Sunday Morning Reminders

The last two Sunday mornings a different person in our church has asked me prior to worship what was going to said about the Middle East (last Sunday) and what was going to said about Michael Brown (today).  Both those people approaching me before service have become reminders for me of several things I want to list in order to remember.  I’m grateful for Lara and Jeremy and my reflections are out of gratitude for them:

  1. The people of God (aka, the church) know what to say in worship.  The content of our faith, and the content of our liturgy, has never solely come from the recognized leaders of the faith.  I am comforted by this.  As the pastor, I’m not the only person with a facility for words about God in relation to human beings and human life.  God has gifted the people with the people.  And those lovely people have things to say about the world.  Pradeep reminded me of this even before Lara greeted me last week.
  2. What we do in worship is important for when we’re not in worship.  This comes out of something my member and friend, Nate, said.  Our worship connects to the lives we live when we’re not gathered with God’s people.  As James Smith says, our worship ends in mission.  The cyclic nature of mission, though, is that mission continues to feed and instruct our worship.  We live between Sundays, worshiping God and then, in a thousand ways, living for God.
  3. Our worship has to echo or reflect something about the world after the benediction.  If there is no connection, no reflection, then there is no real tangible reason for being a church that God continually sends into the world.  The end of a worship service is a recommissioning for all involved.  When we return the following week, we return with all that’s happened since last Sunday and we bring those events, those sorrows and joys, with us as worship, hear, and respond with others gathered.
  4. The prayers of God’s people are filled with news.  Daily news.  The news and the headlines of our times should become the words we pray, fill our throats when we sing about God’s future, and inspire us to live Spirit-empowered lives now.  The fact is our songs are all out-of-date.  They are not necessarily old though.  Our hymns and choruses are out of date in the sense that they anticipate a future that hasn’t fully come.  Those words match with the images of black hands uplifted before police holding guns–reminders from the 50s and 60s in the present–and they pull our hands upward in the direction of a God whose heart is still broken.
  5. Our words are the words of the oppressed, the marginalized, the disinherited, and the over-looked.  The truth of the disinherited is that they feel unheard and cast aside.  The truth of any good Christian faith is wrapped in the power of a God who reclaims, always holds close, and never abandons.  In other words, Christianity is an answer to the state of oppression, marginalization, and disinheritance.  That faith is a bottom-up reiteration of a deadly event where God abandoned God, upsetting all of created history and all of created future, and where God reset all things to move creation toward a better future.
  6. The hope of the church has to be proclaimed as an answer.  The hope of the world is in Christ; this is the news of the Christian faith, and that news is a long-told story.  When we proclaim the gospel in the midst of the world–be that gospel proclaimed in explicit or implicit ways, be it seen and experienced in the church’s rituals, be it lived in our lives–we are following Jesus who has always entered into our experience, checked our experience with God’s message for our time, and pointed us toward the hope of the ages.

Thank you Nate, Pradeep, Lara, and Jeremy.  You’ve led our church these weeks, even if you haven’t picked up the microphone.  Your leadership and service has filled me with thanksgiving.

My First Response

This is from my meditation for today, from Eugene Peterson’s A Year With Jesus, which is a daily reading from the gospels, accompanied by a few sentences of explanation and a prayer.  I’ve been turning over the prayer today and thought I’d share it.

My goal, Savior Christ, is to believe in you so deeply and thoroughly that my first response in every crisis is faith in what you will do, trust in how you will bless.  But I have a long way to go.  Lead me from my fearful midget-faith to mature adulthood.  Amen.

Cross at CTS

The Problem With Commandments

I’m reading a book about the 10 commandments.  The book is old by many people’s standards, published in way back in 1999, by Hauerwas & Willimon.

I think I’m starting a journey to reading everything Hauerwas has written.  I started with his memoir last year at David Swanson’s suggestion.  Hauerwas makes Christianity seem both accessible and incredible for it’s simplicity.  He and Will Willimon often get together, join literary powers, and paint this faith beautifully.Station of the Cross

This slim volume on the commands is just as intriguing.  Their premise, or one of them, is that the commandments only make sense if we have as a background the vocation of worshipping God.  God is not to be helpful or responsive to us but worshipped.  God is, and creation worships.  In their own words:

The commandments are not guidelines for humanity in general.  They are a countercultural way of life for those who know who they are and whose they are.  Their function is not to keep American culture running smoothly, but rather to produce a people who are, in our daily lives, a sign, a signal, a witness that God has not left the world to its own devices.

You may disagree, but those sentences clarify the ten words (another way of talking about the commands is by using the earlier phrase “ten words”), but they also make them that much more dubious in that clarity.  They are both sensible and nonsensical, which is how they come to the language of these acts being countercultural.

