Sermon Notes

The Economy of the Kingdom of God

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At Church in Bethesda we’ve been looking at “spiritual gifts,” or the way that God’s Spirit moves and acts in each of us. A couple of weeks back we talked about the way that God’s Spirit equips each of us us for serving one another, stressing that the gifts we receive from God aren’t our own, but they shared with others from us to them in our active service. A key verse that Sunday was 1 Corinthians 12:7, found in one of Paul’s three chapter long discussions on spiritual gifts and service…

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” TNIV

“A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church.” NLT

“The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others.” CEV

one body many partsFollowing up that week we remained in 1 Corinthians 12 to discuss what I like to call some “economic principles” of God’s Kingdom. I’m not doing that because I’m necessarily fond of economics, but because these are some strong ideas about about value, worth and relational transactions. I think they point us to an understanding of an “Economy of the Kingdom” that challenges views of worth and transactional value in other parts of our lives. It’s a bit longer of a text than simply looking at verse seven, but I invite you to take the time to read this passage over, maybe twice… 1 Corinthians 12:12-27:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body–whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” TNIV

Again, I believe that Paul is expressing some deep truths for the economy of the kingdom, our system of valuing and serving one another. And as it should be, this is Good News, both for his first audience and for us, today. Our community of faith, the spiritual family to which we belong, has a great variety of parts and pieces, doing their different jobs, being themselves, and rendering their various services just like the different parts of a human body… and this is a really good thing! As we think  of God placing our body parts in needful places, we can also think of God placing each of us in the community of faith with purpose and value. And it leads to the first of three principles to take away from the passage…

Principle #1: Our Abilities & Attributes Differ, Our Value Does Not

This is the first direct challenge to the other economies of our life. In the faith community, our differing abilities and attributes do not raise or lower our individual value or worth. We all know what it’s like to compete in realms of school or work where our worth is judged by having a certain skill set or not, or being able to use certain abilities well, or not. And so some are paid more, or less. We have also seen those economies pay more or less or value someone more or less based on their attributes of skin color, ethnicity or gender. We cannot bring such inequities into the kingdom.

Churches, as extensions of the Kingdom, should be the place where our intrinsic economy teaches us to value and cherish one another in our diversity. This is why it looks so bad and feels so gross when our churches practice a forced conformity for all people and place greater value on certain gifts, abilities and parts of the community. Why do our churches so often become bastions of homogeneity and enforced uniformity instead of the expressive gardens of all the different types, styles and wondrous variety of people God has made us to be? It happens because although our communities are indeed places of belonging, there’s a danger in simply becoming a “belonging system” which recognizes belonging through conformity and uniformity. Come on. We’ve been taught better than that.

This kind of economy means that we cannot turn to systems of simple conformity that would deny our individuality or restrict the various gifts and abilities God has placed in our faith communities, and it leads directly to our second principle…

Principle #2: I cannot say I don’t need you.

Really. For reals. Honestly. I need you. I cannot judge you as not needful for my life. Even if I’m an ear, and I think ears are pretty dang awesome, but you’re an eye. I cannot say I don’t need you. Even if I happen to be an incredible ear! Even if people tell me what an fantastic ear I am. And even if your eyeballishness drives me crazy. You’re stuck with me, because I need you.

I’m trying to sit here and think of more creative and humorous ways to say that I cannot do without you, but it is what it is. Other economic systems in my life (political, social, educational or even religious systems) might be saying that I don’t need you, and those systems might even make some compelling arguments, based on how different we are, but the Kingdom’s economy reminds me that you are in fact invaluable, irreplaceable.

These first two principles are not worth the pixels being burned to put them on our LCD’s if we aren’t going to daily live our lives out of this economy. It is absolutely necessary that I day by day look into the wallet of my heart and mind and choose to spend my energies and time on living a life that declares your value and my need for you. So, here’s the third principle…

Principle #3: Part of the calling of Christ in our lives is to live in this kingdom of diverse people sharing a common worth, upholding each person’s value and loving our differentness.

