Thursday, November 8, 2012

On Preaching

Let’s be honest. Pastors think that the most important part of the service is their sermon. We tell ourselves it’s not, but we are too narcissistic to really believe it. We are Protestants and it’s in our blood. Have you ever wondered why retired preachers continue preaching way longer than they should? The power and authority in the pulpit is too alluring. 

After a year of preaching I have found a mix of a healthy dose of the fear of speaking on behalf of God and an unhealthy dose of pride. On the one hand, I am flabbergasted by my responsibility. The sermon is a moment of incarnation as Jesus Christ takes on flesh once again and walks amidst us in the congregation. This kind of pressure makes for a lot of restless Saturday nights—just ask my wife. At the same time, I tend to think that I can control God; it’s the vestiges of what we call sin. In the eyes of a pastor, a bad sermon ruins a worship service and a great sermon is the kingdom come. But really, I am not that important.  A poorly written sermon might reach more people than the finest theological rhetoric.  

God is not restrained and controlled by my words—thank God. And more often than not, God is usually revealed in the messiness of worship.  That’s relieving and humbling when I choose to remember it.  When a seven-year old child looks you in the face and says, “in the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven,” a sermon on power seems shallow.  That’s Jesus, right? A gentleman lets the congregation know that his best friend is dying while the rest of the congregation nods in silence and Jesus fills that moment of silence and weakness with presence. These moments are more important than my words.

We must expect Jesus to manifest himself in strange ways if the cross is the supreme act of revelation. Cruciform revelation means that the ‘powerless’ ends up becoming most powerful and the last become first. We think that Jesus must only be revealed in powerful words, but never forget that Jesus is also found when you dip a piece of bread into a cup of juice. Who are we to control God?

 Every Sunday a parishioner with a mental disability rings the “Trinity bell” three times and then holds the brass up to his teeth to feel the vibration. I am gratefully humbled when I realize that the bell means more to him than my words. That’s where I find grace every Sunday. For I realize that Jesus is, in fact, here with us and it’s not because of me. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Heroes and Saints: An All Saints Day Meditation

(My comparison of heroes and saints is inspired by Sam Wells in Improvisation)

Who is your hero? Heroes fascinate most of us, even at a young age. I have a lot of heroes.  And I’ll let you in on a secret, if you promise not to tell.  Most of my heroes are imaginary.  They wear capes, masks, and have superpowers.  They have odd names like Superman, Spiderman, and Batman.  My bookshelf at home is full of their stories.

Who is not captivated by the story of the hero?  The evil villain threatens to destroy the entire city and the superhero steps up and saves the day. The hero inspires, motivates and opens up our imagination. They usher us into a new kind of world where good wins and evil is destroyed.  We are let down in our daily lives and relationships, but we can always trust the hero. The hero never fails.

I have had a lot of heroes throughout the years; only a few were not imaginary. One living hero was Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong is a cyclist who survived cancer and then went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times. This is unparalleled in the world of biking.  I wanted to become like him in high school. The problem was that I didn’t have a bike.  So I began to wake up at six o’clock and run 5 miles before school. Most of you have probably heard the news that Lance Armstrong has been stripped of all of his titles for doping.  I didn’t want to believe it; the guy was like the living superman. But the truth of the matter is that Lance cheated. His teammates no longer deny the allegations; they tell us that Armstrong is a bully and a liar.   Now, when you Google the name Lance Armstrong, you will find the word, “cheater.”

What happens when a hero fails? Heroes cease to be heroes. Are there any real, living heroes? Or, can they only be found on pages in a book?

It’s no surprise to me that the word ‘hero’ does not appear in the New Testament.  In scripture, there is no such thing as a hero.  Scripture prefers a different word to describe those people who inspire and motivate us.  They choose the word saint.   It is a word that occurs sixty-four times in the New Testament.

The word saint is dangerously close to the word hero. Right? Saints are the people who challenge, inspire, teach and they achieve extraordinary things.  But there is a crucial difference.   A saint isn’t called to achieve a mythic state of perfection.  Rather, the saint is exemplary only because of God.  In other words, the beautiful part about sainthood is that you can’t be a saint without being a sinner.  Sinning is the first requirement.  King David murdered, Moses murdered, Paul hated Christians, and Peter was hot and cold.  Saint Augustine struggled with his love of women—his most famous prayer being, “Lord grant me chastity, but not yet.” Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife over and over.  Remember when we found out that Mother Theresa wasn’t perfect?  Even Mother Theresa had a serious crisis of faith and lived a life of intense darkness.  

