Category Archives: Jesus

What to Do with “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”?

i-am-the-way...

In virtually every workshop I’ve ever led about interfaith matters, someone asks the question: “What about when Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me?”

Here is an audio version of the interview I did with Steve Kindle of Pastor to Pew a few years ago. We talk about my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But mostly it’s my take on John 14: 6 and how taking the intrafaith  question seriously is a necessity for today’s church. 

You can also see the video here.

 

 

For Dorcas, Rachel, and All Good Shepherds

shutterstock_1084294370Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. I’m always a little flummoxed by the day because I’ve never seen a real-live shepherd. I mean, I get it; the job of a shepherds is to take care of sheep. But I’ve often wondered if there couldn’t be an updated version, you know, one that modern people could relate to. I did see a couple examples (forgive the exclusive language):

A Programmer’s Psalm 23shutterstock_705197296

 The Lord is my programmer,
        I shall not crash.
    He installed his software
        on the hard disk of
        my heart;
all of his commands
        are user-friendly.
His directory guides me
    to the right choices for his name’s sake.
Even though I scroll
    through the problems
        of life,
I will fear no bugs,
    for he is my backup.
His password protects me.

An Architect’s Psalm 23

shutterstock_525927412The Lord is my architect,
        I shall not be mis-proportioned.
    He makes me enclose
        beautiful spaces,
he builds me erect in tranquility,
    He restores my
        deteriorated parts.
He puts me together
        to reflect righteousness
    for his namesake.
Though I am overshadowed
    by skyscrapers and cathedrals,
I will fear no evil,
    for you stay attentive  to me;
your pencil and creativity,
    they comfort me.

But they don’t really do the trick, do they? The shepherd image somehow works, even for 21stcentury, urban dwellers. How can that be? Maybe we can get a hint from Allstate. I almost always mute the sound when commercials come on TV. But there are some I actually like. Like the ads for Allstate Insurance that feature a character named Mayhem.Unknown-1

In one, a man is driving in his car and his cell phone starts buzzing. But the phone has fallen and gotten stuck between the seat and the console. As it keeps buzzing, the man keeps trying to get at it. Mayhem, who we can see lying underneath the seats where the phone would be, is goading him on: “Cold, warm, warmer . . .” until BOOM, the driver rear ends the car in front of him. “Jackpot!” exclaims a triumphant Mayhem.

Now, I’m pretty sure you know there’s no man on the floor hiding the guy’s phone – but you get the message. He symbolizes mayhem. Even if you’ve never dropped your cell phone and rear-ended a car as you frantically tried to find, there’s a whole series where “Mayhem” wreaks havoc in someone’s life. It’s a very effective way of tapping into the common human condition – stuff happens. The good news according to Allstate is: you’re in good hands.

Same message as the Good Shepherd. We know that neither God (23rdPsalm) or Jesus (Gospel of John) is a literal shepherd. But like “Mayhem,” the Good Shepherd (the anti-Mayhem?) hits us in the middle of our human condition. We get the message. The good news according to John: we’re in good hands. God cares for us, lovingly, faithfully, consistently. We matter to God. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we see that most clearly. The sheep and their shepherd are bound in a relationship that, when expressed in theo-logical language, is very powerful and moving. The 23rd Psalm is a prime example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Or as one little girl, in telling her teacher she knew the entire 23rd Psalm, recited: “The Lord is my Shepherd, that’s all I want.” 

Now, today I’m going to focus on women as shepherds. Particularly one woman. In the passage from the Book of Acts, we learned about a woman named Dorcas (Greek), also known as Tabitha (Aramaic). You might recognize the name Dorcas as part of a trio of women commemorated annually on October 25. The official title for the day is: “Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe – Faithful Women.”

Saint_Tabitha
St. Tabitha (Dorcas)

But hold up a minute. Because we’re reading in English, it is very important to know that Luke identifies Dorcas with the Greek word ‘mathetria.’ You might wonder why that’s so important. Here’s why. Dorcas is “the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of ‘disciple’ (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.”

Hmm. Isn’t it interesting that “when men take care of widows, Luke calls it ‘ministry,’ but when Tabitha (Dorcas) performs the same services Luke calls it ‘good works .’ 

“Good question, and one that illuminates for us the power of words, especially when we consider the exclusion of women from ordained ministry for so many centuries (and in some churches, even today).”   Sermon Seeds

Scripture, of course, identifies many women who play important roles of shepherding and leading (even without the designation‘mathetria’).  And they come by it honestly. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as a shepherd, including the feminine aspect,
Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the lambs in your arms, and carrying them in your bosom, and gently leading the mother sheep. 

