Friday, July 28, 2023

The Anxiety of Solomon


 The Anxiety of Solomon

 

1 Kings 3:5-12
3:5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you."
3:6 And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.
3:7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.
3:8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.
3:9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"
3:10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.
3:11 God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,
3:12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

 

Have you ever been given a tough assignment that caused you to stop in your tracks and ask for wisdom? Frankly, every church I served prompted this response. Here’s my United Methodist appointment “travelogue”:

 

1985-1992—Turtle Creek: McMasters. I was appointed to be this church’s first student pastor, after a long, slow slide (due mostly to that community’s “rust belt” diminishment) that left them unable to pay a full-time pastor. Knowing the history of this fine church, and that I was being sent there to offer them a “new hope” (with apologies to George Lucas), I prayed like crazy for wisdom, given it was my first church assignment, that I would be a full-time dad and a full-time seminary student, and knew my own tendencies toward being a “workaholic.” What started out as a three-year student pastorate ended up a seven-year (tied for my longest appointment) gig, and I left them in better shape than when I arrived, which is ALWAYS a positive answer to the “wisdom” prayer!

 

1992-1997—Associate Pastor at Allison Park: St. Paul’s. After meeting with Dr. Ronald Hoellein to see if I felt we could work together (and actually after the meeting when HE was given the right to “wave off” me as his associate), I was thrilled to join him on a pastoral team that was four-strong, in those days. But especially knowing that I would inherit a buzzing youth program that had been orchestrated by Rev. Joe Patterson, I prayed for God’s wisdom to “do” youth ministry again, especially knowing that I was coming IN older than Joe was going OUT! Working with Ron, George Crooks, and Leah Bergstrom was a wonderful experience, and St. Paul’s really got into my blood, and thanks to God answering the “wisdom” prayer, into my DNA, to the good of my future appointments.

 

1997-2003—Coraopolis UMC. If you are a pastor reading this, and you ever had to follow a popular, successful predecessor, you know how important “wisdom” prayers are! In the long history of the Coraopolis UMC, my predecessor—Dr. Donald Scandrol—had the longest tenure of any of their prodigious list of ministers: Nine years. Now, they were getting me. Don was both a mentor and friend, so my wanting to “make good” on the appointment as his successor had double meaning for me. On that first Sunday, with lots of pairs of eyes staring at me during my first sermon, here’s what I told them:

 

When I arrived at the church this morning, I went upstairs to my new study and tried to open the door. It only opened a few inches, and stopped, acting like someone had pushed a heavy sofa against it, or something. As I struggled with the door, our Music Director, Rev. George Tutwiler, came walking by, and asked what was the problem. I told him about the door, seeming like something big was blocking it. “OH,” he said, “That’s just a pair of Don’s SHOES he left for you to fill!”

 

The congregation burst into laughter, and the “wisdom” prayer was again answered. I had a wonderful six years at Coraopolis.

 

2003-2009--Sharon: First UMC. I won’t go into the whole story, but I had some “connection” or “history” to each of the churches I served in 36 years of ministry, except this one. The only thing I knew about Sharon First was that my part-time, colleague at Coraopolis—Rev. Jack Moon—had retired from Sharon First, and had told us many stories about some of the “tough situations” he had dealt with in that church. When the call came that I was being appointed there, Jack’s only endorsement was: “Oh my God…” Time for “wisdom” prayer number four! The Sterlings spent five and a half years at Sharon First, and all I will say to affirm that this prayer was answered is that, of all of the churches I served, I would have to put Sharon First UMC at the top of my “favorites” list. It was a wonderful experience, and I think we did good ministry there.

 

2009-2014—Warren: First UMC. The move to Warren came mid-appointment year, in January, on the coldest day Warren had seen in 40 years. (I wondered where in the world the Cabinet had sent me!) The mid-year move was necessitated by the sudden and serious illness of our of our District Superintendents, who had to go on full disability. This created a “chain” of moves, after his successor to the District office was named. Dr. Eric Park went on the District, Rev. Bill Starr moved to Eric’s church, I moved to Warren, etc., etc. Again, a “wisdom” prayer was necessary, as I had never stepped into the top leadership role of a multi-staff church in the middle of their program year and RIGHT after Christmas. Also, I was well aware of the historic nature of First UMC, having received and sent many a pastor from/to the superintendency, and had a couple of bishops elected from its clergy ranks. They were also the most heavily financially endowed church in the conference, and aiding in the managing of these funds was part of the job, as well. After another five and a half years of service at Warren: First UMC, I can say that I was quite pleased with how God used us there. Unfortunately, I must also say how disappointed I am that my successor helped steer that great church OUT of the United Methodist Church via disaffiliation. 

 

2014-2021—Allison Park: St. Paul’s (again). Dr. Hoellein served for 22 years at St. Paul’s, and upon his retirement, the Cabinet figured that I might make a good seven year “interim,” given that I planned to retire as of June 30, 2021. I still knew about half of that congregation, and some of its staff, and had maintained a close friendship and “working” relationship with my old boss, which would make the transition easier. Besides, our “styles” and theological viewpoints were pretty compatible. That said, however, never had I prayed a “wisdom” prayer so fervently as I did many late nights before taking the reins of St. Paul’s. These prayers, coupled with the “OH boy…” prayers of that tremendous staff and my clergy colleague, Rev. Karen Slusser, certainly guided us through the transition and into seven years of good ministry, together. In retirement, Dara and I have been blessed to continue to worship at St. Paul’s, and be blessed by the tremendous preaching and leadership of Karen and our new Lead Pastor, Rev. Amy Wagner.

 

So, there you have it—my “journey in ministry.” You should know, however, that MANY “wisdom” prayers were said by yours truly, other than just in these “new appointment” moments. Three major “crises” benefitted from panicked, sincere “wisdom” prayers, on my part: the attacks of September 11, 2001, when I was at Coraopolis, a church literally on the glide slope of Pittsburgh International Airport, and one known as “US Airways at prayer,” with many of our folk working for the airlines. It was a scary time for the whole nation, obviously, but was even more so for airplane folk. For those days that all aircraft in the USA (other than military) were grounded, the silence in Coraopolis was deafening. The other two “crises” occurred during my final years at St. Paul’s. in 2019, our beloved Administrative Director, Faith Geer, died after her malignant melanoma returned. Faith was a conference-wide treasure and a boon to the growth and life at St. Paul’s. Leading that staff and congregation through their grief, and finding new ways to manage our ministry together was a real challenge, especially given that Faith was about as “irreplaceable” as a person could be in her unique role. We made it, though, thanks to MANY “wisdom” prayers. Then, in 2020, came COVID-19. If it weren’t for the wisdom granted to our whole staff by God, I don’t know how such a large church with a huge weekday ministry program would have made it through that, but like most of your churches, we did. Thanks be to God!