We don’t look up to these people because they were perfect.  We look up to them precisely because of the opposite: they are flawed. My favorite funerals are the ones that tell the truth. “Yeah, Joey drank too much, but do you remember that time he gave his coat to that homeless man?”  “Man, Elizabeth had a really bad temper, but do you remember that time she gathered us together to pray for our enemies?” Instead of saving the world, saints realize that they are the ones who need saving. And so, maybe the difference between a saint and a hero is that saints are not expected to be perfect, they are expected to seek forgiveness. For their imperfections teach us that we can’t become saints on our own; God mysteriously makes us one.

For the saints know that they are not at the center of the story. The life of saints is a life spent on the sideline—constantly pointing to something bigger than their own lives. They are God’s sidekicks—the regular people who are faithful to their master. In fact, some of the greatest saints are the ones who never wrote a book or appeared on television. They are the ones who lived faithful, quiet lives making ripples in the lives that they touched.  We think that real saints must be famous, but Scripture tells us that they are all around us.  Some of the greatest saints are our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, spouses and friends.

 It might have been a Sunday School teacher who never said a negative word about someone else; a spouse who showed you what love really is; or, the parents who sacrificed everything to give you a better life.  These are the people who never saved the world. They led imperfect lives just like the rest of us. Yet, despite their faults they gave us a peek at Jesus Christ. 

Some of my best friends no longer have a heartbeat.  Wesley taught me salvation is a process, Bonhoeffer taught me that the Church is worth it even though it puts my blood pressure out of the roof, and Saint Luke taught me that Jesus cares for the most unlikely people.  Sometimes I talk to these friends more than I talk to my living friends.

We need these people. Christians are an odd group of people because a lot of our friends are already dead. They are the tenured professors of sin and righteousness 101.  They teach us how to forgive. They teach us to say no to sin. They teach us how to smile.  They teach us how to love.  They made our lives a little more beautiful.  For they are saints. They are the ordinary people who fall down, and get picked up by God. They are the ones who show us quick glimpses of the divine, even if it only lasts a second. They are the people who the world calls ordinary, but God calls extraordinary. Who are your invisible companions?    

These are the people who are now eternal.  They have fought the good fight and have gone to be with God.  There is no more suffering or pain and they have been filled with the holiness, righteousness, and infinite knowledge. One day we will be together again.  But until that day, we remember the saints—the lessons that they taught, the places that their feet took them and the love they shared. We learn from their mistakes and are inspired by their example.  We remember our invisible companions. They weren’t heroes. Thank God. They are saints. God’s saints. May God make us saints, too.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Recovering Our Political Image

Election season is frustrating in a number of ways—mostly because everyone suddenly becomes a political science expert and posts their opinions on Facebook. It’s even more frustrating when we call ourselves politically responsible because we have an opinion or by simply showing up and casting a vote. But, I wonder if involvement in politics runs deeper than a vote. Are we only supposed to be cheerleaders for political parties?  Election season also has a curious and frustrating role within the church.  Sometimes it enhances the number of complaints about what the government must do to change the world and the church. Other times, the election never makes it through the front doors; ‘politics have nothing to do with God.’ There is a dichotomy—political institutions are either the end-all, be-all or have no significance at all. Surely politics must have a place in the church, but that conversation cannot be restricted to complaining about current administrations.

Wesleyan theology has never helped us much in our conversations about politics. We have never been recognized for having any distinctive theological language to deal with politics. Theodore Weber’s book, Politics in the Order of Salvation, starts to change that deficiency by recovering an important Wesleyan theological category—the political image of God. In short, our creation in the political image of God endows us with a rich theological language to talk about our calling to be political in all realms of our lives. Weber notes that God has endowed humanity with his own governing image and we have been given the responsibility to govern the world, just as God governs us. In this light, the political image is a vocation for humanity to live into—a necessary facet of the order of salvation—and constituent part of recovering our creation in the image of God. In order to fully understand the political image, it is important to expound upon our creation in the image of God because governance is part of God’s nature and our political image is a derivative of such.

