Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Advent Two: Trust the Man With the Axe

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our
Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

When we were looking at the apocalyptic language of our gospel reading last week, we asked ourselves the question: why in the world does the church calendar ask us to enter into the jolting and somewhat disturbing imagery of the apocalyptic on our way to cozy Christmas and the baby in the manger? We noted a couple of things last week. 1. The church has always wanted us to think about the fact that we live in between Christ’s two advents. In the in-between-time we must learn to read our present in light of God’s promised future. 2. The vivid and startling imagery of the apocalyptic genre in Scripture is meant to jar us, to wake us up to God’s promises, encouraging us to take hold of them.

Our readings this morning on the 2nd Sunday of Advent invite us to think of our great hope again. In the reading from Romans, Paul explains that all of Scripture is given that we might have hope (15:4). But what sort of hope and hope for what? I fear that we like to hope for the future in ways that don’t get in the way too much with our agenda for the present. We like to hear that our suffering is temporary and so when the preacher talks about hope for redemption we take heart. But the Apostle Paul thinks that gospel shaped hope should get in the way of our agendas if our agenda is getting in the way of God’s. In our reading from Romans today Paul looks into the future and he sees one humanity singing with one voice. (“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But he looks at the church at Rome and he sees Gentiles snubbing Jews. (If you look carefully at his words to the Gentiles in Romans 11 it is not hard to imagine that Paul is seeing the seeds of Christian anti-semitism at work even in this early period of Christian history (e.g. 11:18).

So, he says, in so many words, to the church: “make room at the table for everyone. Gentiles, recognize that your table is not the Lord’s table unless there is room for the Jew; Jews, see in God’s grace to the Gentiles the progress of God’s promise to redeem all people and don’t resent them for being grafted onto your tree.

But how about you and me? Is our hope in the future a private hope that we pull out of our pockets to make ourselves feel better when we are suffering, or is it the public hope of the gospel that shapes our agenda of how we spend our time and money and teaches us to whom we are to be hospitable? Have we allowed our own feelings of superiority to cause us to remove chairs from our tables? No room for you! You offended me once and did not ask for forgiveness. No room for you. I am this sort of person and you are that sort of person; no room for you at my table, for you are not my kind. Or, perhaps we have just allowed laziness and apathy to keep us from allowing gospel shaped hope to empower us to offer hospitality to those in great need. Whatever the case, I suspect that each of us could use reminding that our hoped for future as Christians is a future prepared for our enemies as well as our friends and that it is that hope which should shape our way of being in the world right now in the present. But as with every reminder of the need to repent there is a promise that God’s grace is sufficient to forgive and empower us to live more faithfully tomorrow. The Lord’s table which embraces us each week at communion represents the future: one humanity singing in one voice. Come now and be filled with that hope!


Well, if it was not unsettling enough to have apocalyptic imagery last week, the first Sunday of Advent, and then to be reminded just a few minutes ago that we get terribly stingy and self-centered about what and whom we hope for, now we meet John in the desert. He is a disturbing figure who looks and smells funny. He is deliberately calling forth in his dress, his message, and his style, an image that reminds God’s people of the warnings of the OT prophets - the kinds of prophetic warnings to God’s people to not take God for granted but to repent and ask for refreshing. So, even though during Advent we want to get to the coziness of Christmas, God is always messing with us (messing with us in a good way), because he knows that left to our own devices we will not want what is best for us or what is best for our neighbor. So God says, so to speak, all roads to the manger pass through the desert (phrase borrowed from Fred Craddock). (Remember, Israel was in the desert for 40 years; that tidbit would not be lost on Matthew’s readers and hearers. The desert is the place where God wants you to get know him in a deep and life-giving way. In the desert we meet John and hear his preaching.

There is much that can and should be said of this text but in the time that remains I want to look at just one idea with you and here it is: the image of Jesus with an axe and a winnowing fork is meant to give you hope. These images of Jesus are sobering but hopeful. What John the Baptist is saying, in so many words, is that his call for repentance will come to fruition only after the work of Jesus’ relentless and purging love. Talk about relentless - his love is pictured in these powerful agricultural images that are quite vivid and fast moving, images of a farmer who means business! Jesus’ refining and relentless love is like a farmer that goes through his orchard and chops down the dying trees in order to have more room for healthy growth; Jesus’ relentless love is like the farmer who vigorously throw the wheat up in the air over and over again until the good wheat is separated from the chaff. This is how John the Baptist previews the work of Christ. Jesus’ mission is this: he is ready to go to work in the depths of our hearts - but are you and I desiring that this morning? God wants you to know that he longs for your heart to be laid bare before him. He wants your heart that loves, your heart that hates, your heart that is afraid, your heart that manipulates and desires to manipulate even more. He wants us to put everything before him and ask him to work in our lives to make us more like Jesus in the way we live in this world. For us, this will always involve repentance. But in order to repent like we need to we must put away our fear of the future and our fear of future failure, for we can only be faithful in the present moment. We must eave the future to God. We must put away our desire to be in charge of our lives and actively ask Jesus to lay us bare before him. In order to repent like we need to we need to desire to repent like we need to and this comes only through our cooperation with the work of God’s spirit. We must actively call upon God’s spirit to open us up to the one who “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until he divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow..... the one who is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, before whom no creature is hidden, before whom all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account (paraphrase of Hebrews 4:12)

The imagery of the passage from Matthew - the purging of the orchard and the separation of the wheat from the chaff - is a picture that is meant to jar us into realizing that God is seriously at work in Christ to bring about his kingdom. Everything that does not make for human flourishing in the kingdom will be purged away. The images are meant to sober us and call us to repentance because the man with the axe love us very much.

1. Do you ever feel like your hope for the future, based on the promises of God’s redemption, is too self-centered? Can you give an example? What can you do in practical every-day ways to resist/avoid that temptation?

2. Do you feel that God’s love is what motivates him to lay us bare before him? Can you think of an example from the Scriptures, Old or New Testaments, where God says that his discipline of us is a sure mark of his love for us?

3. Do you treat others with love and embrace when you encounter them in what you consider to be sinful behavior on their part? If not, why not? Do you sometimes need boundaries in order to love someone with Christian love? How do you know when you need boundaries and/or when you may be hiding behind boundaries when you really need to embrace and just be patient with a person’s growth?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent One: Seeing the Present in Light of the Future

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

This morning we embark upon the season of advent. It is sometimes asked, why the church calendar begins a season as cozy as Christmas with disturbing apocalyptic imagery (Luke 21:25-36). Well, the answer is that the church has always recognized that we live in between Christ’s two advents - his first advent and his promised return from the future where he will join the world to come to this world, and bring all things and all people under his rule of peace, justice, and love.

But to live in between two advents is to need reminding of how to read the present in light of the future. The bible often invokes the apocalyptic genre in order to jolt us into recognizing that the present must be read in light of the future for us to be faithful to Christ’s mission in this world, to flourish as human beings. This is true for all of us regardless of what time in history we live or what pressures we are under. However, Biblical scholars remind us that apocalyptic language is most often generated by people who are being oppressed and persecuted by tyrants, feeling and living as if the end of the world was really upon them.

Reverend Scott Johnston of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan makes these insightful remarks:
“Those who have endured (or still endure) oppressive situations understand apocalyptic literature better than most of us. Allan Boesak, renowned South African preacher, once remarked that it made sense for him to preach on apocalyptic themes during the years of apartheid, for apocalyptic images spoke to and adequately described the lives of his listeners. Boesak's parishioners knew what it was like to live each day as if it were the end of the world. Their community had experienced appalling calamity and had witnessed evil dragons prowling in the land. When the trucks would come to surround their townships with razor wire, Boesak described them as great beasts which vomited an obscene, barbed cargo calculated to cut people off from each other and from hope. The preacher's imagery wasn't over-the-top grim for these folks, it was perhaps the only way for them to make sense of their plight in the world.”

So, for Israel living under the oppressive rule of Babylon, the prophet Daniel crafted an apocalypse to remind God’s people that the future belongs to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not the Babylonian tyrants that ruled Israel during the exile. For Christians living under the persecution of Rome, John writes the book of Revelation to remind the churches that the alliance between the beasts of this world, the whore of Babylon, and Satan will be destroyed by God; and that the new heavens and new earth will be for those who have suffered trials and tribulations in this life a place where God himself will wipe away every tear; evil will be arrested, eradicated and justice will reign with love.

One implication for us is that we must allow the apocalyptic language of Scripture to call us to solidarity with those who have been pushed to the side while the powerful and successful of the world look upon them simply as the casualties of history....

…... As Richard Bauckham reminds us, “if the future belongs to Jesus Christ, then we can see the future, Jesus Christ's future, in those whom this world treats worst: those whose lives are mostly pain or grinding poverty, those whose lives are destroyed by disease or violence or abuse, the millions who die young before scarcely living at all. These are the people the myths of human progress have never had anything to offer; human progress can only leave such people behind, the casualties of history. Jesus Christ does not leave them behind. He will raise them into his future. It is their future, in which God himself (as the book of Revelation tells us) will wipe away every tear from every eye. And should we tempted not to believe in the future of Jesus Christ, it is those people we should remember. People who feel that this life is good enough and we need not hope for another are always affluent people leading comfortable, fulfilling lives. They may feel this life is enough for them, but they have no right to think it is good enough for the millions whose lives have been misery. It is those people for
whom Jesus Christ will be revealed in the end - and for the rest of us if we care about

Now, let’s come back to the Luke text in front of us:

For Jesus’ audience who first heard these words, their generation would not pass away before they would see the destruction of the temple, truly an apocalyptic event. They would also experience oppression for living out Jesus’ mission in a world that remained hostile to his message and mission.

