Something More From the Sermon: Permission

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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.

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Something more from the sermon- Causing the Right Type of Trouble

Yesterday, we examined the value of mission and the Christian life, spending time examining Luke 5:17-24, where friends of a paralytic went to extreme measures to have their friend healed by Jesus.

I suggested that a gift from a church is to cause the right type of trouble in the world, riffing off the claim in Acts 17:6.

This right type of trouble goes beyond reposting “she reads truth” images on Facebook and even the exercise of studying the Bible and discussing ways that we can engage within God’s world without participating in the activities we discuss.

But, imagining that God would use our lives to cause the right type of trouble may not be as foreign of a concept or as outlandish of an idea that we might initially expect. Sometimes, the simplest acts of service, done with deep love, can cause the dynamic nature of the world to be sent into a different direction.

Everything that we do today (and each day) has a political component to it. Don’t get nervous about that statement. I know that we seemed to be trained to try to keep a religious life and a political life separate. For Jesus and his contemporaries, though, all of life (including private spirituality and “life in public”) was woven together. Even considering Jesus as your “savior” (the Jewish title for Messiah, Chosen One; the Greco-Roman equivalent, “Christ”) is a deeply political idea.

When Jesus’ followers confessed him as “Lord” they were standing beside expectations like Psalm 2:1-2, 5-7:

“Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth raise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed (Christ, Messiah)…

He (God) rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim, the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.'”

Jesus’ agenda wasn’t a private one; Jesus’ friends were expected to enact their faith in public. That is our opportunity today.

NT Wright suggests that the Christian life, then, can broadly be rendered into two activities: reclaiming and renouncing. We reclaim (and celebrate) those things from our human experience that celebrates Jesus’ reign within the earth, things shaped by faith, hope, and love. We also renounce those things when point away from God’s new world that is breaking into the present. With courage and patience, we declare “those things do not belong.”

Think about what might need to be reclaimed and renounced in your zip code and, if you get busy about doing something about it with the grace that God provides, you might just find that you are causing the right type of trouble in the world.

 

Something More From the Sermon:Waiters and Servers

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Yesterday we started a new series called Vital Signs where we will examine some vital parts of the Christian faith. Yesterday’s topic was “Radical Hospitality,” having a radical openness to “the other” that we encounter.

Our primary text was Acts 2:42-47, the first summary statement from Luke concerning the early Church’s habits and patterns of openness. The whole of the book of Acts is the process of Jesus’ community opening up to a story larger than they every could’ve imagined.

I drew our attention to 1 Cor 3:5-6, where Paul equates his role in the church as a mere “servant,” a diakonos (waiter). I then made the claim that a good server at a restaurant is invisible, in the background, not drawing attention to themselves, he or she is simply brokering a connection between the kitchen staff and the customer.

This is a provocative challenge for us in our culture and climate. Christianity is one of several all-encompassing truth claims one can choose from in our 21st century, modern world. Christians are sharing space now more than in recent years.

Several years ago, I remember author and pastor Dan Kimball sharing a graphic of “Main Street America” from the first couple of decades in the 20th century, where different people expressed their religious affiliations, all different stripes of either Protestant or Roman Catholic faiths. Then Kimball showed a graphic for today’s Main Street, where the differences revealed actual unique faith systems, or no official faith affiliation. Even the religious demographic information from the New Hampshire primaries revealed that there are more “Nones” in New Hampshire than any other faith tradition. We are sharing space in a new world.

The question remains, “What will the Christian church do in this new world?”

There are several options, two which interest me more than others. First, one of the main metaphors for Church engagement within this cultural moment is “resurgence/resurging.” Those who prefer to this posture feel as if there is an established way of doing church from the past needs to be unearthed, cleaned up, and put into play again. There is something from a tradition in the past worth plugging in again in a new day.

Another metaphor in today’s Evangelical discourse is “emergence/emerging” or something coming up from the soil, fit for this cultural moment. In this camp, letting go of former ways of doing church is allowed, even required in this new frontier.

Both perspectives are interesting and troublesome. I watch each “camp” with interest because, in my opinion, we live in exciting times, times for engagement and hard work, rather than alienation and despair.

However, as Dallas Willard has famously said, ministry in the name of Jesus should be done in the name of Jesus, “with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15-16) May we go and do likewise.

Something More from the Sermon: Interpretation

 

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We at Peachtree are making our way through the first few passages of Genesis as a way to begin our new year. Yesterday, we considered the creation story in Genesis 1 and early in the message I wanted to sketch the importance of interpretation. In doing so, I tried to highlight a couple of extremes to avoid when interpreting an ancient text.

