42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Have you ever tried to start a camp fire without lighter fluid? There used to be a time when the thought to starting a fire without at least a little (or a lot) of help from lighter fluid sounded daunting at best, and impossible at worst.
Then one day, as I was building a fire for a summer camp, an older counselor changed my view. Together we were building the fire. He talked through each piece. "We put the kindling in the middle of the bottom. These are tiny pieces that easily catch fire, and burn fast. Then we put little twigs over the kindling. These will begin the real fire, but they won't last long. We put small sticks over that, but with some space. The fire needs air. Finally, we build a tee-pee type structure with sturdy but thin logs." He nodded his head in satisfaction.
"Wait!" I exclaimed. "We have one more thing." Then I grabbed the lighter fluid and fully doused the entire masterpiece.
"You ruined it!" Yep. I ruined it. It was made to catch without extra help, and I took away the wonder of watching the steps work the way they were supposed to.
The next time I was tasked with making the fire, the older counselor had gone home, and it was a new camp. Remembering the moment, I asked for the responsibility. I gathered my supplies, and yes that means I took the lighter fluid with me. I set up the kindling, the tiny twigs, then bigger sticks, and finally logs. I really took my time. Then ,knowing the fluid was there just in case, I bent down and lit the kindling. I watched as the pieces all began to work. The kindling lit the sticks, and the sticks lit the logs. It was beautiful. In that moment I realized how terribly I had ruined the previous fire. It was a strange moment, because I was both happy and sad. I was happy I was able to do something I hadn't been able to do before. I was sad because I had made the work of an older counselor useless, All he wanted was to see that moment of wonder on my face. I took that away from him.
I've seen a similar wonder happen in the church. The smallest idea catches fire. It gets picked up by some congregants and then you have a small fire. Finally, the entire church backs it, and it blazes. I've seen this happen with new program ideas, worship, and mission.. It's exciting to be part of, because the right pieces are ignited at the right time. God's perfect timing meets our burning nature. When done correctly we are drawn to give anything to make it happen. Our time, money, and talents.
Then I've seen the lighter fluid moment in churches. Now, before we continue, I'm completely okay with fires dying out. One thing I've learned about making fires with set-up over lighter fluid is they are stronger once they have a chance to really begin. Back in the day, I'd have to drench logs 3-4 times before they finally caught and took off. Today, I've made enough fires that I can start one in the rain without lighter fluid if need be. I've also sat over a pile of logs for up to a half-hour resetting the pieces. It's okay if the set up didn't work. Reset, and try again.
I've learned a very important phrase in ministry:
"That is a great idea! How do you want to make it happen?"
If the idea has been properly built, it will catch into a safe fire. If the idea has not been correctly built, it will die out before it burns the church down. That being said, I've been around church enough to see beautiful potential doused with the lighter fluid of "just in case." I've been around enough to see this turn one of three ways. I've seen the spark of an idea die out because it wasn't allowed to naturally build. I've seen that spark of an idea burn the church down because the fluid caught everything on fire. I've seen a wonderful idea lose it's wonder because the burning idea was not allowed to naturally catch.
This is where I tie it all back together. What does this have to do with the scripture? Everything. We read that everyone gave all their possessions and assume that's a step in building a church. That's not a step, that's the product. That's God's blazing, and controlled, fire. Forcing congregants to just give all their money and time up in the beginning is lighter fluid, and can explode into something dangerous. You know your church has some healthy fires going when people want to naturally feed it. The best way to feed it is with our time and money. The above scripture is amazing because it shows a spiritual blazing inferno. It's not the steps to get on; it's the end result. It's really that simple.
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Psalm 25:8-10 NRSV
-Rev Melissa Fain-
"Where's your humility?" my husband asked me in my late 20's. "You are so ready to take on the world, but what do you really know about the world?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "I'm just ready to do this!" And I was. I was like a yipping dog on a leash, dragging her owner behind her. I was so ready to just get to it! I was ready and willing, Ready to pastor and educate the love of God. "Where's your humility?"
If I were to compare myself to a biblical character during this time, I was completely Peter. Zealous to a haphazard degree. The first to raise my hand. The first to volunteer. The first to push away Job to hold a holier than though approach to life. Jonah running away?! Pshaw! I would have marched in exuberantly announcing God's word to the people! "Melissa, where's your humility?"
