Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: Sacred Resistance - A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

I received a copy of Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli to review recently. As it turns out, though, I had just purchased the book the week before! So I have a second copy if you're interested! Gaines-Cirelli is the lead pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, and I recently wrote about her preaching at the Festival of Homiletics.  

Gaines-Cirelli begins by defining sacred resistance. She writes, "Sacred resistance is anything - any word, deed, or stance - that actively counters the forces of hatred, cruelty, selfishness, greed, dehumanization, desolation, and disintegration in God's beloved world. Sacred resistance is nonviolent and seeks the common God. Sacred resistance 'reads the signs of the times' through the lens of biblically a relationally grounded faith to discern how to be actively engaged with the world and to be vigilant against whatever threatens the world's life." (1) "Heeding the words of Jesus is an act of sacred resistance," she argues, and is "God's consistent stance toward the world." (3) Gaines-Cirelli says that the framework of sacred resistance counters the idea that a "focused commitment to one group" - like poor people, or people of color - "[diminishes] the dignity, worth, or care assigned to those outside the group," as if we could exhaust God's love and grace. What happens to part of the Body of Christ happens to the whole Body of Christ, and therefore the Body of Christ is called to response and action. (8-9)

Doing the work of sacred resistance means working for the good of all, writes Gaines-Cirelli. We start by listening to "the real voices" of others, and we listen by first making sure we don't 1) think we "can correct another person's experience," 2) assume we know what others are thinking or 3) assume we have the answers, the fix to whatever we perceive the problem to be. (13) When we respond to oppressors, we remember that "love in its most basic form is not a warm feeling toward another ... but rather it is an active expression of care and reverence for life. We love the oppressor not by liking them ... but by naming their inhuman, unjust actions and attitudes and challenging them to repent." (22)

Gaines-Cirelli spends a chapter grounding sacred resistance work as an essential part of the witness of the Church. "To intentionally live as citizens of God's Kin-dom is deeply countercultural and an act of sacred resistance in a world that would ask us to worship idols (flag, money, status) and capitulate to the polarized paralysis of 'us versus them.'" (29) She quotes Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination: "Prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God's freedom and will for justice." (30) If churches are meant to be citizens of God's Kin-dom, she asks, "why are so many Christian people barely distinguishable from anyone else in their values and priorities?" (31)

Gaines-Cirelli names Sabbath-keeping, tithing, and humility as Kin-dom acts long with "acts of social justice." She again turns to Brueggemann, as he notes how difficult it is for us to "stay awake," because of US technological power, the "force of homogeneity," and the seductive and coercive nature of affluence. (40) Brueggemann says that Kin-dom communities have 1) a long and available memory, 2) an expressed sense of pain, 3) an active practice of hope, 4) and an effective mode of discourse. (40-41) Gaines-Cirelli explores each of these aspects in turn. In light of our current denominational and national struggles, Gaines-Cirelli's words struck me as particularly meaningful: "Even though we tend to simply try to do the best we can within a system that does harm, God is always initiating a new thing. God calls us not to wait for legitimation by the dominant consciousness or current system, but rather ... to imagine a new system and begin living in love, compassion, and peace now." (52)

Chapter 5 is a meditation on Isaiah 30:9-11, which was also the basis for the sermon Gaines-Cirelli preached that I reference in the first paragraph. Click through there for more notes. In this version, I was struck by an excerpt from Dr. David Walsh, psychologist and educator, who argued some 25 years ago that the media teaches us six values: 1) Happiness is found in having things. 2) Get all you can for yourself. 3) Get it all as quickly as you can. 4) Win at all costs. 5) Violence is entertaining. 6) Always seek pleasure and avoid boredom. (59) Wow! Into this culture, we are called to speak prophetically, and act with sacred resistance, to stop "speaking smooth things." People don't expect much of the church these days, argues Gaines-Cirelli. "At best ... they expect lip serve to God's care and love, to peace with justice ... even to 'social justice' - without any verifiable evidence that the words are backed up with action." (67) 

