Redirecting

I’m consolidating my online work to one site (something I probably should have done a long time ago).

Going forward, you can find my blog posts, daily prayers, weekly Stroll through Scripture videos and more at my other website – www.pastormatthewbest.com. I invite you to come over and subscribe so you won’t miss a thing.

I will no longer be adding new content here on LacedupLutheran.  It’s been a fun ride.

Life, death, and resurrection

A friend forwarded me an article about changes in society – especially businesses – in light of COVID-19.  I encourage you to read the article.  It talked about changes in restaurants, malls, retail, etc.  It talked about large chains versus mom-and-pop stores.  It talked about urban, suburban, and rural circumstances.

And my friend asked me – how do you think this relates to the church?

Wow, what a great question.

I think the trends talked about in the article apply to the church as well.  Or at least parts of the church in the US.  Context matters of course.  It’s dangerous to proclaim what will happen to “the church” with any type of authority.  You are almost guaranteed to be wrong in some aspect.  But then again, fear of being wrong shouldn’t stop us from looking at trends and making adjustments based on reality.  It’s one thing to talk without any data or information, it’s quite another to take what you have been researching and seeing data and trends on and making some statements that have a foundation in reality.

I honestly don’t see the church changing much in rural areas.  Change doesn’t happen quickly or have direct impact on rural areas.  That’s not a bad thing – it’s more a recognition of reality.  Rural areas aren’t concerned with being on the cutting edge of things.  I think rural areas are designed to not be on the cutting edge. It’s part of the appeal for people who choose to live in rural areas.

The urban churches will change – because like their rural counter parts – they are designed to be that way.  It’s what appeals to the people who are a part of the urban experience.

But what about the suburban churches?  Hmm.  They are more difficult to figure out.  They are designed maintain the status quo in many regards.  The problem is that a pandemic changes that situation.  The greatest loss, in terms of church organization, will be in these areas I think.  I could very well be wrong.  But the suburban church is also where there is the greatest opportunity as well.  Again, I could be wrong.

For a long time the suburban church has been resistant to core change.  It’s really good at tinkering around the edges though.  I think the churches in the suburbs that are willing to examine themselves and ask critical questions will survive and thrive.  These are questions that cut to the core – Who are we?  Why does this church exist?  What is our mission?  Would we be missed if our doors stayed closed?  Why?  What is our reason to continue?

The answers to those questions may require suburban churches to make significant changes in how they operate and function.  It may mean letting go of long established things.  It may mean giving more emphasis to things that have been around for a long time but have been ignored.

In other words, the churches that are willing to practice what they have been proclaiming for a long time will come through this.  And what is that message?  Life, death, and resurrection.

I suspect that the church of five years from now will look far different than does today, far different than it looked a few months ago.  There will be significant death in the church.  And it will be painful.  We will come face to face with death.  And we should.  To really feel the effects of death.  I don’t say that because I want people to suffer.  I say that because we have been proclaiming life, death, and resurrection for so long that until now in recent times, I’m not sure we’ve really grasped what those words actually mean in a fuller sense.  You can’t experience resurrection until you go through death.  And death sucks.  But death is not the end.  It is not the last stop.  It is painful to experience death.  To be out of control.  To know that what was is no longer.  It is painful, but it serves a purpose – so that we can let go.

What needs to die in our congregations?  In our churches?  In our denominations?  What needs to die in how we operate and function?  What needs to die so there is room for resurrection?   And when “it” (whatever it is that needs to die) actually dies, how will we mourn that loss?  How will we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow so we can grieve?

It is only going through death, that we have room for resurrection.  I suspect that the church is on the verge of really living into the proclamation of life, death, and resurrection.  We are going to go through death of the church, or at least parts of it.  It will be painful.  Yet, that death will allow space for resurrection.  God has promised this.  While we want to get to the resurrection part right way – to skip past the death part – that’s not how it works.  Even Jesus had to die before he could be resurrected.  And the same is true for the church.

 

 

Leadership lessons from Moses

In the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership.  And I keep coming back to one example that I think fits into our current situation pretty well – Moses.

Throughout the whole storyline that runs from the exodus from Egypt until the Israelites enter the promised land in Deuteronomy, we hear a consistent story – that the Israelites are a stubborn people.  Moses complains about their stubbornness to the Lord.  God complains to Moses about their stubbornness.  That part always gives me a chuckle.

But I’ve never really taken in what that really means until now.  I used to see that portion of Scripture through a lens that showed the people of Israel in a negative light – they were unappreciative, forgetful, etc.  There’s certainly an element of that, but I think it’s much deeper than those surface level things.  The people of Israel were lost.  And when people are lost without a sense of where they are going or how they will get there, they turn to the things they are familiar with, even when those things weren’t in their best interest.  I think it’s human nature to do this.

