Regardless of an individual’s background, the word “Bible” invokes deep emotions and understandings to almost everyone who hears it. Unfortunately, much of the time they are more negative than positive. The feelings that many have towards the bible start where people define what the bible is. There is an old joke among mainline clergy of the pastor who got up in front of his congregation and said “If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus Christ it is good enough for me!” He said this with the connotation that the King James Version dated back to Jesus Christ. To him this meant that everything in it was the way God wanted, and there were no mistakes.
The truth of that version is that a King with a questionable lifestyle wrote it in the 1500’s. He used the writing of that version to further his political standing. While he did not change the overarching understandings or themes in the bible, the translators made some translation choices that many scholars today look back on and question. On one hand it brought many “R” rated parts down to “PG” and introduced concepts that we still debate today, one being the sections having to do with homosexuality. Here you can begin to see the problem, many people read the bible as the inerrant Word of God, but the bible was written and translated by people, so while it may have begun pure, the versions we have today have lost a bit of that through the translations. This is why we encourage people to use multiple versions of the bible in bible studies.
Another issue is something that most 9 year-olds pick up on pretty quickly when they read the Adam and Eve story. Some will ask, “If everything was created, why would it be created again a different way?” But my favorite question is “If Adam and Eve were the first people, how come they found other people when they were kicked out of the garden?” Good questions!
The first is a sign of the multiple writers of the Pentateuch and rest of the Old Testament. Tradition stated that the Old Testament was written all by Moses and another that God wrote it himself; however, this is most likely not the case. As scholars have worked through the original texts, some that were merely fragments, they have seen distinct writing styles for different parts, suggesting that there were multiple people who were writing these witnesses. As we move to the New Testament, we know for sure that God did not write it, since the witness of each book is ascribed to a particular writer.
There is an underlying inconsistency in the bible. The first and most obvious one is the question of Adam and Eve finding other people when they leave the garden. The bible was NOT written to be a users manual for life, nor was it written to be an accurate account of history. The bible WAS written to be a faithful accounting of God. Therefore, all of the stories, poems, songs, laments, wisdom, and revelation all point to an inscrutable but loving God.
The problem is that when people make these blanket statements about inerrancy and infallibility in the bible, they tend to miss the point that the bible as a whole is a witness. Now as we know with witnessing anything, there are many limitations. Just think of my sermons each week and the discussions we have. Everyone interprets what I say a little differently based on his or her perspectives and understandings. Does it make their perspective any less valid? No! In fact, it makes it even more valid.
The Bible is a powerful witness that shows us over and over again the relationship that God longs to have with us. It speaks to God’s desire that we know love. While it is a witness, it is a special witness because its inspiration and guidance come from God.
I guess that a lot can be said for the state of the world. Just last week saw a plane full of innocent people blow-up, an escalation of the Israel/Palestine war, even images of police brutality in this country. I’d like to say that this is a new thing, but it is not. Every few months it seems that somewhere in the world the ghost of war rears its head and people are killed. Like many of you, I am sick of this and I have been for a while.
The change for me came at the start of our re-involvement in Iraq. The mental gymnastics and logic for that war was so obviously flawed it made me question a lot of what I saw coming from the government. If you remember the war came on the heals of an economic downturn. We still were not making much way in Afghanistan, Enron had collapsed and the tech bubble was bursting. If you listened through the commentaries, there were many who made the point that war would be a good thing for our economy. War a good thing. . . hmm…
This is the problem with war, fights, and the like: they are rarely about noble reasons, and when they are, often the results are mixed at to what has really changed and if they had positive impacts. Yes, people can and do point to wars like WWII, possibly the Civil War and things like that, but those are more the exception then the rule when it comes to war.
War, battles, and fights are what keep our country moving. Direct military spending represents roughly 19-20% of the federal budget. And many civil corporations derive at least some of their income from military spending. Though I say this, I have to say that I do not think a military is a bad thing, especially for protective purposes, but the active engagement in perpetual wars, which are hard to justify, seems to be far more about the game of war than an actual objective. And it is accepted because war is accepted in our culture.
