Question for each day

One question we might ask each day – perhaps especially during this pandemic – is: “How can I show love for one person today?” Jesus clearly teaches us that to love God and to love others (as ourselves) is the one most important thing in life. To live in love is to follow Jesus.

During these long weeks of being mostly confined to our homes, loneliness and depression and a creeping self-centeredness can invade our lives. The best way to guard against it or to change it is to live for someone else. To love ourselves and look for someone to show our love in some tangible way.

What shall we do?

My sermon notes for this Sunday express what I believe “the gospel” is about …

TEXT: Acts 2:36-41
TITLE: “What Shall We Do?”
THESIS: Heal and restore the world.

Introduction

  • True confession time today! – I don’t like to recycle. How many of you like to do it? …But how many know it is a good, even essential, thing for us all to do? – My oldest son started 30 years ago trying to get me to do it. I was slow to adopt the practice and still don’t always do it the way I know I should.
  • What does this have to do with our text today? The question from the people – What shall we do? – demands an answer in our day … an answer that touches on every aspect of our lives.
  • But, first, let’s consider how the Church has traditionally understood Peter’s answer….

Scripture

  • For 1600 years, Christians have focused on personal salvation and the question of what happens to us after we die. That’s not what Jesus focused on, and we’ll come back to that.
  • If we read Peter’s answer to the people’s question as if it applies only to each individual, we have the traditional view: Repent of your sin – be sorry, confess it, and stop doing it – and God will forgive you and give you eternal salvation.
  • In the words of a 1960s song (in a very different context) … “Is that all there is?” Is the whole gospel only about what happens to each of us individually? Whether I have repented and been saved, so I “know” I will go to heaven when I die? – No.

Conclusion

  • So let’s consider a far more inclusive answer to the question of “what shall we do?” as it relates to “repentance and baptism”.
  • In Luke 3, John the Baptist is warning the people about God’s wrath – which is how the people in Acts understood what Peter was saying as he accused them of crucifying Jesus. … And the people asked John the same question: “What should we do?” … John’s answer gets more to the heart of the matter:
    • To the people: be generous with each other
    • To the tax collectors: be honest and don’t cheat anyone
    • To the soldiers: don’t lie and threaten people
  • Jesus followed John’s ministry and expanded on John’s words in all his words and actions. “Here’s how you should live.” …. Be generous and honest….don’t lie or cheat or threaten other people … be humble, patient, compassionate.
  • What we are to do in life has to do with how we treat other people – life is about loving God and others – serving God and others – doing for others what we want them to do for others – being good even to those who despise us and loving even our enemies.
  • I read a book in the early ‘70s called “Why haven’t we changed the world?” The book came up with the wrong answer. – The answer is that we have been mostly concerned about saving ourselves – gaining God’s favor for ourselves – getting to heaven ourselves. … A self-centered religion!
  • Jesus came to save the world! Not every individual in the world, but the world itself. To heal and restore God’s creation. (Think calming the storm) To heal and restore relationships between people, as well as with God. (Think “the prodigal son”) To heal and restore the poor, the injured, the weak, the outcast to a place of full inclusion in the community (Think most of his miracles).
  • What shall we do? – Heal and restore the world around us. The kingdom of God is about this life – “thy will be done on earth.” …. Repentance is a change of life, a continuing transforming of our lives so we no longer live as the world around us does …. And baptism is a public witness to that change. How do we give public witness to what God is doing in this life and wants us to do in this world?
  • We have remembered Earth Day again this week.
    • In the midst of this pandemic, as people are “locked down,” the air and the rivers are being restored. – What shall we do when we “go back” to “normal life”?
    • The world economy and people’s access to the basics of life – food and housing – are threatened. …. What shall we do?
    • Many people are already acting out of their own self-interests, uncaring what happens to others – and protecting their own possessions and privilege. … What shall we do?
  • If we love God and love others … What shall we do?

Driven by fear or love?

