Tag Archives: church transformation

We Need Each Other

All human beings live under the illusion they  are the ones who are in control of their lives.  Especially Americans see themselves as “rugged individualists” who have a “I can do it by myself and don’t need anyone else to help me”attitude.    This even shows up in our attitude toward church in the  feeling that “I  don’t need the church.  I can have my own personal relationship with God without s bunch of sinners around me who are more messed up than me. ”  These people say “I am not religious, I’m spiritual’.

This illusion is exposed when we face end of life.     I am seeing how illusory the attitude is as I grow more and more dependent on hospice and on  those I love     There are many things I can’t do and my wife and son Greg are always there to help me.   Without them I would be in a nursing home already—-but with them with me and with hospice  I am able to be home in surroundings I love.  I am loved and cared for by others  and am very blessed with a church family  who visits, sends cards a .  I am  seeing how false the illusion of “individualism”is as I get telephone calls and cards from friends and loved ones both in the church and outside the church.

We are born to live in relationship with others.    We started as babies completely dependent on our parents for a long period of time., and  many of us end our lives in the same way—dependent on those who love us.  All of our lives we need relationships.   We are created in the image of God who wants relationship with us—-  Love is a relationship word and cannot be limited anymore than God can be limited .   Love is shown only through action in relationship to others;

We need others in our lives if we love God.   God is not completely loved by us until we love our neighbors., because they are all God’s children.    It is the role of the church to provide those relationships and to encourage us to develop relationships with God and our fellow human beings.  To those who who say  “I have a personal relationship with God and that’s all I need” I would say “stop fooling yourself.”    You cannot fully love God if you don’t fully love  your neighbors., God’s children, made in God’s image.

God  works with these neighbors to provide his love and care to you.     They actually are the deliverers of God’s grace.   You cannot receive God’s love and care on a bank with a fishing pole in your hand.   You receive God’s love through others who love God and are recipients of God’s love and grace.

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Blind Faith

 

Text: Mark 10:46-52          

        I’m sure you’ve seen the ad on TV where the elderly lady has fallen and is yelling “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”   It is an advertisement for a Life Line button and support system.   Many people laugh at the ad—-and it is a little over-acted—-but if you have been in that position you would not find it laughable.  

            The word “help” is one of the hardest words for Americans to voice. Most people would rather crawl out into the street than call for help.   There are many reasons for this.  

We were never taught how to ask for help and have few role models to follow.

We love our independence and the “American Way” is to be a “rugged individualist”, taking care of our own problems.

We are afraid to ask as we’d rather die than have people think we can’t take care of ourselves.

We are afraid that we will “bother” people with our requests.   I have been told many times by parishioners that “I didn’t want to bother you with my problem, as I know you are very busy.”   To which I always respond by saying—-if I’m ever too busy to stop and share people’s problems, then I should get out of the ministry!

Blind Bartimeaus had no such qualms about asking for help, and his story teaches us a lesson about asking for help and the meaning of faith and trust.   The greatest lesson he teaches us is that God’s healing should lead to discipleship.  

 

Have you ever been completely unable to see?   Although I haven’t experienced it, it must be terrifying. To not be able to see is to be completely vulnerable.   To not be able to see means you have to trust others to help you and to look out for you.   In one of my courses in Counseling Psychology, one of the exercises we did to experience the need for trust was a trust exercise where a person stood behind us and we closed our eyes and fell backward.   It required trust of the one who would catch you for otherwise you would end up with a very large bump on the back of your head.   Another exercise asked us to blindfold ourselves and let someone lead us through an unknown territory.   We were completely dependent on the person leading us to keep us from stumbling and falling over various obstacles in our path.   It gave me a glimpse of what blindness would be like.

            Blind people have much to teach us about trust and faith—-and the blind beggar Bartimeaeus teaches us about faith and trust through his story that we read in the Gospel of Mark today.

            Bartimaeus was a blind beggar.   He had no choice of what to do, as begging was the only way to provide for himself.   He was sitting by the roadside as the crowd of Jesus and his discipes approached as they made their way out of Jericho going up to Jerusalem.   When he heard that Jesus was about to pass by, without hesitation and without any sense of embarassment, Bartimaeus began to shout:   “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”   The crowd around him may have thought that he was making a scene and tried to silence him,, but he continued to shout until Jesus asked that he be brought to him.   Bartimaeus was blind and the only way he could hope for a productive life was to regain his sight.   He knew his need, but notice that he didn’t lead with his need for sight, but rather his need to be seen by Jesus.  

            He shouted “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner” and not “have mercy on me a blind man.” Bartimaeus seemed to understand that his vision was not only clouded but that he needed spiritual healing as well.   He opened himself to the possibility that his healing might be physical or spiritual, with an outside chance that it might be both.  

            One of the first things I learned in counseling psychology was that people have a “presenting problem” and an underlying “real problem.”   Bartimaeus seemed to realize that while his “presenting problem” was blindness; his “real problem” might be more than physical blindness.   He cried “have mercy on me, a sinner!” He realized that Jesus could do something about the things that bind him, as well as blind him.

            And Jesus responded by asking him:   “What do you want me to do for you.”?   And Bartimaeus responded by saying: “My teacher, let me see again.”   (not “heal my blindness”) and Jesus responded: “Go, your faith has made you well.”   (The Greek word for “healing” can also be translated “saving”).   God’s healing saves us. And immediately his sight was restored and he followed Jesus as a disciple on the Way to Jerusalem in grateful response.   He had more than his eyesight restored—-he was saved by the contact with Jesus.   God healed him through Jesus both physically and spiritually.  

