Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon: Living In the World

August 31, 2014, Ordinary 22A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church
Romans 12:9-21

Living in the World

So, have you heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge?
You know, that thing where you film yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over your head, then post the video to Facebook or some other social media with a challenge to three or four other people to do the same thing, along with making a donation to the ALS Association?
What has become one of the most phenomenally successful online fundraising efforts ever apparently started with one young man, a former college baseball player, who was stricken with the disease.  As his own body deteriorated,  he came up with the idea to challenge some of his old teammates to contribute themselves and also to challenge others to do so; it’s not exactly clear why he chose dumping a bucket of ice water on a person as the means of challenge, but it does seem true that athletes – the original target of the challenge, and a bunch typically keen to show off their toughness – seemed to find it irresistible.  Over time the challenge spread beyond athletes to other celebrities, and then to the public at large. 
The challenge has literally raised so much money that the ALS Association is having to think about a strategy to spend that money most effectively.  As of August 19, more than $15.5 million dollars had been raised in the last month, compared to $1.6 million in the same period one year ago.
One might think that this would be regarded as simply a success story, if a rather unusual one.  One might think that for however brief a period of time, people across many walks of life had been motivated to pull together and take action, if a rather silly action, against one of the crueler and more devastating diseases to ravage the human body.  On the other hand, if one really pays much attention to how human beings really behave, one probably figured the backlash was coming.
Why is this disease any more important than any other disease?
How can you waste time with something so frivolous when people are dying in Ferguson?  (Or Gaza, or Ukraine, or any number of other places?)
How can you waste good clean water like that when so many people in so many places don’t have nearly enough water to live? 
Never mind the non sequitir that each of these represents.  (The latter reminds me of how when I was a child I was upbraided for not cleaning my plate when there were children in Africa – it was always Africa, for some reason – who didn’t have enough to eat, and how it never seemed to help when I volunteered to send my meal to them.)
What is most striking and dismaying about each of these is how, even when there are so many bad things out there in the world – abusive police, bombing innocent civilians instead of going after actual terrorists, one country invading another and lying about it, hideous diseases wreaking destruction on countless people, a deteriorating planet – people somehow decide that it is more important to attack other people who are trying to do good things rather than keep attention focused on the evils that need to be opposed.  Another example can be found in the story of a handful of graduate students at North Carolina State University, who are working on a nail polish that, when dipped in liquid, can alert its wearer if a well-known type of “date rape” drug has been slipped into the drink.  Rather than any kind of positive acknowledgement, the project has been roundly denounced – not by men, but by women who somehow see it as an insult, or irreparably flawed, or somehow insincere in the intentions of its developers. 
The Apostle Paul would be thoroughly baffled by the whole ice-bucket phenomenon, to be sure, but he’d recognize the backlash, and be grieved about it.  It’s exactly the kind of thing he warns about here in one of the maxims that make up this second part of the twelfth chapter of Romans.  After the previous instructions – which still apply here; we are still under the mandate to present our bodies as living sacrifices, and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds – Paul now begins to lay out, in a series of maxims, what it looks like to live in that condition, to be a full-fledged part of the body of Christ.  They almost look like the kinds of do’s and dont’s more characteristic of the un-regenerated mind, as we also discussed last week; here, though, Paul is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Beginning with the simple maxim “Let love be genuine,” what follows is a series of the characteristics of genuine love, having to do with first how we, the body of Christ, live with one another, and then moving to how we live as the body of Christ before the larger world. 
Genuine love (Paul uses the Greek phrase αγαπη ανυποκριτος, which might be more literally translated “love without hypocrisy.”  It’s a phrase that crops up several times in the New Testament, and not just in Paul’s letters.  To describe this un-hypocritical love, Paul describes the way a community that lives in such love acts towards one another; hating what is evil and clinging to the good, instead of the other way around, loving one another and vying to outdo each other in showing honor to each other rather than tearing each other down, being ardent and zealous in doing these things and in serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, living patiently, being persistent in prayer, contributing to the needs of the community, and welcoming strangers to the community with hospitality and grace.
This makes up the “internal” part of this list of maxims, but Paul is also aware that even these internal behaviors, or the lack thereof, are also visible to those outside the community.  Others see how we treat each other, and are going to be quick to judge if we are tearing one another down, or pursuing the things that are not good, or letting our own live in poverty and neglect.  Paul knew that the Roman congregation hearing this letter lived in a city with its own idols, so to speak, and it was the example closest to the seat of the Empire of what was then known, if at all, as an obscure and curious sect of Judaism.  Paul is concerned about how the Roman congregation acts within its larger context of the seat of empire, and will address them about how this love works in that context.  But Paul is also concerned with the witness they give by how they treat one another, and wants to be sure that they know what it means to live in un-hypocritical, non-destructive love towards one another.
Before we move on to those external characteristics, though, be sure to notice something about these internal effects of un-hypocritical love; they are active.  It isn’t enough to avoid tearing one another down; it’s the work of un-hypocritical love to build one another up, to show honor to the other, praying persistently and frequently, overtly caring for the needs of those within the community, reaching out actively to the stranger in the community; even the image of clinging to what is good suggests an almost physical quality of activity.  Un-hypocritical love isn’t a quiet thing; it stirs us up to doing good towards one another in observable, potent ways.
As we move ahead you’ll notice that the same is true for those behaviors of un-hypocritical love towards those outside of the congregation.  In a couple of cases Paul goes to the trouble of pointing out the passive or non-acting possibility of behavior, only to go beyond it and mandate a more active response that un-hypocritical love requires. 
Verse fourteen: to those who persecute you, do not curse (passive response), but bless them (active response).
Verse sixteen: do not be haughty (passive response) and do not be wise in your own estimation (another passive response), but associate with the lowly (active response). 
Verse seventeen: do not repay evil for evil (passive), but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (active, more or less). 
Verses nineteen and twenty, in a rather more complex way, display the same dynamic.  Beginning with the passive, refraining position – never avenge yourselves – Paul cannot resist slipping a bit of theological and scriptural instruction – for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” – before coming to the active response that un-hypocritical love requires:
No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. (12:20)

