TEXT: Exodus 20:8-11
In the fall of my last year of seminary, I took a class all about the Sabbath. We read various books about the Sabbath, studied various theological interpretations about the Sabbath, learned about Sabbath practices, etc. However, there was one class assignment that was the most stressful out of all of them. As the professor discussed the assignment on the first day, you could watch the anxiety level of class go up. Some students began to sweat from the anxiety. Some were on almost on the verge of a panic attack. And what was the assignment that was so stressful? Every person in the class was required to have six uninterrupted hours of total Sabbath – where they stopped doing ALL work (including class work) and instead rested in a way that gave them more life – both for themselves and for their loved ones. Six hours without doing any kind of classwork, homework, reading (for class), studying, or preparing sermons and Sunday School lessons for their church internships. Six hours to simply be present to ourselves and to the ones we love. It sounds simple – yet there was nothing more stressful to a busy seminary student training for the ministry.
Because if there is one commandment that Christians break more than any other, it’s the Fourth Commandment. If there is one commandment that Christians cause others to break more than any other, it’s the Fourth Commandment. If there is one commandment that Christians actually encourage others to break, it is the Fourth Commandment.
Why? Why do we constantly break the Sabbath? Why do we constantly cause others to break the Sabbath? Why do we encourage others to break the Sabbath? It’s because – as much as we would like to think otherwise, our culture teaches us to center our lives – our very identity – around what we create and what we consume rather than around the God in Jesus Christ who is the Lord of all creation and the true owner of all that we consume. We are taught to express this secular truth in many subtle and socially acceptable ways. And as a result, commit the sin of breaking the Sabbath over and over and over again. But because it’s “socially acceptable” we convince ourselves that we are not sinning. (PAUSE)
Upon meeting someone for the first time and learning their name, one of the first questions we ask is: “What do you do for a living?” Rarely is the first question about other aspects of their identity such as, “Are you a parent?” or “What religion do you follow?” We might ask them, “Where are you from?” Yet our culture trains us to identify others by what they do because, unconsciously, it allows us to find out if they could do something for us.
The great Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann further points out that we’ve evolved to where our identity is not only what we do, but also what we consume, saying: “In a consumer economy that is committed to endless growth and reducing everything to commodity… Life comes to consist of an insatiable pursuit of goods, with prizes awarded to the most productive… [therefore]… Living is reduced to competing for endless goods, and neighborliness is completely scuttled; the prevailing attitude seems to be “without God everything is possible.” In other words, because our consumer culture teaches us – “the one who dies with the most toys wins” – that “your self-worth and personal-meaning is reduced unless you have the next latest and greatest product” – life becomes about obtaining stuff and working yourself to death in order to obtain it, rather than growing as a Disciple of Jesus Christ who teaches you to “build up treasure in heaven” and to “sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.” The demon of consumerism misleads us to find our identity in stuff, which requires us to work harder in order to obtain more stuff, and that stuff gives us less and less meaning, so we work harder and harder to get newer stuff, and so on and so forth. As a result, instead having life in abundance, we become the walking dead.
Even though the very word Sabbath means “to stop” our culture rewards and praises those who do NOT stop and chastises, even punishes, those who do stop – even at the expense of their own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. So, we work harder and harder because our society tells us to. Then, when you are finally crushed under the constant toil of working without stopping, our culture blames and shames you for not taking Sabbath, for not taking time off. Rarely will you have a job where the boss reprimands you for working too long. Personally, in 25 years of full-time work, I’ve only worked one job where my boss actually made me go home because I was working too much – even threatened to fire me if I didn’t. All others praised me for my long hours or said I needed to work MORE if my work products did not suit their needs– even when those long hours kept me away from my family and my devotion to my faith. Even when those longer hours caused me to be less and less effective at my job. And when I held to the boundaries of my Sabbath, I was shamed into feeling selfish, lazy, and ungrateful for my job. And when we enable this blame and shame culture of constant work without rest, we cause others to break the Sabbath, and therefore we also break the Sabbath. Unlike God, when it comes to Sabbath in American culture – “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”
That’s why social worker, researcher, and author Brene Brown says, “It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol.” It’s completely counter-intuitive to work until you’re physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted – and then, because you are praised for your hard work or because your work is not seen as “good enough” to work some more and still expect to perform at the same level. It does no one any good (employees, customers, bosses, etc.) for the employees of a business to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted all the time at work. That’s when accidents happen. Mistakes are made. Things and people fall through the cracks. It does no one any good (employees, customers, bosses, etc.) to praise someone only when they go above and beyond what are already unreasonable expectations. It causes people to respond to mistakes, even to meeting basic expectations by working longer and harder. It does no one any good to shame and blame someone for taking time off to practice self-care and observing healthy boundaries. It only causes people to believe that self-care and boundaries are selfish and uncaring. Yet, those who do not rest when they need to, who do only work harder for more praise, who fail to practice self-care or set boundaried are doomed to burn out – and then have others blame and shame them for not taking care of themselves better, even when others wouldn’t allow it. Fortunately, God knows this about humanity, and therefore, God commands the opposite – declaring anything or anyone who demands the contrary as breaking the Sabbath commandment – a sin equal with breaking all the other commandments.
As Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, “The Sabbath was created for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was created by God to remind humanity that our life and our identity – our very worth – is not centered on our work. Not centered on what we create. Not centered on what we consume. But our life and identity is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Anything else we center our lives upon, simply becomes an idol – and we become guilty of breaking the first and second commandments as well. Our work and our achievements do not give us our life and our identity – only God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit does by calling us “Beloved Children of God” – and the Sabbath reminds us of that every time we observe it.
Christian Ethicist Patrick Miller writes, “Work is required for human survival. The issue is not getting work done but making sure that [work] does not go on all the time and that one may let it go – and let it go regularly…[for]…Work may have its rewards, but only if its limits, pressures, and demands are set apart under the safeguard of the Sabbath. Therefore, it is important that we set Sabbath boundaries – that we set the Sabbath apart from the other six days of the week – in order or release the pressures and reap the rewards of our work – even if it means disappointing or upsetting others. In her book, Daring Bravely, Brene Brown says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” The word “holy” in Hebrew means “to separate” or “to set apart.” If you do not keep your Sabbath separate or set apart from your work, then you are not keeping the Sabbath “holy” – you’re only profaning it. If you do not take time to set yourself apart from your work, you are not holy. If you are not keeping your Sabbath set apart – then our identity and your work will merge – and you will become your work, instead of being the Child of God you were created to be and called in your baptism.
And God reminds us that the benefits of the Sabbath are not just for Christians or Jews. Listen carefully to the words of the commandment: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigners residing in your towns.”
The commandment goes to great lengths to name everyone for whom the Sabbath commandment applies. To make sure we know that this commandment to rest – to stop work – is for ALL of creation. Not just for Christians or Jews – but for your children, for those who work for you, those who serve you, for the animals under your care, and even for those who are not native to your country or do not worship the same as you (as was the case for foreigners living in the land of Israel). Observing the Sabbath commandment is more than just ensuring that YOU stop work. The Sabbath command also assures that you do not cause or require others to work. That you allow others to rest. For if only allow yourself to rest but not your neighbor, then you are not loving your neighbor as yourself. In the modern world, this includes the employees of your business, those who wait on your table during lunch after church, or your pastor taking a day off instead of attending a church function. Instead of demanding that they continue to work for our benefit, we should be encouraging them to rest for the benefit of themselves and their loved ones. Even if their Sabbath is not Sunday, we should encourage them to have a day of rest. And we should encourage all employers to pay them well enough on the days that they do work, so that a day of rest doesn’t break them. Otherwise, our whole society is breaking the Sabbath commandment. Sabbath is not just about you getting a break, it’s about ALL of God’s creation getting the equal opportunity to rest. Because when everyone is provided the opportunity to stop work without losing quality of life, then everyone becomes equal regardless of socio-economic class. When everyone can afford to rest, then everyone is united in their rest. As Christian Ethicist Patrick Miller writes, “Whatever practices or customs divide the different strata of society in their daily life, they all disappear on the Sabbath. One practice is required of all.”
And it’s especially important to remember that the Sabbath is NOT something that you earn, is NOT something that you deserve. The Sabbath is something that you receive. The Sabbath is a free gift from God. That is why the Exodus version of the ten commandments includes the following statement about the Sabbath, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” This is a reference to the seven-day creation story in Genesis. In the seven-day creation story, God creates human beings on what day? (The sixth day.) And then the next day – the seventh day – what does God do? (Rest). Therefore, in remembrance of and in appreciation for that gracious gift of rest, we are to model our creative lives upon God’s example. “We work and rest because God worked and rested.”
I am reminded over and over again of a quote from the President of my seminary, Dr. Craig Barnes – I’ve said it in at least two other sermons here before, but in our American achievement culture, it’s worth repeating over and over again: “You can either achieve your life or receive your life. If you achieve your life, your constant companion will be complaint, because you will never achieve enough. But if you receive your life, your constant companion will be gratitude for all the God is achieving in your life.” Our lives are meant to be received from God – not achieved by our own efforts. Otherwise, we do not worship God – we worship the idol of our own achievements. We worship ourselves.
Those of us who keep trying to achieve our lives are the ones most often guilty of ignoring the Sabbath and encouraging others to do the same. Those of us who keep trying to achieve our lives are those who work harder and longer hours when things go wrong instead of caring for ourselves and focusing on the love and grace of God in the midst of our losses and failures. Those of us who keep trying to achieve our life are those of us who complain the most about things not going our way, and therefore cannot find peace in our lives – only chaos.
But those of us who try to put our total trust in God. Those of us who look at each day with gratitude. Those of us who are able to find peace in the midst of the greatest storms of life. Who see each moment, each day, as a new opportunity to receive God’s grace, to joyfully celebrate it, and lovingly share it with others – are often the ones who hold to the Sabbath the most. Who understand that the Sabbath – rest from our daily toil – is gifts of God’s grace that gives us eternal life, not in the hereafter, but in the here and now.
The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth argued that human history, “really beings with the Gospel and not with the Law, in accorded celebration and not a required task, with a prepared rejoicing and not with care and toil, with a freedom given… and not an imposed obligation, with a rest and not with an activity… The aim of the Sabbath command is that [humanity] shall give and allow the omnipotent [all-powerful] grace of God to have the first and the last word at every point.” In other words, human life starts with the grace of Sabbath rest and ends with the grace of eternal salvation rest. There is nothing you can do to earn the Sabbath – just as there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation – both are simply free gifts of God’s amazing grace. The Sabbath is God’s first act of grace – the first proclamation of the Gospel.
The Sabbath is God’s gift of grace to all of creation. And we observe the Sabbath every time we graciously receive it by stopping work, faithfully observe it by celebrating God’s grace, and lovingly share it with others by providing them time and space to do the same.
Thanks be to God for the many creative gifts the Spirit has given to us to use for the building of God’s kin-dom here on earth. And thanks be to God for the gift of Sabbath rest, where we may be refreshed, restored, and renewed to use those gifts again. AMEN.
TEXT: Matthew 25:24-30
The Parable of the Talents is riddled with many theological issues as it’s been interpreted throughout the centuries – especially in America. One of the negative interpretations of this parable is that of interpreting the harsh Master as God – a god who punishes the third slave by casting him into the outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But is that really the image of God that Jesus portrays throughout the Gospels? Do we really believe that God is that “harsh”? Are we really meant to be so fearful of God that if we don’t use our God-given “talents” God will give us eternal punishment? (If so, then there are a lot of people in this very sanctuary who are in trouble!) As a result of this fear of God’s “harshness” many of us don’t take any risks with what God has given us because we fear “getting it wrong” and being punished. We fear praying in front of others because “we might not say it right.” We fear leading bible studies because we “don’t know enough” and believe we may give the “wrong answers” to people’s questions – especially the questions of children. (As if questions about scripture and faith are totally “black and white.”)
Another problematic yet popular interpretation in America is seeing this parable as a powerful justification of capitalism – as though it were blessed by Jesus. Basically, this interpretation tells us that those who work hard and invest their money wisely will be rewarded. Meanwhile, those who are lazy will lose what little they have. That’s the basic idea of the American Dream. “Work hard, and you can have it all.” Yet some of the poorest people I know work harder than anyone else I know – working two to three jobs just to make ends meet. And at the end of every month, there isn’t anything left over to “invest wisely.” And to make things even worse, the Prosperity Gospel movement also uses this parable as the basis of their theology. Basically arguing that if you take the “risk” of sending these televangelist charlatans what little money you have – even at the risk of loosing your personal security – then you will be rewarded greatly in material means. But if you do NOT send your money in – because you have enough common sense to know that you simply do not have the money to give – then you will remain poor as punishment from God. As a result, Prosperity Gospel theology makes material wealth and success into a virtue and poverty into sin. Yet, if you look throughout the Gospels, you find time and time again that Jesus – God in the flesh – is always associated with the poor and the outcast: caring for them, providing for their material as well as spiritual needs, and standing up for them against the powers that oppress and harm them. In fact, forgiveness is the only topic Jesus talks about MORE than the responsible and honorable use of money.
The capitalism interpretation is also used in a slightly modified version in churches all over the U.S. every fall – which is where this reading is typically found in the lectionary. And what kind of sermon is usually preached every fall in churches across the U.S.? – YES! The stewardship sermon! The one sermon that pastors want to avoid and that no church member wants to hear. And this text is used year after year after year to argue that church members should take a big risk with your finances and give sacrificially because it will result in generous rewards from God. Now that’s problematic on many levels. One – God doesn’t operate on a “works righteousness” system – rewarding you for “doing good.” God’s grace in Jesus Christ is a FREE GIFT that you did nothing to earn, that you can NEVER earn. And two – church people are supposed to give in response to this free gift of grace and because they believe in the mission of Christ’s church. Your level of giving is seen as a reflection of your level of gratitude.
These interpretations have dominated this text for hundreds of years until recently when new scholarship arose that shed new insight on this text. In order to truly understand this text, scholars argue that we need to see it less as a theological or moral story, but a political and economic story that exposes the exploitation of peasant farmers by wealthy landowners. Scholars and historians have found that during this time, many wealthy landowners would loan money to struggling peasant farmers at exorbitant interest rates – between 25% and 50%! The wealthy would then send out their most trusted slaves to collect these debts because it was considered “dishonorable” to try and gain more than you have, especially by collecting interest on a loan, which the Torah forbids in Leviticus (yet you never hear the Religious Right speaking out against bank interest rates or cash advance places). When the slaves returned with the collected debts plus interest – the wealthy would pretend they didn’t know anything about it. And, when the debts couldn’t be paid, the wealthy would seize the land – forcing the peasant farmers to either become tenant farmers or be cast off their own land. And, to make matters even worse – the wealthy would then “invest” this money in the Temple treasury right before the Jubilee year when all debts are cancelled, and lost lands are returned to their original owners. Because if the money was put in the Temple treasury, then that debt no longer existed, and the debt could not be returned. The Temple priests then used these “generous donations” to fund their personal projects and to give the wealthy assurance of their righteousness before God. It was a totally corrupt system socially, politically, economically, and even religiously. And Jesus addresses it directly. And any poor farmer who heard this story knew exactly what Jesus was talking about. It wasn’t a metaphor for them. It was their reality. Because Jesus addresses our reality – not just our spirituality. Because Jesus is the incarnation – the reality – of God.
