Sunday, December 10, 2017

the King bearing gifts, a prayer

The King Bearing Gifts
a prayer by Troy Cady
after Isaiah 40:1-11

………………………

Son of David, our King:

We wither like grass in times of drought
but you tend us like a good shepherd.
We fall like flowers when winter approaches
but you gather us as little lambs in your arms
and carry us close to your heart,
preserving our helpless lives.

I offer you my life in gratitude—
because of all that you are
and all that you have done.
I offer you my life in faith,
believing that you are able to continue caring for me.
And I pray in faith that
you would use me by the power of your Holy Spirit

to speak your words of comfort to the lonely,
to be your hands of comfort to the hurting,
and to proclaim to all the good news of your coming.
Help me muster every bit of strength I have
to say with my mouth and
to manifest by my life:
“Get ready! God’s near!
He comes bearing gifts.
He brings forgiveness and grace!
He brings life itself!”

So be it, Lord.
Amen.   


Saturday, December 9, 2017

"once, there were two sons..."

In the first century C.E., if you were a Jewish person living in Israel and heard someone begin a story by saying “Once upon a time, there were two sons”, you’d go “uh-oh” inside. Stories about brothers don’t turn out well. In Israel’s rich tradition-history you have stories like Cain & Abel, Ishmael & Isaac, Esau & Jacob to prove it.

Jesus draws on this tradition of rivalry in what is perhaps his most famous parable. We know it as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” but it is really a parable about two brothers, whom Jesus refers to as “the younger son” and “the elder son.” We are most familiar with the first part of the parable where the younger son asks for his inheritance, moves away from home, squanders it on wild living, comes to the end of himself and begs his father to take him back.

The father welcomes him back with open arms and throws a party for him, saying “My son who was lost is found!” The song Amazing Grace borrows its most famous line from this parable.

What we often leave out is what happens next. The parable isn’t over. While the party is going on, the elder son (who has been working in the fields) hears music and merry-making going on in the house. He discovers that his younger brother has returned and their father is throwing him a party.

He gets upset. It isn’t fair! He never left, he never insulted his father and he has labored faithfully all these years. And he has never had such a lavish party thrown for him.

He refuses to join the celebration. But his father comes out to him and pleads with him to come in the house and welcome his brother back. The parable ends with a repetition of what the father said earlier: “My son who was lost is found!”

We don’t know how the story ends because we are left wondering: Will the elder son finally join in the party? We hope he will. We hope he will find it in his heart to extend grace. We want joy for the elder son just as much as we smile at the undeserved joy the younger son has received. We realize that, if the elder son can find it in himself to extend grace and join the party, the extension of grace to another will prove to be a reception of grace for the elder son, too. Everyone wins!

Instead, we wonder if the elder son will persist in his bitterness…if the elder son will insist on winners and losers. The parable invites you and me, each of us, to supply the ending. What will you choose?

I am writing a paper on this parable and I wanted to share something with you that grips my conscience. The elder son’s heart does not line up with the father’s heart. He is so filled with self-righteousness he cannot bring himself to extend grace. The father is also righteous—but his righteousness is a righteousness of grace. The parable reminds us that grace is right, true, good and lovely.

Born-again Christians often point to this parable as a story of conversion. We celebrate it because we sing the lines from Amazing Grace in the first person. We are the younger son, we say. We are like the younger son who once was lost but now is found.

But sometimes I feel like Christians who have received the Father’s grace become like the elder son. We begrudge the Father when he gives his grace to those we think don’t deserve it. Too many Christians today are prone to look down their self-righteous noses at others. Such self-righteousness stems from a posture of ungrace. This great parable of Jesus teaches us that the Father’s grace is the Father’s righteousness. The Father’s grace is not extended in spite of the Father’s righteousness; rather, the Father is righteous because the Father is gracious.

The irony is: Christians who were the younger son but have become the elder son need to be converted all over again. Come back to the Father.

We need to remember that it is God’s grace that makes someone righteous, not judgment. Stop judging and join the party, already.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

unexpected God, a prayer

Lord,

You have done awesome things that we did not expect.
Who would have expected that you,
pregnant God,
would impregnate us?
We can scarcely comprehend your joy, mercy and grace.
Your love catches us off-guard.
You are filled with blessing,
so you birth blessing in our lives
and you will continue to surprise us.

