Make, Dunk, Teach, & Doubt

Make, Dunk, Teach, & Doubt

I reject the connotation that make is about forcing my faith upon others. I don’t see any biblical evidence for it. In my reading of the gospels and epistles, I don’t perceive guilt, fear, or harassment as tools for spreading the Good News of abundant love. Watch or read Make, Dunk, Teach, & Doubt and the discussion that followed below.

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It’s that word that always gets me. Make. Make sounds so very aggressive.

Therefore, go and make disciples Matthew 28:19a CEB

It doesn’t always bother me. Make a lasagna, Yum. Make love, a normal part of human relationships. Make a cup of tea, sophisticated and Brit. Make the bed, not fun but practical. Make a deck, can I point you to my house?

None of these uses bother me. So why do I bristle at that phrase?

Therefore, go and make disciples Matthew 28:19a CEB

I think I bristle at it because of the way I’ve seen, “Go and make disciples” too often play out. Evangelism — which really simply means to share the Good News — has for some become about forcing a particular point of view upon others.

I have experienced this firsthand when other Christians have shown up on my doorstep. I’ve experienced it when I was told, in this very building by someone from another church, that neither I nor the United Church of Christ meets their narrow definition of Christian.

You don’t get to be fifty something as I am without having been accosted once or twice or twenty times by zealous Christians over the years. This is especially true if you’ve spent anytime, as I have, in the Bible Belt.

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So this is the way I choose to think about it.

I reject the connotation that make is about forcing my faith upon others. I don’t see any biblical evidence for it. In my reading of the gospels and epistles, I don’t perceive guilt, fear, or harassment as tools for spreading the Good News of abundant love.

Make, strictly speaking, is not about forcing anything on anyone. Though some of our Christian brothers and sisters seem to do that, intentionally or unintentionally, I do not hear Jesus calling us to force feed a particular set of doctrines or dogmas that way.

It certainly doesn’t seem to me to be a very effective way of helping others perceive and practice the love that Jesus manifest in his life.

What I do hear Jesus telling his disciples, and by extension us, is to be the extravagant love throughout the world.

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…baptizing them…[and] teaching them Matthew 28:19a, 20a CEB

There are three key phrases here: make disciples; baptize them; and teach them. Let me touch on each of these one at a time.

First, Make. We are to make disciples…not force people into our way of thinking but befriend and love them. Like the phrase make friends [pause] make disciples is about building relationship with others.

Relationship by its very nature implies a certain give and take. It implies loving respect and compassion.

Jesus tells the eleven to make disciples of all the nations, that means everyone. All the nations is a wider mission than we’ve even seen in Jesus’ earthly life.

Second, Baptize. Jesus calls us to baptize others in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28: 19b CEB).

If we take this literally we need to dunk people in a whole lot of water. Real water. Wet water. Not just sprinkles.

Consider, however, that baptism is about the love of God coming over us.

Baptism is about a metaphorical re-birth. I like to think about the baptism here being a baptism not in literal water but in extravagant love. I think of it as a baptism into the loving ways of God.

Third, Teach. We are to teach about Jesus. We are to share what we’ve learned. This also, I think, implies that we are to listen and learn from one another.

Perhaps it is because I’m a former teacher but I wonder if this is the most critical word in all of this passage. Looking back over Jesus’ ministry, his most effective disciple making came from teaching folks about how to live as God calls.

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So, now let’s look at a fourth key word in our reading from Matthew describing the risen Lord’s encounter with the eleven disciples on the mountaintop.

When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Matthew 28: 17 CEB

Even some of the eleven doubted. This tells me that we can continue to make friends, to make disciples, to baptize one another in love, and teach and learn in the midst of our own doubt.

Doubt is an essential part of faith and right here, even after the resurrection, Matthew tells us that some of the eleven doubted. In the words of theologian Frederick Buechner,

“…If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)

I don’t know about you but I find this reassuring. I can doubt while I build relationships with others. I can doubt while I tell others the stories of my faith and my own personal journey.

I can doubt whether I have the whole truth, while I listen to the stories of others’ spiritual journeys.

Together as one human family — as all the nations — we can learn what it means to baptize one another in the divine love that Jesus manifest in his life.

The Good News is we aren’t alone. We have one another and as the risen Jesus reminds us at the very end of Matthew,

Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” Matthew 28:20 CEB

Amen.

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This sermon and discussion took place at the Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday morning, April 12, 2015.

