Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sweet...

 


Sweet…

Psalm 19
19:1 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

19:2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

19:3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

19:4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

19:5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

19:6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;

19:8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;

19:9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

19:10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

19:11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

19:12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

19:13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.

19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

 

We all marveled at the images sent back to earth by the Hubble Space Telescope went into service over thirty years ago. This device, orbiting the planet at about 326 miles up, gave us glimpses of the majesty and vastness of God’s creation never before seen by earth-borne telescopes. One image that graced many a magazine cover, and later was splashed all over the Internet, was one of what looked like “fingers” reaching into the cosmos. We were told that these “pillars of star creation” were doing just that—congealing into new stars. Thanks to the orbiter of the space shuttle system, astronauts were able to work some wonder on that magnificent instrument. You might remember that, when they first turned the beast ON, it had a bad case of astigmatism, thanks to some engineer’s error guiding the giant mirror’s grinding. Talk about a costly mistake! The orbiter was able to reach the Hubble, and anchor it into its massive payload section (which is how the Hubble was originally delivered to orbit in the first place). There, astronaut/”house call” repairmen first gave Hubble a set of eyeglasses, giving us our first “clear” images. Then, over subsequent repair and refurbishing missions, the Hubble was kept functioning, and even had its grand-piano-sized equipment modules replaced with more advanced technology. Late in the shuttle program, one final “house call” was made, and the Hubble was set adrift in good working order, only now without its repair crews, due to the retiring of the space shuttle program. Our current means of getting into low earth orbit—SpaceX’s “Dragon”—is not capable of reaching the height of Hubble’s orbit, nor would it be suited to maneuvering its impressive bulk, even if it could (several “Dragons” could be placed in the former orbiter’s cargo bay). Hubble kept cranking out the images to astound us, and remind people of faith that the creation really IS “telling the glory of God.” At one point, the Hubble’s “deep field” instrument was aimed at a tiny, tiny section of the heavens—less than a degree’s worth—as I recall. What observers “assumed” were stars in the first iteration of the transmitted image turned out to be WHOLE GALAXIES, too numerous to count. Think of that—The vastness of space, as we usually see it, is mostly contained in our OWN galaxy, the Milky Way. Now, here were thousands of them, many even larger than our own “home” galaxy, and it only a SINGLE DEGREE of the stellar sky! Just how majestic IS God’s universe? And have we been conceiving of a divine creator FAR too small, given this reality? Hubble may be soon ending its run, but as those ad guys say on TV, “No, there’s MORE!”

 

A larger, more impressive instrument called the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) began returning its pictures a little over two years ago. Its light-gathering ability and technology makes the Hubble look like a Ford Model T, and it’s parked WAY away from the distractions of earth orbit at a much more stable “platform” known as a LaGrange Point. Early on, the JWST scientists pointed it at some of Hubble’s old haunts, just to compare images, and OH boy, did she show her stuff! I expect God will again take center stage as this telescope sends its images back to us over the next decade, or so. The Psalmist, who had only her or his un-amplified eyes with which to gaze at the heavens, far understated just how MUCH the “heavens declare the “handiwork” of God! 

 

This picturesque and inspiring psalm has massaged the souls of God’s people down through the ages. I’m pulling out just a few of the “pregnant” phrases used by the writer for us to look at this week. Here’s one most of us who grew up in the church culture probably learned, early on, if not as Sunday School pupils, in worship liturgy we recited from the Psalter:

 

“The Law of the Lord is perfect…”

 

Much is meant by the “law of the Lord.” We need to go WAY beyond the “law” as codified in Jewish history. I believe this phrase captures the totality of God’s revelation to humanity, a revelation designed to not only restore us to right relationship with God, but also to instruct us how to live in harmony with each other and the rest of the created order. The “perfection” of God’s law will not stop short of a full restoration of the earthly creation, including shalomamong all of God’s people, of every faith, race, nationality, and ableness. That’s what makes it PERFECT, and why the psalmist tells us it “revives the soul.” How cool is that? 

 

I wouldn’t be a good Wesleyan if I didn’t point out that Mr. Wesley picked up on this concept when he spoke of his followers “going on to perfection.” As is the case with the breadth and depth of the psalmist’s words, John Wesley’s view of perfection had little to do with what we think of when WE use this word. Don’t we tend to think of something without ANY flaw? Or imagine perfection almost like Plato did when he posited that the divine had a perfect idea of everything in heaven—the “ideas”—and yet all we could muster on earth were the “things,” or less than perfect representations of the celestial “idea.” Almost any time we pronounce something as “perfect,” we are using the term as hyperbole. However, when we think of the “perfection” of God’s law, whether in the mind of the writer of Psalm 19 or someone like Mr. Wesley, we must realize that GOD views “perfection” very differently. For God, “perfection” means that the creation is fully reconciled and is living in peace and harmony, with the fullness of God’s justice having been restored and practiced. For Wesley, our personal “going on to perfection” means we are participating in this redemption, one that benefits not just OUR status before God, but everyone else’s, as well. Were either perfection to be reached, humanity, the created order, and the divine will all be “on the same page,” as they say. 

