Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Why we're talking about racial prejudice at church

This is complex.  One blog post won't do it justice.  But I wanted to open up a space for further conversation about race and faith, because it is important.
Culturally, we are experiencing the pressure of a failed economic system that favors the extremely wealthy and bashes the poor, a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately harms black and brown communities, and a disparate education system that geographically favors white suburban communities.  From political commentators to local news, race relations are a central part of life in America.  When a white "Lutheran" entered Emanuel AME church in Charleston this summer and murdered 9 people- including two pastors, we joined many others around the country in expressing grief, anger, and powerlessness.  Why, along with all of the other violent deaths of young lack people, is this happening with such frequency?  We know that violence in the black community has been a problem caused by the formation of ghettos, economic depression and poverty, and drug crime.  Some of us in the faith community have begun to examine more deeply and more critically our personal and public failures and our responsibility to affect change that honors the lives of black and brown people around us.  How do we begin?      
First, prejudice has always existed in human community.  The bible attests to it and is partly responsible for the perpetuation of racial prejudice and injustice.  Despite the fact that the bible's authors and first audience were minorities, the good book hasn't always been so good for minorities. Since biblical times, Israeli/Palestinian relations are partly related to deep-seeded religious assumptions about the other.  The bible, in the hands of European whites, has been used to justify the oppression of women and people of color.  Colonialization and the displacement and annihilation of native peoples in the name of Christ may have started the American story of racial injustice.  In the 19th century, many southern ministers advocated the biblical justification for slavery.

The bible also has a lot to say about overcoming racial hatred and prejudice, about ending hypocrisy and judgment that leads to violence, and about welcoming the stranger and the foreigner with respect and hospitality.  The book of Jonah is a fabulous parable on God's concern for the future of a people beyond the borders of Israel, beyond the chosen covenant family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It is also about Jonah's hidden prejudice that compels him to "abandon ship"and ignore God's true intentions.  
Jonah was called to deliver a message from God to the people of Nineveh.  He refuses to go, because of his prejudice against Ninevites.  Jonah believed that his proclamation of judgment on the Ninevites would lead to their repentance and God's mercy.  He did not believe that they deserved mercy, but rather judgment and destruction.  He was disappointed when God chose to deal compassionately with them.  God's position toward human kind is not legalistic, moralistic judgment of our failures to live according to God's will.  God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Slow and steady.  God is patiently coaxing humanity toward a future that looks more like heaven than hell.  Despite centuries of insistence that God is angry and wrathful and that few will escape God's vengeance, the bible tells a story of a God who loves what God has made.  God cherishes humans and desires that we learn to live together in harmony and peace.            

The gospel is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, first century Jewish Rabbi who taught healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation as the foundation for a new humanity.  He confronted the powerful who used fear, religious purity, and violence to subjugate and marginalize people.  He did so by compassionately seeing and hearing and touching people who were paralyzed, cast out, driven to insanity, and isolated.  He sought to dismantle the system of isolation and annihilation that powerful people use to maintain their power over others. In the process, he crossed boundaries and borders and ethnic prejudices to teach people what it means to flourish.  Human flourishing requires that we learn to accept and honor diversity as a gift from the creator.  It also requires that people with wealth and privilege see the poor and seek their welfare.  That means more than redistribution of wealth. God's provision is not equal, but just.  That means, everyone is supposed to get what they need to live as full a life as possible on earth.  When some people do not have access to what they need to live, how do we expect justice?  Prejudice and privilege create a system whereby some people have access and others do not.  By virtue of race, ethnicity, or sexuality humans relegate fellow humans to a marginalized state of existence.
Jesus lived in solidarity with those people on the margins.  Jesus worked to dismantle the dividing walls of hostility that existed.  He did so not by political mandate or by leveraging wealth to change the system.  He entered oppressed and marginal communities.  He brought healing to peolpe who suffered in isolation.  He formed an alternative community, the ecclesia.  This group was literally called out of the dominant system of privilege and oppression to embody a different way of being human in communion with God and with one another.  He called this movement the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of heaven or eternal life.  It was not about a post-death reality somewhere else reserved for the chosen religious faithful.  It was a movement to reclaim and restore our divinely made humanity on earth here and now.  And it included people with wealth, the working poor, racial and social outcasts, women and children, urban academics and rural farmers.
Jesus' opposition to the powers-that-be risked a high level of vulnerability, of which he was personally aware. He expected to be killed.  Jesus was crushed by the dominant system, crucified by the Roman empire, abandoned by his own people.  But unlike so many other movements to overcome human failure to live in harmony and peace, Jesus' movement persisted.  It persists, precisely because his followers said that he was raised from the dead. The perpetual movement of Christianity is just that precisely because the teacher and Lord lives on as a new human with a new life, transcendent of the broken old systems of oppression and tyranny and marginalization.  He did not die a failed martyr.  He died and was raised from the dead as a sign of God's promise to make all things new.