We see the war mentality starting early with games. Even kid’s sports like soccer and baseball turn from a fun activity to a battle for supremacy, not even to mention video games and the like. I know the arguments saying that this is good, it helps people work through those emotions, and so on. But in and not too uncommon discussion, I remember a couple years ago going out with some friends who were stockbrokers at the NYSE (back when they actually had them). It was amazing that almost every discussion they had when it came to their jobs was somehow militant. “I’m gonna kill this deal” even “We’re going to war with . . .” were not uncommon. Though that language switched when we began discussing other things, it was amazing to see how ingrained that war language was and how easily it came.
I often worry about these things because I see it permeating society. I read the local “Nextdoor Neighbor” site for the Rose Garden community. Most of what is on there is interesting and informative about what is going on around the church, but every other week, or more often, someone stages a war. Often it is nothing more than a battle of wits, but a war none-the-less, and it shows how when war happens, the community cannot, because war is about winning, not compromising or even understanding. As a football coach once said to me, “there is winning, there is losing and that is it, we are at war!” I gave up on football soon after that was said. But regardless, life is not a sporting event, and most often the best solution is not a win/lose thing; it is about learning how to better be the community.
I would argue that the problem with the world right now, and for most of its history, is that we have adopted an understanding of social Darwinism that allows us to justify war with an understanding that, well, the strongest and most intelligent will survive and the other, well . . .. This is part of all justification for war. The unfortunate thing is that when most wars end the world is no different than it was when it began, and people just gravitate to the next war.
I do very much care about what happens in the world, but to be honest, there is very little, if anything, that we can do to create global peace in a macro way. The locomotive engine is on a runaway track with that. But we can teach and bear witness to peace in our churches and communities. We can spend time relearning how to dialogue and listen, and most importantly, be examples of setting ourselves aside for the search for and discernment of God’s will. Only when the church does this will it truly be able to make a strong statement in a macro way showing the world a better way, a way that is not about the win or loss, but a way that is about living into God’s call for us to be His community.
In life I have always identified with things that are small. I think this is why as a kids I always liked David. Yeah, I know, everyone likes David, but for me it was the fact that he was not the biggest, but he could still do great things that inspired me at times when I might have wanted to give up, not to. Over and over throughout the gospels Jesus uses the image of a mustard seed.
It is funny because many will come back and say that Jesus was anti science, but the use of the mustard seed goes hand-in-hand with the scientific knowledge that they had in the time. It was known, though in crude ways, that seeds contained the basics that would allow it to grow. Of all the seeds, the mustard seed, being the smallest, contained the most potential of all, since the bush that would result would be huge!
The mustard seed not only adds a spice to life, but it provides a home to the birds and other creatures. In a way, here is Christ recognizing the power of the seed and the recognition that the purpose of the seed is much more than just being a tree. Connected to that is the story of the woman who makes bread with yeast. That the flour, interacts with the yeast (another small thing) to increase the size of the dough making it more than it otherwise would be.
He gives two other images in the pericope. The first is about the (small) treasures in the (big) field and being able to use that treasure for great rewards. The second is about finding the finest pearl, another small thing that would bring great wealth.
Lastly, he gives a known example of net fishing. When you net fish there is no discrimination about what you catch, but not everything is good and you have to throw some back. Well, again, of all the numbers of fish, only a small amount would be worthy to sell, and the others would be tossed back or thrown out.
All of this is to give an image of what will happen at the end of times. Those who will be saved will take the core of what there was prior to Christ’s coming (the small seed, the yeast, the treasure, the pearl), and will combine with the lessons of Christ and will become something much greater than one could ever imagine, just like it is hard to imagine a huge bush or tree coming from a tiny mustard seed.
I think in Modern Christianity this has a lot to do with our faith and struggles. While Christ was talking to a Jewish community who had the teachings behind them I like to think for us today most people have an idea of faith that we need to nourish and grow. We do this through our communities and we do this through our openness to faith.
