Monday, June 6, 2016

Your "Master" matters: "Our spiritual attitude, our way of seeking peace and perfection depends entirely on our concept of God." Thomas Merton

I've entered my final weeks of service as Interim Pastor at Quesqueya Chapel in Haiti. As I leave I'm trying to say a few things to this fine congregation that will challenge and affirm them as they continue their search for long-term pastoral leadership. (By the way, If you would like to spend a few months on an island in the Caribbean, the church is looking for at least one more person to serve in this interim role. Message me and we'll talk.)

This past Sunday I spoke from the story in Matthew 25 that those of us who used to read the KJV know as the "Parable of the Talents."  I hated this parable as a kid. If you grew up in the Naz Church in the 60's you were subjected annually to an event called "Teen Talent." (If you're younger than 40 think of this as "America's Got Talent" without the cameras, or Howard Stern. This was a great time of year for three or four teens and an annual reminder for the rest of us that God gave "talents" to some people (like them) and not to others, (like me.)

But, of course, this parable has nothing to do with "talent" at all. The servants hadn't been given vocal or athletic ability that they were expected to develop and use before the second coming. They were given bags full of money, lots of money, and, according to the text, left to their own imaginations to determine what they should do with it. (That's right, the "boss" dropped a life-changing amount of gold in their laps and then walked out of the room and went on a trip.)

Most sermons I've heard pass over the two servants who would later hear the master say, "well done," and spend their time trying to get the potential "wicked servants" in the congregation to get up off their butts and do SOMETHING with what they've been given before Jesus comes back, takes it away from them, and sends them to a place where there's nothing to do but weep and gnash teeth.

It's true that the text gives us more information about the "wicked and lazy (W&L) than about the "good and faithful (G&F)" We only know what the first two did. We find out, in detail, not only what the last one did, but also how he "felt." about what he would do.

And this is why the G&F get to spend their lives sharing in the "master's happiness and the other guy gets to spend his crying and gnashing. What the "W&L" servant "felt" was fear. He was afraid of the marketplace, but most important, he was afraid of the master. All we know from the text is that this was not an issue for the first two. They feared neither the potential loss of their initial investment nor the response of the master when he returned. In other words, these three servants  KNEW two very different "masters."

I was reminded immediately of this quote (which has become incredibly important to me) from Thomas Merton's Life and Holiness.
  Our spiritual attitude, our way of seeking peace and perfection depends entirely on our concept of God. If we are able to believe he is truly our loving Father, if we can really accept the truth of his infinite and compassionate concern for us, if we believe that he loves us not because we are worthy but because we need his love, then we can advance with confidence. We will not be discouraged by our inevitable weakness and failure. We can do anything he asks of us. But if we believe he is a stern, cold lawgiver who has no real interest in us who is merely a ruler, a lord, a judge, and not a father, we will have great difficulty in living the Christian life. We must therefore begin by believing that God is our Father: otherwise we cannot face the difficulties of the Christian way of perfection.”
What the two G&F servants knew is that they had nothing to fear from the Master, and if they had nothing to fear from the master they had nothing to fear from the marketplace. And so they took their stuff into the marketplace and spread it around and watched it grow.

It really didn't matter what the W&L servant thought about the marketplace. His fear of the master made it impossible for him to do anything but "dig a hole" and try to preserve what he had received.

And this is what really ticks me off about what the church has told people about this parable. We've told folks for years that the "master" was coming back someday to check up on them, and that when he got here they'd better have more gold to give him than he had given them, and if they didn't, well, let the weeping and gnashing begin.

We want to say that we've done this because we want people to be "ready when Jesus comes." But that's simply not true. We've done this because we want people to teach Sunday School, and serve on the church board, and give regularly so we can keep the doors open and the staff payed.

