring out what the Kingdom of God means to you—what it will look like in your life to repent and believe the good news. (Now, we as a church have a distinct task of figuring out how to repent and believe the good news together; we’ll think about that more after Pentecost. This Ordinary Time after Epiphany is the right time to think about our personal discipleship.) Not all whom Jesus met became disciples. Some repented and tried to be more just in the lives they continued to live. Some weren’t able to be disciples or even repent until Jesus freed them of their demons—whatever those were; so Jesus restored to them the good things of creation that God intended: life, sanity, self-respect. Some simply refused to become disciples or even repent; but they said, “Who are you to tell me to repent? I am content. I don’t believe in your good news.” But some heard a specific call to leave everything and follow him; these were the disciples but also the many others, often women, whose lives started over when they met Jesus. They followed him and helped him.

Is God calling you to be a disciple, a follower? What possessions and securities might you have to leave to do so? But maybe God is not calling you to this. Maybe God in his mercy is just calling you to be restored to God’s good creation. Now that doesn’t mean that nothing must change. You might be in need of significant healing. You might have one or many demons—whatever that means. And it doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. You still need to practice at least basic justice, which is not easy to do in our world; the things we purchase and the votes we cast may inadvertently make us complicit in injustice. But if that is your calling, then recognize it for what it is. Don’t pretend, Oh, I’ve given everything to follow Jesus. My life now belongs all to God. No, God may be content to let you have your life, and you may be content so to have it. Receive it with thanksgiving; act with justice; and you can participate in the kingdom by supporting the church. It is not for me to say, You have to drop everything and follow Jesus! But neither can I give you any guarantees that you have heard God’s call correctly. Maybe God told you something else and you ignored it.

Because in a land like ours that generally enjoys lots of peace and security, long life and safety; and sometimes great wealth and the liberty to decide for yourself whatever you think is true, it’s awfully hard to hear God aright. These things that we take as good created gifts—safety, security, long life, spouses, children, successful and absorbing careers, and even wealth and personal liberty—maybe they are also corrupted and fallen and complicit in the injustices of the world. Maybe they are leading us away from the call of God. Even if we don’t leave all of those supposedly good things, maybe we need to hold onto them more lightly and at arms length; to treat them as the passing goods that they are. So we do well to hear Paul’s advice: “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” Love the world. But be ready and willing to leave it.