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Archive for March, 2016

(published in the Rome News Tribune December 12, 2014)

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1).

This passage from Isaiah seems to be an odd reading for Advent. What does it have to do with Sweet Baby Jesus? It is a familiar passage, nonetheless, to those who are familiar with the Gospel of Luke.

When Jesus returns from the wilderness and publicly launches his ministry, this is the passage he reads, and concludes with this statement: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus lays out this passage from Isaiah as his mission statement. This is what he has come to do.

When we talk about the coming of Jesus, when we wait and watch, I wonder how many of us in the church think about this passage as our own mission statement. After all, if we are followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we be doing what Jesus does? Shouldn’t we adhere to Jesus’ mission statement?

Yes, I know. It’s Christmas and our congregations are hard at work collecting toys and food for the poor of this community. That’s a good thing. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

What are we doing to engage Jesus’ mission statement on those days? How are we bringing (not just proclaiming, but bringing) good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to captives, release to the prisoners?

A couple of years ago, I was working with some seminary students as they surveyed a neighborhood in south Atlanta, one of the most economically depressed areas in the state.

Within an area of about 1.5 square miles, they discovered some 30 churches. What was most disheartening was that most of these churches were surrounded by gates and locked fences.

Most of them had no visible presence in the neighborhood beyond these heavily secured buildings. Once a week, members of the congregations arrived on scene, opened the locked gates and “worshiped.” When worship was over, they locked up the church and left the neighborhood as quickly as possible.

One of the students asked, “If the church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners, then why doesn’t it keep hospital hours?” Yes! Why not?

I believe one of the most important questions a church can ask itself today is: “If we close our doors tomorrow and fold this church, would anybody (beyond those who gather here for Sunday worship) miss us?” If we cannot give a strong, “Yes,” in answer to that and put names and faces to it, maybe we aren’t really following after Jesus.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me … can you feel the Spirit?

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(Published in Rome News Tribune November 14, 2014)

Several nights ago on my drive home, I was listening to the radio and heard Bryan Stevenson speaking about his work through the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.

He used a phrase that triggered a strong response from me: “Each of us is better than the worst thing that we have ever done.” My first instinct was to say, “Really? What about the murderer? Or the pedophile? Or the rapist? Are they not defined by what they’ve done? Are they not defined by the havoc they have wrought in other peoples’ lives?”

Then I began to think about Jesus’ response to evil doers, to Zacchaeus the tax collector (and by inference, a collaborator with Roman occupation and oppression, a man who extorted as much money as he could from the populace). Jesus told all the townsfolk who had put on a spread for him, “No thanks. I’m going to be a guest of Zacchaeus today.” (Luke 19:5)

To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “I do not condemn you.” (John 8:11) Most tellingly, however, from the cross, Jesus called out to God about his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)”

Now, I’m not advocating a free ride for murderers, or pedophiles or rapists. An orderly society must exact some form of justice if there is not to be total chaos. But what should that justice look like?

In the Presbyterian tradition, here’s what we have to say about the purpose of discipline, “(which) is to achieve justice and compassion for all participants involved; to correct or restrain wrongdoing in order to bring members to repentance and restoration … the exercise of church discipline, is for building up … not for destroying, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath …”

For me, this is one of the most difficult demands of the Gospel, justice that is woven through with forgiveness and mercy.

Saint Isaac the Syrian, a Christian writing in the 600s asks: “How can you call God just, when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? … How can you call God just when you came across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, (yet the father’s response) is to run to him, fall upon his neck and give him authority over his wealth? …

“Where, then, is God’s justice? — for while we are sinners Christ died for us! (Romans 5:8) If here God is merciful, we may believe that he will not change.”

God declares that each of us is better than the worst thing that we have ever done. God does not let our sins define us. God’s justice is mercy. That is the scandalous injustice of God.

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(Published in the Rome News Tribune, October 10, 2014)

The baseball playoffs are here! Since opening day, the 15 teams of the National League and the 15 teams of the American League have all been moving (or attempting to move) toward a fixed goal: the World Series and, ultimately, Champions of baseball 2014.

In social theory speak, each baseball team is a “Bounded Set” – that is, there are rituals and rules about who is in and who is out on each team. Perhaps it’s stolen bases, RBIs, batting average; or on-base or slugging percentage. Not just anyone can walk onto the field and play for the team; it is a “bounded set.” All teams in MLB constitute a “Centered Set” – it is the team’s relationship to the center that is significant. Every team aspires to be at the center as post-season play ends. Movement toward the center is the goal of every team.

“Wait a minute,” you may say. “I thought this was a column about religion, not sports.” Right you are! But I want us to think about set theory as we consider the state of the Church today and her relationship to the world around her. Most churches (in the West) today, still adhere to the “Bounded Set” theory. Those wishing to cross the “boundary” into a congregation or perhaps a denomination, must do so through prescribed methods and rites, and are expected to adopt language, values and life styles consonant with the congregation/denomination. For instance, if I, a Presbyterian, want to join a Baptist congregation, I must undergo the ritual of baptism within the Baptist understanding of baptism (a profession of faith and baptism by immersion), even though I was baptized as an infant within the Presbyterian tradition. Or to take communion in a Catholic parish, I must be a Catholic. All denominations (my own Presbyterian denomination included) have rites and rituals that must be observed for a person to be considered a member.

There is a new movement within the Church today toward “Centered Set” practices. Let me give you another analogy besides baseball. In the Australian outback, cattle ranches often run thousands of head of cattle. I am told that it is impossible to construct and maintain enough fences to keep the cattle in (the bounded set theory of cattle ranching) so they drill wells instead (the centered set theory of cattle ranching).

Many on the outside of the Church today take a look in the window and much of what they see is rigid rules and mean spiritedness. Like the Pharisees who brought the woman “caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)” to Jesus (I always want to ask, “Where’s the man who was caught in adultery with her?”), many congregations are about keeping strict boundaries in an effort to protect the faith. Throughout the Gospels, the Pharisees were harshly critical of Jesus: “He eats with sinners, (Luke 5:30)” “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner (Luke 7:39).” They constructed rigid rules and expectations. They were not bad people; they just wanted to protect the faith. But it is to the Pharisees that Jesus directs his greatest criticism, ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead … on the outside [you] look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)”

What if, instead of erecting more and higher boundaries, the Church were to drill some wells? “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. (John 7:37-38)”

What might it look like for churches to be wells? They would be places where the grace and mercy and forgiveness of Jesus was the invitation to come in.

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