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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Unpatriotic Love of Country

Every year, as we, “we” being “we Americans,” get ready to celebrate our independence, I am faced with this task.  How do I express the Christian faith in and from the American context?  I am very much an American citizen and a resident of the United States, and I believe I always will be.  Furthermore, I hope I will be, at least up until the resurrection.  I love the United States of America and I love being an American.
I love being a Christian more.  And these two allegiances are not one in the same, nor are they in any way aligned.  America is not God’s chosen nation.  That’s Israel.  Up to the time of Christ, God’s self-revelation to the world came through Israel.  Israel and only Israel has been God’s chosen people.  When Christ came, God’s self-revelation narrowed to one Israelite – Jesus of Nazareth.  After his death and resurrection, non-Jews, Gentiles, were welcomed into the “people of God.”  Paul stresses this throughout his letters, it is the conclusion of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), and is the focus of Romans 9-11.
Today, God’s people are all who come to faith in Jesus Christ.  Koreans, Chinese, Ethiopians, Mexicans, Canadians, Dominicans, Haitians, Americans, and all other tribes, languages, and nations; all who put their trust in Jesus are adopted as sons and daughters of God.  No passages makes this clearer than Revelation 7:9-10. 
A few American evangelicals have tried to make the case that America is God’s chosen nation. They have urged congregations in the United States to conform to the U.S. government’s dictates, pointing to passages like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 as Biblical injunctions to nationalistic conformity.  However, the pastors and leaders who offer such teachings, wedding faithfulness to American patriotism, ignore the fact that these words originally instructed a church that was a minority faith in the pagan Roman Empire.  These passages served as strategies for the nascent church’s survival in the face of persecution, and success in evangelistic endeavors. If we claim these passages as endorsements of American governmental authority then we have to accept that these scriptures endorsed the Roman emperor’s position and claims.  They most certainly did not. 
Christians died on crosses because they refused to comply with the emperor’s edicts.  They refused to say “Caesar is Lord.”  They insisted, “Jesus is Lord.”  Many first century Christians endured torture and died violent deaths because of this testimony.  No, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 do not promote the Roman Empire nor do they conflate faith with American patriotism.  In the first century, the scriptures make it clear that to be faithful to Christ was to be at odds with the government because only one can be ultimate.  Christians say Jesus, not the government, is the ultimate – the ultimate authority, the only Savior, and the one definer of identity.
I know when I write or preach this way, many in the church do not like it.  They want to love America and love Jesus, and they want those things to go together.  My intent in this writing is not to make my readers/listeners uncomfortable.  That’s not my goal.  I’m not sitting here at my keyboard thinking, “This will make them squirm.”  My goal is to look into the Bible and then reveal its absolute truth.  That’s it. 
The absolute truth of the Word is God demands our full loyalty.  “Be perfect as your father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  We are Americans by birth or by naturalization.  We are Americans by experience, by worldview, and by location.  However, once we are “in Christ,” we are born again.  That changes everything.  From the time the Holy Spirit baptizes us, God defines every bit of our lives.  What worries me is how little Christians in American churches consider the claim of God on their lives.
Too many American Christians want their Christianity to conform to the lives they’ve already carved out.  They don’t want much to change when they turn to Jesus.  Becoming a Christian is insurance for the afterlife, it is a social-identifier, and it is something new they’re trying as a part of their life.  The New Testament has no place for such an anemic Christianity.  The first century Christians who died in lions’ jaws insisting “Jesus is Lord” would not recognize what passes for faith in some American churches today.  “Because you are lukewarm … I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).  Jesus has no taste for someone who plays at being a Christian while putting other loyalties ahead of God.
On July 4th, I feel compelled to express love for America, and I do.  But, as a Christian, I also know that we have no choice.  On Independence Day, we must bear witness to our servitude.  First and foremost, we are not voters in a democracy.  That is a secondary identity for us. Our primary identity is as subjects in the Kingdom of God.  Eternally indentured to Christ, we have greater freedom than the bald eagle and stars and stripes could ever give.
We love America.  We pray for it.  We vote. We serve in the military. We serve by trying to make out country better, by helping the poor, by using ethics and honesty in business, by cleaning up our communities and caring for the environment, by paying our taxes, and by being friendly, hospitable neighbors.  Christians who put the Kingdom of God ahead of the United States are actually the very best American citizens because we work for the public good. We contribute to everyone’s thriving.  We seek cooperation instead of zero-sum game competition.  Our zeal for the Kingdom makes for a more open, diverse, America, a greatly strengthened America.
I don’t think this sounds patriotic.  Oh well.  I hope my love of my country comes through in these words.   Even more, I hope upon reading this, you will go to the pages of New Testament to see if my assertions have any merit.  I hope you will consider where your own loyalty lies. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

