Spiritual Inventory Series Opener (9/3): “Be Transformed by the Renewing of Your Minds”

A new series!  I anticipated a small turnout on Labor Day weekend, so I’ll be introducing the series in a different way next Sunday. 

Exodus 3:1-15 ; Romans 12:9-21

As I explained in my article for September’s Spire, I am starting a series this month on spiritual growth. Next week I’ll be making available something I call a “spiritual inventory.” The inventory will ask you to rate yourself on four areas that describe what it means to have a rich and fulfilling participation of our spiritual life in church: Do you engage in regular spiritual practices? Do you have a set of religious beliefs that make sense to you and help your orient your life to God? Do you feel fully integrated into the spiritual fellowship of this church? And, are you meaningfully involved in the church’s mission life? If you feel like you are coming up short in one or more of those areas—and who here gets four A plusses?—then maybe there are some steps you can take to enrich your spiritual growth in these areas. But I’m not putting this all on you. Maybe there is more I can do and the church can do to build you up in the faith. The purpose of this inventory is simply to give us an opportunity to reflect and to hold ourselves accountable as a church, you for yourself, me and the church leadership for your spiritual needs and the good of the whole body. We are all going to feel stretched, and it is a good feeling. (If you choose to participate, that is.)

But I worry that some of you are going to have an immediate reaction against all this. “My spiritual life is nobody’s business but my own,” you might find yourself saying. “I’m perfectly satisfied with my participation in the church and my relation to God, thank you. And where do you get off telling me what constitutes ‘a rich and fulfilling participation in the spiritual life of the church’? (In other words,) “Who are you to tell me what being a good Christian looks like?”  Are you feeling that reaction? Just a little twinge? It’s all right. These are good questions, if a little testy, which get us right to the critical issue of authority, and I’ll say more about that below. For now, I’m going to answer it by saying, I’m just doing what Paul is doing in our reading today. He is describing what a rich and vibrant Christian life in community looks like. Paul is doing what our church leaders today have perhaps failed to do: to press us to be a real community where we together become transformed into God’s image for us, as opposed to being a place where you sit near other people (mostly in the back) but you are left alone, a place where even God leaves you alone; and that is no real community at all.

It is not a personal failure when we see ourselves as private individuals, especially when it comes to things spiritual. It is not your fault. This is New England, after all. One does not wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve. Moreover, the secularism of our culture has encouraged the view that religion is a purely private affair; we did not get this idea from the Bible.

But our own Protestantism bears some of the responsibility for this problem of a purely private faith. (Now, this is a great time to revisit our Protestant heritage; Luther started the whole thing 500 years ago this October 31, according to legend.) We Protestants have greatly emphasized God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. As if the only thing God wants from us is to accept forgiveness. But asking for and accepting forgiveness is only opening the door to the kingdom. What about coming inside, and learning what the living arrangements are, and getting to know the people you’ll be sharing this kingdom with? What about joining the party? Instead, many imagine that I confess my sins in the privacy of my heart, and then I’m good. I got what I came for.

I don’t think that’s a complete picture. The whole NT, like the OT, is strongly concerned with us being a joyful people who celebrate together (that’s why we have communion at the climax of our worship today), and being a holy people together, a people set apart by God for God’s purposes. Some of you will recall my sermon from mid-August, when I suggested that we need to become more Jewish, more like a people set apart by a common way of life.

Now, we Protestants hesitate before this idea of a common way of life, because it seems to demand a strong sense of authority. It sounds like someone is going to try to tell us exactly how to live this common way of life. And that kind of authority has been abused in the past, as Luther knew; church authority especially has been tyrannical and idolatrous, confusing human authority with divine. And not just in the past: our evangelical sisters and brothers often claim some sort of direct divine authority that we rightly find troubling and even idolatrous. Our Protestant discomfort with authority is redoubled by our secular culture, for which the very idea of religious authority makes no sense. Religion is all a matter of opinion, right? So, many of us conclude that there is no authority in religion. You can only listen to your own heart and experience, not to any one else.

Now, I am placed in an awkward position by this resistance to authority. On one hand, I have no interest in being the authority. I’m personally inclined to resist authority. (And in fact I find myself resisting myself, oddly.) But if there is anyone here who is supposed to be a religious authority, it’s me.

Now, I have very little to complain about. I have felt very respected by this church. Our leadership listens carefully to me, and many of you have trusted me with personal concerns and exciting personal stories of faith and growth. I am so honored by this. But some of you respect me too much. Perhaps you think it would be rude to disagree with me directly, or you might feel intimidated to do so. After all, I got all this learning, the “Ph.D.” after my name, and I’m back in my sleek, Matrixy robe and all. /

Let’s be honest: This is a very odd thing that I am doing—up here on this raised dais, right now, in the middle of our service. I am standing up here and saying whatever I think is right. I don’t run a draft by anyone, don’t seek prior approval of my message. Following custom, I don’t allow for questions or discussion or alternative viewpoints after the sermon, though I wish I could. In fact, I found out recently that our Puritan ancestors used to have a lay member offer a response after the sermon, which is really cool. But the way we do things today is very undemocratic. When else do you go somewhere, sit quietly, and passively let someone else tell you what is supposedly right? It would be more normal if I was trying to sell you something, or if I was after your vote (although you have the authority to fire me), or if I was going to award you with a grade or some kind of certification. Instead, you are getting nothing out of this except some word of, what, truth? (Aren’t we post-truth now?)

To make matters worse, I’m up here talking about God; and not just lecturing about God, I’m trying to explain to you what God is saying to you. And I’m not just bringing you some message, some insight, but at the same time I am calling you—sometimes, like today—to repent! Turn your life around. Don’t just listen to God or think about God, change your life as God would have it be. This is what I am doing. I am—let’s just be really honest and admit this to ourselves, as uncomfortable as we both are with it—I am speaking for God. (No lightening strike.) It is what it is. I can soften it up by telling a lot of jokes. I can recite feel-good stories. I can throw in some quotes from great thinkers, or some fancy scholarship in Greek, or wow you with historical exegesis; I could do that, except by now I know that scholarly showboating really does not go over well here. (And I’m glad it doesn’t.) / Or, feeling awkward about speaking for God, I can stick to a message that sounds very comfortable, very familiar, that doesn’t push you beyond any boundaries. And then we both have to ask ourselves, what kind of God are we talking about who can only make us comfortable, who fits so smartly into the little box we label “God” and store in our closet full of comforters and other cozy items? Is that the God Moses encountered?

In all these ways we can try to take this very odd thing called a “sermon” and make it safely entertaining, boringly comfortable, utterly unsurprising—as easy to slip on and off as an old sweater. But I don’t think that is going to get us to the real God. In fact I am sure of it, because I know we will never truly and fully understand God. We are here on holy ground, awkwardly taking our shoes off, trying to place ourselves where Moses found himself, without asking for it to happen, before some something or someone we call God, who sounded familiar to Moses because he or she or it mentioned the familiar names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then said to him, I am what I am. When Moses asked this stranger, this God, for something as familiar and comfortable as a name, that is what he gets: “Tell the Israelites, ‘“I AM” sent me.’ Is that what you were looking for, Moses?” There should be something deeply comforting for us about being in the presence of God, but something also deeply troubling. I think Moses got his share of the deeply troubling part.

