How I Went to Church and Was Convicted of Being Disingenuous (and That Was a Good Thing)

     Yesterday I went to church and was blessed with an awareness of how I had been disingenuous with my children over the years; how easy it is to be seduced by the Siren songs of our culture; and how daunting it is to be the disciple you long to be. I suspect I am not alone in that.
     Now rest assured, this insightful moment of conviction did not lead me to feel an overbearing load of guilt, or beat me down with a sense of being an utter screw-up. It was a grace-filled experience in which I could accept the truth of what I heard, acknowledge my failure to live into that truth, and experience the mystery of divine acceptance, nevertheless, providing hope that I can move on and be more honest and truthful in days to come.
     Moments like these again confirm for me why I need to be engaged in worship, prayer, scripture study, and Christian community on an ongoing basis, as I hear truth through the community and its means of grace I will not hear otherwise. There is a generous acceptance, and offer of ongoing transformation and sanctification that I would not necessarily believe, if I did not continue to hear of such things in such practices and among others who also are on this journey with me.
     When our children were little and restless in worship, I would often lean over and whisper to them, “Trust me; you get a better dad at the end of this time than the one you brought with you.” I don’t think that at their young age they had any idea what I was talking about, but it was true. At its best, Christian worship is an occasion for truth-telling, conviction, conversion, gratitude and joy for the offer of such gifts.  
     Yesterday was a day for such gifts to be offered. As is often the case, yesterday brought me to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, which provides a service of Eucharist each Wednesday. Typically the focus of the Word proclaimed is on a saint of the church whose feast day falls on or near a particular Wednesday. Yesterday’s gospel text was one of the tellings of Jesus’ teaching that if we want to gain our life, we must lose it by taking up our cross and following in the Jesus Way; it included the compelling question, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And what can they give to buy it back?” Or as the New English Bible puts it, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their true self? And what can they give to buy back their true self?”
     The priest told us that this particular text is often used for the feast days of martyrs throughout the liturgical year, and said that the saints are those who show in their lives what it is to live self-sacrificially. And then he spoke the truth that convicted me in a profoundly deep and compelling way.
     I cannot quote him exactly; preaching is such an in the moment, aural experience. But this is what I remember: the saints give the lie to what culture tells us about how to live well. We are told life’s goal is happiness, and we tell our children that all we want is for them to be happy.
     But in reality, he said,what we want for them is to be good and to enter into the life of God. And I thought, “Yes, that is true.”
     That is what I have ever wanted for myself when I have been my best self and most honest. And to be good, to participate in the true and beautiful, is to enter into the life of God who alone is true, good, beautiful, all-together right, just and merciful. At my best and and most honest, that is who I want to be. It is not something I can achieve on my own. It is not always an easy route and is not always a source of happiness. But to participate in that reality is to experience joy and fullness of life.
     Happiness is so ephemeral, fleeting, and transitory. What promises to give happiness today will be passé tomorrow, and a new source of happiness will be offered that also will soon fade away. I am persuaded that I can always be joyful, even in the most horrible of circumstances; but perpetual happiness is an illusion, and the quest for it as a permanent feature of life even is perhaps something unhealthy and foolish.        On more than one occasion I have told my children that all I wanted for them was for them to be happy. But as the preacher said yesterday, what I really wanted for them was that they would be good, and participate in the life of God.
     And what I mean by “being good” is not a bourgeoisie goodness that entails being nice, obedient, compliant with authority, and adhering to the rules of society. By goodness I mean a life characterized by the goodness of God, which includes mercy, grace, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, compassion for the poor and weak, advocacy for those demeaned or mocked or marginalized, a life of integrity and commitment to the well-being of all, even if that requires self-sacrifice. Such goodness produces a sense of wholeness and harmony of life that is seen in the wholeness and harmony of the Triune God known in the Christian tradition, and embodied in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.
     And participating in the life of God is grander and broader than simply participating in the life of the church, as useful (and as maddening) as that may be. It is a good thing, a means to the greater end, but in and of itself ultimately it is not enough. Life in God is so much more. Our culture whispers that true happiness is found through self-actualization. Be the best you you can be, do whatever brings you contentment, whatever works for you. The problem is that such promises put me at the center of my life, and prioritizes my happiness above all other things, including what is good and life-giving for you and others who also inhabit this village we inhabit.
     What culture offers is an inversion or perversion of the truth told by the faith community. That truth is that I find myself by losing my self in the life of God so that, as St. Paul puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me.” I may be able to reflect such life and goodness in my own life; that is what grace enables. But apart from a deep, intimate, and ongoing connection with God, in which God’s life continues to flow through me and nourish the goodness within, it will soon wither and fade, like a cut flower. As Jesus put it, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
     That’s really what I want for myself and my children: life abundant, i.e., living in God and being shaped and formed in that divine image and likeness. Happiness through self-actualization, as offered by the world, is a poor substitute for such glory. I believe true happiness and deep and abiding joy are possible in the Way lived by Jesus. I was convicted yesterday that I simply have been disingenuous and have not always told this entire truth to those dearest to me (ironically because I did not want to turn them away from this hidden joy); I pretended that I knew less than I really did.
     By God’s grace, I strive to be better; such blessing is priceless and too valuable not to speak with all truthfully, humbly and with grace, including those who are especially most precious. 
Advertisements

