Friday, December 19, 2014

From the Promised Land

The crisis facing the modern American church is that we think we are living in the Promised Land when we are really living in Exile.  That's the assertion of Mark Labberton in a new and important book entitled, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. The Promised Land is one of the great themes of the Bible.  God's People, Israel, was delivered from bondage in Egypt and given a new homeland of milk and honey. It was a gift. One that was misused by the Israelites and so instead of living there happily ever after they found themselves defeated and carted off to exile in Babylon. There, they were strangers in a strange land. Yet, their prophets like Jeremiah called them to seek the welfare of their land of exile. Their call to live as God's People had not changed but almost everything else had.

Labberton says our context is key to how we understand our call to be God's People. If we are living in the Promised Land where we expect an abundance of milk and honey then our story lines are   mostly about promise and fulfillment. God has blessed us with all kinds of good things and the sky is the limit. Our faith is easily co-opted by the expectations of our consumerist culture and our faith becomes a means to realize our own slice of the American Dream. Church shopping is much more than a metaphor but defines our sense of entitlement to life, liberty and happiness. The fruit of the Spirit become comestibles, Labberton says. When the Promised Land becomes the Plundered Land, when God's blessings become an end in themselves and their purpose is forgotten, all we have left is a shell unable to sustain the life it was meant to foster, he writes.

I drive by scores of large and impressive church buildings on my way to our small rented church space in the city. The parking lots are usually full on Sunday mornings and evenings. Their enormous signs remind me of the new jumbotrons at EverBank field, home of the Jaguars. They beckon passersby to come in and experience state of the art technology as worship. Their facilities and staff await to fulfill any and all of our needs. Just come, sit, watch, give and enjoy. But, where are the people. They are invisible outside the church setting fitting in comfortably with their secular, or other church going neighbors. Where is the impact. Or are we merely enjoying the advantages of being a Christian in America and shaking our heads in judgment at those who don't follow our way.

The crisis we face, Labberton says, is that we are slow to realize  we are a church in exile and that the Promised Land church (there is even a children's program called The Promised Land) is a mirage. Living as a church in exile means having different expectations. We don't whine about the world being the world. We love it, serve it and pray for it's welfare. We don't live in a hothouse of protected faith, he says, but in a place of winds, rain and floods (Matt 7:27).  That image Jesus used reminds us that a church in exile is no stranger to suffering. God loved and entered a world full of suffering and he suffered for it. How can we live in this world God loves and act like God has given a pass to us in the western church. American Christians can easily forget we are such a small percentage of the world. The norm for most people in our world is a daily struggle for the basics of life. There are few of the freedoms we take for granted. Labberton bluntly puts it this way: "seeking a call that evades suffering is a decision neither to follow Jesus nor to live in the real world."

Our lives can seem so far from the suffering images on the nightly news: Ebola orphans, racial protests, child trafficking, refugees fleeing violence and instability. Our prayers can seem so inconsequential and even lame, what words do we have. We have been too long in the church of the Promised Land. As a church in exile we will be taught a language of lament by the Psalms and the Prophets. We will build bridges to those who suffer, move closer to sharing their lives, giving and receiving. We will choose to include the suffering of others in our lives. To live out our calling of loving like Jesus.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Follow me

I'm preaching on January 11, 2015. Our pastor is off on an educational trip to the Holy Land. She will be gone for 15 days. The lectionary gospel texts for the new year are in Mark. I am preaching on Mark 1:12-20. Mark's gospel is for today - it goes so blazing fast. It was written for time challenged multitaskers. Mark may have had ADD.  He covers the temptation of Jesus in a couple sentences and then summarizes Jesus ministry message in a couple more. The calling of his first disciples, four verses. I feel like shouting, Whoa, Slow Down! What Mark is telling us surely did not happen so fast, did it? His story is compressed time. It is given to us in chunks to meditate on (a challenge for us today!).

Jesus, just passing by the fishermen working from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, says two words, Follow Me, and they drop everything and do it! Whoa! Mark! What does that mean? Are we to think that they just up and left their jobs and bills, and their kids birthday celebrations, and wedding anniversaries and the unfinished home remodeling projects. How did it happen? Mark is not very helpful or is he? Perhaps, he wants us to ponder a bit.

Now it could have happened that way. Commentators on Mark suggest ways: maybe they were already familiar with Jesus and had time to consider his call; perhaps the force of Jesus personality was such they could not help but drop everything and follow him; maybe they were ready for a big change in their lives. But, it could be both a picture of the way it happens to us that we can meditate on and a compressed process that unfolded over time. Given Mark's gospel writing purposes I think Mark speeds up what was a longer process. That longer process seems to be the way it happens to us.