But the church has not always followed its Lord.  The church has been co-opted and corrupted by dominant system values. And we perpetuate segregation and prejudice. Christians have narrowly defined the gospel message in order to avoid challenges.  The gospel is about personal salvation and a post-death trip to heaven.  The gospel justifies sinners without transformation.  We prefer comfortable, segregated Sunday morning churches where we are not forced to examine our consciences.  Even confession of sins has been relegated to personal moral failings, rather than broader systemic and structural sin. Dancing, swearing, sex, alcohol, and smoking became the sins churches were willing to discuss. Bias against the underclass and the deprivileged has not been discussed for fear that we would lose members over challenging talk.  

But, recently I've met some people who are looking to be part of a church that will examine itself critically and attempt to embody the alternative way of Jesus' ecclesia.  So we are talking about racial prejudice because the kingdom of God continues to emerge among us. We see glimpses of hope through struggle.  We identify small victories and mountains to climb.  We stand on the shoulders of giants and know that another day is coming.  We long for a world where harmony and peace prevail,where people see skin color and language diversity and cultural diversity as gifts from the creator to be cherished and enjoyed.  We long for a world where basic provisions and protections are afforded to every creature. We desire a higher government and a prince of peace who will rule with compassionate justice and all-inclusive love.  We're talking about racial prejudice because we have some that we need help to overcome. We want to be in recovery from our sins.
This week, we will hear a gospel story about a Lebanese woman who begs Jesus for help. Lebanon and Israel are enemies to this day.  She is humble and she is insistent.  Jesus, on the other hand, is dismissive and resistant.  Like Jonah, he is not interested in handing out God's mercy to "those people".  The encounter changes Jesus.  I think it is meant to change us, too. Come and see.  Sunday at 9:30 am at Zion on Main Street or 6 om for dinner church at Roland/Akron park.  Worship is relaxed and includes an open communion table, where all are invited to share the great and promised feast.  We sing songs from the rich diversity of Christian community around the world.  Join us.              


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why we Left the Church Building

I serve as pastor of a small Lutheran Church on Main Street in a little town called Akron, PA not Ohio.  This congregation and its building have occupied this location for over 125 years.  There is a cemetery behind the building in which to bury her saints.  I have been pastor here for 10 years. I consider myself a reformer, an evangelist, and a community organizer.  I love the church.  I have lived in church buildings all my life.  It is where I have been, at least on a Sunday morning, for most of my 41 years.  I love Lutheran worship.  I believe Lutheran Christians have a special calling to feed hungry people that comes right out of our biblical and sacramental theology of the cross.  Jesus becomes our bread, so that we might become bread for the world.  Luther said that by faith Jesus is in, with, and under the bread and the wine.  Like a mystery.  God's Word of life and salvation becomes flesh.  Jesus' forgives sins, so that there might be one heavenly banquet at which all God's children are satisfied.  We read the bible as a container of God's Word to humankind, given to the people of Israel and to followers of Jesus the Christ.  The story in the bible is God's story and we are in it.  
The congregation I serve has experienced a decline in the number of regular Sunday morning worshipers that basically follows broader cultural trends.  But, we serve our neighbors through a monthly outreach ministry we call "peter's porch".  It is meant to be a space for encounter and possible community building.  It is a place where hungry people get food; breakfast, groceries, and other household supplies.  It is basically how this middle class congregation of teachers, small business owners, and white-collar workers met neighbors struggling in, with, and under poverty.  Some people have come to peter's porch and found their way into the worshiping and learning community of the church.  Most have not.  But those who have have broadened the congregation's perspective on what it means to have faith.  It's bolder to have faith when you have a mountain in front of you, preventing you from moving into a better life.  I've met people will strong faith, no money, and poor health. 
Along the way, I realized that many of my friends (Gen Xers and younger) were not connecting to church.  Those who were seemed to gravitate toward larger, programmatic churches that didn't miss them if they didn't show up.  They could plug in if and when they wanted with little impulse for commitment.  Some of our friends just didn't participate in any faith community at all.
So, in 2014 we started a dinner church worship that was meant to be more inclusive, hospitable, and welcoming.  We met in the church basement and not the sanctuary and we worshiped during a meal.  We believed this space was less intimidating.  Peter's Porch took place downstairs in the basement, so it had become community space.  We served a community breakfast in that space for several years.  And no matter how many times I invited people to come back to Sunday morning worship, very few people transtioned from the basement to the sanctuary.  So, we started dinner church to encourage community members to participate in the church's worship.  At least everyone was fed and the company was decent.  For some of us worship was also meaningful.  It seemed to answer a common question.  What would it look like to be church together without congregational interests driving the behavior?  We weren't interested in making new members or acquiring more Lutherans or rebuilding Zion, Akron.  We weren't interested in committee members or giving units to pay the church's bills. We were interested in authenticating Christian community as it was described in the new teatament---Koinonia (communion with one another and with the God who made us and raised Jesus from the dead as a sign of a new order breaking into and subverting the old, broken order).  We were interested in risking vulnerability in a small gathering.  We were interested in paying attention to one another and listening for God's story to intersect ours.  We were interested in food and hunger and sharing until all had enough.  We hoped that people, our friends, who were allergic to church or disappointed in church or frustrated with church might try dinner church.  It was a slow start. Sometimes dinner consisted of two families.  Other times 40 people showed up.  We never knew what we would eat or who would come.  We tried to be hospitable and present.   I hoped it would not fail. 
Last Fall something changed.  We fell into a bi-weekly pattern and certain people connected.  Two or three families started participating with us very regularly and intentionally.  Dinner Church became the expression of Christian community they were looking for.  And our average attendance was about 24 people. 
This summer, we risked leaving the church building and became nomads.  Like exiles or wilderness wanderers, we met in local parks and parking lots.  We invited others.  And other people joined us.  There were 20 kids and 18 adults last week as we gathered for dinner and celtic worship.  Every worship service or liturgy is a Eucharist.  We celebrate the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, the presence of the risen Jesus in bread, cup, and Word.  We pray and sing.  We eat good food.  Leaving the church building was a really good idea.