She Does Not Know (Hosea 2:1-13)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

            Father’s Day: I thank God for my dad.  I thank God that I get to be a dad.  At this point in life, my dad is my friend, one of my best, most trusted friends.  My kids are a delight to me.  The point I want to emphasize in sharing this is God’s role in it.  I count these relationships as the most cherished of gifts, and God gets the credit.
            I say this knowing full well that many among us have damaged relationships with their dads or no relationships with their dads.  Or, there is much love, but Dad has died.  In a few cases, dads we know have lost children.  What hurts as much as burying one’s own child.  So for someone in my situation Father’s Day is a happy day.  For others, the same day is one of sadness.
            But back to the main point, what about God?  Why would God allow me and others a great relationship with both father and kids?  Why doesn’t everyone get that? 
Reading the prophet Hosea on Father’s Day is oddly interesting.  He was told, as a prophetic act, to marry a prostitute and then father children by her.  Their three children were given names that communicated God’s message.  The first was a son whose name means “God sows.” Then came a daughter called, “Not my people.” The third child was a son given the name, “Not pitied.”
Chapter two opens with the narrator telling “God sows” to talk with his brother and sister.  They are re-named “My people,” and, “Pitied” or “compassion.”   God will not continuously reject his own; even though they turned away from God, the heart of God is such that God welcomes the sinful nation back again embracing them as God’s people.  As angry as God gets, God will always have a heart of compassion.  As Hosea 2 opens, the eldest, “God sows,” is to tell the younger two that they need to convince their mother, Gomer the prostitute, to stop living a promiscuous life. 
Hosea 2:2, “Plead with your mother … that she will put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts.”
Of course what’s actually happening is God is speaking to his people.  The mother is Israel.  This is a family conversation with the father, Hosea, strangely silent.  Yet, the actual conversation is God’s family, with God as the angry father who has been deeply hurt.  Israel is the child who rejected his father’s authority and mocked him by giving allegiance and love to other leaders, other fathers.  Hosea the prophet is the faithful child the father has sent to bring the lost back to him.   
That’s the God we meet in Hosea and in the Bible.  God recognizes that humans sin and beckons us back from the devastating effects of sin into the deep well of blessing, joy, and life He has for us.  The world around us, and us with it, is dying in sin.  God wants all who have turned away from God to turn back to Him in repentance and faith. 
God is picture of a loving God.  And yet, we must read closely to see this picture because Hosea also shows another aspect of God.  In Chapter 2, God speaks out of frustration at the way people have turned away from him.
God tells Hosea’s children to plead with their mother to turn away from her scandalous life or, verse 3, “I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and turn her into parched land, and kill her with thirst.”  When God created the world, it was green, but not wild.  God gave Adam and Eve a garden.  God promised Moses and the people a land of milk and honey.  We don’t accidently happen upon milk and honey.  Ask farmers and bee keepers.  Those gifts from God involve work, cultivation.
If we stay in our sin, with our back to God, indifferent to His guidance, in flagrant rebellion against the boundaries he sets around us – if that’s how we live, God will kill with thirst.  The God of love gets angry and we need to see that an angry God is not to be trifled with or ignored.  Hosea calls us to pay attention. 
Verse 4, when the people flaunt immorality and disregard of God, God says, “[for] her children, I will have no pity.”  This calls for 100 % of our attention.  The place where we flaunt immorality and disregard for God is in our daily living.  Behavior, everyday life choices, attitudes of hatred or contempt – everything in our hearts that is the opposite of the life God calls us to is the source of our sin.  This anti-god state of our hearts leads to actions and words that are sins and these sins have consequences not just for us but also for people who we love. 
God will not wave a cosmic magic wand to rescue people from getting hurt by our bad choices.  This doesn’t mean God is absent.  God is here and God is love, but God is also hot-red angry at sin.  Hosea reveals the anger in God – anger at people when people turn away from Him and in their own wisdom end up hurting each other through mean words, through greed, through exploitation of the poor, and through racism and other marginalizations.
Verse 6 – “I will hedge up her way with thorns; I will build a wall against her, so she cannot find her paths.”
Verse 10 – “Now I will uncover her shame in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her.”  Uncover –all God does here is reveal the truth about the person or group who has ignored Him.  To live apart from God is to be without a spiritual anchor; it is to be morally and spiritually adrift.  The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company ruins good morals.  Wake up from your drunken stupor … and do not go on sinning.  For some have no knowledge of God.  I say this to your shame.”
Paul’s phrase, “Some have no knowledge of God,” cuts to the heart of the message.  In the middle of God’s angry tirade in Hosea 2, he says in verse 8, “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, who lavished upon her silver and gold.”  She did not know.
Israel in Hosea’s day had a claim; they were the chosen people of God.  Their cultural life was founded on their relationship with God.  Yet, by the 700’s BC, they lived as though God were an afterthought.  Blessing abounded for the nation, yet in their national consciousness, they did not connect the good in their lives with the giver of the good – God. 
We do not know.  We live our lives and because we don’t see God with our eyes, we assume the good things we have come to us by our own efforts, or by luck, or by fate.  The more we associate joy, success, and prosperity, with our own achievement, the more we feel entitled.  In a sense, it comes to a simple question.  Am I living my life in gratitude or in a quest for more?  Am I thankful for my life?  Or do I strive to accomplish more, to have more (more money, more expensive things, more time)?  If I don’t get the more I think I ought to get, do I become angry?  Do I resent others who have what I believe is rightfully mine?  Does my resentment lead me to try to take my neighbor’s success away from my neighbor and keep it for myself?
When we don’t know that the good and the plenty in our lives is a gift of God and when we think it is ours, we see other people as competition. In America, nonwhite people are competing with white people for jobs.  In my workplace, the person who was promoted should have been me, but it wasn’t, so now, I resent that person.  When we do not know God as the source of our lives and all the good in our lives, it affects how we act toward other people. 
Gomer did not know it was God who gave and who gives what we need to live and to live in joy and celebration.  Not knowing becomes God-ignorance, and God-ignorance becomes survival-of-the-fittest clawing to get ahead at my neighbor’s expense.