Shepherds care for the most vulnerable in our society. Jesus followed that job description, and we follow his example. In Jesus’ time, one of the most vulnerable of God’s flock was the widow. In today’s story we know that Dorcas conducted her ministry among the widows of her community. Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike declare God’s desire for widows to be treated with kindness and justice.

The frequency of these urgings suggests that God’s will was not always obeyed. Widows remained very vulnerable. So what does Dorcas do? She makes clothing for them. In the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, her compassion is hands-on. The emphasis in the story is her discipleship among them. She is their pastor.

An interesting fact is that the town of Joppa where Dorcas lived was where Jonah had 224px-Dublin_St._Patrick's_Cathedral_Ambulatory_Southern_Section_Window_Raising_of_Dorcas_by_Saint_Peter_2012_09_26been called to go to the hated Assyrians. This seems to have been a place where ministry happened on the margins of society. Dorcas ministered with women that society routinely overlooked. They had obviously become a close-knit community. When she died, these women came together to grieve her death – and then miraculously her restoration to life.

This is one of the several ‘restoration to life’ stories in the Bible. They are hard to deal with sometimes because they cause us to wonder ‘why that person and not this person?’ That question was certainly on many peoples’ minds last week after the tragic death of Rachel Held Evans. If you’re not familiar with her, she was the 37-year old mega-popular Christian writer, blogger, and speaker. Her ministry on the margins was with exvangelicals, those who have left evangelical Christianity for a more progressive church. Rachel herself had moved away from being an evangelical Christian to becoming Episcopalian. For many exvangelicals, she modeled the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion. 

Rachel entered the hospital in April with flu-like symptoms, and then had a severe 440px-Rachel_Held_Evansallergic reaction to antibiotics. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma when she developed seizures. When they attempted to wean her from the drugs maintaining her coma, the seizures returned. Her condition worsened in early May and her doctors discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died on Saturday, May 4th, leaving behind her husband and her children, a 3-year-old boy and a girl who turns 1 later this month. I imagine that Mothers Day will not be a happy occasion for them.

And I imagine that the many faithful people who were praying so hard for her recovery – and today hear this story of the restoration to life – will wonder, “why not Rachel; she was every bit the shepherd/minister as Dorcas.”

Sometimes these Bible stories really hit us where we live – and die. I remember the Sunday after ministering to a couple who had lost their baby to SIDS, when the first reading was the story of Elijah restoring life to the son of the widow of Zarephath and the gospel reading was the one in which Jesus brings back the only child of the widow of Nain. It seemed as if the lectionary was playing a cruel joke on us that week

These are the times we really wrestle with our faith and our understanding of scripture. It’s impossible for us to know the mechanics of healing. Living as we do with both faith in the healing power of God and knowledge of modern science, we wonder. When I was a hospital chaplain in Buffalo, NY years ago, there was a patient who had been declared brain dead. There was no possibility of recovery. But her family, all very devout Christians, believed with all their heart that she would be healed – not unlike the Oakland teenager whose family refused to have her removed from a ventilator after being declared brain dead. I know from working with the family in Buffalo the fine line I had to walk between faith and medical science.

So I wouldn’t want us to get so embroiled in these questions that we can’t answer that we lose sight of some truths that we can know. First Dorcas, though raised up by Peter at this point in time, would eventually die. Death is part of our human condition. We take a whole Easter season to celebrate the fact that death does not have the last word, that it is the gateway into life eternal. What we see in all of these restoration stories is the power of God at work through prophets like Elijah, through Jesus, and through some of the shepherds who followed in his path.

But the one I want to raise up today, on this day that we honor mothers and others who give motherly care, is Dorcas: not only ‘faithful woman’ but a mother of the church, disciple, shepherd, pastor.  And all the disciples – women and men – who show us what a shepherd of God’s flock looks like and acts like, so that we can do the same – go out into the margins and care for the most vulnerable of our community. And we do so without fear, knowing we are in good hands – in life and in death. Believing with all our hearts:

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me 
all the days of our lives,
and we will dwell in God’s house forever.

Amen

 

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room.

Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.” Peter set out with them as they asked.

Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them.

Peter first made everyone go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive.

This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.

John 10:22-30

The time came for Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication, in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in Solomon’s Porch, when the Temple authorities surrounded him and said, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus replied, “I did tell you, but you don’t believe. The work I do in my Abba’s name gives witness in my favor, but you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never be lost. No one will ever snatch them from my hand. Abba God, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal them from Abba God. For Abba and I are One.”

 

Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: the Pope Said So!