I remember the day I was baptized. Not from my own recollection but from the stories my family told. Though all the written documents say that Rev. Jack Peters baptized me, our family knows that it was my grandfather when I was still a baby. Growing up, the norm was to baptize children as soon as possible. It was not until I was in seminary when I really talked with people who had been baptized as adults. The concept was foreign to me, but it was something I could understand from the large “unchurched” community. But it surprised me to find out that people in a Presbyterian Church would not be baptized, because I had been taught that Baptism had nothing to do with me.
One of the big differences between the Evangelical tradition and mainline churches like the Presbyterians is our understanding of Baptism. To oversimplify things, in Evangelical communities the emphasis of baptism squarely rests on the individual. It is the moment that this person feels a connection to God that moves them to seeking Baptism.
In the Presbyterian tradition, our understanding of baptism is different. While it is about a relationship with God, it is a trifold relationship in that the community witnesses the work of the spirit within the child and initiates the child or adult into the family of God, recognizing the fact that God has been with that child their whole life. But there is also a responsibility from the community that they are involved in the life of the person. As the confession of 1967 states: By baptism, individuals are publicly received into the church to share in its life and ministry, and the church becomes responsible for their training and support in Christian discipleship.
Baptism is an equalizing aspect of the church; unlike circumcision, baptism is open to both males and females. It does not discriminate, but equally calls the individual and the community into a New Life with Christ while also calling that same community to a renewed relationship and commitment.
This week in The Gathering we are going to dive into the next section of the Confession of 1967, which is titled “New Life.” This section shows us how the reconciling work of Christ created a crisis for Humankind because of its call to reorder our goals and directions. It shows us that all people who are loved by God are equal and only have a place because of God’s Grace, which means that we have no place to claim superiority over others. This New Life is recognition of the beginning of a journey, not an end. This means that in this New Life we are not released from the difficulties of life, but a recognition that God is part of our lives in even the most difficult places and that we are called, though it is hard to overcome them.
Moreover, the New Life is a call to shed the constraints of the world and politics and work towards the reconciliation of the world through seeking justice and speaking truth to power. All of this is done in the knowledge that what we live for is our life with God, which is the permanent full life.
One of my favorite times of the year is Vacation Bible School. For one full week of the year the church is bustling with activity. Moreover, it is a time when we tend to set aside everything that might get in the way and truly celebrate God. This year with Chris’ leadership we were able to see the joy and fun that goes with learning about God.
Learning about God and sharing faith is one of the most important parts about church. It is, in fact, one of the main reasons the church was established. Think back to the days of the early church. Worship, as we know, was mainly around a meal. The recognition that eating brought strength was not lost, especially in the struggles of that early church. The early Christians recognized that they could not be faithful if left to their own devices. Even if they could “get it right” they needed the community for strength, since to believe was to literally put your life on the line, as we know from the stories of the martyrs.
The problem we often see in the modern church is that there is less openness to learning and a sense of the need to learn as once was thought. While I do not necessarily see this in any particular congregation I have served, over my 13 years of ordained ministry (my ordination date was July 15, 2001), there seems to be less and less of a desire to learn and be challenged and more and more of a desire to hear things that support a specific point of view. When I say this I am not just calling out one side of the church. Actually it has been my experience, especially in light of the last General Assembly, that there is a need for openness on both extremes of the church. Moreover, there is a need to get back to the place where we can be the body and openly share our struggles and witness to the power and strength of God.
This is why I love Vacation Bible School so much. For the kids, it is a great experience. The joy and smiles when they leave warm even the toughest parts of one’s soul. But for most of the adults it is difficult, from maintaining the high energy to keep up with the kids to always being alert, it takes a lot! But whenever I struggle with anything to do with Children’s ministry the image that first comes to my mind is Matthew 19:14 (NRSV) but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
This is an important image for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that in that passage, there is a special grounding that children have. In their ignorance of the world, they can more clearly see and witness to who Christ really is, more so than even the disciples who try to shoo them away. There is also a need that the children sense to be close to Christ. In a way it is a subtle fight that goes back and forth between Jesus and the disciples where Jesus desires people to come closer while the disciples are trying to protect Him from harm, with an ultimate harm coming from the children who might be seen to taint Christ (this is another letter, but trust me on that).
