Monday, May 30, 2011

"Love Wins" by Rob Bell - My Reflections on this book...

The place: Northern Germany; the time: Late 15th, early 16th century.  Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses; he had had his famous confrontation at the Diet of Worms at which he had refused to take back any of his teachings or writings.  After a contentious debate all of his supporters had walked out of the Diet (assembly) leaving his enemies, who promptly passed articles of condemnation and excommunication against Luther.  Why?  He was preaching Grace!  He was teaching that St. Paul had proclaimed that we are brought into relationship with God through Christ on the basis, NOT of anything we do, but only on the basis of God’s love and grace.  This was a dangerous teaching.  One Cardinal expressed that if this kind of theology caught on then the church was doomed.  If the church was not needed to broker forgiveness, to maintain and adjudicate God’s law, to sell indulgences on the basis of which is determined who goes to heaven and who doesn’t, then who needs the church?
I was reminded of this dispute as I read a recent article in Time Magazine about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book: Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  His own evangelical colleagues have been harsh in their condemnation.  “Universalism,” they cry!  “Theologically disastrous!”  Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is quoted as saying “When you adopt universalism… you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ and you don’t need the cross…”  Sounds a lot like the Medieval Cardinals complaint about Luther.  Both of them are saying – If God is about love, then who needs us?
So, is Rob Bell guilty of universalism? I think not. Bell is deeply committed to Jesus.  But, like Luther, Bell has found a way to present the Gospel of grace in new and fresh and compelling ways.  The problem for the establishment is that that shatters the “arrogant certainty” which characterizes so much of the discourse between Christians these days.  Bell is suggesting that we Christians need to first, rediscover that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel of love (See the lectionary Gospel texts for Easter 5, 6 and 7 A - for example, not to mention all of John's account of the last supper and the final discourse that follows).  And second, judging is not in our job description.  We need to accept that God is bigger than any of us; and that God might choose to reach out to the whole world in a variety of different ways.  And rather than us sitting in judgment on others, we Christians are called to recognize that heaven (and hell for that matter) are already in our midst and that we are called to reach out in the love of God to this hungry and hurting world – yes, the entire world.  Even to people whom we don’t like or we don’t agree with or who think differently than we do, and who have different priorities and recognize that we are all children of God.
Bell reminds us that the grace and love of God is completely beyond our comprehension.  The grace and love of God are also beyond our control – praise God.  The grace and love of God are extended to all of the world that God created and declared “good.”  While we humans want to be in control and limit heaven to folks like us – God has other ideas.  This is exactly what the Gospels say.  The false Gospel of the tyrant God who was suppose to destroy the world and visit havoc and misery on millions of people on May 21 is a lie; the false Gospel of the tyrant God who will destroy all that God loves in creation is a lie; the false Gospel of the tyrant God who expects mental assent to a series of propositions is a lie.  We are brought into the heart of God not through our good deeds, our right belief, our certainty, our passion, or anything else – we are brought into the heart of God on the basis of God’s love and grace – only!
And then what is the church.  If the church is not needed to broker God’s grace and forgiveness; if the church is not there to determine who is in and who is out then what is the point.  The church is a community of those who God loves.  We come together to celebrate this love and to be reminded and strengthened in our faith through hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament of Bread and Wine. The Church it is the people – living out their lives – called, enlightened, sanctified for the work of Jesus Christ. (Jay Beech - "We Are the Church")  The church is like an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth – where those who God loves can be in relationship with others who God loves and through whom others can experience this love.
I actually did not find the book to be terribly new.  I had read it all before in the New Testament and in Luther.  But Bell has a unique way of writing and of using language that makes him easy to read and understand.  This is a wonderful book.  I commend it to everyone and hope you will all take a little time to read it.  I have placed my copy in the church library and will be buying a couple more copies to put in there for you.  Read it - read it – read it!  I can’t lift up this book enough.
I will let Pastor Bell have the last word.  At the end of the book he writes:
Love is why I’ve written this book and love is what I want to leave you with.  May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along.  May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about.  And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel - Recognizing the Holy Spirit - St. John 14:15-21

