Archive for May, 2012

Pentecost

// May 26th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

At Pentecost, it is easy to focus on the drama and weirdness, the wind and fire, speaking in tongues.  It’s exciting!  Unfortunately, it sets up the kinds of questions that dominate conversations about faith in this day and age:  Is it really true?  Did it really happen?  Did it happen this way, with miracles and strange supernatural events?  Those questions really narrow the field.  Instead, perhaps we should ask why this matters at all.  What do these signs signify?  What kind of world are these signs a sign of?  What kind of world do they construct?  These questions aren’t answered by test or logic; these questions are answered by living.

This is exactly what the early Christians did.  After the rush of wind died down and the tongues of fire ceased, they were left with the very ordinary task of living together.  But somehow, the ordinary had now become extraordinary.  The coming of the Spirit meant that their lives were different.  In fact, they themselves were different.  Now a meal was a sacrament.  Wealth was a way to help others in need.  Now their prayers were answered in the way they treated one another, with gratitude and grace.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we try to live into this inspiring story.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

Potluck Picnic in the Park

This Wednesday, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is performing for free in Kidd Springs Park.  The music begins at 8pm, but there is a pre-concert festival starting at 6pm.  Bring blankets, bug spray and some picnicky food to share.  I’ll have tater salad.  There are rumors of sno-cones, but we’ll see.  Hope to see you there!

Up, Up, and Away

// May 19th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Acts 1:6- 11

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Forty days after Easter we reach the Feast of Ascension. It’s a random Thursday that usually passes us by without much notice, but most churches who follow the liturgical calendar recognize it the following Sunday. It’s definitely a story worth our attention. The four gospels focus on Christ as Emmanuel, God with us and the story of Christ’s ministry on Earth. The rest of the New Testament mainly deals with the absence of Christ on earth and how the believers should live in light of this absence. This story is the bridge between the two.

The mystical element of Jesus rocketing away on a cloud may be hard for some of us to swallow, but no matter the manner of the exit, Jesus was certainly gone. In this account, it left the disciples looking up towards the heavens and undoubtedly saying “What the *&%$? Where did he go?”

A little boy went to church with his family on Ascension Sunday, and on the way home he asked his parents “Where is Jesus now?” It’s really a great question when you think about it- both for the disciples then and for us today. There are many ways to answer, but this story, and the story of Pentecost in the following chapter, leads us to think about the Church becoming the hands and feet of Christ on Earth. Because Christ is no longer here in the manifestation of a physical body; we are the ones that embody his teachings and carry on his work of love and justice. Like the disciples, staring up at the sky or navel gazing may not be the best use of our time when we are asked to share this love and justice to the ends of the earth.

Hope to see you Sunday!

Janalee

Angels among Us (Sermon and Program)

// May 15th, 2012 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

Program

Sermon: Says Who?

Introduction

So far in this series on angels, we have seen them bring news from God, both good and bad.  They bring news of life and hope where there was only death and despair.  They bring the two-edged sword of judgment: good for the righteous; bad for the wicked.  Sometimes, they bring us news we would rather not hear, but also offer some comfort in those desperate circumstances.

This week, we speak of angels among us.  Remember, angel just means “messenger,” particularly a messenger from God.  Angels speak for God.  Now, if someone shows up with big fluffy wings, we might take that person seriously as a messenger of God.  It would be notable, an eyecatcher.  But there are plenty of people today that claim that same authority and I’ve never seen wings.

In the old days – I mean the old, old days of the Hebrew Bible – the people who spoke for God were called prophets or priests.  Priests spoke for God in their capacity as temple officials.  Prophets spoke for God in their capacity as advisors to kings.  Most of the time.  The interesting thing about the prophets that have been included in our canon is that they were often speaking from the outside as critics of the rulers and priests.

