“The Flesh” Ain’t What You Think

I always preach from Scripture, but in my experience, some Scriptures are a bit more puzzling than others.  That’s not surprising, since we’re two thousand years and many cultural permutations away from the first-century church.  Our scripture this morning bothered me for years, and it may have bothered some of you.  It’s found in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Romans 8:6-11  (Scriptural Focus)
8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,
8:8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Paul’s diatribe against “the flesh” sounds in our English translations as though he saw the human body as a problem, a source of temptation and evil.  That word “flesh” today can even have a salacious, X-rated feel to it. 

Fortunately, that’s not what Paul is talking about at all.  Paul was not a 17th-century Puritan.  Paul was a first-century Jew, and Jews knew from scripture – specifically the book of Genesis – that God was Creator of the physical world, including the human body, and He called all of his creation good.  There would be others in Christianity after Paul who, due to various cultural influences, saw the human body as inherently sinful or evil, but not a good Jew like Paul. 

Our English translations have two words here: flesh and body.  We often think of these words as meaning pretty much the same thing.  It helps to know that Paul also uses two different words.  One is sarx, which gets translated here as “flesh” in verses 6-9, and the other is soma, which is translated correctly as “body” in verses 10 and 11. 

However, Paul means two different things in using ‘flesh’ and ‘body’, sarx and soma.  That can be confusing for us.  Think about Exodus 16:3, for example, where we read about that famous King James phrase, the “fleshpots of Egypt.”  I grew up thinking that ‘fleshpots’ meant brothels, dens of iniquity and sin.  Indeed, I once googled the phrase, and the first site that popped up informed its readers that “The “fleshpots of Egypt” were so called because of their loose sexuality and equally loose morals.”  Sounds like a tourism brochure for Las Vegas!  What happens in Egypt, stays in Egypt.  This is a great example of why we shouldn’t trust everything we see on the internet. 

But that understanding of the King James word “fleshpots” is completely wrong.  As usual, we can get to the real meaning by reading the whole verse instead of mentioning one phrase in it.  The whole verse in the KJV goes like this:

And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

The Israelites weren’t talking about loose morals; they were complaining that they didn’t have anything to eat!  Stuck without food in the desert, they falsely remembered that in Egypt they had plenty to eat!  The New International Version actually translates “fleshpots” accurately as “pots of meat.”  When the Israelites mentioned “flesh pots,” they were hankering after beef stew! 

Like a good rabbi, Paul is using a metaphor when he talks about flesh.  He’s using something tangible to refer to something intangible.  If he had meant “body,” he could have used the word soma all the way through this passage, rather than sarx

But he didn’t.  What Paul meant by sarx or “flesh” is very close to what we mean today by our word ego, a word that has now passed from Greek into common English usage.  Sigmund Freud gave Greek words like “ego” a different twist.  Today we use it to mean our self-image; we say someone has a big ego if he thinks too much of himself. 

So when we read Paul now, and he talks repeatedly about “the flesh,” we need to understand that Paul is not talking very judgmentally about what we do with our bodies. 

Paul is trying to convey a very deep spiritual truth – that following Jesus means living “in Christ.”  He uses that phrase quite a lot in his letters.  Living any other way is living in “the flesh.”  When we focus on ourselves – our egos – we inevitably crash and burn.  When we live “in Christ,” as Paul liked to say, when we focus our lives on the Spirit of God that is above us, below us, that surrounds us and fills the cosmos, we have a much healthier perspective – and actually a much more realistic one. 

If we substitute the word “ego” as we understand it today for the word “flesh”, I think we come much closer to Paul’s meaning:

8:6 To set the mind on the ego is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the ego is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,
8:8 and those who are trapped in their egos cannot please God.
8:9 But you are not trapped in your ego; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…

When people began to realize last year that we were facing a highly contagious pandemic, we saw some very different reactions.  I read about two brothers who, upon learning about the impending pandemic, immediately split up and visited every discount store they could find, buying up all the available hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other such supplies.  They cut deals with store managers to buy up all their stock of these items in bulk.  They then turned around and began selling their stuff online for several times more than they paid. 

Unfortunately for them, their online platforms quickly shut them down for price gouging.  They were stuck with thousands of items they could no longer sell.  After they were publicly shamed by an article in the New York Times, they tried to redeem themselves by giving away all the stock they couldn’t sell. 

Other people had very different reactions to the pandemic.  A friend of mine was the first person to call our United Way office and volunteer to deliver food and supplies to people who couldn’t afford them.  She bought a lot of those things out of her own pocket, without waiting for a grant to come through. 

To me, these two examples typify what Paul was talking about.  The two brothers were thinking only of themselves and how they could make more money.  From a strict capitalist point of view, what they did was entirely logical: they sensed a shift in the market and moved quickly to capitalize on it.  It was just business; it wasn’t evil.  But neither was it “in the Spirit.”  From a Christian perspective, we’d have to say they were focused only on themselves.  It apparently never occurred to them to be concerned for others.

My friend is a great example of what it means to live in the Spirit.  She not only saw how the pandemic would affect other people – her first thought was compassion for those people who’d lost their jobs and had no financial cushion, or for elderly folks who couldn’t go to the store and risk getting infected, or for people too poor or too disabled to have their own transportation.  She not only felt compassion; she acted on that compassion. 

This truth lies at the heart of the Christian gospel: it’s only by dying to our egos – or in Paul’s terms, our flesh – that we are given the power to be truly alive, the ability to see the world without our ego’s distorted filters.  It’s only when we let go of our ego’s need to acquire more – more money, more respect, more power – that we can begin to realize that we already have enough. 

Through the centuries, the gospel of Christ has become distorted in many ways.  Our culture inevitably colors our understandings of Jesus’ teachings.  One common misunderstanding is the assumption that bigger is better, that people who have more are superior to those who have less.  Some churches even teach that God wants us all to be rich, conveniently forgetting that Jesus pointed out specifically that it’s the poor who are blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).  He didn’t teach that wealth was evil, only that wealth is a huge temptation for our egos, an enormous distraction from what matters in the kingdom of God. 

The point of church is for us to help each other live out the kingdom of God.  It’s to help us become aware of the presence of the God who is already among us, and to be transformed by that loving presence.  A faithful Church also requires us to become more aware of ourselves and our deepest motivations for what we do.  John Calvin expressed as much in the opening of his classic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  He wrote that:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

For me, this is the core of the spiritual life: to know God and to know ourselves.  As Calvin said, the two go hand in hand.  We have to let go of our egos in order to know God, and the same process helps us come to know our true selves, rather than the false selves we create to protect and build our egos.  We don’t come to know God by building ourselves up; we come to know God when we let go of the pretensions and illusions that we’ve built up for ourselves and to impress others. 

Prayer helps us to do that, to become more aware of our masks and to let God’s spirit transform us into letting them go.  That’s why we need to pray.  Such prayer doesn’t require words; it just requires a conscious decision to be quiet and listen to the Presence that already surrounds us. 

Jesus called people to take up their own crosses and follow. This is the scandal of the gospel – that we are called to put our egos to death in order to be raised to new life as the people of the kingdom that God created us to be.  That’s what Paul’s talking about – living in the Spirit.  Living in the flesh – focused on ourselves and our egos – won’t get us there. 

