Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When a Father Refuses to Be 'Un-Fathered"

As we embark on the season of Lent we will be meditating a great deal on the importance of taking in God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and love - hence, the thoughts leading up to communion. Really, when we think about it for a little bit it becomes pretty obvious that the whole of Jesus’ ministry is focused on bringing people into reconciliation with God and with each other. Jesus, by the example of how he lived, by what he taught, and through the power of his atoning death, created and creates the context for people to forgive those who sin against them.

So, it is no surprise that we find Jesus’ emphasis on reconciliation amplified in the New Testament writings of the early church. For example, Paul develops this theme as he summarizes what it means to imitate God’s love: to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God.

Ephesians 4:31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5:1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

However, anyone who has seriously tried to live as an imitator of God in this way knows that it is a hard discipline to learn and we will spend our whole lives learning it.

Perhaps the most basic reason why this is a hard discipline to learn is because we allow the injustices done to us by others to control us and make us into people who become defined by a wish for revenge. It often the case that we have a passion for those who hurt us to be punished and excluded forever from our lives instead of hoping for them to be forgiven and then given back to us in reconciliation.

(Now, a quick parenthesis - there are many instances on this side of the world to come where victims need to not speak with again or even be in proximity to those who violated them; but even then, the desire for the enemy to be reconciled to God and to the one sinned against, even if only in the world to come, is the gospel shaped passion that Jesus’ followers are to pray for and strive for).

At the heart of the gospel stands Jesus who refuses to allow his identity to be shaped by those who hate him . All the way through his crucifixion we hear him forgiving those who have persecuted him and sinned against him. So, the question we will consider is how can we become imitators of God in this way? How can we become those who conform our lives to Jesus’ pattern of being an agent of reconciliation?

Our thesis: the degree to which we feel secure in God’s love for us as his daughters and sons will be the degree to which we are able to absorb his identity as an agent of reconciliation. There is arguably no better story in the scriptures that can form us in this way than the story of the father and the two lost sons.

There is so much in this parable for us and every time I come back to it I find something new or I see something a little differently, but what I want to concentrate on in this homily is the father’s work as a forgiver and an agent of reconciliation.

The first thing I want to note is that Father refuses to, in the lovely words of the theologian, Miroslav Volf, “construct his own identity in isolation from his sons” (he does not let his identity be shaped by the wrong done to him by either of his sons but remains their loving father). The Father knows who he is - he is a father to both of his sons and he will not respond to either of them as anyone other than their father. The younger son fantasizes that he will be accepted back as a hired hand but the son cannot become anything less than a son because the father will not be anything other than a loving father to him, desirous of full reconciliation.

The older son, ironically, betrays his own distance from the father as one who had lived as a hired hand in spite of being a son; but, as the father realizes this he reaffirms his beloved status as son by going out to him - just as he had gone out to the younger son when he was on the edge of the village - and the one who un-brothers his brother is invited to reclaim him as brother. The father takes his bitter words, “this son of yours” and simply pushes them to the side by saying to him, “your brother”.

So, in the instance of each son, they are not allowed to un-son themselves. Their identity as sons is based not on their ability to follow the rules or even to rest in the father’s hospitality. The only power that keeps them as sons is the strong identity of the father; he will always be to each of them father, so that they may be to him, as sons, and to each other, as brothers.

If we are to be agents of reconciliation in a way that can be recognized as an imitation of God’s love for all of humankind it will be because we have come more fully to understand our identity as daughters and sons of a father who refuses to be un-fathered by our resistance to his love and grace. The more we allow his identity, as the one who is constantly father, to make our own identities more secure as his daughters and sons, the better we will be at returning good for evil and being agents of reconciliation in our families, groups of friends, and all of our life-communities.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do yo agree that it is hard to desire to forgive those who hurt you? In your own words, how do you feel when you have been a victim of another person’s meanness towards you?

1a. Can you describe the steps you would take to get to a point where you desire to forgive the person who has wronged you?

2. What might you do differently in your life, in terms of spiritual practices, that would help you be more assured of God’s love for you as his son or daughter?

3. Do you identify more with the younger brother or the older brother? What events in your life have made you like that (identification)?

