Tuesday, August 11, 2015

August 9, 2015 The Worldwide Tribe of God

Mark 9:38-41

One of the funnier things that happened to me on my sabbatical happened at the Vatican.  I decided to wear a Louisville Cardinals T-shirt that day, because it seemed appropriate to wear a shirt that said Cardinals when going to the Vatican. We were walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, which is such a beautiful and overwhelming place, and I was taking pictures of everything.  As I walked near the altar a guy was standing there, and he looked at me and said, humph.  My wife made me leave all my UK stuff at home.  Even traveling halfway around the world it is impossible to escape the UofL/UK rivalry!

This morning, my message is The Worldwide Tribe of God.  I want to talk about something called tribalism.  Tribalism is loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group.

Our Scripture text for today has an unfortunate demonstration of tribalism.  Listen to what Mark’s gospel tells of how the disciples demonstrated tribalism –

38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me,
40 for whoever is not against us is for us.
41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

Humans are naturally tribal in nature, and we love to gather in our tribes, generally to the exclusion of those in other tribes, so that we can talk about the people in those other tribes.  There is, obviously, a great deal of tribalism in the world of sports and sports fandom – there are the UK, and UofL tribes, both of which are well represented here.  And please, don’t let anyone be in the Duke tribe.  But it also includes other tribes – are you a Bengals fan or a Steelers fan (the Steelers are my tribe!)?  You’re not a Cowboys fan, I would hope. What’s your music tribe – country, classical, bluegrass, contemporary Christian, hip-hop, rap, or classic rock?  What’s your political tribe?  Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Libertarian?  What’s your regional tribe?  Are you a northerner, southerner, from the east coast, the west coast, or New England?  To what ethnic tribe do you belong?  White, black, Hispanic, or Asian?  Where do you fall among the religious tribes?  Believer or unbeliever?  Affiliated or unaffiliated?  Which religion?  Christian?  Well, which sub-tribe?  Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox?  Christian?  What worship style tribe, contemporary, traditional, or blended?  What denomination?  Presbyterian?  Presbyterian USA, Cumberland, or one of the other kinds? Methodist?  Freewill or United Methodist?  Baptist?  Southern, American, Cooperative or one of the 200+ other varieties?  Christian Church?  Which tribe in that group – Independent Christian Church, Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ?

We find tribalism everywhere, from the more innocuous debates about our favorite sports teams to the very dangerous actions of groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda, who will kill others simply because the others are of another group, or tribe.  There are people in this world who desire to do harm to us simply because we are of a different tribe.

Tribalism is one of the most powerful forces in the world, and it’s also one of the least noticed.  Tribalism is rarely noticed by its practitioners.  This was certainly the case exhibited in this week’s Scripture text.  The disciples approached Jesus, probably somewhat perturbed, to complain that someone was driving out demons in his name.  The disciples told the person to stop because he was not one of us (typical tribal language – not one of us).  I imagine the disciples assumed they were acting correctly in trying to stop the other person.  They were, most likely, acting on a belief that they needed to protect their own work and ministry, and certainly that of Jesus.  They were probably surprised, and a bit hurt, that Jesus told them not to stop the man.

One of the mistakes that religious people sometimes make – and the disciples made this mistake in their handling of the situation described by Mark – is seeing themselves as the gatekeepers to God.  It is easy to fall prey to the idea that we are the ones who control access to God, or at least to serve as the ones who can sit in judgment of who can have access to God.

At times, we even baptize our beliefs and our attitudes as being God’s.  If we hold to a particular political opinion, it must certainly be God’s as well.  Our opinion of other people must surely represent God’s opinion of those people.  We pitch our tent and then draw it in to include some and exclude others, rather than expanding it to fit the vision of God.  The scandal of the gospel, as demonstrated by Jesus, is that God doesn’t draw lines and set boundaries as humanity is so prone to do.  So the question for us is, what boundaries do we need to reshape, to defy, in order to be the people God has called us to be?

We create artificial borders by the creation of all the various tribes, and one thing that happens with all those tribes and borders is we allow ourselves to believe that if it's across a border, it’s not our problem.  It’s in another country, or state, or county, or neighborhood so it’s not my concern.  That’s not an issue for my tribe, so I’m released from any concern.  Do you think God recognizes those boundaries?