Now, I am supposed to facilitate this comforting trouble, this troubling comfort, of encountering God. I am supposed to be the midwife at this painful, joyful birth. Every week. Imagine going through birth every week. It’s a very weird job. (That’s why I love it.) We are not going to be able to deal with this odd “service” I am providing you in a polite, courteous, familiar, predictable, peaceful way. I need you—God needs you (remember I’m speaking for God)—to be very comfortable disagreeing with me and telling me so. (Now don’t disagree with what I say and only complain to your friend. That’s not going to do it. Tell me.) I don’t want to be, nor do I believe in, the kind of religious authority where you just shut up and accept what I say. In the very least, I want you to be able to say, “Pastor, I disagree with what you said today.” Maybe you are not yet sure why. I won’t take issue with you. Take some time, re-read my sermon on my blog or ask me for a printed version. When you are ready, come talk to me about it. And those of you who have done this will testify, I hope, that I’m not going to use my fancy learning to bludgeon you over the head and force you into submission. For one thing, I know how to work with you where you are, and you are all welcome here wherever you are. I also know and believe that when it comes to God, one way of putting things or one way of seeing things is never enough. And I know and believe that each of you has a valid experience of God in your life (even if you don’t think you do). But that doesn’t mean I’m going to just leave you where you are. My job is, like Paul, I think, to press you to grow. And I won’t say it will always be “fun,” although often it will be, but it will be very real. You don’t forget those moments in your life when you and someone you trust really tried to draw closer to God.

Paul is pressing the Romans to grow. Earlier in chapter 12 is this classic verse: “Do not be conformed to this world (or age), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” He is not just looking for individual growth here. He says in verse 5: “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually are members one of another.”

And then in our passage, he describes what the Christian life should look like. Some of his points pertain to what on the spiritual inventory I’ll call “spiritual practices”: “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good…. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” There is not much in this passage about what the inventory will label beliefs, but Paul has spent the whole first 8 chapters on what Christians should believe. Many points here do pertain to what the inventory will call “spiritual fellowship:” “Let love be genuine… Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. … Live in harmony with one another. Associate with the lowly [so important]. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. [Good advice!] Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Amen. Again, Paul is not talking only about individual spiritual growth. And finally much of what Paul says pertains to mission: “Contribute to the needs of the saints [which is roughly equivalent to our denomination and the worldwide church], extend hospitality to strangers. …If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” Here Paul is talking about the world outside the church, and he recognizes that we will not always be able to fit in and live peaceably, but we should try. And when that fails, he says: “Bless those who persecute you…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” How’s that for a mission statement? We won’t completely agree on what is evil in our world, but we can agree on how to overcome it.

This is Paul’s version of the law; and it is something I think we need more of. But notice that this is not the dour, nay-saying, oppressive law that Christians caricature. There are no “Thou shalt nots.” Some of what Paul is saying is really vague: “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” “Be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord.” But just the same, his description of the Christian life is open-ended and limitless.

And there are no threats or promises in what Paul is saying. He does not say, “Do these things or you’re going to hell!” Nor does he say, “If you want God to give you good things, you’d better follow the rules.” In fact, he hardly uses the imperative form: Do this, don’t do that. In Greek (hey, check out my Greek, everybody!), most of Paul’s verbs are participles: hating, holding fast, not lagging, serving, rejoicing, being patient, etc. There’s no threat here, not even much commanding going on. Not much direct authority from Paul. He’s just describing what Christians do, what a good Christian life and community looks like, and inviting us to let it be so. Because Paul knows that finally nothing is up to us. The good Christian life is not the result of a brave and noble decision. God has chosen the good in Christ. We, his body, simply have to let this be.

Paul wrote this to the Romans, not to all Christians everywhere. How we describe what being the Body of Christ looks like may differ. We must figure it out together. And then we allow Christ live among us. I hope the spiritual inventory will help let this happen. It’s going to be fun!… Well, it’s going to be real.


Aug. 27: “Blood on Our Hands”

This was the last of our joint worship services with Center Church in Hadley.  I took the occasion of these services to address issues affecting the church as a whole.  

Scripture: Matthew 27:24-26 ;  Exodus 1:8-2:10

Last week we talked about what Christians can learn from Judaism. To me it was refreshing to begin a discussion of Christianity’s relation with Judaism on a positive note, rather than with guilt, specifically the shameful legacy of anti-Judaism that fed into modern anti-Semitism and the murderous stew of racism in its several forms. (And I’ll note that in almost two years I have yet to preach a sermon specifically on racism; I probably should be preaching often on that. In some UCC churches, you might hear about racism almost every week.) But I have often said: I don’t preach guilt. I don’t begin with all of our sins, racism among them. Nor do I begin with our good works, among them, our efforts to be pro-reconciling and anti-racist. I begin with God; I begin with grace. I begin always with the source of our true identity: God’s adoption of all in Christ. That comes before all of our works, bad or good. We are here as a body, and each of us individually is in this room, because God started something new in Jesus, who was confirmed as the Christ and Son of God by his death and resurrection. That is what lifts me out of the smallness of myself; that is what takes us all beyond our egos and immerses us in a river of love and righteousness. That is what saves me from an ultimately lonely life, a life that is only about me, including my sins and my little triumphs, a life goes nowhere but death. But for those in Christ, everything comes from grace and is lifted back up into grace. Only within that larger flow of divine life do our good works take on eternal meaning and truth, in fellowship with righteous people in all times and places, including right here. And only within that flow of grace can we properly see and deal with our sin. Otherwise, if we see and deal with sin out of guilt, or out of pride, we remain stuck in our little egos; and we can do nothing but either wring our hands, or like Pilate, wash off the blood.   Sin and guilt, and righteousness too, are not prior to grace; they are not more real than grace.

But sin is still quite real, and we do need to deal with it. The Boston Holocaust Memorial has been defaced twice this summer by what appeared to be youth possessed of stupid bigotry. White Supremacist groups continue to spread conspiracy theories about “the Jews.” There are still neo-Nazis and ardent admirers of Hitler, ready to kill blindly. It’s stunning and sickening. How do we deal with this outcropping of vile humanity?

It is tempting for us to use these lost souls as an occasion to become self-righteous. “I thank God I am not like this neo-Nazi over here.” All of us are tempted to latch on to a cheap sense of certainty, identity, and purpose. White supremacists latch on to despicable ideologies and conspiracy theories; in turn, others find in the white supremacist the perfect target for their own cheap certainty and purpose. Thus we have the antifa movement, about whom there is a fine piece in The Atlantic. They use opposition to white supremacy as an excuse to throw off the reigns of democratic restraint and pick up a club. This is not our way. We don’t seek out cartoonish enemies so we can hate on them and nurse violent fantasies. Jesus said, Love your enemies. That means that we do have enemies. But we don’t self-righteously seek to pummel them; instead we confront them with truth and pray that they may turn from their sin, hoping that they will join us as sisters and brothers under God.

But let’s be clear about something in the air since Charlottesville. As people from across the political spectrum have agreed, there is no moral equivalency between being pro-racist and being anti-racist. There are not two legitimate sides on the issue which both need to be heard. Hatred of racism is right, whether from an American perspective or a Christian perspective or a human perspective. We Christians should agree with even militant anti-racist groups on what they oppose, but we, quite differently, stand for a humane, non-violent way of responding to it, rather than one driven by hate and self-righteousness. Fair enough? If you disagree, let’s talk.