 We want to know how the call of Jesus to his first disciples makes sense in our lives. We have jobs and families and car payments and can't just walk away from all of that to Follow Jesus and if we did what would that even look like. Yet, we want to Follow Jesus.

We don't know a lot about Jesus and his disciples. We know they spent a lot of time with him for a three year period. They shared their lives with him and each other and he shared his life with them. It was the start of something big although it looked like a failed cause before things got better, the crucifixion and then the resurrection.  Then, things got worse again when the church was persecuted. But, the resurrection had happened and that was the Big Deal which changed everything. So, I'm guessing the disciples could get home to celebrate a kid's birthday and remember their wedding anniversaries and repair the leaky roof. Following Jesus does not mean leaving real life and living some kind of spiritual, other worldly, life. There is Life and we follow Jesus living it.

Jesus came to the fishermen where they lived. He comes to us where we are at. He calls us in the midst of the stuff of our lives. You don't have to go to a church to find Jesus. He finds us. In the midst of. We have a funny idea about "Calling" that it is a change from what we were doing to a Churchy kind of job. Pastors are called. Missionaries are called. Youth ministers are called. But what about janitors and bus drivers, and child care workers and nurses aides. How do you follow Jesus in life as you know it. That's what we want to know. It doesn't help us to be told we need a career change to follow Jesus.

Following Jesus may mean a career change as it did for some of those first followers of Jesus, but it may not. What did Thaddeus do or James son of Alphaeus, or Simon known as the Caneanean after they were called? We are not told. Matthew may have quit his tax collecting job and most of the fishermen probably still wet a line but not for a living.

Before I became a pastor I had to answer the question, What was your call? How did you hear it? How did it happen for you. I had to write a paper on it. I had to read it. I had to answer questions from my peers. I had to persuade them I had a call to ministry. Not a bad thing to do. All of us might benefit from doing the same thing. How did you end up doing what you are doing? How did  your call happen? How did you discern God's leading in the process?

But I had a first call. We all do. The first call before it was to become a pastor was to Christ. Our first call is to hear the voice of Gods love in Christ. You are loved. Its the prodigal son story. You are cherished. You are treasured. As you are. No matter what else we do, that is always our first call.

Then we are called together. Christ calls us to Those Others Who He Has Called. We flesh out our calling here in the body of Christ.  Jesus called a first 12. You (PL), come Follow me. We don't follow Christ alone. We learn what Christ calls us to here. We practice living out our calling, and we need the practice, don't we? We are reminded of our calling to him first at the Lord's Table. Then to each other and together to the world around us as we get up to serve.

Those are the primary calls to every Follower of Christ. Then, there are other calls, to serve the body of Christ and the larger world. Follow me are words we hear often.

The gospels are all about how we follow Christ. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, teaches us how we follow Christ in all kinds of life situations: serving, forgiving,practicing hospitality, sowing peace, and so on.

We don't have to join a convent to follow Christ or hide inside a church. We are called to follow Christ. Here, where we live. With who we live life with.  In our jobs, our families, our churches. This is our 12. Jesus says, Love.... Serve, Wash each other's feet. We don't have to go anywhere else to live out our sense of call.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Keep Christ in Christmas

God made history with salvation, He showed the world what He could do. (Psalm 98, The Message)

I can't breathe
Rikers Island
CIA report on torture
government gridlock
steady drone of negative news on nbc, fox, your local news at 10
domestic violence
sexual assault
anti-semitism, anti-gay, anti -immigrant, anti - fill in the blank

Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt - seasoning that brings out the God - flavors of this earth. (Matthew 5, The Message)

The simple moral fact is that words kill. If you enter your place of worship and suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. (Matthew 5, The Message)

Food banks, homeless shelters, churches where everyone is welcome, amani sasa (a ministry to abused women in Uganda), churches without walls, and so on and on...

You're here to be light, bringing out the God - colors in the world. Keep open house; be generous with your lives. (Matthew 5, The Message)

Bread for the World, Compassion, International Justice Mission, Center for Christian - Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, City rescue missions, Salvation Army and so on and on...

A green shoot will sprout from Jesse's stump, from his roots a budding Branch. He won't judge by appearances, won't decide on the basis of hearsay. He'll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth's poor with justice. Each morning He will put on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land. (Isaiah 11, The Message)

Keep Christ in Christmas

Monday, December 8, 2014

Let it be

Last night at church we read the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The pastor talked about the courage Mary had to put her life and the expectations for her life (she was going to be married!) on hold as she submitted to God's plan for her life. It was a hard thing to do. We discussed stories of courage that have inspired us and those times when we wish we had had more courage. I thought of people who have faced long illnesses and others who were navigating the unique limitations of older age, and pastors who were confronting resistance to their ministry, and people living on the streets because of unforeseen crises in their lives, and refugees in tent camps with no promise of ever returning to their homes. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to get through the day.

