Monday, April 28, 2014

the least of these: Jesus the Homeless

A few weeks back NPR covered the installation of a new statue of Jesus at an Episcopal Church in North Carolina.

Big news, right? A statue of Jesus. At a church.

But this is unlike most--maybe any--statues of Christ you'll ever see. The piece is called simply "Jesus the Homeless," and it depicts Jesus wrapped up in a blanket, sleeping on a bench. He's only identifiable by his nail-scared bare feet that the blanket couldn't cover. The statue, according to NPR's report, is "intended as a visual translation" of a line in Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the day of judgment, when 'the Son of Man' (a title Jesus uses for himself) will return and reign as king over the world. Jesus then explains for us why the king will call some "blessed by my Father" and invite them to "inherit the kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world":
'For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'. (25:35-40)

As the passage goes on, the wicked are likewise puzzled, unsure when it was that they turned Jesus away, refusing to give him food or drink or clothing... only to find out that they turned Jesus away every time they ignored the needs of "the least of these." The homeless guy, sleeping on the bench, whom you can either help or ignore--that's Jesus.

The statue has received some strong reactions. According to NPR,
Some loved it; some didn't.

"One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by," says David Boraks, editor of "She thought it was an actual homeless person."

That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.

"Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter to the editor saying it creeps him out," Boraks added.

Some neighbors felt it was an insulting depiction of the Son of God, and what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.

I personally think it's a beautiful piece, and it communicates the force of the passage in Matthew more powerfully than anything I've seen before. Of course, there's also a striking irony in a church erecting a $22,000 bronze statue to teach that Jesus expected us to care for the poor, but I don't really care to get into that debate.

Instead, I just wanted to bring this "visual translation" to your attention, so maybe those of us trying to be disciples can encounter Jesus' call in a new way.

What do you think of "Jesus the Homeless"? Is it a good interpretation of Matthew 25? How would it go over at your church?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

why church?

Easter is only a few days away, and that means a lot of folks are dusting off their Sunday best for their annual or semi-annual trip to the church house. That's not a judgment: just a fact. These people may be dedicated to reading their Bibles, praying, giving, or sharing their faith - more dedicated than those of us who are at church every Sunday, even - but for whatever reason, they simply are not actively involved in the life of the local church.

There are as many reasons as people. There could be some pain, some guilt, some frustration behind it, perhaps from years past when they were a part of a congregation. It could be because they find church services boring, or they're busy with other commitments. Or maybe they just haven't seen any good reason to be a part of a church. I'll come for a special celebration of some momentous work of God, like Jesus' birth or his resurrection, but otherwise... why would I want to be there? Why church?

I'm a pastor, so obviously I have a vested interest in people thinking church is important. But I actually happen to believe it is important - vital, even. This is an enormous topic, but let me try to distill a few points here and offer 4 reasons why I believe church is vital to Christian faith.

1. Encountering grace. There are countless ways that you may get a taste of God's grace in your life. Some of come through company, through friends; some of them will only come in private, when you are alone with God, or alone with creation.
But there are a few ways that God has established as permanent channels of grace for our lives, regular "means of grace" (as we call them in the United Methodist Church) to which we have access. And many of these you will only tap into through the life of the church. Baptism and Holy Communion are the two most obvious examples: you are only baptized, you only receive the bread and the cup, Christ's body and blood, as a part of a community. Other believers are involved in all of that, and a minister, probably. The grace that we encounter through these acts, this is a grace you only find with the rest of the church.
[Worship itself, that encounter with God's grace, is meant to be a communal experience as well, where "each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (1 Cor 14:25).]

2. Encouragement, support, and challenge. Being a part of the church means being a part of a community that helps us through life. The folks around you in the pews are called by scripture to "encourage each other and build each other up" (1 Thess 5:11), to "share each other's burdens" (Gal 6:4), and to "motivate one another to acts of love and good works" (Heb 10:24). We aren't just there to sit next to each other - we're there to journey through life together and help one another along the way! If we don't get to know others in our congregations and invest in their lives, we're not being the church at all. As a member of a faithful church, you can look to your sisters and brothers in Christ for spiritual, emotional, even material support and help on your journey (and they can look to you!).

Of course, the reasons "why church?" aren't all centered on us, and the benefits we can receive through a connection with the church. Some of the reasons are simply truths that Jesus' people need to come to terms with.

3. The Body of Christ.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:12, 14-16, 27)

Paul is really concerned here with the variety of spiritual gifts in the 'body', and the important role that each member of the 'body' plays. But his central image, of the body, has other implications as well. You, Christian, no matter how self-sufficient you might feel, you are a spiritual body part. You can't change that; nothing you say will make you any less a part of the body. The moral of the story? We're not supposed to do this on our own - if we try to, we may not really be doing it at all! You wouldn't say an eyeball or a pinky toe, off on its own, was really living life. Existing? Sure. Living life? Nah. That's what a body does. It takes more parts than that. If you don't join together with the other parts of the body, you're severely hampering your own Christian life, not to mention handicapping everyone else's (they're left without a nose, or a kidney!).

4. "You" is plural. The word "you" can be singular or plural, depending on how you use it. "Will you marry me?" "You lost, Denver Broncos." That's English. In ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, it's different: there is a singular "you" and a plural "you," and you can tell them apart just by looking at them - like the difference between "you" and "y'all."
And you may be surprised how many of the "you"s in the New Testament are plural. Take 1 Corinthians 3:16 for instance: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" I'm God's temple? Cool! That means I should eat right, exercise, maybe avoid tattoos (temple graffiti?). Oh, but wait: this is plural. You all, y'all, the Christian community, are the temple of God, where the Spirit dwells. Like so many other "you"s, it's plural. Why is that? Because Christianity is a plural faith. It's all about y'all, we, us. Jesus didn't call individual disciples to follow him, each on their own: he called twelve disciples to form a Church. One more time: we're not supposed to do this on our own! That's why church.

But let's get real.
This is a blog post and a whole bunch of words. If this all sounds good to you, you probably felt that way before you started reading. If you want to see folks who've never shown an interest in participating in the life of the church begin to invest their time and hearts in your congregation, recommending a blog post to them is not your best option (just trust me on that). If you want to see people drawn into the life of your church, do what you can to make that congregation the kind of community it's supposed to be; do what you can to offer people the opportunities for growth and service that they need; do what you can to make your church look like the bride of Christ that she is. Make your church, and the experience of participating in your church, a compelling case for itself.
Then trust God with the rest.

And you might want to get started on that, because this weekend you'll have an opportunity to show a lot of new people what the church can be, if they'll give it a chance.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

honor thy father and mother

"Honor your father and mother..." - Exodus 20:12 / Deuteronomy 5:16

We recently finished a study on the Ten Commandments at Grace, where every week we looked at one commandment closely, clarifying its meaning, exploring the ways other passages expanded on, qualified, or illustrated it, and asking what it means for our lives today. I had a great time researching and preparing all of that material, and I had an equally great and equally illuminating time discussing all of this with the group each week. Since time for blogging has been hard to come by lately, I thought it may be good to share a bit from one of those studies here.

Honoring your father and your mother is the 5th commandment.

A lot of people find it helpful to break the Ten Commandments into two sections: 1-4, which focus on our relationship with and responsibilities towards the Lord, and 5-10, which emphasize our relationship with and responsibilities toward our neighbors. Those aren't hard and fast divisions. After all, all ten of these commandments are a response to God's delivering Israel from Egypt and making covenant with them. And even in the first four commandments you can see a concern for neighbors (for instance, notice the insistence in Ex 20:10 / Deut 5:14 that 'resting on the Sabbath' cannot mean 'resting at someone else's expense': your neighbors -  servants, children, livestock, whatever - need rest too). But dividing the commandments between #4 and #5 can still be a helpful move.

And if you do, then the 5th commandment becomes the first commandment focused on our neighbors. Honoring your parents becomes a starting point for directing our lives towards others.

Why would that be? Why start talking about our obligations towards our neighbors with our parents?

This reminds me of a passage from C. S. Lewis's classic The Screwtape Letters, a fictional correspondence between two demons, a senior Tempter named Screwtape, and his inexperienced nephew Wormwood, discussing the man Wormwood's trying to tempt. In letter 6, Screwtape advises Wormwood:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity it growing between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train.

The people we don't know, out on "the remote circumference," are the 'starving children in Africa'. Real people, with real struggles, but folks we'll probably never know and never have to learn to love as our neighbors. (We don't even know enough to say what country they're from! It's just "Africa.") It's easy to care about them, but often that care is imaginary - it doesn't have the marks or the effects of the hard-earned care you have for a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. It's little more than a warm feeling, hardly the love-in-action that our immediate neighbors demand from us. The tempters, then, want us to spend all of our 'care' on those people out on the remote circumference, rather than on the people we actually live alongside.

Why would the commandments concerning our neighbors start with our families?
Because if we want to learn to love people, we have to start with the folks we live with every day. That's where we'll learn real benevolence: with the people we know the best, warts and all, but whom we still have to love, day in, day out. Before you can get to ‘thou shalt not steal’ or ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor’ or any of the others, you have to learn to love your family. When you learn how to do that (or at least how to try), the Holy Spirit's cultivated some real benevolence in your soul, and you’re ready to move past the 5th commandment and love some other folks.