As I stated at the outset, I don’t know why God allowed me to have great relationships with my kids and my dad, and with my wife and my mom and with my wife’s family.  I know this.  I didn’t earn it.  Those relationships are not a result of anything I did.  So all I can be is grateful.
I work hard in life.  I try to write good sermons.  I try to do my part to help our church grow.  If I were in another line of work, I would try hard for promotions.  I strive to do my best.  But, I hope, in this life or in any other life I lived, I could be grateful to God for what He gives me without worrying too much about what someone else has. 
A heart of gratitude opens me up to God so that God may go to work in me and through me.  Maybe my family opens ourselves up to that person who is estranged from his family.  We can’t be his dad, but we can love him.  We can’t rescue him from the way sins – his or the sins of others – have wrecked his live.  But we can love him and be a source of good and blessing by being in relationship with him.  And this is just one example of how living in gratitude changes us.

I found Hosea 2:8 – “she does not know” – to be the lynchpin of this message.  The calamity facing Israel took root when they forgot God in the nation’s daily life.
When we examine our lives and see all the places God has blessed us, we turn the phrase around.  We do know that God loves us and has provided for us.  That knowledge plants gratitude in us.  Aware of how thankful we are, we follow God onto a new life trajectory.  We become a blessing for others because gratitude leads to extravagant generosity.  Gratitude also forms us in a way that we expect God to good things.  And he does. 
Perhaps the way to live the core message of Hosea in our lives is to head into the week with three assignments.  This is pretty simple.
(1)  Cite the blessings in your life. Even if you’re going through a rough time, find ways this week, to focus on the good things in life. 
(2)  Once you have a list of blessings, thank for them.  See those things as gifts from God.  Cultivate in your gratitude. 

