28 September 2009

The Word on the Street

Luke 24: 15-25
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 27th September 2009

Earlier this month I was San Juan, Puerto Rico, for two and half days – not on a mini-vacation, not to soak up some rays at the beach, but as part of a task force visiting el Seminario EvangĂ©lico de Puerto Rico, an ecumenical Protestant seminary, 90 years young, with strong foundational ties to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Why was I there? For the past six years I’ve served as an elected member of COTE – the Committee on Theological Education of the General Assembly. My last meeting will be this November in San Francisco. I chair the elected members of the committee and am convener of the task force formed to reaffirm and revise the General Assembly’s covenantal relationship with the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. The covenant will be reaffirmed when the General Assembly meets this July in Minneapolis.

One evening we had dinner in Old San Juan and afterward walked around the streets of the colonial city, founded by Ponce de Leon in 1521. Almost every building from the colonial era, with its strong Spanish influence, has balconies with elaborate grill work which overlook the street. Looking up at those balconies and then looking down at the street, I remembered something I read in the works of John Mackay (1889-1983). Mackay was president of Princeton Seminary in the 1940s and 1950s. That evening I was walking with the current president, Iain Torrance, which probably also to trigger the memory. Mackay was a truly great leader of the church, one of my heroes. He was a brilliant theologian who famously denounced McCarthyism in a “Letter to Presbyterians” in November, 1953, which both The New York Times and The Washington Post commended in an editorial. Mackay actually preached here in Catonsville, from this pulpit. In the 1930s Mackay studied existentialism in Spain with the Christian philosopher, Miguel Unamuno (1864-1936). It was in Spain that he came to these thoughts.

In one of his books Mackay compares two perspectives – the perspective from the balcony and the perspective from the road. The balcony, often attached to the front of Spanish buildings, above the heat, the dust, and the stench of the road, allowed you to look down upon the street without getting too close. From the balcony, you watch the world go by from a distance. He saw the Balcony as a symbol of the soul, as a perspective some have of life. He contrasted the Balcony with the perspective one has from the Road, of how the world is viewed from the road. This, too, is a state of the soul – the soul literally grounded, in Christ. “By the Road [we] mean the place where life is tensely lived,” Mackay wrote, “where thought has its birth in conflict and concern, where choices are made and decisions are carried out. It is the place of action, of pilgrimage, where concern is never absent from the wayfarer’s heart. On the Road a goal is sought, dangers are faced, life is poured out.” Mackay called Christians to come down from the balcony – into the highways and byways, the lanes and alleys and roads of the world – stop letting life pass you by, stop being a spectator, and get from the balcony onto the road, get involved with people where they live.

The highways and byways, the lanes and alleys, the streets and roads where people – all people live – that’s where the dinner host in Jesus’ parable sends his servant. We find this parable in Luke situated among Jesus’ teachings about hospitality and welcome, about the cost of discipleship, of the need to be salt in the world, and other parables about what the kingdom of God is like – parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Parables, all, of being lost and found, of being welcomed in and included, of invitations extended to live in God’s new world being formed in Christ – and the cost and, therefore, resistance we experience in living out God’s mission.

Jesus’ parable came as a response to a dinner guest who says with an elitist air of privilege, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Blessed – happy – indeed – assuming, of course, he’ll be at the table! Then Jesus tells this parable that pierces through his pious pronouncement. Truly, blessed is the one who eats bread in the kingdom of God. But don’t be surprised when you see who is in the kingdom of God, Jesus says. So he tells this parable of a great banquet with many guests invited. You know the story – they all come up with excuses why they can’t get to the party (implied here are also the excuses we give for not getting to worship). All the excuses involve an excessive entanglement with possessions and personal involvement – being just too blasted busy. They have other things of interest, other concerns occupying their time. The people making excuses are all wealthy – they purchased land, ten oxen is a significant investment. The only justifiable excuse, and just barely, is being a newlywed.