4. Why do you think Jesus left this story open-ended with regard to the older brother? (Hint: the older brother probably = the religious leadership of Jesus’ day who opposed his eating with sinners).

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Does Anyone Know a Good Roofer?

Most loving Father, whose will it is for us to give thanks for
all things, to fear nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all
our care on you who care for us: Preserve us from faithless
fears and worldly anxieties, that no clouds of this mortal life
may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal,
and which you have manifested to us in your Son Jesus Christ
our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 2:1-12

Wow, this is the kind of gospel story that will just preach itself if you don’t mess it up too much.

The first thing I want to point out to you is the role of the paralyzed man’s community of friends in bringing their friend to Jesus. New Testament scholars point out that the grammar of the passage suggests that the faith Jesus is referring to is the faith of those who brought their friend to Jesus - at the very least, it is all of their faith together that Jesus praises. Now, this should give us pause because we ought to be immediately asking ourselves questions like this one in light of the teaching here: are the needs of those in my community important enough to me? To be able to answer this question in light of this text we need to ask another question: will we rearrange our schedule and lives in such a way as to make time to bring those who are hurting or isolated into the presence of Jesus. If we are willing to do this and actually do it sometimes then we are likely on the right track. If we are not actively pursuing those opportunities then we probably have our priorities out of whack.

So, as we approach the season of Lent, I suggest that is a good idea to ask ourselves, “are we passionate about people in such a way that we desire to bring them to the same environment in which we breath the air of God’s love and forgiveness?” Jesus is not physically in a house where we can bring people so we have to think about what it would mean for us to bring people to Jesus. That is why I like to talk about it as the environment where we breath the air of God’s love and forgiveness; we experience Jesus in our community of faith, whether in a church service or in the context of those life-giving relationships in other social settings. Are we comfortable bringing outsiders to the faith to those settings?

The second thing I want to note from this passage is related to this notion of bringing the friend into the presence of Jesus. Here it is: faith is about outcomes that only God can achieve with a person as God relates uniquely to that person and as that person relates uniquely to God. This is such an obvious conclusion to draw from this passage that it is sort of easy to miss. Look at it this way. If these guys would have really obsessed over the outcome of this scheme to dig a hole in the roof so that they could lower their friend down to where Jesus was they would not have done it. The dramatic tension of this story reminds us that more things were likely to go wrong in this scenario than would go right. It would be too easy to get stuck on concerns like these: what if this makes Jesus angry? What if we all get in trouble with the authorities over this? What if someone beats the tar out of us before we can even get the roof open?! Faith cannot ask those questions because faith is motivated not by passions and thought processes that are tied to trying to predict or engineer desired outcomes. Faith, at least in this story is seen to be faith when people, out of deep love and compassion for someone else, do their very best to bring their friend into Jesus’ presence so that Jesus can do whatever he will do. To be sure, the hope is for healing but that is an outcome that was beyond their control and we ought to remember that outcomes are beyond our control too. Also, we would do well to remember that we don’t show the proper respect for the person or for God when we fret over, or try to manipulate/control the encounter of someone with God.

Last thing for this morning: we need to take note that Jesus uses this opportunity to identify himself as the one who will bring to pass the promises that God had made to Israel regarding the new covenant, that there would come a time when God would bring to pass, with the coming of the Messiah, a forgiveness of sins that would be final and complete. Jesus, in identifying with the Son of Man prophecies of the OT, claims to have the authority to do just that, to bring God’s forgiveness to people in a way that suggests that something of a change of epochs is taking place. Those who knew their Old Testament might have been wondering if the promises of God to the prophet Jeremiah were coming to pass:

Jeremiah 31:31-34 “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,* says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

And so in that house on that day God revealed his heart in Jesus. The forgiveness and physical healing promised through the prophets was finally coming to pass in this fallen grace-starved world. So powerful and life-giving is an encounter with this new thing God is doing in Jesus that drastic measures are the order of the day; risks must be taken; outcomes must be left in God’s hands. How about you and me? How often are we at points during the course of our mundane life where we could either, so to speak, dig a hole in the roof to be in Jesus’ presence, or just go back to whatever banal activity we choose to use to distract ourselves from what is really important and life-giving? Good question as we move into the season of Lent. The good news is, of course, that God smiles every time we make the slightest movement in his direction - we don’t even have to dig through a roof. May we move in his direction more and more in the week that comes.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you leave enough room in your schedule to respond to the needs of those around you? How would you be able to tell if you do or not?

