Sunday, October 30, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Before Abraham"

John 8:48-58

Jesus’ Claims About Himself
48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”

52 At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (TNIV)

"From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations" Sermon Series, Week Five (All Saint's Sunday)

The swelling crowds filled St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, during the spring in a season that is otherwise of rebirth and growth, and instead the flocks had converged upon the Eternal City to mark the passing of a man whom many Catholics have known as the only Pope they ever had—after nearly thirty years on the throne, Pope John Paul II had just passed away, and the crowds were shouting out, “Santo Subito!” “Sainthood now!” It is one of the most powerful memories of my college years, seeing the outpouring of grief that came from Christendom when John Paul died. And what a stirring metaphor for the Church itself—John Paul was by all accounts incredibly loving and charismatic, and on a very personal level, I have taken his teachings about violence and war to heart. But this also became a man whose legacy was tarnished in no small part by the scandals of abuse that were left behind, that the Roman Catholic Church struggles with still. A complicated legacy begun by love but shadowed by hurt—this sounds exactly like the church, especially as we wonder how to speak God’s love in this new, different world.

And so begins the fifth week of our sermon series together, “From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations.” This series is based on a book written by a United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Eric Elnes, who has pastored a very successful church in Arizona, where they have made amazing use of a diverse array of tools and talents available to them in doing ministry. Eric then wrote this short book called The Phoenix Affirmations, after the town in which it was composed, but also because the image of the phoenix, being reborn out of the ashes. We began this series by talking about the role of Scripture in listening for God’s word and the importance of having a vibrant and artistic worship to attend. Then we talked about the need to include everyone into God’s family in a way that practices real hospitality instead of merely tolerance. Last week, we courageously tackled issues of justice that the church can perform mission in, and this week, our theme is one that is wonderfully appropriate for the Sunday leading up to All Saints’ Day—that in Christ, all things are made new and that we are loved for eternity.

On some level, I think we fundamentally know this, that God loves, that God is love, that God does love us somehow, in some way. That God loves is a fundamental truth of Christianity itself, for Jesus preaches God’s love for all over and over and over. So why do we even preach on it? Well, because it is one of only two sermons that I really know—God loves you, and be good, those are the two sermons I know! I just have learned how to give them a hundred different ways (bet you didn’t know that when you called me). No, I think the need to preach this theme, that God loves us, that God loves you, that need is so constant because the messengers God has given us to deliver that message change so frequently. First, it was the Patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, then Moses and Joshua and the Judges, all ordained by God to do His work. Then we had kings, Saul and David and Solomon, and prophets to go along with them, Samuel and Nathan, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and then after all these patriarchs and kings and prophets, the next messenger we are given is Christ Himself. But even then God will not let us be alone—later in John, Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit to be with us even after He has left, and that Holy Spirit, we see that delivered to us by people we would call saints, and not in the traditional sense of being beatified and then canonized, no, a saint as someone, living or dead, through whom, in whom, you have seen God. There are the big ones who we can all think of—names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—and if we are courageous enough to aim as high as the heavens, theirs are the examples by which we should be led. But how? As one prayer goes, God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.

The true calling of a saint, the how-to, is best summed up in what Mother Teresa said about her own ministry, “I am like the pencil in the hand of a God who is writing a love letter to the world.” Some saints have become famous for their ministry on behalf of a loving God, but many, many more do not, and they serve us all the same. And so the church created a day to honor them as well—All Saints Day—to honor the saints whose names we will never know, but who have acted as God’s latter-day messengers, performing the task that the prophets and the apostles once did of offering God’s love in both word and deed to a broken and hungry world.

And so God’s message has been carried throughout time—from patriarchs to judges and kings to prophets, from our Messiah to apostles and to the saints of today. It is the magnitude of this message that Jesus is impressing upon us in this passage from John—before Abraham was, Christ was. Before the saints were, Christ was. Before the prophets and judges and kings, before there were men, and women, and children, Christ was. And Jesus tells us why in His own cryptic way—he refers to himself as “I am—before Abraham was, I am.” He is using the divine name “I Am What I Am,” God’s name from the story of Moses at the burning bush to show how infinite His grace is—it is as infinite as the number of possibilities for what the divine name might mean. And this infinite Messiah, this Messiah that has lived forever, He exists for one simple, but awe-inspiring reason—only an infinite Messiah can offer infinite love—and that is what salvation is at is rawest, most pure, most wonderful form. As Eric Elnes puts it, salvation is discovering that we are loved infinitely, we are loved beyond our wildest imaginations and then, he says, determining to live our lives according to that discovery. The evangelist Billy Sunday once said the best thing that could ever happen to a person is to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and to then immediately die—to be as pure as possible. And in fact, that is often how baptism was practiced way, way back in the day—folks would wait to be baptized on their deathbeds, so that as much sin as possible could be erased. But it completely misses out on the second half of the salvation equation—the first half is the reality that we are loved by God, but the other half is knowing it, and letting ourselves be transformed by it. And you know what? I love the sunset, the lake, natural beauty as much as anyone, and I can see God there, but when someone tells me how much I am loved by God—I know it in my bones that I am saved. Not because I chose Christ, but because I have no choice but to be loved by Christ. I know it, I know it because the saints around me tell me so.