Furious, the host sends the servant out with a new guest list. Those with excuses won’t eat bread in God’s kingdom – because they don’t value fellowship with the host over the value they place on everything and everyone else. Instead, the host goes radical – of course, Jesus goes radical in the thrust of the parable. Go out into the streets and lanes –not where the privileged live in their big homes (probably with balconies) – and invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”

The host is not simply being charitable to these folk in need. It’s far more radical than that. You see, what we need to know is that all of these people – the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame – are all people in Jesus’ time who would have been considered unacceptable to God, because their conditions and illnesses were signs of God’s judgment for some assumed sin in their life. They would not have been on anyone’s invite list – and certainly not on God’s Kingdom Guest List. In fact, we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the 1940s, written by the Jewish Essene community at Qumran, these contemporaries of Jesus, living in the wilderness to the east of Jerusalem along the Dead Sea state explicitly that the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame would be excluded from the eschatological banquet feast of God at the end of time. But they’re not excluded in Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom – and not in his church! This is a significant and radical undoing of the norm.

The invitation is extended indiscriminately – to those rich and well-fed and full of excuses, but also to the hungry, the poor – to all people in all circumstances. Everyone is invited. However, Jesus is pretty clear which ones he thinks will be more receptive to his invitation. It’s the person who acknowledges lack, who comes empty; who confesses need, insufficiency, weakness, brokenness, the one who has had a rough and difficult life is most open to God’s invitation and gathers for bread at the Lord’s table.

The point is clear for Luke – here and throughout his Gospel and Acts: Jesus came for the people who are generally not on the invite list, those who are unwanted, the outcasts, the people the world leaves out, forgets, ignores, doesn’t care for, excludes, judges, people who are feared because they are deemed different, particularly by the people in power. Everyone on Jesus’ second list is powerless and marginalized. These are the people Luke tells us who are to be invited into the life of the church, because it’s for them that Christ has come into the world, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (see Luke 4: 18-19!). Jesus is basically saying, “Fetch all the people on the street without discrimination.” We know that this parable is very old, going right back to Jesus. It’s also found in the Gospel of Thomas (c. 140 A.D.), which is a collection of sayings with no narrative. (The manuscript was found in Egypt in 1945. ) In it we find Jesus saying, “Invite whom you find (Saying 64).” That’s what happens.

When the poor, the cripple, the blind, and the lame come into the banquet hall – which is the church – they discover that in God’s kingdom “there is still room.” “There is still room.” So, the host sends out the servant, “Go out into the roads and the lanes, ….” Implied in the Greek here are the hedges or fences along the road where the homeless poor camped out, seeking shelter. It’s as if the host is saying, leave no inch of ground uncovered. “Go out…and compel, persuade (there’s even a sense of urgency in the invitation) people to come in, so that my house may be full.” Friends, behold the extraordinary generosity of our God! This is what God’s amazing kingdom is like: and it’s the vision, the mission that must inform the work of the church, the church as an agent of the kingdom!

Our gracious Host wants the banquet hall to be full, for the invitation to be extended, for the church to reach out on the road where people live. For us to reach out…to extend the invitation.

Extending the invitation – that’s a good definition of evangelism, that “E” word that stirs panic in most Presbyterians. Yesterday, I was on the phone with my good friend, Christy Waltersdorff, a Church of the Brethren minister, serving a church in Lombard, IL. I asked her what she was preaching on today. She said, “Leadership.” She asked me. I said, “I’m preaching on evangelism.” To which she said, “OH – Scary.”

Extend the invitation to all people, indiscriminately, to come and share with us what God is doing in our lives and in this church and in the world. Come and be part of God’s good news. It’s not our responsibility whether or not folks respond. We have no power over that. That’s God’s work, the work of the Spirit. But we are called to extend the invitation – otherwise how else would people know they’re invited? How else would people on the outside of the church know it’s safe to come here, that visitors are expected and welcomed? How else would people know what we’re about and the work God calls us to if we don’t invite them?

