Observing Jesus: The Role of Hiddenness in Discipleship

Sermon March 2    Matthew 6:1-18

This sermon was the final in a series in our church focused on the Sermon on the Mount.  Just below, I have posted the audio of the sermon if you would prefer to listen rather than read.

Click on this sentence to listen to the audio.

There is a simple adage that has been around awhile now that reads, “God created humans in God’s image, and then humans returned the favor.”  Said differently, human beings have come up with all kinds of religious teachings and concepts about God that we most like, and then we project those teachings and concepts into the heavens and call them “God.”  We might think Jesus is an exception to this rule, since we have the central teachings and actions of him written right before us every time we open the gospels, but it’s always interesting to listen to our society and how we invoke Jesus’ name in relationship to our political, religious, and social agendas.

Just to refresh my perspective on this subject, I simply googled the search term “Jesus” to see what popped up first.  

The first link was the Wikipedia entry on Jesus, which is refreshingly helpful as a guide for initial questions.  The section most relevant to what I just said is that Muslims, Manichaeans, Gnostics, Bahai’s, Mormons, and some Jews have found prominent places for Jesus in their religions. The Mormon theological perspective on Jesus is maybe most interesting in that they claim that Jesus visited the Americas after his resurrection, that God and Jesus were separate physical people, and that the Garden of Eden was and will be in Missouri.  Now, if you talk to Angela Pancella on that point, or Pastor Stoxen during baseball season, they might agree, but that is an interesting statement nonetheless.

 The second link was a New York Times article about Christians seeking to follow the counsel of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere to seek reconciliation by multiple avenues before going to a secular court.  This is a helpful thing to think about.

The third link was an article about the new movie “Son of God,” which looks interesting, even though Tony Jones hates it, but Tony Jones basically hates anything related to conservative evangelicals.

The fourth link, and another link down the page, were stories about the village in Japan where some Japanese believe Jesus moved after he snookered the Romans, escaped from crucifixion,  made a Marco Polo-like  trans-Asian journey, settled in Japan, had a wife and kids, and died at the ripe old age of 106. 

The fifth link was the “Jesus Christ” Twitter account with such helpful tweets as “Heaven will be temporarily shut down.  Please feel free to do whatever you want until further notice. YOLO” on October 15th, and “I’ll celebrate when my Dad apologizes for what he did to me,” on June 16th.  So, yeah, there’s that.

Then, further down the page, Paul Oestreicher wrote an article in the Guardian in 2012 entitled “Was Jesus gay? Probably.”  Now, you could spend the rest of your life surveying Google searches of Jesus, but that’s just a little glimpse of how our society thinks about Jesus.  Now, some of the more strange and ridiculous notions of Jesus aside, I think we could agree that even amongst the Christian community in America, Jesus comes off looking pretty monochromatic, pretty flat, not extremely interesting.

Many conservative evangelicals I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited,  come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he lived a perfect and sinless life because we cannot, that he died on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, and that if we accept him as our Lord and Savior, we will be forgiven and saved, has elements of the story, sure.  But does that understanding of Jesus come close to the full meaning of Jesus?  I find that story wanting.  And many of them have heard that one sentence summation of Jesus nearly every Sunday and Wednesday at the end of a sermon for decades on end.

More liberal Christians I speak with, no matter how hard they try to sound excited, come off, frankly, bored of Jesus.  Their story of Jesus, that he was radically gracious, that he welcomed the outsider and was harsh toward the judgmental and religious, that he offers us forgiveness and redeems our understanding of God from an angry, bipolar Father into the embrace of compassion and welcome, has elements of the story, sure.  But I also find that story wanting.  And many of those types are former conservatives who now, out of boredom or curiosity, have rejected the other story and now live in reaction to it, or, frankly, find this version of Jesus more culturally acceptable, more palatable to the American social values of tolerance, freedom, and religion as a hobby.

Now, clearly, there are more pictures of Jesus than these two.  Many charismatics trumpet “signs and wonders Jesus,” all about claiming authority, seizing our destiny as inheritors of God’s blessing.  Anarchists trumpet the Jesus who showed up Pilate and mocked the powerful.  Instead of accepting one narrative, however, is it possible that Jesus is all of these things?

Was Jesus perfect and sinless, die on the cross for our sins instead of God’s wrath consuming us, does he forgive us, was he radically gracious, did he welcome the outsider, was he harsh toward the judgmental and religious, was he judgmental and religious himself, did he offer forgiveness, did he redeem a view of God that was too bipolar and angry? Did he teach and reveal signs and wonders and authority, did he strip the powerful of their power even as they schemed to take his life?  Yes, yes, yes, yes!!!!! And yes!

The more I study Jesus, the more I find that he was all of these things, and represented them without becoming the mushy moderate that people so often become.  I think the gateway for all of us into a more full, more dynamic, more meaningful picture of Jesus is to learn more about the story behind Jesus, the social story that he entered into, at the perfect moment.  What I am talking about is the social context of Jesus. 

Jesus was a Jew, a citizen of Israel.  The Jewish people lived under military occupation from the Romans, made even more harsh by the fact that the more radical and violent elements of Jewish society kept rabble-rousing and enraging the Roman authorities.  They lived in a repressive police state.  They were taxed into the ground by the Romans, and many of their Jewish political leaders and tax collectors made the situation worse by intensifying the rates and skimming off the top for themselves.  So the average small farmer in this agrarian society was typically deeply in debt, and many lost their properties that had been in their families for generations, and became drifters and beggars; dishonored and ashamed of their failure.  If we think of the worst of the Great Depression in America, when drifters would beg farmers in the area I grew up if they could split some wood for a meal to stave off starvation, then we’re beginning to catch a glimpse of Jewish social reality.

