Friday, July 21, 2017

One little word

Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian pastor for many years. Then, he taught Spiritual Formation at  Regent University in Vancouver, B.C. He has written numerous books on the Bible, Spiritual Formation and Pastoral Ministry.  I have read most of them. I use The Message, Peterson's translation of the Bible, for personal reading and for Scripture reading in public worship.  Eugene Peterson has been more than a helpful guide to the practice of Christian ministry, for me, he has been close to indispensable. I don't know if I would have survived as a pastor for 37 years without his writings. I know other pastors who would say the same.

So how did it happen that one little word called his entire body of work into question? One word and a Christian bookstore chain (Lifeway) was ready to pull all his books including The Message. One word and countless Christian bloggers were throwing him under the bus. One word and some Christian publications were calling for a re-evaluation of his life work. How did that happen? The little word was yes. Peterson said yes to the question of an interviewer who asked him if he would marry a same sex couple who asked him to do the ceremony. He said that over the years he had gotten to know several gay people who were also Christians and he admired their Christian commitment and service. So, he had changed his mind.

He did not change his mind about Jesus Christ. He did not change his mind about the Bible. He had not changed his theology. But, for some Christians he said a word that called into question for them everything he had ever said or written.

A day later it was reported that Peterson retracted his one little word. His critics breathed a sigh of relief and felt better about reading his other words.

Peterson is 84 years old. He has never been in the publishing game for fame or glory. He does not own a tv nor does he use the internet. He is clueless about the current state of our nasty social media culture. He is more at home in a medieval monastery in the wilderness than in a coffee house using wifi.

I believe he changed his mind. I believe he said yes and meant it. I believe he was blindsided by the blowback from the evangelical world. I believe someone retracted the statement. I believe he did not know what he was stepping into when he spoke his mind to the interviewer. Now he knows. I doubt whether he will have any more words to say to us.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Trinity Sunday, Why?

Last Sunday was called Trinity Sunday in the church year. It fell to me to preach on this Sunday. Not the most exciting topic to preach on, I was thinking. What will make it preach? I looked around at some other ideas, texts but no luck. I was drawn back to the texts for the day: Psalm 8, Genesis 1-2:4 and the very trinitarian verse at the end of 2 Corinthians.  Psalm 8 it was. Psalm 8 is a great Psalm of creation and praise to God, the creator. It calls us to humility - puny human beings, v4. Yet, created in the image of God, we are given a care taking responsibility over creation. There is not much that suggests the trinity, however. For that, the Genesis account of creation and the 2 Corinthians text are supportive. It also demonstrates why the Trinity is such a tough topic. It is not really spelled out in Scripture. It is more inferred. It took the early church leaders hundreds of years to iron out what the Scripure taught about the Trinity. What is the essence of God? Is God one or three? Are there three distinct persons, modes of being, or essentially one, three in one. There were years of debates leading to finer tuning.

Today, among Christians, the Trinity is accepted even if not understood. It is not as important as Pentecost Sunday the week before and is no where near as popular as Easter or Christmas. We might wonder why (or not, but if not we might wonder why not). The big emphasis in more recent theology is to see in the Trinity an image of God relating. The Trinity is about relationship. God is a community of love. Love is not an attribute of a static God but Love is who God is. God lives in this circle of love which God desires to share with us. We are created in Love to be loved by God and to share God's love with others.

Creation is not a statement of what God needs but what God gives. God does not need us or anything God created. God has no religious expectations of us and surely is not waiting to see if we merit God's love. God's overflowing Trinitarian love is wholly gratuitous.

If we start from the Trinity we won't get the wrong idea that we are here to please God, or help God out, or save the world! God is not waiting for us to buck up and get it right or God will let everything go to hell. It's not up to us, nothing is. God chooses, God loves in Christ and God has already done the heavy lifting. We need to receive the gospel and live it.

Our world needs God and the gospel of God's love. And we share it by living it. It's tough going though. Unfortunately, the general perception is that Christians are rule oriented, and performance obsessed and we have a certain type in mind of what a Christian really is - and others must measure up or they are not accepted. Love is not what most people think of when they think of Christians. Most Christians need to go back to square one which is the Trinity.