So in the parable, the first two slaves simply conformed to the status quo. Simply followed along with unjust systems that benefit the wealthy and oppress the poor. They actually risked nothing! They knew they would get their way because they had the power of their wealthy master to back them. But the Third Slave – the one who refused to play along with corrupt systems that supported only the wealthy – the one who spoke truth to power – the one who named the system and its supporters as “harsh” – the one who calls the Master “lazy” by saying that he “reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter seed” – the one who will no longer hide his identity – is the one who truly risks everything. And as a result, he is cast into the outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So if you are to identify one of the characters in the parable as “God” or “Jesus,” it would actually be the Third Slave – the one rejected by the wealth and power of society – NOT the Master, as we commonly associate with God. Just as Jesus is rejected and executed for speaking truth to the religious powers and political powers – the Third Slave is also rejected for speaking truth to those powers. Jesus is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Last Sunday I spoke about the importance of “hovering,” of “soul searching,” of “discerning” your identity so that you can use the God-given gifts inside you for the good of God’s kingdom. I then said that once you finally accept that God-given identity – which is sometimes difficult, even painful to accept – one must then take it one step forward by taking the risk to share that identity with others. And such sharing is risky because it makes you vulnerable – especially to those who do NOT know themselves. Because those who do not know themselves, or who even hate who they are, can often be harmful to those who both know themselves and have come to love themselves. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you hate a neighbor, it’s because there is something about them that you also hate about yourself. Or as RuPaul always says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell can you love someone else?” – Which is ALSO what Jesus means by the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
So today, I am putting myself at great risk by sharing with you today something about my own hovering, my own soul searching, my own spiritual and emotional discernment. For the last three years, I’ve been struggling more than normal with my anxiety and depression. I’ve been in weekly counseling almost the entire time over the last three years. Trying to get at the root, the source, the origin of my anxiety and depression. One of the ways that mental health professionals define depression is “hate turned inward” or “self-hate.” And one of the ways those of us who are depressed attempt to relieve our own self-hate is to project it on to others. Make others the object of our hate – even those that we care about. And so, for the last few years, Kellie has been the object of my self-hate. But once the source of my self-hate came to light, once I understood and accepted why I did not love myself, it all stopped, almost in an instant. And, as Kellie puts it, I became the person she first met back in college. I became her best friend again. Like the Third Slave, I refused to participate in a system that causes me to hate myself, and instead, give that self-hate back to the harsh social, religious, and political masters that caused it in the first place – so that now I can love myself. And in loving myself, I can love others better.
And the source of my self-hate – is the fact that for 39 year I have been trying to deny the fact that I am a gay man. Yes… you heard that correctly. I am gay. Yet, for 39 years I’ve tried to deny this reality because I grew up in the Deep South where being a gay man is not something that is valued or respected in the vast majority of social, religious, and political circles. When everything in your society tells you that being gay is wrong. When everything in your religious life tells you that being gay will send you straight to hell. When everything in your political world tries to deny you basic human rights because of whom you love – you are easily frightened into denying your own God-given identity. You can easily convince yourself for 39 years that you are something you are not – just to avoid being cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But the Holy Spirit always brings the truth to the light of Christ – where peace, love, and acceptance is found.
And almost as soon as I recognized and accepted who I am – my anxiety and depression dissipated. There is no longer anything to fear anymore. I spoke truth to the greatest enemy of all – myself. Though I had cast my true identity into the outer darkness – the grace of Jesus Christ resurrected me from that darkness – giving me a new life, a fullness of life, a life in abundance. I can honestly say to you, that I have never felt happier in my entire life than I do now. I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin than I am now. And I’ve never felt more assured of my calling to serve this church and this community than I do now.
So what does this mean? Well, Kellie and I are going to family counseling together – along with the boys – so that we navigate this situation in the best way possible. Kellie has been incredibly supportive and caring throughout this process – I couldn’t ask for a better person to go through this with. Kellie and I will eventually divorce because it’s not healthy to stay married when you don’t love each other in that way. We are still best friends who have known each other for 20 years, and we will be raising our boys together. Until then, we have discerned that while we still have this legal contract, our marriage covenant before God is over, so that we are free to see other people. This week I moved into an apartment on Festus Main Street. Kellie and the boys will remain in the house. Legally, my housing allowance can only go to the residence in which I am living – which means it will pay for the apartment – which costs way more than the mortgage. Kellie and I have been discerning and working through this for the last four months. So this is not as sudden as it may seem.
And I’m sure the question on many people’s minds is, “Are you dating anyone?” And the answer is, “Yes.” I have been dating someone for nearly four months. Someone who makes me incredibly happy. Someone who makes me feel like I am fully human. Someone who loves, respects, and supports me and my calling. Someone who loves my boys and has even become a good friend to Kellie. His name is Lawrence. He is here today. He will be participating in the life of this congregation when he’s not at work.
Both the Session of Elders and the Board of Deacons are aware of this. Kellie and I went and spoke to them before she went out of town to help care for her father in the hospital. The response of the Session and the Deacons was one of love, grace, support, and acceptance. In fact, when I told the Elders and Deacons about my sexuality, they were relieved because they thought I was going to tell them that I was leaving. But, you need to hear this from the Elders and Deacons themselves. So, if the Elders and Deacons would please come forward and speak to your response…
(ELDERS & DEACONS SPEAK)
Not only do I have the support of the Elders and Deacons, but I also have the support of the Presbytery. And we also have with us today, Rev. Dr. Craig Howard, the Presbytery Leader. Craig, would you like to add anything?
Remember friends, the Elders are elected by this congregation to discern the Holy Spirit’s will for this congregation. And the discernment of the Session is that the will of the Holy Spirit is for this congregation and I to continue working together in ministry for many years to come.
The question you must ask yourself is, when someone risks their very selves, makes themselves truly vulnerable, when the truth is revealed – even if you don’t like it at first – do you show love, grace, support, and acceptance? Or do you cast into the outer darkness those who do not conform to your interpretation of scripture?
TEXT: Luke 4:1-13
When it comes to making decisions – especially BIG decisions – one of the most common questions asked in ministry is, “Did you pray about it?” Now, I’m not saying prayer is unimportant – but I think that when it comes to making decisions, we often pray for God to make the decision for us. For God to “give us a sign.” And even after we ask for God’s decision or sign, we often don’t sit still long enough to actually hear the answer. To discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
And yet, sitting and listening is critical – especially when it comes to discerning one’s calling from God. We have different names for this process. Whether you call it “soul searching,” “discernment,” “meditation,” “clearness,” or “hovering,” – it is the process by which we look within ourselves and seek out the various energies, desires, and passions that are aligned with our calling from God. And what’s more important, is that we also learn to distinguish between the various voices that are all fighting for our attention. To be able to distinguish the voice of God from all the other voices of this world.
As New Testament theologian N.T. Wright says, “It is central to Christian vocation to learn to recognize the voices that whisper attractive lies, to distinguish them from the voice of God, and to use the simple but direct weapons provided in scripture to rebut the lies within the truth.” (Wright 44). And in our text today, we find Jesus doing just that – distinguishing between the loud lies of the world and the whispered will of the Holy Spirit. In the text Jesus is presented with three temptations by the devil. Now, you can choose to believe that the “devil” is a supernatural demon, trying to trick Jesus into making the wrong choice. At the same time, you could also view the “devil” as all the voices of this world telling you what you should do, how you should act, who you should hang out with, and why you should NOT do X, Y, and Z. We all know these devilish voices. We hear them every day. And they never sound like negative things. If anything, these voices often sound like very good, sensible, even beneficial things. And these voices often shape our identity. Looking at the three temptations presented to Jesus by the voices of his time, we find attempts to define Jesus’ ministry and identity along social, political, and religious lines.
The first temptation – to turn stones into bread – is a personal and social temptation. Will Jesus’ simply be known as an ancient revolutionary of the people? Will his ministry only focus on social justice, where he only provides for people’s material needs? When things get tough, will Jesus – and those who follow him – trust in what God can do? Or will they trust only in what Jesus can do?
The second temptation – to rule the nations of the world – is a political temptation. Will Jesus simply be known as a skillful politician? Will his ministry be one that equates loyalty to God with loyalty to one’s nation? When people are being oppressed by the political powers of this world, will Jesus simply submit in order to play nice, avoid upsetting people, and not talk politics because it’s “too divisive”? To avoid awkward and uncomfortable social or family situations? Or will Jesus actively challenge the politics of the world by speaking truth to power and offering an alternative, upside-down, political order – called the Kin-dom of God – in which the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given drink, foreigners are welcomed, the naked are clothed, the sick are cared for, and prisoners are visited. A world in which the last become first and the first become last?
The third temptation – to throw himself off the top of the temple, challenging God to spare him – is a religious temptation. Will Jesus simply be known as a beloved magician – able to perform death-defying feats by forcing God’s hand? Will his ministry simply be known for his mastery of the supernatural? Will his ability to turn water into wine, to heal people, and to raise the dead be a means of coercing people into faith? Or will Jesus not exploit his equality with God, but instead, humble himself and become fully human – experiencing all that we experience, while obeying God fully, even unto death – so that we might have a fuller relationship with God?
How would you respond to such temptations? I’m sure most of us would jump at the opportunity to be able to solve all the world’s hunger problems by simply turning stones into bread. Because such an ability means that you sacrifice nothing to address the issue. While we in America may struggle day to day, the reality is that you are immensely wealthy compared to the vast majority of the world’s population – who survives on less than $2 a day. When you embrace the temptation for a quick fix to a problem like hunger, without taking time to hover – you fail to look inwardly and ask yourself the deeper questions: Why do I feel the need to hold on to so much while so many have so little? Why do I accept society’s myth of scarcity – the ideology that says if I do not hoard my material things, I will someday go without? Meanwhile Jesus proclaims the Gospel truth of abundant life, experienced here and now? Why do I not trust God enough to know that I will be provided for when I truly need it? After all, you profess to trust God to provide every time you pray – “give us this day our daily bread.” Do you truly trust God to provide your “daily bread”? Or are you just going through the motions? Why are you so afraid of being generous? Do you think it’s someone else’s job? That there will be someone else to make up for your lack of generosity? What if Jesus had not been so generous with his life? Where would you be?
Why do most of us jump at the opportunity for power? To be the “best in the world” both politically and religiously? Why does society make everything a competition where there are winners and losers instead of a community where all are accepted and cared for? Why do you not seek a world ordered according to the Kin-dom of God? A Kin-dom that Jesus describes over and over again in numerous parables. A Kin-dom proclaimed by the Old Testament Prophets time and time again. A Kin-dom that Jesus first ushers in and calls you to continue building with the power of the Holy Spirit. A Kin-dom that is nothing like the political structures that currently rule our world – not even the United States – despite how much you may want it to be. A Kin-dom where the wealthy are not allowed to profit off the backs of the poor, where rulers are allowed neither to oppress the marginalized nor to be above the law. A Kin-dom where the hungry and thirsty are provided food and water – not because they “deserve” it, but simply because they exist – because they are children of God made in the image of God just like you. A Kin-dom where the foreigner is welcomed like a native in the land – as the Old Testament commands over 80+ times – because you were once a foreigner in a foreign land (even if you are native to this country). A Kin-dom where no one fears getting sick because they know they will be cared for. A Kin-dom where those who are imprisoned are treated like human beings they are – because if you treat people like animals, they will become animals. A world where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted-up. Do you fear this Kin-dom because you know that you are not the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the sick, and the prisoner you believe yourself to be? Do you not hover because when you do, you realize just how powerful and privileged you truly are? Do you not reflect inwardly because you might realize you are not one of the “sheep” set to inherit the Kin-dom, but instead are one of the “goats” subject to God’s wrath? Do you not search your soul to understand your role in the Kin-dom because it’s too risky and requires too much of you? Because it’s simply easier to avoid the hard truth and stay the same? Because it’s easier to jump on the bandwagon of religious nationalism where you can at least numb yourself with self-righteousness and avoid the painful truth of your eventual fate? So that you can at least have some momentary sibilance of peace and “niceness” before being sent to “eternal punishment” after this life is over? Are you avoiding the fear that you might not be the Christian you think you are?
Why would most of us jump at the ability to magically and miraculously fix all our problems? Why would you embrace the ability to turn water into wine, to heal the sick, and to raise the dead? Is it because you don’t want to feel pain, suffering, and loss that comes with being human? If that’s the case, you desperately need to hover – to spend time searching your soul and contemplating what it means to avoid all the negative feelings you dread. If you avoid these feelings of discomfort, are you truly human? And if you could avoid all this pain – even death – then what is the point of the incarnation? What is the point of Jesus? What is the point of Jesus’ humanity and his pain, his suffering, and his death? If you could magically avoid physical death – then what is the point of resurrection? If there is no Good Friday – will Easter still be as joyful? Will life be as joyful? If you never experience pain, suffering, or loss – will you be able to show compassion to others? (For the root of the word “compassion” means “to suffer with” someone.) And if you can’t show compassion, can you love your neighbor as yourself? Can you even love yourself? Because resisting temptation is not about rejecting your humanity and embracing your spirituality. As N.T. Wright says, “…fighting temptation is not about self-hatred, or rejecting part of our God-given humanity…[but]… about celebrating God’s gift of full humanity, and… discovering how to tune it and play it to its best possibility.” (Wright 45) It’s not about escaping the struggles of this physical world by only reaching to the spiritual world – that’s called Gnosticism and was declared heresy by the church over 1800 years ago. It’s about bringing the spiritual world to the struggles of the physical world. It’s not about getting humanity into heaven, but about bringing heaven to humanity.
On the surface, these temptations look like great things. They look like great opportunities not only for your benefit – but for the benefit of others. The chance to stop world hunger, the opportunity to run the world “your way”, the ability to stop all the suffering, sorrow, and loss in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to accept such positive things? These things can’t be temptations because their outcomes are all good things! Real temptations result in bad things. Right? Yet, as the great preacher Fred Craddock wrote: “…real temptation beckons us to do that about which much good can be said… real temptation is an offer not to fall but to rise.” And in order to recognize the deeper, darker, negatives hidden beneath the shiny, polished, positive, exterior of our temptations, we must hover. We must spend time in deep contemplation with God. We must meditate on the example of Jesus in Scripture. We must be still and discern the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit as she guides us into God’s future – a future that is nothing like the exciting, powerful, and glory-filled temptations of this world – because it is a Kin-dom that God co-creates with us, for us, and for all Creation.
And resisting these worldly temptations requires us not only to know God but also to know ourselves. As John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian tradition, wrote at the beginning his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God.” I have asked a LOT of questions in this sermon. And these questions are all about self-knowledge. Self-knowledge that leads you into greater knowledge of God. For a long time, our tradition has focused on an academic knowledge of God, through the study of scripture and theology – something that Calvin himself encouraged. But along the way, we forgot that Calvin prefaced this academic knowledge of God with a reflective knowledge of self, first.
As a result, we have generation after generation of Christians that simply do not know themselves – and therefore do not know God beyond an academic argument, beyond a mental exercise. Christians who have not spent time hovering, self-reflecting, meditating, or discerning who they are so they can know whose they are. As a result, we’ve developed a disconnect between us and God. A disconnect that explains why so many of us are co-dependent upon clergy for assurance of our faith and salvation. Why we’ve reduced the faith to a series of rules and regulations to be followed instead of a way of love to be lived. Otherwise, how would be assured that we’ve “got it right.”
