Why you have to be poor to treat people like Jesus did

The title is everything if you want a well-trafficked blog post. Now my task is to explore whether this provocative statement is actually true. I spent last week reading a couple of Catholic writers offering a provocative definition of “poverty” as a positive state of character. So I thought this could be my contribution to the Despised Ones synchroblog this week on how to show genuine solidarity to marginalized people. I think that you have to become poor to live in true solidarity, which is what God decided to do to humanity by coming to Earth as the poorest man who has ever lived. Continue Reading

Eternal life is living in God’s welcome

This week’s Journey to Eternity sermon is about welcome. The word welcome is one way you could summarize God’s mission to humanity through Christ. Jesus eliminates any obstacle to our welcome at God’s heavenly feast through the sacrifice of His body on the cross. For our sermon text, I looked at Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus, in which Zacchaeus is saved from his sins not by being chastised or argued into a corner, but through Jesus inviting himself over for lunch. The sermon audio and manuscript are both below.
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Sarah Moon and unmerciful #universalism

A week ago, ex-evangelical blogger Sarah Moon wrote a post titled: “When my abuser is welcome at the table, I am not,” taking aim at the presumptuousness with which some progressive Christians champion a table where everyone is welcome. A friend had told Moon that she should be grateful Jesus died for the man who raped her and she should accept him as her fellow forgiven sinner. Though Moon wasn’t necessarily writing about life after death, the pain she shares illustrates the problem with universalism. Wouldn’t God be lacking in mercy for the victims of abuse to force them to spend eternity in communion with their abusers? Continue Reading

When Welcome is a Problem

Sermon preached at Burke UMC Lifesign contemporary service 9/24/2011
Text: Luke 7:36-50

Simon had a hospitality problem. He had invited a group of rabbis to an intimate gathering to hear this fascinating street prophet from Galilee. They had been waiting all week to pick his brain about the theological issues of their day. Some were skeptical. This Jesus character hung out with tax collectors and illiterate fishermen. But his connection with the masses was so electrifying. Simon had heard him speak before. And he really did feel like Jesus was a true prophet. Attendance had been sagging in Simon’s synagogue. He was burned out. He wanted to study the new prophet and find out his secret. He needed inspiration. Continue Reading

God’s holiness and hospitality

There’s been a lot of conversation in the Christian blogosphere recently about how God’s holiness and love are related and how our understanding of them shapes our view of God’s judgment. Many people reduce this topic which could be useful to our spiritual growth down to the very narrow question of hell (Does it exist? Who goes there? Are there exceptions? etc). I wonder sometimes if God is smacking himself on the forehead to see how many hours His people have wasted arguing about hell.

The standard argument between people who are “anti-hell” and people who are “pro-hell” often goes something like this. The person who’s “anti-hell” says that eternal damnation seems like an awfully harsh sentence for somebody who’s lived a basically good life other than a few cuss words, self-indulgent trips to Cold Stone Creamery, and other minor vices. And the person who’s “pro-hell” retorts that cuss words and ice cream binges may not seem like a big deal to us, but they’re a big deal to God because He’s infinitely holy and so the most minor offenses against Him are infinitely offensive. So the result is that people get this idea that being holy is like being the middle school gym teacher with really tight shorts who makes you do a hundred push-ups for standing with bad posture.

Theology is often like the game of telephone. We inherit conceptions of God from different contexts in which they made sense, but we’re often confused about which aspects of the way people talked about God before are essential and which are related to their context. So we end up receiving a conception of God that looks nothing like how He was described centuries ago at the beginning of the telephone chain. The way that God became a middle-school gym teacher in our imagination today has  its origin in the 11th century feudal discourse of St. Anselm of Canterbury who was trying to explain why Jesus had to die for our sins as both God and man at the same time.