And throughout this story line we see how Moses (and God) handles this.  Other leaders are added to help take the burden off of Moses shoulder, along with the stress.  The people have basic needs provided for.  There is organization that is developed.  There are times of movement and times of staying put.  There is a spokesperson who is tapped into.

Moses has to deal with an extended crisis of 40 years.  And here’s what we need to keep in mind – he gets the people through it (of course, it’s really God who does, but Moses is the instrument to do that).  They arrive at their destination – the promised land.  The promise is fulfilled.

Here’s what I take away from Moses and what I see as applicable today – how we define leadership matters.

If you were to ask me what leadership is, here’s what I would say today – Leadership is making decisions that you know are going to upset people because those decisions look past individual “stubbornness,” desires, wishes, and expectations to look for the greater good.  Leadership is about presenting a vision of a possible (better) future, regardless of what people think about how it impacts them directly.  Leadership is about seeing how the people the leader serves will benefit down the road knowing that the leader will not receive any praise for the decisions made.  Leadership is not about seeking praise and being liked.  Leadership is about doing what needs to be done.

I see all of these things in Moses and how he leads the Israelites.  I see the same traits as vitally important in our own crisis.

How do you define leadership?

Viruses we face

Here’s a fun topic – viruses.  Boy, aren’t I the life of the party?

All this talk about COVID-19 has me thinking about viruses we face.

There are the physical viruses we face – Influenza strains, other corona-like viruses, viruses we have faced in the pasts like SARS, Bird flue, swine flu, etc.  This isn’t the first contagious virus, not will it be the last one to impact us directly in a physical way.  Plenty of people die from these things. And humanity is pretty good at developing vaccines for these too to prevent even worse death in the future.  I’m hopeful that the smart people who know how to do these things will develop something that will protect us from COVID-19.

There are other viruses too – ones that don’t attack our physical bodies, but do plenty of damage and can even cause death to people.

I’m thinking of viruses like racism.  That’s been a deadly virus for a really long time.  It’s caused plenty of death and destruction of whole societies.  Even those who don’t succumb to the virus come away wounded – unable to see the Image of God in others who look different from themselves.

I’m thinking of viruses like nationalism.  I’m not talking about pride in one’s country.  That’s patriotism.  Nationalism is a bit different.  It’s far more dangerous.  Nationalism is the often attached to wars with other countries.  Nationalism dehumanizes other people’s.  It has an element of religiosity to it – of thinking that one’s nation is special and protected by divine intervention and that anyone who believes differently will suffer the wrath of that deity.  Nationalism also often confuses things – makes a leader the personification of a nation and all it stands for.  Nationalism doesn’t allow for diversity of thought or ideas.  Both Fascism and Communism had elements of Nationalism built right within them.

I’m thinking of viruses like poverty.  Poverty doesn’t kill directly.  But it does kill and destroy ultimately.  When people are in poverty – they lack basic necessities for survival.  They struggle to get the daily needs met – basic things like food, shelter, and clothing.  Poverty forces people to focus on survival.  It is only about living in the present moment because there is not future when someone is in poverty.  All energy is spent on making sure that a person can survive today.  And then they have to do it again tomorrow.  Poverty traps a person, like a black hole.

We could go on.  There are plenty of other viruses that could be named.  I wonder what you would add to the list and what details you would add.  Mental Health?  Pollution?  Greed?  Corruption?  Homelessness?  Addictions?  etc.

When I think about these viruses, there is a common thread that runs through them – fear.  Fear may be the worst virus we face.  It is silent.  It is often unseen.  There is no vaccine for it.  There is no immunity to it – it can come back over and over again and infect us quite easily.  And like all viruses – it can destroy our lives, or kill parts of our lives, and maybe even kill us – either literally or figuratively.

Fear can also keep up alive – a healthy fear can do that.  I can prevent us from doing something stupid.  It can prevent our egos from taking over and doing something obviously dangerous.

There is a difference in these two fears though.  One preserves life.  The other fears the living of life – especially the living of others’ lives.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to do what we can to move towards life, towards community with others (even in the midst of stay at home orders).  Be do this because at their core are two concepts that are the foundation of faith – Shalom, and love of God and  neighbor.  The unfolding of the Kingdom of God is about restoration and completeness.  Justice has a place in all of this because seeking justice is about restoration and completeness for everyone – especially those who have been harmed by the viruses we named earlier.  We don’t seek justice because it is associated with a political party – That’s just dumb.  Political parties ultimately exist for their leaders to gain and maintain power.  Rather we seek justice because it is the fulfillment of Shalom and love of neighbor.  It is completeness.  When one person in the community is sickened by the viruses we named above, then it impacts all of us and so we do what we can to restore people and community to a sense of wholeness.  This is the what discipleship is about.  This is what following Jesus is about.  This is what our Christian faith is about.

 

Who’s team are you on?

(I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 26, 2020.  The Gospel reading for the day was Luke 24:13-35 – you can find the full recording of the service on our website – www.ststephenlc.org)

Recently we watched the movie Miracle.  It’s the retelling of the 1980 USA Mens Olympic Hockey Team and the game that would come to be called the Miracle on Ice.  The Miracle was that they beat the Soviet Olympic Team – a team that hadn’t lost a match in years and won Olympic gold in the four previous Olympics – 1964, 68, 72, and 76.  All while the US team had struggled through the opening rounds year after year – only once securing a medal in those four Olympics.  The Soviets where the best and everyone knew it.

The US team was a rag tag grouping of amateur hockey players – college players – who were brought together to make a team.  The team struggles to come together – often because their loyalty to their college team got in the way of playing together as a team.   Their eyes were kept closed to seeing the goal.  What’s a coach to do in that situation?

After one friendly match, he makes the team stay on the ice after the game.  He makes them line up on the goal line and sprint across the rink to the blue line and back to the goal, then the red line, and back to the goal.  Over and over, all the while yelling at them, berating them.  Red line, goal, blue line, goal.  Yelling.  Again. Again.  Red line, goal, blue line, goal.  Again.  Again.  The manager of the rink turns the lights out after a while.  And the coach keeps pushing them.  Again.  Again.  The Assistant Coach hesitates to blow the whistle.  The players are struggling to stand.  He blows the whistle.  Again.  Again.

They are on the verge of breaking down mentally, emotionally, physically.  Collapsing from utter exhaustion.

The coach yells again.  There is a tense moment of stand-off between coaches.  Will the assistant follow the head coach and blow the whistle again?  The players wait, blind with exhaustion, standing in a dark ice rink.  It seems as though this could go on forever.

It had only been three days, but the emotional toll must have felt like a lifetime – Everything the followers of Jesus had given up, taken on, and done during his ministry had just ended with Jesus’ death just a few days beforehand.  We are told that the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus were kept from recognizing Jesus when he comes upon them – they were kept in the dark.

We can only imagine what is going through their hearts and mind.  We don’t know why they are leaving Jerusalem – where they afraid, like the disciples locked away in the upper room?  We don’t know.  We hear them say – “we had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel.”  Did you catch that – “had hoped”.  It’s past tense.  Their hope was gone.  Time to go back to their old ways of life, I guess.  To change jerseys.  They recount with Jesus what happened, but they aren’t really into it.  You can almost hear the lack of belief – the doubt.  You can hear the mistrust of the woman’s accounts.  They aren’t with the other disciples in Jerusalem.  It’s almost as if they are a rag tag team of amateurs who their coach brought together wearing the same jersey, but not really committed to the same team yet.

And Jesus lines them up on the goal line.  He berates them like a coach who’s upset at the performance of his team – a coach who knows there is far more in his players than they believe is there in themselves.  He says “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”  He blows the whistle and sends them through the wringer.  Over and over again.  Not physically, but rather by laying out the whole of Scripture (the whole thing) from Moses through the Prophets.  Over and over.  Again. Again.  And they stay with him, walking along. Approaching the dark of the evening.  When will it end?  It could go on forever.

And then the moment of truth.  At the end of the day, in the dark, after long conversation when they are tired and exhausted from the journey, from the conversation, from the emotional roller coaster of the events of the last few days – it looks like this stranger would just leave them, as if he didn’t care ultimately.

A post that I saw on social media caught my attention – it read “Sometimes we pray for God to change a situation when God wants the situation to change us.”  Boy, how true is that?

Have you ever encountered a situation that you wish you didn’t have to go through?  A situation that you know is going to bring you to the breaking point?  Maybe that’s right now, in this pandemic.  We can complain about it.  We can see the terribleness of it and get bogged down in that.  We can complain about how it inconveniences us, has impacted our routines.  We can get upset and angry over restrictions.  We can blame leadership and scapegoat.  We can embrace fear over what we have lost.  We can resist this moment.  We can do lots of things.

Throughout this pandemic I have heard the phrase we are all in this together.  And I wonder, are we really?  Are we as a society really all in this together beyond just the sentiment and the nice words?  Are we backing it up with actions?  We are all wearing the same jersey, but are we all really on the same team?  Or do we stubbornly hold onto a loyalty to some other team or ideas or beliefs that have been a part of us for a long, long time?

I wonder, have you ever been broken?  Broken to the point that you finally let go of everything?  Broken to the point that you let go of the sacred cows we all carry with us – the golden calves that we cling to?  Broken to the point that we let go of identities and loyalties that do not serve the greater body of the church or society?

Whether we want to admit it or not, this is what discipleship is really about – being broken.  This is the difference between church being a social club and making disciples – brokenness.  We are broken.  That’s what sin does to us – it breaks us and it blinds us.  But often we don’t want to admit that – we’d rather stubbornly fight that truth, stubbornly grasp hold of our old ways and old identities and loyalties as if they will save us.  They won’t.

