Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Advent 2

For the recap this week I am posting the following excerpt from an advent meditation fro Miroslav Volf. From this I quoted on Sunday. For discussion I suggest the following questions:

1. How does the Christian vision of hope differ from optimism or wishful thinking?

2. How might the knowledge that Christian hope is fundamentally different from "extrapolitve cause and effect thinking" make you think differently about your daily struggles with various temptations?

3.What sorts of disciplines can help you move the concept of hope from the realm of the abstract to a place deep within your heart - so that our hoped for future begins to impact more and more upon us in the present?

"Optimism is based on "extrapolative cause and effect thinking." We draw conclusions about the future on the basis of the experience with the past and present, guided by the belief that events can be explained as effects of previous causes. Since 'this' has happened, we conclude that 'that' is likely to happen. If an extrapolation is correct, optimism is grounded. Since my son Nathanael could pick up Little Bear and read it when he was in kindergarten, I could legitimately be optimistic that he would do reasonably well in the first grade. If extrapolation is incorrect, optimism is misplaced, illusory. Aaron, my two-year-old, is very good at throwing a ball. But it would be foolish for me to bet that he is likely to land a multimillion-dollar contract with a pro ball team and take care of my retirement. Our positive expectations of the future are based mostly on such extrapolative thinking. We see the orange glow on the horizon, and we expect that morning will be bathed in sunshine. Such informed, grounded optimism is important in our private and professional lives, for the functioning of families, economy and politics. But optimism is not hope. One of Moltmann's lasting contributions was to insist that hope, unlike optimism, is independent of people's circumstances. Hope is not based on the possibilities of the situation and on correct extrapolation about the future. Hope is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God's promise. And this brings me to the theme of Advent. Optimism is based on the possibilities of things as they have come to be (the future in this way is dependent on the past); hope is based on the possibilities of God irrespective of how things are. Hope can spring up even in the valley of the shadow of death; indeed, it is there that it becomes truly manifest. The figure of hope in the New Testament is Abraham, who hoped against all hope because he believed in the God "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom. 4:17-18). Hope thrives even in situations which, for extrapolative cause-and-effect thinking, can elicit only utter hopelessness. Why? Because hope is based on God's coming into the darkness to dispel it with divine light.

Every year in the Advent season we read the prophet Isaiah: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined" (Isa. 9:2). This is what Christmas is all about--something radically new that cannot be generated out of the conditions of this world. It does not emerge. It comes. We do not extrapolate it. God promises it." - Volf - for bib. cit. email me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Advent 1

Advent is a time where we practice expectant waiting. In our culture - we try not to wait and that can be a good thing much of the time. We are glad that technology has enabled us to do important things very quickly - and anyone who has been in the emergency room with a sick loved one or a sick oneself is glad if somehow one does not to wait at all and is quick to give thanks if that is the case. However, there is a kind of spiritual discipline that is a certain sort of waiting that helps us see God’s intentions for us and this his world - it is the sort of waiting that is picked up in the Scripture readings during Advent season.

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’

In the words of the prophet there are days to come where God will act powerfully to redeem as only he can and the words of the prophet taught God’s people to shape their lives around this expectant waiting on God.

It is the sort of waiting that recognizes that to name our need for God’s intervention in our world is preliminary to experiencing his saving power and might. Whether you are relatively affluent and powerful, or poor and power-less naming one’s need for God to act in the world in justice, peace, mercy and love is a spiritual discipline that is not recognized enough for its importance. There is a reason why these words of St. Augustine have echoed through time and have spoken so deeply to our human condition: “thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Recently I had a stomach virus - I was feeling really low and Palmer our three year old daughter brought me her little stuffed Lamb, Lamby, to comfort me and cheer me up. My wife Jill told me that Palmer was really concerned about me - she knew something was not right and that she wanted it to change. Whether you are a three year old daughter who wants her parent to be well, or the prodigal son in a far off country who one day wakes up to the fact that the brokenness in his life needs to be named so he can go back home, advent season reminds each of us to name the darkness and cry out to God for light.

Which is why the liturgy teaches us to pray in this way in advent season:
GOD of all nations: you spoke to Isaiah and you empowered him to speak welcome words of
peace and hope to the people in his time. We need to hear your word anew to us today as the
darkness of despair is still experienced wherever peace and hope is absent. Amen

Let us now come to the table that is God’s living promise that his light is shining and will shine forth until this world has been transformed into the world to come......

In the time that we have left in the homily I want to pick up again on our theme of expectant waiting but I want to think about how it speaks to our life together in the community of the local church - these remarks also serve to round out our homily series we called growing pains where we have been thinking together about what it means to be the church together. But first I want to think with you a little bit more about the grace that comes to us through cultivating the expectant hope of which we have been speaking. As we have mentioned, advent presupposes something about us that we are not anxious to admit. Advent presupposes that we are not what we ought to be. I know you are saying tell me something I don’t already know! Well here is something you may know a bit but need to be reminded of; the confession of waiting and the discipline of hope is part of the means to becoming more of who God intends you to be. It is not true that God expects you to change in an instant to become all of who he wants you to be. It is through naming the darkness where you want him to shine his light - naming it over and over again as often as you recognize it which is the process that God indicates will make a life full of meaning, a life of redemption. There is a stark difference between looking at the darkness in your own life and in the world around you and singing come thou long expected Jesus and/vs. refusing to acknowledge the darkness for what it is. One who claims rather loudly that everything is really OK when it is not is, whether he knows it or not, trying to block God’s light. There is also a world of difference between recognizing the darkness for what it is, calling upon God to shine the light of the gospel into the darkness, and the way we sometimes castigate ourselves for not being as aglow as we feel we ought to be at any given time. I’ll say it again. Waiting and hoping is a means of grace all on its own. Waiting and hoping are necessary on the way to arrival; they are not to be despised but to be cherished as reminders of our identity as the children of God who are to stay alert and wait for the son of man to come in his glory.

Now I want to think about how these themes speak to our life together in the community of Grace Chicago Church. The grace that comes to us from cultivating the discipline of expectant longing reminds us that making our confession that we are not yet who we should be as individuals has a corollary in the life of the church community. Our Grace Chicago Church community has not arrived at a place where we are all of what we should be; and just like there is a means of grace in admitting this as persons there is a means of grace to confessing this as a church. In order to get what God wants us to get from him we need to cultivate the humble posture of expectant longing together as the imperfect yet hopeful people of Christ’s church. However, there is a tendency sometimes to say give me Jesus apart from the church and that is all I need. In a homily Samuel Wells preached at the Duke Divinity School Chapel, he remarked: “We’d all like to have perfect leaders, perfect theologians, perfect disciples alongside us and around us and ahead of us. But in founding his legacy on Peter, Jesus did not give us perfection, he gave us church. And church means facing up every day to the way we’ve failed God, failed one another, and failed ourselves. Church means walking everyday the path of passion, cross, resurrection, and exaltation. Church means getting up everyday and saying Well, you’re not the pastor, the teacher, the friend, the spouse, the home group leaders..... the boss, the daughter, the son I thought I wanted. You’re not perfect but then I suppose neither am I. This is not a perfection that doesn’t need Jesus. This is church, which needs Jesus every way every day. No Jesus without the church - no church without Jesus..... The Jesus we create without the church is a fantasy... the church we create without Jesus is a monster.” (from a sermon at Duke Divinity School Chapel)

The expectant waiting that we are taught to cultivate during advent is more like the kind of waiting that accompanies making a very good roux for gumbo - rush it and your gumbo lacks depth of flavor and proper consistency - can’t relate to making gumbo? Well, it is also like the sort of waiting that goes into waiting for a friendship to develop over time - you may think to yourself I really want to say such and such to someone and then you realize that it would be better to wait for a better time to say it - a time when the relationship can bear the weight of those words whatever they may be. So, as Grace Chicago Church we confess we are not yet who we will be but we will live patiently and expectantly with each other in community along the way, naming our need for God’s grace with each other, holding each other accountable to be
alert at all times because God is at work to bring his light into our darkness.

1. Do you sometimes say to yourself give me Jesus without the church? What is Wells saying about how God works in the world and in our lives in regard to Christian community? Why is it so important to say, "No Jesus Without the Church"? Why is it so important to say, "No Church Without Jesus"?

2. Why is it so important to acknowledge that God does not expect you to be all of who he intends you to be right away? How does this realization fit into your desire to change and grow. Does this realization mean that you can "be lazy"?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christ The King Sunday

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all
things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of
lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided
and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together
under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This week we celebrated Christ the King Sunday, focusing on the passage from Colossians 1 where Paul talks about Christ’s reign over the entire universe. In this passage Jesus is portrayed as the firstborn of all creation and the firstborn of the dead. When Paul speaks of Jesus in this way he gives us a clue as to how he thinks about the relationship between creation and new creation. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are for the purpose of a new creation and for the redemption of humankind. This, as much as anything, is what Christ’s kingly rule consists of: the restoration of the world and those in his image to a state of redemption, a state of flourishing. This great theological truth offers a plethora of applications; we chose to focus on how this passage speaks to Christ’s taking our enemies on as his own and soundly defeating them.