Why are you mindful of us, Psalm 8, asks. We who are of the ground (humans -adamah in Hebrew). So insignificant in the universe. So uncomprehending of the person and ways of God. So flawed and failed. Not given a great mission or great task that God needs us to do or else the world goes up in flames. Simply love people and take care of what God has given to us. The Trinity: Local, Organic, Good for you and others.

The Poor.... well you know

So there have been some things said in support of Trumps' budget proposal to cut programs that help the poor. His budget chief has said they are after quality not quantity and will put the money where it will do the most good. The Bible has been put to use as it often is in ways that buttress one's point of view. The poor you will always have with you is one of those verses or partial verses that Jesus purportedly said. The part of a verse is not given any context as if Jesus one day was handing out aphorisms. The other verse that has been popular among the politicians is a wise saying from somewhere in the Bible (it has to say it, right) about how cutting taxes to the rich will help the poor. There are lots of verses about the rich in the Bible but I cannot find this one. Then, there is the cabinet member who is in charge of housing for the poor, among other things, who stated that poverty is a state of mind. Gosh, I thought it had to do with childcare, putting food on the table and paying the rent.

It seems I have heard these things all my life. I've lived my life around Christians, mostly, as a pastor. Christians are giving people: toys at Christmas, canned goods for the food pantry, sponsoring children, and giving to missions. But, they draw the line often at giving handouts to the poor. They will say it makes them dependent on the government instead of taking responsibility for their own lives. If you are poor and broke in America, the evangelical financial guru Dave Ramsey says, it is because you need to make better choices so you can get better results. The poor will always be with us because some people make poor choices. Just look at what is in their grocery carts.

Two days before Jesus died he was in Bethany (means House of the Poor) in the home of Simon the leper (read outcast). Simon was probably poor but he did have a home to share with Jesus and some of his friends. During dinner, a woman entered with an alabaster jar (equals expensive) full of very costly oil, a luxury item even if you were rich. Although Matthew (ch 26) does not tell us it was rumored she was a prostitute who had used her earnings to buy the oil, or perhaps she was simply poor and somehow got her hands on some good stuff. She was out of place, poor and her presence outraged the disciples (see Mark 14 where it says they were angry and scolded her). She broke open the expensive jar and poured the oil extravagantly on Jesus. It was a years worth of wages wasted when it could have been spent on the poor (at least, if not on a vacation in Joppa for the disciples). Think of how many could have been fed? If she donated it to the Memorial Fund she could have had a plaque in her honor. Except, we don't know her name. Her acts will be remembered, Jesus said, but not with a brass plate on the Fellowship hall door.

Jesus says, chill out. She has done a good thing.... for the poor you will always have with you.

Jesus was poor, really poor. Most of the people around him were poor, outcast, and socially disabled. When Jesus talked about bringing good news to the poor he was not referring to a state of mind. He was talking about people like him. Who he knew. Who he lived with. When he said, Blessed are the poor he was not talking down to them. No, they were standing all around him. When he prayed, give us today our daily bread, he did not mean meet me for coffee and a scone.

Jesus was poor. He knew what he was talking about. He knew what he was bringing to the poor and it was not charity, a goodwill box at Christmas or a toy for a tot.

It was good news, the same good news the woman in the story had heard and proclaimed.

She undercut luxury.
She undermined money.
She understood the limits of charity and the system that kept it in place.

She underwent the transformation of the kingdom of God. She got it. Jesus was King. He was not taking over but turning over the kingdoms of this world.

It was a New Kingdom. It was a New Ethic.

Oil - what is that? What does it do for you? Why does it matter? Gold? Diamonds? So what, just stuff. You have Jesus. You follow Jesus the King. See Matthew 5.

Money runs out. Buys a few meals but it is no lasting solution to the poor. Community is, the community of the King.

She came out as poor in a poor man's home, in the village of the poor. They celebrated: yes we are poor and Jesus, our King, is poor and there always will be poor among us but we trust God now and for everlasting.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is a eunuch doing in church?

