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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Friday, February 19, 2016

"Mysteries of God"

The biblical metaphor that drives this blog, and Prairie Table Ministries in general, is being "servants" and "stewards." I'll get to those in blogs shortly, (and I did touch on them previously a few years ago), but today I want to focus on the last part of the 1 Corinthians text: "mysteries of God?"

What are the "mysteries?" (Well, if I--or anyone--knew that answer they wouldn't be mysteries now, would they?) There have been many suggestions over the years, but I want to offer one as well.
Most of the good commentators believe that "mysteries of God" refers to the purpose God has for the world, especially as it relates to the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. And that makes some sense. The context of the phrase occurs at the beginning of an extended letter that seeks to clarify several positions of the early Christian community in the town of Corinth.

In order to judge any of the disagreements, the judge has to be beholden to neither party, and Paul, the author of the letter and the judge of the disagreement, wants the folks at Corinth to know that he works for God, not either one of the parties of the disagreements. So, the phrase "mysteries of God," is a way to explain how what he is about, and where he gets his authority from, comes from God and is about the things God wishes to be about. And for most commentators what God wants to be about is Jesus Christ as the Son of God for the salvation of the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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As it goes, I have no problem with that interpretation; however, it misses a salient point that all people in congregations realize. That is, that if God is going to be about saving the world, then God has to be concerned about the world, not just the saving. (This is why I have such a love-hate relationship with the Academy. They glibly gloss over what most of us are concerned with in order to obsess about things most of us do not find relevant. In this case it's because they care more about what Paul might be thinking about Paul than what God might be thinking through Paul. At Prairie Table, we try to think about God from our participation in the Biblical story.) And IF God is concerned about "the world" instead of just the "saving," the phrase "mysteries of God" takes on a whole new meaning.

Now the phrase no longer points to Jesus the Christ and his death and resurrection as the "mysteries," but rather the world and all that is in it becomes the "mysteries." This helps me understand why the plural "mysteries" rather than "mystery" would be used here. Because Paul has already called himself a servant of Christ, what Paul stewards is not Jesus Christ, but rather those whom Jesus Christ served--that is--us. We are the mysteries of God. The people Jesus Christ wants to take care of are the people Paul feels called to take care of as well. He is "stewarding" Christ mission to love God's mysteries.

Those mysteries are us. Do you understand yourself? (Paul didn't. In fact, he claimed very famously that he was a mystery unto himself.) Do you understand Donald Trump? Do you understand why we continue to burn our world even though we know we shouldn't? Do you understand why we use violence to solve issues even though violence has NEVER solved anything? These are all mysteries, and the people who are involved in those kinds mysteries are "the mysteries" whom we steward.

We will talk about "stewarding" down the road, but it is vital to Prairie Table that we understand who the mysteries of God are. It means we take care of people. It means we take care of where people live, like the the planet, or our towns, or even our homes. It means we take care of ourselves, our own bodies, our own roles as caretakers of God's love. Because we hold to take care of God's mysteries, and those mysteries are people, we take care of people. All people. No discrimination.

 I do love how commentator Richard A. Horsley said the phrase means "God's fulfillment of history,"* because that phrase means to me that God wants this world, this universe to be filled with love. What God is about is loving the world. How that happens probably involves Jesus, but everything else about that loving is a mystery...

May your table be full and your conversations be true.

Richard A. Horsley, First Corinthians, (Abingdon Press, 1998)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bring it on home

So there's this classic. (and if you only have one Sam Cooke song in your life, this one wouldn't be bad)
                   



There's something about a Sam Cooke song that just gets to what is real in every life. A longing, a passion, an earnest desire to see beyond the surface, and a sheer elegance of voice makes listening to Sam Cooke one of the best ways to spend three minutes of your life. This song is one of his best.

His lover has left. We've all been there. We've all been both the "leaver" and the "leveee." And it hurts. It always hurts. Even when it hurts to much to stay, it still hurts to leave; it still hurts to be left.

There's no pulling punches with this song, it is a no-holds-barred attempt to get love back, to return to better times, and the singer will do anything to bring that love back. But here's the thing--the love never returns. And at least when Sam Cooke sings it, he seems to know that too. That all his words, his promises, his pleas are to no avail. The lover never returns. yeah...

The Christian faith lives from the same song. God sings this song to each and every one of us every day, and we never seem to return. Of course, what God promises us is not jewelry or money, but rather purpose to your life, meaning for all your living, and a lover who will be there after you die. That's just who God is.

And I'm willing to bet my first-born (who is a HUGE Sam Cooke fan) that Sam Cooke knew that too.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.



Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday

Image result for ash wednesday This is what Ash Wednesday looks like for most people. What it is--however-- is something completely different. Ash Wednesday is the day to remember that death is not the final destination of our journey with God by the power of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ.

Death does look like the end. I've seen quite a few dead people in my time, and it does look like the journey is over. Finito. Caput. There's no coming back from one, baby...but notice how that ash is formed on that young lady's forehead? That sign, my friends, is a cross. And a cross is a sign of a turning, a re-direction, a passing through from one time to another. The sign the ash is formed in makes all the difference in the world...

For example, the ash is not formed in circle. I get a kick out of the young, new evangelicals, who have discovered ritual. Many of these folks came of age in a Christian tradition devoid of ritual and other ancient spiritual practices. Nowadays, as their Christianity is aging right along with their bodies, they seek a Christian faith that is more than intellectual agreement with rationalizations about Christian beliefs. Ritual fits a bill for them, and they are so excited to discover the possibilities of a Christian faith, complete with ritual, that they go crazy in trying to explain their excitement, and talk about Ash Wednesday as completing some circle of life we are all in. The "imposition" of ashes (making the sign of the cross in ash) is really cool for that idea, I guess...

Unfortunately, for many of these newer-to-a-Christianity-with-ritual faith, they confuse the Christian tradition with Disney. Remembering we are dust is not the same as exclaiming the "circle of life." As true as the circle of life is, and great as the song is (see below), Ash Wednesday is NOT about the circle of life; that is, that all living beings die, and all dying beings contribute to living. In fact, Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes is directly AGAINST such a notion.

The Christian who receives the imposition of ash upon her forehead is witnessing to a reality that death is the end. Life will be over. There will be nothing. Unless...unless God is not through with you yet. The cross is the Christian symbol that God is not done with any of us yet, even when we die. Just as Jesus has life after his death (a crucifixion, which is where the symbol of the cross comes), so too ALL who gather in the power of the Holy Spirit have life after death. Christians call this the resurrection.

Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God and the power of the Holy Spirit is crucial to this resurrected life because his death unlocked the door, so to speak. He opened for us the reality the lies before us all (and even for those who died before him), that God and the power of the Holy Spirit cannot be defeated by death. the love of God is not stopped by death (even if it appears that ways sometimes). The cross, not the ash, is the important ritual of Ash Wednesday. Yes, your body may die and return to the earth, but whatever makes you You, is still with God forever.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Law-Gospel in Lutheran theology

This distinction is Law and Gospel in the Word of God is vital to understanding how and why I read the Bible, the story of Jesus, and am a conservationist for the environment. This distinction is crucial (literally that means "of the cross") if you want to appreciate God's beauty and wonder. Law and Gospel, in the words of the great Philip Melanchthon, "All scripture should be divided in these two main topics: the law and the promises." (Article 4, Apology of the Augsburg Confession), is all about living life to the fullest as you are created to be.

Our job as Christians, and especially as theologians and preachers, is to always be trying to discover what is Law and what is gospel (promises)? Sometimes God's word challenges, like in a prophetic rant; and, at other times, comforts us as in a soothing prayer. But you never know what's what--it depends upon the situation. That bothers people sometimes.

Isn't it relativistic to say that God's word means one thing at one time and another thing at another time? Well, how else does God become a God of truth, or love, or justice, if God is not willing to speak to our actual human situations? Sometimes we do things that the God of justice desires, so God sends a word of promise (gospel). At other times, we don't. God then sends a word of law. (To send a word of promise/gospel when we work against God's justice would not really help God's purposes much, it seems to me. It would just keep encouraging unjust behaviors and attitudes.)

A lot of Christians, for example, believe that it is unjust to practice non-monogamous, non- married, and non-heterosexual sexual relations. For these Christians only monogamous, heterosexual sexual relations within the boundaries of heterosexual marriage are just. They arrive at such conclusions by reading God's word as law, both the words of the Bible, and the laws of nature. For them, this is God's challenge to us and our sexuality--can we have sexual relations only in this way?

For other Christians, sexual relations outside of traditional heterosexual marriage are part of God's promise. You can, for example, be homosexual and still enjoy sexual relations outside of marriage, because marriage is not allowed to you in many societies. In societies where gay marriage is allowed, now the promise becomes a bit more of a challenge. (Christians have never dealt well with sexual relations outside of marriage; in main part, because marriage is the bedrock metaphor of Christian community, and what Christian theologian, regardless of their sexual orientations, wants to admit there might be some fun outside of Christianity? Hence, sexual fun outside of marriage is a big no-no.)

But no matter how you view marriage, how you discern Law and Gospel in God's Word goes a long way to pinning our behaviors and attitudes. Not just in sexual relations, but all of our activities can have the Law/Promise distinction brought to bear upon it. Should I shop at Walmart or locally? Should I conserve the environment or placate those who wish to destroy it? What do I do with my parents who are now aging? How do I raise my children? All these questions ask us to listen for God's word, and to distinguish between Law and Gospel.

And distinguishing between them is not always easy, if ever...But that's why it's important, because without that distinction, "easy" is just another word for sin.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Here's a sermon that tries to be both a bit of Law and Gospel.