 

Now let’s talk about sweetness (and I’m not talking about the late, great running back Walter Payton, for you NFL fans out there, although he WAS pretty sweet!). It’s almost hard to imagine anything “sweeter than honey.” While I know honey has been hawked as some kind of miracle elixir that tends to a multitude of ills, it actually IS something pretty amazing! Whipped up by our bee siblings, it basically lasts forever, with samples found in ancient tombs of Egypt still quite edible. Even if it crystalizes, a little bath in some hot water restores it to its original goodness. And it IS very sweet. Prior to modern chemistry, I’m guessing people like this author could not fathom anything sweeter than honey. However, in our day, we have stuff like Sorbitol, Aspartame, and Saccharine that are actually sickeningly sweet, needing a very small quantity to “sweeten” foods or beverages. There’s something called Thaumatin, also known as Talin, made from some kind of seed arils grown in Africa that is the sweetest thing known on earth, 1600 times sweeter than cane sugar. Most of these manufactured or concentrated sweets leave a bad aftertaste, while honey does not. Doesn’t matter, though. God’s law, God’s plan of reconciling the creation, and God’s love of God’s people makes all of these pale in their “sweetness,” by comparison. Using a “catch all” term for this, God’s GRACE is “sweeter than honey, and the honeycomb”…even sweeter than Thaumatin! And no aftertaste, other than the promise of living happy ever after!

 

Of course, no responsible “preacher,” whether a pastor or a biblical author, would be doing their job if they didn’t take at least one parting shot at us cleaning up our act, even in a poetic, inspirational psalm like this one. “Clear us from hidden faults” makes its appearance. Any good campaign is best served by fixing known faults, right at the beginning, and “hidden” faults may need a little sleuthing to flag before tackling them. Besides, only we can attack our own faults. I’m intentionally avoiding the word “sin” here, as this translation doesn’t use it, and sins are technically infractions, not shortcomings or faults. Our faults need to be fixed for us to fully participate in God’s redemptive action, because they will most definitely get in the way. Again, the Good News is that God will guide us to surface them, empower us to “git ‘er done,” and not judge us for having them in the first place. O that we human beings could view our faults in this way! When we judge ourselves harshly over our faults, we may wind up wallowing in self-condemnation and suffering from an overly negative view of self. When we judge others for THEIR faults, we can pretty much know that anger and resentment will follow, doing more damage to the relationships God’s “perfect law” wants to restore. 

 

And one last phrase that caught this preacher’s attention: God as “our rock and redeemer,” which we may think of as our foundation and our imparted freedom.

 

God as our rock and redeemer (foundation and freedom) sure sends me to Jesus Christ, even though Jesus would not have been in the mind of the original author. Jesus gave us the parable of “building on the solid rock” AND told the disciples that “on this rock I will build my church.” (This latter phrase has been much debated, with some thinking Jesus is talking ABOUT Peter as the “rock” upon which the church will be built, while others of us believe he was careful to differentiate that he meant the church would be built on HIMSELF as the rock. This could have been easy for his audience to confuse, as Peter’s name can mean “rock.”) Regardless of how you parse it, rock makes a generally good foundation! And who but Jesus can the modern Christian label “our redeemer”? As a teenage Christian, I used to listen to one of the early religious rockers, Larry Norman, sing: “Jesus is the Rock and he Rolled my blues away.” Yep. And he just keeps rollin’ along!

 

This sermon is more a collection of thoughts and maybe a few small “teachings.” (This style of preaching, incidentally, would not have been unusual for me during the 36 Lenten seasons in my ministry.) The point is that God is out to save the world, redeem and restore all of our relationships, and reunite us to the wider creation, that will, for all time, “tell the glory of God.” Amen, Beloved!

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Agent 99

 


Agent 99

 

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.

17:2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous."

17:3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,

17:4 "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.

17:5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.

17:6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

17:7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

17:15 God said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.

17:16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."

 

 

If you can’t tell from reading these retirement sermons, I was a TV kid. My middle brother—Jay—and I were both enamored with the “box” in the family room, and I’m sure some of the plots of the goofy TV shows we watched find their way into HIS sermons, too. We used to watch a wide variety of the inane comedies that populated the major networks in that day: Green Acres, the Beverly Hillbillies, My Mother, the Car, Gilligan’s Island, F-Troop, and even a few later “classics” like Mork and Mindy and All in the Family. Dramas? How about The Twilight Zone, Twelve O’Clock High, Combat, Mission Impossible, Route 66, and the unusual, genre-breaking sci-fi drama, Star Trek. Scenes, illustrations, or even humorous moments from these or dozens others may pepper our messages, as our TV habits had almost as much an influence on our early lives as did our family’s church-going habits and the faith they engendered.

