Friday, April 28, 2017

Questions 2017, Part II

Is God in the New Testament different than God in the Old Testament? Does God change?

My friend and Pastor Emeritus here at St. Paul's, Dr. Ron Hoellein, says that a key question in understanding our faith is to come to grips with how we view the nature of God. Do believe God is a heaven-borne, vengeful and judgmental deity who gave humanity rules to follow and then waits to harshly judge us as to how well we've kept them? Or do you believe in a loving, grace-giving God who forgives and loves, despite our faults? There are those who would see the former as the "Old Testament" God, and the later as the "New Testament God."

Scripture, when studied and interpreted with consistency, integrity, and in an informed manner, bears witness to a just and loving God who wants the best for God's people, and who desires that we can grow, as humans, to a point where we can "dwell together in unity." Part of an honest interpretation of scripture is allowing it to have its "human" side. All scripture, while "inspired by God," is filtered through the experience of the human community, and then redacted over the centuries by it. I can say, personally, that when viewed through my own "filters," God can sometimes appear to be in judgment of me when I do something ill-advised or sinful, and at other times, I can feel like God is celebrating life right beside me. These perceptions are more my perceptions, and are more my personal feelings, which I, as a person of faith, project upon God in these moments, sort of like the little angel on one shoulder and the little devil on the other from our Saturday morning cartoon days. In this same way, human communities have written in the Bible about a harsh and retributive God who holds them accountable for their actions, while other scriptural authors and communities have penned praises and a view of God as "Abba," or our "daddy" who art in heaven!

Our view of God may change as our circumstances change, but the ultimate issue is what we believe about the nature of God. We know most fully the scriptural view of the nature of God, in my opinion, from John 3:16: For God so loved the world that God sent the only Son into the world that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. God, like a great heavenly parent, loves us so much that God has gone to great sacrifice to see that the people of God can have an abundant life, and that we can "dwell together in unity." There is not one "nasty" God and one really "nice" God. God is God, and God continues to reveal Godself to the world. God's ultimate aim is redemption, reconciliation, and loving, according to the scriptural witness, and according to the witness of the Holy Spirit in the church.

Does God change? I think so. I believe God continues to be affected by the experiences, suffering, and joy of God's people. I believe this is what the cross was all about. The idea that God is "unchanging" is more Greek philosophy than biblical theology. When the scriptures say "Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), it is not speaking about the nature of God, but the aim of God's presence and action among us. Jesus will always be love. Jesus will always reveal God to us. Jesus will always offer grace and forgiveness. These things will never change. However, I believe God so identifies with us, as God's children, that God "grows" to love us more and care about our welfare and the welfare of the world, with a bias toward "the least of these." What loving parent doesn't change and grow to meet her or his child's needs? What parent doesn't listen to and learn from their own children, even as they teach them the family values and set boundaries to keep them safe? What parent doesn't alter these boundaries and empower their child more as they grow and mature? I believe God, as our heavenly parent, does all of these things, too.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Questions 2017, Part I

On the Sunday after Easter, it has become a tradition at St. Paul's to offer a chance to the congregation to ask the pastors questions about faith, the Bible, the church, etc. This year, we invited our Pastor Emeritus, Ron Hoellein, to be a part of our "panel." We pastors are not given advance notice of most of the questions, so we each have a chance to offer our thoughts. It's an interesting exercise, and usually generates even more questions! However, we can never get to more than four or five questions in each worship service, so I offer to tackle some of the "leftover" ones in this blog, dealing with a couple of them per post. So, here goes:

If we commit sin, no matter what it is, are we forgiven?

There were several questions about sin, the nature of sin, and if and how God forgives sin. While libraries of books have been written about this stuff, let me take a stab at answering.

