Palm & Passion Sunday (Sixth in Lent, 3/25): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Nothing at All?”

Helpful, constructive criticism is often difficult to come by for a preacher.  Thank God I have a wife who is more than capable.  Her view accorded with my own feelings about this sermon, that it was not tight and to the point.  I think the asides (all those parentheses below–like this one!) were just distracting.  And when I thought about them, it seemed I was trying to tie some off-the-cuff comments on contemporary “relevant” events into a rich, complex theological point that I should have just left speak for itself.  And that point is this: at the end of Lent, we must be ready to recognize that Jesus does something for the world that we can never do, regardless of how hard we try to repent–Jesus inaugurates through his faithfulness, and in a way that only someone living at his time could do, a new way of being human before God. 

John 12:12-16;       Philippians 2:5-11

We’ve been asking ourselves this Lent, what must we give up? Some people give up things like chocolate or alcohol for the 40 days, and then enjoy gorging themselves on them come Easter. I’ve done that. It may do some good. It is like a test of will, I suppose. Or it confirms the old adage: absence makes the heart grow fonder. But this kind of giving up has nothing to do with the repentance we are called to during Lent. Recall that Jesus’ message was very simple: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” This repentance, in response to Jesus’ bringing the Kingdom near, is about shedding your sin and adapting the good spirit revealed in Jesus. Now once you shed your sin, you’re not supposed to take it back up again after Easter. So every Lent we should be looking inward for ways we can become a better Christian outward, to God and to others, and these changes we make are supposed to be permanent.

So we talked about giving up our fear of death, and social media, and too much attachment to our religious ideas and spiritual experiences personal, and our sins; none of these are absolutely necessary. But we also remembered the higher life to which we are called, a life like Christ’s, for the whole world. These are all good, permanent changes to make, and there are many more besides.

Now, Lent is almost over. But why stop? Why shouldn’t we repent all year long? (I know that’s what you were secretly hoping for.) Well, it’s exhausting if you do it well; we are creatures with limits of attention.

But more importantly, too much turning inward, like we do at Lent, is not a good thing. It can make you a naval gazer, turned in on yourself. It shouldn’t, but it can fill you with guilt and regret and discouragement. But we are not called to be introspective individuals dolefully dealing with our own issues. No: Because first of all, we are a church, and our most important work as the Body of Christ is that which we do together. But secondly and more importantly, we are more than our work, whether we are working on ourselves or working as a community. Two weeks ago we read in Ephesians chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Remember that? In Lent we have been doing hard work, and really it is God’s work in us, but it’s still work. Now maybe you think that the church is here to promote good works and good values. Yes, absolutely. But today we especially recall that works and values are not at the heart of who we are.

Neither would you want to sum up who your family is by listing all the jobs and chores that you all do. Jessica teaches classes; I run a church; Silas sets the table… Yuk. Even your family’s ethos doesn’t get to the heart. The heart of your family is the celebratory love that unites you all, whether that happens around the dinner table, or during a family vacation, or just play time. And in the midst of that celebration the parents might tell the story about how they fell in love and committed to one another, for that is the very origin of the family’s love. Usually there’s a first move by one spouse—was that so?

So also with this family. Who we are is not just what we do, our work. In fact I’ve been wondering recently whether we should even have a “mission statement.” Mission statements are fine for corporations; they are what they do. There is no celebration of love for its own sake at the heart of a corporation. But at our heart is a celebration of the love that we are. And at Easter, we tell the story of how all that love first began: how Jesus made the first move, and took us as his bride.

So who we are as a church is not what we do, as might be stated in a mission statement; it goes back to who Jesus was and what he did, and even further to who God is and what God did. At our heart is telling this story, and worshipping the God who brought that story to us. Now, when we worship we are doing something, yes, but fundamentally what we are doing is passively acknowledging and thanking and offering praise for what God did in Jesus, and so what Jesus our savior did for us, did in our place, what he did as a substitute for us.

Now I might lose some of you with that language—those who have a hard time conceiving how Jesus could do something for us. You might believe he was a good guy but basically a person just like us. That’s fine. My point can be made more simply: everything good about us goes back to a divine destiny that lies deep in the heart of all that exists. You and I did not set that destiny. God set it, and God is that destiny. That’s a useful way to put it without even mentioning Jesus. But if you join me in the adult re-confirmation class, I’ll make the case why I think it’s better to explain that destiny with the story of Jesus. (Shameless promotion)

Paul in our passage from Philippians does just that; he tells us about how our destiny and calling was set by God before we were born—maybe before creation—and he does so with a short story about Jesus. Well, it’s kind of a story about Jesus. And it’s famous, because Paul is apparently quoting a hymn or poem that the Philippians already knew, making this passage perhaps the earliest piece of Christian poetry. And strikingly, it doesn’t tell a story about Jesus like we find in the gospels.

The story seems to begin before Jesus was born (and my Greek reading buddy, Peter, helped me understand that scholars disagree wildly on the interpretation of this passage): “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [or grasped at], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness [or having become like a human being].” It sounds like Jesus was equal with God or had a chance to be equal with God, but instead emptied himself, taking a human form, the form of one who serves. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” As Peter pointed out to me, this is the reverse of Adam and Eve, who were created in the image of God but grasped at taking God’s place; and we all do that, for the story of Adam, a Hebrew word which means “human being,” is just a story about humanity, about us. Remember that Adam, we, after disobeying and gobbling our way to knowledge of good and evil, had to be prevented from eating of the tree of life and living forever, which would have made us like gods. (And our technology might get us there yet!)