 

One of the silliest of the comedies was Get Smart, a spoof of the popular “spy” movies of the day, featuring Don Adams as “Agent 86” (Maxwell Smart) and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99. This show brought us the “Cone of Silence” and the infamous “shoe phone,” that most certainly “predicted” the modern “smart phone” (an interesting label, don’t you think?). “The Chief” was the director of this crazy cavalcade of Cold War spies, and was the only one on the entire cast who had a quasi-serious role. “The Chief” MUST have felt like God does, presiding over a “cast” of people who brew up more fits and foibles for themselves than ANY sitcom writing team could contrive. I’m sure there are times when God wishes there really WAS a “Cone of Silence.” 

 

I thought of Agent 99 when I read this weekend’s text from Genesis about God speaking to the 99-year-old Abram, making a monumental promise that he would be the progenitor of a large and influential nation—Israel. I’m sure Abram was just as incredulous as WE might be, if a voice out of the blue said WE would “birth” anything, at age 99! God even gave new names to Abram and his wife, Sarai, who was, herself, almost 90 at this point. As one who has often reminded his congregations that Genesis is NOT science, this text and the promise it puts forth is yet another proof of that assertion! No WONDER God proposed new names for Abraham and Sarah, possibly so they could hide from others, when word got out. Maybe it was the ancient equivalent of being in the Federal witness protection program?

 

Had God just referred to “Abraham” as simply “Agent 99,” I would truly get the “joke.” And it WAS a joke, or at least I think it is meant to be. Not that it didn’t happen, “in the fullness of time,” (good Bible phrase), but I DO believe the story is designed to lift up the belief that God LIKES to use the improbable—even the impossible—to get the attention of us mere mortals, and to use US (just as unlikely) to affect world-changing miracles like the birth of a nation, such as Israel. God, as the dramatic magician, so often uses the same “drama” as a stage magician does to postulate the impossible—disappearing an elephant, sawing a woman in half, escaping from a chained sarcophagus lowered into the ocean—and then amazing her or his audience by making it happen. “Watch THIS—I’m going to make an elderly couple PARENTS, and then populate a whole nation from their miracle child!” Can you say “abracadabra”?

 

In the TV show Get Smart, Agents 99 and 86 went through a wide variety of humorous machinations designed to misdirect the audience into believing there was NO WAY they would save the world or finger the “bad spy” in half an hour. But they did. Viewers may have been rendered incredulous, too, but they would have had a good laugh, followed by just “feeling good” because the villain had been vanquished. Code names—Agent 99 and Agent 86…or Abraham and Sarah.

 

We’re pretty sure Abram/Abraham didn’t have a shoe phone, but the text smartly says that “the Lord APPEARED to him. This is a most interesting reference, given some of the prohibitions in scripture about “not gazing upon the face of God.” AND, like the angels who appear to various servants in the Bible, God had to announce god-self—“I am God Almighty.” Abram was obviously frightened by the experience, as he fell on his face, an early version of diving into the foxhole, I suppose. And then God just casually announces what will become known as the “Abrahamic Covenant”—"You shall be the ancestor of many nations.” Not a bad gig for a man of 99, wouldn’t you say? Of course, we have the benefit of history to know things took an interesting detour, but that’s fodder for another sermon!

 

Meanwhile, God also offers that Sarah will be the mother to this brood, another good trick, in that Sarah was thus far barren, and almost 90, to boot, as we said earlier. She will become an important part of the aforementioned “detour,” before God does God’s promised miracle. It’s that detour story that comes up later that reminds me of a Get Smart storyline. The show begins with a statement of “the problem,” or the “mystery” that Agents 99 and 86 have to unravel, progresses into their fumbling and bumbling attempts to do so—adding the necessary comic relief—and ends with a “win” on their part, often arrived at quite accidentally. Today’s text states the “promise” to Abram, then God gives them their “spy” codenames, Abraham and Sarah. Knowing full well that Lent is a “journey” means that we can see the Genesis comedy play out, but probably not in just half-an-hour, with commercials.

 

Of course, OUR lives never parallel these two stories, either the one from the Bible, or that from the late, great TV archives. Have YOU ever stumbled your way into a “win” after pleading with God to act on your behalf? I know I have, and more often than not, frankly. There is a brand of theological thought—called Process Theology—that locates God’s working in every minute detail of life, weaving even our “fumbling and bumbling” together with a divine enticement to keep making the effort. In this model, God “lures” us in a direction that God knows not only will benefit US, but will help draw a larger “picture” that may benefit the wider community. Process Theology doesn’t understand God as one with a singular, “perfect” plan, but as a God who is fully wrapped up in our human experience, using our efforts—good, bad, or humorous—as a “paint” to help form the picture and produce the plan. Vector is more important than creating singular, “perfect” moments. Where the plot MOVES is collaborative, between us and God, and even our bumbling can be efficacious. Sounds like a Buck Henry-written episode of Get Smart…or the Genesis saga of Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah. Film at eleven, as they used to say.

