29 September 2008

The Art of Reading Scripture

Isaiah 55: 8-13 & Acts 8: 26-40

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 28th September 2008

It’s odd text for a Gentile to be reading. We learn earlier in chapter eight that Philip arrived, “preach[ing] good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” The good news was proclaimed, people were baptized, welcomed into the community of faith, and their lives were never again the same. In the book of Acts the main character in the unfolding story of the gospel is the Holy Spirit who moves the flow of the narrative. In this chapter, Philip receives his orders from the Head Office; the Holy Spirit directs him to head south down the Gaza road, not knowing why. So he goes and in time comes across a man in a chariot reading out loud. He’s an official in the court of the Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, and he’s a eunuch. The Ethiopian eunuch is returning home after time in Jerusalem, probably on official state business. He was seated in his chariot (because someone else was driving) and reading aloud, as was the custom. What was he reading? A portion of Isaiah 53: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation?” What an odd text for a Gentile to be reading.

It’s doubly odd knowing that the Hebrew Scriptures did not welcome eunuchs into the community. Judaism was ambivalent toward them. Eunuchs were never welcomed into the inner temple in Jerusalem. In fact, eunuchs were grouped along with foreigners and other social outcasts who could not worship in the inner precincts of the temple.[1] Why was he reading Isaiah? We know that many cultures beyond Israel had immense respect for Yahweh, the God of Israel. There were religious seekers who wanted to follow Yahweh and read Hebrew Scriptures, but never became fully Jewish.

Seeing this as an opportunity to share the gospel, because this text points to the coming of a suffering Messiah, Philip says, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” To which the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Philip unpacks this text, showing how it foreshadows Jesus. Philip is such an effective communicator that the eunuch wants to be baptized into the kingdom. Philip is then snatched away by the Spirit and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing – full of joy! All because someone opened the scriptures for him.

"Do you understand what you’re reading?” Philip asks us. When it comes to scripture, all of us are eunuchs lacking insight, cut off from the Holy. “How can I unless someone guides me?” This simple exchange captures the perennial problem we have interpreting scripture. We go to religious texts to deepen our understanding of God, ourselves, our neighbors and the world. We believe these texts are inspired and should have authority. The Bible is a priceless treasure. We give copies to our children when they’re very young. But do we really understand it? Who opens the scripture for us?

We value the Bible, but we’re also a little intimidated by it. For many, it’s is just too overwhelming to comprehend and too difficult to read. My guess is that many Christians feel a little guilty they don’t read it as often as they want to, or feel embarrassed that their knowledge of it is not where it should be for one who’s been in the church for decades. Many feel wholly inadequate and have given it up to the experts, the professionals, the scholars to interpret. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The answer is, “No, that’s why we’re paying you and Dorothy the big bucks to tell us – you’re the experts, you’re the scholars, you can read Hebrew and Greek, you know what it ‘means’.” “How can we understand, unless someone guides us?”

There’s something inherently wrong with this approach. Scripture is for everyone. We tend to equate understanding with knowledge and therefore assume that people that know more than others about this text (clergy, scholars) are the ones best equipped to understand it. Therefore we turn to the “experts.” This makes the Bible into a secret text whose meaning is known only to an elite few who guard the meaning of the text. This also produces an even greater sense of inferiority in the pews and the wider public who believe that an intelligent reading of scripture is just beyond them. So they give up and wander aimlessly through life looking for God everywhere else, in every other text except in the text that claims to speak the Word of God. Scripture belong to the church, to the people, given for the edification and empowerment of God’s people to live faithful and committed lives, given so that we can encounter God.

Instead, we’re slowly losing our ability to read the Bible and to have it read us. We’re losing our ability to interpret it and to allow it to interpret us, that is tell us who we are and what we’re called to do and be. As this happens, the world of scripture becomes an alien, foreign world, distant and removed, not unlike the One who speaks through its pages. And we wonder why God is missing in our lives.

The Bible has lost its grounding in the church and the culture. Conservatives tend to read the text literally and then use it as a weapon; liberals, well, often don’t bother reading the text at all. I’m exaggerating here, but only slightly. We have Bibles everywhere, there’s such a surplus of Bibles that there are actually Bible Factory Outlets scattered across the country – discounted scripture, scripture cheap.

