Monday, March 28, 2011

The Gospel

I keep coming to this harsh realization that much of what passes for Christianity these days seems to boil down to two things.

The first is 'sin management.' People sin. People fall short of God's glory. No one lives even close to perfect lives. As a result, God needs to be a God who provides sin management. How do we manage the sins we have committed in life?

The second is 'ticket to Heaven.' The Gospel seems to have been shrunken down to Jesus coming, living, and dying on the cross to pass out tickets to Heaven. Too often the Gospel and our lives here on earth as worthless unless we get a ticket to Heaven.

A big issue with Christianity right now is that it has made God too small to be God. And people wonder why churches are shrinking. When we make our God so small; when we diminish God into one who simply manages sins; when we eliminate the Gospel unto the point of a ticket giver, why are we surprised that Christianity is losing steam in the modern day world?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sermon for March 27, 2011

Reflecting on Commitment
Text: John 15:18-25
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
March 27, 2011

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.

These chapters from the Gospel of John are what is usually called Jesus’ Final Discourse. It is a theological rationale for who he was, what he was, and an explanation about his ministry. It is, in so many ways, a classic apologia, a discourse telling the world, who and what he was.

And there are the words. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. These are words that cannot have mad the apostles jump up and say, “Wow, we’re really excited about this!!!” These are words to the effect that Jesus is saying, “If you follow me, people will hate you.” Jesus was also correct about this.

Jesus was warning them that following him, being a Christian, was going to be difficult. Making a commitment to follow Jesus is one thing; living out that commitment is an entirely other thing. Sometimes reflecting on the commitment we make to God is worthwhile.

The commitment to Christ has never been an easy one.

In the early Christian church being a Christian was illegal. The Romans persecuted the early Christians, the ancient Jews struggled the early Christians, and the early Christians persecuted each other because they didn’t all agree with one another.

As time went on the persecution of Christians was mostly done by other Christians. The Spanish Inquisition pre-dated the Protestant Reformation and it was Christians persecuting other Christians for often minor variations of belief.

After the time of the Protestant Reformation there was widespread persecution of Christians by other Christians. There was, of course, conflict between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics, but there were also internal conflicts among Roman Catholics and among Protestants. If you lived in Geneva at the time of John Calvin and disagreed with him, you were in mortal danger. Christians not only argued with one another, they persecuted and killed one another.

So being a Christian has never been particularly easy.

In recent years things have changed in so many ways, but in other ways, the same problems that Christianity has wrestled with still remain.

When North Korea became a Communist country they were officially atheists. One day the government announced, however, that all Christians could practice their faith openly and encouraged everyone who really believed in God to attend Worship on a particular Sunday. On that day people excitedly went to Worship and the churches were packed. And in all the churches around the country, the doors were bolted and the churches were burned to the ground filled with worshipers. It was a horrible display of persecution. Christians throughout the world have suffered at the hands of those who hate people who have faith in Jesus Christ.

In our nation and place in time, we celebrate a freedom of religion that is good. But it doesn’t mean that Christianity is thriving. In fact, if you research it, Worship attendance across the country has been on a downward turn for years. The largest religious growth group in the United States are people who call themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ Some are on a journey real of faith and some are not. But one of the biggest problems so many people have is Christianity is seen in a variety of ways, and many of those ways are not very helpful.

People like to blame the government or the news media, or science, or 1001 other things, but, as throughout history, the biggest problem with Christianity has been the way it’s been practiced. A major factor in the diminishment of Christianity has not been from outside of Christianity, but within ourselves.

I want to reflect on two things.

The first is this. Author Scott McKnight argues that one of the primary sins that hinders the progress of the gospel is individualism.

“Individualism is an intentional march away from Eden, away from God and away from others. When the gospel is packaged as attractive to individuals instead of a community, the problem is only compounded. Individualism makes God and others into commodities we choose to further our own ends”

One of the most common words used in the Bible is the Greek word koinonia. It is most usually translated as communion, association, fellowship, sharing, common, contribution, or partnership. Christianity from the very beginning existed as a corporate reality, as a community. To be Christian meant just to belong to the community. Nobody could be Christian by himself or herself, as an isolated individual, but only together with others.

