Friday, April 29, 2011

Invited Guests

“The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
-Matthew 22:8-10 (NIV)

Unless you’ve spent the last few months shipwrecked on a deserted island, you probably know that there was a big wedding this week.
    At around 6 AM Chicago time on Friday morning, Prince William, the presumptive future King of England, married Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey in London. There were nearly two thousand guests invited inside the Abbey for the ceremony, and another million lined the processional route outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of Kate and William. Two billion, or more, by some accounts, are estimated to have watched on TV or the internet, which would, I suppose, make it the most watched event in history.    
    The guests inside Westminster Abbey, in their formal attire, and the ritual of the Anglican  wedding ceremony, contrasted sharply with the bystanders outside. England observed a national holiday for the wedding, and the streets were seemingly filled with revelers. They draped themselves in Union Jacks and flags of other nations, wore William and Kate masks, and cheered the royal couple and their union boisterously. They camped out overnight, hoping just to get a glimpse of William and Kate. I wonder how many of those spectators, at some point today, wished for just a moment that they’d received an invitation and could join the festivities inside the Abbey, or the reception at Windsor Castle.
    Jesus once (at least once) told a story about a royal wedding - the wedding of a prince. In his story, though, the spectators don’t line the streets and wave at the carriage as the prince and his bride ride by. No one seems very excited at all, in fact. In fact, when it comes time to celebrate, the response seems to be a collective yawn. Social event of the century? Hardly. The invited guests are too busy with their fields and their businesses to be bothered even to attend. Some are downright hostile to the servants sent to invite them, and some even kill the servants. It’s an intentionally upside-down story - a king who can’t find enough guests to fill the dining room for his son’s wedding banquet. Who could imagine?
    Refusing a king has consequences, though, and in this story the consequences are severe. In punishment for their refusal of his invitation, the king destroys the ungrateful guests and burns their city. Declining the king’s gracious invitation has deadly repercussions in Jesus’ story.
    But then the king tries again. He sends out his servants with new instructions: “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” Just what the commoners who lined the streets of London this morning would have loved: for Queen Elizabeth herself to come out and personally invite them to the festivities. The king’s servants do what he asks them to. They invite anyone they see: rich or poor, attractive or ugly, healthy or sick -- “both good and bad,” the story goes. Because the king wants the banquet hall full in celebration of his son’s happiness.
    The story, of course is not about a wedding banquet at all. Like so many of Jesus’ stories, it’s about the way things are with the Kingdom of God. Stories like this help us to get a handle on an idea that seems very abstract to us: living in a world where God’s will is always done, in everything and by everyone. The fallen world we live in tells us that kind of world doesn’t exist, and never will. But Jesus came to tell us that it does exist, and to make it possible for us to be a part of it, and to invite us in right now. The story of commoners being invited to the royal wedding speaks volumes of the nature of the Kingdom, and of the grace of the King.
    “The Kingdom of God is a party,” said a friend of mine once, years ago. We’d do well to remind ourselves of that when we start taking ourselves too seriously, or when we argue a little too long and a little too angrily over some small point of doctrine, or feel just a little too self-righteous. And we’d especially do well to remind ourselves of it when the burden of the kingdom seems too heavy, its weight too much to bear. We’d do well to remind ourselves that, however long and arduous the journey may be, and whatever we may have to give up to get there, what we’ve been invited to after all is a celebration. To receive God’s invitation to share in his kingdom and be preoccupied only with the trivialities that pass for fields and businesses in our lives is a dead giveaway that we haven’t really heard the invitation at all. It’s to turn up our noses at the gracious invitation of a God who only wants our presence at his table.
    It’s a fact, of course, that the presence of the commoners at the wedding in Jesus’ story had  something to do with the failure of the intended guests to realize what they had been offered. Whether we read that as an implicit commentary on the rejection of Jesus by the chief priests, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law, or as something else, the important point for us it that it’s possible to reject the invitation - even for the very people who you’d think would be most likely to appreciate it. It’s possible that we can get so caught up in “fields” and “business,” in the urgent press of mundane human life, that we hear the King’s invitation as just another item on our already-crowded “to-do” lists. Just another demand on our time. When we shut ourselves off from Jesus, or consider following him as just another burden to bear, we disregard his invitation to enter the Kingdom and share in its life.
    But may that never be. May we realize what we’ve been offered, and the price paid to secure that invitation for us. May we turn aside from the many things that distract us and follow him as he beckons us from the streets, through the gates, and into the palace. May we rejoice as he takes away our beggars’ rags and replaces them with clothes fit for a royal wedding. And may we celebrate as we take our seats and dig into the banquet his Father has laid out before us.
    William and Kate who?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Resurrection Vocabulary

