Presentation Day

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February 2nd is traditionally set apart to remember the day that Jesus was carried to the Temple by his parents for his dedication. I find it interesting that Groundhog Day is the same day, for both express an unveiling of sorts as to what could happen in the days ahead.

There’s a great juxtaposition in the story of Jesus’ presentation. There’s probably a good chance that Jesus’ poor parents had trouble purchasing the two pigeons required for the offering, yet they held the priceless gift of salvation in their arms as they made their journey to worship. Salvation was closer to the poor and uneducated rather than the rich and elite class of Israel.

We tend to look outside of us for help in confusing times and the current day is no different. We tend to look up higher for someone “up there” to take care of us “down here.” The presentation day narrative from Luke 2 retrains our salvation-seeking ways: we need to look down and around for help, too.

An extra-biblical source, The Acts of Peter, conveys a similar idea,

“Unless you make what is right left, and what is left right, what is above into what is below, and what is behind into what is in front, you will not learn to know the Kingdom.”

To this end, I’ve begun to use different language as I pray in order to help my salvation-seeking pursuit. Instead of just praying “God Almighty,” I’m not choosing to say, “God among us.” Along with praying to “the King of Kings,” I am praying to “the Humble King.” I can already tell that this type of identification with God is causing me to see the world differently.

In an era where we frantically “troll” and “scroll” we need to come up with some better practices to search for answers, for help. For the most part, trolling and scrolling make us act sub-humanly. Being present and attentive to all, whether it is a short conversation in line at Publix or a phone call with someone we haven’t heard from in some time, helps us re-negotiate with the world around us and it helps us to see the signs pointing toward salvation that we’ve overlooked and missed.

What do you think? Could we all entertain the idea that sacred moments can be in disguise among the common elements of life? It’s worth taking a look, I’d say.

Start-Ups: Something More From the Sermon

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Yesterday we wrapped up our Fall parable series with a bang! I enjoyed sharing from Jesus’ parable of the 10 Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). This parable is unique to Matthew and is placed at the end for rhetorical purposes.

Robert Farrar Capon suggests that Matthew organizes the parables of Jesus into a progression of 3 phases:

  • Parables of the Kingdom (“Hey, look! A new Ruler is in charge and the rules have changed!”)
  • Parables of Grace (“You can only enter into this new kingdom by admitting that you cannot earn it, but it is only by the sheer grace of Jesus.”)
  • Parables of Judgment (“Hey, if you don’t want to enter into this kingdom and respond to this kind invitation, that’s on you. It’s time to make up your mind. Just know that you will be left out.”)

The way Matthew organizes the material and makes this appeal and warning of judgment is compelling. There’s a good chance that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience after Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in the war between 66-70AD. There’s a good chance, then, that the Jewish community had asked big questions about their future existence. Is Israel gone? Has God moved on after struggling with us for so long?

Matthew’s entire gospel can be boiled down into a single idea: the living God has not given up on Israel but has sent Jesus of Nazareth to fulfill Israel’s vocation and to bear the pain of it’s disobedience. God is re-seeding Israel from within it. This time, the faithful community will give Abraham what he was promised: a worldwide family. (Genesis 12, 17, 19, etc…)

What hope or evidence can Matthew provide to Israel in their time of searching?

This is just a thought. As we trace the themes of these closing parables, it seems that, after Jerusalem’s fall, the worship of Yahweh took more of a mobile, agile shape. Perhaps in a modern metaphor, God is likened to an investor Who is searching for start-up organizations to invigorate with wisdom and grace.

In Matthew 25:1-13, there are 10 wedding guests, 5 of which are wise and patient who are rewarded for their diligence. They haven’t earned it; they are only included because of the gift of invitation, but that invitation inspired them to endure.

In Matthew 25:31-46 (the infamous Sheep and Goats parable) we see a similar idea. God visits with two groups of people and rewards them on the basis of their work. The “Sheep” however, are unaware that they’ve been serving God all along. God has been in disguise as they carried out their selfless work. This group of people did not feel compelled to do these things because they knew God was watching; they did it “without a why.” Their work was, as philosophy would suggest, “unconditional.” Therefore, God sought them out and invested in their initiatives.

