Friday, September 29, 2023

Courage!


 Courage!

 

Philippians 2:1-13
2:1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,

2:2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

2:3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

2:4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

2:5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

2:7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,

2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

2:12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;

2:13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

 

LOTS going on here, friends! The church at Philippi is a lot like the Christian church in our day: diverse, yet seeking unity; missional, yet focused on its own health, passionately; having lots of energy, yet drained, because they were spreading themselves thin, in light of the “urgency” they felt; monied, yet needing much more than they had to accomplish what they believe God was calling them to do. There is more: they had a kind of “patron saint” in Paul, who loved them dearly, but who only “passed through,” and was not available for more steady leadership. They MET needs, yet they HAD needs. From what I remember from my seminary days, they were “team players” with the other churches, yet had a few squabbles with the Jerusalem Council. They had many common doctrinal threads, but also points of disagreement that threatened to be their undoing. If they were a denomination, it would probably be United Methodist!

 

Speaking of United Methodist, the “big news” this week was the conclusion of the trial of a bishop (Bishop Minerva Garza Carcaño), who had been charged with four offenses, or violations of this denomination’s “Book of Discipline.” The result of the first church trial of a United Methodist bishop was that she was acquitted on all charges, which, of course, thrilled many and angered about as many others. Differences in cultural backgrounds, theology, and practice certainly led to the charges, and the trial court apparently concluded that these differences did not lead to punishable offenses. Carcaño’s trial paralleled the very public legal challenges of former U.S. President Donald Trump and several of his minions, as well as the beginning of an impeachment inquiry into President Joseph Biden by a Republican-controlled committee that sure hopes to find a “smoking gun” where they see “smoke.” Trials are usually the last resort of disputing parties, whether they are criminal or civil, in nature. The results never please everybody, as they ultimately draw a line. That’s their job, and it is certainly a “thankless” one. 

 

I bring this up, as a key subject matter in the various epistles of the Apostle Paul is often the cultural, theological, and practical differences that occurred in the early church. Sound familiar? Paul tried to keep these disputes “out of court,” addressing them in his letters. Some—like Romans—became major theological treatises that still guide the church in our time. Others, like the letters to the church at Corinth, serve both as “how to’s” and with a dose of chastisement thrown in, seeking to mend relationships and foster others. Corinth would also have been a great United Methodist congregation, as oxymoronic as IT was—not United and certainly lacking in any cogent “Method.” 

 

Reading the Letter to the church at Philippi, however, gives one the sense that Paul is “taking a breath” from the challenges he faces in addressing the other churches. He seems to really LIKE these people, and just wants them to “keep on keeping on,” or in other words, sustaining the avoidance of pitfalls that threatened the OTHER local churches springing up around them. Paul speaks of joy, compassion, sympathy, same love, same mind, humility in Philippi—sounds like a church I’D like to attend! I’ll bet others “got the memo,” too and joined THAT church in droves. The “memos” leaking out of most of our churches today are anything but this: “Here is a list of the kinds of people welcome here”; “This is what WE believe—if you don’t fully agree, you need not apply”; “Please join our church—we need young families!”; “Please join our church—we need your OFFERINGS!”; “You will like our church—we have a great pastor!” And on and on. Even some of the messages that COULD be positive are turned into stomach-churners: “Accept Christ or go to hell”; “We are a BIBLE BELIEVING church, SORRY about yours!”; “Come find Jesus HERE (as he’s obviously missing at the other churches in town).”

 

The recent schism caused by the relatively sudden “disaffiliation” of churches from the United Methodist Church has created a number of “independent” churches and at least one new denomination, the Global Methodist Church. Like it or not, the “memo” they are sending out to potential members is: “We left because we think we have it RIGHT, and they have it WRONG.” Believe me, if you look at church history, schismatic “church starts” usually just result in even more schisms, as they tend to attract people who “want to be right,” more than they want to be “saved,” or to develop into compassionate, accepting, and courageous disciples. Hence, they tend to eventually find fault with the “new” group and build their own schism, like a child builds houses out of Legos. Paul saw this happening in some of the early congregations in his day. This is why he seems to be “letting his hair down” around the Philippians, as they seem to have “gotten the memo” actually sent out by Jesus!

 

Look at today’s verses. “Encouragement” is great word, having “courage” at its root. The actual word in NT Greek is paraclesis, which literally means “called alongside” as a helper or to support and empower. This word is of the same root as the word often used for the Holy Spirit—paraclete—as it is God’s Spirit that “comes alongside” the church, “encouraging” and empowering IT to carry out the mission God calls IT to. Paul seems to be saying that the church should be a place where ALL people may find ENCOURAGEMENT, and ergo the COURAGE to live the life of discipleship. If it is not this, then one must wonder how it may successfully attract ANY followers? If its primary message is, “We have Jesus. Come and get him. Avoid going to hell”, then it will attract fearful people who just desire “fire insurance.” Little empowering will occur, and even less courage will be evident in the lives of these “believers.”

 

Paul focuses on how Christians—then and now—are called to have the “same mind” that was in Christ. This mind was about as UNSELFISH of one as could be imagined—then and now. Jesus “emptied himself” of the privilege of his membership in the godhead, becoming the “slave” of the human race, even to the point of accepting our capital punishment for his perceived sins (or for ours?). If this doesn’t remind us of the saying of Jesus, “Greater love has no one than that they lay their life down for a friend,” I don’t know what will. What scholars call the “kenosis passage” (emptying) is Paul’s diagnosis of what was RIGHT with the church at Philippi—they GOT this humility stuff, and believed it to be the ULTIMATE “memo” sent out—lived—by Jesus Christ, and to which every Christ follower was called to emulate. It will require the acceptance of diversity, having the “same love,” and gobs and gobs of COURAGE to do, as well as personal humility in spades. 