This does not negate your pain.  Your pain is real and God wants to heal you and help you to a better place.  But even as that’s happening, we can note our blessings and exercise gratitude in our hearts. 
The final thing after citing blessing and building our gratitude muscles is observation.  After of week of grateful living, how are our hearts affected?  What differences do we notice? 
We want to live God-oriented lives.  Gomer, the unfaithful wife in Hosea did not know God was the source of her life.  We know.  We know God and we know God is good and love us.  This week, live by what you know.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

One Life to Live (Hosea 1:1-11)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

            Be ambitious.  Don’t fear embarrassment.  Make messes.  Jump into the unknown.  We only have one life to live. 
            I agree with all these meme-worthy sentiments.  I say, live the way my high school football coach told us to play defense, with reckless abandon.  Try new things.  Go new places.  This life is the only one we get.
            However, that idea that we have but one life to live means more than just make the most of opportunities.  It is also true that we cannot separate our life into fragments.
            Bill is a lawyer, a golfer, a deacon and Sunday school teacher, and the father of a middle schooler.  On Sunday, he teaches his class the New Testament, the book of James, chapter 5, verse 12.  “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’  For 45 minutes he solemnly extols the virtues of honesty and integrity. On Monday, he goes to trial where he knowingly violates the ethical standards he swore a vow to uphold.  Win the case at all costs! That’s how he justifies his actions. 
On Tuesday night at home, he verbally harangues his 8th grade son when he hears the boy tell an off-color joke.  In his Thursday golf league, he tells the same joke to the 3 other attorneys in his foursome, and they stand on the fourth tee box, doubled over laughing. 
            In all those places, Bill is Bill.  There’s no separating lawyer-Bill from golfer-Bill from Bill-the-dad from Deacon-Bill.  Nor can we break up our lives.  We only have one life.  We don’t act the same way in all relationships.  But we are who we are.  There’s no leaving the religious me at home tonight so I can go out drinking and doing all the destructive things that come after too much alcohol.  If I get sloppy drunk, all that I have said I believe about God in more sober moments still holds.  Theology professor Michael Fishbane writes, “We are not one kind of person when we walk the earth feeling hunger or love, and then an entirely different sort when we listen to music or talk about [God].  We are always one and the same.”[i]
            When we talk about God, we speak of the boundaries of our existence.  Venturing beyond God is impossible and even nonsensical.  There is nowhere that God is not.  Our God-thoughts and God-talk, our theology, sets our reality.
            Everyone here made the effort to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and come to this building.  Along the way if someone asked, “What you doing?”  You’d say, I’m going to church.”  We’re here because we chose to be here, so we all probably believe in God or are at least open to the idea.  Many are even filled with passionate desire to worship God.  The Old Testament prophet Hosea would applaud such zeal for the Lord.  Hosea would also watch us closely after church, on Monday and Tuesday, on Friday night; Hosea wants to see if the songs we sing and the prayers we pray influence the words we speak and the things we do when we’re not here.
            Hosea was a prophet at a time when the ancient Jewish people had been divided into two separate nations.  The North was made up of the descendants of 10 of the 12 sons of Jacob whom we meet in Genesis 25-35.  Whenever you hear the phrase ‘the 12 tribes of Israel,’ it’s a reference to the descendants of Jacob’s 12 sons.  The nation was one people under the first three Kings, Saul, David, and Solomon.  Their stories can be found in the Old Testament books 1 and 2 Samuel, and also the first 11 chapters of 1 Kings.  In 1 Kings 12, the son of the deceased King Solomon, Rehoboam, alienates the 10 northern tribes, so they separate and crown Jeroboam as their king. 
            This event begins the period of the split kingdoms of the Jewish people with the north referred to as Israel and the south as Judah.  The stories of both kingdoms are intermingled in the Bible books 1 and 2 Kings.  The Northern Kingdom is lost to history when they are defeated by the Assyrian empire in 722 BC.  The Assyrians take of many of the Israelite people into exile and then force intermarriage with other peoples they relocate to Israel.  The descendants of these intermarriages are the Samaritans who figure so prominently in the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. 
            Thus the history of the Israelite monarchy is told from 1 Samuel through 2 Kings, essentially the years 1020 BC to 586 BC.  That period of history is seen from another angle in the books of the prophets, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea.  Hosea, who worked in the Northern Kingdom, spoke and wrote the word of God from roughly 780-730BC.  His writing is not to recount history but rather to reveal God’s truth in light of that history.  He wrestled with a terrible burden.
            Hosea was visited by God’s Spirit in a way that is unique to Biblical prophets.  The prophets mentioned in the Bible reveal the heart of God.  Even though the world different in our day than in Hosea’s, the heart of God still beats.  People today rebel against God in some of the same ways. Hosea’s burden was he could see it all – God’s holiness and the people’s rebellion.  What Hosea had to say in the 8th century BC speaks in the 21st century AD. 
            He jumps right to it.  God gives Hosea an absurd instruction.  “Take for yourself a wife of whoredom.”  Marry a prostitute and have children with her. Parents wants their sons to marry women of virtue and good character.  Parents want their daughters to marry men who are gentle, trustworthy, and faithful.  I can’t recall anyone I have heard say, “Man, I hope my boy finds a lady of the night when he grows up.”  No one says that. 
Everyone involved in the exchange that happens in prostitution is broken.  Life has led that woman to think that her best or maybe only option is to sell her body.  That man paying the money needs deep meaningful connection.  But he doesn’t know how to find it.  So instead, he pays money for sex without relationship, without intimacy.  Prostitution is sad.  And evil.  Everyone involved in it is deeply wounded.  God told Hosea, marry a prostitute and have kids with her.