 

I share these personal stories with you, the reader, as these are what come to mind immediately, upon reading how Solomon addressed God in his time of “transition” to the leadership of Israel. I hope they have set the stage for the review of your own incredible stories of how YOUR “wisdom” prayers have been said and answered! Now, on to Solomon…

 

This is obviously a famous passage where King Solomon asks God for “an understanding mind” (wisdom) to govern Israel. Given that he was a politician, of sorts, I might take this “prayer” with a grain of salt, if not for the fact that the text says that even God believed his request was genuine. The discernment to know what is truly “good” and what is dangerously “evil” is one of the most valuable of the spiritual gifts. As a pastor, I treasured persons who had the gift of discernment, and who could offer a word of “caution” or “go slow on this” to me, especially given that I was a pretty “driven” leader, who liked to “forge ahead.” Interestingly, three of these very discerning people were church custodians! (There are reasons why it is important to build relationships with your staff, at ALL levels!) 

 

Of course, Solomon just MAY have been this humble, sidling up to God, after he got a good look at Israel. About the only thing in history that has shown itself to be as rag-tag, as poor at keeping “the main thing, the main thing,” bound to wander in the wilderness, and in such need of God’s rescue as Israel,  is the Christian church! I sometimes think that God sent the Holy Spirit upon the church more as a BABYSITTER, than as an “energizer.” If you’ve raised teenagers, you have at least a sample of how God feels about the church. And yet, like we love our teens, God still loves US! God keeps promising good things, even when we drop the ball.

 

The Oxford Dictionary defines anxiety as: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. This is exactly what Solomon faced, as this text from I Kings makes clear. He is “a child,” and he faces replacing his father, who was revered as a great leader. Israel is a “great people,” in Solomon’s mind, and yet, we can “hear” his concern about how difficult they are to govern. “Great people” often have their very own ideas about what, how, when, and where things should happen, and if their appointed leader disagrees with the majority, sparks can fly. Sound like the church to you? Great leaders often have to go against the tide of popular opinion, and that tide may, at a moment’s notice, turn into a riptide, carrying the leader far from shore. Too often, a “leadership moment” may turn into a pissing contest between the leader (be they pastor or king) and those she/he is trying to lead. Good leaders understand that not all best directions will have popular support, but good leaders work with this and don’t take it personally, using the earliest thread of disagreement as a time to sit down together, reason, converse as co-interested parties, and come to an agreed upon direction. Good leaders learn how to “sell” their position. Wise leaders never lose sight of the goal. And wise leaders know that rarely does this wisdom emanate from themselves, alone. 

 

Still, such important tasks breed anxiety. What do good leaders do when they are anxious? They reach out to all of the benevolent, good forces that guide them in life—trusted confidants, competent “consultants” with long and good track records, and certainly to their “higher power.” Believers turn to God in prayer, even while consulting with their earthly sources and doing regular gut-checks. Anxiety should be a motivator, not a disabler, for a competent leader. 

 

Teaching moment: some of us have issues with inordinate anxiety, and some of these persons may be called by God into the ministry. Not all pastors should be seen as “interchangeable” in all situations, thus. Even persons with anxiety issues can be shepherds of God’s people! They may have a sensitivity in matters of pastoral care, and even in guiding church decision-making and goal-setting. However, it behooves them to know her or his limits, and resist the temptation to take on larger and more responsibility, knowing their “anxiety trigger” trips much quicker than that of others. Also, ALL leaders should know when to seek professional counsel with anxiety and personal emotional challenges, and good leaders do. But those with “hair trigger” anxiety most assuredly must. 

 

In today’s text, God offers accolades as well as wisdom to Solomon for asking humbly for an “understanding mind.” It appeared to God, at least, that Solomon was wise enough to know what wisdom looked like, when granted to him, and would have both the brains and the guts to use it. 

 

I wish I could say that I always knew when to DO what I felt God leading me to do, both as a pastor and as an individual Christian disciple. Thankfully, most of the time I did my best to do so, but there were times when either I was a bit “chicken” to do so, or just didn’t have the energy to push that button, at the time. However, the same God was God over me who was God over Solomon, and God both forgave and did a little “kicking” to push me off of dead center. There are just those times in ministry when risk is more important than rest, and as many, if not more times, when the opposite is true. We need God’s wisdom to know the difference, and the support of our supportive community to undergird us when we don’t choose so wisely!

 

Here's my prayer for you:

 

Dear God, I’m not Solomon. I’ll not be building you any temples or making too many choices that will put my work into the history books, let alone the pages of scripture! But I am called to serve you and your people, and I am willing to listen for your wisdom, which I expect to hear through your Holy Spirit who dwells within me. May I serve you humbly, or at the very least, learn my “humble lessons” when things don’t go my way, or the way I wish they would. As your servant John Wesley said, O God, “Let me be employed by Thee or set aside by Thee,” but above all, let me glorify Thee! Amen.

 

Oh, and Lord, don’t let the inevitable anxiety of being a preacher, a leader, and a Christian get the best of me! Amen!

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Hold My Beer...

 


Hold My Beer…

 

Genesis 28:10-19a
28:10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.
28:11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
28:12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
28:13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring;
28:14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
28:15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
28:16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place--and I did not know it!"
28:17 And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
28:18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.
28:19a He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

I’m always fascinated by stories about ladders, possibly because the ones I have owned usually seem just a rung or two too short for what I need them for! I bought a 16 foot extension ladder when we moved into our townhouse, figuring it would help us paint the interior entrance tower. (We bought only a 16-footer, because it was the size we could: a. afford; b. get home with our Forrester, since it was only 8 feet in total length; and c. had room to store in our garage.) And yes, it was JUST a bit too short. I finished painting the entranceway on my tippytoes, hanging off the top of the ladder (DON’T try this at home!). By the way, in my youth, I would climb a 40-footer with reckless abandon, as I painted houses for a summer job. Now, at the top of my “par three” ladder, I’m far less steady. Time steals your balance. Believe it. 

