Thursday, February 28, 2013

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

(plus what's coming up on the blog in terms of sermons!)


“The Young Rebirth”

Dear Church,

I’ll end the suspense now—yes, I will be making cracks about how convenient it is this year that Easter falls on March 31 rather than on April 1—April Fool’s Day.  I mean, can you imagine how that would go today?

“We will now stand and sing our traditional Easter-day hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”…psyche!  Just kidding, April Fool’s!  He’s not back yet!”  At which point I’m imagining a giant shepherd’s crook appears and yanks the offending pastor offstage.

It’s the ultimate April Fool’s joke on the world, though—this world with all its evils and injustices that put Jesus Christ through two sham trials and promptly executed Him.  It’s God’s way of saying that we cannot, and will not, have the last word when it comes to eternal life.

In other words, it’s why we have the Resurrection.

And I have been so, so heartened at the resurrection I have been seeing here at FCC.  And not just in the by-the-book measures like giving and worship attendance, but by the enthusiasm with which all of you have dove into each new project designed to add life to our church, including this most recent project: restarting a youth group!

That’s right—beginning at noon on Saturday, March 30, and continuing on Saturdays thereafter, we will be hosting an hour-long youth (that is, teenagers) gathering in the two game rooms upstairs in the main building.  I want to thank all of you who have helped revamp those rooms and have stepped up to act as adult sponsors for our new youth group!

This is a major step in the continued rebirth of our vaunted, valuable church community, and I am excited to have it take hold.  Any and all teenagers are warmly invited: Saturdays at noon!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Also pasted below are the sermons for March for you to  follow along with, which includes the remaining sermons of our current "Loss, Mercy, and Redemption" sermon series + Palm Sunday and Easter!  Looking forward to it all! -E.A.

March 3: “The Sacred Man,” Luke 15:11-19
March 10: “…And Was Moved,” Luke 15:20-24
March 17: “Two Sons,” Luke 15:25-32
March 24 (Palm Sunday): “Stones of Silence, Stones of Speech,” Luke 19:29-40
March 31 (Easter Sunday): “Idle Tales of Immortality,” Luke 24:1-12

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Two Ways of Having a "Canon Within a Canon"

My Tuesday morning Bible Study (where I'm about to go hang out in a little bit, actually) uses a commentary series as a foundation for our discussion and curriculum (as opposed to the Wednesday night Bible Study, where I pretty much concoct something myself).  The commentaries themselves aren't bad.  Now, they do tend to skew more conservative in theology than I'd prefer, and they make some assumptions about historicity that I'd just as soon wish they didn't, but by and large, the commentaries do their job of providing some context and offering a springboard for dialogue.

Except when they don't.

We're working through the Gospel of John in the Tuesday class, and it's really quite good.  John is probably the Gospel I have the deepest knowledge base on (thanks to one of the best classes I ever took in seminary), and I have had a lot of fun and joy in sharing some of that perspective here.

But for the sake of intellectual diversity (and also because I can sometimes be a deranged crank of a minister when I've had too much or too little coffee), I have to admit I've been questioning the commentaries we use, because they skip entire chapters of the Gospel of John (5 and 7), and gloss over chunks of some other chapters.

Now, for all I know, things like that were editorial changes for space or expediency (after all, this a commentary designed to be read in one quarter of the year, that is, in only 13 weeks...and John is 21 chapters long), but nevertheless, it is the most recent demonstration of that little annoying, omnipresent thing that I keep encountering in my ministry, and that I have written about here:

We all have a canon within a canon.

Typically, I've seen that canon within a canon in two ways: one is that we simply like some books of the Bible more than others.  I definitely fall into that camp.  I tend to gravitate towards the Gospels (seems like an obvious thing to say, but you'd be surprised how rarely some pastors preach from them), and I tend to prefer the letters of John and James over the letters of Paul.  I tend to love the Old Testament story books (Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, etc), but I scratch my head at a lot of the Old Testament law books (Leviticus, Deuteronomy, parts of Exodus).  And as for the prophets...well, that's a Biblical knuckleball if ever there was one.

The other way I see the "canon within a canon" mentality is the way of these sorts of commentaries: emphasizing certain parts of a book or passage over other parts of that same book or passage.  It's things like skipping over passages of books you're commenting on.  It's things like proof texting--taking one verse out of context to make it mean something artificially.

And if I'm honest, it's the second kind I'm realizing that I'm having a harder time understanding in my ministry, because it frustrates me much more.  I'm not sure why.  But it somehow feels hypocritical, like our way of saying, "Yep, this book is the inerrant word of God.  But these parts are all more inerrant than the rest of it."  I see pastors who claim to "offer the whole counsel of God" do anything but that. They offer the counsel of God that they agree with.

And that gets under my skin, perhaps because I tend to be more frequently guilty of that first kind of a "canon within a canon" mentality, and this is my own hypocrisy showing through.

But it's a weakness which my vocation must address, if we are to reclaim the moral authority that has slowly been slipping away from us as my generation comes to see us more and more as Jesus saw the Pharisees: hypocrites who strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel.

Do you agree?  Disagree?  Why or why not?

Off to Bible Study!

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, February 24, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Kjeragbolten"

Luke 15:8-10

8 “Or what woman, if she owns ten silver coins and loses one of them, won’t light a lamp and sweep the house, searching her home carefully until she finds it? 9 When she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who changes both heart and life.” (CEB)



“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables:” Week Two

It sounds crazy.  Like something that could only be cooked up in today’s era of internet sensations and Youtube.  And it kind of is.  But it’s also fantastic: one man and his camera traveling around the entire world just so that he could dance with all kinds of people in all kinds of places.  And for perhaps his greatest exploit on this worldwide project of choreography, I could do no better than to set the scene for this story by quoting the man himself, Matt Harding:

At some point during the last ice age, the Kjeragbolten rock became wedged between the two faces of a chasm some one thousand meters above the water in the fjords of Norway.  There is nothing man-made holding it in place.  It just got stuck.  Several millennia later, I was emailed a photo of the place.  I knew I had to dance there…

There is no net under the Kjeragbolten.  There is a considerable amount of wind channeled into the chasm.  And it was snowing, so the Kjeragbolten’s curved surface was wet and slippery.  I’d been traveling for six months by that point.  I was only a few days from flying home.  The project had taken on great meaning to me.  I believed the universe, or some unspecified entity sitting at its controls, wanted the video to happen, and was keeping an eye on me at least until I got the job done.

I believed the universe wanted me out there on that rock…Dancing on the Kjeragbolten is the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done…But if I hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t be the same video, and I wouldn’t quite be the same person.

