Monday, August 28, 2017

Track vs Field: The unchurched and churched

Reformation 500 and the unchurched
This summer my congregation did a great deal of research into the unchurched in our community.  This was part of our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  We are thinking about the call of the Holy Spirit to continue to reform the church, in this case, our congregation.  One of our projects was to build a "Thesis 96" wall outside our church.  We invited people in the church and community to write their statement (or thesis) to the church.  It has been really awesome to see what people have written.  But that is for another day!

Our hope through the Thesis 96 project and our Reformation 500 celebrations is to consider -- what prevents people from accessing God's grace in our culture, specifically our community, today?  How could be better reach out to the unchurched in our community.

Track vs Field Understanding
Back to the unchurched.  I confess that I often end up with a view of the unchurched and churched that looks something like this: 

In this view, there are unchurched and churched people.  Each group is divided into two subgroups:  The unchurched has people that are really opposed to the Gospel (we'll call them atheists) and people that are somewhat open ("seekers"); the churched has people that come ("participants") and those that really are involved ("elders").  We could nuance this chart, maybe adding a few more arrow segments, but basically the idea is to move people from left to right.  If they are questioning, get them in the door.  If they are in the door, get them involved.  There are tons of books written to give churches tools as to how to make this conveyor belt process work.
There are also tons of blogs/books written as to why people are drifting from right to left on this chart!  Given this mentality, it is easy to feel like we are fighting an impossible task, running right into the head waters of our culture that is increasingly ambivalent, if not hostile to church, institutions and in many ways, commitments.
As we did research, which included looking at data and talking to people in our community, it occurred to me that this track or linear view was really inadequate for our task.  I want to propose a more "field" than "track" view of the churched and unchurched.
In reality, there are many reasons why people are unchurched.  Some of it comes out of opposition to the church or the idea of God.  Frankly though, survey after survey shows that most Americans do not consider themselves strident atheists.  Most people instead are out of church totally or most Sundays for a variety of reasons
- They moved to a new community or had a huge change in their family situation
- They were burned out on their church
- They were abused by their church
- They have never been to church and have never been invited (7 out of 10 unchurched people has never been invited)
- They work on Sundays or have made a commitment to their child's sporting "career."
Furthermore, there are lots of ways that people plug into church
- Some people are "all in" - "elders" who come nearly every Sunday and serve in leadership
- Some are homebound members
- Some connect only with certain areas of ministry - education or social ministry or a particular outreach of the church
- Some come when they are can, but are really busy
- Some connect only online
- Some travel extensively and are only plugged in when they are in town
In short, we do not have two or even four groups that could fit on a line.  There are people all over the highway in terms of church involvement or not.
General Motors' Maven
General Motors has a subdivision called Maven, which is providing short term rentals of GM cars.  It is designed to compete with ZipCar.  General Motors has come to the conclusion that for certain phases of life, people want access to a car, but neither want nor can afford ownership.  In some cities, people use Maven for weekend getaways, in other cities people use Maven to get across town and still in other cities people use it as their vehicle for money making through Uber!  What is most striking though is that General Motors does not simply think this kind of car utilization is for a phase of life; it acknowledges that many people will never own a car, but will be interested in using a car.  General Motors set up Maven so that even if people are not buying cars, they can still make a profit in the car industry!
To put this perspective back into our discussion about churched and unchurched, I think we should realize that just like many people today will not own cars, but will still use them, many people in our congregation will not be "all in" and may, in fact, never be "all in" but they will still be in the sphere of our congregation.  Just like people are automobiles for different reasons and to different extents, the people who come into our congregation will engage in different ways.  This does not mean they are bad or incomplete Christians or even that they only have a consumer mentality, but their life set up prevents them from being "all in."
Creating paths instead of a track
Rather than trying to move everyone along some mythical church conveyer belt, I suggest we embrace a far scarier task:  Providing more (personalized!) paths to faith development.  Let's assume that young families are not going to come more than twice a month.  How can we help them pray at night with their kids?  Let's assume that homebound members cannot serve on committees.  How can we keep them connected and feeling a part of the decision making process at the church?  Let's assume that the person who only comes to play in the handbell choir is unlikely to come for anything else.  How can we make that 6 hours a month she commits to the church as faith filled as possible?
The goal of making disciples may ultimately have a linear or clear trajectory, namely, helping people see their relationship with God in terms of transformation rather than transaction.  However, the map of people's engagement with the church is anything but linear.  To put it another way, I feel liberated - my job is not simply to move people from an increasing pool of unchurched to a shrinking pool of churched.  My task is to help the congregation figure out "faith paths" that can move people toward a deeper commitment to their Lord and the church, acknowledging this will not necessarily look "all in" from a church perspective.  This does not mean that serving Jesus demands anything less than "all in"; rather, this acknowledges that being "all in" to Jesus will manifest itself in a variety of levels of engagement with the church, particularly one congregation.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently in August 2017.