But who has the authority to interpret it and tell us what it means? The theological and cultural divides facing the church and the culture today (especially during this presidential campaign) really comes down to how scripture is interpreted. That there are so many interpretations out there is a signal that something has shifted and is shifting within us and it is worthy noting. What we have, basically, is a problem of interpretation.

I want to point to three signs of this change, this crisis of meaning. First, we need to go back to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century – actually further back to 1440. That’s when Johannes Gutenberg (c.1398-1468) created the printing press with movable type out of an old winepress. This meant that books could be made faster and cheaper. The printing press was critical to the success of the Reformation because it allowed sermons and tracts to be printed and share throughout Europe. It also allowed the Bible to be printed, in one’s own language, to read for oneself, with the church, but also alone. Not surprisingly, literacy rates spiked throughout Europe. Prior to this time, the Roman Catholic Church controlled the message, as it were; the Magisterium read and interpreted scripture, that’s because most people couldn’t read. During the Reformation, interpretation shifted away from the Church, to groups of Christians, and eventually to the individual with his or her own Bible. Reading and interpreting could be done through the church, but also alone.

Now this was fine until the Enlightenment of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when people stopped reading the Bible literally, as scholarship (inspired by various sciences that emerged as a result of the Reformation) showed that the Bible is far more complex than we ever imagined. In time, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) stirs things up quite a bit. Slowly, over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Bible moved away from the church into the university where scholars ripped it to shreds.

We gained a lot through the scholarship of the last two centuries. I don’t want to return to that pre-critical time. But we also lost a lot. Protestants placed the Bible into the hands of the individual and yet the individual wasn’t equipped to read it, to interpret it. Many read it uninformed by critical scholarship and turned the text into something else, making the text into a projection of oneself, saying more about the reader than what is read. A cartoon in the New Yorker, captures this; it shows a man making an inquiry at the information desk in a large bookstore. The clerk, tapping on his keyboard and peering intently into the computer screen, replies, “The Bible? …That would be under self-help.”[2]

Combine this self-centered reading with a second problem, the problem of language. We talk too much and we’re bombarded with words today. “We live in an age of glibness. It is hard to imagine that in all human history words have ever been so plentiful, so lightly considered, and so deceptive as they became in the course of the twentieth-century. A survivor of Auschwitz says that all words have become for her suspect or ridiculous – not just the calculated rhetoric of political camouflage but ordinary expressions that seem to require no thoughts [such as]: ‘I’m dying for a cup of tea.’”[3] Are we really “dying” for a cup of tea? As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “our language is broken.”[4] And we broke it. Mass media, journalists, politicians, academicians, clergy, all speak and write copiously. How much of it is read or heard, digested or understood? Isn’t there a suspicion about words, a distrust of rhetoric, preferring action or experience? This is because we don’t trust the words we use to bring us to the truth or to justice or to beauty. “Our language is broken.”

This leads precisely to the third point, what philosophers and theologians call a hermeneutic of suspicion – hermeneutic is a fancy word meaning interpretation.[5] We’re all drowning in it, this hermeneutic, this interpretative filter that suspects everyone and everything, doubts everyone and everything. The first Obama-McCain debate on Friday evening is a good example of this. CNN had a whole team of fact-checkers to test the truth claims of each candidate, doubting the veracity of their statements. In our skeptical age, we don’t believe anyone is telling the truth, because we’ve seen words used too often obscure or even deny the truth. After Nazi death trains brought the Jews to Auschwitz they entered through gates with these words overhead: Arbeit Macht Frei. “Work is Freedom.” We’ve seen how words can hurt and destroy.

What does all of this have to do with the Bible? Much. For many the Bible is just a collection of texts, of words and like all words approached with considerable suspicion. Can it be trusted? How can we build a life upon words? Spend some time with high school and college students, one of the biggest obstacles to faith is trusting the integrity of the text. It’s difficult speaking around their hermeneutic of suspicion. It’s not their fault; it’s in the air in this skeptical age. Are the authors reliable witnesses? Why were there books excluded from the Bible? What do we do with the parts of the Bible that I disagree with? How do we know what we have today is the original version? Where is the original version?

“Do you understand what you’re reading?” “How can we without a guide?”