My Multi-faith Family Gathers

My Multi-faith Family Gathers
My grandpup Reggae lovingly and sleepily monitors our gathering from beneath the tree. Photo by Tim Graves. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
My grandpup Reggae lovingly and sleepily monitors our gathering from beneath the tree. Photo by Tim Graves. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

It didn’t feel like Christmas to me last week. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t; it was New Year’s Day. In a family of adults it was a no-brainer to switch our seasonal gathering to a day that was more convenient.

My daughter’s girlfriend is in the grocery business. I am a pastor. My wife is a hospital chaplain. We all have challenges getting one day off together. I am off on Christmas Day but am beyond exhausted following the intensity of Advent.

No, it didn’t feel like Christmas but that wasn’t because we were a week late. It didn’t feel like Christmas to me because I live in a multi-faith family. Our celebration was strictly secular.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not a piece by a Christian pastor complaining that there is a war on Christmas or that I am somehow persecuted. There is not and I am not.

I am also not unhappy about the spiritual journeys of my two adult children. I am thrilled my son has found Judaism, a faith through which the divine speaks to him. My daughter’s journey is harder to define but she has found Buddhist thought and practice meaningful.

We weren’t always this way. Both my children made their Christian Confessions of Faith and were baptized by immersion when they felt moved to do so.

My daughter sang Away in the Manger nearly as soon as she could speak but a particularly acidic church exacerbated her doubts as she began to question as adolescents question. The LGBT hostile teachings of so many churches and churchfolk didn’t help, either.

My son, who once wondered aloud to me if God was calling him to ministry, continued to search well into his adulthood. He was one of those rare young adults who found a church when he moved into a new community, but it wasn’t until he discovered Judaism that he found a faith that spoke to him.

As a Christian pastor, I am sad that the state of the church is such that so many young adults find no relevance in or are rejected by the church. As a father, however, who follows the teachings of Jesus, I am convinced that the extravagant love of the divine is actively involved in their spiritual lives. I am not worried about their personal salvation or their immortal souls. I speak proudly and openly about each of my biological and embraced children and their journeys.

I practice in my own home what I preach.

I trust my children. I also trust the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work. That is, if the divine has led my children to this place, I needn’t worry. God has not failed me yet nor will God fail my children. As the bumper sticker says, “God is too big for one religion.”

All that said, it didn’t feel like Christmases past last week.

Like the church in the twenty-first century, my family continues to transform. Neither the church nor my family are the same as they were in the past. That is a reflection of the divine nature. Ever creating, ever changing, ever transforming the divine lures us onward.

No, it didn’t feel like Christmases past last week. It felt like who we were in that moment: a family of three adult couples who love one another. We are a family of at least three faiths and six spiritual journeys who are learning to navigate the world as we find it while loving and respecting one another.

That is no small accomplishment.

Though I feel some sadness at what once was — excited children, the mythical simplicity of a one-faith family — I love who my biological and embraced children are in the present.

No, it didn’t feel like Christmas but that wasn’t because we were a week late. It didn’t feel like Christmas to me because I live in a multi-faith family and we’ve widened the circle. Our celebration was secular but not strictly so.

The essence of the divine was fully present in my multi-faith family last week. Our gathering was not like when my children were growing up. It was not like when I was growing up. What it was, was a seasonal gathering in which I felt God’s loving touch in every hug from my biological and embracing children

In the end, that is what matters. It’s not dogma and faith labels that matter but the divine love that holds humanity and creation together. That is enough Christmas for me.

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My Fault and Her Choice

My Fault and Her Choice

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. It was my fault.

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Photo by Tim Graves

The first complaint came on the Sunday I suggested in my sermon that Christians do not have to love their neighbor alone. That is, because the golden rule crosses the boundaries of traditions we can work together for the common good.  I believe she expected me to repudiate the implicit message that human beings can reach the divine through many different paths.

I did not.

I told her that there are multiple ways to interpret her beloved John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NRSV) Explanations of the historical context in which it exists didn’t soften her stance. Discussing the overall inclusive message of John didn’t change her view. Encouraging her to pray and reflect didn’t help.

In the end, I appealed to her own restoration movement church background, in which interpretive agreement is not required for fellowship. In short I said, we don’t have to agree on this point to live and love others together. That didn’t help much either.

Her tactics to convince me of my misguided ways included drive-by attacks on Facebook when I posted quotes or other items that were, frankly, innocuous by most standards. A Thomas Merton quote, for example, could degenerate into accusations that caused me to finally shut off the thread.

Over time her concern became more and more about me. She called me a “false prophet” or one who leads people away from the truth. The final straw that led to her resignation from membership was that the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC and I took public stances in support of marriage equality in Oregon. But let me be clear: her departure was about how we interpret the Bible.

