Thoughts on Bread and Wine, Church and Covenant

Today I’ve been working on catching up on the sermon audio part of the site, with the recordings from the (Sermon on the) Plain, and James.

Additionally, I also had these recordings from the day where we recently focused more on the communion part of our worship.  It seemed better to post them here, so enjoy these thoughts on Bread, and these thoughts on Cup and Covenant.

Team

This week, I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of hanging out a bit with Kyle. He’s part of a missionary group in Peru that our church sponsors. It was cool to hear him talk about the other side of a pretty cool team dynamic.

When we first came to Tullahoma, it became quickly apparent to us that the church had a pretty unusual relationship with this particular missionary team. They had been in the field for two years, but the church still talked about their work eagerly, intensely. Beyond talk, they seemed to really value relationships with the team members, and evidenced their desire to continue to invest in those relationship, talking about them as if they were church members who had just been out of town for the weekend.  People kept up with what was going on, and were sincerely excited whenever a bit of news came by of things going well. The upcoming furlough visits were anticipated not just like some sort of Return on Investment presentation, but like reunions with much loved friends—or family.  (And not just because half the team literally is family either.)

All that speaks well of the degree of community developed between the missionary families and the church. Beyond that, what’s really significant—and not accidental, is that a lot of people at Cedar Lane really seem to understand the goals and tactics of the team in Peru. They buy into the idea that we are all part of the team, that this is something that the church does together.  This particular mission team has helped people understand the part they can play, and helped them connect to the mission of God, both in Peru and, I think, here in Tullahoma. They’ve been provoked to think about mission not just as something we fund, but something we are and do.

The partnerships between missionaries and the churches that sponsor them are complicated things, and I’m far from an expert in how those relationships should be developed and nurtured. But I do understand this: Whenever people become connected to the mission of God, it’s a win. We need more things like this, places where people get a better understanding of how they can connect with the mission of God. When we try to “do” mission without making that connection, we waste a huge discipleship opportunity.

Glad to hang out with you, Kyle and Larissa.  Greg and Megan, y’all come home soon.

Unpolluted, Unstained

A metaphor for the ritual effect of cussing.

Growing up, I got the sense that when the church talked about being “different from the world”, that was more or less code for a fairly defined set of behaviors, things like cussing, drinking, and sexual activity.  (Maybe smoking, but that was on the fence, at least for anyone over 35 years old.)  Those things represented something like distinctive marks of christian nonbehavior, another layer in addition to the other marks of good people generally agreed upon by society at large: honesty, respect for other people’s property, etc. I don’t honestly know that anybody was really saying that, or if it was just the way my immature mind heard it all, but for a long while I felt like this was a pretty good summary of what people thought it meant be “different than the world” as a Christian. The back half of James 1:27 would have been given that idea words in my young mind—it was a text I often heard in church.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself  from being polluted by the world.

In my understanding, this text gave a kind of summary of faith, with two main ideas.  Do positive things (care for widows and orphans), and don’t do negative things (“keep oneself from being polluted by the world” Read: don’t drink, cuss, or have sex.). Such was my youthful understanding of holiness.  For a preadolescent kid, before fermented or sexual opportunity presented themselves, the bar was admittedly low.  Still, resisting the small amount of pressure I got from wanting to fit in with my friends in the neighborhood who skillfully cursed while we played basketball and kick the can generally made me feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do. As I grew older and was able to generally fend off the other two behaviors in the unholy trinity of worldly behavior, I reinforced within myself the idea that being a Christian person really wasn’t all that tough.  And truthfully, unless you have some addictions or at least some deeply grooved habits, that brand of christianity really isn’t that tough. I mean, when it really comes down to it, you can do whatever the heck you want, as long as you say heck instead of hell. I suppose I could have lived like that for a long time without much problem, except maybe boredom.