This is not a “get rich quick” economy, and it is certainly not a “get my way” economy. This is a system of valuing others that creates a reciprocal worth shared among us, so that we are all held close and cared for… as in verse 26, we share our sorrows and our joys in this Kingdom of recognizing everyone’s personal value and belonging. In this economy we cannot be misers, holding back our gifts and contributions of service acceptance, forgiveness and love. We will pay a good deal to be in this kind of an economy, but we will also be paid back with same, by the graces God has given us.

Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! If I’m saying it, help me find the strength to live it. Amen.

Post Script~~~
This is a powerful economy of of personal value and worth in the midst of beautiful diversity, in our church, mosque, temple, school, work place, city park, sidewalk, or wherever we find ourselves. The power and beauty of this economy resides in the amazing gift it is to the people around me when I actually live it. I’m not surprised that Paul found it in his exploration of Christ, and I’m unconvinced that it is solely for our faith communities and churches. I bet that this kind of an economy will be transformative in people’s lives when we live it everywhere we find ourselves!

Nonjudgemental Christians, Part 1

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This past Sunday I started a discussion with our church family on the teaching of Jesus that we not be people who judge others. I am blogging along at our church website on our series and wanted to also place the entries here.

Nonjudgemental Christians, Part 1

Here’s our base text from Matthew 7:1-6
1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?4 How can you say, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.
6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

Do Not Judge

We started with the recognition that the word “judge” here means exactly that, “to judge” or to give a verdict. It’s not just criticism, but it is delivering a verdict; a person is judged inadequate, worthless, wrong, or without value. A person is judged as not worth God’s time, not in God’s favor. It is the decision on a person’s worth and value, a full and complete judgement. Certainly among the audience on the day that Jesus spoke these words there were many of the religious professionals present who were well versed in judging, and many who had been judged.

As we read through the ministry and life Jesus we often see these religious professionals in action. They are the ones in the background whispering, “If he only knew.” When Jesus was eating or interacting with people they judged unworthy or undeserving of his attention, they assumed he simply didn’t know who they were. If he knew, surely he would have judged the person as they did. And yet Jesus did not judge as they did, and his words warn us of judging. Some examples of people judging others when Jesus did not: Luke 7:36-50, Mark 2:13-17, John 8:1-11, and Matthew 21:28-32 (premature judgement).

The first warning in this passage that Jesus gives is very clear… if we choose to indulge in bringing judgment, then we open ourselves up to the same standards and imposition of judgment. He says clearly, “Do not.” Then he unpacks the danger of judgement as it opens us up to the same treatment.

Do Not Judge, But Maybe Help

Jesus goes on to essentially make a joke of my hypocritical use of judgment, that I easily overlook the reasons in my own life to face judgement and turn to quickly judge another. He says that when judging others I overlook the “plank” which debilitates my own life to focus on the “speck” that trips you up. Jesus asks “Why do you do this?” Why do I do this blatantly hypocritical thing? Because your speck, your sins or mistakes, they make me an expert. My own plank, my own sins and mistakes, they just make me a failure. Why wouldn’t I choose to spend the day on your problems instead of my own?

And yet, Jesus puts a line of hope out there for me. I can work on on my own life, and maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be able to help another person. Maybe, if I can do something about this plank in my eye, if I can find my way from the debilitation of my own sins and weakness, then I will be strong enough to help someone with a speck. Because no matter how hard I work on my life and no matter how much I achieve in purifying my life, the contrast is still overwhelmingly against me: my plank vs. your speck. My primary responsibility is always my own sin, no matter how well I ever manage to hide or tame it, or notice yours.

Some see these words as a chance to judge, a license to judge! You see, if I can simply tame a sin in my own life, then it’s fair game to judge in your life. But I will have to humbly disagree with that. This is still within the discussion on judgment which Jesus began with the words, “Do not judge.” We are still talking about why we don’t judge. Removing a plank from my eye does not give me license to judge, but an opportunity to help. St. Paul would later echo the same sentiment in Ephesians 4:28, “Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” I am not to judge, but I may be able to help. There’s a big difference.

Pigs and Pearls

And finally there’s the closing verse of the passage we used on Sunday, the one about pearls, pigs and dogs. I was surprised to find so many commentators who treated this verse as unattached to the fuller discussion. They simply made a comment on the common sense of not wasting precious resources on ventures or opportunities that are not precious.