But what about us? What does this language have to say to you and to me? Well, we have already noted that it challenges us to declare our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and marginalized. But the passage before us speaks to all of us whether we are physically poor, oppressed or whatever, because all of us human beings live under the weight of a world that can be beastly to us.

For all of us this passage reminds us that the evil we suffer will not have the last word because the future belongs to God. Whether you suffer the horrors of physical or emotional abuse, the suffering of illness, the despair that accompanies mental illness, the terrible nightmares that accompany your fears of the future, you must know that your future is held in God’s hand. Jesus has come to be near you in your suffering, to hold you tightly to himself, and to keep you close to his heart. And one day he will bring you into the new heavens and the new earth where you will know and walk in the fullness of human joy. We need that message of comfort don’t we? We need that when we are suffering from the throes of living in a fallen world; we need it else we will give into despair and turn from God’s love to the life-destroying forces of apathy or some sort of self-destructive behavior. The temptation is always there for us to try to escape the pain of suffering in this fallen world though numbing ourselves; it is no coincidence that Jesus warns in this very passage against a life-style of drunkenness, dissipation and narcissistic worry. The gospel reminds us that if or when we fall into these patterns of behavior, or similar ones, that we are running away from our dignity as God’s people; for, to give ourselves without repentance to sinful escapes puts us in a place where we it becomes either difficult or impossible to be Christ’s presence of love and help for our loved ones and our neighbors. So, the gospel calls us in the midst of even terrifying circumstances to pray for God’s help to be kept near to the love of Christ so that we might represent his love, especially in the midst of great tribulation.

Signs of the apocalypse abound in the New Testament but the Son of Man breaking into this world to reclaim it and us in the strong grip of his love is the one sign that stands above all others.... when I think of this sign (the Son of Man riding on the clouds) I think of the words of Bono in his great song, Window in the Skies....

“Oh can't you see what love has done
To every broken heart
Oh can't you see what love has done
For every heart that cries

Love left a window in the skies”

Questions for discussion:

1. What aspect of your life do you struggle with the most when it comes to seeing your present circumstances in light of God’s promised and revealed future?

2. Can you point to times in your life where life-crushing worry or the overwhelming desire to numb yourself has kept you from your responsibility to be the love of Christ to those around you? Can you think of life-giving ways to address the worry and suffering in your life? What helps you move towards these and away from life-killing patterns of dealing with worry and suffering?

3. Do you agree with Bauckham here in what follows? “And should we tempted not to believe in the future of Jesus Christ, it is those people we should remember. People who feel that this life is good enough and we need not hope for another are always affluent people leading comfortable, fulfilling lives. They may feel this life is enough for them, but they have no right to think it is good enough for the millions whose lives have been misery. It is those people for
whom Jesus Christ will be revealed in the end - and for the rest of us if we care about
them.” Do you think this thought of his has value as an apologetic? Do you think Richard Bauckham gets invited more than once to cocktail parties where frivolous conversation abounds?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Church is Catholic Part 3

This Sunday we talked about catholicity one more time. We reviewed the first two homilies for a bit before moving into new territory. By way of review, we noted that catholicity has some overlap with oneness (the church is one). However, we also noted that being committed to catholicity means that you are welcoming the very people with whom unity will not be automatic, but challenging. The challenge comes because of our sinfulness and brokenness that leads us to be fearful and insensitive to the other. We saw that last week when we considered the case of the Greek speaking widows in Acts 6 who were being overlooked by the Jews in leadership in the synagogue at Jerusalem. This week we encountered another rift between Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s letter to the Romans; however, this time the Gentiles have the power over the Jews.

In 49 AD, Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius. Five years later, when Claudius died, they are allowed to return. At the point of their return, however, Gentiles were in charge of the home churches and they apparently did not have the best attitude towards Jewish Christians or the Jewish people as a whole. In fact, some number of Gentiles Christians were, apparently, unloving and smugly self-righteous towards the Jews in Rome (11:18,25).

What does this have to do with catholicity? Everything! For the church to grow in catholicity, we must be a place where ethnic barriers (and similar barriers) that keep people apart normally are torn down by the gospel; in their place must grow mutual love. If we can’t make catholicity work in the church, “the laboratory for communal life before God, the model that the world can see.... as the basis for its own rebirth (Luke Timothy Johnson)”, then we have a puny message to offer the world.


Paul’s challenge to Gentiles regarding their attitudes and actions towards Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews is that they are to be humble (Romans 11:20) regarding their place in God’s redemptive plan and to be hopeful about the final outcome of God’s redemptive promises for Israel and the world (Romans 11: 30-32). But what about us? We are not in house churches in 1st century Rome. How does this challenge of humility and hopefulness translate into our situation?

With regard to humility, I suggested that we consider again the words of Richard Bauckham regarding the posture we are to have to what we regard as the the truth of God in Christ: “It is the very nature of Christian truth that it cannot be enforced. Coerce belief and you destroy belief and turn the truth believed into a lie. Truth must be claimed in a way appropriate to the content of the truth.... The image the Bible itself often suggests is that of witness..... Witness is non-coercive. It has no power but the convincingness of the truth to which it witnesses. Witnesses are not expected, like lawyers, to persuade by the rhetorical power of their speeches, but simply to testify to the truth for which they are qualified to give evidence.”

With regard to hopefulness, I suggested that we need to flavor our gospel message with a deep hope for God’s salvation to extend to all people. I say this because this seems to be where Paul ends up in his lament over the promises of God to Israel. Like the laments of the Old Testament prophetic figures, Paul is frustrated with the unbelief of the people but also wonders why God would allow his promises to remain unfulfilled. Also like Old Testament lament, Paul ends on a note of remarkable hope regarding not only Israel but also the whole world (Romans 11:11-12; 25-32) - the Gentiles have been grafted in to make Israel jealous; God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he might show mercy to all. In turn, this note of hope, leads Paul to doxology: “O, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.... who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return?!” God is the one who knows the first from the last, God is one who gives gifts to us - his actions are not controlled by our “gifts” to him, God is in control of the world and desires for all people to be redeemed.

So, when it comes to accompanying our gospel message with a sense of urgency, we must leave people with the impression that the reason there is a sense of urgency to follow Jesus is based on his desire to move them into a place of redemption where they may flourish as human beings - not based on our presumed knowledge of what God will do with them if they don’t.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you agree that we should flavor our gospel appeal with a deep hope for God’s salvation to extend to all people? If, saturating our gospel message with this kind of hope is a solid approach, how ought we to go about conveying a sense of urgency around following Jesus? What words and grammar are we to use?

2. Rev. Dr. John Stott used to say something to this effect when he pondered the destiny of the world and the human race: salvation in Christ must be bigger than death in Adam in order to be consistent with the contours of God’s promises of a big redemption. Do you agree with this logic? Why, or why not?

3. If someone were to say to you: “I know you are a Christian and I know Christians believe everyone else is going to hell, do you think I am going to hell?”... how would you answer?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Church is Catholic Part 2

We come back this morning to theme of the catholicity of the church. We noted last week that the Greek word that is translated, catholic, means the whole, or throughout the whole. When the leaders of the early church used that word in the creeds what they were confessing was that the love of God expressed most fully and comprehensively in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was never meant to be for a few people, one group of people, or one sort of people, but for the entire human race (to take the language from the New Testament, God’s love is for every tribe and the gospel is recognized as accomplishing the healing of the nations - this is how the book of Revelation talks about it). Moreover, we find the catholicity of the church promised in the covenant made with Abraham: in you all of the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12).

Another way of saying all of this in an earthier way - there is no sort or kind of person anywhere in the world that God does not claim as his divine image bearer (albeit, in need of restoration). As such, God desires for all to experience Christ’s redeeming and life-giving love. Now, It is one thing to confess these words and to say, “hear, hear.... that is the sort of God I want to worship - one whose love is limitless.” However, it is another thing to want catholicity to come to pass in our midst - and to celebrate it when it does - when the kinds and sorts of people that are God’s own make us uncomfortable, uneasy, or afraid. For each of us there are some people who follow Jesus who make us suspicious, simply because of their ethnicity, their political views, their social/class status, or because they have come to conclusions about how to apply the gospel to their lives that differ sharply from the sorts of applications we might make. This suspicion, at best, and hatred at worse, that is brought about by the fear of the other is itself, of course, a consequence of living in a fallen world. For the kind of healing to come that God desires for the world, the church must grow in its passion for catholicity. Christians all over the world must long for catholicity to be a robust reality in our own lives and our churches. Another way of saying this is that for the universal to come we must all care very much about the particulars of our own church communities; for it is upon the upon the fabric of our relationships with people in our local churches, Grace Chicago in this instance - it is upon the fabric of our relationships in our church that God desires to sew a message of hope for a world where fear of the others results in daily violence and misery.