When the Heidelberg Catechism takes up the portion of the Apostle’s Creed that pertains to Christ’s kingly rule it asks these questions and offers these answers.

Q. How does Christ's ascension to heaven benefit us?
A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our flesh as a full guarantee in heaven that Christ our head, will also take us, his members up to himself. Third, he sends us, as a guarantee on earth, his Spirit by whose power we seek what is above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God, and not things that are on earth.
Q. Why the next words: "and sits at the right hand of God"?
A. Christ ascended to heaven so that he might show there that he is head of his church, and that the Father rules all things through him.
Q. How does this glory of Christ our head benefit us?
A. First, through his Holy Spirit he pours out his gifts from heaven upon us his members. Second, by his power he defends us and keeps us safe from all enemies.

Christ’s declaration of all of our enemies to be his own leads us to conclude quite preciously that his love burns hottest in and around us when we are at risk. We are at risk whenever we are in the throes of temptation or in the aftermath of our sin. In the instance of temptation, Christ is present and offers himself as our support. Over time we learn to turn to him more and more for his strength as his love and acceptance of us becomes more deeply real to us. And when we sin, Christ is there to forgive us and to reestablish us in our identity as those who belong to him. In both of the above circumstances Christ is standing between us and our enemies. In the instance of temptation he is standing in judgment of the potential sin, offering us help and desiring to separate us from it. In the instance of the aftermath of our sin he separates us from our sin through forgiving us and reminding us that the story of our life is not stitched to the sin we have committed but instead is woven into the story of his life, death and resurrection.

1. In the worship service we talked about God’s affection for us as total human beings. He does not just love us out of obligation but delights in us as his children. Is it hard for you to think of God “liking” you in this way?

2. What sorts of things can you do to help yourself believe more deeply in Christ’s role as your protector?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

growing pains part 3 coming to terms with money (2)

We talked about money again this Sunday. Last week I talked a good bit about why it is hard for ministers to speak about money (see last week’s recap). This week we looked again at the passage from 2 Corinthians 8, where Paul is exhorting the relatively affluent church at Corinth to make a gift to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. In this passage Paul urges the Corinthians to give generously so that there would be a fair balance between their relative wealth and their sister church’s relative poverty. Here is how he makes his case: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.’” In my opinion, what is really remarkable about this passage is that Paul cites a passage from Exodus 18 (the one who had much did not have too much, etc), where Moses is describing the collection of Manna, as the example the Corinthians should look to as they consider the needs of the poor in Jerusalem. I suggest that there is more that is going on here than Paul simply looking for an example from the OT that makes for a good quote. I think Paul is pointing to God’s sustenance of his people in the wilderness as a picture of the economy of the world to come. Free from the perils of living in a fallen world the economy of the new heavens and the new earth will also be free of scarce resources; abundance will be for everyone but more importantly no one will be in need. From a progress-of-redemption point of view, Paul is saying to us that the new community that is being formed around the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the church, is to offer foretastes of the economy of the world to come in our response to the profound needs of those who have little or nothing in comparison to us. When the people of the church operate in this way we help bring to pass what Jesus says is to be one of the fruits of his mission - to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4).

Summing things up: it behooves us to take care that we see our relationship to money as an aspect of our progressive sanctification. Just as we continue to struggle with the presence of sin in our experience of ourselves and those around us, we will also continue to struggle with making good decisions about how to deal with money. My wife, Jill, and I are constantly re-evaluating our budget as we sort through the choices we make regarding the needs of the poor, the needs of the church, our daughter’s schooling, where we live, what sort of vacation we take, what our entertainment budget should be - believe me, we know how complicated all of this is. I think the most important thing is that we discipline ourselves to bring this part of our life - just as we find need to regularly bring our pride, lust, etc. - to God on a regular basis and ask him for wisdom to know how to reflect Jesus’ self-giving love in our approach to money.

1. Do you think of your giving as providing for this fallen world a picture of what God promises for the world to come? If not, do you think this perspective could help you think about your relationship to money and time in a refreshing way?

2. Is it helpful for you to think about your relationship to money as but one aspect of your progressive sanctification? Does this give you permission to be at once more honest and more hopeful with yourself about struggles you may have in that arena?

3. It is a commonplace for ministers to suggest that people who do not give enough may be living a compromised life with God and their neighbor. What are some other incredibly important questions we should be asking ourselves about our relationship to money? Can you give some examples?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Growing Pains 2 - coming to terms with money

This week in our “Growing Pains Series” we took up the issue of money. Preachers by and large (and I include myself in this) almost always feel awkward when talking about money in sermons. I think I know why. It has become part of the culture of Christian churches in the US (and maybe elsewhere) to talk about money once a year when it becomes obvious that more donations are needed to make the budget. Invariably, the preacher looks to texts that have to do with money and giving in the New Testament and then strains to make them work as a motivation for the people of the church to give more to the church. The problem with this is that most of the exhortations around giving money to the church in the New Testament have to do with specific situations of need, often associated with the needs of the poor. For example. the passages so often used in sermons on giving to the church are taken from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 in which Paul expends and impressive amount of words about the profound needs of the impoverished church in Jerusalem. It is quite likely that the greater portion of the money would be used to help the poor in the church.

Further complicating the matter for preachers in our contemporary setting is the fact that there is no such thing as a church institution in the New Testament that looks like what we have today - with a professional clergy, paid staff, buildings to maintain, space to rent, etc. Moreover there is no specific language in the New Testament that would easily translate into an admonition for people to give 10% of their income to the “budget” of the local church. Having said that it should also be noted that it is not unlikely that many in the New Testament church community gave quite a bit more than 10 percent to help with the needs of the poor and the ongoing support of the apostles and their ministry. The problem is that we don’t know exactly what all of this looked like so it is just hard to make specific applications from that world to ours.

What is clear from the teaching of Jesus and the early church leaders is that the money and material resources of Jesus’ followers were to be available for the work of God’s kingdom and, in particular, the needs of the poor. Part of Jesus’ fulfillment of the words of the prophet - I have come to preach good news to the poor (Luke 4) - would come to fulfillment through God’s spirit creating a new humanity of people who looked not their own interests but the interests of others (Philippians 2). Through the new birth the Christian is awakened to a life of liberation from the being a slave of Mammon and is made free to serve God and meet the needs of their neighbors Mathew 6). The Christian’s relationship to money points to God’s economy in the world to come in that she comes to view her wealth not first by what she craves that she does not have but according to the needs of those around her (consider Barnabas an example of this when he liquidates assets for the good of the community - Acts 4).

Questions for discussion:

1. What sort of thought process do you use to help you think about how much you should give to the needs of others? Do you set a % and let it go at that? If you do, is that a good idea?

2. Giving to the needs of the poor is different in our cultural setting. How do go about giving to the needs of the poor?

3. Is it an imperative for all Christians to live simply and say no to some or all luxuries? How do you decide what a luxury is? What about the person who has a person on staff taking care of her home who hears a sermon on simplifying her life that causes her to dismiss her staff person simply because she feels it is a luxury she should not have but one she can responsibly afford - thereby making her employee unemployed. Was that a wise and loving move?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Growing Pains (Part 1)

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Meditation Leading Into Communion:

I was talking recently to three friends on three separate occasions about how difficult and messy it is to navigate complicated family relationships. It got me to thinking about how sometimes situations arise in families where there is hurt and conflict and so many people have contributed to the hurt and conflict that no one can imagine how there can really be a way forward - too many sins of omission, too many sins of commission, too many people involved with culpability, too complicated to unravel. There are no neat and tidy one size fits all pieces of advice to give regarding big messes like these, but what has impressed me over the years is how God can come into situations like these and bring a measure of reconciliation and redemption. It usually begins to happen when at least one person - but often just one person - begins to regard his or her identity in Christ as more important than things like his or her reputation, or claim to be right or to know what’s best for everyone else. What I mean by the person regarding his or her identity in Christ as more important that everything else is not a concept of union with Christ but a dynamic sharing in Christ’s suffering in the family. To embody the sufferings of Christ in and with the family also brings the hope of resurrection and newness of life (we die with Christ and we live with him). Let’s offer an example that I have pieced together which has elements of at least half a dozen situations I have had the privilege of being involved with over the years; the example is historical fiction you might say. Let’s say that Anastasia is one of several siblings and that she has given some great offence to the family and that everyone is mad at her. Dad is as distant as ever, Mom has written her off and has nothing to say to her that is not criticism. Then let’s say that one of her siblings - the one who always seems like she has everything together and is the star of the family - comes to her and shares her own secret weaknesses with Anastasia in a way that makes it clear that she does not see herself on another plane but sees herself as one who struggles deeply with her own brokenness, though privately and and invisibly. Then suppose that same sister makes it clear that she has bound herself to Anastasia in unconditional love while at the same time continuing to love and respect the rest of the family. She makes this obvious by steadily respecting Anastasia in the presence of those who do not and by actively seeking her out to run errands, do projects and the like. Anastasia’s sister has drawn near to Anastasia by sharing in Christ’s suffering with the family. When one embodies Christ’s redemptive suffering in this way the possibility of future redemption and peace is greater than it was before.

Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil* the law of Christ.”


We are beginning today a series of homilies that we are calling growing pains. We will be considering together examples of difficult and challenging situations that the early church faced as depicted in the New Testament. As we do this we will see how God’s spirit worked in the midst of the difficult situations to (a) enable the community to acknowledge the difficulty for what it was instead of papering over it, (b) enable the leaders to address the situation in a way that brought the community to a place of greater flourishing and (c) bring about a result that helped the church move forward in growth.

This morning we come to the situation that is recounted in Acts 6. The situation is this: the church at Jerusalem was made up mainly of converts from Judaism. In this early Christian community in Jerusalem the majority ethnic group that was in charge of the church was ethnically Hebrew. They spoke Aramaic. The minority group within the church community was made up of Greek speaking Jews. Here is the growing pain that they experienced. The Greek speaking widows within the community were being excluded from the daily provision of food. The Greek speaking Jews complained to the leadership and the result was that the ethnic majority group acknowledged the problem for what it was and appointed seven Greek speaking Jewish converts to come and share in the leadership in order to ensure that the Greek speaking widows were not overlooked.

The first thing I want to note about this crisis is simply the obvious - that it happened. Church is a place where imperfect people are in leadership and sometimes under their watch they make mistakes. In this instance the leadership did not care properly for a very vulnerable group of people, widows of an ethnic minority in their midst. The solution was to acknowledge the problem for what it was and seek God’s guidance to fix it.

The second thing I want to note about this story is that there were people in the church who were upset with other people in the church and in this case rightly so! However, according to the account that Luke gives us of this situation, we are stunned to see that instead of a schism there is a time of refreshing that is brought by the Holy Spirit. Students of Luke-Acts have noted that the movement of Jesus’ mission forward, the advancement of the kingdom, the growth of the early church is the work of the Holy Spirit. In times of crisis it is the Holy Spirit who intervenes and brings growth. One of the marks of the Holy Spirit’s intervention is that he turns people away from their own interests and turns them towards the needs of others. Previously in Acts this is seen in the dramatic redistribution of wealth within the church; here it is seen in the giving over/sharing of power and leadership to the ethnic minority of Greek-speaking Jews. Those marked by the Spirit are those who are can bring reconciliation between two groups who, because of the brokenness of this fallen world, would have reason to be suspicious and resentful of each other. Again and again the Spirit shows his work in the community by enabling certain people to regard the good of the other as more important than his or her own.

What is there for Grace Chicago in all of this? Well, we don’t know - that I am aware of anyway - of a situation in our church community where there is the sort of grave neglect going that was happening to the widows in Acts 6. But if you think I am wrong about that and you know of something I would like you tell me. What does come to my mind and heart regarding what the Spirit may have for us in this story is something like this: at this stage of the growth of Grace Chicago Church each of us ought to take stock of our relationship to the church community and ask ourselves questions like these:

1. Do we regard the work of Christ in the local church community as important enough to vest ourselves meaningfully in the community? In the story before us in Acts 6 everyone involved was fully vested and the whole community was pleased with how the crisis was addressed. Are we vested like that at Grace?
2. Do we recognize hurtful situations in the church where we perceive ourselves to be wronged by another member as an opportunity for healing and reconciliation, or do we turn back into ourselves and our natural friendships and refuse to let Christ's love work on our wounds? Note that many priests turned to Jesus after this crisis - the very group that had the most to lose by subordinating their ethnic identity to Christ.
3. Do we have a high enough view of what God is doing in the world through the gospel at work in the local church to commit ourselves to the unity and flourishing of Grace Chicago Church and to put ourselves in situations where we can bear each other’s burdens? Do we see the church community as the new humanity that Christ is forming where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male and female but where all are one in Christ Jesus?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

rescue us from evil

In the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he tells us to pray that we will not be brought to the time of trial and that we be rescued from the evil one. With regard to being delivered from trials: it is clear that Jesus regarded his entire mission as full of trials and identifies his followers as those who share in his trials (e.g. Luke 22:24-34), those who stand by him in his trials. Also, Saint Paul pictures the church’s ongoing ministry as sharing in the sufferings of Christ, saying mysteriously that his ministry in the church (a type of all those who co-labor) makes up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions ( Colossians 1). It would be impossible then for Jesus to have in mind that we should pray in such a way that we imagine our life can be free of trials. Indeed, I submit that the case is quite the opposite. To follow Jesus is to be in one trial after another. Most likely what is meant here is that we are to pray about our lives and our sharing in Christ’s mission with the real world full of trials and tribulations in full view - not to shy away from them. For, the one whose life is hidden in God with Christ has the courage and clear vision to see just how bad things really are. In this sense we are in a unique position to give the world a gift that, though it might not want, it needs: a diagnosis of what is wrong in the world. Christians, because of our great confidence in God’s judgment of evil and our sin on the cross, have the courage and vision to name evil for what it is when it is at work in ourselves or in the world. However, because we are Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation, we must be careful to not only name evil but to simultaneously proclaim the good news of the gospel. Moreover, it is not permitted for the Christian to demonize those who do evil things for we are all in the same boat on that one.

So, I am suggesting that the following exhortation flows from our understanding of what is at the heart of this petition regarding trials and deliverance from evil: we are to ask God to help us remain in the power of his victory over evil in the midst of trials and temptations. This must be some of what Jesus had in his mind and heart when he honored his disciples by naming them as those who have stood with him in the midst of his trials while knowing well that they would also be unfaithful to him in his great trial!! Peter, of course, becomes the example of the one who stands with Jesus and also denies Jesus. In this way he is a type of every Christian person; and when we think of the words of the Lord’s prayer in light of Peter as typical of you and me - one who both shares in Jesus’ mission and his trials and one who fails Jesus - it helps us get the right perspective on what we are to ask in faith and hope when we ask to be delivered from the evil one and from the time of trial. We pray these words on the other side of Christ’s victory over evil on the cross; we pray these words on the other side of Jesus’ praying for Peter to turn back and strengthen his fellow disciples; we live on the other side of Jesus’ being faithful in the midst of his great trial in the garden when he prays that God’s will be done even as he struggles with the trial of the prospect of death on the cross; we live on the other side of the resurrection, the victory of God over evil as shown in Jesus’ human resurrection, the first fruits of the new creation.

In the words of N.T. Wright, “To pray deliver us from the evil one is to inhale the victory of the cross and thereby to hold the line for another moment, another hour, another day, against the forces of destruction within ourselves and the world....”

This thought of praying these words as inhaling the victory of the cross will have as many different sorts of applications as there are people in this room but one way I think of it is a call to turn from despair to hope. Think of Peter again. He renounces and denies Jesus in his greatest trial and yet is personally restored to a hopeful future of sharing in Jesus’ mission. We are reminded in all of this that inhaling the victory of the cross is to deal seriously with our sins and failures but only as we invoke the power of the cross and God’s forgiveness. We get it wrong a great deal and imagine that our failures in and of themselves are what God is looking at and what is defining us. But there is no room in following Jesus in this world to say I am defined by sins and failures; there is only room for the joy of repentance and a confident hope that God’s kingdom will come and his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. When we live this way with one another we keep each other focused on the gospel and continue to bear hopeful witness to a world so broken and fractured that it is often afraid to assess evil for what it is.

1. Do you think of the victory of the cross as always with you, ready to be "inhaled"? What sorts of mundane practices could you deepen or add to your routines that would help you to live closer to the victory of God in the cross of Christ?

2. Do you agree that the message of hope is always on offer in the gospel, even (especially) when we have done our worst? How can you help others who are a part of your life appreciate this more deeply?

3. The evangelical world is fond of point out evil in the culture at large but often in a way that demonizes those outside of its folds. What sorts of things should the church say and do in its prophetic voice but in a way that communicates hope?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Question Will Be: Have you shown mercy!?

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus
Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of
everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the
day of the Lord's resurrection, may be raised from the death
of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, now and for ever. Amen.