We left the church building because we want to be a church without a building.  Church buildings can be barriers for communion with God and with one another, especially for people with no experience of church or for people who have experienced church as a place of judgment and exclusion.  Church buildings cost money and are not always designed for the kind of things we intend to do together.  We want to be a church on the way, on a journey, in and for the world.  We want to be in the neighborhood.  And we want to be people first, a koinonia (a fellowship or community of believers struggling with our unbelief, living together with fears and hopes.) People matter to us and to God.  We left the building because some people will never darken a church door, but they will come along to dinner with a friend and listen to songs and prayers and words of wonder and miracle and mystery.  We want to be curious about under-served and ignored people and places.  We want to be present there,where the church has been notoriously absent.  We want to be the church, not go to church. We want to demonstrate accessibility to God, who has come down to us, who dwelt among us in the flesh, who lived and died and defeated death and rose up to show us the way to life.
We left the church building because church buildings have walls and boundaries and limits and capacity.  And the Kingdom of God is transcendent and borderless and transcontinental and international.  We want to reconnect to the earth and its created goodness, too. 
I don't despise church buildings.  I have lived in them most of my life. They have a purpose. And can be repurposed today, too.  We have retrofit our sanctuary to be more user friendly in today's visual world.  But, if we are going to be a church for our neighbors, in this world, we need to consider getting out of church buildings. I think the emerging dinner church community will be nomadic for awhile. It's not easier or more convenient.  I feel like a travelling circus most weeks. But if people connect precisely because we are not church-in-a-box, then the cost to leave.the building is pretty low.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Law of Exclusion

"Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,* thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;* and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.*) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live* according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God*)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’ Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’* When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’"

