Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Spirit Hijinks...

 


Spirit Hijinks…

 

Acts 8:26-40
8:26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.)

8:27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship

8:28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

8:29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it."

8:30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"

8:31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

8:32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.

8:33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

8:34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"

8:35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

8:36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

8:38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

8:39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

8:40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

 

 

The Spirit of God is a mischievous soul in this text, isn’t she? And yes, I tend to refer to the Spirit as a “she” because in the Trinitarian formula, should there not be space for the feminine “pole” of God? Besides, most of the words in the Bible’s original languages we translate to “Spirit” are feminine, so why not? If I point out some of the nurturing, comforting qualities of the Holy Spirit, you might jump to the conclusion that I’m stereotyping the women’s role, so before you go there, think about the other qualities of the Holy Spirit: wisdom; knowledge; empowering; leading; extremely clever, and above all, eternally present to the church. These are the primary characteristics of the women I know, and especially ones I see in my female clergy colleagues. 

 

Not only is the Spirit “acting up” in this passage, but a lot of other things are going on, as well. Let’s talk about this Ethiopian eunuch, for a moment. Eunuchs were so designated as they would serve in the royal courts and/or the domiciles of the extremely wealthy. They would be man-servants to the women in these locales, because the term “eunuch” meant that they were not a sexual or in any way a seductive threat to the women. Some were truly slaves, and may have been “forced” into the service of being a eunuch, even surgically castrated so there would be no possibility of sexual interaction with the “guarded” women of the court. However, we learn from history that many eunuchs were employed because they were homosexual, and had no interest in women, naturally. While the Bible doesn’t directly say this Ethiopian eunuch was a gay man, we can surmise it for two reasons that are hinted in the text. Directly, the text says he was a “court official,” which was a form of employment, and a position of honor, which makes it hard to believe this eunuch was in any way coerced or “forced” to be what he was. As a gay man, he would have been a “safe” candidate for such a position, and would have been in demand for his professional services. Not only did his employer not disrespect or exclude him for being gay, but indeed, it was a “plus” for his employment in a court of a queen. A second factor is more indirect, but worth noting: if there were any “prohibitions” the author would want to note here, he would certainly have made a point of telling us that this man was “forced” to be a eunuch and had been physically made one through castration. 

 

In fact, the evidence is that this Ethiopian was employed as a eunuch in the queen’s court because he was gay, which makes what happened to him all the more significant. By receiving salvation via the Good News of Jesus Christ and being baptized by Philip, it is clear that his being a homosexual had no bearing on his relationship with God, nor did it matter to Philip, one of the earliest apostles of the fledgling church. The Good News here was an inclusive gospel, which seems to be one of the central points as to why this story is related in the pages of sacred writ.

 

So, one of the earliest conversion stories we have in the Bible of a single individual is of a gay man! We’ll call that “Spirit Hijinks” number one. Now, I know that we have a strong tendency to “think” of the Holy Spirit as a “soothing, whispering” manifestation of God, but here we have a leading story that suggests the Spirit is out to shake things up! By the way, we also have trouble imagining the Holy Spirit as a “person” of the Trinity, way too often labeling her as an “it,” and viewing her as some kind of “force” sent out from God. Not only is this an errant practice, but it is actually heresy, at least in the annals of “orthodox” Christianity. The Trinitarian formula is that God is “three in one, one in three,” with each person of the Trinity having the “full weight” of the divine, with their “function” best understood as the perichoresis, or the “divine dance.” To relegate the Spirit to some kind of “power beam” used by God is not at all what we believe in the Christian faith, so why is it so easy to “slip up” and call the Holy Spirit, “it”? I have a couple of theories about that…

 

First of all, what “person” do you think of when you think of the Holy Spirit? When it comes to “God the Father,” or “Creator God,” we have Michelangelo’s painting of the old guy on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You know, the long, flowing hair, the muscular arm and “E.T.” finger reaching out from the cloud to touch the Adam at creation? And if that isn’t what you think of, maybe “Father” elicits at least the image of a “man” who has great influence in your life, possibly your own father. Point is, we can “imagine” a male figure occupying that “chair” of the Trinity. And when it comes to Jesus, the “Son of God,” we are not starved for images, either. Thanks to painters Warner Sallman or Richard Hook, we have a couple very powerful images suggested for Jesus, either of which—or both—that have been “burned” into our consciousness from childhood. For those of us in the West, white Jesuses abound, but thankfully, there are others out there, including one by a modern artist who claims to have captured what a first-century, Middle Eastern “Jesus” may have actually looked like. Josephus, the Jewish historian, also gives us a narrative description of him, I believe, but no one is sure it is accurate. Point two, though, is that it is not hard for us to have in our mind’s eye numerous images of Jesus the Son of God as a “person.”

