Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Word of the Lord

We are rather careless, it seems to me, in the way we speak about the Bible as the "word of the Lord." When I hear that phrase, or the "word of God," I tend to duck, because I expect someone to lob a hand grenade at me. At least, that's been my experience with it. On the other hand, Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for "making void the word of God" essentially by the way they used it. That, among many other things, ought to give us pause.

The letter of James says that the way to respond to "the word" is to "humbly accept" it (Jas. 1:21, NIV). I don't think that means that we are to swallow at face value everything that is presented to us as "word of God," but rather we are to engage in humbly studying our faith, in Scripture and in theology, and in humbly seeking what seems to be the truth. I used to teach my students that we need a "hermeneutics of humility," meaning essentially the same thing. I think the humility has to come from the realization that we are all fallen and therefore also flawed in our understanding of the "word of the Lord."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Meaning of Life

Ps. 111; Eph. 5:15-21[1]

We live in an amazing era. We are surrounded by more information than at any other time in human history—literally at our fingertips! There is virtually no fact or information that you cannot look up on the internet. On-line encyclopedias, which were once frowned upon, have become wonderful learning tools. In fact, I’ve said numerous times that the internet is one giant encyclopedia! And yet we seem unable to translate all that information into making our lives more meaningful—and we all tend to struggle with the whole question of meaning in life. That’s not a question you can “Google” or look up on the internet and expect to find answer in 30 seconds or less.

Part of the problem is that there is a vast difference between information and wisdom. Information is as accessible as a reliable source. If you have a readily accessible source, it’s easy to get information. Wisdom, on the other hand, is something very different. Wisdom is like learning a skill, where you have to develop “muscle memory.” That’s what athletes and musicians strive to achieve in their practice routines. But “muscle memory” doesn’t happen overnight. It must be learned and developed over time and repeated practice.

Wisdom is like that. The wisdom that translates into a meaningful way of life must be cultivated. The writers of the Hebrew Bible called it “the fear of the LORD.” I dare say that’s not your favorite phrase from the Bible, because we don’t much like the whole association between religion and fear. After all, fear only goes so far as a motivation—when the one we fear isn’t looking, we tend to do whatever we please. But we should not assume too quickly that “the fear of the LORD” is that kind of fear.[2]

Our Psalm for today gives us a hint in the right direction. It’s a curious Psalm in that it praises Yahweh for all the wonderful attributes that make our God so unique—faithfulness, righteousness, and compassion. Then it concludes by saying, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Ps. 111:10). That seems like a strange way to conclude a psalm of praise for God’s wonderful deeds! And yet, the implication is that “the fear of the LORD” is to understand that the whole way of being demonstrated by God’s actions is “the will of the LORD”—and then to put it into practice in our daily lives.[3]

What does it look like, then to practice “the “fear of the LORD” in daily life? It seems to me that Jesus is one who lived his whole life in reverence to God. As one of our recent confessions puts it,

“Jesus lived with a constant sense of his Father’s presence. He put God’s claim on his life above all else. He joined others in God’s worship and praise. He drew strength from the Scriptures. He prayed and taught his disciples to pray.”[4]

That sounds like an excellent description of the way of life defined as “the fear of the LORD.” Jesus summarized this lifestyle in different words that are familiar to us all: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] I can think of no better way to define “the fear of the LORD” than to say that it is a way of living that puts those two great principles into practice in all of life.[6]

I think this gives us some background to Paul’s admonition to “watch carefully how you live, not as fools but as wise” (Eph. 5:15).[7] In the Bible those who are “foolish” blatantly do that which leads to their own demise.[8] The way of wisdom, on the other hand, is a life filled by the Holy Spirit[9]—bearing the fruit of the Spirit, serving in the strength the Spirit provides, adopting the attitudes inspired by the spirit, attitudes of joy and gratitude and humility and respect. It’s a way of life that is defined by the grace and mercy that we extend to others as a result of our experience of God’s generous grace and mercy. It’s a way of life that is defined by the faith by which we entrust ourselves to that mysterious and wonderful power of love that surrounds us all. It’s a way of life that is defined by following Jesus’ example of selfless love and sacrificial service to others. It’s a way of life that is truly meaningful.

Call it what you will—“the fear of the LORD,” the way of wisdom, following Jesus in discipleship, the life of the Spirit—that’s where true meaning is found in life. It’s found by living the life of loving God and loving others.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/16/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] There is a sense of awe in the “fear of the LORD,” awe inspired by the recognition that God is far beyond our ability to grasp or even imagine. Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 357; R. E. Murphy, Proverbs, 255.

[3] This observation is reinforced by the fact that most scholars will say Psalm 111 and 112 go together. The gist of Psalm 112 is a beatitude about those who “fear the LORD” by keeping the commands, and living the qualities of faithfulness, compassion, righteousness. Cf. Mays, Psalms, 355, 357. Cf. similarly ibid., 360: “This correlation between the praise of the LORD and the commendation of the upright is the Psalm’s way of teaching that the works of the LORD can and should shape the life of the righteous.”

[4] Declaration of Faith, 1978 PCUS; adopted by PCUSA in 1991. Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 34: “Because ‘the LORD reigns,’ human beings may and must praise in wonder and joy, pray in dependence and gratitude, and practice the piety of trust and obedience.”

[5] Remember that Jesus said the whole of the Law and the Prophets was summed up in these 2 commandments. Cf. Mays, Psalms, 357: “wisdom comes from learning and living torah, the instruction of the LORD.”

[6] Cf. Gerhard Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 67-68; cf. also Murphy, Proverbs, 257; Mays, Psalms, 35: those who “fear the LORD” are the “the righteous” whose “character and conduct [are] shaped and guided by trust in and loyalty to the LORD as God and King.”

[7] We hesitate to use the word “fool” due to the influence of the KJV rendition of Jesus’ statement, “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22)! But there is a difference between the language Jesus was prohibiting—language that demeans and diminishes another human being—and the language of the wisdom tradition of Scripture.

[8] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 20: the “foolishness” in Proverbs is “not simple lack of knowledge but an active aversion to it, an aversion arising from cowardice, pride, or laziness.”

[9] Cf. similarly in the Psalms, where wisdom is the fruit of a relationship with God—wisdom “begins with knowing and obeying the LORD” (Mays, Psalms, 358).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wisdom vs. information

We are surrounded by more information than at any other time in human history--literally at our fingertips! And yet we still seem unable to translate all that information into our lives. Part of the problem is that there is a vast difference between information and wisdom. Information is as accessible as a reliable source. Wisdom, on the other hand, is like "muscle memory"--it must be learned and practiced over time in order to develop. Wisdom that translates into life must be cultivated.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Each Other’s Keepers

Eph. 4:25-5:2[1]

I may just be getting older, but it seems to me that the fabric of society is coming unraveled around us. Yes, we have all kinds of new hi-tech ways to keep up with people who live all around the world. That’s one of the great features of the internet— with web cameras and internet phone services, distance no longer has to be an absolute separation. But ironically, some are coming to the conclusion that perhaps all this “connectivity” is actually isolating us from those who are in our presence. One coffee shop owner commented in the Wall Street Journal this week that when people in his café put their laptops away, they actually engage each other in conversation!

I think the increasing isolation in our society also has the effect that we really don’t think we owe anybody anything—not courtesy on the highway, not consideration for a particularly bad day, and certainly not any kind of real concern or compassion. If that isn’t bad enough, the really sad thing to me is that this state of affairs is also taking over in the church. Not necessarily in the local congregation, mind you (and not in other small communities like non-profit agencies). But I think it most certainly is true in the larger bodies of faith—and perhaps even at the level of Presbytery, as evidenced by our debate about ordination standards last February.

I think we can see this above all in the way in which we talk to and about others. Words have become weapons—either used offensively or defensively. And if that weren’t enough, we have lawyers to come up with whole new ways of using words as weapons (nothing against lawyers per se, they’re just protecting us from the other lawyers!). It comes into play especially when it comes to matters on which we disagree. It seems that we in the church, the Body of Christ, have adopted the same modus operandi as the rest of society: say whatever it takes to get what you want without having to give up anything to anybody.

But the letter to the Ephesians takes a completely different approach. It insists that we are members of the same body, and therefore we have a responsibility toward one another. And that applies as much to the way we speak to and about one another as to any other facet of life. From this perspective Ephesians says that our words should convey “truth” and “grace” to each other. By “truth,” I don’t think it means a theoretical approach—it’s not about a courtroom inquiry, or academic research, or philosophical contemplation. [2] Rather “speaking truth is a practical matter, as the prophet Zechariah puts it: “Speak the truth to one another. In the courts give real justice - the kind that brings peace. Do not plan ways of harming one another. Do not give false testimony under oath. I hate lying, injustice, and violence” (Zech. 8:16-17 TEV). From this perspective, “speaking truth” is a way of fulfilling our commitment to relate to one another in ways that promote peace and justice. When that is the case our words “convey grace”, they “become a vehicle and demonstration of the very grace of God.”[3]

This is in stark contrast to the anger and bitterness and strife that seems so prevalent in human experience. While we may say what's really on our minds when we're angry, that doesn't mean we're speaking "truth." When our words are motivated by anger it seems they are much more likely to be “rotten words” (Eph. 4:29). The English Bible tradition has tended to interpret these “rotten words” as profanity, but I doubt very much that is the point here. The point is that “rotten words” are like “rotten fruit”—they are the opposite of the “good fruit” that should characterize our lives in the body of Christ.[4] They are words that are harmful, words that destroy the “bond of peace” and poison the body of Christ. I think, more often than not, they are words that come from anger.

I must hasten to add that this passage does not forbid anger. But I think there is anger, and then there is anger. There is the kind of anger that feels deeply the injustice of oppression. It is an anger that motivates us to do something that will relieve the suffering of the oppressed. Then there’s the kind of anger that I think is much more common to our experience. It’s the kind of anger that, if we had a special weapon that could vaporize someone on the highway and get away with it, we might just do it. No, we would definitely do it. It’s the kind of anger that refuses to see the humanity in the object of our anger. It’s the kind of anger that makes us think we have every right to sit in judgment and pronounce final sentence on another human being—you know the sentiment: “off with their heads!” It’s the kind of anger that always constitutes a dangerous sin because it destroys relationships. [5]

Paul calls it “grieving the Holy Spirit.” The truth of our existence is that we really are each other’s keepers. We have an obligation to one another—particularly in the context of our mutual faith—to relate to each other with love and kindness and compassion. Make no mistake: it grieves our loving creator when we fail to do that. It grieves our creator when we act in ways that positively destroy the fabric of humanity that the Spirit weaves among us.

The way to keep the body of Christ whole and healthy is to practice forgiveness. It is the only true antidote for poison of bitterness and anger.[6] I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy. There are people who have harmed me in ways that still make me angry. But if I don’t forgive them, the bitterness consumes me. The only way to avoid being destroyed by that kind of unmitigated anger is to be kind and sympathetic toward one another, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to imitate our God by walking in love. It is the only way 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]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/9/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 512

[3] Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 520

[4] Cf. Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 518.

[5] Robert C. Roberts, “Tempering the spirit of wrath: Anger and the Christian Life,” The Christian Century (June 18, 1997): 589: “even though our anger is not necessarily sinful, sin is a constant danger where anger is concerned.”

[6] The Confession of 1967, 9.22, puts it this way: “The new life takes shape in a community in which people know that God loves and accepts them in spite of what they are. They therefore accept themselves and love others, knowing that no one has any ground on which to stand, except God’s grace.”

[7] The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 116: uses the category of “friendship” to describe this new humanity.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Speaking Truth in Love

I'm working on Ephesians 4:25-5:2 for my sermon this week. It struck me as I was working on this passage that there is a contrast here between speaking truth and anger. The thought occurred to me that, while we may say what's really on our minds when we're angry, that doesn't mean we're speaking "truth." It seems to me that Paul's perspective is that you can only speak "truth" from a motivation of love (Eph. 4:15). When we speak "truth" we speak "what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:29). I think most of us rarely do that when we're angry.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A Picture of Jesus

Eph. 4:1-16; Mk. 8:1-10[1]

You may be surprised to learn that those who study the development of faith in the course of a human lifespan have determined that there are some fairly common stages we all go through. Most of us begin with the stage in which we basically embrace the faith of our family and our church. We can be rather dogmatic and even arrogant about it—insisting that it is the faith that has been believed “everywhere, always, and by everyone.”[2]

The stage that follows is one in which we begin to question our religious beliefs and practices and go through a period of re-evaluation in which we make the faith we inherited into the faith we affirm. For various reasons, we begin to question the beliefs and practices handed down to us. Typically, I would say that such a “conversion” is triggered by a life experience, especially a crisis. This is a difficult process, and the results are by no means assured; but if a person can hold on to faith they will come out of that “dark night of the soul” with a stronger and more vibrant faith that they have made their own.[3]

It may sound like that is the pinnacle of spiritual maturity, something like what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesians. But in fact, most of those who study faith development will say that there are several more stages beyond that! For example, there is a stage of faith where we learn to take all things religious less seriously, if for no other reason than that they are of human origin.[4] At this stage, the idea of different views about God doesn’t pose such a threat, perhaps because we become more interested in an authentic relationship with God. We can affirm our own beliefs, while at the same time allowing that the reality of God is big enough to encompass other, perhaps even seemingly contradictory, views of God.[5]

I would suggest that even this is not yet “full measure of the stature of Christ.” In fact, there is another stage, the stage that only the greatest sages and saints through the ages have reached—people like Mother Teresa and Mohandas Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day. At this stage the very center of one’s being shifts from the self to God. Because of this, those who reach this stage are able to go out and serve the world with little or no thought to the outcomes for themselves.[6] At this stage one can see all people as children of God, and therefore one is concerned not just for the salvation of one’s own nation or fellow believers, but for the salvation of the world.

