Game Shows: The True Cross in a “like” culture.

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Have you noticed how fuzzy the idea of “truth” has become? Things are no longer “true” in any objective sense. They are, as Stephen Colbert said, “truthy” – true enough…ish. Sort of. Our social media usage illustrates this. We no longer live our lives. We curate them, packaging the bits we want others to see. We crop out the ugly for public attention. The “like” culture has blurred the line, not just between truth and “truthy,” but also the line between actual life and media. This blurring may have been started by Alan Funt on the old tv show, “Candid Camera.” Candid Camera played jokes on ordinary people, and when the joke was revealed, host Alan Funt would pull off his disguise and deliver his catchphrase, “Smile, your on Candid Camera!”

One of the people to fall victim to Alan Funt’s blurring of real vs media was Alan Funt himself. In 1969 Alan Funt was on an Eastern Airlines flight to Miami when the flight was highjacked. The highjacker held the stewardess at knifepoint and demanded the plane fly to Havana. When passengers noticed Alan Funt seated near the highjacker, they began to applaud. When the man disappeared into the cockpit, Funt tried to explain that this was not television.  According to the Radio Lab October 15, 2015 podcast episode, “Smile My Ass,” when the passengers didn’t buy it, Funt attempted to enlist a priest sitting in first class to explain the situation. The priest didn’t believe him either. They took him seriously, though, when Cuban military boarded the plane. When we resort to packaging our own truth, how are we to know what we can actually believe in? This is where the Feast of the Holy Cross comes in…

The year was 326. Constantine, who became emperor in the wake of Diocletian’s “Great Persecution” (303-311),  was betting his empire on upstart Christianity. Unlike other religions, the Christian faith depends, not on creed or philosophy, but upon a historical event: the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Christian message is that death has been conquered and humans reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus (2 Cor 5, Col 1:22, 1 Cor 15:1-8). But Constantine needed to know if the story was true. He sent the one person he could count on to go see the Holy Land and confirm or deny the historical reports: his 78 yr old mother, Helena. Helena arrived in Jerusalem and found no tomb. Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jesus’ burial place two centuries earlier and built a temple to Aphrodite on the location, inadvertently marking the place of Christ’s passion in perpetuity. When she asked whether or not the events in the New Testament actually happened, surely she would have met others her age who would say things like, “Well, my great-grandpa was healed by Jesus, does that count?”

Tradition tells us that Helena had Hadrian’s temple torn down. In the rubble they found three crosses left over from before the destruction of Jesus’ tomb in 130 CE. Consider that 130 date: a century after Jesus’ resurrection, a mere 3 decades after the death of John, the last living apostle. Legend has it that to identify “the true cross,” Helena had a sick woman approach the three artifacts. Upon touching the third she was healed. The “true” cross was left behind to adorn a church Helena commissioned to be built on the site. The Feast of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14th, marks the bringing of that cross outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day after the church’s dedication (335 CE) so that the community could see it. The cross was removed when Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the crusades, and bits of it were distributed all over Europe. By the 1600s John Calvin would remark, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” Helena also saw the place of Jesus’ birth, the location of the feeding of the 5000, and many other sites of Jesus’ life, marking them with state sponsored Roman churches.

Was Helena’s cross the “true cross”? Who knows. Are the fragments distributed around the planet pieces of that cross? Probably not. But the Feast of the Holy Cross does tell us that the places Jesus walked are there – as described in the New Testament. There were worshippers, people whose lives were still being changed by the power of Jesus’ actions on the cross, still gathering where their great-grandparents had been gathering since the resurrection. And, especially in light of repeated persecutions, there is no reason for people to have begun gathering and commemorating in those places were the stories they told their children not true.

In this age when the line between truth and truthiness is blurred, there is another old game show that is a better model for us: Groucho Marx’s, You Bet Your Life. The truth is that you and I can bet our lives on Jesus Christ and his great acts of salvation on our behalf. And while we don’t have any kind of a sure claim to the “true cross” we have rock solid knowledge of a Gospel that is true. The places described in the Gospels are as described in those Gospels, because the Gospels are the narratives of dependable witnesses.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”   -‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Do I matter?