 

But what of the Spirit? The Bible gives us descriptions of what the presence of the Holy Spirit is “like,” such as a “mighty wind,” “tongues of flames,” or a descending dove. No “person” here. Is it any wonder we often “view” the Spirit as an “it” rather than as a “she”? Over the years, I have suggested to my congregation that they should think of a woman who has been central to their life, development, and history, and imagine the Holy Spirit as she. A number of folk have told me this was most helpful, while others have gotten angry at me for daring to suggest that the Holy Spirit is a woman. (Probably the same folk who don’t like my “gay man” explanation of the Ethiopian eunuch, I’d guess.)

 

But if you’re still on board with me here, we can see from this text that the Holy Spirit is at least “playful” and creative! Note that at the beginning of the story, an “angel” tells Philip where to go, and yet it is the SPIRIT who “said” to Philip that he should go to the eunuch and “join him” in his deliberation over what he had been reading from Isaiah. We can’t discount the fact that it is the Holy Spirit who wants to introduce this gay man to the Good News of Jesus Christ! (Thankfully, Philip had not chosen to disaffiliate.) And that the text says the Spirit “said,” well reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a PERSON of the Godhead, not a “thing.” 

 

And then there is the ending of the Ethiopian eunuch story, which is a real hoot! The text says that after the gay eunuch is baptized into the Christian faith, the “Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip up” and he found himself in Azotus. In our day, we must note that his starting place for this miraculous “transport” was GAZA, a territory in the news every day, here in 2024, and for critical and tragic reasons. The distance from Gaza to Azotus is about 30 miles, and so Philip’s “Spirit Express” beaming was pretty impressive! Of course, those who like to debunk the miraculous might interpret this to mean that the Spirit just “spoke” to Philip again, telling him to get his butt to Azotus because it was his next preaching call for the Good News, but what fun is that? While I DO believe that placing undue emphasis on the miraculous is missing the point of what God is up to in any given situation, I also believe we shouldn’t need to “de-miracle-ize” these happenings. I get a kick out of those who appeal to the natural law as a reason why a given miracle could not have happened, when the very definition of a miracle includes “the suspension of the natural law.” Again, miracles are NOT the point of the story, but a popular “means to an end” that God has planned, and so it is with this transporter mystery of Philip, as told here in Acts. 

 

I can relate to a clever, playful and somewhat “direct” Holy Spirit, can’t you? As we read the Bible, we should NOT get the idea that the Holy Spirit is often too subtle in her work. And while I have never been “zapped” from one location to another, supernaturally, I have certainly been given “marching orders” by the Spirit of God. Sometimes they have come through a bishop of the church, but often they start by something I “hear” the Spirit saying to me. I have been “called” to visit parishioners in the hospital or in their home, and felt an immediate and compelling need to do so ASAP, and it has turned out to be perfect timing. One visit I will never forget was the time when one of my young parishioners called me and asked if I could come to the hospital to have a prayer for a beloved family member (who was not a church member) who was dying, but had requested a pastor to pray with him before he checked out. Given that she said his death was not necessarily imminent, I might have taken my time, but my Spirit “prompting” was to turn the car around and head straight for the hospital. As I arrived and walked into the room, the whole family was gathered around the man’s bed, and he was slightly conscious. The family told him that “the pastor” had arrived, and he was able to acknowledge my presence. I explained who I was, and that his niece had called me to come pray with him. I inquired as to the state of his soul, asking if he felt at peace with Jesus. He shook his head, “Yes.” So I had the family all hold hands, and I prayed a prayer asking God to open God’s arms and be ready to receive this man. I also prayed that God would give him the peace to let himself be received into God’s loving arms. I finished the prayer by inviting the family to say the Lord’s Prayer together. When I said, “Amen,” his monitor beeped three times and fell silent. He had immediately “flat-lined.” A silence fell on the room, as we all stood in both relief and a sense of “unbelief” at what had just happened. I couldn’t help but think of how Philip was “ordered” by the Holy Spirit to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch, and then was “spirited away,” afterwards. In a manner of speaking, this is what had just happened to me. I was thankful to God in that moment that had NOT been a lunkhead and ignored my “prompting” to get my butt to the hospital, ASAP. It was a powerful moment for us all, and that young woman (the niece who had called me) has never stopped talking about it as a kind of personal “miracle” story. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the “tug” of the Holy Spirit, when she comes calling!

 

Speaking of which, the Holy Spirit Hijinks continues for the Sterlings. Last Sunday, from a pulpit at Faith Community United Methodist Church in Rochester, PA (formerly Rochester First UMC), it was announced that I will be their new pastor, come July 1 of this year. YES, I’m still a retired pastor, but this half-time appointment came about because of two great female colleagues of mine—Butler/Franklin District Superintendent, Rev. Debbie Ackley-Killian, and the Holy Spirit! I could never say “No” to either of them, so let the latest “retirement” adventure begin! For seven years, I commuted 16 miles each way from our home in Adams Ridge to St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, and now, I’ll be commuting 16 miles each way to Faith Community, although not quite as frequently. I’ll now have a place to share these “retirement sermons” beyond my “The Word from Dr. Jeff” blog! Pray for the poor people who have to listen to them—I’m trusting the Holy Spirit, on this one. My appointment to Rochester isn’t quite a “Beam me up, Scotty” trip like Philip had in Acts, but close enough for me, as I never imagined I’d be doing it. I’m trusting God has something in store for us all.

