Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon: Love is Courage

Sermon: Love is Courage
Lectionary: Year B, Easter 5
Text: 1 John 4:7-21

“Love” is a word that, in English, is applied in numerous ways.
  • We “love” our spouses and significant others
  • We “love” our families
  • We “love” people that have made significant contributions to our lives
  • We “love” our preferences for food
  • We “love” sport teams
  • We “love” our hobbies
  • We “love” kinds of music
And the list goes on.

We use “love” as a noun and a verb and modified into adjectives and adverbs. (Ooh… I can see some people having flashbacks to elementary school!)

“Love” is frequently used as a stronger form of “like.” In these cases, what we love, we mean that we like immensely.

But what does it mean to “love God?” And what does it mean to “love like God loves us?”

Is loving God the same thing as religious piety? Weekly attendance at services, giving to the church, volunteering for church activities, personal prayer time, regular reading of the Bible, witnessing and evangelizing to others – do these count as loving God? What about having a set of beliefs and practices? Or avoiding certain practices? Do these count as loving God?

Piety, beliefs, and correct practice do not count as loving God. The gospel has numerous instances recorded where Jesus spoke out against mere piety toward God. Here are two passages from the gospel according to Matthew.

Matthew 7:21-23
21 “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong.’

Matthew 23:23-24
23 “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters. 24 You blind guides! You filter out an ant but swallow a camel.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that even very spiritual activities and faith itself is not the same as love.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3
1 If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. 3 If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

We heard from 1 John this morning. I want to focus on one particular sentence within that reading:

1 John 4:18
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect [or mature] love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect [or mature] in love.

I want to look at love (noun) as courage and love (verb) as courage in action.

Strictly, the text refers specifically to fearing some kind of divine punishment, but in the larger picture, it can refer to any kind of misplaced fear.

Hate is often seen as the opposite of love. But perhaps hate should be seen as a symptom of fear, and fear is the real opposite of love. Think about it like this: people don’t hate something or someone for no reason. People hate because, among other reasons, they dislike something, have had bad experiences with it, think it can hurt or harm them, or it challenges their way of thinking or their way of life.

The result of fear is hate. Hate can manifest in any number of ways. An obvious one is literal violence against the object of hate. But it can also manifest in thinking badly about this thing or person, spreading false rumors, ignoring and giving a cold shoulder, undermining what they are doing, and other passive-aggressive behaviors.

Fear leads to actions that try to protect one’s own self. Fear builds barriers. Fear draws boundaries. Fear seeks to draw clear lines between what is in and what is out. Fear seeks out certainties in beliefs and belonging. Fear wants to clearly define what I think is right versus what I think is wrong.

This is not love. Love is courage. Courage to venture beyond boundaries of comfort. Courage to tear down barriers that others have erected as “proper.” Courage to accept ambiguities. Courage to engage with beliefs and ideas that cause us discomfort. Courage to risk being wrong. Courage to see things and people outside of our traditional and comfortable spheres on their own terms. Courage to take a stand against those who attempt to instill irrational fear.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says this:

Matthew 5:43-48
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

Paul describes what love is in the continuation of what I read earlier:

1 Corinthians 13:4-7
4 Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus describes the kinds of actions taken by those who are his genuine followers:

Matthew 25:31-46
31 “Now when the Human One [Son of Man] comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

Courage is love in action. Love does not merely believe it is good to care for the needs of others, especially those whom society has marginalized and oppressed. Yes, it’s good to give to alleviate needs. But love goes beyond mere giving. Love is courage in action to accept into our family those whom society has marginalized, oppressed and judged unworthy. Love is courage in action to not only meet their needs, but to elevate them and restore their full human dignity and their place in God’s family. Love is courage in action to combat the powers, structures, and systems that dehumanize and oppress people.

Easter is the proof that love is more powerful than fear. Easter is the promise that courageous love can bring resurrection to people today. Easter is the preview of God’s kingdom fully restored.

How do we keep Easter and the power of resurrection in us day in and day out? Our gospel reading and the text from 1 John tells us that we are to abide or remain in God. And how do we do that?

1 John 4:10-11, 16b, 20-21
10 This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.
11 Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other.
16b God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them…
20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. 21 This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

It is easier to think about these things in the abstract, or to apply it to people and places “over there.” But what about here in Petersburg? In this very community?

Are there people we avoid? People that we feel uncomfortable around? People that think differently from us, or have different values? Are there people we fear in this community? (I need to add a caveat that there are legitimate cases, such as abuse, where for genuine reasons it is necessary to place boundaries and avoid interactions.)

Have we allowed fear to overrule love? In what ways can we become more courageous and bring the power of resurrection and restoration to the lives of people in our community?