Let’s pray together.  Father, we shrink from our crosses.  We want to be first, when you call us to follow Jesus and be last.  We want to be important, but you call us to serve.  Forgive our unbelief, Lord.  Help us follow your Son and in following, become transformed into new lives of love and compassion.  We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus, Amen. 

What’s the Church For?

Genesis 1:1-5
1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
1:2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
1:3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
1:4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Sermon

A lot of people approach passages such as Genesis 1 with a certain amount of dread because in our post-Darwin age, other people like to argue about them.  When I first began as pastor of a small church across the river, an elder told me he was a bit concerned about my Southern Baptist background.  He was concerned that I might be what he called a “Bible-thumper.” I’m pleased to report that I’ve not thumped a single Bible. 

Most of the denominations in America were formed around a certain set of theological beliefs, or opinions.  My denomination of the last ten years, the Disciples of Christ, formed in the early 1800s around the idea that there should be no denominations; everyone should just emulate the early church.  Of course, no one could agree on what that meant, so the movement to end all denominations gave birth to three new denominations.  Faith and church history both require the ability to chuckle at ourselves! 

Good theology is helpful.  Bad theology can cause harm.  But because we all approach life with our own filters and experiences, we’ll probably never completely align our opinions.  My own theology has changed over time, and it will probably continue to grow as I grow. 

But the first chapter of Genesis is trying to tell us something that goes beyond mere opinions.  For instance, this world we live in was created by a loving God, and God declared creation to be good.  This God is the source of light and enlightenment. God gives form and substance to our world.  Whether you take that literally or metaphorically, it’s a very fertile idea.  In the very last verse of Genesis 1, right after creating people, God calls it a day, sits back and pronounces all of creation to be “very good.”  That’s a hopeful thought. 

In the year of my birth, 1955, church attendance in the United States hit its all-time high.  In that year, the highest percentage of people in American history claimed to attend church at least once a month, and nearly everyone identified with some specific religious tradition even if they didn’t actually attend. 

Immediately thereafter, however, religious attendance began to go steadily downhill.  Many people today, especially young adults, no longer feel the need to identify with any religion at all.  To be honest, they don’t see the point.  The very word “religion” has taken on a negative connotation in the last twenty years or so.

Those of us who are left in the Church are faced with a crucial question: what is the Church good for?  Why would people want to attend?  Are we here to get our opinions in order? 

If Genesis is correct that a loving God created us and placed us in a good world, church should lead us to be at peace with our place in the world, not passively content, but at peace.  When the Church is at its best, it leads us to deal with reality: who and what we really are.  Bad religion can blind us to all that.  I’ve come to think of it in terms of authentic faith and inauthentic faith, or if you prefer, healthy and unhealthy spirituality. 

Unhealthy spirituality simply reinforces our illusions about ourselves – that we’re the center of the universe, for example.  It defends our egos.  Inauthentic faith allows us to hide behind the masks that we build up, rather than confess and admit even to ourselves what we really are.  The Apostle Paul called those masks our “old selves.” The Trappist monk Thomas Merton called them our false selves.  Inauthentic faith is dangerous precisely because it uses the trappings of religion to shield us from reality.  Unhealthy spirituality is persuasive because it’s easy.  It buffers us from the real world instead of dragging us into it. 

Healthy spirituality leads us to come to grips with reality by letting go of our false selves – letting go of our illusions about who and what we are.  It allows us to live free of the compulsion to defend ourselves.  In the language of scripture, healthy spirituality leads us to die to our old selves and be raised to new life. 

Authentic faith isn’t about building ourselves up.  It’s about letting go, letting go of our need to be the center of the universe, or our need to be right, or our need to be powerful, or even our need to be safe.  As we do the spiritual work of emptying ourselves of all that, authentic faith leads us to an experience of God’s presence that was here all along. 

Somewhere through the centuries, we in the Church got sidetracked.  We acted as though our theological opinions were the main point. Christianity became something that happened in our heads rather than transforming us deep down in our souls.  But Genesis portrays a God too transcendent to comprehend with our intellects and opinions. 

What we can do – what the Church can lead us to do – is simply experience God’s presence.  We can know the love that flows from that presence.  And if we do the spiritual work to let go of our false selves, our egos, we can participate in that love – or to use Paul’s favorite phrase, we can live in Christ – to the point that God’s love flows through us and from us out into the others around us. 

There are different ways to wake up to God’s presence.  For me, what has been most helpful is contemplative prayer, or centering prayer as some call it.  It’s prayer that doesn’t need to use words, though words are OK too.  The point of this prayer is to change me by helping me become more real, more aware, rather than helping me cajole God into doing what I want.  I began to learn about this kind of prayer through the writings of Thomas Merton, who had lived about an hour from where I attended seminary and was friends with one of my professors.  Later a little book by Richard Rohr called Everything Belongs turned my spiritual life from anger to hope.  

My preferred style of worship is quiet and contemplative.  I’ve been in Quaker worship where no one said a single word or sang a single note for a solid hour, and I was just fine with that.  For many of my friends, the opposite is true – they prefer loud music, dancing, shouting, and chanting (not the Gregorian kind).  Good for them. 

The style is not the point, however much we may prefer one over another.  Whatever the style, whatever the theology, the point of church is to lead us into an awareness of the presence of the God who created us, the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being.  It’s to teach us how to live freely, growing in that awareness over time, rather than living as slaves to our own egos.  Good liturgy can lead us to that awareness.  Good music can do that.  Even good preaching and good theology can do that. 

And active ministry can do that.  Healthy spirituality requires action as well as prayer.  We grow spiritually when we learn to see God’s image in other people and connect to that image in love, especially when it’s hard for us to see that image in people who are different from us.  We grow when we give of ourselves, when we see each other as neighbors rather than threats.  That quality of connection between the spirits of two people echoes the sense of union that we seek with God.

This is what the Church is good for – leading us to let go of our false selves, emptying ourselves so that we can be filled with divine love.  That’s exactly what this world needs.  I don’t think there has ever been a time when the world needed what the Church can offer more than it needs us now.  We are people who follow a creative God who loves us and thinks we are good.

The job of the Church is to carry that torch of caring awareness into the world.  For whatever reason, that’s not the impression most people have of us.  But if we do the spiritual work to live out the message of a loving God who created all of us in his image, the message of a Christ who called us to take up our own crosses and follow, perhaps in time that impression will change.  I think it’s a worthy goal. 

Psalm 29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace! Amen.

Joy at the End of 2020

Scriptural Focus:  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
5:16 Rejoice always,
5:17 pray without ceasing,
5:18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
5:19 Do not quench the Spirit.
5:20 Do not despise the words of prophets,
5:21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good;
5:22 abstain from every form of evil.
5:23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
5:24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

This has been a tough year.  Many people who can least afford it have lost jobs because of the coronavirus and now can’t pay the rent.  There’s never enough rent assistance or utility assistance to go around, but this year the calls to nonprofits such as the Salvation Army and our United Way have doubled, even as contributions have been cut in half.  I hate telling people that there’s just nothing there for them, but that’s the reality.  This is one of those years when needs are greatest and fundraising for the helping agencies is hardest – the hardest I have ever seen in my career. 

