Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Would YOU preach it?

Here’s a question for everyone to ponder. If you were absolutely convinced that another interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story might have nothing to do with homosexuality but rather was a scathing condemnation of poor hospitality shown to resident aliens, would you preach it that way?

Firstly, I cannot find the place in any scriptural reference to the destruction of Sodom where loving, faithful, homosexual relationships are mentioned. The story that I read is about the attempted gang rape of a couple of visitors by an unruly mob (Genesis 19:5), and the mob’s subsequent ire at being thwarted by Lot (19:9), because he is a recent immigrant to the city (13:12). Ezekiel 16:49 says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.” Jude 1:7 says, “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion,” a statement obviously open to different interpretations. The other references are pretty generalized. I understand that many people hold to a different interpretation of the story than mine, but nonetheless, my study has led me to this one. We could go back and forth about “right” or “wrong,” but let’s agree that it is different at least.

Another thing to mention: I often like to preach sermons based on non-traditional interpretations of scripture, in the hope that looking at the passage from a different perspective will help people deepen our understandings of God’s word and of our own faith journeys. So for example I will preach the story of the Exodus, focusing on the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, seeing it from the perspective of the wife of a regular old chariot driver in the Egyptian military. So we look at a familiar story from a new angle, and see a bit more of it, which in turn enriches our faith.

Finally, I understand that mentioning hot-button social issues from the pulpit is risky business, and immigration is one of the hottest right now. Just introducing the subject drives people immediately behind their barricades on all sides of the issue. It is the same with homosexuality, which has the added bonus of an association, maybe unfair, with the word “Sodom.” The merest mention of either of these topics must be done very carefully if anything helpful is going to come of it.

So one, I am convinced that the Sodom story could be interpreted as a story about hospitality to strangers / resident aliens / immigration issues. Two, I like to offer alternate interpretations of scripture from the pulpit. And three, I understand how many walls will go up as soon as hot-button social issues are mentioned.

And my question remains: Would you preach it if you were me?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Soteriological Vertigo

Real Live Preacher has a wonderful post up. He writes

When I consider the stars and the universe – or more accurately when I consider my inability to consider them – I experience a strange combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions.
First I feel a kind of mild vertigo, the sort of thing that you would expect to feel if you suddenly found yourself in the middle of a shaky rope bridge over a deep canyon. Our world normally feels so big and solid to me, and my place in this world seems entrenched and well-established after 45 years of living. But suddenly, I am a speck of dust in an instant of time so brief that it can’t be measured. My feet feel light, as if I might float off our spinning planet any second. I want to throw myself on the ground and grab two fistfuls of grass for good measure.

And more:

So first vertigo, then panic, then longing. After that I generally calm down a bit. My tiny mind and delicate emotions cannot bear even my small thoughts of the universe for more than a few minutes. I relax. Sometimes a shrinking reality can be a comfort. My sins, the things that I have done wrong and the ways that I cannot be what I should be also shrink. I feel I can forgive myself for them, small man that I am. Why the hell not? Look at the size of the universe!
This forgiveness is the Grace that Christians speak of. The main story of our faith tells us that we must be forgiven and can be. Funny how it takes science to bring that reality to my guts.

As always, inspiring, thoughtful, evocative. This is why he is one of my regular reads.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Brilliant Preseason Strategy

I for one LOVE the Kansas City Chiefs pre-season strategy of lulling the rest of the league into a false sense of security and then ... BAM! ... start scoring points and playing real defense when the regular season starts.


Anyone with me on this?

Anyone ... ?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Life on Mount Zion

I remember my first crisis of faith.

I was a teenager, listening to a sermon about invitation. The scripture was the “Great Commission,” Matthew 28:19-20, and the preacher was saying basically that invitation was what disciples of Jesus are supposed to be doing, since Jesus commanded it of them. We are to extend the invitation to others, so that they would become disciples themselves. Then, in turn, these new disciples would invite others into discipleship, and so forth.