What made this repressive, brutal situation even worse was the Jewish self-understanding that they were the blessed people of God, God’s special people whom he redeemed out of everyone else.  They understood that blessing to mean material wealth and political power, and over and over in their religious writings after their initial corruption and exile, this concept of the “Day of the Lord” arose.  The “Day of the Lord” was the longed-for day when God would set everything right again, would eject the profane occupiers out, would restore the financial and political fortunes of Israel, and a King like David would rule on the throne, as Israel became the envy of the nations, because God had blessed them.

The fact that Israel saw themselves in this way and the reality that this vision was frustrated and unfulfilled for hundreds of years meant that this vision turned in itself, became ugly and corrupted.  Many carried a low view of themselves, just trying to get by and feed their families.  Revolutionary agitators periodically arose, believing that if they started the violent revolution, that God would join their side.  They were crushed again and again, with the brief exception of the Maccabees in a time of relative Roman weakness.  The Zealots, the revolutionary agitators, were scheming just as much in Jesus’ day.  “Why isn’t God saving us?” was a despair-filled question for them. “Is there something fundamentally wrong with us?” they asked.  

Out of this question and desperation, a group of religious reformers arose, believing that the problem was a lack of religious seriousness.  “God isn’t redeeming us because we don’t care enough, and if we care, then God will come,” said the Pharisees.  And it’s hard to fault them, if we take their social context seriously.  God did, and does, care about religious seriousness.  Their vision involved reforming the morally degenerate and proclaiming the good news of God’s law and the lived value of it.  Unfortunately, they formed simplistic versions of faithfulness, where sickness and disease were signs of God’s curse.  And they focused on outward acts of faithfulness so deeply that in some ways their mission became a form of social theater; with faithfulness enacted in front of the people each day.  When tithing to God, as many people as possible need to see, so that they will reform and do the same.  When keeping purity laws, marginalize the unclean as publicly as possible so society will reform and do the same.  And in their defense, isn’t that how social revolutionaries  have operated through time, using political theater?  Gandhi rejected the British salt tax, so he marched with the Indian people to the Ocean to illegally harvest the salt themselves.  Political theater.  Black and white college students rejected lunch-counter segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, so they sat down together at the counter, knowing full-well of the reaction that would create.   Political theater.  Learning these aspects of the Pharisees redeemed them from the rather flat story I had often heard that they were too religious and self-righteous.

So the Jewish people were desperate, and in this desperation, there were competing agendas of how to encourage the day of the Lord.  So this is the context that Jesus entered, and makes the way Jesus skillfully built a mass movement in this context infinitely interesting.  Jesus specifically chose one zealot and maybe more as a part of his inner circle.  So was he a Zealot?  Jesus chose a tax collector as part of his inner circle.  Clearly a curious choice, and definitely a political statement.   Jesus chose mostly blue-collar people as part of his inner circle.  Also curious, though we quickly find they were as political ambitious for power as Caesar himself.

Jesus’ movement began in full force in a synagogue in his hometown where he invoked Isaiah and the oppressed being set free.  Who does he think is, but if he isn’t insane, that’s a good place to start, because they’re all oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor” is Isaiah’s version of the “Day of the Lord.”

In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to stake out the boundaries of what his message and movement will look like, and the different groups are there, looking to check off their boxes of whether he really is the Messiah or not, because they know who the Messiah will be.  Beatitudes? Confusing, but referencing the poor in spirit, those who mourn?   We are those things, so the average Jew checks that box.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart?  The Pharisees want to check, but there’s that troubling bit about meekness.  There’s no room for meekness in the need for purity.  Salt and light? The Pharisees’ eyes are lighting up, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law,” obvious, but eyes lighting up even more, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Boom, throw-down.  (band music) He’s one of us!

Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths; his teachings on these all situate him as a theological conservative.  Many of the socially marginalized may have been tempted to see him as a social enemy of theirs in this section. Passive resistance of an evil-doer, love of enemies?  Zealot purists are now convinced he is not one of them.  And that’s a bad community to have opposed to you, since they’re the ones that will knife you in the middle of a crowd.  

And now, in the section of teaching we encounter today, Jesus focuses on the hiddenness of faithfulness.  Here, he is staking out a position of deep contrast from the Pharisees, where giving to the needy, praying, and fasting should not be political theater or public teachable moments, but rather something much different.  The teaching would have been troubling to the Pharisees, so used to their public theater that made obvious to the people of Israel the things they needed to do, but Jesus also embeds this “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites.”  That line is like a papercut on the lip for the Pharisees, a jolting difference.  For the average Jew who had questions about the incessant publicity of the Pharisees, this is interesting.

At this point, I want to leave the consideration of the social context of Jesus and draw us into consideration of our response.  In just the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, it is easy to see why we so often pick one thing Jesus cared about and make it the whole story for us.  Jesus is frustratingly complex, and a joltingly uncomfortable kind of teacher. 

 Jesus, should we focus on outward acts of faithfulness? 

Yes.  

Should we focus on inward acts of faithfulness? 

