We are the Garden of God

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A friend of mine got a letter from the national office of one the major po****l parties last week. He is not a member of that party, and is in fact very concerned about where that party is heading. So he wrote them a carefully worded letter back, full of passion, vim and vigor, which he then posted on Facebook. Now I am not here this morning to talk about the po****l party, the letter he got or the letter he wrote back, but about the last sentence in his Facebook post.  “I am down to my last 3 days at school and looking forward to more time in our greenhouse, watching the plants grow…”

Receiving the one letter and writing the response were clearly stressful for him, and to alleviate the stress he is planning a period of plant watching. For him, getting back to something organic, something slow, something that sums up the essence of natural, is a way for him to relieve stress. I understand that. There is something peaceful about gardening, about putting a seed or a plant in the soil, watering it, making sure it has sun, maybe a little fertilizer, and watching it grow.

Of course anyone who has ever gardened knows it is not all peace and serenity. There is a lot of work that goes into gardening, and when, for the third year in a row, your cucumbers don’t cuke, or your beans just ain’t gonna be, or you get root rot, aphids, earwigs or any number of maladies and pests that inhabit gardens, it can be anything but a serene experience. Gardening is a lot of work.

But still I understand where my friend is coming from. In spite of all the hassles that come with gardening, there is something about it changes the pace of our lives and our expectations, something that makes us take the long view, something that teaches us patience and tender care, and an better understanding and appreciation for where we are.

There is a lot in the Bible about growing things. The Psalms liken the righteous life to a tree, planted near running water. Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit. A lot of Jesus’ parables were based on agricultural metaphors. You have the parable of the sower, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the wheat and the tares, the parable of the budding fig tree, the parable of the bare fig tree, and the two parables we heard in this morning’s Gospel lesson, the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of growing things.

That last one, the parable of growing things, is found only in the Gospel of Mark. It is one the least known parables, but I think one of the most endearing. It is really simple. A man plants seed. It grows, sprout, stalk, head, and then full grain. The farmer has no idea how it grows, he just knows it does. Then it comes to fruition and is harvested. Simple. But a powerful metaphor.

We can start to get a handle on its meaning by saying we are like the seed that is planted in the ground. As a plant grows up, it changes, from seedling to stalk to full grown plant. Then it changes more. It blooms, then it produces fruit. It takes a lot of work to nurture a seedling. From birth to death, we change. We start off as seedlings-infants—when we require a lot of nurture and care, and we slowly grow up over the years, until we get to the point in our lives when we start producing fruit, when we hit our productive years. How does that happen? Scientists who are looking at the process of aging, so they can reverse it, are stuck on this. They can see the effects of aging, but they can do nothing to stop it. They don’t really understand what causes the effects.

Our spiritual lives are like the planted seed. I can tell you have been a pastor for many years, and I have watched people grow spiritually, I have even been a part of their spiritual growth, but I can’t tell you how it happens. There are things I can do and they can do to help our spiritual growth, but how we grow spiritually—that is a mystery. How is it that one day someone who has never been to church before suddenly shows one Sunday, and the next and the next? How is it that a person who I suspect has slept through 90 percent of my sermons is now sitting up in anticipation of learning something, and now peppers me with questions after the service? How is that that the person who has been struggling with aspects of their life, or their spiritual life, suddenly seems to make a breakthrough? They grow, but I know not how.

So I resonate with the parable. There are times when I have grown, and I can’t tell you how.

How we grow spiritually is a mystery. But thing is, we do grow. And just like a garden, where I cannot tell you what makes my peppers grow blossoms, I can tell you what I can do in general terms to take care of the plants under my care.

When our first Mother’s Day in Medford rolled around, the Redhead and I did what we normally did on Mother’s Day. We went to a greenhouse and we bought plants for our garden. In Alaska we grew everything in pots, because it was a short growing season, and if you were going to get any tomatoes, you had to bring them inside in late August or early September. But at our first house in Medford we had a grand garden space.

Not only did we do what we used to do in Alaska, we bought the kinds of plants we used to buy in Alaska. So in mid-May we bought and planted spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and lettuce. By mid-June it had all bolted. We couldn’t plant things in Medford as though we were still in Alaska. We had to adapt our gardening to where we were, not where we came from.

One of the first things about gardening you have to learn is that not every field, nor every climate can grow just any kind of produce. One of the first things I learned about spiritual growth is that what works for me may not work for you.

When I first became a pastor I got a lot of books on spiritual development. Often there were programs attached, where you could do a ten-week study on how to improve your spiritual life, and I tried many of these. I started to notice a pattern. Sometimes the program, the course, the book, whatever it was, would work. I would give it to people, and they would grow spiritually. But then I would take the same program, the same course, the same book, and give it for different people, and it was like pouring salt water on a plant. People didn’t grow. Whatever worked for the last group didn’t always work the next group. Or might try a program and recommend to a pastor because it worked so well in my church, and it would fail miserably for the other pastor. Or vice versa—what worked for them would bore my parishioners to tears.

