Friday, January 27, 2023

God, Guns, and Guts are Making America Grieve


 God, Guns, and Guts are Making America Grieve

 

Matthew 5:1-12
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

5:7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

5:8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

5:10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

Another week, another few mass shootings in America. “When will it stop?,” everyone asks. Blame the guns. Blame “mental health.” Blame gun laws. Blame the dearth of gun laws. Say stupid things like “Guns aren’t the problem, we just need to enforce the laws.” Blame the Founding Fathers for the Second Amendment. Blame the NRA. Blame the government (AND both Democrats and Republicans). Believe me, there’s enough blame to go around. What about the American lust for guns? I don’t hear that mentioned much. Have you seen a chart contrasting the shootings in the USA vs. the rest of the developed world that has reasonable gun laws and restrictions? It’s incriminating. Deeply incriminating. Our love affair with guns is actually killing us.

 

When I was serving in Warren, PA, the Newton/Sandy Hook massacre occurred. That Sunday, I urged my congregation to write to all of their representatives, both State and Federal, urging them to consider reasonable gun regulation such as:

 

*A national, computerized system for background checks for ALL gun purchases, including those at gun shows. Private guns purchased or “gift” guns would not change hands until a form was submitted and the receiving individual’s history checked.

 

*All gun purchasers must also sign a form allowing their mental health history to be checked before the sale could be completed.

 

*All gun sellers would be required to train the purchaser in how to load, fire, and make safe the gun they were purchasing. (The week after Sandy Hook, a young boy was accidentally shot by a gun his dad had just purchased because the gun kept a bullet in the chamber even when the clip had been removed, and the father didn’t know this.)

 

*All purchasers of handguns would be required to not only receive training in handgun safety, but would have to be checked out on a firing range. (It’s not like in the movies where anyone can shoot an attacker 10 yards away and hit just the assailant. Even well-trained policemen rarely hit their target with a handgun, but untrained shooters are even more apt to hit an innocent bystander than their target.)

 

I wrote letters to all of my pertinent representatives with these suggestions. I don’t know if anyone else did, but that sermon is the only one I ever preached that was greeted with applause by the congregation, because it just made sense. The ideas got no votes, though, as evidenced by the fact that none of them ever became law.

 

But on this side of the gun, what drives people to such acts of violence? There are probably as many reasons for this as there are guns in America. We do know that over half of gun deaths, annually, are people taking their lives by suicide, and it is mostly men (women either don’t have easy access to guns, or even in desperation, can’t imagine shooting themselves; they tend to use drugs in suicide attempts, which is why many are rescued). 

 

Here is an important qualifier: there ARE hosts of serious gun owners, including hunters and collectors, who have great respect for the weapons they buy and own. I have known quite a few of these persons, including a couple of parishioners who built and repaired guns as a hobby, or for a living. Many of these people are in favor of reasonable gun regulations, as their gun-related activities and interests would not be affected by them. Unless they have been poisoned by the National Rifle Association’s propaganda and “hate” campaigns against any and all gun regulation, these are reasonable people and truly “law-abiding citizens” not jeopardized by gun safety training requirements and protective legislation. They know how dangerous guns can be in the hands of amateurs and the untrained.

 

So, what does all of this have to do with the passage in Matthew from Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount,” a section we have dubbed “The Beatitudes”? We have all seen the bumper sticker, “God, Guns, and Guts Made America Great.” Are the teachings of Jesus compatible with this slogan? Or even the American love affair with firearms? Maybe not, but not necessarily in the way one might think.

 

As an aside, I get such a kick out of pastors and church members who are advocating for disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church. Supposedly, what is at the heart of this “soft schism” is a statement in the UMC’s “Book of Discipline” that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings.” These folk support this statement—and more—that do great violence to persons in the LGBTQ community. And yet, I’ll bet many of them would immediately nix the idea that owning guns for personal protection and the “right” of persons to use them to defend self and personal property are ALSO against “Christian teachings.” Is it ever right for a Christian believer to take the life of another person because they feel threatened? While this is a topic for another sermon, it is at least part of the controversy raised by the juxtaposition of “God, Guns, and Guts” and The Beatitudes of Jesus Christ.

 

Maybe our problem is at the heart of what Jesus was trying to head off? We can live resigned to “lives of quiet desperation,” or we can opt for something better—something proactive and positive. This is precisely what Jesus was getting at! Let’s look at his “Blessed are the…” statements.

 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” “Poor in spirit” may mean a number of things, but one understanding could be that persons who manifest this trait are humble, grateful people. They understand that THEY are not the reason they may be blessed, and that all good fortune comes from GOD, not from them. They also know that their understanding of spiritual truth is measured and valid only as it is prompted by GOD’S Holy Spirit. People who are ”poor in spirit” would not affirm the idea that “guns and guts” made anything “great,” apart from the blessing of God.