1a. Do you see the work of the gospel as being about helping others in need regardless of their orientation to the gospel?

2. Do you actively seek to include those outside of the community of Christ in your communities of Christ followers? Is there a way to do this that makes the non-Christ-follower feel like an object? If so, how do you avoid that?

2a. Do you feel like you try to engineer outcomes, even if only subconsciously?

3. Related to question #2: what would you say to your non-Christian friend if she/he were to ask you this question: “are you friends with me only in the hopes that I might convert?” Then, how would you answer this likely follow-up question from her/him: “well, do you think I have to be a Christian to love God?”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Empathy and The Gospel


1 Corinthians 1:18-25
2 Corinthians 11:29-30
Mark 1:40-45

Homily Title:
Empathy and The Gospel

When we were in the midst of our homily series on the meaning and purpose of the church we often came back to this wonderful quote of Luke Timothy Johnson’ on the nature of 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."

So, if this is this is the case we need to pay careful attention to how it is that we represent God’s love to each other within the Christian community because how we are with each other can either show the world a hopeful picture of God’s love at work between people or quite the opposite.

What I want to suggest to you this morning is that one of the ways we show the world how God works is by coming to each other through our shared weakness and not in our perceived strength. Far too often when we approach each other we do so in a way that makes it seem that we are desiring to bring another person along to our level of achievement; we assume a spiritual maturity in ourselves that actually gets in the way of another person’s finding the same love of God that we have found.

Rowan Williams in his wonderful book on spiritual formation, Where God Happens, puts it this way: “Living Christianly with the neighbor, living in such a way that the neighbor is ‘won’—converted, brought into saving relationship with Jesus Christ—involves my ‘death.’ I must die to myself, a self understood as the solid possessor of virtues and gifts, entitled to pronounce on the neighbor’s spiritual condition. My own awareness of my failure and weakness is indispensable to my communicating the gospel to my neighbor”... “We love to think that we know more of God than others; we find it comfortable and comforting to try to control the access of others to God” …. “To assume the right to judge, or to assume that you have arrived at a settled spiritual maturity that entitles you to prescribe confidently at a distance for another’s sickness, is in fact to leave others without the therapy they need for their souls; it is to cut them off from God, to leave them in their spiritual slavery—while reinforcing your own slavery”

“The fundamental need as far as the counselor is concerned is first of all to put oneself on the level of the one who has sinned, to heal by solidarity, not condemnation”....”the plain acknowledgement of your solidarity in need and failure opens a door: it shows that it is possible to live in the truth and to go forward in hope”

Is our greatest desire to see someone deepen their experience of God’s love so that they change in God’s time to become more deeply who they are meant to be in relationship to Christ? Or, is our deepest desire to see the person change in the way that we demand for them to change in order for us to approve of them?

A good question I suggest for us to ponder on the way to the Lord’s table of love and acceptance.

In the passage from Mark’s gospel we have a truly amazing encounter between Jesus and the man with leprosy. The first thing I want to call your attention to is that the leper is breaking the purity laws of Israel in approaching Jesus - he was to remain with the outcast in the leper colony. The second thing I want you to note is that Jesus is inviting this transgression and joins in it himself when he accepts, touches, and blesses the leper. Now, number three: Jesus asks for the leper to step into the process of honoring the ritual laws by doing what is prescribed for a leper who has been healed but the man seems to ignore that as well as ignoring Jesus’ command to keep silent about the healing. As one NewTestament commentator puts it: “Commands and prescriptions seem to have little power in this narrative, rather the humanity and compassion of Jesus and the experience of freedom that the healed man enjoys are the main center of attention.”

Now there is much that could be said about this passage but there is only one thing I want you to think about as you get on with your week - and it is this - Jesus does not allow for messy situations, or the opinions of others to keep him from being compassionate and inclusive. What person or people in your life do you keep at a safe distance when you should be including them in your redemptive life and community of love? We all have attitudes towards people that keep us from showing them the love and acceptance we ought to. May God chip away at those defenses and self-protection pathologies that cause us to push people away from our experience of God because we set ourselves up as an authority over people when we should find ways of expressing our solidarity as fellow-sinners. God has not let our messiness keep us from him; let us give others the same blessing.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does living in solidarity with fellow-sinners (as Williams outlines above) mean that we are agnostic with regard to the sin in our lives?