Jesus does the opposite. Whether before or after he was born, he realizes that he is God’s very image, but instead of trying to rule, he decides to serve, and instead of grasping at ruling forever (perhaps like a certain Russian leader we know), he serves, even though it will lead to his own death.

In this way, Jesus redefines what it means to be human before God. Human beings have always thought about God or the gods. Even when we don’t pray or believe in literal divine beings, we’ve always found the idea of infinite power, infinite control, to be tantalizing; that power seems to lie within our very impressive human potential. We’ve so often said to ourselves, if I could just acquire power, I’d be able to do some real good. (Because of course we think we know what is good and what is evil.) The infinite idea of divinity, of unlimited potential, is deeply implanted in us, and it is one of our greatest temptations.

Now you might not get all this from reading your favorite passage in the gospels, but I think still the passage in Philippians is getting to the real heart of the gospel story. Jesus rejects that temptation of power once for all, even though he himself knew how deeply God is implanted in us. And so he begins a new way of being human, a new way of living as the image of God—the way of service, obedience, humility before God, even when that costs you your own life. Because when you live in obedience to God, conflict is inevitable. What the gospels show us so well is how obedience and humility before God makes Jesus anything but obedient and humble before the forces of idolatrous power that he confronted, whether it was the divinized Romans or those Jewish leaders who collaborated with Rome to gain power over of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was these Romans and their collaborators who physically and historically killed him, but it was Jesus’ defiant obedience to God that forced their hand. Jesus made clear his challenge to them by his paradoxical act of riding in like a King, but humbly on a donkey.

This humble, defiant obedience is what God had in mind all along for us human beings. But that’s not how it generally has worked out. Our human awareness of infinite potential has been used horribly wrongly. Not all the time. Each of us has acted the way Adam originally lived; his story is our story. We sometimes act in the innocence of natural obedience, like when we are naturally loving to our children or our parents or loved ones. But we all also grasp at power and equality with God, and the great powers that swirl around our globe especially do this, and claim to do it on our behalf.

So you do a little good here and there. We all do. We’re not pure, unadulterated sinners; that’s an absurd piece of bogus pessimism that some conservative Christians still hawk. But can you, with your small and occasional good acts, set a new course for all of humanity? Even if you thought you could, your next step would be to become famous and powerful so that everyone can see how good you are and strive to become like you. Maybe you’d post a youtube video of yourself and try to amass lots of hits. And then you could start the world’s largest megachurch, attended by 10s of thousands. Thank God Jesus didn’t have to do it that way. He lived in a time and a place when Jews and others were ready for a new humanity to dawn; they (unlike people today) were looking for a messiah. But Jesus did not advertise himself as the Messiah, boasting, “I am the one!” He just showed obedience to God and served as a vessel for God’s healing and prophetic power, and people couldn’t help but see him as the Messiah. And they thought he would take power and rule over them, and destroy their enemies, and force everyone to do good. (Now, that does sound a little familiar to the authoritarian and even fascist tendencies at loose in our world today.) They were dying to proclaim him king in that false image, that image of kingship taken from our old, power-mad humanity.

Instead he showed obedience unto death, even death by the cross, death by the execution that Romans devised to flaunt their ghastly, demonic power. Jesus, by his own obedience, but also just as much by how the great powers reacted to him, redefined what it means to be human before God. / Now, you can repent all you want to. We can strive to be good people. We can try to fix the gargantuan problems of our world (and come up short) and we can try to master the most petty flaws in our secret souls (and still fail to do so perfectly). But we can’t redefine, for the benefit of all humanity, what it means to be human before God. And we have absolutely no need to. Because Jesus did that, as well as it could be done. To follow Jesus, in the end we need to do nothing at all. We simply say Amen to this new humanity shown in him. (And even if we fail to do that, what he did still stands as valid for all time.) So our work is done; let us, like the disciples, just step back, quiet down, and watch Jesus do what only he can do; and watch the world expose itself in its godlessness as only its most blasphemous representatives can so do. That is our ‘agenda’ for Holy Week.

Were that all, of course, we wouldn’t be here. We never would have heard of this obscure Jesus, squashed like a bug by the Romans, to whom only a small crowd of Jewish bumpkins called “Messiah,” according to their mistaken notion of the word. But “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” God made it known that the humanity Jesus reshaped and redefined into the way God intended, was the right one. Hopefully we can live out that new humanity in our small, flawed way. But right now all that remains for us to do is to join all the other knees of all the powers and weird, unseen, even demonic forces out there, as the Philippians poem puts it, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and simply believe in the good news, and confess in our worship that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Questions for further thought:

I’ve read studies recently that claim that often 50% or more of people in congregations like ours believe that the point of church is be promote good values and service. Have I made a convincing case that this is not what is most important about being a church?

Is it part of your spiritual practice to simply recognize what God has done, not only for yourself, but for all of humanity and all of creation? Where and how do you do that?

Why do we need to recognize that our destiny (or purpose, or goal) has been set by God, not by ourselves? Why do you think it might be better to explain that by telling the story of Jesus?

What else could we use to state who we are besides a “mission statement?”



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.

Annual Meeting Sunday! Jan. 21: “The State of the Church”

I went off lectionary for the day, and took a break from my “Love of God” series (all of a week into it!).  But lots of good feedback.  I wonder if anyone disagrees?  I’d like to hear from folks who do.  