For Wesley, there are three facets of being created in the image of God: the natural, the moral, and the political.  More specifically, Wesley draws from Genesis 1:26 “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” The natural image refers to the reason of humanity; that is, humanity’s essence and structure.  Wesley writes, “[the natural image is] a picture of his own immortality, a spiritual being endued with understanding, free will, and various affections.” The political image refers to the responsibility and stewardship in which humanity is God’s representative government on earth. Genesis says, “let them rule over the flesh of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Wesley maintains that all of humanity is the governor of this lower world as the mediator and representative between God and the ‘inferior creatures.’  Finally, and most importantly, Wesley maintains that humanity was created in the moral image of God. The moral image simply refers to humanity’s ability to love and obey the Father. Wesley writes, “in this image of God was man made. ‘God is love’: accordingly man at his creation was full of love, which was the sole principle of all his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions.”

Chiefly, Wesley differentiated between the natural and moral image of God and left the political image by the way side. This means that humanity is capable of participating in God (natural image) and when humanity does, then humanity reaches its proper end (moral image).  Here, we highlight the political image of God—something that Wesley never thought through.  Weber argues that government is an essential characteristic of nature of the triune God. He writes, “Government as discloses in human nature as political image is what God does in ordering, preserving, and developing creation…It is the government at once of Creation, Sustainer, Redeemer.”   Weber never explicitly draws out how God’s role as governor might subvert our own understanding of what it means to govern.  We can imagine the consequences: power becomes cruciform; there is care instead of exploitation and justice instead of injustice.  For our purposes, it is important to highlight that government is not simply an order of preservation (to keep us all from killing ourselves), but we engage in government because it is in our calling to do so.

 In turn, our political image must mirror the governance of God, if we are created in God's image.  Weber continues, “Government is also what humankind does through its being as agent and steward of God in the ordering, preserving, and developing of the parts of creation to which human beings have access.” More simply, the political image endows humanity with responsibility.  It is a vocation that human beings must live into in order to become more fully like God.  If you want to be like God, then through God’s grace, you must become political.  Politics is not simply about preserving the created order, but it’s about the vocation of being sanctified.  Here,  politics become distinctively Wesleyan as it is drawn into the via salutis, or way of salvation.  Still, the question remains: how are we to go about being political beings? What does this look like in our lives and in the church?

If the political image is a vocation for humanity, then there are some obvious consequences to the way we live our lives. We must create institutions that enable us to grow into our vocation of looking more like Jesus Christ.  Political institutions should also be instruments of care that enable the development of humankind, just as God governs us by caring for us and enabling us to grow into sanctification. Weber writes, “Political institutions fashioned in the image of God must concern themselves—in good conscience and with adequate resources—with education, the needs of the poor, public and private health, the arts, and other matters that enable the members of the community to fulfill their political vocation of imaging God.” One obvious, lethargic reaction is to merely elect individuals into governmental positions to achieve these ends. But involvement in politics is not simply about having the right to elect the right person—if we are created in a political image then we cannot simply hand over all of the responsibility to national governmental institutions through a vote.  The political image is a constituent part of all institutions and individuals.  This means that politics are the responsibility of the family, community, church and any other group that can influence our political character.  

The pragmatic consequences are endless if politics are the responsibility of all the people.  It’s not just about electing someone with the right healthcare plan; it’s also about being an individual and communal representative of God’s concern for the health of God’s children, creatures, and creation. It’s not just about legitimating legislation to preserve the environment, but it’s also about preserving creation in our own lives, churches, and communities.  It’s not only about changing legislation that disallows prayer in schools, but it’s about making sure we are actually praying within our families, too. The point is that politics are the government’s task, but are also our task.  When the vocation of the political image of God is incorporated into the via salutis, salvation becomes much more than an individual enterprise. Here we begin to recover holistic salvation—salvation that is not just for the individual, but re-creation for the entire world. 