The dictionary defines individualism as, "the leading of one's life in one's own way without regard for others." The definition and recognizing that the church is about community, demonstrates that individualism and Christianity have little in common.

Yet, in recent years, individualism has arisen in Christianity a great deal. In recent weeks I’ve been reading about people attacking a new book by Rob Bell entitled, Love Wins. A pastor in North Carolina was fired by his congregation because, horror of horrors, he agreed with Bell that God’s grace is all pervasive. One critic of Bell said that we are nothing without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Funny thing about that expression, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you ask older people they’ll tell you that they never recall that being talked about in church. The reason is, it wasn’t. It’s usage became more and more popular in more recent years when individualism began to permeate society and Christianity. The expression a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not in the Bible. When people say we are nothing without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ they are not citing te Bible and they are not citing anything prevalent in historic Christianity.

Christianity has always been communal and being around others and serving others. While I would never tell anyone that they should not develop a personal relationship with God or personally pray or personally make choices about their faith, I would never say that we are nothing without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

And the more Christianity embraces the concept of individualism, the idea that it’s all about me, the more we will diminish.

The second thing is this.

Over the years we’ve come to diminish God.

The other day I was doing some research for this sermon and I was listening to sermons about God and people’s perceptions on God and salvation. One man in Arizona really stood out.

He preached a sermon about Joel Osteen, the Pastor of the largest church in the country and a proponent of the so-called prosperity Gospel. This guy said that Osteen was going to hell.

He preached a sermon about Billy Graham. We’ve all heard of Billy Graham. He’s going to hell as well, according to this guy.

If you read or use any Bible besides the 1611 King James Version. Hell. If you are a woman who wears a head covering----most especially if you are an Amish woman wearing a head covering. Hell. If you’ve ever practiced birth control. Hell. Gay? Hell. Every said hello to a gay person. Hell. Went to college. Hell. The Pope. Hell. Roman Catholics. Hell.

He never mentioned the United Church of Christ, but if I had to guess I’d guess his perception is that our futures are warm.

His perception of God strikes me as being a God who views human life as a Pass/Fail course, and most people Fail. It seems like a really small image of God.

Or there is the image of God as a cosmic Santa Claus. If we ask God for something, we’ll get it. Want a pony----then pray for a pony and God will give you a pony.

If someone is sick and you really have faith, then pray for them and they will get well.

At the casino and want to win big? Just pray and it’ll come true.

Want your team to win the big game? Just pray and they’ll do it.

Again, this is a small image of God. Most of us don’t get the ponies, everyone ultimately dies, and despite the fervent prayers from up the road, most people don’t beat the casino’s odds. And Lord knows I’ve prayed for the Giants during games as so many people have done for their teams, and have had my heart broken.

But my point is this. Whenever people who are Christians make God small, when we make God exclusionary, when we make God into little more than a cosmic Santa Claus, or do whatever it is we do to make God smaller, we make God less Godlike and when God is no longer God, when God is no longer beyond our comprehension and ability to fully understand, we make God easy to dismiss. And when we make God easy to dismiss we make it easy for people to not really have a need to commit----and we make ourselves have an easier time not committing.

What made commitment difficult in Jesus’ time was danger. What made commitment difficult in later times was confusion and danger. And what makes commitment difficult now is losing the communal emphasis of the Gospel and diminishing God down to our size.

The Gospel is not easy. God is not easy. As we travel this season of Lent, let’s not embrace a God who is easy to embrace and easy to understand, but let us together, as a community, embrace the Gospel, and embrace God, for what is really there.

Random Musings

I keep thinking I really need to get back to this and so I'm going to try and be better about my blogging.

Basketball is on. I'm not a basketball fan. I never have been and living in Southern Indiana it seems like I really should be. I am excited, however, that Butler is doing so well again. They are a small, very fine academic school and not a classic basketball factory. Good stuff.