1 Samuel 3:1-11;  Revelation 3:1-22

“The State of the Church”

In the Book of Revelation, John the Seer dictates letters to seven important churches of his day; we heard three of those letters. John shows a distinct attitude in each letter, ranging from encouragement to strong warning. I thought about using these letters to address our church in this way, on this day, as we take stock of where we are and plan for where we want to go. Would we be the church who is “dead,” who are told “to wake up and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death?” Or are we like the faithful church in Philadelphia, who has “but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name?” They are told “to hold fast to what you have.” Or are we like the church in Laodicea, who is so satisfied with their wealth and success that they are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm. So God says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” like lukewarm coffee. It’s not my focus today, but we do learn something about God’s love here, when God says, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love.”

But I find these letters by John really off-putting too. They don’t read to me like letters dictated directly from God. John’s biases show through; he seems to think only martyrs are real Christians. Maybe John needs to lighten up.

We should be very wary of claiming to speak directly for God. So I have no letter from God for the church in Granby. And it may be that John himself is dimly aware of the dangers and limits of pronouncing divine judgment. The one constant refrain in his letter is: “Let him who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying…” I’d like to think that’s John’s way of saying, “Judge for yourself; if the Spirit speaks to you through what I say, then use it in good health.” Ultimately, the Spirit of God has to judge us from within, both individually and as a church.

So we must ask ourselves, what does God think about our church? And we must listen to one another. Those with long roots in this church can to share what was so valuable from the past that we need to preserve. Newcomers can add a fresh perspective, seeing the church for how it is today, not through some rose-colored lens that those with long associations might have.

I do have a role in this conversation. I see this church in light of the challenges that the larger church faces, and the resources its leaders have proposed. But ultimately I’m left with my own take on what ails the church today and what fresh ideas might help the church regain the right combination of faithfulness and power. I confess you won’t often find a pastor in a small church who has given so much thought and study to these questions, and believes, hopefully not foolishly, that he has insight to offer.

So what problems is the church facing today, and how can we address these? Let’s focus on churches like ours: mainline churches that are mostly middle class, mostly white, which don’t believe in dramatic spiritual powers and don’t believe the Bible is inerrant. Our kind of church is not doing well. According to the Pew Research Center, the percent of the population affiliated with mainline churches like ours has gone from 18% to under 15% just since 2007. And this is down from around 25% a few decades earlier. These statistics can be analyzed in a variety of ways, but they tell us that all is not well. Still, let’s not obsess about numbers; my first concern is always whether our mainline churches are presenting a compelling and faithful way of life, with God at its center. If we’re not doing that, then even if we were growing, we would not be a true church. And you’ll notice that the Book of Revelation’s letters never once mention whether the churches are growing. Let us be faithful to God, and be not ashamed of what we are but share our faith, and I trust God that all will be well. (Not that we don’t need to prudently manage the business side of things, of course!)

So what does that look like? Whether we are growing or shrinking, whether our budget is balanced or not, church should be a powerful experience. Church should change lives, even if it does so slowly. It should take your breath away. It should open you up to that raw, vulnerable, on-edge side of life, like you get when you’ve had a really intense personal conversation with a good friend, or better still, a stranger. You know what I mean? When your ears are perked up, and you feel you’ve finally let your guard down and exposed yourself to what really matters in life. At the end of such a conversation, I find I feel exhausted but also full of nervous energy. A good conversation, a great novel, even a movie that isn’t an escape but really calls to you—these can make you feel this way, like you are on the edge of a great precipice of life. Why shouldn’t church feel that way too—even more so?

What? You say you’ve never felt that way? Well it’s never too late. Imagine how Moses felt at the burning bush; or how Peter felt when, after pulling in a huge trove of fish, said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am an unclean man.” Or how Adim Malek prayed as he fled for his life as a boy solider, and finally found liberation. Or how some of you have faced losing your own children, but God stood by you through it all.  I don’t wish these difficult experiences on anyone, but church can really happen when our hearts are at their most vulnerable and exposed. How many of our mainline churches tap into that kind of power? If they did, they wouldn’t be shrinking, I assure you.

Mainline churches should have that power; we’re talking about God, here, and what more than God can lead you to live life on the edge? But mainline churches have too often managed to make God ordinary, commonplace, blandly familiar, even boring. People who are hungry for life on the edge, who really want to feel life, have to flee the church and look to crazy extreme sports, or grizzly horror movies (or death metal). Maybe they fail to appreciate that ordinary life can also be extraordinary, but they are on to something. / Really, it’s shocking. Right where life ought to be most exciting and on the edge, we’ve made church the home for life at its most conventional—plain-vanilla. We should almost be proud of ourselves for such an unlikely achievement. How indeed?

I think what happened is the church went from praying for the Kingdom of God to come and for this age to pass, to recasting itself as a pillar of social order. It became the church’s role to uphold mainstream society. This dramatic shift started long, long ago; with Constantine, played a big part in the fourth century, but there were a lot of smaller compromises along the way. Our Puritan ancestors were remarkably counter-cultural when they lived in England, but when they settled here they became the establishment, and church became the place where rules were enforced and people kept in line. And still today, the small-town New England church might continue to assume that it is our role to be the center of town, the pillar upholding all the values that make a place like Granby what it is.

But exactly what those town-‘n’-chuch values are shifts through time and with location. Once it was important for church to reinforce sexual morality and patriotism, to shun divorce, and make anyone who was different feel judged—maybe they were foreign born, dark skinned, or gay. More recently, churches may reinforce the value of self-fulfillment and individual achievement; we endeavor to promote well-adjusted young people who have “positive values,” like healthy self-esteem. Often the main value we promote towards others is tolerance—“live and let live.” If you are up in Amherst, church might be a place to celebrate progressive political values, with just a touch of self-righteousness. In many rural areas, it’s the opposite—conservative social values reign, to which faith lends the hubris of absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong or degenerate. Now, don’t get me wrong; teaching values is, well, valuable. I do it. We can and should have important discussions about what personal and social values best align with the Gospel. But too often church serves simply to lend a vague divine blessing on whatever conventional values we mostly white, middle class people hold anyway; and predictably our teenagers will either rebel against all this just because it’s conventional, or the more conforming teens will ploddingly go along with it. But you don’t need a church to instill these values; the Bible just seems to get in the way of conventional values anyway—it’s such a strange book. No wonder people have stopped coming to church to imbibe conventional values, whether progressive or “family values.” You can rely on youth sports, Disney movies, and school to instill conventional values like self-esteem, hard work, and tolerance, in your kids.