When I started really listening to the Bible, though, I started getting a radically different kind of idea about what God wanted me to be like.  Take that verse in James, for instance.  That earlier line of interpretation of what it means to be polluted by the world is pretty easy to understand in the context of our american church culture.  But it doesn’t really ask the important interpretive question, “What did James mean by polluted by the world?” And when you really ask that question, you don’t just get an ambiguous idea of what it means, because James spends a good part of his letter describing what he seems to see as the influence of the world.  Indeed, the section right after this verse, in James 2, rails against viewing rich people as more valuable than poor people.  At the end of chapter 3, he talks about wisdom that’s worldly as being marked by envy and selfishness.  That discussion that trails into the beginning of chapter 4 where being covetous about physical wealth (and perhaps the honor and respect that came with it) sparks James to ask, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.”  His rant goes throughout that chapter, and in the back half of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five he uses some pretty flaming rhetoric to talk about the wealthy who presume to set their own agendas without concern for God’s authority over their existence or concern for the needs of the poor! (Seriously, that language in chapter 5 is smoking hot. No wonder it is probably the least publicly read part of James.) When you read all of that together, you can begin to put some content in James’s phrase “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. It’s not just a few nitpicky behaviors that James is concerned about. James critiques the whole assumption of the world that we have no responsibility for other people, that our wealth is our own to do with as we please. To the extent that I adopt that mentality, I have allowed the world to pollute my faith.

James’s statement about true religion here isn’t a divided concept. Widows and orphans were an important group of “the poor” for the Jewish mind, people who were defenseless and vulnerable without the financial or legal help of other people. Caring for them is a specific expression of what people who are unpolluted by the world do. It is a way people show that they don’t think of their possessions as truly their own.

See, true religion is inconvenient.  Not because of all those church meetings that keep us from sleeping in on Sundays, or it might refine my beverage selection. It forces me to reevaluate the way I think about stuff, and my relationship with it.  It forces me to take responsibility for the poor and the way they are treated in my society. It keeps me from just doing whatever the heck I want. It challenges my “wants”, my desires, my greed, as motivations for my life.

It raises the bar.

There are certain behaviors that we have come to think of as producing something like a moral stain, a sin grease mark that has to be dealt with, and we often think about the biblical language of defilement in those terms almost exclusively. But we could take a significant step forward in understanding our faith if we can grasp that the real stains on our souls are not just behavioral slip-ups.  They are the deep stains of materialism, the deep stains of our thought patterns and habits, colored by the assumptions of the world around us. 

The opposite of being polluted by the world is precisely what James mentions in the first half of 1:27, the care for the widows and orphans. It’s what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “justice and righteousness”, a way of living in the world that respects the dignity of each of our neighbors as an image bearer of God. In the spirit of James, the practice of justice and righteousness is not just the maintaining the absence of evil—it is about the active love of our neighbors that goes beyond words and is fulfilled in action.

Do Not Judge—A Sermon from Luke 6:35-42

Do not judgeI told somebody this past week that the sermon for today could really only last a few seconds. Don’t get your hopes up, it’s going to be longer than that, but it seems like I should be able to just say something like, “Jesus says, ‘Do not judge.’  So, stop doing it. Amen, let’s stand and sing.”

It’s not as though the command is unfamiliar to us.  The text we’re dealing with is in Luke 6:35-42.

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” And he also told them this parable:  ” Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will not they both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brothers eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

It’s one of the most popular passages in the Christian Bible, well known among Christians and nonbelievers alike.  In fact, I don’t know if there is any Christian ethic as respected by the outside world as “Do not judge.”  Of course, the world is also acutely aware of our failure in following this command, and knows that while Jesus tells us not to judge, we are quite practiced in the art.  Unfortunately, it comes quite easily to us.

Judgement against our friends, family, neighbors and strangers simmers deep within our hearts.  Occasionally it might pop out as gossip or a sharp word, but we try to police ourselves about that, because we know it sounds bad.  We don’t want to be known as judgmental people, but truthfully, even when we don’t actually say what we’re thinking, it is just so easy to harbor our verdicts, the bitter condemnations of people around us, deep in our hearts.  We don’t want to judge.  We know we’re not supposed to, but it just comes so easily to us.

One of the problems here is that we try to avoid judgmental behaviors without really working on judgmental attitudes. We try to catch that stuff before it gets out of our mouths, but really, by the time we get to that place we’ve really already lost the battle.  The mouth is just speaking out of the abundance of the heart, and it’s the fact that all that condemnation is in our heart that is really the issue.  Our morality begins with our identity, or at least our understanding of our identity.  The way we understand ourselves controls the way we interact with other people and perceive them in powerful ways.  That said, there are two significant things I have come to understand about myself that, the more I internalize them, the more they help me escape my tendency to judge.   I want to share and confess here in the hopes that they can help you out as well.