Chapter 6 is titled, "What Do We Do?" Gaines-Cirelli acknowledges, "It's hard to be Christian in America," hard not to be complicit in the very systems of oppression and injustice we decry. (77) What do we do? We discern. "What is life-giving/nurturing/promoting? What is death-dealing, life-destructive, life-taking?" (79) We stay informed, assess our resources, and figure out what we can do in the midst of chaos and challenge. (80) Remember that it is more important to God that we are faithful, "loving, wise, humble, and just" rather than right and others wrong. (82) We work to conquer our fear, and to know when we are called to put ourselves in harm's way for the work of justice. The author asks, "If my name were ever to appear in the recorded history of the years during which I sojourned on this planet, what is the story of my life I would be proud to have told?" (85) 

We speak. "It's important [to say something] because not saying something says something ... Even if [the words we speak] have been said before, even if we think those who hear the words already know or believe them, even if it feels tiresome to have to keep repeating them, even when many others are saying them, too. We need to speak the words as directly as we can, as lovingly as we can, as clearly as we can." (86-87) Gaines-Cirelli's section on preaching prophetically is particularly strong, especially on how to be prophetic and pastoral, a challenging task. I also appreciated her attention to other ways (like through the liturgy, or through pastoral letters and congregational statements) to address time-sensitive topics in worship when a pastor might also be right in the midst of an important sermon series, for example. So often I see folks on social media insisting that pastors have to scrap their whole sermon to address a certain event, with no consideration for what else is happening in the life of the church. Gaines-Cirelli points out that we have many avenues open to us to speak sacred resistance. (93) We act. She writes, "What is important is to identify the gift(s) that your community of faith offers to the cause at hand. What can you offer that others may need?" (98) The author also challenges congregations to consider if they are ready for a sustained engagement and follow through if needed. (103) We take a stand. "What side is Jesus on?" Gaines-Cirelli asks. (106) 

Gaines-Cirelli's last chapter addresses burnout in justice work and strategies for "fueling the resistance," a chapter drawn from a sermon previously preached at Foundry. The author lifts up Sabbath practices, cultivating joy and laughter, an awareness of the world around us, seeking places of good news, supporting each other, and finding strength in "quiet and trust" as important ways of maintaining strength, focus, and energy in the work of sacred resistance.  

Gaines-Cirelli's work is a short, easy read, and I'd recommend picking it up. I think the author occasionally relies too heavily on the work of others. I love Walter Brueggemann, for example, and the same can probably be said of my doctoral project, where I include perhaps too many excerpts from his profound works. But Gaines-Cirelli's own voice is worth hearing. I also struggle with chapters that come first from other sources - they don't always fit seamlessly. The last chapter, for example, felt too different in tone to me, and less powerful than the other chapters. Overall, though, Gaines-Cirelli offers meaningful theological reflection, paired with some concrete strategies for the work of sacred resistance. Sometimes speaking about justice is easy, but transitioning to action eludes us. I really value her balance of practice and prophetic, pastoral and boundary-pushing. 

Like I said, I have a free copy up for grabs - let me know if you'd like to give this a read, and I'll pass my extra along to you! 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Sermon, "Saying Yes to God: Yes!" 2 Corinthians 1:12-22

Sermon 6/24/18
2 Corinthians 1:12-22

Saying Yes to God: Yes!

