The Greatest of All Time

The Greatest of All Time

Matthew 22:34-40 | 18 October 2020

Lots of greats, one greatest

The first time I heard about the greatest of all time was a sports documentary about Muhammad Ali. The documentary was talking about his career, his life, and the mix of athleticism and spectacle he brought to the sport. Since then, I have heard the term used for just about everything: greatest video game of all time, greatest novel of all time, greatest sports team, player, coach of all time. After a while, the term seems almost meaningless. The greatest of anything is only the greatest until something greater comes along or someone else decides their idea of the greatest is greater than the last persons. The greats are great, but they can never really be the greatest because sooner or later, someone will come along and dethrone them.

The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and just about everyone else with a vested interested in the religious-political world of the early thirties in the first century was hoping to dethrone Jesus as the greatest teacher of their time. People flocked to hear what he said whether they believed him or not, they marveled at the teachings he offered and recognized it for the wisdom it was. And Jesus was constantly defending his words, his teaching.

In the passage today, we read about Jesus and the greatest commandment. Just before this, Jesus had answered the Pharisees about taxes and astonished the Sadducees on the issue of the resurrection. Both answers spoke to the heart of major issues for these two groups. The Pharisees were interested in how far to take the law when the law appeared to infringe on their practice of religion and the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection as the Pharisees did so they hoped to catch Jesus saying something ridiculous about the subject in response to a childish question.

The Pharisees were now hoping to salvage a victory from these interrogations and a legal expert spoke up and said, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” On the surface, this might sound like an innocent question, but it is far from it. The Pharisees have been emphasizing tradition and the purity laws as an expression of their love for God and their commitment to the greatest commandment as found in Deuteronomy 6:5—” Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” If they get Jesus to acknowledge this, they can claim to be have been right all along and if not, they can accuse Jesus of sacrilege.

Jesus response lets them know that cherry-picking the parts of the Law you like and ignoring the others is no way to interpret the scriptures. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 but then adds something to let them know that there is more to the Law than that. Jesus follows this with Leviticus 19:18—” You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” Jesus gets beneath their attempts to cherry-pick a response that leaves him looking foolish and turns the tables on the Pharisees. The issue has changed from loving God alone to loving your neighbor as yourself. Not only that, Jesus adds that all the Law and the teachings of the prophets are dependent on these two commandments. In other words, Jesus is saying the scriptures themselves are built on the idea of loving God and loving neighbor. From here, the Gospel of Matthew goes off in another direction, while Luke’s version gives us a question about who my neighbor is. Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan who cares for the robbed and nearly dead man by the side of the Jericho Road, the man who was ignored by a priest and scribe in the story. This addition gives us an even clearer picture of the expectation that Jesus has for loving God and neighbor.

Most people would say they accept and try to practice this kind of love—directed to both God and our neighbor but do we really? I have seen a t-shirt floating around for a while that says,

Love Thy Neighbor: Thy Homeless Neighbor, Thy Muslim Neighbor, Thy Black Neighbor, Thy Gay Neighbor, Thy Immigrant Neighbor, Thy Jewish Neighbor, Thy Christian Neighbor, Thy Atheist Neighbor, Thy Addicted Neighbor

There is another version that says,

Love Thy Neighbor: Thy LGBT Neighbor; Thy Imprisoned Neighbor; Thy Hindu Neighbor; Thy Native Neighbor; Thy Black Neighbor; Thy Muslim Neighbor; Thy Pagan Neighbor; Thy Asian Neighbor; Thy Buddhist Neighbor; Thy Hispanic Neighbor

Let’s be honest here. There is a lot of political pandering going on with this t-shirt. When I went to verify the words on the shirt, I found it on a website called The Christian Left. There is no doubt that this shirt is thumbing up its nose at those who have a problem in one way or another with the groups listed. There is both a theological point and a political point being made and an agenda behind it. But it’s missing some things or maybe, they just need another shirt. One that reads,

Love thy neighbor: thy conservative neighbor, thy Republican neighbor, thy Trump supporting neighbor, thy NRA neighbor, thy police supporting neighbor, thy military supporting neighbor

And it should take it far enough to make everyone uncomfortable like,

Love thy neighbor: thy alt-right neighbor, thy fundamentalist neighbor, thy hate mongering neighbor, and so on

Each of those statements is bound to make someone uncomfortable, but each of those statements is still true. Each and every one of those groups represented is deserving of our love because they are all our neighbors.

Now I know the next part of this argument usually goes something like this this: I love everybody, but I don’t have to like them to love them. This is usually the love the sinner, hate the sin argument when dealing with people that make us feel uncomfortable. The problem with that line of thinking is that it is focused on the thing we see as sin, not on the person. You end up not loving the sinner—because you still see them as a sinner not a person—and emphasizing their sin as the only thing you see. In the end, we are able to discount the person without knowing them, without seeing them as God sees them and casting them aside.

I think most of our objections to loving people who make us feel uncomfortable is rooted in two things: ego and our fear. Often, when this subject is brought up in this way, I have heard people say, “I’m not going let people run over me. I’m not going let people tell me what to think. I have the right to think whatever I want to about people.” All of these are correct. You may choose to live in a way so that no one ever runs over you or what most people mean by this, in a way that keeps you from actually getting to know people you disagree with. You may choose to live in a way where all your views are settled and unchanging. You may think anything and everything you choose to think about people.