Jesus saw how religious leaders used the law, including human traditions, to encourage prejudice and maintain exclusionary boundaries. When you hear "tradition of the elders" think system of control and maintenance that prejudices against those who are not acceptably obeying the rules set forth. There were some laws they ignored, if they were not in their self-interest.  And some laws or social norms they insisted on, in order to assert their own social agenda.  This way they justified themselves and excluded others.  Rather than show mercy and offer healing, the religious leaders simply dismissed non-adherents to their version of the law or social norm. "Sinners" were not welcome.  Some people had a place at the table.  Many others did not.  This clearly does not happen today.  Does it?
On the surface one might suggest that this story has little bearing on most of our lives.  This is, after all, a story about kosher foods and Jewish rituals.  According to Mark, Jesus abolished the kosher laws when they were used to alienate or exclude.  And he accuses them of ignoring more important aspects of the law, while focusing their norming religious piety on less weighty matters.  Jesus cares about the people who are adversely affected by these human traditions.
Churches have excluded people because of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, language, appearance, mental or physical condition, economic status, and a variety of other reasons.  In Jesus' day a system of social norms controlled insiders and outsiders to the religious community---which controlled access to the benefits of God's provision and protection.  If one was deemed unfit or unclean, they were denied access.  In the case above, ritual cleansing was required for eating.  However, Jesus was more concerned about feeding hungry people than whether or not their hands were properly cleaned.  That may sound gross, but the reality is that hunger trumps religious piety.
Now, in my house we pray and wash our hands before we eat.  No big deal.  So what is Jesus so upset about?  A system of exclusion that perpetually denied most people access to God's favor and table fellowship within the faith community.  How could non-Jews every get to know and love God, if Jews continued to reject them?  That is the rub here.  Jesus was more interested in inviting people into a relationship with the creator than he was in upholding a moral code that denied people a sense of dignity as beloved in their common humanity.
There are still systems in place that exclude and deny people access.  The criminal justice system and the current economic system in the U.S. continue to separate people into haves and have nots, good guys and bad guys, blessed and cursed, beloved and maligned.  And we designed these systems to do these things.  So that people of privilege and power retain their proper status and people in poverty stay poor.  Poverty is not a lack of money.  It is not a lack of work ethic.  It is a system of control perpetrated by peolpe at the top of the human pyramid to stay on top.  Jesus saw this for what it was and sought to dismantle it piece by piece.  His calling all foods clean meant one thing.  Gentiles could have access to God, too.  The peculiarity of Judaism was not as essential as the common, universal truth of a humanity hungry for a life that comes from above, from God, from the greatest good.  Everyone wants to eat at the table.  Everyone wants to be part of a Shalom existence, in which there is harmony and abundance.    How do we get there?
Confront the systems that keep denying people their humanity. 
We need to have Jesus' imagination to see a world without walls, borders, and barriers.  A world of access and sharing.  A world where we see and hear beauty in the diversity.  A world where forgiveness and restoration overcomes a need for punishment and vengeance.  I know that this world cannot exist, because there are violent and dangerous people in this world.  But if we cannot dream, we cannot hope.  And if we cannot hope, we will not try.  And if we will not try, we will become complicit in the systematic death of humanity and the creation.  Is it too late?  I hope not.  For the sake of my sons.  And all the sons and daughters everywhere.   

