Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dominionism and the Kingdom of God

Dominionism and the Kingdom of God
Matthew 25:

Woody Allen quote, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." (Allen quote was found in Sam Wells, do not be afraid)

In the heat of the summer afternoon, sheep will gather together, heads in the center of the group, and provide shade for each other.

Goats will stay by themselves, many times climbing onto a rock outcropping, lying down, and slowly dying from the heat.

Metaphors in the parable--sheep and goats--neither of which refer to Christians, but to those outside of the Christian community. Some have a genuine concern for the well-being of others. Some, in the act of self-preservation, die a heat related death.

While Woody Allen center attention on immortality apart from works, this parable takes us back to works--in particular, the capacity of non-Christians to do what is good and the blessings they receive from God.

Point One. Unpacking the Parable
What leads us to make the claim that this parable is about non-Christians doing what is good?

1. The early Church, like late Judaism, had the expectation of the end of the world.
2. For Christians, that day was the time when Jesus would be revealed in majesty as the Christ/Messiah. Believers would be justified in their faith.
3. That day had been delayed.
4. Remember that expectation is an expression of faith, not faith itself.
5. Faith is maintained as the day is delayed.
6. Have to free faith from the expectation wrapped around it.
7. We are freeing faith from the expectation that those who were not believers would be blessed by God for performing acts of compassion. (Points 1-7 from Exposition of the Parables )
8. How do I make that claim?
a. The claim that people who do good deeds receive life after death was commonly held, even among the Ancient Egyptians.
b. Faith plays no role in this parable. Not mentioned.
c. Elsewhere in Matthew, other grounds for judgment given for Jews--as they reject Jesus, and for Christians--as they are faithful to Christ.
d. The word nations, used in this parable, used to refer to non-Jewish and thus non-Christian individuals.
e. Romans 2, the last verses, speak of 2 judgments. First the Jews, then the Gentiles.
f. Other Jewish texts refer to "righteous Gentiles", that despite idolatry, some pagans were genuinely good people.
9. Least of these, refers to Christian missionaries, who have made sacrifices for the sake of their mission. Travel light, as in 10:8-9, totally dependent upon those among whom they proclaim the gospel.
10. Passage encourages vulnerable missionaries that pagans will be judged by God for how they treat the followers of Christ. See 10: 40-42. (Points 8-9 made by Douglas Hare in the Interpretation Commentary on Matthew)
11. Within that judgment, some will be blessed by God for performing acts of compassion for those who are vulnerable.

Point Two. The outcomes of commonly held Christian values.
1. Customary Christian assumption that this text refers to Christians, and what they unwittingly do or do not do. Creates 4 problems of faith, spiritual dilemmas.
2. First, I am filled with fear that I have overlooked someone, or something. What if, perhaps, I fail in this endeavor and burn in hell for it.
3. Second, Leads us to overlook where the wilderness starts. Use Garden of Eden, angel guarding the entrance. Use Revelation, gates of the New Jerusalem. There is just one step between paradise and wilderness.
4. Barbara Brown Taylor illustration. Are there no predators? No. Then your participants aren't ready to live in the wilderness.
5. Where does that wilderness start. Just outside our doors. Does our light shine into the darkness that just outside our doors?
6. Third, outside, there are predators, waiting to devour those who are weak. Christians, rooted in faith in a man who is executed, for some reason, remain shocked at the darkness that is in the world. We are not ready for the predators. Psalm 23, Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil. (Points 4-6 are from Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church )
7. Finally, Fourth, we overlook the possibility that others, not followers of Jesus, have the capacity to perform acts of compassion for those who are vulnerable.

Point Three.
1. Anonymous Christians. Jesus gathers the children to him, whoever receives the least of these, receives me. Any person, believer or not, who performs acts of compassion to those who are vulnerable, are doing God's will. (From Douglas Hare, Interpretation Commentary on Matthew )
2. Looking for good works from non-Christians, and ask how we as Christians can bless them.
a. The one who does not make issues simplistic. As we reflect upon the anti-corporation movement, those capable of doing good see the complexity of the issues. Related to shareholder, how does the anonymity of being a stakeholder and the large structure of a corporation allow stakeholders hide from a responsibility to the well-being of others? Related to directors, in addition to the ability to hide immoral actions in the corporate structure, what is the course of action in business schools related to teaching business ethics. Related to the public, protest, by nature is to be against something. To be against something does not necessarily lead to the moral or right choice, but may lead to another immoral action. Related to the legislators, do we blame only the corporations for wielding power and influence over elected officials, or do we hold elected officials responsible for a failure of nerve? And, we as votes, are called to identify our need for the quick fix and the use of the threat of voting office holders out of office if the solution is not immediate? (These considerations are from the Hedgehog Review on the morality of Corporations)

b. Government elected officials. Let us use history as our guide. In 1494, with the help of France, the people of Florence, Italy overthrew the Medici family and established a republic. The new leader was Savonarola, a Dominican Friar. He built the government on religious reforms that led to what was called the Bonfire of Vanities, when all writing and artwork not reflective of his values was destroyed. In that case, the Dominicans wanted a free government to promote religious reform. Others in Florence accepted religious reform for the purpose of achieving a free government. In the end, Savonarola was ousted and others leaders put in place. (from Mary Ann Glendon, The Forum and the Tower)

c. Acts of courage. Plato, in his Laws, defines courage as withstanding pain and refusing certain pleasures, such as prosperity. Locker room showers, child abused, step in or call the police. Acts of courage have a graduate assistant or janitor intervene in the midst of the attach.

Conclusion--Mission as Lay Preachers
1. Called to bless those, outside of the Christian faith, who perform acts of compassion for those who are vulnerable.
2. First, we can do that by providing opportunities for people to do what is good.
3. Second, we can bless the good that others do, without the Christian arrogance that contends that you can't do good without being a Christian first.
4. Third, we see that those who are doing good are seekers on a spiritual journey and who have hearts that may be open to Christian witness. This witness, however, is not one of condemnation, but of listening, striving to understand, asking questions, and speaking from a Christian framework. Finally, about sharing God's present day activity in your life.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reflections on Penn State University

Greetings in Christ's name.

On Sunday morning, I invited your comments and reflections about the events at Penn State University. Please feel free to use this venue to post what you have observed, your reflections, and thoughts you think might be helpful to others.

Pastor Tim Mentzer

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Suicide: What Words Do We Use?

Suicide: What Words Do We Say?

Preached by The Reverend Sadie Pounder
Sunday, November 13, 2011

"One November morning in 1936," noted theologian and author Frederick Buechner writes in his book Telling Secrets, , “when I was 10 years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage…..” That was the last time he saw his father alive. Suicide death.

There was no funeral. Neither side of his family were church members. No funeral to mark his father’s death and put a period at the end of the sentence that had been his life, and as far as he could remember, once his father died his mother, brother, and he rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or to anybody else. It made his mother too sad to talk about him. The truth is, his father’s suicide impacted the rest of his life. His father shows up in characters in several of his novels.