And this is where we have a problem today.   I fear that too many Christians are “healed” and then just go on the way and not on The Way of Jesus in discipleship. Once we have been healed we go the way that so many people in Jesus day went—on their own way, not on the way of discipleship. Think of all the people Jesus healed—-the leper in Galilee, the roof-destroying friends of the paralytic; the man with a withered hand, the Gerasene demoniac, the 7 lepers ( only one of whom returned to thank Jesus); and so on and on.   They were healed and went their way and never are heard of again in scripture.   Blind Bartimaeus was different—-he followed Jesus as a disciple on the way to Jerusalem and death and resurrection.

       And this is the problem that we have in our modern times.     The church as the body of Christ on earth has been turned into an “itch-scratcher”.    There is a church I read about with a large sign in front of it that illustrates my point.

     One week the advertisement was “Lonely?” then come to our church. The next week the sign said:   “Depressed?”   Come to our church.   “Anxious?”   Come to our church.   Every week a different malady.   Every week the promise that Jesus could fix it.

     This is what I call a “Where-does-it-itch” style of Christian ministry.  You tell us, the church, where you itch, what needs you have, the church exists to scratch where you itch.   An example of this is given by preacher William Willimon, recalling a conference he was at where the speaker, a well known television evangelist said:   “God wants to meet every one of your needs in life.   Whatever your heart desires, bring it to the Lord in prayer”.   He then illustrated this conviction of divine beneficence by telling of a woman of his acquaintance who, when she had been unable to find a part of her favorite red shoes, prayed to God and….there were her shoes, right under her bed!

     Our church here wants to grow—-and it is tempting to do as one church grown consultant wrote:   “Go out into your neighborhood and find out what people need.   Child care?   Elder care?   After school programs?   Then begin those programs.   Churches who meet needs grow.”    

     And many of our churches do this and wonder why the people whose needs they provided for don’t become a part of their church.   Jesus could have asked the same question—-all of the people who Jesus helped—-where were they?   They went on their way—many times without saying thank you to Jesus.  

What churches need to do is not just “scratch the itch” but to make disciples of those whose needs they are trying to meet.   What people in the world today need is not “fixing” but transformation as they relate to God and follow the way that Jesus walked.

                                                                                   

Persons who have been touched by Jesus healing and have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, cannot just be “takers” but also need to be “givers”.   If you have truly been touched by the salvation and healing of God and have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, you will do the same thing that Bartimaeus did—–you will follow on the Way.   Bartimaeus alone among the other hurting, oppressed, victimized, suffering, hungry ones, became a disciple.   He had the ability to see, even when he couldn’t see, what Jesus was really about.

 

The story of the healing and the response of Bartimaeus invites us to ask:   What do I want from Jesus?  We look at Jesus, and too many of us see him as a solution to all our problem, freedom from our aches and cares, a magic want waved over our lives to fix everything. Too many of our churches begin with the selfish invitation to let Jesus fix our needs and never follow through with the selfless invitation to love and serve God and our neighbor as ourselves.   Jesus makes a claim on our lives.   This is the same Jesus that said:   “He who would be first must be the servant of all.”   This is the Jesus who said:   “He who would save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”   This is the Jesus who said:   “If anyone would be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”   The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross.   It is the way of discipleship.

 

     The real questions here are: Is Jesus our Lord, or our errand boy?   Are we his faithful followers or only his pestering clients?     A better question to ask is:   What does Jesus want from us.   And the answer Bartimaeus gives us—-follow Jesus on The Way.  

     What is “The Way”?  

It is the way of discipleship.   It is calling us to a life of service.   It is the way that Jesus walked when he was on earth.  

     There is a great gap between meeting people’s needs and calling them to discipleship.   The churches that truly grow are the ones that invite people to discipleship—-to a transforming relationship with God through Christ.   Amen

                                                                             

 

 

           

 

Get Out of the Boat

Text:  Matthew 14:22-33

Theme:   The church needs the passion of Peter to risk leaving our safe boats to walk on the water with Jesus. 

            “Crazy Simon Peter is doing it again!”   I wonder if that is what the disciples in that boat thought about the events that were unfolding before their eyes.    Peter was known for being impetuous.   He was known for speaking before he thought about what he was saying and doing things on the spur of the moment, without thought.   He was known for his passionate nature.   He was the disciple, re remember that drew his sword the night the soldiers came to arrest Jesus and cut off the year of the servant of the high priest.   Jesus told him to put away his sword that time and healed the ear of the servant.   Peter was the disciple who at one moment was saying that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (what we refer to as the Good Confession) and the next moment he is being told by Jesus to “get behind me, Satan” for what he said.           

            Peter was passionate.   He was the kind of person who took risks.   And the story we read in the text today is another chapter in the saga of this passionate and impetuous man.   Let’s take another look at it…..

 Jesus had left the disciples to go pray alone and sent them on ahead of him in the boat he had used to speak to the crowds.      The Sea of Galilee is known for its sudden, fierce storms; and the disciples had been caught in one of those storms and it was blowing them out to sea.   They had been rowing all night trying to keep the boat from capsizing by rowing into the wind towards the shore.   They were  exhausted.   They were frightened by the ferocity of the storm.    Then they saw something that frightened them even more—-they saw a man walking on the sea towards them!   Who was it?  Was it a ghost?  Were they hallucinating?   And then the man spoke to them and said:   “Take heart, it is I?”   Was it Jesus?   Was it really him?

            That’s when impetuous Peter said—-“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!”   Good old crazy Simon Peter!!! He’s done it againf!    And Jesus said one word to him:   “Come”.   

            So Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk on the waves that were tossing the boat to and fro.   He’s not just walking on calm water—he’s on a stormy sea!    Suddenly, he had second thoughts—what in the world is he doing here??

What made me do this crazy thing? 

            And he took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink!   He cried out:  “Lord, save me!!”  And immediately Jesus reached out to him and pulled him back up, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

 You have probably heard many sermons given on this story.   While Mark and Luke also have the story of the calming of the sea, the story of Peter trig to walk on the water to Jesus is found only in Matthew’s gospel.    Some sermons may have emphasized that we must keep our eyes on Jesus and when we fail to do so we sink.   And they are right!    Other sermons you may have heard have been on the faith that is necessary to be a disciple of Jesus   And they are right!

            I would like for us to consider this story, however in terms of an allegory about the church.    

We must remember the Gospel of Matthew was written late in the first century—probably around 90 A.D.,  and it was written to a church that was suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.   Think about the disciples on the boat as being like the church.   They are on stormy seas.  The wind is against them.  But note several things:

            First, when Jesus comes walking toward them they don’t recognize him!  The church doesn’t recognize Jesus???  Whoa!!

            Note secondly, that they do not give  up—they keep on rowing.   But with Jesus not being with them in the boat, they seem to not be getting anywhere, but are just surviving.

Sound familiar?    Do you ever feel that way?   Do you feel like you labor and strain in working for the progress of the church and nothing much happens?     Might it be because we don’t have Jesus in the boat with us?

            Note thirdly, that only Peter is willing to get out of the boat.   The rest of the disciples keep rowing and stay in the boat.   

            Next note   that it is when Peter, in faith, stepped out of the boat that he reaches out to Jesus who saves him!!              

Finally, note a that it is only when Jesus is back in the boat that the storm abates and the seas become still!!

 How very much like the church today are those disciples  in the boat!   Most churches are like a bunch of Jesus’ disciples that are battling to stay alive in an increasingly hostile environment.   Small groups of Christians are rowing like crazy into this life’s  storm that is beating on their church,  and are getting worn out; and it seems like all they are doing is holding their own against a stormy world or worse, they are losing ground.

And it is a stormy world.   It is a world that threatens to enguls us.   To swallow us up.

A world that is in direct competition with the church for the lives and time of Christians.    That schedules events on Sunday mornings to entice Christians away from worship of God.

A world that schedules sports events for children on Sunday and tells us that is more important than children being in church and Bible Study. 

A world that pushes an immoral way of life as being “fun” and the “in thing” to do in movies, TV, music and rap.

A world that is full of violence and hatred.  One in which terrorists kill innocent human beings in behalf of their political and religious agenda.   A world where rulers kill peaceably assembled protestors of their regimes.

A world that threatens large numbers of adults and children with starvation and violence at the hands of their own governments.

 A world where disease threatens and takes lives on a daily basis—-disease that is curable if the cure was available to those who are dying of the diseases.

 A world where drugs are pushed on our children; where our children are not safe from the attacks of child molesters and child pornographers.

 A world where families are split apart by governments”getting tough on immigration, by divorce,  and by poverty and whre families are dysfunctional , with children drifting and lost.

A world where poverty leaves children and parents hungry and without adequate medical and dental care because Kansas will not expand Medicaid

 Richard Hamm, former General Minister of DOC and now retired described the world of today in these words in his book From Mainline to Frontline.  Written 10 years ago, sadly it is still very true.   If things have changed, it is only that they are probably worse!   He writes….

 “See that mean-spiritedness is everywhere, impatient automobile drivers, who seem more bent on making a point than getting somewhere; parents in the supermarket who slap their children around; politicians who deliberately belittle and lie about those who oppose them;  radio talk show hosts who do not simply differ from the ideas and positions offered by others, but who seek to assassinate the character of those with whom they differ;  people who want to win and will crush their opponents in any and every way possible to do so.

            The world is a greedy place….The world is a place where racism is part of everyday life;  where sexual orientation becomes more important than one’s humanity in defining a person’s value.

Hamm continues

            The world is a place where certain people are expendable.   A world fueled by consumerism.  To be attractive or to have value, you must buy this product or that product.  You must have this car.  You must use this toothpaste.  You must wear this designer label.

{End of Quote}.

The world is also a place where our governments try to balance  their budgets with cuts that adversely affect children, the elderly, the poor, and the sick…while giving huge subsidies to oil companies that net billions of dollars each year in profits that they pay little tax on.  This is a frightening world.  It is a world that desperately needs the church to take a stand on the above issues and to be there to heal and help those who are being tossed about or being thrown away.

 The church in this world needs to listen carefully to the words spoken by the prophet Micah long ago:       

“With what shall I come before trhe Lord, and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?   Will the lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?   Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has showed you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice,  and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”

 And where is the church in this stormy world?

I fear the church is too often fearful and  cowering in the boat, being buffeted by the storms of this world, and trying to row by themselves instead of getting out of the boat and taking risks with Jesus by their side.   

I fear Jesus is not in the boat with us and we are afraid to get out of the boat and go and meet him on the stormy seas of this life.   We feel safe in the boat, rowing hard, but getting nowhere.  Nowhere is something that we are familiar with.   Better not to take a risk by getting out of the boat and going toward Jesus.

