Sunday, December 23, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Advent IV - Love for the Shepherds

Gypsy Shepherds
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The shepherds camped with their flocks outside Bethlehem were unloved men. No mother, no bride worried for them during the long nights. Perhaps they had a few shepherd buddies that they might trade stories with or meet at the tavern. But society in general overlooked these men. They were the ancient equivalent of today’s retail clerks or gas bar attendants: not faces or names most would remember.

But then the angel appeared to these men, announcing, “Today a Savior has been born for you” (Luke 2:10-12). The angel said this news would bring “great joy to all the people.” Joy for all the people must include those often forgotten or overlooked, folks like the shepherds.
We believe that Christmas means love, and we show that love when we share meals, cards, and gifts with family and friends. However, the true spirit of Christmas love is to love those whom nobody else loves, people like the shepherds. That’s the kind of love God shows at Christmas.

Snippet from Sunday - Christmas Means Love - December 23

This season is all about love. We could add the love we have for friends, the camaraderie we share with co-workers, the cookies we carry next door to neighbors, the warm handshakes and hugs and cards we give and receive after a church service.

As believers and followers of Jesus, we suspect that this strong holiday feeling of love must in some way spring from the birth of our Savior. But we’re left a bit puzzled when we have to explain exactly what the child born in Bethlehem has to do with young couples holding hands while they skate or pretty packages piled underneath a pine tree. How do we trace the connections down from the virgin mother and the angels and shepherds and wise men all the way to the joy we feel as we bake butter tarts and peppernuts and other Christmas sweets to share with loved ones?

Here’s the truth about love and Christmas: Jesus was born because of love and for love. Jesus was born because God loves us, and Jesus was born for the purpose of bringing God’s love to us. The good news of Christmastime doesn’t get any more simple than that. “God loved us and sent his Son” (Jn 3.16).

Every act of love in this season, and in every season, has the potential to echo or to reflect God’s greatest expression of love toward us. Sometimes our expressions of love mirror God’s love with a joyful holiness; sometimes what we think of love is barely a pale reflection, something in which we can recognize a trace resemblance to God’s love only with a lot of hard work and imagination. . .

What we often call love is a strange alloy. It’s part love--the kind of love God shows--and in large part something else. We mix in lust or fear or self-congratulatory pride. Sure, there are trace amounts of real love there, but mostly it’s our desire for possession or pleasure. There’s a bit of true love there, but it’s overshadowed by our fear of being alone, our fear that the other person will leave us. It’s polluted by how good we feel about ourselves for loving others so extravagantly.

What we need is some refining fire to purify our love. We need some North Star to set the compass of our love by.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump . . .)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reflections on a Christmas Pageant - December 16

Kids bring us together. The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, leaves us all strongly aware of this. Yesterday our congregation joined with folks around the globe, believers and non-believers alike, in praying for comfort and peace, an end to such violence, for the families in Newtown.

I feel almost a duty to write about the horror of school shootings, the absolute horror of a shooting in an elementary school. This violence, with an altogether new terror and repulsion, tugs at a deep place in my heart. I remember walking my high school hallways in the days after Columbine. I cannot fully tell my own story without recounting how the televised news of that violence changed me.

But these stories and laments were in part displaced yesterday by the implacable church calendar: The Sunday School Christmas pageant was scheduled for yesterday morning. We had given the hour of our worship service to the kids to tell us the good news story of Jesus' birth.

Part of me sees a difficult irony in this. Kids sharing good news in the midst of so much tragic news about children. But hope often sounds difficult and ironic in our ears (no one foregrounds the interplay of hope and irony better than John the Evangelist). 

The kids of our congregation toddled in their homemade shepherd's costumes, some with stuffed lambs clutched in one hand. Mary and Joseph stood silent and wide-eyed before their grandparents and parents in the pews, uttering a barely audible "Oh, okay" when the angel delivered news of Jesus' impending birth. King (or, in our case, Queen) Herod gave directions to magi who were not quite on stage yet. 

In short, their Christmas program had all the dear details, the amateur earnestness, that fill adults' hearts with comfort and joy during this season. When we sang our closing hymn, "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," I was certain those in the pews had heard good news as surely as if the angel Gabriel himself had appeared in our midst. Parents beamed, directors and stagehands laughed with relief, children jumped up and down in excitement as they received their Christmas treat bags from their Sunday School teachers.

I stood back and smiled. The kids had brought good news to us: "A savior is born to bring peace to all people."

But, Oh, that we lived in that peace now. Through Advent we've sang a simple song, "Come, Lord, and Bring Hope." Each verse substitutes a new word for hope: peace, joy, love, life. In some ways, our God has already answered our congregational prayer: Jesus has come, Jesus was born, Jesus lived and loved, healed and taught, Jesus submitted to death, Jesus has even risen once more to life! Like the more traditional Advent carol, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," our songs in this season are in no small part a re-enactment, a remembering of longings our God has already filled.

But as I watched the kids' program from the sound booth, I had the dark realization that we do not have more than twenty kids in our Sunday School program. Most of the kids are elementary-aged. Peace is still far from us. So are hope, joy, love, and life.

I gave my closing thoughts to the congregation after the program. Throughout the weeks and even months leading up to Advent, I've felt strong conviction that this worship service was one in which to be forthrightly evangelistic. I prepared my reflection early in the week, before any of us would or could have imagined such tragedy would occur so near to us. (You can read my thoughts posted below, if you'd like.)

I delivered my closing message as I'd prepared it, unsure how to speak on tragedy without robbing the kids of their joyous presentation. But I'm not confident that I made the right decision. Perhaps, I think, I should have spoken more directly to the tragic irony of proclaiming hope and peace in violent times. I'd value your input. 

Let us pray and act for peace.

(You can read the full text of what I said after the jump . . .)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Advent III - Joy for the Shepherds

The third Advent candle is pink instead of purple. The purple candles that burn on weeks one, two, and four remind us to prepare the way. The candle lit this week, however, reminds us to rejoice!

God’s Son comes to bring life, justice, peace, and plenty to the world. He heals the sick, comforts the sorrowful, provides for the hungry, and forgives the sinful. I can’t think of a better reason for a season of celebration.

Most renditiosn I’ve heard of the angels’ chorus for the shephed sets it to regal music, full of fanfare fit for a king. George Frideric Handel’s magnificent Messiah is one beautiful example. But I wonder if the joy of the angel’s message might be better set to a tune the shepherds might have danced to. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to people whom God favors” is a lyric that should make our hearts laugh and our toes tap.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Snippet from Sunday - December 9 - Roadblocks to Peace

Every year I look forward to unwrapping the simple wooden characters from their newspaper and reenacting the Christmas story with them. The angel will stand over an empty manger near the tree. Mary, Joseph, and a donkey will begin their long journey toward Bethlehem, probably on a bookshelf across the room. The shepherds will be watching their sheep on a windowsill, and the wise men will be off in another room, looking for their star. Step by step, all will make their way across the room toward the manger scene where the Christ Child will be born.

One figure whom I never find in nativity scenes is John the Baptist. True enough, John didn’t gather with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds in that Bethlehem stable. But neither did the three kings, and still they always manage to make an appearance in our miniature re-creations.

Without fail, however, John shows up in our Scripture readings for Advent. All four Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--begin the story of Jesus’ life and ministry by telling us about this baptizing prophet who was sent to prepare the way for Jesus. Luke, who is our guide for this year’s Advent season, doubles the emphasis on John’s importance by telling John’s birth story alongside that of Jesus. We hear almost as much about Elizabeth, Zechariah, and their miracle baby John as we do about Mary, Joseph, and the truly miraculous birth of Jesus. We can’t read and hear all these stories without getting the feeling that there must be something important about John’s ministry of preparation for those of us who follow Jesus.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump . . .)

Notes from the Corner - Advent II - Peace for the Shepherds

The Forge, Francisco  de Goya (c. 1819)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Peace is the theme of the second Sunday in Advent. When the angelic armies appeared on that starry night outside Bethlehem, they proclaimed to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people whom God favors” (Lk 2:14).