And I wonder where our church would be without its saints. Because without us, without its people, the church is only an idea, an idea that exists in the imagination, this notion that God’s people might take it upon themselves to act spiritually, to form a holy community. But with us, and through us, the church is a reality, and one that has illuminated the world for the past two thousand years. To honor that is to not only honor the saints who have come before us, the saints who lived and died for the church, including Jesus Himself, though those are often who we think of first on All Saints Day. It honors living as well—the living who serve a loving God, a God fundamentally of love, not of hate. And it honors saints living among us, those who would inspire a roar of voices, from a crowd or even just a whisper from a lonely person, to cry out, “Santo Subito” on their behalf. Sainthood now—sainthood for those children of God across the pews, across the world, who know that they are loved and in response have said, as Mary Magdalene said to Christ in the garden, “Lord, here I am! What is it that you want me to do?” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 30, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Like a Light Bulb!

This Sunday, October 30, at 3:00 pm is the installation service in which I am "installed" (if not like a light bulb, perhaps like a less crash-prone version of Windows Vista) into my position as pastor at FCC Longview. It will be a fun special occasion with great food at the reception, and it will be great to have family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and congregants all there to celebrate.

It does feel odd, though, since I already feel like the pastor here, that I am the pastor, and I wonder how an "installation" makes me more or less of one. I was too young to think such mildly deep thoughts on the eve of my baptism (some 15 years ago), but the same logic sort of applies--if I think like a Christian, if I identify as a Christian, doesn't that make me Christian even if I hadn't been baptized before that? So, if I work as a pastor and identify as a pastor, how does being an "installed" pastor make me more or less of a pastor?

This isn't me denying the capacity of the church to administer sacraments and ordinances (whatever those are). It is simply an open question of what makes a person be one thing versus being something else. Put a different way--when the bread and wine are administered for communion, at what point do they take on significance beyond being just bread and wine?

At what point do I take on significance beyond simply being me? Was it my first day on the job? My first Sunday in the pulpit? This installation service?

My guess is, really, it is none of the above--and that this sort of significance comes to us in ways and times that cannot be measured.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 23, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Angelfire"

Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (TNIV)

“From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations” Sermon Series, Week Four

I had a wonderful conversation with a fellow from the local historical preservation commission who wanted to see if we as a church would be interested in holding a Saturday morning tour next spring for people interested in the rich history of our congregation. It was a great opportunity to showcase our campus and our story, and for several reasons, unfortunately, the tour will have to be postponed until the following spring, in 2013. But even with that delay, our church building, along with many others across America and Europe and the world, will be visited by religious pilgrims and tourists, hoping to catch a fleeting, amazing glimpse of history. And these church buildings that are visited, they will fall into two categories—a church where something amazing was built—the building—or a church where something amazing was done.

In central France, towards the southeast, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon is a small, rural town with an equally unremarkable church building. But this building receives visits by the droves from religious pilgrims. The citizens of this humble French town, led by one of their local Protestant pastors, spent the years of the Second World War successfully harboring anywhere from three to five thousand Jewish French citizens, saving them from the Nazi Holocaust. And unlike the great cathedrals of Europe, pilgrims come to visit Le Chambon not for what was built there, but what was achieved there. People already come to visit us for what we’ve constructed here on this corner of Longview. Will people visit us for what we have done in our ministry, and will do in our ministries yet to come. I pray and I pray that there will be a time when people will say, “I traveled to Longview to see that church which has done so many great things.”

And so begins the fourth week of our sermon series together, “From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations.” This series is based on a book written by a United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Eric Elnes, who has pastored a very successful church in Arizona, where they have made amazing use of a diverse array of tools and talents available to them in doing ministry. Eric then wrote this short book called The Phoenix Affirmations, after the town in which it was composed, but also because the image of the phoenix, being reborn out of the ashes. We began this series by talking about the role of Scripture in listening for God’s word and the importance of having a vibrant and artistic worship to attend. Last week, we talked about the need to include everyone into God’s family in a way that practices real hospitality instead of mere tolerance. And this week, we’ll be getting into the stuff that preachers run like the dickens from—this week’s theme is, “As Jesus did, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others.”

