A Sermon About God and the Corrupt Powers and Authorities

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Hello everybody.  Long time no read.

There is much to write about but little time to write about it.  I did however record one of my recent sermons and upload it to YouTube.

Unfortunately this is a rerecording of the original sermon since the original was destroyed or not copied or some disaster or other.  As a rerecording I hate most things about it.  But it is here for you all.

It was recorded before the political revelations of the prior weekend and, needless to say, this last weekend pushed this sermon to its limits and maybe even beyond.  In short there was a lot that happened among the “rulers and authorities” this last weekend that made me want to give into anger, rage, malice and slander.  Still, we are children of the King and he has humiliated them on the cross and continues to do so and therefore we should be kind and compassionate and humble and loving and all that.

Also I should note that this was the third in a sermon series that is roughly based on the Atonement Theories.  The first sermon was about the wrath of God and the forgiveness that comes through the cross (Satisfaction Theory).  The second was about being slaves to Satan and the cross as a Ransom (Ransom Theory).  This is the third.

Hope you enjoy it.  Or at the very least don’t hate it as much as I now do.

https://youtu.be/xJbo9DCG4WY

The More You Read, The Less You Know

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A bit under a year ago I made the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG’s as they are called) to read 100 books over the 2016 calendar year.  It was a hard goal to commit to and has been a harder goal to pursue.  Right now on August 22nd, I freely admit that I will never do this again.  On January 1st I will gladly drop back to my usual pattern of reading one book a week.

The books I have conquered have not all been easy 100 page self helpers with one point chapters.  Over the last month I completed Martin Luther’s 350 page “Bondage of the Will” and read three systematic theologies all running over 300 pages.  In addition, I have kept to my usual pattern of reading 2 or 3 news articles a day, every issue of TIME magazine and a few religious periodicals as they become available.

Since it is August 22nd, I should also freely admit I am not sure why I am doing this.  Initially it had something to do with the fact that I did second grade twice.  Since then I have always felt like I was a year behind my fellow colleagues.  This is the year I catch up!

The reasons for the BHAG go deeper than that.  Every older pastor I respect has impressed upon me that pastors must read and that they must read a variety of books from a variety of fields and perspectives.  On the same note, I know several pastors who don’t read, or only read very selectively, and almost to a person their ministries, especially their sermons, are theological disasters.  Some of them pastor large churches but they are peddling cheap forms of consumer religiosity, not the deep truths of God’s Word.  I don’t want to be them, even if it means being a small church pastor for the rest of my life.

With that said, the more I read the more I distrust reading.  In fact, over the last several months I have come across several quotes by historical figures who themselves read very widely and deeply.  Yet at the end of their lives they recommend Christians just read the Bible.

A.W. Tozer, who wrote 40 books himself and was known for reading several more, is one of the more blunt ones.  In sermons he preached towards the end of his career that are now published as “Life in the Spirit” and “How to be Filled With the Spirit”, he recommended his congregation not read too many books other than the Bible.  He argued that we could trust his judgment in this because he had read so many books himself.

I am quickly agreeing with Tozer.  It is quite possible that in the very near future I will tell my congregation, “my job is to read books so that you don’t have to.  And trust me, that is a great act of love and sacrifice on my part!”

What Tozer may have known is that the more you read, the less you know.  It has all ready been commonly said that the goal of an education is not intelligence or rote memorization of data or even acquisition of a skill, but humility.  One of the jokes told to us in college was that if we graduated thinking we knew something, my alma mater would have failed me and I would deserve a $100,000 refund.  Sadly, I know some of my classmates who deserve the refund.  But the more you study, read, memorize and practice, the more you realize you don’t know anything.

There is a vast universe of information out there of which the smartest of us have only grasped an iota.  The more I read the more I discover things I was flat out wrong about, or had not even the slightest idea existed.  The more I read, the more I know that I know not.  Everything I thought was true proved wrong by another turn of a page.

