4th in Lent (3/11): What Must We Give Up to Follow Jesus? Our Spiritual Experience?

I got only a few comments on this one, and a meeting after church precluded holding the Sermon Response Table. The Church Council meeting was really great, and I’ll have a posting on that in the future. 

John 3:11-21; Ephesians 2:1-10, 12-13

Last week I asked if we need to give up our religion to follow Jesus. And of course the answer was not simply, yes. But I suggested we should be ready and willing for God to purge all the stuff that goes into our religious views and practices, just like Jesus purged the temple of commercialism.

This week’s question is related, but may sound even more counterintuitive. Must we give up our spiritual experiences? Many people today assume that faith is all about spiritual experiences, although religion can do fine without spiritual experiences. Some of you have shared with me your spiritual experiences, and I encourage you to do so. Religion should be deeply felt and experienced. We New Englanders with our very private faith sometimes don’t like the idea of sharing a spiritual experience or lack thereof, but sharing is the point. Good spiritual experience drives you toward others; it doesn’t leave you in some private realm with God.

When Paul deals with spiritual experiences in First Corinthians, especially speaking in tongues, he ends up saying that what really matters is what we can share as a community, not your own personal spiritual highs. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I can offer my own experiences here. I had a very dramatic conversion experience when I was 16. It was ushered in by a great flood of tears, and followed the next day by such a powerful sense of love. But it didn’t take me to some place where I was alone with God, like two private lovers. Instead, the Spirit that took me over gave me a keen love for others; it was far more than just a feeling or emotion—I could sharply perceive what it really meant to love others in each particular situation, and how very far from doing that I had been.

I can share this experience with you, and you can share yours with me (please do), and many think talking about your own personal experience makes for moving and effective rhetoric. But even if you’ve had dramatic spiritual experiences, they almost inevitably fade. Then what do you do? You might be tempted to blame God for abandoning you. I recommend we do not. What if the reason our dramatic experience of God’s Spirit fades is because most of us live pretty safe, secure, protected lives. Maybe if we lived on the edge, like many lively Christians in the developing world do, we would be more open to the power of God’s Spirit. Maybe if I hadn’t been living in my secure, suburban 16 year old life, surrounded by devices and concerns that kept me focused on the here and now, my spiritual experience would have persisted. But what are you going to fall back on when you no longer are feeling it?

Well, you need to have a community that practices a faith together to plug into so that you can grow and be sustained in other ways when the feeling fades. So there I was, enraptured in this beautiful state, feeling this loving power of God for people all around me for two days; and then it faded. I couldn’t sustain it. But I did pursue it. I joined a church that seemed more real to me than the one I was raised in, and I began to learn anew. Looking back 32 years later (!), I have such an odd sense of that day. I was so ignorant about God and how to think about God, ignorant of the Bible and the great traditions of Christianity, and yet there was real wisdom within that personal experience of God’s Spirit. But I needed a community larger than myself to supplement that powerful but brief experience with a wisdom practiced and grounded. Sadly, it took me awhile to find that. Wisdom and good faith practices don’t come easy in our complicated and quickly changing world, and our churches are often poorly equipped to provide them. I guess that’s why it took me years—we’re talking decades!—to interpret that experience into a way of life that I can share with others. I don’t have spiritual experiences that powerful anymore, but I’m ok without them. I have a faith in common with others that sustains me.

Do some of you know what I’m talking about? Have you had powerful spiritual experiences, perhaps a long time ago, and maybe you chose to listen to them and follow those experiences, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe you didn’t find the wisdom you needed, and now those experiences just seem disconnected from you. And maybe our teenagers are having such experiences now, in this dramatic time of life. Are you young folk ready to plug into the wisdom of our common faith? Do our adults have the wisdom and faith practices to share with you that you’ll need?

Well, I can talk about my experiences, and you can talk about yours. But what about others who have no dramatic experiences of their own to share? I knew a wonderful woman at our church in Illinois named Linda. An elderly woman, she was faithful, and wise; she offered such great questions and insights in church study sessions. But one day she exclaimed, full of sadness, “People talk about feeling the Spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that. What’s wrong with me?” My answer is, nothing’s wrong with you. Not everyone is given to spiritual experiences. They can be a rich source of blessing and assurance; and if someone is having dramatic spiritual experiences, at least you can be pretty sure that they aren’t just going through the motions. But you can be perfectly faithful without dramatic spiritual experiences. Indeed, dramatic spiritual experiences can make you all wrapped up in yourself, so that today many declare that they are spiritual but not religious, which might mean that they have become focused on an individual spiritual life that leaves no room for any one else or for a community. And of course, many cult leaders have wowed people by their lively spiritual experiences and, without well-tested wisdom, led them to doom.

