Archive for February, 2010

This past Sunday I preached about addictions – idols really; those things we allow into our lives believing that they offer life, but ultimately do not. The key text was Isaiah 44. In the text, people take inanimate, lifeless objects like wood and fashion them into gods to be worshipped. Times haven’t changed. We still do this. We make things – money, food, sex, accomplishments, a particular political philosophy, the words of a radio or television personality or cable news station, whatever – our gods. We chuckle at the idea of folks worshipping a piece of wood, but it’s not as funny when we think about the men, women and marriages that have been ruined by people worshipping pornography or sexual immorality.

At any rate, all this talk of addictions and idols reminded me of the importance of the Christian calendar, in general, and our present season of Lent in particular. Lent, as you may know, is the 40-day period before Easter. In short, it is designed to help believers share in Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice – at least that’s the most popularized aspect of the season. But at a deeper level we might want to consider the fact that since we are all idolaters – looking to other things give us life – Lent is perhaps our one chance, our one excuse every year to give ourselves permission to melt our golden calves. Lent is the perfect chance to try giving something up, something that has come to master us.

What I mean is simple: Oftentimes our false gods and idols seem so overwhelming that we surrender the fight thinking that nothing can be done. This is made easier by the fact that we generally enjoy idol worship. If we didn’t we never would have begun in the first place. But Lent sounds like a suggestion. It’s just 40 days. Spring training is longer, for goodness sake. If your god is shopping or over-eating or over-spending or terse, course language then 40 days appears plausible.

Lent is subversive this way. For the last 6 years I’ve participated in Lent, setting aside some crutch I’d come to deepened to deeply on. Each year I’ve learned the same thing: I can live without it! In years past I’ve set aside certain language, words I use about others, red meat and few others that I’m too embarrassed to mention. And every time I learned that those things don’t give life and never could. They were blocks of wood. I learned that not only did I not enjoy them all that much, they were harming me in ways I never noticed or considered. What’s more, for each idol I’ve relinquished, I never returned to using them like I did before. Lent provided me an excuse to try – without feeling like I was trying to climb Mount Everest – and ultimately allowed me to loose them and be free.

So here’s my encouragement to you. If like me, you’re from a non-liturgical tradition that thinks Lent is strange or foreign, just give it a try. This is how we learn; we try things. Though the season is already in full swing, pick up the idol that is eating at you and say, “Until Jesus is raised (Easter), I’m leaving you in darkness.” My bet is that by doing so, you will come to see the light.

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There is a fundamental problem with “purity test.” If you hadn’t noticed, the American political scene is in shambles. Neither party is looking all that great and regardless of your personal political leanings, you’re likely not satisfied with all that is Washington D.C.. Here in Northern California the disenchantment is heard across the dial from Mike Malloy and Ed Schultz on the Left to Rush and Hannity on the Right.

One of the reasons – at least in my view – is the idea of purity tests.

For some reason, with America facing undreamed of obstacles, so much of our politics has become about pushing moderates out of the picture in order to anoint pure ideologues. Apparently, the worst thing someone can be in modern politics is reasonable, and if not reasonable, and least malleable, or perhaps possessing the simple ability to make concessions and compromise for the sake of the greater good.  It is a sickness of both the left and the Right. As a matter of fact, both parties have recently had to publicly reject the idea of a “purity test” in order to discern who is and who isn’t “fit” or “right.” You are either all or not at all. That’s how purity works. It’s a binary condition. Either you are or you are not.

Here’s the problem: Purity tests don’t work! At least not in terms of relationships and extending love  and well-being to others. Modern politics only illustrates this long overlooked truth. But this post really isn’t about politics. This is really about you and me and how we interact with others who don’t view faith, life, morality and the world as we do.

Jesus enters ministry when religious teaching was almost entirely about purity tests. It wasn’t just the much-maligned Pharisees either. Both the Sadducees and the Essenes were competing in the Jewish religious marketplace, and all three groups rigorously mandated that a series of highly visible, yet largely superficial, markers be demonstrable in order to illustrate who was in and who wasn’t. They each, in essence, had their own purity tests.