 

As we move forward with Jesus in 2024, may we do so in the spirit of the Ethiopian eunuch, after he heard the Good News and was baptized: “He went on his way, rejoicing!” Amen.

 

 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Trouble in Church



Trouble in Church

 

Acts 4:5-12
4:5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem,

4:6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.

4:7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?"

4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders,

4:9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed,

4:10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.

4:11 This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.'

4:12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

 

 

I was always getting in some kind of trouble in church. As a young kid, my best friend was our pastor’s son, and my home church was a very old building built over a partial basement and a cavernous crawl space. Of course, we two boys loved exploring this area. One day, we crawled back into the crawl space and found an old shortwave radio, which we thankfully did not drag out and try to plug in, or we might have burned the place down! But we DID find a kind of “Dr. Frankenstein’s lab” switch bolted to a pole, and so we did what any two curious, elementary-aged boys might do, we turned it off. Nothing happened, so we continued playing in the basement until time to walk home (the parsonage wasn’t far, and my house was even closer). Come that following Sunday morning, the pastor’s son and I were seated in our normal seats in the church balcony, which faces another balcony across the way that is both choir loft and location of the main pipe organ console. As it was time for the prelude, we noticed the organist starting to look around the console with a panicked look on his face, and soon, a member of the church trustees was climbing down under the keyboard. I looked over at my friend, with one of those “UH-oh” looks on my face, and noticed his parallel “revelation” as to what that Frankenstein switch might have been for. Then we both looked down at his dad, who just glared back at us from the chancel. Thankfully, another of the trustees knew what to do to return the organ to life without consulting us, and better late than never, the service got underway. Two young boys were soon banned from the church basement.

 

Seeing that I had a habit of making friends with pastor’s kids, a few years later, I had befriended the somewhat mischievous sons of the local Presbyterian pastor. Their church building was much more interesting than our old Methodist church, so we took to playing ping pong in the plush parlor room on the boat-shaped conference table. We would tape an old ping pong net we found to the table, and get a few games in. Of course, we weren’t actually allowed in the recently-redecorated parlor, and playing ping pong on the mahogany conference table was frowned on, I’m sure, and most especially by the family who gave it as a memorial. One night, as we were in the middle of a grudge-match game, the reverend happened to drop by the parlor to see what all the unexpected noise was about. Seeing his dad in the doorway, my friend thought he’d escape trouble by sliding his ping pong paddle across the floor and under one of the sofas, without thinking that the net taped to the table was a giveaway, and that I was still standing there, red-handed, with a paddle, myself. It actually went down worse than all of that, though, as his aim wasn’t very good, as he hastily slid the paddle across the carpeted floor, and instead of parking itself under a sofa, it hit a carved, wooden pedestal that held what I’m sure was a ridiculously expensive vase, of some sort. The vase came crashing down, and even the new, thick-pile carpet wasn’t enough to cushion its fall, so it broke into a thousand pieces, all of this happening as the reverend watched in horror, and in what I’m sure must have looked like slow motion. Two boys were soon banned from playing in the church, save in the fellowship hall, where we certainly couldn’t do much damage. 

 

Interestingly, both of my pastor’s kids best friends were named “Mark.” I think of them every time I read from Mark’s gospel, and remembering how impetuous the young author of that book seemed to be, and how later, he would be the source of a falling out between Paul and Barnabas. I am forever thankful, though, that my two Marks’ dads never compared notes on their sons’ extra-curricular church activities, or they might have discovered that I was the common denominator.

 

God got even with me by calling ME into the ministry, many years later, and giving ME a son, who liked to play in or around the church. I remember one time when my wife and I went off to visit our daughter for “Parents Weekend” at college, leaving our son at home. Honestly, he was a quite responsible young man, so we weren’t concerned, but we DID say he should not hold the typical “post dance” gathering of friends in the house on Friday night. Turns out, he held to the “letter of the law” and didn’t have his friends IN the house, but they did play some music on a boom box and skateboard in the church parking lot, which was between the parsonage and the church. They had forgotten two things: there are neighbors who might not appreciate loud music blaring on a bomb box at 11:30PM, AND that community had an 11:00PM curfew for teens on Friday nights. Upon returning home to what seemed like a peaceful house, our son told us, “Hey dad, you might hear that the cops were here on Friday night.” “Were they?” I queried. “Well, yes,” he said, explaining what had happened, and that they were just given a warning and told to disperse. Thinking of a few of my church exploits, I figured, “No harm, no foul.”