And there it was: my crisis. I was all of a sudden unsure of what exactly it was we were supposed to be inviting them to. All we were able to invite others to come to was an opportunity to invite others to come, also. It was a meaningless exercise, a for/next loop, a religious mobius strip. Gertrude Stein said of her hometown, “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn't any there there,” and that’s kind of how I felt about church. I wanted to stand up and shout, “Okay, I get the part about inviting others, but shouldn’t we spend more time thinking about what we are inviting them to?”

My faith was all form and no content.

Since then, I have deepened my faith of course, and I understand now that the “Great Commission” isn’t all there is to Christian discipleship. And I’ll tell you what, scriptures like this week’s lectionary text in Hebrews are an enormous part of what helped me grow in my understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus. The text reads,“You have not come to something that can be touched … You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:18, 22-24).

How’s that for content?

When we come to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the midst of a Spirit-filled congregation, we come to a life-changing moment. We come to live on Mount Zion, a powerful metaphor for the fulfillment of God’s reign on earth. The reign of God is characterized by love, justice, and forgiveness. It is grounded in peace, health, and joy. And living on Mount Zion is a deeply communal life, meant to be lived together with sisters and brothers in Christ. The mission of Jesus was to embody that life, and the church is called to continue Christ’s mission. It is both what the church is and also what it does.

And THAT is why we ought to invite people to come to church, to offer them the chance to live like that, up on Mount Zion, because it is a pretty wonderful place to be when it clicks into place, even if just for a moment or two. Of course, the reign of God is not yet fully realized, but that’s the goal. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? And since the realized reign of God on earth will include all people, inviting people to church is an act of faithful Christian discipleship. And yes, we need to invite ALL people – young and old, gay and straight, U.S. citizen and illegal immigrant, unchurched and long-time churched, whatever – into the church. Unless you think for some odd reason that the reign of God is not going to include all of God’s creation.

It’s not about just inviting more inviters. People stuck in that mindset are likely the same ones who simply count heads to determine a church’s fruitfulness. The ministry of invitation is deeper than that; it is reign of God work, and disciples of Christ do it not just because Jesus told us to, but in order to live a Mount Zion life.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lesson from the Vineyard

In Isaiah 5, a vineyard which for all intents and purposes should have been bearing some pretty good grapes ended up bearing bitter ones. They were probably those nasty little grapes that make you pucker when your big sister dares you to eat one. The consequences of this predicament are not pretty. The vineyard owner pretty much destroys the whole operation.

Images like this are used by churches all over the place to talk about how our ministries are fruitful, and usually a “fruitful” ministry is one where you can count something and the tabulation ends up being higher than a comparative total. For example, counting worship attendees and comparing them to the total last year at this time, or counting dollars and comparing them to other churches of similar size, or counting names on a membership list and comparing to ten years ago. In this mindset, increasing numbers is the equivalent of fruitful ministry.

I have a problem with this line of thinking. My consternation is located right there in Isaiah 5. If counting stuff was all that the vineyard owner was up to, there would have been no problem whatsoever. There would have simply been a tally of all the grapes (be they bitter or otherwise), and the vineyard would have been called “fruitful.” But the vineyard owner was concerned with more than just counting grapes. At issue was the quality of the grapes being counted.

A fruitful vineyard is one that produces good grapes, not a lot of grapes. Of course, what you’re going for is a lot of good grapes – best of both worlds. But it is pretty clear that the first thing the vineyard owner asks is whether or not we can eat the grapes, and only then asks how many there are.

Okay, translate that: A congregation that bears good fruit is one that is doing good stuff, not necessarily one that has a lot of people. Of course, what you’re going for is a lot of people doing good stuff – best of both worlds. But when we ask about congregational health, it seems to me we ought to ask first about the faithfulness and vitality of the ministries in which they are engaged, and only then ask questions about numbers.

One problem is that we prefer fast, simple assessment tools to the more difficult, deeper work of truly discerning the most faithful way to realize the reign of God. It is a lot simpler to ask, “How many people were in worship this weekend?” than to ask, “How does this ministry further God’s mission in the world?” Obviously, increasing numbers may result from fruitful ministry, but numbers do not equal fruitfulness. Bishop Schnase has a 144-page book about fruitful congregations; if fruitfulness was only counting heads and dollars, it would have been a pamphlet.

