Tag Archives: The Way of Jesus

Itch-Scratching Christianity

 

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 disciples  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 their 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 present 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.   It is the way of LOVE of God and neighbor and not just yourself.

     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

                                                                               

 

 

                                                                                                       

 

Merit Badge Religion

Most of us think that in some way we must do something to earn God’s love and forgiveness in order to become a Christian and qualify for heaven after we die.  I like to refer to that as “Merit Badge” religion and  it has little to do with what Jesus taught and lived.  When I was a Boy Scout leader, the boys who won the coveted rank of Eagle Scout were those who won a large number of  merit badges and completed a useful project for the community. It was what they knew and what they were able to do that won the award.  “Merit badge religion” is the result of the church being taken over by the American culture.   In this culture we attain superiority  by competing well: by being the most knowledgeable and highest educated; by improved morality and improved behavior.  We worship success in our culture  and believe that we get what  we deserve  by what we work hard for and therefore are worthy of.

We have transferred these same principles to our churches.  So to have the right informed knowledge about God; to  know the Bible through deep study  and to  behave morally and ethically according to its perceived teachings;   and to practice the  correct rites  of worship,  communion,  baptism,  plus giving our money in acts of  stewardship we will competitively qualify for heaven . We earn it.  It  is by what we know and what we do  that qualifies us.    And therein is the problem .Note I refer to it as “religion”  not “Christianity”

 

Our Christian spiritual lives and our churches are too often  based on this same sort of religious meritocracy. For example:

  • Being able to recite Bible memory verses
  • Going to church every Sunday
  • Attending Sunday school
  • Having the “correct beliefs” by understanding and defending the church’s creed
  • Being a “good” person
  •  Praying
  • Being baptized in the “correct” way
  • Taking communion
  • t These are admirable, I will concede, but none will earn us a seat at the Lord’s table in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus makes it very clear that ONLY GOD’S GRACE can do that and it has already been given to us.  All we need to do is be aware of God’s saving love and forgiveness.   It is freely given and there is no way God’s Grace can be earned.

The problem with “Merit Badge” Christianity is that it bases our entry into God’s Kingdom on what we do  and as the New Testament says and Jesus proclaimed it is all up to God’s grace.   “Merit Badge” Christianity says we must work, labor, sweat and learn, and do more to gain a place in God’s Kingdom. The opposite is true! God gives us his Kingdom. Nothing we do on our own can gain us entrance.

Jesus did not say “Blessed are the brightest and the best”

He said:   “Blessed are the poor for to them is the Kingdom of God”.

What the World Needs Now is Love

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love;  it’s the only thing there is just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  No, not just for some, but for everyone….”      Diana Ross sang this top selling record in 1965  as the nation was deep in the quagmire of Vietnam and  the nation was being ripped apart by internal disagreements over the war and the Civil Rights Movement.   This was the decade that saw the assassinations of  John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was a turbulent decade.   It was a violent decade.   It was much like the decade of which we are now a part.

I think about death a lot these days.   It seems it is always lurking around the corner and ready to pounce on me when I least expect it.  But I do not fear it because I believe in a loving God who will receive me as a father receives his child—with open arms and unconditional love.  In the Parable of the Prodigal  Son Jesus  told of this kind of love and in the Sermon on the Mount he tells how we need to love others unconditionally in the same way the Father (God) loved the Prodigal Son.  In the Sermon he says:

“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and  hate your enemy’, but I say to you ‘ Love your enemies  and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your father in Heaven.'”   (Matthew 5:43-44)

In a world torn by hatred and violence; divided by LGBT gender issues; fearful of each othere to mass shootings and listening to the prophets of hatred and gloom;  where the rich grow richer at the expense of the poor; where children go to bed hungry every night while surrounded by plenty; torn by differences in religion and race—-the solution of love is the only solution.

The word ‘love’ in English can have many definitions.   The Greek and Hebrew languages do a much better job in defining a more precise meaning.   The  Hebrew word ‘hesed’ is always used to express God’s unconditional love for his children.  In Greek there are several words we translate in English as love.  

In Greek, eros is the word for physical love and sexual love.   philos is the Greek for love of brother and sister— love for family members.  The Greek word  agape is translated “love”  and is the Greek word for unconditional love—love that loves with no expectation of return.  This is unconditional love-— the love that loves us  regardless of any return of love by us.   This is the way God loves us and the way we are told by Jesus to love our neighbor in the Great Commandment:   You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul,mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.    

What we need in this fractured and torn world today is LOVE.   UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.    We have tried the other ways—power  as military  and economic might;   hatred;   exclusion by building walls to shut others out; arming everyone to carry guns. How have they worked for us?   Not well!    The only solution we have not tried is  Unconditional Love.  Such Love put into action is a mighty force.    Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahtma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assissi and Jesus all lived by this kind of love and were a mighty force for change in their time.  They practiced agape love to the best of their ability.   Although severely and hurtfully opposed by the forces of power, in some cases jailed, beaten, and finally for King and Ghandi assassination and death—their lives and work remain a testament that love in action is a mighty force to change a fractured and torn world toward a more just and peaceful world.

Love is important!  It is what the dangerous, hurting, hatred and strife-turned world needs.   Have you ever considered what would happen if the United States used even half of the billions and billions spent on maintaining our military might and developing the means to kill our enemies to show  our love to them ?   Never underestimate the power of love to change enemies to friends.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love;

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. 

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

No, not just for some, but for everyone!!

Seeing God in Ourselves and Others

The way we see God is the way we see ourselves ; and the way we see ourselves is the way we see others.    

In the Book of Genesis we read:  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  (Gen. 1:26-27)

We are all created in God’s image.   So how do we see God, and therefore our own self-image and the image of others?     This is a crucial question.    For example, if we see God as  a mighty King who lays down the rules and severely punishes those who disobey them by committing them to Hell for eternity—-then we see ourselves as sinners who are always falling short of the rules and worthy of punishment.     We will also see others as evil people like us who cannot be worthy of going to Heaven unless we do the prescribed repentance ; unlovable and not to be trusted.

The Biblical answer to the question—-How do we see God and therefore ourselves and those others around us?—is simple.    When I turn to the Gospels, I find that God gave us an answer to that question in Jesus.    IN JESUS GOD WAS GIVEN A FACE AND A HEART!!  It’s called “the incarnation”.   The God Jesus revealed was and is a God we could love and who loves us back—-because Jesus by his life and ministry and teachings has shown us that God is love!  GOD IS LOVE is the central attribute that stands behind all the descriptions of God in our Bible.    

Read the 13th chapter of I Corinthians:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.   And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.   If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body, so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing…. (I. Cor. 13:1-3     

Paul writes that if we are brilliant speakers, have vast knowledge , have faith capable of moving mountains, willingly  give our bodies as sacrifices AND DO NOT HAVE LOVE—all is worthless.

LOVE IS THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING.    LOVE DEFINES GOD.   Therefore I  must ask  these questions for you to ponder--Is your God a God of love?   Does love direct all that you are as a person?     Do you love those around you because you see in them the image of God—-Love?

Think about it!

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!