Where was my humility? It was on the journey. I've picked it up little pieces at a time. It came with the gift of time. The younger me would have seen it like the shipping and handling charges tacked onto that TV infomercial product that's just too good to be true. Humility cheated good people out of being able to speak up and act. It was because the childhood me knew the moment I opened my mouth was a nerve-raking moment. Even though I was born in the United States, you are not reading a native to the American Culture. I'm more like the feral child found in the woods and I have appropriated the American culture to speak the American language. My broken childhood stunted my social growth. This meant the first spiritual lessons I had to learn was as far from humility as it could be. My first spiritual lessons were in self-confidence. Therefore, when I began to master self-confidence I was all Peter. Try telling someone who hasn't had a cultural voice for a quarter of a decade to shut up when they finally find it.
Now I'm on the edge of middle aged. Where is my humility? I no longer see it like shipping and handling charges. Humility is more like the extra time put into the product. Time has taught me that humility is more than stepping back so someone else can step up. (That would be my late 20's answer.) Humility coats everything you say and do. It understand there will always be someone better than you. It's knowing everything you do speaks from the voices of countless thousands. This is because even the smallest conversation had the ability to influence you. Many of those relationships you don't even realize you had, but they still hold the grain of influence. My humility is in knowing any number of people would be better at my job than me, so I better realize it when I think I could do someone else's job better. My humility is in realizing my situation in life is made better or worse by those around me and sheer luck. Just because I may be able to pick myself up, doesn't give me the right to criticize others who haven't been able to do the same. I do not personally know their situation. That's humility.
It is in that spirit God works. Teaching Job the world is bigger than him. (Oh how I love that Job today.) Helping Jonah speak peace to the oppressor. (How I would never want to fill Jonah's heavy shoes.) In teaching Peter that denial comes to even the most fervent of believers. In our humility, God acts. May we all be vessels of that action.
1 Brothers and sisters, I couldn’t talk to you like spiritual people but like unspiritual people, like babies in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet. 3 Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual. When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you unspiritual and living by human standards? 4 When someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? 5 After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. 7 Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor. 9 We are God’s coworkers, and you are God’s field, God’s building.
1 Cor 3:1-9 CEB
-Rev Melissa Fain-
In this brief scripture, we have a great example of knowledge as it pertains to leadership and taking in knowledge.
That's a mouthful of words. Let me simplify it. The scripture for today shows us what we should expect from our leaders, and how our leaders should educate us.
I'm going to do this by focusing on three points The person helping Paul in Corinth: Apollos, the analogy of milk, and God the Grower:
Apollos: If you clicked on the tab "about the pastor" you would see I linked a meditation I wrote over a year ago about female ministry. When I first wrote it, I was trying to understand Paul's thoughts in 1 Cor 14. My work was met with mixed reaction. Basically anyone who already agreed women should be ministers praised it. To everyone else it was a mixed bag. "Isn't this explaining away?" "You are putting what you want into the text." "But TIMOTHY!!!" What I didn't know then that I do know is Apollos.
Apollos was zealous in just the right ways. He was called, and really understood the limited information he had regarding Christ. Only he didn't have much of it. That's when Priscilla and Aquila stepped in and expanded his education. The first less important point is that Apollos was taught, in part, by a female. The more important point is this: The call was not enough. Being correctly educated was an important component to the call.
What does that mean? I'm glad you asked! It means the call needs tools! Called to build a house? You need lumber, nails, saws and other basic building equipment. If you are called to be a minister you need a good education. Some like to believe that the call gives some secret wisdom, like tapping into a well. There may be truth in that, but without education there is no way to refine that Spirit.
This is where I reiterate the point I made in the female ministry meditation. We are called to be educated leaders, not exactly a gender-specific leadership. I suggest you read it if you haven't already.
Milk: The first year of seminary shapes the future two years for a seminarian. For some they completely lose it and drop out. Some decide they are going to remain unmoved and learn nothing. I was livid. I mean it. I was seeing red. Why? I'm glad you asked. The ministers who raised me up in the church hid the truth. I was asking some pretty tough questions leading up to seminary and those questions were not being answered. I assumed it was because those questions didn't have answers. Nope. In seminary I learned my questions had answers, and new questions had answers, and completely different questions had no real answer, or no answer yet. I was ready to eat the Word up! Yet, it was so difficult to be excited when I knew I could have had my answers years before if the various ministers just trusted me with the truth.