And finally, verse 21, restating the previous verses: do not be overcome by evil (passive), but overcome evil with the good (active).
For Paul it is important for the Romans to understand what this un-hypocritical love, this living in the body of Christ, this renewed mind means.  It is not an excuse to pull back from the world and go into isolation.  It does not allow for the ordinary strivings and battles in which the un-renewed mind indulges.  They don’t get to outdo one another in seeking honor for the self.  They don’t get to tear one another down or puff themselves up.  And they don’t even get merely to refrain from doing ill to one another or to the world.
No: the un-hypocritical heart goes out of its way to do good, and to do so not in a hidden or invisible way.  It builds one another up.  It blesses those who assault you, persecute you, trouble you.  It demands that you live at peace with all, as far as you have any control of the situation.  It actively rejoices with the rejoicing, and weeps unashamedly with those who weep. 
And remember, all of this instruction is still all about living in the body, about being transformed by the renewing of your mind, about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.  And all that we are seeing today will carry over into Paul’s next points, found for us in the thirteenth chapter of Romans. 
You see, it all goes together.  It is no accident that Paul uses such as strong word as “transformed” back in verse two.  The Greek word there is the same from which we get the world “metamorphosis.”  The change is that significant. 
And that change matters, because that’s how we live together as the body of Christ.  And it also matters because the world is watching. 
As noted before, at the time Paul is writing to the Romans, the empire doesn’t really have a grasp on what these “Christians” actually are.  They still look like a sect of Judaism to the empire.  But over time Christians did start to take on a particular identity, not because of any particular edict on the part of an emperor or because of any great speech or sermon given by anybody in the church at Rome.  Rather, these Christians began to stand out in Rome and in the Empire because of what they did. 
People began to notice the way they gathered together, singing songs to this Jesus they worshiped and also sharing food.  People began to notice that, unlike most Romans who would half-heartedly acknowledge whatever idol or Caesar was put before them by the Empire, no matter what their beliefs were personally, the Christians wouldn’t do that, instead reserving their homage for this Jesus alone.  And they noticed that when Roman families, as was the custom, would leave an unwanted infant in a remote place out of doors, to die of exposure, those Christians would pick up the infant and take it into their homes, to be raised as one of their own. 
You see, when we get it right, the world notices.  And they also notice when we get it wrong, and have a great time letting us know about it.  When our life in the world fails to show transformation, the world will let us know about it, and then they will ignore us.  But when our lives show that transformation, that renewed mind, that un-hypocritical love, the world cannot help but notice, and wonder. 
For love without hypocrisy, within and without, Thanks be to God.