And then there was the record-breaking hurricane season.  Watching and waiting for hurricanes is stressful in itself, even if they take a different path in the end..  Louisiana found itself in the “cone of uncertainty” for six storms this year: Cristobal got us watching the skies in early June.  Marco and Laura threatened to cross paths over our heads in mid-August, and of course Laura’s high winds knocked down countless trees here.  We held our breath when Sally and Beta looked threatening in mid-September.  They gave us a pass, but then Delta flooded a lot of us in early October. 

And here we are in the third Sunday in Advent, celebrating joy.  I can imagine that some folks might find themselves feeling a bit doubtful this week: “Lord, I’m feeling a lot of things at the end of 2020, but expecting joy is a bit of a stretch.” 

And yet joy is expected of us in following Christ.  The word ‘rejoice’ occurs 31 times in the New Testament.  Paul tells us to “rejoice always” in his letter to the Thessalonians.  He gave the same command to the Philippians (Philippians 4:4): “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I say rejoice!”  In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells his followers, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven…”  Luke even has Jesus saying, “Rejoice and leap for joy…” 

At the end of such a difficult year, it’s good to ask ourselves what we mean by joy.  Our mental image of joy matters, I think, in much the same way that our image of God matters.  I suspect that the picture of joy for many people is jumping up and down, screaming in the bleachers to celebrate an LSU touchdown.  We think we’re not completely joyful unless we’re screaming and waving in ecstasy.  But ecstasy is not the same thing as joy. 

I attended a weekend seminar once, led by a young Hindu friend; it was called “The Art of Happiness.”  This is actually a movement within Hinduism; it teaches quiet meditation and breathing techniques.  I remember that one woman, a friend of mine, had a revelation there.  She had thought of happiness as ecstasy – when we’re “beside ourselves” with good feelings and pleasure.  She had an unspoken expectation that her life was falling short if she didn’t experience a constant, unbroken feeling of ecstasy.  She thought something was wrong with her because that wasn’t the case. 

At the workshop, she realized that happiness and ecstasy are two different things.  Ecstasy is great, but it’s momentary.  Happiness and joy are different; because they are grounded in what is real, they can be ongoing. 

There is such a thing as fake joy.  It’s far less satisfying than the real thing.  It takes place when our egos or false selves get what they want, because our false selves can only produce false good.  Demagogues know how to stir up the ego-based counterfeit of joy.  Thomas Merton wrote:

“We can no longer afford to equate faith with the acceptance of myths about our nation, our society, or our technology; to equate hope with a naive confidence in our image of ourselves as the good guys against whom all the villains in the world are leagued in conspiracy; to equate love with a mindlessly compliant togetherness, a dimly lived and semi-radiant compulsiveness in work and play, invested by commercial artists with an aura of spurious joy.”

Richard Rohr was granted the privilege to live in Thomas Merton’s hermitage for a month, living by himself with no contact from the outside world.  He said that at first, even though he had nowhere to go and no deadlines to meet, he kept looking nervously at his watch.  But gradually he was able to be still and pray.  He wrote:

“I tried to keep a journal of what was happening to me. Back then, I found it particularly hard to cry. But one evening I laid my finger on my cheek and found to my surprise that it was wet. I wondered what those tears meant. What was I crying for? I wasn’t consciously sad or consciously happy. I noticed at that moment that behind it all there was a joy, deeper than any private joy. It was a joy in the face of the beauty of being, a joy at all the wonderful and lovable people I had already met in my life. Cosmic or spiritual joy is something we participate in; it comes from elsewhere and flows through us. It has little or nothing to do with things going well in our own life at that moment. I remember thinking that this must be why the saints could rejoice in the midst of suffering.”

I think real joy is found when we take the time to be real.  It’s not something we achieve or earn; it’s an awakening, having the courage to step away from our egos. 

Right after telling us to rejoice, Paul tells us in our passage today to “test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”  Joy is what happens when we plug into what is good.  We may have grown up with a transactional view of life that tells us if we behave, we get a reward.  If we misbehave, we get punished.  It’s easy to transfer that misunderstanding to the gospel, and many people do. 

But we follow a God of grace.  God does not operate on a transactional basis.  He invites us to be still and accept his love.  When we do that, we participate in the flow of the universe.  We are at home.  There is a peace there, a comfort, that is perhaps the best definition of joy that I know.  Joy is the natural result of living faith. 

Julian of Norwich was born in 1343.  She was an anchoress, which means that as an adult, she lived a life of prayer in a small room attached to the church. She once had visions of Christ, which she called showings, and she wrote about them later.  She experienced God as loving, “nearer to us than our own soul.”  Contrary to much theology of her day or ours, she wrote that Jesus told her,

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ … This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else.”

We can have joy in part because we can have hope.  The life of faith is the expectation that all shall be well, regardless of our personal circumstances.  In the present, we are called and invited to open ourselves to the presence of God’s Spirit, which is a Spirit of love. 

Joy flows from the presence of faith, hope, and love in our lives.  It forms the ground on which we stand.  We may feel ecstasy at the moment; we may feel grief; we may feel troubled over current events.  But underlying it all for the person of faith is a sense of joy at the awareness of a God who loves us and invites us to participate in that love. 

Reminding ourselves of God’s loving presence is an opportunity to re-joice, to become aware once more of the joy of living in Christ.  We do that in prayer, so let’s pray together now. 

Lord, forgive us for the times that we take your joy for granted.  Help us to open ourselves to your loving presence so that we might truly rejoice always.  Give us the courage to turn away from the unthinking shallowness of popular culture.  We long for the joy that flows from the awareness of your love.  Help us to live lives of faith, rooted in that joy.  Amen.

Hope in 2020

Mark 13:24-37  (Scriptural Focus)
13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
13:28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.
13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.
13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
13:32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
13:35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

This chapter in Mark focuses on the future.  It resembles what is known as “apocalyptic” literature.  It seems to be talking about the “end times,” when God will wrap things up once and for all.  The book of Revelation is pure apocalyptic – its name in Greek as well as some English versions is the “Apocalypse of John.” Most of the book of Daniel, when you get past the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, is apocalyptic. 

Many literate Jews in the couple of centuries before and the century after Jesus were familiar with this kind of literature, though we find it hard to understand and even confusing.  It uses vivid imagery and heavy symbolism to convey a meaning that’s hidden from those who don’t have the interpretive key.  Deeper meaning is hidden in language about the end of the world. It’s not surprising that Mark’s gospel would include a bit of apocalyptic thinking. 

Unfortunately, apocalyptic literature like the book of Revelation is open to extreme misinterpretation by those who aren’t familiar with apocalyptic literature.  The Left Behind series is an example of this.  Many people today take their messages as gospel truth, but there are very different – and to my way of thinking, superior – ways of understanding Scripture.  I myself have heard at least two preachers predict the year when the end times will happen.  That’s not so unusual; preachers have been making such predictions for centuries, even though Jesus plainly said that not even he knew the schedule for the end times.  All of the preachers who have predicted the end of the world have one thing in common: they’ve all been wrong! 

More important than trying to guess the date of the end times is the message Jesus is getting across to his listeners: be ready!  You can’t know when it will all come crashing down.  You can’t know when you will face your next challenge in life, so stay alert!  Keep ready!  Mark has Jesus repeating this message three times in our short passage. 