What is the Gospel? Part 3

Have you ever felt paralyzed?  Stuck?  Unable to move? Have you ever been immobile without the help of others?  It can be scary.  Paralysis can happen in our minds as well as our bodies.  We can get paralyzed with fear, regret, shame, self-loathing.  We can get paralyzed in abuse and addiction.  Sometimes, we just don't know what to do or to say. We get paralyzed by challenges or obstacles that threaten our security.  We get paralyzed in ignorance and prejudices too embedded to remove. We don't know how to change our circumstances or situation as much as we'd like to see that happen.  Sometimes we get content and comfortable in our paralysis.  We learn to accept and adapt to a reality we don't like.  Our relationships can sometimes prevent us from taking necessary risks, standing up, getting out, moving ahead, and experiencing the maturity that comes from new movement.  Poverty can be a kind of social/economic paralysis.
 Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when a young man came in who was possessed by an unclean spirit.  In other words, this was a Jew who was unwelcome in the synagogue because of immoral behavior.  Maybe he had non-Jewish associates or friends.  Maybe he was a thief or had a chronic illness. Maybe he did not pray enough or dress appropriately.  Maybe he was struggling with mental illness.  This man was under the influence of a power that harmed him. A power exists that prevents people from doing what is good or right.  Call it evil or sin or malace or illness. We can be overwhelmed by dark things.  He entered the synagogue and confronted Jesus.  Jesus rebuked or cast out of spirit and amazed the crowd.  His teaching was new and authoritative.  That is, they recognized his words and actions had a powerful effect, a life-changing effect on the man's situation.  The result would be restoration to the community, the synagogue, the village, the family.  He would, in a sense, come home. 
Another time, Jesus was teaching in a house.  The house was so crowded there was no room for anyone and the door was blocked.  Just the four people carried a paralyzed man to the house.  When they saw that the door was blocked, they lifted the man to the roof, made a hole in the roof and lowered him to Jesus' feet.  When Jesus' saw their faith he said to the man, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  The crowd included some religious leaders, Pharisees.  Their understanding is that God alone forgives sins. And that sin forgiveness has to do with temple sacrifice and appropriate prayers.  To offer forgiveness so casually was unprecedented, especially when sin was tied to affliction.  Clearly, this man's paralysis was connected to his sins. Had God paralyzed the man as a curse?  Did Jesus have the authority to lift a divine curse?  Certainly not! 
Jesus realizes what they're concerned about and says, "Is it easier to say to this man, son your sins are forgiven or son, take up your mat and walk?  But just so you know that the son of man has the power to forgive sins, I say to you, take up your mat and walk." And the man did  And the people were astounded. So, Jesus is good news in that he confronts the things that threaten to cast us out of family, community, and the kingdom of God.  Jesus casts out the thing that can prevent us from living a God-centered life.  Second, Jesus forgives.  How does forgiveness release people from paralysis?  Forgiveness frees us from the past, from what we've done or failed to do.  Forgiveness is a clean slate, a fresh start, a new beginning.  It is also a reminder that we are not only the person we were on our worst day.  We are more than our worst selves.
So, the good news is that God intends to cast out or remove that which distorts our true selves as covenant members of God's household.  In the Genesis creation story humankind is made in the image of God.  That image is a plurality of being that includes men, women, various races and tribes.  We are made in God's image means that some aspect of our selves is a reflection of the creator.  And the bible begins with God calling all that God made GOOD.  It is about time that people of the bible call a thing what it is:  What God has made is Good.  People are good.  Is there distortion, lies, paralysis, and unclean spirits? YES. Are we dirty?  YES. But, Jesus shows us another aspect of our character and condition:  GOODNESS. And Jesus comes to free people to image God's goodness in the world.
Jesus confronts the powers that oppose God's goodness.  This is GOOD News in a world where that opposition seems strong sometimes.  Where violence ruins lives, whole communities, nations.  Where hatred and prejudice separate people.  The nearness of God's rule means an end to the rule of violent, angry opposition to God that exists at every level of human experience.
But who gets to benefit from this good news? Israelite Men---the patriarchs?  Or is it good news only if it is good news for everyone? 