Did you know that in countless surveys and studies of why people decide to go and eventually join a church, there’s one factor that always emerges as primary, above all others? People join a church not because of its choirs, organist, music director, or music program; not because of the beautiful sanctuary and modern facility; not because of the preaching in the pulpit or the pastoral care; not because of the Christian Education program or ministry with youth; not because of its mission work or its presence in the community; not because of its adult education offerings; and not because the church is friendly. The number one reason a person attends and eventually joins a church is because someone – a member of the church, whom they know and trust – invited them to worship.

You might be thinking to yourself – wow, that’s impressive. I wish I could do my part and invite someone to worship. What can I do? Glad you asked!

We’re going to embark on a little adventure as a church, sponsored by the Outreach Committee with the help of the Vision Task Force. On Saturday morning, November 14, we’re going to walk through the streets and roads of Catonsville, going door-to-door, and inviting our neighbors – if they’re not already part of a worshipping community – to join us. We’re not going out to convert anyone or engage in theological debate. We’ll have door hangers with a simple message about the church to leave behind; we’re simply inviting people to join us. We’ll gather for some training, pray, go out in twos, and then return back to share our experiences. This might be ambitious, but I would love us to have about thirty people volunteer, people who are comfortable talking with strangers, people eager to offer a happy, smiling face of Catonsville Presbyterian to the community. Give it a try. Teenagers are of course welcome. It might be something you wish to do as a family. And you’ll even get some exercise out of it. Sure, you might be nervous about doing something like this (most calls from God make us nervous). It might even sound un-Presbyterian (that might be a good thing). We need to step out of our comfort zone as a church. All we’ll be doing is going out to invite people to come in that God’s house might be full. Pray about. Ask God if this is something you need to do.

The Sri Lankan evangelist, and ecumenical leader, D. T. Niles (1908-1970), once defined evangelism as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” That’s also a good definition of Christianity. From that perspective, we’re all beggars, hungry to be fed at the Lord’s table, inviting fellow-beggars to the table. Not a bad image to keep in mind this week as we prepare to break bread and share the cup at the Lord’s Table on World Communion Sunday. “Blessed – happy – is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Happy indeed.

John A. Mackay, A Preface to Christian Theology, Introduction by John Baillie (London: Nisbet & Co, Ltd., 1945), 30.
Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 228-233
The Gospel of Thomas is known as a New Testament apocryphon. This Coptic papyrus manuscript was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egygpt.

Photo: Catonsville Arts and Crafts Festival along Frederick Road, September, 2008.

21 September 2009

Explorers, Not Mapmakers

Proverbs 3: 13-18 & Luke 2: 41-52
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 20th September 2009

“Are we there yet?” How many times have we heard these words anxiously echoed from the back seat of the car or min-van? Perhaps it was just this past summer. Can you remember saying the exact same words as a child? “Are we there yet?” We know how frustrating it is to hear this question (particular if you’ve only driven around the corner on the start of a very long journey). I learned that in Eric and Tara Ebersole’s household the question, “Are we there yet?” was answered with, “Yes, we are. Now get out!”

But there’s also something about the getting there, no matter where “there” is, that is frustrating for us, no matter our age. We don’t like that feeling of being between places, not home, not at our destination: en route. Other times we’re in a rush to arrive, only to ask, “What was the rush?” We’re destination focused, as we should be. We all need to have a sense of the direction toward which we’re moving. Sometimes, however, we’re so obsessed with the destination, rushing to get where we need to be, that we miss out the joy of the journey. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) said it so well, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” (Virginibus Puerisque, 1881)

From the beginning the Christian life has been viewed as a journey – with a definite destination in mind, yet an expedition with many roads all leading to the Celestial City. The earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians but as we glean from John’s gospel and from Acts, they were known as the Way (Acts 9:2). Jesus himself said, in John, “I am the Way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).” It was understood that to follow Jesus meant to follow the one who is the Way, it meant to walk with the Way, on the way, on the road of faith, of discipleship, of the cross, of servant-hood – the life Jesus bids us welcome when he says, “Follow Me.”

