Reflections on Isaiah 58

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” – James 2:14-17

There is a form of faith that sounds very pious and holy, it can spend all kinds of time and energy and money on things that look religious, and yet misses that faith is – at its core – about relationship.  Relationship with God, and with the people around us.  If we do all the right religious things and believe all the right theological truths, yet miss how our lives are actually being lived out in relationship with God and others, we’ve actually missed the point entirely.

Paul puts it this way

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

We read in the beginning of the book of Isaiah that God is not impressed with religious observances or beliefs that are disconnected from the way we treat one another, particularly those who are vulnerable or in need.  And so too, once more as the people are becoming re-established in the land after the exile, there is a need to be reminded of what it means to live in relationship with God.

As we read Isaiah 58, we see that the people are actively religious:

  • They seek God day after day
  • They delight to know God’s ways
  • They ask God for righteous judgments
  • They delight to draw near to God
  • They (believe they) are humble before God
  • They fast [go without food, practice symbols of mourning, like wearing sackcloth and ashes]

If we just looked at that, it sure seems impressive.  But Isaiah 58 lets us know from the start that something has gone badly awry.  “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” (v.1)

They do all these great-sounding things, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. (v.2 emphasis mine).

Something’s missing.  But what?  God says:

  • You serve your own interest on your fast day
  • You oppress all your workers
  • You fast only to quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist

Here we start to get a hint of what has gone wrong – more is to come.  The practice of faith has become self-serving, going through the motions in the hope of personal advancement.  Those in power and with wealth use it to get ahead at the cost of those around them.

(any of this sounding familiar?)

As we read through the rest of Isaiah 58, we come to a thundering message about what God truly cares about in terms of how we go about offering real worship:  Here’s a link, because it really just needs to be read.

What did you notice?

What does God call on the people of Israel, on us, to do because of our faith?

In the NRSV, one of the striking patterns is the ‘when’ and ‘then’

When

  • we loose the bonds of injustice and undo the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free  (notice that Isaiah repeats this message about being ‘yoked’ three times – yoke being a farm implement by which animals are hitched to a plow or cart for work.)
  • we share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house
  • we see the naked and cover them (i.e. those with no clothes / shelter), and not hide from our own family

Then

  • our light shall break forth like the dawn
  • our healing will spring up quickly
  • our vindicator will go before us
  • the Lord will be our rear guard
  • the Lord will hear and answer our prayers

And just in case we missed that; God speaks again in Isaiah:

If

  • we remove the yoke from among us
  • [if we stop] the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil
  • if we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted

Then

  • our light will rise in the darkness, and the gloom will be like midday
  • The LORD will guide us continually
  • The LORD will satisfy our needs in our own times of struggle
  • We will be like a watered garden and like a spring
  • our ruins will be rebuilt and raise up the foundations of many generations

Let’s stop there for a moment and come back to the word ‘yoke’.  There’s a connotation of being captured, enslaved, stuck in a situation of harsh work with little reward.  In Nehemiah (contemporary with this section of Isaiah), we read in Nehemiah chapter 5 that the people were taking advantage of each other economically; offering loans at interest that people couldn’t repay, and taking their homes and vineyards and fields as payment.)  It’s highly likely, with the other economic references in view, that the yoke being talked about here are economic practices that are not only taking advantage of the poor, but keeping them poor; becoming rich off of their suffering.

Is this meddling, yet?

The heart of the message is simple: it doesn’t matter how religious we look, sound or act; unless that faith reflects a concern for the whole being of our neighbor – spiritually and physically, it isn’t genuine faith, and God flat out says God’s not obligated to answer, or respond to those who seek God to bless a faith that is harming others.

Yet for those who grasp that to love God and the ways of God is intrinsically related to loving others and understanding our need to care for each other, God promises that our light shines, our prayers are heard, that God will be our strength and that like the broken ruins of Jerusalem which were being rebuilt, our broken places will be renewed.

Check out Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount How does it connect to Isaiah here?  

And lastly, God turns to the religious observance of fasting – notice that God isn’t against fasting, God’s not against expressions of worship, but to pay attention to the underlying motive and method: not doing our own thing or looking to it to get an advantage, but to remember what it’s about and delight in it; then we will get out of it the blessing for which it was designed, delighting in the LORD, being connected (fed) to our heritage, remembering that we are part of a bigger story of God unfolding in this world.