During the service we watched a music video of Alison Crowe singing the Beatles' song Let It Be. I had never thought of the Beatles writing a Christmas Carol and I don't know if they intended it to be or not (my wife said she heard Mother Mary was code for marijuana).  No matter what was intended Alison Crowe interpreted it as a song of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Let it be with me, she told the angel Gabriel according to God's will. Mary surrendered her plans for her life and waited to see what God had for her even though it must have seemed almost impossible to believe.

We find ourselves at times in places of waiting and praying not knowing how our lives will work out. Perhaps our plans failed, or we never saw "that" coming, or we feel let down and defeated. It might be a good thing. God may be ready to do something and when we let go of our plans we may be open to hearing about his.

Mary's response to Gabriel was an instance of giving herself to God. We talk about that a lot but it often takes a crisis, a fork in the road, a moment of "I did not see that coming", for us to come to that place of surrender and waiting on a word from the LORD.  Brian McLaren, in an advent meditation, suggests starting our days during Advent with Mary's words, "Let it be to me according to your will." Meditate on those words in the context of your life right now and pray them in your own words. Let this be a season of presenting your life to God, McLaren says. (His book is We Make The Road By Walking)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Top ten (or so) books of 2014

Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell - The Good Samaritan story retold in the context of modern warfare.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel Brown - There is no "I" in team.

Wars of Reconstruction: the Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era by Douglas Egerton - "Shall our children see a negro in the President's chair?" opined an editor of a Macon, Georgia paper after President Johnson vetoed a first attempt at Civil Rights legislation after the Civil War.

The Wind is Not the River by Brian Payton - novel of the "forgotten war": World War Two in the Aleutian Islands

Love Does by Bob Goff - good Lenten reading

Revolutionary Summer and American Creation by Joseph Ellis - birth of America

Lila by Marilynne Robinson - the pastors's wife (from Gilead)

The Making of an Ordinary Saint by Nathan Foster - Celebration of Discipline for a new generation

Boy on Ice by John Branch - violence in professional sports through the lens of this tragic story

Abundant Simplicity by Jan Johnson - Simply, the Christian Life Explained

Deep Dark Down by Hector Tobar  - the most interesting part of this rescue story is what happened after the rescue

Congo: the Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck - First came the slave traders, then came the Belgians who set the people free, then came the rubber traders, then came the medical experts, then came the missionaries, then came the ethnographers, then came the capitalists and what became of the People?

Living in God's reality

I've read the Sermon on the Mount dozens of times. I've taught from it and preached from it. I still don't know if I get it right and I know how hard it is to do it right! The SOM has a long history of interpretation. In my own life I have been told Jesus did not intend his words to be taken seriously for  today. They are for later, in heaven. While that takes the pressure off, it never made much sense. Will we be persecuted in heaven or will there be mourning there? Will we have to take the shirt off our backs and give it to someone with no shirt?

Similarly, when Jesus talks about getting rewards in heaven, he means the promises he makes here come true in heaven. But, the rewards Jesus mentions sound pretty earth bound to me, i.e, the meek will inherit the earth.

Then, I was told Jesus meant to show us how he intended us to live knowing we could never live up to it. It was kind of like this is the law and it should drive us to repent and to God's grace. But this didn't make sense either, if we cannot ever hope to attain it, why try?

Then, I was told it was like the way Jesus wanted us to live - the way he lived - an ideal Christian life we ought to aim for but we can't expect to hit it. Well, that seemed like Jesus just meant to frustrate his followers. Kind of like holding out a gorgeous apple before us but never letting us take a bite of it. Pretty soon, you'd probably get tired of trying.

This morning while reading the SOM yet again, I came across something N.T. Wright said that did make sense. When Jesus talks about heaven in the SOM...."heaven is God's space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (earthly) reality and interlocking with it." Jesus taught his followers to pray, that God's kingdom will come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Wright says, the life of heaven - where God is King- is to become the life of the world, transforming the earth into a place of beauty and delight that God always intended. AND THOSE WHO FOLLOW JESUS ARE TO BEGIN TO LIVE BY THAT RULE HERE AND NOW!

We can live now in the way it will make sense to live then. It's a choice to live according to God's kingdom instead of living according to the values of the kingdoms we see all around us.

It's giving instead of grasping, sharing instead of hoarding, forgiving instead of resenting, blessing instead of cursing, loving instead of hating, affirming instead of condemning, accepting instead of judging and going the extra mile when you are too tired to go any further.

 It's like seeing two big circles drawn on a piece of paper which overlap each other in the middle. The SOM is about that overlap - Living out God's Kingdom reality in the messy mix of the kingdoms of this world.

