Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fox Hole Faith

Fox Hole Faith

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

June 27, 2010

Luke 9:51-62

I noticed the Portland Trail Blazers have been in the news again. Well, in the interest of accuracy it was their general manager rather than the team, and not for reasons most fans might hope for. I won’t go into a sports commentary, but seeing that story led me to recall a time, years ago, when I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, attending the meeting of our denomination’s General Assembly. My roommate was a long-time friend from both my college and seminary, who was then serving as a pastor in Iowa. Art has always been a competitive sort of person, and more than that, he is someone who, in a discussion, is generally willing to take the opposite side from you just for the sporting fun of debate.

One night while we were there, the Trail Blazers played their first basketball game in the 1992 NBA finals against Chicago. I was really looking forward to watching the game, but as some of you who may be avid Blazer fans might recall, the game that night turned into a complete blowout by Chicago. Portland was down by as many as 30 points all game long, and they went down in a miserable loss. My friend, sensing my loyalty to Portland from the comments I had made over the previous two days, had more and more fun at my expense as the game went on: he became a big Chicago fan right before my eyes, observing my misery, cheering for Chicago, taunting me when Portland made a bonehead play – and they made many that night.

I tried to make the most of being on the losing side, tried to make my retreat from the misplaced confidence I had voiced prior to the game as orderly as possible, snidely asking him to name all the NBA teams in Iowa – since there are none – and trying to help him see by extended recitals of statistics and stories of previous triumphs what a really terrific team the Blazers had been all season. It was futile. He would have none of it. He just grinned back at me, pointing at the TV, reciting the score as things went from bad to worse. The real evidence, he snidely suggested, correctly, was on the screen.

Now, why did this come to my mind as I was pondering today’s passage from Luke? Here in Luke the Samaritans, refusing to receive Jesus because of his loyalty to the home team in Jerusalem, became the object of this comment from James and John: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Isn’t it funny how our loyalties, even loyalties to things as silly as a professional spots franchise, once chosen, can quickly turn more fierce, even more violent than we had thought?

I really hadn’t thought of calling heavenly fire down on my friend, but inasmuch as we were on the ninth floor of the hotel, I had thought about pitching him out the window several times during the game! Loyalty can be a funny thing that way. Once we have committed ourselves, sometimes it is easier to imagine doing violence to those who don’t share our commitment than to live up to the commitment itself. I’ll tell you what I mean.

Theologically speaking, it seems to me that today’s passage has to do with the requirements of discipleship. How does discipleship – attachment to Jesus – mean anything more than just following the cultural norms for what it means to be good people? How can we think about discipleship in a way that keeps the topic from being anything other than another sermon “snoozer?”


This passage about discipleship really comes in two parts. The first part of the reading reports the unwillingness of the people of a Samaritan village to become disciples. Ever since the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon 600 years earlier, the Samaritans had received nothing from them other than heaped-up abuse and active, malicious disdain. Why should they follow this Jew and his band of fellow religious elitists, whose intention – as Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem – was to head their movement into the Jews’ own capital anyway? Better that they honestly reject this Messiah, I suppose, than that they go charging into a commitment without first having counted the costs, like the three other examples of half-way followers in the second part of the reading.

In this first part of our reading we come to know that James and John have not understood that their calling as disciples was not to get even with all those who differed with them, but to follow the example of a master who loves and even dies for those who reject him. Not an easy task! Revenge and retaliation, which clearly were guiding principles in some of the stories of the people of Israel, these have now been replaced in the ministry of Jesus by unconditional love even for those who reject him. The calling of his disciples is to do nothing less.

There are those who would preach extensively about the extraordinary and generous love of God, but just in case there are some in their audiences who are not convinced to come to Jesus by all that talk about love, they would resort to the bolts of hellfire for the reluctant as the ultimate convincer. I think, more often than not, what gets communicated this way is that we worship a God who, when he doesn’t get his way, forces our hand through threats and intimidation. The love of the gospel becomes a thin veneer, a cover for a God who is perfectly willing to throw his weight around if it becomes necessary.


The second half of the reading seems to me to ask which is worse, the Samaritans who reject Jesus unequivocally, or the ones who make a less-than-complete decision to follow, rejecting the demands of Jesus bit by bit in order to follow their own lead? This entire episode should be instructive for any church that is overly willing to trust its own judgment as to who is in and who is out of the circle of the Lord’s favor.

