3rd in Lent (3/3): What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Religion?

A challenging topic, which some might have found off-putting.  It was an interesting message to preach right in front of the communion table, however. 

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

We heard the Ten Commandments read from Exodus. Now, people make a big deal out of the 10 commandments, and some have tried to post them in public places, to make them some official moral code. Others are content with the commandments as an insightful personal guideline for living a moral life. All these folk are thinking mostly of the last five commandments: honor your parents, don’t murder, cheat on your spouse, steal, slander someone, or scheme about getting your hands on your neighbor’s stuff. Do we really need a divine revelation about these matters? Sure, some people break these commandments; but I can’t imagine they have no inkling that they shouldn’t. Because most cultures, most religions agree about all these commandments. And that’s great.  But for that reason, these five commandments don’t seem very revelatory to me. They seem like common sense. And I’m just not inclined to pat myself on the back because I follow five common sense moral principles.

But the first five commandments, which many pass over to get to the common sense second five, are where I think things get really interesting, really revelatory. These commandments show us that some of the most important sinning that we do is nothing so obvious as murder; real sinning happens precisely when we are being religious. And this is revelatory, because don’t we imagine that things like prayer and praising God’s name are good, pious, honorable things to do? Aren’t we inclined to think well of someone who attends church regularly and prays often; but we are suspicious of someone who observes no religion, even if that person otherwise seems like a good person? (In polls, Americans have ranked atheists among the least favorable groups; in one scenario, an atheist was deemed equally as untrustworthy as a rapist.)

God apparently doesn’t agree. God in the Bible is much more concerned about those who misuse religion than about those who have no religion. Idolatry is a bigger problem than atheism. In our prejudiced minds, we might hear the word “idolatry” and imagine some primitive “native” bowing down to a little statue. But Amos, in our call to worship, was talking about Israel’s idolatry. And we have to wonder if his hard words could apply to us, the New Israel. An idol is simply any part of our religion—it doesn’t have to be a little statue; it could be an idea, or value, or practice—that comes from our small minds, not from God’s Spirit. And we all do this. Who here has not inserted something of your own wishes and imagination into your view of God? We all commit idolatry, even if in little ways.

And in the words of Exodus, “we make wrongful use of the name of the Lord.” In Sunday school, right, we learned this as “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain,” and it meant do use God in swear words. (I can still remember my Sunday school teacher demonstrating, very self-consciously and tentatively, a swear word using “God.”) That’s not it. This commandment is about claiming to speak for God when you don’t. The ancient Israelites understood, better than we, that is not wise to throw the word “God” around. They understood that God’s name is holy. And it should be obvious who in this room is most in danger of claiming to speak for God when you don’t: me! I guess that’s why you spend so much of our budget on me, because I bear the occupational hazard of making wrongful use of God’s name; and notice Exodus says, “The Lord will not acquit anyone who makes wrongful use of his name.” My goodness, you people have led me to sell my soul!

In his book God Against Religion, my friend Matt Boulton notes that, at the beginning of the Bible, there is no temple or worship in Eden, and at the end of the Bible, no temple in the New Jerusalem of Revelation. “Religion,” he writes, “far from being the happy solution to the basic human crisis of separation from God, is rather the very occasion for that crisis in the first place.” Religion done wrong is what most separates us from God, and religion is always done at least a little wrong.

So our question this week is this: Must we give up our religion to follow Jesus Christ? We have all this religious stuff that we do. Images we have for God, things we say about God and to God, prayers we fall back on, values that we assume are based on God, rituals we perform. How much of all that religious stuff might be misguided? How much of that might be idolatry? (Because there doesn’t seem to be much neutral ground when it comes to God.) This religious stuff might be the stuff God most requires us to change.

Jesus himself demonstrates out this cleansing of religion in today’s reading from John. He’s not a Christian criticizing “those Jews,” he’s purging his own established religion, the only true religion of his day, of its corruption. He pointedly commands: “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” We can only imagine what Jesus would do if he came in here. Would he overturn our tables, and pour out our collection baskets? Maybe he’s exclaim: “Hey, nice windows. Smart investment there.” Who knows? He wouldn’t drive out our sacrificial animals because no one has those anymore. But do you know that religious scholars commonly refer to America as sporting a “marketplace of religion”—that’s the idea that churches have to compete like businesses to attract “consumers” of religion. You’ve heard the expression “church shopping,” right? And of course the customer is always right; if you don’t like what you hear, you can pull out and go elsewhere. It’s not all bad, I suppose; this marketplace of religion keeps churches on their toes. But in our own way we’ve absolutely made our Father’s house into a marketplace.