That's what makes the milk so difficult. One doesn't give a baby milk it's entire life. At some point you begin to introduce new food. I've had two babies, a know a thing or two about this subject. As Paul wrote, the Corinthians were not ready for anything but milk, but that didn't mean they wouldn't some day be ready for a thicker food, something they could begin to chew on. Also, easy to digest doesn't mean watered down.
We also need to realize everyone should start out on milk. I've seen the look on the face of someone who wasn't ready for meat and potatoes theology. Their eyes grew wide, they fought back, and then dropped out. Wanna kill a baby Christian? Give them meat and potatoes theology instead of milk. A good leader realizes what the congregants need and gives them that need. A good leader also knows when to begin adding new food options.
The Grower: I pulled a valuable lesson from The Hope Partnership's leadership training. We should see faith and the Spirit from a mindset of abundance over and beyond scarcity. When we think of scarcity we see limited resources. It brings the idea that there are limited positions and tools at our disposal, Scarcity pits us against one another when we should be the Body of Christ. (Dying institutions live through scarcity economics.) Coming at faith and the Spirit from a mindset of abundance means there is more than enough for everyone. We are not frightened when someone succeeds. We are more willing to give credit where it is due.
In the case of our scripture, Paul and Apollos were beginning to gain separate fan bases. Some were Paul fans, and some were Apollos fans. Now if Paul shut it down and told everyone his opinion trumped all others, it might have crushed Apollos and it would have been a lie.
Paul knew the abundance of the Spirit and was not afraid to give credit where credit was due. Paul was the planter, Apollos watered the seed, and most importantly God grew the seed. All the power and glory went to God, as it should.
What does this mean? Well, I'm glad you asked! We are at the age of the "Self-Help Minister." This makes perfect sense because the church is always 20 years behind society. Twenty years ago we were seeking books and DVD sets from Self-Help Gurus. People wanted to know how to live a happier life in 5 easy steps! The guru had the answer. Society mocked the self-help guru as being fake and moved on, but kept the desire for quick answers with no work involved. Now twenty years later Christians are working through their own Self-Help fad.
A guru could claim the answer to a specific problem he/she overcame. He or she did it all by themselves. What sounds amazing from a Self-Help Guru sounds fishy from a minister. The minister became the answer and God became the product being sold. Paul tells the truth: A planter delivers the truth, that truth is watered, and God is the one who decides whether it grows. God is the answer. There is no product.
What do you think? What are you drawn to in the scripture? We want to know!
1Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
2 Who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
He will purify the Levites
and refine them like gold and silver.
They will belong to the Lord,
presenting a righteous offering.
4 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
as in ancient days and in former years
-Malachi 3:1-4 CEB
It's a well known trope within movies, TV, and books. The mirror knows all. Frank L. Baum incorporated it twice. Once with the Gnome King's mirror, that can see where ever he asks for it to see. The second time with Zixi the Queen of Ixi. This queen, who was over 600 years old, used magic to make herself look 16. Her mirror, conversely showed her real age.
The one that immediately came to my mind was The Mirror Gate from The Neverending Story. It was one of the tests in order to get to the Southern Oracle. When the traveler came to the gate, they had to look in the mirror to pass. The reflection would show the honest view of the person:
Engywook: Next is the Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu has to face his true self.
Falcor: So what? That won't be too hard for him.
Engywook: Oh, that's what everyone thinks! But kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted by their true selves, most men run away screaming!
Atreyu discovered Bastian because Atreyu was only an avatar for Bastian's adventure. (Atreyu doesn't realize that when he sees it, and simply passes through.)
When I read Malachi 3:2-3 I imagine God much like one of those magic mirrors. The reason we wouldn't be able to endure the day of his coming, is because we would be left with only the truth of who and what we were. It's that "refiners fire and cleaner's soap" referred to in scripture. That would be enough to make "kind people find out that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards!" Basically, enough to help us all see we are fallen creatures, all of us. None of us are perfect. All of us fall short of the glory of God.
Just something to think about. On a side note, there are times I feel like I've been put before God, and I have felt that boiled down truth. It helps me find humility towards others, even if sometimes I'm not humble. It helps me find kindness, even if sometimes I'm not kind. God's truth always makes us better, even if seeing the truth isn't something we are drawn to do.
4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.