Discipleship is about being broken to the point that our eyes are opened for us by Jesus to see what it is that we have been clinging to – broken ideas, beliefs, identities, loyalties and more.  The reality is this – All those things are broken.  Those things won’t take us across the rink of life and save us.  All they do is burden us more and more.  They blind us.  They slowly kill us.

Having our eyes opened to see this is really nothing more than what the church has been proclaiming for centuries – life, death, and resurrection.  Brokenness is nothing more than a form of death – a way to let go of that which doesn’t bring life, so that there is room for resurrection – a new way of seeing our life and the world, a new way of being.  It opens our eyes to see differently – to see Jesus.

The Disciples embraced that moment – they asked Jesus to stay with them.  And the most amazing thing happened – a miracle.  Nothing up to this point opened their eyes to seeing Jesus.  It was in the breaking of the bread that their eyes were opened.  Not all the knowledge.  Not the conversation.  None of that opened their eyes.  It was in the breaking that they could finally see.  And it changes them.  And they get up and run back to their friends full of new life.  They know what team they are a part of in that moment – what team they play for and dedicate their lives to.

As the mens hockey team stood there in the ice rink during that standoff between the coaches in the dark, it was in that moment of brokenness that the captain of the team Mike Eruzione speaks up.  Exhausted, he shouts out this “Mike Eruzione!  Winthrop, Massachusetts!”  The coach asks the pivotal question – “Who do you play for?”  Eruzione responds, “I play for the United States of America!”  The coach looks over at him, smiles and tells them they are done and disappears off the ice.  It was that moment in the movie where the team came together as a team and realized who they were playing for.  It was in their brokenness that their eyes were opened.  And it’s that new sight that allows them to do the unimaginable – be part of a miracle.  To change the course of history.  To give hope to nation that was hopeless at the time and in the dark.  To be a part of something greater than oneself.

Jesus encounters us in our brokenness and opens our eyes to see it for what it is.  Not to run away from it.  But to experience resurrection – new life.  To not just wear the jersey of discipleship, but to be embraced by it and to live it.  To be dedicated to the team – a team we were chosen for by our coach, Jesus.  He’s given us a jersey.  And to adapt another line from the coach Herb Brooks in the movie – When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates.  And the name on the front of the jersey is a lot more important than the one on the back!

What’s the name on the front of your jersey?  What team do you play for?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reopening economies

I’m not exactly sure what to make of protests demanding that states be opened up again before the pandemic meets the federal guidelines for reopening. Protestors stood close together, some without masks, some with.  Many with signs that seem disconnected from reality – or at least any belief that the virus is real.  Other signs had nothing to do with the virus, but were rather rally signs for the holder’s pet political issues.  (Source – and you can google other results to see more of the signs.)

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the flags I saw flying at protests.  I saw flags flying – some US flags.  Other flags were for a political candidate for office.  And then there were other flags mixed in that left me scratching my head – Confederate flags.  (Source – this is a YouTube video from the Lansing protest.  Again, you can google other protests.)  I’m not exactly sure what those flags have to do with re-opening the economy.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the images I saw of some protesters openly carrying weapons during their protest.  (Source).  I’m not sure what walking around with a weapon around your shoulder has to do with re-opening the economy.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of statements like the one that Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently made saying – “There are more important things than living.”  (Source)

Another sign has been showing up at many protests around the country that has me scratching my head is one that reads “Sacrifice the weak.” (Source)

I’m not exactly sure what to make of pastors like Tony Spell who defied Louisiana restrictions on large gatherings by holding worship services and “calling for people to donate their stimulus money to religious personnel.” (Source). This same pastor made the following statement in early April – “True Christians do not mind dying,” Spell told TMZ earlier this month. “They fear living in fear.” (Source same as above)

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the creative message that was painted on a truck at the Harrisburg protest – “Jesus is my vaccine.” (Source). The theology behind that message is questionable at best.  That I know.  As a pastor I can speak to matters of theology.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the arguments that are prioritizing the economy over people’s lives.

What I do know though is that this isn’t new.  It’s really old.

Ancient Egypt prioritized its economy over the lives of people, specifically the lives of the Israelites.  When the Israelites wanted to go and worship Yahweh, we are told in the Scriptures that Pharaoh hardened his heart toward them.  We are told that Pharaoh tells Moses the following – “‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves.” (Exodus 5:7, NRSV) The people could be sacrificed for the Egyptian economy that was oppressing them.  Make more bricks was the rallying cry.

Babylon did this too.  So did Persia.  And so did the Seleucids.  The Book of Daniel tells its readers of the Babylonian and Persian kings and their great wealth, the slavery and demand for absolute compliance to the king’s wishes.  These empires became wealthy the way that all empires do – by exploitation and oppression.  Extracting money and wealth away from some and going to the powerful.  The Book of Daniel writes about the Babylonians and the Persians, but it is really about the Seleucids, and specifically Antiochus IV Epiphanes – a tyrant that persecuted Israel and who saw himself as god manifest.  He was a mad man who did what emperors have commonly done – exploited, oppressed, killed, and destroyed.  In all of these empires, their leaders would do whatever they had to to ensure they remained in power, that their economy would continue to function, and that the resources would continue to flow to themselves.  Humans were expendable in these economies.

Rome did this too.  The Book of Revelation is about the oppression and exploitation of the theology of empire – specifically the exploitation and oppression of conquered peoples.  Rome’s power was intimately linked to its oppressive and exploitive economy that stripped anything of value from conquered people and lands and sent it on to Rome, the seat of power.  The Book of Revelation tells the story of the consequence of this exploitation and oppression – death and destruction.

Beyond the Book of Revelation, the New Testament speaks of money in many verses.  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10, NRSV). This is just one example of a multitude.  You can google more verses  if you like.  But that’s not what I want to focus on here.

At the heart of this is Jesus.  Jesus contrasted himself with money in many ways.  He contrasted God’s love of people over money.  He contrasted the theology of empire and its exploitative and oppressive economy with the Kingdom of God and its economy.

The Gospels tell us in verse after verse how God values lives over money.  Here’s a couple of examples:

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:41-44, NRSV)

Too often this passage of Scripture is interpreted as Jesus speaking positively about the widow and her sacrificial giving.  What we miss when we read it through that lens is how critical Jesus was being of the system that exploited this woman so much that she gave her last cent to a corrupt economic system that viewed itself as more important than her life.  Yes, this was in the temple.  But the temple system at this time was corrupt and intimately tied to Rome for its existence.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 tells a similar story of an exploitive and oppressive economic system that left the poor to die so that the privileged could live comfortably.  Lazarus’ life wasn’t worth more than maintaining an exploitative and oppressive economy.

And the culmination of this is when Jesus enters Jerusalem and “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (Matthew 21:12, NRSV). This isn’t about Jesus getting mad and flipping out.  Rather, this is an intentional act.  He goes after the money-changers because they are a part of an exploitive and oppressive economic system designed to screw over the average Jew in Jerusalem.  Or as one website put it so nicely – “The temple was to be known as a house of prayer, not as a place where merchants took economic advantage of people.” (Source)

And if you really want to get a grasp of what Jesus thought about prioritizing money over anything else, especially God, then it would be good to hear these words: “‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24, NRSV). Prioritizing money or the economy over human lives, or over God and God’s ways, is idolatry.  It is the worship of something other than God.  It is listening to that thing first.  It is aligning with the values of that false god.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Jesus talks about money many times.  The Beatitudes address the economy.  (Remember this line – Blessed are the poor…) Jesus addresses exploitive economic practices in the feeding of the 5000.  Jesus deals with money when he confronts the rich young ruler who won’t give us his stuff and give it to the poor.  He addresses the economic and power system when confronted by his enemies who try to corner him about paying the tax (“Give unto Caesar that which is Ceasar’s and give to God, that which is God’s”).

The list goes on, but it really doesn’t matter does it?

For some, there will always be a disconnect between what God says about money and economic systems and how we live into that today.  It comes down to this – what is the basis of how we make decisions?  Is it money and the economy and economic system that has first priority, or lives that starts as the foundation?

Jesus once said this about the Sabbath, when the Pharisees confronted him about healing on the Sabbath – “‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;” (Mark 2:27, NRSV).  A similar statement could be made about humanity and the economy – The economy was made to serve humanity, and not humanity to serve the economy.

Why?  Because of what God has been teaching humans since the very beginning.  God desires Shalom – wholeness, completeness, tranquility.  The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor.  That is what Shalom is all about.  In order to love our neighbor, we must be able to see the image of God in our neighbor.  It is in loving our neighbor that we are fulfilling the great commandment to love God.  How does sacrificing people, or devaluing people, for the sake of the economy assist us in fulfilling the great commandment?  How does it align us with loving our neighbor?  How does it move us in the direction of Shalom?  How does valuing the economy over people’s lives assist us to follow Jesus?  How does it assist us in being disciples and living into all he taught?

I don’t have an answer for that beyond the obvious – it doesn’t.

The economy was made to serve humanity, and not humanity to serve the economy.  Humanity serving the economy sounds like rallying cries of Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia.  It sounds like the slogans of the Selucid Empire.  It sounds like the Roman Empire.  It sounds like the doctrine of the theology of empire and its exploitative and oppressive economic systems.

The economy was made to serve humanity sounds more like the Kingdom of God.  It sounds more like Shalom.  It sounds more like loving our neighbor.

So the question comes down to this.  If that is the case, then how do we live into that kind of economy?  How do we open that kind of economy?  What needs to change to be in alignment with God’s economic system?  Or do just not want God’s economic system?  Do we fear what we would lose in God’s economy?