 

Facebook and other public, social media sites have videos of people setting up elaborate ways to “beat” the way-too-short ladder, or to place a ladder precariously in a place where it just doesn’t work safely, yet climbing it, nonetheless. These videos usually are captioned by something like this: “Why women outlive men…” The “joke” in our time is the challenge that a person—usually a stunted-thinking man—takes on the risky (Ridiculous? Stupid?) challenge with the expression, “Hold my beer.” 

 

A person climbing a ladder

Description automatically generated

 

Is the Christian church in danger of becoming a “Hold my beer” organization? I am convinced that the recent migration of congregations away from the United Methodist Church via the “Great Disaffiliation” may have been, at its heart, one of these foolish, “Hold my beer” moments. For years, warring theological camps have been lobbing charges and counter-charges back at forth, with one or the other threatening to “leave,” because of the either “too tight” or “too loose” views of the other. And when the tenuously compromised “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace” dissolved (both sides accuse the other of being the cause, by the way), it was the “orthodoxy” crowd that set down their beer and set up the rickety ladder of disaffiliation. No matter how you view it, it was a schism. Initial estimates that “less than 10%” of protesting congregations would leave turned out to be way low, and around 25% of UMC congregations left to either become independent or join with the recently established Global Methodist Church. Both factions now find themselves in the situation of backing down off the unsteady ladder of escalation that got them here, in an effort to rebuild a foundation under themselves. “Hold my beer,” as the “fun” is just beginning, especially for the most vulnerable churches and the least competent clergy leaders.

 

Regarding the rickety church, this week’s morning chapel speaker—Dr. Craig Barnes—told a funny story about flying to various engagements. He said that he hoped that none of his “seat mates” and potential conversationalists ever ask him what he “did for a living.” When they did, he said there were three possible responses: he would be ignored by them, after hearing he was a pastor; when they found out he was a Presbyterian pastor, they would try to “lead him to Jesus”; and finally, the other party in the dialogue would begin a long harangue about what they felt was wrong with the church. Barnes said that he would let them go on, and when he got a word in edgewise, he would say: “Look, I’ve worked in the church a long time, and I’ve been around the church a LOT longer than you have, and I can tell you, it’s a LOT worse than you think; a LOT worse!” (He would go on to say that still, he NEEDS the church to bring him regularly back to Jesus, and to be his “community.”)

 

I’m writing this message in the library at the Chautauqua Institution where we have been enjoying the lectures and activities of Week Four around the theme of “What We Believe.” No, it’s not a study of doctrines or dogmas of one faith, but an interesting conversation of what makes us “tick” in our adopted believes about a lot of things, religion being only one element of this. Kate Bowler, a young historian of faith, pretty much told us that the American religious landscape may best be summed up in the adversarial, challenging exclamation, “Oh YEAH?” Religious faith in American society is usually cruising for a fight, rather than seeking how to love; calling out what’s wrong with our neighbor’s religion, rather than offering to help them in their time of need. While this is a more hostile variation on “Hold my beer,” it tends to have the same stupid and less-than-productive outcome.

 

If ever there was a “Hold my beer” character in the Bible, it was Jacob. The conniver, the trickster, the cheater, is chosen by God to “father” the tribes of Israel. Go figure. Maybe we come by our “Hold my beer” mentality honestly? Every time you read of a flawed, or even scandalous figure in the Bible, believing God will get out the “smite stick” to cool their jets, it seems GOD says, “Hold my beer,” and does something great through them. Does God do this to goad the “righteous,” who always seem to think THEY deserve to be “the chosen?” Or does God do this because that’s what God does—redeems, recycles, and reinvigorates the sick souls? Maybe God just does it because God can, and WE usually WON’T even try. Jacob is one of these characters, indeed.

 

Our text tells us these various images come to Jacob in a dream, as he sleeps with his head on a rock (itself an interesting image). The ladder in this story serves as a bridge between heaven and earth, here being “tested” by angels, ascending and descending. It almost sounds like they are just having fun, touching down on Planet Earth. (One can imagine these angels telling the other, less mischievous angels, “Hold my beer!”) Is the ladder an usual Christophany, forecasting God’s ultimate “bridge” between the Realm of God and the human home world? Another thought, and is one that would associate Jacob, God’s “heal grabber,” with Jesus, God’s “soul grabber.” Jacob, of course, becomes the lynchpin of God’s plan for growing Israel in the Hebrew Bible; Jesus is the culmination of the redemption of all of the people of God, in the New Testament. 

 

A little “side trip” story: Dara and I attended a Bible Study on Tuesday night at the United Methodist House here at Chautauqua. It is held weekly, and is led by Dr. Paul Womack, a retired pastor and scholar, and current interim pastor at the historic Hurlbut Memorial Church (UMC) on the Institute grounds, and Joe Lewis, a British, Jewish lay teacher. I must say, the interaction between these two is amazing. They have been “stuck” on the book of Jeremiah for some time, but there is so much to cover with the “Weeping Prophet.” Mr. Lewis (whom I mistakenly called “Rabbi,” upon which he immediately corrected me) told a story from British religious lore I thought you might enjoy. The “pillow stone” that Jacob slept on in this week’s text was supposedly later came into the possession of the prophet Jeremiah, as a kind of relic. Later kings of Israel were crowned upon the stone, because of its significance, and as a symbol that, as Jacob “fathered” all of Israel’s tribes, so the stone would signify that the king was the monarch over all of Israel. After some of the leaders of Israel—in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecies—were later taken into captivity in Babylon (today’s Baghdad), legend has it that Jeremiah fled the country WITH the “pillow stone” and sailed to Ireland. The stone later winds up on Scotland, where it is dubbed the “Stone of Scone,” and is incorporated into a special throne upon which the kings of Scotland would be crowned. In subsequent wars with England, it changes hands a time or two, but mostly resides in England, to this day. King Charles II was crowned on that throne, complete with its “Stone of Scone,” supposedly symbolic of England’s monarch being “king” over all the realm, including historical “Israel.” Mr. Lewis told us that England now “loans” the throne/stone to Scotland so they may use it to crown their own leaders as well. He told us that this whole story is highly suspect, and that we should NEVER tell anyone that he told it to us. “Hold my beer…”

 

If the ladder image in today’s text is a foreshadowing of God’s future incarnation in Jesus Christ (the ultimate presence of God with humans), we should take special note of what is the central theme of this passage, namely God telling Jacob “I am with you” and “I will not leave you.” 