 

It doesn’t matter if we share pious memes on Facebook, or listen to Christian radio, or think we’re taking back America for God by voting this way or that – it comes back to what Paul had to say about love: without love of God, of others, and of ourselves, all the great stuff we say or think or do won’t matter.  Because we won’t understand why it’s all there.

In our presently hyper-politicized and hyper-polarized culture, the danger is that we read passages like Isaiah 58 and start brushing it off as ‘liberal social justice’ stuff.  Or, perhaps pat ourselves on the back because we believe all these things are important – without actually doing anything about it.  In my experience, I’ve seen some of the most conservative folks theologically up to their elbows in helping people out and walking alongside the hurting.  And I’ve seen some who are “enlightened” progressive, believing all of this stuff is important and yet not getting their hands dirty.   There’s a great need to start asking some systemic questions as faith and life connect in ways that break preconceptions and stereotypes.  And there’s also the need to recognize our deep need for God’s loving presence, grace and power in the midst of our service, or else we’ll just be doing toxic charity.

How do you see God challenging our time and context today in light of Isaiah 58? 

What do you find specifically challenging?

On the Journey: New Seasons

The signs are all around us; squirrels and children know this well – the season is changing.  As back to school sales and Packer’s preseason games are underway, so, too, are we gearing up for a new season of ministry as Memorial Baptist Church, and as followers of Christ.

There is a lot to celebrate in this time: we’ve been blessed and refreshed with experiences of community and celebration together at the Timber Rattlers’ game, at the August potluck after worship and at the Fish Fry.  (Have we noticed lots of these things revolve around food?)  We rejoiced together as boxes upon boxes of knitted hats, scarves, and mittens were dedicated to the Back to School program.  And God continues to bless and work through Stone Soup as community deepens and as we begin a new facet of the ministry to allow intentional space for God conversations.  We have a full slate of Christian education opportunities for all ages, as Pat Olson has worked hard to organize materials for our children and adult leaders offer a variety of classes and small groups.  The men’s and women’s ministries are likewise gearing up and retooling for the fall.

This is part of preparing for the normal rhythm of the seasons of church life together.  And it has been a blessing to see how many have participated in the intentional conversations after worship this past month.  For we are also in a new season culturally and as a church, and it’s important to hear from one another in order to respond both faithfully and effectively.

Starting with the core purposes of the church – to proclaim and embody the love of God through Jesus Christ, and to build each other up in maturity in the image of Jesus – we’ve begun to look at our strengths, challenges and opportunities.

Strengths like embodying Christ-like love and welcome, being a safe place to nurture and grow in faith, seeking to live out of a centeredness in Jesus and trying not to fall victim to the vicious pull of polarization in our culture.

We also have challenges – not necessarily unique to us: discerning how to focus our energy, letting go of trying to emulate larger churches or even our own past, working on loving and open communication, asking what kind of structure best enables us to live out our ministry.

In the midst of that, this is also a season of opportunities; these things can spur us to action and attention to what God is doing in our midst.  Who is God bringing us into contact with?  Where are we finding people open and responsive to the Gospel?  Where are we finding partners inside and outside the church for the ministry God calls us into?  Leaning faithfully and humbly into the answers to these questions, I am confident that God will lead Memorial Baptist Church into this new season of life as a blessing for all who are a part of it.

Blessings on the Journey,

Pastor Brian

Sister Church Initiative

The residents of Puerto Rico are rebuilding since Hurricane Irma.  There is a significant ABC-USA presence in Puerto Rico, with over 112 American Baptist churches on the island alone.  The denomination created a sister church initiative that would pair mainland churches with Puerto Rican churches for mutual encouragement, prayer and connection.  We have been paired with Iglesia Bautista de Lomas.

 As a sister church, we are committed to pray for one another; communicate with one another through letters, photos, email, skype, etc., at least once every three months; visit one another as travel plans permit; communicate in both Spanish and English; promote friendship between the children with letters, art, craft gifts; and participate in the 2021 Biennial in San Juan, where Puerto Rican churches will welcome us on the Sunday morning of the celebration.

