Monday, June 30, 2014

It's Time for Evangelicals to Come Out for Evolution

Whenever I engage in conversation with people I meet for the first time I try to avoid being asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” But if I am asked I say, “I am a minister.” Generally, the one who asks then inquires, “What denomination?” or “What kind of church?”

Here is where I always have to clarify, depending on the most recent news headline involving Christian leaders: “I am a Baptist minister, but I am not a science-denying Baptist minister who think that dinosaurs lived alongside humans a few thousand years ago.”

What a strange irony that a 30-foot-long fossil of an Allosaurus will be on display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky where Museum founder, Ken Ham, recently debated science educator Bill Nye. Ken Ham and his colleagues think it defends the book of Genesis and supplies evidence of Noah’s flood. Good grief!

Unfortunately, this is real life, not a Charlie Brown cartoon. According to a recent survey by the Associated Press, 77% of people who claim to be born again or evangelical say they have little or no confidence that the universe began 13.8 years ago with a big bang. And 76 % of evangelicals doubt that life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection.

Evangelical science professors and biblical scholars know better! Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University told Cathy Grossman of the Religion News Service that many biblical [evangelical] scholars do not see a conflict between religion and science. He noted: “The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1.”

That’s right! Straight from the mouth of an evangelical professor.

I suspect that many (if not most) evangelical biblical scholars who subscribe to some form of biblical inerrancy (and sign faith statements testifying to that fact) believe what professor Falk believes.  

They know there are different kinds (genres) of biblical literature. They know that the creation stories are parabolic in nature—that they are spiritual, metaphorical, and theological stories that teach truth about God and God’s relationship to the world—not historical chronicles or scientific reports.

They know that Ken Ham’s claim that “no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record” is utter foolishness, because they know that the Bible is not a science or history book.  

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox tells about the time the student leader of Harvard’s atheist group on campus took one of his theology classes. This otherwise bright student wrote a very weak paper in which he sought to discredit the God of the Christian and Jewish faiths by attacking and dismantling a literal interpretation of the Genesis Flood Story. He thought that by proving the story could not have happened the way the story says it happened, he would thus disprove the reality of God.

Dr. Cox said to the student, “Don’t you know a story when you read one.”

Evangelical professors know that the creation stories were never intended to be history lessons or science reports.

They also know . . .

  • that evangelical Christians need not fear or deny the enormous amount of scientific data supporting evolution (99%of America’searth and life scientists hold to some form of evolution),
  • that the story of evolution and the biblical story are not mutually exclusive,
  • and that a healthy faith welcomes and is informed by science. 

So why do so many evangelicals deny evolution and believe in a literal interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis?

Are they afraid of being shunned or looked down upon by their peers? Are they afraid to rock the evangelical boat? Why aren’t educated evangelical pastors teaching their churches what they know to be true? Are they afraid of facing conflict in their churches or losing their jobs?

Whatever the reason, it’s time for evangelicals who know the truth to “come out” and  proclaim the truth. If the truth sets us free, as Jesus said, then many of our evangelical sisters and brothers need to hear a liberating word from their pastors. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Being Christian When Being Christian Isn't Easy (An Exposition of Matthew 10:24-39: Second Sunday After Pentecost)

In order to appropriate this passage appropriately it’s important to note that this passage is set in a larger context of persecution and end-time expectation where Jesus sends out his disciples as sheep among wolves to proclaim the imminent fulfillment of the kingdom of God. The early disciples believed that Jesus would most likely come  within their lifetime to bring an end to this present age and usher in God’s future kingdom. They also believed that the time leading up to that decisive moment would be marked by great suffering and tribulation, particularly from powers opposed to the kingdom. The early Christians inherited this apocalyptic outlook from Palestinian Judaism. They reworked it, of course, in light of their belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

Of course, looking back from our point in history we know they were mistaken about the apocalyptic schematics. Still, some of us haven’t learned much from it, because we still cook up these prophetic timetables, even more elaborate than the ones that were popular in Judaism around the time of Jesus. “The Left Behind” books were hugely successful selling in the millions, and a significant number of people who read them actually believe that the books reflect what is going to happen according to Bible prophecy.

With regard to the persecution this biblical text speaks of, it is important to remind ourselves that people in other times encountered persecution and today Christians in other places and countries are indeed encountering persecution, sometimes in great severity. Not as a prelude to the end, but it’s real and intense nonetheless.  

And though we live in a country where we do not fear anything that resembles the kind of persecution reflected in our text, there are times when we have to swim against the current with some consequence.

Whether one is facing opposition or not, there are some things we can all glean from this passage. The overriding theme here is that being a Christian means imitating Christ. This theme – of imitating Christ – pervades the Gospel of Matthew. According to Matthew, a Christian is someone who aspires to be like Jesus; a Christian walks in the way of Jesus and obeys his teaching.

Jesus says, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher . . . If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”

None of us should be surprised that when we stand up for the things Jesus stood for - when we champion the causes that Jesus championed, when we pursue the liberation of the oppressed, when we identify with those Jesus identified with - we can expect some opposition. It’s par for the course.  

And whenever we encounter opposition, Matthew’s Gospel assures us that we need not fear, because the presence of God is with us to sustain us and strengthen us.

* * * * * * * *

The admonition not to fear is an admonition not to harbor fear; initial fear is simply a reaction to a perceived threat and sometimes can be helpful.

There is a story that I hope is true about a man working the four to midnight shift every night. He walked home and his route passed a cemetery. One night he was in a particular hurry, and since the moon was full, he decided to take a short-cut through the middle of the cemetery. The route lopped five minutes off his walk, so he decided to make it his regular path. One night, however, when it was particularly dark, without any moon or stars, he had the unfortunate mishap of falling into a freshly dug grave. He wasn’t hurt but the grave was so deep he was unable to get out. He began to yell, but nobody heard him. Finally, he resigned to wait for morning, when his plight would be discovered. So he pulled his coat up around his neck and huddled in a corner to try to sleep.

He was awakened in an hour or so by the noise of a falling body. A second unfortunate man had stumbled into this same grave. Sleepily, the first man watched his companion frantically try to crawl out. After a few minutes, he felt obliged to comment, “Hey buddy, you’ll never get out that way.” Well – he did!

Sometimes fear helps us discover powers we did not know we had. If fear causes us run for cover to get out of harms way, that is a good thing. But perpetual fear, demobilizing and debilitating fear is not; that kind of fear is life diminishing.

Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Hell is used metaphorically for that which destroys. The point here is that God is the only one who can destroy a person completely, soul and body. The powers that be can kill, they can end one’s physical life, but not one’s eternal, conscious existence. Only God can do that. But that does not mean God “will” do it.

Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

The argument seems to be: God is the only one who can completely destroy soul and body, but we don’t have to worry about that, because God cares so deeply for us. The God of Jesus even cares for a little sparrow that that is hurt and injured and falls to the ground. Is this hyperbole? Maybe. But the point is that the God who can destroy us would never destroy us, because God loves us. God even takes note of the number of hairs on our head – which is a poetic way of saying that we all extremely valued and special to God.

Think of how we value and care for our own children and grandchildren. That’s just another way we reflect God’s image. That’s how God cares for every human being.

It’s not always easy to confront and face our fears, but followers of Christ can count on God’s love and vindication – as Jesus says in the text: “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

* * * * * * * *

The words about confessing and denying Jesus in this passage also need to be understood in the larger context that envisions persecution. However, these words, too, can speak to us in our present day context

In Matthew’s Gospel, confession is never just about saying words. As part of the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21).

Confessing Jesus means standing with Jesus in what Jesus stood for. It means identifying with Jesus – being passionate about the things Jesus was passionate about. It’s about imitating Jesus. And that can be costly.

Imitating Jesus demands a high level of commitment and in the context of Matthew’s church it had a way of dividing loyalties. Jesus called for a commitment that took precedent over everything else. The peace Jesus wanted to bring called for a radical kind of commitment to the ways of peace. It meant laying down one’s weapons. It meant walking away from situations that would evoke violence.

In Matthew 12 we are told that after Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath the Pharisees conspired and plotted “how they might destroy him.” Jesus’ actions provoked animosity. Matthew says, “When Jesus became aware of this, he departed.” Jesus withdrew to avoid any violence.

Jesus taught nonviolent resistance to the political and religious powers. He told his disciples to love their enemies – to pray for them and do good by them.

It’s not hard to imagine how such teaching would divide families in a time of intense persecution. Think about how divided we are today in our own context with regard to gun violence. We can’t even get common sense gun legislation passed that would demand background checks. Even in this great country of ours we seem to be committed to a culture of violence.

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked out in the center. Roy Honeycutt, who for many years was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when that school was still a credible institution, told this story.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honour to end the conflict.   

Afraid, as the inscription reads, of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon and punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through. It could have been cut off, but instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” 

Imitating Christ calls for no less than “chancing one’s arm.” And yet Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

* * * * * * * *

The final verses of our text contain both warning and promise: “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What this text is saying is that if one cannot remain faithful to the values, principles, and cause of God that Jesus embodied, the things that Jesus lived and died for, then one is not worthy to be called a disciple of Jesus.

I certainly don’t think this means that the person who is unfaithful is forever lost or has no chance of redemption. When Jesus says, “whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven,” he is not talking about total rejection or abandonment. Just think of Peter and the rest of the Twelve. They denied Jesus and abandoned him, but Jesus did not abandon them did he?

Those who try to preserve their life in this world end up losing it, says Jesus, they miss out on what real life is. But those who give up their lives for the things Jesus lived and died for, discover what real life is. And that is true now as well as later.

The emphasis in this passage on imitating Christ, which is an emphasis all through the Gospel of Matthew, is about imitating Christ in the present. We are called to imitate Christ now. Salvation is now before it is later. There is “more” to come, much more, an abundance of “more” whatever the more may be. The adventure of faith goes on after death, but it starts right now as we take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Our passage today ends and my sermon ends on this affirmation: That when we live as disciples of Jesus, when we imitate his way of life, when we give ourselves to the principles and values that Jesus gave himself to, when we live as Christians when being Christian isn’t easy, we can expect a kind of richness of life that is not measured in dollars or possessions or popularity or good fortune. Rather, it’s measured in our faithfulness to love as Jesus loved and in our commitment to what is just and good and right.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, grant us the courage and instill within us the commitment to be imitators of Jesus, to be faithful to the values and principles he gave his life for, to be willing to cut against the grain if necessary in order to do your will and be a faithful follower of the Christ. May we not be afraid of what the powers that be can do to us, but let us find strength and boldness and endurance in the value and worth you place on each one of us. As we lose our lives for the sake of your kingdom, may we discover how spiritually rich life can actually be. Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bringing Order Out of Choas (A sermon on Creation - Gen. 1:1-2:4a)

If you have learned anything from me about interpreting Scripture over the years, I hope you have learned that you can take the stories in the early chapters of Genesis seriously without taking them literally. One does not have to deny science or evolution to take these creation stories seriously. And you don’t even have to be a liberal or a progressive like me to do that, you can be an evangelical, though the statistics don’t fair well for evangelicals.

According to a recent survey by the Associated Press, 77% of people who claim to be born again or evangelical say they have little or no confidence that the universe began 13.8 years ago with a big bang. And 76% of evangelicals doubt that life on earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection.

Now, the interesting thing, or rather the sad thing is that evangelical professors in evangelical universities and seminaries know better. Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University told the Religion News Service that many biblical [evangelical] scholars do not see a conflict between religion and science. He said, “The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1.”

Those are the words of an evangelical professor. I suspect that many(if not most) evangelical biblical scholars who subscribe to some form of biblical inerrancy (and sign faith statements testifying to that fact) believe what professor Falk believes.

They know there are different kinds of biblical literature that call for different approaches to the text. They know that the creation stories are parabolic in nature — that they are spiritual, metaphorical, and theological stories that teach truth about God and God’s relationship to the world without being literally true or factual. They know that these creation stories are not historical chronicles or scientific reports.

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox tells about the time the student leader of Harvard’s atheist group on campus took one of his theology classes. This otherwise bright student wrote a very weak paper in which he sought to discredit the God of the Christian and Jewish faiths by attacking and dismantling a literal interpretation of the Genesis Flood Story. He thought that by proving the story could not have happened the way the story says it happened, he would thus disprove the reality of God.

Dr. Cox said to the student, “Don’t you know a story when you read one.” Evangelical biblical scholars know what kind of stories these are.

--They know that the claims made by Ken Ham over at the Creation Museum are really far-fetched.
--They know that 99% of all earth and life scientists accept some form of evolution.
--They know that the story of evolution and the biblical story are not mutually exclusive, and that a healthy faith welcomes and is informed by science.

Evangelical university professors know this, so why does 77% of all evangelicals still deny science and refuse to accept evolution? Why do so many evangelicals insist on a literal interpretation of the creation stories? What evangelical professors know is obviously not getting down to the people in the pew

Are the professors not teaching their students these things? Are they afraid of rocking the evangelical boat? Are pastors afraid of causing conflict in their churches? I don’t know why three-fourths of all people claiming to be evangelicals still deny science; but I do know that evangelical professors in universities and seminaries know better.

I love this story we just read and the truth about God and God’s relationship to the world it conveys. We can only scratch the surface this morning.

One thing this story highlights is the dance between God’s oversight and creaturely freedom. What God causes to be, God’s let’s be. For example, in v. 11 God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation; plants yielding seed,” and so forth. And then in v. 12: “The earth brought forth vegetation” and so for. It’s as if God invests creation with creative power.

There is always this mystery in God’s relationship to the planet between God’s oversight and creaturely freedom. This freedom extends to creation itself and all universal processes. God does not coerce or manipulate or override creaturely and earthly life.

In our own lives in relationship to God there is this mysterious dance between God’s engagement/involvement and the exercise of our freedom and responsibility. God guides, but does not overwhelm or overpower. Grace sustains our very existence, and yet there are things we must do that God cannot do for us.

The creation story bears witness to this interplay between God’s creative involvement in our lives and our planet and our creative response and engagement.

Second, this story highlights the direction or purpose of God’s involvement: God wants to bring order out chaos. The story begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The waters that are mentioned in v. 2 were undoubtedly thought of as turbulent waters in light of the Psalms that mention the chaotic waters in connection with creation. So we begin with darkness and chaos. And these texts (Genesis and the Psalms) are behind the Gospel text of Jesus calming the chaotic sea. A lot of symbolism there.

Scholars tell us that this story probably emerged during the time of Israel’s exile in the sixth century BCE. Maybe that’s what the community of exiles was feeling. Is this not how we feel at our lowest point, when the darkness is so think we can see no form or shape to our lives.

Our exile could be brought on by an illness, or feelings of loneliness, feelings of rejection and abandonment, betrayal, or unemployment. I suspect those in poverty and under oppressive powers that beat them down day after day feel this sense of exile more than the rest of us.

The message for us is that God is present in the darkness and the chaos: The story says: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Wind can also be rendered Spirit. Wind is often a symbol for the Spirit – remember John 3 – “the wind blows where it will.”

The terms “darkness” and “chaos” make me think about a piece written by Garrison Keillor. Keillor read where Bill Gates had said in an interview with Time that he had better things to do on Sunday morning that go to church. Keillor started playing around with the idea of what would it take to get Gates attention. He wrote:

Bill Gates was the richest person in America, and after he gained a good deal of the world’s resources, God sent Gates an e-mail: “Bill, I saw how you allocated your time last Sunday morning, and frankly, I was unimpressed. Riding a stationary bike while watching people on the Men’s Channel talk about triglycerides and PSA counts isn’t very satisfying. Bill, let me give you three words of advice: Love your neighbor. Ever hear what happened to the rich man who stiff-armed the beggar Lazarus? It caused a general protection fall and he’s been offline for centuries. If there’s anything you’d like to talk about, I’m here. Your Creator, God.”

Gates typed back a reply: “Dear God, Wow. Omniscience—cool. But how do I know you’re omnipotent too? Gates.” The moment Gates clicked on “send,” the entire Microsoft campus in Redding, Washington, went into a great darkness. The air conditioning shuttered to a halt.  Gates’ office was filled with creeping things and birds of the air. His websites were burning after a multitude of hits by Hittites. A herd of crazed swine trotted down the hall by his office, their little pink eyes aglow. Out in the hall a beggar began begging for alms. When Gates gave him a nickel, the power went back on.

Back in his office, Gates found a message on his computer screen, which said, “Hey Bill, that was only the screen savor. There’s more where that come from. Obey my commandments or the information age could come to a halt through a virus in the system. I did a flood once, and behold, I can do viruses. Once people tried to reach heaven by building a tower, so I made their formats incompatible. I can do this again. P.S.: Gates, it’s your move.”

Obviously, I don’t believe that God creates the darkness and the chaos – life does that, people do that, sometimes we are responsible for own chaos, other times it just happens, but what we can do is respond creatively and allow the Spirit of God to hover over us. We can allow the wind of the Spirit to blow over us and we can be attentive to the way the Spirit leads us. Because God wants to bring order out of chaos.

Does that mean God overrides the bad circumstances? No. Sometimes circumstances change sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the sick find healing, sometimes the unemployed find work, sometimes things turn for the better, sometimes they don’t. No one knows why. It’s not about having enough faith or will power or saying the right kind of prayers. This is the great mystery I was talking about earlier. But whatever the circumstances, God can bring order out of the chaos going on within us. There can be peace in the storm.

A third truth this story shines light on is the dignity and value of human beings as divine image bearers. In v. 27 there is a clustering of the word “create” that focuses special attention on the creation of humankind: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God then speaks directly to the human creatures, which clearly suggests that human beings have a different, more intimate and direct relationship with God than the rest of the earthly creation.

Pages and pages have been written by competent theologians and spiritually astute interpreters concerning “the image of God.” What does it mean to be an image bearer of the divine? Like all other creatures the human creatures have the capacity to procreate, but in the story God bestows on them a special authority. They are told to “fill the earth” and to exercise “dominion” over the earth.

We have successfully “filled” the earth – in fact, we now have to be concerned about overpopulation. We have not successfully exercised authority. What does the text mean when it says, “Let them (the human couple) have dominion over the earth?” (By the way, this is surprisingly, a very egalitarian text. When you consider how patriarchy dominated the ancient world, this is quite amazing. The man and woman are to share in exercising authority.) But what does this mean?

Let me tell you first what it doesn’t mean? It doesn’t mean humans are to exploit or abuse the earth. We have to interpret this in light of what it means for the human creature to be a divine image bearer — to bear the image of God.

If Jesus is the quintessential image bearer then we get our cue from him. What did he tell his disciples when they wanted to be great in his kingdom and sit on his left and right? What did he say to them when they aspired to exercise dominion (authority) over others?

Jesus said, “this is how the people of this age behave, but not so with you. Like me, you are to be servants of others, not lords.”

We exercise dominion by being servants of the creation, by being faithful stewards and managers of the creation — all for the good of the creation. Remember that in Romans 8 when Paul envisioned the future redemption of the world he imagined that redemption extended to all creation.

This creation account says that creation is good and is a blessing. And the human creatures, who enjoy a particularly close relationship to the Creator, are given the responsibility of ensuring the good of the rest of creation. To bear the image of God means that we are stewards and servants of the creation.

Bearing the image of God also means that we have the capacity to hold together both the human and the divine. Our true self is nothing less than God — the Spirit — indwelling us.

When Jesus says, “I and my Father are one” he wasn’t making some extraordinary claim unavailable for the rest of us. He was telling us what is possible for all human beings who bear God’s image. To be united with the divine is our calling. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “We are tabernacles of God, and what happened in the Christ is what is happening in all of us. The putting together of the human and the divine within ourselves is clearly our task and our supreme vocation.”

Jesus invited us to abide in him and his Abba, just the way he dwelt in his Abba. We are invited in. That relationship is available to us, because the Spirit resides in us. We need to consciously nurture that connection. That’s how valuable we are. We who know this are called to make this known to the rest of the world, first and foremost by living it out, by actually loving one another with the love of God and by working for the common good of all people and all creation.

Our universe is still expanding. God is still creating. And one of the things God so much wants to do in my life and your life is pour out God’s love in us so that it flows through us to create a just world. Love is the creative power for good. God wants us to all be creative instruments for the good of the whole creation.

Gracious God, help us realize how important the earth is to you and how we, as divine image bearers, have been given such an important role in creatively working for creation’s good. May we not ignore or excuse ourselves from this high calling, but rather, awaken to our responsibility. Help us to discover our true self – your power and grace at work in our lives so that we will have the wisdom and compassion and love to faithfully bear your image and work for the good all people and all creation. Amen. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ryan Dobson's View of God's Plan (Many Christians Need to Die) Is One More Reason Why We Need a Progressive Chrisian Witness

Over at Dr. James Dobson’s family talk, Ryan Dobson, son of James Dobson, recently wrote a piece seeking to answer the question: Why doesn’t God do a better job protecting us? Why have so many Christians around the world been killed?

On the basis of a text in Revelation 6, he argues that “God’s plan for this world calls for a certain number of Christians to be put to death for the sake of Jesus.” Of course, he doesn’t attempt to explain why God would want to have so many of God’s beloved daughters and sons killed.
He writes: 

“That’s God’s amazing, mysterious plan. And it’s all part of the good and perfect story He’s written for us, a story that will make Him more famous than ever when we finally see how it all plays out.”
How the brutal and violent deaths of God’s children at the hands of the powers that be can somehow be proclaimed as “part of the good and perfect” story God has designed for this world is beyond me. Dobson doesn’t offer an explanation. The reason, of course, is because this cannot possibly under any circumstances be construed as “good.”
I imagine God suffering with all God’s children who suffer and God hoping for a day when humanity will come to its senses.
But you see, for Ryan Dobson and his kind of Christianity, God has to be in absolute control of the planet—and so, we get these kinds of crazy assertions. No explanation mind you—just an assertion. Apparently, according to Dobson’s statement above, it has something to do with making God famous, as if God’s ego needed to be stroked and exalted.
Dobson says that when Christians “die in greater numbers than ever before,” as he apparently expects them too, “it’s not because God’s design has been sidetracked. No way. Rather, it’s because His plan is being fulfilled now more than ever.”
This is just one more example of why more and more thinking people are abandoning the Christian faith. Unfortunately, many are just leaving; they are not looking around to see if there are churches that offer something better—more credible.
Progressive Christianity offers a kind of faith that is not only credible (it is NOT science denying or narrowly exclusive or judgmental of our LGBT sisters and brothers), it IS also potentially transforming because we emphasize discipleship to the way of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels.

Our understanding of Christian faith is nothing to be embarrassed about. On the contrary, it is something to shout about. We should take every opportunity to talk to friends and colleagues about how our understanding and practice of Christian faith is inclusive, compassionate, credible, social justice oriented, grace-filled, and potentially life changing.
Maybe some of those who are leaving traditional expressions of Christian faith because they can no longer imagine the kind of God those versions picture, will see that abandoning the faith is not the answer. What they really need is a better faith.
Spread the word.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Fire of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor. 12:4-13) - A sermon for Pentecost Sunday

A common theme in both the passage in Acts and the one in 1 Corinthians is the togetherness and unity of the church that coalesces around the gift of the Spirit.

Luke tells us that the disciples who experienced the Spirit in such a dramatic way on the day of Pentecost “were all together in one place.”

Paul explains to the Corinthians that while there’s a diversity of gifts and though members have different capacities and abilities, there is one body and one Spirit. This oneness extends beyond social status and nationality: Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – all are made to drink of the one and same Spirit, says Paul.

In a society infused with the Spirit there is no patriarchal dominance or favoritism. The Spirit is given to all – sons and daughters, slaves and free, Jews or Greeks – all get baptized in the Spirit.

The Spirit breaks down social and cultural barriers and divisions commonly upheld in one’s culture. The Spirit creates a different kind of community. And we know from Paul’s authentic letters that the first Messianic communities, the first churches he planted were egalitarian and charismatic.

You may remember from the text we read last week in John 17 that Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, so that we might communicate to the world the grace and truth Jesus embodied.

What is this oneness that the Spirit creates – that breaks down divisions and long standing cultural pecking orders? Surely it is not a oneness of doctrine.

At one time it was fairly popular among Baptists who believed firmly in the autonomy of the local church and the priesthood of the believer to say: “You get four Baptists together, and you get five viewpoints.” But that was not said disparaging; it was said proudly. We took some healthy pride, I think, in being able to agree to disagree, because we prized a free church and free priesthood.

That saying is not so popular anymore, at least not with Southern Baptists, who have basically, as a denomination, become creedal and patriarchal and intolerant toward dissenting views and perspectives.

Surely the kind of oneness the Spirit creates takes us beyond any sort of uniformity of doctrine or uniformity of ecclesiastical rituals or traditions. Nor does this oneness come about by trying to please everyone in the faith community.

I heard about a church that called a new pastor. He was kind of young and a little green. The day after the truck unloaded all their stuff he and his family were invited over to the home of the chairperson of the search committee for a barbecue along with the other search committee members. The young pastor said, “You can’t imagine what a delight to come to a church and know you have been elected by a unanimous vote.”

The fellow flipping the hamburgers said, “Well, it was practically unanimous.” The preacher said, “What do you mean, ‘practically unanimous’?” “Well, it was practically unanimous.” “Well, what do you mean ‘practically unanimous’?” “Well, let’s just say that it was unanimous.” The preacher wouldn’t let it go, “What was it really? “Well, it was 131 to 2.”

And the preacher thought, “I wonder who the two are?” So the next six months that young pastor tried to find out who the two were. And then the following six months he spent trying to please those two. And at the end of the year, he was fired — 2 in favor of him, 131 against. 

This is not that kind of oneness. This is a oneness that is generated by a passion for a new world, a new creation, for the kingdom of God on earth.

In Acts 1 the disciples were still looking for the Christ to restore the kingdom to Israel. They had a very narrow view, a limited vision;  they still had not relinquished there Jewish exceptionalism, just like so many Christians today who have not relinquished their  Christian excepionalism, or Americans who have not relinquished their American exceptionalism.

Jesus directed them away from notions of a kingdom limited to Israel. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will by my witnesses – in Jerusalem – you will begin in Jerusalem, but then you will move out into Judea and even Samaria – imagine that, Samaria, and then into all parts of the earth.”

Witnesses – that’s what we are called to be says Luke. We are given the power of the Spirit to be witnesses. What kind of witnesses?

Witnesses to the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is not just for Israel, but for the whole world. Not just for Christians, but the whole world. Not just for Americans, but the whole world. It’s the gospel of the new creation. And in Acts 2 and in the first egalitarian and charismatic communities formed “in Christ” we get a taste of what that’s about.

God’s vindication of Jesus by raising him up was not just intended for Israel, it was intended for all humankind, for here is where the Jewish  Jesus becomes the cosmic Christ. This is what Peter says at the end of his sermon in Acts 2: this Jesus who was crucified, God raised up, and made/or appointed both Jewish Messiah and cosmic Lord.

The resurrection of Jesus meant that Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom was still in play. The worldly powers killed Jesus, but God still has it in mind to redeem those worldly powers. God hasn’t abandoned the world. The very world that crucified Jesus, God wants to reconcile to God’s self.

In Acts 2, all the disciples (with the emphasis on all) are filled with the Spirit and each one is empowered to proclaim the good news. Luke, with a bit of hyperbole says that “Jews from every nation under heaven” heard the message in their native language. They were there in Jerusalem for the observance of the feast of Pentecost.

Peter interprets what happened at Pentecost in terms of the end-time prophecy of Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” Peter apparently believed that what happened to them would happen to all people when the kingdom of God is realized on earth. I suspect he, like many of the early disciples, believed that this was the beginning of the realization of that fulfillment.

And what unfolded through the power of the Spirit was a foretaste, a foreshadowing of things to come and a demonstration of God’s intent to usher in a new creation for the whole earth, involving a pouring out of the Spirit upon “all flesh” as the prophet Joel says.

Do you know what we are called to be as a church, as a Spirit infused and empowered people? We are called to be a kind of mini demonstration, a mini outpost of what the kingdom of God is going to be like, of what God wants to do in the larger world.

And what does God want to do? Well, God wants to create a just world, a world where all God’s children have enough to flourish and where there is mutual care and love. Where we each say boldly, “Yes, I am my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” Where the law of love is written on our minds and hearts and is translated into acts of mercy and works of social justice.

I think Paul nails it down in 1 Cor. 12 when he says in v. 7: To each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Paul is, of course, talking to the Corinthian Christians about the common good of the Corinthian church — their health and wholeness. But the church is called, I believe, to be a microcosm of God’s macrocosm. What I mean is that the church – a local church - is called to realize in a particular place within a particular community in and through a particular people what God wants to do globally and universally. God wants to heal the nations and redeem this planet. That’s what Acts 2 is about.

We offer a witness to the world when we – the church - care for one another with the love of Christ and work for the common good of all people. This is why church is important. We are not a business. We are not a club. We are not a mere religious organization. We are the family of God in a particular place living out the life Christ called us to live in order to show the world what it means to be the family of God.

I know we don’t do this perfectly, we have our share of failures. We don’t love each other with all the love we are able. And sometimes we have to confess to each other what failures we have been as instruments of God’s grace and forgiveness. So no, we don’t live out our calling perfectly, but we better be doing it to some degree, because if we are not loving one another with the love of Christ and expressing compassion and working for justice in our society, then we have no right to call ourselves a church.  

Fred Craddock tells about the time when he was a kid, and the family lost their farm and they had to move into town. The kids dressed in what was given to them by charitable organizations. The first day of school the teacher said, “Let’s get acquainted and start our school year by everyone telling what you did on vacation.”

Fred felt so out of place and embarrassed. One girl reported that she spent a week in Florida. Another had gone to Niagara Falls. Another kid said their family went to Washington and seen all the historical sites and all that. Fred was worried, all choked up; he didn’t know what to say. Time ran out and the teacher said, “We’ll continue tomorrow.” 

Fred didn’t want to go back to school. His father asked him why and he told him, and his father said, “She asked you what? What you did on vacation? Obviously your teacher is asking you for a lie, so give her one?” So Fred gave her one. When it was his turn, he told the class, “We went up to New York and Washington and on an on.” Somewhere this side of Niagara Falls the teacher called him out of the room. She said, “You didn’t do all that.” Fred said, “No ma’am.”

She asked, “Well, why then did you say that?” He said, “Because I was embarrassed.” “Why were you embarrassed?” He said, “Because I worked on the farm all summer before we lost it and had to move here.” That put an end to all stories.

Fred goes on to tell about how a group of women from a church brought the family clothes for the kids. There was a pair of Buster Brown shoes just his size. His mother said, “Good, you will go to church on Sunday.” Fred didn’t want to go because he figured it would be just like the school. Someone would ask what he did on his vacation. But they didn’t ask.

Fred says that he was never embarrassed in church. He couldn’t ever remember feeling any less, or any more, or any different from anybody else in church. Fred says that from the age of nine he has had this little jubilee going on in his mind: There is no place in the world like church.

As the body of Christ we are called to “flesh out,” to incarnate the values and virtues of Jesus so those who observe us can take notice. We are called to be an outpost for the kingdom of God – to be a living witness to the household of God. Think of the kingdom as kin-dom - God's household. 

God has given us God’s Spirit – God’s self – in order that we might be church, that we might be Christ’s body in the world. The fire of the Spirit is in each of us. Maybe we have become negligent or indifferent or preoccupied – the fire is still there; it just needs to be stoked and fanned into a flame.

What would it take for the fire of the Spirit to burn hot, to burn passionately in our lives today?

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, help us to realize what a high and noble calling it is to be the church, to be an outpost for your kingdom on earth, to provide a witness to society how your family is meant to live. Give us the grace to recognize and admit all the times we have failed to be the church. Help us to recapture the love and passion that compelled those first disciples to stand up to all challenges and defy all authorities in order to share your love with the world. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Christian's Love/Hate Relationship with the World (A sermon)

John 17 is set in a context of Jesus praying. Though what follows is framed as a prayer, the instruction of the disciples that began in chapter 13 continues.

An important theme in this prayer has to do with the relationship of Jesus’ disciples to the world:

v. 6: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.
v. 9: “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world.
v. 11: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. . . . protect them in your name that you have given me”
v. 14: “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.
v. 15: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
v. 16: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
v. 18: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
vv. 22-23: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

In John’s community “world” had both positive and negative meanings. On the positive side, the living Word (logos) was instrumental in the creation of the world; the world is the good creation of the good God. God loves the world and sent Jesus into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world, to heal and redeem the world. Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s the positive picture.

On the negative side, the world represents that which is under the power of evil. The late Walter Wink has suggested that when world is employed in this negative sense it should be translated “System.” He called the world under the power of evil the “the domination system.”

In his award winning book, “Engaging the Powers,” Wink described how blacks struggling against apartheid in South Africa realized that freedom could not be gained simply by replacing the white leaders with blacks without changing the system. They named the evil and injustice at work in their society “the System.” So when the police, who were instruments of the unjust authorities, were at the door, those on the inside would warn, “The System” is here. When they watched the evil propaganda on television they would say, “The System is lying again.” That’s the world as a domination system.

The first point, I want to make about our love/hate relationship with the world is that because we (disciples of Jesus) do not belong to the world, we must not allow the world, the domination system, to name us and define us and tell us who we are.

In C.S Lewis’The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund, one of the four children who enter Narnia, joins the white witch and then becomes subject to and entrapped by the witch. Aslan, the great Lion and the Christ figure, saves Edmund from the white witch.

After Edmund is saved by Aslan, the other children notice Aslan and Edmund walking together. Lewis writes, “There is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot. As the others drew nearer Aslan turned to meet them, bringing Edmund with him. ‘Here is your brother,’ Aslan said, ‘and--there is no need to talk to him about what is past.’"

Then the witch shows up and requests a meeting with Aslan. The witch says, “You have a traitor there Aslan.” Lewis writes, “Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he'd been through and after the talk he had with Aslan that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn't seem to matter what the witch said.”

What a difference it would make in so many of our lives if we could do what Edmund did in the story. Namely, keep on looking at Jesus and the God of Jesus whom Jesus made known and who alone names us and claims us as God’s own beloved daughters and sons.

I love that passage in 1 John that says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are!” We must resist the negative influences of the domination system that want to use us and discard us as expendable commodities. We must not let the world name us and tell us who we are.

The second point I want to make about our love/hate relationship with the world is this: Because we do not belong to the world, we are not be conformed to the world. Jesus prays that we will be protected from the evil in “the System.”

The popular Baptist minister and author Calvin Miller told about meeting a young Amish man in Pennsylvania some years ago. They began corresponding. Miller said, "It was the best correspondence I've ever had. Every letter was like hearing from the Apostle Paul. It was full of light and Scripture. I loved to hear from him, and I always felt shallow when I answered him." 

One day Miller got a special letter. It read, "Sadie and I are getting married and we'd like to come on our honeymoon and see you. Would that be okay?" Miller responded, "Sure, we would love to have you." So they came.

They wore their black clothes. They rode a bus. Miller's children looked at them like they were relics from the past. Miller took them to his church. The church looked at them like they were relics from the past. Miller said, "I found myself living with people who had never listened to a radio program or seen a television program or gone to a movie."

He found himself explaining things. His daughter’s friend ran through the room with a Dallas Cowboys' sweatshirt on, and Reuben said, "I hear there are cowboys in the west." Miller said, "These aren't cowboys. These cowboys play football." He didn't understand. A world of definitions unfolded all week long.

On Thursday night Miller and his wife had season tickets to the Playhouse, and were going to see Camelot. He asked Reuben and Sadie if they would like to go and they said they would. Miller said, "Now remember, Reuben this is a play, and sometimes people do funny things in plays."

Reuben said, "Calvin, I know your letters. You would never lead me into sin."  Miller said, "Sit down Reuben and let me tell you about the dirtiest parts of this play." He said, "Actors sometimes kiss each other on the mouth, Can you take that?" He thought he could. Miller said, "They wear leotards." Reuben asked, "What's leotards?" Miller tried to explain leotards, but this was very difficult.

Thursday night came and Reuben and Sadie came out in the only clothes they had (all black). Miller's daughter whispered to him, "Dad, are they going to wear those clothes to the Playhouse?" He said, "Yeah."  She said, "Can we go in after the lights go down?" He said, "No, honey. These are our friends." Miller said, "All the way there I felt the tension between a man who wrote godly letters and what I was about to ask him to do."

So they watched Camelot. Every one there had seen Camelot except Reuben and Sadie. So Reuben and Sadie watched Camelot and everyone else watched Reuben and Sadie watch Camelot.

When Reuben and Sadie got back to Pennsylvania, they wrote Miller and his family a wonderful letter thanking them for everything, especially the play Camelot. Miller said the experience gave him a better appreciation for a person in tension with the Scriptures. He wrote, “I don't think Reuben understands. I think he loves God with all his heart, but he's completely unintelligible in a modern culture."

Miller concluded by saying this about disciples of Jesus: “I think you might as well put on your black hat and black suit now. If we stand true to Jesus Christ in the world that's unfolding, we shall look as out of place to our culture as Reuben and Sadie looked to us."

Miller’s concluding statement, I think, is an overstatement. But the point is valid. A disciple of Jesus who takes the life and teachings of Jesus seriously will always live with certain tensions and to some degree look out of place.

For example: Living a life of nonviolence in a violent culture means living with some tension and looking out of place. And so it is when we practice forgiveness in a world committed to retaliation and retribution. Or when we give our lives to the common good and the service of others in a world that aspires for prestige, prominence, and dominance over others. Or when we live a life of humility and simplicity in a world that that is constantly grasping for what is bigger and better, for more power and possessions.

Without question, following Jesus means sometimes being at odds and sometimes appearing odd to those who have adopted the values and live by the goals of the domination system.

That being true, I need to clarify something. One of the characteristics of the writings of this Gospel and the epistles that bear the same name is their sharply defined opposites: good/evil, light/darkness, love/hate, life/death, truth/falsehood, Christ/the evil one. I suspect that such stark contrasts were intended for rhetorical effect – to make a point. Real life is not so clearly differentiated. In real life there’s lots of grey, lots of in-between, and we might find God anywhere.  

What I mean is that even within unjust systems, systems tilted toward evil, you can find God. The Spirit is constantly piercing asunder our neat, clearly marked divisions of what is sacred and secular. The winds of the Spirit blow in the most unusual places. God can show up at any time and place, under all kinds of circumstances and conditions. Generally there is some good even in the most evil system and visa versa.  

So, we do not belong to the world, and because we do not belong to the world we must not allow the world to name us and tell us who we are, and we must not allow the world to press us into its mold. But that does not mean we are to withdraw from the world. Oh no, we are called to engage our world. And that is my third point about our love/hate relationship to the world. Even though we do not belong to the world, we have a mission to the world. Christ sends us, his disciples, into the world to continue the work he was sent to do.

According to John’s perspective, Jesus was sent to reveal and make known God’s love, and that too is our calling — to continue the work of incarnating God’s love and grace.

Jesus prays that the disciples may be one — one in their commitment to love, so that the world may know that God sent Jesus, that Jesus reveals the truth and grace of God, and that God loves the world.

Even though the world is often negligent of God and opposed to God, rejecting the values and virtues embodied in the life and teaching of Jesus, God is committed to healing and redeeming the world. As disciples of Jesus, we are partners and collaborators with God in this endeavor. We are God’s instruments and agents of healing and hope.

John’s Gospel refers to Jesus’ death repeatedly as Jesus’ glorification and the glorification of God. How can Jesus’ violent death at the hands of the domination system reveal the glory of God? Here’s how: In Jesus and especially through his death we meet a loving, nonviolent God.

When Jesus says to Pilot that his kingdom is not of this world, he is saying that it does not partake of the violence of this world – it is not run the way the domination systems of the world are ran. It is a kingdom committed to peace and the healing and wholeness of all people.

That’s what Jesus was committed to – all the way to the cross. He gave his life up in death for the nonviolent, peacemaking cause of God. He was devoted to that mission even unto death. He was killed by the domination system for revealing a nonviolent God and for incarnating truth and grace. He “fleshed out,” he materialized in this real, material world the grace and truth of God. We are called to continue that work.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, teach us how to listen to your voice that tells us we are your beloved daughters and sons, and help us to turn away from the competing and comparing voices of the world. Help us to claim and become who we are, and resist conformity to the greed and selfish ambition and violence that pervades so much of our world. And even as we resist such forces, help us to be aware of how you are working all around us in unexpected ways and places, and in all kinds of people. Give us the courage to engage our world by sharing your love and enable us to embody the nonviolence and amazing grace of our Lord Jesus, in whose name I pray