Sunday, March 28, 2010


At the center of our faith, of our assembly is a symbol, the cross. The symbol is not only here, before us, and we not only gather in a cross shaped building, but many of us have crosses that are important to us. A part of our seasonal ritual is to place a large cross just outside on Providence Road, draping it with purple, signifying mourning and pain but also royalty. The next evening we gather in the sanctuary and mark our foreheads with ashes by the sign of the cross, reminding us of our mortality.

In my office I have a cross from the Sea of Galilee, one from a Walk to Emmaus retreat, a crucifix given to me by a Catholic friend, a cross from Haiti, and a cross made from the wood of the Brown Building.

Many of us have crosses that are important to us.

The cross is the central symbol of Christianity, the marketing profession would say that it is our brand. It is what we are about, it is who we are. That is not to deny the ambiguity and confusion that surrounds the cross, and this has been true for over two thousand years; We preach Christ crucified, the apostle Paul commented, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles…A scandal, a stone of stumbling, something that we cannot quite get over or beyond.

At the heart of this scandal are some very penetrating questions: why the violence of the cross, why the suffering, why, in particular, did Jesus have to die? In Luke 23. 44-49, the centurion speaks for many when he confesses, at Golgotha, “surely this man was innocent.” Beyond the suffering of the innocent, a problem for those who have faith and those without faith, there is the more specific question: what did the death of Jesus mean, what did it accomplish?

We are moving toward our need to explain all of this, and there have been, historically, a variety of explanations for the death of Jesus; these are sometimes labeled as theories of the atonement. These theories help, or do not help to answer the question, why did Jesus die on the cross, and what did he accomplish, and what does that have to do with you or me, anyway?

It has to do, for some, with the idea of substitution---he took our place on the cross, he died for our sins. It has to do, for some, with the idea of satisfaction---he took away the wrath of God in his obedience. It has to do, for some, with the idea of sacrifice---he gave himself, the gift of his life. It has to do, for some, with the idea of ransom---he paid the price for our freedom. It has to do, for some, with the idea of Passover---he is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

We must admit, that there is much that is a scandal even in these explanations. Why did God need the death of his son for our forgiveness? Is there is an angry God and a good Jesus, balancing out some kind of equation? Is God a violent God? Did Jesus really have a choice in the matter? What kind of religion would make all of this the focal point of its origin?

Maybe you have wondered about some or all of this, or maybe not. Many have, and some have found it to be too much, and they have wandered away from the faith. It might be nice to avoid all of this---I think of the mega-church in another part of the country that removed the cross from its worship because it was offensive to seekers. They were correct. It is offensive. We are talking about “The old rugged cross,”as the hymn has it, “so despised by the world, the emblem of suffering and shame.”

And yet the cross has another meaning. We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles---that covers about all of us---but to those who are being saved, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

It helps to think about what is happening at the cross. It is a symbol of God’s love for us, for all people, for the creation. This has been at the heart of how Methodist Christians have viewed the cross, and for us this is most eloquently expressed in the hymns of Charles Wesley:

O love divine, what has thou done?
The immortal God hath died for me.
The Father’s co-eternal son, bore all my sins upon the tree.
The immortal God for me hath died.
My Lord, my love is crucified.

The cross is a symbol of the love of God for us. What was accomplished on the cross, in the death of Jesus? It has to do with the depth of sacrificial love. And so, as the missionary Leslie Newbegin insisted, it is not “the love and self-sacrifice of Christ which turned away the wrath of God and so secured our salvation. This is a perversion of the truth…The love which secured our salvation also comes from God. It is because God loves the world that he gave his Son to be its Saviour.”

And so love and suffering, at the cross, are mixed together, co-mingled, as is so often the case in life. In the cross God moves toward suffering---Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi Prison cell shortly before his death, remarked, “only the suffering God can help”. And so, we look to Jesus, who ---- emptied himself, Paul says, taking the form of a servant, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Again, Charles Wesley’s incomparable hymn captures this:

He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace.
Emptied himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.