Yet it is a beautiful restatement of verses 1 & 2! Verse 6 restates the devastating reciprocity of judgment that Jesus warns us of, that when I judge I open myself up to the same treatment. Think of verse 6 now, and in that imagery, the pearls and sacred things are the people around me, and the pigs and dogs are my judgements. If I throw those precious people to my judging (usually to feed my own ego and righteousness), the same judgments will eventually turn and destroy me. I will reap what I sow.

So Why Do We So Often Judge?

In the coming weeks we’ll be talking about the job of sharing life as nonjudgemental people, and yet we are involved in one another’s lives and have a responsibility to help each other when needed. Can we recognize opportunities to help without the prerequisite of judgment? Can we make sense of other things that New Testament writers say in light of the words of Jesus? Maybe I’m too much an optimist, but I believe we can, if we will be both thoughtful speakers and thoughtful listeners, bound in love.

Peace, Todd

Welcome at the Table

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blessing the ringsSunday was a fantastic day. In the morning we had the joy of a new experience for me, a couple from our church family exchanged wedding vows during our worship gathering. That was really cool. And on top of that, their exchange of vows brought in a whole bunch of visitors to the service, their friends and family, who added an amazing element of diversity, discovery and participation.

I knew before the service that many of the visiting family were Jewish. And though we didn’t leave Jesus out of our vocabulary or singing, or any part, we were able to welcome this group of people to a level of comfort and participation that I hoped for, but wasn’t sure we might achieve. I spoke of marriage in a brief homily, mostly from the New Testament and I shared the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana. Then in the ceremony I referenced the love of God seen in scriptural metaphors from the garden in Genesis through the Psalms and up to Paul’s writings. And our guy Gary, who was leading communion, did the best possible job I could imagine of welcoming our guests to celebrate what was originally their Sader, now our commemoration of Christ. He spoke of communities of faith working to enlarge our circles of fellowship and love, versus shrinking those circles… he was great.

Most of our visitors joined our communion celebration and then shared some prayers during our “open mic” time of Prayers of the People after communion.

All that to say that when we had moved onto a time of fellowship, many visitors stayed to share their joy and appreciation of the worship gathering. One visitor said to me, “I’m Jewish, and I’ve taken communion for the first time!” and I’m thinking, and I believe I replied, “That is awesome!” I thought of Ephesians 2, when Paul says that Jews and Gentiles can be made into one person to have access to God… I saw that in real life!

Another visitor asked if they could return to worship with us again, even though they are gay. That gave me a chance to express how our people would probably represent a vast multitude of ideas, opinions and experiences having to do with the issue of sexual orientation, but our commonality would be found in our commitment to welcome, love and safeguard the dignity every human being. So yeah, you come on back and share yourself with us, all of yourself. Please. We need you. We welcome you.

So there we were, for a short time on Sunday morning, gathered around the table… Jew, Gentile, black, white, American, Nigerian, heterosexuals and homosexuals, Republicans and Democrats, male, female, young and old, and more… reaching out to the God who made us, craves our attention and has laid a table of welcome for all of us.

I know it’s not the church, the typical Sunday morning, of my youth. I know that it doesn’t really fit all the tidy boxes into which many of our churches tend to safely cradle our worship experiences. Still, I also know that God showed up. And I will be always grateful for that morning, even if not one of those visitors ever returns. O, Lord, I pray they do… but that one morning was a real gift, and I want to let it stand on it’s own and not neglect a single syllable of thanks that I owe for it.

I guess this is when I need to quote someone smarter than me, to you know, cement the moment…

“The day will come when, after harnessing the ether,
the winds, the tides and the gravitation,
we shall harness for God the energies of love.
And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world,
man will have discovered fire.”

~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

Part 2 of “Notes on Passing the Peace” Jan 09 Messages

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Notes for Passing the Peace
Second Sunday, 01-11-09

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Ephesians 4:14-16

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
2 Corinthians 5:16-21

We have started talking about passing the peace in the sense of building a culture of peace within our faith community that is then expressive to the world around us of the peace of God. We started by stating expressly that we desire a posture of peace versus a combative posture with others, specifically moving from trying to influence people from a position of power to an influence that is in line with the scriptural metaphors of salt and yeast.