 

“Blessed are those who mourn…” Can a nation do any more mourning than we have done for the victims of Sandy Hook? Las Vegas? Orlando? Parkland? Virginia Tech? Uvalde? Or the over 45,000 Americans who died by guns per year? (Incidentally, that number is almost the total of American soldiers who died throughout the entire Vietnam War.) People who genuinely mourn tend to look for ways to decrease the REASONS to mourn, such as medical research to end killing diseases or safety measures to decrease highway deaths. Why are we not similarly motivated to encourage and VOTE for ways to lower gun deaths? I guess we just like to mourn and mourn, in this regard.

 

“Blessed are the meek…” Of course, as we have examined before, “meek” does not mean “weak” or “milquetoast.” The word can mean humble, but probably more accurately, it describes a person who is honest, with gobs of integrity. “Genuine” would be another good adjective for the meek. If you like psychological descriptors, how about “self-aware”? Persons who are “meek” are blessed with an almost total disregard for “props” or possessions that artificially elevate their status or their worth. These are not persons who “need’ guns, nor are they persons who will brag that their strong “guts” got them where they are. They DO, however, give credit to where credit is due—to the God who created and sustains them.

 

“Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness…” When I hear the word “righteousness,” I think of “right living,” or those who seek to live a life pleasing to themselves and God. Balanced by the other “blessed” statements of Jesus, those who “hunger for righteousness” set a God-honoring life as a top priority. This necessarily means putting personal ambition and “defense of self and property” as much lower on this priority scale. Those who thirst for righteousness think far less about “my rights” than they do about what is right in the eyes of God.

 

“Blessed are the merciful…” When it comes to addressing the ancient Hebrew law code of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” it is clear that Jesus is directly countering it as an argument for reciprocal violence in this statement. Actually, the law code statement more directly addresses compensation for a wrong done to an individual—if someone takes out your eye, you can’t kill them, but only similarly wound them, for example—than it does retribution or revenge. Remember learning that Shylock in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” wants his “pound of flesh,” but is told that if he spills one more drop of blood than exactly that pound, he will be liable? This is more what the law code is saying. Jesus, instead, elevates MERCY as the greater good. For those Shakespeareans still with me, even Portia says, “The quality of mercy is not strained…”

 

“Blessed are the pure in heart…” While all of the “blessed are the” statements of Jesus in this monumental message have a “reward” clause, this one takes the cake—those who are pure in heart will “see God.” I don’t think Jesus means “see” as in eyeball, but “see” as in “get,” or understand. People who work at cleansing their hearts of the things that corrupt them—sinful activities, selfish aims and ambition, vain personal glory, will begin to comprehend the absence of these things as beginning to align them with the ”personality” of God as demonstrated and taught by Jesus, himself. “Pure in heart” people are those who wind up as “servants of all,” and what Jesus categorized as “the last,” whom he said would become “first” in the Realm of God. Toting a gun does not make someone a hero. Being willing to lay one’s life down for a friend, does. Only the pure in heart would be willing to do this, don’t you think? Just like Jesus…

 

“Blessed are the peacemakers…” This one should be easy and obvious to interpret, but I have learned over the years that “peace” is not just the absence of war, nor is “peacemaking” just personally being a nice, accommodating individual. Peacemaking is an intentional, intense, and difficult effort undertaken on behalf of the whole community. I have been involved with a team of persons operating under the name of the “Peace is Possible Coalition.” This group meets regularly, keeps eyes peeled for places where proactive efforts toward justice are called for, writes letters to the powerbrokers, authors editorials aimed at exposing injustices, and plans forums where principal leaders come together to strategize for justice and peace. It’s a lot of work! And our efforts too often only succeed in raising an issue to the level of public knowledge or scratching the surface of monumental tasks that will be necessary for addressing serious issues that block or restrain justice. And there can be no true peace without justice. Peace without justice is at most a “cease fire” that yields little progress, especially for those suffering under an injustice, such as racism. Rodney King may have meant well with his exclamation, “Why can’t we all just get along?” as he was getting his head beat in unjustly by the police, but the truth is, the work of peacemakers is complicated, involved, and long-suffering, but real peacemakers never stop believing that peace is possible. Oh, and while the Colt company once made a gun they called the “Peacemaker,” fact is, guns make war, not peace.

 

Jesus concludes this part of his teaching by saying that living according to these ideas will most likely bring more retribution—or persecution—than praise, as in doing so, others with far less pure motives are exposed for what they are, and people don’t like this, especially when they are among the powerbrokers. And while it sounds like Jesus promises “rewards” that don’t arrive until “heaven,” his reference may have more to do with bringing some “heaven” on earth as the efforts these values evoke make for positive change that benefits all.

