Saturday, October 28, 2017

“Moses and Joshua” - October 29, 2017

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

European Christians had been disputing differences in theology and practice for centuries when Martin Luther, five hundred years ago this Tuesday, nailed a list of 95 points that he was willing and eager to debate onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  For a whole list of reasons that included political situations and economics and the development of new technologies like the printing press, this time the differences blew up quickly and violently and the smoke is just now really clearing. 

The Protestant Reformation forced the Roman Catholics to make changes that they had been trying to avoid, and there was a movement called the Counter-Reformation that swept aside a lot of medieval superstitions and abuses, but did it too late and (as some would see it) not thoroughly enough.  The Western branch of the Church split off into the Catholics, who recognize the authority of the pope, and Protestants, who do not.  The Protestants split into various groups based on what they believe about the sacraments and how the Church should best be organized, with further complicating issues that usually have to do with nationality.

            We have a window, over to your right, that is a monument to those days.  At the top you can see Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door.  Below is a Scottish reformer named John Knox, over whose shoulder is the thistle that is the national flower of Scotland.  Knox almost single-handedly oversaw the development of Scotland into a Protestant (and specifically Presbyterian and Calvinist) nation.  Here he is shown telling off the French ambassador in 1572, when Charles IX of France ordered the massacre of over 70,000 Protestants all across France in the space of two days.  On the bottom of the window is Roger Williams, exiled from Massachusetts because of being a Baptist, establishing Rhode Island as a colony that allowed freedom of conscience fifty years ahead of William Penn.  (Surprising, isn’t it? – the Baptists were the ones who established the separation of church and state in this country.)

            The story of the Reformation is usually told in terms of kings and popes, debates and wars, but wild changes were lived out on the local level and it was very direct and personal..  There were times that the ancestors of the United Church of Christ, the Zwinglians, went through towns smashing windows like these because they were idolatrous, graven images.  There were thousands and thousands of monks and nuns who had no place to go when their convents and monasteries closed.  Who knew how to handle priests who were marrying?  Music was being forced into the services and the Virgin Mary was being forced out.  In southwestern England, at one point, there were riots where people grabbed the clergy and forced them to say mass in Latin the old way, not because they wanted the pope back, but because they had had enough of the changes and just wanted it all to stop.

            It was rough.  Change happens, and we don’t always like it.  Years later we may look back, though, and say we understand why it had to take place.  Or maybe it will take longer than that.  When did the Roman Catholics finally admit that people should understand what is being said in public prayer?  December 10, 1962 – but it took ten years more to approve the translations.

            When I was in tenth grade we had to memorize a long passage from “The Passing of Arthur” by Alfred Tennyson, where a dying King Arthur tells his old friend Sir Bedivere,

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Times of great change come with a sense of both loss and hopefulness.  They are tiring to live through.

            Moses had led the people out of Israel and through great and terrible times in the desert.  By the time of his death, the rest of his generation had died, all who had ever lived in slavery and known the Pharaoh’s oppression.  The entire people who survived and who would cross the Jordan into the Promised Land by that point had known no leader other than him. At the end of his life it was said,

“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” [Deuteronomy 34:10-12]

In the early part of his leadership, however, Moses was not the revered figure we know.  This was the man who was confronted by an enslaved Hebrew back in Egypt,

“Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” [Exodus 2:14]

Moses led people like that man to freedom and then heard them shout at him,

“…you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” [Exodus 16:3]

He had been the right man for the right time, but eventually it was time to let go, or maybe I should say, to let his people go, because they were headed on into a place which was not to be his place.  At the last, he was reminded that the story of God’s people did not begin with him and neither would it end with him.

“The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.” [Deuteronomy 34:4-5]

            Things don’t begin or end with us, either.  We are responsible to our forebears, and we are responsible to those who come after us.  We receive the gospel and we hand it on.  We must do both, and be grateful when we get a glimpse of the future that God has in store – and God knows what we do not: what lies over there, in the distance across the Jordan, in the country that we have not seen nor known and where we may never set foot.