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. – 1 John 4:18 

It’s been 25 years. My doctoral studies group challenged me about fear. Every other person shared what they were most afraid of in life, but I could not think of anything. I said, “I don’t have any fears. I’m not afraid of anything.” And they told me to see a psychiatrist.

Well, I did, and the psychiatrist supported me. They planted the seed, though. Did I really have no fears at all? The group met in the summer for two years, and by the time I returned the next year, I had done some intense spiritual and personal work. Now I could identify deep-seated fears that affected my relationships and the ways in which I interacted with people.

I knew the first summer that I didn’t like heights, so I stayed away from them. I was afraid of snakes, but that seemed like a common “fear,” and I avoided them. What I came to understand, though, was that some fears gripped me deep within – fears of being embarrassed and being wrong, for instance. I’m sure most people do not like to be embarrassed or be wrong, but I learned that for me these could only be called “fear.” They tore at the edges of all interactions and at times ripped open relationships with people I cared about.

During this time, these words moved from mind to heart and became “heart words” for me. This simple thought that love drives out fear took root in my heart and began to change who I was. I still don’t like being embarrassed or being wrong, but I am learning that fear of it drives a wedge in relationships. As a husband and father, fear of embarrassment caused me to be angry and harsh at times because of what someone did that I felt embarrassed by. As a pastor, I often refused to admit I might be wrong and caused harm in those relationships.

As I write this post, the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping the world. People are dying. With some exceptions, people do not want contact with other people. People are afraid. Fear of contracting the virus and dying, unable to breathe because our lungs no longer work for us, sweeps the world. Government orders and public appeals to stay at home, if possible, and stay 6 feet from everyone if we go out, feed the fear. This fear is not about being embarrassed or being wrong, but about life or death.

The “answer” to this fear is still love. Stay home not from fear of your own health, but from compassion for other people, not wanting to spread the virus if you have been – or might be – exposed. Love drives out fear. When empathy, compassion, simple concern for others – rather than self-protection – drives our decisions for action, we are living with love and not fear. When love drives our choices, then love drives out fear.

The verse says “perfect love,” and we too often excuse ourselves from choosing the best because we are not “perfect.” We turn away from love and choose fear, deciding to protect ourselves rather than do what is good for someone else. If our choice to stay at home comes only from a need for self-protection and not from compassion for others, we are still motivated by fear and not love.

Choose love. Act with compassion and empathy for people around you. Whatever your fears may be, they are rooted in self-protection. Love moves us beyond ourselves and centers our hearts on others. In this way, love drives out fear.

But I Say to You ….

From my sermon to be preached on February 16, 2020, based on Matthew 5:21-37 (and Deuteronomy 30:15-20.

Introduction

  • “But I say to you…” – In this phrase, Jesus makes it clear that he was not a traditionalist. He did not interpret the scriptures literally. – You have heard it said….but I say to you. … Jesus knew what the scriptures said, but went beyond the mere words to get to the heart of what God meant.
  • In our day, the deepest divide in the Church is between those who hold to a traditional, often literal interpretation of the Bible and those who know what it says but understand the heart of its meaning to be something more.
  • In the words from Deuteronomy, we heard first a call to obey the commandments, decrees, and ordinances of the Lord. Then we hear these words: Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lordyour God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. – We are not to live just by obeying the law, but by obeying God and holding fast to the Lord. To live in the heart of God.