We’re following that up by talking about a shift from a “persecution complex” being sold in our country today to a realization of our status as ambassadors, with either majority or minority status.

It would be funny to think of Christians as persecuted in our country today, if religious persecution wasn’t such a deadly reality in so many places around the world. Leave it to some American Christians, numbered among the 5% of global consumers who consume an estimated 24% of the world’s resources, to somehow figure themselves victims.

Victims fight for rights, for revenge, for justice for themselves. Ambassadors work create connection, reconciliation, peace… they work for the rights and others. Maybe in many ways the nouns victim and ambassador don’t make complete sense when set up as opposites, but I believe they do a fairly good job of representing the choice we have as Christ followers in our current culture and context in the West. When we choose to be victims we become self-centered, self-interested and self-absorbed. We begin to carry massive chips on our shoulders and to interpret slights against our faith or faithful habits as attacks, a loss of “rights” and a new battle ground on which to make our stand. When we embrace the role of ambassador, as did Christ, as did Saint Paul, and so many others of our historical faith community, we find a new chance to respond to our minority status or at least to the growing cultural dissonance with our public expressions of faith with a new tact, a new level of peace. Victims are humiliated. Ambassadors are humbled.

Saint Paul actually used the word “ambassadors” in our second letter to Corinthians as I believe he immediately spoke about his own work, but also of the work of the Christian community as a whole. I think this flow begins back in the third chapter, at least. In the third chapter he draws a contrast between the will of God written on stone tablets and then written on the living hearts of followers, a contrast between death and lasting righteousness. Theologically he will hang the idea on two points in the fifth chapter: 1) the fact that this life is not the only life or not the paramount expression of life, and also 2) the driving love of Christ. He calls that love “compelling.”

Here’s how I think this all begins to work out… in this world we belong to a kingdom, but we’re not building one. Christ did not come to extend through his followers a new political power base of movers and shakers to dominate the world scene through force of will or arms. Here we are reminded of last week’s scriptural metaphors of salt and yeast. In fact, the kingdom, and it’s influence, would be vastly different, and therefore far more meaningful and lasting than a particular political or civic establishment. We bring life to the dying, that is part of the message of Christ. We bring peace to the hopeless, freedom to the enslaved. These are hallmarks of Christ’s purpose. But we are not called to bring Christian rule. There’s a necessary difference between the reign of Christ and the rule of Christians. Didn’t Jesus renounce the kind of “fighting kingdom” about which Pilate seemed interested? Hmm…

We are also confronted with the imperative to be led by and formed by the compelling love of Christ. In other words, when a Christian confronts anyone and/or responds to any situation out of disgust, hatred, envy, apathy, racism, vengeance, superiority, lust, self-interest or pride they are on the wrong track. This compelling love of Christ is not a pithy Hallmark card slogan, but it is a real and difficult challenge for a “nation of ambassadors” to carry out in the arenas and times of both domestic and international conflict and even relative tranquility.

A people without an understanding of and a commitment to the kingdom priorities of reconciliation and love will quite naturally have a hard time with “speaking the truth in love.” In fact, I think we have often had a hard time doing this thing. Popular alternatives that I’ve seen have tended to look like “speaking the truth with tough love,” or when we are feeling particularly righteous, “speaking the truth and loving it.”

We have to embrace our ambassadorial status to go and make the connections in the world that lead us to being a people of reconciliation. I’m praying for the day that followers of Christ are not known in our hemisphere for who they hate. I pray for the day that fringe groups of our faith, no matter how small or marginal, have stopped making “God hates Fags” signs. I pray for the day that my own understanding of that compelling love has moved me deeper into relationships of reconciliation with my neighbors, maybe the ones I’ve thought would be the least interested in Christ’s message of peace. There can be a kingdom in this world that while being faithful to God is extending and sharing the divine peace with all the fellow travelers along our roads. Bet on it.

