Friday, June 24, 2022

Left Behind...


“Left Behind”


2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
2:1 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.

2:2 Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel.

2:6 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on.

2:7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.

2:8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

2:9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit."

2:10 He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not."

2:11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.

2:12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, "O Lord, O Lord! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

2:13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.

2:14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, "Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?" When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.


Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins co-authored a series of books and went on to create a multi-media empire around them. You may know them as the “Left Behind” series that used fear, glamour, and bad writing to conjecture what a world empire run by Revelation’s Anti-Christ might look like. This sermon has NOTHING to do with that.


Instead, let’s look at the colorful story from today’s scripture about the Elijah succession and his young apprentice, Elisha. First of all, it must have been extremely confusing for the people of that era to have someone succeed the great prophet, Elijah, with a name that sounded so much like his, especially if you had a lisp. And then we find out that Elisha was now brandishing his master’s mantle, which would have been even more confusing. 


For those of you who don’t know, a mantle is a kind of wind-breaking cape designed to ward off the cold. Given that these two were plying their trade in the deserts of the Mid-East, I’m guessing their regular wearing of it may have added to the prevailing view that they were a bit strange. In the United Methodist tradition, it has become a common practice to celebrate the ordaining of new Elders by symbolically “passing the mantle” to the newly minted generation of clergy. A retiring Elder cites this passage from II Kings, removes the mantle he has donned for the ceremony, and places it on the shoulders of an ordinand, who likewise responds with some allusion to this text. It would be much more dramatic if she or he could strike the lake (now that our Annual Conference is meeting right beside Lake Erie) and have it part, but the majesty of the brief ceremony must suffice. 


Incidentally, my class of ordinands chose the oldest member of our probationary class to receive the mantle, which raised the ire of the organizers of the mantle-passing, as the recipient was only a few years younger than the retiring pastor. Still, our class was known for kicking against the pricks, as Paul would say, and we prevailed. 


That Elijah left earth on a fiery chariot certainly kept up the special effects he initiated on Mount Carmel that consumed more than just the attention of the prophets of Baal. I guess we could say that Elijah was a bit of a firebug. 


From my reading about him, I would also say Elijah was a victim of bipolar disorder. In his manic moments, he obliterated 850 of his detractors in a flash of heaven-fire. In his depressive ones, he hid in a cave and feared that he alone was left to speak for God. Without medication, it took God’s best efforts to even things out for him, but honestly, much as we Methodists witnessed in John Wesley, this vacillating between the highs and lows does generate a passion that can drive a movement. It can be real hard on their subordinates, though.


For Elisha, who was about to be left behind as Elijah’s successor, it was quite a challenge. How do you follow Elijah’s act? The easy answer would be to say, simply, “Stay faithful to the Lord God and follow God’s lead.” Unless you are one of those people who claim to hear God’s voice clearly or take the Bible very literally, such faith-based prompts may be a little hard to follow. Besides, as God has made us each unique creatures, it stands to reason that an important part of succession is to put our personal stamp—we Methodists might say our “gifts and graces”—on our work. And since we Methodists still attempt to keep an itinerant clergy system alive, we are such mantle-passers that any of my colleagues can certainly identify with Elisha in this story. Way too many of my clergy friends have rode off with the mantle, leaving the church burning, instead. When your first act of ministry in a new appointment is putting out a conflagration ignited or at least fanned by your predecessor, it’s hard to build street cred with the congregation when you’re dousing flames amidst all the singeing and smoke, and when you emerge looking like Eppie just leaving the “tole hole.” 


Then there are others who try so hard to offer the mantle to their successor, but it is the “new Elisha” who refuses it, wanting instead to carve their own path. While this is not necessarily bad, sometimes this methodology involves “cleaning house” with church leadership, and even being less than gracious in appraising a predecessor’s achievements. This, too, may serve more to alienate than to foster a smooth transition in leadership. 


Prophets prior to Elijah, for example, Moses, were predominantly focused on the people they served. Remember how many times Moses lobbied for the people even against God, who was mad enough at them to “do evil” against them? Elijah’s reign as prophet represented a bit of a sea change in the role, with the emphasis being more on speaking for God, often against the behavior or attitude of the people. Interestingly, while Elisha continues the speaking role of the prophet like his mentor, he does return to using his “power” to do miracles and perform healings for the people of God. In essence, his successorship melds together the Moses and Elijah modes of prophetic ministry.