Now, there is an epilogue to the role of the church in Europe during the Second World War. After the war, a German Christian came to visit the United States, and saw that our church pews often have cushions—quite unlike the churches of Europe with their heritages in fairly strict Lutheranism or Calvinism. But after hearing one too many feel-good sermons that feared to tread on a pastor’s expectations for their flock to embrace peace, to embrace social justice, this German Christian then said to his American host, “American preaching, it has cushions too.”

One of my friends in faith calls this kind of preaching, this kind of a church the “Church of Be Nice and Chew with Your Mouth Closed.” Which isn’t a slap in the face at etiquette, it’s a realization that there are more important things, and those important things is what delineates the difference between what the writer Steve Dublanica calls being nice and being decent. A person can be nice—they can have terrific manners, always says please and thank you, always holds the door open, but that person could be greedy with money or support destructive causes. Ideally, people would be both nice and decent, but if you were to force me to choose, give me the decent person every time, and I’ll take it upon myself to tell that person when to hold the door open.

I say this because Jesus, in Luke’s story, gives a spot-on example of a man who is fundamentally nice, but not one bit decent. The rich man has excellent manners—he dresses appropriately for attending a fancy meal—wearing purple linen then would be the equivalent of putting on a tuxedo today. So we know that he has good manners. But he is not decent man, and here’s the kicker—a decent man in either life or death. His indecency in life is obvious—he ignores poor Lazarus at his gate and is utterly uncaring of Lazarus’s needs. But even in death, the rich man remains entirely in character in dismissing other people—he tries to order even Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him, so that Lazarus might do the rich man’s beckoning and ease his suffering. Jesus’s Jewish audience back then would have cringed at that because Abraham was the father of the Jewish tradition, the father of Israel herself. It would be like, as Americans, if one of us, in the afterlife, tried to order George Washington around—it is patently absurd! But this rich man, caring only about himself, has the hubris to do exactly that, to ask Lazarus to intercede, to be his guardian angel, to go through the fire in order to protect him.

And I have to admit, I worry that the extremely rich possess the same sort of hubris today. At a time when the average CEO makes something along the lines of 475 times more salary per hour than the average hourly worker, and then demands that his pay always be above average that of his peers—notice how mathematically, something has to be below average, so if everyone tries to make their salary above average, your pay will skyrocket. This has been Pastor Eric’s pastoral tips for how to ask for a raise, thanks for listening. But really, I look around this sanctuary and I don’t see the rich man. I see Lazarus. It’s tough, because in Jesus’s time, there was no such thing as the middle class—there was a small group of wealthy people, maybe 5% of the population, and then everyone else lived in abject poverty—there was very little in-between. And with that position in the middle comes the burden of carrying both roles—sometimes we are seen as Lazarus, sometimes as the rich man because of our own knowledge that we may not have the financial means to change the entire world, but we can change our own little piece of it. Being a part of the middle, something intrinsic to our name as “mainline” Christians, as “mainstream” Christians, means that we are among that privileged 80% of society comfortably within the margins. And one of the biggest questions Jesus is asking the church to answer here, who in that 80% will stand up for the other 20%? The parishioners at Le Chambon in France did, but what we remember about heroics like that is not simply that so many lives were saved, but that those lives were saved in the face of the prevailing anti-Semitic sentiment of the time. In trying to encapsulate the prevailing sentiment of our time, I look to Stephen Colbert, the best fake-news anchor this side of Jon Stewart, or Chevy Chase on Weekend Update, who said in part about Christianity that “Either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition.” Loving the poor and serving the needy is not easy, but the church has never been at its best when it has limited itself to what is easy. We are at our best when we do what is right. It is why this church does things like aid the battered women’s emergency support shelter and Community House, and offer space to Narcotics Anonymous. The church should live and breathe for that work. The rich man asked Lazarus to come through the fire for him. May we instead go through the fire for Lazarus. Doing so may singe our skins, but it will also strengthen our souls. Our own Messiah asks nothing less of us, and how wonderful it must be, to have that sort of faith put into us by a Savior who believes we, His church, can change the world. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Publicity Hound

The Daily News, the local newspaper, just did a pretty neat profile on my church and me, which you can find here. It is sort of half biography about the church and about me, and half sort of our hopes for going into the future together.