We can and must prayerfully oppose our enemies, because they have set traps for us, just like our opening Psalm said. But we are not at luxury to become self-righteous, whether it is about racism or anti-Semitism. Of course, we are not bigots or anti-Semites—God help us if we are. But neither can we claim to be pure and innocent. The problems of racism and anti-Semitism go deeper and are more complex than just some silly, crackpot white supremacists out there, and we are embroiled in this complex problem. We must make our peace with this holy discomfort. In response to God’s grace and love, my goal is not to create some little island of purity and self-righteousness coziness around myself. Our shared goal is a life of repentance and restoration, in which I always look for my own complicity in the sins of our world and seek to turn it all around. And even if I’m basically a good person—which, ehh~—I follow the way of the Christ, who did not luxuriate in divine purity, but took on the messiness of human flesh, indeed, took on the sins of the whole world. The more we participate in Christ’s grace, the more we also are called to accept the world’s sins as our own. /

But even before we get to the world’s sins, we are ourselves nowhere near purity, even in the holy things of our faith. Our own Bible is not pure and innocent, always a clear and inerrant source of truth and goodness—so I believe, even though most weeks I ask you to submit yourself to the Bible’s wisdom. But look at our reading in Matthew today, which does not come from our cleaned-up lectionary. Maybe you cringed during the Gospel reading today; I did. Matthew, and Matthew is alone on this, has the crowds of Jews say about the condemned Jesus, “His blood be on us and our children!” Matthew exonerates Pilate and puts the guilt perpetually on the Jews. Now, it’s difficult to figure out what this passage meant to Matthew in his day and what he was trying to get across. But on the other side of 2000 years of ugly Christian history, we can only hear this passage with shame. After all, centuries of Christian persecution of Jews often rallied around the cry of “Christ-killers!” And this passage gave our blood-stained ancestors biblical warrant and cover. What can we do with this, but turn this passage around and apply it to ourselves: “Their blood, the Jewish blood shed by Christians, be on us and our children!”

Thanks to the work of careful scholars, we know that “The Jews” did not kill Jesus; in fact, it is foolish and false to use the phrase “the Jews,” as if you can speak of all Jews doing something. We know the Romans crucified Jesus, and it is likely that some Jewish leaders colluded in his death. But of course, we Christians wisely know to look to our own sins as we come before the cross, rather than scapegoating some suspect group; recall the moving verse from “Ah Holy Jesus, how Hast Thou Offended”: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.” /

Besides this hideous fallacy of the Jews as Christ-killers, there are other anti-Jewish myths we must purge ourselves of. Last week we talked about the false teaching that Christianity replaces or supersedes Judaism, rendering it no longer valid. That’s not what Paul says in Romans 10. But Paul has encouraged other Christian myths about Judaism, like the idea that Judaism is “legalistic.” In Romans 9 and elsewhere, Paul condemns the Jews for seeking righteousness through the Law instead of faith. In this Paul assumes that the Jewish practice of obeying Torah must lead to self-righteousness and to excluding non-Jews. We can’t say that it is impossible that some Jews might follow their religion in an unspiritual way, as do some members of all religions; but Paul is wrong to imply that the Law must be unspiritual. The norm in Judaism, and what I have observed in my experience, is that the commandments are followed out of a spiritual and faithful response to God’s goodness and grace. Mitzvoth, or acts of obeying the Torah, are simply an expression of faithfulness. There’s nothing self-righteous about it. Indeed, the Law includes seeking forgiveness for one’s sins; if you know anything about how Jews observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, their most important Holy Day, you realize how essential humility and seeking forgiveness is in Judaism. This is no religion of self-righteous works, which is how Christians have often denigrated Judaism.

And of course, we should recognize and respect the great variety of ways that Jews today interpret and follow the commandments. So many of my Jewish friends have been deeply aware of their Jewish heritage and many are deeply pious and godly, but sometimes very lax about following the laws of Sabbath or the rules of Kosher eating. I’ll never forget being in Toronto for a big religion conference. I was going to meet up with my best friend from those years, Cass Fisher, who loved all kinds of food, and to my knowledge, never let the Kosher rules get in the way of a culinary adventure. So he told me to meet him at a hip foodie joint in a far-flung neighborhood of Toronto, a place called “The Pig’s Head.” There I found Cass and two other Jewish students I knew, lustily tucking into the signature dish. /I used to love to learn Yiddish words from my college friend, Steve. There is a lovely word in Yiddish for all the food that to observant Jews is so un-Kosher that it kind of turns the stomach: Chazerei or chaz. I wish I had had the nerve (or chutzpah) to walk up to these friends eating pig’s head and asked, “How’s the chaz, boys?” / Today Jews take a variety of paths in following the commandments. Most of us have no clue about the complexity of what it means to be Jewish today, and yet sometimes we persist in negative stereotypes about Jews being legalistic.

There’s another myth of Judaism being exclusive, as if Jews think they alone are special and beloved by God. Just reading the Old Testament ought to disabuse us of this one. Nowhere in the Old Testament is the Jewish people held us as so intrinsically great; rather, they constantly criticize themselves and find themselves wanting. Furthermore, Judaism has never taught that non-Jews are lost and going to hell. To the contrary, Judaism teaches that God made a basic covenant with all of humanity through Noah. Everyone has a way to follow God, a way involving simple and basic righteousness. But with the Israelites God made a much more demanding covenant, along with particular and special promises. So think about this: we Christians have been the exclusive ones, imagining that we alone have the truth and the only way to God. Many Christians still believe that if you don’t have faith in Jesus, you are not just wrong but heading for eternal punishment. That’s much more exclusive and self-righteous than anything you’ll find in Judaism. Last week I talked about ways that we Christians can learn from Judaism. On exclusivism, I think the Jews have it right. We should see the Christian New Covenant not as the only path to God, and certainly as the only road away from eternal torment, but as a path that brings us into particular closeness with God, a closeness which carries a special blessing but also higher and more demanding responsibilities. //

What has given rise to these persistent negative stereotypes and myths about Judaism? Anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism persist and metastasize like a cancer; they keep coming back in new and uglier forms. We hoped that the Shoah or Holocaust, like some horrible chemotherapy, would be the end of all this. Instead, anti-Semitism has taken on a new life in some parts of the Islamic world. There is a moving testimony in February’s Christian Century by Imam Abdullah Antepli about his coming to consciousness about anti-Semitism and working to undo it within Islam.

But we must take responsibility for ourselves as Christians. We must always begin with self-examination and repentance. As I said, our own Christian scripture is not innocent. Paul is not innocent, even as his letters spell out our direction forward: all stand under grace through Christ. That grace makes it possible for us to freely admit our sin and to free ourselves of it.

But our reading from Exocus reminds us that anti-Judaism also goes back much earlier than the early Christians. Its legendary beginning lies with Pharaoh, who evidently harbored a poisonous mix of envy and suspicion against the Hebrews. So he oppressed them with harsh, forced labor. When that didn’t work, he attempted genocide, first trying to enlist the Hebrew midwives against their own people, and when that didn’t work (thanks to God’s protection), Pharaoh told his own people to kill all the male newborns. The mix of envy of and paranoia toward the Hebrews living as settlers among the mighty Egyptians, and the tactic of oppressing them, is sadly familiar. It is what we saw in late medieval Europe, where Jews continued to survive and sometimes thrive despite being confined to the ghettos. The later half of the 19th century saw the reiteration of this suspicion and oppression in the modern anti-Semitism, both in Europe and in America. It may be that there is something unique about this persistent, 3200 year old insanity against the Jews; but we also see the same poisonous mixture of envy, suspicion, and oppression against any people who have a distinct identity living among a more powerful majority, for us, a white majority. It may be against the Jews or against immigrants, or non-native English speakers, or Muslims, or anyone with brown skin, or poor whites, or refugees. In Christ God identified with all of these people on the margins, and especially with them, even as God included all in God’s unlimited grace. We are not at liberty to profess ourselves pure and innocent of ill-feeling, of suspicion of people not like us, of racism. Because our Christian life is never done with repenting. That doesn’t mean feeling guilty and ashamed; that’s still your ego talking, living out of fear. Repentance means that God has promised us liberation from sin, and that promise is our true and everlasting joy.