When have you received a “Yes” answer that made your day, or your year, or changed the course of your life? I think about the day of my ordination interviews. I had been serving as a pastor, as what was then called a “probationary member”, a three-year period where pastors were commissioned for ministry but not yet ordained. And I had a long day of interviews, where members of the Board of Ordained Ministry asked candidates question after question about our theology, our understanding of sacraments, our call to ministry, and our practice of ministry. And then we had to wait, and wait, and wait while the Board discussed us - me and the handful of others who were seeking ordination that year. After some 6 hours of waiting, they finally called us in - each into separate rooms, where a team was waiting to share the news with us: a yes, or a no, or a not yet. The chair of the Board was waiting in the classroom for me, along with a couple of others - I can’t tell you know who else was there. But the chair said to me: “We have one more question for you.” Internally, I was having a small panic attack. But I said, “Ok.” She said, “What does the word gospel mean?” This was a weird last-minute question, I thought, but I answered, “Well, it literally means ‘Good news.’” And she smiled at me. And I stood there confused. And she smiled. And I stood there confused. My brain was in a stupor. And she said, “It’s good news! We’re giving you good news!’ The answer was Yes! Yes, I was approved for ordination. Yes!  
Another yes that stands out: I had finished a pastoral appointment and decided to ask for a sabbatical year. A year off to listen to God’s call more intentionally. A year to renew my spirit. A year to regroup and refocus. I really needed this year. And I was granted the sabbatical, but the sabbatical doesn’t come with a source of income. I had enough money to get through a few months, but not a whole year by any stretch of the imagination. I had applied for a research grant. I wanted to continue exploring some of the work I had done in my doctoral program about charity and justice and how to help congregations become more deeply connected to the work of justice-seeking. I knew that lots of people applied for this grant program, and my acceptance was not guaranteed. Applications were due in September, and answers would come in November. I can tell you exactly where I was when I received the email that said “Yes”, yes I would receive a grant. The relief I felt at this Yes was overwhelming. Tears sprung into my eyes. A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. Yes!
What Yeses have you received that have changed you? Changed your life? Today we’re wrapping up our series on “Saying Yes to God” with a text from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In the first chapter, we find Paul trying to explain a change in his plans. He had promised to visit the Corinthians again, after visiting Macedonia, and then meant to head from there to Jerusalem, bringing with him a large offering from both new Christian communities to give to the church in Jerusalem. But for a variety of reasons, his plans change. As he explains elsewhere in the letter, Paul eventually comes to feel that his not visiting would be better for the young faith community than if he did visit. Some of the Corinthians were mad at Paul because he’d sent them a fairly harsh letter, chastising them for some of their behaviors that weren’t in line with the way of Jesus. And so Paul decides not to exacerbate their anger by showing up in person.  Others are sent in his stead, so they were not left alone to continue growing in faith.
But Paul finds himself now needing to defend his choice against accusations that he says one thing and does another, just like any hypocritical person that the Corinthians can’t trust. And so in our passage for today, Paul tackles these complaints head on. Paul says that he wasn’t just vacillating, not just indecisive when he changed his plans. He’s not, Paul insists, just saying Yes while meaning No, making plans he doesn’t intend to follow through on. Even though he changed his plans, he can still be trusted. Why? Because, Paul says, even if he had to change his plans, the message he proclaimed, the good news he’s preached to them, the story of Jesus has not and will not change. With Jesus, Paul argues, it is always Yes. Jesus never wavers from his commitment to God’s will or his mission to draw us closer to God, and in Jesus, all of God’s promises to us are fulfilled. Jesus is God’s Yes to us in human form. God in Christ Jesus,, at work through Paul gives Paul his standing among the Corinthians. God is Paul’s Yes among them, as long as Paul is at work proclaiming Jesus.
“For … Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you … it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” What powerful words! In Jesus, we hear God’s message of Yes:
Yes, I created you.
Yes, I love you.
Yes, I forgive you.
Yes, I will never leave you.
Yes, I want to bless you.
Yes, I want the best for you.
Yes, I have hopes and dreams for you.
Yes, I am calling you.
Yes, I want you to follow me.
Yes, I will give everything to be in relationship with you.
Yes, I want you to give me everything in return.
Yes, I want to turn your life upside down.
Yes, yes, yes!
Pastor Edward Markquart writes that God does not say “Yes, but” and reject us. He says, “God did not say, “Yah, but you certainly messed up your life.  Yah, but you are a three-time loser in divorce. Yah, but you certainly messed things up as pastor. Yah, but you certainly aren’t the [right] kind of mother or father.  Yah, but look at the faults of your kid.” No, no, no … God is not a yah-but. To us, who like the earth, are corroded and fallen and sinful, God says yes. I want it clearly understood that the answer is yes.  Cleanly, clearly, crisply, to you and to me in all of our sinfulness.”
“But there is more,” he continues. “God also says yes to those people that the world says are not worth much.  So the world looks at a starving man or woman or child any place on the earth, perhaps a man, woman or child in Uganda who is dying of [AIDs] and their skeletons are showing because they can’t eat or drink and the world says, “Yah, but let that bag of bones die.  Those starving bones aren’t worth much.” … Or, a person has grown older and older and the senility is slowly destroying the brain with dementia or Alzheimer’s, and their skin is shriveling up … and the world says, “Yah, but they aren’t worth much anymore … and they are taking billions upon billions of dollars to keep them alive.  Yah, but they aren’t worth it.” … And so the world says, “yah, but they are a worthless ...?” And God says…Yes. Yes, for these people are the crown of my creation, the valued jewels of my kingdom. I want you to hear God’s answer, clearly, cleanly, crisply, Yes.”
“For … Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you … it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” So what do we do, friends, because of God’s truly amazing way of Yes in our lives? As usual, if we follow the example of Jesus, we’re headed in the right direction. Jesus’s life was a Yes to God and a Yes to us. How are we saying Yes to God with our lives? And how are we showing God’s Yes to others?
Our word about God to others, the way we show God to others has to be more compelling than “Yes and No.” Paul knows that if the Corinthians, these new Christians, think that he and his co-workers are wishy-washy about the good news they’ve been sharing, if they can’t speak with conviction, if they seem to not mean what they say, or if they never seem to act on what they say - if their actions and words don’t match - then the new Christian Corinthians will have reason to doubt the very message about Jesus that has been shared with them, reason to doubt the nature of the God Paul and the others have proclaimed to them. And so Paul wants to make very clear to the Corinthians that what he proclaims and believes about Jesus is unchanged, what he teaches about God’s faithfulness is constant and enduring, and the Word - capital W - that is Jesus Christ is always a “Yes.” Paul knows that the more he can be a person of deep integrity, and the more he can show how his life has been transformed by Christ, the more he will be able to help others hear the Yes of God. How are we communicating the “Yes” of God to others? How are we showing to others the amazing faithfulness and constancy of God’s love in our life? How are we showing the “Yes” of Jesus?
God has said Yes to us in so many ways. And God wants our Yes in response. What’s been nudging at your heart, tugging away at in your spirit, that is God waiting for your Yes? Maybe God is asking you to say Yes to following Jesus, making a commitment to discipleship. Maybe God is asking you to say Yes to changing your life - letting go of addictions, or greed, or behavior that hurts you and hurts others. Maybe God is urging you to begin a ministry, a project, or join a mission team, or befriend some overlooked people in our community, or expand your vision of what it means to be a neighbor. Maybe God is calling you to become a leader, to raise your voice boldly, to preach the good news. Maybe God is longing for you to say Yes to God’s grace, yes to God’s forgiveness, yes to God’s love. God has said Yes to you. God wants your yes in response. What is the Yes God is waiting for from you? If you’re not sure what Yes God is waiting for from you, then I hope that you will commit to figuring it out. That’s the work of discernment. You don’t have to do it alone. Your friends here, your pastor here - we can help you in that work. But if you already know -  if you know the Yes that God is waiting to hear from you, don’t hesitate. For with Jesus Christ, whom we proclaim here, it is always ‘Yes.’ In Christ, every one of God’s promises is a Yes. Let that be our answer too: Yes! Amen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Festival of Homiletics: David Lose

