Things You Can’t Live On All Alone

This is, by no means, a comprehensive list.  It is, however, a gathering of items when taken separate or together, one might not sustain oneself, on any single item alone, in any meaningful way.

  1. Bread
  2. Salt
  3. Pickles
  4. Radishes
  5. Pickled Radishes
  6. Salty Pickled Radishes
  7. Ketchup
  8. Onions
  9. Liver
  10. Liver and Onions

A First Look at Luke 20:27-38 (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers)

 

There are many intricate theological points highlighted by this week’s Gospel reading.  However, I believe the text can be summarized as follows: how does Jesus deal with bullies, those who antagonize him publicly, those who seek to trap in him in unwinnable arguments, and those who have no intention of listening to his message?

The Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection, are not interested in Jesus’ answers. Their goal is to make Jesus look foolish by responding to their outlandish setup of a question. What can we learn from this encounter?

  1. Debating the furniture of Heaven or the thermostat in Hell is a lose/lose proposition. No one knows the realities of Heaven and Hell. John Milton and Dante have done more to shape our images of the underworld than anything in the Bible. The truth: none of us know. We’ve read passages of scripture that give us a vague idea. The truth is, we don’t know. Like so much, we go on faith.
  2. The Sadducees absurd questions weren’t designed to be answered. If you encounter something similar, Ignore them. That’s what Jesus did. He doesn’t get down into the weeds.
  3. Realize the difference between now and eternity. For human beings to set the rules for Heaven, in any meaningful sense, is taking power away from God. God sets the rules, especially in eternity.
  4. When Jesus was answering this question with the Sadducees, no one but Jesus understood the resurrection. Jesus redefined the meaning of the resurrection. You can’t debate people if one side is talking about apples, and you’re discussing oranges.
  5. If you’re laying verbal traps for people to “catch” people with whom you disagree, you’ve already lost. We don’t get other people into Heaven by asking trick questions. That’s called being a jerk.  Resurrection is God’s business.
  6. The Sadducees ask the patriarchy question of the week, “Whose wife is this?”  In their set-up attempt to bait Jesus, the “woman” is still treated like property in death.   No, just no.

More God, Less Us

A couch big enough for an entire denomination’s therapy session?

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with some of the implications within the United Methodist mission statement. I believe that it gives too much responsibility to people, sinners like you and me rather than God. I think we place the cart before the horse. Our misspoken mission statement has contributed, in one form or another, to our current predicament. We sit on the edge of schism because we don’t know who makes disciples. We honestly believe that the power to make people into disciples of Jesus Christ comes from within us and not from God. I think the potential to transform the world and make new disciples comes from God and God alone. We’ve been worshipping our abilities or at the least, an imagined power within us to do more than we capable of achieving.

I can hear it now. “Of course, we don’t transform the world alone. We make disciples with the help of Jesus. We’re only borrowing these words from scripture.” The problem is we don’t say what we mean. If you were to survey the average church member, they’d claim responsibility for making new disciples.  Why? This is what we teach. I think we’re wrong. God is making disciples and we’re taking credit at charge conferences.  That’s not cool.

If we don’t say it, we don’t mean it. We could reword and rephrase our mission statement to emphasize a divine-human partnership or place the totality of someone’s spiritual transformation on their encounter with God. We choose not to do this. We continue to claim that Methodists and Methodist churches make disciples. United Methodists have a difficult enough time making decisions about paint colors and changing light bulbs. Jesus makes disciples in personal interactions with people. We have a hard time finding the time for committees to meet. It seems so pretentious of us to grant ourselves the authority of world transformation and disciple making. That level of narcissism scares me when a parishioner comes into my office in need of a mental health referral. Do we need a denominational therapist?  Should we be facilitating God’s good work, not claiming credit for all God has done?

“Hi, we’re an aging mainline denomination with delusions of grandeur. We think we have greater spiritual authority and powers than we do. We want to serve God and help others do the same. Do you know a good therapist?”

Imagine asking that question instead of trying to figure out how we implement the trust clause and keeping the mission statement we’ve got?

I vote, “more God, less us”.  How about that for a mission statement?

Richard Lowell Bryant

How Methodist Is Jesus

Boxes from which Jesus escaped

Jesus is a great Christ. In fact, he’s the best Christ.  However, I think he would be a horrible Methodist.  By today’s evangelical standards, Jesus wouldn’t be “church” leadership material. He’s a little squishy on the crucial theological issues of the day. Jesus doesn’t love the sinner and hate the sin. He loves unconditionally.  I’ve never seen Jesus forward a meme asking anyone to type “Amen”.  Truly, the man is not a distinction drawer. This would make some people uncomfortable.  People like his disciples.

Mark 9:38-41 illustrates how poorly Jesus would fit in with contemporary Methodists. The disciples have come to Jesus with a complaint. “We’ve seen others doing things in your name, people casting out demons. But here’s the thing, Jesus. We don’t know the guy. He doesn’t hang around with us. He seems to be someone who’s heard about you and is now off doing is own thing.” Speaking like keepers of the institutional flame, the disciples want to know why this man is doing Jesus-like things without going through an official board or a litmus test of theological orthodoxy.

Jesus’ answer gives him away. It tells me he wouldn’t be a “good” United Methodist. (Official Methodism has structures designed to limit people from operating outside the system.) Jesus says, “Don’t stop him.” Not only does Jesus want the disciples to refrain from hindering this man, he reminds them, “whoever isn’t against us is for us.” The apathetic masses, Jesus says, those millions who don’t go to church or do church differently are actually for us.

The disciples are wondering: How can those who are indifferent to us do any tangible good (for the kingdom) in the long run? People who aren’t against us may be for us, yet they don’t pay our apportionments. The disciples want to know how Jesus would report this at Charge Conference.  Jesus certainly isn’t a United Methodist.

No, Jesus doesn’t sound like a Christian, United Methodist, Evangelical, or anything else. He’s none of those things. Jesus is Jesus. He is the Christ. He will not fit into the boxes we’ve built.  Thank God. That’s the way it should be. Now, more than ever, we need to work with people who are different from us and realize the guy working in Jesus’ name who makes us uncomfortable IS Jesus.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Increase Our Faith (and other stories from the Road) Luke 17

 

It is the second stage of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples of an easily ignored idea in scripture: forgiveness is endless, and causing someone else to sin is about as bad as it gets. Forgive those who’ve wronged you and repented into a seven-time seven multiple of infinite forgiveness; that’s a mind-blowing proposition. Consider the implications; we are to forgive others as God forgives us. (Lord’s Prayer, anyone?)

How can one not cause others to sin if we’ve decided (contrary to Jesus’ teaching) that grace and forgiveness will end with us? How is “sin” not the inevitable next step if you’re going to play God (at the micro-level) and decide whose repentance is worthy of acceptance? Causing others to sin is part and parcel of living in a world where we ration forgiveness and carry grudges from now until the time we die. Jesus’ point seems to be this: if you want a sin strategy, we need a forgiveness plan. Forgiveness takes on many names, “repair, restoration, healing,” and so on. However, you can’t spell forgiveness without love. I know there’s no “l.” I dare you though, to do it any other way.

Out of this critical conversation, the disciples pose a question only the disciples of Jesus Christ could ask, “Increase our faith!” It’s not even a question; it’s an imperative demand like a child having a tantrum. (The Greek is downright ugly.) You want Jesus to increase your faith? Does Jesus utter a secret “faith” phrase? How does one “increase” an abstract quality unique to any given individual? Have you thought this through?

Faith comes by lived experience with the resurrected Christ, not by someone waving a magic wand and turning us into more faithful Christians. Would that kind of Christianity even be fun?  (Remind me again how faith grew on the road to Emmaus? Was it by scripture study and breaking bread? Did Jesus push the secret faith button to make them believe?)