It is important to emphasize that I am not trying to downsize the importance of institutional governance. Instead, I argue that we are called to do so much more than vote and complain.  In Wesleyan fashion, we have been given a huge responsibility.  We are each called to govern the earth by virtue of being human, not because of a political office.  Weber writes, “human beings are inherently political by reason of their creation and authorization as agents of God in the governing of the world. They realize their full humanity in part through the exercise of that agency. They are denied it to the extent that they are excluded from political participation. They surrender it when they decline to accept political responsibility.” May we take our vocation seriously and seek to administer God’s care for the entire earth in all realms of our lives, at all times, and in all places. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Theodicy Expectations

Our Church is venturing into questions of theodicy over the next few weeks in Sunday worship.  Theodicy is the question of how a loving God can allow suffering to take place in our world.  I am excited about exploring this topic alongside the congregation, but I must admit that there are limits to what we can actually accomplish in our discussion together.

From the outset, I am somewhat opposed to spending a lot of time with theodicy. I side with Stanley Hauerwas when he notes that theodicies are always historically located and presuppose particular, detached definitions of God that often exist outside of Scripture. That is, theodicy starts with a preconceived notion of what power and love is and then assumes that God must meet our expectations.  In starting with a predetermined definition of omnipotence or love, then we make these categories into a god that is higher than the God that we worship.  Plus, when the question is cast this way, we will most likely fail for God will either be ‘not powerful enough’ to overrule evil or ‘not loving enough’ to use his power to overcome evil. Contrarily, the starting point for any discussion must always be God—thus, making our definitions of power and love a reflection of God as revealed in Scripture.  

The second problem might be the abstraction of suffering from personal narratives.  Theodicy tries to create a univocal concept of suffering that can be answered by a univocal concept of God. Suffering is intensely personal and each of our responses to suffering is intensely personal as well.  Our redemption from suffering is going to look different a little different, as well.  This creates numerous problems for the attempt to create a universal theodicy. 

All of this is to say, that I am not going to have any solidified answer of why we suffer by the end of our series. Maybe that is ok, though. God does not give us an answer to our sufferings, but God chooses to share it. Nicholas Wolterstorff says, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and falleness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God...And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil” (81).  At the end of the day, when you lay on your deathbed you are not going to care about why you are there.  You are going to want someone with you, to hold your hand, share the suffering, and become the face of Jesus Christ in the midst of pain.

In Naming the Silences, Hauerwas writes, "For the early Christians, suffering and evil...did not have to be 'explained'. Rather what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be 'explained.' Indeed it was crucial that such suffering or evil not be 'explained'--that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing the suffering ” (49).  As Hauerwas notes, I am hoping that this sermon series will not merely try to be an answer to a problem, but result in a response to a challenge.

 This sermon series will not be successful if it explains suffering, because I can’t do that.  This sermon series will only be successful if it leads people into a deeper relationship with Christ—one in which we might realize that we will never be abandoned, by God or one another, even when we suffer. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Sword Turned Upside Down

This is part of the sermon I wrote on Ephesians 6 (The Armor of God). I am indebted to Bob Fox's work on the text "The Armor of God" in Center for Ethics at Baylor University that can be accessed here:

Why should we put on the armor of God?

 Have you ever realized that we worship a God who was in a fight?  Jesus Christ spent most of his time taking blows. And then he was crucified on the cross. But you know, Jesus put on the armor of God.  For Jesus didn’t go straight to the Roman government and fill it with Pharisees. He didn’t build an army and attack the powers that were holding the world captive. Jesus' approach was subtle.  He formed a group of rag-tag disciples and began to teach them a more excellent way that required a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, a shield of faith, and a helmet of salvation.

 Remember the time when Peter drew his big metal sword to cut off the soldier’s ear in order to save Jesus’ life? And Jesus said, put down your sword and then he healed the man. There’s irony in the story, I think. Do you know what you get when you turn a sword upside down? Think about it. You get a cross. "Jesus Christ took Peter’s sword, turned it upside down, and hung there in suffering obedience" (Fox 63).

 Jesus nails the powers and principalities to the cross and dies. He rises from the grave and there is a whole new world where the powers and principalities no longer reign. Jesus exposes the sword for what it really is and subverts it with a cross. Principalities and powers are not defeated with a sword; they’re defeated with a cross. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” The armor of God is the sword that is turned upside down to become a cross. And we put on the armor because Jesus Christ put on the armor.

It’s a tough world out there.  We might even need some armor if we want to stand our ground.  I hope that you’ll put on the armor.  I hope that you’ll grab your sword, even if must be turned upside down and made into a cross.