Saturday, November 29, 2014
This coming Sunday, November 30th, marks the beginning of the season of Advent on the Christian Calendar. Advent is that four-week period of preparation, leading up to Christmas and the celebration of the Messiah’s birth. But, how should we “prepare” during Advent? Historically in the Church, Advent was a time for fasting, confession of our sins, and penance. Of course, sacrificial and penitential acts seem diametrically opposed to the “preparation” for Christmas that goes on in the secular, popular culture all around Christians. In the popular culture “preparation” for Christmas seems characterized by feasting, partying, and shopping.
As Christians, how do we prepare for Christmas?
From a Christian perspective, our preparation for Christmas should center on internal, spiritual preparation, even though I acknowledge that there is much physical preparation that we might do, such as baking cookies and decorating our homes. Although I do not think we are required to strictly follow the old Church tradition of sacrificial preparation, we might begin by looking at how those Christians prepared, spiritually, and why they chose those methods.
Each year during Advent, there are traditional scripture readings, which are suggested as the foundational texts for preaching. One of these suggested texts for this Sunday is Isaiah 64: 1-12. The form of literature which this scripture passage takes is that of Lamentation.
Most contemporary persons don’t spend much time reflecting on, or doing, lamentation. From a Christian theological perspective, Lamentation is passionate and usually vocal expression of regret and sorrow and grief brought on by the recognition—and confession—of our sins and failings. Although it is not an important component of our contemporary life, lamentation is a prevalent theme in many sections of the Bible and it was an important component of Christian spirituality down through the ages, until the modern and post-modern periods.
What can we learn about spiritual preparation for Christmas through a passage of the Bible devoted to Lamentation?
Isaiah 64 can be divided into three sections. The first section (verses 1-5a) is basically a recollection and reminder of how in the past God was powerfully active and present in the lives of the faithful. This section is addressed directly to God. Remembering how God revealed God’s Self to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt, the prophet writes, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” (v. 1)
Implicit in this section is the admission by the prophet that, for the people of his day, God has become “hidden,” or absent. The people of God are separated from God. If we are completely honest, couldn’t the same claim be made about many people around us? Isn’t it true that there are many people around us, who do not experience God’s presence in their lives? Many of us in the church could push even deeper and admit that sometimes it feels as though God has hidden from us and we do not feel God’s presence within our lives.
In the second section of this chapter (verses 5b-7), the focus shifts to a collective confession of how far the people have strayed and how greatly they have sinned. In an extremely graphic metaphor, the prophet confesses, “We have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (verse 6). Literally, the prophet says that our actions have become as unclean and reprehensive as a used menstrual cloth.
While most of us would not use such a graphic image, isn’t it true that all of us today have sins and shortcomings and failures that we are ashamed of? Like a dark hood that terrorists use to cover the head of a captive, so also our sin and our shame blot out the brilliant light of God’s Presence and Love in our lives. Our sins and shortcomings create a barrier that separates us from God. At this point, this lamentation is complete. All is darkness and despair.
Yet, there is always hope with God. And so, the third section (verses 8-12) form an appeal to God for mercy and rescue. The third section begins by reminding God of the special relationship that God has established with us; a special relationship that was established at the very beginning. The prophet writes, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay and you are our potter; we are the work of your hand.” (verse 8; my emphasis) Despite all of the bad that we have done; despite how hidden God is from us; despite how angry God is, the Prophet reminds God of God’s love and special relationship with us.
So, the lamentation ends on a note of hope: “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent and punish us so severely?” (verse 12) There is hope that God’s love is so deep and so powerful that all evil will be overcome and we will be reconciled with our Creator.
For Christians, the source and focus of that hope is Jesus Christ.
I would suggest that there is great insight in the old Christian traditions of making confession and penance—and, lamentation—central for their spiritual preparation for Christmas.