Perhaps there are relationships that have been diminished or broken because of something that happened in the past. Perhaps within this very congregation. Courageous love can mend those relationships. But love that merely hypothesizes and keeps to one’s self is not really love. Genuine love always acts.

Love is a process. Maturity doesn’t happen overnight. But it does require practice. Our capacity to love increases as we take steps to risk consequences that may arise from offering genuine love.

The source of such love is infinite. We, in our human thinking, might consider love to be a zero-sum game. But God showed otherwise. Remain in God’s abundance of love and we will have the courage to love as God loves. All who choose to allow God’s love into their lives will bear the fruit of love.

Loving God necessarily means loving people. To love God is to love one another. To love God is to love those that, in human ways of thinking, are difficult to love or even unlovable. To love God is to love is to love those that your circle may frown upon, or even society as a whole might discourage. To love God is to see the spark of the goodness of God’s creation in all created beings and seek to bring that out in one another.

Love is courage. Love is courage to be a part of the resurrection story each day.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: Old vs. New Covenant

Lectionary: Year B, Lent 5
Text: Jeremiah 33:31-34

Old and New Testaments

The Christian Bible is commonly divided into two major sections: the Old and New Testaments. The word “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum meaning “a will” and in Christian usage can also be traced back to the Greek word diathēkē meaning “covenant.” Literally, then, the Christian Bible identifies the two parts as the Old and New Covenants.

That there are two things termed Old and New implies that there are two things that are somehow different. In Christianity, the change that happens in the new is the introduction of Jesus Christ. In some of the Christian circles I’ve been a part of and grew up in, the Old Covenant is frequently synonymous with the Covenant of Law, founded at the giving of the Hebrew Law at Sinai. The New Covenant is frequently identified as the Covenant of Grace which was initiated at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

This notion of a covenant of law and a covenant of grace isn’t wrong but it is not a complete picture. And the traditional explanations of how law and grace are related to the covenants, at least how I’ve commonly understood them, may not be entirely accurate.

We heard the reading from Jeremiah 31:31-34 a few minutes ago. This is the longest continuous text in the Hebrew Scriptures that is found in the Christian Scripture (Hebrews 8:8-12). Individual verses and shorter phrases are also found scattered throughout the New Testament. The New Testament authors must have seen something in these ancient words from Jeremiah that resonated with their new experience in the light of Jesus.

Observations and Questions

As I read Jeremiah, I observed a few things.

First, the initiator of the old and new covenants is the same: it is God and this God does not change between the two.

Second, the content of the covenant is the same: it is still something about God’s instructions and God’s relationship with the other party to the covenant.

Third, the reason a new covenant is necessary is not because God changed or because the contents of the covenant changed, but because the people broke the first one.

The passage also raised some intriguing questions:

First, what then, changed between the old and the new covenants?

Second, if the new covenant, where the instructions are inside the people and written on their hearts, is better than the first covenant, why didn’t God do that from the beginning?

Third, if everyone supposedly knows God in their hearts then why all the contradictions about God and how do we decide what is right or wrong about our knowledge of God?

If I dealt with each of these points individually, we might be here for quite a long time. Rather, I think that by taking a step back and looking at the broader picture and context, I will be able to address multiple points simultaneously.

The Covenant at Sinai

The first stop we will make is at Sinai, with the Hebrews just coming out of Egypt with Moses as their leader and prophet. And then we will jump forward to how the author of the letter to the Hebrews, many years after Jesus left the earth, explains the significance of Jesus in the new covenant.

I think we are all familiar with the basic story of the giving of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, at Sinai. The Israelites, fresh out of Egypt, reach Sinai and there, God speaks the Commandments, and Moses receives a copy on tablets of stone. But that isn't the entire story. There are a few interesting details about this story in the book of Exodus that are relevant to this morning’s message.
Exodus 20:18-21 (CEB)
18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking, the people shook with fear and stood at a distance. 19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we’ll listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die.”

20 Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and to make sure you are always in awe of God so that you don’t sin.” 21 The people stood at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness in which God was present.
Notice what just happened. God has spoken directly to the people, but they did not want God speaking directly with them. God first attempted to establish a direct relationship with all the people, but the people rejected it. Instead, they asked for a mediator to communicate to them on behalf of God. They asked Moses to be the intermediary, and Moses accepted the role.

A few chapters later in Exodus, another interesting narrative is found.
Exodus 24:1-3, 9-12

Covenant at Sinai
1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders, and worship from a distance. 2 Only Moses may come near to the Lord. The others shouldn’t come near, while the people shouldn’t come up with him at all.”

3 Moses came and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the case laws. All the people answered in unison, “Everything that the Lord has said we will do.” ...

Covenant meal with God
9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw Israel’s God. Under God’s feet there was what looked like a floor of lapis-lazuli tiles, dazzlingly pure like the sky. 11 God didn’t harm the Israelite leaders, though they looked at God, and they ate and drank.

