Archive for October 2016

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus comes into Jericho and sees Zacchaeus up in a tree. As soon as Jesus speaks a kind word to this hardened tax collector, the man is changed. Zacchaeus becomes remarkably generous. His heart, like the Grinch’s, grows three sizes. If we (I say this with the collective royal “we”) as a congregation are Jesus in the world today, then this is how the god-forsaken should respond to us. Repentance is not held up by the stubbornness of the pagan’s heart, it is held up by the paucity of winsome examples of real goodness.


The thing we need to address directly is the pervasive nature of prejudice and racism. In Jesus’ day it was assumed that people couldn’t be religious if they worked certain jobs. Tax collectors, shepherds, and foreign soldiers were consigned to non-person status. Today we assume that people can’t be trustworthy (or safe to enter the country) if they belong to certain religions. We judge people on the basis of their skin color or sexual orientation in a way that would have made the people of Jesus’ day blush. Our prejudices are woven into the fabric of our lives, so much so, that we expect our church leaders to reaffirm them. The only difference between today and the first century is the unwillingness of those we exclude to climb trees.


What made Jesus distinctive among the religious teachers of his day was his commitment to crossing the artificial barriers of race, gender, occupation, and economic class. His greeting of Zacchaeus was very natural. He wasn’t setting up a program to end discrimination against tax collectors. He simply asked to enter the man’s home and break bread. He was constantly doing this kind of thing. It is unimaginable that today he would hesitate to hug a transgendered person, or live beside a muslim, or give a job to an ex-con. It is this naturalness, a gift of the Holy Spirit still seen in some Christians today, that won people to him. I think that spirit is still available to the church. Herein lies our real hope for sharing Christ with the next generation.


Wesley shared Jesus' compassion for the outcast
Pentecost 24
Luke 18:9-14

Jesus tells a number of parables of reversal — that is stories where the expected winner, loses. There is the farmer who has a bumper crop and tears down his barns in order to build new ones. Surprise! His name appears in tomorrow’s obituary (Luke 12:16-21). There are seeds that do well when first sown and then fail when the noon day sun burns down on them (Mark 4:3-8). And then there is the story of a good man, a Pharisee, who goes up to pray and the blessings of God skip over this paragon of virtue. Instead, a disreputable tax collector goes home knowing that his prayer is heard (Luke 18:9-14).


In matters of religion, we should expect reversals. Those who start out well, don’t always end well. Getting into heaven is not a matter of joining the right church or developing the right theology. Jesus tells us of a tax collector and a Pharisee who are praying at the same moment in the same church. Jesus says that success in religion is a matter of contrition.


Contrition is a state of the heart. Contrition is a response to the experience of  shame where one lays aside all excuses and pride and becomes penitent to the core of one’s being. This shame may be related to actions that you have been told all of your adult life were perfectly fine. The Pharisee was expected by his peers to look down on women, the poor, all foreigners, and those who worked jobs that his party considered impure. The tax collector was taught to use his office for extortion and to squeeze additional money from the middle class people who showed up at his stall without lawyers. In both cases, they couldn’t be contrite until they stepped away from what their peers consider to be normal. In order to be contrite, you must do the brave thing and judge your identity and role in life by a higher standard. When I think of the compassion that God has for all people, am I ashamed of who I have become? 


Contrition can be learned. As parents we do this with our children when we listen to their apologies. Wise parents do not shame their children when they make a simple mistake or fail to do a task. But if they find their child being cruel to their siblings or abusing the family pet, they seize this teachable moment and hold the child accountable until a heart-felt apology emerges. Great parents, often unknowingly, teach contrition by being transparent. They share honestly the shame that they feel when they have hurt someone. They are careful not to put the family name, their ethnicity, their church denomination, or their political party up on a platform. Every grouping we belong to, has done and will do in the future, things one should be ashamed of.


We seek to learn contrition day by day when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, should act as a search light. What aspects of our lives should we lay out with shame and contrition before the almighty? When we think back on our family of origin and our ethnicity, what history should we be more transparent about? Are we open to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to not only bring us forgiveness, but also the wisdom to live differently?

Cunningham speaks of need for an apology for the role of police in race relations
Pentecost 25
Ezekiel's Bones published in 2007 by Bill Kemp

Jim Collins’ book, Built to Last: Successful habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business, 1994) speaks about how successful business leaders are “clock builders” as opposed to “time keepers.” That is, instead of merely trying to manage a situation, they set out to build a new reality. This new reality requires steady and selfless work. Flashy, manipulative, and creative individuals may achieve short-term success, and detail oriented, skillful managers may coach the maximum revenue out a lack luster situation, but neither brings about the systemic change that leaves an organization better than what it was before they came. 

    In looking for examples of successful leaders in the business world, it is easy to get sidetracked by the flashy cultural icons like Lee Iacocca or Donald Trump. Collins points out that the great enduring companies of the twentieth century were led by a different kind of leader. These leaders were humble, persistent, and true to their values in the face of conflict. Rather than seeking immediate, dramatic results, they burrowed in and set about the meticulous work of developing a healthy organization. 