Kings were supposed to act on behalf of God.  According to Deuteronomy 17, they were not to raise armies or collect money, but instead were to read the law constantly to learn humility.  Guess what they did?  To manage all those armies they raised and money they collected, and to avoid thinking about God themselves, they had lots of prophets around them who were supposed to advise them on the word of God.  But what they really wanted was to hear how great they were and how awesomely successful their plans were going to be.  Most prophets knew where their bread was buttered.  But there was always one.  Take Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses (palaces), while this house (the temple) lies in ruins?”

Since they had returned from their exile in Babylon, the wealthy elite had rebuilt their fancy houses, but not the temple.  Haggai saw a relationship between that and the fact that things weren’t going so well.  We do this today.  Whether in foreign lands or inner city streets, what we need is a church!  These people need to hear the Gospel!  And learn to act right!  That will fix everything.

Of course, the priests love this idea.  Those rich rulers are messing everything up.  They don’t do what God wants.  If there is a temple, we will tell them what God wants.  That means we’re in charge.  Everyone will tithe and bring offerings to us.  Perfect!  Not so fast, says another prophet, Third Isaiah – yes, there are three Isaiahs, at least: “What is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place?  All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says YHWH.”  Third Isaiah goes on to level some harsh criticism at the priests: “Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being; whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck.” God’s final analysis of the priesthood: “When I called, no one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen; but they did what was evil in my sight, and chose what did not please me.”

So here we have two prophets after the return from the Babylonian Exile, faced with a struggling society, and they have different ideas of how to resolve it.  Haggai says to build a temple.  People will then know the way of God and will follow it.  Isaiah says it’s a waste, that the priesthood is ultimately corrupt.  Both of them claim to speak for God.  Both claim to be messengers.

Conversation Questions

Whether or not to build a church and how one should go about it is a great conversation to have, but I’d rather set that aside for another time.  Instead, I’d like to ask how we know who to listen to?  How do we know who speaks as a prophet?  Who speaks for God?

How is God used to control conversations?

Conclusion

Isaiah 44:26 tells us that God fulfills the advise of God’s messengers.  That is, we know a prophet when a person’s words become reality.  Unfortunately, we can only know this in hindsight.  About seventy-five years after Haggai and Third Isaiah differed over the value of the temple, Malachi, which means “my messenger,” had the benefit of that hindsight.  Chapter 2 begins, somewhat ominously: “And now, O priests, this command is for you.”  Uh-oh.  What did they do wrong?  Precisely what Third Isaiah said they would: “you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant.”  Third Isaiah’s words became reality.  The covenant of life and well-being was corrupt.  The priesthood was corrupt, more concerned with sustaining itself than creating a just society.  Sound familiar?

But that’s hindsight.  How do we know, when someone speaks, that they are really speaking for God?  If only we had some kind of core principles by which we could evaluate what people say.  If only someone had stated clearly what God’s interests are.  This time, bumper sticker theology gets it right: Jesus is the answer.

For Christians, Jesus is the lens through which we see everything.  Jesus is the decisive re-presentation of God.  God is always present, but Jesus re-presents God.  And it is decisive in that, when confronted with this re-presentation, we must decide what to do.  Jesus puts us to a choice.  So, how does Jesus present God?  According to Jesus, what does God want?

Weighing in on the question of temples versus kindness, he is pretty clear in Matthew 12: “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”  More generally, he announces his mission in Luke 4 saying, “The Spirit of God is upon me, because I am appointed to bring good news to the poor.  I am sent to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s blessing.”  Over and over, Jesus makes these kinds of proclamations, these appeals for the well-being of those who are pressed to the margins by abusive systems of power.

Interestingly, when he does, he is usually quoting a prophet.  His mission statement in Luke is from Isaiah.  When he tells the Pharisees that God demands compassion rather than sacrifice, he is quoting Hosea.  We see this same set of concerns echoed over and over in the Bible, in the stories of the ancestors in Genesis; in the law of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus; in Amos and Isaiah and Hosea.  Even Haggai, who is blind to the potential corruption of the temple, is focused on abuse by the wealthy that causes people to starve and freeze in the streets.  Malachi sees it, too: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says YHWH the Powerful.”  This isn’t new; all systems become corrupt because they forget the law.  They forget the one who made them.  They lose sight of why they exist at all.  So they need critique and reform and renewal.  But pay attention to what is being called for.  Does God call for adherence to dogma?  Does God call for locking down systems of power?  Does God call for one person to exercise authority over another based on gender?  Be wary of anyone who claims to speak for God and claims that God’s interests neatly dovetail with his own.  And in this case, I definitely mean “his.”

