“The Church of Us vs. Them” by David Fitch

Near the conclusion of the film “The Princess Bride,” after having killed the man he pursued at great length for the murder of his father, Inigo Montoya confesses “I have been in the revenge business so long–now that it is over I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.”

The church herself appears to  be in the same quandary–after all the time and energy devoted to conflict, she wouldn’t know what to do without her enemies. The church, as the book’s subtitle says, is caught in a faith devoted to feeding on enemies for its identity and existence. And so David Fitch, our book’s author, is worried that by spending so much of its collective life in the business of creating and maintaining a hostile, antagonistic stance toward others, the church has risked compromising its service to God and witness to the world.

The heart of Fitch’s diagnosis of the church’s enemy problem is in chapter two (“The Enemy-Making Machine”) which offers the book’s key theoretical concepts relating to how enemies are created and sustained. The crucial insight Fitch offers is how a particular initial insight or characteristic of a group ‘takes on a life of its own’–the group’s characteristic becomes an all-defining identity marker (or “banner”) that works positively to rally members together and negatively to harden them towards anything that does not align with said identity marker. One helpful example Fitch gives to illustrate an identity marker is the church’s aversion to alcohol which, while initially borne out of a noble concern for societal flourishing and personal holiness at a particular time and place, was eventually reduced to a badge that asks nothing from the daily lives of those who wear it.  Once these identity markers become detached and shielded from actual embodied practice and communal discernment, fear and anger towards those outside is bound to follow.

The rest of the book can be seen as three case studies in which Fitch takes the concepts he expounded in chapter two and applies them to three core beliefs that have been held captive by antagonism–Bible, conversion, and social justice. These chapters are filled with short historical snippets and personal accounts from Fitch to demonstrate how, for example, varying views on Genesis 1, religious freedom, and a view of salvation devoid of personal involvement have become weaponized and thus create the dreaded “us vs. them” mentality.

Make no mistake–this freedom from making enemies will take work. Fitch’s approach to addressing the problem of antagonism is determinedly ecclesial and practical. That is, the local gathering of faithful Christ-followers is the nexus for Christian deliberation and action. This will involve the patient, time consuming-work of listening and conversing, sharing space and life together, all in hope of making space for God to work and looking for ways God already has.

Closing Thoughts

I was very impressed with how accessible and tightly-written this book was, especially considering the range of topics it touches on. Fitch wears his experience and learning lightly, which will allow a range of readers to benefit from his exposition and insight. I do hope this book will help its readers catch a vision for the peace in which God has called us to participate.

Joshua Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality

In essence there are only two theological questions:  ‘what kind of God’ and ‘so what.’

—John Colwell, Promise and Presence

“In this book I make a simple argument: the God of the Christian Scriptures is a God of hospitality, a God who extends hospitality to his people and who requires that his people embody hospitality to one another…This experience of God’s hospitality is at the very heart of the church’s identity. We are God’s guests and friends. And it is because of God’s extension of hospitality and friendship to us that the church can offer hospitality to one another and to those seemingly outside the reach of our faith communities.” (Jipp, 2).

Lenten Homily: Psalm 16

March 13, 2016

PSALM 16

PRAYING A PSALM WITH JESUS

For our time of Lent, which is coming to an end soon, we have been reading the Bible in two directions. The first way has been forwards, from front to back, from the beginning of God’s interaction with His people to Jesus. The second way has been backwards; meaning, from the life-death-resurrection of Jesus back to the beginning. For, in reading forward we see and feel the pull towards God sending His Son, and by reading backward we see afresh the riches throughout. As you may recall, for this Lenten season we have taken seriously Jesus’ statement, very much his thesis or mission statement, spoken at the end of Luke’s gospel: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (24:44).

And so today I have chosen a psalm—a psalm that has been something of a companion to me for the past seven years, a psalm for which I have been very grateful. And Psalm 16—our psalm for today—is a psalm of deep need and deep trust. It is a psalm that comes alongside us, and encourages us to seek and pray to the God of hope—our God who has, is, and will be with us. And we see that nowhere better in the life of Jesus.