What makes us grow spiritually? There is really no one thing I can say that will work for all people in all places at all times. Sometimes people need to read the Bible more, sometimes they need to pull back. Sometimes they need to do more acts of services, some people need to do less. Some people need to spend more time alone, and others need to spend more time with other people. Some people need to learn and study more; others already know more than enough, and they need to get out of the books and put what they have learned into practice.

I look out among you, and we are a fairly homogeneous people. We have all chosen this place, this style of worship, this kind of social gathering. And yet what may work for some of you, what may help you grow your spiritual lives, will fall flat with the person sitting behind you.

Or you can say our church is like the seed planted in the ground; the parable works that way too. What works for our church may not work for other churches and vice versa.

The trick, as in gardening, is knowing the soil of soul. And knowing what you want to grow in your soul. We have to know ourselves. I may want to think certain things will work for me, but I have to be honest about who I am. More than once I have had people tell me they have a hard time believing like they used to. As I find out more about them, I usually learn that they had a great spiritual experience years ago, and they are still trying to live off of that. As I talk more I learn they are a different person than they were when they originally had that experience. And so it is no wonder that what worked for them in one period of their live is not as effective today. If they came to faith when they are a young adult, newly married, new baby, fresh start on their career, I am not at all surprised that when they hit midlife, they have different spiritual needs. I don’t eat the same way I ate when I was 20. Back then I would have a cup a coffee after dinner, maybe two. I would snack all day on junk food, I made popcorn every night, sometimes followed by ice cream. I don’t do those things anymore. I need different nourishment now that I am slightly older.

In the same way I cannot replicate the spiritual life I had when I was 20. I am not that person anymore. But I have to know that about myself. I have to have a pretty good idea of who I am today. Not who I want to be, or who I was 20 or 30 years ago. We have to know the unique soil of our souls in order for them to produce spiritual fruit.

Then we have to patient. When you are gardening, if you want a salad for dinner, you don’t just go out and plant lettuce in the morning. A spiritual life that mushrooms quickly is going to decline just as quickly, just like a mushroom. Like any growth of any substance, the growth in our souls is best when it is slow and sure. A little change that occurs regularly over a long period of time is often more substantial than a big change that happens all at once.

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky recounts in one his novels the story of a man who was taken out to be executed by a firing squad. He was led out in handcuffs, blindfolded, made to stand in front of a wall. The major in charge of the execution said, “READY. AIM…You sentence of death is commuted. You will not be shot today.” Dostoevsky could tell the story so well, because that actually happened to him. Imagine how that experience could change your life. He says that as he was led out, he saw everything in vivid detail. He heard the birds singing, every note. He felt the warm sun on the back of his neck. And when his sentence was commuted, he vowed he would not live life to the fullest. He would take anything for granted any more. But, in a few months, it was as if that had never happened. He quickly went back to his own ways of seeing the world. He took a lot for granted.

The BIG changes aren’t always the most important ones. The really important ones are the little changes we make day by day.

You have to consistent to grow your spiritual life. Ok, so I planted my peppers, and I know I am going to be gone for a week, so instead of giving them a gallon a day like I normally do, on the Sunday before I leave, I pour twenty gallons of water in the soil. It doesn’t work that way! You have to water them every day. In our old garden I would spend two whole days at the beginning of the gardening season pulling out all the weeds that had grown up over the winter. I have to admit, more than once I got a little miffed that I had to spend part of my day off weeding the garden. “I did that, like two months ago! Why do I have to do it now?” Well, because if you want a good garden, you have to be consistent with watering and weeding.

The best way to grow a spiritual life is to be regular and consistent. Spending a weekend a year reading the Bible cover to cover may be a good idea, but frankly reading a little bit every day is going to be much better for you. I met a monk once who told me he read and meditated on a verse from the Gospel of John every day. One verse a day. He was, I think on chapter three when we talked. I mentioned how long it was going to take to get through the entire book, and he said, “My goal is not to finish reading John. My goal is to feed my soul every day.”

And in spite of the fact that it does not seem to be doing much from day to day, you still have to care for it, or you will see it doing a lot of things you don’t want to see it doing—like bolting, or being overtaken by weeds.

So what is one thing, one small thing you can do to improve your spiritual life this week? It does not have to be earth shaking. Maybe you can read one Bible verse a day, like my friend the monk. Maybe spend five minutes talking to God. Maybe you can give up one small thing, or take up one small thing. “I’ll come down and volunteer at the food bank for two hours every month, or every week. Maybe you can start telling the people you love that you love them on a daily basis. Maybe you can spend five minutes a day thinking about how you best serve God and come up with a plan to put that service into action. Maybe you can spend five to ten minutes a day alone in contemplation.