Jesus, however, was constantly demolishing any illusions of our desire to be gatekeepers to all things spiritual.  Jesus obliterated the social stigmas and unspoken rules and regulations about associations that divided people into tribes.  Jesus was constantly under attack by the scribes, Pharisees, and other religious hierarchy because he stepped across the tribal boundaries that had been so carefully erected.  He was not afraid to associate with the “sinners” of the day.  He was not afraid to be seen talking with a Samaritan woman, when such behavior would have been considered a terrible breach of social protocol.  He told the story of the Good Samaritan, which tells of the tribal attitudes preventing characters in the story from offering assistance to an injured man because he was of a different tribe.  Imagine, the very idea that it is impermissible to help another human being who was beaten and left for dead along the road, because you are taught that if they are not a member of your tribe you shouldn’t help that person, even if they are on the side of the road bleeding to death.

People often want to tell us who is acceptable for our association.  We should walk together whether or not we agree on everything.  We should walk together whether or not we read the Bible in the same way, whether or not we worship the same way, whether or not we believe the same way, whether or not someone believes, because every person is a child of God and every person is a member of God’s tribe! 

Where did the idea come from that we must agree about everything and that everyone must be just like us?  There is such a strange orthodoxy in our society these days that decrees we must all be the same and that orthodoxy seeks to impose a sameness and conformity on everyone and if you veer from that it in any way you are subject to public ridicule and shaming.

Where did it come from that we must agree on everything?  There is a false narrative that says we must all gather in our little tribes, with our like-minded folks, and reject all others.  There is a stratifying taking place in our world, in our nation, and even in our churches that is very disturbing.  Some churches will give you a list of what you must believe and to which you must adhere.  Our church does not do that.  We do not impose any kind of sameness – theological, political or otherwise – upon anyone who attends here.  You do not have to agree with me, and I don’t have to agree with you.  You may not agree with or like some of the things I say or write.  That's okay.  I don’t care if you agree with me or not.  You know what?  Sometimes I don't agree with what you might say, or write, or think.  But so what?  You will never hear me tell you what to think or to believe; you will hear me say what I think and what I believe. I do not spoon-feed people into belief, because if your faith rests upon another person, it is a faith that will not withstand the arena of human interaction.  If it is a faith dependent upon Jesus and is entered to in your own freewill, nothing will harm or limit that faith.  Nothing.

Too many followers of Jesus see it as a point of pride who they exclude, rather than who they include.  Not everyone can walk with us, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong; it may mean we’re doing what’s right.  If we draw a thousand people because of who we are, great; if we lose a thousand people because of who we are, that’s just the way it goes.  What’s sad is that people believe the false claim that you should only associate with those who think like you, act like you, and believe like you.  Some will say to come out of a church if they don’t reflect your beliefs on every topic.  My goodness, if that were the standard there wouldn’t be anyone left!

One of the things Tanya and I noticed while traveling in Europe was that the English and the French don’t like each other very much, and there are some historical reasons for this.  But it also seems rather absurd, as much of the roots of their enmity comes from long ago, and it’s now centuries later and they still struggle!  We visited the Tower of London one day, where we had a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide.  But he obviously didn’t like the French.  At every opportunity, he criticized the French.  Even when he asked what countries we were from, when some visitors from France raised their hands he said, arrgh, the French! 

I’ll be honest and admit that I was somewhat uneasy about traveling to Paris.  In our country, we too can be hard on the French.  Remember some years ago when something happened (I don’t even remember now) and people were saying we should stop referring to French fries, and call them freedom fries instead?  Wasn’t that ridiculous?  Many people say the French are rude and unkind, but Tanya and I found them to be friendly, kind, and helpful, in all of our interactions.  We loved our time in Paris, and loved our interactions with the French people.

If we could find a way to escape our tribal mentality and our tribal attitudes, imagine how different the world could be.

Remember this – God breathes the breath of life into everyone.  Everyone.  Not just those of our liking or choosing.  The scandal of the gospel is that God doesn’t draw lines or set boundaries or create tribes as humanity is so prone to do.  Every person is a part of The Worldwide Tribe of God! 

Thursday, August 06, 2015

August 2, 2015 A Stranger In A Strange Land

Good morning.  My name is Dave, and in case you’ve forgotten who I am, I’m your minister.

I am very pleased to be back.  I was blessed with a wonderful time of rest and renewal during my sabbatical, and the words most in my mind – and in my heart – today are gratitude and thanks.

