Sunday, August 13, 2017

Baptism, Repentance, and Grace

Acts 2:37-42

When a scripture reading begins with “Now when they heard this…” it sort of begs the question of what it is they heard. Like when you find “Therefore” in scripture and ask, as you should, what is the therefore there for?
            In this case the things that the people heard about were things about Jesus, specifically Acts 2:36, which reads, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            Ouch.
            Not “this Jesus, the Son of God” or “this Jesus” period, but “this Jesus, whom you crucified.” You did this, Peter says, pointing the finger at the very people who are beginning the church.
This gets at a strange tension in what it means to be a Christian. Yes, we are people who follow God, but we are also people who would probably nail our God to a cross again if we were given the chance—probably not knowing what we were doing. These people in Acts were the original big tent church, spirit-filled, Pentecostals of a sort. These, of all people, were ready to receive the body and blood of Christ in communion with the words “Given for you” or “Broken for you” or “Shed for you.” And yet, these were also the people who betrayed Jesus to be crucified. At least they were by association. To be a Christian is to be a person who is saved by Jesus even while we are people who killed Jesus in the first place. As with these people in Acts, that cuts us to the heart.
            So we repent. We ask forgiveness. Not cheap forgiveness; not “because we got caught so we sort of feel bad about it” forgiveness, but real, tough forgiveness. The kind that sits with us. This is evident enough in what Peter tells us to do: Repent, be baptized, participate in the life of discipleship through teaching and visiting and eating together and praying together. All of this happens as a gift of God who, Peter says, calls us to him. God calls us; we respond by how we live.
            This is really what the sacraments are about: God’s gifts pushing us to respond by living out of gratitude for the grace we have been given.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Active attitude, passive resistance: Putting on the armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20

            I’ve always thought the warfare language around faith was kind of troubling. I mean, God, I hope I don’t demonstrate my faith in you by going out and slaughtering a bunch of villagers. That sounds like I’m some Viking praying to Odin, not so much a Christian. I mean, I can sort of understand the Old Testament; the rules were different then—it was about setting Israel apart, and, yes, there was a lot of killing going on there—in spite of God giving the Israelites an explicit commandment, “Thou shall not kill”—but these examples of killing tended to lift Israel over some occupying force, some people who were not where they belonged, and so while it may still make me a bit uneasy I can understand it. But, after Jesus, the warfare images feel like they maybe shouldn’t be needed. After all, we are no longer Jews or Greeks, so what on earth are we fighting about?
            Yet, the images persist, begging us to consider why. Paul, in Ephesians—in Ephesians of all places, where he has spent pretty much the entirety of his letter talking about unity in and through faith—writes about putting on the armor of God because of the threats to the people from the ruling authorities. This sounds like it might be the pregame pep talk leading to war. This has been used by Christians during the Crusades and the Inquisition, where putting on the armor of God has meant converting the savages by means of a sword. Something about that doesn’t feel right. If someone came to ransack our town and told us to convert or die we would (I think rightly) assume that their faith is pretty weak if it takes threats of violence to achieve conversion.
            So, it seems like we might be heading that direction. Paul takes us to the precipice of where we have been before—war, death, destruction—it’s the old ways again, time to pick up our swords or grab our guns and head to battle, but that’s where things change. It’s precisely at this point where we discover the change in what it means to be a God-follower after Jesus. Yes, we put on the armor of God but the armor of God is not battle armor. Rather, Paul says it is the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace. Paul’s message is particularly effective because he leads us down one avenue—war, battle, man-things—and takes us on a sharp left turn toward something different, a saving grace that requires us not to fight for our lives but to give our lives away. This is the stunning left turn of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
            But, if I’m being honest, this is kind of a tough turn to make, especially for men. Many men are excited to throw on the armor. And here I want to draw a quick distinction between joining the military, which at its best is about serving for peace at home, and going on a personal war, which is about achieving our own ends. Paul wasn’t writing against the choice to defend your country—after all, the people to whom he was writing were under foreign rule already, rather he was taking a certain attitude that tries to achieve its ends through violence and turning it around.
Now, we don’t go to battle as much these days. We certainly don’t do religious wars so much anymore, which is I believe very much for the best. But instead we throw on our Vikings horns or cheese heads or Sioux and/or Fighting Hawks jerseys or smiling Golden Gophers shirts—because nothing so terrifies the enemy as a brick of cheese or a grinning rodent—and then we go and cheer on our team. Or we throw on the armor in other kinds of competition. We throw on the armor of a business suit and make cunning deals and take home lots of money. We put on the metaphorical armor of parents and we defend our families. One of the reasons I find that men do not connect so much with the church these days is because there is sometimes very little here that feeds that sense of going to battle for something. The church may feel passive because we are preaching a grace given to you, for you, and there’s nothing for you to do about it. There’s nothing to seize; no dragon to conquer that isn’t beaten for you. Some of us are like those knights in medieval stories who apparently go kingdom to kingdom looking for a troll or dragon or monster of various size and strength to slay. It’s their purpose.
            Some people just need to battle. But this is where we tend to misunderstand the role of faith, because there are things worth fighting for. Putting on the armor of God is not a violent exercise but it is not a passive one either. Instead, it is living a life worthy of the Gospel to which you have been called. There is a response to grace and that is in how we live. It is what we do with those shoes we put on that are supposed to be bringing peace. It is the work we do—fighting for our families, our communities, our selves. We do this not primarily against antagonistic regimes—I feel like many Christians are walking around looking for a made-up enemy to fight and so they go to battle against the “the culture” or “the world” or worse yet a particular subset of people they imagine to be the enemy—no, most of the time we aren’t fighting anything but ourselves and the power of sin over us.
            The thing we should realize—that is so hard to realize in the moment—is that most of the fights we fight against sin are not fights at all. We don’t wage war on cancer—cancer is part of us. We don’t battle depression—depression is woven into us. We don’t go to war with grief—grief is the product of love, which is the very thing we are fighting for. Often what we need is an active attitude that accepts a passive resistance. Accepting that I cannot fix a thing is the hardest thing to do, but it is very close to what putting on God’s armor is about—it’s remembering that I am not the one I am fighting for.
            But many of us are only happy trying to fix things. If there’s nothing to fix we feel we are lacking a purpose. So, when some tragedy strikes we try to fix it. When others are sick we try to fix it. When something we cannot repair gets broken we obsess over trying to fix it even when it cannot be done. A relationship is not a pipe. A human body is not a car. So, to put on God’s armor is a reminder of our vulnerability, and it’s an acceptance of the things I cannot change, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. That doesn’t mean—just because we admit that we can’t do it all—that there aren’t things worth doing. And that’s where I worry that we lose men in the church, because just because you can’t fix everything—and you have to rely on a higher power to save you and the people you love—doesn’t mean that you can’t be the hands and feet of Jesus. In fact it means you have a real duty to do it. We all do.
            So let’s put on the armor of God for the right reasons. To do good for the world. To be little Christs. Then, let’s accept we can’t do all the good we would like. So, we remember what we are fighting for—not our strength but the strength of God through us.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Beating the "Yeah, buts...": A brief word on unity