Of all the topics in the world, why a sermon on suicide?
• It’s difficult. It’s sensitive.
• For many, it’s private, very, very private.

Trinity is in the midst of “unearthing,” bringing to light a new way of conversing about difficult, sensitive and often very, very private matters. A vision of Pr Mentzer, it's the Academy of Creative Endeavor to encourage public discourse to generate vision of how culture can change. Its first gathering is Dec 14th in Fondersmith. It's a call to public conversation about a difficult subject, suicide and the loss of life by suicide while in custody at Lancaster County Prison (LCP), 3 suicides in 6 months– numbers way above the norm. To put it in perspective from Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2000-2007 in about 3000 jail jurisdictions in US, 83% reported no deaths; 12% reported one death, (making 95% reporting none or one death by suicide). LCP is in the 5% reporting 2 or more deaths by suicide. Placing people on suicide watch or taking them off was one of my responsibilities as a mental health professional at Adams County Prison.

But this is not just about jail suicides. We know Trinity has not been immune from this kind of tragedy and frankly, with over 35,000 suicides in our country annually, it’s most likely no place has been immune. There is one suicide once every 16 minutes.

As I look around at this fellowship of faith today, I realize we are very aware of 3 things right now:
• where we are,
• who we are and
• why we are here.

We are aware of where we are:
A church sanctuary, not a police station, a jail, a sociology class or a lecture hall.
A church sanctuary - where the word of God is spoken, sung, prayed and proclaimed, and the sacraments administered.

We are aware of who we are:
Christians, children of God, with a story, a story to tell of God’s love for us in his Son Jesus Christ who died for us and our salvation. We are baptized as sons and daughter of God.

We are aware of why we are here:
Here to worship God. Offer our thanks, our prayers, our hymns, our offerings, ourselves in a time separated out from the normal, daily routines of our lives. We are here to hear the Word proclaimed, spoken. Words that give life in difficult times, difficult situations.

If you saw the beginning of the Penn State, Nebraska game yesterday, you saw a sight not seen before. Both teams, at the center of field, kneeling in prayer by a Nebraska coach. There was relative silence in the full stadium, fans watching. Prayer I’m suspecting for
• victims of abuse when children by a former football coach,
• most likely, prayers for healing and hope, words from the heart.
• Words spoken, out loud, in the midst of tragedy.

And that’s exactly what we are called to do. In the midst of tragedy, this time suicides, we, children of God in this sanctuary in worship are called to bring:
• Words of healing
• Words of hope
• Words of the heart

Words of Healing
The church has struggled with suicide over the centuries and how it speaks to it. Scripture tells of several suicides, perhaps the most known -
• Saul – taking his own life rather than be captured by the Philistines, the enemy;
• Samson, pulling a building down causing his own death as well as many others;
• and most remembered, Judas, consumed with guilt after his betrayal of Jesus.

During the early years of Christianity, many believers chose suicide over religious persecution and torture. Women committed suicide rather than be a mercy of invading soldiers. All believers who ended their own lives in these circumstances were considered martyrs. It was in part to stem this tide that Augustine, bishop of North Africa in the 4th century, said in his writings – City of God - “Scripture gives no passage permitting suicide to hasten entrance into immortality or to avoid evils of the day.” He made a strong declaration against it, denouncing it as a sin. Councils picked up on this and condemned those who took their lives, calling them sinners, no longer martyrs.

Centuries later, the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, a leading theologian and Dominican priest, declared suicide as an act against God, a sin from which you could not repent. The civil law picked up on it. There were various punishments for those who took their own lives..
• They could no longer be buried in church cemeteries and horrible things were done to their bodies.
• Their property was forfeited to the state.
• Families were left grieving, isolated and poor.
• If one attempted suicide and failed, he would be arrested, shamed and put to death.

The word, coroner came from 11th century England, and actually means “crown’s plea” because the coroner would seek out those deaths from suicide so the crown could possess the property of the family. For hundreds of years, the families of those committing suicide were devastated.

Over the centuries church doctrine regarding suicide was questioned. In the 1930s theologians such as Barth, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and other German theologians began to concern themselves with suicide. With a single voice they said that while suicide was certainly wrong, if forgiveness for anything, it surely included suicide. They said, “We must begin to care for the survivors.”

With over 8,000,000 persons considering suicide each year, most of us have most likely
• known someone who has committed suicide or
• others whose depression or other factors have caused suicidal thinking,
• or even had those thoughts ourselves.
• I believe most people have had at the minimum a fleeting thought about suicide or may some day.

We just celebrated Veterans Day. Reports of increasing suicides with active duty as well as veterans are a huge concern for military these days as post traumatic stress disorder is just one of many reasons for what some call an epidemic, one of every 5 suicides being a veteran.

My family and I knew one. Herman was a Viet Nam veteran. He was the youth minister in the church we attended in Northern VA in the 80s. Our oldest son, a teenager, had been in his youth group and very fond of Herman who would attend our son’s baseball games and go to sporting events together.

Herman was gone about a year, moving to New York. Members of our church were still in touch with him and were aware of his depression. Two men flew to NY to bring him back to VA. Their cab pulled up to Herman’s home. It was too late. His suicide was shocking beyond belief. My son was a pall bearer. At the grave site, after the ceremony with military honors, no one moved. The teens stood still. The need for healing of emotional pain was enormous. For Herman’s family and hundreds affected, many teenagers - what words do you say?

Yes, gone are the days of being alienated by the church: no church service, no cemetery burial, and teachings of suicide as the unforgivable sin are over. But not gone are the stigma still, the search for “why” – feelings of guilt, shame, puzzlement. Not gone are the “if only’s.” No matter how many times family members try to put together pieces of the puzzle, there are always gaps.

When the three men took their lives this past year at LCP, their families now experience not only the shame of being in prison and the many unknowns surrounding their deaths but also the shame and stigma of taking their own lives.

Some in the world say:
• It’s one less case to prosecute.
• Close the books on this one.
• See, it shows how guilty they are.

What are we willing to say?
• They, too, were human beings? God’s story is for them, too?
• They are people Jesus died for? Is that what we are willing to say?
• Can we use words Paul speaks in I Thess today? “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through Jesus.” “Therefore, encourage one another. Build each other up.”

We’ve been given this incredibly generous treasure from God - eternal life, salvation, forgiveness, grace. Is it buried within us, kept safe, or can we unearth it, perhaps buried too long, and share it with a world so distracted from the things, the words of God?