And so say we all.  After the most harrowing thing we have experienced, we would not, we could not, possibly be the same person afterwards.  There are moments that are truly life-altering precisely because that livelihood hangs in the balance, like a rock with nothing underneath it.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

Luke’s account began last week with the parable of the lost sheep—out of a herd of one hundred sheep, one is unaccounted for, and so the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one, finds it, and celebrates with his neighbors and friends that he has found his lost sheep.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus then transitions immediately from that parable into this one, the parable of the woman who has lost a coin, and there are several things which stand out.  First and foremost is that, just as there was a character who very clearly represented Jesus in the first parable (the shepherd), so too is there such a character in this second parable: the woman.

That likely does not shock us today.  But it should.  Women, as many of you know, were treated during Biblical times—and according to Biblical law—as chattel, little more than property.  Under Levitical law, a daughter can be sold into either slavery or marriage.  They were not seen as useful beyond the obvious ability of childbirth, which is what makes stories like that of Ruth, or Esther, or Israel’s female judge Deborah, all the more remarkable—they are swimming upstream mightily in waters whose currents are very much pulling the opposite direction.

And Jesus—and therefore, by extension, God—is comparing Himself to a woman in this text!  Which by itself is not so unprecedented in Luke’s Gospel—in a story also accounted for by Matthew, Jesus in Luke 13 compares Himself to a mother hen looking after her chicks by gathering them under her wings.

But that’s a little bit different.  Jesus is making a metaphor using animal behavior we all are familiar with—it would be like anyone today describing cunning like a fox, or courage like a lion.  It’s a type of colloquialism, a universal expression that everybody knows.

Here, Jesus is out-and-out saying: those people who got the seriously short end of the stick in our laws?  You know, the other gender who makes up half our population?  Yeah, I’m like them, too.

If this were not, on face, humbling enough, the reason Jesus gives for comparing Himself to a woman is even more remarkable: this is a woman who is almost certainly of very modest means.  She has ten denarii, ten silver coins.  In Israel under Roman occupation, a single silver coin represented one day’s wage for an unskilled laborer.  It was the de facto minimum wage of the time.  And this woman has only ten of these coins—she has only ten days’ worth of minimal wages.  So losing just one of them is a big deal.

Jesus isn’t just identifying Himself with a woman.  He’s identifying Himself with a poor woman.  And there are, in my mind, two reasons for this.  One is to demonstrate His solidarity with, and love for, the most marginalized, outcast, and mistreated among us.  The other is to demonstrate that He still has a long way to go to fulfill His mission and ministry of saving us.

In case it isn’t obvious by this point, if Jesus is the woman, we are the coins themselves.  And, like I said, the woman only has ten of them.  Compare that to the shepherd with a flock of one hundred sheep, all of which were worth far more than a single day’s minimum wage.  This is a dramatic shift from the first parable to the second—Jesus is saying that His own resources of people to call and redeem are limited.  He is not yet rich in followers, in people who believe.

Jesus is saying, in effect, that sometimes, it is a rarity to have, as He puts it, one sinner who truly repents.  Which of course makes it all the more reason to celebrate, all the more reason for the angels of heaven to rejoice—we tend to celebrate that which is rare, not that which is common.

But it shows that this mission of calling and saving and redeeming us, as fragile and tenuous as that mission might be, defines Jesus.  Just as the ten coins represent the woman’s livelihood, our living for Jesus defines Jesus’ own livelihood, at least until He returns again.  Jesus lives today in bodily form only because His message and love live in us.  As Saint Teresa of Avila so poignantly put it: “Christ has not hands but yours.  Christ has no feet but yours.”  Brothers and sisters, until Christ comes again, we represent His livelihood, modest though it may be, here in this world.

Which is, in the end, what this parable is about.  It’s about us, broken and limited and sinful us, living on the edges of our own finances much like the woman in this parable, sometimes making it one day at a time, one paycheck at a time, until something happens.  Until we find that lost coin.  Until we find something we had previously lost, and our lives are the better for it.

Because just as the coins would have value to us, so too does this mean that we…again, broken and limited and sinful us…have value to Jesus and to God.  Just as we would recognize a sheep as having obvious value to a shepherd, so too are we meant to recognize that a coin with monetary worth would have obvious value to a person of poverty.  And in both stories, the message Jesus is sending is the same.

We are worth something to God.  God values us.

And it is even more remarkable in this story—because materially, a single silver coin does not carry much worth.  It represents the minimum wage.  But to this woman, it carries value worthy of celebration and rejoicing.  And so too is it for us.  We may think that because of how messed up and screwed up we are that we are worth only the bare minimum to an all-present, all-knowing God.  And on the outside, we would be forgiven for believing this.

But we have worth to God surpassing yours or mine understanding.

Because if we didn’t, there would be no need to redeem us in the first place.  There would be no need for Jesus to define His mission in those terms of loss, mercy, and redemption.  And it would make Him look like a fool for dying for us on the Cross.

No, the only way…the ONLY way…this works is if we believe that we are worth something to God  And as we extend that belief to ourselves, Jesus calls us to extend it to all people, including the people living on the edge, with no net to catch them if they fall.  People who are just like us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 24, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Cloistered Church

I apologize for taking so long to write again since Tuesday--I usually will post something on Thursdays, but I devoted much of Thursday to a regional clergy meeting where, um,  I might have, to put it charitably, staged a nutty.

We were discussing, with one of our leaders from denominational HQ, the upcoming General Assembly and the anticipated vote on open ordination for GLBTQ clergy (you can read my take on it here).  I was the only "young" (as in, under the age of forty) person in the room and was growing increasingly frustrated with how discussions about particular groups and demographics within our denomination were taking on broader and broader strokes before I finally spoke up and just...ranted, really, for a couple of minutes about how this is partly why people my age think Christians are irrelevant: because we sequester ourselves off in a room--our own private little bubble--and paint people we do not know in such broad strokes as to effectively deny the nuance and uniqueness of their voice.

It was the spiritual equivalent of this.

It was not my finest hour.

But I stand by every word I said as well.  I mean it.

I belong to a predominately Cauasian, predominately heterosexual denomination, and whenever we get together to talk about experiences of race and sexual identity that are not our own, we risk becoming a bit more cloistered.

Just as I wrote recently about how Pope Benedict XVI, during his papacy, seemed only to see the Vatican world as opposed to the entire world, so too can we fall into the trap of seeing only the Disciples world and, more particularly, only the Caucasian Disciples world, or only the heterosexual Disciples world, as opposed to the entire world (and the entire Disciples world).