There’s one other place I’d like to highlight where we see this set of concerns: the parable of the sheep and the goats.  When judgment comes and people wonder why they are put to the left or the right, Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Those who are commended are confused, not knowing when they had done these things, so Jesus explains: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Sometimes, God’s message is a call.  The voice of God in the world is a call to the image of God in us.  It confronts us.  It addresses us.  It demands a response.  And, while that call is a question, it is also Good News.  It is good news for the poor.  It is good news for the sick.  It is good news for the hungry.  It is good news for the oppressed.  It’s also good news for us.  In hearing the voice of God, the image of God within is enlivened, quickened, empowered.  It takes over.  The more we listen and the more we respond, the less room there is for those demonic voices that try to run us down, diminish us, and make us captive.  In listening to God’s call, we become the most who we are.  In being who God created us to be, becoming the image of God that we already are, we can stand against power and for the powerless.  We are anointed, chosen by God to hear the Good News, to speak the Good News, and to be the Good News for the world.

A Marginal Life

// May 15th, 2012 // 1 Comment » // Uncategorized

The rabbit-hole that is the Internet seldom leads anywhere of value.  However, in tracing the conflict between the Vatican and the American nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), I was fortunate to find the speech by Laurie Brink that is at the center of the controversy.  In it, she attempts to describe options for those who are pressed to the margins by a system of power.

Brink’s particular concern is how women religious (nuns) should respond to their devaluation by a Church to which they have committed their lives.  However, I think it can be mapped more broadly.  The issue is whether to leave or to stay in an unhealthy situation and how to do either with integrity.  There are certainly more people making these choices than the nuns of the LCWR.  We sometimes have to decide whether to stay in a job or a marriage or a church.  As churches, we sometimes have to consider whether to continue relationships with denominations.  These are all difficult choices because our identities are so tied up in these things.

Brink outlines four options, though she does not claim them to be exhaustive.

  1. Death.  Some nuns have decided to go quietly into the night, as individuals and as congregations.  Some do this well, with intention and proper grieving.  Some simply become zombies, not living and not acknowledging what has happened.  I’ve certainly been there in jobs in the past.  Done well, this clears the way for new life, for others to take up the issues with fresh eyes and hearts and legs.
  2. Acquiescence.  Some renew their commitment.  For nuns, this means finding the spirituality of the tradition, donning the habit, returning to pious practice, such as adoration and the Rosary.  Again, I’m sure I’ve been there in a job.  You recognize that, for all its problems, there are positives to your situation, so you pursue those things with vigor.
  3. Sojourn.  Maybe you’ve outgrown your job or your marriage or your church.  Maybe it just doesn’t engage you like it once did.  You recognize what it has meant to you and what it will continue to mean to you, but you have to move on.  It’s a split, which involves some pain, but also the hope of something new that is maybe more true to what the old thing once was.
  4. Reconciliation.  This is what Brink argues most strongly for.  Rather than giving up, giving in, or going away, Brink argues for staying and making something new.  This is a challenge because “this reconciliation of which Paul speaks and which we so desperately need is not easily obtained, measurable immediately, or likely the desire of all parties involved.”  There is a generous spirit in this that assumes that those who we perceive to have wronged us possess a basic humanity.  She quotes Joe Sermane, a South African who was tortured under apartheid: “it is through reconciliation that we regain our humanity. To work for reconciliation is to live to show others what their humanity is.”  We reconcile not merely for our own interests or for the interests of the other, but so that, together, we become a new creation.