 

The teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount clearly dispute ideas like “God, Guns, and Guts” make anything great. Servanthood, compassion, humility, loving peace and righteousness, and lives of genuineness and integrity—these are the things that result in greatness, not as much for the individual as for the community, and that reflects the greatness of God. Jesus gives us proactive and positive goals for living that oppose the “firearm and frontal assault” mode we often see at play in the world around us. 

 

May we take these “blessed” values seriously and attain the day when we will, together, “rejoice and be exceedingly glad.” Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Minding Your Own Business

 


Minding Your Own Business

 

Psalm 27:1, 4-9
27:1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

27:4 One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in God’s temple.

27:5 For God will hide me in a shelter in the day of trouble; God will conceal me under the cover of a tent: God will set me high on a rock.

27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in God’s tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

27:7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!

27:8 "Come," my heart says, "seek God’s face!" Your face, Lord, do I seek.

27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

 

Back in the 1980s, when I was studying for my Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I remember one really challenging week. The “normal” pressures of working toward a graduate degree at a “tough” school, coupled with pastoring a “recovering” church in a Mon Valley community, were enough, but this week was even worse. I can’t recall some of the extenuating circumstances, but I do remember that Dara was out of town for a few days attending a conference, so I had “charge” of our two small children, one of whom was just a toddler, and who had come down with a virus, of some sort. He was running a fever, which, as usual, peaked in the evening, and I remember that the night before my heaviest day of classed, it really spiked. I knew I had to take him to the emergency room, as he just felt like a little pot roast, as I held his listless body. I dropped our daughter off at a colleague’s house up the street on our way to the ER. They were able to get his fever down, and we finally all got home in the very early hours of the morning. Already feeling pretty exhausted, I left the children off at my colleague’s house again (his wife was watching our kids while I was in class), and headed for the seminary. Now, I was not alone in my exhaustion and anxiety. A number of my fellow students were living through similar challenges, and it was that point in the term when the pressures on all of us were just “off the charts.” After lunch, I had the seminar half of a required Pastoral Care class, taught by one of our favorite professors, Dr. Andrew Purves. [Each major, required class was held two days a week, with the first class being the lecture, and the second class, a “seminar,” wherein the larger class was divided into smaller groups to discuss what had been presented in the lecture, as well as share presentations on various case studies we were assigned.]

As we filed into the seminar room and took our seats around the large conference table, the tension in that room was palpable. We all “sat up at attention” when Dr. Purves entered the room and took his seat at the head of the seminar table. Dr. Purves set his notebook down, opened it for a moment, closed it, looked slowly around the room at his students, and said, in his characteristic Scottish brogue, “How is it with your SOUL, today?” I think every one of us literally broke down and cried, as in this simple Wesleyan question, he gave us permission to let out the tension in a sudden burst of emotion. Next, he had us each share what was on our hearts, one by one. In abandoning his agenda for the class in pastoral care, he provided a grace-filled example of exactly what pastoral care IS! I will never forget that day, and the great gift Dr. Purves gave to us that day. 

 

I begin this message with that story because today’s scripture from Psalm 27 is ALL ABOUT YOU. As a preacher and Christian leader who believes in and promotes the idea of our fellowship being a living, breathing, supportive faith COMMUNITY, my messages usually gravitate toward how to build this community and its “care and feeding.” Often, I push this toward how the community of faith makes disciples of Jesus Christ out of us, and how this mission leads to our community being God’s witnesses and servants in a needy world. Not today. Forgive me for not spending as much time in my messages on what YOU need, as my listeners and colleagues in the journey of Christian discipleship. An old TV commercial used to say, “Life comes at you hard,” and it does. If our faith does not first provide support to each of us, and a timely release—Dr. Purves style—for our tension, then it is nothing but another “thing” that dumps “requirements” on us—yet another stressor. One might just hear the voice of God saying in Psalm 27, “How is it with your SOUL, today?”

 

The Psalmist is not asking for God’s presence and intervention for any faith community. He or she is crying out for God’s “salvation” for themselves. Period. The Psalmist is looking for something much more holistic in their understanding of “salvation” than we usually do in Christian circles. Do we not too often limit “salvation” to having a SIN-ectomy? Like those twelve students in the seminar room in seminary, who were wound up tighter than the mainspring of a mantle clock, so the Psalmist wants God’s help to find release and refuge from the “battle.” Look what the writer is after:

 

LIGHT – without it, we stumble in the darkness, and can’t read a map, even if we have one to chart our course.