Maybe you can find a book that will nourish your soul, and read from that, ten minutes a day. Maybe do a daily devotional.

What do you need at this stage of your life? What can you do? Whatever you do, it does not need to be an earth-shattering change. It just needs to be one that will a) help your spiritual life, b) be something you can do consistently and c) something designed for YOUR spiritual life, not your neighbor’s, something that fits your soul.

And how can I help you? I said before the basic needs of a spiritual life are common to each individual, but the specific needs are unique to every individual. How can I help you find your way to a deeper spiritual life? What can I do to help water and nurture your soul? Because the last thing I want to say about growing a spiritual life is this; we don’t do it alone. There may be times when we do things by ourselves, but we are part of a spiritual community. That is why we have group Bible studies and book groups, corporate worship, and fellowship activities. You are a part of a spiritual community here.

And as part of the community we grow together. We are all connected. When you grow, that affects your neighbor and when your neighbor grows that affects you.

As Jesus said, the farmer doesn’t know how the crops grow, he just knows they will grow if he does the right things. How we grow spiritually is a mystery. But we do grow. Like a well-tended garden, a well-tended soul produces fruit. We are the crop of God.

May we grow with grace and love.

Amen.

 

TEXT: 

Mark 4:26-29

26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

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unforced rhythms

 

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The Preacher

            The air was sultry hot, and the preacher was sweaty and tired, but still full of fire, and he was not about to stop–not until himself got a convert.

We were in the assembly hall at a Baptist beach church camp, and it was the final night. The preacher had been doing altar calls all week with almost no response, and tonight he was not to be denied. The problem he faced was that half the people in the hall were already saved and the other half were pretty determined to NOT be saved. I was in the second group that night.

My soul was not ready for eternal bliss for a variety of reasons, all of which had to do with being a typical 15-year old male. I, and everyone else in the hall, sat firmly in our seats.

The preacher was determined. He wanted some notches in his Bible Belt.

“I know…and the Lord has said this to me…that there is someone out there….one of YOU, who needs to come forward tonight, who needs to be saved TONIGHT! You dare not tarry.”

But tarry I did, even though the crowded room was getting hotter and hotter. And I was not the only person in the room to tarry. My friends were just as revolved as I was to stay cemented in their seats. The overhead fans were pushing sweltering humid air down on us and there was no cool beach breeze to ease our anguish. I wanted to get out of there something awful. I came to this camp because of a girl, and we had plans to meet on the beach after chapel, and I was good and ready for after chapel.

“I knew a boy,” the pastor continued, “Who tole his mama that he didn’t want to get saved yet, but that he would, and real soon. Said he wasn’t ready. His momma talked him into going to church one Sunday, and the boy was ready to be saved, but a drunk driver plowed into their car ON THE WAY TO CHURCH, and now that sweet boy is suffering ETERNAL damnation because he put off being saved!” At this point the preacher went into a pretty vivid description of eternal damnation, which ironically sounded a lot like what I was going through at that very moment. The fires of hell had nothing on the still summer air and the torrid thoughts winding and twisting through my mind in anticipation of the evening to come.

At one point I almost walked down the aisle, just to shut him up, but I knew there would be no way to get to the beach afterwards because they would want to rejoice with me over the redeemed state of my soul, and I was more more interested in getting down to the beach and doing something unredeemed.

 

# # #

Unforced Rhythms

I did not get saved that night. Nor did I meet that girl on the beach. She stood me up for an older guy.

Years later, I did have a conversation with God, one I needed to have, and it wasn’t at the bequest of a sweaty preacher who was looking for a body count. I was sitting alone on the back porch of my parents’ house, and just slowly realized it was about time I had a talk with the Almighty.

Somewhere during that conversation I was born again, I turned my life over to God, I accepted Christ as my personal savior, I was saved, I started my faith journey for real, I become a practicing Christian–call it what you want, my relationship with God changed that afternoon, and ever since then I have counted myself as a follower of Jesus Christ.

There was nothing coercive about it. It just happened, in a natural, unforced way.

Years later I would read Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11:28-30:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

The conversation I had with God had a lot more to do with the “unforced rhythms of grace,” than the demanding strident threats of a man whacking me over the head with Jesus.

I came to the table of faith because I heard Jesus “softly and tenderly,” calling me home, not because a pastor was yelling at me. The invitation came through some friends of mine who had become Christians, but who had, over the last year, truly cared for me as a friend, and who did not openly judge me, as well as my relationship to a church that also a very caring place.