Merton was right. A church full of people who see the Master only as a 
 "Ruler, a lord, a judge, and not a father, we will have great difficulty in living the Christian life."
We may very well get people tithe and teach Sunday School, but they will be scared to death of the "marketplace."  The "church" is a great "hole" to keep your "talents" in if you want to keep them safe 'til the "harsh, cold master" returns, but the marketplace is the place to spread your "talents" around if you want to see them grow.

One more thought. There is no real guarantee that "taking our talents into the marketplace" will result in amazing growth. I've found myself wondering, since Sunday morning, how this parable might have gone if the third servant had come to the master and said, "Master, I took the bag of gold you gave me into the marketplace. I invested it where I thought it would do the most good, and make the most profit, but then the "housing bubble" burst and the economy collapsed and what I've got left is this bag.  I wonder if the master might have said, well done, good and faithful servant, you've gone into the marketplace and invested what you had, here, let me give you a couple of bags from these other two guys. Come and share in the Master's happiness."

American Christians are a frightened lot these days. We're afraid of almost everything in the "marketplace" so, we dig holes, put crosses on top of them, and call them "chruches." We live in fear. We vote from a position of fear. We make our "plans for the future" from a position of fear. I think I used to think this was because of all the "scary thing" in the world. I'm not so sure anymore. I'm coming to believe it might have more to do with the way we see the "master" than with the way we see the "marketplace."

Merton was right.
If we are able to believe he is truly our loving Father, if we can really accept the truth of his infinite and compassionate concern for us, if we believe that he loves us not because we are worthy but because we need his love, then we can advance with confidence. We will not be discouraged by our inevitable weakness and failure. We can do anything he asks of us.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Confession Matters: Reading the story of the Prodigal in the season of Lent

If I have a favorite text from which to preach it is the story of the loving Father and his two lost boys. We know this as the parable of the Prodigal Son, but most have come to understand that it's mostly about the father, and about his two boys who each missed the point of the Father's love, though in very different ways. My understanding of this story has been profoundly impacted by Henri Nouwen's "Return of the Prodigal." If there's still anyone out there who hasn't read it I encourage you to do so.

Nouwen and others help us to understand this as the story of what Brennan Manning has called the "relentless tenderness" of Jesus shown through the life and love of the Father. But, as I reread the story this week in preparation for what will be my first message at Quesqueya Chapel in Haiti I was impressed by importance of something I'd made little of in the past, the Prodigal's confession. I must confess (Theyt tell me this is good for the soul,) that I've even poked fun at the boy for "practicing a speech that no one wanted to hear." Indeed, as he practices and then recites his confession to his Father the Father seems to brush it aside in his excitement as he lavishes gifts and glory on his son who "once was dead, but not is alive."

But I've been wrong about this. The boy's confession, and the conviction that gave rise to it are an essential part of the story. In fact, without them there is no story. In our efforts to tell people about the unconditional love of the Father from whom they feel so estranged, we have often forgotten to tell them that the reason they are estranged, the reason they can't feel the father's love, is that they have sinned. And we forget to tell them that "sin separates us from God." We've forgotten that sin is the thing, has always been the thing, that breaks relationship both with God and with one another. And when we forget to tell this part of the story we also neglect to tell folks (or to remind ourselves) that relationship is never healed by pretending that sin doesn't matter. Relationship is healed in the process of confession and forgiveness. Yes, it was the father's unconditional love that placed the robe and the ring on the shoulders and hand of the broken and dirty boy-come-home, but it was the Spirit's work in "bringing him to his senses" and his honest response, "I have sinned and I am not worthy" that became the paving stones on the road home to the Father's embrace.

I must never forget that it is sin, acting against love, that breaks relationship, and that reconciliation begins not in denying or ignoring that fact, but in open acceptance of what I have done, and of the damage it has caused.

This puts the story of the "Older brother" in a different light for me as well. I'm sure there's more to learn and understand here, but, for now I'm just pondering the "first person" statements of these two boys. The prodigal comes to the father and says simply, "I've sinned." The Older boy, the one who stayed home looks the father in the eye and says "I've served."