I think people do this because they are afraid that they will have to give up being themselves in order love others the way Jesus did. The answer to that is yes and no. You won’t have to give up your personality, but your personality should be shaped and changed and molded and remolded by the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus. But if you claim to be a disciple of Jesus, you cannot do anything where other people are concerned without loving them. If any of your views run counter to loving neighbor in the way the Samaritan showed, you cannot claim being a disciple.

A disciple does what their master does and lives by their master’s teaching. Who did Jesus spend most of his time with? The lost, the abandoned, the poor, the homeless, the helpless, the outcasts, the hurting, the needy. Who was Jesus at odds with? Those that hurt, dismissed, or made life miserable for any of those above. Did he join those around him in their sin? No, over and over Jesus called them out and told them to repent, to change the direction of their lives. Did do it from a place of loving first, of being with them, sharing life with them and showing them a better way of living and being? Absolutely.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” The kind of love we are called to love God and neighbor with is this perfect love, a love that is not afraid, a love that comfortable with being uncomfortable, a love that puts others needs ahead of our rights and preferences. It is not easy. It is messy. It is difficult. But it is right. And it comes from the master of all us who claim to be his disciples. The question is, will we live into being true disciples or into being truly misguided at best and at worst, truly hateful.

To Defend or Embrace

Image from irisharoundtheworld.com

Three weeks ago, I started a series of articles to ask some questions about what we are doing as a church in both the local congregation and in the greater church beyond. I presented the idea that as a church, we are failing at the mission of the church and in all honesty, I think that has to do with paradigm shifts that have happened through the centuries that have drawn us away from the original mission and intent of the church. I posed three questions that I hope might help us to consider a different perspective for looking at what it means to embrace a form of discipleship which will help us become and grow into a better expression of what I see as Jesus’ vision for the Church.

The third and final question is how do we move from defending creeds, declarations, and confessions to embracing a way of life? First off, let’s define what we mean when we talk about creeds, confessions, and declarations. The creeds are ancient documents—going back to the first century after Jesus—which defined what a group of theologians believed about a particular subject. Confessions and declarations are statements made by specific groups of people that speak to their understanding of Christianity within their group and those that agree with them. While all of these are based on biblical ideas and interpretations of scripture, none of them are scripture. They are simply a way to teach the basic ideas about Christianity within a given group of people. They were not all agreed upon though most came into being because of majority votes at church councils and general practice in the church, especially after Christianity became the official state religion of Rome. There is considerably more to this but we a limited number of words to work with.

Because there were things about the creeds, confessions, and declarations that taught basic ideas about Christianity, they eventually came to be among the main teaching tools of the church. Honestly, it’s easier to memorize the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed than it is to memorize a book of the bible and books worth of commentary on them. And given the fact that the average person could not read until the last few centuries, these short statements were and still are easy ways to teach basic Christianity.

Take for instance the Nicene Creed. It was put together during two church councils in the fourth century (Nicea in 325 CE and Constantinople in 381 CE). The first council hammered out that Jesus and God were made of the same stuff and connected to one another in a divine way. The second one added the Holy Spirit to that and the Trinity as we know it was made official church doctrine. Before this, there were a number of views on the matter but after the councils, the official position of the Western and Eastern church (what would split off and become the Orthodox Church in 1054 CE) was the Trinity as it is generally taught today. Oddly enough, the word Trinity is not found directly in scripture. It is a theological creation inspired by the bible and developed by early church fathers in certain cultural circumstances, at a certain place in history. They felt led by what they believed was the Spirit and their circumstances (now becoming the main state religion of an empire that once persecuted them) to create an official church and state doctrine that they did not have before.

The problem is that we have decided these creeds, confessions, and declarations are worth defending in a way that gives them greater importance than they should have, sometimes to the point of worshiping the creeds rather than the God they point to. While creeds and the like do have teachings that have been central to Christian teaching that does not always mean they should remain central, especially if the Holy Spirit leads us correct our understanding. Jesus himself practiced this with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said to the those listening, “You have heard it said…” meaning the written or oral law of the Jews teaches this. But Jesus reinterpreted it with, “But I say to you…” meaning this is a better understanding. Also, in the book of Acts, Peter and the Jerusalem Christians are convinced, based on their tradition and upbringing that new converts to Christianity were to follow not only the teachings of Jesus but also practice the basic teachings of Judaism as had those who came before them. Paul’s converts were mostly Greek speaking Gentile converts who had ever heard of these laws and had become disciples of the teaching of Jesus not Judaism. The clash of these two ideas created the need for what theologians call the Jerusalem Council. This council discussed the matter and came to this conclusion which they sent in a letter to the churches outside Jerusalem,

The Holy Spirit has led us to the decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials: refuse food offered to idols, blood, the meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid such things.

This process would be repeated during many church disputes and set the stage for how the great church councils would operate.

The greater point is this, Jesus called us to live by the Spirit and “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We should be bound not by creeds but by the leading of the Spirit. And yes, I know that some of you will say, “But we need some guidance to tell us when it is the Spirit and something else. We need something define to ourselves and others that it really is the Spirit. If we don’t have the creeds, confessions, and other things like that we can’t test the Spirit.” My answer: Abraham didn’t have any of those things. Moses didn’t have any of those things. Elijah didn’t have any of those things. Paul didn’t have those things. Jesus didn’t have those things. In fact, what they did have, they redefined by the leading of God’s Spirit and those redefinitions we accept now as parts of the Bible. Jesus told his disciples, “…when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come.”