2. When might you be called to speak to someone about a pattern of behavior in the person’s life that you perceive to be sinful? Should you wait for a person to invite that conversation or not? When would you wait? When would you not?

3. Do you expect for those close to you to come along in their growth in Christ according to your own designs on them? If so, why do you think you do this?

4. Since there are probably no lepers in our lives on a regular basis, can you think of a person who needs to literally of figuratively touched by you? If so, is it appropriate to share that example with the group?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

For the Sake of the Gospel

We continue in the season of Epiphany this Sunday, a time in the life of the church where we are invited and encouraged to take a fresh look at who Jesus is revealed to be according to the gospel writers. If you are anything like me you need to take fresh looks at Jesus; for, one of the perpetual problems that Jesus’ followers have is that we tend to imagine that we know all we need to know about Jesus. We think, maybe even subconsciously at times, that we have in some sense got the total picture of Jesus’ meaning for us - and so when we come back again and again to the same stories we don’t come in the posture of the life-long learner who expects to learn something new, or expects and desires to have a fresh encounter with Jesus. As we look at some familiar passages from Mark during Epiphany and Lent, may it be that the Holy Spirit will open our hearts and give us fresh experiences with Jesus.

In this passage before us this Sunday morning we meet Jesus doing more miracles so I want to think with you a bit about what it is that Mark wants us to notice about Jesus’ miracles. The first observation is the obvious one. One preacher puts it this way - Jesus cannot help but do miracles; everywhere he goes he heals the sick and releases people from the control of the powers of darkness, as he casts out deacons and yet (and we will see this born out more and more in Mark’s gospel as we go along).... and yet it is clear that Jesus sees miracles as subsidiary to his central mission (Mark 1:38). This is because the human condition must be fixed from the inside out in order for God to accomplish his redemptive goals for humankind. So, the central mission of Jesus in the gospels was not to do miracles but to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, which mission is accomplished in Jesus’ death on the cross where the cosmic victory is won, where forgiveness of sins is accomplished. The power of the cross and the resurrection, in turn, empowers the new humanity in Christ, to live as a foretaste of the world to come where miracles will not be needed because God’s desires for humanity will no longer be thwarted by evil or sin. So, if we look and listen carefully to the way Jesus approaches miracles in his overall ministry we are reminded that our greatest need(s) is dealt with by Jesus on the cross and cannot be fixed by miracles.

This has important implications for our lives not because we should not desire miracles but because we so often forget what is our greatest need. Our greatest needs: to be forgiven, to be able to forgive others, to be able to love as Jesus loved us - all of this comes from the heart of Jesus’ ministry where he changes us from the inside out and prepares us for the world to come.

OK, that is all true. Miracles are subsidiary to the central mission of Jesus; however what we often forget is that the whole reason Jesus was always moved with compassion, the whole reason he did miracles, was because the focus of the central mission drove him to alleviate human suffering as often as was possible. If we understand that what drove Jesus to the cross was his passion to reverse the effects of sin and enable human beings to flourish as God intends, then we will not be able to help ourselves when it comes to being moved with compassion to alleviate human suffering. May God give us the grace and wisdom to organize our lives so that we always adorn the central mission of the gospel with compassionate acts of mercy for any and all whose life circumstances are wrought with the suffering that comes from living in a world that is still awaiting final redemption.

Questions for discussion:

1. What tends to distract you from recognizing your central needs as Jesus defines them according to his mission. Can you give some examples?

2. Can you think of some things you can do on a regular basis that will push these distractions away?

3. Is there anything wrong in strongly desiring God to act on your behalf miraculously? Can you want a miracle too much relatively speaking in comparison to the rest of your needs and wants?

4. Are you accustomed to thinking of Jesus’ passion to miracles as flowing from the same passion that drove him to the cross? Do you accept this theological view? If not, why not? If so, can you think of some ways that this insight might help you talk about the mission of Jesus with those who have not yet joined Jesus’ mission?