Part 1 of “Notes on Passing the Peace” Jan 09 Messages

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These are some notes I’ve made in preparation for leading a discussion at CiB in January on building a culture of peace, an imperative for Christ followers…

As Israel invades Gaza in a continuation of it’s recent offensive, I’m just not interested in the same old arguments about who started what when. I am reminded of the old African proverb, “When the elephants quarrel, it’s the grass which suffers.” My prayers are with the folks in both Israel and Gaza who are dodging rockets and gunfire. My prayers are with the respective leaderships who cannot find enough love of peace in the jumble of all their many desires.

Tomorrow, I am starting a discussion at Church in Bethesda about creating a culture of peace, in our own lives, in the life of a faith community and in our world. We’ve come a long way from a serving, suffering Christ to find his followers organized into political caucuses, both left and right, fighting for dominance and rights and civil power.

Maybe that big question of who really ultimately fired first in the whole Israel/Gaza mess has a less deadly, but still crass and hurtful analogy in the “Great American Bumper-Fish War.” You know what I mean; on some cars a Jesus fish gobbles the Darwin fish, while on others a Darwin fish consumes the Jesus fish. I don’t know whose fish ate whose first, but I think that in such a contest that no one is winning any hearts or minds. I also don’t believe that faith and intellect are antithetical. Why do we draw lines and go spoiling for a fight?

Mostly, I don’t believe that Jesus calls us to a “one upping” of cultural or personal slights. How far from “Blessed are the peacemakers” do we wander when we assume a combative, either offensive or defensive, posture with the world? Did Jesus die for my civil rights? Did Jesus die for my cultural dominance? Did Jesus ask me to take up my cross and shove into people’s faces? Jesus took a small fish and blessed it and fed the hungry. Why would we use a small fish to divide and insult?

So, tomorrow we start talking about what scripture might be doing when it calls us to be “salt” and likens the kingdom reign of God in this world to “yeast.” I don’t wonder why we can’t “all just get along.” I wonder when we as Christ followers will claim our rightful place as servants, when we will not be found to be the ones standing up for ourselves, but standing to the side, quietly leavening a world that doesn’t need us to win, but to love.

Seriously, there’s only a “culture war,” as the pundits call it, if we show up to fight. When we choose peace, well then there’s just a chance to do some good. I’ve really already stared this conversation with several friends sitting in offices, coffee shops and living rooms. Seemed like something some of you might want to join in on.

With peace, Todd

knowing God’s will…

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In the month of May we’ll be talking at Church in Bethesda about knowing God’s will. You know, a simple little thing like that. I started a chart, though I like to call it a “matrix” of my thoughts so far. I’ll throw it in this post at the bottom. We all know the movie, but do you know what a matrix is? I went to to see if I was using it properly… it’s a starting place or point of origin. I like that.

Anyway… look the matrix over and throw me any suggestions. Here’s a brief explanation of it I’ll be sharing on Sunday morning… The chart is my attempt to gather my thoughts on moving forward with, knowing and entering into God’s will in life. The seven circles are representative of the ways I have thought of God’s will being accessible to us and the different applications of that divine will, and their interdependence (over-lapping). To the side of the circles I tried to describe the “avenues of knowing” or the scope in which we seek and apply that will. I also brainstormed a short list of concepts, activities, hopes and implications of God’s will… we’ll talk about these and more as we process this together, leave the matrix behind and approach a type of “solution.”

As you look it over and think about this week, I’d like to say just a few words about the interdependence (overlap) of the circles: I take it very seriously. I believe that we can move through life very connected to God and what God hopes and dreams for this world, and I believe that keeping all our circles over-lapped is key to not getting off in undesirable country. I mean it like this: Some folks are better at intuiting things, and some are more knowledgeable with the scriptures, just as some are wrapped up in the daily personal things of life while others have more time and opportunity to grapple with the global, cosmic issues… we need one another in this endeavor. It would be very difficult for one person to tackle all this alone: we need one another. Intuiting without a good grasp of scripture can easily go awry, just as imposing views of scripture divorced from a connection to living, breathing people can be suffocating and deadly. God has some daily concerns and some comic concerns, how do they interrelate? Divorcing God’s love of us and God’s love of creation, I believe, is a great example of how we Christians have lived an imbalance in the world that helped create some of our environmental problems today.”