 

Again, if ENOURAGEMENT of those who need it is not one of the primary foci of the church, then what are we doing? Judging, that’s what. Judging those who don’t believe as we do, or who don’t meet our standards of doctrine, “morality,” or who don’t share our view of “biblical authority,” that’s what. As the church is gifted by God with the Holy Spirit—the paraclete—who is called alongside of us to empower and encourage us, so the CHURCH is called to provide paraclesis to every soul who walks into our doors—even to those we encounter on our outreach missions! We are “called alongside” these people, regardless of what they believe, how they live, or even who they love. Why? Because that’s what the Son of God did. Jesus did not put the thief on the cross through a litmus test before offering him paradise. Even our “modern day” saint—John Wesley—said, “Offer them Christ!” He didn’t tell us to test their view of “biblical authority,” or make them pass spiritual “feats of strength” to receive God’s pardon OR God’s favor. “Offer them Christ,” he told his preachers, and then see what God will do.

 

Hymn writer Stuart Hamlin wrote many years ago: “It is no secret what God can do. What he’s done for others, he’ll do for you. With his arms wide open, he’ll pardon you. It is NO SECRET what God can do.” The church is not a “secret” society, friends, with a secret, doctrinal “handshake” or a password to redemption. The worse we are, the greater the grace applied. Paul called this the “same love” as was in Christ Jesus.

 

Maybe it’s time we preachers adopt a practice that newsman and former CBS TV News anchor Dan Rather used to end his newscast with (and it was considered quite weird in that day): He would finish by simply looking into the camera and saying, “Courage!” I don’t know for sure if this would ENCOURAGE our people, but it couldn’t hurt! This stuff is hard! Jesus knew it, Paul knew it, and any pastor worth her or his salt knows it. Yet, the word, will, and paraclesis to go forward has been given! Today’s wonderful scripture text reminds us and offers ITS encouragement! Remember, it is GOD who is at work in you! Amen.

Friday, September 22, 2023

The Bitch Bunch...


 The Bitch Bunch

 

Exodus 16:2-15
16:2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.

16:3 The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."

16:4 Then the LORD said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.

16:5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days."

16:6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt,

16:7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?"

16:8 And Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him--what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD."

16:9 Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 'Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'"

16:10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.

16:11 The LORD spoke to Moses and said,

16:12 "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'"

16:13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.

16:14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

16:15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.

 

 

Jonah 3:10-4:11
3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

4:2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

4:3 And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."

4:4 And the LORD said, "Is it right for you to be angry?"

4:5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

4:6 The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.

4:7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.

4:8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die than to live."

4:9 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." 

4:10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.

4:11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

 

 

Israel sounds just like modern-day America. Is there anything we won’t bitch about? Americans can find fault with food, roads, government, religion, family, medicine, sports teams, and golf courses, to name a few things. AND we can find great fault with our neighbors, you know, the ones Jesus said we should love? No matter how you slice it, we ultimately find fault with God, even when we don’t BELIEVE in God! We may rename God as “the luck of the draw,” or believe we are just personally snakebit, but it really is about deferring to a believe that SOME “higher power” out of our control guides our destiny, especially when it seems to be working against us! And when things are going GREAT with us? We will often quickly take credit for that—it was our “wisdom,” or our concise decision-making that is responsible. Or maybe even our “luck.” 

 

Why are we so eager to NOT give God credit? Well, that would mean we acknowledge a “higher power’s” influence in our affairs. God is good to blame, but outside of a few good Christians and maybe a few NFL players in the post-win interview spotlight, “praising” God for our good fortune is not our usual impulse.

 

Like ancient Israel, we are the “bitch bunch.” Complaining actually has a positive role in our ability to cope with negative outcomes. Complaining can be quite therapeutic, letting us “blow off steam” rather than kicking the dog or yelling at our spouse. Unfortunately, it can become habitual in a hurry, and “bitch bunch” folk tire on us rapidly. You had better believe Moses got weary with it! When God got “upset” with Israel’s bitching and was threatening to wipe them out and starting over, Moses probably felt like chiming in: “YES, Lord, what a plan! I’d be HAPPY to lead a “new” Israel, without the griping and grumbling!” DO IT, Lord, DO IT! But Moses was such a good leader he instead “argued with God” and won, leading to Israel’s being spared by the Almighty. (From a training standpoint, might it have been possible that God was using God’s “threat” to strengthen Moses as a leader? Of Course. A better bet? This biblical history was written by the “winners,” and even Israel had trouble giving God credit where credit was due. So, Moses, their “great prophet,” had to win an argument with an angry God.)

 

“Bitch bunch” folk are not grumbling because it’s therapeutic, though. They just like to complain when any extra effort is required to make a bad situation better, or at least tolerable. The old adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” comes to mind. It’s cute, but SOMEONE has to squeeze the lemons and figure a way to sweeten the punch. It’s a whole lot easier if someone just gives you wonderfully sugary, chilled lemonade! God has probably spoiled us by offering so much forgiveness, grace, and “Jehovah Jireh” provision, requiring so little effort on our part. Not only are we the “bitch bunch” when God (or just life) requires more of us to receive blessings, but we have even refined the ability to bollocks up our own larder to such a degree that we need rescuing. It often seems that “humanity” is Latin for “screw up.”

