Not one stone left

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my affinity for the late Bishop Mark Dyer’s assertion that every 500 years or so, the Church goes through an extensive rummage sale.  Basically, his thought was that it takes about 500 years for habits to fossilize, for people to begin to look around, wonder why we’re doing what you’re doing, and begin to make changes.  He thought that the 21st century of the Common Era is going to be such an era.  In my work in this area, I’ve focused mostly on the liturgical and theological innovations that need to get pulled out of the attic and sold at rock bottom prices.  Today, that is changing.

As I write this post, I’m sitting in Houston’s Hobby Airport having just finished a three-day conference on racial reconciliation and discipleship in the missionary age.  In a room filled with 40 of some of best young-ish leaders in the Church, we did some of the hard work of naming the Church’s, and our own, complicity in the structures that benefit whiteness, and began to imagine ways of making disciples that weren’t built upon the false construct of Western Hegemony.  As of right now, I have no idea what I am going to do as a result of my time at Camp Allen, but as I read the words of Jesus to his disciples in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I’m pretty sure that we need something stronger than a rummage sale.

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We need to get to a place where not one stone is left upon the other.  See, it isn’t just that America was built upon the backs of slaves, but so too was the American Church.  In my research for my DMin thesis, I was made to read American Jeremiad, which looked at the sermons preached on the ships brining pilgrims to the American Colonies.  Preachers talked of America as the City on a Hill, as God’s plan, as a new Eden.  Meanwhile, in the holds of some of those same ships, slaves were locked in darkness, pulled from their land and forced into labor in the name of that City on a Hill.

The Church’s role in the doctrine of manifest destiny, its slave-owning past, and its unwillingness to look deeply at that history are probably more than enough for us to tear the whole thing down, look carefully at every stone, its origin, its impact, and its future.  Only when we’ve taken full stock of our roll in American’s racist foundations, will we ever be able to move forward into our mission of reconciliation.

I’m grateful for some time to spend in prayer, study, and conversation on weighty matters like racial reconciliation, and I pray that God might use my time at Camp Allen to change my heart and my ministry – to break it down, brick by brick, so that it might be rebuilt in grace and love.

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Do you hear what I hear?

 

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One of the unintended consequences of “church on the floor” is the reality that I am now sitting four feet from the first person in the pews.  In our usual arrangement, I’m up half a flight of steps, through the choir, and a good forty or more feet from the pews.  As a result of this new experience, I find myself paying attention to the way in which our people are engaged in worship.  For example, during Deacon Kellie’s sermon yesterday, as her mic cut in and out, people were genuinely engaged in her preaching.  They were paying attention, actively listening, in order to hear the good word that she was offering, the Gospel she was proclaiming.

As much as we’d like to believe that our people are consistently engaged in worship on Sunday morning, the reality is, like it is everywhere else, there are moments in the liturgy when the congregation is somewhere else.  I’m not sure where they are: pondering brunch plans, stressed about money, planning the week ahead, or deep in prayer are all possibilities.  However, I am keenly aware of where our folks are during the reading of the lessons – they are in their bulletin, following along with the text that is set before them, and I’m not 100% convinced that is a good thing.

Our collect for Proper 28 is specifically focused on the role of Scripture in our lives.  (I’ve written a chapter on this collect in “Acts to Action,” which I hope you will read (you can buy at forwardmovement.com (and, full disclosure, for which, I do not receive any compensation))).  It highlights that Scriptures’ primary role in our lives is as a teaching tool, and that the primary way with which we are to engage the Bible is not through our eyes, but through our ears.

There is something unique that happens when we just listen.  Our brains receive the information in a different way than if we are following along, anticipating the next word that is printed before us.  When we listen to the text, we join with the majority of our illiterate siblings in Judeo-Christian history in receiving God’s great love story as it was originally told, out loud, as a tale passed down from one generation to another.  In listening, our imaginations go to work.  We can find ourselves inside the story.  We can hear it in our own unique way.  We may not hear what our neighbors’ hear, but we can hear what God has to say to us in that exact moment.

This Sunday, as we pray the collect for Proper 28, I hope that you’ll join me in putting down your bulletin and just listen.  Listen for the word that God has for you.

How do we know?

Writing a blog makes me something of a public figure.  Everyday, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 to 100 different people set their eyes upon my work.  That may not seem like a lot, but it is enough to (most of the time) keep me focused, reading the Scriptures and trying to listen for what God is saying through them.  Most of the feedback I get is positive.  There is the occasional thoughtful critique, and, as with everywhere else on the internet, trolls find their way here as well.2015-09-02 12.38.17 (2)

Since @LuvtheTriuneGod deleted this tweet before the day was out, I’ve decided not to share his name publicly, but he raises a good question.  How do we know whether someone is teaching us sound doctrine or trying to lead us off the path of righteousness?  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus warns his disciples that many will try to lead his followers astray; some will even claim to be Jesus returning.  How can we test who is trying to lead us down the path of life and who is full of “eisegesis that causes the church to bleed members”?

I think TKT is going to preach on just this subject on Sunday, so I don’t want to steal his thunder, but I think the answer lies in the lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  I think the test of true faith is to simply ask, “Does it compel me to love God?  Am I provoked to love my neighbor?”  If the answer is no, then it is not true teaching.  As our new Presiding Bishop said in his first sermon as PB, “if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”  It seem to me that it really is that simple.

Jesus’ Apocalypse

In this week’s “Sunday’s Coming” lectionary post at Christian Century (which I cannot link to, but you can subscribe here – update, you can now read it here), the brilliant Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb invites us to think about whether or not we are living in apocalyptic times.  She points out, rather helpfully, that the word “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “the end of the world” or “the great cosmic battle between good and evil.”  Instead, it simply means “revelation” or “unveiling.”  While it may be tempting to think, and popular culture has jumped upon the idea, that the book of Daniel, the Revelation of John, or any number of Jesus’ sayings are specifically dealing with the eschaton (the last), they are apocalyptic texts, unveiling that which has been previously unseen.

Take, for example, Jesus’ apocalypse in Sunday’s gospel lesson.  Having spent the better part of half a week arguing with the Temple authorities, Jesus and his disciples retreat to the Mount of Olives.  Jesus must be deep in prayer for the city and people he loves so much, but his disciples are more like tourists, oohing and aahing over the sites in the city down below.

As they sit, the can see before them three very impressive structures.  In the foreground is the Temple, built around 516 BCE, but recently updated by order of Herod the Great.  Just behind it, and probably standing just a bit taller than the Temple itself was Antonia’s Fortress, also built under the reign of Herod the Great, and named after Mark Antony.  Finally, toward the Upper City section, there was Herod’s Palace, built by, you guessed it, Herod the Great.

Each of these buildings was impressive, built of huge stone, standing taller than anything else in the city, and each served as a symbol of Rome’s power and might.  As the disciples gawk at their magnitude, Jesus opens the curtain to show them that despite their beauty, these buildings are not what God had planned for Jerusalem.  “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Jesus was not interested in Rome’s symbols of power.  He was especially distressed that even God’s Temple had taken on the trapping of Roman influence.  It was no longer a house of prayer for all people, but a place where money and influence were the name of the game.  God’s desire wasn’t for big buildings and elaborate worship, and so Jesus opened the veil to show the people what God really desired: that his people would follow his will through prayer, study, and loving service.

As we know, he wasn’t talking about the end of days either.  When his disciples pushed him on the when question, he was quick to say that these things were only the beginning.  Some three decades after his death, most of Jesus’ apocalyptic vision would take place.  During the Jewish Revolt of 66-73CE, all three of Herod’s monuments to Roman power would suffer significant damage.  Herod’s Palace was nearly burned to the ground by Jewish revolutionaries in 66AD.  The Temple and Antonia’s Fortress were both destroyed by Roman hands during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Not one stone would stand upon another, yet the power of God would continue to work in the lives of the faithful.  Through the diaspora that resulted from persecutions following Stephen’s stoning, Nero’s fire, and the Jewish Revolt, the Good News of Jesus Christ spread throughout the known world.  What was seen as an end, really was only the beginning.  So let’s not worry about wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and flood, but rather, let’s be about the business of sharing God’s love for a suffering world.