Faith is intensely personal. However, if our faith only grows from external sources, how committed are we? Once the music fads change, we lose the wristbands, and the fashionable Christian t-shirts no longer fit; where is our faith? Maybe we weren’t that faithful in the first place. We might have been religious. Were we faithful?

Our faith grows, over time. We don’t make imperative tantrums to demand Jesus give us our way. Instead, faith is lived and practiced every day in a relationship with Jesus. Faith is a together proposition. It always has been.

Faith needs forgiveness. Faithful people forgive people. If we want more faith, be more forgiving. Oh, but that’s hard. It involves loving our enemies, being uncomfortable, and living by the Beatitudes. As we see in Luke 17, we’d prefer to tell Jesus what we demand, stomp our feet, and wait on him to say the magic words. Let me know how that goes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

It Reads Like a Jimmie Rodgers Song

Do we have any context to understand Jesus when he talks about wealth? We know Jesus spoke about money and its use as the subject of both teachings and parables.  In what context did these discussions occur? I ask because of this week’s reading and the approaching stewardship season.

People living in systemic and endemic poverty, talking about the wise use of money is fundamentally different discussion than wealthy people holding a similar conversation. Some people talk about 40lk’s, and health insurance while others talk about having enough to buy a tank of gas. Jesus’ followers were those living paycheck to paycheck and praying for health. They were the rural poor. Those who are impoverished know money and what it buys a means to survival and not much more. It’s been that way since Jesus’ time, and it’s that way today.

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward stands out among Luke’s stories. There seem to be little to which most of his followers might easily relate. The wheeling and dealing shenanigans of boss men and double-crossing managers are things we see on television or hear in old Jimmie Rodger’s tunes. This parable feels like Jesus is painting a picture that many people didn’t need or want to know. They knew their bosses were terrible, but again, all they were concerned about was getting enough to eat. All monetary priorities were not the same. That’s the context in which Jesus first told this parable. So why say it?

Money changes the spiritual and social dynamic of our lives. Everything about interacting with large amounts of cash, what money might do for us (or for others), has moral impacts far beyond the decisions we make in the present. Verse 10 holds this story together: “Whoever is faithful with little is also faith with much and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much.” The rest of the parable is entertaining window dressing. Ultimately, whoever Jesus is talking about (and I don’t believe the manager or the estate director are stand-ins for divine persons-most scholars don’t), aren’t the takeaway. Be faithful, in life, church, with money, love, and anything we’re entrusted: that’s what I hear.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Why Aren’t We Listening? Psalm 81:1,10-16

Top 10 Things I Don’t Want To Hear God Say When I Get To Heaven

10. We’re out of slaw.
9. You can’t have the Netflix password
8. The diet soda is over there
7.  You’re supposed to replace the toner
6. Don’t touch the thermostat
5.  We have macaroni and cheese every night
4. Meet your new roommate, Steve Irwin
3. Elvis has only just arrived
2. There’ll be an Administrative Board meeting at 3 pm
1. I gave you over to the stubbornness of your heart, to follow your devices.

The last one has got to be one of the most emotional and stressful expressions God utters in the Old Testament. It’s an intimate revelation of God’s frustration and love. The Psalmist records God saying, “I let you do your own thing, follow your plans, despite stubbornness, and what I knew to be wrong; I let you go.” I sent you off despite everything to the contrary because that’s what you claimed you wanted and you wouldn’t listen.  God sounds like the parent of a teenager. Idea number one: sometimes, God’s people get it wrong. Believing themselves right in the face of obvious wrongness, they, as the Psalm says, “simply weren’t agreeable toward God.”