If I never got out of my office, honestly, my daily routine would not bring me into contact with many people not already a part of the church.  I am called as a Christian to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5), but I'm often sequestered from that earth, from that world that I am supposed to be ministering to.

And when we indulge in that too much, we run the risk of honestly, truly sounding out-of-touch to people who don't quite fit into our demographic (which I didn't at this meeting because of my age and, perhaps, my background).

Which in turn goes back to the point of my outburst--it's why I feel many young people want nothing to do with us.  We, the church, are seen as out of touch by the people we should be reaching out to.  Not to sound overly angsty here, but we aren't understood by people who think they do understand us, or can, without the messy and spiritually enriching work of bringing us in fully as brothers and sisters in Christendom.

Most of the time, I love my job with a ferocity that surprises even me sometimes.  I cannot imagine doing anything else right now other than parish ministry with a side of blogging.

But like any job, it has its good days and its bad days.  So far, the good far outnumber the bad.

But I worry that my job, and the jobs of many of my dear friends and colleagues, might turn worse if we do not continue to re-examine our own habits the preconceptions that can result.  Otherwise, doing ministry will become even tougher when it wasn't always easy to begin with.  It will become even harder than before.

And I worry that, sadly, that this time, it will be entirely a result of our own doing.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Millennial Church

This is one to definitely file under the "Wow, this is for real" folder.  Last week, Annie Selak, a friend and classmate of mine at seminary in Berkeley (and currently a Roman Catholic lay minister at Notre Dame University), was published by the Washington Post, writing a column entitled "The Church Young Catholics Want."

I posted it to my Facebook wall as recommended reading for anyone who wants a foundational understanding of the Christian experience for today's teens and twentysomethings, and I would commend it to y'all as well.  It's a fantastic piece.  And here on the blog, I wanted to offer a few reflections from my perspective on the topics that Annie highlights in her column.  She writes that the youth need four particular things from their religious community:

A church that takes their experience seriously.

A church that emphasizes the inclusive ministry of Jesus.

A church that embraces that God is everywhere.

A church that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.

Let's unpack each in turn for just a bit...

A church that takes their (youths') experience seriously.

On an academic level, I have been profoundly influenced by the views of Christian existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich.  In a nutshell (to grossly oversimplify volumes of theological treatises), they argue that the universe is inherently paradoxical, especially concerning an infinite God and finite us.  Ergo, we can only understand God not through proofs, but through experience, because nothing can expose us to the great totality of God's goodness and grace.

What this means on a practical, rubber-hitting-the-road level, is that how we experience God matters immensely to our faith, to the point of being irreplaceable.  As the old saying goes, life is a series of short stories that turns itself into a novel.  In the short stories of our lives, we are so lucky if we can say we had a religious or God experience, but not if those experiences are largely ignored by a church or a clergy out of touch with what is happening in our lives and in our world.  And as a result, young people begin to leave the church, and our short stories going forward are devoid of a particularly important backdrop and cast of characters.

A church that emphasizes the inclusive ministry of Jesus.

And I quote the late evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce on this one: "I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into Torah."

Not only are we using an apostle who was vehemently anti-legalistic (seriously, read Romans 8 verse-by-verse sometime) to set up a whole structure of rules and laws, that structure of rules and laws is often used to create distinctions between men and women (women cannot teach in church), husbands and wives (wives should submit to their husbands), and gay and straight, even though Paul also writes that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.

Paul was martyred for much the same reason that Jesus was--he was too radical to be kept alive by the powers that be!  And by turning Paul--and Jesus--into power that is used to narrow the scope and scale of God's great salvation for us all, we are doing the world the same disservice the Roman Empire did in Biblical times--we are shutting off a source of divine revelation because, deep down, we cannot stomach it.

And believe me when I say that young people can see through that stunt.  We have to be authentic in our inclusivity if we are to speak to them as well.

A church that embraces that God is everywhere.

This one feels like a bit of a no-brainer to me, but it often is not.  If we think that God is on "our side" (whatever that may be), it implies God's absence somewhere else.  Instead, Annie argues that our generation sees diversity and unity as concepts that go together rather than contradict each other, and I truly have little else to add to her analysis.  It's spot-on.

A church that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.

This is, in my mind, the million-dollar question.  Show me a church that proffers a 5-page creed or statement of doctrine, and I'll show you a church that doesn't teach so much as spoon-feed.

Put a different way: Jon Acuff, the hilarious author behind the Stuff Christians Like website, argues in his book by the same name, "I'm perfectly happy to spoon-feed my one-year-old.   But I'm still spoon-feeding him when he's five, we've got a problem.  Here's a fork.  Feed yourself."

Churches--and clergy--that rely on spoon-feeding their congregants also, in my experience, are more apt to actively discourage the asking of tough questions, or to respond to the tough questions with trite and inadequate answers, because being right is more important than being engaged.

(As an aside, I also find it ironic that these churches are also (again, in my experience) more likely to trumpet the virtues of good old-fashioned American individualist self-reliance, but that's a different can of tuna.)

It's okay not to have all the answers.  The minute that we think we do, something terribly wrong has happened.  But arrogance is far too easy a trap for a church and its clergy to fall into, precisely because people look to us for answers.  And I think perhaps empowering others to find answers may not only allow them to grow as Christians, but allow us to grow as Christian clergy.

What do you think?  What do you most wish the church would or could be that it isn't quite yet?  What do you want your church to be striving towards in this time and place in humanity's epic novel of a story?

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, February 17, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "More Equal Than Others"

Luke 15:1-7

All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose someone among you had one hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives. (CEB)



“Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables,” Week One

The young pastor (yes, there are other young pastors besides me!) went off to seminary fresh out of college not just on a mission, but with a dream.  He knew exactly what he wanted in life, and from his calling, and thought that he could get it by attending this particular seminary—as he put it, “it was like I got accepted to Harvard.”

And for a kid who, like me, was born and raised in the Protestant church, it feels like a good gig.  You’re the young boy who went out and made good.  This pastor wanted to be no different.  As he put it, “I wanted to be your average megachurch pastor.  I wanted to play the game, have a pretty wife (who had) a lot of hairspray in her hair.”

And that never quite happened.  Because something happened in seminary.  He saw ministry that did not occur in this bubble of megachurch-dom.  He saw immigrant families face the prospect of being torn apart.  He had colleagues come out to him.  And in the process, he realized something: people, especially young men, trusted him.  This was real.  This was ministry.  And now, far from the dreams of a televised sermon series on “How to be Your Best Self Today,” he pastors a church out of his home while also working as a hospital chaplain and a volunteer prison chaplain.  Because, in the end, that is what being a Christian is—to dream dreams that help others, rather than simply yourself.