Angelico,_san_francesco_fa_la_pova_del_fuoco_davanti_al_sultano_21219 CE: St. Francis and the Sultan
This year marks an important date in interfaith history. Eight-hundred years ago, as Christians and Muslims were in the midst of fighting the fifth crusade/jihad, St. Francis of Assisi had a remarkable 
visit with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. You can read more about that historic event here

What I really want to talk about is another, much more recent, historic meeting. Last month, Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and met with  Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque. What transpired is just as momentous as the meeting of St. Francis and the Sultan.

2019 CE: The Pope and the Imam
On February 4, Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb signed a document on improving Christian-Muslim relations called “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. Pope_Francis_and_Ahmed_el_Tayeb_grand_imam_of_al_Azhar_signed_a_joint_declaration_on_human_fraternity_during_an_interreligious_meeting_in_Abu_Dhabi_UAE_Feb_4_2019_Credit_Vatican_Media_It begins:
In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace . . .
By beginning this way, the document (hopefully) puts to rest the idea that we do not worship the same Deity, whether we call that Deity God, Allah, Ground of our Being, or Nameless One. 

The really stunning part comes two-thirds of the way down. Tucked into a list of convictions essential for upholding the role of religions in the construction of world peace, is this statement:
The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.
(I know. I have to temporarily suspend all of my convictions about exclusively male language for God. But the implications of the statement are too big to ignore.)

It’s Been Done Before
While potentially provocative, it’s not the first time the Catholic Church has made such a
declaration. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Regarding Islam, it said:
The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

16mag-16hawkins-t_CA1-mediumThreeByTwo440Remember the brouhaha at Wheaton College a few years ago when one the professors was fired for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims? It was also about quoting the Pope: “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Her reference was to: Meeting with the Muslim Community at the Central Mosque of Koudoukou, Bangui (Central African Republic) on November 30, 2015. 

Pushback!
There has been criticism of these pronouncements. In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a warning about the danger of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” In 
“Dominus Iesus,” the future Pope Benedict XVI said
This truth of faith (that Christ is the salvation of all humanity) does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism
“characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.

Of course, the Protestants also got into the act. Hank Hanegraaff, known as the “Bible Answer Man” on his radio show has said that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” And the evangelical Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry unequivocally states that Christians and Muslims do not adore the same God, and that the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam.”

Now granted, these are positions from the Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity. I have problems with both sides on issues other than this one. But I applaud the efforts of Pope Francis to further our interfaith awareness and acceptance.

What Does Progressive Christianity Say?
As a progressive Christian, I agree with the second point of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
tcpc_logo_tag.pngBy calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey. 

The INTRAfaith Conversation
Agreeing to this statement, though, doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the dilemma that exists within these statements, pro and con. I give Cardinal Ratzinger just a tiny bit of credit because he attempted to engage the elephant in the living room: what about Jesus?  I don’t agree where he comes down, but he did engage the question. 
Pope Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kami didn’t get into knotty questions, such as the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity.

They were all about peacemaking – and props to them for that!

UnknownIt is left to us to wrestle with our inherited Christologies (as well as doctrines, creeds, liuturgies, hymns, prayers, etc.) in light of our desire to live in peace and harmony with our religious neighbors. As Kristin Johnston Largen  wrote in Finding God Among Our Neighbors, . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.” In other words, who/what is Jesus in an interreligious context? 

Such wrestling is what I attempt to facilitate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?

Pope Francis and the Imam have given us a lot to think about. 

Let’s talk!

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The Intra-faith Quandary of John Allen Chau

go-therefore-and-make-disciples-of-all-nations-matthew-2819a

The tragic story of missionary John Allen Chau should cause us to ask: what is Christian mission in an interfaith world? 

The Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew has always been the impetus for doing mission in the world. It’s so familiar, we might not stop to consider what we mean when we read it or say it. But, in fact, it’s a prime example of our need for the intrafaith conversation. The recent death of Chau – and the controversy over his actions – reveal the dilemma. 

“Thinking about Missionaries: Stupid Fools or Believers Obeying Core Christian Beliefs?” on GetReligion hits the nail on the head (GetReligion is a website that attempts to highlight the religious aspects of news stories often neglected by mainstream news outlets). Author Terry Mattingly explains that he has three “hot-button” doctrinal questions that he finds “useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks.” In other words, the intrafaith conversation.

He goes on to say, “The Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.”
And w
hat is question No. 2? “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  One of the big questions at the heart of the intrafaith conversation.

So, what’s the debate over Chau’s actions and death? The thing is: the definition and purpose of mission has been changing. In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Emmaus_a0000402Church in America (ELCA), mission is described as a journey, in which disciples  walk with others, listen to them, learn from them and with them. The biblical story used as a model is the “road to Emmaus,” in which the gospel is revealed in the relationship that develops among the travelers: in talking, listening, and breaking bread together. This way recognizes the mistakes of past history, such as seeing people as “objects of mission,” and defines mission as accompaniment.

