Justice

This is another churchy blogpost. I haven’t been on here in a while, and a LOT of stuff has gone down since the last time I posted. The biggest things are the sudden, unexpected, heart-wrenching and world-changing loss of my wife to metastatic breast cancer on September 26 and then the Category 4/5 Hurricane Ian that slammed into our town two days later. Most of everything I’ve been doing since that time has been related to the aftermath of one or both of those things. But I’m trying to find a way forward through this mess.

One of the paths that I’m taking through the mess is work. Our church building is still in disarray, so it’s not really convenient to be in the office most of the time. Plus, I have a lot of extra running around to do on account of being a single dad. So I’m really just not in the office much. But I’m still working, just in different ways. Including returning to our weekly Bible/Book Study and, now, launching a twice-monthly cross-generational faith formation “event” following the Faith5 model.

In both the book study and the Faith5 event, the issue of justice came up, albeit in slightly different contexts. We’re studying Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life, which is all about discovering the non-violent, non-retributive God whom Jesus called Abba. In chapters 5 and 6, we’re talking about … well, we’re talking about a LOT of things, but the issue of justice came up in our discussion as an aspect of “shalom.” Normally we translate that word as “peace,” but that translation fails to capture the holistic character of God’s peace, which is about wholeness and restoration, not just of an individual, but of entire communities and the whole creation.

So, in that discussion, we turned to Matthew 5 and the sermon on the mount, where Jesus radicalizes his own scriptural tradition when he tells his listeners, “You have heard it said by men of old, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, don’t resist an evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the left.” You know the passage. Walter Wink famously pointed out that, in order for someone to strike me on the right cheek, unless they are using their (forbidden) left hand, the only way to strike that cheek is to do so with a backhand, colloquially named “a bitch slap.” I’m not shying from that term because the rawness of it captures the degradation and humiliation that phrase implies. As Wink points out, it’s violence done by a supposed superior against a supposed inferior. When Jesus says, “offer him the other, as well,” it’s a way to suggest that the slap-ee demands to be met as an equal, not as an inferior. It shames the aggressor and brings the possibility of justice, equality, wholeness.

In the Faith5 context, we were discussing our preaching text from the Narrative Lectionary, which included the famous line from Micah 6: “You know, O Mortal, what the LORD requires of you: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

When I preached on that text, I pointed out the thing that all the prophets made clear: authentic worship, whether here in Jerusalem or there on Mount Gerazim, or in our building, or in the park, or wherever… it all amounts to nothing and is an offense to God if it isn’t accompanied by DOING – not just talking about, but actually DOING justice.

As an aside, but a relevant one, I also talked about how doing justice is a natural outcome of walking with God, because to know God through relationship is precisely what teaches us God’s will and directs our doing of justice. That “love kindness” bit again fails to capture the fullness of the word “chesed,” which is the kind of “steadfast love” (how we normally translated that) of God, which is self-emptying, co-suffering, and radically forgiving. (Shout-out to Brad Jersak and Vladika Lazar Pohalo for those phrases!)

The same person who had asked me in the book study to define what I meant by “justice” asked me again to define it in this Micah context. I began to give an answer, and someone else had something to say, so I stopped myself. I’m now glad I did, because the whole point was this: justice flows naturally, organically, from that co-suffering, radically forgiving, self-emptying love of God, which one can ONLY know by a humble walk with the divine. One of the ways Jesus phrased this in John’s Gospel was by using the vine and branches metaphor. You can’t really separate the branches from the vine. When they are connected – or mutually abiding, if you will – the line between the one and the other is blurred. And there you have it. Walk with Jesus, who EXUDES chesed, who EMBODIES shalom, who calls on us to IMITATE him as he imitates the Father.

We don’t need to DEFINE justice when we are ABIDING in justice. Don’t ask ME to say what justice is or isn’t. Look to Jesus. Because my suspicion is, “you know what is required of you.” Jesus already told you.

Church Growth (?)

Friends, In 2012 I was ordained as a pastor in the ELCA. In those four years, we centered on what’s truly central: God’s Good News to the world in Jesus Christ. Did we have discussions on church growth? Sure. But the focus was on “equipping the saints” (whether in New Start Congregations – aka Mission Developments, or in standing congregations – aka Mission Redevelopments) to foster life-giving relationships among one another, but also to serve God by serving the neighbor. That’s pretty much the mission of God, and there’s lots of scriptural backup for that. Read the New Testament for specific examples.