Also the more I read, the more I realize the authors don’t know what they are talking about either.  They are almost as limited as I in their grasp of reality.  Take Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” where he quotes Romans at length.  Over the last century new archaeological findings from the 1st century Roman empire, including several written documents, have proved most of Luther’s exegesis of Paul misleading.  On top of that, the holocaust awakened scholars to the long neglected awareness of 1st century Jewish thought and literature.  Post holocaust we understand Paul was much more Jewish than Gentile and our Gentile readings of his letters are incredibly inaccurate.  Poor Martin Luther didn’t know that.  He was a victim of his time and place and of the information he had available to him at the time.  Because of that he also advocated for the Holocaust centuries before his followers would actually carry it out.  One Lutheran historian noted that you can’t blame him for his antisemitism.  He was merely acting out of the common sentiment of his time.

Aren’t we all?  I too am a victim of my own time and place and so are all of the many authors whose books I have been devouring these last months and years.  Don’t even get me started about present day “journalists” who seem to be more victim to their context, which in this case is internet clicks, than anybody has ever been!

Realizing this to be true, what could I possibly say from the pulpit on Sunday?  We might be wrong about everything?  There is a futility to existence that I know not how to answer?  Don’t ever read anything by anybody because they are probably wrong?  Martin Luther was a heretic?  John Wesley probably was too?  But don’t worry, you and I are definitely worse than either which is why we keep their stuff around and insist that at least our pastors study them!

All of that may be good, especially for our time and place where people are growing increasingly arrogant about what they assume to be true.  However the second half of Tozer’s advice rings truer.  The Scriptures are far more profound than anything I have yet discovered.  The Scriptures ring truer, reveal more and inspire us to virtue more than any other document yet produced.  I have spent my 32 years on this planet studying them, memorizing them, learning their languages and I have yet to discover their depth. And I am sure that I will spend the next 40 to 50 years of my life continuing to pore over them only to continue to discover new territories of God’s wisdom and grace.

For this reason, the more I read the more I find myself quoting books from the pulpit, but not to say, “See here, this author has something to teach us.”  But to say, “See here, this author maybe should have read Scripture more closely.  See here, this author might have been wrong because Scripture teaches something else.”  Or on a more positive note, “See here, I didn’t read Scripture well enough and this author pointed out to me something I had missed in the text.”  “See here, our God is greater and more loving than even Luther or Wesley or Tozer or Lewis or Chrysostom or even our modern day authors have yet discovered!”  They help us dig a bit deeper but Scripture reveals to us that there are much greater and deeper ravines of God’s great love yet to explore!

After all, Scripture teaches us over and over that it is not about what you know, but it is about who you know, that all loving but all encompassing, great three in one, one in three personality we label God and the Hebrews called YHWH!

See here, I read many books so that I can continue to encourage you to spend your life reading the one Book and getting to know the one God!

The True Problem With “Legalism”

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I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.

Holy Monday Reflection: The Kind of Hero We Need

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For those of you closet Christians, this is a quite notable week in our faith.  It all began yesterday as we celebrated Palm Sunday, the reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  From today to Wednesday we study the teachings of Jesus in the temple.  Then on Thursday we gather together for a “Maundy” or “New Commandment” Service where we wash feet and sing about love.  Friday night we descend into darkness as we extinguish candles during a Tenebrae service.  On Saturday we wait.  And then on Sunday the party gets going!

If you are a Christian, this is our week.  It is our time to fast, to pray, to meditate and to attend the special services and to long for the salvation that only Christ can bring.  The goal of Holy Week is to give ourselves over again to the story that we believe changed the world.

But there is another story happening Friday that my news feed won’t shut up about.  It is the epic showdown between Batman and Superman.  And don’t get me wrong, I am kind of excited for Batman Vs. Superman, or BvS as us cool kids are calling it now.  And like most cool kids I am more excited for the “B” than for the “S.”  I fell in love with the Batman mythos through Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, whose stunning second act, “The Dark Knight,” is considered one of the best movies ever made.

The closing act of that movie gave us an iconic line about heroes as Commissioner Gordon tells his recently rescued son, “Batman is the hero we need but not the one we deserve right now.”  That line, right up there with the best of all movie lines, still resonates today.  Sometimes our hero doesn’t look the way we want the hero to look.  Sometimes the hero we need is not the one we want or deserve.  Sometimes the conquering king is actually a crucified criminal.  Sometimes the way, the truth and the life is a carpenter’s son from the middle of nowhere.