Both my friends and the church exhibited the unforced rhythms of grace that lie at the heart of the faith in ways that made it irresistible. They did not push me to get right with God, and because they didn’t, I did. A coerced conversion is no conversion at all. If I am only bowing down to Christ because someone is pushing me down, my heart remains standing and unmoved–in fact it becomes more rebellious.

silhouette-1479058_1920            But when I open myself up to the unforced rhythms of grace, I join a dance that has gone on since before time and will continue as long as long as time does–and beyond. There are times when can I feel those rhythms deep in my bones, and the divine dance floor is open and I am swaying to the cadences of heaven. Sometimes it happens during worship, but it can also happen at a Grateful Dead concert (with literal dancing), a hike in the woods, or while reading a moving passage from an essay or novel. It can happen when I am working with the homeless around our church, or when I am counseling someone. It never happens when I am angry, impatient or irritated. It can never be forced.

David Bentley Hart, in The Beauty of the Infinite, makes the point that there is no room for coercion or violence in Christianity. Instead the church should strive with all its might to attract people through its embodiment of beauty posed on the edge of infinity. Beauty, he says, elicits desires that draw people to it naturally. The nature of the church should be its own persuasive force. We don’t need barkers standing outside the the revival tent, cajoling people to come in. We should be the kind of people who are naturally attractive–beautiful in our commitment to justice, to compassion, and to the infinite God.

Scaring or shaming people into faith is a losing proposition. It can only produce a scared or shameful people. Forcing the rhythms of grace messes up that very rhythm and leads to cacophony. The commitments that accrue from faith should flow naturally and beautifully from the lives of faithful. The Church should not need to persuade people to join–the form, commitments, and practices of the Church are the persuasion. If we are not a beautiful people we have no right to expect others to be attracted to us.

Many years ago, on Sixty Minutes, Andy Rooney said that on the whole he tended to be more pro-life than pro-choice, but that he liked the pro-choicers more than the pro-lifers. I think a lot of people feel that way around Christians. They may like the notions of grace and forgiveness, but in order to get through to them they have to go through a people who can be ungraceful and unforgiving as a normal way of practice. As one bumper sticker says, “I love Jesus, but I’m not crazy about his fan club.”

On the other hand, the unforced rhythms of grace are not just attractive, they are often irresistible. The day I did finally make a commitment to faith in Christ was the day I discovered the irresistible love of God. That is the faith that has stayed with me over the last forty years.

# # #

Dancing to the Rhythm

After what seemed to be an eternity of haranguing, the preacher finally gave up that night without a single soul walking down the aisle. From his point of view it was a wasted night. He was defeated, like Father McKenzie in the Beatles song. No one was saved. But he was pushing a product I don’t think he really believed in himself, which is why few others wanted to believe him. Why on earth would I let someone coerce me into making one of the most important decisions in my life when their very style of persuasion belies the heart of their message? If he truly believed in the love of God, he could have let that love shine through at least a little. If he truly believed in the power of God, he could have trusted God more to draw the people in.

He was an ad man pitching a product that he never really bought into himself. He was taking the beautiful rhythms of grace and forcing them into a constrained structure that never could and never will contain them.

As for me, I would rather dance to unforced rhythms.

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Attacking the Good Work of God; Reflections on the Unforgivable Sin

 

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You heard about the man they found on a desert island? He was a strong practicing Christian, and when he showed them around the island and the life he made for himself in isolation, he made sure to show them the church he built where he could worship. One of the rescue party asked what the building across his compound was. “Oh, that,” he said. “That is where I used to worship.”

To say the Christian church is extremely divided today is like saying it is cold in Antarctica in the middle of their winter. We have Pentecostals and Episcopalians, Congregationalist and Catholics, Brethren and Baptists, not to mention Orthodox, Assemblies of God, what goes by the name The Christian Church. There are 13 different brands of Catholics, of which the Roman type is the largest.

One study found there are at least 200 different denominations in the country, not counting all the individual non-denominational churches.

And Presbyterians?

Well there is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).

americanpresbyterianfamily001That doesn’t include all the other off shoots of the Reformed tradition: the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly, the Reformed Presbyterian Church – Hanover Presbytery, the Covenant Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Reformed Church, the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, and the Free Presbyterian Church of North America.

Whew! Talk about your split P-soup!

Almost all of these result from splits over the last 250 years of our history. One group differed from another, and felt they had to go off and form their own denomination. In almost every case there was someone or a group of people who looked at the others around them and said, I can’t be a Christian if I have to do it with you.

In today’s Gospel lesson we see the same dynamic at play in first century Palestine. The scribes have come down from Jerusalem to check out what Jesus is doing to their religion.