So that’s my training. I’ve done Mission Development Training, Mission Redevelopment Training, followed “Grasshopper Myth” authors, authors who assure us that “Dirt Matters.” I’ve read the Great Permission. I’ve read about emotional systems theory and conflict transformation. I’ve trained in pastoral care. I’ve trained in biblical languages, exegesis, homiletics, systematic theology, dogmatic theology, philosophy, anthropology, atonement theology, creation theology, stewardship, and a whole doggone bunch of things you probably have never really considered.

But when you get to the parish, the main things people tend to be hoping for are comforting those already gathered into the congregation and then getting more people into the congregation so that we can keep on doing what we’ve grown comfortable with. That’s understandable. It’s human. But is it what GOD wants? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s what we’re looking at. Without going into TOO much detail, following WWII, we saw people grappling with a second “War to End All Wars” within two generations. People were struggling with the depth of human depravity that would allow an entire nation to exterminate a perceived enemy and to do so in the most cool, calculated, inhumane ways possible. People were facing the aftermath of that war and the growth of “godless communism” in Eastern Europe and the Far East. With a mixture of hope and hopelessness, folks turned to the church. And so the years after the War saw a massive rise in church membership – something that hadn’t really ever existed on such a scale before. And they were taking their children, the so-called Baby Boomers, with them to church.

There were a LOT of Baby Boomers. They tended to grow up in one of two ways: they became extremely suspicious of institutions and raised children to be even MORE suspicious than they were, OR they stayed with the church, developed programs to attract (or bring back) seekers, who knew that suspicion wasn’t the best approach to life, and reminded them of their own childhood religion. Nostalgic comfort. I don’t mean it wasn’t sincere. By no means! But it did have to do with comfort and what was perceived as tradition, even though church membership following WWII was actually a novelty.

Well, ever since the late 1950s, church membership has been in decline. Yes, we have flare ups from time to time, particularly following great tragedies. Presidential assassinations, terrorist attacks, things of that nature. But the general trend in church membership has been on a downward track for decades. That feels threatening.

In the 1980s, we saw the rise of the “religious right.” And we saw many of their hero pastors fall to money and sex scandals. We turned to CEO pastors, who began treating the church like a business with a product to sell. That’s kind of the model we’ve been stuck in for the last 40 years.

We love our congregations. We want them to continue. And in an effort to make sure that happens, we grasp at every trend that comes along. Sunday School indoctrination, VBS, singles programs, widow/widower programs, small group programs, every conceivable program there is. We are literally “anxious” about the downward trend, and we will sell our souls if we have to in order to keep alive this institution we’ve poured so much of ourselves into.

Do our institutions “deserve” to continue? I don’t know. Probably. As a collective body, a congregation has a lot of good it can do in a community, but anxiety gets in our way. The will to survive often stands in the way of the need to thrive. As pastors called into struggling congregations (as if that term weren’t redundant), we feel the anxiety, too. It rubs off on us. And we depend for our own livelihoods on financially sound congregations. Let’s face that reality. And so it’s easy for us to get sucked into conversations and pressures to “grow the church.” Everyone is looking for a magic bullet approach.

The good news is, I’ve got one. If you want to “grow the church” by “attracting young families with children,” all you have to do is look to the non-denominational model. Take out the pews. Put in big screens. Host events on Saturdays, Sundays, and/or Wednesdays that a pastor either pre-records or broadcasts from offsite, and intersperse that pastor’s message with a band that plays electrified guitar praise music. Put in a coffee bar. Maybe add a rock wall and a video arcade in order to attract the kids’ attention. That’s what’s working and that’s the “magic bullet” for growing the church’s numbers. Period.

The less good news, or maybe the question that problematizes the good news: Is that what you want? More importantly, is that what GOD wants? I suspect that anyone reading this blog would say, “Not just no, but HELL no!” And I’m with you. What people WANT is to be catered to. That goes for the ever-elusive young families with children, AND it goes for the saints who already sit in our pews.

Those of us already here have strong ideas about what we want in a pastor, for example: young, married, straight, white men or women, who will sacrifice their families for the sake of the membership. We want pastors who will sacrifice their very selves in order to fit into our preconceived notions of what a pastor ought to be (pedestal dwellers, who don’t cuss, who don’t drink, who don’t sin, moral exemplars for us to follow … and then to demonize when they fail to live up to our unrealistic expectations). They should know when we are sick or sad or hospitalized without our having to inform them of it. They shouldn’t be too pushy or intrude on our private lives. They shouldn’t talk about money, but they need to help us be good financial stewards. They shouldn’t talk about politics, but they should let us rant and rave about our political opinions.