I put it this way because I think it is too easy to keep things in the abstract when we simply say, “God loves everybody”. Part of our spiritual formation must include a longing for God to enable us to love, serve, and pray for people who we would find it difficult to be involved with apart from the gospel at work in our midst, through us, and in our church community.

In the time we have remaining I want to look at some clues about what this looks like in the texts before us this morning. In Acts 6 we have ethnically Hebrew Christians in charge of the temple of Jerusalem. Because of a language and cultural barrier the Greek speaking Jewish widows in the temple were being overlooked in the distribution of food for the poor. The apostles’ response is to share their authority by quickly pulling together some more leaders, all Greek speaking, in order to successfully administer that aspect of the ministry of the church. The applications to take from this: when the Holy Spirit comes to work in opening up local churches to catholicity, the dominant and the powerful in the church will become sensitive to the needs of the weaker and less powerful in their midst; everyone in the church will turn away from their self-interests and look for ways to help others; and people in the church, without renouncing their identity and histories, will see their unifying identity in Christ as more important.

Note well! The result of all of this is that many priests in the temple began to follow Jesus. Talk about a tough crowd. When catholicity is at work in a church community even the most skeptical onlookers can’t help but take notice and begin to question who and what is at work to produce such a strong and loving community. So, it is of the utmost importance that we come to understand that our repentance over our lack of catholicity is a crucial component to living out the gospel for the sake of the world who looks on. For example: the leaders who allowed the Greek speaking widows to be overlooked had to repent and change course in order to meet their needs, reminding us that the world is not looking for perfection from the church but for authenticity, and a model for how reconciliation and wholeness can come to pass. Stephen Fowl puts it this way: "we are reminded that.... compassion and mercy are necessary if Christians are to exercise forbearance and forgiveness/ For Christians, this is crucial because the quality of common life in Christ is not simply judged by the holiness of believers' lives (though that is certainly to be encouraged). Rather, Christian community is more definitively judged by the forgiveness that enables and calls Christians to be reconciled and reconciling people. Indeed, it is the quality that is most attractive to a broken and alienated world (Fowl)."

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you offer an example from your life or from a situation you know of that demonstrates growth in catholicity?

2. What fears might the apostles have felt at the prospect of sharing leadership with the Hellenists? Do these fears remind you of any of your own fears that might be holding you back in your growth towards being more catholic? Examples?

3. Do you feel that you represent the life of the church to your friends outside of the church as a dynamic life-giving community that desires to be more catholic and repents of its lack of catholicity? How would you say that sort of thing in your own words?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Church is Catholic Part 1

When we confess in the creed that the church is catholic what we are confessing is that the gospel is for all people and for the whole person. The word translated catholic means literally, throughout the whole, and when the early church leaders used that Greek word that is translated “throughout the whole” what they were confessing was that the love of God expressed most fully and comprehensively in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was never meant to be for a few people or one group of people but for the entire human race (to take the language from the New Testament, God’s love is for every tribe and the gospel is recognized as accomplishing the healing of the nations - from the book of Revelation). Moreover, we find the catholicity of the church promised in the covenant made with Abraham, in you all of the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12).

Side note: so, obviously, the confession that the church is catholic, at the time the creed was written, was not meant to refer to a belief in an institutional church but was meant to refer to the scope of the mission of the church - universal in scope and for the whole person, bringing God’s healing to the whole person: addressing all brokenness - physical, emotional, and spiritual.

So, as with the unity of the church (the church is one) and the holiness of the church (the church is holy) when we confess that the church is catholic we are talking about an aspect of what Jesus has done and is doing in us and the world. And as we did with the first two marks of the church, oneness and holiness, we will look to the teaching of the NT in order to flesh out what we mean by saying that the church is catholic.

Another side note: Perhaps it might be helpful to pause for a moment here and draw a distinction between what we are saying when we say that the church is one and what we mean when we say that the church is catholic. Oneness stresses our need to work towards unity as Christ’s followers; catholicity reminds us that we are never to be at rest with whatever version of unity we enjoy inside the church - not even for a few minutes - because the scope of God’s desire to reconcile human beings to himself and to each other is universal. The gospel is for the whole of humanity and for the whole person; that is what we mean when we talk about catholicity.

The most powerful example in the New Testament of catholicity (the love of God moving forward in the world for the salvation of all) is witnessed in the initial mission of Jesus’ followers, who, remember, were Jewish. And it is obvious from the very start that, as Jews, they were meant to bring the good news of God’s love in Christ to another people group, the Gentiles. So very early on we have the New Testament church bearing witness to the love of God spilling over from the original group in order to bring people who had never known anything of the promises of Abraham into that stream of God’s promises that point forward to the healing of the nations, the salvation of the world, when Christ will be all in all.

When Jews and Gentiles came together through the ministry of the apostles we witness a union that would have not naturally occurred in common life. And it is clear that the leaders in the early church saw this union of Jew and Gentile as a powerful witness and anticipation of what God desires to do throughout the whole of humanity - ethnic groups whose histories taught them to hate each other are brought together through a common love for Jesus; men who had used their power to subjugate women are called to be servants to their newly constituted relationships with their sisters in Christ, etc.

So far so good. But we have to ask ourselves what does this confession that we believe in the catholicity of the church mean to us in our formation as a church today, and as individual Christians today. Well, maybe an analogy might help - an analogy from just last week as we considered our confession that the church is holy. When we confess that the church is holy we are certainly not confessing that we have arrived at holiness as God is holy; we are confessing a hoped for future grounded in the resurrection of Jesus and secured by his death on the cross. This future we live into hopefully, in such a way as it provides a certain reference point for us in the the midst of our troubled and imperfect lives. When we confess holiness we confess that we belong to this holiness in faith and repentance and we are reminded to repent and to return to our journeys, to get out of ourselves and get closer to Jesus, as we name each of our unholy patterns of behavior and thought - naming them in confession, even as we receive the boldness to renew our journeys through forgiveness. And so, confessing holiness is a reminder of how things will be according to God’s promise and a call to action in the present in light of what God has promised. Similarly, with catholicity - we look around and see the degree to which God’s love in Christ is yet to reach the breadth of humanity. As soon as we celebrate what has happened already, we mourn what is still not yet. What is needed in that moment, I suggest, is a pattern for how to respond to the “not yet”. For this pattern I turn to the same people groups, Jews and Gentiles, and the same time frame we mentioned before, the time of the New Testament church.

The already of catholicity (the gospel is for all people) that was coming to pass in the New Testament had another side to it, a sorrowful side. Here it is: for all of the wonderful reconciliation that was going on between Jews and Gentiles in the early church there remained a great deal of misunderstanding and animosity between Jews and Gentiles on the one hand, and, on the other, between the majority of the Jewish people and their kindred who were Jesus’ followers.

How St. Paul responded to this tragedy I suggest offers us a pattern for how we are to address our own longing for the love of God in Christ to touch all the families of the earth whether in Chicago Lakeview, Logan Square, Lawndale, or far away.

In the 11th chapter of Romans Paul takes up the sorrow that he feels for his kindred who have not yet heard and responded favorably to the gospel of Jesus as the good news of God’s making good on his covenant with Abraham to bless all of the families of the earth in Israel’s blessing. Interestingly, some of his thoughts about his sorrow are directed towards Gentile converts as he explains that one purpose of his ministry with them is to make his Jewish kindred jealous! “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them (Romans 11:13vv.).” So confident is Paul of the gospel to make life beautiful for Jew and Gentile alike that he can say that his ministry, as Apostle to the Gentiles, will give birth to communities of people that will be so lovely that even the most skeptical will want to join in.

(homily cut short on account of time... to be continued next week)

Questions for discussion:

1. How is Paul using the word jealousy? Can you put in your own words what he means by it?

2.. Can you think of an example when you observed the gospel at work in such a way that you thought it made life look so attractive that even the most skeptical might take notice and want her life to have a part in the Christian community?

3. When you ponder the degree to which the love of God in Christ has not reached as far as it ought how do you feel about that? Does the universal scope of God’s love in Christ mean that in the gospel is the only place true insights into God's character may be found?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Church is One

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This next four Sundays we will be considering together what it means to confess what are often referred to as the four marks of the church. In the Nicene Creed we confess: the church is one, the church is holy, the church is catholic and the church is apostolic. This homily series builds on the homily I preached a couple of weeks ago entitled, Why Go To Church? That homily was born out of a conviction that we don’t talk enough in the church about the meaning and purpose of the church itself. We’re not the only ones - as I speak with friends and colleagues in ministry it seems that none of us feel that we are doing as good a job as we should be with regard to equipping God’s people to know the basics of eccelesiology, the doctrine of the church.

We talk about the love of God; we talk about our relationships with each other and with God, we talk about the programs of the church but we don’t talk often enough about the nature of the church itself. However, when Jesus talks about the church and when the New Testament church leaders talk about the church they have in their minds tangible communities that shared universal characteristics. They were public, in the sense that all were welcome. The common denominator was not - at least not in a fundamentally important way - a common affinity for anything or anyone except that each person coming was coming because of their response to the gospel, because of an interest in or love for Jesus.