With Lent as a new season in the church’s worship calendar, you may notice a few things different—we hang purple, we draw the curtains on our baptistry’s portrait of Jesus, and, naturally, we begin another sermon series.  This sermon series takes us through the 40 days of Lent to Holy Week—the week of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday that is the most important time in the Christian calendar (yes, I dare say, more important than Christmas!).  And Lent traditionally is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance as we do some even more intensive-than-usual soul-searching in preparation for what will eventually be the empty tomb.  And so we’ll be using this year’s Lenten season to walk verse-by-verse through the three parables that make up the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son.  These stories all have a common theme of being “lost and found,” so to speak, but there is a much larger dimension at work here—Jesus is telling these parables to the scribes and Pharisees—as Luke writes, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.””  And what Jesus is responding with, in so many words is, “Yes, because it isn’t just about you!”

Luke 15 consists of a powerful trilogy of stories, and all of them are told as sort of one giant rebuttal to this charge of the scribes and the Pharisees who are present.  Say you’re having a debate with somebody.  It could be about anything—whether to have burgers or pizza for lunch, who you should vote for, or, dare I even come close to such hotly contested ground…Huskies versus Cougars.  But in this debate, when you say something about your point of view, your opponent not only tells you that you’re wrong, s/he explains at great length, using multiple examples with depth and thoughtfulness, precisely, exactly, painfully why you are wrong.

If you’ve had this happen to you, it feels a little like what it probably is like to try to take a drink from a fire hose.  And that’s what Jesus does here—He’s provoked to respond to the grousing of the scribes and the Pharisees, and he does so by unleashing a torrent of criticism in His trademark way—by telling parables.  Except where He might use just one or two parables—like the parable of the Good Samaritan or the house on sand versus the house on rock, Jesus tells three completely separate stories, right in a row, the last of which is really quite elaborate.

And that’s Luke 15 in a nutshell.  It’s a chapter of complete, unfiltered scolding from Jesus.  And like all scolding, it relies on a few assumptions.  Namely, in this parable of the lost sheep, it assumes that we, the audience, would agree that the shepherd’s action of leaving the herd of ninety-nine to rescue the one is appropriate.  And of course we would make that assumption, because in this parable, the shepherd is Jesus.

And, like most stories in the Gospel, there is a proxy character in the audience as well—that is, a character who we are supposed to identify with as we hear this story being told to us.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, we’re supposed to sympathize with the man robbed on the road to Jericho and left to die.  In the raising of Lazarus, we are meant to be as Lazarus himself was, being called by Christ to awaken to renewed life.

And I think traditionally, or perhaps sentimentally, the audience proxy in the parable of the lost sheep is the lost sheep itself—that’s who we’re supposed to identify with.  It has the added bonus of being profoundly humble, this notion that we are meant to identify with the lost sheep, because that means that we see ourselves in the same lot as the tax collectors and the sinners—the people who Jesus came to save.

But, I have to say, I do not think we always belong in such esteemed company.  Jesus is telling this story not for the benefit of the tax collectors and the sinners—they’re already receptive to Jesus’ teachings.  No, Jesus is telling this story to the scribes and Pharisees.  They are his audience.  And they are represented in this story by the other ninety-nine sheep.  As New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe puts it:

A valuable sheep that is lost merits one’s full attention until it is found.  What is not said, but is taken for granted, is that during the search for the one sheep, the others are left to their own devices “in the wilderness.”  Apparently, those in the audience readily accept the risk as worth taking to recover the valuable animal.

In other words, we aren’t always the lost sheep.  Sometimes we are.  But we share a herd—a world—with many, many more sheep whose needs often take precedence over ours, and sometimes even in a way that might put our needs at risk.

After all, we’re all here.  We all took time on our Sunday to be here.  Most of you are members, many of you serve the church and the world in a variety of truly wonderful ways.  In that most basic respect, I’m preaching to the proverbial choir here.  I’m ministering to people who are already in the flock.

Jesus is calling us to minister to people outside of the flock, but that isn’t just it, either.  He calls us to do so even when doing so directly goes against our own self-interest, or our own false humbleness.  I talked about this in my sermon on Ash Wednesday, but our humbleness has limits.  We’re fine calling ourselves sinners in the abstract because we are all sinners, but once we start digging underneath the surface of that, our egos make things testy very, very quickly.

And you had better believe that this happened with Jesus and the Pharisees—it’s a big reason why they wanted Him out of the picture!  He was exposing their false humbleness for what it was: a fa├žade that hid the belief that they were better than and worth more than their fellow Jews.

And that is a terrible warping of religion, to create a hierarchy of worth.  When I first read through this passage when vision-casting this sermon series, my mind jumped immediately to a book my dad introduced me to as a child—George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  That was partly because most of the characters in both this parable and Orwell’s book are, well, animals.  But it was also because of how the final commandment of the philosophy in Animal Farm was warped.  That commandment began as, “All animals are equal.”  But somewhere along the way, that commandment got changed to say, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

I might tick some of you off by saying this, but while Orwell was critiquing Stalinist communism, it is a critique that is scathingly accurate to the church as well.  Far too often, we have space only for the safe sins to be confessed.  If you play the penny slots at the casino, we can work with that, but if you’re gay, well, you need to be fixed.  If you say the occasional four-letter word, you’re still salvageable, but if you vote for the wrong candidate, you’re going to hell.

The idea that some sinners are more sinful than others…church can never work that way.  Ever.

We need to be the church not just because we are aware of our sinfulness and want to break ourselves of it, but because we also are aware of how dark it is and how much we can be there for someone craving spiritual fellowship and enrichment but who is too afraid to ask for it.

Who are they too afraid of?  God, at least in part.  But also, honestly, some are also afraid of us.  That we would treat them like the Pharisees treated the tax collectors.  And when we do that, we cease to give God reason to celebrate our own righteousness.  Jesus cannot put it any blunter than He does in verse 7: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

It is a choice that tests the very limits of anyone’s inflated sense of self-worth—would you rather be righteous, and not give heaven any reason to rejoice over you, or would you rather be a broken-down sinner, over whom heaven rejoices when they are called and redeemed?

