Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How will churches respond to Recession?

It seems a few churches are responding by holding support groups for those who have lost jobs or are facing difficult economic times. This hasn't escaped NPR's astute reporting: give a read or a listen to their coverage of this development here. On a more local level, Knox Presbyterian in Naperville provides both a weekly encouragement gathering every Thursday morning and hosts a job connection database through its website. Check it out here.

I'm proud of churches responding to the New Economy in a tangible way. God does not address us just in our warm-fuzzy "spiritual" parts; he saves us in all our humanness, including the parts of us that need some weekly cash-flow to put food on a table and to have four walls and a floor for that table to stand on. When the church takes action to address our human needs, it's being the presence of God in the same way that Jesus was when he healed the sick, cast out demons, and fed the hungry.

But I also have some questions for our churches. First and foremost, why do we so often resort to spiritualizing comfort (I think James calls it blessing your brothers and sisters but turning them away hungry) or moralizing condemnations of the big, bad, dirty-rotten CEOs (Jeremiah definitely indicts both the rich and the oppressed poor as idolatrous participants in an anti-God system)? 

Halden from Inhabitatio Dei asks another difficult question:
But I do find it interesting how the church is intervening to put people back to work across America. I wonder also why we aren’t hearing of churches across America sharing their financial resources to care for those that are out of work, in addition to providing emotional support groups…
That churches are addressing this issue at all is great. It's high time we began to worry just as much about people's employment and standard of living as we do about their personal quiet times and tithe check. But we can't walk too far down this road before we realize that our responses continue to be inadequate, to fall fall short of the Thessalonian church's support of the Jerusalem congregations even while believers in Thessalonica struggled to cobble ends together.

An article from Mustard Seed Associates poses another question: Why didn't we see this coming? Some of us did (not me!). A little more than a week before the beginning of the Wall Street disintegration, on September 7, 2008, MSA hosted a recession preparedness seminar (read about it here and read the results of that brainstorming session here.) Our churches are so often find themselves reacting; maybe it's time for us to start looking down the road a bit farther than next week's potluck and this summer's VBS.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oscar Romero - d. March 24, 1980

Today marks the 29th anniversary of the death Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated while performing the mass because he named the ways in which the gospel demanded that his society and its government change.

I value Mark Van Steenwyk's reflection: 
Instead of venerating him, let us be more like him. And instead of lifting up as some sort of patron saint of peace and justice, may his lingering prophetic voice, which still echoes through the halls of time, encourage to lift our own voices as we follow Jesus in our place and time.
Follow the (different yet rather similar) links below links below to read more reflections on Romero.

Remembering Romero and Resisting Abstraction - Jesus Manifesot

Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 22 - Jesus Is My Shepherd

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Ps 23 & Jer 23.1-6 & Mk 6.30-52 - Jesus Is My Shepherd

[After reading Ps 23 & Jer 23.1-6]

1. Jesus is the good shepherd. In the passage from Mark we are centering our time together on this evening, Jesus cares for the crowds who come to hear him and for his followers through actions that show what it means for him to be the good shepherd. We’ll see this when we look at it a bit later in the service.

In the passage from Jeremiah that we just heard, God is accusing the leaders of ancients Israel of being bad shepherds, of failing to care for the needs of the people and instead being concerned only with their own wants and desires. The Bible often uses the picture of shepherding to describe what a good ruler is supposed to do. Ezekiel, another prophet, blames Israel’s leaders for failing to care for the sheep. He accuses them: “You do not feed the sheep! You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. They were scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became food for every wild beast.”

If we think about kings as shepherds, king David comes to mind pretty quickly. David is the most important king in the biblical imagination, a king who had a special relationship with God. He was not only a good shepherd to the people, but he had in fact started out tending actual sheep in the fields before he was anointed king.