Hosea’s first work as a prophet was to enter a marriage none of us would ever consider.  However, for Hosea, it is a prophetic act.  He is enacting what Israel has been doing for decades.  Marry a wife “of whoredom,” because “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (v.2b).  The land – the Northern Kingdom – Israel is compared to a man who leaves his wife and goes to a prostitute.  The Israelites have worshipped other Gods.  That’s idolatry – turning away from the true God to worship stone idols.  Adultery is a having sex with someone other your spouse.  In God’s view, to worship anyone or anything other than him is spiritual adultery. 
And we do it all the time.  We cut God out of the picture and give our allegiance and our hearts to things: political movements; relationships; favorite past-times or hobbies; sometimes addictions.  Some people put their children in the place that belongs to God.  God wants us to love our families.  It is commanded in the Bible.  But we are not to worship our children.  They are not the ultimate.  God is. 
The Israelites of Hosea’s day obeyed some of the religious practices prescribed in the Law of Moses, spelled out in in Exodus and Leviticus.  They certainly believed in God.  But they also worship local Canaanite deities and Egyptian gods.  God was about as happy with this as you would be with your spouse sleeping with someone else and then coming home and acting like everything was fine. 
God told Hosea to live out the situation in his own life.  Marry a prostitute.  Name the first son you and she will have ‘Jezreel.’  This name means “God sows” or “God plants seed.”  The second child, a daughter, will be Lo-ruhamah, which means “Not pitied.”  When Assyria comes to destroy Israel, God’s going to let it happen.  And when the Israelites cry out for salvation the way they did when they were slaves in Egypt in the days of Moses, God will show no pity.  The third child of Hosea and his wife, the prostitute Gomer, will be a son called Lo-ammi.  That translates “not my people.”
God sends Hosea into a marriage he would not have chosen and tells him what his children’s names will be.  Those names tell us that God plants destruction.  When that destruction comes and the people are defeated and exiled, God will not be sorry. 
How do we suppose God feels about lawyer Bill who plays the good Bible teacher at church, but when Sunday ends, he becomes the unethical lawyer who beats competitors that naively play by the rules?  By week’s end, Deacon Bill, Christian Bill, has chastised his son and then repeated his son’s lewd speech, laughing all the while. 
It’s just an example.  Maybe the preacher is making too much out of something that’s not a big deal, a mountain out of mole hill.  Preachers tend to do that.  I wonder if Hosea’s critics dismissed him as being a holier-than-thou loud mouth who made a lot of noise over nothing.  How do we suppose God feels when the choices we make and the words we speak as we live our lives Monday-Friday fail to match up to the faith we proclaim on Sunday?
The book of Hosea is about an integrated life.  Who we are in our faith, who we are in the world – it is all a part of us.  The prophet asserts that God is truly furious when we try to carve our lives into segments. 
Now, you and I, each one of us chose to come to church and sing and pray and smile and hug and meet God and feel joy.  I bet no one came seeking the God who forces his best people into doomed marriages as a way of expressing his divine anger.  We didn’t come to hear God tell us, “I have no pity for you and you are not people.”
And we know that God’s not like that.  Two weeks ago, we heard the Gospel of John say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not become exiles in Assyria, but rather might have eternal life in the Kingdom of God.”  Every week we hear the Gospel: in Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has come near.  He went to the cross for the sins of the world and in his resurrection, death is defeated.  When we give our lives to Him, we have everlasting life. 
We know God is not vengeful.  God is not as weird as He seems in the opening of Hosea.  Hosea knew this too.  Hosea’s terrible burden is he could see the sins of the people more clearly than they could.  He could see God’s absolute fury when the people could not. 
Hosea’s glorious privilege was he was allowed to see the heart of God. 
Beginning in verse 7, we see a pattern that will be repeated in this book.  It is as if God vents the divine anger, but then suddenly remembers that he is God and God is love.  “You name that 2nd child ‘no pity.’” But then, verse 7, “I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them.” 
“You name that 3rd child ‘Lo-ruhamah.’ They are not my people.”  Then verse 10 says, “The people of Israel will be like the sand of the sea.”  God made the promise to Abraham (Genesis 22:17).  His descendants would outnumber the grains of sand on the shore. Hosea 1:11 says, “The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together … and shall take possession of the land.”
In 722 Israel went into exile in Assyria, with the only trace of the original people being the Samaritans.  In 586, the people of Judah went into exile in Babylon.  Before either of these events, the prophet promises God will reunite his people.  That’s the heart of God we see in Hosea.
By the time of Jesus, the Jews who made up Israel had disdain for their Samaritan cousins.  Yet, in both Luke and John, Jesus has moments in which it is clear that the salvation he brings is for these biracial people.  Jesus did not just come for Judah and Israel.  Jesus is the Savior in Samaria.  Maybe that’s one way the promise of reunification in Hosea 1:11 is fulfilled. 
In fact, in Jesus, all nations are drawn together into one family, united in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We who know him as our savior are tasked to announce his salvation to the world.  We are not prophets with the authority and vision of Hosea.  But, we are heralds.  We are the announcers and the messengers.  We live our lives as people of faith – in all the places of our lives.  And in those places we invite the people we know into the salvation Jesus gives. 
The same God who called his people to live integrated lives in Hosea’s day calls us to one life today; a life of consistent, contagious faith.  May we live the one life we have to the glory of God, in Jesus’ name.