 

Quick seminary story: I was in the first year of my M.Div. studies, taking the required “Interpreting the Bible” course (which we all called “Interrupting the Bible,” just to be a bunch of wise asses). Dr. Donald Gowan, a giant of Old Testament scholarship, was teaching the “left side of the Bible,” as Steven Tuell would say. As he began each class, he would open his notes, pray, and launch into a particular OT book. This one week, however, before he opened his notebook, he did something quite uncharacteristic: He asked if we had any questions. Catching us all by surprise, one wiseacre in the back of the room spontaneously blurted out, “Yeah. Can you summarize the whole Bible in one sentence?” The class laughed a quick, awkward laugh, but Dr. Gowan REALLY shocked us by almost immediately saying, “Yes, I can.” Before he spoke, I can tell you that every pen or pencil was poised for THIS bit of wisdom! Then, he answered: “Here’s the sentence: It’s God, saying, ‘I will be with you.’” “’I will be with you.’ That’s the theme of the whole Bible.” And here it is again, in this story of Jacob and his rock-headed dream.

 

I’m not sure it’s worth trying to tie all of this together for you, as there are enough messages in this narrative for you to extract the one that works for YOU this week! I SHOULD say, however, that I am NOT advocating for the kind of “Oh YEAH?” version of a faith that is meant, instead, to be about loving God and neighbor, rather than taking them on in a challenge, although Jacob WILL later engage God in a wrestling match, won’t he? And I am NOT suggesting that “Hold my beer” should be our discipline or the praxis of what we believe. It’s unfortunate that, according to so many of the speakers we have heard at Chautauqua this week, this is what the world sees happening in Western Christianity with our warring over “orthodoxy,” “Biblical authority,” abortion, birth control, and the rights of LGBTQ persons. Remember, “Hold my beer” usually precedes acts of pure idiocy, or at the very least, high folly. And the outcome is typically not something designed to give glory to God, either.

 

Here's the good news: In these ridiculous pursuits, we are in danger of being as conniving and devious as Jacob. And yet, God was WITH him, and found a way to use him to launch the nation of Israel. Maybe even in our foolish “Hold my beer” mentality, God will not only NOT abandon us, but will perform a “new thing” and redeem our rickety ladder-climbing, launching a fresh expression of forgiveness, love, and grace? Jesus actually climbed DOWN the ladder so we don’t have to do anything as silly as try to climb UP it! Jesus brought God to US. We certainly can hope and pray for a “new thing” that God might now do in our midst to revitalize the church!

 

AND we can “borrow” the image of the ladder between heaven and earth as a hopeful sign that Jesus Christ is still in the “bridge” business, bringing together opposing forces and disputing factions, and rebuilding a church out of it all. 

 

In a way, we can take comfort in the thought that NOTHING is impossible with God! “Hold my beer…” Amen!

Friday, July 14, 2023

All in the Same Boat

 


All in the Same Boat

 

Romans 8:1-11
8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
8:3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,
8:4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law--indeed it cannot,
8:8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

 

As you read my recent messages, you may see a pattern developing: I tend to get more jazzed by the Old Testament texts than the new, and there are a couple of reasons. First of all, I took Greek in seminary, and had no time to squeeze in Hebrew, after I took a near full-time student pastorate. Secondly, I never liked the Old Testament, because in my “NT” prejudice, I thought it was too judgmental and “nasty.” In my old age and retirement era, I am coming to see its more of its beauty, and thanks to more time for better exegetical scholarship, am seeing more clearly through the “human” hands that wrote it, to view the benevolent, brooding, and yet rejoicing God who inspired it. That said, there are New Testament texts that read like the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence, and the book of Romans is full of them!

 

Take a look at the first verse of this pericope from Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Wow. One must ask, however, “What does it mean to be IN Christ Jesus?” A few weeks ago, five people were “in” a submersible called the “Titan,” and they all simultaneously lost their lives when it imploded under the overwhelming water pressure at 13,000 feet below the ocean. Sin is an imploding thing, crushing us under its tremendous pressure. However, Christ “lifts us up.” When we are “IN church,” worship inspires and recharges our spirit. Being “IN Christ” is a gift of God, NOT a specific list of “orthodox” doctrines we must painstakingly “obey” to please God. JESUS pleased God for us, and our best, righteous living we now do out of GRATITUDE for this gift.

 

As I wrote in a recent message, it is helpful to understand “sin” differently and more deeply than the “tweet” version of it we often hear. If I were to ask you to define “sin,” you might say it’s “disobedience to the law of God,” or behaviors or attitudes that “anger” a “righteous” God. Those are both religious definitions. I have suggested that a better definition of “sin” is “anything that damages relationships between persons, including a person’s relationship with God.” In this vein, “sin” may also be things that harm community (eroding it) between persons, or that creates excessive resistance to its forming. What if we expand our definition of sin to include things within the person that keep them from “forming” into the fullness of what they want to be, or are “called” to be. Sin, in this thinking, may include mental illness, unhealed, broken relationships, financial hardship, or even negative behaviors like bullying or gossiping. “Sin” may cut a wider, insidiously “bad” swath through the individual psyche, the heart of benevolent community, or the church, than we fully understand. To reduce “sin” to just a breach of some rule or law found in scripture is to lose focus on just how destructive it can be. “Fixing” it is, therefore, requires so much more effort or remedy than a “substitutionary” offering that equates Christ’s death to a cow butchered and burned on an ancient altar. A friend recently posted an Edward Teller quote that summarizes the power of “sin” to disrupt:

 

Life improves slowly and goes wrong fast, and only catastrophe is clearly visible.

 

Paul is telegraphing the destructive power of sin when he connects it with death, which he does on more than one occasion. What kind of death? We all know that there are harmful practices that may lead to a physical death, ranging from murder, to addictions, to dying by suicide prompted by any manner of horrible, demeaning experiences in a life that rob a person’s sense of worth. Lesser, yet tragic “deaths” include the emptiness that occurs within an individual when they sell out great sections of their life to things that provide pleasure, but little purpose, or give in to manipulation or “game playing” by others in their life, who derive their pleasure by controlling people. The Apostle says that the only effective balm for sin is living “IN Christ.”

