On Doing Faith Together

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 1:14-20. You can also listen to the audio.]

This is one of those overly-familiar texts. One of those Bible stories we’ve heard over and over again since we were kids. I looked up the scripture, saw the heading–”Jesus calls the disciples”–and I knew what the text said even before I read it. It’s really a pretty straight forward story as far as Bible stories go. Jesus calls the disciples; he says “follow” and they follow.

Not only did I know what the story was, but I knew what it meant: like the disciples, we are supposed to follow Jesus when he calls to us. There is surprising agreement among preachers of all persuasions about what this story means for us today.

This week, though, I started wondering why we always read this story to say, “You should follow Jesus like these guys did.”

When we read the story of Jesus blessing the children we don’t say, “See how the disciples turned the children away? That’s what we should do.” We don’t read about James and John asking to be seated next to Jesus in heaven and say, “We should be vying for the best heavenly chairs.”

As Christians—and especially as Anabaptist Christians—our focus when we read scripture is on Jesus. What is Jesus doing? What is Jesus teaching? How can we better follow the example set by Jesus?

So, yes, it’s great that James and John and Andrew and Peter all leave their nets and follow Jesus. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the same—If ever God incarnate should ask you to lay down your fishing net, or turn off your computer, or leave your classroom, or send in your letter of resignation . . . I would suggest you do that.

But why are we so hyper-focused on the disciples in this story? What about Jesus? What is it Jesus is doing here that we are called to imitate?

If a charismatic healer invites you to leave behind the drudgery of being a fisherman in a backwater town like Galilee—Why wouldn’t you say yes? The perplexing part of the story is why Jesus asked them to follow him in the first place.

I’ve always taken it for granted that Jesus had disciples, but really, their very existence is pretty amazing. It’s a deep sign of God’s grace that Jesus—God incarnate, the savior of the world—walked around the countryside with a group of people. That he invited people to be part of the work he was doing—work he surely could have done without their “help.”

We’ve all experienced unhelpful help. The kind of help that makes a task take three times as long as it should: kids helping to wash the dishes; me helping Ryan iron his shirts; a committee full of people helping to edit a document. And the more capable you are at something, the more of a problem “help” can be. I’d say Jesus was pretty capable in the savior department. The disciples must have driven him crazy.

So why does he do it? Why does Jesus call James and John and Andrew and Peter away from their boats and nets? Why does he invite these uncomprehending fishermen to follow him around and get in the way?

It makes no sense.

And yet here is Jesus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, recruiting fishermen to follow him.

What if the point of this story is that we should invite other people to be part of our lives? People we don’t think we really need. People whose help might be less than helpful. People who will not always understand us or agree with us. People that will drive us crazy.

Really, this whole disciples thing makes no sense.

Unless the point isn’t to do life efficiently, but to do it together.

Unless salvation is as much about how we relate to each other as it is about how we relate to God.

Unless somehow, by God’s mysterious and confounding grace, the good news of the Kingdom of God comes to fullness only when we work to live it and proclaim it with each other.

On Being Church

Photo Credit: Doug Koch
Photo Credit: Doug Koch

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon based on Matthew 18:15-20 that  I preached about three years ago. (Funny how the lectionary works like that!)

– – – – –

The Greek word that gets translated as “church”–ekklesia–shows up on only two occasions in the Gospels. Both in Matthew. The first is: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church . . . and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The second and final use of ekklesia is in this morning’s Gospel reading. Again, Jesus is speaking. This time, rather than focusing on the strength and power of the church, Jesus anticipates church conflict.

“If a brother or sister sins against you . . .” “If.”

If somebody in the church says something that offends you; if he does something that you believe harms you in body or spirit; if she presents a barrier between you and God in some way. These things happen within the church; Jesus knew they would.

The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church; but conflicting theologies, combative personalities, different aesthetic sensibilities–these things can do a lot of damage to Christian communities.

Jesus knew there would be conflict within the church, likely because he was living with the conflicts among his followers every day. We can imagine some of the squabbles that broke out as they walked along the road together.

“Peter took my walking stick.”

“It’s my turn to walk next to Jesus.”

“But we had bread and fish for lunch yesterday.”

“Forgive us our sins.” “Debts.” “Sins.” “Debts.”

“Cessarea is this way.” “No, it’s this way.” “Well, if somebody would have just stopped to ask directions . . . ”

Anticipating conflicts to come, Jesus gives his followers some pretty clear instructions: You speak to the offending person one-on-one. You speak to the person with a few witnesses. If the offending party still does not listen, only then do you take the conflict before the church body. The church community hears both sides of the conflict in light of Christ’s teachings; the church presents its collective wisdom in an attempt to reconcile all people to the body.

Only after these faithful attempts at reconciliation does the church let someone go. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” There is a point at which fellowship is broken.

This point of separation, however, is not a point we come to quickly or easily. And it seems to me there is some irony here: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” On the surface, for a first-century Jewish audience, this would mean to treat them as outsiders. Yet in the context of Jesus’ ministry, and considering that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew may well have been a tax collector himself, we have to wonder what Jesus really has in mind here.

There may be times when a person chooses to leave the church community. There may even be times–in extreme situations of abuse–when a church community needs to ask someone to leave. Yet even to the tax collectors and the Gentiles, the door is never shut. The grace of God can extend.

So that’s Jesus little Conflict Management 101 lecture for the disciples. And we know that the followers of Christ in every century will need this lesson. The church will face conflict after conflict after conflict. Sometimes, you have to wonder if the church is worth all of that effort. This church that is stronger than Hell yet somehow so vulnerable to the egos of those of us who make it up.

It is the church community–all of us together trying to follow Jesus–that makes the journey frustrating and painful and hard. And it is the community that makes the journey worthwhile and joyful and possible.

We, together, are the church. We are prone to sin, mistakes, messiness. Conflict is inevitable.

We, together, are the church. Because where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is here among us. And nothing, nothing, shall prevail against us.

Thanks be to God.

Let’s Talk About the “Third Way”

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org
Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

If you have been reading recent statements by Mennonite Church USA leaders, or even engaging in more private conversations about the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Mennonite church, you have heard the term “third way.” A lot.

Coming from denominational leadership, third way seems to be code for status quo. Calls for people to adopt the third way boil down to: “Let’s everyone just calm down about all of this gay people stuff so that the church doesn’t split.” The “third way” is presented as simply a complacent middle ground.

And that’s a fine way to use the term “third way” in the secular world. The Wikipedia entry for “Third Way” defines it as a political philosophy that “tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics.” So for the sake of political sanity, if we’re seeking political expediency, we can talk about about the third way as a coming together of two opposing sides, as a place to be concerned about our “rhetorical tone”, as Ervin Stutzman puts it.

But I am not looking for political sanity or expediency in my denomination. I am looking for faithfulness to the way of Jesus. In our church discussions, we should not be invoking the secular meaning of the third way, we should be thinking hard about the theological meaning of that term.

Walter Wink uses this term to describe Jesus’ teachings about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. In Jesus’ day, a Roman soldier was allowed to force a Jewish peasant to carry his gear for one mile. So if a soldier thrust his gear on a peasant, the two obvious responses were for the peasant to throw the gear down and refuse to walk or to carry the gear one mile. The third way is to carry the gear two miles. The first mile is required, but the second mile is a choice–a choice that would probably confuse the soldier, possibly even get the soldier in trouble if his superiors thought he was breaking the rules.

From a theological perspective, there are a few things we need to understand about the “third way.”

First, the third way is not for white, middle-class, straight men. Theologically speaking, the third way is for those who are oppressed. It’s for the one who gets slapped on the cheek–not the one who does the slapping. It’s for the Jewish peasant weighed down with military gear–not the Roman soldier. And, in the context of our discussions about sexuality, it is for queer Mennonites who have been demeaned and excluded by the church–not for us straight people.

Second, the third way is not synonymous with being nice to each other. I mean, there is nothing wrong with being nice to each other, but that is not what the third way is about. The truth is that Jesus’ “rhetorical tone” varied widely depending on who he was talking to–and possibly how tired and cranky he was. He spoke gently to the children and the woman caught in adultery. He got testy with the disciples. He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” He turned over the money-changers’ tables in the temple. If the third way means following Jesus, then it cannot also mean smiling and nodding and trying to make everyone happy all of the time.

Finally, the third way does not have to do with compromise, or even synergy. There are plenty of texts in scripture that do talk about the early church–the gifting of the Spirit, the way that disagreements were negotiated, the importance of love and humility in community. So there is a place for synergy–and even compromise–when it comes to many of the questions we face as churches. But if we are talking about compromise, we are talking about something different from the third way. The third way is for people who have no power to negotiate a compromise or participate in the decision-making synergy.

If we are going to continue to use the term “third way” in our discussions of sexuality and the church, we need to start using it based on its theological meaning, not its political meaning. Theologically, the third way is not increased complacency to be negotiated by those in power. Theologically, the third way involves creative, peaceful resistance to oppressive forces.

Which means that, ultimately, our goal should be to have no need of a third way within the church. When all people are respected and power is truly shared, then the third way is not needed. When there are no longer oppressed people within the church, then we will be better able to live as the true church, walking the third way together with the powerless out in the world. Just like Jesus did.

Sermon Snippet: Acts 15

Here are a few excerpts from this past Sunday’s sermon on Acts 15–a.k.a. The Jerusalem Council. My fifteen-year-old informs me that she was trying to read during the sermon, “But then you got loud.” I’m afraid you won’t be able to experience the full effect of my pulpit pounding–you’ll just have to use your imaginations. :-)

– – – – –

So, like the questions of circumcision and dietary restrictions in the first century, the questions about sexuality in the 21st century are a very big deal.

As most of us have discovered though, one way or another, big deal things can cause big deal reactions. These discussions of the issues about which we feel passionate–which really are discussions about people we love–can be difficult, even explosive.

So I want to look a little more closely at this gathering of the church leaders in Jerusalem–what many refer to as the Jerusalem Council. I’m interested to see how they approach the touchy subject of the law as it relates to new Gentile Jesus-followers.

The first thing I notice is that those who have gathered share stories. Paul and Barnabas tell of their ministry with the Gentiles, and Peter also shares stories of his ministry–how he saw God give the Gentiles the Holy Spirit just as God had given the Spirit to the Jews. I think this sharing of stories is a vital part of communicating–especially of communicating with those who disagree with us. . . .

These stories open up space for people to stretch and grow.

This story-telling is also a challenge for us working toward inclusion–particularly those of us allowed to be on the inside because we are not–or not known to be–gay–it’s a challenge for us to get over our “Mennonite humility” and claim the role of Peter: We have to tell the stories of the Holy Spirit at work within and through sexual minorities. To say that God has made no distinction between “us and them.” To urge the church to quit putting the unbearable yoke of celibacy on our gay brothers and sisters–because it is a yoke that very few of us can bear.

Listening to and telling stories is vital to our church life.

And here’s another important thing to note about this meeting in Jerusalem: after people share their stories, James stands up and shows how the words of scripture agree with the testimony of Peter and Paul and Barnabas. Look, says James, our prophets said that even the Gentiles will seek the Lord. Now certainly there were scriptures that could have been quoted that urged people to follow dietary laws, to be circumcised. But those are not the scriptures James shares in light of the stories he has heard.

For too long, in the contemporary church, those who would exclude sexual minorities have been the loudest scripture-quoters. The first ones to go to the Bible for support. This has been true to such an extent that many people–inside and outside of the church–view condemnation of homosexuality as the “biblical stance.” But despite what so many people have told me, the Bible is not clear about homosexuality. Not by a long shot. The Bible is clear, however, about love and justice, and the dangers of judging and excluding, and the need for humility, and the many gifts given to all believers.

As we live out and listen to stories, we should do so in light of our holy scriptures; we should consider how these ancient words speak to us today.

So the Jesus-followers gathered in Jerusalem, listened to each other’s stories, examined those stories in the light of scripture, and then they made a decision. . . . It worked for them . . . sort of. But we have to realize that this process will not magically resolve all the disagreements. Any more than the Jerusalem council led the church into clear policy and happily ever after.

We are talking about the church here. A church which is, for better or worse, made up of a bunch of human beings. Things will be hard and messy. Today. And next weekend. . . . Probably forever. Or until Kingdom come, at least.

But those of us who love Jesus and value the church come together anyway. We listen and give our testimony anyway. We study scripture anyway. And we pray together that we can be as faithful as we can be–that we will act in ways that seem “good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” May it be so. Amen.

 

Story-Shaped Theology

This morning I came across this beautiful question in a sermon from Randy Newswanger:

Are my understandings of God, my understandings of healing and redemption, my understandings of community and celebration large enough to hold the specific details of your story?

I think this question is at the heart of church. We base our shared life around the Story of scripture, but there are so many more stories that we hear and live together. And each story grows and shapes and sometimes even transforms the way we understand how God works in the world. At least it should.

I worry sometimes that this whole internet thing allows us to be too selective about the stories we let ourselves hear. That the cable TV craziness means we only have to watch TV shows that validate our already-held ideas. That the church-shopping syndrome lets us ease into worship communities where we only have to listen to stories that mirror our own.

But we don’t have to be imprisoned in our comfort zones. Stories from around the world are just a mouse-click away. Or a library trip. Or maybe even a walk to the corner coffee shop.

Are my understandings of God, my understandings of healing and redemption, my understandings of community and celebration large enough to hold the specific details of your story?

I want to hold this question in my heart today. I want to listen closely to people’s stories, to listen deeply. Then, tomorrow, I want to try to do it again. If enough of us can manage enough energy and enough grace to do this more days than we don’t, I believe the church–and the world–will be transformed.

(Also, imagine how the government shutdown fiasco would have played out if congress-people and our president had listened well and allowed the stories of others to change their minds and shape their policies! But that’s a post for another time.)

Sermon Snippet: Acts 11:1-18

You might think that the church folks would be happy about a bunch of baptisms–but these were Gentiles. They were upset that the Gentiles were being brought into this faith community.

There were religious differences between Jews and Gentiles, yes. And also ethnic/racial differences. Jews and Gentiles had different cultural heritages. They did not understand each other well. Maybe they were even a little bit afraid of each other.

Two thousand years after Peter got in trouble for bringing Gentiles into the church community, we still deal with racism within the church. It’s not that white Mennonites think people of color shouldn’t be in the church or be baptized. We’re all for racial diversity as long as it doesn’t lead to any, you know, actual diversity–different kinds of praying or preaching or music or theology.

When I was in seminary—the first time—I served as a Christian Ed and youth intern at a mid-sized mainline church. It was a predominantly white church in what had become a predominantly Hispanic part of town. And that church wanted to “reach out” to the people in the neighborhood. They hosted after-school tutoring for neighborhood kids. They ran a Vacation Bible School program each summer that attracted about 100 kids—mostly from the neighborhood. And they got really frustrated that none of the neighborhood families became part of the church. They would talk about their frustrations at the same meetings where they voted to spend how-ever-many-thousand dollars to update the organ. Which was played loudly. And slowly. And accompanied hymns written by long-dead Europeans. Plus, the pastor spoke no Spanish. Nada.

So, yes. This issue of race and culture within the church is still alive and well today.

The apostles were upset with Peter baptizing Gentiles because this new, emerging church was supposed to be their church. A Jewish church. Their understanding of Jesus was grounded in Jesus’ identity as a Jew—like them.

And we all do that, really. Hold onto the similarities between ourselves and Jesus. Whether they are real—like, for instance, as best we can tell, Jesus really was a Jew; or whether they are culturally reinforced historical impossibilities. For centuries in the Western church Jesus has been white. Those of us who think about it geographically, historically, know Jesus would not have been white or looked white at all—but so many paintings and sculptures from throughout the ages reveal how people made Jesus in their own white image. Because it was comfortable. And it served the power structure.

But God’s visions for Peter and Cornelius in this story show that within the church, we are not called to be comfortable or powerful. We are not called to stay in our safe spaces with people who look and act like us; with only people who agree with us. Jesus has bigger things in mind.

4085417983Sonari Glenton, of NPR fame, tells a story on This American Life about his elementary principal, an Irish Catholic nun, taking down all of the white-Jesus crucifixes in the school and replacing them with black-Jesus crucifixes. (Worth a listen!)

Being an inclusive community doesn’t mean that we let people in who act like us and see God the same way we see God. Being an inclusive community means that we truly open up, that we are willing to let people who are different from us help us more fully understand the depth and breadth of God, that we look to and listen to others as we try to figure out what it means to follow Christ.