What children do in their excitement and sometimes even insights is that they help us to see a better picture of who Christ is and they help us to grow into an openness for what God is calling us to today. They remind us through their gifts how important this calling to be Christian is and, most importantly, we are all energized by the faith they show, even if some of our leaders are physically tired, spiritually most of us are left at a high above all others.
I am really thankful for everyone who helped those who were up front, those who were not, even those who only did one or two things. It was you who made this example a true blessing and witness of Jesus Christ.
It is not uncommon that someone will come to me and ask, what is heaven? I always find this an interesting and difficult question. It is an interesting question because there is so much speculation and fantastical stories that it is near to impossible to fully discern what or even where heaven is. Actually, even in the biblical accounts there are often contradictions that keep us from really having a clear understanding of heaven.
This week we see one of the very first glimpses the bible has of “heaven.” This glimpse occurs when Jacob is on the run going from Beersheba to Haran. He stopped to camp in a place called Luz. Pulling a rock for a pillow, he bedded down for a sleepless night. While sleeping he saw an image of a ladder and presumably a glimpse of heaven at the top. It was there that God made a promise to Jacob that he would be with him and his family. Jacob recognized the blessing and changed the name of the town to Bethel, which meant “House of God.”
The interesting thing about this passage was that this is another one of those semi-comical stories in the Old Testament where a prophet or patriarch is running away from God, or problems, or whatever, only to find that God is where they are and all their running was for naught.
It is interesting because this was the story of my education. As many of you know I grew up with and still struggle with many learning disabilities. At one point in my journey when I was in fourth or fifth grade, my parents hired a tutor to help me. At one point she gave up trying to teach me the way to do things and began to teach me shortcuts and memorizations. This annoyed me; because despite my lazy appearance I really did, and still do, love to learn. The problem I found with shortcuts was they only worked in certain circumstances, and typically in the end I would need to learn the traditional way. I learned that though I might try other ways, I could never really get past the way it needed to be.
Often in our lives we spend a great deal of time and there are those who make a lot of money helping people to find shortcuts in faith. The pop-theology/spirituality books, seminars and the like make millions. More than that, the secular culture that at times seems to breed a false reality that it offers more security and living than the faithful life, often allows us to run away from God.
The reality is that there is no easy way when it comes to faith and, more importantly, there is no escaping God once God has claimed you. One might say that at the moment of belief we enter into a new and difficult, but glorious new reality.
Jacob was with God, and throughout the rest of the summer we will be coming back to him. But one thing we know about Jacob was that he struggled with his relationship with God. He turned from God, even wrestled with God, he fought with God, but no matter what he did he could not shake God, nor could he get around God’s calling to him. This is very true for us in our modern life where at times we look for shortcuts to get our spiritual fix, but find they fall short, and at other times we want to run from God’s call only to find that when we stop, there He is.
For many, especially those in Northern California, the Holy Spirit is a the person of God that many find the most accessible. From Spiritualists to spirituality seekers for the past decade or two, the Holy Spirit has been almost a fad in both the Conservative and Progressive side of the Church. A friend of mine who claims to be “spiritual but not religious” describes the Spirit as accessible and “friendlier” then God. Interesting!
The problem is that the Spirit, taken in isolation of Jesus Christ and God, can and often is problematic. It becomes problematic for the very simple fact that the Spirit is one with God and Christ. It would be akin to having a faith and picking and choosing what you’re comfortable believing and what you are not. In a discussion once with youth a young boy said, “I like the Holy Spirit because it always makes me feel good.” Interesting again!
When we look at the theological and biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit (pre 1990’s) the Holy Spirit is the enabler. The Spirit is the person of God who is active in this world, calling people out of their comfort and into service. There is nothing more evident of this than the Pentecost story. When the people gather and the Holy Spirit descends, it is the Holy Spirit that enables the word to be preached and the people to hear. This is very important to remember because the Spirit becomes the enabler and ultimately the one who allows the Church to become what she is meant to be.