Last week we talked a good bit about forgiveness being God’s work through and through. Additionally, we noted the mysterious way in which Scripture points to God’s passion to redeem and to reconcile - not as an afterthought put into play after creation goes wrong and sin enters in - but as an aspect of God’s love for the world that preceded creation. One of the reasons why I am urging us to get as clear as we can get regarding forgiveness being all God’s work, a matter settled before the foundation of the world, is to safeguard us from running amok in our thinking about what goes on when we repent Our repentance does not put God in a new posture of wanting to forgive us. Moreover, our repentance does not earn us forgiveness. Our faithful repentance brings us into union with Christ’s death and deepens our participation in God’s redemptive work in our lives and in the world. Through repentance we die to our efforts at self-justification and autonomy; we die to our arms crossed posture that separates us from God and his nurturing love; we die to our identities as people who are either too proud of or too disgusted with our selves to accept God’s forgiveness. When we repent we take God’s judgment on our sins as being the true picture of what we have done while simultaneously taking God’s word that Christ has taken that judgment into himself - divine wrath is absorbed by divine mercy It is there, where God’s justice and mercy meet in the passion of Jesus’ sacrificial death that we have the promise of our forgiveness even as our sins come under God’s judgment.

This picture of sharing in Christ’s death is sometimes referred to by theologians as inclusive substitution. Here is a helpful and very brief summary of that doctrine taken from Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge, Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace: “Writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul made a puzzling statement about Christ’s death: “One has died for all”, he wrote, “therefore all have died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Since Christ is our substitute, after reading, “one has died for all”, we’d expect him to continue, “therefore none of them needs to die”. Had he written that, he would have expressed the idea that theologians call exclusive substitution. According to this view, Christ’s death makes ours unnecessary. As a third party, he is our substitute, and his death is his alone and no one else’s. But that is not the way the Apostle thought. Christ’s death does not replace our death. It enacts it, he suggested. That’s what theologians call inclusive substitution. Because one has died, all have died. As a substitute he was not a third party. His death is inclusive of all.... what happened to him happened to us. When he was condemned we were condemned. When he died, we died. We were included in his death. John Donne put it this way in his ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’: “We think that Paradise and Calvary, / Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree stood in one place’. To be in Christ means that the tree from which Adam took forbidden fruit and the cross on which Christ died stood in one place, that the old self - the old Adam - died when Christ died (Volf, Free of Charge, pp. 147-148).”

Finally on Sunday we brought all of this talk of forgiveness around to Jesus’ challenging words in the Lord’s prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We also had the reading from Matthew 18, a parable that Jesus told about the importance of showing mercy to others as God has shown mercy to us. What Jesus is talking about here, for lack of a better word, is the “social” aspect of God’s redemptive work in the world, and his command that we be involved in this aspect of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself. This “social” aspect of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself is terribly neglected in certain quarters of the Christian world. Here are some remarks by Volf on this aspect of God’s forgiveness:

“We cannot be fully saved unless we are reconciled—not only with God but with each other. From this it follows that the undiluted experience of salvation in the world to come must include social reconciliation. Isn't it enough, though, for God simply to give us eternal life and a completely fresh start after freeing us from the desire to sin?When I was a teenager, a popular preacher used to illustrate what happens at conversion by using the image of a new page. When he was a boy (in a time before delete buttons and ballpoint pens), the preacher said, he could never write out a whole page without making a mistake or spilling ink. He was troubled by the mess he kept making and would always be relieved when he could turn to a new page and start afresh. This is, he said, what Christ offers to us—a fresh start. And this is what heaven will be like—our mistakes will be gone and we will be given a fresh start in such a way that from then on we will always write flawlessly.But that is not quite right. Heaven is more than just a fresh start. It is more than just the creation of a new future. It is also redemption of yesterday, today, and tomorrow—redemption of our whole lived life. Heaven is having had your messy pages made clean and right again. Apply this now to the wrongdoings we commit against each other—a majority of our sins. If the past, which is suffused with enmity, is to be redeemed, it is not enough for us to be given a fresh start. Our relationships will have to be restored. Hence the final social reconciliation of those who died unreconciled must be part of the transition from the present world to the world to come.” Here is the link to the article from which this quote was taken: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/october23/7.94.html

Questions for discussion:

1. Does Volf’s discussion of inclusive substitution stimulate your thinking about your repentance? Do you think of repentance as something you do to earn God’s forgiveness? What other erroneous versions of God’s repentance do you sometimes drift into? Why do you think it is so hard to think clearly about this subject?

2. Are you offended by Jesus’ requirement that you forgive those who sin against you? Can you think of someone you have not forgiven that you need to forgive for something? How should you proceed to address the issue of forgiving those who have sinned against you? Are there ways to proceed that would be dangerous and wrong for you to undertake? If so, how can you address the issue of forgiving the person within boundaries of safety for yourself?

3. How does the notion of redemption being about our entire lived lives strike you? Does that sound good or would you prefer the blank slate that Volf critiques above? What difference could it make in your life if you thought of your redemption as a redemption of your entire life, including relationships with others?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Forgiven Before The Foundation of the World

We returned this week to our meditation on the Lord’s prayer. We mentioned earlier in this series that this prayer reminds us that we are vulnerable creatures who have all sorts of needs whether we will admit those needs are not. Not admitting that we have certain needs gets us into all sorts of trouble but we stubbornly cling to all kinds of defense strategies in order to make it seem as if we don’t have as many needs as we have. For the sake of discussion, let’s just call this a kind of self-sufficiency. I am fully aware that most of us would proclaim adamantly that we do not try to present ourselves as being self-sufficient but I think we behave that way in spite of ourselves, and proclaim loudly that we are not because we know that it is wrong for Christians to present themselves as self-sufficient. It is one thing to take care of your needs and not be overly burdensome upon others but if we pretend we don’t have needs when we do we end up in a precarious position.

One of the bold assertions of the gospel and it is seen clearly in this prayer is that each of us is a person who has a basic human need to be forgiven. That may sound pretty old fashioned to some of you but I would suggest that if you just look around at the world you will see a pretty dramatic need for forgiveness as people continue to wrong each other, demonize each other, hurt each other and often kill each other. I would say that the human need for forgiveness is just as alive today as ever before. Moreover, the gospel, and this prayer, make it clear that you can’t have talk about forgiveness among human beings on that plane unless you talk about the human need to be forgiven by God (the prayer also makes it clear that you can’t have talk about forgiveness from God without acknowledging that his forgiveness is always intended to bear the fruit of forgiveness in the person who is forgiven - we’ll talk about that next week).

There is a lot of confusion about God’s forgiveness and I am sure I am confused about it too. There is a lot of mystery in the air when anyone starts talking about God’s forgiveness in Christ because relevant questions about, among other things, divine foreknowledge and human responsibility come up quickly. Even though all of our theological reflection is provisional because of our limitations I do think it is helpful to try our best to flesh out some theological thoughts about God’s forgiveness. Among some other questions we asked on Sunday was this one: does God forgive before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). If so, what difference does it make?

Miroslav Volf, along with many other theologians suggests that God does forgive before the foundation of the world. “God decided to redeem the world of sin before the Creator could lay its foundations. Each of us exists because the gift of life rests on the gift of forgiveness (Volf).” Put another way, the same love with which God created the world is the same love that drives him to redeem that which he created. Forgiveness for God is not so much a response once creation has gone wrong as it is an expression of the creator’s love from the beginning, mysteriously woven into the fabric of the universe. Or, to put it another way still, where God’s love is there is always forgiveness.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you know of aspects of your life wherein you give the impression to others and maybe to yourself that you don’t have needs when you do? What drives this in you? Where does it come from? What can you do to change and acknowledge your vulnerability.

2. Do you often think of asking forgiveness as a response to a gracious command? Does thinking of it this way encourage you or not? Explain.

3. When you think about the possibility that God was thinking in a forgiving way before he ever created make you think about God’s character in a way that is different than you, perhaps, have in the past? Put in your own words what you think about the suggestion that God forgives before the foundation of the world.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Seeing the World Through The Eyes Of God

This Sunday, our Pastoral Intern, Tim Bowyer, urged us to see in the sacrament of communion a startling reality, a face to face encounter with God. Drawing on the important work of theologian, David Ford, Tim helped us to draw on the many rich metaphors from Scripture of salvation in the face of God. Maybe, Tim will post his notes here soon.... I’ll ask him. Tim, are you reading this?

God is always facing us and he is always inviting us, even to the point of wrestling us, to turn our face towards him. This is the way God is. He is always facing every human being made in his image and inviting her or him to be fully alive, to flourish as a human being. In spite of our wrestling to turn our faces away from God, his gaze is always there on us, wishing to impart love and forgiveness to us. We are the bearers of his image and he has attached himself to us in love and hospitality.

This is an important thing for us to keep in mind as we think about the meaning of these words of the Lord’s prayer: your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. These words are to meant to be a petition on behalf of all of humanity - an agonizing cry for each human being made in God’s image to be made fully alive to God’s love and forgiveness. And when we remember that this is what we are praying and not just for ourselves or our churches but for all human beings in all circumstances - well, that begins to help us see the world a little bit more as God sees the world and a little less like we would see it if left to our fears, our prejudices, our self-righteousness, and our pure selfishness.