I want to re-open the economy like everyone else.  But I want to re-open it in a way that moves us towards Shalom, towards loving our neighbor.  I want to re-open it in a way that we steward creation responsibly.  I want to re-open it in a way that lives into the Beatitudes.  I want to re-open it in a way that lives into Jesus’ call to care for the poor and the outcast.  I want to re-open it in a way that allows us to see the Image of God in each others – regardless of our economic status.  I want to re-open it in a way that serves humanity, and in turn contributes to the unfolding of the Kingdom of God.  That’s the economy I want to reopen.

 

Stretching ourselves

During this pandemic and the Commonwealth’s stay at home orders, a couple of my kids and I have been making the most of this family time to work out together in the morning before we all get going with our daily routines.  In many ways, this has been an unexpected blessing.  I appreciate the time to bond with my kids in this way, and it’s making all of us healthier.

One of the important aspects of the workouts is the beginning – the warm ups and the stretches.  As the body ages, it’s important that you don’t just jump in to a workout, but instead you warm the muscles up and get them used to doing things.  That way you don’t injure yourself.  Sound advice.

Likewise, the stretching is really important to ensure that you don’t hurt yourself, which would mean time off from working out. It would also mean that the injured muscle would lose whatever gains you had from all the previous workouts.  And again, as the body ages, that loss happens quicker and it more difficult to get back.

All this talk about warm ups and stretching has me thinking about theology.  In what ways do we warm up and stretch theologically when we approach life?  Or are we just diving in hoping that we won’t hurt ourselves (or others) with our cold theology?

What is cold theology?  I would say it’s theology that hasn’t been thought through very much.  It’s theology that is more worried about following the letter of the law, rather than a theology that is warmed up and stretched, ready for some difficult workouts.

A difficult theological workout would be something like this – how do we care for people in the time of social distancing?  How do we see the image of God in our enemies?  What do we do about homelessness in a time of stay at home orders?  How to deal with hunger and poverty in a nation that is wealthier than any nation in history?  How do we deal with idolatry in our time?  What are the idols of our time?

We need to be warmed up and stretched in order to deal with such difficult theological workouts.  Otherwise, we’re likely to hurt ourselves, or others.  And then we’ll lose any theological muscle we might have gained.

Maybe I’ve taken the analogy too far – pulled a muscled?  I don’t know.  At any rate, how are you warmed up and stretched to face the daily challenges?

Sermon from April 19, 2020

(This is the sermon I preached during the virtual online worship from yesterday, Sunday, April 19, 2020.  You can find the full service recording on our congregational website – www.ststephenlc.org.)

For the last 4 and ½ weeks I’ve been doing a daily exercise routine with some of the kids – P90X.  It’s not an easy workout program by any stretch of the imagination.  Several of the routines are tough – really tough.   And it’s not uncommon that we just can’t keep up with the instructor or the cast who appear in the videos.  But we try our best anyway.

Some of the folks who appear on the videos are absolutely incredible in their physical abilities.  They do things that I could never do or ever hope to do.  But it’s not the people in the video who are perfect that inspire in how they do pull ups, or curls, or push ups, or jumps, or anything like that.  No, those folks don’t inspire at all – they are too perfect.  I just can’t ever be like them.

Instead, it’s someone like Eric.  You see, Eric is unique on P90X.  He appears in the Plyometrics routine – arguably the hardest exercise routine of P90X. What’s special about Eric?  He only has one leg.  He uses a prosthetic leg and yet he sticks with the routine.  He stumbles.  He’s far from perfect.  He certainly isn’t glorious.  But, he embodies the catch phrase of P90X – Do your best and forget the rest.  That pretty much sums up Eric and makes him an inspiration for me.  Because if Eric can stumble through the hardest exercise routine and do it on one leg, then I know I have a shot at it too.

All of this got me thinking about something – Jesus has his own cast of folks who stick with him.  Some look better than others at the whole discipleship thing.  There’s the Beloved Disciple – just hearing that name tells me that’s not anyone I can emulate.  I’m just not that good.  But what about Thomas?  He’s like the P90X Eric of the disciples.  He’s not perfect.  But he is real.

Thomas says the stuff that we are all thinking.  I’ll admit it – If I had missed Jesus the first time and then met up with my friends and they told me that Jesus showed up, I would probably say the same things as Thomas.  He knows what happened – the trial, the punishment, the crucifixion, the burial.  He knows it all.  He knows the promise of resurrection – he’s been following Jesus.  And he’s all in on Jesus – we have no reason to doubt that.

Often Thomas gets a bad rap.  Nowhere in the Scripture does it label Thomas as Doubting Thomas.  It does tell the meaning of his name though – Twin.

You see, Thomas is all in on discipleship – even if he’s not perfect at it.  But Thomas is unique.  It’s Thomas who understood something about Jesus – that it’s not about how perfect we are.