I read a person's Facebook post the other day and the writer cited Barack Obama and his statements about a President going to war. At the time those comments were, in my mind, very critical and appropriately critical, of President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. Sadly, President Obama seems to be doing the same thing with Libya. This puts is in THREE wars, and frankly, I'm not convinced we should be in any of them right now. I understood the initial incursion into Afghanistan, but that is all. The continued, even escalated war there bothers me. Iraq always bothered me and Libya does not seem to have any sort of real goal or strategy.

Michele Bachmann may be running for President. To me, her ideological beliefs are not relevant. The woman is a flat out liar. She's been caught in more lies than Peyton Manning has thrown touchdown passes. Liars like her should not hold public office. Period. End of rant.

I have been reading Rob Bell's wonderful book, "Love Wins." I've read a great deal of criticism about his book written by people pre-publication. It makes me wonder if half the people who 'hate' his book have read it. I'm guessing not because half of what I've read is bad about the book doesn't seem to be actually in the book. It strikes me that people who love to ask questions and ask the big questions about God and faith will love this book. The people who demand absolute answers will hate this book. I suspect there will be very few people in between. I just hope people actually read the book before rendering judgments about it.

As an aside, I hope Amanda Knox is found not guilty. I think she's been treated horribly. That's just my opinion....

I saw a news story about a woman rape in Libya by Libyan police officers. When she was crying, weeping with the press, she was arrested. The injustice of this is heart breaking. I'd be surprised if she is still alive. She was guilty of being a rape victim and speaking about it. This kind of injustice is intolerable.

Newt Gingrich seems to believe that telling people he cheated on his previous two wives because he was a 'patriot' is a good excuse and a good rationale. This may rival "a wide stance."

Japan. My heart breaks for the people there. The devastation and suffering are beyond my comprehension. The people of that land need to be held close to our hearts.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Being a Zesty Christian, audio file

Mountaintop Experience: Being a Zesty Christian Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Mountaintop Experience:
Being a Zesty Christian
Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Over the years I have heard many people tell me that one of their favorite things in the Bible is the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve often wondered, however, if the people who like the Sermon on the Mount so much have ever read it. It has strange stuff in it like the Beatitudes which are often difficult to explain, a notion of turning the other cheek, and what we read today.

Being salt. Being light. Living so that others may say our good works and living a life according to the way God wants us to live. These commands from the mountaintop are, in so many ways, inviting us to being inspired Christians, potent Christians, zesty Christians, if you will.

As I was contemplating this week, however, I was vexed. I wasn’t quite sure what, exactly, Jesus’ point was.

Does he mean standing on the street corner and preaching the Gospel, loudly, to everyone who passes by. I’ve heard people do this and, frankly, most of them struck me as lunatics and, to be honest, not very interesting.

Does it mean standing on the pews while singing a hymn and singing louder than everyone else around you? I guess it’s possible, but I also would imagine you’d annoy everyone around you, especially if you sang badly.

Or do you hang out at the mall and tell everyone you meet that Jesus is really cool and awesome. Again, I’ve seen this done and felt more annoyed by the people doing it than inspired.

But what might Jesus’ point be?

Within the tradition of Judaism and adopted by Jesus there is a command to love God with all our heart and all our mind. The more I thought about this, loving God with my mind and my heart, fully, is a way of being a zesty Christian.

First, loving God with our minds.

God does not call us to be stupid. God does not call us to check our brains at the door of churches. God does not call us to live bad psychology, speak in poor English, embrace bad science or rewrite history to the way we want it to be as opposed to how it is. God does not call us to be stupid because loving God, fully, requires our minds.

One thing we do well here is have Sunday School classes and Bible study where we want people to ask questions. A questioning faith is a stronger faith.

Centuries ago if you went to a Puritan church their Worship Service was very different from our’s. The men would sit on one side and the women on the other. They would sit in benches with no backs. Hymns would be sung with only the accompanying of a drum. The sermon would be either a one turn or a two turn sermon.