Who are the scribes? They are the people, based in Jerusalem, who are responsible for the maintenance and practice of the law. At this time very few Jews spoke Hebrew. They, and this includes Jesus, spoke Aramaic, a language similar to Hebrew the way Dutch is similar to English. The scribes knew Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, and it was their job to preserve the language. They also were like the gatekeepers for the law. They interpreted the law for the vast majority of people who could not read it for themselves.

Apparently they have gotten word of this new preacher running around doing miracles, and teaching people about the law, and they are concerned because he is getting pretty popular, and he has not checked in with them on his interpretation of the Law of God. It is their job to maintain quality control, and they have come to hear Jesus to see what he is up to, and whether they need to stop it.

And their conclusion is that he needs to stop what he is doing. And they make that clear in no uncertain terms. “He has a demon,” they say, hoping that will scare the crowds off.

But Jesus counters their charges. “If I am a demon, then why am I trying to draw people to God? A house divided against itself cannot stand. That is not a great theological truth; it is common sense. Lincoln used this very verse when he said in 1858 that this country could not exist half-slave and half-free, because we would end up in a perpetual state of conflict. In fact that is that state of affairs that led to the bloodiest war in American History.

This is a good lesson for the church today. We are more divided than ever before in the history of Christianity. We have a hundred different ways to define ourselves as Christians these days. That is not bad in and of itself, but the problem is we define ourselves in a way that excludes others. And we tend to look at the others and say, “there is something terribly wrong with the way you are doing religion.”

Jesus attacks that attitude head on, and here is where the story starts to get sticky.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

I don’t know about you, but when I hear this, the first thing I think is, “Have I committed the unforgivable sin? If I did, I didn’t mean to! Am I going to spend eternity walking around barefoot on hardwood floors full of Legos because I accidentally committed the unforgivable sin?”

Let me put your heart at rest.

Here’s the scene. Jesus has just gotten into a tangle with the scribes.

And Jesus, standing there and looking at them, starts talking about unforgivable sins. His remarks were pointedly aimed at the scribes, not the people who had gathered around him.
All eyes were on him, and he had his eyes on the Scribes and he told them they had committed an unforgivable sin.

What was their sin? They accused him of having a demon, of being a demon. They pointed the finger at him and said, “You are evil.” Once you do that, there is no room for further conversation. It is one thing to say, “I really disagree with you on this issue.” It is quite another to say, “Well if you believe that, you are truly evil.” Once you go there, there is almost no going back. Few people are willing to shake hands with the devil and let bygones be bygones. When it comes to Satan, there is no reaching across the lines to find a compromise, or at least a way to co-exist together. Most people, if they think something is truly evil, will have nothing to do with it.

And the scribes just said Jesus was a devil. And here’s the rub—they said it because he had healed people. First he had healed the man with the withered hand, which we read about last week. After that little escapade his fame spread and all sorts of people were coming to him. And he healed many of them.

The scribes saw this and they did what many people do who see something they cannot understand—they demean it. Rather than face the uncomfortable question, “You guys are supposed be God’s people—why aren’t you able to heal people like he does?” they cut off the conversation at the knees. “He is a devil!”

We see this throughout history, where people disagree and before long someone is calling someone else a heretic, or an infidel, or a witch and then it’s not long after that the someone gets ex-communicated, burnt at the stake, hanged, or shot.

So when the scribes called Jesus a devil, they had committed an unforgivable sin—calling the work of God evil. There are more than few instances in the Bible where Jesus does something miraculous, something wonderful, like healing people, and gets accused and condemned for it.

If we condemn the good works of God, what chance do we have of having those works come our way? If we condemn hope, what hope can we possibly have for our own lives? If we call what is obviously good “evil,” what good are we?

If you are sitting here today wondering if you might have committed the unforgivable sin inadvertently, you obviously have not committed the unforgivable sin. You have room for God, and for the work of God in your heart. You have not looked at an obvious good and called it evil.

As I pointed out at the beginning of the sermon, we see that dynamic a lot these days. It’s not enough to have a disagreement; but often one side will try to demonize the other. We see it in politics, we see it in social issues, and we see it in the Church of Jesus Christ.   “I don’t see how you could call yourself a Christian if you believe that.”

Now why on earth would the scribes attack Jesus for doing good? I mean, if you see someone out there healing people, miraculously, you would think their first reaction would be, “Can I hang with you? ‘Cause you got some kinda power that is out of this world!” But no. They want to condemn him, demonize him.

In a way, Jesus does the same thing himself…but in a different way. He is not demonizing the scribes, but he does say that their behavior shuts them out of the Kingdom of God. For some people that is disturbing, because we don’t want to think that anyone is shut out of the Kingdom. I think that is why we don’t like the idea of an unforgivable sin. Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves forgiveness.

But that does not mean we baptize everybody’s behavior and let it be acceptable. I think what Jesus is telling us here is that are places where we have to draw a line. And for Jesus it is the scribe’s behavior.

