Friday, September 20, 2019

That Darned Jesus...

The church I serve has as its Vision Statement: We will be an inclusive, diverse church, loving others according to the teachings of Jesus and working for justice and peace in our world. It's that "teachings of Jesus" part that gets hard.

I'm not talking about accepting--and even sharing--the redeeming, reconciling, and transforming grace of God offered to us in the Christ Event. We don't stumble much over that, unless our "diversity" is limited, and we "screen" those with whom we share this "good news." But, in general, we're good, at this point.

And most of us would probably affirm the "great commandments" Jesus challenges us with: Loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Oh, we can get bogged down in the questions of "What is sabbath?" or "Who is my neighbor?", but again, we mostly good here, too.

It's when we start to look at the example of Jesus that we get a little kerfuffled. Jesus truly welcomed the stranger, ate with "sinners," and hung out with the ne'er-do-wells of the first century BCE. Even the lepers found a friend in Jesus. He wasn't afraid to "correct" the judgmental religious leaders, and suggested to them that they should "grow up" from just enforcing religious laws to realize that the role of the law was to turn people toward a relationship with God, not "appease" God. And, if that wasn't enough, when push came to shove, he let them push him through beatings and thorny crowns, and shove him onto a cross. He wasn't afraid to make the "ultimate sacrifice" for what he believed in, and what he believed in was US! And thanks to the resurrection, he still does.

In a sermon series on "Changing our Expectations," we have been looking at the parables of Jesus. Some of them are a bit hard to decipher for our time, as they are almost hopelessly buried in a first century context--you know, one of those "You had to be there" deals. We do our best, but parables like the "Crooked Manager" or the "Unrighteous Judge" are really hard to "fix" for our time. The rich man who is about to fire his crooked manager for cooking the books actually ends up praising him for being "shrewd" when he connives yet again to endear himself to the ones he screwed in the first place. What do we do with that?

Then there are the "Beatitudes" of Matthew 5, and part of the "Sermon on the Mount." Some of them make good ethical or moral sense:

-"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
-"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
-Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
-"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."

Then there are these:

-"Blessed are the poor in spirit, or theirs is the kingdom of heaven." What? What does it mean to be "poor in spirit"? Could it mean they live in full realization that apart from God's grace we are bankrupt right to our core? Maybe. Or could it mean we will only find true riches in life through faith in God? Maybe. Whatever, the outcome is that those who either have--or attain--this characteristic will hold the keys to the kingdom. That's pretty important stuff. Maybe we should be a bit more diligent figuring out what this "beatitude" means?

-"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." OK, if this is just a statement of "blessing," telling us that when we find ourselves in grief, God will comfort us, I'm sure we can endorse this. However, since these statements of Jesus seem to be things we would be good to emulate, does this mean we should "seek" to mourn? Is this about the biblical understanding of "suffering," which is something to embrace, according to most of scripture, rather than to avoid? Are we to mourn for the lost, or the hurting, or the poor? Maybe. In doing so, do we develop the heart of compassion addressed in the "beatitude" about mercy and purity of heart? Is Jesus saying that our empathy for others will cause us to mourn, which should cause us to act on their behalf--including praying for them--and God will comfort us as we minister to and comfort them? Maybe.

-"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." What? It seems we had better figure out what "meek" means, because "inheriting the earth" is a big deal. At a time when we seem freshly bent on "consuming" the earth rather than preserving it and being good stewards of it, might we suggest that this "me first" response is the opposite of "meek"? The "meek" may be those who realize that we are only one part of a creation God pronounced as "good," and that while we have been "given dominion" over the rest of it, that was not meant to be a license to kill, destroy, or otherwise "use up" the "good stuff" God made. "Meek" may mean respectful of God's handiwork, and being of the mind to nurture the earth and its bounty, preserving it and even "improving" it for those who come after us. That works for me. How about you?

-"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Ouch. "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more..." Being like Jesus here means taking the crap that he took, from religious leaders, rich people, Roman authorities, and even ungrateful recipients of his miraculous healing ministry. Two important things here, and both of them are hard medicine: the "blessing" or "reward in heaven" is only granted when we are doing this for Jesus sake, i.e. for living out our faith with integrity and purpose; and we must not be jerks. Sam Calian, former president of my seminary, used to tell us budding preachers, "There's a fine line between being prophetic and being a jerk." The prophets got persecuted because they spoke a word of what God wanted to say to the people of their age, not because they mouthed off about what THEY thought about "what the Bible says" or tried to superimpose their religious prejudices upon the rest of the people. That's being a jerk. The business of interpreting scripture and what God wants to "say" to our time is hard work, and should be surrounded by prayer, grace, and with God's people in mind, not trite doctrines, enforcing "rules," and calling a judgmental spirit "keeping the covenant." Take a look around at who is really being persecuted. Those who promote "rule keeping" or maintaining the religious status quo are doing it to applause and a chorus of "amens." Edgy interpretations of God's Word that include, affirm, and transform society into a loving community are currently being slammed, and these "preachers" are being brought up on charges. While it's hard to "rejoice and be glad" when one is being branded "unfaithful" or "heretical," we will have to remember we are in good company, at least according to Jesus.

Long ago, I stopped coining that popular phrase, "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD), as most of the time, what Jesus did is really hard to replicate, and doing so may get you in serious trouble with the religious crowd, even in 2019. That darned Jesus. He continues to push the hanging out with those whom others disdain, to wreck walls people want to build against others, and to envision a kingdom and an earth "inherited" by people who love radically. This isn't going to be easy. I'll bet that's what he heard in Gethsemane, too.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Blogger's Block...