God takes the sin and suffering of humanity upon himself, literally absorbing it into his body. This is one of the meanings of atonement---at /one/ment. And so the question is shifted from what kind of God demands suffering and death, to what kind of God enters into our suffering and is in solidarity with us in our death? In its most extreme form this is related to the words that we have taken out of the creed: “he descended into hell”---yet, for the sinner who wants to be damned apart from God, the cross is the sign of God’s solidarity with us, “God’s act to bring us back to himself at any cost”.

Two weeks ago we read the parable of the prodigal son--- do you remember the story, the younger son goes to the far country, the older brother remains, the father divides the inheritance, the younger son wastes his share, squanders the birthright. This is all still a disgrace. The son in leaving has disrespected the father and dishonored the community, not to mention the alienation toward the sibling, all of it a parable of the sin that separates us from each other and our true purpose in life. And then there is a shift in the story, the son comes to himself, this is repentance, a turning, and he walks back home.

At a great distance the father who has lost a child, and the community’s respect, sees that the son is returning home. More than one scholar has interpreted his race toward the returning son not only as a gesture of reconciliation, but as an act of protection---the son has offended the community, and in an honor and shame culture could have been, indeed should have been killed. The father forgives the offense of the son to the family, he seeks to reconcile with the older brother, who seemingly will have no part of this, and he acts to make amends with the whole community. How does the father make amends? He prepares a great feast, not only for his family for the entire community, they would have smelled the aroma of the choicest meat, the fatted calf. This was an honor and shame culture but they understood sacrifice.

This story stays with us, we locate ourselves in this story in some way: of course, we are lost, or hoping for some sense of reconciliation, we want to protect our loved ones from harm, we want everything to be right and whole. And perhaps many of us along the way have found ourselves in one of these roles: the one who goes out into the world, or the one who stays home and keeps up appearances, or the one who waits, and watches, and welcomes. And so we locate ourselves somewhere in the story, and we have the sense that the parent must be God.

A friend was talking about this parable recently, and asked a provocative question, we see ourselves in the story, perhaps we see God, but where is Jesus in the story, who is Jesus? And then he offered this answer. What if Jesus is the fatted calf, what if he is the sacrifice that brings the community together?

This is atonement---at-one-ment: the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus, on the cross, the atoning sacrifice, his body, broken for us, his blood, poured out for us, his word, clearly spoken to and about each of us and the whole community, “Father, forgive them”. Christ crucified is the grace of God that makes us one with ourselves, one with each other, one with the world, and one with our creator.

This is quite an accomplishment, almost beyond our human comprehension, certainly beyond our capability. A wonderful gift came to me at the end of the week. I received a phone call early on Friday morning. I recognized the voice of a friend, Leighton Ford. “What is your schedule like today, would you like to have lunch?” It happened to be a mostly open day, so we met for lunch. Leighton has become a good friend to me and to our church across these years. He is an internally known evangelist, spiritual director and author. He is the brother-in-law of Billy Graham and for years spoke in that movement.

We were sitting down to lunch, talking about a variety of things, and he asked what I would be preaching about, and I said, the cross. And then he said, you have to share this, and so I will. “The other morning I received a call from Billy Graham. It was early in the morning and caught me by surprise. He has not been well at all for over a year, not well at all, he finds it very difficult to speak, but on this morning his voice sounded as clear as a bell. Who is this, I asked. He said, it’s your brother in law! And Billy Graham told Leighton that he was feeling much better. He said, “you know, I may even have one more sermon in me”.

And so, Leighton asked him, what would you preach about? And Billy Graham said, if I had one more sermon to preach, it would be on Galatians 6. 14:

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…

And so we make our entrance, with Jesus, into Jerusalem, we call this Holy Week. They wanted a King, a leader who would unite the nation under his power. He was the Suffering Servant, who would lay down his life for his friends, and ask for the forgiveness of his enemies.

Why did Jesus die on the cross, and what did he accomplish, and what does that have to do with you or me, anyway? “Only the suffering God can help”.