 

This lection passage from Acts 4 brings these tales to mind! Only in Peter and John’s case, they were not dragged before the High Priests for turning off organ blowers or playing ping pong in the parlor. They had actually acted like the Body of Christ they were called to be! They had encountered a lame man, begging outside the temple, and healed the man. Rather than offer coins to his bowl, coins which they apparently did not have anyway, Peter just said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk!” And a man crippled since birth did exactly that, having been instantaneously healed by the power of the Risen Christ. Of course, he did not just walk, but according to Acts 3, he went “walking and leaping and praising God,” and did so in the temple, which must have been a sight even more stirring than Mark’s ping pong paddle bringing down a vase. While the man was jubilant, suffice it to say, the temple priests weren’t.

 

They would have known the lame man, given that he was a regular, begging outside the temple. Their questions as to what had happened that he was now doing the Macarena down their hallowed hallways was theologically on their minds. And they did what even many modern religious leaders want to do—quash excess enthusiasm and maintain control and decorum. Upon questioning Peter and John, Peter spoke up boldly (a real surprise here…) and gave an impressive sermon that included blaming the High Priests for their role in killing Jesus. It did not go over well.

 

This would be the first of many episodes of those early Christ followers getting in trouble “in church” for doing God’s work as part of the actual beginnings OF the church! As a religious leader myself, I can empathize with these priests, to some extent, as it IS partly our role to maintain order and keep the church from erupting into ecstatic anarchy during an “outbreak” of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we do our job too well, even as did these chief priests. I’m surprised the Holy Spirit isn’t pictured in historic art as wearing a rain slicker, given the cold water “religious leaders” have doused upon her over the centuries. On the other hand, we all want to avoid the kind of “trouble” in church that will fester into even MORE trouble—or at least troubled Church Council meetings—down the road. Still, a text like this should remind us of several important things:

 

1.Ultimately, it is GOD’S WORK that will get done God’s way, and we would be wise to facilitate it, rather than try always to “tame” it.

 

2.Applying penalties and banishing prophets is not a good way to keep order; open conversations and prayerful guidance with the “newly moved” by the Holy Spirit is more compassionate and faith-building than dismissing them outright because we are “uncomfortable” with their enthusiasm.

 

3.Our people come to church hoping to experience the presence of God, not to get our “good theology” or just to be generous when they give the offering. Practicing the presence of God means being open to what the Holy Spirit may be trying to SAY to or DO in the church, and in the lives of our people. Being open to the Holy Spirit requires giving up at least some of our custodial “control,” and learning to live with being a bit uncomfortable with not knowing exactly what is up next.

 

Historically, “allowing” the Holy Spirit to act in the church—especially when this action was a wave of liberation—has always made some uncomfortable. While the Methodist/United Methodist Church has been fully ordaining women for decades, “women pastors” still are often rejected by men AND women parishioners who can’t get beyond their stereotypes and “traditions” that pastors should be men only. Likewise, ethnic minority pastors struggle for acceptance in a Conference like Western PA that is predominantly OLD and predominantly WHITE. One hears every excuse in the book as to why many of our backward churches reject women and ethnic minority clergy, most of which is, at best, bigotry dressed up in verbal “costume jewelry.” Even the best of these cutting edge, diverse pastors find themselves being “in trouble” in church, just because of who they ARE, and because their novel presence in the midst of a sea of aged whiteness brings “discomfort” to some of the ruling faithful. Again, as this text from Acts reminds us, in this regard, there is “nothing new under the sun.”

 

How about the movement to liberate and include the LGBTQ community in Methodism? How is that going? BOY, has THIS caused trouble in church. Why? Again, it’s more about discomfort with those who are different and a desire to be spared it. Oh, it, too masquerades in words like “Well, the BIBLE says…” and with people “speaking for God” in suggesting that “these people” don’t belong in church unless they change their sexual orientation, something that even Jesus never made people do. (And please don’t use his occasional unction to “go and sin no more” as an excuse to play the judge in this regard, for one’s sexual orientation is not “sin,” it is just who they are. Jesus NEVER excluded someone for who they were. Never.) Not only has the movement of the Holy Spirit to liberate LGBTQ persons in the life of the church brought “discomfort”—indeed, we have had a whole church SPLIT over it. Trouble in church, indeed. 

 

You probably got a chuckle out of my earlier stories about my mischief in the church, when I was a kid, but the bigotry, deception, and political power plays that has led to over a quarter of United Methodist church to disaffiliate should bring you to tears. Believe me, when we all stand before God someday, God will not pass out any trophies or “crowns” for “keeping those people out” of the church. There may be some judgement coming, but it will not go the way some think it will. Jesus taught us to do everything we possibly could do to welcome people into the family of God, including accept those who for millennia had been rejected—adulterers, lepers, Gentiles, and women, who up until Jesus’ time, had been treated merely as possessions. Members of the LGBTQ community are some of the latest to be queued up for inclusion by the Holy Spirit, and I’m very sorry for those who continue to reject them. 

