Tag Archives: The Church

Churches Survive by Saying “Yes” to new ideas

If you want your church to survive and see the next decade, figure out how to say “yes” to new ideas.  

I still receive newsletters from many of the churches I’ve served, and when I do I always check two things:  (1)  The calendar of activities ; and (2) the attendance figures, if given.

As I look at the calendar of activities I am saddened to see the same things that they were doing when I was there—10, 15, 20 years ago are being done today.   Same old, same old. year after year after year!   As I look at attendance, it is steadily dwindling for these churches  And church membership rolls are losing more to death than gaining new Christians.

There is a connection between the above two.  I believe that the only way to turn things around is for the church to start saying “yes” to some new ideas.    Actually the ideas are not new at all.    Somehow between now and the time Jesus spent on earth the church has forgotten the message that Jesus brought. Jesus’ message was one of proclaiming something new—The Kingdom of God on earth—a new and transforming way to live according to the principles found in the gospels  and his life and ministry that was summarized in the Beatitudes in Mathew.   His message about living in the Kingdom was a complete turning upside down of all the rules and regulations and greed and hatred and exclusiveness of the temple religion and the way people related to each other at his time —it was the  good news,  a gospel of love of God, neighbor.  Jesus message proclaimed that God loved all peoples, especially the poor, the widow, the outsider, the excluded, the homeless, the sick,, the mentally ill, foreigners, those at the “bottom of the barrel in society.

Those disciples and early Christians who followed Jesus attempted to live out these ideas.    That is why we read in Acts that religious authorities were complaining about them—“these Christians have turned the world upside down.

Groups of followers of Jesus gathered together and received the Holy Spirit and then were guided by that Spirit of God in all that they did.      They gathered often  to help each other live out the “Great Commandment” that Jesus said summed up all the foregoing law and prophets:   “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength;  and your neighbor as yourself!.    They were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Acts speaks often of Jesus’s followers being “filled with the Spirit—the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised his disciples that  would come after he departed the earth and would be their counselor and their guide and inspiration.     Filled with this Spirit, from the day of Pentecost,    the disciples and the early church  did things that seemed impossible, for example—Peter, who had denied Jesus in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial,  boldly proclaimed  the resurrection and the Kingdom of God at the risk of his life.   Followers of Jesus  endured persecution and death in order to stay faithful to this one, Jesus, who had changed and transformed their lives, and worked together to spread the good news of God’s transforming love and the new way of living in the Kingdom of God.

What we need to say “yes”  to is the Holy Spirit.   We need to say “yes” to welcoming the Spirit into our lives individually.   We need churches who say “yes” to the Holy Spirit and look toward the Spirit’s guidance.   The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and churches  that are full of the Spirit of God are churches that survive and grow because they are not into religion but into transformation.

In a world full of challenges, in a time like ours, we can’t settle for a heavy and fixed religion.   We cannot contain God’s Spirit in such boxes as we build and call churches.     They are not churches—-they are buildings.  Jesus did not come to build a new religion, but that is what we have done.   Instead of following him on the Way we have turned Jesus into a religion.   As Rohr says:   ” We worshipped Jesus instead of following Him on the same path”

Jesus transformed lives on a hillside,  in a house, wherever people gathered.   He reached out to ALL people and told them and showed them that God loved them not just in words but in actions showing the love..  To be loved by God is to be transformed, and to be transformed is to reach out to others in God’s name and seek their transformation.

When the church accepts the “new” idea that their mission is one of changing and transforming lives and sees it’s mission as one of changing and transforming the lives of those around them by  following the teachings and example of Jesus, then, as in Acts:   “the Lord will add daily to their numbersl

Congregations that are full of God’s Spirit are full of people!

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What We MIss in the Magnificat….

As we near the Christmas Season,   we read he words of Mary, the mother of Jesus,  as she reflected on the blessing that had been given her to be the mother of the Messiah.    We seem to always  concentrate on the opening words:   “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.   Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”   But we somehow have missed what she then said about the coming Savior:   “He has show strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.   He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…

In case we missed what Mary said,  Luke also reports Jesus reading from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry:   “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.   He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”;  and he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.   The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.   Then he began to say to them,  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   (Luke 4:18-21)

Jesus life and ministry was a mission dedicated to carrying out the above.    How have we as Christians through the centuries failed to see what Jesus was about?   How have we missed the major thrust of his ministry?     Why have we utterly failed to continue this mission?    

