Archive for October, 2012

John Wesley on Voting–and Community

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”                             –John Wesley, October  6, 1774

Some of my United Methodist colleagues have recently rediscovered Wesley’s election-year advice. If they haven’t already, I hope they will soon build a Sunday message around these words. But my unscientific assessment suggests that will happen rarely if at all. “Be sure to vote” is all the political speech many pastors dare in public. Besides, worship calendars in November are already overcrowded with stewardship season, Veterans Day on Sunday this year, Thanksgiving, then a week to breathe before Advent begins. We’re busy, busy, busy. Besides, “voting” isn’t in the lectionary.

Nevertheless, I believe Wesley’s words contain a word from the Lord that needs to be heard–more than echoes of “busy, busy, busy”. So I urge some of my active colleagues to reprioritize beyond “worship as usual”. Yes, sisters and brothers, I hear you: “Easy for you to say from the safety of retirement.” Yes, and even easier since I’ll be out of the country when the election happens. But this word needs to be heard. On Nov. 7, winners and losers will have to figure out how to live together for four more years. Folks with diverse political views will still have to worship and work together. Wesley’s wisdom provides an alternative to the prevailing polarization and winner-take-all attitude.

If I were preaching, I’d ground the message biblically in Romans 13-15. Paul points out that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor…love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:8-10) In ch. 14 he calls for tolerance among folks with very different strongly held views. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” (14:10) Being right matters less than making sure we do not cause our neighbor to stumble (14:13). Paul moves on to remind us that building up our neighbor matters more than pleasing ourselves (15:1-2) and challenges everyone to “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you…” (15:7)

I’d address Wesley’s three points (not my typical preaching MO) from that perspective:1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:” I identify the “fee or reward” that tempts us today as narrow self-interest. Today’s political propaganda addresses one very basic question: “What’s in it for me?” Rarely do we ask “What’s best for our society as a whole?” “The common good” isn’t commonly considered in our political discourse. Rarely does a candidate or elected politician dare call for sacrifice to help the neediest among us, or to achieve a worthy common goal, e.g. deficit reduction. Jesus urged us to put others’ needs before our own. “The person judged most worthy” sounds to me like the one who would best serve the common good. What if from now on we refuse to settle for endless political pandering to narrow self-interest? What if we demanded that candidates address their vision of “the common good” and how to achieve it?

  “2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against:” Earlier Paul wrote, “…There is no one who is righteous, not even one;” (Rom. 3:10). What fun is election season if we can’t bash the other side—especially when they’re so wrong/incompetent/buffoonish/crooked/fill in your own word. Besides, the worse the opponent is, the better my candidate looks. But every poisonous, polarizing half-truth and stereotype we repeat poisons our spirits as well. The other side loses their humanity in our eyes and becomes “them”. Every time we dehumanize another person, we dehumanize ourselves as well. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” Let us who follow Jesus practice more civil political speech. We can debate policies and positions without demeaning persons. Cosistent Christ-like behavior in this respect is a powerful witness. Our neighbors might find such credible Christianity attractive or at least intriguing.

“And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” It’s hard to get close to someone with a “sharpened” spirit. The razor edges hold us at bay. Most of us won’t risk trying to move closer. Instead, we tend to “sharpen” in response. We claim our position even more strongly whether our candidate won or lost. “Sharpening our spirits” sinks us deeper and deeper into self-defensive self-righteousness. We confirm the other’s ideological [and personal/spiritual] wrongness as we confirm our own (self-) righteousness. Our differences don’t magically dissolve following an election.In fact, lately we seem to take a brief break and then resume hammering each other even harder as if nothing had been decided.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s listen closely to Wesley soon after this intense and often bitter election campaign. Let’s also listen closely to Paul: “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you.”  We could probably use a preacher to lovingly and firmly challenge us in the spirit of Joshua: “Choose this day who you will be.”

As I said earlier, it won’t be me. I’ll be out of the country. I have no invitations to preach after we return. Brother/sister preacher, will you be the one who shares this word? My stuff isn’t copyrighted. I would like to know how you use it and what response you get. Laypersons, will you be the one who encourages your pastor to speak this word we all need to hear? Maybe you can do it together. It doesn’t matter so much who’s in the spotlight. It matters hugely that the word is heard—and embraced—and lived.

Teach the Children–a Baptismal Message

[Recently I had the privilege of baptizing our youngest granddaughter. I was also invited to preach at all three services that day. Some people (even some unrelated to Amelia and me) thought the message worth sharing with a wider audience. It’s longer than my typical post. It is in two parts, as you’ll see. The first part is based on 2 Timothy 1:1-7 (The Message).] 

Today we become partners in a life-shaping adventure. Amelia Rose Salzman, our youngest granddaughter, will be baptized this morning. Family and godparents will gather around her.  Those of us in this service will promise, on behalf of the entire congregation, to partner with Amelia’s family to help her grow to maturity in Christ. What better way to fulfill our mission to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ…”?  Church and families partner together to help children catch the contagious joy of following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Discipleship is “caught” far more than it is “taught”.  Of course we’ll teach Amelia and all the children “Jesus Loves Me”, John 3:16, and the Apostles’ Creed. We’ll teach them who John Wesley is, what it means to be a “connectional church”, and much more about our distinctive Methodist style. But most important, we will immerse them in a loving, Spirit-filled, faithfully adventurous Christian community.

A community like that nurtured Timothy’s growth into Christ. We heard Paul praise his “honest faith…handed down from your grandmother Lois to your mother Eunice, and now to you!” Mom and grandma taught him the story of Jesus. They also immersed him in a vital Christian community. Timothy first “caught” faith in Christ from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. But he also learned to follow Jesus from the living example of dozens of older brothers and sisters in Christ.

Amelia’s parents will do their part. Her five living grandparents, all present today, will see to it! But it takes a faith community to grow a disciple. I am a prenatal Methodist. From my beginning Maynard Memorial Methodist Church in Los Angeles partnered with my parents. Glenn and Darlene McMurry, Fred and Irene Hillman, Dale and Flo Conrad, and many others offered living examples of life lived Jesus’ way. That rich environment helped me discover and claim “that special gift of ministry” God had given me.

Many of you can tell similar stories. The names and places will be different. Your story may have more twists and turns than mine. But our stories have this much in common: Disciples grow best in community. Today Amelia’s biological family asks you, her spiritual family, to partner with us in helping her grow up into Christ. We look forward to the day she claims the community’s faith as her own. We look forward to sharing her journey as she discovers and shares with the world her “special gift of ministry.”

[Here we performed the actual baptism. Those at the earlier services were invited to imagine the baptism taking place–the family gathered, questions being asked and answered, Amelia behaving–however she chose!]

PART II

Now what? We’ve done the ceremony. We’ve celebrated God’s love for this child. We’ve affirmed God’s claim on her life. We’ve sealed our partnership. Amelia’s on the church’s books. Now what exactly will we teach her—and all the other growing disciples within our reach? Listen to Paul’s words to one early church (Philippians 2:5-11) No, I’m not suggesting you prepare all the children in this church to be crucified—at least not literally. I do challenge you to teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.  “He emptied himself,“ Paul says.“He humbled himself by becoming obedient…Therefore God highly honored him…”

Teach Amelia—and all the growing disciples within your reach—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” Teach them this radical countercultural lifestyle of self-emptying obedience. This church has some saints whose very presence teaches humility and self-emptying. You know who they are. Their lives embody “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.”    

Make these saints lead teachers for Amelia and all the children. You don’t have to put them in the Sunday School classroom every week. But expose the children to them frequently. Let them see and experience the “attitude” of these grownup disciples. Don’t worry about how many bible verses the kids learn or how many perfect attendance ribbons they take home. The Holy Spirit will help the details fall into place. Just do everything in your power to grow a generation of disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”.

Now I know some of you are still stuck on Paul’s graphic language: “…He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” That’s a real baptism bummer! So here’s another version of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. It comes from Time religion writer Jon Meacham. “The central tenet of Christianity”, Jon writes, “…is that we are to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”–Jon Meacham, “Of God and Gays and Humility” in Time Magazine 7/30/12

Disciples “reach out when our instinct is to pull inward.” The Old Testament tells the story of God reaching out to humanity. Every time God reached out we acted like jerks. We were ungrateful. We willfully disobeyed the rules. We insisted on living life our way instead of God’s way. We fought to grab all the goodies for ourselves. We refused to share. Time after time we bit the hand of God that reached out to feed and care for us.