What sort of peace did God bring those sheep herders? What sort of peace could a newborn, still learning to cry and suckle, bring to these hard-working, wind-burned men?
True enough, their fists, staffs, and slings weren’t strangers to doling out an open range kind of violence to sheep rustlers. These shepherds probably bore the scars of a few scuffles with wolves or wild dogs. But, like us, they weren’t soldiers in anybody’s army. What peace does Baby Jesus bring for those of us whose most violent battles happen at work or at home or in the silence of our hearts?
Peace is not only about beating our swords into plowshares; it also means hammering our fear into love. The early morning cry of the infant Jesus was God putting on his blacksmith’s apron and saying, “It’s time for me to get to work.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Pastor At vs. Pastor Of vs. Pastor For

Yesterday I had a good time sharing a Christmas message for the Warman Mennonite Special Care Home's Christmas banquet. These sort of engagements are side-perks to being a pastor in a city that's still a bit of a small town in its heart.

After two musicians ended their fun, old-timey carols and Christmas favorites, I walked up to the microphone to introduced myself, "Hi, I'm Josh Wallace. I'm pastor of Warman Mennonite Church just down the road."

As I said those words, something caught in my mind. It was a preposition. "I'm pastor of . . ." I could have said "pastor at" or "pastor for" or even "a pastor in," and the whole sense of what I said would have changed.

Many of us grew up with a pastor-at mentality. A pastor is a pastor because she or he goes to an office in a particular kind of building. Insurance agents work at insurance offices, doctors work in medical clinics, fast food employees work in fast food chains. Pastors just happen to work in a church building. They are employees of a particularly religious kind of business.

I grew up more with a pastor-of mindset. A pastor is an official or caretaker for a specific grew up of people. The pastor is the "shepherd of a flock." He (only men were pastors in my world at that point) comforted and counseled. He confronted us with God's Word on Sunday mornings. He chaired elder board meetings. Pastor-of parallels the role of a principal in the school system.

Pastor-for came to mind only a bit later. While "for" might imply the same role outlined under "of," I can hear missional overtones in "for." If I'm pastor for my church, they have set me aside or commissioned me to do the work of pastoring for them. Perhaps a bit like a missionary or a social worker, I go out into the community and pastor any and all who need pastoring. In episcopal models of church, this might be reflected in the diocese paying a stipend so the minister can pastor a parish, whatever the parish's financial ability or inability to provide for the minister's needs. I like this idea, but if I begin to introduce myself this way, I'm not sure people will understand me. Besides, this seems to be a call the church-community needs to make (in our congregationalist polity), not one I can make for them.

The last prepositional option I'll mention is "a pastor in such-and-such a church." Truth be told, there are many pastors in this congregation. I'm not the only one caring for the hurting, instructing in discipleship, or praying for these people's lives and souls. Paul says to the Ephesians that when Jesus ascended to the Father, he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be shepherds and teachers. Whether the others want to own up to it or not, I am one among many pastors in this congregation. I just happen to have a sign on an office door that points out the way I've been given to the community.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Snippet for the Seniors - December 3 - The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

Advent is the season of sermons for a working pastor. I mentioned that the local Mennonite Care Home welcomed me to bring a short message for their Christmas banquet. You can find the full text of that talk after the jump. Here's a snippet:

This afternoon I want us to think about how Mary’s baby boy is God’s answer to every one of our hopes and all of our fears.
Think about that. When we whisper to God in prayer those things we are secretly most afraid of or when we pray and tell God what we wish for so desperately, God’s answer is Jesus. Jesus, the baby in the manger; Jesus, the man on the cross; Jesus, the risen Lamb.
Jesus’ mother Mary had many reasons to be afraid. She was young and not yet married when an angel came to tell her that she would give birth to God’s Son. . . . 
When God speaks to us, we often feel unsure about what God’s message will mean for our lives. God spoke to Mary through the angel Gabriel. We often hear God’s voice through scripture or through hymns or Christian fellowship. God’s message meets in us all our fears and hopes. We don’t know if God’s message will calm our fears or if it will frustrate our hopes.

The folks at the Care Home were mostly born before 1930, mostly ethnically Mennonite, and mostly from of fairly conservative or even fundamentalist persuasion.

Normally I preach from my own remixed version the TNIV. I like that it errs on the side of gender inclusivity when translating, and I like that it speaks in a direct, understandable way. When it strays too far from the Hebrew or Greek, I take license to emend it.

But in light of my audience, I opted to quote the KJV. This is a contextualization issue, I think. I'm curious about your thoughts. I tweeted this question a week or two ago. But I'm still waiting for feedback.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump . . .)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Advent I - Hope for the Shepherds

Source: Wikimedia Commons
I have been thinking about shepherds as we begin this Advent. Each of the four weeks of Advent has a traditional theme: hope, then peace, joy, and love. This first week, I wonder what those sheep herders in the hill country around Bethlehem would have hoped for.

Shepherds weren’t well-off, well-groomed, or well-respected. No child said, “I want to be a shepherd when I grow up.” They were the smelly, rowdy cowhands of ancient Palestine.
What did these men hope for? Did they dream of a different life--one with more security and fewer cold nights on look out for wild animals and sheep rustlers? Or did they simply wish for a better paycheck to spend at the Bethlehem saloon? My biggest question is how Mary’s newborn baby would meet those hopes, fulfilling some and dashing others.

What do we hope for--when we’re on the job, when we’re caring for our sick kids, when we wake up in the wee hours and are unable to get back to sleep? How does Jesus meet or challenge these day-to-day dreams and desires?

December 2 - A Link to Sunday - Guest Preacher :: Lift Up Your Heads

I spent this Sunday listening rather than speaking. Listening is a good way to hear God's message for us. True enough, I often am surprised to find God speaking to me while I'm trying to give God's message to the people from behind a pulpit (I bet you other pastors and preachers can vouch for that experience). But listening is so much better.

The whole congregation had the rich opportunity to hear my partner and companion reflect on the scripture readings for Advent I. These were some difficult texts: a section of the Little Apocalypse (Lk 21.25-36), a few short lines of Jeremiah, and Ps 25. She did beautifully.

You can read her sermon over on her blog, la fleur épuisée. I encourage you too. It's a valuable 

Here are two snippets from her thoughts. First her thesis statement:
The message I think the Spirit wants all of us to hear is this: the very act of expecting something transforms us; waiting with hope changes who we are in the meantime.
 And then my favorite paragraphs:
But Jesus says, “When these things--when these signs of a falling-to-pieces world--begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Stand up, he says. Lift up your heads. Your redemption is drawing near.

Don’t cower in the basement or the bomb shelter; don’t fight for the last gallons of milk at the grocery store; don’t sit with your eyes glued to the TV, bemoaning the fate of civilization as we’ve known it. Do not fear. Do not worry. Stand and lift up your head: open your eyes with hope, because the kingdom of God is nearby. Watch for it, even now. Notice the signs of God’s commonwealth--sparks of justice and peace and kindness and abundance--even as you also see the anguish of this planet and its people.
 Check it the rest at her blog.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 9 - Go and Do Likewise

Hospitality is the work that God has for Warman Mennonite Church to do in this city. God’s Spirit has gifted many of us with a joy in making others feel welcome, a joy in adding one more place setting to the table or putting a few more burgers on the grill. We enjoy this gift when friends drop-in or family comes for dinner.

But the Spirit never gives gifts just for our enjoyment, they are also always for God’s joy, his pleasure in seeing God’s kingdom enacted on earth as it is heaven. Hospitality in the kingdom means widening the circle of whom we invite in or entertain. God welcomes us to his dinner table when we are strangers and enemies. Hospitality in the kingdom means sacrifice. God stretched far more than just his budget or comfort to invite us in; he stretched out his arms on a cross.

So go and do likewise: Invite someone who would be alone to join your family for Christmas dinner. Join a community group that will connect you with people outside your social circle. Pray for God to open your eyes to the needs of new neighbors in our growing community.

November 25 - Snippet from Memorial Sunday - A Reason to Grieve, A Reason to Hope"

This is what I want you to take with you in your heart when I’m done speaking this morning: The fact that Jesus is our king is both our reason to grieve the way things are and our one reason to hope that things will not always stay this way, to hope that they will be made right.

When Paul wrote to the home church in Thessaloniki, this was the truth he explained for them. As we heard in the passage read this morning, Paul was responding to the believers’ concern for people in their small congregation who had died or “fallen asleep” as Paul puts it. Those believers felt the same kind of grief, the same kind of loss we feel. In their tight-knit fellowship, they met constant reminders of those who were no longer with them: a mother or a son, a dear friend, perhaps a deacon or the kind older woman who prayed so diligently for the overtaxed young mothers. Whenever they gathered in one another’s homes, surely they saw the empty chair or space on the floor that sickness or accident or violence had left.