As I approach the celebration of the birth of Jesus, I look out on my own state (Kansas) which is supposed to governed by professed Christians.    I see poverty that is growing worse each year.   I see adults working two and three jobs to provide for their children and not being able to do so because of low wages and part time employment with no benefits.  I see a state legislature and governor who have refused to extend Medicaid to thousands who have no health insurance who are suffering needlessly because of that. I see a governor and legislator who have refused to raise the minimum wage so that working people can live on what they earn.    I see children and adults who are homeless.   I see thousands of children going to bed hungry each night, if they have a bed.   AND I ASK—-WHERE ARE THE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS?   Why have they not stood up to the powers that cause all of this suffering?   Where is the voice of “the crucified one” demanding that those who have the power to change this picture do so?    Where are we?

We are sitting in comfortable churches.   We have joined the “powers that be” rather than bringing them down to deal with the desperate condition of many in our state.    Not a single voice has been heard from the church and Christians demanding that Medicaid be extended.   Not a single church has demanded that the minimum wage be raised.   The church and Christians have remained silent in the face of the poverty and suffering all around them.

The Magnificat speaks of the change that the society will experience because of the birth of the Messiah.   Centuries later, we who claim to be the “body of Christ” have not brought that change about.    Rather we have joined the forces of the powerful that are causing those conditions of poverty and helplessness to continue and to grow.

WE’VE MISSED JESUS’ ENTIRE POINT, FELLOW CHRISTIANS!!!

 

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

                                                                             

 

 

           

 

Crown Him or Crucify Him?

 

Text:   Luke 19:  28-40

            Today is Palm Sunday in our Christian year.   It is the day that we recount again the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  It is relatively uncommon to find details from the life of Jesus in all four gospels, but the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is one of those stories found in all four gospels.   All share the central details of the crowd’s greetings of Jesus with “Hosanna’s”   and of Jesus riding into the city on the back of a donkey.

            Many sermons have been delivered about that donkey and about Jesus’ humility, etc. etc.   However this is not an act of humility but an act of anointing that goes back to the Old Testament and ties in Jesus to the line of King David, from which the Messiah was to come.     It is a scene much like that described in I Kings 1, where the prophet Nathan, following King David’s instructions, is to “take Solomon to the Gihon spring below the city near the Mount of Olives, place him on David’s own donkey, anoint him together with Zadok the priest, blow the trumpet and say “Long Live King Solomon”.   Then they were to follow Solomon up to the city and seat him on David’s throne. 

 Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem looks very much like the coronation ceremony for Solomon—-the son of David and successor to the throne of Israel.        

            That symbolism was not lost  on those who greeted Jesus, or on the religious leaders, or on the Romans!!!.    His entry was a  statement of Jesus’ divine right to rule forever—-of his messiahship—foretold by the prophet Isaiah. 

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a revolutionary act!!  

            We seldom think of Jesus as a “revolutionary” but that was what he was.   His mission that he announced at his home synagogue in Nazareth was revolutionary.  It foresaw that he would challenge the social, economic and religious domination systems of the day that punished the poor and enriched the rich and powerful.   Jesus cast his lot with the ones who were the outcasts of his society and he didn’t just say “let’s help them survive” but his life was dedicated to changing the domination system (economic, political, and social, ) that held them down.    In his home synagogue he read the passage from Isaiah that says:   “the spirit of the Lord is  upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.   He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”    And he told his hearers “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your midst.” 

            Revolutionary!   Jesus was challenging the political, economic and religious domination system of his day.    It’s the poor that are important not the rich and powerful.   It is the oppressed that I am sent to, not the comfortable.    It was to the outcasts of society that God sent His Son.   Revolutionary!!

Today I’d like for us to look at  those who  participated in Jesus’ entry into JerusalemThey werethe crowds, the disciples, the Jewish religious authorities, the Romans—-all participated in some way in this scene of triumphal entry—-just as all would participate, either actively or passively, in the crucifixion of Jesus at the end of that week.   Let’s look at each one of the groups:

 The Crowds:   They shouted “Hosanna!  Hosanna!   The Greek form of the Hebrew “Hoshianna” found in Psalm 118:25 WHERE IT IS TRANSLATED “Save us we beseech you!”      How many of this same crowd later shouted at the palace of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate—-“Crucify him!   Crucify him!   His blood be upon our heads!!   We don’t know!

