Wednesday, July 29, 2009


2 Cor. 8:7-15; Mk. 5:21-43[1]

Those who live with handicaps in our society are treated like misfits—at best. [2] Most of us don’t want to have to deal with them because they’re not “normal.”[3] I know a little about this because of my brother Douglas. He was born with a mental handicap in a time before our culture discovered that we should have a “conscience” regarding the handicapped. As a boy, I think I felt what everybody who cared about him felt—grief and compassion for his difficulty, mixed with embarrassment that he was not “normal,” mixed with resentment toward those who made fun of him.

One of the regrets I have about his recent death is that it took me so long to discover that Douglas was indeed not just “normal”—he was a gift.[4] But what I feel most of all is grateful. I am grateful for the gift that God gave to us in him. In a very real sense, he was one of those special people that God puts on earth to fulfill the promise of making all things new—the promise of making all things into God’s kingdom of mercy and peace.

Like the “Sower” in the parable who sows the seeds of the kingdom wherever he goes, those who took the time to see Douglas for who he was went away from that encounter with the seeds of Christ’s compassion growing inside them. And like the proverbial leaven that works its way throughout the dough and forever changes it, all who opened their hearts to Douglas could not help but be more sensitive toward the suffering all around them. It was not we who sought to care for Douglas who blessed him—it was he who blessed us.

In a very real sense, I believe that people like Douglas embody the presence of Christ in this world.[5] In his weakness Douglas was a true saint—simply by being who he was, a vulnerable, needy, frail human being, he pointed us all to the kingdom of God.[6] I also think Douglas—again by his very being—presented a challenge to all of us who claim to follow Christ. In this society where the weak and the vulnerable—the “abnormal”—are routinely ignored, people like Douglas are the presence of Christ, calling us to cut through all our religious verbiage and do more to show God’s love to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).[7]

I am grateful for having had that challenge. In that respect, my brother was one of the most influential people in my life—and I am a much better human being for it. You did your work very well, Doug. I am grateful—grateful for the privilege of having Douglas for a brother—for the gift that he was, for the presence of Christ that he was, for the blessing he gave to us, and for the challenge he gave me to care for the “least” among us.

How does all this apply to us? I think it’s easy for small churches these days to feel as if we are up against insurmountable odds. We may find ourselves feeling “weak,” “disadvantaged,” or even “handicapped” in comparison with our larger counterparts. But I wonder if small churches ought not to learn a lesson from my brother. Among all the “movers and shakers” I’ve encountered in my life, the one who had the most impact, the one who shaped me most significantly, the one who left the most lasting impression in my soul, was my brother Douglas. I’ve studied with professors who were world-class theologians. I’ve known many pastors and missionaries and church leaders over the last thirty years. But it was my brother, who was born with minimal brain damage, who suffered from temporary hearing loss as a young child, who struggled to learn even the most basic concepts in school, and who eventually was stricken with schizophrenia, who was the true “mover and shaker” in my life![8]

Perhaps those of us who live and serve in small churches need to take a clue from that. It’s not just the biggest and the most visible and the richest churches who have the potential to be “movers and shakers” in the lives around us. Small communities of Christians just like us also have that opportunity. In one sense, we might say that we in the small churches have the opportunity to emulate our Savior Jesus Christ, “who was rich and became poor” for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9). Perhaps instead of seeing our “handicaps” as “disadvantages,” we should see learn to see them as powerful avenues of influence.

Make no mistake about it: I do not think that disability is to be celebrated. It is clear that God’s will is for those who suffer to be “well” and “go in peace” (cf. Mk. 5:34).[9] But the fact is that God often works more effectively through the “disabilities” of the “weak” and the “handicapped” than through the talents and resources of the strong and powerful. Just as Jesus spoke reassuringly to the father who loved his child, so also I think he would say to us, “do not fear, only believe” (cf. Mk. 5:36).

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/28/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] This sermon incorporates some of the text of the Eulogy I delivered at Douglas’ funeral on May 18, 2009.

[3] Cf. Harold W. Wilke, “Mainstreaming the Alienated” in The Christian Century (Mar. 23, 1977): 272, who acknowledges this history of “keeping people ‘out of sight, out of mind.’” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 186, who points out that “we do not see the handicapped person; we only see the handicap.”

[4] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Adam: God’s Beloved, where he recounts his experience of caring for a man named Adam Arnett at the Daybreak community in Toronto.

[5] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 126-29, where he argues that Jesus’ presence is to be found among “the least of these” according to Matt. 25:40; Cf. also Burton Cooper, “The Disabled God,” in Theology Today 49(July 1992): 176 “Jesus on the cross is God disabled, made weak and vulnerable to worldly powers because of the perfection of divine love.”

[6] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7, where he says that the poor and the powerless possess a “primordial saintliness” in that they “fulfill the primordial purpose of creation: God’s call to live and give life to others, even in the midst of catastrophe.” I think the same may be said of the “disabled.”