So, what do we use as tools to discern whether the Spirit is speaking to us? I think the practice of prayer and the teachings of Jesus. I think if we learn well the practice of opening ourselves up to God, both in speaking and listening, we will learn to truly commune with God through the Holy Spirit. I think also if we are attentive and obedient to the words of Jesus, most of which are reiterated in both Old Testament teaching and the teaching in New Testament letters, we will find ourselves able to discern well our circumstances and direction. These are the practices of the Apostles and early disciples of the church and I believe these are the practices that will help the church return to a place of impact on the world.

I believe it is time to revisit our ancient roots and live our faith by the Spirit as a way of life without so much dependence on the creeds, confessions, and declarations of schools of thought and denominations. It may be uncomfortable. It may create a bit of chaos at times when people disagree. But when people are truly immersed in the Spirit (say at Pentecost), there is the opportunity for making true disciples and changing lives.

Renderings

How to set a snare

Trapping animals is an ancient means of getting food, going back thousands of years. The Bible itself mentions the use of traps when it says, “Protect me from the trap they’ve set for me; protect me from the snares of the evildoers” in Psalm 141 and “The Lord will be your confidence; he will guard your feet from being snared” in Proverbs 3. Beyond these verses, snares are commonly mentioned throughout the bible, and usually, in the sense that our actions, if we are not careful will get us caught up in something we don’t want to be a part of much like an animal caught in a snare. Here is how a snare works.

First, you get some good strong wire/rope/string, usually strong enough for an animal up to around 10-15 pounds. Then, you have to find the right location for trapping the animal, a place where the animal regularly travels. After that, you have to find the right engine, usually a tree that can be bent down. Next, make a hook trigger and attach a rope to the engine and the trigger and then attach a noose to the lower trigger. Finally, you bait the trap by putting food of some kind in the noose and wait. If you put everything together right, the trap will hold together and the animal will end up hanging by a tree limb, caught in the snare.

Not all snares, however, are physical snares as the bible makes clear. The word snare is found in the wisdom literature of the bible but also in prophetic texts as well. Most of the mentions of snares in the bible are about moral or spiritual traps that people find themselves in. These snares are usually places or moments where people have stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time and acted in the wrong way.

How to trip a snare

This story about taxes is a great example of a one that got away story. We can all think a story we lived or heard where the deer was just out of range or the fish hoped off the hook. The Pharisees and Herodians—Jewish political supporters of the puppet king of Israel—think they have found a trap that Jesus will not get out of. Both factions within Judaism had been negotiating with Roman rulers in order keep certain freedoms and controls for the Jewish people.

They ask a question they believe will either cause problems with the Roman authorities or alienate a large faction of his own supporters. They try to catch Jesus off guard with a bit of flattery to cover the trap they are setting.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

I see this as a political question aimed at getting Jesus in trouble politically with one faction or another. It’s kind of the modern equivalent of showing Jesus a Facebook post or a Tweet about modern politics and asking him for his opinion in front supporters of both sides. Does Jesus accept the complete authority of Rome over the Jewish people or does he defy the Roman authorities? Not only that, how does he answer to not risk being an insurrectionist and bringing down wrath of Rome on the people? But Jesus is ready and gets them to step into their own snare.

In the story, Jesus asks the questioners for a coin. Roman coins bore the image of the emperor on one side and an inscription on the other. It was a reminder that Caesar ruled the economy as well as every other aspect of the empire. I imagine, Jesus looking at the coin in his hand as he considered the response. Maybe he was turning it over and over and maybe he was just looking at the image of the emperor on the one side. After a moment, I imagine Jesus flipping the coin back to its owner and starting their little conversation,

“Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

The word give in this phrase in Greek means, to give back what is due. In other words, give Caesar what you owe him and give God what you owe him, the meaning being that there is a different debt to both. One theologian put it this way,

“…the “coinage” of God’s kingdom is of a radically different nature than that of Caesar. God does not trade in Caesar’s currency. The whole nature and trajectory of God’s kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated, and is inviting people to participate in, is fundamentally at odds with Caesar’s. This is why while people must pay to both Caesar and God, they must pay them not only for different reasons but in entirely different currencies. Paying to God and participating in the divine kingdom entails repenting of the ways they have been complicit in the Roman empire and its agenda.”[1] – Raj Nadella

I like the way this was said, repenting of the ways they had been complicit in the Roman Empire and its agenda. A warning, I am about to do something I normally don’t do and talk about politics. I personally think that the divide in our country right now is such that we should see some of ourselves in this statement. Many, if not most of us, have become complicit in participating in the political agendas of the major parties in America by buying into the mixing of faith with politics. Some have hitched their wagons to one or the other. In truth, we should hitch them to neither. They have muddled their faith by making theological claims about their politics and the politicians they support. While we have both a privilege and duty to participate or give what is due in the political arena, our ultimate allegiance lies in a Kingdom not made with human hands but built in human hearts.