Maybe we need to stop thinking of Biblical interpretation as a form of knowledge (scientia). Biblical interpretation is not a science. It’s less about science as it is about art. Reading scripture is really an art – “a creative discipline that requires engagement and imagination.” As an art form, it’s not easy. To become an artist you have to work at it, practice. It requires study and reading. “Jews have always revered the reading of Scripture as the greatest and most difficult of all art forms.”[6] And we can’t do this alone – we to read scripture as a community, in Bible studies, in worship.

Why art? Well, what does art do? It breaks open reality and leads us to something new. When we have been captivated by an artist’s vision of the world we come to have a new vision of the world.

What is the value of art? It leads us to beauty. Like every other form of art, “reading Scripture has the potential for creating something beautiful. Interpretations of Scripture are not just right and wrong… perhaps ultimately a more adequate way of judging our readings is the way we judge works of art – according to the standards of beauty.”[7] We need less knowledge and more imagination, setting skepticism aside and then leaping into the strange and wonderful world of the Bible, putting ourselves into the strange and wonderful world of God we find in the Bible.[8] We need to imaginatively engaged with the characters, the settings, the poetry, the beauty of scripture, to enter into the story of God’s redeeming love, of God’s faithfulness, of God’s forgiveness, of God’s hopeful vision. It’s God’s world, strange and different to us, requiring imagination and creativity and risk to envision and enter, what we find there. When we enter that world, then our worldview changes, along with our hearts and minds. “Imagination is the capacity to envision the existence of something that does not yet exist.”[9] This is the imagination of the artist; it’s what artists do. Seeing God’s imaginative acts in Scripture will expand and transform our imaginations.

To what extent do our readings of scripture draw us toward something beautiful, more gracious, more excellent, more noble? Do they move us toward a richer, fuller, more majestic awareness of God and God’s glory in Christ, in the world, in the church, and in us? Does it fire our imagination? Such a vision of scripture has the potential to claim us and make us into new people; it can renew the church; it will change our lives because the beautiful has the power to lure us into a God’s new world, a new place of depth and insight, into the very presence of God – which will send us on our rejoicing.


Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielygo/137383052/.
[1] See Isaiah 56:8 ff for a reversal of this attitude.
[2] Cartoon by Peter Steiner, New Yorker, 6 July 1990, 33.
[3] Ellen F. Davis, “Teaching the Bible Confessionally in the Church,” in Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays, eds. The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans, 2003), 14-15.
[4] Barbara Brown Taylor argued this in her Beecher Lectures (When God is Silent, 1998), cited in Davis & Hays, 15.
[5] Term first used by the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur 1913-2005), see Freud and Philosophy (1970).
[6] Cited in Davis & Hays, xv, xvi.
[7] Ellen F. Davis, xvi.
[8] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin, “We have found in the Bible a new world, God, God’s sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God! …within the Bible there is a strange, new world, the world of God.” Karl Barth (1886-1968), “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man, Douglas Horton, trans. (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978[1928]),
[9] Davis & Hays, xvi.

21 September 2008

Welcoming Everyone God Sends Our Way

Acts 2: 43-47 & Romans 12: 2, 9-18, 21

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 21st September 2008

They say a painting is worth a thousand words. The same can be said for a photograph. The way a photographer composes a frame can speak volumes without saying a word. This week I came across such an image, a photograph of a square sign posted on an iron fence that blocks off a path running beside an old church. The sign reads: CHURCH PATH - THE PUBLIC USE THIS PATH ENTIRELY AT THEIR OWN RISK. How’s that for welcoming? The church is the United Reformed congregation (basically English Presbyterians), in Baldock, England. Now, to give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps there is indeed a very dangerous path and they’re just protecting themselves against a lawsuit. They have to be stern in their warning. But the tone of the sign still is not welcoming.

The possibility of a dangerous path aside, the photo almost becomes an icon, an image with multiple levels of meaning. The photographer, David Cowie, entitles the image “Beware of the Church,” as if raising the specter that danger lurks beyond the gates down the church path. Does the use of the word “public” imply that there’s a private use of the church path that is somehow safe for church members? The insiders are okay, but outsiders, beware? And if the public, non-member happens to venture there alone, well, you’ve been warned, you’re on your own. From a different angle, we could ask is the “church path,” that is the way of the church, the Christian life public or private? How does one make the move from public to private? The sign doesn’t say. From a different perspective, still, it’s true that the church path, the way of the church, the Christian life is not for everyone and whoever walks it knows there’s always a risk involved. My sense, however, is that the photographer wants us to see the image the church often projects, that so many people perceive the church of Jesus Christ, as a closed-off, uninviting, private place, not welcoming of those who choose to wander down its path – and maybe a little scary. [1]