 

Freedom from FEAR – at its best, fear alerts us to danger, quickening a response leading to safety; at its worst, it paralyzes us, keeping us right in the path of the pending threat, or even worse, it lies to us and stokes more fear and anxiety in the face of a non-existent threat that may never occur.

 

A STRONGHOLD – one dictionary definition of a stronghold is: “a place where a particular cause or belief is strongly defended or upheld;” the writer wants God to be that stronghold of his LIFE. That day in the seminar room, both God and Dr. Purves, represented by the simple question, “How is it with your soul, today?”, were a sudden and welcome “stronghold” for us all!

 

A SHELTER – one that is a “house” where we may behold God’s beauty and worship God (a temple); “Home” may be a better word here, as if you are privileged to have the kind of peaceful, restful, and comfortable home with a loving companion like I do, you are always to glad to be there! The Psalmist—and WE—want so much more than just a “roof over our heads” in life.

 

CONCEALED and RAISED UP – while these may seem like opposite things, they are related. We want to know that God is there to protect us and even “hide” us from the threats that may come, but we also want the confidence in knowing that when the storms have passed, we will be “lifted up” above the fray, and may proudly view the world from “high upon a rock,” rather than from under the belly of the beast.

 

JOY, SINGING, and MELODY – Joy is such an elusive thing, but it doesn’t have to be! If we, like the Psalmist, cry out to God to be our stronghold, God will meet our needs. Joy happens when we know we don’t have to be afraid of anything anymore, including death! Singing is the most universal form of praise, and it has the ability to pump up and elevate the smarting soul. Singers know, too, that one must learn the melody of the song before one can compose the harmony of it. This goes to my point today that our own personal well-being and holistic “salvation” is a necessary building block to the harmony of the faith community. This writer gets that!

 

Seeing God’s FACE – this is something we read frequently in the Hebrew scriptures, and it is a multi-faceted issue for all of God’s people. Seeing God’s “face” means God notices us. We Westerners equate this with our concept of “eye contact.” When we make eye contact with someone, a connection is made. In the case of eye contact, this may not always mean a peaceful connection, but seeing “God’s FACE” is a comforting kind of eye contact for the Jews, as it means that God SEES THEM! God’s face also is often “shining” in the Bible, and this “shine” or Shakina glory offers not just God’s blessing, but also God’s power. God’s “face” is often also a symbol for God’s “graciousness” or grace. Remember the famous benediction from the book of Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” Seeing God’s “face” is so much more than just a look in the eye!

 

HEAR me and do not FORSAKE me – If God is not “hearing” us, then why do we pray? Therein lies the reason some stop praying—they don’t think God is really listening. But God DOES listen. In fact, if we believe the biblical record of both the Old and New Testaments, and the very words of Jesus, himself, we know that God never does NOT listen to us. Keep praying—keep seeking that “face” of the Divine! And the Psalmist’s plea for God to not “forsake” him is a poetic way of stating his confidence that God will most certainly NOT abandon him. Israel had learned, down through the ages, that God NEVER abandoned or “forsook” them, but instead, it was THEY who had forsaken God. When they once again turned their faces toward the Almighty, what did they see, but the “face” of God still looking lovingly in their direction, and offering renewal, revival, and “salvation.”

 

This scripture—and this message—is for YOU! Leave behind your martyr complex and adopt the reality that God wants YOU to successfully navigate the rocky roads of life, keep your eyes locked on the gracious face of the God who loves you, and continually renew the joy that life is meant to be, as designed by our Creator. One of the worst feelings in the whole world is the “lie” that we can’t be happy unless everyone can be happy at the same time. Put in another way, we can’t have joy unless our whole church, or our whole faith community, is in a place of joy as well. I don’t know whether this “lie” is from old “Screwtape,” or from the too often beat-down spiritual “child” from within the human psyche, but it doesn’t matter. Leave it behind. Allowing God to help US get to a joyful, safe place is one more step toward the broader community finding a shared experience of such grace. Think, too, of the witness—people are less “attracted” to a church or a faith community that “seems” joyful from the outside, than they are to a close friend or family member who finds genuine fulfilment and joy (“salvation”) in themselves. This is the difference between “discipleship” and public relations. Jesus, himself, utilized the “each one reach one” method of making disciples, and would he have done that if a public relations campaign would have brought them in? 

 

So, mind your own business! Use the words of Psalm 27 to connect with God in a very personal way. And don’t just ask God to “fix” you so you can “be a productive disciple,” or “be a better leader in your church.” Just let the Holy Spirit of God, the joyfulness of the Son, and the intent of the Father shine God’s “face” upon you! We will all be stronger when YOU are strong, Dear Ones! Amen.