I read the Bible as the expanding story and theologies of people of faith over centuries. To me, the Bible’s truths are not in the precise words on the page but in the loving God who inspired — and continues to inspire — people to grow into the image of God in which we are all created. She reads our shared sacred writings in a more constrictive manner.

I had a woman leave my church earlier this year. Come to think of it, it was her choice.

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Watch the Golden Rules video I created and showed on the Sunday that prompted the first complaint:

For a good discussion of John’s “I am the way,” read this blog by Crystal St. Marie Lewis. http://crystalstmarielewis.com/2014/05/18/what-theologians-wish-everyone-knew-about-john-14s-i-am-the-way-proclamation/

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Related Posts

Characterizing the Truth, August 26, 2011
Aliens Among Us (sermon), July 25, 2014
Weary of Literalism, June 21, 2014

 

Choosing a Spirituality of Self, Worry, or Love

Choosing a Spirituality of Self, Worry, or Love
Love One Another by Tim Graves
Love One Another by Tim Graves

Many followers of Jesus, it would seem, do so for a selfish reason. They are Christians because they want salvation. They want to avoid eternal damnation to Hell. For many, this is the beginning and end of faith. This is a selfish faith.

For others the preoccupation with salvation extends to concern for people who do not “know Jesus” or “accept Jesus” into their heart. In their understanding of faith, compassion requires them to evangelize nonbelievers aggressively for their own well-being. They are genuinely worried about others. (Sadly, it doesn’t feel that way to folks being told there is only one way to avoid fiery pits.) This is a worried faith.

This is not my faith or god. The One who loves extravagantly does not stop loving me when I do not love back. That is not love.

This does not give us carte blanche to act in evil ways. Hardly. The god that I experience keeps at us pushing us, encouraging us, and enticing us to respond to godself and others lovingly. Once we accept the love of the One, by whatever name, we want to be better beings. This is a loving faith.

You see, when we perceive the magnanimous, relentless salvific love of God, we want to love back. We want to love in the same way. And, so, we choose to co-create a world (with God) in which all feel the love that binds creation and the divine together. We begin by loving.

Loving One, your love is palpable if we but open ourselves to you. Help us to be extensions of your love to all our earthly family. Amen.

The Realm’s Rules or The Culture’s Commands?

The following sermon was delivered at the Condon United Church of Christ on September 1, 2013. The text for the sermon is Luke 14:1, 7-14. The video above is referred to in the sermon.

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I was too young to serve in the Vietnam War. But I had the stateside nightmares of a child terrified by images on the television. The images of Viet Cong soldiers in my own living room are still etched in my memory.

But that was a child’s nightmare. A dream. It wasn’t real. It has long since lost its emotional hold on me.

I delivered newspapers for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the war. Each afternoon, a bundle of papers would show up on my front lawn, I would cut open the bundle, place them in my delivery cart, and take them to each home on my route.

One afternoon as I was cutting open the bundle, my next-door neighbor darted out of her house. Frantically, though not a subscriber, she begged to look at the paper.

“I’ve gotta know. I have to see the numbers.”

You see, for those of you who don’t know, they would print the draft numbers in the newspaper. These numbers would tell you whose teenage son would end up on a battlefield in the jungles of southeast Asia.

This mother was terrified — terrified — that her son, the baby she nursed at her breast, the not-yet-man to whom she read Dr. Seuss stories only a few years ago, the boy who never seemed to put his boxers away in his dresser drawer after she folded them…

She had to know if he was being called up. She was terrified that he was about to be ripped out of her arms before he had completely grown up.

That was a mother’s nightmare. It was not a dream. It was real. The emotional impact of that day has never — never — left me.

And, so, yesterday as the President spoke, I burst into tears because though we’ve sanitized war, it is still turning our back on God. It still involves killing someone’s child.  I weeped because once again, as a nation, we will likely be playing by The Culture’s Commands. Someone’s child will be killed by a bomb paid for with our taxes.

Once again we as a people, are turning away from The Realm’s Rules, away from God’s dreams for us. Evil, in Syria this time, has left our leaders believing that the only choice is more bloodshed and violence.

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I’ve spent the week studying and reflecting on our gospel passage from Luke. It is often preached as being about humility. And it is about humility. That’s a legitimate interpretation. One problem with reading it as if it is only about being humble is that it can lead us to think that Jesus is somehow doing us a favor.