 But Jesus comes to us on life’s stormy seas and says“Come”.  Are we willing to answer that call?   Are we willing to look Jesus in the face and climb out of our safe boat and take risks in walking in the storm that surrounds us with him?

The church needs the passion of Peter to leave  to leave our safe boat and walk on the stormy seas of this world with Jesus!!

Passionthat is what we are missing.   We like to play it safe.   Jesus words “Do not be afraid” mean more than “rest easy”.   They mean something like “take heart”; “have courage”;  “be open and willing to receive what is coming”;  get ready for a new thing that God is about to do in your life.”   It is an invitation to welcome rather than retreat from walking with Jesus and the new future that goes with that for us and our world.

It is not always easy.

It is easier to complain than to try a new way of living that heals and forgives and reflects God’s mercy and love to others as Jesus did. 

It is easier to live with disappointments than to venture changes leading to unknow possibilities.

Easier to keep fighting the battles that we know than to undertake an entirely different approach to living by walking with Jesus the Christ in His Way.

 So what does the church need to do to survive the storms they are battling?   I would suggest three things:

FirstWe need to be passionate about what we are doing. We are too comfortable.   We must be willing to take risks.   We need to get our of our safe boats and walk toward Jesus, believing and trusting that he will keep our heads above the stormy waters if we do so. 

 Secondly, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  We need to invite Him into our church and into our hearts in a transformative way.   We need to sit at his feet in the Gospels and learn of His Way.   

 Finally, we need to trust that God will help us if we risk much.   That God, through Jesus will be there for us if we falter  

 

There is a story about musicians at a nightclub who complained about an old piano.   The keys would often stick and the sounds was truly hideous it was so out of tune.   After months of listening to the grumbling, the nightclub owner finally decided to do something about it­—he sent the piano out to be painted.

 Painted???  Painted????  What good would that do???

 I think that is something that we Christians in our churches often settle for—-a paint job when we need a full tune up and overhaul.      It is so easy to play church without actually being one.   But what people too often see and hear from the church is like the old piano that just had a paint job—we need a tuneup and an overhaul, not just a paint job.  And so many turn away from the church like the musicians did from the old piano. We are out of tune with the world around us that has changed dynamically in the last 50 years.  We don’t need a paint job as a church—we need a full tuneup and overhaul of the way we go about being church. It is so easy to  seek comfort instead of challenge; to want rest, not responsibility.

            We too readily accept complacency and the status quo and surrender our passion for God.  If we look for a paint brush rather than a tool box to fix our churches we will find that we will not solve our problems.

 Remember one thing:  Jesus is here with us as we face the storms of life that beat upon us as Christians and upon our church.   He will walk with us and reach down and pick us up if we stumble—-if we reach out to him as Peter did and say:  “Lord save me!”  

But first we have to get out of the boat and take the risk of walking with Jesus on the stormy sea!!

 

Churches Stuck in a Rut, or Transformed?

 

I once preached a sermon called “Stuck in Schadenfreude”   Schadenfreude?    What does that mean?   It’s a German word that says in one word that “we find satisfaction and pleasure in the troubles of others”!   For mainline churches today who are dwindling in number Schadenfreude is found in such statements as this one that we often hear in our churches:   “Well, our membership may be shrinking but the same is true for all mainline churches and evangelicals and Catholics and Jews and megachurches.   Our numbers are down but their membership numbers are worse!   Schadenfreude.   Instead of seeking to get out of the rut, we just say, well others are in the same rut. It can’t be us, because they are worse than we are in numbers  and we take some pleasure that other churches are suffering like our church and argue that it is not our fault and that it must be attributed to this “new generation” of millenials who have no sense of dedication or commitment.  Our refusal to get out of the rut we’re in as churches is what the new generation is seeing.

Yes, it IS due to the new generation.  They see institutional religion as hypocritical, negative, uncaring, focused on membership and not reaching out to others in the community,  not spiritual,   anti-homosexual,  anti-abortion, but not really pro-anything except supporting right-wing Republicans;  and therefore irrelevant to their generation and to our society in general.  .    We may disagree with their definition of us as a church, but poll after poll after survey shows that is the thinking of our new generation.

We see this thinking also  in a rising majority of other than young  people who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”   They are really saying that the present institutional church does not offer what they feel they really need—-a connection with God and with other people that we would call a spiritual connection to God and neighbor.    Most surveys show that what people are longing for is “community”  and “spirituality“.   They have heard that the church is supposed to be made up of followers of Jesus Christ who model their lives and actions after his love for people, for the outcasts.  for the sick and lame, for the poor.   Instead they see an institution that sits on soft cushions in air conditioned sanctuaries once a week and say they are disciples of Jesus.

These people are telling the churches something and churches need to listen carefully to what they are saying.   What they are saying is that churches need to be transformed into the image of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Looking back at recent history of the Christian Churches in the U.S. we see that in the middle of the 20th century Christianity boomed  and the churches were full after World War II.  Mainline churches, out of necessity, needed to become better organized institutions to deal with the large numbers.  We chose to   pattern our churches in a similar way that the business model of General Motors was patterned.   Our churches grew corporate headquarters with program divisions, church development, professional marketing departments, professional development and career paths, executive guidance,  and layers of staff and committees to make decisions all reporting to a Board of Directors. The same patterns were copied by local churches with Boards of Directors, a complicated committee system, professional leaders of worship and music and Christian Education, etc. etc. that reported to the committees who were responsible to the  Board.   We still try to maintain this pattern even though it no longer works.