 

What should we learn from the Bible in this Lenten season? Here’s one thing I told my people regularly regarding the Bible: From Genesis to “Notes and Maps,” God is NEVER not loving God’s people. And for Lent Two, maybe we ponder how a Process Theology model of God’s working in our midst doesn’t judge our failures, and even USES them to further the divine plot! This Lent may we also discover anew the NEW Covenant God made with humanity through the Jesus Christ Event. May we grow even more excited about it than Abraham and Sarah were with the one God made with them. And may we never have to utter Maxwell Smart’s signature line, “MISSED IT by THAT MUCH!” Amen!

Friday, February 16, 2024

Spirits in Prison...

 


Spirits in Prison

 

1 Peter 3:18-22
3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,

3:19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison

3:20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

3:21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

3:22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Lent is upon us. As a local church pastor for 36 years, those words typically struck fear into the hearts of me and my church staffs. We used to joke that first came Advent and two days later, Lent, or at least so it seemed. For the uninitiated (laity), the Advent/Christmas season and the Lenten/Easter cycle were the most intensive activity times in the church planning year. Not only are there a raft of events to plan for, but there was also a strong compulsion on the part of those of us who live and breathe theology, ministry, and inspiration to want to make each of these two seasons bigger and more brimming with “spirit” each year. I know it wasn’t really true, but I could almost “hear” the voices of my gathered parishioners speaking a line from one of Woody Allen’s films: “My God, my God, what hast thou done LATELY?” To borrow a cultural phenomenon that may be easier for you lay persons to understand, the Lenten/Easter cycle is the church’s Super Bowl. Lent and Holy Week are like the game; Easter is the rousing halftime show. I don’t MISS this feeling, the stress it induced, and the hours of planning involved. I think this is why I tended to enjoy the Advent/Christmas season more—secular society had so kidnapped it that those of us in the church could “ride the wave” of excitement the culture built! Just adding a few poignant, “head-turning” moments of spiritual inspiration to the childlike fervor of the weeks around Christmas was usually welcomed by the congregation, and affirmed by it. Easter benefitted from no such hype. Bunnies, chocolate, and egg hunts were for kids; the adults just looked to US and asked, “My God, my God, what hast thou done LATELY?” 

 

So, what does a retired pastor write about Lent in a sermon? Escaping the pressure to pump up a congregation over it, I think I’ll do what I always do—look to the lectionary texts and see if there are interesting phrases that “pop out,” and cause me to question. This weekend’s text from First Peter has several of those. First off, I should state that I’ve always treated the “epistles” of Peter as sermons, for I believe this is what they were, not letters. Oh, someone may have heard them and wrote them down so as to share them with others, but they certainly READ like sermons. Of course, the “role” of sermons is similar to that of scripture. The author of II Timothy gives us that somewhat well-known “other” 3:16 passage:

 

16 All scripture is inspired by God and is[a] useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

 

A decent sermon carries some “inspiration,” if not directly from God, at least from its author. A good sermon may be a “teaching” about some element of our faith or our walk of discipleship. A meaningful sermon may “correct” or “reprove” the hearers of errors that have crept into our understanding of what it means to BE a Christian, or corrects an errant “interpretation” of scripture that may cause us to use it as a club against those we don’t like, or just simply don’t understand. All sermons should impart SOME “training in righteousness,” in my opinion, for if they don’t, why are we giving them in the Christian church? Of course, a “healthy” debate can be had over what constitutes “righteousness,” with some wanting to nail down “orthodox doctrines” or clearly define “sin,” while others will want to stress the imparting and reception of grace, and hawk “reconciliation” as the gold standard of dikaiosune (NT Greek for “righteousness”—there, that’s  a “teaching”). John Wesley would probably say that “righteousness” is just RIGHT LIVING, or living according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I’m good with that. 

 

With this in mind, why am I focusing on the phrase in this text, “spirits in prison”? Let’s explore that a bit, shall we? Now, some will take it pretty literally, suggesting that during the three days Jesus was “dead” to us and in the tomb, he was actually “visiting” with the souls of the dead who were in Sheol (Hell), or some form of after-death “purgatory” where they were awaiting God’s “final solution” to the problem of separation from God, Jesus BEING now that solution. The ancient writers of the Apostles’ Creed went there, as one of the lines of the creed says, “He descended into Hell.” Frankly, speculating about this is WAY beyond my pay grade, so I choose to look at this verse symbolically. 