 

Peter and John healed a lame man, whose excited gratitude and display of praise brought down the hammer of judgment by those who thought they had a corner on scripture. Rather than join the dance of the healed man, they held a hearing and according to Peter, “rejected the cornerstone.” It’s still going on in our midst. In believing they “speak for Jesus,” those who have divided the church have rejected the “cornerstone” (Jesus, himself) and his salvation for all humankind. 

 

Where is the Good News here? It is this: God continues to heal the hurting, those “made lame” by the judgment of some in the name of “orthodoxy” and “scriptural purity.” God is healing members of the LGBTQ community! Let’s hope that after the 2020 General Conference ends in a couple of weeks, there will be some serious “walking, and leaping, and praising God” going on, and less trouble in church! Amen.

 

Friday, April 12, 2024

Faith, By Any Other Name

 



Faith, By Any Other Name

 

1 John 3:1-7
3:1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God.

3:2 Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

3:3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

3:4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.

3:5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.

3:6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

3:7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.


WHAT does it mean to “believe”? This is the question of the day, as we examine the text of I John 3. We Christians talk of “faith” like it is something we all share, but just HOW and WHAT it means to each person is somewhat a mystery, as we don’t know what’s going on in each other’s souls. While Woody Allen’s autobiographical character, Alvy Singer, in the movie, “Annie Hall,” may say that he once cheated on a metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the student sitting next to him, in reality, none of us have that power. When he was President, George W. Bush once said, after an extended meeting with Vladimir Putin, that he had “looked into his soul” and found a kindred spirit. He could not have been more wrong, as we have since found out. SO, when we say we “share a faith,” we really can’t be too sure about that, can we?


First of all, there is the whole matter of WHAT we believe. Mr. Wesley used to talk about the “essentials of faith.” Historically, we can surmise from his writings that his “essentials” involved three major beliefs:

 

1.Jesus Christ is God’s Son and the promised Messiah/Savior.


2.The Bible is our primary source for God’s revelation to humankind.


3.The church universal is the Body of Christ in the world, and is called to model faith, love, and mercy to the world.


John Wesley called his people to be of one mind about these “essentials,” but clearly, in his writings and sermons, he ruminated over many and oft-debated elements of each. For example:


What does it MEAN that Jesus is the Savior? How do we understand the atonement? How did his exit from the Mount of Olives affect his standing as Messiah? What must one DO to “be saved” or to accept God’s salvation offered in Christ? What of other religions?  


If the Bible is our “primary source” for revelation, why did Mr. Wesley also consult tradition, experience, and reason, the “other elements” of what Albert Outler called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”? Even within his own writings, John Wesley variously interpreted scripture, signaling that he did not advocate for a non-scholarly, “literal” interpretation of same, yet many of his followers today seem to have bought into this idea. 


If the church universal is the “Body of Christ,” why is it so divided? Even our own denomination, founded by Mr. Wesley himself, has just gone through another hurtful, angry division.  


My point here is that if these are the ESSENTIALS about which we are to have “unity,” in Mr. Wesley’s words, how CAN we, when we have so many disagreements over THEIR understanding?


To make matters worse, Mr. Wesley went on to say that beyond the “unity” we are to have in these essentials of the faith, we were to tolerate—even celebrate—and certainly feel free to debate what he called the “non-essentials,” saying about them, we should “think and let think.” Of course, we will never agree on these “non-essentials,” including the list of what they may be. A case could certainly be made that such current “hot-button” issues such as LGBTQ rights, gay marriage, and even abortion are on this list, items which have led to much debate, and even infighting and division. However, it is clear that theologically “conservative” persons would balk at them being labeled “non-essentials,” but historically, they would have a hard time making a case for them to be added to Mr. Wesley’s “essentials.” Then, what are they? 


Wesley also asserted, “In ALL THINGS, charity,” which is an archaic word for “love.” This brings us to this weekend’s lectionary text from I John 3.


Beyond some of the “coded” and esoteric language such as “lawlessness,” or the phrase, “we know not what we will be…but when he is revealed, we will be like him,” the first word that stands out to me in the passage is “love,” in the first verse. Echoing what Jesus himself said, this author suggests that we are called “children of God” BECAUSE of the love of God, revealed in and demonstrated by Jesus Christ. If there IS an “essential” of the Christian faith, this is it! In the next chapter, this pastoral epistle author will tell us, “God IS love.” If we accept this, then WHAT we believe, as Christ followers, must start with LOVE as its foundation. If God IS love, how can we say we believe in God without love being primary to any such belief? Frankly, I saw very little love at work in the disaffiliation process that separated many churches, pastors and people from our denomination. As far as being “children of God” and witnesses of Christ to the world, this was far from our finest hour, friends. 


A faith based on love has necessarily to be one that affirms, embraces, and includes, for that’s what love does. Surely there are times when love attempts to “correct,” but not with the aim to separate or divide, but to protect. Loving parents do not draw lines in the sand and then reject and evict children who cross them. As Christ followers, we are called to be “good parents,” not legal judges. The “what” of our belief must always wrestle with what love means in a given moment, and how it will govern our actions. I confess that I struggle with this, especially when Donald Trump is involved, or my anger over the warring actions of Israel, Hamas, or Vladimir Putin, but of late, I’m trying to “go first to love,” and think about how love might help me temper not only my OWN feelings, but must be part of any solution to ignorance, violence, or autocracy.