[i] Michael Fishbane (2008), Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago), p.13.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Web in which we Live

“We (humans) weave our lives into a web of words, like spiders who spin their creations from within themselves and trap reality in these very meshes – from moment to moment, in both silent monologue and social discourse, and across the divide of time, as we learn about the past and communicate it.”[i]
It may be impossible, but give this a try.  Imagine you are outside your own life, looking in at it, as an observer.  If you were a fly on the kitchen wall, observing your life, watching the interactions with family members, seeing from all points of view, hearing every phone conversation, watching emails and texts read, what would you see?  It’s hard. We don’t observe our own lives, we live them.  This is akin to asking a fish to be consciously aware of the ocean.  But try it.
What are the words that you use to make sense of the world in which you live?  If you were looking at our house, hearing the back-and-forth between my wife and me, you might hear one of us say in a mock old man voice, “I’m freezing,” or, “get off my lawn.”  Usually this is followed up by a giggle.  You have no idea what we’re discussing or what we mean by this phraseology, but here’s hint: it has little to do with temperature or grass.    Maybe you’d pick it up from context, maybe not.  Based on circumstance, tone, and past experience, Candy and I understand one another perfectly with such phrases.  These are a part of the web of words in which we live, a web we’ve woven over 15 years of marriage.
In the case of these two phrases, which are used interchangeably, we’re alluding to a memory of something that gave us a lot of needed chuckles.  She and I have numerous phrases and mannerisms like this that make up our web.  You do too.
What words in our webs are destructive, put-downs that are nothing other than mean-spirited?  How often are 4-letter vulgarities included in our webs of words?  How often are these harmless, and how often are they indicators of a soul that’s quite sick and in need of radical treatment?
How many of the world-defining words that make up the building blocks of our sense of reality are God-words, God-glorifying words, or words born of God’s light?  The web is not just the words we most often say.  It includes the first words that come to mind when we unconsciously react to the world.  When we’re trying to make sense of what’s going, we reach for our web of words because those words are world-defining.  When the new happens, good or bad, we have to put it in a context we are able to grasp.  We have to take all stimulus into our web of words.
“Theology,” writes Michael Fishbane, “has the primary duty of serving God alone.”[ii]  Whatever God ideas we speak, we speak out of faith because God cannot be known by scientific inquiry nor can God be reduced to measurements.  Fishbane says the “vastness of existence” is impinging upon us at all times,[iii] and God is in that vastness, before and after it, and beyond it.  Theology is not an intellectual exercise even though it is often treated that way and exercised that way.  Theology is belief.  It is faith.  It is God-talk, God-thought, and God-colored composition. 
As a matter of faith, the church guides the members of the church family into reconceiving the web of words, the meaning-makers by which we live, so that God is at the heart of the weight-bearing strands of the webbing.  God holds it all together.  We grow in our sense of God to the extent that our natural tendency is to look to God in all things.  We become so faith-minded, our lives would not make sense apart from God. 
I am now in a season in which I am going to look at my life, try to see myself from outside myself, and then attempt to reweave my webs (we all have more than one).  I am going to study the world around me, paying special attention to perspectives very different than my own.  And I am going to read and reread and reread a book of the Bible, Hosea.  In all these examinations, I will listen for God’s voice.  I will try to listen in such a way that my listening will create meaning and then I will live in the meaning I’ve been given.
Would you join me?  The first two tasks, examining your own life and studying the world around you, are the same for you as for me.  We study ourselves and the world in which we live.  The third task, narrowing focus to one book of the Bible, is unique to each person.  There are 66 books to choose from.  God speaks in all of them (even those where God is not directly named).  Let these three tasks be intertwining threads that make up the strands of the web of meaning you’re weaving.  Read yourself, read the world, and read the Bible.  And reflect and pray, and then reconstruct your sense of reality based upon what you hear God saying.