As these assemblies were maturing, the New Testament leaders, who we refer to as apostles, helped these young churches understand their unique purpose in the world. Just as God dwelt with his people in the OT and desired to demonstrate his love for humankind through Israel, the church was to embrace the continuation of this mission, albeit in an amped up form. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, the church embodies the very presence of Jesus for the world, In the church we drink and eat of God’s love and forgiveness so that we might show the world what it is like to be being made new. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it in what is becoming a banner quote for this new homily series: "The church is, in a real sense, the continuation of the incarnation, the embodied presence of the resurrected Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit... the church is.... the laboratory for communal life before God, the model that the world can see.... as the basis for its own rebirth."

To start thinking of the church in this way brings us very quickly right up against some of the most powerful trends of living and being in our culture wherein we are encouraged to be consumers first and givers second. What is in it for me? What can I get out of this or that experience, etc. This approach to church and life in general is taught more by example than ideology, so it kind of sneaks up on us. But powerfully by example after example we are taught that what enables us to be fulfilled as individuals is found in groups of people who we have a lot in common with. We look for affinity groups where we like the same food; we like the same sports; we have similar political views, we love the same sorts of things and same sorts of people.

However, when we come upon the church of the New Testament, the church for whom Christ died and lives, we meet a group of people who grew to realize that beyond the common loves of social friendships there is a more important common love that is meant to unite people across race and class, a common love that is meant to reconcile enemies, a common love that revolutionizes the use of power in the world as those with power learn that they are to become servants in the same way that Jesus was a servant. This is the way St. Augustine characterized the common love shared in the church:

“Saint Augustine argued in the City of God that a "people" - - any “people” is a group that shares a common love. The better the thing that is loved, the better the people. The church, then, exists as a people to show the world that there is something worthy of love - Jesus Christ.” - paraphrase of a remark made by Dr. Mark Husbands, Professor of Theology, Hope College.

And so, we take up the oneness of the church:

The unity or oneness of the church is probably meant to be taken in two different but related ways. First, that oneness with Jesus means oneness with the divine life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Secondly, Jesus continues to bring people to this oneness through the oneness, or unity, that is at once an attribute and task of the church, the body of Christ.

When we read these words on oneness in John 17 we are stepping into a strong and important theme in John’s gospel, which we are introduced to at the very beginning of the gospel. In the first chapter of the gospel, John tells us that no one has seen God, but that Jesus, who is one with the Father, close to the Father’s heart, makes him known. And so, in John 17 we meet the continuation and expansion of that theme as Jesus expresses in prayer how he will continue to make known the love of God to the world. His means for continuation point to the second dimension of the church’s oneness, because the means is through the corporate (community) life of the church. (Aside: the fact that so many of us can read this portion of John 17 and miss, or underestimate, the community or corporate dimension of what Jesus is talking about is a reminder to us that we don’t think enough about the nature and purpose of the church). And so we meet again another stark reminder that we consume not for ourselves but we consume God’s love so that we may continue its flow to others, “that the world may believe that you have sent me....”

Perhaps it makes you anxious to think of yourself as one of the ones through whom God desires to love others. However, when we consider this weighty thought in the context of John 17 and in the context of the purpose of the church in general, we come to understand that the emphasis is not on the ability of any one individual to convince someone that God loves them through the testimony of any one individual life. Rather, the life we live in community with others is the basic means God uses to paint a picture of his redemptive love at work in redeeming the world. What I mean by this is that your life in community with your brothers and sisters in Christ will be more and more shaped according to the self-giving love of Jesus, so that your life in Christian community bears witness to the unity and the oneness that God desires for all human beings, oneness with the divine life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and oneness with each other.

This means, among other things, that we ought to see caring about unity - not uniformity - but unity around the gospel of Jesus Christ as an aspect of the church’s holiness, a vital characteristic of the people of God and a principle to which we are deeply committed. It is our common relationship to Jesus that unites us across differences of theology and different applications of God’s word to our life in the world. There are some people in our community who are pacifists because of their faith; there are others who disagree with that reading of the gospel but each person can make their case from the same Bible. I am sure you can think of other examples of people in our community who apply the Bible in ways that are different from each other. When people disagree on application but are working out their salvation with the same Lord, they belong in community with each other because both are called by the same Lord and are loved by the same Lord. And when we care deeply about our unity in Christ, the church signals to the world that a genuine unity among very different sorts of people is possible, if only people would respond to God’s love in Christ.

For example, if Christians in the Republican party en masse, and Christians in the Democratic party en masse, would find imaginative ways to let the world know that they care more about what unites them in Christ rather than what divides them politically and morally - wow, this would be quite a statement to the world.

Another example: what would it look like if your neighbors who don’t know of God’s love for them in Christ could see in your life in your church community a way to be united across differences, a model for uniting around life-giving truth, while allowing for diversity - if they could see in your life in your church community a commitment by default to working out differences for the sake of unity....? I think this would make a great impression on behalf of the gospel.

You may say our lack of unity, our lack of ability to achieve the ideal of unity set forth in the New Testament and the Creed is so discouraging that you are tempted to simply withdraw into the comfort of a homogeneous community and say: “well all of this unity in the midst of diversity is just too hard and it is not really achievable anyway”. But this is where it is important to remember that when we confess a commitment to an ideal (and it is important to remember that each of the four marks of the church are ideals, completed in Jesus but imperfectly experienced through us)- when we confess that the church is one in Christ, and strive towards that ideal over and over again, we are making an important signpost of God’s grace in the world. Really friends, what we strive for and are known for striving for is really important; in a fallen world, striving for oneness is an important ideal to work towards because it leads us in the direction of what matters deeply to God and what is most basic to our redemption and the redemption of the world, a share in the divine life.

Questions for discussion:

1. If you were asked by someone who is an outsider to the life of the church to explain what you think Jesus meant when he prayed for oneness in John 17, what would you say? What part of the fallen human condition does Jesus’ prayer for unity address?

2. Do you think of your life in the church community as a reality that should be in some way publicly available to others? If so, how? If not, why not?

3. Do you agree that the ideal of oneness is an important ideal to continually strive towards? Can you talk in your own words about what life looks like when that ideal is set aside?

4. In the lead up to communion I remarked that the first person to think of when we experience a rupture in our relationship with someone is not oneself or even the other person, but Jesus. Jesus is the most important love that Christians share. How do you think you are doing when it comes to thinking of Jesus in this way? How can we help each other make sure that that thought is to us more than a cliche?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why Go To Church?

This past Sunday we began a mini-series of homilies on the doctrine of the church. Why Go To Church? This was the title of the first one. Here is a recap:

Today we are taking up the question: why go to church? There are many ways to answer this question but I think one way of getting at the heart of the matter is to consider an example of what sort of thing God intends to happen in the body of Christ and because of the body of Christ. I say, in the body of Christ because it is the church community, referred to as the body of Christ in the New Testament and in other literature of the early church, that is God’s normative means and instrument, through which he shows the world how to be reconciled to God and to one another. I say because of the body of Christ because it is only through the grace of God at work in the community through the Holy Spirit that true reconciliation can occur.

The example I want to consider with you can be a particularly difficult one to get our heads and hearts around because it is the story of a runaway slave named Onesimus and how Paul urges his master, Philemon, to be reconciled to him. As modern Westerners we, of course, would prefer Paul to have commanded Philemon to free Onesimus. I have included below an addendum that is a brief summary of why the New Testament authors did not take this kind of head-on approach when confronting the social relationships common to the pagan Roman world. However, in this recap, I want our main focus to be on how God uses the church as a theater of redemption for the world to watch.

Luke Timothy Johnson has this to say about the church: "The church is, in a real sense, the continuation of the incarnation, the embodied presence of the resurrected Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit... the church is.... the laboratory for communal life before God, the model that the world can see.... as the basis for its own rebirth."

I can think of no better example of this principle at work than in what Paul prescribes for Philemon, Onesimus and the church that met in Philemon’s home.

Here is a brief summary of what Paul urges but first a little background on this letter:

Philemon was a Christian leader in the churches that met in around Colossae. We can deduce that he came to follow Jesus through Paul's church planting efforts in this region. He and Paul had become friends, Philemon probably had helped financially with Paul's ministry, and now one of the regional churches met in Philemon's home. Onesimus, one of Philemon's household slaves had run away, perhaps stealing money on the way out the door. Somehow Onesimus ends up coming to Paul who is under house arrest - perhaps in Rome? He becomes converted and Paul desires to see Philemon and Onesimus reconciled. Most likely, Onesimus carried this letter to Philemon, asking for reconciliation, along with the epistle to the Colossians when he returned from being with Paul to home.

The gospel at work!