            This was not a mob but were good people and genuinely eager for the messiah to come and save them.  They were people who attended the synagogue, God-fearing people, who tried hard to keep the Jewish Law.   They were looking for a messiah to deliver them from the conquering Romans—-and when Jesus didn’t do that they would turn against him.

The Religious Authorities:  Luke tells us that they had been plotting for some time to get rid of Jesus   The Gospel of John tells us what brought them to the point of wanting to kill Jesus    So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do?   This man is performing many signs.   If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both  our holy place and our nation.”

They saw Jesus as a radical revolutionary and they were afraid.   They were afraid they would lose their power, their wealth, and even their lives because they were puppets of Rome and if they allowed Jesus to prevail with the people then they would be held responsible by the Roman authorities.   JESUS WAS A RADICAL REVOLUTIONARY WHO HAD TO BE ELIMINATED.  

            These were not evil people.   They were the respected, well-educated leaders who led highly moral lives and/or served in the temple as priests.   The Pharisees were good and decent law-abiding and their dedication to God was widely respected and admired.   But they were seized with fear that this revolutionary named Jesus of Nazareth would bring the fury of Rome down on their heads and they would lose not only their power, wealth, and prestige, but their lives.     

The Disciples:      The same disciples that arranged for the triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem are the ones who deserted Jesus at his arrest, even those closest to Jesus—the Twelve.   Their fear for their own lives led them to desert Jesus and go into hiding.     After Jesus’ betrayal, the self-appointed leader of the Twelve, Simon Peter, three times denied that he even knew Jesus out of fear for his own life. Only the women disciples and John stood by him to the end!   They were at the foot of the cross as he was crucified.  We can criticize them, but who among us might not have done the same?  

              While they had their weaknesses, the Twelve had traveled with Jesus, listened to his teachings, given up their jobs and livelihoods to follow him, seen him at the moment of Transfiguration, staunchly followed  him to Jerusalem although they certainly feared for their own lives and Jesus’ life there.   They were good and decent Galileans—they adored Jesus, loved him, and had left jobs and family behind to follow him.

The Romans:  Rome had brought the Pax Romanus —the Roman Peace” —-to the known world of the time.   It was a RULE OF LAW that is still copied to a great extent by the government of our own nation.   While they might be harsh, they sought to be fair—as we will see by the examination of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator.   The Roman Peace was enforced by the sword.   If a revolutionary threatened the peace the Romans saw it as treason—-punishable by crucifixion.

Although Roman government did not interfere much with religious matters, their ears were very much attuned to any kind of treason or government overthrow being planned.   There had been many rebellions in Palestine by Jews called Zealots and they were dealt with swiftly and harshly—many crucifixions took place in order to keep the government stable in Palestine.   The Romans were the ones who placed the sign—“The King of the Jews” over Jesus’ head on the cross—showing what they would do to anyone who would proclaim himself king!!!

You know—the sad thing about all of this is that if you were to talk to any of these people described above you would find them to be outwardly decent people who were doing what they thought was the best thing to do!  In sum—it was not the rabble and the evil people that crowned Jesus one moment and crucified him later in the week.  It was the rank and file people—it was good, decent, synagogue-attending people who demanded his death!  It was Roman soldiers carrying out order about a threat to their empire.   It was good, law-abiding people.    That is the tragedy!

The Question for us is—-What do we do with Jesus today?   Do we crown him or crucify him.?    That is the question we must ask ourselves this Palm Sunday as we enter Holy Week!!

            If Jesus came to America today with his revolutionary ideas about government, religion, and the economic and the social dominations systems that we have now that are very similar to the ones described above in first century Palestine—-that give the power to the rich and use that power to keep the poor down and further enrich themselves–would we in the church welcome him or would we be among the ones in the crowd crying “Crucify him”??    Because Jesus would be on the side of the poor and the outcasts of our society.   He would advocate for those who are homeless.   He would criticize those who pass laws that keep the poor down and advocate for laws and practices that lift up those in poverty.    He would heal those who can’t afford health care and severely chastise those who keep health care from the needy.    He would advocate some form of healthcare for all.   He would be considered a “bolt” thrown into the machinery of progress   I feel that Jesus would not be recognized,  and if he was, would not be allowed in our churches.