Peace, y’all..


Second Sunday of Advent, 2007 Dec. 09

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Second Sunday of Advent

I enjoyed the liturgical passages for today, especially the Peaceable Kingdom verses in Isaiah. In case you haven’t seen them, those passages were as follows: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7 & 18-19; Romans 15:4-13, and Mathew 3:1-12. Next week’s passages are included in the church calendar on the website.

In the sermon time I spoke with a copy of one of Edward Hicks’ paintings behind me, a painting of the peaceable kingdom. He was a cool, Quaker sign-painter quite a while ago. Google him and you can learn all you ever wanted to know about his work. We had several of his paintings at the Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and I enjoyed his style back then as now.

What a beautiful picture… the Peaceable Kingdom. It’s a haunting image of all the animals and serpents and infants wallowing in a seemingly blissful harmony. And as Hicks’ paintings all had social and political ideas strung through the with the scriptural imagery and meaning, so today the image of the peaceable kingdom laid out for us in Isaiah can be read and used in many different ways. I Googled it last week and found a website using it to promote a vegetarian lifestyle. Even though I have all kinds of respect for vegetarians, I doubt seriously that the leopards had turned to bean curd and the lion to mango smoothies. I appreciated so much the thoughts that Michael shared during communion of their appetites being so satisfied by God that they had no need any longer to kill and eat one another. What a great insight.

You see, as I dwelt on the passage throughout the week I came to realize that the image might be getting in my way. The image follows a description of the One who comes to make the kingdom possible. The kingdom is not the hope, but the One who comes is the hope, the point. The kingdom simply follows after, very naturally.

The kingdom is the daily manifestation of the One’s sovereignty. Go back and read that description of the One, Isaiah 11:1-5! How can I miss that the point is not found in lions and lambs and leopards and snakes, but in the coming of the One, and the reign of such a Sovereign that can change us into a community of peace, allowing us to take our place in that great mosaic of justice and truth?

So, we have our baby Jesus in a manger… another image that we get so caught up adoring and fighting to have on display. I love that image! I don’t want a single nativity scene going back in the closet! But, I also want to make sure that I don’t allow the images I pick and choose to be able to distract me from the realty of what is happening.

Here’s what I mean… I was thinking this past week about the whole birth scene of Christ. I started to have a few questions: What was Joseph thinking? He took Mary on a road trip when she was nearing the end of her term? What was Mary thinking? Why didn’t they use or call ahead and book a room? We won’t hardly let pregnant women fly these days, especially not in their third term! Why was there nothing for Joseph there in the “city of his family?” He’s the hometown boy, and he’s got no strings to pull?

But, then I remembered a little something… you know our sensitivities are probably a lot more delicate than Mary’s and Joseph’s. I mean, we are constantly building bigger and better hospitals, fine-tuning every aspect of the experience, incurring more and more debt. Why? Because our sensibilities say that no baby should be born into anything but a $2000 a day, psychologically soothing birthing suite with a flat-screen TV, movies and good drugs on demand.

Joseph and Mary don’t seem to put off by the manger. And neither does God. I mean, God can arrange for the star, but not a room at a Best Western? Of course, God could do anything needed in the situation, but a room at the inn didn’t make the cut. Even so, it was the orchestration of the whole scene that grabbed me. John is sent to “prepare the way.” There’s a census in the empire. Jesus’ family must go to the prophetic town of Bethlehem. (Every knows that the Messiah will be born there!) Angels are dispatched to alert the shepherds and a star is hung to announce to any and all with the ability to read it, “This is the place!”

There was a fair level of orchestration going on here, but not the theatrics that the manger can become for us. The momentous event is the arrival of the One, the arrival of Christ.

The images are great stuff and have stood the test of time. But they are there to convey the ultimate glory of the One who has come, is coming, is here. The Peaceable Kingdom is about the reign of One who can change our lives and bring us the peace. The manger could have been anything, and it would have made no difference to the coming of the One. I read a little further in the Romans passage, in fact into the next chapter, chapter 14… and in the context of our making sure of our mutual respect and acceptance of one another, Paul pens these words,..