Sow Crazy: Sermon Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Note: Whatever flaws are contained in this sermon, they are mine. Some of the thought was informed by Brian Stoffregen’s Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks, and Elisabeth Johnson’s commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 found at WorkingPreacher.org.
     Today’s scripture’s a hard sell. We’ve heard it so much we don’t hear. “A sower went out to sow…” Boring. It won’t be easy to sow the seed of God’s Word to bring unexpected blessing before you stop listening and start thinking about lunch or the coming week?
     Remember first that Jesus’ stories are trickier than you think. Jesus says he tells parables to confound people to make them think more about things they think they already understand. He says, “This is why I tell parables: ‘seeing, folks don’t see, and hearing they don’t get it.’ The prophet Isaiah got it right: ‘The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen; they shut their eyes so they won’t have to look so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face so I can heal them.’”* If we think we’ve figured out a Jesus story think again: maybe not.
     And remember that Jesus’ stories caused trouble. If we listen to a Jesus story and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” then we probably don’t really get it. His stories always have an edge; they take an unexpected turn to challenge our everyday day world and what we think. Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he nice, but because he and his stories threatened people.
     Matthew arranges his story of Jesus to show him as a new Moses, a new lawgiver and teacher of God’s way. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches with authority like Moses on Mt. Sinai; five blocks of teaching crafted by Matthew remind us of the Law in the first five books of the Old Testament. Today’s scripture is one of five parables Jesus tells in the third block of teaching, but they’re wedged between conflicts Jesus has with faith leaders, hometown neighbors, and his own family. Jesus’ stories go together with misunderstanding, challenge, threat. Today’s story is also full of puzzle and promise, if we have ears to hear.
     It answers a crucial question: if Jesus is so wonderful and truly God’s chosen, why don’t more people believe? Shouldn’t more people believe, and trust him, and live like him? The story’s told so we won’t fret overmuch that most folks simply won’t.
     Some hearts are just hard and unreceptive. For whatever reason some think faith is foolishness for losers and this Jesus stuff is just wishful thinking.
     Others start out well, but their roots in Christ aren’t deep so when trouble comes faith withers. Disappointment happens and they turn from God because they think God didn’t come through, so what’s the point?
     And some folks have the seed of Christ planted in them, but other things become more important. and discipleship dies. I knew someone on fire for God and the radically different life she believed Christ was calling her to live. But then she met and married a man with a very lucrative career and this world’s cares and wealth choked her life of faith.
     But there’s that fourth blessed group: the seed of God’s Word and life takes root to bear a rich harvest. But it’s only one out of four; an F- in school. A 25% success rate’s not that great; shouldn’t God do better?
     Maybe failure and lack of success are just part of the deal. Maybe God delights in throwing seed everywhere to see what happens and delights whenever and however new life comes. Fruitfulness matters; but so does faithfully doing God’s work, trusting that growth will happen, sometimes in surprising places. Maybe faithful failure and fruitfulness are both OK.
     We’re tempted to think we’re the good seed, the good soil, the ¼ bearing fruit. In God’s multiple choice test, we’re #4, the good soil, right? But maybe the more honest answer is #5, all the above. Our hearts can be hard and dismiss parts of the gospel as absurd: love our enemies? forgive those who harm us? trust God completely instead of military strength or retirement savings, or youth or beauty? There’ve been times when doubt got the best of me; I felt betrayed by God or God’s silence terrified me. We know what it’s like to be distracted by wealth or money worries or family demands. Maybe we should thank God that God’s seed somehow survived and we produced any fruit. Maybe it’s a miracle that God didn’t give up on us, but kept planting year after year. Even when met by failure and disappointment God kept hoping for something good, even in us.
     As a teenager I spent hours talking after school with Ben Nelson, my home church’s associate pastor. We talked about everything: relationships, issues of the day like race and war, faith. At times he could’ve thought I was a waste of time; I was such a blockhead, sticking my fingers in my ears not wanting to hear what Christ might expect of me, shutting my eyes to what following Jesus required of me if I took him seriously. But he didn’t give up, and I tell you that whatever fruit came out of my ministry came because God kept planting seeds through him week after week, month after month, year after year. Before giving up on others, thank God that God doesn’t give up on us. It’s a miracle of God’s amazing grace.
