Food for Thought-What’s In A Name A Homily on Acts 4:5-12

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Why do you do this? In whose name do you do this? By what power do you do this? Those are the questions asked of Peter and John when they’re hauled before the High Priest and assorted big wigs after healing a man in the temple. Take a step back. Ask yourself the same questions. Here you are, in church, in life, on Earth, and the Chief Priests of our day have posed the questions: “Why do you do this? In whose name do you do this? By what power do you do this?” How would you answer?

Peter wants to answer on the basis of his actions. He asks, “Are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed healed him?” Peter is putting a question back to the High Priest. Do you want to know the answer to these questions because I did something tangible (in this case make a sick person better)? Have you seen a specific action which has raised questions about our motivations and intentions? Peter’s question is important. He’s saying, “I’ve done something tangible and real. My motivation for doing this action (healing) is equally tangible and real.” Peter wants the high priest to realize his reasons for this simple healing are rooted in a simple explanation.

Look how Peter puts his explanation, the man is now healthy, “because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene-whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.” Remember the guy you just killed, about two months ago, him; the one who was raised from the dead. It doesn’t get much simpler. There is a relationship between what we’ve done (and will continue to do) by restoring health and life to people and the death and life of a man you ordered executed. A life which you deemed to be worthless, subversive, and of no value carries a greater purpose and value since his death and resurrection. Notice what is absent from Peter’s answer and this text as a whole: a body. This isn’t a post-resurrection appearance. There are none after Acts 2. Jesus is physically absent from this scene, yet like Romeo’s spirit when Juliet realizes he’s dead, Romeo is everywhere. Jesus is present in name only. No wounds, no tombs, just words.

It’s amazing what emotions the name, presence, and memory of Jesus can evoke. Those words need not be uttered by priest, pastor, prince, or prophet. At the name of Jesus, Paul says, every knee shall bow and tongue confess, because he is a Lord who ate with prostitutes, embraced sinners of all shapes and sizes, and asks us to reorder and well-worn preconceptions about how we are convinced the world ought to run. You see, ultimately, it’s not about the name. It’s about the real, tangible guy behind the name. Are we worshiping a name? You can whoop and holler, “in the name of Jesus” until you’re blue in the face but the name of Jesus means nothing unless it is accompanied by Christ like actions of love, empathy, and grace. Maybe we ought to spend more time trying to live up to the actions and relationships of the man who held the name.

If we were to answer this same question, “why, whose, power” how simple could we be?

Food for Thought-The New Testament in Song

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Matthew –Tax Man (The Beatles)
Mark – The Weight (The Band)
Luke – Good Lovin’ (The Young Rascals)
John – Your Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You (Dean Martin)
Acts- Blinded By The Light (Manfred Mann Band)
Romans – Mama Told Me Not To Come (Steeler’s Wheel)
1 Corinthians – Love Will Keep Us Together (Captain and Tenille)
2 Corinthians – Never There (Cake)
Galatians – Forget You (Cee Lo Green)
Ephesians – I Say a Little Prayer (Glee Cast)
Philippians – I Get A Kick Out of You (Frank Sinatra)
Colossians – Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit (The Cast of How I Met Your Mother)
1 Thessalonians – Nice and Easy (Frank Sinatra)
2 Thessalonians – Criminal (Fiona Apple)
1 Timothy – What Makes a Good Man (The Heavy)
2 Timothy – Shake It Off (Taylor Swift)
Titus – Wayfaring Stranger (traditional)
Philemon – Try a Little Tenderness (The Committtments)
Hebrews – Revolution (The Beatles)
James – The Letter (Joe Cocker)
1 Peter Be My Yoko Ono (The Bare Naked Ladies)
2 Peter – God’s Gonna Cut You Down (John Cash)
1 John – Come and Get Your Love (Leon Redbone)
2 John – You Know That I Know (Hank Williams Sr. / Jack White)
3 John – The Power of Love (H. Lewis and the News)
Jude – Hey Jude (Paul McCartney)
Revelation – It’s The End of the World as We Know It (REM)

Food for Thought-How To Be A Freak* in Methodism

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1. Reject the conventional wisdom of those who insist on telling the emperor his clothes look great.

2. Reject the conventional wisdom of those who insist the emperor is naked and there are no clothes in sight.

3. Use the words “I don’t know” more than you say anything else when it comes to Methodism or faith.

4. Resist the urge to play God and believe we have a monopoly on anything when it comes to faith.

5. Drop out of the pre-packaged Christian culture of concerts, events, and companion DVDs which is pulling Methodism deeper within its shrink-wrapped tentacles.

6. Cancel your cell phone. Live off your email and house phone alone. It will blow your colleagues’ mind. (It will also save money.)  You don’t need it.  Set an example for your church and others.