Jesus isn’t trying to play a celestial game of “gotcha” so that God can catch us unawares.  When Jesus says, “Stay alert,” he’s telling us to be spiritually awake in everyday life, to have “eyes that see.”  To do that, we have to focus on opening ourselves to God’s presence.  Paul told his readers to “pray without ceasing,” and I think that’s what Jesus had in mind.  If prayer is learning to be aware of God’s presence and love in all of life, then praying without ceasing is something we can do.  It does take some discipline on our part, especially at first. 

Prayer doesn’t have to begin with an “Our Father…” or some formal address, and it doesn’t have to end with “…in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”  We don’t even have to close our eyes.  Those are all social conventions that people invented somewhere along the way. 

Prayer can be noticing things as we go through our day: the troubled look on the face of the person in the grocery line or behind the cash register.  Prayer can lead us to offer an understanding smile or a kind word, maybe to reach into our wallets to help.  Prayer can help us become more aware of our own reactions – realizing that we’re angry or sad rather than acting on those feelings unknowingly, or convincing ourselves that those feelings don’t exist.  Being spiritually aware means that we can recognize emotions like anger or jealousy and choose to act lovingly even if we’re not feeling it at the moment. 

Keeping alert means that we don’t allow despair to take over.  There have been times recently when I have felt despair over our national politics.  I just wasn’t sure things would ever get better.  To be honest, there’s reason for concern; battle lines are being reinforced every day. 

But we are called to hope and trust.  That’s pretty much what faith is.  We will all go through difficult times in life, but we trust that we will come through them and come out the other side.  It’s important not to miss God’s presence along the way. 

Tony Hsieh (“shay”) founded the company Zappos.com that sells shoes and clothes online.  Mr. Hsieh felt that his business would thrive if he could figure out what made people happy.  After a lot of research, he came up with four things that made his company a huge success:

People assume that achieving a certain goal or winning the lottery will bring lasting happiness, he said, but it rarely does. “Most of the frameworks for happiness conclude that there are four things required: perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness (meaning the depths of relationships) and being part of something bigger than yourself.” (New York Times, November 28th, 2020)

I would argue that spiritual maturity involves all four.  Through prayer, we have a sense of connectedness to God and to other people.  That’s a primary goal – seeing other people being as special as we think we are.  On the way to spiritual maturity, we learn that the world is not about us.  We become aware that we are in Christ, as Paul put it; part of something bigger than ourselves.  If we take our spiritual journeys seriously and make ourselves available for the Spirit to transform us, we will have a sense of progress over time, though we’ll surely have days when it seems that we’re losing ground. 

As for perceived control, healthy spirituality doesn’t turn us into control freaks – quite the opposite.  But there’s a sense that we can be comfortable with not controlling the world around us – and that in itself is a kind of perceived control.  Our faith and hope in God lead us to do what we can and trust in God for the rest. 

Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that they were:

1:7 “…not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1:8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:7-8)

Now in this season of Advent, we also wait, and while we wait in prayer, God strengthens us and transforms us so that when we face trials, we’ll respond as he would have us respond.  Come, Lord Jesus, as we wait and pray. 

Prayer

Lord, we long for the light of your presence.  Guide us from the night of our hopelessness, and transform us into the hope of your coming.  Lead us with joy to the dawning of your new day.  Amen. 

The Core of Faith

Scriptural Focus: Matthew 25:31-46

This passage from Matthew 25 may be one of the most referred-to passages of Scripture I’ve seen, especially in recent years.  I’m encouraged by that.  I remember thinking when I was young that this passage was a surprise – it didn’t seem to fit with the way that I was taught to read the Bible in those days.  I was raised with an understanding of the Bible – a worldview if you want to call it that – that focused primarily on where we went when we died.  Church was all about getting an advance ticket to heaven and avoiding the bad place. 

The denomination in which I grew up once contained a variety of perspectives, even though I typically only saw one of them as a child.  Unfortunately, today it insists that everyone agree on only one of those views.  Today it mostly defines the core of Christianity as what people believe about things.  To be a real Christian, they say, you have to agree to their particular set of doctrines.  These doctrines or ideas are often things like a 7-day creation, the virgin birth, the literal infallibility of the Bible, and so forth.  There are minor variations among different denominations, such as whether you have to be baptized to be “saved,” or speak in tongues, or go to mass every Sunday. 

In this worldview, what’s most important is to uphold a literal-minded belief system that has been increasingly difficult to sustain ever since the Enlightenment – that flowering of science and rationalism that began in the 17th century.  Just before the U.S. Civil War, Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species to make sense of the evidence he saw in the natural world.  Many Christians were shocked and cried “Heresy!”  Battle lines were drawn that have lasted to this day, resulting in much conflict and grief. 

Unfortunately, this angry worldview is all that some people know.  They think it’s the only true version of Christianity.  I have friends who think the term “Christian” applies only to this group.  Some people cling to this worldview tightly and become anxious or even angry when anyone disagrees with it.  Other people are just really confused, because they feel pulled both toward their religion and toward the modern world.  Many people have ended up rejecting Christianity altogether because they think that this worldview is the only Christianity that exists, and it’s not one they can accept. 

But there’s another community within the Christian world, one that some theologians such as the late Protestant theologian Marcus Borg have called an “emerging paradigm.”  It doesn’t get much press, perhaps because it’s not as sensational.  It seeks a different understanding of the Christian faith than people’s religious opinions.  It sees the core, the main point of Christianity, as relationship, the experience of God’s presence and the expression of love toward others.  This is the broad understanding of Christianity that holds meaning for me, and I’ve learned much from writers such as Richard Rohr, Ann Lamott, Ronald Rolheiser, and others.

This worldview reclaims much older truths about the faith.  It’s held by people who have experienced God’s presence in some way but can’t accept the idea that Jesus came into the world and sacrificed himself in order for us all to agree.  This emerging paradigm contains people who can’t or won’t accept the idea that science is a gigantic hoax.  They’re not going to force themselves to believe, or pretend to believe, things that make no scientific sense. 

The gospels do not record a single instance of Jesus teaching people that they need to hold certain opinions in order to be his followers.  Instead he emphasized compassion, and he called out those who failed that test, those who strained out gnats while swallowing camels.  He said the greatest commandment was to love God with everything we are, and a close second was to love our neighbors as ourselves.  He didn’t teach his disciples to be heroic debaters who could sway people’s opinions.  He taught them that loving others was far more important than fitting into the religious establishment of the day. 

I once thought of this passage in Matthew 25 as an “add-on,” a nice story thrown in as an afterthought.  Now I think it’s the central point where Jesus reaches the climax of his teaching about what matters most.  The one single criterion by which people are identified as followers or not-followers, sheep or goats, is whether they showed compassion to others.  Did they feed the hungry?  Did they clothe the naked?  Visit people who were sick or in prison?  If so, they were following Jesus.  If not, they were identified as goats and sent away, with no mention of their religious opinions.  

I think of this a re-emerging paradigm because it entails a certain way of life that Christians have followed before.  Even before the first followers of Jesus were called “Christians,” they were called People of the Way.  The early church understood that following Jesus was a matter of the way they lived, not their opinions.  Faith to them was not a head game where everyone had to agree in order to belong; it was a matter of the heart and the entire body in the service of God’s love. 

So we have these two broad ways of understanding our faith.  People who see the world through the literal view are often on the defensive, angry and defiant towards a world that seems to be passing them by.  They hold tightly to a brittle certainty and react when anything threatens that certainty.  People with a softer version of this view are often just confused, bombarded by opposing ideas and unable to fit them together. 