            So, let me tell you a little bit about how that grand vision may unfold on the local level in our own day.  We are not going to be smashing windows or changing our worship practices. Still, we’re dealing with a situation, in larger terms, similar to what happened with Luther.  Technology changed in his day from handwritten manuscripts to printed books.  In ours, we’ve already seen it switch from paper to screens. 

            So, see those speakers on the wall behind me?  They were not here when the building was put up, they were added when the last organ was installed.  Now that we will be changing the organ for one that works, those speakers are going to disappear.  There will be new organ speakers, hidden on this side of the rafters so that they are less conspicuous.  We’re also working with a different company to improve the audio sound system and we will add a speaker above the existing black speaker you see on the beam to improve the sound from our microphones.  And good news, the new speaker and the existing black speaker will be painted to blend into the wood they are mounted on. 

            What you will notice, instead of the speakers on the front wall, will be a screen on the right, beside the front window.  That will be installed after Christmas and before the new organ, which we estimate will be ready for Easter.  (Remember, please that that is an estimate.)  The control board for the screen will be at the back of the sanctuary and you may see it as you come in, but not when you are seated.

            We will not, I repeat, not be using the projection system to run announcements or try to replace the hymnals. We will be looking for ways this new screen can enhance our worship.  You might see a great painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea or of the Last Supper.  Occasionally, there will be a sermon illustration.  There could be pictures of someone’s life shown during a funeral or a memorial service.  And we could project a translation while the choir sings an anthem in Latin or Swahili.  We are seeking to change in a way that makes use of new possibilities.  

            When I think about this stuff, I honestly get nervous.  It is not my native turf.  But I turn for insight to people who have a better handle on it than I do.  I don’t mean the techies, but historians like Phyllis Trible who, in turn, cites

“Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop known for his wit as well as his wisdom, [who] famously observes from time to time that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first-century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. …That is, as Bishop Dyer observes, about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”[1]

She continues,

“…every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.  Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis.  As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.”[2]

That last part is something that, God willing, I would love to live to see happen again.  Yet if it does not happen in my time, I have no doubt that it will happen in God’s time.

[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

“Back to Basics” - October 8, 2017

Exodus 20:1-17

            Every so often you meet the ranting and raving, angry kind of atheist who gets in your face and is determined to ridicule anything that has the remotest connection to religious belief.  This is the guy who blames every act of terrorism not only on a specific religion but even on religion in general.  This is the crusader who goes after institutions because someone within one of them has done something that the group itself would decry as wrong.  This is somebody who doesn’t see the difference between the UMW holding a bake sale to raise money to house a mother and child fleeing abuse from Creflo Dollar demanding support because he needs a new plane. 

            I’m not going into any of that today.

          More often, though, you do meet someone with honest questions and realistic observations who finds herself or himself wondering whether there is any kind of solid basis for making hard decisions, when people that they admire and trust often come down on different sides of the same question.  They aren’t trying to rip anything down.  They’re trying to make sure that they do a good job building something up, so they inspect the foundations.

            Good for them!

            One of those people is Bart Campolo, who is the son of Tony Campolo, who preached here one Sunday last year.  They have a book out called Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son, where they go back and forth on such matters in a respectful and loving way that (I believe) we can all learn from.  In this book, Bart Campolo writes,

“I am always mystified when Christians ask me how I can trust any moral code not grounded on the fixed and absolute moral authority of God.  That’s exactly the point I’ve been trying to make:  Nobody decides to trust a moral code because it is objectively justifiable or divinely inspired.  In fact, nobody decides to trust a moral code at all.  We don’t choose our understandings of right and wrong and where they come from.  We absorb these things as children, and only rationalize them for ourselves and one another long after the fact.”[1]
Apart from changing the word “rationalize” to the word “understand”, if he asked me about this, I would agree with him. 