The apostles are hesitant, at first, to include the Gentiles. But after they hear Peter’s story, his critics quit criticizing him and begin praising God for the new members of their family.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a “happily ever after” tale. As more people with diverse cultures, beliefs, eating habits, geographical locations . . . as more people come into the church, the potential for internal conflict escalates. And we will see as we continue reading Acts that there are many more difficulties to overcome.

This is not a story that provides simplistic answers for complicated questions. It is a story that reminds us that we should listen closely to the stories others have to share. That God operates beyond our areas of comfort. That God’s church includes people we wouldn’t expect in ways we can’t imagine. It is a story that can help us live together with openness and grace.

[The full sermon text is here.]

Sermon Snippit: Acts 6:1-7

*This is an excerpt from last Sunday’s sermon. You can read the entire sermon text here.

Acts 6:1-7

So, did you get what happened here? Some people in the church went to the pastors and said, “Hey. The care, the charity of the church, is not being distributed fairly. You Hebrews aren’t giving our Hellenist widows their fair share.”

And the pastors’ response does not seem very Christian. Certainly not very Mennonite: “Well, we’re busy doing the important work of preaching. It’s not our job to wait tables.”

These twelve men, at least eleven of whom had watched Jesus wrap a towel around his waist and wash their filthy feet in the upper room, said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” They appoint seven other men to “wait on tables” so that they can remain devoted to prayer and preaching.

Just who do these guys think they are, anyway? Too busy praying to feed hungry widows? I spent a good part of the week frustrated with these apostles and their poor leadership model.

And, to be honest, I also spent some time this week fantasizing about what my job might be like if I could just devote myself to prayer and preaching. No meetings. No pastoral visits. No worship coordinating. I wouldn’t even have to check email. Maybe these guys were onto something. . . .

Yes, we can read the apostles’ response here in Acts as a snotty, “We’re too good for that lowly work.” But we can also read it as a wise implementation of a broader leadership structure. . . .

Perhaps this is not about arrogance, but simply about good leadership. “We will preach and pray. You will coordinate the dispensing of food to the needy.”

Over the course of the week I convinced myself that these twelve guys maybe weren’t so bad after all. They’re just being smart. Trying to save themselves from burnout. Setting a good example about division of labor within the church.

It is a good thing for each of us to have our niche. We are all better at different things.

And I think–all of you listen, please–especially those who feel guilt-ridden for not doing enough–I think the apostles here give us permission to say “no.” Not “no, I don’t care.” But “no, I can’t be the one to do that.”

. . . For every thing we choose to do, we are also choosing to not do anything else at that moment. We have to make decisions as faithfully as we can, trusting in the work of the whole body and the grace of God.

The apostles realized that saying “yes” to personally resolving the situation with the distribution of food would have meant saying “no” to some of the praying and preaching they were doing. And it might not be that any of it was more important than the rest of it–Paul’s writings certainly indicate that there is not a hierarchy of service–but simply that one person, even one group of people, cannot do everything that we, as Christ followers, want to see done in the world. . . .

But some of you are doing the reading plan. So you didn’t just read Acts 6:1-7. You read through the first verse of chapter 8. So you know that at the end of chapter 7, Stephen is stoned.

And for those who don’t remember the story, let me assure you that he was not stoned for distributing food to widows.

That was supposed to be his job, right? The apostles prayed for him and the other six; laid their hands on them and sent them forth to distribute food. Three verses later Stephen is in trouble with people at the synagogue for preaching and doing signs and wonders.

Stephen had a role in the church and the Spirit calls him out beyond that role. Later in Acts we also see Philip preaching–even though he was supposed to be distributing food as well.

And I’d like to think that, perhaps, Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the rest of the twelve found themselves giving food to widows every once in awhile.

Because that’s how church works. We discern each others gifts and assign roles. And that is good. And it helps us function; it helps us do ministry–do the work of God in this place.

Then the Spirit comes in and shakes things up now and then.

We are called to be organized and open. Focused and free to expand. It’s a tricky, tension-filled place to be.

But nobody said that being church was easy. And nobody says that we have to be perfect. The key for the early church–and probably for us–is to listen to each other and the Holy Spirit. The better we listen, the more faithfully we can follow the way of Jesus. Amen.