The Baptist Church of Lomas began as part of a mission field organized by the American Baptist Churches in the beautiful mountains of the villages of Canovanas and Rio Grande on the island of Puerto Rico.  This missionary field was organized at the beginning of the 20th century, in what is now known as the Baptist Church of Guzmán Arriba, but it was not until 1934 when a group of brothers and sisters began to gather in the Lomas de Canóvanas neighborhood.  This group continued to be organized until in 1946 they became the Lomas Baptist Church.  There are many people who have contributed to the development of this work and many pastors who have led this flock.

A long history that marks the path traveled by a congregation committed to the message of reconciliation between the human being and God, and with the invitation to salvation in Christ Jesus.

You can learn more about Iglesia Bautista de Lomas on Facebook (search for Iglesia Bautista de Lomas) or at www.bautistadelomas.com.

Lydia McKee

Sunday School

Classes for all ages begin at 9:00 AM Sunday, September 9th.  Contact the church office if you have questions.

Preschool Class:  1 – 3 years old, taught by Caroline Overzet and Elena Fryer in the nursery.

Elementary Class:  4-10 years old, taught by Jean Schneider, Pearl Mertens, and Lydia McKee downstairs at the end of the hall.

Kids’ Table (Youth and Adults):  ABCs of the Bible: Exploring the background, content, and context for reading, understanding, and applying scripture, facilitated by Gabrielle Hastings in the youth room.

Adult Class:  Discuss questions and answers provided by the Heidelberg Catechism with supporting scripture, facilitated by John Overzet in the upstairs fellowship hall (left side).

Demystifying Bible Passages:  Discuss book titled Inspired, by Rachel Held Evans. Author aligns a loving God with difficult Biblical passages. Get a fresh, inspiring look at scripture. Facilitated by Laurel McKee in the upstairs fellowship hall (right side).

Children’s Church:  During worship for children age 1-10 in the downstairs middle room.  Taught by Pat Olson with help from the youth.

Book Review – Small Church Essentials 4

Stuck or Strategic” is another way Vater invites small churches to evaluate their situation (remember, he defines small as any church under 250 members).

There are good reasons for being small, and there are not so healthy reasons.  In an earlier chapter, Vaters notes that organisms grow to their proper size and then they stop; they’ve reached maturity and that’s normal.

Actually, I’d suggest that this calls for a bit of nuance.  As Neil Cole points out in his book Organic Churchbiological maturity is marked by the ability to reproduce.  While I believe Cole would agree that not every church should aim to be enormous in size, he strongly suggests that most healthy organisms, upon reaching maturity, reproduce; in this case: planting new churches.  Another way to frame that observation is to ask what ministries or disciples are being multiplied and sent into the community, apart from the matter of whether or not they remain structurally part of their host church community.

With that thought in the back of our minds, let’s examine Vater’s framing about whether a given community is ‘stuck’ or ‘strategic’ in their smallness.

Vater has spent half the book already to combat the notion that a congregation is small because it’s failing.

That said, sometimes small *is* an indication that something’s not right.

  • Stuck small can reflect ‘mistakes’ – which he leaves fairly vague, but seem to reflect an unwillingness to change things that don’t work or realize barriers the congregation creates for new people.  If the worship is awkward, or events and groups are planned at times which don’t work for anyone outside the group that already attends, there are going to be challenges.
  • Stuck small can reflect ‘exclusion’ – recognizing that most churches don’t intentionally exclude others (though some do).  As I see it, exclusion can happen in a number of ways:
    • sometimes  a church is so close knit, that they are extremely friendly – to one another!  We might think our doors are ‘open’ to someone else, but are we extending invitations and making them feel welcome?
    • exclusion can also be in our language: using ‘churchy’ words that aren’t necessary (or without explaining them) can create barriers to the community.  I remember being on sabbatical last year and attending a worship service at a local church that was beautiful and biblically based, and none of it was explained or framed in language a new person would understand.  Even as a pastor with many years of ecumenical experience, there were parts of worship I was left feeling an outsider about.
    • exclusion can also be deliberate; the legalistic kind as well as a cultural kind that looks down on people if they don’t “dress right” or come from the same socio-economic or ethnic background.
  • Stuck small can also reflect being ‘frozen in time’ (or well, stuck…) – tradition is great, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  But some of our traditions are more about our preferences and comfort than what is needed to fulfill the Great Commission (as Vater puts it)
  • Stuck small can reflect ‘Looking Less like the Community Around You.’ – Does the age, income, ethnicity of our church reflect the  makeup of our surrounding community?  If not, unless that’s for a specific strategic reason, that’s not healthy.

