Kindling the Kingdom of God

Scripture: Romans 8:22-27

Creation is in labor

When I first started really getting into translating the Hebrew language, one of the things that I found remarkable was how much imagery in the bible is rooted in the image of childbirth. For a language that usually talks about the process of making a baby as simply “knowing” each other, Hebrew tends to compare a lot of things to the swelling of pregnancy, the relentlessness of contractions, and the incomparable “pains” of birth.

Childbirth is a threshold event—there is before, and there is after. (That may be the only clear-cut and certain thing about it.) And aside from death, there may not be another experience in life that draws so firm a line.

So in before-and-after events of Isaiah 42:14 (for example), when God is so pained by the injustice of the world (and especially that perpetrated by Israel) that God steps back and allows their consequences to crash over them with devestating effect, Isaiah knows of no better description than this. God says: “I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (NRSV).

When (in Psalm 88) the psalmist is trying to describe the relentless and overwhelming nature of being on the wrong side of God, the best imagery available is that of the relentless and overwhelming contractions of childbirth (often translated as “waves” here), which seemingly interminably wrack the mother’s body.

And so here (in Romans 8), as Paul is searching for a way of describing the ultimate before-and-after event (the return of Christ and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God), he too—Jew among Jews—reaches for the imagery of childbirth.

Starting in v.18, Paul begins to imagine with (and for) the Roman church “the glory about to be revealed to us” (v.18b). And here, it is in fact all of creation that is “groaning in labor pains” (v.22). The Kingdom of God that is being birthed into existence does not just affect we human beings—but everything that iseverything that God made, and called “good” back in Genesis 1.

Labor Pains

It’s not too hard to see these “labor pains” if we open our eyes and look around us. Another week has gone by……

Another school shooting……

Another round of dehumanizing rhetoric……

Another series of murders in the Near East due to misguided theology……

More terrorist bombings: India, Nigeria, Afghanistan (2), Iraq (2), Indonesia (5)—and that’s just this past week……

Another week of wars and rumors of wars……of natural disasters and evacuations……

Another week of political corruption being exposed……

Another week of the most vulnerable slipping through the cracks……

Another week of our deep division being exposed by something as simple as a soundbite and the words: “laurel” and “yanny.”

Truly Paul is right: all creation is quaking, wracked by wave after wave of contractions, nearly splitting itself apart as it awaits transformation at the emergence of God’s kingdom.

But what about us? How is our labor coming along?

“Likewise” Means We Too

You see, Paul follows up v.22 with v.23, moving from the labor pains that creation is experiencing to the ones that we are experiencing “while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV).

Paul expects that we—if we are followers of Jesus in whom the Kingdom begins—we will be “groaning” as we are similarly wracked by the contractions of a Kingdom that wants to be born. 

But I don’t think we’re dilated at all.

And I wonder: Perhaps we need some “spiritual pitocin” to help us along. 

You know: if a woman’s labor isn’t moving along as it needs to for everyone to be healthy, she is often given pitocin. It induces labor by jump-starting contractions in the uterus. It is not (admittedly, in my passive experience) a pleasant thing to need. Birth is traumatic enough without anything being forced more than happens naturally. But sometimes that push is exactly what needs to happen in order for mother and child to pass safely from before into after.

And while it might not be pleasant for us, some “spiritual pitocin” might just ensure that we survive the birthing of God’s kingdom too.

Pentecost

It’s been required before, you realize: that little IV bag of the Holy Spirit hooked up to the people of God?

Nearly two-thousand years ago in a city named Jerusalem, the disciples were in labor with the Church of Christ Jesus. It wanted to be born—it needed to be born. But those “contractions” just weren’t happening. 

The disciples were still afraid. 

The disciples were still struggling to make sense of what happened: Jesus’ life and Jesus’ death; their failings and Jesus’ forgiveness; and the way Jesus just disappeared back to heaven, when they were hoping for an eternal kingdom then and there. 

Acts 2 describes the disciples as “all together in one place,” which is remarkably similar to how they were described when the risen Christ first appeared to them in John 20. 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’re still stuck, closed up from the world? 

Forty days with the risen Christ and they’ve still not grasped that Jesus meant that “Great Commission” thing?

If something didn’t happen soon, the Church was going to have to come by C-section.

But something did happen on that Pentecost day: 

There weren’t any IV bags, but there were tongues of fire.

There were no shrieks of unnatural contractions, but there was a “whoooosh” as the extraordinary Spirit of God filled the room.

There was no cursing at husbands, but the Gospel was miraculously heard in all languages simultaneously.

And the disciples even appeared drunk from the giddiness of this birth.

Against all odds, and despite the Body of Christ not working quite as nature intended, the Church was born. 

That same church continues today. 

Admittedly, its teenage years were rough. 

Sure, there were a lot of bad decisions in early adulthood as we were usually full of passion and just as often misguided.

And it’s no secret that we’ve made huge, blasphemous, God-betraying mistakes—both in the distant and recent past—mistakes that cannot be forgiven lightly……if at all.

But if there is one thing we have, it is the hope that what God is doing does not rest solely on our own shoulders. 

As followers of Jesus, we are often messengers—or even ambassadors, as we are called in 2Cor 5:20. 

And as followers of Jesus, we are often “the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world”; we “are the feet with which he walks to do good”; we “are the hands with which he blesses all the world.” 

But the Pentecost story reminds us that always, always, God will do what it takes to move things along toward health, healing, wholeness, and love.

Kindling the Kingdom

This Lenten season and Eastertide we have been seeking out ways to live the life of Christ more fully—”to walk just as [Jesus] walked,” as 1John describes it (2:6 NRSV). 

All of it—our entire journey—combined could be summed up as “kindling the Kingdom of God.” For that is our task today—as every day. 

Jesus himself urged us not to get caught up in the uncertainty and busy-ness things, of the fear of each other and whether there would be enough. Instead, he simply insisted: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too (Matthew 6:33 VOICE). 

 

If we need a dose or two of pitocin to birth the kingdom, I am sure God is already measuring it and checking it against our chart. But let’s make sure we’re doing all we can of ourselves, too. 

Let us follow Jesus instead of the world.

Let us look to the well-being of others before ourselves.

Let us prove the goodness of creation with our generosity.

Let us pursue justice instead of fairness.

Let us confess our sins so no one can claim we are hypocrites.