The Pastor would preach with an hourglass on the pulpit. A real hourglass with a full hour of sand in it. A one turn sermon was when the Pastor preached for an hour and turned the hourglass over and he’d preach for another hour. A two turn sermon was he’d turn it over again and preach for a third hour. Imagine coming to church and having a two to three hour sermon! But that’s not all they did. They would spend the next hour or so asking the Pastor questions about the sermon. They expected the Pastor to be able to defend any arguments he made in the sermon. If they didn’t like his Biblical interpretation, they asked him about it. They expected their Pastor to know what he was talking about and they had no qualms in questioning him.

And that is a great thing. Seriously. An unquestioning faith is a faith not being fully lived out.

One of my favorite stories is about an old, very wise Rabbi who was on his death bed. His twelve students were next to the bed, lined up from brightest to dullest, waiting to hear his final words.

He whispered, “Life is like a mushroom.”

The brightest student whispered, “Life is like a mushroom,” to the next student until finally the dullest student was told, “Life is like a mushroom.” To which the dullest student said, “Life is like a mushroom? That doesn’t make any sense!”

So the chain started back, whispering from student to student with disdainful faces at the dullest student for saying such a thing. Then finally the brightest student in the class whispered to the Rabbi, “Life is like a mushroom? That doesn’t make any sense!”

And then the Rabbi said, “So maybe life isn’t like a mushroom.”

That’s an old story and one thing I’ve always wondered about is this. I’ve often thought that, perhaps the dullest student was actually the brightest and most faithful student because he was the only one willing to question things.

The second part of being a zesty Christian is loving God with our hearts. Loving God with our minds us what we think about God; loving God with our hearts is what we feel and how we feel about God.

Let me make a confession about this. This part of the sermon is really difficult for me because my approach to God is mostly through my mind and mostly intellectual and even academic. I can easily talk about what I think about God, whereas what I feel about God is a lot different.

This past week I started my 10th year at St. Marks and I was recalling something that took place not long after I arrived here. I was told that there was a criticism of me that I wasn’t emotional enough at Worship or in my sermons. To be quite honest, even though I remembered the criticism I didn’t take it all that seriously. I’m not really a very emotional person and being emotional during Worship is not my style. I am what I am, and when you see me get emotional, it’s genuine.

But what is striking to me is that it makes it difficult to talking about feelings about God and passion.

But there are things I get very emotional and passionate about. I’m emotional and passionate about my family. And I’m emotional and passionate about what is best for children. I really love children and the other day I found myself in emotional knots.

Years ago I was asked by a math teacher to justify having things like music and art in school. He said that he saw little to no value in having them in school because, after all, who in society really needs music and art. My response to him was that in church we greatly need, appreciate, and utilize music and art all the time. We see it, hear it, and appreciate it all the time.

The other day it was announced that one of the potential cuts was cutting out Phys-Ed, Music, and Art from the grade schools. I’m no athlete, I’m not a musician, and I’m not an artist, but I found myself and still find myself raging. I cannot fathom the devastating this impact will have on churches in the long term.

Imagine, if you will, St. Marks without art and music. Look around out at the amazing stained glass windows. Art. Imagine we removed them and anything artistic in this building.

In addition we will remove the organ, throw away our hymnals, have no pianos, have no choirs, no hymns and no music.

Right now, in our church our organist, Sara, is a retired music teacher. Laura, our minister of music is a music teacher. Susan Adams, one of the people who compiled our hymnal is a music teacher. Sandy Carter who has worked miracles with children has been playing and working with school children, in schools, for years. Ricky Case is a music major.

When does this passion arise?

I learned this lesson many years ago. My daughter Danielle majored in Art Education at Hanover and teaches at Community Montessori and does all the art education there as well as teaching in her classroom. We found a diary of her’s when she was in school and she wrote that she was excited because tomorrow was her favorite class. Art. She was in the second grade.

I realized in the midst of all this angst my passion level was going up and up and up and it dawned on me that when I feel this strongly, and when we feel such strong passion about God and serving God and praising God, we are loving God with all our hearts.

Jesus’ words, in the Sermon on the Mount, challenge us to be zesty, even salty Christians. It doesn’t mean we have to cover ourselves in lemon juice or use salty language. It means to really love and serve God, fully, with our minds and our hearts.

It is being unafraid to question, to challenge, and to think. It is learning to capture our passion and use it in God’s service.