Let’s look at the same groups today:

   The Government:    Is our government crowning Jesus or crucifying him?    We have a government made up of good, God-fearing people—-ask any of them and they will  generally tell you that.   Especially at election time!    Do they promote Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and what that stands for?   Or do they crucify him by legislating against all that he stood for?    We say on our coins “In God we trust”–-do we??   Or do we trust in our military and police power to enforce what we feel is right, which has very little to do with what Jesus taught?  When our government seeks to enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor and needy, the mentally ill, the homeless, the hungry—-are we following the teachings of Jesus?   When we deny a large group of people medical care in the state of Kansas are we following the teachings of the Great Healer?      Are we crucifying Jesus on a cross of our own greed and our desire for power to increase our wealth at the expense of others?

The Religious Authorities:     This is a complex area, for we have many “religious authorities” in today’s America.   Who really speaks for Jesus Christ and his teachings.   And that is perhaps the problem:  No one seems willing to forcefully speak for Jesus and what he stands for today.   The religious authorities are either too timid, or they are too closely allied to the government and economic system that keeps them comfortable.    Like the priests and scribes and Pharisees of old, they are afraid to rock the boat.   Most religious leaders and the churches they lead have in the most part been mute about the issues of the day such as compassion for the poor and economic justice and fairness for all.    Where was the voice of the church in the health care debate and the extension of Medicaid to those working poor  in Kansas who are desperately in need of health-care?    We heard from medical doctors and from hospital officials that advocated for that extension of health care.   The church has remained silent about withholding health care from thousands of Kansans.    Why? 

            Religious leaders  are either so fearful of offending someone that they proclaim a watered-down Christianity that Jesus would not recognize as related to his life and teachings; or, they promote one issue to the exclusion of of all others and dwell on that (e.g. abortion)—-leaving out the love and compassion that Jesus showed on a broad range of issues..  

            Too many churches and their leaders are following present-day “priests and scribes” who have crowned their own comfort, their success, as their Lord and have through their passivity, fear and selfishness crucified Jesus.  

The Disciples:   That would be us!   The Church.   Are we crowning Jesus as Lord of our lives or are we crucifying him out of fear of speaking out or sleeping on the job like the disciples in Gethesemane?   What kind of stands have we as a church taken on issues that Jesus came to address in his ministry as he stated them  at the synagogue at Nazareth in the words of Isaiah?

            Is the church doing these things?   Are we taking up the cause of those who are oppressed.   Are we preaching good news to the poor?    Are we working in behalf of those who are ill to bring them comfort?  Are we boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God is at hand and that Jesus is Lord?    Are we challenging the political and economic and, yes, the religious dominations systems whose purpose is to make the poor poorer and the rich richer?    If we are not— we are  passively aiding in Jesus’ crucifixion today and trying to preserve ourselves like the original twelve disciples.

The Crowds:    Ah yes!!   The Crowds!    The “rank and file”.   The people who inhabit our states and towns and cities of this so-called Christian country!   The ordinary people who fill our streets—-good and decent people.!  

            Are they crowning Jesus as Lord of their lives or are they crucifying him?   I am of the opinion that Jesus, while being welcomed  by the people of this country  in the hope that he will be there to save them if they need it, are crucifying him on a cross of indifference!  

            Take a drive down the streets of any town or city on Sunday morning, visit any church, and the message becomes clear what decision they have made.    True, they do not actively shout crucify him as the crowd did in Jesus time—but by their indifference to Jesus and his teachings they are doing the same thing—-they are ridding the country of this dangerous radical that might interfere in their lives and make them uncomfortable.   By their indifference they are shutting him up permanently so his words and call to action don’t bother them anymore.  

THE DECISION IS OURS—IT IS NOT POSSIBLE NOT TO DECIDE.  By our actions we will either crown Jesus Lord of our Lives or we will crucify him.   Which will it be?  Do we really want to be members of the Kingdom of God on earth that he proclaimed or is it too risky—to dangerous—too costly?  