He’s trying to keep us from being embarrassed. The CEB translation even uses the word “embarrassed.” Listen to verse nine again,

The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. Luke 14:9 CEB

And then in verse ten, as if Jesus is more akin to Miss Manners or Emily Post than the challenging prophet he is, Jesus says,

Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. Luke 14:10 CEB

No, to focus on the importance of humility runs the risk that we miss the critical point, the broader point that Jesus is making. Yes, we are called to be humble, to be servants of humanity but to focus on humility and humbleness alone is to miss the bigger message. Humbling ourselves to God is about trusting and following The Realm’s Rules. 

This passage is about rules.

It is about distinguishing between The Culture’s Commands and the nature of God’s unfolding realm on earth. Jesus is striving to make it clear that The Realm’s Rules are not the same as The Culture’s Commands. In this parable, we see that the ancient culture’s rules involved the most important person being given the highest position. Though our culture is more flat than that, more egalitarian, more equal, we are not immune to status worship.

Our culture idolizes celebrities, sports figures, and — though we like to deny it — the very wealthy. Why else would social media be abuzz this week about Miley Cyrus’ dance when we continue to have high unemployment and children — especially brown and black children — are daily victims of violence and poverty in this country?

Just as Jesus is telling our sometimes slow-to-understand ancient kindred that God’s rules are different than cultural norms, God is still speaking through this parable to us. As followers of Jesus, we are expected to follow The Realm’s Rules instead of The Culture’s Commands. Hear the eleventh verse again. Jesus says,

All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Luke 14: 11 CEB

In other words, Jesus shouts, “New Rules!”

We are not called to be successful. We’re not called to accumulate wealth, to idolize celebrities, to look out only for ourselves. We’re not called to use our power to have our way — as individuals or as a nation. Quite the contrary, Jesus turns the rules upside down. Jesus tells us that we should do for those who can do nothing for us in return. Jesus tells us not to invite our friends, brothers, sisters, relatives, or rich neighbors to lunch or dinner.

Says Jesus,

Instead, when you give a banquet, you should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Luke 14:13 CEB

Invite those who were unable in ancient culture to reciprocate. We’re called to give more than we take. We’re called to love people in the face of hatred. We’re called to welcome people even if it means they will never serve on a committee or give a dime to this church.

We’re called to introduce every single person we meet to the extravagant love and welcome of God — even if they never call themselves UCCers or cross our threshold. We are called to

love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind, and love [our] neighbor as [ourselves.]” Luke 10:27 CEB

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To live by The Realm’s Rules is not easy when we live within a culture that commands very different behavior. Some Christians, like the Amish, have chosen to live outside of mainstream culture as much as possible in their effort to be true to The Realm’s Rules and to avoid the pitfalls of The Culture’s Commands.

That is not the path any of us have chosen. We have chosen to live within the tension.

Some days I think it is the most foolish decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes I wish my faith allowed me to embrace The Culture’s Commands or that I could withdraw completely like the Amish, but my path is within the tension.

Living within the mainstream culture — within rules for living that are very different than Jesus’ rules for living — means we need one another more than ever. We need to call each other out when we stray too far outside of the unfolding realm and into our callous, me-first, violent, power-hungry, and wealth-idolizing culture.

We also need to challenge our leaders when the answer for evil acts is to punish an already-traumatized people with even more violence. This time, we are told, dropping bombs will somehow make the world a better place.

We’ve heard that line before and it is not the way of the unfolding realm of God.

The extravagant love of God dreams of a day when mothers and fathers no longer have their children ripped from their arms by poverty or war or our indifference.

The Good News is that the unfolding realm of God is up to the task. Love, God’s love,  is,  in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” The Good News is that we are not alone in our aching desire for Jesus’ upside down realm. Faithful people from Jews to Bah’ai to Sikhs to Rastafarians and, yes, even our Muslim sisters and brothers each have a sacred tradition of love for neighbor. We all have a variation on The Golden Rule as you saw in the video this morning.

Our calling as Christians is to open ourselves to the Spirit in prayer and to humbly interact with others.

When we do that, we will find the Divine using us to live peace and love into existence. When we do that, the unfolding realm of God will grow just a teeny bit bigger until the day when the One’s dream for humanity is realized. Amen.

 

 

Tears

Tears

Breetel and IsaacTears can be many things. They can be a cleansing liquid that washes away the pain. Tears can be like baptismal waters that renew and refocus our souls. They can indicate deep sadness or profound joy.

For me, tears are often a sign of Divine presence. They flow when the One breaks into my awareness. Tears are “of G-d.” I well up when I intuit the presence of the extravagant love that binds us together as one human family.