 

 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

A Poor, Little Lamb


A Poor, Little Lamb

 

John 1:29-42
1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

1:30 This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'

1:31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel."

1:32 And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.

1:33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'

1:34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

1:35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,

1:36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!"

1:37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

1:38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?"

1:39 He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.

1:40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.

1:41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed).

1:42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter).

 

 

Good ol’ Gospel of John author! He works so very hard to help us understand that Jesus is more than meets the eye, theologically, and his language is often ethereal. Years ago, NFL coach Dennis Green, in a post-game press conference rant, assessed the team that had just beat up on his team thusly: “They ARE who we THOUGHT they were!” When asked by a reporter what he meant, he doubled down: “They ARE who we THOUGHT they were!” In today’s text, John the Baptist does a pretty good Dennis Green when he says in verse 30: “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” What? This seems to be John’s way of saying that Jesus “was” before any of us “were”—he is the eternal “star-child” who has come to restructure the “fallen” relationship between the Creator and the created. The Gospel of John uses a lot of Hellenistic language in his attempt to “radicalize” Jesus as the divine Son of God, who pre-existed the world. He seems bent on helping the “Greek” thinkers of his day appropriate an understanding of Jesus of Nazareth that goes beyond Jewish, and beyond being just another “religious” spokesman for God. In the Greco-Roman culture, “gods” who come to earth to mix it up with their human “subjects” was nothing unusual, but this gospeler goes out of his way to point out that Jesus was the “logos” of God, come to earth in human form. This would have been earthshaking for these people, as they saw the “logos” as the total summation of both the creative energy of the divine as well as the “mind” of the divine. That the divine would fully take human form and “tent among” humans was truly a revolutionary concept. The danger in John’s approach is that it snuggles up a bit close with the Greco-Roman worldview, which also accepted a pantheon of gods. The “logos” concept was brilliant on his part, as this equated Jesus with the fundamental “concept” or “foundation” represented by all of these gods. 

 

In today’s passage, the Johannine author introduces another metaphor for Jesus’ role on earth—the “Lamb of God.” It is most typically interpreted to equate Jesus with the “sacrifice lamb” burned on the altar of the Jewish temple for the sins of the people. This, of course, would foreshadow Jesus’ death on the cross, which Christianity has viewed as being for this purpose for all people of all time, who choose to believe in him. Some scholars have pointed out, however, that there is another “lamb” that is most important in Jewish history, namely the Passover Lamb. This lamb is a symbol of God’s people being set free from captivity in Egypt. Lamb’s blood was applied to the lintel and the door posts of the homes of the Jews in Egypt, so the “death angel” would “pass over” their homes, inflicting destruction only on the first-born of the homes of the Egyptians. Lamb is both consumed and used ritually in the annual Feast of the Passover in Judaism, as a celebration of this freedom granted by God. To see Jesus as this Passover Lamb may be a richer, fuller parallel to what we see in the life of Jesus than just the “meat sacrifice” altar lamb. If we see Jesus as the ultimate Passover Lamb, or the “Lamb of Freedom,” it removes some of the “glory” from the pain and gore of the cross. Christ came to free God’s people—ALL of God’s people—from everything that binds them, including, but not limited to, our sins. The altar lamb was only for the propitiation of sins, which doesn’t provide a broad enough image for John’s “logos” of God. Personally, I prefer the “Lamb of Freedom” model, of these two.

 

This lectionary passage includes John the Baptist’s dove image for the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus as he is baptized. The role of the Holy Spirit in this narrative is mostly a foreshadowing of the coming birth of the church at Pentecost. The Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity would say that the Spirit is always present with Jesus, as is Creator God, so the thought of the Spirit “descending” upon the earthly Jesus is largely a metaphor, and it does fit what happens in Acts 2 to the believers waiting in the upper room. 

 