This is why we see ministry as the calling of clergy only – not something that the everyday Christian is called to do as well. Why we view clergy as “hired by us to do ministry on our behalf” instead of “called by the Spirit to lead us into ministry.” This is why so many of us feel so ill-suited, unqualified, and unable to lead ministries within the Church – even something so simple as leading prayer for others.
And it’s all because we simply do not know ourselves. Because we simply don’t take the time to know just how amazing we are created to be because of the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit – that is given to each and every one of us at our baptism. Because if we take the time to hover, to self-reflect, to meditate, to discern both who we are and whose we are, to listen to the weak, whispered calling of God instead of the loud, demeaning demands of society, we will learn three great lessons that each of Jesus’ temptations teach us:
1) “physical needs and wants are important, but loyalty to God is more important still…
2) the path to status… is humble service, not a devilish seeking after status and power”,… and… 3) “Trust in God doesn’t mean acting stupidly to force God into doing a spectacular rescue. The power that Jesus has…is to be used for restoring others to life and strength, not for cheap stunts.” (N.T. Wright, 44).
And once we have spent time hovering, self-reflecting, meditating, or discerning who God has made us to be and the gifts that Spirit has given us for our calling – then we can begin to take risks on behalf of the Kin-dom of God. Risks that are even more frightening than our self-knowledge – because it requires us to reveal our self-knowledge to others. And such risk, such a revealing of ourselves to others, makes us vulnerable to suffering, especially at the hands of those who lack self-knowledge. What do we do in the face of such risk? Well, RISK is the topic for next Sunday. I hope to see you there.
Until then, I challenge you to take this week to hover. To work on your own self-reflection. And it can begin by simply “Practic[ing] the pause. When in doubt, pause. When angry, pause. When tired, pause. When stressed, pause. And when you pause, pray.” And then, listen to what you learn about yourself and about God. AMEN.
Text: Luke 4:13-21
Back when I first started taking seminary courses part-time, I asked my pastor if I could preach. The interim pastor said yes, and so I preached my first sermon. And things went well. Things went so well, in fact, that the next time the pastor was on vacation, he asked me to preach. I eagerly said yes.
I was already working on a sermon for a class, so I decided that I would use it for the Sunday service. I had gotten a lot of positive feedback on the sermon in class, so I just knew that the congregation would love it. I asked the pastor if he would like to read it beforehand, and he said, “No. You did great last time. I trust you. Everything will be fine.” Except that, everything was NOT fine after that sermon. My sermon upset my fellow congregation members. The people that I studied with in Sunday School, that I shared meals with in the fellowship hall, that I prayed beside in the pew, that I stood beside and cried with when our congregation split the year before. Many of them were VERY upset about my sermon. (Something I’m sure no one here has ever experienced from one of my sermons.) So much so that the pastor admitted that he should never have let me preach without him being present. That I would not be allowed in the pulpit for some time. And definitely not without him reading the sermon first.
I didn’t understand why my sermon, which received so much praise in my class, incited such anger and vitriol in the congregation. My pastor replied, “Because you preached prophetically in pastoral times. And a prophet is never welcome in their hometown.”
Jesus definitely knows what it’s like to be a prophet in his hometown. He knows what it means to preach prophetically in pastoral times. Jesus ministry had just begun. In Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus being baptized, then facing temptation in the desert, followed by a brief mention of some preaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee, where it is said he was “being celebrated by all.” (I’ve NEVER known a preacher who was “celebrated by ALL.” If you’re not upsetting somebody¸you’re not doing your job!) And then Jesus arrives in his hometown, appearing in his childhood synagogue on the Sabbath Day as would be expected of any devout Jewish man. This is the first we see and hear, in Luke’s Gospel, of Jesus publicly speaking and declaring his mission. And the scene is electric with tension, as Luke describes every action in detail. Jesus “stood up”, “took the scroll”, “unrolled it”, “found the place”, “read the Isaiah passage”, “rolled up the scroll”, “gave it back”, and “sat down.”
Then…nothing. You can feel the pregnant pause in the room as “All eyes in the synagogue were transfixed on him.” The people are anxious with anticipation of what this great preacher, their hometown boy, will say about Isaiah’s prophecy, especially in the face of their oppression by the Roman Empire. Especially in these times of great pastoral need.
Finally, Jesus proclaims to them: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing.” And this simple, one sentence sermon – 15 words in the original Greek – invokes anger so great in those present, that even though they’ve known and loved Jesus since he was a kid, they try to throw their beloved local boy over a cliff. And it’s because such rage, resentment, and revolt happen when your dreams do not align with God’s Dream.
We all have dreams – big dreams and small dreams. They start when we are kids: where we often dream about our future job whether it’s being a professional athlete, a doctor, or lawyer. Or, as an article stated this week, teenagers dream about being a YouTube Star MORE than they dream about being an astronaut. (Yes, you can make a good living off making YouTube videos.) We are taught by our society to “live your dreams” to “achieve your dreams.” We tell students at graduation that you can “accomplish anything you put your mind to.” But is that really true? And are you really living your dream? Or are you just living out a dream that was handed to you by someone else? And how many of us actually consider our role in God’s Dream? Do we even understand what God’s Dream is? And if we did, do we really want to be a part of God’s Dream?
In reading and preaching the Isaiah text, Jesus reveals the Dream of God for all humanity. The Dream of God which lies behinds Jesus’ mission on earth. And if you look at the original Old Testament Hebrew text that Jesus reads, you discover that Jesus actually cherry picks and smashes together verses from four different locations in the Book of Isaiah to develop his view of God’s Dream, which is a lot less spiritual than one would realize. In reading the original Hebrew text, I translated the Isaiah passage like this:
“The Lord’s spirit is upon me on account that the Lord’s anointed me to promise good news to the poor ones, the Lord has sent me to announce the running free of prisoners and recovered sight by the blind ones, to send out, free of debt, those having been crushed, to announce the era of the Lord’s acceptance.”
Jesus’ announcement, his mission, God’s Dream for the world, is not just one of spiritual salvation – as we tend to teach in the modern American Christian tradition – but God’s Dream for the world is also an economic salvation. Because all the texts that Jesus cherry picks address the socio-economic injustices within his society – such as the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, more people being unjustly imprisoned for political and economic reasons, illnesses on the rise but blamed on people’s sins, and hard working families crushed under the weight of debt from which they cannot escape. And Jesus reads these cherry-picked scriptures from the Isaiah scroll because they also refer back to God’s solution to such socio-economic injustice – the Jubilee Year!
The Jubilee Year – also called the Sabbath Year – was a commandment in Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, and Exodus 23 in which every 50 years all land, houses, property, etc. that may have been lost amid the normal risks of the economy must be returned to the original owners. That all monetary debts must be forgiven and reset to zero. It was a divine command and a social/religious ethic meant to curb unfettered greed thereby protecting economically vulnerable people from being stuck in generational poverty. When Jesus reads the actions described in the text, followed by, “to announce the era of the Lord’s acceptance,” he is making a direct reference to the arrival of the Jubilee Year and what happens socially and economically when it is enacted.
Modern American Christians often argue that what Jesus reads is a spiritual metaphor. That Jesus is speaking about the spiritually poor, those spiritually imprisoned or blind. However, it’s important to note the pieces of the Isaiah text that Jesus leaves out, including “to heal the broken-hearted” and “the day of vengeance of our God.” It’s clear that the God Dream Jesus is proclaiming is not some spiritual reality beyond this world, but a material, economic reality within this world, right now. A lived-out biblical ethic that would upset the whole socio-economic structure of Jesus’ day and even ours now.
And the most radical word of Jesus’ one sentence sermon is “TODAY.” Jesus prophetically proclaims that this radical God Dream of completely overturning unjust socio-economic systems of the world is happening TODAY! And then he goes on to tell two stories about the Prophets Elijah and Elisha, and how God used them to offer God’s Dream to those outside the religious and national boundaries of Israel. About how God’s Dream is not just for the advantage of Israel, but for the entire world. And in order for such a socially radical, biblically ethical, and divinely commanded economic reordering take place, the hearts of people must be radically transformed as well. Because when people allow themselves to be transformed by the Word of God, they start responding to others the way Jesus does in his ministry, and the Jubilee continues happening. Because Jesus proclaims the Jubilee era is happening RIGHT NOW. Jesus is NOT calling us to sit back and wait for God to fulfill the Jubilee in the future. Jesus is NOT calling us to resurrect the past, hoping to make Israel great again. Jesus is calling us to fulfill God’s command of the Jubilee TODAY! To fulfill God’s Dream Today!
For the era of the Lord’s acceptance is here, today! God’s promises are fulfilled today! The time of God is today! And the ministry of Jesus, lived out through on-going ministry of the Church – the body of Christ – demonstrates that today continues. For in Luke’s Gospel, today is never allowed to become nostalgia for yesterday nor is it allowed to become some vague future someday. God’s Dream is unfolding today, and the reality of God’s Dream is just as shocking and upsetting to us today as it was for those who first heard Jesus proclaim it.
And it’s shocking and upsetting because God’s Dream is almost never our dream. For the only way to fulfill God’s Dream is through hearing the Word of God and then acting on it. And when you do so, you don’t discover your dreams – you discover something greater. You discover God’s Dream for you! You discover that all the little dreams handed to you by Society, your Ego, and the Self-Interests of others, cannot hold a candle to the glory of God’s Dream for you. And God’s Dream for you is discovered through your vocation.
My favorite definition of “vocation” comes from Christian author Frederick Buechner who says: Vocation “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a [person] is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.
Buechner goes on to say: By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either.
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. (Listen to that again.)
If you are lucky, your vocation is also your job. Many pastors find that to be true, but not all of them. For most church-goers, your vocation and your job are often two different things. Your job is something you do so you can serve your vocation. And sometimes people will resent your vocation, especially when it interferes with their own Self-interests. This resentment is often experienced by pastors who feel that congregations are more concerned about their pastors taking care of them, serving them, making them happy – rather than serving their God-commanded “vocation” of promising good news to the poor, proclaiming the running free of prisoners and restored site to the blind, and sending out those freed from crushing debt to proclaim the era of the Lord’s acceptance – to proclaim the Jubilee Year which is happening TODAY! Those people who focus more on the pastor’s “job” rather than the pastor’s “vocation” don’t actually want a pastor, they want a chaplain. But those are two very different vocations.
But people who know and understand their vocation, also know and understand its importance to each individual – because they experienced the union of God’s Dream with their dreams. And in doing so, God’s Dream for them becomes their dream for themselves. Such people are more self-aware, and therefore, happier, more emotionally stable, and less anxious. These people are truly living the Dream.
The same can be said for entire congregations. Congregations that are NOT living God’s Dream for them are filled with anxiety. They are in denial of their own flaws, fearful about the future, and emotionally tense at best. They hold a constant concern for someday and a constant nostalgia for yesterday. As a result, little effort or thought is put into today. And pastors always know when they preach prophetically to such churches, because those churches are quick to try and throw the pastor over a cliff.
Yet TODAY is where Jesus is calling the Church. TODAY is where Jesus is prophetically preaching to the Church. TODAY is where and when Jesus’ ministry is operating in the Church. And TODAY is where God’s Dream is unfolding through the Church. You’re not going to resurrect some dead dream from the past. And never you going to experience God’s Dream simply waiting for the future. You can only experience God’s Dream for you TODAY by acting on God’s Word TODAY.
And I am proud to say that Grace Presbyterian is discovering our dream by living out God’s Dream for us today. We are “promising good news to the poor” by feeding people at The Welcome Table. (This past week we fed a record 75 people!) We are announcing “the running free of prisoners” through our Facebook Ministry (I’m no longer calling it our Facebook “Page” because it has truly become a “ministry” thanks to calling and the love of Diane DeWitt Hall.) Our Facebook ministry currently has over 6,500 followers. And each week I get messages from people who tell me that our Facebook ministry has been a blessing – an act of God’s grace – in their life. They are thankful that churches like Grace exist – churches that are loving and welcoming of ALL people – and if they simply lived closer, they would be active members of our congregation! That our Facebook ministry has freed them of past pain and suffering at the hands of other churches, so now they can run free to be who God made them to be, even in the Church. That they are free to accept the Church and God’s love once again. Even those who DO live local are starting to attend because of the Facebook Ministry. They are thankful to find a church that focused more what we are FOR rather than what we are AGAINST. A church that emphasizes the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ rather than judgment and exclusion. A church that puts the Word of God into action in our community, rather than viewing “church” as a mental exercise or a weekly spiritual fix.
Great things are happening here at Grace. And they are happening TODAY! And you if you haven’t been a part of it yet, TODAY is an opportunity to do so. After worship, we will have the meeting of the Peace Team. If you want to join us today, simply come downstairs and sit with us. We will have pizza, and we will plan how we can continue fulfilling God’s Dream for us during the Peace Season this September.
What is happening here at Grace may not be your dream for Grace. And that’s because we are discovering something bigger and better than our individual dreams and self-interests. We are discovering God’s Dream for this congregation.
And, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” AMEN.
Text: Luke 10:24-37
This is one of my favorite t-shirts. For those of you who can’t or haven’t read it, it says: “I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.” I love this shirt for many reasons. 1) I think it is important that we destroy all expectations that pastors should be holier than though, perfect people, who never cuss, drink, smoke, challenge traiditions, or make us uncomfortable because all that has done throughout the years is destroy many a person who has been called to ministry. As a result, the average person in ministry quits after five years. 2) I think it is also important that we quit making unbiblical standard such as cussing, drinking, or perfectly following the law as the measuring stick – the plumb line – behind which we judge whether or not one is a “Good Christian.” Because these standards have caused the core of the Christian faith – the incarnation of God’s love in Jesus Christ – to become nothing more than a putrid, rotting, and lifeless corpse. A mental exercise about how well one follows draconian rules that enforce “niceness” and “social acceptability.” About how well one follow unbiblical values about not being “offensive” or “political.” Because if you actually read the scriptures carefully, you will find that the Prophets like Amos and even Jesus Christ himself goes against every one of those modern American “Christian” values. Remember: The prophets were not oppressed and Jesus was not crucified because they were “nice guys” who “followed the rules” and “supported the government.” The Prophets and Jesus were oppressed and crucified because they were radicals who broke both the religious and political rules and spoke against government systems that oppressed the poor and foreigners in the land. And what we now call “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” is one of the most offensive stories that Jesus tells in scriptures because it attacks the rules of the religious establishment, attacks religiously reinforced racism, and attacks theocratic government beliefs about who is and who isn’t one’s neighbor.
At the time of Jesus, a new group of religious radicals were arising known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees was the religious lay movement that held to a strict obedience to the Law or the Torah. Unlike the Sadducees – who were the Temple priests that did NOT believe in eternal life after death – the Pharisees has begun developing this new theological idea about eternal life that they had stolen from another religion called Zoroastrianism. And they connected the possibility of gaining eternal life with perfectly obeying all the rules of the Torah. And so, when Jesus comes along speaking about the possibility of “abundant life” (NOT eternal life) in the here and now, the Pharisees try to challenge Jesus’ beliefs about God and the Torah with their own. And so a religious lawyer comes along and tries to challenge Jesus’ knowledge of the Torah by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response isn’t as simple as it seems because it attacks the literal reading of scripture common to the Pharisees and to many in evangelical Christianity today.