 

One of my biblical favorites is Jonah, which is why I’ve included the lectionary passage from Jonah here as well. If Job is the “everyman” facing horrible trials in life, Jonah is the Monty Python “runaway” champ, AND he is a charter member of the “bitch bunch.” You know the story. God tries to “call” Jonah to Nineveh to preach repentance to the folk there, but Jonah does NOT want to go. He hates these people, and would rather God judge them and flatten them, ASAP. (How many times do we modern Christians say “I’ll pray for ya,” when we are really hope God drops the hammer on someone, “because they deserve it!”) That was Jonah. While I struggle with Jonah’s “whale ride,” from a purely scientific standpoint, I have to say that the story of Jonah may well be the most believable story in the Bible. Jonah’s honest “bitch bunch” emotions are real, as is his resistance to preaching God’s word of repentance to the Ninevites, as he knows in his heart they WILL repent, sparing their necks in the face of Almighty judgment. Jonah wants the judgment. However God actually gets him to Nineveh (and I LOVE the “big fish” story), he offers a far less than passionate sermon, and yet it provokes immediate and widespread repentance, on the part of the Ninevites. And THEN Jonah is even madder at God. God arranges a little real-life parable for Jonah with the shade bush, trying to show how God is a God who prefers to save and “shield” humanity from its own sin. But when the shade is WITHHELD by God against HIM, he gets really hacked. 

 

God asks Jonah if he is really angry about the withered bush, and Jonah says he is “angry enough to die” over it. This should tell us that Jonah really NEEDS therapy, as does most of our society right now, over the things we are “willing to die for” or might we use the popular expression “go to the mat for”? Think of the modern phenomenon of “road rage.” People have been injured and a few even shot and killed because they cut off someone in traffic! And we think JONAH needed a lesson in misplaced our pathological anger? 

 

God uses the bush story to help Jonah identify with God’s own passion (or should we say COMpassion?) for the 120,000 in Nineveh. To paraphrase, “YOU get so upset over losing a little shade, and you don’t get how I’M concerned over losing 120,000 people?” I don’t know about you, but this biblical exercise hits me right in the gut over the stupid things I get REALLY TORQUED over, when half of the world is going to “hell in a handbasket,” as they say. People are literally DYING in the world, and so many have NOT had ANY of God’s Good News preached to them, and we in the eternal “bitch bunch” are freaking out because gasoline costs a lot or our neighbor just put up a fence we don’t like! A flood happens in Libya that wipes out thousands of people and leaves many thousands homeless, and we want Federal intervention when a big tree falls during a storm and crushes our she/he shed! (We really never liked those Libyans, anyway. Just ask Marty McFly.)

 

Let’s go back to the Exodus passage for a moment. Israel has been led out of slavery in Egypt, having been delivered from the oppressive clutches of the Pharoah. They aren’t gone long and they get hungry, a need with which we can all identify. But rather than compare notes on how they may come together as community to deal with this crisis (anybody remember “stone soup”?), they begin bitching to God, Moses, Aaron—anyone in authority who will listen. This lesson reminds me of the line from Stephen King’s “Shawshank Redemption” about how we “Either get busy living, or we get busy dying.” The choice is ours. 

 

God SENDS the manna, and Israel’s first reaction is “What’s this?” Not exactly the “fleshpots of Egypt” they were willing to chow down on, but God DID deliver something that would provide them nourishment (and, knowing God, was probably beaucoup better for them, nutritionally!). Later, as we know, they will “bitch bunch” again over ONLY having manna, and God will send the quail. AND they still weren’t happy. Why? My guess is, friends, it’s still the same bitch we have today, if we’re honest—we want to BE IN CHARGE and have CONTROL of our own destiny! Anytime we have to depend on someone else, we don’t like it! Americans are so BAD with this, probably because it is so much a part of our DNA—the “pioneer spirit” that kept our forebearers alive and kept driving them West to “new frontiers.” Now, it just makes us selfish, for the most part.

 

The honest truth is that God doesn’t want to “control” us, any more than a loving, emotionally-healthy parent wants to “control” their children, especially as they grow older and more mature, themselves. (I’m setting aside the less emotionally mature “hovering” or “helicoptering” parent cases here.) Loving parents WANT their children to become independent, hoping they have instilled in them positive “family” values and a compassionate, empathetic spirit. When we do this successfully, our children perpetuate our best values, steer clear of our faults, and become worthy, productive citizens, benefitting the wider community. God does the SAME THING WITH US! God’s “rules” are like our parents’ rules—they are designed to move us toward independence, adulthood, and an “abundant” life, both to benefit us and our future, and to “build the kingdom of God,” or a just world and a healthy society. Even as parents are “honored” when their children do this, so is God glorified when WE do! Get it?

 

If you don’t yet, you may still be a charter member of the “bitch bunch.” I still have my card, but am trying to move on from the club. How am I doing? I will say, honestly, that this message is being preached to ME. If you get in the way, that’s your business! 

 

Leaving the “bitch of the month” club is really hard. Even Jesus struggled with his anger over what he saw going on around him, turning over a few tables in the Court of the Gentiles and arguing with religious leaders (“you whitewashed sepulchers” was not a “hey, bitches, how you doin’?” kind of friendly greeting, in case you didn’t know). Jesus even pleads with God over his plight, in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he resolves himself to face his destiny. “Resolve” is a good word for us, too.

 

May we resolve to bitch less, serve more, and be grateful for the “bread from heaven”…or even the occasional “whale Uber” God sends to get us where we need to be! Amen.

 

 

Friday, September 15, 2023

Why Does it Feel So Good When My Enemies Fall or Fail?

 


Why Does it Feel So Good When My Enemies Fall or Fail?

 

Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
15:1b "I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

15:2 The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him.

15:3 The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.

15:4 "Pharaoh's chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.

15:5 The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.  

15:6 Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power-- your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.

15:7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.

15:8 At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.

15:9 The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.'  

15:10 You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

15:11 "Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?  

15:20 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing.

15:21 And Miriam sang to them: "Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea."