Let us seek to see the image of the Creator in each and every person.

Let us overwhelm fear with love.

Let us practice the Kingdom of God as though it were already here.

For such is the model left for us by the one and only person who has taught us true life.

In the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen. And let us pray:

Prayer

God,

What a journey these past months have been.

If there is one thing that has become clear to us,
it is that we we have become conformed too much to our world,
and transformed too little by your Spirit.

Send that Spirit among us now,
kindling our hearts with fire as in ancient days,
overcoming the obstacles within us and outside us
by the power of your unrelenting love.

May your name be praised
on this and every day,
within our hearts, mind, and lives;
as we offer our whole self to you—
the one who made us,
redeemed us,
transforms us,
and will one day resurrect us
to the new, abundant, eternal, and true life
that is available to all
who will become like little children
and follow the Christ.

Amen.

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Kindling True Life

Scripture: 1John 5:9-13

Intro to Series

It has been quite a journey for us these past months, and one we are nearing the end of.

We began with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, and as we journeyed toward the cross we asked: “What needs to die in my life in order to be more like the Jesus I follow?

Along the way, we wrestled:

with our identity as the Beloved of God,

with our insistence on doing things our way and through our power,

with our tolerance for justice,

with our allegiance to this world,

with our attempts to control our own destiny,

with our contentment with short-term victories,

and with the diverse (and sometimes perverse) pictures of Jesus that we hold.

Turning the corner at the cross, we have been journeying toward the fires of Pentecost, which will conclude our journey next week. Along the way, we have been asking: “What needs kindled in my life in order for the Spirit to move through me in the world?”

Here too, we have wrestled with many practices that should be hallmarks of who we are as followers of Jesus the Christ. Things like:

confession,

the practice of righteousness,

generosity,

love,

obedience to God,

and for today: true life.

If the Holy Spirit is going to move move through us according to God’s loving power, we need to kindle true life.

But what does this mean? What is true life, and how do we kindle real, abundant, true, living life?

Declaration of Independence

To get our thinking juices flowing this morning, let me offer these famous words:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (“Declaration of Independence,” 1776).

With these words, our nation declared its independence. And also with them, we birthed a concept that has fueled the actions of countless thousands and millions since then: the American Dream.

The Dream

The idea that the government should protect the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of its citizens was as polarizing then as it is today, albeit over different issues. When authoring the “Declaration of Independence,” our nation’s ancestors could not imagine this “right to life” existing while they were being taxed without representation. Their American Dream meant that they would have a say in the laws that affected them.

Of course, in the time since there have been all sorts of reasons our own ancestors were drawn to immigrate to this nation.

For many, the “right to life” they desired meant religious freedom—that they could practice their religion without governmental intrusion. (the early Baptists fall in this camp). To worship was their American Dream.

For others, “the right to life” meant quite literally the right to live—they had been persecuted and killed in their homelands because of their culture, their ethnicity, their language, their politics, or their religion. To survive and exist was their American Dream.

For still others, the “right to life” meant the possibility to improve or increase. Their cultures stigmatized them in ways that prevented their living into their full possibility. To improve economically and vocationally was their American Dream.

But along the way—particularly for those of us who are a few generations removed from immigration—our American Dreams got complicated. Around the 1920’s the American Dream underwent a transformation—instead of communicating the hope for a better life (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”), it morphed into the desire to acquire material things. The Dream (that began with a valuing of each individual human being) moldered into a kind of consumerism that measured value against possessions. By the time any of us were even born, the American Dream was rooted in having: having a house, having some land, having a TV, having a car, having a comfortable retirement, and so on. As Americans, many felt entitled to these things; and if we did not experience them, we felt jaded and cheated by others.

By the time I was in my teens, the American Dream was also about experiencing: travel, eating out, movies, music, entertainment, etc. But the boom of that era ended up going bust, in what economists are calling the “Great Recession” or “the Second Great Depression” starting in 2008.

Our culture has taught all of us—no matter our age, at this point in our nation’s history—that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is about having more: more than we did previously…… more than our neighbors…… more than anybody, really.

Deception

This “American Dream” is patently false. But more than that, it deceives us into trading the things that matter—our time,  our life, our liberty, our happiness—for things that do not.

We spend so much of our time earning money to acquire, that we neglect our families, our friendships, our health, and our soul.

We acquire so many things that require care and maintenance that we become enslaved to our possessions, unable to actually do the things we want to do.

We busy ourselves with so many responsibilities and commitments that any happiness easily eludes us. We do not know contentment; we do not know joy—we simply comfort ourselves with the lie that we will have time for happiness when we retire.

This is not life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

Christ Calling

Across the centuries, Jesus asks us:

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

“And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe youyou of little faith?

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:26–33 NRSV).

Across the centuries, Jesus reminds us:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21 NRSV).

This American Nightmare is not what life is about. God invites us to believe in another dream—a true dream—a dream of true life.

True Life Originates with God

What is this “true life?” What does abundant, real life look like?

First, true life finds its origins in the God who created and loves us.

The whole point (to begin) of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is not the means by which God created all things, but rather the fact that God created all things, creating spaces where life can exist, and breathing life into everything that breathes.

Jesus reminded us (in a text we referenced last week) that he “came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV). Jesus isn’t talking about having lots of stuff, but rather experiencing the fullness of what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was trying to communicate.

As our scripture lesson today proclaims:

“God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1John 5:11–12 NRSV)

We find true life in the One who gives life. Our breath is given by the One from whom breath and Spirit emanate.

If we are to kindle true life so the Spirit of God can move through us and work in us, we have to first remember that our actual life rests in the hands of the One True God.

True Life Is Lived for Others

Beyond originating with God, another characteristic of true life is that it is lived for others.

More than anywhere else, this is a place where our culture works against us. In the midst of a culture that is all about me, me, me—in the midst of a culture that supposes my rights are more important than yours—in the midst of a culture that celebrates making money and getting ahead by unjust wages and means—in the midst of our world, God’s description of true life is hard to hear.

Jesus reminds us about true life when he says “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33 NRSV).

Later, he’ll say: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12–13 NRSV).

 

The world may tell us that our best life is lived for ourselves, but Jesus insists that true life is lived for others. The early leaders of the Church are emphatic about this as well.

Peter insists that “each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1Peter 4:10 NIV).

Paul insists that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1Corinthians 12:7 NRSV).

