Stealing the bishop’s silver

From the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren, one of the doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure why this has come home so strongly in the last week. Maybe it has to do with some things in my personal life. Maybe it has to do with this book I’ve been reading about spirituality of the unchurched.

The thought that has lodged in my brain is how poorly suited Christianity is for America. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that we — all of us — have gone wrong. We are slaves to sin and death. And we will never be free but for the grace of God.

This does not sound like an American story to me.

In our version of the story, Jean Valjean not only steals the bishop’s silver, but he goes on to success and glory based on his own determination and will to win. He writes a series of best-selling books on seizing the moment and cheers for the New England Patriots.

What we fail to understand is that our lives are not ours. They are a gift from God. Not a single one of us has any right to be alive or expect to draw another breath. That we live at all is because God is good and generous to us. Only if we understand that, can we see our own arrogance when we speak about what we deserve and what we have earned. We’ve grabbed the silver off the bishop’s table and convinced ourselves that it was ours all along. We gobble down the apples of Eden and throw the cores at Yahweh’s feet.

But despite our arrogance and greed, there is grace. God loves us. God forgives us. God gives us life. Praise be to God.

I’m not sure how to write these things or preach these things in ways that will be heard, really heard. I know that what I’ve written here is so much gobbledy-gook to those who have no ears to hear it. I’m not sure how to make it otherwise, but the question has been with me this week.

A sermon on divorce – Mark 10:2-16

This is the text of a sermon I preached for my seminary Introduction to Preaching class this fall. It is meant to reflect David Buttrick’s Moves and Structures approach to preaching. There are some things I like about Buttrick’s approach, but there are also some things that I struggle with when trying to use it.

The text is Mark 10:2-16

The preacher stands at the front of the church and holds aloft two golden bands. There in front of him, the couple stands. Young. Smiling. Hand in hand with hearts in their throats and tears of joy glistening in their eyes.

O Lord, the pastor says, bless the giving of these rings that they who wear them may live in your peace and continue in your favor all the days of their life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The rings they exchange are perfect circles, indicating an eternal and never-ending promise. They shimmer with precious beauty in the lights of the church. And when the best man hands them to the pastor, they are hard and cold, awaiting the warmth of flesh. Although we do not often pause to reflect on the hardness of the rings and the coldness of the bare metal, this day we are invited to do so because of this simple truth, brothers and sisters: Our hearts are hard. Our hearts are cold as a stone hidden in the dark of the earth. Our hearts drift like lonely asteroids through the black silent void. Continue reading “A sermon on divorce – Mark 10:2-16”

Pray like Christians, live like heathens

Should Christians live differently than non-Christians?

Even in my limited role as a part-time local pastor, I come across this question quite often. The question is not about whether Christians should be drug dealers or murderers but whether they should be typical Americans. Should our lives, interests, entertainments, and ambitions look pretty much like everyone else’s or should following Christ change more about our lives than what we do on Sunday morning? The most frequent way I hear this question emerge is in the unsettled voices of members of the church who wonder if it is — after all — a problem to love expensive luxuries or whether God will pardon them for lavish vacations or days spent in idleness while other humans live in misery and constant suffering.

These are not new questions. William Law wrote an influential book in the 18th century that gives a decisive answer. Here is a representative excerpt:

You may see them different from other people, so far as times and places of prayer, but generally like the rest of the world in all the other parts of their lives: that is, adding Christian devotion to a Heathen life. … they who add devotion to such a life, must be said to pray as Christians, but live as Heathens.

Law was hugely influential on the young John Wesley, whose sermon “The Almost Christian” makes the very distinction Law does between living according to the general morality of the world and practicing real Christianity. And so, these pastoral questions also raise questions about our very notion of what it means to be a Christian in the United Methodist tradition.

In the days of Law and Wesley, critics found their approach to border on lunacy. It was too much to expect men and women to forgo the pleasures of this world simply because their fellow creatures suffered. The idea of such a “serious” approach to life seemed to them to be morbid and joyless. Isn’t it okay for a man to gamble a bit on Friday night and buy a sports car in his forties so long as he shows up for church on Sunday and puts his check in the offering plate?

As a pastor, the great temptation is to soothe the worry behind such questions. “Of course, God wants you to enjoy your life. Just try to be good and do good most of the time. It is okay.”

Law argues that such answers and questions miss the entire point. What we need, he writes, is to reframe our whole point of view. The question is not what God will pardon or forgive, but what will God honor. The Christian seeks to please God in all aspects of life, and so the questions that we often ask are turned on their heads.

He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praiseworthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether they are appointed for the gaining of His favour? He does not inquire, whether it be pardonable to hoard up money, to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and to gild our chariots, whilst the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner, want to be relieved; but he asks, whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them; because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for aught we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.

The question that Law poses strikes hard: Do we intend to please God?

The question exposes for me the misguided mindset with which we often approach our faith. We often view religion as another product or service that we buy. Here is a little dose of relief from anxiety about death. Here is a lovely gathering to celebrate a wedding. Here is some uplifting music and a pretty little talk by a pastor on Sunday morning. We want these things, but we want them with as little cost as possible. God is a merchant peddling some wares and we want to strike as good a deal as we can for what he offers.