Elisha’s inspired moment was asking for a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. This acknowledged both Elisha’s respect for the ministry of his mentor, and made clear to God that he was more than happy to continue speaking for God in the manner of Elijah. He was not going to go all postal about being his “own man” or demanding that Israel now look to HIM, rather than the recently departed prophet. On one hand, he was putting both the transition and the continuity of the work in God’s hand, and yet on the other, he was about to personally and gladly receive a symbol of authority that he would wear and use proudly. Elisha was a smart person.


Several times in my 36 years of ministry I was appointed to follow long-term, well-liked clergy leaders. One of these was Dr. Don Scandrol, who was also one of my chosen “soft mentors,” early on. (“Soft mentor” means that I chose to observe them and learn from their ministry at a distance, based on my assessment that they were highly effective in their craft.) While some of the staff knew me at Coraopolis UMC, I was an unknown quantity to most, so on my first Sunday, the place was full, and the collective eye of the congregation glared upon me. I began my sermon with this story:


A funny thing happened to me as I arrived at the church this morning. I went to my new office, unlocked the door, and tried to open it. It opened a few inches, but then acted like it was blocked. As the music director was passing by, he asked if there was a problem. I said, “Yes, I can’t get the door to my office open. It feels like there is a sofa up against it, or something.” “OH,” he exclaimed, “That’s just a pair of Don’s SHOES he left for you to fill!”


The congregation burst into laughter, but it was a measured laugh, signaling relief, more than a hearty endorsement. Still, it let them know that I would not be competing with Dr. Don.


A number of years later, I would be appointed as the lead pastor of a large congregation in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. What was significant—and challenging—about this appointment was that I would be the successor to a lead pastor who was ALSO a mentor to me, as I had served as one of his associate pastors in that same church, when he was appointed there 22 years before. The good news was that my five years on staff in that church had been well-received and productive, both as viewed by the congregation and my mentor, the lead pastor. The bad news was that, while some of the staff and half the congregation already knew and accepted me, the other half were uninitiated. On top of that, Dr. Ron’s 22 years were extraordinary, and part of my charge was to find a way to regularly acknowledge the priceless contribution his ministry had made to this congregation without seeming patronizing. 


Summer at a large, suburban church is kind of hit and miss, so my first real opportunity to speak to the “elephant in the room” mantle-passing happened at our huge “kickoff” picnic and outdoor worship service the week after Labor Day. Again, it was a packed house (field behind the church, actually), and that congregational cyclops eye was upon me. Remember that I had already been serving the church for almost two months by this time, and here is how I began that important sermon:


Since arriving back at St. Paul’s as your lead pastor in July, I’ve had this strange feeling or sensation that I just couldn’t put my finger on. While so many of you have already made Dara and me feel welcome, and while the Leadership Team has been wonderful in accepting me to the table, there was just something “off” about it. This week, as I was working on this sermon, it hit me: Like so many of you, I have never known St. Paul’s without Ron Hoellein. It’s a new and unsettling experience for me.


There was literally a collective, startled “sigh” from the hundreds gathered. There was again an awkward, yet motivating moment of bonding that occurred. In the following weeks, I received a number of notes of affirmation to this acknowledgement, but more than that, it spurred many conversations of how Dr. Hoellein’s ministry had touched persons’ lives. They felt “safe” to share these stories with me, and it became part of our transition “healing” together. I’m guessing the Cabinet and the Bishop felt “safe” in their assessment of my attitudes and “style,” that I would not be stunted by serving in the shadow of the legacy of my predecessor. I was not.


I included these stories not to bulk up the sermon, but to illustrate ways we can learn from these wonderful biblical stories. I learned from Elisha. Rather than stew over having to follow a “legend,” I asked for a “double share” of the Spirit that made them successful! And when your predecessor’s mantle falls—note that we have no indication in the story regarding whether this was intentional or not, and if intentional, on whose part—Elisha proudly picks it up and “bookends” the experience by performing the same miracle Elijah did with it earlier in the story.


Pastors can learn from Elisha, but so can others. How many times have you been asked—or forced—to follow someone whose legacy was evident? It could have been in your career, or an older sibling, or when you were elected an officer in your church. Look to Elisha to get a few clues as to how to handle the transition. 


