Not against religion

I just can’t take it anymore. The next time I hear someone say “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship,” well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I won’t remain silent any more.religion.jpg

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said this myself! I’ve said lots of things. only some of them have been recorded.

But I’m a paid religious professional. You could assume I am responding defensively. I don’t think that’s it.

This last time I heard the “relationship, not religion,” talk, a few days ago from a Christan band member at a concert, I finally realized what’s wrong with the comparison.

They’re getting religion wrong.

The word “religion” occurs famously one and only one time in the Bible. That’s once in the King James Version, the NIV adds a few more. But the KLV, NIV, and NRSV all agree that James 1:27 includes the word “religion,” and the verse – I’ll share the NRSV – says this:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The band man – I didn’t catch from the video exactly who was speaking, defined religion as being about rules and laws and guilt and shame.

If that’s religion, I’m against, it too!

Oddly, the same person who prefers to think of being a Christian as about relationship, not religion, recognizes that relationships can be harmful, but not that religion can be good.

Maybe he hadn’t read James?

That’s more likely than that he is opposed to caring for widows and orphans and learning to keep oneself unstained by the world.

 

 

Thoughts and Prayers

ringing-icon-on-a-mobile-phone-showing-smartphone-call_fkJ4m7vd.jpgOver the years, I have gotten to the place where I don’t blog in a reactionary way as I once did. But the school shooting in Florida last week has gotten me thinking.

Ok, that’s not exactly right. The Parkland High school shooting has gotten me praying and thinking – trying to find something to do besides praying and thinking. yes, I have been praying and thinking about what do to beyond praying and thinking.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, I hear a cell phone notification tone during Young Disciples Time at our 8:30 am worship service. It wasn’t too loud; actually, not really loud enough to be distracting.

But loud enough to get me thinking.

You see, I was already determined to focus the pastoral prayer that morning on inviting God to challenge us, God’s people, followers of Jesus, to do something as a response to the incredible rise of school shootings.

We need to pray, this is beyond question. But it seems that at times like this – especially as there are SO MANY times like this! – to say we should pray can become a cop out.

“Well, I’ve prayed, I don’t know what else I can do!” we might be tempted to say.

And then the notification tone. Which, of course, made me check my phone. It wasn’t on silent!  I quickly, simply, silently, switched it to silent.

I did not pray and ask God to silence my phone.

That would have been missing the point entirely of God having created us in God’s own image and calling us into partnership for stewarding creation.

I can, of course, pray and ask God to help me remember to silence my phone. But it makes little sense to leave such a thing to making a request of God when there is something I can do.

So: I don’t know exactly what we are going to do as Americans about the tragedy of school shootings, but I know prayer can’t be all we do.

We must at least remember, as we pray, that prayer is communication between us and God.

We talk, God listens.

God talks, we listen.

Not always necessarily in this order.  ( we who recognize prevenient grace would likely have to admit that some of the times we pray we pray in response to the Holy Spirit’s urging.)

When we dare pray about school shootings, I feel pretty confident God is going to answer us.

Are we ready to hear what God has to say? I don’t know for sure. But I do know that if by “praying” I mean “tell God how bothered you are about ______ and leave it up to God to fix it,” I’ve not actually come to grips with what prayer is.

Loving Las Vegas

A hand reaching out of a puddle in the forest.I’ve never been to Vegas, but after the mass shooting there last night, they’ve been on my mind and heart this morning. Enough that I posted this to Facebook this morning:

Praying for #LasVegas, and for a country that can seemingly agree on nothing except that we should pray.
Maybe that’s the best place to start.

Of course, sharing such a sentiment gets “likes” and positive comments.

And, then I read this post from my friend Jared Slack:

the fact there we’re all secretly hoping Stephen Paddock (Vegas shooter) is a by-product of our political/religious rivals is the problem.

After that bounced around in me for a while, I realized a potential shortcoming of my post.

I left it too easy for us to end up just praying for the other. Sure, “others” like victims, victim’s families, friends, residents of Las Vegas, the shooter and his family, friends, etc.

But if all we all agree to do is pray like that, for the other, whoever the other might be, I think we give in to remaining caught in this tragic cycle of simply agreeing to pray.

What if we moved a step further?

What if we invited God, in our prayers, to help us see the steps we, ourselves, can make beyond the impasse of only agreeing that we can and should pray?

If we remain in our place, disagreeing with so many others about so much, and only willing to agree to pray, I believe we find ourselves in the place of the Pharisee in this story from Luke 18

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

I hereby commit to continuing to pray for Las Vegas, victims, victim’s families and friends, Stephen Paddock, his family and loved ones.

I further commit to finding, meeting, interacting, and listening to some of the “others.” for whom I am praying. Let’s call this reaching out.

When I reach out, the place for me to reach out from is the recognition that something or some things about me and the way I view and move in the world might be part of the problem.

I am reaching out not only to help, but for help.