 

There are many ways to unpack what it means to live “IN Christ,” including this text’s reference to the Holy Spirit of God living IN (or within) our lives, comforting, guiding, and nudging us toward right living. It should be so much more, though, than the trite “religious” meaning we give to it. If sin is so insidious, then God’s effort to disarm it would necessarily need to be much more pervasive. We can argue theology all day long about how the Christ Event provided an “ally, ally, in-free” for the spiritual “penalties” of sin, as we addressed in last week’s message, but let’s say that the Christ offers us a clean slate in this regard. But to provide a fix for the tenacled nature of sin, both individual and corporate, living “in Christ” must include all manner of healing for addiction, mental anguish and illness, that inner emptiness, and purposelessness that may haunt any of us. Corporately, a community “in Christ” must adopt the teachings and “vision” of Jesus to overcome sin’s entropy and cleanse itself through acts of compassion and mercy aimed at what our Jewish siblings call tikkun olam, or “fixing the earth.”

 

I titled my message on this passage, “All in the Same Boat,” based on the Rembrandt painting at the top of this page, and a story that Maxie Dunham tells in one of the first-generation “Disciple Bible Study” videos. Dunham shows Rembrandt’s painting of “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” depicting the time Jesus and the twelve were in a boat on that famous body of water, and a big storm came up. Jesus is asleep, and the disciples were panicking, thinking they would perish. It’s a wonderful (and somewhat dark) painting. Dunham shows us that if we carefully count the men in the boat, there are FOURTEEN, not just the twelve disciples and Jesus. The dark figure in the rear of the boat—just as terrified as the rest—is Rembrandt, himself. He has painted himself into the scene, because he believed “we are all in the same boat.” Sin is like the storm, be it one of those quick ones that may come up on the Sea of Galilee, or the “500 year” variety that now seems to strike at least monthly! But while storms pass, sin will not go away on its own. In fact, it is so insidious, it will seed itself and just keep spreading, when we are not held to account for it, whether it is personal or corporate. 

 

It's a little hard to see in Rembrandt’s painting, but if you look very closely, he appears to be terrified AND lost, at the same time. Sin can do that to us. Paul would know. He had become so convinced that what he was doing in persecuting these new Christ followers even to the point of having them stoned to death was RIGHT, that he believed he was doing God’s work. This kind of delusion is common to people who sell out to sin. Persecuting people who disagree with your faith or viewpoint is very clearly wrong. The people who stormed the U.S. Capitol, who did great harm to police officers, and threatened the Vice President of the United States with hanging were wrong, plain and simple. But the people in both of these examples had become convinced that their cause was “righteous.” Sin puts us all in the same boat and kicks up the storm. Some in the history of humanity strike out when appropriately challenged, or when their fear overcomes their conscience. One wonders what might have happened on that boat if Jesus hadn’t intervened. One way we are “all in the same boat” is that we may be victims of sin, and perpetrators of it. It may just depend on the day or the circumstances. Either way, sin gets us, especially when you begin to see its “wider” form.

 

The GOOD NEWS is that Jesus is in that boat with us! When the scriptures tell us that “Jesus was tempted as we are, but without sinning,” we should take that to mean that as he walked among us, having “emptied” himself of the “privilege” of all that being part of the Godhead, he experienced the typical human “tug” of all that promises great things that it can’t deliver, leaving an emptiness of its own, behind. And we should interpret that Jesus was “without” sin to mean that his resolve to begin the process of fixing us and the world was so strong that the “tick” of sin couldn’t find a soft spot to bite on him. In the midst of rescuing people—including the disciples on the boat—he launched the rescue of all of us. So, we are all in THAT boat, too! By now, you know my theological perspective that the redeeming power of the Christ Event is so strong that ALL of us on the “boat” have been rescued, unless we intentionally jump overboard. While there’s nothing at all wrong with saying a prayer to “ask Jesus into your heart” and to proclaim oneself “saved,” these steps are most likely not even necessary. If you WANT to find salvation, however you understand that, it is already yours. God ran so strongly our direction, as evidenced by the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, that the only way we can “miss out” is to very intentionally refuse, refuse, refuse, and reject, reject, and reject the love and grace of God. I don’t know why anyone would do that, but I’m sure some have, and some will. How very sad. No one is more sad than God over this, but it is a freedom we have ALSO as a gift from God.

 

Recap: We are “all in the same boat” in that sin can really screw up our lives, our relationships, and our world. Indeed, it has. But we are ALSO “all in the same boat” in that the redemptive, rescuing, reconciling God is “in the boat” with us, and will calm the waves and heal us of our fear. And as we learn to fully integrate the teachings of Jesus, as well as trust the indwelling lure of the Holy Spirit, we will experience life “IN Christ,” as Paul says. Again, a caution: don’t read the Bible to discern who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Read it to find the key or keys to unlock the doors and gates so that everyone can be “in the same boat,” the boat of safety, love, acceptance, and possibility, for NOTHING is impossible with God! Happy sailing! Amen.

 

            

Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Yoke's On You

 


The Yoke’s On You!

 

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
11:16 "But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
11:17 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'
11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon';
11:19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
11:25 At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;
11:26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
11:27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
11:28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

 

I would definitely preach on this text this week, as I did EVERY BLESSED TIME it came up in the lectionary! OH how our generation needs to hear, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Jesus came “playing the flute” of God’s endless, steadfast love, and rather than dance to the beat, we beat HIM up and crucified him! And then, we didn’t mourn, but like those first disciples, we “ran and hid,” hoping we weren’t next on the chopping block. God is a God of rescue, “freeing the captives,” lifting up the downtrodden, abiding in steadfast love, and all of the other wonderful promises of this weekend’s texts. GOD IS PLAYING THE FLUTE FOR US!!! Why won’t we DANCE? Our denomination just went through a horrible SPLIT because we shunned the music of the FLUTE and ran for fear we weren’t “orthodox” enough! Look at what Jesus says in verses 29 and 30: “TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU, and learn from me; for I AM GENTLE AND HUMBLE IN HEART, and you will FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS!...For my YOKE IS EASY and my BURDEN IS LIGHT!” Sounds like some dance-worthy “flute music” for me, not “marching orders” to orchestrate a schism because some don’t see it our way! BOY, does the United Methodist Church—especially the “post separation” version of it—need to hear this “yoke is easy” and “burden is light” stuff, right now! Preach it, PREACH IT, preach it! It is more than time for God’s GRACIOUS WILL as Jesus references in verse 26! We preachers need to stop “shoulding” all over our people!

