Tribal Love.

Sermon

We came up in tribes. We naturally divide into tribes. Some scholars suppose that the human brain can only recognize about 150 people as fully developed relationships. Beyond 150, we need to resort to “hierarchical schemes and stereotypes” to make sense of the world around us.

150 people is alot of people!                                    … and hardly any. Look at your facebook…

Our natural state in the “hunter/gatherer” society was to divide up into tribes. Our tribes were social in nature. Inclusive. In your tribe, you wouldn’t meet many new people. You would stay in the same basic place for weeks, months, years – maybe your whole life.

In New Guinea, anthropologists have studied similar cultures that still operate this way. In fact, if two men meet out in the jungle, they will sit down and go through their entire family history looking for a connection, looking for some common thread – if they can find one, they don’t have to fight! There might be a lesson there. I wonder what it would be like if we spent, oh I don’t know, 5 minutes seeking to understand one another, seeking for what we have in common – before we unload on other another!

Tribes help us make sense of the world. If we just hang out with people like us, we’ll be comfortable, we’ll be more at ease with our world. But then, it’s a global world so we often have to interact with the “other.” The one who isn’t in our tribe, they are not in our little world. What is different, what feels different, what looks different, is a threat to the integrity of our tribe. It’s a threat to our worldview. It’s  a threat to the way we understand the world.

What does your tribe look like? Who gets to be “in” and who gets pushed “out?” What are the significant features of your tribe? What does the language sound like? What are the symbols? The rituals? The artifacts and ceremonies?

What does your god look like? Tribal gods. Everyone has them. Its that attribute of God that makes the most sense to the tribe. Its that part of God that  gives meaning and a sense of “rightness” to the tribe. Thats a tribal god.

Tribal gods are a reflection of the culture. They are reflections of the values, principles, and prejudices of the culture. They reflect us. For better and for worse.

Of course, as a Christian believer, I hold to the theology that there is only One God. This God transcends other gods. This God is understood through the sacred writings known as the Bible, through the testimony of professed followers, and through the very Nature around us. Clearly, my God isn’t tribal.

Except when I start to define God as such.

When I make God in my image, when I speak for God, when I get to say what God hates and what God loves, I am starting to define what my tribal god looks like. Herein is the rub, how do I follow my calling to preach and avoid painting God in my image?

I grew up in West Michigan. A place “settled” and certainly shaped by the influence of the Dutch. Grand Rapids oozes the Dutch influence. The religion is strongly reformed. I like to joke that everyone in Grand Rapids is at least a little Calvinist. The Methodists lean that way, the Baptists lean that way, even the Catholics are not without the influence of the god of the Reformation!

Here’s the thing – it’s not that somehow my tribal god is not the Almighty I grew up worshipping – it’s that we Christians tend to shape our tribal god by emphasizing the parts that we like, the parts we relate most to. If we relate to the god of the Old Testament, we tend to shape our God in that fashion. Our New Testament God seen through Christ is still vengeful, still angry, still desiring of our fear – our worship reflects this, our stories reflect this, our preaching reflects this.

The God that some worship is still a violent God. A god of wrath and thunder. A warlike, masculine god that sends armies of angels to fight our battles. The remnant that remains struggles to survive the onslaught of the Wicked One and we fight in great spiritual battles. Everything become shaped by this idea and soon simple conversations about what to decorate the county courthouse lawn become moments of epic battle! A conversation about who gets to “marry” (whatever that means) gets painted in terms of the great apocalyptic battles in Revelation. Cause that’s not tribal at all…

Saints, are we even making an attempt to understand the Other? Are we even trying to see life from another tribes point of view? What exactly are we fighting for? How are we being known? Is this what our god looks like?

John writes to brand new, baby movement. It has grown out of the singular teachings and traditions established by Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. The story of the earliest Church is the story of a transformation of a tribal God into something bigger, something grander, something different than the world had know to this point. When John writes his gospel, he calls to memory what is important for this group to know. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke write their stories into the collective memory of Christ, John aims squarely at the problems that are coming to the front of this burgeoning faith. He, having the benefit of hindsight, is able to emphasize the parts of the story he believes this new religion needs to remember.

A main theme throughout his Gospel? Love. “For God so loved the word (cosmos) that he gave…” This is not the traditional Jewish view. This is not the Roman view or the Hellenistic view. This is something different. John himself is a sufferer at the hands of the growing persecution. He does not have a good reason to be inclusive. He is in a real battle – not some perceived threat to culture – a very real struggle that violates his very person.

