Monday, January 30, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "What God Will Be"

Exodus 3:13-20

13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.[a] So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” 15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.

16 “Go and get Israel’s elders together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me. The LORD said, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land full of milk and honey.” 18 They will accept what you say to them. Then you and Israel’s elders will go to Egypt’s king and say to him, “The LORD, the Hebrews’ God, has met with us. So now let us go on a three-day journey into the desert so that we can offer sacrifices to the LORD our God.” 19 However, I know that Egypt’s king won’t let you go unless he’s forced to do it. 20 So I’ll use my strength and hit Egypt with dramatic displays of my power. After that, he’ll let you go. (CEB)

“…With All My Wonders: Moses at the Burning Bush,” Week Two

In the middle of the night under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hospital ceiling, and shaking with tears, grief, and impotent rage, the father rocked back and forth in the chair that was next to the bed where his forty-year-old son had just died. The father was beyond expressing himself in even the simplest sentences, repeating to me over, and over, and over, as I sat next to him feeling just as impotent, “Why? Why? Why?” It is the question that many pastors dread, and none more so than me as a hospital chaplain on just my third day on the job. That simple question of why—why do bad things happen to good people—that question has caused more grief to be felt, more ink to be spilled, and more sermons to be spoken than maybe any other religious question under the sun. It is the most fundamental reason for why many of us are religious to begin with—to try to find the answers to the questions we cannot answer ourselves, those questions that gnaw at our consciences, and our souls ache because of it.

This week marks the second week of a four-week sermon series that we are walking through together. This series, “With All My Wonders,” will travel verse-by-verse through the story of Moses at the burning bush in the third and fourth chapters of Exodus. It is, I pray, a spiritually fulfilling segue from the Christmas season into Lent, for Lent always begins with the story of Jesus being called and then sent into the wilderness, just as Moses was—called by God here at the wilderness of the burning bush, and then sent to the wilderness of Egypt—a land he had not lived in for forty years. Remember where this story is in the chronology of Exodus—it is not that Moses is a native Midianite, called by his own God. No, Moses is a Hebrew child raised as an Egyptian (in the royal family, no less), but then he is cast into exile for murder, and he finds the beginnings of his redemption not in the glory of his former royalty, but in the fire of the presence of God. Last week, we explored the fundamental character of God, how a God of only a small, select people could become a God of all people. This week, we take on the preposterous task of actually trying to name such a universal, all-encompassing, all-everything deity.

Now, point blank, Moses’ question in verse 13 is not so much a question as it is the first of many excuses that we will hear from him over the next three weeks, and it is a pretty weak one at that. Moses is not fleet of speech or strong of tongue, so imagine this completely tongue-tied prince-turned-shepherd asking what is a fairly lame question—the purpose of the question isn’t to get an answer, it’s to collect yourself, to stall for time as you wait for something better to say. Moses is the kid in the back of the class, gets called on, and begins his answer by saying, “So, um, essentially, uh, what you’re asking me is, er…” It’s not noble prose! Moses is looking for a way out of this commission that has been bestowed upon him just a few verses ago, as God says, “Unto Pharaoh I shall send YOU.” And his leadoff hitter is a slightly tidier version of, “Well, I don’t know your name!”

It’s a simple protestation, to be sure, but God gives us a very un-simple answer—I am who I am. In Hebrew, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, and in English…we really do not know. God’s name is translated as “I am who I am” or “I am what I am.” One way of looking at this is, God is basically telling Moses, “It is none of your business who I am! I am who I am. Let’s get the focus back to you for the moment.” That doesn’t go down quite as easily for me, for two reasons—one is that it brings to mind that scene in the Disney movie The Lion King, where Rafiki jabs adult Simba in the nose and asks, “But who are you?” when Simba is trying to find the spirit of his father, Mufasa, and I think of the situation reversed—of what I saw in that hospital room years ago, of a father wondering who he is, that his love could not save his son from death, and of who he will be now, with a son no longer with the living. But the other reason is, quite simply, I truly do not think that “I am who I am” was actually the divine name.

There is another, less-used translation of the divine name, of ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, that usually does not make it past the footnotes of any given translation of the Scriptures, and that translation is, “I will be what I will be.” Now we’re getting somewhere. No longer is God defined circularly—God is what is, but God will be defined by what God will be—and what God will do. In the Exodus story, God is about to be defined by all of His signs and wonders that He is about to perform upon Egypt, and, by extension, upon Egypt’s gods. The plagues, the separation of the Red Sea, and even the manna from heaven in the wilderness, all are the tiniest glimpses of what God will be in this story.

It is still a frustrating answer, precisely because of its richness and complexity. This is not light versus dark, this is not black versus white, this is a powerful, heart-rending, and incredibly conflicting answer all at once. And, like most answers to the simplest questions—questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “How does a God of good create a devil?” so too does a simple question like Moses asking, “What name shall I call you?” always produce an enigmatic answer. This is great for me—this is why you pay me the big bucks, right? But it is a serious obstacle to being Christian, for wanting to be so presumptuous and selfish as to actually want to be closer to a God who insists on being cloaked in mystery.

