Just Where Were We?

Two weeks ago, we were headed to central Pennsylvania for some family business.  Along the way, we were passed by a car with Prince Edward Island license plates.  It would be no big deal to see cars with Canadian license plates (around here we see a lot of Ontario and Quebec license plates).

It was just that right after the car from P. E. I. passed us, the exit to Newfoundland came up.  We wondered whether we needed to check the map.


What Are Your Priorities?

I have edited this since it was first posted.

I cannot help but imagine how the conversation between Martha and Jesus in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 10: 38 – 42 ) will be accepted in many of today’s churches.

In many churches today, there is a division of labor prompted by gender and time served in the church. Certain things are done by the men, certain things are done by the women, and some things depend on how long you have been a member of the church. Yet, in the reading for today, Mary is sitting with the men listening to Jesus while Martha is in the kitchen trying to clean up.

The problem for Martha is that Mary’s presence with the men goes against the social norms of the day. But it was typical of Jesus to seek a change in such norms. It was also one of the attributes of the early church where all members were considered equal and the division of the labor was divided appropriately and equally.
Jesus gently chides Martha for insisting that Mary go along with society’s rules. We hear in Jesus’ words the same reminder to open our hearts and our minds to the possibilities of life, not to the limits placed on us by society.

The problem today is two-fold. First, we have allowed society’s norms to dictate the nature of the church. And we have allowed society to define the message of the church.

In churches today, the message is clear that certain people do certain jobs and one is not supposed to mess with tradition. When it is your time, you will get to do the job you want to do. Too many churches today hold views that are inflexible and unchanging. For too many churches and too many people, the role of women is limited and fixed by God in the Bible. Somehow the history of the early church gets lost when the words of God are carved into stone by these inflexible and unchanging minds.

There is a truth in God’s words but it does not come nor can it come from a view that is fixed and unchanging. The Bible is meant to be lived, not read. The Word of God must be guided by the Spirit, not directed by one’s prejudices, one’s fears, or one’s ignorance. And I fear that many of those who claim to speak these words speak through their own prejudices, fears, and ignorance.

There are four versions of the Gospel presented to people today. In one version, Jesus is our servant and the avenue and the means by which we gain wealth and prosperity. Poverty is the product of a sinful life and wealth is the product of a righteous life. Never mind that this is a concept that was held by people before Jesus. Never mind that it was a concept that Jesus quickly rejected. Never mind that the Bible emphasizes on taking care of those less fortunate and that wealth is to be used, not accumulated.

When Jesus began his ministry, poverty and sickness were considered the products of a sinful life, either by the individual themselves or through the sins of the individual’s parents. Jesus worked to show that this was not the case and that people who were blind, lame, deaf or could not speak should be treated for their illnesses, not cast aside or shunned.

The second version of the Gospel also casts aside the less fortunate members of society. In this version of the Gospel, God is hateful, vengeful and quick to anger. He is apt to destroy a town because of its sins and there is nothing that we can do. This is a god that offers no hope for the future. To those who accept this gospel the future will end in some sort of fiery destruction with non-believers perishing in the flames while they are lifted up to heaven. But who will be lifted up?

This view offers Christianity as an exclusive club that is only open to a select few. Heaven is truly open to all those who believe but the belief is not decided by those here on earth. Jesus points out that those who ignore the less fortunate, no matter how righteous a life they think they led here on earth, will not gain admission to heaven. To wait for the destruction of the earth in anticipation of admittance into heaven is to ignore all that is going on around you and is as much a sin as anything imaginable.

I have no problem with preaching against sin. I think that is what the church is supposed to do. But when we cannot preach against sins that are the product of our own prejudices, our fears, or our ignorance; to do so is as much a sin as preaching against murder or stealing.

You cannot preach a gospel of vengeance when God sent his Son so that we might have eternal life. You cannot preach a gospel of exclusion when Jesus Christ opened his teaching to all who would follow Him.