The encouragement of an obscure Saint.

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On Wednesday morning, groggy with sleep and sinus infection, I stumbled into the chapel vesting room to prepare for the 7AM Eucharist. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a splotch of a red on the liturgical calendar. Red indicates the commemoration of a martyr, in this case St. Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles. Bartholomew, tradition tells us was martyred by being flayed. He is portrayed in art with a knife in one hand and his own skin in the other.

Think about Bartholomew for a moment…Allow the great childhood Sunday school stories of Bartholomew fill you. Ponder all you know of Bartholomew from your personal Bible study…

Is your mind flooded with remembrances of this great saint? Are you overwhelmed with gratitude at the anecdotes of his faithfulness? Or does your mind, like mine, draw a TOTAL blank?

We drew a blank because a Biblegateway search reveals no information about anyone named Bartholomew in the Bible outside of his being listed among the twelve in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). We know nothing about Bartholomew from scripture. But we do know the fruit of his life: Bartholomew, tradition tells us, was the evangelist of the Armenians – The one ethnic group in the middle east to have successfully resisted Islam and wave after wave of persecution from every direction.

Bartholomew may have lived anonymously and died tragically, without a word or deed of his life recorded. But 2000 years later the results of what he did and said are still bearing fruit. The Armenian people, the subject of genocides and persecution, are sustained by the faith learned from Bartholomew the obscure.

Life, for all of , includes the tragic and painful. You may toil in obscurity. But the fruit of a life given away in service to our Lord Jesus points others to him not ourselves anyway. The legacy of a Christian is not our words, but his…not our deeds but his on our behalf. The example of St. Bartholomew tells us that a life given away for the Master always bears fruit. And always, always, matters.

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*Bartholomew may be the apostle identified as Nathanael in John 1. Nathanael is the apostle that when Philip went and found him to take him to Jesus said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” When Nathanael went with him to Jesus,  Jesus said, “There is an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Nathanael responded, “How do you know me?” When Jesus told him he saw him sitting under a tree miles away, Nathanael responded with an astounding statement of faith, “You are the son of God, the King of Israel.”

Unraveling racism – Naming our Samaritans and traveling our Jericho road

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(A sermon. 7/10/16)

What a week.

You may be wondering: Will the church address the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas? Will we go there? Spoiler alert: Yes.

Although I successfully resisted the urge to engage in Facebook activism, I cannot avoid last week’s events from the pulpit – we have to “go there” because at this moment in America our problems are simply outside of the realm of mere secular solutions. We have a spiritual sickness, so the church has to talk about it.

Everyone has a perspective. Here’s mine: First, I have strong admiration for the police. Police officers risk their lives every time they put on the shield. I played high school basketball with the Phoenix Chief of Police. Even as a kid he was smart, tough, level headed and fair. I have friends who work difficult beats. I have friends in vice and friends on SWAT. A friend renting our home in Phoenix starts the police academy next month. I love, respect, and appreciate every officer I know personally. And I respect and appreciate the job police officers do to protect us all every day.

And…I also did urban ministry in Phoenix’s I-17 corridor. As “the white guy” on our church staff, I know a dozen people who have been “sweat” – stopped for things like tail lights being out when they weren’t. I have friends who spent the night in jail for non-offenses that would raise your eyebrows. Our preacher, Dijuahn, in an incident eerily similar to Philando Castille’s, was shot multiple times by an officer who panicked when Dijuahn told him he was carrying a gun. Dijuahn lived, though. He did nine years in prison for the officer’s mistake. So I have experienced both sides of this tension. If there were easy answers we’d have found them already.

How do we begin to unravel this mess we are in? Luke 10:25-37 is a good place to start.

Look at how a well-meaning religious person can be part of the problem…

v25 And behold, a lawyer (an expert in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – “the law”) stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” “Eternal life” in the first century was not a ticket to heaven, but was rather viewed as a quality of life here and now that would simply never end. This lawyer starts with the right question: “How do I have the life I was meant to have? How do I have that quality of life that only comes from God?” He starts in the right place:

1) He has the right question.

v26 Jesus says to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ Jesus asks.” v27 The lawyer quotes the summary of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Not only does this lawyer know the right question,

2) He has the right source of authority: the scriptures-God’s revealed truth. And,

3) He has the right answer: love.