That can be quite unsettling.  As a pastor friend and New Testament scholar once reminded me, “The good news doesn’t sound like good news to some people.”

In Mark 11, after Jesus’ triumphal entry, those in established authority roles get nervous.  To them Jesus is not gospel.  He is threat.  He threatens to steal their followers.  He threatens to expose their arrogance and ignorance.  He threatens their long held beliefs.  He threatens their prejudices and power.  And they are not cool with that,  In fact, to them he just might be the kid in the crowd who yells, “Wait, that emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”

So the chief priests go to Jesus and ask, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things?  Who gave you this authority?” (Mark 11:28).

Jesus is rather coy.  He asks them a question about where John the Baptist’s authority came from, a very clever question because there is not a right answer.  I imagine they stuttered and stammered as they weighed their lack of options before spitting out, “Um, we don’t know.”

But then Jesus tells them a parable about the misuse of authority.  Like most parables it points out to the Chief Priests that they had asked the wrong question.  They wanted to know the source of authority.  Jesus wanted them to know about the misuse of authority.  Jesus told them about a vineyard owner who sent several messengers to collect his share of the profits.  They beat and killed all of the messengers who were sent until the owner finally sent his son, whom they also beat and killed.  Then Jesus closes the parable with, “But the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Mark 12:10-11).

This is not good news to those in authority.  Jesus is not the hero they want at this point and the gospel has become threat.  The stone we builders rejected has become the stone that holds the entire building up.  That tells the world we don’t know much about building after all.

In the same way the gospel reminds us that we are not all that great about religion.  The prophet the theologians and pastors and good church people rejected has become the savior of the world.  The vigilante the police force is trying to capture has become the symbol of justice in our city.  The ingredient the expert chefs threw out is now on the menu of every restaurant in America.

One of the reasons we take great care in telling the Easter story during Holy Week every year is because we need constant reminder that we are the foolish builders, the misguided theologians, the over zealous police force, the lousy cooks.  Yes, we don’t want the world to know it.  Like most people, I would prefer if you all believed I knew what I was talking about.

But in the end our salvation can only come by accepting the truth that the hero we rejected, the one we crucified has become and will always be the savior of the world.

We should not be like those chief priests who immediately wanted to arrest Jesus on the spot.  Instead we should accept the truth of our errors for what it is and turn towards Jesus the author of eternal life.  Only by admitting our ignorance and arrogance and repenting towards the truth can we enter into the glorious Easter morning.

Dear heavenly father, help me to accept the cornerstone and grant me newness of life this Holy Monday morning.

 

 

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Will Willimon’s “How Odd of God”

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Every Sunday morning around 11:30am I do this really odd thing.  I get up in front a group of 40 of my closest friends.  I open up a loose translation of a book whose latest content is 1200 years old and whose oldest content is 5000 years old.  I read a passage and talk about it for about 25 minutes.  My goal is to show the group how that passage informs our understanding of who God is and what God requires of us.

This speech takes a hard week to put together.  By “hard” I mean exhausting.  By “week” I mean hours of historical and theological study, drafting and redrafting, collecting pictures for visual aids, arguing with myself over minute points, and practicing out loud to an empty sanctuary.  Worse than the hours of work, are the emotional highs and lows.  Even worse than those is the very uncomfortable feeling of arrogance I get when I stand up to speak.  The worst of all is the new exhaustion I feel when it all ends right around noon, an exhaustion compounded by the fact I have to do it all over again in the next 7 very short days.

I have been doing this almost every Sunday for about 5 years now and it has not felt any less weird the more I do it.  If anything it feels more odd now than it did 5 years ago.  This may be because lately I have met some non church types, those wonderful saints of the world who have never darkened the doorway of a house of God.  I try to explain to them the process of preparing and delivering a sermon and that there is a group of people willing to pay me money to do this.  Their bewildered expressions confirm one thing, “My vocation is the most curious of all.”

It isn’t the 25 minute monologue that makes it weird.  There are dozens of other professions who do something similar, actors, comedians, newscasters, politicians etcetera.  No, the weirdness of preaching is threefold.

