Archive for June, 2011

But that’s a gift from God, too!

June 30, 2011

I still ♥ Sleater-Kinney. More than church, truth be told!

I’m sympathetic with the pastor who wrote this post. He complains that Christians’ passions are rarely awakened by worship in the same way they are by, say, sports or movies. After admitting to his own passionate response to action movies, he writes:

Now the point: nobody, I notice, engages my sermons this way. Nobody seems viscerally involved, vicariously transported, by my exposition of 1 Corinthians or my teasing out of the nuances of the Chalcedonian Creed. Occasionally, on one of my better days, my humor tickles them. My urgency moves them. My pathos touches them. And, quite often, a number of people get physical during the singing—arms lifted high, head tilted back, eyes closed. Some even dance, in a Baptist kind of way, which is to say they weave their shoulders slightly and do a little two-step with their feet.

But no one seems to lose themselves. No one gets as personally involved in word and worship as my father did with linebackers or as I do with action heroes.

When I was in seminary, I pastored a small church. We worshiped between 50 and 60 on Sundays. It was small enough that I would feel the absence of one or two large families on a given Sunday.

This was a slight problem for me in the fall, during college football season. One of the families that anchored the church—a family I love dearly—were also the most passionate University of Georgia football fans I’ve ever met (which is saying something, believe me). They traveled by entourage to all the games, both home and away. When there was an away game on Saturday, I could count on their large corner of the church being empty the next day, as they were traveling home from wherever UGA had played.

I hated those away games! My only consolation, as an embittered, die-hard Georgia Tech fan, was found in their losing those away games. I wanted to say to visitors to church on that Sunday, “It’s not usually this empty! Come back next week! Georgia’s playing at home!”

But I would be a liar and a hypocrite if I became too indignant about it. “Why do so many people like sports and movies more than church?” Heck, I like sports and movies more than church! I mean, not all sports and not just any movie, but I get passionate about these things—and especially music—more than I get passionate about going to church. As a pastor, I know I’m not supposed to say that, but it’s true.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is, by all means, the greatest story ever told. But we know the ending already. Worship isn’t surprising or suspenseful. Besides, saying that we get more passionate about things other than church isn’t the same as saying that we regard these things as more important or more necessary. I’m not saying that our passions can’t become idolatrous, but they don’t necessarily become that way.

Moreover, I don’t like the false dichotomy that this article implies. It says that there’s this part of the world that belongs to God—like churchgoing—and this part of the world that doesn’t belong to God—like sports and movies.

One Thanksgiving many years ago, my mom tried to implement a new tradition. As we gathered around the table for the meal, Mom had each of us—children, grandchildren, in-laws, friends—say one thing that we were thankful to God for. Most of the responses weren’t very original. “I’m thankful for my family.” “I’m thankful for my health.” “I’m thankful for Jesus.” I wanted to gag!

When it was my turn, I said, “I’m thankful for Sleater-Kinney.” I had to explain to my un-hip relatives that they were (at the time; they’ve since broken up) an amazing female punk-rock trio out of Olympia, Washington, who had set my world on fire the previous year. I ♥ Sleater-Kinney! Seriously! I still do!

My sister Susan scolded me: “Brent, be serious!” But I was serious! One thing I was very thankful to God for over the previous year was Sleater-Kinney. I found God in their music.

One thing I’m passionately interested in communicating to my parishioners is this: If it’s good, it’s from God. That good game is from God. That good movie is from God. That good piece of music is from God. Every good gift, if it’s truly good, is from God. So our hearts should be overflowing with gratitude for these gifts as well.

“The Tree of Life” is a great movie. You should see it.

June 29, 2011

I mentioned a while back that I fell in love with a movie trailer—the one for The Tree of Life. I saw the movie the weekend after it opened, and I’ve refrained from commenting until I had time to reflect on it. I need to see it again (and again). It’s not a film one can take in in a single viewing. (That’s what DVD is for, I guess.)

Also, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to love it—not with whatever combination of tastes and prejudices I share in common with its writer and director, Terrence Malick. So take my words with a grain of salt. But as you do, please go see it. You’ll have to go to an art-house theater. It won’t be at the big multiplex down the street. But it’s so worth it. It’s a great movie. Powerful. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the movie features the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen. I think Slate or Salon did a parody of Terrence Malick’s films a while back called “Nature documentary or Terrence Malick film?” Whatever. The nature part of this film, which includes the Big Bang and CGI dinosaurs, along with some spectacular astronomical and microbiological shots, is astonishingly good. These scenes communicate to the viewer, life, any and all life, is miraculous and good.