When someone treats me that way I don’t put up with it very long. It doesn’t take long until I’m done reaching out. But God’s relentless love wouldn’t quit. Finally Love wrapped itself in human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We killed the messenger. But some of us got the message—especially when we saw on Easter morning that Love was stronger than death. God began drawing Jesus’ followers beyond their comfort zone. He sent Jewish Christians to tell the hated Samaritans about Jesus. He sent Paul, and later Peter, to the Gentiles. Everybody knew God didn’t like Gentiles—except God! Over the centuries our reaching-out God sent missionaries to all the peoples nobody but God could love. Our reaching-out God continues to push us beyond our comfort zones to the people and places we’ve written off.

Disciples also “give when we want to take”. Amelia’s brother Lucas has begun learning this discipleship lesson. He’s learning to share his toys with friends who come over to play. He’s learning to share Mom and Dad with his sister. Sometimes, he thinks, she can be pretty high-maintenance. Sometimes Lucas’s and Amelia’s  high-maintenance moments occur simultaneously! If Lucas learns to share as quickly as the rest of us, he’ll be a very generous person in just a few more decades.

I just finished reading a book called Love Without Walls. It describes the ministry of Mariners Church in Southern California. A new senior pastor came into a very bleak situation. After nearly two years of hard prayer and hard work by everyone, the church’s budget deficit had become a modest surplus. The board wanted to take most of it and put it in the bank. They needed reserves. They could earn some interest. This was back when you didn’t need a microscope to find your interest. The pastor said, “It’s God’s money, not ours. Let’s use it for God’s purposes. Let’s give it away.” So they didn’t take God’s money and put it away for their own needs. They started giving it away. An amazing thing happened. The more people they helped, the more pressing needs they uncovered. The more needs they addressed, the more people wanted to help and the more people gave to meet those needs. The more they gave, the more opportunities they had to give and make a difference.

Disciples “love when we’re inclined to hate”. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” knows that “an eye for an eye” soon leaves everyone blind. We will love our enemies as Jesus taught us. We will return good for evil. We will treat others with respect and dignity regardless of how they treat us. We will break the death spiral of name-calling, retribution, and escalating violence. Disciples with attitude model an alternative way to live in families, in politics, in business, in traffic, in every part of life–even in intense church conflict.

In 1942 Clarence Jordan and a few other Christians formed an inter-racial community called Koinonia Farms near Americus, Georgia. They wanted to model the way they believed followers of Jesus were called to live together. The neighbors weren’t impressed. They were outraged. They brought housewarming gifts of isolation, harassment, religious persecution, and violence. Clarence Jordan and his friends just kept on living their lives and loving their neighbors. Their consistent practice of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” helped prepare the way for the Civil Rights movement.

Disciples “include when we’re tempted to exclude”. Our natural human tendency is to associate with others like ourselves. At its best that helps us build strong, stable communities. At its worst it means we aggressively exclude those who don’t fit for whatever reason. Our society today is just doing what comes naturally. We are intensely polarized around intense social, political, cultural, religious, and economic issues.  We’re happy to be on ‘our” side of the chasm—and equally happy to have “them” far away on the opposite side. We gather in our “us” groups—sometimes even in the church–and give thanks that we’re not like “them”.

Folks living with “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” won’t stand for that. We know God doesn’t see “us” and “them”. God sees persons created in God’s image who are tragically separated from each other and from him. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus tear down the walls that separate us from each other and from God. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants to help Jesus build bridges of healing and reconciliation where we’ve dug Grand Canyons of separation. “The attitude that was in Christ Jesus” wants every one of God’s children to know the joy of being included in God’s family. We want to nurture Amelia and the children in this church to discover their “special gift of ministry”. But we won’t stop until that’s true for every child of God of every age and situation within our reach. Incidentally, you’ve taught me this morning that this church’s “reach” extends at least as far as Africa. So we have a lot to do together before we’re done!