Many of us have crosses that are important to us.

Sources: Too many to mention---the writings of Robert Jenson, Jurgen Moltmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Wesley and Leslie Newbegin. Thanks also for a sermon by Grant Hagiya and a conversation with Leighton Ford.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

when a church has a brand


Brian Hadley is a member of Providence United Methodist Church, and in reflecting on the Lord's Prayer, he made a connection with the homeless of Charlotte. The result you see before you is a beautiful poster that has captured the imagination of our city, and all to the benefit of Samaritan House.

You can read about Brian in today's "Faith and Values" section of the Charlotte Observer (March 27, 2010), and you can order a poster from him at bhadley1 (at)

I also realized that this project expresses what is happening in our congregation and what we are all about. We offer passionate traditional worship, believing that the resources of our tradition, including the scriptures, the creeds, the hymns and the Lord's prayer, have the power, in and of themselves, to give life. This life is expressed internally through intentional faith development (Brian is in a Bible Study) and externally through risk taking mission (his response to the homeless). And he made the connection in worship, through the Lord's Prayer.

I have been sensing recently that our church has a distinctive brand: passionate traditional worship that fuels risk taking local (homeless) and global (Haiti) mission. We gather in small groups to encourage each other and in worship to glorify God. Brian's ministry has given me a parable of what I have been reflecting on, and I think many congregations are blessed with members who make these same connections.

When I pray the Lord's Prayer tomorrow in worship, I will see these faces. For this I thank God, and Brian Hadley.

Monday, March 22, 2010

who is my neighbor? why health care is always being reformed

The first rule of thumb in ministerial etiquette is “do not mix religion and politics”. Of course, people do like it if your politics match their politics, but, of course, people disagree about politics. At the same time, I think the subject----health care in America—is too important for us as Christians to sit on the sidelines. Actually the church should be getting into health care. This flows from our recovery of the healing ministry of Christ, and the root meaning of our word salvation; as Joel Green of Fuller Theological Seminary notes, "scripture as a whole presupposes the intertwining of salvation and healing".

Government got into health care because the church got out of it; the church got out of health care because we "spiritualized" salvation, we “disembodied” the soul, we disconnected the mind, body and spirit, and this has had disastrous consequences for the poor, the sick and the creation itself. One of the implications of the incarnation (John 1. 14) is that God takes on our mortal flesh; the gift of salvation is, in the language of the Apostle Paul, a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5. 17).

When the church got out of health care (leaving behind a rich tradition of hospitals and hospices formed by the Christian movement), the government took on our work. At this moment we began to lose the connection between our motivation---to continue the healing ministry of Jesus---and our actions---to be his hands in this world. In the name of efficiency and productivity, this work of government was later privatized, and came to be governed by the forces of the economic market. In time the motivation shifted from service to service plus profit, from the common good to the common good plus the creation of wealth. I am not talking about why a physician or a nurse treats a patient. I am talking about how that service is provided and how it is organized.

The way back into the matter, for a Christian, is to reflect on what God wants us to do in this situation. The salvation of God, in the ministry of Jesus, includes preaching, teaching and healing; he ministered to the spirit, the mind and the body. These were the three core activities of Jesus, and the three tasks he gave to his disciples.

So what does God want us to do? Jesus was asked this question, and he responded in a number of ways, usually by telling stories. God uses stories to get truths into our brains, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 35ff.) is among a small handful of the best known stories in the Bible.
In a culture that is saturated with religious communication, and at a time that our national conversation is obsessed with health care reform, it is amazing to me that I have heard no one talk about this story of Jesus.

The parable begins with the question of a lawyer, who, like many of us, was not really wanting to learn something new, but making a point. He wanted to know: “what is going to get me into heaven? What is required of me?”

Jesus says. You know the law, you tell me! He responds---Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

This was also question that the prophets had reflected on, Micah, six centuries earlier, stating it with clarity: the Lord has shown you, and what does the Lord require of you---to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6. 8). Jesus, who stands clearly in the prophetic tradition, would have remembered all of this, he knew the law and the prophets, do you remember Psalm 1, he had meditated on it day and night. Right answer, Jesus says.