 

 

Matthew 18:21-22
18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"

18:22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

 

 

“The horse and the rider are thrown into the sea”…sounds victorious, doesn’t it? Actually, it sounds war-like, frankly. At this stage in my life, I’m questioning almost daily, some of the “assumptions” I’ve made about a lot of things, but most especially things about God. These assumptions were often born of my upbringing in a fairly large, generally more conservative Methodist Church (of course, it didn’t become “United Methodist” until I was almost in high school). Others of them were cultured in my theology by young adult years lived in the midst of the “Jesus People” revolution that came East from the “Maranatha” (Calvary Chapel) revival on the West Coast, and through the Charismatic revival that grew out of happenings right here in Pittsburgh, and at Notre Dame (The South Bend, Indiana one). The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had a hand in it, too, as I was involved as a “counselor” for one of their youth-aimed, major motion pictures (“Time to Run”) that played in my home town. 

 

Seminary was certainly the genesis of much of my “questioning” of some of the assumptions evangelicalism had planted in me. My two degrees from a major seminary in the Protestant tradition taught me how to more properly and ethically interpret the Bible, and for this, I am indeed most grateful. Seminary exposed me to numerous ways to understand and view what evangelicalism calls “the atonement.” In classic evangelicalism, the accepted view is “substitutionary” atonement, meaning that Jesus served as a “substitute” sacrifice on the cross, propitiating for the sins of us all. This is one of the things I have pretty much rejected, in my latter-day questioning period. Let me explain.

 

Evangelicalism focuses so heavily on the “substitutionary” model that it makes two major mistakes, in my view. First of all, it posits that God “hates” sin, and therefore “hates” sinners, to the degree that God doesn’t want to “look” at us. I would call this the “Angry God” view. Jesus serves as the “meat sacrifice,” with his blood “washing away” our sins so God can tolerate us. While even a little bit of theological reflection will point out numerous shortcomings of this view, one big one is that with the “Angry God,” we are always living in fear that something we do or say will get God riled up again. We may be motivated, therefore, to live our spiritual lives in fear, and not the kind of fear the Bible means, which is a respectful, awe-inspired “fear,” not meaning that we have to “be afraid” of God. If this is what is meant, wouldn’t this be a sign that we are living in an abusive relationship with God? I can’t buy that.

 

No, I have come to believe that the Christ Event “redirected” the focus of our relationship with God to understand God as a LOVING God, who, in Christ Jesus, is helping us realize that God loves US, and desires that we “mimic” God’s reconciling with US, by reconciling with OTHERS, and loving THEM the way God loves US. This is the on-going, atoning work of the Christ Event. It introduces a whole new way to SEE the reality of the kind of relationship that God wants to have with US, and would like us to have with OTHERS, and also with the whole of CREATION. In the Christ Event, God makes a “connection” with humanity that is both efficacious and eternal. It re-focuses us on God’s LOVE, not God’s anger. While a matter for another sermon (or a hundred more sermons!), the on-going and wide-reaching “effects” of the Christ Event are so much more than could possibly be confined to something as narrow as the “substitutionary” view of the atonement, or even to a single set of “orthodox” doctrines. The Christ Event continues to “live out” in our midst, and widens, proactively, to include more and more of the created order. God’s goal, according to II Corinthians 5 is to “reconcile the world to Godself.” Is not this an on-going process? 

 

This broader view of the atonement and the Christ Event is much harder to “live into” than the substitutionary model. In the latter, it is simple: we are sinners, God hates sin, so God needs a sacrifice to atone for our sin. Jesus is that sacrifice. Believe in him, “plead the blood,” and your sins are forgiven, and God is no longer angry with you. Now go and tell someone that they need to do this, too. If they don’t? Tough luck. I got mine; sorry about you. (I realize that this is an oversimplification, and that most “evangelicals” witness to their “salvation” out of a concern for their “fellow man,” and feel compelled to offer them the same salvation they have found, but I submit that it is still a model based on fear, and angry God who needs appeased, and includes a “hell avoidance” clause.) 

 

The “God is Love” model of the Christ Event posits a God whose motive is nothing but love for us and for the creation. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, that WHOSOEVER believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.” Heard that before? This view operates on the idea that our witness is that God loves us all, and that in Christ, God IS reconciling the WHOLE WORLD to Godself, and desires that we “pay it forward” by offering God’s love and acceptance to others via reconciliation. It’s not easy, as I said. Honestly, there is something in us that likes to think that we have something that sets us apart, and our natural tendency is to “lord it over” others, because of it. And if we DO offer it to them, we want them to believe it and accept it just the way WE did (and do), otherwise, they are still “lost in their sin.” (This “natural” tendency to operate out of the “anger” model may very well be the original sin!) It’s so much harder to “fix” all of our relationships, love people we find easier to dislike, and be willing to forgive those who we believe have wronged us. 

 

Now, here is the “title point” of this message, given our first text, and my opening paragraph: We have such a tendency to want God to stand up and be the “final authority” defending our views, and in doing so, obliterate our opposition. This may be the central reason we so quickly gloat when “one of our enemies” goes into the sea on their horse! When someone we have an issue with, or we just can’t abide, “gets his.” (I’ll do my best to steer clear of the political realm in this message, but clearly this principle may well be what is behind our “fighting” opposition between the parties, with each hoping the next election will “vindicate” our “side.”) Religious leaders, though, are just as bad. Remember a few years back when people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell suggested that natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes were God’s “anger” over the “liberal, sinful directions our country was taking”? And AIDS was “God’s punishment” for homosexuality? 