Our entire lives are like this—lives that are not light or dark, black or white, and in this way, much as we try to come as close as possible to God, what we must realize is that our lives are already an incredibly close reflection of the divine name, of the very nature of God. We rise and fall upon our own successes and failures, we live and die with the approval of our closest family and friends, and yet we are remembered most not for who we are, but for what we do in this world. Just as God will be what God will be, so too will we be what we shall be—by serving at a community center, you become a volunteer. By engaging a child to read or write, you become a teacher. And by praying to Jesus and making the world a better place for your having been in it, you become a Christian. But, you say, we can be so many of those things at once—we can teach, and volunteer, and pray, and give. Yes. So too can God. Just as our lives refuse, in all their dilemmas and crises and decisions, to be classified in labels black and white to us, is it any wonder that Scripture is utterly incapable of similarly labeling the very existence of God, or that God would resist being so bluntly labeled and say to Moses upon Horeb, “I Will Be What I Will Be?” But, to any extent that there has been a adequate label of what God is, can, and will be in this world, it is this poem by the Episcopalian priest, the Rev. Carter Heyward:

God will judge with righteousness, justice, mercy those who batter, burn, sneer, discriminate, or harbor prejudice.
God will be battered as a wife and as a child.
God will have a mastectomy.
God will experience the wonder of giving birth.
God will be handicapped.
God will run the marathon.
God will win.
God will lose.
God will be down and out, suffering, dying
God will be bursting free, coming to life, for
God will be what God will be.

God will be what God will be. Let that be enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 29, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Day in the Life: Sounds Like Someone's Got a Case of the Mondays!

(Author's Note: This post is the first of a two-part series as an answer to that jokingly cliched question, "So, what exactly does your pastor do the other six days of the week?" This is a "day in the life" post, the second part will be a "week in the life" post. It will not, however, be the length of six "day in the life" posts, I promise. -E.A.)

Most Monday mornings, I am up at 7:30 am, 7:45 if I indulge my snooze button a couple of times. The morning is fairly typical--I brew coffee (occasionally forgetting crucial ingredients like, say, a filter), make breakfast, and read the news (on my computer). I always try to reserve 10-15 minutes in the morning for Scripture and prayer, but I'd be lying if I said I managed to do that every day. This would be one of those days.

On Mondays, I keep office hours between 9:30 am - 5:30 pm, so I'm usually in the car by 9:00.

Arriving at work, I see on my desk a few letters and pieces of mail for me from the previous Friday. 90% of these are solicitations, invites to events, and otherwise junk mail, but just enough personal letters arrive to keep the mail interesting. Sitting down to read my mail, I log in to my church email as well as our various social networking outlets--Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and, of course, here.

Around 10:00 am is my weekly sit-down meeting with our extremely dedicated secretary, Charlotte. This week's agenda, from my end, is a lengthy one--we just had a board meeting and approved a couple of significant expenses, plus we are in the midst of a major administrative overhaul as far as our policies on personnel, facilities, and the like are concerned. We both take extensive notes, and we work on assignment triage--determining which of these items needs to be dealt with first, second, third, and so on.

After this meeting, I have to switch gears entirely, because at 11:00 am, I hold a chapel service for the morning students of the KidsWorld preschool that my church hosts in our education building. While KidsWorld is non-denominational and not formally affiliated with my church, I do work with them very closely on a number of things, and this is one of them, and for good reason: the morning chapel usually brings in over 40 four-year-old kids! After a few songs, one of the teachers recites a Bible verse with the children (this year, it is Matthew 7:12, aka the Golden Rule--do unto others). My role in the chapel service is to give a little talk or storytime at the end for the kids. Because I have a free hand to choose to do whatever I want during this time, I'll do this through a variety of ways--I've brought in comic strips, I've used my ipad (which the kids always get a kick out of), I've prayed with them. This week, I'm using a children's Bible to tell them the story of the Good Samaritan, as an example of a person living by the Golden Rule. It ain't no ipad, but it goes over well.

I hold another chapel for the afternoon kids at 2:30 pm, so the 11:30-2:30 time is the next window of time to attend to office matters. This usually gets broken up by a lunch run--today to Big Town Hero for a tuna sandwich--but I am otherwise at my desk returning emails and phone calls, posting on Facebook or Twitter, and otherwise interacting with the legions of my church's adoring fans, who I KNOW are out there. =) If there are visitors who leave contact information from yesterday's worship, this is usually when I follow up with them.

The afternoon preschool chapel is always over by 3:00, and around 3:30 or 4:00, Don, our church moderator, often stops by for our weekly sit-down meeting. Like my meeting with Charlotte, much of what Don and I talk about is administrative, but he is also one of my most important sounding boards for ideas and ministries that I want to try. In a small church, I think it is difficult to overstate the relationship the pastor must have with the lay leader of the church (moderator, president, etc). He and I are looking ahead towards the annual general meeting of the church, where we have to get our budget and proposed slate of officers approved, so I also go over the material I have for my "State of the Church" discussion with him.