As that early, small, and courageous church faced its 1st century world, they had many questions and fears, I’m sure. What invigorated their work was the hope that God would empower them in spite of the lack of social or political power. And God did. Their start-ups changed the world.

Perhaps this could be encouragement for us, too. We are in a moment of profound complexity (even confusion) as to what the church should do in connection with the systems of power in our world. We have to be honest, the church’s dependence and collusion with power has short-circuited our ability to model the faithful life with it. Our political rhetoric is laughable, perhaps even a bit embarrassing.

Perhaps we’ll consider this early Galilean vision for our current day. Maybe the nameless, powerless start-up initiatives that we invest in during our slow, daily walks with God will be met by matchless grace and power.

 

Something More from the Sermon: Transformation

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Yesterday, we continued our Parables series and spent the morning examining the ramifications of Matthew’s “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1-16) Although much of the action revolves around the workers invited to work in a vineyard, my contention is that we should focus our attention on the vineyard owner character, too.

Many of us know the story: a vineyard owner went to the marketplace to hire day laborers, a common reality in Jesus’ day (and our own). Jesus shared that the owner went out several times the same day (6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and finally 5pm) to employ workers for the field. The vineyard owner seems stingy early in this story, employing as few workers as possible, perhaps to protect overhead costs and seeking to keep as much as he could for himself instead of employment costs.

We are surprised, then, when the vineyard owner decides to pay all workers the same wage at the end of the day, regardless of the amount of time the workers actually logged in the field. When the vineyard owner is critiqued by the 6am workers, who worked the entire day and received the same amount as the ones hired last at 5pm, he exclaims:

“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matthew 20:15)

We can see that the vineyard owner has been in control the whole time. Early in the parable, however, he seems stingy with his money, which actually was beneficially to this early, 6am labor force. Towards the end of the parable, however, his desire to be lavishly generous to all flattened the local labor force to include the stragglers in the market who had been excluded in the day’s work force (for obvious reasons).

Why the sudden change of heart?

My suggestion is that the vineyard owner was transformed when he engaged the forgotten and vulnerable workers in the marketplace at 5pm. Prior to this exchange, he’s following the art of exploitation: hire as few as possible, for as little time as possible. Be scrupulous in the amount you actually have to pay. Cut corners when needed, bend the rules in your favor.

When he actually looked into the eyes of other, vulnerable humans, though, his mind changed. His mind was opened. His wallet was opened, too. His desire to pay the vulnerable a super-abundant wage was an over-aching declaration: there are new rules in this vineyard; this will be a business for the sake of others.

This embrace of the vulnerable, however, includes an exclusion of others. Miroslav Volf has told us that every embrace has its implied exclusion, too. The 6am-ers, who benefited by the old rules are now victims of the new rules. The vineyard ruler suggests that their “envy” of his “generosity” is preventing them to see the greater vision. (Matthew 20:15)

What would be interesting would be to see the next scene in this story, perhaps “a morning after,” the parable. Imagine how the interaction between the vineyard owner and the 6am workers would go down the next day in the market. I wonder if the 6am-ers would resist the vineyard owner’s invitation to go work in his field on the day after? Would they resist the potential to earn their own day’s wage in his field because they could not handle the fact that someone might work less hours and receive the same wage?

We could conclude, then, that there is potential transformation in both the vineyard owner and in the 6am-ers, who sought to take advantage of the vineyard owner’s budding generosity. (compare the initial contract in Matthew 20:1-2 and their “opportunistic” expectation in Matthew 20:10)

Grace has the tendency to bring this type of transformation and clarity. Grace causes some of us to spend our lives for the sake of all others or the potential cause us to be utterly disgusted by its abundant “waste.”

I wonder if this might be a lingering issue for the Christian faith, too. Would we (like the 6am-ers) resist God’s offer of salvation for our lives as we consider that God also desires to forgive/restore/save those who we feel morally superior to?

The gospel is the grand invitation to consider that there is a new Ruler in our world and, because of that transfer of power, the rules of how the world runs has changed, too. May we respond to that invitation and be transformed by its profound work.

Worship: Mixing the World and the Sacred

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A couple of weeks ago, I was in a Sunday School class with the task of teaching a lesson. It ended up being a riot, and I loved it. I spent a few minutes sharing a bit about myself, which provoked more questions with answers, and more questions with answers. The class time ended without the chance for me to even teach the lesson I prepared. And I loved it.

