Wednesday, June 25, 2008

the grace of God (Romans 5)

Since we are justified by faith, the apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The objective reality of the gospel is that we are justified by faith, we are put into a right relationship with God, and this is a gift, a sign of grace, it is like standing in the light, we do not produce the light, we simply find ourselves standing there, and it is amazing. It is like getting the password into everything we need to know to be set right:through Him, [Paul writes] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand;

We have obtained access, someone has given us this password, this code, and we are recipients of grace, we didn’t come up with all of this because we are so smart or so good, it was given to us, and so, we know, that there is a future and a hope. That is the core of Christian belief, that is the objective part, but there is something else, it is more subjective, it is real, it is our experience. Paul continues:

We also boast, we exult, we give thanks even for our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.

Two weeks ago I spoke of the power of God as salvation, as the salvaging of human life and indeed all of creation. I likened all of this to a piece of furniture that our family had found by the side of the road and salvaged and my wife had then gone on to restore. In this way God truly is an artist, the work of God is the continuing creation, and we are works in progress, all of us. We could describe this work in progress by using the language of Paul: There is suffering, and endurance, and all of this forms character, and all of this produces hope.

Pam and I are , I confess, political junkies. We read a lot, watch a lot of it on television, especially in an election year. I was saddened to learn Friday afternoon of the untimely death of Tim Russert of NBC news, who was one of our favorite commentators. Tim Russert had grown up in Buffalo, New York, on the south side. His father, a veteran of World War II, had worked two full time jobs, one as a newspaper deliverer, another as a garbage collector. In contrast to most of the powerful insiders of Washington, D.C., he did not have the benefit of an elite education or a political pedigree. I listened to the reflections on his life, mostly from his friends throughout the evening, and they used words like discipline and preparation and character and integrity and joy and laughter and hope and I thought of this life, well-lived, and the process of salvation that Paul is describing: suffering, endurance, character, hope.

Salvation is a process. Salvation is something God does for us, objectively, on the cross. But salvation is also something that we live into, that we participate in, that we claim for ourselves, over time. All of this is grace. Grace has been simply defined as something we do not earn, something we do not deserve, and something we cannot repay. Grace is at the heart of the New Testament----Jesus, hanging on the cross between two thieves---Father, forgive them” (Luke 23. 34); Paul, reflecting on what happened at the cross, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5. 8). Note that salvation is something God does in us and for us. Grace.

There really is alternative way to think about salvation, and that is the idea that we can save ourselves: that we can save ourselves by doing good works, or that we can save ourselves by believing the right things. But the Apostle Paul had been down these roads---they were dead ends, cu-de-sacs. If anyone could save himself by doing the right things, Paul said, it would have been me, I was a “Pharisee of Pharisees” (Philippians 3). Good works were not enough. Paul was also a rabbi, trained by the most prominent rabbi of the first century, Gamaliel. But knowing the right things was not enough. Salvation is not about doing the right things. Salvation is not about believing the right things. Salvation is about grace. Grace is the unmerited, free gift of God, that is sufficient for all of our needs. Sometimes we do not ask for the gift. And sometimes we are not ready to receive the gift. Yet here is the point. It is God’s nature to offer grace to us, grace that comes to us before we are ready to receive it. There is a wonderful hymn text:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me
It was not I who found O Savior true; no I was found of Thee.

(UM Hymnal, 341)

We do not find God. God finds us. And that is grace. John Wesley used the term prevenient grace in contrast to another common Christian doctrine, predestination. Predestination was the conviction that some are saved and some are not, and that God knows this beforehand. I grew up not far from what some called a “Hardshell, Primitive Church”. One of their core convictions was that God had predestined some to be saved, and some to be damned. And so, for example, this church would not send out missionaries, for they would only bring the unsaved in! John Wesley felt that predestination cut the nerve of both discipleship and evangelism. If we are predestined to be saved, why should we live a Christian life? And if God already has a plan about who is saved and who is not, why should we bother sharing the gospel?