And just like General Motors became bloated with all its organizational structure, local and national churches became bloated with committees that stifled creativity and began to focus on maintaining the institution, building large churches, expanding, expanding—-and in the midst of all of this, the churches forgot what their mission was.   The mission of being disciples of Jesus was lost.   As Diana Butler Bass says in her book Christianity after Religion      ” the business of the church replaced he mission of the church.”

When customers of General Motors began to become discontented with the high-priced and poorly engineered  gas hogs being produced at the time of the first gasoline crisis, they quit buying General Motors Cars and went in droves to Japanese  car-makers.   General Motors over-organization caused them to not be able to keep up with the creativity of competing auto manufacturers because of all the layers of organization  they had to go through before changes could be made—-and GM lost much of their market share, so that they were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy by the time the Great Recession hit in 2007.  They had to transform themselves in order to become competitive.

When the first decade of the 21st century hit, religious institutions found themselves with the same problem.   After 9/11 people flocked to churches in droves, but they did not find what they sought and quickly became disillusioned.  Because the business of the church had  replaced the mission of the church, people began leaving and numbers dwindled and the big business model of GM was no longer what was needed.   There was rising discontent with what the institutional churches were offering people.  People registered that discontent by walking away from the institutional church in ever larger numbers or went church shopping and found no improvements, so were in and out of churches, looking for what they needed but not finding it.   The discontent is reflected in the summary of many surveys found in  the first and second paragraphs of this post,  and resulted in the decline of the institutional church—all institutional churches.

What to do?    Churches must get out of their rut and  transform themselves.   They  must redefine their mission as not being that of maintaining church buildings but of working for social and economic justice for the poor and the outcasts of society.   They  must seek and provide ways of connecting people to God in spiritual  communities that are not over-organized institutions but are communities of faith where people can find God and can seek to help each other live in a spiritual community that seeks to carry out the mission that Jesus carried out in his ministry.   As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome:  Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—-what is good and acceptable and perfect”.  (Rom. 12:1-2)

If  the institutional church remains stuck in the rut of “but we have always done it this way” (the seven deadly words of the church) , it will slowly  die.

Diana Butler Bass tells of receiving a New Year’s greeting in 2010 from a friend, with the greeting wishing her “the gift of discontent”.  Enclosed with the greeting was this prayer:

O God, make me discontented with things the way they are in the world and in my own life.   Make me noticed the stains when people get spilled on.   Make me care about the slum child downtown, the misfit at work, the people crammed into the mental hospital, the men, women and youth behind bars.  Jar my complacency, expose my excuses, get me involved in the life of my city and world.  Give me integrity once more, O God, as we seek to be changed and transformed, with a new understanding and awareness of our common humanity.”

Perhaps we need as a church to pray often this prayer of discontent.

 

Crazy Churches!!

One of the things that Jesus was accused of was being crazy. Here was a homeless, self-made rabbi from Nazareth, with no authentic credentials from a Rabbinic school, who  was challenging the religious leaders by his actions that flaunted the laws of the Torah by reaping on the Sabbath and healing the sick on the Sabbath.   This man was  advocating for the poor by speaking against the economic domination of the poor by the rich in his society.      He was touching the “untouchable lepers” and healing them.  He was restoring sight to the blind. He was referring to himself as Son of God, which was one of the specific titles of the Roman Emperor.   He was healing people and casting out demons and talking about a Kingdom of God that he taught and modeled in his life.  That Kingdom of God  was completely different from the present conditions—it was  ruled by God and not by the emperor or king.  And the Kingdom of God was one of justice and fairness to all.    I really believe if Jesus came and  said and did similar things today in our world we would think he was crazy also.   You see, when anyone is truly filled with the Spirit of God as Jesus was, they will always disturb and disrupt our sane and structured world by their words and actions.   Jesus was filled with the Spirit and he did exactly that!

By what he said and by his actions Jesus was drawing an uncomfortable amount of attention to himself.   As a result,  two groups —those closest to him (his family) — and those most threatened by him (scribes and Pharisees)  began to ask the same question:   “Is this guy crazy?”  “Has he lost his mind?”   In the third chapter of Mark we read  that  Jesus’ family showed up while he was teaching large crowds and asked to see him.   They had come seeking “to restrain him, for people were saying ‘he’s gone out of his mind!'”   (Mark 3:21)

The other group, the scribes and Pharisees accused him of being demon-possessed and doing his work through the prince of demons—Beelzebul.   In their minds he was crazy and dangerous and should be put away.

It makes me wonder what would happen if the church, referred to as the “body of Christ”  by the Apostle Paul would go “crazy” like the one who is their head—Jesus the Christ?    And then I ask myself—-what would that “crazy church look like?”    What if the church today embraced the craziness of the gospel as shown in the life and teachings of Jesus?   What if,  rather than worrying about fitting in with the society they are apart of, the church didn’t care what society thought of them and instead were bearers of the message that Jesus brought through their actions?   What would that church look like?

What if some of the churches sold their beautiful buildings and sound and projection equipment, their comfortable air conditioning and heat, and their padded pews and utilized  the money to aid the poor, to minister to the sick and outcasts of society,  as Jesus did to his own society.   What if churches began to meet in   old buildings downtown that were vacant so that they could encourage each other and spend their time serving the homeless, the poor, etc instead of spending their time keeping up their building and paying huge utility bills?    Crazy!!!

