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Hello followers! It has been a while.  Part of my lenten discipline for this year is to write a sermon/reflection every week.  This week you get my Ash Wednesday sermon–complete with #ashtag reference.  Please excuse grammatical errors as this is a speech manuscript meant to be heard, not read.

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10

20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Grace for the Work

I like to argue with Paul.  Most of the time my arguments with Paul’s writings go a little something like this—Paul, I don’t really like what you said here, and this is why.  It seems to go against things elsewhere in the Bible and/or it conflicts with my values and my society’s values of personal worth.  Then, I study the scripture even more to figure out why Paul may have said this thing that I don’t like.  Most often, I hear Paul through the text saying remember where I am and who I am writing this to.  When I read today’s scripture, I also want to argue with Paul, but it’s not because I do not like what he is saying, it’s because it is convicting.

When Paul says “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” I remember all of the times that I have given into that vanity in one way or another.  The Greek word that Paul uses here for vanity is kenos.  Kenos has a couple of meanings.  The first is meaningless or empty.  Paul urges the Corinthians, and us here through them to not accept the grace of God as meaningless, as emptyness, as nothing.  This grace that we are given is of incomparable value—Paul explains in the verses before that this grace is what Jesus Christ became sin for, that we are who Jesus Christ became sin for.  With that as the case, we are gravely mistaken if we take this grace for nothing, if we let it become meaningless for us.  Have you ever seen a raw gemstone?  They look like rocks. They might have a mild shine, but no more than you would get from a rock that had been beaten in the ocean.  They look like they have no value to an eye that is not sensitive to what each gemstone looks like in its raw form.  Those that work in the gemstone business know what to look for; they know what is of value, and they know that once the gemstone is shined that it will be beautiful and valuable.  When we view the grace that God has given us as meaningless, we are sorting gemstones with an untrained eye.  We are likely to throw out a priceless ruby because it looks like a rock.  But, if we realize it’s value.  If we realize that this grace needs to be accepted as valuable, so that we can work with God and God can work with us, we become vessels of grace.  We become like gemstones ourselves—once ugly rocks on the outside, but worked by God to bring out that grace—that beauty—that was always there all along.

The other meaning of Kenos that can be interpreted here is the vanity associated with pride.  This type of vanity has the ultimate result of meaninglessness.  It means working for no ultimate gain.  With this reading we are warned not to work in vain, not to let our pride get in the way of the work that we are doing with God.  I think that this is easy to do in a place like Washington, DC. You think I’m going to talk about working for personal wealth here, but I’m not, because this happens to Christians in a way that we don’t often think about. How many of us here are working where we are working, or doing what we are doing, not because of the money, but because we want to help people?  How often do we forget that God is in that work too?  Paul is reminding us here that we are not alone.  That working for the sake of working is accepting the grace of God in vain. Paul tells us in Chapter 5 verse 20 that “We are ambassadors for Christ.”  If we are not acknowledging that God is with us in the work that we do, then we are not fulfilling that task.  If we are not being ambassadors for Christ, if we are not spreading the gospel with our actions, then that list of things that Paul gives in the latter part of today’s scripture? that’s meaningless.  It’s vanity.  There was an interesting blog post that came across my Facebook news feed just a few days ago, bringing to light the vanity of the #ashtag.  Last year, there was a social media phenomenon on Ash Wednesday where people posted selfies with the ashes on their heads—the ashes that we will receive in a few moments.  The article accused this social media craze of this kind of vanity.  The #ashtag was not something that promoted the grace of God, but promoted self, personal brand, and social media brand of churches.  The #ashtag removed all meaning from the ashes, and from the day itself.  This example is not to say, “don’t post #ashtag selfies.”  Social media can be a place that all of us live the gospel, but in contributing to #ashtag, let’s make sure that it isn’t meaningless work.  We need to let the grace of God shine through our lives—and even our #ashtag selfies.