When we think of this petition in this way then we pray for and give thanks for human flourishing in all of its manifestations. We pray for all people to come to know and experience the love that Christ has shown for us and we will also pray for our Muslim neighbors to enjoy the same freedom of worship that we do. We pray for the child soldiers in Sudan - that they come alive to God’s love and grace in Christ and we pray that the efforts to bring psychological healing to their trauma will bear much fruit whether that care comes from a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew or an atheist. The prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven is a prayer for the coming of shalom on this earth, a state of peace between human beings and each other and human beings and God; in the world to come the peace between people and each other and people and God will be in full fruition because, to quote St Paul, Christ will be all in all. However, in order to represent God as generously as he represents himself in this in-between-time some Christians, most Christians, you and I must repent of reducing our understanding of human flourishing in this fallen world to a matter of already actualized conversion to Christ. We must pray for human flourishing to come in all of its forms and celebrate it wherever it occurs and mourn it whenever it is absent.

In speaking to a group of Bishops of the Anglican church in Africa last month, Rowan Williams , archbishop of Canterbury said this in his homily of the role of a bishop and I think it is in a sense the place where all Christ followers should want to stand: “We have the responsibility brothers and sisters of showing the world how precious a thing is a human being – and a special responsibility to show the world the preciousness of those who are hated or neglected by others or by society at large.”

When we the affections of our heart are shaped by daily praying for others to come to understand how precious they are in God’s sight we are praying in line with the Lord’s prayer: your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Questions for discussion:

1. Respond to the Williams quote above. Can you think of one person you know who you ought to help understand more fully what a “precious thing it is to be a human being”? If not too personal, can you share a bit with the group?

2. During the remarks leading into communion, Tim Bowyer, drawing on David Ford’s work, invoked the story of Jacob and the angel. Do you ever sense that you are wrestling with God? Do you think that wrestling with God is a normal part of a healthy relationship with God?

3. "Salvation in the face of God": what a wonderful metaphor. Why and how is it helpful to think of our relationship with God in metaphors?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God in whose image?

What is below is really only a partial recap of the homily. I have intentionally left for next week the discussion of God’s power with regard to the phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come”. Stay tuned.....!

This past week, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an essay entitled, The Gospel of Wealth. In typical Brooks style he employs his sarcastic wit to critique what he thinks is a malaise of our day: the lack of ability to restrain ourselves from being addicted to the more and the bigger - a refusal to never be content (my words not his). But here are his: “Maybe the first decade of the 21st century will come to be known as the great age of headroom. During those years, new houses had great rooms with 20-foot ceilings and entire new art forms had to be invented to fill the acres of empty overhead wall space. People bought bulbous vehicles like Hummers and Suburbans. The rule was, The Smaller the Woman, the Bigger the Car — so you would see a 90-pound lady in tennis whites driving a 4-ton truck with enough headroom to allow her to drive with her doubles partner perched atop her shoulders. When future archaeologists dig up the remains of that epoch, they will likely conclude that sometime around 1996, the U.S. was afflicted by a plague of claustrophobia and drove itself bankrupt in search of relief.”

Interestingly, Brooks’ jumping off point for this particular column is his acquaintance with the writing of a young Southern Baptism Minister from Alabama, called David Platt. In his book, “Radical: Taking Back your Faith From the American Dream”, Brooks notes that Platt critiques certain quarters of the Christian church in America for their complicity in idolatrous materialism.... and the first target is the megachurch itself. “Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity. Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude. “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”

I am grateful for Brooks’ calling attention to the issue and doing so within an essay where Jesus is referred to as one who can give wisdom to those who are guided by the idolatry of materialism. Critiques of excesses within any culture, though, can come easy. Offering a way forward is the tricky part. Brooks calls for a recalibration toward moderation, and identifies prophetic voices such as Platt’s as a constructive influence. Brooks finishes: “The United States once had a Gospel of Wealth: a code of restraint shaped by everybody from Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie. The code was designed to help the nation cope with its own affluence. It eroded, and over the next few years, it will be redefined.”

I thought about Brooks’ essay on and off all week as I thought about the gospel in preparation for this Sunday’s homily. It occurred to me that the question that is looming behind sweeping cultural critiques such as Brooks’, regardless of how spot-on the critique, is what constitutes a life well lived? A life well lived, according to the gospel, is a life of human flourishing, or to use the words of a leader within the early church, Iranaeus, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”. What does human flourishing look like with regard to the concerns that Brooks has raised? Well, human flourishing is not guaranteed by Hummers and MacMansions (and is made arguably harder when cluttered with such “things”), but human flourishing is neither defined by an ascetic lifestyle on the one hand, or unintentional poverty on the other. Nor am I persuaded that human flourishing is fostered as deeply as God intends by adhering to any “code of restraint” that is inherently dependant on rationalistic assertions about the good of society, etc.

I suggest that we become more fully alive when we learn to imitate God’s generosity in ways that reflect thoughtful and intentional sacrifice on our part. Our capacity for imitation of God, however, is complicated by our love of making God in our own image. One of John Calvin’s great insights was that knowledge of self could only grow truthfully when one had a proper knowledge of God. The greater the knowledge of God, the greater one can know oneself with reference to who one is and who one wishes to become. So far so good but Calvin pointed out that the grim problem in all of this is that we don’t have a proper knowledge of God on our own; on our own our hearts are idol factories, bent on making God in our own image. Princeton theologian, Daniel Migliore, puts it this way: Calvin’s insight.... “exposes a secret we would rather keep hidden. All knowledge of God, like other kinds of knowledge, is colored by our personal interests or those of the group to which we belong. We usually have no difficulty seeing this process at work in other people..... More difficult to detect, however, are the ways in which our own thinking and acting, in matters of religion or otherwise, are influenced by our own economic and social interests or those of our own community. If we are beneficiaries of the present social order, we are likely to uphold it and resist any significant changes (from the Power of God and the gods of Power)”.

So, to imitate God’s generosity requires a refreshing of our imaginations and a turning of our hearts - a conversion of our imaginations fueled from the regular and disciplined worship of the God who reveals his power and wealth in giving himself away (Philippians 2:1-11). What is needed in our lives and in our culture is not merely a code of restraint but a repentant response to the generosity of God in Christ, coupled by a life-style of sacrificial generosity, especially to those who have less than we do. The gospel cure for materialism is not a formula but a disciplined moment-by-moment, spirit empowered response to God’s generosity. In this vein of thinking, there is a striking parallel between the cure for promiscuity and the cure for materialism, two of the worst enemies of human flourishing in our time. The cure for promiscuity comes when a person’s moral imagination is captured by God’s love at work in human relationships in attractive, healthy ways; the cure does not come from simply denouncing promiscuity. Similarly, the code of restraint that Brooks seems to want will not come from a call to ascetism; it will come from a daily breaking of our stony hearts before the generosity of God and a reminder that we are called to share our wealth with others as a mark of our discipleship.

1. If Migliore is correct when he says that we will tend not to critique our idolatrous images of God on our own, what sort of things can we do in order to help us see our idolatries?
2. What sorts of decisions can you make about how you live and what you do which will make it more likely for you to have a truer image of God?
3. Do you think that the gospel calls you to make tangible sacrifices in your life-style in order to flourish as a human being? If so, what sorts of habits or conversations can you cultivate in order to gain more wisdom about how this ought to look for you?

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Hospital for Sinners"

As you may know, if you have been attending Grace lately, we have been moving through 1 Peter during our homilies, reflecting on the text together and asking God’s spirit to enable us to apply the teaching of the gospel for this 1st century church to our situation. As we have lingered in this epistle, it has occurred to me in a fresh way that the questions we bring to the biblical text, and/or the assumptions we make about why Peter says what he does are extremely important. The questions and assumptions that we bring with us to a text shapes profoundly what we are able to hear in a given text.