Paul had come to Thessaloniki in obedience to the command to go and make disciples of the crucified and risen Messiah. His message was one of resurrection. He preached that sickness and death were defeated when God came and gave his own life for ours. The believers took his message to heart, even in the face of persecution from Jewish and pagan neighbors. They would follow the King of Life.

But now, when death still broke in and terrorized them, abducting brothers or sister from their midst, what were they to make of it? Had the King of Life failed them? Was the resurrection a joke? Had Jesus changed anything?

Maybe we feel the same way. Maybe we should feel the same way. Our Savior lived and died to bring us life. It’s an outrage when death still afflicts us. It’s not right; it’s not what God wants for us. Something in our hearts or our heads should cry out, “God, this doesn’t make sense! Your Son came to bring us life, life abundantly. Why do we still get sick or get hurt or get old and die?”

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump . . .)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 8 - Mission and Mutual Aid

Mutual aid, probably the best-known expression of Mennonite hospitality, grew, in part, out of the Mt 10 strategy of 16th century Anabaptist missionaries. As they went from place to place, often persecuted, their life as “pilgrims and strangers” trained them to give and receive goods and care from one another. The story goes that the communal life of the Hutterites began in just this way: 200 believers driven from Nicholsburg in 1528 decided to give away all their possessions to care for one another.

In showing this extreme hospitality, believers were following the example given by Acts 4:32-35: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.”

November 18 - Snippet from Sunday - The Heart of James

Friendship with the world is enmity with God (4.4). That is a bold statement. It’s the kind of statement that doesn’t leave much room for discussion. It casts everything as either black or white, good or bad. Either your God’s friend, or your the world’s friend.

This statement--“You can be God’s friend or the world’s, but not both”--is the heart of James’ letter. It’s the pulse that gives life to all his other instructions about what we do with our prejudice and our money and our tongues. If you surgically remove this pronouncement, James’ whole letter falls to the ground, lifeless.

And we might want to cut out this part of James’ letter. Frankly, it doesn’t sound friendly. Most of us want to get along with everybody, to be friends with everybody. Honestly, if one of our other friends gave us this kind of “It’s me or them” ultimatum, they might not be our friends for long. What gives God the right to inspire James to write this kind of demand? Why would God ask us to make this kind of choice?

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 7 - Anabaptists Missions

Source: Wikimedia Commons
In Mt 10:9-11, Jesus sends out his disciples as the first missionaries with these words: “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at that person’s house until you leave.” He instructed them to follow in his footsteps, to depend on on hospitality just like the one who “has no place to lay his head” (Mt 8:20).

The first Anabaptists lived Jesus’ words: they depended on the welcome of strangers as they spread the good news. Driven at times by persecution and always by passion to obey their Great Commission, Anabaptist missionaries wandered all over 16th century Europe. Menno Simons lived on the run, going from town to town, wherever folks would welcome him. But Menno was one of a multitude of itinerant witnesses who traveled wherever the Spirit willed and hearts were open. We could tell the stories of Hans Hut, Pilgram Marpeck, Leonhard Schiemer, and Margaret Hottinger. For our ancestors, hospitality was a means for mission.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 6 - Jesus, Host and Stranger

The Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt (1629)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Listen to these words from Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk 14:12-14).

Jesus shows us how to be hospitable. Jesus is the best host. He welcomes us to join him at God’s dinner table (Mt 26:29), and he’s pleased to sit next to those others would quickly show the door (read Lk 7:36-48). But Jesus teaches us hospitality most by coming as a guest and stranger (Jn 1:10-11; Mt 25:31-46). Remember the story of the stranger on the road to Emmaus; the disciples only recognized him as Jesus when they insisted he join them for dinner (Lk 24:28-3

November 4 - Snippet from (Family) Sunday - Real Friends vs. Selfish Friends

When I was even younger, I shared a bedroom with my little brother Andrew. He’s three years younger than me. Just the right age to want to play with all the things his big brother was playing with. I remember working very hard to clearly mark out which actions figures and Lego sets were mine. More than once my mom had to discipline me because I’d hit my brother for touching my stuff.

This defensive possessiveness--this instinct to mark and guard our territory from intruders--starts at a young age. I’ve heard that toddlers’ favorite words are “no” and “mine.” I wish it could say that this fear for our possessions is something we grow out of. I wish I could say that by the time I was thirteen or nineteen or twenty-nine I never again felt threatened by the specter of someone barging in and taking away my stuff. But selfishness is something we never completely grow out of, even if we do outgrow saying “mine” every other moment like two-year-olds.

James talks about this in his letter. In a letter he wrote to some of the first churches, James asks the gathered believers, What causes fight and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires your desires that are at war within your body? (4.1).

So often its our love for our precious things--whether they be tree forts or action figures or dollar bills or the minutes in our day--that causes us to feel angry and resentful towards other people. Like a dog with a bone, we’re happy to sit there gnawing on the things we love; but when someone comes along who might take our bone away from us, our hackles go up, we snarl and bite. Maybe it’s the government asking for a bigger chunk of our paycheck in taxes. Maybe it’s a committee or project expecting us to give up one more weeknight. Maybe it’s our sister or brother trying to grab our Halloween candy from trick-or-treating. Whoever’s approaching us, we crouch down and bare our teeth and let out a low growl.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blogging A New Evangelical Manifesto, chapter 1: The Wave of the Past

Speakeasy alerted me to an interesting essay collection entitled A New Evangelical Manifesto, edited by David Gushee. Gushee is one of the founders of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (NEP). While NEP's principles and commitments are summarized at their website, the book-length Manifesto purports both to present NEP's positions much more fully and to widen the conversation to include other like-minded "New Evangelicals."

I'll be posting a handful of my reflections and reactions as I read through Manifesto in the coming weeks. So let's begin at the beginning:

Chapter one is written is by an old friend who deserves mention, Brian McLaren. His essay, "The Church in America Today," kicks-off the section one, "A New Kind of Evangelical Christianity. . ." The section's title offers an obvious nod to McLaren's influence in the New Evangelical movement. I have to admit that this allusion makes me feel a bit welcomed into the fold. Both McLaren's A New Kind of Christian and his A New Kind of Christianity have met me as valued counselors at crossroads of faith in my life. Right now his newest Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? is by the bedside table, waiting to be read.

McLaren's been a good friend over the last decade, so I was excited when I Manifesto's table of contents included his name. His essay didn't disappoint me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 5 - Hospitality & the First Believers

For the first believers, welcoming strangers into their homes drew a living picture of the way God now welcomes us back into God’s household (Rom 15:2). When Jesus knocked down the barrier between us and God, he also destroyed the barriers we set up between each other (Eph 2:14). Now we have no reason to shut out those who need a meal, a place to stay, a conversation, or a friend.

That’s why the NT letters tell us to show hospitality to one another and to strangers (see Rom 12:13, Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 4:9). When we open our hearts and open our homes to people the world says we have no reason to care for, we witness to the fact that Jesus has made something new (2 Cor 5:16-20). God had no reason to care for us, yet God sent Jesus to call us back home. The early church chose to follow in Jesus footsteps, inviting the unloved and unlovely over for supper.

October 28 - Snippet from Sunday - Beautiful Lives

When we finally walk up to that dread horizon line of death, perhaps like reaching the top of one of the high mountain ridges I knew so well growing up in Montana, we’ll be able to look back on the entirety of the path that’s led us there. Our souls remember all the joys and sufferings, the acts of compassion and the deeds of selfishness that have shaped them. And the important question is whether, in those moments before we cross to the other side of the mountain peaks, we have become the kind of people who put all our hope in Jesus or whether we still love our own selves more than all others, more than the God who can save us.

In that moment, it doesn’t mater whether a national newspaper runs a page-long obituary for us or if nobody notices we’ve passed on. What matters is whether our hearts have received the good news word and let it grow up within us. What matters is whether our hearts have learned to hope like Jesus hopes, to trust as Jesus trusts, to love like Jesus loves. At death, the whole of our lives are summed up. Our every action, feeling, and thought will have completed its work in shaping our hearts. Either we will have let God’s powerful gospel word blossom into trust and love for Jesus or we will have stunted it, choked it out with selfish or angry habits, poisoned it with envy and bitterness.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 4 - Old Testament Hospitality

One day Abraham was sitting out a hot afternoon underneath an oak tree. He looked up and saw three strangers approaching. He jumped up and rushed to greet them. Without so much as asking their names, he pressed them to pause at his camp for a “a little water and something to eat.” They consented, so he rushed off and came back with a feast fit for kings (Gen 18).