In this story, the choice is clear.  Jesus sides with the lonely.  He sides with the lost.  May we do likewise as well.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 17, 2013

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ash Wednesday Sermon: "Your Broken Crown"

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”[a] 5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”[b] 9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.[c]” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”[d] 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. (CEB)



“Your Broken Crown,” Luke 4:1-13, Ash Wednesday 2013

I used this story at the beginning of my Ash Wednesday sermon last year too, but it is such a good one for setting the right balance in mood and tenor for a service like this that I could not pass up a repeat telling of this story.  The Reverend Lillian Daniel, an immensely talented pastor in the United Church of Christ, writes in a book on pastoral ministry that she co-authored, called “This Odd and Wondrous Calling,” about her experience as a pastoral intern at a parish while in seminary.  She says:

“I remember sitting at the back of the sanctuary, reviewing my notes for my very first seminary-intern sermon.  It was to be a mighty word from god that would correct all the hypocrisy, greed, and faithlessness of the local church that was, nonetheless, supporting my education as they had supported that of so many others.  As I mustered my courage to sock it to them, I overheard one woman lean across her walker and whisper loudly to her pew mate, “Ah, our new intern is preaching.  I see it’s time for our annual scolding.”  Later, I would pastor a church near that very divinity school, and hear for myself a few annual scoldings.”

Now, we have no seminary intern here to deliver us our annual scoldings—you just have me!  And it would be all too easy to dismiss Ash Wednesday as the day when the parish pastor administers said annual scolding.  After all, we have come to a place in the life of the church—the big church, not just our parish, but the entire church—where it is easier to either preach exclusively about God’s love or exclusively about God’s wrath.  God is either your chummy pal who you could always shoot some pinochle with, or God is this perpetually infuriated son-of-a-gun with serious anger management issues.  There is no in between. 

And those polarities are appealing to people—they are simple, easy to remember, and Scriptural in the sense that in Revelation, God says to us that because we are neither cold nor hot, that we are lukewarm, He will spit us out of His mouth.  So if our faith is in a God who is not lukewarm, maybe that lukewarm God will not spit us out of His church?  But…no, that cannot be it, either.  The truth is, honestly, that I think many, perhaps most, churches are guilty of idolatry in the basest, most fundamental sense of the term—they have gone and made God in their own image, rather than the other way around, of trying to craft themselves in God’s image--if they are hateful people, then God must be a hateful God.Which is perhaps the most profound sin of all…after all, the very first two commandments of the Ten Commandments are to have no other Gods before Yahweh, and to not make for ourselves any idol or graven image.  In trying to make God like us, we violate both commandments.

The temptation in the wilderness, the story in Luke, and in Mark, and in Matthew, thought not in John, is, then, the opportunity for Jesus try to create God in His own image as well.  The tempter, Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, whatever you want to call him, appears, and tries again and again and again to goad Jesus into using His Godlike powers for selfish purposes.  The things Jesus is asked to do, to turn stones into bread, to call upon angels to save lives, these are the powers of God in the Old Testament, the God who sends manna to the Israelites on Sinai, and who sends down the chariot of fire to save Elijah from earthly death.  What Jesus is being asked to do in the wilderness is to play God, to take on the role of the Father who has, for the moment, left Him in the wilderness.  The first time that Jesus is forsaken, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language, is not upon the Cross, it is here, at the very beginning of His ministry.  Here, in the wilderness.

In other words, it is a bit ironic that Jesus, in the course of His ministry, is not at the most danger in the wilderness…after all, He is sentenced and executed in the capital city of ancient Israel.  But His first vulnerability comes in a context and setting that is 180 degrees different from where He will find Himself just several weeks from now on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

And it’s with that which Satan eventually tempts Jesus—His current location.  We see it a bit in the first temptation, to turn stones into bread, but where it really comes into play are the next two temptations—Satan actually transports Jesus—“led up” is a close translation from the New Testament Greek—to a place where Jesus can see everything in the world, and then, when that isn’t good enough, Satan “takes Jesus to Jerusalem and place(s) Him on the pinnacle of the Temple.”  In other words, Satan isn’t just tempting Jesus with the obvious—food, fame, and power—but with geography as well!  He’s letting Jesus out of the prison bars of His fast for an instant in the hopes that it will be just enough to sway the Son of God to his side.

Of course, it isn’t.  For Jesus, anyways.  For us, though…that’s an entirely different question.  I mean, don’t we catch a glimpse of something far away from what we currently have and begin to long for it, almost as an escape from our current dreariness and drudgery?  We see an ad for a new car, or an exotic vacation destination, or even a freaking Mega Millions ticket, and our mouths start to drool just a little bit…

And that’s what Satan is doing to Jesus here, except on steroids.  He’s taking this poor chap who has been completely shelterless for 40 days and nights and showing Him the greatest of cities and palaces and in effect saying, “Here, take your pick.  But only if you disavow God for me.”

And that’s what temptation is, isn’t it?  It isn’t this pitched battle—I have always resisted the notion of “spiritual warfare” not only for its overly violent imagery but for its premise that this is somehow a fair fight or battle—instead, it is this sneaking-up on us, bit by bit.  After all, we know what an act of war looks like, and we are kidding ourselves if we think war is meant to be tempting.  No, temptation is temptation because it grows and grows, almost organically.

That characteristic of organic growth is something put on alarming display by Satan in Luke’s version of the temptation.  Because in this story, Satan learns.   His tactics evolve over the course of the story.  Jesus rebuffs Satan the first two times by quoting verses from the Old Testament, so what does Satan do the third time he tries to tempt Jesus? He quotes the Old Testament himself, pulling out a quote from Psalms.

Which should be one of the most telling ways that we know exactly what our sins are—that we will come up with newer and increasingly vehement justifications for them.  We even appeal to our moral authority—Scripture—in order to justify our sins.  It is, in part, how institutionalized slavery persisted for so long in the United States—there were Christians who used the moral authority of Scripture to justify that particular sin.  The same went for delaying women the right to vote, for allowing child labor, and for so many other things we have done wrong in our past.

And so it is disingenuous for us to go to God and pray for forgiveness, for a blanket amnesty, for all the wrongs we may have done without including the wrongs that we know we have done.  I just rattled off some collective sins, but this is just as true for our own personal sins as well.

And it’s tough to admit that.  I get it.  We have this sort of schizophrenic reaction to sin…in the abstract, we’re totally okay with being labeled as sinners.  Because hey, we’re all sinners.  We all sin, do sinful things, sin, sin sin.  But as soon as you take your fingernail and scratch below that thin-layered surface, things get touchy and testy in a big damn hurry.  We may be okay with calling ourselves sinners, but our egos and our sense of denial keep us from really actually owning our own brokenness.

It’s something that we can learn not only from Jesus, but from HOW we depict Jesus.  I honestly have not come across many portraits of Jesus in the temptation as someone who has fasted for 40 days would really look.  Often, Jesus is in some sort of “the thinker” pose or standing elegantly, thoughtfully turning his gaze away from Satan, who is either hovering over Jesus or confronting Him.