“Are we there yet?” What does the Christian say? No. We’re on the way. Whenever someone asked my grandmother, Ann, “How are you?” She often gave this memorable response, “I’m getting there.” She never let on where “there” was, but she was on the way. The same is true for us in the life of faith. None of us are there yet. Perhaps if someone asks you, “Are you a Christian?” the best response, honest respond might be, “Not yet, but I’m getting there.” This is not to suggest that we are earning our salvation or working our way there without grace, but that we are on the way to becoming who Christ knows us to be.

It’s important to remember we’re not there yet. Sure, we might be baptized, we can declare our pedigree: attended church school (even with perfect attendance, like I had), confirmed member of the church, serve the church, attend worship regularly, serve as an elder, deacon, trustee, maybe even a minister of Word and Sacrament. We can recite by memory and confess with all integrity every article of the Apostles’ Creed. You might know your Reformed theology and your Bible. Work tirelessly in mission. Give generously to the church, even tithe, more than tithe. But all of this doesn’t come close, part but not all of what it means to be a disciple – a student of Jesus Christ; it doesn’t come close to understanding what it means to be a follower of the Lord.

I loved the quote Dorothy Boulton selected for last week’s bulletin on Kick-Off Sunday, by the great Presbyterian theologian, Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001), “BE IT HEREBY ENACTED that every three years all people shall forget whatever they have learned about Jesus, and begin the study all over again.” I uttered, “Amen,” during the sermon – maybe I should have spoken up and said it louder (saying, “Amen” during a Presbyterian sermon, is allowed, by the way). We can’t assume we know. What’s required, especially in our age full of intellectual and theological arrogance, is humility of knowledge, we need to be able to say – as an expression of a mature faith – “I don’t know and I’m eager to learn, I’m eager to discover.” We can’t assume that we have this faith all figured out. To be a disciple of Christ means to be a student, with Jesus as the teacher. It means to be constantly open to the new thing to be learned as the foot of the master.

I loved Dorothy’s sermon last week. She beautifully lifted up themes that are so central to the Christian life and needed in the life of the church today, themes of considerable significance for me as a Christian and as a pastor. Being a Christian is not about simply learning facts and reciting creeds and ideas and beliefs, cramming all this “data” in our heads and then spitting them out when needed. That might be religion, but it’s not faith – an active, dynamic, living, breathing faith that comes through a relationship with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s completely different. Like any relationship, we come to know the other by relating and encountering and listening to the other over time, we come to deeper knowledge through the relationship. That’s the way it is with the Spirit. The Christian life is a relationship over time.

Are we there yet? Are we, as a church and as individuals, fully embodying Christ’s message and love in every aspect of our lives? Are we so confident that we have God all figured out? Are we so confident we fully understand who Jesus is and what he expects of us and wants for us and for the world? Of course not – and, I would go so far to say, “And give up trying! Enjoy the journey!”

There is never a point of arrival (at least not in this life). Not only are we people of the Way, we are also people walking with the Way, on the way to the life Christ dreams for us, individually and together. The Christian life is a dynamic experience, we’re always on the move, filled with curiosity and questions, eager to learn (as we see in Jesus learning and then teaching in the temple), continuously searching for wisdom (as we see in Proverbs), searching for deeper insight into the depths, with a hunger for meaning, never satisfied with the surface, with things as they, ever open to what can be, of what is to be discovered in new territory.