It was a bit strange though, as it was three months of not knowing much of what was happening here.  I didn’t see as many people as I thought I might, probably because I was out of town so much, but occasionally I would bump into people and get a bit of information, such as the great VBS that took place.  Thank you Laine and Jackie and all the others who made that such a great week of ministry!

And thank you certainly to the church staff, who had to shoulder many other responsibilities while I was away, and they did so with much grace and faithfulness.  Thanks also to the elders, who gave so much of their time and talents in providing leadership, both in worship and the in the ministries of the church.  And I am grateful to all those who preached the past three months, one of whom had the pleasure of hearing Tanya say that she would rather hear her any day than have to listen to me!  And thank you – the congregation – for your faithful support of this church and its ministry, and for the gift of a sabbatical.  I can’t express how much it has meant to me.  I was burnt out when I left and sometime in the midst of June I suddenly realized that my brain had come back online and my energy was returning.

Let me add that I hope you don’t have any unrealistic expectations of sermons.  I did not spend the past three months writing this morning’s message; I did, however enjoy sitting on a lot of back rows listening to others preach, and sitting in the congregation was a really good perspective for me.

I’m going to watch my time this morning, because I’ve probably lost my sense of how to keep track of 15 to 20 minutes, and because I attended one church where the speaker said she was well-known for being brief.  I got a little worried when people started laughing, and it was over 50 minutes later when she began to wrap up her message (and it was an excellent message).

I return this morning with thoughts about being A Stranger In A Strange Land.  Our text comes from a portion of Psalm 137, verses 1-7 –

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!"

The context of the passage comes from a time, centuries before the birth of Christ, when the people of Israel had been carried away into captivity in Babylon.  It was a tremendous jolt for God’s people, being removed to a distant and strange land, where they were ridiculed as captives.  There, in their new home of Babylon, they wondered how it could be that they, the people of God, had come to such a place.

It’s hard to be in a strange environment.  As I traveled during my sabbatical, I found myself in many places that were foreign and strange to me. 

When Tanya and I arrived in Paris, it was an unsettling few moments.  We had been traveling through English speaking countries and now we were in a land where we did not know the language.  We came to Paris by train, and when we stepped off the train it was a very different setting for us.  The train station was very large, very crowded, and it was confusing to us as we tried to find how to make our way to our hotel, which was a good distance away.  We made our way through the crowd and the chaos of the station and stepped onto the sidewalk, where things continued to be confusing and chaotic.  Taxis were lined up along the curb, the drivers were shouting to tourists and travelers in different languages, and we still didn’t know what direction to go or how to get to our destination.

We decided to walk across the street and get some lunch, so we entered a sidewalk café and hoped we could communicate with our server.  We quickly discovered that language would not be the problem we feared, as everyone we encountered in the city spoke English, and all the restaurants had bilingual menus or would make available an English menu.  We spoke with the waiter, who gave us advice about managing the subway, and soon we were feeling more comfortable.  It didn’t take long for us to find our way to our hotel, and soon we were managing to get around the city with ease.

But each time we came to a new destination, I found myself longing for what was familiar.  It’s hard to be in a strange environment, but it’s good for me – and good for us all – because so many people live their lives in places that are foreign and strange to them and we cannot have true empathy and compassion for others until we share similar experiences of feeling like a stranger in a strange land. 

Interestingly, some of the places where I felt like a stranger were churches. I worshipped in some churches that practiced a liturgy and had a worship format that were strange to me, and I found it to be somewhat disconcerting.  I was amazed to find how hard – I don’t know if hard is the right word – it was for me to open some of those church doors.  I grew up going to church and have spent all of my years in churches, so I was a bit surprised to find it was difficult – or at least uncomfortable – to enter a church.  It’s hard to walk into a church for the first time, and sadly, some churches don’t make it any easier.  During my sabbatical I visited many different churches and I discovered this – all churches say they love visitors, but not all churches demonstrate that love.  One week, I decided to attend the early service of a church.  It’s sign and web site advertised an early service, but when I arrived – five minutes before the start time – I was surprised to find an empty sanctuary.  I waited around for a few minutes and no one else came.  After searching for a few minutes I found the program for their second service, and it mentioned nothing about why there was no early service.  I think this is fairly simple – if you advertise a worship service, you should have that worship service.  I left and went to another church, and I still wonder why the other church did not have their early service.