     Maybe this story is about a God willing to take risks even when results aren’t guaranteed. Maybe it’s about a reckless and extravagant God who sows seed without fretting over efficiency or effectiveness, but simply throws out seeds of life and blessing to see what happens. We disciples are to be like God, doing God’s work today. What if we become God’s faithful reckless risk takers who don’t fret over efficiency or effectiveness or what kind of return we get on our efforts? God seems to be OK with being faithful failures and things not always working out; Jesus’ God Jesus is extravagantly and wastefully generous, tossing the seed of life and rejoicing with what happens. Could we?
     Maybe God’s seeding and harvest of life through us is marked both by grand failures and successes; what’s surprising is where fruit is produced. In Jesus’ life it was the odd balls and misfits and rejects who got it, not the religious or proper folk – often their hearts were hard or faith was shallow. In his story maybe Jesus is challenging us to take risks that may fail, to try things that might not work, to see what God might do anyway. Do something for Christ’s sake even if it goes badly.
     Here’s some advice from successful business folks: be sure to create a sufficient number of excellent mistakes. If you want to succeed, double your failure rate; if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything worthwhile. Indeed, some things are so important they’re worth doing badly.
     In Jesus’ story, if the sower didn’t throw the seed and fail alot, there would be no fruit. Making mistakes, wasting time and energy are part of the creative process. Google headquarters has nap rooms and game areas and outdoor spaces for walking for a reason. Sometimes what looks like doing nothing is tilling the ground for unexpected breakthroughs to new life. Jesus advises us, “You received without payment; give without payment; you received as a gift, give as a gift.”
     What if this church decided to be God’s reckless risk-takers and committed 10% of the budget to sow God’s seed in wild and crazy ways, to experiment with reaching out and planting seeds of faith and living the gospel where you’re planted? What if you didn’t fret about being effective or efficient, but prayed fiercely simply to be faithful see what God might do?
     When a Chicago church received an unexpected $1.6 million windfall last year, most of the money went to ordinary things, like meeting a budget shortfall or needed building upkeep. But they also did something reckless and risky: one Sunday each of 300+ worshipers got a $500 check to do whatever they thought God wanted them to do with it. $160,000 to sow crazy for Christ. Some miracles happened, but certainly not always. But without sowing crazy, no fruit.
     In campus ministry I often saw the fruit of risky, reckless faith. Students tossed out ideas and tried crazy things, trusting all to God. Spectacular failures happened along with wonderful experiences of unexpected fruitful blessings. In late night movie discussions students suddenly got it and faith was born in new ways. Seemingly endless encounters eventually led to students becoming a pastor, a nurse, a special ed. teacher. Paying students to take Religious Studies classes led to deeper faith, not less. A casual walk across campus with a teacher from Russia led to years of connection and mission between students here and there.
     In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells of some young adults setting up a confessional booth at a mall. They invite passersby to enter the booth where they unexpectedly hear a Christian ask their forgiveness for the church’s sins: racism, homophobia, judgmental intolerance, love of power, focus on buildings instead of building relationships. Sow crazy! Sometimes nothing happened, but some gave grace and forgiveness to the broken Body of Christ and room was opened for new faith.
     Others sow crazy: a college town church hosts therapy dogs and food for 300 students during exams; a downtown church’s Bible School draws hundreds of children, most not from that congregation; another offers Sunday School for special needs friends and midweek worship for folks who work on Sundays; a church gives yearly blessings to new drivers, teachers, first responders, health care workers; another hosts a free community-wide block party with food, games and music; a congregation invests thousands of dollars helping working poor neighbors develop a two year plan to escape poverty; some Christians goes to Denny’s at 4 a.m. to share breakfast and blessing with Muslims from a local mosque as they prepare for their daily Ramadan fast. Sow crazy; you never know what fruit might be produced.
     Jesus says, “You will know my disciples by their fruits.” Seeing becomes believing as our good soil fruits help others “put together” faith, words and actions. A young woman went to church but finally became a Christian as she saw an older woman showing that following Jesus was fruitful, if not easy. The woman had a rough relationship with another in the church; as she worked to love and forgive frequently, she saw her nemesis as a fruitful gift and blessing as she confessed, “That woman will make me a Christian yet.” God’s seed in our lives might be the only Bible someone will ever read. Sow crazy, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.
  • This is my wording, based on a loose rendition of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Matthew 13:10-17