Words of Hope
We not only bring words of healing to families of those who committed suicide, we bring words of hope. Albert Schweitzer said, “The tragedy is not that a man (person) dies, the tragedy of life is what dies inside a man (person) while he (or she) lives.” Hope would be one of those things.
An authority on suicide (Edwin Schneidman), says the common emotions of suicide are hopelessness and helplessness. The common symptom is pain – physical, emotional or both. There's no question persons thinking of suicide are experiencing pain – emotional and/or physical. On a scale of zero to ten, their pain is 10+.
You may have seen Montel Williams, talk host, diagnosed with MS 10 years ago, speaking out about how his constant, excruciating pain led him to a suicide attempt. He simply could not see a future without debilitating pain and could not see living with it 24/7 the rest of his life. He could not see the road ahead. What does that feel like? We cannot experience exactly what another is going through but we can experience the emotion. What does it feel like to not see road ahead?

I can remember driving from Lancaster one evening to go to Harrisburg. Had a passenger with me. It was raining when we left but not significantly. It wasn’t long before we were in the midst of a torrential downpour. Blinding rain. I remember saying, “I can’t see.” No road lines were visible. How will I know I am still on the road? All I could see was blinding rainstorm. I experienced fear! You may have been on the road during a dense fog. Same thing.
Edwin Schneidman says there’s a common cognitive state for people who are suicidal, called “constriction” (tunnel vision). A narrowing of the range of options that leads to the person thinking: I have “one” and only one option. Herman, I am convinced, at the moment he took his life, he could not see the road ahead. Not his wife. Not his 8 year old daughter. He saw nothing but the storm, the endless blinding storm.
Words of the Heart
Besides words of healing and hope, we are called on to speak words of the heart most of all. Authors Arterburn and Felton, in their book, Toxic Faith, talk about false ideas that can poison a believer’s life.

One of the toxic beliefs of Christians is: “When tragedy strikes, true believers should have a real peace about it.” It is the belief that no matter the tragedy, suicide, sudden death in an accident, or other, a Christian, if he/she really is a believer, should have peace, a “wonderful” God-given peace very soon.

The truth is our natural reaction to sudden death is shock, disbelief, denial,and anger. Death, the loss of a loved one, breaks our hearts, especially suicides and the mystery that often surrounds them and the complexity of factors (mental state, multiple stress, physical pain, guilt, shame, just plain tiredness of the struggle). God can, of course, work supernatural healing in survivors, family members and friends but by far, for most, healing is a long, hard process.

A heart that is broken needs words that will speak to the heart. Our heartfelt response is to allow people to go to their places of woundedness and pain, not with “corrections” or “advice” but with unconditional love, as Jesus does for us.

God has given to each of us incredible treasure in His Word. Words like:
• “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
• Nothing can separate you from the love of God.
• Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

These words are not to be kept safe and buried within us or kept safely in this sanctuary.
When we go out doors today, they are to go with us -to feed not only our hearts and our own struggles but for those outside the doors in need.

Where are we? In the sanctuary - a safe haven.
Who are we? Children of God.
Why we are here? To worship. Be refueled, nourished so when we do go out those doors, we go as people with something so good, we want to share it!

All in all, there is so much we do not know about why a person takes one’s own life. But this we do know. God assures us through the words of Paul, “Now we see through a glass dimly, but then face to face.” We are people of the promises of God. People of faith. That’s our healing, our hope and our heart. Amen.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Meant to be Offensive

Meant To Be Offensive
Matthew 22: 1-14

Three Deaths in Seven Months

On Tuesday, March 22nd, John Kruger, aged 50, fell from an upper level of the Lancaster County Prison. He died of traumatic head injuries. He had been arrested and was facing assault charges.

On Thursday, July 21st, Matthew McNamara, aged 45, jumped from an upper level of the Lancaster County Prison. He died 3 days later of traumatic head injuries. He had been arrested for homicide by vehicle and other charges.

On Wednesday, September 28th, Ronald Snyder, aged 26, hung himself in his cell at the Lancaster County Prison. He was found dead by prison staff at 5:42 p.m. He had been arrested and was facing rape charges.

All three of these men were in pre-trial detention. None was serving a sentence.

Words of consolation must be extended, first, to the families and friends of the people these three men had violated or killed. I will not be presumptuousness enough to presume I know what they are experiencing.

Words of consolation must be extended, second, to the prison staff, who witnessed or were first on the scene at the times of these deaths.

Words of consolation are also extended to the families, children, and friends of these three men.

County and prison officials have reviewed the situation and determined proper protocol was followed. It appears as if the three deaths in seven months falls into the category of what is considered acceptable.

Framing the Topic

In the Gospel of Matthew, read today, we have a parable.

Parables can be handled allegorically, matching the situation and characters with real life situations and characters, as Pastor Sadie did masterfully last week. But, I want to offer another use of parables. This additional way was suggested by Professor Amy Jill Levine, from Vanderbilt, speaking at the Chautauqua Institute. Parables can be used to offend.

Let’s look at this parable.
1. About a wedding banquet. An evening meal, normally begun in the late hours of the afternoon.
2. Host has issued first invitation prior to the event. Politeness leads him to send servants out to remind and gather.
3. Guest begin to excuse themselves. In Mark or Luke, bought a cow or a piece of land. Not poor excuses. Must inspect them, and must do so in the light of day.
4. Not that they would not attend, but that they would arrive late. This was an acceptable custom. Etiquette allowed them to arrive as late as the end of 1st course. After that, sign removed from house. Indicated not to come in.
5. Issue, not that they were not coming to the feast, but that they were not coming NOW.

There was a Jewish expectation of the kingdom of God that led Jews to claim, “How well it will be one day for those who have been invited to the banquet that God will prepare for the righteous at the time when he will reveal his kingdom.” It was believed that there would be a time when God fulfilled the promise and comes out of hiding. This day, in the hereafter, will be a time of great joy. For that reason, [in the present moment] many held fast to the laws of the time. (From Exposition of Parables)

The invitation to the banquet. The time is NOW. The kingdom of God has arrived NOW, in the presence of Jesus. As they, good religious folk, wait for the hereafter, Jesus is giving the riches of the kingdom to the outcast and lost.
When taking this parable allegorically, the theme becomes who is in and who is out. When taken as a story meant to offend, we are confronted with NOW. We may be doing what is acceptable, but there is more.

Why is the NOW significant? NOW is about seeing more than what is currently held as acceptable.

This parable and its teaching could speak to many parts of our lives, how do I get to the point where I apply it to the suicide deaths in the Lancaster County Prison. Christian precedent. Nicodemus, gathered the body of Jesus, and took him to a tomb. Women went the next day to prepare the body with spices.

Christian precedent is for the followers of Jesus to tend to the bodies of dead criminals.(Walt Wangerin)

Now as More than What is Acceptable

God is present in Jesus. Jesus is present in the church. The church is present in the world.

The NOW is a call to move beyond what is considered acceptable or reasonable within the limitations of what we have, and hold fast the present kingdom of God.

The NOW is a call to MORE.

1. More than Meets the Eye.

Hardened people have an ability to adapt to the prison setting more easily. For those with no such experience in life, there is terror. In the face of the horror of suicide, we may miss the reality that for some, taking one’s life is the least painful option they have in front of them. And, it may not be guilt that motivates it. We must also consider the implications of mental illness, not that it removes culpability, but that a different set of standards apply.

