Monday, January 31, 2011

Serve God Save the Planet Review Part 2; Chapter 5

'When asked by pollsters, 90 percent of Americans identify themselves as 'kinder than average.' If we say we care about the least in the kingdom, if we identify ourselves as 'kinder than average,' if we see ourselves as responsible stewards of nature, then we are content. Contentment does not result in change.
The content mind is one of the greatest obstacles to a rich spiritual life. The content mind is a proud mind. It has nothing to learn; it has an answer to everything and no more questions to ask.' (62)

If you are wondering what this quote has to do with Creation Care I don't blame you for the quizzical look on your face.

One of the strengths of Serve God Save the Planet is the connection that its author Matthew Sleeth makes between personal spiritual growth, discipleship and Christian Environmental Ethics. The quote above is included in chapter 5 a Sleeth addresses the gap between concern and caring and action. It includes some interesting exegesis of the parable of the good Samaritan and some compelling statistics about the affects of pollution on the respiratory health of America's children.

What I really responded too was Sleeth's call to action, a call which the Church needs to wake it from its therapeutic and emotionally malaise. We are not called to simply have beliefs and be a part of a supportive community (although these are an important component of being church together). We are called to go into all the world carrying a cross and a story of God's amazing, sacrificing love which urges us to repent and live lives of active mercy and justice. Sleeth's firm but gentle critique of a church in the rut of inaction is refreshing...

To move from thought to action, we must feel some discomfort with who we are... he says on pg 73 and he is talking about the environment but he could also be talking about poverty, human trafficking, shrinking sunday school attendance, and the list could go on and on.

I have long felt that a church that engages in learning about, practicing, teaching creation care would find that the process would challenge other areas of our lives as a church and as disciples that have atrophied. But that the practice of creation care would also inspire deeper and more authentic and intentional forms of spiritual discipline, faith formation and service.

the question that haunts me is this; how do you a grow a church that attempts to cause discomfort and not simply be comfortable and comforting?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Almost Christian Review Part 1: 3 Actions which challenge Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

'Apart from 'being nice,' teenagers do not think religion influences their decisions, choice of friends, or behaviors. it does not help them obey god, work toward a common good, compose an identity, or belong to a distinctive community. Teenagers do value religion as being personally useful: in addition to helping people be nicer and feel better about themselves, religion can provide comfort amid turmoil, and support for decisions that (by and large) teenagers want to make anyway....Why do teenagers practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Not because they have misunderstood what we have taught them in church. They practice it because this is what we have taught them in church

Once again I am behind the 8 ball in writing reviews on books that I'm reading, although I am a bit closer with 'Almost Christian'

What is most challenging about this book in my opinion is summarized in the phrase quoted above; 'Teenagers do value religion as being personally useful' Although it would be really fun to take a poke at Joel Osteen in my experience this is shockingly just as true a statement for the shrinking mainline (of which I am a part) as it is the burgeoning mega-church culture. Instead of the gospel challenging it is comforting, instead of the gospel calling us to action, it is warm thoughts to get us through our day, instead of re-orienting our lives to living in the kingdom, the kingdom is shoe-horned into cracks and small places between everything else we already do, prioritize and believe. And lets face it, there are much more effective sources of self-help and emotional bolstering than than church; such as Oprah and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. So it seems ingenuous to me to preach the Gospel as being good for our self-esteem and our productivity and our happiness, when the core of the Gospel is a cross and its sacrifice.

So I've done three things to start to challenge Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It has begun with the language I use.

1. Instead of talking about 'getting new members' I have started talking more about gathering and nurturing new disciples. We aren't here to feel better about the membership list, we are called to fish for Christ-followers.

2. Instead of talking about 'joining committees' I have started talking about igniting a passion for ministry. We don't just need people to fill a slot on a committee. We need to facilitate experiences where people can serve and make sacrifice for others and in that experience both share the love of Christ and gain experiences that challenge their world-view, assumptions, and personal idols.

3. Challenged people to stop talking about 'what church does for me' and begin to talk about what 'church has taught me about serving and sacrificing for others' and what opportunities the church has provided for me to serve and sacrifice.'