Each of these options is a movement in relation to God, the Church Universal, and the Christian tradition.  I think many of us at Church in the Cliff have wrestled with this kind of decision.  In many ways, we are Sojourners.  But the purpose of that Sojourn is to gain a fresh view of that from which we have come, to find anew that which we left behind.  In some ways, the move away is a move toward.  As a Baptist emergent church, we have nearly infinite possibilities for how to be church.  At times like this, when denominations are struggling to find the promise of justice, we should really value being able to act independently.  However, perhaps we can ask ourselves how we can relate to that broader tradition.  How can we support our brothers’ and sisters’ struggles for equality and justice?  It’s easy to lob critique from the outside or try to tempt people to Sojourn with us.  Instead, maybe compassion for the struggle and helping to mark the entry to the new creation.  These nuns are risking a lot, as are so many others; our support should match their boldness.

Old Man Marquis Tells a Story…

// May 11th, 2012 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

About the start of the Oak Cliff Nature Preserve, a nice little chunk of green space just up the road.

It’s great to be in a church with people who care about the environment and improving our city and neighborhood.

Thanks, David!

Angels among Us

// May 10th, 2012 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

After we completed our first sermons in preaching class, the question that most desperately needed to be answered for many was: How do you deal with nerves? Dr. McKenzie’s answer was a bit of a surprise: “When you stand up here, you presume to speak the word of God, so a certain amount of nervousness is appropriate. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” I’m not sure if that helped, but it’s something that a lot of people should hear. There are a lot of people running around today presuming to speak for God and, in my opinion, they should be a little more nervous about doing so.

The Greek word angelos, from which we get “angel,” means “messenger” and is occasionally applied to human beings. Most of the time, it refers to a courier, particularly one for a king. But it is also used for human beings who speak for God, especially prophets.

The curious thing about these messengers who presume to speak for God is that they don’t agree all the time. Some support the monarchy and some don’t. Some think the temple is the most pressing issue for Israel, the key to prosperity, and some think it is corrupt and wasteful. Some think homosexuals are an abomination and some think homosexuals are made in the image of God and should be afforded all civil rights that heterosexuals have. Some think that women’s health and reproductive rights should be controlled and monitored by men and some think that women’s control of their own bodies is critical to a free and prosperous society. Wait, I think I jumped ahead. Anyway, how do we know who is right? How do we know who speaks for God?

I won’t pretend this is an easy thing. As someone who aspires to speak for God professionally, I’m not even sure about myself. However, the Bible seems to provide us with a few clues. Here, perhaps, Jesus really is the answer.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler to talk about what that really means.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

When Good News is Bad News (Bonus: A Letter about Sunday’s Vote!)

// May 4th, 2012 // 2 Comments » // Uncategorized

So far in our look at angels, we have identified one of their defining characteristics as bringers of the good news from God.  For some, we’ve had to work a little harder to find the good news.  News that our beloved has risen from the dead is, on the surface, easier to find joy in than end-times judgment.  But Revelation hints at a more complex problem: in the good news, there is always an implied “for.”

This week we will look at the story of Hagar in Genesis 16.  If you recall, Hagar was a slave of Sarai, wife of Abram.  Sarai could not have children, so she suggested Abram have a go at Hagar.  Like most men in the Bible, he does as he is told and Hagar becomes pregnant.  Suddenly, in a culture where women’s value was predominantly seen in their ability to bear children, Hagar gets uppity.  Or at least, that’s what Sarai thinks, so Hagar leaves.  Hagar runs away into the wilderness where she runs into the angel of YHWH.

So, of course, God the Liberator brings a message of liberation, right?  I mean, this is the God that takes a whole people out of Egypt and keeps them alive in the wilderness for forty years in order to affect their freedom from bondage.  Certainly, God can take one woman and get her to her own Promised Land.

Not this time.  Instead, the angel of God says, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.”  Be a slave, Hagar.  I have no good news for you.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, when we will talk about how we might read a text like this, how we might wrestle with it until it blesses us.

About Sunday’s Vote

On May 6, the church is being asked to vote on whether or not to call me as an intern.  I spoke at the community meeting April 22 to explain the details and why I would like to intern at Church in the Cliff.  In short, Church in the Cliff is my home and my family and I can’t see being anywhere else for the next year.

Four years ago, I stepped into Trinity Presbyterian for a meeting of a “new” church.  I had been out of church for 20 years.  Like many people, I still had an interest in religion and spirituality, “the big questions,” but I never felt at home anywhere.  I wanted to really ask those questions and most churches don’t.  From that first meeting I could see that Church in the Cliff had something.  I did not completely understand it, but somehow knew I wanted to be a part of it. It didn’t take long to get to know people at Church in the Cliff.  We spend a lot of time together and we become quite close.

Laura Arp, who was a student at Perkins School of Theology at the time, made me feel especially welcome.  She finished school shortly after that meeting and was ordained by Church in the Cliff.  At her ordination she knelt at the front of the church and everyone in attendance lined up to lay on hands and whisper a blessing.  I saw that and I knew that I wanted that experience.  More importantly, I saw that ministry was a space to guide people into those experiences, the moments when you know that your world has just shifted.  I wanted to do that, to find new life for myself and to help others do the same.

Church in the Cliff, under the leadership of Laura Fregin and Courtney Pinkerton, and with the support of everyone who passed through in the intervening years, raised me into this new life.  This church allows me to ask really hard questions and be creative and collaborative in answering them.  I have learned how hard it is to do church well and how important it is to try.  At this church, I have the luxury of failing and that bountiful grace has allowed me to succeed.  But, because I am still young, I need that continued support.  I don’t think I could thrive anywhere else right now.

As important as it is for me to feel the call for ministry, it is also important for the church to feel that call.  I am not appointed by a church hierarchy or God or my own will to minister in this church.  I don’t get to just go to seminary and come back to a job of any kind.  Church in the Cliff has to decide how it can best develop its ministry.  But I’ll make my case.

Church in the Cliff has been through some changes in the past year.  Having been raised up in this church for the past four years, I’m familiar with change.  I’m comfortable with change.  But I feel like what the church most needs right now is a familiar face.  I know our story since we’ve moved to Oak Cliff, both good and bad.  I’ve struggled through it every step of the way and that has given me such a deep gratitude for every beautiful moment.  I want more of those moments.

I have dreams for this church.  I want this to be a place for people who have complicated relationships with God, the Church, and each other, a place where we can talk honestly about those relationships.  I want a place for people to make music and art, to find God and to find a voice.  I want a church that makes the world a better place.  I have had all of that at Church in the Cliff and remember how it happened.  I want everyone to have a home like that.  I want to build on who we are and find out who we can become.

That said, I am fresh off the truck.  In fact, I’m not really even off the truck yet.  This is an internship.  While I imagine great things, I’m sure there will be mistakes.  There will be struggles.  There will be trials and there will be errors.  But I know that caring support, graceful accountability, and turning toward God every day will get us through.

So, brass tacks.  The internship would begin August 14 when I have my two-day orientation.  I am doing a concurrent, or part-time, internship, which requires me to work for the church 25 hours per week.  Our current budget includes $250 per week for worship, which would be acceptable to me as a salary.  In addition to a financial commitment, Church in the Cliff must provide a Lay Teaching Committee of 6-8 members to provide feedback as I work my way through.  Perkins is providing a mentor pastor that I can lean on as well.  The internship is a class and I expect to learn a lot.

Regardless of the vote on Sunday, I want to thank everyone who has ever been a part of CityChurch or Church in the Cliff.  I was out of church for a long time and expected it to stay that way.  That y’all were able to create and sustain something so beautiful for so long is a testament to you and to God.  I hope you will vote this Sunday to allow me to work at Church in the Cliff in the coming year.  I hope that we can continue to build on this strong tradition of creative ministry.

Thank you,
Scott

If you would like to vote, you may do so at the Community Meeting May 6, 10am at the Kessler or you may e-mail your vote to board@churchinthecliff.org.