And if YOU are the one who is handing off the mantle, take a few lessons from Jesus who spent three years preparing his little band of disciples to continue the work of the gospel. He kept lifting them up, even when they were clueless; encouraging them when they came back from a failed mission experience; and correcting them with love when they blew the easy answer to one of his questions. And at the end of the Gospel of John, he challenges them to “Feed my lambs,” while predicting that they would do GREATER THINGS than he did when he “goes back to God.” Plan for your OWN succession with the motivation that the success of the one who follows you will be both a boon to the organization and a feather in your cap, not a negative reflection on what you accomplished in the role.


Finally, there is the issue of the attitude you project. Elisha did not act like he was going to be LEFT BEHIND by Elijah’s exit, but instead, that he would take the baton of Elijah’s ministry and RUN with it. How we approach the inevitable transitions we face in life makes all the difference. 


Even God manages to keep a positive attitude about the future of the church. Our own denomination is facing a transition that has the potential to either ruin the legacy of United Methodism or multiply it. Our attitude will make all the difference, but on God’s part, Jesus said “…the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church. That’s forward looking, isn’t it? If the schism most are predicting in the United Methodist Church occurs, two or more mantles may fall. The successors to United Methodism may either choose to use the mantle to part the waters and journey forward, or wrap themselves in it to steel them against the cold, hide in a cave, and gripe that they alone are left. Will we ask for a double share of the Spirit of those who preceded us? Or will we just feel left behind? The choice, like it was for Elisha, is ours to make. Amen.

Friday, June 17, 2022

The Ungodly Love of God...


“The Ungodly Love of God”

Romans 5:6-8

5:6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

5:7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.

5:8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.


A good friend and mentor often asserts that our view of life and our theology is greatly affected by how we understand the nature of God. If our view of God is that God is a rule-giver and a “governor” who punishes rule-breakers, then we will focus our spiritual lives on understanding and keeping the rules we see in the Bible, and build a belief on the concept that if we are a good rule-keeper, we will be living on the right side of the Almighty. There are a number of problems with this view of the nature of God, however. First of all, it may push the adherent to see the Bible as mostly a rule book of good behavior, supported by a “cast” of potential punishments or “expulsions” from God’s favor, if we fall short of the rules. This understanding of the Bible is typically much more objective, since it hones in on the “lists” of “do’s and don’ts.” Objective is not always negative (as we might learn from science), but when it leaves one with such a limited view of scriptural interpretation that the “gray” areas of life are hardly addressed, it does a disservice to a broader view of God, God’s people, and the world. Secondly, this narrow view of the nature of God may quickly grow judgmental against those who either don’t “get” it and/or those who don’t share it, since it has such a strong “ethic” of “right” and “wrong.” Such an objective view necessarily colors one’s ability and desire to “umpire” others’ views of life, and if that one happens to regularly occupy a pulpit, it may make the sermons easier to write and give, which may be why it is a popular position among the ordained. To most of these folk, subjectivism is often seen as a pox upon the system, and a curse.


Of course, if one’s view of the nature of God is that of a benevolent, creative Deity who spends most of her time attempting to lure the creation toward better ends, more edifying behaviors, and a degree of mutual support that leads to a “beloved community” out there somewhere, subjectivism is a major tool of interpreting scripture and defining one’s spirituality. In this case, it is also a bit of curse, however, as rarely do such subjective views align “tightly,” even from one person to the next. Those of us with this view understand this, however, and tend toward “dialogue” and on-going “conversation” to find points of agreement and define community-nurturing “boundaries.” Leaning toward a subjective, “negotiating” view of the human’s relationship with God also energizes the dispute with the “rules” people, as what we see as our greatest “strength” and contribution to the understanding of the Bible and Deity, becomes precisely what the other crowd sees as our greatest failure. These divergent views make for many a nasty Facebook post, and Annual Conferences that sound like four-year-olds fighting over a Popsicle. 


This is a sermon, and not an academic paper on how theological views may differ markedly. If it were, I’d have to explore the psychology of differing personality types, socialization, and even the history of one’s upbringing. How one was parented probably speaks loads to how one views God, for example. Then there are the various “schools” we attend to explore and enrich our theology, whether this is referring to formal institutions of study (seminaries) or the books we buy and read. I might claim that “objective” types seek to reinforce their set of beliefs in this aim, while more “subjective” types are out to challenge their assumptions and grow wiser through the resulting “wrestling match.” Of course this would be a simplistic pair of assumptions, and as usual, the “truth” is probably somewhere in the middle. Again, this is a sermon, and not a treatise, so I’ll keep my stereotypes simple, and my assumptions as flawed as they often are in homiletical practice…


Back to my original premise: our view of the nature of God necessarily colors how we see God “behave” in God’s handling of the human condition. Now, let’s throw today’s Romans text into the fray, which I contend throws a “monkey wrench” into either simplistic and polarized views of God’s nature.