Does God agree with you? with me?

20160617_144150In the face of all the many disagreements, and further, in the face of what seems to be a lack of ability to communicate in civil and well-intentioned ways, I thought this morning of these words from Isaiah 55:8-9
My plans aren’t your plans,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways,
    and my plans than your plans. (CEB)
Do you suppose that when God says, in Isaiah 55, that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, God is referring to everyone? I have to admit that my usual first read of that passage is that God is referring to my enemy/opponent/anyone who disagrees with me.
 
To be fair, though, I have to admit, though it sometimes takes me a while, that God is, in fact, saying this to ALL of us.
 
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not have a second thought on my agenda for which this is the setup. Not that I never operate that way, but I am not this time)

What is our product?

weekfive.jpgSermon #5 in our Branded Series. This sermon concludes the series.

Branded

“If I only had a brain….” That’s the earworm that Lee Swann stuck me with last Sunday. Thank you!

Maybe now you’ve got it playing over and over, too. If so, you’re welcome!

I remember growing up watching “The Wizard of Oz,” by Frank Baum, every year when it came on TV. I am young enough to be not really too impressed that some of it was done in color, but we all loved the story.  Though, I admit, for several years I was scared of those flying monkeys!

Not long before I first saw the movie, in 1964, that Henry Littlefield unlocked the secrets of the story.  It was a populist allegory, he claimed, and was written as a commentary on turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th century) monetary policy. The yellow brick road was the gold standard, Emerald City represented the fraudulent greenback, or us currency without the gold standard. The Strawman was the american farmer, the tin man industrial workers, and the cowardly lion William Jennings Bryan.

Littlefield explanation of the story has since been discounted, but that, of course, doesn’t mean there aren’t other versions.

Like the religious version: the yellow brick road is the “way to enlightenment.” The emerald city represents heaven, and each of the main characters a particular version of human temptation or frailty.  The wicked witch of the west, being killed with water that represents baptism.

At least as plausible is the atheist allegorical explanation. There is no real wizard, just a human behind a curtain.

Some of you might like the feminist version. Frank Baum, the author, was son-in-law of a leading suffragist. All the characters who actually have any power in the movie are women.

You might have your own version of what the Wizard of Oz means. You might not – maybe you have never even seen the movie.

We are story-driven people, and our brains are meaning-making machines!  If there isn’t a story, we’ll make one. Where there isn’t meaning, we will make it up and overlay it.

No one tells a story for no reason, do they?  It might not be the most obvious reason, but there is a reason.

Today we remember the story of Pentecost.  You might wonder why we haven’t read the story of Pentecost from the scriptures.  You might not.  The story is in Acts 2.  I could tell you the reason I didn’t have it read is that I love our liturgists and didn’t want to make them read verses 9-11, which read:

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!         (Acts 2:9-11)

So, here is the story.  You can read the official version in Acts 2.  In fact, please read it sometime today.  Let me know what you think!

The disciples, having recently watched Jesus ascend into heaven, are meeting on the day of Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, a Feast Day on which God’s people gathered to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While waiting, the Holy Spirit shows up and fills them!

Filled with the Spirit, they step before the crowds and start speaking in tongues – languages – so that everyone, all those Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, etc., can understand them!

When you let the Holy Spirit speak through you, a lot less is lost in translation!

When we let the Holy Spirit speak, people will be able to hear us in their own language!

Having never heard anything like this, some of the crowds guessed the disciples were drunk – speaking out of their minds!  

Peter stood up to preach.  He preached; told them the story of Jesus in terms of some of the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.

“God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.”

This is the final message of our Branded series.  The premise is that Jesus is, or would be, branded. Branding, you recall, is not just a logo or a jingle, but an image or video or song that connects people (customers) with a story.

On that first day of Pentecost, the telling of God’s story brought 3,000 into the community of faith.

What will you do with this story?

For four weeks we have summarized God’s story. For four weeks we have talked about being made in God’s image – that we ALL bear the brand of God and God’s story, and that God’s story is one of hope and forgiveness and healing and reconciliation. Thus branded, we are, with God, in the business of making disciples; followers of Jesus. To make disciples, we have to be disciples. Last week we talked about getting to know what other people, people who don’t know Jesus and aren’t followers of Jesus, value. I claimed last Sunday, and still firmly believe, that when we practice the patience of listening to other people’s stories, we will learn what they value. By listening to others, we will also earn the right to be heard when we tell God’s story and how it has impacted us; changed us.

So, today, the finale.

Has God’s story changed us?

We are, you see, the product we have to offer.

As Christians, we ought to be inviting others to follow Jesus. To do so with integrity means we have to be following Jesus. We have to be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, “watch what I do, follow my example, follow Jesus the way I follow Jesus.”

Otherwise we are just making up a meaning to someone else’s story.