Still a few more posts about May's Festival of Homiletics! I think I have two more posts after this one. I don't know if you're tired of them, but they help me to actually retain the content of all the great preachers I heard. Up today: David Lose. Parishioners of mine might recognize his name - he's the source I'm most likely to quote in my sermons. I love his unique and pastoral perspective on the texts, and he brought a unique perspective to the Festival's theme of Preaching and Politics.

Lose lectured and preached. His sermon was titled, "Nothing Comes from Nothing," based on Isaiah 55:1-13 and Matthew 20:1-16.

Isaiah's text starts with "Ho!" Untranslatable in the Hebrew, the word serves as exclamation of delight, joy, surprise, or just to get our attention. It is always emphatic. It says, "Pay attention, this matters!" Isaiah's message is: "Stop looking and start living. It is hard to believe this promise, but listen! This is for free!!"

We have Isaiah’s promise, Lose said, but no record of response. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is Matthew/Jesus's attempt to respond.

The last-hired workers work an hour – after all, a little is better than nothing, because nothing comes from nothing. But, grace and mercy screw everything up!Day in day out, grace messes with our order and is the last thing we want. If it turns out that something comes from nothing, what will we do?

There's no more counting in Jesus’ world, Lose said. We are willing to kill and die for our false sense of order, sense of control, until we realize we were never in control in the first place. Being out of control scares us! It makes us vote for anyone who promises law and order.

But when you realize you have nothing, then God’s word of daily bread for free is finally good news. It never will make sense. It is always absurd. But it is good news. The moment you say you’ve got nothing, you hear God say, “Nothing! Now that’s something I can work with.” No one has done enough to "earn" from God – we deserve nothing – but we given all things through God! Creating something out of nothing happens to be one of God’s favorite things to do. Nothing comes from nothing – except for with God.

David Lose
Lose's lecture was titled, "The Gospel of Jesus: Political or Parabolic?" and it was particularly fascinating. I hope my notes convey any sense of it.

"How do we persuade one another?" Lose asked. Science tells us that when we're presented with conflicting facts that go against our deeply held convictions, it isn't our rational brain that responds, but the part of our brain that responds to threatening information. "We don’t distinguish between intellectual threats and physical threats."

Lose talked about how taste tests showed that people liked New Coke better than Classic Coke - but we still hated New Coke as consumers. Taste tests also show that people like RC Cola better than other colas, but we still don't buy that the most (where it is available.) Why? Because we like the "story" of Coca-Cola, and who we are as soda drinkers - our place in the story, and we reject things that don't go with this story. Lose talked about a professor sharing this story with his family - how people like RC better, but wouldn't believe it even after they saw taste-test results, and the professor's family wanted to take the test themselves. Test results? They preferred the taste of RC. But they weren't persuaded! Even with the results, the facts, they still didn't believe they liked it better, and got angry at their husband/father for trying to tell them otherwise.

We use stories to make sense of our lives and organize our experiences. When we get together, we share our stories. We have stories we tell ourselves: I do this _____ because I believe that ____________. The political parties in the United States are keepers of a particular story about what America is. What is the most compelling story of America? There is more than one. John Kerry wasn’t relatable, but George W. Bush told good stories. Facts are unpersuasive.

Lose argues that most political preaching that happens can take place because it takes place in very homogeneous communities: You are preaching to your choir that tells the same story as you are telling.

Jesus clearly didn’t take a homiletics class, said Lose. He rarely quotes scripture. When he does, he usually does for 1 of 2 reasons. 1. To answer a question. (But then he tells a story.) or 2. In order to reinterpret scripture or to call a passage into question, to challenge validity of it.

Yet, we preachers are taught to start and stick and end with text. This is not what Jesus does (in the synoptics)! Mostly he just tells stories. Improbable stories. Intriguing stories. Dysfunctional but familiar family dynamics. Filling us with wonder. Violence and power grabs. Mercy and grace. Reversals of fortune.

He isn’t trying to persuade his audience. He’s trying to overwhelm them narratively with a better story, more life-giving story, more filled with God’s character than one they are currently living. And he didn’t just tell parables. His whole life-ministry-death-resurrection is one whole parable. To throw one story alongside another to see what happens – that’s what parables do. A familiar-enough-to-be-recognized story that is challenged with twists and turns.

Jesus threw his life’s story alongside the story of empire. He’s raised! But that’s just another story, right? And those who see him are "in joy disbelieving," even while they see it. Resurrection is not even quite meant to be explained, but entered into.

What story can we tell people that will overwhelm their story? This story: You are enough. You have enough.

Lose concluded with two hunches:
Hunch 1: We share Jesus best through telling stories of scriptures, and our lives as people transformed by faith.
Hunch 2: Parables are helpful but hard to interpret. Whose parable is it? How you see and understand Jesus will influence how you interpret parables.