I want to be clear. Jesus does not condemn them because they attacked him. When Luke tells this same story, he adds to it, “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven;” What burns Jesus is that they are keeping people from enjoying the love of God.

What he says next reinforces that. Apparently his family was worried about him, and they sent some people to Jesus to tell them they were waiting for him outside. Now in that culture when your family wants something, you do it. But instead Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And he looked at the people around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Where the scribes were trying to keep the way narrow, and if you don’t toe their line, you are on the outside, Jesus opens up the door for everyone. “Anyone who does what God wants them to do is part of my family.” The scribes saw themselves as gatekeepers. It was their job to keep the wrong people out. Jesus saw himself as a gate opener. “Anyone who wants to come in is welcome—they are a part of my family.”

We have too many gatekeepers. We erect theological gates, gates on social issues, gates on practice, and gates on what kind of music we sing to. We have too many people who want to define what it means to be an insider so narrowly that once you get in you only find people who are just like you are. People talk about true Presbyterians, true Christians, and if your theology does not match theirs, you are on the outside.

We are so divided. And to what purpose? To what purpose? It only weakens the church in the eyes of the world and keeps us from enjoying each other.

Jesus is not trying to keep people out—he wants to pull in as many as possible. He does not care what is in your past. He does not care whether you are a righteous person of God, a fisherman, or thieving tax collector. He does not care if you were a respected businessman, a struggling single mom or dad, and I’m pretty sure he even wants politicians to be a part of his family. He wants you to become a part of his family.

But here’s the deal. If you want to hang with Jesus, you have to be willing to hang with all the other people who are with Jesus. If you become a part of the family and then start wondering how all these other people got in the family, then you don’t yet understand what it means to be a part of his family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the first lesson this morning we heard Paul say, For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

What we see is the outer ways we are trying to relate to God. We worship one way in our early service and slightly different in the later service. One is more informal, and one is much more traditional. Neither way is right, and neither way is wrong. Other churches do it differently than us. They are not wrong in what they do.

There is an old Jewish saying, “Never make fun of the way a drowning man is swimming. He is doing what he has to do to survive.” Nor do we make fun of the way others worship. We are all trying to get through this life. We are all swimming in the waters of life, hoping to get through the best we can, trying to find a lifeline to God. Sure, we can open to swimming lessons, but how we swim through life is not what defines us.

Paul encourages us to look deeper. Some speak in tongues and wave their hands in the air when they worship, others stand, cross themselves and bow, while still others sit. Some use set liturgies as part of the service, while others sing for the majority of the service. Some sing hymns, others sing songs that sound more like pop songs.  All that is the outside stuff. What matters, Paul says, is what is inside us, what people don’t see. That is what God sees when God see us at worship.

It’s OK to like where you worship It’s OK to prefer a particular style of worship. But at heart we have to admit that is a matter of taste, not a judgment about who is in and who is out.

When I first came to Medford, someone asked if I was a Duck or a Beaver. I am finally ready to answer that question. Some of congregation are Ducks and some are Beavers.

And I stand firmly with my congregation.

In the same way, some of my family, the family of God, worship one way, some another. And I stand with my family.

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Surfing Theology with Karl Barth

neo-orthodoxy

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METAPHYSICAL WARNING: This post is an eisegetical exercise in the noetic effects of a sensus divinitatis obtained in the pursuit of hermeneutical pleroma, as mediated by a epistemological kairos from the Kirchliche Dogmatik. Extreme theological geekiness is liable to occur.
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When I have some down time at work, when I can just kick back and relax, when all my time is not hemmed in by emergencies, and I can unwind by reading for work and pleasure, I like pick up a volume of Kart Barth’s Church Dogmatics, open it at random, and get lost in it for an hour or two.

The very emphasis, the fact that no other question is seen in relation to the one but a real question in relationship to the other, the naivete with which their own Christlikenss is affirmed as compared with the hesitance of the final affirmation of Jesus Christ; all this meant that directly as well as indirectly everything was lost and the confession of the name of Jesus Christ was already abandoned (Church Dogmatics I.2 p. 351).

Yes Virginia, I read that stuff for fun.

I know this makes me a theological geek, and I plead guilty as charged. I realize that most people would rather attend a marathon meeting of insurance adjusters talking about actuary tables, but for me it is pure delight. As a matter of fact, I did just now choose the page and sentence at random, but I took break before finishing the paragraph, because I had to see where he was going with it.

“Why would you do that?” you may ask, assuming you didn’t stop reading this in the middle of that long quote.

DBP_1986_1282_Karl_BarthHe was the first major theologian of any stature that I read. Well, that’s not exactly true. The first book of serious theology I read was Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, which I read on my lunch hour when I was working as a systems analyst for a bank. But soon after that I stumbled onto Church Dogmatics, II.2, part one, 506 pages on the doctrine of election. Moltmann was my gateway drug. Barth was The Real Thing.