Those of us already here have strong opinions about what our worship should be. Solemn but fun, worshipful but easygoing, traditional but flexibile, at the right time of day that doesn’t interfere with our non-church lives and dinners and football games, filled with inspiring music that isn’t too old-fashioned or too repetitive or too “modern.” There should be options for Communion elements: we should have wafers for those who don’t like the bread and bread for those who don’t like the wafers. There should be a gluten free option for those who have celiac disease, but don’t make all the rest of us who don’t have that condition suffer with a gluten free wafer. There should be grape juice for those of us who struggle with alcohol (which the pastor doesn’t struggle with because he or she doesn’t drink), but wine for those of us who grew up on wine at communion. It should be red wine, sweet but not too sweet, dry but not too dry. We should have the traditional liturgy we grew up with, but not done in a boring, rote, repetitive way.

Visitors should be like us when it comes to worship. They should love our liturgy, our vestments, our liturgical colors, our lectionary cycle, our songs, and while they may have their own preferences, eventually they’ll come to know and love us and will worship exactly as we do (even though not all of us are actually very comfortable with everything in our worship). Oh, but all are welcome!

I could go on, but you get my drift. After this lengthy preamble, I just have this to say: It’s not about us or our wants or our comfort. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Or as Jesus said many centuries before Bonhoeffer, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” “Take up your cross and follow me.”

We are anxious about losing our life – our congregational life, our comfortable faith life. That anxiety stands directly in the way of our finding our life. Our REAL life. Our BIGGER life. The one GOD wants for us. Not the smaller one we have cultivated and curated for ourselves. If we can lay that anxiety aside, put our trust in Christ … who, after all, is the ONLY one who can “grow the church” … then we will be free to focus on what it is that HE wants us to do. We already know WHO/WHAT he wants us to be: his disciples. Loving one another as he has loved us. Serving him by serving our neighbors. If we do THAT, we will surely attract all kinds of people, including the ever-sought-but-ever-so-scarce families with children.

The rest of this is just preferences. Distraction. Light as a puff of empty air.

“Layers” or “Levels” of God Encounters

Hi. I’ve been away from the blog for a little bit, kind of doing some thinking in a lot of different areas. I’ve mentioned here before that this search for Wisdom in my own life is – as one would expect – spilling over into my thoughts and understandings about my life in ministry.

In pursuit of that type of thing, I ran across an old video of a panel discussion that featured, among several other people, Cynthia Bourgeault, who has been leading my spirit in some fairly interesting directions for the last several months. In this video, someone mentioned how she seems to have left the old model of the church behind in favor of a more direct encounter of the Divine through various spiritual practices, including Centering Prayer, The Work (what students of G.I. Gurdjieff call his “Fourth Way” practices of involving all three energetic “centers” of the human being: heart, intellect, & emotion), chanting, etc.

Cynthia offers a gentle correction, and she does so by mentioning having learned about three “levels” of the church: The Exoteric, The Mesoteric, and The Esoteric.

“The Exoteric church, the one with the doors, that people come into off the streets, the one that needs pastors, the church that’s there when you’re ready to put a bullet in your head in the middle of the night — that church serves an extraordinarily important function, and without access to it, people aren’t ready to go further. Its role is to create a basic welcome container, basic pastoral/ethical nurturance, and a sense of devotional reference points.

“From there on, it opens into the Mesoteric, which is about Path; which is about practice, and that’s where you really sort of bring in the Centering Prayer, the chanting, the psalmody, the Orders of Life. And that, then, drives and makes possible the gateway into the Esoteric, which is badly understood in our culture. It’s sort of equated with the ‘secret knowledge,’ these ‘cosmic PIN codes,” where it really just means the deeper: the deeper understanding, the deeper immersion in what was there all along in the Exoteric, but you didn’t get it before.

“So, the Mesoteric is the real bridge. And I think it’s that bridge that people are hungering for. That’s the place we try and give them in Wisdom School, and that’s certainly the bridge I crossed without ever looking back when I became a teacher of Centering Prayer. [Centering Prayer does most of the heavy lifting] because it begins to change the way people think.

