Category Archives: Sermon

Where have all the prophets gone?

Text Luke 6:6-12

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes  and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered  hand, ‘Come  and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. 

I’ve often wondered what it was like to be in the crowd in one of these Jesus/Leaders show down. In my mind, it’s kind of like watching the British Parliament- not like watching CSPAN and the boring American politicians.

I can almost hear the “Ooo” of challenges, and the murmurs of displeasure after each sentence. I know, for us good Brethren steeped in non-violence and lovers of decorum and order that we are, it’s troublesome to witness Jesus in a raucous crowd, confronting the powers of the day. Jesus, Meek and Mild, is more up our alley.

To be sure, this is not a civil debate setting. There is no time keeper and no parliamentarian. Jesus and these leaders had been down this road before. In fact, the opening verses of chapter 6 recount another conflict about the Sabbath and the disciples gleaning grain on the Sabbath. Now in the synagogue, Jesus is ready for the “trap”. Not only does he see the eyes of the leaders watchfully glaring at him, he knows they are ready to pounce on any action that would clearly break Sabbath law.

But as we have come to know Jesus in the gospel accounts, he’s savvy. He knows the need and knows the trap. Like many of the other occasions he puts the conflicting values before the crowd. “Which is better, to do harm or good on the sabbath?” And the crowd goes crazy!

There he stands, calling out the very injustice implicit in the legalism. There he is, as Jesus often is, speaking truth to power.  It should be said, though, that the Sabbath laws were meant to be restorative. They were constructed to shape the people into the image of God- as ones taking rest. It is too easy to paint this as a conflict between love and legalism- but really, the conflict is over two Goods- following the practices of God’s people and incarnating God to those very same people. The problem that Jesus raises to awareness is the very fact that the good practice of the sabbath is being used for another purpose- power, control, prestige, influence.

He stands there, in the midst of lay and clergy alike, naming the problem like any prophet of old. In fact, he is standing there in the long line of tradition, reminding everyone that there is indeed a hierarchy of obligation in the religious life. When practices such as sabbath come into conflict with loving your neighbor, Love wins. That is the prophet Jesus calling the people back into a right order of the values of the tradition.

We have come a significant way from the prophetic posture of Jesus. Good modernists that we are, we have come to love the prophetic style of Jesus “speaking truth to power.” Yet, is this really what it means to be  prophetic? Though the conflict might make us squirm a bit in our seats, truth is we are part of the crowd- usually cheering (internally maybe) at the great zing of the religious leaders.

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Not long ago, Sprint ran a fantastic commercial. They were advertising their phone plans with a stereotypical CEO- white, balding gray head, navy suit and power tie, sitting at his desk in the corner office. He is talking to his young, nervous assistant about his new Sprint contract and how much he is saving. Then comes the classic line- “I’m sticking it to the man.” The assistant looks a bit puzzled and replies- Sir, you are the man. Yes I am, replies the boss. So you’re sticking it to yourself.

It’s really a hard pill to swallow, but honestly we are not prophetic. We really are those with cultural power, capital, and prestige. What is more, we sit, as Heuertz says, smack dab in the middle of comfort and our finger pointing “Prophetic.” It’s kind of like the commercial- We’re really sticking it to ourselves. Prophets aren’t really church bureaucrats and really aren’t invited into the halls power. Writing statements and bible studies, and putting on programs are not Prophetic actions

Being a prophet is radically,…well, Incarnational. As Heuertz says, It’s picking a fight by doing something. Just like Jesus, the prophetic moment is NOT the speaking of truth to power, it is the healing of the hand. In that little action, Jesus both challenged the problem AND made the change….not to make the statement, but to really bear fruit. The prophetic action is both Critical and Hope-filled.