The title of our homily is “Praying a Psalm with Jesus.” We will imaginatively merge the reading forward and reading backward, so that this psalm gives voice to the silent prayers of Jesus. It’s unique to note that throughout the gospels we rarely get let in to what Jesus is praying about. It’s like a story that Bill Moyers tells about his time as an aide to that distinctive character, President Lyndon B. Johnson (’63-’69). Bill Moyers, a minister, offers to say grace at a White House meal. Moyers, sitting at the other end of the table, bows his head and begins, but Johnson cuts him off and bellows “Speak up, Moyers, I can’t hear you.” Moyers coolly responds, “I wasn’t talking to you, sir.” So too it is that we don’t hear or know what Jesus prays, but this psalm fits well Jesus’ person, so we shall involve ourselves with the psalm alongside Jesus, and by this psalm be trained and encouraged in lives of truthful prayer to God.
_______________________

From the opening lines of the psalm we are presented with the foundational posture of Jesus—a life dependent on the care of God. Jesus’ life and aim of announcing and welcoming people to God’s kingdom was met with opposition, argument, and even outright hostility. He lived under the threatening eye of the authorities, but he did not shrink back because he was schooled in this prayer of God’s caring presence. But how do we pray this today? Where we are, in our over-insured, hyper-legislative, ‘there’s an app or pill for that’ culture, it seems like the goal is to make sure we don’t have to seek refuge in God, a sort of reversed Murphy’s Law. More strongly, our culture is trying to get rid of prayer, to pull all of life under our control. But in this adventure we’ve been brought into called Christianity, we are learning to “live our lives out of control,” as my friend Stanley says, that uncertainty and danger are always with us, and that God is the one who is with us through it all.

And then in the second verse the prayer moves from seeking refuge to declaring trust, a close relational trust in the one God. And this calls to mind the temptation of Jesus. When given the opportunity to acquire authority over all kingdoms and peoples of the world, all for the low, low price of worshipping the devil, Jesus doesn’t call the devil’s bluff, but asserts that one’s absolute loyalty is to God. After the temptation you could almost hear Jesus say “You are my Lord, apart from you I have not good thing.” And we have a Lord who has said “you are my child; apart from me you have no good thing.” This is a verse that needs our time and attention, because who can honestly say this? Like a close, trusting friendship, it will take time and intention to be able to say “you are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”

Verse three is quite interesting because the focus shifts to others: the “holy people”—other people who have been claimed by God and in return find their entire good in Him. There is no embarrassment in expressing joy over the faith of others. Unlike today, where it seems that the people Christians are most afraid of are other Christians. Yet, consider this: Had Jesus taken devil’s offer of all the kingdoms, then Jesus wouldn’t have needed to call disciples and waste all of his time teaching them and putting up with their failures and lack of imagination. Then there would be no need for the people of God. So by his trust and obedience to God, Jesus also shows love for his neighbor and for those far off. Jesus’ trust in God also showed his trust in others, difficult to work with as they were. How can that not be good news for us?

Following verse four and the depiction of the lamentable state of those in idolatry, verses 5-8 soar in praise to God and His gifts. Such descriptions of a “delightful inheritance” established by well-placed boundary lines sound too good to be true. And perhaps that is why in verses 7-8 we are brought into the counsel and instruction of the Lord. This reminds us that some things take time, guidance, and experience to become “true” to us. When Jesus spoke in parables about the gracious, welcoming God who forgives beyond comprehension, the main responses from the disciples were scandal or confusion. Only over time, of walking with Jesus through his life and beyond the cross and resurrection were they able to comprehend the explosively grand nature of the gospel. To take another biblical example, a well-known psalm urges “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). But, to extend the analogy, I’d say that the Lord is a complex flavor, and it may take some time get there and appreciate it. But God is patient and welcoming, and he may even wrestle with you and bless you for doing so.

