“Stop thief! … and then…”

Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  (Ephesians 4:28, appointed Epistle for August 12, 2018)

It’s going to sound weird, but this is one of my favorite Bible verses.

I know, I know, it sounds like some goody-two-shoes legalism, a bit of behavior modification trivia in the midst of the Bible’s great universal message.

But it supplies much more if we take a look.

I.  Sure, it does start with “law.”  Bad behavior must be confronted and corrected for any kind of human progress to ensue, as Carey Nieuwhof points out in his worthwhile new book.

Call it KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), Occam’s Razor or whatever.  The basic beginning is to stop the unholy behavior, as this Native American comedy troupe points out (Language and Content caution),

II.  But keeping the rules isn’t the completeness or perfection (telos) toward which Christ calls us.

The passage says rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands – to take the skills that made their predatory behavior effective and put them to a better use.

It’s not enough to suppress the bad (that would be goody-two-shoes).  We must embrace what is good.  As Paul wrote,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.  (Philippians 4:8-9)

Paul says that praiseworthy practices are, in a broad sense, prayerful, because when we undertake them the God of peace will be with you.  

On the spiritual plane, I think this helps make sense of Jesus’ strange words in Matthew 12:43-45,

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.

It isn’t sufficient to boot out the evil.  That leaves a vacant space that needs filling.  If not filled with good, it is vulnerable to a greater evil taking up residence.  (It is worth noting that Jesus said this in the course of disputes with religious authorities who rejected him and tried to reassert legalism as the way of salvation.  The devil is shrewd enough to lure our good deeds into dead works that assume our own and/or our group’s merits take the place of Christ’s work on the cross).

III.  Which leads to the depth of the verse about thieves: it is a call to receive the life of Christ as our own.

Sure, stop stealing.  Yes, do honest work.  But that stops with our own frail flesh if we end there.  Go beyond, it says: so as to have something to share with the needy.

It is to live sacrificially, to bear in our bodies the marks of Jesus, not as physical stigmata but as spiritual transformation into life lived not just “for Christ,” but by him and with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, rendering glory to the Father in heaven,

driftwood cross
Crucifix I made from driftwood as found in Yaquina Headlands, Oregon

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… (Philippians 2:4-9)

Since Paul wrote this verse about thieves to the church in big, busy Ephesus, and placed it in a batch of instructions for church members, we can assume that known thieves were starting to hear the Gospel and worship there.

The verse is hopeful testimony that Christ can welcome and transform any person, and that a… uh… diversity of characters in the congregation means that something right is going on.

We might fault some “conservative” churches for being content to teach socially acceptable behavior and preach legalism.

We might fault some “progressive” churches for extolling the value of diversity while neglecting the transformative power of the cross.

The “thief” verse from Ephesians challenges us – all of us – to keep going, to remain unsatisfied by anything but new life in Christ himself.

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The Power of Invisibility

Scroll on down for a 5 minute video snip summarizing my sermon for The Third Sunday of Advent.

The passages from which I’m working are at the link.  Key verses are

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

and

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

 

Do they know it’s muzak time at all?

“YOU don’t like Christmas music?”

A non-believing coworker asked me that in a storage area when I snarked about the ALREADY playing loop of “Christmas” music.

I gave two explanations.  1) I’m a church fuddyduddy and I prefer the season of Advent, building spiritual and theological expectation toward the celebration of the Savior’s first and second comings.  I like to save the Christmas hymns for the Holy Night and following, in imitation of the whole creation welcoming the Christ.

2) Most of the stuff on the muzak isn’t “Christmas” music in any terms meaningful to a disciple of Jesus.  Most of it is lovesick (OK, sex deprived) glop more in line with a binge watch of Friends than the proclamation of the world’s Savior.

I’m not alone in my sentiments.  The Christian satire site Babylon Bee fights the muzak, too. 

One of the galling pieces that seems to show up hourly while I’m TRYING to work and maintain a Christ-like disposition is this one:

Now, how can I fault this one?  It’s all about giving to those in need, right?

Kinda.  But it strikes me as racially and culturally biased – as well as empty of Christ, who can unify every nation, tribe, people and language.

Consider this lyric:

There’s a world outside your window/and it’s a world of dreaded fear/where the only water flowing/is the bitter sting of tears/And the Christmas bells that ring there/are the clanging chimes of doom…

They’re singing about Africa, and the array of White celebrities wants us to donate money to our enthrallment with White celebrities so that White Celebrities can pass it on the the Black faces we don’t see and won’t have to think about again until the next round of retail store muzak.

Worse than that is the assumption of utter hopelessness and emptiness among the Africans.  Seriously, Christmas to them is a clanging chime of doom?

While not denying the material struggles and, in some cases, man made disasters in Africa, I have to say they can teach us something about Christmas.  So many of them worship the Lord Jesus in all circumstances, not hinging their understanding of the Gospel on health and wealth (although we are managing to export that corruption of the Gospel quite well).

