Saturday, February 22, 2014

"Church Architecture" - February 23, 2014

I Corinthians 3:10-23

            In the 1600’s, Jesuit missionaries in China were allowing converts to take part in Confucian ceremonies honoring their ancestors, when Franciscan missionaries who had just come onto the scene were appalled and declared that they were tolerating idolatry.  They objected to the language that was being used to describe God in Mandarin, and to some of the decorations that appeared in the chapels and to the way that the Jesuits were dressing and to the way they let their beards grow so that they looked like traditional Chinese scholars.  The Franciscans charged them with twisting Christianity into something that looked less like a great cathedral and more like the set of Seussical the Musical.  Eventually the whole business was appealed to the pope, who condemned the practices, which set off the Chinese emperor, who asked what business some barbarian thousands of miles away had telling his subjects what they were or were not allowed to do.  The emperor then tossed, or tried to toss, the missionaries out.  A few stayed and went underground, but most had to go.[1]

Those people had traveled halfway around the world by ship and by foot to share the gospel.  They had struggled to learn languages totally alien to Western ears and then to master the classics of its literature.  They had put their hearts into getting to know a land totally foreign to them in order to share with its people the matters closest to their own hearts.  Expelled from that country, how could they not have wondered every day for the rest of their lives what had happened to the believers that they had had to leave behind.

“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” [I Corinthians 3:12-13]
As it turned out, that particular group of missionaries had made sure, during the time that they had been there, that they were not themselves the message. 

“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”  [I Corinthians 3:11]
They had seen to it that the foundation they built on was Christ, and they had concentrated on speaking of him, and showing that faith in him is open to all people.  (That was sort of how they had gotten into the tangle with the people who thought the faith always had to look European.)  As a result, although they did not know how things would go, when they left the country, the work of which they were a part continued.  Although they had concentrated their own efforts on working with influential men, when they left, it was carried on, largely by women, and often women of low standing, at that. 

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. [I Corinthians 3:10]
Many years later, other Christians, mostly Protestants this time, would return, and find that Christianity had preceded them.

            A hallmark of Christianity in China has been the legacy of the so-called “Chinese Rites Controversy”: the house-church gathered around people who simply share the gospel, person-to-person.  Many of us remember attempts that the Chinese government made under Mao-tse-tung to wipe out religion of any kind.  Nowadays, the focus is on trying to establish official control of the Church by limiting private gatherings for worship and study.  A report published last year by the China Aid Association tells how,

“For example, landlords were pressured to terminate lease agreements with church members, church members who had purchased real estate were unable to take possession of them, church leaders were placed under house arrest and church members were evicted—all of which was done to make it impossible for the house church to operate normally so that it would eventually disband. According to the data collected by Shouwang Church, ‘by September 2012, because they persisted in attending outdoor worships services, members of Shouwang Church were detained 1,600 times by either Domestic Security Protection agents in various districts [of Beijing] or in more 90 different police stations across Beijing (for periods of several hours to 48 hours). Sixty people were evicted from their homes and more than 10 people lost their jobs because they attended Shouwang Church’s outdoor worship services or simply because they were Shouwang Church members; others were sent back to their hometowns and some believers were confined to their homes on the weekends.’”[2]

            I really wish that we in the West were as conscientious about building on Jesus in ways that enable people to withstand the challenges that our own people face.  Ours are completely different from theirs.  Ours are not the challenges of standing up to the status quo.  Ours are the challenges and temptations of having been the Establishment for so long.  (We are not that anymore, by the way.)  Like any established group, we are often identified by our formal leaders and when they fail us (whether publicly or privately) – and any human being will fail – the faith itself seems to take a hit.  Remember how Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker mishandled money?  Remember how Oral Roberts began to show signs of dementia on the air?  Remember how Richard Nixon tried to use Billy Graham to give him the appearance of respectability at the depths of the Watergate scandal?  What about all the clergy who have abused minors, and those who have covered it up?  Don’t forget Paul’s warning to the Corinthians:
“So let no one boast about human leaders.” [I Corinthians 3:21]
Don’t build on the professionals.  Build on faith in Christ, and him alone.  Don’t build on human traditions, whether that means styles of worship or music or meeting places.  Don’t build on specific ways of organization.  All of these are means to an end, which is to share Christ. Build on faith in him and him alone.  Build with trust that his Spirit is within all his people, everywhere.
“For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” [I Corinthians 3:21-23]

[1] A good summary of the Jesuit mission to China and the ensuing “Chinese Rites Controversy” is found in Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2009), 706 ff.