When we give our country its due, we act with the dignity and respect of our offices as ambassadors of God’s kingdom within whatever country we live in. We participate with the same values that Jesus taught in gospels, recognizing as he did, the Kingdom of God. Our ultimate aim, our ultimate goal, is the making of disciples of Jesus the Christ for building up the Kingdom of God and that is not a part of the political agenda of any party that I have seen in this country.

Give the political system and the government of our country its due but remember, you are ambassadors of another kingdom and that is where your true allegiance lies.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4624

Discipleship or Membership

Two weeks ago, I started a series of articles to ask some questions about what we are doing as a church in both the local congregation and in the greater church beyond. I presented the idea that as a church, we are failing at the mission of the church and in all honesty, I think that has to do with paradigm shifts that have happened through the centuries that have drawn us away from the original mission and intent of the church. I posed three questions that I hope might help us to consider a different perspective for looking at what it means to embrace a form of discipleship which will help us become and grow into a better expression of what I see as Jesus’ vision for the Church.

The second question was how do we move from making church members to making disciples?   I believe it has to do with focus, more specifically, with what is important to us. For years, the model has been a program model. Create programs like Sunday school, small groups, youth groups, children’s ministry. These are not bad in and of themselves and for that matter, they can be excellent tools for the real goal. But instead of being a means to the end they have become the end. Having the successful program (i.e. one that is full of people who show up week in and week out) has become the goal instead of what the program should create (i.e. people changing their hearts and lives to align with the person and mission of Jesus). That is not to say some people haven’t been changed but the program goal is often maintaining the program not creating the disciple.

What we are creating is classroom learners who know some things but not disciples, who take the knowledge out of the classroom to find and create more disciples. Very few, if any, church members take on disciples to teach and nurture. Most spend their lives taking turns teaching each the same things over and over with little if no challenge to the status quo.

For us to have an impact on the world again, leaders and churches must make discipleship—the learning and following of the Way of Jesus that leads to teaching others to do so—the priority rather than the number of church members or people present. That is, we must make change and consistent growth and maturity as followers of the Way the cornerstone of our efforts. Rather than rely on Sunday school as the principle teacher for discipleship, we need to treat it as a place to encourage and pray with one another. In my opinion, Sunday school is too short a time (30 minutes by the time you finish pleasantries and what not) to really delve into weighty matters and often is repetitive when it comes to material.

Discipleship happens when we make discipling relationships a priority. A discipling relationship is one where a person invests themselves in following the Way of Jesus by learning as a disciple from an established disciple and then finds another person or a few people to share that knowledge with. It becomes a sharing of Way of Life where you are not sharing book knowledge but life knowledge that has been passed down from teacher to disciple in a generational fashion. This requires the teacher in the relationship to be continuously being taught by their teacher as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This is a shift away from the current paradigm, which many have called churchitainment, where church exists for what the person can get out of it and not what they put into it. This mindset is why it is so easy for people to move from congregation to congregation. The shift will require leaders and churches to embrace different, and oddly enough, ancient ideas for the sake of discipleship. These methods focus on and develop the ideas of discipleship by an ancient Greco-Roman teacher-student model where a person who is disciple to the master/teacher/rabbi (heard any of the words before) teaches that Way of Life to another small group of a few students. Jesus tells his original band of disciples,

I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth… I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. – John 14:16-17, 25-26

The Jesus model says, Jesus has taught the disciples, when he is gone, they will rely on the Holy Spirit to continue teaching the things Jesus taught to their own disciples. There were no large Sunday schools, no programs, no denominations. Just a teacher/student who is teaching a group of students/future teachers. This is the model, the way to build the Kingdom of God, which the real goal of the Jesus Way of Life.

Weddings and the like…

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Too relaxed at home

Family dinners are a time-honored tradition in just about every part of the world. For our family, like most others, dinners usually ended up being around holidays or birthdays or anniversaries or just weekends when we could get together. On my father’s side of the family it wasn’t unusual to have dinners at Ethel and JW’s house, may father’s aunt and uncle. It was large enough for everyone in the family and had enough of a yard that the children could be easily dispatched outdoors for most of the year.

More importantly, at least for JW, it had a comfortable chair. I cannot remember what color the chair was or for that matter if there was more than one. I can remember that after dinner, while the kids were running around outside and the adults were catching up on everyone’s lives and all the other important issues of the day, JW missed it. He would eat his dinner, find a comfortable place to sit and within a few minutes, JW was asleep. Call it a constitutional, a digestive, or just a after dinner nap but don’t bother calling JW because he wasn’t awake and wasn’t going to be.

And apparently this must be a common enough thing, being able to sleep on command. My family has commented lately on the fact that I have developed a habit of falling asleep like that, especially when they decide to watch television in the evening. No matter the chair or the position—sometimes even sitting straight up—I can fall asleep under most any circumstance. All I need is be still with my eyes closed and I’m off.

Relaxing among the followers

Apparently, Jesus at one point or another must have seen some of this laxity among his followers and told this parable. Over the past few weeks, we have read about the two sons, the tenant farmers, and now the party guests. What’s the common thread? Each story has people in it who have become complacent, lazy, even violent about it.