I'm pretty sure that, at some level, "serving" matters. Today I'm thinking that confession matters even more.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Motives Matter: It's time to remember why we do what we do.

I read a post recently . . . Okay, I read the title of a post recently that asked the question, "Are we witnessing the death of American Christianity?" Since I've just read the title, I'll just offer my answer to the question. No. American Christianity died quite a while ago. We're just now beginning to smell the stench of its rotting corpse.

I want to say quickly that this is not an altogether bad, and certainly not an unexpected situation. All forms of Christianity that are defined in terms of their entanglements with a nation-state are destined to die. And, for many, the sooner the better.

The current toxic political climate has certainly turned up the heat on the American church, and on many within that church who have always been more concerned about  being American than they ever were about being Christian. The irony here is that what has resulted from this "blending" of faith and politics is a "spirit" that is neither truly "American" or in any way "Christian." We've come to live in a nation populated by a new kind of "believer" I'm going to call this new "critter" an "Ameristian." 

I've been sickened by some of what is finding its way into the "wind" from "Ameristian" communities and leaders. Calls to "arms" and not-so-subtle cries of "Do unto them before they do unto us," are not expressions of misguided disciples of Jesus. These folks are simply not disciples of Jesus at all.

I've already said what sickens me, now I want to talk about what really concerns me. A lot of good folks, genuine disciples of Jesus, are struggling in the current social and political climate to stand firm and move forward as followers of Christ. Too often what I read from these folks are attempts to support a Christian response to the things that threaten our lives and our life-style by building arguments that have nothing whatsoever to do with the central message of the Gospel. (And by the way, many of these arguments make really good sense.)
  • We argue against closing our borders to refugees by citing statistics that show how hard it would be for terrorists to enter our country "that way." (And it would)
  • We argue against a spirit of fear and discrimination on the basis of some sort of optimistic pragmatism, believing that if we treat folks who are "different" with dignity they'll be less inclined to wish us, or do us harm. (And they probably would)
But these arguments, despite their value, simply miss the point for the disciple.

Jesus words to his disciples could not be more clear. And in my lifetime I can't recall a time when they've been more of a challenge. Jesus said, "You have enemies. Love them.. Pray for them." (Not "AT" them, or "about" them, and certainly not "AGAINST" them.) And then he "raised the stakes" when he said, "In this way you will show yourselves to be sons and daughters of your heavenly father."

We are not commanded to  love our enemies because it will make us safer in the long run. It might, but it might not. We are not commanded to  love our enemies because it might lead them to salvation. It might, but it might not..

We are commanded to love our enemies for one reason and one reason only. God loves our enemies. And the best way to look like the Father is to love what the Father loves.

Okay, I hear it. I've been hearing it over and over for the past several weeks. "But Gene, some of those people really want to kill us. Someone  needs to do whatever they need to do to keep that from happening."

And I suppose that's right. Someone needs to do something to protect our lives, property, and the piles of stuff we think we need to keep living like we've come to believe we deserve to live. But that "someone" is NOT the church. The Church, the TRUE CHURCH has a different mission and a higher calling. We need to listen more closely to Jesus telling us NOT to fear the one who can ONLY kill our bodies (Luke 12:4-5). We need to listen more closely to Jesus reminding us that HIS kingdom has NEVER been of this world. We need to rethink our motives in these difficult times.

Do we do what we do because it makes sense? Do we do what we do because it is more likely to have a desired outcome? Do we do what we do because someone who has become fluent in the hybridized language of "Ameristianity" tells us that's what we should do?

Friends, it's simpler than that. We need to come back to the place where we only need one reason to do what we do. We do it because Jesus did it. We forgive because Jesus did, We love our neighbor because Jesus did. Welcome the stranger because Jesus did. We love our enemies because Jesus did. We lay down our lives because Jesus did.