None of this has anything to do with the real heart of church, as I want to present it to you: standing naked and vulnerable before the absolute God—placing yourself face to face with the God upon whom everything depends. That is what church alone can deliver; no other organization can. Church ought to be where everything superficial, everything fake, everything false is exposed; where we bring before the fire of divine love everything we have substituted in the place of real, unbounded living, to be burned away. Paul tells the Corinthians that they should be speaking with such a prophetic edge in church that when a new visitor comes in for the first time, “the secrets of” that person’s heart will be “disclosed,” and he or she “will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’” That’s power, not borne of manipulation and pulling heart-strings, but truth; real truth-power.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am looking for that in a church, but I’ve never been so explicit. Maybe you’re saying, Yes I want that! How do we get it? Good question. It’s nothing you or I can manufacture. At best we can open ourselves to this kind of raw, divine power: The God “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open.” But we can try to clear out everything we substitute in its place: the god of convention, the god of Granby. We can choose instead to settle for nothing less than the true God who is far beyond our little lives. Maybe we find it hard to believe in this God. We can see convention; the everyday world has an almost oppressive reality to it. What is beyond it can’t easily be seen. Then the place to begin is with honesty. Wherever we are with faith, church has got to be the place where we are at our most raw and honest. You can’t fake it before God. Even if you’re not sure you believe in God, you surely don’t think you can fool God! Whatever God is, he’s nobody’s fool. So if we have intellectual doubts about God or are confused about God, or if we find the Bible strange or silly, we honor God by being honest about it. Nothing so dishonors God as pretending to be a ‘good Christian.’ Then church becomes just a show of piety, where you fake it for the sake of upholding convention; and then we’ve dethroned God. Instead, let’s be honest and vulnerable with our confusion and doubt, and only then are we open to better understanding. And then maybe the God we seek will be gracious and show himself here, will “come in to you and eat with you, and you with him.”

But maybe this isn’t what you come to church for. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you just prefer the God of ordinary life, of convention, who upholds everyday values. Maybe I’m freaking you out! You don’t need to be. I can work with where you’re coming from. God is our creator, the one who created the various orders in which our lives move and have their being. And God’s created goodness is still visible in the bonds of family, in ordinary neighborliness, in loyalty and reciprocity with one’s own people. I don’t think that these values by themselves are enough to make church powerful, and they are not the values we find at the heart of our redemption and calling in Christ. But some of you have helped me see that, seen in retrospect from the vision of that extraordinary calling we have in Christ, with its very unconventional way of being a distinct and holy people before God, the continuing goodness of God in even ordinary things can seem amazing. I continue to journey with you and learn; I hope you will do the same with me.




More on Body/Self/Spirit/Kingdom as a Worship Structure

I surprised most of those gathered yesterday with a new structure for our worship service.  We began briefly attending to the Body, then shifted the focus to our Self.  (I could call it “soul,” but that could make us think more of the eternal destiny of our soul, which is not where I wanted to go.  Rather, I wanted this part of the service to be where we place our most personal and individual concerns before God. )

From the Gloria, through Scriptures, Anthem, and Sermon, the focus was on Spirit.  This term is the vaguest or most easily misunderstood.  “Spirit” as I use it is not some ghost-like ethereal substance in us.  If we look just to each individual, the Spirit most strongly connects to our minds.  But Spirit is inherently social.  Think “school spirit” or “team spirit.”  Spirit is the meaning and purpose that a group of people embody as a whole, and if the meaning and purpose is a good one and is well understood, that group will be powerfully motivated.  Donald Trump was able to generate a certain spirit among his supporters, which is why they seem impervious to unseemly news about him.  (And a reminder: just because you have “spirit” does not mean you are doing something right.  Hitler generated one of the most powerful juggernauts of spirit in the 20th century, which led theologians to see the “demonic” side of spirit.  And it’s why the Bible calls for a careful “discernment of spirits.”)  So in the Spirit section we try to achieve a unity of purpose and mind by attending to Scripture and reflecting on it in our day.  It is no accident that my sermon yesterday made the point that this act of Spirit involves a dangerous laying hold of God, as we should do it with fear and trembling.

Having sought to raise ourselves up into the Spirit, the fourth part of worship enacted and embodied the Kingdom of God within our little community.  I was so glad the we could start this new structure on a Communion Sunday, which is the perfect expression of becoming a distinct form of divine community.  On subsequent weeks, the main expression will be a Prayer of Intercession, which is also fitting: we enact God’s Kingdom by praying for each other and the world.  And then we go forth and leave church to continuing enacting that Kingdom in a hundred little ways.

Here, in brief, is why I felt the need to try this experimental structure–which is only for the month of August and involves very few changes to our order of worship.  (I moved the Passing of the Peace, and added a body-centered meditation.)