Last thought: the grapes belong to the vineyard owner, not to the vines. It ultimately matters not a bit what we think of the things we do, but what God thinks of them. And here I find my hopeful place. God has created us with fruit to bear, potential to fulfill, and the widely divergent ideas about what exactly that potential is are just evidence that all of us are mere branches of the vineyard. All we can do is stay connected to the vine and work to produce the best grapes we possibly can.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Back to School

"Astronauts and teachers actually do the same thing. We explore, we discover, and we share. And the great thing about being a teacher is you get to do that with students, and the great thing about being an astronaut is you get to do it in space."

- Barbara Morgan, Teacher-Astronaut currently orbiting in Space Shuttle Endeavor

O God the Divine Teacher,

Send your spirit on the explorers, discoverers, and sharers of this world - the teachers entrusted with the education and growth of our children. As we begin a new school year, keep them safe, ground them in your love, and grant to them the gentle patience required in order to flourish in their sacred vocation. Amen.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Back At It

I would just like to say, vacations are wonderful!

My mini-sabbatical this summer included a few vacation days away with the family, from which we have just returned. It was a relaxing, refreshing, and fun time for all of us. And now I am entering the last weekend of my month away, eager and chomping at the bit to get into it again.

My last worship experience of the mini-sabbatical will be at Jacob's Well here in Kansas City on Sunday morning. I have worshiped in some very diverse settings over these last four weeks - Wilkes Boulevard UMC in Columbia, Centennial UMC in Kansas City, the bank of the Niangua River in southern Missouri, and tomorrow at Jacob's Well. It is such a joy to worship without being in charge of anything!

Over the past four weeks, in addition to worship, I have prayed deeply about my calling and the life of the congregation I serve. I have read some things I have been meaning to read but haven't had a chance to (although I suppose I'll always have books on that list). And I have written about 30 pages toward a book I am working on.

The book is going to be a Bible commentary of sorts. The audience is people who don't read the Bible much but want to know if there might be something there for them that is deeper than the text on the page. I am trying to write this commentary without jargon and at the same time without dumbing it down. I am hoping that it is fun and easy to read, but not silly. I do not want to sacrifice accessibility for the sake of scholarship, nor do I want to stay at the intellectual surface level just so that people will understand. It has been very hard work, and greatly rewarding. The 30 pages I have written delve into the book of Galatians. I want to do three more sections - one on a Hebrew Bible book (probably Genesis), one on a Gospel (probably Matthew), and one on selected Psalms. It will feel kind of lectionary-ish, I guess.

Anyway, that is about it for my time away. I'm back in the saddle again starting Tuesday of this week. I can't wait to rev it up!


Part 2: Homemaking Degree! At Last!

Today I read an article in the Star about a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities degree with a 23 hour concentration in homemaking. Here's the kicker: the concentration is only open to women. Apparently, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has decided that any men who want to study homemaking at a Bachelor degree level are just going to have to go somewhere else to do so. According to the website, the concentration is all about "preparing women to model the characteristics of a Godly woman as outlined in Scripture." It seems that good nutrition, interior decorating, and clothing design are what it takes for today's woman to be considered "Godly." Forget all that other stuff, like careers or any other such insignificant pursuits.

The president of the seminary, who used to be president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is quoted in the article as saying, "If we do not do something to salvage the future of the home, both our denomination and our nation will be destroyed." I for one was unaware of this impending destruction. Thank God someone is doing something about it! I mean, the fate of the nation (and of the Southern Baptist denomination, of course) hangs upon women enrolling in a 4 hour college course called "Meal Preparation with Lab," for goodness sake! Who knew? (I wonder if they need lab assistants and how could I apply?)

I know that I am sending my woman to Southwestern immediately so that she will finally realize just how much is at stake when she leaves dirty dishes in the sink. "Don't do it for me, Erin. Do it for the United States of America!"