Friday, September 29, 2006

Disciples DNA: People of the Chalice

(Through October, as we observe Heritage Month, I'm placing an insert in the bulletin each week describing some aspect of our church's history and identity. This is the first one, for October 1.)

From the very beginning of our church, Disciples have celebrated the Lord’s Supper together each Sunday. And from the very beginning the table has been open to all, no matter what church they belong to. “It is the Lord’s Table and, therefore, not the congregation’s prerogative to allow or disallow participation,” says Guin Stemmler in Disciples Mini-History. All are welcome at Christ’s Table.

But there’s more. In some churches, only ordained clergy are allowed to preside and pray at the Table; in others, no one but ordained clergy may even handle the elements. That’s not the case in the Christian Church. We believe this is a family table, and any member of the family—men, women, and youth—may preside, may serve, may pray at our Table. While there are good theological reasons for this, there are also practical benefits: in the early days of our church, out on the frontier where professional ministers were scarce, the fact that any Christian may preside at the Table meant that we didn’t have to wait for one of the few professionals to appear before we could share the Lord’s Supper together.

Rational people though Disciples are, our founder Alexander Campbell could still wax poetic about the Table. In 1852 he wrote:

Each disciple, in handing the symbols to his fellow-disciple, says, in effect, “You, my brother, once an alien, are now a citizen of heaven; once a stranger, are now brought home to the family of God. You have owned my Lord as your Lord, my people as your people. Under Jesus the Messiah we are one. Mutually embraced in the Everlasting arms, I embrace you in mine: thy sorrows shall be my sorrows, and thy joys my joys. Joint debtors to the favor of God and the love of Jesus, we shall jointly suffer with him, that we may jointly reign with him. Let us, then, renew our strength, remember our King, and hold fast to our boasted hope unshaken to the end.”

Over a century later Disciples pastor and musician David Edwards set those words to music in the beautiful communion hymn “When You Do This, Remember Me.”

Although there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically says Christians are to observe the Lord’s Supper each week, it does appear, according to Colbert Cartwright in People of the Chalice, that the observance was central in early Christian worship. Therefore Disciples, who had as one of their earliest goals the restoration of the New Testament church, place Communion as central in our own worship. Although Alexander Campbell refused to suggest any specific order for Christian worship—in keeping with an early Disciples motto, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent”—he did insist on the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and that observance shapes and colors the entire worship service.

From the beginning, Disciples have also been committed to Christian unity. In his Declaration and Address, written in 1809 to explain the purpose of the new group he had started, Thomas Campbell said, “The church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” Another founder, Barton Stone, expressed similar sentiments in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery. We understand that we are not the only Christians; and so it is with joy that we Disciples observe World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday in October each year, remembering that we join together with all Christians around the world when we gather at the Lord’s Table.

Why Does Disciples DNA Matter?

(My congregation is celebrating Heritage Month in October. This is my column from the church newsletter kicking it all off.)

Some years ago, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had before it a resolution that has caused trouble ever since. The resolution asked the Assembly to vote “yes” or “no” on the statement, “Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.”

My memory fails me just exactly what happened (it’s been well over a decade ago), other than that the General Assembly did not pass this resolution. And since then, folks have tried to cause trouble in churches and other areas within the Christian Church by telling people, “Our denomination’s leaders don’t believe Jesus is the only way to salvation.” And people hear this, and they wonder, “Do we really want to be part of a denomination that doesn’t believe in Jesus?”

But here’s the problem: We aren’t part of a denomination that doesn’t believe in Jesus. The Design, which is sort of the constitution and by-laws of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), begins with this statement: “As members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.” That’s a version of what we ask each person who presents him- or herself for baptism or for church membership to affirm. Of course we believe in Jesus!

What we don’t believe in is a denominational structure that allows decisions about what we believe, beyond the statement above, to be made for us by our leadership in Indianapolis, at General Assembly, or anywhere else. Had the resolution “Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation” come before the General Assembly, it would have been voted down too!