We begin with grace, with good news. Grace is God’s gift of salvation, available to all. In other words, God’s grace is at work in the lives of people who are outside the church. This leads us to a fuller, richer understanding of salvation. Many of us can point to a time of decision or profession or first commitment, but many of us also know that God was doing something in our lives before that. In my own life I think of Sunday School teachers, my mother and my grandparents, a high school friend and his parents; I think of my home church which gave me opportunities to come closer to Christ---not that I always did---but something was happening. I think of retreats, and neighborhood canvasses and Bible studies, and youth choirs and mission trips. But grace was also a reality outside the church. As a teenager I worked in grocery stores, putting up stock, running a cash register, cleaning and mopping the floors. I think of a Christian man who worked in the grocery business, a member of my church, and how the store would feel different when he entered it. All of these were experiences that helped me to live into the grace that was there, all the time.

We don’t become Christians in the abstract, and it doesn’t happen, in its fullness, all at once. It is like a journey, and we can look back and see the signs. A few years ago I was watching a program on public television. It was the story of a Hispanic father in New York City who had lost his adult son. The son was mildly retarded, and was unable to read or respond to the normal channels by which missing persons were found. The family was poor, and they had no pictures of their lost son. Finally the father came upon an idea. He had pictures of himself made, and he personally plastered them on every signpost in that part of the city. In the end the miracle happened: the son recognized his father, and knew that his father was seeking him, and there was a reunion.

When we know that God loves us this much, a change begins to occur in us. This is called repentance, the turning of our lives in the direction of home, toward God. Jesus says, at the beginning of the gospel, the kingdom has come, repent, and believe in the good news (Mark 1. 14-15).

In the process of salvation we begin to claim the grace of God---He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. This is the movement from suffering to endurance to character to hope. To recall my experience from last summer, it is the recovery of something that is damaged, neglected, underappreciated, and the restoration of all of that into something useful and beautiful. To use an image from the Old Testament, it is the journey from slavery to freedom. To know freedom, as a Christian, is to live not under law, but under grace, which is, again, a gift that we did not earn, that we do not deserve, that we cannot repay. Paul reminds us of the core of the gospel:

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

In these verses we come face to face with the radical grace of God. Christ died not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. Like one trained in the law, the Apostle Paul lays out a rational argument. We can imagine dying for a righteous cause, for a friend, for someone in our family, to protect the innocent. We can imagine doing something good or even heroic for the deserving. There was precedent for all of this in the rabbinic law and in the philosophy of the Greeks. But…there is that word—but. But God proves, demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We did not earn it. We do not deserve it. We cannot repay it.

A good friend is being assigned as the pastor of United Methodist Church, her first Sunday there is in a couple of weeks. She wrote me an email and asked for advice on what to preach on the first Sunday. I went back and read my first sermon here, which was late June, 2003. The sermon ended with an insight from Zan Holmes, the great preacher from Dallas, Texas. Zan said that a sermon should never end without some good news, and a sermon should never end without giving God the credit.

Let us give God the credit:

All of us are here this morning, not because we deserve to be, but because in God’s grace our lives have been salvaged, in some way, for some purpose. Many of us here this morning because we have found some measure of peace in this life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Most of us here this morning would admit that we are “works in progress”, that God is not finished with us, but that God has also not given up on us.

Let us give God the credit:

We worship and praise a God who gives us not what we deserve but what we need. We worship and praise a God whose grace is amazing, whose grace is greater than all our sin. We worship and praise a God who breaks the power of cancelled sin, who sets the prisoner free! We worship and praise a God who makes the unrighteous righteous, who makes the broken whole, who makes the ungodly Godly, who makes the unholy Holy. We worship and praise a God who loves us. How much does God love us? This is the best news of all. While we were yet sinners, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Friday, June 13, 2008

the death of tim russert

I usually take Fridays off; on many I tie up a few loose ends, run some errands, get my bearings for the weekend. On some Fridays I fulfil small obligations that are beyond the church, little things that might be denominational or connectional in nature. Today I was saddened by the death of Tim Russert, political commentator for NBC, MSNBC and Meet The Press. My wife and I are political junkies, she, to be honest, more than me, but we do follow the political process, and Tim Russert seemed to be a kind, honest, civil and steady voice amidst the political fray. That his death happened so suddenly---at age 58---is indeed shocking, and I have been watching his colleagues, like Andrea Mitchell, Howard Fineman and Keith Olberman, reflect on the influence of Russert on their lives and vocations. Russert seemed to be pretty non-partisan, which appealed to me, and he had interests beyond politics, like baseball, which appealed to me as well. He often spoke of his roots in working class America, he did not have the benefit of an elite education, but had made his way, seemingly, through character and disicpline. He is also a testament of how someone can function, as a leader, in an environment that is contentious and filled with ambition, and yet seek the well-being of others and, indeed focus on the common good. And of course, his book about his father, and his death on Father's Day weekend seem to be connected in some poignant way. My only connection with Russert was through electronic media, and so all of this says something about the power of television. Finally, Russert was a devout Catholic, and he taken his son and wife to Rome to meet the Pope, as a kind of pilgrimage after his son's college graduation. Cardinal Foley, speaking about him on MSNBC, said, "Tim was never ashamed of his faith, and was deeply grateful for it, and practiced it regularly". Tim Russert will be missed.