Anselm lived in a time of kings, when everyone accepted that you had to treat the king with a level of honor higher than how you treated your equals or your inferiors. So Anselm reasoned that because God is the King of Kings to whom we owe infinite honor, the only way to make up for all the ways we disrespect God on a daily basis was for an infinitely innocent person (a divine being) to offer His life as a sacrifice on our behalf (as a fellow human) to satisfy our affront of God’s honor. Hence the “God-man” Jesus (cur deus homo if you prefer Anselm’s Latin). Anselm used this feudal analogy to make a theological argument for Jesus’ paradoxical divine-human double nature that made sense in the society in which he lived. The problem is that this argument has been garbled up over time so that we have come to think of God’s holiness as infinite pickiness since we don’t live in a feudal culture of chivalric honor but in a society where people are supposedly equal and there is no chivalry whatsoever.

So I want to push back against the assumption that infinite pickiness is an essential quality of God’s holiness since I think it’s a product of the theological game of telephone and actually a harmful way to understand God. What’s hard for me to grapple with is that the holy people I’ve met and read about aren’t like anal retentive gym teachers at all. It seems like the holier they are, the less picky they are about other peoples’ flaws. The only thing they seem to be picky about is making sure that they treat you with the best hospitality that they can muster. Perhaps you’ve met some Christians like this.

As pastors, we learn about something called the ministry of presence. It means being able to put my entire focus on making other people feel loved and welcomed when they’re with me. This cannot be accomplished if I am filled with  “malice, guile, insincerity, envy, or slander,” to use the words from the lectionary epistle reading this week in 1 Peter 2:1. Unfortunately, my heart is often filled with these things if I understand holiness wrongly as the kind of impeccable, uncompromising correctness of a mean gym teacher. It’s better and more Biblically sound to understand holiness as the “purity of heart” that Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes and the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Methodist founder John Wesley described the holiness of “Christian perfection” as having your heart filled with nothing but love of God and love of neighbor. He got flak for suggesting that this was possible for humans to attain, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to consider the goal of Christianity to be the embodiment of Jesus’ two great commandments (even if it’s a goal that remains forever on our horizon).

If you want to have your mind blown by a version of Christianity that is so much more holy than the rude rabble of Jesus fans around today, then check out the desert fathers and mothers, a group of Christian holy men and women who gave their lives to God in the deserts of north Africa in about the 5th and 6th century. There’s a collection of their sayings called The Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward. Roberta Bondi has written some books also. And Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams recently wrote a book about them called Where God Happens. The entire concern of the desert fathers and mothers was to be Christ to other people and see Christ in them. If people came to visit them bearing food if they were in the middle of a fast, they would eat and silently ask God for forgiveness in order to avoid making their visitors feel bad. They were exceedingly devoted to their spiritual lives but if they detected an ounce of pride behind what they were doing, they felt devastated. I’ll never forget the story of a monk who got robbed of everything except for his tunic so out of guilt for his selfishness, he chased the robber down the road to make sure he offered his tunic also.

So when I meet people today who want to make their lives an imitation of Christ just like the desert fathers and mothers, it makes me think that holiness has more to do with hospitality than pickiness. I have a feeling that God’s house whenever we get there will be less like a meticulously immaculate museum where you walk on eggshells terrified to break anything and more like a redneck bar where the chief concern of the Man behind the counter is to make us feel welcome. It’s an imperfect vision. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Isaiah 6, where Isaiah quakes in his boots in the presence of God’s holiness. For those who have been stomped on by the world, I can understand the attraction of Revelation’s bowls of wrath and trumpets of rage against the seemingly invincible social order. How is God hospitable to those whom we ignore and mistreat? Does he have to smash a bottle on our heads to get us to shut up and let somebody else talk? What does God do about the people who need to be the center of attention when the only way to throw a perfect eternal party is for God to be the center of attention because He can handle the attention?

Still it feels like the awe and hatred of our own ugliness that we feel in the presence of God is something that increases the more we get to know Him, whereas when we don’t know God, we are incapable of climbing out of our cynicism and shallow banter long enough to feel any sense of shame about our mistakes. I don’t know exactly what God’s holiness will be like for those who are either ignorant of or oblivious to the mercy of Jesus’ sacrifice that makes me feel comfortable sitting in the lap of my Maker. I only know that my life is rich beyond description because I have been opened to God’s mercy and I want for everyone I meet to be blessed the way that I have been blessed. And I hate to see God caricatured as some tight-wad gym teacher. The reality is much deeper than we can express. I just want to be holy like God is holy.