God always maintains that he alone is the true ruler of Israel. The psalm we read tonight begins, Yahweh is my shepherd. The prophets often return to the idea that because Israel’s rulers have proved themselves to be poor shepherds, Yahweh, the true shepherd, is going to step in personally to care for his people, often by setting up a good king, a good ruler. In the passage we heard from Jeremiah, God says, “Then I myself will regather those of my sheep who are still alive from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture. . . . I will install shepherds over them who will care for them. Then they will no longer need to fear or be terrified. None of them will turn up missing. . . . I, Yahweh, promise that the days are certainly coming when I will raise up for them a righteous Branch, a descendant of David. He will rule over them with wisdom and understanding and will do what is just and right in the land.”

We’re trying something a bit different tonight. After we sing another song and listen to the passage from Mark, we’re going to go over to the tables where some large sheets of paper are laid out. We’re going to process artistically the ways in which Jesus is our good shepherd. Then we’ll hang the artwork up here to surround us as we look forward to Easter. Then afterward, we’ll come back and sing, I’ll say a few things more directly about the passage from Mark, and then we’ll go into our prayer and sharing time.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Suburbs

Jordan Peacock (a very cool guy) posted this insightful reflection on the challenges and opportunities of following Jesus when you live in the suburbs. This is pretty relevant to our community! 

Also check out the two books he refers to,  On The Side Of The Angels by Dr. Joseph D’Souza and Benedict Rogers and Justice In The Burbs by Will & Lisa Samson. I haven't read either yet, but they just made it on to my reading list!

The Suburbs

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15 - Our Mission

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Mk 6.1-13, 30-32 & Ezek 2.1-5 - Our Mission

Jesus comes home to Nazareth. On the Sabbath, he goes to the synagogue and begins to teach the people that the time they’ve been waiting of is now here, that God’s about to set the world right, and that they must repent and begin to trust him if they are to be involved in the new world God is bringing. Jesus has preached this message all throughout the region of Galilee, and even briefly across the lake in the non-Jewish region of the Gerasenes. Now he’s brought it to the the town where he grew up, to Nazareth, where his mom and his brothers James, Joses, Judas and Simon live. He brings the message to the town where his sisters have married and are starting families of their own.

I don’t often get back to Montana, to Belgrade, the little town where I grew up. My parents still live in an old farmhouse a few miles north of town. I have a brother and a sister in college at Montana State and another little sister still in high school. When I go back to visit, however much I want things to be the same as they were when I was growing up, things are always a bit different. I’ve changed in my years away. I went to college in Ohio, got married, lived as a missionary in Eastern Europe, studied theology at a Catholic university here in Chicago, and now I’m part of a crazy little community that mets at five o’clock on Sunday nights. My family and high school friends are understanding; they realize that too much time away from the mountains will change a person. But when I start talking about my vision of what the church is called to be, of where God is calling us, of what it means to be a Jesus-follower, sometimes they squirm uncomfortably in their seat or they look bored or they nod and mutter something about “Josh, you have the strangest ideas, but we know you’ll grow out of them.”

That’s what Jesus experiences in Nazareth. “Where did you get these ideas?” they ask. “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters all here with us?” And what does the text go on to say? He was not able to do a miracle there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed because of their unbelief.

These people are evidence that some seed falls alongside the path and Satan swoops down and steals it away before it has any time to sprout. these people--Jesus’ in-laws and neighbors, his brothers and childhood friends--they don’t hear Jesus’ message. We might expect them to be the most receptive. After all, this is the religious synagogue Jesus attended as he grew up. But these people already think they know Jesus. So they scoff at his message in disbelief, unable to recognize the new thing that God is offering to them.

It’s in this context, right after this faithless and heartbreaking response from his hometown, that Jesus calls his twelve closest followers to himself and sends them out on a mission.