“There’s brain science now to show that meditative practice increases our capacity to bear paradox, to live in ambiguity, and to not immediately react from defensive postures. And it’s the part that was missing from the church. Nobody knew how to do this. Nobody made time and they were drowning in their own sort of ‘surface-ness.’

[There was a comment about the dying of the institutional church. ] “It’s not an either/or. Maybe there will be <strong>fewer</strong> churches. I think the <strong>parish church </strong>may be belly-up. The movement towards greater and more powerfully diverse and impassioned centers – kind of cathedrals in the old way of thinking: vortexes of human energy and then a lot of Mesoteric groups spinning out — that would be the model that I see as viable.

“But I certainly would never recommend going back and starting with ‘the Jesus church,’ because there’s no such thing, at least in our own culture.”

My take-away or reflection on this multi-structured way of looking at the church and spirituality is this: 12 years into my “pastoring gig,” as I like to call it, there are aspects of the Exoteric church that trouble me (institutional racism, institutional sexism, traditionalism over tradition, protection of the institution over living the gospel of Jesus, etc.), and much of it leaves me weary and empty. I NEED that Mesoteric church and sort of aspire to Esoteric practices and embracing integration. At the same time, what the Meso- and Esoteric churches teach me is: IT AIN’T ABOUT ME! There is clearly still a role – “an extraordinarily important function” – for the “regular ol'” church in this world, and I remain committed to it. My hope is that my ministry will help some “transcend” – or maybe simply go deeper into – the traditional church, rather than to just accept it at face value. If I can do that while also being there in the middle of the night, as Cynthia says, when someone wants to put a bullet in their brain, or when Grandma dies, or when someone wants to celebrate new life, I am content. It all belongs.

Still Thinking about In-Person Worship

A couple of you saw and commented on my last post about worship, and at least one person (which means I know more are thinking it) said, “Wow. That means you might not see my spouse and me until as late as the end of 2021.”

That’s true. We might not. On the other hand, we might. We’re still trying to come up with creative ways we could gather, which is desired, while still keeping people safe, which is necessary.

One thing I mentioned is that we’ll continue to be an online presence. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and we all understand that. Some people, we though, might enjoy that option but can’t exercise it for one reason or another. If you know someone who would join us online, either live or after the fact, but can’t because of technological problems, please let us know, and maybe we can work out a way to make that happen.

Something I didn’t mention previously, but has been running around in my head, is doing more worship out of doors. This is also a problem in some ways, because as we enter the summer, the heat can be just as problematic for some folks healthwise as the virus is. But it might allow us some limited singing during worship, depending on who is interested in participating. An added bonus of doing outdoor worship is, as I’ve always contended, it’s great when people have a chance to actually see us. Not that we’re doing it for our own self-aggrandizement, but rather so that folks know that we are open and actively working. It’s evangelism by practicing in public.

Another possibility that I haven’t spoken about yet is adding worship services for smaller groups with the chance to clean and sanitize things in between. I kind of like this option, because it opens a door for building greater numbers of the gathered when the crisis is past its peak. Especially if we did something on, say, a Saturday evening or later on a Sunday, or even some other day of the week entirely. Would it be a lot more work for me? Of course. And something would have to give somewhere else. But it’s an option, and I think it’s a good one.

What other ideas do you have? Use those big brains of yours!

Sermon notes: parable of the widow and judge

After the service today, a parishioner told me that her hearing aid had broken and she didn’t catch everything I said. Would I give her a copy of my manuscript, please? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t use a manuscript today, but I said I’d offer up my sermon notes, such as they were. That’s what you have here.

But I also wanted to say a couple of other things: First, this sermon was deeply inspired by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter on the Judge and the Widow in her excellent book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. The whole book takes on the topic of anti-Semitic prejudices spewed from the pulpit (often unwittingly so), the ripping out of context of the various parables in a lectionary setting, and the seeming need to domesticate parables by turning them into analogies or fables or some other form of story with easily identifiable moral examplars. Levine warns preachers against doing that.

Second, with that in mind, I struggled in writing this sermon. With the ideas of justice, vengeance, persistence, prayer and so on so abundant in this parable, I really, really wanted to make this a social justice sermon. It would fit so easily, and this was my first inclination. I know a lot of preachers will have done that this weekend, and I don’t blame them. On the other hand, with Levine fresh in my mind, I really needed to preach a sermon that disturbed and challenged preconceived notions about this parable. In the end, I know there was ambiguity in the message I delivered, but I do think there was also challenge in the sense that our parable doesn’t give us any clear role models to be found in either the judge OR the widow. The only model we have, finally, is Jesus himself, who is THE righteous judge who refuses to judge (Luke 12:14, John 5:21 – 25; 8:15-16 where Jesus illuminates human history by the criterion of the victim who is the judge AS victim, and whose judgment is mercy, ultimately).

