October 29, 2008

Blessed Are They

by Erin Martin
(Matthew 5:1-12) This year for All Saints’ Sunday, I am hearing differently Jesus’ famous Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. In previous years, I would quickly leap to associating the saints who have gone before us with those whom Jesus calls blessed. My line of thinking would go something like this; it is the witness of the faithful in the history of Christianity and in our lives that demonstrates to us what poverty of spirit and meekness look like. It is the peacemaking “giants” of the past and present who show us what it means to be children of God. As disciples we are simply called to follow their example, to cultivate within us the attitudes these saints so courageously exhibit, and we too shall be called blessed. This year, however, I am hearing Jesus differently.

When Jesus teaches the disciples on the mountain who receives the favor of God and by implication who does not, Jesus isn’t so much urging the disciples to “go and do likewise.” Instead, Jesus is announcing God’s jubilee much in the same way he does in Luke 4. Jesus proclaims the good news of the Beatitudes. God’s favor is upon the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the mourners, those who hunger for righteousness, the purehearted, the persecuted and those who make for peace. When Jesus points to the crowd drawing the disciples’ attention to the man in rags or the woman bent low, Jesus is teaching the disciples to see the world as God sees the world. To embrace as blessed those whom the world curses. To favor as God does those whom the world rejects.

The first calling of the disciples may simply be to rightly recognize the difference between the truly blessed of God and the falsely blessed of the world. Only then can we sincerely devote ourselves to the work of God.

It was a hymn suggestion for All Saints Sunday this year that brought this idea to mind for me. In the worship planner, the hymn, “Christ for the World We Sing,” was suggested. In reading the first verse, it occurred to me who the saints of God are. The verse reads, “Christ for the world we sing, the world to Christ we bring, with loving zeal, the poor and them that mourn, the faint and overborne, sin sick and sorrow worn, whom Christ doth heal.” The saints are those whose message is “Christ for the world,” and whose labor is to bear to Christ for healing the very blessed of God. What a potential waste of time it could be for rich North American Christians to spend their lives attempting to cultivate within ourselves a “meekness” or “poverty of spirit.” The saints among us, and those who have gone before us, seem to have known this fact. Instead, they devoted their lives to seeing rightly who the blessed of God are in the world, and their ministry was to carry those blessed into the presence of God, to be in communion with them, to sit at table with them. In so doing, the saints became blessed themselves.

The heavenly banquet, then, is the culmination of this life’s work, to commune with the blessed of God at Christ’s table for eternity. Vincent Harding describes the scene in this way. “Well,” he writes, “here we are, all present and accounted for. What a gang! What a table! What a host! What a chance for holding and being held, for feeding and being fed, for giving, receiving, and being the light.” This year, the saints teach me that blessed are they who see rightly the blessed of God and live on behalf of them.


October 21, 2008

Leadership by Imitation

by Jessie Larkins
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

It seems that wherever you turn these days the buzz word on the street is “leadership.” The failure of the financial market, when not being blamed on minorities or the poor, is blamed on a failure of leadership in government and industry. For too long the standard of worth for CEOs and economic strategists has been a cut-throat measure of greed and self-interest. In the religious world, too, the decline in attendance and influence of mainline congregations and denominations has been attributed to a lack of effective pastoral leadership. Books filled with strategies and tactics (Is there really a difference?) on the subject of effective leadership fill the shelves of bookstores, both sacred and secular, with the promise that the right organization and charisma can lead even a failed organization or congregation strongly into the future.

I wonder sometimes if the leadership modeled by the disciples and early apostles as they began church-planting across the Mediterranean would have much street credibility in today’s conversations on effectiveness in leadership. What would happen if we held the “latest and greatest” in leadership strategy against the measuring rod of the apostles’ teaching? Paul might struggle to win friends and influence people on Wall Street with a leadership based not on “words of flattery or with a pretext for greed” (2:5). He would certainly offend a “key leader” or two in most congregations I know with a leadership that “made demands as apostles of Christ” (2:7). Yet, as one who stood firm in the gospel “in spite of great opposition” (2:2) and courageously gave himself in love for those whom he served, his example of leadership among the Thessalonians sets a standard worthy of consideration by denominational ordination boards or a lay leadership committee. The leadership Paul describes requires both courage and clarity. It is a leadership that is prepared to endure scorn for the sake of the truth as it names idols and lovingly points followers towards the true God.