The prosperity gospel and the gospel of vengeance have one thing in common. They are self-centered messages and those who offer them cannot see beyond the walls of their limited existence. They are the ones who Amos speaks out against in today’s Old Testament reading.(Amos 8:1 – 12 ) People who forget parts of their own society are not going to gain what they seek. Rather, they will be destroyed because of their own indifference to society.

There are those who preach a gospel of social work today. But their version of the gospel is as self-centered as the message of those who ignore the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. This version of the gospel suggests that one is able to gain access to heaven by helping those less fortunate. It is a version of the 16th century church where people bought their admission through the purchase of indulgences. One cannot buy one’s way into heaven by any means and trying to do so will do little to change the actual nature of the world.To change the world requires a change in one’s view of the world. This is what I think Paul is saying to the Colossians in the 2nd reading for today. (Colossians 1: 15 -28) There was, at the time of his writing this letter, a conflict between various schools of thought about who Jesus Christ was, is, and would be. The various versions of the Gospel that we hear today are a continuation of that same argument.

There is one true version of the Gospel and it is the most difficult one to accept. As Paul noted in the letter to the Colossians, to follow Christ is to follow the path that He walked and to endure the same sufferings that He endured. It is perhaps one reason that there are other versions of the Gospel that are kinder and gentler. The alternative versions of the Gospel offer paths that are easier to walk and require nothing from the individual.

But in order to walk the path with Christ, we must repent of our old ways and begin a new life. We cannot accept society’s version of the walk because it doesn’t work. To walk with Christ is to walk in a new world and to see things in an entirely differently life. And, as Paul noted, it is a very difficult walk.

As we walk this new walk, we are going to encounter many who will reject what we think, what we say, and what we do. But there are going to be many who will want to walk with us for the same reasons that others will reject us. It is by our thoughts, our words, and our deeds that people will come to know Christ because they will see how He has changed our lives.

The question that we must ask ourselves is the same one that Jesus posed so many years ago. Are we going to be like Martha, guided and directed by the ways of society, or are we going to be like Mary, focused on the goal offered by Jesus and the changes that this new goal will bring. What are your priorities today?

What We Are Supposed To Do

Here are my thoughts for this Sunday, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost.
I have decided to start my own church. I am going to start on the Internet and after the contributions and donations start to roll in, I will begin televising the services. Maybe we will pull in enough to even buy an old auditorium or arena and turn into a worship center.

The name of my church is going to be the “1st Internet Worship Center of the Gospel of Prosperity.” We aren’t going to call it a church because that will scare away the customers (oops, sorry; I meant to say congregants). I probably will decorate the web site and the church with a dove and, since this will be a world-wide ministry, most definitely a globe. Don’t go looking for a cross or any references to Jesus; market research has indicated those things tend to make people uncomfortable.

Since it is an internet site, you can come anytime; we will be open 24/7 and the attire is informal. That’s good because it seems that the dress code for preachers today is blue jeans and Hawaiian shirts. For right now, I will settle for t-shirts and sport shirts. Maybe when we start televising the services, I will have enough money to buy a few Armani suits.

Ours will be a Biblical ministry but each sermon will be decided by input from focus groups. People want their churches to be biblical in nature but they want their pastors to avoid mentioning the Bible. By using focus groups, we can accommodate the wishes of the people.

Most certainly, since this is a church of the gospel of prosperity, we are going to focus on how one can use God to become wealthy and prosperous. We believe that poverty is a product of sin and wealth is a sign of a righteous life.

Ours will be a church (oops, sorry – meant to say to say worship center) that celebrates life. Ours will be a celebration of family values, so if you are not part of a traditional family you will have to go some place else.

If by now you haven’t figured it out, the above paragraphs were written with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. They come from impressions of many of the churches that are on television and the Internet today. They are what people are looking for because it gives them what they are looking for. Is that what a church (and I mean church) is supposed to do?

I don’t think so. A church is a place of hope. A church is a place to call out against the sins of the world. It is a place where the Spirit of the Lord is present. But it is not a place where the people decide what the words of God are to be. It is not a place where people decide what sins are.

In the Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Amos is warned by the chief priest to take his message of repentance elsewhere as it is not welcomed in Israel. Amos’ message is a warning to the king and the people that they are headed in the wrong direction and they need to change direction. But the people don’t want to hear such words; they only want to be told good things, even if good things aren’t the truth.

