Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some Preliminary Thoughts About Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks

I'm going to have the pleasure of filling the pulpit for Rev. Abby Thornton at Broadneck Baptist Church in Annapolis this week while Abby is on vacation.  I'm really happy to do this since Broadneck is my home church and the congregation that ordained me; and because Abby is my pastor.

Part of what has struck me as I prepare for this sermon is the radical openness that the scripture passages (Matthew 12:20 and 2 Corinthians 6:3) speak of.

In a day when, to the theological left and to the right, we are so terribly concerned that others pass some 'litmus test' before we'll acknowledge them as part of the Kingdom, we have these passages crying out for a very different approach.

Matthew, quoting Isaiah, says that Jesus will not "break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick." And Paul (who is so often used to justify brands of christian legalism) says, "we put no obstacle in anyone's way."

Think of all the "bruised reeds" you know.  Think of all the "smoldering wicks."  All those who life has bruised and beaten down; whose trust in the possibility of a God who loves and cares for them is a sputtering, smoldering thing.  Now think of how often we snap off the reed or blow out the sputtering flame by putting obstacles in their way. 

These passages are Good News for those who are hurting; but they are also 'judgement passages' for us if we'll listen.  We're being called to transform our communication about the Gospel to something that looks more like the attitude of Jesus than maybe, if we're honest, we're comfortable with.  This radical, wide openness frightens us.  So we start throwing up roadblocks.

Maybe we need to see ourselves as the ones who need the healing described in the rest of the Matthew passage.  Our eyes need to be opened to what the Kingdom really looks like when all us smoldering wicks and bruised reeds are welcomed in; and our muteness about this great and glorious mercy can burst into song.

If you're free on Sunday....join us won't you?

Shalom,
Stephen

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Maintaining a "Baptismal Identity"

As many folks who know me are aware, one of my favorite Biblical theologians is the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.  I've recently been listening to a series of lectures that he did at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, OH.  (You can find the series at onecommontable.com) In this series Brueggeman discusses strategies for maintaining "the other way" of living; which is in the Old Testament the identity of Israel as God's people, and in the Christian faith our identity as people called to follow Jesus-a "baptismal identity" if you will.

Listening to Dr. Brueggemann has got me to thinking about what that "baptismal identity" is; what it means to number ourselves among those who have been (as the preacher often says when they lower us under the water) "buried with Christ in baptism, raised to walk in newness of life." 

This "baptismal identity" is, I think, what we're really talking about when scripture quotes Jesus as saying, "you must be born again."  Such a change in identity is a far cry from the ways in which it gets trivialized by many who ask the question, "are you born again?" as though it was some secret fraternity handshake.  It's also a far cry from the mockery of those who write off deeply committed believers by saying, "oh, he's a 'born again'."  I would venture to say, however, that much of the blame for both of these extremes belongs to those of us within the faith community (but that's a blog for another day).

The first step in maintaining a "baptismal identity" is to reclaim the notion that we're really taking on a new identity when we become part of the faith community of Christians, part of the "community of the baptized."  It seems to me that many of us pull away from that notion because we've bought into either the trivialization from those who've made it into a "me and Jesus" proposition, or the scorn of the culture-who, frankly, has a vested interest in our not challenging its values and attitudes.

My identity as a Christian is rooted in both an individual, deeply intimate relationship with the Risen Christ that is reflected in spiritual practices designed to deepen that relationship; and behaviors that seek to, in my personal life, imitate Jesus' life and teachings.  This is an incredibly radical lifestyle shift.....much more than the little tongue in cheek rhyme that was popular when I was growing up about "I don't dance, drink, smoke or chew; or run around with girls that do."  It is a commitment to attempt living a life of hospitality and openness to folks different from me; of forgiveness of enemies; and of actively seeking to share the compassion God has shown me in Jesus with those around me.