 

In the midst of some of Jesus’ teaching about reconciling, Peter, the “great mouthpiece” of the human condition, asked Jesus how many times he “had to forgive” someone who “sins against” him. I’m sure he was hoping for a number, even suggesting a generous one would be “seven” (a good Bible number). Peter, like most of us, was willing to extend a small olive branch to some “lousy sinner” who has wronged us, or is at least WRONG, but at some point, we should get God’s “go ahead” to smite them, when they don’t capitulate. Jesus gives one of those answers to which he is prone, making our lives more complicated, yet loving, ultimately. His “seventy times seven” is a neat way of saying, “ALWAYS.” We aren’t called to offer olive branches OR smite people, but to keep on forgiving and loving them, even if they nail us to a tree. We have an example. 

 

Friends, this is hard stuff! We WAY too often LIKE retribution, especially if we have been granted immunity, but our enemies are in the crosshairs of a “Rambo” God! We get an adrenalin rush when someone we despise (or even someone we are having a temporary grievance with) “goes into the sea,” and if it seems to be GOD who puts them there, even better! But that is not the God of the Bible. We must recognize that these tales of God’s “fighting our battles” or being so vengeful are some of that “history written by the winners” we hear so much about. They are feel-good verses for “bad victors,” in the worst case, or are in the Bible more as a warning to us that we shouldn’t gloat when even a short-term adversary falls on their face, in the best case. If God IS love, the human bias toward vengeance and its celebration is, in itself, sinful behavior.

 

A couple more thoughts. First of all, watch for those Christian people who DON’T gloat when bad things happen to “bad” people. These are your mature Christians. Look for those who pray for and exhibit compassion toward even some of the world’s greatest and most universally-despised “scoundrels” when things go very wrong for them. These are your stronger disciples. And keep an eye out for those who just keep on forgiving, even when they are being consistently victimized. (This doesn’t mean they don’t seek justice, but they DO focus on the justice, rather than growing a pack of hate toward the one doing the victimizing.) These are the people Jesus says we should emulate them, for they are emulating HIM!

 

A second thought. Years ago, a wise preacher told me, “I preach to myself. If you get in the way, that’s your own business.” What I took from that is that I would be wise to expose my OWN sins and preach toward their resolve, and many in my congregation just may find a degree of identification with this. They will, therefore, make their own connections with any convictions which may occur. Friends, this is what I’m doing here today. I WISH I could say that I’m one of those mature Christians from the last paragraph. I am not. I still gloat too much when an “enemy” falls, and store up some anger and even hatred for the worst “offenders” on my national or global list of “scoundrels.” One element of maturity that I have tried to manifest is the willingness to admit when I’M wrong, or have done something harmful, hurtful, or even ignorant toward another, and not deflect blame. These admissions are more than confessions--they are part of an effort to build compassion for “the other” by understanding that any of us may give in to less than godly attitudes and behavior. While being willing to receive appropriate “blame” for my own faults (“sins”), I confess to still feeling “too good” when an adversary stumbles, though. I have a long way to go! 

 

One fine word. This process of being reconciled AND becoming a reconciler is largely a human process. Oh sure, the Holy Spirit is quite involved, both in convicting me of my faults, and then in prodding me to forgive and love others like Jesus does for me, but I have to make the effort, and KEEP making the effort, until doing so becomes a lifestyle. But through it all, I am eternally absolved AND loved by God. God’s love has trumped any judgment that should have come my way—and YOURS, TOO! This is a love-based process. If it is fear-based, it will fail. And it will take practice to get it right, so let’s stay at it! Like it or not, God loves Pharoah’s army, too! Amen.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Curious, Not Judgmental, Part II--A Method for Methodists!

 


Curious, Not Judgmental: A Method for Methodists!

 

Matthew 18:15-20
18:15 "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

18:16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

18:17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

18:19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

 

 

There is no doubt Jesus is laying out a method in this passage. We don’t know how much of its “order” is the creation of the ears and pen of the writer of the Matthean gospel, and how much is actually from the mouth of Jesus Christ, but let’s assume “Matthew” is reporting what he heard, and unpack this text as written.

 

Even with this approach, we have a problem, right off the bat. “If another MEMBER OF THE CHURCH…” There was no church yet, so Jesus couldn’t have actually said this. We would have to assume that the author, while writing his testimony of what Jesus did and said, has jumped forward here to his own time, when there WAS a church, and is telling us of their practice of how to handle serial sinners in their midst. One would hope that, if Matthew were actually the author of this text, he was at least “contextualizing” this process, a process that possibly he SAW Jesus use while mentoring the twelve? Maybe we’ll take THIS approach.

 

Sidebar: There are whole denominations that shall remain nameless that DO make the assumption that, somehow these ARE the words of Jesus (obviously forecasting the existence of a church someday), and that we should adhere literally to what they say. One denomination with which I am familiar uses this “Matthew 18” process as a way to keep their ranks clean. If someone in their local church (or “fellowship”) is guilty of pretty obvious and possibly “dangerous” (to the church) sin, Step One is to have a witness—a friend of that person would be nice—go to that one and point out the infraction. If the “sinner” listens and yields (repents?) of their faux pas, they are to be considered “returned to the fold.” If they do NOT, or they outright resist, Step Two is to expand the “witnessing party” to two or three people, hoping that there is greater persuasion in numbers. The Matthew author brings in a kind of “courtroom scene” at this point, suggesting that testimony witnessed by more than one carries extra weight “on the stand.” If this person is such a hardened transgressor that they continue to either deny their sin or simply to thumb their nose at the “witness team,” then we move on to Step Three, which is: tell it to the church--the whole church and nothing but the church. Yes, apparently this method would have the pastor or a member of the Church Council get up during the announcements and sandwich between the potluck supper notice and the report on last week’s stewardship campaign, the accusation that there is a sinner—who is named--in their midst, and one who is not willing to own up to what she or he has done, thus grieving God and putting in peril the assembly. And if this malevolent soul isn’t moved to renounce his offense, but simply ignores the disdain of the whole church, then we move on to Step Four.