And (Jesus) said to him, v28 “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Jesus confirms that Loving God and loving your neighbor as a result of your first love, love for God, is life-giving.

And here it gets interesting: v29 But he…desiring to justify himself… (The human default is the desire to justify ourselves, to try to prove to God how lucky he is to have us on his team.) V29 he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (It is difficult to even read the question without an attitude. The man is trying to figure out how little he can do. He is trying to lower the bar on love.)

So our man has the right question, the right source of truth, and the right answer. Unfortunately, he also gets a few things wrong… He has:

1) The wrong motive (v25) “to put Jesus to the test.” And now,

2) The wrong method (v29)“to justify himself,” and,

3) The wrong attitude (v29) “Who exactly is my neighbor?”

Unfortunately, half-right in the Christian life usually leaves us with a life that is all-wrong.

And have you noticed that when we are half-wrong we are usually 100% convinced we are all-right?

Breaking through our self-deception

When someone was self-deceived in the bible, Jesus would often sneak around their internal defenses with a story. He does that in Luke 11:

v30 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… I have been on the road to Jericho. I was nervous. It’s a rocky downhill descending 3500 feet in elevation, an 18-mile ambush opportunity. If this were a Western movie, the road to Jericho is where the stagecoach would get held up.

“A man fell among robbers, who strip and beat him, leaving him half dead.” (all quite predictable) v31 A priest comes along. He saw him and passed by on the other side.” v32 Likewise a Levite,” (who assisted priests, ie. A person active at the church.) “when he came to the place and saw him, he too passed by on the other side.” That is what smart people do. The bleeding guy is probably a set up. Be safe: walk by on the other side. And now, just when you would expect a nice Jewish layperson, Jesus throws the curveball…

v33 But a Samaritan…” A SAMARITAN! Jews and Samaritans helping one another? Simply unthinkable. Samaritans were the remnants of lower class Jews not considered important enough for the Assyrians to exile when they had conquered Israel eight centuries earlier. Then they intermarried with the invading Assyrians and Babylonians. The Samaritan/Jewish thing was a racial, cultural, tribal, religious, and class conflict beyond our experience.

Yet it is the Samaritan who… “came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. v34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine” (oil speeds healing. alcohol is antiseptic.) “he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. v35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ v36 And then Jesus asks the obvious: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

Don’t be the well-meaning religious person who inadvertently becomes part of the problem. Ask yourself: #whoismyneighbor? #whatisyourjerichoroad?

It is on the road to Jericho where fear, security, and realism butt up against faith, hope, and love.

It is on the road to Jericho where we confront our fears and our prejudices – where I decide if I will do what is smart and safe or what someone else needs me to do.

It is on the Road to Jericho where love is put to the test.

I wonder…at what point did the lawyer who had it half-right realize that his motives, methods, and attitude where all-wrong?

I wonder…at what point on our Jericho road you and I will confront our Samaritans?

What should we do when we, like the lawyer, begin to realize, that for all we have right in life, we still lack that quality of overwhelming, overflowing joy that Jesus spoke of?

What you should do depends on where you are. First, do you know Jesus Christ? Have you allowed him to be your justifier, or are you still looking for life on your own? If so, the hard to hear truth is this: There is only one source of eternal life, only one who justifies – Jesus. There is only one truly Good Samaritan. Only one, who, having compassion, crossed out of his way, all the way from heaven in fact, to us. One Great Samaritan, who, as unlikely as it sounds, binds up our broken hearts, who takes us, battered and bruised by life and pours the wine of his presence and the oil of his calling upon us…who takes us to his own home, at great personal cost, and keeps returning by placing his Spirit permanently within us when we place our trust in him. So, if you do not yet know Jesus Christ, come to him this morning by faith. Surrender your life to his healing, uplifting, love-giving presence. Because otherwise you will, ultimately, serve the world from pain.