What is so remarkable about this letter is how Paul goes about leading these two brothers into reconciliation with one another. He does it through a bold series of representational identifications putting into action his words in 2 Corinthians 5:18 where he challenges us to a ministry of reconciliation. First, Paul identifies himself and Philemon as brothers in Christ (v7). Secondly, he identifies himself as Onesimus' father ( v.10). Lastly he urges Philemon to accept Onesimus and be reconciled to him as no longer a slave, but as a dear brother (v.16). Later in the letter he identifies himself with Onesimus yet again when he tells Philemon to charge whatever Onesimus owes him to his (Paul's) account. This whirlwind of identifications all suggest one thing: Paul is boldly representing Christ to Philemon and to Onesimus. As one theologian has put it, Paul is standing in the middle of them with one arm on each of them and drawing them together, mirroring Christ's role as mediator between us and our father. Luther saw in Paul's logic a great picture of the gospel. Paul is taking Onesimus' debt to himself and appealing to Philemon not based on his feelings for Onesimus but on Philemon's feelings for him (Paul). Basically Paul is saying this: reconcile with Onesimus because of your love for me, because of my love for Onesimus, and charge his debt to me. This is rhetorical drama at its best. Paul has painted a picture with words where he plays the role of Christ, thus subtly yet surely drawing Philemon into the presence of Christ and his reconciling love for him, Paul, and Onesimus. Paul has truly appealed to Philemon based on love (v.9) and not law, knowing that only love can produce true transformation and reconciliation.

To put it another way with a slightly different emphasis, in the exhortation to Philemon we have Paul creating an analogy of the gospel by the way he appeals to Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus. Philemon is beckoned to be reconciled to Onesimus because of Paul’ love for both of them and, implicitly, because of God’s family love for all of them. Just as God has received all of us because of Christ, Philemon is to receive Onesimus. Philemon is being exhorted to give up his rights as a Roman pater familia, or head of household and recognize his identity as an equal to Onesimus in the family of God. One cannot help but think here of the Christ hymn in Philippians 1 where believers are exhorted to take on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God as something to be used to his advantage but emptied himself and took on the form of the slave. Philemon is to take on the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, that of a slave, emptying himself of his power, and becoming a slave to his servant, Onesimus.

Onesimus and Philemon are invited, exhorted, to turn their lives over to the work of gospel - they are to be reconciled through the power of the Holy Spirit. The main point I want to draw from all of this is that the place ordained of God for this sort of gospel reconciliation to happen is in the church, the laboratory for communal life before God (see above) that the world watches for clues about how to experience the renewal God intends for humanity. Note very well that this letter is a letter not just to Philemon but to the public gathering meeting in his home; this reconciliation is meant to happen in the context of the public church and because of the church, teaching us that the gospel is meant to be performed physically and acted out physically in relationships within the public body of Christ. We are called and graced by God, through our involvement with church, to be the physical representation of God’s salvation in the world, pointing forwards, in hope, to the consummation of God’s redemptive work. It is through the church that God has put on display for all to see the power of his redemption at work.

Questions for discussion:

1. It is often said that Christians in our society suffer from a consumer mentality when it comes to thinking through our commitment to the physical body of Christ, the church. Do you agree? Explain it in your own words and offer examples.

2. Does it put you in awe to think of the church as a laboratory for the world to learn from? What is the most important sort of thing the world is meant to learn from the church according to the Luke Timothy Johnson quote from above? Based on your conversations with folks from outside the church, what do you think most people have learned from their observation of churches? (I know there are as many answers as people to to this but maybe your own anecdote will be helpful to the group.)

3. If you were to say in your own words why you want to be in the habit of going to church, what would you say?


Let me be the first to say that the letter to Philemon in the New Testament is a difficult letter to deal with, especially in our socio-cultural setting. Apart from simply being so distant from our experience, the letter begs so many questions. Why in this letter and elsewhere does St. Paul not, in the name of God's kingdom, call for an abolition to slavery? Why does he not just tell Philemon outright that he ought not to own slaves instead of begging the two of them to reconcile with each other as equals in Christ. A full answer, whatever a full answer would be, to these questions would take us far afield from what we can do this morning but we can note a couple of things quickly. If Paul had chosen to challenge Rome with an anti-slavery message, the rising Christian movement would have probably been snuffed out like so many other failed slave revolts; indeed, it would have likely been perceived widely as nothing more than a salve revolt, so common and fleeting were they. Instead, Paul in Philemon and elsewhere, sews the seeds of a new society, where social relationships in the church begin to mimic the perfectly egalitarian Kingdom of God where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male and female, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (conflation of Col.3:11; Gal.3:28). We need to remember that because of this the gospel was the most dangerous - in a good way - sort of challenge to the abuses of power built into Roman law; because, rather than confronting authoritarianism and its abuses in a typically revolutionary way, the gospel created a new community within the old world and rendered Roman law ultimately irrelevant to the relationships of the new humanity in the body of Christ, the church.

This is how New Testament Scholar, Gordon Fee talks about the revolutionary power of the gospel with regard to the kind of social relationships in the Roman world where people had power over others: male and female; fathers and children; masters and slaves, etc.:

“Such.... ....was not intended to abolish the structures, which were held in place by Roman law. Rather, it was intended forever to do away with the significance attached to such structural differences, which pitted one group of human beings against another. And the most radical thing of all was that such people - Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women - shared a common meal together, itself a cause for cultural shame, and thus celebrated their Lord’s death until he was to come again—which, as 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 makes clear, created considerable tension for the traditional householder. No wonder the world had such difficulty with these early Christians, and why they were considered to be “haters of humanity,” because they so willingly broke the rules - not by tearing down the structures, but by making them ultimately irrelevant! Such people are greatly to be feared as they are the worst of all possible anarchists.
So what in the end is it that makes our present text so radically counter-cultural? What Paul obviously did not do was to demolish the structures and create new ones. What was radical lay in his urging those who are filled with the Spirit and worship Christ as Lord to have totally transformed relationships within the household.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Counting The Cost

Luke 14:25-33

This Sunday we came to the end of our summer survey of Jesus’ parables. The parables before us in Luke come up in the context of very sobering challenges to committed discipleship. In the passage as a whole Jesus says things that really set you back on your heels when you take them in. If they don’t set you back on your heels then you are not really hearing them with the force Jesus intended.

A disciple of Jesus must:

* hate father and mother
* hate his or her own life
* carry the cross
* give up all of his or her posessions

What does Jesus mean by all of this? Does the one who said love your neighbor as yourself really mean that one must embrace an asceticism that is equal to self-loathing in order to be a faithful disciple? Does the one who said that he did not come to contradict the law but fulfill it mean quite literally that one must hate one’s father and mother instead of honoring them? Is every person to take a vow of poverty in order to be Jesus’ disciple?

It is in the parables in this passage that we get some clues as to how to read rightly Jesus’ sobering challenges. New Testament scholar, T.E. Schmidt offers this helpful interpretive insight with regard to the parables before us and I paraphrase just a tad: ‘When trying to decide what Jesus means by counting the cost the crux of the issue does not lie in ‘counting the cost’ in order to make sure one has enough resources within oneself... the point is that no matter what calculus one uses, no matter what resources one believes one can bring to bear, those assets will be insufficient to secure one’s status before God. Alternative and decisive action is thus required for everyone....”

Schmidt’s insight is very helpful because he offers a framework whereby we can understand at once the seriousness of Jesus’ call to take up the cross and the fact that we cannot fulfill these demands without the grace that comes through “alternative and decisive action” (i.e. repentance).

So, when Jesus challenges his followers to renounce family, life itself, and possessions his goal is not so much to scare people away but to challenge people to move into a deeper and more genuine love of God through him. It is like a person who is so in love with another that they keep saying things like this to them: “I love you, I want to be with you forever, but I really wonder sometimes if you love me in the same way? I mean you seem like you love your family more than you love me; it seems like you love your stuff more than you love me; it seems like you want to keep your options open. When a lover says this to their lover, normally it is not to dissuade the beloved from committing. Rather, those hard words are said to them with the hope that they will respond in a deeper love that leaves no questions about the trajectory they want for the relationship.

Jesus says what he says here so that we understand what the stakes are in following him. To follow Jesus as a disciple we must learn to renounce idolatrous relationships to the things that this world offers us as identities to be assumed or as security to be clung to. Instead, we must look for our identity to be formed not according to what our culture offers us but according to what Jesus gives us as renewed human beings who belong to a new family and a new humanity.

What Jesus is saying is that we can relate ourselves to the resources that this life offers in such a way as to draw us away from a truly life-giving experience with Jesus by enslaving us to patterns of living that are ultimately idolatrous. Our relationships to family, material things, and “life itself” all offer plenty of opportunities for cheap substitutes for the life God wants for us. Let’s look at family first.

Jesus says unless you hate your family that you cannot be my disciple... well, what is going on here? In the social setting in which Luke recorded this strong teaching of Jesus, family ties were far more than sentimental connections that drew people together for holidays. Family honor was all important. One’s identity was drawn from one’s family. To walk away from family and to follow Jesus would have often been interpreted by the family and the friends of the family as an act of hating one’s family, particularly if the family did not approve of Jesus. The point is that even when the heart of the disciple has nothing but love for his or her family, the family might declare the disciple to be a hater of family and an embarrassment to the family, particularly if the family disapproved of Jesus.