After my meeting with Don, I usually have an hour or so to tie up any loose ends from the day, and I'll leave the office between 5:30 and 5:45, but that isn't the end of the workday--tonight, I drive from the office to a local bar and grill to meet at 6:00 with one of the couples who I am marrying this year at the church. Because of the architectural beauty of our sanctuary, we host a lot of weddings, and I usually sit down with couples several times before their wedding for some planning and counseling, and I actually enjoy these sessions a great deal. At this meeting, over a couple of beers, they and I discuss themes for the wedding, family histories, and homework to do before our next meeting. Usually, these meetings are an hour long, but since this is an initial session, it goes for about 90 minutes because of how much ground there is to cover.

Afterwards, I have to make it home by 8:00 for a Skype conference with Marvin, a retired Disciples pastor who has been mentoring me through the beginning stages of my pastorate here. Our conversation over that hour encompasses a wide variety of topics, and since it is incredibly easy for pastors to let themselves live in a bubble, not hearing and seeing what other pastors and other churches are doing, these conversations are invaluable to me in doing my job well.

At 9:00, Marvin and I both sign off, and I can finally kick up my feet and pour myself a glass of wine. Even though I have to be back at the office in 12 hours to study and prepare for the Tuesday morning adult Bible study, I feel good, and I play some Maynard Ferguson on the iTunes as I crack open a new book that has nothing to do with ministry. It has been a good day's work.

Yours in Christ,

(Okay, so I didn't actually have a case of the Mondays here. I just wanted to include a line from Office Space.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Footprints"

Exodus 3:1-12

1 Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro,[a] Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The LORD’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.
4 When the LORD saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

Moses said, “I’m here.”

5 Then the LORD said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the LORD said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.” (CEB)

“…With All My Wonders: Moses at the Burning Bush,” Week One

The desert sun would beat down upon the pilgrims’ shoulders as they approached the multistory stone wall, the single largest intact remains of the great temples of Herod and Solomon. They say that prayers written down and placed in the cracks of the wall are heard by God Himself, and that the closest God ever came to inhabiting the world is in the space that lies beyond that wall.

The Western Wall in ancient Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Jewish temple tradition, venerable though it is, has long since been architecturally eclipsed by the Dome of the Rock to the northeast and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the south. Walk across a stone pavilion, though, and go through airport-style security, and any Gentile may, side-by-side with the Jewish pilgrims, pray at the place where it is said that God’s spirit still dwells.

Yet it was not always this way. In the Genesis stories, God appears through angels masquerading as men—to Lot, to Sarah to tell her she shall have a child, and to Jacob to tell him that he shall be renamed Israel. The first time we hear of God inhabiting a space of land, then, is not the Temple of Solomon. It is here, at a burning bush in Midian, before a man named Moses.

This week marks the start of a new four-week sermon series that we will be walking through together. This series, “With All My Wonders,” will travel verse-by-verse through the story of Moses at the burning bush in the third and fourth chapters of Exodus. It will be, I pray, a spiritually fulfilling segue from the Christmas season into Lent, for Lent always begins with the story of Jesus being called and then sent into the wilderness, just as Moses was—called by God here at the wilderness of the burning bush, and then sent to the wilderness of Egypt—a land he had not lived in for forty years. Remember where this story is in the chronology of Exodus—it is not that Moses is a native Midianite, called by his own God. No, Moses is a Hebrew child raised as an Egyptian (in the royal family, no less), but then he is cast into exile for murder, and he finds the beginnings of his redemption not in the glory of his former royalty, but in the fire of the presence of a god NOT his own as an Egyptian, a God for a particular people, a particular time, and especially in this story, a particular place—the burning bush.

So, fundamentally, the setting of this story flies in the face of everything that we have come to believe about a universal god, a god so omnipresent that He is everywhere at all times, including here, in our sanctuary, thousands of miles from wherever He may have appeared to our religious ancestors. In this story, the angel of God—and then God Himself—is saying that the place upon which Moses stands—not any other place, not the Holy of Holies, not the Jerusalem temple, not the Ark of the Covenant, for none of those things even existed—here, in this tiniest of tiny patches of land, God dwells. So far removed are we from the magnificent images of places like the Western Wall, or the Dome of the Rock, or even a Gothic sanctuary as beautiful as our own that it is absolutely jaw-dropping that God would appear in a bush. If you’re going for awe and majesty—which, let’s be honest, God is in this story when we get around to the plagues—then at least give us a tree, or a mountaintop, or a cliff, something that isn’t so humble as a shrub. But that is the first lesson we must learn in God-worship—that we may search for God at earth’s top, but we are most likely to find Him in the deepest of valleys. That is hardly comforting for us, though—the Exodus God is fundamentally a god of liberation from pain, a god of freedom from humiliation, of emancipation from injustice, and that is a god we would want to be everywhere, mountain and valley alike!