DO WE CROWN JESUS WITH OUR LOVE AND DISCIPLESHIP OR DO WE CROWN HIM WITH A CROWN OF THORNS AND CRUCIFY HIM?    Amen

The Scandal of Poverty

 

In May of 2012 UNICEF reported that of the world’s developed countries, the United States had the second highest rate of child poverty, with more than 23 percent of its kids officially living below the poverty level.   Only Romania, still struggling to shed itself of the awful legacy left by Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship had worse numbers.

Sasha Abramsky, in his excellent book on poverty, The American Way of Poverty:   How the Other Half Still Lives, emphasizes in his Introduction that poverty is not the  problem—-we have the means, technology, and ways to deal with it.   He says that in the United States poverty is a “scandal“. not a “problem“.   It is a moral scandal that a rich country like the U.S. produces the statistics reported above by UNICEF.

As Abramsky says:  “As long as people think “poverty” is the problem, they’re missing the whole point.   Poverty is evidence of a problem; it’s not the source of the problem….The galloping poverty in the United States is evidence of a retreat from democratic beliefs and practices.”   Some refer to poverty  as being like the “canary in a mine“.    Such widespread poverty in such a rich country is a warning of severe problems with our democracy in not providing for the “common welfare” that is demanded by the Preamble to the Constitution.   It is a warning that something is terribly wrong with our political and economic system’s developments in the past few years that allows this to happen.

Pope Francis recently framed the moral scandal of poverty in the U.S. when he said:   “We have created new idols.   The worship of the ancient Golden Calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”  

Robert Reich, former Secretary  of Labor under President Clinton adds:   “The moral crisis of our age has nothing to do with gay marriage or abortion.   It’s insider trading, obscene CEO pay, wage theft from ordinary workers, Wall Street’s gambling addiction, corporate payoffs to friendly politicians, and the billionaire takeover of our democracy.”

I know in these posts I  have pointed to poverty and homelessness many times and you may be tired of hearing about it —-So what are we as Christians going to do about it?  What can we do?     I make these recommendations:

First:   Read Sasha Abramsky’s book, The American Way of Poverty:   How the Other Half Still Lives.       This is a well researched look at Poverty and updates the work by Michael Harrington, The Other America,   that inspired the 1960’s War on Poverty.   Sadly, the situation is worse 50 years later than it was when Harrington wrote.  
In the first half of his book Abramsky’s details the statistics as well as the human face of poverty today.   In the second half, he gives well thought out solutions that are doable—-if the moral and political will is there.

We have been brainwashed by our politicians to blame poverty on the poor.   We have been told that people are poor because they are lazy, lack ambition, are drug users, alcoholics, etc.   Feature Governor Brownback, who during the last campaign said  that “People don’t have to be poor, they need to get a job?” That is Brownback’s cure for poverty—get a job!

While this may be true in a few cases, how about elderly poor?   How about those who are unable to work because of physical problems that limit them?   How about those who are mentally challenged?    How about children?    Many people are caught in a trap from which the laws and the economic system do not allow escape.

We as Christians and as a church must view the human face of poverty in all its aspects.    We need to establish a relationship with the poor of our country—-get to know them and the problems they face every day and how hard so many of them try to escape from poverty and seem to be thwarted at every turn.   One example-—the young woman who is laid off from her job, loses her apartment, is not able to find another job because of poor education and skill.   She has children—-and to improve her chances for a job she needs to go to a community college.   She not only can’t afford the tuition but also can’t afford child care?   And yet we let our legislators in Congress jeer at President Obama’s call for free tuition for those who maintain a C average in Community Colleges and free childcare while they are attending.  As Republican leader, John Boehner said—that bill will be “dead on arrival”.

Second:   As a church,  develop a sense among our members as to the causes and the extent of poverty in your community.    As a church and as individuals, take action to change the  climate that blames poverty on the individuals rather than on the fact that features of our present political and economic system do not help those in poverty, but make their problems worse.

Third:    As individuals and as a church find ways to challenge the present political system that, at present, operates on the principle that  those with money fund the political process and elect those who will favor their own selfish interest.     A democratic system will seek the common good—-those we now elect are manipulated by the money needed for advertising to be elected and in return will pass laws that benefit those who support them with the needed cash.   If you don’t have money you don’t have any political influence.   Those with enough money can manipulate the voters to vote the way they want them to with enough half-truths told enough times on costly TV ads.  Who speaks for the poor in the halls of the Kansas legislature and the U.S. Congressional leadership?   Very few!