7. Jesus was a peasant carpenter, not a middle class family with three kids coming to a contemporary service. Let’s not apologize, hide, or minimize his poverty.  Let’s not make him fit our lifestyle.  Let’s emphasize how out of touch we are with his.

8. If this were a Roma Downey/Mark Burnett Biblical movie, we’d be the Pharisees. We are so heavily invested in our status quo, pensions, and health care. We are the Pharisees. We need to own our sin.

9. Let’s not be the equivalent of poorly worded scam emails asking people to invest in eternity if they let us hold their cash for a moment. We can do more with less.

10. Allow our manufactured theologies and ideologies to take a back seat to your God given humanity.

*My title is inspired by the work of University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and his colleague Stephen Dubner’s series of works collectively titled “Freakanomics, Superfreakanomics, and Think Like a Freak”.  

Food for Thought-Both Extremes Are Wrong: Christianity and Islam

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With more beheadings in Libya come more pundits on American television. As a culture, we seem keen to explore political, military, and the occasional diplomatic solution when it comes to rise of Sunni extremism in Syria and Iraq. I wonder if there are less obvious religious approaches. No one is going to invade Indiana or Arkansas for considering RFRA. Yet the approach in addressing either side of the issues, by many, has been exclusively religious. Politics has become a means to implement religious ideology. Certainly I believe this to be the case in Indiana. The sooner we understand how the fundamentalist impulse for control ( create religious uniformity through the appearance of a political process) functions within the Christian tradition; we’ll begin to grasp the apocalyptic, exclusionist thought inspiring violence in North Africa, Syria, and Iraq.

I think the key to defeating radical and conservative interpretations of the Quran is to defeat radical and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. If they both make similar claims, both venture into the realm of divine exclusivity, they both need to be subject to serious criticism. Both Jesus and Mohammed were real men. The books which relate their stories are sacred to billions of people. However, both books, the Bible and the Quran are historically constructed texts and not manuals for running a society. Cobbled together, sometimes centuries after the events described, they are not infallible guide books for living. Instead, they contain contradictory versions of historical episodes that few agree represent authentic history, either Christian or Muslim.

This conversation needs to occur before new beheadings, more hyperbole, and both faiths become entrenched in their belief that both are wrong and only one carries God’s true imprimatur. There is much wrong with both Islam and Christianity. The Quran and the Bible are not infallible texts. Both books are littered with inconsistencies, religiously sanctioned brutality, and virtually identical claims of divine involvement in human affairs which Islam discredits in Christianity and Christians discount among Muslims.

There is an unwillingness to speak honestly about the Bible among certain elements of Christianity. As the recent murders at Charlie Hebdo demonstrate, any depiction or questions regarding the historic role of the Prophet Mohammed can lead to violence. Both traditions have groups of people who don’t want anyone to pose questions threatening age-old orthodoxies and interpretations of scripture. While violence isn’t a way of life in American evangelical culture, no one wants to discuss the brutality in the Old Testament, inconsistencies in gospels, and how one interpretation of Christianity is shaping the American political landscape. These same questions can be asked throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. We see, from a distance, how one interpretation of the Quran, is shaping the political landscape of the Islamic world. Under the penalty of death, many share the consensus that the Prophet’s life and teachings form an unquestionable body of work. In fourteen hundred years, this basic message has gone unchanged and unchallenged.

Christianity’s reformations have stalled in the United States of America. The impetus of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley has given way to something unique to the consumer driven culture of late-modern capitalism. Our faith, like our lives, is a narcissistic expression of self-fulfillment cloaked in the language Joel Osteen’s God, love of stuff, and “me”. We understand that “this” is how God wants us to be. Others, who have not understood, are wrong. We don’t want the hard questions. We know who we are. Them, they, the other, the industrial religious complex tells us who to hate and who to love.

The world is trapped between competing fundamentalisms. To question the authority of the Bible and the honor of prophet may be the first step to peace; it may be the only fair place to start. Someone must be able to ask harsh questions of both Christianity and Islam’s most sacred texts. No one life is worth a single word of any book.  Both can’t be right. Both dominant versions, vying for prominence in the world today, are fundamentally wrong.