Here is one example of what I mean. We read in 1 Peter 5 that leaders in the church are to be examples to the flock. But if we imagine that being an example to the flock is primarily about displaying one’s strength and goodness - and inviting others to imitate these - then we have not let the overall meaning of the gospel guide us in our assumptions we bring to the words, “be an example”. Dr. J. Warren Smith, of Duke Divinity School, has a helpful explanation of what leading by example should like in a gospel saturated community. The following is excerpted from a sermon transcript entitled, “The Weakness in Virtue, the Virtue in Weakness”:

“Yes, your virtue matters, and it will make a difference in your ministry. Without such virtues, how can anyone hope to lead God’s people and build up Christ’s body? ..... whatever you contribute in your ministry.... its source is not your strength or your virtue or your excellence, but its source is your weakness. For as Paul tells the Corinthians, “When I am weak, then I am strong..... For what work is the apostle sent into the world but to bear witness to the power of God, who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. The apostle does this by being the earthen vessel in whom God manifests his resurrecting power. The same is true for us who walk in the footsteps of the apostles. Our ministry is not about displaying our wisdom or eloquence or compassion or righteousness. Were that the case, people would see nothing greater than cultivated natural talents. The aim of our ministry is always to point beyond ourselves to God, who is at work in us. One of Karl Barth’s mantras was John the Baptist’s declaration, “I must decrease that he may increase.” Jesus commanded us, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Yet when we read Jesus’ words alongside Paul’s, we realize that the light of God’s power is revealed in the weakness that always accompanies even our best good works, and God is glorified through us . (J. Warren Smith)” (here is the link to the sermon transcript for those interested: http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/the-weakness-virtue-the-virtue-weakness)

In a similar vein, our expectations of what a church community should be for its people will either make it more likely or less likely that its members will grow in their confidence in the gospel. If our expectation of church is that it is a place where we put on a front, wear a mask over our pain and problems, and display only our good behavior then we will be stymied in our growth in the grace of the gospel; moreover, we will make it hard for others in the community to grow in grace as well. The talented writer, Heather Moffitt reflects on her experience of learning what a church should be for its people through the humbling experience of parenting a son with special needs in the context of her church community: “We do not attend a church where ushers ask noisy children to leave the sanctuary. We were never shunned because of our challenging child. Instead, people prayed over him with love. Our pastor would get down on his knees to meet him at eye level every week and talk to him. One lovely couple even offered to keep our son some Sunday afternoons so we could have a break. I slowly realized that this church was a manifestation of God’s grace to us, for it is not a church where everyone arrives with a Sunday-morning mask of perfection over the heartbreaks of life. And I realized that, as much as I wanted my son’s spiritual formation to happen in the church, I had wanted even more to be acknowledged as a good mother based on his model behavior. A challenging child in church forces everyone -- parents and other parishioners -- to confront whether we value compliance over compassion.... Even though I’ve long known how to behave in church, I’ve had to accept how to be broken in church. I wanted to be praised for my parenting instead of healed from my hurt. I thought I was seeking spiritual formation for my son, and discovered I needed it for my own soul.” Here is a link to this essay in its entirety http://www.faithandleadership.com/content/broken-behavior-going-church-challenging-child

Finally, we came back to the passage we have been looking at for a few Sundays now: 1 Peter 5:1-5. In keeping with our theme for the day, our observation that the questions, concerns, and assumptions we bring to a text can either help us get to the heart of the passage or detour us from the heart of the passage, we noted this: many Christians come to the portion of this passage that speaks of submission to elders and become immediately preoccupied with the rationale and mechanics of why and how human beings submit those human beings who have authority over within the context of the local church. I suggest that this line of questioning will take us away from the heart of this passage. It is kind of like meeting someone for the first time and thinking about her primarily with regard to how much money she makes. How much money she makes is part of her story but if it is the first thing you think of it makes you lose sight of what is most important about them as a person. Similarly, if you look at 1 Peter 1:1-5, especially v.5, and think first and foremost about vertical relationships, hierarchy, and the importance of being submissive to those who have authority, you will miss the description of how the gospel is at work within that church community. Why do I say this? Because the whole of this passage is a movement away from the extremely vertical expression of human authority, a product of the culture of the day, and a movement towards mutual submission. In the new community being formed in Christ, everyone is to be desirous of submitting to one another because everyone wears the same garment, humility..

To offer an example of what this might look like in a gospel saturated community I raised one of the harder issues that a church community can face, the tragedy of adultery, an issue which always makes thoughtful Christians concerned about the need for admonition and exhortation to be expressed and hopefully received in the spirit of Christian love. When a member of the community sins deeply against another member - and this could be any sin for the sake of conversation - what norms how the community deals with situations like this (and specifically how leadership acts on behalf of the community) is the desire to love one another deeply from the heart (1 Peter 1:22). In other words, the required admonition and exhortation should not grow out of a commitment to throw down human authority along a vertical axis. It is rather the case that each person is on the same plane, called to love one another deeply from the heart. So, the exhortation, admonition, and mercy required are born from a desire to love deeply the offending party and protect fiercely the injured one. In situations like this sometimes reconciliation is not possible and most of the energy expended will be in support of the injured. But to reiterate - what norms how the community deals with all of this is not a macho demonstration of muscle flexing against the sinner - as if those doing the muscle flexing are without sin and 100 percent pure - but a steadfast commitment to loving deeply from the heart coupled with a steadfast commitment to calling the person, if he is unrepentant, away from sin and back to fullness of life in Christ.

In summary of this Sunday let me offer this: it matters what assumptions, concerns, and questions you bring to a text or to church. If church is primarily a place where human power or virtuous achievement is on display the power of the gospel is harder to see; if church is primarily a place of intellectual challenge and stimulation then..... well one thinks of St. Paul’s remarks about knowledge puffing up. But if the church, to borrow a metaphor from St Augustine, is primarily understood as a hospital for sinners, a place, to use Peter’s language, where people are learning to love one another deeply from the heart..... well that is a place where the gospel can get to work in us in a deep way.... and may our church be this sort of community.... AMEN.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Don't be a Hero

The past two Sundays we have been taking a look at 1 Peter 5:1-5. In this passage Peter encourages the leaders in the church to “not lord it over” the flock but rather to lead in humility and by example.

Peter’s admonition to not lead by “lording it over” is almost certainly a deliberate allusion to Jesus’ own words from Matthew 20. When the mother of James and John asks him the favor of choosing her two sons to rule as his vice-regents in his kingdom Jesus takes the opportunity to contrast sharply the way authority is to work in the kingdom he is inaugurating with the way in which power and authority were wielded in the culture of the day. His followers are not to use power over people, as was common in their culture vis a vis the patron client relationship; instead they are to serve others even as they have been served by Jesus: “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

So far so good. Leaders within the Christian community are to serve as Jesus has served them. But what are we to make of the encouragement to lead by example? “Leading by example!” We have said and heard that phrase so many times that we may run the risk of thinking we know what it means in general, and within the context of this passage. Usually, however, when we think of someone leading by example we think of someone who is more or less heroic. “I want to be just like John”, we say, and then set out to take stabs at being just like them. Or, we may say, “if I could be more like Cathy my life would be so much better!”, and then bemoan our perceived failure of a life in contrast. Sometimes, we throw the phrase, “lead by example”, like a dagger - usually at someone who has disappointed us profoundly. The problem with trying to be just like John, however, is that whatever is good in John was produced through a unique journey of faith and repentance. John may have had to go to jail for DUI in order to deal with the pain he was trying to drown in alcohol abuse - pain that came from a loveless marriage. His marriage now, which you admire, was restored through his meeting Christ in repentance through suffering. The problem with imagining that your life would be so much better if you could be more like Cathy ignores Cathy’s unique journey too, but further complicates things by introducing an element of fantasy to the picture, encouraging you to ignore your own journey by escaping into a fantasy about one day being more like Cathy. Finally, the problem with throwing the phrase, “lead by example!” as a dagger at someone who has let you down does nothing to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation and keeps things at the superficial level of behavior modification.

What we need is a pattern of what it looks like to lead by example for people following Jesus in faith and repentance. The New Testament offers just that. The Christ poem in Philippians 2 points the way: “Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” The pattern that each Christian is to follow is the pattern of Jesus’ humility and self-giving love. Jesus, in his unique vocation as the new Adam, in all that he does, points away from himself by living his life completely in the service of others and the saving purposes of the triune God. The question for us: what does imitating this pattern look like for each of us?

We are at our human best when we are pointing away from ourselves, our accomplishments, and our perceived strengths and pointing towards God and his grace towards us. For Jesus this took the form of doing for us and all of humanity what we could not do for ourselves. For us, this imitation of Jesus’ self-emptying entails finding our strength and our hope through dependence upon God’s power at work in our weakness. The patterns to imitate for one another are patterns of perpetual repentance and ongoing faithful petition for God to enable us to live in a way where we love others as we have been loved by him.

Lets come back now to our discussion of John, Cathy, and throwing daggers. So often we think of being a good example in terms of being as close to perfect as we can possibly be. I have suggested that this focus on perceived accomplishment and achievements is unhelpful. I have suggested that we ought to desire to cultivate and copy the pattern of Christ’s humility in each other instead. When we think of imitating the “self-emptying pattern” in each other in the way we have just suggested, the focus is where it belongs, on the means of grace that makes John and Cathy more fully human - not the perceived accomplishments of unique persons. And when we desire for our lives to be shaped in the imitation of Jesus’ self-emptying love, we become more and more cruciform, finding ourselves less likely to throw the dagger of accusation - “you are not a good example!” - and more likely to initiate reconciliation.