At the end of the passage, Jesus cryptically refers to the temple of his own body as a replacement for the temple in Jerusalem. This idea is absolutely critical for how Christians think of worship, but it’s so deep we can barely begin to understand it. We don’t have a temple. We don’t believe God resides in this building, as such. The closest we come to that is what we will do momentarily: communion. Jesus promised his continual presence with us in this meal; this [gesture] is our ultimate assurance that we have access to God through the stuff of worship, even the material stuff of bread and drink. And that could invite idolatry. But the presence of Jesus and of God in this meal is shrouded in mystery; to claim, as many do, that the bread becomes Jesus’ actual body and the juice his blood, I think is way too literal, a little ghoulish, and maybe even idolatrous. Christ is present in this meal but we can hardly say how. Consider this: Before we partake, we’ll say together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That’s basically like saying Christ is present to us as a past story that culminated in his death; and Christ is present now in God’s eternal beyond, risen; and also Christ is not yet fully here, but will come again. This ancient saying points to just how complex and mysterious is Christ’s presence in our worship. Christ is no idol; he remains quite beyond us.

Through most of the year, we rightly emphasize Christ’s risen presence to us, and our presence to him before the Father. Communion can even be our momentary elevation into God’s heavenly banquet. But today, in Lent, we are right to recall that this meal that we share with God is also a reception of God’s judgment upon us—the bread that had to be broken for us, the cup that had to be poured out. In Corinthians, right after Paul recites the words of institution, which we will hear later, he adds this: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. …But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”

Lent is the right time to judge ourselves, to discipline ourselves, and when we do so truly, it is Christ who judges us. We have to recognize our worship of God as both this gracious access we have to God, which even makes us partakers in God’s own eternal life; but we each have to judge how we use religion, and seek to purify our religion, because religion is also the most serious source of our sinfulness. Maybe our religion is too much about me, and not enough about God. Maybe we picture God as too stern; or maybe we do not rightly honor God’s holiness. We certainly shouldn’t fall back on the old refrain: we’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.  And this judging of ourselves is part of God’s good gift of true worship, which is only made possible because of our Lord. Only in Christ Jesus, our Mediator, can we conceive of being fully one with God in righteousness, even while we are condemned and judged in our sinfulness. Most decisively on the cross, Jesus has brought together God’s mercy and judgment, and because of that we worship him as our true spiritual food and drink.

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Second in Lent (2/25): “What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Connectivity?”

Moses photo

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Mark 8:31-38

Last week, I asked whether we should become more aware of our mortality. I suggested that we should, if doing so makes us more aware of others. Our life projects—the way we attend to our plans, ambitions, schedules and so forth—can make us oblivious of others. Becoming aware of our mortality, and the inevitable limit to our life projects, can open us up to the suffering and joys of others. But by the grace of Christ, of course, we don’t have to give up our own lives and live only for others; and we are given a way to accept our mortality without becoming trapped in anxiety, for in Christ we need no longer fear death.

For this week, I had a very different thought. Many of us are, in fact, more connected with others than ever before, so much so that real solitude no longer exists. Through traditional news media, we are daily engrossed in the stories of all kinds of people, all over the world. And through the newer social media, we can keep up with the stories from all kinds of distant relatives, old friends, former classmates. We can also connect with like-minded people whom we otherwise don’t know, or indulge our passion for a flame war with a faceless nemesis.

This is our so-called “connectivity.” We are connected, but I want to propose that this is not the same thing as being supported within the bonds of community or of love. In fact, I think connectivity is manifestly inferior to community—at its best. So why do so many find ‘virtual’ connections so much more attractive than the old-fashioned bonds of community? Well, we can blame the technology to some extent. The power of point and click makes you feel like you are really in control, a feeling of control that you never get when you are facing a real, living human being. When we hook up to a network, we remain individually in control and at the center. The network makes no demands on us, it is there to magnify my individuality. So I can go online and find a tribe to echo my all quirky personal preferences. A foody jazz lover who likes pretentious conversation and disdains pop culture and pro sports—sure! We’ve got a tribe for that. And this can be fun. It can also be a lifeline to people in a small town like ours with marginal identities—people who are not straight, or not white, or whatever. But nevertheless, networks are all about magnifying your own identity. The network makes other people into a resource that I can consume. And at the bottom of it all is profit. Companies like Twitter and Facebook feed our desire for networking for no other goal but profit. There are no ads in face-to-face communication (yet); no one makes money off of it. Connectivity is profitable.