The final three verses are particularly striking. And because it is not Easter yet I am reticent to say much more (as if I’ll spoil the ending or something). Indeed, our friend Theodoret (who lived 1,600 years ago—isn’t it great to have friends that old?) wrote about this section “It is superfluous for us to interpret it,” because we all know what it is really about. I won’t be as blunt as that, but I will close on the point that with Jesus and this psalm we see that death is part of our adventure of faith. This is not to sentimentalize death and its attendant horrors and sorrows (and if you think this does, then I have some Flannery O’Connor for you to read), but a reminder that we are not living in a fight against death. God does not abandon his children to death, for He is the one who has made known the path of life, and he brings us all the way.
To conclude, I shall read a close relative of our psalm this morning—Psalm 23. You may join in declaring it, but feel free to be quiet at your choosing:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD
Forever.

Benediction

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Homily: Psalm 146, Mark 7:24-30

I am glad that both the psalm and the story in Mark were both able to be read for all of us this morning. The psalm, psalm 146, is true gift to us. And I can’t help but linger over it together, and celebrate with the psalm together. It is unreserved and bold, highlighting both God’s overwhelming power and meticulous, personal care; The latter portion in particular–that is an excellent resume for a God worth worshiping.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them— he remains faithful forever. There we see a God of size and power, who operates on the scale of glaciers and galaxies, who is inexhaustible and beyond comparison. He is the God Beyond. But then, without irony or taking a breath, we hear: 7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, 8 the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. 9 The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

Who we see here is a God who is near to creation, to people. Not only the God BeyondHe is the God Beside. And it is this aspect, God’s personal attentiveness and care, that is central in our reading from Mark’s gospel. So now we turn to Mark 7.


And again, we find Jesus on the move. He’s north of his usual stomping grounds, in Gentile territory, which isn’t exactly the kind of place you might expect Jesus to be—a place where they talk, dress, and eat differently than God’s chosen people. And while Jesus manages to find a house for solitude, he can’t get the solitude. No sooner had the name ‘Jesus’ been dropped in Tyre, someone was dropping at his feet. It is a woman, a mother, who we now simply call the ‘Syrophoenician woman’ (centuries later she was given the name ‘Justa’). And so this Greek woman, this Gentile nobody, goes on second- or third-hand knowledge and finds this Jewish out-of-towner and repeatedly begs him to deliver her daughter from the evil influence of a demon. And what does her begging get her? A lesson in pet care? A lecture on family dinnertime protocol? No. A parable. Verse 27–“First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She was talking demons, and Jesus starts talking dogs and dinner. It is a confusing response, jarring and unexpected. By telling this startling parable, Jesus creates something between them. Yes, they were already separated, since she was an unclean Gentile woman with a daughter who has an unclean spirit. By telling this parable Jesus creates something between them. But it is not a wall. A parable does not create immediate and utter separation. A parable isn’t a wall–it is a door cracked open. There is both mystery and evidence in this parable. A parable calls people to wake up and pay attention to Jesus. As Jesus says to those who hear his parables: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” A parable is a call for faith to move, to come alive. And the woman had faith to come and fall before Jesus, so now her faith has to press through this cracked door. And there’s something lying in the background of this encounter. And that something is bread. Jesus uses bread in the parable as a way of talking about the care and blessings of God. And when Jesus talks about bread, we ought to recall the recent event of the 5,000 Jewish men that Jesus feeds with some fish and…bread. And in case you missed the point the first time, just a little later, 4,000 Gentile men are also fed with fish and…bread. The point is: Jesus has the abundance of God. He has the overwhelmingly caring, restorative power of God to redeem past hurts, transform the present, give the gift of a future. Remember the psalm: 7 He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, 8 the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. 9 The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow. This power is of a God who is near, who is active. That power is the bread Jesus speaks of in the parable to the woman. And how does the woman respond to the parable? What does she do with this door set before her? In her desperation for her daughter’s life, she shrewdly retells Jesus’ story so that everyone gets bread, dog and child alike; “Lord, she replied, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She trusts that Jesus will help. And while frantic and despondent from her daughter’s condition, she will humbly settle for crumbs. The story, for all of the tension in the first two acts, comes to a gentle, even understated resolution. Without any fanfare of demonstration, Jesus sends the woman back to her daughter, where she finds the daughter just as Jesus said: restored to peace and wholeness, a testimony to Jesus’ saving care.