This quote below is actually about an early theologian, Thomas Aquinas, and their summary of something Aquinas said.  But the quote is searching me right up through here.  It is in the chapter on the fifth commandment not to murder.  By this point in the chapter, they’ve hinted at how murder is a term that captures all kinds of killing and that they scripture’s intent is both external and internal.  So think about behaviors and thoughts:

Aquinas does not mean that we are not to feel righteous indignation against injustice, but rather that we are to develop among ourselves those virtues that free us from temptation to envy and self-importance, which so often lead to presumptions that we have been grievously wronged.

I’m thinking about this in relation to being a father, thinking about this as a leader, as a husband, as an opinionated person.  And the less the commandments are about the external only (i.e., murdering a person), the more challenging they become.  I’m pretty sure I’ll see coming the whole me-murdering-somebody-thing.  It’s external.  But the internal killing is taken up into this commandment, too, and when I believe that, when I believe that God who is concerned for thoughts from afar or “lust” as Jesus has so said, I have an existing problem with the commandments.  I feel both inspired to live into this vocation as a person before God and knocked to my knees.  At some point, I get really thankful that grace is both fulfilling and inspiring.  At some point.  For now, I taste that problem on my tongue.

Boycotting Chicken, Securing Identity

Much of the time when we shop we’re probably not assuming the store owner shares our particular values and beliefs.  This is true of both small businesses and larger corporations: the thought of shared values didn’t cross my mind at the local hot dog joint on Thursday or while buying ice at Walgreens on Sunday morning.  There are, however, certain brands that ask for more than our dollars; they’re interested in our identities.  They hope we will align ourselves with what they’re selling.  This makes great sense for the company but much less so for us.  Discovering something about our favorite brands that obviously clashes with who we hope to be creates – to slightly overstate it – an identity crisis.

So we are left to boycott a company we love not because of gross exploitation – again, we don’t think this way about many of the companies we frequent – but because of how closely we’ve become identified with their products and experiences.

Christians are people who don’t construct our identities but, rather, have them secured for us in Jesus.  We are who we are because of who God is rather than anything so profane as a corporate marketing strategy.  Does this mean Christians of all political leanings shouldn’t boycott?  I don’t think so.  But living differentiated from the shallow identities of savvy corporations may allow us to think differently about what what we abstain from, and why.

Read all of David’s post here.

The Supreme Public Event #1

For these dark Lenten days, a few words from Rev. Gardner C. Taylor’s sermon, “Gethsemane: The Place of Victory.”

Calvary is looked upon as the place of our Lord’s great victory, the overcoming point in the struggle for God’s supremacy and human redemption and deliverance in the earth.  Calvary, said the old preachers, was the place where God in Christ took on himself our sins before a sorrowing heaven and a sinning earth.  Calvary represents the central event in our Christian gospel, the focus of all divine history as far as the sons of men can see.  There the Lord Christ lured the powers of hell into a fatal misstep and an overreaching of their evil designs and ways.  Calvary is the supreme public event in the divine purpose.

I am suggesting this morning that that great pubic victory, that unspeakably enormous event which we call Calvary, has its source immediately in a private and solitary act in a garden called Gethsemane, where the seed, the essence of the public victory was won in a lonely, secret struggle in prayer.  The supper we now call the Lord’s Supper is just past.  That will be the last tender, serene occasion in our Lord’s life until the glories of resurrection morning.  As the disciples and their Master file out of the upper room, the last golden rays of pleasant sunshine depart from the skies of our Lord’s soul.  All beyond that is composed of gathering, deepening, threatening clouds and darkening skies, except perhaps for a bright moment in Gethsemane where Jesus prayed for strength and resolve and final commitment to the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrow, which lay before him unto death.  In Gethsemane that prayer was answered, and the Savior moved on his appointed way.

As they leave the upper room we follow the little band, already looked upon as outlaws, as they walk slowly through the streets of Jerusalem.  Now the disciples pass likely out of the fountain gate in the east wall of the city of Jerusalem, and then across Kedron Brook they make their way.  Once among the gnarled olive trees of Gethsemane garden, the Master stops a moment and then bids three of his followers, those closest to him, the inner circle, Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, to go on a little farther into the garden.  I seem to hear in the Master’s next words a strangely tender, pathetic, almost pleading note.  He unburdens his soul a little to them.  How slow many of us are to reach out to others for fear that they will not understand or accept or appreciate our need.  How the Master must have felt that if any of these twelve, no, now reduced by one, these eleven, could sympathize with the great secret spiritual issues which confronted him, surely these three would understand.  He said to them, opening the hurt and anguish he felt in these hours, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.”

Trouble With “An Eye For An Eye”

When I was in seminary, I wrote a paper in Dr. Cheryl Anderson’s Biblical Law class.  It was an exegetical on the Leviticus 24 passage addressing lex talionis, one of the Hebrew writer’s phrases for retaliation or punishment.  In a different class, Dr. Larry Murphy assigned us to research different responses in the Christian Tradition as it relates to capital punishment.  I thought about those two experiences during my ride to work this morning.