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.”
Romans 14:17-19

The peaceable kingdom is not lions and lambs, but you and I. The Kingdom of God is not what we eat and drink, but how we meet and greet. If I could take the liberty to just pull the kingdoms together for a moment, we’re talking always about the reign of God in a people who claim to be beholden to such a King. The making of congregation is the manifest image of the kingdom as we submit to the reign and the sovereignty that calls us together. There is no other way to make the peaceable kingdom, to dream such dreams, than to give ourselves, our fealty, our will to God for the using. I love the idea of satisfaction that Michael shared, and I also believe that the lions are simply commanded not to kill the lambs. Isn’t that the point of the strong caring for the weak? We are beholden to One who calls us to peace, regardless of the many appetites that might also call to us.

We finished our sermon time with a prayer by St. Ignatius Loyola. I read it in the plural sense for our corporate worship, but I’ll render it here, faithfully, as it was written:

“Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,
my memory, my understanding and my whole will.
All that I am and all that I possess
You have given me.
I surrender it all to You
to be disposed of according to Your will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace;
with these I will be rich enough,
and will desire nothing more.”

St. Ignatius Loyola

First Sunday of Advent, 2007 Dec. 02

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Movie Disease

I suffer from an affliction, and I don’t know how many of you can empathize. So often in life I rent a movie, and it turns out to be really bad, really lame, but I must watch it all the way thru. It is monumentally difficult for me to stop a movie part way thru. This has lead me to see a lot of sorry movies, in their totality.

I have also seen some movies that began pretty slow, but around the midway point starting heating up and got good. And I was glad for the inability to walk away at the rough start.

The story of Jesus isn’t like that. From the beginning, things are happening and people are popping up that demand our attention and warrant our sticking around to see where this thing goes.

Think for a moment with me of the way this the story begins to unfold…

⊕ Zechariah and Elizabeth, barren, visited by an angel, and conceiving a son. John is their son, who would be known as the Baptizer, the forerunner who would lay the finishing touches for the arrival of his cousin.
⊕ Of course, there’s Mary and Joseph, engaged, visited by angles, unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously pregnant, caught up in a sudden political necessity that sets them on the road for Bethlehem on the eve of her delivery… Bethlehem, the town of prophecy, a humble place, and yet a place where the prophets of old had pointed and said, “Watch.”
⊕ Jesus is born and more angles appear, gathering some shepherds from the fields to come and bear witness. I’m comforted folks, that these shepherds are called to witness… we aren’t told they’re in the line of kings, they aren’t priests, they’re humble shepherds. If they can be called to bear witness, then I know that I can be as well.
⊕ As an infant Jesus is taken to the Temple and there awaits Simeon the Prophet who raises Jesus and proclaims to God, “I have seen your salvation!” And then there’s Anna, the sweet widow Anna, who praises God at the sight of Jesus and picks up where the angels with the shepherds left off, telling everyone she sees, “Jesus is here.
⊕ But, we’re not done yet, because some wise men of the East still have to drop in looking for this child, the new king of the Jews. They had seen his star in sky… the arrival of Jesus being what it was, an announcement seemed to be placed in the sky for those able to read it, and follow the directions, even from far away.
⊕ And the arrival of the wise men leads to a dramatic escape to Egypt for the family of Jesus, fleeing the murderous wrath of the petty King Herod who could not stomach the idea that prophecy and events were coming together to announce such an arrival.

No, this story starts off running and soon careens into the political and religious maelstrom of the day. And we find more and more characters along the way, who like the humble shepherds, invite us into the story with their authenticity and honesty. One of my favorites is the man in Mark 9, when a father brings a son to Jesus and his followers for healing… and ends up in a fascinating conversation with Jesus… Mark 9::14-29. When a story like this one starts rolling in such a fashion, it’s hard to not be a little overwhelmed. And I relate to a parent who believes that going to Jesus is the right move, but there’s still room for growing that belief! It’s an expression of humility and inadequacy when caught up in a compelling story that feels just too good to flip channels and look away.

“Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed,
‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’”
Mark 9:24

I love the season of Advent. We need to start again each year, returning to the beginning of this story, the conflict, the miraculous, the hopes and machinations of both God and humanity. It becomes for us a needed anchor, a place to remember the belief of a previous year and the need for even more belief in the year that waits to begin.