Yes.  

Well, which one is it, Lord, the inward or the outward? 

Yes. 

Which one is more important, man, I need some simplicity here! 

Well, how would you sum up the last ten minutes of my teaching? 

Hmmmmm.  Sometimes our faith needs to be expressed outwardly, and sometimes inwardly, with both being important, and neither canceling out the other?  But how do we know when one is better than the other?

What else have you heard me teach?

Hmmmm……oooohhhhhhh.  I see you sneak away early in the morning or late at night, and sometimes in the middle of a crowd, I see your attention focus inwardly.  You’re listening, aren’t you?

Bingo.

Today, the term we use for this activity is “practicing the presence of God.”  The name we most often associate with this activity is Brother Lawrence, and attention to his practice is very fruitful for contemplation and action.  I would like to check in this morning, however, with the practice of one of my heroes, Frank Laubach, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Brother Lawrence when it comes to “practicing the presence of God.”  Frank had a wonderful sense of curiosity with the realm of prayer and listening to the Spirit.  He played what he called the “game of minutes,” where he desired to spend one second out of every waking minute in conscious attention to God.  He also engaged in what we could call “experiments in hiddenness” with prayer.

But before I mention a couple practices of Frank, I want to invite each of you into a simple reflection right now. You have been provided with a piece of paper and a pen this morning. I simply want you to think about a typical day for you.  What happens between you opening your eyes in the morning and closing your eyes at night?  What is a typical day?  I’m aware that there is no “typical” day, say, for a parent of a child, but there is still a rhythm of the usual day even for parents.  Write down the events of a typical day for you.

Now, Frank Laubach would do what we just did.  He would consider his day, and aggressively look for opportunities for hidden prayer.  If in a car or bus or walking, he considered how to transform his commute into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If in a doctor’s office or business, he considered how to transform the waiting into an opportunity to listen to God and pray for others.  If preparing food, he considered how to redeem the time by listening to God and praying for others.  When lying in bed just before sleep, he considered how to listen to God and pray for others.  In his outward public life, Frank was a hero of literacy and poverty alleviation, and in his inward life, Frank became a hero of experiments in hiddenness.

Frank celebrated the opportunity to pray, and often highlighted that he didn’t see discernible results of prayer right away.  But he shares some crazy cool stories along the way in his experiments.  My favorite is one from a church in Bombay (now Mumbai) India…

When I think of Jesus’ admonition “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen,” I think of Frank Laubach, and I can imagine Jesus saying, “when you travel, quietly bless the person in the car next to you, when you walk, quietly bless the person in front of you, when you parent, quietly bless your child, when in a meeting, quietly bless each person who speaks…and while you’re at it, quietly bless the person who never speaks.”  For me, it could be, “when walking around your classroom, quietly bless each student you pass.”  As we consider the events of a typical day for us, what are places we observe are opportunities for hidden blessing?

There is great value in hiddenness, and in an age where nearly every thought a person has somehow finds its way onto Facebook, these quiet experiments in hiddenness hold the opportunity of helping us regain a sense of what needs to be public and what needs to be hidden in our path of discipleship. May we, like Jesus, cultivate a deep listening to the voice of our Father.

 

 

Reflecting on the Presence of the Spirit

Below is the transcript of the sermon I preached January 26, 2014 in our home congregation of which i am an elder.

Click on this sentence if you would prefer to listen instead of read, or both!

As each sermon is a moment in time and experienced with others in the room, some of what it is is lost in transcripts.  For example, I embedded a little teachable moment in the beginning of the sermon on the role of the Holy Spirit where I claimed I did not prepare for the sermon, reasoning that “the less I prepared, the more room for the Spirit to move.” In simply scrolling through the transcript, you already see that I obviously did prepare, so the teachable moment is less effective.  I do hope and pray that the heart of the message of this sermon would be helpful in guiding your reflections on faith, the nature and actions of the Trinity, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  The sermon series in our congregation was “God With Us.”

Because the focus of our series right now is “God With Us,” and since part of God’s presence is the Holy Spirit, I decided I wouldn’t prepare for this sermon.  I figured the less I prepared, the more room for the Spirit to move.

So here goes…

My granddad, a Church of the Brethren pastor, spent most of his years in rural areas, and along the way he did normal things pastors do:  he participated in parents dedicating  babies and small children to the Lord, he baptized, he married persons starting a lifelong covenant together, and he buried those who passed away.  Sometimes he shared leadership responsibilities with other pastors in those ceremonies.  Out in the country in Virginia, there’s a specific kind of Baptists that you find sprinkled around in many rural areas called “Primitive Baptists.”  Primitive Baptists believe deeply in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and so the practice of preaching in their worship gatherings and in funerals and such is that the Pastor opens the Bible to a random place, reads the passage, and preaches then as the Spirit carries him along…In theory…

In practice, my granddad told me, over multiple encounters with these Primitive Baptist preachers, it didn’t matter what Bible passage they turned to, or what the event was, their messages tended to revert to common themes; “hobby horses,” my granddad called them.  After awhile, my granddad says, you pretty much knew what they were going to say every time you heard them.

Which raises several important questions;

Does a lack of preparation typically clear out space for the Holy Spirit to move, or does it enable someone to clothe their personal hobby horses with “Holy Spirit” language?

