The Narrow Gate

Welcome to the continuation of my blog, post-seminary. Ministry and evangelism have brought me back home to Chattanooga. I welcome your company on my journey.

The original blog, Down In Mississippi, shared stories from 2008 and 2009 of the hope and determination of people in the face of disaster wrought by the hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, of work done primarily by volunteers from churches across America and with financial support of many aid agencies and private donations and the Church. My Mississippi posts really ended with the post of August 16, 2009. Much work, especially for the neediest, remained undone after the denominational church pulled out. Such is the nature of institutions. The world still needs your hands for a hand up. I commend to you my seven stories, Down in Mississippi I -VII, at the bottom of this page and the blog posts. They describe an experience of grace.



Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Day 1689 - Crumbs for Dogs

A sermon shared with First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN on July 16, 2017


The Bible is often misused, sometimes for completely understandable reasons and sometimes in ways that distort its character for less than constructive purposes. For example, the emergence of a scientific understanding of the physical and chemical nature of the world in the 1800’s, along with the discovery of fossilized remains of animals millions of years old, similar but not identical to modern animals explained by the scientific concept of evolution contradicted the literal description of creation in the Bible. People could choose to use our God-given powers to explore and understand our newly discovered material existence within Biblical history, or assume God has tricked us with these relics and then choose to fall back on a literal reading of scripture that required them to refute the scientific discovery. 
As a second example, beginning in 1948, passages such as I read in Romans, Isaiah and the end-times description in The Revelation of Jesus Christ by John led many to defend the dominion of newly formed, modern Israel over Palestine because they believe they can force the beginning of the final days.
These two lines of thought fail to do justice to the character of the Old and New Testaments, and presume to know the mind of God better than God. It is my opinion that a better alternative embraces the Bible as the history, or story, of the relationship between God and Humanity.
After all, the books of the Bible were written in pre-scientific times. It is dangerous to rely on a literal reading that contradicts reality rather than to rely upon the Bible as the divine guide that sets forth the principles of a moral and ethical life that we call righteous. My advice is to accept the Bible as a complex, dramatic history almost unimaginably written by human hands except by divine inspiration.
Consider literature. Every dramatic literary story follows a common sequence. The characters become involved in conflicting circumstances that grow increasingly critical rising to a climatic situation. Then ensuing events follow a path leading to a conclusion and usually a positive or negative resolution of the crisis.
The entire bible reads that way. It testifies to the dramatic covenant between God and the Jews of Israel, and the contentious relationship between God and all humanity. God promises in that covenant, “I will be your God and you will be my people. You will be holy because I am holy.”
Throughout history, indifference, rebellion, woe and compassion characterize that relationship and force a spiritual crisis where the very existence of Israel is at risk. Though that covenant between the people of Israel and God will never break, the continuity of Israel as a nation, and the shape of the relationship is in doubt. This is called the existential crisis of Israel.
The scripture readings (above) I shared with you today explain why that is important to all. These three passages bring the message that though God has God called them a stiff-necked people, Israel is reconciled with God from the day of that covenant and through Jesus, so is all of humanity. The resistance of Israel led to the crucifixion of Jesus and that act caused Israel’s final redemption by God to depend on the Gentiles. These passages reveal (1) the nature of our Gentile relationship with God, (2) with Israel and (3) what the gospel means to Jew and Gentile today.
I ask you, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” There should be no question Jesus came to bring Good News, the falling rain, to the fallen house of Israel.
That Israel is fallen is a certainty. The history of the fall began with its people grumbling in the desert soon after leaving Egypt, bemoaning their fate and wishing to be back in Egypt as slaves with full stomachs (Exodus 14:10-14; 16:1-3). That crisis grew increasingly until the people demanded a king rather than rely on the covenant relationship with God (1 Samuel 8:1-22). After two generations of kings the kingdom split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah led by separate kings. It reached a spiritual climax in Israel when its king could not defend against Assyria and collapsed into slavery/ Its population was dispersed throughout the Middle East. Shortly later the King of Judah could not defend against the Babylonians. Jerusalem was destroyed, burned to the ground, the king and his family killed and the people and possessions taken into captivity in a foreign land. Every part of the covenant seemed broken. There was no longer a nation, no longer a temple in Zion, and we think not even the scrolls of scripture. They heard only Jeremiah’s prophesy for them to intermarry and become part of Babylonian society (Jeremiah 29:1-7). Only the promise of the coming of a suffering servant to redeem the chosen remnant remained.