Think about it this way: Have you ever been in a thunderstorm or a snow storm that knocked out the electricity in your house. If you are like me, there comes a point where you start to realize just how much you take electricity for granted. The power goes out and it’s dark, so you stand up and walk over to switch on the light, only to remember the power is out. So, frustrated, you turn on the television to get a report on how long you will be without power, only to realize the television won’t work because the power is out. Then, you decide to make a cup of coffee, only to realize that the coffee maker won’t work because there’s no electricity. Perhaps, you decide to find someplace that still has electricity. So, you go out to the garage, only to realize the garage opener is powered by electricity.
As Christians we can slip into the habit of taking Christ for granted, just as we do electricity in our homes. This is the great liability of allowing popular culture, with its emphasis on feasting, partying, and shopping, to solely dictate how we experience Christmas. In order to truly appreciate how lucky we are to have Christ in our lives, we need to spend some time in confession and lamentation and penance.
I like to think about our time of preparation during Advent as a journey that ultimately leads to the manger and baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. The prophet Isaiah tells us that this spiritual journey should begin with lamentation—and hope.
Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas. Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings. Come, join us this Sunday, November 30th, as we begin a spiritual journey that ultimately ends at the manger in Bethlehem.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Just as it is now, the American Church was deeply divided 160 years ago. Whereas the contemporary American Church continues to struggle with questions of human sexuality, 160 years ago the divisive question was the moral legitimacy of slavery. That is, well-meaning Christians were deeply divided over whether a faithful Christian could legitimately own other human persons and support the institution of slavery.
On the one side, there were many well-intentioned Christians who believed that slavery was a moral abomination and serious sin, which could lead to God’s wrathful judgment and damnation. These Christians drew heavily from the Bible to support their opposition to slavery. For instance, they argued that Genesis 1:27 clearly establishes that all human persons possess the divine image because each of us is “created in God’s image.” Further, they noted that in his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus taught that we should “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). Later, in 1 John 4:20b-21, we read: “…those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.”
On the basis of these scriptures and others, many Christians in the mid-nineteenth century concluded that if all persons are created in God’s divine image and if we are to love all persons, then slavery must be inherently evil from a Christian perspective. Today, this understanding appears obvious and beyond doubt. However, in the mid-1800s, it was far from less obvious.
There was a second Christian perspective which held that the institution of slavery was compatible with Christian teachings and that faithful Christians could own slaves. Christians who held this perspective also drew heavily from the Bible to support their acceptance of slavery. For instance, they cited Colossians 3:22, which says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.” This verse seems to justify and legitimate slavery. Similarly, Paul’s Letter to Philemon, a slave owner, seems to condone slavery as acceptable for faithful disciples of Christ. In this letter, Paul never condemns slavery as wrong. Instead, he urges Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, a runaway slave, without harsh punishment.
This Sunday, November 23rd, I will be preaching on the Epistle to Philemon. This message will be the first in an occasional series of sermons entitled, “Struggling with Difficult Passages in the Bible.” The question that I am bringing to Philemon is this, “Does the Apostle Paul Really Condone Slavery?”
In approaching this question, we must begin by recognizing that slavery in the Roman Empire was very different from the slavery that existed within our own country before the Civil War. Roman slavery was not based upon race or nationality, as in the antebellum South. In Rome, slaves were primarily prisoners taken during a war. So, slaves could be Celts, Germans, Greeks, or any other nationality that lost a war with the Roman Empire. Some Roman slaves were highly educated, performing important jobs, such as that of teacher, bookkeeper, or physician. Slaves could be set free by their owners, and frequently this happened out of respect or friendship that developed between owner and slave. At the same time, slaves who ran away or rebelled could be severely punished by whippings or other forms of physical torture. Re-captured slaves might even be executed by means of crucifixion.
Paul writes his letter to Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus. In the beginning salutation of the letter, Paul identifies Philemon as a devout Christian who hosts one of the early “house-churches” in his home. Paul informs Philemon that Onesimus has converted to Christianity, since he ran away. Onesimus has really helped Paul during a time when Paul had been arrested and thrown into jail. Despite his assistance, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, who remains his legal owner.