So you end up with people choosing to network in a way that puts them in control, rather than accepting the self-limiting joys of face to face community. Ever go out to dinner and see a couple or even a whole family, each on a device, instead of talking with one another? Oh Jessica and I love to wag our tongues. But before we get all self-righteously indignant, I remember going out to awkward dinners as a teen with my parents where silence predominated, as my mind wandered off elsewhere. I would have loved to have had an iPhone back then. Let’s admit that some of the blame lies with us. We have failed to nurture the kind of love and community that provides an attractive alternative to “connectivity.”

This is an absolutely vital calling for the church. We are committed to face-to-face relationships. The church wisely bases itself in a real space, where we can gather in person, in our bodies; a beautiful space is nice, but some space regardless. We can’t just text a Thanks to God. We need to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God. And only by all of us being wholly here, in our bodies, can we really be one body, one community.

We are a family, not a network. And there is something humbling and grounding about saying: these people, in the flesh, are my family. It is humbling, and it can be a little constricting, but the rewards are so much greater than however many likes and re-tweets you rack up online. Because we aren’t each here to magnify ourselves; we are here to magnify God and to find our true glory in God. When we join our voices together in song and prayer, we become one body that is bigger than any one of us. Once people burn out on trying to engineer their own networked family online, they will come back to the virtues of flesh and blood community, and we will be here to welcome them. //

I suppose Jesus could have secluded himself on a mountain, like the mount of transfiguration we read about two weeks ago. He could have carried out his ministry by the ancient version of tweeting—allowing one or two disciples to visit him up in the mist, who would carry down his sayings to the people below, like God did with Moses on Mt. Sinai. But God was done with that stone tablet tweeting. God wanted to put God’s being in the flesh and bones of a human person, and be with and among the people, even if it carried great risk. So Jesus taught openly, and we read about him mixing with his disciples and the ordinary people, but also his enemies who would destroy him.

Yet even his disciples are not always Jesus’ best friends. They, like us, are constantly flubbing Jesus’ message. So today we see Peter, face to face with Jesus, flub it. Jesus tries to pass on to his disciples a difficult truth, that he must suffer and die. And Peter, who is no dutiful delivery boy like Moses, gets in Jesus’ face, and rebukes him. Now, hearing this story, I don’t think Peter is there for us to approve one moment, and scold the next. The Bible isn’t really about these characters who lived long ago. Instead, try reading yourself into the Bible. And this week, Peter stands for the best of us. We are the disciples who invoke Jesus’ name and presence, and we confess him to be the Christ. And we are the ones who tempt Jesus. Remember last week, how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, but we got no details from Mark. In today’s story, Mark has news for us: we are Satan (Ha-satan in Hebrew just means the Accuser or Tester). Like Peter, we get it O so right one moment, and O so wrong the next. It’s like the closer you are to Jesus, the more wrong you can get it.

This is true for us. When we leaders of the church get together, we who love the church so much that we give our time and effort tirelessly to it, we also get it wrong. One moment we say, God is all about grace and love and selfless giving. The next moment we are saying things like: “Are we getting our bang for our buck? Or: What are we getting out of giving these scholarships and goods to the needy? Or, how are we going to get those deadbeats to pony up? Or: we better set some policies; otherwise people will get something for nothing.” It’s understandable. When you are placed in charge of maintaining the church as an institution, these kinds of questions are hard to avoid.  They are a temptation.  And when Peter rebuked Jesus, he was probably just thinking, how are we going to maintain this movement if our leader has to suffer and die? He was so concerned with Jesus being successful that he was willing to tell Jesus to shut up. Understandable though it is, the only answer can be: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Notice that Jesus said this while turning and looking at his disciples; he’s not talking just to Peter, but to all of us.

But unlike Judas, Peter is saved. Judas stealthily betrayed Jesus, conspiring with Jesus’s enemies while pretending to be loyal and contented, apparently. Judas would have loved texting. He could just follow along behind Jesus as he preached, tweeting out fake news and quotes taken out of context, all under the hashtag, #crucifyhim! / So Peter was a true disciple not because he always got it right, but because when he wanted to deny Jesus, he did it to his face. And he didn’t run away when Jesus harshly corrected him.

