Pastors, churches and the environment

This morning I met with the Capital Area Pastors at United Baptist Church in Concord. There I met the people who serve:

We spent time reading Isaiah 61 and in prayer together for one another. Then it was off to Concordia Lutheran Church for the meeting of ELCA Lutheran pastors. We prayed, studied the Bible readings for Christ the King Sunday, prepared for sermons and shared updated about ministry locally and in the region.

After this I met with a leader of the NH League of Conservation Voters. He and the Council of Churches worked together in 2015 to create our Statement on the Stewardship of Creation. We talked about ways to take the next steps after that statement in 2018, including the upcoming legislative calendar but also ways to provide resources to local churches for their Bible studies, worship and sermons.

 

 

Embracing Holy Envy: Interfaith Understanding 101

Robert Azzi was just named on NH Magazine’s It List for 2017. It’s easy to see why. He has offered his “Ask a Muslim Anything” program in many of our churches.

He also has a new article on Open Democracy, “Embracing holy envy: ‘Allahu Akbar.'” Here he offers an important method for beginning genuine interfaith understanding, beyond the reductions of reading books on “world religions:”

In 1985, Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl, in defending the building of a Mormon temple by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Stockholm, enunciated “Three Rules of Religious Understanding:”

“When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.”

“Don’t compare your best to their worst,” and:

“Leave room for holy envy.”

Read the article here.

Textual Tuesday: Matthew 25:14-30

The Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday points us to Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents. It’s a parable with a well-known and time-honored interpretation: God is the landlord who gives money (talents) to his servants. The servants who return with more money are blessed, the one who does not is shamed and cast out. The interpretation is so ingrained that event the word “talent” has come to mean a personal gift for something. God gives us gifts (like hospitality, tongues, service, leadership, etc) and we should use those to grow God’s kingdom.

But this interpretation doesn’t always sit right in my gut. Here’s three reasons why:

  1. If God is the landlord, then is God the author of inequality? Some are rich and some are poor. “To those who have, more will be given.” It hearkens to the now-rejected verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful:The rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his gate,
    He made them, high or lowly,
    And ordered their estate. (Source: CyberHymnal)
  2. If material wealth and capital gains are the symbol of blessing, then is this a creeping-in of a “prosperity gospel?” After all, Jesus routinely says that the image of salvation is instead one of giving up, renunciation and self-sacrifice.
  3.  Treasure Field #3, by James B. Janknegt
    Treasure Field #3, by James B. Janknegt

    If we trust Matthew, then how should we read the symbols of talents and burial? His only other use of the word “talent” is in Matthew 18:23, and it isn’t a sympathetic one nor congruent with the idea of blessing. Further, in Matthew 13:44, buried treasure symbolizes the Kingdom and not failure and curse.

  4. In Luke’s gospel, the also-familiar parable of the Good Samaritan has the third character in the trio as the hero of the story. How can I read the third person of this trio as a hero?

So, how can I read this differently? Here’s a few starting points:

  1. Read the landlord not as a symbol for God but rather as a symbol for “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
  2. The god “of this age” can be the author of inequality.
  3. This landlord is always pleased when the first two servants play his game: turning money into more money, increasing the wealth gap and so on.
  4. The third person in the trio has opted out. This poorest one refuses to play the games of the world by the landlord’s rules.
  5. This landlord will punish harshly the third person, who many Bible commentaries name as lazy, unfaithful, slothful, neglectful, making excuses, etc. These are familiar insults heaped on the poor in our own day.

So, this parable becomes a parable of the Kingdom of God by highlighting the poor servant who refused to play the landlord’s twisted game. Of course, as Jesus always says, there are insults that come along with this (Matthew 5:11).

Could this reading be more faithful to the way of Jesus, even though it turns our usual interpretation upside-down? What do you think?

Prayer Vigil for Immigrant Justice

Today’s Jericho walk was C-O-L-D! It’s a sign of the changing of seasons. The NH Council of Churches brought a box of hats and coats for both the walkers and the immigrants who have to wait outside for their check-in.