At the same time, Paul pleads with Philemon, asking him to accept the return of Onesimus kindly. Rather than beating or executing Onesimus—which is his legal right—Paul asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to treat him as a “beloved brother” in the faith. Paul also implies that Philemon may want to set Onesimus free.
So, the question remains: “Does the Apostle Paul condone slavery?” It is true that in his letter to Philemon, Paul never condemns slavery as an immoral institution. It is also true that he never says owning slaves is incompatible with Christian discipleship. So, by implication, it would appear that Paul condones the institution of slavery and faithful Christians owning slaves. Yet, this conclusion is actually very superficial and we should dig deeper.
We tend to read our Bibles from within our own historical, socio-economic context. As twenty-first century, American Christians we live in a context where there is an accepted policy of religious tolerance. But, further, we live in a society where Christianity remains the largest, most influential, and most dominant religion. In this country, contemporary Christians’ legacy includes historical moments, such as Prohibition and the Civil Rights movement, when Christians profoundly shaped public policy, according to their faith. As result, we are perplexed and disturbed because Paul does not just come out and condemn slavery in his letter to Philemon.
It is easy to forget that Paul was writing in a dramatically different historical, socio-economic context. In Paul’s context, Christians were a small, marginalized sect without any political clout at all. Scholars date the writing of Philemon as occurring between 55-61 CE, which was just 3-9 years prior the first great persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire under Emperor Nero in 64 CE. Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus all lived under threat of persecution for their faith, and Paul had been imprisoned for his Christian faith at the time he wrote to Philemon. So, in a way, it was pointless for Paul to condemn slavery, given his context.
Yet, that does not mean Paul condones slavery, either. Rather, than protesting the public policy of slavery, Paul does something else which was very interesting and extraordinarily powerful. Recognizing and acknowledging Philemon’s legal right to own and discipline Onesimus the slave, Paul asks Philemon to acknowledge and embrace a higher standard of behavior—the standard of Christ. Paul asks Philemon to recognize Onesimus, not as his slave, but rather as his brother through their mutual faith in Christ.
Rather than making an ethical argument against the institution of slavery, Paul proposes a transformation in relationships because of Philemon’s Christian faith. As the highly regarded Biblical scholar Raymond Brown observes, Paul challenges Philemon, “a Christian slave owner to defy conventions: To forgive and receive back into the household a runaway slave … to go farther in generosity by freeing the servant; and most important of all from a theological viewpoint to recognize in Onesimus a beloved brother and thus acknowledge his Christian transformation.”
I think there are several lessons for twenty-first century Christians, living in a post-modern world, to learn from Paul’s Letter to Philemon:
(1) We cannot read our Bibles, assuming the same historical, socio-politico-economic context. The Bible must speak to literally millions of Christians who live across the centuries in very different time periods and vastly different contexts. We must dig deeper to understand the context that existed for the person writing and for the first audience of the text.
(2) We contemporary, American Christians have an obligation and a duty to be good stewards of our American citizenship and the privileges which we have received. Our society faces many critical public policy issues, including accessible healthcare, environment, immigration, and poverty. God calls us to speak to these issues from our hearts of Christian faith—even if we cannot speak with a unified Christian voice. This is prophetic witness and we must embrace it.
(3) In addition to prophetic witness, Christ calls us—just as Christ called Philemon—to an even more radical transformation of our personal relationships. To live out our relationships as though God's Reign has already been established throughout the world.
Come, join us this Sunday, November 23rd, as we struggle with this very difficult passage. Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas. Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
Recently I have been studying the various manifestations of “being a church” within the broader umbrella of “Emergence Theology”. There are some pastors and Christians thinkers today, who believe that we need to re-think what a church is. For these Christians, the “traditional model” of being a church is no longer viable. In their assessment, the “traditional model” does not effectively reach unchurched persons for Christ and it no longer empowers its constituents to faithfully serve God. As a result of their assessments, emergence theologians and pastors are actively seeking new models of being a church, with revolutionary structures of organization and new, more meaningful forms of worship.