On the other hand, there are those who still subscribe to the goal set forth by All Nations, the  mission-training organization which trained John Allen Chau: “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.” 

The people on both sides of this interpretive chasm are faithful Christians. However, one side looks at the Chau story and sees an oblivious young man propagating the worst of Christian imperialism. The other sees a martyr who died attempting to fulfill Jesus’ mandate. Both have biblical texts and theologies to support their positions. Who is right? 

The better question is: how do we talk with our brothers, sisters, and siblings in the faith about such matters? 

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Christianity on the Spot

IDP-2018-graphic“Can I put you on the spot?”
That was the question asked by the woman who came up to me after the International Day of Peace brunch at Pacifica Institute.

I might have been the only Christian in the room. I’m not sure about that, but of all the people who spoke and identified their tradition, most were either Jewish or Muslim. But I was the one who was there in a clergy collar, was introduced as a reverend, and had stood on the stage to42487030_597514903998950_2624665346493120512_n offer a peace blessing after brunch. 

Can I put you on the spot?”
“Of course,” I said, pretty much guessing at what the question would be.
“What do you think about these Christians who are supportive of Trump?” 

I knew it! Immediately the anger rose up in me – not at my new friend, but at the awful predicament we Christians are in. I explained about the growing divide between us. On one side are some evangelicals who are trying with all their might to hold onto a dying theological worldview which embraces tribalism, exclusivity, individual salvation, and a hierarchical/patriarchal ordering of the world. On the other side are those who are leaning into a new paradigm of interconnectedness, interdependence, interspirituality, and inclusivity. 

I also shared my theory that the reactivity we’re witnessing in both religion and politics is due to the fear engendered by this shift. In a way, I can sympathize. Theologian Hans Küng calls what we’re going through a “Macro-Paradigm-Shift,” affecting all of our institutions on a global scale. Some characteristics of the emerging paradigm are:

  • It’s global. Humanity is seen as a single tribe and this one tribe is interconnected with the total cosmos.
  • It’s an age of dialogue, not monologue. Instead of talking only with those like us, we meet with people of differing convictions, not as opponent, but in order to listen,  share and learn from one another. 
  • It will be characterized by a deep commitment to environmental justice, including a shift from an exclusively anthropocentric view to one which sees humanity in interdependent relationship with all other life forms and with the Earth itself.
  • It will involve a redefinition of religion. Many of the answers given in the past do not address questions being asked today. Just as Christianity moved from a Jewish way of thinking into one of Greek philosophy (which produced the ‘substance’ language of the Nicene Creed), we are now moving into a new way of reflecting on theological matters.

I get it; change is difficult. Even when I’m in full agreement with a change in my own life, I still feel discomfort as I go through it. So I get the resistance to change. I can even sympathize with it to a point – but not with the reactionary, knee-jerk attempts to hold back the flow of history.

As a Christian, it is helpful (although sometimes frustrating) to be in an interfaith setting. Seeing myself through the eyes of a Jew, Muslim, Pagan, or Atheist reveals the intrafaith spot we’re in. It’s not enough to vehemently declare, “I’m not like those Christians. We have to define ourselves by who we are. 

At another interfaith gathering last week, a Jewish woman spoke up and said that she was usually more comfortable with Muslims because the issue with Jesus never comes up; with Christians, you just couldn’t be sure. Once again, I felt the desire – the urgency – to promote a different kind of Christianity than the kind that turns people off. 

The divide is growing and we are on the spot. How will we contribute to peacemaking in our churches, communities, and world – as Christians of a new paradigm?

Reclaiming Jesus?

30738727_146209712884568_1219961842403639296_nThere’s a lot of talk going on these days about what it means to be a Christian. There are lines being drawn: specifically between the Christianity of the white evangelicals who claim #45 as one of their own and continue to bless his behaviors, actions, and policies and the Christianity of those who see Jesus as the champion of those most impacted by those behaviors, actions, and policies. 

Jesus Suddenly a Hot Topic of Conversation!
I’ve been noticing Jesus popping up in unexpected places. Just this past month, I’ve noticed14716201_10209629251221386_6462186587389417945_n.jpg that on MSNBC’s The Last WordLawrence O’Donnell has been unabashedly preaching about Jesus in reference to the latest immigration nightmare (see ” These are Animals” and “From Abhorrent to Evil”. Although I am a Proud Member of the Religious Left, it was (pleasantly) startling to hear on a left-leaning network.  