In this story we have been given two gifts. We have been given two models. Two models to look to, to imagine ourselves as, to sustain the life of faith. On the one hand, we have Jesus, the one whose works and actions are in agreement with God. Jesus lived with a robust faith, and by it he carried out the renewing work of God. And on the other hand, we have the woman. The ‘life of faith’ she has is one of desperation, challenge, uncertainty. She is needy, yet she is open and receptive. Even in the face of uncertainty, she remains before Jesus, willing to take even the crumbs that he would give. We can find ourselves in these two people, these two models set before us. I wonder where you see yourself. Do you find yourself faithful, or frustrated? Bold or battered? Or probably you more often find yourself somewhere between. Then this story is yours to claim as your own, for you to remember and to see yourself in. We, like Jesus, are called by God to follow the way of faith and loving obedience to the God of all. But, along the way, in this live of faith we live. We, like the distant, nameless, desperate woman, can approach God; begging and empty, and His crumbs are enough.

The Cross: Looking To & Living Through (an incomplete homily)

December 14, 2014

Matthew 16:21-28

“From that time on.” With this seemingly innocent prepositional phrase, a seismic shift occurs.  The hopes, dreams, and expected outcomes of the followers of Jesus hit a brick wall, fizzle out like a candle under cup, or shatter like glass hit by a rock.  Their conceptual universe, the way they thought and hoped and imagined the world was irrevocably flipped, their conceptual universe was thrown out of its normal orbit.  Their looking and their living was redefined.

Up to this time in the narrative of Matthew’s gospel, this Jesus of Nazareth had acquired a rather distinctive reputation for being a rather distinctive person. At his divinely announced birth we learn that he will be the one to ‘save his people from their sins’ (1:21)—while an allusive saying, it is surely grounds for excitement. Later, as a grown man Jesus is baptized, where immediately following the Spirit of God descends like a dove upon him, and the voice of God declares Jesus to be his beloved son (3:17).  A special man indeed.

Following a 40 day retreat in the wilderness that caps with an encounter with the devil that shows Jesus as the one who ‘worships God and serves him only’ (4:10), Jesus finally ‘goes public’ and proclaims that God is again on the move to restore the well-being of His sinful and downtrodden people: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17).  In Jesus’ mini-epic sermon we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus lays out necessary distinguishing habits and ways of life that characterize those who follow him in expectation of the arrival of God’s kingdom; a distinctive way of looking at and living in the world oriented around Jesus’ teachings and life.  Along with the announcement of the near arrival of God’s kingdom, Jesus makes a habit of demonstrating the power of God’s kingdom through amazing acts of healing—skin disease, paralysis, and casting out demons.  As I said before, Jesus was quite the distinctive person.  Over time he gets the attention of other religious teachers and leaders, who challenge his distinctive teaching and authority. And he even later is rejected by his own hometown (Lebron James can relate, I’m sure).  And all through this whirlwind career Jesus has twelve special ‘inside guys’ called disciples who are special witnesses, and who even assist on occasion in his God-directed kingdom ministry.

And in the famous 16th chapter (and the chapter for this Sunday) Jesus takes a survey among his disciples to see what people think about Jesus and the mission he is on.  “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (16:14).  An established pedigree, to be sure.  Then, in typical Jesus fashion, he asks the big question: “Who do you say I am?” (16:15). And with a big question, Jesus receives an equally big answer from Simon Peter: “You are the Christ/Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16).  That is to say—not only is Jesus a mere messenger or third-string hired hand who’s waiting for God to make things right.  Simon Peter gives Jesus a properly royal, kingly title for the great final person who himself ultimately delivers and purifies God’s people, judges evil and brings about God’s blessing.  The government will be on his shoulders? (Isaiah 9:6) Check.  Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end? (Isaiah 9:7) Jesus isn’t simply a distinctive or even an outstanding person.  Those adjectives don’t cut it. Simon Peter says Jesus is the singularly uniquely chosen one of God.  And Jesus affirms Simon Peter’s claim and blesses him for it. Then…

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (16:21).