What a Friend We Have in Jesus (PH 403)
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart (PH 326)
Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult (Hymns for the Family of God 399)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An update in which there is really nothing to update

Still here.
I really could end this post with that little two-word combination.
Still here.  Still in Richmond (or more precisely, northern Chesterfield County).  Still searching.  Still playing the dating game.
It's hard to know how much movement there has been on any given front.  I have a few contacts still in what I shall call the "not dead yet" category, after Lancelot's trusty squire Concord in the Monty Python Holy Grail movie.  At the minimum I know I'm still under consideration, or in some cases have been asked for more information.  That's something.
In some cases I've been asked for more information or even had an interview via phone or Skype.  I can only speculate that in some cases, due to the time that has passed, that I've been passed over.  In some cases, perhaps not.
What is a little different from before is that I am doing a good bit of preaching.  If you actually read this blog regularly, you (1) are very rare, and (2) have probably noticed those sermons popping up each week.  I have actually had the pleasure of preaching pretty consistently out of Romans this summer.  Clearly I'm messed up in the head, but it has been a pleasure to follow out a train of thought in my preaching over several weeks, even though in some cases I've had to adapt to the fact that I've preached these sermons in different churches.  But I did take that course on Romans back in 2013 (right after surgery...painful thought, that), and I've wanted to follow up on that challenge ever since.  One preacher supposedly has said that no preacher should preach on Romans until after age fifty; well, I'm forty-nine, so close enough.
At this point most of the rest of 2014 is booked with supply-preaching engagements.  (These engagements do come with the caveat that if I need to go away for an interview/preaching engagement for a potential call they may have to be cancelled.)  This is a good thing, for the experience and for the fact that it cuts down on the time I have to brood about the ongoing call search.  After all, I am fulfilling a call, or at least part of one.  I am preaching the Word, and hopefully getting better at doing so.
What does happen in this in-between space is that I start to think.  Think about what this call might yet look like.  Nothing that I would call doubt has really crept in at this point.  But I have had to engage in a lot of wondering about my capacity for discernment.  Do I have it in me to back away from an opportunity that is not really congruent with my call?  Do I have the capacity to know when to say "no" if that's what I need to do?  Or to say "yes" if my initial reaction isn't necessarily to do so, but the call becomes clear?
How much do I give credence to opportunities that do not come in church-pastor form?  I find that I actually miss my work at the Virginia Interfaith Center last year as an intern.  Does this mean I should open up a front for searching in faith-based advocacy?  Or is my deeply-experienced call in preaching and liturgy still the more compelling and needed call to seek?  Sometimes I think too much.
In the meantime there are still other bits of writing to do, for others or for my own interest.  There are baseball parks to visit!  I managed to make trips to see minor-league games in Durham, NC (Bulls); Salem, VA (Red Sox); Norfolk, VA (Tides); and an indeterminate place in northern Virginia that hosts the Potomac Nationals.  I am still willing to seek out my moments of peace even in time of stress.
And of course there is the regular reviewing of the opportunity list, in case any new churches are seeking a minister of some sort.  I have expanded my search a bit, as there are now some associate pastor positions that seem truly general in nature, as opposed to thinly-disguised searches for a youth pastor or children's minister.  (I am happy to support those ministries to the fullest, but I am not the person you want in charge of them.)
And of course there is the very real possibility that PNCs (pastor nominating committees) actually read this blog.  I've known it to have happened at least once.  Does that make me more circumspect?  Actually, I hope not.  At this point in my life I am far too old and experienced to go trying to make myself into something I'm not in order to "get a date" with a church.  If that means my search ends up going longer than it would otherwise, well, that's probably for the best, as much as it might add stress to my life right now.
One thing I have definitely realized is that I have not kept music in my life nearly enough.  Three weeks ago I went to an evening "musicale" at a church in Richmond.  Now it might be just because Shostakovich's Trio No. 2 in E minor was on the program, but I realized that for much of the last year I had been like a starving man who had been refusing to eat.  I did have a couple of singing opportunities over this spring that I had not expected, including at Union's baccalaureate service.  But still, I just haven't been spending time listening to music, hearing music, especially feeling music on that spine-tingling mind-exploding level that I need.  Hence, during this interim time, I'm spending time to try to make up for that somehow.  Maybe I'll finally take up that exploration of Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard I've been wanting to do for three or four years.  Or something else, I don't know.  But for now, I'm dropping this blog entry and going to another concert.