And Now There Is a Movement!
The Reclaiming Jesus statement was released during Lent this year and signed by many leaders of a variety of Christian denominations. And o
n May 24, Reclaiming Jesus held a vigil and demonstration in Washington D.C. to protest #45’s “America First” policies:
 . . . we reject ‘America first’ as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children . . .We pray that we, as followers of Jesus, will find the depth of faith to match the danger of our political crisis. 

However . . .
I will admit to some hesitancy to endorse this statement. While I applaud the inclusion of shutterstock_692129986issues of racism, misogyny, treatment of the most vulnerable, authoritarian political leadership, and the “regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders,” I was struck by what was not included. There was no mention of respect and support for members of the LGBTQ community. I suspect that it was a line that some signatories could not cross. I did hear that some of the speakers at the worship service before the vigil did affirm our LGBTQ neighbors and denounced homophobia from the pulpit. 
But I wonder how we can use the document without adding another “We Believe” and “Therefore We Reject” paragraph. 

Who Else Is Missing?
I’ve also learned that the probable reason for there being no Lutheran signatory to the Reclaiming Jesus statement is some theological differences. Well, I’d expect that there would be some differences, seeing the list of signatories all the from evangelicals like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallace to progressives like Walter Brueggemann and Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I don’t know what Presiding ELCA Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s theological issue was. I do know there were many ELCA members, both clergy and lay, at the demonstration. 

The Dilemma
So here’s the quesiton: can I be critical of the ELCA for not signing on because of theological differences while I myself am critical of the statement’s exclusion of  LGBTQ folks, which is probably itself a theological difference? This is where the intrafaith rubber hits the road. IF Christians of varied stripes – and it’s a big if – can come together in agreement that something has got to be done to counter a Christianity in service to empire, then we can be a powerful force for good. 

What do you think? Are there lines in the sand you can’t cross? Can you be part of a movement to reclaim Jesus even if you disagree with some of the other participants?  

Hmm, maybe what we need, in order for us to reclaim Jesus together, is an intrafaith conversation! It might be the most patriotic thing we can do. 

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Who WOULD Want to Be a Disciple?

6a00d8341cbf9a53ef015435d666c8970c-350wiA Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Mark 8:31-38

Who wants to be a millionaire? Maybe you’ve seen the game show that asks contestants that question. It’s rather a silly question; who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? Well, I guess billionaires, who don’t want to be downsized. But for most folks, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Unlike the question: who wants to be a disciple?

Maybe those of us who grew up in the church or have heard the gospel message so often have grown inured to what is really being asked of those who agree to be a follower of Jesus. “If you want to follow me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” If that’s the job description, who would want to be a disciple?

And it is the job description. Jesus says it quite plainly: “if you want to follow me . . .”
He surely knew what the outcome would be if he kept on speaking and teaching a way of life that did not accommodate itself to the ways of the Empire. He wasn’t a zealot. He didn’t encourage violence. His way was much more subversive and much more effective. His was a way of inner transformation. And as hearts and minds were changed, people were moved to act in outer ways also, bringing about transformation of their society.

And that was as threatening to the powers that be as an armed rebellion – as Jesus well knew as he began to teach his disciples that he would suffer at the hands of the authorities. You didn’t have to be God to figure that out. It was obvious to Jesus. So he didn’t have any patience with Peter, who didn’t want to hear about suffering and death. No wonder: the Romans killed tens of thousands of people by crucifixion. Stephen Mansfield, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, described crucifixion as “an act of state terror.” Who wouldn’t take issue with a beloved teacher who seemed hell-bent on becoming one more of Rome’s victims, aided by the religious authorities?

This word “rebuke” is not a mere matter of a friendly discussion. It’s a severe censure of what Jesus is saying. We might imagine Peter screaming, “Shut up!” as Jesus described what he saw coming in his near future. And his language as he lashes back at Peter is just as harsh. “Get behind me, Satan.”

Angry-Jesus-crop-546x500This is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus use such heated language. And how odd that the recipient of this anger is Peter: one of the first disciples, the first one to call Jesus “Messiah,” the “rock” on whom the church would be built. This clash is no mild disagreement. It’s the moment of truth for all who would be disciples of Jesus: “If you want to follow me, you have to deny your very self and take up your cross. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t want to hear those words any more than Peter did. If we really get the horror of crucifixion, we’ll wonder why we choose to have such an ugly thing, this instrument of torture in our churches, around our necks, in our ears. And we’ll recoil from the reminder that being a follower of Jesus is not without its risks. It’s not an easy ticket to heaven. It’s not a guarantee of prosperity. It’s not a bypass around the hardships of life. Who would want to be a disciple?

Yet here we are. Moving together a little further into Lent, toward the story of the crucifix-ion. Knowing that it’s important not to get to Easter too quickly, that we need to let these words soak into us once again because they are so counter-intuitive. Sacrifice for others? Deny myself? Take up a cross? Suffer? Who wants that?