There is no place for motivation stemming from self-interest, self-aggrandizement, flattery, or greed. Paul challenges the desire of leaders to avoid discomfort. Most importantly, Paul notes that true leadership requires a deep and selfless love for not only the gospel but for those whom one leads, following in the footsteps of Christ who so loved those he served that he gave his life for them.

Throughout Paul’s letters it is clear that neither church attendance or giving (standards too often used as judges of effective ministry) are the basis upon which he measures his effectiveness among the communities he serves. (Though for all their faults many of the churches formed under his leadership would hardly be marked as failing, stagnant, or stingy.) True effectiveness in ministry for Paul is measured by how closely the communities and individuals he served are transformed into Christ-like servant leaders themselves. It is hardly coincidence that Paul’s ministry suggests that if Christ-like disciples are the desired outcome, then Christ-like leadership is required. It might not make the best-seller list, but if we want to form leaders worthy of the gospel (or become ones ourselves), we might go back to Paul, who called us to imitate him as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1), and devoted his ministry to bringing others into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.


What God Intends

by Randy Cooper
Milton Wright was a Bishop in the Church of the Brethren, traveling throughout his denomination until his death in 1917. He is reported to have said that if God intended human beings to fly, he would have given us wings. We know from history that his sons, Orville and Wilbur, thought otherwise.

At times, I find myself thinking this way. I think that if God intended us to have this or that new technology, surely God would have provided it. For example, I care little for cell phones, and only own one jointly with Gayle. If God intended us to talk anywhere, any time, surely we’d have “blue tooth” phones fitted to our ears when we were born. And I find myself thinking this way when it comes to oil and coal. I figure that if God intended us to put carbon into the air, then God surely would not have taken so long and worked so hard to fold these materials deep into the earth. I wonder if God really wants them to be taken from the bowels of the earth and used as we use them.

There I go, thinking like Bishop Wright again.

Actually, my concern is with what the church used to call “poiesis.” It is one of those Greek words, meaning “making.” We get our word “poet” from it. Poiesis is the human endeavor of making things for the world—including art, music, machines, and countless other things.

For the longest time, we have believed that what humans construct or invent is religiously neutral, that all that matters is how we use it. I am no longer so sure. I am wondering these days about ways to recover the religious significance of our “stuff” and of our daily labors. What we do and make must surely be considered in light of truth, goodness, and beauty.

My daughter Margaret attended Millsaps College down in Jackson, Mississippi. There is an unbelievably ugly building on the campus—a relatively new one, built in the 1970’s when people mystifyingly thought that concrete is pretty. It is the “Fine Arts” building.

Go figure.

Let us encourage one another.


October 14, 2008

No Small Change

by Debra Dean Murphy
I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

One of the grim realities of the financial markets meltdown is the loss in trillions of dollars in retirement accounts like 401(k)s. It's no small matter that many people close to retirement may be in quite a fix. And it seems reasonable to ask, if such a vast sum is indeed lost, can't someone figure out how and where we might find it? Where the heck did all that money go?

But of course it wasn't real money that went missing—it was an abstract numerical projection derived from estimates of potential future returns on investments (or some such econ-speak gobbledygook). It was imaginary money—not play money, exactly, but not paper and coin currency, not the stuff you can jingle around in your pocket or slip the bellhop at the airport.

Which makes the overly-familiar, often badly-interpreted text about "rendering unto Caesar" seem almost quaint. Here Jesus talks about real money—money in the hand, money with a politician’s face on it.

We're used to reading this text as justification for dividing reality neatly in two: God's sphere (which we usually take to be "private") and the public sphere (which we assume is, well, public). The private sphere is where we live out our “spiritual life”—personal devotion to God, believing the right things, trying to live by “religious values.” The public sphere is the realm of politics and economics, of schools and taxes and elections—no room for religion there. (Even those who believe that Christianity should muscle its way into the public sphere—prayer in schools, say, or posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms—still operate on the assumption that there are two divinely-ordained spheres).

But when Jesus says “give to God the things that are God’s,” we know that he can’t possibly be endorsing such a distinction—for everything is God’s! The whole conversation with the Pharisees is another one of Jesus’ dead-serious jokes. We have to see the subversive smile on his face, hear the irony (and impatience) in his voice. Jesus is talking about coins and taxes but he’s really talking about power and ultimate loyalty, about pledging allegiance not to Caesar’s economy but to God’s alone. He’s offering a tutorial on the economics of the Kingdom.