It isn't completely unrelated.  Barber was Presbyterian, you know.  Sort of.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Living In the Body

August 24, 2014, Ordinary 21A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church

Living in the Body

Two years ago today I underwent a colonoscopy that led to a diagnosis of rectal cancer.  (Lest this become a point of distraction throughout the rest of the sermon, I should point out that after a year of radiation treatment, surgery, and chemotherapy, I have been “clean” for a little over a year now.)
Cancer is a bit of a headline-grabber, but I’ve also had some other maladies and physical difficulties in my lifetime.  I’m somewhat prone to kidney stones.  My right knee has not been right since my childhood.  Perhaps oddest of all is that I have, in the traditional sense of the word, no balance.  About twenty-two years ago, either due to a severe inner ear infection or a slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, I suffered damage to some key nerves in my inner ear system.  It’s complicated enough that I have trouble describing it, but the easiest way to describe the effect is to say that the signals coming from the right side say I’m moving in a straight line, but the signals from my left side tell me I’m veering left, and my brain can’t reconcile the mixed signals.  After some weeks of rehab I can get around and stay upright using mostly my eyes and my feet to keep my balance, but sometimes I have to wait a little longer when a movie is over, for the lights to come back on.
All of this is to say that I have some experience with my body not working so well.  One of the things I’ve experienced on those occasions is that when one part of the body isn’t right, it isn’t just that part of the body that is affected.  No matter how well-targeted modern chemotherapy might be, my whole body felt lousy while I was being treated with it.  And if you’ve had kidney stones before, I don’t need to tell you that your body doesn’t want anything to do with anything until that thing is gone.  For all of those strange maladies I’ve had, though, there are times when the one thing that can make my whole body want to shut down and quit more than anything else I can think of is an ingrown toenail.  That tiny, almost forgotten appendage can make me feel miserable all over when it gets uncomfortable.
It’s hard to believe that Paul didn’t know something about this when he introduced the metaphor of the church as body into his letters, including here in the twelfth chapter of Romans.  It’s a metaphor he used in more than one letter, emphasizing different aspects of its meaning in different letters to different churches.  In writing to the Corinthians, a much more fractious and troublesome congregation, Paul emphasizes the insufficiency of any one part of the body on its own, in such rhetorical questions as “If the whole body were an eye, where is the hearing?”  and facetious exaggerations such as the head saying to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:14-26]
Paul’s Roman audience, while experiencing some mistrust in its membership, isn’t nearly so difficult as the Corinth church, so Paul takes a slightly different and less drawn-out tack with his metaphor of the body.  One example is his use of “body” as a point of discussion on multiple levels.  Initially Paul addresses the individual believers in Rome with the injunction to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.  Here the focus is on individual bodies.  Each believer is charged with living – not merely thinking or believing or meditating, but physically, bodily living – in a way that the very being of each individual is worthy of the holiness of God. 
I don’t know about you, but that is a daunting ideal.  For one thing, it is far more than checking off a list of do’s and don’ts could possibly hope to accomplish.  It is living not merely good, not even merely pure.  It is living holy.  And to me that’s seriously daunting.
But Paul is not through with body metaphors.  In verses four and five Paul makes the jump from individual bodies to the collective body, sometimes known as the church – or, as it is also known, the Body of Christ.
In a short form of his longer discourse in 1 Corinthians, Paul reinforces the idea that the church, as “body of Christ,” is assembled and organized in a way similar to the human body, in that each member of the body has a specific function to perform.  Just as the eye is good for seeing, and the hand for grabbing, and the lungs for breathing, so each member of the body of Christ is gifted with a particular ability or gift needed to enable the body of Christ to live.  Verses six through eight are a far from comprehensive list of the gifts individual members of the body of Christ bring to the body; ministers minster, preachers preach, givers give, compassionate people bring cheer, and so on.  Paul could have gone on much farther, and did so in letters both to Corinth and Galatia. 
But Paul also slips in another dimension of body membership, in verse 5: “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another”.  Here is that interdependence of each of us on one another writ large.  The eye may be good at seeing, the hand at grabbing, and so on, but the hand will have no luck in grabbing that coffee mug first thing in the morning if the eye doesn’t do its job in spotting it, or the legs and feet can’t get the body across the room to where that mug of coffee is waiting to be picked up and consumed.  Each part of the body has a job to do, but it can’t do that job without the help of other members of the body. 
And so it is in the body of Christ, the church.  The preacher can’t preach without a congregation.  (Or I suppose a preacher could preach without a congregation, but then people look at you funny on the street corner.)  The gifts each member brings to the body only work in cooperation with each other.  Otherwise we’re just a bunch of individual bodies, something decidedly less than a church.