  1. Our current practice of worship completely ignores the body, but our bodies are an integral part of who we are and of how we connect with God and each other.
  2. Protestant worship, as my recent research has shown me, took over a very penitential structure of worship.  (See John Witte, Protestant Worship).  In the Medieval church, communion was rarely received, in part because you had to say a full confession before you could receive it.  The assumption was that you had to be absolved of sin before you could receive communion.  Communion, in other words, was not the primary expression of being a community; it was a bonus reserved for the purified.  Protestants continued this understanding of communion by beginning worship with a Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon.  That can be fine–and I like doing this during Lent–but it assumes that the main point of worship is always dealing with personal sin.  There’s much more to it than that: we grow in our commitment to goodness and holiness, we strengthen our bonds of community by uniting together with Christ, we lose ourselves in mystical union with God, we confess before God our powerlessness and suffering at the hands of the world, and so on.  We need to explore many more possibilities than guilt and forgiveness.  (And so I have generalized the Prayer of Confession to mean confessing many things: our sin, but also our faith, our needs, our sorrow and suffering, our unity with each other, and so on.)
  3. The worship service at the Church of Christ, not unusual among Congregational Churches, has two prayers, each with a moment of silence built in.  I puzzled at the redundancy of this.  So in the Body/Self/Spirit/Kingdom structure, the first prayer (“Confession”) is about our individual needs and prayers.  The second (“Intercession”) is us praying a community for each other and for the world.

There you have it.  This is a great place to comment on whether the four-fold structure made any difference for you in worship, and whether you like it or not.  Thanks!

5th in Easter-Life for Others: By God’s Eternal Life

Acts 17:22-31 ; John 14:1-14

“Life for others” is my theme for these seven Sundays in Easter. The first way to understand “life for others” is as a description of the shape and purpose of our lives as a Christian community. The rest of the world may live by other shapes and purposes: perhaps “life for me,” or perhaps “life for some,” or life for those I like or that are like me. But that is not the shape of our lives as a church. We welcome all here, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they are like or unlike us. We seek the good of all others beyond those gathered here; we do this by praying for others, including our enemies, by our mission work by which we help the poor, the hungry, and those are neglected or ostracized in our community, regardless of whether they share our faith; and we provide at least some support for the worldwide efforts of our denomination and other organizations (like Church World Service and Blankets Plus) who seek to help people from all walks of life across this country and around the globe. We could do a better job, but all this kind of thing is what life for others looks like. Life for others is also expressed in the kind of community we believe in and try to carry out as a congregation. We try to create and nourish a community of mutual care and love, in which we do not put ourselves first but live for the good of each other. I’ll talk more about that in two weeks.

Since we are life for others, we make room for others to be different, which also means we are a free-thinking church. As I speak to you, I know that we as a group of assembled individuals are all over the map, intellectually. Some of us profess old-time religion, some of us identify with newer, liberal, or modern Christian ideas; some of us do not think much of classical Christian beliefs, and doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity do not mean much to us; some of us don’t have much confidence in any religious beliefs. Well, we mean what we say: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”—it’s true. But I do see us as on a journey together, although we come from very different starting points. I only ask that you think of us as being on a journey together. And as your pastor, I’m not going to pretend that our journey is just going wherever we happen to wander. This church comes out of a strongly (but not dogmatically) Christian tradition, and that is obvious by the forms of our worship life: we read only from the Christian Bible, we follow a Christian liturgy and practice Christian sacraments (as we saw last week). In short, we profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We will ask new members to profess this with us, three weeks from now. To be sure, we don’t claim a single interpretation of what that means, and we certainly don’t impose one on people.

But my role here is obviously not neutral. I am not here just to facilitate conversation between you all, although sometimes I will do that and, as a former college professor, I am good at it. I welcome discussion and dialogue, and change my mind often in response to your insights and questions. But make no mistake, when it comes to theology, to our ability to articulate what we are all about as a church, to explain it in a coherent and responsible way—a way that understands the many challenges to Christian belief and creatively reinterprets that faith to meet valid challenges—when it comes to theology, I proudly assert my role as your leader (not your dictator, of course). That’s why I asked that my title be, “Pastor and Theologian in Residence.” When it comes to actually living like a Christian, living a life for others, I gratefully defer to the many saints of this church, because they do it better than me. But when it comes to explaining why we believe in life for others, rather than life for some other purpose or direction, I happily and confidently take the lead.

When I look out not only here but across the Christian world, I see a whole lot of beautiful life for others being lived and I celebrate and praise God for it. But intellectually, I see enormous division and incompatible opinions, often not very clearly articulated; Christians with very different views are often not aware of how much in conflict they are with each other. I observe Christians to be often incapable of even understanding each other, incapable of having effective discussions with each other. In short, on the intellectual front, I see sheep without a shepherd.

And I believe I can be a good shepherd, on that front at least. I do not stand alone, certainly. The intellectual challenge Christians face is enormous, larger than it has ever been, as I need to keep reading and learning from others just to be effective in our little corner of those challenges. But I believe I have a pretty good grasp on responding to those challenges. I hope when I preach and teach that lights go off in your head (not warning lights), and that you see a way of thinking through your faith that is helpful and encouraging. I have tremendous confidence in the Christian faith. I think that our Christian faith, rightly understood, has the best intellectual game going today. I am not ashamed of the gospel, as Paul says, and I want you likewise to be free of shame and intellectual doubt. I do not believe the Bible is infallible. In some ways, I think we need to strongly reinterpret the Christian faith as it has been handed down to us. But when it comes to the essence of that faith, for instance, what I’ll talk about today—the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—I think Christians can claim that they have the most rational way of seeing what life is all about. But I hold to this in a very non dogmatic way. We need to be above all self-critical about our Christian faith, which often gets things terribly wrong. Even when we are right, I think there are many possible ways to be right as a Christian. There can be no one and only way to explain what it means to be a Christian; it won’t fit in any one box. And we need to appreciate that there are good reasons why others have rejected Christianity as it’s been understood and practiced. And we need to appreciate, I think, that there is great truth and insight and validity to other faiths and to non-religious understandings of reality. That’s a lot to take in, but I’ve been at it for years and it hasn’t at all weakened my Christian faith, although my faith has been altered. What a shame that some of our Christian cousins find it necessary to think that everyone else is wrong, and that Christians alone have the truth. Now, did you notice in the John reading, what blockheads Thomas and Phillip were? And they were Jesus own disciples. Why do some followers today think they are so much smarter?