And he writes of love.

Thinking through everything that the new Church needs to remember about Jesus, thinking through everything that this Body needs, through what Paul has been writing, through what the missions movement has accomplished, thinking through Peter, James, Judas, Thomas, Philip, Junia – what his brother and sister Apostles have endured – he recalls to mind Jesus’ imperative to them:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Read the entire chapter if you can. I envision John leaning up against a rough door frame somewhere on the Island of Patmos, an eager scribe sits next to him writing down what the revered Apostle can remember of his time with Jesus. John is the oldest, the last remaining Apostle who walked and talked with Jesus. Already, Jesus was becoming the stuff of legend and tales. Already, there were battles about who Jesus was and what Jesus taught and what it meant to follow the prophet from Nazareth. But here, leaning against door, sipping water from a clay cup sits one who actually knew what was important to Jesus. He begins the chapter as the narrator:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I love this. What does the old man remember? Jesus loved him and all the rest “till the end.” John associates what Jesus does with the love that God showed to the world by sending his Son. John, who started the Gospel by declaring Jesus as the “logos” the “very expression of God” in human form, remembers the Jesus loved them right to the Cross.

The next two stories that precede our text are expressions of that Love. Jesus, coming from God and going to God, knowing the everything has been given to him, takes the place of a servant, takes off his outer robe, puts the towel on his shoulder and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus loved them unto the end. He showed by service.

Then, he prophesies that Judas would betray him. As a master storyteller, John puts us there, we feel the tension in the room – “what you are going to do, do quickly.” The disciples are shocked, angry, and afraid as Judas leaves. Then our text picks up:

“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.   If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What is to be the new artifact? What is to be the symbol of this new religion? Right doctrine? Right actions? Earnestly contending for the faith? Getting it all correct? Having the right answers? Protecting the judeo/christian culture? Is that what the disciples will be remembered for?

It is certainly not what John remembers Jesus wanting.

Love.

Later, John would ask Peter, not “is your doctrine correct Peter?” Not, “do you love my church Peter?” Not, “do you love the liturgy Peter?” Not, “have you the right apologetic to defend me to atheists Peter?”

He asks, “do you love me?”

Saints, it is so easy to give in to the god of violence and power. It is so easy to emphasize the parts of God that are most like us. It is so easy to declare that God is on my side and everyone who is against me and my perception of reality is clearly against God – but that is so small. It’s so limited.  God is SO much bigger than the stunted little world a barely understand.

Jesus calls us to something far more difficult than learning and defending dogma. Something far more difficult and challenging than picketing or voting or screaming in an online forum battle – Christ calls us to love.

When our tribe comes out and interacts with all the other tribes in the world, let us be known, not by what we are against, what we hate, what we declare that God hates, but by who we love; how we love; the overwhelming concreteness of our love.

Its simple. Its profound. Its so challenging because it demands so much of us.

They will know that we are Christians by our love.

Justice. Retribution. Legal status of the “Boston bomber.”

Peace

As a Christian, I speak. As a pastor, I speak. As a chaplain, I speak. As a father, I speak.

Retribution is not justice.

This morning on NPR I heard the story that the legal status of the young man allegedly involved with the Boston Marathon Bombings is in question.

Really?

There were soundbites of elected officials calling for this young man to be labeled an “Enemy Combatant.” There was no talk of justice. Only fear. Anger. Apparently, to these men, we need to label this man an “enemy combatant” so that we can do what we need to do in order to get the information we need.

Really?

Let me translate that as I heard it: We need to put this man outside of the lauded American Legal System and it’s constitutional rights so that we can torture this young man (a man by no means proven that he planted anything). For what? Retribution? Punishment? Justice?

How does this make us safer?

How does this reflect the “American Values” we love to talk about?

How would torturing this young man demonstrate that we, as a people, are anything other than the hateful people we worry about?

If this young man is a part of a greater terrorist plot, making him scream in pain and anguish gets us no closer to bringing anyone else to justice and the price we pay is losing part of our collective Soul.

Patience. Justice.

Let us be known as a people who seek for understanding, truth, justice, and righteousness rather than angry, willfully ignorant, and myopically focused on “making someone pay” as if that will somehow lessen the pain.

Truth, Justice, and the American Way of Life.

Is this it?

