Wednesday, December 12, 2007

“The Future is Open”

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38[1]

I grew up playing the game “Monopoly.” My cousins and I would play it like it was going out of style! In later years, when I actually read the rules of the game (!), I learned that we had “cheated.” You see, the game of monopoly operates in a fixed world with a closed system. There are only so many properties, only so many houses and hotels, and only so much money to go around. Now, of course, my cousins and I didn’t invent new properties on the board. But we didn’t abide by the limitations on cash and improvements. The way we played the game, if a person had the money to buy a house or hotel, they got one. And when we ran out of cash, we just made more. We created $1,000 bills and $5,000 bills and we had double hotels on Boardwalk!

When I found out that we had actually “broken” the rules, I began thinking about the world and how it operates. There are those in our world who operate from the assumption that there’s only so much to go around. What that usually means is that I have to get mine so that I don’t wind up empty-handed! And the assumption is also that it leaves others without enough. When you look at our society in comparison with the rest of the world, it’s easy to conclude that we are hoarding an inordinate amount of the world’s resources.

But there’s also another way of looking at things. When I shared my analogy with a friend who was in finance, he enlightened me regarding the way a market economy works. Other systems of economics operate on the basis of the fact that there’s only so much to go around. But a market economy works on the principle of creating wealth—by starting businesses, by filling a niche that hasn’t yet been filled, by tapping a previously undiscovered source of revenue.

As my friend pointed out, when you look at the world from that point of view, the question of how much there is to go around doesn’t even enter the equation. In fact, it is possible that no one knows how much our economy can generate. Instead of a principle of “hoarding,” this a market economy works on the principle of “investing.” You see a niche, feel a need, or uncover an opportunity. You come up with a business plan. You raise the funds you need. Then you risk the whole thing in a new venture. Will it succeed? You’ll never know until you make the leap!

I think that illustration from the world of economics has application other areas of life. In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus was dealing with a group of people who basically operated within a closed system. The Sadducees, as Luke tells us, did not believe in things like “resurrection.” They operated within a closed system—they believed only what they saw and what the past had taught them. They used the Scriptures as a kind of rule book that strictly prescribed for them what they would and would not believe in. They were the guardians of the past, the protectors of the status quo.

But when all you have to go on is the past, then death and decay reign supreme.[2] In due time, everything and everyone that ever was, is no more. If the system is closed, then everything inevitably deteriorates. But Jesus reminded them that God does not operate within a closed system. God is the God of the living, not of the dead! God is the God of life, not the God of decay!

In God’s system, the world operates based on promises that point toward a future with hope and life.[3] Promises like “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making everything new.” The Christian faith is at heart the hope that God has begun to do just that through Jesus Christ.[4] The Christian faith is at heart the faith that God is already doing that through the Spirit of Life poured out on all creation.[5]

This congregation has been standing at a crossroads for some time. We can choose to live within a closed system to assume that there’s only so much to go around, to think that our best is back there somewhere in the past—which means it’s dead and gone. Or we can embrace an open future, and operate on the basis of the faith that God is continually at work around and among us to make everything new—which means our future is alive and full of promise because we have no idea what God can or cannot do in this congregation and in this community.

I prefer to embrace an open future. But then, what really matters is the choice you make. I hope you will join me in hoping in the God and Father of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, the God who is making all things new through his Spirit poured out on all creation, the God who is God not of the dead, but of the living.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/11/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 163; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 93; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 22-26.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191; he also says that the Spirit “makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”

“A Vision Remains”

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:11-28[1]

There was a time when everyone had fairly the same idea about what “church” is and what “church” is about. I’m afraid those days are gone for good—there just is no generally agreed upon idea in our society about what a church is supposed to be and do. I think if you asked a random person at the mall to define “church,” it would be amazing the variety of answers you would get.

Even in the church there is precious little agreement. If you just look at the churches on television you will find a bewildering assortment that would challenge the most perceptive individual to find anything that holds them in common. You have everything from 70’s style variety shows to people lecturing about Greek and Hebrew words—and everything in between, including people with charts and timelines predicting the end of the world, others apparently trying to drag our society kicking and screaming back to the 1950’s, and even a Catholic nun leading the rosary! With that kind of confusion, it’s no wonder it’s so hard for churches to thrive—do we even know what it is we’re supposed to be doing? For some, this is a crisis of immense proportions, because it represents an end of their vision for the church.