He also instructs us, saying: “let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4 NRSV),

And: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NRSV).

Also in Galatians, Paul takes this community responsibility to its radical end: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13 NRSV).

Similarly, the author of Hebrews urges: “do not forget to do good and to share what you have” (Hebrews 13:16 NRSV).

I promise: I’m not stopping because I ran out of references. I’m just pretty sure you’ve got the point.

Kindling

Remembering that God is the one who gives us life, and remembering that life is intended to be lived for others—these two bases may not describe true life completely, but I don’t think you will find or experience true life if these two are not present. They may be true life’s most irreducible minimum, so to speak—the narrowest definition of a thing before it is not the thing any longer.

If we are going to blow on this ember in an attempt to kindle true life, these things will certainly shape our worship, our practices, our commitments, our expenses, our interactions, our endeavors, our communications, and everything else.

And in the process, I believe they will shape ourselves, our families, our friends, our vocations, our coworkers, our communities, our state and nation, and even our world. After all:

“In [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4–5 NRSV)

Kindling Obedience

Scripture: 1John 5:1-6

Post-Obedience

When theologians and philosophers and historians and social psychologists and other people who look at how the world changes find places of transition, they label them. And since the new world that’s emerging hasn’t really developed yet, they tend to refer to what is coming by what is past. So they make up words that start with “post”:

post-Classical

post-Enlightenment

post-Industrial

post-war

post-modern

post-truth

I wonder if we are living in a post-obedience world.

In the wake of WW2, the Nuremberg trials heard person after person insist that they should not be held accountable for the atrocities they committed—because they were only obeying orders.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram was curious how so many “regular” people could end up doing such terrible things. He designed a now-infamous experiment wherein people would be instructed by an authority figure to administer painful electric shocks to others. He concluded:

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority).

In other words: even when asked to do things that anyone would say were wrong, most of us would do them anyway—if the right authority asked us to.

While Milgram’s experiment has been questioned on many grounds, his basic conclusion has been affirmed by other research over and over again. Obedience has a dark side, especially since we do not tend to really question the authorities in our lives.

But all of this is just a part of how we experience our world anymore. Even graffiti artist Banksy offered this critique of obedience in the book Wall and Piece:

“The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.”

Is obedience even seen as a virtue any longer? I don’t know. In this post-obedience world, verses like our scripture lesson this week seem kind of quaint and irrelevant—like a relic of an earlier, more naive era in humanity’s youth.

We know (at least abstractly):

that there are times we should not obey a friend (“If Johnny jumped off a cliff with all his friends, would you do it too?”)

that there are times we should not obey a parent

that there are times we should not obey a boss/employer

that there are times we should not obey a pastor

that there are times we should not obey a government

Can we believe in obedience at all anymore? Is there any value to this concept that the bible speaks often and highly of?

If there is, surely the Spirit can help us reclaim the value of obedience, can’t she?

Perelandra

Clive Staples Lewis was a British author of the last century, most famous for his “Chronicles of Narnia” series. But C.S. Lewis made significant contributions to our Christian worldview that extended far beyond this one fictional series. He was, himself, a latecomer to faith in Jesus; and he became (for his generation) perhaps their greatest Christian apologist—that means he communicated faith: both in the terms of the world at large, and in a way that that was accessible and even attractive to unbelievers.

Part of why Lewis proved so successful in this regard was his willingness to engage hard questions and posit creative—and unorthodox—answers. His novel Perelandra has significance for us this morning, in the context of our scripture reading.

Perelandra is the middle volume of his three-part “Space Trilogy,” and it envisions traveling to a planet that is early in its own creation. In fact, the planet Perelandra is developmentally parallel to the Garden of Eden, a genuine paradise and only two people. Like with the Genesis story, there is only one thing that is off limits. And like the Genesis story, the characters wrestle with why anything would be forbidden at all.

The main character of Lewis’s reimagining, Dr. Ransom, is the one that journeys from earth to this new world. He argues that such “forbidden fruit” is required for us to demonstrate true obedience in love to God. He says:

“I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” (Perelandra, 118).

[repeat:] “Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?”

It’s an interesting observation, for sure.

Parenting

Let’s put this in the context of parents and children. If I instruct one of my children to get in the car because we’re going to the zoo (and presuming they want to go to the zoo), they’re probably going to obey the instruction. They want to obey the instruction, but not because of anything to do with me. They want to obey the instruction because it produces the result they want—they get to go to the zoo.

I am grateful for this kind of obedience. As a parent, I’m grateful for any obedience I can get. But this is different than the kind of obedience Lewis is talking about in Perelandra.

Let’s imagine now that we’re out and about somewhere—maybe at a public park—and I see something that poses a real threat to my child. Maybe they’re playing near the road and I see a car driving erratically. Maybe there’s another kid about to crash into them and knock them from the equipment. Maybe my spidey-sense is tingling and I don’t know what that means, but I’ve learned to trust it. Whatever it is, my child does not see the threat. They do not see the goodness of my instruction, nor the benefit to themself…… And maybe they even think my instruction looks bad to them—like it’s going to mean they don’t get to have the fun they want.

Here is where the parenting-rubber meets the road. If my child obeys my instruction—even when they do not see the goodness or purpose of it, and even if they think it prevents them from having what they want—then this is a different kind of obedience. This is obedience that is rooted in the love that we share, rather than in common priorities or mutual benefit.

As Dr. Ransom argues in Perelandra, there is a joy in obeying that can only be experienced when our own motivations are stripped away—when obedience is rooted in love and relationship.

The Shepherd

Though it may have felt a bit coarse at the time, Jesus’s teaching in John 10 about the Good Shepherd may be helpful for us here.

Even back then—way before this post-obedience era began—it is clear there were authorities who were teaching the wrong things and leading people to do bad things—even manipulating fear and hate and crowd-mentality to crucify one Jesus of Nazareth. But in John chapter 10, Jesus addresses this obedience crisis head on, naming names and taking no prisoners.

There are many who claim to be leaders—people who ask for (or even demand!) your obedience, loyalty, or action—but not all of them deserve your obedience.

There are those who sneak around in the dark, thinking it shields their wrongdoing.

There are those who who jump over the walls they tell you to stay within, thinking themselves exceptions to the rule you must follow.

There are those whose agendas result in death and destruction and theft, who pretend themselves to be agents of salvation.