But Jesus bucks the entire system of purity. As you know, the Pharisees had reduced God-following to rules and restrictions codified to build a hedge around the Law. What started as 10 fairly straightforward Commandments had blossomed into a yoke of Law that no one could keep and probably no one wanted to keep. People – like the adulterous woman that was brought and accused before Jesus (John 8.1-11) – who stepped outside the hedge, failed the purity test. And, according to the Law of Moses, should have been stoned. Yet Jesus says, and I’m paraphrasing, “There’s something more important than your purity test.” When faced with the opportunity to apply the thumbscrews of purity, Christ rejects it. And not only in this episode, but over and over, when given the choice to accuse the impure and unclean, Jesus chooses grace.

The reason is simple: Jesus is much more concerned with people than He is purity. He is much more enticed by the prospect of relationships than He is enamored by the purebred. And as holy and giving as Jesus is, He chooses grace over purity not because it is an act of the Divine, but because an orientation of grace is the only way relationships can work! Grace is a thoroughly practical choice. If you choose to extend redeeming love to people, you must choose grace. If you reject them, they won’t hang around long enough to be redeemed. Jesus is teaching us that we have to accept people even if we don’t agree with them.

It’s simple really: Without a fundamental orientation toward grace, there is no way people can be in relationship with one another. For example, if our children are required to do everything specifically as we ask and when we ask, what do we then do when they fail us? Better yet, what happens in marriages when one spouse makes a mistake, or, God forbid, disagrees about a significant issue? What should we do with friends whose opinions differ? Cast them out? Spurn them? Turn our face away? Exclude them? Exclusion, interestingly, is the only place a purity test can lead. Purity Tests only add to the divisions, separations and ruptures in our world. If you are consistently giving others a purity test, soon there will be no more takers. No one can pass your highly personalized test! No one thinks, feels, and behaves exactly like you.

Now before the theological or behavioral police club me to death, I should mention that I am not talking about a lack of accountability or moral standards. They exist and are needed. What I am speaking of is the realization that everyone we know will eventually fail to do the thing we wished they would do when we wanted them to. And if purity is the rubric than each new failing threatens to end the relationship. On the other hand, if grace is the lens with which we see the world, then all people – regardless of who they are and what they practice – are potential allies and friends. They are hearts waiting to be redeemed by God, as my wife might say.

So say “goodbye” purity tests and the natural divisions you bring and “hello” to the embrace of grace.  In the end, it is the only way to have one another.

A few posts ago, I commented, “Preaching naively believes that preaching can help” this troubled world. What I mean by this is that preaching, the act of speaking to an audience who will likely soon forget what was said, on the face, appears to be fairly anemic, but the preacher believes it is not. Jesus seems to think that preaching does something that nothing else can do. As His cousin, John, sits in prison, Jesus chooses not to visit or set John free. Rather, Jesus preaches. And it’s important to pay attention to exactly what Jesus preaches.

In Mark, as Jesus begins His public ministry, the apostle tells us that Jesus announces, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” Again, each word here could produce a book in it’s own right, but I want to highlight a few things that I think are generally important for preacher’s (and listeners) to keep in mind as we examine how preaching can help.

  1. “The Time is fulfilled.” Jesus is announcing a present reality. This reality is associated with both His presence and person, as well as heralding an eschatological vision. Therefore, the faithful do not simply await a future occurrence, but a reality that is being inaugurated. For the preacher, this means drawing the ears of the listener to God’s activity in the world today, rather than merely encouraging them to hang onto earth until we enjoy pie-in-the-sky. Weekly preaching needs immediacy! In short, the end has begun; we are caught between the now and the not yet.
  2. “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Christ announces a new system of both politics and living. We are invited, then, to live within this kingdom and assuage the narrow-mindedness of American left/right political polarities –or any other political system, for that matter – to see a vision of the kingdom of God. This is true of all systems or philosophies that cultures may offer. The kingdom of God upends all other kingdoms – American, financial, scientific, theological or personal. The preacher then must be certain not to loan the preaching event to alternative kingdoms; to spare the pulpit of his or her personal feeling about “Proposition Whatever” and call both all people – those with whom he or she aggress and/or disagrees with – to participation in the only governing that matters – God’s.
  3. “Repent and believe the good news.” After having told us that the kingdom of God was near, the Lord now instructs us regarding what to do about it. First, says Jesus, “repent,” literally to “change your mind.” He means to tell us to abandon alternative kingdoms, philosophies, politics, and epistemologies and believe the good news, which is, in short, Jesus Himself and not a theological system (Calvinism, Restoration, Methodism, etc…). Though many would like to reduce “the good news” only to the Passion narrative, this alone cannot be true, since Jesus is calling people to the good news BEFORE the Passion events. In large, Jesus proclaims that salvation hope can be found in Him; that there is a path back to wholeness for those who repent. Every pronouncement concerning God, then, should announce the good news. It matters little to beat up people about our estrangement from the Creator without a vocalization of the way back to God.