faith and doubt


An excellent essay on an experience of communion in Nigeria, included in a number of fine reflections in a New Yorker series on "faith and doubt". Read it here.

I was also moved by an additional essay, written by Edwidge Dandicat, a native of Haiti and author of the compelling Brother, I'm Dying. She writes about the experience of hunger, both as memoir and as present-day commentary on life in a country where dirt is consumed for food. You can find this essay at the same site. And lastly, a review of Bart Ehrman by James Wood, in the same issue of The New Yorker, in which the reviewer poses the question, of Ehrman, "if God does not exist, why continue with the question of how this non-existent God can permit suffering". Again, you can access the review at The New Yorker, which is also linked to the right, until the "texts" category.

Excellent writing, in each case, on a worthy subject.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

the power of God (romans 1)

I will be preaching this summer from Paul's Letter to the Romans, which is the epistle reading in the lectionary. Most scholars believe that Romans was the last of Paul's letters to the church, and that it represents his mature reflection on the gospel. I recognize that the apostle Paul himself suffers from what some would describe as a bad reputation; I have heard both atheists and preachers in the evangelical tradition acknowledge their love for Jesus and their disdain for Paul, whom they describe as anti-Semitic, insulting to women, legalistic, and dogmatic.

In the weeks to come I invite you to read the Book of Romans for yourself. God has used this particular book throughout history to reform the church. In the 4th century a mysterious voice spoke to Augustine and told him to “pick up and read” the Bible. He randomly opened it to Romans. Martin Luther (16th Century) called it "the very purest gospel". John Wesley (18th Century) felt his heart "strangely warmed" at Aldersgate in the hearing Luther's preface to the Romans. And in the 20th Century, the great theologian Karl Barth found grace in the aftermath of World War I and strength to stand against the Nazism of World War II in the pages of Romans.

God has also used this book, the letter to the Romans, to ignite the human conscience, and to inspire personal faith, and that is my hope for us as well. So, let’s move directly into it.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel”, Paul writes in chapter one, verse sixteen. What did it mean that Paul was not ashamed? There are some things of which we are ashamed, as a church. We can look back in history and there is shame in the way that we have treated groups of people---this is rooted in discrimination and prejudice. We can look back in history and there is shame in how we have not lived up to our most fundamental convictions as followers of Jesus---we think of the church’s complicity in the crusades, or the slave trade, to name just two incidents.

The Christian witness to the gospel has always been imperfect, it has always been flawed. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “we have this treasure”[the gospel] in earthen vessels” It is true.

And yet this is not the shame to which Paul refers. As one of my favorite preachers, Fleming Rutledge argues, the gospel was too new, the church too young for this kind of shame. The shame was related to the kinds of people who made up the early Christian church.

“Not many of you were wise…not many were of noble birth…God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, we proclaim Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews, foolishness to the gentiles, but to those who are the called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1).

Paul was a Roman citizen, and he was also trained as a Pharisee by the prominent teacher Gamaliel. He was a person of stature. And yet, Christianity emerged not from the seat of power, the Roman empire, but from a backwater area of Israel, the Galilee. Can anything good come from Nazareth?, someone had asked, about Jesus himself.

In other words, among the powerful, and from the beginning, Christians were people who sort of embarrassed us. I grew up in south Georgia, in the deep south. Religion there was often something that was slightly embarrassing.

In college, I was heavily involved in the sciences, especially biology and later psychology. Most of my professors were not believers; they were good people, conscientious people, but not people of faith, and they lived in a culture where this was a badge of honor. I remember a conversation with one of my professors, an experimental psychologist, a brilliant man. He liked my background as a student. “What did I see in my future?”, he asked. At that point, I was leaning toward the ministry, although I was not sure where that would take me.