[2] China Aid Association, “2012 Annual Report: Chinese Government Persecution of  Christians and Churches in Mainland China” (Midland, Texas: China Aid, USA, 2013), 4.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Team or League?" - February 16, 2014

I Corinthians 3:1-9
The windows on the side walls of this sanctuary were carefully planned and have some unusual elements.  On the pulpit side, they all refer to the teaching and miracles of Christ.  On the lectern side, they tell about the spread of the Church, from the moment that Jesus sent his disciples out into the world up until just before the time that this building was constructed.  You might want to take some time to read the pages from the booklet whose pages are copied and laminated and spread out on the windowsills.  Today, though, I want to call attention to the one at the back, nearest the bell tower.  I doubt there are more than two or three windows anywhere that depict these events. The guidebook reads:
The ship of the Church is seen again at the bottom of this window. The word OIKOUMENE denotes the ecumenical church.  At the top of this window is the World Council of Faith and Order, which took place at Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927.  A variety of crosses in the background refers to the Christians of many denominations who gathered there.  In the center is the unifying conference which joined three branches of Methodism in 1939.  At the bottom is the organization of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1948.”
This building went up in 1964, at a time when there was great confidence in the ecumenical movement.  After roughly five centuries of infighting and arguments among Protestants and Catholics and about a thousand years of a sniping between Catholics and Orthodox, we finally were realizing that we were never going to agree on everything and that it was about time that we focused instead on what we could achieve if we worked together. 
In some ways, what it meant was that we were learning to do on a worldwide basis what we had – at least in some places – learned to do locally.  Within local churches there has always been and will always be tension among people with different visions, and often they will gather around different leaders who express them.  The book of Acts focuses on Paul’s experiences so closely that we forget that there were others involved in planting and leading the earliest churches. Some of them do get mentioned, though, as when
“…there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus… And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.” [Acts 18:24-25, 27-28]
When there was conflict among the Corinthians, some of them identified themselves as adherents of either Paul or Apollos, which often happens in such cases.  If the leaders are strongly invested in the conflict, they may accept that.  It can really get in the way.
            Paul was wise enough, and I suspect (since he and Apollos continued to work together in Ephesus as well) that Apollos was wise enough not to get drawn into the fight.  He was also wise enough to point out what we so often lose track of: that the Church is not ours.  We are part of it, but it is the Body of Christ, not the Body of Paul nor the Body of Calvin nor the Body of Wesley.
When the World Council of Churches was organized, as celebrated in the top and bottom panels of our window, it was on the basis of what we have in common.
According to the WCC constitution,‘agreement with the basis upon which the Council is founded’ is a precondition for membership. Adopted by the inaugural assembly (Amsterdam, 1948), the original basis read simply, ‘The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.’”[1]
That’s a wise way to go about our ministry as Christians, regardless of our denominational loyalties.
Our differences have often arisen for good and genuine reasons that have historically been mixed up with not so good reasons.  Sincere theological differences influenced the split between the Lutherans and the Catholics, but they were also mixed up with the fact that in the 1500s the Germans and Italians didn’t care for one another very much.  The split between the English church and Rome had to do with a genuine belief that people should worship in their own language and be able to read the Bible for themselves, but it also had to do with Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir and the nobility’s desire to transfer control of land from the church to themselves.  The split between the Church of England and the Methodists had to do with the American Revolution, more than anything doctrinal.  I could go on and on.
If, though, we look at what God has done with our brokenness instead of wallowing in it, we would see how even that endless Apollos/Paul pattern has been turned to good.  So many different families within the larger Christian people has led to the growth and even flourishing of different gifts among us.  Lutherans are really good at focusing on core doctrines and keeping us all aware of the centrality of God’s grace.  Presbyterians are very good at emphasizing the importance of the ministry of the whole body, and developing lay leadership.  The Episcopalians remind us of the important role of the sacraments and the role of the community at worship.  Methodists put a high value on sharing the word of God through preaching and song.  Baptists have historically been the ones to take the lead in maintaining the Church’s independence from political interference or the claims of Caesar.  Quakers and Pentecostals each in their way remind us all to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit when we are touched by its quiet prompting or by its fire.  The Orthodox insist that we honor our deep roots in the witness of two thousand years of people made holy by that same Spirit.
We do a disservice to one another when we run down our own particularity, or denigrate anyone else’s, because we each have something to contribute.
“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God’s servants, working together.” [I Corinthians 3:7-9]
And, he might have added, there is plenty of work to do.

[1] Noted in the “Theological and Historical Background of the WCC Basis“ of the World Council of Church’s web site at .