And yes, you read that right. I did not start reading Barth in seminary. I would sneak away from my day job to read it. When I finally got to seminary a few years later, it was pretty much an excuse for me to read theology full time.

I like his theology, which ambles down the path of Christian Orthodoxy without defining it so narrowly that it is a solo journey. Early in his career he saw all his liberal German professors defending their countries involvement in World War I and realized that their theology had little do with why they supported the war, and from that saw the poverty of a system where what was studied had little or nothing to do with how they formed their ideas and opinions about world events. “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible,” he advised his students, a word the Church would do well to heed today.

This is what led him to oppose Hitler in the early days of his regime. While other German pastors were acquiescing to the rising tide of National Socialism, Barth was active in opposing Hitler and all he stood for. In 1934 he gathered with a group of pastors and theologians (the dividing line between the two was not as clear back then as it is today) and while they napped after a long lunch, he wrote The Barmen Declaration, a statement opposing Hitler and National Socialism. “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders [Führer in German] vested with ruling powers.” Here Barth is making it clear that Hitler is not the leader of the church, and they have no business bowing down to him or accepting that he had any power of them. Soon after this Barth left Germany for his Swiss homeland, where he lived and taught the rest of his life.

“The gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths,” he wrote in his first major work of theology, the groundbreaking 579-page commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. For the rest of his career he went about following those question marks.

The first day of the Karl Barth Seminar I took at Duke University, the professor told us, “If you don’t understand what Barth is saying, just keep reading. It will come back around again. And again. And again.” Having read four of the twelve massive volumes of Barth’s massive magnum opus Church Dogmatics I know exactly what he meant.

Barth takes a theme, and goes with it. When you think he has exhausted it, he takes it up again, and this time goes in a slightly different direction. When is it done with that, he does it all over again.

Eighteen small print pages of the various ways to look at supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. Twenty-five pages on time, from God’s perspective. Forty-eight pages on Judas. The first of his four volumes on reconciliation runs 779 pages. The second volume is even longer.

Someone once saw some works of Karl Barth on Albert Camus’s bookshelf, and asked if he was interested in Barth’s theology. “No,” Camus said, “I read it for style.” Ok, I cannot verify that story. It was told to me by one of my seminary classmates who was trying to read Barth at the time. It’s probably not true, but it very well could be. Camus would see Barth as a Christian Sisyphus rolling his theological rock up a hill only to have constantly roll back down on him. I’m sure that was how my classmate felt upon having to read Barth.

I think the opposite is true.

Barth was an anti-Sisyphus. Yes, he rolled his theological rocks up a hill, like Sisyphus, again and again, but his was not an exercise in frustration; it was an act of pure joy. Unlike Sisyphus, who never got the top before the rock rolled back down again, Barth would hit the summit, and so enjoyed the process, that he kicked it back down, so he could roll it up again. And again. And again.

For those students like my classmate who read Barth because they had to, reading him was a Sisyphean task. “I’ve already read this! Why is he going over it again?” It seems like the flow will never end.

But for those like myself who read Barth because they wanted to, reading him is like watching a surfer. You see him catch a wave and ride it in to the shore, then he paddles out so he can do it again. And again. And again. Except when you read Barth, on are on the surfboard with the surfer.

You are reading an extended treatise by someone who loves what is doing so much, that he rides the waves over and over and over again. You can feel and share the sheer joy of someone who is doing something he truly loves.

In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, the father of a young chess prodigy is confronting one of his son’s teachers, who has just told the father the boy is missing too many classes for tournaments, and that maybe he needs a more “normal” childhood.

“He’s better at this than I’ve ever been at anything in my life. He’s better at this than you’ll ever be, at anything.” It’s a rare privilege to be around people who excel, and it probably the biggest reason I like to read Barth. There are other great theologians, but I have only met or read a couple who are as good and who do it with the same gusto as Barth.

I know that Barth is not for everyone. I know that most people would rather run barefoot across a hardwood floor full of Legos than read even a couple of pages in the Church Dogmatics. But most people can identify with watching someone who is really good at something, whether it is LeBron James playing basketball, Eric Clapton playing guitar, or Meryl Streep acting.

Karl Barth is like a beacon for me. He reminds me of the joy of doing something well, and that is why I love reading him.

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The Sabbath; Not just for the religious!