I listen to the Santita Jackson show on WVON as much as I can.  She’s a great communicator.  She helps me think.  She tells me things I wouldn’t know without her.  And today during her first hour, she was hosting callers and questions and comments about the scheduled execution of Troy Davis.  In 1991 Mr. Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer.  Since that time he has fought for his freedom.  Yesterday the Georgia Parole Board met and didn’t vote to stay the lethal injection.

Judges, FBI agents, preachers, lawyers, people you wouldn’t know, and the pope have joined a chorus in support of Mr. Davis and in opposition, more broadly, to the application of the death penalty in this particular case.  Callers into Ms. Jackson’s show highlighted not only the suspicious nature of Mr. Davis’s case but also the twisted and distorted ways executions have mostly affected black folks and poor folks.  They asked and answered the penetrating question, who’s being sentenced to death?  Who’s being put to death?

Since I left my car, I’ve been turning over a response to what I heard.  It’s unfair and inhuman that people are wrongly accused and convicted and sentence to death.  Indeed I’m thankful to live in a state that’s outlawed that penalty.  And beyond that, I’m trying to pull my beliefs into and out of my life practices.  I’m trying to make sense of Jesus, a man who didn’t overlook his enemies–perhaps making sense is impossible and wrong as well–but who died for them.  I don’t think I ask the hard question enough when people commit crimes against me and against the world.  Not what would Jesus do.  But what should I do?  What should I do as a person whose life is supposed to be God-ward?  What should my response be since I’m a follower of a servant named Jesus?

I’m having trouble because for some reason most of the people who promote life and really good at advocating punishment by death.  Most of the people who’d read Leviticus 24 literally wouldn’t read Matthew 5 as literally.  I’m troubled because I think violently more than I do lovingly and am probably as much a literal reader of some canon-within-a-canon as the next person.

The meditation I read this morning from Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart is entitled “Myself, a High Priest of Truth.”  While he doesn’t talk about Jesus Christ per se in the meditation, Jesus is inside Thurman’s overall framework.  Of course, Jesus is in my view as well.  So when I read the title it intrigued me on its own.  Here’s one blurb from the short reflection,

I purpose in my heart that I shall not use my memory to store up those things which fester, poison and destroy my living, my life, or the living and the life of others.  I shall make it my study to preserve my soul in balance and liberty.  I will use my memory to store up the excellent things of my experience.

I can’t help but pull together the image of Jesus as a Priest, my own struggles with what it means to follow Jesus, and what I heard about Troy Davis on Santita Jackson’s show.  I’m not at all ready to launch into the larger contemporary debate about capital punishment.  Perhaps that’s an entrance that life will make to engage in, but today isn’t that day.  Yet as a pastoral theologian or, better-said, as a pastor who encourages critical reflection in my congregation and as a man who tries to live theologically, it is hard to close my ears to how the person and work of Jesus comes to the issue of punishment.  It would be hermenuetically irresponsible to use the scriptures to discuss our conceptions of justice and law and punishment–at least doing so without a good amount of pre-interpretation.

So, here’s an attempt to invite your comments and thoughts.  Questions for you.  How do you hold together your faith and practice that faith, whatever that faith, when it comes to capital punishment?  Does your faith tradition say things that help you “come to” the issue and respond to capital punishment?

If you’re interested in knowing more of my thoughts about related things:

Otis Moss Jr Giving Words To Live By

This is a quote from a collection of sermons, Preaching With Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present, which my coworker Nina mentioned to me a couple months ago.  I love love love this anthology.  In this brief portion, Pastor Moss, whom I’m thrilled to say I met in Oxford a few years ago, is talking about the role of the preacher as a prophetic voice.  The sermon is entitled “A Prophetic Witness In An Anti-Prophetic Age,” reflects on Isaiah 61:1, and was delivered in February 2004.  Here are three paragraphs:

…What a sermon!  Have you ever preached a sermon shorter than your text?  And then they engaged in a brief dialogue.  I think it was after the sermon.  And he started talking about some things.  And before the dialogue was over, we would call it a fellowship, he almost got killed just talking about the sermon.

How often have our lives, as representatives of the gospel of Jesus Christ, been threatened for having dialogue about the sermon we had just delivered?  We are not in particular danger because we have too often adjusted to this anti-prophetic age.  There is no danger in the sermons we preach, no challenge, and no threat to anybody in particular.

But Jesus almost got killed on his first public sermon–perhaps, his first public sermon.  And let me say, we ought to remember that the community, the world does not like prophets, and neither does the church.  The world does not like prophets.  Prophets disturb us.  They shake us out of our dogmatic slumber.  So we prefer comfort to commitment.  The world does not like prophets.  Prophets override our creeds and our half-truths.  Prophets expose our injustices and our contradictions and put to shame our mediocrity.  The world does not like prophets and the church often refuses to celebrate them.