Note:  My post for this passage grows out of a session of Summer Greek I helped teach at United Lutheran Seminary on August 18, 2017.  So exciting to help future pastors see how Greek can impact their preaching.  I definitely learned a great deal from them.  This post also reflects the events that happened in August 2017, when there was a violent White Supremacy rally in Charlottesville, VA.  Unfortunately, Donald Trump's words following this event threw gasoline on the oldest fire in America: racism.

Summary:  Most times I would preach on the woman's faith and the dynamics of prayer. I would wrestle with Jesus reluctance to be a God of mercy and justice for her; was Jesus sense of mission changed by this and other interactions?  I really don't think so, but wow, this is a tough passage!

This year though, based on events in our nation, my attention is drawn to the disciples and their unwillingness to speak on behalf of the needy.  I see their hardness of heart as the primary objective of Jesus' healing.  Ultimately, in order for the church to be a place big enough for Jews and Gentiles, the Jewish followers of Jesus are going to have to accept Gentiles.  As the book of Acts and Paul's letter to the Galatians shows, this is a long road.  In short, I see this story beginning with #ShePerisisted and ultimately turning into #JesusPersisted because he is willing to walk a long, long path with his disciples to open their eyes to God's mercy.  To draw it back to today's context, I see a lot of people really hesitent to listen to the cries of the voiceless.  This is our call and struggle as a church, to move from #ShePersisted to #WePersisted in that as a church we begin/continue to speak for those who are voiceless.  We can do this because #JesusPersisted for you and for us, forgiving our hardness of heart and opening our heart to the depth of God's love.

Key Words:
Related to Jesus
εξελθεν (from εξερχομαι, meaning "go out", 15:21)  and ανεχωρησεν (from αναχωρεω, meaning "withdraw" or "depart", 15:21):  By using both of these verbs in one sentence, Matthew really draws out that Jesus wants to get away.  Perhaps this reflects Jesus' own need for Sabbath; Since John's beheading, he has continually had a desire for a break.  I think many people these days are overwhelmed by world (and not just personal) events and want to get away and take a breather!

λογον (meaning "word", 15:23)  It is quite remarkable that the word incarnate does not have a word for this woman!

απεσταλην (perfect form of αποστελλω, meaning "send", 15:24)  Given the importance of this verb in the New Testament (and in Christian theology) it is an incredibly powerful statement.  As it is presented here it sounds cruel rather than compassionate.

ιαθη (from ιαομαι, meaning "heal", 15:28)  It is interesting that Matthew uses this particular word here for "heal"; only two people are "healed" (as indicated by ιαθη) in Matthew's Gospel.  The other one is the Roman Centurian's youth (see 8.8, 8:13), another pagan youth whose parent/guardian must plead on their behalf.  I am not sure if I would want to analyze what kind of healing then is associated with ιαθη as opposed to other verbs, but I find it interesting that Matthew links these two stories.  Also interested is that the only other citation in Matthew's Gospel of this verb is a link to an Isaiah 6 passage where God basically declares that God will not ιαθη Israel...

While such a discourse is likely beyond a sermon, this passage is all about healing -- who is really healed?  The girl of course, but what about her mother?  (seems safe to say yes).  What about the disciples?  There is a rift between these two groups that needs to be healed and this is ultimately the work of Christ.

Related to the woman
καναναια ("Canaanite", 15:22)  This is the only time in the New Testament we see this word, although it is very common in the Old Testament.  It is worth noting that Mark describes her as a more generic pagan, but Matthew opens up the door to an ancient blood fued by using the word Canaanite.

εκραζεν ("cry out", 15:22,23)  The word for cry out comes into Enlgish as "crazy."  She literally went crazy!  What is most significant here is that the verb is in the imperfect tense, which describes on-going action.  #ShePersisted.  She kept and kept crying out.

ελεησον με κυριε  (15:22)  Her cry here is just about the perfect liturgical cry: Kyrie Elision.  Just as we so often begin worship and later with multiple chants of this, she begins her worship (the passage indicates, yes, she did worship) with multiple chants of this.

κυριος ("Lord", 15:22,25,27)  It is fascinating to see the way in which "Lord" shows up in this passage.  She calls on Jesus as Lord.  In the Septuagint, the translators would translate YHWH as Kurios.  So, here is she picking up on the ultimately proper Jewish prayer, giving her bold confession of faith, calling Jesus both God and son of David?  Or is she simply using the word in Greek to mean "master."  In short, should we translate this as "lord" (generic term of respect) or "LORD" (translation of ancient name of God).  This starts to get at the nature of her faith -- does she really know this is God?  Does she have a bedrock faith in a God of justice and mercy?  Or is she really grasping at straws?  Can we ever tell with faith in crisis?