The broader worldview typifies what Peter Berger called a “mellow certainty” because it’s open to new insight, new information, and new understandings.  If this worldview makes sense to you, you don’t have to assume that you know everything there is to know about God.  We don’t have to be certain that we’re correct because being correct is not the point.  We can say, “This is how I understand things today, but I still have much to learn.”  So when a new idea comes along, we’re able to hear it, weigh it, and if the idea has merit, welcome it.  If it doesn’t help us become more aware of God, if it doesn’t help us become more loving, we can leave it behind and move on. 

In Matthew 25, we are not called to be passive.  We are not called to have the right opinions.  We are called to an active faith: loving God and other people as a way of life.  Notice that Jesus defined “righteousness” as caring for others.  That’s all.  Righteousness isn’t a matter of having the right theology or perfectly following some set of rules.  It’s caring for other people, regardless of who those other people are.  That’s it. 

I think it’s significant that the righteous people weren’t even aware of their righteousness.  They were as surprised as anyone that the king called them righteous.  They hadn’t congratulated themselves every time they showed love; love flowed from them as naturally as breathing.  They were not preoccupied with themselves or their status. 

That’s the core of what it means to be Christian.  It’s not something we have to defend; any God we have to defend isn’t much of a God!  We follow in faith, trusting God enough to love. 

Sacred Because We’re Born

The two major holidays in the Christian calendar are Christmas and Easter.  Of the two, it’s often said that Easter is the more important because it’s when Jesus died for our sins and was raised by the Father to new life.

Well and good, but I want to make a case this morning for Christmas, and I’m not talking about decorations and presents under the tree, as much as I really do enjoy all that.  Theologically speaking, the story of Christmas is about the incarnation – the entry of the divine into the human world, the merging of spirit and flesh.  We are created as both.  Early Christians came from many cultural backgrounds, and for the first few centuries they sought to make sense of the story of Jesus.   Some said Jesus was wholly divine, while others said no, Jesus was completely human.  They eventually worked out that Jesus’s nature was both: fully divine and fully human.  He was God with us: Emmanuel.

I want to suggest this morning that there is more to the biblical story of the Incarnation than just Jesus being both human and divine.  I want to suggest to you that as God’s children, we too combine the human and the divine.

If that sounds heretical to you, remember that the Bible teaches from its very first chapter that we are created in the image of God.  Each of us carries the image of the divine within us.  Put another way, the image of God is the essence of who we are.  I realize that that may be a strange or foreign thought.  Many strains of Western theology have emphasized our sin almost to the exclusion of everything else, in some cases going so far as to say that we are born with nothing but sin, that we are “totally depraved” and without any good whatsoever.

The trouble is that you have to ignore a lot of actual babies to believe that.  You have to think of God as less loving than we are.  You have to forget or ignore a lot of Scripture in order to believe that, too.

Genesis 1:26 tells us that when God created the very first people, he said, “Let’s make them in our image, according to our likeness…”  The core of who we truly are is the image of God.  The image of God is our true nature.

The next time someone tries to make you feel worthless, remind yourself of Genesis 1:26.  Remind yourself – and maybe that other someone – that you are both created in the image of God.  Neither of you is worthless, though some people’s worth may be harder for us to see than others.

People usually come to be bullies because they feel worthless.  They’re trying to make themselves feel worthy by making someone else feel and appear less than they are.  The problem is, that strategy never actually works.  Bullies keep bullying people because the bullying never fixes their basic problem.  To paraphrase what they say in AA, bullies keep doing more and more of what never worked in the first place.  The only way to create a sense of worth is to honor the image of God in each of us, starting with ourselves.

Here’s the good news of the gospel: You and I, and every person we meet, are all sacred.  It’s not because we’ve been baptized or because we go to church.  We are sacred because we have been born.

Some people like to argue over the early chapters in Genesis.  Was the world created in seven days or thirteen-point-something billion years?  Whichever side of that argument you take, when it comes to understanding Genesis, that entire argument completely misses the point.  The message in Genesis is not about God’s timetable.  The message there is that you and I were created to live in the Garden, in harmony with the God in whose image we were made.  The Garden is our natural home.  It is who we really are.

What does that mean for us?

  • It means that the wisdom within us is deeper than our ignorance, deeper than any mistakes we’ve made along the way. We are not the sum of our mistakes.
  • The fact that we were created for the Garden means that our passion for God is deeper than our apathy. We only have to awaken it.
  • The fact that we were created for the Garden means that creativity is part of being both human and divine. Our creative spirit is deeper than any barrenness of spirit that may depress us.

Some people will say, “Ah, but Dave, you’re forgetting about sin.”  And I have to answer, “No, I’m really not.  I just don’t believe that my sin is greater than God’s love.”

Here’s the thing about sin.  A lot of Christian theology defines sin as disobeying God – it’s breaking God’s law.  To that way of thinking, God is primarily a judge who metes out punishment for breaking the rules.  Compassion doesn’t enter into the picture; this viewpoint considers only the law.  These folks see human beings essentially as foreigners who don’t belong in God’s kingdom; they can only “get in” if Jesus pays the fine for our sin.  Until then, these folks say, in God’s eyes, we are our sin, more or less.

But there’s another way to look at sin.  Imagine a botanist studying an unfamiliar plant she has just discovered.  The plant obviously has a blight of some sort; a few of the leaves are wilted, and there are spots of fungus on the stem.

When the botanist draws a sketch of the plant as it really is, she’s not going to draw the blight as though it was part of the plant.  She’s going to draw the plant without the blight, as best she can, based on the healthy parts of the leaves and stem.  That’s the real plant, not the blight.

I think of that blight as a metaphor for sin.  Sin is a blight on us.  It’s not who or what we really are, but it distorts our ability to be who we were meant to be.  It doesn’t disappear in the blink of an eye just because we went through some ritual at church.  Sin is anything we do that isn’t our true self.  We were created to love, so when we fail to love, we are less than we were created to be.  We are weakened by the blight of sin.  We were created to live in harmony with God, so when we fill our minds with things that distract us from God’s presence, we are diverted from being able to sense that Presence.  We are less than we were created to be.

No matter what we do, we can’t change the fact that we were created in the image of God.  We don’t lose that image.  But in order to enter the kingdom of God that Jesus preached, we have to begin to recover from the blight.  We have to embark on a journey of subtraction: praying and allowing God to take away all those things that obscure his image within us.  Some have called it the journey back to the Garden, to the place where we can begin again to live in greater harmony with God.

This is not an easy journey.  Anyone who tells you that they have an easy or quick remedy for the blight of sin is trying to get something from you.  The blight of sin is a cancer that can grow to consume us.  It needs to be removed.  The surgery required is deep, and it’s ongoing.  It’s not so superficial that it can be removed without struggle and suffering along the way.

But the presence of sin can never change the true image of God within us.  Think what a difference that assumption could make if it was shared by everyone.

  • The first European explorers looked at Native Americans and thought they saw only barbarians, totally lost in sin and completely without God.  Think how different things might have been if they had looked and seen the image of God among the Mohawks, Creeks, and other tribes.
  • Think how different American history would be if slave traders had had eyes to see the image of God in the people of Africa.

At Christmas time, we remember that Christ comes to reawaken us to our true nature.  A ninth-century Irish theologian named John Scotus Eriugena taught that nature and grace both flow from God.  He said that the gift of nature is the gift of being; the gift of grace is the gift of well-being (J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts, page 9).  We need grace to be able to understand our true selves, the selves that God created in his own image.  Grace enables us to strip away the false selves, the masks blighted by our sin.  God’s healing grace transforms us and makes us alive to the wisdom we were born with.

There’s a powerful phrase from our reading in Philippians today: “the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”  As far as I can tell, that phrase “harvest of righteousness” occurs four times in the New Testament, three times from Paul and again from James (2 Cor 9:10; Gal 6:9; Philippians 1:11; James 3:18).

In order to have a harvest, you first have to have planted a seed.  Then you have to nurture that seed, give it good soil and water and sunlight, and protect it from weeds that might choke it out while the seed is trying to grow.

God planted a seed in us when he created us in his image.  Our job is to grow and nurture that seed within.  We need to take in good things that help us grow.  We need to keep away from the things that stunt or warp our growth.  That’s an ongoing struggle as we go through life.  If we ignore God’s seed in us, if we allow the weeds and blight to have their way, that seed will be harder and harder to see, and we’ll miss out on a full harvest.

Our job as a congregation is to help each other to grow.  We do that in love, through our actions and our presence.  But perhaps most of all, we nurture God’s image within when we pray, so while you’re at it, take a moment to pray now.

 

 

Really? You think THAT’S why people aren’t going to church?

Every now and then, one of my churchgoing friends shares an article on Facebook that claims to explain why people aren’t going to church.  Sometimes it’s about millennials, sometimes it’s about singles, etc.  For some reason these articles never fail to exasperate me.

I just read one article that claims the reason kids leave church when they grow up is – get this – we put them in children’s activities instead of forcing them to sit through “big church” (my term).  These kids grew up but felt that traditional worship was alien to their tastes and sensitivities, so when they were old enough, they ran out the door in terror.

Pish tosh.  The reason people leave the church has very little to do with what music we choose, whether we have a praise band, or even children’s church.

Full disclosure: I led children’s church for five years when my kids were small.  The reason was that my oldest son sat in worship with me starting in his first-grade year and was bored out of his ever-lovin’ mind.  He hated, hated, hated it, almost to the point of tears.  He tried; he really did, for three years.  But he couldn’t stand it.  And he wasn’t alone.  By the time our second son got to first grade, the ranks of kids squirming in the balcony had hit a demographic high.

There was nothing wrong with the music – it was world class.  The preaching was excellent.  But none of it spoke to my sons, not in the first grade or the fourth grade.  A friend whose kids were the same age as ours was having the same problem, so we volunteered to begin a children’s church.  We met with some resistance from the ‘establishment,’ but we weren’t asking their permission.

The issue was this: our faith was important to us, and we wanted to do everything we could to pass on an opportunity for our children to share that faith.  Traditional worship wasn’t working, for whatever reason.  So we tried a different format.

My friend was a gifted music teacher, so he began the children’s worship time with a hymn or two.  He used the time as a teaching opportunity, and the kids responded.  Yes, it was a bit more informal, but we met in the chapel with pews just like the ones in big church.  We had a couple of adults at all times to settle kids down if necessary, but that wasn’t very often.  We prayed, and we invited the kids to pray.

After music time, I told a Bible story.  I embellished a bit here and there, and I added a few sound effects, but it worked.  We discussed the meaning of the stories with the kids, and we asked them what they thought.  The kids paid attention and learned the stories.  They told the stories eagerly to their parents on the way home.  They brought friends.  The “kids” are in their thirties now, and one I hadn’t seen for years volunteered with no prompting that the Nebuchadnezzar story was his favorite.

The kids were completely turned off in adult worship.  They were energized and engaged in children’s church.  Some of them today go to church, and others don’t.  We moved away and lost track, so I don’t know percentages.  One of my two sons found a great church where he and his family are quite active.  The other has been content not to look all that hard.  Of the other kids I’ve been able to keep up with, some go to church, some don’t.

I am firmly convinced that the reason the Church didn’t retain all of these kids has nothing to do with worship formats.  If you’ll pardon the cliché, that argument is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  The reason goes much deeper than that, and it actually got a lot more attention in the 1960s than it seems to get today.

The reason people don’t go to church is that they can’t for the life of them figure out why they should.  They don’t see the point.

As Pierre Berton wrote in The Comfortable Pew in 1965, “The church to its opponents has become as a straw man, hardly worth a bullet.”  If you haven’t read Berton’s book, find a copy and read it.  Berton was a respected Canadian journalist whom the Anglican Church of Canada invited to write its 1965 Lenten periodical.  Though he had quit going to church himself, Berton allowed himself to be persuaded to write the thing, and it immediately outsold every other book published in Canada up to that point.  I think we can safely say that no other Lenten periodical has come close.

Berton laid it on the line as no one else had done to that point.  The Church in Canada and elsewhere had become an agent of the social status quo.  It had virtually no prophetic voice, though the gospel clearly demands otherwise.  Ten years earlier, church attendance in the United States had peaked at almost 50% every week.  Church leaders were confident and ecstatic.  By 1965, however, church leaders were worrying about the “Crisis” of the church.  That’s a remarkably short turnaround.

I can’t summarize Berton’s book here.  Suffice it to say that my two sons had plenty of moral and prophetic energy in elementary school.  They were serious about conservation and justice; they just couldn’t see that the church cared about either of those things, what they had learned about Isaiah notwithstanding.  Churches are almost always concerned first and foremost with their own survival and repairing the buildings they inherited from the fifties.  Frankly, it’s easier just to let them die.

Diana Butler Bass documented an enormous shift in her 2009 book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.  Within a ten-year period, “religious” went from a positive association in the minds of most Americans to a negative association.  It has to do with institutions, organization, and dogma.  On the other hand, the word “spiritual” now has a mostly positive connotation after many decades as a negative word (it once connoted a lack of accountability).  The word “spiritual” is about experience, explained one man.  “Religious” is about infrastructure, more or less, and nobody gets excited about infrastructure.

In essence, the North American church has talked far more about theological opinions than about the experience of God.  Those groups such as the Pentecostals were exceptions, but they often took anti-science positions, so mainline churches felt a need to put distance between themselves and spiritual experience.  Their memberships have plummeted; vast numbers of congregations have closed, while others are too small to support a trained pastor.

The most vital religious movement I see today is contemplative.  Resurrected from Catholic monasticism through Thomas Merton and others, contemplation and meditation are drawing larger numbers of people who are disaffected with their churches, Protestant and Catholic alike.

While some will be predictably threatened by this movement, I see it as the hope of the church in the future.  It feels like authentic faith because it is felt and practiced.  It’s not about dogma or doctrine that evolved out of some national cultural conflict centuries ago.  Opinions are pretty much irrelevant.  It’s simply about opening oneself to God’s presence in the present moment, and trusting that God’s presence will lead you right.  It’s not about orthodoxy; it’s about faith.

I can tell you that the church of my childhood never mentioned any such thing.  I got a taste of it in seminary when one of my professors introduced me to Thomas Merton’s books, but even then it didn’t sink in very far.  It took a Catholic friend who gave me Richard Rohr’s little classic, Everything Belongs.  That book literally changed my life and my faith.  It led me to others such as Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing, Douglas Steere’s books from a Quaker background, and to classics of Christian devotion from centuries ago.