So, with those things out of the way, here’s a bit of the notation. Make of it what you will.

We read the entire lectionary passage, Luke 18:1-8, but re-read and focused on just vv 2-5, because this is the parable proper, without any commentary by Luke or Luke’s Jesus. Just the bare bones of the story.

What is a parable?
(Someone said it’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.)

Story.
Stories have 5 basic parts. (People named them: Theme, Setting, Characters (Antagonist and Protagonist), Action or Conflict that drives the final element, Plot. We mentioned that there’s sometimes a title in a regular story, but parables are a bit different: In the original manuscripts, there is no title, which is a good thing, because when we impose a title on a parable, we’re revealing something about what we think the story is about, who the protagonist and antagonist are, etc.

This parable is set in “a certain city” (that is, just some nameless city. Could be anywhere) some time in the past (indicated by the past tense verb “was”).

The characters include a judge, a widow, and the widow’s adversary.

The conflict occurs between the widow and her adversary, an between the widow and judge (and vice versa). When prompted, 3 people picked with widow as the likely protagonist. Nobody picked the judge, which leads me to believe that about 39 people abstained from the vote. 🙂

We identified the plot in the following way: There was a judge whom a widow kept pestering to grant her vengeance against an adversary. At first the judge refused, but eventually he relented, because he wanted the widow to stop giving him work to do.

The theme wasn’t terribly clear apart from Luke’s “help.” It was a matter of interpretation, and how we interpret it reveals something about us and about what we believe about the character of God (given that Jesus was telling the parable).

Protagonist and Antagonist?
People weren’t confident choosing.
I asked what a first century audience might have thought about which was which by asking, “What do we know about widows? What do we know about judges?”

Most people said that widows are marginal characters, oppressed, lacking rights, vulnerable.

But we mentioned several passages from the scriptures that indicated how widows (along with orphans and aliens) are a protected class, preferred somehow by God as vulnerable people.

People noted that judges were a bit of a mixed bag: meant to be righteous, but that was the ideal. Many were appointed injudiciously and were corrupt.

Then we challenged both of the preconceived notions we have about widowns and judges: THIS widow of the parable doesn’t appear helpless or voiceless. If anything, it’s the opposite. We don’t know that she’s financially oppressed. She couuld be well off, but the text doesn’t tell us. It just speaks of her persistence against an adversary, whom, frankly, we don’t know is a “bad guy,” either. Maybe her complaint against this adversary against whom she seeks vengeance (not “justice”) is itself unjust.

We know a little about the judge. He neither fears God (which the scriptures tell us we ought to do) nor does he regard human beings. Not fearing God need not be construed negatively: We can have very good Atheist judges, or Muslim or Buddhist or any other kind of judge, who does his or her duties conscientously and justly.

And it’s possible to construe this judge’s disregard of humans in a positive light – he can’t be swayed to injustice by reputation or wealth or anything else. Isn’t that what we desire in a neutral, objective judge?

But this judge finally IS corrupted by the widow’s persistence. Not by the justness of her cause, but simply because she’s a pain in the neck and he wants to get rid of her.

What we end up with between these 2 characters is no clear moral example to follow. Neither widow nor judge is CLEARLY in the right.

And with this kind of ambiguity, we’re left to wrestle with the parable. We’re left to allow it to disturb and challenge our presuppositions. We’re left seeking some kind of way to let this story by Jesus lead us to an ethic that can’t be found among people, but CAN be found in him — in his life, his teachings, his ministry, where the things that comprised HIS ethic were things like love, forgiveness, reconciliation. It’s also what we find in his death (Father forgive them) and his resurrection (Peace I give you, not as the world gives).

Once Luke puts in his two cents — that this is about persistent prayer, that this story can only be understood as an allegory where we are the widow and God is the judge who will do what we ask him if we just pester him enough (Prosperity Gospel, anyone?) — he really ends up killing the joke, domesticating the parable, solving the puzzle for us so that we don’t get to do the work that Jesus intended us to do.

At the end of the sermon, people DID seem baffled, disturbed, and challenged. Mission accomplished. 🙂