1.  I am not God. I know, it’s a shocker. But, seriously, it’s helpful for me to get in touch with the fact that I am not the sovereign lord of the universe. I believe people are accountable for the good and evil things they do in the world—but most of them aren’t accountable to me. I didn’t create anybody, and I’m not supremely powerful.  Beyond that, my failure to be God also means that I have a limited amount of knowledge and insight into people.  I don’t understand the whole of anybody’s situation, don’t understand the different things in people’s backgrounds that make them act the way they do.  I don’t even understand why I do half the stuff I do, much less what’s going on in anybody else’s heart! So I will never the authority or information I need to pass judgment on anybody else.

2.  Not only am I not God, but I also know that I am not perfect. Far from it, in fact.  Most people I know can confirm this, but of course I know it more truly than anybody else could possibly suspect.  After all, they can’t see what’s inside my heart.  I am, like the rest of you, a broken human being, a person whose heart has been twisted by sin and who is powerless to recover except for the grace of God.

This is an important nuance to the world’s criticism of the church as being too judgmental.  It wants to believe everything is alright. It’s as if the world wants refuse our right to judge on the basis that everyone is basically equally good. But we refuse to judge on the opposite basis, because we know that everyone, including ourselves, is broken and sinful.

I know, that because I’m not God and I’m not perfect, that I need grace from God. I need the grace of forgiveness and the grace that God gives to change and purify me. Truthfully, I need all the grace I can get.  And that self-awareness really heightens the shock of this text for me. How I give grace to people around me can actually affect how God gives grace to me? Whoa. That is an absolutely stunning idea, and as it becomes more firmly lodged in my mind, it has the power to really shape the kinds of things I harbor in my heart towards other people.

Gratefully, though, I’m also aware that I receive grace from God! It’s not like I’m merely aware of my sin, awaiting some pending judgement and trying to butter God up before he makes his decision. I live in the joy and awareness that God has already acted decisively to extend grace to me.

Many of us live fairly aware of those two things, our need for grace and how we receive it.  But, we stop there, not realizing that those who need and receive grace from God are also called to learn grace from God. I want God to teach me how to treat others like Jesus treats me.

For our community of faith, that really is the critical turn. So much of our worship and conversation revolves around what we need and receive, and how valuable it is to us.  But how much value do we place on what we are called to become?  How much do we value a gracious spirit? May God help us to honor those among us who cultivate that spirit, who become people of heroic forgiveness, who turn back any effort to condemn others from taking root in their own hearts.  May we value those who work hard to become merciful, just as our father is merciful, and may we become a place of grace for those who—like us—need to receive it.

Amen.

(This is part three of a series on the Sermon on the Plain. A list of the sermons and the audio recordings are here.)

Powerless Preacher, Powerful Word

I think every preacher worth more than his salt has a memory chest full of moments like mine from this past Sunday.  It had been a tight week, the sermon had puzzled me all week, and when it was finally together, I wasn’t particularly pleased with it. I never really came to a sermon structure I particularly liked, and the sermon teetered between being too simplistic and useless and overly dramatic and bullyish. It was a tricky sermon to get out, partly because the text (Luke 6:27-36) is so raw that it seemed to be defying me to do anything but read it slowly.  It didn’t want to be massaged or tweaked, it just wanted me to listen to it.

Anyway, whatever the cases for my unease, I just didn’t feel like I had my A-game that day.  I just wasn’t feeling great about what I had put together.

But nonetheless, people were, in that instance still able to hear the Word of God in the sermon moment.  I felt like I was at my least effective moment, but the effect of the word was clearly felt by many in the church.

Look, count me among the people that gets a little gagged when I hear things like “God really showed up!” when we talk about stuff like this.  I usually don’t like it because it feels really trite and cutesy.  I’m not a robot, but I just don’t like that kind of emotional stuff.  It’s probably because I really value intentionality and control.