First, there is the curious loyalty to a centuries old book, a loyalty grounded in the belief that this book holds the keys to an eternal and abundant life.

Second, there is the bold, almost audacious claim that the God who rules over all eternity and created all things chose me to give this 25 minute speech to these 40 people every week.

Third, there is the belief, legitimately grounded in the data of my life, that I am the worst person ever chosen for this task.

This awkward 25 minute event repeated once weekly provides the context for Will Willimon’s new book, “How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching.”  He begins the work by noting his delight at reading the papers of undergrads in their first ministry class.  He tasked the naive undergrads to write about why they believe the God of all Creation would choose them to preach.  He now laments he should have asked them to write what kind of God would choose them to preach.  I agree the latter is the more interesting paper.  Luckily, “How Odd of God” is just such a paper.

Click to buy!

Arguing from Barth’s works, Willimon describes this God as the God of “yes” who out of love chooses us feeble, sinful humans to join him in the work.  Willimon relies heavily on Barth’s doctrine of election to claim that God elects us not just for salvation but for mission (the hallmark tenet of the missional movement).  According to Willimon, nothing can proclaim the doctrine of election louder than an inadequate preacher standing up behind a lectern every Sunday and claiming, “God chose me despite all my failings to give you this message today.”

If there is anything to critique in Willimon’s excellent text, it is that Willimon rambles more than usual.  In fact, the book is not too different from the late works of other saints who, having aged to a special level of holiness, can now afford to write more poetry than prose.  This isn’t the text of a young man:  articulate, perfectly structured, and easy to skim.  This is half journal, half textbook which means there isn’t always an obvious correlation between one paragraph and the next.  Do not get me wrong, I absolutely do not fault Willimon for this.  I personally love that as the saints age, the mystery of God awakens a poetry in them not seen in the younger selves.  I have read very similar books by aging theologians and though I don’t follow their arguments, their conclusions are still so poignant they bring tears to my eyes.

But to be fair, making me cry this week was not hard.  I stepped out of the pulpit last Sunday to a nightmare of conflict that consumed my week and threatened to make my entire vocation not only curious but frivolous.  I spent the week stuck in the vortex that is my chaotic thoughts, trying to iron out whether or not I could/should even step into another pulpit again and wondering if God knew what God was doing in calling me to proclaim the truths of our faith in clever little 25 minute speeches every Sunday.  Of course I am not worthy of the calling, at least by the current American understanding of “worthiness” (which isn’t biblical by the way).  However, Willimon’s thesis means that just by standing in a pulpit and claiming “God chose me” reveals a wildly loving God.  After all, if he chose a wretch like me, he probably chose you as well.

How odd of God indeed!

Autumn Sermons Now Live

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Hey everybody, I just received word that my sermons from Autumn through Advent #1 are live.  You can also check out the sermon series from Exodus last summer.

In the past I made little youtube videos of them but that was horribly tedious and not a good use of time.  But now they are on my church’s website so you can follow the link if you dare.

I would make a list of recommended ones and not recommended ones but then the more sinister of you would listen to the “not recommended” first and try to figure out why I hated them so much.  You know who you are.

So just let the Spirit guide your finger or mouse arrow to the sermon for you or something religious like that, or maybe spiritual.

Either way, enjoy!

Here’s the link:

http://www.rosewoodlane.org/index.php/sermons

Viewing Nativities

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I try to write this blog with a few simple rules.  One of them is that I try not to write what I might one day preach, or have preached before.  At the same time I try not to preach what I will one day blog or have blogged before.

With that said, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon about the little town of Bethlehem from Micah 5 I have been viewing nativity scenes all afternoon and pulling 40 of them into a Powerpoint to be the backdrop of Sunday’s sermon.

I was very moved by Micah’s statement that the savior’s influence would spread around the world.  Jesus’ influence has certainly done that.  The nativity pictures on Google are proof.  Some are made with cartoon characters and action figures.  They are from China, Russia, Native America, churches, storefronts, the middle east, Africa, South America and even the suburbs.  I tried to pick 40 of them for my Powerpoint, 40 that illustrate that Jesus’ greatness truly does extend to the ends of the earth.

 

While scrolling through pages and pages of nativity scenes with shepherds, wise men, angels and stars, I found that I was deeply moved in the Spirit.  It was hard not to shed a tear of joy and appreciation as I studied hundreds of them.  You see, for centuries now, people from all ages, all walks of life and all countries have paid homage to the baby with these incredible nativity scenes.

Micah is quite correct that Jesus’ influence has stretched around the world.

Below are some of my favorites.  I would welcome you to turn on a Christmas song and scroll through them or do a Google search of the “nativity” yourself while you consider that this baby in the manger is the one who:

Will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace.

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Feeding Toddlers, Feeding Church People

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My kids do this thing that I think all children do.

My wife and I are like most parents.  We want our children to receive good nutrition and to receive it often.  We balance out their meals with fruits, vegetables, meat and grains.  Regularly we place this well balanced smorgasbord of great proteins, carbs and sugars in front of them.

My children do a great job of picking through the options, eating their favorites of that day.  The fruit usually disappears first.  After that the cheese.  Then, if they are in a growth spurt, the meat and grain.  If not they are usually done.  Some days they don’t eat much at all because they really aren’t hungry.

But other days they look up at my wife and I, with plenty of food still on the plate, and say, “I am still hungry.”

“Well then eat your ham.”

They look at us awkwardly.

“I don’t very much like ham.  I was planning on more grapes.”  Or applesauce, or oatmeal or something else completely random.

As it turns out, in toddler terms, “I am still hungry” does not mean, “you are not feeding me.”  It means, “you are not feeding me what I want.”

Church people do this thing that all people do.

I am like most pastors.  We want our congregation to receive great spiritual nourishment.  We want their lives to be drenched in the Scriptures.  We want their love to overflow to the least and lonely.  We want their trust in Jesus to be commendable, the faith worthy of the saints!  We want their hope to be encouraging, conquering and casting out the worst of fear.

So we pastors work hard to balance out their spiritual plate with outreach events, discipleship groups, book studies, engaging worship services, and just plain fun get together’s.

They do a great job of picking through their favorites, going to what they want to go to and participating where they want.  But then they look at the rest of our ministries and tell us, “I am not being fed.”

To most church people this sounds like a brilliant critique.  After all it is biblical, stemming from John 21 where Jesus tells Peter three times, “Feed my sheep/lambs.”

They think that the pastoral job is Peter’s job, to make sure that the good church people are “fed.”  They think they can get away with insulting our work if they use the metaphor that Jesus did.  “Jesus said you should feed me and I am not being fed.”  That is code for, “You are failing Jesus.”

They are right that Jesus’ command to Peter was not just for Peter.  What they get wrong is that Jesus’ command to Peter was for everybody who calls themselves a “church person.”  After all, the church’s mission is the apostolic mission and the apostolic mission extends to the “sheep that are not of this fold.”  (see John 10:16).   When Jesus told Peter to feed the sheep, he was talking to the entire church, laity and clergy alike to feed the world and nourish them into the Spirit’s presence.

In light of that, I wonder if those who are “still hungry” are so because they have a full plate in front of them, a plate full of ministry and service opportunities that give spiritual food to both the giver and receiver.  But they don’t realize it because that food looks like green beans.  And they are not very hungry for green beans.

In their lingo, “I am not being fed” doesn’t really mean, “I am hungry.”  It means, “I don’t like the food that you are offering.”

Just a thought for a winter’s Sunday afternoon.

Blessings on the week ahead.  May God give you the food you need to feed others.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Man From Oudewater

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I am Wesleyan/Arminian.

It might surprise you to know that four word sentence is rife with interpretive possibilities.  The truly uninformed think the last word indicates I am from a country somewhere in Africa called Armenia, even though Armenia is actually in Eastern Europe.

The slightly more informed know the sentence implies some sort of belief in human free will at the expense of an all controlling God.

The little bit more informed think that the emphasis should lie on Wesleyan and not Arminius because, as we all know, John Wesley died without any of Jacob Arminius’ books in his library.