What is the Gospel? Part 2

What matters to you?  What do you think matters the most?  Not only to you, but maybe to most people?  No news is good news unless the news matters.  Unless it is something worth sharing. 
Enter Jesus of Nazareth.  We might think that the good news starts with his birth---Christmas.  After all, there are angels and shepherds, and miraculous pregnancies, and wisemen from the east bearing gifts.  The angel announces, "Good news for all people, Christ the savior is born in Bethlehem of Judea!".  His birth was connected to King David's story!  His birth was connected to the words of the ancient prophets, who promised a child would be born to rule after his ancestor David.  This story certainly confirms the good news.  But it alone is not the good news, despite our attempts to make Christmas the great day of celebration.  It is his adult life that makes his birth newsworthy. So, we will return to the pre-ministry stories later.    
 He was a carpenter by family trade, who lived in the Galilee region of Israel, the town of Nazareth, in the early 1st century.  He was a practicing Jew, who took turns reading from the Torah at synagogue on the Sabbath.  Around the age of thirty, Jesus travelled to Judea and the Jordan river---about where the Israelites entered the land following Joshua at the end of their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness from Egypt to an occupied homeland.  There, at the Jordan, a man named John was baptizing people.  John was a prophet.  He called people to enter the wilderness and the waters as a sign of repentance, the renewal of their covenant commitment to God.  He believed that a crisis moment was upon them and that he was sent by God to precede one who would come with the power of God.  Baptism was a ritual cleansing act and a drowning of the old self, so that a new self might emerge ready to live in faithful obedience with God.  John opposed Jewish rulers who adopted pagan morality, especially Herod Antipas.  He was one of king Herod's son who had inherited a part of Judea upon his father's death.  Antipas was having an affair with his brother's wife.  John instructed soldiers, tax collectors, and teachers of the law to be prepared for the coming of Messiah (the future King).
Jesus of Nazareth was baptized in the river Jordan by John to "fulfill all righteousness" (according to the Gospel of Matthew).  Jesus' ministry was a fulfillment of the commandments of God and was a faithful renewal of the covenant.  Jesus' baptism identified Jesus privately and publicly as the Son of God, the one anointed by God as God's chosen servant.  Jesus was God's Kingdom representative, who best represented God's intentions and promises for God's people  Jesus was sent to demonstrate God's covenantal faithfulness to God's people through his words and actions.
This was not going to be an easy sell.  Some people would believe that Jesus was God's chosen servant and others would not.  The gospels tell the story of Jesus' life as eyewitness testimony to His identity and vocation, because this had global implications.  By the time the gospel was written down, the Christian movement had spread throughout the Roman Empire and included both Jews and non-Jews in its numbers of adherents.
So, what did Jesus teach and do that identified him as God's representative and how is this good news?
Jesus returned to the Galilee after a 40 day wilderness journey.  This journey symbolized a spiritual exodus, a movement from his former vocational identity into a new vocational identity as anointed Messiah.  This movement signified change, transformation, and revolution--both personal and corporate.  This wilderness excursion confirmed his identity as the Son of God.  He depended not on the creation for life, but the creator.  He was not tempted by power or privilege, but chose humility and obedience to the Word of God.  In this way, he overcame the threats inherent in human existence---a desire for self-preservation, the abuse of privilege for selfish gain, and a willingness to pledge allegiance to another in exchange for political power.
In the Galilee, he sought out disciples or students who would learn his way or "yoke".  He was an unauthorized Rabbi, who gathered new students.  He called Fishermen.  These were skilled laborers, whose livelihood was tied to their boats, nets, and daily catch of fish.  They fed people.  These fishermen were not educated men.  They had an elementary education, at best.  They were not studying Hebrew or theology with another Rabbi.  Rabbis gathered disciples from among the faithful, in order to raise up another Rabbi.  A Rabbi would choose children who excelled in schooling.  Others were sent from school to apprentice to the family trade.  People were not vocationally or career mobile, as we are today.  They had one job and typically work was about subsistence and village survival. Fishermen were already working in a trade.
But, these four young men, to pairs of brothers, left their nets and their boats to walk with Jesus and learn his way.  Why?
These were young men, curious and malleable.  They were trapped in the net of Roman tyranny.  They were oppressed.  Discontent, anger, frustration, and fear motivates change. Jesus invited and challenged uneducated workers to join him in this new exodus, this revolutionary journey from slavery to freedom, from death to life, from fear to faith.  This movement was for everyone, not just the pious or the educated or the wealthy or the well-connected.  This movement was for everyone, especially for those who found themselves suffering at the bottom of the human pyramid.  Jesus embodied the Words of God found in the Hebrew Scriptures---words that suggested that the God of the universe established a particular kind of relationship with a particular group of people on earth, in order to become universally known and trusted.  Israel was meant to be a light house, so that other ships might navigate their way toward this God who comes near.  Jesus understood this and expounded on it.   
Jesus began his teaching in this way: "The Time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news."  So, his post-baptismal, post-wilderness excursion return was about good news. This good news has to do with timing, God's nearness, repentance and belief. The word for time in Greek here is kairos and it is likened to the ripening of fruit, as opposed to the hands on a clock. This nearness of God's kingdom or rule has to do with timing, like a process being completed or preparations being finished. 
We'll return to the meaning of ''the Kingdom of God" shortly.  But first, about the word repentance.  It is a word that has more to do with revolution than with confession of sin.  It has less to do with personal piety and more to do with a change of one's heart and mind or a reorientation of one's direction in life.  Jesus was inviting people to change course and go another way, toward the Kingdom rule of God and away from the kingdom rule of the Herods, Rome, one's self...Jesus was not democratic or socialist.  If one could suggest a political persuasion, we might say Jesus was a theocratic monarchist.  God is King.  Period.  God is a particular kind of ruler, according to Jesus. 
Next, we will see how Jesus' God's rule is good news for everyone. 


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What is the gospel?