My prayer for this Advent Season, for myself and for this church family, is to humbly join that father in Mark 9, “We do believe, help us in our unbelief!”

I have enjoyed the writings of a very smart lady named Marva Dawn, and in a book she co-wrote with Eugene Peterson she penned these simple but true words, “You cannot help but be disillusioned if only Santa Claus come to your house. But if the one you yearn for is the Christ Child, you will never be disappointed, for he always comes.”

So, welcome to Advent.

What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

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Oh, man. I should’ve known that if I preached three weeks on what it means to be a good neighbor that a test my authenticity might be arranged. The photo above is what I woke up to on Saturday. My neighbor, who is building a new home next door, needed to pump out his flooded basement. So he removed a piece of fence between our yards and piped the water into my backyard… that’s what the photo is, his pipe that emptied his basement into my yard. All I know is that the words popping into my head weren’t learned in seminary.

That pipe has to be chalked up to “bad neighborliness.” The question for me is, “What is my response? What is my responsibility as a neighbor, regardless of his?” Believe me, I thought about tearing the pipe up and throwing it in his yard. I thought about calling County offices. I wondered what exciting things I could pipe from my house over to his.

I’m hoping that may not be exactly what he told his construction crew to do. I don’t know because there wasn’t anyone around yesterday or today to ask. I’ll be watching tomorrow. I did find out that one of the church office assistants told him he could do something, but she didn’t think he was planning to pipe into my backyard. So he probably acted with something he felt was akin to permission.

So, I’ve been cool… no graffiti next door, no hexes or curses on anyone’s holiday shopping. I’m trying to find that happy place, that place and time of contented cool out of which I can express my extreme distaste for that pipe, a sincere hope it will leave and never return, and a real conviction that I will use County authorities to make sure it doesn’t, but only if I am forced to it.

So, here’s hoping…

What the scriptures give us on Father’s Day…

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You know I didn’t do this kind of a post for Mother’s Day… I hope you can forgive me. But I thought I would collect here some of my thoughts I am sharing with a class tomorrow morning, the Sunday which we celebrate as Father’s Day.

What does our Bible most often give us, as pertaining to God? My thoughts are running something like this:

The scriptures give us (not exclusively) images of God in a quest to help us know God and love God. I’m daring in my sense of over-simplification, but I think the idea rings true enough.

Not being divine oursleves, not divine in essence or personality, we’re not able to perceive God in a full, undiluted manner… so the images of scripture quite naturally flow from our own context and existence to be understandable and cogent.

And here’s a point of distinction… these images must be allowed to function in ways that help us know and love, but not allowed to funtion in ways that circumscribe God. It’s healthy to remember that scripures aid us in knowing God, not “figuring God out.”

So, let’s cruise some (just a few) images: father, mother, bridegroom, shepherd, potter… and later in a fuller way, son and spirit. To help enliven our images we have some amazing verbs that come along with the God of our scriptures… God loves, hates, marries, becomes jealous, divorces, forgives, molds and fashions, protects, calls, sends, speaks, listens, and remembers.

I was in an unexpected and interesting snatch of conversation this past week when a friend bemoaned the fact that some of the push towards inclusive language in church culture and vocabulary was actually excluding the masculine. So, in a rush to make God not exclusively masculine, we might try to make God not masculine. But God is masculine. And God is feminine.

And God is so far past those adjectives and realities that after they help us understand and love God a little more than we have previously, we have to remind ourselves that our being drawn to God is the point of this exercise, not divine sexuality. When the images wear a little thin or start to get too bossy, leave them aside for a few weeks and come back to them… let them breathe a little.

Fellas, there’s not a doubt that the father image, the masculine image, is the hands-down winner of which image pops up most through the scriptures. But I don’t think that really gives us much reason for self-congratulaion or high-fiving. If anything, we might uniquely have a bar set pretty high for the love of a bridegroom, the patience of a father, the sacrifice of a parent. *sigh*

So, let us do what honor to the Divine image that we may! Let us give someone something to celebrate in the way we love, are fathers, and are husbands.