Who wants that indeed? Yet the undeniable fact is that suffering is already part of our lives in this broken world. The last time I stood here in this space was Ash Wednesday – the day that 17 people died in a school shooting in Parkland, FL. Perhaps you saw the photo of a woman, presumably the mother of a student, waiting for news outside the school. On her forehead was the sign of a cross, marked in ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Since that terrible day, a lot of words have been spoken and printed, hours of discussion and commentary on news programs, extensive coverage of the movement begun by young people determined to see that it never happens again. Will this attack be the tipping point that finally brings some resolution to the problem of gun violence? We already know that these students are experiencing harassment and pushback. Standing up to the powers that be is not without its risks.

And what should our response be as followers of Jesus? Thoughts and prayers? Well, yes. That is certainly part of who we are and what we do – we reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. However, that’s not what Jesus is suggesting here as an answer. As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve.”

Sad to say, the problem of school shootings is not the only intractable and divisive issue confronting us these days. Also sad to say is that we as a society have become so unable or unwilling to have civil conversations across our divides. The church is not immune to this phenomenon. I know several pastors who have been warned to “keep politics out if the pulpit” for even mentioning an issue. But I believe that the Jesus who blew up at Peter would take exception to those warnings.

Untitled-design-49In a recent article entitled “Silencing Jesus with Politics: From a Subversive to a Submis-sive Jesus,” the author suggests that the Jesus who preached and taught that the realm of God had come near and showed us how to live within that realm was transformed into Jesus meek and mild. According to Howard Thurman, African-American author, educator, philosopher, theologian, civil rights leader, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and powerful and against the week and oppressed – this despite the gospel.”

I’ve been disturbed lately by the attitudes and opinions expressed by some who would call themselves followers of Jesus. So-called Evangelical Christians are under heavy scrutiny these days for their unwavering support of leaders, despite disturbing revelations of abusive behavior. And like it or not, as Christians, we all get lumped into the same category by many who cannot or will not distinguish between us.

This is disturbing on many levels. One is the fact that, as we know, the Church is under-going a massive re-formation. It’s certainly shrinking. Anxiety in congregations is rising. The future is uncertain for the institution that has been the church, at least within our life-time. We can’t afford to be painted with the same brush used to condemn the actions of other Christians. We have enough troubles of our own.

For example, it’s obvious that many younger people are not interested in what we have to offer, at least not in the form that we offer it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about things. You may know that there is a mission outreach program in San Francisco called Middle Circle that has been gathering together young people and listening to their thoughts, ideas, and needs. One thing I’ve learned in getting to know many of them is that they care about the world and they want to take action. They are keenly interested in matters of social justice and want to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers won’t cut it; action will. Just look at the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

If the church is to be relevant and vibrant into the future – in whatever form it may take – it has to be true to the Jesus who spoke openly about what it would take to make a difference in the world. We have to be true to the message of the gospel – even when it’s hard. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s definitely one of those hard parts.

So who wants to be a disciple? Who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about the sins of our society, about the sins of our communal, national, and global world?

Who is willing to take the risk of speaking up, even when it means being in disagreement with family members, friends, neighbors? Who’s willing to call out racist speech and behavior? Homophobic, misogynistic Islamaphobic, any kind of hate language? Who is willing to take up a cross and work for a cause for justice? Don’t worry; there are plenty to choose from.

And who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about a different way of living in God’s realm right here and right now? Who’s willing to learn how to do so without descending into bad behavior ourselves, by practicing what one activist described as “calling someone in while calling them out.” Who’s willing to learn non-violent ways of responding to violence, of how to always “go high” when others are “going low?” Who’s willing to show up at a rally or demonstration – visibly as a Christian – to show that we are on the side of love and justice?

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That is what happens when we’re willing to take on the powers of the world. That’s what happens when we’re determined to show the world that God’s love is greater than any human show of might. That’s what happens when we say, “The realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” -and then live as if we believe it.

Who wants to be a disciple? Today – how do you hear Jesus’ call to pick up a cross and follow?

Amen

 

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly.

Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eying the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s.”

Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you want to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose your self in the process?

What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and of my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”

 

 

 

Who WOULD Want to Be a Disciple?

6a00d8341cbf9a53ef015435d666c8970c-350wiA Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Mark 8:31-38

Who wants to be a millionaire? Maybe you’ve seen the game show that asks contestants that question. It’s rather a silly question; who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? Well, I guess billionaires, who don’t want to be downsized. But for most folks, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Unlike the question: who wants to be a disciple?

Maybe those of us who grew up in the church or have heard the gospel message so often have grown inured to what is really being asked of those who agree to be a follower of Jesus. “If you want to follow me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” If that’s the job description, who would want to be a disciple?