So, do we have to give up our connectivity to follow Jesus? Well, completely giving up all communication mediated by devices would be almost impossible for some of us. But what we do here has to be face to face. We have to ready to face another’s face that doesn’t know what to say, that has only sighs too deep for words, that sheds tears, that needs a hug. I’ll take that over the flames, the pretentious witticisms, and the humble bragging of Facebook. Several of you cut back on Facebook and have reported feeling more alive and at peace. Good. If you are spending lots of time on social media, Lent can be your time to repent and change your ways. Then you can invest more in communities like ours, based on face to face, honest to God relationships. If you are not on social media, you can commit yourself to making us truer to our face to face community, because that is what the world needs today.

So much for social media. What about our connectedness to the news media? I’ve preached and written before that we should unplug from our media networks so we can focus on our local community, where we can make real and effective changes. Corporate news media want us to believe that only the big, hot button issues matter. They want us all to watch these massive, global issues unfold day by day, so they can make their ad money, while we feel powerless. Do we need to give up our connectivity to follow Jesus? Well, we who are news junkies should unplug at least a little and get back to our embodied reality in community.

But not completely. We shouldn’t have to focus on Granby, and ignore the rest of the world. Jesus and his disciples had their sights also set on the larger world. We should care about, pray about, and work to effect at least small changes in our larger world. And we are part of a world-wide communion of churches that can really do this. In our day, we must rely on the news media to learn about our larger world. The problem is, we can hardly touch that news media without contaminating this community with all the bad forces of division that dominate the media. Consumers of news more and more live in silos in which we only hear what we already agree with. It is causing a growing polarization in our country, and is threatening our democratic order. That polarization is already here in this room. Just try bringing up President Trump, whom we can hardly avoid.

Paul asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the debater of this age?” He didn’t have the word “pundit,” or “talking head,” but he might as well be talking about the folks who flood our news media. The worst of these folks never have something thoughtful or surprising to say. They never come off as vulnerable or searching. Not your Anne Coulters or Bill Mahers. They say exactly the kind of things you expect and want them to say. We like to watch them because they take our narrow prejudices and parrot them back to us, but making them sound more savvy and cocksure than we could ourselves. They are there to assure us that everything that is wrong with the world is really the fault of those people, again! And we like to hear our own small minds aggrandized. It’s all about power. We feel weak, and unsure, and so we latch on to some talking head that makes us feel sure and powerful. That’s just what Jesus didn’t do for Peter.   But appealing to our weakness and fear is what counts for wisdom with our consumerist news media, who are driven ultimately by profit, not by the search for truth.

Hear Paul’s words for today: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” For Republicans demand loyalty, and Democrats desire sophistication, but “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block” to those who each in their own way are driven by power, but to those who are called, both Republicans and Democrats, “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Paul is talking about the cross here, the cross that lies at the end of our Lenten journey. Jesus’ acceptance of the cross is God’s way of saying, Even if I’m right I do not count success and power as the ultimate goal. The wisdom of the cross is a humility that insists on loving even an enemy who is terribly wrong. You won’t hear that on the news media. And I’m afraid you won’t even hear it in a lot of churches.

So when it comes to the news media, we each have to discipline ourselves. Our minds have been entrusted with the wisdom of God. We are not at liberty to fill our minds with junk. Ginette found this nifty guide to news media bias, which has been used in college courses on journalism, so we put it on the back of your sermon guide. Toward the top are the media sources that are more fact-based and responsible, even if they are still identifiably liberal or conservative. Toward the bottom and sides are sources like Huffington Post and Fox News, that are very partisan and sometimes not responsible sources of information. Good journalism is a noble calling that we should honor and treasure. It doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear. And that’s good! True wisdom is not about what magnifies you and makes you feel secure and strong. The wisdom that fosters repentance is about fasting, not about doing what feels good. Your mind is a holy vessel that God has claimed and set apart for God’s wisdom. Don’t feed it junk food. Feed it what is wholesome and good for building up you, and our church community, in truth.

Resources:

To see the chart I refer to:  Media Bias chart

Another useful link

And another

Questions for further thought:

Are you willing to reduce your time on social media for Lent?

 

Consider the media chart available through the link. Where are the news sources you rely on? Would you consider changing your media habits, as a form of repentance?