And many of the churches that I see and hear today have no use for those that don’t fit their concept of Christian. Family values are a political term that many ministers have accepted and use to prevent those who need the church from benefiting from what a church can offer. Instead of opening the church to everyone, family values have become a way to close the church to outsiders.

Who should be in our church? Who is our neighbor? The Gospel reading for today is the story of the Good Samaritan. The point of the story is not just that everyone is our neighbor but that self-righteousness is as much a sin as anything else. The first two men to walk by the wounded man had valid and Biblical reasons for not helping. But their reasons, however valid, were self-centered reasons. No matter how hard we try to justify something, if we use the law to justify not doing what the spirit tells us we should do, then we are as guilty of sin as those who attacked and robbed the victim in our story.

I am not planning on opening a church on the Internet. There is too much to do in the real world. Amos tells us that we need to focus on telling the truth and the Gospel reading for today reminds us of what we are supposed to do. As Jesus told so many people after they had heard the story and understood the message, so He tells us today to go and do likewise. That is what we are supposed to do and that is what we should do.

Who Do You Listen To?

I am preaching at Pine Plains UMC again this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost.
I have edited this since it was first posted.
In the prologue to her book, “Jesus In Blue Jeans”, Laurie Beth Jones writes of a dream she once had. In this dream she was standing in a meadow when a man approached her. As the man came closer she realized that it was Jesus. But His appearance confused her, for he was wearing blue jeans. As she wrote, Jesus asked “Why are you surprised? I came to them wearing robes because they wore robes. I come to you in blue jeans because you are wearing blue jeans.” (Laurie Beth Jones, “Jesus in Blue Jeans”)

It is the same for us. Jesus will come to us as we are, no matter who we might be. Because, as John wrote in the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus was, is and will always be, how He comes to us depends on the time and place of our encounter. For many people today, the problem is that they want to set that time and place and they want to place Jesus in the context of their own lives rather than allowing the encounter to take place.

Instead of listening, people would rather do the speaking. This leads to people hearing many different messages about how this encounter will take place. There are so many voices telling us many different thing, and often, contradictory things that we don’t know who we should listen to.

Do we listen to those who say there is no god and that all the events of mankind are independent of some supreme being? If that is the case, then how does one account for good and evil, right and wrong? Are we somehow imprinted at birth with the outcome of our life? I don’t even want to think of this possibility because it is a possibility that is open to abuse and one that, in the end, has no hope. If who we are is established long before we have a chance to be who we will be, then hope has been removed from the realm of possibility. Those who say there is no god do not offer anything that brings hope into the world.

But why should they not listen to those who say there is no god? Because they see a world without hope. They see a world in which churches and ministers preach hatred, exclusion, and persecution. They hear of the Prince of Peace but see a god of war dominating their lives. They hear preachers speak of the riches of the heavenly kingdom that are available here on earth yet they see poverty at home and abroad.

They see a church fixed in time past. Such churches view Jesus as the man who walked among the hills of Galilee, wearing robes and talking to his disciples and followers. Because Jesus is the same today as He was yesterday and the way He will be tomorrow, there is no need for change and there is no need for a vision of the future.

It is a church that offers nothing in relevance to today’s society; it is a church that longs for the good old days. It speaks of a society ruled by church law, forgetting that the society that Jesus lived in was such a society and it was a society without hope. A society must have a framework of laws but the laws themselves cannot transcend the spirit with which they were written and one has to be careful that the laws do not contradict each other.

The lawyers of the society took Jesus to task for healing a sick person on the Sabbath because it was against the law. But it was perfectly all right for one to heal a sick animal. Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of that law.

Why do people listen to people who say there is no god and there is no hope? Because the only churches they see in the world also offer no hope.

There are churches today trying desperately to break the bonds to the past. They recognize that a church tied to the past cannot move forward easily. There are times when we should celebrate our past but our celebrations must also focus on what the future has to offer.