Aug. 20: “Judaism and God’s Irrevocable Gift”

Isaiah 56:1-8 ; Romans 11:1-7, 11-32

I didn’t think it through really carefully, but I guess I’m spending this month drawing on the Old Testament, for a change, and leading our two congregations in reflections on what we can learn about the bigger situation and problems the church faces today, and proposing some positive directions forward. I’m really glad we can come together like this and get out of our particular congregational viewpoint and think bigger, for a month. Next week I want to look at the problem of anti-Judaism, which today is bound up with racism and white supremacy—our headlines remind us of this daily. But then it will be September, and we will each part again until next summer (or Ash Wednesday, when we worship together). And I’m excitedly planning for a September series on growing in our spiritual journey. So it’s going to be all about you, but I’m going to make you work, just so you know.

Well anti-Semitism is important, but today I am glad to talk about Judaism in a positive way that can inspire us and lead us to grow in our faith as Christians. I find Judaism inspiring, even though there are things about it I don’t understand or that puzzle me. I’ve been blessed with some very good friends who have shared their Jewish faith to me, including within my family. My sister Joanne was already interested in Judaism when she met my brother-in-law Marc, who is not only Jewish, but came very close to becoming a great Jewish scholar. I was in graduate school and signed up for a course on Jewish Theology—I took some pride being the only Christian guy in the class, the token goy—and we were reading an important book by the Talmudic scholar David Weiss Halivni. In the acknowledgements, Halivni thanked his graduate assistant, Marc Ashley. My brother in law! I mentioned it to Marc and he said, without any boasting, “Yeah, I pretty much wrote that book for him.”   But Marc gave it up to become a lawyer, go figure.

Christianity has a very fraught relationship with Judaism. There’s the hideous history of anti-Judaism and persecution, and the current complicated issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there’s another loss that is more subtle and tragic, resulting from that split that happened when the followers of Jesus parted ways from the people Israel.   From that moment, Jews saw themselves as the opposite of Christians, and Christians saw themselves as the opposite of Jews. That happens all the time when there is a messy divorce between whole peoples. Catholics see themselves as the opposite of Protestants, and Protestants, the opposite of Catholics. We mainline Protestants see ourselves as the opposite of evangelicals, and evangelicals, the opposite of us (or they just completely ignore our existence). There’s a tragic loss in all of this, a cutting off of ourselves from the best of what is found in those we have split away from. There is much we can learn from and embrace within evangelical Protestantism, and also within Catholicism. There is much we can learn from and embrace within Judaism. Or do you really think it is a Christian impulse to shun things because “we don’t want to be like those people.” Rather, that is the spirit of polarization that is ripping the fabric of our society today into shreds. This tragic ripping apart and alienation does not happen with compete strangers; it only happens with our close kin. The worst arguments happen within family, right?

Paul is feeling that in our reading today. His lament for his Jewish kin begins in chapter 9, which we heard read two weeks ago: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”   Paul makes it clear that he is earnestly in anguish at the fact that the people Israel have not by and large accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Now, I think Paul is a little too worried about this one. I don’t think God has been ill-served by having a vibrant, new Christian covenant existing side-by-side with a Judaism that continues in its own way to reinterpret the Torah. I think it’s just easier for us modern people to accept that there is more than one way to worship and honor God. I wish Paul were able, with us, to affirm that there is a right and honorable distinctly Jewish way to be faithful to God, and even to ask, “What can we learn from that Jewish faithfulness?”

But let’s notice what Paul does not do. He does not say, because they rejected Jesus, Judaism is over. It is defunct. We Christians have replaced the Jews. That, sadly, became the dominant Christian view for 2000 years, and it is called Supercessionism. To the contrary, Paul says: To [the Jews] belong [not belonged] the adoption, the glory, the worship, the promises.”

Similarly, in our reading from chapter 11, Paul exclaims that God has not rejected God’s people Israel. Now, he has what sound to me like weird ideas about how God has fulfilled the promises to Israel. The strangest is this thing about the Gentiles making Israel jealous. Did you catch that? / I don’t know, Paul. Sounds like something from the annals of Junior High romance. “Did you hear? So Jesus asked Moses out but Moses totally said, No Way, eeww gross!; but when he saw Jesus with that new Greek girl, he got so jealous.”

I think Paul does better when he acknowledges that the whole thing is a “mystery.” Let’s not assume there is some great divine plan going on here that we can easily decipher. Paul notes that a “hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles has come in.” God is Lord of history, and perhaps there is some great plan in all of this. I don’t agree with Paul that the plan was for the Jews to become “enemies of the gospel” for the sake of us Gentiles; just because they don’t follow the gospel doesn’t mean they are enemies of it. But Paul is confident that whatever the plan, salvation is also for the Jews. “As regards election [the Jews] are beloved,…for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” There is no room here for supercessionism, for God rejecting the Jews.

And then Paul’s last word comes out of the wisdom of grace. Whenever we Christians try to make sense of the fact that not all people accept Jesus; there are all these other faiths out there and they look pretty different; and then there are all these Christians with whom we don’t see eye to eye; and there are so many people who no longer have faith and have lost interest in God; and we get all anxious about all these people who aren’t Christians like us. / Relax, catch your breath, and take a cue from Paul. All these differences we worry about aren’t finally that important to God. In the end, we are all still one humanity, living before God by grace. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” This is a kind of humanism in Paul, a universal embrace of all human beings. But it’s not based on the fact that deep down we all believe the same thing, or we all have good hearts, or we all meet some basic ethical standard, or we all have been endowed by our creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All of that may be true. But for Paul we are all united in this: all of us fall short, all of us are flawed and imperfect; and yet God loves us even so. It is a refreshingly humble humanism. And it can help us let go of that anxiety, which is probably a little self-righteous, about all those people who aren’t good Christians like us.

But what if we could not only let go of the anxiety Paul harbors over his Jewish kin who have not accepted Jesus, but even see the side-by-side existence of a Jewish and a Christian way of being faithful to God as a blessing and good thing, and a chance for us to learn from one another so that we can really start to enact the coming together of peoples that Israel talks about in our reading today? What can we learn from Judaism?

First, we have to be honest and clear about the real difference between our two faiths. We are not the same. Judaism was and remains a people in covenant with God. By an act of pure grace, God took a human people, defined by language and ancestry, and made them God’s own special people, set apart and distinct. God has a blessing in store for all people through the Jews, but that only comes by the Jews being a distinct people among the many others. Everything about being a people gets sanctified by God’s election of Israel: their ancestry, family life and the quest for descendants, and the details about how they are organized as a society. That is what the Torah or Law is, and it is essential, because the Jews were to follow a shared way of being a people, a common way of life. You can imagine what it might look like if God took America or Latvia and said, you now shall be my nation, and everything about you shall be reshaped to reflect that.

Christianity is different. God did not adopt us as a whole people. According to the gospel, God elects all of humanity in one human being, Jesus the Christ. Through this one mediator, God adopts and unites with the whole human race, whether they know it or not. We Christians do not receive the divine blessing by being born into or joining the Jewish people, and fulfilling its commandments, beginning with circumcision. We receive God’s blessing by being united with Christ, starting with baptism, which as Paul puts it, is a dying to myself and a rising into Christ. Only by being individually united with Christ are we united with each other. But even as we are united with each other through Christ, we are at the same time united with all of humanity, for Christ is for all. For that reason, Christians will never be one, particular people in the ordinary human way. And we will always sit uncomfortably astride all the fences that cut across the human family: race, national identity, gender, languages, cultures. Across all of that we remain one human family in Christ, which we know and experience through our personal relationship to Christ in which I die to myself and Christ lives in me.

Judaism and Christianity are two legitimate and beautiful paths to uniting human beings with God. Each way has its temptations to go astray. I can’t take responsibility for Judaism. I suppose it would be easy for Jews to become fixed on the external elements of being a people. I suppose it is possible for Jews to lose the personal spiritual center, although this has not been my experience of the Jews I know who are observant, who take it seriously.

Anyway, we are only responsible for our own temptations. With our emphasis on a personal, interior union with Christ and God through faith, and not through works nor through being a people, especially we Protestant Christians can easily make our relationship with God into a purely personal, inward, and individualistic affair. And indeed, how often has a congregation, perhaps us, instead of being a genuine people through union with Christ, become merely a gathering of individuals, each with our own little private spiritual lives, our own quirky ideas about God and Jesus, none of us feeling the need to share our beliefs and our spiritual journey, nor to listen to those of others, so that we might grow into the unity that is ours in Christ by grace as Christ’s body and Christ’s bride. By the same token, we think the life of faith is just about what’s inside, our feelings and our personal relationship with Jesus. (Take a look at your favorite hymns.) What we do in our daily practices throughout the week, and what we do together working as one body in the world, all of that sometimes gets ignored or neglected. This is our Christian temptation, and it is made all the sharper because we live in an individualistic culture, one which assumes religion is a private affair and has nothing to do with being a people, with those things that are in the highest sense public.

We Christians need to hold on to that deeply personal, interior union with God in Christ that is our beautiful Christian witness, while not excluding everything beyond the personal. The mystery of God’s work in history created two distinct covenants stemming from Abraham’s seed, and the tragedy of human fallenness is that we have allowed these two paths to become mutually opposed and even enemies of one another. We need to be true to our Christian faith while also becoming more Jewish. We need to embrace, along with the internal life of faith, the external realities by which we walk in God’s ways, including the things we do with our bodies, our daily practices, our communal rituals. And we need to turn toward each other from the depths of our individual spiritual wisdom, and the wisdom of great Christian leaders, so that we can forge a common way of life, a Torah, a spiritual Law, something Paul himself talks about. We can become a true people, still honoring personal liberty, still open and turned outward and welcoming to all, but a genuine people of God, Christ’s living body. I’ve been longing for that my whole life. And I don’t think I’m the only one.


Aug. 13: “The Sign of Silence”

This was a long haul; I saw a thread connecting these two scriptures that spoke well to where we are as churches today.  But it proved to be a tangled thread!  Thanks for the expressions of appreciation from the Center Church folks who are joining us this month.  Some asked about reading it online, and I hope they can find the blog.  (And comment at the bottom!)

Scriptures: Matthew 16:1-2a, 4;  1st Kings 19:9-18

A Warning: This is going to get complicated, and a little long. I’m going to weave between these two texts, both of which are weird and difficult. Stay with me. It might help if I give you the simple message right up front: our churches are in trouble; we may be dying, we may continue to live. What I hear these texts saying is that we need to take this time of worship before God very seriously; it is essential to who we are. But the God we encounter here might be mysterious and puzzling to us. Let’s open ourselves to that. Worship can lead, sometimes, to an encounter with the God who is brings more questions than answers, more trouble than comfort. That’s who God is, and we need to deal with it. But I think the place to find our comfort and assurance, our rock of purpose and meaning, if not always in worship, is in our work with and for others to establish God’s reign of justice and love.

We’re reading the Old Testament this August. It’s vital to understand that the Old Testament was compiled in such a way that it contains a big, messy disagreement about whether we are to blame for our sorry lot. Is the suffering that we experience a punishment from God, or are we simply victims of senseless suffering?

We’ve known nothing as severe as the sufferings of Israel. With the exile to Babylon in 587 BC, they lost the temple, the kingship, the land, many lives—everything that was to them a sign of divine blessing. Much of the Old Testament, but not all of it, looks back at this loss and declares, it was God’s punishment because we worshipped the Canaanite gods and failed to practice justice. It’s both troubling and admirable that they could so completely blame themselves.

We’ve never had to reckon with such devastation. If anything, we are like the Israelites of Elijah’s time, before the dreadful exile occurred. Then, the Israelites still enjoyed much wealth and power, although the glory days were in the past, and an ominous cloud already hung over the future. And so it is that we mainline Christians (and the UCC is classic mainline), still remembering our bygone glory days, wonder whether we are heading into exile, whether our temples will be torn down, our leadership lost—and if this catastrophe is indeed coming upon us, we wonder why.  Like our Old Testament, I want us to wrestle with that question today, recognizing that there might be more than one answer.

Let’s begin, though, with Jesus’ strange words. The Pharisees and Sadducees together come and ask Jesus for a sign. Now they already asked him once before for a sign, in chapter 12. So despite Jesus’ performing exorcisms, healings, and feeding 4000 with seven loaves and fish, which he just did, the Pharisees and Sadducees still don’t believe. They want “A sign from heaven.” They won’t be satisfied with the amazing humanitarian, earthly signs of Jesus’ compassionate power; they want fire, and wind, and earthquakes, and great supernatural displays of power that would point right to God. Jesus answers tersely, calling them “an evil and adulterous generation” and saying they will receive no sign but the sign of Jonah, whatever that is, and then he leaves them with silence, having nothing more to do with them for the rest of the Gospel. But they plot to kill him.

It’s a troubling little text that is distinctive to Matthew’s gospel. You see, Matthew has arranged his gospel so that pretty much all the Jews get blamed for Jesus’ death, because in Matthew’s place and day—probably 45 years or so after Jesus’ death—things were getting really nasty between traditional Jews and the upstart Christian movement. So Matthew reads his contemporary breakdown of relations back into the original story of Jesus. That’s why Matthew presents two groups who in Jesus’ day were enemies, the Pharisees and Sadducees, as acting together to challenge Jesus. Historically, that seems unlikely. This hostility that Matthew has toward ‘all those other Jews’ is understandable, but sadly it played into a long history of Christian anti-Judaism; and it took the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany, and let’s not forget, the complicity of many others, for the church finally to reckon with this ugly history. We can never read these anti-Jewish texts the same way again.

Instead, I think today we should read this text in a much more uncomfortable way, by asking, are we now the Pharisees and Sadducees? They represent the empowered, established religion of Jesus’ time. The Sadducees were very old-school, and they put their trust in the old traditions and in the glory of the Jerusalem Temple which they controlled. The Pharisees, for their part, were very bookish and well-educated, claiming ownership of Scriptures, priding themselves in sophisticated argument and new ideas. But both groups had a hard time letting go of the privileges they enjoyed to embrace this new vision of Jesus. Neither party was ready to accept the humanitarian faith Jesus revealed to them, and soon they will find themselves in a terrible crisis, and it will become clear that the gospel of Jesus Christ will not be contained in just Israel, but must break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. The Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t imagine God embracing these unfamiliar, unclean people.

You see where I am going with this? Are we the old guard, the perverse generation? I don’t think we are, simply so, but it might be a good idea to try it on and see if it fits even a little. In our own ways, we have a hard time accepting this Jesus, except in the faded form of a sentimental tradition, or as just an emblem of our respectable status—everybody who is anybody is a Christian. But can we accept Jesus as the one who leads us into and through death and on to new life? Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we have a hard time hearing his words as something new, radical, and life-changing.

And if the shoe does fit, if we are at least a little bit like the Pharisees and Sadducees, what is this sign of Jonah? Now Jonah preached repentance like Jesus; but Jonah was barely faithful, and yet he was successful. Jesus was totally faithful but unsuccessful. On the other hand, Jonah was swallowed by the whale for three days, and for Christians this is a symbolic precedent for Jesus’ death and resurrection on the third day. But in this passage of Matthew, the sign of Jonah is left enigmatic. That’s the point, in fact; for those who cannot hear Jesus, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, an enigma is all that is left to them. Has Jesus become an enigma to us? We want to say, “Surely not I, Lord?”//

Well, if we don’t identify perfectly with the bold and fearless original followers of Jesus, but neither again with the enemies of Jesus, perhaps Elijah is a closer fit for us. He is one of the greatest of the prophets, to be sure; and that seems a bit beyond us. But in this passage he reveals himself to be unsure; he’s even feeling sorry for himself—I can identify with that!—and he is dissatisfied with the predicament God has given him. And in this passage he does not receive a clear answer from God—something that can elude us also. But in his faithful vulnerability before God, he does encounter God in a new way that might prove instructive for us.

Elijah has just come off of a great victory. The king and the people had all abandoned their faith in the one God, for they had become entranced by Canaanite gods, above all Baal. Baal promised them everything they wanted—fertility and good crops—and they lost interest in being a unique people who serve God. So, in the midst of a long drought, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel and won. Each party prepared a sacrifice and called upon their god to bring fire down on it. No fire comes from Baal. But God utterly consumes Elijah’s sacrifice with—note—fire. The people repent, and then God brought the rains.

But then Queen Jezebel, who favored the Baal prophets, sent Elijah an icy message, vowing to kill him. So he flees into the wilderness, and tells God that he might as well just die on the spot. God then provides him with food, and sends him on a journey to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where Moses and the Israelites first met and made a covenant with God. And that brings us to our passage.

I submit to you that, even if we are a little like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we also bear at least a faint resemblance to Elijah. With Elijah, we also look back on our faithful work. Once our churches were powerful, and confident. We offered a way to be Christian that was reasonable, open to science and learning, never dogmatic, but friendly to other ways of being Christian as well as other faiths; shouldn’t that have carried the day? And we could boast of impressive deeds done on behalf of our communities and the world, as well as proud institutions of higher learning. But now we wonder why we seem to be losing ground. The great mainline heyday in the 50s and 60s seems so far gone. Now, like Elijah, our lives are on the line.

And our opponents have the upper hand. They include the fundamentalist Christians who seem to make an idol out of having absolute truth and can’t seem to distinguish Christian faith from a very conservative, patriarchal politics and narrow, Victorian morality. And yet they seem to get all the attention of our media kings and queens; how many times do you hear about evangelicals in the news as compared with the UCC and other mainline churches? These Christians, whom we barely know and can hardly understand, seem to have much in common with other religious zealots and fundamentalists around the world; those who can’t abide by democracy and pluralism, and sometimes even resort to unspeakable violence. It seems the most powerful forms of religion today are those most against who we are.

So it is that our other opponent, secularism, hits closer to home. Secularism just means accepting the limits of religious authority, and accepting that our public realm is religiously neutral. In many ways we have worked hard to embrace and adapt to this secularism, but it turned against us. We did so much to show that Christian faith understands its own limits and can be very this-worldly and humanitarian; but now it seems so many people see no reason to step out of the secular and go to church (unless they attend the previously mentioned fanatical churches). Not only our neighbors but even our own children seem skeptical that the church has anything to offer them that isn’t already provided by aspirations toward career and family, by the endless, flashy output of our media and internet, by all of the personal challenge and fulfillment offered through athletics, or being in touch with nature, or being spiritual-but-not-religious. Who needs the church? My life is full.

In all of this, we feel quite a bit like Elijah. We feel like we are fighting a losing battle to preserve the faith. Baal is too strong for us.

But if Elijah is feeling a little too sorry for himself, surely we have even less of an excuse. Remember, we are also a little like the Pharisees and Sadducees. We are at least a little to blame for our loss of power and faithfulness. We can debate exactly why the mainline church has received its comeuppance. Did we become too secular, too American, too blended into middle-class American life? Did we become too wealthy, too white, and too complacent? Did we water down the Holy One of Israel into a milquetoast source of middle class self-affirmation and our much-sought self-esteem? Did we stop taking sin seriously? All of these might be true. But no doubt, in general we can say that we liked being the establishment church, too much. We still prefer to cling on to the trappings of being the center of town life, rather than submitting ourselves afresh to the commands of our Holy God. Maybe the problem boils down to this: we establishment churches worship an anti-establishment God, a God who more often than not takes the side of the wild prophets and the hungry people of the land rather than the self-satisfied kings and respectable Pharisees and Sadducees.

In a way, our problem has turned the corner for us. We have already lost most of our establishment power and prestige. What remains are our gorgeous and grand buildings, and we are left wondering if we can ever again fill them with real spiritual power—perhaps like they used to be, or perhaps like they never have been filled—perhaps more faithfully, more honestly, freed from our Pharisaical past that was always prone to hypocrisy. Perhaps only in the future can we become true churches of faithfulness to God, rather than to small town, middle-class, white Americana. /

Elijah’s journey likewise takes him back to Mt. Horeb, to the original roots of the Jewish faith, before the corruption set in, but did you notice that what he finds when he gets there is also quite new and unprecedented? He’s in a cave at Horeb, and “the word of the Lord” comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Although God sent him there, the question implies that Elijah ought to be somewhere else, namely, carrying out his mission as a prophet. Elijah unloads his sorry state on God. The story continues: “He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’” Who said? It may seem like this was God speaking, but the voice doesn’t say, ‘I am about to pass by,’ but “The Lord is about to pass by.” So was it an angel? Or Elijah’s own thoughts? Hmm.

Then the traditional mighty signs of God’s presence pass by, the wind and earthquake and fire like the original Israelites saw at Sinai, all signs from heaven like the Pharisees and Sadducees were looking for from Jesus. But the Lord was not in these. And then sheer silence. Only then does Elijah cover his face and go out to meet God in this silent and still presence. And in what follows, the passage doesn’t say, “Then God said…” It says, “A voice came to him and said,”—oddly, the same question again: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah repeats his lament to the letter. /

I wish I could make all of this perfectly clear. But to me it looks like in this silence, God’s voice and Elijah’s own voice merge into one, just so, when Elijah honestly and freely pours out his heart to God, but also while questioning why he is doing so. We lament before God our sorry and uncertain state as God’s servant, the church; but we don’t really expect a grand answer. We receive the sheer silence, and hear in that the question to ourselves, what are we doing here? And we live with that question. We might not experience the God we traditionally expected, who has all the answers and does mighty acts, the god the fundamentalists cling to and the secularists long ago dismissed as a fairytale. But in the honesty of our lament and self-questioning, there is a profound new experience of the mystery of God in this old place.

And then, and only then, after this uncomfortable silence, Elijah gets a perfectly clear message. “Then the Lord said to him,” and God basically tells him to get back to work. Go anoint these kings and the prophet Elisha, who will succeed you. Do your work and pass it on. And God reminds Elijah that he’s not really left alone and feeling sorry for himself. God has a remnant, 7000 in Israel, who are faithful, though Elijah doesn’t know who they are. Now Elijah isn’t to seek them out or prophesy to them, he’s to do his own work; but he should realize that there’s a remnant out there. Whatever becomes of Elijah’s work, God’s got plenty of accomplices.

So Elijah goes. Curiously enough, he doesn’t accomplish all those tasks that God told him. The work we are called to do is not set in stone, even though it comes from God. But Elijah was reminded that it’s in doing the work of God, out there, not here in the temple, our Mt. Horeb, that we are closest with God and best experience God. Maybe all we do here is to be quietly honest with ourselves, laying our burdens before God, not sure why or what to expect. It may not be for us to experience the flashy spiritual fireworks of wind, earthquakes, and fire. It doesn’t mean God is not in the silence. But let us also remember that God has other servants; there are people foreign to us, like the Gentiles were to the Jews, whom God will call and be present to in different ways, maybe with all the spirit and fire of our Pentecostal sisters and brothers, whether in Africa or South America or Holyoke. Let us not be so small to think the Gospel is not now theirs, perhaps more than it is still ours.

But let us continue to return to our own roots, seeking God in this our Mt. Horeb, meeting God where our honest questions and self-doubt intersect with mystery and silence, and readying ourselves to encounter God in the ordinary miracles of humanitarian service that we do together in a secular world.

Maybe this is the sign of Jonah for us repentant old Pharisees and Sadducees. Jonah was not that faithful; he was not confident in what God told him to do, and he did it begrudgingly. In fact, God had to bring Jonah into the very jaws of death to get him to do his job. But Jonah did it, and it worked, and God was glorified in a way no one expected was possible.

Canceling the Series on Faith and Politics, or, Watch Out What You Ask For

In First Samuel, the people pester God for a King so they can be like all the other nations.  God bitterly accedes to their request, warning them through Samuel that they will be sorry (1 Samuel 8).  I guess we’ve come a long way.  I offered to present a sermon series on faith and politics, and found it was roundly rejected….

What became clear to me is that. on the whole, we are not yet ready to hear anything regarding the meaning of faith for our political life.  The very conjunction of the words “faith” and “politics” acts as (to use a buzzword) a dog whistle, prompting a strong reaction before people can even hear what I’ve said.

I made the case in a June 16 post that my approach to faith and politics would be very different from how most preachers do this.  Most preachers try to sneak in political content and see how far they can get away with it.  I suspect many preachers want to feel like they are making what political difference they can, but as I suggested in that post, the result is often a self-righteous and theologically irresponsible statement on a big, “hot-button” national issue that will mean nothing anyway.  (Will you change the way one or two congregants vote in an election?  And so what?)  Others I think want to reorient the political values of the congregation on a larger and more meaningful scale, but this is done with manipulative rhetoric, typically forcing a political issue into the Bible or cherrypicking texts.  How is this loving and respecting your congregation?  Isn’t this just doing what our whole country is descending into: seeing each other as political obstacles to be manipulated by any means necessary?

Anyway, I already made the case that I will have no part in this kind of thing.  But I also argued that just politely avoiding all political content is no solution.  The Gospel is about a way of being a people, thus all that stuff about the “Kingdom of God.”   We’ve already gone way too far into making the gospel a purely private, personal matter–about how I find personal peace and forgiveness and perhaps life after death.  Jesus shows little interest in such a small scope of concern.

That aside, we have already been affected and changed by the growing polarization of our culture.  We are more and more dividing into two tribes, Red and Blue, and that division goes right through our denominations and our own congregation.  Must I say the obvious?  Trustees are Red.  Missions and CE are Blue.  (Obviously there are exceptions, but the tendency is striking.) We have self-segregated, like the whole country is self-segregating.  It would be naive to think that just staying the course is possible.  If we don’t address this openly and transparently, then Red and Blue will only more and more become our new Jew and Greek.

As I said, I discerned that we are not yet ready to address this matter transparently.  I received a kind note of concern to my previous post.  But I also received a very different note.  This one made its way to my inbox by accident.  It was from a congregant who was writing someone else that the pastor is going to preach on faith and politics, and complaining that “looks like we are not going to church in the fall.”  The message urged the friend to “READ his blog.”  There was also a disparaging comment about my pastoral care, which–though I’ve never been proud of how much pastoral care I provide with my 25 hours a week–was misinformed.

First of all, I write this blog as a way to explore ideas with my congregation, with the advantage that here it is easy to get feedback and continue conversation.  (I wish the “comment” feature was a little easier to use, but it is a free blog site.)  I expect more from the congregation to just scanning the blog to find something incriminating about me.  That’s how the Pharisees listened to Jesus (not to push the parallel too far).  Instead, I expect that you either won’t have time to read everything I say, and it’s not like it’s all drops of golden sunshine; or that you will read in good faith, thoughtfully considering what I say and telling me very directly when you read something that you find disagreeable.  You shouldn’t be trying to “catch” me.  That’s not what a community founded on love and mutual respect does.  I recognize the fact that pastoral authority can be frustratingly undemocratic; but you all have ways to express your disagreement directly and constructively, and many of you have seen how open and encouraging I am to this.

Second, the email I received exactly confirmed my point, that without addressing this issue head-on, we will simply continue to split more into Red and Blue.  The author was using (perceived) political issues to build a coalition along political lines against me.  But that’s exactly what I said was the problem that I was working on avoiding!  We should not be confiding with the people we already agree with politically about how those other people are so wrong and dangerous.  But that’s what was going on in that email, and I’ve heard people on the left in our congregation do the same thing.  We are already poisoned, all of us.

But whenever we continue in our very bad habit of talking about each other in the third person, creating coalitions against one another, I will counter the only way I know how: by being even more direct.  I went over to the household that produced that email; the author wasn’t in, but the spouse was, and I had a very good conversation–listening and talking–and explained how what I am trying to do is essential to what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, as well as to survive and thrive as a congregation.

I received no other strong reactions against my proposed sermon series.  But I still am postponing it.  (Note: not forever!)  I received from church leaders cautionary words, which is fine.  But no one said to me: “Yes, pastor, I hear what you are saying and see why this is so important.  We need this.”

But I think we do.  I can’t force it on you; that would be counterproductive and an abuse of authority.  So I am going to push us onward in another way.  Instead of the proposed series on faith and politics, this fall I’ll have a series on spiritual growth.  I’m creating a spiritual self-evaluation that will call on each one of us to discern where we have yet to grow in our faithfulness to God and to each other as a church.  I think we need to remember and put into practice the fact that our life in God is an endless path of growth and sanctification, even though we are already reconciled and united with God in Christ.  But the ramifications of that necessarily take up a whole lifetime.

So we are not by any means off the hook, only all the more on it, and I’m going to start reeling you upward.  Because we will not get anywhere in our need to become a people committed to a shared way of life before God, just by listening to what I have to say.  Our only way forward is to rise up together toward Christ.  Our whole life needs to be one of repenting and being converted by discerning Christ in each other.  The goal will be something higher than any of us possess right now, but we can only get there with and through each other.

And the authority my words carry is nothing I own.  It is never about just listening to my say-so.  Even so, my life is a constant testing of myself before God, and constant striving with God for the blessing of truth, and I constantly come out limping.  Even when I seem to have won a blessing, I am never sure whether God didn’t just pretend to let me win this one.  (See my sermon on Jacob.)  You also must wrestle with what I say, and put yourself to the test before God.  And finally our strivings must not be done alone, but together.  We are Congregational, which means no one else is going to help us figure out the truth of God.  It’s all up to us.  We should be terrified at this.  But one thing is clear in the Bible: Where the terror is, there also is the glory of God.



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!

Aug. 6: “…Yet My Life is Preserved”

The sermon enjoyed a better reception than I expected.  Could it be I kept it to 12 minutes?  

Romans 9:1-5 ; Genesis 32:22-32

We began by recognizing and respecting our bodies as a blessing and an integral gift to seeking God. And then we recognized our individual self, our personal concerns, and set them before God in prayer. This is right and good. God warmly cares about each one of us, wishing that each of us thrive and enjoy our created life.

I wouldn’t want to stop there, however. We’re not really God’s church and kingdom if we don’t go beyond our personal concerns. I was reminded of this by a former student of mine who, I was delighted to learn, is now going on to pastoral ministry. And it is always humbling to learn something from a former student. In a seminary article she made this observation about churches like ours, that are mostly white and middle-class: “[These churches] that I have encountered view the role of the pastor to be one of comfort and taking care of members. With this view of the pastoral role, faith becomes a mostly personal endeavor and a personal affair. Not only is the prophetic voice lost, but the pastor’s individual voice can also be lost.” Amen, Judith. She wants our churches to go beyond personal faith concerns to address the issues that shape our common world, especially racism. I humbly agree with my former student. I do hope that she will discover pastoral care to be a beautiful part of ministry, one that ultimately deals with the same humanity as does the church’s witness on social issues. About the latter I have more to say, but I am saving that for my blog.

But according to our bulletin (which is a sneaky way of saying “according to me,” because I pretty much wrote the bulletin), we have moved on from the Self segment and are now in the Spirit segment of our service. In this segment we rise above our personal concerns and, primarily through the mysterious reality we call God’s Word and reflection on it, we seek to attain a unity of mind. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” And later he adds, “We have the mind of Christ.” If we can have a unity of mind and purpose based on a transcendent union with Christ, then when we actually enact being a community, being God’s people and kingdom, which is what we do in the last segment of worship, our work together will be vitalizing, conflict-free, and really potent.

Now unity of mind doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or think perfectly alike. Being the Body of Christ means learning to love and honor our natural diversity. I certainly don’t mean we all should think like ME. I get really tired of my own mind. But part of our life together involves striving to be mindful together about following God in our world today. It’s typically my job to lead this, but we can’t really attain Spirit, unity of mind, unless you keep me true, like my former student Judith just kept me true. So starting today, I’m going to try to not run all over the place during fellowship hour, but plant myself at one table to listen to any thoughts you have on the sermon or service, including this kooky experiment in four-parts. Come sit down with me and share freely. My list of virtues is short, but I do take criticism very well.

Also this August, I want to focus on Old Testament texts. I’ll say more on that as the month goes, and more on Paul’s continuing attempt in Romans to come to terms with the Judaism he was raised on. I know we all love to read the New Testament. It’s an excellent witness to our faith when it was fresh and young and vital. But guess what: it isn’t that anymore. We are much more like the ancient Israelites of the second temple period, or maybe even those living in exile and captivity, than like the early Christians of Acts or Paul’s churches. Like the writers and compilers of the Old Testament, we live our faith in the wake of a long and tired struggle with corruption and flagging energy, and we often have a hard time understanding who God is in the midst of all this. While usually the New Testament speaks as if everything has been made so clear and final through the light of Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament often compels us to be honest about our own questions and puzzlement about God.

Take today’s reading about Jacob’s all-night struggle with whoever that was. Having heard it, even though it may be a familiar story, are any of you left with the illusion that the meaning and moral of this story is simple and clear? That’s what a lot of people would like to expect from the Bible, and from the preacher: a simple, clear message to help us keep on keepin’ on. The only clear message I imagine any of us got so far is, “Don’t eat that thigh muscle that is on top of the hip socket.” If you are satisfied with that carving tip, you may stop listening to the rest of the sermon.

The story is utterly perplexing to us, especially in English and with no context. I could unleash a mountain of scholarship on you and explain the three or more puns involved in the story. If you love puns, then Genesis is your book. This story alone draws on a pun between Jabbok and the word “to wrestle” and well as “Jacob;” a second pun between the name “Israel,” introduced here, and the word from “striving;” and a third pun between Peniel (or was it Penuel?) and the phrase, “face of God.” Of course, those puns only work in Hebrew, and they just aren’t as fun when you translate them.

There’s also so much to be said about the context and setting of this story. Jacob is re-entering the land promised him by God. On the way out to start his family, he had his famous dream vision of the ladder to God (nicely alluded to in our Anthem). On the way back, he is under a dire threat that everything he has gained—his wives and children, his wealth and flocks, his father’s blessing which he stole from his brother (and who knew such a thing could be stolen?)—all this and his very life might perish at the hands of his angry, red and furry brother Esau (who in this story symbolizes the nation Esau or Edom, Israel’s neighbors who are kin but often hostile.) This story brings us to another dramatic climax in the Genesis story, like the one I left off with in June, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As in that story, today it looks again like the whole promise and plan of God might not come to pass. The promise of prosperity and descendants, given originally to Abraham but also as a promise to “all the nations,” including us, looks like it might go belly up after all, for Jacob and everything he has might be destroyed. This time the culprit will not be a God who bafflingly decides that all of the sudden he wants a sacrifice, but Jacob’s own trickery coming back to haunt him. Esau is understandably furious.

I think there’s a profound point standing behind this sibling rivalry. Israel as a nation, though chosen by God and charged to be holy and unique, was in many ways just another nation, living by all the tricks and machinations that nations use to get one up on their neighbors. Each of our churches is also, in many respects, just another human organization, seeking to compete for attention and resources, like any organization. Why do we, in our lowly, ordinary humanity, deserve to think of ourselves as chosen and blessed by God, as an incarnation of God’s very kingdom? I think Jacob is wondering, as we might also wonder, why he deserves to inherit such a blessing—why not Esau, or anyone else. And we are close to Jacob’s plight in another way, for we also are well aware, now more than ever, that our two churches might not live forever. Will the inheritance be passed on?

Like Abraham in his trial when called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob shows that he is willing to put everything on the line for God. He has already sent a big portion of his flocks and wealth ahead as a gift to Esau, hoping it will appease him. Then in our passage he sends his wives and his children across the Jabbok river. He is left alone. Alone the uncertainty of his life’s outcome. With no family to distract him or to help him pretend there is no crisis.   Alone in not knowing what God has in store for him.

Then the story gets really weird, but as weird as it gets, amid all those puns that don’t work for us, the amazing thing is that we still feel like we are at the brink of a great and compelling mystery. A man appears and wrestles with Jacob. Or was it a man? It also seems to have been an angel of God—or was it God in person, this stranger who refused to give his name? Stranger still, Jacob seems to get the better of the man / God, who, like a vampire, seems to be desperate to leave before sunrise, and begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob doesn’t let the man / God go until he blessed him, making Jacob a serial blessings-stealer. Then the man/ God renames him, saying “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob himself gets in the last pun, this time on the name Peniel, which he riffs on by saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He says this because it was thought that God was so holy, and so incomprehensibly beyond us mere mortals, that were we to see God directly, face to face, God would blow our minds.

It’s all very strange. But maybe that’s just what we need a little dose of. We get in the habit of trying to make church very normal. And so we emphasize the normal good things that we do as a church: some will say we encourage fellowship and instill good values, others will say we serve those in need and those who are neglected and rejected. All of this is good. Who would object to any of that? But perhaps we’ve made ourselves so normal, so commonsensical, that neither we nor anyone outside can remember a compelling reason to come to church and attend to the “Spirit” section of worship, especially when folks can find fellowship, values, and social justice outside of the church if they want to.

But where else can you strive with God, and overcome God? What a bafflingly fresh way to think about what we do here. We usually talk about how God has blessed us and given us so much, and didn’t even hold back God’s own son, but gave him up for our sakes. God just gives and gives, and we respond with thanks. But I think this weird Jacob story is showing us the underbelly of our religion. We take from God. We appropriate God as our own. We do claim God is present with us, do we not? Implying that God is more present here than elsewhere? And that we are particularly blessed? and we exert ourselves, not without some wounds, in our struggle to overcome God and claim this blessing. Who is more guilty of this, more like Jacob, more perilously near to being a blessing-stealer, than I? Don’t I pretend to have God in my clutches, to have overcome the mysterious and unknowable one, when I supposedly tell you what God wants you to do? This also is faith; not just a grateful, obedient receiving from God that we know from Abraham, but a terrifying and audacious grappling with God.

And God lets this be done by Jacob. God lets us us get away with claiming his name and authority, and forcing a blessing from it. God even lets humanity wrestle him to the cross. Maybe if we let the Jacob story shock us into seeing what we are doing here in a new light, we will take church less for granted. We too will, like Jacob, be amazed that we have come this close, as close as sharing a meal, to the God whom man cannot see face to face, and yet our lives have been preserved.