Pentecost is a grand point in the story where we learn, as Peter says, how to make God’s story our own story. After his sermon, the people ask, “What should we do? Peter answered:

“Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”

This IS the meaning to God’s story!  And the promise is “for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord God invites”

Our lives, lived as evidence, with evidence, of the Holy Spirit’s work in us IS the product we have to offer!

Flannery O’Connor wrote many beautiful stories.  Most of them are haunting, too. One of my favorites, one that haunts me, is “The River.”

In this story, Mrs. Connin comes to pick up young Harry from his parents, as his babysitter for the day.  Harry’s mom is sick – we learn a little later she is hungover. Mrs. Connin is a committed Christian woman and is excited to take Harry down to the river, where an evangelist named Bevel is healing and preaching.  Mrs. Connin hadn’t known Harry’s name, and asks him what it is, after telling him about this preacher. “Bevel,” Harry tells her.

He wants to please this Christian woman. He wants to find a place in her story.

At the river, she identifies him to the Preacher has having not been baptized. So Harry, or Bevel, is baptized.  It sounds good, too; the life that the preacher describes following baptism is far different from the drab, bleak, miserable life that is Harry’s, or Bevel’s, up to this point in the story.

Alas, he comes up out of the water the same. He is taken home, and sent off to bed, life is the same.

The story ends the next morning, Harry, or Bevel, having taken himself back to the river, and determined to hold himself under the water until he finds that wonderful life the preacher was talking about.

I read “The River” for the first time about 25 years ago. I cried as I finished it. Then I got up and went into my first child, Robbie’s room, where she lay napping. I cried quietly, and prayed. I hope and prayed that she would know God’s story in a way that gave her hope, not in a way that left her so disillusioned that she would drown herself looking for some great, good, place I had promised.

The Christian Hope you and I have to offer is the hope that others can see in our lives.  If it is a hope we tell them about, we had better be willing to live it, too!

This morning’s scripture readings – both shorter than the Acts passage, and both noticeably absent of difficult-to-pronounce Bible names, remind us of the goodness of God’s story, and of the promise of OUR place in it, and our role in sharing it with others.

All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.     (Romans 8:14-17)

and

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”   (John 14:8-17, 25-27)

We are baptizing one young woman and welcoming her, another young woman and two young men into membership in the Church this morning.  Not just “our” church, but THE Church.  The church that represents Jesus Christ. The Church in which the Holy Spirit lives and is active.

The Church where God’s story is lived out and lived into.

The Church where our lives are changed as we actually follow Jesus day by day.

Will  you join me in committing to these young people that we WILL “surround them with a community of love and forgiveness ”? Will you pray for them, “that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to faith”?

And you know, don’t you, that really the way THEY will be true disciples is as the see and experience US being true disciples.

We are the product. Our lives, moved and changed by the Holy Spirit are what we have to offer!

 

STOP looking at Jesus!

This picture did it. Threw me across the line I’ve been toeing for several days, if not weeks.
barry gibb Jesus

Seems pretty harmless, right? Maybe even encouraging? Even if you realize, as I did the moment I saw it, that this is a picture of Barry Gibb, one of the Bee Gees.

Today we celebrate the Ascension.  The story is told in Acts 1:1-11.  40 days after the resurrection, Jesus “was lifted up,” (ascended) into heaven.  Today is that day this year – 40 days after Easter.

Immediately after the ascension, Luke, the author of Acts, tells us,

While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”     -Acts 1:10-11

This is the part of the Ascension story I want to focus on today. And, maybe, every day.

Today I echo the words of those two men in white robes:

STOP looking at Jesus!

Barry Gibbs/Jesus helped me grasp this, so now I share it with you.  We do too much looking at Jesus.

I think all these images of Jesus we surround ourselves with distract us from actually following Jesus. To be fair, it’s not Barry Gibbs’ fault. Here is a collage of many of the images of Jesus found around our church, Euless First United Methodist Church

Jesus at Euless FUMC

When we make Jesus look like a first century person, we are distracted from the realities of 21st century life.  However heart warming it is to see a picture of a bearded, robed guy, most of us don’t look at actually, living, bearded guys in robes with any such positive thoughts. This kind of removing Jesus from our current context too easily leads to nostaglic dreaming of all kinds of days-gone-by.  I’m pretty sure Jesus would rather we live today.

When we insert a image of Jesus into a current situation, we create space for us to back out of the challenging part of following Jesus. Are you tired, stressing out, even depressed?  Facing tough times?  Grieving the loss of a loved one or poor choices your children (or parents) are making? Here’s a picture of Jesus to tide you over to get you through.  No!  The picture of Jesus that Jesus wants you and me to share with the hurting is the Imago Dei (image of God) that we carry in our beings!

May you experience all the joy of the Ascension: knowing that Jesus is in heaven, and that he didn’t leave us here to stare up at heaven, or at pictures, looking at Jesus.  He left us, commissioned us, is counting on us, to continue his work.

So, STOP looking at Jesus and follow him!