Connections to biological family are still powerful in our socio-cultural setting. Let’s say that in your family growing up that the most important value in the family was to not upset the ‘honor’ of the family, even when the ‘honor’ was propped up at the expense of the truth. The power of this family dynamic may make it hard for you to even hear Jesus and the gospel when the gospel makes it clear that what is truly honorable in life is to confess that you have no honor apart from the honor bestowed on you as a forgiven sinner. In this way your relationship to your family’s honor may keep you from even being able to tell what Jesus is saying because you can’t imagine he would ask for that sort of honesty and humility. For example, the older son in the Story of the Prodigal Son cannot think of honor working in this way but the father points the way to how a true disciple thinks of family honor when he runs out to greet the son who had brought dishonor on the family.... talk about a different calculus at play.... the father in this story says, ‘I don’t care what the village thinks about honor’ - the father knew that true honor is when reconciliation happens no matter how dishonorable were the actions of the son.

Those of us who did not learn or see the gospel in our families (none of us did perfectly anyway), may find it very hard to truly and strongly yearn to have our identity reconstructed in Christ’s new family. Until we do, we will find ourselves repeating destructive patterns with our partners, spouses, other family members, children, or closest friends.

With regard to material possessions:

Jesus wants us to know that an obsession with material possessions, an obsession with keeping what we have or getting more can often become the negative energy that keeps us distant from the riches of his kingdom. This is very tricky because you don’t have to have much to be distracted by material things. Just the obsessive desire to have more can draw our focus away from our need to use the life we have to bless others. Addiction to having more just brings so much static into our lives that we can’t listen to God because our passions are obsessed by wanting to have that handbag we really can’t afford or that car we can’t afford but is something we must have at any cost.... or the extra nights of partying that don’t fit in our budget.... etc. But there are still other, more subtle, ways to allow an inappropriate relationship to money to distract us from faithfully following Jesus. There are some who choose under-employment for all of the right reasons and as a result of a wise process of discernment. There are others who, in the name of a simple life, choose to not work much or choose radical under-employment; in so doing they have become a burden on those around them. For these folks, they have allowed their frustration with the materialism in our culture to lead them into a life-style they have called holy according to their own ethic of personal comfort instead of really asking Jesus how they should live and work.

What about lust? Well lust is especially tricky because Jesus makes it clear that the path that leads us to join our sexual desires with the kind of love that Jesus brings into our lives cannot be walked according to simply what we don’t do physically. We all remember his famous words about lust - you have heard it said that you must not commit adultery.... I say not to lust in your hearts. This teaching of Jesus shows us just how how easy it is to objectify others with our sexual passions without ever touching them; and a life consumed by such lusts - not interrupted by repentance - will, of course, lead us away from the life giving love of Jesus. Well, in those moments of life consuming lust, you turn to Jesus and say - give me your clothes - I repent of objectifying this person in my heart - I repent of wanting sex more than I want to be controlled by your life-giving love.

When we repent of our sins that relate to our desire for material things, when we repent of not breaking with certain family patterns that lead us away from the gospel, when we repent of the sort of lusts that lead us to a really unsatisfying and destructive life - when we repent in all of these areas we are kept on a journey of discipleship, a journey to wholeness... and a journey to human flourishing. In the end, probably the best way to talk about what Schmidt refers to above as “alternative and decisive action” is a life-style of thoughtful reflection upon the truth of one’s life, followed by regular repentance.

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you think of a pattern in your family of origin that has made it difficult for you to hear and live the gospel? Can you think of a pattern in your family of origin that has made it easier to hear and live the gospel?

2. Can you think of times when the desire for some experience that cost money kept you from something you should have been doing? For example, one thinks of Miroslav Volf’s simple observation that it requires effort for parents to make the time and resources to play with their kids and otherwise be good parents, given the plethora of adult distractions on offer in our culture.

3. If you had to put in a couple of non-prudish sentences why God cares about what people do sexually, what would you say? How would you inform your thoughts with the gospel - in other words, how would you say something about sex that could not be said simply according to the Old Testament?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When Self-Righteousness Goes Unchecked

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus’ parables sometimes paint a picture of what sorts of practices will be welcomed and what sorts are not allowed in Jesus’ kingdom. In the parable at hand we meet a practice that has no place in Jesus’ kingdom: the practice of self-justification coupled with feelings of superiority and scorn for others. In this same parable Jesus holds up an example of what sort of religious practice is welcome in the kingdom. The practice of humility that comes from those who know they are poor in spirit, those who know they are sinners and admit their sin; those who ask for and receive mercy - this practice is welcome in Jesus’ kingdom because it makes for human flourishing.

Some have observed that the two characters in this parable have two different images of God. “The Pharisee’s image presupposed a God who is impressed with pious acts and feelings of superiority towards others.” But the tax collector did not presuppose anything, so truly humble was he. Rather, he hoped for a God who met people with forgiveness when they sincerely asked for mercy.

What image of God do we project in our church or our community of friends, colleagues, or neighbors? In the way we approach our relationship to God and to others do we project an image of God that makes people feel as if church is a place where everyone has to have their act together, at least in a certain kind of way, in order to be welcomed and cared for? One commentator has suggested that the modern-day counterpart of the Pharisee would be welcomed into leadership in many churches today because of his outward piety, generosity with his money and reputation for clean living; no one would seriously evaluate whether or not the same person is unrepentantly prideful and scornful.

Clearly, the image of God that we should desire to project is the image of a merciful God who welcomes sinners, who exalts the humble, who meets us in the messiness and brokenness of our lives and grants life-giving mercy and forgiveness so that we can begin to be restored from our sin and brokenness and more conformed to the love of Christ.

So for you and for me this parable suggests that we should take stock of our approach to God and to others with regard to the sins of pride and scorn. Here are some questions for self-diagnosis:

* Do you find yourself taking a little bit - even if it is just a little bit - of satisfaction when you see someone suffering from the consequences of their bad choices, the consequences of their sin? Perhaps you had warned the same person of the likely consequences of their actions and now they are reaping the consequences.... do you feel compassion or a sense of self-satisfaction? If it is the latter, we must repent of our pride.
* Do you feel like no one has anything to teach you if they don’t know as much as you do about the scriptures or theology as you think you do? If so, we need to take stock and ask God to break us of our spiritual pride.
* Similarly, do you feel like no one has anything to teach you who does not have their life together according to how you define what it means for one to have their life put together? If so then you need to take stock and look at your spiritual pride and ask God to break you of that.
* Does your pursuit of God and the holiness of God lead you to want to push others away from you? Do you need to feel superior to certain sorts of people and distance yourself from a certain sort in order to feel safe and holy? Is so, you need to take stock of your spiritual pride.

In the abstract world of ideas perhaps self-justification can exist without the need to put others down. However, this parable and life in general teach us that self-justification needs comparisons to others like fish need water. If your security in your relationship with God depends on your feeling superior to others then your relationship with God is headed in the wrong direction. Our growth towards maturity can only happen in a community where we abandon the temptation to see ourselves as better than others and repent of that sort of pride if and when it rears its ugly head.

Now, it would be one thing if Jesus had made his point in the language of abstract theological argument but he did not. Instead, he put human faces on the two practices we have been talking about. Clearly, the forceful teaching of this parable is that one practice is welcomed in the kingdom and the other one not. However, it is important, with this parable and all parables, to read them in light of the entire Gospel message. The whole counsel of the Gospel reminds us that there is a little, or a lot, of the Pharisee in all of us and we realize that it would be wrong to demonize the Pharisee, while thanking God that we are not like him! Instead we should realize that the distance between the Pharisee from the tax collector in the temple is the measure of Christ’s cross; Jesus’ love is for them both and for all of us. May the image of God that we project at Grace Chicago Church be a portrait of a God who is truly welcoming of all people.

1. When you feel yourself moving in the direction of self-justification what is usually behind that movement? What prompts that temptation for you?

2. Can you think of an occasion where you learned something profound about God’s love or grace from someone who, in your estimation, knew very little about God in comparison to you? Was this humbling for you? Did you learn something good from that experience?

3. If you feel compelled to express concern to someone about their behavior because you love them and want them to experience growth and human flourishing what guidelines do you put in place to help you do it in a way that is humble and loving?

4. If you distance yourself from someone because of their sinful behavior how can you discern whether your self-distancing is for a good and wise reason or whether it is simply because you feel self-righteous towards that person?

In our post 9/11 world we find ourselves thinking a great deal more, perhaps than we used to, about being secure. In some instances when we feel very vulnerable we think we would like to feel secure at almost any cost. The answer to the question how much should we invest in our security for our families or our nation is not an easy one to answer. Just last night, for example, we had an intruder in our backyard; I called 911 and stayed in for a while just to be relatively sure the situation had become safer before I finished my cigar out back. All the while we kept our 4 year old away from the windows in case the intruder was being chased by armed gang members. Now there are padlocks on the gates.....

I thought about this theme of security with regard to our parable this week as I considered how many Muslims or people who look like Muslims have suffered various indignities and suffering since 9/11 - all because so many Americans are now afraid of Muslims. Here are some remarks by Miroslav Volf along this theme - good food for thought, in my opinion. The following is excerpted from his opening remarks given at a Yale conference entitled, “Are We Safe Enough?”