And here Jesus seemingly throws it all away.  Just when Jesus lets the cat out of the bag, he tells the disciples a story they weren’t looking to hear—Jesus, the newly revealed king, will die.  And what next:  Eternal kingship under God? Gone.  Restoring the greatness of God’s chosen people and place? No more.  Healing and blessing and forgiveness for the wounded, the ailing, the sinful? Lost. King….and death….do not mix.  Dead king? Dead nation. Dead dreams. Dead salvation. A christ who dies is a contradiction. It isn’t a wooden square peg in a round hole. It’s a wooden square peg in the fireplace.  The vision and life of the disciples are oriented around the coming king. And after all Jesus has done to show he is this coming king and redeemer, then to mention that he will suffer and be killed, is to throw their new way of living into question.

Thankfully, Simon Peter swoops in to do damage control by pulling Jesus aside and telling him a different story of the future: ‘This shall never happen to you!’ (16:22). But Jesus doesn’t budge. He isn’t confused or misled. As has been evident all along, Jesus’ vision and life is oriented by God.  And as much as Simon Peter got it right by identifying Jesus as the Christ, this not-so-minute inaccuracy of Peter’s shows his vision to be way off. Thus Jesus can say to Simon Peter ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns’ (16:23).

Following Jesus’ rebuke to his rebuker Simon Peter, Jesus turns to his disciples and he begins to reorient their vision and acts (or as I’ve used in this homily’s title, the ‘Looking’ and ‘Living’; I’m a sucker for alliteration)—the way they are to perceive the world and live within it.  And this reorientation Jesus introduces centers around one new element—the cross.  The feared instrument of a disgraceful death.  Barbaric. Torturous. Shameful. A naked, public, suffocating death.  Alongside their hopes for a restored nation, a purified and forgiven people, and a chosen king to bring peace and blessing, the cross stands and looms over it all.  The king will become weak and suffer and die.  Instead of negating all the beauty and riches, the cross will be the symbol they look to make sense of it all.

 

An Appreciation: Stephen Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture

 

Oh who would ever want to be king?

—Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”

I just can’t wait to be king!

—Simba, “The Lion King”


1 Samuel seemingly doesn’t have a lot to command people’s attention or affection. It lacks the pastoral charm of Genesis, the worshipful poetry of Psalms, or the level-headed practicality of Proverbs. Apart from the iconic David v. Goliath scene, 1 Samuel reads like sorry mishmash of daytime TV feuds, low-speed chase scenes, and a touchy prophet busting the chops of the new king. Or, the problem could lie in its branding; being lumped into the blandly-named “Historical Books” makes 1 Samuel destined for being picked last in gym class (or, more appropriately, for a Bible study). So based on popular perception (and my personal perception, formed from over two decades in churches) and its content, 1 Samuel is boring and irrelevant. It’s a book that’s okay not to like. Continue reading An Appreciation: Stephen Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture

“He is not here… and I won’t be around much longer either”

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.

18 In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19 After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed.

At first glance these unfortunate soldiers could be reduced to mere garnish on the side of the story of Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:1-19). But in their off-screen testimony before Herod and lamentable end they succinctly  reflect the vision of Acts: Witness about the crucified and risen Lord until your own death.

We do not have their final testimony before Herod, but what they said about Peter would have echoed the angelic testimony to the women at the empty tomb:

 He is not here” (Luke 24:6)

The Apostle Peter learned, through many trials and disappointments, to follow in the way of Jesus–preaching the word of peace, contending against the works of the evil one, and extending the hospitality of God to those near and far. And after his release from prison Peter leaves the scene of Acts with this silent concluding testimony of the soldiers, which points to and through Peter, reaching and centering on Jesus, who is Lord of all (Acts 10:36).

Instead of being mere victims of a ruthless ruler, we can see that these soldiers died a death worthy of the Lord of all, which embodies the martyrological imperative of Luke-Acts. While these soldiers merely testified about the disappearance of a seemingly mundane prisoner and were killed, to the followers of the Way it is the only death conceivable–death as a witness to “this Jesus.”