After the walk, Father Sam Fuller, OFM Cap., showed us an apple pie that he went to deliver inside to one of the immigration workers. He read his letter to us, emphasizing that kindness to immigrants and respect for difference are “as American as apple pie.”

Jericho Walk at the backFather Sam Fuller, OFM Cap

Sunday Share: Wesley United Methodist Church

The Church: Wesley United Methodist Church, 79 Clinton St, Concord

Denomination: United Methodist, New England Conference

Worship Leaders:

  • Rev. Jim Batten, preacher
  • Ken Gallagher, musician
  • Kathy Hamilton, liturgist
  • Misty Griffith, children’s sermon
  • Electric Praise band
  • Handbell Choir
  • Sanctuary Choir

Date and Time: Sunday, November 12, 2017, 10:30am

I arrived about 10:15am to listen to the praise music advertised on the website. As I entered the building at least three people greeted me warmly. The smell of coffee filled the entry area.

The Electric Praise band asked us to stand and we same some worship music standards. One of them, “I Will Call Upon the Lord,” I had learned at church camp and hadn’t sung since about 1994!

One member of Electric Praise recounted a conversation with her young daughter about our joy in going to heaven.

During the worship service, everything I needed was projected on the screen, meaning I didn’t much need the bulletin or the hymnal in the pew.

Musicians provided a breadth of musical styles: praise choruses, traditional hymns, handbells and a choral anthem.

The church’s lead pastor, Rev. Peter Hey, was away for the Sunday. We were told that he was spending the weekend with the youth group.

Rev. Jim Batten preached on Isaiah 6:1-8 with the title “Why I Attend Church.” He told a story imagining what it might be like to attend church in a place where Christianity is persecuted. This was fitting as November 12 is the Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Rev. Batten focused particularly on the work that the church does in the world. So, a big part of his answer to the question, “Why do I attend church?” was that he didn’t want to live in a world without that mission and ministry in it.

Following the service, I ran into a long-time friend, Rev. Dwight Haynes, a retired pastor. He introduced me to Rev. Batten and a number of other folks attending the service.

For everything that I experienced, I most enjoyed just being able to sing praise music for a while before the worship started. I’ll probably be singing “I Will Call Upon the Lord” for days to come!

How was your worship service on Sunday morning?

Would you like the NH Council of Churches to visit your worship service? Let us know and we’ll be there!

Mental Illness and Mass Shootings: A Misplaced Connection?

This morning’s The Exchange radio program with Laura Knoy focused on the connections between mental illness and gun violence. After last Sunday’s shootings at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Spring, Texas, this is on the mind of many of our congregations:

In the Texas church shooting the perpetrator did have a history of mental health problems and violent behavior. But mental health professionals warn such incidents are complex, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims, and other factors are more predictive of extreme violence.

Listen to the show here.

Church Buildings: providence, hope and faithfulness

Jacob's Rock Chapel
Jacob’s Rock Chapel

“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.” Genesis 28:16

Ever since Noah exited the ark, people have built places for worshiping God (Genesis 8:20). The Bible tells stories of altars, tabernacles, temples, synagogues and churches meeting in houses (Acts 2:26).

Worship Buildings in the Bible

But, building places to recognize God’s presence can seem wrong-headed. After all, “God is a Spirit” (John 4:24) and can be encountered anywhere. Even King Solomon reflected while building the Temple in Jerusalem, “The heaven of heavens can

not contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded” (1 Kings 8:27)?

Further, the New Testament teaches that the temple of God dwells in and among Christian believers (1 Corinthians 3:16). There, we read that the church of God is “Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20).

So Why Church Buildings Today?

As a pastor for over a decade, I know the struggle of maintaining a church building. They often difficult and expensive to maintain. They drain volunteer energy and money from other mission. Frequently clergy wish they could return to those Acts 2 days and worship “from house to house.”

And yet, many mainline congregations depend on their buildings. They are a home for God’s family, architecture for inspiring worship and a headquarters for world-changing mission work. So here’s three reasons to appreciate our church buildings in 2017:

Three Reasons

1. Church buildings signify God’s Gift

Sistine Chapel ceiling
In the Sistine Chapel

For many congregations, church buildings are an inheritance from previous generations. They were built at others’ expense and we receive the buildings as their gift. Church buildings signify, outwardly and visibly, the idea of all God’s gracious gifts to us. In this case, they are provisional: a temporary gift to serve the needs of God’s people.