How unrealistic, though!  What about the portraits of a starving, exhausted, even emaciated Jesus in sore need of a hair cut or a beard trim?  Is it that we are scared of ever depicting the divine Son of God in such a way, or is it that we are that afraid of owning up to the sheer brokenness that is the human condition?

Maybe it’s a bit of both.  But I have found at least one portrayal—at least, I have seen it as such—that depicts the agony of the temptation.  One of my favorite bands is the British folk quartet Mumford and Sons, and their 2012 album Babel included a song entitled, simply, “Broken Crown.”  Its lyrics, in part, go like this:

Touch my mouth, and hold my tongue, I’ll never be your chosen one.
I’ll be home, safe, and tucked away.  You can’t tempt me if I don’t see the day…

So I’ll crawl on my belly til the sun comes down, but I’ll never wear your broken crown.

I have no idea what the band’s personal meaning was behind these words, but from my perspective, it just feels like the perfect thing that Jesus could have said to Satan.  It acknowledges great physical weakness, but also sheer spiritual strength.  It acknowledges light, but also the coming darkness.  And it acknowledges the broken crown of sin that we can all choose to wear, or to not wear.

What if, this Lenten season, during these 40 days in the wilderness where we come out the other end shouting “The tomb is empty!  He is risen!” we acknowledged the broken crowns we have chosen to wear in our lives…and to turn them over to the one true God, the one true King, the wearer of the one true crown?

In doing so, may our brokenness finally, miraculously, wonderfully be made whole once more.  By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 13, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Habemus Papam

When the soon-to-be-convened voting conclave of the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church burn their ballots in white instead of black, this pronouncement will soon follow--habemus papam.

We have a Pope.

For Christians of my generation, we have only witnessed this ritual once, upon the passing of Pope John Paul II in 2005.  I can still remember where I was when I learned that he had died--on the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, in between rounds of the American Forensics Association's national championship.

We're about to see it all in action again, though.

You likely know by now that Pope Benedict XVI has tendered his resignation as the archbishop of Rome, so I'll skip over his announcement for the moment (besides which, speculating further on why would border on intrusive and poor taste to me--the man has the right to step down).

But I do want to jot down at least a couple of thoughts about the legacy I feel (as an outsider) Benedict XVI is leaving behind, and what I hope from his successor, whoever that may be.

I've written an awful lot about the Roman Catholic Church in the past year, usually in regards to one of two subjects--the sex abuse scandals, or the hackneyed partisan activism of the American bishops in our political process.

Upon further reflection, I wonder if both aren't more closely tied to a particular characteristic, namely, that Benedict XVI (and, by extension, the hierarchy he has appointed during his time as pope)  in the words of Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung, does not see the entire world, but rather sees and lives only in the Vatican world.

Benedict XVI had--has--a reputation for a tin ear, which is well-earned.  Barely a year into his reign as Pope, he somehow felt the need to quote a medieval Byzantine emperor to refer to Islam as "inhuman and evil."  And in 2010, he juxtaposed secular humanists with Nazism.

(Side note--here's a rule of thumb I've found useful: If you're comparing someone or something that has never committed genocide to the Nazis, you're doing it wrong.)

In any case, it is no stretch to conclude that Benedict XVI has defined his papacy by a concern for truth that is willing to override all other concerns, to the point of having blinders.

After all, a freshman communications major in college can tell you it is probably a bad idea to say Islam is inhuman, or that atheists are like Nazis, or at least to say that sort of stuff publicly.

And if Benedict was--or is--blind to the consequences that words like that have, then I can see how his handpicked bishops in the States would be blind to the consequences of their ham-fisted approach to American politics over the past year or so, as they became increasingly hysterical in their criticism of President Obama (including...wait for it...comparing Obama to Hitler.  Again, if the person you're comparing to Hitler is NOT a genocidal maniac, you're doing it wrong).

And I can see how the hierarchy continues to be blind to the totality of the consequences of the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the entire Roman Catholic Church for 11 years now.  If all you see is the Vatican world, the instinct is to protect the pedophile priests before protecting their victims.  And, as we all know, that is exactly what happened for years, even when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Congregration for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict XVI was deputized by John Paul II to be in charge of cleaning the church out of its pedophiles.

And so as a result, you still have, for instance, the reality that Cardinal Richard Mahony of Los Angeles is still an eligible elector in the upcoming conclave to elect a new Pope, despite his disgrace and recent removal by his successor from any and all ecclesiastical duties as a result of his (Mahony's) complicity in the sex abuse scandal.

In truth, we may never know the full consequences of the sex-abuse scandal.

And as such, it is difficult to give Benedict XVI a pass on this on his way out the door.

May his successor, whoever he is, be strengthened and empowered by God Himself to address the work of making the Roman Catholic Church a place that is safe for all peoples of all ages, genders, races, and sexual orientations.

Because that is not just my hope...it is the hope of many, many Americans, including a mighty number of lapsed Catholics who still cling to love for their mother church.  Theirs are stories I recognize, because they are expressions of that same struggle I have, of continuing to love an institution that does not always care for my more progressive or liberal tendencies.

And so they, and me, and likely millions more, eagerly await with anticipation and hopefulness those words that gave me gooseflesh the first time, even though I am not Catholic...

Habemus Papam.

We have a Pope!

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, February 10, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Sol Invictus"

Luke 9:28-36

28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. 31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him. 33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. 34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe. 35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” 36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen. (CEB)


“Sol Invictus,” Luke 9:28-36

This rugby team’s story was so picture-perfect that it was, in fact, made into a famous motion picture named, in fact, Invictus.  It takes place in South Africa just as apartheid is ending; the ANP hero Nelson Mandela has been elected president, and a young white man named Francois Pienaar is captaining the South African national rugby team.  Both of them seek to bridge the ills of racism and segregation in their own respective spheres of influence—Mandela within the walls of government, and Pienaar on the rugby pitch.  I won’t spoil the entire movie for those of you who have not seen it, but one scene about halfway through the movie documents the entire Springboks team bussing into one of the many inner-city slums that dot South Africa’s land.  Here, the houses are ramshackle affairs made of tin, wood, cardboard, whatever people could get their hands on. 

And I can honestly say after visiting the urban slums of Johannesburg on mission in 2006, the filmmakers were very heartbreakingly accurate in depicting the sheer poverty of the peoples who live in such conditions.  As the rugby players file out of the bus, the children rush over to excitedly mob the one black member of the rugby team, but over the course of the day as the players teach the little children the fundamentals of rugby, we see one of the earliest and warmest interactions of the ethnicities in post-apartheid South Africa, as white adults and black children are drawn together by a simple game. 