The writer of Matthew places this parable here to continue illustrating Jesus’ point about with a bit of salvation history in parable form as a reminder. The early followers of Jesus found themselves in competition and conflict with fellow Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah and refused his message. The story of the wedding party gives us a chance to look at this conflict. On one hand you have those who follow Jesus and on the other those who have rejected the invitation and, in the process, either maligned or in some cases persecuted Jesus followers. Notice the parable: the wedding feast is prepared, and the invitations sent. Jesus said in other places that he came first to the Jew and then to the Gentile, meaning the feast/gospel message was intended for the Jewish people first. Those invited—the Jewish leaders and their followers of Jesus day— refused it and went about their business. The servants being abused are those who would come after Jesus (remember this is written decades later and after the fall of Jerusalem) and the people who did come were the disciples that heard and responded. I think the city set on fire is a reference to the Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman War around 70 CE.

Then there is the guy who comes to the feast but not in wedding attire. The text says, “‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’” The guy is then bound hand and feet and thrown in the farthest darkness. I don’t know about you, but it seems a little harsh to me that this guy is being punished for not wearing the right clothes to a party he had only been invited to a few hours, maybe minutes before. I think the guy without wedding clothes may be a way of signaling us that there are those among the followers who are not really there to follow in the Way of Jesus but are there for other reasons.

Lance Pape writes about this in a commentary and says,

Within the world of the story as told, the problem with this guy is not that he is not taking things seriously enough. No, his problem is a failure to party. The kingdom of heaven (verse 2) is a banquet, after all, and you’ve got to put on your party dress and get with the program. The kingdom music is playing, and it’s time to get up on the dance floor. Or, as the slightly more sober, but no less theologically astute Barth put the matter: “In the last resort, it all boils down to the fact that the invitation is to a feast, and that he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”[1]

I think you could see it that way or you could just see the entire parable, as I do, as a way of saying some people will hear the good news of Jesus’ Way and refuse it. Some will hear it and follow. Some will be ambivalent about it and kind of follow and kind of not. The gospel seems to be saying follow or don’t follow there is no maybe. We can choose the Kingdom way of life, the feast of good news if you will, or we can choose to go our own way into other ways that lead to pain, disappointment, and misery. We can accept our invitation to be part of the Kingdom fully and whole heartedly or we can turn it down, but we can’t go to the party half dressed or live it halfway.

And that becomes the issue for us: are we all in for the Kingdom party or not. Just showing up is only going halfway. We have to be all in with the Kingdom or we are really not in at all.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2204

Innovation or Institution

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Last week I started a series of articles to ask some questions about what we are doing as a church in both the local congregation and in the greater church beyond. I presented the idea that as a church, we are failing at the mission of the church and in all honesty, I think that has to do with paradigm shifts that have happened through the centuries that have drawn us away from the original mission and intent of the church. I posed three questions that I hope might help us to consider a different perspective for looking at what it means to embrace a form of discipleship which will help us become and grow into a better expression of what I see as Jesus’ vision for the Church.

The first question was how do we create innovative ideas for people to live into instead of preserving institutions? I’m sure there are people who would ask the questions, Why not both? Why not have innovation that shapes the institution? Those seem like reasonable questions and I wish it were simple enough an issue to stop there and say, you’re right. The short answer is I don’t think the church was ever intended to be an institution. It was a movement. When movements get to the place where they become institutions, they lose the flexibility that allows them to move and respond to the needs of the people, sometimes needs the people don’t realize they have.

I imagine the next question to follow would be, if the church is a movement, what kind of innovation does it need? It needs to move. Currently, our polity (at least in the UMC) is based on a book written over two hundred years ago (1784). The polity can and has been updated through the years, but over time, I think it has gone from a few basic ideas on how to conduct a Methodist society in the new world (50 pages) to an excessive, and often tedious, rulebook (879 pages). The growth of this book has much to do with the growth of Methodism, national and international cultural changes, and the many unions, splits, and reunions, and all the bargaining going along with each. In the process, the book has become a testament to political wrangling and overly wrought specificity rather than a practical guide. For me, that lack of practicality, especially in ministry concerns, is when the book loses its effectiveness. This is representative of the greater structure of the UMC and its immovability.

I think this mentality has trickled down into many churches, not to protect the greater denominational structures but to protect the local structure itself. The focus becomes buildings, programs, salaries, and the like while mission is a singular byline with usually a tiny fraction of the budget. I think we need to let go of this institutional focus and mindset and take on the mindset of pilgrims, those journeying through this life with the goal of creating and carrying the Kingdom of God with them rather than looking for a place to set up a mini-Kingdom and its institutional presence. I believe the church should be able to quickly adapt to its surroundings and the needs of the people in those surroundings without having to protect the institution. I think the baggage of institution and institutional thinking is what keeps the church from being nimble enough to react to the world with new methods to share the timeless truth of God. The truth is the building is just a convenience.

So, how do we move? Get out of the structure. For Christianity to function well going forward, I believe we need to see the bible as a wisdom book, a guide to living in the presence of God, rather than a rulebook. I believe we need to focus on building relationships. We need to simplify the practice of discipleship:

  • Love God—this is a matter of practicing worship together and devotion individually
    • Seek healing and wholeness (definition of soteria, the Greek word translated as salvation in the New Testament) for yourself as a person maturing as a disciple through the Holy Spirit.
  • Love neighbor—this is a matter of showing mercy and grace to those around us and seeking justice for those who cannot do so themselves.
    • Help others in our lives seek healing and wholeness as we are all guided by the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a way of life, a way of living and being not a set of propositions and not a place to argue about those propositions. For us to innovate, we must return to that mindset and allow ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit in day to day, moment to moment discipleship. The innovation will be that we as a church become the church to the community around us and do not limit those who are around us to only those like us but that we open ourselves to the experience of immersing ourselves in every community of people we can. We must leave both the physical and personal buildings we have created and walk a pilgrim path, opening ourselves to whatever leading and prompting the Spirit has next for us.