While the Bible lists a lot of things as sins, it is a pretty broad subject. Here 's where I'm at in my understanding: God seems to call anything sin that separates people from God, each other, or may cause physical or psychological harm to any person. In short, sin is what makes communion with God and/or others difficult, if not impossible. Even something like the Thou shalt have no other gods before me prohibition from the "top ten" is more about how adopting multiple "gods" could divide or fracture God's people Israel, hence God says, "Don't do it." In fact, that is exactly what happened, and it DID divide Israel. I am convinced that God calls stuff "sinful" precisely because doing it--and in some cases even thinking it--can break community and put enmity between ourselves and others. It is this heinous disregard for others and the kind of harmonious community that God wants to see us have (dare I say, the Kingdom of God?) that disappoints God to no end, not the actual thing we do. In other words, our stealing stuff might not be a thing for God, but because it will fracture the community or make it near impossible to sustain IS a thing that ticks God off. Another example: a person committing adultery probably doesn't actually "harm" the Creator of the Universe, but it ruins the lives of people God loves, and will drive a wedge into any family. Is this making sense?

I think when we make sin all about "making God angry," a lot of people just aren't swayed by that, especially if they are nominal believers at this point in their lives. However, if we see sin as that which takes a huge toll on the human community that God loves, then maybe all of us can see how disruptive and demeaning it can be. This view also helps us understand why certain things are prohibited in earlier eras of the scriptural record, but that as the needs and circumstances of the society--the people of God--changed, so did the list of "sins." The Bible doesn't specifically prohibit bullying or abusing drugs, but in our day, these clearly threaten persons and communities.

Part two: Are we forgiven? Short answer: yes. One of the major reasons Jesus came was to "unplug" the power of sin as something that would condemn us eternally. However it worked, on the cross, Jesus said, "It is finished," and I believe he meant the idea that our sins would forever separate us from God. However, he spent most of his time on earth teaching us how to behave toward each other so that we might become a loving, just, and peaceful people together. While the power of sin has been cancelled, its "shadow" still must be erased from human action in such a way that we no longer harm each other and we learn how to "all get along." I think the Holy Spirit was sent to empower us to do just this. We live in a post-resurrection community where we are empowered to forgive each other to love each other and to work for justice and peace. These are the things that glorify God.

People sometimes confuse forgiving sins and accountability. While God forgives, we are usually not dismissed from the human--and sometimes even very physical--consequences of our behaviors. God may forgive me from having an angry argument with my wife, but I must ask her forgiveness, apologize, and work to reconcile the hurt and separation caused by the argument. This is a fairly benign example. Another: God forgives me for breaking the speed limit in my car, but the officer will not refrain from giving me a costly ticket for the infraction. You can figure out the accountability for more dangerous behaviors.

As a post-resurrection world, I don't think we need to worry much about "hell" or "damnation" in some eternal sense. I think the Christ Event was huge enough to take care of all of that, even for the whole world. However, if we don't get with loving others according to the teachings of Jesus, we will miss out on any kind of "abundant life," and may do much harm to ourselves, others, and any chance of building a loving, just, and peaceful human community. That sounds like a "hell" to me! And while I don't really know much about what Heaven will be like (the Bible really doesn't say much), it is clear that we will continue to relate to others, and if my temporal life was more about me than thee, and if I was more of a divider than a uniter (to paraphrase a past President), then my early experiences in Heaven will provoke some tears. That's why Revelation 21 has to say, "And God shall wipe away all their tears..." The tears will be the ones we created. The Good News is that God will even begin to heal THESE in eternity. The lessons of Jesus, however, were about how to stop hurting, using, beating down, and marginalizing each other now, in this life, so that we are more ready to share eternity with each other, whatever form that takes.

More questions in upcoming posts..."Go and sin no more!"

Saturday, April 15, 2017

What to tell the Easter crowd...

I had a clergy friend who joked one Easter that he would see many of those who showed up for church again at Christmas time. It was a bad idea. Several families were offended, and left his church.  Should they have been offended? Should he have not said what he said? I don't know. From my perspective, you worship with those who come. Period. And if they only come at Christmas and Easter? Then celebrate the heck out of Christmas and Easter with them! That's what I say. Where would we all be if Jesus had decided to only take seriously the regular, weekly synagogue crowd? You go with whomever shows up. That's the gospel, my friends. Oh, and you don't pre-judge them on other standards, either, even if you can extract and distort a nasty zinger from the pages of scripture. Jesus had some rough words for the religious leaders who did that in his day.

I learned years ago that there are only two things that play well in the pulpit on Easter and Christmas: the STORY, and any new slant on it that jazzes you up in your sermon prep study (usually, if it jazzes you up, it will catch someone else's attention, too). But don't forget the STORY! Give people room to find their place in it; don't always tell them where to find themselves. These are smart people--they don't need us to arm-bar them to get it.

Speaking of jazzed up, as I was studying Jesus' trial in John 18 in preparation for Good Friday's message, I saw something I've never noticed before. The text says that when the chief priests asked Jesus about what he had been saying or preaching about that got him in so much trouble, he tells them that he always spoke publicly, and not in secret, and that if they wanted to know what he had been saying, they should ask his followers, and they would tell them! Wow. What I got from this is that Jesus was willing to hang his whole trial on what his followers said about what he said. And, I told the St. Paul's Good Friday crowd that Jesus is still doing that today! Jesus is hanging the whole Kingdom of God thing and the gospel on what WE say about what he said. That means we had better get it right! If our version of the gospel isn't totally accepting of everyone who shows up, if our version of the gospel isn't loaded with grace and redemption, if our version of the gospel cuts and excludes and marginalizes people, then we are basically telling the world that this is what Jesus thinks about them. Can anyone say "awesome responsibility"?

One final thing. Everyone who shows up on Easter ought to hear a lot about love. It's really all love, isn't it? Sin has been solved on the cross, and the resurrection reminds us that, going forward, it is all about love, forgiveness, reconciliation, learning how to live with each other in peace, building up each other, and ushering in the Realm of God right here, right now.

Anyone who leaves an Easter service feeling scolded or browbeat should find a new church. We all ought to walk out of worship on Easter like we, too, have just left a cold tomb behind, and are walking into the light. If drama is the "willing suspension of disbelief," then this is high drama! All of us should be willing to suspend our disbelief, instead to believe that the Risen Christ continues to rise in us, continues to love in us, continues to heal in us. Someone wrote, "there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus", and how right he was!

Now, Yinz, we've got some rising to do. Get out there and let the love fly freely. Stop asking people for their ID before offering them grace. Please stay within your pay grade when making decisions about who is "worthy" of this stuff. Jesus sure expended a lot of energy on that cross, and even more in conquering death, sin, and suffering. Don't sap his strength with judgment. To quote a bishop I once served, "Let's take this baby out and see what she'll do!"

Happy Easter, Yinz!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Holy Week Blues...

I've been in ministry almost as long as Jesus was alive on Earth. This will be my 32nd Holy Week observance since becoming a pastor. This fact offers a unique challenge: What "fresh" or "new" stuff can I glean from the old, old stories of Jesus and His cross?

One might ask, "Why do you have to find something new? Aren't the timelessness and theological significance of the stories of Holy Week enough? (Well, that last part about "theological significance," you might not ask, but I would...)

Understand, that this is the Modus Operandi of almost 32 years of preaching. Each week, as I study the biblical texts in sermon preparation, I scour them for something I've never "seen" before, or for some new angle that makes me go, "Ah HA!" Then, I try to preach the "Ah HA!", figuring that if the "find" is interesting to me, it must might be to someone else in the listening audience. Often, members of my congregation are astounded--even excited--about some novel aspect of the sermon or text, but usually nowhere near my personal "Ah Ha!" Still, I'm good with that, for it signals the Spirit was afoot, and kept me from tripping over my own big homiletical feet. Jesus saves again!

Back to Holy Week. First, there is Maundy Thursday, which some call Holy Thursday. This is the day we commemorate Jesus' washing the feet of the disciples, and sharing the Last Supper with them. The church I attended throughout my adolescent years called it Maundy Thursday. Did you ever wonder what Maundy means? Actually there are a lot of theories about this. One is that it comes from a Latin word, mandatum (mandate), referring to Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you." Others suggest it is from an old English custom of placing "maundy baskets" out to collect alms for the poor. In archaic English, "maundy" means "money."

Some churches wash feet on Maundy Thursday. As a young pastor, celebrating my first Holy Week, I did this. That congregation pretty much went along with anything I wanted to try, as I was the youngest pastor they ever had, was laboring as a seminary student, and they really liked my family. The whole thing went pretty well, but I could tell that 20th Century folk didn't have the same sense of blessing from having their feet washed in front of 80 or 90 people by a guy wearing a black pulpit robe and using his car wash towels to dry them. Each year after, as we planned subsequent Holy Maundy Thursday services, member would recall that first foot washing. Hearing that they seemed to harbor warm memories of it, I would ask, "Would you like to do it again this year?" To which they kindly responded, "Ah...No...No...No..." Got it.

This year at St. Paul's, we're having an "educational Seder." We do it for our Confirmation class, but open it to the whole church. I learned years ago that our Jewish friends really like us to educate our people about this important Passover observance, and don't even mind that we sample the symbolic foods, but they don't necessarily like us actually "doing a Seder," as this is a Jewish ritual. Also, they really don't like it when we "Christianize" the thing, equating each of the liturgical food elements with some part of Jesus' suffering, or whatever. So, we're telling what and why the Jewish people hold a Seder, and will sample the foods, followed by an actual meal of matzo ball soup and salad. Of course, many suggest that the Seder is what Jesus celebrated with the disciples, but several scholars point out that, while Jewish people celebrated the Passover, the configuration and Haggadah (story) of the Seder don't appear until the pages of the Mishnah writings, which wasn't written until around or after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., or well after Jesus instituted the Last Supper.

Good Friday is a mysterious, foreboding, even depressing observance. Mel Gibson made it even worse with his gory movie, The Passion of the Christ. The theology of what is going on when the Son of God submits himself to such horror, only to have it end in the cruel form of capital punishment known as crucifixion, trumps any film depiction of human violence. Imagine: God's Son on the cross, like a common criminal, and even God "abandons" him. Libraries of books have been written theorizing what all is going on here in an event theologians dub "the atonement." Frankly, I find it just awful. I'd like to think that this mode of granting redemption and forgiveness might be something much more civil if Christ had waited to come to Earth in our time, but honestly, do you think it would? If God deemed that this "sacrifice" was necessary, even if Jesus had tarried until our century, imagine if the Good Friday story had Jesus in front of a firing squad, suspended from a hangman's noose, strapped into an electric chair, or, even worse, tied to a gurney with poisons dripped into his veins. That kind of puts it in perspective, doesn't it? I have to admit, I don't understand the "science" of the atonement. Why did Christ have to die? I get the whole Old Testament sacrifice deal, but couldn't there have been another way? I guess this is exactly what Jesus was asking God in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Sometimes we light candles on Good Friday. Sometimes we put them out. Either way, we usually end up in darkness. At St. Paul's, we will celebrate Communion again. The sacrament of grace at least reminds us we are remembering, but that, thanks-be-to-God, we are living in the post-resurrection community. Even as we will walk out in silence on Good Friday, our hearts are strangely warmed by the fact that the current state of our Savior is alive and well in 2017.

By the time Holy Week gets to Easter, we are quite ready for its arrival. It's a little like smacking yourself on the knuckles with a ball peen hammer--it feels so good when you quit. On Easter, the knuckle-smacking ends and the healing begins. But that is the subject of yet another post.

And the theological significance of Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection are the subject of more libraries of books than even Amazon could contain.

May your Holy Week serve to remind you that you are in the "image" of God, that God loved you so much Jesus came here to walk among us, and that no sacrifice was too great for you to be restored, redeemed, reconciled, and embraced by the Divine. Shalom, Yinz.

What's Next?

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