First, avoid considering anything old (and not written in our culture) as to be unhelpful. The Scripture may not have been written “to” us, but it certainly has been written “for” us.

Next, avoid shoving on to Genesis 1 things that we want it to say or to make it behave in such a way as it never intended to do so. Interpretation starts with some honesty: we have to let another culture speak on their own behalf. Bible-reading requires some hospitality before anything else.

I picture the Scripture text (and its voice from within it) as a toy making noise as it is piled into a crowded toy box with other toys. The toy is buried underneath other toys (that also make noise) so it is important to unpack the box in order to locate the certain one making that certain sound.

The voice from Scripture has been dog-piled by so many factors. Some innocent while others are more agenda-forming. While it may sound daunting to engage in the process to do the research to hear the voice of Scripture from ancient communities, I think that God wants us to do our best: to keep an open mind, to be humble in our reading of the text, etc.

As Scot McKnight suggests, we should “read” with our tradition; Scripture reading happens best within community. It also healthy to consider Bible reading as a round trip: travel into the world of the Bible and hear it (as best that we can) in its original setting and then travel into our own world and consider how we can now live in light of what we’ve heard. Sermons, studies, devotionals that only do one leg of the two are usually unhelpful, even if they are well-intended.

When truth from the Scripture text shapes us, it is considered “revelation” or an unveiling. Revelation is an either direct or indirect transforming event that shapes us into the human that God desires.

One theologian described a “happening” of revelation like a person coming home from school telling their parents that they wanted to become a math teacher.

“How did you come to this conclusion? Did you take a future career test? And… I know that you enjoy math, but do you enjoy it enough to teach it?” a concerned parent might ask.

The student might tell a story about some peace or resolve that grew inside them while working on his algebra assignment. Engaging in math assignments in-and-of-themselves does not lead a person directly to consider being a math teacher. Something above, beside, or within “doing math” creates an “adjacent possible” for one to consider being a math teacher.

I think reading Scripture creates a similar happening. That is why the church has always consider Scripture to be “inspired” and animated with a certain type of life. Even when the church gets further removed from the location of these inherited texts, something of relevance and honor always remains. Which is why it has been a staple diet of Christian formation to know the Scripture text.

 

Something More from the Sermon: Bethlehem

Yesterday’s message was an interesting challenge of weaving together the theme of God’s love, celebrating Confirmation for over 100 students in our church, and reflecting on the Bethlehem candle for the season of Advent. I had a great time trying to give as much time to each of these as I could.

I wish I could have spent more time on Bethlehem and its place within our reflection of the Advent season. I made mention how Bethlehem was the home of King David in the OT. It was there where the prophet Samuel went to set apart a new king for Israel. Jesse (David’s dad) forgot David in the field while the rest of his sons stood before the prophet on that day. Bethlehem reminds us that God knows and sees the forgotten and the overlooked, just like David.

Bethlehem was also the site of the great tragedy in the birth narratives of Jesus. After King Herod was tricked by the Magi, he sent his troops to Bethlehem to “take care of this two kings in Israel” problem by killing every baby boy 2 years and younger. What a horrifying scene that must have been.

That story in Bethlehem, though, reminds us of Exodus when Pharaoh conducted a similar military campaign. The Israelites were growing exponentially and he was afraid of an uprising, so he ordered all Israelite boys to be thrown in the Nile. Moses, the key figure of Exodus, was graciously spared from the calamity.

Matthew tells us that Jesus was also spared from the calamity in Bethlehem.

Matthew is telling his story in such a way for us to draw our eyes back to Exodus, that great triumph of the lowly, Hebrew people. In Jesus’ day, Israel is in need of a new Exodus. The only difference between the two is that this new need for an Exodus that we see in the gospels is not from foreign powers or Empires, but from Israel itself.

As some biblical scholars like to say:

“It was easier to get Israel out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of Israel.”

This is a stunning idea: we tend to struggle to break free from the last thing that we’d like to collude with in the first place.

There is much to point out in our world that needs to be confronted, that needs to be renounced. It’s a scary world out there, for sure. What I find, though, is that we tend to talk about things across oceans in order to hide from the fact that we have so much going on in our own heart that we can actually do something about that we’d rather not know that we know we should face.

Vic shared a great short story that highlights this idea. The London news paper once asked for the general public to identify what is wrong with the world. G.K. Chesterton famously wrote back,

“Dear Sirs, I am.”

So friends, let’s start there. In what ways do we need to be freed from the things that we still hold on to ourselves? May God give us the grace to recognize our own ghosts and trust that God is doing a new work within us as God is doing a new work within the world.