Clanging chime of doom?  On the contrary, in my own Anglican branch of global Christianity,

Areas that have seen strong growth include: Nigeria, Singapore, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, and parts of South America. The first Anglican diocese in the DRC came into being in 1972, with 30 clergy, 25 parishes, and 30 churches. As of 2015, Anglicanism in the DRC had nine dioceses, 545 clergy, 424 parishes, and a membership of about 237,000. Nigeria, Singapore, and South America are discussed elsewhere in this article. What is important to recognise is the scale and speed of the growth in recent decades.

Meanwhile, in the materially blessed churches on our side of the window,

In some parts of the global North, such as the US, Canada, and Wales, there has been serious decline. 

The sum message of the retail Christmas muzak season, to which our churches all to often play chaplain, seems to be, The meaning of life is to have a reliable sex partner and to show yourself righteous by sending a few bucks to the helpless and hapless primitives somewhere else.

I mean, do we know it’s Christmas time at all?

OR Advent, for what it’s worth.  Because Africans and others who have a lively, growing Christianity will hear and take more seriously words like those in the Gospel many will hear on December 3rd, the First Sunday of Advent,

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The 5 Things Your Church MUST Do

Ha ha, made you look.

Ever notice how social media has multiplied experts in “church”? And how those experts spin endless lists, usually of fives or tens, telling us what the church MUST do in order to be… what?  Usually, it’s to preserve its buildings, budgets and by-laws or find its justification in the eyes of the culturally favored.

In the face of that tsunami of wisdom, my morning my readings found higher ground in 1 Corinthians 15, which is the New Testament’s most elaborate teaching on the resurrection of the dead.  You know, mysterious background creedal stuff having nothing to do with the 5 or 10 things your church MUST do.

To start the chapter, the Apostle Paul shares what might be part of an early hymn or germ of a creed,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,  and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  (verses 3-8)

“First importance” is not rules, causes or programs.  It’s not a demographic that MUST be reached or retained. It’s not institutional churchy stuff or politics. The death, resurrection and new life of Jesus in his people is the core “agenda.”

His death was “for our sins” and, as the chapter spells out, and his resurrection from death is a reality in which his people will share.

There is a new existence on the way, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power (v. 24). A church busy currying favor and justifying its existence via those “rules, authorities and powers” will go down with them.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again is the summary of first things in one of the Communion prayers.

The Apostle says, so we preach and so you believed (v.11).  

More field, less fence

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:43-46, part of the Gospel heard from the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8, 2017)

Jesus angers the chief priests and the wider religious movement known as Pharisees.  Their emphasis was the strict application of laws governing every aspect of life.  They were so zealous for this approach that they created what they called “a fence around the law,” that is, make more and more rules to prevent people from even getting close to the rule you don’t want them to break.

In contemporary Israel, this found expression in ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at cars driven on the sabbath.  It wasn’t that driving the car was forbidden work  – it was that the car might get a flat tire and tempt you to fix it, or tempt you to tempt a tow truck driver to come and fix it.  (Still not sure how gathering and throwing rocks didn’t count as work).

The problem with this approach, according to Jesus, is that makes it harder and harder for sinners to experience and respond to the mercy that God wants to show.  The legal system builds fence upon fence to keep sinners away, treating them as disposable rather than souls of such great value that God would suffer to save them.

Jesus warns that the kingdom of heaven will not be achieved by rigorous laws and systems built by human beings.  He says that the kingdom will be given (that is, by God, the only one who can create the kingdom) to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  Jesus calls for the fruit of the field more than for a fence to contain it.  What does that mean?

First, it means repentance.  In Matthew 3:8, it is recorded that John the Baptist prepared people for the coming kingdom with the warning to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Repentance is to turn from one way of life into a new way.  Christianity calls people to turn from current priorities to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).  This is to place any identity or agenda to which we cling on the chopping block and be baptized instead into the identity and agenda of Jesus Christ, who IS the righteousness of God.

(That Jesus is himself the righteousness of God is why he speaks of himself as the rock that breaks and crushes – he is the final judge of what is right).

Then, after this rebirth into the life of Christ, bearing fruit is to let our life flourish with Christ-like qualities planted and nurtured in us by the Holy Spirit,

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Christ, the fences fall and the field flourishes.  Humans live together in loving commitment, voluntarily tempering private passions and desires so that all can grow toward the kingdom’s light.

The contrast between field and fence is obvious in our national outpouring of horror at the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Enough Americans to be significant have made politics their faith, and so there are calls for laws and for public demonization of various groups of people we should see as neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In an editorial in the Washington Post,  researcher Leah Libresco explains how her research on gun violence led her from a legal approach, advocating various forms of “gun control,” to a different set of insights.

What she found was that American gun violence would be most effectively reduced by attention to three groups of suffering neighbors:

The suicidal.  Two thirds of annual America gun deaths are suicides.  We know this is an affliction here on South Dakota’s Reservations; it’s also becoming a disturbing trend among middle aged white guys like me as our familiar cultural expectations fade.  I have a friend on the East Coast whose church is managing to engage very troubled neighbors.  It is exhausting and not always successful work – he’s done over 100 funerals in the last three years.  But his church is tearing down fences to connect with suffering neighbors as souls precious to God.