The heart of the movie leaves Jurassic Park behind after while (too long a while, Lisa, my wife, would want you to know) and settles in a small Texas town (Waco? I can’t remember) in the 1950s, with a family of two parents and three sons. We already know—I think it’s the opening scene in the film—that one of the three sons has died at 19. The mother gets word by telegram.

The movie seeks to probe the meaning of the son’s life and death. The tip-off is the quotation from Job, the beginning of God’s response to the put-upon victim of the Satan’s wiles: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

Biblical allusions abound. Here are a couple. When the oldest son (played as an adult by Sean Penn) is coming of age, around age 12, he says in a voiceover, “I can’t do what I want to do, but what I hate,” echoing Paul’s words in Romans 7. Another Romans reference: When the stern, ambitious father (played wonderfully by Brad Pitt, by the way, in a role intended for the late Heath Ledger, who would not have been better) loses the job for which he had sacrificed so much, he has a moment of self-awareness. He says to his wife, whom he accuses earlier in the film of being too soft on the children, “I missed the glory” (echoing Romans 3:23).

I have never seen a movie that said as much with so few words—not even close. The film is completely comfortable letting images (and the musical score) tell the story. Everything feels un-rushed, natural. The dialogue, such as it is, feels overheard, rather than scripted or staged. Watch the scenes in which the oldest brother, about three years old at the time, plays with his baby brother. The camera just lingers there! I’ve never seen that before. It’s so incredibly beautiful! Again, it communicates, life is miraculous and good.

I felt this way about many other scenes, including these: The brothers’ running through a field and rolling down a grassy hill. Or children playing in a fog of DDT behind a pesticide truck.

A couple of recurring symbols predominate: The sky is God. Not that we needed to hear this, but the mother tells one of her sons earlier, “God lives up there.” With that in mind, I’ll have to think about the differences between shots of open sky versus the sky mediated through windows (another motif). Water is grace (I think). There’s a surreal scene in which a child is swimming in his room (which is underwater). But there’s also a scene in which a child drowns in a pool. Hmm… I’ll have to think about that.

Again, that’s what DVDs are for. The studio didn’t send me a reviewer’s copy.

In one of the film’s more controversial series of scenes (controversial because it goes against the grain of a deeply pessimistic popular culture), Penn reunites with his brother and family—in a heavenly place, represented by a beach and ocean, naturally. This appears to be a vision—rather than Penn’s character’s afterlife—because after this reunion, we see him in present time, with a faint smile on his face. We know that he’ll be O.K.

Sermon for 06-26-11: “Roman Road, Part 3: The Faithfulness of Christ”

June 28, 2011

This sermon is Part 3 of our Vinebranch series, “Roman Road,” which takes us through Paul’s letter to the Romans. In today’s scripture, Romans 3:21-31, Paul turns the corner in his argument: whereas before, all humanity is standing the dock, awaiting the Judge’s verdict of “guilty,” now there’s a surprise! Verse 21 begins “But now…”

“But now,” Paul writes, because of what Christ accomplishes through the cross, we can have life and salvation, even though our sin deserved death and hell. This sermon tells the story of this good news. Enjoy!

Sermon Text: Romans 3:21-31

I could cite many examples of times in my life when I became deeply, painfully aware of the depths of my sinfulness. And some of you are probably like, “Do tell…” We are, after all, deeply curious about other people’s sin. I guess it makes us feel better about our own problem with sin. One congressman has been in the news recently, as most of us know, for tweeting or texting inappropriate photos of himself to various women who are not his wife. And lying about it repeatedly before fessing up when the evidence contradicted his alibi.

Naturally the congressman has checked himself into a rehab center. Is there a rehab center for everything these days? Got a problem with gossip? Better go to rehab. Got a problem with jealousy, envy, covetousness? Rehab it is. Got a problem with greed and materialism? Rehab… The truth is all of us, because of our sin, could be eligible for rehab. And we do go to rehab—every week I hope. It’s called church. Church should be, among other things, a rehab center for sinners. Amen? “My name is Brent, and I’m a sinner.” Could you turn to the person sitting next to you, and say that? See, we’re all in the same boat here. We all have the same problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Why the Methodist position on gays won’t change

June 27, 2011

This article is a bit smart-alecky for my tastes, but I appreciate that unlike every other article I read in the wake of last week’s Amy DeLong trial, this one describes why that trial’s outcome won’t affect the church’s stance on homosexuality. DeLong’s light and symbolic sentence (a 20-day suspension plus she has to write a term paper) isn’t a harbinger. Mark Tooley explains why.

Given the indignant howls on Twitter among DeLong’s supporters [see #loveontrial (ed. note: gag!)], I couldn’t help but enjoy this part:

But during the trial, in a rare instance of real life actually imitating television drama, the church’s prosecutor reportedly ignited “audible gasps” from the audience when he asked DeLong if she had “genital contact” with her partner. Apparently asking an actual question about sex, at a trial about sex, gave the courtroom crowd, mostly DeLong’s supporters, the vapors, though hopefully nobody fainted. DeLong declined to answer.

The God-setting-things-right

June 27, 2011

I haven’t paid much attention over the years to Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase, but I loved the way he translated/paraphrased Romans 3:21-24. Originally, I was going to quote it in my sermon yesterday, but I cut it in the interest of time.

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

The Common English Bible’s translation of v. 22a, “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” becomes “The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us.” “Righteousness,” a difficult word to translate in English, isn’t simply an attribute of God meaning that God always does the right thing. It’s active. It describes the way in which God sets things right. The Message captures that nuance.

Romans series: what to leave in, what to leave out

June 25, 2011

I’m enjoying our sermon series in Romans. It’s a challenge for me. Romans is Paul’s masterpiece, and the fullest, most concentrated statement of the gospel in the New Testament. But it’s difficult because it’s packed with meaning. No wasted words, no asides, no unimportant tangents. Every word, we should safely assume, serves Paul’s argument.

With that in mind, I’ve had great difficulty skipping over sections of the letter. If you look at the original schedule, you’ll see that I’ll have spent three weeks saying what I intended to say in one. At the same time, we don’t have time to go through the letter verse by verse.

So I thought I’d give you a brief update on what I’ve left out so far…

Which is mostly Paul’s reason for writing the letter in the first place! Sorry about that!

His main reason goes back to Paul’s thesis sentence in Romans 1:17-18: God’s righteousness. Of course, I’ve talked about God’s righteousness—in terms of God’s justifiable anger over sin and God’s way of dealing with the problem and “putting the world to rights” (as N.T. Wright likes to say). But I’ve talked about it in a very general way so far, whereas Paul also talks about it in a specific way: as it relates to God’s people Israel. This is what Paul deals with in Romans 2 and most of chapter 3 (which my sermons skip).

If God is righteous, that means two things: First, God is committed to justice—and dealing with sin, which is nothing less than a violation of God’s justice. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Jew and Gentile alike. But if that’s the case, where does that leave Israel? After all, God’s righteousness means not only that God is committed to seeing that justice is done (the usual way we think about righteousness), but that God is also a God who keeps his promises to Israel, his covenant people. Has God turned his back on Israel and the covenant—as if God said, “Well, I tried it this way, by establishing a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, but that failed, so I better try something else”?

That may be the way it appears, Paul says, but that isn’t what’s happened at all! It’s true that Israel failed to be faithful in its mission to reveal God to the world. (Given the nature of sin, how could they not?) The Old Testament prophets have a lot to say about this failure. Does that mean, therefore, that God’s promises to Abraham wouldn’t come true? That God had abandoned the covenant? No! Because now, Paul argues—in an unexpected way that few could imagine (although it’s clear from Isaiah 53, among other scriptures)—God enabled Israel to be successful in its mission: through Jesus, God’s Son, the Messiah, Israel’s faithful representative. Jesus did what did what Israel couldn’t do, so that through Abraham’s offspring the world would indeed be blessed.

Among other things, this means that the way Romans 3:22 is often translated (that God’s righteousness comes through “faith in” Jesus) is misleading. It should be translated—as the new Common English Bible translates it: “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” The Greek is ambiguous: it could mean “faith of,” “faith in,” or “faithfulness of.” The faithfulness of Jesus makes the most sense: it carries with it the meaning of both Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s covenant with Israel, and his life of sinless obedience to the Father. The emphasis is on what Christ has accomplished for the world, not on what we accomplish—as if placing faith in Jesus were a kind of meritorious work that Paul himself loudly excludes in the rest of the letter.

Besides, translating it as the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him” avoids the redundancy of the NIV or NRSV, which reads “faith in Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” “Faith in Jesus for all who have faith in Jesus” is an awkward thing to say.

I’m not a Greek scholar. I’m leaning heavily, as I so often do, on N.T. Wright. Specifically, his words in Abingdon’s New Interpreter’s Bible commentary.

I hope this helps. If I were teaching a Bible study on Romans, I would talk through this stuff as well. As it is, I’m preaching sermons, and I hope you’re enjoying them!

“The quiet of a suburban home”

June 24, 2011

(This post follows up nicely on yesterday’s post about hell from C.S. Lewis.)