On the other hand, there are strategic reasons for being small:

  • Because some people worship and relate better in a smaller setting.
  • To create spaces of rest for people in a cluttered and chaotic life
  • Because (recognizing that we are small for now), the church has chosen to focus on health over mechanicla growth

To be honest, this chapter really re-visits some things he listed well at the very beginning of the book, without adding a lot of extra nuance.  That said, the question posed and re-posed is essential:

It’s not about feeling bad about the size of the church, it’s coming to an honest evaluation of why, and letting that inform how we respond.

What are some things we do well because we are a smaller congregation?

What could it look like to be more intentional about building into those things?

Are there places we have tended to get ‘stuck’?

Reflections on Isaiah 56:9-57:21

What a change in these passages from the message of invitation, hope and blessing we read in the previous sections!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words on ‘Cheap Grace’ seem particularly relevant for understanding the message of this part of Isaiah:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

The exiles have returned, have begun rebuilding, it’s been generations since the events we read of at the beginning of Isaiah.  And yet…old habits die hard.

Those who are in position to care for the people of Israel; the sentinels, the shepherds, they are not suited for the task: they are blind, without knowledge or understanding, they are preoccupied with their own gain and satisfaction, and because of it, the people are left vulnerable.  Tellingly, they ‘have all turned to their own way’ — the destructive side of freedom and independence, when it is exercised apart from our dependence on God and apart from our responsibilities and relationships with one another.   When we look at our lives; whether leadership in ministry, in our communities, in marriages, friendships or even just day to day living; when we approach it from the angle of what we are going to get out of it, apart from understanding of what is required of us in the relationship, trouble is coming…

The picture painted in this section of Isaiah is of a people who have returned from exile, and who have likewise returned to the kinds of habits which led to their problems in the first place.  Evil is overlooked; the vulnerable, the righteous are taken advantage of, killed.  Jerusalem (the ‘you’ being referred to beginning in 57:4) has returned to the spiritual practices and habits which had crept in from the beginning.  Some of the sexual references are linked to fertility cults; practices seeking abundant rain, harvests, children, to be received as a blessing from the ‘gods’.  Even more disturbing is the reference to child sacrifice, of the kind practiced by Phoenecian worshippers of Molech.

To put it simply – the heart of the relationship between God and Israel is a commitment to knowing and worshiping the one (only) true God; the God who created all things, and from whom all things continue to have their life, and in whom our future rests.  It’s not a matter of religious diversity or intolerance, it’s an essential question of what’s actually real; where life comes from, and how we are to relate to our Creator.

As we’ve read before here in Isaiah, to relate to something that isn’t god as if it were, is not only to be placing our hope and trust in something that isn’t true, isn’t real, but it has consequences for our understanding and relationship with God who is real.

The wild side of this is that the people of Israel had a veneer of faith in the God of the covenant – they’d rebuilt the temple, they have ‘set up the symbol’ on the doorposts (the mezuzah, containing a scrap of scripture).

It reminds me of all the pious and beautiful wall art we can have in our homes, or post on facebook, citing nice Bible verses… and at the same time, have our hearts and attention preoccupied with false idols: possessions, political power, the pursuit of security at all costs, compromising our values for convenience’s sake – and doing it in the name of God.

God’s not fooled – these things reflect a religiosity of image without the genuine fear (recognition) of who God is, and as Bonhoeffer puts it, the costly grace that calls us to follow.

But those who will truly live ‘in the high and holy place’ are those who are contrite and humble.  It is God who will be their life and strength, reviving them – us – as we seek him.

There will be peace and comfort, grace to all of us who have rebelled, but who will turn / return to God.

Yet for those who are wicked, who keep stirring up violence and evil, who will neither be humbled or recognize that what they are doing is wrong, there can be no peace – not because God does not offer it to them, but because without this humility and repentance, they cannot receive it, and thus find themselves excluded from the peace and wholeness God desires to give.

What images in this passage did you find most challenging?  Encouraging?

What does it mean to you, to come to God with awe, with fear, with humility and contrition?

Book Review – Small Church Essentials 3

Bigger fixes nothing

Well, that’s not entirely true – but there’s a huge caveat to that.  Pain (which can come from many sources) can motivate us to action, but sometimes that action is directed in ways we think will help, but won’t.