It is a moment of transformation, of transfiguration, in a film that is, at its core, all about the transfiguration of an entire nation.  But unlike the transfiguration of Jesus that we are about to hear about from Luke the Evangelist, these transformations of people and of nations often take time…lots of time.  Far from seeing ourselves elevated in glowing white, with Moses upon our left and Elijah upon our right, we must muddle along in our own lives, sometimes sure of the path we walk, and sometimes not.  And far from giving us any answers to guide our paths, today’s Scripture perhaps raises more questions than answers.  And sometimes, that’s okay.  What I’m aiming to do with this sermon is to—very rarely for me—try a one-off type of sermon, but even this is sort of part of a series—it has acted as a sort of post-mortem reflection for me on change and being church that we talked about in our Ecclesiastes sermon series in January.

Now, we know that it was God’s love for us that brought Jesus to the earth, it was through God’s love that Jesus’ ministry elevated the meek and lowly by saying to them that they are as loved by God as the prettiest or wealthiest person out there, and it was by God’s love that disciples found the tomb empty on Easter Sunday.  And it is our capacity to love one another that transforms lives today.  And not just romantic love (since V-Day is just around the corner!), but even just good-old-fashioned affection.

The common denominator, I think, between all of this love is that even if it might strike in an instant, its true benefits often take eons to truly bloom.  Out of love and excitement, God crafted the world out of only light and dark, but it took God six proverbial days to do so, and the process was so exhausting that God was forced to rest on the seventh day.  Out of love for us, God sent Jesus to us to remake society and preach truth to power, but it took about thirty years for Jesus to begin His ministry.  We may fall in love with the person who is to become our spouse, but it takes years of dating and engagement before we are sealed as a couple before God in marriage…unless you’re in Las Vegas, then it takes minutes, and you are sealed as a couple in front of Elvis instead.  And out of love, we may strive to transform the world into better place, but…well, this is something Christians have been trying to do for some two thousand years, and we still have such a long, long way to go.  How enviable, then, is the instantaneous transfiguration of Jesus that Luke depicts.

And so it is important for us to remember that even Jesus Himself did not transfigure the entire world immediately, and neither did His Church.  It was not until Constantine became Emperor of Rome in around the early 4th century CE—the 300’s or so, many hundreds of years after Jesus’ life and ministry—that Christianity really began to take shape as the trendy, hot, new, popular religion.  What giant, coaster-sized sunglasses and iPads and Instagram are today, Christianity was then, in the 300s.  But before Christianity, the Romans had worshiped, for many, many years, not the God we know, but a large pantheon of other deities, which were at this point in time led by the sun—the Sol Invictus, in English, the Invincible Sun, and these deities were very, very popular.  It’s why we worship on Sunday—the Sun’s Day—instead of the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday…this story, the story of Jesus, was not an easy sell for hundreds of years, even though we may find it so amazingly compelling today.  Indeed, it may still be a tough sell!

What the transfiguration does offer us, though, is the promise that all the work and labor we may put into creating goodness in our lives, that God will be present in every way God knows how.  It cannot be an accident that God appeared to Peter and James and John not only as Jesus but in guise of Moses and Elijah as well.  It is hard to find a more diverse trio of such famed servants in the Bible.  Moses was the leader of the Hebrews out of slavery, he who was raised as royalty in Egypt and renounced it all to bring God’s children home.  Elijah was the nomadic, charismatic prophet of old, who led the effort against the worship of the Ba’als and other non-Israelite deities.  And then there is Jesus.  And just as God so loved all these teachers and prophets, and loved all of their deeds and teachings, so too may God love us, in all we do, in all in which we stumble but also all in which we triumph, and transform, and work to make this world we live in transfigure into something better.  God was made manifest by each of these three very different teachers—so perhaps God can also be made present by this diverse group of all peoples who call themselves Christians…who call themselves the “little Christs.”

The Reverend Peter Storey, a South African Methodist minister who toiled for decades fighting against apartheid before coming to the United States to teach, preached in Johannesburg that if we were to sing a particular South African children’s hymn whose chorus goes, “Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus,” then Jesus’s reply would most likely be, “Okay, here I come, but I’m bringing all these other people with me!”  To transfigure a nation with as much hurt and pain in its past as South Africa does, where non-whites were treated almost universally as second- and third-class citizens, well, despite the production of heartwarming movies like Invictus, we are still not all of the way there.  In Johannesburg, the houses owned by wealthy whites are still not only far more lavish than the urban slums of the city, but they are still often surrounded by tall iron fences.  The term “gated community” takes on a whole different level there.  The bounds of transforming South Africa into a land of peace, and of equality, are being realized with each passing day, but so too are they being pushed, bit by bit, every day as well.  What a wonderful model for us—once we know that we become the best versions of ourselves not instantaneously, but over time, lots of time, we can push ourselves just a little bit, every day, to become that best version of ourselves, the version in which God speaks and acts and loves through each of us.  And Lord, we want that best version of ourselves to be the strongest, the most invincible, that cannot be contained.  But of course it is.  We slide back into our negative selves with such great ease, it is sometimes instantaneous.

I cannot tell you with absolute certainty that this passage proves anything at all about Jesus, invincible or otherwise, other than He was God’s Divine Son and that God loved Him.  But what I can tell you is that even if Jesus Himself wasn’t invincible as a man, the love that He preached absolutely is.  Or, put a different way by the writer and chaplain Rev. Kate Braestrup, it is not merely the beloved that is resurrected, it is love itself, resurrected again and again and again.

The Transfiguration welcomes us into God’s presence and into God’s love.  And that love which we are welcomed into is a love that, we pray, over time, may guide us and transfigure us into the most wonderful images of ourselves.  Tellingly, unlike the other Gospels, in Luke’s version, Peter, James, and John do not avert their eyes from the image of Jesus with Moses and Elijah, but instead we left to assume that they saw their Messiah in all of His glory and splendor. 

And so, wherever God appears, be it in dazzling white or in the cry of a humble, newborn child, in the guise of a starving carpenter in the wilderness or in the mortality of a man executed upon the Cross, may we see that God transfigured and majestic before our eyes, for with God, love reigns, our fears fade, and all manner of things become possible once again.

By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 10, 2013

Thursday, February 7, 2013

#bibleschoolpickuplines

Over on Twitter, one of my favorite young (clearly a relative term--she's older and much more experienced than me) pastors, Carol Howard Merritt, started a new bit of hashtag craziness by asking us to come up with our best/favorite Christian pick-up lines with the #bibleschoolpickuplines hashtag.  Because we've been tackling some more serious stuff here and I learned in prepping for last night's Bible study class on Luke 5 that Jesus did believe in having joy and fun in life, here are a few of my favorites from the recent re-tweeting madness...