There are those whose real aim is the power and authority and recognition that comes with being a leader, but they are inattentive to the needs of their followers to the point of criminal negligence.

But twice Jesus contrasts himself with these pretending shepherds, claiming “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). Four times he references his laying down his life for his sheep. And repeatedly, the reason that the Good Shepherd’s sheep follow Jesus’ voice is because they “know him.”

You see, this is a big deal. If we’ve had an experience of Jesus’s redeeming and transforming love, we know him. We know Jesus. Jesus has revealed himself fully to us, demonstrating his purposes, his methods, his motivations, and his mentality in his willingness to die that we might “have life, and have it abundantly,” as he says in John 10:10 (NRSV).

Two thousand years ago, Jesus effectively said: Put me to the test and see for yourselves.

And we did.

We ran Jesus through the wringer:

through being tried by the media,

through the ancient version of “frontier justice,”

through our corrupt courts,

through public abasement.

through the abandonment of his closest friends and allies,

through torture as cruel as waterboarding,

and through one of the most painful, humiliating, excruciating means of execution the world has ever known.

But Jesus did not recant.
He did not recuse himself.
He did not show even the slightest crack in what we thought was a facade, but which was proven to be the very heart of God.

In proving that he is a good shepherd, Jesus proved that he can be trusted with something as precious as our obedience. That his purpose really was selfless: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV).

Challenge

Ultimately, as followers of the Christ, we are not called to be obedient to the government, to pastors; to employers, friends, parents, or even (and I know this will seem controversial) to the bible. Our obedience is to Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who died and was raised to new life again.

He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). He is the one who calls to us and says “My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Sisters and brothers, Jesus is calling. Do we believe in him enough to follow his “royal law” of loving even our enemies as ourselves?

The world awaits our answer.

Kindling Love

Scripture: 1John 4:7-21

“Simply” Hard Teachings

I love these verses. For me, this reading contains some of the most important words of scripture that did not originate from the mouth of Jesus.

“God is love” (v.8).

“Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v.11).

“God is love” (v.16).

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (v.18).

“We love because [God] first loved us” (v.19).

All these things can be hinted at in every other part of the bible, but here they find their most direct expression. So direct, in fact, that sometimes it seems hard to do more than just quote them.

But as simple as they are, these are hard teachings to really accept—especially for us today.

The Fear Industrial Complex

An article I read recently began with this observation:

“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. It fuels the Internet. It dominates political campaigns, talk radio, and the evening news. It sits on therapist couches and speaks on Facebook feeds. No respecter of persons, it steals sleep from feeble beggars and mighty kings.

What is this pervasive, inescapable, suffocating phenomenon?

Fear……

On paper [the article continued], we should have fewer fears than any generation before us. We’re surrounded by security systems, advanced medicine, organic food, and endless information on a glowing rectangle in our pockets.

Yet we are deeply, miserably afraid. Far from loosening the choke hold of fear, the material blessings of our age seem only to have tightened it.”

And what are we afraid of? In short: everything.

scarcity

losing influence/resources/power or control

being wrong (investing in the wrong things; fighting the wrong battles)

looking foolish (aka “what others think”)

aging/death

isolation/being alone

It’s not just limited to spiders and the dark: we are driven by fear each and every day.

Day in the Life…

You arrive home from work or being out or whatever, and you turn on the news—just in time to hear the newscaster offer the tag before they cut to commercial. The newscaster says: “These three items are found in 95% of American homes and may be killing you right now. This and more stories after the break……”

The first commercial begins: a handsome, silver-haired man in his mid-50’s steps away from his spouse to smile into the camera with his icy blue eyes. “Do you ever have a headache,” he asks, “that doesn’t go away when you sit down?” “I didn’t think anything about it, but thankfully Pat made me talk to our doctor. Turns out, it’s a warning sign for a ridiculously rare heart condition that I probably don’t have. But since my doctor prescribed Preventra, I don’t have to worry anymore. My life is too valuable to leave things to chance. Is yours?”

Turning off the TV, you decide to try the radio. The DJ’s are on opposite sides of some hot-button political issue, each escalating the rhetoric of the other to argue that their opponent’s ideas will be the death of civilization as we know it.

Their bickering is interrupted by an urgent news report about a white supremacist who drove a van into a crowd some long distance away from your home. You turn off the radio and decide to cancel your plans to go to the mall that weekend.

Looking around, you pick up a magazine—you know, some fluff rag filled with top ten lists and style advice. Opening randomly, you land on an article titled “Ten Signs Your Spouse Is Cheating on You.”

You’d like to just put all this away—to be done with TV and the facebookery and everything that traffics fear for advertising dollars. But then you’d be left with the voices in your own head. The ones that say:

You don’t do enough
You are not enough
You didn’t try hard enough
You didn’t come through in time

What about this?
What about that?

You’re letting people down
You’re letting yourself down
You’re letting God down

It seems—for so many of us—that there is no escape from fear. Fear is peddled to us 24/7. It is marketed to us constantly because fear sells. It sells hamburgers and pizzas, adult beverages and soda pop, magazine subscriptions and political candidates, bicycles and vacations…… Everything that is sold is sold on the principle of fear: “If you do not have this, you’re missing out.”

And you don’t want to miss out, do you?

 

The truly sad thing about all this is that there should be a shleter from this emotional marketing storm: the church. Many come to a church needing to know that they have value without all the other stuff—or despite all the other stuff—and instead……they are subjected to the same fear-mongering that convinced them they needed to try that new laundry soap.

Instead of an encounter with the true and living and loving God—instead of experiencing liberation by the Prince of Peace—they are told that they are hopeless sinners……whom God will rejoice at torturing and tormenting for all eternity……because they do not measure up to the impossible ideal of a perfect life. But don’t worry! Act now and your salvation comes with free shipping! Just repent of your sins……come down the aisle……pray this prayer……send money to this ministry……join this church……volunteer for this activity……invite your friends…… If they will only do all these things and so much more, then God’s “sweet sweet Spirit” will welcome them into those pearly gates. Now doesn’t that sound nice?

It is an abomination

It is blasphemy to attach God’s name to such methods and message.

No Fear Tactics

Sisters & brothers, our scripture text today is clear: “Perfect love casts out fear” (1John 4:18). It assures us that where fear is, there is no love, but also that love—wherever it is—will drive out fear.