And it is the job description. Jesus says it quite plainly: “if you want to follow me . . .”
He surely knew what the outcome would be if he kept on speaking and teaching a way of life that did not accommodate itself to the ways of the Empire. He wasn’t a zealot. He didn’t encourage violence. His way was much more subversive and much more effective. His was a way of inner transformation. And as hearts and minds were changed, people were moved to act in outer ways also, bringing about transformation of their society.

And that was as threatening to the powers that be as an armed rebellion – as Jesus well knew as he began to teach his disciples that he would suffer at the hands of the authorities. You didn’t have to be God to figure that out. It was obvious to Jesus. So he didn’t have any patience with Peter, who didn’t want to hear about suffering and death. No wonder: the Romans killed tens of thousands of people by crucifixion. Stephen Mansfield, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, described crucifixion as “an act of state terror.” Who wouldn’t take issue with a beloved teacher who seemed hell-bent on becoming one more of Rome’s victims, aided by the religious authorities?

This word “rebuke” is not a mere matter of a friendly discussion. It’s a severe censure of what Jesus is saying. We might imagine Peter screaming, “Shut up!” as Jesus described what he saw coming in his near future. And his language as he lashes back at Peter is just as harsh. “Get behind me, Satan.”

Angry-Jesus-crop-546x500This is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus use such heated language. And how odd that the recipient of this anger is Peter: one of the first disciples, the first one to call Jesus “Messiah,” the “rock” on whom the church would be built. This clash is no mild disagreement. It’s the moment of truth for all who would be disciples of Jesus: “If you want to follow me, you have to deny your very self and take up your cross. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t want to hear those words any more than Peter did. If we really get the horror of crucifixion, we’ll wonder why we choose to have such an ugly thing, this instrument of torture in our churches, around our necks, in our ears. And we’ll recoil from the reminder that being a follower of Jesus is not without its risks. It’s not an easy ticket to heaven. It’s not a guarantee of prosperity. It’s not a bypass around the hardships of life. Who would want to be a disciple?

Yet here we are. Moving together a little further into Lent, toward the story of the crucifix-ion. Knowing that it’s important not to get to Easter too quickly, that we need to let these words soak into us once again because they are so counter-intuitive. Sacrifice for others? Deny myself? Take up a cross? Suffer? Who wants that?

Who wants that indeed? Yet the undeniable fact is that suffering is already part of our lives in this broken world. The last time I stood here in this space was Ash Wednesday – the day that 17 people died in a school shooting in Parkland, FL. Perhaps you saw the photo of a woman, presumably the mother of a student, waiting for news outside the school. On her forehead was the sign of a cross, marked in ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Since that terrible day, a lot of words have been spoken and printed, hours of discussion and commentary on news programs, extensive coverage of the movement begun by young people determined to see that it never happens again. Will this attack be the tipping point that finally brings some resolution to the problem of gun violence? We already know that these students are experiencing harassment and pushback. Standing up to the powers that be is not without its risks.

And what should our response be as followers of Jesus? Thoughts and prayers? Well, yes. That is certainly part of who we are and what we do – we reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. However, that’s not what Jesus is suggesting here as an answer. As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve.”

Sad to say, the problem of school shootings is not the only intractable and divisive issue confronting us these days. Also sad to say is that we as a society have become so unable or unwilling to have civil conversations across our divides. The church is not immune to this phenomenon. I know several pastors who have been warned to “keep politics out if the pulpit” for even mentioning an issue. But I believe that the Jesus who blew up at Peter would take exception to those warnings.

Untitled-design-49In a recent article entitled “Silencing Jesus with Politics: From a Subversive to a Submis-sive Jesus,” the author suggests that the Jesus who preached and taught that the realm of God had come near and showed us how to live within that realm was transformed into Jesus meek and mild. According to Howard Thurman, African-American author, educator, philosopher, theologian, civil rights leader, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and powerful and against the week and oppressed – this despite the gospel.”

I’ve been disturbed lately by the attitudes and opinions expressed by some who would call themselves followers of Jesus. So-called Evangelical Christians are under heavy scrutiny these days for their unwavering support of leaders, despite disturbing revelations of abusive behavior. And like it or not, as Christians, we all get lumped into the same category by many who cannot or will not distinguish between us.

This is disturbing on many levels. One is the fact that, as we know, the Church is under-going a massive re-formation. It’s certainly shrinking. Anxiety in congregations is rising. The future is uncertain for the institution that has been the church, at least within our life-time. We can’t afford to be painted with the same brush used to condemn the actions of other Christians. We have enough troubles of our own.