[7] Cf. Lewis B. Smedes, “Can God Reach the Mentally Disabled?” in Christianity Today (Mar 5, 2001):94, says that the mentally “disabled” “have the kind of faith that moved Jesus to say, ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”

[8] Cf. J. Robert Nelson, “Challenging ‘Disabled Theology’” The Christian Century (Dec. 2, 1981): 1244-45; he quotes Gerald Moede, the former General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, as saying that the “disabled” “are the trustees of a blessing without which the church cannot bless the world.”

[9] Cf. Gerald Moede, “God's Power and Our Weakness,” Princeton, NJ:Consultation on Church Union, 1982.

In the Name of the Lord

1 Sam. 17:45; Ps 9:9-20; 2 Cor 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41[1]

It may seem strange to hear a preacher say this, but Scripture can be dangerous. Of course, like any generalization, that depends on one’s point of view. Looking at the story of the people of God in Scripture itself, it becomes clear that the “danger” factor in Scripture applies primarily to those who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The poor and oppressed delighted in Scripture’s promises of justice and the reversal of fortunes. The prophets burned with zeal for the Word of God as they called rich and poor, high and low alike back to faithful obedience to God’s covenant. On the other hand, that kind of talk threatened the establishment priests who indulged themselves on the Temple’s vast resources and the court prophets who made their living pleasing the king!

The book of Acts is no exception to this quality of Scripture. When we read about the amazing vitality in the early church that was the work of the Holy Spirit, we may initially find ourselves fascinated by it or even drawn to it. But remember: that kind of vitality can be incredibly unpredictable, as unpredictable as life itself! When we hear how they devoted themselves to prayer and worship, cultivating the presence of the Spirit and opening themselves to new directions and new impulses, again we may initially feel captivated by their story. But remember that the Spirit compelled them to cross boundaries with the Gospel that took them way outside their “comfort zone.” After thinking it over, we may feel afraid about seeking the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Think about it: we have no control over where the Spirit will lead us. When we hitch onto the Spirit, it is impossible to know what the future will hold. The bottom line is this—given the choice between the familiar and the unpredictable, most of us will choose what we know every time. Most of us are simply afraid to let go of familiar ways.

It’s easy to understand why that’s the case. There is so much about faith that is ambiguous. It is reassuring to hold onto those tangible, external aspects of faith—like which songs we sing, or which Bible we study, or the routine we follow in worship. But fear is not what enabled the first churches to thrive, and it will not enable this church to thrive. Fear is what keeps churches from thriving.

The kind of faith that we see reflected in our Scripture lessons for today can, I think, help us to move forward in new directions. For example, look at the contrast between fear and faith in the story of David and Goliath. As long as the army of Israel believed Goliath’s boasts about his prowess, they remained immobilized, paralyzed by fear.[2] Suddenly, a very young David, who is one of the army’s “water boys,” arrives on the scene. When he hears the Philistine’s mockery, he is dumbfounded that no one is willing to accept the challenge. He volunteers immediately, despite the fact that he seems an unlikely challenger to the Philistine champion. But David goes not in his own strength or military prowess; rather he is confident that the “living God” who delivered him from danger many times before will once again deliver him from Goliath. Goliath comes to David with his impressive size and armor and his vulgar and boastful mouth, and David meets him with five smooth stones “in the name of the Lord of hosts” (1 Sam. 17:45).

Now if I were in David’s shoes, I think I would prefer a sword and spear and javelin to words—to be sure they are bold and courageous words, but still words. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he came with one word—the name of Yahweh, the all-powerful God of all the armies of heaven![3] David’s weapon was a “weapon of righteousness” (2 Cor. 6:7)—David was armed with trust in the God in whose grace and love he had lived his whole life.

When it comes to our faith, I think we too have the choice of whether we will live in fear or in trust. That applies to all aspect of our lives, but especially to what we do at Church. It’s my opinion (and not mine alone) that church growth is fairly simple. If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten. It seems that many think that the way to promote the vitality of a church is to take old familiar ways and just push them harder. But that reminds me of the definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result! I think there are many well-meaning church leaders in our day who are doing all they can to validate that as the definition of insanity!

Seeking new vitality requires new directions—that’s just as true for church as it is for life in general. And stepping out in new directions takes courage and faith. Unfortunately, many of us act as if we think that our living Lord Jesus the Christ is asleep somewhere in the back of the boat and all we can see are the waves crashing all around us. I think Jesus would ask us as well, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mk. 4:40)

It takes faith to step out into the unknown—the same faith that enabled Abraham and Sarah to leave the land of their ancestors and travel to a place they didn’t even know, the same faith that enabled the children of Israel to leave the house of slavery in Egypt and set out on an Exodus journey, the same faith that enabled the first Christians to preach the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world as they were scattered by oppression and hardship.

We don’t know the outcome of the new directions we are pursuing in an effort to re-vitalize this congregation. We can work as hard as we possibly can and we still can’t control the results. But what we do know is this: “those who know your name put their trust in you” (Ps. 9:10). [4] We know the one in whom we have placed our faith; and we can trust that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6). In that spirit of faith, we too can have the courage to do what may seem impossible (for us in our own strength alone).

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/21/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 127-28.

[3] Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 132: the name “the Lord of hosts” which David uses “allude[s] to the entire memory of Yahweh’s deliverances of Israel in the past.” Cf. Brevard S. Childs Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 355: “the content of [God’s] name is filled by what [God] does.”

[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 75—what the Psalmist trusts in God for is “to live in a world determined by the justice of God’s reign”—which is no small matter! To put it more concretely, the Psalmists trusts in God to “hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more” (Ps. 10:17-18; cf. also H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 199).

Not By Sight

1 Sam 16:7; Ez 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-17; Mk. 3:20-27[1]

One of the recurrent themes of philosophy is that there is a difference between “appearance” and reality. Beginning with Socrates and Plato, most of the philosophers in the Western tradition have dealt with that problem. Appearances are always changing, always fleeting. There’s no real substance to them. It’s not a lesson that only the learned and the erudite can discern. Think about it—how many times have you learned the lesson again that appearances can be deceiving.

For example, based on appearances, this country waged a “Cold War” with the Soviet Union for 40 plus years, believing them to be a threat to our freedom and safety. We saw them as the “Russian Bear” waiting to pounce on us and destroy our way of life. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, we began to realize that the Soviets may have built a massive military machine, but they did so to the detriment of their economy, their infrastructure—to their whole way of life. Appearances can be deceiving. During that “Cold War” we built up stockpiles of nuclear weapons, thinking they were making the world “safe for democracy.” But in reality, all we were doing was threatening our very existence, as well as that of our children and grandchildren. Appearances can be deceiving.

That applies to church as well as any other aspect of life. The vast majority of churches in the US are like this one—under 100 members, struggling with finances, working hard to cover all the jobs with fewer volunteers. From the outside looking in, anyone evaluating the role of the church in our society would say that it has become largely irrelevant. Unfortunately, most people subscribe to the “bigger is better” philosophy when it comes to church. From that perspective, based on appearances, it would seem that “church,” with a few dramatic exceptions, doesn’t really have much going for it. But remember, appearances can be deceiving!

Our Scripture lessons for today, each in their own way, remind us of that. In the story of Samuel and David, we find that Saul’s reign has come to a tragic end. Samuel is directed by God to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king, and he begins by judging Jesse’s sons by appearances. But the Lord tells him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). As it turns out, the Lord directed Samuel to anoint David, the youngest and least likely of Jesse’s sons to become king. While it may seem like a surprise, the fact of the matter is that story after story in Scripture demonstrates that God delights in choosing unlikely people to accomplish the work of the Kingdom! God delights in working contrary to all appearances!

Our lesson from the Gospel of Mark makes a similar point, but backwards. By all appearances, Jesus was “out of his mind” or “demon possessed” (Mk. 3:21-22). But Jesus also reminded his critics that appearances can be deceiving. He wasn’t casting out Satan by the power of Satan, he was invading Satan’s territory and plundering it!

What this means for us is that, as Paul reminds us, we must walk by faith, not by sight. When Paul first wrote those words to the church at Corinth, it was a church that, based on outward appearances, did not seem to have much going for it. The church at Corinth was so divided against itself that you might say they were really four churches instead of one! They even publicly humiliated Paul himself, their founder and mentor. But Paul didn’t give up on them. He kept right on patiently teaching and correcting them, above all by his own example. One of the things taught them was that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). For Paul, the key to that was to focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. And from that vantage point, Paul could discern the reality behind the appearance: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

What Paul could see was the kingdom of God had already begun. It is the kingdom that Ezekiel envisioned—it begins as a tiny sprig but grows into a huge Sequoia that towers overhead. And this is because God plants it, the God who says, “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish” (Ez. 17:24). And in case there are any lingering doubts, Ezekiel adds, “I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it”!

A small church like this one may seem insignificant to some eyes, but appearances can be deceiving! In the eyes of God this church and every other small church is like a sprig of cedar that can become a giant tree! Beyond all appearances to the contrary, churches just like ours are demonstrations of the new creation. Just like in the early church, the vitality of this is the work of the Holy Spirit. If you question whether that’s the case, remember that God’s intention all along is this: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”! I think what that means is where God’s renewing Spirit is at work, any congregation can be a “giant sequoia,” regardless of outward appearances!

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/14/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

Awesome God

Awesome God

Isa. 6:1-8; Ps. 29[1]

The best way I know to put you to sleep right at that outset of my sermon today is to say that this is “Trinity Sunday.” The very idea of “Trinity” is something that most of us have relegated to the ivory towers of those who have nothing better to do than to speculate about how many angels can fit on the head of a straight pin! But I’m going to go there anyway because I believe that the Christian view of the Trinity is not just “mere dogma.” It’s not just an intellectual notion that applies only to the most “nerdy” theologians. The Trinity is the core of our faith.

The Christian view of the Trinity is a unique way of looking at God. Trinity says that God is the one who created all things and made them very good. Trinity also says that God is the one who entered into our struggle in order to heal our brokenness. And Trinity says that God is the one who is always among us, working to make all things new. [2]

Now, maybe that’s no big deal to you. You may take all that for granted because you’ve spent your whole life in a Trinitarian church. But there are many people in this world who do not have this view of God. Many think our world sort of “happened” on its own, which means that any “God” we might believe in is merely a spectator. Some may affirm that God truly created all things, but the notion that such a God would enter our experience to redeem us is completely foreign. Then there are those who think that God may have done some wonderful things in the past, but that was a long time ago.

It’s true that the word “Trinity” never occurs in the Bible. But make no mistake about it—this view of God is thoroughly biblical. One way in which the Bible articulates this view of God is with the concept of “glory.”[3] I realize that may not help you much with the whole “trinity” thing. “Glory” is another word that we don’t much use in our everyday conversations. If we do use the word at all these days, we may think in terms of a spectacular athlete who wins universal acclaim and celebrity. But for the most part, I would have to say that “glory” is a word that we speak only in church, and then it really doesn’t mean much to us. But in the Bible, the notion of “glory” is a wonderful image of the three-in-one God. In some contexts, the word glory seems to refer to the “beauty” of God. In others, it has the notion of God’s “majesty.” And I think that everywhere the word glory occurs, it has the implication of God’s “mystery.”

I think the best way to illustrate this is with nature. This, of course, is not original to me. It was St. Paul who said long ago that “By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being” (Romans 1:20, The Message).[4] Think about a breathtaking mountain vista with its seemingly immovable firmness and crisp clarity; or a vibrant sunset that re-defines the spectrum of colors from red to purple and stretches across the vast expanse of the sky; or a spectacular seascape that gives only a hint of the power that moves such incalculable volumes of water down to the murky depths of the oceans; or the amazing beauty of a nebula in space, massive and stretching its colors over unimaginable distances.

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind in this is the beauty of it all. When the Bible speaks about God’s “glory,” it presents God as the author of beauty—all beauty. More than that, it depicts God as the highest embodiment of beauty. But perhaps in the same breath, when you speak of the beauty of creation, you also immediately perceive the amazing power that is behind it all—from plate tectonics forming the mountain’s grandeur to the fabric of space and time that holds together the whole universe. From this perspective, the Bible ascribes “glory” to God as the source and highest embodiment of this power as well.[5] There’s a “something more” in all of this that is unnamable. We all sense it behind the breathtaking beauty and the awe-inspiring power, but we can’t quite put our fingers on just what it is. It is the mystery behind and through all mystery, and we perceive that this presence is what we affirm as “God.”

When the bible speaks of God’s “glory,” that’s what I think it means. And it gives new meaning to the affirmation that “the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isa. 6:3).[6] We are affirming that God’s inspiring beauty, awesome power and unspeakable mystery are all around us. It gives new meaning to the prayer of the Psalmist, “let your glory be over all the earth.” We are praying that God would continue the “very good” work of creation by sustaining the beauty and life all around us, and that God would continue the work of redemption by establishing in our midst the kingdom of merciful justice and life-enhancing peace, and that God would continue the work of restoration, making all things new, bring all things to the place where they are once again very good. This “glory” has been the defining mark of the Trinity—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—throughout time and eternity.[7]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/7/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics 1:379, where he points out that the doctrine of Trinity is derived from the self-disclosure of God in the acts of salvation. Cf. also ibid., 1:389, where he says that God’s being corresponds to God’s work as creator, as reconciler, and as one who sanctifies us.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, where he consistently interprets the concept of trinity through the lens of God’s glory manifested by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. See esp. p. 176-77.

[4] In addition, the focus of Psalm 29 seems to be the revelation of God’s glory, power, and sovereignty over all things in the experience of the thunderstorm. Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 135-39; cf. also H. –J. Kraus, Psalm 1-59, 348, where he points out that God’s “glory” is often associated with nature.

[5] Cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 348, where he points out that God’s “glory” relates to his acts of power. Cf. also Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 1:239.

[6] Cf. Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, 101, where he interprets the whole earth being full of God’s glory in terms of other passages that describe the ultimate restoration of all creation. Cf. also ibid., 128.

[7] Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 351, says that Ps. 29 presents the claim of the creator in the midst of competing claims: “Yahweh appears. Yahweh’s kabodh [glory] radiates forth. Yahweh’s voice resounds. Yahweh makes heaven and earth quake. To him all powers must bow in homage, and him they must serve.”

New Life for Dry Bones

Acts 2:1-21; Ezk. 37:1-14; Mk. 2:18-22[1]

The Scripture lessons from the book of Acts during the Easter season make it abundantly clear that the dramatic effect of the early church’s witness came from their life that gave evidence that God is in the process of renewing all things. And from start to finish, Acts also makes abundantly clear that this vitality in the early church was the work of the Holy Spirit. It was directly connected to the fact that “all were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). Perhaps more importantly, the book of Acts presents this as the norm for all communities that claim the name “Christian.” This group of people was not just an exception to the rule. Peter, refuting the notion that perhaps the Christians were “full of sweet wine,” insisted that this was God’s intention all along—to “pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), in the words of the prophet Joel.[2]

He had more than just one prophet to back him up in this. The Psalmist also saw the presence of the Holy Spirit as life-giving and renewing (Ps. 104:29-30).[3] And the prophet Ezekiel received the word from the Lord that God’s Spirit is so powerful that even dry bones can live again (Ezek. 37:14)! We’re not talking about raising Lazarus from the tomb after four days—these bones have been dead for so long that they’re dried out and bleached by the sun, (cf. Ezek. 37:2—“they were very dry”). All remnants of life had faded away.

Now, of course, Ezekiel wasn’t talking about a literal valley of bones. This was a dramatic vision that pertained to the people of Israel, captives in Babylon, whose faith had long ago dried up like the bones in the vision. But Ezekiel’s vision promised that they would receive new life through God’s Spirit.[4] Ezekiel called them to new hope by reminding them that God doesn’t accept death as the final word.[5] He called them to look forward to new life because he knew that “God is not done.”[6]

Some in our day will say that the neighborhood church is “done”; that “church” as we have known it has lived out its time. And yet, throughout this “culture of disbelief,” there are congregations just like ours that are discovering new vitality. I don’t think they are any more exceptional than the early church was. I think any congregation can thrive if they become a place where people can sense God’s renewing Spirit at work, a place where it is evident that God is in the process of making all things new in this world.

That’s all well and good, but the real question is “How exactly do we do that?” The answer doesn’t come from theories about church growth, but from simply cultivating the Spirit’s presence through the practices that have characterized Christian discipleship throughout the centuries—prayer, study of scripture, service, fellowship and worship.[7] This can be uncomfortable for us, because in order to do the “inner work” of cultivating the Spirit’s presence, we have to be open to our authentic selves—warts and all![8] It also takes a great deal of persistence, which is why spiritual guides speak of “the life of prayer without ceasing”. But there is simply no substitute for “quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward [The One] who calls in the deeps of our souls.”[9] All of it takes place “under the Word,” directed by Scripture.[10]

So it’s not easy and it takes work. So where do you begin? I think it’s best to start with something simple: read the Scripture texts for the coming Sunday and meditate on them; and then pray the Lord’s Prayer, in stillness and quietness, meditating on the words as you say them. Or you can start with a daily devotional guide like Open Windows, which has suggestions for Scripture and prayer. When you get to the place where you want something more, you can “graduate” to the Daily Office in our Book of Common Worship, which offers a liturgy for daily devotion, including morning, noon, evening, and bedtime prayer. Whatever you do, do something; do it every day in so far as it is possible; and start doing it now!

I must hasten to add one warning; as Jesus reminds us, the presence of the Spirit in our midst is like a batch of new wine—there is something powerful about it will burst the old wineskins of tradition and expectation (cf. Mark 2:22).[11] Paraphrasing Jesus, to try forcing the new life that the Spirit brings into old boundaries makes as much sense as playing a funeral dirge while a bride is walking down the aisle! The moral of the story is that cultivating the presence of the Spirit in our lives will take us out of our old familiar ways and onto new paths that we have not yet even imagined.[12] Amen! May it be so!

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/31/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Breath” in Journal for Preachers 26(Pentecost, 2003): 37-40.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, 335; cf. also H.-J. Kraus, The Theology of the Psalms, 147, where he notes in connection with this theme that “It is the will of Yahweh the Creator to renew his creation.”

[4] Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology II:234-35.

[5] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Can These Bones Live?” The Christian Century (Mar 13, 1996):291.

[6] Craig Barnes, “Resurrected Hopes,” The Christian Century (Feb 2-Mar 6, 2002): 20.

[7] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 7, quotes one pastor as “You preach the gospel, offer hospitality, and pay attention to worship and people’s spiritual lives. Frankly, you take Christianity seriously as a way of life.” Cf. also Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, 35, who says, “Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma.”

[8] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 11, 15, 36, 77-78, 91-94. He says we promote the “truth that sets us free” by cultivating our true selves created in the image of God through practice of “inner work” together in community—and in so doing we contribute toward making the world around us a more hopeful, joyful, and loving place.

[9] Kelly, Testament, 38; He also defines it in terms of “[offering] your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to [The One] who is within.”

