Sunday, August 31, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Unbelief"

Acts 5:21 to 32

21 Early in the morning, they went into the temple as they had been told and began to teach. When the high priest and his colleagues gathered, they convened the Jerusalem Council, that is, the full assembly of Israel’s elders. They sent word to the prison to have the apostles brought before them. 22 However, the guards didn’t find them in the prison. They returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison locked and well-secured, with guards standing at the doors, but when we opened the doors we found no one inside!” 


24 When they received this news, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were baffled and wondered what might be happening. 25 Just then, someone arrived and announced, “Look! The people you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” 26 Then the captain left with his guards and brought the apostles back. They didn’t use force because they were afraid the people would stone them. 

 27 The apostles were brought before the council where the high priest confronted them: 28 “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name. And look at you! You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.” 

29 Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than humans! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God has exalted Jesus to his right side as leader and savior so that he could enable Israel to change its heart and life and to find forgiveness for sins. 32 We are witnesses of such things, as is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Common English Bible)


“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Eleven

The Israeli rabbi’s beard in his news picture ordinarily would bring to mind, say, Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, or maybe one of the members of ZZ Top when they’re all in an assisted living facility together many, many moons from now.  But just above that beard was one of the biggest, most contagious smiles ever, and you wouldn’t even think it to look at the guy that he was suffering from something we just talked about together in a sermon of mine a couple of weeks ago: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: ALS, better known as either Lou Gehrig’s disease or that thing that has gotten everybody and their mother to post videos to Facebook of them dumping literal bucketloads of ice water over their heads in the name of raising both awareness and funds for the researching of a cure for this seemingly incurable, inexorable disease.

But today, at least, there is cause not only for Rabbi Refoel Shmulevitz to smile, but for any and all of us who have been following the ALS ice bucket challenge as it went viral throughout the world, because earlier this year, he was given a second round of an experimental course of treatment aimed at reversing, or at least delaying, the onset of his ALS symptoms…treatment that at first wore off, but before that had caused him to show substantial improvement even in being able to walk unaided, give speeches to audiences again, and to, well, live life again.

And while we live with the reality of ALS as an incurable disease, we have lived with the same reality with HIV/AIDS…but with the latter, we have created such advanced medication regimens that HIV positive people are now able to live out close to a normal lifespan, to the point that some doctors are beginning to classify it as chronic rather than terminal.  None of that was thought possible thirty years ago with the medical technology available to us then, but here we are.  Change, evolution, progress, all of it is always possible even when we are absolutely convinced that it otherwise cannot be or will not be. 

And here, in this final installment of our summer sermon series, that is exactly the sort of narrow, myopic mindset that Jerusalem’s religious authorities have once again found themselves in.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while, and we’re wrapping it up today!  We began over two and a half months ago, a couple weeks after the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles), which fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off.  This week, though it is not really the end of the stories of the early church (Acts does go on for 28 chapters after all!), we see the reaction of the religious authorities to the miraculous escape (by means of an angel of God) by the disciples after their imprisonment at the hands of those very same religious authorities…and their reaction does not disappoint.  Or, rather, it does, but it should be wholly unsurprising to us, because it is entirely in character for them despite all that they have seen and heard so far.

So the newly liberated Apostles are back to their usual tricks of teaching the public about some dude named Jesus, meanwhile, the authorities, not realizing that the Apostles had pulled a Shawshank Redemption escape the previous night, summon their supposed captives, only to be informed in no uncertain terms that despite the locks, bars, and guards, the prison was found empty.  So everybody goes through the whole rigamarole of hauling the disciples before the high priest and his cronies, only this time Luke adds a particularly salient detail: the guards did not use force to arrest the disciples this time around because they were afraid of being stoned to death by the people who were assembled.  In other words, the tide of public opinion has really begun to turn against the powers that be, and they know it.

That’s why they sound so vehement and, dare I say it, desperate in this newest confrontation with the Apostles beginning in verse 27, and I think that we would be right to take those things away from even a one off reading of the text.  Let’s hear it again:  “In no uncertain terms, we demanded that you not teach in this name.  And look at you!  You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.  And you are determined to hold us responsible for this man’s death.”

Now, Peter’s response to this spleen generated vehemence is, basically, “Hey, if the shoe fits,” but we’ll get to that in a few minutes.  The religious leaders are in such deep denial that they themselves cannot fathom that they are in any way responsible for the death of Jesus, even though they were the ones who not only handed Him over to Pilate to be crucified, but who also manipulated the crowd into persuading Pilate to crucify Him (as opposed to the responsibility of all of Israel: a crucial distinction that is important to make due to the anti Semitism that the misconception that Israel or Judaism was responsible for the death of Jesus…talk about blinding ourselves into believing a patent falsehood with terrible consequences).  It’s the “Who took a cookie from the cookie jar?  Who me?  Yes you!  Couldn’t be!  Then who?” way of rewriting your own personal history, and it’s awful.