Note:  I do not know what to make of the plural use of this noun in verse 27.  Perhaps one could maintain that it adds to the confusion about her intentions.

Related to the disciples
ηρωτουν (from ερωταω, meaning "ask", 15:23)  This verb is also in the imperfect.  The disciples keep asking Jesus.

απολυσον (from απολυω meaning "send away", 15:23)  This harkens back to the feeding of the 5,000, when the disciples ask to send away the multitude!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

1 Kings 19:1-18

The narrative lectionary year 4 includes this passage for All Saints Sunday.  It also occurs a number of times in the Revised Common Lectionary (or at least portions of it).

Summary:  If you are preaching All Saints, what a great image of a saint:  discouraged, yet fed through the tangible word to obedient yet difficult service.  Theology of the cross, reformation and vocation all in one.  One could even get to spiritual warfare and anfechtung through the voices that Elijah heres in the messengers. 

What I find interesting in the Hebrew this week is the use of the word "soul" or "life."  The Hebrew (and LXX) use words that we often translate as soul.  Yet the death would be very physical; furthermore, the treatment is very physical.  Back to all saints:  our sainthood is lived out and revived in this world.

Key Words:
נוח ("nuach"; "rest" vs 3)  Elijah does not ditch his servant, but rather gives him rest.  This word is where the name "Noah" comes from.

נגע ("naga"; "touch", vs 5 and 7)  This word can mean touch or strike.  Did the angel touch him or prod him?  What was this touch like?

נפש ("nephish"; vs 10 and throughout).  The word nephish here, sometimes translated soul, is the word used for "life"; a reminder, as always, that our pseudo-Greek worldvied of souls and bodies is not Hebrew (nor Biblical!)  Elijah's soul needs food and water!  This relates to other words and ideas in this section -- eat, touch, even hear!

דממה ("dammah"; "silent voice" vs 12).  The NSRV translates this phrase as "sheer silence."  Yet the Bible seems to suggest it is a small whisper.

Translation issues:
vs. 2: "If"/"let" and the jussive mood.
If you read the Hebrew, you will not find the words "if" when Jezebel speaks, "May the gods do X if I have not done Y." The reason is that the verbs, "do" and "add", are in the jussive mood. Greek grammars all call is subjuntive mood, but Hebrew Grammars call it different names based on the person (ie type of subject, I, you, or he/she/it). The long and short of it, the Hebrew here is a hypothetical folded into a vow. "May the gods kill me if I don't kill you."

Hebrew consectuive verbs.
vs. 3 Hebrew has no adverbs, really. Instead it places verbs in a consecutive fashion. In this case, you have "he was afraid, he was standing and he was going." Or more accurately, "He was going in a fearful and standing way" or even better "He immediately ran scared."
vs.5 Based on the two consecutive verbs, "get up" and "eat," we can red the "get up" as an adverb. Ths, Elijah is not told to stand up and eat, but rather, eat immediately.

Matthew 14:22-33

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently August 13, 2017

Summary:  This passage provides wonderful image of faith:  so powerful, yet so fragile.  Faith can move mountains.  This is good news.  The better news is that Jesus comes to us amid the storm.  The best news, I think, is that Jesus lets us stay in the boat when we only have little faith. 

Key Words
απολυση (meaning "release", 14:22)   Jesus here "releases" the crowd.  Prior to the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples wanted Jesus to release the crowd.  Now that they have been fed, he is releasing them.  Also interesting is that now Jesus must compel (ηναγκασεν, from αναγκαζω) them to leave as well.

προσευξασθαι (meaning "to pray", 14:23)   The verb to "pray" is a middle voice verb.  Typically middle voice means the object and subject are the same, in that the subject is doing the verb to itself (for instance, shaving would be a good candidate in English for a middle voice verb!)  This would suggest that prayer involves some sort of movement, externally or internally, to prepare oneself for prayer.  I remember once I was invited "to assume the posture of prayer." 

βασανιζομενον (participle form of βασανιζω meaning "torment"; 14:24)  This word can even mean torture (as in the the beast is basanized at the end of Revelation)

θαρεσειτε (meaning "be of good cheer, 14:27)  I am fascinated by this.  Is Jesus here commanding faith?  Is it possible for the individual to suddenly turn one's disposition around?  I believe here that we are saved from this dilemma when we realize that the next words of Jesus to Peter are pure promise:  εγω ειμι.  "I am" says Jesus.  "I am" is not simple a declaration that Jesus is present, but that Jesus is God, for εγω ειμι is the same of God.  As Jesus says this, he reveals to Peter that he is indeed God and he is with Peter.  Without the promise of his presence and divinity, Jesus words to Peter would be cruel.  Why can Peter take courage?  Because Jesus is there with him, not because Peter needs to "get it together."