It seems to me that this sounds a lot like what Paul had in mind when he urged the Christians of his day to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1, NIV). Specifically, a “life worthy” looks like this: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3, NIV). And just in case anyone missed the point that this life is one that should transcend all the lines that divide the body of Christ, Paul adds a theological rationale to his call to unity: “There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, NIV).[7]

Imagine reaching a level of spiritual maturity where you are so focused on God that you can see all people as children of God, you can find truth in every point of view—even those that differ most from yours, and you can serve anyone and everyone because that is what Christ would do.[8] This is a stage of faith that most of us never reach. We simply cannot let go of our attachment to ourselves. We have too much of a need to be “right” so that we can prove that those with whom we disagree are “wrong.” Perhaps that’s why we can so readily identify with Jesus’ disciples.[9] Again and again the Gospels show us that Jesus’ own Apostles completely miss the point of his life and teaching. In the Gospel lesson this week we hear about Jesus teaching a throng of people in a deserted place and afterwards telling his disciples to feed the people. And they respond with “who me?” or “what are we going to feed them?” or “where will they all sit?” or “when will we find time to cook for them all?”

I wonder if the request Jesus makes is not just a pragmatic one. I wonder if he was trying to point his disciples to an important truth related to spiritual growth: the life that Jesus points us toward is one that is only attained by a commitment to service. One that says simply, “yes, Lord,” when we’re called to do something we didn’t expect to have to do—or even, “yes, Lord, if you’ll help me.” We can only attain to “the full stature of Christ” by following Jesus’ example of selfless love and sacrificial service to others. I think this also relates to congregational transformation: it is only when we become “a picture of Jesus” by serving the people around us with compassion that we can experience the quality of life that will enable our congregation to thrive.[10]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/2/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX. The title was inspired by Ben Harper’s song, “A Picture of Jesus” from the album Diamonds on the Inside, Virgin Records, 2003.

[2] This was Vincent of Lerin’s view of the faith that guided the catholic church in the medieval ages. See Robert M. Grant and David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 80.

[3] I would be of the opinion that the vast majority of people fall into one of those two categories when it comes to faith. I would argue that this applies to all “faiths,” all systems of belief, including ideologies of all stripes—scientific, economic, philosophical, etc.

[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 34, 112-113, 117.

[5] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “Heresy, Diversity, and Grace,” The Christian Century (July 16, 1997): 653, where he suggests that we should all consider the possibility that “beliefs and doctrines that appear to us to be mutually contradictory may in truth be evidence of the glorious diversity of the spiritual gifts flowing from God’s love in Jesus Christ.”

[6] Cf. James Fowler, Weaving the New Creation, 102-15; See also the summary of faith development theories at http://prevetteresearch.net/dldoc.php?docID=36 .

[7] Although many in our day and time use those last verses to advocate a doctrinal or even institutional uniformity, in the context Paul is using it to support “keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” The unity Paul is describing is a spiritual unity, and there is no doctrine or institution that can fabricate the unity the Spirit naturally produces in the body of Christ when we’re “living a life worthy of the calling you have received.” See Marcus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 488-89; cf. further, ibid., 465-66, where he describes God’s “oneness” as a “creative oneness” that is “the power to unify.”

[8] Cf. Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 471: “In basing her confession of her own unity upon the confession of God’s unity, the confessing church is forced to look and think beyond her own horizon.”

[9] Cf. David E. Garland, Mark, 316, “If we ask, ‘How could the disciples be so dense?’ we need immediately ask the same question of ourselves. The disciples saw dimly in a glass coated with the dust of traditional ways of viewing things and warped by the curvature of their own dreams and ambitions. The glass we look through is no different. We are no less in need of healing before we can see what God is doing, and it may not take on the first try.”

[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:620: “The goal in the direction of which the true Church proceeds and moves is the revelation of the sanctification of all humanity and human life as it has already taken place de iure in Jesus Christ.” Therefore we are called to strive to live as a “provisional representation” of that final redemption, one that is effected in us by “Jesus the Lord, in the quickening power of His Holy Spirit.” See further ibid., 620-23; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 102.

Knowing that You Don’t Know

Eph. 3:14-21; Mk. 6:45-56[1]

You can hear the strangest conversations in a book store. I know this because I frequent book stores the way some guys do hardware stores or electronics stores. And, of course, since I tend to hang out in the Religion section of book stores, the conversations I overhear tend to be about Religion. The other day, I overheard a conversation between two young women about some of the books on the shelf. One young woman was obviously “instructing” the other one about which books to read and which not to read.

At one point, she started talking about reading a book that was written by a [gasp!] pacifist. You would have thought the guy was some kind of “antichrist.” Seems the author outlined various views on violence and then had the nerve to actually endorse pacifism as the best option for Christians. This young woman was convinced that he was wrong because no one would hesitate to kill a burglar who broke into your house and threatened to kill you or your family! Now, I must admit that the whole thing about threatening family gets to me. But I wanted to ask this young woman an alternate version of “what would Jesus do?” I wanted to ask her, “whom would Jesus kill?”

I never cease to be amazed at the fact that people can speak with such absolute certainty about matters relating to God. Now, let me say that it doesn’t surprise me a bit to hear people talk that way about Religion. Religion is something we humans have created to take God and all the mystery surrounding God and turn it all into something you can summarize in 2 minutes or less! So I’m not surprised by people who talk so authoritatively about Religion.

But God is another matter. Human beings have been experiencing God, reflecting on God, contemplating God, praying to God, and in all sorts of ways trying to understand God for several millennia! Call it what you like—Yahweh, the Holy Spirit, Allah, Brahman, or the Dao—it seems to me that there is no disputing the fact that the human race has by and large operated from the conviction that there is a powerful spiritual life force that pervades and upholds everything and fills it all with life and love.[2] Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can go much beyond that. For all our experiencing and reflecting and praying over the last several thousand years we’ve still only touched the “hem of the garment” of God. It seems to me, then, that if the life of God in this world is so mysterious, the other side of affirming what we believe is recognizing the importance of “knowing that we do not know.”

It is always the followers of a great spiritual leader who are the ones who try to systematize and institutionalize their great insights into the mystery of God. In the same way that many Calvinists are far more dogmatic than Calvin, so also many Buddhists are more dogmatic than Gautama. The same holds true for Jesus’ disciples, to some extent. He goes around spreading the joy of God’s kingdom, and they keep wanting to build little shrines to preserve and manage that joy. So it comes as a bit of an understatement when our Gospel reading remarks that the disciples were “astounded” by Jesus’ calming the Sea of Galilee because “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52).

At first glance that might seem a bit harsh! I think most anybody would have been astounded by Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee! But the point here is a bigger one than whether or not they understood meteorology. It seems to me that Mark uses this as one of several examples of the fact that Jesus’ own disciples—the ones who were with him every day for anywhere from 9 months to 3 years—didn’t understand him. In fact, this is a fairly prominent theme in all the gospels—Jesus’ own Apostles seem to completely miss the point of his life and teaching until after he is crucified and resurrected. Even then, we’ve seen that they missed it on several matters.

What does this have to do with our discussion of what it takes to have a thriving church? By now you can probably quote the theme with me: “having a thriving church is not primarily about strategies and techniques, but about a quality of life.” I think the point of our lessons today is that this “quality of life” can be incredibly elusive! So maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad if there is much about God and spirituality that we don’t understand. It seems as if it goes with the territory. In fact, I would say that in a very real sense true spirituality, authentic experience of God, is by definition counter-intuitive. All our efforts to nail it down and bottle it up are mere exercises in futility—you may as well try to manufacture love!

Therefore we ought not be surprised when we hear St. Paul saying that we have to “be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit” so that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16-17) The end result of this is that we might “know all about Christ's love, although it is too wonderful to be measured” and that our lives “will be filled with all that God is” (Eph. 3:19, CEV) If that sounds too good to be true, Paul adds for good measure, “[God’s] power at work in us can do far more than we dare ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20, CEV). It seems to me that the bottom line in the Christian life is that it’s all something that God does in us; in fact it’s something that only God can do in us.[3] That means we have to entrust ourselves to that mysterious and wonderful power of love that surrounds us all; it means we have to trust God to do that wonderful, unimaginable work of new life.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/26/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cynthia A. Jarvis, “Ephesians 3:14-21, Expository Article,” Interpretation, 45 (July, 1991): 286: “The paradox held in solution in Paul's prayer is that the one who is rooted and grounded in love, who "knows" the breadth and length and height and depth of that love, knows God's love cannot be contained by human knowing. The dimensions of God's love are without limit and so defy any limits created by human claims to know.”

[3] Jarvis, “Ephesians 3:14-21,” 286: “One can only wonder what the church would be, or what our relationship with peoples of other faiths would be, if our total identity and existence were permanently inhabited by him who came to unite all things.”

No Strangers Allowed!

Eph. 2:11-22[1]

The 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the story of Toula, a young woman in a Greek family struggling to make her own life. What you have to understand is that her father Gus is not just very Greek, but fanatically Greek. Their house is modeled after the Parthenon, complete with Corinthian columns and statues of Greek gods. And the garage door sports a larger-than-life-size Greek flag. Gus believes there are only two kinds of people in the world: Greeks and those who wish they were Greeks! When Toula meets and falls in love with Ian Miller—who is in no way, shape or form Greek—you can imagine what a stir it causes. Gus is distraught that she doesn’t want to marry “nice Greek boy,” but a “xeno.” In Gus’s own words, “A xeno with big long hairs on top of his head.”

The word “xeno” is probably not one you’re familiar with. It is the Greek word for “foreigner” or “stranger.” It’s the source of our word “xenophobia”—which means an irrational aversion to people who are perceived to be different from oneself. In ancient times, to the Greeks everyone who was not Greek was a “xeno.” But that’s okay, because to the Jews everyone who was not Jewish was a “gentile dog.” And everyone who wasn’t a Roman was a barbarian. You get the idea: if you’re not one of us, then your less than us. While we may pride ourselves on being so “modern” and “advanced” in our civilization, I’m afraid that principle of human behavior is still true for some folks. Make that most folks. Especially in this country of ours that has become the de factor dominant culture of the world. If you’re not (fill in the blank with whatever it is we think we are), you’re not one of us!

We live in a world in which we all have all kinds of dividing lines between people who are like me and “not like me.”[2] Unfortunately, Church has been a place where those dividing lines and hostilities have been reinforced.[3] My friends, it should not be so among us. One of the fundamental principles of our faith is the inclusion of all people in the community that bears Christ’s name and is formed by his work of reconciliation.[4] That’s not a modern innovation; St. Paul the Apostle was convinced that it is a major implication of Jesus’ death on the cross. We who were alienated and estranged, who were without hope and without God, we who were far away have been brought near and every barrier to our full participation in the household of God has been removed. St. Paul affirms that the cross of Christ means that God’s shalom—God’s peace that brings new life—has been extended to all people, without exceptions, qualifications, or omissions!

The good news that our faith proclaims is that all the barriers have been destroyed—the ones between heaven and earth as well as the ones we throw up around us to make ourselves feel “safe.”[5] As we seek ways to help our congregation find new vitality, it seems to me that this view of salvation—in which we are all the strangers who have been taken in—must take center stage. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: having a thriving church is not primarily about strategies and techniques, but about a quality of life.

I would have to say that that the most pressing factor in that “quality of life” that can seem so elusive is hospitality.[6] Now at first glance that might seem so simple as to be positively trivial. But what we’re talking about here isn’t covered by Southern Living or Martha Stewart. The kind of hospitality we’re talking about is something the Bible reinforces over and over again—“it is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and unlovable, the weird and the strange.”[7] We’re not talking about the kind of hospitality that calculates the number of finger sandwiches needed for a reception, but rather a way of life that flows naturally from our experience of God’s generous grace and mercy and love to our joyfully extending that grace and mercy and love to others. We’re talking about a quality of life that makes a congregation a place where God really lives (cf. Eph. 2:22).

The most pressing question for any church in this culture that is splintered by divisions of all kinds and poisoned by fear and suspicion of others must be “how do we convert hostility into hospitality, exclusion into embrace?” How do we convert the “closed fist of hostility” into the “open hand of hospitality”? [8] Throughout the centuries, the saints and sages of our faith have recognized that hospitality is the central practice of the Christian faith. It is essential to our life as a congregation because, more than any other Christian practice, it demonstrates who God is, who we are called to be, and what the world can become through God’s grace.[9]

We live in a world where grace and mercy are foreign concepts. In our world we’re much more comfortable with posting a sign like “No strangers allowed” that reflects the suspicion and fear of our time. But perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge our fear, confront it, and turn that very slogan on its head. “No strangers allowed” means that we refuse to acknowledge the barriers and boundaries that divide our world. “No strangers allowed” means that we acknowledge that the one God loves and accepts all persons through Jesus the Christ, and therefore we do too. “No strangers allowed” means that in the Kingdom of God nobody is a stranger, therefore in this congregation nobody is a stranger.[10]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/19/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 46.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 188-89.

[4] Cf. Confession of 1967, 9.21-26. Cf. also Amy Plantiga Pauw, “Theological Reflections on Ephesians 2:11-22,” Theology Today 62 (2005): 81: “Christians are invited into this new space to live lives that conform to the reconciliation already accomplished for them in Christ.” Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4:323.

[5] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “Miracles of Inclusion,” The Christian Century (July 2, 1997): 625: “After the dividing wall between gentile and Jew has been broken down, the destruction of all other human barriers must follow.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 84, 104, 188-89.

[6] Cf. Arthur Sutherland, I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality, 83: “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.”

[7] Paul J. Waddell, “Toward a Welcoming Congregation,” Christian Reflection 2007:77; cf. also Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 83.

[8] Waddell, 76, 78.

[9] Waddell, 79; cf. also Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 82: hospitality “stands at the heart of a Christian way of life, a living icon of wholeness in God.”

[10] Cf. Waddell, 79: “There is no fear in the Kingdom of God because there are no strangers there.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 316: “The community of [equals] proclaims the kingdom of God through its way of life, which provides an alternative to the life of the world surrounding it.” See also ibid., 342.

Looking Redeemed

2 Sam 6:1-19; Ps 24; Eph 1:3-14[1]

Every year Fortune magazine publishes a list of the best companies to work for—places where people actually like their working environment and actually enjoy what they do. This year, Methodist Hospital is the highest-ranking company in Houston on the list. What a concept—spending your life at something you really like and enjoy! As we look at scripture from the perspective of learning ways to help our church find new vitality, I wonder if we ought not look at the enjoyment factor. Having a thriving church is not primarily about strategies and techniques, but about the quality of life that is present among us.

Unfortunately, most churches would not be characterized as “joyful.” I think Friedrich Nietzsche said it best when he mocked that for him to learn to have faith in Jesus, his disciples would have to look “more redeemed”![2] From a less cynical perspective, Paul Tillich asks whether the lack of joy that is conspicuous in many churches is due to the fact that we are not “sufficiently Christian”![3]

By contrast, our Psalm for today portrays a festival celebrating Yahweh’s reign over Israel—indeed, over all creation[4]—that is nothing if not joyful! After confidently declaring that Yahweh rules over the whole cosmos, the Psalmist characterizes those who seek God as the “pure in heart” who “see God” (cf. Matt. 5:8) and are overcome with joy.[5] And they express their joy with an antiphonal shout welcoming Yahweh as the “King of Glory.” I don’t know that we can be sure, but many Bible scholars think that this Psalm was composed for just such an occasion as the one described in 2 Samuel. As David brings the Ark of the Covenant into his new capitol, Jerusalem, he is clearly overcome with joy. Whether or not David’s motives in this were completely pure, it would seem that “joyful celebration” is a pretty good description of what he was doing. [6] David gave full expression to his joy over God’s covenant faithfulness and God’s continual presence with Israel.

As I think about this story, it occurs to me that we don’t see much of that kind of thing in church. It seems that most churches would be less accepting of David and more like his wife Michal who thought he was making a royal fool out of himself! Now, I’m not too interested in shouting and leaping in church, but it seems to me that a good dose of laughter is very appropriate. And dance can convey a wonderful sense of joy in worship.[7] Of course, different people express joy differently—some more externally, others more internally. But either way, joy is something that I think should be a natural part of our Christian lives. We’re meant to “look redeemed”!

If we want to see our church thrive, I think we should make cultivating joy a priority—joy in life, joy in service, and joy in worship. Christian worship is intended to be a celebration of the resurrection, a celebration of new life. [8] At one time or another, most of us have probably experienced the level of joy in our faith that David displayed. But the question is how we maintain a sense of joy—not necessarily a “dancing in the streets” kind of joy, but joy that lasts.

How do we cultivate that kind of sustained joy in our congregation? I think it begins with our relationship with God. The church is the place where Jesus Christ “is present and alive”![9] It is the place to celebrate God’s presence, God’s life, and God’s grace in this world.[10] Sustained joy also comes from recognizing our blessings—as Paul enumerates them in his letter to the Ephesians: freedom, pardon, hope, and assurance—and all an expression of God’s great pleasure in us (cf. Eph. 1:5, The Message)! Sustained joy can also come from our mission. We are called to be the church that is out there striving for the justice of God that makes all life holy, striving for the universal peace of God that embraces everyone in God’s love and that sets all creation free from the chains of death. [11] When we cultivate these aspects of our faith, our very life becomes infused with the joy that comes from God’s grace and mercy. Then we cannot help but be joyful. Then, perhaps, we can look more redeemed.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/12/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 79.

[3] Paul Tillich, “The Meaning of Joy,” in The New Being, 142

[4] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 314; cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 120: “To see the world is to behold the evidence of the reign of the lord. To live in the world is to be dependent on the reign of the lord.”

[5] Cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 314; Mays, Psalms, 121

[6] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 248-50 on the mixture of political maneuvering and authentic devotion that may have characterized David’s action. Cf. also Michael Goulder, “David and Yahweh in Psalms 23 and 24” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (2006):463-73 for a more detailed account of the challenges David faced in turning Jerusalem into the seat of Government and of the shrine of Yahweh.

[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74: worship should begin with the “laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated.”

[8] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 109, says that new life in Christ is to be “celebrated as the feast of freedom, as joy in existence and as the ecstasy of bliss.”

[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:750-762. Cf. also Moltmann, Passion for Life, 19: “Where Jesus is, there is life. There is abundant life, vigorous life, loved life, and eternal life.”

[10] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 205; cf. similarly Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 279.

[11] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 340-361; see also Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 54, 123, 141, 143, 154, 271-72.

The Secret of “Success”

2 Sam. 5:10; Ps. 48; Mk. 6:6; 2 Cor 12:9-10[1]

There are a great many ideas out there about what it takes to succeed at church growth. In the first part of this century, the “secret” was tent revivals. Once a year, at least, a church should pitch a huge tent and hold meetings every evening to get new members. Back in the 1970’s, it was bus ministry. Every church needed an old school bus to bring children from all over town into their building every Sunday morning. The idea was that if you get the kids, you’ll get the parents too. In the 1980’s the “secret” was Bible studies in apartment complexes. One church in Arlington, Texas had over 2000 people involved in Bible studies all over town. In the 90’s it was contemporary, seeker friendly worship (a la the Donny & Marie Osmond show), complete with multimedia. These days it’s small group ministries. If you start a small group program in your church, you’re sure to get new members.

One by one, each of these theories about what it takes to make a church thrive have come and gone. That’s even true of small groups—their popularity is already fading. While it’s true that some churches have benefited from one strategy or another, there doesn’t seem to be any pattern that can explain why one “secret” succeeded for them but not for others who tried the same exact strategy. I think the reason for this is that the Christian life can rarely be reduced to one specific strategy or “secret” of success. As I’ve said before, we’re in the business of changing hearts! That means that to succeed we must respond to life in all its bewildering and chaotic variety.

In my opinion, contrary to the popular film and book that has been sweeping the country, The Secret is not a particular strategy or mindset. Rather in scripture the “secret” is the presence of the living and life-giving God![2] Look at the fledgling King David—he succeeded because the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him (2 Sam. 5:10). Now, I’m not so sure I would define his life as one of success—in the end the Bible describes him as a man who became obsessed with his own power.[3] But it’s clear from the text for today that David’s rise as King over all Israel is inexplicable except from the premise that it was the presence of the living God that accomplished it.[4]

It’s easy to forget in our results-oriented society that one of the central truths of our faith is “God will never forsake you.”[5] It’s the central truth about the God of the Bible: God is the one who is completely faithful,[6] which also means that God is always, always, always with us. Our Psalm for today puts it this way: “Our God is like this forever and will always guide us.” (Ps. 48:14). The Psalmist evidently saw the fortress city of Jerusalem as impregnable—even as the Jebusites who claimed that “even the blind and the lame” could repel David’s army (2 Sam. 5:6). As the ramparts of David’s city appeared so strong that they would stand forever, the Psalmist declared that God’s faithful love would also stand forever. Jerusalem’s defenses may have vanished, but God’s faithfulness is still standing.

But the question is whether we will have the faith to entrust our future to such an ambiguous strategy for success. Or will we be like the people of Jesus’ native region, whose unbelief caused Jesus to be amazed? Over and over again, Jesus amazes the crowds with his words and deeds. In Nazareth, it was the unbelief of his own friends and relatives that amazed Jesus (Mk. 6:6)! The difference between them and those who saw Jesus and found new life, restored health, forgiveness of sins, and re-invigorated hope was their faith.

It’s the difference between the view that nothing will happen unless I can muster enough talent or will-power to make it happen and the view Paul expresses in his “boast” that the power of Christ is made all the more effective by his weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9). What makes a church thrive is to remember that we are the “church of Jesus Christ,” which means that the presence and power of Christ is the secret of our success.[7] What makes the church thrive is the confidence that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).[8] That’s hard to put into a strategic plan, but I think trusting in the presence of the life-giving God and trusting in the power of the living Christ is a strategy for true success.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/5/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

[2] Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:750-762, where he speaks of “the secret” to the church’s existence in that Jesus Christ “is present and alive” in the church in and through the Holy Spirit.

[3] Cf. David A. Bosworth, “Evaluating King David” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 191-210, for an overview of the difficulties.

[4] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2:374-384, where he discusses David as an example of the “election” of an individual.

[5] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; cf. Psalm 37:28; 94:14; Isaiah 41:17; 42:16.

[6] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 134; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148.

[7] Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 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.” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:751-762.

[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:742-750: “in all its weakness [the church] is sustained by a strength compared with which all other strength is really weakness” (750).