And first and foremost that means (for us churches), that when we “sell” Christ using the same kind of fear tactics the world uses to sell everything else, we may change behaviors, but that will be all. People may outwardly conform to our expectations and demands……at least for a while.

But fear never changes hearts. Only love can do that. Only love can change hearts and lives. Only love can move us in that pure, whole, authentic way that God uses to bring life and love and hope to each and every one in creation.

The most repeated command in the bible is: “Do not fear.” It’s true.

But is that the most frequent soundbite the Church has broadcast? No. It doesn’t even rank.

To Do

So what can we each do about it? Well, here’s some suggestions—but they’re certainly not the only options.

1. Prayerfully ask God to help you see when fear is being used to manipulate you and others. It’s sort of like buying a car: You never realized there were so many out there until you really noticed one yourself.

2. Speak up and speak out when you see it happen. Don’t be a jerk, but it is ok to “just say ‘no’ to emotional manipulation.” Don’t use it with your spouse or kids. Name it when your friends post that article on Facebook. Speak up for those who have no voice.

3. Ask those you trust to hold you accountable. None of us are perfect. And even the most self-aware among us have blind spots you could drive a Mack truck through. If we’re going to change our behaviors and our thought patterns, it’s going to take more than we’ve got in ourselves. And God’s going to need somebody—enfleshed—if God is going to be able to work do this transformative work in us.

4. Believe in the power of God’s love. Whether you agree or not, I think this is a lot harder than we admit. It’s easier to believe the world’s way of things, when we look around us and the world seems to be right: the strong survive, the generous get taken advantage of, take care of yourself because nobody else is going to, and so on. In the face of such cultural force, believing that love can overcome all obstacles, redeem every trauma, and resurrect any death seems……quaint, at best. Like the way children believe in fairy tales until they realize the way the world really works.

But according to the scriptures, God’s way of love is the way the world really works.

The first really is last. The last really is first.

Become like a child if you want to enter God’s kingdom.

The Samaritan (rather than a faithful Jew) models neighborliness and fulfills God’s instruction.

You must be born again.

Let the one without sin cast the first stone.

That widow’s two pennies were a greater contribution than all of the wealthy combined.

Who among us wouldn’t abandon the 99 sheep to pursue the one that was lost?

Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.

The kingdom of God is in you.

None of it makes any sense, according to the American Dream and whatever else this world has taught us. But all of it slides into perfect focus when we abandon ourselves to the reckless love of God, demonstrated through Jesus the Christ.

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1John 4:11–12 NRSV).

Where charity and love are found, there is God.

May we kindle love in our hearts this Easter season, that God’s Spirit may move through us, burning away the chaff built by this world in our hearts, our communities, our nations, and all of creation.

Generosity

Scripture: 1John 3:16-24

Definitions

How do you define love?

It’s something we are great pleasure in, right? We love music, or camping, or baseball, or books. But somewhere inside we know that there is more.

Love often describes a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone. But again, this description is not nearly enough.

One dictionary describes love as “an intense feeling of deep affection”: like how we love our children, or our country, or our friends. But even this does not describe all that love is.

How to define love seems always to be a point of contention, both within the world and within the Church of Jesus Christ. But the fact is: we don’t have to define love; God already did. And that definition of love is offered to us in the first verse of our scripture reading: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1John 3:16 NIV).

Love is when someone or something else becomes more important than yourself. 

When it comes to faith (then), it is no coincidence that Paul says in 1Corinthians 13 that love is head and shoulders above every other virtue, behavior, or action. That among the choices of faith and the world, “the greatest of these” will always be love (1Corinthians 13:13).

If we are believers in the one true God……
If we are followers of the Way, the Truth, and the Life……
If we are disciples of the Christ who taught us the real meaning of love,
then love will be the foundation of who we are.

Applying Love

In these very theological verses of 1John, the author is arguing for a kind of undeniable, all-encompassing, yet very practical application of love in the lives of Christ-followers.

What is the core way we express that love?

Or the reverse of the same question: What is the surest way to demonstrate we have left the path of Jesus?

Today’s scripture lesson sounds the answer clearly: generosity. Generosity.

Listen to v.17 again, this time from The Message translation:

“If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it, but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.”

Generosity is a sort of basic kindness—compassion at it’s most rudimentary. Can we—as human beings—as creatures created in the image of a God whose nature is community—can we know that someone else suffers (or even will die!) because of what we have, and yet still refuse to offer them some? Can we still refuse to share what God has shared with us?

The answer of 1John is: “No.”
No we can’t.

At least: we cannot if we have even the most basic, immature, fragile awareness of who Jesus is. Because as soon as Jesus enters the picture, everything changes.

The Radical Change of Jesus

In continuing what God has been doing in the world—in fulfilling the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17)—Jesus turns everything on its head: “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). As we discover in Matthew 5:

Now, it is the poor who inherit the kingdom, not the wealthy and powerful.

It is those who mourn who are comforted, not the comfortable.

It is the meek who inherit the earth, rather than the selfish and bold.

The hungry and thirsty who will be filled, instead of the gluttonous or rich.

The merciful receive mercy, rather than get taken advantage of.

Those with simple, pure hearts are the ones who see God.

Those advocating peace embody God as God’s children.

And the ones persecuted because they are truly on God’s side will spend eternity in God’s Kingdom.

None of this—none of this—is the way our world works.

In fact, all of it seems to be the complete opposite. Since Jesus is the perfect “imprint of the invisible God” (as Colossians 1:15 asserts), he reveals the true way of things to we who have had our vision manipulated by this world and its powers. It is not easy to lose the blinders that the Enemy has strapped to our brains—impediments that distort our vision of reality and truth. But that is precisely the liberation that Jesus seeks to enable for us: “You have heard it said……but I say to you……” (cf. Matthew 5).

Given the centrality of this radical reversal to Jesus’ life and ministry, we cannot expect anything less regarding the topic of generosity.

As revealed to us through Jesus and the scriptures, True generosity can only come from the intersection of two realizations: (1) that everything belongs to God, and (2) that we are so deeply interconnected that harm/benefit to someone else produces harm/benefit in ourselves.

Let’s take these each in turn.

Everything Belongs to God

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1 ESV). A simple and beautiful reminder that everything belongs to God. So simple and so beautiful, we could almost overlook its expansive reality, were it not intertwined throughout the rest of scripture.