 

Here's where we run into another major problem. Step Four is to treat them “like as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The denomination I was referring to earlier takes this to mean you throw them out on their buttski and pray they will someday come around, confessing the error of their ways. In the earliest days of my own ministry, I got invited from time to time to lead a staff devotional time for a Pittsburgh religious TV station’s staff, which was largely made up of folk affiliated with the denomination in question, at that time. When I got to Step Four in my devotion on Matthew 18, I reminded them of how JESUS treated Gentiles and tax collectors—he called them as disciples and/or hung out with them, even going to their homes for dinner. He didn’t throw them out the door. That truth got both Jesus and me in trouble. Jesus was eventually crucified for it by those who were the Step Four Boot Bunch (religious leaders), and I was not invited back to lead the TV staff devotions anymore. 

 

What Jesus did was good psychology. When words fail to persuade a “sinner” to repent, embrace and befriend them! That’s a hard task, by the way. It’s much easier to adopt the “three strikes and you’re out” method, as after all, it DOES give the offender three chances to get their act together (requiring little on the “witnesses’” part, I might add), and if they don’t succumb to the “kind” correction by that point, give them the right foot of fellowship. SURELY, once they have been lovingly shown the door, they will feel the “conviction” of the Holy Spirit and come running back to the church, begging to be restored to fellowship!(?) I wonder if any of the folk who interpret and practice Step Four in this way have noticed a correlation between its effacacy and the hordes of folk exiting the church, or never showing up in the first place?

 

Last week, I used a scene from the popular Apple TV Plus show, “Ted Lasso,” to suggest that an expression central to that particular scene—“Be curious, not judgmental”—was good counsel for the modern Christian and the church. Frankly, this whole process lined out here in today’s lectionary passage from Matthew 18 is all ABOUT being judgmental, not curious. Steps One through Three are about TELLING the offending party exactly what they are doing wrong (judging?). The “sinner” is only to “listen” to these accusations. But if we, instead, switch over to being CURIOUS, the “brotherly visitors” who go to the “sinner” would start by doing their OWN listening! They would be curious about: 

 

a. What the person is actually up to; 

 

b. If they are “guilty” of doing whatever is being flagged, is it really “sinful” behavior, and why are they doing it? (Might they have a NEED that the faith community could help them with so that they don’t have to “sin” to have it met?); and 

 

c. How can these witnesses—presumably friends—embrace and support this person, instead of just being the church police? 

 

“Curious, not judgmental” could conceivably end a lot of the conflict we have in the “Body of Christ” AND might create the kind of understanding, supportive atmosphere today’s crop of “sinners” might relish in a fellowship. Maybe the doors to our churches could starting swinging both ways, not just outwardly, as the disenfranchised exit?

 

John Wesley’s “Methodists” had a way to offer this kind of “curiosity-based” listening and support to people. They were called “Class Meetings” or “Bands,” in his day. (The late Dr. David Lowes Watson resurrected this method as “Covenant Discipleship” in the 1980s.) The Class Meetings or Bands were where small groups—usually 8 to 12—would “covenant” to meet together weekly. Together they would compose a list of things they WANTED to accomplish in their spiritual journeys and of the things they wanted to STOP doing (various “sins” and negative behaviors). Positives might be things like “I will obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit to serve God and my neighbor.” The “sin list” might include things like, “I will do my best to not ignore or grieve the Spirit of God when the Spirit is trying to correct me or prompt me to commit an act of mercy.” The list of “dos” and “don’ts” is kept manageably short, and each week, participants took turns “giving an account” to one another as to how well they had kept the covenant that week. The fact that each person was going to be “held accountable” by her or his peers was often enough to prompt progress in their behavior, to the glory of God. And the group was pledged to “being curious, not judgmental” in this accountably (to use Ted Lasso’s words).

 

Did this ancient Wesleyan “Method” work for Methodists? Well, we’re still forming similar “accountability” or “discipleship” groups today, and I’ll bet we wouldn’t be, if they were a bust! Of all of the myriad religious “fads” I saw come and go in my years in ministry, the only one that has persisted were these “accountability” or “Covenant” groups. Yes, they do work, because they foster CURIOSITY about why people of faith do the things we do, and how to ENCOURAGE the “good deeds, as well as SUPPORT and embrace those “tax collectors and Gentiles” when they fall prey to the “sins” and negative behaviors. Fruitful Covenant Groups are pretty much the OPPOSITE of “judgmental.”

 

Do they work? Well, in 1935, a recovering alcoholic named Bill Wilson used the methods he learned from being involved in “The Oxford Group,” which was a type of Wesleyan Class Meeting, to create a non-judgmental “meeting” to help fellow alcoholics get sober. It was called “Alcoholics Anonymous,” or AA. The assumption is that if a person shows up at an AA meeting, they are self-identifying that they “have a problem” with alcohol. The group has no reason to judge them. Instead, the group welcomes them and offers encouragement—often via their “testimonies”—as to how they may regain and maintain their sobriety. AA is never a “one and done” deal. Mr. Wesley’s spiritual/discipleship groups made exactly the same “assumptions,” with the wider concept of “sin.” The assumption was that if a person showed up to a Class Meeting, they were a sinner, just like everyone else in the group! The group was motivated to help each other get “sober” from sin and begin to live lives where mercy, love, and forgiveness simply “pushed out” sin. Sounds like Jesus stuff, doesn’t it? 

 

Can I get a “Hallelujah” that Jesus was CURIOUS, not JUDGMENTAL? May we also note what the Matthean author eventually gets around to in today’s text:

 

--“What we BIND on EARTH will be BOUND in heaven, and what we LOOSE on earth will be LOOSED in heaven.” (We have been given the power by Christ to BIND that which oppresses and LOOSE that which sets people free!)