More than that, my journey led me to an active prayer life.  It’s mostly silent prayer, listening for God rather than instructing him on what needed to be done that day.  Some people call it “centering prayer,” while others call it meditation.  Whatever.

The point is this: prayer matters to me now.  Doctrine, i.e. theological opinions, matter far, far less, though they can still make for interesting bull sessions with the right people.  Contemplative spirituality is the real business of the church; of this I’m utterly convinced.  It should have been our business all along, but we were too busy sanctifying success and securing a place for the institution to muck about with humble and honest spirituality.  Churches still distrust prophets until the rest of society has decided to honor them; at that point the church may (or may not) follow along.  That’s not a very inspiring performance.

So forgive me if I don’t see your point when you tell me that people don’t go to church now because we worshiped the wrong way when they were kids.  The problem was, we weren’t really worshiping at all.

 

The Wide and Narrow Doors

In our lifetimes, the Church has gone through a great deal of change and trouble.  The older you are, the more you can testify to that.  Actually, if you read the New Testament much at all, passages such as the ones we have today (Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Luke 13:23-35) will probably convince you that the church was born in troubled times.  The specific troubles have changed through the centuries, but if you read much church history, you’ll be hard pressed to find a time when the church wasn’t going through some sort of crisis.

I was born in 1955, the year when church attendance in the United States reached a peak at 49 percent of the American public telling George Gallup that they attended church in the same week he asked the question.  Not just some of the time, but half of the United States population had been in church that week.  Some people even said that you had to be a churchgoer in order to be a good American, though of course not everyone felt that way.

However, church attendance began to decline as soon as it had peaked.  It was gradual at first.  By 1966, the percentage was down to 44 percent.  Fast forward to 2013 and the Gallup organization reported polls showing weekly church attendance down to 37 percent.  A different poll found that by 2010, only 30 percent of Americans said they attended church weekly, while many more – 43 percent – said they attended church rarely or never.

Back when I was born, church leaders must have felt on top of the world.  The economy was great, unemployment was low, and people were building new homes in new suburban neighborhoods that were rising up out of cotton fields and cow pastures.  New churches were being planted in all those neighborhoods, and large, modern sanctuaries were built to hold hundreds of people.  The fifties were a time of great optimism in the church.

How quickly things can change.  By the time I turned ten in the 1960s, church leaders had started using the word ‘crisis’ to describe what was happening.  In 1969, a sociologist named Jeffrey Hadden published a book entitled The Gathering Storm in the Churches: A Sociologist Looks at the Widening Gap Between Clergy and Laymen.  Hadden made the case that the church in America was becoming irrelevant, in part because it hadn’t been very prophetic.  In fact, it was doing the opposite of being prophetic: the American church had come to embody and defend the status quo in American culture, not challenge it.

Hadden laid out three kinds of crisis that had come to challenge the American church.  The first crisis was over the very purpose and nature of the church.  A number of clergy in the sixties had gotten involved with the civil rights movement.  It isn’t hard to find Biblical support for justice and equality, and seminary studies seemed to open a lot of pastoral eyes.  They interpreted the Bible to mean that the American institutions of slavery and then racial segregation hadn’t represented the gospel of Christ very well.  But a lot of lay leaders didn’t agree, and in church after church they withheld donations or voted out the pastors who preached on civil rights or other ‘social issues.’  This conflict opened up a rift in nearly every denomination that led many to question the moral integrity of the church.

In 1965, the Anglican Church of Canada was looking for a fresh approach to its Lenten study series.  The series had gotten pretty stale, and very few people bothered to read it.  The decision was made to ask Pierre Berton, a well-known Canadian journalist, to write a study guide for them even though Mr. Berton was not an Anglican or even particularly a churchgoer.  He was a “name,” as we would say today.  It was a bold step.  Mr. Berton came back with a challenging book entitled The Comfortable Pew.  The book succeeded in one sense beyond all expectations; within six months it had outsold every other book ever published in Canada.

But the book was a bombshell in another sense.  It said that Anglicans and all other Christians had simply ceased to matter in the modern world.  Berton declared that the voice of the church had become “weak, tardy, equivocal, and irrelevant… The Church to its opponents has become a straw man, scarcely worth a bullet.”

Berton pointed out that the church had failed to take any strong prophetic stands until after the rest of society had already taken them and moved on:

“It has all but been forgotten that Christianity began as a revolutionary religion whose followers embraced an entirely different set of values from those held by other members of society.  Those original values are still in conflict with the values of contemporary society; yet religion today has become as conservative a force as the original Christians were in conflict with.”  (The Comfortable Pew, p. 80)

So much for the first crisis.  Jeff Hadden described the second crisis of the church as a crisis of belief.  In 1963 an Anglican bishop named John A. T. Robinson published a little book called Honest to God.  We don’t hear much about it anymore, but like The Comfortable Pew it became an immediate best seller.  It set off a firestorm by claiming that the image of God held by the typical churchgoer was a bad or just outdated image.  He tried to translate the academic work of contemporary theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich for the masses, who of course don’t often read many serious theology books.

But the masses fought back!  Many of them couldn’t separate their traditional image of God from the worship of God himself, so they thought that Bishop Robinson was saying that God didn’t exist.  C. S. Lewis thought the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot; he said that most people “had long abandoned the belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven.  We call that belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time.”  But the controversy lived on and even expanded.

The crisis of belief had many sources other than Bishop Robinson’s book, but it led to tremendous conflicts within religious bodies that continue into our day.  The seminary I attended – and the Louisiana College that some of you attended – were both forever changed by the reaction to that conflict, and not for the better.

Hadden’s third crisis was a crisis of authority.  Churches are voluntary associations, meaning that people choose whether or not to attend.  If they don’t like a particular pastor or lay leader, they are free to go to another church or to go nowhere at all.  I remember my mother once saying that in her day, meaning the 1940s, if the pastor of a church like First Baptist Dallas said something, it never occurred to her to question it.  By the time I was a teenager, that wasn’t so much the case.  I remember being disappointed in a young assistant pastor who told my mother that the Simon and Garfunkel song, Mrs. Robinson, was sacrilegious.  I told Mom that, to the contrary, I thought Jesus would appreciate the song’s message, which wasn’t anti-God as much as it skewered the hypocrisy of modern religion.  The sixties were a tough time for pastors who expected their authority to be respected.

Much of American religion in the mid-twentieth century assumed that everyone ought to go to church.  It wasn’t just a religious duty; it was a civic duty.  American neighborhoods were supposed to have at least one neighborhood church.  If you didn’t go to church every week, and many of course didn’t, then at least you were supposed to be a member somewhere.

All this leads us back to a basic question: do we really expect everybody to be a full-fledged person of authentic faith?  Is being a Christian really so easy that everyone not only can do it, but will want to do it?

Jesus didn’t seem to think so.  In our passage from Luke today, some unnamed person has obviously been disturbed by what Jesus teaches.  He asks Jesus, “Lord, are you telling me that only a few will be saved?”  You can imagine the unspoken “Surely not!”  It sounded as though entering the kingdom could be a challenge.  Here’s what Jesus said:

13:24 Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able…

13:29 Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 

13:30 Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” 

Jesus made the kingdom of God sound important, but he never made it sound easy.  He never seemed to assume that everyone in the country would find it convenient or take it for granted.  In fact, Jesus warned his fellow Israelites not to assume they were ‘safe’ with respect to God just because they were Israelites.  In the same way, many people in our country today assume that they are ‘safe’ or ‘correct’ because they’re Americans, or because they belong to God’s favorite church.

But Jesus repeats in verse 29 something of what almost got him killed in his hometown synagogue (see Luke 4): people from outside of Israel – east and west, north and south – will ‘eat in the kingdom of God.’  Those whom we think of as last will end up being first in the kingdom, and those who think of themselves as first, will find that God has put them last.

Jesus went so far as to say that Jerusalem, the capital city, was already far gone away from the kingdom.  Most people back then called Jerusalem the “city of God” because it was the political center of Israel as well as the religious center.  Jerusalem had the one and only Temple, a fantastic edifice where Jews came from all over the world to worship.  Jesus shocked his listeners when he said that Jerusalem wasn’t what they thought.  Jesus labelled Jerusalem as the place that killed God’s prophets, the place that rejected the son of God.

We need to be very careful not to repeat the mistakes Jesus warned Israel about so long ago.  Jesus honored the prophets, those bold men and women who pointed out where their country failed to provide justice and a decent life for the poor.  Prophets denounced rich people who enjoyed luxury when others had no food.  Prophets said things like “Do justice and love mercy.”  They focused their warnings on their own country’s leaders because they cared more about the kingdom of God than any kingdom of men – even their own.

Jesus warned us not to trust to our institutions to protect our spirituality.  He warned us that human institutions, even religious ones, can be just as likely to threaten authentic faith as to promote it.  It’s dangerous to assume that because we belong to the right church or the right country, God is happy with us.

The challenge for us who would follow Jesus today is to do so honestly, with integrity.  Simply going along with what our religious friends and family think is no guarantee that we opened ourselves to follow the Christ who sacrificed all for us.  As someone said long ago, it’s possible to be sincere and sincerely mistaken at the same time.

So what are we to do?  Perhaps the first thing is to stop looking to our culture or our institutions to do our spiritual work for us.  That’s the wide door that most people use.  It’s important for us to take the narrow door, to meet God ourselves and not rely on someone else’s report about him.  We look to the God who created our world and then placed us in it, the God of love who calls us to follow in loving even ‘the least of these,’ the God of justice who cares about widows and orphans and the poor.  Especially in this political season, that’s the road less traveled.

The good news is that this God of love and justice and creation cares about us and is available to us.  We cannot achieve our own salvation; our job is to empty ourselves and open ourselves to his presence.  If we follow that divine presence in our lives, we will find ourselves caring about different things than others do.  We may find ourselves bored by the things everyone else finds exciting.  But we will find joy in the following, joy in the praying, joy in just being who we were created to be.

I’ve often thought that the church of my youth had gotten off on the wrong track.  Back then we spent a lot of time developing our intellects for God.  That’s not a bad thing; I’m for it.  But intellect isn’t the core business of the church.  Living out the kingdom of God is.  That takes faith, humility, and openness to God’s presence.  Intellect helps, but you can be as dumb as a box of hammers and still live out the kingdom.  The last shall be first.  The first shall be last.

I’m encouraged that the church in some quarters has begun to take a contemplative course.  It’s about becoming aware of God’s presence in our world.  It’s not about achievement or authority or orthodoxy; it’s about love and service.  Really.  It’s about learning to listen and pray in silence.  It’s about emptying ourselves and allowing God to fill and transform us.  It’s about a lifelong journey of prayer and faith.

The door is not narrow because it’s hard.  It’s narrow because most people won’t want it.  And no institutional system will make it any wider or more popular.  The challenge is whether we live it and learn to love it.

Let’s pray together now:

God of our hearts, we confess in this Lenten season that we often seek to take the easy road,

  the road with fewer stones and bumps, the road where everyone seems to be on autopilot. 

Help us to remember our ultimate goal: to know you, and in knowing you, to know ourselves.

When we feel at odds with our world, help us remember that the world has rejected you.

Forgive us our lack of courage. 

Help us to pray. 

Amen. 

 

Sunday School Teachers and Philanthropy

     Remember Mark Twain’s gem about Tom Sawyer and the Sunday School superintendent?  Tom traded fishhooks and licorice for a fistful of blue, yellow, and red tickets, which together alleged Tom’s mastery of two thousand Bible verses.  The superintendent, startled but on the spot in front of visiting celebrity, awarded Tom a new Bible and no small glory in recognition of his “achievement.”  Unfortunately, Tom proceeded to demonstrate the quality of his work by naming the first two disciples as “David and Goliath! 

     Twain loved to lampoon pompous windbags, and God knows that Sunday Schools have harbored more than a few.  I’d like to take a moment, however, to praise the good ones, and I have specific reasons that have nothing to do with theology. 

     Research shows that a good Sunday School teacher is an exceptionally valuable commodity.  He or she can do at least two very constructive things for children.  It turns out that one hour or more of religious study per week correlates positively with academic and emotional success in children.  Right there, a good Sunday School teacher is worth a lot, regardless of your denominational leanings.  If you count yourself among their ranks, I hope your chest is beginning to swell with a permissible degree of pride. 

     Research also shows that a good Sunday School teacher does at least one other good thing for kids, though this one isn’t limited to teachers: they can use their time to care.  When children can name at least three adults other than their parents who genuinely care for them, they tend to succeed much more readily in school and in life than kids who lack such adults in their lives.  Those adults can be neighbors, aunts, uncles, Scout leaders, or any adult who has the child’s best interests at heart. 

     How do I know this?  The Search Institute in Minneapolis has spent years pulling together a great deal of research that shows how children succeed.  They’ve come up with forty developmental ‘assets’ that all children need in order to thrive.  Half are things that the community must provide, meaning the family, the school, the church, or the neighborhood.  The other half are values and habits that children must develop for themselves, such as achievement motivation, integrity, cultural competence, and a sense of purpose.  You can download a summary of the Forty Assets at your United Way of Central Louisiana website, www.uwcl.org. 

     As with most research, some of the findings are entirely predictable.  What’s the number one most important asset a child can have?  It’s a loving family, of course.  That correlates more with child success than any other single asset. 

     The great tragedy of our children’s lives, however, is the research revealing that most children in the U.S. get fewer than half the assets they need to succeed.  Children who fail in life affect all of us.  A child who fails to grow up successfully becomes the surly store clerk, the incompetent mechanic, or the destructive supervisor.  You and I need every child in central Louisiana to succeed, whether or not we have children of our own. 

     Children need dependable grownups who are there for them consistently.  It matters how much time we spend with them.  It matters whether children see us smiling or shouting, reading or scolding.  It doesn’t matter nearly so much what you know or whether you have all the answers to childhood questions. 

     A caring Sunday School teacher matters.  Regular schoolteachers, shopkeepers and neighbors ~ how we relate to each other’s children matters. 

     Whatever your profession, however you spend your time off, do yourself and the rest of us a favor.  Find a child and spend a few years convincing that child that you care.  Be honest.  Be kind.  But be there. 

     Just watch out for the yellow tickets.