So Jesus says to the lawyer, “In the Law, what has been written? How do you read it?” In other words, “What is written in the Torah? AND How do you read or interpret what is written? In other words, it’s not okay to just accept the written word at face value. You must also interpret what is written there. And so the lawyer – with his emphasis on getting the Law just right – recites Deuteronomy 6:5, “You will love your Lord God out of all your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength and with all of your mind.” And then the Lawyer interprets what it means to love God by reciting only part of Leviticus 19:18, saying. “and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus responds, “You answered well. Do this/Fulfill this/Acquire this, and you will live.” Notice two things about Jesus’ response: 1) Jesus says that life comes from doing/fulfilling/acquiring what the Law commands (NOT “believing in Jesus” as Christianity has come to believe) and 2) Jesus says that the man “will live.” It can also be translated “you will beathe” or “you will be among the living.” Jesus says NOTHING about the man having “eternal life” as he asked. It’s a subtle but important point to notice.
But the Lawyer is not convinced and seeks to prove Jesus wrong. Because the Lawyer purposefully left out the other half of Leviticus 19:18 which says, in it’s entirety: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” In other words, those who kept the Law literally, like the Pharisees, knew that your neighbor was ONLY those who were considered “your people.” In other words, only other Jews who looked like you and believed like you. Everyone else was NOT a neighbor and NOT subject to the “love of neighbor” command. So the Lawyer responds tritely, “And just who is my neighbor?” And so Jesus, being a good rabbi, responds NOT with an actual answer, but with a story – a story that would offend everything that the Lawyer believed about what it meant to be a “Good Jew” who followed God’s Law. Jesus shows the Lawyer just how much his own religious beliefs have made him into an idolater of the Scripture instead of a follower of God, a religious racist instead of one who sees the image of God in all they meet, and a one who prefers government enforced law and order over mercy and human dignity.
After Jesus tells the story, he asks the Lawyer, “Which of these three do you think, to the man who had fallen among robbers, had become a neighbor?” The Lawyer is offended by the story because a Samaritan – the most hated and despised people by the Jews - is made the hero of the story, meanwhile the holiest of the Jewish people – a priest and a Levite – are made into the epitome of evil apathy and uncaring. Jesus flips the Lawyer’s question from “Who IS my neighbor?” to “How I BECOME a neighbor?” And that is the question we need to start asking ourselves in our nation today. Quit asking WHO and start asking HOW. Quit asking Jesus WHO you have to help (because the answer that Jesus gives in the story is EVERYONE) and start asking Jesus HOW you can help everyone. Especially those who find themselves demonized and marginalized by the dominant religious and political powers – which was the case for the Samaritans.
And yet, I still don’t think we get how offensive this parable was to the people of Jesus’ time. And because of such, I felt it was important for us to understand this story in terms of our own times. So here is the parable of the Good Samaritan for today.
Immigration Officer Rodriguez was finishing his shift after a long day the border control. He was a proud man – born and raised in this United States. He loved his country and served 15 years in the U.S. Army – including 3 tours in Afghanistan. And now he was serving as an Immigration Officer because he felt that America was a land of opportunity where his great-grandparent first immigrated and made a life for themselves. So, he wanted to help other people like him discover the same opportunity in America as his great-grandparents.
Officer Rodriguez went to his locker, changed his clothes, then got in his car and drove home through the darkness of the early morning hours. His eyes began to close as he drove the highway along the border wall, when he suddenly went off the road, and was flung from his car. His body landing a few feet from the wall. Immigration officer Rodriguez laid there, his clothes torn, his body broken and bleeding, half-dead, with no one around to help him.
Well, it just so happened that Franklin Graham’s bus was headed down the same road when they saw the accident. The bus pulled over and Rev. Graham rushed to Officer Rodriguez’s body. But only seeing the man’s ethnicity, Rev. Graham assumed the officer was a criminal who had stolen the car from an American. He ordered his team to report the accident to the police – because that was the “right thing to do” – got back in his van, and went on to his appointment.
Next came along an American Militia group who felt called to protect American borders from invaders. When they saw the accident, they too stopped. But when they saw the man’s ethnicity, they too got back in their vans, and drove away.
Then, a refugee from Honduras came walking up to the border wall, carrying his 2-year-old daughter in his arms. Upon seeing the man lying there, he rushed to his side. Seeing the man’s broken and beaten body, the Honduran refugee remembered his own experience of seeing broken and beaten bodies in the streets of his hometown. His own experiences of suffering moved the refugee to have compassion for this nameless man he found along his journey. So the Honduran refugee quickly opened the backpack he had been carrying for the last 3 months, took out the last bottle of water he had, and gave it to the officer. He then took out what little first aid materials he had to bandage the officer’s wounds. The refugee then carefully picked up Officer Rodriguez and, while holding this young daughter’s hand, walked him down to the nearest port of entry another 2 miles down the road.
Upon arrival with Officer Rodriguez, the refugee was detained at the border. His 2-year-old daughter was ripped screaming from his arms – though he was told that she was going to be given a bath and returned to him. And Officer Rodriguez, unrecognized by his fellow officers, was set aside while paramedics were called to care for him. The refugee was placed in a cage with 200 other men. His daughter was placed into a cage with 150 other children between the ages of 12 months and 12 years. Three months later, and the two still haven’t seen each other. The two sleeps on cold concrete floor each night while the father drinks water from a toilet because the guards told him that it was “clean enough to drink.”
Now which of the three – Rev. Graham, the Militia Group, or the Refugee – became a neighbor to Immigration Officer Rodriguez who needed help?
Go and do the same. And you will live.
I often like to read our scripture lesson from The Message Translation. I like this translation simply because it doesn’t hold any punches. It’s not an attempt to get at a truly academic word-for-word understanding of the bible, but it is an attempt to get to the emotional, psychological, and existential understanding of the bible – because faith is more than a mental exercise. And, different translations can give us different understandings of the relationship between God and humanity known as faith. Just look at the different ways verse 28 can be interpreted based upon the translation:
The more academic, NRSV, and similarly the KJV, says: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” While the NRSV translation may be more academic, if one does not understand the underlying sentence structure of the Greek, then you may interpret the text as describing the relationship between God and humanity as a divine process of impersonal providence – that God is making things “good” for us, but not out of any sense of a personal relationship or personal involvement with us. God is just doing what God does, as already pre-determined, with no interaction within the history of the world. That what we are doing as humans, is already decided, and that things work out for us because of God’s efforts towards our predetermined actions. And while Presbyterians believe in predestination, we do not believe in pre-determinism. We are not chess pieces that God moves around. We just know that we are going to win the game.
Meanwhile, translations such as the NIV& NJB, say something along the lines of: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God, those who have been called in accordance with God’s purpose, and turns everything to their good.” In this translation, God is understood as being more directly involved in the history of the world, but only works things out for those whose love for God as demonstrated through their response to being called to serve God’s purpose. It’s as though God is rewarding them for being good little children who follow the rules.
But The Message Translation – along with other translations, such as the REB – finds a middle ground between this impersonal providence and rewarding parent. The REB says: “In everything, as we know, God co-operates for good with those who love God.” And The Message Translation says: “That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” In these translations, humanity and God are working together. Cooperating together. That humanity is not a passive recipient of the coming of God’s Kingdom. That the Kingdom of God is not some reward for obeying the rules. Instead, we are active participants – co-builders – of God’s Kingdom. The arrival of the Kingdom of God happens of the joint efforts of God and humanity. But this leads us to a couple of deeper theological questions:
1) If you do NOT participate or cooperate with God, does that mean that God’s Kingdom will never come? NO! And why? Because you are not necessary. Yes, you heard me right. You are not necessary. Do you really think that God is so puny that God needs you to make sure the Kingdom arrives? That’s a very small understanding of God, and a very narcissistic understanding of yourself. The same thing can be said in the church. Do you really believe that if you are not here that the church will cease to exist? Maybe this particular gathering, in this particular building. But God will take whoever’s left, whoever wishes to be a co-builder of Kingdom, whoever wants to pursue the mission of God, and put them to work in building a new church. Otherwise, we have a very small understanding of God’s Mission in the world and the purpose of the Church. And, the truth is, you should be thankful that you are not necessary. My seminary professor once told us, “Every day you are in ministry, you should get on your knees and thank God that you are not necessary. Because necessity is NOT the language of faith. Necessity is the language of addiction.” Instead of being necessary for God’s mission, you are invited to participate. You are blessed to participate. You are called to participate in being a co-builder of God’s Kingdom. Because God in Jesus Christ wants, not only to build the Kingdom alongside you, but also to offer you life in abundance – not just the continuation of this life into the next, but the opportunity for an abundance of life in the here and now. Through the life of Jesus Christ, God showed us that the way to have abundant life is through loving sacrificial service. Not being necessary means that you get to serve God and others out of love instead of obligation. Love will give you abundant life. But obligation will slowly drain the life out of you.
We get to experience that fullness by loving God and loving others. And loving God and others means following the call that God places upon you. And that is where the Holy Spirit comes in. The call of the Holy Spirit is your unique opportunity to promote God’s purpose in the world. For some, such as myself, it is a life of vocational ministry. But pastors are not the only ones called to ministry. All people are called to ministry. All people are ordained to the priesthood of all believers in the moment of their baptism. Yet many of us reject our calling. Reject our ordination to the priesthood. We make excuses: “I don’t have enough time.” “I’m just too busy.” “I’ve already got other plans.” Etc. etc. But the truth is, we always make time for the things we prioritize. So, the question for you, Is the Holy Spirit’s call on your life a priority or not? Because even though you may not make your calling a priority, the Holy Spirit will keep finding ways to bring you back to it. But, you still have Free Will NOT to receive the ministry to which the Spirit is calling you. So, maybe that’s why things don’t always work out for the good? NO. That’s not it.
2) So, does that mean if we DO cooperate with God, if we DO answer the Spirit’s calling, that our lives will be ALL good? NO! There is no guarantee of constant, continual good things – of a never-ending stream of blessings – if you answer the Spirit’s call. But, for those who do respond to the Spirit’s call, the “bad things” in life are reframed within the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And in reframing the “bad things”, all things work out for the good: NOT because you gain more – because in reality, the call requires sacrifice. NOT because you are relieved of all suffering – because in reality, you usually suffer more. But because those who accept the Spirit’s call are conformed to the image of Christ. And Christ was constantly assured of God’s presence – both in his gains and his sacrifices, in the good and the bad, in his joy and in his suffering. And so even we, become aware of the perpetual presence of God in our stressed out sighs and our groans of grief. This assurance comes not only from following the call, but from giving in to the work of the Spirit within our prayer life, for as Paul says, “If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. [The Holy Spirit] does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. At the same time, by conforming our lives to the image of Jesus Christ – we become co-builders of the Kingdom – and gain a glimpse of the future hope that comes when the Kingdom is fully established here on earth and all things are completely worked out for the good.
So why – with these amazing promises of the past, present, and future – do so many regular, Church-going Christians either refuse or ignore Spirit’s call on their lives? Is it because they haven’t really heard the Good News? Is it because, despite the appearance created by their regular church attendance and participation, they don’t actually believe the Good News? NO. The reason why people, when they are wrestling or discerning the Spirit’s call to serve God’s mission – whether it’s working in a soup kitchen, running a non-profit charity, or even pursuing ordained ministry – the reason why they often turn away from the Spirit’s call is NOT because of the lack of Good News, but because of the abundance of Good Advice.
In our culture, Good Advice is valued more than Good News. That’s often what people want from their pastor when they have problems – Good Advice, not Good News. And it can often be difficult to distinguish between Good Advice and Good News because in America we tend to conflate the values of God’s Kingdom with the values of American Culture. Yet the two are not the same. In fact, they’re practically opposites. Because Good Advice is rational, practical, and realistic. Good Advice is supposed to solve the problem or stop it from continuing. Good Advice is even biblical. We see many people throughout the bible giving out Good Advice.
In the Book of Job, Job’s three friends give him Good Advice on why everything is going wrong in his life. Clearly Job did something to sin against God, therefore Job is being punished by the loss of all his children and his entire livelihood. So, if Job wants everything to get back to normal, their Good Advice is that Job should repent of his sins against God – even though Job knows that he has done nothing wrong. By the end of the story, God shows up and tells Job’s friends that their “Good Advice” is all wrong. In fact, it gave them really bad theology. They need to go back to seminary and take more pastoral care classes. We do this too when we see things going horribly wrong – especially for “good Christians” like us. We speak of God punishing others or even punishing ourselves. But Jesus Christ didn’t come to earth so that God could punish us. Christ came to save us from our self-inflicted punishment.
In the Gospels, Peter gives Jesus some Good Advice after Jesus makes predictions about his eventual execution. Tired of Jesus’ negativity and knowing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and can therefore do something to stop this, Peter rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” I imagine he also said to Jesus – “Look Jesus. This isn’t good for the growth of the ministry. These sermons and bible studies about getting crucified are really starting to bum people out. They need more uplifting sermons to make them feel good.” And how does Jesus respond to Peter’s Good Advice? By calling Peter Satan and telling Peter to “get behind me!”
And I can only imagine what Abraham’s friends and family said when he told them that this new God spoke to him and called Abraham to go to an unknown land that this God will show him. I’m sure they were like, “Abraham, have you prayed about this? Have you spoken to the priest about this? Aren’t you a little old to be starting over? Are you sure it’s not one of the other Sumerian gods just trying to trick you? I hear that Enlil god is a real trickster.” And yet we do the same thing. As parents, we are often guilty of trying to get our children to pursue more practical and lucrative callings like law, medicine, engineering, or even a high-paying trade like being a plumber or electrician. Very rarely do we say to our children, “I’m so excited that you want to take a year off between high school and college and serve as a missionary in a dangerous foreign country.” Or “I’m so excited that you want to pursue dance/music/theatre as your career even though the unemployment rate for performers is 98%.” And we do this because we are more concerned about the practicalities of life than having an abundance of life. What good is having a big bank account if you’re the walking dead?
In each of these stories, the main characters are called by the Spirit of God to do something completely irrational, impractical, and unrealistic. And in each story, other well-meaning, people offer Good Advice to keep them from fulfilling their call. And while Good Advice makes good sense, all it does is point out the obstacles and struggles, involved in answering Spirit’s call. All it does is point out all the things that can go wrong by following Spirit’s call. And often after we begin the call, we find ourselves in the midst of those obstacles, struggles, and things going wrong – and all we can ask ourselves is: “Is there nowhere better to be? Is there nothing better to do?” And the answer for those who love God is simply: NO! There’s not.
If you are following the call of the Spirit, you have nowhere better to be in life. If you love God, you have nothing better to do. And if you have nowhere better to be or nothing better to do, it’s because you’re not necessary! And so you get to serve out of the life-giving impractical, irrational, unrealistic, love of Christ instead of life-draining, practical, rational, realistic obligations of our culture. There is nowhere better for you to be than within your unique calling to serve God’s mission. There’s nothing better for you to do than to love God by loving your neighbor as yourself. And the best part of all, is because you are not necessary, you are free to receive the Holy Spirit’s call to be a part of this mission. You are free to be a part of building the Kingdom of God right here in your little corner of the world.
And when you accept that invitation – that call – to be a part of something so incredible, something so much bigger than you – then you gain an abundance of life that you never would have experienced if you rejected the call. And that abundance of life includes sacrifice – but only of the things that our culture tells you that you need. And that abundance of life includes suffering – but with the assurance that through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is present with you. And that life includes the freedom from necessity – because Christ came to save us from all that enslaves us, including our addiction to being necessary.