Ephesians 4:1-16

There is one body, one Spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all… yeah, but…
            Isn’t that always the response: Yeah, but…
            Maybe you’ve seen that meme of Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, saying “Love one another as I have loved you” and the people saying, “Yeah, but…” What if… what if people aren’t worthy… what if they make poor choices… and Jesus says, “Did I stutter? I’ll start over and let me know where I lose you.” Love one another.
            In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, this book we have called Ephesians, every chapter it seems is on unity. Be unified. Don’t divide. Don’t break apart. There is only one Spirit, one God, one baptism, etc, etc, so you need not be divided by anything.
            “Yeah, but…” the people say.
            Yeah, but what if they are Republicans and I’m a Democrat?
            Yeah, but what if they believe in infant baptism and I believe you have to choose to be baptized?
            Yeah, but what if we believe differently about homosexuality?
            Yeah, but what if we believe differently about women serving in leadership in the church?
            Yeah, but what if we have different practices around communion?
            Yeah, but what if we come from different ethnicities and have different cultural practices in our church?
            Yeah, but what if…
            I could go on and on, maybe I should. Yeah, but what if other people would want us to change who we are. Yeah, but what if they won’t get along with us.
            The great thing about Paul is that he has no time at all for the “yeah, buts.” He just tells the people that there is one God, one Spirit, one Lord, one baptism. That’s it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Grace is Offensive

Ephesians 2:1-22
The Gospel of the Lord! Ephesians 2. Wow. I love this passage.
“We were once children of wrath,” writes Paul, but “God made us alive together with Christ.” BY GRACE WE HAVE BEEN SAVED. AND IT IS NOT YOUR OWN DOING BUT IT IS BY THE GRACE OF GOD. Period. Full stop. You were children of wrath but God has saved you by God’s grace. You were dead but now you are alive. And it is not by your works, your effort, your prayers, your trying or your doing; it is not because you’re awesome or even because you’re just “not terrible,” but it is God’s grace that resurrects you—that makes you rise from the ashes of all that separates you from God and from your fellow human beings. Because of this, Paul tells us that we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, so that while our works do not save us we were nevertheless created to be and do good—to be little Christs to the world. This is the best of all worlds: We are saved by grace so that we need not feel the burden of sin, wondering if we are OK after all, because Christ has given us that promise that there is nothing that can separate us from his love—not least anything we can do to ruin it. Then, because we are always wondering what then, Christ turns around and says, “Since you are saved by grace… since you have this promise that you are a resurrected phoenix of a human being… now you are created to do good for the world. Now, you are disciples. So go out and make the world a better place!”

Friday, July 7, 2017

Mission-Service-Servant

We just finished an inter-generational "mission" trip to the Twin Cities this past week, and over the course of our time together I began to ponder what it is that we are really doing on these trips. Is it a mission trip? A service trip? Something else? Over the years I've pondered this a good bit and so I'd like to share some thoughts on the differences between these words and what I believe these trips really are at their best.

Mission
Our trips are typically called "mission" trips. This is a longstanding tradition both of this and many other churches rooted in Matthew 28:19-20, "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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." Mission is loosely equivalent in this sense with evangelism--i.e. telling people about Jesus and helping them to convert to the faith.

This may be a noble goal, but in the 21st century things look a lot different than in the first. In the first century Christians were the minority, largely persecuted, and wholly without political power. To compare Christians in the western world today with Christians in the time of Paul is naive. Things have changed dramatically. That doesn't mean that Jesus' words don't matter or aren't true--I believe they very much are--but it does mean we have an added level of responsibility when it comes to how we do mission. History has laid bare the terrible repercussions of Christians (both well-intentioned and not) who have traveled to places across the globe in the name of spreading Christianity only to enslave or destroy civilizations by uprooting the social structures, turning children against parents, pushing people off their land, or literally taking people as slaves, all in the name of the gospel.

The shadows of colonialism loom over every mission that the church undertakes and the power dynamics change everything. As people who have a good deal of power by virtue of wealth, health, and various structures that maintain our quality of life, we have to check ourselves when we go out into the world to tell people about Jesus. Are we doing this for them or for us? Are we controlling them to get the response we want?

These are questions for travel abroad but also at home. When we go on trips in the United States we pick out places in need, but we have to check our motivation. The legacies of slavery loom over urban America; the long shadow of the Doctrine of Discovery falls on our native reservations. Are we just perpetuating more of the sins of the past?

Service
This brings me to the correction. Service. This is how much of the church has course-corrected from our past. No longer do some churches go on mission trips; rather, they go on service trips. The language-change is obvious. We aren't going to tell people about Jesus first but to do good things for people in need and if Jesus comes up all the better. I much prefer service to mission for this reason, but service trips have a downside to them as well.

Too many times I have seen service trips that are about going into certain places and providing a need--say, a house or a school or painting a house or whatever--that the people in that place don't actually want. Worse still, the group doing service may be taking work from people who are willing to do it in that place already. Service trips are sometimes--not always, of course--built on the same power structure that befalls mission trips. We become the saviors going into a place in need of saving. This is simply not how any of this works.

The problem with "service" trips is that they function out of the premise that we are going somewhere to share our blessings with those less fortunate than us. That sounds noble (who could possibly argue with it?), but the assumption that others are less fortunate can be unfortunate. Who says they are less fortunate? Them or us? What needs do they actually have? What do they want us to provide? Are we really welcome at all?

The reality is that short-term service trips don't always do a lot of good if the goal is to change a place for the better. It's not even that they're a drop in the ocean of need; it's that they might actually be misdirecting water from the ocean. They sometimes do more harm than good.

So what's left?

Servant
The differences between a "service" trip and a "servant" trip are subtle but I believe they are hugely important for the way we serve as the church. Whereas a service trip presupposes we are going to do some kind of work for somebody else, a servant trip is about simply going where we are sent, listening to those we encounter there, hearing their needs, their wants and desires, and finally asking, "What can we do for you?" only when the relationship is built. It's not assuming a need but it's being open and jumping in at the first opportunity when one arises.

Servant trips direct their compass alongside Mark 10:35-45 which reads:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Greatness is being a slave by choice--choosing to be servants to the true master, not assuming what is to be done but going forth into the world to love on people so much that they ask you why. Why are you doing this? Then it becomes a moment for evangelism; for telling them why. You lead not with good deeds but with listening, with walking alongside, and you follow it up perhaps with service and lastly with evangelism. Servitude is giving up our expectations for the sake of those we are going to serve. It's what they want that matters; not what we want to do for them. Servitude works for the 21st century because it is about giving up the power that we have for the sake of others who may not be needy in the way we imagine after all. Our work might not have the fruits we imagine and it might be even less than a drop in the ocean of need, but it will do something entirely different that we never expected: it will change us. Sure, it might change others too, but in this backward world where Jesus says the least will be greatest you may be surprised to find that the real mission work that needs to be done is in your own heart and it takes getting out there to discover it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The (beautiful) math of Psalm 23

Psalm 23

            The 23rd Psalm is so ubiquitous; it’s so well-known; and it’s used in so many places and contexts that it’s hard on a Sunday morning during the summer with free reign to take it anywhere and everywhere to figure out from which angle to consider this Psalm. In the past, I’ve sung this Psalm with guitar around campfires and re-told the story of David, I’ve read this Psalm with a person who was dying, I’ve preached on this Psalm at a bunch of funerals, and it’s been read at many others. Besides that, the 23rd Psalm has been used in more pop culture references than probably any other verses in the Bible. You all know it—probably in the King James—so this is the opposite of most scripture: You know it and it’s dear to many of you.
            So, I’m going to dig deep today and try to show you something about this Psalm that you might find interesting. It has to do with everybody’s favorite subject—math—so you know it’s going to be good. OK, it’s not math but proportions and ratios. Did you know that authors who wrote in ancient Hebrew were often obsessed with numerology and ratios? And this is for a very straight-forward reason, actually. Every letter in ancient Hebrew was also a number; they didn’t have a separate system of letters and numbers like we do. So, as you might imagine, clever authors would often play with words and numbers to create some beautiful double-meanings (this is also proof that even in ancient Israel there were nerds, which helps some of us relate). If that doesn’t interest you, perfect, because I’m not going to talk about numerology with Psalm 23.What I am going to talk about with this Psalm is its ratios, or how ancient Hebrew writers would elevate certain verses based on their placement in the poetry.
            Shakespeare did this in English, too—really, every good author does this in one way or another—but ancient Hebrew is better suited on the whole for this kind of work than English because the words were meant to be chanted and so they had a bit of musical feel to them already, making emphasizing some parts of a phrase that much easier to do. For this reason, you will often find in the Old Testament that a part of a poem is emphasized based on its placement in the verse, and often the part that is emphasized most is precisely at the middle. Sometimes you can see this in English translations when certain words are stacked like a pyramid toward the central meaning of the verse and then the same words descend on the far side. Sometimes, like in the book of Jonah, you have Jonah uttering 39 words against God, and God responding with 39 words that put Jonah in his place. Today, in Psalm 23, like the Jonah example, you have structure that is not so obvious in English, but if you start counting the words in this Psalm you will find a remarkable thing. There are twenty-six Hebrew words to begin the Psalm and twenty-six Hebrew words to end the Psalm and smack-dab in the middle is one simple phrase that this Psalm is all about: “You are with me.” The 23rd Psalm is a pyramid leading us to chant aloud: “You are with me.”

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Deliverance Psalms and the Bedrock of Faith

Psalm 13

I have a couple of strongly differing opinions on Psalms of deliverance like Psalm 13. One is that I think I really like these Psalms because they feel incredibly honest to me. They start, like Psalm 13 starts, by asking “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” That’s a brutally honest question that one part of me rather likes. But the other side of me trembles at these Psalms because I feel like many people—perhaps most people—hear this not as some honest, beautiful prayer of vulnerability but as some kind of affront to their piety. It feels like doubt and doubt feels to us like the opposite of faith. I think we are at risk in our modern world of losing that sweet spot of vulnerability where we can pray prayers like this. I see plenty of examples of people who pray prayers of thankfulness or prayers of necessity, but prayers of trust in spite of the circumstances seem rarer. Perhaps this is because we are results-oriented people, so the idea of praying “How long, O Lord?” quickly turns to “I don’t believe in God because God has not answered me to my timely satisfaction.”
            For the writers of the Psalms trust in God is the bedrock of their lives. Because God is their certainty they feel free to pray anything and everything—they pray “How long, O God?” and they pray, “Defeat my enemies, O God” and they pray “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They pray all this and so much more because God is not under debate—they are. They are more certain of God than they are of themselves. The modern problem is that we approach prayer, like we approach so many things in life, as a test of what is true in the world. God is very much under debate and often we are not. This is the opposite approach to those who wrote the Psalms.
            For the Psalmist sometimes prayer is simply yelling stuff at God, because to yell our barest emotions at God is still to acknowledge God first before ourselves; it’s OK to be upset with God, just not to decide, in a moment of crisis, that now is the time for a crisis of faith as well. It is much better to yell at God than to decide in the midst of turmoil that God doesn’t exist… that God doesn’t matter… that a truly just and merciful God would never allow this thing to happen to me. In the face of despair all the cracks in your fa├žade will appear and the question of what you truly trust will rise to the top. The Psalms don’t have time to decide in what they put their trust; by the time it’s here it’s too late.