Read the Gospel text here: John 14:15-21
Recognizing the Holy Spirit
There is a theater convention that was very popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries that center around mistaken identity.  One of the best examples of this is the plot of Mozart’s wonderful opera “Cosi fan Tutte”  (which is hard to translate.  It means something like “They are all like that.”)  The main plot device is that there are two couples who are supposedly madly in love.  The men are so certain that their girlfriends are so madly in love with them that they agree to a bet to test the girls' love.  The guys then dress up as “Albanian” soldiers and proceed to woo each other’s girlfriends.  Yes, it is very silly.  It requires a suspension of belief as the primary question that has always arisen in my mind is this – so no matter how good the disguise is it really possible that the girls really could never recognize their boyfriends?  Well, as is typical of Mozart it ends with a hint of sadness in the midst of all of the joy – and the music is incredibly beautiful.

Our Gospel text today is in part about seeing and recognizing.  And like the two women in the opera who are looking right at their lovers but do not recognize them, I think we too have a hard time recognizing God’s working through the Holy Spirit – even though God is right then in front of our eyes.  After demonstrating unconditional love and grace (foot-washing) and then explaining to the disciples that it is to this that they are called, Jesus promises the disciples that God will send to them “another” Comforter/Advocate (Paraclete in Greek).  This is the Holy Spirit.  So here in this text we get a hint of what the Holy Spirit looks like:

Hint #1. The Holy Spirit looks like an Advocate – “the one who stands up for you when you need it; the one who speaks on your behalf; the one who lends you a helping hand, takes your side, and won't leave you while you're down.”1. 

And Hint 2. The Holy Spirit looks like Jesus – “The Spirit is "another advocate" because Jesus is the first. The Spirit, Jesus goes on to say, will abide with us just as Jesus the Word made flesh has abided with us. The Spirit is sent in Jesus' name and reminds us of what he taught (14:25). In a very real way, the Spirit mediates Jesus presence and helps to keep his promise that he will not leave us orphaned and will come to us.”1.

“In summary, then: the Holy Spirit is an advocate that looks a whole lot like Jesus. Which means that we've actually seen the Spirit lots of times. Anytime, in fact, someone stands up for another...  Anytime someone acts like Jesus... Anytime someone bears the love of Christ to another... we've seen the Holy Spirit.”1.

So when was the last time you saw the Holy Spirit?  Who did the Spirit look like?  Perhaps the Spirit looked like a friend, a family member, a nurse or a teacher – maybe the Spirit looked like your Pastor or like Julie or a member of church or a co-worker.  I have seen the Holy Spirit and – you know what – the Holy Spirit looked like some of you.  This is the point.  How does the Spirit work in the world now?  Through God’s people – through you and me.  We need to put aside the image of a God who intervenes in the world from outside or above; we need to put aside the image of a God who on the one hand might shower God’s favorites with gifts like a kind of cosmic Santa Claus but who on the other hand is so vengeful and angry that He can’t wait to reek devastation and “tribulation” on those who are not part of the inside group.  There is no Biblical justification for this.  “The Word because Flesh and dwelt among us…”  God works by entering into human history and experience and working from within.  And God reaches out in intense and overwhelming love to all – that is ALL – of God’s children.  There will be no “rapture,” there will be no “tribulation” visited upon us by a removed and vengeful God.  Instead God is working to transform this world that God so intently loves; God is working through the power of the Holy Spirit – that is God is working through you and me.

1. The quoted sections of the above are from David Lose’s article: “What the Holy Spirit Really Looks Like” which is posted at Working Preacher


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Who Are We IN Christ?

What follows is part of my annual report to the congregation - June 1, 2011.  It also owes much to a presentation I attended last week at the Festival given by Diana Butler Bass.