Think of something—or someone—that is really “bothering” you right now, even if only in mind. Try the “go first to love” method of pondering it/them. What might it look like to apply love to the situation? What of it or them can you “accept” in the name of love? What ground might you be willing to surrender, in order to “love” in this situation? Love is NOT the opposite of HATE—it is the potion or “antivenom” for it. When we look through the “eyes” of the love of Christ, one may be able to accept that a gay or lesbian individual is not “choosing” to be that way, intentionally purposing to “break God’s law,” as you see it. Love might help you understand that, for this individual, it is a question of being honest to self, one’s own feelings, and about living an “authentic” life. For them, it is all about love. For YOU, while not necessarily changing your thinking about LGBTQ persons, love has the power to help you reconcile a relationship—one that is not really about “doctrine” or “the law of God”—but interpersonal. “Going first to love” has helped me “feel” for Donald Trump and what might have afflicted him in such a way that he behaves toward others the way he does. Love doesn’t change my mind regarding my disagreements with him over national policy or the basic philosophies of life, but it DOES remind me that he, too, is a child of God, loved by God, and needs love to thrive, just like the rest of us. Love leads me to pray for his self-awareness, which seems sorely lacking, but also for my own, that is WAY too quickly derailed by negative, critical opinions of people like Mr. Trump.


What of WHY we believe? Here again, there are probably as many reasons as there are people! There are some motivators for faith that are less than “healthy,” though. Let’s look at a few:


Those who are AFRAID of God and God’s judgment; seek to “toe the line” to stay on God’s good side.


Those looking for a HANDOUT—happy to receive God’s pardon, especially if it is for free, but struggle to “stop sinning,” especially when forgiveness is so “easy” to get. “Handout” believers struggle with seeing themselves as part of the wider community of faith, as theirs may be a strictly individualized belief system.


Those who are hung up on being SURE about their faith, and whose lack thereof may lead them to “try” one religious “remedy” after another; may lead to heightened sense of religious conviction, even outsized judgment of OTHERS’ spirituality.


Those who largely GO THROUGH the MOTIONS—following the path taught them by parents, and/or the church; defenders of the “traditions” of the church; “going through the motions” becomes a kind of penitent, “appeasing” faith. 


My 36 years of pastoral ministry teaches me that, while all of these aberrant “faiths” are operative in the church, the great majority of persons desire to find and manifest a “genuine” faith in God. As a pastor, I did my best—still do—to help others discover such a genuine relationship with God. I wish I could feel that I succeeded in most of these cases, but again, MY faith must allow me to believe that God is the one who must do the “heavy lifting.” I continue to pray for all whom I was privileged to serve, and to believe that with God’s help, they will continue to develop and manifest what our denomination used to label, “open minds, open hearts, and open doors.” 


So, what would a “genuine” faith look like? We’ve already seen from the author of First John (and from Jesus!) that LOVE is the basis for it. “Basis” may be an inadequate term—it is the SUBSTANCE of it. The love of God as fully manifested in Jesus Christ IS what we “believe,” hence it is foundational. It is the “WHAT,” of our faith, indeed. The WHY of a genuine faith is not a “thing” as much as it is a result of accepting the foundational LOVE of Jesus Christ, and then acting on it in the way we live out our existence. Here is where the second “beckon” word from this weekend’s passage sings out—ABIDE.


The Greek word in verse six we translate as “abide” has as its root, meno, which means to remain, to stay, to lodge with, to wait for, to keep on, to continue to exist, to persist, to reside. To “abide in Christ” means to build a life WITH Jesus in such a way that we “go first to love,” and then define our actions and attitudes from there. “Abiding” is a lifestyle, not a method. It is arrived at in stages, from juvenile to maturity, and its primer is the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. It really doesn’t matter how we come to enjoin this journey of abiding in Christ, but it is a most healthy one when it starts with love—accepting who we are, and that we are worthy of God’s pardon and acceptance, not BECAUSE of who WE are, but because of who GOD is. From that “moment” (or heritage) that brings us to belief, we are nurtured by the church—the Body of Christ—as we take our first steps. We don’t do it out of fear, nor to “appease” God. It is meant to be a joyful, purposeful journey wherein we grow closer and closer to Christ, and in our understanding OF him and his mission to accept and love all the world. We become part of a larger and growing “abiding community” in Christ, whose presence through the Holy Spirit tethers us together with God and each other, like a climbing team. We are at our best as “abiders” when we fully rely on God AND each other. 