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 42, 44, 47, 78-79.

[11] Cf. David E. Garland, Mark, 105: “The sound of ripping is discernable throughout the Gospel.”

[12] Cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Unruly Spirit” The Christian Century (May 12, 1993): 515. She reminds us that the story of the Spirit in Acts is one that demonstrates that the Spirit does not always “work within the sanctions of ecclesiastical predictability”!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Unity versus uniformity

It seems to me that "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5) has been used to advocate a doctrinal or even institutional uniformity, but in the context Paul is using it to support keeping "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." That unity is a spiritual one, and I've never known a doctrine nor have I encountered an institution that have been able to fabricate the unity that the Spirit naturally produces in the body of Christ when we're "walking worthily" of the "calling" we have received (Eph. 4:1).


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Unable Not to Speak

Acts 4:5-12; Mk. 4:1-9[1]

The Christian message is one that ought to be shouted from the rooftops: God loves us all unconditionally, accepts us all unreservedly, and is working to transform us all completely. Unfortunately, in practice this maximally inclusive message has been turned into something rigidly exclusive. Which is why, I think, that most of us would rather be shot that have to actually say anything about our faith to another human being. We’re very comfortable with being “a sign in and for the world” of the “new beginning for human life” that has occurred in Jesus Christ.[2] But not when it comes to our calling “to tell the good news of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.”[3]

Our lesson from Acts for today serves as a kind of double edge regarding our verbal witness. On the one hand, after being thrown in jail for speaking about Jesus’ death and resurrection, it seems that the Apostles can’t wait to speak their message to the very ones who had Jesus killed in the first place. And after being threatened with further punishments they responded by saying to the Jewish leaders, “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) and by praying for God to enable them to “speak your word with all boldness” (4:28). So far so good—courageous testimony that inspires us to go and do likewise.

But when you look at what Peter says to them, the problem of exclusion comes up. The crux of his message to the Jewish leaders is this: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Now, on the surface of things, that sounds pretty exclusive. In fact, it may sound downright offensive. That’s where our problem lies—not that we don’t want to share our life with others, but that we are embarrassed by some of the ways the Gospel has been put out there. Hence, we’d much rather do the whole “living as signs of the new reality” thing than have to actually speak about our faith to anyone, anywhere!

But let’s not forget what is going on here—Peter is under arrest for having healed a man in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. The very ones who were responsible for Jesus’ death are the ones who arrested Peter. And they are insisting that he not do any more healing or speaking in the name of Jesus. In response, Peter is explaining why he “cannot keep from speaking”—because he has experienced the salvation that God has given in the name of Jesus.[4] Peter wasn’t even thinking about other world religions at the time. It doesn’t sound all that bad when you put it that way. Unfortunately, over the years, what started out as a defense speech delivered to authorities trying to suppress the witness of the early church to the resurrection of Jesus has turned into an exclusive view of the Christian faith as the only, absolute, final truth.

When I hear people speaking about the Christian faith in those ways, it sickens me. In my mind, nothing that we fallible human beings think or say or believe can ever be absolute and final. I think finality is too absolute for us fallen human beings.[5] And if our premise is that God is really the maker of heaven and earth and Jesus is really the Savior of the world then it has to be the whole world that benefits and not just a small portion of it, or else the premise is a sham.[6]

There are some implications, however, that we should be clear about. Peter is convinced that Jesus is not just another wonder-working rabbi. Peter is convinced that Jesus is unique as the “author of life” and the one who brings God’s “universal restoration” to pass. But there’s a difference between uniqueness and finality.[7] The point of Peter’s witness to Jesus is to affirm that there truly is salvation in the name of Jesus—which is what his opponents were disputing. He wants to insist that it is in Jesus’ name that God is making all things new, not in Peter’s name, or Moses’ name, or Caiaphas’ name.[8] It seems to me that is a conviction we can hold while respecting the faiths of others around us.[9]

So, what can we learn from the early church about actually speaking our faith? We must lay aside our embarrassment about the fact that the inclusive Gospel of Scripture has been turned into an exclusive-sounding ideology. The message of acceptance, of new life, of hope in and through Jesus Christ is one that needs to be heard in the midst of all the other messages out there. We don’t have to speak it in such a way that we rule out those other messages in an arrogant way. Notice that even as Peter is speaking fairly boldly to his interrogators, he rather politely says they are the ones to judge whether he should obey God or them (Acts 4:19)! We can speak our faith, listening respectfully to others, while holding to our conviction that there is something unique about Jesus Christ. When we do so, then perhaps we too will be unable not to speak.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/3/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200.

[3] Book of Order, G-3.0300.

[4] William Willimon, Acts, 49.

[5] Cf. John Hick, “A Pluralist View,” in Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, ed., Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, 50; cf. also Willimon, Acts, 98. Cf. similarly, Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 118-111.

[6] See Hick, “A Pluralist View” 38-39. Cf. also Clark Pinnock, “An Inclusivist View” in Four Views, 98.

[7] Cf. Alistair McGrath, “A Particularist View: A Post-Enlightenment Approach,” in Four Views, 163-170; cf. similarly, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Witnessing to the Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles,” Word and World 22 (Summer 2002): 238-45. It seems to me that without this Christianity is ultimately emptied of meaning! I think John Hick makes this error in “Christology in an Age of Religious Pluralism,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 4-9. On this issue, see further Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 150-163.

[8] Cf. Julia Ching, “No Other Name?,” Japanese Journal of Theological Studies 12:260-61. She suggests that Peter was simply “spelling out the meaning of the saying: ‘Yahweh saves.’”

[9] Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Man Who Belongs to the Whole World,” The Christian Century (Sept. 25, 1985): 830, says it this way: “The universality of Jesus … does not establish itself in the world through the obliteration of whatever elements of light and truth have already been granted to the nations of the world.” Cf. also Moltmann, The Church in the Power, 161, where he points out that this is the way to “testify to God’s openness” toward all humankind, as well as “God’s passion” and “God’s vulnerability.”

Signs of the Presence

Acts 3:12-19[1]

What we’re learning from our study of Acts during this Easter season is that the example of witness that the early church set for us was a combination of words and deeds that promote God’s renewal and a life that gives evidence of that renewal. The gospel that the early church proclaimed was that God was in the process of fulfilling the promise to restore all things.[2] Those first believers saw themselves as a community—a community in which the Spirit was making that good news a reality. They saw themselves as a community already experiencing the new life of the resurrected Jesus.

But, as we’ve seen, what made their witness so effective was the combination of their message with their life. Our lesson from Acts for today recounts for us a story in which that work of renewal took a very tangible form. It is a story of the Apostles Peter and John healing a man who was crippled from birth, so that he “jumped up” and began “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8)!

Obviously that kind of thing would make a great stir. But what we should not overlook is the fact that their life together in general was one that promoted healing in a broader sense of the term—a restoration of wholeness to life.[3] When they devoted themselves to their fellowship with one another, it was a healing thing. When they shared their possessions with one another to meet the needs among them, it was an act that promoted God’s restoration of all things. When they lived and worked in the harmony of “one heart and mind,” it was a manifestation of the renewal of the Spirit.

Many will debate the truth of a miracle story like this. But I think to do so is to miss the greater truth: their whole life together was a demonstration of the faith that in Jesus the Christ God was fulfilling all the great promises of restoration and renewal. Their very existence served as evidence that the “wonderful times of refreshment” were already coming “from the presence of the Lord” and that “the final restoration of all things” that “God promised long ago through his prophets” was already in the process of being fulfilled (Acts 3:20-21, NLT).

Miraculous feats of healing remain problematic for us today. There are still those who claim to be able to work such feats of healing. While I tend to be skeptical, especially when it is something that is very public and that seems intended to draw attention to an individual healer, I certainly would not to rule out the possibility that God’s Spirit is still working to renew all things and that sometimes that might mean physical healing. I’m afraid, however, that when we focus only on the dramatic feat, we may miss the miraculous nature of what is going on all around us. We may miss the fact that the Spirit of the Risen Lord Jesus is giving new life to us all, everyday! We may miss the promise that the presence of the Spirit brings wholeness to every aspect of our lives.

In the Book of Order we say that we believe we are called to be “a sign in and for the world” of the “new creation, a new beginning for human life” that has occurred in Jesus Christ.[4] It seems to me that this provides us a significant part of the answer to what will make our congregation thrive. Our congregation will thrive when we become a place where it is evident that God is in the process of making all things new in this world. What will attract others to join with us is our becoming a community where the Risen Christ is demonstrating the truth of God’s restoration in our lives. What will most effectively bear witness to the people around us is the combination of our words and deeds with our life as a group of people among whom the Spirit is making God’s redemptive promises a reality—promises of wholeness and healing to all of life.[5]

But that’s not something that just happens automatically. What we’re talking about is making our relationship with God the primary focus of our lives. Like any relationship, it’s something we have to cultivate. We do so by engaging in kingdom disciplines, “resurrection practices,” signs of the presence of God. What these are is no great secret—we cultivate the presence of God in our lives by doing the same things the early church did—devoting ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), working together in “one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32), meeting the needs of those around us, welcoming all we meet with the grace that God has given us. We cultivate the renewing presence of God in our midst by practicing our faith together.[6]

We do these things not simply to perpetuate the tradition. We do them because that is how people of faith have cultivated the presence of God throughout the centuries! Make no mistake about it, if our congregation is going to thrive, it will be the work of God’s Spirit, not the result of our clever strategizing. But there is much we can and should do to cultivate the Spirit’s presence and work in our midst. And we do it in the hope that when others visit us they will declare, “God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:25), and they will want to join with us to experience the quality of new life that we demonstrate.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/26/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, 74; see further, Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, 110-111, where she speaks of shalom as “God’s dynamic wholeness” that is the “central vision” of the Bible.

[3] Cf. Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 105, 111-12.

[4] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200.

[5] Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 82, speaks in a different context about our calling to be living icons of “God’s wholeness.”

[6] See Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 112; cf. also H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 349-52; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 52, 191, 198, 294-95.

Sharing Everything
Acts 4:32-35[1]
The theme of our lessons from the book of Acts during the Easter season is the story of the early church’s witness—the witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that comes out of it. What they proclaimed was that in Jesus the Christ God was fulfilling all the great promises of restoration and renewal. Specifically, they declared the “wonderful times of refreshment” that were coming “from the presence of the Lord” and “the final restoration of all things” that “God promised long ago through his prophets” (Acts 3:20-21, NLT).
But what made their witness so effective was the combination of their proclamation and their life. One of the most important ways in which the early church lived out this good news was by sharing their possessions with one another. It seems that the early church understood God to be in the process of fulfilling the promise to restore all things and to establish a kingdom of peace and freedom where there would be no need.[2] Like Jesus, they were looking with joy beyond this world to God’s future, where the sorrowing would be comforted, the poor would be supplied with all their needs, and the oppressed would be set free to live the lives they were meant to live.[3] And as a result, the early church were enabled to do something we might think quite radical: they share their possessions so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
I wonder if that was not a significant factor in the fact that they bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus “with great power” (Acts 4:33). Of course, they had specifically asked God to empower them to speak boldly, and the fact that the place where they met was shaken is meant to indicate that God answered their prayer by filling them with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:29, 31).[4] But it also seems to me to be no coincidence that in virtually the same breath as Luke tells us that the early church shared their possessions, he also says that “great grace” was upon them and that they bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus with “great power”![5]
We live in a time when many are arguing over the language of the Book of Order. In the midst of our “wrangling about words,” however, it seems to me that we have missed the big picture. In the Book of Order we say that we believe we are called to be “Christ’s faithful evangelists” and that one way in which we are to accomplish this task is by “giving [ourselves] and [our] substance to the service of those who suffer.”[6] That part of the book is not under any kind of debate. But I would venture to say that this is much more central to our calling to be the church than the vast majority of our debates over the constitution of our church. In light of today’s Scripture lesson, I think we would do better to ask how we can fulfill our calling to be “a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ”[7] with reference to our possessions.
There is a sense in which we do that already. We work to help the needy around us by holding clothing drives and distributing Christmas baskets. But I wonder why we do those good things. If it’s just to try to get something, even new members, we’ve got it backwards. Do those projects come from a compassionate desire to share “ourselves and our substance” or are they just tokens to make us feel better about ourselves.[8] Make no mistake—we are called to “lay down our lives” for one another just as Jesus laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16-24). And that means that we are to “go beyond mere requirements in serving and helping our neighbor, to treat our neighbor's needs as our own, to care passionately for the other's good, and to share what we have.”[9]
We have all kinds of excuses for not practicing the kind of radical sharing that the early church did. Part of the problem is that we’re essentially selfish people, interested in our own welfare.[10] Part of the problem is that we are simply afraid. But the fear that clings and grasps and holds on to everything for dear life is part of the darkness that holds the human race in a death grip. If we’re going to orient our lives toward the welfare of others we have to make a fundamental, radical change. Or perhaps it would be better to say, we have to let ourselves be changed. Like Peter, perhaps we need to be converted–we need to be converted from the fear that wrings its hands over budgets to the joyful compassion that sells possessions and gives the proceeds to help the needy.[11] Only then will compassion for the needy become a way of life for us. Then we can follow the early church points in “a way of living in which everything we have we receive as a gift, … and everything we have is available to others when it is right and good.”[12]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/19/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, 74.
[3] Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy,” in The New Being, 150; cf. J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 152-53
[4] Cf. Robinson and Wall, Called to be Church, 72-73, where they point out that “power” in the book of Acts is normally connected with the Holy Spirit.
[5] Cf. Robinson and Wall, Called to be Church, 82, where they say that “this sharing of goods is [not] born our of a command or obligation so much as it is a response to the ‘great grace upon them all’ and to the experience of the living Christ.”
[6] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0300c3(d).
[7] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200, 3.0300(c).
[8] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope, 18-20, where he contrasts “aid,” which can be “a way of soothing the conscience” with “solidarity,” which “means not only giving but self-giving” and which “means letting oneself be affected by the suffering of other human beings.”
[9] A Declaration of Faith, PCUS, 1977.
[10] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, xxix-xxx; he equates mercy with “‘the other’ is … central” not “myself”; he contrasts this with the “structural selfishness” that seeks “the good life.”
[11] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 242: “When we say, ‘Please enter—my house is your house, …’ … we have nothing to lose but all to give.”
[12] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 49.