Luke gives us just one verse to sum up Jesus’ development from adolescence to adulthood: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (Torrance) Jesus life becomes the pattern for our own, who shows us what it means to be human and human in relationship with God. In and through the relationship over time with him comes the wisdom and knowledge. The literal meaning of “increased” here means, “beat his way forward blow by blow,” as in a struggle. This is what Jesus experienced, and what he experienced for us, and what we experience when we’re in him, growing with him, maturing in wisdom with him.

Are we there yet? Of course not, thank God, but we’re on the way – or can be with the Spirit’s leading. The Christian life is not static, but dynamic, words like growth, development, transformation, change, process, movement, journey, adventure describe our experience in Christ, these words are part of the Christian vocabulary they inform our reality, they shape the rhythm of our days. We’re on the way – we need to be on the way.

But it has to be our journey, along our own road. You can’t walk someone else’s journey, it has to be yours. My journey is not yours and yours isn’t mind, but we can learn something about the experience and help one another along the way as companions in the journey. We need to take responsibility for our growth, inner growth and outer; it’s why we offer adult education. Growth is expected – venturing out, studying scripture, deepening prayer life, engaging in worship, reading, listening, doing, growing up and growing down, exploring out inner lives – ever growing in wisdom and understanding. It’s so critical that we move beyond the faith we had as a child. The faith we had a child is great, but it’s not sufficient to speak to the complexity of life, or when tragedy strikes, or when we experience suffering, or try to make sense of our circumstances or the world as adults with the faith perspective we gained as children. It’s not sufficient. It’s why throughout Paul’s letter he was always encouraging his churches to move from a liquid diet to solid food (1 Corinthians 3: 1-4). Setting our face forward, we strive for the goal of the upward call in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3: 13-14). We set our face forward and move.

When Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) moved his massive, conquering army across Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, he was confronted by a frightening sight. The army emerged through a dense forest and before them stood the Himalayan Mountains – and they stopped there awestruck and afraid. While they conquered every enemy in their path, there was one more fear to face – the unknown. You see, they arrived at the edge of the known world. They marched clear off the map. There was no map for the territory beyond that point. Alexander’s commanders wanted to return and go back. But then Alexander spoke and said, “Every army in the history of the world has always been tempted to go back to what it has known, and we can do that if you want. But, a truly great army will always march off the map and conquer new worlds. We have a choice – we can be an army that turns back to what is familiar, or we can be a truly great army and march off the map and conquer new worlds.” They marched off the map. That’s a powerful image. This is always the choice before us as Christians and as a church, isn’t it? We can be tempted to turn back to what is familiar, or we can be faithful and march off the map and explore and discover new worlds.

That’s the image that George MacLeod (1895-1990) has given us, the progressive, visionary founder of the Iona Community and the one responsible for the restoration of Iona Abbey. On Friday evening, the pastor of Dickey Memorial Church, Liz Johnson, married, Scott Blythe, a Scot, a pastor, and a member of the Community – so were his three groomsmen. It was a real honor and joy talking with them about the Community, group of about 200 scattered through the world who continue the work Macleod started. Macleod was a liberal-progressive-evangelical-mystic-Presbyterian-Christian. I remember reading these words from his biography, on the plane back to New York after having lived in Scotland for the year, 18 years ago. They struck me then and continue to shape me. They offer a vision of what it means for us to be Christian, to be church, to be faithful. “For Christ is a person to be trusted, not a principal to be tested. The Church is movement, not a meeting house. The faith is an experience, not an exposition. [And] Christians are explorers, not mapmakers.” Not mapmakers, but explorers led by the Spirit of the Risen Christ toward God’s redemptive vision of the world. May it be so.


Robert McAfee Brown, The Bible Speaks to You (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 87.

Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), 132.

I’m grateful to Theodore J. Wardlaw, president of Austin Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas, for this illustration. “Remembering Who We Are,” sermon preached July 8, 2009, Montreat, North Carolina.

George Macleod, first printed in the Coracle, 1942. Cited in Ronald Ferguson, George MacLeod: Founder of the Iona Community (HarperCollins, 1990), 195.