            But before I would say that everything is relative, I would refer back to a text as basic as the Ten Commandments and point out how they begin.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” [Exodus 20:2]
The Ten Commandments do not stand alone as Ten Useful Life Hacks or Ten Ways to Improve the World.  The Ten Commandments come to us as part of the history of God’s intervention in human life prior to the giving of this or any other portion of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  They are part and parcel of our experience of God’s care, not just to us as individuals who are told, “Do this and don’t do that,” but to a people who hear them as, “Because I care for you, here is how we can all live together.” 

Bart Campolo has a sense of this when he says that

“moral development is just one part of that much larger process sociologists like my father call socialization, whereby we human beings learn to understand and interpret ourselves and our lives not only from our families and our neighbors but also from the cultural norms and values that surround and define us.  Religion is an important part of any given culture, of course, but so is every other human construction, like language, trade, agriculture, marriage, medicine, technology, colonialism, and warfare.”[2]
Where what I would call a biblical approach to that departs from his is in the way that he puts all influences on an equal footing, when religion does indeed make a claim – not that the other influences are not there and not to be considered – but that the claims of a God who frees his people from all other claims and allows them to see them clearly, those claims are stronger and to be honored above all others.

            In the full story of the Exodus, it was the needs of Egyptian agriculture that meant storage had to be built for grain, and so the Pharaoh was justified in forcing the Hebrews into slavery as construction workers.  It was the fears of the Egyptians that a greater number of Hebrews would somehow taint their culture that led them to go along with genocide as a means of population control.  When the Ten Commandments decree,

“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work,” [Exodus 20:8-10]
they speak to people whose labor and whose bodies had been terribly abused by slavery and all that goes along with it in all its forms.  When they say,

“You shall not murder,” [Exodus 20:13]

they are spoken to people whose children had been ordered to be destroyed at birth”.
            Just because someone doesn’t consciously recognize or formally honor the gods of the Egyptians, or of the Canaanites whose lands the Hebrews would later claim for themselves, or of the Persians and Greeks and Romans who would later conquer that land and its inhabitants in turn, doesn’t mean that they don’t need to hear the commandment that taught the Hebrews to beware any god that demands tribute before offering blessing:

“You shall have no other gods beside me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” [Exodus 20:3-5]
Obedience to God may often mean disobedience to earthly authorities, and I don’t just mean governments.  Even direction as simple as

                        “You shall not covet” [Exodus 20:17]

if taken seriously would put the advertising industry out of business.

Bart Campolo, like a lot of other people, people very much like you and me, mistakes loyalty for blind obedience when he says,

“For me to blindly follow a divine commandment seems like a way to shirk the hard work of deliberation and evade responsibility for the intentions and consequences of my actions.”[3]
It’s hardly that.  Following often requires exactly that type of deliberation.  Just ask anyone who wrestles with issues about capital punishment or when and if their conscience allows them to go to war. 

            Taking the Commandments within the whole scope of the story of God’s dealings with his people points to God’s initiative that frees his people from all kinds of slavery and, as Christians, we include in that the freedom from sin and its aftermath that God brought about when Jesus died and rose from death.  What some see, divorced from the story of God’s grace (to use the theological term), is just a bunch of rules to be followed or else.  What we see is the best ways to respond to a loving God by reflecting his grace to others.  The last chapter of the Campolos’ book, the only one that they wrote together as father and son, Christian and humanist, contains things that they agree on and notes that

“we human beings have always needed and used stories to make sense of the world and find our place in it.  If you want to touch somebody’s heart and mind in a way that actually changes their life, you have to tell stories.”[4]
It may seem that there aren’t too many stories about the Ten Commandments but here is one of them.

“As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  [Mark 10:17-22]
What God did that man really follow, and why?  And how about the rest of us?

[1] Bart Campolo, “Godless Goodness” in Why I Left, Why I Stayed (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 108.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 109.
[4] Ibid., 153-154.