 

The above is preaching commentary I wrote for the local pastors in the Butler District area. I continue to be “impressed” by this poetic phrase, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Had this been written in a Christian message in the 18th century or later, I might start searching the works of William Shakespeare to find its origin. But it appears unique to this discourse by Jesus Christ. Most interesting, when we think of the “inspiration of God,” whether it is in the scriptures, or the arts!

 

If you look up this verse in the various commentaries, you will not be too excited by what you find. The “early fathers” largely suggest that those “playing the flute” and “mourning” are the prophets who warned Israel and foretold of the coming of Messiah. Makes sense, for sure, but doesn’t really stir the juices of a contemporary audience. We already KNOW how the generation of Jesus and its progenitors “ignored” much of what the prophets tried to tell them. Is that any worse than OUR generations so often ignoring the teachings of Jesus? Hmmm.

 

A few commentators, looking to verse 16, suggests that Jesus is borrowing from a popular children’s ditty, possibly part of a “marriage” game they played. Since no one really knows, this contextual “guess” is also as good as any, but it, too, robs the phrase of its poetic—and inspirational—power. 

 

Dr. Douglas Hare (one of my seminary professors), in his commentary on Matthew in the Interpretation series, adds an interesting insight—gender roles in it. If it is part of a childhood “marriage” game, the “dancers” referenced were male, as they would typically be the ones doing “reels” at a wedding, while the “mourners” were almost always women (often paid to do so) at funerals.

 

If we look for wisdom from these various commentators, we would first note the “inclusive” nature of Jesus’ critique—Jews, men, women, children, adults, as well as his own disciples, who still didn’t “get” it. Jesus was indicting all who have so given in to being bound by guilt, the accusations (including self-inflicted) that go with the “lists” of sins created to keep people “in their place,” and the “authority” of religious “rulers” of any stripe. The one person who fully knew what he was here to do—Jesus—and who knew what he would introduce to the world, in this moment was amazed to see how easy a “mark” the shame-ridden human being was for those who prospered or even just got their “jollies” by making them squirm. This Jesus was the same one who would tell humanity that God SO LOVED THEM that God sent him to offer an “ally, ally, in free” moment, and who would say, “Those whom the Son has set free are FREE, INDEED!” Sometimes it appears that we human beings don’t feel “secure” unless we are in a “cage,” even if we build it and crawl inside. Spiritually speaking, that is exactly what we often do. We search the scriptures in an effort to know “intimately” what are “sins,” and at least softly persecute those we feel are guilty of them, and then engage in a form of self-flagellation for the ones we are willing to cop to. Is this not true? Do YOU spend some of your waking hours at night thinking about the things YOU believe God may not be happy with in your life? If so—and it is most likely true for most of us—The YOKE’S on you.”

 

This passage is a kind of “self-revelation” (forgive the use of multi-leveled, theological irony in this expression) on the part of Jesus as to what he hoped to accomplish in what we call the “Christ Event.” Forgiving the sins of all of God’s people? That was the easy part. Getting people to reduce their excessive attention on listing and accusing each other of multitudes of sins and to “love God and neighbor” instead? Clearly, that was going to be a bigger assignment. Jesus came to affirm that God was love. Human religious leaders preferred to preach that God was a “righteous judge” who would put us all on trial for disobedience, and their role was to regularly remind us what all constituted “disobedience.” After a few millennia, human beings develop such a habit of rule-keeping in an effort to “please” deity, and even come to believe it is what ULTIMATELY does. Jesus came to “fix” this fixation, and to announce again to humanity that God is “blessed” when WE are blessed; God is “loved” when WE feel loved; God is “praised” when we feel like dancing to the music of the flute just because we feel like dancing! And God is empathetically moved by our mourning when it is from-the-heart-and-soul mourning, and not just “wailing” to convince others we know we should be grieving. As human beings, we are so often enculturated—sometimes with a good dose of religion—to proudly wear our yokes, and the heavier, the better.

 

We all know Jesus came to redeem humanity from our sins and to reconcile us to God. But our personal yokes of heaviness too often keep us from seeing his wider message that gets us to love of God and neighbor. Jesus ALSO came to “play the flute” so we might recover the joy of “dancing” through life, rather than walking in fear on the journey. Jesus desires to break our judgmental yokes so that they may fall off under the freeing wash of grace. And the new “yoke” Jesus offers is “easy” and its burden “light.” Life DOES have its responsibilities, be they careers, parenting, and being compassionate, caring citizens. And life includes dealing with death and grief. Jesus will play the flute for our dancing, but also will join us in genuine grief when life calls for it, as well. Jesus understands both, more than any other being who has ever walked the earth. 

 

Several times, Jesus refers to us as needing to understand things more like children, as in this passage. Children are obviously more objective in their thinking, but we have learned to not underestimate their ability to be deeply moved, and to show compassion at a level adults often might label as “irrational.” God’s love is an irrational love. That God would “give his only begotten Son” for us—however we understand this—is irrational. A “child-like” faith is not at all the same as a “childish” faith. Childish faith is one that would build a theology upon a judgmental God who will harshly judge persons for “sins” that make religious lists, and a God who must be “appeased” by such things. Child-like faith believes what Jesus tells us he came to do, and dances when the divine flute begins playing. 

 

As a pastor, I have seen so many people encumbered by an unnecessarily heavy yoke of their own design that they rarely, if ever, experience JOY. And if they do find a few moments “escape” from the weight that they DO experience a sample of joy, they reflexively begin praising God, mostly for fear they don’t “deserve” it. Jesus told us he came “that we might have life, and abundantly.” What kind of “abundant life” would keep us from the dancing and the joy? 