And this is all possible because of the Holy Spirit who came to the Disciples on Pentecost – empowering them to do things they never dreamed imaginable. Empowering them to sacrifice, to suffer, and to give up necessity for the sake of the Good News. Enabling them to discern between the failings of Good Advice and the strength of the Good News.
And just like it did for the Disciples then, the Holy Spirit empowers you, sustains you, and “is right alongside, helping you along.” Even in your moments of greatest weakness, when you are so far-gone that you don’t even have the strength to cry out to God, it is the Holy Spirit who, “If we don’t know what to pray…does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. [The Holy Spirit] knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.”
And the Pentecost event is not over. It is still continuing. The Spirit is still moving. The Spirit is still inviting. The Spirit is still calling people to serve the Mission of God. The Spirit is still inviting people to conform their lives to the image of Christ. And the only way you can resist the Spirit’s wild, irrational, unrealistic, and senseless Good News is to choose our culture’s ordered, rational, realistic, and practical Good Advice. Good Advice that may lead to a superficially happy, socially successful, and fiscally stable future – but it’s also a future that is guaranteed to be spiritually, emotionally, and existentially unfulfilling. Leaving you with a void that you will try to fill in ways that are often unhealthy, even idolatrous. And our culture maintains this unfulfilled void by teaching you that – even though you’ve done everything you’ve been told, even though you’ve achieved all that you were taught to achieve – there is always somewhere better you could be. There is always something better that you could be doing. That you are necessary, but that you are never going to be enough.
My last semester of seminary, the President of the seminary said something to my class that shook me to my core. I’ve said it here before, but I believe it’s worth repeating:
“You can either achieve your life or receive it. If you achieve your life, your constant companion will be complaint because you will never achieve enough. But if you receive your life, your constant companion will be gratitude for all that GOD is achieving in your life.
Friends, when you follow the Spirit’s unique call to serve God’s mission in your little corner of the world, there’s nowhere better for you to be. There’s nothing better for you to be doing. And you do it, not because you are necessary, but because you are enough for God to work out all things for the good. Receive that calling and receive life in abundance, all thanks to God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Text: Ephesian 1:15-23
During my chaplaincy internship, there was a woman in my cohort – a short, Italian woman from New Jersey in her mid-forties, with big hair, big heels, big nails, and an even bigger personality, by the name of Adriana. Adriana had this peculiar and rather unorthodox way of approaching any pastoral care situation – whether it was a patient undergoing full resuscitation or receiving a terminal diagnosis. The first thing Adriana would always say to the loved one in the room or the patient was, “Hi. I’m Adriana. I’m the chaplain. And it’s gonna’ be okay.”
I was always appalled that she would say this. She doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know if the patient will survive being resuscitated. She doesn’t know how this terminal diagnosis is going to turn out. Hell…it’s TERMINAL! That means the patient is going to die! That it’s NOT going to be okay. And yet, every time she said it, the patient or loved one would immediately calm down. I couldn’t believe it. That was the kind of thing we were taught NOT to say in pastoral care classes. So, I thought to myself, “Well, if it worked for her. Surely it can work for me.”
So, one day I went to the room of a woman who had just received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Her daughter and son-in-law were there in the room with her. I went into the room, introduced myself to the patient and family, and sat down next to the daughter on the couch. As the daughter told me about the diagnosis, I parroted Adriana: “It’s all going to be okay.” And the daughter snapped her head around, looked at me incredulously, and said, “NO IT’S NOT! IT’S NOT GOING TO BE OKAY!” I was at a complete loss for words.
The problem was, I offered words of future hope to a present crisis – words that I did not believe myself. The daughter – because of her faith tradition – knew that everything was going to be okay in the long run. But she didn’t need me to address future hope, she needed me to address the hope in the midst of the present crisis that she was experiencing. The sudden realization that everything was about to change. But how do you do that? How do you speak to hope in the midst of a present crisis?
Hope is typically understood as something in the future. In Christianity, this is traditionally interpreted as two things: One, the future day when Christ returns, renews all things, and sets the creation right again. Or two, the day when we die, go to heaven, and finally escape all the pain, suffering, and evil we endured in this world. But hope is more than an idealized future caused by either Christ’s return or our death. Because in our Ephesians text today, we also see that Christian hope is also a present hope. As Ephesians says: “God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything.” And so, Christian hope is one in which we live in the present moment, while simultaneously knowing we are already claimed by God’s future. And what does that look like at both a the individual and the church level?
On an individual level, one commentator speaks about the sudden death of her husband and how “hope” was unknowingly misused only in the future sense by well-meaning people, saying things like: “It’s all part of God’s bigger plan. A mystery that we don’t understand now but will someday.” Yet the commentator argues, “It’s not that I’m uninterested in the bigger mystery…It’s just that someday is not… sufficient to get me through this day, to move me from one moment to the next in this world where [my husband] is not.”
Instead, the commentator argues for understanding present hope. That stubborn muscle within each of us that “keeps reaching and stretching” even when we cannot do it any longer. Present hope is that which breathes for us – which keeps us alive – when we believe that all is lost. Present hope is that inner voice that speaks in the face of tragedy, saying, “There’s always room for one more.” One more day. One more breath. One more step. One more bite of food. One more cry. One more person to enter your life. Present hope keeps us alive, showing us that there is still room, as we push into that frightening mystery that lies before us. God knows that, if left to our own devices, we would rather hold on to the past, stay in the safety of the box that we know – even if it’s limitations are the cause of all our pain and suffering. Or as my seminary professor told us, “People prefer the misery they know to the mystery they don’t know.”
And that is why, in Ephesians Paul is NOT saying “Chin-up! It’s all going to be okay! Even though your life sucks now and your being persecuted from all sides, God’s going to make it okay in the end.” Because Paul knows that saying “everything is going to be okay in the future” does NOTHING to help someone who is being persecuted right now! When we focus only on future hope, we ignore the difficult realities of the here and now. We distract ourselves from the discomfort of the pain and suffering of our lives by creating an idealized, utopian delusion where all of that no longer exists. In doing so, in distracting ourselves from our present suffering – thus avoiding the hard reality of present hope – we lose that idealized future we hope for.
Present hope is not always comforting. Present hope forces us to be vulnerable to the pain and suffering of this world, to enter into it more fully instead of removing ourselves from it. Only by embracing our present pain and suffering can we leave behind the present misery we know and enter the future mystery we don’t know. Present hope pushes us to pray for illumination, for discernment, of what God is doing right now, in the face of this present challenge of life. As Paul prays for the Ephesians, “I ask…God…to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing God personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is God is calling you to do…” Paul is NOT praying for them to understand what is happening someday. Paul is praying for God to help the church – and those of us in difficult situations – to understand right now what is happening today. To have just enough energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to see the present hope of God in the midst of the chaos.
Present hope is important for the Church to embrace as it evolves in the face of our rapidly changing culture. As we – as the people of God, the priesthood of all believers – develop new and innovative ways to share the Gospel with a world that is so desperate for Good News. Yet sometimes, our present situation as a church can feel hopeless, as we watch the Church as a whole decline in numbers, in status, and in priority. When you see such a lack of present hope, you retreat to the memories of the past, the things you once knew, and as a result, cannot see any possible future hope.
Just look at the current state of our congregation here at Grace Presbyterian Church. It is true that our present worship attendance and overall giving are down. However, that does NOT mean that the future hope of Grace Presbyterian Church is lost. Because, a congregation’s vitality – its “present hope” – can no longer be measured by worship and offering plate numbers alone. It USED to be – back in the day when church was a sign of status and a personal priority of people. But today – and according to the scriptures – the vitality of a church is measured by its faithfulness to the calling of God’s mission in its community. The problem is, faithfulness to God’s mission doesn’t always look like vitality according to the way our culture understands vitality.
If we are following Jesus Christ, we should know that when Jesus came to serve God’s mission in the world, it got him crucified. Therefore, since the Church is the Body of Christ in the world today, any church that is faithful to God’s mission – that actually follows in the footsteps of Christ by serving others instead of following the ways of our culture by achieving success, popularity, and status – those faithful churches always be at risk of death. The PCUSA Book of Order states that, as the Body of Christ, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” Listen to that last phrase again: “…even at the risk of losing its life.” Why? Why would any church be so faithful to God’s mission that it closes down? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Aren’t enough churches closing already? Won’t spending much needed resources of time, talent, and treasure on God’s mission keep the church from paying the bills, having a pastor, or keeping the building? Is that why so many churches are closing? OR Are so many churches closing because they are focused only on their survival instead of the survival of the community they are called by God to serve? Because they are more focused on paying the bills, having a pastor, or keeping the building instead of serving God’s mission in the world. And how do you tell that a church is thriving instead of just surviving? How do you discern “present hope” within a congregation?
Recently, our denomination started a new initiative focused on developing vital congregations. The program materials outline and describe Seven Marks of Vital Congregations and takes churches through a process by which they can discern both their vitality and ways they can grow in vitality. Paul prays that the Ephesian church will experience such discernment, saying, “I ask the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…to make you intelligent and discerning…so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do… because in doing so, the congregation will experience “…the utter extravagance of God’s work in us who trust God – endless energy, boundless strength!” The Seven Marks of Vital Congregations are outlined in comparison to typical assumptions and/or practices of congregations. The Seven Marks are:
LIFELONG Discipleship Formation VS. Complacent “Christian” piety, simply teaching good morals, or offering the latest programs.
Grace growing in its Discipleship Formation through the significant growth in Sally Borgerson’s morning bible study. The strong turn out at our previous seasonal bible studies, especially our Making Sense of the Bible course. More and more members studying the bible on their own and asking me challenging questions about the bible. Members using their understanding of scripture to interpret their views on social issues such as immigration, poverty, sexuality, gender identity, and healthcare. More and more people willing to lead group prayers and/or pray with others. More and more people willing to work with the children, and thus show them what Discipleship is by their example. More and more people engaging in acts of hands and feet mission with our neighbors throughout the community. ALL of these are steps forward as we all grow as Disciples of Jesus Christ. Thank you God, for inspiring the members of race to grow as Disciples of Christ instead of Pharisees of old time religion.
Intentional Authentic Evangelism VS. “Jesus freaks”; “Christian” Hypocrisy; a committee.
Grace is growing in its Evangelism by realizing that hospitality is more than saying “Hello!” and offering a cookie after worship. It’s about forming relationships. More members are stepping out of their comfort zones and spending intentional time with visitors and guest – both during worship and at any of our ministry/mission programs. Developing relationships with children at Clyde’s Buddies, thus helping the children understand the love of Christ through the church. Emails and Facebook messages from all around the world come to my inbox, thanking the Church for it’s amazing Facebook ministry – for the way it inspires their faith, helps them grow in their faith, and helps them struggle with their questions and doubts. Thank you God, for giving this congregation the strength to step out of their comfort zones, and build relationships with people of all ages and stages of life.
Outward Incarnational Focus VS. Inward Institutional Survival; Closed communities of assimilation/exclusion.
Our congregation’s reputation is transforming in the community. One community member recently said to me that, Grace is a church, “that gets things done!” That’s because she sees Grace addressing actual needs within our community. And the rest of the community is starting to see it. And they are starting to see it, because we are doing missions and ministry face to face – in flesh and blood – instead of with disembodied donations. Our Welcome Table ministry is growing not only in terms of those who attend, but also in terms of those who volunteer their time. I am so proud to say that this past Tuesday, not only did we have 53 people who received a meal, but there were 11 volunteers from this congregation, several of which were volunteering for the first time. Not only did these volunteers work in the kitchen, they were also sitting among the guests – talking with them, listening to their struggles, and forming relationships with them. As Paul says to the Ephesians, “…when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Lord Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the followers of Jesus, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you – every time I prayed.” That night, after the Welcome Table, I did the same. I prayed to God, “Thank you! Thank you for the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiring this congregation to be an incarnational witness of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Thank you for inspiring them, O Lord, to bring the Gospel of food to hungry bellies. Thank you, O God, for giving the congregation the eyes to see the calling you have for them and this church.” That night made me thankful to be the pastor of this congregation – and I hope to see even more of you answering this call to incarnational witness on future Tuesdays. So again I pray: Thank you God, for giving this congregation the energy to move outside themselves and become an incarnational witness – the hands and feet of Christ – to this community you called us to serve.
Empower Servant Leadership VS. the Pastor’s job; monopolized leadership; hiring the young energetic pastor; burning out good volunteers.
In terms of Empowering Servant Leadership, the Session is doing a great job of empowering other leaders. For example, the work of the Seasonal Teams provides a greater diversity of voices – especially newer members – in leadership, which offers fresh ideas for worship, ministry, and mission – instead of relying totally on the pastor, programs, or the same volunteers (many of whom were about to burn out). We’ve ordained many new Elders and Deacons – thus empowering more servant leaders. The Deacons are doing an amazing job of seeing to the ongoing pastoral care of the congregation and the congregation is becoming more receptive to the Deacons doing the job they are ordained to do. Thank you for that openness. Thank you God, for empowering the members of this congregation as they grow as servant leaders.
Spirit-Inspired Worship VS. Self-gratifying worship, stale ritual divorced of meaning, or consumer entertainment worship
Thanks to the empowering of new voices through the Seasonal Teams, we are experiencing new and inspirational ways of worship. Ways that are not a passive reception of worship, but active participation in worship. We are growing in our understanding that worship is not for our comfort, our preferences, or our entertainment. Worship is for glorifying God. God is the audience. We are the performers. I am the director. The Seasonal Teams are the producers. In keeping our worship fresh – by incorporating new elements, rituals, and practices – we stop “going through the motions” and avoid losing the meaning of what we do during worship. By paying closer attention to what we do in worship, we can comprehend the greater mystery of God and discern what God is doing, here and now, thus experiencing present hope. Worship is inspiring us to serve the incarnational mission of God – thus the increasing volunteerism in our programs. And worship is inspiring us to be more generous – because even though overall financial giving is down because of those who chose to leave, individual financial generosity keeps going up. Thank you God, that this congregation is embracing and appreciating the diversity of worship here at Grace. And thank you Holy Spirit that through our worship, you are inspiring the growth of this congregation’s love and generosity.
Caring Relationships VS. Any other Social Club; façades, hypocrisy, and judgment of “church” and “religion.”
We are becoming truthful when we say, “ALL are welcome” here at Grace. In the past, we might have said, “ALL are welcome, but…” Now, we are embracing all who walk through our doors, without concern for their race, age, socio-economic status, sexuality, gender, faith, or doubts. And though some have left because of this openness, we have gained many new members because of this openness. And knowledge of that openness is beginning to spread throughout our community in positive ways. We are developing relationships with each other through the development of new small groups and Clyde’s buddies. Cliques and closed groups within our congregation are breaking up and/or allowing others in. We are developing and growing in our relationships with organizations in our community, including: the Jefferson County Homeless Youth Initiative, Mercy-Jefferson, Jefferson College, Crystal City Schools, and so forth. We are rebuilding our relationship with the Presbytery, as they gained all new leadership in the past few years, by hosting presbytery events and participating in presbytery and denominational programs. And we are building relationships with people in need of Good News through our Welcome Table mission and other outreach ministries – where Grace members are not just serving food, they are also serving the love of Christ by sitting life with our neighbors. I feel like every night of the Welcome Table is a tiny glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven will look like once it is completely here. Thank you God for the relationships we are building here, and for the continued work of the Holy Spirit who works in us, with us, between us, and among us to be the tie that binds those relationships together.