“I think I am going to seminary”, I said. He looked at me and his expression said it all. “Why would you want to do something like that?”, he said, in so many words. I did not say very much, I was, in that moment, embarrassed, and somewhat ashamed.

I had not yet come to the clarity of the apostle Paul. I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation, and there is the core of the matter: the power of salvation is not self-help, not human effort or agency or good works. Salvation is through the power of God.

What is salvation? It comes from the greek word soteria, and it has to do with recovery, with rescue. A couple of summers ago I was driving near our cabin in the mountains. It was late in the day on a summer afternoon. It was raining, just slightly, the way it often does in the smoky mountains. As I was driving I noticed, by the side of the road, a piece of furniture, a dresser of some sort. When you live with a woman who is interested in interior design, only one thing comes to mind. I quickly drove to our place, and asked Pam if she wanted to see it. Within seconds we were on our way.

We claimed the piece of furniture---she actually knew the real name for it, it was a vanity, and we took it to our place, and she worked over a few days to restore it. Later it became a part of a room that was renovated in our cabin. That piece of furniture was salvaged. It was saved.

God salvages us, our human condition. The questions surrounding salvation that are most often asked---can you lose it? do you have to feel sure about it? ----are not the crucial ones. The most important issue has to do with the One who saves us, who has the power to save us, and that is God, and that is good news.

The gospel----the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, nothing more, nothing less---is the power of God. The power resides not in my goodness or yours, not in my expertise or yours, not in my pedigree or yours. The power resides in the gospel, which is able to salvage us.

Who can be salvaged, who can be rescued, who can be saved? It is the power of salvation for everyone who has faith, for the Jew first, and also for the Greeks.

For the Jew first…for the religious. Here is a problem. Sometimes the religious do not think they need to be salvaged. We are ok the way we are. Here pride gets in the way.

But also for the greeks…for the pagan. The gospel is not only for those who are inside the church, inside the temple, inside the sanctuary, whose names are etched in the membership rolls of the congregations. The gospel is for the greeks, for the gentiles, for the outsiders, for the pagans.

And this leads to the statement about the human condition in Romans 3: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I want you to say that word with me: all. All have sinned.

That word all is the great inclusive word: what we have in common is the human condition. The lectionary skips over the remainder of chapter one of Romans and all of chapter two and the first part of chapter three. Paul describes some of the manifestations of sin among those outside of Israel and the church. There is a list of the sins at the end of Romans 1: it includes violence and gossip, particular sexual behaviors and wanting what my neighbor wants, and lack of compassion. If we read it closely we discover ourselves there, in that list, if we are honest.

And because we are often good at seeing the sin in others, Paul reminds us, in chapter two, verse one, that when we judge others we bring that judgment upon ourselves. Then Paul saves his harshest critique for those inside the biblical tradition---we have the law, we have heard the good news, we should know better!

Doesn’t that sound like a parent: you should know better!

All of this builds to a conclusion, about us, about you and me: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All.

We have to start there, in that recognition, for only then is the ground fertile for the seed of the gospel, only then do we look up and cry out for help, only then do we ask, “how can I, how can we be salvaged?”

I am not ashamed of the gospel, Paul says, I am not ashamed to admit that I am a sinner, that I am broken, that I fall short, that I miss the mark, that I am flawed. Somewhere along the way, brothers and sisters, we have really lost touch with this message. The church is not the gathering of the righteous, not a beauty pageant of the perfect, not a collection of folks who have not yet been voted off the island.

The church is the assembly of the unrighteous, the sinful, the broken, all of us fall short, all of us miss the mark, all of us are flawed. All.

And yet….in that confession there is a power. In that confession there is good news. In two weeks we are going to focus on the fifth chapter of Romans, and one of my very favorite verses in the Bible: God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Today, we are beginning a journey. Through this summer I ask you to stay with me, to stay with this book.

I know. We are sophisticated people. We are educated people. We don’t live in the country any more, like our grandparents did, we moved to the city. All of this talk about sin and shame and needing to be saved….didn’t that go away with summer camp meetings and sawdust revival services and discredited televangelists? Isn’t all of that a little…. embarrassing?

There is Paul, most of the New Testament was either about him or written by him, there is Paul, Paul the educated rabbi, Paul the multi-lingual world traveler, Paul the Roman citizen, there is Paul saying, to anyone who will listen: I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation, to everyone who has faith.