So, partners, teach the children well. Teach them to be disciples with attitude—“the attitude that was in Christ Jesus”. Teach them—and one another—“to reach out when our instinct is to pull inward, to give when we want to take, to love when we are inclined to hate, to include when we are tempted to exclude.”

If It Isn’t Personal, It Isn’t Mission

 

“On Christmas Eve I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral….It had dawned on me before, but it really sank in: the Christmas story. The idea that…Love…would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty…I was sitting there, and…tears came down my face, and I saw the …utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…love needs to find form…Love has to become an action…There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”—Bono

“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”—John 1:14 (The Message)

Most churches raise large amounts of money for mission projects in their own community and all over God’s world. Money is an essential ingredient of those projects. The folks who’ve raised the money feel a genuine sense of accomplishment, both from their shared work and also from the difference their gifts make in someone else’s life.

Sending a check is a good start. But too many people and churches fail to move beyond that ‘good start”. Fundraisers evolve into annual events. Over the years “missions” becomes synonymous with “charity”. Those annual fundraisers fail to create a connection between the givers and the recipients of their generosity. They (we) gladly support a good cause at arm’s length, without getting dirty or disrupting our comfortable lives.

It does take money to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to provide clean water, to treat and ultimately eliminate diseases like AIDS and malaria, to build schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions, to provide disaster relief and rebuilding, etc. Money is necessary, but never sufficient, for accomplishing the mission of God. Mission isn’t our “charity”, our “good works”. Authentic mission is our participation in God’s mission of healing and reconciling all people and all creation in Christ. David Bosch says that “Mission…is the alerting of people to the universal reign of God through Christ.” That’s where Jesus began: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV)

Michael Frost  goes a step further. He says this “alerting” involves both announcement and demonstration. We tell the Good News—and we show it by acts of sacrificial love and service. These days most folks need to see some credible “showing” before they’re receptive to our “telling”. Our walk and talk are most believable when they’re seamlessly integrated.

That’s hard to do from a safe, check-writing distance. If I were leading a church today, I would challenge my people not to settle for sending mission donations. “Let’s make that ‘check in the mail’ the exception rather than the rule,” I’d say. “Let’s deliver those checks personally when we bring a team of volunteers to serve at the local food bank, homeless shelter, urban ministry center, disaster relief site, etc. Let’s not settle for collecting school supplies and backpacks at the beginning of the school year. Let’s also pray regularly for that neighborhood school’s students, their families, and for the teachers and staff. Let’s volunteer to serve in whatever ways we can be most helpful–in a classroom, an after-school event or carnival, a maintenance project. “

In other words, let’s give ourselves along with our monetary and material donations. Not everyone can go. But some of us can—many more than we might think at first. If we’re participating in God’s mission, let’s follow God’s method: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” Let’s build authentic relationships with the folks we seek to serve. Let’s live alongside them long enough to know how life feels in their shoes. Let’s work, worship, and pray together.  Let’s be willing to be grateful receivers as well as generous givers. After all, those we seek to serve also have gifts to share with us. Reread 1 Corinthians 12 if you wonder about this point.

Missions isn’t “charity”. It’s having some skin in God’s life-changing, world-changing game. The technical theological term for having skin in the game is “Incarnational Mission”. I’m increasingly convinced that’s the only kind of authentic mission. A few years ago a man in our church got excited about a mission project in Northern Mexico. Within a few months he had organized a team to go down and work during Spring Break. That team made a meaningful difference in the life of the church and community where they served. Many went back the next year.  All of them came back different people.

That’s why I urge folks to get involved serving somewhere. It changes us as much or more than those we serve—because we have some skin in the game. Folks who’ve experienced Incarnational Mission know mission isn’t merely sending checks to “worthy causes”. Mission is personal—as personal as God wrapping Love in human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. If it isn’t personal, it might be a good deed. It might be charity. But it’s not mission. Authentic mission happens wherever followers of Jesus act out Bono’s Christmas Eve insight: “…love needs to find form…Love has to become an action…There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”  


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