Matthew 3:5-10 CEB
-Rev. Melissa Fain-
Every time we pick up a bible and begin reading, we are adding to the text. It is impossible not to. Perhaps we are imagining what the scene looks like. Perhaps we are adding inflection to the words. We could be visualizing how a biblical character is standing or moving. Our brains naturally fill in the gaps. It must, because rarely do we get any clue on the adjectives describing the scene. As I mentioned before, it was probably one of the things lost as the Word moved from oral tradition to written text.
So there are things I am considering as I read Matthew 3. There are questions I think we need to at least consider. Questions that give us no clear answers, but add a layer of possible context to what we are reading.
What happened between Zachariah discovering his wife was pregnant, and John being in the wilderness?
Being a Priest was a birthright. The high priests could trace their linage back to Aaron, the first high priest. Zachariah was the real deal, and so was his son: John. Something epic happened in John's life to make him give up the "easy" path of becoming a priest, and follow the difficult path of being in the wilderness. Here is what I believe:
If this is true, it gives an added depth to the anger and resentment of the Priests throughout the bible. Jesus is not only a false prophet in their eyes, he's the one who unhinged John and got him killed. It adds a layer of humanity we often throw aside when it comes to these "children of snakes."
What is the point? You can choose to accept my theory or throw it out the window. The point is to first understand there is more going on in the story than we are privy to. We are not given a complete picture, and we must fill in the blanks in some cases. Second, it's to see the humanity in those we have labeled our enemy. God loves us all. God loves Leviathan, and God loves the children of snakes. God loves the people who turn away the children of snakes. We are at the point today where we need to be a community that brings the Body of Christ together, not hack it apart even more. Today I suggested how the very people who would eventually call for Christ's crucifixion were acting in a concerned and loving way. How much more difficult could it be to see how those with a different opinion than our own could also be acting from a human way?
-Rev Melissa Fain-
Last week I debunked the myth that "Do not be afraid," was written 365 times in the bible. That is false. It's only written about 115 times. No 365 day calendar for us. Shucks. Meanwhile, something is mentioned so often if could fill a quote a day calendar and beyond. Are you prepared? Brace yourself. "Altar."
Now before you run to the printing press and make your millions off of Christian patsies... What? You don't think Christians would be biting at the bit to get that? Why not? We ate up a simple two verses to find out how we too could be our own Jabez. We wanted to eat up the idea of a daily reminder to "not be afraid." What is different about this?
Oh, that's right, we get all antsy when it comes to sacrifice.
The word we translate as alter is a Hebrew word rooted in the word "sacrifice." In the Hebrew Bible it is mentioned over 400 times! I think that's enough to suggest it's an important part of individual and corporate worship. Over the next month or so we will discuss what we sacrifice and bring to the altar. Today I want to talk about the alter itself.
What makes up an altar:
In the Hebrew Bible, alters were made out of one of three substances. In the New Testament a new kind of alter was introduced into corporate worship.
What is sacrificed, and where:
The substance the table is made from gives a clue to where these altars are used.
1 After these events, the Lord’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.”
2 But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.” 3 He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”
4 The Lord’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” 5 Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” He continued, “This is how many children you will have.” 6 Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character.
Genesis 15:1-6 CEB
-Rev. Melissa Fain-
So you have to be careful when you get “facts” from the internet. For example, Pinterest will often give suggestions on how to organize or do things. These time saving measures often add time to the job. Either that, or you end up with a really hilarious Pinterest Fail.
And you’ve all seen quotes with an image of some famous person having said it? You have to make sure those people actually said those quotes, because sometimes, they didn’t. While I could easily pull up a fake MLK or Gandhi quote (because they are all over the place), I love this ludicrous one where there is a picture of Jean Luc Picard saying “Use the force, Harry,” and the attributed to Gandalf. That one was made obvious as a joke, but there are people who want to trick you into believing something that isn’t true.
Then there are times when something becomes so widespread, we don’t know it’s false. I’ve seen this one image so many times and in so many ways. It suggests that “Do not be afraid,” is found 365 times in the bible. Now, I can just look at that and know it’s false. Why? You tell me you wouldn’t see a million devotionals and daily calendars all over Hallmark, Dayspring, and Mom and Pop bookstores if that phrase really was quoted in the bible 365 times? Marketers would be all over it! And even if we pretended marketers remained clueless of the potential payout of this magical phrase, it didn’t take much sleuthing to find people who did the homework for me. Even if you include other phrases, like “fear not,” the phrase only appears between 109-115 times. Well, it’s still good for a wall calendar, right?
