Sunday, June 30, 2013

How's That Working out for you? (Acts 15:5-19 and Jonah 4:1-11)

How's That Working Out for You from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Acts 15:5-19

5Some of the believers from among the Pharisees stood up and claimed “The Gentiles must be circumcised. They must be required to keep the law of Moses.”

6The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter. 7After much debate, Peter stood and addressed them, “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the Gospel and come to believe. 8God, who know’s people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires though faith. 10Why then are you placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

12The entire assembly fell quiet as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity. 13When Barnabas and Paul also fell silent, James responded, “Fellow believers, listen to me. 14Simon reported how, in his kindness, God came to the Gentiles in the first place, to raise up from them a people of God. 15The prophets agree with this; as it is written,
16After this I will return,
and I will rebuild David’s fallen tent;
I will rebuild what has been torn down.
I will restore it
17so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who belong to me.
The Lord says this, the one who does these things
18known from earliest times.
19Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. 

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Jonah 4:1-11

1But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the LORD, “Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. 3At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

4The LORD responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” 5But Jonah went out from the city and sat down east of the city. There he made himself a hut and sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.

6Then the LORD God provided a shrub, and it grew up over Jonah, providing shade for his head and saving him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub. 7But God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died. 8Then as the sun rose God provided a dry east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint. He begged that he might die, saying, “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

9God said to Jonah, “Is your anger about the shrub a good thing?”
Jonah said, “Yes, my anger is good - even to the point of death!”

10But the LORD said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11But for my part, can’t I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Jonah’s story is familiar. It’s one of the most portrayed stories in scripture, and we can probably all recite its highlights. When Jonah get’s the call to get up go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it, He runs away, unwilling to do the Lord’s will, not out of fear, but knowing God’s character well enough to see where this is going to end up.

After a fish-bellied layover, he finds himself back on shore, and this time does as he is told. He goes to Ninevah, delivers a very short message, and the whole town repents of their evil, rather comically dressing even their animals in mourning clothes.

The people living in Ninevah are taking a chance that even though they don’t know the law, if they show some effort, that perhaps God will still spare them from the fate they have earned. Not entirely unlike the Gentile believers in the early church. They knew that the gospel appealed to them, that Christ was the kind of God worth following, even though they had no idea where to start. Church leaders gathered in Jerusalem to discuss what to do with this new group of eager converts to the faith. “Some of the believers from among the Pharisees stood up and claimed ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised, They must be required to keep the law of Moses.’” These new people must be held to the same rules as we have held ourselves! They’ve got to fit in with the old traditions, and if the gospel means enough to them, then they will do things the correct way. You know, our way.

That sounds rather familiar to a 21st century church. We’re here, got a big beautiful building with lots of loving people inside it. There are greeters at the door, programs for the children, and the seats are even pretty comfortable! Come and find us, we’re a very welcoming church!

So long as you know how to use a hymnal, when to sit down and stand up, what to do when you’re praying, what to do when someone else is praying, and don’t mind someone standing at the front and talking to you for half an hour, we’ll absolutely welcome you among us!

I have every confidence that when people come to the typical church, they will like what they find. They’ll find faithful, loving people. They’ll find a community that is willing to nurture them on their journey. They’ll find that we’re not all that pharisaical or judgmental, and that those stories about people getting kicked out of a little old lady’s pew are more folklore than fact.

Perhaps they’ll even learn to love the tradition that feeds us. Eventually the ritual of saying the Lord’s Prayer together will become as familiar a comfort to them as it is to us. Eventually they may even feel their hearts strangely warmed by the “thee’s” and “thou’s” of the King James Version of the Bible.

Perhaps they may choose to live according to the law of Moses?

Like the Pharisees, we often expect others who come into our home to fit into the patterns that are already in place. It’s the way things are done, and it’s our understanding of how we live out who we are. It’s a very specific formula that perhaps doesn’t involve a codified religious legal system, but does have certain expectations about the way one acts in church.

It’s a fact of the human condition that we tend to associate with those who are most like us: our families, with the same backgrounds and habits, even physical features and mannerisms; our friends, with whom we have shared experiences and common interests; our co-workers, who share the pattern of our daily lives; and our churches, who tend to share similar theological ideals, political affiliations, and economic levels within each congregation. Churches tend to be one of the most segregated places in our culture. Those who join us are expected to look and act within the margins of appropriateness, and they may bring their own flavors and variations on the way we’ve always done things, but at some point if they find themselves not fitting in, they’l leave.

It’s only natural then, that churches who want to grow tend to look for people who are a lot like them. Folks who know to come to church at 10:30, who know how to dress for worship, and who know how to carry themselves with an appropriate amount of reverence. I would guess though, that the people who are likely to adhere to those often unspoken traditions already have a church home. So your growth is going to come either from new people moving into the community or church members having babies.

But those aren’t the only people whom God has chosen and called. Christianity isn’t a birthright, it’s a life lived in response to the free gift of God’s grace. There are people in this world who know that there is something out there greater than them, who have experienced God, but don’t have the language to articulate that experience. We use ugly words to describe them, like “unchurched,” and they are not us, unless they become just like us. It’s an “us” and “them” division drawn over who belongs in the club. But being chosen by God is not based on whether or not one attends church. It’s based solely on the will of God, even if that means that we are sent from our Israelite spiritual heritage into a Gentile world.

Perhaps we should heed Peter’s words to the inner circle of the church council in our Acts passage, “God, who know’s people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires though faith.” The Gentile and Jewish Christians are going to end up doing things differently, but God is not the one who makes the distinction. We are the one’s who point and say “Why can’t you just fit in to what we’re already doing? All of our members are happy with the way we do things now.”

Because God chooses to expand his kingdom without regard to the boundaries we draw for ourselves. The church in Acts sees that God is acting across ethnic and religious boundaries, and chooses to change themselves to unite all of God’s people in Christ. Jonah, likewise, is called out of his homeland to preach to Ninevah, that great city, and goes knowing that God will be as merciful to them as she has been to Israel. 

God does not stop with the law of Moses, or at the boundaries of the Holy Land. Neither does God stop with our church traditions, or at the borders of the United States. The LORD is God of all creation, and chooses whomever he will, even people who are not like us.

Sometimes God chooses people who are very not like us. People who look different, sound different, act different, or express themselves differently than we do. I mean, why would God choose to act through someone who has to be up and moving all the time when she could be acting through me, who is perfectly content to sit quietly and reverently.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my preaching career talking about the wondrous works of God. How when we see the amazing things God is doing in the world, we cannot help but sing praises, and be astounded by the Greatness of our Lord.

I mean, God is the one who spoke creation into existence at the very beginning. God is the one who made Abraham’s childless household into a mighty nation. God brought that nation out of Egypt into a land of milk and honey. Our God sent fire to Mount Carmel to prove Baal a false God, and preserved God’s people through their exile in Babylon, bringing them home again. Then our God became a human being, and walked among us. That same God, who fed the multitude, and performed innumerable healings, died on our behalf, and rose again. I mean, wow! Those are some wonders!

But to use someone who is doing it wrong? Doesn’t God know he has his wonderful servants here at this church to choose from? For generations this way of being the church has ministered faithfully to God’s people. We’ve established thoughtful positions on why we order our worship services the way we do, we’ve considered the needs of our members in our architecture, and now God is going to use someone who isn’t a part of that system? I mean, God is good all the time, but if this is how it’s going to be, I don’t know that I like it all that much. This kind of radical inclusivity, I think that’s utterly wrong.

And so I find myself sitting outside of Ninevah praying with Jonah. ““Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

God responds with, to paraphrase using that classic southern phrase, “How’s that working out for you?” Jonah pouts, and builds himself a hut to watch the city, hoping that Ninevah will mess up, that Jonah’s view of the world, the view of God as depicted elsewhere in scripture as being unapologetically and exclusively the God of Israel, will be vindicated with a good old fashioned smiting of the sinful citizens of Ninevah.

An unnamed shrub grows up overnight, and provides Jonah with some lush greenery. Scripture tells us that it “[provides] shade for his head [saves] him from his misery. Jonah was very happy about the shrub.” Perhaps he interprets this divine providence as a comfort under which he can wait out the coming destruction of Ninevah, that great city. After all, this indicates that God doesn’t intend to take Jonah’s life from him, so surely that means that God has come to his senses and is going to give Ninevah what they deserve. I imagine he smiled smugly to himself right up until “God provided a worm the next day at dawn, and it attacked the shrub so that it died.” 

The LORD God, who is merciful and compassionate, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy, looked at his petulant prophet sitting outside the city, and through that comforting shrub reminded him of what was really at stake.

The LORD God is very patient even with his crotchety church. Perhaps the decline of mainline protestantism is a like Jonah’s shrub: a reminder that God can choose Ninevah as well as Jonah, God can choose the Gentile Christians as well as the Jewish Christians, that God can choose both us and them.

Though we never hear Jonah’s answer to the question God poses, the third act of this play is staged in our own lives. How will we respond to God’s question: This thing you “pitied” was not something for which you worked, it’s not your creation, it was mine, and is fleeting.

“Yet for my part, I cannot pity Ninevah, that great city...?” I can’t use these people whom I have created to work my will in the world? I have called them and given them the Holy Spirit, just as I did you, and yet you choose to neglect them? Why then should I not have mercy upon them? They are created by the one God who speaks into being things which do not exist, and exactly as worthy of God’s love as we are.

Because if we are honest with ourselves, we have not done a great job of keeping the commandments we have been given. The fact that the Christian Church is as fragmented as it is testifies to our lack of love for one another across our history. The “good old days” were perhaps not as good as the nostalgic stories we tell indicate. 

Peter, who stuck his foot in his mouth consistently throughout the earthy ministry of Jesus, gets it. “Why then are you placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?” Because if it were up to us to earn the righteousness in which we are wrapped, we would never even get close. We are David’s fallen tent, a people given a covenant who simply do not have it in them to hold up their end.

I think we sit with Jonah in stubborn judgement over God’s merciful treatment of Ninevah because we are afraid that maybe if God loves people who are not like us, that means that God has noticed how full of sin we are, and has given up on us. We create and us and them to keep those others separate from God’s blessings in case it might run out and we be left up to our own failing devices. They’ve got to earn it, because we’ve convinced ourselves that we deserve it!

Uh-huh, how’s that working out for you?

“On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.” Though they will not live their lives in the same way as we do, though they will not worship in the same way we do, and though God has called them to do things differently than we do, God can, and does, cross all those boundaries, for we are united in the Lord Jesus.

These people are out there, filled with the Holy Spirit, willing to enact the works of God, and who are we to say that because they enact them differently that our churches are not where they can have a home.

We act like Jonah because we have forgotten that we are Gentiles, and a sect of Judaism made room for us within their customs. Choosing not to require us to keep their traditions, but rather allowing God to do a new thing among them through us.

When we look at having to change the way we live as the Church, it’s a scary proposition, and we would perhaps rather that God kept us among our own people, rather than sending us to Ninevah that it might know the graciousness of God. For we are Jonah, and Ninevah, and the fallen tent of David, and the Gentiles who belong to God. It is scary to have to change ourselves. So God changes us by putting people who are different from us in our lives. It is our task, then, in gratitude to God who is making a new creation out of us, to seek out those people and invite them in that we may be changed through them, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Crowd Sourced Exegesis: Luke 8:26-39

Proper 7C/Ordinary Time 12C/Pentecost +5C

CSE Luke 8:26-39 from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

26Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.)

30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

34When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 36And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.

38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.

Hans Frei's book that I mentioned

To leave a comment, type your response in the box below. Choose a way to identify yourself using the drop-down menu, Then click "Publish."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Atheism and Evangelism

So I was checking the Twitter this evening when I ran across an article about a 1-800 number for religious doubts. Naturally this is going to create a lot of consternation among us religious types. My reaction was pretty visceral right off the bat.

"This is a threat" I said to myself.
"We should fight this" came the natural response.
"This is the natural progression of what the church has sown over the most recent period in its history"

Wait, what was that last one again?

I was musing with a ministry mentor of mine over a meal on Monday (an alliterative anecdote!). We shifted over to the decline of mainline churches, and how the primary shift has been that young adults, who traditionally step away from the church once they graduate high school and then return they begin having kids, have stopped coming back. When we ask them why, they tend to answer that the church is irrelevant and they're not sure how necessary God is either. Then they sometimes say that they learned it from us.

Yikes! In our affirmation of doubt as a natural part of faith, we've stepped out of the polarizing spectrum between Fundamentalism, which abhors doubts and questions, and Atheism, which says that doubts are stepping away from blindness and into enlightenment based on empirical observation.

Mainline Christians are in the middle, and therefore get painted with the same brush as each side uses to paint the other.

So here we are looking at a 1-800 number for people facing doubts that will be staffed by those who have a vested interest in confirming those doubts. Of course we're startled by it, it seems that Atheists are better at evangelism than Mainline Protestants are!

This is troubling stuff. Out of respect for others' views, we are trying not to step on their views, acknowledging that we don't know everything and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide people to whatever slice of truth fits them the best, be that Presbyterianism, or Methodism, or Atheism, or Buddhism, or Jedi, or what have you.

Are we surprised that when we say "we don't have the only truth" and others say "We have the Facts" that those who seek the truth are confused as to which is which, especially when we so often muddle the difference between facts and truth?

Well, my Mainline Protestant friends, here's my thought. There is an objective truth out there, and it isn't mathematics: It's God. All other truths derive from God, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Where we get into trouble is in thinking that we have control over, or unfiltered access to, that Truth. The only access we have is in God's own self-revelation of the Truth.

The truth is revealed most fully in Christ Jesus, who is, in the words of Hans Frei, most himself in the crucifixion and resurrection event. We've got to know that truth all the way down to our core, and use the gifts God has given us to testify to that truth.

I still affirm that doubts and questions are a healthy and necessary part of faith development, and should never stop. Though there is much that is unknown, and some that is perhaps unknowable, I can testify to this slice truth: Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.

Crowd Sourced Exegesis: Luke 7:36-8:3

Proper 6C/Ordinary Time 11C/Pentecost +4C

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 

40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ 

‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 

41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,* and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 

43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 

47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Sermon on the 1 Kings passage mentioned in the video: Just For The Taste Of It

To leave a comment, type your response in the box below. Choose a way to identify yourself using the drop-down menu, Then click "Publish."

Monday, June 3, 2013

In Defense of Words

Throughout the 2012-2013 school year, I was called to serve as the Pastoral Intern to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. I myself have been a Presbyterian since the foundation of the world, and recognize and value that we Presbyterians have a long tradition of being a people of the Word, having been born out of a revolution of literacy, and literary availability.

I'm speaking, of course, of the Printing Press and the Reformations of the 14-16th centuries. I won't go into the history right now, but suffice to say that the ability to print information had a direct impact on Reformer's ability to disseminate their ideas. Think Chick Tracts, but with good theology instead of unbridled stupid.

I'm a big fan of Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which basically posits that there are different ways of being smart. Gardner lists seven intelligences in his original framework, which are verbal/linguistic, mathematical/logical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, visual/spacial, musical, and bodily/kinesthetic.

Everybody has some of each of these, and people tend to have a couple in which they are particularly excellent.

Over the last year or so, I've heard a number of people express varying degrees of concern and excitement at the increasing influence of non-verbal ways of communicating. For some people, the future is in imagery, and the internet has made it possible to quickly and easily create and publish visual media.

I'm a big fan of using video and images to engage with people who don't experience the world primarily through reading and speaking. Really any opportunity to further open the doors of the church is one I'm in favor of. Using signs and symbols to cross boundaries and let people engage in their own authentic expressions of worship is one of the tasks of church leadership in my opinion.

However, we cannot simply abandon words. Certainly not in a church that ascribes such weight to scripture as the PC(USA). We can proclaim the word visually, or enact the word through scripture, but we mustn't forget that at some point, we need to be able to read this book that the Holy Spirit has preserved and lifted up for us as a unique and authoritative witness throughout the centuries.

My verbal linguistic intelligence deserves to be addressed just as much as my visual/spacial intelligence. So it's fine if you want to show me a picture that's worth a thousand words, but know that the poem that describes that image and the emotions associate with it is where I want to be. Opening the door to other kinds of expression means a necessary diminishing of what has been the almost exclusive means of expression. But it cannot mean abandoning those historical and foundational elements. Neither should it mean that we intentionally downplay our use of words. Words are still good. God still speaks through them.

Particular ways of expressing Truth are equal to, but never greater than, others ways. So bring on the words, that we may describe our images more fully.