The gospel is a public announcement of good news.  In the 1st century world, the "evangel" was sort of like the breaking news story interrupting regularly scheduled programming or business.  It typically had something to do with Roman imperial triumph.  It may have been the ascension of a new Emperor.  In the American empire, the evangel might be a spike in the stock market, lower gas prices, the victory of a favorite sports team,or the cancellation of a Khardashian reality TV show.  The intent was not to convert someone into a believer.  It was to confirm for people who was in charge, who retained power. 
It's strange how modern Christians, especially in the U.S., have twisted the use of the Greek word Evangel into a tool of conversion or propaganda.  From street evangelists to televangelists, the public broadcasting of a particular version of Christianity has been practiced for about three centuries.  It is a narrow definition of Christianity or 'gospel' that focuses on personal salvation.  It was reduced to an after- death spiritual plan to avoid hell and enter heaven. Given a choice between dying as a sinner destined for the wrath of God and an eternity in hell OR dying as a believer, whose sins were forgiven by Jesus so that one might live in heaven for an eternity with God, the person was persuaded to make a confession of faith, say a prayer of repentance, and receive forgiveness that led to an amendment of life and a life of holiness. Belief becomes a litmus test for whether a person is blessed or cursed by God.  I've heard preachers say, "Get 'em saved and Get 'em in a church". Jesus' death and resurrection becomes a personal tool by which I get forgiveness for sins and a ticket to eternal life in heaven.  This is not the good news, as it is written in the New testament stories of Jesus.  
Since the Great Awakening revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, public preaching of the Bible in the U.S. has ignored whole aspects of the character of the gospel as it was presented by Jesus, the first Christians, and the New testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--writers/interpreters of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, about whom the content of the gospels was written).  Good news was about something far greater than whether or not a few believers get to go to heaven, while all the rest are subject to divine punishment in hell.  In fact, if this were the "gospel" it would not be good news for a whole lot of people.  It would just be bad news.   

So, what is the good news presented by Jesus of Nazareth to the 1st century world?  And how is it still good news for 21st century people?  In three parts, we will walk through the story of a people and their God.  

PART 1.  An ancient people long to be free
The good news was first, old news.  It began with an emerging belief in one God, the creator of heaven and earth. This belief developed and was codified in the writings of the Book of Genesis. God the creator was a speaking God.  God spoke creation into existence.  And God spoke to people in a personal way, making contact between heaven and earth. This one God had called a people to live in a covenant relationship (an ancient code of agreement whereby two parties agree to certain conditions by which they will coexist in harmony or mutuality.  A marriage is a kind of covenant, whereby two families are joined together in a sharing of a common life). This covenant required sacrifice, a sign in the flesh of a people's faithfulness.  Abraham, the founder, and his offspring undertook the covenant of circumcision---a sacrifice in the flesh and sign of their commitment to God. This covenant in the flesh related to the virility and fruitfulness of human creatures, recognizing that life comes from God and not from men.  
This covenantal relationship with a family of middle eastern nomads was tested by a tribal/ethnic crisis in about the 16th century BC. These Nomads had settled in the ancient superpower of Egypt, had been subjugated as migrant slaves, and been subjected to population control through the elimination of firstborn male children.  It's a horrible story.  The story is found in the ancient book of Exodus: the story of Moses, the LORD (YHWH or GOD) and the Hebrews. It is a story about power and control, as the great and might Pharaoh faces off against the God of the universe.  Guess who wins.  As a result, the Hebrews' identity as God's people is confirmed in their miraculous liberation.  A second covenant is established with them.   
This covenant included a rule of law, a way of life, traditions and customs peculiar to this community of people---the Hebrews, or the Israelites.  This covenant was sealed by divine protection and provision that was remembered annually as the Passover, a celebration of liberation from Egyptian servitude and exploitation. The covenant was further codified in the books of the law, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  A priestly, holiness code was embedded in their identity as God's faithful people enters the wilderness.  All along, the desire of God is to live in relationship with these people, to speak and be heard, to love and obey, to free and to serve.   
So, the good news was a story of a covenant relationship that involved liberation from oppression and a rule of law or way of life, called the Torah whereby these people would be set apart and identified as this God's holy people. The story was a story of freedom through divine mercy and obedience to divine commands.    
The good news continued as these people settled in a land.  This land was already settled by other tribes.  The Hebrews displaced or annihilated these tribes in a season of bloody conquest and occupation that is recorded in the books of Joshua and Judges. They believed that the God who liberated them from Egypt also prepared this place for them to live.  Understandably, the divine endorsement of colonialism and the subjugation or annihilation of native peoples continues to cause deep enmity and hatred between groups, in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. Racial and ethnic cleansing in the name of God continues to threaten stability and harmony between groups and nations.  It is hard to read divine endorsement of massacres.  But it was part of the story that will later make the good news good.      
Over time, these warriors grew into a monarchy.  But as a political entity, they were small and obstructive.  Larger global powers always threatened to or carried out regime change and mass deportations through armed conflict.  Exile, destruction of sacred places, taxation, military occupation, and pollution of ethnicity through intermarriage caused great turmoil for Israel.  Identity and calling were disrupted, reformed, and disrupted over and over again.  For the better part of 800 years, the people of Israel lived under oppressive outside rule.  Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans all overpowered this relatively small, but strategically important seaside nation called Israel.  Its a wonder and a miracle of God that they still exist.
The good news came at a time of painful oppression and threat.  The Romans were a powerful military empire that occupied the land and built entire cities within Israel. Rather than deport the people, they moved in and settled among them.  Political leaders from within Israel were made loyal puppets of the Emperor.  King Herod and his sons were Jewish rulers in the 1st century, who were permitted to retain leadership for purposes of social control.  Fellow Israelites were enlisted to support the empires' nation-building work.  Forced to live beside non-Israelites, their distinctive lifestyle was threatened.  Rome's occupation ushered in a time of hardship, division, and hopeful longing in Israel.  It was during this time that everything changed. 
During this time, religious/political factions developed within Judaism in response or reaction against the Roman imperial occupation.  Pharisees maintained a legal approach to identity and culture retention.  They kept themselves holy (set apart from non-Jews) by adherence to the written law.  Sadducees developed an alliance with Rome in order to maintain the ancient Jewish temple rituals and traditions that had been codified in the law books and practiced by the priesthood since the building of the temple in the 10th century and its restoration in the 6th century BC.  Power resided in the temple and the Sadducees intended to protect it.  Zealots were revolutionaries, who sought to use violence to overthrow the occupying Roman powers. They incited riots, protest, and terrorist attacks to disrupt the Roman presence.  Their actions were often met with harsh penalties, including state execution by crucifixion.  Crucifixion was the means by which Romans executed political criminals and publicly dehumanized their enemies.  It was also a means of detraction because of the long-suffering death crucifixion rendered on its victims.
Essenes were desert monastics who desired to maintain ethnic and religious purity by establishing a fringe community outside the city in Judea (southern Israel).  They waited with urgent patience for the coming of a Messiah--foretold in ancient prophecy that promised that their God would remember them, hear their cries, rescue and redeem the people by sending a divine representative, a man who would become a King of the Jews.  This Messiah would usher in an age of peace, freedom, prosperity, and joy.  He would renew the covenant and rebuild the nation as the blessed family of God.  Other nations would surrender and serve them.  The ancient writings of the prophets spoke of a time and a person who would come to save Israel.  They longed for a certain kind of freedom in order to practice the law of God---to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.  Some in Israel believed that that time had come.