For example, it’s obvious that many younger people are not interested in what we have to offer, at least not in the form that we offer it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about things. You may know that there is a mission outreach program in San Francisco called Middle Circle that has been gathering together young people and listening to their thoughts, ideas, and needs. One thing I’ve learned in getting to know many of them is that they care about the world and they want to take action. They are keenly interested in matters of social justice and want to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers won’t cut it; action will. Just look at the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

If the church is to be relevant and vibrant into the future – in whatever form it may take – it has to be true to the Jesus who spoke openly about what it would take to make a difference in the world. We have to be true to the message of the gospel – even when it’s hard. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s definitely one of those hard parts.

So who wants to be a disciple? Who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about the sins of our society, about the sins of our communal, national, and global world?

Who is willing to take the risk of speaking up, even when it means being in disagreement with family members, friends, neighbors? Who’s willing to call out racist speech and behavior? Homophobic, misogynistic Islamaphobic, any kind of hate language? Who is willing to take up a cross and work for a cause for justice? Don’t worry; there are plenty to choose from.

And who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about a different way of living in God’s realm right here and right now? Who’s willing to learn how to do so without descending into bad behavior ourselves, by practicing what one activist described as “calling someone in while calling them out.” Who’s willing to learn non-violent ways of responding to violence, of how to always “go high” when others are “going low?” Who’s willing to show up at a rally or demonstration – visibly as a Christian – to show that we are on the side of love and justice?

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That is what happens when we’re willing to take on the powers of the world. That’s what happens when we’re determined to show the world that God’s love is greater than any human show of might. That’s what happens when we say, “The realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” -and then live as if we believe it.

Who wants to be a disciple? Today – how do you hear Jesus’ call to pick up a cross and follow?

Amen

 

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly.

Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eying the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s.”

Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you want to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose your self in the process?

What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and of my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday: Called into the Fullness of Our Humanity

soil in potThere is an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”

Ash Wednesday is the day we bring these two notes with us to this place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey of Lent through the desert, we enter into a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human – in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).

Ash-Wednesday-cross2Of course, it’s the “you are dust” one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Who among us has not suffered the loss of a loved one? Tonight we mourn the tragic deaths of 17 people in a Florida high school. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve probably come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.

So in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field, doesn’t it? The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.

Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday services stop here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the penitential season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Any-thing that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.

But if we’re honest – and I believe that Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end) feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”

Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.

universe-1044106_640The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.

And I believe that this is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”

In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.

And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.

So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are we willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.

You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.

Amen

 

 

 

Historic vs Progressive Christianity: Can We Talk?

she likes itI just read a blog post which warns me what to look for if I suspect my church is heading down the heresy path to progressive Christianity. Since my congregation has long resided on that path, I was curious to see what these warning signs might be and if I’d agree with them. You can read the “5 danger signs” for yourself here.

Right off the bat, I did agree with one of the author’s opening comments: “it is difficult to pin down what actually qualifies someone as a Progressive Christian, due to the diversity of beliefs that fall under that designation.” This is most certainly true! The intrafaith conversation has to happen within all the strands of Christianity.

Now clearly this blogger is coming from a particular theological standpoint (she uses the term “historic Christianity”). There’s no doubt that she’s out to expose those who embrace a progressive Christian theology as “false prophets” infiltrating our churches. However – I think she’s done us a service. Take away the pejorative nature of the “5 danger signs” and you have a pretty good outline of some of the big differences within Christianity today. 

For example, #5:
The heart of the gospel message shifts from sin and redemption to
social justice
There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. However, the core message of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed. 
Many Progressive Christians find the concept of God willing His Son to die on the cross to be embarrassing or even appalling. Sometimes referred to as “cosmic child abuse, ” the idea of blood atonement is de-emphasized or denied altogether, with social justice and good works enthroned in its place.

There’s a lot to discuss in there. This question of Christology is really at the heart of our intrafaith challenge. I begin to get into it in Chapter Eight in my book with an opening quote from United Lutheran Seminary professor Kristin Johnston Largen: . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously. 

So I’m not dissing the author of this blog because I certainly understand where she’s coming from. It’s what I learned and preached for many, many years. But I would take exception to having my Christology defined as simply “social justice and good works.”

But here – in the willingness to share and to listen, to thoughtfully agree and disagree – is where the intrafaith conversation can happen. I imagine sitting down with the blogger over coffee to share our stories of faith and belief, listening without judging to “her side,” speaking without the need to convince or win her over to “my side.” 

I think we might eventually even be able to come up with a really good study guide. We could change the title to something like “5 Discussion Points Between Historic and Progressive Christianity.” Although that’s definitely not as sexy as “5 Warning Signs.” We’d have to work on that.