 

Some people might respond: “It’s nobody’s business but mine what news I watch. I have a right to watch whatever I like. That has nothing to do with my faith.” Do you agree? Why might someone of faith see a problem with this view?

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.

 

 

 

Second in Ordinary/Baptism of Christ (January 14). First in Love of God series: “Jesus the Beloved”

 

Gen 1:1-5 ; Mark 1:4-11

I promised a series on the Love of God during Advent. Nothing so encapsulates who we are and what we are about as a church as the Love of God. So the Love of God gives us a point to rally around and in which to find our unity; this is just what we need as we approach our annual meeting. And yet the mystery that underlies the love of God is bottomless. (So I haven’t figured out how long this series will go!)

Most of us agree that love is central to who God is, and also that Jesus has something important to do with God’s love. But we might not be sure or agree about what that is. So I want to take this sermon series to rethink God’s love through Jesus. Today I want to explore how Jesus holds together God’s love with God’s justice.

That point is important to make, for when we hear the “Love of God,” many of us will hear in that phrase a contrast to the justice of God. Love and justice are opposite, we might think. Love forgives, justice punishes. There’s some truth to that. But then we end up with a God who is two-faced. As if sometimes God is loving, other times God judges and punishes. How then can we sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with its line, “There is no shadow of turning in thee?” I think we’ve made a mistake. I think that the deeper into God’s love you penetrate, the more you find it united to God’s judgment; and vice versa.

Now, part of the reason we think love and justice are different is that we assume love means affirming someone as she is. (We believe this: “Wherever you are…” We are open and affirming.) Well that’s good; giving affirmation to others is for us a vital and important component of love. Now, we also happen to live in an era in which many believe self-affirmation and high self-esteem are the surest ticket to human goodness. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” (No, that’s not in the Bible. That’s secular wisdom, and we should be wary of it.)

On the other hand, we assume judgment means disapproving of someone as he is. And we try to avoid judging people; we associate judging with being judgmental, and truly that is a bad quality, in part because being judgmental means we are assuming the authority to sum up everything someone is and pronounce approval or disapproval. To do so is to put ourselves in God’s place. But God reminds us: vengeance is mine. So for us, we rightly love and affirm a lot, but judge and disapprove a little or never (I hope). Love and judging are very different.

But are they so different in God? Are love and judgment in God mutually exclusive like this? Or have we taken our human idea of love and justice and projected them onto God; God who said, “My ways are not your ways.” Have we said, well, if loving for me means affirming people as they are, then when God loves us, God must affirm us as we are? And God wouldn’t judge us, right? After all, the least God can do is to live up to our standards of good behavior.

Well, we should ask ourselves whether God’s love must have this same quality of affirmation and self-esteem building that has become popular in the last 40 years. Perhaps we’ve concluded that God must love us by making us feel good about who we are. And then we’ve concluded that since God loves like that, like a good parent who never says anything negative, then God can’t possibly be a judging God. And so we’ve ended up with the idea that love and judgment are simply opposed, and God can’t both be loving and just, in the sense of condemning what is wrong in us, or even just showing us that our glory lies still in our future.

And then we become very puzzled by Scripture. The Bible just doesn’t say that God loves us by affirming who we are. So we resort to dividing the Bible up between the good parts and the bad parts. (Now I am the first to admit that there are some bad parts of the Bible, at least parts that are very troubling and don’t seem useful.) And so doesn’t just about everyone say, The God of the Old Testament is a judging God, but the God of the NT is loving. I hear that all the time. It’s a little dangerous because it can go in an anti-Jewish direction, recalling my sermons from last August, as if the Jewish God is the bad, judging God. But it’s also just patently false. God is loving in both testaments; and God justly judges in both testaments. Even a quick reading of the Gospels will show you a Jesus who is very critical of his society’s religious leaders, even of “this whole generation;” and he is also quick to rebuke his disciples.  Our idea of a meek and mild Jesus who just wants to make everyone feel good is a myth—an idol.

So it seems we have placed our limited and faulty idea of /what love is/ upon God; we’ve remade God in our image. And that is how God’s people from the very first have so easily found themselves worshipping an idol instead of the true God. The true God is not divided; God is never forced to choose between being loving and just. God is one, even if God looks one way rather than another to our fallen little minds. But the more we immerse ourselves in God’s wholeness, or the more we ascend into God’s infinite and eternal being, the more we can perceive the oneness of God, the sameness of God’s love and justice.   Of course, none of us ever rises to perfectly see God in this way.