Yesterday, the day of my son’s wedding, was one of those holy times when G-d’s tears flowed like a waterfall. The One who is within us, between us, and surrounds us was palpable as two families united to celebrate the love between a rabbi’s daughter and the son of two ministers. It is an unlikely and likely story.

Unlikely because too many Christians have learned the false doctrine that G-d’s love is limited to those who profess Jesus as savior and turned love into hatred. Unlikely because a people who have endured millennia of persecution, including genocide, must be cautious of those who are not one of their own.

Likely because the Divine never breaks covenant and never gives up on us. G-d’s love broke through yesterday. G-d’s extravagant desire for us to be the one human family we were created to be, lured two souls together.

And when the One lured two souls together, two families celebrated together. Not only did two young people covenant to journey together in love, two families began the journey of accepting, getting to know, and growing to love one another.

In the presence of the One, our tears of joy, a palpable sign of the Divine, flowed together reminding each of us that G-d’s extravagant love is for all of us.

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War on Christmas? Considering Our Motivation

Images like this button miss the loving message of Jesus.

The first memes declaring that “it’s Merry Christmas not Happy Holidays” showed up in my Facebook stream on Thanksgiving day. I long ago grew tired of the so-called war on Christmas as it distracts us from the significance and meaning of the season.

Consider why it is you choose to wish another person a Merry Christmas. If it is to offer another good cheer, then a hearty Merry Christmas is appropriate — if you know that they celebrate the holiday. If, however, you know they do not, and you do so to win a battle in the Christmas war then you’ve missed the core message of the Christian faith: extravagant love overcomes even death.

A loving response to another is sensitive to their sensibilities. To cynically offer a Merry Christmas to others to prove a point is not a loving response. It wins no friends for you, it gains no friends for Jesus, nor does it make our culture more Christian. It is contrary to the teachings of Jesus who reminds us that the most important commandment is,

“Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31 CEB

The Dehumanization & Diminishment That Kills

Photo by Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Zuma

I can be in a friendly, upbeat mood and have it dashed by the most efficient automated phone system. You know the ones that dehumanize and diminish the caller. They offer multiple options but none apply to the reason for your call. To throw insult to intelligence, the voice mail system reminds you in a cheerful, recorded voice how important you are to them. Yep, I always put my best friends in a holding pattern when they call.

By the time I talk to a human being, I’m agitated, tense, and annoyed.

I wonder if in all our talk about why we’ve had shootings in movie theaters, schools, and even our sacred religious sites that we’re missing the core problem. What if our dehumanizing culture is the underlying reason for the violence?

Voice mail systems are one way in which we are dehumanized. Speed trap and red light cameras allow us no grace for an error.  If our speed creeps up even if only for a few minutes in the wrong place we are penalized. What human being has never made a driving mistake?

Absolutism is another way in which we dehumanize one another. Anytime we use or imply words like all, always, or never we can dehumanize. This happens in our polarized political system when we say things such as, “All abortions are immoral and should be banned,” “Republicans are insensitive and racist,” or “Muslims are terrorists.” These are all false statements because of absolutism. They and others diminish another’s humanity.

On a personal level we practice absolutism when we group people together, rather than getting to know them. I remember bristling as a child when my sister or mother accusingly lumped my brother and I together as “the boys.” The implication was that we were the same, lacking individual free choice.

Yes, my brother and I had similarities but we were not “the boys,” we were David and Tim. People who are atheist or of a particular religious group, also share commonalities within their designation. The problem is that once we pack someone up inside the African American box, the old white guy box, or the Christian box, we too often stop listening and learning about one another. We use it as a way to exclude others from the human family.

As individuals we also diminish another’s humanity when we ignore the grocery checker. Continuing to talk to our partner in shopping or to talk on the phone without acknowledging and including the human being scanning our food dehumanizes. When we see only “an old lady” or a “young thug” on the street, we diminish.

Our culture is filled with many dehumanizing experiences that we cannot personally change. I’ll have to deal with voice mail hell for the foreseeable future. When I do finally talk to a human being on the telephone, however, I can use every ounce of my humanity to be civil. Whether the person on the other end of the line is in South Dakota, my own small town, or India, she is a human being.

Still, I wonder if our culture of dehumanization and diminishment makes it easier for those who have less emotional stability or are mentally ill, to learn to see others as non-human. Once we see someone as less than human, killing them becomes easier.

What if we could solve our violence problem by dismantling the dehumanizing elements in our world? What if we learned to care about every single individual in our culture? What if we saw the divinity — the Imago Dei — in every one?