From inside these walls it’s nearly impossible to be truly and fully prophetic. As this place was being built, the modern assumption was that institutions were the way to steward a trust and legacy of any tradition. By the end of that era however, we all began to equate these same institutions with the center of the tradition.  That is to say The Church of the Brethren is most itself at it’s most institutional- either at 1451 or at Annual Conference. This soon translated to our care of the prophetic witness of the tradition. When Elgin speaks, the CoB is prophetic. The incarnational principle, the idea that the prophetic includes an on the ground baring of fruit, was lost. This incarnational principle challenges that modern assumption.

This is hard for all of us. We are here because it is work we believe in. We are here because we want to be prophetic and yet we circle around maintenance work thinking we are keeping our prophetic tradition alive

The image of the healed hand reminds us that transformation does not happen at the centers of the circle, at the hub of influence or power, but on the ground, in the streets, in our congregations. When we expect our work in here at 1451 to change the practices of Brethren congregations around the country without actually being with them, we are sorely mistaken. When we enter centers of cultural power and assume our statements make a difference we have swallowed the pill of the Institutional church. Real change, real prophetic healing and transformation is embodied, it is incarnate.

Our work here is only prophetic insofar as it supports, encourages, and enables prophetic action by our members and our congregations.  I can write a thousand pages of prayers, studies, or resources….yet those are prophetic only in so far as they help a member of our tradition BE prophetic where they are.

That is the lesson of Christmas and Epiphany. When God comes to show the way, the truth, and the life, God comes in the flesh. God does no longer makes pronouncements from the clouds, far off from the needs and pain of our world, but gets down to work here. Of course it challenges our cultural assumptions, it confronts the powers that be, and stands in the long line of prophets….but the Incarnation, GOD REALLY WITH US, makes the changes and brings hope. That is the beauty of our faith. That is the beauty of Epiphany. God transforming all that is, into all that can be. Our work, our toil here in this place is to impact and companion over 900 Brethren communities as they EMBODY, as they Incarnate Jesus the healing prophet where they live.

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Variations on a Theme: Re-thinking Traditional Congregations

I am not really sure what it means to talk about Traditional Congregations.  In a more cynical moment, I find myself wondering what other forms of Church there are.  In my more distanced, and even academic mode I look back through 2000 years of history and see only local communities of faith inter-twined in what the creeds call One Holy catholic, or universal Church.  In my more reflective moments, I recall questions presented to greater thinkers than I- such as Alan Hirsch, a contemporary Missional Church leader.  In a recent interview by a couple of house church leaders an interesting phenomenon was given voice.  The interviewers recounted their community rhythm by saying that all their efforts to de-centralize, work with bi-vocational ministry teams, and not maintain a building are regularly confronted by a simple question: “When do we get to be a real Church?”

So what am I trying to say with all these rambling observations.  Well, I think this video will help.

Even when we venture out to do something new and innovative we create a new variation on a theme.  We take the building blocks, like the 4 pop chords, and rearrange them to suit us, our styles, our social networks, and even our cultures.  Yet, we must still figure out the logistics of being together- creating systems of organization, money sharing, and leadership.  Soon gatherings for management emerge and take up the time for ministry.  Not long after that, ideas and visions come into conflict- how to worship, what to do with new people, and still not much further down the road we find ourselves embattled about carpet colors or the paint to use in the meeting space.

The default reaction in the Church today has been to divide and multiply.  We find central theological or ethical or even practical claims that distinguishes us from them. Then, rather than hold those in creative and dynamic tension, we take our ball and play in another play ground.  Not Re-thinking Church- but Re-Creating it, Rearranging the four chords to make a new greatest hit.

The western Church, especially in North America, has shaped itself around the idea that we gather, not in the cloud of witnesses, but in grouping of people “Like Me.”  So our congregations look monolithic and monochromatic, literally.  And the only way we understand ourselves, individually and collectively, is by saying who we are not- So we simultaneously gather with like minded people AND need that other congregation or group to remind us of who we are not.  I am of A congregation and not B- even though they may be Brethren.  And then when we gather as the larger church we form identity groupings even beyond our congregations- Voices for an Open Spirit, while a gathering of like minded Brethren NEEDS the Brethren Revival Fellowship as a kind of opposite pole if only for the purpose of Negative Definition- And the same is said in reverse.  Conservatives only make sense when shown in relief to their Progressive Other.  In the end, we pit congregation against congregation, brother against sister, Group against Group.  Then the Divide and Multiply cycle continues on.