After worship today, where all this happened: Worship Wonderings…

communion-2

It seems so naïve, ridiculous, pitiable, retro and nostalgic, and yet I do it weekly, and sometimes oftener: I’m gathered with others, many grayheads like myself, but others drawn as well to a Table, Font and Lectern, to do what has been done for 20 centuries and more by us who claim to meet there a once executed yet living One.

It seems madly, insanely absurd. And yet nevertheless we do it; I do it. We are foolish enough to know its wisdom and wise enough to see how foolish it must seem to those who wonder why:

I have a hunger that only holiness can feed
Time and space are simply too constraining and eternity is this near and only thinly veiled
Like all things well rooted, I need to be harrowed and tended, pruned and fed, watered and aerated by the Master Gardener
I come to profess for those who doubt some days, counting on that grace to be returned in my need
I am promised that here I can meet Jesus and that makes a difference I cannot bear to be without
I need to sing of something greater than baseball, or grander than this nation
To hear and learn by heart a true Story unique and unlike the illusory and false ones I mostly hear
To confess, give thanks, be still to listen, and remember others before God, trusting they do for me the same
My ears tingle for the Word beyond all words that confronts, challenges, comforts, and changes
I get confused and lost along the way and need a compass to find the Way home
In my darkness I find light and guidance that does not fail
Life is too grand, mad, terriying, beautifully mysterious simply to live its wonder unacknowledged
I gather with those who’ve gone before me and anticipate my gathering unto them
Being and doing, contentment and peace beyond knowing are offered freely but never cheaply
I am met by love, given hope, and fed by faith

And so I come, and go, and am blessed. And I am grateful.

Table Manners: Sermon Based on Mark 7:24-27

 Following the murders in Charleston, SC, of nine Christians engaged in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the bishops of that denomination called on people of faith across our land to focus the weekend of September 5-7 on Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism.  As is often the case, the lectionary of readings for this Sunday provided a providentially apt set of readings relevant to this prayerful call by the bishops (which was echoed by Young Jin Cho, my own United Methodist bishop here in Virginia.  Here is what the Spirit brought me to say as I sought to bear witness to God’s Word yesterday at Highland Springs UMC in Highland Springs, VA.  

I have a confession to make – in 42 years of ministry I’ve never preached on this text. I avoided it because quite frankly, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Jesus. His table manners might’ve been socially acceptable in his day but they’re still rather crude and rude. If we like gentle Jesus meek and mild, always caring and kind, he’s not here. It’s troubling and unsettling and takes us where we’d rather not go.

In Mark’s story Jesus is traveling in the area of modern day Lebanon. He needs to recharge his batteries and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. But here comes this woman looking for help. Poor Jesus can’t get a break or a day off.

Mark describes her as Syro-Phoenician, a Gentile. The Greek says she’s a Hellenist; inMatthew’s gospel she’s even worse – a Canaanite. In other words she’s the worst kind of outsider. In the Bible Canaanites are always the bad guys; in Jewish history the Hellenists caused some of the worst persecutions Jews ever faced. And Jews weren’t really sure Gentiles were human, so Jesus’ harsh attitude toward this woman fit right in with his time and culture.
Add to that, she’s a woman. In Jesus’ day women and men who aren’t family just don’t deal with each other; women know their place and stay in it. But here she is, uninvited into the house looking for Jesus out to ask a favor.

Now she is respectful and humble; Mark says she falls atJesus’ feet to beg him to heal her little girl. Who could turn away and not feel pity for her? Apparently Jesus can.

And he does it in a rather crass and cruel way. In our reading Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t bother me or waste my time. I’ve got better things to dothan deal with people like you.” Ouch.

One more thing really stings and hurts here. We see dogs and puppies as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. We love them. That’s not how they’re seen in Jesus’ day. They’re wild scavengers; curs to be kicked aside and chased away. Dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Basically Jesus calls this woman and her daughter dogs, female dogs. At its worst Jesus may be guilty of using the B word on them. Truth be told, Jesus sounds like a sexist racist.