But this past week was one in which I really did feel as though the power of the word of God was functioning in a powerful way in our community, regardless of my performance.  For someone that flirts with hubris, that’s a good thing.  (I have a website with my name in the domain, people.  I’m more vain than I should be. If I didn’t realize I had arrogance issues, that would be an issue.) It’s a good thing to realize that preaching, even when I am practicing my craft well, isn’t really about how well I perform.  Preaching is about how honest I am with the word, and how well people hear the word. So, this week I want to do the best I can, but I know that the best part of the sermon won’t be some cute saying I made up with or any smoking hot exegesis.  It’ll be in the moments with the Word, when we simply listen together to the Word.

That’s where the power is.  That’s where the power has always been.

The Destructive Mentalities of a Disengaged Church

In this series of posts, I’ve been writing about the concept of church mentalities, and particularly the sorts of mentalities that need to be developed if the church is to be meaningfully engaged with the local community. As painful as it may be, we must recognize that we aren’t developing those mentalities in anything like a vacuum.  There is no truly clean slate.   Rather, we are simultaneously developing one set of mentalities while working to counter destructive mentalities already exerting influence.  Mentalities destructive to the church’s purposes are often thoroughly entrenched within the church for a variety of reasons in the personal histories of church members.  Any of the potential purposes the Church might take on faces this process of reconstructing the proper mentalities, but here I’m specifically interested in our particular purpose of engagement with the surrounding community and its problems, and what mentalities potentially exist that would be counterproductive to that purpose. Below is my initial list of these potential destructive mentalities that threaten to keep churches disengaged. Truthfully, some of them are foils, but I think others ring true and are closer to home than I like to admit.

1. Service is a painful discipline. You just have to suffer through it, and force yourself to get it done. If it was fun, it wouldn’t be service.

2. We serve because we get something out of it.  Service is great for the high school kids’ college applications, our personal resumes, our social lives, and our reputations (particularly in the church). Not to mention the fact that God will someday reward us if we serve!

3. We have what we have because of our hard work. It is God’s way of blessing us for doing things the right way, so that we can enjoy the things he gives us.  We don’t owe anything to anybody, really.

4. Evangelism is about helping people obtain forgiveness. Conversion is infinitely more important than “discipleship”. The first steps of the Christian journey are by far the most important, because they involve accepting God’s forgiveness—if people are motionless after that, at least they won’t be going to hell.

5. We are a peaceful and stable church. This is how we’ve grown! When we take new initiatives, we threaten what we’ve spent years building, and threaten the very peace which brought people to our church in the first place.

6. The church is primarily interested in saving souls. Everything else we might do is a vehicle towards that end. We can judge our success by the number of conversions, and if we don’t see many of those, that we can at least hope that we have planted the seed of the gospel in their mind so that it will eventually bear fruit.

7. Service is a special gift of some christians. It’s great that god has given some people such servant hearts.  It’s the job of the rest of the church to encourage and support those people.

8. We want to support our people in service. The best (or only) candidate for a partner is the one who thinks like we do, talks like we do, and practices like we do.

9. Most people’s problems are a result of their own sin. If they hadn’t made some bad decisions, they wouldn’t need our help.  In fact, most people asking for help are probably abusing the system. They’ll probably go to hell even more because of that.

10. Commonality leads to friendship. Our best friends are people with whom I have common interests, common ideas, and a similar background. In fact, we’ve probably already been friends for a while.

11. It’s us against the world. The world is full of so much corruption that it’s better to isolate ourselves from it, and make sure not to associate ourselves with evil of any kind.

In some ways these might stand as opposites of the mentalities that encourage community engagement, so that they constitute poles on the opposite side of a spectrum. Alternatively, we might understand these mentalities as threads within the tapestry that makes up our mindsets as individuals and as a group with a corporate identity. Within that tapestry are threads of many different hues, some of which are brighter, some are darker.  In other words, some of these darker threads might exists alongside lighter threads, and it is a blending of light and dark threads of many colors that influences our thoughts, actions, feelings, and words in particular moments and over time. Part of our work in creating a good “working” tapestry is developing positive mentalities, in other words, weaving lighter strands into the fabric.  On the other hand, there may be darker threads that need to be pulled, removed from the tapestry.

I suspect these destructive mentalities might be more controversial than the positive set.  I’m not sure I even agree with how negative a couple of them are. I would very much welcome your comments, whether in agreement or civil dissent.  Help me think.