If this doesn’t sound like the church you know now, I’m not surprised. We struggle with this “abiding,” too often confusing human-extracted rules and doctrines from the much simpler “love” and “abide” teachings of the Bible. Love God, love each other, and love others until they discover God’s love for themselves. There is your biblical vision of the Body of Christ. I’m pretty sure this is the world God wants to build, a world we call the “Kingdom of God.” We’re called to assemble a “family reunion,” not win a war against “sin and evil.” Neither are we asked to defeat evil—that’s God’s job and is beyond our paygrade. We ARE called to forgive others and each other—Jesus told us that, remember? 


Mr. Wesley called this whole “abiding” thing, “going on to perfection,” with perfection being the fully realized Kingdom of God. Genuine faith is about loving and abiding. Period.


This kind of genuine faith helps our mental health, because while it emanates from God, it is stuff we can “do” as humans, and it builds on a positive “love” model, not the negatives of fear and appeasement. It doesn’t wait for Sundays to be active, but energizes our everyday routine by becoming a woven, integrated “part” of who we are. And its goal is loving relationships with God, ourself, and others. And it lives well alongside “doubt” because doubt doesn’t crumble our core process of love, acceptance, and life, which are the essence of God. We “live God,” we don’t have to “prove” God. Doubt is therefore disarmed, even though it survives in our thinking, reasoning self.


Want a slogan for this? How about the end of First Corinthians 13: “Faith, Hope, and Love ABIDE, but the greatest of these is LOVE. There’s your genuine faith! Amen.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

A Lighter Love is All We Lift

 


A Lighter Love is All We Lift

 

Acts 4:32-35
4:32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

4:33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

4:34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

4:35 They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

 

Too bad it didn’t last. After the resurrection of Jesus, the witness had much power, causing those early believers to be of “one heart and soul,” even to the point of surrendering their hold on their personal possessions. NO, it wasn’t “Communism,” or even socialism. They just, in the early moments of this miracle, took notice of those around them who were hurting because they didn’t even have the basics, while others had more than enough. “GREAT GRACE was upon them all,” which caused them to pool their resources—both well-to-do and even those LESS than well-to-do—so they could share them among all. The result? Everyone with need had enough, and even those who had enough, continued to have enough. Apparently, this lasted about a week.

 

Only a week beyond the miracle of Easter, here we are facing a sad fact about “the church.” Only a week beyond God’s offering of the Only Son to take away the sins of the world, shower us in “great grace,” and make possible the unity of all humanity, and we’re back to the status quo. Throngs rolled into our churches (in most cases) last week, and this week, they will declare a “worship holiday,” as attendance swoons downwardly to what is most likely the low week for the year. The enthusiasm for God has waned to the amount of chocolate left in your kid’s Easter basket. We have not only “left the building” (the church), but we’ve left behind much in the way of benevolence toward our fellow “man” (human community). Generosity leading to unity has already given way to selfishness leading to division and social stratification. We’re immediately back to some “having” and many “having not.” Love may have lifted us for a Sunday, but human reality and the self-centered guardianship of our financial and personal resources has returned to its seducing power. Donald Trump and his “God Bless the USA” Bible is back on the throne, for many people—why? Because Donald Trump will protect our personal worth like he does his own. What’s wrong with that, other than being selfish to the point that God MUST look the other way? Why is it so easy to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ when we think he is protecting our rights and our bank accounts, but so HARD, when the Real Bible suggests that he is NOT focused on this agenda with us? Our “love” is just not up to the heavy lifting Christ asks of us as followers.

 

As an older, retired person, I find it so tempting to eschew anything that wants me to sacrifice something. I was a denominational pastor, and really got paid much less than those in other professions and possessing three degrees including a doctorate. My life partner—due mostly to our offering ourselves to an itinerant clergy system—worked mostly part-time in her career, and acquired scant pension funds. Even with careful saving and the best strategies we could muster to get our two children through college with a minimum of debt, we retired to a comfortable, yet very “humble” existence. Compared to most of the world, we are probably quite wealthy. Held up against most of the people we served alongside, we’re probably not. And while I can attest to our satisfaction that our “plans” for retirement have gone well, and that we feel very blessed with being able to generally “maintain” our lifestyle, I am still haunted by this passage in Acts. Our “comfort” may very well mean that many others of God’s people are not “making it.” While this “aging” journey helps me understand why so many “old people” turn conservative, when it comes to their money, it doesn’t discharge us from the call of Christ to BE sacrificial with it, and sharing our resources to help others and further the mission of the Kingdom of God.

 

Seminary turned me into a Democrat. I was a small-town guy, raised in a Republican family. We were not money and “rights” crazy, but my family would generally balk at any suggestion from the pulpit that we were inarguably to be “our brother’s keeper.” After all, WE had to work for what we had, shouldn’t THEY? Of course, this patently overly simplistic “we” vs. “they” scenario overlooks the social dynamics of age, class, race, and the struggle that so many face in WORKING for what they have, too, but then finding that their work doesn’t seem to yield the same privilege that it does for me and my family. Why is that? Seminary introduced me to the idea that things like this cannot be answered by quoting a scripture verse or two, or by simple answers to very, VERY complex social and economic problems. Why hell, even the THEOLOGY behind why some struggle even after “working hard,” while others don’t was MUCH more complex than I had ever believed. Frankly, I came to understand that political parties had very few answers because power was still more their aim than prosperity for all. My social and theological “awakening” wrought by a seminary education AND the interaction with my peers sent me to the Democratic party as the “lesser of evils,” at least in these United States. 