    Turning from the business world to our current church scene, those senior pastors who now lead America’s most successful mega churches are, almost without exception, humble, low key leaders who, over the course of decades, have blended an emphasis upon the importance of building relationships with their own drive to make the church grow. When one looks at Bill Hybels (Willow Creek), Cecil Williams (Glide Memorial), or John Ed Matheson (Frazer Memorial), one sees neither a detail oriented manager nor a shameless self promoter. Instead, one notes their sincere, personal, spiritual passion, as well as their commitment to spend their entire career in one place. In his memoirs, Robert Schuller writes of asking his seminary teacher how long a pastor should plan to stay in one church before moving on. Dr. Lindquist answered that a minister should never go to a church without planning to spend his or her whole life there (My Journey: From an Iowa Farm to a Cathedral of Dreams, by Robert H. Schuller, Harper San Francisco, 2001).

(This blog is page 59 of Ezekiel's Bones: Rekindling Your Congregation's Spiritual Passion -- published by Discipleship Resources in 2007) For more on Donald Trump and what we can learn from him (things not to do): Is Trump a Pharisee?Church System Lessons from Trump , Where have all the moderates gone?

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Jiminy Cricket acts as a conscience for Pinocchio — does the Holy Spirit do the same for us? Pinocchio was written over a hundred years ago as a morality tale. Children were to be read Pinocchio so that they would know not to rebel, disobey, or lie. Disney toned down the rascally nature of the puppet and added Jiminy Cricket to keep the story from being too sad. Many people today are living the original version of the story, which doesn’t end well for the puppet (in the Italian version he is hung). All of us need an inner voice to guide us. Don’t swat away that cricket.

    In Jeremiah 31, the prophet who has been weeping for God’s people because they are about to pay the price for their sin and go into exile, looks ahead to a better time. Long after the prophet is gone, God will forgive his people. They will be restored. They will return to Palestine and once again live as a free people. This will be the Old Testament’s second Exodus. The second time in which God will reclaim his people after a period of imprisonment. On this trip back, however, God himself will be their Moses. They won’t have to stop half-way through the wilderness to pick up the Ten Commandments, for God will set his law within each person. Jeremiah sees the Disney version, complete with Jiminy Cricket.

    What kind of an inner voice has God set within your heart? When have you looked for your conscience to guide you and found it out of order? There have been times when the conscience of a whole people has been wrong, such as when slavery was practiced in America. What would it mean for us to let our conscience guide us during the election in November?

    Now the deeper theological question, when Christians look back on this passage from Jeremiah 31, where we are told of a day when all will know the lord and be able to know the right thing to do simply by consulting their inner voice, we see it as a prophecy of the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell upon the first Christians and gave to them a moral compass (Acts 2). How is the Holy Spirit different from Jiminy Cricket?

When is your conscience wrong or hard to hear?
Proper 24
Jeremiah 29:1-7

Jeremiah hears God telling people to settle down, contribute their own sweat equity towards establishing of a healthy community, and be nice to the Babylonians. His actual words are, “Seek the welfare of the city.” God is speaking to his people. The same people who have just lost their home, seen their house of worship burned to the ground and their beautiful city invaded by the Babylonians. They have been rounded up like cattle and marched across the desert to Babylon. They are weary and resentful. They want to escape. They want to lash out and sabotage the plans of their captors. They have no spirit to be spiritual. They have no heart to be kind. As we saw in last week’s Psalm 137, they have hung up their harps and refuse to sing the songs that their tormentors ask for.  Being nice, doesn’t make any sense.


God is clear. When you are struck, you turn the other cheek. When you are made to do work that should really be done by others, go the extra mile, and when you find yourself imprisoned in a bad place, seek the welfare of the people around you. Jeremiah's letter to us says, “Build houses, plant gardens, and have a family… seek the welfare of the city.”


I first encountered this scripture a quarter century ago. In city after city, the famous first churches of my denomination were failing and falling into disrepair. Most American cities were wrestling with urban blight. People who could afford it were moving out to the suburbs. People with wealth were worshiping out there, leaving the city bereft. Many congregations pulled up stakes and build new church buildings in the suburbs. But there was a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit going in the opposite direction. Several organizations were formed by the church leaders that stayed and they found that if they worked together, God would bring them revival and new ways to be fruitfully engaged in mission. Their watchword became, Jeremiah 29:7 “Seek the Welfare of the city.”


A thousand years before God’s people were taken into exile in Babylon, there was a similar event on a much smaller scale. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. God’s spirit was with him and he learned to seek the welfare of the people around him in prison. Where he could have been resentful, he turned his attention to being constructive.  Life is unfair. Each time it is unfair we are given a choice, to seek the welfare of those around us and maintain our compassionate stance in the world, or turn inward and choose bitterness and resentment. Because Joseph sought the welfare of the city, he became prosperous and was able to save his family from the coming famine.

Pittsburgh is my city - I pray for its welfare
Pentecost 23