Meditation on “Suffering Well”

Sermon, Theology

Text: Acts 9:1-20

I’ve been into a song recently: “I Vow to Thee my Country,”  a British patriotic song, created in 1921, when a poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice was set to music by Gustav Holst. I’ve loved the tune long before I ever knew it is also a song because the music of Holst has so long entranced me.  The words are very obviously an English patriotic song:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

“Her pride is suffering.” This line jumps out at me. Just like this phrase jumped out at me in our Text, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 1:16) God will show Saul how much he will need to suffer after taking the name “Paul.” In other words, “don’t worry about making Saul suffer Ananias, I’ve got that well in hand.” God, in order to accomplish God’s work on Earth through this newly minted Apostle – will show Saul suffering.

Is God’s pride suffering?

Suffering does in fact become a point of pride for us. Why do we do that? We even give it badges and tabs – airborne badges are not significant because someone jumps out of a plane (anyone who goes to a vacation spot can skydive with minimal instruction) it becomes something because of the school that goes with it. The suffering.

This is true across cultures. Suffering is worn as a badge of pride. If, somehow, a group can attach some kind of ribbon, award, t-shirt etc to suffering – hey, if we take your picture and put it on the wall, would you eat some kind of “ghost-pepper-habanera laced-pure gasoline-donut?” We do this because there is a measure of pride in our suffering. It’s that pride one gets when they are like, “I had all my children in a barn on top of hay with no anesthesia.” Look at me – I suffered through. See the badges on my arm? See the ribbons on my chest? I was there!

Suffering is a way to distinguish the truly motivated from the “posers.”

Suffering has been, for ages, a way to prove your worth. Show you are serious. Demonstrate that you are for real. Something to aspire to. Something to revel in.

Those who have “been there” often minimize the sufferings of others since they “weren’t there.” Sometimes suffering becomes politicized and abused – images of suffering become the stuff of commercials.

Suffering is cheapened. The video of the Soldier coming home to see their loved ones becomes something used to sell cars and insurance. A cheap shot – appealing to the emotions.

There is physical suffering. Mental Suffering. Spiritual suffering.

But the best suffering, the suffering deified in books, plays, and movies is that which suffers for another. We tend to see suffering as a way to get past politics and religion. Suffering somehow validates the message and the messenger.

It was suffering that brought down the british empire in India. Suffering that ended eras of discrimination in this country. Collective suffering has ended bitter wars. Of course, it is also suffering that extends them when people talk about the idea of “we can’t end it – think of the blood and treasure already spent…”

There are really only two kinds of suffering:

1. The Suffering that is a part of the human condition – the suffering that we all have because it’s just a part of life. The suffering that is necessary because to have happiness, you must have sadness. To have pleasure, you must have pain. To have the beautiful flowers of spring, we must have clouds and rain. One does not exist without the other.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism recognizes the reality of human suffering. The first truth is that there IS suffering, the second is the origin of suffering, the third is the cessation of suffering and finally the path to cessation of suffering.

Life is full of suffering. To suffer is to live. We can fight it, we can avoid it, we can shape our lives so as to discourage it as much as possible, we can muddle through it but in the end, everyone will suffer.

I spent Friday at Kansas University listening to a professor talk about depression – how it is actually, like obesity, a disease of civilization. It is a disease of affluence and abundance. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors (we know this by studying those who still live in those types of societies) knew nothing of depression. Depression comes because of our comfort. Even when we shape our lives to absolute comfort, that pursuit alone can be suffering.

2. The second type of suffering we experience is the suffering that comes as a natural consequence to the choices we make. Those choices can be good and we can suffer as a result or bad and suffering can still be there.

All this is in anticipation of a phrase from our Text this morning that jumped out at me. In Acts chapter 9, Luke recounts the salvation of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul has been about the business of persecuting those Jews who are challenging the established norms of power. Those people who are challenging the powers that control Jewish life through religion. Their leader was dead, they have been driven out of Jerusalem and now, Saul gets permission to pursue holy war against them in Damascus.

Of course, the more power is applied to the problem, the greater the problem becomes. Saul, on the road to Damascus has a classic trance experience. He sees a bright light, hears a message from God that changes his entire paradigm about the world around him, and finally interprets the experience as a calling to do something about it.

Of course, no one would believe him, why should they? He went all Gestapo on them! He CAUSED great suffering.

Ananias is afraid and should be. There is nothing about this situation that is a good thing. The man God is telling him to visit has been killing his people. Killing. In that situation maybe I would be tempted to rebuke this evil spirit that is calling me to interact with evil. Clearly can’t be a message from God!

Ananias goes. He accepts the calling by faith. In so doing, he plays a pivotal role in the Christian story. With Paul, the whole thing changes. With Paul, the whole thing shifts. What if Ananias had said, “no?”