This is the first story of hospitality in the Old Testament. It’s not the last. In many of these stories, the hosts, like Abraham and Sarah, receive God’s blessing through the guests they welcome into their homes. Think of Rahab and the Israelite scouts (Josh 2) or the widow who welcomed Elijah to stay in her upper room (1 Ki 17). God wants to bless us by the strangers we make welcome in our homes.

God commanded the Israelites to welcome and provide for outsiders and strangers (Dt 10.18-19), just as God sheltered and provided for the Israelites (see Dt 10.14-17, 20-22). God commands no less for believers today.

October 21 - Snippet from Sunday - Hold Your Tongue

It matters to me that we control our tongues. It matters to me because our tongues should be praising God. Our mouths should be testifying to the great things God has done to save us, not just when we share that good news with another person, not just when we’re gathered in this meetinghouse on a Sunday morning, but every time we open our mouths. The character of our speech--its kindness and gentleness, its love--witnesses to our loving Lord Jesus who set us free.

But when we let our mouths off their leashes and let the world know what we really think of it, we end up cursing, insulting, abusing the very people Jesus loves and came to save. In those moments, we’re not praising our God and king. No, we’re testifying instead to the ongoing rule of everything in the world that opposes God. We’re saying that death, not life, is king. We’re proclaiming that, no, there isn’t enough to go around, so we better make clear what’s our due. We’re witnessing that God is not our king and defender--no, we have to defend ourselves with our words.

Friends, this shouldn’t be! We are the community that Jesus has saved! Our words should pour refreshing, living water into the lives of those we’re talking with. Jesus’ kindness and compassion should echo in the way we speak to one another. Salt water and fresh water can’t flow from the same spring without all the water becoming salty; in the same way, we can’t try to mix destructive, death-dealing speech in with our words without polluting all our witness. James is calling for us to consistently show love in how we use our words, to live up to the image of God we see in Jesus.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 3 - Welcoming Strangers

At the same time that Cindy and I were finding the value of community, two Christian professors challenged us to take the next step: hospitality.

Once a week, these professors met with others to travel to a rundown, inner city neighborhood. They met in an empty church sanctuary before going out to talk with neighbors, bring them baked goods, offer to fix broken windows or screen doors, or invite them to a common meal in the church basement. Something about this way of following Jesus caught our hearts. People were breaking through walls built on ethnicity, social class, income, and religious tradition.

Cindy and I had already discovered the value of community in a small group that met in our simple, newlywed apartment. Hospitality, however, means not just welcoming friends; it means throwing open your doors and your hearts to strangers, to people who are different from you.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

October 7 - Snippet from Sunday - Prejudice and the King

I have yet to meet a church whose members don’t quietly hold prejudice and division from one another in their hearts. Already as a small child, I knew there was division in the heart of the congregation I grew up in and loved. The meetinghouse was situated midway between two small towns. Church members came from both towns to worship together as one body. But whenever there was a congregational vote, the church was split along town lines--who lived where, who went to Bible study in one municipality or the other. This internal divided-ness spilled over to the conversations over coffee in the fellowship hall or the church foyer. Those three men were from Town A, that group of women was from Town B, and so forth.

This is not what Jesus wants for the community he calls his body. He prayed that we may be one just as he is one with God his Father, separate in person but united in spirit (Jn 17.21). But even before the New Testament was fully written, already churches were drawing lines and taking sides.

[. . .] According to James in 2.8, the standard we’re held to is unconditional love, love without discrimination, love without favoritism or prejudice. James calls this the “royal” law; we could also translate it “the King’s law.” If we were to read on to v 11, we’d find James focusing our attention more and more on the King, the one who spoke this law to us.

Whether we identify this King with God in the person of Jesus in Mk 12 or Yahweh God speaking to Moses in Lev 19, this law sums up how our King desires us to live with one another. When we nurse prejudice in our hearts or show favoritism, we walk away from what God wants. It doesn’t matter that prejudice is only a feeling or that favoritism is affects how we treat others only a little. Just as surely as if we committed adultery or murder, James says in v 12, we’re walking away from the path to the good, free, and just life God desires for us.

[. . .] My brothers and sisters, this should not be for us. Jesus’ cross has toppled every dividing wall. While age, money, gender, race, class, interests and hobbies are all still realities we live with, we don’t live by them. We don’t let them determine who we extend friendship to. Jesus has crossed the biggest barrier, that between a holy and faithful God and us faithless people, to make us God’s friends. Where that barrier has fallen, no other barrier should still stand.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 2 - Finding Community

For the first nineteen years of my life, I believed Christianity was chiefly a matter of doctrines and morals. God, I thought, cared mostly about my beliefs and my conscience.

As I began university, I began to question the purpose and value of church. I could mind my beliefs and my morals just fine on my own. Why spend time with other believers? What did they offer that I couldn’t find by myself in my personal quiet time?

Church offers community. When we’re part of a community, we can’t avoid people who need and expect our compassion and care. We have to ask ourselves if our habits and attitudes, as well as our beliefs and morals, fit in. In a community, we have sisters and brothers who keep our head, heart, and hands accountable to Jesus’ way. 

I soon realized that Christianity was not something I could do on my own. I needed a church-community. My fiancee Cindy and I decided to start a small group for others struggling to make it on their own. This community became a lifeline for my faith; it also set me on my first steps toward hospitality.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

September 30 - Snippet from Sunday - Quick to Listen, Quick to Obey

Here we have a kind of firstfruits of this year’s harvest spread out before us this morning. We have the aroma of our celebration of what God has given us wafting up from the kitchen. Like the ancient Israelites at their holy festivals and feasts, we offer a bit of this year’s produce back to God as proclamation that, “Yes, God, all good gifts come from you.” In doing so, we ourselves become a kind of firstfruits of a different sort of harvest. Gathered together, we are the first sheafs of wheat or oats, the first cucumbers and zucchinis, of a redeemed humanity. We are the foretaste, the preview of all nations and all creation praising God.

This year was a good year, and this year was a hard year. This year has been one of loss, but it has also been a one of celebration. It’s for both the joyful times and for the comfort that sustains us in hard times that we thank our God this morning.

Most of all, we thank our God for what James calls in v 17, the word of truth and, in v 21, the word planted in you, which can save you. Of all the good gifts that God our Father gives, the true and powerful good-news word that saves us is the best. We gather on this morning once a year to thank God for a bountiful harvest, for growth and accomplishments in our families, for work well-rewarded and days well-spent in the last year. But every Sunday morning we gather to thank God for the gift of his saving word to us. Even more, every prayer, even every action we perform should be a grateful “Thank you” to the God who saves us. This is what James has to say to us this morning.

One word for living this way is “worship.” Our lives demonstrate to God and to the world the value and the worth of the gospel-word God has spoken to us in Jesus. Maybe we recall Paul telling believers to live out this kind of worship in Ro 12.1: I urge you, brothers and sisters, in light of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--this is true worship.

Another name for living all of life in grateful response to the good news is “discipleship.” By far, this is the term the early Anabaptists used most to describe how we live in response to the gospel. Many of the sixteenth century Reformers taught that the gospel only asks for our belief, a response of faith. But the Anabaptist believed that faith is only the beginning. The gospel calls for our faith and trust, but it also asks for our faithfulness. Jesus isn’t just a divine sacrifice to trust in; Jesus is also our Lord to be followed and obeyed.

This morning, if our gratitude is only a warm emotion, it is not enough. Our gratitude must become a burning motivation that produces a glorious demonstration of our thankfulness by the way we live from moment to moment. The only true thanksgiving we offer to God is the kind we live with our lives.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Notes from the Corner - Hospitality Series No. 1 - An Introduction

The first Sunday Cindy and I walked through the doors of the meetinghouse at WMC, many of you shook our hands firmly, smiled, and said, “Welcome here!” Since that time, many more members of our church-community have welcomed me into their homes for coffee, for a meal, for good conversation.

Hospitality, it seems, is a character trait of this congregation. We’re quick to open our homes and share our stories with one another. We like to welcome people with something good to eat. But hospitality is more than just a cultural tradition. Hospitality is a New Testament command and a gift the Spirit’s given for us to use. In the next few weeks, I’ll use this corner to reflect on hospitality, in my life, in Scripture, and in the mission God has set us on.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Mom, what is church?"

I overheard a three year-old ask his mom "What is church?"