It’s Okay to be Martha

Sermon for 7/17/2010
Text: Luke 10:38-42

Martha! Martha! It sounds kind of like “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” How many of you are old enough to have seen that famous episode of the Brady Brunch? Jan Brady is tired of people praising her perfect older sister Marcia so finally she just explodes. I didn’t see the original; I saw the parody on Saturday Night Live in the early nineties. In the story of Mary and Martha, we have another case of sibling rivalry. But in this case, it’s the perfectionist Martha who’s mad at her good-for-nothing sister Mary lounging around at Jesus’ feet when there’s work to be done.

So who gets to be Mary? And who gets stuck being Martha? I’m very good at playing the part of Mary. Last year, I was the stay-at-home parent in our house while my wife was a hospital chaplain who had to work a 24-hour shift at least once a month and sometimes once a week. I pretty much let the house go, because I figured the house is Martha’s job. Now I was a volunteer youth pastor at the same time and part of my ministry was to make Christian hip-hop music for my youth, so when our house got too chaotic, I would go on a “spiritual retreat” by putting on my headphones and shutting everything else out except for my music (which was about Jesus so it was like sitting at Jesus’ feet). I was really good at being Mary.

This year, our roles are officially reversed so I’m tempted to be even more of a Mary than before. Unpacking the house? Martha’s got it. Health insurance forms? I’ll let Martha cover that. I can delegate all my parenting tasks, such as poopie-diapers and bedtime, to Martha. Oh and I always say thank you.

I’m good at making time for myself to keep a good spiritual balance. I go to the gym every morning and take a sauna with God. On my day off this past Monday, I went and sat by Burke Lake with a spiritual devotion book. The last thing I want to do when I’m off from work is get stuck with honey-do lists or be stranded in a room full of boxes with two little boys who are capable of rapidly dismantling any and all forms of established order. Because if I spend all my free time helping to get the house set up, I’ll be stressed out and it’ll make me a lousy pastor.

I’m good at being Mary. And what’s great is that any time my wife has needs that conflict with my spiritual balance, I can look at this passage and realize that she’s just being like Martha: “Jesus, can you tell Morgan that he needs to pick up after himself, not to mention be a father and a husband?” “Cheryl, Cheryl, you worry too much; Morgan has chosen the right thing and it will not be taken from him.”

I could go on with my sarcasm for a lot longer; my point is this: just like most other passages in the Bible, we tend to read Mary and Martha’s story to our own advantage. Whichever character Jesus praises – that’s me. Whoever Jesus rebukes – those are the people who judge me and misunderstand me. We tend to oversimplify Jesus’ conflict resolution, as though He’s taking one side entirely and dissing the other side. Just because Jesus says what Martha needs to hear for her spiritual edification doesn’t mean that Martha is 100% wrong and Mary is 100% right. They were probably at different points in their spiritual journey and thus needed to hear different things from Jesus. Mary needed affirmation; Martha needed to be challenged.

When I really think about it, I’m not like Mary at all; I’m just a more dysfunctional version of Martha. Martha’s problem is not that she’s a detail-oriented person who takes care of all the unglamorous work that nobody ever thanks her for doing. The text says that Martha’s mind is “distracted”; in the original Greek, the word is periespato, which means getting yanked in every direction at the same time. If the difference between Martha and Mary is that Martha’s distracted while Mary’s focused on the “one good thing,” then I’m certainly not Mary.

Now some of you men out there are probably thinking what’s this guy doing comparing himself to two women. Isn’t this a story about women? I’m sure we’d like to take ourselves off the hook, but anybody can be Martha, men and women alike, whether we work at home or outside the home. All it takes is getting so overextended and yanked in every direction that we don’t think we have time for Jesus, much less our family. Mary was focused on making Jesus feel welcome in her home and she was willing to waste time with him so that he would feel at home. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a little child in His name welcomes me.” And so when I refuse to waste time with my sons, by playing with trains and doing things that don’t seem important, I am refusing to welcome Jesus.

But who can be Mary in a Martha world of busy-ness? Life in the information age is like being caught in a giant wave pool at one of those water theme parks. I’m yanked around by the waves of to-do lists and paperwork just like Martha was. The difference between me and Martha is this: while Martha tries her best to surf through that wave pool, I don’t even bother. I climb out on the side and find things to criticize about everyone who’s fighting the waves.

What I can’t stand is seeing people who’ve got both sides covered. They’re up-to-date on their taxes; and they’re excellent conversationalists at parties. They’ve got their kids enrolled in all the right extracurricular activities; and they’re reading Henri Nouwen books on the sidelines. They keep their houses like museums; and they go to fun places with their families every single weekend. Maybe such people don’t exist in real life; but they sure do in my head. And it makes me so mad that I can’t seem to get anything done and my Martha pile never seems to get any smaller. So I go looking for holes I can poke and things I can criticize about people whose lives seem perfect from the outside.

Let me share some of my Martha pile with you. I want for this room to be packed out with people every Saturday night, who all know how much God loves them and express their gratitude by worshiping God with all our hearts, minds, and souls. I want this to be a place where people who are as cynical as I was in college will hear something or feel something that makes them give God a second chance. I want to have a banging young adult ministry that reaches a hard to reach population with the right formula of fun outings, intellectually stimulating activities, and Biblically-sound discipleship. I want for this church to be like the Jerusalem church in Acts 2 where everyone gets what they needed and shares all that they can. I want for us to be so opened to the power of the Holy Spirit that we take to the streets to share the gospel with the world.

It feels good to say all that, but I don’t have any earthly idea where to begin and what the steps are for getting where we need to go. So I get short-tempered and huffy like Martha when she was rushing around getting the house together for Jesus. Or I find “spiritually-edifying” books to read instead of getting started on the nitty-gritty detail work from which I am so easily distracted. I’m good at being Mary on the outside to hide the Martha in my brain. And the whole time, Jesus is trying to cut through the whirlwind of my thoughts in a still, small voice: “Morgan, Morgan; you’re worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

What is this one thing Jesus is talking about? I don’t think he’s giving us permission not to wash the dishes as long as we sit on the couch and read the Bible instead. There’s a place for taking Sabbath and resting, but Jesus’ one thing has to do with our attitude about what we do rather than a single action we’re supposed to take. The one thing that should motivate all of our actions is our love for God and by extension our love for the people God cares about.

The Old Testament story about Abraham hosting the three angels offers a good contrast to Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. From the time that his visitors arrive, Abraham focuses his attention on one thing: making them feel welcome. He gives them water to clean off from the road and kills off his choicest cattle to prepare a feast for them. Abraham is able to pull off being both Mary and Martha at the same time (largely because he has a crew of servants helping him out). Now few of us are going to have a team of people working in our houses like Abraham had. But there’s work to be done and there’s going to be a division of labor, which includes not only getting the floors clean but also entertaining our company.

Our challenge is to do what we do out of love for God as though every day is a day when Jesus is a guest in our homes. We need to remember this love whether we’re frustrated with our spouse for slacking off or we’re tempted to slack off ourselves. Because Jesus is with us, we don’t need to get bent out of shape about our inadequacies and start looking for someone else to blame. With Jesus’ help, we can put one foot in front of the other and do what needs to get done, which in my case means facing the boxes that we still haven’t unpacked from our move. Trusting Jesus means I don’t run away from the detail work. What I do is what Paul says to do. I go to the Cross, taking all the built-up guilt from time that I’ve wasted in the past and all the fear that I’m never going to get everything done; I throw off these things that hinder me and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race that’s marked for me to run.

Jesus has a plan for me; He’s got a plan for you; He’s got a plan for this church; and we don’t have to know that plan right now. I don’t have to get my head swimming with ideas like Martha that make me testy and short-tempered and unable to move forward. What I need to do is trust Jesus with the big picture and take one piece of the puzzle at a time. It’s not going to be perfect; it’s not even going to be efficient. I will make a thousand mistakes that teach a thousand lessons. But the good news is this: God’s going to win and He had the mercy and compassion to use even a scatter-brained guy like me for one small piece of His victory.

So whether we’re busy or lazy, whether we’re detail-oriented or big-picture people, let’s admit that we all lose focus sometimes; let’s do the thankless chores that we need to do in gratitude for the grace of Jesus Christ that makes it okay to be Martha.