To my knowledge, I have never been written about quite like this before. It feels good, but it also represents a new challenge for me in remaining humble before God and before my church. The running gag is that when a church calls a pastor, God keeps the pastor humble and the church keeps the pastor poor. I continue to believe that only the former will happen here!

There's no way around it--it really is great to see my church and me getting this kind of press. At the same time, I think of Jesus in His ministry, how in, say, Matthew 16, he orders his disciples never to say that He is the Messiah. It is an incredibly powerful contrast from His final commissioning of the disciples in Matthew, where He commands us to go and make believers of all the nations. So the attention that we Christians seem to be great at getting from the press (witness how famous megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are) is, from a Biblical perspective, a double-edged sword, a mixed bag, if we are to look at Christ's example.

If I would fault myself for something in the quotes I gave in the article, it is that I didn't do enough to glorify God in attributing my call here and my vision to Him. I was talking a mile a minute during the interview, especially about my church's future, but I did less talking about how God was at work before the interview even took place.

In any case, it is great to see the story of my church told to the community in a new and different way. Some of the most influential Christians, from Paul to Luther, were influential precisely because they were innovators, using every new medium available to them in the vernacular to spread the Word of God. Hopefully this article does the same to convey that fundamental truth--that God loves YOU without condition, hesitation, reservation, or abandon, and that He has called you to do great works in His name to make His creation better for all.


Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 16, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "The Other Samaritan"

John 4:1-15

1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (TNIV)

“From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations” Sermon Series, Week Three

I was worshiping at this particular church in Portland for the first time, and it was a lovely service, I even manage to stay awake through the entire sermon. Then Eucharist is served and I learn that it is a closed table. So, literally every single person in the sanctuary BUT me goes up, and I’m left sitting there as I hear the jingle “The cheese stands alone, the cheese stands alone” play in my ears. It means a lot to me that we practice open communion here—that when we have Eucharist, everyone can partake. But I’ve also seen churches with open communion do an excellent job week in and week out explain how important it is to them that their table is open to everyone. What isn’t explained is why the table is important in the first place. And I have to be honest, that brand of inclusivity bothers me, because it implies that we are including other people in something that is not treated as importantly as it should. Inclusion only truly matters when it makes you emotionally or spiritually vulnerable, or when it makes what you value vulnerable. If we do not value something as much as we ought to, it is no skin off our backs if people are included as a part of it or not. It’s the playground at elementary school revisited—as a boy, I wouldn’t care if a girl wanted to be included in a game of hopscotch, because boys never played hopscotch in my neck of the woods. But if that girl wanted to join our football game, well, it was with kicking and screaming on our part. But really? I admired those girls the most.

And so begins the third week of our sermon series together, “From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations.” This series is based on a book written by a United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Eric Elnes, who has pastored a very successful church in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they have made amazing use of a diverse array of tools and talents available to them in doing ministry. Eric then wrote this short book called The Phoenix Affirmations, after the town in which it was composed, but also because the image of the phoenix, being reborn out of the ashes, is a hope he has for the vital congregations of mainline American Christianity. Last week, we talked about the richness of spiritual, scriptural, artistic worship, and the week before we talked about hearing God’s word in scripture. Today’s theme, then, turns from the church’s life on Sunday morning to the church’s life of the everyday—as Jesus did, engaging people authentically and treating everyone as being made in God’s image, as Genesis 1:26 tells us.

And for my money, no Bible story tells this theme better than John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well, precisely because of that annoying word—vulnerability. This story takes place in a moment of incredible vulnerability for both Jesus and the woman. Jesus is vulnerable because he is a traveler who is currently alone—John writes that the disciples had left to obtain food, and in those days, if you traveled alone you were liable to be robbed. We know this because of the more famous Gospel story involving a Samaritan character—Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke, which begins with the solitary traveler being robbed. So Jesus must know that he is vulnerable simply because he is alone. But he is also tired and thirsty, so if he was robbed, he probably wouldn’t have the strength to defend Himself (whether the Prince of Peace would have defended himself to begin with is another question).

The Samaritan woman, in turn, is vulnerable for one of the same reasons—she, too, is alone, in public, in a time and place when women were not expected at all to converse with men without their father or brother or husband present—at our Tuesday morning Bible study a couple of weeks ago, Florence said that the Bible simply didn’t mention women, and its true—it’s because they were expected to be invisible, and to certainly never challenge a rabbi like Jesus.

And it matters that this woman is a Samaritan, because this story takes place at Jacob’s Well, a scene that invokes the story in Genesis where Jacob meets his wife Rachel for the first time—as the Genesis account writes, “As Jacob looked, he saw a well in the field, out of that well the flocks were watered,” and Rachel comes to that well to feed her father Laban’s sheep, and Jacob, being the gentleman that he is, kisses her right off the bat. But Jacob’s well would come to be a sacred place for the Samaritans because the Jews, Jesus’ people, kept the Jerusalem temple as their holiest site, which didn’t leave a lot for the Samaritans, and so they kept Jacob’s well as a holy site—and Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, is visiting it against the prevailing religious custom of the day. If you’re this Samaritan woman, a Jewish rabbi is visiting your holiest site—it would be like, say, one of us happening to swing by the Ka’aba in Makkah, Saudi Arabia—the holiest site in Islam, a site so holy that non-Muslims aren’t allowed in by custom. And what’s more, the Samaritan woman was probably raised to despise what Jesus’s teachings would be, simply because Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, not a Samaritan rabbi.

But that’s no problem for her! Her response—“How is it that you, a Jew, can ask a drink of me?” is so understated, so calm, that the narrator actually has to tell us afterwards that Jews and Samaritans didn’t play nice with one another! And her response is so, so powerful in its simplicity—a Jewish rabbi has come to her holiest site, a place that she cares about and relies on for her own water, her own life, where she would be physically, spiritually, and emotionally vulnerable because it has so much meaning, and she does not try to kick Jesus out, she does not rage, she does not condemn, she asks him a question and then actually has a dialogue with him!

It truly saddens me that this Samaritan woman is not as colloquially well known as the Good Samaritan, because the Good Samaritan was a character in Jesus’s imagination—Jesus made him up in order to make a point to a lawyer who was interrogating Him. This woman was real, and more importantly, her hospitality to Christ was real. What if we were that other Samaritan woman? People enter our church, and we may not agree with them. If you’re like me and don’t listen to Joel Osteen, someone who preaches prosperity theology enters our sanctuary. If you believe in traditional marriage, a lesbian and her life partner enter through those doors. What do you do? We can tolerate people, sure. And tolerance is better than intolerance. But it also falls far short of the radical hospitality that an otherwise unremarkable woman is showing to the Son of God. Because as far as both Samaritans are concerned—the Good Samaritan and this Samaritan woman—they are interceding in a person’s moment of vulnerability, they are being proactive, they are meeting the other person’s needs, and in doing so, they make themselves vulnerable as well. Tolerance is passive, it says, you do your thing, let me do mine, and we’ll do brunch or go bowling sometime. That’s great. That’s not being like either Samaritan, though.

Biblically-oriented inclusiveness and hospitality is not the same thing as tolerance. The Samaritan woman did not merely tolerate Jesus’s presence, the story says she eventually joyfully proclaimed his message to any other Samaritans who would hear it. And when you walk through these doors any Sunday, every Sunday, may you too be greeted by God’s presence as reflected in us, joyfully proclaiming your presence here to share in our worship and in our life. For us as Christians far from the Holy Lands of Israel and Palestine, some of the holiest, most meaningful ground we have, ground where we are at our must vulnerable, is here, before the altar of God where we eat and pray together. The table of communion is our Jacob’s well. And when a stranger comes to us, asking for a piece of bread and a drink, asking for a fleeting glimpse of the divine presence of God, what on earth are we to do? May we actively bring that stranger into our flock, treating that child of God as one of us. It will be a great, great day when all churches do this. But until they do, may our hospitality show them the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 16, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Saint Andrew Devotional: "The Latter-Day Temple"

The following is a guest e-mail devotional I wrote for my home parish, Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kansas, which was published today.

In the four weeks that I have been on the job at my new pastorate in Washington State, I have already had to field multiple calls a day from impoverished people asking if the church can help them pay a utilities bill before their water or gas or electricity gets shut off. Navigating the disbursement of the pastor's discretionary aid fund is NOT something they teach you how to do in seminary, and I have probably spent more emotional energy worrying over how I was going to split up a very small sum of money than I have spent worrying about my weekly sermons. And amidst those emotions, I have learned one inescapable, unspinnable truth-the Americans who need the church's economic help the most do not fit the hurtful stereotype of a freeloader seeking a handout, and that invoking that sort of a stereotype is insensitive to the people who are pushed into poverty every day because they played by the rules in a game where the rules favor cheaters.

And so I've been watching the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement with great interest and admiration, hoping that they may live up to their billing in speaking to the wealthiest and most powerful 1% on behalf of us, the other 99%, because in this line of work we call ministry, the 99% are given names and faces to you on a daily basis. This is something that the Bible, for all of its powerful testimony on behalf of the poor and the outcast, does not often give us. We receive the names of the heroes of the Gospels and the early Church, but far less often in the Bible are we given the names of the people who were actually helped by Christ's ministry.

We may not know their names, but we can only hope that Jesus did as He spoke and taught on their behalf over and over and over throughout His ministry. I'd like to think that those names were on His mind as He went to the Jerusalem temple during His Passion week, prepared to confront and expel the moneychangers and the predators from God's house. And I'd like to think that amid the voices of protest and pain that are arising from America's middle and underclass today, we still have it in ourselves to be Christ like, to go to the latter-day temple and offer the Good News for the 99%, for it is our Gospel, too.

"He said to them, 'It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.' The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them." -Matthew 20:13-14

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 12, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "The Privatization of Faith"

Luke 18:9-14

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (TNIV)

“From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations” Sermon Series, Week Two

One of my favorite television shows ever is The West Wing, which depicts a fictional US federal government with Martin Sheen playing the President, and if you want to know why it appealed to me, that was why—Martin Sheen as my President! It’d be like…Mother Teresa being my pastor, it just sounds amazing! And the President’s Communications Director, Toby Ziegler, is Jewish, and in an episode he’s recounting a story told to him by his grandfather. During the Holocaust, in the concentration camps, his grandfather comes across a fellow Jewish prisoner who is falling down to the ground and thanking God over and over, and he says to that man, “What on earth do you have to be thankful for?” To which the man points to the Nazi guards and replies, “I’m thanking God that He didn’t make me like them.”

These are almost the exact same words that the proud, pompous Pharisee says to God in today’s Scripture—thank you, God, for not making me like him, like that lowly tax collector right over there. But…to your ears, doesn’t one sound a little more like authentic worship, like true worship of God, than the other? The issue that Jesus is tackling here is self-righteousness, but oh, does authenticity also have lots to do with how many people think Christians are today!

And so begins the second week of our sermon series together, “From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations.” This series is based on a book written by a United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Eric Elnes, who has pastored a very successful church in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they have made amazing use of a diverse array of tools and talents available to them in doing ministry. Eric then wrote this short book called The Phoenix Affirmations, after the town in which it was composed, but also because the image of the phoenix, being reborn out of the ashes, is a hope he has for the vital congregations of mainline American Christianity. Last week, we talked about the importance of Scripture—all of Scripture—in our spirituality as Disciples of Christ. And the affirmation that we will be exploring as our theme for today’s message is, “Expressing love in worship that is sincere, vibrant, artful, and scriptural.”

In that spirit, what, if anything at all, is salvageable from the Pharisee’s stark display of hypocrisy? How can we humble ourselves in worship like the tax collector but do so in public so that we may be with one another in fellowship rather than being off in the corner in solitude? The wording of this final verse is crucial—all who humble themselves will be exalted. Worship is not merely to praise God, it is also to humble ourselves. And I have to tell you, in this day and age, the thought of a church that actually would try to humble itself, to admit its need for mercy, to admit that it does not have all the answers, that thought would run so contrary to the image that many, many people have, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, have of the church.

But the traditional ways and rituals that churchgoers have sought to humble themselves before God seem to have fallen by the wayside—in newer churches, gone are the collective prayers of repentance and calls to worship, replaced instead by movie-theater style seats and messages that tell you that God doesn’t need your good work and compassion, instead, God wants to make you rich if only you put just a little more in the offering bucket! Now, I’m a twentysomething whippersnapper, so I’m fine with the whole out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new sentiment, but not when the “new” that is being brought in is this! I don’t think that Jesus came to earth so that His followers could sit passively in cushy chairs and hear motivational speeches rather than actual sermons. In so many churches these days, bland platitudes about prosperity and good table manners now pass for sacred truth. Jeffrey MacDonald, a United Church of Christ pastor on the East Coast, tells about the story of a church he served about ten years ago when his pastoral advisory team came to him and asked him to keep his sermons to no more than ten minutes long, to tell funny stories, and to have everyone leave feeling great about themselves. That’s not worship—that’s half an episode of the very funny sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

So we know, deep down, that we shouldn’t come to worship expecting to be entertained, but on the other hand, I know that my obligation as your preacher is to be able to engage you, to hold your attention for however long I have asked for your time. I may stumble upon truth, but if I cannot communicate with you what I believe, then we all might as well be back in the high school English class taught by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And the same is true for us of anyone we meet in the world after church—if we cannot communicate truth with one another during worship, how can we expect to talk about the church to others after worship?

A worship that offers us the chance to be humble may teach us how. In his book, Eric Elnes talks about how worship and its rituals make God accessible—and if God becomes more accessible to us, we can more easily communicate God to one another. Worship helps us accept that we can never see the entirety of God in all of His infinite love and grace and compassion. And here’s the kicker—it is often easier to do in a community than individually. The European anthropologist Emile Durkheim had a big name for it, he called it collective effervescence, but what he refers to is the tendency for a religious experience of one person to affect the religious experience of the person next them…put a different way, experiencing God is contagious!

Across the world, that singular truth can be seen—that experiencing God is contagious. Almost every religious sect has some sort of communal worship. And while it is remarkable that America, with its long history of individualism and personal freedom, has maintained a rich history of communal worship for as long as it has, that history too, is falling by the wayside as people begin to refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” And in doing so, we are combining the worst of both worlds from the Pharisee and the tax collector—not only are we giving ourselves great importance in worship by talking about how God wants to make us wealthy and to succeed and hold power and authority just like the Pharisee, but in the world outside of the church, if we do not have a faith community then we become as alone as the tax collector, whose message is right on the button, but the Pharisee who needs to hear the tax collector’s message never does! In this parable, the Pharisee never hears the right message that is being offered just a short distance away. The Pharisee’s sin of self-righteousness has been compounded by his reliance upon himself for worship, rather than allowing himself to open up and actually be vulnerable to what the other people in the temple with him have to say.

And so may our worship together on all Sundays transcend that privatization of faith that is taking place, as people tuck away their own spirituality away from others who could support them, accompany them, and challenge them in their quest to experience God. May our worship speak the tax collector’s message in a way so that the Pharisee might hear it, and hear it in a wide array of languages, in the language of praise music and of prayer, of Scripture and of interpretation, and in doing so, may we reassure the doubters and the cynics who believe we echo the Pharisees in pointing to the rest of the world in saying, “Thank you, Lord, for not making me like them!” No…thank you, Lord, for making me like all of your children, for making me painfully, wonderfully, imperfectly, amazingly human, so that I can worship you right alongside them. And with that gratitude, may we be a place of prayer, a center for worship that is sacred, and vibrant, and filled with life and vitality where people can arrive and say, “I have seen God here! Surrounded by my brothers and sisters, I have seen God here!” By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 9, 2011

Sunday, October 2, 2011

This Week's Sermon: "Red Letters"

Matthew 22:34-40

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (TNIV)

“From Sunlight to Ashes: The Phoenix Affirmations” Sermon Series, Week One

The thirtysomething preacher had just left his previous ministry in the Foursquare tradition to take the reins at a small, struggling church in Costa Mesa, California. He was already pastoring a moderately sized and successful congregation elsewhere, and on paper, it might not make sense to take that sort of a call, but he did so anyways. That pastor, Chuck Smith, went on to found from that Costa Mesa church the nationwide Calvary Chapel association of nondenominational evangelical churches. And when asked later about the defining features of his teaching and preaching style in creating this association out of a single, tiny, church, Pastor Smith said, simply, he wanted the best fed sheep of any church. The best fed sheep!

Now, I’m hoping that we can give good ol’ Pastor Smith a run for his money, and this hope of mine is one of several that I hope to share with you over the next several weeks. Today marks the beginning of my first sermon series with all of you, entitled, as you can see, “From Ashes to Sunlight: The Phoenix Affirmations.” It is based on a book written by a United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Eric Elnes, who has pastored a very successful church in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they have made amazing use of a diverse array of tools and talents available to them in doing ministry. Eric then wrote this short book called The Phoenix Affirmations, after the town in which it was composed, but also because the image of the phoenix, being reborn out of the ashes, is a hope he has for the vital congregations of mainline American Christianity. Congregations just like us. And so I’ll be using this book as a template for offering to you this sermon series as way of you getting to know me as a pastor and as a person, my style and my vision. A sort of break-the-ice kind of thing, but one that will take a couple of months rather than a couple of minutes, and one that thankfully doesn’t involve a name game.

The first affirmation from the Phoenix affirmations that we will be exploring as today’s theme in this series is, “Listening for God’s word in prayer and in Scripture.” Now, at Calvary, Pastor Smith wanted his flock to be the best-fed flock when it came to Scripture. So he taught Biblical inerrancy—that the Bible is completely and wholly without error in any capacity—a doctrine that offers certainty and simplicity, but that also offers a colossal burden for the believer—as Eric Elnes writes about what some of his more conservative friends told him, “if you question even one fact in the Bible, you’ll soon question another and then another until finally the bottom will fall out and you’ll throw the whole thing away as irrelevant.” It is one of the greatest challenges for us as 21st-century Americans reading a 1st-century or earlier document from the Middle East—how can we open the Bible to a page, almost any page, and not read at least one thing that invites more questions than answers? Or that invites more doubt than faith?

This predicament has been scripted and performed in a number of dramatic settings in film and television, movies like the Academy-award winning film Dead Man Walking, or TV shows like the hit series The West Wing, in which a learned, progressive Christian confronts a Biblically inerrant literalist Christian over whether they would, say, sell their child into slavery as mandated in Exodus, or whether they would condemn a person for eating shellfish because shellfish are referred to as an abomination in Leviticus? Both characters in this interaction are basically exaggerations of themselves—the liberal Christian is overly self-assured in their knowledge while the literalist Christian is a “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” type. It is neither—we’re both right. We’re both wrong. If anything, I think mainline Christians have a rap for being less knowledgeable when it comes to Biblical know-how than our evangelical brothers and sisters, and it is because of something that I have seen everywhere in church. It is the act of creating a Bible within a Bible, like the Russian Krishna dolls, of the things we like the most. The canon of the Bible was closed on paper some 1,700 years ago, but really, many, many of us continue to carve apart the Bible, looking only at what reassures us, or what we are used to reading. I have preacher friends who call those folks “Cafeteria Christians,” because they pick and choose like they were at a buffet, but I would take that metaphor even further—we not only pick our verses, we then Super Size them as well by giving them such powerful importance.

And at first glance, it would look like Jesus is doing just that in our passage in Matthew, Jesus, who is in his final public debates with the Pharisees and Sadduccees, bests them at every turn, but then turns around and says that essentially the entire Old Testament—which is divided into three parts, the law, the prophets, and the wisdom writings—He says that two of those parts, essentially two-thirds of his Scripture—hangs on two fundamental commandments—love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Not long after Jesus, the Rabbi Hillel would say something remarkably similar in the Talmud—that the scope and scale of the entire Torah can be summed up as “love your neighbor.” Everything else, he says, is simply commentary. Put differently, every law in the Bible, all 613 of them, should have a basis in love of God and a basis in love of one another. It all comes back to love.

There is a movement in the church that embodies this spirit, they call themselves Red Letter Christians. In many Bibles, the words of Christ are put into red letter type, while the rest of Scripture remains in black type, and so by their name, Red Letter Christians are saying that we should value first the teachings of Jesus, rather than take the route traveled in other churches by proof texting different parts of Scripture in order to make a point. And believe it or not, we had Red Letter Christians around two hundred years ago, too—a movement of people who created a motto of, “No Creed but Christ,” an attitude that liberated them to study all of Scripture, not just the McNuggets. Only back then, this movement was eventually called the Disciples of Christ.

And so while I would say this about any Disciples parish, in particular with us, I am incredibly, deeply hopeful that this Disciples church, that all of us can transcend the trend of limiting ourselves merely to our Biblical comfort zones. During my meeting with your search committee, and again in our Tuesday morning Bible study, I was asked about my desire to tackle books of the Bible that mainline Christians don’t often talk about—especially the book of Revelation. I’ll give my answer in a more elegant form—set aside the stew of Biblical inerrancy that Pastor Smith and other ministers feed to their churches—I want us to be among the best-fed Christians in America, in the world, when it comes to learning and studying Scripture—even when, especially when, it requires us to get past the black-and-white bumper sticker clich├ęs of inerrancy or canons-within-canons, because beyond that is where all of the good stuff is, all of the stories and laws and prophesies that we get to make our own, read and learn from and wrestle with, the good stuff is in there. If we must have a canon within a canon, then red letters are a good place to start—but only as long as the red letters are our foundation, not our comfort zone. And if we need any reassurance that this is where we should go with our Scriptures, we can turn once more to Jesus in this passage—his use of the two laws comes from two different books of the Torah—Deuteronomy and Leviticus. As Jesus was unafraid to bring with him the entirety of the law in his faith, so too may we be unafraid to explore the entirety of the law and the Gospels, the letters and the prophets. May our faith never keep us from being satisfied with the belief that the Bible says it and that settles it. And may our faith lead us to where God is in these texts, for there we may find the guiding light in going forward together as a church. May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 2, 2011