Then due to that promise, King Cyrus seemed to resolve this national and spiritual crisis by sending the Jews home to Jerusalem. But Isaiah 56 was forgotten and the Jews lapsed into old ways. Soon Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire ravaged the people. When suffering servant, Jesus, did come to redeem the Lord’s people, the people rejected the servant and caused him to be crucified on the cross.
We believe that God knew this before it would happen. For God, as Einstein showed, time is only another dimension like distance. God sees the beginning and end as we see the driveway we are about to enter as we approach it in our car, or as the distance between corners of a room. We can’t understand the ways of God, that is clear, we can only accept it.
If we accept God’s knowledge there should be no question that God knows Israel would reject him leaving the good news for the Gentiles. We find this in our scripture reading today, We hear it in the prophesy of Isaiah 56. We hear it in the words of Jesus speaking to the Canaanite woman, and we hear it in the words of the Apostle Paul as he described the history I have just recounted.
The resolution of the spiritual destruction of Israel is found in the irony that we, the Gentiles are the key instrument to bring Israel back into the fold. I said “we” but really I mean the Lord acting through us.
What does Paul mean when he says (Romans 11:25-28), “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
Paul perhaps with Psalm 65 in mind, recognized this irony when he observed that Jesus brought Gentiles into the Jewish covenant with God, yet Judaism has a hardened heart and has almost entirely rejected Jesus. According to Paul, the heart of that irony that he calls a mystery is the time of the unification of God and Israel depends upon bringing all Gentiles into the covenant first. Then, God will bring his chosen remnant back into the fold.
Paul says that when the “full number of Gentiles are brought in” the elect Jews (the remnant) “who are enemies of God for our sake,” will be brought in. What does the “full number of Gentiles” mean? Does it mean every Gentile, or those who are called to respond?  Only God knows.
I suggest that another question is more important, “How do we bring the Good News brought to our brothers and sisters?”
You know the answer is not building fancy church sanctuaries and attending wearing nice clothes, arguing whether to say the Lord’s Prayer using trespasses or debts; or whether we baptize by immersion or sprinkling, or even baptize children, or whether we should baptize every person who joins the congregation regardless of an earlier baptism, or whether we celebrate Easter with Easter egg hunts and Christmas by exchanging gifts, or whether we eat only fish on Friday… or only to come just to rub shoulders with friends and politicians. So, what should we do? What brings the good news to all Gentiles?
Earlier I said some Protestant denominations claim the selfish answer is we should have an uncompromising loyalty and support of present day Israel. This idea of selfish, blind loyalty and support of modern Israel diminishes God’s loyalty to Israel, hoping to bring about the end times  on our schedule (forcing God’s hands). Some say we must start mission work to bring into the fold all the Jews so the end will come and we will all get to heaven! That too distorts scripture, even when read on a literal basis because the Jews have an explicit, existing relationship with God bound by their covenant. The covenant between the Jews and the Lord is permanent and irrevocable. Paul says the Jews have a relationship with God that has been twisted into a Gordian knot that only God can untie. By Paul, Israel’s estrangement from God is for our grace. How about that as a reason for humility before God?
Paul says they do not need the Good News, rather we need the good news. Israel has opposed Jesus for our sake, so that as Jesus said, we may eat the crumbs from the table. 
I repeat, how about that as a reason for humility before God?
Where does this leave us? It leaves us with an obligation to be the light on the hill that shines with the good news, the crumbs from the table. When we do that, we are a beacon to those who have been called to Jesus who are outside the covenant.
How do we become that beacon? I think you already know the answer, it is living in a way that shows the good news is in our hearts.
Thankfully Jesus explained the parable in Matthew.  Jesus says what comes out of the heart lets people know we are Christians and what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
What should come out of our hearts? You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind. You shall love your neighbor the way God loves you. When we do that, we are reminding the world who God loves.
The Canaanite woman knew one of the worst insults in Judaism (and Islam, today) is to be called a dog. Think about it. We Gentiles are excluded from inheritance of the covenant, yet we have been grafted into that tree of life, at the expense of Israel for the present time. Even though his own have rejected him, finally God will bring them home. Jesus said of this Canaanite ‘dog’, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Is our faith as strong as hers? Shall we live the gospel, spreading the good news to our fellow gentiles? Israel does depend on us, but not for guns and ammunition. What greater gift is there to Israel than for us Gentiles who have received salvation through faith to spread the good news in righteous living. In this way we who are reviled as dogs eat the crumbs from the table become the path salvation for Israel.

Amen.

Day 1688 - A Certain Woman

A sermon shared with First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN on 2017 07 09

Our passage in Acts today tells part of the story of the formation of the second major congregation at Philippi. There are several important themes in this passage. One of them has appeared repeatedly; the Holy Spirit empowered the growth of the body of believers (“the church”) by moving persons to proclaim and to believe. A second is the role of women in forming the church in Acts 16:9-15. It is a good illumination of how the Christian congregations founded by Paul grew. A good book on this growth is Rodney Stark’s Cities of God. I commend it to you.
There are several important themes in this passage from Acts. One of them has appeared repeatedly; the Holy Spirit empowered the growth of the body of believers (“the church”) by moving persons to proclaim and to believe. A second is the role of women in forming the church.
     This account of the action of the Holy Spirit on Lydia and Paul contradicts an idea most of us hold dear, the validity of freedom of action.
     I find three certain women as central actors in the Philippians’ community involving two recurring themes, how (1)the Holy Spirit empowered a woman in Philippi (Lydia) to proclaim and (2) believe thereby becoming a stalwart for the congregation. These verses in Acts invite me to read ahead into the letter from Paul to the Philippians to find his concerns for that early congregation. (Acts was written by Luke, the letters are Paul’s own account.)
Paul addresses concerns in the congregation at Philippi that are a message for us today.
     A word about Paul’s epistles (letters). We usually read Paul’s thirteen letters mistakenly as expositions of theological belief. We do not appreciate that Paul’s travel in the Mediterranean over 30-35 years was extensive. He would found a congregation(usually in a city with synagogues) and almost immediately feel the call to move to the next city. As a result, local leadership in the congregation was essential. He used his friends to visit, encourage and keep up with them. When he heard of conflict, dissent,  or adopting religious practices he disapproved, he wrote letters to them about the issues. We say that Paul’s letters were written for an occasion.
     As a result, we ought to read his letters as we might read a letter from a parent or good friend, or a letter we picked up by accident. They are snapshots of life in early Christian congregations. The things we read are about real problems and people. 
     Let’s look at the passage I read. Philippi was a Roman colony that enjoyed special status in the empire. It was a strategic, cosmopolitan port city famous for its gold and silver mint. Philippi enjoyed special favor the city from the Caesar Augustus as a home for veteran soldiers. It had a remarkable freedom of self-rule in the Roman Empire. It was a city of wealth, poverty, freed slaves and veteran soldiers.
     Paul’s vision, a message from the Holy Spirit, to go to Philippi in Macedonia is a good example that we are not in control of the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul was restrained from going to Macedonia until the Holy Spirit let him.
     In America, we treasure freedom of action to the point we believe we have the freedom to pursue anything we desire if it does not restrain another’s freedom. Some would argue that we have a culture of free pursuit of desire. Citizens are self-interested customers seeking more and more “things.” That freedom to pursue happiness morphs into a driven need for both parents to hold the 40+ hour per week job either to survive in a consumer-driven society, or, to get enough money to afford the luxury of programs of child enrichment for our children, cars, electronics and better houses. Students expect straight A’s to get into college, or to get into the best graduate school, and then to get the best job afterwards. It seems we equate the freedom of “getting things” with the respect of our neighbors for our accomplishments.
     We all say we have great freedom of choice. For example, now women are free to choose to smoke tobacco with the result that the incidence of lung cancer and heart disease in women now approaches that of men! What kind of freedom is that?
     What freedom did Christians enjoy In Philippi? As people became ardent Christians, they stopped going to the silversmiths to buy and worship idols. This wrecked the local economy. This disruption of the trade in silver idols created hostility between the business people and Paul and the Christians.
     Paul and his workers were beaten and thrown in jail because of it. Christians were harassed. If free democracy is the will of the people, it curtailed the physical freedom of Paul and his fellow Christians.
     But Paul said he had no freedom. The Holy Spirit compelled him when and where to proclaim the gospel. Paul knew the Holy Spirit is in control.
     Perhaps we can find freedom in another theme, the role of women in the growth of Christianity. Consider Lydia. 
     Luke emphasizes how persons of low social degree (a woman here) are instrumental in the action of the Holy Spirit. Lydia was a wealthy woman who was engaged in commerce among a world of men. In the world of Jewish and Roman society, women had little or no rights. Commerce was the only thing open to Lydia outside traditional social roles in this life.  In conventional religious society, this was her only (respectable) way to act in a radically different way.
      She was a God-fearer. That meant she held Jewish worship in high regard. Because she was a woman, she worshipped at the river with the Jewish women (they had no synagogue) who following all the restrictions placed on women in worship. When Lydia heard the good news from Paul, the Holy Spirit moved her receptive mind to be a bearer of Christian hospitality. She invited Christians into her home regardless that they were men, poor people or otherwise socially neglected. She found freedom to challenge social norms in worship.
     Lydia brings another theme to light, use of wealth. Luke always emphasizes how wealth is the greatest threat to faith. For example, see Luke 1:51-53, 10:30-37, 18:25, 19:1-10.
Yet here Lydia, a successful businesswoman, uses her wealth and household to exercise Christian philanthropy and hospitality by welcoming Paul into her home. (Staying in a woman’s house might also invite social condemnation of both.)
     Early Christian congregations were one of the few safe places for women and the acts of women were instrumental in the formation of the early congregations. The Lord used women in the central role of the birth and growth of the body of believers. Who stayed at the cross and observed the death of Jesus and who ran away? Who went to the tomb and discovered the missing body of Jesus and heard the message that he is raised and were instructed to go tell the others He will meet them in Galilee? The fact we claim Christian faith speaks to the loyalty of those women who heeded the command, “He is not here, he has been raised. Go and tell the others he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (Mark 16:1-8)
Paul is criticized for not always giving a positive view of women (It is worth a sermon or Wednesday evening to explore that subject); however, his description of his missionary efforts consistently show he treasured the centrality of women in the leadership of the congregations.
     When Lydia exercised the freedom to open the doors of her home graciously to the Philippian congregation, she became part of a congregation that tried to model Christ’s humility and accepting all persons as equal before God, something absent in the synagogue and Roman society. Anti-Christian writers of the time with an axe to grind accused the church of being a body that excluded the rich and only invited the poor and outcasts. Here we see a wealthy woman becoming a disciple and opening her doors and pocketbook to rich and poor. Lydia and all the outcasts show us that we are free through God simply to show welcoming Christian hospitality by opening our homes to those seeking and proclaiming truth.
     We might recall what Jesus said about truth in John 8:31. To the Jews and disciples with the heel of Rome on their neck, “if you persist in believing my word and are truly disciples, you will know the truth and it will make you free.”
     Freedom for a Christian then is quite a different thing from the laws and rights governments bestow or take from us to purse or restrain happiness. Freedom is knowing and acting on the truth that the Kingdom of God transcends the freedom granted by the state.
      For this we thank the women at the tomb, and Lydia for having an open heart to the Holy Spirit and opening her home to Paul in disregard of the social pressures against it.
This perspective on freedom is what urges me to read on and see what Paul has to say to the Philippians in his words, not Luke's. What was ocurring in this Philippian congregation?
     Paul’s primary, constant concern in congregations is dissent, gossip, backbiting, hypocrisy, infighting and arguing over religious issues.  Why? Because this kind of behavior destroys relationships, especially in small groups. You know as well as I do that human nature is mostly constant, so we might learn how to deal with problems we are experiencing ourselves from the circumstances of these old letters.
     Paul did not spare the rod. When something upset Paul and he could not get back to the congregation, he wrote letters that often called by name the persons causing the issues. (Modern pastors wouldn’t stay too long in congregations if they constantly used Paul’s strategy, unless they had a peculiar humility.)
     In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul urges the virtue of humility. I’ve read the second chapter to you before (2:5-11), it is an old hymn that lauds the humility of Jesus. Paul talks about being one's own spiritual guide, “You followed my guidance when I was there, no you must work out your salvation with fear and trembling by yourself. He talks about dissent, “Do all things without murmuring and arguing…” and misleading teachings (3:2) "Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!”
     He continues throughout chapter 3, suggesting things in the congregation are the opposite of what he encourages. In 3:17-21, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. (HP aside: I'm not ready for you to imitate me.) For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you - even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
     Then in the last chapter of the letter, he turns to the problem that he has danced around in the whole letter (4: 1-7), “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
     "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything let your requests be made known to God by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Gentleness, peace, kindness, no worries, …"
     As his letter is read to the congregation, suddenly he calls out two of his co-workers, the women, Euodia and Syntyche, because they have been arguing. We don’t know why, we can only infer from the previous words.
    Was it arguing over leadership or religious interpretation (did one have more authority than the other?), or one of them siding with the Jewish Christian sect that pushed conversion to Judaism, or even some of the Libertine excess of Greek religions? We only know that it was damaging the congregation enough that Paul felt it important enough to address the persons by name. I suspect the key is that the arguing itself damaged the congregation’s fellowship, its partnership with Christ. But, we can only infer.
     I titled this reflection, “A Certain Woman,” because Paul gives us in this passage such a beautiful picture of how women like Lydia were critical to the formation of substance of the early church. Clearly Paul did not hold negative opinion towards women. In so many of the congregations started by Paul, women were the facilitators and sustainers of the congregation. He could not do it without them.
     I also called it, “A Certain Woman,” because Paul uses two women to teach us a lesson. Two certain women in Paul’s army or partnership of Christians proclaiming and living the Good News who also were creating pain and damage in some unexplained controversy in the congregation.
     These two women were Paul’s valued co-workers, but even they stumble. Paul asked everyone to give them support to get past it, (4:3-7), “Yes, and I ask you also, …help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life…5Let your gentleness be known to everyone…7Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
     We are a small congregation, probably somewhat like the Philippians, in numbers, in economy and in faith. We are a small congregation with a large heart doing God’s work. We are modern day Philippians beset by a lot of the same conflict of human nature that went on with them. Some of our dearly beloved members get offended by people and stop coming, or avoid coming when they know that person will attend. How is the person who offends, especially a young person, to understand how or that they offended if they are shunned? People who deeply care about our congregation talk about other members, perhaps not realizing that words can take on negativity in repetition getting a distorted, hurtful message back to the other person. For us, Our hearts are gold and we open our arms to everyone, whether they are downtrodden, not socially proper, rich or hungry. Paul says, be gentle, peaceful, kindness, let Jesus worry for you.
     I almost picked the Battle Hymn of the Republic for a hymn today because we all need to stay focused on our freedom in this battle for survival. The problem with that song is our “war” is fought with humility, not violence. We are not in a war against people, or nations, though we might say we are in a war against evil. But really, we have entered freely a fight for spiritual survival that can be won only if we do as Paul said, “Everyone be of the same mind, embrace the humility that Jesus had and love and embrace every member of our congregation.” That means every difficult person who approaches the door of our Pantry or our front door. Paul closed his letter to the Philippians saying, “…No church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone… my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
     As a Christian, we are free and obligated to embrace anyone who seeks our presence. Remember, the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. One never knows when one is entertaining an angel, or the Holy Spirit.
Amen.