Here is something that occurred to me when I was once in attendance at a meeting of the General Assembly: Even though many characterize our times as a period in which young people are too busy looking out for themselves as they prepare to enter adult careers to pay much attention to the needs of the less fortunate, I have observed that many young people in my acquaintance are finishing high school and college and asking what they can do to make a contribution to the ministry of the church in the world. Young people sign up to spend summers, spring break, even a year or two after college to work in overseas missions, with the Tony Campolo ministries in Philadelphia, to volunteer at camps for youth. I have often been asked, by those who are about to finish college, to help them locate mission opportunities where they can volunteer a year or two of their time. This is an indication that there is a willingness among many young people to set self aside and actively pursue their discipleship. Yet the unwelcome fact of our current economic times is that opportunities for service which our denomination makes available to volunteers have been scaled back from the level of previous years because of budgetary difficulties.

Isn’t that an amazing thought? It is as though Jesus had said to us, “I need you to follow me today,” but as a denomination our response has become, “Sure, Lord, but first we will have to get acceptable housing provided – after all, even foxes have holes to nest in; and we will need to tidy up the dying cemeteries of our lives ourselves before we will trust our future with you; and of course we want mainly to be in mission right next door – we’d rather you not ask that we actually consider the needs of those who live across town, across the country, across oceans, across cultural barriers, or across religious affiliations.”

No wonder the great cathedral architect of the nineteenth century, William Butterfield, felt moved once to say, “Hold to Christ, and in everything else remain uncommitted.” In the end, it really is the only way. Pilgrimage with Christ, moving toward a new way of living and relating to others in the world, finally means that the demands of discipleship are meant to be understood against a background of other demands which are, often, very good, very legitimate. It is good to work to provide adequate food and shelter for oneself and one’s family, it is good to see to family obligations like burying one’s father, and kissing the relatives goodbye. But in the hierarchy of things that are good, what is best? The best is to follow Jesus, to choose to follow Jesus no matter what. The rest will fall into place.

For James and John – and for us, I believe – there is then this word: Before calling fire down on the inadequate commitment of others, Jesus wants us to assess the completeness of our own commitment. Doing that, we will likely be a lot less arrogant, and a lot more humble knowing that, before God, all people come as needy ones.

Author Frederick Buechner once called faith “the word that describes the direction that our feet start moving when we find that we are loved ... stepping into the unknown with nothing but a guiding hand just beyond our grasp.”

I believe that any time our feet begin moving that direction, our example will give the courage of faith to others in a way that threats of fire and destruction could never do. Acts of faith are acts of loving kindness, no matter where we find the opportunity to offer them.

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Life in the Meantine

Life in the Meantime

© copyright 2010, Robert J. Elder

June 20, 2010

Luke 9:18-24; Galatians 3:23-29

At almost every meeting of presbytery there is a time when candidates for ministry are either presented, recognized, or examined. It is true that sometimes meetings of Presbytery can be a bit dull, running on an excitement scale somewhere between boredom and napping. But the examination of candidates for ministry is one of the items at many meetings that lift them above the normal, mundane, run-of-the-mill business.

I remember my own examination for ordination before a presbytery – it’s the sort of experience one doesn’t forget – and I remember observing and participating in many examinations of new seminary graduates. Now, as you probably already know, people responding to a call to enter the pastoral ministry are in for a long, wearying process almost from the day they take the plunge and become candidates. First, the four years of college, then three years of graduate education in seminary, and periodically – particularly during the seminary years – there are reports to be written, progress to be measured by the Presbytery’s Committee on Candidates and Examinations.

Then, during the final year of seminary, generally, there are the much-feared ordination exams. If all five of those are passed, the candidate appears before the Presbytery’s Committee on Candidates to answer questions and be examined further on any item that the committee members desire to have clarified. Then the committee recommends to the full Presbytery that the candidate either be ordained or not ordained. But even with a positive recommendation, the trials are not yet over. On the floor of the Presbytery meeting, in front of as many as 300 to 400 people in some presbyteries, it is the privilege of any delegate to ask further questions of the candidate. In our Presbytery they frequently do. The presbyters must be fully satisfied before ordination is approved. It can be a religious experience, because after it is all over, the candidate on the receiving end of all that attention believes it to have been a miracle that he or she could ever be finished.

I recall in my presbytery in Texas, years ago, we examined a candidate for about half an hour, and it seemed to be the sense of the delegates doing most of the questioning that the candidate had given inadequate response to questions concerning the person of Jesus. So they pressed him on it until they were more fully satisfied:

  • “What was Jesus’ self-understanding prior to his death, from the Biblical perspective?”
  • “What Biblical books would you turn to, to help discover Jesus’ own self-understanding?”
  • “You have said that Jesus was the Christ following his resurrection... but was he Christ prior to the resurrection?”

Then a pastor from a church a few miles away from me put all the questions that were being asked into one lump. He stood before the candidate and said, “I guess what we’re asking is, ‘Do you believe that Jesus is Lord?’”

If you ever want to check out the effectiveness of an antiperspirant, I recommend trying an examination process like this… Consider the personal investment carried into such a moment. After a minimum of 7 years of higher education, mountains of papers written over hundreds of hours, five complex ordination exams – in Bible Content , Theology, Polity, Worship, and Exegesis, endless questions from a committee, endless reports, following the commitment of an appreciable portion of one’s life and fullest effort to reach the goal of ordination, after all that, it strikes me as entirely appropriate that it should boil down to being asked virtually the same question that Jesus asked his disciples, folks who never set foot on a seminary campus or wrote an ordination exam.

You have told me who others say I am: “Elijah,” “John the Baptist,” “A prophet,”... you have told me who the seminary professors say that I am: “The Ground of Being,” “The Divine Essence,”... you may even have told me who Hollywood says I am, a “Superstar” or “The Force” “Morgan Freeman” or “George Burns.” Now, who do you say that I am?

For a candidate for ministry, for Peter, but not for just those... for every believer, a whole world of importance rides on the response to that question. The world awaits our answer. In fact, the world can be transformed by our answer!

Peter said, “You are God’s Messiah.” And there was no end to the trouble that answer caused for him. In fact, I suppose it turned out in a way to be trouble, one by one, for all the disciples. There is an old hymn that no longer appears in the current Presbyterian hymnal – you’ll probably be glad to know we aren’t going to attempt it today – but I have always appreciated its words. It truly captures the cost of Peter’s confession. It goes,

They cast their nets in Galilee, just off the hills of brown;

Such happy, simple fisherfolk, before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew

The peace of God that filled their hearts brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.

Yet brethren pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.[1]

Jesus knew it would be trouble from the start. That is why he spoke immediately after Peter’s confession of the suffering which lay ahead. Much as the world stands in need of transformation, it inevitably will be resisted. Those who answer Jesus’ question as Peter did are not preparing any bed of roses for themselves... more likely they are weaving together their own crown of thorns.

Those who declare Jesus to be the Messiah of God have placed themselves squarely between two worlds: in one world, the world as it was, I have everything to gain by scraping things together for myself, by proving myself, by looking out for myself and making sure that if all else fails, I do not fail to look out for number one. In that world, the one who saves his life is the one who works hard to save it, who makes saving it the top priority.

But there is the other world which has been shown to the one who declares faith in this Messiah named Jesus, the world in which finding comes through losing, saving through giving my life for his sake. It is a hard place to be, between these two worlds, but that is where we are after we have declared our faith in Jesus the Christ.

We are between these two worlds, because while we may have declared that the world as it was prior to Jesus’ ministry is passing away, we have also recognized that it certainly is taking its time about it. It is anything but gone. In fact, one theologian has said that some people are inclined to behave as though they believe the world is out of control, out of even God’s hands. People still suffer, the wicked still prosper at the expense of the righteous, those who look out for number one – the Donald Trumps of the world – are the ones who get all the attention, while those who make a habit of giving themselves for others are so often made to look the fool.

That is the old world from which we want the relief of God’s coming kingdom. And the new world, of which we may have caught only the slightest glimpse personally – perhaps when we saw Mother Theresa in action among the destitute of India, or the compassionate work of so many anonymous saints who daily give selflessly to the work of the church here in Vancouver – the new world, we may be convinced, is coming. Though we cannot offer proof positive, even the most cynical among us must recognize that there is some vision somewhere that causes people to give up their own desires in order to be at the service of other people. Some vision must drive them, and even if we do not know it personally, we may perhaps believe it because the lives of other visionaries are so convincing.

So there we are. The old world is doomed. But the new one, we are equally convinced, is anything but triumphant, or even apparent. We see old times going and new times coming, but we know that we may have to live out our entire lives in the meantime, the time between times.

So the logical question for any believer is to ask what we are to do in the meantime. Do we play the rules the way the old world would have played them? That is what the folks in Galatia were trying to do, save themselves by ritual obedience to Jewish law. Doing so even though Paul knew full well he had told them that the rules of the new world were in effect, a world in which people could only be saved by God’s grace and not by refraining from eating all the pork in the world.

Paul knew that the life of the church, our life together, can be a school for the world to see how it is going to be, how God meant for us to organize ourselves.

The old world order is one that divides us up, convinces us that another’s gain is my loss, that makes me want to see every issue in terms of “us and them.” So I would look around at even my church family and see one with different skin than mine and call them a name; one who belongs to a different political party and make slanderous remarks about them; one who is a woman, and because I am a man, begin preaching about a woman’s “place.”

These things are the result of following the old order. But Paul says those who have laid claim to Christ as Savior are now part of a new world order. We who live in the meantime are freed to live as though the new time has already come, especially in our life together in the church. And here is what will happen if we do:

[1] We will no longer see an important difference between Jew and Gentile.

That means we will not try to decide whether each other person is an adequate follower of Jesus by looking to see if before they joined this fellowship they were first Baptist or Methodist or Hare Krishna. What unites us here is the common confession that Jesus is Lord. The things that divided us before – whether one was an orthodox Jew or a confirmed secularist – these things can divide us no longer once we can make our common confession in Christ.

[2] There will no longer be a difference in our attitudes toward enslaved or free people.

For today that means that social standing becomes irrelevant. It is here that Paul becomes unmistakably political.

Paul declared, in his time, that among believers there was neither slave nor free. Pretty strong stuff in a society that placed incredible weight on one’s social status... in a society that was in no way upwardly mobile. Paul never said slavery was a sin; he merely laid the seeds of its destruction by declaring that within the community of the Christ, the community called to live life in the meantime, such distinctions were as out of place as a buggy whip in a sports car. Living as though the new world has come means living as though such social distinctions no longer existed. Paul’s words amounted to a hot-topic political statement in an empire full of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Even so, it was not merely a political statement. It derived from profound spiritual conviction. Christians have a duty to consider the political implications of the lordship of Christ. American Christians, Chinese Christians, Latin American Christians, African Christians are doing that right now, and as Jesus predicted, it has not made for an easy time for them. Still, to believe is to act. Neither slave nor free. It is a fact.

[3] There will no longer be a false social difference between men and women.

Like social and religious stereotypes, gender role stereotypes will become irrelevant for those living in the meantime. Most of the debate that continues over the ordination of women – a lively issue now more in Roman Catholic and conservative protestant circles than in Presbyterian ones – leaves aside this broadly based biblical text in the furious search for proof texts from isolated spots in other places in the Bible. The fact is, it is important to elect and ordain women to offices in the church because it is so inherently biblical to do so. The new world, which Paul welcomes into our meantime present, recognizes that divisions between people based upon external appearance and judgment – whether that person is a slave, a Jew, a Gentile, a man, or a woman – divisions based on these make not for the new world of God, but more of the same old world of division and oppression.

If any fellowship in all Christianity were to follow their confession that Jesus is Lord with just these three things in mind: neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female; living as though none of these made a shred of difference in discovering that one is beloved of God and of this community of God’s people; if we could live this way in the meantime, while awaiting Jesus’ return, then the world would look on in wonder, and say of us, as was said of the early Christians, “Behold how they love one another!”* And in perhaps this one little area of the world, at least here, the kingdom which is coming will have come one step closer.

“Who do you say that I am?” The world awaits our answer, in both our words and our lives.

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

[1] The Hymnbook, #421, p. 355, copyright © 1955, words by Wm Alexander Percy (altered slightly here by RJE), 1924, published by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

* Aristides of Athens (2nd century A.D.) was sent by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to report on the new “Christians.” He returned with these immortal words.