And in that vein of thought, doesn’t that language of us “getting out of the way of the Holy Spirit” seem really binary and pretty bleak; that we can only be channels of the Spirit’s movement if we’re “out of the way”?  Do we really have that little to offer?  Are our brains, our time, our work ethic, our energy, our imagination, barriers to the movement of the Holy Spirit?

I share this story and ask these questions as a roundabout way to make my first teaching point,

First, to tell you that I indeed did prepare for this message, and

Second, as some beginning thoughts to help us consider what it means for “God to be with us” as his people.  Along the way this morning I hope to address from my perspective what I hope are better ways of thinking about God and our role in what God desires to do in this world.

I think first, it is important to state a deeply historical faith statement; that we as Christians worship a God who is expressed in a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We observe in the Scriptures that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God; that in order to carry out the works of the kingdom, he sought intimacy with his Father to do what he saw him doing, and that after his death and resurrection he left his disciples with the promise, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”

Now, any reflection on the Trinity is bound to fall very short of any worthy explanation.  We cannot fully explain God.  Ultimately we reach the limits of our thought and imagination and simply must declare God is ultimately a mystery.   And this final truth of mystery is not a confession of frustration, but ultimately one of wonder.  We are drawn into exploration of God that can never be finished, into a relationship of intimacy with God that can never draw too close, into looking for signs of God all over our world, preparing ourselves to be surprised and delighted when we find this mysterious work of God at play. I watched a video online this week that captures that sense of mystery, awe, surprise, and delight entitled “Murmuration.” Let’s watch it together.  (Click on the link to see the video)

I love my mom’s reflections on this video, as she said, “I do believe those starlings are dancing before the Lord!”

And yet, while God is ultimately a mystery, God has chosen to reveal himself to us in very concrete ways.   While we can never fully know God, we can indeed encounter God, behold God.  We are a part of a community of God’s people that goes back thousands upon thousands of years, and along the way that community has received gifts of beholding God.  Those encounters form the foundation of our faith; Abram beheld God in the burning bush, Hagar beheld God in the desert with her son Ishmael, Moses beheld God on Mt. Moriah, the people of Israel beheld God in God giving the law, Elijah beheld God in the fire consuming the altar, Ruth beheld God in the generosity and care of Boaz, Gomer beheld God in the patience and open arms of Hosea even as she pursued other lovers, and humanity received its most authoritative, most powerful, most complete glimpse of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

The story continues afterwards, of course; Dorcas beheld God through God using Peter to resurrect her from the dead, Saul beheld God on the road to Damascus, the executioners of Cyprian of Carthage beheld God in his courage and care for them as they ended his life, the emperor of Rome beheld God in the radical generosity and care for the poor exhibited by the house churches in Rome, a random woman in Detroit, I believe, beheld God in Dave Barr’s prayer after God gave him her number to call, and the story goes on…

As we consider God and come to conclusions about God, it is our responsibility to consider all these other stories of beholding God as instructive and authoritative for us.  I would strongly suggest that we prioritize those stories above our personal experiences, giving the collective weight of history and millions of people the respect they deserve.  In particular, we are to give the strongest weight to Jesus, the clearest, most concrete representation of God we will ever encounter.  We proclaim Jesus as Lord and Teacher.  We commit to wade deeply in the gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and consider Jesus, asking questions like, “What did he do?” and “Why did he do what he did?” and “What did he teach?” and “What did he expect  from his followers?” and “What claims did he make about God?” and “What claims did he make about humanity?” and any number of other questions.

I want to make the centrality of Jesus clear when it comes to our consideration of “God with us,” because, I’ll be honest with you, the ideas of God as Father and God as Spirit are pretty spongy and vague in comparison.  What I mean by that is many people make claims that God is speaking to them, or God is directing them to do something. In particular, I feel really burdened and disquieted by recent teachings of prominent teachers in the charismatic and the mainline communities about the “Spirit.”

There is a growing sense among charismatics, driven by prominent leaders, that if there is a conflict between what one senses the “Spirit to be saying,” as contrasted with the written word in Scripture or tradition, that we are to give priority to what we are experiencing.  As an open charismatic myself, and a member of this church that is part of the Vineyard (in the charismatic movement), I find this teaching disturbing.   Some charismatic leaders have used this teaching, to prioritize our lived experience as the most reliable guide of truth, to justify strange manifestations whether they be physical (like uncontrollable laughter or barking and things of that nature) or something in the room (claiming there is gold dust or feathers from God in the air).  At best, persons find themselves prioritizing the gifts and the experience more than the giver, and at worst, persons place themselves in the position of God, when their experience runs contrary to the heritage of the church.

It has also become popular recently with mainline folks, specifically with Phyllis Tickle, to talk of what she calls the “Age of the Spirit.” Tickle first mentioned this in her “Great Emergence” book published in 2012, and literally just published this month a book called, drum-roll please, “Age of the Spirit.”  Upon deeper reading, it seems Tickle primarily drew from the ideas of Joachim of Fiore and Harvey Cox to make the central claims of a new “Age of the Spirit.”

Joachim lived back in the 1200s, and wrote of what he called Trinitarian ages in the earth; the Age of the Father (corresponding to the Old Testament), the Age of the Son (represented by the advent of Jesus, the New Testament, and following), and the Age of the Spirit (when humanity was to come into direct contact with God, reaching total freedom).