Our church rents out the meetinghouse weekdays to a pre-school. It's been great this last week seeing the kids flood in at 9 a.m. and, for a second shift, at 1 p.m. I've tried to strike up conversation with a few of the moms and an encouraging number of dads dropping off their kids, but I haven't met with much luck. In these first few days I think they're fairly preoccupied with how their child is adjusting to preschool (and perhaps--appropriate to context--praying that there won't be a meltdown in the foyer).

As I eavesdropped on a momma-child conversation this morning, I could almost predict word-for-word how she would respond to the toddler's question:

"Church is a place we go to learn about God."

I think this mom threw in the fact that we go to church on Sundays.

On the one hand, this all too common answer is just that: all too common. Church is 1) reduced to a building/space we go to, and 2) its mission paired down to education. Missional sisters and brothers, I think you'll agree with me that church is not somewhere we go but something we are. And we are a heck of lot more than just our educable intellects.

But, on the other hand, this mom may have nailed it. I was praying through the BCP Morning Prayer Service today, and it caught my attention that the BCP refers to the Old and New Testament readings as "Lessons" (with capitalization there and in all sort of other unnecessary places). When I read that phrase today, my mind's reflex was to ask "What's the lesson I should get of this?"--perhaps in the same way my childhood story Bible story books always ended with a moral.

Church, to some extent, is the space and the people that train our hearts to ponder about the morals, the lessons, the "go and do likewise" dimension of Scripture and our workaday lives. I remember reading Mike Frost in The Road to Missional (my review here) describe a parent-friend who trained his kids to pick out moments of shalom and "broken shalom" at bedtime each day. We could say in other words that they were looking for the lesson, the moral of each day. And as Jamie Smith reminds us, our habits, especially our habits in community, work to train our hearts and desires.

So maybe church really is "where we learn about God."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

September 9 - Snippet from Sunday - Don't Be Deceived!

A lot of our Christian faith looks toward the future. Each Sunday I step behind this pulpit and remind you again of the good things God has promised for our world. I say over and over that God has promised to make everything right, to make blessings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount a reality: The poor will really be blessed with God’s kingdom, and those who weep and mourn will really find comfort. Those people starving for justice will be satisfied when God finally brings justice. Like the prophets Isaiah and Micah foretell, God will bring justice to the nations, and then they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Is 2.4; Mic 4.3). A day is coming when drought and famine, trade embargoes and warlords will no long leave millions to starve to death. A day is coming when disease will no longer wrack our bodies, when loneliness and grief will no longer bring tears to our eyes.

But all of this is still to come. Christ has died; Christ is risen--Amen! But we are still waiting for Christ to come again. God has promised us much; God has given us a downpayment in Jesus’ resurrection, but we’re still waiting for God to make good on the rest. In the meantime, we’re very much aware that everything is not right. The poor stay poor, the mourning continue to mourn, justice is still denied those dying for lack of it. We pass children even in our own community who know hunger. News broadcasts from Syria remind us of that war is still a reality tearing people’s lives and communities to pieces.

I’ve heard people say that Jesus’ followers are so future-oriented that we turn a blind eye to the hard reality of the world around us. We’re so focused on “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” that we lose touch with the here and now.

I wonder if the original Jewish home churches who received James’ letter two thousand years ago entertained that same thought about James. Last Sunday we the shocking words that open James’ letter; v 2 says, Consider it pure joy . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds. I can picture a few members of those home churches that received this letter raising their eyebrows at these words. These original believers were the descendants of Jewish refugees and exiles. They were quite familiar with trials. I can almost hear one of them muttering, “It’s well and good for James to say that people should consider trials to be pure joy while he’s safe and secure in the big church in our Jewish homeland, but he’s a little out of touch with life for us here in the belly of the Roman Empire.” Maybe we think something similar: “Pie in the sky and promises that God will one day make things right are fine between 10:45 and noon on Sunday morning, but for the rest of the work week, those promises feel a little out of touch.”

I think the Spirit anticipated this skeptical reaction from people who read James’ letter. So in vv 9, 10, and 11, the Spirit led James to tackle head on probably the most concrete reality facing the original believers or us today: money.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September 2 - Snippet from Sunday - Joy in Hard Times

I have no final answer to all these questions about suffering this morning. I don’t think Scripture gives us those kind of answers. It’s a not a textbook with answers to all the problems in the back. Reading the Bible is more like eavesdropping on a conversation between wise, Spirit-filled people. Different passages, different people offer their perspective in the discussion, and the Holy Spirit guides the conversation to the truth.

This morning we’re beginning to listen to one person in that conversation: James. The letter that James wrote is often overlooked in our Bibles. Since at least the time of Martin Luther, many believers have thought that James is too practical and not theological enough to be worth reading. But practicality is what we need when we’re unsure how to believe in or live with our God in the gritty details of suffering. We need to see how following Jesus makes a difference for us here and now where we live day-to-day. So over the coming weeks, we’ll be returning to listen to and learn from this letter.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Monday, August 27, 2012

August 19 - Snippet from Sunday - The Beginning of Wisdom

When we tell stories, we are telling others the sort of people we are. Better than our Social Insurance Numbers or a driver’s license or a resume, a story tells the people who hear it, “This is the kind of person I am. This is what I’ve done in the past. This is what I’ve been through. This is how I’ve changed. This is the sort of thing that’s important enough for me to remember.” When we hear someone’s stories, it’s usually not hard for us to figure out the sort of person they’ll be in the future.

Cindy and I were down visiting my family during the second week of August. My parents bought an old farmhouse fifteen or so years ago, and it seems that some part of it always needs repairing. This summer it was the north side of the roof.

While we were down there, the family retold some of our favorite stories. The one about my dad and I getting stuck out all night on the side of a mountain and how we made a makeshift tent to keep from freezing to death. The one about the hairy, muddy family Golden Retriever lying down and refusing to take another step halfway down a hike from a mountain peak, and how my brother carried that smelly, dirty dog in his arms the rest of the way down and then went straight to work.

If you listen to these stories my family tells long enough, you begin to hear a pattern. Usually someone’s on a trip or working on some project and things go frustratingly wrong, but then the family perseveres and somehow makes things work out. Usually we’re all laughing at our past hardships and frustrations. Time and time again, my family’s stories follow this pattern.

My point here is that once you’ve heard a few of my family’s stories, you have a pretty good idea of the sort of people we are. And, so, when hard times arise, you know how we’ll probably respond. I suspect that if I hear enough of each of your stories, I’ll get a good idea of the sort of people you are.

I believe that Scripture tells us something similar this morning. In Psalm 111, we hear that if we tell and listen to the stories about our God often enough and for long enough, we’ll learn what to expect from God in the future and how to live with this sort of God.. The last verse of Psalm 111 sings, The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom; good understanding have all who do [his commandments]. His song of praise continues for ever.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Pull of Grace

A week or so ago a friend forwarded this video to me of Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber at the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was originally posted over at Rachel Held Evans' blog.

Quite a few of my friends found that her story really resonated with their own stories. In some ways, it's a familiar story of someone pushed to the margins by others and even by herself, and then finding herself unexpectedly and sometimes even without intending to do so finding God as a source of life and hope. Then, in an also familiar sequel, she finds that many in faith communities still view her as an outsider, but God with God's great sense of humor and justice, broadens and deepens the life of the faith community through the gift of this former-and-somewhat-continuing outsider's ministry.

I like this story. I especially like the way it describes the beautiful irony of grace (even while it shows up the tragic cliquishness of churches).

About 4 minutes 20 seconds in, Nadia says,
But when that happened, it didn't feel like I pulled myself up by my spiritual bootstraps. When that happened it felt like a completely rude interruption from God. I was on this path towards destroying myself, and it's like God reached down and plucked me up and went, 'That's adorable, but I'm going to put you over here.' Now I know what that is, that's the grace of God. At that point I didn't have that language. All I knew was that it was a gift that was given and that I didn't earn. And just tried to live in response to that gift.
I feel this great "Amen!" welling up in my heart when I hear these words, even while I know that this is nothing like my experience of God's grace.

Nadia's image of grace is being pulled out of something destructive. Our church-community the last few weeks has been listening to Pau's letter to the house church at Colossae. In 1.14, Paul says we've been rescued from the dominion of darkness and relocated to the kingdom of God's beloved Son. We were pulled out a world enthralled to the domineering rule of sin, destruction, and death. And we're given new life--inheritance, Paul says--as a gift.

In my own story, however, I've felt this more as pulling into something, a pulling deeper down into this same world to embody the hope that's rescued med. I think Nadia speaks to this further on in her talk.