Do you think MTD is as dangerous as Dean suggests?
What needs to change in mainline church to shock us out of our self-centered faith?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Serve God Save the Planet Ch. 4 Technology, Social Networking and Babel Tower

I know, I'm behind the 8 ball as usual. I don't blog on the latest publications, I'm something like 5 years behind getting to this book. Why chapter four? that is where it started to get interesting for me.

'We have forgotten that we have far more in common with the honeybee than we do with our SUV of DVD...Do you know in which direction the Milky Way traverses the sky? As the phases of the moon progress, does the light go from right to left, or left to right? Can you identify a greater number of trees or cars? If the Bible says God knows every flower and bird, why do we spend so much effort knowing the names of man-made items. Maybe we're paying attention to the wrong things.' (60-61)

Matthew Sleeth, MD

Should the church and its leaders be embracing technology, devoting time, energy and financial resource, to facebook pages, websites, twitter and worship services that feature prominently videos and images, OR, should we be presenting a respite from all this technology and an alternative way of being together. I know, I sound like a Luddite.

What I think is beautifully done in Sleeth's book is that he manages to do some really interesting exegesis, as I will show in future posts, give some really creative options for becoming more environmentally conscious, and he also tackles food ethics, consumerism and our technologically obsessed culture. And he shows quite clearly how they all are connected.

In this case our increasingly technologically focused lives are also using more and more electricity, getting less exercise and spending less time with the people and the creation God created us to relate to in order to be fully human (he says, typing on his laptop, while his kids play DS).

I think Sleeth is suggesting that all of our obsession with cell phones, social networking, video games, etc, takes our attention away from the things that really keep us connected to our humanity, such as the world that God created for us to live in. Could all of this technology, social networking, ipod-ing, Word-of-Warcrafting, be a Babel Tower we are constructing, hoping to reach the heavens, when the connection to God we need is right in the backyard?

And if so, is the church really presenting an alternative to this idolatry it if follows suit by using more and more technology in worship, in ministry?

So I again I ask, should the church jump into all this technology or abstain from it? Is there a middle way?

5 Things I will Say About Jesus; Answering the Question Who do You Say I Am, On My Way to a Sermon

Five Things I will Say in Telling Someone about Jesus
1. Crucifixion
2. Resurrection
3. Incarnation
4. Revelation
5. Prostitution

We played a game in our family devotions the other night. The boys, aged 8 and 6 were challenged to say 3 things about Jesus. Mom had to say five things (she is still pretty new to this Christ-follower thing.) They made me say 10 things since I'm the professional (wink, wink).

It was an interesting exercise because it showed me what I still had to teach my kids, how much Mom has learned in a few short years and how beneficial lists can be to organizing thoughts. The list above is not what I thought of that night, but the question has been haunting me ever since and I came up with my top five list (think John Cusack's High Fidelity)

1. Crucifixion: Obvious answer really. This is where Paul says to start. N.T. Wright suggests (I can't remember where to be honest) that the cross was Paul's answer for every question and problem of the early church.
I would want people to know that Crucifixion makes us look sin square in the eye. We can't hide from it.
Crucifixion also puts God's great love for us front and center.
Crucifixion challenges the power of empire and reminds us of the danger of violence in word or deed.
Jesus was God's power incarnate, but that incarnation was service and sacrifice, not violence or greed. People who think that Church or religion is about wealth, power, and controlling the masses need to hear about crucifixion.

2. Resurrection: Resurrection for me is about God honoring the faithfulness of the disciple. Resurrection gives me hope so that I can follow Christ even though it seems like a bad idea to; forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, put away my sword, sell all I own and give to the poor, touch lepers, order pizza with whores, etc, etc. I wouldn't have the courage to do all this (I'm still trying to do all this) if I didn't have the hope that grief and pain I get in this life, trying to do these things wasn't the whole story, and that someday, this insignificant life would be honored with resurrection because i tried to be faithful every day. Christ was faithful and obedient to the degree of self-sacrifice. God defeated human sin symbolized in the cross and the separation it caused between Creator and creation with resurrection. God empowers us with the hope of the resurrection.

3. Incarnation: Now you will really see how poorly I did in systematic theology. I'm sure more could be said about incarnation that what follows. but to me incarnation is about presence. The fact that Jesus is not just a man, but the Word of God made flesh means that presence is important. God loved us enough to be like us, to stop calling for us to come back through the prophets and just come take us by the hand and lead us back. For me Incarnation means I have to do more than have ideas about the Trinity, I have to embody what I believe. So incarnation pushes me to do more than pray about someone or something, or write a check for someone or something, and roll my sleeves up and get dirty practicing God's love.