2. More than Intensity.
The situation in which we find ourselves is more than intensity. Thomas de Zengotita writes of intensity. He writes “People felt motivated to coherent action only by something they could consistently ‘identify with’ or, more occasionally, by something so compelling it could not be resisted, at least for as long as the excitement lasted.” From this intensity, we move from stating “the reality is” which leads to the necessity of action to optionality. When is it, that we cross the line, and there is one suicide death is too many? How do we determine that number? Statistically? By conscience?

People who have been hurt, or have had friends hurt or killed impacts are at a different place emotionally and mentally.

3. More than Election.
We have been taught to accept that the political realm is the realm where all our societal ills are solved. We vie for the controlling stake in that realm. The party in power changes the course. Presumption that ousting one elected official for another will bring about change in government. We overlook the reality that the majority of our government is not elected official, but institution. These institutions are staffed by people who are not up for election. (From James Davison Hunter)

The head of the institution sets the tone for the rest of the institution. If we claim we do not believe that, listen to the conversation about Steve Jobs, after his death.

The Warden of the Lancaster County Prison sets the tone for the entire staff of the prison. He is accountable for the decisions, and the tone of the prison. We desire a leader who has a fire in his belly to do what is right, as opposed to one who make corrections only when challenged. Can the warden do that?

4. More than Political
Our political system will give us a functional solution, with the support of a simple majority, that may or may not be moral.(Robert Jenson)

We must lay over that political system a public discourse, outside of the political arena.

This is where each of you, as lay preachers, is called to work.

Let me describe what that may look like for you:

One on One Conversation: Talk with each other, talk with your neighbor, talk with your co-workers and friends. Disagree with me. Many of you naturally do anyway, so that won’t be too hard.

Educator: College or High School. Have this conversation as part of your classes on sociology, history, psychology, government. Share the reports of those conversations with our elected officials. These officials are not resident experts in all disciplines.

Legal Profession: Ask the question, what happens to our criminal justice system when a suspect commits suicide prior to a conviction. Is justice served, is there a conclusion for the victims or family of the victims, is there the presumption that the one who took his own life is guilty, without the benefits of a trial?

5. More than Compulsion
In the parable, there is one man at the banquet, who is not wearing the wedding garb. He has chosen not to engage.

Wallace Fisher, my predecessor, states, “Continuity and change go hand in hand. Dynamic conversation and responsible innovation are interdependent.”

The call to renewal confronts the leaders of the Lancaster County Prison with language that creates and honors life. That Word confronts each leader. However, here is where we have difficulty, each person has the God-given freedom to respond. (Wallace Fisher, From Tradition to Mission)

They have the freedom to respond, and they are held accountable for those decisions.

The Gospel is present tense language. It is the language of NOW. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. NOW means more than what is commonly considered acceptable. NOW is the very in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Go out and start preaching.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stuck between Popular Opinion and God's New Order

Sunday. September 25, 2011

Matthew 21: 23-33

This text contains a conflict and a parable.

The conflict is between the chief priest and elders and Jesus. A conflict text begins with a challenge to Jesus by a person or group of people. Jesus responds to that challenge with a question or statement that gets at the real meaning of what the person or people are saying. Then, Jesus concludes with a pronouncement. This particular conflict text does not include the pronouncement.

So what are the questioners getting at? In the Gospel of Mark, the question of authority is asked regarding Jesus clearing out the temple. In the Gospel of Luke, the question of authority is asked regarding Jesus spending time with outcasts and sinners. In the Gospel of Matthew, the question of authority is asked regarding Jesus and his teaching. We must remember that Jesus' disciples did not call him Rabbi, or Teacher. Only Judas, strangers, and those who were in conflict with Jesus called him a teacher. The question regarding Jesus and his teaching is an attempt to make Jesus no more than any other teacher.

Stephen Prothero, in American Jesus, traces the evolution of cultural thought about Jesus throughout the history of America. He contends that at this point in our history, we have made Jesus a wise sage. He is accepted, even in religions outside of Christianity, as a teacher.

Yet, Jesus is more than a teacher, he is the Son of God.

Parables are intended to offend. The parable in this text accomplishes that purpose. The question is asked, "Who did his father's will?" I have never been comfortable with claiming that either son had done his father's will. In fact, I think that is to be the answer to the question. Neither son did his father's will.

What we can get at here, are approaches to belief that are part of our way of being in the world. There is the person whose definition of God is limited to those qualities of God that are consistent with who they are. God handily becomes the one who fills in the gaps of fears and needs. Witness, in this case, becomes getting others to accept and believe in the same kind of God and rejection of those who do not believe in God the same way. Then, there is the person who does good deeds, but may not be a believer. A person may do good works that are integral to the society, but may do it for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Gerhard Forde speaks of this in his book, Theology is for Proclamation.

In our search for teachings and teachers that help us make sense of our lives, we place our ultimate trust in those teachers. Sin is placing our ultimate trust in that which cannot transcend death. Only one has transcended death. That is Jeus Christ. As the one who died and who has risen from the dead, we claim him as more than teacher, but as Son of God.

The authority, that which writes the story of our lives, is God through Jesus Christ.

That authority gives us power. God writes us into the divine story. All that we have are gifts from God for use in the living out of that story. We do not start at a deficity, but with the abundance of the gospel.

That authority gives us responsibilities. We are called, with our gifts, to put those gifts to use for the furtherance of the kingdom of God. This is less about telling others what they should be doing, and more about living within the confines of who we are and what we are called to do.

That authority holds us accountable. Jesus expects perfect obedience from his disciples, yet his pet name for them is "you of little faith." There is room for failure and growth. In fact, finally, I contend that life changing action allows room for the possibility of failure.

Monday, March 28, 2011

True Signs, True Wisdom

True Signs, True Wisdom
Matthew 11: 1-19

This is a sermon preached by Professor Greg Carey, Resident Scholar of Trinity Lutheran Church on Sunday, March 20, 2011.

Today in Istanbul a Syriac congregation has gathered – with candles and incense, spectacular robes and art. Worshiping IIRC in Syriac, Aramaic, and Turkish. After worship, hundreds of Syrian Christians will gather over coffee and pastries in their fellowship hall – the one time in the week when they can all celebrate their common heritage and their oneness in Christ.

In an open-air church in the Thai countryside a pastor will preach and lead worship for a congregation of thirty people or so. And he’ll lead the hymns with his beat-up electric guitar.

Last night maybe 2000 people attended a Saturday evening service outside Memphis –one of the church’s five services over the weekend with a total attendance of 7500. Professional level band, with PowerPoint art accompanying the sermon and a pretty effective lighting team to set the mood.