   For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if  Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
    But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
-1 Corinthians 15:16-23 (NIV)

If, as William Shakespeare once wrote, “all the world’s a stage,” then Illinois Governor Pat Quinn wants us all to play a little Hamlet or King Lear tomorrow.
    The Governor issued a proclamation this week designating Saturday, which would have been the bard’s 447 birthday, “Talk Like Shakespeare Day” in Illinois. Laying aside any cynical observations I may have about politicians wanting to make their language more difficult to understand, the idea actually originated as an educational effort by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Marilyn Halperin, he theater's director of education, explains, “We're looking at a culture where...our sentences are getting shorter and our vocabulary is getting smaller.” She estimates that Shakespeare contributed 1,700 words to the English vocabulary, and hopes the day will help us to appreciate the Shakespearean origins of many of the words we use regularly.
    The theater offers some tips on speaking like Shakespeare, including:
    • use “thee” and “thou” instead of “you.” “Ye” is the equivalent of “y’all.”
    • stick a few “-eth” suffixes on your verbs.
    • be creative with your insults, if you must use them at all. “Jackanape” or “clouted doghearted dewberry” sound great when shouted at other drivers in heavy traffic.
    Truth be told, I don’t think I’ll be speaking like Shakespeare tomorrow. But, if we learn anything from Shakespeare, it’s that words matter. And that significant people and events can change the way we speak by changing the parameters of what’s true and right. If something important enough happens, it can give us a whole new vocabulary and and change the way we talk about ourselves and the world we inhabit.
    We’re celebrating an event like that this weekend, in fact. Believers celebrate Jesus’  resurrection every Sunday - it’s why we gather for worship and share the Lord’s Supper on Sundays in the first place. But Easter gives us an annual opportunity for some extended reflection on the significance of the resurrection. Most of us  probably focus on, think about, and talk about the death of Jesus much more than his resurrection. We thank God for the cross whenever we ask for forgiveness. We sometimes talk about the personal sacrifices of loving someone else in terms of the cross. We think of disease or hardship sometimes as “a cross we have to bear,” and sometimes think of obeying and living like Jesus as “carrying our cross.” All that’s fine, of course, and right, and biblical.
    It has no meaning, though, without the resurrection.
    While Western religious art tends to picture Jesus on the cross, or in his mother’s arms after his death, Eastern religious art is much more likely to picture him risen and victorious. We can probably get off-balance in either direction, but as a Western Christian I probably need to be reminded that Christ is risen.  Lots of people have died because of the sins of others - and sometimes even in lieu of those who deserved to die. But we don’t claim their deaths secure forgiveness for anyone. Who’d want to carry their cross if it led only to death - and not through it, to life and hope? The cross, in and of itself, is no more hopeful a symbol of our faith than a guillotine or gallows. It’s not the fact that Jesus was laid in a tomb that gives us hope - it’s that his tomb was empty three days later. That’s when his followers knew that the game had changed; that’s when they started preaching and writing about forgiveness and life in his name.
    That’s when they came out of hiding and started putting their lives on the line for the gospel.
    On Pentecost, Peter preached the resurrection. Paul did, too. They built a whole  new vocabulary, a new way of speaking and thinking, that revolved around Jesus’ resurrection. After he was raised, they started reading the Jewish Scriptures differently. Paul plays his “what if?” game in 1 Corinthians 15, and reminds us that things would be much different without Jesus’ resurrection. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,” he reminds us, so in Christ all will be made alive.” “All who belong to him,” at least.
    Our world, with its stunted vocabulary for talking about hope, needs us to witness to the resurrection of Jesus as much as it ever has. Jesus’ resurrection is sometimes easily forgotten, buried under the demands of our busy lives and the immediacy of hardship, pain, and death. All the more reason for us rediscover and develop in our own practice the biblical vocabulary of resurrection. Not medieval theology, or denominational dogma, but the confident trust of Jesus’ first followers that an empty first-century tomb outside of Jerusalem changed everything.
    So let’s talk about his resurrection. Let’s tell the people around us unashamedly and without reservation that the hope we have has its source there.
    Let’s remind our youth-obsessed friends that aging isn’t to be feared. Let’s challenge the  terrible tyranny of death over our culture by disrupting the silence around the whole topic with the good news that Jesus’ resurrection gives life to those who are his.
    When we grieve over loss and death, may it not be as those who "have no hope". May our sadness over living our lives here in the absence of someone we love be tempered with joy in a fellow believers’ going to be with the Lord, and the anticipation of seeing him again when Christ returns.
    And may our own lives reflect the conviction that pain and hardship are not evils to be avoided at all costs, but are marks of “the fellowship of sharing in [Christs’] sufferings” and the means by which we come to know him - and the power of his resurrection. May we say, with Paul - and mean it -  that what really matters is only that Christ is exalted in us - whether through our death or our life.
    Like Shakespearean language, this new vocabulary will sound strange to modern ears. But we’re the only ones speaking it right now, and if the world doesn’t hear it through us they may not at all. But if they do hear it, then it might be that God will raise up a great nation of people, from every race, tribe, language, and ethnicity on earth, who will learn to speak the common language of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