There’s a reason why people can come to our churches and cause trouble by saying, “The General Assembly refused to say Jesus is the only way to salvation—therefore the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) doesn’t believe in Jesus—therefore if we do believe in Jesus we had better separate ourselves from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).” It’s because we’re not as familiar with our identity as Disciples as we should be. From the very beginning, Disciples have believed each Christian has the responsibility to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (see Philippians 2:12); therefore, we do not look to our leaders in the regional office or in Indianapolis or at General Assembly to tell us what we believe.

This is why I believe it’s important to spend some time this month rediscovering our heritage as Disciples. If folks in these churches where someone’s causing trouble over “what Disciples believe” knew what Disciples really believe, they’d be able to say, “No, that’s not who we are.”

But there’s more to it than that. A San Diego new church pastor who led a workshop at the Portland General Assembly said that if we could just get the word out about who Disciples are and what we believe, our churches would explode with growth. We are what the world is looking for. But how will they know that, if we don’t know it and therefore aren’t able to tell them?

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is unique, and uniquely qualified to reach the world we find ourselves in today. Let’s get in touch with who we are as a church this month, so we can live out our mission: “to be and to share the good news of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving, and serving from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.”


This is my column for next Tuesday's edition of our local newspaper.

When I was a child I lived a few blocks from a smelter operated by the Sherwin-Williams paint company. The school I attended was right across the street from the smelter, which ran day and night, removing from ore the minerals that give color to our paints. There was a smokestack that continuously poured foul-smelling, dark brown smoke into the air.

We lived west of the smelter, so we escaped the worst of the effects of that smoke. Nevertheless, it discolored and ruined the finish of the white car we owned for awhile, and on the occasions when the wind came out of the east that smoke would settle down over our school playground, burning our lungs as we breathed it in. Those who lived downwind had even worse effects: Some of the properties east and north of the smelter have had to have all the dirt in their yards removed, hauled off and replaced, because the constant onslaught of that smoke left poisons in the earth. People who lived there are unsure whether health problems they have experienced might have been caused by exposure to that pollution.

Finally new rules went into effect, and that smokestack was replaced with a new one fitted with a “scrubber” that removed most of the pollutants before they could find their way into the air. But the damage was already done.

We know a lot about the dangers of pollution nowadays, considerably more than the folks who built that smelter in Coffeyville did. We have taken many steps to reduce the pollution that finds its way into our air, water, and earth. But there is one form of pollution we have not reduced. That pollution is anger, and it is causing great harm to our world.

There is anger in public and private life. There is anger in city government, anger in Congress, anger in international relations. It’s anger that is causing Ku Klux Klan flyers to be placed on cars and in churches in our area. Anger seems to fuel most public discourse today, especially among the screaming heads on cable “news,” but also in press conferences held by our nation’s leaders. Tiny things set us off: a quote taken out of context from a papal address, the request to have a sign reading “God Bless America” removed from a California post office, a store clerk wishing us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” traffic, someone else’s cell phone ringing at an inconvenient time, slow service at a restaurant, etc., etc., etc.

What’s going on? Why is there so much anger afoot in our world?

Part of it is fear. We find ourselves in a world we did not choose, a world where terrorism is more deadly than ever and we can’t seem to do anything about it, a world that is changing much faster than we can keep up with, a world where the optimism of the 20th century has given way to the sure and certain knowledge that we have not eradicated disease, hunger and poverty or ushered in world peace. We’re afraid because the world seems to be out of control.

Scientists tell us that when any creature—including humans—is threatened, the body produces chemicals that spur a “fight-or-flight” response. Fear and anger are both part of that response, and so are very closely related. This is, of course, normal and healthy if the threat is immediate and our response gets us out of the threatening situation. But when the threat is undefined and constant (or is being exploited and made to appear constant), fear and anger do not dissipate.

So what can be done about the pollution of anger? First of all, we need to strengthen our relationships with one another. Modern people too easily become isolated, and when we do not know our neighbors we are prone to fear them. We need to make the effort to get to know others: our neighbors, those who don’t look and act like us, those who are of a different faith from ours, immigrants and strangers in our midst. When we can think of people as neighbors and friends, not some nameless, faceless “other,” they’re not nearly as scary.

We also need to slow down. When we’re hurried, we’re stressed and less patient, and less likely to take a deep breath and count to ten when an irritant presents itself. A slower pace would reduce anger a great deal.