It is an interesting phrase, though. It’s said often enough, it deserves our attention. “Don’t be afraid.” (Oh do I get fearful.) I’m currently reading a book called “Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma.” It was written by Teresa Pasquale who is a therapist working with those suffering with PTSD, often the result of a church experience. She described three reactions of a wounded person. First is flight. There are those who run away when they see anything that resembles the thing that initially hurt them. Second is fight. There are those who bark and bite when they see anything that resembles the thing that initially hurt them. Finally, there’s freezing. She compared this to a deer caught in the headlights. The trauma is so desperate and real, we don’t know what to do, so we just freeze.
The Israelites often froze.
Abram, in this case, fought.
This is the middle of Abram, soon to be Abraham’s story. God painted such a pretty picture at first. Your heirs will be as numerous as the stars, and numerous as the grains of sand. At that point in time he didn’t know about the trials and tribulations that were headed his way. He didn’t know how long he would have to wait. His spouse was impatient. She led him in the wrong direction trying to get the promise fulfilled. I would fight too. The middle of journeys look like messes.
I should know: I organized my daughter’s books and puzzles a few weeks ago. After removing everything from the double ottoman, the living room looked more like a war zone than a place where people could relax. Puzzle pieces were everywhere. Books were stacked in similar shaped piles. Trash was surrounding everything, because my kids seem to think every piece of paper is worthy of saving. Looking over the destruction I had to remind myself, “This is part of the job. We are moving towards something better. Then everything began to take shape again. The pieces found their puzzles. (Well, most of them did.) The books made their way into the ottoman, and they all fit! When I finished, no one would need to know the living room blew up before it was put back together.
Then, I remember, two summers ago, I met my sister with my son in Cade’s Cove. We stayed for a couple of days. We camped, and we hiked. Kimberly decided the best hike for the three of us was Abram’s Falls. Now, at this point I hadn’t done that hike since college. Aeden had never walked that far before. At the beginning of the trail, he was excited to see a waterfall.
Now, remembering we still had to walk all the way back, we were a quarter of the way to the falls, and it starts. “How much longer?” “This is hard!” “Can we turn around now?” There were tears, and not all of them were from him. I sat him down and laid it out. Let’s continue, and when you are ready to turn around and head back, we will. If we do it before we get to the falls, you don’t get to see the falls." His attitude changed, and we made it all the way. He played in the water. We ate lunch, and the walk back was so much better than the walk there. The getting there was tough, but I think, for the most part, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Some of that is in knowing God often times doesn’t reveal everything all at once. Could you imagine Abram’s reaction if he received everything at the beginning? Stars in the sky and sands under his feet are great. Throw in Sodom and Gomorrah, Hagar and Ishmael, and the potential sacrifice of Isaac and it might have been too much for him. Who would have blamed him if he simply said, “I’m too old for this?”
I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: Are you willing to understand you only have the small picture. Our understanding is a crude cave drawing in comparison to God’s panoramic. Usually, when God has a plan, it requires sweat, tears, and pain. It’s messy. There are usually times when we look at what we got and wonder why we started to begin with. But, it’s the only way to reach the destination. We jump in, not because it’s fun or easy, but because it’s right. We build treasures that matter: Relationships, plans that will last generations beyond the people making them; those kinds of things. Treasures that have eternal rewards, not financial ones.
A friend of mine put it succinctly: Many today want to be the church of “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” and not the church of “carry the cross.” Crosses are heavy, and many come with a death sentence at the end. Scratch that, whether it’s a spiritual, physical, or another kind of death, carrying the cross always comes with a death sentence. It’s the only way to find new life, or (in relation to the church) you become a zombie church. No longer alive, and kinda not dead: Undead. It’s a church that attempts to be something it can no longer be, while becoming something that can bite out and hurt others. Not where God wants a church to be…
Don’t be afraid. Yeah, you might know more of the journey than Abram was aware of, but that darkness you see ahead is not the end. You can’t see as far as God.. That is merely the middle. You have to go through it to find that new light. And guess what? When you get to that darkness, it won’t feel as dark as it looks, because each of us are capable of shining God’s light, and where God’s light shines, the darkness cannot hide. You are not what you were. You never will be that ever again, but God knows what you could be. Go. Take the journey. Walk to that messy hard place. Don’t be afraid. God goes with you.
“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.”
Matthew 5:17 CEB
-Rev Melissa Fain-
We must pick up the Hebrew Bible for the sake of fulfillment. It is very difficult to understand the New Testament without these early books. It must be done before we move further into our wilderness.