I had a parishioner in my earliest appointment who often did very kind, even loving things for my young family. When I thanked him for it, he would typically exclaim, “You’re welcome—it’s easy to be nice to nice people.” On one hand, I’m sure he meant that as a compliment, that we were “nice people.” However, it was always a troubling statement to me, as it made me think that it must therefore be much harder to do nice things for people who aren’t so nice. I used to think to myself, “Isn’t this exactly what God wants the Christian to be able to do? And at the drop of a hat?” I think this is at least a part of the destination the Apostle Paul is taking us to in this narrative from Romans.


Language like “Christ died for the UNGODLY” and “…while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” certainly signals a God who lives between the rule-keepers and the subjective wrestlers. Paul is basically saying, “I don’t care what you think, God’s love is ungodly, because it is bestowed at its most profound level (the atoning death of God’s own Son) for those who don’t deserve it, haven’t even yet yielded to it, and whose behavior resists pardon as a necessity of their self-acceptance. In short, the “lowest common denominator” of the people God “died” for are people none of the rest of us “like.” Oh, we may fain some spiritualized “love” for them, say a prayer or two for them, or even gin up religious, evangelical fervor for “converting” them, but in our heart of hearts, both the rule-keepers and the subjective wrestlers are just fine if they ultimately “reap what they have sown.” And if any of these dastardly types DO find Christ, we must again fain some level of “joy” at their change of faith, and bite our lips as their often dramatic “testimony” slams our “elder son’s” indignancy to the mat. That God would love these people enough to die for them is simply ungodly!


But they are the ones God loves most, because they most need the rescuing power of God’s grace to break through. THIS is “ungodly” love, at least according to the classic “poles” of the views of the nature of God outlined earlier. Pretty much all of the rule-keepers and the subjective wrestlers grew up in a church and/or a “church-going” family. The ones God gravitates most toward, at least according to Paul, did not, and therefore don’t have a clue about “how this works.” The rule-keepers will “rejoice that another sinner has come home” when the ungodly repent, but let that one break a “major” rule after having done so, and the lesson will begin with haste and hellfire. The subjective wrestlers will, likewise, be happy to see the “faith journey” of the ungodly inaugurate, but neither do we refrain from our theological and sociological “analysis” of their sitz im leben, or what the restorative powers of grace must do to “fix” them so their life will be better. Either way, these people will not find rest from the religious crowd when they discover the ungodly love of God.


Paul is writing to people who are already “Christian” in this text when he says that God “proves God’s love to us.” The “ungodly” who repent have no need of proof, as it is a sudden and life-changing discovery for them. The “proof” is regularly necessary for the “community of faith” these new converts will be urged to join, as we continue to doubt a God who loves people who are “like that.” We won’t say it, but we feel it, WAY too often. Both “poles” honestly have a problem with the ”ungodly” grace of God. The rule-keepers—while obvious beneficiaries of it—don’t cotton to how widely it is spread by God, and would prefer to narrow this focus, at least until some of these people are willing to take the rules more seriously. The subjective wrestlers celebrate the breadth of God’s grace, but will go postal when these “baby Christians” jump into the bath water with the rule-keepers and “Bible-thumpers,” as most certainly will. Why? Because when an individual experiences such a traumatic (even when it is “good” trauma) “paradigm shift,” one craves the firm footing of objectivity, at least for a “milk of the Word” season. The subjective wrestlers aren’t thrilled when these formerly “ungodly” folk begin spouting scripture and even promote “button-hole” evangelical practices. We would prefer that they “engage in dialogue” with us, deepen their “faith journeys,” and find a place in our supportive community.


Let’s face it, there are so many more “ungodly” people out there today—ones not at all familiar with the church, our “traditional” (or even liberal) beliefs, or who even realize they are “missing” something when they aren’t familiar with any of it. Paul is reminding us that it is the movement of God’s Spirit—as it was the practice of Jesus when he walked this earth—to gravitate toward these people. The ungodly love of God is tailor-made for ungodly people! The church, unfortunately, is not. We’re too caught up in defining who is “in” and who is “out,” and what “rules” are the most important ones to keep, especially if someone wants to get married or be ordained within our “tradition.” Again, the rule-keepers will drill down on the minutiae, erecting barriers to servicing people who just don’t keep the right rules they have extracted from their objective interpretation of the Bible, and we subjective wrestlers will want to throw open the doors like a fast-food restaurant, offering a full “menu” of services to folk with little regard for accountability or a defined plan of nurture and growth for them. In so many cases, they may slip by our “soft sides,” and “shrivel on the rocks in the hot sun,” like the parable says, because of our agenda and its often short-sighted view of what they need to thrive. Either way, the church may seem—or even BE—irrelevant to the new “converts” from among the “ungodly.”


We all must come to realize the radical nature of Paul’s assertion in Romans 5, namely that GOD is “ungodly” in making the ultimate sacrifice for the “ungodly” among us. God’s love will ALWAYS be biased toward those who most resist it, or who have little concept of what it is about. Or who can afford to pay their own freight. The church must wrestle with this fact! And our denomination is poised to split into the Global Methodist Church and the post-separation United Methodist Church, when we have no clue about how to be “global” or “united.” 


One last insight from this text: the author says “at the right time” Christ died for us. The use of the word Kairos for time here indicates that this was a very special time, indeed, and I suggest that it was less about the linear time (chronos) when Christ died, but more about the “special” time that Christ’s sacrifice for sin is applied to the life of believers. Each person who yields her or his life to Jesus Christ experiences this “special” or “festive” time as the time when they begin the transformational process of faith in Him. It also may be realized as the fact that the perfect time for Christ is NOW. Our day may be the stage for a very different kind of “revival” in the Body of Christ. In Methodism, our pending schism may be a type of “cleansing” that will relieve us of the petty fighting and theological scholasticism that has paralyzed our denomination for some time now. The new Global Methodists will be free to “evangelize the world” as they see fit, and the post-separation United Methodist Church, if it is smart, will remove the rules-based restrictions that keep us from opening the Good News to ALL of God’s people, including those whose inclusion in the LGBTQ spectrum has been a barrier for them. It should not be for the reforming UMC, going forward, because the perfect time for the ungodly love of God in Christ is NOW! Amen, and Shalom!



Thursday, June 9, 2022

An Arrogant Hope…


Romans 5:1-5

5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

5:2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

5:3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,

5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

5:5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

There is a strange confidence in the life and writings of the Apostle Paul. Romans is a great place to find it. His theology is a direct result of a man both fully saved and on his way to “perfection,” as John Wesley might say. Paul writes like he knows that he knows that he knows that his life is safe in the “harbor” of the redemption of Jesus Christ, and is truly being guided by the Holy Spirit. He courageously travels around the known world, confronting any of the “powers that be” who seek to stop the juggernaut of his ministry to the Gentiles, and pretty much anyone who will listen to the gospel he preaches. This confidence stretches to stoning pits, lynching trees, viper-infested beaches, shipwrecks, and prison cells. Wherever he went, he told his story of how he encountered the living Christ on his way to Damascus to torment Christians, and once his “street cred” was firmly established, he began to produce and write a theological framework of forgiveness, redemption, and life-altering transformation that is STILL the gospel preached by the church today. Jesus came to reveal the nature of God to us—in person—and to navigate death and resurrection to our eternal benefit. Paul wrote both the “owner’s manual” and the travel guide for the Christian journey, tracing the practical path of faith drawn directly from the life and teachings of Jesus, and now being “prototyped” in the budding Christian church. If one is to apply the term “Queen of the Sciences” to theology, one must look to Paul as its “Thomas Edison,” or maybe more appropriately, it’s Nikola Tesla, because his theology is both electrical and powerful.

Take a look at his language in this short snippet from Romans, Paul’s magnum opus: 

“Therefore, since WE ARE justified by faith, WE HAVE peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom WE HAVE OBTAINED access to this grace IN WHICH WE STAND; and WE BOAST IN OUR HOPE of SHARING THE GLORY of God.”

These are not the thoughts of a person who has even the slightest doubt in what he believes or in his commitment to giving his life in service to it. This boldness gives Paul a singular focus—Christ, and him crucified, on one hand, and the “hope of glory,” on the other. Paul’s confidence—his arrogance—in his Christian faith commitment made him unstoppable. Like Jesus, even his eventual martyrdom didn’t slow down the church he helped launch and the gospel he wrote. The arrogance of his hope gave him a confidence and courage rarely seen in modern Christians who often cower in fear at their religious doubts, or hid like a frightened child behind “orthodoxy” that spares them from having to “do” theology on their own, or accept people they find repugnant. Of the two types of characters—Paul or the “contemporary” Christian—I’ll take Paul and his arrogance. Unfortunately, the “orthodox” types are often boastful, but not courageous, while Paul’s boasting is strictly limited to that which he has found in Jesus Christ.

If I sound a bit “bitter” over the state of “orthodoxy” in the modern church, please know that I just came back from our United Methodist Annual Conference. There, the “orthodoxy” types floated and successfully sold a number of harmful, nasty resolutions and petitions that seized on their hatred of LGBTQ persons, which they justify harboring based on their limited interpretation of “what the Bible says.” In a Christian sect (Methodism) that claims to hold to the “General Rules” laid down by its founder, John Wesley,” these people are in danger of violating the first of them: “First, do no harm.” One piece of legislation asked our Conference Board of Church and Society to petition the Pennsylvania legislature to strip the rights of transgender persons from participating in school sports. Citing a recent case of a transgender female who was successful in a competition against cisgender females, they distorted the idea of “harm,” suggesting the competition was “unfair” because of the superior muscular structure of the “male” body of the transgender female. Successfully convincing enough delegates to vote for it, it was passed. Thankfully, like most of the legislation we pass at Annual Conference, it has little teeth. 

If you don’t believe me that some of these efforts are punitive and harmful, consider another piece of legislation that tried to “require” that our denomination revoke a policy that added “non-binary” to the list of “genders” on a church statistical form. Why? Because officially, our denomination still discriminates against LGBTQ persons in the name of “biblical authority.” Honestly, the tactics employed by the makers of these pieces of legislation, as well as the tenor of much of the “discussion” on the floor of the conference, was 180 degrees from “bold,” “courageous,” or boasting in hope. It was mean-spirited, competitive, and belittling of those who don’t share their smug views of biblical interpretation. After this experience, reading this passage of Paul’s masterwork—Romans—was like settling into a soothing bath. Paul is the real deal. These modern crusaders for “orthodoxy,” aren’t. They are doing harm to the people of God. Their arrogance is not one of “hope,” but of control. Sad thing is, many of them are good people of good hearts, and a genuine faith. Many are even people I like. Unfortunately, the desire to be “definitively right,” and the illegitimate power it delivers, are seductive sirens. 

Paul was not perfect. He has been hammered by many who see him as a religious chauvinist, as well as by those who see HIM as homophobic. Beyond Jesus, his first love was the church. As it was “brand new,” and the first religious body to open itself to both women and all variety of “non-Jews,” many of the traditional rules and guidelines were outdated and even harmful to these new converts. While Paul and the church instituted a wide variety of new, inclusive policies to provide hospitality and opportunity to women, Gentiles, and others who would have been “outcasts” from traditional religion, the new guidelines were a work in progress. When Paul wrote “let the women keep silence in the church,” and stated that he would not let a woman teach or lead, he was trying to navigate the reality that they were now both welcome in the Christian Body of Christ, and yet totally inexperienced in religious assembly and public involvement. The culture denied them access to both, as did traditional Judaism of that day. The Christian church was welcoming to them, but Paul’s cautions because of their inexperience faded away very early, as witnessed by how deeply women were involved in ministry, teaching, and leadership, as evidenced in Luke’s documentary, the Book of Acts. And Paul, himself, would later “answer” to a wealthy, Greek heiress and deacon of the church named Phoebe, according to an interesting piece of scholarship by Pauline scholar, Dr. Robert Jewett.

The moral of both of these stories is that things change. The only thing that doesn’t “change” is the grace of God, made available through Jesus Christ. Beyond this, the church changes, grows, and adapts to each age, with the goal of translating the gospel of redemption to each age, and helping it find new listeners among groups that have heretofore been excluded. This means peoples the church has been guilty of excluding in ages past through artificially-erected barriers of racism, sexism, and homophobia. In Paul’s day, these expanding ministries of inclusion made things difficult on many occasions, requiring Paul’ to address them in his epistles. But they did NOT cause him to retrench or abandon efforts to grow the church, broaden the appeal of the gospel, or include new segments of society in its care, love, and ministry.