In Atlanta one congregation meets simultaneously in four different locations. The same pastor preaches all four sermons – via hologram! If you were visiting and no one told you, you wouldn’t know whether he was physically present or not.
In Cleveland an African American Pentecostal church is meeting in a rented storefront. People are shouting, dancing and singing before, during and after the sermon – Come on, now! – and they may be there for three or four hours.

Five congregations at worship. Vastly diverse in culture, in theology, in worship tradition. Not one of them strongly resembling Holy Trinity. And, may I ask you, in which of these churches will authentic ministry happen? In which congregations would one see true signs of God at work? Which congregations are home to true wisdom?

John the Baptist, having announced Jesus as the coming one in the past, now sits in prison. And he has a question for Jesus.

In John’s world, prison doesn’t mean a three-month sentence. Prison is there to intimidate, to control, and to kill. When you’re in prison, there’s a very good chance you’ll never leave. John knows all that, so he sends his disciples with a question for Jesus. “Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for someone else?”
We wish we could know what leads John to ask his question. Countless preachers have provided thousands of answers, I’m sure. But John is in prison, he’s heard what Jesus is doing, and he asks, “Are you the One? Really?”

We know John’s question. It’s not so much that we’re questioning Jesus. That’s not it. But we look around, and we see so many presentations of Jesus – so many representations of Jesus. We, like John, want to see authentic ministry. We want to experience the reign of God breaking out around us. We want to know, “By what signs do we recognize authentic ministry?”

There’s this fear that authentic ministry might be doomed. That being faithful to Christ will chase people away because they want bells and whistles, clever Facebook pages and superior coffee. So people are asking whether we must compromise our ministry in order to attract people. A few years ago I was teaching for a meeting of pastors. They’d been invited to break into small groups for introductions. What’s your name, where do you serve, what’s it like? In the group of six or seven pastors, one really stood out – her church was growing! And when she shared that happy fact, she sounded almost apologetic – like the kid who wins an award but doesn’t want to seem too full of herself. That’s the fear, that vitality is a symptom of pandering. How does authentic ministry relate to outreach and growth?
John’s question is our question. One friend swears by their contemporary service. Another says the small group ministry is where it’s at. Another finds Christ by participating in Habitat for Humanity, building homes for poor families. What are the true signs? A big church? Dynamic worship? New members? Spelunking trips for the youth?

We hear these conversations, of course. People agonize over what church to join in a new town. They grow restless in their own congregation, and they grow curious about others. They receive mixed messages from one venue or another about what church should be like. John’s question isn’t exactly our question, but it sounds familiar. How do we recognize authentic ministry? What are its true signs?

Jesus’s answer is simple and direct. The blind see, and the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear. The dead are raised, and good news goes out to the poor. Healing, life, liberation. Where we encounter wholeness and vitality, authentic ministry is on the move. Wisdom, Jesus later says, is vindicated by her deeds.

Such a simple answer, though we Christians often try to complicate it. We get caught up, sometimes, in theological debates and worship styles. Healing, life, liberation. Wholeness, vitality. The signs that God is on the move.
I call it Jesus’ “Blessing Agenda.” As you read Matthew this Lenten season, look for it. What does the Blessing Agenda look like? Jesus and his disciples travel from village to village, announcing good news and performing acts of healing. They gather community, they eat, and they bless. Yes, Jesus has some harsh words for some people – but only for those people who think they are righteous or superior. Not once does Jesus start a obscure theological debate. Not once does he tell sinners to straighten up, the sick and demon-possessed to try harder. Jesus’s agenda is all about blessing people who need blessing. Wisdom, he says, is vindicated by her deeds.

And if we look around, even around this congregation, we perceive true signs. The Blessing Agenda in action. Many of you participate in the Breakfast Fellowship, where Trinity members feed and worship with people who need a good meal and a safe place. Here at Holy Trinity, we worship at 8:30 and 11:00 – and in the Breakfast Fellowship! It’s like a third worship service – just visit, and you’ll sense the Spirit on the move. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

In a recent class for the Academy for Lay Ministry, I saw it. One of our more courageous members – let’s just say a few years beyond retirement – shared something very personal. We were talking about hwo we receive love: is it through kind words, a helpful deed, a nice gift? And this person said, “At this stage in my life, I need touch more than ever.” And you know what? After the class I saw a woman – I was worried what her husband might think! – give this man the biggest hug I’ve seen in weeks. Wisdom, vindicated by her deeds.

Long before I came to Holy Trinity, I’d heard that people sometimes joined the church so they could participate in the choir. Visitors know that our organist, Peter Brown, brings classical music, standard hymns, and fresh liturgical pieces to our worship – but only if you stay for awhile do you see the ministry that’s happening through music here. Diverse voices featured, choir members caring for one another and inviting new people, children expressing their gifts and finding blessing. It’s not just pretty music, though we have that in abundance, it’s music ministry. Wisdom, vindicated by its deeds.

When people actively give care to one another. When we linger a little while longer after classes and worship, when we give ourselves in ministry beyond this congregation – just look around – we perceive true signs. Wisdom, vindicated by her deeds.

It’s more simple than we’d like to admit, Jesus’s answer. Clear and direct. The Blessing Agenda: Healing, life, liberation – that’s where God is at work. Look around; you’ll see it.

But of course it’s Lent. Not the season for simplicity; the season for honesty. For critical reflection. For assessment of ourselves and our world. It’s Lent, and we remind ourselves that Jesus’ ministry is costly. Jesus encounters outright resistance. John languishes in prison. Accusations fly. In Lent, we remember that Jesus’s ministry provokes resistance.

Resistance can come from outside. We remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous work, the “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington. But perhaps the work that best reveals King’s approach is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In a city where black people could find few decent jobs, where many restaurants and public facilities were closed to African Americans, King and his colleagues demonstrated in the streets. You remember the pictures of children being pounded by high pressure water hoses and police dogs biting black civilians? That’s Birmingham. And King found himself in jail.

And where did King meet resistance? Of course there was the racist sheriff, Bull Connor, and a segregationist city administration. But beyond them, eight white Alabama ministers and rabbis, nice moderates all of them, published “A Call for Unity” that asked King to settle down, get off the streets, and wait for justice.
And what did King say? King suggested that the greatest obstacle to freedom lay, not in the fanatical racist but in the peace-loving white moderate who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” and “who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” The gospel of freedom, King called it, good news to the poor and cleansing for lepers, never lacks for opponents. Wisdom, Jesus says, is vindicated by her deeds.

May we remember that not long ago Glenn Beck told us not to come to Lutheran churches? Well, he didn’t say exactly that, but he did say to avoid what he called “social justice churches.” We’ll assume he didn’t visit the ELCA website, which has its own tab for “justice.” Maybe he would have learned something. True ministry rarely arrives unhindered.

It’s an odd thing about Jesus’s ministry. He takes sides. Jesus takes sides. The righteous complain that Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners: well, Jesus doesn’t come for the righteous. Jesus says, “The poor hear the good news.” Indeed! Obviously, Jesus travels everywhere, and he speaks to everyone, but in Jesus’s ministry systems of power and privilege – even righteousness! – have no place.