Here’s the phrase, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” God will show Paul that suffering is a part of this calling. The Message puts it this way, “And now, I’m about to show him what he’s in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job.”

The suffering that goes with this job.

Why does Luke want us to see this? To know this? Because so much suffering has already happened. Think about it, there is really only one way for Paul to show that he’s not up to evil purposes and the testimony of Ananias is only going to go so far! All this hearing messages from God isn’t going to convince people who are full of fear! Paul will suffer as a natural consequence of his choices and that suffering will validate that his has truly been called of God.

You see, over the centuries, one of the things that has consistently validated the testimony of Christ-followers has not been dogma – it has been “suffering well.”

It is a hard saying no doubt but that does not make it any less true – when we suffer and maintain our testimony, our beliefs are validated.

Suffering is talked about, recorded, and struggled to be interpreted throughout the Scripture and it is beyond the scope of this morning to address it fully but we will look at one passage – I Peter 3. In this text, Peter writes to a church that is starting to experience what suffering really is all about. He assures this new Church that when they suffer for God, it is good. It is right. It is a blessing – so long as it is done with a clear conscience. So long as they are in the right and suffering it is a privilege.

Maybe you could even say, “Her pride is suffering.”

Of course, if you are suffering, as Paul notes, because of murdering, theft, or “meddling in others business” then you’re on your own! Good luck with that because there isn’t much to be gained there!

Here’s the thing: We love to claim that our suffering is of Christ, for Christ when sometimes we’re just suffering the natural consequences of our poor choices or the ramifications of our actions. If we are jerks and people don’t like us, it doesn’t validate the message of Christ, it just makes us look like jerks. When the Body of Christ acts like little children and throws a temper tantrum every time we don’t get our way and people start treating us accordingly, it does not have much to do with bearing the Cross.

Cancer is not a test from God. Diabetes is not a test from God. Failing one’s APFT is not a test from God. It is suffering, but not from God. How you respond to these types of suffering is, however, a profound testimony of faith.

Saints, suffer well. Know that Christ has suffered from you and before you. Many have walked the paths you now tread. Some have walked them and validated the message of their faith, others (like me) have walked those paths and come up a bit short. That’s ok. Everyday is a new opportunity to be the Body. To demonstrate the Love. To enjoy the blessing of walking through this life with Christ.

We all suffer. Anyone looking at these words are either recovering from, about to start, or are deep in the throes of suffering. Part of being in the Body is that we do not have to suffer alone. We are in Christ and with each other. Let us support one another and encourage each other as we muddle through this life, suffering well.

Wherein I shake my head….

Chaplaincy

So, this happened.

Seems a pastor that prayed alongside leaders of other religions (to include scary Muslims and Jews) was reprimanded by his church and apologized. I’m guessing because he committed that awful sin of attempting to participate in the communal grief of his hometown.

That’s his journey. My frustration would lie more with the bishop or regional minister rather than the local pastor. He’s trying to keep his job.

Several years ago, I was endorsed by a fundamentalist organization. Fine people. Didn’t actually have much to do with me. I guess as long as I paid my dues, they were happy to take them (to the tune of 160 bucks a month. Yes, I paid this group $160 a month for the privilege of ministering in the military. There’s something wrong with that, but hey, that’s another post when I’m feeling particularly froggy…).

They didn’t call. They sent a card once in a while. They didn’t keep up with me. I sent in reports and heard nothing back.

Till I dared use this phrase in my blog at the time: “I’m becoming more open and ecumenical.” Within weeks, this group, who had not interacted with me for years in a real way, sent two men (there would only be men in leadership of this group) to meet with me to test my orthodoxy. We sat at in a Golden Coral and they asked me questions relating to the substitutionary atonement. I gave them the answers they needed to assuage their conscience. After all, if I answered wrongly, they could pull my endorsement and I’d be a civilian again. When your jobs on the line…

They left telling me that no chaplain in their organization should ever “share the stage” with a Mormon and Catholics should be understood to be kind but hell-bound.

I started searching for a new endorser that day.

At a time when Christianity itself is losing relevancy; when in a 200 member demographic, 60+ will be “No Religious Preference,” we’re still going back and forth over whose the “real Christians” among us.

So, I shake my head…

We are rich and we are poor – living with it.

Sermon

poor” – it’s a word with baggage in our culture. Every four years about this time, it’s a political word – most other times it’s either equated with guilt or anger. Seems like we either feel guilty for not doing more or angry for perceived abused of the system.