12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there. I’ll give you the stone tablets with the instructions and the commandments that I’ve written in order to teach them.”
We see how Moses becomes the mediator, carrying messages from God to the people, and the people’s response back to God. We see God communicating to Moses and giving him instructions and commandments to take back to the people. We also see in these texts that Moses is the primary mediator, but there will be others who also are part of a system of carrying messages between God and the people. A system of religion and accompanying services and sacrifices was established to help mediate and God to the people. This was codified into a set of laws.

To summarize this first part then: God wanted a direct relationship with the people. The people rejected that arrangement. Moses became the mediator between God and people. God codified how mediators and mediation of God’s nature and will to the people would function. This is the Old Covenant. Yes, there is a strong presence of law, but the foundational reason for the covenant is God’s desire to have a relationship with humankind and love them, and for the people to respond back in love.

The rest of the Old Testament is a story about the failure of the people to live up to the covenant. Priests and prophets came and went. Some tried and were marginally successful, but none succeeded fully. Many were downright antithetical to God’s nature.

The New Covenant

Jump forward a millennium or so to the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament.
Hebrews 1:1-4
The Son is God’s ultimate messenger

1 In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. 2 In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son. God made his Son the heir of everything and created the world through him. 3 The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being. He maintains everything with his powerful message. After he carried out the cleansing of people from their sins, he sat down at the right side of the highest majesty. 4 And the Son became so much greater than the other messengers, such as angels, that he received a more important title than theirs.

Hebrews 9:15

Christ’s death and the new covenant

15 This is why he’s the mediator of a new covenant (which is a will): so that those who are called might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance on the basis of his death. His death occurred to set them free from the offenses committed under the first covenant.
The problem with the Old Covenant wasn’t the originator – God – or its contents – God’s desire to have a relationship with humankind. The problem with the Old Covenant was that all of its mediators were flawed. It was what the people wanted, but in a way, it was broken from its very inception. It was God accommodating the people’s desires, because God does not force his way. He allowed the people to try out their way until they were more ready to hear from God directly.

When that time came, God sent Jesus Christ to be the final and perfect mediator. Final and perfect because Jesus is God incarnate showing to the world who God is and what God is like. Jesus’ relationships with his family, friends, strangers, and even enemies is how God relates to people. Nothing more can be said or shown beyond what Jesus demonstrated.

The originator and content of the New Covenant are the same as the Old: God originates it and it is God’s invitation to us to be in fellowship and relationship with God.

So why is it often equated with or spoken of as the Covenant of Grace? It has to do with the very last part of Jeremiah’s passage: “I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.”

Forgiveness of sins is not for God’s benefit, but for ours. God’s love for us is not contingent on God’s forgiveness of us or on our confession or repentance.

But guilt is a powerful force. Perhaps one of the most powerful and destructive in terms of relationships. We need to know that God forgives. A God who initiates the offer of forgiveness, regardless of offenses committed, is a God of grace. Not only does God forgive, but God does not keep a record, an accounting, of sins. We don’t have to work our way to a certain level before God wants to have a relationship with us. Every single person stands on the same level with God, and God wants to be a positive part of every single person’s life. That is grace.

Was there no grace in the Old Covenant? There certainly was. The very preamble of the Ten Commandments shows God’s grace in initiating the deliverance of God’s people out of slavery. The very fact that God initiated a covenant shows that God’s grace remains the same throughout eternity.

The difference is Jesus, the only perfect mediator and revelation of God. When Jesus was lifted and crucified, he still offered forgiveness to those who mocked him, to those who tortured him, and to those who nailed him to the cross. There was no hint of anger or desire to seek revenge in Jesus’ words and actions on the cross. This is how God responds to sin. God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness were fully demonstrated through Jesus at the cross. This is the vital lesson of the cross. This is what the body and blood of Jesus means.

When Jesus asks us to love our neighbors and enemies, to only seek to do good for others: that is the heart of the gospel. That is the heart of the covenant. Both old and new. The eternal covenant. 

Benediction

I close now with the benediction found at the closing of the letter to the Hebrews:
Hebrews 13:20-25

20 May the God of peace,
who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep,
our Lord Jesus,
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant,

21 equip you with every good thing to do his will,
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory forever and always. Amen. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon: Asking the Right Question

Texts

Gospel text is from Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Proper 24. OT and NT are my own.

Gospel Text: Matthew 22:15-22
15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 
18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19  Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked. 
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. 
Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

OT Text: Genesis 1:26-28
26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”
27 God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground."

NT Text: Romans 13:7-12
7 So pay everyone what you owe them. Pay the taxes you owe, pay the duties you are charged, give respect to those you should respect, and honor those you should honor.
8 Don't be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 9 The commandments, Don't commit adultery, don't murder, don't steal, don't desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn't do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.

Sermon

Introduction 

Laws are good and necessary for the orderly functioning of a society. But they can be interpreted to advance the agenda of one group or individual over another. Laws are often seen as the ultimate authority and arbiter of what is right or wrong, and what is just or unjust. In today’s gospel text found in Matthew, we see an example of just that. We see a group of Pharisees who have an agenda against Jesus, attempting to use their interpretation of their law to entrap Jesus into destroying his own credibility and possibly incriminating himself. They were trying to do this to Jesus because he had been pointing out their failures in fulfilling the responsibilities that had been given to them. From the context around today’s passage, the failure seems to center on the failure of the leaders to be conduits of God’s love, mercy, and justice to all people. 

Like the Pharisees 

When we read Bible narratives, we tend to identify with the heroes, the good guys — in today’s passage that would be Jesus. But I think that in real life we are often more like the Pharisees. Consciously or not, we like to win arguments, we want to be right, and we are tempted to skirt the boundaries of law and ethics to try to get what we want. 

The first thing Jesus does is call out his interlocutors for their hypocrisy and their tactics. If only their words are heard, it might seem like they are sincere in their questioning. On the surface it appears that neither side is at an advantage. But by identifying his opponents motives and position, Jesus turns the tables and places them at a disadvantage. He identifies their words as insincere flattery merely designed to conceal their true motives. 

To further demonstrate the insincerity and hypocrisy of his opponents, Jesus asks if any of them have on them the coin that is used to pay the Roman tax. And at least one does. To us reading this text, this might not seem like a huge deal. We carry our currencies and coins with us wherever we go. I’m quite certain that if I asked you now if you had any U.S. money on you, nearly every person could show me at least a bill or a coin. 

The problem for the Pharisees is that carrying a Roman coin on the Temple grounds (where this story likely took place) is that in their interpretation of the law, it had theological implications of idolatry. The coin not only bore the image of Caesar, the inscription read, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus,” thus identifying Caesar as “the son of god.” To bring such an item into the Temple area was seen as idolatrous and blasphemous. 

Through this physical illustration, not only does Jesus turn the tables on the argument, but effectively causes his opponents to do to themselves what they had hoped Jesus would do to himself. They discredit their own argument and incriminate themselves according to their own interpretations of their law. 

Another lesson for us is before we try to assert our own moral and ethical superiority, to look into our own pockets and closets and see how often we might be inconsistent between our words and our actions. Before we try to accuse someone else of their shortcomings, perhaps it would be well for us to pause and examine our own lives. This illustrates part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount where he taught, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged… Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye…” (Matthew 7:1-5)

Dualism

We are conditioned to operate in binaries and dualism. We are more comfortable with either/or, black and white, and us vs. them thinking. As a society, we haven’t done a very good job at teaching nuances and allowing for ambiguity and nuance. I think we are reaping the results of dualistic thinking in our politics, in religious teachings, and pretty much all areas of life. 

Another tactic Jesus uses to disarm his opponents’ question is to enlarge the topic. The question pitted a theological issue (idolatry and blasphemy) against a political one (taxation and loyalty to secular government). The original question was about an apparent conflict between two laws and their domains. 

What Jesus does is enlarge the question so that both are now encompassed within a greater circle and no longer at odds with one another. Jesus nullifies the question of “What does the Law allow.” Instead he asks a different question, “What does loyalty mean to a subject of the living God?” 

So many of the problems and issues encountered by us as individuals and as members of society might be the result of pursuing the wrong questions. 

“It's not that they can't see the solution. They can't see the problem.” - G.K. Chesterton

“To ask the proper question is half of knowing.” – Roger Bacon

“A wise man’s question contains half the answer.” – Solomon Ibn Gabirol 

“The art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” – Georg Cantor

A few skills we might find beneficial in learning and improving are: 1) When issues are presented in either/or terms, to go deeper and examine if there is a third way. 2) When intractable questions are presented, is there a way to enlarge the topic so that the original question is replaced by a different one? 3) Dedicate more effort to forming good questions. 

Image and Loyalty

Jesus asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

His opponents responded, “Caesar’s.”

And in response Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 

What is implied in Jesus’ response is that those things bearing God’s image belongs to God. And what bears God’s image? Genesis 1, the Creation account, offers an answer. All humanity bears God’s image. But at the same time, humanity was delegated dominion over Creation. Jesus’ response is that loyalty to civic authorities and loyalty to God are not necessarily at odds. In fact, loyalty to civic authority can be a form of loyalty to God. When the entire scripture is taken into account, we know that this is not a blind loyalty, but a discerned one. Once again, this is an issue where good questions are necessary, and where answers are not always clear-cut. But what is clear is that loyalty is not an either/or but a qualified both/and. 

Fulfilling the Law

In Romans chapter 13 the Apostle Paul expands on a Christian’s responsibility to civic authorities and to God. This passage too, has sometimes been misused to justify an unqualified and unquestioning loyalty and obedience to civic authorities. The proper context is where a government, on balance, exists to benefit those it serves, thus fulfilling the “love your neighbor” mandate delegated from God to human authorities. 

Paul, too, sees no conflict in paying taxes to Rome, respecting civic authorities, and in following God. It should be noted that this was to a government that had some serious moral and ethical issues, was often repressive and violent, and at times harassed and persecuted religious minorities. Once more I think this shows us that there is no single, universally applicable across all time and space Christian response to government. Perhaps the question is, “How can Christians, as far as it is possible, live peaceably and effectively in this time and place?” 

What Paul does address is what it means to fulfill the Law: “Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law… Love doesn't do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.” It seems that the only absolute, unqualified mandate from God is to love other image-bearers of God. And that may in fact be more difficult than obeying any written law. Written law has boundaries and limits, but love of neighbor has none. 

Jesus’ questioners went away astonished, because Jesus enlarged the responsibilities that a person has to God beyond the narrow prescriptions of law and theology. He found a third way out of a binary dilemma by reframing the original question into a new and better one. 

“What does the law allow?” is not the right question. “What does love demand?” is the question we need to keep asking in all of our encounters.

What are we to give to God? God deserves our respect and our love. God deserves our time and our resources. So what about the 7-1/2 billion human beings today who bear God’s image? Your neighbors, your difficult-to-get-along-with family member, that state or federal official you don’t like, the person in prison, the person struggling with substance use disorders and mental health, the person who can’t seem to hold down a job… What does it mean today to give to God what belongs to God? 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Peter, Paul, Antioch; and racial conflict in 2017

It's 2017 and humanity is still struggling with ideas about racial supermacy. And those who ought to know better, those whose entire religion was founded upon the idea of equality and egalitarianism, are still part of the problem.

Paul confronting Peter at Antioch is still a relevant message for us, in 2017. Here is my not-so-holy paraphrase of Galatians 2 –
Paul: Gentiles are fully welcome into fellowship with God, and that means full acceptance in the human community of Christ followers.
Peter and the other leaders: Yup. We agree. Good job Paul. We acknowledge and support your ministry. 
Peter, in Antioch, speaking to local Gentile Christians: Hey guys, good to see you. Let's do lunch, together. 
Certain influential Jewish leaders arrive in Antioch. 
Peter, now: Uh, guys, can we postpone our lunch date?  
Paul, to Peter: WTF Peter!? You coward! Hypocrite! You say you're for full inclusion, but you can't get yourself to actually model it. What are you afraid of? Are you living for the comfort of people's approvals? Me, I died to that sort of thing. I only live to please God, and if that means upsetting people because I actually live the gospel of inclusion and equality, then so be it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Re-thinking Jesus' Wilderness Tests

At the beginning of his public ministry, immediately after his baptism, Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he fasted for forty days. At the end of that period he is tested by the tempter/devil/adversary/Satan.

 In the Matthean account (Matthew 4:1-11), the first test is to turn stones into bread. The second test is launch himself off of the top of the temple. The final test is to secure power through acknowledging Satan as the ruler of the world.

Traditional Interpretations

This is a familiar story and I’ve heard numerous sermons and articles based on it, as I’m sure you have. I think that largely due to the individualized nature of Western Christianity prevalent through much of the world, the interpretation sand applications of this story has usually been at the individual level.

One such interpretation and application is that these three tests represent the major categories of temptations that individual Christians face: Just as Jesus was able to overcome, Christians, through faith in Christ, can find victory in all their tests.

Another line of interpretation focuses on Jesus’ use of scripture to counter his adversary in each test. The application is the need for Christians to “feed on God’s word,” a strong allusion to the first test. 

Yet another exposition of this passage takes each one and expands them, possibly into a mini-series of sermons. The first is the temptation of appetite. The second the temptation of presumption. And the third, the temptation of power. Sins associated with each are described and the listeners exhorted to avoid them.

Some Problems

While the individual-focused, traditional interpretations and applications aren’t wrong, and I think can be faithful to the text, I no longer think they are complete or even their original intent.

First, at their most literal sense, these temptations make no sense to anyone who isn’t divine or at least has the ability to call upon miraculous powers on demand. They also defy common sense and logic. For example, no reasonable person, however religious, is going to launch themselves off of the top of a tall building just to see if they will be miraculously saved.

Second, this passage does not appear to be concerned with individual, personal sins. Its concern seems to be with something larger, broader principles, and collectives of beings. Yes, Jesus is an individual, but the passage appears to depict him as representing something larger.

The second points to a third problem that I see. Most of us will never be in a position where the fate of the world is in our hands, or where we are called to prove some kind of anointing to a doubting public. In that sense these tests have no applicability to the majority of us.

A Collective Applicability 

I think that the key to a better understanding of Jesus’ tests can be found in the texts which he quotes. All three are found in Deuteronomy (chapters 6-8). This section of Deuteronomy is where Moses is found warning ancient Israel, prior to their entry into Canaan, about the consequences of their failure to remain faithful to God, and where Moses gives injunctions on how to conduct their lives in obedience to God.

The key is this: the target of the tests is a collective, a group of people, a nation. Ancient Israel had failed these tests. But Jesus, representing a collective, succeeds.

The question then is this: who or what is the collective that Jesus represents? I think the answer is quite clear. It is the Church.

With that key, the interpretation and applications of the tests change. They are no longer about me individually, but the tests are still applicable to me personally because I am part of the Church. The ramifications of the tests are far greater now, because where as an individual my influence is fairly limited, the influence of the Church is far greater.

With that in mind, here is how I now read and apply the tests of Jesus in the wilderness:

First test: Where will the Church look to secure its relevance and perhaps its very existence?

Second test: Does the Church think it is somehow more privileged than everyone else in the world? That it is exempt from the usual rules and codes of conduct? That somehow God will step in and save it from natural consequences of poor decisions, deliberate or otherwise?

Third test: What foundation will the Church build upon as its basis for power and influence? Who will it partner with in order to seek to extend its domain?

I think this re-imagination and re-thinking of Jesus’ wilderness tests offers critical points to think about as Christians and their churches (aka, The Church) works through issues of relevance and influence in the 21st century.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon: Bread Pudding

Scrumptious_strawberry_bread_puddingSermon: Bread Pudding

Text: Matthew 9:35-10:8
Lectionary: Year A, Proper 6

Introduction

Last Sunday I brought bread pudding to a picnic we had at Blind Slough. And a few people asked for the recipe. I jokingly said that maybe I could begin the sermon today by giving it out. And then it was suggested that there could be a sermon found in bread pudding.

So first, challenge accepted. And second, it fit in quite well with the text, theme, and some of the direction I was already working with.

You are more than welcome to follow along with the recipe sheet you might have picked up on the way in, and take notes on it as we explore how bread pudding can illustrate the gospel.

Formulas

Recipes are a kind of formula: by measuring the ingredients and combining them using the directions provided, they are supposed to offer a way to reproduce consistent results every time. But as anyone who has cooked knows, that might be the theory, but practice is often quite different.

And there are what seems like infinite variations on a single dish; and any of them can be quite different from another. In this day of Google searching, a recipe search can turn up hundreds of variations. Here’s a hint: the top results are often not very good, in spite of what the posted reviews might say. They appear at the top because they pay to be there. (I have suggestions for good sites the ones I use. See me later, if you're interested.)

How can you know if a recipe is good, if online reviews can’t be relied upon? Well, one option is to try each one until you find one that is good. Better is to figure out which sources can be trusted, and why, and favor them. And best would be to actually get the recipe for something you’ve tried and enjoyed.

The bread pudding recipe that I use is of the last kind: when Elise and I were in New Orleans, we attended a cooking demonstration by a well-regarded chef, who demo’ed and explained what he was doing.

Now the interesting thing is that he also has a published cookbook, and the recipe for bread pudding in the book is significantly different than the one he demo’ed. There is a much higher quantity of eggs and less bread in the cookbook version. It is much more like other bread pudding recipes I found.

So there are a few things to highlight. First, there can be multiple formulas to achieve a desired end goal. Second, some may be better than others. Third, even when the source is identical, for whatever reason, the formula might have variations.

Gospel Formulas

In modern, Western Christianity, the gospel is often reduced to one formula. Jesus died, he was buried, he was resurrected. He died to pay for the sins of the world. He is now in heaven and will someday return to judge the world. To be saved from eternal damnation and instead receive eternal life, a person needs to repent and accept forgiveness and believe in Jesus Christ.

This isn’t entirely wrong and each elements is true, taken alone. The gospels do contain many words (about a third) on the final week and especially the crucifixion. But we must not forget that there is another two-thirds of the gospel accounts dealing with Jesus’ life in his world. And here is where I think the common formulations of the gospel are at best insufficient, and at worst, may even be misguided.

Relating back to what I said about recipe formulas: the source is identical — it is the gospel accounts and Jesus himself. And the intended result is the good news that leads to salvation. But what did Jesus mean by salvation? Certainly, eternal life in a future age can be a part of it, but is that all?

What Is the Gospel?

In Matthew we read earlier:

9:35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, "The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest."

And in selecting the Twelve,
10:1 He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness.
And in sending them out,
  10:7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8a Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons.
There are a few things to note in this selection. First, the phrase “good news” can be translated “gospel”

and comes from the Greek, euangelion, from which the English evangelism is also derived. Second, Jesus speaks of proclaiming the gospel before he is crucified and resurrected. Third, the commissioning does not include a directive to preach and teach. Fourth, what Jesus does command is to heal all manner of afflictions, diseases, and free people from oppression. Fifth, the gospel is a concrete response to compassion toward immediate needs.

A final point that I noticed is the progression in the kind of signs that accompany the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. At the top, Jesus is said to heal every disease and sickness. When the Twelve are selected, in addition they are given authority of unclean spirits. When they are actually sent out, Jesus adds that they are to raise the dead. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. In another gospel, John (14:12), Jesus says that his disciples will do do greater works than he. Perhaps Matthew’s progression is an echo of that.

I think the key point is how all of these things have a common theme. Disease, oppression, unclean spirits, and death — they are all reasons to ostracize, divide, and separate people from one another. The diseased are quarantined; social classes maintain separations and invite suspicions; unclean spirits separate those who consider themselves upright and normal from those that appear otherwise; and death is the ultimate separator, tearing apart families and friends.

What I understand the gospel to be, according to Jesus’ example found in Matthew 9 and 10, is to restore relationships and to lift up all as equally valuable and worthy in God’s eyes. Salvation is primarily about returning

to and belonging to community, and this community must precede any idea of eternity and life eternal. Salvation is about recovering what it means for each person to be fully human, fully accepted, without fear of being judged and rejected.

Believing Vs. Being

Christians emphasize faith as a key to salvation. Here again, it is important to ask what is meant by “faith.” For many, faith equates to belief and believing — belief that Jesus is the Christ and Savior, and believing that this confession leads to a person’s salvation from hell and into heaven.

Faith is a transaction between a person and God, wherein God offers benefits in exchange for allegiance. But this again, is a limited understanding at best, and I dare say even misguided. This transactional approach to faith emphasizes the individual and diminishes or even dismisses community.

If the gospel is about restoration to and building of community, as I discussed a few minutes ago, then faith cannot be just a transaction. It must be something more that involves the entire community.

It is no accident that churches are sometimes referred to as “communities of faith.” Faith is not just a one-time transaction between an individual and God, but a life that actively trusts in the love of God to help the kingdom of heaven break into this present world.

Faith must go beyond mere belief and must become being.

I could read and study all the bread pudding recipes I can find. I can figure out, through theories of chemistry and physics, which ones will likely produce the best results and why. Understanding all that can be helpful and satisfying. But only to a degree. It ultimately doesn’t do me much good beyond being able to talk about it, and it certainly won’t do any good at a church potlucks. Can you imagine me arriving with a stack of papers to a potluck and explaining why I didn’t bring an actual dish, but I did bring explanations and theories about how you could bake a better bread pudding?

Unfortunately, I think the gospel has too often been presented in this way. Christians explain, often in the general and abstract, how bad sin is and how Jesus came to solve that problem. But what the people around want is for their diseases, oppressions, hurts, and brokenness to be healed. They want someone to listen, and someone to offer concrete, helping hands. They aren’t looking for someone to merely tell them about Jesus. They want someone to be Jesus to them.

Jesus saw the great needs of the people around him. He was moved to compassion. He didn’t then offer them a metaphysical, theological, theoretical idea that God would someday vindicate them and restore all things. No, Jesus asked his disciples to pray that workers would be found, and then they became those workers. Jesus commissioned them to do the things he did, and even more. He sent them out

to make an immediate difference in the world, to begin the formation of a new kind of society.

Context and Adjustments

Bread pudding was originally developed as a way to reuse old, stale bread. In many ways, the traditional presentation of the gospel could be said to be old and stale. The bread is still bread, and Jesus is still Jesus. But maybe there are new ways to present the old story, and to become part of its ongoing story, today.

There are some parts of the bread pudding recipe that I think cannot be altered without damaging the result; for example, the ratio of bread to liquid. Likewise, there are elements of the gospel that cannot be altered — Jesus’ love and compassion, and how that moved him to action.

But there are many ways in which the recipe can be adapted and altered to fit the intended context. In summer, you might use peaches or pineapples and a piña colada mix instead of milk. In the fall you might go with more warm spices. In winter you might use cranberries. Some people like nuts; others detest them, and so you might adjust depending on your audience.

A savory bread pudding is another matter entirely, yet still shares key frameworks. The sugar and vanilla would be omitted, you'd definitely add salt, and you might add broth or substitute some of the milk. But you would still have the basic components in their proper ratios to achieve the same consistency prior to baking.