    I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.... For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
-Romans 1:16-17 (NIV)

So I’ve officially been called a hobbit. And I think I like it.
    Ted Campbell, who’s a Professor of Church History at Southern Methodist University, writes a blog called “Heartcore Methodist.” Recently he’s been looking at the practice and theology of various denominations and religious fellowships under the title “Why the name of denomination here Were Right.” Early last month, he focused on the Churches of Christ.
    Having grown up in Churches of Christ, I think sometimes I might focus too much on our faults and eccentricities, so it was refreshing to me to read an “outsider’s” positive thoughts about us. Read the blog entry yourself if you’re interested in the particulars, but here’s a thumbnail sketch of what Campbell suggests are the areas in which we may see a little more clearly than some other fellowships.
    He says, first, that we “have a profound insight into Christian music and its place in worship,” and wonders if the church has “gone too far with our instrumental fetish in worship.” Sometimes I think that the vocal music for which we’re known might be more about tradition than it is any “profound insights,” but I appreciate as well our focus on simple, unadorned human voices glorifying the One who gave us voice. (Of course, I suppose he gives talent for playing musical instruments as well, doesn’t he?)
    He says that we’ve “got the right name.” He says that the name “Church of Christ” sounds “pretty straightforward by contrast” to other denominations and fellowships. He writes, “Like the New Testament, they just name their congregations for the places where they meet....” I don’t really know if the New Testament church really named themselves like that, but I see his point. And I’ve always liked the fact that our name reflects that we belong to Jesus. (Even if our lives don’t always.)
    Campbell also appreciates that we “celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.” He points out that we “haven’t fallen for Protestants’ quirky idea that words can suffice in place of bread and wine,” he says.  He appreciates the “simple prayers” that we say over the bread and cup. While I suppose our prayers aren’t always so heartfelt, and maybe our words can still get in the way of the Lord’s Supper, I, too, would list weekly celebration of Communion as one of our strengths. Nothing calls us together, and reminds us of who we are and why, like gathering around the table together with our Lord.
    Campbell also likes our historic insistence that “there really is only one Church of Christ.” He goes on to explain, “that’s one of the cardinal claims of the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, and the Churches of Christ were way out front in making us aware of that claim.” True enough. We’ve advocated for the unity of the church from day one, even if we haven’t necessarily always had attitudes that were actually very conducive to unity.
    Campbell’s last point is that “The simplicity of the Churches of Christ allows them to focus on what is most important, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I started thinking about the number of invitations I’ve heard in my lifetime, “invitation songs” I’ve sung. While some might think our theology too simple, not nuanced enough - and sometimes rightly so - I think maybe Campbell’s correct. It’s hard to walk away from one our worship services without hearing the gospel of Christ proclaimed.
    That’s where Campbell calls us the “hobbits of the Christian world: not a lot of technological razzmatazz, not a lot of heavy emotion, not an elaborate or sophisticated liturgy, they just get the job done.” I can live with that. Our churches are characterized by a “primitive simplicity,” he suggests. “We’d do well to learn from them and thank God for their witness.”
    The fact is, of course, that Churches of Christ are far from the first to witness to the “primitive simplicity” of the gospel. And we’re as likely as anyone else to get distracted by peripheral concerns. But the best we do, the most faithful we get, is when we remember that the power of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus.
    As a matter of fact, come to think of it, the other four things that Campbell commends us for have value only to the degree that they help us to focus on the gospel. There’s always the danger that our churches can start to imagine that our identity has mainly to do with vocal music or the name on our signs or the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Christian unity. And, in fact, we have at times imagined exactly that. But none of those practices or aspirations mean much, do they, if we lose sight of the gospel?
    Wherever we may go to church on Sundays, whatever traditions we embrace or resist, may we never forget that the power of God is revealed to a broken, unraveling world through the gospel. It won’t be through our innovative evangelism methods or inspiring music or moral uprightness or faithfulness to whatever interpretations of whatever Scriptures we deem central to the faith that people come back to their God. It’ll be because the power of God is unleashed in the message entrusted to us. When we find our identity in historical, doctrinal, or institutional peculiarities, the best we can say is “Look how righteous we are.” But when we look to the gospel to find who we are, and faithfully and without embarrassment proclaim that word, we say to world around us, “Look at what our God has done for all of us!”
    How evident is the gospel in your church’s ministries, activities, committees, budget, and mission statement? Whatever the historical record of our congregations or denominations in proclaiming the good news of Jesus, in each generation we must make the decisions anew regarding who we’ll be and what will matter to us. What can you do, in the roles that you play in your church, to make sure that the gospel is front and center? How can you help your church to be known for their proclamation, in word and deed, of the gospel of Jesus?
    Related, of course, is the question of how evident the gospel is in your life. Do your words, your actions, your values, and your priorities reflect that you are unashamed of the gospel? That you believe God’s power is revealed most completely in that story?
    “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be,” wrote Paul. That being the case, we might expect that no one group or fellowship of believers at any particular time and place in history would adequately represent the height and depth and width and scope of God’s grace. But we can - and must - all bear witness to the gospel as he gives us opportunity.
    Even us hobbits.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bread Alone

After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
    Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ “    
-Matthew 4:2-4 (NIV)

You just knew all those potlucks and fellowship lunches were going to come back to haunt you, didn’t you?
    A new study at Northwestern University has found a link between obesity and regular church attendance.
    For 18 years, the University’s Feinberg School of Medicine tracked 2,433 young adults in Chicago, Minneapolis, Birmingham, and Oakland. The study found that “frequent participants” in church services and other events were fifty percent more likely to become obese by middle age as those who participated in no religious events. (For purposes of the study, a “frequent participant” is defined as someone who attends at least one religious event per week.) Matthew Feinstein, the lead investigator in the study, said that the study had not been able to determine reasons for the correlation, but that “the upshot of these findings highlight a group that could benefit from targeted efforts at obesity prevention.”
    It seems to me that the study poses more questions than it answers. I’d like to know more about the 2,433 subjects, for instance: what else might the frequent religious participants have had in common economically, culturally, educationally? There are documented predictors of obesity that tie to all of those factors, as well. More to the point, though, I wonder what, exactly, about regular church attendance might contribute toward obesity. Should we be more careful about what, and how much, we eat at those church suppers and dinners on the ground? Should churches do away with coffee and doughnut time?
    Questions about the study aside, however, it does suggest at least the possibility that maybe believers don’t take seriously enough the link between physical and spiritual health. Obesity, we know, can be due to many factors, and the standards for defining obesity in the first place can change drastically. Still, it might be that the impulse of our time to sharply delineate between the sacred and secular parts of our lives has done us no favors. We simply imagine that what, or how much, we eat is a matter of indifference to our God.
    Notice, though, that the Bible actually has quite a lot to say about moderation in indulging ourselves:
    The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!     (Numbers 11:4-6)

Do not join those who drink too much wine
or gorge themselves on meat,
for drunkards and gluttons become poor,
and drowsiness clothes them in rags.     (Proverbs 23:20-21)

...Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18-19)

    In our culture of plenty, the word “glutton” has almost lost all meaning. It implies overindulgence in food or drink, but it also implies overconcern with food, or preoccupation with eating only what we enjoy most, right when we want it. Early church leaders recognized that the sin of gluttony could show itself in guises other than overeating. Eating frequently, or craving delicacies, or even eating too eagerly could all be signs of a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with indulging the palate.
    Everyone knows what the sin of Sodom was. So it’s surprising when the prophet Ezekiel, in naming the city’s transgressions, emphasizes rather that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” The problem, if those who go to church regularly really are more likely to be obese, is certainly not that our culture considers obesity unattractive. The primary problem isn’t even the health issues that go along with obesity, though if we think of God as our Creator then we certainly should be careful stewards of our bodies. The real problem is a theological one. To overindulge in food is, perhaps, to forget that lesson that Jesus learned so powerfully in going entirely without food for forty days: “Human beings do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
    In a world in which hunger is rampant, where children still starve to death, it’s a poor witness to the gospel if the American church is overfed and overindulged. It suggests that we might be parking love, righteousness, and generosity at the dining room door. It casts us as the rich man, enjoying our luxury while Lazarus longs for our crumbs well within arm’s reach. It tells the world  that our god is our stomach, our highest purpose to fill it with all the food it growls for.
    An overindulged church gets so used to responding to the body’s cravings that we lose our appreciation for the grace of God. We find it hard to be truly thankful for peanut butter and jelly when what’s on our minds is steak and lobster. If Jesus refused to create bread out of stones after forty days of hunger, might it be good for all of us - whatever our waist sizes may be - to push ourselves back from the table every now and then? I wonder what we might discover about God? About ourselves? About the people God has called us to love and serve?
    Jesus assumed that his followers would fast (Matthew 6:16), so maybe that’s a practice the church would do well to rediscover. To follow our Lord in sometimes telling our stomachs to wait while we spend time in prayer, or in service, or in worship is to discover who truly feeds us and fills us and gives us life.  Maybe we should replace some of our fellowship lunches with  “fellowship fasts,” in which we worship and pray and serve those around us - especially those who are hungry.
    And maybe it’s time to be more thankful for the food we enjoy - and less particular about it. “Everything God created is good,” wrote Paul, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” In the end, “to eat or not to eat” is the wrong question. God, after all, created us with the need to eat and the capacity to enjoy it. The right question is, “What’s my attitude toward these blessings I’m receiving? And toward the God who gives them?”
    That’s more important than your waistline, any day.