But wait.  Even here Paul is pushing the metaphor just a little bit further.  We can talk about members and gifts here in our own individual church, but Paul also challenges us to think even more broadly.  The body of Christ is not limited to the members of Meherrin Presbyterian Church, or of First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where I come from, or any one individual church.  The body of Christ is all of us churches, all together. 
Now to me, this is where things get really complicated.  There are churches out there that, frankly, do things I find appalling.  There are Christians out there, fellow members of the body of Christ, that make me frankly want to go and hide when they start flapping their gums in dishonest or hateful ways.  And yet, and yet, and yet “we, who are many, are one body in Christ”, and Paul doesn’t seem to have any “out” for us here.  The body of Christ has members in Israel and in Gaza.  The body of Christ has members in Ukraine and in Russia.  The body of Christ has members in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the St. Louis County Police Department (as much as my mind cannot comprehend this).
How does this happen, if we are all one body?  How do we end up so far apart, so willing to oppress, so at each other’s throats?
Part of the answer is in verse three, I think.  Paul, in what is an easy part of the passage to miss, instructs his readers “not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” in accordance with what faith God has assigned to us.  Here is where things get rather self-indicting.  My job is at least in part not to think too much of myself because I have the gift of being a preacher, or of being a cancer survivor (so far), or of being white, or male, or middle-aged, or a hybrid driver or an introvert or any number of other attributes that I might be guilty of elevating as an object of pride or a means to exalt myself above others.  Each one of you might come with a similar or different set of “gifts” that could, if not careful, become an excuse to “think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think”.  Rather than to exalt ourselves and our attributes too much, our task is to “think with sober judgment” in seeing what gifts we bring to the Body, and what gifts we rely upon others to bring, and what gifts we need others and their gifts to help us bring to the Body. 
To be clear, “sober judgment” is not an excuse to think too little of ourselves either.  It is not our place to belittle the gifts we are given or to claim that they are somehow not important to the Body.  Sometimes “sober judgment” means stepping forward when nobody is expecting us to do so, and bringing our gifts to the Body that perhaps no one else has seen in us.  It might sometimes mean that we step back and let another take up a task that matches to their gifts more readily than ours. 
Whatever it means, it is a daunting task.  Perhaps even an impossible task, unless we have taken the command in verse two to heart.
Our first call is nothing less than to “be transformed”.  And not just any old kind of transformation.  Be very clear here; our call is to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect”. 
Our ability to present our own bodies as a “living sacrifice”, our ability to be members of the Body of Christ here in Meherrin or anywhere in the world, hinges on this transformation.  Our living in the Body depends on the renewing of our minds.
Up to this point in the letter Paul has been trying to teach the Romans (as he understood it) a myriad of ideas about the law, and its susceptibility to sin; the grace of God and its sole power to defeat sin and to bring salvation to us; and now here is the key to living in that grace, to being “more than conquerors” living in the love of God from which nothing can separate us, as Paul wrote in Chapter 8. 
You see, there are certain things a renewed mind cannot do.  A renewed mind cannot live in fear.  It certainly cannot wallow in the fear and suspicion of those who are Other, who are somehow Not Us.  A renewed mind cannot see itself as superior because of accidents of birth or ability to check off a list of do’s and don’ts.  A renewed mind will never assume that wealth equals righteousness, or that one country is any more special to God than any other, or that our way of doing church is the only way of doing church.
A renewed mind, a mind utterly transforming the way we think and live, discerns the body of Christ equally in a city slum or a shack in the woods.  A renewed mind discerns the pain suffered by the oppressed, the despair and anguish of the poor and forgotten, the sins of pride of the privileged and elite, and weeps for all of them. 
And perhaps hardest of all, a renewed mind is not something we can do.  Note that Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, not “be transformed by renewing your mind. “  It doesn’t happen of our own initiative; we can’t just “change our minds” by ourselves.  Only in turning away from our own willfulness and control can our minds be renewed by the same saving, loving, transforming grace that delivers us out of sin and restores us into full relationship with God.  We don’t want to give up our way of seeing the world, of dividing the world into Us and Them; but a mind submitted fully to the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit learns to see the world through the love of God, the fellowship of Christ Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit. 
And then, only then, do we really start to live as anything at all like the Body of Christ.  Let your mind be renewed, and the Body will follow.
For the renewing of our minds, Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church’s One Foundation (PH442)
Take My Life and Let It Be (PH341)
Blest Be the Tie That Binds (PH438)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Messengers