And in the end if the Church in America rises once again it will be for the same simple reason; because Jesus did.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Donkey Matters

I've been working for the past few days on my message for Palm Sunday morning. Two things confuse me about Mark's telling of the day Jesus rode in to Jerusalem. The first is the donkey. Mark's story occupies 14 lines of text. Of those 14 lines, the donkey gets 8, the actual entrance into the city gets 4 and everything else that happens that day gets just two. 

So, why is it "all about that donkey?"

Please don't tell me it's about Jesus' magic "donkey sensing" powers. This is not about omniscience (of which Paul seems to believe Jesus had "emptied himself" at any rate.)  At this point in Mark's story there's no need or room for one more miraculous sign proving Jesus' divinity.  It seems to me it's more likely about the simple fact that Jesus knew people and people knew Jesus. Jesus trusted people and people trusted Jesus. So, when Jesus needed a colt that hadn't been ridden, he knew a guy who had one. And the guy who had one trusted Jesus enough to let him use it. If there's a preaching point here, and there might not be, it would be to simply ask if we're living our lives in such a way that we can borrow someone's donkey when we need one. 

Of course this still doesn't answer the big question. Why does the donkey get more lines in the story than Jesus?

The second thing that confuses me about the Palm Sunday story is why we treat Palm Sunday like it's the beginning of a party.  If we step back and look at the whole week it is anything but a party. Palm Sunday is the first day in a week filled with conflict, conspiracy, denial and betrayal, and it's certainly not going to end well for anyone. 

The church that I grew up in was a wonderful church. Most of the churches I've attended have been wonderful churches. But all those churches had the habit of wanting to jump directly from waving palm branches to looking for colored eggs in the church lawn without even thinking about the week between. Fortunately many of our churches are doing better these days in helping our people walk through the darkness between the shouts of Palm Sunday and the blinding Light of Easter.

But I digress. The point here is to figure out what the Palm Sunday story is really all about.

And it turns out it really is "all about that donkey."

John's gospel doesn't tell us how Jesus found the donkey. John just says he "sat on it." And then John inserts this line from Zechariah 9:9. "“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!" If you don't "get it," don't fret, neither did the disciples. As it turns out the light of the resurrection makes lots of things more clear.

What's going on here is really pretty simple. There were a couple of ways for a King to enter a city. If he wanted to "kick butt" or make sure the peasants knew he could, he'd come in atop a white horse. If he came into a city at peace with a message of peace he's ride a colt. A colt is not going to threaten anyone. 

Jesus comes in peace. But Jerusalem is not a city at peace. Jerusalem is a city under foreign occupation. And here, it seems to me, is the point of the story, and the reason the donkey matters. 

We live in a nation obsessed by violence. And many who want to call themselves "Christian" share this obsession. We are committed to self protection. We are prepared to, as one Christian recently said in a "facebook" response, “do whatever it takes to defend my standard of living.”  In this context where we think self-defense is a Christian virtue we must not forget that Jesus comes into a kingdom of conflict with a message of peace.  

And for the Christian, Peace is NOT the goal we pursue, it is the way we pursue every goal worth achieving.

Monday, February 2, 2015

What we pray for MATTERS

Gene Schandorff 

It seems like every  time there is a high profile sporting event we get involved in the same question, "Does care about sports?" A friend recently posted some stats from the Public Religion Research Institute  that suggest that about half of us think God gets involved at some level in sporting events whether as a "fan," actually influencing the outcome of the contest, (about a quarter of us) or in some less "sovereign" way.

Others, unwilling to suggest that God gives a rip about who wins the game still see God's involvement in the process of competition in some way. During my years as a college chaplain I struggled with this every time I went to a game. We always started our games with prayer. It seemed odd to me then and it seems odd even today. (Perhaps this is a topic for another blog post.)

I've decided that I can't (certainly won't) pray for the safety and success of participants in an athletic event

  Let's think about this. And let's think about it in the light of the event that everybody is talking about today, the Super Bowl. Adult men weighing up to 400 pounds put on protective gear and decide (on their own) to run into others like themselves as hard as they can going as fast as they can as often as they can  and I'm supposed to pray that God keep them safe and healthy. Meanwhile millions of God's children are trying to stay safe and healthy in the midst of war and poverty. 