Mission, it turns out, is also a gift, also a grace. Ever since my late teenage years, I've felt that having a purpose to live for is just as critical for me as being rescued from the self-defeating, self-destructive habits that would otherwise clothe my life. I think scripture often uses language of sending for this aspect of grace, like in Jn 20.

So the pull of grace is at least two way. Out of something, and deeper into something. Grace may pull in other ways as well. How have you felt the pull of grace in your story?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

July 29 - Snippet from Sunday - Where We Live

In Col 3.18-4.1, we see what Paul suggested imitating Jesus in self-sacrificing love meant for the real-life situation of the believers at Colossae. Paul lists one-by-one some of the roles and relationships that made up life for people living in first century Colossae, and for each of them, he points the direction they need to go if they want to live wholly “in Jesus’ name.”

Some of the roles Paul names may sound familiar to us. We hear him talking about wives and husbands or children and parents, and we think, oh yeah, we’re in those kind of relationships too. Other roles, like slaves and slave-masters, immediately sound more foreign to us. I need to warn you, though, that even where we might see similarities, life two thousand years ago was very different from the way we live today. Marriage then and family then looked nothing like marriage and family today. If we want to apply Paul’s instructions to our lives today correctly, we must not forget about these differences over time.

Some Christians today look at passages like this one, where Paul lays out how believers then could have Christ-like relationships, and they jump directly to how people should live in our relationships today. They’ll point to v 18 where Paul tells the married Colossian women to submit to your husbands, and they’ll insist that it’s God’s will today just as much as then that all women do whatever their husbands demand of them. It’s good that they want to obey the Bible, but unfortunately they fail to pay attention to the particular details of the passages they’re trying to apply. If we interpret this passage this way, we miss out on how Paul tailors his instructions to the unique circumstances of people in that city at that time.

In these verses, Paul takes the general command to live “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and applies it to the individual, concrete circumstances of believers in the Colossian fellowship. He’s bringing the command to love home to the specific, historical situation in which they lived. It’s important that we remember that sin has broken everything--every relationship, every social role or structure. When Paul gave instructions these believers about how to live in their relationships, he was operating something like a doctor, prescribing therapy to people living with various illnesses. Married people need certain therapies, parents with children need others, slaves and slave-masters, still others. [. . .]

When Paul gave these instructions to the married Colossian women, he wasn’t giving them the keys to a happy marriage. This wasn’t advice to get their husbands to treat them better. No, instead Paul was giving them the basics of how to still love like Jesus even when they lived in a horrible situation. They couldn’t change anything, so they were to trust God to set things right, just like God did for Jesus. Paul expresses this outlook most strongly at the end of his instruction to the Colossian slaves. In vv 24 and 25, he tells them, You know that it is the Lord who will repay your [glorious] inheritance. You serve the Lord Christ. For the one who does wrong will be repaid for his wrongdoing, and there is no favoritism [in this judgment]. God kept track of their suffering, of their selfless and often-ignored acts of love, and God would reward them. God also kept track of those who took advantage of this wicked system, and even if they seemed mighty and invulnerable at the moment, God would show no favoritism it came time to punish the wicked, even if the wicked had been powerful people.

Paul doesn’t ignore those people who could change these evil circumstances. Believe it or not, some of those husbands, harsh fathers, and slave-masters were part of the congregation. While there was undoubtedly the exceptional kind male head of house, like Philemon, the entire world these men lived in encouraged them to think of slaves, women, and children as nothing but tools to expand their wealth and political influence.

Paul’s command for them is brief and basic. While he honors the women, children, and slaves with six verses, he spends only three talking to these high and mighty men. But if the men were to follow these simple instructions, they would begin to undo all the injustice and abuse their wealth and power depended on. [. . .]

Our lives today would be unrecognizable to these believers living in Colossae. In fact, I’ve had several conversations with some of you about how different marriage and family life is today even than it was one or two generations ago. Our culture expects different things from marriage. We treat our children dramatically differently. Slavery is almost a curse word in this country. But just as much as those believers Paul wrote to, we need to discover what it means for us to live all of our lives “in the name of the Lord Jesus” within our own broken social relationships and structures.

Paul, in Phil 2, describes that church-community as “stars shining in a darkened sky,” and Jesus describes his followers as “the light of the world” causing people who see how they live to “glorify their Father in heaven.” This is what I want for our fellowship here. But if we are to shine, Jesus’ love must come home to where we live. It’s one thing to nod along with Paul’s exhortations to be compassionate, kind, meek, humble, and patient. It’s quite another to know what that means in our twenty-first century roles and relationships.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

July 22 - Snippet from Sunday - Put On Love

Let me describe a situation that may be more familiar. When I started seminary, I took out a loan to pay my tuition. Now that I’m done with school, I’m in the process of paying that loan back. Whatever happens in my life--should I become a father, should I move to another country--the lending bank will find me and demand to be paid back. But if I die, then the bank writes off my debt and clears my name. That’s one of the very few good things about educational debt.

Thankfully, I can manage to make my monthly payments on my student loan. It wasn’t that big. But the claim that sin and death had on me was much greater than that of my lending bank. There was no way I could get free from sin and death. Wherever I went, whatever I did with my life, sin and death would find me and remind me that I owed them, that, in effect, they owned me. I could see evidence of their power all around me--fear and greed in my own heart, sickness, poverty and oppression around me. I was constantly reminded that I would only ever clear my account when they took my very life from me.

Paul actually uses this very image for the power of sin and death in ch 2. But then he says that Jesus, through his cross, freed us from the claims of sin and death. Christ gave his life for ours. Now, if we identify ourselves completely with him, his death counts for ours. The powers of sin and destruction no longer have any claim on us. We’re dead as far as they’re concerned. We owe them nothing, and now we are free to live, just as Jesus lives by the power of his resurrection.

Paul says in Col 3.3, For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. That’s a beautiful picture. The life we live together is hidden away from the forces that want to dominate it. But also hidden in God, which is to say, the way we live now is surrounded by God’s power, it shines with God’s glory, it is full to overflowing with joy, it’s brimming over with love.

So now, Paul tells the believers, live it out. Stop living like sin and death still rule you! Start living like Christ is the one calling the shots! If you’ve really made a commitment to Jesus, you need to change.

(Check out the whole sermon after the jump. . .)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Snippet from Sunday - July 15 - Colossians 1.15-20, Revisited

*Friends, I'm trying something new. Instead of posting my [very long] sermons each week, I am copying here just a few paragraphs that I particularly like. If you miss the long-form version, let me know, and perhaps they'll come back. In the meantime, happy reading!*

How do you know when friends have been reconciled after a fight? It’s by how they treat one another. Or how do you know when your body is healthy after a serious sickness? It’s by how it works; it gets all its functions back, it no longer hurts to breathe or it no longer makes you feel ill to eat.

In the same way, the greatest testimony to Christ Jesus’ great work in reconciling all things is precisely how we treat one another, how we function as a body.

I said last week that Paul’s mention of the church in v 18 at the middle of this hymn doesn’t seem to immediately fit. He’s been praising Christ as maker and ruler of the planets and the angels, maker and ruler of the whole earth, and suddenly he zooms in on the church, the local congregation. Paul has said in vv 15-17 that Christ is “firstborn over all creation,” that he is the one who was “before all things,” that all things were created “by him and for his purposes.” We might expect, as we’re reading along, for v 18 to say “And he is the head of all things,” implying that he is the one who is their source of life and the one who directs them. But instead we read that he is the head of the body, which is the church.

Jesus Christ’s presence in our world today as reconciler meets us first and foremost in local gatherings of his followers. If we want to check and see that, yes, God has made peace with the world, or that, yes, the world is not sick unto death, that it will recover and be made new just as Jesus’ resurrection shows us, the place to look is a local congregation. Our loving interactions with one another and with the world are the strongest testimony to reconciliation. The song we sing has it right: “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Paul’s God-given, Spirit-commissioned task was to proclaim fully the word of God. He names the most surprising, unforeseen part of this good news about Jesus. Paul calls this “God’s secret” or “mystery” in v 26. 

Many Jews in Paul’s day expected God to eventually make things right. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures, they believed God would anoint a Messiah in the last day to vindicate the Jewish people, gather their children from the ends of the earth where they had been exiled, and exult Jerusalem’s temple and king as world’s greatest superpower. Their nation had been humiliated by one empire after another--Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, now Romans. Their status as Yahweh’s special nation seemed to be drawn into question by the defeat of their kings and armies. Their national temple had been desecrated. So they longed for the day when God would vindicate their nation by raising up a liberator and one who would restore right worship. Even before Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he probably believed this.