In the Confession of 1967, the role of the Holy Spirit brings a level of completeness to the call for a reconciled life in its role of allowing people to have the power to be representatives of Jesus Christ. A theological understanding that permeates the Confession of 1967 and much of the contemporary understanding of the church is the concept of missio dei or the mission of God. To overly simplify this fairly complex theology would be to say that everything God is involved in comprises His mission that He invites us to participate in.
Though mission can take many forms, the basis for our understanding of mission is that of Missio Dei, a Latin phrase which means mission of God. The concepts behind this understanding can be traced back through Barth, to Calvin, Paul, and the Hebrew Testament. The understanding of Missio Dei became a very popular way of looking at mission in the mid-twentieth century. Mission revolves around our understanding of the Triune God, especially as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. “Mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate.” God created this world because of God's love for it. Thus, mission is the work of God that began out of God's love for this world. Moreover, because of God's love for this world, God continues to be active in this world. As people of God, we are able to see God's continuing mission that started at creation and continued through God's reconciling and sanctifying acts. (From my master’s Thesis the Local Church As Missio Dei)
What the confession says is that “In spite of their sin, the Spirit gives people power to become representatives of Jesus Christ and his gospel of reconciliation to all.” This is interesting because the Spirit then is the catalyst for us to teach and live like Christ who came to bring people to a closer relationship with God. Thus, to be reconciled with God we must accept and rely on the Spirit being attuned to the power and witness therein.
Three years ago when I was first introduced to Westminster and we began to “flirt”, the image I was getting of this congregation was unique. As I did some research and talked with others, I learned that there was a lot of potential held within the congregation. This is very true! But one of our greatest strengths is something that many in our congregation never get a chance to see; that is the connection that we have in our community.
For those who were around on the fourth of July, you witnessed the community that came to us. But even at that you may or may not know why. A big reason for this is Betty and her persistent work to help our congregation be known in our community, but it is also a general good feeling that our neighbors see in our congregation. In fact, it is our hospitality that makes many in the community see this as their church, even if they do not come.
This is one of the problems of the modern church. Many people see the church as a central part of the community, but it is not something that they understand or feel they need to be part of. This is something that is not unique to our community and is one of the great debates going on the church today. Most theologians discuss the current state of the church and our country as Post-Christendom, making a demarcation between a time where the church was in power and there was a level of personal necessity (not just spiritual) to going to church.
This is also a problem in that many churches define worship as the act of worship rather than a mechanism and a way of life. In other words, for much of the Christian world, we narrow the definition of what the church is, while the greater world knows less and less about us. This often makes the church seem irrelevant, because often what people are seeking is not what we or anyone else is offering on Sunday morning.
This is where we are unique; in a Post-Christian world we maintain relevance in a very Post-Christian way, through our hospitality and welcoming nature. This was evident in that great day last Friday where we were able to be center in the community by creating a safe, welcoming center for a party that was incredible. And while some took advantage and never gave a second thought, many left thinking about what our little church did, and we planted a seed that we know God will do something with.
As a congregation we sit in a unique time in a unique place, but we cannot deny that God is doing something, it may just very well be something that we never expected or even dreamed of.
For most Christians, this word “sin” is very difficult to deal with. Not just with how we define it, but also with everything else that our world places on it. When talking about Sin, I often go to the simplest of all the definitions and that is to say that sin is anything that separates us from God. This week, the scripture focus is continuing in the theme that we have been in for the last couple of weeks looking into our relationship with God and specifically our relationship with sin.
One theological insight that many do not know is that like most of the reformed ways, there is no hierarchy of sin. This creates great fodder in seminaries and among reformed scholars. The concept of all sin being equal is quite simple, since at its root all sin places the individual before God. To take the time to say that one sin is worse than another is akin to being in debt, some debts are greater the others but all debts have to be overcome in some way.