Think of some of the different kinds of pain in smaller churches: the relational pain of people coming and going for all kinds of (healthy and unhealthy) reasons, the pain of wondering what the future will hold, the pain of financial struggles, or the pain of realizing we can’t keep things exactly the way they were in the past (our images of what church was like during ‘golden years’).  If we think that just with a few more people, a few more dollars, a few more leaders or volunteers, we could alleviate the pain…  Vaters makes a good point – this just leads to more pain.

As he puts it – “when healthy small churches grow, they become healthy big churches.  When unhealthy small churches grow, they become unhealthy big churches.”  This is a really important point – and brings us back to the question of health, as well as healthy metrics for growth.  Sometimes numerical growth isn’t going to happen.  That doesn’t mean, by the way, that numerical growth is irrelevant – but it means we need to keep the central focus in view.

Vater’s “Ingredients for a Healthy Church”

Love and worship Jesus

Love, serve, and make disciples of others.

Ok – this is true.  It’s like Jesus one command to the disciples: to “love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you.”  It doesn’t get more core than that; and at the same time, learning to live that out takes a lifetime.  And developing healthy culture and relationships within the church to live these ingredients out remains essential.

Instead of all trying to be megachurches, there are better and more faithful metrics for success.   Vater describes an alternative way to describe healthy church growth as:

“Increasing our capacity for effective ministry.”

At Memorial, we’ve framed our goal this way:

“To expand the reach and impact of the ministry God has given to us”

In either definition, there is an emphasis on the kind of growth that empowers one another to live out their calling and gifting together in a way that both includes and transcends the original group.  It’s about new people being equipped and set free to live out their faith, it’s about whether something is effective, not just popular.  (And I’d add, sometimes small churches are just as guilty of holding on to things that are popular ‘we’ve always done this’, or ‘I like this’, even if it’s not particularly effective in terms of what the church is here to do.)

Where have we seen this kind of growth in our ministries as part of Memorial Baptist Church?

Where might we be getting caught up in things that are diverting our energy, time, and resources from that which is helping us effectively live out our mission?

Reflections on Isaiah 56:1-8

One of the most attractive things about Jesus is the way he welcomed both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  Though his mission began with ‘the lost sheep of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24), he also proclaimed “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold (i.e. of Israel).  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

This isn’t just a New Testament thing – this is a thread that runs through God’s purposes and God’s heart; as we see here in Isaiah 55-56:8.  It’s no accident that Jesus – who reveals the Father to the world, draws on these passages heavily.

The invitation to be in the community of God’s people is open to all.

Isaiah 56 begins with a call that should sound a familiar thread not only through the beginning of Isaiah, but through the prophets.  What does God want of us?

To maintain justice.  – literally to oversee, to take care of – justice

To do what is right.  – (Hebrew: tsedaqa(h) – what is good, what’s right

In other words; in the actions and focus of our lives, to seek out what God defines as good and just; the right thing to do, the right response in our interactions with each other.

Micah 6:8 frames it this way: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus defines this justice and righteousness in terms of love – love of God and of one another (Mark 12:29-31)

To maintain justice, to do what is right, is the calling of all humanity.

This call to embrace God’s way of being is given in light of what God is doing (second half of the verse): “for soon my salvation (Hebrew: jesuot – and yes, that’s connected to the name by which God’s son is to be called: “Jeshua”), and my deliverance be revealed.  (literally God’s righteousness – tsid-qat)

In other words – we are *all* called to respond appropriately in light of what God is doing, and there is blessing for everyone who does.  Isaiah 55:2 deliberately uses wide open words like ‘mortal’ (human being), and ‘the one’ (lit. son of Adam) instead of talking about a ‘chosen’ people.

And to emphasize this, Isaiah refers to the foreigner and the eunuch (that is, a man who has been castrated as part of serving in the courts of high officials).  As Israel had most often understood itself, these people were excluded from real participation in the community of God’s people and from the temple which represented the presence of God among the people.  There was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ which kept them from really belonging.

No more.

Notice the blessings God promises to these whom many would see as ‘outsiders’:

To the foreigner joined to the LORD – God says: “You belong.  You are part of my people. I will give you joy as you worship.”