I can only pray for the "safety" of athletes if I don't believe prayer makes a difference. If I believe "prayer changes things" or even influences things then I cannot spend that prayer-time interceding for athletes who could decrease their chances of injury greatly by simply doing what I do, sitting on the couch and watching someone else play the game.

You pray for what you choose. I'm going to reserve prayers for God's protection for those who are trying to stay safe, and for those seeking to do the King's work. And, by the way, I'll continue to enjoy watching those who have decided to put themselves in harms way for the love of the game.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Community Matters

Tomorrow is election day. In Idaho that means all the Republicans go to the polls and pick the winners and the rest of us go to the polls because our mothers (RIP) would be really disappointed in us if we didn't.

A couple of weeks ago the Gospel reading from the Lectionary was the passage in Matthew 21 about paying taxes to Caesar. Being just the "Interim" pastor, I mustered the courage to skate out onto some fairly thin ice around the question of whether or not there is "A Christian Position" that should be help by all believers on a variety of choices related to issues and candidate selection when "election day" rolls around. 

Here are a couple of thoughts from that message:

The question the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus had only one motive. It was intended to define and divide the religious community along political, NOT theological lines. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" was a really dumb question. Paying taxes to Caesar WAS the law. So, the question was really, "What does God think about paying taxes to Caesar?" The question, updated for our time, might have been, "Is there a Christian position on this political issue?"

It's a good question. Is there ever an "orthodox" position on a civil, political issue? 

At the time this question was asked there were a variety of strongly held views within the Jewish community about Israel's relationship to Rome. I'm indebted to Scott McNight's recent article on his "Jesus Creed" blog for help with this. He sites Christopher Bryan's book, Render Unto Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church and the Roman Superpower, identifying 4 very different responses to this question
  • Acceptance of Roman rule and full cooperation with Rome
  • Acceptance of Roman rule, coupled with a willingness to challenge the secular power nonviolently
  • Non-violent rejection of Roman rule
  • Violent rejection of Roman rule
The point Bryan makes, and it's the point I want to make as well, is that each of these positions found support within Jewish religious tradition.

So, there wasn't one position that could be said to capture "God's perspective" on this political question.

There have always been those who have attempted to define and divide the faith community along political lines.  "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?"  What is the Bible position on slavery? (Don't forget that both "sides" were quoting scripture on this one.) Is there a Biblical position on gender equality? Is there a Biblical position of capital punishment, birth control, public education, and of course the list could go on until we all felt threatened and uncomfortable. 

The opinions of Christians vary widely on most, if not all of these issues.  The one thing that is absolutely, certainly true is that each of us who identify as disciples of Christ, and who take that discipleship seriously believe our position to be Christian as well.

I'm thinking right now of one of my favorite sermons of John Wesley. It's called "The Catholic Spirit" (Catholic simply meaning "universal.")

Wesley makes three points that are relevant to this conversation
  • We all have opinions, and we all believe our opinions to be correct.
  • There are matters that factor into every opinion that we hold of which we are simply, and completely unaware.
  • Regardless of what we think, we are most certainly wrong  on some point or another
Wesley implores the church to value community above personal opinion. And, he warns against the false notion that when we create a congregation with no difference of opinion we have created the "church." 

We need look no farther than the 12 men on whom Jesus chose to build his church. These guys NEVER agreed with each other, and they certainly never agreed on matters political.

It would be good, I think, to take a look at the people who came to Jesus with this question. Herodians and Pharisees were as opposed to one another politically as, well as the "right-side" of the "Tea Party" and the "left-side" of the "left side." They had one thing in common. Jesus scared the crap out of them. I'd like to suggest that the folks on either side of the political spectrum who want to force the Christian community to accept "their" position have a lot in common with the Herodians and the Pharisees. They are terribly threatened by Jesus, because Jesus can never be counted on to support "our" agenda, regardless of what it is. 

Here's where, I suppose, I run the greatest danger of being misunderstood. I'm not suggesting that every opinion is just as valid, or just as "Christian" as every other opinion. As disciples of Jesus we MUST believe in the sanctity of human life. But the way you vote, and the persons you support  in your effort to protect the sacredness of human life may vary greatly in the reality of our culture and context.
As disciples e of Jesus Christ we MUST believe in the responsibility of those who have much to care for those who have little. Believe what you will about the best political and economic structures to provide that care.
As a disciple of Jesus Christ you MUST recognize every person as God’s beloved child, the object of Christ’s sacrificial love, believe what you will about the best way for the church to express that love in ways that lead to redemption.
A wise friend of mine once said, "The Christian choice between one political party or another is simply a choice of which stream we're going to swim up." No political party promotes a Gospel agenda. All I am saying, and I'm sure it's been said before, is that when we allow the community of faith to be defined and divided by political ideology we have allowed the “image of the emperor” to slip from the coin in our pocket to the core of our identity and when the Image of the Emperor is stamped on the church of Jesus Christ it ceases to be the Church. 

The Church must decide whether she's going to be Christ's Body or Caesar's buddy. We can't have it both ways.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Obedience Matters

The Gospel passage for last Sunday was about as familiar as a New Testament text can be. A pharisee asked Jesus, "Which is the greatest commandment?" And Jesus responded by quoting two foundational passages from the Old Testament, The Shemah, "Love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind," and the last lines from the restatement of the Ten Commandments found in Leviticus 19, "Love your neighbor as yourself." I'd written a reasonably good sermon around that text which I might actually get to preach someday. What "came out" as I spoke was quite different from what was planned. Here's an abbreviated version of what I heard myself saying on Sunday morning.

Jesus said, "all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." He also said, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, "I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it."

One of the great failings of the American Church of the last half century has been our willingness to assume that Jesus obeyed the law for us. We hate the idea of punishment, so we love the idea of "substitutionary atonement." The only thing we like better than the notion that Jesus took the "whooping" that we deserve is the idea that Jesus also did the obeying that is called for in scripture from beginning to end. We've been told that, when we get to the "Pearly Gates" and Peter asks us why he should let us in, all we have to do is point to Jesus and say, "I get in because HE obeyed."


Jesus did not come to obey the law for his children. He came to make it possible for his children to live the life for which we were created and to which we are called. In the words of Old Testament Theologian, Gerhard, Von Rad, "The purpose of all God's redemptive activity was to created for himself a people wholly capable of obedience." (Old Testament Theology). Either the complete obedience to God's law, which, by the way, has always been the "Law of Love," IS possible for all of God's children in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit or the whole redemption story is a crock.

I'm just about convinced that our willingness to let Jesus do all the obeying is behind at least a couple of issues in and around the modern American Church.

First, our failure to live lives of obedience, our failure to live lives organized around undivided love for God and energized by undivided love for neighbor is the main reason the "world" doesn't think much of the church today.  Jesus said that our obedience (The way we love God and the way we love one another) would be the way the world knew that we were his and that the Kingdom had come.

Second, our willing to settle for "substitutionary obedience" is the reason there is so little genuine "victory," so little joy, and so little to celebrate in the church today. We don't see changed lives because we don't expect changed lives.

I'm not sure how we got here. Most of what's wrong with the church I like to blame on "T.V. evangelists." I do think we've bought into a generic evangelicalism that seeks to sell faith the way folks sell cars; no money down and payments anyone can afford. But beyond that I think we've forgotten that the obedient life, the life lived out of an undivided heart of love for God and neighbor is not the "old heart" retrained. It is the "New Heart" reborn. God let Ezekiel in on the secret when he said, "I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh."

Somewhere, somehow, I think stopped calling our people to pray for a "New Heart" and started helping them "settle" for what they could accomplish by trying to retrain the old one.