In the days when Babylon was the most powerful nation in the Ancient Near East, Israel was among the nations that faced the threat of conquest. Many of the prophets viewed this impending catastrophe as God’s judgment for Israel’s sinful and unjust ways. Habakkuk, however, had a serious problem with this. In essence, he asked the Lord how it could be “just” to bring judgment upon them using a nation that was more wicked than Israel!

The real problem for Habakkuk, I think, was that the destruction of Israel represented the end of a vision—his vision of what God was doing in the world through his covenant people. But the message Habakkuk received for the Lord was that “a vision remains,” and he was to proclaim it so that his fellow Israelites might not give up. The vision was this—no matter what happens, God will remain faithful to his own.

In spite of the fact that it may seem that we are coming to the end of a vision—a vision for what the church is and does in our world—I think the Scriptures remind us all that “a vision remains.” It is the vision that God is working in this world at no less than “making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).[2] It is the vision that we don’t have to wait for some remote future on a timeline, because “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21); God’s saving reign is now presently working among humankind.

It’s the vision of Jesus that we’ve been studying in his parables on Wednesday evenings—a vision that consisted of promoting the Kingdom of God. As we have found, the parables of Jesus are stories that illustrate various dimensions of God’s “secret”: the Kingdom of God is already working to make all things new.[3] And as the Parable of the Pounds demonstrates, that adds urgency to what we do with our lives now.

In the NT, the apostles translated Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God into a vision for the church. They articulated a vision that can be called “The Church in the Power of the Spirit,” giving ourselves away in service, and compassion, and community with others (Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 4:10). It is the vision of the church as a kind of “sacrament” of God’s presence, God’s life, God’s grace in this world.[4] What that means is that the church becomes the place where and the people among whom a hurting world can find “the experience of the life-affirming, life-giving love of God.”[5] It is a vision of a church that serves no matter what the cost, a church that embraces all, even the unlovable, even the “enemy.”[6] It is the vision of a church that bears witness to new life in every sphere of life.[7]

Does this biblical vision offer something that can motivate and inspire us to be the church in this community? Last January our session formulated a vision in terms of the slogan that we print on our bulletin each week: “We are an open family of Christians.” We say that means that we represent a diversity of beliefs and styles of faith, that we seek to be inclusive and to embrace individuals from all walks of life, that we are a caring community, and that we seek to be disciples of Jesus the Christ, to follow him in promoting the Kingdom of God and its justice in our community and in our world.

I think that means that this is a church were you can ask any question that’s on your mind without fear of being looked down upon or chastised as a heretic. I think it means that this is a church where anyone can show up at the door and be welcomed and embraced as a part of the family. That’s my vision for this church, at any rate. If it’s something that interests you, I hope you will join me in seeking to follow Christ and to serve those around us.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/4/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2]Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 294-95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 66, 84, 146; Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 149, 155, 158, 161, 163, 164.

[3] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 76-85; 98-99; 190-91; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 220, 252-54.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 205.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 279.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342

[7] See The Book of Order G-1.200; G-3.0200-0300; cf The Book of Confessions, Confession of 1967, 9.31; cf.also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 295, 299, 316, 332, 334, 340.

“Always Reforming”

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; Lk.18:9-14[1]

The heart of the Reformed faith is the phrase, “reformed and always reforming according to the word of God.”[2] We who hold to the “Reformed” faith often speak of “the Reformation,” but in fact there have been a number of “reformations” throughout history. And in most cases they were driven by a reassessment of certain notions about God.

For example, in the days of ancient Israel, one of the significant “reformations” in their view of God was that, unlike the deities worshipped by the other nations, God is not restricted to a certain place or nation. Another major reformation was the recognition that God wants obedience, not animal sacrifices; God seeks the heart, not the blood and flesh of our livestock!

In Martin Luther’s day, the reformation concerned how one can be right with God. For centuries the teaching of the church had made it clear that one must work diligently to obey God’s commands, to avoid sin, and to remain true to the faith in order to be found right with God at the final judgment. Luther, like several lesser known “reformers” before him, emphasized Paul’s view that we are made right with God by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus the Christ. There is nothing we can or need do in order to earn it. And it’s something we can be confident of now, not a verdict that will be rendered only after we finish our course.

In our day, I think we still have some “reforming” to do in our ideas about God. For all of the great Reformers’ influence—from Luther to Calvin to Knox—I think we still don’t quite accept the idea that God, out of God’s own grace and mercy and love, set us right with himself, and that there is nothing we have to do to make God love us any more than God already does.

I think the other side of that coin also needs some attention also— there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less! No matter what we do, God continues to love us, continues to seek us, continues to be gracious and merciful toward us. The truth of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God loves the wayward, and wants to heal and restore them, not to punish them.[3] That’s the secret of God’s kingdom that Jesus teaches us in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In fact, the NT teaches us Jesus was willing to give up his divine privileges (Philippians 2:6), willing to be tortured to death (Philippians 2:8; cf. Isaiah 53:5,), willing to literally go to hell for us in order to heal and restore us all (1 Peter 3:19; Romans 10:6-7; cf. Isaiah 53:8-9).

In spite of the fact that the NT assures us over and over again that this is indeed the gospel truth, we have a hard time grasping that kind of love. It’s the kind of love that sets the stage for the 1998 Robin Williams film, What Dreams May Come. The story is about a couple, Chris and Annie, whose love is subjected to the worst possible tests. After the tragic loss of their two children in an accident, Annie also loses her husband and soul-mate Chris. She is so overcome with despair that she kills herself and goes to hell—not because God is punishing her for killing herself or for unbelief or anything like that, but because she is punishing herself. Chris goes to a very unusual version of “heaven”—one that has very little in common with the Christian notion of eternal life, by the way.

But their love is such that even in death Chris and Annie have an unusually strong connection. So strong, in fact, that when Annie takes her life, Chris knows that something has gone wrong. Against all odds, Chris decides to search for Annie in hell. When he finally finds her in an upside-down and ramshackle version of their home, Chris enters the nightmare into which Annie has plunged herself. Despite the fact that he can consciously feel himself slipping into the madness of Annie’s “hell,” Chris has decided to stay with her. His act of sacrificial love in the highest degree breaks through Annie’s despondency and restores her so she can go back with him to “heaven.” What makes the difference is that Chris loves her so much that he is not just willing to die for her, but willing to stay with her even if it means spending all eternity with her in her self-made “hell.”

I think this story presents a parable of the love that God has for us. We have too long believed that sin and death and hell are somehow more powerful than God’s love and grace. We have too long believed that God will stop loving us if at the end of our lives our good deeds don’t outweigh our sins. We have too long believed that God will reject us if at the end of our lives we haven’t endorsed the right theological opinions. We have too long believed that if we aren’t “good enough” God will give us up to an eternal condemnation without the slightest hint of compassion.

But the good news of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God loves us with an everlasting love, a love that will not let us go, no matter what. God’s love is more powerful than sin, or death, or even hell itself.[4] In fact, according to the NT the only thing that is ultimately and finally condemned in the end is hell itself![5] The good news is that God always seeks to heal and restore the wayward, whether their wanderings have led them to the brokenness of a dishonest tax collector, or the desperation of a prodigal son so hungry he’s willing to eat pig fodder, or even to the very depths of hell.

On this Reformation Sunday, I hope we can embrace the good news that there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any more than God already does, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/28/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See, for example The Book of Order 2007-08, G-2.0200; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 355.

[3] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 87, 88, 91, 94.

[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145. See further Hans Küng, Eternal Life, 212, where he grants that salvation for all is not guaranteed, but nevertheless affirms that “Not even in ‘hell’ are there any limits set to the grace of God”; cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 190: “Death can set no limits to the unconditional and hence universal love of God.”

[5] Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 145: “What will be annihilated is Nothingness, what will be slain is death, what will be dissolved is the power of evil, what will be separated from all created beings is separation from God, sin.”

“Doing Our Best”

2 Timothy 2:8-15[1]

I grew up pledging “on my honor” to do my best. The Scout oath and the Scout law were so ingrained into me that I can still repeat them both to this day! But promising to do my best was more than just an oath that I repeated every week at Scout meetings. It was a way of life that my family taught me.

I believe most of us would like to think that we are doing our best. These days, however, doing our best is a bit more complicated. “Doing our best” these days is something that has to be tied to measurable results. Everyone from business to teaching to the United Way is looking for “measurable results.” Our “results-oriented” mania has made “doing our best” a lot more complicated.

I’m afraid, however, that for all our measuring, we’re not doing better, but worse. Now, instead of focusing on doing our best, we’re focusing on measuring everything. Take the public school system, for example. In 1991, the State of Texas in its infinite wisdom introduced the TAAS test. The point was to make sure that our children were getting a good education. But what happened was that the test wasn’t coordinated with the curriculum, so teachers began teaching the TAAS instead of their subject. In 2003, the TAKS test replaced it, and it was supposed to correct the problems caused by the TAAS. But while the test itself may be more closely aligned with the curriculum, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that standardized testing has not improved education in Texas, but rather diminished it. Of course, there’s no question that some under-performing teachers are probably doing their job more consistently. But in the process, the TAAS/TAKS test has stripped the excellent teachers of the freedom to give full expression to their creativity! Instead of approaching their subject with imagination and enthusiasm, they too have to teach the TAKS.

Think of college recruiters, out there looking for candidates for the teacher education program at a local university. Do they pitch the ideal of teaching or the reality? They could say something like, “If you become a teacher you will have the opportunity to mold young minds and shape young lives”—that’s the ideal of teaching. But if they want to be more honest, they would have to say something like, “If you become a teacher you will be chained to a system that teaches to the lowest common denominator and rigidly ties your chances for promotion to ‘measurable results’ in the classroom.” Which do you think will produce more teacher candidates?

Of course, the mania for numbers and figures and “measurable results” has always been a temptation for the church. One of the clichés in church is the story about pastors gathering for coffee every week and exaggerating their attendance and giving figures in order to impress each other! This cliché, however, reveals one of the great challenges in church life and work: just what is the measure of “doing one’s best” in the church? If it’s numbers, then only a small fraction of churches in the world have ever been “successful.” The vast majority of churches of all stripes in this country are just like ours—under 100 members.[2]

If we look to our New Testament lesson for today, Paul urges Timothy to “do his best,” to strive to fulfill his calling, to make every effort to follow Christ and to serve others faithfully. It seems to me that what Paul was trying to do was to encourage and inspire Timothy to be faithful to his calling and to his work. In the Christian life, the measure of success can rarely be reduced to numbers. It has to do with life! We’re in the business of changing hearts! And I don’t think we can rely simply on church attendance or giving figures as a measure of changing hearts and lives. That’s the challenge that faces us all—you can never really know when or where or how far you’re making a difference.

That’s why Paul told Timothy to stick to the plan, to hold onto the vision, to keep working diligently. “Success” in ministry is about perseverance. What makes a church thrive is to keep our focus on following Christ and serving others.[3] Objective goals and measurable results won’t do it. Churches die when they become preoccupied with those things. Churches thrive when they follow Christ and serve those around them. It’s that simple.

So are we being faithful in this congregation? Are we doing our best? I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!” For some “doing our best” means that they are going way beyond the call of duty. To them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!” For some “doing our best” means they would like to do more, but they are doing as much as they possibly can. And to them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!” For some, “doing our best” means that they are only able to show up for worship as the occasion permits. And to them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!”

As Mother Teresa puts it, “God does not demand that I be successful. God demands that I be faithful. When facing God, results are not important. Faithfulness is what is important.”[4]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Dart, A ‘census’ of congregations - Faith Communities Today survey results,” in The Christian Century (March 21, 2001); cf.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 306-7, identifies the “essentials” as kerygma [proclaiming the gospel], koinonia [fellowship], and diakonia [service]; cf. also 361: “The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship with Christ is its secret. The Church of Jesus Christ is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Unity in freedom, holiness in poverty, catholicity in partisan support for the weak, and apostolate in suffering are the marks by which it is known in the world.”

[4] See Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado, In My Own Words (The Words of Mother Teresa), accessed at