What if the church started ministries that did more than entertain the children and educate the adults, but that pursued the prostitutes and help them out of their business by working with them to rid themselves of their addictions.  What if the church focused on rescuing addicts with no regard for their own church’s reputation?    Crazy!!!!

What if the church used their buildings and moneys to feed and house the homeless,  to offer clothing to the poor,  to provide dental and medical care to those who can’t afford it?      Crazy!!!

What if the church became politically active and demanded changes in the economic and political domination systems of our day, where the few dominate the many economically and politically.   What if churches descended on legislatures en masse  at state and national levels and demanded specific justice and fairness for all and not just for the privileged few?   What if the church demanded new laws that paid workers a living wage as a minimum wage?   What if the churches demanded that laws  treat the indigent with respect?     Crazy!!!

What if the church sent its members out into the community to pick up and bring to the church for worship those wandering the streets in their city on Sunday morning?  What if they gave them a special place down front, and then  invited them to their individual homes for dinner after church? Or to a fellowship dinner at their church?    Crazy!!!

If churches started doing the above, our society would think they were “out of their minds”, “crazy”  and just plain nuts!    May God give the church the will to be as crazy as Christ!!   Amen

Living the Gospel in a Changed World

 

Text:     Luke 3: 1-14

            Two Sundays ago (Sun. Dec. 28) when I was with you in worship,  an elderly gentleman sat down with me after church.    He was plainly upset that so few worshipped together that Sunday.   He said “Pastor I want to ask you a question.      Is  it going to take another major disaster to fill these pews again?” As a pastor I have heard these words often and I answered  that I’m not sure even a disaster will fill the pews the next time.   I feel that is true because of a church that has not changed but is living in the midst of a world that has changed all around them. 

            I really believe that the church as we know it must radically change or it will become increasingly irrelevant and be brushed aside even more than it is already, thus increasingly dwindling in numbers.   A great and radical change must take place  in the structure and practices of proclaiming the gospel that Jesus proclaimed if we are to take a running jump into the 21st century, address its problems and the things that impact people’s lives so we can meet the needs of individuals, communities and nations in this 21st century world.  My opinion is that only as we live the gospel each day can we proclaim it to the 21st century.  Today’s generations are not interested in words, they are interested in action.

            Because, just as Charles Dickens began his novel about the French Revolution with:  A Tale of Two Cities, with the words:    “These were the best of times, these were the worst of 1times….”, so must we see these as the best of times for the church and yet the worst of times also!

The “Best of Times” for the church because there is so much need for the proclamation of the Kingdom to be lived out to change a world that is spiraling into hopelessness, despair and violence. 

The “Worst of Times” because the church feels it has been abandoned—that its message has been stifled—almost a feeling of grief for the “good times of the mid-20th century when the churches were full and Christianity was thriving as never before—-when churches were full and building new ones on the theory if you build they will come and fill the church.   That all began to change in the 1960’s and 1970’s.    But in these “worst of times” comes the challenge to live the gospel as never before.   We cannot depend on the state, or the culture to promote the Christian Way.   They no longer do so—-now is the chance for Christians to show by the life they live what life in the Kingdom of God here on earth should be like.   And what a need there is to do so!!

Into the  “worst of times” in Jesus’ day came John the Baptizer—-preaching a “message of repentance” to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.  We might ask how  a “message of repentance” prepared the way for Jesus?    Was it because people were so bad and sinful?    No—–it is because we misunderstand the word “repentance” these days.   We have come to understand it as “feeling sorry for having disobeyed God” or “regretting the bad things we have done.   That was not the meaning of repentance in John’s day.   In the Greek the word is metanoia— and it’s meaning is “turning around”.    John was urging people to be willing to turn around and go in a different direction—the direction Jesus proclaimed— to turn toward the Kingdom of God.    The Kingdom of God was breaking in on earth—-this Kingdom of God is not “heaven” or “pie in the sky bye and bye”—-the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed was a new way of living—-a very different way of living.  And it must be  a new way of living in the world—right now.   The church has really not succeeded well in living the Gospel.  Study the Gospels and see what the Kingdom of God is as Jesus proclaimed it throughout  those gospels— in the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables of the Kingdom and   his healing and compassionate ministry.    Jesus proclamation of the Kingdom of God set  the business of living in this world in the conventional way on its head in many ways:   In God’s Kingdom, Jesus said: 

Blessed are the poor”—-not the rich.

Blessed are the meek”—-not the powerful.  The meek will inherit the earth instead of the conventional expectation that the powerful and rich will do so and then pass it on to their heirs.

Blessed are the peacemakers—-they,  not the army generals as in Jesus time, will be called children of God

You have heard ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you Do not resist an evildoer.  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

These descriptions Jesus gives of the way life in the Kingdom of God are very different from the usual way of life.   .  

The Kingdom of god is what the world would be like if God rule in human hearts   —-If God’s love and passion for justice for all ruled our lives

It is because early Christians were living the Way of the Kingdom of God that we read in Acts of the Apostles,  “these Christians are turning the world upside down!”  The Gospel , the Good News, of the Kingdom of God can do that!  