Harvey Cox took those ideas several hundred years later and reworked them into the Age of Faith (embracing teachings of Jesus), the Age of Belief (rise of control, doctrine, orthodoxy), and the now-unfolding Age of the Spirit (release from religious dogma and embrace of spirituality).

Based on those earlier thoughts, Phyllis Tickle has written about the Age of the Spirit, which she suggests began in 1906 at Azusa Street, and she describes it in a rather grandiose way,

The Trinity comes now near to the promised realization of its intention.  It comes, as it said it would.  And what we saw and feared in the image of Father, what we saw and embraced as Savior-brother, we now know as Spirit and cling to as Advocate, even as it has said of itself from our beginning.  Now, without need of image or flesh, it comes, and we receive it, as in the last of creation’s ages.Emergence Christianity 208

There is a big emphasis on “now,” “we now know as Spirit.” For Tickle, the focus is really experiential.  When you read her books, the term experiential comes up time and time again.  And Tickle really teaches that the Spirit is deeply experienced, and when one’s deep experience runs up against doctrine, or orthodoxy, or some other written or similar authority, that we, however reluctantly, must trust our experience above other influences.  And she theologically dignifies this belief by calling it the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I think you’ve already gathered that I find an approach like this; whether it be a charismatic obsession with signs and wonders, or the more straightforward liberalizing influence of Tickle; that prioritizing the experience  of what one believes to be the Spirit above all other authorities is very very dangerous.

In Trinitarian terms, these charismatic teachers and Tickle are really setting the members of the Trinity against one another, or at the very least, suggesting they’re working in separate and at times contradictory ways.  I mention these teachings as a warning for us to really ask questions to ourselves individually, as a church body, and as the larger body of Christ: do we serve God, or do we serve the Spirit?  And by the Spirit, we mean, our personal feeling of what is right and good and true.  Where do we draw our authority from?  How is “God with us?”

I say this primarily because the Scriptures tell a story that humanity, which was created “very good” as the pinnacle of God’s creation, placed in a leadership role over all of the rest of God’s creation; used that great gift and made it subject to our pride, our selfishness, our destructive impulses.  We called this new movement on our parts “freedom,” where we dictated the boundaries of our behavior and desire. We took the gift of leadership under the reign of God and became convinced we were instead dictators of our own realm; answerable to no one, with our decisions subject to the whim of whatever we happened to desire.

Yet the Scriptures welcome us into the narrative of seeing the beautiful, faithful methods God has used to win us back to what we were created for.  God first called a man, Abram, then formed a family, then a nation.  As the story progressed, each subject was reminded that they were “blessed to be a blessing,” called to proclaim of the light and wisdom of God in a world gone amuck.  God the Father didn’t do this.  God, what we now know as the Trinity, did this.  There’s language of God’s Spirit all through the Scriptures at a time when God was implementing what we see as a very restrictive system of laws to give Israel guidance.  Then, in the fullness of time, when God decided Israel was ready to leave childhood and grow into adulthood, God became flesh.  In Jesus, God was calling Israel into its deepest identity and giving a clear, human picture of what we were created for.

Jesus had authority over those who followed him.  As we saw in the gospel reading today, when Jesus called, the fishermen left their nets and followed him.  In their discipleship to Jesus, his followers heard teaching that was at once deeply freeing and compassionate and also deeply restrictive.   They were set free and forgiven by the grace of God.  That grace constrained them into very specific boundaries.  They could not treat their enemies the same as they used to.  They were to reject the desire for selfish power over others, the desire for prestige.

Jesus modeled this for them.  And he modeled this for them by honoring God’s law, while reinterpreting it and bringing it to completion.  Along the way, instead of it being all about him in the Age of the Son, he sought intimacy with his Father, and he breathed the lifegiving Spirit of God on his disciples.  He was not operating in opposition to the Father, and wasn’t simply an intermediate stage to the Spirit.  The advent, teachings, and expectations of Jesus were the most full expression of God we will ever see.

As some other wise people have taught, Jesus is the final revelation of God. There is nothing that we know about the love and care of God that we do not know through Jesus Christ. As Torrance puts it there is not a different God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Because the Father has chosen to reveal himself in Jesus Christ we are to pay attention to the Son.  Biblical scholar Dale Bruner illustrates the relationship of the Spirit to the Father and Son like this: He writes “Jesus” on a board, then, himself portraying the Holy Spirit, he steps behind the board, reaches around it, and points to Jesus.

Now that is the harder, more exhortation side of my message.  I want to shift to considering how God includes us in God’s unfolding purposes.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the churches in Rome, “thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.  You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

The beautiful thing about discipleship lived in obedience to God is that it is all about reclaiming our previous position in creation.  God created us, gave us authority, and called us to work deeply with Him for the good of creation. God desires for us to be co-laborers, to listen for where God is moving, and to join in that healing, redeeming work.

The gospel is the rejection of human beliefs at both extremes: God’s goal isn’t for us to “get out of the way” as if our humanity is something so dark and limited that all we can do is step back in order for God to move.  And God’s goal most certainly isn’t for us to act as though our personal or larger cultural experience of truth is God’s truth.  The gospel is about God redeeming our story, and through our repentance and obedience we recapture what we were created for, which is to participate in the healing of God’s world.

 And as human beings, as the pinnacle of God’s creation, placed in leadership over all the rest, when we’re working from that proper place of humility, that potential of that redemption is infinitely powerful.