One year ago, I stood in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Our tour guide directed our eyes to the center of the painting: Jesus is returning from heaven to judge the earth. Near his feet is St. Peter, who is returning to Jesus a pair of keys. Michaelangelo meant these to be “the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19). When Jesus returns, there is no more need for Peter to have those keys.

The church itself is provisional, a gift of God for the well-being of God’s people. Our buildings witness to this truth.

2. Church buildings witness to hope

Trinity Chapel, Staunton Harold
Trinity Chapel, Staunton Harold

During the Commonwealth period of England, church buildings were being destroyed alongside almost every national institution. Under Puritan control, building churches became illegal. Knowing the danger, Sir Robert Shirley built a new church dedicated to the Trinity on his estate, Staunton Harold. Over the entrance the inscription reads:

When all things sacred were throughout ye nation Either demollisht or profaned Sir Robert Shirley Barronet founded this Church whose singular praise it is to have done ye best things in ye worst times And hoped them in the most callamitous.

To build and maintain a church is an expression of hope for future generations, rooted in faith in God.

3. Church buildings commit to communities

Mossy stone wall
Ministry means gathering moss

Theological Michael Frost remarks, “A rolling stone gathers no moss, but incarnational, missional ministry means gathering moss.” Pope Francis added that our churches should have “the smell of sheep” on them.

Church buildings commit us to our local communities. These buildings are a congregation’s promise to a town, “We are here. We will stay with you. We will be here for the long haul, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

In New Hampshire, as the economy has changes, businesses come and go: mills close and manufacturing moves elsewhere and farms shut down production. Outlet malls and big-box stores come in, as long as there is profit to be made.

But churches: church buildings mean that we are here to be agent’s of God’s grace and faithfulness when the economy booms and busts.

No matter what comes: we are here for you.

I believe in the communion of saints

(Painting: Cast Our Crowns by James B. Janknegt, 2002, bcartfarm.com)

The Bible speaks many times of saints. Depending on your favorite translation, you might read of “holy ones,” the “set apart,” or even “God’s servants” or “God’s people.” Here’s a sampler of verses:

  • “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.” (Daniel 7:18)
  • “They fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Revelation 5:8)
  • “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus….” (Ephesians 1:1)

Many times, our Bible studies glide over these verses with only an easy thought. Many Christians however would be tripped up if they had to explain the phrase “I believe in the Communion of Saints” in the Apostles’ Creed. Different churches have summarized it in different ways:

Martin Luther’s Large Catechism

I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. … Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing it [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and its fruits which He produces (51-53).

The Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer

The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise (p. 862).

The Westminster Confession of Faith 26.1

All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession… (1 Peter 2:9)

The communion of saints is the group of people called to be one in Jesus Christ by faith. There are a lot of metaphors for this: many parts of one body, many members of one family, and the “little holy group.” Because Christians are united with Christ in his holiness, individual believers share in Jesus’ holiness (the Latin for holy is sanctus, or saint). (See also: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 823)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

The purpose of this communion of saints is so that each of us can go farther in the Christian life. Paul encourages others to imitate his lifestyle as a Christian so that they may have a model for how to live a life that is Christ-like. The early Lutherans wrote in the Augsburg Confession (chapter 21), “the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling.” In fact, the Catholic Church canonizes “some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 828).

During the Second Vatican Council, this was all summarized under the idea of the universal call to holiness: “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society” (Lumen Gentium 40).

 

The “saints” are not mystical beings, who have extraordinary spiritual experiences that we mere mortals cannot hope for. Rather, the saints are the living, human and flawed examples of what it looks like to live a Christ-like life. In the muddle of it all (the communion), they encourage us as we likewise show God’s grace in a human and flawed way to a world that always needs the example of Christ.

The Reformation and its meaning for us

From Rev. Jason Wells, Executive Director of the NH Council of Churches:

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This anniversary is tied to historical specifics: who (Martin Luther), what (95 Theses), where (Wittenberg), when (October 31), why (justification by faith) and how (nailing to a door).