            The Kingdom of God was in direct opposition to the way things were in Palestine in the first century C.E.   The rulers were taking care of themselves and nobody else.   They were greedy and power-hungry rulers and also ruthless: that included everyone from the the Emperor Tiberius, through Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, and Annas and Caiphas the high priests.   All were greedy for power and wealth and took it from the peasants who were 93 percent of the population, living a subsistence existence—-just barely enough to live on and survive.      When Jesus taught his disciples to pray saying—–“Give us this day our daily bread”  and “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” he was speaking of the two most constant worries of the peasant class—-food and freedom from debt. If you had no food, you starved.   If you couldn’t pay your debts, including your high taxes,  you were thrown in prison and if  yous  had land it was seized by your creditor to satisfy the debt.   Most peasants lost their land this way.   It took only one bad crop.

            The entire culture was designed to support the rich and powerful, who lived by different rules and standards than the peasant population at the expense of the peasants.  

            The culture was a military and violent culture.   If you were perceived to be an enemy of Rome you were crucified.   The roads leading out of Jerusalem at times were full of crosses where people were slowly dying as an example to the population that you do not challenge the Roman Empire.  Thousands were crucified by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator in Judea where he ruled. 

            Religion was no help as the Jewish high priests were only interested in keeping the power they received by appointment by the Roman Emperor and making themselves wealthy by the business of the temple taxes and sacrifices.   

Does it sound familiar??   The similarities to  our country today are frighteningly apparent:

We also are a country where the rich and powerful live by different rules and standards than the common people and where those with money and power pass laws to become even more rich and powerful at the hands of a middle class that is turning into a peasant class.

A country where 10% of the people have 60% of the wealth with the other 40% of the wealth divided among the other 90% of the population.

A violent country where people with no conscience kill and rob on a daily basis.   Where life is cheap.   A country whose children kill and maim their teachers and fellow classmates. A country where multiple murders are committed in movie theaters and at marathons.  We live in a country where violence is commonplace.

A country where the greed and gluttony of huge financial institutions in order to enrich  their CEO’s and their stockholders,periodically eats up the savings of those most vulnerable who trusted them.

A country where the wealth of a Beverly Hills exists in stark contrast to the filth and poverty of a Watts in the same city of Los Angeles.

A country where the lonely and the aged, the poor and the mentally challenged,  the children with no access to health care and not enough to eat,  the homeless, and the misfits of society remain largely unseen and uncared about.   Programs to help them, such as affordable health care and extension of Medicaid benefits are the first ones cut from government budgets or discarded for political reasons.   We reduce food stamps and aid for struggling families in order to shrink the federal deficit—–while huge corporations that contribute to re-election of our legislators continue to receive tax breaks and other benefits they do not need.

We live in Kansas—-also a place where thousands of children go to bed hungry, without health care, and are homeless even though both parents work—-but for indecently low wages that can’t support their families—and we continue to support those who have made the lives of these vulnerable people worse and fail to speak out as a church about the lack of fairness and the injustice of the a system that gives businesses tax breaks on the backs of the poor and Corporate CEO’s 250% higher wages than those who work for them.

A place where religious leaders are too often in close collusion with political and governmental powers in order to get their limited negative agendas on abortion and gay rights taken care of legally.

This is a country ruled more and more by men and women whose only aim is to do whatever is necessary to stay in power, whether right or wrong does not matter, —-like modern day Herod’s and Pilates.

There is a need today for John the Baptist’s  voice crying in the wilderness, saying:  “Turn around, for there is a  better way than this way of greed and suffering that you are walking  It is the way of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed!!

For people are wandering around in this wilderness today, having lost their moral, emotional and economic way—–yearning for something better and not quite knowing what that something better is.    They are yearning for someone to show them the way of Jesus—-a different way of living that leads to a society where all of God’s people are treated equally, fairly, and lovingly.  There are many others wondering in the wilderness of  drug abuse, of broken relationships, of too little income,  of homelessness.    There are those who have given up hope and struggle from day to day to fight down the urge  to end their lives.   There are those filled with anger who want to strike out at the world that abuses them and uses them.   These wanderers in the wilderness are young and old, rich and poor, male and female, all skin colors;  but they all feel vulnerable in a world that seems to have gone crazy. They are trying to raise families in this world where even the schools are unsafe for their children.   They are not aware of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.   They are waiting for someone to show them, not tell them  a different way—-a way that will give them and their children hope and happiness and a new beginning.  They are waiting for us to show them by our lives how to follow the Great Commandment of Jesus:   “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself.    That is the mission of the church—including this church—-To live the Great Commandment in the community that surrounds us.  If we do so we will find that filling the pews may not be the important thing, but  what is of ultimate importance is transforming people to be servants of God in his Kingdom on earth.  

            There is a whole generation of people called the Millennial Generation consisting of over  80 million individuals who need to hear this proclamation of the gospel.   They are between the ages of 18-33.    Polls tell us that 86% of them believe in God.   The majority of them are searching earnestly for meaning in their lives.   Few of them  are in our churches.         These are young people that  our churches can enlist in our journey towards experiencing more fully the Kingdom of God on this earth.   They love challenges.  They are searching for a different way of life that has meaning for them and their children.  A way of life that makes a difference in this world right now.    They crave authenticity. They can spot a fake a mile away!   They are some of those “wondering in the wilderness” searching for the Messiah—searching for a better way of living. They distrust institutions, including the church, so we need to show them that better way through the lives we lead as Christians.   Jesus proclaimed that Way.    He lived that way.   Early Christians were known as “People of the Way” And Jesus did not say to his generation—-come to church and find out about this way of life—-he went out into the villages and the countryside where people were and proclaimed it not only through his teaching but through his very life.  Early followers of the Way did the same thing as they spread the good news of the Kingdom of God throughout the world.  They did not do this by just preaching—-they did it by the way they lived.  Even pagans in their writing said:   “See how these Christians love one another.”