When poverty flourishes as a direct result of actions taken  or not taken by political and economic leaders, then search for the reasons that is so.   How do the present laws and economic system keep people in poverty from helping themselves?  Hang around some poor people and they will quickly and accurately fill you in on this question.  We tell people to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” and then cut off the straps or take their boots away from them!

The above three recommendations should get the churches and Christians started to thinking about the scandal of poverty.  Christians and Christian Churches have a responsibility for maintaining the moral backbone of our people in this country.   If Christians and the churches do not stand together as a voice for the Way of Jesus today that gives priority to the marginalized, the poor, the outcasts, the homeless, the hungry of our society,  then who will be that voice?  Together, churches can make a vast impact on the scandal of poverty today.   It will not be easy—the causes of poverty are many and varied.   But the churches can work to end the needless scandal of poverty in the U.S. if they have the will and  love for God and for neighbor that is at the core of the Christian faith!

 

Priest or Prophet?

 

Priests and Prophets aren’t usually very friendly toward each other.  In fact, they’ve been known to kill each other.   If you read the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament Bible that is a theme that runs through both.   While both think  of themselves as religious, that is about all they have in common.

Priests are administrators for institutions and their chief goal   is to maintain the institution.   They are big on celebrations and rites held in beautiful religious surroundings and on being intermediaries for God for the lay people that they lead.  Therefore, maintaining the beauty and the sanctimony of the rites and the buildings where they are held is their chief concern .     The perpetuation of the religious establishment is the raison d’etre for the priestly profession.

Prophets, on the other hand, are the critics of the religious establishment, rites and institutions.   They remind all of us that the rites and the buildings and the institutions are not the important things.   The important thing is to do God’s will in loving God and  being servants. This is a very different message.   Prophets are the ones that take us back to the basics.   Who remind us that “This is the Word of the Lord!”   They tell us as individuals and as corporate bodies that the raison d’etre for being Christians individually and as a church  is to serve God by loving God and our neighbors.   Listen to some of them speak:

The prophet Micah  speaks for God and asks:   “With what shall I come before the 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 told 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?”   Micah 6:5-8

And the prophet Amos thundered God’s word to Northern Israel:  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.   Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.   Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.   But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”      (Amos 5:21-24)

And Jesus speaks with the same prophetic voice when he answers the man who asked him which commandment in the law is the greatest:   “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.   This is the greatest and first commandment.   And a second is like it:   “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”   (Matthew 22:36-40)

As Richard Rohr says:  “Prophets step in to disrupt the social consensus—“How wonderful our group is!” —and say, “It’s not entirely true!”  ….Prophets expose and topple each group’s idols and blind spots, very often showing that we make things into absolutes that are not absolutes in God’s eyes, and we relativize what in fact is central and important.   As Jesus so cleverly puts it, “You strain out gnats and you swallow camels)   Matt. 23:24)

I am not saying that priests are not important.     I am saying that when the voice of the priest is dominant in religion and the prophets are kicked out of the group—- that when the prophetic voice is missing in our religion, then in a short while the group will lose its sense of mission and will circle their wagons to perpetuate the status quo of the group, rather than thinking of others outside that circle.   We will turn inward as individuals and as a church and not carry out the mission that Jesus gave us as Christians and as a church.  Priests alone will focus on the rites and the establishment, and the church building,  and forgo the mission and the message that the church is commissioned to give about the good news of the Kingdom of God—the Gospel.   As Rohr says:   “Jesus and the prophets are speaking to every age, addressing universal themes of illusion and our universal capacity for self-serving religion.

We need the prophets to remind us what our role is as individual Christians and as a church.   Listen to the prophets in your midst!!

Post-Resurrection Christians in a Pre-Christian World

 

Text:     Luke 3: 1-6

 

Charles Dickens began his novel about the French Revolution:  A Tale of Two Cities, with the words:    “These were the best of times, these were the worst of times….”

Luke, the gospel that is every historians favorite, might have began his gospel with similar words.     If we could go back and see how life was lived in those times we might agree that they were “the worst of times”, while the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, signaled the coming of the  “best of times” with the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God on earth that he proclaimed.