 

The ”spirits in prison” might be ANYONE who finds themselves “bound up” by stuff that: limits joy; destroys or harms one’s psyche; leads to a harmful and/or life-threatening addiction; poisons relationships; blinds one to anything except one’s own selfish desires; robs reason and substitutes foolishness; or just wholly beats down a child of God so severely that he/she/they would have to climb a tall ladder to kiss a snake’s heinie. These “spirits in prison” may never see the Bible’s “Hell,” for they are in one right here and now. It may well be a Hell of their own choosing and design, or they may be an oppressed victim of the ones society (or narcissistic others) has created, but it is a “prison,” just the same. And this is not to discount the literally prisons where our nation locks away the highest number of folk—many for small crimes—than any other country. Christian people—“church people”—should align themselves with the struggle for justice for those who do NOT deserve to be “rotting” in our literal prisons, and as Mr. Wesley believed, we should ALSO care for those whose crimes deservedly put them there. Prison should never be a place devoid of human hope and civilized treatment and provision. We’re not doing so well with that, though. When the church engages in benevolent, hope-bearing ministry to those imprisoned, it is literally following the example of Jesus mentioned in this scripture text! And when we work for justice and humane treatment in our prisons, we are possibly engaging in one of those things Jesus promised in the Gospel of John: “GREATER THINGS you will do when I go to the Father.”

 

In this text, Jesus “makes a proclamation” to the “spirits in prison.” What does he say to them? I think the Gospels are actually FULL of the kinds of things Jesus proclaimed to these “captives.” The message? They are all children of God; Christ came that they might have life, and even life abundantly; Jesus is a healer for their wounds and a balm for their fears; their sins are forgiven; the Holy Spirit has been “lavished” upon them; the hope and promise of eternal life in the presence of God is theirs for the receiving; they are some of the “last” that will be brought to the front of the line; NOTHING will separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord. And this is just the “short list.” How about this one that ANYONE who feels trapped would want to hear: “I will never leave you nor forsake you…Lo, I am with you ALWAYS, even to the end of the age.” 

 

The proclamation Jesus Christ has for ANY “spirit in prison”—regardless of what that “prison” may be—is that their life COUNTS for something, and that God desires to “free their spirit” from any oppressing force. This may not mean that they will not “reap what they have sown,” if their activity has caused others (or themselves) harm, but it DOES mean that God desires and demonstrates in the Christ Event that they don’t have to STAY in a “spirit prison.” If they HEAR and YIELD to God’s proclamation of freedom—“Those whom Christ has freed are FREE INDEED”—their soul may still have “wings, their life may rediscover its purpose, and they will be reconciled to God and the others they love. 

 

With God’s help, and the support of a caring community, people can be freed of addictions, psychological diseases and syndromes may be healed or at least brought under control, relationships can be restored, and the “still small voice” of God can be heard once again. As the text says, through the death and resurrection of Christ, they can have their “good conscience” restored, and that may be the most freeing thing of all.

 

I like that the “preacher” in this text uses the example of God’s “rescuing” of the animals and Noah’s family. Not that any of us have to believe that particular biblical story as historical, but it IS a good example of God’s desire to rescue, even when society goes really, really bad, as was the case in the Noah story. (I like the idea the story gives us that God chose to save a whole variety of ANIMALS, but I was never too impressed that only one “chosen” human family was spared. This is one reason I have believed this to be a kind of parabolic tale.)

 

One of the other lectionary texts for this weekend actually gives us the “promise” of the rainbow as a sign that God will no longer flood the earth. Interestingly, that text from Genesis says that the rainbow is a “sign” or “reminder” to GOD not to do that! Even God needs to be reminded to rain kindness not flood waters upon us, so I guess we have a little grace when we get on our high horse and unfairly “condemn” other sinners because their “sin” is far worse than ours! But like God, when we see the “signs,” we should be reminded of grace, not judgment.

 

Are you feeling today that your spirit is “imprisoned” in some way? Remember, when we are experiencing something like this, it is REAL to us, even though our travail may pale in comparison to what others face. When I was in full time ministry, I would sometimes counsel with a person whose life was really coming apart, followed closely by another parishioner who was weeping elephant tears because they had a blowout on a new tire. I remember feeling that this was my chance to “play God” and offer both grace and comfort, when it might have been easy to unfairly differentiate between the two. God really IS like that! And we’re trying…

 

If you ARE feeling painfully “confined,” listen to the great proclamation the Lord Jesus offers to ALL of the “spirits in prison.” Start with the OTHER 3:16 from John: “For God so LOVED the world that God gave the only begotten Son, that WHOSOEVER believes in him shall not PERISH, but have EVERLASTING life.” Don’t let your current “prison” perish you, and know that “everlasting” life means good stuff can start NOW, not just in the afterlife! Believe the greatest promise of God, that in Jesus Christ, God is truly “Emmanuel”—God IS with YOU! Shalom, Beloved! Amen.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Perish the Rescuing...

 


Perish the Rescuing…

 

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
4:3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

4:4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

4:5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake.

4:6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Paul has a unique way, doesn’t he? His gospel is so simple—God loves us, God saves us, we serve God out of gratitude, and witness our salvation because God’s love and grace compel us to invite others to the party. Pure and simple. 

 

The early church complicated Paul’s gospel. The invitation that went out to all brought in some, shall we say, “interesting” characters. Former pagans who had trouble letting go of the “former” label, former Jews who had trouble letting go of the “former” label, as well, and a few who were attracted to the “power” the gospel might afford them, should they have a silver tongue and a penchant for making friends and influencing people (Apollo, anyone?) The upstart church in Corinth was a nightclub full of these kinds of people. The good news was that the gospel WAS for all people, and the “heavy lifting” of redemption had been done by the totality of Jesus Christ. 