 

--"If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (The strength in working together is REWARDED by God’s power when it is LIBERATING (curious?), not JUDGMENTAL. 

 

--"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Jesus shows up where WE show up, ready to love, forgive, and support one another. This advocates for our being a community-based people, not solitary “Christian soldiers.”)

 

This last point runs quite counter to the current trend leading people—now dubbed “nones”—away from the church and into a self-imposed, solitary “faith” exile. We have possibly brought this on ourselves by being more JUDGMENTAL than CURIOUS. Can we reverse this in time?

 

Let me start. With apologies to AA and Bill W.: “Hi, I’m Jeff Sterling, and I’m here because I’m a sinner in need of grace…” (This is where you would shout, “Hi, Jeff!)

 

Amen.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Be Curious, Not Judgmental...

 

Exodus 3:1-15
3:1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

3:2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

3:3 Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up."

3:4 When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am."

3:5 Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

3:6 He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

3:7 Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,

3:8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

3:9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.

3:10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

3:11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"

3:12 He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."

3:13 But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"

3:14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

3:15 God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

 

Romans 12:9-21
12:9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

12:10 Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

12:11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

12:12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

12:13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

12:16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

12:17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

12:18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

12:20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."

12:21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

I don’t know how many of you have hooked up with the “Ted Lasso” phenomenon? It’s a TV series offered only by Apple Plus TV (a paid streaming service), so if you’ve not made the technological leap into Internet streaming your TV shows, you won’t be able to access it. “Ted Lasso” just finished its third, and probably final, season, as these “mini-series” then move into some kind of syndication. I got hooked while visiting with my daughter’s family a couple of years ago. In a nutshell, Ted Lasso, played by the creator, writer, and producer of the show—Jason Sudeikis—is a “good ol’ boy” Texan/football coach, who is hired by the female owner of a British professional soccer team. She hires “Ted,” having seen a story about his unique (read “bizarre”?) coaching method, and because she literally wants to trash her soccer team to get revenge on her former husband. Believe me, it’s complicated. Turns out, Ted’s unique methods—and his unabashed “feel good” charm—is just the balm the divorced owner AND her team need. 

 

[For those of you who are already huge “Ted Lasso” fans, and who have previously preached sermons on the myriad “parables” the series showcased as part of ITS charm, indulge me for using one of the most famous Lasso show moments as MY theme for THIS sermon!]

 

In one of its most beloved scenes, Rebecca (the wealthy divorcee and team owner) has just learned that her hated and former philandering husband, has arranged for his latest underaged “squeeze” to buy into Rebecca’s team. This will entitle the two of them to nuzzle and neck in the “owner’s box” at home soccer matches. She is—as you can imagine—beside herself. Upon hearing how disturbed she is, Ted Lasso challenges her ex—Rupert—to a game of darts in the local pub. If Rupert wins, Ted will let him choose the starting lineup for the AFC Richmond team. If Ted wins, Rupert and his nubile, pregnant girlfriend will not occupy the owner’s box. The idea of a Texan beating a pub-crawling rich Brit is funny enough, but after the deal is sealed, Rupert eschews the pub’s darts for his own leather-cased, pro versions, setting up the schtick even more. 

 

The game is afoot, and Rupert quickly establishes superiority over Ted. Just when it looks like all is lost for Ted and Rebecca, Ted asks the pub matron what he needs to win. She offers that he needs two twenties and a bullseye—all but an impossible thing for even a professional dart player. As Ted hits the first twenty, he gives this speech:

 

“You know Rupert, guys have underestimated my entire life. And for years I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote from Walt Whitman painted on the wall there that said "Be curious. Not Judgmental." I like that.

So I get back in my car and I'm driving to work and all of sudden it hits me. All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out. So they judged everything. And they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me, who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions. You know. Questions like, have you played a lot of darts, Ted? Which I would have answered. Yes sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 to 16 when he passed away.”

During his speech through his heavy Texas drawl, Ted hits the second twenty, and the bar erupts with a nervous whoop, but not half as nervous as the look on Rupert’s face. As Ted gets to the end of the speech, he pauses, and utters one very Texan, but unusual phrase during an English pub dart match: “Barbecue sauce!” And with that, he hits the dartboard bullseye dead center. Game over.

 

Honestly, it’s one of those incredible moments of the acting art that you want to pause and watch over and over—and I have. It reminds me of another movie scene when Woody Allen, in his Oscar-winning autobiography, “Annie Hall,” parades out from off camera media scholar and author, Marshall McLuhan, to win the debate. After McLuhan puts the stunned arguer in his place, Allen breaks character, looks at the camera, and says, “Don’t you wish REAL life were like this?” Of course, we all do! 

 

Now that I’ve gotten a little movie buff testosterone out of the way, why have I entitled this message “Be curious, not judgmental,” and how does it relate to the two lectionary passages for this week? Good question, and I hope we can do this…

 

First of all, as many have pointed out, the quote “Be curious, not judgmental,” is not a Walt Whitman. In one of his poems, he sort of says half of it, but the exact phrase was found in an address given to a group of students by an educator. Doesn’t matter. It’s a phrase pregnant with much religious, faith-based, and biblical meaning for us!

 

Let’s start with the Pauline text from Romans. Romans 12 is a beloved and famous passage for Christian people, often dubbed “The Marks of a Christian.” Every one of us who ever mounted a Christian pulpit has preached on it numerous times; I’ve even produced a couple of sermons where I juxtaposed Paul’s words with a poem made famous by Rod McKuen in the 1960s. (After much scholarship and debate, it has been decided that Max Ehrmann was the poem’s author.) The positive message of the poem certainly does seem to match up nicely with Paul’s “Marks of a Christian” here in Romans 12.