ει συ ει (meaning "since it is you", 14:28).  The word "ει" is often translated "if."  However, its translation is really governed by the tense of the verb to which it is linked.  If it is linked with a subjunctive tense verb, then it is building a hypothetical case; if it is linked with an indicative tense verb, then it is building a true case.  Here it is used with an indicative verb, meaning Peter believes it is a true condition: Since it is you, command me.  [In the case of A, which is a true scenario, then B; rather than: In the case of A, which may or may not be true, then B]

ολιγοπιστε (from ολιγ meaning "few" and πιστε meaning "faith", "of little faith", 14:33) A gracious reminder that we can still be in the boat with Jesus and only have a little faith.  Having lots of faith is not a requirement for journeying with Jesus.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

This passage occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, most recently in August 2017.

Summary:  The feeding stories are very familiar. The basic point of the passage should not be lost:  Jesus has compassion on people and feeds them.  We are called, in spite of obstacles, to do likewise.  That said, there are some beautiful wrinkles in the Greek that will hopefully open up your imagination for preaching!

Key words
κατά ιδιον (meaning "by himself", 14:13)  After hearing the news of Herod and John, Jesus is probably feeling many emotions.  For the first time in the Gospel, Jesus wants to go off by himself.  Matthew really emphasizes how much Jesus wants to get away:  by himself, in the wilderness, in a boat.

σπλαγχνισθη (from σπλαγχνιζομαι, meaning "compassion", 14:14)  Jesus has compassion -- which in Greek literally reads "Jesus intestine someone."  The word for compassion in Greek is intestines because when you have compassion your stomach turns over.  The nature of Jesus is on full display -- grieving he wants to be alone, yet seeing the crowd his guts churn.  You can decide whether this is the human or divine in Jesus...or both!

θεραπεω (therapeo, meaning "heal", 14:14)  I've written about the word therapy elsewhere, but I simply want to point out today the link between therapy and compassion.  Jesus desire to do therapy arises out of his compassion.  In spite of the fact that Jesus is exhausted, his compassion moves not simply his mind, his heart, or even his intestines, but his whole body.  Sometimes we get to move into ministry from a position of strength.  Sometimes we are called into ministry when depleted.  (By ministry I don't just mean ordained ministry, but the call to minister given to all Christians)

απολυσον (from απολυω, meaning "release", 14:15)  The disciples ask Jesus to "release" or apoluoo the people.  Perhaps a haunting question:  Do you think the disciples are worried about Jesus needing rest, the crowd needing food or them needing an emotional and physical break from the people?  I suggest the later...  Sadly, they want to send the people back to the place where they came from, to the city.  Frankly, I empathize with the disciples here.  The task of ministry can be overwhelming.

δοτε (aorist form of δίδωμι, meaning "give", 14:16): In this case, the verb δοτε is in the aorist. This is the same tense of the verb that is used in the Lord's prayer, "Give us this day."  Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God to give them their daily bread.  Now he commands them to give others daily bread.  The aorist form of the verb also provides insight.  The aorist tense suggests a one time event.  Jesus is not asking the disciples to worry about the crowd's consistent daily needs, simply to worry about this one night.  Perhaps this suggests that the disciples, in their worry about future provision, are forgetting their task is in the present.

ουκ ("no" or "not", 14:17) The disciples response to Jesus begins with the word no and reveals their sense of scarcity.  They focus on what they do not have. [Grammar note:  the word ουκ ends in κ because it comes before a vowel]

φερετε...αυτους ("carry them", 14:18)  Okay...I am going out on a limb here.  The Greek here literally reads, "Carry them to me."  Normally we assume that Jesus is referring to the bread and the fish.  Which is probably true.  But I was struck by the fact that the next motion in the passage involves the people.  Perhaps Jesus is telling the disciples:  "Bring the people to me."  This opens up a few sermon possibilities:  First, that our purpose is always to bring people to Christ; second, that Jesus believes the crowd has more and that once they come close they will actually be moved to share..."

λαβων ευλογησεν κλασας εδωκεν ( take, bless, broke and gave, 14:19)  These words appear again in Matthew 26:26, when Jesus is hosting the last supper/first Holy Communion.

[missing word here, 14:19.  The disciples now give the food to the crowd; however, the verb give is missing. It literally reads "The disciples (to) the crowds." Maybe the disciples also took the bread and broke it and give it...and not just gave it!

εχορτασθησαν (from χορταζω, meaning "to fill", 14:20)   The word here for "fill" is related to the word for grass -- the crowd sat on the grass "chortos" and later was "chortazo"-ed. Perhaps a subtle reminder that God's abundance is always there -- even in the midst of a "herma" (wilderness, vs 13; and 15) and when the "oora" (hour) has past (vs 15).