But resistance to the gospel need not come from outside. Somehow the gospel challenges us within as well. Gospel is inconvenient, gospel is messy, gospel is demanding. When the blind see, they might just perceive my own hypocrisy. When the deaf hear, perhaps they’ll overhear my petty grumbling. When the lame walk, perhaps they’ll get ahead of me at Stuffer’s or claim my attention in church. We recall that in Matthew it’s the rich young man who falls just short – just short – of the realm of heaven because he cannot part with his possessions.

In his classic, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis depicts a man who enters the afterlife with a hideous lizard on his shoulder. In order to move into heaven, the man must part with his lizard – but he’s afraid. He knows he can’t make it to heaven with the lizard, but the thought of parting with it terrifies him. Will the man, unable – unwilling? – to part with the lizard, choose hell? For the gospel sometimes sparks too much resistance within us.

Well, it’s Lent – we have to be honest. Jesus’s ministry sparks resistance. One day, John’s disciples will return to Jesus. They will bear the news of John’s execution by Herod – and in John’s fate Jesus will see his own. Thousands have flocked to John beside the Jordan, but Herod has locked him up and will behead him. Crowds chase Jesus, as his ministry brings joy and wholeness to many. Still, others plot to kill him. It’s time to be honest: wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. It’s hard to be neutral with the gospel.

Authentic ministry invites all of us. All of us. We’re all invited to the Blessing Agenda.

I invite you to look again at this passage in your worship notes. Most interpreters regard this passage as being about Jesus and John. In fact, most translations of the Bible begin the passage at verse 2 – but look at verse 1. Jesus’s disciples have just gone off on mission. They’re doing the same ministry that Jesus is about! Jesus has sent his disciples to preach and to heal just as he is doing. Wisdom, Jesus says, is vindicated by her deeds.

Consider this invitation: Research demonstrates a vital connection between members’ participation in a church’s ministries and congregational vitality. Where churches are highly involved in ministries of justice, healing, and community outreach, congregational vitality soars. Where members attend worship consistently, participate in study and growth groups, and volunteer in a congregation’s several ministries, congregations thrive. Friends, authentic ministry invites us – not simply to attend and give, but – as we are able – to participate in the living body of Christ.

Churches have so many odd conversations. How do we get this group, or that group, to come to church? How do we reach youth, or young adults, or professionals, or our neighborhood? All these conversations get the invitation backwards: It is we who are invited to authentic ministry. When we demonstrate care, when we get involved in healing, when we take ownership of the Blessing Agenda, Jesus’ words come alive for us. Let’s get it right; it’s not about attracting other people, it’s about responding to the invitation Jesus sets forth for us. The Blessing Agenda.

Friends, we want to see God. It’s a longing that runs deep within us, to see God on the move, getting things done, setting things aright.

Last Sunday my friend Julia O’Brien spoke in the Adult Forum on the Kentucky writer Wendell Berry and his novel Jayber Crow. In that novel a small town learns that one of its sons has died in Vietnam, and Jayber Crow reflects.
For awhile again I couldn’t pray. I didn’t dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal Himself in power. I wanted to tell Him that it was time for His coming. If there was anything at all to what He promised, why didn’t he come in glory with angels and lay His hands on the hurt children and awaken the dead soldiers and restore the burned villages and the blasted and poisoned land?

Having thought more about it, Jayber reflects:
He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself. . . . Those who wish to see Him must see him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.

True signs, true wisdom. When we see people finding life, building community, we know God is at work. Where the poor find empowerment, and folks save a seat for the lepers, that’s Jesus’ home. It’s not necessarily complicated. It’s a Blessing Agenda, and we’re invited. Wisdom vindicated by her deeds. Friends, hear and believe the gospel. Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

All Power Is Tainted

A Sermon on Matthew, chapter 4, verses 1 through 11, preached on March 13, 2011.

Albert Camus states, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

In this text, we have what is commonly called the Temptation of Jesus. The temptation account appears in three of the four gospels. Matthew, like Luke, develops the story from the version in Mark, and adds a description of three temptations. The order of the temptations varies from Luke to Matthew. This would indicate that Matthew had a purpose for telling this story in this way to the people of his congregation.

What was that purpose? Schweizer, in his commentary on Matthew, proposes this possibility. The people of Matthew’s church had to be able to explain to themselves and to their Jewish counterparts why Jesus did not become the expected national messiah who achieved conquest over the Romans.
What we see, in Jesus in the story of the temptation, is a Jesus who is obedient to God and the reign of God’s kingdom over against the revolutionaries of the time who sought to accomplish their purposes through earthly power.

As Albert Camus, we will reflect on our own political situation, and ask three questions:
1. Does our political system have the capacity to bring about justice?
2. Is there another way to bring about a change in culture?
3. What does obedience to God look like?

Point One: Does our political system have the capacity to bring about justice?

In Aristotle’s work on political science, he gives us a framework for reviewing the decisions of our current political system.
1. Aristotle speaks of a highest good, called the “best good.”
2. To have knowledge of this “best good” has impact on our lives.
3. To get at the “best good”, we engage in a process of inquiry Aristotle calls, political science.
4. Political science has a supervisory role. Example of leather: We have leather. We make bridles out of all the leather without knowing how many horses need bridles or knowing what else we can make out of the leather. As a result, we ask, with a warehouse full of bridles, how many horses do we need to breed to use up all the bridles? This is called back to front thinking. The supervisory role of political science is to ensure good use of resources.
5. The process of determining good use of resources is called deliberation. Assumes an outcome and reasons about what needs to be done to achieve that outcome. Deliberation determines what we can do and how to do it. Applies in cases where questions of how to achieve an end or conflicting considerations exist on what to do.
6. Based on a conception of the “best good”, political science uses the process of deliberation to find means to promote that end. But not a means to an end, actions themselves must stand on their own merit.

How does our political system fall short of this deliberative process?
1. The deliberative process takes time. Certainly, as we have seen in Japan, there are times when the governmental system must act in crisis and rapidly. However, in our need to achieve solutions as soon as possible, we do not allow time for the process of deliberation.
2. We have confused sub-groups who do not have control of the political system and assume a posture of victimization with actual groups who are being oppressed.

Point Two: Is there another way to bring about a change in culture?

Charles Reich, The Greening of America, “…there is a revolution coming. It will not be life revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act…It promises a higher reason, a more humane community, and a new and liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty—a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.”

This challenges us to take a look at the grass roots, change in culture, in areas such as education, corrections, healthcare, business ethics.

Point Three: What does obedience to God look like?

So, how does a Christian engage in the world, in the light of our current political trends? An answer to that may be found in the story of the temptation of Jesus.

Now, there are two distractions that keep us from seeing what is happening in the temptation account. First, we have diminished temptation to those little urges that get the best of us at times. Second, we picture Jesus as boldly resisting Satan.