Now it is important to note that sin cannot be coupled with civil law. The reason for this is actually pretty simple; civil law has to do with how we live in community with one another, whereas sin is solely in the relationship with God. While it is true that often when one breaks the civil contract they also sin, but there is a difference since civil law has to do with our relationship with others in this world and the other is all about God.
Why is this important? Well, because one can never go down the path and ever do any wrong, but be among the greatest of sinners. Conversely, one who is a hardened criminal may actually be among the saints. I remember a while back when visiting a juvenile detention facility, they had a panel of inmates speaking to a bunch of clergy. Now I do not have the authority to claim one is a saint and another is not, but that day I met a soul who seemed as pure as can be, yet he was a mean one!
Allen, we’ll call him, had killed his father. Before going to juvenile detention, Allen, who was from a poor community, had been working hard to break himself and his brother out of that neighborhood. But being black and poor he had few options, so he studied. He was able to successfully stay out of the gang his father was in and fought to keep his brother on the straight path.
One day when he came home, he caught his dad abusing his brother, and Allen went wild and killed his father. Immediately Allen knew what he had done and called the police on himself. He knew that he would go to jail, but he also knew that it would get his brother out of that horrible situation. Allen did wrong, and never denied it. But did he sin? It is hard to say; what is true, though, is that even in prison and having to take on a hardened shell to protect himself, all he spoke of is his faith and how thankful he was that God put him in that place so that he could save his brother.
This is why Paul often wants to make a distinction between the law and our relationship with God. Because often life is not so clear as to right and wrong.
Central to any concept of reconciliation is the importance of relationship. I would say that before one can even begin a process of reconciliation, three things must be in place. First, the divergent parties have to be willing. Second, there has to be some mutual desire, and, most importantly, they have to have some knowledge about each other.
Growing up we were taught through the stories of my Grandpa Franzen how awful the Catholic Church was. His hatred for the Catholic Church was based on his childhood. As a German immigrant, family his parents sold all of their family treasures to the Catholic Church to get money to board a boat for America with hope of finding jobs, since there were none in post-WW1 Germany. Their hopes were great when they settled in Chicago, but the Great Depression hit, and there was not enough money to go around, so his parents sent my grandfather to an orphanage with his brother. As the older of the two, my grandfather would play the role of protector, which placed him in the path of a myriad of abuses. The visceral hate he had was understandable, and the mistrust I felt through those stories clouded much of my feeling towards Catholics and that side of Christendom.
While I learned to work and study with Catholics in seminary, it was not until a fortuitous month in Switzerland when I found a level of reconciliation. Having chosen to take a World Christianity Emphasis in seminary, I was encouraged to join another seminary for a study in Geneva at the World Council of Churches. The class was great, and I learned a lot about world missions, but the most important thing was where we stayed, in an ecumenical convent run by the Catholic Church. Technically, it was a convent that had an outreach run by some priests.
Every day after class, the priests would invite us to a vespers service. At the beginning, I physically had a hard time even entering the room. Late one night as I was sharing a beer with a friend, and one of the priests came in and joined us. And we began to talk. We talked a lot that night; I even told him my feelings about the Catholic Church and he told me his story and his feeling about Protestants. By the time we finished we were laughing, and when we came to the last night and the priests offered us a communion service, he specifically came over to me and gave me the host. It was the second time in my life I had received communion from a Catholic Priest, but it was one of the most meaningful communions I had ever had, because at that moment we realized that not only had we reconciled the multi-generational pains of our pasts, but we had come to a place where we had reconciled a part of our relationship with God.
For me, this marked a new reality and a new approach to faith, recognizing that the burdens of the past and the burden of others really do hold you back from fully recognizing and accepting God. While I obviously did not become catholic, or even accept many of their “dogmas,” in a core way I became more complete and connected to God because I was able to break down those barriers.
When we think of the Love of God and its connection to reconciliation, it is an understanding that God wants us to break down as many walls and set aside any prejudice so that we can both fully live and fully connect to Him.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen