Something More From the Sermon: Strangeness

Stranger

Yesterday, we kicked off a series that I am looking forward to sharing more about: Storm Stories. We’ll enter the Bible’s most famous storm stories as stand with storm survivors.

We are shaped deeply by storms. We talk about them as we share our story.

Storms are scary, but we should learn from them, too.

Yesterday we examined Jonah’s storm. I suggested that Jonah’s storm was that Jonah was serving a God that was doing things Jonah would rather God not do.

Jonah is written for us to see a staggering truth: Jonah is God’s prophet, but he is deeply flawed. The people that Jonah encounters (swearing sailors on the sea and kings of wicked cities) are more faithful than Jonah. Outsiders are more insider than Jonah appears to be.

The irony of Jonah is this: Jonah was a messenger to Nineveh, but Nineveh ended up being a messenger to Jonah.

This reality is common in the Jewish and Christian traditions. As a wisdom tradition, Christianity suggests that we can know the right answers and still miss the point. One punchline of the Old Testament is that the Jewish people were God’s special people in order to appeal to the rest of the families of earth of follow God. At times, however, the Jews struggled with ethnocentricity, or believing that they were privileged as God’s unique people instead of serving the world. At the heart of Jesus’ ministry was to welcome the outsider and outcast, to retrieve this lost vocation of Israel.

Indeed, in 3 main narrative points of Christianity, a stranger is a key character:

At Jesus’ birth, Magi (strangers from the East) are more eager to pay homage to the savior born in Israel. The religious teachers knew where the Messiah would be born, but showed no interest in joining the Magi to go honor him. Outsiders (with overwhelming devotion and underdeveloped theology, by the way) were more faithful than those who were expected to be.

At the Crucifixion, as Jesus is being sneered and mocked by Jewish insiders, a Roman Centurion confessed that Jesus was a righteous person.

At Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out upon the Church, a nameless, faceless crowd confessed that the early church was praising God in a plethora of languages, bearing witness to the scope and shape of where the message of Jesus would go. As a reminder, this event came after the disciples asked Jesus if he was going to restore Israel’s unique hope. Jesus seemed to respond, “you need to think outside of that box.” Isn’t interesting how Acts ends miles away (geographically and metaphorically) from where it begins?

In short, a faith without strangeness is an unChristian one. If we seem to only gather with people who are like us and if our “good news” is only good to people like us, our faith isn’t big enough.

So, may we embrace the stranger, who just might be the messenger of God to us.

The Thing about those chairs from The Voice

The Voice - Season 4

THE VOICE — “Blind Auditions” Episode 405 — Pictured: (l-r) Blake Shelton, Usher, Shakira, Adam Levine, Michelle Raitzin — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Preachers in our contemporary moment have used the rotating chairs on The Voice to convey the essence of the grace of God. The basic gist is this:

We are the singer on the stage; God is in the chair. We are trying to earn God’s love like the contestants are trying to sing well enough for one of the hosts to turn their chair around, to tell the singer that they are wanted.

“You don’t need to wait for the chair to turn around,” the preacher aptly says. “God already loves you. And not one of us can earn God’s love, to begin with.”

This is punctuated with a peculiar reading of Ephesians 2:8-10, which suggests that we cannot be saved by “works,” but by grace and faith (which one or both are gifts from God).

This rendering is pleasant and draws our attention to the love of God that we find in Jesus Christ.

My curiosity runs wild, though, while thinking on this, further. Particularly because, as a minister and practicing Christian, this proclamation (though true because it points to Jesus) struggles to carry the freight of transformation within the individual. To use the careful observation of James Bryan Smith, we seem to only become “stabilized” with this “gospel” instead of being healed.

Perhaps it’s because, behind it all, this narrative simply tries to “improve” a narrative that is troubling for us. The human person experiences rejection by his or her parents at some point, mostly out of necessity for the individual to develop a self, not always reliant upon his/her parents for everything. One day, we cry and are not picked up immediately, but are left there all alone.

This deep wound causes us to hustle for approval, whether it is from peers, employers, coaches, parents, etc.

In the proclamation above, however, God becomes a hyper-parent, one who exceeds the limitations of our familial parents, for the chair turns around before we try to earn it, we are rescued from even the attempt of trying to be approved. The initial phase of this new relationship may be pleasant, but the wound isn’t fully addressed. Us and our needs still dominant the center, leading the individual to seek God for what they can get, instead of simply falling in love with God. The individual can actually develop an interesting “humble-pride,” having found a better parent-child relationship than others who have not become Christians.

This salvation might be “therapeutic,” but it might not provoke repentance, in the long run.

What if we could change where everyone is sitting in this metaphor?

What if God is the One on the stage, appealing to God’s world that has walked away? Instead of bailing on the world, God enters its mess to win it back, with a song.

What if we are in the chairs and are exposed to different songs and invitations to experience the fullness of life?

What if, halfway through the show, we hear a peculiar voice, One who speaks of love, sacrifice, faith? The unique shape of the song doesn’t draw our eyes “back” to a distant ideal that existed before we messed up, but “forward” to a day that God is constructed with the ruins of a 1000 broken dreams and disappointments.

As we listen to the song, we can’t help but think that this is the reason why we exist and that, even though the song will help heal us, it also beckons us to sing the song into every broken part of God’s world.

If we reach out to press the button that moves the chair, we sense that it will cause everything to change within us and it will alter how we want to see the world around us.

I can imagine that this song would cause each of us to push the button to turn our chairs around to see the singer and to take in the song. As we do so, we might just say that the whole experience is good news.

 

Something More from the Sermon: Parity

fruit

Yesterday, I had a blast sharing about Daniel and his night in the Lion’s Den. It was the 2nd sermon in a series called “Great Nights of the Bible.”

One of the peculiar tasks for a preacher who shares about a familiar text is to not only confirm what the average hearer might already know about it, but to also suggest that there is something there that the hearer might not have seen, something hidden in plain sight. Preachers need to spook people, every now and again.

Yesterday, I suggested that Daniel is an important text in the late-Old Testament era because, as God’s people were in exile, away from home, they considered many options about their future. Generally speaking, despair or dreaming, were common.

Despair, because some struggled to find evidence that they were God’s people after the Babylon invasion. They were away from home, scattered all over God’s world. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple with it. What do they have left without those things? Psalm 137:1-4 is a lyrical expression of this despair:

1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept 
when we remembered Zion. 
2There on the poplars 
we hung our harps, 
3for there our captors asked us for songs, 
our tormentors demanded songs of joy; 
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 
4How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
The Punchline: we are away from Zion. All of God’s promises to us include our land, our temple, our law, and a king from David’s family forever. Without those, we have lost hope.
Dreaming– Daniel was miles from his zip code, his original expectation for life was intercepted by exile, but he didn’t give up. Daniel was a prominent leader in two different foreign empires: Babylon and Persia. He interpreted dreams, offered sound advice that changed world history. All while being an outsider, a faithful Jew, smuggled into the depths of the inner circle of the most influential people of the world.
So, alongside the despair sentiment in the Old Testament is a rival opinion, one that would suggest dreaming instead of despair.
These two are shouting at each other, right in the middle of our sacred texts.
This may seem like a peculiar trait of Scripture, after all, some are counting on the Bible being a rather easy, sanitized source for everything. Should Scripture have a shouting match with itself?
Remember the shape of this text, though. These are the sacred writings of God’s family over several centuries, people doing their best to walk with God through the complexities of life and through the tumultuous terrain of the development of cultures and civilizations. Yes, we affirm the peculiar nature of the Scriptures, as those inspired. But, let’s also be open to how inspiration happens.
For instance, if one were to read all of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in one sitting (and donated an entire afternoon in the effort) they’d feel a parity in their intents. Some have suggested that Proverbs is a good manual for the first half of life (if you do this… expect this to happen) while Ecclesiastes is a recovery program for dealing with the second half of life (“all is meaningless”).
And they are side-by-side one another in the text.
Perhaps the folks who wanted both of these in the Scriptures knew a secret about inspiration: listening to the shouting match between two sources shapes us into the people that God wants us to be.
The Reformers had this neat belief about the Scriptures called the Efficacy of Scripture. There is something peculiar about the effect that these Scriptures have upon individuals and upon communities who open themselves the the reading, studying, hearing, and enacting of the text… they become the people of God.
That might be the ultimate aim and hope of inspiration.

I (self) published an (e)book

skillen-ps

One of the work habits that I have been trying to develop is to do some creative writing on weeks that I do not preach. This allows me to keep the same creative, productive gear whether I am making and delivering a sermon that week, or not.

During one of those weeks, I developed an early idea from research, which led to a couple of blog posts, which led to a series of 4 talks for a Sunday School retreat this Spring, which turned into chapters of a short book.

Instead of tracking down an agent or finding a publisher to work with (all honorable ways to publish, of course), I decided to explore ways to get it published quicker. So, after my friend Ken Young designed me a sweet cover, I uploaded everything to Kindle Direct Publishing one evening and…

IMG_5975

It’s up! My mother-in-law posted about it early yesterday. So, the release was a bit of a sneak attack.

Here are a few details:

  • The book is short, only 11,500 words (39 pages). That’s an intentional move, knowing that the average reader only completes 25% of a book that they purchase. Keeping it short and crisp will (hopefully) allow a reader to finish it.
  • One has to have the Kindle app to read it. Sorry, no hard copies at this time.
  • It’s only $4.99. Amazon has this “give $5 of Amazon to someone, get $5 for yourself” campaign. If you give someone an Amazon gift card, you could get this book for free. Not a bad deal.
  • The book is about stories and how they work in forming our lives. I use 3 unique ways of reading the Prodigal Son parable to illustrate this story-formation idea.
  • The cover was done by a friend and church member, Kendall Young. He’s a great guy with a ton of good ideas.

 

 

 

 

Something More from the Sermon: Believing With Jesus

deal

We began a new series yesterday “Red Letter Jesus” where we’ll spend several weeks examining some of Jesus’ famous and intriguing sayings from the NT Gospels. Louis Klopsch (1899) is credited with the idea of putting the words of Jesus in red. He asked a mentor of his if he thought it would be a good idea. His mentor replied, “I can see no bad to come from it, only good.” Our goal is to hope that much good would be done in our lives as we meditate on the words of Jesus.

We examined Jesus’ question to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) Peter replied that Jesus was the “Messiah, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) This is a dangerous idea; Messiah’s were expected to lead the arrival of God’s new world. At this point, Rome was in charge and not Jesus. Peter makes this claim in Caesarea Philippi where Caesar Augustus, the one “formally” in charge, had a temple dedicated to him.

Peter’s claim that Jesus was Messiah was important. It re-configured Peter’s faith claim. He didn’t just hold belief statements about Jesus, but he wanted to participate in Jesus’ plan for the whole world.

Peter didn’t just believe in Jesus, he believed with Jesus.

This may be categorically unsettling, suggesting that Jesus as the Son of God would have faith in order for someone like Peter to believe with Him.

Paul plays with this idea in Galatians 2:20. It’s a hotly contested (and intriguing) verse. Most translations suggest that Paul is saying this:

“The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved for me and died for me.”

If you look closely (in most Bibles) there is a footnote that suggests another rendering of the verse:

“The life I now live, I live by the faithfulness (or the faith) of the Son of God…”

Paul’s whole life was not simply shaped by his own faith in the Messiah, but by the Messiah’s faith in Paul and the Messiah’s faith in the destiny of God’s world, a plan that announces that God is continuing to redeem from within its complexities and its mess.

The reason that this is important is because of how it shapes us. One can have faith in Jesus, stack those belief statements next to belief statements about other things, and only have those belief statements mean anything whenever they feel like it. It also suggests that Jesus can be “a long way off” and not involved within one’s world.

Vincent Miller rounds off this idea when writing about how religious activity (and ideas) has been re-shaped by consumerism in these recent days:

“It used to be that beliefs held people. Today, people hold religious beliefs.”

To believe with Jesus means that Jesus is present in our lives, present in our world and that we are being invited into his way of life, for the sake of the world.

May we be known as those who believe with Jesus.

JC + Nothing = Everything

Unknown

I had a conversation in my freshman year of undergraduate school that changed my life. I was one year removed from my youth-group-all-star days, full of passion and zeal, and spending more time praying and listening to Passion worship CDs than studying theology. I was fortunate to live near some patient (and smart) friends who found my energy for the faith endearing (I hope…).

We were all returning from dinner one night when we started to talk of theology. (Yes, we were the coolest kids you’d ever met.) I remember getting impatient with the conversation and exclaiming,

“I don’t care about theology… I just care about Jesus.”

“Who is Jesus?” one of my thoughtful friends, suggested.

“He’s the son of God and messiah of Israel,” I said.

“You’ll have to do a bunch of theology to substantiate that claim. Those statements are so complex and monumental that there answers dwell where angels fear to tread,” He replied. (In all honesty, I don’t think that he said this verbatim, but my embellishments animate how important this conversation was for me.)

My friend was right and I find his comments to be helpful today.

That conversation provoked my theological quests to understand what those confessions about Jesus might have meant from the beginning, and what the faithful, church community has said about them over church history. Relying upon scholarship and research that is more faithful to the original story of Jesus (well, as much as we can know, at least) has led me to new and different ideas about what those same confessions mean and how it informs my commitments for living out the Christian faith.

My initial interest in “just being about Jesus,” was ultimately occupied by so many commitments that may or may not have much to do with the historical Jesus.

This is why I’m concerned, I guess, with the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” sentiment. On the one hand, it’s an endearing confession, one borne out of the common experience of so many Christians, “Can we quit the silly stuff of religion and get going with the stuff that Jesus would want us to do?”

On the other hand, it can be another one of those empty statements that is usually used in an argument between two Christians. It’s an unkind accusation, suggesting that the one Christian has a purer view of Jesus while the other is loading down with a part-time job of blessings their personal commitments.

Here’s the deal… we all load Jesus down with personal commitments.

From:

Our preferred blend of American politics,

Our view about war and conflict,

Our view about possessions,

Our view about our interactions with other people groups,

etc…

I’m beginning to think that we naturally want recruit Jesus for our intended purposes if we recognize it or not. What might be more healthy is to admit it when we do it, instead of assuming that everyone else is doing it and we have moved beyond doing it.

Even the Canonical Gospels themselves, illustrating the same historical figure and foundational events, sketch Jesus in a unique tone:

Matthew: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus as the faithful Jew from Abraham and David’s family that can free us from the tyranny of false, Jewish kings like Herod and re-launch God’s promise to Abraham and re-seed Israel within Israel) = Everything

Mark: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the apocalyptic and signs and wonders prophet that will awaken Israel to faithfulness in its God) = Everything

Luke: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the fulfillment to God’s goal in Israel so that Jesus can be the faithful, benevolent representative from Israel to the rest of the Gentile world, too) = Everything

John: Jesus + Nothing (other than the eternal Logos from the Hellenistic tradition because I am preaching to a Gentile world for crying out loud) = Everything

Yes, our Canonical Gospels are shaped by the local expression from communities of Jesus in real zip codes. Real people in real churches facing real… realities.

The early church didn’t seem to be too rattled by such a notion. They deemed Tatian’s attempt to construct one gospel out of the four erroneous because they seemed to like a four-part harmony over-and-against the futile attempt to have a sterile Jesus + Nothing = Everything. The New Testament communities were “incarnational” allowing the God that we find in the incarnate Christ to inhabit every square inch of God’s world, a great, big world.

Talk about Jesus, and talk religion in general, is a high-speed freeway these days. Let’s be careful to look both ways and to refuse to live in an acute denial that we somehow have all of it nailed down.

So here’s my attempt:

Joe: Jesus + Nothing (other than:

Along with over 6 of every 7 people who wake up today, I want there to be a God. I find the One God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

A good God who punctuates every second with hope. Even though there are signs of entropy in this life, there are also signs of resurrection to which Jesus is the only rationale for such a happening.

I believe that the human life fully lived is one where I can give a gift “without why” and to also receive life as a gift without a debt. I wasn’t born with that framework, I’ve been shaped to expect life to be the opposite of that. So, I believe practicing the way of Jesus energizes me to live life differently.

I believe that the world is bending towards a renewal, even from within its own mess, where beauty, justice, spirituality, and community will be its norms and where faith, hope, and love will be its song.

Among a host of others things for another time.)

= Everything

 

 

Something More From the Sermon: Permission

images

Recently, we continued in our Vital Signs series and concentrated on the value of Faith Development. I reminded us of Dallas Willard’s important truth:

Christianity is not opposed to effort, its opposed to earning.

However, not all “church-sanctioned-faith-plans” are created equal… just doing something for Jesus, without careful examination of the way it shapes us, is important to diagnose.

Jesus had an indictment for his opponents about their followers, the ways in which they made followers, in this stunning verse:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and the Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)

What Jesus said in layperson’s terms is, “Your converts were better off in their ignorance than when you’ve brought them into your faith community. You should just leave them alone.”

Ouch.

From there, we looked at a few faith formation realities that emerged from Philippians. One that I didn’t get to flesh out entirely was, “The Permission of Christian Spirituality.”

It takes a step to get to Philippians for this idea. I made the jump that Paul, being trained in the religious traditions of his faith (and the progressive religious school option, at that) would have been exposed to the breadth of rabbinical teachings, which are conveyed in a book called the Talmud, organized a couple of generations after Paul.

One famous rabbinical saying has caught my attention, for it helps shapes the Christian life:

“A person will be called to account on judgment day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.” –Talmud

Its a commonly-held (and misplaced truth) that if someone wants to be a Christian, the center of their life becomes church-sanctioned activities, an endless repetition of sitting in rows, reciting prayers, and singing spiritual songs. But since someone can’t be in a worship service all of the time, believers experience a let down for the rest of their hours, doing their best to keep their commitments that they made through whisper-toned prayers during worship, until they can show up again.

Jesus promised us an abundant life, however. Not a split life of sacred and common hours and activities. If a worship service does anything for the common person, it trains us to entertain the idea that the sacred can break into all of life.

Paul gives the Philippian church a rubric to engaging life this way,

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. -Philippians 4:8

Paul gives permission the Philippian church to consider all of life as sacred within the orbit of these “whatevers” – an explosion of the particular, cultural religious tradition where he came from that was weighed down with insider language and commitments.

Jesus is not just the Lord for Israel, Paul proclaimed, but the Lord of the whole world. A careful examination of Paul’s content in the NT (which would take considerable time to lay out, here) would reveal that Paul opens the envelope of friendship to the non-Jewish outsiders whenever possible.

Paul’s “whatever matrix” is Philippians 4:8 is not a foolish attempt to appeal to all, but his confession that all of life belongs within God and the experiences from life that are shaped by the “whatevers” belong in the category of the sacred life.