What do you write in a blog when you have nothing to write? Well, you begin to take inventory of what is happening around you to see if you choose to comment on it. Probably boring, but here goes (just so I don't forget how to "keyboard"):

--The church I serve just kicked off our Fall worship schedule this past Sunday, and we combined four Sunday morning services into one. I guess some would call that "blended" worship. Musically, we sang a variety of hymns and songs, had our "Lifeboat" praise band as well as our Wesleyan Choir, singing. We featured our bell choir, which shared a beautiful piece of bell music. Combining services meant Pastor Karen Slusser and I could share leadership of the service. We had lots of kids, who were treated to a fun "children's message." Oh, and we hosted a picnic lunch afterwards, with maybe the biggest turnout we have seen at one of these. Our worship theme for the Fall is "Changing Expectations," we began with a Bible story chock-full of expectations on the part of each character in it--the miracle story of the water into wine at Cana, the beginning of the "signs" of Jesus from John's "book of signs." The story from the gospel is "sketchy," to say the least. The narrative says that Mary approaches Jesus (who has brought his raucous band of disciples with him to the wedding) to tell him "The wine gave out." I suggested Mary told Jesus because his disciples were probably responsible for the consumption of mass quantities of wine. Turning this group of fishermen and tax collectors loose at a wedding with an open bar would be akin to inviting a college fraternity. This story has expectations galore: the steward expects the best wine first, followed by the Boone's Farm when the guests were drunk, but had his expectations shattered when the "miracle" wine was the "best for last." Mary expects Jesus can do something about the dearth of wine. Jesus seems upset at his Mom's prompting, and his expectation is "My time has not yet come." As far as Mary goes, yes it has. The servants certainly had no expectation that the 180 gallons of water they collected in the jars of purification would instantly be turned to a really great Pinot Noir. And, if I'm right, the disciples didn't expect that their swilling of the first wine offering would be rewarded with a more bounteous and better libation. Out of the story, we challenged our congregation to take inventory, over the coming weeks of Bible stories, of their expectations, of themselves, of God, of their church, and of their friends, family, and significant others. We suggested that most of us are probably operating out of misplaced, exaggerated, or deflated expectations we have, or that have been "programed" into us by others and life. God can redeem and heal lots of things, but too often we shield our expectations from God's transforming love and grace. Let's not.

--Vacation's over. The challenges of Fall activities, meetings, and crises have begun to present themselves. Bonhoeffer wrote that "life together" is hard for religious people. Our faith, and the church, puts us in close proximity and fellowship with "others." These others don't necessarily share our family values, habits, and prejudices, nor do they share our interests, our aims, or even how to deal with "normal chaos" of life. How do we build community in the church without killing each other? How do we engage in shared ministry when we don't agree what our priorities are? How do we overcome our own demand for services and attention, in order to see that others may have greater needs that should be met first? And how do we responsibly lead the church through theological reflection and studying the scriptures when our diversity often leads to broadly differing interpretation of these? Oh, and then there's the whole issue of stewardship--funding ministry, staffing ministry with increasingly reluctant volunteers, and asking for more time from families whose choices and opportunities have already co-opted their time to the point of near psychoses. The Bible says that if we lack wisdom, we should ask God for it. Well, the degree to which we lack "wisdom" in this rapidly changing context in which we find ourselves, should lead us to a constant revival meeting of prayer for God's insights! In my 35th year of ministry, in some ways, I feel more clueless than what I started. Biblically, that means God finally has me right where God wants me. Boy, I hate that...

--On a lighter subject, the Pittsburgh Steelers began their season Sunday evening with an embarrassment during Prime Time television. We Steelers fans can harp all we want about how Tom Brady is actually an android, capable of perfectly reproducing Hall of Fame passes play after play; how Bill Belichick is the "Evil Emperor" who reads the minds of opposition quarterbacks and coaches like I read the newspaper; and how the Patriots manage to collect every banner player in the game to add to their unequaled legacy of titles. Maybe the fact that they just keep winning Super Bowls is a factor in this latter success? Who wouldn't want to play for a team that pretty much guarantees the limelight and a regular series of playoff checks? But, if we are honest, we have to admit that the Steelers looked like a rusty Volkswagen Beetle up against a Ferrari, and they ain't "Herbie." Rookies buoyed by success in the preseason got a sudden and serious dose of NFL reality. Veterans who believe they "still have it," found out that "it" is slower and gets fatigued much earlier. Evening Prime Time games--once a "shining star" for Pittsburgh--may be past their bedtime. Of course, it could just be the "slow start" that has become typical under Coach Tomlin, and the Black and Gold could yet gather a head of steam in the weeks ahead. Cleveland and Cincinnati, division rivals, both looked like they matched competitive wits with Pittsburgh in week one, so maybe we shouldn't panic. Then I looked at Baltimore's score. OH's going to be a  l-o-n-g season...

--Today (Monday), I am enjoying a day off, after kickoffs 2019. I'm hoping the weather holds up so I can take a spin in the Batmobile later (my "new" 2008 jet-black Mazda Miata). I just finished an hour on a Medieval torture rack they have renamed "Bowflex." At my age, I'm lifting weights in an attempt to beef up my upper self, to deflect attention away from my lower self, that may be carrying the extra mass of long days, bad diet, and a too-often sedentary career (I'm guessing the typing I'm doing now is burning about three calories?). The week ahead looks brutal. How about yours? Are we all allowing ourselves to be squished under the weight of expectations--ours, our perception of God's for us, or those of others? As one of my good clergy friends is fond of saying, "Be good to yourself." Maybe this is exactly what Jesus meant when he told us to "love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Beat, beat-up, and beating people will always have a hard time offering or accepting love. But that's a different message for a different time. For now, let me just leave you with this: Shalom, Dear Ones!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...