[i] Michael Fishbane (2008), Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology, the University of Chicago Press (Chicago), p. 15.  Fishbane is the professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago.
[ii] FIshbane, p.39.
[iii] Ibid, p.39.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Safe, New, Sent (Matthew 20:16-20)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

            Who we are supposed to be as individual believers and as a local congregation comes from who Jesus is.  We get to know him in the stories we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  The Bible is the authority to which we must conform.  The Bible is not to be adjusted in order tos fit in with our lives, with modern day sensibilities, or with current trends.  We adjust our thoughts and our lives to what we understand the Bible to be saying.  We submit ourselves to the God we meet in the Bible. 
            We meet God in story – primarily in the story of Jesus.  There are numerous examples. This morning we’ll look at a few.  First, Mark 3:1-6. 
[Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

            The man’s withered hand was for him a deformity and a disability.  He could not work.  His condition would be attributed to sin in his life – God inflicted him with a useless, withered hand as a punishment.  Thus, he could not do manual labor and he lived as a social outcast. 
            Jesus welcomed this rejected man.  Jesus interrupted normal Sabbath routine to help him.  What could be better than working a miracle that would ease the man’s pain, restore his social standing, enable him to participate fully in community worship, and empower him to go to work and make a living?  Jesus changed this man’s life, and verse 6 says the powers that be were enraged.  They had constructed a system of rules that marginalized the man instead of coming together as a community to help the man.  The synagogue and the synagogue leaders magnified the suffering the man went through due to his infirmity.  They were the opposite of “safe” for him.  Whatever difficulty he endured in life was increased by the religious leader were supposed to care for his spiritual life.  And churches through the ages have inflicted similar suffering on people.  People already going through various kinds of pain go to church for hope and instead are judged in a way that makes things worse.
            Jesus welcomed the man, loved him, and restored his life. 
            Jesus also condemned the Pharisees who showed no love to broken people and lost sinners.  Verse 5 says Jesus was angry at their attitude.  It also says, he grieved in his heart at the spiritual condition of that synagogue.  If we love the most broken people who come through our doors, we’re safe for them, the way Jesus was.  If we push to the margins people who already feel like outcasts, we cause Jesus grief and he’s angry at us.
            This is what he says in Matthew 23.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.[a] 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell[b]as yourselves.
            One more example shows how Jesus was safe for the wounded, the outcast, the lost, the confused, and those in great pain. 
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.

            Like the man with the withered hand, this woman suffered a physical ailment that also left her socially outcast and financially ruined.  In every way imaginable, she was down and out.  Jesus was on his way to heal the dying daughter of a very important man.  He stopped walking to the house where girl lay, just as we early saw him stop the synagogue worship.  To him, the person in front of him with great need was not a distraction.  Showing love to that person was the mission.  This woman was labeled unclean, but he called her daughter, healed her, and restored her.
            The first principle of our church’s philosophy of ministry is to embody the way Jesus is safe for people.  Are you full of questions?  This is a safe place for you to ask them.  Have you done some bad things in your life, and now come seeking forgiveness?  It is OK for you to tell your story here.  Is the world an unsafe place for you?  Come into the arms of Jesus.  That’s what we want to be for you.  One of our top priorities must be to be a safe place for people who need a safe place. 
And sometimes, the one who needs the safety of Jesus is someone who’s been coming a long time.  You don’t need to have it all together.  Even deacons and elders and pastors need the church to be that safe place.  Come and meet Jesus in this place.  Come as you are.  Come into the arms of Jesus.