 

Scripture

  • In the verses from Matthew, Jesus says that it is not just what we do that is important, but what is in our heart. As I read it, he speaks of 3 things:
  1. Anger (vv.21-26)
    • Do not murderdo not act in anger
    • Do not kill with malice or neglect – but do not act on your anger so that you harm in any way
    • When you know you are holding anger or bitterness in your heart, go and settle it quickly and be reconciled.
  2. Faithfulness (vv.27-32)
    • Do not commit adultery … do not be unfaithful in your heart
    • Richard Foster – Sex, Money, and Power – monastic vows: chastity, poverty, obedience … matters of the heart, not just the body
    • Many of us are divorced and remarried. – Jesus addresses the intent, the heart. – The Jewish law allowed a man to divorce his wife for almost any reason but just giving a “certificate of divorce” and sending her away. Jesus says it is about faithfulness of the heart and soul.
  3. Honesty (vv.33-37)
    • Do not break your oath …. Do not make an oath at all.
    • Let your “yes” be “yes and your “no be “no.” …. Mean what you say. Be honest.
    • Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything” … Our word, our honesty, is what matters.

Conclusion

  • Jesus taught in the same way about many things. …. The words we speak come from the heart. Our actions show what is in our heart. … If we are to judge ourselves or others, judge not by the “letter of the law” (you have heard it said) but by the heart of God (but I say to you).
  • The two concerns most divisive in the church today are abortion and homosexuality.
    • Is abortion only of law and the act itself, or is it a matter of the heart and why a woman would choose it?
    • Is homosexuality only a matter of a physical action from a traditional view, or is a matter of the heart and of love and commitment between two people?
  • Other social and political choices are dividing Christians today as well. George Lakoff has described it in these terms – “strict father” (those who value law and favor retribution for wrongdoing) or “nurturant parent” (those who value the heart, and compassionate, restorative justice).
  • As I understand Jesus, he knew the scriptures and lived by them. But he went beyond the words themselves to the heart of what God wants. You have heard it said …. But I say to you. – May we follow Jesus.

Emerging Church

From Richard Rohr today ….

The Emerging Church
Monday, October 28, 2019

I do believe that what some refer to as the “emerging church” is a movement of the Holy Spirit. Movements are the energy-building stages of things, before they become monuments, museums, or machines. In the last sixty years, several significant events have taken place, both within and alongside the various Christian churches, to foster this movement. Spiritual globalization is allowing churches worldwide to profit from these breakthroughs at approximately the same time, which of itself is a new kind of reformation! No one is directing, controlling, or limiting this movement. We are just trying to listen together. It is happening almost in spite of all of us—which tells me the Spirit must be guiding.

Just so you know I am not merely arguing for my own agenda within the Catholic Church, I want to briefly identify some of the historical developments that I see propelling this movement throughout Christianity:

  1. Our awareness is broadening, recognizing that Jesus was clearly teaching nonviolence, simplicity of lifestyle, peacemaking, love of creation, and letting go of ego, both for individuals and groups. More and more Christians are now acknowledging Jesus’ radical social critique to the systems of domination, money, and power. In the past, most of Jesus’ practical teaching was ignored by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. The establishment chose instead to concentrate on private sinfulness and personal salvation and, as Brian McLaren says, on an “evacuation plan” into the next world.
  2. There is a common-sense and growing recognition that Jesus was clearly concerned about the specific healing and transformation of real persons and human society “on earth as it is in heaven.” The Church, more than Jesus, historically focused on doctrinal belief and moral stances, which ask almost nothing of us in terms of real change. They just define groups—often in an oppositional way.
  3. We are recovering the older and essential contemplative tradition within Christianity, starting with Thomas Merton in the 1950s, and now spreading to numerous denominations, like a “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). Some emerging church leaders have yet to grasp the centrality of contemplative and inner wisdom.
  4. Critical biblical scholarship is occurring on a broad ecumenical level, especially honest historical and anthropological scholarship about Jesus as a Jew in the culture of his time. This leads us far beyond the liberal reductionism and the conservative fundamentalism that divide so many churches. We now see the liberal/conservative divide as a bogus and finally unhelpful framing of the issues.

While these may not seem like significant changes in and of themselves, together they are causing sea changes in modern theology as well as practice. These shifts may be the very reason we are currently so divided as Christians, with some clinging to an older way of doing and thinking while others are pulling in these new and “emerging” directions.

Nonviolence Works

From Richard Rohr today ….