Law — and Wesley after him — argue that this attitude not only misses the point but falls outside the bounds of actual Christianity. It is heathenism dressed up for Sunday morning.

Honor God in all things, they would say. Seek first the kingdom. Or they might quote our Lord and Savior:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the mark of becoming a Christian is to be able to hear the Bible read and not react with anger or defensiveness or evasion. In our day as in Law’s, we are much in need of God’s grace if we would become not just praying heathens but altogether Christians.

The Wesleys were better at this

This is not news. John and Charles Wesley were better at this Methodist thing than I am. Here are a few specific things that I appreciate about their ministry.

Purpose drove everything

Early in his ministry — even before his own conversion experience at Aldersgate — John Wesley became convinced that to be a Christian was not a half-way affair. You either were going on to complete holiness of heart and life or your were falling away. And so, his purpose became to find the means to nurture that spiritual growth, first in himself and then in all who would hear his message. Everything Wesley did was animated by this purpose.

How he and his brother organized their movement, how they preached, and even what points of theology they emphasized were all organized around a single, clear-eyed vision of their purpose as ministers of the gospel.

We see this most clearly in the creation of the class meetings and bands. These were not novelties in England. Such small groups had met before and did meet outside of the Methodist movement, but Wesley made them a signature of the movement because he found they were uniquely fitted to the task of fostering holiness. If they had not been so fitted, he would have discarded them. And so it was with every other aspect of the movement. If it did not serve the purpose, it was not necessary. If it did serve the purpose, he would hold on to it come what may.

Multi-media mattered

The Wesleys were multi-media before multi-media was cool. They used every method they could to get their message out. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to teach and gird up the theological foundation of the movement. People liked to sing, so he gave them songs. John Wesley took on the practice of field preaching — which he did not relish — because it was the only way to get the gospel to the people. If they will not come to us, the minutes of the Methodist Conference remind us , we must go to them. In addition, Wesley produced a huge array of written materials to support the movement. The Wesleys used every mode of communication they could get their hands on to support the work they were about.

Dodging rocks was part of the job

One of my favorite John Wesley stories comes from an account in one of his journals. He writes about getting ready to preach in an open field one day when he was expecting a mob to show up and try to disrupt things. As he peered around the field, he noticed a large quantity of rocks and dirt clods that would be ideal for throwing, so he move over to a different field where his assailants would have a less amply supply of ammunition. He expected opposition.

For all the success of the Methodist movement, it did not during the life of John and Charles ever grow to be more than a tiny fraction of the population of England or Ireland and barely gained any foothold at all in Scotland. Not everyone would hear it and not everyone would receive it. The Wesleys and other leaders of the movement did not obsess over the ones who rejected their message. They set about, instead, doing everything they could to make connection with those who would receive it. They believed it was a message for all people, but they did not despair that many would oppose it.

These are just some of the ways John and Charles challenge and inspire me when I think of the state of our denomination. What about you?

Listening to Peter

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:39-43)

Peter’s testimony to the household of Cornelius echoes the apostolic witness recorded elsewhere in Acts. I think in particular of Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 13. Here is what I hear in these proclamations.

The resurrection of Jesus is a promise and a sign. It is a promise of a future resurrection of all humanity — the wicked and the righteous. It is also a sign that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Son of God, the messiah, Christ. He is the one who will judge the living and the dead at the end of the present age. He is also the one through whom we receive forgiveness for our sins.

In the witness of the Book of Acts, those who receive this teaching receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a present gift offering us peace, joy, and power to trample down sin. The Holy Spirit gathers us into a body and teaches, nurtures, and disciplines us.

As Christians, we are called to live by the Spirit and in accord with the will of God, so that at the resurrection we will be found to have worthily run the race set before us. In our ears, the Lord will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

This is, I hope, a fair summary of the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts. If it is, I wonder how it is heard today. I wonder how well it accords with what we preach and teach.

Three fruit marks

I’ve been playing around with simple ways to describe what a fruitful Christian looks like from the outside.

Here is one set of three “measures” that might fit the bill. A fruit-bearing disciple of Jesus Christ:

  • Can explain to another person why Jesus is important him or her.
  • Can describe specific ways their love of God is visible in their life.
  • Can describe specific ways they reach out in love to their neighbors.

The goal here is to be able to assess the spiritual maturity of disciples without resorting to some sort of checklist that might promote a legalistic understanding of faith or might create a box into which everyone is forced to fit.

The first criterion might be too vague. Jesus being “important” and Jesus being “my Lord and Savior” are not the same thing. I find people struggle to describe in what way Jesus is their Lord in Savior. Most often — if they can reply at all — they offer a canned phrase that echoes some doctrine or Bible verse rather than an expression of living and vital faith.

I see these not as binary (yes/no) measures but as ways to assess growth. The person who struggles to say more than “I attend worship 3 or 4 times a month” as a description of how their love of God is visible might then be engaged with teaching and counsel about ways to deepen and mature in their love of God.

I’m open to other ideas.

What other ways do you have for assessing the spiritual maturity of disciples?