And indeed: throughout the bible, this is the consistent message: everything within creation belongs to the Lord of Creation; everything in our possession is simply entrusted to us as temporary managers.

Thus, ownership as such does not mean what we think it means. The biblical view of ownership does not allow us to believe in “mine.” All things, instead, are “Thine”—that is, God’s. All wealth, all things, even all life, is owned by God and loaned to us to use according to God’s purposes.

Whether we’re encountering the stories of the Abraham & Sarah, reading the Psalms, or watching the Parable of the Talents unfold in the gospels, we are taught that everything belongs to God.

Realizing that the things we have belong to God then frees us to embody God’s generosity in ways that contradict the culture of selfishness around us.

Freed from being possessed by possessions, we can live God’s truth in the world by sharing what we have with others—believing in both the goodness of creation and its sufficiency when treated as God intends.

Interconnected

But there is that second dimension that is also necessary for us to live out true generosity. We can know that everything belongs to God; but if we do not realize our interdependence with one another, we will lack the compassion that prompts true generosity.

What I mean is this: the apostle Paul talks (in 1Corinthians 12 and other places) about the Church as a single organism—a body. We as individuals cannot simply “opt out” (vv.14-20).

Whether we want to or not, whether it is convenient or not, whether we think it is a drain on us or not—we are bound together in a web of interconnectivity. That means—among other things—that when one of us is hurting, the threads of that web drum out an SOS that impacts the rest of us. Paul says:

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1Corinthians 12:26 NRSV).

But it’s not just the Church that works this way; we are increasingly discovering the interconnectedness of all of creation. One of the most fascinating discoveries in the last years has been about trees. Ecologist Suzanne Simard (and others) have learned that different trees are connected in various ways—both physically and (remarkably) by chemical communication.

Roots from different trees fuze together and support one another in lean years.

Related trees adjust competitive behaviors by using underground fungal networks to let one another know of their presence.

Defense enzymes are released underground and through the air that warns nearby trees of attacks by pests like insects……or humans.

Some even release chemicals through the air to attract predators that eat those pests.

We are discovering that when one tree is cut down, other trees suffer, as well as the host of other life forms that depend on that tree and its life cycle.

The Application of Generosity

The point is this: if we cannot learn that the hurt of others affects us as well, we will never be moved (like Jesus) by compassion, and we will never demonstrate true generosity.

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1John 3:17 NRSV)

Take a long, hard look around this room.
Take a long, hard look at our community.
Take a long, hard look at our world.

There is:

So much pain.
So much need.
So much loneliness.
So much hopelessness.
So much grief.

I came not “to condemn the world,” Jesus says, “but to save it” (cf. John 3:17).

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17 NRSV).

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NRSV).

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40 NRSV).

These are Jesus’ own words. And there are plenty of other places in scripture—the Old and New Testaments—that speak to the importance of kindling generosity in our hearts. But I’m not sure any others are as clear—or as damning—as what is found in our scripture lesson itself.

Hear the Voice of God, speaking across the centuries, from another translation once again:

“If a person owns the kinds of things we need to make it in the world but refuses to share with those in need, is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? 

My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love” (1John 3:17-18 VOICE).

Prayer

Merciful God,

Soften our hardened hearts.
Instill your mercy in us.
Remind us that though we are individuals,
we are part of something more than ourselves—
that our choices affect others, and theirs us.

Help us hear how others’ experience
is often different than our own.
Teach us to hear
as readily as we want ourselves to be heard.
May we be ready to respond with compassion and kindness
instead of selfishness and self-justification.

Teach us to love our neighbor more than ourselves,
sharing from among the good things you’ve entrusted to us,
giving as freely as Christ gives to us
the forgiveness and grace that lead to abundant life.

And in doing so, we pray
that your love shine brightly through us,
that all others will come through grace into your holy family,
and that your Name will be praised,

through the working of the Holy Spirit,
the love of Jesus Christ,
and the power of you, O God our Father. Amen.

Everything Is Free Now

A sermon delivered at the Prairie Pastor’s Conference, 17 April 2018. This was written for and delivered to a gathering of pastors.

Scripture

A reading from 1Timothy 5:17–18 (ESV):

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves [their] wages.””

To this we add a reading from 2Thessalonians 3:13 (ESV):

“Sisters and brothers: Do not grow weary in doing good.”

2001: An Odyssey

Sermons/homilies/meditations/devotions–whatever you call them–they come in many forms. Or at least they do for me.

Today I believe God’s given me a story to share. It’s quite different than what you might hear on an average Sunday, were you to darken the doors of the church where I serve. Then again, I’m learning that a preacher is more attuned to the nuances of her own style than the average person in the pews.

What I’ll tell you is this: God started growing this sermon in me over a month before I was invited to speak. I felt it incubating in me as viscerally as the bass-drum of my heart or the sharp inflation of air penetrating my lungs.

It’s a story that I believe God wants you to hear too. But in order to experience this story, we’ve first got to get in our way-back machines and travel to the distant year of 2001.

You remember 2001, don’t you?

Y2K and its threat to make Flintstones of us all is recent yet a distant memory

The world looks nothing like Arthur Clark predicted in A Space Odyssey (though that year the NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft did successfully land on an asteroid)

George W. Bush is president

“America Online” effectively dies, following its merger with Time Warner

Wikipedia is born

The 1500 year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan are destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan

Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore installs a Ten Commandments monument in a judicial building, sparking lingering dialogue about the separation of church and state

2,977 people are killed in a coordinated terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and aboard United Airlines flight 93

A series of anthrax-laced letters were mailed to several media and political offices, claiming the lives of five

Microsoft releases Windows XP

The first Halo video game is released alongside the original Xbox

Enron files for bankruptcy

PDA means “personal digital assistant”

3G cellular service is launched, paving the way for the coming BlackBerry and smartphone craze that has changed our world

And there’s a lot that no doubt happened in your personal lives too, but I can’t speak to that because Facebook hasn’t yet processed my request for your data.

Do you remember? Are you there? Did I take you back?

Because there is one other thing that was going on in 2001–something you probably missed altogether, yet something so frightening and revolutionary that for many it was more significant than any other event that year, excepting the 9/11 attacks.

It revolved around a lawsuit against a company called Napster.