So I am your guide on this “life for others” journey, and we aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims. So I’ve got a strong sense of where that journey will hopefully lead, even though I don’t expect we’ll all get there in seven weeks or seventy years, including me: but I hope that we’ll all come to see more and more that the God of Jesus Christ is our ultimate ground, and way, and hope for the “life for others” that we believe in as the shape of a good life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said; I hope we all come to see and understand that better and better. Today I want to talk about, by reference to our scripture readings, why God is the ultimate ground of our life for others, the God of Jesus Christ. And so confessing and worshipping this God of Jesus Christ is essential to our life for others. A few of us might think that it would be better if we were just out there right now, helping others.

Well, we can’t be life for others if we are just holed up in here, worshipping (although we do pray for others). But without worship we will not have the feeling of gratitude to spur us to help others; and we won’t have the confidence that comes when we realize that life for others is grounded the divine will for the universe. On our readings for today, we have two versions of how to connect the God we worship to our life for others.

In the gospel of John, we get a command from God. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works that these.” Two weeks ago we talked about how Jesus is the very embodiment of life for others, and that means all others, regardless of their worthiness. Jesus commanded and inspired his disciples to live for others as well. But before they encountered him raised from the dead, alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, they were not yet 100% on board. Phillips says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” O gee, that’s all. We just want to see God. Has Phillip forgotten that the Bible repeatedly, including in John chapter 6, has God say: “No one shall see me and live.” So Jesus could have chastised Phillip for even desiring to see God. But instead he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

In these innocent little sentences are found all the riches and perplexities of the Christian faith. It is one thing to believe that Jesus was a wise teacher. But here he is saying that what we encounter in him is not just a human teacher but the personification of God, insofar as we can see God. Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am the Father.” That would violate the whole Trinitarian view of God, and it would sound too Darth Vader. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Jesus shows us God in a way that is personally recognizable, without exhausting all the mystery and beyond-ness of God.

Trying to explain the Trinity caused no end of trouble for the early church; and things are hardly better today. But Jesus so simply and perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the Trinity with his one word, “in.” Jesus and the Father are not identical, but they are in one another. And the mystery of our union with God is likewise contained in that “in.” “Believe in God, believe also in me,” Jesus said. “Amen amen I say to you,” so says the Greek; or in our version, “Very truly I say to you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Faith in or belief in does not mean assenting to certain claims about who Jesus is, or who God is. “To believe in” means our lives are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, as Jesus also is in the Father and the Father is in him. Our life is in God, through Christ. That is why we can most truly live life for others—because we are in God and God is in us.

And God is most perfectly life for others. We all tend to picture God as some remote but beneficent dictator, ruling from on high. But the more the church thought about this passage in John and about the Trinity, the more we realized that God’s eternal being, even apart from creation, is life for others. The inner life of God is not solitary, but is like the relation of a parent and child. There is an eternal begetting in God, an eternal expression of an other in God. So we don’t just say God is “loving,” we say, “God is love.” Within God’s own being, that is, there is eternal love between the Father and Son, or, since we are expressing a great mystery high above us, we might say a love between God the invisible origin and God completed expression. Or, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So when I say that, most fundamentally, God is life for others, I mean that as a definition of God’s own life and being. There is a one another in God. (Sometimes I’m so glad I don’t have to take questions while I preach.)

So, in John’s version of things, God has been revealed as life for others by Jesus, who has shown us the Father. We see something rather different in Paul’s famous speech in Athens, as reported in Acts. Paul never mentions Jesus until the very end, and then only by allusion to the coming judgment by Jesus that has been guaranteed by his resurrection. He barely mentions Jesus at all, let alone the Trinity. Instead, Paul talks about how near to everyone God is. God is so near that the pagan Athenians already know God, in a way. Paul quotes their poets as saying, “In him [there’s that “in” again]; In him we live and move and have our being”—that last line is beautifully poetic, but the Greek just says, “In him we live and move and are,” we are in God. And the Athenians poets have also said, “For we too are God’s offspring.” Now, Paul is making much the same point that Christians otherwise make using the Trinity: God is in us and we are in God. Paul didn’t demand that his audience believes in Jesus and that Jesus is God and the whole Trinity thing. They already in fact know they are in God and God is in them.

And this God, Paul declares, is life for others. He puts it this way: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, the Athenians have clearly lost the simplicity of the message about life for others amid a plethora of temples and multiple gods and idols. But in this respect we are not so different from they. Earlier, Acts describes them this way: “The Athenians…would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Sounds familiar? But despite their flaws, Paul manages to find an in with the Athenians (there’s that “in” again!). He finds an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” Among all their idols, they worshipped also an unknown God. Paul sees in that confession of what they did not know about God an opening to faith. And so we also may do well to speak openly about the God we do not know.   Because we might miss the God who is life for others, all others, if we know only the God who is life for us, on whom we expect to do this and that for us. You all are here to get something from God, right? Maybe that’s your idol, the god you have housed in a “shrine made of human hands,” “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Erect then also an altar to the God you do not yet know, for God is life for others, not just God for you, and God is calling you to be life for others, too.