As I’ve prepared for tonight, I’ve wrestled with why Jesus chooses to send out his followers two-by-two just now. Wouldn’t it have been better to send them out when they were all pumped up, like last week after he raised the dead girl back to life or right after he calmed the storm on the lake? Why do it now? Then there’s a second, bigger question I’ve struggled to answer: What does this mean for our community that meets here on Sunday nights?

We are a community that Jesus has sent out on a mission. In fact, it’s more or less the same mission he sends the twelve on. Even though I pray that our time together on Sunday evenings is transforming our lives--even though I hope that when you get into a disagreement with a coworker, your first response is not to go gossip about them to someone else but to respond in the kindness and seemingly senseless love of God’s kingdom; even though I hope that when you get the bad news that a close family member is seriously ill, your response is not to bury yourself in the distraction of television or the Internet or to stare blankly in despairing fatalism but that instead, even through your tears, you pray to the God who save us, who is already healing the world and making all things new in the resurrection life of Jesus--personal transformation is not the only purpose or even the main purpose of our community. Why do we get together on Sunday nights?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Inward/Outward Spirituality in USAmerica

Read this article by Mark Van Steenwyk from Jesus Manifesto. 

Inward/Outward Spirituality in USAmerica

During Lent, we're talking about how we can follow Jesus better. A second conversation that we should have, one that lies just under the surface of this one, talks about how our lives, the ways we understand our place in the world, need to change as we follow Jesus. The Inward/Outward spiritual disciplines Mark discusses in this article (and the counter-spirituality our culture insists upon) actively mold us into Jesus-shaped disciples.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 8 - "Don't Be Afraid, Just Believe!"

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Mark 5.21-43 - “Don’t Be Afraid, Just Believe!”

I don’t often tell stories about the months Cindy and I spent as missionaries in Macedonia. I’m not sure why, and I think should start telling more stories about the kids, the college students, and the newborn churches we worked with.

Cindy and I spent a lot of our time during our first three or four months there learning the language. In Macedonia they zboruvat makedonski, they speak Macedonian. So every Tuesday and Thursday night Cindy and I would ride the bus toward the center of the city, to a neighborhood called Novo Lisiche, and sit for an hour or two with our language teacher Richard learning vocabulary and grammar, how to ask for directions, how to buy a kilo of potatoes or oranges at the market.

One Thursday night, a few months into our time in Macedonia--probably in February--I was riding the bus back to our apartment. For some reason, Cindy wasn’t able to come to class that evening, so I was riding alone.

It gets cold in Macedonia in the winter. It’s about at the same latitude as Chicago, and it’s surrounded by mountains. This night there was snow on the ground. I was sitting in the back of the bus. The bus was pretty empty, just me, a few men riding home from a day at cafes watching soccer, and a Roma family riding up front, a father and mother, one son who looked about ten years old and a younger son who was probably four or five. The mother and especially the father looked too old to have such young children, but by this point in my time in Macedonia, I’d learned that in Roma families people often look much older than they are. The Roma are gypsies, the trash-pickers, the scrap-metal collectors, the people who build their homes in the city dump. They live hard lives, so a man who looks sixty may only be thirty and a woman who looks fifty-five may only be twenty-eight.

I looked up again at the family at the front of the bus as we bounced through another intersection. The father’s toes and heels were sticking out of his shoes. There was snow outside, cold air blowing in around the doors to the bus, and this man’s bare toes and exposed heels had nothing between them and elements.

I sat there, disturbed, unsure what to do. I felt guilty. I felt guilty because I knew that I had come to the country with two pairs of shoes and a pair of sandals besides and this man had nothing that passed for decent shoes on a cold February night. And I felt afraid. Should I give him my shoes, the shoes I was wearing that night, the same shoes I’m wearing tonight? I could make it fairly easily from the bus stop to my apartment just in my socks. But if I did, how would I speak to him? I could barely express myself in my broken Macedonian, and odds were that his own Macedonian was not that great; he would speak some Roma dialect. Would I offend him? Is it an insult to his character if I offer him a gift in front of his children?

