Monday, March 06, 2017

An unlikeable sermon

One week ago, I got some strong affirmations for a sermon I preached on Christians and Protest. In that sermon, I stressed that there are times when Christians need to raise their voice in protest against or for certain subjects. There were very strong affirmations about that sermon. Stronger than I typically receive. It was nice. It also told me that it was a likeable sermon.

Yesterday I preached an unlikeable sermon.

I decided to narrow in on one subject that the Bible consistency tells the people of God they should be attentive of. It is a subject that God protests about. It is a subject that is highlighted in the commandments and statutes of the Covenant. It is a subject that the prophets hold the people of God accountable for. It is something Jesus refers to in his ministry. It is something that the letter writing apostles bring to the attention of Christians.

The subject that God protests and expects Christians to protest about is how the poor are treated.

Due to an electronic malfunction, there is no video of that sermon. I want to share the main points here.

The wrong protests
I have watched churches, congregations, and Christians protest many things in my 20+ years of ministry. They have protested against abortion, gay marriage, and the Walt Disney Company. They have protested when they lost influence in schools over school prayer, against stores that acknowledge diversity with “Happy Holidays”, and the inclusion of diverse religions in the public square. They have protested against these things but there is minimal evidence that God calls us to protest any of them from the Bible.

But there is something the God clearly calls believers to protest throughout Scripture, yet many congregation or Christians do little to raise their voice to it. It is something that affects 1/6th of the world’s population. It is something that is responsible for the death of 22,000 children every day. It is something that touches this nation and the communities we live in. The thing that God calls us to protest is how the poor are treated.

The godly protest
The theme of protest for Christians should come around to this at some point. I am not saying the Christans, congregations, or churches should or should not protest about the previous things listed. I am saying that at some point Christians should raise their voices about the subject of the poor and the excluded.

God explicitly commands followers on how the poor and excluded are to be treated. In Deuteronomy 10, the relationship between the people of God (Israel) is summarized. In the midst of the summary of the covenant, the only commands about how the people were to relate with other people. Out of the 6 commandments that deal with relationship in community, Moses highlights the poor.

Through the Law, Prophets, and Gospels, we find God directly addressing the needs of these specific people: the poor and needy, widows, orphans, and strangers. This theme of how the faithful treat the poor is dealt with all the way through the Bible and never does it deviate from this message: God cares about the poor. And God wants the people who follow God to care about the poor also.

The poor and excluded are always put in front of the biblical people of God. Before the people of God enters the land of promise, Moses brings the covenant of commandments and statutes to the people. Exodus 20-23; Leviticus 19, 25; Deuteronomy 24, 25 are all commands regarding how the poor and excluded are to be treated. After the land has been established, the prophets call the people to accountability for how the poor have been treated since the land has been settled. Isaiah 58:6-12; Jeremiah 22:3-5,13-17; and Amos 5:10-15 are all examples of prophetic declarations about the failure to care for the needs of the poor and excluded. In the Gospel, Jesus puts the needs of the poor upfront with those who follow him in Luke 4:18-19 and Mark 14:7. And the first epistle of John offers this expansion upon the "laying down of our lives" in 1 John 3:17-18. The Bible stresses that whoever wishes to know and do what pleases God will at least stand up for justice and righteousness with regard to the poor and the excluded.

Justice and righteousness are themes that run parallel in the Old Testament with the poor and excluded. Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:16-17; Jeremiah 22: Amos 5 all refer to the justice that is required of God's people. Justice does not just represent punishment for crimes, though. Justice is the treatment that all deserve equally. It is the lifting up of the poor and excluded out of forgottenness and into community. It is providing the generous sufficiency so that the poor and forgotten can live and produce what is needed to live as dignified people. It is caring for those who cannot care for themselves in generous way. The widowed, fatherless, foreigner, disabled, aged, homeless, hungry are all people that the God’s followers are called to be concerned about, as highlighted in Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 5; James 1:27,2:5.

God has an expectation that we will be standing up for the poor and forgotten.