So thank God we have Jesus our Christ to guide our weak powers of perception, and to protect us from our tendency toward recasting God into our limited image of God. As I said last week, by the incarnation in Jesus the Christ, God showed God’s own infinite being to us in a way we could grasp and live with. If God hadn’t shrunk himself to our size in a way that still contained God’s whole and infinite being, then we would inevitably do so for ourselves, shrinking God into a idol that we can handle, thereby losing the God who is truly our Lord, and never the other way around.

It is Jesus the Christ who holds together all that God is, including both love and justice, in a way that brings us life. In Christ we are loved and forgiven by God, yes; but also in him we are truly judged and our flaws and sin are made known and purged away.

I want try to be very clear on this difficult point about Jesus. He is not just a delivery person for the good gifts of God. He doesn’t show up at our door and drop off good things from God, certainly not things like wealth and success, as some Christians persist in believing, but not even the gifts that are unquestionably good, like our Advent virtues of hope, love, joy, and peace. Jesus doesn’t present these to us like a passage which then becomes our property, receiving our thanks and perhaps a tip, and then we add these goods to our other valued items like family, prosperity, meaningful careers, and so on. Neither is baptism a conveyer of gifts which we then own, whether we think of the gifts as salvation, forgiveness, or even meaningful ‘spiritual experiences.’ Of course we do experience tangible benefits from faith in Christ, although if we lived in a different time or place we might just as easily experience persecution and suffering for our faith. If Jesus just delivered the goods to us as our property, and if baptism in his name just magically conveyed some powers or benefits to us, we wouldn’t need to read and ponder so much about his life, about the things he did and said. We could just talk about our own experiences of God’s benefits, with a nod to Jesus our delivery man.

Here’s the way it really is: the blessings we have from Jesus all come second to, and indeed grow out of, the blessing we have in Jesus. That is, the greatest blessing we receive, and the principle blessing of baptism, is that we die to ourselves and now live our life in Jesus the Christ. Now, this is where you might say to yourself, “there goes the pastor again, being obscure, sounding like an academic, instead of preaching about things that are meaningful to my life.” Now, I have been known to do that, fair enough. But not this time. I am simply preaching the great mystery of the gospel, the great mystery of baptism, and maybe you have a hard time understanding it because you’d rather focus on the blessings that you get to call your own. I like those things too. But those blessings might just be good luck, or our vain wishes. So we need to listen to the mystery of baptism as Paul describes it (and I’m just explaining what he says in Romans):

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Let me try to make this clear: the greatest blessing and gift we get from Christ and from baptism is to have my ego taken away, my ME, my entrapment within my own cares, my own way of seeing things, and especially my own hang-ups and problems; but also the ME that people have put down, and all my insecurities that come from that. Jesus doesn’t give you a whole bunch of good things, so much as he takes away your life. We like to say, we’re saved! But it is truer to say that you lose your life. And if you are really attached to your ego, to having things my way, to the world revolving around me, or if you accept that you are low as your harassers have been saying you are, baptism is going to feel like you are drowning. But once you realize how wonderful it is to be freed from the prison of Me and Mine, and to be raised into being Christ’s and God’s, you will really feel the gift of salvation; then you will know peace and joy and love and hope like you never have; then shall suffering becoming bearable and all your fears will be conquered. This is the love of God that is also justice; the love that slays our old self in a way that might feel like a punishing fire, until we realize it is really the warmth and light of love.

Jesus holds together God’s love and justice. We see this in his baptism. Jesus wasn’t baptized so he could receive gifts from God. He did not need to be saved from sin. Instead, his baptism was first of all a submission of himself to God and to humanity. It is already a laying down of his life to God, and it is a perfect human act of humility to accept baptism, an act of repentance, not for himself but for all humanity. Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment of righteousness; it is exactly the right self-giving act that the messiah of God should do. And then by doing this act, Jesus sees the heavens open up to earth, and the voice of God saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” No one else has ever heard those words, so far as we know. Jesus alone receives them, but for us all, so that when we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we also hear those words of love as our own; and then we begin to share in that same Holy Spirit, in the power to participate in God’s justice on earth.