 

Some who like to quote Jesus when accusing and denigrating others whose lifestyles they dislike, or at least disagree with, conversely have a hard time taking Jesus at face value when he announces an easy yoke and a light burden. The “rule keeping” they feel compelled to enforce seems counter to a Jesus who says he is gentle and humble of heart. Jesus wants to give our souls rest. Rule-keepers seem bent on seeing we get the rest of what’s coming to us for our “disobedience.” Their yoke is iron, and their burden is measured in tonnage.

 

Jesus would be happy if the rule-keepers would abandon this as their means of “pleasing” him, or of believing this pursuit is within God’s “gracious will.” Jesus would be pleased if any of you reading this text from Matthew would abandon the overly heavy yoke you have taken upon yourself, or at least allowed someone else to affix it to your neck. Jesus would rather be playing the flute that we could all be dancing, or holding our hands and sitting with us when we are grieving life’s legitimate and heart-wrenching losses. 

 

Anyone for a little joy, courtesy of the liberating, compassionate Son of God, who fully demonstrated the gracious will of God, to our benefit and blessing? Ally, ally in-free! But if you refuse this life-giving, life-uplifting joy, the yoke’s on you. Amen.

 

Saturday, July 1, 2023

An Unbound Christ

 

The Binding of Isaac by Marc Chagall

An Unbound Christ

 

Genesis 22:1-14
22:1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."

22:2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."

22:3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.

22:4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

22:5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you."

22:6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

22:7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"

22:8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.

22:9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

22:10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

22:11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."

22:12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."

22:13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

22:14 So Abraham called that place "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."

 

 

To the Jews, the “Binding of Isaac” (in Hebrew, the Akedah) is a big deal. Google it, and you will find many references as to what it means in their long story with God, but you will have to Google the suffix “in religion,” unless you are interested in reading about a major VIDEO game called “The Binding of Isaac”! To the Jews, the binding of Isaac is a story of ultimate obedience to God, on one hand (Abraham’s willingness to do what God asks—prepare to offer his own son as a sacrifice), and the faithfulness of God, who provides a ram for the sacrifice. Ultimately, the story reminds Jews that God is always faithful, and that we humans, despite our best efforts to meet God’s standards, must rely on God’s faithfulness, and not our own. This narrative of the sacrifice and binding of Isaac is traditionally read in the synagogues on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish new year. Christians have “seized” the story themselves, seeing in it a kind of foreshadowing of Jesus, sent as the “sacrifice ram caught in the thicket,” as a substitute act of atonement. Are we right in this interpretation? Personally, I don’t think so. The Jews’ interpretation is the better one for us to believe. And we should be somewhat horrified that Abraham’s “obedience” leads to him binding Isaac and appearing to be willing to sacrifice him. This story is absurd, and should be preached this way. It is a grand paradox—would God ask that WE give up our own offspring to “appease” God?  And what are we to think of a God who did this very thing? On one hand, the God who “tests” Abraham’s faithfulness is barbaric and terroristic. On the other hand, the God who “gave his only begotten Son” is either demented, or loving of the human creation beyond anything WE can imagine. The story of Abraham binding Isaac has NO comfortable resolution, and neither does the story of God “offering” Jesus. This is the meaning we should see in it. The only  things that make sense of it are the extreme faithfulness and fantastic love of God, who loves human beings even more than “the Son.” 

 

As I write this, I got caught up in my “first viewing” of the modern remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” with Keanu Reeves as “Klaatu,” the alien. In the scene I’m watching, he meets with an old Asian man, who, turns out, is another alien who has been living among humans for over 70 years. The old man reports two disparate views of humanity—that they are violent, destructive, and irredeemable, and that he loves them and wants to stay among them, even though it means he may die with them as the aliens “cleanse” the Earth (kill off all offending human life) to save the rest of the planet and its other creatures. What an interesting parallel to the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus! Of course the storyline of this movie is that the “aliens” decide to give the Earth one more chance…sound familiar?

 

This powerful story of Abraham and Isaac begins each Jewish New Year. It is a reminder to the Jewish community of Abraham’s dogged faithfulness and God’s saving provision. Since Isaac is God’s “child of promise,” from which the nation of Israel would come, his “unbinding” when the ram in the thicket, provided directly by God as a sacrificial offering in his place, appears, is truly what Israel celebrates! The “binding” is about faith; the “unbinding” is the catalyst of the beginnings of twelve tribes and an entire nation. 

 

As I’ve said, the “freeing” of Isaac (unbinding) is truly what Israel should celebrate. His binding by his father, who seems willing to “do God’s will” and sacrifice the boy, would seem to doom the “as numerous as the grains of sand in the sea” promise, had the sacrifice of Isaac happened. Would Abraham really do it? Or did he bind Isaac fully believing that God would DO what God eventually did, and “pardon” the bound young man by providing the Ram? There is reason to believe that Abraham HAD faith that God would not have him proceed with killing his son, in that the Jews never conducted human sacrifices. In Abraham’s mind, it would be out of character for God to sanction this. We will really never know. But we DO know that God DID provide the Ram and Isaac was set free. 

 

All this said, we now turn to how this story impacts that of Jesus the Christ. If you listen to someone whose faith has evangelical or more conservative roots, you will typically hear them refer to Jesus as “Jesus Christ,” like “Christ” is Jesus’ last name, even though most people engaged in their Christian faith realize that “Christ” is actually his “title,” or role. It comes from the Greek, Christos, meaning “anointed one,” or “chosen one.” Many of us often refer to Jesus as “Jesus the Christ,” although when we do, we are in danger of being labeled “liberal,” by some. (I like to speak of the “Christ Event,” which REALLY gets my more theologically conservative friends in a snit, but in the following narrative, I hope to flesh this all out a bit!)

 

The connection I want to make with the binding of Isaac story is NOT to the resurrection of Jesus, although when God told Abraham to “unbind” Isaac, I’m sure that it was a “raised from the dead” kind of relief on the aged father, and for his young son, as well. Nor is it to Jesus as the “ram caught in the thicket” that is often seen as a foreshadowing of the “atonement” ministry of Jesus, serving as a sacrifice for the sins of us all. In fact, it is the “Binding of Isaac” story that may cause us to really put the “blood of Christ” as an atonement sacrifice on the back burner, as God never demanded human sacrifices of God’s people. Ever. Why, then would God “bind” his own begotten Son out to be one? Now, I’m not going to spend time in this week’s message trying to either blow away or otherwise explain my thinking about the Christ’s “atonement” aspect, as that is for another day, but I will point out that John 3:16 says that God “GAVE the only begotten Son” to us, and “believing in him” is the key to salvation, which doesn’t focus on his violent death on the cross.