August 10, 2014
Ordinary 19A
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church


How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace
The melody is by Felix Mendelssohn.  It’s from a chorus found in the second part of his oratorio Paulus, or Saint Paul.  Mendelssohn’s text was originally in German, and the English version serves as a rather loose translation/paraphrase of the original, meant to fit Mendelssohn’s melody as much as to translate the German text accurately.  Even so, the original German text here has nothing about “feet” in it, which I suppose is just as well; most of us don’t have what we’d call beautiful feet, if one wants to be literalist about such things.
The verse that Mendelssohn appropriates here, and which appears in today’s reading, is dropped into the oratorio after the dramatic moment in which Barnabas and Paul are set apart – by the Holy Ghost, no less – for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  It is of course a key moment in Paul’s career, as the book of Acts describes it, and even if this verse is pulled in from Romans, it does serve well its dramatic purpose. 
Our reading tells us that Paul is quoting – “as it is written,” he says plainly – and in this case it’s from Isaiah 52:7.  In that context the statement is elaborated a bit:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Not surprisingly, Paul is happy to latch on to that one phrase ‘’who announces salvation” and translate it into his own context; for Paul, of course, the gospel is salvation. 
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace.
Feet or no feet, Paul’s appropriation of Isaiah here serves to complete a rhetorical point that has been at least ten verses in the making by this time.  Today’s reading includes several passages from Hebrew Scripture intended to support Paul’s key claim that all – all, not just Jews but “Greeks” also – all who call upon the Lord’s name will (in the words of Joel 2:32) “be saved.”  From this end point Paul walks his readers back to the necessity of those “messengers” – how can they call upon one in whom they have not believed, how can they believe in one of whom they’ve never heard, how can they hear unless someone proclaims, how can anyone proclaim unless they are sent?  It’s no surprise that this passage pops up in ordination services on occasion.  It does seem to offer a clear rationale for the office of a preacher, or a “teaching elder” in Presbyterian-speak, as one “sent” to proclaim the name of the Lord on whom all are invited to call.
Of course it isn’t all peaches and cream.  Paul himself has experienced firsthand, by the time he writes this letter, a great deal of rejection of the gospel message, not to mention opposition to it, sometimes violent.  He knows fully well that “not all have obeyed the good news,” and turns again to Isaiah for support, or is it consolation – “Lord, who has believed our message?” [Isa. 53:1] 
It particularly grieves Paul that many of those who have rejected the gospel are those to whom it was first proclaimed; namely, the people of Israel, or the Jews (Paul usually calls these people by the collective term “Israel”; let us not confuse it with the modern state).  The whole discourse from which today’s reading is selected begins with a striking lament from Paul over this, in Romans 9:2-3:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. [Rom. 9:2-3]

Even as Paul spent his missionary career among primarily Greeks, even as this career proceeded under the adopted name “Paul” instead of his given, Jewish name “Saul,” he carried in his heart this grief over the general rejection of the gospel among “Israel.”  Obviously this was not a universal case; there were Jews among the Roman Christians to whom Paul was writing, as well as citizens from many other parts of the Roman Empire.  Still, he grieved over the rejection by Israel of the Messiah, one of their own.
How lovely are the messengers who bring us the gospel of peace
As beautiful as this passage and this key verse is, though, there is danger here.  Many of those churches who use this passage expect that, once this new pastor is ordained and installed, he or she will then take care of all the proclamation duties, allowing them to sit back and, well, be off the hook from that scary and maybe embarrassing business of (shudder) talking about religion.  It’s scary because people might say “no,” or worse they might change their opinion of us.  We might not be one of the “cool kids” anymore.  It’s embarrassing because we live in a world, and in an American society in particular, which has seen more than its fair share of bad evangelism, preaching so permeated with hatefulness and exclusivity that any hearer would rightly wonder what’s so good about this supposed “good news.”  Just this week the rather infamous neo-Calvinist preacher Mark Driscoll was asked to step aside from the leadership of Acts 29 Ministries, an organization that he founded, because his association was bringing disrepute upon the organization due to his own errors in behavior and preaching.  To be honest, it’s perfectly fair to be reluctant to be seen in such a light.
And yet the messengers are still needed.  And if we look, we can actually find those who show us a better way to be those messengers, bringing good news.
We might look at Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician from Texas who ended up in the headlines this week as the first American to be diagnosed with the deadly Ebola virus raging in Liberia and other parts of Africa.  Those who know Dr. Brantly spoke of a person who was called to be there, even as dangerous or as difficult as it is to be a physician working in inhospitable conditions to combat a disease with no known cure.[1]  Bizarrely, Dr. Brantly has become an object of derision for certain American commentators, who apparently believe it’s his own fault for going off to a foreign country to do dangerous work when he could have stayed in the US and not put himself in danger.  But even a physician can bring a message of peace.
We might look at the people of Grace Presbyterian Church, in El Paso, Texas.  As thousands of refugees fleeing violence and murder in Central America – some children with parents, many children alone – the members of Grace Presbyterian were challenged by their pastor to step up and help provide for the needs of those detainees being redirected from south Texas to other locations due to the overwhelming numbers and lack of facilities.  The Grace Church members, working with a local shelter and a Catholic charitable group, began to take on the task of feeding, gathering donations, assisting at shelters, and perhaps most remarkably, listening to the stories of horror and deprivation the refugees had experienced.  After not only their travails in fleeing from the violence in their home countries but the spartan and difficult conditions of makeshift processing centers set up by US Customs and Immigration, the refugees were at first confused by the hospitality shown them by the El Paso churches and groups.  “Here you were good to us,” some of the refugees said, remembering the concrete floors in the detention centers in south Texas.  “Why did you care so much about making us feel safe?”   
It might be easy to imagine that Grace Presbyterian is some kind of large, well-staffed, and financially secure church to be able to take on a task such as this.  On the contrary, three years ago there was no Grace Presbyterian Church; it was instead three separate churches, each on the brink of collapse, who merged with each other despite their differences for the sake of survival.[2]  Even a shaky, querulous church can be full of messengers, bringing the gospel of peace to a group of refugees who had known nothing but violence and fear.
We can look to some of our own.  Many of you might have heard Ruth Brown describe her experiences working in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo.  Our congregation also supports educators, like Jeff and Christi Boyd in the DRC, Grace Yeuell working with US military bases in Germany, or Richard Hamm at a university and seminary in Korea.  We might see those names on the back of the bulletin every Sunday.  Messengers, bringing a gospel of peace.
We might look at each other.  Whether helping provide a meal or a night’s stay for the clients of CARITAS, or helping maintain a community garden on the grounds of the church.  For, you see, Paul slipped an important point into his discourse, practically when we weren’t looking.  Notice verse 8: “the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”; “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” in verse 10”; and then those feet, those beautiful feet in verse 15.  Our faith, our gospel is not confined to the mind, but it occupies all of us from lips to feet, from head to toe.  Our witness is embodied.  We are messengers of the gospel of peace in not just what we say, but what we do.  The hand of fellowship extended to the one we don’t know, who may have ducked in just to escape the heat or the cold or the rain; the word of the greeting to the coworker holed up in the cubicle next door; the cup of cold water given in Jesus name.  Our message is not just spoken, but enacted daily, even when we may not realize it. 
The message is not only embodied in each of our own individual bodies, it is embodied in all of us as the body of Christ.  Our witness in staying together, being not merely in our neighborhood but being part of it, our welcome to those that others, even other churches, declare unwelcome – this is a gospel of peace.  To be messengers of the gospel of peace, all of us – not just the preachers, is not optional; it is inevitable. 
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace.
How lovely are the messengers that bring us the gospel of peace,
The gospel of peace.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
"Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather" (311)
"Take My Life and Let It Be" (697)
"How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord" (432)

[1]Send me: U.S. doctor treated for Ebola drawn to mission work since youth,” (Accessed August 8, 2014)
[2] “Grace for Refugees from Central America,” (Accessed August 8, 2014).

NOTE: In case you're not familiar with it, the Mendelssohn chorus can be heard here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A modest theological-grammar proposal

In light of certain directions public discourse has taken in the last, say, year or so, I am compelled to put forward, in the tiny sphere of influence this blog may have if any, a modest proposal for the church and those who are part of it, in order to be more accurate and precise in our witness to the world.

I propose that the use of the word "Christian" as an adjective be abolished.

I don't claim to be original here.  Lots of people, some of them famous, struggle with that word and the baggage it has acquired these days.  But what I am after is not exactly that kind of thing; rather, I hope that what I am suggesting serves not as a rejection or a complaint, but a self-check on anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ.

Therefore my aim is not a wholesale abolition of the word "Christian."  I'm sure somebody could come up with a proper noun that would theoretically replace "Christian" for those who are put off by the cultural baggage.  That person, however, is not me.

No, my aim is to provide (hopefully) a moment of pause and reflection when any of us are tempted to describe or label anything with the adjective "Christian" for any reason.

My proposal is this: when tempted to use the word "Christian" in such a fashion, stop and substitute the world "Christlike."  (Or "Christ-like," if you're into hyphens.  I believe Calvin would call that "nonessential.")

Let's play this out with some examples:

"Christian Education," the staple of the church, most easily associated for many with the old staple "Sunday School."  Would it make sense to call it "Christlike Education"?  Well, what would we mean by "Christlike"?  What does Christ do in the gospels?  Healing, comforting, teaching, praying, enjoying fellowship, freaking out and flipping tables...well, they are all there at one point or another, but use your mental gospel Rolodex (or better yet, read some gospels) and get a grasp on, well, on what Christ was like.  If your church's education program can somehow be understood as acting or working in a way that Christ would act or work, then go with it.  If not, maybe it needs some work.

"Christian corporation, or Christian business."  Ah, the headline bugaboo so in vogue these days, that our courts seem incapable of addressing properly.  Now here, I believe, the trick is not to get sidetracked by interesting but essentially distracting points.  The degree to which a corporation can be said to be a person (courts notwithstanding) or to be "religious" are what seem to get most of the ink these days.  But if we ask if, say, that craft shop with the tchotchkes and baubles sometimes possibly made by Chinese slave labor can reasonably be construed as being Christlike, perhaps we'd be talked down off that ledge.  Make similar application as you choose to the folks with the cows and the chicken sandwiches, or the yogurt shops, or what have you.

Richmonders will recognize this one, if nobody else does.

Again, the point is to consider the business itself and whether it can somehow be understood as Christlike, not whether the young woman at the counter tells you to have a blessed day or that Jesus loves you unless you use birth control.  Ideally, this little self-check might be a way to help us discern whether people are wanting to use the adjective "Christian" as an accurate and genuine description of the business in question, or whether the term is simply being used to draw lines and let some people in and keep others out of the "in group."

"Christian music."  Hoo, boy.  Speaking of the "in group"... .  Here things get confusing because there are multiple terms that float around.  "Sacred music" and "church music" are terms that have been around for centuries, but these terms point not only to subject matter but frequently to function; specifically, use within Christian worship.  As such these can be large and unwieldy terms, encompassing both a Bach cantata and "There is a fountain filled with blood" (It's possible I have repressed trauma based on frequent singing of this hymn as a child.  I'm not entirely sure I'm joking.).

The use most commonly implied here is for a genre of music, originating around the 1960s or early 1970s, in which Christian themes were adapted to popular music of the day.  Mind you, "Christian music" (with its fellow-traveler terms "Christian rock," "contemporary Christian music," "Jesus music," and a few others) often lagged behind the popular idiom in style, but you get the point.  A later (to me; others may disagree with my timeline) development is the appearance of such idioms known by names like "praise and worship music" (or perhaps named after particular centers of production of such music; say, "Hillsong music"), in which the point was to wed the music to particular styles or patterns of worship designed around and to accommodate the music in question.  This is not to say that plenty of Christian rock didn't end up in worship services; it is to point out that in many cases that was not the intent for which it was created, much as gospel and revival hymn composers such as Homer Rodeheaver pointed out that their songs were meant for Sunday school or revival meetings instead of straightforward worship services.  (Mind you, Rodeheaver didn't ask for what use you were buying his songbooks before he sold them to you.)

The dangerous part here is that it is nigh impossible to escape questions of artistic quality in determining whether the term "Christlike" can possibly be included here; we are forced to participate in questions such as "can anything as derivative and uncreative as (insert song here) possibly be Christlike?"  And this is a question that can quickly run amuck across genres, but remembering that terms such as "sacred music" are about functionality as much as practice, the question is thus limited to genres that operate under the term "Christian."  The aforementioned question about "Christian" being used as a label for including and excluding ends up being a major part of the equation here, I think; "Christian music" too easily becomes a way of denoting "our music," as in "not your music."  Then the music becomes part of an identity that, in a quite worldly way, is exclusive rather than inclusive, or perhaps inclusive in the insidious way that lets you in as long as you become Just Like Us.  I'll let you work out your opinion from there.

"Christian movies." I've generally not seen them, at least not since The Cross and The Switchblade, so I'll let others discuss if they so choose.

Make of this what you will.  It's not as if I expect the media to add this to their style books, but I offer this as a means for Christians to grapple with the experience of having the name historically applied to the faith being increasingly used as a cudgel for the bashing (or worse, outright oppressing) of others or even of other Christians who are somehow judged to be insufficiently "Christian."  My only intent is to induce a bit of thinking about what the terms we use actually mean, and whether those words are actually of any use to us with those meanings attached.  If the adjective "Christian" is merely a way of describing things or entities affiliated with or used by a particular and exclusive subset of the church, perhaps the term is useless after all.

I'm just trying to light a match in a fog of words.