Have you already experienced the touch of the master’s hand? If that is you, I implore you, courageously seek, name, and turn from your fears. Acknowledge your Jericho Road and name your “Samaritans,” the “other” in your heart. Our nation’s hope is not to be found in justice but in love. And love and fear never occupy the same space. Why is this so important? Because,

when 13% of America is convinced that it is open season on them, it is a fail for 100% of us.

Only those filled and led by love, freed from the grip fear, can hope to overcome four centuries of earned distrust. So I ask you, who are your Samaritans?

I’ve had my share of “Samaritans” – people I have feared over my life. Since my dad was the realtor for the Phoenix Suns, I grew up in a uniquely multi-ethnic environment for a middle class kid. But I had lots of other “Samaritans.” Lots of roads I avoided. Mine were communists, illegal aliens, and gang members.God has stripped those one by one as I watched people from those groups experience the mercy of God and the same life-change that I experienced. They became friends. It is amazing the way “perfect love casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18)

This week we had Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Not morally equivalent acts, yet acts that will always be connected in our consciousness. In the wake of the horror you may be tempted to retreat to slogans or party lines. Or, alternately, to take a silent detour through “nice,” and avoid traveling the Jericho Road altogether.

Church, refuse the easy way. Don’t allow the dangers of the Jericho Road to cause you to question, “Who is my neighbor?” What Jesus taught is simple: If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor.

Here are a few small simple neighborly things you can do: 1) Smile and say, “hi.” 2)  Build friendships outside of your ethnic and social group. 3) Ask people outside of your group to tell you how their experiences. Listen (without judging or attempting to correct their impressions).

Because If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor. So, Christian, don’t lower the bar on love. Or, as Jesus told the lawyer, “You go, and do likewise.”

And as you go remember, “love” is still the right answer.

You will be tempted to go driven by the heart breaking needs you see around you. As counterintuitive as it seems, resist that urge. Because if you allow the world’s need and your desire for justice to drive you, you will end up bitter and broken. Anger is a parasite that cares not on whom it feasts.

So go. But go centered in the deep and wise love of God. Go loving God’s world with the overflow of God’s love in your life. G0 with the hope that the one whose love is redeeming you can redeem them. Go in the majesty and power of the one described by an anonymous second century disciple of John who explained the transforming love of Jesus to Marcus Aurelius’ tutor Diognetus like this….and I quote:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us…the one love of God…took on Him the burden of our iniquities, and gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those ones which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desires to lead us to trust in His kindness, (and) to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life.

                                                                                     (Chapter 9, Epistle from Mathetes to Diognetus)

Amen.

(If you would like to listen to the version preached it is here: http://www.sjd.org/sermon/07-10-16-contemporary-sermon-by-the-rev-matt-marino/

No. You don’t want your uncle Jimmy to get ordained online to do your wedding.

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It is trendy to have someone you know buy an online ordination and do your wedding ceremony. Every year I have multiple (otherwise solid) Christians contact me to ask where and how to find the “least weird” way to be ordained. Here is my response:

It is an honor to be asked, and good on you for wanting to make it as right as possible. Unfortunatelywhat you are asking just isn’t. Would you ask a teacher help you get a “less weird” online teaching certificate? Or a doctor to help you get a “less weird” online medical license? Getting ordained through Billy Bob’s Online Church of the Twenty-Buck Blessing may seem like a good idea, but it overlooks the training and experience needed to do a wedding well. A teacher does more than pull off classroom management as a one-time substitute, and a doctor more than demonstrate mastery of the tongue depressor in a routine visit. In the same way, a pastor does much more than simply read a wedding service.

Your friend will be putting someone who has never done a wedding in charge of the single most expensive and important party of their life. Will they also be asking a friend who takes nice Instagram pics to be photographer? A minister is air-traffic control. They make all of the many parts and people move in coordination. Brides are under a lot of stress. They do not need a rookie at the helm.