Go back to John Ch. 11.  We read this just a few weeks ago – the death and resurrection of Lazarus.  After Jesus hears about the death of Lazarus and specifically waits an extra two days to go to Bethany, it’s at that point that the disciples that are with him remind Jesus that returning to Judea is dangerous saying: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’”

And Jesus says, yeah, I’m going because Larazus is asleep.  And the disciples didn’t understand what he means.

This is what they say – “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’

And it’s at this point that we hear from Thomas, who makes a bold statement – The Scripture says “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”  Wow.  For someone who has been labeled throughout history as Doubting, that’s quite the statement to make, isn’t it?

You see, when I hear that story in John 11, and I hear today’s Gospel, I gain a new insight into Thomas.  There’s something Thomas understood.  Thomas understood that he needed, that the disciples needed, that the world needed, and that we need a wounded, crucified Jesus – one who has been battered, has holes in his hands and feet and died.  We need that Jesus to show up resurrected.  We need that Jesus, that Messiah, because that Jesus deals with the reality of the world – beaten, bruised, abused, oppressed, tortured, and killed.

I think Thomas understood that an unwounded raised Jesus would be seen as a lie – a fake.  No one would believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead if he didn’t have holes in his hands and feet and his side pierced.  Thomas wanted a real Jesus, a real Messiah, one who can relate with people.  A Messiah whose outward appearance isn’t perfect, but perfectly relates with people who suffer, who are abused, who are poor, who are hungry, who are alone, who aren’t perfect no matter how hard they try.

When Jesus shows up and appears to Thomas, we hear this from the NRSV – “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’”  But when we look at what’s really there in the Greek, a better translation would sound something like this:

Then Jesus said to Thomas – Reach out your finger here.  (He’s pointing to a specific place), and behold (which is a command to gaze at) my hands.  And Reach out your hand and cast/thrust it into my side (Just like the spear was thrust into the side of Jesus, the Greek word is Bale – the same word used for casting out demons), and do not be faithless, but faithfull – or faith-filled.

It is at this moment that Thomas responds with another bold declaration – “My Lord and my God!”  A declaration of faith.

Thomas doesn’t make this assertion on his own.  It comes from faith – a gift from God – right after Jesus finishes making a command about being filled with faith.

Thomas isn’t perfect.  His belief isn’t either.  But the gift of faith that he is given is perfect.  You see faith isn’t about how much we believe, how strong our belief is.  If it was, then we would fail.  When it relies on us, we fold, we give up.  We just aren’t good enough.  We’ll never be perfect in belief.  We’ll never live up to having perfect belief.  We can’t live up to the expectations – to be the perfect belief workout people.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s fair to say that most of us struggle in our belief – especially in times that are difficult, when there is a crisis, maybe even in times of a pandemic.  Our belief may be stretched thin.  We may have lots of questions and doubts.  We may even say we won’t believe until Jesus shows up and gets in our face and shows us his hands and side.  Our belief is just not strong enough.

Remember, even Thomas struggled.  He wasn’t perfect.  And if Jesus gives him faith to make bold statements about Jesus, then there’s hope for you and me too.

Jesus doesn’t fall short for Thomas – he gives him exactly what he needs.  Not a hand up – literally a hand out to show Thomas, and us, what kind of Savior, what kind of Messiah, what kind of Jesus he really is.  A savior, a Messiah that can relate with us – in all of our imperfection, can pick us up, and can give us exactly what we need and get us going again.  A Messiah that knows our limitations and loves us anyway.  A Messiah that is willing to get dirty and willing to die so that we can experience resurrection in real ways.  A Messiah that isn’t caught up in a theory or heady theology.  Instead, a Messiah who shows that resurrected life isn’t just for some distant time in the future, but rather, right now.  Right here.

A Messiah who gives us the faith to live the Good News boldly.  Just like Thomas.  Do not be faithless, be faith filled.  Jesus is giving you that faith.  Now go and live it.

Fighting over “normal”

My observation of the last few days is that there is a fight brewing over what “normal” means.

Our nation and society doesn’t have a common definition.  It never had to define normal before COVID-19.  Everyone was on the same page – or at least it seemed that way.  I actually don’t believe there was a common idea of what normal was.  There was a common belief about what to expect as normal though.  That’s not the same thing.  Normal wasn’t completely healthy, but what was happening was expected.  A global pandemic exposed that expectation as fraudulent.

Normal was defined as expecting there to be poverty, sickness, inequality, exploitation and oppression, violence, abuse, narcissism, idolatry, worshipping money.  Some of normal also had some good things too – community, family, meaningful work, impact on lives, care for others.

Like everything else in this nation, there seems to be a push to politicize – or rather partisanize (if that’s a word) – what normal is.  Let me say this – I’m sick of it.  I’m just plain tired of the push to partisanize every damn thing.  I’m tired of partisan politics thinking it gets to define everything.  I’m tired of the false god of partisan loyalty.  It’s literally killing people.  And I refuse to worship at its altar that is stained with human sacrifice.