But those wishes, however heartfelt, do not answer for us the question of how we go from a very local, tribal god to the God of all power and splendor who rules over all the heavens, all the earth, and all things that are in them. That question has often been answered by pastors and theologians in terms of the static nature of God—God IS all-present, God IS universal—and that is fine, but it neglects what God DOES, and, at least as importantly how God does what He does. It is not simply that God has always been universal, even if He created all the heavens, all the earth, and all the things that are in them. It is that God has traveled with us across that creation He has made—just as we are carried by God, so too do we carry God with us wherever we go.

The rabbinic tradition of Judaism created, long ago, a book called the Talmud, which is used to this day by Jewish rabbis across to world to interpret that very nature of God. And in the Talmud, there is a story of how, like how God sent angels to speak to us, God sends angels to accompany us as well. We have a belief like that in Christianity in the form of guardian angels, but in this Talmudic tradition, the angels are not guardians as much as heralds—messengers, as their original purpose was in the Scriptures. But rather than heralding God’s divine presence, these angels herald OUR presence—as the Talmud writes, each of us has a flock of angels that goes before us, calling out to other angels, saying “Make way! Make way! Make way for the image of God!”

It’s a great story…and one that I realize does NOT answer my question of how God becomes a universal god. But it’s a good story to tell in a sermon, no? It does get us part of the way there, because the theology told in that story from the Talmud is one of us carrying God. But the inverse is equally true, that God can, and does, carry us—there’s the old story of a fellow who went through his entire life believing so, so firmly that God was walking alongside him in each step of the journey. And at the end of his life, on his deathbed, the man turns around and looks at his entire life, and at all of the places he had been, he sees his footprints, scattered across the entire world. Sometimes, though, he sees two sets of footprints, other times only one set. And so he says to God, “God, I believed in you. I thought you loved me. How come there are only one set of footprints at so many different places in my life? I needed you. Why weren’t you walking alongside of me?” To which God simply replies, “Oh, there? That would be where I picked you up, and carried you in my arms.”

That is the Exodus story, in its purest form. Here, at the burning bush, God has heard the cries of His children and is preparing to take an entire people into His arms and deliver them out of the injustice of bondage and into a better time, in a better land. There will be times along that journey where the Israelite people will say, “Why are there only one set of footprints?” The entire Hebrew Bible is filled with those moments. There will be times, perhaps there already have been, in your own life journey where you have asked God why there are only one set of footprints. But even this answer, that God has carried you, is incomplete. It is not enough to say that God has picked you up and carried you in His arms. It is proclaim that he has done so by speaking through His angels, those angels are traveling before you, even while you’re in His arms, calling out, “Make way! Make way! Make way for the image of God!” In this way, God has become known in the world. In this way, God has gone from beyond the Promised Land, that land of milk and honey that only a few were promised so very, very, long ago to the rest of the world He rules over. And in this way, the God of the burning bush has become the God of the world entire. Make way for the image of God! Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 22, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012

Through the Looking Glass: Reflecting on Yesterday, MLK Sunday

Fundamentally, being a pastor is not something that kids always dream of in the same way that, say, as a child I dreamed of being a firefighter or the starting first baseman for the Kansas City Royals (insert your own jokes here), or even better, a dinosaur hunter, since I came of age in the era of Jurassic Park. Regular parents have "Take Your Child to Work Day" every year, but for PKs--pastor's kids--"Take Your Child to Work Day" is every single Sunday, which can be as apt to warp a child's relationship with the church as it is to strengthen it.

In short, I have not, and do not, believe mine is a vocation that many children dream of. There are exceptions to every rule, and I know that is the case here as well. But ministry is not a glamorous profession--there are no prime-time dramas depicting the work life of pastors the same way as hit shows like Law & Order and ER have for years for lawyers and doctors, respectively (the most recent time the networks DID try to do that for pastors, the resulting show--The Book of Daniel--lasted half a season). You can argue that the culture of the megachurch means that people like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar are, in fact, the glamorous side of ministry, but I consider their interpretations of Scripture to be so heretical that I hesitate to even call them pastors.

Instead, we live in an era where pastors are increasingly distrusted, whether because of the child abuse scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church, or the financial scandals of people like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, or the simple reality that vast swaths of the world are still dirt poor and the church has been unable to fundamentally change that reality.

But on this day, the federal, state, and local governments shut down, schools close, and I work from home in honor of a pastor--the pastor who has posthumously become a gold standard in how preached words can change lives and how pacifistic resistance can change an entire nation. The other 364 days of the year, there is no greater formal honor given to any servant of any church who has ever lived (I am not counting Christmas because Christ does not serve the church, Christ IS the church).

So for my Scripture devotions today, I read the Isaiah passage that King used for his "I Have a Dream" speech--Isaiah 40. I remember that chapter more for how it ends--"They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." King used the beginning of the chapter, which reads in part, "every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened."

Out of that chapter of 2,500-year old prophecy, King created words that have since become immortal. I tried my sacred best to do that legacy honor and credit in my sermon yesterday, but I know that even my best effort will fall short to the likes of him. I know this because I know I tried too hard in making that sermon. For the first time since I began my pastorate here, I borrowed heavily from the theme of a previously successful sermon of mine in seminary (so great was my worry of falling flat), doubled up on the exegesis, and tried to cram everything I knew about Biblical justice into a 15-minute sermon.

But one day and many hours of sleep later, I am strangely grateful for how that sermon turned out, because it reminded me of what I fear the world has missed out most on due to King's assassination. I want for the world what King took with him when he was shot and killed that April day in Memphis. Many other pastors have tried, in their own individual styles, to be as inspiring and lofty as he was, but we are mere husks compared to him. Competent counterfeiters, but counterfeiters nonetheless. Without what King had, the pulpit of the best pastors, the ones most dedicated to their craft, has withered in size, the church has reduced in scope, and our relevance is now in question less than fifty years after African-American citizens were given the unmitigated right to vote after the leadership and action of many, many Christian parishes.

And so now we find ourselves today with our most famous pastors, instead of preaching justice and equality and inclusion, preach prosperity and wealth instead. It is an easier message, to be sure, to preach, but it will never stand a candle to the legacy of the man honored on this day.

And that is as it should be, for we reap what we sow.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, January 15, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Christian Math"

Mark 6:34-44

34 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things.

35 Late in the day, his disciples came to him and said, “This is an isolated place, and it’s already late in the day. 36 Send them away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy something to eat for themselves.”

37 He replied, “You give them something to eat.”

But they said to him, “Should we go off and buy bread worth almost eight months’ pay[a] and give it to them to eat?”

38 He said to them, “How much bread do you have? Take a look.”

After checking, they said, “Five loaves of bread and two fish.”

39 He directed the disciples to seat all the people in groups as though they were having a banquet on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 He took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them, broke the loaves into pieces, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 Everyone ate until they were full. 43 They filled twelve baskets with the leftover pieces of bread and fish. 44 About five thousand had eaten. (CEB)

Amy Gopp, the director of the Disciples’ crisis aid arm, the Week of Compassion, tells the story of when she was traveling through the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and stopped one Sunday morning at a local parish to act as a guest preacher. After her sermon, this congregation held its offering, and they did none of the formal things that we do, of solemnly passing the plate around, no, they came forward with their offerings, and they danced—they danced as they brought forward the first fruits of what very few possessions they had—they had brought out of a patch of dirt a cornucopia. But that was not enough, as the music started all over again, and the congregants danced forward again with still more offerings to lay on Amy’s lap—fishes and plantains and fruits and crops, and she was absolutely stunned that a people so poor would ever want to give anything to someone so comparatively wealthy. As for the why, I can only venture a guess—the people she was ministering to may never have learned math as we know it, with algebra and calculus, but they knew what I have come to think of as Christian math.

Back in school in the 1990s, my hand would always shoot up in class with the answer. But fast forward a few years, put that young confident boy in an algebra, or geometry, or calculus class, send him up to the board, and it is a fine recipe for embarrassment, hurt, and humiliation. I usually crack that I went to seminary due to my antipathy to science, but really, clerics are just as apt to be inept at math, a horrible trait, I am quickly learning, during church budget season. The pressure of getting it right when it comes to math did not stop with the high school chalkboard, it continues in my life to this day, even though they do not teach you math in seminary. Christian math is seldom accurate math.

But the pressure of getting it right is not limited to those black-and-white subjects like math and science where there is only one answer. No longer in the church today is it enough to be fair, or just, or equal, much less loved, we must now be right, and rightful, and righteous. And what was right in the time of the Bible? What was it to be right? It was to believe that food for the people was supplied by the gods through the Roman emperor…that was what the empire taught us in that day. If you think that is patently ridiculous, remember that the entire country of North Korea is taught essentially the same thing today by Kim Jong Il’s heirs. Wherever you received your food, that source was likely to be treated with respect bordering upon reverence.

What is overlooked in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is that the story immediately before it is the beheading of John the Baptist. Mark doesn’t say it explicitly, but implicitly--that these are sheep who no longer have a shepherd. imagine that the hordes of people coming to Jesus had once been followers of John the Baptist…and we don’t really know how many of them there really were—the number 5,000 was the number of soldiers in a Roman Legion, which we can take to simply mean that there was a horde of people, a legion in the modern sense of the word. Many are the children of God who have been thrown into the wilderness of despair and grief at the loss of their religious leader, and many are the children of God who have now turned to one child in particular—God’s Son—to lead them anew.

But Jesus’s first task in this leadership of a new flock is not to lead in the sense we would think of it—it is to feed, and to feed abundantly. Just as out of the patch of dirt that was Nazareth, Christ built for us a new Jerusalem, so too out of five loaves and two fishes did He build for us a new meal of all the food that we could ever need. In the face of everything else that the Roman education system and the propaganda of the emperor told us to be true and correct and right, Jesus is asking us, his disciples to have only faith in Him, something that the disciples, despite being deep into the journey of Jesus’s ministry, are not yet prepared to do—they are prepared to dismiss the crowds to find food for themselves, surely, as any sensible, responsible person would do, any person who was well aware of the mathematics and logistics of the situation when it came to feeding a legion of men, never mind the women and children whom Mark forgets about, but whom were presumably fed as well—Jesus feeds the forgotten.

Jesus does what we now know to be right, but what any respectable person back then would say was the impractical course of action. And if all we are concerned with is the practical course of action, then we need to get out of the being-Christian business. Being Christian means performing acts of mercy and compassion, but even before those acts can happen, we must have a faith in ourselves that those actions we might take, those burdens we might bear, and those weights that we assume upon our weary shoulders might actually make a lick of difference in this fragile and broken world! It was Soren Kierkegaard who spoke so many years ago of taking a leap of faith, jumping from the known into the unknown in the hopes of coming closer to God, but what I want to know is how he managed a leap when the weight on my shoulders sometimes feels so heavy that I can barely manage to hop; never mind a jump or a leap, on many days I feel like I could settle for walking just so that I wouldn’t be reduced to having to crawl, because I may not have
the energy to leap today, but please God, leave me my dignity, leave me my pride.

I know what you may be thinking…sure, it is noble for people who have so little to give, but isn’t it also discomforting to imagine people who have so little giving to people who have so much? Yes…yes it is. And once you know where to look for it, the appeal to give until it hurts is all over the Bible. The way the Disciples preacher Granville Walker translated Paul’s famous 1st Corinthians 13 passage was not, “Love is patient,” but rather, “Love suffers long.” Today’s Scripture ends at verse 44, but if we were to continue reading, we would see a Jesus fleeing the crowds so that he could be by himself once more. The feeding of the legion of people was indeed a miracle. We know this because it forced Jesus to give until it hurt, and do you think the Roman Emperor would’ve done the same for the children of God, or would Caesar have been like the disciples, ready to dismiss the hungry masses out of hand? That is why stories of the poor giving are so moving to us, because wronged as they are by the empire, by the Caesar who to their faces claims to bring them food and behind their backs has created the system that oppresses them, they still have the energy to dance towards God in a leap of faith. All of this, it lies at what I have to think was and is the heart of the civil rights movement. I was not alive to see the boycotts, the marches, the demonstrations, but I also know that without them, there would indeed be a lot less faith in the world for any one of us to leap towards, because, quite simply, what empowers a brother or sister empowers us as well—that is why Martin Luther King dared to preach that he had a dream—it was a dream he demanded for everyone.

And believe it or not, Christian math can still be the right, rightful, as well as righteous form of math today, for when right thought is of less concern than right action, all of the sudden Christian math becomes far more able to guide you to the best answer, because even before we decide to act, to give of ourselves until it hurts, we must decide if it is worth it to even do so. By practical math, the answer may well be no. But by Christian math, by the math that created thousands of meals out of five loaves and two fishes and helped recognize civil rights for millions of our brothers and sisters, the answer is a no-brainer. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 15, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Million Dollar (or Fifty Thousand Dollar) Question: What Does the Pastor Make?

(While this column could be considered a sequel to last month’s article about business education (or the lack thereof) in seminary, enough new ground is broken here on the issues of church budgeting that it can also be read as a standalone work.)

Just as in December, many churches were finalizing their budgets for fiscal year 2012, so too in January do these same churches (including mine) present those budgets to the rank-and-file membership—in other words, the folks who are in the pews each week—for official approval at their annual general meeting. One of the questions—whether spoken or unspoken—often is, “are we spending too much or too little on personnel?” In other words, does the pastor make too much money, or not enough, or just the right amount?

There is a simple reason for this curiosity--in many parishes (again, including mine), more money is spent on personnel than on either operations or mission work. So, if the plurality of the budget is going to personnel, it stands to reason that personnel would be where the most attention is given, and where it is most likely controversy would ensue.

Even in churches where that is not a controversial issue, measures are often taken to obscure those figures. I have seen church budgets that put ALL staff salaries on a single line item, making it nearly impossible to know how much each staffer is paid. I have also heard of churches where the staff is justified in wanting to protect themselves, such as a church, when discerning whether to cut back on the number of services they offered on a Sunday morning, had a person anonymously ask if the pastoral staff would take a pay cut since they would be doing half as much work. This is NOT the case in my parish--each part of my compensation (cash salary, housing allowance*, Social Security and Medicare tax offset**, health insurance, and pension) each gets its own line item in the budget, and my compensation has not been the focal point of any conflicts thus far. I am not saying those two facts are related--only that both are true.

*: Housing allowance is an IRS tax deduction for pastors that allows us to classify all of the expenses involved in our housing (generally rent/mortgage, utilities, furnishings, upkeep, and insurance) as fully tax deductible for income tax purposes. As long as my parish officially designates a portion of my salary as a housing allowance, I can claim it as a deduction on my tax returns. This benefit is of somewhat less use for pastors who live in a church-provided parsonage, because the fair rental value of the parsonage is considered income by the IRS and must be declared by the pastor for self-employment taxes.

**: While pastors are considered employees for income tax purposes, we are considered self-employed for payroll tax purposes, meaning we are on the hook for the entirety of the 15.3% of combined Social Security/Medicare taxes. Some parishes, like mine, will generously pay their pastor an additional stipend of 7.65% of their salary + housing allowance to offset this. However, many parishes do not, and for those that do, that additional stipend is considered income by the IRS and must be declared by me (I do, however, get to claim the employer portion of self-employed payroll taxes as a deduction on my 1040).

In any case, the best rule of thumb I have ever heard when it comes to pastoral salaries is this one from Don’t make your pastor live on more faith than you do. Put a different way: the pastor (assuming this is a full-time pastorate) should make somewhere in the neighborhood of whatever the median household income in your community is. This is the case for me, and it is also a rule of thumb that is essentially Biblical in nature, as 1 Corinthians 9:14 states that “those who preach the Gospel should get their living from the Gospel.” (CEB) Traditionally this has been interpreted that pastors should, whenever possible, be able to live solely on the means given to them by their ministry settings (parish, hospital, etc).

But this rule is tricky, because unlike almost every other profession that bases its compensation at least somewhat on educational qualifications (doctors and lawyers, for instance, earn a premium in part because of the educational level their jobs demand), clergy salaries are instead based on their parishes, rather than their qualifications, and so questions will often crop up as a result. This is wholly understandable—in terms of time invested (though not necessarily tuition invested), a pastor generally has the equivalent education of a lawyer, but while it is socially acceptable to pay lawyers a premium for the skills obtained in that education, owing to (among other things) the fairly black-and-white stance the Bible takes on people accumulating wealth, this is not quite the case for pastors--unless you belong to Creflo Dollar’s “church,” but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.

Other variables often get introduced based on, for instance, the size of the pastor’s family. I’m easy in that regard—unmarried with no kids means that I don’t need a large salary to live on, but outside of the Roman Catholic Church, I realize that I am largely the exception and not the rule. Other pastors may have other obligations that must be taken into monetary consideration, such as the increasingly common extreme loads of student debt carried by many of today's seminary graduates.

Finally, all of this becomes doubly tricky considering the amorphous nature of any pastor’s job responsibilities. For a solidly middle class wage, I am a motivational speaker, a coach, a teacher, a handyman, a confidant, a counselor, a chauffeur, an event planner, and an amateur social worker. I am the very first point of contact for many, many people down on their luck who have fallen through the cracks of society’s safety net. I am a person who people will go to when they feel like they have nowhere else to turn.

But here’s bottom line: for most pastors, including me, we would not have it any other way.

Yours in Christ,

Edit, 3:00 pm 1/11/12: As a postscript, it was awesome for me to hear from my seminary alma mater that there will in fact be a pair of financial seminars offered in Spring 2012, taught by an accountant who is a GTU alum. This is a great step forward!

Monday, January 9, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Star By Star"

Matthew 2:1-11

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”[a]

7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (CEB)

The routine would never change for most navigationally-challenged people—first comes the confused looks and the furrowed brows. Then comes the muttering to yourself, and the abrupt u-turns. Finally, there came the pulling off to the side of the road to consult a giant fold-out map the size of your entire body. Then, if you were the sensible type, you might actually go to someone else to ask for directions when you became so very, very, lost. Then, there was introduced a highly critical, bordering on obsequious, word into the litany of getting lost when you drove somewhere—a robotic, slightly British voice, droning over and over and over again, “Recalculating!”

As much as a boon as the GPS device has been for navigationally-challenged drivers, believe me when I say it has been of an equal boon to us preachers, whether directionally-impaired or not, because of all of the metaphors we could draw out from the image of a person going exactly where a computer told them to, doing exactly what an external voice instructed them to. There are more than a few sermons in there, yet the most well-read story of navigation, of journeying to worship, in the entirety of scripture is one of men who have no robotic instructor, no computerized Yoda telling them to turn right here they must. They are, at best, relying on the stars and heavens to find their way, and at worst, were already terribly lost in the deserts of ancient Israel before being shown the way by the Star of Bethlehem.

Point blank, there is no natural reason for the star’s presence. Astronomy is a mathematical science, and so astronomers can tell us with mathematical certainty that stars do not move north by southwest—the direction from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which would be the direction of the wise men traveling from Herod’s palace to Joseph’s home. Astronomers can tell us that there was no supernova, no comet, no conjunction of stars, no conjunction of planets—all of which is a moot point, because the Greek word for star which Matthew uses in chapter 2 denotes singularity—a single star, and certainly not a planet. And that is as it should be. Rather than being able to attribute God’s signs and wonders to chance or coincidence, this star was, and always will be, meant to represent God’s own guidance, the guidance that, as New Testament scholar Rudolf Schnakenburg writes, “bestows upon wayfarers the fulfillment of their longing and occasions their exceedingly great rejoicing.”

In this way, the magi take over in Matthew the role that the shepherds held in Luke—to bear witness to the birth of the Christ child and to return to their homes rejoicing and witnessing to all that they had seen. The star that moved along with them, the first-century divine equivalent to an annoying GPS device, could only get them so far—it could take the magi to the Christ, but to return home, where their lives had been, where their families were waiting for them, where their world was…we know nothing of this star or any other guiding them home.

We’re in an age—and here I am really going to sound much older than I really am—where people are increasingly content to let machines do their thinking for them. GPS devices tell us where to turn, automated voices tell us how to operate our phone calls to customer service, and what is lost is not simply the human interaction of “the good old days” (whatever those are or were). No, what is also lost is something else, our own ability to trust ourselves. The story of the magi is a story of, at its root, the concept of knowing something—knowing it not just in your head, but in your heart, your gut, your soul. They knew that this was the Messiah. They knew that they had to hide Him from Herod. And they knew how to return home in order to do so. The Greek “epiphaneia” that we get “epiphany” from, it literally means a revelation, a manifestation made clear. Something has been revealed to the wise men, and like Mary and Joseph before them—I’ll use the exact same term as I did on Christmas—they KNOW. And, like Mary and Joseph, like the shepherds, they react the same way—with rejoicing and praise for what they had seen. Nowadays, we simply see a star in the sky—or stars, if the Pacific Northwest clouds aren’t having their way—and that is all we see. The stars cannot guide us to the manger, they cannot guide us to salvation, and if they moved as fast as the star of Bethlehem did, chances are the star is actually an airplane instead. But as an ancient GPS device, the star is infinitely preferable, because even if all we can see is a pinprick of light, what the star has seen, over its millions and millions of years of life, has to be so, so much—the star of Bethlehem, it watched over not just Jesus, but probably over Abraham as well—it watched over Isaac and Jacob, its light could have allowed Moses to navigate the wilderness, or for Joshua to conquer Gibeon. A star that has been around that long, any star, it will have some amazing, truly awe-inspiring stories to tell. And that is what guided the magi—not simply the light of the night sky, but centuries and millennia of religious tradition, of stories of gods and men told and retold, all of which was seen by the light of those very same stars.

But this does not change the reality that they are late to the party compared to the proud parents, compared to the shepherds—Mary and Joseph have known for some time, and the shepherds knew right on the night of the birth—as Luke states, “for born unto you this day, in the City of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Born on this day! Tradition says the magi arrived on the scene twelve days after the birth, but really, we don’t know exactly when, only that it was significantly later. So I always found it interesting that many Nativity scenes and Christmas trees get topped with a star, since the Epiphany story doesn’t happen until well after Christmas, and presumably by then, Mary and Joseph had upgraded their digs from the five-star manger in the innkeeper’s stable (never mind the fact that the manger is only in Luke, and the magi are only in Matthew). So, when you get down to it, the bottom line is that we keep the star because either it looks nice, or we wouldn’t want to kick the magi out of the Nativity scene, so the star stays. Both are totally understandable, but it is the former reason that I’ve been dwelling upon for years now whenever I come across a Nativity scene. Because, when I did, I looked up, and I saw, under the heavens, star by star by star, this star, the one we leave above the Christ child every winter, every year, without fail.

I looked up, and I saw this star. In that starlight, you literally go back into time, seeing what the universe looked like years and decades ago. In that history, you see what all of creation has borne and experienced, the stories of birth and sacrifice, of joy and sorrow, of happiness and hope and grief. You can see a glimpse of both past and presence, of creation birthed and grown.

And so I looked up, and I saw a glimpse of all things. I looked up, and I saw light, and love, and the divine presence…all in a star. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 8, 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

“My New Year’s Resolu—Never Mind.”

Dear Church,

I have to be honest with you—I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution for at least a decade. Some of the football fans in our church will say that it is because as a Kansas City Chiefs fan, I already have one endless cycle of failure in my life, so why add a second? As tempting as it is to stick to that answer, that really isn’t it.

Do any of you remember that ending scene from the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” when Billy Crystal’s character explains that when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone that you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible? I have always felt like New Year’s resolutions were kind of the same way—once you realize you want to spend the rest of your life trying to do something—live healthier, give away more, be more forgiving—that you should want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible, rather than waiting until January 1 to begin trying on your new lifestyle.

So if you have indeed made a New Year’s resolution this year—congratulations! I pray that it will make your life better and more fulfilling. I also humbly ask that you add this onto your New Year’s resolution—to, when you feel called to make a positive change in your life, to not wait to make it a resolution. God calls us to act in the here and now to make our lives, and the world, a better place. Let us do so with faith in Him as we begin a new year together as a church.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric