Friday, February 24, 2017

Ragged Clothes and Broken Wineskins

     No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.”
-Luke 5:36-39 (NIV)

Earlier this month, I hit my twenty-third year at the church where I minister. By some measures, that’s not a very long time. I know of guys who have been with their churches for 40, 50 years. Twenty-three years is  very nearly half my life, though. It says more about the patience of the church than it does about me, I’m sure. But I’ve been a part of this church longer than I’ve been a part of any other.
     Something happens, though, when you’ve been a part of a church for so long. You start to get invested. Invested in the other members and their lives, of course; but also invested in the status quo. You stop noticing things: little things that might be getting in the way of your mission, distracting things that might take people’s eyes off Jesus, secondary things that may have become primary. The peeling paint in the foyer, the unhealthy relationships among some of the members, the misplaced emphases of the teaching coming from your own pulpit — these things can just become part of the backdrop, the setting in which you live. You’re no more conscious of them than you are of the air you breathe. You could no more describe them than a fish could describe the water around him. 
     It was that kind of problem, it seems, that Jesus was confronting with his parables of old and new. The religious leaders of his day were operating with the stale air of “that’s just how it’s done” all around them. He wanted to open a window for them; they were content to just gasp and puff along. That air, after all, had been good enough for generations before them. Their rules were out of touch, and in fact kept them out of touch with the people who most needed them. They were defending their theology while everyone else around Jesus was seeing the “remarkable things” he was doing and giving praise to God. They were doing what Jesus said in his parable that no one would ever consider doing — sacrificing the new to patch up the old.  
     I’m guessing Jesus hadn’t been to church lately.
     It’s so easy to sacrifice the new to keep the old going just a little longer. Listen, I’ve been the new guy in a church, champing at the bit to change everything. I’m the old guy now — well, older — who might sometimes be too invested in keeping the old limping along. I can tell you which is easier, which requires less of you. I’ve rolled my eyes when people have invoked the status quo, and I’ve been the invoker. I’ve put my shoulder against the brick wall of tradition a few times, and a few times I’ve probably picked up trowel and mortar to shore it up. I have held up the new garment and advocated changing out of the old rags, but I’ve also probably ruined the new trying to create patches for the old out of it.    
     Once you’re invested, it can be hard to discard the old in favor of the new.
     I get it now. If you’re one of the iconoclasts — one of those folks who’s always looking around for an old garment to discard and a new one to take its place — and you’re amazed at the intransigence of those who insist that the old garment just needs a patch or two, well, one of these days — and it’ll happen faster than you imagine — your garment will be old. And maybe you’ll remember me.
     But that’s not to say you should shut up. The church needs the iconoclasts. We need the people who will look at the church’s old garments and see them for what they are. When the old guard show up in our polyester leisure suits and white shoes, thinking we look fly, we need people who have the good sense to tell us to please get a new tailor. Please be patient. Please be gentle. But remind us that it doesn’t make sense to keep cannibalizing what should be our future in order to hang on to our past a little longer.
     This week I was talking with someone about the projector in our worship space. He was remembering  when our church didn’t have air conditioning or a sound system. He wasn't advocating a return to the old days. He had discarded those rags. So, you see — the old guard can change. It might not be easy for us sometimes, and sometimes we might just need to see through the eyes of someone who is a little less tangled up in nostalgia. But we can do it.
     See, sometimes in the church we resist throwing out the old because we get afraid of what could be lost. That’s not a bad impulse. Problem is, we follow a  Lord who didn’t seem the least worried about that. He went around telling and showing people that in him, God had come near and was welcoming people into his house. What he preached was a new thing. It had its roots in who God had always been and what he had always done. That’s how people should have been able to recognize it. But it was new, in so many ways. New, like new wine. And, as he reminded the old guard, you don’t put new wine in old wineskins. They won’t hold it. The brittle skins will crack, the brittle seams will burst, and the new wine will be lost. 
     But, see, the church has always had a tendency to confuse the wineskins for the wine. We settle on our buildings, our liturgies, our ministries, our ways of doing things. By virtue of tradition, or preference, or efficacy, or culture, or some combination of those, we choose our wineskins. And, for a while, they hold the wine of the good news of the Kingdom of God very well. And people drink, and their thirst is quenched.
     But then those wineskins start to get brittle. Our songs don’t have the same meaning. Our preaching doesn’t connect like it once did. We’re trying to meet needs that no longer exist or respond to questions no one is asking anymore. And God is doing something new. And our old wineskins won’t contain it, and the wine gets lost, and everyone goes thirsty. And, here’s the problem: we defend the wineskins.
     The good news is that the wineskins can be replaced. There’s no reason to fear that anyone is rejecting the wine. We just need to find some new skins that will contain the always-new, always-vital good news of Jesus. We just have to stop the knee-jerk reflex of thinking that “old” and “better” are synonyms.
     God helping me, I don’t intend to get hung up on the fashions of yesterday. I don’t intend to hoard old, cracked glasses that no longer hold the wine of the gospel. I may be getting old — well, older — but I still want to be a part of the new things God is doing in his church and in his world.
     Just give me a minute to say goodbye to those old leisure suits. They were pretty sharp in their day.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Domesticated Jesus

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” 
     Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
     He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
-Matthew 15:21-24 (NIV)

We so desperately want Jesus to be on our side. Play for our team.
     We’ve always wanted that. As long as there’s been a church, factions within it have been trying to construct a Jesus that agrees with them. From Christological debates to social concerns to political issues, we all emphasize the words and actions of the Lord that support our positions or contradict our opponents’. But it’s really hard to get Jesus to do and say what we want him to. I mean, it’s almost like he doesn’t answer to us.
     This Canaanite woman, for instance: Mark calls her “a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia,” which I guess explains well enough where she’s from. But Matthew uses the more loaded term — “Canaanite.” As in, the people that Israel were supposed to displace when they entered the Promised Land. So this passage is already full of the subtext of an ancient holy war in which Israel, believing it to be the will of their God, had killed, enslaved, or otherwise moved who knows how many people out of the land to make room for themselves. Thousands of years later, even those of us who believe that they were right, that it was the will of God, struggle a little to understand.
     So there’s that. She’s a Canaanite. She’s a pagan, she’s other, she’s alien, she’s the enemy. 
     And yet, she comes to Jesus. She comes begging for his help. Her daughter is suffering, and like any mother with a suffering child she couldn’t care less where the help comes from. If it comes from Israel’s God, fine. She calls Jesus by the name of the royal house of Israel. She acknowledges him as the Messiah, a term that likely would have meant nothing to her before this. “Maybe if he sees I believe in him,” she reasons, “he’ll help me.”
     It seems too perfect, the opportune moment for Jesus to overturn what must have been millennia of prejudice and hatred on both sides. It’s a chance for him to make some kind of statement about the universality of the gospel, or how love conquers all, or something. But, instead, Jesus does nothing. Doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even acknowledge her request. Maybe it’s a test for the disciples? I don’t know, but if it is they blow it, too: eventually, her continued requests get so awkward that they ask Jesus to send her away. And, finally, he says something. 
     “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” No, that can’t be right. I mean, he’s already healed the servant of a Roman centurion. The woman needs help, and Jesus is quoting policy? That’s not the Jesus I know. This is why Jesus can be so infuriating, though. Just when you think you know what’s he’s going to do, he deflects a sincere cry for help with such a callous-sounding statement.
     I’d like to think Jesus says it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, knowing what’s going to happen. And maybe so. But maybe not.   
    The woman doesn’t give up, though. She asks again, this time kneeling in front of him. He has to look right at her. He can’t do that thing that you do when a guy asking for money at an intersection approaches and you pretend not to see him. She’s right at his feet. Everyone can see. He finally speaks to her, and you think maybe he’s going to do what she asks.
     Only, when he speaks you kind of wish that maybe he hadn’t said anything.
     “It isn’t right to give the kids’ bread to the dogs.” 
     Ooof. If a celebrity tweeted something like that today, he’d be gutted. His brand might never be salvaged. He compares a Canaanite woman with a child in need to a dog eating food intended for the children. That would be a PR nightmare, if Jesus cared much about such things.
     Look, I have a son who sat and ate at the kitchen table, and I have a dog who licked up the crumbs he dropped from the kitchen floor, and I get what Jesus is saying. It just sounds so bad, especially coming from Jesus. And so I say again: if you think you have Jesus domesticated to your agenda, think again. I promise, there’s something like this. Something that will seriously disrupt what you think you know about him.
     That woman doesn’t waver though, does she? “Oh, I get it. Your concern is Israel. But even the dogs get scraps and crumbs, and that’s all I need from you: a few scraps and crumbs.”
     And there it is: the faith that Jesus always seems to respond to.
     I think that’s the point, really. This woman hasn’t tried to figure Jesus out. She isn’t trying to make him fit her agenda or operate on her schedule. She hasn't crammed him into the mold of her pet causes, political issues, or party platforms. She doesn’t pretend to know what he’s going to say, or try to sit in judgment over whether he’s right or wrong. She cares about one thing: he can help her child. 
     Her faith — trust, dead-certain conviction that Jesus can save her daughter — contrasts in Matthew 15 with the so-called religious folks who think they have God all figured out, quantified, and categorized. They know, so they think, how to work the system; how to simultaneously appear pious while having exactly what they want. This woman, on the other hand, doesn’t know the system. In some ways, she's so much farther from God than the Pharisees.
     In all the ways that matter, she’s so much closer.
     While they’re criticizing, she’s humbling herself. While they’re trying to pull themselves up by their merits, she’s on her knees in helplessness. While they’re telling Jesus what he ought to be saying and doing, she’s hanging on his every word. While what comes out of them defiles them, what comes out of her are words of faith. They have religion and tradition and rules. She has “great faith.”
      I fear, in our sophistication, we may sometimes be more like the Pharisees than this Canaanite mother. Maybe we’ve been so long following rules that we’ve come to believe our relationship with Jesus hinges on how well we keep them. Maybe we don’t feel the immediacy of our need like she did. Maybe we’re a little too convinced that we have God all figured out.
     Whatever the reason, I think the solution might be that we fall to our knees in front of him, in the enormity of our helplessness, and call out for mercy. Don’t try to figure him out. Just come to Jesus in the sure knowledge that you need him, and in the faith that he will save you. Listen to his words. Try to do what he says. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that salvation lies in understanding or obeying him. Salvation is his to give, and his alone. And he does not withhold it from anyone who believes.

     May our faith be great. And may we never discourage those with the faith to come to Jesus like this woman did.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

Who Is Lord?

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
-Ephesians 2:9-11 (NIV)

I don’t like writing about politics.
     I don’t like it for a lot of reasons. Theologically, my allegiance is with God’s kingdom, and not with any political entity our world divides itself into. Relationally, I know and love and respect people who vote on both sides of the aisle. Practically, I know politics brings out the worst in a lot of us. Personally, I always feel underqualified. 
      And yet, here I am writing about politics.
     Our new President took to the dais at the National Prayer Breakfast this week. The National Prayer Breakfast, if you’re not familiar with it, is a bipartisan meeting hosted by Congress in which political leaders, faith leaders, and invited guests can come together to build relationships, talk about the role of faith in public life, and well, maybe even pray. Every President since Eisenhower has attended.
     President Trump solicited prayers for his replacement on Celebrity Apprentice, Arnold Schwarzenegger, since according to our Reality Star-in-Chief the ratings have plummeted since he took over. Just so you know he’s taking the Prayer Breakfast seriously. He also used his literal bully pulpit to talk about how important faith leaders are to him, to thank the American people for praying for him, and to quote Paul in the context of soldiers who “lay down their lives for their friends.”
     He talked about growing up in a churched home, about being taught Jesus’ words that “to whom much is given much is expected,” and about his mother’s teaching from the Bible. He talked about his own faith that “lives on in his heart,” his belief that our nation stands for freedoms that were given by God, not government, and that those freedoms apply to all human beings because all are equal in God’s eyes.
      I found myself in agreement with all of that. And so I say this:
     We should pray for President Trump. Often, and faithfully. Whether you marked his name on your ballot or not, pray for him. Not because you like him, necessarily, but because Scripture tells us we should. Because God uses imperfect people to create the conditions in the world necessary for human beings to live peaceful, quiet lives and for the gospel to take hold in the world. You don’t have to like the things he’s said and done in the past, or even the things he promises to do as President, to make that commitment. In fact, the less you like him, the less you trust him, the more you need to pray for him.
     I also say this: Hold him to his better sentiments.    