Likewise the gospel-in-action can appear different from one context to another. Once you are clear on the essential framework, you have great freedom to experiment with many of the details. You might emphasize some things over some others. The key is community and relationships. What needs are specific to your interactions within this community? How will you adapt the gospel to meet those needs?

And just because an element is quite traditional and has always been there as far as you can recall doesn’t always mean it is always necessary. For those of you who were at the picnic last Sunday, you may have heard me realize that I had totally forgotten to include butter. Every bread pudding recipe that I looked at includes butter. But for those that had some without butter, did you notice that it was absent? Even I didn’t realize it was missing until I started going over the ingredients in my mind.

The point here is that we should not make the gospel more complicated than it needs to be. We should be willing to ask hard questions about reasons and priorities of all aspects of our faith, to determine if they are in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how they contribute to the goal of building a gospel community.

Conclusion

As I bring this time to a close, one of my hopes is that the gospel will forever be tied in your minds with bread pudding.

But more importantly, the following points:

  1. The gospel is more than just a formula on how to go about getting saved.
  2. The gospel is about restoring and healing all manner of brokenness, disease, oppression, and even death; to bring people into community where they can be fully themselves.
  3. The gospel must make a difference in the present world. It is a breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven into this world.
  4. The gospel framework — Jesus, his love and compassion — remains consistent through all time, but how the gospel works must be specific to meet the unique needs and challenges of each time and place.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Recipe: Bread Pudding

After making this many, many times over the past 12+ months, I think I've finally converged on what is important to maintain and what can be flexible and adaptable. The following results in a bread pudding where the texture of bread becomes very homegenous and uniform, not very "eggy", firm but still very moist and tender, and not cloyingly sweet. It's a combination that I like and have received numerous compliments.

Adapted from a cooking demonstration and recipe provided by New Orleans School of Cooking. 
Bread Pudding
Pudding Base
  • 1 20 oz. loaf, stale white bread, broken into small pieces
  • 4 cups milk (any kind) - may substitute with other liquids such as juice
  • 2 cups granulated sugar - can reduce by up to half
  • (optional) Up to 8 Tbsp. Melted butter
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1-2 tsp. Vanilla extract
  • (optional) Cinnamon, nutmeg, and other complementary spices

Add-Ins
  • 1-2 cups of frozen, fresh, or reconstituted dried fruit
  • Up to 1 cup of nuts

Instructions
  1. Combine all pudding base ingredients in large bowl. The consistency should be like that of wet oatmeal. Let sit to soak and further dissolve and combine ingredients for at least 30 minutes, and up to several hours. 
  2. Mix any add-ins into pudding base just prior to baking. Pour batter into large (9x13 or larger) baking dish.
  3. Place uncovered into oven set at 350-375ºF. Preheating is not necessary. Bake 75 minutes, or until top is browned in spots and crispy. 

Notes
  • Basic (inexpensive) white bread works just fine. Any kind of bread without seeds, grains, and nuts should also work fine. Unless you’re going for specific texture and/or flavor that they bring to bread. You really want bread that dissolves into a paste when combined with milk. To test, take a fresh slice, tear it up into a bowl, add a tablespoon of milk, and mash it around with a fork. If it turns into a paste, you’re good to go.
  • I’ve looked at a dozen different recipes for bread pudding. Most use way more eggs than this recipe. They also seem to have a higher ratio of liquid to bread. I think what is happening is that the greater egg count is used to “set” all that liquid that is being used. The result is a more “eggy” custard. If you want a more “eggy” taste, by all means use more eggs. But I think that gets closer to a French toast casserole or an omelette, rather than a bread pudding.
  • I’ve read both sides of the “should bread be stale and dry” argument. I’m going with using fully staled, dry bread, as much as possible. You can speed up staling by toasting bread pieces in the oven. Or stick them in a paper bag and let them dry out over several days. 
  • I accidentally omitted using any butter one time, and discovered it didn’t affect the result noticeably. I think it was a little less “rich” in flavor, but no one missed it. So yes, you can cut down on the fat and calories (I mean, there’s still plenty of sugar) by reducing or omitting the butter.
  • I prefer using a bag (12-16 oz.) of frozen fruit. It works really well. Don’t thaw it — add them frozen to the batter right before baking.
  • If using dried fruit, you will want to reconstitute them. You can do that by heating a small amount of liquid (water, juice, liquor) and then soaking the dried fruit in the hot liquid. 
  • If using nuts they are better if you have time to toast them beforehand. 
  • Don’t overdo spices. You’re not going for fall pie flavors. Or maybe you are? Just a touch to give a hint of something there.
  • I think the critical piece is that the batter have a consistency of wet oatmeal. This tells you that the solid to liquid ratio is correct and you will have a bread pudding rather than either a soupy mess or a dry, rubbery mass.