Today’s Text was all about the poor. It is a sermon that I approached with some trepidation. My goal was to preach the Scripture without it being a. political, b. some guilt inducing rant, or c. a progressive diatribe. My wife tells me I got there. I went with the Proverbs and James passage.

The central question I dealt with is the one that I think we struggle with – who is poor?

Often, the comparison is made with the poor in third world countries and the poor in America but this is comparing apples and oranges. The two are not the same. The question in my mind is: does this person have resources? See I want to get away from “rich/poor” and focus on resource. Those who are fat in resources (be that money, time, spiritual, emotional etc) verses those who are lacking. A person may not have much money but be rich in time. A person may have a pile o’ money but be destitute in spirit.

Proverbs 22 equates a good name (solid reputation) as transcending riches. The ideas of wealth and poverty are human designations. We put that on each other. Verse 2 does not pass judgement on the rich/poor but does emphasize that God made them both – not that God designated one to be wealthy or one to be poor but that both humans come from God and thus are the same. In the eyes of God – there is no poor/rich category. Verses 7-9 speak of the reality of the rich and poor – once one loans money to another, the relationship is going to be master/servant. Sallie Mae taught me that! Losing that master was a great day in my life! Those verses highlight that there are blessings that are on those who are generous and curses upon those that deal unjustly with the poor. Justice is a value in God’s economy as is a good reputation. Verse 16 highlights how God views oppressing the poor to enrich others – its bad and leads only to poverty in the community! I love this idea that the author points to – when the poor are stolen from to put more in the pockets of those who are rich – everyone loses! The whole community suffers. This thought is continued in 22-23 – the meaning here is understood in terms of power and voice, the poor do not have power to resist, they have no voice, they are “crushed at the gate” (in the ancient city-state the gate is where legal issues were settled, if you had money or resources, then you had voice and could win your issue, the poor have no money, they have no power or voice) – be careful, because God is the legal representation of the poor. That was remarkable to me in this text – using the legal system to take from those who have not to give to those who have is particularly bad for everyone and will bring calamity!!

Clearly, in this text the writer makes the argument that the poor and the rich share the same community. He does not make a moral judgment as to who is better/less than the other but it seems that one has a responsibility to care for the other. To provide some sense of security. Certainly, there is blessing for those who share and calamity for those who oppress.

I covered even more in the James passage but what it comes down to is this – lets not use our politics and emotions around poverty as an excuse to do nothing. We ALL have something to give. Yes, we do need to discover for ourselves what we belive is a lack of resources and what we are willing to give to – but we NEED to give. We all share the same space. We all share the same community. Breathe the same air and all that. We are responsible for one another. Who is poor? Who is destitute? I imagine that needs to be answered by each of us individually but let it not be an excuse for inaction. Let it not be an excuse for superiority. Don’t let a person’s station be just another way to judge and separate them from you. We are called to actually serve. Actually DO something. The poor and rich will always be with us. But those separations don’t have to BE us. We can be different. Let love and service to others be the defining characteristic of a Christian.

Humility and Humanity

Sermon

My point is that, even as religion has moved to the center of American political life, humility has moved to the periphery.

This thought, written by Stephen Prothero in response to Eastwood’s speech at the RNC highlights something that I am addressing in my sermon tomorrow. The text this week is from Mark 7 where Jesus hammers the Pharisees for missing the boat in relationship to God. They were so focused on their identity as expressed through obedience to the Law (their interpretation and extrapolation of it) that they missed the dynamism of actual relationship. Rigidity in the doing stymied relationship in the being.

Its not all bad for them. I note in the sermon that history teaches us that these rigid followers of the Law were faithful and committed people; their writings not legalistic (for their time) but rather demonstrate vitality, a gracious vision of God, a yearning for justice, and a desire for people to live faithfully. They really believed that they were the closest to what God wanted from humans. Of course, they got a little lost in that.

Its not like we’re all that different – in our drive to rid ourselves of abortion, we miss the fact that we’re to be loving, kind and willing to sacrifice to take care of unwanted humans. In our drive to “uphold freedom” and rid ourselves from any vestige of that dirty word “socialism” (early Christians very much were socialists) we  abandon the chronically poor and those that are most vulnerable in our society. Sure, we get our “pure”  religion right but miss the point of the whole thing.

I think the Pharisees were sincere. I think they were faithful to the revelation they had – they just missed the further revelation of Jesus Christ – are we missing the same thing?