Ecclesial Health VS. Unhealthy dysfunction; toxic environments; obsolete and irrelevant buildings
Finally, Ecclesial Health is the mark that causes the most growing pains, but one of the most important areas to focus growth – because a basic principle of life is that healthy things grow. Unhealthy things either do NOT grow, because they are not properly nourished, or grow uncontrollably for the wrong reasons, like cancer. And eventually unhealthy things will experience an untimely death. These are the changes that are the MOST unpopular with those who do not want ecclesial health because it prevents them from using their personal sphere of influence to manipulate decisions while allowing the church to progress forward instead of keeping things “the way it used to be.” We are growing in our ecclesial health for several reasons: We are understanding that the authority and responsibility for the church’s mission and ministry lies not on the pastor, but on the entire congregation who has the responsibility to elect the Elders who have ALL the ordained authority to make decisions in the church. As pastor, my responsibility is to lift up the congregation’s vision before you, using my ordained authority as a teacher of scripture, so that we always know where we are going. The Session has embraced their ordained authority and is doing the difficult work of basing their decisions upon the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s leading and God’s mission for the church instead of the preferences or protests of people in the congregation. Otherwise the Session is not leading this church, those few protesters are. And while the Session’s work is not always popular, it is critical to the health of the congregation in the long run. It is critical to Grace’s future hope.
We are shifting our understanding of what “church” is. That church is NOT just what that happens for one hour on Sunday in this room, but church is also something that happens the other 167 hours of the week in all areas of our lives. That’s because we stopped doing church and started being the church. We’ve clarified our mission, vision, and values and are using those to help us know WHO we are, WHOSE we are, WHAT we are called to do, WHERE we are called to do it, WHEN we are to do it, and WHY we are called to do it. Our mission, vision, and values are the lens through which we discern all our ministries and the compass that keeps us moving towards our vision that everyone will “experience grace.” As a result, our various committees have made difficult but good decisions – decisions that may not have been popular in the short term but are important to the congregation’s health in the long term. And, this congregation – especially the Session of Elders – has been supportive of my work here, respectful of me by approaching me with their concerns instead of gossiping behind my back, accepting and encouraging of the necessity for me to have sabbath time, and generous with your financial support. I cannot thank you enough for voting to give me a 5% raise for 2019 instead of the proposed 2.5% cost of living adjustment. Thank you God for this community of faith and for giving them the courage to do the difficult work of becoming healthy for the sake of the whole congregation and community instead of bending to the desires of a few individuals.
There are still a LOT of areas where we can grow – I think we all know that. We can all see that as we continue to grow in the number of children here at the Grace, we are going to need some volunteers to step up and become leaders so that our Clyde’s Buddies program can be weekly and eventually grow into a youth group. But for right now, like Paul to the Ephesians, I want to give thanks to God for Grace Presbyterian Church. And so, I rewrote our scripture in terms of my speaking to this congregation, here at Grace.
My dear beloved friends at Grace Presbyterian, as I watch you grow in trusting our Lord Jesus and in your outpouring of love to all the Children of God, I can’t stop thanking God for you. Every time I pray, I’d think of you and give thanks to God for the opportunity to serve this community of growing Disciples of Christ. But I do more than just give thanks. I also ask the triune God to continue to help you grow in energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, so that you may come to know God personally and communally, that your eyes are focused and clear, so that you can see exactly the mission that God is calling you to. And in embracing this mission, you grasp the vastness of this glorious way of life God has for Christ’s followers. To see how wondrously beautiful – yet hard – this work is. But, for we who trust in God there will be plenty of energy, unlimited strength, and profound courage!
Because this energy, strength, and courage comes from Christ himself. And because God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at God’s own right hand, Jesus is in charge of running the entire universe: everything from galaxies to governments. Even this church. There is no name and no power who can defy Christ’s authority – no upset church member, no Deacon, no Elder, no Pastor. And the hope of Christ’s power is not only for this present moment of anxiety and struggle, but it will be forever. Jesus is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. Even if others try to undermine us, try to threaten us, try to protest us. Even if the church closes or we have to sell the building – as long as we are faithful to the mission of God to this community – the Body of Christ, the Church, will continue to exist. Because, ultimately, Christ is the head of the church. The Holy Spirit is the animating energy of the church. And God gives the church its calling. And that mission is NOT for the church to be an island of safety from those outside of us. The church’s mission is to be an oasis for those outside of us who are thirsty for Good News. God is not within the church. The church is within God – and represents only a small part of what God is doing in this world. To know the rest, you must step outside the walls of the church. Because as Christ’s Body in the world, the church is how Jesus speaks and acts. The church is the way in which Christ fills everything with his presence. And because of all of this, despite all the present anxiety and struggles, everything is going to be okay. AMEN.
Text: John 15:9-17
(“Buddy Christ” clip from the film Dogma plays.)
That clip was from one of my favorite movies, called Dogma, directed by Kevin Smith. The film begins with this scene where the Catholic Church tries to make itself more relevant, cool, and hip by initiating a new campaign called “Catholicism WOW!” And part of that campaign is to revamp the symbols of the Church – including replacing the “depressing and disturbing” image of the crucifix with the “Buddy Christ” – a Jesus that makes you feel good. Makes you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. A Jesus that is your pal, your buddy, your compadre, your friend, your BFF.
And it’s not a far-off idea – especially if you look at our scripture for today. A scripture where Jesus calls the Disciples then – and us today – “friends.” The problem is, do we truly understand what Jesus means when he calls us “friends”? Is Jesus just calling the Disciples – and us today – his “buddies.” (Finger point. Eye wink.) Or is being a “friend” of Jesus something more than that? Is the understanding of “friends” held by a 1st century, Palestinian Jew that same as the understanding of friends held by 21st century American Christians? And more importantly, what does it mean for us to “love one another” – which is the foundation of Jesus’ definition of “friend.”
You may have noticed that the version of the scripture that I read was quite different from the one in the pew or that you may have. That’s because I was reading from the NRSV – the Noah Revised Standard Version. Whenever I’m struggling with a text, I take to translating it from the original languages to see what jumps out at me. To see what nuances of the Greek language are not apparent in the English translation. And something that especially jumped out at me was the way that most other translations seem to miss what Jesus is actually saying and doing when he says “love one another.”
In the actual NRSV, verse 12 says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” When you read this translation, the sentence is structured in such a way that Jesus is giving a commandment to the Disciples to follow. However, the word “that” in this translation is the word “hina” in Greek. “Hina” is a conjunction, and, according to School House Rock, a conjunction’s function is for “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” It’s a word that connects things to each other both grammatically and literally. The conjunction “hina” is specifically used to link together something to its purpose. Precisely, in John’s gospel, “hina” always points towards the theological purpose of something. And “hina” is more commonly translated as “in order that.” At the same time, this conjunction is followed by words in the “subjunctive” or “conditional” mood. We don’t really have “moods” in English, but in Greek, the subjunctive mood does not describe what IS, but what MIGHT be in the future. Therefore, words in the subjunctive mood are best translated by adding “may” or “might” before them – especially when you cannot be certain that something will actually happen. Combine the common translation of “hina” with the subjective mood that follows, and verse 12 is better translated: “This is my command, in order that you may love one another just as I love you.” Now that translation has a completely different meaning. Instead of Jesus simply giving the Disciples a new commandment to love each other, Jesus is saying that by obeying all he has commanded, the Disciples will come to know the purpose of all that Jesus commands – which is to experience love for one another just as Jesus loves them. The question is, if “love one another just as I love you” is the purpose and NOT the commandment, then what IS the commandment?
For that, we must look at the larger context of this passage. Chapters 13 through 17 of John’s gospel take place within the upper room, where Jesus washes the Disciple’s feet, shares a last meal with them, prays with them, and gives his farewell speeches – including this text. So, Jesus spends the entire evening – 4 chapters – showing the Disciples how to love one another the way that he loves them. Specifically, in chapter 13:15-17, after Jesus washes the Disciples feet, he says to them, “I have set a pattern, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” By being obedient to these commandments – commandments that Jesus even demonstrates himself – the Disciples will be able to experience love for one another. NOT love as some warm and fuzzy feeling, but as the fruit and purpose of the action of carrying out Jesus’ commandments.
Jesus is teaching them that in order to make a home in his love – to reside in love – one must be obedient to Jesus. And this love, while born out of obedience, does not suppress others, does not coerce others, and makes no room for hierarchy and elitism. This obedience to Jesus is non-negotiable. You don’t get to negotiate who, what, when, and where you are obedient to Jesus. This obedience to Jesus must be lived out at all times, in all places, with all people. And sometimes, the time, the place, and the people we have the most difficult time loving are our fellow Christians – the ones in the next pew over.
While the entirety of the bible tells us over and over again how we are to love our neighbors as ourselves – including enemies, foreigners, and strangers – this is the one text where we are commanded to love those who are closest to us – not just in terms of genetic relations, but also in physical proximity. The people who are most difficult to love are those we have known the longest and who we are around the most – both in our lives and in the church. And it’s because of that history that we struggle to love them as we should. As one commentator put it, in the church, “we don’t get hysterical; we get historical.” The church’s ability to cling to the past isn’t just about having the same traditions, decorations, and committee structures. We also cling to the past sins of those around us. So, when another member of the church causes us harm – whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual – we quickly recite our liturgy of blame – the memorized list of all the things this fellow Christian did to hurt us in the past. We follow our liturgy of blame with our responsive liturgy of necessity – we recite to others in the church why we are necessary, including all of the past reasons why the church needs us. To which the congregation responds, “Yes! You are necessary” to every line of the liturgy. And for those new people who don’t know the liturgy yet – which are often new pastors – the closing benediction is typically, “After all the things I have done for this church!” Yet these liturgies pose important questions, “Why should history justify being unloving to another fellow Christian? Why should history justify not doing as Jesus commands? And if we do treat our fellow Christians this way, are we really a ‘friend’ of Jesus?”
In verse 14, Jesus says, “You are my friends IF you do the things which I commanded you. Now, that’s not some nuance that I found in the translation. That important “IF” is found in every translation, including the original Greek. Jesus is literally telling us that we are friends of his ONLY IF we do the things that Jesus commands us. ONLY IF we treat our fellow Christians the way that Jesus loved the Disciples – praying with them, participating in life with them, giving them clean feet and a hot meal. Hmmm…sounds a lot like Jesus loved the Disciples by worshiping, sharing, and serving together with them! Sounds like Jesus is saying that worshiping, sharing, and serving together are the commands we are to follow in order that we may experience love for one another. That’s why Jesus makes this statement in the subjunctive mood, because Jesus knows that it’s not always possible. But if we ever want the chance to experience love for one another as Jesus loves us, we have to be committed to obeying Jesus’ commands to worship, share, and serve together.
Loving each other the way that Jesus loves us is not always going to give us a warm and fuzzy feeling. Because the love that Jesus has for us looks nothing like the “Buddy Christ.” Instead, the love that Jesus has for us looks exactly like the crucifix. For Jesus tells the Disciples – and us, his Disciples today – “Nobody has greater love than this: that one would put his entire being on the line for his friends.” That’s the ultimate purpose of loving one another. To be willing to risk everything for one another.
Two Questions: 1) How many friends can you actually count on? And by that, I mean, how many friends do you have that you can truly rely on to do things like: Help you move? Pick up your kids? Show up for a Tuesday night dinner? Cry with you when you get sudden bad news? Drop what they are doing and listen to you when you desperately need to talk? And 2) How many of those friends are here in this church? Is it a majority? A few? Or none at all?
From the conversations that I’ve had with this congregation over the last four years, the answer is very few. I’ve also learned this from the Seasonal Team planning meetings, because the thing that makes people the most anxious is having to find volunteers to be ushers, greeters, etc. The most common response – from both new and established members alike – is, “But I don’t know everyone in the congregation.” And the newer you are to the congregation, the fewer friends you have in the congregation – the fewer people here you can truly rely on. And, as I learned when I first got here – being “new” in this congregation means you’ve arrived in the last 10 years. But instead of forming deeper friendships by worshiping, sharing, and serving together, we tend to outsource our responsibility to build Christian “friendships” – especially with newer member – to the pastor. Expecting the pastor to be obedient for us. After all, that’s what we pay pastors for – to practice our religion for us throughout the week, and then give it to us in a nice, neat, and tidy package during one convenient hour on Sunday.
Pastor and former Lutheran Seminary President, Rev. Dr. David Lose writes, “Love is about obedience, obedience is about love, and God often surprises us about what this all looks like.” I wonder how God would surprise you IF you took the time to be obedient to Jesus’ commandments and started worshiping, sharing, and serving together with someone in the congregation you don’t really know? Sure, you may know their name, might say “Hi!” to them on Sunday mornings, and probably shake their hand during the Passing of the Peace, but do you REALLY know them? Have you been so obedient to Christ’s commandments that you experience enough LOVE for that person to risk your entire being for them? Or maybe think of it this way: Has that person experienced enough love, that they would be willing to risk their entire being for you, when you need it? If not, then according to Christ’s own words, you are NOT a friend of Jesus. And you will not know what it is like to reside in the love of Christ. And you will know what it is to experience joy – true joy – the joy that is found in Jesus Christ. Joy that gives you life and gives it abundantly. True joy that can only be found when you love others enough to risk everything you are for them. Maybe that’s why we expect our pastors to give us a “feel good” sermon every week. We are just trying to numb our pain instead of making ourselves vulnerable by taking the risk to develop deep Christian friendships that can carry us through our struggles. And those friendships can only happen by obeying Jesus’ commandments in order that we may love one another as Jesus loves us.
The early Christian Church grew rapidly, NOT because of their theology. Not because of their rules. NOT because of their awesome worship services. NOT because their churches were filled with people who were like them. NOT because of their youth ministry or children’s programs (because children were always included with the adults, just like we do here at Grace). The early Christian Church grew so rapidly because of the way they lived out their love for one another. When other people saw the way that the early Church members – NOT the clergy – loved one another, the way they cared for one another; the way they made sure that no one among them went hungry or thirsty or homeless; the way they continued to support one another in the face of violent oppression from the Roman Empire – other people wanted that too, even if it meant death by the Empire. People wanted to know what it would be like to be part of a community where you are truly loved – not because of your social status, economic class, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, or what you could do for someone else – but because you simply exist. To be part of a community where we commit ourselves to each other, make room for each other’s differences, know that we are stronger together, that our love is magnified when we are worshiping, sharing, and serving together. That our love for one another isn’t for our own benefit. And yet, in loving others – including our fellow Christians – we are blessed. (Being blessed isn’t the purpose of loving one another, it’s just a fortunate side effect. Don’t try to trick Jesus. If you are being obedient to Jesus just so you can be blessed, I guarantee it’s going to backfire.) The desire for this love found in the early Christian community was more powerful than the fear of death at the hands of the Romans. And the people who joined this Christian community were not perfect – there were disagreements from the start – but they were COMMITTED to being obedient to Jesus’ commandments, and therefore, they discovered what it means to love one another the way that Jesus already loved them.
So… What about you? How committed are you? How committed are you to being obedient to Jesus’ commandments? To actually getting to know people in this church that you do not REALLY know? To worshiping, sharing, and serving together – not just in words, but also in actions? How committed are you to ensuring that this church becomes a home where love resides? To becoming a Christian community that is so loving to one another, that people can’t help but be drawn to this church? To this community of faith. To making sure that when new people come to us – desiring such a community of love – they quickly feel like they belong to us? Not that they believe or behave like us, but that they belong to us. What commitment, what investment in belonging, are you willing to make to this church? What changes and/or sacrifices are you willing to make in your own life? What areas of your life are you willing to stretch, so that we all experience the fruit of loving one another the way that Christ already loves us? What talents will you offer? What time will you give? What treasure will you sacrifice? I want you to take a moment, close your eyes, and, in the silence, meditate on what commitment you are willing to make to this congregation. (Pause for silence.) And now, on the Post-It note in your bulletin, write a statement about your commitment to this Christian community. (Pause to allow for writing.) And when you come forward for communion, place your Post-It note on the Grace Presbyterian poster – creating a symbol of our community’s commitment to be obedient to Christ’s commandments, so that we are all residing in love together. AMEN.
TEXT: Acts 8:26-40
That video was created by the group Improv Everywhere. You can find them on YouTube. They are masters of helping people find themselves in interesting and awkward situations. Situations that they never expected. Doing things that they never believed in response to the situation. In the case of this video, simply setting up a lectern and a bull horn with the simple directions “Declare your love” resulted in a lot of curiosity and a lot of interesting declarations. Despite the peculiarity of the situation, these everyday people – like you and me – stop for a moment, step outside of society’s expectations, and declare their love for total strangers to hear. In doing so, others smile, laugh, and react joyously to their words. Not only does it bring joy to strangers, it also brings joy to those who participate. In bringing joy to others, the participants receive joy.
Philip is not a major figure in the bible. He’s not one of the superstars like Moses or David or Paul. Philip is one of the first seven Deacons of the Church – ordained with the specific role and purpose of “waiting on tables” – which is what the word “diakonia” means in Greek. The Deacons were selected by the Apostles to handle the proper distribution of food and goods in the Church so that no one was missed – such as widows and orphans. And the Apostles created the office of Deacon because they simply did not have the time both to teach the word of God AND address all the pastoral care needs of their growing congregation. That’s the biblical reason why we have Deacons in the Presbyterian Church today – to be the major pastoral care arm of the congregation, addressing the pastoral needs of the congregation, so that the pastor can do the work of teaching and spreading the Word of God alongside the Elders of the Church.
But Philip is called to more than his ordained role. Philip is also called to be an evangelist – to share the Word of God with others, especially those who might not otherwise be accepted. So, when an angel of the Lord commands Deacon Philip to go to a road in the middle of nowhere, he simply got up and went. And, to no surprise, Deacon Philip finds a person in need of someone to teach them about the Word of God. There Deacon Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. And not only does Deacon Philip help the eunuch understand the Word of God, Deacon Philip also baptizes the eunuch – welcoming him into the Church – even though this eunuch was most likely excluded from worship in the Temple in Jerusalem for a number of reasons. Even though this eunuch was nothing like the rest of the members of the early church.
First, because they are Ethiopian – and not necessarily considered a “Jew” (though it is possible he could have been) – the Ethiopian would have been confined to the outer courtyard of the temple, known as the court of the Gentiles, because only Jews could enter the inner courtyard. Secondly, because they are also a eunuch – a male who has his testicles removed before puberty so as not to be a threat to female royalty – they are banned from entering the court of the Gentiles because it is written in Deuteronomy 23:1- “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” At the same time, there were a LOT of stigmas and stereotypes surrounding eunuchs – ironically, most of which said that they were sexually deviant and immoral – because of their non-binary gender identity. Eunuchs were not really men. But they were also not women. They were something different. A third gender. So, the Torah’s rules against eunuch’s were written because of these false stigmas, untrue stereotypes, and their misunderstood gender identity.
Despite having their ethnicity and gender identity working against them both in religion and society, the Ethiopian eunuch does have a lot going for them. They are wealthy enough to own a chariot with its own driver and an expensive scroll of the prophet Isaiah. They are highly educated. Not only can they read (in a language other than their own) but they are also in charge of the treasury of the Candace of Ethiopia. They’re basically the minister of finance, the secretary of the treasury, for the nation. They have a devout faith in God – otherwise why would they waste time and money to travel such a long distance to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and study a giant scroll of Isaiah? They are humble – unafraid to admit that they do not understand what they are reading. Unafraid to declare that they don’t know everything about their faith. And so therefore, this Ethiopian eunuch is also hospitable – especially towards someone who is willing to help them understand – even some random guy running alongside the chariot, yelling,“Do you understand what you are reading?” Personally, I would take offense if someone did that to me, but the Ethiopian eunuch shows humility and hospitality to Deacon Philip.
I also find it interesting that of ALL the books of the Hebrew Bible that the Ethiopian chose to purchase, they chose to buy the one book that says in chapter 11: “11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.” And in chapter 56, Isaiah says: “For thus says the Lord:/To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,/ who choose the things that please me/ and hold fast my covenant,/ I will give, in my house and within my walls,/ a monument and a name/ better than sons and daughters;/ I will give them an everlasting name/ that shall not be cut off.”
I’m guessing that at some point, the Ethiopian eunuch heard these verses of Isaiah, and wanted to read it for themselves. That the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know for sure that there was a place for a total outsider like them within God’s promises – a foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity. A place for them within the Temple walls, worshipping alongside the other children of God. But the Ethiopian eunuch gets to a certain passage – specifically Isaiah 53:7-8 – and begins to struggle with understanding who it is the Prophet Isaiah is speaking about: himself or someone else? That’s when Deacon Philip shows up for a quick bible study.
Now it isn’t written what Deacon Philip said specifically to the Ethiopian eunuch, only that Philip, “began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to them the good news about Jesus.” We can infer that at some point Philip talked about baptism as the ritual of initiation into the Church because of what happens next. But then again, with what Deacon Philip has learned, this is not a possibility because of the eunuch’s gender non-conformity and the stigmas surrounding their sexuality. Deacon Philip does what the Lord commands him to do – tell the Good News to this outsider – but he knows that his new religion – Christianity – is clear about keeping sexual deviants like eunuchs out of the Church. What is Deacon Philip to do? How will he know if it’s okay to baptize the eunuch?
The Lord clearly has plans beyond the rules of the church. Because coincidentally, they come upon a random pool of water in the middle of the desert in the heat of the day! What a fortuitous opportunity for the Ethiopian eunuch to be baptized. So, the eunuch questions Philip – I would even say “challenges” Philip – by asking, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And so, without regard for the Ethiopian eunuch’s outsider status as a foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity – without requiring the Ethiopian eunuch to make a statement of faith or to pray the sinner’s prayer or to “ask Jesus into their heart” – Deacon Philip takes the Ethiopian eunuch into the water, and baptizes them. And the minute the eunuch comes up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord literally “snatches Philip away” and the Ethiopian eunuch never sees him again. But it says that the eunuch “went on their way rejoicing!”
What’s even more fascinating about this story is the legend that then continues about the Ethiopian eunuch beyond the scriptures. According to legend, the eunuch then returns to Ethiopia and founds the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – making Ethiopia the second country to establish Christianity as its official religion. This foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity becomes the founder of one of the oldest Christian Churches in the world – founded in 333 AD. This Ethiopian eunuch becomes the founder of a Christian group that currently has between 40 and 50 million followers world-wide! Clearly, the Ethiopian eunuch – despite his status as foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity – was blessed by God – through Deacon Philip – so that they could be a blessing for millions of future followers of Jesus Christ. Clearly the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion – despite their “otherness” and “difference” – was the work of God who sees beyond the concerns of human religious rules and societal expectations.
And you know what – the Ethiopian eunuch was not the only person who is converted that day. Deacon Philip is also converted that day as well. The Lord sent Philip to teach the Good News to a person who otherwise is excluded from the worship of God. To baptize a person who is banned from the temple because of the priest’s strict adherence to a legalistic reading of Leviticus. And Deacon Philip – having been raised on and taught these rules, having learned a legalistic reading of the Hebrew scriptures, having grown up in a culture that saw eunuchs as “sexually immoral” because of their ambiguous gender identity – would have never chosen to baptize a eunuch on his own. But on that day, Deacon Philip’s understanding of the work of God is transformed, and he is converted from practicing a religion to living his faith. As the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, When Philip joined this person who sought to worship God despite [their] exclusion, was it perhaps Philip himself who was converted to the faith?” Because when the Holy Spirit brings you to something – you better pay attention. When Christ calls you to something – you better listen. When God commands you to do something – even something that seems out of line with what both your religion and society always taught you – you better follow through. Not only because it will be a blessing to that person, people, or situation – but because it will also be a blessing to you. God most often blesses us by making us a blessing to others. Those who follow Christ are always blessed to be a blessing.
One of the ways you can see people being blessed to be a blessing is right here at Grace during the Welcome Table. Even though it’s only been operating for 9 weeks now, the Welcome Table is averaging over 40 people a week – the vast majority of which do not currently attend Grace. More and more families are starting to attend – and so around 15-20 children are part of those being blessed. And while the free meal is a blessing to the people who come to the Welcome Table – the blessing for us here at Grace is found in the chance to build relationships with those who attend. To sit and hear them share their stories and their lives with you. To learn about the hardships and struggles that they go through. To discover just how hard they are working to overcome them. The blessing we receive here at Grace is NOT in being fed – but in feeding. The blessing that Grace Presbyterian Church receives is the chance to love our neighbors as ourselves. The blessing we as a congregation receive is the opportunity to sacrifice just a few hours of our time, once a week, so that someone in our own community goes to bed with a full stomach.
After all, isn’t that the kind of community you WANT to live in? One where people – where children – don’t go to bed hungry at night? Don’t you want to be a part of the solution to your community’s problems? Don’t you want the opportunity to be a blessing? To be the hands and feet of Christ for your neighbors in your own community? Just think of the impact you can make in the lives of people in your own community simply by sacrificing a couple of the 168 hours in your week. By sacrificing only 2% of your week. Small sacrifices can lead to big transformations – both in other’s lives and your own life.
Now some may ask, “But are these people going to come to worship on Sunday?” But, worship attendance is the worst way to measure church growth – because it’s NOT the point of God’s mission. Mission is never about getting butts in the seats on Sunday. Nowhere in scripture did Jesus command the Disciples to build a church and measure its success by weekly worship attendance. Instead, Jesus commissions his Disciples – including us today – to take on THE MISSION OF GOD every hour of our lives. And the Mission of God is about being blessed by being a blessing. About growing as Disciples by making other Disciples. About dying to the life religion and society tells you to want and resurrecting to a fullness of life by sacrificing what you’ve always wanted. About following the Spirit’s call to do the hard work of faith – instead of following the expectations of religion and society. Christianity is NOT about making your life easier. If anything, it’s about sacrifice that just might make your life harder. Because, faithfully following Christ will ALWAYS lead you to the cross.
Like Philip, conversion is the death of everything you’ve ever understood about yourself and your life. Yet we always try to avoid this inevitable and painful reality of the Christian faith because society (and even religion) tells us that we should never be uncomfortable.
But we can’t forget that, in the Christin faith, death always leads to resurrection – to new life. Not just the extension of this life into the hereafter – but a fullness of life in the here and now. Jesus tells us in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And isn’t that what we all want? A fullness of life? Right here? Right now? Isn’t that why we struggle to sacrifice what we have, because we’re afraid that if we give up something, we’ll miss out on the fullness of life? And yet, that’s the opposite of what Jesus calls a fullness of life. Fullness of life isn’t found in what you gain, but rather in what you sacrifice.
Fullness of life through faith in Jesus requires us to leave behind the man-made rules and expectations of religion and society so that we may live into the Spirit led doubts and uncertainties of faith. Faith that defies religious and social conventions in order to do the holy and revolutionary work of blessing those on the margins of society and religion. Faith that desires all to receive the same fullness of life as you – because that’s what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Faith that sits down to dinner with sinners, overturns the tables of the affluent, condemns self-righteous religious leaders, and challenges oppressive political powers. Faith that feeds the hungry simply because they need to be fed. Faith that welcomes children because Jesus teaches us that the kingdom belongs to them. Faith that forgives the adulterer, pardons the criminal, listens to women, heals the leper, welcomes the foreigner, and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch – even when religion and society tells us they are not worth it.
Faith calls us to always bless others
– and in doing so –
we are always blessed.
Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-13 & Mark 15:33-39
The story of Adam and Eve has been called “The Fall” ever since Augustine, and serves as the basis for his theology of “Original Sin.” It’s one of the texts that John Calvin uses to refer to the “Total Depravity” of humanity. Personally, I’m not a fan of the theologies of “Original Sin” or “Total Depravity.” I’m not even a fan of referring to this story as “The Fall.” Because, I’m more concerned about the way the story reveals about humanity, specifically humanity’s internal drives and desires that lead us to sin. And in doing so, how this text can reveal the internal desires of our congregations that drive the decline of our churches, and thus help us to transform ourselves and ours ecclesiology and missiology for the Great Emergence.
And so I will not be reading this text from a Reformed or traditional or conservative or even progressive hermeneutic. Instead, I’m reading this text through the lens of radical theology – specifically, what is known as pyrotheology as developed by Irish theologian Peter Rollins. Radical theology is part of the Emergence movement in Christianity and applies other philosophical and critical theories – such as psychoanalysis and existentialism – to provide a hermeneutic that allows us to discover what it means to be human, specifically the human drives and desires working within these texts that are still affecting us and the Church today.
God tells Adam and Eve, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” If you want to guarantee that a child will WANT a toy, tell them they CAN’T have it. Because once something is prohibited it immediately becomes desired, and we are develop this drive to obtain it at all costs. For Adam and Eve, their drive for the fruit of the tree is established the minute God forbids them to eat it. And then the serpent comes along and calls into question the trustworthiness of God, causing Adam and Eve to be more aware that there is something they cannot have despite all the freedom they DO have. And as soon as they consider the possibility that God is NOT telling them something, Adam and Eve become insecure. And it is this “original insecurity” that points to their Lack – this feeling that there is something missing within themselves that can only be fulfilled by something greater than themselves such as the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the things which we believe will fulfill our lack are sacred-objects. The problem is, even though the sacred-object of the fruit promises to take away the Lack within them, once obtained, the sacred-object creates greater insecurity and increases their awareness of how much more Lack is in their lives. For it is only after they eat of the tree that Adam and Eve “know they are naked” and began to feel shame and guilt. Gaining knowledge does not make life easier – and this text shows us just how painful knowing the whole truth can be. That’s why ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is NOT the mark of human maturity. Running from or avoiding your inner issues isn’t going to make them go away.
So we avoid the painful truth about ourselves by scapegoating. In scapegoating, we believe the reason why we can’t obtain the sacred-object we desire is the fault of another individual or group of people (often marginalized people such as the poor, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQI+ community, etc.). So instead of OWNING our Lack we PROJECT our Lack upon the scapegoat. Blaming it for our sins and our failings. Adam scapegoats Eve for his desire to fulfill his lack with the fruit of the tree. Eve projects her lack on the serpent’s deception. We do the same thing when we come across the poor in our streets, saying things like, “Don’t give them any money, they’ll just spend it on booze and drugs.” Or “Why should my hard-earned money pay to support lazy welfare queens?” We project our own spiritual and moral poverty onto them – blaming them for our immoral desires and sinful laziness. This is why Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you.” Because you cannot alleviate economic poverty until you address the spiritual and moral poverty within yourself.