At one church, I felt uncomfortable because I was unfamiliar with their liturgy.  I tried to watch others so I knew when to stand and when to sit, but I still managed to stand when everyone else sat down and I sat down when everyone else stood.  There were churches, certainly, that were very good at welcoming visitors.  I attended a large church in Louisville that was very good at offering a welcome.  A few days after the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, I attended a prayer vigil at this church.  It is an African-American congregation, and it didn’t occur to me until I walked in the door that there I was, a solitary white guy walking into an African-American church.  Would it create concern with anyone?  I received a wonderful welcome, but I couldn’t help but wonder about what people thought, as a solitary white man had walked into Emanuel church.  I decided to return for a Sunday morning service and it was a wonderful experience.  Of all the churches I visited, this church really had it all together.  When I drove onto their property there were people to give me directions.  When I stepped out of my car there were people ready to greet me.  When I walked up the steps to the front door, there were people to open the door, greet me, and lead me to a seat.  When the time of welcome came, people came over and hugged me.  When the service was over, people came over to hug me again.

Tanya and I visited some places where church attendance is very poor.  In England church attendance has plummeted in the past generation, although there is certainly life in some churches.  France has even lower church attendance.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t faith, and it certainly doesn’t mean that God is not present in those places.  God is very much alive and active in the world, and we’ll talk about this some next week in my message The Worldwide Tribe of God.

But it is disconcerting to think that this place – this church – is a strange land to some people.  What might we do to make it less strange to them?

Some people are strangers to the land of prosperity and blessing.  Too many people feel as though security and prosperity exist in a land inaccessible to them.  They peer into such a land, looking on from a distance, but they believe it is a land in which they will never dwell, even though they are physically close to such blessings.  It is possible to be in such close proximity to blessing and prosperity and yet be so far away, and the danger for those of us who live in such blessing is not so much to ignore those individuals, but to fail to even be aware of their existence.

I’ll tell you one of the realizations I had during my sabbatical, and it disturbed me – how easy I could disappear into myself and into my own life.  I traveled with Tanya on several of her work trips.  On one of them, I went to a nice shopping mall.  It was a very hot day and I was happy to find a nice, comfortable, and cool place to sit.  I had a cold milk shake that cost 8 or 10 dollars and I sat down in an overstuffed chair and thought to myself, this is the life.  I’m in a nice, comfortable chair, sitting with my feet up.  I’m in a nice cool place on a hot day.  I’ve got my tasty, expensive drink.  This is the life!  How easy it would be to disappear into myself.  That is not the point of life! While we need moments of rest and reflection that is not a state in which we should live all of our lives.  To do so is to fall into a stupor and be anesthetized to the needs of the world around us.

And then there are those who are literal strangers. 

There are many strangers in our land.  Some of them are legal residents and some of them are not.  Our country has been engaged in a very contentious conversation about immigration for a while now, and my purpose this morning is not to wade into the politics of that argument, but rather the theology of the discussion.  The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, is very clear about welcoming the strangers who are among us.  One of the most famous stories of the Old Testament is that of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Most people interpret that story in a particular way, and see the sin of those cities in only one way.  The Bible, however, tells us something different.  The prophet Ezekiel says of Sodom, now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49). 

I am the grandson of illegal immigrants.  My paternal grandfather came to this country from Wales, where his family had mined for coal for generations.  They sailed from Liverpool, England as steerage passengers, and if you’ve seen the movie Titanic you’ll know that steerage passengers are the ones literally in the bottom of the boat.  They came with a bit of money in their pockets and carrying a few possessions.  They made a life here, but I don’t know what kind of welcome or help they found upon their arrival, but I’m grateful they made it to here.

As Tanya and I traveled through Europe, we were strangers in other lands.  One evening, in Rome, we sat down to dinner at a sidewalk café up the street from our hotel.  Seated next to us were three ladies from the States.  They lived outside of Chicago and they were retired schoolteachers.  One of them was originally from Maysville.  She told us about some of the students she taught over the years, and we knew the names of a couple of them.  She had been in Shelbyville a number of times over the years and knew people we knew.  It was very nice, so far from home, to meet and talk with someone who knew home.

In the coming months we will talk about home – coming home to church and coming home to faith, in addition to other topics related to home.  As for me, I am very grateful to be home.