Into the  “worst of times” 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 was coming to proclaim— to turn toward the Kingdom of God.    The Kingdom of God was breaking in on earth—-this Kingdom 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.   We see glimpses of   the way of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed  throughout  the gospels .   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.”THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS WHAT THE WORLD WOULD BE LIKE IF GOD RULED IN EVERYONE’S LIFE.

These are descriptions Jesus gives and many more of the way life in the Kingdom of God will be different.

The gospel writer, Luke, carefully dated the coming of the Christ by referring to who ruled at the time.   Let’s start our examination of “bad times in Palestine” by looking at those who ruled:

  • Emperor Tiberius:   The stepson of the great Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. He was never accepted by other Roman leaders because he was not considered a natural heir. He was neither well-loved nor respected.
  • Pontius Pilate:   had risen from a “middle-management” position to become procurator of Judea in 26 A.D.   He had a gift for antagonizing his Jewish subjects. He knew his hold on Judea was tenuous, so Pilate made up for that weakness by periodically unleashing his soldiers on the citizenry, crucifying hundreds at a time of those who challenged him.   He was feared and despised.
  • Herod Antipas:   A dangerous ruler, designated “King of the Jews” but ruling only with the power of Rome behind him.   He spent a lot money on building cities and pagan temples to impress the Romans—levying high taxes on the Jewish peasants to pay for them. . A paranoid ruler—-feeling everyone was out to get him—he murdered many of those around him he suspected of treachery or even those who spoke out against his evil ways such as John the Baptist whom he beheaded at this wife’s request and gave the head to her on a platter.
  • Caiphas and Annas:   Caiphas was Annas’ son-in-law and together their loyalties lay more with maintaining their shared place of power and wealth they had won from the Romans who appointed them rather than loyalty to God and God’s people.

These rulers in these “worst of times” for the Jews ruled over a culture that:

  • was organized into political entities that included city officials, territorial governors, and heads of state—-all of whom drew their support from the high taxes levied on the peasants
  • Was organized around the worship of many pagan gods.
  • Was designed to support the political and economic power of those who were rich and powerful who lived by different rules and standards than the common people.   Among those rich and powerful were the temple priests and the Pharisees and Sadducees.
  • A culture where about 1 to 2% the population of the Empire were rich and powerful; those who worked for and supported them about 5%  and the other 93% were peasants living a subsistence life or below—just enough to barely 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 you had land it was seized by your creditor to satisfy the debt.
  • A Culture where the religious structure and leaders worked in concert with the political/governmental power of Rome to maintain their wealth and power and carry out their temple agenda that kept them wealthy.
  • A culture where many people were lost and perished every day—a violent culture.

 

DOES IT SOUND FAMILIAR?   The similarities to our country today are 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 have become popular status figures.
  • A country where 10% of the people have 60% of the total income with the other 40% of the money divided among the other 90% of the population.
  • A country that worships many pagan gods—-we just call them by different names—-money, power, pleasure, comfort, sports, etc.
  • A 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 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 reduce 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 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 still support those who have made the lives of these vulnerable people worse and fail to speak out about the lack of fairness and the injustice of the wage system that gives business 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 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

THE SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP GROUP OF MY CHURCH RECENTLY DISCUSSED OUR NEED FOR A VISION FOR THE CHURCH.   SURELY PART OF THAT VISION MUST BE A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS LIKE THAT OF JOHN THE BAPTIST 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 JESUS AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD THAT JESUS PROCLAIMED.” 

  IT IS THE MISSION OF OUR POST-RESURRECTION CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY TO PROCLAIM THE KINGDOM OF GOD THROUGH WHAT WE DO AND WHO WE ARE AS GOD’S PEOPLE.    We need to show them that better way through the lives we lead as Christians. .

There are many people 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 a vision for the church—-To live the Great Commandment in the community that surrounds us.

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 Jesus to show them the way—-a different way of living that leads to a society where all of God’s people are treated equally, fairly, and lovingly.   Jesus proclaimed that way.   He lived that way.   THE CHURCH IS JESUS’ BODY AND NEEDS TO SHOW THAT WAY TODAY.    AND WE CAN’T JUST “TALK ABOUT IT” WE NEED TO “WALK THE WAY!”

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 my 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 me,

And for a while, I’m 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?