But what no one was expecting, the key piece of information that God had held back from the prophets right up until the resurrection of Jesus, was the scope of this great restoration. What devout Jews hoped would result in the renewal of their own national fortunes God surprisingly revealed to be the starting point of God’s plan to renew the whole world. The work of the Jewish Messiah shockingly begins not with military victory but with the reconciliation of the Jewish people with all of the non-Jewish, Gentile nations. No one had seen it coming. We can hear in Acts 10 that even the first Jewish Christians were surprised at this turn of events. The abundant glory of this secret which Paul has been commissioned to proclaim is Christ in you--and here Paul points his pen at the Gentile believers in the church at Colossae.

The Colossian believers wanted a deeper spirituality; they wanted to feel closer to God and to have his power in their lives. So they listened to the spiritual gurus’ advice to live by a harsh legalism, to consult their star charts, to pray impressive and mysterious-sounding prayers. But Paul tells them these actions will only take them further away from God.

No, if they want to really know the power of God in their lives, they need only to look around them when they are gathered with the church. In their small fellowship there were Jews and Gentiles praying together, singing together, sharing meals together. The nearly unimaginable reconciliation of Jew with non-Jew is the living presence of God’s power among them.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Biblical Foundations for Mission

If you've read the long sermons I periodically post here, you've picked up on my fascination with mission. It's a term that comes up over and over again, and an idea I keep coming back to.

In fact, I'm working on another sermon for this coming Sunday in which I hope to trace out the unique role of the church in God's mission.

I've read many books and even more blogs on the "missional church." They seem to direct me to Jn 20.21 and Ex 19 frequently, among a few other proof texts. But I'm longing for something more than proof-texting to encourage this small town church in mission.

Do you know of a good biblical theology of mission or missional ecclesiology?

What would you look for in such a study?

Thanks for any suggestions you send my way.

July 8 - What's More Important Than Church?

I want to begin this morning with a question: What is more important than church?

I imagine that almost automatically many of us will have one of two responses. For some, our gut reaction is a firm “Nothing! What could be more important than church?” We honor God by keeping a Christian Sabbath on Sundays. We devote our mornings to worship and the remainder of the day to rest and reflection on God’s blessings in our lives. When we receive a paycheck, the first thing we do is write our tithe. If our children play sports, we tell their coaches that they won’t be able to play in Sunday games.

Others of us, when we hear the question “What’s more important than church?”, we think, “What isn’t?” We have families to think about and bills to pay. Sometimes our jobs demand we work extra hours over the weekend, and even Scripture tells us to provide for our families. We want our kids to use their God-given talents, and sometimes that means extra practices and games on the weekend. The house or the cabin needs looking after and fixing up. We want to take advantage of the warmth and sunshine while we have it, so we’re camping or at the lake every weekend during the summer. Later there’s winter sports and ice fishing. We try to make it to Sunday morning worship at least a few times a month, but, we remind ourselves, “Jesus was really interested in how we worship him with our lives, not in our church attendance.” God, after all, made the world good and wants us to enjoy God’s handiwork.

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I’m confident many of us can identify with one of these two responses. And there are many of us, perhaps, who nod along with points of both responses, if not with our hearts then at least with our calendars. Sometimes church feels like a sacred duty. We owe something to God and to these people, both on Sunday mornings and throughout the week. Other times, church feels extracurricular, like a club or hobby we add on to the rest of life.

In our hearts, I think many of us aren’t quite sure where church is supposed to fit in our lives. Church, it seems, can have all the importance of family Christmas dinner (the kind you’d better not miss) but also all the superfluousness of seventh grade history class in the Springtime.

I want to clear up, if I can, a bit of our confusion about church. What is it? Is it important? How is it supposed to fit in our lives? As we continue to eavesdrop on Paul’s correspondence with the believers in Colossae, I hope we will find some answers to these questions.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July 1 - Where Our Stories Begin

I’m glad to be with you this morning. My wife C and I are looking forward to getting better acquainted with you over these next few weeks and to sharing some of our own stories and hopes. It’s exciting to hear from you how God is uniquely at work with you building for God’s kingdom in this particular community.

I want to know where we each, individually and together, feel God calling us out into God’s project to bring God’s reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” How does the “love of Christ compel” you to share the good news of Jesus’ reign? Is it volunteering with MCC? Is it inviting your neighbor’s family over for a barbeque? Seeking fair-housing regulations? Do you sing? paint? sew? We might witness to God’s great love in so many ways. I’m curious how you feel God asking you to join in.

I hope to hear many of your stories in the coming weeks, over lunch, over coffee, chatting after morning worship. And I expect you’ll want to hear some of mine as well.

I’ve been asked to share the story of how I began to follow Jesus quite a few times. Every time I tell my story, it sounds a little bit different. I always find it difficult knowing where to begin the story. Should I begin with my decision to get baptized as an adolescent? Or should I start from the night in grade school I walked the aisle when a traveling evangelist gave an altar call? I could begin at four years old, with a winter car ride back from a kids’ Bible club when I mouthed word for word the prayer my mom led me in when I asked how I could go to heaven when I died. I can even remember, faintly, Bible songs from Sunday School when I was three years old. I’m sure even those early songs were moving me toward choosing a life committed to Jesus. For that matter, I could start with my parents’ conversion stories, or how when they were young and first married they purposed that that their home would be centered on God and the Bible. All of these things contribute to my daily decision to follow Jesus as the way to God.

I could begin my story in many places. We each could begin our stories about how God is bringing God’s kingdom to this particular part of earth in a variety places. But back before all these beginnings, before any of us committed ourselves to Jesus or joined him in welcoming God’s reign, there was one beginning.

This is what Paul insists on again and again throughout his letter to the believers gathered together in Colossae. In the snippet of their conversation we’ve heard read this morning, Paul tells them that all growth in discipleship begins in one place: the salvation Jesus has won for us. Listen another time to his words in Col 1.9-14:

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking that you be filled with the full knowledge of what God desires through all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may live lives worthy of the Lord in order to please him in every way, by bearing fruit in every good work and growing in your full knowledge of God, being equipped with every ability according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, the one who has made you qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints stored up in heavenly light, the one who rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the reign of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (my translation)
Each of our stories--no matter where or when met Jesus, no matter where or how far we have traveled with him since then--each of them begins in the obedient life and death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. And wherever, however God’s Spirit is working among us and in the world around us--that work begins with Jesus.

Our stories begin with Jesus. This is not simply an interesting fact to remember. It’s not just a doctrine to file away alongside the Trinity or the virgin birth. (And I’ll try to persuade you, if you let me talk with you long enough, that none of these “doctrines” are things to simply leave in the filing cabinet of our minds, like old tax returns!) No--and this is where Paul writes not only for the Colossians but also for us this morning--the way we follow Jesus today, the whole of our discipleship, flows from the redemption Jesus won for us. This redemption is the wellspring of our discipleship, its beginning and the source that sustains it. If we are to follow Jesus, to grow to be more like him and to bear fruit in working for good, then we need to drink deeply at this spring.

Friday, June 22, 2012

N.T. Wright, the New Friars, and a Small Town Church

I've had time to do a bit or reading over the past few weeks. We've moved north, to Saskatoon following a job for Cindy that will start 1 July. Because we opted for a moving company (for the first time ever), we weren't sure when in the four-week window of June our goods would show up. So we've been waiting, eating off a card table, sitting around on folding chairs, sleeping on an air mattress. I like camping, but I was pretty happy when we got the phone call last week that truck was due in on Tuesday. It came, and now we're gradually unpacked. All to say: I've had some time to read.

Public libraries are great! Even for recent immigrants (like me), libraries offer immediate access to a near-boundless and haphazard collection of books and DVDs. You never know what you'll to find.

For instance: Wandering through our new local branch, I found Scott Bessenecker's The New Friars. I remember hearing about this book shortly after it came out in 2006. I remember meaning to find it and read it, but never quite getting around to it. Now, it seemed, it's time had come. So I checked it out with my brand new Saskatoon library card.

The New Friars is a good read--conversationally written, informative, challenging. I'd recommend it especially to students and twenty-somethings puzzling out how their lives fit into God's good desires for this world. That's the part of me, at least, that I felt it speaking to.

Bessenecker uses five words to characterize the praxis of those he dubs "New Friars"--Jesus' followers who become poor in order to serve the people Jesus loves. They are incarnational, devotional, communal, missional, and marginal. He fleshes each of these out with both stories from practitioners today and also those of their historical forerunners: the desert mothers and fathers, the Celts, the Franciscans and the Poor Clares, the Anabaptists, and the Moravians. Each chapter finds the right mix of personal confessional and prophetic discontent.