If we grasp this message, I believe, and some thoughtful historians look back some several hundred years from now, we would be astonished to see how God used us.  But the beginning, for us, does not come with some sort of grasping for power and influence, but rather in falling to our knees in repentance, and in tears proclaiming that we do not know the way, that we are lost, that we are blind, that our instincts and our experience are untrustworthy, and that God can show us the way again.

A couple years or so ago, I became very concerned that personally I was approaching life in a more reactive way with my faith.  I was seeking to minimize risk, hunch my shoulders down, and just march forward as best I could.  Because so often we can respect and value ourselves less than others, it wasn’t necessarily my story that caused a big change.  I saw several marriages of persons in our community fall apart, I saw my friends really struggling through issues of addiction of various sorts.  I had long conversations with some of my friends with beliefs that were clearly crippling their lives.

I felt overwhelmed.  In a way, the relational intimacy we experience here with VC can be paralyzing at times, as it’s much harder to hide our pain, confusion, and conflict.  So when painful things happen, the pain is more deeply and widely felt. Conversations and hugs helped one another along the way, but I began to consider how we could be more proactive about addressing these issues; really more proactive about taking seriously the presence and power of evil at work among us.

Thankfully, we are part of a Vineyard movement that has an open-handed posture toward the power and potential of the Holy Spirit, and John Wimber was a wise leader who modeled well that posture.  He welcomed the power of the Spirit without an obsession about signs and wonders that to some should follow its presence.  He warned against manufacturing a spiritual experience by working ourselves into a frenzy or chanting repetitively until we fell into a trance.  He instead taught to “dial it down” and just be open-handed toward God. He offered a simple, Jesus-oriented sense of discipleship.  As a charismatic Christian, then, John prayed for people, with a comfort level with the Spirit that helped him to sense when to speak, when to be silent, and always willing to participate with God.

I nurtured a vision from several years ago, then, that we as VC could be proactive like John in addressing the sin, brokenness, and pain in our lives through intentional healing prayer.  I don’t have grandiose ideas about what this will look like.  I think it will naturally fit into other ministries of our church as Pastor Joshua leads us.

I do know that our Healing Prayer team has already seen God moving in some wonderful ways; we’ve seen people being able to weep as they tap into their deep pain, we’ve seen physical healing of hips, and progress with backs, we’ve seen how this is a process with no easy fixes, we’ve seen a friend set free from the affliction of two demons, and we have seen one another growing in how God uses us in prayer.

This, to me, is God with us.  We trust our Father, we obey and follow Jesus, and we listen with increasing sensitivity to the work of the Spirit.  We don’t serve three Gods, and we don’t get to pick the one we like the most.  We kneel before God in thankfulness and humility, and rise to serve in love.  God has something for us to do, calls us to participate in the healing of the world, and we have much to offer.  Let us seek to lean into this promise together as a people.

Open letter to Cincinnati City Council: 12/4/13

Below I have the letter I sent to Councilmembers Mann, Murray, Flynn, and Winburn.  I did not send it to Councilmember Smitherman for a whole host of reasons.  If you would like to cut and paste this message, share it with others, or send a similar one before the vote, I encourage you to do it.

 

Councilmembers,

 
I am a teacher at Withrow University High School, and I confess it is extremely hard to focus on my work with this upcoming vote. 

I can’t imagine the business and civic fallout, first, of threatening to back out of contracts, and second, to actually do it…several years into public and private partnerships where others have stuck their neck out for us.

I have to fight tooth and nail to convince my urban core U.S. History students that they indeed do have a future, that they can participate in our country’s decisions, that their voices will be heard, and that they can be future leaders.

 
How can I make this case for them when city leaders are turning their backs on public and private partnerships built over years with legal contracts signed and so much work already completed?  Leaders need to know when to grasp tightly to an issue, and when to let go.  Consideration of the context surrounding an issue should lead to more sound decisions with issues.
 
What do you suggest I say to my students?  How are you going to lead by example?  
 
I eagerly anticipate at least one of you making the sound choice to continue the streetcar project.  Your four-year term will give you the political safety and cover you need to go back on a campaign promise.  After all, what’s more important, your promises or legal contracts and all this nexus of relationships we depend on to move our city forward?
 
A concerned and hopeful citizen,
Nathan Myers

Listening to our brothers and sisters in the global South

I just came upon a jewel of an article from a man named Vinoth Ramachandra, titled “Reformed Amnesia.”  Vinoth, whose works have been quoted multiple times by various teachers, including Tim Keller in his work Generous Justice, has strong, convicting words to offer about what many are calling neo-Calvinism in the United States, led by groups like The Gospel Coalition and The Resurgence.  His words should properly chasten not only neo-Calvinists, but any who would claim to represent or speak about the truth (hint: all of us).  Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite to read his article;

“Was Calvin the first liberation theologian? He has as good a claim as any. He persistently fought the City Council of Geneva for the rights of poor refugees, persuading them to provide adequate social welfare. He himself was often exiled, experienced severe deprivation and other indignities, which must have made him particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees and the downtrodden.

How strange, then, to hear some influential pastors in the US and UK laying claim to be guardians of a “Reformed orthodoxy” while demonstrating little of Calvin’s heart. For these men (they are always men), the church’s mission is primarily one of proclaiming a message of individual salvation. Pastors are exhorted to “contend for the faith” (which usually amounts to contending with other pastors, and damning all who disagree with them), and “the faith” is taken to be a set of timeless “doctrines” rather than any distinctive Christian way of living.”