And in fact, the Trinity that Jesus called forth, when he said that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, for he is in the father and the father is in him—this God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already erected this altar to an unknown God for us. For the Father who is life for others in the Son, and who is also our life for others when we put our life in him, when we believe in him—this Father whom we have seen in the Son is also not the Son. We have seen the Father in person in the Son, but the Father also remains unseen in himself. We know God is life for others as our Triune God, but still in the heart of this triune God is a mystery we do not know. And that’s good. For it keeps the “other” in our life for others. We may think that we know all about being for others, but we have not finished discovering which others we are going to be for, or understanding just how other they are, how unlike us; and we do not yet fully know how to be for them. As we rededicate ourselves to living a life for others this Easter, let us pay our respects at the altar to an unknown other.


Epiphany: “Come See Your Union with God”

The main insight here–that Jesus shows us who we really are–owes a lot to Robert Scharlemann (The Reason of Following) and Karl Barth (“His story is our story.”)  But the insight fits particularly well at Epiphany, rather than Ordinary Time especially.  

Matthew 3:13-17

Today we celebrate Epiphany, which is the concluding side of the Christmas season. If Christmas basks in the shear event of God uniting with humanity in Jesus, Epiphany draws that out the meaning of that union: what does it mean for Jesus to show us God? And it can be a time for us to reckon with all those hopes and expectations we expressed in Advent, some of which might need to be revised and reshaped now that Christ is come. You realize now that you got the best present ever on Christmas morning, but as you consider this unexpected gift, you might need to go back to your wish list and figure out why you asked for those things that are not Jesus. And that may take some time.

But let’s focus today on that first question: what does it mean for Jesus to show us God? It means God has commenced a new unity with all of humanity. The message of Jesus’ birth is not just, “Lucky Jesus,” or “Lucky Joseph and Mary.” It’s “Lucky us! Lucky all of us.” It is Peace on Earth and Good will to all! God has taken up residence with us on our planet, and that is valid for all times, including our time, including even times before Jesus—something that is mind-boggling. But it actually happened and can best be seen—Epiphany means show forth—in Jesus’ time and person. So in Epiphany we turn back to the story of Jesus to begin to see—again, as if from scratch—what it looks like when God and humanity get together and do things right.

We look to Jesus to see our humanity united with God. And that is going to really twist our minds about who we are. What Epiphany means for us is that who we are, most essentially and truly, is not something happening now. It happened long ago. Our story is not properly ours. It doesn’t feature me and you as the key characters. Our story is God’s story, and it features Jesus as the protagonist.

This will seem strange to us. We are so used to tell-all autobiographies and biographies. We are used to thinking that everyone has a unique story, and everyone is the author of her own life. We live in a world of self-made individuals.

But Epiphany is getting at the truth about us that lies deeper than what I’ve done. And the idea that our story not be about “me” is really not that strange. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are instructed to present their offerings to the priest, as we did back in November, and to tell the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites, as if it happened to me: “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord bought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.” Or when we tell the story of who we are as Americans, we talk about our “founding fathers” and some mothers, as if they were our literal parents. So it’s not completely weird to tell a story about who you are without any reference to yourself as a character.

Epiphany is telling us that God’s story about humanity—and us—in Jesus is more important and more real than our personal “me” stories. Now don’t worry; God will give you your story too. God embraces and loves your story—where you grew up, the choices you made, your struggles, your joys. And I’m going to devote Lent to helping you bring God into your personal story and daily life. But your story is not going to save anybody, except maybe you. Only the story of Jesus becomes a story capable of saving all of humanity—so the Bible believes.

Because the story about Jesus is the story we look to as Christians for a definitive picture of who God is when humanity is properly united with God. (Now, “union with God” may sound very mystical. It can be. May you all be filled at some time or another with an overwhelming sense of being one with God. A great scholar of religion, Houston Smith, died just last Sunday. He believed mystical union with the absolute was at the core of all religions; and then he had Timothy Leary give him mushrooms to help him attain that union. But you don’t need drugs. Union with God mostly looks like everyday life, not trippy. Even Jesus didn’t hear God’s voice booming from the sky on most days. Mostly his life happened on a normal human stage, among the fear, sweat, and chuckles we are familiar with; but Jesus lived human life on the edge, breaking open people around him to life that was raw and direct and honest before God. That is union with God, Jesus style.)

Jesus is divine and human, which means, Jesus reveals to us God and humanity when they come together in truth. And so in the coming weeks we’ll see Jesus live out our life for us. Jesus is baptized, because he is doing human life right, or as he says, he is fulfilling “all righteousness.” And then he begins proclaiming the Gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God—because Jesus wasn’t just about Jesus; he is dedicated to the order or realm that he points to. And he really enacts this realm as a community that he gathers around himself. And so he begins to call his disciples. The story is not just about Jesus, it is about the fellowship that has Jesus as its focal point. And so we can more easily see ourselves in this story by identifying with the disciples, since they were not so perfect and so lordly.

And so starting in Epiphany we are looking again to the story of Jesus to get a sense of who we really are, as individuals and as a church. But that doesn’t mean we are just reading a story far removed from us. It’s not like seeing a play by Shakespeare to derive some incisive truth about what humanity is; at the end of Hamlet you say, “Ah the humanity!” Jesus isn’t just a beautiful story that we marvel at. His story impinges on our story. It makes a claim on us. It says, Here is your savior; now this is what life really looks like. You can’t help but hear the implicit rejoinder: and what are you going to do about it?   His story whispers to us, between the lines: “Your life apart from this story is at best just another story. Hopefully, your life apart from Jesus is a story of an ordinary human being that is doing some good, and not too much harm. At worst, your story may be a mess, a lie, and a travesty of humanity, set woefully at odds with God.