 

I say “totality” of Jesus Christ, in that the Christ event is one package: the eternal Son of God born into the world in what theologians would label the “incarnation”; the “fulcrum” events, such as his baptism by the Jewish repentance preacher, John the Baptist, “handing him off” as the budding Savior of the WHOLE world, and the “win” over the devil and this world’s temptations of power; his teachings that were truly “other-worldly,” including “turning the other cheek” and “forgiving seventy times seven”; carrying his own cross to his death on Golgotha; and his resurrection on the third day, a final “win-win” over death and eternal condemnation. “Jesus paid it ALL, ALL to him [we] owe.” Paul’s gospel, all wrapped up in and by Jesus, like a “Hello Fresh” entrĂ©e; no other ingredients needed.

 

The trouble with this is, anyone can be a witness, and the message can remain simple enough for anyone to be transformed by it. Thanks to the “human” element, the church quickly began to shake out both individual power seekers, and to develop a hierarchy that would provide them with an office and its perks. When Paul talks in this passage of “unbelievers,” he may not have been addressing those who had not yet heard his simple gospel, or those who had heard the first edition, but who had thus far rejected it. He may well have been addressing those who it first attracted and brought into “the family,” but who were now enjoying the status and influence it brought to them, as they assumed leadership positions.

 

Paul tips his hand in verse four: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake.” Subservience and humility was a long way from what Paul had to oppose in the Corinthian church, as he attempted to keep it from falling into egotistical ruin at the hands of manipulative, less-educated, but power-savvy converts. Paul, the brilliant writer and purveyor of the simple gospel that welcomed all into the fold of faith, had a tiger by the tail in Corinth.

 

Fast-forward to the 21st century. In Tim Alberta’s new book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, he details the contemporary “evangelical” movement and its Corinth-like prostitution of the simple gospel of Jesus and his dramatic convert, Paul the Apostle. This is a sordid tale of power, lust, money, and political intrigue that smacks of Antichrist and his minions. From Franklin Graham to Jerry Falwell, Jr.—the headliners—to lesser known leaders like Charlie Kirk, Alberta dissects their hijacking of love and justice, substituting in its place the Kingdom of Trump and the “branch offices” of a plethora of independent and Southern Baptist churches who have peddled a complex gospel that reigns over those who seek God’s pardon, influences what they believe and for whom they vote, and hides lustful sins, because, after all, “enjoying their bodies are the reward for giving [themselves] for the gospel.” (This latter statement was that of the late Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologeticist celebrated by evangelicals, who was found after his death to have been a major lech.) 

 

Whatever moral beliefs some Christians may have about abortion, many of these spiritual high-rollers have distorted them and parlayed them into a political powerhouse; the same game applies to the condemnation of persons in the LGBTQ community, especially those who are transgender. They have convinced millions of modern “believers” that such persons who engage in these “practices”—even those who ally with them—are not “eligible” for inclusion in the gospel. Their version of the gospel, not the simple “All-y, All-y in free” gospel of Paul. And the horror of this movie doesn’t end, according to Alberta. They are gearing up for “round two,” after a large majority of Americans and not a few believers in a God of love and redemption voted out the leader of a heinous, chaotic “round one” that exploded on our TVs on January 6 of 2021. Most of Alberta’s “evangelicals” were allies of IT, and a few were even represented on the Capitol steps that day.

 

I would be far less than honest if I didn’t say that reading Alberta’s book was a gut punch to a person who has given my all to offer the simple, inclusive gospel of Jesus and Paul to the people I served over 36 years as a pastor, and a number of years as a church member and lay Christian witness before that. As a fan of the original “Star Trek” TV series, I recall an episode wherein some “alien force” occupies the body of a 24th century man, causing him to willy-nilly murder people “just for fun.” The science minds of that episode trace the galactic “travel” of this blood-thirsty entity to a path of planets that experienced horrible, unexplained killings, and leading all the way back to Planet Earth, and a series of murders perpetrated by “Jack the Ripper.” Reading Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, the Glory, and holding his 21stcentury research up against Paul’s writings in Corinthians, reminded me of this weird “Star Trek” episode. It would seem that the same “evil spirit” that was at work distorting God’s truth in Corinth in the first century is at work in the worst of the right-wing, “evangelical” movement. Maybe it is.

 

These same “evangelicals” have built a whole control structure around what was offered by Christ as a simple gospel. HOW one appropriates the gospel, HOW one “is saved,” and how one VOTES after they are saved has been codified into a process known as “being a Bible-believing, born again Christian.” They have been diligent “gatekeepers” of how one becomes a Christian, how one must “behave” as a Christian, and even more specifically what “doctrines” one must believe. Those who do not buy the whole package are disregarded (and disrespected) as the “liberal elite.” Sadly, some of this mindset have infected Methodism and brought about a schism—Methodism, a sect founded by a Paul-like, highly educated man who preached a simple gospel and offered the “hand of fellowship” to any who believed that simple gospel, what he called the “essentials of faith.” 