One of the class members knew that I was on the team to oversee the contemporary services at Peachtree so she asked me about the order of service for the contemporary venue. She had recently visited The Summit and it was so distinct from the traditional services at Peachtree. She was curious and wanted some answers.

That short conversation caused me to do some reflection about the order of service that we have and, more importantly, to consider what is the whole reason we gather for contemporary worship, in the first place?

The function of a church within the Western world has changed over the centuries. The church helped the individual worshiper in different ways over these different eras and the particular need for the individual worshiper adapted with the changing of times/eras. At times, the church and the state were so intertwined that it seemed like going to church was “the thing to do” as a citizen of the state and a member of the church, a weekly roll call for the faithful, if you will.

At other times, the church was the center of the town or settlement, so church helped give a frame of reference for the community.

At other times, the church was a place to learn about the faith, both for the person who inherited the Christian faith from his family or the seeker who is on her own quest.

But, what about today? One doesn’t have to go to a church to keep up a right-standing reputation for citizenship. A person doesn’t have to have a church tell him/her what to believe or to explain the intricate details of church teachings. There are plenty of resources out there for a person to discover that on their own. And, there are 1000 ways of connecting to others without a church community.

What could possibly be the ache and need of people in our modern world, then? And, let me clarify, I’m referring to a need that a modern person would be able to articulate without our encumbering “Christianese” and presuppositions that we insist the world needs to care about, whether they know it or not.

There are several good answers to this question, I imagine. One that I am developing is the need to blend the sacred and secular. The Western world has found a way to try to keep sacred places, practices, and ideas separate from secular, common life. This was a bit helpful when the average chit-chat about religion during the Reformation period wasn’t civil or easy. The average intellectual wanted to know if they could inquire about truth without upsetting some cleric or being brought in front of some committee to be questioned and to be threatened by church authorities if they did not agree with the church’s teaching.  Maybe for a season it was helpful to keep church talk in churches and other disciplines within other settings.

But, we’ve learned overtime of the damage it does to the human person to try to manage multiple selves. The human person isn’t split into sacred and secular so easily. Hopefully we’ve finally outgrown our insistence of sacred/secular divisions in Western culture. People are looking for portals to transcendence from just about anywhere: from sports, to astrology, to significant others, and to 1000 different things.

The average person feels split, however, because we haven’t developed habits through which we can learn to see that all of life is within God. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that the church can offer the world is a place of grace where those habits can form and become 2nd nature, or virtues. Perhaps a worship service could help us do just that.

Take the practice of Eucharist, for example. The average serving of Communion for the worshiper isn’t worth much, penniless perhaps; it’s just a piece of bread torn off a loaf with a small cup of grape juice (usually). However, we treat that bread and juice as something all-together sacred, priceless during worship. An objective person, with a lab coat or not, would have to reason that we are out of our minds to treat such material as sacred as we do.

Repeating that practice would help us to consider other common, penniless things (like that Tuesday afternoon budget meeting we always complain about) as something sacred, holy.

Imagine what type of life we’d live if playing with Legos on the floor with our kids, the 5-minute chat with the other soccer mom, the weekly visit with our relative who has Alzheimer’s, the brief interaction with a credit card help desk employee, etc… is not seen as common, mundane, a hassle, or an inconvenience. What if our expectation for each of these (and other experiences) is animated with sacred expectancy because our habits have transformed our reality?

To do this, our modern worship services need to have common/worldly elements smuggled into its sacred time/space so that our worshipers would consider smuggling the sacred elements of corporate worship into their common/worldly space. A delicate and thoughtful blend of all of life, brought under the sacred framework of God’s goodness, so that all of life can be considered good, as well.

 

 

Brokering Forgiveness

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I was in Starbucks last week and it was crowded. It is winter in Atlanta so people had large coats on as the tried to weave in between tables that were too close to one another. In the process of time, a woman knocked over another woman’s coffee as she passed by her table. Coffee was spilled everywhere. The woman whose coffee was spilled was upset because of the spill AND because it didn’t seem that the other woman either knew that she had spilled it or that she even cared about what happened.