When laws further demean people of certain status - we should protest.
When drug and insurance companies and the government remove needed medical care from the sick and disabled - we should protest
When nursing homes are filled with forgotten people and mental health facilities turn out the mentally ill because they can’t find room - we should protest
When we see foreigners being shunned in communities because they are different in some way - we should protest
When we are afforded certain rights that others are not because we fit into a certain class - we should protest
When we receive the benefit of a better life because we are a certain race or social status and others are turned away because they are not - we should protest

This is what God calls us to by command and prophetic word and applied to our setting. It is what Jesus Christ calls us to in determining our fitness for the kingdom. Matthew 25: 34-46 highlights the end of days and the judgment of the Christ. In that judgment, those who have responded to the needs of the poor and excluded will benefit from the kingdom. Those who have overlooked the needs of the poor and excluded will be rejected from the kingdom. We are called to protest for the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger.

This sermon received no affirmations or accolades. It wasn't liked very much. It wasn't received as warmly. And with reason. It is an uncomfortable sermon. It is a sermon that was designed to hold the congregations accountable for a portion of scripture that is not frequently highlighted. It is a sermon that puts something we are responsible for right in front of us. To ignore the way the poor and excluded are treated is to ignore a significant portion of the Bible. And it demands a response.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

My Lenten Sacrifice

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and so begins the Lenten Season. Lent is the season that leads us into Easter. For more Traditional faith pursuers, Lent is a season of penitence, self-denial, and preparation for the Easter event. Historically, this was the period of intense focus for initiates into the Christian faith. For non-Traditional pursuers, this is a time when we "give something up".

This year, I am in a place I have not been before. I am facing a period of health issues that have not ever been a problem before. Specifically, I am facing my second surgery in 6 months. All signs point to the need that I have back surgery and soon.

I am not afraid of the surgery. That may be because I am too stupid to be afraid. There are complications pre-/mid-/post-surgery that could impact my life. That is not far from my thinking. But of these things, I fear not.

What I am afraid of is the dependence that this surgery will require.

I view myself as a "do-it-myself" type. I don't like asking people to do what I can do myself. If something needs to happen to a certain level of quality, I prefer to do it myself. Rather than asking for a helping hand, I prefer to get it done.

This surgery will require me to let others do for me what I can't do for myself. My mobility will be slowed. I will not be able to do the jobs around the house that are mine to do. I will have to rely on someone else to prepare supper, fix my coffee, and do the little things that I do because normally I can.

Worse still, I will have to step out of active leadership of my churches for a few weeks. I have stepped out of active leadership for one week, or maybe a little more, because of vacations. It is possible that I will lose up to a month of active capacity. And that bothers me.

It isn't that my folks aren't capable. Turpin has a great team of leaders and a strong core of passionate and capable people who have always shown themselves willing and able to step up and do what needs to be done. Baker is a tight knit community church that already works together to keep the church operating in the face of difficulties. It isn't that I am afraid the churches will fail because I am not there.

I don't like the feeling of not doing what I do, what I'm called to do. I have always understood the calling that God placed upon my life as leading the church into maturity and personal growth. I want to equip people to continue to develop a deeper and more meaningful life with God. I see my gifts and tempers being suited to being a mentor to assist people in discovering how good and strong and powerful they can be in relationship with God.

My sacrifice this Lenten season is letting my people fill in where I will not be able to.

It doesn't sound like much. But it will challenge me. It will push me to do what I can in the absence of being there for them as leader, pastor, and mentor. It will push me to pray more deeply about their growth. It will push me to pray more deeply for my own humility (because I am weak and think they need me to be there).

I know this sounds horribly fatalistic. It will only be one month. It will only be a few weeks. But it will be a few weeks of knowing that I am not doing what I am called and appointed to do. It will be like letting my child leave and make his way in the world. Which is also happening, but that is a whole different set of emotions.

This isn't a test; it is a season. This isn't about God putting me in a "wilderness" or giving me a "thorn in my flesh". This is about the natural ebbs and flows of guiding people in a church. I have to learn to rest in their ability, strengths, and gifts. I have to believe in them and in the God who is within them. I have to put faith in the vision we share for the churches and the communities.

So, in this Lenten season, may God show me the grace that I need to step back, allow God's people to be the ministers I know that they can be. They will be able to do this. I just pray that I can.