To the eunuch who would be looked on as less than whole, traditionally unwelcome in the temple, unable to have children in a culture where this was one of the defining marks of blessing and a legacy – God promises to give a name and a legacy within the home of God.

At the same time: in what context are all people accepted?

Those who keep God’s sabbath.  (part of the covenant that grew in importance after the Exile)

Those who choose what pleases God and hold on to God’s covenant

Those who join themselves to the LORD in service and love

I know…. isn’t God’s love and acceptance the free gift that is given to all of us?  Absolutely.  God’s love meets us right now, right where we are, wherever we are.  At the same time, there’s a difference between being loved by God and experiencing the blessing of living within the community of God.  It’s not that God dangles the reward like a treat for those who jump through the right hoops, but that the kind of life where we are pursuing justice and what is good, loving God and loving our neighbor, is what the community of God is all about.

There’s an ‘already but not-yet-ness’ to this: I don’t perfectly do any of these things… yet.  Nor will I on my own steam.  Go to any church, and it will only imperfectly embody this kind of community of God, because every church is a community of people (leaders included) who don’t yet fully love God and neighbor the way God intends us to.  It is here where we talk about Jesus being both standing in our place to fulfill this, *and* the one who through the Spirit, is transforming us into the people God created us to become.

Another way to describe this is that this welcome is for everyone who desires not just what God offers (in terms of blessings), but that the blessings come for those who desire God, who are longing for the kind of world God is bringing into being, and who are leaning into that, as God forgives, heals, and transforms us.

We see this message of hope in Isaiah taken up by the ministry of Jesus; who found faith in Gentiles and Samaritans, in lepers and even Pharisees like Joseph and Nicodemus.

The Jesus who promises eternal life to whoever believes in him.  Who calls us to abide (to hold on) to him, and his command: to love one another as [he] has loved us.

The Jesus who got angry at the moneychangers in the temple, not just because they were doing business in the temple, but because of where they were doing business:  (Mark 11:15-17)

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Although it is not explicitly said in the Gospels, it’s most probable that this activity was taking place in the outer court of the temple, where women and Gentiles were permitted to be.  So instead of a place of prayer, of welcome, of inclusion, it was set up and being used for a very different purpose entirely.

One piece we can hear in this is personal: the reminder of a God who speaks to all of us, whether we feel like we’re on the inside or not — inviting us to a relationship, a life with a future, a life as part of God’s community, for everyone who makes the things of God their desire and focus.

At the same time, those of us who are used to being part of the church, who see ourselves as part of God’s community, this passage also serves as a reminder — do we embrace the heart of God who tears down the dividing walls we so easily build up?  Do we get caught up in the kinds of practices, words, and thoughts that keep others on the outside; like the Pharisees who remembered that the Sabbath was important, but not *why* it was important, or the merchants who crowded out the Gentiles and women for more market space?

How can we share the welcome, the inclusion, the hope God extends to us?  

What gets in the way?

How is this good news for us?

Book Review: Small Church Essentials -2

One of the dynamics of a smaller church is an emphasis on relationships over programs.  At the same time, in a smaller church, as individuals, we have a greater impact on the church (positively and negatively) with our gifts and challenges.

Karl Vater describes how some of those differences between larger and smaller churches play out, with bigger churches needing to prioritize vision, process and programs, while smaller churches need to prioritize relationships, culture and history.

He’s not saying that vision, process and programs don’t matter in smaller churches, but that due to size, the personal and relational dynamics have a larger effect.  If so and so doesn’t get along with someone else, or there’s a dustup or disconnect, it can drastically affect entire ministries of a smaller church.

Churches also pride themselves on being friendly (everyone thinks they’re friendly), but that doesn’t mean someone isn’t being left out, or not finding the connection they may be looking for.

Vaters makes a critical point here: healthy relationships are key in a small church.  He then moves on to talk about culture and history, but it’s worth pausing to look at this essential dynamic:

What does it take to form and maintain healthy relationships in a church?

What does it take to form and maintain healthy relationships, period?

Part of the reality of church is that the church is (or at least should be!) composed of people who are all at different points on the journey!  Which inherently means that we’re not all going to have the same emotional and spiritual maturity or the same set of tools and skills for healthy relationships.  We have different experiences, backgrounds and wounds that impact our ability to relate.  In fact, this ministry of reconciliation – reconnecting – is a core piece of the work of the Gospel in our lives; re-forming our relationship with God, ourselves, and with each other, by the work of Jesus in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

In other words – healthy relationships isn’t just about a “spiritual” thing, but a spiritual thing that flows into our everyday lives and connections with other people.