 

There certainly are atoning aspects to the Christ Event, and the resurrection is an important part of the saga as well. However, let me suggest that the “freeing” or “unbinding” of Isaac, which gave rise to his whole lineage, resulting in Israel’s existence as the people of God, is better seen as a foreshadowing of the “unbinding” of Jesus the Christ, which begins WITH the resurrection. In “giving the Son” to us (incarnation) and then resurrecting him as the “second Adam” and “firstborn of the dead,” to use Paul’s terms, God UNBINDS the Christ and sets the Christ loose upon the world and into all time. The Unbound Christ is ALIVE in the world, ALIVE in the church, ALIVE in each of us, and ALIVE in time. Even as the “small seed” of Isaac’s unbinding resulted in a whole nation, so the “small seed” of Jesus the Christ’s entry into the world resulted in the church (and we must think WAY beyond the “box” we put “the church” in, at this point) and in the free gift of reconciliation for all people of all time and all places. AND the Unbound Christ is still just getting started in carrying out this whole redemption story!

 

The ”Unbound Christ” is actually much greater than Jesus, the man. The Christ is freely working and expanding God’s love, God’s grace, God’s healing, and God’s re-ordering of the “realm” or kingdom, even as you read this. In thinking of the Christ merely as the “man,” Jesus, we miss the greater, larger picture God is drawing right now! Have we allowed our language and human “box” to limit us by the ways we “imagine” Jesus, in order to personalize him? Many of our praise songs seem to lead us to imagine Jesus the Christ as a “friend” we might sit down with for a beer or a cuppa joe, and some of our “modern” Christian works of art involving Jesus depict him as so very personal, hugging people in heaven, or sitting beside them on a park bench. While these images and ideas may be comforting, they may also be responsible for us not seeing the greater picture of the Unbound Christ who is at work among us. The prophets like Isaiah, in forthtelling of the “vision” of the coming Messiah, described a bigger picture of who he would be: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, for example. The Christ HAS redeemed the world, and is now afoot, offering these various larger gifts to the church and to us all, while working in partnership with humanity to build the “Kingdom of God,” or what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “The Beloved Community.” Throughout my Christian experience, we have heard that we should all strive to “be more Christ-like,” but is that a proper, let alone reasonable aim? The Twelve never aspired to “be like Jesus,” but on their best days, strove to be dedicated, faithful followers, and to do the ministry Jesus asked of them, as he empowered them. We, too, are invited to follow Jesus, who now, in full “Christ-mode,” has a big job ahead, growing a just, loving, and compassionate world. Part of this “assignment” may just be “unbinding” the Christ from the “Jesus trap” we tend to put him in, when we over-personalize him, and when we make him our “example” to try to replicate in our lives. Follow Jesus, don’t BECOME Jesus.

 

The church was founded to become the Body of Christ. The church is not a single individual, but a vast and ever diverse collective of Christ-followers. The full presence of Jesus the Christ is imparted to us through the Holy Spirit, which we often refer to as the Spirit of Jesus. It is in this full “Christ-mode” of the reconciling life cycle that the full Godhead comes into a clearer focus. As the Unbound Christ expands an ever larger vision of what the Body of Christ will become, and how it will be key to realizing the eventual Beloved Community, we will increasingly see the “teamwork” of the Holy Trinity in evidence.

 

The world talks about “God” a lot, for the idea of an overseeing, creating divine entity makes sense in the deepest core of the human being. (The more I watch “Animal Planet” or the “Nature” series on PBS, the more I am convinced that our loving, creating God has a tight relationship will these creatures, as well!) This “fixation” with the creative aspect of the divine Godhead is like the “door” into a wider understanding of how God “spreads out” in the “Christ-mode” period of history we are in, for most folk. Here are a few ideas to ponder:

 

God as creator and “parent” – brings the overarching, divine presence to all of the creation, and “opens the door” for those not yet into believing to “see and believe.” Parent God loves and lures persons into a relationship with Jesus the Christ. 

 

Jesus as the “Midwife” and “Great Physician” of the birthing process for us all into the Kingdom of God. And as we grow, Jesus serves as our “Wonderful Counselor” to guide us along the growth journey that is living, and learning how to follow him. The birthing of new people into the nascent Beloved Community is the role of the Second Person of the Trinity, and the church is the birthing ward, hospital/surgery center, and emergency room.  

 

Holy Spirit as the “WD-40” of the Godhead, penetrating, “lubricating” the parts of the Body of Christ, and “embracing” each individual Christian. (If we really want to imagine God “hugging” us, personally, we should see this as the role of the Holy Spirit, who gifts us all individually and empowers us for our specific call.) Another interesting metaphor for the Holy Spirit is to think of her as a kind of “vaccine” made from the essence of Christ’s resurrection, that guards us against the diseases of purely secular life, and gives us boldness to face the world unmasked.

 

Yes, the “Unbound Christ” is much larger than what we often think of as “Jesus.” The Christ is using all of the “three-in-one” resources of the Godhead to reconcile and mend humanity and reconnect it to the “good” creation. Together, the original vision of God’s—to have a world where peace and harmony dwell, and all creatures may enjoy it, AND the full divine presence, together. 

 

It wouldn’t have taken much for Abraham, after he had bared his heart and had bound Isaac up as the sacrifice God seemed to be calling for, to have screwed this up by either “jumping the gun” or conversely, telling God where he could stick his request. He committed, remained faithful, but obviously knew deep in his aching heart that his God would come through with a more perfect plan. God did.

 

We now have our opportunity to “unbind” the Christ, commit ourselves to what IS a more perfect plan on God’s part, now in full “Christ-mode,” and remain faithful as the plan unfolds. Can we screw it up? Probably. Some would say there is much evidence in the church and its history to convict us of this on numerous occasions. But does God’s perfect plan include workarounds for human-born “detours?” Surely!

 

Just remember, Christ is so much bigger than we have been letting Jesus be. Believe. Act on your belief. Use your gifts. Watch for the “magic” of the Unbound Christ! 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...