The Ten Commandments remain a piece of the Old Testament we can easily pull into our Christian context. We can unite under these simple truths. Don’t murder. Don’t get caught up with the stuff your neighbor has. Don’t make false idols. Don’t put anything before God’s eyes… What was that? You don’t remember that commandment? It’s right there, right before the idol commandment. What we are used to reading is,
“You must have no other gods before me.”
(Exodus 20:3 CEB)
As a child, it confused me that we separated this commandment with the nixing idols commandment. They sound exactly the same. In an important way, they are connected. Both have to do with worship. The idol commandment is about worshiping something other than God. Early on, this would be, don't go to other temples, or raise up Golden Cows, or worship Ba'al. That sort of thing. This “no other gods before me” is directly related to what we bring in to worship our God.
Quite literally, we are not supposed to bring anything but our worship and adoration before God. This commandment is discussing the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant. God’s home. When we come to God’s house, we are coming only to visit God. Now, I’ll be the first to say it is difficult to understand what is adoration and worship, and what is not. Do we worship and adore God with music? If so, what kind? Do we worship and adore God with our fellowship? What about the sermon? Is it worship and adoration? When we don’t come at the Holy of Holies with particular care, almost anything could find itself in a worship, because almost anything can be justified.
This is yet another reason why we are beginning with nothing. Did you know that while the general Protestant Church has been dying to oblivion, the Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic Church have all been growing? These traditions would tell you it’s because there earlier understanding of the Truth is the correct one. When I read or hear from those who have chosen one of these faith traditions, this is what they generally say, “It’s not that I really believe the reason why they do what they do, but they know what they do.” In other words, if you approached a Catholic Priest, after Mass, and begun asking why certain objects were in the room, he’d be able to tell you. If you were to ask an Eastern Orthodox Priest why they do each aspect of worship, he’d be able to tell you. If you asked a Protestant why they do a Call to Worship, sit during certain times, and stand at other times… I doubt the minister could even really explain why anymore.
When we can no longer explain why what we are doing is worship to God, we might not be worshipping God anymore. At least, that’s what all these “nones” (The group of people who believe in God but cannot find themselves going to church) conclude. Why we do things is just, if not more, important than what we do.
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
1 Corinthians 9.24-27
Like anyone who has grown up in the Church, I've probably heard this passage more than a dozen times. From when I was a child up until now. But it seems to me as if the entire focus is usually on the "running the race" part. I.e., how it's presented is: "Train yourself to run the race. And, oh yeah, that may be some sacrifices. But we won't go into specifics on that." I don't think I've ever heard or seen anyone focus on that last verse. And I wonder why.
Maybe because it's too "mortification-of-the-flesh-Catholicky"? I mean, "I make my body a slave." That's not just working out. In fact, it may even be the opposite of working out, because working out is still kinda caring for the body. As I recall, slavery of that time was quite common for prisoners of war. So this is full-on war imagery. Go to war against your body. The Desert Fathers and Mothers understood this verse as a war. That is why they fled from the corruption of the cities to the desert. Why they took upon themselves monumental acts of fasting and penitence.
And one should be careful when one looks to such examples. They are the bright sun and we are mere weak candles. Which is to say, we must be careful in following their practices of war against the body. There are even stories of novices trying to do too much, too quickly. This, too is a sign of pride. This is why such examples looked to a spiritual guide and mentor, which is still the best way to begin.
But I have to wonder if we don’t find ourselves in a very similar situation as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Our urban areas all over the world are growing exponentially, while rural areas decline. We are all rushing into the cities. I look around my life, and I have to admit that I see a lot of comfort. Comfortable furniture, apartment, garden, music, books, movies, television, internet, heating, plumbing, alcohol, junk food, and on, and on… In comparison to many, I might as well be living in the lap of luxury. But what would it cost me to, for example, take shorter showers? And use slightly cooler water? To eat simpler? To turn the heat down a little bit in the winter? To just start taking small steps in order to strike blows to my body and make it my slave, rather than the other way around? If we have the money and the means, we can live in comparative luxury. And many of us do.
C.S. Lewis once said about giving (money), that it was a good idea to give at least slightly more than you feel comfortable giving. It should “hurt.” At least a little bit. But so much of our culture is based on insulating us from all hurt. But maybe there are also worse things than pain. It’s out of season for Lent, but maybe it’s a good idea to engage in a little mortification all year round. Maybe we need to recover the idea of being at war with our bodies.