Paul also has an “arrogant boast” in something else—suffering. Even as Paul is bold in his faith, so he is courageous in the suffering that often accompanies it in Paul’s day. Rather than fear suffering, Paul asserts that it produces endurance, even as the long, hard workouts of a marathon runner cultivates it. Furthermore, Paul composes a wonderful litany of what results from suffering beyond endurance—character, which in turn produces hope, a hope that “does not disappoint,” in the words of Paul. And then Paul goes back to his “arrogant” boasts of what results in us through faith, suffering, and endurance in our growth in faith in Jesus Christ: “…God’s love HAS BEEN POURED into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit that HAS BEEN GIVEN to us.” For the Christian disciple, we don’t “hope” like we are “wishing for things,” at least according to Paul. His hope is a SURE thing, and these vital elements of faith, redemption, and empowerment are never in doubt for him, when we confess our faith in Jesus and yield our lives to his direction through the Holy Spirit. It’s a type of “arrogance” that demonstrates boldness and courage, rather than elitism or false, impotent confidence like is found in holding on—white-knuckle—to rules, doctrines, and dogma.

As we grow closer to Jesus Christ in faith, and learn how to better collaborate with others in the broadening Body of Christ, may our hope be of the sure, “arrogant” kind boldly proclaimed by the Apostle Paul! Amen.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Babel Fish...


“Babel Fish”


Genesis 11:1-9
11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.

11:2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

11:3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

11:4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

11:5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

11:6 And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

11:7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."

11:8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

11:9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


What did these people in Genesis 11 do wrong? Did you ever ask yourself that question? I remember being told in the little painted chairs in Sunday School that they were trying to build a tower to “reach God,” and that this had made God angry. I never believed it. Did God really fear they would succeed to build a tower to the domain of God? To Heaven? Using bricks and bitumen? Seriously? You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist, even at age 8, to realize this was a crazy idea. And what of God’s take on the matter in verse six? “Look, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” So? Why would God, who created us and put within us a creative spirit, be upset if we follow through with that? And why would God, who throughout the Bible seems to want God’s people to come together into supportive, synergistic community, be “threatened” when that is precisely what these primitive people did in using their common language and imaginative skill to build a skyscraper? In fact, the narrative says they were building a whole city, so what is bogus about that? Frankly, this text can make God look foolish, smallish, and even divinely pedantic. So, what’s the story?


Three basic “explanations” have been advanced as to what God’s people were to “learn” from this story:


1.    The act of “making a name for ourselves” in verse 4 was a mark of personal/human pride that God saw as setting aside what God had done for the people, OR


2.    The people were working toward building their own empire, given the name “Babel” later is applied to an empire where God’s people are cast into exile—Babylon, OR


3.    God’s people are “putting down roots” as evidenced by their budding city and the “watchtower” they are building to guard it, while God has told them to “scatter” and populate the earth. 


Of course, and all of these could be what was going on, but I’m a skeptic, in this regard. I think the author is giving us a parable that is far more basic, suggesting that God’s people are using their God-given gifts and common language to become so self-sufficient they may be plowing ground toward “not needing” God. The parable suggests that “God” gets put off by this, confuses their language, and intentionally scatters them “abroad over the face of all the earth.” This last “and they all lived unhappily ever after” sure sounds like storytelling language, doesn’t it? Even if the author of the parable is just trying to “explain” why there are so many different peoples and languages throughout his or her known world, it is clear that the author is most likely a Jewish monotheist, as everything has to be under the purview of God, both good and evil. Strict monotheists leave no room for other “gods” who may exercise control over human affairs, so even the bad stuff—that can’t be blamed directly on the humans, themselves—must come from God. This is why we find statements in the Hebrew Bible like: “And God repented of the evil that God was going to do against his people Israel” (i.e. Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:10). 