Young men in drug and gang subcultures.  They account for 1 in 5 annual gun deaths.  This statistic gets into our uncomfortable American racial divides.  The Pew Research Foundation stats on gun crime, filtered for race, show that this kind of gun violence is disproportionately high in the Black community.  How do we cross longstanding fence lines together to bring life where death has so much power?  What in our own attitudes might have to be confronted and repented of to help that happen?

Domestic abuse victims, predominantly women.  Again, a shameful reality which most of us would rather ignore.  Again, an aspect of life that might expose some of our own sinful attitudes or hardness of heart.   How do we pull down fences so that what is hidden is brought into view for both justice and healing?

It’s easier to build a fence.  It’s easier to pass a law and pretend, with great conceit, that it is necessary only to control “those” people over there with “their” problems.

But in our Gospel, Jesus warns that that kind of thinking is what can cost us the kingdom.  Our fences can trap us in our own wasteland of sin and keep us out of the flourishing field that is the prophesied kingdom of heaven,

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.  (Ezekiel 47:12)

 

You never know…

This morning one of the readings made me wail and lament my mixed motives and weak efforts as a disciple of Jesus,

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (I Corinthians 2:11-15)

But God’s mercy is great where my works are puny. My book, through a friend of a friend of a friend, found its way to a pastor in Texas. Even though his is not a family with autism, God used one of the reflections in the book to help him find the Scripture on which to build his most recent sermon. And it helped him in a week that presented challenges to him, personally, and to the people he serves.

Here’s the sermon. I thank God who, in the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, uses our efforts above and beyond our limitations as he makes us ready for an eternal reward.

More than a symbol

September 14th is Holy Cross Day.  Like many church calendar days it has uncomfortable entanglements with legends and claims that go beyond the Gospel message, and the content of prayers and commemorations vary across Christian traditions.

That said, the cross of Christ should always draw our attention, and not as a mere symbol of a religion,

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  (The Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 1:17)

The cross is full of power, he says.  Verses like that can get us into the shadowy border of faith and magic, of course.  Yet our contemporary way of thinking does empty the cross of its own, distinct power, turning it into a mere symbol to support this or that cause or claim.  It becomes one more noise maker in our din of conflicting opinions proclaimed as life and death truths.

Sometimes other cultures can help us reconnect with what the Spirit reveals through the Bible.  The late missionary Marc Nikkel shared this report from Africa,

In April (1997) Kakuma (a refugee camp in Kenya, extended “home” to many displaced persons from Sudan and South Sudan) was hit by an epidemic of cholera, the result of poor hygiene due in part to contaminated water containers.  While official reports state that some twenty people died, several NGO (non-government organizations) staff and educated refugees vow that over a hundred expired during a five-week period.  Diagnosis of the disease and measures to stem its spread were slow in coming, with at least four deaths daily over several weeks.  As camp officials struggled to put health measures in place, refugees became increasingly frightened, and Kakuma’s ECS (Episcopal Church of the Sudan) women assumed spiritual authority.

The women report how, one day in May, they banded together in a force of some 520 to lay siege against the powers of death.  Carrying their hand-held crosses, they marched around Kakuma’s main hospital compound where some 108 people were understood to lie ill with cholera.  Praying and singing they converged at the heart of the complex.  There, with the permission of hospital staff, they planted a long, wooden cross in the earth and called on God to restore life to the dying.  This, the cross of Christ, they likened to the bronze serpent erected by Moses in the desert, which brought healing to all the afflicted who looked on it (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15).  Indeed, as they narrate events, divine grace was imparted, the plague of cholera ceased from that day, and all 108 returned to health.

This was the first in a series of marches initiated by the ECS women in which they seek to supplement apparently impotent hospital care with initiatives of the spirit and transcend their sense of helplessness through united action.  Because these events are conducted in the Jieng language, non-Sudanese NGO staff have sometimes felt threatened by them, interpreting them as aggressive, politically styled demonstrations.  Undeniably, resolute masses of marching women, singing buoyantly, crosses thrusting in rhythm, have a military flavor.  For them, however, their processions are literal battles of the spirit in which they are supplanting the powers of death and oppression, as a composition they sang reveals,

“We are carrying burdens that oppress us; Great Lord of peace help us!

“We bear loads that lead us astray (from your way): Great Lord of peace help us!

“We accuse the enemy in your presence.

“Great Lord who has power, come near and help us, Christ help us upon the earth.

“O Protector against evil, our Helper O Father.  Christ help us!

“The suffering you suffered shows us how to live upon the earth.

“Come near and help us, Christ our Helper, our Father upon the earth!”

Dinka+church+cross+(1+of+1)
Dinka women carrying the cross.  From here.

To recent marches here in the U.S., in which flags symbolizing enslavement and genocide were waved as tokens of freedom; masks were worn as if able to conceal the free floating juvenile anger animating violent actions, or costumes resembling body parts were donned to celebrate the self, the demonstration in Kakuna, neither vilifying nor exalting any group on earth but seeking the well being of those who suffered, contrasts the power of the cross of Christ.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.  (Collect for Holy Cross Day, Book of Common Prayer U.S. 1979)