 

This “ratcheting up” and complicating of the simple process of redemption is part and parcel of how these people maintain control of the movement. “Rescuing the perishing” has turned into big business, political power, and personal aggrandizement, in so many cases, according to Tim Alberta, whose own pastor/father started to get caught up in this power struggle before he died. (This was a motivating factor of Alberta’s in writing this book.) “Rescuing the perishing” has become quite a lucrative market, spawning huge “churches” of like-minded parishioners and voters. One mega-church pastor profiled by Alberta actually started maturing in his faith, reading the Early Church Fathers, and later scholars and theologians such as Miroslav Volf and N.T. Wright, and dropped the “evangelical” scam, preaching anew the simple gospel and its application to living the Christian walk. His church shrunk from 1,500 on Sundays to less than 150, because it had been a house built on the sinking sand of a politicized gospel promising power and prosperity. Actual Christian living and believing didn’t carry as much appeal, I guess.

 

Sorry for being so negative in this message, but I do believe it is TIME to PERISH THE RESCUING (supporting the convoluted, power-controlled religion now labeled “evangelical”) and offer once again the inclusive, simple gospel instituted by Jesus Christ the Savior and written about by Paul the Apostle. Thankfully, there have been countless servants and heralds of this gospel throughout the centuries, furthering and preserving the church. But, the church is now endangered (and is beginning to recede) because of this “Rescue the Perishing” gospel business. Broad swaths of the American populace are now seeing “Christianity,” Trump’s MAGA movement, and these loud-mouthed evangelist/”super pastors” as totally in cahoots with one another. And they are leaving the church behind. It is worth noting that this is just coming to America; it’s been going on in Europe for decades, thanks largely to the hierarchical, patriarchal “rule” of the Roman Catholic Church, and the ineffective efforts of the Protestant mainline. A rebirth of the simple gospel may save us all, if it is not too late. From our lips to God’s ears. Amen.

 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Christ Chameleon...

 


Christ Chameleon

 

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
9:16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 

9:17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 

9:18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

9:19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 

9:20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 

9:21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. 

9:22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 

9:23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

 

 

Question: Is “becoming all things to all people, that I might win some” an ethical strategy? Let’s explore this question a bit today.

 

My wife used to say that I drove her crazy by seeming to be able to carry on a conversation with about anybody, about anything. As we moved around the varied “audience” of the congregations I served, she just didn’t believe I could “know” enough to do that, without a lot of gaslighting and faking. For example, if I was chatting with a NASCAR enthusiast, I could talk about some of that group’s history, or about the kinds of cars now running their tracks. If I was conversing with someone in the medical field, I could discuss an article about some new advancement in medicine that was getting attention. Or if the topic was sports—almost any sport, including obscure ones like Irish hurling, I could hold my own. The one that caused her to “go off” on me one day, though, was when I was discussing welding techniques and hardware with a professional welder. “There is NO WAY you can POSSIBLY know something about all of those things!”, she would exclaim. Fact is, I did, and I often do, but it is not because I’m some kind of genius (believe me, I’m NOT!), but because I like to read news articles and what used to be known as “periodical literature.” When you combine a person with a voracious reading appetite, but one who isn’t as much into reading fiction, you get a proverbial “Jack of all trades, master of none” character. That’s me. The other two attributes I manifest is that I was “raised” on television shows—as many documentaries and science programs as could be found—because my dad was fascinated by the emergence of TV technology; AND I was blessed with a weird memory that just doesn’t forget too many trivial and seemingly unrelated facts. “Useless knowledge” abounds in my cranium—useless, except when used as fodder for “cocktail hour” conversations, or those before/after church ones around the coffee station. Now, if any of these casual conversations might meander its way around to theology or philosophy, the floodgates could open. THAT, my wife got, in that I was an awarded academic during my college and seminary days, and I have “kept up” my academic reading and learning. But “brush techniques” in oil painting? The latest ideas about diets and healthy nutritional practices? (I got those from some of her professional journals she left lying about.) 

 

I share this story not to boast, but to illustrate that it IS possible to take interest in a broad array of “useless” information, and even become sort of a “master” at it. Now, would it be ethical to use this information to capture the interest of some “innocent bystander” for the purpose of manipulating the conversation around to religion, for the purpose of attempting to convert them? THAT, I would struggle with. As a people-loving extrovert, I have found my “gift” most helpful in fostering conversation and in making friendly “connections” with people. Did any of these conversations, especially with parishioners, “build” any extra rapport with them, or elevate their assessment of my credibility, such that they would take more seriously the Gospel I preached? I doubt it. It might cause them to remember me, like I remember obscure knowledge, I suppose. I will say that a few of those coffee-klatch conversations that naturally DID come around to religion MAY have provided an opening for a pastor to share encouraging theological information with one of my people. All of the conversations were edifying, though, except for my wife, who DID eventually come to believe that I wasn’t “making stuff up” to foster them. (Of course, as any of you who know me KNOW, I have never been bashful about sharing my OPINIONS about things!)