These 3 moves shape the fundamental message of Jesus’ ministry. You will notice here that Jesus’ preaching – both here and other places – lack the kinds of specifics and steps that contemporary preaching has devolved into. Jesus’ preaching is about a particular vision of the world. It is not nuggets, principles, helpful hints, or good advice. Those who reduce preaching to sound bites cut against the grain of how Jesus preached.  Sound bites, we should now have learned from the political world, don’t change the world. Preaching should aim for more.

To be continued…

Dr. Joel C. Hunter gets it right on conflict resolution:

This Sunday we launch a new teaching series called, “5 Easy Steps to Wreck Your Life.” Typically, I don’t – or even like to – preach topical series. It’s too easy to twist God’s Word, bully others into your image and allow people to become dependant on what the “church” says rather than form imagination and become discerning. But this series, I hope, will be different. Why? Because I’m not teaching people WHAT to do, rather I’m highlighting what we’re already doing.

This, I think, will cause all of us to consider more deeply the modes of living and being that we hardly ever consider; the reflexive, yet unthoughtful words and deeds that make up our lives. Though our consideration of certain modes may be low, they impact us greatly.

My desire is to help people deal with the obvious mistakes and missteps people make and encourage us to choose differently. So, if you’re in Northern California in February, swing by and join us at Redwood Church (901 Madison Avenue, Redwood City, CA), at 9:00 am or 10:45 am. If you can’t join us live, please listen to or download the podcast and become part of our virtual fellowship.

As we continue to examine preaching and the preaching imagination, let’s turn again to Mark’s announcement in Mark 1: “…after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news (1.14-15 NRSV).” Previously we took a brief look at what it means that Jesus’ proclamation occurred, “after John was arrested,” but the next statement is equally as thought-provoking. It is a statement about location and speech; “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news….”

I note here that Jesus began his teaching in a place of His own choosing, but more importantly, He began His preaching to an audience of His choosing. I have noticed that a great deal of contemporary preaching is aimed at people and populations that are not present in the room. I once had a mentor tell me about a 25-year standing men’s prayer group. Early on the group decided to talk only about themselves. At no time were they permitted to talk extensively about their wives, work or children. The rule: Don’t talk about people who aren’t in the room. Another way of saying this is “take responsibility for you own stuff.” It is a move to end the deflection and obfuscation that all too frequently occurs within groups. While keeping the world outside of church building ever-present and a pressing concern of our worship, I’m arguing that the preaching event should address the people in the room.

Preaching should announce the good news with which the present hearers must deal. Too much preaching talks about “those people,” the people that “aren’t us.”  I recently heard a TV preacher railing against federal, “activist” judges. I immediately wondered: How many federal judges are members in his congregation? In the end, preaching that launches attacks or feigns “concern” for people not in the room is largely useless and oftentimes far more reveals the self-righteousness of the preacher and the perceived “goodness” of the congregants than announcing the good news of Jesus.  Unfortunately, this move contributes to the divisions and distance between those inside the church and those not yet inside; adding to human nature’s “us-versus-them” tendency.

Jesus announces a public word! No person or population is excluded and/or targeted. God’s will for the one is God’s will for all. No “us” and “them.” He is not trying to scandalize “them,” He’s scandalizing us “all.” He’s not offering freedom and hope to “us,” but freedom and hope to “all.” Therefore those within the room, should hear in the proclamation a call to make those outside the room both their destination and ally, rather than the opposition and enemy. The word is for all, entering the world through the ears of those who have already heard the word.

What if modern preaching approached its task as Jesus did, reversing the typical, “us-versus-them” orientation and called the church to deal forthrightly with her call – which is to announce “good news” to the all rather than proclaiming bad news just for the people we don’t like? Nietzsche commented, “the harm the good do is the most harmful harm.” He meant that good people, coming to believe that they possess goodness – by contrast, those who differ must be preternaturally evil – do violence because they do not consider the potential for their own evil. This, to me, is why, preaching must resist polarizing narratives that target and divide those within the ecclesia from those without. We are all, and at all times, in need of “the good news.” That, this Sunday, is what you should preach.