The Church is Jesus’ body and needs to show that way today, not just with words  but by the way they live.

              The Mission of the Church,  this post-resurrection community living in this pre-Christian world today, must be to proclaim the Kingdom of God through what we do and who who we are as God’s people..  

Listen to what one of the Millenial generation wrote  to you and me—-post-resurrection Christians…….

Do you know,

Do you understand

That you represent

Jesus to me?

 

Do you know, do you understand

That when you treat me with gentleness,

It raises the question in mind that maybe Jesus is gentle, too?

Maybe he isn’t someone who laughs when I’m hurt?

 

Do you know, do you understand

That when you listen to my questions and you don’t laugh,

I think, “What if Jesus is interested in my questions, also?”

 

Do you know, do you understand,

That when I hear you talk about arguments and conflict

And scars from your past

That I think, “Maybe I am just a regular person

Instead of a bad, no-good person who deserves abuse?

 

If you care, I think maybe God cares—

And then there’s this flame of hope that burns inside of me,

And for a while, I am afraid to breathe

Because it might go out.

 

 

Do you know, do you understand,

That your words are His words?

Your face, His face to someone like me?

 

Please be who you say you are.

Please, God, don’t let this be another trick.

Please let this be real.

Please.

Do you know, do you understand?

That you represent Jesus to me?

 

 

 

Are your Dreams Big Enough?

When I retired from teaching I had a lot of dreams that I wanted to fulfill in retirement.   For example, I wanted to put together a woodshop and one of my first projects would be building a grandfather’s clock with a kit from Emperor Clocks in Alabama.  I envisioned other things I would do, such as writing a book,  traveling in the U.S. and abroad, etc.    Dreams!     I put those dreams in a journal that I began writing every day (and still do)  after I retired and moved to Kansas from southern California.   for the first few years, once every year I looked up those dreams in my journal and wrote a “progress report” in my journal about my successes and failures in achieving my “dreams” and what I planned to do about it the following year.    Dreams are important!    They give you a reason for being, for living!

I recently worked for several months with leaders of my home church to evaluate our church and what could be done to improve it.   In the process we used the “Life Cycle of a Church” found in George Bullard’s book—Pursuing Your Full Kingdom Potential—-and decided we were in the “Maturity Phase” , which is one phase  beyond the prime time of the church and beginning the downward part of the life cycle that leads toward death of the institution.    One of the telling points in  the committee’s decision was a decided lack of a “Vision” or “Dream” for our church.    Vision is the first thing that disappears, according to Bullard, when a church begins a downward trend.   When I asked the group of spiritual leaders who were gathered for evaluation what the vision was for our church, I was met with silence—-no clue.

Long ago, the writer of the Book of Proverbs wrote (KJV) “Without a vision, the people perish!”     That is true, and without a vision, the church will perish.  It has no raison d’etre, no ” reason for being”.

As I grow older I ponder two thingsfirst, where I have been and what I have done, and where I am going and, secondly,  what remains undone in that uncertain future that I have ahead of me.    I guess I’m a lot like the late  Robert Kennedy,  who is quoted as saying:   “Some people see things as they are, and say why?   I dream of things that never were and say, “Why not!?”  When I give up dreaming you might as well bury me as I’m the “walking dead.” 

Many people and many churches never achieve their full potential because they fail to dream big enough dreams!     Churches, especially are weakened by their failure not only to dream big enough dreams of their church’s future but to dream God’s dream for them.   However both ourselves, and our churches limit our potential if we do not dream large enough dreams and if we do not become aware of God’s dreams for us!

When I dreamed about my retirement I failed to dream large enough dreams.   I achieved much of what I dreamed originally—-not all, but enough—on my list.   But my life is full of much larger dreams and much larger achievemenst now  because God had much larger dreams for me than I did for myself!     For example, when I retired from teaching, I was going to build some things in a wood shop  I would put together, write and travel—-God’s dream was for me to go back into ministry where I had originally started fresh out of seminary years ago. I became a pastor to 7 different churches in Kansas, after retiring from teaching—five of them as an interim minister helping put churches back together for the next pastor.  It was also God’s dream for me to be a chaplain for three years in southeast Kansas and to touch numerous lives of patients and their families during their end of life experience.    If God’s dream for me had not prevailed over my limited dreams for retirement I would be much less the fulfilled person that I presently am!    A second example,  I felt my dream was to retire with my wife of 50+ years and live out the rest of my life.   But my wife died after 56 years of marriage and I found that God had other plans for me.   Although the original dream was shattered by the death of my wife, God found me a wife at a church I served after my first wife’s death,  and I am now enjoying a wonderful loving relationship with her in complete retirement!   As my present wife and I express often—-it was a “God thing” that led us together and made life so much  better for both of us than we could have dreamed.   She lost her husband about the same time I lost my wife.     God had other plans for both of us.   God’s dream is always bigger and better than we can dream ourselves.

I need to ask you, my readers:    “How big are your  dreams?”   “Have you included God in your dreams and are you trying to dream God’s dreams, as well as your own?  We are never too old, and never too young to “dream dreams, and see visions”.   Make sure that your dreams are “big enough”   and that they are God’s dreams and visions for you.   And we will be blessed by those larger dreams!  That’s my experience!Amen.