The even more informed would argue back that Wesley had plenty of books written by Arminians.  Therefore the 18th century Wesley owes much to the 16th century Arminius.

My friend Rustin E. Brian is even more

Click to buy from Amazon (and please, please do!)

informed than that.  Luckily, he wrote a short book to bring the rest of us nitwits up to speed.  Sadly, before reading about the man from Oudewater I was one of those who thought the connection with Arminius was tenuous at best.  I thought that if our tradition had a “Great Grandfather” it would probably be Thomas Cranmer, or even Martin Luther.  I mentioned this to a Wesleyan scholar at a conference awhile back who disagreed and that quite vehemently.  I think an hour later he asked one of my former seminary professors what he had been teaching us!

In remembrance of that embarrassing incident, I eagerly snatched up Brians’ book about Jacob Arminius and read it in a couple sittings.  After all, if the scholars of our tradition are saying Arminius is important, I better know my stuff!  Brian’s book was the perfect primer, an albeit really short one.

It turns out Jacob Arminius actually lived a much less impressive life than I had supposed.  Despite underplaying his role in my tradition, I had somehow assumed he died with an international following, several published works to his name and as a martyr for his cause.  It turns out he spent most of his ministry as a pastor and only the last few years as a professor.  He died of sickness at a fairly young age.  He was not burned at the stake or beheaded for his beliefs like I had previously assumed.

But due to one of history’s great ironies, his name has had a far more fascinating history than his life.  It has become synonymous in Protestant circles with “free will” though we should alter that to “freed will.” Arminius’ theology has also become a critical component to theodicy conversations as his framework retains God’s power while not sacrificing God’s love.  Arminius’ name has also been valuable in carving out a middle road through all the Christian traditions, making those of us who bear his name a catch all for anybody seeking a different road.

Yet what I appreciate most about Arminius’ biography, or at least Brian’s reading thereof, is that Arminius’ theology was what it was because Jacob was a pastor first.  John Wesley was too, for the record.  And I am too, as is Brian.

In fact, in late college and all throughout seminary I struggled and prayed with whether or not to apply for PhD programs and seek a faculty position at a university.  At that point I was proving myself to be an adequate teacher and writer.  I was an okay student, a B+/A- one, which one novel cleverly characterized as the black sheep of academia.  On top of that my professors were wonderful people who had a life changing impact on me, a pastoral impact no less.  It was those same professors who advised that academia was a brutal place with low wages and long hours with high expectations.  It was not a job for the weak or uncalled.

In the end I chose the pulpit but not because I don’t value the input of ivory towers.  Most days my entire ministry rests upon the conclusions of those who spend their days doing nothing but studying Scripture.  Their contributions are invaluable and they need all the time in the world to think through them.  However, their contributions are worthless without pastors whose feet are on the ground and whose hearts are among the people.  The great contributors of our tradition have been pastors who spent the morning studying and the afternoons and evenings ministering.

Therefore, I am grateful to call Jacob Arminius my great grandpa and to be one of many who continue the work he began in local parishes.  I am grateful too for my esteemed colleague, Rusty Brian who continues that work in his local parish and write books like these as an extension of his ministry.

Now off to work I go!

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Hunger Games’ Mockingjay

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When it comes to teeny-bopper novels with young female heroins I am pretty out of touch.  A couple years ago, I was completely surprised when I asked my Facebook friends what books I should read and this swarm of young women suggested I read Divergent.  I thought Divergent would be a non fiction sociology text about the need to engage culture critically so as to diverge to new paths.  Instead it was a novel about some teenage girl who gets to pick her own faction and then suddenly becomes the chosen one.  .  .because, you know, all teenage girls are the chosen one these days.

But this post isn’t about Divergent.  It is about the last teeny-bopper fad I did catch up with, “The Hunger Games.”  When Suzanne Collin’s trio of novels went big a few years ago, my wife and I somehow came in possession of them and I read all three in a week.  The first was surprisingly brilliant, a wonderful narrative critique of professional sports and their impact (or less than so) on low income neighborhoods.  Strangely, almost nobody is talking about that aspect of the novel, just how all girls get stuck in their choice between the Peeta’s and the Gail’s in their lives.  Don’t get me wrong, I can totally relate.

The other two novels were less than the first, leading me to believe Collins should have stopped after the one hit wonder.  And yet, as I have continued to think about “The Hunger Games” and now have watched all four movies, it is the last two novels that have been the object of my focus.

I should add right now that huge spoilers for the entire trilogy follow this point.

In “Catching Fire” Katniss Everdeen emerges from the hunger games with a raw power that is best described as influence.  She has a national following and is a political force to be reckoned with.  So “Catching Fire” is about President Snow’s attempts to control and co opt Katniss’ influence using his brute force.  When he is unable to do so, he resorts to sending her back to the Hunger Games with the hope that this time she will either die or emerge a victor but with severely decreased influence.

It doesn’t work.  Katniss escapes the game before all the victors are dead and, in the “Mockingjay”, awakens in a 13th district that is led by a cunning President Coin.  The third novel is about Coin’s attempts to control and co-opt Katniss’ influence, but not with brute force.  Instead she uses a very cunning manipulation, that is almost worse than Snow’ss force.  This leads to a stunning climax where Katniss has standing in front of her both Snow and Coin with the entire nation looking on.  Forget Peeta versus Gail.  This is Everdeen’s true choice and she uses it to kill Coin instead of Snow.  I must admit that during my first reading of “Mockingjay” it did not occur to me that Coin was a villain until Katniss killed her.  But then it made sense.  Cunning manipulation is just as bad as brute force.

Therefore, the reason these two novels have consumed my thoughts since I read them is because I feel like Katniss’ story is the church’s story.  Since the first Pentecost, the church has had access to a raw and supernatural power that is best described as “influence.”  We are not powerful in and of ourselves but the Holy Spirit has given us access to the Trinity’s power, which is what C.S. Lewis calls “the deep magic.”  It is a power deeper and more pure than brute force or cunning manipulation.  It is the power of love and it is that love that powers us.

Since the outpouring of that power, the lesser powers, the national and corporate interests, have desperately tried to control and co-opt it.  Some, like President Snow, have used threats and force.  Others have been more like Coin, using cunning and manipulation.  This still goes on today.  Politicians are right now fighting to co-opt our votes and use our influence to get them elected.  Corporations still use Christian symbols and imagery to get us to buy their product.  Sports’ teams still tout the religious credentials of their star players to convince Christians to root for them and in turn, buy their merchandise.  When the principalities and powers see our “deep magic” they recognize it and desperately want it for their own.

Sadly, we are not as unique or as brave as Katniss.  We sell our religion to the highest bidder and remain loyal until another bidder comes along.  There is quote that traces back to Augustine that claims, “the church is a whore!” and I agree.  We sell our bodies to anybody who offers to buy from politicians to athletes to CEO’s.

At the end of Mockingjay it becomes clear that there is no win for Katniss.  In the movie she explains to her newborn daughter that fighting nightmares is her new game.  Thus, I walked out of the theater last night feeling very somber and downcast because rejecting the principalities and powers is a tough and costly chore.  But Katniss did find a subtle win.  She notes to her daughter that fighting the nightmares is a better game than the other ones she played.  Her win was not executing Coin or even Snow.  It came when she retreated to a quiet, humble and good existence, becoming a wife and a mother.

Her choosing of Peeta in the end is indicative of that choice and the church would do well to follow her, to deny the cunning manipulators and the coercive tyrants and instead follow the commands of our one true King, who tells us through the Apostle Paul, “to make it our ambition to live a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11)  and who adds to it through Peter, “live such a good life among the pagans that they might see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (1 Peter 2:12)

It is the quiet but good life lived among the ungodly that beats the principalities and powers.  It is the quiet but good life that refuses to be co-opted by nations and politicians and armies and businesses.  It is that life that wins the raw victory with God’s raw power.

Last Sunday we celebrated this with Christ the King Sunday where we proclaimed anew that Jesus is Lord and King of all. He stands above the athletes and corporations and politicians and nations.  He is the Ancient of Days and one day, hopefully not long from now, He will take his throne and open the scroll!  May that assurance carry you into a blessed holy-day season!