Saturday, September 1, 2012

That They May Be One

That They May Be One – John 17:1-11

I have no idea what motivates people to participate in the life of a church or what brings someone to a place of worship. We are beyond the years of traditional church attendance and, life in Southern California where I live, simply offers too much for church attendance to be high on anyone’s Sunday agenda.

An easy answer may be “God”. And although that may be a general truth, it does not suffice for even God cannot overcome one’s resistance when one turns one’s back on the church or for that matter, on God.

However, you may remember a time in your life when you heard a voice and you unmistakably knew that it was the voice of God. To you it WAS the voice of God. But you may also remember times when the voices you heard did not bring you any closer to God; instead they caused confusion and sometimes lead to emotional distress and spiritual damage. If you ever felt this way, if you found yourself in a spiritual wilderness, you were not alone.

May I comfort you with stories from the Bible: Even in those days there were many voices. There were followers of the monotheistic and ritualistic Orthodox Judaism, there were followers of a pantheon of Greek mythological gods and goddesses, and there were devotees of the military regime of Rome, with its powerful arm of imperial expansionism. Then there were smaller groups, for example the Zealots, and the tribal and fertility religions or cults of the lands surrounding ancient Palestine.

It is against this backdrop that the voice of Jesus sounded and, little by little, ordinary folks came under the impression of a message in which they unmistakably recognized the voice of God.

So, do we still meet God in our worship services? Do we still hear the voice of God in our churches and our religion? Hearing the call of Christ to gather as communities is not enough to hold us together. Our history proves that the search for understanding and fulfillment oftentimes pulls us apart rather than binds us together. There is great diversity among us and the glue that keeps us together is sometimes just not strong enough.

As a glue to keep the community of believers together, Jesus offers a benediction prayer before he launches his disciples into the world: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one” (John 17:1-11). No longer students in college, now ministers of his message, he confirms their eligibility to serve God fully with their lives. He passes the mantel of responsibility on to them; he caps them in God’s grace to graduate from mere students of Jesus’ teachings to full participants in God’s works.

Regardless of our understanding of faith or whichever voices dominate our antennae, we are launched into this world to perform Christ-like acts of courageous ministry in God’s name. The church may never regain the place it once had as a prominent force in culture and society. But a church that hears and responds to God’s voice is a force to reckon with. It does not lie in numbers, buildings or the size of the annual budget. It lies in Jesus’ teachings and whether we hear God’s voice in those teachings. – Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Unhelpful Beliefs

August 19, 2012 - Unhelpful Beliefs  

True to our human nature, we are always in search of certainty and security. We are faced with an uncertain future; the more we try to secure our future, the more it seems to evade us.

If you lived 2000 years ago in a pre-scientific world, it would be totally understandable to see the world filled with great mysteries that were open to much speculation. Lightning, disease and random disaster puzzled these people. Answers were invariably found in some belief in a supernatural, mysterious world of gods and demons. Today, there are still many examples of this thinking and worldview.

Religion can be a most devastating and dangerous practice in any society, if left unchecked. Our own faith tradition is rife with beliefs that may not be very helpful, some even downright unhelpful and unjust. It behooves us as post-modern, well-informed and thinking Christians to critically assess our own opinions and change or adjust our thinking, should we uncover unhelpful beliefs.

I can give you this guarantee: the more you critically evaluate your religion and faith, the more you will uncover unhelpful beliefs and discard of them, like I have done many times. It is easy to spot those unhelpful beliefs in the lives of others or in other religions; it’s much harder to admit it in our own faith tradition. Some who call themselves Christians perform terrible acts in the name of Christianity. There is much pathology in religion and we need to be aware of this so we do not become captives of these dangerous trends.

As long as we remain stuck in pre-scientific religious concepts I see no future for Christianity. But I see tremendous hope for the church if we do what Jesus taught. He gathered his most trusted and beloved friends and left them with a very simply commission: “Love one another and care for the people”.

Is this a useful belief, one worth following, you might ask? “Love me, and feed my sheep” is the only theology or dogma we need to understand. By embracing this lifestyle we are not only saved from a first century worldview that includes “Hell and Damnation” — but also we are saved from the inhumanity of greed, hatred and selfishness. We are saved from our materialism. We are saved from our sometimes-sick values that distort our relationships and break our hearts.

Life is too short and too precious to be stuck in an unhelpful faith. Find a foundation for your faith upon which you can truly build a meaningful life. Embrace the simple call to love others and to take care of them.

That sounds like a helpful belief, doesn’t it?

Old Time Religion vs The New

Old Time Religion versus the New

Thank you for listening to excerpts from sermons that I recently preached at the First Congregational Church of Glendale, California. The experience of listening to a sermon in a beautiful church with stained glass windows and high ceilings may be very different from listening to a sermon over the Internet, YouTube or any other mode of electronic communication. These technology-driven ways of communicating are widely used and I enjoy doing this recording with Charles, the sound person at our church.

Theologically I see myself as progressive and liberal. My challenge is to preach the Gospel in fresh and new ways while inspiring individuals to search for meaning in their own lives. In my ministry I emphasize Christian community and service, peace and justice, compassion and love.

On August 12, I spoke about Old Time Religion versus the New, and asked if we were not perhaps missing the point, when comparing the Old Testament with the New.

What we need to understand is the difference between LAW and GOSPEL.

LAW is a set of rules and regulations. It binds you, it ensnares you and it convicts you.

GOSPEL, on the other hand, means Good News! And the gospel liberates, forgives, pronounces God’s grace and embraces mercy and love.

This is but one of many examples of how things change, a concept or an idea changes over time. This internal conflict between the law and the gospel should not come as a shock or as a surprise to you. By now you should be aware of internal inconsistencies in biblical texts AND you should possess the theological tools to understand and interpret these seemingly contradictory texts. We cannot act like some biblical literalists do, and pull one Bible verse from its context only to muster public support for an opinion. The danger is too big, and sadly it is happening just too often; it leads to fundamentalism and extremism, and eventually to tragedy.

The theme for the next few Sundays is an expression used by Jesus himself: you can’t put new wine in old wineskins - indeed an expression that explains exactly that new times require new responses. If there is one thing we need today, it is a mature and balanced response to the challenges of our times, where we, reasonable and sensible people of faith, make our voices heard.

Thank you for listening.