Saturday, August 31, 2013

Take a Seat

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place', and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
Luke 14:8-11

A seat at a lunch counter. A seat on a bus. A seat at a wedding banquet. Who would think that something so simple as choosing where to sit is important to a life of faith? It’s clear that Jesus knows how important this little act is. It’s a reflection of how much we love our neighbors.

This week, the gospel passage is about planning feasts and choosing seating arrangements. This week also marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for equal rights. While it may not be something we think about, where we sit actually matters. It says something about who we are and how we see others.  

Jesus call to radical hospitality and humility shows us that at God’s table our hierarchies do not exist. But in our mind they do. We try to grab the best seat, couch or pew. We want to know who gets to go first and we want to know how we can be that person.

Maybe we’re the first person to call “shotgun” and get to ride in the front seat of the car. Maybe we pay more for concert tickets so that we can sit close to the stage. Maybe we arrive early so that we can claim good seats or parking for the Christmas Eve service. Maybe we insist that only we can take the front seats on the bus.

 There are a lot of ways we can make sure we get the best seat and are at the top of the hierarchy. But, our striving, our money, our position are not what God values.

God doesn’t flip through the yearbook of humanity calling only the best-dressed or the most likely to succeed. God embraces the whole book. The geek with glasses, the girl with tragic hair. The woman who can’t stop crying since her divorce. The foreigner. The prom queen. The new father who can’t believe he actually has cancer. The terrified 12-year-old starting middle school.  The man who was downsized three years before retiring. The 20-year-old who sneaks into worship twenty minutes late in flip flops.

No, God turns the pages of that book with a great big love for every person there. The hierarchy, the seats of honor are things of our own making. The rules and laws that assure us that we always get the seat of in the front of the bus or the best parking spot at work are ours. Jesus invites us to let go of our hierarchies and our guest lists and our titles and unfair laws.

When we let go of the hierarchy. When we stop competing for the best seat, we can simply be who we are. We can plop down in the back pew, no wait, that’s the seat of honor in a Presbyterian church. We can plop down in the front pew and simply be what we were created to be—at peace in the presence of God and each other.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Long Division

When I was in elementary school I struggled with long division. Actually, I struggled with a lot of math tasks. Not because I didn’t understand them. No I struggled because I was undisciplined. I understood the concepts, but I was never one to spend time practicing math facts. There were so many better things to do. I could play kickball with friends, or read a good book or ride my bike over to grandma’s house for come cookies.  Anything but practice math facts.

Division is the topic of the Bible readings. In Isaiah it’s the division between the rich and the poor and in Luke it’s the division between people over Jesus’ message—a message about good news for the poor.

These passages are a challenge. People don’t flock to churches to hear these words. We want the prince of peace, not the divider of families. We want God to prosper us, not confront us. We want the Biblical words that uphold our worldview, not those that call us to change. In other words, we don’t like prophets.

We want feel-good phrases written in clouds and flowers on our Facebook and Twitter feeds—the snippets of scripture that get handed around so often like sweet Bible candy. We forget that the Bible can be confrontational, more like Brussels sprouts. Not good, but good for us. 

Jesus was about deep, life-changing love. He just wasn’t about platitude. He wasn’t telling the religious elite what they were doing right. He was killed precisely because he made sure people in the congregations and at the pulpits knew what they were doing wrong.

He made some people angry. He disturbed the peace. For heaven’s sake, he wanted them to pray for their enemies and the people who were persecuting them. Forgive instead of retaliate. Sell possessions and give to the poor. Love the crazies on the street corner. Who wants to hear a message like that?

We ignore the prophetic voice because it calls us out. It challenges us to practice what we preach.  It urges us to repent or change. The prophetic voice shows us the difference between the religion that’s on the page and the religion that we practice in real life. 

Today, we can read the Bible and see the division Jesus created. We can see the anger of the Pharisees, forgetting that we are the modern day Pharisees who don’t like our sense of order disturbed. Following Jesus sometimes means putting aside the things that we like and encountering the other stuff that’s there. Maybe making it a practice to read the parts of the Bible we don’t agree with, quieting the voice that would rather be bike riding long enough to hear God’s entire message.

No doubt, life is easier when we ignore the prophet. We can keep all our stuff. Stuff like anger against our enemies, the things piled in our closets, the illusion that there isn’t much suffering and the false conviction that this is the way God wants it be.

Want to read more of the Bible? Try
Need to practice division? Try That's where the graphics are from. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Greater the Faith, The Bigger the Crazy

Sunday Sermon (audio only) based on Hebrews 11:1-10

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

4By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. 5By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. 8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Breaks in the Prayer Chain: Information or Transformation

You are a wealth of information. Just think of all of the things you’ve read, heard, said and thought about in your day today. Each of us is a living, breathing, information machine, whether we have a smart phone or one that is still attached to a wall.  

We are organic social media, putting out thoughts and ideas into the universe each time we are talk, text or tweet.  

We are built for communication. And so are our churches.

Churches are storehouses of unimaginable amounts of information. In addition to the collective wisdom of its members, churches have info on theology, mission, relationships, community events, and people. We have Bibles and blogs, pamphlets and classes, sermons and suppers, phones and signs. We use all of these to share this information. Churches are communicating like crazy. All the time.

But in our information age, we feel like we have to do more. There is a megachurch out there with better screens, a splashier website, more YouTube hits and a dozen bloggers. For those of us in mainline churches, we panic as we try to keep up, churning out as much as possible because we assume we have to do more. So we push more information about ourselves out there. It looks kind of like this:

We are pushing more words and images onto people who are already saturated with words and images. More is not better when it comes to the human communication machine. Better is communication that is targeted, authentic and responsive. When the information flows two ways, transformation can happen.

When the information flows more than one-way people feel valued. They feel cared for. They feel included. They feel loved. They respond.

Consider the prayer chain. Used to be that prayer chains were done by phone. One by one the news would travel thought the community, along with other tidbits—like memories, tears, laughter and perspectives (and, yes, some gossip).  Mary would call Jim and they would not just talk about the death of Sally, they would recall the way she always welcomed people or scowled at crying babies or made the mashed potatoes for the community dinner or whatever. The phone call allowed the prayer chain members to connect and reflect on the information they were passing along.  It allowed people to be heard. It allowed them to make begin conversations that make sense of the new information.

Today, churches still have prayer chains. Concerns are emailed or tweeted to large numbers of people who read them. So quick! So easy! The information has been passed along at no cost! Some recipients may  reply and connect in response, but many will simply absorb it along with all the other information comes to them from their screens.

As churches, we can’t just dump information onto our communities and think it will draw people to our congregations. Communication has to be two ways, regardless of the tools we use. We need to be prepared to help people make sense of the information we put out there. We need to intentional about connecting. The pastor preaches to the group, spraying information over the crowd, but then stands at the back of the sanctuary after the service, reaching out with an open hand, acknowledging each person who chooses to pass through the line, allowing the members to share their own thoughts, concerns and worries. 

Tools like Twitter and Instagram can help us because they are cheap and effective ways of communicating and they can allow for connection. But, the power of good communication isn’t in the tool; it’s in our hearts. It’s in the way we respond to those around us. Good communication allows people to give and receive. To bless and be blessed. It’s our relationships, not the information that leads to transformation.

This is a reflection on the workshops that I conducted at Big Tent 2013. Great people and great discussions on how to communicate effectively.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013