But the lawyer could not let it go and so he pushed it, Luke tells us, to “justify himself”, And so he asks, “who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus responds with what has become a well-known story. If you have been paying attention to our year long conversation about health care, we all have a story: physicians who have less time to treat patients, patients who cannot receive care, or who receive a poor standard of care, or senior adults who may be deemed to be beyond the stage of deserving care, or patients who will not exercise self-care, or corporations who limit care, for the sake of greater profit, government waste. If you watch one television network, you are likely to hear a certain story; if you watch another network, you will hear a different story. Each sees a different villain, a different danger, a different hero. Those who tell these stories are not talking to each other; they are talking past each other.

Well, I have chosen this story because what brings us together is not our politics or even our experience of health and disease, it is the One who told this story, and so, I believe, it has a claim on us.

In the parable a man is beaten, and is suffering. A word about suffering and illness: Some suffering and illness can be prevented, and is related to our lifestyle—what we eat, how sedentary we are, whether we get enough rest. Some suffering and illness is unrelated to our behaviors: a friend has a chronic disease, through no fault of her own. Some human suffering and illness is genetic. And some suffering and illness is related to our mortality. We are finite creatures, and some day, maybe sooner, maybe later, we will die. This is for many in our culture a taboo subject, and has been a tool to cause fear and confusion among many of late.

The New Testament teaches us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are commanded to care for them. Where we abuse them, we and the society suffer the consequences, and this is leading to an epidemic is on the way, in our country, related to our self-care. At the same time, we all know many people who are ill through no discernable action, and we make matters worse by implying that they could have done something different and avoided the pain and suffering.

In the parable, there is a suffering person, and the question then becomes, “how do we respond?” Jesus gets to that first by noting how we do not respond, how we avoid a response. We pass by on the other side.

What does it mean, for us, in this moment, to pass by on the other side? One way to pass by on the other side is to say, “it is too expensive, it is too costly”. The paradox is that we already spend more money per capita for health than any other country; however, that help does not always get to the person on the other side----this is related to the specialties that we fund, and to other factors that are irrelevant to the 46 million who are uninsured, or in growing numbers, who are undersinsured.
Another way to pass by on the other side is to politicize the issue, to fire up the rhetoric and to accuse those who disagree with us of either lacking compassion or being a socialist. My sense is that our national debate has not really been about health care; it is about politics, and has been a way of passing by on the other side.

Another way to pass by on the other side is to be silent, to despair, to become cynical, but, of course, this is never an option for God’s people. In the parable the Good Samaritan picks up the suffering man, pours oil and wine into the wound, the medicine of the ancient world, binds up the wounds, takes him to an inn, and provides payment for his care, which is somewhat open-ended: whatever it takes, I will return and pay.

Back to the question, which Jesus changes: Not who is my neighbor, but which one is the neighbor? For me, this is a simple and yet complex story, and the question of Jesus leads to other questions, including ones of of compassion and justice? Mercy is about our command to give. Justice is about another person’s right to receive, and the deeper question is “does the person have a right to health care?”. The parable does not answer this question, focusing more on the Good Samaritan than the man who fell among robbers, more on the question “who is a neighbor” than “who is my neighbor”.

If Christians are to participate meaningfully in the conversation, we will rediscover what is uniquely at stake for us in all of this: the fullness of God's gift of salvation, which is extended to all people, even the beaten man on the side of the road. A response to the question, at the level of practice, is going to take people of all faiths and members of both political parties beyond rhetoric to reality. It is going to call forth, not the worst of us, but the best of us, namely justice and mercy, which is, the prophet says, what the Lord requires of us.

Another question: Where will the resources come from to help the neighbor? The answer: they come from us. Now how they get distributed is the complexity of it, and here Christians can, in good conscience, disagree. Do we trust the government to distribute health care? Do we trust an insurance company to distribute health care? Do we trust health professionals themselves to distribute health care? Whichever method of distribution we prefer, each and all of them must be weighed against the biblical concept of justice. As in the most effective responses in society to most needs, this will be a public-private partnership. The expanded role for the public sphere is a recognition that the private market response has not benefitted the common good.

A last question: Where do we locate ourselves in the story? What if you are the person who is suffering? The orientation for most of us is that, if it is someone else, we want care that is good but limited and efficient. If it is for someone we love----my daughter or sister, your father or grandmother, no expense is too lavish. When it becomes personal, it is different.

And this is where the parable leads us, because, for God, it is personal. The neighbor extends farther than we had first thought. Some have a limited definition of neighbor, others have a more expansive definition. Is an aging person the neighbor? Is the unborn the neighbor? Is the immigrant the neighbor? Is the poor person my neighbor? The scriptural answer to each of these questions is yes.

I have wondered lately: can Christians approach this issue of health care in America differently, and I think it is possible. We can offer gratitude to those who have heard the gospel and have moved toward those who suffer, and here I think of health practictioners who are deeply devoted followers of Jesus.

We can repent of the political divisions that have allowed us to pass by on the other side of human suffering.

We can turn toward our brothers and sisters in Christian conversation, in patient listening and measured speaking. And the outcome, with the help of God, may be the channeling of resources toward those who are suffering, and the creation of a world that is more just and merciful.

This will truly be health care reform, and if we can do this, the parable says, we will live.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

surviving in the wilderness: lenten guidance

The following is guidance for surviving in the wilderness.

1. Don’t deny that you are in the wilderness.

2. Don’t let the wilderness overwhelm you.

3. Live one day at a time---observe the Sabbath rest.

4. Participate in the Christian community.

5. Keep a journal about what is going on inside you and around you.

6. Live with the great passages of scripture.

7. Do something for someone else.

8. Exercise and get out of the house.

9. Keep visible and tangible reminders of good things.

10. It is in the wilderness that you are most likely to grow.

11. Everything that is broken in this life will not be fixed in this life.

Note: The most important notes in the field guide for surviving in the wilderness are found in Exodus 16 and Matthew 6. Wilderness is here defined as any portion of the journey that is chaotic, draining, unpredictable or dangerous. Life experiences might include the loss of work, failure at school, grief, divorce, chronic illness, adolescence, a move to a new community, and betrayal. In the wilderness God seems more absent than present. For additional reflection, see John and Adrienne Carr's The Pilgrimage Project (Abingdon, 1987) and my Bread in the Wilderness (Abingdon, 2010).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

yes to social justice

I don't spend any time, really, listening to Glenn Beck. In a society that values free speech I certainly grant him the right to say what is on his mind, and I am aware that he has a large following. Among them are some of my closest friends. Yet his recent commentary on social justice seems to have struck a nerve across the church; his denial of the inherent value of social justice seems clueless to anyone who has read the Old or New Testaments, or reflected on three thousand of years of Judaism or two thousand years of Christian teaching. It is flawed because it reflects a superficial gloss on privatized religion. There is a place for the inner life, the mystical experience and the personal relationship with Jesus Christ, as my evangelical friends describe it. I have had this experience, and it came to me as a gift. Yet it is by necessity linked to the outward journey, the call to compassion and an organic relationship with the body of Christ (in its glory and suffering), a community called by Jesus Christ into the world that God loves (John 3. 16) and is seeking to transform.

When the church is used for a politically partisan purpose, either left or right, something is deeply wrong. We have lost our way. But Beck's appeal to his listeners to leave churches that advocate social justice does appear to be beyond the pale. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with passages that speak of our duty and obligation to our neighbor and God's desire and demand for justice (Micah 6. 8). Jesus came certainly not to abolish this law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5. 17), and the church that is his body is the expression of his love and justice in the world. John Wesley, the founder of my own tradition, was passionate about personal and social holiness.

I am personally drawn to what is often called a consistent ethic of life, beginning with care for the creation and the protection of the unborn, continuing with a passionate advocacy for children in poverty, the right to health care, civil rights for gays and lesbians, the pursuit of nonviolence and peace (in domestic settings and in warfare), and a bias against both capital punishment and euthanasia. These concerns cut across political ideologies, and yet all are inherently social in nature. We are our brother's and our sister's keeper. God is always on the side of life and life is inherently social. When life is threatened, an intervention is required: our word for private intervention is mercy, and our word for public intervention is justice.

So my intention is not so much a rant against Glenn Beck---God knows our culture has enough of that kind of back and forth rhetoric---as a strong affirmation of a generous Christian orthodoxy. Quite simply, it would be absurd to imagine the Christian faith without social justice.

Here ends the lesson!

Monday, March 08, 2010

overwhelmed and undernourished

At the heart of the biblical story is a meal. Israel tells its story at the Passover meal, one of deliverance from slavery and entrance to the promised land (Exodus 12). Jesus shares this Passover meal with his own disciples (John 13), and commands them to eat this meal in remembrance of him (Matthew 26). Jesus feeds the multitudes (John 6), eats with sinners (Luke 15), and shares a mysterious meal with two of the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24). The first Christians break bread together with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2). Later, there are abuses in the practice of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11). One of the most misunderstood concepts in Christian faith and practice, the reference to eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, referred to the experiences of gluttony and poverty at the common meal. The Christian hope was also shaped by the expectation of a Messiah who would preside over a great banquet (Luke 14).

At the heart of the biblical story is a meal. Yet many Christians misunderstand what is happening here, or they avoid communion, or see it as an option.

So think of the next few minutes as an explanation of the meal we are about to receive, what’s on the menu and why. It helps to connect this meal to our common experiences. Family meals can take on different connotations; sometimes there is a special occasion, sometimes a sense of urgency, and at other times the meal is a common experience of nourishment and sustenance. Or think about the truly significant meals across your life. A few come to mind: as a teenager I ate many meals at my grandmother’s home---she was an amazing cook and I was a voracious eater! When Pam and I were dating we had one of those coupon books, we were students with almost no money and so we would eat wherever we could find a “buy one, get one free” meal. There were some terrible meals along the way, but it didn’t really matter—we were together. I think of our wedding rehearsal dinner; the venue we had selected burned to the ground ten days before our wedding! Once we got over the shock, we finally had the meal in my wife’s parents’ home.

I think of other meals that, in hindsight, were also unique. Our older daughter’s best friend in high school and college is of the Muslim faith. We had dinner, our family and her family, at a Chinese restaurant in Chapel Hill and at a Thai restaurant here in Charlotte. A year later her father, who was my age, died unexpectedly. I think of a meal in Jerusalem with an orthodox Jewish family on the Sabbath, and another with a community of Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, just a few miles but a universe away. I think of the meal we had for our younger daughter in the City Club here in Charlotte on the day she graduated from high school.

Meals are the occasions for many of life’s richest experiences. This is true for the Christian and faith. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me”. And so we eat this meal together. But what is really happening?

At the conclusion of the service I will say, “Communion draws us closer to God and closer to one another.” Communion has a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension has to do with grace. Holy Communion is a sacrament for us, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. What is grace? Something we did not earn, something we do not deserve, something we can never repay. And so those who take communion are not the deserving, those who have it all together. Those who take communion are hungry and thirsty for love, for grace, for God. That is the lesson from Isaiah. “You’re invited, come, sit down at the table, it has been set for you”….and then, “put that money away”, it is as if God is saying, “your money’s no good here”, you could not afford this meal and besides, I have made you a part of the family.”

That’s grace, the vertical dimension of communion: something we did not earn, something we do not deserve, something we can never repay. So it is a meal, but it is a meal that we eat together. It is spiritual but it is also social, it is vertical but it is also horizontal. And so we come together, we kneel together, we confess together, we receive together.

At the conclusion of worship I will ask us to join hands ---communion draws us closer to each other. There is a wonderful image of a wheel, as the spokes come nearer to the center, they are in closer relationship to each other. And this too is the grace of God, for we need human community. Someone commented to me, in the midst of the heightened H1N1 media focus, that some churches were bypassing the joining of hands in worship, the passing of the peace, and even communion itself. In that same week a member of our church told me, in a conversation in the Atrium, that since her husband had passed a few years ago she often goes days without touching another human being, and to grasp the hand of a friend beside her in worship is not something that she takes for granted. It is a blessing.

An additional word about the horizontal and social dimensions of the meal: it was very clear in the gospels that Jesus ate with sinners. He was criticized for this very purpose at the beginning of Luke 15, and this occasioned three parables---the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost (or prodigal) son. Methodist tradition grasps this in the hymn of Charles Wesley,

Come sinners to the gospel feast
let every soul be Jesus’ guest

And so we practice open communion: if you feel led to receive the grace of God (that’s vertical part) and if you will seek to live in peace with your neighbor (that’s the horizontal part), you are welcome. Just as you are.

Communion is a meal—providence, sustenance and grace; it is a meal that we share together; and it has a larger purpose. I thought this week about a common prayer that is often said in the contexts of fellowship dinners, and usually by members of the church, who are generally less wordy than preacher types. The prayer might go something like this: “Bless this food for our use and us in Thy service.” I have heard some variation of this prayer all of my life. Sometimes an addition phrase is added: “Bless this food for our use and us in Thy service, and make us mindful of the needs of others.”

So what is the larger purpose? The meal is not only for us, the meal has been prepared for all. Again, the communion hymn of Charles Wesley:

Come sinners to the gospel feast
let every soul be Jesus’ guest
You need not one be left behind
For God has bid all humankind

Or we can go back farther in the tradition, to a story about a hungry crowd, and the disciples who wanted to send them away, and Jesus’ comment, “you give them something to eat”, and the appeal to a little boy, “what do you have in your basket?”

Five loaves, two fish--That turns out to be sufficient for the multitudes and the lesson is clear: God’s grace is available to all and sufficient for all. And this is our mission: to connect the love and grace that we find here with the world. In the Great Thanksgiving, we say, about the elements,

Let them be for us the body and blood of Christ
That we may be for the world, the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

The gospel for this morning describes the human reality that the guest list is enormous but not all accept the invitation. We live in a culture that views worship in general, and Holy Communion in particular as an option. And so this morning, a brief argument with a culture (and it is present inside the church) that has marginalized the experience of communion for a variety of reasons: We do not feel spiritual, or we know that we are imperfect, or we simply do not have the time.

We are overwhelmed, and yet we are also undernourished.

In a culture that hungers for the Spirit, we have not maintained the centrality of the Table as the source of life-giving food for the soul. We have allowed our spiritual lives to become isolated from the body of Christ that sustains it, and we have become anemic in our response to the great challenges of the world. The Table is a reminder of our human need for communion with God and with each other, so that we might engage with the world that also needs this grace.

It is a busy week, and I do not have an appointment for lunch. So I gather some work and drive a couple of minutes to a nearby restaurant. I know them and they know me, and I order my usual: unsweetened tea with lemon, a Reuben, and a cup of the soup of the day. They take the order, bring the tea. I get involved in my work, the Sunday sermon, the calendar, the to-do list. I get more involved in it. The time is passing, but it is fine, it is quiet, they refill my tea. I am thinking about a meeting that is in the not to distant future, but I am also thinking,”I have really been here a long time!”

Then I look up from my notebook and realize that there is a bill for the lunch. There is one problem: the meal never came!

So I walk over and get someone’s attention: “ I’m not sure what happened….the food never came”. They are extremely embarrassed and profusely apologetic. It’s really not a huge problem, I say, they are trying to figure out what has happened, I am saying “I would still like to eat lunch while I am here!”