Once we’ve established that we are a safe place, as Jesus is safe, and we have to constantly work on this, then we pray that people will meet the Holy Spirit in our midst.  In meeting God, we are made new.  In the bulletin, it says, “Transformed.”  That word and “made new” are interchangeable.
Listen to this exchange Jesus has with the fishing brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter. 
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:18-19).

            Jesus takes them as they are, a couple of fishermen in the process of fishing.  However, Jesus tells them there will be changes.  Their lives are fixed in that region right along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  He says that’s going to change.  “Follow me,” he tells them, and it is clear he’s on the move. 
            They’ll fish again.  In the Gospel of John, we see them fishing after the resurrection.  Fishing will always be part of their lives, but it is no longer the top priority.  Job, family, marriage, relationships, physical fitness, career – whatever we put at the top of the priority list is moved down a notch when we do what Jesus invited Andrew and Peter to do, follow him.  Following him means he becomes Lord.  He is master of our lives. 
            He tells them, “I will make you fish for people.”  They have no sense of what this means, we might not either.  This call to evangelism has led many in Christian history into the damaging idea that we are supposed to change people.  Not so!  We don’t change people.  We help them meet Jesus and find forgiveness of sins in Him.  Once people meet Jesus, they are transformed.  When we “fish for people” as he said Andrew and Peter, we are transformed from the lost and the broken to disciples who know the Lord and who work at sharing his love with individual people who are lost and dying in a world that is lost and dying. 
            This is what our church is all about.  We are a safe place where people can come as they are and be loved.  Once here, in our community, they meet Jesus, and upon meeting Jesus, we do not remain as we are.  We have a relationship with the God who created the universe.  That’ll change a person.  We are made new, transformed into the perfect image of God.  We become new creations.

            Safe!  New!  There is a third and final anchor for our philosophy of what a church, what our church, is called to be: Sent! 
            In Luke 10:1-11 we see the first example of what Jesus will constantly do – send his followers into the world to announce the salvation he brings.

The Lord appointed seventy[a] others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’[b] 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

            Like those earliest disciples, we are sent.  Each week, we are sent from worship into the world to be witnessed who share the Gospel in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and surroundings towns.  This is our Jerusalem.  Sometimes, we send members of our church out on mission trips.  And, when people have to leave church to move and live in other places, we pray over them  We pray a commissioning prayer, a sending prayer that says, ‘go with God’s blessing; go on mission for Christ.’  We live our lives as called people – called to give witness to the goodness of the Kingdom of God.

            Our church is to be a safe place where people are welcome and loved, and then, here they meet Jesus.  In meeting him, we are made new, transformed, and born again.  As new creations we are sent into the world to be the body of Christ sharing the love of Christ with all people.  This is what Carrboro Baptist Church is called to be.  This is who HillSong Church is.  Whatever future names we operate under, in essence, we are the body of Christ, at work, spreading his word in a world that desperately needs Him.
            This construct for church is easily seen in Matthew 28:16-20 – the passage known as the Great Commission.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

            “Go therefore,” Jesus says.  They are sent.  Faith does not sit in one place.  God’s mandate for the church is that we move into the world, the entire world, that all may know Jesus.
            “Make disciples … baptizing them;” we tell the story so that people will hear it, believe it, and give their lives to Jesus.  We are made new and then we try to help others discover new life in Christ.
            “And I am with you always.”  The safest place to be is with Jesus and He is always with us.  Because he is always with us, we are to be welcoming, inviting for other people.  Are people afraid of you because of your knowledge, because of your sense of self-righteousness, of because of a judgmental or intimidating spirit you give off?  That cannot be so, not if you or I want to be Jesus’ disciples.  People must feel safe and welcome approaching us just as Jesus puts people at ease. 

            Safe-New-Sent; our church aspires to this.  Spend time this week praying for our church, that our church may live into this calling God has given us.  We need your prayers.  We are entering a season where we re-discover this identify and in discovery, we live into it.  Pray for us and pray for God to show you your part in this church family.