I found this lecture to be brilliant, and I've been mulling it over a lot. I'm fascinated by how people change their minds about things, about long-held beliefs. Our current political/cultural context should tell us, as Lose says, that facts are not persuasive. But Jesus is, isn't he? So how can we tell people a better story - the story of the life-transforming work of Jesus? I'll be thinking about that.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sermon, "Saying Yes to God: Yes, But," Luke 9:57-62

Sermon 6/17/18
Luke 9:57-62

Saying Yes to God: Yes, But

Someone mentioned to me this week that they enjoyed last Sunday’s sermon, that they felt it was speaking right to them. And I told them that people often respond this way to a sermon when I also feel that way about it - like I’m speaking, preaching to myself. This week is another week like that for me. This is a tough text. Not tough because it is hard to understand, but tough because Jesus’s words cut to my heart with their clarity and urgency, asking for a response. In Luke’s gospel, we find a series of people approaching Jesus, saying that they want to follow him. This seems to us perhaps like it would be great news. Jesus’s message is getting across, and people are interested. But Jesus rebuffs each one. The first approaches and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, “Anywhere also means nowhere, no landing place. Are you sure you mean it?” Jesus extends the invitation: “Follow me” to another, and they respond, “Lord, first let me bury my father.” Jesus, apparently unmoved, says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” A third offers to follow Jesus, “but first,” he says, “let me say farewell to those at home.” And Jesus responds, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” That’s the whole passage. We don’t know what happens next for any of these folks - if they stay with Jesus or if they say “forget it.” The gospel moves on.
In my Bible, the subheading of this passage we just heard is called “The Would-Be Followers of Jesus.” I can practically see the air quotes around the phrase. I hear “Wanna-bes.” What springs to mind is John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, his sermon called “The Almost Christian.” Writing on Acts 26:28, where King Agrippa says to the apostle Paul in the King James that Wesley quotes, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Wesley says, “Many there are who go thus far: ever since the Christian religion was in the world, there have been many in every age and nation who were almost persuaded to be Christians. But … it avails nothing before God to go only thus far.” This teaching of Jesus - it seems to demand our all, and leave no room for going only so far, no room for almost following Jesus.
Preacher and theologian Karoline Lewis writes, “When I started thinking about [this gospel text], my first response was, Sorry, Jesus. You are wrong. Sometimes we have to bury our dead and you are just going to have to wait. Sometimes we have to say goodbye to those we are leaving or to those we have lost, and we will catch up to you eventually. Sometimes we have a few things that need tending before we jump on the discipleship bandwagon. Like what, you might say, Jesus? Well, like grief, for example, for those close and personal, but also for whom our world continues to insist cannot be a part of your kingdom. Sometimes we just need some time. Thanks, Jesus.”
I agree, don’t you? I want to tell Jesus we have some important things to do sometimes that keep us from following God the way we want. Some things that just need attending to first so that we can be really ready to start. When I read this passage, I want to say, “Hey Jesus - isn’t at least a good thing that these folks want to follow you? Isn’t it better that they want to follow you but just aren’t quite ready yet, than not wanting to follow you at all?” As soon as I ask that question in my head though, I hear my mother telling me about an interaction with another parent, a friend of my mom’s, years ago. This friend’s daughter had gotten in trouble on the bus at school, along with another young person. The woman’s daughter was a church-going child from a fairly well-to-do family, and the other child in trouble was just the opposite. When relaying the story, my mom’s friend said, ʺWell, at least I know that my daughter knew better, so that gives me comfort.ʺ My mom said to her, ʺBut doesn’t that make it worse? If the other kid didn’t know better, he can hardly be blamed for his behavior. But your child knew what was right, and still chose to misbehave.ʺ My mom’s response, as you might suspect, did not win her any points with her friends.  