God knows we will not unite love and justice as Jesus did. We do not easily give up our egos; we want to hold on to our lives as at least a little bit our own. That’s ok. We are not called to literally lay down our lives for God. God in goodness and mercy gives us the grace of creation with its pleasures and delights, while also opening us up to the grace of the Holy Spirit, as much as we are called to do. The waters of baptism are the perfect symbol here. They signify to us the death to ourselves and rebirth into God’s life; but because those waters carry the echo from creation in Genesis, baptism also conveys the continuing blessing upon the creation in distinction from God. God also says it is good that we continue as created beings doing our own thing, living our own life. God loves us also like that, even in our sinfulness. But in Jesus we find the love of God that unites us also to God’s justice. And so we will watch and listen as Jesus’ life of loving justice unfolds, showing us a godly humanity that we also can participate in. That story will continue all the way until Holy Week, when we shall see the union of God’s love and justice is all its mystery and splendor.

Second in Advent (12/10): “Putting Love Back Together”

A sparse crowd on Sunday, so I’m glad to be able to post the sermon, which wasn’t a bad one–and it stayed within my new shorter format.  

Isaiah 64:1-9 ; Mark 13:24-37

Words of Assurance: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Our lives are so complicated, and even incomprehensible. Each one of us is a puzzle made of almost infinite pieces. In my house, the holidays were always a time to put together jigsaw puzzles—we always said “fixing a puzzle” in our local dialect; I have never liked jigsaw puzzles, but Jessica and now Silas are getting sucked into this family tradition. No thanks. Each of you, and me too, is enough of a puzzle for me. And so we try to ‘fix’ ourselves. We put together stories about ourselves that explain where we came from, where we are going, and why we are the way we are. Our stories about ourselves are insightful and mostly true, but incomplete. They pick out a few pieces of us that make a fairly clear picture. But there are still so many loose pieces that we can’t fit in or can’t even perceive. What is your story about yourself? First, do you have one? You should: writing your own story is a really good exercise for discerning your spiritual life.

But say you’ve got a story about who you are. What else would God see that you don’t? Plenty, I suspect, at least for myself (and I’m almost obsessively self-reflective). God alone sees the whole puzzle, how all the pieces of us fit together. We get glimpses of the loose pieces in our lives that only God sees, whenever we come up against things we do but don’t know why. Why does it annoy me so much when he clears his throat like that? Why do I like what that one commentator has to say, but I dislike the other one even though she seems equally smart and well informed? Why did I let my child become so distant? Why do I just sit here when I know what I should be doing? We could bring in a whole team of pyschologists and therapists to evaluate each one of you; and you would learn something about yourself, although you would feel very exposed, having lost control of your story. In their flawed way, they would tell a different but insightful story about who you are, and they would add some of the puzzle pieces that you had left out, too. That would give us some hint of what else God sees in us.

And God sees that our puzzles are both individual, but also all connected. We are also one big puzzle (now my sisters would be getting really excited—imagine a 7.6 billion piece puzzle!). None of us can see how the whole thing fits together, nor how to fix it. And so we find ourselves asking questions about the larger reality in which we are immersed: why is the world so out of control? Why can’t we come together and solve our problems? How did we get stuck in these collective ruts? Well, we could also invite in the historians, the sociologists, the gender theorists, the economists, the religion scholars, and let’s not forget the literature scholars; and they would first bicker amongst themselves a whole lot, because I know these folks and that’s what they do; but then they would start to show how each of our personal puzzles connects with those of others, and with scattered puzzles all over the world and back through time. And in their own flawed way, they would bring us a little closer to seeing us as God sees us: the whole world, in its naked truth, like an infinitely large and infinitely detailed puzzle.

God sees the good in this puzzle, and God sees the bad. And much that just is what it is. And were we to see what God sees, we would feel humbled, because we thought we knew who we were, but we don’t. And were we to turn our focus on the bad in this great puzzle, we would feel horrified and ashamed, for ourselves and for the whole world. That’s why our faith is so important, because when our eyes catch a glimpse of the bad—even when it’s ‘out there,’ because we deep down know that what’s out there is a part of me too—when we see the bad for what it is, as God sees it, we need to believe that God is merciful and loving, or else we will be undone. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

We are all one, infinitely complex puzzle which we barely can make out and hardly understand, even the little section of the puzzle that is framed by my body. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy, for God created us, as Isaiah says: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We remember and confess that our origin and our future are in God’s hands. We are clay.