During the meditation before communion on Sunday we talked about the passage in Ephesians where Paul calls us to imitate God in our desire to forgive one another. Not surprisingly we meet in this call to imitate the same kind of humility and powerlessness that we have discussed above. Here is the quote I read from as an illustration of this concept:

“It is a gross distortion of forgiveness that sees it as a sort of claim to power over the other – being a patron or a benefactor towards someone less secure. We should rather think of those extraordinary words in the prophecy of Hosea (11.8-90) about the mercy of God: 'How can I give you up, O Ephraim? For I am God and not a mortal'. To forgive is to share in the helplessness of God, who cannot turn from God's own nature: not to forgive would be for God a wound in the divine life itself. Not power but the powerlessness of the God whose nature is love is what is shown in the act of forgiving. The believer rooted in Christ shares that powerlessness, and the deeper the roots go the less possible it is not to forgive. And to be forgiven is another kind of powerlessness – recognising that I cannot live without the word of mercy, that I cannot complete the task of being myself without the healing of what I have wounded. Neither the forgiver nor the forgiven acquires the power that simply cuts off the past and leaves us alone to face the future: both have discovered that their past, with all its shadows and injuries, is now what makes it imperative to be reconciled so that they may live more fully from and with each other (Rowan Williams, from his keynote address at the Lutheran World Federation Assembly, Jully 22, 2010).”

Questions for Discussion:

1. Do you think of yourself as having power over other people because you may or may not want to forgive them? If so, where do you think you learned to think and feel that way? What will help you move away from that attitude?

2. When someone disappoints you what is something you might likely say that would be damaging and point away from reconciliation? What might you say instead that would be at once honest and humble, pointing towards reconciliation?

3. Why is it so tempting to long to be just like John or fantasize about what your life would be like if you were more like Cathy? What process in our own lives is short-circuited when we operate in that mode? What sorts of things do we need to repent of to keep us from operating in the mode of imagining we can or should imitate the perceived grand successes of other people?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sharing in the Sufferings Of Christ

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of suffering addressed in Scripture: the suffering that is common to the human condition and a result of living in a fallen world; the suffering that we bring upon ourselves when we make bad choices; and the suffering that is unique to God’s people when they suffer for his righteousness. To this last category of suffering belongs the suffering of Christians when we share in the sufferings of Christ.

All three of these categories have in common something that is sometimes overlooked. God makes his home in the midst of human suffering - no matter the cause of it - and desires to help those who suffer. In the cross of Christ, God makes it clear that the chaos that accompanies suffering is not an alien place for him; rather, he declares that arena of turmoil, doubt, and confusion to be a place where he is not ashamed to abide, even while he works patiently to bring those who suffer into a deeper experience of his grace and love. We, however, often run away from suffering. Running away from suffering is usually unhelpful.

As we approached the communion table on Sunday I shared a portion of what one person wrote about her efforts to turn away from and/or deny the suffering that was a part of her life:
“I would find myself feeling sad and I would not know why. I would get a little inkling that maybe it had something to do with the abuse I suffered as a child but what happened to me really wasn’t that bad - not like what you hear about some people. But it all hurt too much to think about anyway and so I would run away from that sadness pretty much all of the time. Then one day I just got tired of running away from the sadness and decided to sit there and let myself feel the weight of it all. As tears flowed I began to make sense of some of those mysterious verses in the New Testament like these:
Romans 8: 22, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in* hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. 27And God,* who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit* intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.*

“When I used to run away from suffering I did not realize that I was running away from God and running away from this love where and when I needed to be loved by him the most. When I used to run away from suffering I would always run into the arms of some sort of trouble, some sort of self-destructive behavior, but now I am starting to run into God’s arms and the oddest feeling of all is that when I do that, I feel a little more like myself..... “.

Sometimes, the most important step we can take with regard to our spiritual formation is to acknowledge at once the weight of our suffering and God’s presence with us in it.

The passage in 1 Peter from Sunday talks about the third category of suffering we mentioned above. It is the suffering that we enter into through sharing in the sufferings of Christ. As we share in the mission of Christ to bring his love to those who do not know his love - or perhaps hate what they imagine his love to mean for them and this world - we will share in the sufferings of Christ. In Peter’s setting this suffering jumped right into the face of the believers to whom he was writing. At this time in the Roman world, to follow Jesus set one apart immediately and invited severe social scorn or more severe forms of abuse. For the Christians to whom Peter wrote, sharing in Jesus’ mission meant to bear witness in words and good works to the love of God for all of humankind, especially those who hated them. They were to live in this way while not returning evil for evil but good for evil, while loving and praying for their enemies.

For Peter’s audience sharing in Christ’s suffering came into sharp focus for these young converts because of pressure from outside of the community. It is not so much the case for us in our place and our time. We should, of course, pray that we will recognize persecution, should it come, as our sharing in Christ’s suffering. However, most of us probably do not have our identity with Christ and his mission wrapped up in an experience of being persecuted. Rather, we have a greater need to ask God to bind us to Christ’s mission in the world so that we will share in his suffering.

As we pray about God binding us to Christ’s suffering in the world it may good for us to remember a few truths that are forever easy for us to forget.

1. Our calling in the world is not to be popular but to be representatives of Jesus. This is tricky to talk about because in our darker moments we may want to hurt others in the name of Christ and call the unpopularity reaped by such mean-spirited behavior a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. However, it would be impossible to justify this mode in the name of the one who said love your enemies and pray for them. To make the right decision for the right reasons with regard to bringing the gospel to bear in certain difficult situations will require a lot of God-given discernment. One thing I find helpful to remember is that Jesus’ own suffering came as a result of his self-giving love. Those who opposed him and made him suffer were those who sought to control God’s grace and favor - ultimately those who opposed Jesus opposed the idea that God would reveal himself as self-giving love (those addicted to their own power do not like the implications of a God who makes himself known to the world by suffering for his enemies).

2. So much of our confusion around and bland thinking about our calling to suffer with Christ in this world is due to our unwillingness to be pulled into the messiness of other lives, and a refusal to see responsibility for each other simply because of our shared humanity. But sharing in Christ’s suffering means taking responsibility for the suffering of our fellow human beings. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable that is often referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats. In this story Jesus says that his followers will be those who served him while they were serving the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, the strangers, and the outcasts. Among other things, this surely means that Jesus is present with those who suffer and beckoning us to come and serve them, hence sharing in his sufferings.

So, our goal in this life is not to be persecuted but to faithfully bring the presence of Christ and the message of the gospel into dangerous and critical situations. Will we be the people in our families and circles of friends who refuse to demonize other family members and friends but instead be voices for reconciliation and love? Will we be people who invite our coworkers to sacrifice their free time and resources in order to serve with us at the homeless shelter? Will we hold the hand of someone in the hospital when being there is a painful reminder of our own pain?

Questions for discussion:

1. Are there things you need to put into play in your life in order to share more deeply in the sufferings of Christ? Can you offer some examples of actions you might need to take or prayers you may need to pray?

2. We said above that we are to share the words of the gospel with those who do not believe in a manner that is in step with Christ’s self-giving love. Can you think of what this might mean for you with regard to a particular relationship you have?

3. Are you transparent to your own suffering or are you a master at running away from suffering? What has helped you to have the courage to face pain in your life honestly? What circumstance and attitudes have enabled you to live in denial? What role does community play in this for the better or for the worse?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Grace Saturated Community 2

"No one who has read church history can conclude the truth of Christian belief from the moral superiority of Christian practice."
This quote is from an essay entitled "Attending the Gaps Between Beliefs and Practices", by Amy Plantinga Pauw. Whether the reference point is 2000 years of church history or the empirical evidence of our own personal lives each of us, in our more honest moments, knows about this gap. The question is: how do we react to the gaps? Do we acknowledge the gaps humbly and seek to live moment by moment in the knowledge that we are at our human best when we are admitting our brokenness, beseeching God to act in us and through us, and repenting of our sins? Or, do we engage in the charade of pretending we are better than we are, expending a great deal of energy in a massive cover-up of our weaknesses, doubts, failures and sins? When we resemble the latter approach, we point away from the gospel and to ourselves, away from God's rich grace and tireless love, and towards human arrogance.

The point of Pauw's essay is to encourage Christians to "relax their hearts" and be honest about these gaps that each of us have between beliefs and practices because God likes to work with the materials of our honesty and vulnerabilities; they are the putty in his hands with which he shapes us into the image of Christ. Pauw reminds us that many times the most holy thing we can do is to pray the classic prayer of the Christian mystic: O my God I do not love thee. O my God I do not want to love thee. But Oh my God I do want to want to love thee. Better to pray that prayer than to pretend we are better than we are. And this brings us to our text from 1 Peter again. Each of us are to live as good stewards of the manifold grace of God that has been given to us. Among other things this passage points us towards just the sort of community of relaxed hearts that Pauw has in mind. We are stewards only of what God is doing in each of us, for, as Saint Paul puts it elsewhere: what do you have that you did not receive? So, each of us is to do our part to shape our community into a place where people feel that they can be safe while they attend to the gaps. As Pauw puts it: "when belief shapes practice in an excellent way, we celebrate God's grace not human effort. For us as people of faith who want to want to love God, the communal settings of proclamation, sacraments and confession frame our hopes for closing the gap between beliefs and practices. In those settings we can reaffirm the truth of our dependence on the riches of God's grace.... freed by God's assurance of forgiveness we can dare to probe the corruptions in our beliefs and practices (Pauw)."