As we receive our ashes and move into the season of lent, we may be still asking ourselves, what will I give up?  What am I going to fast from?  First ask, why are we fasting?  Are we fasting because we feel like we are supposed to?  Are we fasting because our coworkers are fasting, and we don’t want to look like we aren’t doing anything, or look like a “bad Christian?”  Are we fasting because we think that it’s important?  Notice that the focus of all of those questions is we.  If we are only focused on ourselves, we are playing into that vanity that Paul warns us against.  God has given us grace for the work.  God has given us the grace to keep us moving and working through this season.  That grace is going before us, is with us, and is continually preparing us to meet God where God is working in the world.  So as we are  preparing to fast, we must remember that grace, moving into a better question of, “are we fasting because we believe that fasting prepares us for the work together with God?”  A professor of mine said about fasting, “fast first from sin and then from food.”  By that he meant, fasting is always about relationship with God, and if our relationship with God is already damaged by sin, then fasting from food is self-serving instead of God-serving.  How are we fasting from sin this season?  Are we focused on the grace that covers that sin?  And are we using that Grace for our work with God?  That work is painful as Paul says in Chapter 6 verse 4-5, it’s one of great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; But Paul goes on in verse 6 to say that it is also good work involving 6purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, and genuine love.  We have grace for the work.  Let us prepare for it during the season of Lent.

If you haven’t heard, the US government “shut down” this week.  I have seen both sides of the debate blame the other, and I have seen the Church be mostly silent, other than to offer advice to trust God and not the government.  I can’t say that I am an expert on what the shutdown means, but there are some things that I do know.  WIC lost funding immediately—this means that low-income mothers and mothers to be cannot get vital nutrition for themselves and their children.  SNAP will lose money in 30 days.  School lunch programs will stop operating in 30 days—this is a personal issue for me as I know children that do not get any meal other than school lunch.  Many Headstart programs have shut down. The city of DC has money for approximately 2 more weeks.  There are thousands of people that are unable to work because they have government jobs, not to mention the thousands of people that have been laid off in the service industry because their patrons are government workers.  My point in this post is not to complain about the shutdown, but to offer my thoughts on what the Church can do in such a situation.

The US government has left glaring needs in the light of the shutdown.  In the very least, there are preschoolers that have nowhere to go during the day, and mothers that cannot afford baby formula.  What if the Church stepped in to meet those needs?  What if we actually made an effort to meet the needs of the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the poor in spirit instead of passing blame and complaining about the state of things in this country?

On a concrete level, churches can open their doors and provide meals and social interaction for those that are out of work.  If the shutdown lasts much longer, thousands of people may need assistance with paying bills that they would otherwise have been capable of paying.

I’m living here in DC where the largest concentration of people that are out of work lives.  I can honestly say that restaurants and stores are doing more for those out of work than the churches are.  There are whole lists of places giving discounts with a government ID because they realize the economic impact that this shutdown is having on people’s lives.  So I ask again, what can the Church– what can your church– do to meet the needs that have been created by the government shutdown?

Church in Disaster

I think that reading the second half of Pete Rollins’ How Not to Speak of God came at an interesting time for me.  It came at a time when the events of this week are in the forefront of my thoughts, and all I have been able to think about is the response of our churches.  I am not currently serving in a church.  In fact, I still don’t have a home church here in DC.  However, being a seminary student, the response of the church as a whole during crisis is something that I think about and talk about within the context of my classes, and it is something I believe to be important.  I may not be thinking about what to do in my church this Sunday, but I know many of my classmates are.  Some are going to address this in five minutes and then move on to the lectionary.  Many are not going to defer from the lectionary at all.  Are they going to just ignore the events of Monday?  I don’t know.  It’s not my call.  Disaster is not something churches do well when it comes to ministering to the spiritual needs of those affected.  As humans, we try to find reason and end up blaming God or blaming God from the beginning, and what does this do to those that are already feeling abandoned by God?  Whatever one believes about the way the world works, I think that churches are called during times like these to create a safe space for those that no longer feel safe in the world.  If a bombing can happen at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, it can happen anywhere.

So how do we create safe spaces in our churches?  In How Not to Speak of God, Rollins church begins this by creating space—rearranging tables, having a special display.  In many of our churches this is not an option.  The next step seems to be making people a bit uncomfortable by opening up the space for sharing and discussion.  I think this is an important thing.  If people want to share their thoughts on a catastrophe like this one, the church should be one of the main places that they can open up.  Many of our churches do not have a framework for this either.  So, what can we do?  Wesley is having a special discussion on campus tonight with an open floor for all students.  There are stories and Psalms from the Hebrew Bible that can be used to create space for discussion of trauma.  The book of Jeremiah is a product of the trauma of war and exile.  Psalm 88 has no resolution.  Regardless of what our churches do this coming week, we should remember that creating a safe space in a time like this is vital to the life of the universal church.

One of the primary focuses (arguably the primary focus) of the message that Jesus preached was love.  How do we receive this message of love?

Mark 12:28-31

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

To sum up: Love God; Love your neighbor; Love your enemy.

So what have we done with this teaching? We have turned it into a cliche, and construed it to say things like, “Love the sinner.  Hate the sin.” or “You don’t have to like everybody, but you have to love everybody.”  We’ve turned love into this thing that as Christians, is always there.  It’s not something that we work at constantly which blows my mind because Jesus said so much about it.

Love God.

Love your neighbor.

Love your enemy.

In the original Greek text, the same root word for love is used in all three texts (agape).  Wait. Does that mean we should love our neighbors and our enemies with the same kind of love that we love God with?  Yes it does.  This throws a kink into the arguments I listed above–“I love God, but I hate things about God.” or “I don’t like God, but I love God.”  These sound like horrible statements! So, why do we use them against other people?!

In the context that Jesus taught in, the Jewish people were dehumanized by the Roman government and its officials (such as tax collectors).  On the other hand, the Jewish people dehumanized those tax collectors, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles.  It was an age of dehumanization, but it’s not so different from our own.  We get into our bubbles where we are surrounded by our brothers and sisters, and it is so easy to write off those that think or act differently from us.  The church is more guilty of this than anyone else because Jesus taught against it.  People on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate have dehumanized each other.  Liberals dehumanize conservatives.  Conservatives dehumanize liberals.  Both sides of that debate have gone so far to call the other false Christians.  And tell me the last time you learned the name of the homeless person you passed on the street.  Even the good things the church does seems to dehumanize.  Human trafficking has become a pet-project of the church.  While ending human trafficking is an inherently good thing, we do have to realize that there are people that are living surrounded by human trafficking.  Those people don’t know that you put a red “x” on your twitter or facebook profile picture.  Apart from this, dehumanization comes even in the local church–down to our method of doing church.  In his book, Preaching in the Inventive Age, Doug Pagitt talks about a church that took place in a setting that has become all to popular–a dark theater or auditorium with lights flooding the stage, so the “audience” can see the band and preacher well.  The preacher in that church was so blinded by the lights that he could not see anyone past the edge of the stage.  The result was a dehumanization of the audience–a ministry “at” instead of ministry “to,” much less ministry “with.”  In this case the minister is separated from the congregation.  Maybe by preaching style; maybe by lights; maybe even by a seminary education.

I’ll get off my examples now.  My point is that Jesus’s message of love is that we CANNOT dehumanize the other because they are supposed to be as real to us as God is.  We cannot dehumanize the sinner because we are all sinners.  We cannot dehumanize ANYONE because all on this earth are human, and all have value as people, something to contribute to society.  We are to love all people with the same love that we love God with.  That requires deep commitment and hard work.  It is hard not to write off people who are different from us, but as Christians, as people who are called to love, we CANNOT.  We must work to even love those who have hurt us, even those that have dehumanized us, even those that we have dehumanized.  We must see value in one another, and we must show others that we love differently from the world.

We are set apart.

We are called to love.

We are called to love others with the same love that we show for God, and that should change the way that we approach each person we encounter each day.

How do we, as church leaders, approach holistic ministry in a culture that is moving towards being postmodern?  This is the question I am left with after finishing A New Kind of Christian. Though this book is somewhat older, I think it has been very influential for those that are new to trying to define postmodern thought.  I have been familiar with postmodernism as a transformation of our culture for a long time, so this book was not groundbreaking for me.  However, I did think that it spelled things out nicely for someone who is like Dan, someone who realizes something is wrong and something is changing, but can’t quite put their finger on it.

Though this book is not groundbreaking, McLaren does give voice to some of the questions that I and others that are living into this new world have.  You see, the question that I began this post with only seems to bring up more questions.  That, I think, is the beauty of the culture we are moving into.   Questions give birth to more questions, but with each questioning we learn more and go deeper into our faith and ministry.