Napster

Now for everyone here more than five or ten years older than me, I realize you likely have no idea what a “Napster” is. And for everyone younger than me, maybe you’ve got a vague notion that it’s a music streaming service, like Spotify or iHeartRadio.

Back then though, back in 2001, Napster broke the internet–literally. In those halcyon days of the early internet, Napster was the queen bee of peer-to-peer file sharing. In principle, this was simple: two computers connected to the internet could send and receive files between them. In practice, however, it became an ethical quagmire. And it all came to a head over music.

You see, musical artists make money off of record sales. Even those concert tours that you pay big bucks to attend–those hardly break even, even for major artists. Back in the 1990’s and earlier, it was with record sales that a musician would survive or fail.

So what do you think happened when all these punk kids (like me) started sharing digitized music online instead of buying new albums for themselves? (doing what came to be called “music piracy”)

Anyone here could guess it. Record sales plummet, artists struggle to survive in their vocation (and many quit), and the entire industry is shaken to its core. Money makes the world go ’round, and no one knew how to monetize what was happening with Napster.

Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch is a folksinger who found herself hurt by this paradigm shift. The world changed out from under her, becoming something other than what she signed up for, so to speak. It was like she agreed to play a game, but halfway through someone changed all the rules.

So in 2001, Welch released a hauntingly beautiful song about trying to come to terms with this complete paradigm shift. It begins:

Everything is free now, that’s what they say
Everything I ever done, (they’re) gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay

The song continues as she tries to think of a path forward:

I can get a tip jar, gas up the car
Try to make a little change down at the bar
Or I can get a straight job, I done it before
Never minded workin’ hard, it’s who I’m workin’ for

Through the song she realizes that she wants to keep creating, and that she’s willing to give up “the big time” if it means she can continue to let the music move through her. She can’t just stop, but maybe–maybe?–she can leave the “recording artist” side behind. She thinks she doesn’t need all the hassle; so maybe she just deals herself out, so to speak. She sings:

Every day I wake up, hummin’ a song
But I don’t need to run around, I just stay at home
And sing a little love song, my lover, myself
If there’s something that you wanna hear, you can sing it yourself

But then she finally realizes that she can’t just stop. As much as it matters, it doesn’t really matter if she’s making money or not–she is going to create and release music: it is what she exists to do. So the song ends with this resolve:

‘Cause everything is free now, that’s what I said
No ones gotta listen to the words in my head
Someone hit the big score, I figured it out
And I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay

(Listen to the song here)

Everything Is Free Now

There’s a parallel here for those of us in this room–or at least I see one.

Most all of us here are clergy in one form or another. And the majority of you–if you don’t mind my pointing it out–are older than I am (though that number seems to dwindle every year).

What changes you’ve seen!

How the culture and churches in which we work have shifted!

And our role?–it isn’t what it was even when I started a decade ago.

Someone has moved the goalposts. The rules have changed. Our seminaries didn’t equip us for the world we now live in–in part because they couldn’t have even imagined the world in which we find ourselves.

A world of: Declining church attendance.

A world of: Declining church participation.

A world of: Decreased civic influence.

A world where bi-vocational ministry is the norm rather than the exception.

We clergy used to be a valued part of society. But now–as though in an episode of the Twilight Zone–we have been declared obsolete. Outsourced to YouTube.

Most people I talk with seem to get the majority of their theology from wacked-out programs on the History or Discovery channels.

And pastors I knew in years gone by used to be able to supplement income through the publishing of sermons and whatnot–but now it’s just expected that all that is available in a blog, or on the church’s website–all on demand and without cost.

Everything is free now. That’s what they say.
Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve gotta give it away.

There are plenty of days when I–like Gillian Welch–just want to throw up my hands and quit. Some days, being an ordinary person in the pew, with an ordinary job, and an ordinary life sounds pretty darn swell.

I can get a straight job, I done it before
Never minded workin’ hard,
it’s who I’m workin’ for

Am I right?……

Called

But sooner or later I remember that I don’t do this because I want to. I am a pastor because I am called.

I realize that–like Jeremiah in chapter 20 verse 9:

If I say, “I will not mention [God], or speak any more in [God’s] name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9 NRSV)

I cannot. So like Paul in Philippians 3: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 NRSV).

And I realize that it’s true:

No ones gotta listen to the words in my head.

But for reasons I don’t comprehend, people do–and they do week after week.

And even more mind-boggling than that: they seem to find value in it!

Somehow those random, entangled whispers in my brain become transformed into strong, purposeful tones that sound the heart-strings of those “with ears to hear.”

Somehow: before my very eyes–(or more likely: completely out of my own field of view) that rickety scaffolding of a manuscript that I built out of my heart and soul manages to support the construction of a building more true and glorious than anything I can imagine: the church of Jesus the Christ.

Amidst all the chaos, the bait-and-switch, the moving goalposts, and the devaluing and de-monetization of my life’s work, I realized that I am in the same place as Gillian Welch:

I figured it out
And I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.

And I am incredibly grateful……to know so many amazing colleagues……that feel the same way.

Sacrifice & Delight

Years ago I read a book called Sacrifice and Delight, by Alan Jones (an Episcopalian priest). It’s a memoir-ey kind of book about ministry. Somewhere in there, Jones says that no sane person would do what clergy does; that if a person really comprehended what serving as clergy is like, there is not enough money in the world to convince them to do it.

We are all, in that way, God’s fools: hopeful enough–or to use Jones’ words: romantic enough–to fall for God’s dream over and over again, believing it at all costs even as we wrestle with it in all things.

Sisters and brothers:

You are not alone in your task.

You are not alone in your commitment.

You are not alone in your passion.

You are not alone in your struggles.

“Do not grow weary in doing good.” (2Thessalonians 3:13 ESV)

The Practice of Righteousness

Scripture: 1John 3:1-7

Practice Makes Perfect

“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s a phrase I heard a lot growing up–and one I now hear come out of my own mouth more and more as I parent children of my own.

“Practice makes perfect” speaks to that universal reality that you’ve got to work at something if you want to be good at it. You can’t just swing a leg over a bicycle and expect to ride it without training wheels. You can’t just one day pick up a guitar and immediately play like Eric Clapton or Slash. Nearly everything in life takes dedicated, consistent practice if you expect to become proficient.

Jesus, Paul, and……well……many writers in both the Old and New Testaments stress something like this for those of us committed to following God. Faith is something that requires practice. It is a muscle that needs trained in order to get stronger. Growing faith is (it turns out) a lot like all other kinds of growing. It takes consistent, disciplined action over time.

And so we all have a responsibility as individuals–and as a community–to practice together our faith as we grow in likeness to our savior Jesus the Christ: as we “become like him,” as our scripture reading anticipates in v.2.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

“Practice makes perfect” became a kind of foundation stone for much of my life–for my academics, for my faith, for my hobbies–for everything, really.

That’s why it was so surprising back in college when I heard my music teacher claim that the idea that “practice makes perfect” is wrong.

“What?” I asked.

He answered: “Improvement is based on the quality of the practice, not the quantity. You can practice all day, but if you aren’t practicing well, you will never improve–and you may even get worse. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

In truth, this is probably most graphically illustrated in the music world. If you’re learning a piece of music, but you keep playing or singing that one line wrong, then what you’re practicing is doing it wrong; you’re practicing being incorrect. You’ve got to slow down–maybe even ridiculously slow–slow enough that you can play it without error. Then do that again and again and again. And only when you can play it perfectly, repeatedly, do you then gradually increase the tempo.

If you practice doing it wrong, you’ll play it wrong.

If you practice doing it right, you’ll play it correctly.

Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

Practicing Incorrectly

So how does that apply to our lives of faith and today’s scripture lesson?

Well, first of all, we may be practicing our faith incorrectly.

Now, I’m wary of being misunderstood here. There are many practices of faith that do not have a strict “right” way. Prayer is a great illustration: there is no wrong way to pray. If you are doing something that opens you up to God, you’re doing it right.

But sometimes we’re trying to do the right thing, but our focus is off, so we end up practicing the wrong thing. Like how in the last months it seems some are more ready to forgive abusers than believe victims. Forgiveness is a vital and important practice of our faith (Matthew 6:14; John 20:23; Colossians 3:13; etc.). As the embodiment of Christ in the world, we are to extend forgiveness as readily as we have received it.

But in these cases we seem to overlook the fact that God always sides with victims–and the greatest judgments pronounced on our ancestors came about because they were not doing enough to protect those vulnerable from becoming victims.

Sometimes it seems we’ve misplaced our priorities, or we don’t really know how to put first things first. Whatever the reason, there are times that we’ve been practicing incorrectly.

Practicing the Wrong Thing

There are other times, however, when we may be practicing the wrong things altogether.

Our scripture reading mentions those who make a practice of sinning (vv.4, 6). And for centuries this has certainly been a struggle entangling Christians. We get deceived into believing that someone else’s sin is worse than our own, so we overlook the log in our own eye to pluck the speck out of another’s (Luke 6:41-42). Or it may be that certain sins simply become normal in our lives, most often on account of the culture in which we find ourselves.

As an example, there are a lot of harsh words from public “Christians” these days against immigrants. That’s hard to reconcile with God’s instruction to “welcome the stranger” and alien, because that is who we once were.

There’s a lot of “Christian” support for policies that make healthcare more expensive and difficult to obtain. When so many are sick and hurting and dying from treatable conditions, it’s hard to maintain that the followers of Jesus in fact value life.

There are a lot of negative comments from “Christians” about those utilizing government services, but those same voices argue against a fair and equitable wage because they don’t want their Big Mac’s to cost more money. In doing so, they forget that “Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves [their] wages”” (1Timothy 5:18 ESV).

Too often, the public voices I hear claiming to speak for Christianity articulate the ideology of a political party rather than anything approximating “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” freedom for “the oppressed,” or “the year of the Lord’s favor”–which is precisely what Jesus says is his business in Luke chapter 4 (vv.18–21 NRSV).

As indicated in our scripture lesson in v.7, those of us who are followers of Jesus need to make sure we are in fact practicing the right things–what the writer calls “righteousness.”

Practicing Righteousness

But you know, this word “righteousness” can get us twisted up sometimes. I think most of the time I have heard it defined as “right actions or beliefs,” which isn’t really a terrible translation, but it does have some flaws.

First up among the flaws is that “or”–“actions or beliefs.” You see, in the bible, belief and action are not either/or propositions. They are intrinsically bound together, and they flow into each other. Right belief produces right action; right actions grow right belief. It is always both:

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 NRSV).

And: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26 NRSV)

Either one–without the other–reveals a lack of faith. It reveals that we never really knew God at all.

A second flaw in defining “righteousness” as “right actions or beliefs” has to do with what we mean by “right.” If “right” means correct, then our faith statements–our beliefs–become a kind of litmus test of faith. Faith means believing the right things. And in the last decades, this kind of right-ness has often been defined among Christians by what one believes about things like:

abortion

homosexuality

the inerrancy of the bible

creation and science

the end times, and so on.

But none of that is what the biblical authors meant  by “right.” The concept of righteousness in the bible is intrinsically linked to the concept of justice; you cannot talk about one without the other.

Justice and judgment in the bible have to do with all things becoming aligned with God’s way. And for the bulk of the bible, that has a lot to do with Matthew 25 kinds of things: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the exposed, visiting the sick, and liberating the captive (cf. vv.31-46). The righteous person–the person who is practicing “right-ness” is the one who does these kinds of things.

In fact, throughout scripture, practicing this kind of righteousness is the single clearest indicator of whether or not you are aligned with God.

In Isaiah 58:1-8, God rejects the religious practices of his people, reminding them that it is all worthless unless they care for the outsiders and the vulnerable.

In Ezekiel 16:49, God reveals that the destruction of Sodom came about not because of sexual sin, but because they failed to extend hospitality and share what they had with those in need.

In Zechariah 7:9-10, God pleads with his people to “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (NRSV). If they can do this, they will avert disaster. But like so many of God’s followers before and sense, this seems too much to ask.

In Micah 6:8, we are told what is “good” and what God “requires of us”: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (NRSV).

And in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRSV).

To use language elsewhere in 1John, “by this we know that we are in God,” if we practice this kind of righteousness in the world.

Outro

This season, as we move from the ashes of Lent towards the fire of Pentecost, we are looking at what needs kindled in our lives in order to live out our calling as the Body of Christ.

Today we see that the practice of righteousness is something that needs kindled in each of us if we are going to embody Jesus in the world.

But let us be sure we are practicing correctly, practicing the things of God, and practicing a righteousness rooted in God’s liberating love.