I saw the whole thing go down and I felt like I needed to do something. Should I go buy the woman a new coffee so it is replaced? Should I also tell the woman who spilled the coffee what she did whether she knew about it or not? Ultimately I wondered if it was any of my business? The woman with spilled coffee could’ve talked to the other woman herself if she wanted to, I guess. I was in the middle; I felt helpless on the one hand and uneasy, wanting to do something on the other.

I believe that we find ourselves in the middle of two fractured parties often. Whether it is two neighbors within disagreement, two people at work who are angry with one another, or a couple of family members who are not speaking to one another. We constantly feel the pull of wanting to do something, not wanting to “meddle in another’s business,” and wondering if it is better to keep our eyes down and just let it play out.

We live in an angry world. Don’t believe me, open your Facebook account and scroll down the feed. Currently political candidates are being rewarded for saying loud, abusive things rather than proving that they could create a productive, political environment. I saw this clip on the Dan LeBatard show and I found agreement in his thesis statement: we are angry people. We pick up the pitchfork, light our torches, get angry, AND THEN go look for something to be angry about.

Perhaps the gift that the Christian community can give to our angry world is the hope of forgiveness and repair. Isn’t it interesting that Paul writes to his friend Philemon in a desperate attempt to broker forgiveness between he and Onesimus. It was upsetting to Paul that two of his friends were at odds. Paul is not seeking his own forgiveness but desiring to create a forgiving environment for others. Paul had a big gospel, one that extended his own quest for forgiveness and imagined a healed cosmos.

May we be those healers, those “shalomists” in a world full of terrorists of every kind of stripe and practice.

Something more from the Sermon: Poems and PowerPoints

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Yesterday, we were looking at the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis 2 and 3, and exploring the theological/philosophical/sociological idea of “goodness.” I had a great time with this sermon. It was really the first time I was given a green light to talk about Adam and Eve in a sermon format.

First, a note of correction. I went on and on about the Hebrew word for “woman” in Genesis 2 and pronounced it incorrectly at 2nd service. It is “ish-ah” not “ish-ma.” 1000 apologies.

I spent a bit of time (not enough) looking at how Paul outlined redemption in Ephesians 2:1-10. In verse 10, Paul called Christians the “handiwork” of God. The Greek word poiema rings of something like “poem.”

So, I made a point to say that we are God’s “poems and not God’s PowerPoint presentations.” I didn’t have time to work all of that idea out. Such a theopoetic, rather than a precise-critical statement, needs a bit more work to convey the meaning.

Poems and PowerPoints are both mediums of communication. Truth is conveyed in each. However, we’d agree that there are certainly things that are suited for PowerPoints and things that are suited for Poems.

It’s my contention that much of Christianity is expressed through a PowerPoint-type of communication. (Note: I’m referring to the essence of communication rather than churches actually using the Microsoft program, itself.) Christianity is presented as facts, with coined sayings and predictable habits in a PowerPoint format. There is nothing wrong with presenting Christianity in a “just the facts, ma’am,” format. We simply need to be reminded that the medium is the message, too.

I want to be involved in a Christianity of the Poem, where a wider variety of vocabulary, imagery, and prose is leveraged to present its meaning. We are talking about the greatest story ever told, aren’t we? We might as well use all that we can to get the job done.

To put it another way. Do you remember that powerful scene in the film Contact where a Jodie Foster’s character, a scientist, looks out of a window from her space ship at the expanse of the universe? She kept repeating the phrase, “They should have sent a Poet. I have no words. So beautiful… so beautiful…”

There are so many things in life that a scientist can explain and we are grateful for them. There are other things, things which our words have trouble containing (and places where angels fear to tread), where we need the gifts of a poet to draw us closer.

Imagine, then, attempting to describe the micro and macro redemptive works that God does in this world. A poem may be fuzzy and it may escape our complete comprehension, but it certainly is enough to lead us to worship such an amazing God.

Each of us is a poem, one that the Creator is crafting through our windy road of experiences. Perhaps the role of the Church is to simply to help curate the process of each life around us and to allow God’s peculiar presence to be experienced through the careful construction of each story.

33 of my Favorite Birthday Salutations

I turned 33 today, so I thought I’d share my 33 favorite messages from FB, Twitter, and text messaging. Birthday salutations mean a lot to people so I thought that I’d say thanks to 33 of my favorites. If you didn’t make the cut this year, see ya next August 25.