By contrast, my pastoral setting is solidly in the “traditional model” of church. Yet, I have never believed that there was just one single way of “being a church.” I believe, instead, that the organizational structure, forms of worship, missional approach and methods of inviting others to Christ should be tailored to the needs and particularities of a specific context. So, I have been interested in learning more about the emergence church movement, hoping that there were some idea and insights that we might adopt and adapt in our solidly traditional model.
Some of this reading and reflecting on emergence theology has raised an important question for me: “What are the essential characteristics of any faithful church, regardless of whether it is “traditional” or “emergent”?
In my message last Sunday (November 9th), I identified four characteristics that are essential for every Christian congregation:
1. A viable Christian congregation must provide a safe and secure sanctuary where individual persons are free to be themselves without shame or pretense. Further, a Christian community of faith must provide opportunities for everyone to find a place and meaning.
2. A viable Christian congregation must provide spiritual nurture to all of its members. This spiritual nurture should enable everyone to grow spiritually and to mature in their faith.
3. A viable Christian congregation must create missional opportunities so that its constituents can move out and make a real difference in their neighborhoods, communities, and even in the global context.
4. A viable Christian congregation must be willing to take risks for Christ, in order to advance the first three characteristics. Instead of saying, “We’ve never done it that way before,” the operative question should simply ask, “What is God calling us to do next?”
In my sermon this Sunday (November 16th), I want to continue this exploration of what it means to be a faithful Christian disciple in our contemporary, American context. My scripture this Sunday is one of my favorites: Philippians 1: 3-11.
In reality this passage of scripture is a love letter from the Apostle Paul to the churches of Philippi. Paul begins this passage with gratitude and joy, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…” (Philippians 1: 3-4).
Paul’s joy and thanksgiving for the Philippian Christians is grounded in their history together because the Philippians have shared “in the gospel from the first day until now.” Incidentally, some biblical scholars believe that at least part of this “sharing in the gospel,” refers to the Philippians willingness to provide financial assistance to the Apostle Paul, especially during his time in prison.
At the same time, Paul is well aware that the Philippian Christians are still very much “a work in progress.” God is not done with the Philippian church just yet. As Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (v. 6) God is still working within the Philippian church, helping them to grow spiritually and mature in their understanding of faith.
Paul is supremely confident that the Philippian Christians will continue to grow spiritually and mature in their faith because he sees the Philippian Christians as forming a special, spiritual, Christian partnership with him. This spiritual partnership includes not just Paul and the Philippians, but it also includes God. In this partnership, Paul and the Philippians experience both joy and tribulations, as they work with God to establish God’s Reign on Earth. Paul describes their partnership with these words, “For all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (v. 7b)
At the same time, there is a hint of bittersweetness in this love letter to the Philippian Christians. This letter is written at a time when Paul is in prison, awaiting trial for his preaching. Paul suspects that they must continue in the partnership of the Gospel without his presence. So, Paul concludes this love letter to the Philippians with a prayer and a blessing:
“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (vv. 9-11)
I think that when he uses the term, “harvest of righteousness,” Paul is referring to the totality of the life of discipleship and faith. For each individual disciple, it includes growing spiritually, as well as reaching out in ministry to heal a broken, conflicted, hurting world. For individual churches, it also includes providing a safe and secure place where everyone can be themselves and find place and meaning. For both individual disciples as well as congregations, this harvest of righteousness can only be produced when we are willing to reach out beyond our comfort zones and take risks in order to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Come, join us this Sunday, November 16th, as we explore the implications within our own specific context for sharing in the gospel and producing this “harvest of righteousness.” Our church is located at the corner of Main and Dawson Streets in Meriden, Kansas. Our classic worship service starts at 10 am on Sunday mornings.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.