 

As a “mature” Christian, I must say that just reading Romans 12: 9-21 makes me weary! If this is Paul’s “judgment” as to what a true Christian must look like, we all have a lot of work to do. I’m reminded of how Benjamin Franklin would work on one “vice” each week, leaving the others alone, as it was “too much work” to tackle more than one at a time. He may have been on to something, if you look at Paul’s prodigious list. 

 

Christians should:

 

--Love “genuinely,” hate evil, and “hold fast” to what is good.

 

--Love one another with “mutual affection” and “OUTDO one another in showing honor”

 

--Be zealous, “ardent in spirit,” and serve the Lord

 

--Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer

 

--Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers

 

--Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them

 

--Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep

 

--Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are

 

--Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all

 

--Live peaceably with all

 

--If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink

 

--Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good

 

What is the popular expression today? “Good luck with that!” Sure sounds like a daunting agenda to me!

 

Are there any of us who would dispute that these “marks” WOULD make a good Christian? I doubt it. Are there many of us who would proudly proclaim the assessment, “I’m THERE!” I double doubt it. Now, there are those who would quickly pivot to the idea that JESUS could bring all of this about in our lives, if we “let” him and yielded to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. On paper, I would certainly agree. In reality, though, I’m just not sure the Holy Spirit has the TIME to get this done in MY lifetime. Charles Dickens may be able to make the “spirits” do all of their work on a single Christmas Eve, but this is reality, friends. 

 

As an early idealist preacher (weren’t we all?), I passed these “marks” out to my congregation like they were God candy, and suggested that they should get to work, ASAP. The inference was certainly that if you DON’T embody these things, then you maybe shouldn’t call yourself a Christian? Never meaning to be judgmental or hurtful, I’m sure the non-idealists in my congregations felt I was. And they probably picked one or two of the “marks” to work on, like ol’ Ben.

 

Was Paul being judgmental in condensing an entire life of Christian journeying and discipleship into a few verses of his letter to the believers in Rome? Sure he was. One must wonder if Paul’s struggle to be taken seriously by the early Christians, given his past history persecuting and killing them, might have caused him to “over-react” a bit in addressing the church in Rome? It’s almost like he pursed his lips and said, “Barbecue sauce!” before writing these words as his bullseye. This concentrated summary of what a “good Christ follower” might look like is as beautiful as a hymn, as profound as a master poet, but may be as instructive as a copy of Grey’s Anatomy would be to someone looking to simply put a Band Aid on a boo-boo. 

 

Should we ignore Paul’s hyperactive counsel in Romans 12? Of course not! But the key to interpreting it may be found in the OTHER lectionary passage for the week—the “call” of Moses, in Exodus 3. 

 

Moses is doing his sheepherding bit, and comes across a bush that is on fire. I’m told this is not necessarily an unusual sight in a hot, hot desert with dry, dry bushes all about. Spontaneous combustion is one cause; lightening is often another. But something unusual caught Moses’ attention: the bush was ON FIRE, but it was not being consumed. He was just flat-out curious about this observation. He “turns aside” from his task to investigate.

 

Had he simply moved on, think of the rich history—right up until our present appropriation of the Christian story—that may have never happened. His curiosity led to his dialogue with Yahweh, to his call to lead God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, and to become the greatest “prophet” in the history of the world. (If you don’t believe this, remember who shows up at Jesus’ transfiguration! Elijah was second string in this encounter.) 

 

Oh, you could argue that God would have found ANOTHER way to call someone, if Moses hadn’t heeded to the pyrotechnic mystery, but I would counter that God WANTED a curious soul to be the one who would lead God’s people. Of course, Moses had other “connections” in his personal history that would get him in the door, but his curiously fed his faith, and it was his curiosity that kept him relying on God and not growing a big head about his own abilities. (Much later, it would be his undoing, when he strikes the rock, ignoring God’s counsel, by the way. I’m sure he just wanted to see what would happen if he smacked that baby, again!)

 

We don’t have to go into the rest of the dramatic Exodus story here—we all know what happened. Let’s go back to the “Walt Whitman” quote:

 

“Be curious, not judgmental.” We are in very judgmental times, aren’t we? So many look first “who to blame,” rather than for clever or even ingenious ways out of “the mess we’s in.” It is SO much easier to be judgmental. It finds fault with something or someone, places blame, and is finished. Of course, the problem is not solved. Being curious leads to more and more discoveries, and requires critical thinking to form hypotheses and conduct research. It is the way of science, while judgmentalism is the way of politics, and WAY too often, religion. 

 

Remember the time when Jesus encounters a blind man while in the company of some religious leaders? They want to know WHO or WHAT is responsible for this man being born blind. They were being judgmental, to the “Nth” degree. Jesus tells them, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Instead, he suggests, they should be CURIOUS: “What am I going to DO about it?” And then he heals the man. Curiosity may have “killed the cat,” but it got Israel out of captivity in Egypt, and it powered the ministry of Jesus Christ!

 

If we choose to live our faith as “curious” rather than “judgmental” people, we will be explorers on the great Christian journey, and not police. Curiosity leads us to examine our OWN motives, and not as much those of others. Curiosity unlocks many secrets; judgmentalism keeps secrets, as this is a source of their power. 

 

Should we be surprised that Jesus never said, “Be curious, not judgmental”? Actually, if you read the gospels, I think he did! I know he had a REAL hard time with those who were judgmental. They even killed him, and tried to kill his message. Curiosity may lead us, step by step, to pursue and conquer even Paul’s “judgmental” marks of a Christian—in due time, and related to real-life experience. We “learn by trying” or being curious, not by edict. Personally, I never learned well while under anyone’s artificially-imposed deadlines or rules. I learn best and with most deeply rooted results when motivated by curiosity! 

 

Barbecue sauce! 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...