“As we observed these dimensions of the security situation in which we find
ourselves today across the broad spectrum of our life, we also, being at a
theological school, tried to take a look at religious faith and theological
traditions to see what they might have to say about security. And to our
surprise, we found very little reflection on such a fundamental issue as is
security. It’s not that we didn’t find primary religious statements on security in
the tradition and in the Scriptures in which our traditions are based. In the
Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (or as we Christians call it, the Old Testament),
for instance, the psalmist often prays to God, who is “my refuge.” What is the
talk of God as “refuge” other than relating security to God? Or take a look at the
very end of the Christian Bible—it ends with the image of the New Jerusalem.
And if you read carefully about this New Jerusalem, you find it is a city that is
utterly and completely secured that can never be undone.

Security is a very important theme in biblical traditions, but theologians have
slept through their reading of those portions of the Bible. They haven’t taken
up that issue of security, they have not reflected much on how what biblical
traditions say about security relates to our contemporary search for security.
So we thought it important for us first to reflect on our own about this theme
and then to consider what kind of contribution religious reflection might make
to the wider debate about security. That’s why security.

But why then vulnerability? Well, vulnerability is obviously the reason why we
pursue security. If we were not vulnerable, the question of security would never
arise. I’m a theologian, and presumably I can say with some degree of
confidence that God needs no security force to protect God’s throne. God is by
definition inviolable. Human beings are not by definition inviolable. We need to
have our existence and our well being secured. That is why those lights flash on
the buses when kids get on and off of them; that’s why we lock our homes at
night and sometimes also during the day; that’s why we have a police force,
and so on.

But vulnerability also touches on security in another way: human vulnerability
places a limit on the pursuit of security. It determines in part, or at least shapes
in part, the nature of what it means to be secure. For vulnerability is
fundamental to who we are as human beings. To be inviolable is to be divine; to
be human is to be, and I think is always to remain, vulnerable. You can almost
put it this way, that vulnerability is the essential condition of human life. No
vulnerability, no human life.

Now that has very important implications for what it means to pursue security
and, I think, places certain limits on security. We tend to think that the more
secure we are, the better off we will be. But can vulnerable persons ever be fully
secure? Can we ever create conditions of inviolability? Isn’t it the case that for
vulnerable creatures to be inviolable is a contradiction in terms? And if we could
create conditions in which we would be fully secure, would it be desirable to do
so? Would it be good to create a world of total security? What kind of world
would it be? What implications would it have for freedom and for
unpredictability, which is related fundamentally to our freedom? What
implications would inviolable security have for the interdependence of human
beings, which qualifies us as human beings? Wouldn’t inviolability be the
equivalent of being an individual fortress, a completely independent individual
or a nation? And given human nature, would we not as such precisely be a
danger for others? So these are some of the reasons we chose to deal with
vulnerability and the limits of security.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Two Debtors Luke 7:36-50

This recap is for the passage of Scripture taken up this past Sunday. The recap is in two parts: 1. Remarks at the Lord's table and 2. The Homily Recap. Additionally, there is a mini-excursus on justice in the homily recap portion.

Remarks at the Lord’s Table:

In Luke’s narrative before us this Sunday we found Jesus asking Simon a very pointed question - do you see this woman? Simon was looking at her but Jesus is suggesting that if he could really see her for who she was that life could be very different for Simon, life could take a dramatic turn for the better. Some see in what she is doing a picture of what Jesus will do later for his disciples, as she washes his feet. Clearly, what Jesus saw was a woman who had been forgiven showing her love in the best way she knew how; and in a very humble way. Simon could only see her as someone who he had put into an unchangeable category. To Simon, this woman was a permanent sinner and never to be a part of his community, let alone a welcomed guest in his home. One commentator has noted that Jesus’ ability to see people - not just look at them - is an invitation and challenge to each of us to desire to see every person as full of potential and to treat them that way. To see each person in the world as someone who God loves, forgives, and desires to experience forgiveness, will help us go a long way towards treating others as God would want us to treat them. When we come to the communion table we should know that God is not just looking at us but that he sees us through eyes that behold the vision of who we are becoming in Christ, as those who receive forgiveness. May we receive forgiveness and show love lavishly in the same way as the woman who washes Jesus’ feet.

Homily Recap:

Today we continue in our reflections on the parables of Jesus as we take up a very short parable. In order to challenge Simon’s vision of the woman in his house Jesus tells his dinner host a story about two debtors, one who is forgiven a great debt and the other forgiven a relatively small debt. He tells the story as a way of inviting Simon to be able to see God’s grace at work in the world from God’s point of view. Sadly, Simon, like you and me, has trouble seeing people the way God does.

Simon sees himself as good and the woman as bad. He sees Jesus as less than a prophet because in Simon’s estimation Jesus can’t see who this woman really is. Simon needs to be able to see everything differently if he is going to be able to understand rightly what God is doing in the world through Christ. At least three things are necessary for Simon to be able to see rightly.

First, he needs to understand that God is first and foremost about the business of forgiving people and calling them to experience that forgiveness through confession and repentance. For Simon, there would have likely been a list of things that God was most concerned about but desiring to bring forgiveness to every person in the whole world would not have been anywhere near the top of the list and maybe not on the list at all. Like many Pharisees in Jesus’ day, Simon likely located the Satan that Yahweh opposed in the oppressive Romans. The thought that God’s salvation of the world would begin with the renewal of sinful human hearts within Israel for the sake of Romans and everyone else would not have been in Simon’s program. How about you and me? Do we see God as being driven by a desire to forgive ALL people? Do we see our family, our group of friends, our neighborhoods, our work places as the spaces where God wants to manifest his desire to forgive all people? When we see the radical universality of God’s desire to forgive we come a bit closer to seeing things rightly.

A parenthetical thought or two about justice and the “day” of judgment:

But what about justice? Isn’t God mainly driven by a desire to make thing just? If we let love define our understanding of what justice looks like then perhaps so. But often what we imagine to motivate God in seeking justice looks something like a passion for retribution more than a passion to see people who do just things because they have been forgiven. However, if we think of justice as defined by love, then we can say that, in one sense, God is all about justice. He will not allow evil and injustice to go on forever and nothing evil or unjust will have a place in the shalom of the world to come. It is imperative, though, to remember that God’s logic and method for making this world into the new heavens and the earth is by populating it with people who have been forgiven and who learn how to love as God loves. God wipes out what opposes his shalom fundamentally through the process of reclaiming sinful people by forgiving them, not by wiping them out. In the end, those who use the dignity of their freedom to finally resist God’s forgiveness, make hell for themselves. That potential for human freedom remains to us but an abstract concept since we don’t know exactly how God deals with people in the end But as a concept it only serves to highlight that God’s way with the world is to keep pursuing people with his love, inviting them to be forgiven.

The second thing that needs to happen for Simon is that he needs to see himself as one who needs to be able to love like the woman loves. But to be able to love in that way he needs to see himself as one who needs to be forgiven in the same way the woman saw her need for forgiveness. Simon would not have seen it that way as is obvious from the narrative. But how about us? Do we measure how much we are approved of by God according to how good we think we are being in relationship to those who we think are not doing well at all? Now don’t get me wrong. When you see something that by God’s grace and through his empowering presence you have done that is good and beautiful you should be happy and thankful and celebrate. But we must take care to recognize that the love that gives birth to such goodness and beauty is always born out of our ongoing experience of being forgiven. To put it succinctly, we must learn to see our fundamental identity as that of forgiven people - not as people who are good or as people who achieve great things. If you see your identity as one who is forgiven, you will do great things. But if you see your identity as one who does great things you will be self-deceived and live a small life in the end. I wonder how many relationships would change for the better if each person in the relationship really understood their identity as one who has been forgiven much?

Finally, Simon needed to be able to see that every person is a person who God wishes to forgive; and he needed to see his community as a place of welcome for all no matter how offensive to him a person’s life and choices might have been. How about you and me? Do we see some people as being permanently off limits to our version of God’s community?

Summing things up....
This entire portion of Luke’s narrative hinges on this one question:
“Simon do you see this woman?” He was looking at her but he did not see her. If he sees her love as something he needs; if he sees her forgiveness as something he needs; then he will see Jesus as not merely a prophet but more than a prophet: he is the one who knows Simon’s heart and the one who can do more than a prophet can do. Jesus can forgive Simon’s sins.

How about you and me? Do we see her?

Questions for discussion:

1. Jesus demonstrates who Simon should welcome into his home and community by welcoming the woman and suggesting that she has shown better hospitality in his own home than Simon has. What does this make you think of with regard to your habits of hospitality? What about the hospitality of our church community as a whole? How can you apply this to your life situation?

2. Do you have trouble loving others? If so, have you thought about whether or not you are experiencing God’s forgiveness deeply and regularly through the discipline of honest confession and grateful repentance?

3. Part of what this parable teaches, in my opinion, is that how we see others impacts how we see ourselves and how we see God. Can you think of an occasion when you stubbornly refused to see someone as God sees him or her but then later came to see them more as God sees them? What was like for you?