Who are we IN Christ?
Who are you?  Who am I?  How do we define ourselves?  I suspect that for most of us the way we would answer that question is by saying what we DO – I am a pastor, a farmer, a grocer, a lawyer, a nurse, a teacher and so on.  Or perhaps we would answer the question by listing our relationships – I am a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a grandparent and so on.  Ok, if I change the question and ask – Who are you IN God?  How would you answer that?  What does that little preposition mean?  How does it change the question?  Or does it?
In ancient times when someone was baptized they received a new name.  This was to symbolize that (following the words of St. Paul) in Christ we are a new creation; in Christ we have a new way of being in the world.  And we rest in Christ totally.  We are in Christ and Christ is in us!  The hymn I Bind Myself (which is also known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate ELW #450) puts it this way:
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

That says it all doesn’t it?  Baptized in Christ – we are Christ’s – now and forever.  Now what does that mean for our lives?  What does it mean for the way we live our lives, the way we are in relationship with others, the priorities we set and the choices we make?  What difference does being IN Christ make in your life?  For each of us there is going to be a different answer.  God calls all of us to follow, but we are not all called or gifted in the same way.  As we come to the close of this school year and begin looking to the next year of ministry what are ways that we are each called to live IN Christ.  How is that manifest?  To what new ministries and experiences is God calling you?
Ultimately to be IN Christ means that it is all encompassing.  To be a Christian is not just a set of things we have to “believe.”  Being IN Christ means a way of living, of relating to others and of setting priorities.  According the Diana Butler Bass being IN Christ for both individuals and churches means three things in particular: 1. Experiential belief – that is, our faith emerges out of our experiences of God at work through us and around us; 2. Intentional practice – that is, our calling is to go in search of ministry opportunities – not to sit back and wait for things to come to us; 3. Relational belonging – that is, this church, this parish is a group of people who are not only in relationship with God but also with one another and that we experience God present and active in the world through our relationships with other.  And that brings us back to #1.   So who are we?  How do we define ourselves?  Being IN Christ includes both our relationships and our vocations.  In fact, it includes every dimension of our lives.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time off....

      Good morning friends.  I am taking a week to attend the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis and this is one reason I have not posted.  I didn't post last week because I tried an experiment with the "Road to Emmaus" text.  I sang a Ylvisaker folk song ("On the Road to Emmaus) and interspersed the verses with reflections about the text.  It went very well.  And this past week we had Parish rotation and at Peace Lutheran church in Chester we had a dialog sermon - they asked me questions and I attempted to answer them.  The questions ranged from "Is Ghandi in Hell" (ala Rob Bell) to questions about why the LCMS refuses to pray with anyone who is not LCMS (I know the reason - but I sure don't understand it - it seems very arrogant and exclusivist to me, the folks at Peace had the same reaction).  But the bottom line message I attempted to convey in both of these sermons is that 1. We are called to serve - not to judge. 2. God promises to be with us on our journeys through life and beyond and through the incarnate Word is present with us in the midst of everything. (Nothing can separate us).
       Last night Dr. Thomas Long spoke about the trouble the church is in - decline and so forth.  He talked about how people in some quarters are beginning to act in ways that are akin to preparing for death.  He had three categories which come from an author names Arthur W. Frank: 1. The reaction of becoming more disciplined.  A patient who is ill unto death at first might react by becoming a very disciplined patient - faithfully taking their medication and doing everything they are told to do by the medical staff.  So too areas of the church become very disciplined about doing things the way we always have done them.  Well 20 years ago we did this and it worked then. That kind of thing. 2. There is a reaction to mirror the healthy.  So the sick patient will imitate and act like those around him/her who are healthy - they will mirror healthy behavior.  So too the church - we look at Saddleback and say - wow, that program really works there let's do it here (even though our demographics are nothing like theirs). 3. The opposite of #1 - the patient becomes dominating and uncooperative and hostile.  Hence, groups of true believers separating from the sinful larger body of the church (read sarcasm).  The formation of knee-jerk groups (like CORE, LCMC and LCNA or these Anglican splinter groups) who are so intent on being the true body of Christ that they miss the point of the Gospel.