Now, you might hesitate before accepting the story of God in Jesus as your primary story. Jesus lived so long ago; and the world is so different today. So I hear people say, “We need to update the story of the Bible for today.” True enough. We don’t need the biblical story to explain for us how all the species of animals arose, or to tell us what maleness looks like and what femaleness looks like, as if those ideas of male and female should never change. And going even further, we need to challenge the biblical story on its own terms. (Matthew’s Gospel really stretches the details to make them fulfill Old Testament texts. At the end of chapter two, he has Jesus go to Nazareth because of a prophet who said, “He will be called a Nazorean.” But that clearly refers to the Nazorite vow, and is spelled differently from the two Nazareth. Just for instance.) But: if you want to see what salvation looks like, what things look like when God and humanity come together the way they are supposed to—even though it may have happened long ago and in a very different culture—then you do not want to try to just look around you. God and humanity are not perfectly in sync in Granby—as if you could just feast your eyes on it! I mean, it’s a nice town and all, with a lot going for it. But this town is messed up, like pretty much every town everywhere. And we are doing this town and ourselves a terrible disservice if we see the church’s job to just bless our town with assurances that this is God’s country, as they say. We do our town a disservice if we don’t confess to ourselves and offer to our neighbors another model, one different from what we see around us, for what it looks like when humanity lives rightly, and in union with God. And we need the story of Jesus to be that model. We have to interpret and reconstruct the model of Jesus, that picture of Godly humanity. Because scripture is not perfect; it’s human. But we, stuck in the midst of a flawed world and distorted culture, desperately need a word of God to come upon us from outside, and Scripture is the most readily available source for that outside word. Because if we just rely on good ol’ Granby wisdom, we are going to miss out on true God and humanity togetherness.

So the story of Jesus is our real story, one that makes a claim on us and that we need to hear. So as we take another look at this story, we will rightly be thinking about—not who I am in all my complexities, or who you are, or even who this church is in the complexities of our neighborhood and world today—although we should never stop thinking about that. But we will rightly think about who we are essentially as a church.

And so, as we look afresh at the story of Jesus, this is also a time to think carefully, me and you, about our ministry together. You’ve known me for more than a year. We’ve hit our first bump in the road. That forum on the flag didn’t go so well. It got several of you worried about my leadership from the pulpit; some of you respectfully told me that I am being too political from the pulpit. I think I’ve been misunderstood on that score, but I will be very careful. I appreciate the honest concerns as well as the expressions of support. But I do not want to create a rift between supporters and detractors—“Are you with the pastor or against him?” I want to bring a word that brings us together, not by saying what everyone wants to hear, but by bringing us all to unity in Christ. My installation is coming: Sunday, February 5th. When I finally start my official, acknowledged and blessed ministry here, I want to bring us together in Christ, and grow from that very potent, fearsome unity.

So we need to work towards clarity, both you and I, on what we are going to do together. I came to this church with a strong vision, one received warmly by the search committee, who were looking for vision, not just maintenance. I’m still adjusting that vision to make it fit here. I’ve been helpfully reminded to keep it as plain as possible; I think I’ve just read way too many books in too small an area. So I need to keep working on having a conversation with you in this room, not with all the books I’ve read. That’s one of my weaknesses as a pastor. And I’m still adjusting my vision to where you are as a congregation. But I hope you will own up, like I do, both as individuals and as a congregation, to the fact that you are not at the end of your Christian journey. Because otherwise there is nowhere for us to go together.

So that vision that is going to be installed here is still coming into focus. I need to formulate and adjust it so that most of you can consider it and decide for yourselves how you want to respond. Where I see this church going won’t be exactly what some of you have in mind; but be assured, whether you take instantly to my vision or resist it, I will always be your pastor and companion in your own faith journey. And I won’t drag this church in a direction we are not ready to go.

Let me today just talk about something very basic to my vision for this church. I believe that when you come to church you should experience something really powerful. Not just a modest pick-me-up, a little boost or mild assurance. If that’s what you get, it doesn’t sound to me like the Creator and Deliverer and Lord of all; one God, almighty and glorious and awesome to behold. What you get in church should be earth-shaking, even if some days it doesn’t rock your world and pretty much looks like ordinary human life. But every Sunday God ought to be touching your deepest concerns. I know many of you have serious personal concerns; and I know many of you have grave fears for our world, for America and for the future. Good! Not that God encourages us to be full of fear, pessismism, and to be sure, paranoia about the forces of destruction all around us. God has got a message of comfort and confidence about this world, because God loves this world and has pledged himself to it by being humbly born in its midst. But the way to that comfort and confidence is found by bringing all your deepest fears and problems before God. God can’t unite with your problems and your fears and overcome them if you don’t bring them to God. God isn’t going to overcome our problems if we bring them before the New York Times editorial page instead. Or Sean Hannity. Or Facebook. Or by gossiping, whether in person or via your favorite feel-good web site. Bring your fears and your problems before God, because God, in uniting with Jesus, has in effect said, “We’re going to deal with this, you and me—all those who follow my son.” / I don’t know how exactly God is going to deal with our problems. Some things might be judged, some pardoned. Some things purged, others purified. Some things blessed, others cursed. But God-with-us is going to deal with them, so bring ‘em here, bring them into this story and let God deal with them. And it all begins when a voice from heaven and a dove from the sky descend on this Son of Man and tell us, as one, “We’re all here. Let’s go.”