My mom’s story makes me think about discipleship. If we know Jesus, if we know enough to have decided that we want to follow Jesus, I’m afraid, friends, that this doesn’t mean that Jesus goes easier on us. Rather, if we already know what is right, and how we mean to give our hearts and lives to Jesus, I think that means that in turn Jesus will expect more from us. If we know that God is the source of our being, the creator of all that is, and that God has called us to serve God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and if we believe that we want to make God’s way our way, and if we believe that in following Jesus we find abundant life, and find a way to work for the wholeness of the world that is God’s reign come to earth - if we know all that, and still want to put off actually following Jesus, isn’t that worse than not yet being sure about Jesus? Well, if not worse, exactly, I do believe this: just like the child who knew better on the school bus had more responsibility to behave rather than less, if we know Jesus and know that we want to commit our lives to following him, Jesus, it turns out, will expect more of us, not less. Elsewhere in the scriptures, Jesus says that to those who have been given much, they will receive even more, and I think this is the “more” Jesus means - more expectation of commitment, more responsibility. If we say we’re ready to follow Jesus because we know who Jesus is and know how following Jesus is the very purpose of our being, then Jesus expects us to start following. Not tomorrow. Not eventually. Not when we’ve got everything else settled. Not when we’ve just tied up some loose ends. But right now.
Rereading our gospel text, I notice that the second and third folks who come and say they want to follow Jesus, they start their “Yes, but” responses to Jesus like this: “Yes, but first let me.” “But first.” No matter how we shake it, these things we put into the “but first” category when God calls us are just that - things that we put first. God has some strong feelings about what we put first in our lives. We’ve talked more than once about idols. Consistently in the scriptures, one of the things we are warned against again and again is making idols, practicing idolatry. Although we might not relate as much to ancient peoples who crafted handmade images of other gods to worship, at the heart of it, idolatry is really whenever we give anything other than God the place of God in our life. When we let anything else hold the place in our heart, our lives, our world, that is meant to be for God, when we worship anything other than God, when we center our lives around something other than God - that’s idolatry. And from Genesis to Revelation, this is the sin that is most dire, the one that most often results in a breakdown of the covenant between God and God’s people.
I wonder: what is really first in your life? Are we saying to Jesus, “I will follow you,” but adding our qualification, our disclaimer under our breath, perhaps hoping Jesus won’t hear? God first, but really family first. God first, but really being successful first, career first, financial well-being first. God first, but really being good citizen, or being nice and well-liked first. God first, but really comfort and safety and security first. When God calls you, and you say yes to following Jesus, what are the “buts” that are on the tip of your tongue, or muttered under your breath, or the truth you really mean instead? How do you finish this sentence to Jesus, “I will follow you, but first let me…” what? This week, friends, I encourage you - as I will too - to spend some serious time soul-searching how we’re ending our sentence to Jesus. Yes, but first what?
Karoline Lewis eventually heard more in this text than she did at first read. She writes, “I began to wonder -- what if Jesus sees the importance of time, of a minute, of even a second, not just for the sake of the urgency of his ministry, the urgency of the kingdom he wishes to bring into its fullness, the urgency of making sure that all know God’s favor before those who reject God’s favor will silence him for good, but because being human means such urgency -- every moment really does count … Every moment has to count since God made the decision to become one of us. Jesus’ call is not an insensitive plea to abandon that which is important to us, who matter to us, make a difference for us. Jesus’ call to let go is a promise - that God becoming human means that moments matter. Time makes a difference. And that even seconds matter to God. Why? Not for the sake of your service alone, but for the sake of your being in the kingdom God imagines. Every moment matters because every one of us counts.”
Every one of us counts, and every moment counts. Jesus tries to convey to us a sense of urgency. The good news doesn’t have time to wait. The world needs the message of Jesus right now. Look around. Look at the news. Look at the headlines. Look at our nation. Look at our community. Look at our congregation. Look at your own life. We need the message of Jesus, the news about God’s reign on earth, the good news of God’s grace and favor and God’s way that rejects the ways of greed and selfishness and oppression and we need it now. And so Jesus needs disciples, messengers of the good news right now. People who are ready to say “But first you God, and then everything else can come next.” Putting God first is not easy. It is not just saying with our lips that Jesus is number one for us. It’s the daily call of discipleship to follow Jesus with everything we’ve got, trusting in God’s unwavering love and grace, trusting that if we put God first, God will always be with us.
What’s first in your life, really? What’s holding you back from saying Yes to God with your whole heart? What are your “Yes, buts”? Can we work to make God first? God is seeking disciples. Will you follow Jesus, now? Will you make God first? Amen.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Festival of Homiletics: Jacqui Lewis and M. Craig Barnes