     Dr. Long finished up with a 4th response - and that is the desire to tell the story.  A dying patient will start to want to tell their story.  The church has a story to tell as well - an important story.  And this story is not a story of an exclusive, judgmental group of true believers - it is a story of the body of Christ who is called to reach out to God's people and care for God's creation; it is a story of the incarnation of God into the midst of a fallen world out of love; it is a story of call - call to follow, to serve, to love as Christ loved us; it is a story of crucifixion and resurrection.  Which prompts me to this final reflection.  OK - the church is dying and like physical death it is moving towards transformation.  But so what else is new.  The church has always been in the process of dying.  It has always been in the process of transformation.  There is nothing new here.  The fact is that human people are profoundly uncomfortable with death and dying and so we do everything we can to avoid and prevent it.  So we create rigid structures, we judge those we don't agree with, we exclude those who are "not like the rest of us" so we can hold on to the rail of our sinking and dying ship.  But just like in physical death we believe that God is a God of resurrection, and that death is not the last word.  From death will come life - "abundant life" (from last Sunday's Gospel).  And this life is beyond our ability to imagine.  The church we know is dying and being transformed - yes, and it has been like this since the church emerged back in the first century.  God is at work.
      Dr. Long used the illustration of the falling dream.  He was sitting on an airplane next to a man who was sleeping when all of a sudden the man reached up to grab on something - the man was having a falling dream.  That is the reaction isn't it.  If we feel like we are falling into the abyss we desperately try to grab onto something to hold on.  But God says to us - Let go - God is there and will catch us.  Our calling is to be faithful. 
                                                                                 In the name of the Father, +Son and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel - "Faithful Thomas"

Read the Gospel Text Here: John 20:19-31

            Poor Thomas.  Over the last 2000 years we have come to know the disciple Thomas as “doubting Thomas” because of this episode in the Gospel of John.  “Unless I see… and touch… and place my hands… I will not believe,” says Thomas.  One can hardly blame him.  After all, the other disciples have not exactly been paragons of faith.  Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied he even knew Jesus and the others?  Well, our text tells us they are hold up in a secret room hiding with the door locked!  Not exactly a testimony of great faith.
These disciples (or at least some of them) had seen Jesus tortured and crucified.  They knew he was dead.  They had seen him do amazing miracles including raising Lazarus, and they had heard him predict his own resurrection.  But we have noted throughout Lent that they really didn’t seem to pay much attention to that.  And affecting ones own resurrection is quite a different matter.  These disciples didn’t believe anymore than Thomas.  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus picks a knick-name for the disciples and he calls them “Little Faiths.”  This moniker seems appropriate for the Gospel of John as well.
But what exactly is faith?  Does faith consist in accepting and believing extraordinary things that would otherwise be unbelievable?  Is faith completely a mental exercise?  Is faith in Jesus solely accepting the veracity of a series of incredible stories of miracles and signs – including the resurrection?  Is that what faith is?  I’m not so sure that this is faith.  It seems more like mental gymnastics to me.
In the Old Testament and in the Gospel of John there is no noun for the word “faith.”  It is always a verb.  It is always an action.  The point of the miracles and the signs of Jesus and the resurrection itself is not to encourage us to sit back in our arm chairs and ponder whether or not we can find enough credulity to “believe” these stories were historical fact.  Rather, they are to lead us to act; they are to lead us to live lives that imitate and reflect the love and teaching and miracles of Jesus.  Mental attitudes are not even important.  Ultimately God creates faith.  And as we act and we live lives that reflect the gifts of God’s love and grace; that reflect the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus then God instills and creates faith.
Thomas finally gets what the other disciples get: a personal encounter with the living Jesus.  And it makes a difference to him, and it makes a difference to the other disciples.  They eventually unbolt their locked door and go out into the world sharing the Good News that Jesus is raised and that the powers of death and darkness are defeated.  We too are called to get out of our armchairs, unbolt our doors and live lives that reflect this amazing Gospel of Jesus, crucified and risen!