Last year, a study group here slowly walked through Anthony Robinson’s insightful study, Transforming Congregational Culture. Back in May, members of the group hosted several conversations during adult education hour that sought to share what insights we gained from that experience. My first week back, I phoned Vicki Haupt to ask how it went. I heard there was a huge response to these sessions and many purchased the book. I asked Vicki what were the main themes or issues that flowed from the study. She said four major themes emerged, areas of ministry where there seem to be a lot of energy and focus: Number 4, had to do with leadership. How do we all become better leaders to move this church forward? Number 3, mission – how can we focus our mission efforts, yet be open to new opportunities to serve? Number 2, member care, how can we improve the ways we care for folks and allow folks to feel better connected. The number one issue was hospitality, yes we are a friendly church, but we need to take this deeper and figure out what this means and how we’re going to do this.

Last Sunday, I tried to stress the point that hospitality stands at the center of both Judaism and Christianity. It was integral to nomadic, desert cultures (still is today). But it’s more than just being nice to one’s neighbor. It’s not about social etiquette. We saw that there’s a link between being open, receptive to the stranger, the guest, and the way we open ourselves up to God, being receptive to the presence of the Spirit. There’s a connection between the way we welcome the stranger and entertain the presence of God.

In her recent book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, Diana Butler Bass notes that one of the ten signposts of churches experiencing renewal is its approach toward hospitality. It doesn’t mean that such churches have “welcoming committees” or hospitality programs, “where friendliness seems little more than a phony act to get newcomers to join the church.” We’re not talking about a religious Welcome Wagon, that emerged in the 1960s, which, “for all its friendliness, was essentially a way to promote certain stores and products.” Hospitality is not a code word for “promotion,” with the church as the primary product, where it becomes “an instrument used for another end: to sign people up as pledging members.”

Bass writes, “True Christian hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith – something Christians are called to do for the sake of that thing itself.”[2]

And it’s something Christians do because it flows from what we have experienced in our relationship with God in Christ. In other words, Christians can be hospitable and will be hospitable people as a result of knowing the hospitality of God. And where do we see that? We see it all over scripture, but most profoundly in Jesus Christ and our life in him and through him. I’d like to think of hospitality less as one more “should,” one more thing we “have” to do and more as something that flows from our remembrance that we too have been received as guests in God’s kingdom; that we too were once estranged from God, but are no longer through Christ; that we have been welcomed, through the Spirit, into the very presence of God. It’s a way of life that flows from the depths of our being, from the core of who we are. Only then will hospitality be authentic, as an end in itself, instead of being a means to something else.

Let’s go a little deeper. If God’s welcome toward us is the motivating element in our welcome of others, then we’re free – or at least freer – to take risks in how we welcome the guest, the stranger, even the foreigner in our midst. We are free – or at least freer than most – to welcome someone unlike ourselves into the community of Christ, because in welcoming the stranger we just might be entertaining angels unawares, as scripture says (Hebrews 13:2). Who knows how many times we have missed an opportunity to be blessed by a stranger, missed the chance to be blessed by God, because of our distrust, suspicion, and fear of the stranger or the strange? But I’m convinced the reason the church can take such risks and even foolishly trust another, can welcome someone new into the community without a spirit of suspicion is because grace is operating in our spirits, because we know what it means to be loved and accepted and welcomed into the arms of God. Fear cannot be the controlling mechanism of how treat the stranger or guest.

Go deeper still. It’s grace, love, and acceptance that needs to be at work for true, authentic community to take place. The New Testament has a special word for it: koinonia. Koinonia is a bond, a unity, an affection within the community that is deep and profound and lasting. It’s more profound than being simply nice or appearing to be nice. Because of Christ we are all connected, tethered to one another despite all of our differences. Koinonia is what’s needed for the church to really be the church and not merely a private club or association.

This is a major issue facing the church these days, across denominational lines, where some Christians think they can only associate with other Christians who think, believe, act, and even vote the same way. This is what one person has called “cookie cutter Christian” churches, because they tend to stamp out members who are carbon copies of one another. After awhile, the members of such churches even begin to look like each other! John McFadden, a church consultant, writes: “These churches have a way of justifying their uniformity. They quote scripture to demonstrate that ‘all brethren should be of one mind’ or insist that there can only be one correct doctrine and one proper way for Christians to live. They seem to think it is their mission to force all members to conform to a single identity.”[3] We could almost call this a kind of Christo- fascism that demands everyone to be the same. This is just nonsense – it’s ridiculous – and, actually, it’s antithetical to what the early church was like.

Anthony Robinson offers a different image which the study group found helpful, one closer to the New Testament vision of the church. He prefers to think of the church with “a clear center but open boundaries. Rather than drawing a hard line that says who is in and who is out, the centered church articulates and honors its center in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But the walls have many doors (not unlike Catonsville Presbyterian). The boundaries are porous. Whoever is moving toward the center is welcome, no matter how far from the center they may be coming from. In such a church the goal is not to foster uniformity. It is to receive those whom God sends us. It is to foster in all people their own unique expression of Christ and their own specific God-given gifts for ministry.” [4]

When Christ is the center and the community is continually moving toward that center, we can make room for all the various, wonderfully, diverse people God is drawing into the community. This is also a mature (as opposed to an immature) vision of the Christian faith because it requires plenty of grace, love, mutual forbearance, and tolerance for others who are not where you are on the journey, or tolerance for those who are moving toward the center at a different pace than you might be, tolerance for those moving toward the center from an entirely different perspective or life experience. This approach requires a higher level of emotional, even theological maturity because we have to be able to tolerate ambiguity – which for those who are of a more fundamentalist bent is intolerable, which is why they become intolerant , even intolerable – and not a lot of fun at parties, making life miserable, as well as unsafe and scary for the rest of us.

A pastor-friend of Robinson’s observed, “The more diversity we can welcome into the community of the church, the more of Christ we can reveal – to one another and to the world.”[5] It’s worth stressing this point. The reference to diversity here is more than just a politically-loaded, culturally-charged slogan. We need to remember again and again that the early followers of Jesus were wildly diverse. Just think of the amazing ethnic and linguistic diversity at Pentecost. Yet, the Spirit cuts right across all boundaries, associations and identifications (and doesn’t care about them) in order to draw all people into the community, the church, where Christ is the center. Therefore the community has to make space for all the people the Spirit sends our way. The early Christian communities focused upon Jesus. With this focus, then everything falls into place. With the focus on Jesus, space is provided for everyone. This is why Paul could say for us, “there is neither Roman slave nor free citizen, male or female, Hebrew or Gentile (Galatians 3:28),” and to extend this to our day, there is neither rich nor poor; literate or illiterate; black nor white, Latino, nor Asian; there is their neither liberal nor conservative; evangelical nor progressive; Orioles fan or Yankees fan; Ravens fan or Colts fan; republican or democrat; or any other separating category. The Spirit doesn’t care about these, but cuts right through every prevailing sociological division in order to call all people into a new community founded upon love and grace and acceptance of Christ around a common table.

“We are called to welcome those God has sent,” Robinson writes, “not because we want them to “join the club,” but because in some way God would seek to become present to us through that person.”[6] God becomes present through the visitor, the guest, the stranger.

Over the sabbatical I had plenty of opportunity to meet with friends and meet new friends who were free to share with me all the reasons why they don’t go to church,; why they’ve given up on Christianity, but love Jesus; of their hunger to find not a club, but a authentic community where they will be truly accepted, but they’re reluctant to return, to take the risk to go down the church path because they’ve been hurt too many times before and prefer to just stay home on Sunday mornings – or go to Starbucks. My heart goes out to them and grieves with them. There are days when I don’t blame them.

But I also know what the church can be, that it can be different. So how do we get that message across and out? What “sign” do we have up on the path to our church? How do people in this community “read” us? My hope is that we’re a church that welcomes everyone God sends this way – because it is God who does the sending and our job is to do the receiving, receiving them as if we were welcoming the very presence of God.

[1] The photograph can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidcowie/416519351/
One online commentator looking at the photo noticed that the gate is also chained shut.
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2006), 81.
[3] Quoted in Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 109.
[4] 109.
[5] Robinson, 109.
[6] Robinson, 107-113.

18 September 2008

When God Shows Up

Genesis 18: 1-15 & Romans 12: 2, 9-15
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 14 September 2008

The text isn’t clear if Yahweh was alone or had three men, possibly angels, with him, for it says both. Maybe in the heat of the sun his sight was blurred and it looked like three men appeared. The first eight verses of Genesis18 move along at a fast clip. Abraham offers water to wash their feet and allows them to rest. He offers a little bread to provide rest for their ongoing journey, never presuming that he is the object of their visit. He does everything to make his guests feel welcome, unhurried, relaxed. These are all understated expressions of hospitality, but then Abraham throws the ovens in the kitchen on full heat. Behind the scenes he’s sending everyone off to mix the flour (6.5 pounds worth of flour) and knead the bread and tells Sarah to put a cake in the oven. Abraham quickly runs off to the herd to get a calf – tender and good – and gives it to the servant to prepare it. Then they fetch something to drink. All this flurry of activity is going on, in the background, while Abraham provides an enormous feast for his guests and makes it look easy. It is a feast for Yahweh and friends.

We’re drawn in this text to see Abraham’s generosity and welcome. This is because in Abraham’s world hospitality was the primary act of a civilized people. Abraham and Sarah’s actions are in sharp contrast with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in the next chapter who were not hospitable to their guests, which was the sin of these cities was inhospitality. Not so with Abraham and Sarah.

After they ate the guests want to speak with Sarah, who was in the tent. Women probably did not eat with men and were kept separate. One man says to Abraham that when he returns next year Sarah will be pregnant and have a son. Sarah, overhearing the conversation from the tent, begins to laugh to herself about the whole affair. I’m sure she got a pretty good laugh out that prediction. But Yahweh wasn’t laughing. Yahweh says to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh? At the set time I will return to you in due season and Sarah shall have a son.” Then Sarah comes out of the tent and denies it, “I didn’t laugh,” for by this time she was afraid. Then Yahweh said, “Oh yes, you did.”

This is an extremely old story, definitive for the Hebrew people and all those blessed through the faithfulness of Abraham and Sarah – both Muslims and Christians. Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggeman makes the strong case that everything in this narrative revolves around this pivotal question –“Is anything too hard for Yahweh?” It might even be the fundamental question of the Bible. It is God’s question directed right at us: Is there anything too hard for Yahweh? Be careful how you answer this question. To say, Yes, then God is not God; to say, No, then we need to be open to something different taking place.

A lot depends upon our receptivity, doesn’t it? It depends upon our willingness to be open. A lot depends upon our willingness to welcome – well, God. Indeed, there is a link between being hospitable to the stranger and entertaining the presence of God. There is a connection between welcoming the stranger and welcoming God. There’s a link between receiving guests and receiving God and receiving a blessing.

This text provides a remarkable window into the custom of hospitality in the desert cultures. But it’s more than just social etiquette. It’s about the way we make space for the other, for the stranger; for it tells us something about how open we are when God shows up in our lives.
[1] When God shows up, unannounced and unexpected, how will we respond, will we welcome what God has to say? One way the Hebrews and early Christians prepared themselves to welcome the presence of God was to make sure they were really hospitable to everyone. This is because God just might show up on your doorstep in the stranger – or the strange. Either way, what are you going to do?

In her recent book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, notes that one of the ten signposts of churches experiencing renewal is its approach toward hospitality. It doesn’t mean that such churches have “welcoming committees” or hospitality programs, “where friendliness seems little more than a phony act to get newcomers to join the church.” We’re not talking about a religious Welcome Wagon, that emerged in the 1960s, which, “for all its friendliness, was essentially a way to promote certain stores and products.” Hospitality is not a code word for “promotion,” with the church as the primary product, where it becomes “an instrument used for another end: to sign people up as pledging members.”

Bass is spot-on when she writes, “True Christian hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangesr into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith – something Christians are called to do for the sake of that thing itself.”
[3] It has its roots in desert, nomadic cultures where each guest was honored, given respect, cared for, fed, sheltered, in order for one to continue on their journey. It was critical in a culture full of nomads, sojourners and seekers, traders in traveling caravans trying to make a living, and religious pilgrims – sounds a lot like us.

Hospitality was practiced by early Christians (you can hear it here in Romans 12) to such a degree that even the Romans were amazed and in awe. Philoxenos, love, do not fear the stranger, Paul urged. Not xenophobia (the fear of the stranger), but philoxenos, the love of the stranger, the foreigner. That’s what Christians do. They welcomed the stranger because they knew themselves welcomed by God. They welcomed the stranger because they believed the face of the other just might be the face of God. You never know who is going to show up at the flap of your tent.

When the Roman Empire finally collapsed amid social chaos and violence, it was Saint Benedict (c. 480-c.547) who formed monasteries in the 6th century to provide refuge, communities commissioned to “receive guests as Christ.” The abbey I visited in New Mexico on the sabbatical, Christ in the Desert Abbey, is a Benedictine community that receives every guest as Christ.

Hospitality is not a program or a technique. It’s a way of life that stands at the core of who we are, who we bear the name of Christ. It flows from our hearts. This is something we as a church have spent a lot of time talking about over the last couple of years. The capital campaign renovations are being done within the theological context of hospitality. But it’s an ongoing journey for us. There’s always room for growth in this area. We must continually ask: how can we deepen our expression of hospitality? This is a question for our elders, deacons, and trustees, as well as for all of us. We might think we are being hospitable, but is that how people think and feel when they meet us?
Do they see Christ in us? Do we see Christ in them? Do we see Christ in one another?

This week I thought about all the people who come through the church and the Church House who are not part of this faith community. Do they see Christ in us? Do we welcome them as we would the Lord? Consider all the groups that meet here: Al-Anon, martial arts groups, Scottish Country dancers on Monday nights in the gym, the Scouts; the people who come to the counseling center in the Church House. Think about all the children in our Child Care Center and their parents dropping up and pickup their children every day. Or think of all the contractors who are on site every day. Sure, we’re paying them, but who are they? What do they see in us? Do they see Christ in us? Do we see Christ in them? One contractor came up to me this week and asked me to pray for close friends of theirs who have lost a parent, a child, and now their second child is seriously ill. What an unbearable burden to carry. I said I would pray and that we would pray.

Is all this risky? Of course. The Christian life is risky. It means we have to be vulnerable. It means bringing people into the space where we live, of entering into our thoughts and hearts. It means bringing people close and not keeping them at arms length. If we don’t do this, how else is true community going to take place?

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once said, “When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests…Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of unity.”
[4] In a post-9-11 world, filled with hate-filled extremism, the widening clash between civilizations, political polarization, and vilification of others with differing outlooks, opinions, and experiences, the important of Christian hospitality becomes all the more critical in the church. We are called to model a different way of being that can’t be found in the world. The work we’ve been given to do becomes all the more essential.

Being hospitable is still the work of a civilized people. To do otherwise is to miss an opportunity to welcome God. To do otherwise is to miss an opportunity to receive a blessing.

[1] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “The classic sign of God’s mystery is to entertain, to make room for the other.” Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2007), 77-87.
[3] Bass, 81ff. Emphasis added.
[4] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Doubleday, 1975), cited in Bass, 86.

The above image, an icon by Andrei Rublev (1360-1430), depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, often referred to as the Old Testament Trinity, but more aptly called the Hospitality of Abraham.

09 September 2008

A Community Formed by Forgiveness

Matthew 18: 15-22
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 7th September 2008

Over the recent sabbatical I discovered the works of the contemporary poet, Stephen Dunn. In one poem he reflects upon his daughter’s experience attending a summer Vacation Bible Church. It’s called “At the Smithville Methodist Church.” Dunn and his wife are basically agnostic, skeptical about religion in general and not sure what to make of their daughter’s emerging faith. In the end, they are humbled by it. Here’s how he captures it in verse:

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,
but when she came home
with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art
was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith
in good men was what
we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home
singing "Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so,"
it was time to talk. Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad? We sent her back
without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story nearly as good.
On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts
all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats
in the church and the children sang a song about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child "Evolution loves you."
The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.[1]

What is this “wonderful story” of which Dunn is so envious? How do you sum up the Christian story? I’m not exactly sure there’s one story we tell. The story is Jesus and Jesus is the story of God’s love. But how do we tell this story? It’s really more like a multi-faceted-gemstone-kind-of-story. There are many aspects to it and we approach it from many perspectives and angles.

It seems to me that everything we do in a church is grounded in the belief that we have a story for our children. Our worship, our fellowship, our community around this table are all because we have a wonderful story for our children. Our ministries of sympathy, service, and witness, our educational and missional aims are all because of this story. Even all the dust and debris, the torn up floors and demolished walls around here, the entirety of our $1.5 million renovation project are all because of this wondrous story.