This leads me, almost directly, into conflict with the dominate culture (often referred to by Brueggemann and others as "Empire"-don't miss the Star Wars connection, whether intentional or not).  The dominant culture, Empire, depends for its survival on our adopting attitudes of inhospitality, resentment and revenge, and conflict over power and possessions.  Empire has to have a "them" to fight with "us" as opposed to an "all" to be embraced by God's love.  Look at how many commercials are based on telling us that we 'really need and deserve X, W, Z.'

Empire, the dominant culture, also needs for us to be blind.  It needs for us not to see those around us who are poor, who are struggling with mental illnesses or physical illnesses or other pains and wounds.  It needs us to be blind to their humanity.  If we saw, truly saw them, we might stop and reach out.  We might demand changes that made healing possible.  We might focus on compassion more than consumption.......not for political reasons.....but because that really is what Jesus would do.

I need to admit that I'm as poor as anyone at maintaining this baptismal identity.  But that's not the point.  We don't confess our difficulty and then keep on living like always.  We ask the questions about what it means, and then look for ways to make that baptismal identity a meaningful reality in the world around us....because, as Jesus said, we truly are "the salt of the earth to make life livable." Our "Baptismal Identity" is the vehicle (at least for now) that God is using to move our world toward the Kingdom, toward the New Creation.  So let's keep the conversation alive; struggle with what it means; and work together to be the "alternative vision" that our world so desperately needs.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Reflections On The Vastness of God's Presence

When you're not pastoring-not preparing a sermon each week-your way of doing theological reflection changes (at least it does for me).  My reflection isn't focused on the preparation of a sermon using a particular set of passages and it doesn't have the kind of time constraint that goes with sermon prep.  I'm free to go where I want in my study and reflection.

On the other hand, my reflection (at least this past week) has been very personally connected to the question of 'what will I be doing next?'  Will I  be asked to do another Interim?  Will I get a call to a settled pastorate?  Will I ever pastor again in any form?...this question, by the way, my wife claims is more of a whine than a question; she may be right.  I tend to ask it when I'm feeling worried about the future.  The point is that the reflection on scripture and its meaning swings more toward the personal than when I'm trying to broaden it out to speak to a variety of folks in a congregation.

One of the things that this is reminding me of is the need to remember that scripture needs to be applied both to the deeply intimate places of our own lives as well as be the lense through which we look at our world.

In this vein, I got to attend my home church, Broadneck Baptist, this morning.  Pastor Abby Thornton reminded us of this tension in her sermon.  Speaking of both Isaiah 1 and John 3 she invited us to look at how the hugeness of God and the intimacy of God are both reflected in these two passages.  Isaiah is dealing with a national tragedy, the death of King Uzziah.  Yet in the midst of that he encounters God, whose "train fills the temple."  That translates to 'the hem of God's robe, that little area of most garments, was enough to fill the whole temple.'  Yet that same God had a personal and intimate conversation with Isaiah.  There is that need to balance again.

With that as groundwork, let me share with you a quote from some of the reading I'm doing.  Walter Brueggemann, in his The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, says that:

"...prophetic proclamation is an attempt to imagine the world as though YHWH-the creator of the world, the deliver of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whom we Christians come to name as Father, Son and Spirit-were a real character and an effective agent in the world."

By inviting us to "imagine," Brueggemann means to challenge us to think that there might be another way to tell the story of our lives and of the life of the world around us than the one we're handed by our culture, the ad agencies, and the evening spin on the news.

If we take that possibility seriously, then we look first for what might God be doing....what might scripture point to and God's desire.....where is God heading things?  Then we ask the question, "how do I get on board with that will?'

Our God is deeply and intimately concerned with our individual lives; God is also deeply and intimately concerned with the life of creation-including the poor, the marginalized, the ones we'd rather not know are there.  ALL of creation "lives and moves and has its being" within the heart of God.

I'm glad I don't have to preach on this.  Not because it isn't true, but because I'm still turning over and over in my mind what it means.  But I have time to do that right now....maybe that's why I have this break.

Shalom