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Know-It-Alls" - February 9, 2014

I Corinthians 2:1-12

            Last month the earth lost, and heaven gained, a man of great gifts and insights, a tremendous pastor, eloquent preacher, and faithful disciple of Jesus: Robert Watts Thornburg, who was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University for many years.  When news of his death reached the people who had been touched by his life, some of us wrote back and forth a little bit.  One reflection came from a classmate of mine, both in college and seminary.  She wrote this:“I was just thinking about Bob and how he was doing not too long ago.  I still tell a story about him every time someone asks me about my call to the ministry.  I remember sitting in his office one day confessing to him that I had some fear and trembling about going before the SPRC [Staff/Parish Relations Committee] of my home church to be approved as a candidate for ministry.  This is the same committee that had ousted the beloved long-time pastor for not being evangelical enough.  I knew they would ask me for a dramatic conversion story, and I didn’t know what to tell them.  My call to the ministry came from my studies at B[oston] U[niversity].  So Bob got out his Bible, read Matthew 22:37 and told me, ‘Becky, few enough people love God with their minds.  Never be ashamed of that gift.’  I have carried around those words all these years.  They sustained me until I had my own story to tell, and still sustain me today.  Bob had lots of gifts and lots of flaws.  But I believe that God spoke to me through his words that day.  Here I am pastoring in the very heart of Silicon Valley.”[1]

           God does ask to be loved with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.  We are not to leave our brains in the parking lot when we come to church.  When Paul speaks about not emphasizing human wisdom, he is not denying its importance, but warning about its limitations, “that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” [I Corinthians 2:5]

            Human beings have tried, as long as we have been around, to understand God.  There are some things about creation itself that point out some of God’s attributes.  Paul makes a lot of that in his letter to the Romans, where he says that anyone who tries should be able to figure out at least a few things.
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” [Romans 1:19-20]
It’s the same outlook that’s expressed in the familiar hymn:

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed,
Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to thee,
‘How great thou art!  How great thou art!’
Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to thee,
‘How great thou art!  How great thou art!’”

In traditional philosophy, it’s held that anyone should be able to identify these three main points: God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent – everywhere, all-knowing, and all-powerful.

            That’s all well and good, to a point.  Think it over, though, and you’ll realize that those three categories can be problematic.  If God is everywhere, does that imply a physical presence; or does it mean God and the world are alike in some way?  And if God knows everything, what does that do to human freedom?  If God knows our choices even before we make them, do we really make those choices or are they inevitable? So, then, how far are we responsible for the consequences?  (Two down, one to go.)  As far as being all-powerful, the great theologian George Carlin used to do a routine about how when he was in elementary school and the priest came to teach the weekly religion class, he would ask questions like, “Hey, Father!  If God is all-powerful, can he make a rock so big that he himself cannot lift it?”

            Human reason is a precious gift from God but it is human.  It has its limitations.  I like to think of it in terms of football.  When I see the Broncos or the Seahawks roll onto the field, there are some things I can easily know about them.  I can tell that they are football players.  I can see which team they play for, and read their names and numbers on the backs of their jerseys.  I can see that they are powerful and fast.  If I am down on the field or if a camera is aimed at them I can see by their eyes that their minds are focused.  I can put all of this together and safely say that I don’t want to face off against any of them at the line of scrimmage – I don’t care how much padding I may be wearing.  All of that I know with my head, as would any reasonable human being.  To push the analogy further, if I have some experience of the game, I will know what kind of play I could probably expect when they go into action based on the way they’re lined up; if it’s third and twenty and they send in their kicker, I will look for a field goal attempt. 

Notice, though, that I said, “Probably”.  There is always some element of doubt, some possibility that at the last second the quarterback will call a different play.  It may be unlikely.  It may make no sense at all.  But it could happen.

            God is free to do anything.  The Bible teaches that when Moses met God at the burning bush, he tried to pin God down at least a little bit by getting a name, and was rebuffed.
“Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’” [Exodus 3:13-14]
Just to add another layer to that, the Hebrew can also be translated “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”, so we don’t even know for sure what the ambiguous answer really was.  When Job tried to figure out the reason for his suffering, and for all the pain of the world while he was at it, God showed up and spoke to him from a whirlwind, and said,
“‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’”  [Job 38:2-3]
Then for the next four chapters Job is reminded of everything he does not know and cannot explain, until he pretty much gives up.
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” [Job 42:3-5]
That is where real wisdom began for him, and what it is for us.

            God does not just want us to know about him.  God wants us to know him.  The goal of it all is to be in relationship, a living and growing relationship between ourselves and our Creator. 
“As it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.  [I Corinthians 2:9-10]
That is the kind of deep communion that God came to us in Jesus to establish and to secure, so that when we face all the questions that life puts in front of us, and when we honestly say that they baffle us sometimes, it’s good to realize that “faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” [I Corinthians 2:5]  We are called to love God, as we are loved, entirely: with heart and soul and mind and strength, so that when we even find ourselves questioning God’s ways, then even our faith (which is the trust in your heart, not the doctrines in your head) speaks out and says there’s more to it all than we will ever know and for now it is enough to know that God is love.