The bad news is that we are all lying there, to one degree or another, by the side of the road, damaged, flawed, in need of repair or rescue. The good news is that God does not pass by, on the other side of the road. God stoops to our weakness. God saves, and restores, and delights in the new creation. Isn’t that good news?

Sources: Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel; Garry Wills, What Paul Meant.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

economic realities and the middle class

News accounts of late have noted two economic realities that are affecting ordinary life in the U.S. First, the rising cost of fuel. I overheard a radio piece that described the hardest hit region as the rural south, where many drive trucks and vans. My non-economist rationale for rising gas prices: one-part deregulated industry, and one part rising demand in two huge global populations, China and India. We can do something about the former, but we have no control over the latter.

Second, the rising cost of health coverage. Again, I overheard a television piece, based on research from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, reporting an increase in health insurance, since 2000, of 91% (salaries have increased, in the eight year period, 24%). The sharp increase in health insurance is leading large numbers of people to be either 1) uninsured or 1) underinsured. Underinsured people have access to health insurance, and pay their premiums, but often have limited access to health care because of high co-payments or high deductibles. Again, my non-economist rationale for the surge in health care cost: one-part insertion of other professional groups into the medical world (managers, attorneys, marketers), one-part rise in sedentary lifestyle, one-part increase in the human lifespan.

The question, of course, is where the breaking point lies in each of these areas. The tipping point will, at some point, move from fossil fuel to mass transportation, and from free market medicine to a national health plan. The primary value inherent in our current practices---namely freedom---the freedom to drive when and where one desires, or the freedom to choose one's physician, plan of therapy, etc., will, in time seem diminished alongside the slavery to economic forces that threaten other basic human needs, such as food, or education, or shelter.

Our massive investment in the war over the last few years has given us a slim margin with which to respond to these developments, and the influence of oil company and pharmaceutical lobbies have prohibited our political leaders from searching for creative solutions. And yet these two economic realities, which shape the lives of most of our citizens, are positioning themselves as a perfect storm.

For sources, read here
and here.

Friday, June 06, 2008

chipper hits 400th

Congratulations to Chipper Jones, who has just hit his 400th home run. The Braves third baseman is also the third switch-hitter to accomplish this goal, the other two being Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, each of whom went on to hit more than 500 home runs. So there is hope. As an aside, Jones is also hitting 418 and he is being compared to Ted Williams.

Go Braves!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

annual conference

The Western North Carolina Conference begins tomorrow, although I have been involved in some preparations yesterday and today, and there is a dinner tonight. It is nice to get here prior to the big gathering itself. Lake Junaluska, which I love, is really not sufficient in size to contain our gathering---once every ten years or so a petition comes along to move the conference---such a petition will come this year; but I like the mountain setting, and there is something about the ritual events that take place here: my ordinations, my wife's ordinations, the consecrations of bishops in the southeast, our older daughter's baptism here. Add to that the gift of a cool mountain breeze early in June---contrasted with meeting in a civic center or a hotel in a big city---and I am happy to be here.

Three of our staff have milestones this week, all of them clergywomen--Tara will be ordained elder, Teresa will be commissioned as probationary deacon, and Marcia will be licensed as a local pastor. A former senior pastor of our church, Larry, will be remembered in the memorial service. Having chaired the committee on the episcopacy the last four years, we will say goodbye and thank you to our Bishop, Lawrence, who is retiring. Our conference secretary, Denny, is also retiring; I worked with him on an almost daily basis when I chaired the board of ordained ministry. So it will be a time filled with important events, each of which means something to me personally.

Apart from all of that, I often describe annual conference as one-third business meeting, one-third worship and preaching, and one-third family reunion. I hope to see former church members, and seminary friends, and others with whom I cross paths each year during these few days.

At the same time, there are several persons back home about whom I am in prayer: a family crisis, a health crisis, someone who would love to be here, but health does not permit. Lord, in your mercy: hear our prayers.

Finally, I picked up my friend Tom Currie's new book, The Joy of Ministry (Westminster John Knox). He is heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky and Barth, which, from my perspective is all to the good, and he has walked the walk, having served as a parish pastor for twenty-five years. If you need to get in touch with joy and its necessary and fundamental relation to ministry, go and get this book. Today! As Bob Tuttle would say, "I have just done you a big favor!"

I may blog later in the week. The connections to the internet in the mountains are somewhat tenuous, but who knows?

Thanks for stopping by...