But above all, we need to turn to God. There is no need for fear when we trust in God—the One who brought order out of chaos at creation will not let chaos take over again. In the midst of the anger that pollutes our atmosphere, let us remember that God is God, so that anger and fear do not dominate our own lives and relationships.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

An old sermon

Someone asked me to post this old sermon (from September 21, 2003) so he could link to it from his own site. Although it's old, it is based on one of the lectionary readings for this week.

September 21, 2003
Blue Ribbons
Mark 9:30-37

Fair season is just about over, I think. Some of us have entered different things for judging—crafts, flowers, food, musical presentations, all sorts of things, in the friendly competition at the fair. Growing up, I used to go out to the fair at home and look at the exhibits. My grandmother always had something entered—usually some candy, or a cake, or something like that, and she usually got a blue ribbon.

One year I decided I’d like to enter something in the fair. So I thought, “What do I do pretty well?” In my family, it was my job to make the biscuits for breakfast on weekends. So I made a batch of baking-powder biscuits, using my grandmother’s recipe.

Well, my sister and I tended to be a little bit competitive—and she tended, as a younger sister, to want also to do whatever I might be doing. So she decided to make biscuits to enter in the fair too. Up until this point she’d shown no interest whatsoever in cooking anything, really. She got out the Betty Crocker cookbook and made a batch of buttermilk biscuits, the first biscuits she’d ever made in her life.

We took our respective batches of biscuits out to the fairgrounds, filled out the paperwork and paid our dollar entry fee. Then we went back after the judging to see how we’d done.

On my plate of light, tall, perfectly browned biscuits made from my grandmother’s recipe was pinned…a red ribbon. Second place. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except that next to my biscuits sat Carrie’s plate of very-first-try, Betty Crocker Cookbook biscuits—proudly wearing a blue ribbon.

As they walked home, Jesus and his disciples had some time alone. Jesus had made sure of it, because there were some things he wanted to teach them. For the second time, he tried to explain to them what would be coming up for him—telling them about his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection.

But as before, it didn’t compute. They didn’t understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him to explain. Maybe they were like we sometimes are when we’re in a class and don’t understand something—each of us is afraid we’re the only one who doesn’t get it, and don’t want to look stupid in front of everyone else, so we keep our mouths shut. What we don’t realize—what the disciples didn’t realize—was that no one understands, and if one of us would ask the question, all of us would benefit.

But the disciples didn’t do that. Instead, they talked among themselves about it. I wonder if their conversation might have sounded like this:

“Why does he keep saying that? He knows the Messiah won’t die—he’ll establish his kingdom here, throw out the Romans, and rule forever.”

“Beats me. Maybe he’s slipping.”

“Remember when he said this to us before,” Peter might say, “and I tried to help him understand what it really meant to be the Messiah—and he called me Satan! There’s no way I’d ask him about it again after that.”

“What if something does happen to him? I suppose one of us will have to take over as the leader, and keep this thing going.”

“Yeah, but which one?”

And then maybe they fell silent, imagining what it would be like on that last day, Jesus placing his hands on the chosen successor’s head—and, of course, each one thought it would be him who got the nod.

Then the conversation would resume.

“It sure couldn’t be Peter. He’s too much of a loose cannon, always speaking before he thinks.”
Peter might answer, “But I’m the only one who knew he was the Messiah without him telling us. And I’m one of the few he had up on the mountain with him that one day when Moses and Elijah showed up.”

And John might chime in, “Well, James and I were there too on that day. I bet he’d pick one of us.”

Then James might turn to his brother and say, “Well, it would have to be me, not you, because you’re too young to be in charge.”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“Am not!”

And maybe Judas would interrupt this argument before it turned physical, saying, “Well, you guys are all hicks from Galilee. I think Jesus would pick someone a little bit more sophisticated, someone who could relate better to people in Jerusalem.”

“So I suppose you think you’d get to be the leader, then, Judas,” Thomas might chime in. “You’re the only Judean. But why would Jesus think a Judean was better than someone from Galilee? Remember that he’s a Galilean too!”

Then Matthew might jump in. “I think he’d pick someone who’s financially secure, who maybe could support all of us. Running all over creation teaching people takes money, you know. And I’ve got more money than any of you.”

“Well,” Peter might say. “I think your past would probably come back to haunt you. There’s no way the Pharisees would listen to a former tax collector. As far as they’re concerned, you’re still a filthy collaborator.”

Now, I don’t know how long this argument might have gone on, with each of the twelve giving their reason why he should be the leader, and each one of them getting shot down by someone else, but you get the idea. Maybe it went on until they got home, as Jesus walked ahead of them a few paces, and they all figured he was lost in his own thoughts, or even in prayer, and probably—hopefully!—not listening to them. Because they must have known somewhere in their heart of hearts how ridiculous the argument was.

But no such luck. When they got home, Jesus asked, seemingly innocently, “What were you guys talking about?” I remember my mom asking similar innocent questions when I was a kid and doing something I shouldn’t have been doing—and knowing full well she knew the answer before she asked.

And the disciples probably looked very intently at their feet right then. But Jesus didn’t chew them out, like he had not too long before when they hadn’t been able to do anything for a father who brought his epileptic son for healing.

Any of us who’ve ever been teachers know about “teachable moments.” Those times when something happens and we throw out the lesson plans because we’ve just been presented an opportunity to teach something we hadn’t planned to teach. Jesus saw a teachable moment here. The disciples’ reaction when Jesus asked them what they were talking about told him they were ripe for being taught another way to think about greatness. So he sat down—as a rabbi would to teach.

He said, “You know, the world thinks about greatness the way you were doing on the road. Who’s the most qualified, most powerful, best at the stuff on the job description? Who has money, who has the right ethnic background, the best political savvy? But you guys have been around me long enough to know that’s not the way I see it, and that’s not the way my Father sees it.

“In the Kingdom of God, the one who is the greatest is the one who serves everyone else. In the kingdom of God, the ones given special honor are the weak, the broken, the insignificant, the powerless.”

And then, for the visual learners among them, he called a little child who happened to be walking through and took that child into his arms. Maybe he had the weun sit on his lap for a second. And he said, “If you welcome one like this in my name, you are welcoming me—and in welcoming me, you welcome God.” That’s true greatness, he said.

Some preachers are using this text to talk about how we treat children in this country. And that’s certainly a worthwhile conversation to have. But it’s not the whole point.

To understand Jesus’ point we need to know a little bit about what it meant to be a child in his day. Childhood wasn’t seen in those days as an ideal time of innocence, a time of play and wonder. Children weren’t seen as precious, but as necessary nuisances, to be fed and clothed and put up with until they were old enough to be of some use to the family. In a time when many kids didn’t survive even to age five, it just didn’t pay to get attached to them. They were weak, powerless; they had no say in what happened to them; they were completely at someone else’s mercy, completely dependent on someone else to provide for them.

So when Jesus said, “Be servant of all, welcoming all, even a child, and you will be great,” he was really saying, “True greatness is welcoming and serving the lowest of the low.”

We learned from Jesus—not just from his words but from the way he lived his life, the Son of God coming as a baby to an ordinary, poor family who lived in the sticks of Galilee, taking as his followers fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, broken people, poor people, even women and children; and eventually dying naked on a cross—that the way of the Kingdom is the way of service, of humility, of being prepared even to give up our lives for others who probably don’t even deserve to be served or welcomed like this.

The way of the Kingdom is to welcome and serve the lowest of the low. In serving these, we serve Christ, and in serving Christ we serve God.

Now, I think it’s easy to welcome and care for some children, at least—the ones who behave, who have manners, who are cute. But that’s not all Jesus meant. It’s not so easy to welcome and care for children who don’t look like us, who don’t know how to behave, who have issues, who aren't cute, who are obnoxious. But those are the ones we need especially to welcome.

And he might have set a child on his lap to teach them; but he wasn’t talking just about children. He was talking about anyone who has low status, is powerless, anyone with whom we’d rather not associate. He was telling his disciples—telling us—that how we treat these little ones, these poor ones, these weak ones, these invisible ones is how we treat him.

In a way, when we encounter one of these little ones who needs us to welcome and love them, we are encountering Jesus; we have a chance to welcome Jesus, to care for Jesus.

So the question for each of us is this: How will we treat Jesus when we meet him this week?