A Failure to Encourage

In yesterday’s post, I imagined what it might look like if we followed the advice of the author of Hebrews and made a habit of getting together, i.e. showing up at church on Sunday.  In seminary, we learned that 90% of ministry is simply showing up, but what about the other 10%?  Our author goes on to describe the antithesis of “neglecting to get together” as “encouraging one another.”  Like his admonition to show up, this is sound advice that the author is giving his community, and by extension, us: sound advice that we fail to follow.

You see, Christianity has a huge, self-inflicted, PR problem.  Christians tend to be awful to one another.  Take, for example, this week’s 24 hour news cycle, social media, over-reaction du jour:

The Starbucks Red Cup Catastrophe of 2015!

If you want to see what a failure to encourage looks like, then follow the conversation thread around Starbucks decision to use plain red cups this (ridiculously extended) holiday season.  Here’s how every one of these self-inflicted wounds happens, be it Gene Robinson in 2003 or red cups in 2015.

  1. Something happens.  In this case, it was the launch of Starbucks’ annual holiday cup, this time with no symbols, no patterns, nothing but the green Starbucks logo on a plain red cup.
  2. Someone gets offended.  Here it was (allegedly) conservative Christians who saw it as another salvo in the War on Christmas™ and (again allegedly) called for boycotts and protests.
  3. Some responds. Liberal Christians began to talk smugly about the foolishness of their brothers and sisters in Christ: suggesting that they had their head in the sand about the bigger problems we face.
     Adoption seemed to be a favorite meme this time around.
  4. Someone else responds.  Moderate Christians took to the airwaves to self-righteously decry the smug response of the liberal Christians and point out how it would have been better to stay out of the fray at all.
  5. Steve writes a blog post.  Here I am, typing with righteous indignation about the self-righteous moderates venting about the smug liberals who are frustrated at the offended conservatives.
  6. Jesus loses.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world looks on as Christians fail miserably at encouragement by gutting each other as foolish, smug, self-righteous jack asses and say, “Can you believe the hypocrisy of those who claim to follow Jesus?”  The task of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes exponentially more difficult every time we fall in to this unfortunate and predictable pattern.

So what should we do instead?  Just as we need to relearn the habit of regular worship attendance, we need to also reclaim the habit of encouraging one another.  As James puts it in his letter, we need to learn to act with gentleness born of wisdom.  That is to say, we need to learn to stop and think before we react and speak.  We need to resist the temptation, that comes straight from the pit of hell, to look down our noses at our sister and brother in Christ.  We need to remember that the other we are fixing to disparage is a beloved child of God, deserving of our encouragement, care, and compassion – a neighbor whom we are commanded to love.  Encouraging one another might only be 10% of the job, but it has a huge impact on how the world sees us.  Let’s always err on the side of love.

Neglecting to Get Together

It seems that church attendance has always been a dicey issue.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, in his admonitions on kingdom living as a community of faith, reminds his audience that they should “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This should come as good news to 21st century church leaders who feels disheartened by changing habits of church attendance.  Well, maybe not good news, but certainly it is comforting to know that the struggle is real and has been ongoing since the very beginning.

There has been an increasing trend over the past decade or so in which the definition of “regular church attendance” has changed from roughly 3 times a month to maybe once every 3 weeks.  While there are increasing numbers of people who have left church all together, the reality is that some of the decrease in Average Sunday Attendance simply comes members attending church less frequently.  It seems neglecting to get together has become the habit of more than some.

Church canons have little impact these days.  Unfortunately, they are routinely ignored by clergy and laity alike, but I wonder what would happen if we started to take Canon I.17.3 seriously?  In that Canon, the term Communicant in Good Standing is defined as “All communicants of this Church who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered communicants in good standing.”

What if “good cause” was the only thing that prevented us from attending church?  What if those who are committed to the life and ministry of their local congregation (as many of the once every three week crowd really are) returned to the habit of regular attendance at worship?  There is power in getting together to worship God.  That’s why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews recommends it.  That’s why our Canons define “good standing” that way.  When we gather together to worship God, to sing praises, to hear the word proclaimed, to offer prayers, and to break bread, we are changed – each of us individually as well as all of us corporately.  And every time we are changed more into the likeness of Christ, the world is changed more into the likeness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Church attendance habits matter because the Kingdom of God matters.  Let’s not neglect to get together.