4. Revelation: Probably what I mean by Revelation really should be called repentance, but that would mess up my cool '-tion' thing that I got going on. Jesus words have authority. Jesus shows us how far we have fallen from being the humanity God intended us to be, and challenged us to repent of all that. But Jesus also gives us wisdom to turn and follow the way which is life in the Kingdom of God. Jesus confronts sin but also delivers the good news we are loved. Revelation challenges me to be honest with myself and others, and also to be merciful with myself and others.

5. Prostitution: I threw this in here for what I hope is a bit of a shocker! While Jesus came to call everyone, rich and poor, morally upright and morally bankrupt into a relationship with God, the Jesus I read about in the gospels spent most of his time with outcasts, expendables, the sick, the poor, the forgotten... all the wrong folks. Which reminds me of two things; I have to occasionally risk a good reputation in order to go be with the wrong people, that is what Jesus did. This discipleship thing will definitely take me out of my comfort zone and cause me to do things and be with people that society around me will not approve of, and I will not always be popular. this isn't a popularity contest, it is a faithfulness marathon.

This certainly isn't an exhaustive list. More things could be said, should be said and probably could be said better. But this is my list. What do you think? What is on your list?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sermon John 21: Do You Love Me? Reflecting the Love of God

Why does Jesus ask Peter three times about love.
I think Jesus has his doubts about Peter

This is the Peter, you recall from last weeks sermon, who didn’t want to accept Jesus call to follow by laying down his life and picking up a cross.

More importantly this is the Peter who talked a good game just before Jesus arrest; he would fight and die for Jesus. But when the soldiers showed up Peter ran and hid. And when confronted by someone who recognized him as one of Jesus’ disciples he denied knowing who Jesus was…. Three times.

Frankly I’m surprised that Jesus would sit down to breakfast with Peter.
I don’t think I would have.
Why would I open myself up to that kind of disappointment again.
Why would I trust only to run the risk of betrayal again.
I don’t need to stay up all night thinking about how Peter’s fear or distractions got the better of him
I trusted this guy to be the rock of the church,
But he was too busy fishing to get started

I don’t want the pain of being stabbed in the back again

I’m tired of stickin my neck out for this guy,
Taking his hand when he sinks in the stormy sea
Going out of my way to find him when he is lost in Galilee
Giving him a catch of fish even…
A gift he definitely doesn’t deserve
and this is the kind of thanks I get
is him saying he doesn’t even know me.

We don’t know if these thoughts ran through Jesus head as he was quizzing Peter
But they would be running through mine

And this little imaginative exercise gets us to the really uncomfortable center of this story.

The risk that God took in loving us
And the long history of disappointment.

We may operate under the assumption that God loves us because we are decent folk
But that isn’t the story the bible tells

Adam and Eve chose to listen to the advice of the serpent
And you tell me how hard it is to keep on loving someone who
Listens to the advice of a bad friend,
And insists on making bad choices and then
Calling you for consolation

Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt
God smashes their shackles
And breaks their chains
And leads them across the red sea
And how do they thank him?
By complaining about the menu in the desert
And wishing they could go back and put the chain on again

You tell me how much ingratitude hurts
Does it make you feel like being loving?

The love that is recorded in the Bible is a risky and costly king of love
It isn’t the magical and mysterious emotion that makes everything seem beautiful
It isn’t the high of dopamine washing through your brain

The love of God in the Bible is soul wrenching, gutsy work.
Love isn’t about emotions or chemicals
And it isn’t reserved for those who have earned it or deserve it
Or even return it

As Rob Bell says, God loves us just the way we are, and too much to let us stay this way

The love of God is a gift given not for who we are,
But for who we might be,
To transform us into the beautiful creation we were meant to be

From Genesis to Revelation we are given story after story of God’s great undeserved love for us
Like Jesus love for the lepers, willing to risk his own health
Like Jesus love for the woman caught in adultery,
willing to sacrifice his reputation
Like Jesus love for the Geresene Demoniac, willing to lay aside safety.
Like Jesus love for the Romans, choosing to die instead of fight back.
Like Jesus love for Peter, willing to be betrayed again
In the hope that God’s love will transform them
Into the beautiful creation they were meant to be.