And then Paul adds the kicker that makes this all especially dangerous for pastors/preachers: "So that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
Lord, have mercy.
Matt grew up in Utah, but now lives in Europe. He continues the theological wanderings of a spiritual mutt, who is continually confronted with the vastness of his own ignorance.
15 The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17 Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. 19 After eating, he regained his strength.
He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. 20 Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared
Acts 9:15-20 NRSV
Movies have these cliches. Let me share some of them with you. If there is a dog in the movie, that dog will always bark at the bad guy. An action hero never ever wears prescription glasses. Bombs are usually defused only if there are less than five seconds remaining on the clock. People can drive moving cars while looking directly at the passenger. They also tend to move the steering wheel 100 times more than the average driver. In a chase scene, most women will fall down at some point. Whenever someone appears to be working on a computer, the screen is so bright it projects itself on the person’s face. Or at least, when they are accessing a computer that doesn’t belong to them, they can easily break the password by looking at the person’s desk or remember some obvious clue given in a previous scene. Also, if a bad guy wants redemption they must die for it. It has to be a sacrificial death, where it saves the good guys in the process.
Maybe this is why biblical movies are a tough sell, especially the New Testament stories. Could you imagine the pitch?
Okay, so we have this guy. It turns out he is the Son of God.
The Son of God, really? Does he come in and destroy the bad guy with lightening or hellfire or anything?
Oh, no. He’s a pacifist. He doesn’t hurt a single person the entire movie.
Right… well, go on.
Anyway, he starts to gain this following. People are willingly leaving their family over this guy.
Oh, so with his big following he overtakes the government, and puts a new system in place?
Umm, no. In fact, the government in rule when we comes in is still the same government when the story ends.
Then the followers…
No, the followers mostly die terrible deaths.
The bad guys…
Mostly get away in the end.
It’s not the story we want to hear. We want our happy endings. We want our “and they lived happily ever after.” If not, we at least want to know the bad guys were punished. That’s just not how life works, and that’s not how Jesus asked us to react to life.
There are two important pieces of Jesus Christ we must understand before we can get what’s going on in our scripture.
First, Jesus died. The resurrection is only as spectacular as the real death that came before it. As Christians, as a church, we are continually called to that death. When we try to emulate the resurrection without allowing our old selves to truly die, we end up with an undead church. Seriously. It’s the zombie church, and I’ve seen it over and over again. They can’t do what they used to do, but they refuse to let it go. This means they only appear alive, but they are really already gone. Until they let go, they can’t truly be reborn. They bite others, infecting congregants. I’ve spent the last few years helping the wounded. It’s dangerous stuff. Saul, the man who gathered up Christians to be murdered, died on that road. Not literally. His heart did not stop, but who he was ended in that moment. This was the future leader of the early church. Anything from that previous life, necessarily had to die.
Second, Jesus came to end the cycle of violence and hate. You know what’s interesting about the place where I’m at? I hear the problem from every angle, but no one wants to take blame. So much is broken right now. The General church is broken. The region is broken. Churches all over the nation are broken. Ministers are broken. Congregants are broken… But, blame always belongs to someone else. We all have our stories about the minister, the church, the congregant, the region, or the general suck that caused the problem. Do we realize we scapegoat the problem? We place the blame on something or someone who can’t do anything about it. We can’t change the people or the long gone system that hurt us. Sure, we can put our burden on them, and send them out as our sacrifice, but it doesn’t solve the problem.
Do you realize Ananias could have scapegoated Saul? He could have taken one look at Saul and said, “Oh no, Lord. That guy is the reason we are in hiding. That guy is the reason several of my friends are now dead. I’m out.” Can you see the seriousness of it all? The future of the Christian story was put in Ananias’ hands, and Ananias had justification to let Saul rot in his blindness.
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?
The words of Jesus from Matthew 5:38-46. Do you see the potential that sits in our laps? Do you see the possibility of the future of the church? God is not asking us to heal a murderer. God is not asking us to redeem a villain. God is asking us to forgive our fellow brother or sister in Christ, and invite them back into the family, with no strings attached. What is being asked of us is not nearly as difficult as what God was asking of Ananias. Ananias did it. Ananias healed the murderous villain. In doing so the future of the Early Church took root. Can we do what God is asking of us? Can we give it up at the cross? Can we let go of the scapegoat, and personally sacrifice for the future?