My observation is that there are at least two definitions of normal in this country.  And the definitions don’t match up.  They don’t align.  They don’t share anything in common.  It’s as if there are two different countries who happen to live in the same shared space, but very different from each other.  The two countries have different sets of values, different sets of truth, different authorities, different constitutions, different forms of government, different cultures, different views of science and expertise, different ideas about money, and even different gods.

Both countries think they are right and the other one is wrong – but not just wrong – dead wrong.

I’m tired of it all.  That’s my reality.  There are people who are struggling to survive in the midst of a pandemic.  There are people who are struggling with housing and having food.  There are people who are losing jobs.  There are people who are literally running out of money.  There are people who are getting sick.  There is a great deal of stress and anxiety and it grows.  And yet…There are some who ignore all of this because they feel the need to fight over “normal.”  I’m just done with it.

Here’s my definition of normal:

“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

(Source – Matthew 25:35-6, NRSV)

“‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’”

(Source – Mark 12:28b-31, NRSV)

“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

(Source – Matthew 5:43-48, NRSV)

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

(Source: Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV)

I’m not going back to the old expected normal.  It wasn’t normal at all.  I’ll keep the good parts and ditch the rest.  They don’t have to go together.  Now is the time for followers of Jesus to live by the values of the Kingdom of God.  As a follower of Jesus, I am called to follow what Jesus says and that is my intention.  It is the new normal for me.  I will screw up following the new normal because I am sinful and broken.  But God will pick me up and set me right to go at it again.  This is my new normal regardless of what others may do.  It’s what I expect going forward – not for everyone else, not for the world – but for me.  The world’s version of normal is a disappointment I’m not interested in participating in anymore and lying to myself that it is in any way normal.

This is an opportunity to re-define normal.  What is your normal going forward?  And more importantly, how can I support you in living into that normal?

The church and technology

The church (I’m speaking in a broad swath here) has never been on the cutting edge of technology.  At least the institution of the church as not.  It never really had to.

Once the church became the arm of the Roman Empire, it didn’t need to focus on the movement that got things started – it became in institution.  Institutions exist for their own survival, so they only do the things that they need in order to survive.  That’s not a critique of the church as a whole – it’s more just a recognition of reality of institutions.

It takes an entrepreneurial attitude and mindset to take in technology.  When the church has been focused on the movement of Jesus, it has been more open to incorporating technology.  Movements embrace technology because they are more open to change.  But it’s hard to have a church that is always changing too – how does that build community?

The reality is that the church needs to be both an institution and a movement in order to do its work – the mission of Jesus.  It is on target when the church is an institution that supports a movement.  The institution provides the structure, stability, and organization. The movement provides the energy, message, and purpose.  Combine the two and you have an unstoppable force that changes the world, systems, and people’s lives.

But there have been times in the church’s past when the institution and the movement have been at odds with each other.  And it is in those times that technology plays an important role – usually by advancing the institution against its will, moving it forward.

In the 1500’s, the institution was in opposition to the movement represented by several reformers.  Martin Luther was one of the chief reformers of the time.  He was a product of the institution, but he was part of the movement of Jesus.  And he used the latest technology in order to move the institution in the direction of the movement.  He used the printing press – an invention that was created in 1440 – to spread his message.  It wasn’t just the printed word though that helped.  Another invention that impacted the printing press was created in 1515 – etching.  Etching allowed the printers to insert pictures (etches) into their mass produced printings.  Combine Luther’s writings and ideas with mass production and etchings, and you have a recipe for a reformation to impact the world.

I say all of this because we’re in the midst of a crisis.  Some churches and pastors are being overwhelmed by it.  Others are seeing this as an opportunity to try and use amazing technologies to continue to do the mission of Jesus through the church.  And there is a whole range in between.

I wonder what the result of this will be on the church as a whole.  Will the institution adapt and change, incorporating new technologies that help it do the work of the church?  Or will there be such resistance that abandons all efforts to incorporate newer technologies into the church and worship?  There isn’t a nice easy answer – but again, a range of answers.  But I’m willing to bet this – the churches that adapt and change and incorporate new technology are more likely to thrive on the other side of this than the churches that resist and want to go back to the way everything was done prior to COVID-19.  Not because they are filled with bad people.

Living things adapt and change.  They take in new things in order to thrive and survive.  They excrete things that are not helpful to them any longer.  The church is supposed to be the Body of Christ – a living body.  Living bodies have movement.  They respond to stimuli.  The Body of Christ is a movement at its core.  And it’s also an institution.

As we come out of this pandemic, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves this question – what are we?  Are we an institution that is supported by a movement?  Or are we a movement that is supported by an institution?  Those are two very different things.  One leads to the church thriving in new ways.  The other continues a path the church has been on for several decades now – decline and closings.  As with most things, there is a range in how that question will be answered.