But it is how we see the future that enables us to move forward. Many churches today offer contemporary or modern services. There is even talk of church on the Internet as a way of reaching countless souls. While I have my doubts about the adaptation of modern technology to church services, I am more concerned with the adaptation of modern marketing techniques to the presentation of the message.

No longer do preachers speak of the meaning of the Gospel as it applies to us. Rather they speak of the Gospel as we think it applies to us. And it is a message that we quite easily accept. The modern day preacher, technologically savvy, is quite welling to preach a gospel message that offers what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. In that regard, people are no different from Naaman, the focus of the Old Testament reading for today. (2 Kings 5: 1 – 14)

Naaman seeks a cure for his leprosy. He is directed to go to Israel where he will find what he seeks. But he seeks his cure from the King of Israel who, of course, cannot provide it. The king panics because he cannot provide what Naaman requests. Elisha hears of the king’s problem and offers to help. Naaman then gets angry because he feels that the simple cure that Elisha offers is beneath his stature and position in life. But Naaman’s servants point out that it is not one’s position in life that determines the outcome but one’s faith that determines the outcome.

Unfortunately, we didn’t learn the lesson that saved Naaman. Rather, we have fallen into the trap that Paul warns the Galatians about in today’s second lesson. (Galatians 6: 7 – 16) Much of the dissatisfaction with today’s churches is that many pastors offer words that they themselves do not live by. They are the preachers that Paul warns about; they are the ones who put themselves above the law while they condemn you when you break the law.

And because we want to see the church in our eyes, we have done exactly what Paul warned us about. We have reaped what we have sown. We willing hear the message of the false prophets of today because their message fits within the framework of our lives. Many people today approach church with the feeling and attitude that who they are and what they are is more important than their faith itself. We willingly allow others to proclaim that they alone speak for God and that their words are the true words.

But the only words that count and the words that we should listen to are the ones spoken by Jesus. The only words that we should speak are the words that Jesus gives us to speak. It’s just that today’s society has made it very difficult to know which words come from Jesus and which words we should speak.

So how do we understand what words are the true words? In sending out the seventy, Jesus anticipated what difficulties they would encounter. He turned the source of anxiety, the threats and trials that each would endure, as opportunities to testify. (Luke 21: 13) And when faced with the anxiety that comes when one does not know what to say, Jesus promises that He will give us the words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. (Luke 21: 15) He does not promise that the words will come to you or that you will think of something but rather He himself will give you the words you need.

His instructions are simple and explicit; take no bag, no purse, and no sandals. Enter each house with the greeting of “Peace to this house” and “the Kingdom of God has come near to you.” These words are performative; they do what they say; the Kingdom of God is near. These are noteworthy words in a world where each word is measured for its reaction. We are so easily tempted to select other words and tailor our message to bring people into the church that we often forget that the simplest words of truth will give the best results.

Yes, the very words that we use are often accompanied by rejection and dismissal. Jesus even told His messengers that often they will find themselves in places that will not receive the message. The message of “Peace to this house” is not always easily received and regularly takes a beating.

But that doesn’t shrink its scope or diminish the truth. It has endured war, famine, betrayal, torture, indifference and crucifixion yet it endures all of these and responds to a place in people’s hearts. (Adapted from “What to Say” by Patrick J. Willson, Christian Century, June 26, 2007)

Who shall we listen to in this day of mixed messages and false messengers? We should listen to our heart for our heart will know the truth? I am reminded that Jesus said to seek the truth and the truth will set you free. If our hearts are closed to Jesus, then we cannot seek the truth. And if we cannot seek the truth, we will never be free.

If we are set free, we are freed from the limitations and restrictions that are placed upon us by the world. The power of evangelism is restored and the Gospel again becomes a message that turns things around. We are free to speak of a Savior who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity in order to bring the Good News to the outcast, the hopeless and the helpless. If we are set free, we are set free to be one of those who are sent out into the world, telling everyone through our voice, our heart, and our soul of the Good News.

So, who do we listen to? We listen to Christ speaking to us each day, calling us to be his servant, his disciple, his messenger to the world. And when we hear our names called, how will we respond?