I sat there feeling guilty and afraid until he and his family stepped out into the cold a few stops later. When the bus finally reached the end of the line, my stop, I thanked the driver, pulled my coat collar up, and walked to my apartment, feeling angry at my own fear and lack of action.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March 1 - The Faithless Disciples and the Freed Demoniac (Notes)

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O’Clock
Mk 4.35-5.20 & Lent - “The Faithless Disciples and the Freed Demoniac”

Note: I normally write my sermons out in manuscript form, composing each word and phrase. This week I made a go at working off only some notes. You can all be the judge of how successful I was (I'm open to constructive criticism!). Here are my notes for my talk on Lent and two scenes from Mark.

What have been your past experience of Lent? Do you have any Lenten traditions? When we talk about Lent, what thoughts do you think and how do you feel?

 We entered the season of Lent this week on Ash Wednesday. The church had a service where we officially marked the beginning of Lent by smearing a cross on our foreheads out of the ashes of last years Palm Sunday palm fronds. Lent stretches through the forty days leading up to Easter

Lent has been a part of the church calendar since the first centuries following Jesus’ resurrection. At first it wasn’t something the whole church participated. Only the catechumens, those people preparing to be baptized take part. A lot of churches liked to baptize new believers on Easter (even though it wasn’t called Easter yet). The catechumens would spend
 the forty days before their baptism in increased spiritual disciplines, like fasting and prayer, discerning the new way of life they were beginning at baptism and repenting, swearing off the old way of life they were leaving behind. The Didache, the earliest church handbook we have, spends a lot of time talking about the Two Ways, the way of life in Christ, following Jesus, and the way of life not in Christ. I’m going to read the first paragraph so you get an idea of what the early baptismal candidates were reflecting on.

The Two Ways and the First Commandment. There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and
 do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings. 
Didache, chapter 1.

I want to pose another question: What does baptism have to do with discipleship?

March 1 - The Disciples in Gethsemane: Quality Time

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.
Mark 14.32-50 - “The Disciples in Gethsemane: Quality Time”

Note: I had the great opportunity to preach at the Sunday morning services this week. The church, in good Presbyterian fashion, is going through a Lenten study series, this year on Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages. Each week, a member of the pastoral staff has taken one of the love languages and sought to show how it is rooted in the gospel. Below is my meditation on Quality Time as a way of expressing love within the church community.

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to the disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”

Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.
Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.
Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

“Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled.

During the season of Lent, we as a congregation are working through Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. Our goal is to become better at communicating our love to other people. In Mark 12 verses 30 and 31, Jesus says God’s most important command to us is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second most important, he says, is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12.30-31). In John 15, Jesus puts it another way: My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command (Jn 15.12-14). God cares a lot about the love we show to others in our daily lives.

So how do we love? Is it a skill that we practice like scales on the piano? Does it take hard work to learn like polevaulting? Are we liable to get bruised and sore along the way? Yes, yes, and yes. But most of all, love is a choice to change the way we behave, to change what we do. Sometimes we think of love as a feeling, but love that stays in our heart is about as useless as a drug that cures cancer locked up in a top secret pharmaceuticals laboratory.

Last week Pastor Mark talked about how we can show love through the words we use. This week I want to talk about how we can show love through the way we spend our time. We need to learn to use our time lovingly in our relationships, parents with kids, parents with adult children, husbands to wives, friend to friend, dating couples, coworkers and strangers. But I don’t want our time together this morning to become simply a how-to laundry list. Instead I want us to dig down into the deepest heart of what it means for us to love one another by spending quality time together.

Jesus has already pointed the way toward the heart of all love. In Mark 12, he says the greatest commandment is that we love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength. Wherever we show love in our lives, in whatever relationships we’re in, underneath it all lies our obligation, unspoken, maybe unrecognized, to love God. If our love for anyone is to be true and real and good, it must spring from our loving relationship with God our Father.

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