     Hold him to his words about all people being equal in the eyes of God, his stated belief that the role of government is not to grant freedoms as much as it is to guard the freedoms already given by our Creator.
     Hold him to that when he wants to prevent a refugee mother and child, running from violence, from entering a country that gives them perhaps the best chance of any country in the world to build a new life. Hold him to it. Don’t be mollified into silence by his promises to look out for Christians especially. We don’t need nor do we want special treatment. We follow the One Who gave up his own interests for the lost, broken, forgotten, weak, sick, and sinful — and who calls us to take up our own crosses. If all human beings are equal in God’s eyes, and have all been given the same rights by him, then that applies to Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Atheists. It applies to all races. To citizens of all countries. To those who share the moral and ethical codes of Christianity, and to those who do not. Any government has the right and mandate to make laws for the benefit of its people — but if those laws are not equitable and fair then government fails in its basic responsibility to guard the humanity and personhood of people made in the image of God.
     Hold him to his words about faith. Don’t be whipped into a patriotic fervor by his rhetoric about a Secretary of Defense called “Mad Dog” who always wins battles, and wins them quickly. Don’t make the age-old mistake of government of believing that a nation’s security has to do with the size of its army. Don’t overlook the specific words of Scripture in a haze of red, white, and blue lit up by drone strikes and shock and awe. Trust in a strong military and an aggressive national presence in the world is for those who don’t know God or follow the One who chose the way of the cross over the way of the gun. 
     Hold him to it when he says, “the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.” That’s correct, and if he or anyone else tries to define quality of life by the growth in our economy, or wants to trade basic human rights for a few more jobs, or wants to prop up CEO salaries on the backs of minimum-wage workers, then they’re wrong and they need to find another way. Hold him to that.
     Don’t look to find fault if you voted against him. And don’t blindly accept everything he does and says if you voted for him. If you’re a believer, if you plan this Sunday to gather around the table and share the Lord’s Supper with your church, then you believe that Jesus is Lord. That means something. It isn’t just religious jargon — at least, it isn’t supposed to be. When believers say that Jesus is Lord, they’re also saying that no one else is: not the President, not the party in power, not Congress, not the Supreme Court. To say “Jesus is Lord” is to call into question our nationalistic assumptions about American military might, or economic well-being, or how much we’re loved by our allies or feared by our enemies. If you don’t believe Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, then fine: you kneel in subservience to whatever American ideals you want to serve. Worship Nationalism, or Nativism, or Capitalism. Bow to the Democrats, the Republicans, or the Whigs if you want to. But if Jesus is Lord, then none of those are. And none should be setting the agenda for someone who kneels to him. 
     Want a sure-fire way to tell if your politics have taken the place of Jesus as your Lord? If you only hear Jesus defending the platform of your party or ideology, then it’s a pretty good bet someone or something has taken his place in your life. If you can't acknowledge the un-Christian in your own party or candidate or ideology, or what’s good in the other, then you can assume your politics are supplanting Jesus in your life. 
     I’m praying for President Trump, sincerely and honestly. But I already don’t agree with some of what he’s doing. I have friends who are immigrants, brothers and sisters in Christ, some of them. And if my President wants to stand against them, or wants us on opposite sides of a wall, I’ll follow my Lord in standing with them.       
     If Jesus is your Lord, then who you voted for in November doesn’t much matter to me. I’ll trust you to stand with Jesus when necessary, too. You don’t need me to tell you that.
     Do you?