Questions for discussion:

1. Reverend Craig Barnes has said, “the way of the Cross never takes us away from the limitations and hunger that are characteristic of all humanity. It simply leads us back to the world with the strange message that our limited humanity is the mark of our need for God. It is enough. It is a great reason for hope.” What setting or conditions make it more likely for you to acknowledge your limits so that you can communicate hope to those close to you? What setting or conditions make it less likely that you will operate in this humble manner?

2. One of the points of Pauw's essay is that beliefs and practices must be joined by the affections of our heart in order for the gap to be closed and for us to move in the right direction. One can't make oneself love rightly though, right? So, what is our responsibility in tending to the affections of our hearts?

3. Do you feel or sense God's pleasure when you confess your sins to him? If not, what might you do about that?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Grace Saturated Community

Sunday we came again to the passage in 1 Peter which we continue to ponder together as a community in Christ:
"The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen."

Obviously, in this passage, Peter desire for his Christian family to think and pray carefully about who to relate to each other within the Christian community. They are to see themselves as those who have been given God's grace (stewards of the manifold grace of God) for a purpose - to serve one another. I fear that too often we read a passage like this and take for granted what it means. We may even imagine that if we are regularly involved in a church that we will automatically live in the way Peter is commending without too much need on our part to be prayerful or imaginative in how we live as stewards of the manifold grace of God. That is why I chose the passages from Philippians 2 as the Call to Worship and Lesson One. I suggest that in these passages we find an outline of what it looks like to serve one another.

In Philippians 2: 19-21 Paul encourages the flock with this news: "I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." In this passage Paul echos his exhortation from earlier in the chapter where he introduces the poem of Jesus' self-giving love (2:6-11) with these words: "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." The negative, let each of you look not to your own interests, is joined by a positive exhortation about what sort of life we have been called to, a life of turning away from one's own interests for the purpose of living a cruciform life. Jesus did not pursue his own interests, for he did not regard equality with God as something to be used to his own advantage; instead, he lived as a slave for the benefit of others. And so we meet Timothy as one who is not like those who seek their interests. Timothy is one who lives the cruciform life outlines in vs. 6-11. Therefore, Timothy will be genuinely concerned for the welfare of the flock in Philippi.

To serve one another in Christ's body we must first be as certain as possible that we are genuinely concerned for the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ. For an example of what this looks like we considered what it means to speak the very words of God to each other. It is unlikely that Peter means by this exhortation that we may only quote Scripture to each other. More likely what he has in mind is that our words to each other must be chosen for their benefit to the other person. I gave a sad example of what this does not look like when I recounted an interaction I had been privy to over two decades ago between a father and his teenage son. The son had been arrested on drug charges. The father offered no love to his son but instead told his son that he reminded him of his cousin, a black sheep in the family. "You remind me of my cousin, (insert fictitious name). His mama always said he would never amount to anything and she was write. I'm beginning to think you won't amount to nothing either". That was about all the father had to offer the son: aconfirmation of how he already felt about himself. To be sure, a father who loves his son will have to work through feelings of anger, hurt, shame, and frustration when his son ends up in jail. But as Christians we must work through all of that with the Lord so that we may have words of grace and hope, words of gospel to speak to those who have failed and hurt themselves and us. In the case I mention, the son knew he had brought shame on the family and the family name. What he needed to hear was the gospel from a father who had learned to look not to his own interests but to the interests of Christ Jesus so that he might be genuinely concerned for the welfare of his son. I suggest that this is a bit of what Peter has in mind when he says we ought to speak with each other the very words of God. Looking not to our own interests but to the welfare of others we ought always be careful to ask God to give us words for others that open their future to them in hope, instead of confirming their deepest fears that their lives will be defined by their history of past mistakes. Think about Jesus' interactions with the three women we have been considering in our recent readings at Grace: the woman at the well; the woman caught in adultery; and the woman who washes Jesus' feet with tears. In each of these interactions Jesus speaks to them and treats them in ways that open their lives to a future of grace and hope. May our words with each other be the same.

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you think of a time when someone spoke to you in such a way so that your future was opened up to God's grace in a fresh way? Can you think of an occasion when someone spoke to you in a way that was quite opposite of that? In the case of the positive words, do you keep in touch with that person and find ways to tell them how meaningful their words were to you? In the case of the negative words, do you find yourself held hostage by them still to this day or has God enabled you to move past their hold on you?

2. Do you think prayerfully about how you may serve others so as to seek their welfare? What would help you be more disciplined in so doing?

3. Can you think of occasions when you have been stymied in being concerned for the welfare of another because of attitudes, thoughts or feelings that you have been unwilling to set aside (in other words, are their attitudes, thoughts and feelings that are "your own interests" which keep you from serving others as a steward of God's grace)?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Are we Hospitable enough?

"If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality." Henri Nouwen
"We will never believe that we have anything to share unless there is someone to receive. Indeed, we will discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver." Henri Nouwen

If I were to suggest to you that you will never grow as deep in your knowledge and experience of God's love and grace unless you grow in giving and receiving hospitality you might very well respond in puzzlement or in disagreement. I submit, though, that our inability to grasp the importance of hospitality as a spiritual discipline shows us how we often reduce our faith-life to concepts (an affair of the mind) and behavior modification (the strenuous effort to do the right thing on our own strength), while ignoring the patterns and disciplines of living which place us in a posture where God's love is more likely to empower and guide us. Hospitality is one such pattern and discipline, and Peter reminds us of its importance as a formative discipline when he instructs his readers to be hospitable un-begrudgingly. In order to apply Peter's exhortation in our circumstances we need to work towards restoring its original depth and evocative potential, as Nouwen urged.

Hospitality in our experience today has become a kind of weak word. We often think of hospitality in terms of entertaining our friends or being entertained by our friends. The gospel saturated meaning of hospitality as used in the NT does not mean less than this but it does mean a great deal more. Hospitality was a vitally important practice in the ancient world; without hospitality given and received by strangers, travelers were at risk of grave danger. The early church practiced hospitality as they cared for traveling missionaries and sheltered those escaping persecution. Moreover, the discipline of extending hospitality to strangers, including those outside of the Christian faith, reflected Jesus' own practice of extending and receiving hospitality and table fellowship from all sorts of people. In fact the early church became so famous for practicing hospitality for all people that the Emperor Julian (the Apostate) rightly noted that it was one of the reasons for the growth of the Christian church. An enemy of Christianity, he commented in frustration that "it is disgraceful that when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well all men see that our people lack aid from us." He went on to instruct his officials to imitate Christian hospitality for utilitarian reasons, as he was attempting to "re-paganize" the post-Constantine empire he inherited.

So, what ought hospitality look like for us? Well, we should be known for entertaining our friends thoughtfully and well but we should also be known for opening our selves, our tables, and our homes to those with whom we would not ordinarily be friends. For those of us following Jesus, we will often find opportunities to open our selves and our resources to others simply because we wish to share the same love and mercy with them which we have received from the Lord; and, as Jesus taught in the parable of the good Samaritan, that person could be anyone and anywhere. If we can point to none or few occasions when we practice hospitality in this way then we are swimming in the shallow end of the pool of God's grace and love - we need to go deeper.

I have suggested that hospitality is a vital discipline; let me now try to flesh out why it is so vital. In Luke, 7 we meet Jesus as the guest in the home of Simon, a Pharisee. In this home Jesus is not given any hospitality. Instead, a woman of ill repute barges in to a place and setting where she should not have been and lavishes on Jesus a luxurious version of the hospitality he should have received from Simon, the supposed host. I have read, studied and preached this passage many times but I had never seen this passage in light of Nouwen's words: "We will never believe that we have anything to share unless there is someone to receive. Indeed, we will discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver." What a gift this woman gave and received on this occasion! The exchange not only revealed her gifts to her in the eyes of her receiver but also revealed her self to her in a way that opened her her to her true vocation. As an object of God's love, she is to be an emissary of God's love. What we often miss when we read this story is that hospitality given and received creates a wonderful setting in which God's redeeming love grasps hold of us more firmly. Conversely, the absence of hospitality creates a place that is starved of God's redeeming love. God's love is not grasped as fully as it needs to be in the abstract world of theological contemplation or among friends who always agree with each other. God's love is always on the move to bring people into unlikely relationships together for the sake of re-presenting the hospitality of God which is the occasion of their relationship.

1. Can you think of some examples that illustrate why giving and receiving hospitality from "the stranger" can help you grow in your capacity to be more sympathetic with those with whom you are in closer friendship or family relationships? I am thinking that it chisels away at our self-absorption for one thing.....

2. Can you offer an example of an irresponsible way to offer the hospitality of your home (for example, in ways that trample other responsibilities either to your family or perhaps your responsibility to be a good steward of your home)? What does it look like to be generous and take risks in giving and receiving hospitality - what does this look like within wise and godly boundaries?

3. What are two or three reasons why you don't give or receive hospitality as much as you probably ought to? What can you do to address this problem - are sacrifices in order?