What if the problem of the Church today is not so much it’s Institutional nature, but this continual re-inventing of the wheel time and time again?  What if the problem is our continual avoidance and separation from the Other- the one close enough to be called brother or sister but who is different enough to be in totally different Churches?  What if our problem is the type of self-definition by negation- saying who we are by saying who we are not?

How do we get around that?  What new 4 chords do we need to find?

I think the vision of congregations as diverse communities where varieties of ideas, practices, and people are held together might actually offer us a third way.  What if we picked a community and stayed with it, even during the inane fights over carpet?  Then as we gather together the differences are not so much signs of failed unity, but a means to find out who we really are.  In that way of being together, the Other is not a sign of what I am not, but actually helps me see who I truly am beneath the facades and self-conscious portraits I present to the world.  What if these people that get under my skin each week are actually gifting me with that unvarnished picture that reveals my TRUE SELF- faults and gifts.  The other then, becomes a mirror rather than a thing to be rejected.  We all know how this works, especially when someone reminds us that the person we most despise is often the person MOST LIKE US.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk talked of this often.  It was easy for him to idolize a community, imagining that the monastery was somehow more spiritual than the congregation- every one there chooses to be there, right?  Yet, in that daily interaction there are few things worse than the sound of a table partner who chews too loudly, or the other brother who just can’t seem to find the key, let alone any key when singing.  The most mundane, the most regular daily interaction can often be the most grating.

I think in this way of being together, we break the cycle of taking our ball to a new play ground.  By committing to a community of believers in this way, we find root in an actual congregation of believers rather than seeking after an idealized Church that never truly comes into being because we are forever searching.  Then we finally make sense of our own scriptures, especially the New Testament letters which reveal Real People, in Real Places, Really Living Together in Christ.  We can finally read Paul, not as an Institutional Bureaucrat trying to make the congregations of Corinth, Rome, Ephesus and Philippi just like him, but as one nurturing communities as the Diverse Body of Christ- called together in Christ not made together by their similarities.

What if Re-Thinking Church was not about creating something new, but reclaiming something very old?

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Easter Proclamation- Old School

This is one of those years when religious calendars line up. Easter celebrations of the Roman and Orthodox are in the process of being celebrated around the world. Proclamations of Christ is Risen will be said in nearly every language through the night into the rising sun on the 8th day- the day of re-creation.

Thinking about this amazing proclamation I decided to read the Pascal Homily of John Chrysostom- who should probably be taken up as the patron saint of Post-Christendom movements, for he “was fearless when denouncing offences in high places.”  His short, but rhetorically beautiful and complex homily should be required reading of any preacher or prophet.

Here is a taste of its excellence:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

I can nearly hear the cheers in response to this spectacular conclusion echoing throughout Hagia Sophia then and around the world tonight.

Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen!!

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Keeping Time

This message was shared with the Church of the Brethren Office community September 29th 2010.

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:46-47

There is a story, of which I can’t speak to its accuracy or veracity, about two neighbor boys. One winter day they began to talk about snow and the coming holidays. In the process they soon realized they were talking about two different “holy days”. When the one talked about 8 days of gifts the other perked up: “What do you mean eight days?! Don’t you mean one?” From then on this Jewish and Christian pair entered into the world of comparative religion. That spring, the Christian boy attended his first Sedar and experienced the whole exodus narrative in one multi-sensory night. The trade off came finally on Easter morning when the two attended the celebration of the resurrection. When it came time for the sermon, the pastor took off his watch and laid it onto the pulpit. The Jewish boy, accustomed to the question and answer of the Sedar ritual turned to his friend: “What does that mean?” Having experienced the fullness of the Hebrew symbols, the Christian boy rolled his and sighed: “Nothing.”

Keeping time must be a multi-million dollar industry. Not accounting for the changes in smart phones, we are at a fever pitch about time. Calendars to keep events, watches to tell us time, alarms to make sure we get there on time, and probably timers on our computers to tell us when its time to leave. So its no wonder the boy was dismayed when the watch came off, it meant that time had no hold on that Easter service. No matter how long the roast had been in the oven, the preacher would go on and on….and on….and…

Really time is precious. The idioms of our culture make it clear to us: Time is of the essence, Time is fleeting. Time is money. It’s difficult to say which came first, the nice capitalist awareness that time is money or the ability to count milliseconds. No matter the correlation we can easily say we have an unhealthy sense of time. We turn on lights so we can work into the night and we light up the desert so we can play into the morning.

So its no wonder that worship attendance in any christian community is waning and its no surprise that any activity during the week barely draws a tenth of the congregation. “We just don’t have time!” I call BS on that. I mean with all that money being spent on making the most of our time, on keeping track of time, of managing our time how is it possible that we can have no time? If we gaged minutes by dollars spent, our clocks should be turning backwards!

The answer is simple: we’ve missed the point. Once we exit the baptismal waters, our relation to time completely changes. No longer are we defined by a need to cram everything into the few seconds of a lifetime, but are in fact managed by Everlasting to Everlasting. Its no wonder that Jesus’ words in Revelation hold together past present and future- I am the Alpha and the Omega (22:13). In one sentence, the beginning, present and end are one. Our time is defined by our living in Christ, living in the past, present and future. In essence time stands still before Christ and, by our adoption into Christ, before us.

That must have been something understood by the first Christians Luke tells us about in Acts. From our capitalist, time is money obsession, those disciples didn’t have a clue: They spent their day singing, eating and listening to sermons. I mean really, what got done! Didn’t they have missions to enact, congregations to support, pensions to maintain. Hell, didn’t they have a budget to balance? …Wait, that’s us.

Well, in a short and simple answer, no. No they didn’t have to work and produce like their lives or their church depended on it. Their daily rhythm was defined by other things: It was defined by Christ, crucified, buried, and risen. Each day was a microcosm of all history: its beginning and its end. What mattered most, what mattered first of all, was being present to the great I am.

So we read of things which sound strange to us today such as the practice of gathering at the church house to pray into the sunset while lighting the vigil candle as if Christ was buried each night. And we read of how, before dawn, these same followers of Christ would return as if Christ was rising again each new day. We read later of monks who maintained such practices by not only praying at night and morning, but at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours to remember daily the significant moments of the crucifixion.We read of the early preachers calling Sunday, not the Sabbath but the eighth day, when creation was begun again in the rising of Christ. We read in the Didache that Christians were to fast on Tuesday and Thursday so as to mark their weeks by the resurrection of Christ. ALL of time, not just hours of work and leisure, were defined by the resurrection of Jesus. The calendar was not set by imperial decree, but coincided with the coming of the Messiah. The only thing we have left to remind of this is the antiquated marker of the age as Anno Domini.

So then, friends, what measures our day? Prayer with the living Christ, or an arbitrary system of seconds and minutes? I wish I could say that taking off my watch was a way of living into Christ, but really, it means nothing. I am still tied to a means of production, I am still tied to an alarm, and I am still keeping time by whatever means helps me produce. This does not mean that time isn’t precious, but simply to say that are there not better, more faithful ways of living each day than by production? Might not we be better off as the Church to organize ourselves around practices of what Benedictines call prayerful work, of labora et ora?

Brother’s and sisters, may our ancestors in Christ remind us that there is nothing better than to eat, sing, and pray together in Christ.

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