And when the drive for our sacred-object proves too challenging, we pursue substitute objects instead – wealth, power, fame, success, status, etc. – hoping they will be able to fill the lack within us. Yet, as soon as we obtain these substitute objects, we quickly realize how futile they are, and our drive for the sacred-object grows stronger.
So, how does this work in the Church? Do we have sacred-objects in the Church that we are driven to attain – believing that once we do, we will feel whole and complete again, that all our problems will go away? Now I’m sure most of us can agree that every church has its idols, its sacred cows. The things that if you touch them or move them or (God-forbid) RE-move them, heaven and earth will collapse! They often have a plaque on them with some dead person’s name. Or they are traditions that we repeat over and over again even though we have NO idea why we are doing them. (“It’s just how we’ve always done it.”) Or it’s that person or family who’s always in charge of a particular event, small group, committee, or always on Session.
Sometimes these idols are programs, annual events, bible studies, kitchens (don’t get me started on kitchens!), cliques, worship styles, decorations, familiar hymns, and even pews. But while many in the Church desire these things, they are not sacred-objects. They are merely the substitutes for the sacred-object that truly drives everything we do in the Church. And we create all kinds of scapegoats to blame for why we haven’t attained it. Because it’s much easier to create scapegoats for the death of the Church. Like Adam and Eve we would rather blame others than take responsibility for our dying church. Blaming things like: the community for not making the church a priority. Millennials for not taking their faith seriously. Lack of financial resources and/or volunteers for why we can’t start new programs to attract the idolized “young families with children.” But remember, we always project onto the scapegoat what is true about us.
We blame the community for not making the church a priority because we don’t make Discipleship a priority. We want church to be a simple obligation for us – a weekly euphoric experience of “feel good” worship that doesn’t challenge anything we believe, doesn’t force us to change anything about ourselves, and numbs our pain long enough until we can return next Sunday to get another fix at our spiritual crackhouse. Meanwhile, those who pursue true Discipleship don’t play the blame game. Churches that accept responsibility for their problems and confront them head on are doing Discipleship right.
Millennials are often blamed by older generations – especially Boomers – for not taking their faith seriously. Yet, who do they think raised them? The National Study of Youth and Religion – a 20-year longitudinal study of Millennials – found that the number one influence on a youth’s future faith commitment is their parents (pastor’s and youth ministers rank at the bottom of influence). Millennials don’t take faith seriously because growing up they never saw their Boomer parents taking their faith seriously. Young people know the difference between following Jesus, and just showing up for an hour lecture on Sundays. And we, as the Church, don’t take our faith seriously, because we lack the ability to take God seriously. Meanwhile, churches that do take God seriously also take the discipleship of their children and youth seriously – fully integrating them throughout the life of the congregation instead of isolating them into their own silo ministry away from the rest of the congregation.
We blame others for not volunteering meanwhile, what are you volunteering for Becky? When was the last time you ushered? When was the last time you helped teach Sunday School? What do you mean you’ve already “served your time?” I didn’t realize being a servant of Christ had a time limit. We lack volunteers because we lack the experience of being a servant. We pay people to do everything for us nowadays. Uber drives for us. Uber eats will deliver fast food for us. We pay a pastor to develop our spirituality and outsource our children and youth’s faith development to the youth pastor – as long as they make sure our kids graduate nice, sober, virgins who identify as Christian, but not so much that they would jeopardize their future by doing something crazy like being a missionary in a foreign country.
We blame others for the lack of our financial resources – meanwhile every pastor who’s seen the stewardship rolls knows that the people who complain the most give the least – if they even give at all. That often the people who earn the most give the smallest percentage. That many of our congregations are literally being supported on the backs of the poorest and oldest members of our congregation – because they are the ones who understand sacrificial generosity. Meanwhile the rest project their lack of sacrificial generosity upon others. And they do so because of the serpents in our world. The serpent of capitalism who tells us that you are nothing without the next best thing. The serpent of scarcity who tell you that that other marginalized group is coming for your resources, so you better do something or you will starve. The serpent of independence who tells us we can’t trust each other for help if something happens. The serpent of privilege who tells us we deserve what we had and others do not. The serpent of socio-economic status tells us we can’t be so generous that we sacrifice the status that material things give us. We lack understanding of sacrificial generosity because we lack understanding of the sacrifice of Christ. And so our collect drive towards the sacred-object keeps growing.
So, what is the sacred-object of the Church? I argue that our true sacred-object is the belief in Church Growth – developed out of the nostalgia for a church full of young families like believe we had back in 1950/60/70/80/90-something. How many pastors, during PNC interviews were asked, “What can you do to grow the church?” (raise your hands) And it’s because our biggest anxiety is that the Church is declining, the church is dying, and our particular congregation is going to close if it doesn’t grow. And if God can’t save the church, then can God save me?
But instead of moving forward, we keep falling back into patterns, programs, and polities of 30, 40, 50+ years ago. This is our “original insecurity” – believing that unless we use the patterns, programs, and polities we already know, we can never trust there to be the outcome we desire – Church Growth. Therefore, we have a choice to make in confronting this “original insecurity.” We can either 1) cowardly create scapegoats to project our lack upon and blame for our church decline (and watch our church die anyway) or 2) do the messy work of courageously facing ourselves, owning our lack as a community of faith, and seeking total transformation. And while we all know what we should do, and we also know we prefer to do. Fortunately, the Good News in the midst of this is found in the crucifixion – just not in the way you would think.
Traditionally, the crucifixion provides the ground of meaning for Christian soteriology (theology of salvation). And while the traditional, “Jesus died for you”, penal substitution model rallied by John Calvin promotes an intellectual understanding of the crucifixion and the atonement, it does not provide an existential understanding. An understanding that gets within your very being and transforms the way you see the world, causing you to “repent” – “to turn around” as the Greek word metanoia implies – and to live your life radically different. As I tell my congregation, “Repentance doesn’t mean to say you’re sorry. Because if you ask God to forgive you for something you’ve done without changing your way of life that lead you to do it, you are an unrepentant sinner.” We need to understand the crucifixion in such a way that it is no longer an intellectual exercise, but a transformation of our total selves: heart, mind, body, and soul. So that we can become repentant and walk away from our sacred-objects and walk towards the direction that Jesus is leading us – which, I hope we remember, is always to the cross.
And so a radical reading of the crucifixion is one in which the crucifixion does not GIVE meaning to life or religion, but instead represents the LOSS of all meaning. For Jesus to be crucified meant two things: 1) it religiously meant that Jesus was cursed of God because Deuteronomy 21:23 (and later Paul in Galatians 3:13) states that anyone hung from a tree is cursed of God. And 2) socio-politically, crucifixion was meant to erase your identity and your existence to the state. So in his crucifixion, Jesus’ life no longer has any meaning on both a religious and socio-political level. Jesus cries out “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me.” because he has become totally meaningless to heaven and earth.
And at that moment of total meaninglessness, the curtain in the temple rips in two from the top to the bottom. The curtain – the prohibition that kept everyone else out of the Holy of Holies – the place where the very presence of God, the ultimate sacred-object, was said to dwell – rips open to reveal… NOTHING. Nothing is there. Now while there are many traditional interpretations of this, a radical reading argues that the presence of God was never there to begin with. The presence of God was only there virtually. It was all in our heads. It didn’t exist. And the only reason we desired it was because we were prohibited from attaining it like a child’s much wanted toy. The absence of the sacred-object reveals the meaninglessness of the whole system of unattainable sacred-objects. It’s a traumatic and shocking realization that is not just intellectual – but also existential. We feel it in our entire being. It forces us to no longer view God as the object of intellectual study, dogmas, and devotion. It forces us to abandon the idea of God as some subject of mystical contemplation and mystery we can never know but try to seek union with. Instead God is an uncontrollable event that changes our perception of the world, which in turn, transforms how we interact with the world, thus changing the world.
This is the Good News of Christianity. The removal of the prohibition – the tearing of the curtain – confronts us with “the ridiculous nature of our stubborn attachments” to sacred-objects that simply are not there. The Good News is that the absence of the sacred-object reveals the meaninglessness of the whole system of unattainable sacred-objects that can never fulfill our lack. The Good News is that we are saved FROM the sacred-objects of our desire – which would eventually become a Hell of our own making. We are saved from the oppressive substitute desires that take us from one meaningless moment to the next. We are saved from religious and socio-political serpents that instill insecurities to point out our lack in order to control us. We are saved from the rules of religion so that we can trust the promises of God. We are saved from the need to constantly pursue wholeness and perfection.
And as Peter Rollins says, “we discover that what lies on the other side of the [curtain]…isn’t qualitatively better…this insight… invites us into a different form of life, one in which we experience the disappearance of the sacred-object and the problems it creates for us” (71). We are saved to different form of life – not so we can attend feel good worship on Sundays. But so we can step deeper into life – with its pain, loss, and suffering – and discover the beauty and meaning that it already has. We are saved so we can love.
Love is the only experience of desire that is NOT oppressive. To love a person or a cause is to discover something that is both IN our world and gives weight TO our world. In love, desire is not consumed on the object of our love. Instead, our beloved fuels and sustains our desires. While this all sounds wonderful and ideal, the reality is we avoid love because it comes hand-in-hand with pain and suffering. Love requires vulnerability. And vulnerability puts you at risk of pain and suffering. Therefore, we have domesticated the Gospel into nothing more than a means of alleviating my pain and suffering and achieving my personal salvation. We avoid things in the Church that make us uncomfortable, that force us to face our own lack, and exchange it for false gospel of shallow, superficial, “niceness.” The only way to completely shelter yourself from pain and suffering is to avoid love. Churches that focus on being nice and keeping their members comfortable are Churches without love. And since God is love, they are also Churches without God.
The sacred is still there, but it returns in the form of a tangible depth – not some intellectual fiction. The sacred no longer shelters us from the secular, but instead springs forth from the secular. It’s a way of life in which we live as though everything has meaning instead of trying to seek meaning in everything. We discover the sacred is not about experiencing something positive, but about experiencing depth and density in all things. This causes us to shift from a desire for things we don’t have to a desire born out of loving what we do have, the things and people we’ve already encountered. Those who experience the sacred in this way are truly gracious and grateful for what they already have rather than concerned for what they don’t have.
For the Church, the Good News of Christianity is that the thing that we believe will save the Church and us – the sacred-object of Church Growth DOES NOT EXIST! It doesn’t currently exist because it’s 2019 NOT 1950/60/70! It NEVER did exist because it was the desire for Church Growth that got us to this moment of death and decline. That’s why sin results in death. Sin is the death drive towards the sacred-object. Forgiveness of sin is the removal of the sacred object, freeing us from that sense of lack within ourselves, and stopping our drive towards death. Churches that continue driving towards Church Growth instead of living into sacrificial love will be judged by the law – the law of natural selection – where failure to adapt results in death.
But the Church will thrive in places where the community embraces its Lack. Where the community confesses its flaws, faults, and failures, and seeks actual repentance – turning away from their sacred and substitute objects (including their church buildings) and turning towards the direction that Jesus is leading them. The direction of ministry over institutionalism. Of people over patterns, programs, and polities. Of love over buildings. The church that stops desiring the things they don’t have – such as members and money – and that is thankful for what it does have – their local community, compassionate love, and confidence in God’s promises – will experience eternal life – life in the fullest – even if the church closes.
The most powerful experience of “Church” I’ve ever had was when I was required to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for a seminary pastoral care class. AA is a community that embraces their lack. That acknowledges what is actually wrong. They know their alcoholism is “a manifestation of their own internal antagonisms.” And as such, “acceptance of one’s own issues…helps provide the atmosphere in which…positive transformation…can happen” (Rollins 46). Can you imagine a church like that? A church where acceptance of your own issues – your lack – creates an environment of love where you can be transformed – where you can truly repent and turn your life around? Where you can turn away from the sacred-object of your desires and turn towards the path in which Jesus is leading you. A church where the response to “How are you?” is the truth instead of the socially acceptable lie of “I’m fine.” Can a church do that? Can a church actually admit to its flaws and failures? Can a church confess its scapegoating of others? Maybe someone should create a 12-Step program for the Church. Maybe we don’t have a choice but to do so.
While it’s been a LOT more than 12 steps, embracing our lack is something we’ve been working on at Grace Presbyterian in Crystal City. We’ve been working on naming and embracing our lack. On accepting that we are not perfect. Of claiming our failures instead of scapegoating others. This has been a long and difficult journey, and we are still a work in progress. Some people easily embrace this. These people are typically more self-aware and emotionally intelligent. Other people, meanwhile, simply cannot go along with this because they can’t deal with the pain of confronting their own lack, their own inner issues. They can’t accept the reality that maybe, just maybe, they are not the “good Christian” they claim to be.
There are several things that we have been repenting and transforming what it means for us to be the church in the Great Emergence – but I’ve already preached too long for a Presbyterian pastor. So I want to acknowledge our newest missional endeavor called The Welcome Table. This idea is spearheaded by Suzanne & Diane DeWitt Hall, a married couple new to the congregation. Every Tuesday night from 5:30 to 7:00 pm, The Welcome Table serves a FREE community meal to anyone who wants it. This meal is NOT just for the homeless or poor – hungry for food. It’s also for the lonely widow – hungry for fellowship, the tired caregiver or parent – hungry for a break from cooking for one night, the spiritually lost – hungry for the presence of God, the marginalized – hungry for love and acceptance. Since the first night, seven weeks ago, we average over 40 patrons a night, – only 6-7 are members of Grace – and we average between 6-10 volunteers – several of which are members of the community. There are around 10 to 15 children and youth who both attend and help serve and clean up. The spirit of authenticity, of grace, of mercy, of generosity, of discipleship, of love during The Welcome Table is a powerful witness to the Good News. There is no desire for sacred-objects here – for praise or accolades. Our faults and failures are openly discussed. And there is a willingness to sacrifice one’s time and resources to offer love in the form of food, fellowship, and relationship.
Recently a thin, frail, young woman, fighting bone cancer, came in cautiously questioning if she could take a meal home to her mentally disabled grandmother for whom she is the caregiver. The young woman was shocked when she experienced the love and generosity of the volunteers in the program. Then Diane DeWitt Hall herself gave me the opportunity to witness Christ at work, as she graciously sat down with this young woman and showed her the genuine Christian love and hospitality that she needed. When the young woman said she couldn’t believe that anyone at the church would be that kind to her, Diane simply replied, “But that’s what love does. Love gives without expectation. And God is love.” For this young woman, the curtain was torn on the judgmental, patriarchal, and wrathful God that she had always known, revealing it was never there all along. Instead, she was able to experience divine love, that welcomed her and transformed her view of the world.
It’s time for us to repent of our sinful death drive towards Church Growth – because it doesn’t exist, it never did exist, and it never will exist – and free our minds of its virtual existence otherwise it will continue to insist that we distract ourselves with shallow substitute objects that will only turn us into the walking dead. To experience eternal life in Christ – not just a continuation of life later but a fullness of life in the here and now – we must learn from communities like AA and embrace our lack. We must stop retreating from life and begin diving deeper into it. That’s what salvation is about: freedom from our meaningless religious, social, political, and economic desires so we can experience the tangible, incarnate, and meaningful forms of the sacred immersed deep within the creation – especially among the marginalized. And in doing so, we live into love and discover – not the secret to Church growth – but the Christian faith for the first time. AMEN