Sermon – Seeing With Your Eyes Closed

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A Weird Way to Walk

Sometimes I succumb to boredom and do strange things to amuse myself. Most Sundays now, I come to church early and make sure everything is ready for the service. I adjust the temperature, make sure the soundboard is on. Set up the camera and things like that. One of the other things that I have taken to doing is get here about an hour or so early so I can walk around the gym.

This falls into my new personal health initiative where I try to eat better, exercise, and keep myself mentally healthy. Usually, I walk around the edge of the basketball court markings following the rectangle painted on the floor. One day, as I was walking around the gym, I started realizing that I was taking 31 steps to go around the long side of the rectangle and 19 steps on the short side. Almost every time I walked the marked path, I ended up with the same number of steps, a 31×19 step path.

Then, I got a weird idea—I can walk the path without looking—just count my steps and stay in a straight line. Sounds like it makes sense, right? It made sense to me, so I tried it. I closed my eyes and I started walking from the back corner near the door toward the sound booth. I managed to take about fifteen steps and opened my eyes to see how I was doing. At fifteen feet, I was two feet to the left of the line and drifting toward chairs. I moved back to the line and tried to get to the end, but I found myself opening one eye or the other because I felt off balance after realizing that I couldn’t walk the line straight. I tried it for one lap and could walk more than a short distance with my eyes closed without getting off track. Finally, I gave up and decided to bring a book and read while I walked.

What the Pharisees Couldn’t See

Pharisees were an interesting and often misunderstood lot. They came into existence around the Maccabean period about a century and a half before Jesus was born. They were a group of devout Jews who wanted to keep the entire will of God. These Jews rejected the Greek and other external influences around them and insisted on knowing and obeying the Law (Torah) of God.

One of the difficult things about that is dealing with the ambiguity of the Torah. For instance, the Torah says to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, but it doesn’t say what that means. Is it work to walk? How far can I walk before I begin working? If I carry something while I walk is that work? The Pharisees became the group that devised rules to help people answer these questions and keep the Torah.

Over time the laws of the interpretations of the Pharisees became a tradition which indicated what people could/should do or not do. They became a sort of ‘oral’ Law that was set alongside the ‘written’ Law of Moses. The idea was that if you kept the oral Law you would most likely keep the written Law as well. Some theologians see the Pharisee as a closed group. They only ate with, lived with, hang out with these who were like minded and refused to accept those unlike them. They had some religious authority among the people but no real political clout with the Roman authorities. They were, however, aware of the fact that they needed to be careful of the Roman authorities who saw any unrest as a reason to become stricter with the people they conquered.

Jesus, like John before him, was challenging the people to live in a way that the religious leaders thought could be construed as insurrection. Jesus was drawing crowds and making a name for himself in a similar way to others before him—others who started revolutions that were put down by Roman authorities. I believe the Pharisees and Sadducees were both afraid of this, for themselves and for their way of life.

What the religious leaders of Jesus couldn’t see was that the people were not willing to live under Roman rule. They had continually risen and revolted behind one person or another and were not going be held down by what they saw as an oppressive regime no matter how well the religious leaders got along with Rome. Even without Jesus teaching, a sense of nationalistic pride drove a large enough population of the Jews that more intense conflict with Rome was inevitable, Jesus or not, something that would come to a head in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. This destruction was the cultural and societal backdrop for the Jewish writers who penned the first three gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Whose Authority

When they come to Jesus with a question of authority, I think they were hoping that they could find put an end to Jesus ministry. Maybe they thought they could turn the people against Jesus or get him to say something that would considered treasonous and have him arrested by the Roman authorities—something that would happen later and lead to Jesus crucifixion. But for the moment, Jesus decides to spring their little trap for them and ask a question of his own,

I have a question for you. If you tell me the answer, I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans?

And now the trappers are trapped,

If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he’ll say to us, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But we can’t say ‘from humans’ because we’re afraid of the crowd, since everyone thinks John was a prophet.

 In other words, affirming John’s authority will also affirm Jesus’ authority. So, they answer that they don’t know, and Jesus says he will not tell them whose authority he does these things by.

Then Jesus goes on to tell a parable about two sons, each is asked to go into the vineyard and work for their father. The first refuses at first but then goes into the field. The second son says he will go into the vineyard but then chooses not to go. Jesus asks the religious leaders which son did the father’s will and they answer the first. Jesus then goes on to say that the prostitutes and tax collectors—the socially undesirables, the outcasts, the lowest of the low—heard John’s message and repented. They had originally led lives that we against the will of God but changed. The religious leaders on the other hand, claim to be hearing and following the Spirit of God and the direction of the Law of Moses but instead create loopholes and burdens with their ‘oral’ Law interpretations. They are trying to lead people to walk after God with their eyes closed, using the ‘oral’ Law to blind the people to Spirit of God.