There are expressions you hear in some circles, “God’s ways are unknowable and mysterious.” God is beyond us. I also think we use phrases like that when we want to let ourselves off the hook and keep doing our own thing. How could we know what God, so far beyond us, want us to do? Such reasoning is an excuse. In Psalm 81, nothing is beyond us; God couldn’t be clearer. God’s call for dialogue is in black and white, and we feign ignorance.

Idea number two: God asks in verse 11, “How I wish my people Israel would listen to me!” There’s no mystery there. Why aren’t we listening? Is it easier to pretend we’re still wandering in a wilderness of our design? Yes. When we walk without a purpose, we fight among ourselves. As we stop and listen to God, we realize our God-given potential to be the church. The authentic and honest voice of God seems challenging to hear, but it is not hard for those who are listening.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Tangible Things Jesus Does (Luke 13:10-17)

We don’t have to invent or infer Jesus’ actions.  There’s no need to guess or ask, “What would Jesus do?”  We know.  Read the gospels.  The New Testament offers specific examples of Jesus’ behavior, beliefs, and deeds.  For example, there is little mystery as to Jesus’ attitudes toward the poor, elderly, or the sick.  If one wants to follow Jesus, read and contextualize his words for our day and time.

In this week’s gospel passage we see several different areas that are regularly emphasized in Jesus’ life and ministry.

  1.  Jesus teaches in the synagogue.  Contextually, this means he’s in the church or a worship experience.  Jesus goes to synagogue, participates, leads, and is active in worship.  Presence is important.  Sharing in Psalms, scripture, and community matter.  Jesus is modeling best practice.  He doesn’t find God on the Sea of Galilee. He goes to a worship space.  We can learn something from Jesus.  He’s our role model.
  2. The woman he heals is also in the common worship space.  We’re not told (as we are in other instances) that she’s there to be healed.  She’s simply present (despite her pain and infirmity) in the worshiping community.   It’s important to draw near to God.  The healing is an outgrowth of the worship.
  3. All time is holy.  Jesus is attacked for healing the woman on the sabbath.  Humanity’s concept of linear time is opposed to the divine idea of circular time (kairos vs. chronos time).  We forget that God works in the moment.  All time is Gods.  Jesus reminds the synagogue staff: human need (i.e. people in pain) outweighs any rules we think we are trying to enforce on God’s behalf.

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Wile E. Coyote Teaches Me About Evangelism

I do love “Looney Tunes”. After watching a few episodes the other night, I realized there were some religious lessons to be learned in the ongoing battle between the Coyote and Roadrunner.

1.      Wile E. Coyote knew his community. The Coyote understood his neighborhood and surroundings intimately. From the desert valleys, mountain tops, train tracks, highways, and every possible spot to place birdseed; the Coyote understand the demographics, people, and animals in his desert.  This kind of awareness is crucial for evangelism. Where are the people, as a church, do we want to meet and invite to our community?

2.     The Coyote did the research. Before the Coyote made a new attempt to catch the Roadrunner, he tried to find the most effective means of doing so. He ordered books, plans, and developed ideas to adapt to his new situation. While not always successful, the Coyote always prepared, learned, studied, and equipped himself before trying to meet the Roadrunner. Evangelism is a ministry for which we develop. (Unlike the Coyote, we’re not out to “capture” anyone.)  We do want to know the gospel, the community, and how best to share the message of the Good News. Our plan: order something from ACME and start learning today.

3.     The Coyote never gave up. The Coyote’s failures are numerous. Despite his best efforts, he never gave up. The Coyote keep working, reading, and going back out into the community. The Coyote, if he’s anything, is a model of perseverance. To quote John Newton, “through many dangers, toils, and snares,” you’d think he’s describing the Coyote’s encounters with the Roadrunner.   The Coyote is, despite our pro-Roadrunner cultural blinders, a recipient of God’s grace, just like the rest of us. He’s been beaten up and beat down. Thanks be to God, he’s never out. I think there’s something we can all learn from the Coyote as we share God’s Good News.

Richard Lowell Bryant