What is a eunuch doing in the church? What is a eunuch anyway? Eunuchs were common enough in the ancient world. Jesus was confident that his hearers knew what a eunuch was (read Matthew 19:12). In Acts 8, the disciple Philip encounters a eunuch reading a passage of Scripture in Isaiah and explains it to him and then at his request baptizes him into the church of Jesus Christ! In her fascinating book, Sex Differences in Christian Theology, Megan DiFranza includes a study of eunuchs in the Bible and the culture of the time. Eunuchs could serve in some types of official positions but they were routinely despised. They were seen as "not normal", inferior males. Due to their lack of sexual organs, either naturally or involuntarily castrated, they were the "epitome of other". To Jews their identity as other, or outsider, prohibited Temple worship. Jesus, however, turned this thinking upside down with his (a Jewish teacher!) positive evaluation of them in the context of his teaching on marriage. This group of people who were commonly seen as sexually different, not really male or female, and morally suspect were given a new identity by Jesus and welcomed into the church by Philip who was led by the Holy Spirit!

This was at a time when the power structures of the ancient world were built on a chain of gendered being. As DiFranza says elite men were at the top, women were at the bottom and eunuchs and effeminate men were somewhere in the middle. Jesus challenged this powerful system when he said that those who renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom would no longer be defined by traditional gender markers. Their primary identity would be a non gendered one (DiFranza, p105). "In calling his disciples to learn from eunuchs Jesus was calling them to learn from those whose gender identity was not secure, to learn that gender identity is not the central value in the kingdom of heaven." (DiFranza, 105)

As our congregations are roiled by questions of sexual identity and gender issues today, DiFranza's book deserves a close reading.

Is the Old Testament Dead

The Old Testament is dying if not dead is the theme of Brent Strawn's new book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment.  Strawn does not mean the OT is really dead  but that it is practically dead in the sense that it is mostly forgotten. There is a long history of the neglect and at times purposeful ignorance of the OT. Recall Marcion in the early church and the attempts by the German state church to erase all OT references to Christianity during Hitler's reign of terror. The attempt to undermine the OT has always been there. Today we are reaping what we have sowed or not sowed. When I arrived at one of my first churches I was stunned to read in our confession of faith that we were a church founded on the New Testament. In my travels I see "New Testament" churches proudly proclaimed on their signage. Strawn does a good job documenting the decline of the OT in churches today. It is not read, or preached from, or taught or sung as the Psalms invite us to do. Instead, Strawn calls what remains of the OT a kind of "Pidgin" language. We can talk about the OT in dumbed down ways and we still tell the stories with their morals to children but the OT is not the meat that we eat. That would be the New Testament which is preferred over the OT. It is about Jesus after all and we are not so sure about that God of the OT. If we have to choose what we are going to read with our limited time it might as well be the NT (although Strawn cites surveys that show Christians don't read that much either). Even those churches following the lectionary readings every Sunday never hit on great chunks of the OT. Most Christians believe that the NT has subsumed the Old. Whatever is important has been taken up in the New. There is even an animosity toward the Old that is signified by saying things like, "well that was in the OT but Jesus said this." We are followers of Jesus but not the OT.

Well, Jesus followed the OT. He prayed from the OT, and studied the OT, quoted the OT at the great turning points of his life. Like Psalm 22 from the cross! OT books like Deuteronomy are frequently referenced in the NT. The OT was the only Scripture the early church had. The NT writings were added to the OT and apocrypha which was the whole Bible then. (The apocrypha was part of the Scripture until the Reformation which made those works non-Scripture for Protestants). The OT is the revelation of God just like the NT is.

Wherever the OT has been dismissed or ignored anti-Semitism has been close by. Why do we choose to call it the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. Why do we produce Bibles that are really only the New Testament. Why is it so difficult to find Christian worship songs that come out of the Old Testament.

Strawn has recommendations for the treatment of this problem. Mostly, they have to do with reading it so that it becomes a vital part of our faith and life again. We can pray the Psalms as Jesus and Paul did. We can sing them too with the help of modern groups like the Sons of Korah. We can study the OT for what it shows about God who is the only God of the Bible. I am not optimistic that Srawn's recommendations will do the trick. The OT may be too far gone. As in Josiah's day we need a miracle  of rediscovery.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bible reading and fishing

I have tried to get into Joy Williams book, 99 Stories About God, several times. And I've given up. I was attracted by the title and I have liked others of William's short stories. This little book of the shortest of short stories proved nearly unknowable to me. I could read them but they seemed so obtuse I had no idea what they meant. After many attempts to get what she was saying I realized I was reading them wrong. I was reading them too fast, expecting them to give up their meaning in the time I had allotted to them. I was looking for information, a smart turn of phrase, instant wisdom. Something  profound communicated in 144 characters or less. Something I could smile over - that was good. A good use of my time invested in reading. In further -now slower readings, I have found associations I had missed. I saw things I passed over quickly since they did not give up their sense easily.