Are Your Eyes Open

We too find ourselves with the same choice of the first and second sons, the choice of religious leaders who dug into their traditions and rules and those outcasts who changed their lives and truly followed after God following John and then Jesus. Many of us have chosen the rules and traditions because honestly, they are easier. It’s easier to have a set of dos and don’ts that seem to be spelled out for us. But relationships are not rule based. They are messy and unpredictable, and they take work. Engaging God in the Way of Jesus isn’t about following rules but about spending time with a person, learning about that person, and learning to imitate that person not with certain rules but with a certain way of being a person.

And now we must ask ourselves: do we chose the way of ‘oral’ Law and traditions that rob us of a relationship or do we choose the relationship and the Way of Life that is messy, difficult, but worth it in the end.

What are we doing?

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Last week, I sat in my home office in a Zoom meeting with other clergy from the Rock Hill District. We went through the usual: prayer and prayer requests, announcements, and for this time of year, questions about charge conferences. These are all standard, normal things to talk about and in all honesty, the combination of fighting the flu and boredom at the same time was almost enough to make me excuse myself and lean into being sick.

Around the time I was feeling “sicker enough” to step away, we started discussing an article sent to us by the DS called, “Six Reasons Your Pastor is About to Quit” by Thom Rainer (https://churchanswers.com/blog/six-reasons-your-pastor-is-about-to-quit/). This wasn’t the first article I’ve heard about addressing the subject of pastor burnout or people leaving the ministry but it was recent so I thought I would hang around for the discussion. I’m glad I did because that discussion led someplace the article did not necessarily point to and an interesting subject: paradigm shifts.

Paradigm shifts are an interest of mine, sort of an off shoot of human behavior. In my way of thinking, paradigm shifts or changes in the way we think about ideas, is at the heart of following Jesus. When Jesus came on the scene, his first sermons were about paradigm shifts, Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The word repent is the Greek word metanoia which literally means, change your direction, of put another way, shift your paradigm. In essence, we are constantly shifting our understanding of paradigm to match that of Jesus as we are led by the Holy Spirit in our following of Jesus.

Back to the meeting. As we talked about the challenges pastors deal with—various theologies and politics among church members, pastoring in the time of Covid, expectations and responsibilities of family, church, and denomination—I began to think about something, something a little uncomfortable, a little subversive, a little dangerous.

We. Are. Doing. This. Wrong.

My thoughts went back to the early church and a paradigm shift I believe made much of the New Testament’s church’s faith and practice foreign to us. Before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the church was a persecuted, growing, but still minor religion. Most early Christians worshiped not in official buildings but in private homes. The teachings of Christianity were a practice to be lived not a dogma, a way of life rather than a declaration. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, an official theology needed to be declared, official buildings needed to be erected to declare the glory of God and the glory of the empire. It was a compromise that made life easier for Christians but what I see as true Christianity harder to live. The focus went from people to institutions, from discipleship to membership, from way of life to declaration of creed and confession. Personally, I think the church—with the exception of a few revival/renewal movements—became shadow of what it was and was intended it to be.

I imagine some of you reading this are thinking, Yeah. Okay. Is that so bad? What would we do about it? I’m glad I assumed you asked. For the next several weeks, I’ll be writing about this very subject:

  • How do we create innovative ideas for people to grow instead of looking for ways to preserve the institutions we are part of?
  • How do we move from making church members to making disciples?
  • How do we move from defending creeds, declarations, and confessions to embracing a way of life?

Stay tuned. If we open our minds and hearts, I imagine this could be very interesting.

A Parable

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A certain Dreamer woke from a restless sleep of strange and uncomfortable visions. The visions were an odd assortment of images and scenes that seemed like lives lived by other people but through the Dreamer. Only one thing seemed to make any sense. As the man awoke, he saw a vision of light and heard these words, “Live the gospel.” While he wasn’t sure exactly what to do, he felt he must do something to heed the words of his vision.

As he began to wonder about the gospel and how to live it, he remembered several people, acquaintances really, who called themselves or were called by other people believers or followers of Jesus. While the man did not himself know how he might live out the gospel, perhaps one his acquaintances would. Making his mind up to answer the call in his vision, the Dreamer sought out the first of these people to learn from.

The first person was a righteous man. The righteous man greeted the Dreamer warmly and asked what he could do to help. The Dreamer told him of the vision and explained his desire to answer the vision’s call. The righteous man was overjoyed! He began to show the Dreamer many things from the bible and encouraged the Dreamer to learn the words by heart. The Dreamer was taught by the righteous man—on God’s behalf of course—that only by memorizing the words, knowing the rules, and believing the right ideas could he ever know the gospel. The Dreamer also had to learn that anyone who disagreed with the righteous man or his ideas was a heretic, an agnostic, an atheist, an apostate, and many other words that separated the righteous man from other ‘lesser’ believers.

The Dreamer felt something was wrong but did not know how to express this to the righteous man without loosing their friendship. One night as he slept, the man had another vision of the light and once more, it spoke to him.  “Seek the gospel.” The next day he told the righteous man about his vision and the man was insulted. Obviously, the Dreamer wasn’t listening to him because he had been telling him what the gospel was. The Dreamer was resisting the Spirit and the truth and not listening to what he had been taught. As he told the Dreamer the words, the Spirit spoke again to the Dreamer, “Seek the gospel.” With that he left the righteous man to his indignation.