It is kind of strange really,
That not only does the Bible redefine love,
From chemical reaction
And sappy emotion
To this selfless, risky choice, over and over and over again

But also, that when you stop and consider it
The Bible seems to suggest that there are lots of good reasons NOT to love
Because this kind of love costs something, perhaps everything.

The story is told that Clarence Jordan, that great Southern, social prophet, visited an integrated church in the Deep South. Jordan was surprised to find a relatively large church so thoroughly integrated, not only black and white but also rich and poor; and this was in the early sixties, too. Jordan asked the old country preacher, "How did you get the church this way?"
"What way?" the preacher asked. Jordan went on to explain his surprise at finding a church so integrated, and in the South, too.
The preacher said, "Well, when our preacher left our small church, I went to the deacons and said, 'I'll be the preacher.' The first Sunday as preacher, I opened the book and read, 'As many of you as has been baptized into Jesus has put on Jesus and there is no longer any Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, males or females, because you all is one in Jesus.'
Then I closed the book and I said, 'If you are one with Jesus, you are one with all kind of folks. And if you ain't, well, you ain't.'"
Jordan asked what happened after that. "Well," the preacher said, "the deacons took me into the back room and they told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more."
Jordan asked what he did then. "I fired them deacons," the preacher roared.
"Then what happened?" asked Jordan.
"Well," said the old hillbilly preacher, "I preached that church down to four. Not long after that, it started growing. And it grew. And I found out that revival sometimes don't mean bringin' people in but gettin' people out that don't dare to love Jesus." (As told in Hauerwas and Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996, p. 103).
That is the bad news.

But maybe it is also good news.

Maybe Jesus challenges Peter with three questions about love
Because he sees in Peter the ability to love
Yet unrealized potential, but great potential nonetheless
Perhaps he knew that the image of God
Lying dormant in Peter, was the image of risky, self-sacrificing love
That God could give Peter the power to love others
And to teach others to love
Perhaps Jesus knew that Peter could be the rock upon which the church would be built.
Perhaps it wasn’t doubt, but belief, or hope.

Belief and hope that Peter would respond to the challenge
Throw off his own fetters of fear and self-preservation
The comfort of the life he knows at the seashore
The convenience of going back to life the way it was
To go out and take the risk of carrying God’s long story of risky love to the world.

The challenging question remains,
Do we dare love Christ this much?
The inspiring promise remains
The love that protected Adam and Eve
That guided Israel in the desert
That healed the lepers
Sheltered the shamed woman
That forgave peter and embraced him
That shocking, world creating, life changing love
Is waiting for another Peter in this day and age
Looking for another disciple to say

Yes Lord, I love you
Despite the costs,
Including the risks
Because of the hope it brings
I love you

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Love, Peacemaking, and Potluck: On My Way to a Sermon

I used to write sermons by trying to discover itch and then the scratch of it.
For instance, one possible itch of the Parable of the Good Samaritan would be the apathy humanity can have toward those who are other, outsiders, outcasts. The scratch is that all humanity is outside of God's will for us, but still we are accepted by Christ. Therefore as outsiders welcomed into God's grace, we are called to embrace the outsider.

I suppose I still do this to an extent. But the other day I found a really interesting blog called the hardest question I really wish I'd thought of this myself. Various bloggers write posts on the coming weeks lectionary. There are lots of blogs that do this. What I think is unique is that the bloggers are highlighting the most challenging, perhaps even offensive lessons to be drawn from the readings (this is my take on it, the folks at the hardest question might want to put it differently). So this is what I am looking for as I write a sermon now. What will be the hardest thing to hear in the lesson, what will challenge us most, be the most difficult to carry out, what is the painful change being commanded of me, in this story.

So I'm on John 21 for this sunday.
Jesus makes a post resurrection appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. He loads down their empty net with fish and then invites Peter to breakfast.
This is followed by Jesus questioning Peter's love three times.

do yo love me, feed my sheep.

I found it difficult to identify anything terribly troubling in all this.