I want to propose a different image of Jesus and the temptation. I want to propose Jesus as Janelle Clouse, in Perry County Pennsylvania, standing with her 3 year daughter, watching her house burn down with her seven children locked inside. Would you not, if offered the opportunity, take whatever offer you were given to save your children? Would we not yearn for someone to speak the words, “Don’t you want me to take it all away?” I would immediately grasp for that chance.

We have a savior who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, who in every respect has been tested, as are we. We confess this in the Apostles’ Creed, in that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, buried, and descended into hell. We find the fullness of God in the midst of our suffering. We find restoration in God’s will being fulfilled in our lives.

1. God is Lord of All. My life. The Church. All institutions. We have obligations to ourselves, others, our churches, our government, but our ultimate loyalty is to God.
2. God is Lord of Reality. There is darkness in human life. God does not hide from our pain. This is where Jesus is. Perhaps, then, there is hope for a humane world.
3. God is Lord of the Oppressed. There are some in our country, and more personally, in our city that are thoroughly dehumanized, due to race, class, age. They are not ready for a vision of grandeur. They need the help of the institution. Any effort to balance state budgets on the backs of these oppressed is immoral, unjust, and unfaithful.

We asked the question, “Can I be able to love my country and still love justice?” To answer that question, we looked at the current limitation to our political system. We looked at a local/grass roots way of Christian living that can change culture. And, we looked at what obedience looks like in the kingdom of God. We put this in the context of our obedience to God over all other institutions in the world. So, can I love my country and still love justice? Yes, borrowing the words of Wallace Fisher, as long as I have a critical loyalty to my country, but an ultimate loyalty to God. Amen

Friday, March 4, 2011

Servant Love in an Age of Self Love

February 27, 2011

1 Corinthians 4: 1-5

“From parent to president” is a line that is used by Edwin H. Friedman in his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Friedman upholds the vision that all people are leaders, from parents to presidents. As leaders, they are responsible to do what is right for the world in which they find themselves.
Paul, in First Corinthians, also speaks about leadership. He begins by speaking of the leadership of those who follow in the footsteps of the apostles, but goes on to say that this responsibility is transferred to all believers. All believers have the responsibility to do what is right for the world in which they find themselves.

OverviewWe are going to look at three assumptions related to human beings and their capacity to do what is right:
First, we will look at the assumption that human beings are superior to other living creatures;
Second, we will look at the assumption that human beings will naturally do what is right;
Third, we will look at the assumption that doing what is right will make us happy.

Point One: The assumption that human beings are superior to other living creatures.
Recently, the television game show, Jeopardy, featured a competition between two champions and an IBM computer named Watson. During the week long competition, vignettes were shown highlighting the capacity of this computer. One such vignette highlighted the benefits that Watson could bring to the field of medicine. Just after that feature, final jeopardy appeared on the game board. The question was under the heading, U.S. Cities, and spoke of a city that had two airports named after either a person or event in World War 2. Watson answered, “Toronto.” – which we know, is not even a U.S city.

James Bennet, in the March 2011 edition of The Atlantic, in an editorial, asks the question, “What is it that we humans do well?” He asks this question to Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google. Schmidt claims, “We are approaching an age of augmented humanity.” Later in the magazine, Brian Christian makes this observation, “Humanity’s once expansive sense of its own uniqueness has been eroding over the past century. On one side, the recognition of a greater capacity in animals than we first thought. On the other side, we see the advance of computers which have the capacity to perform actions once thought limited to humanity.

Bennet writes, “We should probably take it as a backhanded compliment from Mother Nature that the very qualities we once thought made us unique, our abilities to feel and reason, are now leading us to realize we may not be so special after all. We have been left with a less exalted sense of ourselves not only because other entities turned out to share some of our powers, but also because we often didn’t act much like angels when we applied those powers.”

We may not be superior to other living creatures as we once thought.
Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27, “ Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” And then, from chapter 4, verse 1, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
In this less than perfect form of humanity, God has placed the treasure of the Word of God, and made us stewards of the very mystery of the divine purpose of God.

Point Two: The assumption that human beings will naturally do what is right.
The ethics of Immanuel Kant and his writing, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, is summarized by Andrews Reath in the anthology, The Classics of Western Philosophy.
For Kant, religion is not an intellectual matter, but an ethical matter. Three examples are given of determining a ethical action:
1. The Prudent Merchant. This merchant charges a fair price, but does this because it is good for business. He does not do this out duty, but out of self-interest.
2. The Friend of Humanity. This person takes immediate pleasure in helping others. He acts out of the reward of enjoyment that comes from the action. Thus, he is not doing this out of duty, but out of self-interest.
3. The Friend of Humanity. This person has concern for the well-being of others, but is so burdened by personal sorrows, that he has no sympathy. He acts anyway. His action is done out of duty.

Duty, and action out of duty, is the imperative. One then asks if the duty is a universal imperative. A certain duty becomes an imperative if it is required of all people in all times and in all places. Then, it becomes a standardized principle of conduct for all. This determination, claims Kant, the ability to discern this duty comes out of human reason. It assumes that people will not act out of his or her own desires, but will set them aside.
Shakespeare captures this concept in Hamlet,

What a piece of work is a man,
How noble in reason,
How infinite in faculties,
In form and moving how express and admirable,
In action how like an angel,
In apprehension how like a god!

We may not naturally do what is right as we first thought.
Paul shares his personal struggle in doing what is right in Romans 7: 15ff., “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that swells within me…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Into this less than perfect human form, God places the greatest treasure and calls us to engage in the hard work of discerning what is right.

Point Three: The assumption that doing what is right will make us happy.
The movie, The Bad Seed, is based on a play. The play explores the nature vs. nurture argument in relationship to mental illness. In the play, a girl, whose mother murders her brother and attempts to murder her, is adopted into a loving and nurturing family. When the girl becomes an adult, marries, and has a daughter, she starts to observe a terrifying quality in her daughter. The daughter has murdered a classmate who won a spelling test a school. The child was murdered for the medal the champion received. Subsequently, the girl murders two others who suspect her of the act.

The play ends with the girl escaping any punishment. When the screenplay was submitted to censors, a change had to made in the ending. At that time, Hollywood was not allowed to have a criminal avoid punishment in a movie. By the end of the movie, the criminal had to receive justice. To accommodate that stipulation, the screenwriters have the girl struck with lightning and killed. The whole event is wrapped in a neat bow.
We are attracted to that hope that wrong will be punished and good will be rewarded. As a result, we assume that doing what is right will make us happy.

Eric Wilson, in his book, Against Happiness, states, “This captures our world of personal dreams, a realm from which hard reality has largely been vanquished. We necessarily expect every torment moment to yield nothing but new bliss. It is the persistent intonation of ‘I’m fine.’”
We may not be happy by doing what is right.
As the pundits say, “No good deed goes unpunished.” To think that good acts will make us happy creates in us a spiritual dilemma when our good actions are not rewarded with bliss.
Into this less than perfect human form, God places the greatest treasure and calls us to engage in the hard work of discerning what is right without the promise of the reward of happiness.

As we fully engage ourselves in lives of caring for the treasure God has given to us, striving to discern what is right, and living without the promise of happiness from those actions, are thoughts, time, energy, and action are engaged in that striving to be faithful. And, if we are engaged in that faithful striving, then we have less inclination and compunction to be judgmental of others. Here is where Paul ties up the first four chapters of Corinthians. Judgment is not ours to hold. We do not judge ourselves. We do not judge others. In God’s hands is the power of judgment. That judgment is brought to bear on humanity through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

We live as people who are no longer engaged in the damned and saved argument. We live as people who are no longer engaged in the damned if you do, and damned if you don’t self abuse. We live as people who no longer see others as either damned or saved. We, instead, engage in a life of service to one another.

That, my brothers and sisters, is the calling of all people, from parents to presidents.

Tell the Truth, but Tell it Slant

Sunday, February 13, 2011
1 Corinthians 3: 1-9

Emily Dickinson writes,
Tell all the truth, but tell it slant—
Success in circuit lies.
Too bright to our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.

St. Paul, in writing to Christians in the city of Corinth, puts it this way,
…brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rater as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with mil, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.

The Christians in the city of Corinth were making a claim to a spiritual pedigree. This claim of having a spiritual pedigree leads them to believe themselves to be more mature than reality. These claims to spiritual maturity created jealousy among the people of the Corinthian church. This jealousy leads to resentment of one another, brings about division among the people, and taints the witness of the church. Paul reminds them that are not spiritually mature, but are being spoon food the truth.

Point One: The church’s witness becomes tainted by resentment.
The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, explicates a concept called Re-Sentiment. Re-sentiment is “a re-ordering of the sentiments. We adjust our affections, sentiments, and value judgments in order to avoid server disappointment (Ten Elshof, page 64)

Mark Twain illustrates this concept in the account of Tom Sawyer. Another boy at school has become the center of his mates attention due to a cut finger, but Tom shows up with a new claim to fame. Twain writes, But all trials bring their compensation. As Tom wended to school after breakfast, he was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enable him to expectorate in a new and admirable way. He gather quite a following of lads interested in the exhibition; and one that had cut his finger and had been a centre of fascination and homage up to this time, now found himself suddenly without an adherent, and shore of his glory. His heart was heavy, and he said with a disdain which he did not feel that it wasn’t anything to spit like Tom Sawyer; but another boy said, “Sour grapes!” and he wandered away a dismantled here. (Ten Elshof, Pages 62-63)

The church engages, as well in this re-sentiment process. We too, as Christians, have our sour grapes. Ten Elshof goes on to say, Nietzsche famously attributes the Christian praise of humility and prizing of suffering to the ressentiment of the persecuted church. Since they could expect no better than humiliation and suffering, he said, the Christians re-ordered their sentiments in such a way as to praise humility and prize affliction. (pages 64-65).

The modern church still engages in the practice of re-sentiment. James Dawson writes, Resentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury, or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. The root of this is the sense of entitlement a group holds…In the end, these benefits have been withheld or taken away or there is a perceived threat that they will be taken away by those now in positions of power. The sense of injury is the key….Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action…In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury—real or perceived—leads to the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see responsible…Resentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable. (pages 117-119)

Through the process of resentiment, the Christian witness has been reduced to speaking against something. The result for us, is to claim a spiritual maturity/a spiritual high ground. Ten Elshof concludes by speaking of sour grapes in two forms, In the first, a generally recognized good is made an object of outright scorn for its unavailability. In the second, a seemingly unavailable goo is pushed to the edges of consciousness by super valuing something else. We see both kinds of resentiment in the various forms of Christian anti-intellectualism. (page 70)

Point Two: The Rejection of Reason for Authenticity as an Act of Sour Grapes
Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans writes in a column entitled, “Is Faith in God Rational” in the Lancaster paper on Saturday, February 12, 2011, a review by a soon to be published book by Pastor John Wilkinson, of LCBC. The book will be titled, No Argument for God.
Pastor Wilkinson seeks to move beyond the critiques of men like Richard Dawkins and other who challenge Christian faith on scientific and rational grounds. He concedes that they have won the argument. For Wilkinson, reason is a gift from God, but shows limitations. In speaking to young people who appear to be asking, not if Christianity is reasonable, but is Christianity true and life changing, Pastor Wilkinson sets forth this argument:

1. Set aside the debate of whether faith in God is reasonable.
2. Admit Christian belief is absurd to the conventions of science and logic.
3. Only then, when limits of rationalism are acknowledged, can one make a decision to believe the Christian message in its “bizarre glory.”

Faith, then, is the measure of Christianity. But what measures faith? The criteria used to measure faith is authenticity. Is one’s faith an authentic faith. A claim to authentic faith has become the new spiritual pedigree. This claim to authentic faith—a claim to a new spiritual pedigree—is source of division in the church.

This Christian movement to an authentic faith is rooted in the disillusionment of the culture of the capacity of the human mind to reason what is good. It is a reaction to the Enlightenment, which was marked with extreme optimism for what human reason could accomplish. Baruch Spinoza, in his treatise “On the Improvement of the Understanding” writes his capacity for observation and thought enable him to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness. Yet, we have seen the failure of science, the inadequacy of medicine, and the incapacity of humans to think through problems. To live in a postmodern culture is to be alive to the failure of reason and knowledge to live up to their Enlightenment expectations…it is the postmodern disappointment with reason that positions it so favorably to give preeminence to matters of feeling and affection…in its more subtle manifestations, anti-intellectualism discredits the life of the mind under the guise of super-valuing something else—usually something legitimately valuable like faith, relationship, or “the heart,” as if these could flourish without the development of the mind. (Ten Elshof, pages 66-70)


Point Three: A Cruciform Faith
The Christian witness, as Paul highlights in Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, is a cruciform faith. This is not a superstitious faith that wards off evil and bad events in our lives. This is not a faith of intimacy, as some would claim, pointing solely to God’s solidarity with Jesus, people, and creation. This is a faith of creation and mission. As a faith of creation, our faith seeks the transformation of physical form into a resurrection body. The perishable puts on the imperishable. The corruptible puts on the incorruptible. This faith is very much rooted in the realities of all we can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. This faith hopes for the fulfillment of all that is natural, which is not emotionally pleasing in the immediate moment. This faith experiences a breakdown of the intimacy, a disruption of the intimacy. This is crucifixion faith. Out of crucifixion, comes new life for all of creation.

Emily Dickison writes,
Tell all the truth, but tell it slant—
Success in circuit lies.
Too bright to our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.

As lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind.
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.


Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 2010. Oxford University Press.
Ten Elshof, Gregg A. i told me so: self-deception and the christian life. 2009. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.