The second person the Dreamer went to see was the scholar. The scholar listened to the Dreamer and when the story was told, the scholar went to his bookshelf and began getting materials together. He began explaining to the Dreamer that the key to the gospel was being able to properly define it in its time and its context. After all, if you can’t define the gospel by using the traditions, histories, creeds, and other interpretations, you can’t really know it. You will forever be talking about a thing you do not understand. The Dreamer read through book after book, one explanation after another, relating the history, nature of, power of the gospel to the point that he felt he was drowning in the information. As the scholar lectured, the Dreamer heard a familiar voice in his mind speak into his soul, “Seek the gospel.” Quietly, as the scholar wrote ancient words and quotes on a blackboard, the Dreamer slipped out of the classroom to continue his search.

Dejected, the Dreamer found himself wandering through the busy streets of town. All around there was the buzz of activity as business hawked their wares and restaurants sent the aroma of good food into the air. Near a coffee shop, the Dreamer saw a man sitting against the outside wall near the door. He was obviously homeless, a beggar trying to survive from one day to the next. A voice spoke to his heart and said, “Watch,” as a woman stepped out of the coffee shop. She walked up to the beggar and handed him a sandwich and a cup of coffee along with a small bag of food for later, She sat down next to him on the sidewalk and talked for a few minutes before leaning over to give him a hug and walking down the street. Intrigued, the Dreamer followed, and they walked to a thrift store. Inside, she changed into a smock and began sorting clothes into piles to be washed, picking her way through dirty, discarded garments and getting them ready to wash. When the clothes were sorted, she walked to the front of the store where she talked with a few of the customers inside, even paying for a few extra things for those who could not afford them.

Finally, the woman left and walked down the street to a hospice care home at the end of the road. The Dreamer walked in a stood just out of sight as the woman went to a cupboard and brought out a tea set for a group of ladies seated around a table. She mad tea and got out cookies to snack on as they sat and enjoyed their tea. When the tea was finished, the woman took out a book and began reading to the ladies. In all this, the woman was bringing warmth to their final days and moments in this life.

The voice rose up inside the Dreamer’s mind and heart and said, “This is gospel. The good news is not a thing to be believed but to be lived. Go and do likewise.”

Learning New Things

About a year and a half ago, I sent in a DNA sample to ancestry.com. The initial results came back and were not much of a surprise. It said I was mostly English/Norman French, a little Scots-Irish, and slight bit Norwegian. The thing about Ancestry and other companies that are engaged in this kind of work is that they are always updating their techniques and technology. The hope is that they have better diagnostic tools that can give more in-depth answers by digging deeper into the genetics.

On a whim, I decided the other day to check on my account and found that there had been some updates, big updates in fact. As of their best guess now, I am 59% English/Norman French, 24% Scottish, 7% Norwegian, 5% Swedish, 3% Welsh, and 2% Irish. For a guy that grew up being told his family was predominantly Irish, this was a bit of a surprise. This was a bit of a revelation to me as I never knew I had any Scandinavian blood and no idea that I had that much Scottish blood. For anyone other than me, this is a glut of boring, positively meaningless facts. But they are, to me, an explanation in part of the genetic makeup that is me.

All the test results aside, what fascinates me is that the results can change because there are better tools available to the scientists doing the testing. The newer tools at their disposal found certain genetic markers that would not have shown up in the past. These refinements allow for future testing to be even more accurate as the science continues to be refined and developed.

In much the same way, my faith has been refined through the years. While God is no different, my understanding of God and who God is and how I relate to God has changed considerably. First, it had to do with learning about the bible by being given certain tools like topical bibles and concordances to help me begin learning to study. As I learned more about these tools in college, I was also given other tools—books from noted scholars through the ages, and new ways of studying God and the bible. I began to accumulate more and more of these tools and then in seminary I acquired even more precise tools that helped me to learn things like biblical languages, historical context, cultural definition, and other means of study that speak to the bible and our understanding of God in both academic and personal ways.

In all of this I have discovered something very important: I don’t have God figured out and I never will. I daresay neither does or will anyone else for the simple reason that if their finite mind were able to understand the infinite God we claim our belief in, then God would no longer be infinite because we would have explained God. And a God that can be defined and figured out to that degree isn’t much of a God. When it comes to our advances in understanding the ancient text and culture it was written in, we find tools that have gotten better through the years—history, archaeology, anthropology, and other social sciences—and can now open the doors of understanding even wider. Yet even with all that, we are still as Paul says “seeing through a glass darkly” or in other words, seeing shadows of things but not the thing itself.

I thought about all this considering the passage from a week ago from Romans 14,

Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God. Because it is written,

As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

I say all that to simply say this: don’t be quick to pass judgement on what you think you know when none of us knows nearly enough. What might seem clear and direct to our understanding may not be so much so if we were better informed of had better tools to work with. Our experience may give us insight into our way of seeing but it cannot give us complete insight into all things otherwise, we’d be God. Be patient with those who disagree with you. Be encouraging to those who, like you are still walking their path on their journey. Be open to instruction from the Holy Spirit, even it means learning things you may not have always thought of in that way.