It is typical that the lectionary pairs this Genesis passage of the scattered people and language with the Acts narrative of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Being Pentecost Sunday today, we review how the Holy Spirit came upon the “gathered” people in the upper room and caused them to “speak in tongues” such that the bystanders heard the gospel being spoken in their native languages. Putting these texts together, at least on the surface, looks like Pentecost is the “fix” for what happened at Babel. Really? Again, I’m a skeptic. If I’m right that the Genesis narrative is a parable told to discourage God’s people from waning in their loyalty to Yahweh, with the “punishment” being that God would confuse their languages and disperse them, how is the Pentecost story a fix? Other than the brief “miracle” of the Jerusalem tourists hearing their own languages being spoken by Jews, the experience of the church is that few things have been as divisive as some of the Pentecostal “sign gifts” such as speaking in tongues or what Charismatics call “prophecy.” Other, more “functional” gifts the Spirit offers, and ones the early church activated such as administration or “helps,” did far more to advance the growth and safekeeping of the Body of Christ. The Pentecost “miracle” gathered a huge crowd very similar to what the healing miracles of Jesus did, and Peter gives a brief, Spirit-inspired message, resulting in over three thousand faith commitments. Of course, the other gifts of the spirit, as utilized by the church down through the centuries since that day, have resulted in far more Christian conversions. But one thing is for sure, Pentecost did not result in any kind of a “reversal” of the Babel scattering story. In fact, as the church moved forward, it splintered and splintered (and is still at it—ask a Methodist), and speaks in so many diverse theological “languages” that the uninitiated “bystanders” are not drawn to it, but are more and more repelled BY it! In short, we are more scattered, and our languages are more confused now than ever. 


I named this sermon “Babel fish,” which is from the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Here is the actual text from Adams’ profound-yet-farcical explanation of the “Babel fish”:


"The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that something so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

"The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing.' 'But, says Man, the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.' 'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and vanishes in a puff of logic. 'Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

            "Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid from making a small fortune when he used it as the theme of his best-selling book, Well That About Wraps It Up For God.

            "Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."


Obviously, what Adams is getting at here is he, too, is skeptical about both the Babel story AND the Pentecost “fix” he would have been taught in his Anglican upbringing. He also offers his main thesis of this pericope in the last paragraph I have quoted here: “…removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” I agree that diversity is a good thing, not a liability, and even our differing languages—more a product of history and culture than divine punishment—are to be appreciated, not seen as catalysts for a cataclysm.


So, what ARE we to learn from the Babel story and Pentecost? I suggest that the kind of working together the people who built the city and tower in Genesis  were manifesting was a good thing, and something God’s people should emulate. Where the parable writer says they went wrong is that they got up such a head of steam that they began to believe they could “build the kingdom” without the King (God). Otherwise they will just build and build and build, without filling in the necessary supportive, spiritual “center” to the community they assemble. Sound familiar? And so at Pentecost, diverse people are brought together by the Holy Spirit, given a powerful “tool kit” to build a new community, but this time, one that acknowledges and celebrates diversity, while keeping the message of love and redemption in Jesus Christ as its foundation. God DOES “scatter” the church after Pentecost, but to preach the gospel and make disciples, like Jesus commissioned them to do. Diversity in language, theology, and geography are not necessarily bad things in the Pentecost plan, but become so, if they engender competitiveness between diverse groups and so obfuscate the simple message of Christ that subsequent generations of “bystanders” are the ones sent away “confused.” 


Today, the “tools of Pentecost” are available to the church, as are the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. Were we to use these to “offer them Christ” as Mr. Wesley urged, we may find that love and unity occur not in theological uniformity or doctrinal purity, but in the transforming experience of knowing Christ and making him known. As someone said, by “Keeping the main thing the main thing.” 


The gifts granted to Christians and the church at Pentecost are meant to be used to make disciples and nurture the community of faith, not be displayed on a knick-knack shelf. Like books in your library, if you buy them to display them, only your ego gets stroked. Read them, and you may be transformed. So it is with the gifts of the Spirit.


The church today could really use a Babel fish! We could hand them out, and if the “bystanders” would stick them in their ears, they would hear the gospel message of love, forgiveness, and redemption in Jesus Christ, translated from the infighting, doctrinal fencing, and overall CRAP being transmitted by so many “people of faith,” including about every sect of Christianity. I’m afraid that without the Babel fish, we sound like the “tongues” of Pentecost without the translation that the Holy Spirit was whispering into the ears of those who had gathered to “see what was going on.” Without a simpler message, translated into the ”language of the people,” all the seeking world is hearing is confusing babble. Hey, maybe the Holy Spirit could BE our Babel fish!


To quote Winston from the movie Ghost Busters, “We have the TOOLS, we have the TALENT!” We also have the saving message of grace! The only thing getting in the way of making disciples is US! Amen.

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...