But by the light of Christ, Paul, in our Words of Assurance, sees something greater in us than just clay. God in Christ has called us to a much higher confidence:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind–just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

We might not always feel like we have been enriched in Christ Jesus, with speech and knowledge of every kind.   We may not feel so strengthened in Christ “that we may be blameless.” We might instead feel like a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces, out of which I have forced a few ill-fitting pieces together to make sense of myself, at least. How do we get to the cheery gratitude that Paul expresses for us, so that we really feel like those “called into the fellowship of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord?” That’s what we want to be feeling come Christmas Eve.

Well, I don’t think we just pretend everything is dandy. We can’t ignore this massive, broken puzzle that God sees. We know God sees with love and mercy, but we can’t imagine how God does it, when absolutely everything in the world is laid bare before God’s infinite vision. How do we deal with the infinite complexity that is the puzzle of our world and ourselves?

Here’s where we need a variety of seasons in the church year to help us deal with our own complexity. We need Lent to celebrate Easter truly. We all need Christmas and Epiphany, certainly, to reassure us that God has seen our world for what it is and has nonetheless entered it and joined with it by being born in Bethlehem. But we need another season, set apart, to deal with that “nonetheless.” It is no small thing for God to enter the world, to become in God’s very being one piece of our puzzle, but just so, the one piece in this puzzle that makes sense, and that promises to make sense of the whole thing and to reassemble it into the beautiful picture of the realm of God that was intended all along, before it all got so scattered. It’s easy for us to appreciate the beauty of this one piece which re-centers and re-orients the whole puzzle, placed just so, as when we place the baby Jesus figurine in the manger on Christmas Eve. But we only truly appreciate the beauty of that night when we take a hard look in these four weeks at this mess of a puzzle without Jesus in it. Otherwise Christmas becomes just a Kodak moment, a lovely season of make-believe which is like a dream (or nowadays, a shopping and logistical nightmare) from which we wake up on December 26 and go back to our hopeless world. Advent helps us connect our workaday world, the world of fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery, to the extraordinary time of God, the day of the Lord. It may be helpful to emphasize the contrast. And Advent is indeed a good time to confess that we and our world are not yet full of God; we are still awaiting our salvation. But that’s also the hope—we know what God has in store for us, and we can see signs of hope all around us, even amid the fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery.

So let us keep the fast of Advent. We don’t have to literally fast. But it is a season to keep watch, as our strange reading from the Gospel of Mark has it. Our lectionary brings us this weird reading in Advent, which is echoed by the longing in Isaiah –“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” I think I get it. Remember there is the first coming of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also a second coming, the return of Christ to judge the world and bring the Kingdom in its completeness. (We don’t talk about it much but it’s in Scripture.) Our lectionary connects the time of waiting to celebrate Christmas with the waiting for that Second Coming.

This is meant to disorient us a little. We are used to thinking about the star over Bethlehem, not “the stars will be falling from heaven, ” as Mark puts it. We think about that dark, silent, Holy Night, but not because “the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” and so the stars, sun, and moon will all fail to give their light. It’s all kind of ominous and unsettling. And we are used to watching for Santa on Christmas Eve, but Jesus is talking about watching for this mysterious Son of Man to come, who seems to be the Jesus we know, but we’re not sure. We know exactly when Christmas comes, but about this the hour when this Son of Man will return, no one knows—neither the angels, nor the son, but only the Father, who apparently is a God of secrets.

All of this is meant to be disorienting, so that we will open ourselves, amid all the dear old sentimental, child-centered traditions of Christmas, to receiving Jesus anew, as a stranger, as if for the first time. So we keep alert, and watch. This is part of the Advent fast—fasting from the easy familiarity that Christmas can breed. We fast by confessing our need, confessing that our salvation is not yet complete, our knowledge of God is still only fragmentary, that we still don’t know what Jesus means for us.

Our particular focus during Advent and then after will be on love. Jesus reveals the love of God, we all know that. What could be more obvious? We’ve heard so often that God loves us, that it passes right over us. We don’t have to think twice about it. Now’s the time to think twice. And then we can rediscover what the love of God is.

When we learn to watch for Jesus’ coming as if for the first time, Advent can both open us to the need of our world for Jesus and his love, and also prepare us for a new disclosure of what God’s love is by this Emmanuel. We learn a little more about this jigsaw puzzle that is us, about the holes in the puzzle where love should be, and so Jesus begins to put it all back together again. And then, after Epiphany, Jesus will call us as his disciples, and we will be ready to follow him and put ourselves and our world back together again.