4. Do you sometimes use your passion for justice as an excuse for not loving others or holding out grace them?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

the Mustard Seed

Sometimes Jesus' parables are answers to questions whether they are asked out loud or not. The parable of the mustard seed appears to be such a parable. Jesus' had been performing miracles and saying things that made the faithful wonder about God's coming kingdom. When would it come in fullness? By what means would God establish his kingdom? What would God's power look like. Jesus was healing and forgiving sins but at the same time people were still sick and dying, Rome was still in power, and Israel was still under foreign rule. In the midst of all of this Jesus likens the coming of God's kingdom to the size and growth of the mustard seed: a small beginning will yield huge results!

I wonder if Paul thought about this parable as he wrote to the Corinthians about the foolishness of the cross. God's power appeared weak in the cross of Christ but the argument of the gospel is that, through the cross, will come the healing of the nations.

In our cultural setting we are constantly bombarded with images of what counts most for strength. Eros and material riches are often presented in advertising and other cultural mediums as versions of power to be celebrated in a way that invites the celebrant to perform acts of de facto worship, as he fantasizes about having more of that sort of power and what it might yield in his life. Also, as Westerners, political power and military might can become idols as well, tempting us to sideline and domesticate the meaning of Jesus' cross. Or, to think in terms of our ordinary, daily life: winning and argument or being right can many times be more important to us than loving others.

The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that God's ways are foreign to the ways of this world and that we must discipline ourselves to recognize God's ways as holding the ultimate and only true hope for our lives and the life of the world. But what does it look like to learn to recognize and put into practice God's ways in the midst of our mundane lives. Think about the last time you were really mad at someone in the midst of an ongoing argument or conflict. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that sometimes in those situations we come to a place where our love for the person and our hope for their overall well-being has been put into the background of our concerns, while anger and perhaps loathing have taken over the foreground of our passions and concerns. In these settings we need to start with how God is building his kingdom in the world and work backwards to our mundane situation. We must learn to ask ourselves questions like this: is God really building his kingdom through Christ's work on the cross? If so, what does this mean to us in the middle of our conflict where our rage and self-righteousness have taken the driver's seat with regard to our concern for the one with whom we are angry? We must learn to look at each other through the cross of Christ, recognizing that the power of the gospel is God's power to redeem the world; the mustard seed will prevail.

Questions for discussion:

1. If someone were to ask you how God is at work in the world how would you answer them? Do you think that you might be able to work the parable of the mustard seed into the conversation?

2. We have suggested that the story of the mustard confronts our expectations and redefines the way we think about how God is at work in the world. Can you give an example of how you have changed your expectations of how God is at work in your life and/or the world based on a growing and deeper understanding of the gospel? What do you need more of in your life in order to think more rightly about how God is at work in the world?

3. How can you demonstrate your genuine love for someone while still being in disagreement with them? What sorts of things could you say or do to illustrate that your love for them remains more important to you than your disagreement?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Sower - Part 1

We are beginning today a series on the parables of Jesus. One Pastor has put it this way regarding one reason that Jesus spoke in parables: “Jesus tells stories to break up the worldviews of his hearers and open them to a new way of life.”

Let’s stop and think about that for a second. I think all of us can relate to the idea that when we are left just to our own way of thinking about life that we can get pretty wrapped up in ourselves and can tend to imagine that our own way of thinking about things is the best way of thinking about things. But perhaps we meet someone or hear a story about something and get jolted. Then, for at least a period of time after hearing the story, we are challenged about how we think about the most important things in life. We stop, think, and become willing to challenge some long held assumptions and convictions; and we become open to the possibility that we may be wrong about some things.

Let me give you an example:
I can recall a friend of mine who held a certain set of convictions about politics and economics. He was very certain of how public policy should be made with regard to the poor. He basically thought that if someone did not have a job - like someone living in an economically challenged neighborhood like Austin or Lawndale in Chicago - he thought it was simply because they did not want one or had not looked hard enough. For a period of time we worked alongside each other in the Austin neighborhood. During this time he heard story after story from one unemployed person after another, stories of how hard it was for some people to extract themselves from multi-generational poverty. He heard the stories from the lips of those caught in the cycle of poverty. One day, my friend said to me, I am going to have to rethink how I approach policy issues that touch on these issues. I now see that things are not as simple as I thought they were. Now, if any number of people had tried to make a straight-forward argument to this person, trying to get him to at least be willing to call into question some of his most cherished assumptions about the chronically unemployed, not to mention some of his assumptions that undergirded his political and economic views relating to the poor, he would have not been very open to listening. But witnessing a story, an indirect form of communication, well this caught his attention.

Jesus’ parables, sometimes called indirect forms of communication, do just that. They create a thought world where certain things happen in a certain way. Sometimes the events of the story occur in such a way as to surprise or even shock the hearer. One thinks of the day laborer who is hired at the end of the day and receives the same amount of money as those who have been working all day. This story is clearly designed to shock and even offend a certain way of thinking. Sometimes the events of the parable occur in such a way as to simply cause the listener to question what they think they know to be true. One thinks here about the parable at hand, the parable of the sower. Only some seeds grow out of all the ones sown? The story is told to get a person to stop, think and question. How does growth happen? Jesus is ready to tell them how and more on this in a minute.

What seems common to a lot of the parables and to the one at hand today is Jesus’ intent to get the listener to stop thinking about God in his or her own wisdom and preconceived notions and to learn about God and God’s ways FROM HIM, through a discipleship relationship with him.

In this way Jesus is presenting himself in the vein of the OT prophet, confronting God’s people with their lack of sensitivity to God’s ways, their complacency towards his pursuit of relationship with them, their arrogance in assuming they know all they need to know about God because they fancy themselves to have already done and believed what is necessary - the card has been punched, so to speak. Jesus calls such people to repentance and renewal; and it seems that one of his preferred ways of taking up the mantle of prophet was through the telling of parables. Jesus, like the OT prophets, was pronouncing judgment on those who had become oblivious and hardened to God’s ways, while simultaneously calling forth a faithful remnant - even from among the hardened - of those who, in their response to God’s initiative, become the ones through whom God will make his appeal to all people.

Now, back to the sower. This parable asks us to reconsider our way of thinking about how God desires for us to relate to him. There is much to be said about this parable but I want to consider a couple of different applications from it in the time we have left today.

Jesus says that some seeds are choked out when suffering comes. Many of us, whether we would admit it or not, move away from God when suffering comes. Whether the suffering is because of being persecuted for our association with Jesus or whether it comes simply from the harshness of living in a fallen and sinful world, we often focus on the suffering and allow our frustration with suffering to distract us from God’s love for us and the way he wishes to be present with us and through us in the suffering we are experiencing. Sometimes when we suffer, we turn to the literal or metaphorical drug of our choice to drown out the pain; in so doing we not only block the opportunity for God to meet us at the point of our deepest ache and fear, but we also lose the opportunity to bring God’s love to others through our mutual share in the cross of Christ. Suffering is bad enough but allowing it to keep us from seeking God and bringing his love to each other in the midst of our suffering, well, that is certainly worse. Don’t get me wrong, when I visit someone in the hospital I struggle with doubt, cynicism, and a lack of faith. But I go to bring the love of the wounded healer (Nouwen’s phrase not mine) - the same love that rescues me when I am in the depth of despair.

Jesus says that some seeds don’t grow because the cares of the world are given priority over the priorities of God. What about the cares of the world, the lure of wealth, desire for other things? Well, instead of saying something silly, like trying to offer some formula that will ensure you are never distracted from God’s kingdom (e.g. you should never own a car that costs more than x percent of your income, etc.), I think it is is more to the point to ask of ourselves whether or not we imagine growth in God comes automatically to us as passive recipients, or whether we need to work at it like we need to work at anything that is worthwhile in this life. For example, is our attention to God and to actively serving him through our commitment to serving one another in the context of Christian community something that consumes some time and effort, or do we take care of it at the margins? Do we make regular worship at least as much a priority as recreation is to us? Is our commitment to serving and giving to the poor something that occupies an important place in our lives or is it at the margins? But what about grace, you say!? Well, to be sure the love and grace of God is always there for us, calling us to freely come and freely receive acceptance, embrace and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is, to use the title of Miroslav Volf’s great book: Free of Charge. But the freedom of grace is meant to urge us to be active participants in God’s kingdom - not passive recipients who seem to imagine that what is important about God can be taken care of at the margins of our busy lives where everything else takes pride of place. In this story of the seed that dies because of the cares of this world, Jesus says that life would look different and infinitely better if we called into question and repented of the ways we marginalise our relationship with God. But now, on the other side of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead we also know Jesus as the one who meets us in the margins, and gently but firmly calls us back to himself so that we might have life and life in abundance! May we respond to his call.

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you think of the last time you felt jarred out of what you later would realize was a period in your life characterized by complacency with regard to your relationship with God? What jarred you?

2. How can we guard against falling into complacency with regard to our relationship with God or other important relationships for that matter?

3. Does suffering cause you to distance yourself from God? What could help you, instead, to move towards God in the midst of trials or suffering?

4. So, we’re assuming there is no one-size-fits-all formula for making sure God and the affairs of his kingdom take their rightful place in our life. How then, can you and I gauge whether the cares of this world are taking too much of our time, energy and resources?