[1] Quoted by permission.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

"Scandal and Folly" - February 2, 2014

I Corinthians 1:18-31

            Last week I was a little stiff and sore after shoveling for the forty-ninth time in two days (okay, that’s a slight exaggeration) and decided that I was not up to cooking supper but after being out in the cold I wanted a hot meal, so I did the logical thing.  I dragged myself to a Chinese restaurant.  It was one of those small, family operations where there’s a little girl in the corner doing her homework while her Paw-Paw (which I’m told is, in one dialect, the word for “grandmother”) takes the stems off stringbeans.
            So there I was, sipping my tea and gorging myself on noodles, feeling all the muscles in my shoulders begin to relax and thinking basically of nothing, the peace was broken by a group of somewhere around ten people who came in, stamping their feet and talking very loudly to one another.  It was a small room and there were only a handful of other people there, so it was impossible not to hear everything they were talking about.
            I don’t know which church they were from, but there was no question that this was some kind of church staff who were hosting guests.  The conversation was filled with all kinds of church-talk and the Bible references were flying left and right.  It seemed like nobody could say anything without giving chapter and verse.  It also felt – and let me say that I didn’t know them and may be totally wrong on this, in which case I ask forgiveness – like they were all trying to impress one another.  It was all about who had been on what mission trip or how many people they had seen come to Christ or how they had just developed a new app for evangelism.
It scares me to think that when I and my clergy friends get together we may sound like that, or some version of it.How many people were at Bible study last week?  How much did the UMW raise for the Heifer Project last year?  How’s the capital campaign going?  (I am proud of those things, by the way.)  At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about what I may sound like.  All I could think was what would happen when their fortune cookies came.  I just knew that one of them would start talking about how fortune cookies should offer a verse of scripture instead of some random comment.  Then I pictured the loudest among them opening his fortune cookie and reading aloud for all to hear,
“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” [I Corinthians 4:31]
            Paul’s letter was written to a community that had lined up in factions that were trying to go one up on each other all the time, competing for the title of the most spiritually advanced.  Paul knew how to play that game, and he could hold his own against any of them.  At one point, he reminded them of all that he had gone through in his days to spread the good news:
“Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” [II Corinthians 11:25-27]
Then he went on to point out that if they wanted to compete about being closer to the Lord, he could outdo them, speaking in the third person to add a little touch of humility.
“It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.  But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.” [II Corinthians 12:1-7] 
The whole point of this was to point out exactly how foolish it is.
            Look, if you will, at Jesus.  No one could ever have had a closer walk with God than his Son.  No one could ever have known the inner workings and the power of the Holy Spirit than him.  Did he brag?  For that matter, did he even give a thought to what might look like success to the world?  Certainly not, if you want to measure success by the usual standards.  One of his followers sold him to his enemies for some cash.  Then he was hastily hauled up before a court that may or may not have had proper jurisdiction, handed over to Roman soldiers who decided to have some fun by torturing him before nailing him up and leaving him to die by the side of the road.  The message that Paul shared wasn’t about himself, it was about this man whose moment of truest success came when he was a lifeless corpse.
“We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [I Corinthians 1:23-24]
By any standard other than God’s, that sounds totally upside-down.  By any standard other than God’s, it is.
            If we have anything to boast about, though, it’s the ability not to be judged by anyone other than God.  I don’t have to compete against you in my spiritual life, or in my finances, or in my education, or in my athletic ability, or in anything.  You do not have to compete against me in any way.  None of us have to measure our lives against anybody else’s.  The only person whose evaluation matters is God’s, and when I look and see that he would give his own life to gather me to him, that he would go to the cross itself, then I know that there is love enough to guarantee mercy for my shortcomings and my sins.  If I boast of anything, it’s that. 
            We are all on the same level before God.  There’s a story about Mother Teresa that tells how when Prince Charles was on a visit to Calcutta in 1980, he went to meet her.  She said she wanted to introduce him to someone, then what she did was to take a newborn baby who had been abandoned but had been found and brought to the sisters, and she put the baby into his arms and then the three of them went into the chapel for about ten minutes and prayed together.  Maybe that is a good image to keep in mind.  The Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, presumptive leader of the British Commonwealth; a Nobel-prize winning Albanian nun who lived in voluntary poverty; and a tiny, Indian baby who could not do much of anything at all: each of them sharing in the presence of God, who loves each alike and without reserve.