I finally finished reading a challenging book about Christian reconciliation called Exclusion & Embrace by Miroslav Volf, a theologian from Croatia who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He believes that a Christian commitment to nonviolence (which he affirms almost without qualification) must be premised upon God’s violence, i.e., the God of love is also a God of vengeance. Christ as suffering Messiah does not contradict Christ as the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. Only God can resort to violence justly.

He observes that Christians of the Anabaptist tradition (for example, Mennonites and Amish), who tend to be most committed to nonviolence in this world, are themselves most comfortable in talking about God’s vengeance at the end of it. Volf believes that’s the right perspective.

Maybe this talk of a violent God—as opposed to a God who is always “nice”—makes us uncomfortable? Here’s his devastating response:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

More on God’s “giving them up”

June 22, 2011

I said in my sermon on Sunday that we Methodists speak of grace so loosely sometimes that we may give the impression (never saying it out loud, since it sounds so blasphemous!) that grace is God’s finally giving in to us, letting us have our way, not getting so worked up about sin. Is there a small, sinful part of us that may wish that God would just leave us alone?

In Romans 1:18-32, however, Paul says that God’s leaving us alone is the opposite of grace: it’s punishment. After all, what does Paul say is God’s response to human rebellion? What, in other words, is the consequence of God’s wrath? Paul says it three times: “God gave them up.” This is exactly the meaning of letting us do our own thing.

Paul isn’t speaking here of final judgment or hell, and let’s please be careful: God’s letting us—as punishment that may lead us to repentance—experience, however partially and imperfectly, the consequences of our sinful actions in this life does not preclude punishment in hell. It can’t, as a matter of justice. But I wonder if Paul’s words don’t point in the direction of the nature of that punishment.

C.S. Lewis thinks so. In the chapter entitled “Hell,” of his beautiful book The Problem of Pain, Lewis takes a cue from Paul’s words in Romans. He describes hell as the final and ultimate state of God’s “giving us up.”

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a  fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 130.

Cheerleading in the AP for repeal of Methodist gay ban

June 21, 2011

One AP writer is obviously rooting for the UMC to overturn its ban on gay ordination and marriage

The Associated Press is responsible for a wildly misleading article about the United Methodist Church’s ban on gay marriage and ordination, which appeared yesterday on many news websites including the USA Today. Read the article for yourself and see if you can’t detect which side the reporter is on in the dispute.

As someone who mostly slept through church polity class in seminary, I can only imagine how complicated the UMC’s system of government is. I don’t expect reporters not steeped in the nuances of the Book of Discipline to get the details right. But this article fails any standard of objective journalism, including answering the five W’s: who, what, where, when, and why. I know these are lean times in the newspaper industry, but don’t they still employ editors?

Here are some major problems with the article, paragraph by paragraph.

Methodist pastors have been marrying same-sex couples or conducting blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions for years with little fanfare and no backlash from the denomination.

Where? Who? How many? Is the lack of backlash from the denomination because the denomination doesn’t care that clergy are breaking church law, or are the clergy performing these services secretly? The latter seems far more likely, especially since—as the article rightly points out—there have been periodic church trials over the years against clergy who perform these services.

In fact, according to the article, the minister whose trial is being highlighted, Rev. Amy DeLong, is only on trial because she told church officials what she was doing. If she hadn’t done that, she likely would not be on trial now. But it wouldn’t be because the UMC didn’t have a problem with it—or that they were silently endorsing her actions.

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Sermon for 06-19-11: “Roman Road, Part 2: God Gave Them Up”

June 20, 2011

Sermon Text: Romans 1:18-32

The following is my original manuscript.

I’ve mentioned Serena in the past. Do you know Serena? Serena is my GPS receiver. My kids gave her that name on our first car trip with her. She speaks with an English accent, and she never gets lost. And she never judges me for my poor sense of direction. Just last week, Serena guided me to Annual Conference in Athens, but I missed my turn from Highway 120 to 316 and accidentally got on I-85. It wasn’t Serena’s fault. She told me where to turn, but I wasn’t listening to her voice. I was, in fact, listening to another voice—the voice of a narrator of a really interesting story on public radio’s This American Life.

According to Paul in today’s scripture, we human beings are a little bit like this when it comes to God. We are lost with a very faulty sense of direction. Spiritually speaking, we can’t get our bearings straight and our internal GPS system, which should naturally point us in the direction of God, has been badly compromised by sin. God has continually sent us signals about where to go, but—like me on my way to Athens—we’re not paying attention. We constantly make the wrong turn. In verses 19 and 20, Paul writes that within the fabric of Creation itself are signposts pointing us in the direction of the one true God.
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