Another part of John’s story in this passage is of importance as well. The author relates how Andrew, brother of Peter, hears Jesus speak and is called to follow him. Andrew then goes and tells Peter, “We have found the Messiah,” and he then brings Peter to Jesus, who calls Peter to follow as well, and “renames” him “Cephas.” Throughout the pages of holy writ, call stories ignite a powerful alliance between God, God’s message, God’s plan to save and redeem, and the people God calls to carry out these activities. The New Testament continues this rich heritage of vocation or “the call.” The story of Andrew is a great one. He fetches Peter, but winds up fetching others to follow Jesus, as well. Modern Christians talk about being a witness to what God is doing, and Andrew is a wonderful role model for this activity. We have too often tried to turn “witnessing” into “preaching” or “teaching the faith,” when Andrew’s example is so much more simple: Witness what God is doing and then invite others to “Come and see!” The Body of Christ today could use a whole lot more “Andrews” and far less “evangelists,” out to “save souls.” John Wesley trained his lay preachers more as “Andrews” than evangelists, inviting their listeners to “Come and see,” and then engaging in life-saving activities such as feeding the hungry, clothing and sheltering the poor, and improving the conditions in the British prisons. Wesley’s model was saving PEOPLE, not just their “souls,” although this was always an essential part of their full redemption. As a pastor, I observed some serious entropy against “witnessing,” as pew-sitting Christians had erroneously been taught that it must involve sharing scripture, the “Four Spiritual Laws,” leading persons in the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and then dragging them to church. Very few were willing to sign on to this “evangelical” model of evangelization that emerged from the revivalist period in American history. I used to tell my congregations that we are called to be “Andrews,” inviting friends and family to “Come and see!” I also suggested that one of the best witnesses Christians may offer is to pray for those in need and invite them to put their concerns on the church prayer list. Very few people turn down this invitation, especially when they are facing major challenges, and when God begins to act on these prayers, these folk want to know more about “your church,” and why it prays for people like them? I told my folk that it is much easier being a witness for Christ when you are on the other end of such an “interview” conducted by a grateful person for whom we had been praying. Be an Andrew! 

 

There is another model of the “Lamb of God” we might explore in this passage, and it is one we get from the teachings of Jesus. Remember the story of the shepherd who goes off looking for the one lamb that is lost, and leaves the 99 behind? Maybe Jesus, as the Son of God whom Paul will tell us in Philippians “empties himself” of the privileges of being God and enters our world, is this “lost lamb”? Like the Prodigal Son, who goes to a “far country,” Jesus gave up much to be born and baptized into our world. He is willing to become the “lost lamb” on our behalf, and in his “wandering off,” finds us and helps reunite us to God’s flock. There is a story told in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous of a man who falls in a deep hole, and can’t get out. He keeps calling for help, but others just pass by, not knowing what to do to help him. Then, a friend sees him in the hole and jumps in with him. The man in the hole asks his friend what he was thinking, in jumping in the hole, where they are now both imprisoned. The friend answers, “I did it because I’ve been in this same hole before, and I know the way out!” Might Jesus be this kind of “lost lamb” who knows the way out because he left heaven to jump into the hole with us? The “lost lamb “ becomes the proverbial “Good Shepherd” who leads God’s other lost sheep to freedom and to reunion with the flock! This, too, is a great model for our Christian witness—one “lost lamb” helping others find the safety of the Community of Faith. Years ago, I heard one of Methodism’s great pastors and preachers, Dr. O. D. Martin, say that good preaching is “one beggar helping another beggar find bread.” If it wasn’t important that Jesus join the “lost lambs” and “hungry beggars” on earth in order to set us free, don’t you think God would have just let him wave his hands from the comfort of heaven and “fix” us from on high? But the witness of the Gospel is that it is in this empathetic act of the incarnation that Jesus is able to free us from ALL that might snare us, and personally lead us out of the “hole,” having been there before. Might Calvary be the ultimate “hole” experience, resulting in death, and the Resurrection then is the ultimate freedom from both sin and death that seals our relationship with God Almighty? 

 

Any way we look at it, being God’s “found sheep,” led to freedom by the “Lamb of God,” himself, is a good deal. If we set aside our theological arguments and differences over howGod did what God did in Jesus Christ, what we are left with is a freedom from the fear of judgment, freedom from the power of destructive behaviors that can no longer hold our souls captive, and freedom to be living witnesses—contemporary Andrews--to the love and grace of God that are equally available to all people. Also free to all is a supportive community of faith that provides nurture and fellowship, and offers a place to serve others through acts of mercy and kindness. It is usually called the church, but as the Holy Spirit moves among us today, the words “faith community” may be more descriptive of the diverse kinds of religious gatherings that are transforming hearts and neighborhoods. As a United Methodist, it means reclaiming this work of God as a “movement,” rather than merely a management style and a distinctive polity. May we all find our place among the redeemed AND the redeeming! Amen. 

Friday, January 6, 2023

Everyone...

 

Everyone

 

Acts 10:34-43
10:34 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality,

10:35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

10:36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all.

10:37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced:

10:38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

10:39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;

10:40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,

10:41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

10:42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.

10:43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

 

 

This Sunday is Baptism of the Lord Sunday on the liturgical calendar. Did you ever wonder why Jesus was baptized? Scholars tell us that John the Baptist was preaching a message of repentance, and baptizing those who sought to repent of their sins. If this is correct, aren’t you really surprised John didn’t put up more of a fuss about baptizing Jesus than the “I’m not worthy” argument? If John truly believed his announcement, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” then what would his baptism of repentance “do” for Jesus? If Jesus was the Son of God, who came into the world to “save his people from their sins,” as the angel told Mary, why would he need to repent of anything, himself? It is a Christian believe that Jesus was “without sin,” so John’s baptism would have little value for him. 