More Festival of Homiletics catch up. Jacqui Lewis preached a sermon titled,
"Identity Politics," based on Matthew 6:9-14, Jesus sharing what we call the Lord's Prayer. I didn't take a ton of notes during worship, but the sermon was excellent. Lewis's style was extremely engaging. We were roaring with laughter, but her points still hit home - there was a lot of poignant truth in the midst of the humor.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis
Lewis spoke about Jesus being born in scandal. "We have let the world whiten up and nicen up that baby, who was brown enough to go undercover in Egypt." Our salvation, Lewis said, is corporate: "We're not saved until everyone is saved." We develop theologies of "it will all get better" in light of our current realities, but Jesus says in his prayer "now." Of God's reign on earth, God's "now," Lewis says she knows what it looks like: It looks like a "die-in" of activists saying "I can't breathe," referencing the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police. "It tastes like sweet Hawaiian bread."

"Safe preaching is too costly," Lewis said. "We don’t have the luxury of that. We’re on the precipice." And, "We have the gift of liberated tongues."

 M. Craig Barnes
M. Craig Barnes
I've heard M. Craig Barnes preach and lecture before at the Festival. I found him particularly compelling this time around. He lectured on “Preaching in the Age of Anxiety," focusing on Matthew 4.

We are judged in so many places by others and self, Barnes said, and what we see is not good. So we go out to be judged by John the Baptist. John points to Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t even have a winnowing fork! And this one who is without sin identifies totally with us. And when he is baptized, God is "so-pleased" with Jesus. When Jesus is identified with us in baptism, God says that Jesus is "beloved of God," which claims us as God's beloved too, not because we are judged good enough, but because we’ve always belonged to God, and in Christ, God has found us.

We’re anxious, though, Barnes argued. We wonder: is God really saying this about us? Are we really beloved?

The first temptation of Satan for Jesus is not to eat, but to not be hungry. We are always hungry. It is when we reach for what is not given to us by God that we destroy the garden, Barnes said. "We always sacrifice freedom out of our anxiety." Barnes spoke about the anxiety of the privileged class. We are enslaved by desire for happiness and fulfillment. Sure the next thing will fill us up. This is how Satan tempts Jesus, with his conditional language: If you are the son of God…” But our yearning is necessary. Yearning is a part of our created condition that is meant to be an embrace and a call to worship. We shouldn't communicate that yearning will be eliminated. But it can be focused. We're meant to be yearning for God.

The second temptation is the temptation of certainty. At the top of the temple, Satan says, "if God catches you, then you can be certain that God loves you." We would love to be certain! "But few things are more dangerous to our spirituality than certainty. We live by faith not by certainty." The more certain you become the less room you have for faith, God, and one another. Creeds don’t start, “I know” but “I believe.” We crave certainty of one miracle, Barnes said, but it would be deadly to our souls. Jesus is harder on those of us with a little faith than on those of us with no faith at all.

Speaking to a room of pastors, Barnes said that we love to do well at the church and are tempted, then, to be necessary at the church. To be the messiah at the church. But, being necessary robs us of being chosen. "You’re too important to be necessary. You are cherished by God. We can’t cherish things that are necessary. Cherishing comes as a choice, but if it is necessary there is no choice." We should stop knocking selves out to be necessary, Barnes urged. It is also futile, he insisted, to think that what you want is to be protected. That isn’t what we really want. We want to be loved. If we are loved, we can live with the insecurity of all life.

In the third temptation, Satan says, "I’ll give you all the kingdoms if you worship me." Jesus doesn’t say, “I don’t want those.” Devil wants to tempt us with our goals – let me help you with what would really tempt us. To clergy, "I can give you pastoral success." The devil says, "You have to ease up, though, on your high ideals. You just have to be a little complicit with 'the way it is!'" The temptation is the devil saying, "Be realistic. This is the best it can be." The temptation is to demonize others, other Christians. But, Barnes reminded us, "Not only do we allow sinners in our congregation, but frankly, that’s only who we allow in. And we say to each other, 'In Jesus Christ you are forgiven.'" “If you find a church like this," Barnes said, that doesn't want anyone who is a sinner (however they qualify that word), "they don’t need a pastor." And for pastors who say they want a congregation that already has it all together? "It’s like saying want you to be a doctor, but don't want to be around sick people."

Barnes concluded with a reminder that there is a stark difference between truth and clarity. "You can be flagrantly racist and clear about what you think. Truth is often found in nuance, in places that are not so clear." A thought-provoking lecture.