The New Friars struck me, got stuck in my mind and my heart, toward the end Bessenecker's discussion of the devotional aspect of the New Friars' work. He tells a story about shoveling snow (something and should get used to) and wrestling with his commitment to Jesus and his mission:
"You love my mission more than you love me," Jesus said to me. At first I found this a bit offensive. I suppose Peter might have felt the same way when Jesus kept asking him later, "Do you love me?" (John 21:15-17). How can this be? I wondered. Of course I love you, Lord. But then I began to ask myself, what was it that motivated me . . .
As wonderful as it is to bring the kingdom of God to the hollow places on earth, even this is rubbish in comparison to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus. Intimacy with Christ must be first. Without it, mission is empty and self-serving.
I hit these words like sparrow hits a window. I went back and re-read the paragraphs. Bessenecker was insisting on a distinction that I simply couldn't comprehend. I read and asked myself, how am I supposed to differentiate between my love for God and my love for God's purposes? If I love God, I want what God wants, right?

I eventually picked myself up and made it to the end of the chapter and the end of the book. I enjoyed it, but I keep returning to this question about what I love. I have a half-forgotten memory of a time in my Evangelical youth when this distinction would have made a bit more sense to me. At times, I feel a vague sense of loss or perhaps even regret that I can't find that conceptual apparatus or feel those feelings at this point. Other times I feel a sneaking sense of superiority or an adolescent air of maturity that I've "grown past" that capability. I'm not sure what I feel, but I keep feeling it because the question stubbornly keeps bobbing to the surface of my thoughts.

Reading The New Friars began to dredge up question about how I am joining in on God's project. Recently I've been talking with a small town congregation near Saskatoon. They need a pastor of a sort. They need someone who will do the things small town pastors do: sermons and committees and weddings and funerals and Children's Moments and the like. Set against the stories of saints and students giving their lives away in urban slums, a small town pastorate looks pretty far removed from the frontiers of God's kingdom. I doubt the church wants someone who spends more time "sitting with" the community than working in the church office.

So I began googling urban ministry opportunities around Saskatoon. I began making lists of the reasons why God wouldn't call me to a small town pastorate.

But the unanswered question of John 21 stopped once again: Do I love Jesus, or do I simply love what looks to me like his mission? Small town churches don't look like the frontline of mission. But maybe I'm seeing things incorrectly. I remember Jesus telling a story about people at the last judgment asking in disbelief when they served him, fed him, ministered to him. And Jesus responds tells them appearances can be deceiving (see Mt 25). Maybe there is a frontier running right down Main Street (even though it doesn't have a single stoplight). Maybe Jesus is forgotten somewhere amid the semi-affluent homes.  If I love Jesus, I have to go when he says go, right?

Which brings up N.T. Wright. After I finished The New Friars, I picked up Wright's Surprised By Hope. This one's been sitting on the shelf since I got it as a gift a few Christmases back. So when I was grabbing a few books to read while we waited for the moving truck to arrive, I slipped it into my bag. I'm glad I did.

Wright's basic argument runs that a revitalized eschatology will give us a more robust political ecclesiology.

Most of us have a pretty foggy personal eschatology. We know we will die, and we're confident that then we'll be with Jesus eternally. For most of us, this is what the good news is all about.

We may or may not have strong feelings about hell (thanks to Rob Bell and the barrage of books responding to his Love Wins).

Some of us (if you grew up in a certain kind of Evangelical church, like me) also have charts and diagrams about the particular of general eschatology. We're familiar with the various interpretations of "time, times, and half a time"; we've read Christian pulp fiction about the end of the world; we've debated pre-, mid-, and post-trib raptures scenarios. But most of us feel that it's best to hold onto these, if we do at all, with a pretty loose grip.

To all of our muddled feelings and convictions, Wright brings a solidly researched biblical theology. He confronts us with the unanimous early Christian hope in a bodily resurrection after a disembodied intermediate sate with Jesus in heaven/paradise/Abraham's Bosom. Because of Easter, he says, we have more to hope for than a spiritual exit from a sin-sick material world. Jesus has not just made us a nice place to go after the traumatic and unfortunate experience of death; no, he's conquered death. And his own resurrection--his own bodily return back from the dead--proves that death no longer has the final word.

And from bodily resurrection, he draws a clear line to concern for and action on behalf of the present social-political-ecological-material world. God called creation good, and God's intent has always been to redeem, to buy back the good in it. Jesus' resurrection shows us the "how" of that redemption.

Wright returns again and again to 1 Cor 15.58: "Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."At the resurrection and renewal of all the world, God redemptively validates what we do in the present, just as Jesus' resurrection validated Jesus' work.

Wright doesn't want us confusedly to think that our responsibility now is to "build God's kingdom by our own efforts." There is no way for humanity, Christian or otherwise, to progress from here and now to the resurrection new creation. As Wright insists, "God builds God's kingdom."

Wright follows up this important disclaimer with the following: "But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image. . . . God intends his wise, creative, loving presence and power to be reflected--imaged, if you like--into his world through his human creatures." This is the key point: God chooses to usher in God's kingdom, at least in a preliminary way, through human agency. As Paul says to the believers in Corinth, "We are God's co-workers" (1 Cor 3.9). We wait for the final day, the day of general resurrection for the world to be made entirely new. But until then, we declare the glorious goodness of the God who saves us by building for God's kingdom (see Mt 5.16).

But how do we partner with God in this work? The kingdom for many of us includes only the souls of the saved. Others may steer us toward government offices and the need to legislate morality. Both these answers, I think, shoot wide of the goodness of God's kingdom. Look at Jesus: how did Jesus herald the arrival of the kingdom?

Wright suggest three pursuits for the church as we build for God's kingdom: justice, beauty, and evangelism. He concludes, "This is the good news--of justice, beauty, and above all Jesus--that the church is called upon to live and to speak, to bring into reality, in each generation." Then he asks, "What might the life of the church look like if it was shaped, in turn, by this hope-shaped mission?"

Wright develops this beautifully, and I can't urge you strongly enough to read it for yourself.

This comes back around to the small town church. Our strongest witness to Jesus' good news, our fullest participation in God's mission, is how we live together as church-communities. We herald the kingdom Jesus inaugurated by how we live and love as a community. Wright devotes final third of Surprised By Hope outlining this sort of ecclesial politics found in the New Testament. 

The work of the new friars, if we look past its (un)glamour, the strangely attractive unattractiveness of it, is primarily to demonstrate the way Jesus lived among the world's poorest people. There work is less one of social development than one of accompaniment. Their expectation seems less to be that they will end poverty than that they will live faithfully with poor people, welcoming them, eating together, sharing their resources.

My work (whatever the outcome of conversations with the small town church) is to love Jesus. In Jn 21, Peter answers Jesus three times that, yes, he loves Jesus. Jesus responds three times telling Peter to care for Jesus' flock. Earlier in John, Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commands." And what is his command? Jesus continues on to say that his command is that we love one another as he loved us (Jn 15.12).

Loving Jesus (not just Jesus' mission) means, for me, loving as Jesus loved. This is first an ecclesial reality, something that we do together in the church family. If I am not willing to share table with my partners in this body, if I do not care for the, if I cannot forgo my own interests in order to attend to theirs--I have not love. I have not yet experienced Jesus' reconciliation of all things because I am not reconciled to my sisters and my brothers in this gathering. But if I do love them, then the kingdom of God is truly among us.

But as Wright and Bessenecker would both insist, a good congregational life is not enough. Just as my lone wolf activism for the kingdom falls short of God's desires, so also our in-group comfort and harmony does not bring us to the goal God has for us. No.

Instead, our church-community must build for the kingdom in this world. Our mutual love must spill over into love for the entire world, especially those places where justice and beauty are hardest to find. Remember, Jesus says, "As the Father sent me, so I send you." Sent from love to love.

And because we are a community--not just individuals--we can love more robustly. The lonely not only find a friend, they find a family. The movers and shakers of the world are confronted not only by a vote but by a grassroots movement. Politics (ecclesial or otherwise) gains force when enacted by a community, a polis.

So perhaps I'm still struggling to understand Bessenecker's distinction. Loving Jesus seems to entail loving as Jesus loved, which, in turn, seems to be the essence of mission. But I think the struggle is good for me, so I hope it continues.
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