Friday, December 5, 2014

On the reading of commentaries

I like to read commentaries. Commentaries are books written to explain books of the Bible. There is a whole world of commentaries that most of the world does not know about. They are a particular and peculiar genre of writing. Few people read them for pleasure. I can't imagine the authors get very rich writing them. Writing them is a a lot of work. Say, you are writing a commentary on the book of Luke, one of the gospels. As a writer who wants to be thorough, he or she would have to read dozens of other commentaries written over the years (since Bible times!) and a whole slew of learned articles in obtuse magazines that only other scholars read. This takes effort both to read your way through them and then to add something new to them. It has to be a work of love because, as I said, a writer of commentaries is not going to get rich by writing. Most of the human race will never know what he or she does for a living.

There are all kinds of commentaries and many of them are boring even if like me you like to read them. Some are useful if you want some explanation of some Greek or Hebrew word that is in the text you are studying. These scholarly tomes will break down the original languages and maybe provide some historical, cultural and linguistic context but nothing more. I think they are written for other scholars. Preachers and teachers are not going to slog through them or if they do - find scant pleasure in the task. Most people preachers preach to are not interested in the parsing of a certain Greek verb or knowing how many times it is used in the New Testament. As someone who has preached for many years I have done a fair bit of slogging and boring listeners with my second hand knowledge of Greek words. No one ever said to me, Pastor, I am sure glad you enlightened me to the meaning of that Greek participle.

In seminary we were taught that these commentaries that unearthed the bare essentials of the text were the best for preaching. They held the ore to be mined by the preacher and then he took what he excavated and made something of it. Trouble was even though the ore was valuable what was made of it could be mishandled and the final product misshapen. These commentaries looked good on the shelves but gathered more and more dust.

The commentaries I liked to read and still do are the ones with more life in them. The author takes the risk of interacting with his or her sources and applying what is in the text to real life. I know this is the task of the preacher but she learns how to do this by reading how others have done it. There are some great teachers who write commentaries. They tell stories, and reveal how the text makes a difference to them. They give insight into how the ore is meant to be used.

These are the commentaries that anyone in the church can read for learning and for pleasure! Yes, I meant to say that because they are enjoyable. Why should the word of God not be enjoyed? So, if you want to get started or restarted on this project of enjoying God's word here are a few tips.

Take some time when there are likely to be few distractions. Figure out what book of the Bible you would like to read with someone who has read all the stuff there is (or a good chunk of it) on that book and then read a short passage in the Bible. Take the commentary and read the section pertaining to what you read. Make a note about what you read and how it spoke to you.

There are several commentary series that cover the whole Bible. If you enjoy one book in the series you may enjoy more of them. One series I like is the "For Everyone" series. John Goldingay does the Old Testament books and N.T. Wright does the New. They are short and easily accessible "for everyone".

Other authors who I enjoy reading are F.D. Bruner on Matthew and John, Kenneth Bailey on parts of the Gospels and Paul, Fred Craddock on various New Testament books, and Eugene Peterson who has written on a number of Old and New Testament books.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Advent: making hope real

This past Sunday at church we lit the advent candle of Hope. We read Isaiah 40 and the pastor talked about what hope is. Then we talked together around our tables about hope. One of our members who is a hospital chaplain brought several quotes about hope. The one we read was anonymous and sparked discussion. It said that "hope is a work of faith, while doubt is an easy way out." Hope is a work of faith. Hope is like a muscle strand of faith. It must be exercised, used, active to be realized.

I just finished reading Hector Tobar's gripping story of the Chilean mining disaster in 2010 where 33 miners spent 69 days underground. In the first weeks there was only a tenuous strand of hope but it was used, the men organized, prayed, shared food and water. A few doubted in their rescue and gave up, doing little.

In the days after Ferguson, there were protests and displays of doubt that things would ever get better. The Ferguson community burned and smoldered. But, some hoped: they prayed for peace and justice,  and one young man held up a sign that said, Free Hugs. A heavily armed police officer took him at his word and a picture of their hug was seen across the country. A sign of hope.

Isaiah 40 is a sign of hope, too. After a long barren time that felt like judgment, God was on his way bringing comfort. It would take work to get there; the people are told to get out and prepare the way: excavate the land, put up "fill needed" signs, build roads, believe God is coming and get ready.

Hope is a work of faith. Hope is rooted in our faith in the Gospel. It takes work to realize it. Prayer is work. Going to church in a part of the city with boarded up homes and burned out businesses and the homeless hanging out on the street corners, is work. Working on a habitat for humanity home in the neighborhood is work. Tutoring reading after school is work. Visiting the sick, holding the hands of the dying, advocating for the voiceless, doing the right things is work. Preaching the gospel sometimes with and sometimes without words is work. What work can we do today to exercise our faith and make hope real?