It's much like we read the Bible or don't. Recent surveys state an alarming drop in Bible reading among people who identify as Christians. Is that because we know what it says? Or, is it because it's too hard to get what the Bible is saying. We would rather have someone tell us what it means (we think we cannot get it if we have not had the proper training). The popular Christian view of God is One who reveals all God has to reveal in simple ways we can understand. Even though the disciples did not understand Jesus and no one else did either when he spoke in parables, and we still don't although we have lots of scholars to help us. There are lots of other stories in the Bible that are Williams - like. Jonah, for instance, a man swallowed by a big fish, or Adam and Eve, a couple that listens to a talking snake. The book of Proverbs is all short stories - parables - that are meant to be taken and "chewed over".  Meditated upon is what the early wisdom teachers said. Who has time to meditate any more? So much easier to take our news on Facebook.

Joy Williams stories are intended for meditation. Slow reading and thinking. Her stories like most of the Bible do not give up their meaning easily. The reader has to work on them, has to think, imagine, sit with them awhile. Enjoy them?

She has one story that baffled me. A noted humanist scholar was invited to give a talk on whether or not there was life on other planets. The humanist thought it was possible but believed a world devoid of human beings was not worth imagining.  Humans have the ability to appreciate beauty. After the talk, at lunch at a small, fine restaurant, he was served a speckled trout beautifully presented. From his plate he heard beautiful music faintly playing. Horrified, he jumped up, ran into the kitchen and attacked his waiter and the chef. Later, after he was taken to the psychiatric facility for observation he discovered no one appreciated his story of the beautiful singing trout. Williams concludes, "His ravings about the trout being no more appreciated than the ravings of any of the other lunatics there."

Perhaps, the reader of the Bible needs to appreciate the ways God chooses for revelation. Once Jesus got a lesson out of a fish's mouth. It can take some time to appreciate such things, however.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Whats good about Good Friday?

Today, Good Friday, I went into Jacksonville to meet with a small group of friends for coffee. Afterward,  I wandered through downtown waiting for a used bookstore to open. In that part of downtown near the bookstore is a plaza where a good number of our homeless population hang out. It's a nice park, clean and one of the best spots to host events downtown. Daytime food trucks and music groups make an inviting environment to enjoy coffee or lunch at a table or on a bench.  Some people complain that the homeless people detract from the central park ambience and efforts have been made to clear the park of the so-called undesirables but I think the mix of people works fine. Yesterday on Maundy Thursday some people from local churches showed up to hand out bag lunches and wash feet. Homeless people were invited to have their feet washed and to wash others including the ones who had come to serve in this way. It was awkward, and uncomfortable for all and beautiful in other ways is how one of my friends who was there described it. Church people in the South don't seem to celebrate Maundy Thursday or Good Friday much. Easter productions are the big thing. Certainly, a foot washing in the central park is uncommon.

More common was crucifixion in Roman occupied territories at the time of Jesus. It was not unusual at all to witness a person being crucified. That's the way Rome dealt with their political prisoners. Someone crucified outside the city of Jerusalem probably deserved it. It was no place for a religious leader to wind up. No one stood up for Jesus that first Good Friday. The gospel writers give us the details: Jesus was spit at, beaten, mocked, forced to wear a crown of thorns and carry his cross to Golgotha, the place of the the skull. This was no successful messiah. This was a man who was going to die for his delusions. His supporters had deserted him. Who could blame them?

Jesus was about as welcome as a homeless person in a downtown park. No one washed his feet or even gave him something to quench his thirst. Nothing was done to diminish his suffering.

Since that day Christian thinkers have come up with all kinds of theories of why Jesus died on that cross, how his death worked for our benefit. Most Christians have come to believe that somehow, some way, that death worked out for the good, for our salvation. So, we have Good Friday. While the theories are elaborate - how to explain something like this - the result seems simple: Jesus died for my sins.

A few hours before Jesus was crucified he hosted a dinner for some of his friends. During the dinner, he washed his friends feet. This act, if it was done at all, was ordinarily done by a servant. It was out of place for the leader of the group to assume the servant's role. As out of place as God on a cross or people some homeless, some not, washing each other's feet in a public park at lunchtime.