But the Reformation is more than a grade-school history lesson. Christians have repeatedly undertook reformations from the very beginning, not just during Martin Luther’s time. Perhaps the more important questions for us to ask today are:

  1. What is reformation and when else has it happened?
  2. What are the relevant lessons from the Protestant Reformation for today?
  3. How can understanding the Protestant Reformation help understand our present place in history?

These questions we will answer below.

What is reformation?

Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day

The word reformation simply means “to shape again.” The word is hardly known in the Bible, but the idea is there. In Revelation, the angel of God makes its appeal, “You have lost your first love” (Rev. 2:4). The idea of reformation is a falling back in love with God, after our passion for God has run cold.

Many Christians can talk about times in their own lives when they were especially “on fire” and excited about God. Often this is a story following their conversion. The same can be true of churches and denominations: there are times in history when we have excelled in “making disciples of all nations” and other times that we have done things worthy of deep repentance.

To reform is to shape churches again so that they again take the shape of Jesus Christ. It is to hit the reset button so that our local congregations and our denominations again reflect the practices of the Apostles who knew Jesus personally:

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, as any one had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:42-47).

Before Martin Luther, figures like St. Francis of Assisi might be called Reformers, who called Christians to fall back in love with God and live lives that look like Jesus Christ. After Martin Luther, figures like John Wesley, Dorothy Day, Pope John XXIII and Aimee Semple McPherson have sounded the same call.

What are the Protestant Reformation’s lessons for today?

Author Diarmid MacCulloch identified several lessons for us in his recent book on the Reformation,  All Things Made New:

Separation of Church and State

For much of the middle ages, there was no such separation. Kings and bishops feuded over who should hold which powers and which rights to govern. After the Protestant Reformation, the idea of “whoever is monarch, it’s that religion” (Latin cuius regio euis religio) came into being. If the king was Protestant or Catholic, so was the local kingdom–a breaking up of an old monolith. Eventually, the American Revolution solidified the idea of a secular state that protects individual religious liberty. Whenever one sees this idea threatened, we look with interest at the Protestant Reformation.

Toleration

Immediately after the Reformation period came the Wars of Religion across Europe. When they didn’t kill each other, they imposed fines, taxes and other penalties. For example, Protestants in England officially discriminated against Roman Catholics for several centuries and refused them the right to hold government office.

John Locke in 1689 wrote his Letter Concerning Toleration, a landmark of progress. Eventually we have come to appreciate the idea of toleration of others whose core beliefs differ from ours. Though born out of war and oppression, toleration was hard-won in our culture and we remember the cost we paid to have it.

Ecumenism

Also coming from the Reformation was ecumenism: the idea that different faiths could do better than just putting up with one another. Perhaps we could actually engage in fruitful discussions that make us all better off. Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses were, after all, topics for debate and discussion. Spiritual lives and understandings of God become richer this way.

Our Present Place

Phyllis Tickle
Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle wrote in The Great Emergence that about every 500 years, Christianity has a giant yard sale. Everything is re-appraised and things of value to Christianity in that time are kept and other things discarded. This practice echoes Jesus’ image, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).

She wrote that we know much about these broad historical periods:

  1. Around the year 500, the Roman Empire collapsed and Benedictine monasticism flourished.
  2. Around the year 1000, Western and Eastern Christianity separated, giving new importance to the Pope.
  3. Around the year 1500, the Protestant Reformation comes to a head.

Of course, this places a new such “yard sale,” a re-appraisal, a re-formation right here in our own age around the year 2000. We live in a history-defining period for Christianity, where we keep the valuables and discard the rest. We have the opportunity to be known as Christians who fell in love with God all over again and be re-made into the image of Jesus Christ.

Bible Stories for Halloween

Christians of different denominations and cultures celebrate October 31 differently. Some Christians disagree that the day should be celebrated or recognized at all. Regardless of how you honor the day or not, here’s a selection of Bible stories listed in The Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services that you’ll want to bookmark:

Does your church celebrate October 31 or not?