Food for Thought-Deception 1 John 3:1-7

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I don’t like to be lied to, deceived, or have theological sunshine blown up my behind; especially by the Bible.  When I read the concluding verses of this week’s epistle lesson (1 John 3:1-7), is how I feel I’m being treated. Somebody, deep in the mists of ancient time, is feeding me a line of theology that is not only hard to buy but impossible to believe. What is the source of this incredulity? John has gone on at great length about sin, the nature of sin, and how Christ came to take away sin. If we are in relationship with Christ, we do not sin. According to John, if we sin we “haven’t seen him or known him”. (1 John 3:6) I’m a pastor. I claim to know Jesus. I do not, however, claim not to sin. In fact, I’ll say just the opposite. I’m a big fat sinner. Yet John would insist (and probably some of the readers of this blog) that I’ve never seen or known Jesus. That brothers and sisters is a lie. I have seen Jesus. I know Jesus and yet I remain a sinner. One of the people who I undoubtedly saw Jesus in was an Irish woman of Malaysian decent named Mary McConnell. She was a member of my last congregation in Northern Ireland. After a brief battle with cancer, she died yesterday. I am a sinner and in her life I saw the risen Christ. Why would John lie to me? Why would John dispute my reality? Who is this guy to tell me what I know to be true is wrong? He doesn’t know me. He sure didn’t know Mary.

He continues, “Little children (that us) make sure no one deceives you.” I think John is the one deceiving us by telling us that sinners can’t somehow see or know Christ. John is the deceiver. Verse 7 finishes, “The person who practices righteousness is righteous, the same way that Jesus is righteous.” Let me get this straight, if I practice “righteousness” I can be righteous in the same way the Jesus is righteous. Honestly John! Do you have any idea what or who you’re talking about? Do you even know who Jesus is or the church claims Jesus to be? You’re honestly going to sit there and tell me that I can be righteous in the exact same manner in the son of God? John, my friend, how do you think this is going to work out for the vast measure of fallen humanity? Not good, it’s not going to work out well at all. In one verse, John is telling me I’m a sinner practicing rebellion. In an adjacent verse, he’s telling me I can be as Jesus Christ. Are you schizophrenic? No one can live up to, be like, or successfully imitate the life of Christ. He was one of a kind. It is impossible to be just like Jesus was righteous. John, do you want to set Christians up for failure, misery, and spiritual exhaustion? People will come into church and realize they are being lied to by the men in robes or hipster goatees. If I tell people from the pulpit, “if you’re righteous, you can be righteous just like Jesus”, I’m going to look like a fool. It’s meaningless spiritual hyperbole that doesn’t impact how people live their lives. People don’t want to be righteous like Jesus; they want to be loving, compassionate, and empathetic like Jesus. The world needs less righteousness and even less of John’s religious distortions.

We want to live good lives; lives in tune with Christian teachings and the life of Jesus Christ. Until we come to terms with our own sinfulness in the midst of a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, words like “righteousness”, “deception”, and “rebellion” are best left to science fiction movies; not laid on people trying to sort their lives out.

Food for Thought-You Had To Be There (A Poem)

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You had to be there,
That moment,
That instant,
It was something else,
The ball came flying,
Past the outfield,
I was blinded,
Unable to see,
You had to be there,
You should have seen this day,
Hits that went forever,
Pitchers looking straight at me,
You had to be there,
The face was different,
His voice was the same,
He bought the Hot Dogs,
Knew everything about the game,
I guess you had to be there,
what was his name?

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Why I Can’t Believe Anything the Bible Says About Marriage

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1. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his sister.
2. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his dead brother’s wife.
3. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and one woman and her servants.
4. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and his rape victim.
5. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and many women.
6. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and 700 women and 300 concubines.
7. The Bible endorses marriage between one man and one woman and her slaves.
8. The Bible endorses marriage between one soldier and his virgin prisoners.

For some reason, all of the above are considered moral in the Bible. Does this mean we could do these in our own day and time and cater them with pizza and cake? However, one man and one man; that would be immoral, against “religion” or “Christianity”?

I can’t stand in a pulpit and put my name behind anything most of the Bible deems as appropriate for marriage.  (I’ll tell you now, I will not officiate a ceremony for a man and his sister.  Nor will I marry a man and his rape victim.)  I won’t rationalize these texts, explain them away, or tell my congregation anything other than this: how the Bible talks about heterosexual marriage, as described above, is immoral, wrong, and disgusting.  How the United Methodist Church is denying loving couples the right to marry is also immoral and wrong. Should you want to discuss banning gay marriage or the violent subjugation of women in heterosexual marriage, I can recommend a wonderful forum on Sharia law and life in Iran.

Footnote:

Jesus does attend a wedding reception in the second chapter of John’s gospel.  While Jesus does turn water into wine, this miracle is about the coming kingdom of God.  The wedding serves as a metaphor for Christ’s reign on Earth and in Heaven;  This story really has nothing to do with Jesus’ feelings toward the institution of marriage.  If you can take anything away, its that Jesus wants us to have happy and abundant lives with others, in community, or alone.

Later on in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) Jesus calls people who are divorced and re-marry “adulterers”. By this literal “Biblical” definition,  I am an adulterer and should have never married my wife and became step parent to my three daughters.  Jesus, you’re wrong there. Biblical law, you’r’e wrong there.  I’m not an adulterer.  I’m a guy who loves my wife and kids.