Read the rest of his excellent article here.

God’s judgment and justice

“You order your kingdom with judgment.  You order your kingdom with justice.”

- lyrics from “Wonderful Counselor” by Tom Wuest

How can I argue with the judgments of God, when God created everything and is working for its restoration? 

Whether God’s actions are comforting or cause great pain, God’s judgment and justice are right and good.

Glad to sing these words this morning with our church, and glad to have a blueprint for me grow into a humble, abundant life with God. 

Like any child, I need boundaries, I need discipline, and I need encouragement to never quit!

Resurrection

iphigenia

We
are coddled.

She
watched her husband and several children
hacked to death with a machete.

She grieves.
Her remaining children are fatherless
missing limbs
also by machete
a living “lesson” from the perpetrators to never forget
that this could happen again.

Yet instead of nurturing vengeance
instead of nurturing bitterness
she looks the murderers and maimers in the eye
and says,
I forgive you.
You have shattered my life, but you will not shatter my spirit.”

She is able to say this, and believe this,
because she received a gift from the church.
The gift of truth and reconciliation.
A process that brings deep awareness of hurt and injustice,
yet extends the transformative power of forgiveness.
A real power that takes the tattered pieces of a fractured reality,
and makes hope rise again.

Yet here in America,
we are coddled.

We have conversations about hypothetical scenarios
of robbers who come to steal possessions, and maybe life.
We have constitutional amendments that justify our beliefs
about what we would do to those perpetrators.

We don’t believe in forgiveness.
We don’t believe in hope rising from the ashes of death.
We don’t believe in resurrection.

We do not receive the gift from the church
of truth and reconciliation.

We baptize our hatred,
we baptize our justifications
we marginalize the teachings of Jesus,
we call our beliefs and justifications
Christian.

Yet,
try as we might,
marginalize as we do,
stories like hers never go away.

They bubble up from seemingly hidden places,
searing stories of a Christianity
that is not defanged, declawed, spiritualized into oblivion;
unlike ours, her Christianity looks a lot like Jesus.

Giving
Loving
Judging
Forgiving
Weeping
Transforming.

We are coddled, lost.

We can be Christian again.

It is not hopeless.

God resurrected Jesus.

God can resurrect us.

Rare opportunities, and the reminder that we are not in control

RCL screenshot

Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s a set of Scriptural readings (daily, and Sunday) that run on a three year cycle before repeating.  As you could imagine, the central idea is that the major themes of the Scriptures are covered; so Christians who follow the lectionary will have a higher Scriptural literacy and stronger foundation for faith.

That’s the idea, and I LOVE that idea.  In practice, the things come out pretty mixed.  In important times of the Christian year (Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc), the lectionary focuses us on the season pretty well. In general, it covers some important Scriptural territory.  However, the lectionary has a couple frustrating, even angering holes.

One intermediate problem is that the Sunday lectionary readings tend to hop all over the place during Ordinary Time, leaving churches and pastors that follow them to try to draw some kind of continuity from week to week.  As a result, worship on the lectionary tends to be whatever the church constructs.

One horrific problem is that the lectionary readings often omit the sharper edges of the Scriptures in favor of passages with vocabulary we can bend to fit what we want to say or do.  I’m very aware that “horrific” is a strong word.  I used it on purpose.  Systematically excluding parts of the Scriptures you don’t want to hear or have to explain is a living example of the prophetic critique that Jeremiah brings twice against the people of Israel, “Prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.  They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13-14, 8:10-11)

Now, you may have several responses to my introduction here.

1. You may be skeptical about the accuracy of what I’m saying about the lectionary.  If you’re a part of a church that follows the lectionary, I would encourage you to take a three or four-month segment and read the passages.  Pay particular attention to what the lectionary leaves out.  Specifically, look for passages like “10-12a.”  You will often find that “12b” isn’t quite as comforting.  In addition, look for passages like 10-12a, 13-15, 19-21a.”  I’ve seen this multiple times in the last few years.  Take a wild guess at what is often repeatedly excluded in the skipped-over sections.

Maybe they’re just setting it up for a simple message to be taken away from the reading, Nathan?” you might say in response.  Yes, maybe.  Sometimes simplicity is helpful, and complexity muddies the water too much.  I get that.  But again and again?  One begins to see a troubling pattern that leads to troubling conclusions.

2.  You may think it’s entirely appropriate to skip certain sections of the Scriptures, because they’re not relevant anymore, or even may be destructive to read and follow.  I’m sympathetic to some of that belief, and deeply aware of the darker implications of that kind of commitment.

I’m sympathetic to that belief, because the Scriptures are a set of living, evolving, progressing writings that emerge from a living, evolving community.  I very much take a narrative approach to the Scriptures that proclaims that God is meeting God’s creation where they’re at, connecting with them, and taking them a step further.  Sometimes those steps are smaller, like the call of Moses to speak up, and sometimes those steps are bigger, like the advent of Jesus; which was such a big step that Israel killed him off as quickly as they could.  Because of this narrative approach, if we happened to read, “Happy is the one who seizes (Babylon’s) infants and dashes them against the rocks,” (Psalm 137: 9) or “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.  They are to be put to death,” (Leviticus 20:13), I would refuse to say our typical response,

“Reader:  This is the word of the Lord.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God.”