For example, I ask “what are the components of holistic ministry?”  I have been working with Wesley’s Heal the Sick Program, and part of congregational health ministry is ministering to the whole self—body, mind, spirit, and community.  Then, community comes into play.  How do we minister to the community?  This postmodern world is also post-Christendom, meaning the church is no longer the center of the community.  This has been happening for a long time, and many churches have refused to accept it, but the reality is that the community is not going to come inside the doors of the church. Period. The first step is reaching outside the doors of the church into the community, learning the context that may or may not have been forgotten and beginning to minister in ways that are most beneficial for the person.  Well, that’s one question answered, but it brings up a larger problem: “What/Where is my church’s community?”  This world that we live in is no longer geographically bounded, so the community can be much larger/smaller/different than first imagined.  The same line of questioning can be done for body, mind, and spirit.

In a culture that calls for holistic ministry, we should approach each dimension carefully to find out how ministry can be done contextually.  That is what I think our task is as church leaders today.

I am finally getting to read Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence.  This has been a long time coming.  I heard her speak in Memphis this past January and have been listening to some of my friends fan girl over her for an entire semester.  You know who you are (Scott).  We only got a taste of Phyllis’s story about the Emergence Movement in these first two chapters.  In fact, at the time she wrote this, it hadn’t even been called a movement yet.  What I feel like I am doing here is building a ladder to what I already know about her work.  I hesitate to say her pedestal, but many in this movement do put her work on one.  And I don’t blame them.  Phyllis is a wonderful person, friend to many and is vital to this movement.  Phyllis is the social historian for the Emergence Movement.  It has been her task to put together a narrative of the history of Emergence.  For what was just a band of misfit Christians, Phyllis gave them a story to call their own.  (Personally, I think that her writing legitimized the movement as a movement.)

The main goal of her work is to try to understand the transformation that the Church is going through.  According to Phyllis, every 500 years or so, the Church goes through major transformation, and this is another one of those times.  The culture around the Church has changed enough that the Church is going to have to change to continue to be relevant.  Here, I agree with Phyllis.  The culture is vastly different today than it was 500 years ago, and this does mean the Church has to adapt.    What does this look like though?  We are looking at an increasingly globalized world (not completely globalized yet, mind you).  This means that the Church needs to find ways to be relevant in this context.  Phyllis argues that emergence is the way that this is going to happen.  It is a worldwide movement, and is continuing to grow.  However, I am skeptical about Phyllis’s story of Emergence.  It co-ops the history of other movements—such as the charismatic movement, and adopts people that do not know they were being adopted.  Though I am skeptical, I am excited to read the rest of this story.  I wonder… Do I have a part in this story?  What parts of this story are changing and evolving even as I write this blog post?

Religion or Relationship?

A friend of mine said that it took her a year to read Peter Rollin’s book, How (Not) to Speak of God.  I feel that to fully process it, I need that same amount of time.  However, considering all that has happened in my life over the last week—visit from mom, biopsy, lots of other reading—I have tried to do it all in a night.  Since I haven’t fully processed it—hopefully this will begin in class today, I’m just going to post my first thoughts from the reading.

… Jesus’s very being was a critique of organized religion.  He preached the coming of the Kingdom of God and relationship with God.

… Relationship is the “Prime Directive” of Christianity.  While there is something to be said for orthodoxy, liturgy, tradition, etc., God is concerned with building a relationship with us.

… To build that relationship, a contradiction must exist in us “[we] serve God with all [our] heart because [we] know him, all the while seeking him because [we] do not” (Quote from Rollins pg. 56).

… It is hard for us to fully know God in the human condition.  We bring a lot of baggage to this relationship—a scripture that in no way completely describes God, and contexts that affect our reading and understanding of both that scripture and the way that we experience God.  In that sense, we have a difficult time, not only knowing God, but describing God to others.  Rollins makes an important point about evangelism though.  We may not know anything about God, but we must proclaim God without hesitation.

These are just a few of my first thoughts from Rollins’s book.  I will most likely post more when I begin to process it a little more.

I find it interesting that throughout all of my classes, a common theme has been coming up, “Where is your foundation?”  Rollins’s exploration of the nature of relationship with God brings that question up yet again.  Throughout history, people have found their foundation in different things—scripture, tradition, experience, reason.  For some, one of these trumps the other.  Then there is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that uses all four.  It’s also important to realize that these are interrelated.  We bring our experience to the table when we interpret scripture, and often use reason to interpret our experiences.  However, are any of these a true foundation?  Shouldn’t God be the foundation of all?  So, instead of asking about what your foundation is, I ask ,where do you flourish most in your relationship with God?