Nonviolence Works
Thursday, August 22, 2019

How is it that many Christians have managed to avoid what Jesus actually taught? We’ve evaded major parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): the Beatitudes, Jesus’ warning about idolizing “mammon,” his clear directive and example of nonviolence, and his command to love our enemies. I never see the Beatitudes on courthouse lawns. Perhaps we think his teaching is nice in theory but impractical in real life. Perhaps we do not believe nonviolence can actually effect real change.

A few years ago, people from around the world came together in Rome to discuss the Catholic commitment to peace. Marie Dennis writes: “One person after another shared how violence in his or her own experience, failed, and how nonviolence overcame violence.” [1] As we saw yesterday, Pope Francis is helping reclaim Jesus’ teachings on peace. Dennis continues:

He is saying that nonviolence is effective in the real world of politics—in fact superior to and more effective than violence. The world never gets to peace through violence and war but only begets more violence and war. . . .

[One] active peacemaker the pope points to is Leymah Gbowee, the [2011] Nobel prize winner from Liberia. . . . She organized pray-ins and nonviolent protests that resulted in high-level peace talks to end the second civil war in Liberia. . . . The contributions of such women as Gbowee in Liberia and Marguerite Barankitse in Burundi are showing the way to the eventual cessation of violence and the dawning of peace. . . . [2]

In their book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan write about the effectiveness of nonviolence, drawing from examples in Iran, Palestine, the Philippines, and Burma. Based on in-depth research, they observe that nonviolent resistance is “nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” [3] Nonviolent campaigns have greater participation, loyalty, resilience, innovation, and civic impact than violent ones. [4] While surprising, there’s plenty of evidence that the very thing we consider foolish confounds the wise and that the powerless confound the powerful (see 1 Corinthians 1:27).

One reason for our failure to understand Jesus’ clear teaching on nonviolence lies in the fact that the Gospel has primarily been expounded by a small elite group of educated European and North American men. The bias of white males is typically power and control. From this perspective nonviolence and love of enemies makes no sense whatsoever.

Because we Christians haven’t taken Jesus’ teaching and example seriously, much of the world refuses to take us seriously. “Christians love to talk of a new life,” critics say, “but the record shows that you are afraid to live in a new way—a way that is responsible, caring, and nonviolent. Even the common ‘pro-life movement’ is much more pro-birth than about caring for all life—black and brown lives, refugees, the poor, the sick, immigrants, LGBTQIA people, the environment.” In fact, many “pro-lifers” I know are the first in line to oppose any gun regulation.

I’m grateful that Christianity is finally becoming much more universal in its teaching, more effective in its action, and just more honest about Jesus.

What the world needs now

The 1965 hit song, “What the world needs now is love,” was not just a pop cultural phenomenon. The title says what Jesus said – indeed, what all the world’s religions say. At the heart of every religion, we find compassion taught as a core value. The Hebrew scriptures say to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. And when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he went back to them. Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself – that’s the whole Law in summary.

Doctrine – believing as giving assent to certain truths – was never what God had in mind. To love with all our heart is what God has in mind. That is what the world needs now.

Hope for the world

Our hope is not in this life only, as the Apostle Paul said. Yet our hope IS for this life. How can we live without hope – today, tomorrow, and the next day?

What hope do we have that this earth we inhabit will continue to be habitable in coming generations? The climate crisis is not a political issue, but a spiritual and moral one. It is not a conservative or liberal issue. And it is not debatable.

The gospel gives hope for abundant life – here and now. Life is a gift, and we are called to live it wisely and responsibly. Caring for God’s creation is one responsibility. I have come to this late in life, unfortunately, but my wife and I have many grandchildren, and we want them to be able to live in a world – together with all people – which is still good and beautiful.

This post is my first public commitment to this calling. To learn more about how you can live responsibly in this area, visit this site: http://www.creationjustice.org/ and fespecially or American Baptists like me – https://www.creationjusticenetworkabc.org/.