 

Pictures add a bit of style points to the birthday salutation.

Al Schoonover, Barb Lenz, and Mom put these up:image image image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first post on FB came from Ukraine, Pastor Ignatenko Vadim, – “Happy birthday, and God’s blessings to you, Joe!”

Ukrainians have a way of sharing awesome birthday wishes, check out this one from my friend Valentina from Kiev – “I want to wish to you AWESOME productive and successful year, full of challenges (good ones), smiles, adventures, trips, family, love, great friends.”

Ryan Wallace sent me one last night. It was great because he used Hebrew, “mazoltoph.” It sure beats his usual, “Have a good one,” without the words Happy Birthday. Way to evolve, R Dub.

There have been apologetic ones. Rick Bartlett saw me at the Chiropractor before he knew it was my birthday and said, later, “Can’t believe I didn’t say Happy Birthday when I saw you this AM. Sorry and hope you have a great day!” He appears to be giving me a book to smooth it over.

Jenny Bradley, always with the flair of theology and humor, said, “I can’t think what birthday is in Greek. But have a happy one.”

A couple of folks used my given nickname in their salutation. BJJ coach extraordinaire Jake Fox said, “Happy Birthday Rev!” while Andy Williamson used an oldie but always a goodie, “Happy Birthday big BABY!” Long story…

My cousin Jessica Martin put two “Happys” in her salutation. We can always use a few more “happys,” right?

Mr. Mike Strong was, and is always, pragmatic, “Joe, it’s your birthday! Happy Birthday!!!”

Dr. Steve Marsh went late-90’s, chat style, using all lowercase in his message.

My new friend Chef O, on the other hand, used all uppercase letters.

Two of the funniest dudes I know, Kyle W. Croak and Terry Johnson, had the same message, “Happy Birthday, man.”

Megan Wohler took the extra time to say happy birthday to “Dr. Joe Skillen.” A little respect goes a long way… Brad Glanville said that at church yesterday, too.

Christy Bosma and Dabria VanGieson posted on FB at the same time with the exact same message, “Happy Birthday Joe! Have a great day!” Dabria added another “!” at the end of her message, though. Advantage: Dabria.

Tim Gibson, who is older than me, called me “OLD man.” I think that how my body feels today would suggest that he has a point.

My friend Aaron Coleman killed two birds with one stone, thanking me for a couple of audio sermons that I sent him as he wished me happy birthday. I ain’t mad at him. Andrew Young did the same thing, asking if the Starbucks that I go to would allow him to advertise for his studio. Hey everyone, go to Andrew Young with Potentials Music for voice and piano lessons!

A lot of folks said, “have a great day!” Kristy Jackson, on the other hand, used “fabulous” in her greeting. Great is… great. Fabulous, however, seemed have a bit more pop in it today, for some reason.

Hank Blase is an attorney and he said that I should take time to do something fun on my day. I’m sure that he could find a way to say it is illegal to do otherwise.

In that light, Debby Rogers said that I should party like a rock star, meaning, “have a great time with your family and friends while counting your blessings more than naming your sorrows.” Well played, Debby.

The cool thing about FB posting one’s birthday is that it allows me to feel connected to others that I haven’t heard from in a bit. Thanks for connecting DeWayne Sykes, Amanda Carrillo,  Bradley Haddock, and Alan Williams. The list could go on and on with this one.

These were birthday salutations that I received before 10am today. I know that a pile of them will come in the rest of the day, too. I am so blessed. This is not counting the impromptu singing at church yesterday or the fantastic time at my friends Steve and Lori Cloud’s home last night. I get to celebrate with my family next weekend… two weekends worth of birthday stuff. Amazing.

 

My 3 favorite salutations, though, were art projects from my kids, Avery and Ezra, and a sweet card from my wife, Ginger. I got to take Avery to school today and, before she burst into the classroom, she gave me a big hug and kiss and wished me happy birthday. Her teacher saw her do this and raved about how sweet Avery is.

That’s right, Ginger and I have great kids, an awesome family, great friends, and a full life.

St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is the human, fully alive.” Birthdays allow us to capture a piece of what that type of life looks like. So, for all of the kindness that everyone has shown to me, I pray that it would return to you all.