Something More from the Sermon: Presumption

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I listened, with gladness, to Pastor Vic’s sermon yesterday to launch our church into the Advent season. Yesterday, we lit the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that Jesus’ arrival did not appear out of thin air, nor did the early followers of Jesus invent it. God’s purpose and plan was something that was whispered and hinted at from the very beginning.

Vic’s treatment of John the Baptist’s ministry, as it is mentioned in Luke 3, was important for me and for our congregation to consider. John came to give a warning, to prepare a highway through rough and uncertain terrain.

His baptism of repentance was striking in so many ways.

  • Only non-Jews were baptized in 1st century Judaism. Outsiders needed to be cleansed in order to participate in the life of the community. John’s urgent call for all to be baptized signaled a clear message: it doesn’t matter what family you were born into; we are all outsiders and we need to think again about how we are living life.
  • This baptism was taking place “along the Jordan River” instead of Jerusalem and John believed that this baptism was for the “forgiveness of sins.” That type of transaction was supposed to take place in view of official priesthood in the shadow of Israel’s Temple. But here is John, breaking out holiness in the wilderness. This bold move had political, religious, and economical implications.

I suggest that the heart of John’s critique of Jewish insiders was their presumption for being in Abraham’s family, that their national identity gave them some sort of certainty within the life of God. John is clear, the fruit of one’s life is the determining factor of whether or not one is located within this community.

Presumption is a powerful force. A man can presume that he and his spouse have a romantic relationship because they sleep in the same bed and share meals together. A mother can presume to have a good relationship with her child because they “talk” everyday. A worker can presume to have a certain standing within a company because he has worked their for a certain amount of years.

Those outside of the faith struggle with the sins of pride claiming that they don’t need a god in order to have an ultimate ground of being.

Those inside the faith struggle with sins of presumption, claiming that affiliation is the same as participation.

John’s riverside chats are haunting and I must admit that his message stings and spooks. As not only a religious person but also a professional Christian, John’s words have pointed me to Paul’s haunting words to the Corinthian church,

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5)

May our craving to inhabit the life of Jesus exceed even our desire to be affiliated with the community of faith.

May God see us as faithful servants, not merely enthusiasts.

Something More from the Sermon: Without Why

Our family is in Wichita for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was able to preach at GracePoint Church, where I was on staff before we moved to Atlanta. It’s a great church with a fun group of people.

They were in the middle of a series called “Whatever It Takes” sharing about the important traits of a member of a church: serving, giving, and attending. Pastor Mike and Pastor Terry wanted me to try to bring that series to a close and help the transition to the Advent series.

I tried to flip the theme for the last sermon: instead of us working on doing whatever it takes for God’s sake, what if God could also do “whatever it takes” for our sake?

Part of God doing whatever it takes is to place us in situations that are tough, but necessary for our growth. It might be difficult for God to see us struggle, but God is patient, trusts the process for transformation, even the difficult moments.

I made mention of Matthew 25, Jesus’ last parable of the sheep and the goats. It’s a stunning parable and I find that it is interesting that Matthew puts it at the end of the Jesus’ parable discourses. Robert Farrar Capon suggests that Jesus’ parables in Matthew go through an important flow:

Parables of God’s Kingdom Arriving

Parables of Grace

Parables of Judgment

The last parable in Matthew 25, then, has a peculiar shape to it. If you recall, those who enter God’s kingdom do because they fit a certain criteria:

They feed the king when he was hungry

Gave the king something to drink when he was thirsty

Welcomed the king in when he was a stranger

Clothed him when he was naked

Looked after him when he was sick

Visited him when he was in prison

All of which sounded absurd when the crowd heard it. I mean, when do you see a king in a food line needing some food, right?

The king said, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you also did for me.”

The crowd was unaware of God’s presence in the midst of God’s absence. The deeds that they performed were not out of obligation, but because it was the right thing to do. They weren’t anxious workers at a bank branch preparing for a visit from the district manager. Their deeds were “without why.”

“Without why” is seeking to live before God without conditions; the unconditional. Think of a rose… is there a functional reason for a rose? We can’t eat them; they don’t have a long life span.

But, can you imagine life without the rose?

The rose lets us consider how life does not have to be mechanical or only measured on pragmatic scales. The rose exists in doxology, or as Paul would say, “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely… think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

Think about the things that you enjoy doing but have often thought about not doing because you think no one notices: putting a piece of trash from the ground into the nearby dumpster, putting your neighbor’s trash can next to their home, holding the door for strangers, etc. It doesn’t seem like much, but God seems to be near deeds done with great love, even if their motivation is “without why.”

Maybe the world will be won by multitudes of without why deeds, small threads of goodness that hold together a fragile world bent towards hate and violence?