Enter Jesus of Nazareth.   

Monday, August 24, 2015

what is koinonia?

It's a Greek Word.  Now, I'm not a Greek snob about the New Testament.  I don't flaunt the biblical language thing.  When I was a student in seminary, I took new Testament Greek.  The language opens up the scripture in ways that English sometimes doesn't.  It raises ideas and questions that English can't.  And it puts the Christian message in the language of its first audience. 
Koinonia is one of my favorite Greek words.  It means sharing, generosity, association, communion, fellowship, participation, a close relationship. And it describes what the first church looked like in practice.
The word is found in the Book of Acts, chapter 2 to describe the gathering of believers in Jerusalem after the day of Pentecost.  Describing the gathering the writer said, "They devoted themselves to the apostle's teaching and koinonia, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."  Acts 2:42.
This is what the first church looked like; this is what they did.  Four acts of devotion:  Apostles' teaching, koinonia, breaking of bread, prayers. So, they were students/disciples of the first followers of Jesus.  They likely heard the story of Jesus' death and resurrection.  But they may have also heard his teachings, parables, and stories of his miracles.  The disciples taught what their rabbi taught them.  According to the end of the Gospel of according to Matthew, this was Jesus final instructions to his disciples--to go and make disciples of all ethnic groups, baptizing and teaching them.      
Second, they practiced koinonia---they held a common life together, they shared. They participate in each other's lives, the struggles and joys of daily life.  They built strong relationships among those who gathered.  They developed friendships, kinships, bonds of love.  They were generous with one another.
Third, they broke the bread.  This was a reenactment of the last supper, of the supper at Emmaus, of the feeding of the multitudes.  It was the earliest form of the Lord's supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist.  For them, Jesus was truly present in the act of breaking bread. He was in it with them and for them.  It was a meal that signified an end to hunger.  It was a meal that signified the forgiveness of sins. 
Fourth, they prayed.  How?  With the Psalms and with the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  They would have adapted and adopted some Jewish prayers, too.      
So, what if the 21st century church adopted the practices and culture of the 1st century church?  What might that look like and sound like? 
First, it begins with the teachings of the apostles--the New Testament and the story of Jesus, the people of God, and the salvation of the world.  What did Jesus teach?  How did he teach it and to whom? Why did they form koinonia, a highly participatory community of people in relationships characterized by sharing?