But it’s the first part of what they say to the Apostles that I really want to break down.  They demanded that the disciples not teach in Jesus’ name, and of course that hasn’t happened, and now Jerusalem is “filled” with Christ’s teachings.  The religious authorities have been so convinced for weeks, for months now that this can only be a bad thing that they are completely incapable of seeing the good, any good, that can come from, and is currently coming, from such a circumstance.  They simply cannot bring themselves to believe that an outcome they originally opposed could in fact be desirable.

In that respect, at least, we in the church have often tended to model ourselves after these very same religious authorities with our own, well, religious authorities.  Galileo says that the world is round instead of flat and revolves around the sun rather than the other way around?  Well, that contradicts everything we have told ourselves, so he must be wrong.  But then Galileo says to them, “Eppur si muove.”  Yet still it (the earth) moves.  We can deny that reality all we want, but reality is still, well, real, and our fantasies are but merely that: fantastical.

And I could go down the line with this, too: Martin Luther comes along and says that the selling of indulgences to fund gaudily resplendent building projects is wrong for the church to do?  Well, it can’t be wrong because we have always done that.  Deny, deny, deny.

Or when the scientific consensus is that the world is four billion some years old, that dinosaur fossil are over sixty five million years old, and that human ancestors have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but we say that can’t be right because the Bible only includes enough generations of people to account for around six thousand years of existence, and the Bible never omits ANYTHING (heck, just check out what it has to say about computers and electricity, it’s a thumping good read), so clearly all of the scientific evidence must be wrong.  Deny, deny, deny.

Or when just about every professional medical and psychological association came out and said that so called “reparative therapy,” the abusive counseling process that tries to force a gay or lesbian person into being straight is an unethical practice without any basis in medicine itself, well, it still took years and years for parts of Christianity to abandon the practice, and other parts of Christianity still haven’t in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Deny, deny, deny.

That sort of unbelief is something that we see from other characters in the New Testament, but nothing along the lines of just how strong we are seeing it here from the Pharisees.  My favorite example comes from Mark 9, when the father of a stricken boy takes his son to Jesus for a healing, and Jesus says to the man in 9:23, “All things can be done for the person who believes,” to which the desperate father cries out, “I believe, help me in my unbelief!”

I believe, help me in my unbelief!  This guy may believe, but he knows there isn’t enough…when he has his moments of fear, or his moments of hate, and in that sort of unbelief, he is humble enough to beseech Jesus to help him with it.  But no such humility is shown, or ever has or will be shown, by the religious leaders, and certainly not to this lot that has caused them nothing but trouble.  They have no way of being able to see out past what they have already convinced themselves is reality to actually not only embrace but shape that reality for themselves.  It is like a disease, an inexorable, devastating disease, whose only cure is something they are unwilling to reach for: their own evolution, their own progress.

Which is why Peter’s reply (I told you we’d get there!) is so important.  It gives them a way out.  Jesus is always our way out against the crushing confines of our own constrictions, our own prejudices, our own selves.  Jesus offers us sight to remedy our own blind spots in our lives, wherever they may be, wherever our own unbelief is caused by our own willing something to be true even when we know, deep down, that it is not.  Peter names the sin of the religious leaders: of their responsibility in the death of Jesus.  But he also names a way out for them: in the way of Jesus, The Way, as the church originally called itself, they may find forgiveness for sins.

And as galling as it may be for us, we share that exact hope with the Pharisees and Sadducees of our own lives, the people whose own close mindedness and narrow mindedness shut themselves off from the truth that maybe you yourself can offer with how you live your life according to Christ’s teachings and Christ’s all important, all consuming love.  We share that hope because we have to.  Because without it, all we have is our unbelief.  But that is why Jesus, in turn, helps us through it.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 31, 2014

(original photo credit: Richard Leonard at flickr.com)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Five Things I Wish I Had Known When I Began Seminary

It's hard to believe that six years ago (seriously, six.  One more year and I think I can marry one of Laban's daughters), I was sitting/suffering through new student orientation at ye old Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union back in Berzerkeley (I know, I know, I sound real old for being only 28, but I was BORN old).  I have to admit that I have enjoyed getting to put my pastoral skillset to work more so than I enjoyed the process of obtaining said skillset, but part of that I think comes down to things I really wish I had known when I began God School back in 2008.  Since seminaries across the country are just now welcoming in their fresh fish (yes, that was both a New Testament reference and a Shawshank Redemption reference.  I'm clever like that), I thought I would humbly offer five different points of information that I *really* wish I had known when I started this crazypants journey of professional ministry:

1. To take as many classes as possible from professors who have also been pastors

Now, to be clear, I learned TONS from my professors who had not at one point in their careers been pastors, and I am and will be forever grateful for the knowledge and instruction they imparted to me.  But when your professor has stood in the shoes that you are about to fill: the shoes of a parish pastor or a chaplain or some crank with a blog (ahem), there's a different level of insight about what your instructor believes is important to, well, instruct you on.

Of course I'm glad that I got instructed on all sorts of methods of interpreting Scripture and understanding church history and studying theology, but I also needed to be taught how to articulate those (often arcane) insights to an audience without the educational background I was currently pursuing.  And I didn't always receive that: I remember one conversation with my senior pastor and mentor very clearly after my first sermon there...he said, "You really need to make it bite sized.  Don't try to cram everything you know about God into one message."  Otherwise, your sermons will be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose...and that is no way to offer instruction and counsel on a week in, week out basis.  My professors who were pastors tended to remind me of that, and if that anecdote is any indication, I definitely needed that reminder.

2. Your field education experience is ridiculously important, even if it is technically pass/fail

Your trade classes like preaching and worship leadership will only take you so far: they're only a semester long, and they're done almost entirely within the bubble confines of the classroom, meaning that there really is very little at stake.  It's the sandbox mode of ministry.  Even if you colossally, painfully, ridiculously screw up, it's still only a classroom exercise.

Field education is still a source of practice, but you're preaching to a real congregation, not a pretend one in your preaching small group.  You're counseling people with real problems in sessions that go far deeper than what a ten minute roleplay can achieve in your course on pastoral counseling.

And then there's the mentor aspect of it all.  I do not say this lightly: choose your field education site based almost solely on who will be supervising and mentoring you.  It makes all the difference in the world...think of the difference it makes to have a great boss as opposed to a crappy boss, right?  Exact same logic here, only on steroids.

Fortunately, I lucked out on that count.  I had a great mentor AND a great congregation to serve for two years before shipping myself back to the Pacific Northwest with my factory fresh tags.

3. Nobody cares about what you think are your own totally brilliant insights

Concerning God, theology, and doctrine, it has been my experience that there are two types of seminary students: those who are there to find themselves and their beliefs, and those who are there because they already know exactly what they believe and consider it to be God's honest, unadulterated truth.  Ideally, your classmates will each be a decent mix of the two, but there are lots of folks on either pole of that spectrum, and for the love of all that is right and holy and sacred, nobody wants you to be one of those on the latter end.

I cannot tell you how many times I sat in class, saw someone raise their hand, begin to expound upon whatever cockamamie theory they had cooked up on their latest vision quest, and had everybody else in the class begin rolling their eyes.  After a while, you dreaded the professor calling on them because you just KNEW what was going to happen.  And it sucked because instead of being taught by the actual expert we had signed up to be taught by, we were instead treated to another rando's oddball commentary.

Don't be that person.  Seminary, like any ministry, requires a healthy dose of humility.  Be willing to admit that you may not have it all figured out yet, because knowing God the way I have come to know God, I don't think any of us do.  Including me.  And that humility, tough as it might be to cultivate, will serve you incredibly well for life as well as for ministry.

4. Check your expectations at the door

And I quote from the pastor and writer Dr. Matthew Kim on this one: "It's easy to become disillusioned when ministry turns out differently from what we envisioned...disappointment can be triggered by our misconceptions of what pastoral ministry will entail."

Kim is talking about ministry, but you could just as easily cut and paste "seminary" in for "ministry" and his sentiment would still be equally true.  It was definitely true for me, as I found myself deep in a funk through my first semester at God School, to the point that I was talking privately with my family about the possibility of transferring to a different seminary after the academic year was up.  Ultimately, I stayed the course, and part of that was due to reasoning that the proverbial grass is NOT always greener, and that I ran the risk of having my expectations confounded a second time around, and I had no idea what that might do for my vocational hopes.  Instead, I slowly began to adjust my expectations and came away with a seminary education enriched by a diverse array of sources as well as a certificate in Jewish Studies for an interest that I hadn't even entirely known I had when I started!

Seminary changes you.  Expect it to.  And beyond that singular expectation, leave any others behind.  You'll be burdened down with so much learning to do anyways, you might as well lighten your load from the start.

5. It goes WAY faster than you think

Graduation feels like forever away when you're stuck in the slog of midterm papers in the middle of your first semester, but before you know it, you're standing up on stage at graduation getting hooded by one of your professors, and you'll think, "What the heck just happened?"  Well...you just got seminaried*, mate.

*Yes, I want that to be a real word.

Enjoy the ride, fresh fish.  God School really is a one of a kind experience.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

September 2014: "The Church's Job Description"

Dear Church, As year three of my amazing time here with all of you goes into the books and begins to turn into year four, I have found myself reflecting on what it has meant to be a pastor compared to, well, what I thought it would be. And those two things have most certainly not been the same.