There are plenty of great stories to shape the lives of our children, but what makes this story different is the way it speaks to the “why” question. Evolution , for example, speaks to the “how” question. How we got here. But evolution doesn’t love you. The Christian story is less about how we came to be, then why. I believe in evolution, of course, but our job in the church is to speak to the question why. Parents can tell them how (in time), how they came to be, but the deeper more profound question of why? Why do they exist? Why do we exist? Our story that puts them – and us – into this deeply disturbing and scary, yet wildly wondrous and glorious world – puts them and us into this amazing world with meaning, purpose, love, and grace. The story tells them why they exist. It gives them and us a song to sing and sanctifies their lives and ours, and makes them holy. They can’t discover this on their own; neither can we. It doesn’t emerge from the depths of our psyche when we’re alone awake at night and fearful. The story tells us that we are loved more than we could ever possibly imagine, that we’re not alone, that Jesus is present within us and among us.

For Matthew here, one significant part of the gospel story is forgiveness. Forgiveness, which, of course, is related to God’s love and grace. Forgiveness stands at the center of the gospel narrative, the church’s story.

However, neither Jesus nor Matthew had any romantic illusions about the nature of the church. “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,” yet painful breaks can occur in our relationships. “We are one in the Spirit,” yet cruel words and thoughtless actions can separate us from each other. “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,” but there’s plenty to threaten the stability of even the strongest of churches.[2]

Matthew tells us how to live together. Work it out. Seek reconciliation. Try to make amends. Reach out. Why? Because wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name he’s there too. When we’re quick to accuse and judge and shun someone from community, remember that Christ is among us, and in the other we want to shun. By focusing on Jesus in the center of the community we remember it’s not about us; the church doesn’t exist for us we exist for the church; God doesn’t exist for us, we exist for us. The focus on Christ draws us out of our isolation and allows us to live together.

But Peter, always the practical one says, “Okay, Lord, fine. Sounds great in theory. But just tell me the minimum number of times I have to forgive so I know when I don’t have to forgive any more and throw that person out of the church.” Peter wants to put a limit on the generosity of grace. But if we’re like him, then we really don’t understand what it feels like to be forgiven, to know grace. Seventy-seven times. Don’t count. Don’t keep track. Just keep on doing it. Why?There can be no community without forgiveness.

Now it’s possible to just tell or teach the story of forgiveness without being shaped by it. We can teach our children how they ought to forgive, but ignore it ourselves. However, this is not just a story we teach or tell (and when we do, we’ve missed the point). It’s a story we experience even as we tell it because already we’re in it, we’re within the narrative of God’s grace. We can tell the influence of the story by the difference it makes in our lives – how followers of Jesus relate to others, especially when the family of Jesus gathers and tries to be faithful together.

Knowing the undeserved and unearned forgiveness of God becomes the cornerstone of the Christian experience and sits at the center of who we are. It’s embodied in the Table. On the Sunday I was worshipping at Iona Abbey, a long Communion Table was set up right down the center of the nave. I wish we could do the same in our church, but our aisle is too narrow. It’s a powerful way to express that the Table sits at the center of what we do and we worship around it. That’s why Jesus gives it to us, and even why John Calvin (1509-1564) wanted Communion served every Sunday in Geneva, because it helps to remind us that Christ is among us and within.

He makes tangible the story of God’s forgiving love. And this meal is offered again and again and again in the hope that someday we’ll finally get it – that we and our children will know we’re forgiven in the eyes of God and then, in the words of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), “accept our acceptance.”[3] People long to know they’re forgiven, whether they believe in God or not. Such is the depth of guilt so many carry around with them. We know there’s nothing that can separate us from God (Romans 8). We can live from within this story.

To know we’ve been forgiven by God, but withhold forgiveness toward others is, in the end to be ungrateful. To know we’re forgiven, yet withhold forgiveness toward ourselves is to be ungrateful. But with grateful hearts, accepting God’s forgiveness at the Table, we can rejoice, we can jump up and down – even Presbyterians – singing hallelujahs, beaming all the way home.

[1] Stephen Dunn, New and Selected Poems, 1974-1994 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1994), 183-184.
[2] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 209.
[3] Paul Tillich, from his sermon, “You Are Accepted,” Shaking the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955).