Until I started to think about Jesus inviting Peter to breakfast when Peter had denied even knowing him less than a week before. That kind of love goes way beyond sentimentality and romance which is the popular understanding of love. It is risky and probably stupid, to trust someone who has let you down, disappointed you and stabbed you in the back.

John is closing his gospel with a picture of Jesus being reconciled with the person who hurt him the most. Love is redefined from chemical reaction in the brain or sappy emotions to a courageous act of forgiveness and the reforging of a broken relationship. We build the church on this kind of love in action. This is the foundation of the church's ministry of peace-making, to be willing to create peace, day after day, week after week with the one's we love and who sometimes let us down, hurt us, betray us.

I found this quote by Thomas Merton. I'd read it long ago, and have never forgotten it:
As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them… It is principally in the suffering and sacrifice that are demanded of men to live together in peace and harmony that love is perfected in us.

What will I do with this lesson.
Start inviting more folks over for lunch after church, or dinner during the week. Not necessarily just in the case of a break in the relationship, but just to build strong relationships and in so doing to give and receive the love of Christ.

Friday, January 14, 2011

On My Way To a Sermon; Lay Down Your Life, Take up Your Cross;

For What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
matt 16:26 (to read the whole passage follow this link)

It seemed pretty obvious to me from the outset that these word's of Jesus were meant to challenge and inspire an apathetic faith and urge the disciples to greater depths of service and sacrifice.

But it was an uncomfortable message to try to craft for two reasons:

1. Every church has a core, some say 20%, who do all the work. Will a sermon urging more sacrifice, more service, really inspire devotion or will it instead just sound ungrateful for their efforts and inspire a feeling of 'never being good enough.' So the challenge; do not soften the challenging edges of Jesus' words, but do so in such a way that also offers grace to those who do devote great amounts of time and energy to the ministry of the church.

2. The first discomfort leads the second; that the faith Jesus intends to inspire would be perceived as effort, will, work. To me, this is the balance that is so difficult to strike when it come to teaching, not to mention living the faith. On the one hand we can become so focused on doing the right thing(s) that we forget that gift of grace which is given and not earned. this leads to Christian service which is simply self-serving. On the other hand we can become so enamored of faith as belief that we observe very few practices of the faith.
Jesus was not teaching that we had to earn grace, but that to follow him is to go where he goes and to do what he does (as best we can) So how to strike the balance.

while watching a television show about helping hoarders clean their homes, one of the home owners said, 'I thought you were coming to help me, not take away the things I love.' That seemed to me, to somehow bring this passage into focus. Christ isn't simply saying, 'do more.' Christ is saying, choose carefully what it is that commands your time, attention, passion, finance. If these are focused on things that ultimately will not deepen your relationship with God and with humanity, best to lay it down and replace it with something that will deepen one's faith and connection to those whom Jesus devoted a life to.

Something else that entered my mind as I was working on this sermon was a quote from Kenda Creasy Dean's book Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. 'If the church is going to make sense to adolescents, then our ministry must be predicated on passion-the passion of Christ, the passion of youth, and the passionate faith that is made possible when these two things come together.' (22).

This is what Jesus is trying to inspire, a passionate faith, in the face of a passive faith.
These words of Jesus challenge a church that is so focused on self-help and self-esteem that it has lost its true mission, which is to see God's purpose done in the world
These words of Jesus challenge a discipleship that is assumes it already knows the right answers to the doctrinal questions, but is not put into action in any intentional way
These words of jesus challenge the church that as satisfied with 'be good' and
be nice' to accept the challenge of the cross.
These words of Jesus challenge a discipleship that treats the church as ok when it is convenient, but not all that important, not something to sacrifice for, with a warning of the consequences of an apathetic faith, the loss of life.

How has this affected me?
What do I need to lay down? despite my story, I watch too much tv. So the formation of this sermon has challenged me to lay down TV and technology time. Let some of it go.
What will I pick up as a cross? To start I am going to take some of the time spent in front of TV and Computer memorizing and meditating on the beatitudes. There are other things I will do. game night with the family, reading, when the winter is gone, a walk in the woods. Ultimately it will lead to a family practice of service in the community, like cleaning trash from the side of the road and inviting others to join us.
Picking up the cross does mean service to others, but for me picking up the cross begins with time for devotion and prayer, which will strengthen me for works of service.