Rest

 

When I was a kid I spent part of one Sunday afternoon at the home of my friend, Buddy. Buddy had never invited me over on a Sunday, and that afternoon I learned why. It was the Sabbath and his parents “honored” the Sabbath. They honored by sitting quietly in their living, reading their Bibles. Buddy and I sat on the floor and were not allowed to play, or even to talk. It was so quiet I could hear the echo of their clock ticking, a sound that forever reminds me of being extremely bored. I lasted less than 30 minutes, and forever after that when I hear the words “honor the Sabbath,” I yawn.

50 years later I have a very different idea of the Sabbath, the topic of last week’s sermon.

Here are some of my random thoughts on Sabbath.

The Sabbath does not have to be Sunday, especially if, like me, you are someone who has to work on the Sabbath. It can be any day of the week set aside for re-creating your soul. It may or may not involve worship, so don’t assume if you are going to keep the Sabbath, you need to do it on a Sunday.

Sabbath keeping is not just for Christians and Jews. Anyone can enjoy a Sabbath. (After all, college professors get a Sabbatical, which has nothing to do with their faith.) It is a time to recharge, a time to slow down, a time for re-creation.

Marva Dawn reminds us that Sabbath activities should be intentional. It is not a day we just let happen, but a day we plan for things to happen–unless of course your plan is to let things happen! But if your life is like mine, “letting things happen” means putting yourself at the disposal of the latest emergency.

Ideas for your Sabbath

  1. Turn off your phone
  2. Stay off social media
  3. Enjoy nature; take a walk, or a drive. Go to the lake or river or the shore.
  4. Indulge in relaxing hobbies. Play golf, if that relaxes you (it does not relax me!) Build a model, work in your garden, take pieces of wood and make something of it, learn something you have always wanted to learn, play music, listen to music.
  5. Read. Think. Go to a movie. Cook an elaborate meal, just for the heck of it, and take time to eat it.
  6. Go out for coffee with friends. Go out for coffee alone.
  7. Spend time with your dog.
  8. Make love. (Jewish rabbis were kind of expected to make love to their wives on Friday nights.)
  9. Just sit.

 

Walter Brueggemann makes the case that the Sabbath is a resistance activity. The world expects us to produce, to buy, to consume. Work, work, work, build a little house and die. But for Brueggemann (and this was the major theme of my sermon) the Sabbath is our way of saying we have value even when we are doing nothing.

 

Books on the Sabbath

Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by Walter Bruggemann

 Quotes: “Thus I have come to think that the fourth commandment on sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses … along with anxiety and violence.”

 

“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

 

“The way of mammon (capital, wealth) is the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness without any Sabbath. Jesus taught his disciples that they could not have it both ways.”

 

“I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. Imagine having a sacrament named “thanks”! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are “weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care” receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed.”

 

 

“The Sabbath rest of God is the acknowledgment that God and God’s people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production and so dispatched, as we used to say, as “hands” in the service of a command economy. Rather they are subjects situated in an economy of neighborliness. All of that is implicit in the reality and exhibit of divine rest.”

 

“That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.”

 

“We used to sing the hymn “Take Time to Be Holy.” But perhaps we should be singing, “Take time to be human.” Or finally, “Take time.” Sabbath is taking time … time to be holy … time to be human.”

 

“But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising and its great liturgical claim of professional sports that devour all our “rest time.”

 

“Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms. Whereas Israelites are always tempted to acquisitiveness, Sabbath is an invitation to receptivity, an acknowledgment that what is needed is given and need not be seized.”

 

“we may consider the sabbath as an alternative to the endless demands of economic reality, more specifically the demands of market ideology that depend, as Adam Smith had already seen, on the generation of needs and desires that will leave us endlessly “rest-less,” inadequate, unfulfilled, and in pursuit of that which may satiate desire.”

 

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting,  by Marva Dawn

“A great benefit of Sabbath keeping is that we learn to let God take care of us — not by becoming passive and lazy, but in the freedom of giving up our feeble attempts to be God in our own lives.”

 

“One of the greatest gifts for my life as one who serves God is observing the Sabbath. Celebrating a holy day and living in God’s rhythm for six days of work and one of rest is the best way I know to learn the sense of our call – the way in which God’s Kingdom reclaims us, revitalizes us, and renews us so that it can reign through us. Before we can engage in the practice of our call, we need to be captured afresh by grace, carried by it, and cared for.”

 

“We definitely do not conform to our culture if we choose not to be dominated by possessions or by the anxiety to acquire more of them, but decide instead to give away much of what we have and use what we have been given as good stewards who desire to enjoy the things of God for the purposes of God.”

“If we lived more simply most of the time, our feasts would be distinctive events. As it is, since most Americans have all kinds of special things to eat every day, for many the only way to make Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts uncommon is by eating more. It would be good if we could restore the concept of feasting not as something to regret (don’t we all have to lose a few pounds after the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s season?), but as a delight.”

 

As they say in Fiddler on the Roof, “Good Sabbath!”

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