But there is good news here. I love that Jesus’ is so human. We Christians claim a great mystery: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.   Sometimes we want to smooth the raw edges in our picture of Jesus, but scripture says he was like us in every way, except without sin. He’s a creature of his own day and time; a first century Jew, part of a culture that sees women and non-Jews in a particular way. There’s no sin in that. The sin would be to stay that way when given a better, wiser way that’s more like God’s ways.

That’s what this woman does for Jesus. She opens his eyes wider to see more clearly. She’s the only person in the New Testament who gets the best of Jesus in an argument. I love that. Jesus rudely dismisses her; but she’s a Momma in need and won’t take “No” for an answer with her little girl’s life on the line. Jesus tells her, “It’ not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she comes right back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Take that, Jesus. Even Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, women and dogs have a place at God’s table of grace and mercy and healing and hope.

Just before this story, Jesus has a huge slap fight with Jewish religious leaders who are too focused on doing everything just so. Jesus rants at them, “You are so busy holding on to human traditions that you let go of God’s commandments.” And here’s this woman holding Jesus’ feet to the fire challenging him for doing the very same thing. Whoa.

Jesus is like us in every way except sin. The sin would be for Jesus to hold onto the human tradition of treating some better than others, as if there are 1st and 2nd class citizens. Thanks to this woman, Jesus’ very human eyes are opened to see that God’s ways are even greater and broader and wider than Jesus first thought. And Jesus changes his ways and his mind and his heart to match up to God.  He is converted and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Typically Jesus connects healing with faith; here it’s the woman’s reasoning that produces the miracle. Her logic brings the change not only to her daughter, but to Jesus, too.

I love the way Mark tells his tale. In chapter 6 Jesus feeds 5000 Jews with bread and fish. In this chapter Jesus says the children’s bread shouldn’t be given to dogs but his mind is changed. That’s what conversion is. And in chapter 8 Jesus again provides bread to a crowd., but this time it’s Gentiles he feeds because he has compassion on them. Even Jesus can grow to see God’s ways in new ways; he’s blessed because of this woman God uses to make it happen.

That’s good news for us, too, because we’re Gentiles. We’re the outsiders Jesus might have missed without her opening his eyes and heart.

And there’s more good news. If the Son of God can grow in his understanding of God’s ways, so can we. If Jesus can be blessed through the honest wise words of another, so can we. We need each other; we need church folks to be open and honest with us to challenge and stretch us to live more fully for God.  That’s what it means to be church, the Body of Christ together.

Some of us grew up in a time and place and that was deeply racist and sexist. There’s no sin in that. The sin is to stay there. Jesus doesn’t stay with his limited attitudeafter his encounter with this woman in need, and we don’t have to stay tied to old, small ways, either.

Our world still doesn’t fully reflect God’s broad bright ways; Jesus still groans as he heals. Racism and prejudice are alive among us, maybe in our own hearts. Some say we have to say “Black Lives Matter” because in many ways our culture says they really don’t matter.

After the racially hate-filled murders of nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops asked Christians across US to join today in confession, repentance, prayer and commitment to end racism. Our own Bishop Cho made that call to us as well.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can’t stay deaf and mute to this cancer still eating at our soul. Healing comes as we listen and learn from those who are different, with different life experiences. Blessing comes as we allow ourselves like the Lord Jesus to be challenged and changed by truth heard in unexpected places.  In my own life I thank God for the honest hard words and the humble life of a guy named Ben Nelson, my pastor during my teen years. God used him to convert and change this narrow-minded racist boy toward the better way of Christ. It’s true – the gospel really is that powerful and wonderful.

This winter I talked with some Randolph-Macon College students of color about their life on that largely white campus. It wasn’t easy to hear what they said, but I’m glad they told me the truth. I told them not to stay silent, and one woman said that’s hard: white folks can feel guilty and she didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But I said I hoped she’d speak up anyway because that’s how healing and conversion and better days come.

Today we come to be fed today at this table where the Lord is again present. Let us confess and repent of whatever keeps us from walking God’s wide way of grace for all; ask for healing so we won’t be deaf to the stories of our brothers and sisters and silent no more in the face of racism or prejudice. Like the woman long ago let us fall on our knees and ask for mercy for us and our land and make a new commitment to the loving way of Jesus; then our table manners will be worthy of the One who calls and heals and welcomes us all, thanks be to God.