 

Of course, there are those who only ascribe to what they call “believer’s baptism,” which is only offered to people old enough to know they need to have their sins forgiven, and who turn to Jesus for this ministry. Baptism, in this model, is an “outward sign of in inward work,” meaning it is a sign of their forgiveness or in evangelical shorthand, their “salvation.” One of the epistles credited to the Apostle Paul says that baptism—especially the immersion method—is like being “buried with Christ” when you are dunked under, and then “raised with Christ,” or “resurrected” with him, when they yank you back up. They often point to Jesus’ baptism as an example of this method, but it is more probable that John baptized according to an earlier Jewish ritual, wherein water was poured over the baptize-ee with cupped hands, or a shell, or something. Again, what would the Son of God and the Savior of the world need with a “believer’s baptism”? Theologically, none. Was he just trying to make his cousin feel better, or included in the prophetic lineage of his ministry?

 

We Protestants generally baptize infants, a practice begun very early on in the life of the church. The child’s parents take vows of their own faith, and of their pledge to raise the child in the Christian faith and in the life of a church. While most Protestant denominations will baptize adults, too, we don’t believe in “rebaptizing,” so we don’t offer “believer’s baptism” to adults who have already been baptized as infants. United Methodists (and probably others) offer to baptize in any of the three ways for adults, popularly called “sprinkling,” “pouring,” or by immersion. In 36 years of ministry, I baptized a fair number of adults who had never been baptized, and all of them chose to have the simple “sprinkling” performed, which is technically called “aspersion.” “Pouring,” incidentally, is actually called “affusion,” just in case you were wondering. 

 

Protestant baptism is generally a celebration of the baptized inclusion into the Christian church, in general, and into the life of a given congregation, specifically. For the infant, John Wesley used the phrase “prevenient grace” to describe how God would bestow favor, guidance, and love upon the child throughout its life, until the time it could be confirmed into the faith and make its own profession of belief. While the Roman Catholic Church has more specifically targeted the “washing away of original sin” as one of the goals of baptism, many of our Protestant liturgies include at least part of this phrase in their rubric, including we United Methodists, who have Anglican roots. In most Protestant churches, baptism is a public event, occurring as part of a worship service, and is rarely performed privately, except in extenuating circumstances. Many pastors and priests have been called upon to baptize a newborn in the hospital whose life is in jeopardy, due to some medical condition. While most Christian sects do not believe baptism is “necessary” in this situation (the child is BORN as a Child of God), the practice is carried out more as an act of pastoral compassion and caring. 

 

Regardless of which view of baptism one holds, I think it is quite safe to say that it imparts the grace of God upon the person being baptized, and introduces them to the congregation as one who will need their love, prayers, and witness as they live out their growth in faith in their midst. And this is probably the best reason I can come up with as to why JESUS was baptized! God blesses God’s son, pronounces a public affirmation upon him (“This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”), and introduces him to the “congregation” of humanity among whom he will live and minister, and later suffer and die, with great purpose. John the Baptist both imparts the poured blessing of the actual baptism upon Jesus, and then serves as a kind of first-century Ed McMahon to Jesus’ Johnny Carson, announcing him to the gathered crowd as the “Lamb of God.”

 

Unfortunately, our divergent views of baptism and the “where’s and when’s” of it, obscure an even larger theological question about “salvation.” Who needs it, and why? And how does one receive it? In the Acts narrative this weekend, we are purportedly reading the text of a “short-but-sweet” sermon of the Apostle Peter. In this sermon, Peter begins by saying that God “shows no partiality,” and that anyone who “does what is right” is accepted by God. That sounds pretty simple, but look what we’ve done to it. Go ahead, just ask a bunch of professing Christians what they think Peter meant by the phrase, “no partiality”? Most of them will say that it means that salvation and God’s acceptance is open to anybody.However, many of our Christian sects have adopted at least some measure of exclusiveness, be it their own doctrines and dogmas that have at least some degree of being “essential” to “right belief,” and several others prescribe how one must be baptized to seal the deal. Isn’t this “showing partiality”? And don’t get me started on how the church “screens” which people THEY accept, and whom they will not. Speaking of acceptance, ask your same Christian poll about what it means to “fear God and do what is right,” which is Peter’s requirement for being “acceptable” to God. Here again, we have a great discrepancy over what is “right.” And then there is the whole question of whether Peter, in his desire to “keep it simple,” is suggesting a kind of “works righteousness” by saying that all it takes is to respect God and “do the right thing”? This may be a question for another day.