I would refuse to say this not because I confidently believe we know better than our ancestors, but because both of those sentiments (vengeance against enemies, and the death penalty for homosexuality) are contradicted explicitly by Jesus and therefore no longer the truth we turn our life upside-down to follow.  I don’t know exactly what the proper response to a reading of those Scriptures would be.  Maybe,

“Reader:  The story of the people of God.
Congregation:  Damn, that’s different than Jesus,”

or

“Reader:  God’s word to Israel then.
Congregation:  Thanks be to God for the way of Jesus now.”

or whatever else would better fit.

Now, the darker implications of our belief that certain parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant or helpful is that we presume to believe we know better than our ancestors what faithfulness is and how to live.  In other words, we don’t really care deeply about the narrative progression of the Scriptures unless they reinforce what we already believe about ourselves and the world.  When the Scriptures present a situation that offends us or present a hard boundary on our behavior, we go out of our way to minimize, spiritualize or otherwise metaphorize (is that even a word?), or ignore the passage.  Conservatives and liberals both do this in our society.  Conservative American christians often minimize or relativize Jesus (as crazy as that sounds), while Liberal American christians often minimize or relativize the Old Testament and/or Paul and/or the Scriptures period (to give several quick examples).  In our church family here in Norwood, I often sense the greatest tension in the room when we read passages that challenge a more liberal perspective on the world.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

All of the above is a prequel of sorts for a simple observation I made last Sunday.  The lectionary’s outline highlights certain themes because it has to pick something, and the lectionary very rarely includes “sharp” words that challenge and offend.  Yet for some reason, the shapers of the RCL, in tune with the Lenten season, chose to include last Sunday some very strong Scriptures that were BEGGING, JUST BEGGING, PLEADING, to be central in the time of worship.   Our church family is focusing in the Lenten season on the appropriate themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.  We read from:

Isaiah 55:1-9 (theme: Listen to the Lord and obey, and you will live!)

Psalm 63:1-8 (theme, devotionally: “My soul thirsts for God!”)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (theme: Warning, continue to choose disobedience and idolatry, and God has every right to end you)

Luke 13:1-9 (theme, from Jesus’s lips, “Repent, or perish!”  Perish.  Spiritually: unsatisfied, unfruitful.  Physically: Wasting away, death.  Again, God has every right to end you if you aren’t serving the purpose you were created for).

What important passages to be reminded of!
How appropriate for the themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation!
How timely and needed for a congregation that tends toward liberal perspectives!
What a gift from a lectionary prone to avoidance of passages like these!

We read the passages near the beginning of our worship gathering.  Tension developed in the room as the passages were read aloud one after the other.  I looked around and could see faces responding in certain ways, some seeming to cringe in embarrassment at what they believed to be the provincial backwardness of the passages, some seeming to cringe at the starkness of “Repent or perish!” because there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room or room for mystery or complexity, others offended with some masking it better than others, some wondering how to respond faithfully to such stark words, others grudgingly hearing the passage as a surprising and hard teaching, and others seeming to come alive in response to the words!   A spectrum of responses.

In other words, a ripe opportunity to be reminded in practical, meaningful ways that we are not the authority.  A ripe opportunity to listen to the testament of our ancestors in thinking they could construct their own ways of defining good and evil.  A ripe opportunity to consider how the grace and compassion of God lives alongside the wrath and judgment of God; with both being vital parts that make up God’s love.  Ripe, ripe, ripe, RIPE, RIPE!

The simple reading of the Scriptures gave us the opportunity to begin this importance reflection on God’s authority, that in fact, our belief that we are free to construct our own understanding of truth and life is a central component of the chains that enslave us as God’s creation.  It is a twisted, wicked lie passing as truth that constrains, sickens, and ultimately destroys us.  And yet God compassionately, graciously, patiently waits for extended periods of time for us to abandon this false pretense. God forgives a thousand, a million times over as we offend and rebel against him.  And eventually, because God cares more about his kingdom breaking out in this world, a kingdom of people under his authority bringing healing and reconciliation to that which is twisted almost beyond recognition, God is willing to end us, to destroy those who would militate against his purposes.

We don’t want to hear this, whether liberal or conservative.  We would rather plug our ears, sing comforting songs, read books that reinforce our beliefs, continue constructing our own world, and only read Scriptural passages that feed our perspectives.  And thus we remain ignorant, but willfully so.  And God will not stand for willful ignorance. God will eventually act, and do it because of His great love for this creation that with agonizing groans begs for the sons and daughters of God to be revealed.

Lent is Lent for a reason.  It is a season we still set aside to focus on our need for repentance, our desire to rule our own lives, our sense of justification for rejecting and excluding others from our love.  I needed to sit and reflect with my brothers and sisters on the FACT that God is the authority, that we are NOT, and that that fact is GOOD, GREAT news.

I know we will have more opportunities during Lent to dwell deeply in our sinfulness and rebellion, to dwell deeply in God’s long-suffering patience, compassion, and just judgment.  I sincerely hope we take those opportunities, because after Lent, the lectionary will return to its old ways, release us to resume building our own world and religion the way we please.

I lament.
I hope.
I thank you, God, that you are awakening me to see the chains wrapped about my arms, legs,
the fog slowly clearing from a mind clouded and confused by my sin.
Thank you that your Way is good and right.
Thank you that we have a role to play,
that you have invited us to collaborate with you,
under your authority
for the healing of your world.