Like any power, spiritual experiences can be good or bad. They can be vehicles of God, or they can be folly. Maybe it would be helpful to “de-mystify” mysticism, if I may. Mystical, spiritual experiences are found in just about every human culture, taking all kinds of forms, although many forms of religion have done fine without them.   Since ancient times, people have used extreme physical states—sleep deprivation, self-laceration, ecstatic frenzies and exhausting dances (check out 1 Samuel 10:9-13)—to induce religious experience of a mystical kind. In some traditional cultures, hallucinogens (drugs) were used for this purpose, but within the bounds of a carefully structured tradition. More recently, some have used drugs in search of spiritual experiences without that guiding tradition. Indeed, a very good friend of mine had an unexpected experience of God’s powerful presence while tripping at a Grateful Dead concert. I’m happy to report that he went on to become a serious student of Jewish theology, and a member of Narcotics Anonymous. Even more bewildering, there are people who under surgery had certain parts of their brain stimulated, and then reported having out of body experiences and other spiritual seeming phenomenon.

Spiritual experiences are bound up with the complicated and sometimes very odd workings of the brain. Why do I no longer have the same powerful experiences as I had at 16? I used to think that my heart had grown cold, but more likely it’s just something peculiar about the teenage brain and the odd social situation of teens. Now, the fact that hormones or drugs or even brain surgery can artificially stimulate spiritual experiences does not undermine their importance. I think there is a reality underlying them—even the drug trips, I suppose—but nothing we get from spiritual experiences can stand without the testing and direction that comes from a tradition, or without a community in which to share them and supplement them and join them into a common way of life.//

Well, whether we have had experiences and they have faded, or we’ve never had dramatic experiences, we all end up in the same place. We mostly spend our lives going through the daily grind of life, in which God seems more like a remote idea than a powerful, personal presence. How to deal with this?

I think the reading we heard from Ephesians can be helpful here. Once again, Paul will take a love effective in community over a spiritual experience every time. So ultimately he wants to say that you by yourself, no matter what your achievements and spiritual experiences, are nothing. In our passage he makes this point by saying that, before Christ, you had nothing. That makes perfect sense for the people he was talking to: they were adult converts from paganism. His rhetoric doesn’t work as well when applied to people raised as Christians from birth. But the point is the same: what your life is most truly about has nothing to do with you in particular. Aside from what God did in Jesus, there’s nothing special about us. We’d be just “like everyone else,” “following along with the course of the world,” as Paul puts it; or “going with the flow” as we might say. But to the church, Paul says: “By grace you are saved by faith.” Not because we are special and different. Not because of our grand spiritual experiences are we saved. “Ah,” you will say, “but we are saved by faith, and isn’t that something we do, and even a kind of spiritual experience that sets us apart, for which God rewards me?”

I’m convinced that this, sadly, is an understandable but very common mistake people make when interpreting Paul. He makes it as clear as he can that we are not supposed to receive God’s salvation by looking inward and finding what I did—even what I believed or what I experienced—that makes me different and worthy. Paul says we were saved by grace, adding: “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” There is a great mystery in God’s grace, and no one, even Paul, can put it just perfectly. It’s something like this: God set us aside, saved us, to be different from those who don’t believe. But we absolutely do not get to say that therefore, I am special. I am better. If anything, we only get to appreciate just how unworthy we are of this gift. And for all we know, others have their own gifts from God.

But we haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. More to the point, it is because we receive all things through Christ Jesus that we never have to look deep inside us to find who we really are and what makes us special. We are under so many pressures in our culture to find out what makes us special. So many of our children’s stories are about discovering what makes you unique and special. Maybe like Disney’s Moana you have a unique destiny for which the ocean chose you; or you are like a superhero who looks ordinary on the outside but inside carries secret powers that set you apart. It’s like our biggest fear is being lost in the crowd. But standing out and being special puts a lot of pressure on us. Our society holds up these celebrities, no matter how vain or pointless their achievements, and tells us, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you stand out and get famous! So you can have a brief moment of fame, only to become a has-been next week. The system chews up and spits out our celebrities; no wonder so many turn to drugs or even suicide. But we get the message: achieve! Achieve Achieve! We even think that way about our spirituality, looking for something uniquely our own. But at the bottom of this pursuit lies greed.

Our Christian faith frees us from this desire to stand out, to be unique, to be the me that “I’ve gotta be.” Jesus Christ is no celebrity. Because what he did, he did for all. And so we don’t have to find a way to be saviors in our own unique way. We find in him our truest and most shareable self. Everyone can be a member of Christ, can share in his achievement. Without him we are just like everyone else, including those has-been celebrities. As Paul puts it: “You were dead through trespasses and sin…” “but God…raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” We have this not to ourselves but in him. What I experience that sets me apart doesn’t matter. It’s the one story and one name of Christ that matters, and that unites us all equally, rather than trying to set us apart.

That’s why Paul finds in Christ the peace that unites divided people. Christ’s peace is not only an inner peace; it is a peace among and between us, a peace that brings us together across lines of division. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

We have two more Sundays in Lent. Lent is a time of turning inward to both reflect and then act on ways to repent of our current life and become better followers of Jesus. This is important, but it is not the final goal. Our Christian journey does not end in our turning inward in guilt and shame, nor does it end in personal peace and a spiritual high. I suppose, looking at it one way, our Christian journey never ends, it just becomes eternal. But in another way, it really ends at Easter. It ends by seeing in this one, Christ Jesus, a completion of everything God is and God does. Let us fast well and repent sincerely, and by doing so, we will be well ready to give up on our sin and our spiritual experiences and to receive in all its completeness the joy that is ours in Jesus our Lord.

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Seriousness about religion and church survival (some bad news and a good offer)

I’ve been researching the decline of mainline denominations.  Strangely to me, there seems to be much more about this written by sociologists than theologians.  And there are real limits to their analysis.  “Religion” is inevitably a neutral category to sociologists.  But to God, one has to assume (and see my most recent sermon on this), there is an enormous gulf between true religion and false, however hard it may be for us to figure out which is which.

Recent studies show that mainline decline can be greatly accounted for by decreases in fertility among mainline denominations.  Mainliners have fewer children, and have them later in life.  (That correlates with us being more educated and wealthier.  The richer you are and the more you study, apparently, the less you want children.)  The Future of Mainline Protestantism, just out, makes this case several times over.

Another recent study agrees with this.  But Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America’s Christian Churches by George Hawley also considers some data about how seriously various churches take their faith.  And he finds a strong correlation between church growth or at least low shrinkage and the percent in a church saying they take their religion “very seriously.”

Here’s the sad news: bringing up (down?) the bottom of the list is the United Church of Christ, with a meagre 39% saying they take their religion seriously.  Other mainliners come in at under 50%.  And of course, they are all shrinking fast.  But among evangelical Protestants (Southern Baptists, Mormons, Assemblies of God, Adventist) 70%+ say they take their religion very seriously.  Not all are growing (Southern Baptists are shrinking for sure), but they are doing better.

Hawley makes the point that “it is difficult to say what exactly a denomination can do to…encourage their members to take their faith seriously.”  (Instead, he strongly counsels churches to encourage their young people to have lots of children.  Yeah, good luck with that!  Perhaps we could forbid contraception and sponsor a lot of drunken parties.)  He rightly notes that there may be self-selection at work: the people who want strictness will go where they will find that, and indeed perhaps they already have.

I say, let’s see what we can do.  Taking faith seriously would seem to be a good thing for any church to do, regardless.  But we don’t have to try to emulate the Adventists or others who embrace a strict, “sectarian” type of church model.  The mainline churches should continue to embrace the parish church model: if you live near us, we intend to be your church.  But we need to stop pretending like all of us share the same degree of faith.  I want to put out the message that, if you have a small place in your life for religion, you are certainly welcome to join us.  And we will welcome whatever you can contribute.  But I want to be clear that the norm, and what salvation in its fullness really means, is to take God with absolute seriousness and to serve God with all one’s heart and mind and strength.  I am going to keep calling on you to become that, and keep celebrating those who are moving in that direction.  If you have a limited place for religion, and you’re happy with that, well ok.  If we manage to intrigue or disturb you into seeking something more, then I and the other church leaders will be here to help you figure out what you can do.

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.

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?

A Critical Eulogy of Billy Graham

Some will say we should never speak unkindly of the dead, although I think that rule is flexible when we are dealing with people who have had an outsized influence in the world, some of it negative.  So I agree with much of what David Hollinger has to say on Graham in the below opinion piece.  Only I would not be so sanguine about the mainline establishment that Graham spurned–that’s us.  I’m no so confident that making the faith “cosmopolitan” is an unalloyed good, nor that our only problem is that evangelicals have poached on our faithful.  I think we are decaying from within, too, despite our many virtues celebrated by Hollinger.

Hollinger on Graham

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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