 

I am still convinced that Democrats generally believe that America should be a land where no one has to be unsheltered, starving, or without healthcare. I also think they value education for all, including researching ways to make possible whatever “higher” education a person may need, be it a university degree or specialized training in one of the trades. Generally—GENERALLY—Republicans promote individual rights, “opportunity” for all (but with little recognition WAY too often for what “for all” may mean), and with an increasingly limited role for “government” (unless it is dictating what “rights” women and minorities may have). OBVIOUSLY, my summary is a gross simplification of “real world” politics, but I now vote mostly for Democratic candidates because they seem to be “for” more of what I read here in Acts 4. I believe there IS a “benevolent” role for government, and believe that “government” should be improved to do a better job of caring for the “least of these,” rather than eschewed.

 

I get really tired of those who say that government should not be worried about “the poor” because the CHURCH should take care of them. Fact is, the economies of scale say this is an impossible solution. A look at economic reality shows us that if EVERY dollar of EVERY offering plate from EVERY church, synagogue, or mosque in the United States were to be directed to caring for “the poor,” the total sum could barely cover the cost of the SNAP program (food stamps), which is little more than a “drop in the bucket” in lifting up those hurting souls largely “left behind” in our “greatest country in the world.” Only universal taxation, coupled with better ideas as to how to “redistribute” these funds through programs and training to help those who are not making it on their own, can assure that America is a “land of opportunity,” let alone the kind of “In God We Trust” nation we so often THINK we are. And even this pales alongside what happened in the early church in Acts 4.

 

Of course, THAT did not last long, as we know. Why? Because we are inherently selfish creatures. We do not easily part with what we think we have “earned” with little to no help of others. America is overpopulated with “self-made men” who believe this fantasy. My late father had an expression he would apply any time I or one of my brothers was bragging about something we had accomplished on our own: “Where are you getting this LINDBERGH stuff?” It was his way of saying something former President Barak Obama was saying, years later—if you are successful in doing ANYTHING in this country, you have built your success on the backs of those who went before you, on the backs of those who FOUGHT for our freedoms, and on the infrastructure that we all shared in creating, throughout our history. Of course, Charles Lindbergh KNEW his success was based on the work of many, including the Ryan Aircraft Company, his financiers, and all of the support people who backed his historic flight across the Atlantic. WAY too many of our successful “entrepreneurs” today DON’T understand this. 

 

As a United Methodist pastor, I was once asked by a local church leader, “Why do we have to pay these Conference apportionments? What do we GET for that?” My answer was simple—this is our “franchise fee.” It allows us to participate in all of the mission and ministry—worldwide—that is the United Methodist Church. It covers the “overhead” for much of our mission and relief work, so that when we raise funds to further a new mission field or cover cleanup from a natural disaster somewhere, every dime can go to the cause. Nothing gets “siphoned off” to cover “administration.” Our “franchise fee” provides the system and leadership that keeps our “business” alive, and our local “branch office” a healthy part of it all. Given that our logo—the Cross and Flame—is the most recognized religious symbol among Christian denominations, something we have done “together” must be working! It’s certainly not fully “Acts 4,” but it’s a start. This is also what saddens me about our recent “disaffiliation” chapter over grossly oversimplified theological issues. We “bombed the whole building” when just the plumbing needed fixed.

 

We’re never going to see an Acts 4 church again. Ever. We have sold out to our human selfishness, I’m afraid. Will God fry us for this? Probably not, because it is quite clear that God is LOVE, not flames. Even God doesn’t believe in this kind of coercion. Maybe THIS is the real lesson of Acts 4 for our time? If we could only convince ourselves as Christians that love is meant to LIFT ALL BOATS, not just those who think they deserve what they “worked” for? If only we could “tithe” the love with which we love ourselves to help others who need more support? Every time I catch a ray of hope, I hear another “Christian” proclaim support for a narcissist like Donald Trump, who has little love for anyone but himself, clearly. Donald Trump may just be the hood ornament of the car most Americans are driving, all the while we proclaim ourselves as a “Christian” nation. Acts 4 tells us this week that nations CAN’T be “Christian,” and that it will require personal sacrifice for any of us individuals to BE one! 

 

There was a time when I advanced the idea that the proper symbol for Christianity was the empty tomb, because of the hope it represents. However, I am now convinced that the cross truly is, because it forever reminds us of the sacrificial nature of God’s love for us, and of the individual sacrifice it calls us to manifest. This will never be a “comfortable” message; the cross should remain a hurtful, vexing symbol. One week into the Easter season, may we revisit the cost of the “great grace” we enjoy, Beloved. Amen.

What's Next?

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