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?