BUT--on a serious note first, I also think these are fascinating from an anti-language perspective (see the immediate previous entry).  All of these are us using general, contemporary language in very specific ways to impart specific double-meanings known to the "in" crowd (that is, Christians or folks with a working knowledge of Christian culture).  As a 21st-century version of a 1st-century phenomenon, I think it is terribly interesting how God geeks like me are getting their funnies these days.

After all, one of the most tried and true genres of humor is the "it's-funny-because-it's-true" variety, and these fall into the absurdist element of that genre...most of us KNOW that Christian subculture is both oddly and endearingly a bit unusual at times, and poking fun at it is, for me at least, how I show my love.

But that knowledge is what makes the jokes funny to begin with.

(and if you are on Twitter, CHM is definitely worth a follow.)

And now for a few of the tweets themselves:

@dan_nelson42 and @PedestrianLife: "I was going through the Book of Numbers and realized I don't have yours."

@revngeek: "Am I worthy to untie the thong?"

@TwoFriars: "For those of us in Christ, all is lawful, baby."

@AndAFool: "If there's gonna be an altar call, we might as well make sure we need it," and "Is your body complementary to mine, or am I just happy to see you?"

@MeredithGould: "Want to explore tongues?"

...and all of this began with the tweet, "I'd like to amplify your Bible!"

PS: I tweeted a few myself, including:

"You wanna get freaky, Song of Songs-style?"

"Whaddaya say we go back to my tent and uncover those feet?"

"I'm needing to practice my laying on of hands, can you help?"

What would be YOUR Christian pick-up lines?  Feel free to post your best in the comments, or tweet them with the #bibleschoolpickuplines hashtag!

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Anti-Language

A few days ago, this piece from the good folks over at CNN's Belief Blog caught my eye.  And even though the article itself is about a year-and-a-half old, there's lots of truth in its fundamental premise:

Christianity isn't just a faith, it's also a language.  And you either speak it with varying degrees of fluency, or you don't.

It's a little like name-dropping, in a way, in that it is meant to establish someone's bona fides...someone asks me about my  "testimony," they aren't asking me for a deposition or if I've witnessed any crimes lately.  They're asking me about my relationship with God as revealed through Jesus Christ.  (Same goes for the term "witnessing.")

And there are tons of terms that float around the church world that have this sort of double meaning--one meaning out in secular society, and an entirely different meaning within Christianity.

Saved.

Born again.

Mission (or, everyone's new favorite word in church growth, "missional")

Emergent.

And the list goes on and on.

To be honest, I'm not always sure what to make of it.  Sometimes I worry that we as Christians are making ourselves--and our knowledge of Jesus Christ--shut off from everyone else who isn't like us.

My New Testament professor in college called this sort of phenomenon "anti-language."  He argued, basically, that words that commonly mean one thing in a larger culture get co-opted by a smaller culture living within the larger culture to mean something totally different and inaccessible to the larger culture.

It's something that we see in the Bible all the time.  The Book of Revelation is full of it--just ask any Bible scholar about the number 666.

But it's also in the Gospels.  This season, our Tuesday morning Bible study is working its way through the Gospel of John, and already in the first four chapters, we have encountered two glaring instances of this "anti-language."

The first, in John 3, is Jesus telling Nicodemus of the need to be born again, or born from above, depending on your translation.

To which Nicodemus replies, "How can I be born a second time?"  He takes Jesus' words at their most literal and, presumably, at their most common interpretation.

But Jesus is creating a brand new interpretation of some very old words.

The same thing happens one chapter later, at Jacob's well when the Samaritan woman, about to draw water, asks Jesus how He can produce this living water He speaks of, for He has no bucket!

The Greek used in that term can also mean "running" water, like in a stream or river, and it stands in opposite contrast to the still water of the well.

Again--the most common and literal interpretation of a word is not what Jesus goes for.

He instead goes for creating something entirely new...not new words, but new ways of using words that, in the end, become accessible to us through God's guidance.

What if we were to continue to do that with the words we come up with in church today?

What if we made them accessible and inclusive?

What if people knew God's love because we did precisely that?

What a great church that would be!

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, February 4, 2013

Coming Up in Worship (and, therefore, on the ol' blog...)

(I was away yesterday (as you'll see below), and so there is no weekly sermon this week...but otherwise, we are back to our regularly scheduled programming here in our deranged little corner of the Christian blogosphere! -E.A.)

With Lent just around the corner (Ash Wednesday is in nine days, yikes...), I am excited to announce our sermon series for this important liturgical season: "Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables."  As described below from our newsletter, this series will be a five-week journey through three famous parables, all organized into one tidy chapter by Luke.  We'll spend one week apiece on the first two parables: the shepherd with the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin, before taking three weeks to dissect the well-known and well-loved parable of the Prodigal Son.

I have been looking forward for a long time to sharing this series with FCC and with y'all here at the Project, and look for these sermons to start coming out on the 17th!  I hope to see you if you're around here, or that you'll follow along if you're a friend from far away!

Yours in Christ,
Eric

This Month in Worship: February 2013

If it's February, then we must be preparing for two big times--Valentine's Day and the season of Lent!  Believe it or not, both are all about love--the Valentine's Day one is obvious, but Lent is also about God's love for us because it culminates in the Passion story of Jesus dying and resurrecting for us!

And though I will not be with you the first Sunday in February, I am looking forward to what is in store.  For the months of February and March, we will be living entirely in Luke's Gospel, with first a look at Luke's account of the Transfiguration in Luke 9.  Then, when Lent itself starts after Ash Wednesday, we will begin a five-week sermon series that goes verse by verse through the three parables Jesus tells in Luke 15: the shepherd with the lone stray sheep, the woman with the lost coin, and--most famously--the prodigal son.  We'll be exploring those parables through the lenses of loss, mercy, and redemption, as we go through Lent preparing to lose Jesus to the cross, to seek God's mercy for our sins, and to be redeemed by His resurrection on Easter Sunday in March.  It promises to be a fantastic sermon series, and I look forward to sharing it with you!

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric



February 3: Rev. Dr. James Conrod, guest preaching
February 10: “Sol Invictus,” Luke 9:28-36
February 13 (Ash Wednesday, 7:00 pm): “Your Broken Crown,” Luke 4:1-13

New Sermon Series, Lent 2013: “Loss, Mercy, and Redemption: The Luke 15 Parables”

February 17: “More Equal Than Others,” Luke 15:1-7
February 24: “Kjeragbolten,” Luke 15:8-10