More than that, a non-ordained friend doing the ceremony is a bad setup for the marriage. Marriage is a sacred act originating in the mind of God. Marriage is tough. It needs God’s participation to have more than a Powerball player’s chance of making it after you scratch the ink off and see what resides below the surface of each of us. There are important roles in a wedding a friend can handle, but when it comes to making the vows, you want to have every bit of oomph possible behind those promises. You want a couple, even ones without faith involvement, to say, “I promised God and God’s representative in front of all of my friends and family in that church that I will love this girl/boy no matter how bad a time I am having of it. I’d better make good on this!”

Do them a favor, ask them to find someone duly ordained. Probably not what you wanted to hear.🙂

Matt

Usually my friends then respond with: That’s a lot to think about, but my niece/friend/neighbor is really important to me. I’m the only Christian they know and being connected to a church isn’t a priority for them. I think this is a great opportunity for me to ask some good, tough questions to her and her fiancé. Don’t you? 

I love your heart. You don’t want an online ordination.

You are wise to see your friends’ need for preparation. Marriage preparation from someone who is in a good marriage, like yours, is a good thing. But why not also connect them with someone who has helped lots of marriages? Good churches typically do a 4-6 session pre-marital course. Your friendship gives you traction to say, “Trust us, you want one more person involved: a real pastor…with their experience, preparation program, and the encouragement of other couples who will also be making new marriages work. All of that will be really helpful!”

On top of that, encourage them to try a church. You and I have both experienced the support and perspective that faith and a multi-generational church community has been in keeping the wheels from coming off our marriages when they might have otherwise.

Matt

The friend then generally responds with some version of: “Matt, you really don’t get the situation here. Our friend doesn’t going to church and they aren’t going to. She wants ME to do it and I want to do it because I love them.”
I have learned to have this part of the conversation in person because it looks so snarky in writing:

I have been at this a long time. I actually do know what is going on. 99 couples out of 100 come to clergy and ask for a “great wedding.” The fact that you think you are their best option for that, friend, reveals their need for an actual pastor. It feels good to be asked, and it feels good to give someone what they want. But that doesn’t really help them. Pastors do not to acquiesce to people’s whims and wants, but move naive couples off of the dime of “great wedding” to “great marriage.” The first is a one-off. The second is a lifetime.

I am not saying, “Let a friend down.” I am saying be a great friend: Give them a third party – one who can say things important for their life together, but hard for them to hear. Then you and your wife are free to take the role of wise old married friend confirming the ancient wisdom offered by that pastor.

Many have been burned by the church and ministers, or, not knowing or distrusting the church, have failed to engage. But, to bring this full circle, bad ministers and bad churches do not invalidate the help provided by good ones any more than being harmed by bad public school teachers or bad doctors invalidates teaching or medicine. Don’t fall into the trap of reinforcing the perception of irrelevance of some of the most potentially helpful relationships in their marriage: a church and qualified, called, experienced clergy. Make their circle larger: Include a real church and a real pastor.

Matt

Ordination is not a piece of paper. 

Ordination is a long process that begins when the community sees someone’s calling. A person confirms that call through a period of prayer and community discernment. Then the person endure rigorous preparation that typically culminates in a 3-year Masters of Divinity degree program. After seeing the faithfulness of the person in their faith journey, service, and spiritual preparation, then the church ordains them, setting them apart and asking God to make them, by His grace, up to the task of leading God’s people.

In ordination, the community of faith, below, around, and above invests in a person’s training, and then asks them to, as Eugene Peterson said, “Lash themselves to the mast of Word and Sacrament” on that communities’ behalf. Ordained people pledge to be the one whom, when the storms of life come, the community can count on. They pledge to be there when we are married, when our children are born, when they own their faith, and when we are ill and when we go and meet our maker…and every week in between. It is a sacred covenant between God, the ordained, and a community. Because of our relationship with our clergy: we have an awareness of the sacrifices they have made, and knowing that they literally risk their supper if they offend us, we trust that the occasional hard things they say and we don’t want to hear deserve a listen.

Googling an ordination makes a mockery of that process, real pastors, and the communities that call them. And it doesn’t help the people getting married.

Buying an ordination does two things well: It gives pastors lots of complements from people whose last wedding was officiated at by a bogusly ordained friend, and it feeds a side of the one buying it that really doesn’t need feeding. 

Photo from: wedding photo

Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

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I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.

 

[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

Photo from: here

Predestination for Dummies

Weighty theology made simple(r)

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If there is a $64,000 question in the Christian faith it is predestination. When it comes to God, who chooses whom?

To consider this age old question look at the passage in John chapter 10 (vs 22-30) in which Jesus delivers one of his “ouch” comments to the religious. Jesus has just finished a sermon in which he used the metaphors that he is both “the door” to the town corral, and “the good shepherd” working for the sheep’s benefit. The religious leaders, upset at the implication that they are profiteering off of and abusing the “sheep,” chase Jesus from the lecture hall and press him: “Stop beating around the bush, are you the messiah or not?

Like a professor on his way back to his office after a controversial lecture, Jesus stops to speak to these unreceptive students. “I have told you. And in case you missed the lecture, I hold healing labs every afternoon.”  The religious leaders are absolutely irate at his answer (in vs. 31 they pick up stones to kill him). Jesus response is, “I’m more than the promised deliverer, I am actually one with the God who sent the deliverer to you…but you can’t understand that because only the chosen here my voice, and you simply aren’t among the chosen.” (v. 25-30) It is an uncomfortable passage – a first century mic drop.

First century sheep in a community corral knew their shepherd’s voice and followed them out to pasture as they sang. Jesus is not so much making an accusation as a statement of fact – those who lack relationship with him are unable to hear his voice. They don’t believe so they don’t hear. And because they don’t hear, they won’t follow. They are apart from him. Therefore, no one is protecting them from being snatched in the end – they don’t have eternal life. The bad news in the Good News is that while all may be invited to the party, not all will show up to it (Matt. 22:1-14). But, hurt feelings aside, Jesus answer raises a theological question that has not gone quietly into the night after some 500 years: When it comes to God, who chooses whom?  

Jesus lobs up an idea here (and in many other places) that God is sovereign and chooses who will have faith. John 15:16 is the classic: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…“. But Jesus also offers up the opposite thought: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12) Which is it? Does God choose humans, or do humans choose God? Christians on both sides of the question agree that God created humanity and, in the fulness of time, redeemed wandering humans through Jesus’ cross, and now initiates relationship with humans. But when it comes to the human response, is our response caused by God, or do we initiate our response ourselves? When we ask, “Who does the choosing?” we have two apparently contradictory ideas held up in the Bible: “Whoever believes in him has eternal life” (John 3:16), yet, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him” (John 6:44). So, again I ask, who is choosing?  Jesus’ answers often raise more questions. He is a frustrating savior.

There is a tension between God’s initiative and human responsibility not resolved in the Bible. God draws, yet you and I are presumed to be responsible. God chooses. Yet we must choose. So is it our choice or God’s?

The theological terms for this question are monergism vs synergism. Is it God alone (monergism), or do humans play a role with God in salvation (synergism)? We’ve created entire theological systems around the question: Calvinists (who think it’s all God) have TULIP and Arminians (who think humans are “able”) have LILAC. Both systems are elegant in their internal consistency. Both bump up against the Bible at key points – all over are two seemingly inconsistent ideas: God is sovereign, in charge of the world and chooses you and I, and yet, you and I are accountable for our response to God. The very word “accountable” presumes that, since we are “able,” we are held to “account.” (Remember, the most basic Protestant tenant of biblical interpretation is to “assume the clear meaning of words.”)

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It is a classic conundrum: If God knows all, is all powerful, and sovereign over all, what kind of free will do we have? If God is really all loving and allows us to choose, have we not saved ourselves? And if we save ourselves, did we really ever need God to begin with? Yet the scriptures, both Old and New, hold up both premises: God is sovereign. We must respond. I know what you are starting to think: Matt, quit dodging the question! But if scripture rather than my system be the foundation of the Christian life, I simply cannot.

 

Yes, some preachers commit to one system and some to the other. But the truth is that honest preachers can’t give the question of who’s doing the choosing a neat bow that explains all the scriptures’ teaching on this point. The Gospel is so simple a child can understand it, yet so deep that the most brilliant folk to walk the earth have spent their lives plumbing its’ depths. We just cannot tie a neat bow around the issue of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. We are in mystery here, and it would be wise to tiptoe at this point. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” And we know that every page of the Bible implies that our choices count, or, as Joshua said, “Choose you this day whom you must serve.”

What I know is this: The bible tells us that God chooses. Full stop. And God tells us to choose him back. Full stop.

And that is, frustratingly, that.

 

What’s Really Great About Texas: A Newcomer’s View of the Lone Star State

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I had heard the stereotypes of the brash Texan. You know the Hollywood image: boot, big-buckle, wide-brim wearers convinced their state is the center of the universe, the Eden of God’s creation…who on a second beer launch into a soliloquy of Texas possessing a larger, more impressive version of any landmark or feature anywhere else on the planet. Well, after nearly a year of Lone Star living, I tip my Stetson to the stereotype. Most Texans are indeed convinced to the bottom of their Lucchese boots of the unique and unrivaled beauty of the Great State of Texas. State pride is everywhere here: Lone Stars are plastered on everything from automobiles to ice cream machines. Four foot tall five-points festoon the exteriors of suburban homes. There are more state flags in Texas than grains of sand on Gulf Coast beaches. “Don’t mess with Texas” isn’t just a highway anti-littering slogan, it’s a state motto.

What Texans don’t know is that the strength of Texas is not its uninterrupted, “pretty-ish”-on-the-one-right-week-of-the-year topography. Texas has horrible weather and dizzyingly tall high-rises built to look out over nothing more than unending prairies and smog. Texas, while spread over 1/3 of the continent, has less elevation change than any other Western state. Most of Texas is flat. Flat with grass. Flat with trees. Flat with cactus. Flat with thickets. Do you hear the common denominator? Texans will drive three hours from Houston to spend the weekend in hills, something people in the rest of America only need step outside to find. No, the strength of Texas is not Texas.

The strength of Texas is Texans. Somehow the interminable swath of tedious topography known as Texas bred a new type of human, the Texan. The Texan is as unique as the Texas topography they love is not. Texans are faithful, courageous, confident, resourceful, and gracious. Texans are tough on themselves and hospitable to guests. While they may have earned the reputation for being insufferable about their state, they are humble and self-effacing about their own accomplishments. Texans consider strangers family, give the shirt off their back, and show up for your barn raising. Texans bring Texas sheet cakes the size of Rhode Island to church socials and casseroles to sick neighbors. Texans celebrate your gusher and cry with you when your hole was a bust. Texans know how to play: They know about beer and bourbon, football, fishing, and guns. For Texans, rodeo is something you do and give your kids a day off school for, not a road you buy designer goods at retail on. Texans still go to church and mean it when they say, “God bless you.” I was with a group of Texans at a beer tasting on a church retreat. Seriously. A Texas football team was in the playoffs. Football is a spiritual experience for Texans so, naturally (to them), the game was on the television. When the national anthem began, without a word, every man in the room quit talking and tasting, and turned and faced the flag with hat over heart. Really, they do that in Texas.

To the rest of America I say, trust me, you want an invitation to the home of a Texan or a Texan beside you in a dark alley. You want a Texan as your attorney or banker or shoe shine guy. But when Texans talk about “the great beauty” of Texas, folk from the rest of the country wonder if someone has spiked their mint julep with something more hallucinogenic than bourbon.

After nine months in Texas, do I want to go home? Nope. I’ve begun to feel what many Texans say, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as quickly as I could.” But not because of Texas, because of Texans. Because of Texans, Texas becomes “home” faster than any place on earth. But the next time a Texan wants you to drive two hours to look at a rock or a hill or the fender of a ’61 Impala that got stuck in an embankment, forward this article to them. They still won’t believe that you have no interest at all in their “landmark” at the end of a torturously long country road, but that you are there because you are honored to spend the day with a Texan.

…And I’ll lay odds they invite you to dinner and try to pick up the tab.