The coin might have the emperor’s image on it, but God’s people bear the imago dei. And like an invisible tattoo, we wear the mark of baptism that identifies us as Christ’s own, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. All we have is God’s. All we are is God’s. Where Caesar and Wall Street would have us lament the loss of an imaginary abundance, God’s economy is premised on a plenty that can never be diminished, if only we would have the courage and imagination to live fully into its promised gifts.

One of the reasons that Christians, generally, have responded to the current financial crisis with as much panic and gloom as everyone else is that we are afraid to need one another. We’re embarrassed by our lack, so we suffer in silence, certain that to need money is a sign of moral weakness. Where the Thessalonian Christians had learned “to turn to God from idols” (1:9), we more readily turn from God to the idol of financial security and name its pursuit a virtue, extolling the quest as an act of prudence and foresight. Better to have a fat portfolio than to depend on our sisters and brothers in Christ. How unfair and irresponsible that would be.

The Thessalonian Christians were “an example to all the believers in Macedonia,” and in every place their faith in God was made known (1:8). The Church in recent days has offered no unified witness because it has assumed the sheer givenness of Caesar’s economy—it is deep into it and can’t see its way out of it.

At the end of the Thessalonians reading, Paul encourages the people to wait for Jesus, “who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” We usually assume that Paul means God’s wrath, and maybe he does. But maybe Paul is referring to the kind of violence—economic, military, political—that exists in Caesar’s sphere, that sustains Caesar’s power. Jesus rescues us from this, says Paul, for the cross is the undoing of all violence and wrath. The challenge for the Thessalonians and for us is to stop assuming the inevitability of Empire.

This is no small change. This is an overhaul of our collective imagination. The Pharisees seemed to get this for we’re told in the text that “they were amazed; and they left him and went away” (Mt. 22:22).

Oh that we might be so amazed.


October 08, 2008

Raging and Rejoicing

by Debra Dean Murphy
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 (The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The lessons this week have us thinking about anger: God's and, more obliquely, our own. In the Exodus passage, Moses has to talk down an irrational Yehweh, lest divine rage obliterate the wayward Israelites. In Matthew's parable of the wedding banquet, an equally unreasonable host-king (God) responds in wildly disproportionate ways to what amounts to a social snubbing and an ill-dressed party guest.

Sandwiched between these troubling texts is Psalm 106, which functions as something of a midrash on both of them. (More on that in a minute). And then there's the Epistle lesson from Philippians which, when we read it, makes us realize how angry we are—at Wall Street, at the lunacy of electoral politics, at a spouse, a co-worker, ourselves—pick your favorite target(s). Paul's cheery command to "Rejoice in the Lord always!" seems a little trite and na├»ve—greeting-card wisdom in this age of high anxiety.

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons, especially, remind us of a simple truth: When we read the Bible carefully, when we honor its complex history and its social world so very different from our own, we ought to practice deep humility, recognizing that all our reading, all our attempts at making meaning are partial, incomplete. "Now we see through a glass darkly," is not only Paul’s beautiful metaphor about the incompleteness of truth this side of the eschaton—it’s the beginning and end point of the hermeneutical enterprise. We know well enough what the words on the page say, but what in the world do they mean?

What to make of a God who seems so impetuous in his anger? So explosive. And should God be angry in the first place? One attempt at answers—necessarily partial and incomplete—must recognize the continuity in the divine life between love and anger, judgment and forgiveness, condemnation and compassion. “God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love,” as Miroslav Volf puts it. “God is wrathful because God is love.”

Yahweh’s censure of Israel is of a piece with the love that called Israel into being and that desires Israel’s peace. The king who throws a wedding banquet to which no one comes is like the God who offers abundance to a people hellbent on fighting for scraps—who complain about the scraps, who think that the scraps are all there is.

The Psalm this week reminds us that in the midst of the inexplicable—a God who rages, a people who betray—the proper response is always worship: thanksgiving, lament, confession, rejoicing. The mystery of God’s anger, like the mystery of God’s love, can never be fully comprehended, it can only be entered into. “Who can utter the mighty doings of the LORD,” the Psalmist asks, “or declare all his praise?” We don’t first get our heads straight on all the ways of God and then offer our praise and thanksgiving. God is; we worship; the mystery remains.

And finally in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul is clear that rejoicing is not an emotional reaction to events or circumstances but is a way of being for those who are “of the same mind in the Lord.” Which doesn’t mean uniformity of thought but rather something like a “common pattern of thinking and acting” (Stephen Fowl, Philippians).

A life of joy is the Church’s common witness, born of a way of seeing the world in which free markets don’t determine our security or our future and in which anger—God’s or our own—never has the last word.