 

The two truths that grabbed me out of this text are the promise that “everyone” is a candidate for “salvation,” with no exceptions, and that simply believing in Jesus results in forgiveness of sins—no special prayers, no public “testimonies,” not even a baptism requirement. Just believe. And what must these “everyone’s” believe? A whole laundry list of doctrines? A specific confession or church catechism? According to Peter, no, just believe. Let me tell you what I think this means. For some people, they tend to fixate on the shortcomings in their lives, and “fear God” that God will judge them for these “sins.” The church has done a great job of labeling and calling out MANY sins beyond those in the Ten Commandments, incidentally, which has helped rain guilt down on these types. Thankfully, Jesus offers a full pardon for these shortcomings, and I tend to believe that for those deeply convicted of their sins, God has already offered the balm—Jesus Christ. No magic formula is needed. To some great extent, simply acknowledging that in Christ, God desires to cleanse us all of our sins, and that we want a piece of that, comprises an acceptable level of belief

 

What about those who don’t acknowledge any belief in a higher power (some call themselves atheists or agnostics; others don’t even espouse such a “creed,” but have not engaged theology at all)? And what if some of these people live out some version of Peter’s earliest “condition,” namely that they “do what is right” in the eyes of God? Sadly, many believers “do what is right,” but out of either an actual fear of God and God’s judgment, or mostly out of a sense of duty to the precepts of one’s faith. While they are still “doing what is right,” the motives are much closer to the doer’s interests. Would a God who seeks to redeem humanity through the passion of his Son, a God who, in the Resurrection, restructures the “rules” of sin and death, condemn someone who “does the right thing” for humanitarian reasons, apart from fear or duty? This is an important question, and goes, at least in part, to Peter’s declaration that God “shows no partiality.” If the Ronald Reagan, Juniors of this world (he’s the atheist who has been doing the TV ads about not being afraid of burning in Hell) live lives of compassion and service to the human community, and participate in God’s work of “fixing the world” (tikkun olam), would God condemn them for simply not acknowledging God’s act that pardons humanity? 

 

Those of you who tend toward biblical literacy will point out that both “means” of gaining God’s acceptance have a faith element involved (“fearing God” in the first, and “believing in [Christ]” in the latter). But if you follow my logic, it would seem that God would “accept” a person who “does the right thing,” even if they haven’t yet acknowledged the Divine. Their humanitarian acts ARE a response to grace, but for them, it is part of the freight for the gift of human life and planet earth. 

 

While I acknowledge faith as an important thing, given that I am a pastor and a person of faith, I question—as I believe Peter does in this sermon—the essential label we put on it within the Christian faith. This I do know—we are told not to set ourselves up to be the judges of this. In some of my justice work, I have labored beside compassionate humanitarians who either claim no faith tradition, or who come from one quite different than my own, such as Buddhist or Moslem. Our coalitions of justice and collaborating to “do the right thing” that benefits the community-at-large is fulfilling and has enhanced my personal spiritual journey. I find it harder and harder to accept the theological position that God would condemn such righteous people just because of their doctrine, or lack of it. God’s act of forgiveness and acceptance in Jesus Christ may indeed be available to EVERYONE who lives out the values of God, as taught by Jesus of Nazareth. God is the one who does the accepting, not us. And I have found that, working alongside people whose faith journey is different than mine gives me more reason to “do the right thing” in my own faith, which I believe is the best witness. Do I get asked by some of these missional partners why I do what I do? Of course, and it has provided an opportunity to witness that as I have been profoundly loved in Jesus Christ, so I am called to build bridges of this same profound love. Believe me, it is a much stronger witness than saying, “I do this because I’m afraid of God,” or “…because I am duty-bound to do so.” “I’m just following orders” has not been a positive response for most of human history. 

 

Two simple lessons we can get from this text: 

 

1)    It makes clear that in Christ, God desires to forgive and heal human society, AND that as one who has accepted this “salvation,” I am now compelled to “do the right thing” out of the same love that offered it to me.

 

2)    I should not judge others, but seek to work alongside those who have the same passion for “fixing the world” as I do, or in many cases, who have even MORE passion for it, and especially those NOT motivated by faith, as I can learn from them.

 

And one final note…I am not espousing any form of “universalism” that asserts that God just willy-nilly drags all into the Kingdom. As Mr. Wesley pointed out, a response seems to be required. What is different about what I see here is the nature of that response. Only God can finally judge that. 

 

Meanwhile, Beloved, we have been given the Word about how we can respond: believe in Jesus, receive our redemption, and then live rightly, according to the teachings of Jesus. This “trinity” of responses we can surely do! And so can EVERYONE. 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...