Which would become an entirely new blog post.  And it’s something that Paul writes about extensively in his letters – seriously.  So much of what he has to say to churches is about the things that build up or tear down relationships.  Our need for grace, forgiveness, the kind of love that wants the best for someone else.  Letting go of bitterness, competition, jealousy, unhelpful ways of talking about others, and so on…

Of course, all of that flows into the next piece Vater describes as essential in a small church: Culture

Culture is what it is; some of it good, some of it bad – but we ignore it at our peril.  Vaters connects Jesus’ parable of the four soils to describe the potential for what grows naturally from the soil.  There may be all kinds of good intentions and actions which can get stunted or subverted (i.e. weeds and stones) by hidden bits of culture which need to be named and uncovered and let go of.  It’s the elephant in the room that no one talks about, or that everyone talks about, just not in helpful ways.

How can we name all the parts of our culture at MBC?

What rocks and weeds do we need to acknowledge to be freed up for all that God seeks to do among us?

Lastly, Vaters describes the impact of history in the small congregation.  Not so that we can be stuck or cemented to the past, but in terms of reconnecting to the vision and passion which energized and motivated the first generations of the congregation’s life.

At Memorial, some of that history is both visionary and painful; being created out of a church split that impacted families and friendships for generations.  And yet, there are certain values that called people out to forge a new community of faith with a model of shared leadership.  The sense of purpose and connection which allowed this new church to thrive and grow in the community is something we need to remember and celebrate with thanksgiving, even as we acknowledge changing times and cultures and the need to re-envision ways in which we live out this ministry.

What parts of our church history (and especially vision) need to be remembered and celebrated more?

 

Reflections on Isaiah 55

I have to admit, this is one of those chapters in Isaiah I particularly love.  So too, did John in the book of Revelation — as we read this chapter, look and listen for threads and connections to God’s promised future not only for an Israel returned from exile but the deepest homecoming for all who will trust in God’s invitation to return to the LORD.

Consider all the invitations God extends in Isaiah 55:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!

Come, eat, drink – a feast we cannot buy or earn, a feast given by the loving grace and provision of God.

Notice the invitation in Genesis 2:16 to humanity in the garden: “And the LORD God commanded the man “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (we tend to focus on the one thing God said was off-limits)

And the invitation in Revelation 22:2b “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.“, and Revelation 22:17

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Isaiah 55 is a promise of God’s effective provision for the people – for a gift, a mercy we cannot afford, but given to us.

Isaiah 55 is also an invitation that recognizes a deeper need.

We spend our lives and our energy working for things that are not “food” — they do not bring life, to us or to others.  It doesn’t satisfy what we are created for.

Instead, we hear the invitation not just for physical food – but to listen to God, and live.   To seek the LORD while he may be found, to call on him while he is near.

We find a call for the wicked to forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts – in other words, to recognize that the path apart from God isn’t going to lead to life, and to change our direction, our thinking.  Which, literally, is what it means to repent.

This invitation to changed thought, focus, action, is at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom message – it’s time;

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – Matthew 4:17

It’s time to return to the LORD, so that he may have mercy, to God, for he will abundantly pardon.

It’s here in Isaiah 55, and in this context that we find the verse where God declares “my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.”  I’ve heard this used to justify all kinds of theologies that are frankly, monstrous, waving away any objections as just being examples of God’s ways being mysterious.

And yes, God’s ways are mysterious – but that mystery is revealed in Christ; which is why I believe any theology that doesn’t hold up in light of the self-sacrificial love and theology of the cross, doesn’t reflect who God really is.  But the point here in Isaiah is to insist that our thinking and focus and ways of operating and treating each other isn’t God’s way.  Part of our repentance is to allow God to redirect our thinking so that we begin to see one another, see ourselves, through God’s eyes and purposes.

For all the challenges the exiles faced, for all the seeming power of those who seek to destroy, for all the depressing things we hear about in the news; things that have a real impact on people and on this world — they will not have the last word.

God’s word will not go out without accomplishing its purpose.  There is hope, that rests upon the ways of God, and an invitation to life.

Will we seek it?