Yep, I've gotten to teach Bible study classes and lead worship and preach sermons and do all of the things that I was trained to do in seminary (well, except maybe to wax extensively on the hagiography of particularly saintly rutabagas from the patristic era...church history might have been a slog for me...), but I also had to grow my skillset in ways I never anticipated, like in working with all of you to recover our building from floods and vandalism or in becoming an expert on the Gothic revival architecture that characterizes our beautiful sanctuary!

And I think that is fairly reminiscent of the church's role as well. It used to be that the church's role in life was pretty standard: we baptized you, taught you in Sunday School and worship, provided fellowship and mission opportunities, married you when you fell in love, and buried you when you died. But now, churches are also acting as safety nets, major event venues, schools, and all sorts of things that our facilities (or even our memberships) maybe weren't anticipating.

But that's okay.

While we come to church on Sundays to feel a sense of safety and security in being in God's house, we also need to be coming to church to be challenged and nudged and gently led outside of our wheelhouses and our comfort zones and into something a bit deeper, a bit tougher, a bit, dare I say it, scarier, if we are to find God in new ways in our lives and faith.

So it isn't really enough to say that the church has an eternal job description...I mean, we do, but it is simply the baseline of what people can and should expect of us, and beyond that, it is up to us to discern our calling and identity as a faith family situated in the community we are in to do the most and best good possible in the name of Him who is the Greatest good of all.

As we begin year four together, let's ask ourselves how God may be calling us to new things and ministries here at FCC...and how we can heed that divine calling!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Seventh Day: The Mark Driscoll Saga and the Clergy's Desperate Need for Sabbaticals

I've written pretty extensively on the unfolding trainwreck that has become Mark Driscoll's ministry at Mars Hill in Seattle on a couple of recent occasions, and this time, it is after the news broke yesterday of his six week leave of absence from ministry at Mars Hill while the accusations against him (largely of abusive behavior and of abusing his power) are investigated by the church.

And while my criticisms of him in my previous posts remain both vehement and intact, I honestly don't have any sort of a visceral reaction to this news.  Exulting in a colleague's fall from grace isn't exactly Christian of me, even if I still think he had all of this coming.

Nor is it really a time for me to talk about grace and forgiveness, because my forgiveness is not the forgiveness Mark Driscoll needs.  He needs to be forgiven first and foremost by God, but then also by the people whom he has directly wronged and hurt (of whom it appears there are a great many).  A number of accounts I have read of people who were spiritually abused at Mars Hill strike the tone of them wanting reconciliation as a part of Driscoll being held accountable for what he has done to them, and while seeing true reconciliation happen would be a great joy to witness, that is not at all up to me.

Instead, I think that this leave of absence was certainly coming, certainly necessary, but also almost certainly not enough in terms of either time or accountability.

Driscoll himself outlined eight steps that are being taken by him and by Mars Hill in response to the allegations against him, and the first is him submitting to the process proscribed in the church bylaws for accusations against him, but as has been noted by Warren Throckmorton over at Patheos, that process has been made more difficult for those who are stepping forward, and potentially impossible for those whose employment at Mars Hill has since ceased.  Pastor Mark notes that these bylaws were overwhelmingly approved by the church eldership, but a majority does not inherently confer legitimacy (just look at any number of awful decisions democracies have made over the centuries).  Submitting to that process by itself is nowhere near enough, and so seven other steps are detailed, though we also don't know just how much power over him the pastors he is seeking to counsel him will actually have.

In the final step, though, the eighth step, Driscoll discloses this:

I have never taken an extended focused break like this in my 18 years as your pastor. (emphasis mine)

All of the sudden, some of this actually begins to make at least some sense to me.

Now, far be it for me to armchair diagnose Mark Driscoll (who likely needs the counsel of people far above my pay grade), but a number of the sins he has been found to have committed as of late: the plagiarism, the gaming of the New York Times bestseller list, the potential misappropriation of other church funds all scream of behavior of a pastor who is utterly burnt out on ministry, because it is so, so, so incredibly easy and tempting for a burned out minister to begin believing that the ends justify the means.

Clergy burnout is a subject I have blogged about here in the past (most recently here), and it is a subject that I firmly believe has to be taken with the utmost care and seriousness by churches today if the body of Christ is to continue to grow, flourish, thrive, and ultimately make a difference in God's kingdom.  No longer can pastors simply limit their job descriptions to baptizing, teaching, marrying, and burying people: we are now functioning (and over functioning) as writers, bloggers, commentators, community organizers, coaches, social workers, building managers, event planners, and any untold number of other tasks.

And it is difficult to see a lot of that because outside of Sundays, a lot of a pastor's work is invisible to the 70 percent or so of the congregation who only sees their pastor one day a week.  Which means that the only people who really know how emotionally, spiritually, and even physically draining parish ministry really is are, well, other ministers.

That's why there has been such a strong movement across a variety of churches, denominations, and traditions over the past decade or two for clergy sabbaticals, not unlike the sabbaticals that tenured professors take. The standard that is recommended by my denomination is a three month sabbatical after every five years of service, and that is what is included in my own contract.

By that standard, Mark Driscoll should have had three different times set aside for sabbatical during his tenure as Mars Hill's cofounding and teaching pastor, and been well on his way towards a fourth sabbatical.  Instead, by his own admission, he hadn't even taken one.

And make no mistake: six weeks is NOT a sabbatical.  That's a leave of absence.  Honestly, Driscoll should probably consider taking three or four months away, even if the investigation completely clears him.  Considering how prolific his writing is, my guess is that it will take him at least a week or two to fully wind down from all of his responsibilities, which will finally allow him the freedom to look inward and discern what God is asking of him, but by that point, he's already maybe a third of the way through his leave.  These sorts of things can take time...heck, Moses spent forty years in the wilderness before finally being called out of it by God.

Part of the problem with American Christianity is how we fetishize what Max Weber called the "Protestant work ethic."  A work ethic is admirable and necessary for earning a livelihood, but overfeeding it can come at the expense of, well, so much.  Work requirements have drawn some of my own congregants away from the joy and fellowship of Sunday morning worship, and I both wish that it wasn't the case and resent their employers for making it the case, because when work always comes first, it is people who inevitably get relegated to second class status.

But God still rested on the seventh day.  And so should we.

At least from the outside, it looks to me as though Mark Driscoll's work may well have taken precedence over his own spiritual well being.  And in that respect, I feel bad for him.  I really do.  Burnout is a terrible, terrible thing.  It doesn't excuse what he has done (and certainly some of it, like his William Wallace II diatribes, are likely attributable to other serious factors), but it does make some of it somewhat understandable, at least to me.

Because I have seen firsthand from seeing other colleagues crash and burn what burnout can do to a minister.

And it isn't pretty.  It seldom ever is.

So my hope and prayer for Mark Driscoll is that he finds sufficient time during this period of leave and investigation to adequately seek out God's will for him, and that those whose task it is to hold him accountable do so with the utmost honesty and transparency for the sake of all involved.

And my hope and prayer for those whom he has so painfully hurt are able to achieve whatever measure or degree of reconciliation they are seeking that has so long been denied to them, and that this reconciliation and this holding of their spiritual abuser to account will result in a sense of wholeness...or, at least, a moving towards wholeness once more.  Because while I am writing largely about Driscoll here, our focus and care also needs to be on the people whom have been hurt by him.

I don't know what the future will hold for either Driscoll or Mars Hill, and that isn't really for me to speculate on.  But I do hope that it represents a turning point from power to humility, and from discipline to reconciliation.

Because that is what sabbaticals can do...they can be a turning point for God's servants in the courses of their ministry.  It is a great power that they possess, and it is a power that more of us pastors, in all honesty, need to experience and witness.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, August 24, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Angel"

Acts 5: 17 to 20  

17 The high priest, together with his allies, the Sadducees, was overcome with jealousy. 18 They seized the apostles and made a public show of putting them in prison. 19 An angel from the Lord opened the prison doors during the night and led them out. The angel told them, 20 “Go, take your place in the temple, and tell the people everything about this new life.” (Common English Bible)


“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Ten

The image is seared in my mind as the signature image of one of my favorite films of all time: Tim Robbins, standing in a downpour of rain, his eyes closed and his arms outstretched, taking in his first moments of freedom after 19 years of incarceration for a crime that he did not do, a 19 year stretch of hell that was only ended by his own ingenuity in how he planned and executed his escape attempt.

In stories like those: the film The Shawshank Redemption, or the novel it references, The Count of Monte Cristo, wrongful imprisonment tends to end in a dramatic escape plan that is executed to perfection, but in real life, the truth, as is so inconveniently often the case, is often far harsher.  One of two outcomes is almost invariably certain: in one, the innocent person is either eventually exonerated, usually after years upon years of appeals, legal wrangling, and delays.  But in spite of those obstacles, that outcome is the infinitely preferable one compared to the other, which is quite simply this: the innocent person dies in captivity, or, even worse, is executed, sometimes summarily.

Like many of you, I was shocked, stunned, and appalled beyond words at the news that American photojournalist James Foley had been beheaded by the Islamic terrorist group ISIS.  What ISIS is trying to do in Iraq (and which, it must be noted, literally untold numbers of other Muslim imams have condemned in the strongest of terms) is nothing short of callously misrepresenting and viciously misapplying centuries of religious tradition and interpretation of sacred scriptures.  It is, what President Obama accurately termed, a cancer upon God’s creation.  But the problem at the very core of ISIS’s devilishness…its profound misinterpretation of God’s Word…is a trap that we all can fall into, albeit in less extreme ways, but nonetheless to the direct harm of our fellow believers and followers of God.  And that is the trap that the Jerusalem leaders have fallen into, yet again, in today’s Scripture passage as told by Luke in our continued series on Acts of the Apostles.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while, and we’re in the home stretch of it now!  We began over two months ago, a couple weeks after the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles), which fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people, and today, we actually sort of rewind to the beginning of the series when Luke more or less restates an accounting that he also includes in Acts 2, after Peter’s sermon, about how the early church lived out the faith, which contrasted with the standalone story of Ananias and Sapphira, and then the story arc returned to more usual stories of healing and miracles.  This week, though, we see the second intervention by the religious authorities on the disciples, which results in their imprisonment, but, then, in turn, their release, again by miraculous means.

Now, I referenced James Foley’s execution with a very specific purpose in mind: it isn’t enough that the high priest and the Sadducees (who were, along with the Pharisees, one of the two main schools of religious leaders who held authority in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus) felt intensely jealous towards the Apostles and imprisoned them as a result of that jealousy, it is that the religious authorities made a huge show of doing so.  Their actions of arresting and summarily imprisoning the leaders of the early church were done expressly for public consumption, just like, clearly, Jim Foley’s murder was, considering that it was videotaped and that the tape spread like wildfire in the news.

It’s bad enough to commit such horrible crimes purportedly in the name of a loving God, but ISIS and the Sadducees here are doubling down by making their ostensibly religiously motivated sins for public viewing, even though Jesus warns us extensively throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel NOT to practice our religion for the purpose of other people seeing us do it:

“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people…I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get…(And) when you pray, don’t be like hypocrites.  They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them.  I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.” (Common English Bible)

There may be a few…a deranged, dangerous few…who will praise the public sins of a group like ISIS, but what about our willingness to praise, say, the public sins of someone we actually agree with?  What about us praising blatant publicity stunts or self centered attention grabs?  Are they not actions of our own innate selfishness as well?

And this is where God’s actions are most powerfully contrasted with our own.  The religious leaders in Jerusalem make a big production out of arresting and incarcerating the Apostles, but the angel of the Lord appears in the dark of night to spirit them away unnoticed.  Presumably, God could have torn the prison walls in two like He did the temple curtain during the crucifixion, He could have stricken the disciples’ captors down like He did with Ananias and Sapphira, He could have brought down the wrath of His own thunder down upon the church’s persecutors, all of which probably would have garnered more attention and head snaps and wild eyed news reports, but God did precisely zero of those things.  God practiced His miraculous ways silently, stealthily, but still, ultimately, effectively.

What a model for us to follow.

I have been drawing from Bible professor Paul Walaskay’s work on Acts extensively throughout this sermon series, and there is still one more bit of his work that I want to bring to your ears.  He says:

The phrase “angel of the Lord” is used dozens of times in the Old Testament and refers to the typical agent of God’s miraculous intervention.  In Acts, Luke continues this traditional way of describing God’s activity on behalf of believers…the angel has instructed them to “tell the people the whole message about this life” (v. 20).  Though the phrase sounds strange, it is probably the case that “this life” also means life giving “salvation.”  The apostolic message is about “life” (“salvation”) which Jesus brings to the believer.

A miracle is done in secret, and the takeaway message from that miracle is “tell the people the whole message about this life.”

An act of oppression is done in public, and the takeaway message is, “Do what we want or die.”

Anybody see a difference between the two?

That difference is, in a nutshell, the difference not between Christianity and 1st century Judaism, or between Christianity and Islam, or even between Christianity and anything else.  It is the difference between living out Christianity in love and living out any belief system (including one presumed to be based on Christianity, just look at Westboro Baptist Church that protests funerals with their “God Hates F*gs” signs or the Dove World Outreach Center that started burning Qurans) in hate.

Hate wants to be noticed.  Hate has to be noticed, because attention is its lifeblood.  God does not create us to hate, we do not come out of the womb knowing how to hate, we have to be taught how to hate, and so hate requires people to hear about it and be shown how to do it because that is the only way it will ever grow.  The terrorist who beheaded James Foley, the soldiers and guerillas exchanging rocket fire in Palestine, the warmakers and warmongers in Syria, they were not born wanting to do what they are doing.  They may think that they are doing God’s will, but they were not taught by God to do such things.  They were taught by us, by humans, and by our hatred and its plague like need to infect us.

But love?  Love can be administered in silence, in secrecy, and still have a profound impact because it can still grow from there.  Hate may grow from public acts and propaganda, but as I am sure all of you know, it only takes one act of love, often done individually, in a one on one setting, for you to realize that you are wanted, that you have worth, that God is not, nor ever will be, finished with you.

God is not finished with the Apostles.  He liberates them from bondage and the angel charges them anew with their mission.  The problem with that, though, is the implication that God must have been finished with James Foley, because he was not rescued…for me, in fact, the most wrenching parts of his story was reading the accounts of how his rescue attempt had failed.  There would be no The Shawshank Redemption ending for him, no peaceful future on a sandy beach anywhere.

But that does not mean that God wanted it to happen, either.  God either did not or could not prevent the Apostles themselves from eventually getting martyred as well: Peter, James, Paul…all of them would summarily executed too.

Because that is what happens when we allow the hate we teach ourselves to win.

But that is not what has to happen to any of us.  God’s provision of this angel, and of the angel’s message of life, is proof enough that for each of us, if we close our ears to the clanging cymbals of hatred, and lend an ear to the voice in the silence and the darkness telling us to live for love, then we too may be able to achieve salvation, to place ourselves in right relationship with the God who is the source of all things love.  

And then, love will finally win out.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 24, 2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and how it relates to the "Life begins at conception" argument

Leave it to the Roman Catholic bishops to go and try to ruin a good thing.  The Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati is trying to throw the proverbial cold water on, well, cold water itself.

By now (unless you have been living under a rock for the past month or so), you have heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which I preached about in my sermon this past Sunday (and which I also was nominated for and accepted, you can find the video evidence on my Facebook page if you and I are FB friends).  I, along with millions of others, have contributed to a mounting number of monetary donations that as of Tuesday have reached nearly $23 million for ALS research.  And that was two days ago, I am certain that millions more has been raised in the 48 hours since that press release.

And all of it is for trying to cure, or at least manage, a disease that kills its patients in some of the most terrifying ways possible: extremely slowly, inexorably, and with mounting degrees of difficulty to do even the simplest things before the person finally succumbs to respiratory failure, which is a clinical way of saying that this disease literally suffocates you to death because it shuts down your lungs, preventing them from processing the oxygen your body needs.

It is also a disease whose R&D was woefully underfunded until now (and to my detraction, I had no idea this was the case until the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral), but one that, like other incurable diseases like HIV/AIDS or Alzheimer's, still requires our attention and resources to try and whip.

And one of those resources is (are) embryonic stem cells: the cells taken from a fertilized human blastocyst.  Why do I use the term blastocyst instead of embryo?  Well, because a blastocyst is the cluster of cells that exists before implantation into the uterine wall.

Why on earth does that distinction matter for ALS?

Because implantation (and the placenta which forms) is how the fetus receives nutrients, including oxygen, from the mother during its prenatal development.

And Scripturally, we are taught that life enters the human form through breath: Genesis 2:7 says that God breathed the breath of life into Adam.  Breath, as the deliverance of oxygen, begins life.

And the deliverance of oxygen does not begin until usually at least day six after conception.  But the blastocysts used in embryonic stem cell research are typically from four or five days after conception.

This is why I really don't understand (and here, I do realize that I may be about to upset some of y'all, because I am about to fly in the face of what many of us have been told for decades is categorically, undeniably, doctrinally true) how we have come to believe that the Bible says life begins at conception, because when you actually sit down and read Scripture, it doesn't mention conception.  It says that we are knit together in our mother's womb (Psalm 139), not in our mother's fallopian tubes or ovaries.  It says God made us living by delivering us the breath of life, not the sperm to the egg.

And to be honest, I think there is something sacred, something profound, something powerful of imagining that life starts when the embryo nests itself into its mother's own body.

But all of this means that *even if* you discard the reality that many embryos used for stem cell research are classified as "medical waste" and otherwise are discarded, the scientific reality of miscarriages and of their frequency at up to 20 percent of all pregnanices, and the scientific reality of other natural ends to pregnancies and their frequencies, and the scientific reality that fetuses physiologically cannot breathe within the womb to begin with, and you look only at the Bible, there still is no grounding for the "life begins at conception" line.

You want to say that Scripture argues that life begins at implanting into the uterus?  Cool beans.  We can have that discussion.  But that also means precluding embryonic stem cells, which means research on them, Scripturally speaking as well as in terms of public policy, is fair game.

So, yes, ALS researchers have used embryonic stem cells.  And I am glad that they do, because with a disease that is both lethal and incurable, we cannot afford to look a proverbial gift horse in the mouth.  If embryonic stem cell research leads us to a cure or treatment for ALS, then to me, that is as pro life as it gets, because we would be literally preserving the lives of the estimated 30,000 Americans living with ALS at any given time, plus potentially untold numbers of people living with it worldwide.

It is not pro life of us to exclude potential cures for this many people like this.  Or, rather, it is not holistically pro life (much in the same way that the objections to birth control are not, because as a matter of public policy, they emphatically are pro life).  It is very myopically pro life.  And being pro life means being pro ALL life: the healthy as well as those stricken with ALS, born as well as the unborn.

I realize that delving into this subject can be (and is) increasingly polarizing for a lot of us: the "when life begins" question directly impacts the national debate we are still having over abortion, which divides people into two starkly opposing camps like few other issues do, even though (full disclosure) it is in fact a topic that has caused me a great deal of wrestling and questioning and struggling throughout my life and my career as a pastor.

But this much I know: trying to dent the raising of tens of millions of dollars for ALS research comes across more as trying to take out the speck in your neighbor's eye while ignoring the plank in your own than it does as a principled stand for the preservation of life.  Because, quite simply, finding that all important cure represents the preservation of life itself.

And we should spur ourselves onward towards that goal.  With vigor.  And with buckets of ice cold water at the ready.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

We Reap What We Sow

It's an oldie, by social media standards, but it's a goodie, and it began another round up and down my Facebook news feed as several of my friends posted it:

Jeff Daniels' righteous (and mostly true) rant as Will McAvoy in The Newsroom.  If you haven't seen it, it's worth the three and a half minutes of your life that it demands.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

Anyways, when Daniels's character goes off on how America is not the greatest country in the world anymore, you could almost cut and paste that sentiment for how Christianity is no longer the most influential source of morality and spirituality anymore.

Because this is not the age of believers, this is the age of agnostics.  This is not the age of religiosity, this is the age of "spiritual, but not religious."  And really, you don't need me to tell you that.

But speaking as a member of, as Daniels (as Will McAvoy) would put it, "The least religious, period, generation, period, ever, period," I have to get this off of my chest:

We Christians deserve every ounce of skepticism that gets thrown our way these days, and then some.  We deserve to be faced with the challenge of reaching out to the least religious, period, generation, period, ever, exclamation point.

Because we can complain about agnosticism and atheism all we want (and Lord knows, we do).

But agnostics and atheists aren't the people who used televangelism to defraud faithful Christians again and again and again.

We can complain about same sex marriage and "the gay agenda" all we want (and Lord knows, we do).

But gays and lesbians wanting equal protection under the law aren't the people getting found out for harboring child molesters and systematically covering up their crimes (and anybody who equates being gay to being a pedophile is committing nothing short of hate speech).

And we can complain all we want about "God being taken out of the schools" via bans on public prayer (and Lord knows, we do).

But those laws aren't the reason why we come across like complete jerks whenever a mass shooting at a school happens yet again and we wonder where God is in all of it.

We can bemoan the lack of churchgoing that we see in the millennial generation all we want, but if we fail to recognize that it's our own damn fault for sucking so badly at our faith, then honestly, we don't deserve to have those folks back sitting in our pews.  We don't deserve the profound privilege and honor of walking alongside them and guiding them in their own respective faith journeys.

So here's the deal, fellow Jesus followers:

We are holding a winning hand, not only for the next life when we go to be with God and Christ in heaven, but for this life as well, because we still sit at the right hand of privilege in this country.  We inherited this privilege by at one point being an institution people could trust, and we have used that privilege to do some really quite amazing things in our time:

Christians were among the abolitionists who rid America of slavery by speaking out for those whose voices we had brutally and systemically silenced.

Christians were speaking out against human rights abuses during times of war long before "human rights abuses" ever became a household term.

Christians marched in the Civil Rights Movement, chanting "We Shall Overcome" in the same spirit as our Savior who overcame everything, including death itself, to bring us liberation from evil.

Today, though?  Today, we are like the prodigal son who demands his inheritance and promptly squanders it.  We come across as fighting hardest not for peace or for equality or, God forbid, for Christ, but for our right to deny access to birth control for women or for our right to discriminate against same sex couples.  Because somehow those got all rolled in with love of God and love of neighbor for us.

But you know what?  Back in those moments when history was being made, we were fighting for the preservation of human life (ALL human life) rather than fighting against women's health.

We were fighting to eradicate slavery, not same sex marriage.

We were fighting to condemn poverty as a worldwide evil, not to condemn poor people as moochers.

We acted, as Jeff Daniels would have said, for moral reasons, not for selfish reasons.

We didn't put our rights ahead of the rights of others, we didn't cry persecution every time the government made a decision we disagreed with, and we didn't condemn those who disagree with us to hell so easily.

Believe me when I say that when I chat with my friends (or just about anyone in my generation) about why they don't go to church, they bring up stuff exactly like that.

And the sad thing is, if we were paying attention to Scripture, we could have seen this coming from a mile away, because as Paul famously exhorts the Galatians in his letter to them, a person reaps what they sow.

This precipice we are staring down of having a thoroughly unchurched generation waiting in the wings is a precipice entirely of our own making.  It is not "their" fault.  We drove them away.

And if our Christian humbleness is still intact, then we will shut the hell up and listen to what they have to say.

And, hopefully, God willing, that will represent the first step in sowing something different for us to reap: respect rather than ridicule, harmony rather than hatred, and, if we are so blessed, the growth of our great church rather than its seemingly inevitable, inexorable decline.

There, my chest feels much lighter now.  Thanks for  listening.

Yours in Christ,
Eric