The waiter brings the soup, and quickly the Reuben, and will not let me pay, and then the manager comes by and gives me a card for two dinners there in the evening. I tell them it’s not necessary, I go there often, it’s not a big deal. Being the cheap person that I am, I am also thinking, “this is turning out pretty good.” To finish the story, I did leave a much more substantial tip than usual, and Pam and I enjoyed dinner there one evening the next week.

I share this to confess that what we do together, on Sunday mornings, is important. To be prepared for guests, to be prepared with music, to be prepared in prayer and with the words that are spoken. In our culture people are hungry and thirsty for something and they do not always find it in the church. The vertical dimension---that is between the individual and God, and so we ask, in prayer, for the outpouring of the spirit on us and on these gifts.

But the horizontal dimension---that is within our power. And this makes all the difference---when we welcome, or better yet invite someone we know to share a meal with us, or to share this meal with us, we are creating a space where our greatest gift and our more compelling need come join hands.

So, the invitation to a meal: when you commune this morning, you are in a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. That’s grace. When you commune this morning, you are not alone, you come with others, other sinners. That’s community. And if we have met God in this place, if we have met each other, in this place, we go into the world as different people: more aware of the faithfulness of God, more connected and less isolated, and, yes, more mindful of the needs of others. Amen.

Sources: Charles Wesley, “Come, Sinners to the Gospel Feast”, United Methodist Hymnal, 616; United Methodist Book of Worship.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

creativity and ministry

The week was somewhat unusual; in addition to the ordinary work of ministry--visits, phone calls, e-mail, an emerging sermon on communion, a staff meeting, and lunch with a leader of our church--there were three occasions of particular significance. For me the common thread was creativity.

On Tuesday morning I participated in a roundtable discussion led by Jacqueline Novogratz at Wofford College. I was invited by my friend Ron Robinson, and the morning concluded with her lecture on social investment in the world's poorest, especially in east Africa. Some of her story is found in her recently published The Blue Sweater, and the story that occasions the book's title is remarkable in and of itself. She talked about a third way in contrast to the markets, on the one hand, and top-down charity and development, on the other. Our congregation is deeply involved in a microcredit partnership in Haiti, so this was of great interest. Jacqueline is a person of great wealth and privilege, and she has channeled this background into the Acumen Fund; yet she is marked by a humility and generosity.

On Wednesday evening our congregation hosted Barnes Tatum, who gave a presentation on Jesus at the Movies. Barnes is a longtime and legendary professor at Greensboro College; he and his wife Linda were also charter members of Saint Timothy's UMC, a church that I helped to begin in the middle 1990s (Saint Tim's was 15 years old last year). Barnes is an authority on Jesus and film (see his Jesus at The Movies: A Guide to the First One Hundred Years), and he is an engaging and provocative lecturer. Afterward Barnes, Linda and I enjoyed a late dinner. Being a United Methodist pastor does have one vocational hazard (well there are more than one, but I focus on one here): you grow close to friends and then at some point you move on to a different congregation. I have always erred on the side of not interfering in settings I have left, but one misses friendships nonetheless. It was a great evening.

On Thursday and Friday morning, I took part in the Board of Visitors meeting at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. I graduated from Duke 27 years ago, in 1983; the school has changed dramatically, and all to the good. The faculty is nothing short of phemenonal: I could start with Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays, Geoffrey Wainwright, Richard Lischer, but the list goes on and on, and I would omit someone's favorite. Greg Jones has been a remarkable Dean over the past thirteen years, and he now moves into new role in International Strategy within the larger university. Richard Hays will serve as Dean for the next two years as a search is undertaken. Among the most memorable presentations were ones on the Faith and Leadership website and the work of the Center for Reconciliation.

The common thread across these events, for me, was creativity: an investment banker uses her skills and resources for a somewhat unusual purpose---to provide clean water and affordable housing among the poorest of the world's citizens, through large scale investments; a biblical scholar crosses into the terrain of popular culture in general and the medium of film in particular; a seminary dean engages in "traditioned innovation", connecting with business and medical schools to create needed modules for learning about leadership and global health. I came away from these experiences reflecting on my own need to see daily life and ministry in new and more creative ways.