 

Regarding knowledge, it is clear the Apostle Paul was WAY out of my league, having been educated under one of the most celebrated academics of his day, and having been “singled out” by the Son of God on the Damascus Road. But in this narrative, and in a couple of others where similar strategies are shared by him, it is clear that Paul goes beyond conversation in attempting “gospel” connections with folk. He actually “adopts” certain positions or behaviors, in order to get their attention, and in this regard, I’m not sure he isn’t being a bid disingenuous. Does he “pretend” to be under the Jewish law in order to sway a Jew to hear his message? If so, this may be more devious and manipulating, than clever or benevolent. And his “boast” of seeing his faith-induced humility and servanthood as the equivalent to those who were actually enslaved? This may be more delusion than disclosure. 

 

Do I believe that “saving souls” is so important that engaging in what may be a type of deception to push for a religious commitment is justified? I’m just not sure I can go that far. First of all, I believe the Spirit of God is working to bring people into a redeeming relationship with Godself. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need my “cleverness” to complete the evangelization process, and the “God’s time is not OUR time” caveat applies, as well. The assertions that “the time is short” and “the harvest is ripe” were written over two thousand years ago, and during a time of immense persecution. They don’t necessarily apply in 2024. Our human attempts to “rush the process” of introducing people to Jesus Christ may not bear the fruit we believe they will. Worse yet, they may introduce “fear” into the equation, which is rarely a productive motivator for a sustainable relationship with a God who loved us so much God sent the Only Son into the world to redeem us. In short, if we believe our efforts are ultimately essential to someone’s having a relationship with Christ, we are probably the most deluded element in the equation. 

 

So, am I trying to hang Paul out to dry? Not really. I believe what Paul is “selling” in this narrative is the idea that the church “ought” to want to share the Good News with people that we are willing to “sacrifice” ourselves to do so. I’m sure Paul is not selling deception as a strategy. After all, we are “selling” the love and grace of God, not collecting pelts. (This is why I have always winced at the term, “soul winning.”) Paul believed so profoundly in the Gospel that he believed it should be the driving “force” behind everything the church does, from feeding the poor to teaching its members the faith. Our love and benevolence is best propelled by the “wind” of God’s love behind us. This understanding helps us mature as truly humble servants of this love. False humility results when WE think we’ve gotten pretty good at “doing good” and/or “convincing” someone of their need for Christ. True humility seeks to “come alongside” folk, understanding their needs, their suffering, and “who they are” to such a degree that we can both empathize with them AND help them find the resources and connections they need to experience spiritual, physical, and emotional healing. “One beggar helping another beggar find bread,” as one wise preacher once told me. 

 

I believe Paul is “peddling” genuine love and the kind of relationship building he found helpful to himself. As a pastor, who prided himself on his scholarship and theological insights, I was often most effective LISTENING to others and serving coffee at church dinners. These and other manifestations of servanthood may have best modeled God’s love and the love God had given ME for the people I was serving, than any profound sermon or cogent, intellectual “point” I ever made. I think THIS is what Paul is trying to tell us. Others might call Paul’s suggestions, “identification.” Demonstrating God’s love, grace, and acceptance is best done by this “coming alongside” people and trying diligently and genuinely to understand their perspective and status, not in criticizing them, or “proclaiming” how wrong they were, even when that is what we may have believed.

 

To translate the Greek word, kerdaiso, translated in this passage “win,” probably doesn’t help our case. We are such a sports-crazy (and now politically polarized) society that “win” means “beat” a foe, or “prove” that we are RIGHT and the other is WRONG. This has nothing to do with the Gospel, which is precisely what I think Paul is trying to tell us! Kerdaiso has more to do with “gaining” the other, or in other words, welcoming them into our community, and even into our faith. “Identifying” with them where they are, coming in the door, also will help us meet their needs, going forward. Expecting them to “be like us” is not representing the Gospel effectively, or even appropriately. After all, we follow the one who performed the ultimate act of “identification,” which we dub the “incarnation.” As Paul well describes in Philippians, Christ “emptied himself” of the privileges of being God to come alongside humans, in order to “gain” us, or to reconcile us all to our Creator. This identification process not only fertilizes the “field” for evangelization, but it also paves the way for the kind of diverse community the church will become, necessarily. 

 

Paul is not saying that we are to become “Christ Chameleons” in order to “fool” others into believing. Instead, we are invited to come alongside others—“identify” with them in their own Sitz im Leben. This opens the door for the Holy Spirit to do her work in their lives, not only to bring them TO faith, but to then begin the process of “sanctification,” or growing INTO that faith—joining us precisely where WE all are! 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...