In gratitude for all you’ve done, I offer you my life;
for all that you are, I offer you my worship.

Now, by the power of your Spirit,
prepare me for what lies ahead.
Prepare me for your second coming.
Stir in me an expectation of the unexpected.
Take my breath away, you who come on the clouds.
Shock me, thief: steal my heart again,
for I keep taking it back.
Claim me, once again, for yourself.

Amen.



Saturday, December 2, 2017

why Piss Christ matters

A disclaimer: I am mindful that the title of today's post may be offensive to some and I apologize if that is the case. I selected this title because it is a reference to an art piece by Andres Serrano who, in 1987, took a photograph of a crucifix immersed in a glass of urine. At the time, the photograph caused quite a stir as many Christians were extremely offended by it. My reflections below on this image are an attempt to re-frame how I, as a pastor, see Serrano's work as a potent expression of the heart of Christianity. Honoring the person and work of Jesus may not have been Serrano's intent, but I feel I am free to reinterpret his work because I see in it a humbling reminder of the lengths God went to in order to show his love for us. Thank you for your graciousness in understanding why I titled this post the way I did. Peace to you, Troy

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Advent starts tomorrow. I love this time of year.

During this holiday season, I am especially mindful of the mystery that Christianity presents God to us as someone who has a hometown. Christianity is about God becoming a person who grew up in a tiny, unimportant village in northern Israel.

If that fails to shock us, it’s because we’ve falsely sanctified our faith. During this time of year, we are accustomed to turning the messiness of Christianity into cute, cuddly songs and images. Mary, with her perfect alabaster skin, is magically thin again just hours after giving birth—and baby Jesus never has an umbilical cord attached to him. The straw of the stable must be clean. Surely the ox and donkey did not defecate there. The wood of the manger is nicely sanded and splinter-free.

I think we present the advent of Christ this way because our brand of holiness tends to be disembodied, pure and grime-free. We speak of God in mysterious, philosophic terms—and I do believe this is the source of our most deeply embedded heresy. We imagine a God who rescues from a distance.

“He’s all-loving and all-powerful,” we posit, “so he could have saved us any way he wanted.”  

But, when a friend is dying on the battlefield, you can’t come to their rescue if you’re still in the barracks. To rescue your friend, you have to go in there, all in. Christianity shocks us because the Commander-in-Chief becomes a private in the trenches. He removes his stars and puts on filth.

We may try to find ways to love from a distance but God does not love that way. God’s kind of love is messy and passionate. It’s more like a wet French kiss than a sweet, dry peck on the cheek. God’s love comes so close you can smell his bad breath in the morning.

The cornerstone of Christianity is the incarnation. God became flesh. We tend to emphasize the “virgin” part of the Virgin Birth, but the “virgin” part has no meaning without The Birth. Without the humanity of Jesus, the divinity doesn’t matter. Without the humanity of Jesus, God is just another Platonic Unmoved Mover.

Christianity says God is moved by our desperate situation and so he moves to be close to us. Remember this when you’re watching Star Wars this month: God isn’t a philosophy or an impersonal Force. God became a person.

This God-person, when he was an infant, produced meconium. He urinated and drooled. He had fingerprints and snot. He screamed when he was hungry. He giggled when he was delighted.

When he was a boy he skinned his knees and lost his teeth. He must have gotten sick at some point and vomited. His hair was tangled and greasy in the morning. Many boys fart and play with worms. He had dirty fingernails and smelly feet.

Think about it: he fished and made sawdust. He defecated and drank. He ate eggs and matzah, apples and figs, cheese and fish. He had chapped lips sometimes and probably smile wrinkles when he grew up. He had pubic hair and body odor.

He suffered. He knew pain. He bled and died.

Let that sink in.

God:
Bled.
Died.
Was Buried.
And rose again.
Bodily.
Yes, it was a bodily resurrection.

That matters. The heresy that most threatened Christianity in those early years was the heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics, because of their views of the body—and because they wanted to claim Jesus for their own philosophy—asserted that Jesus wasn’t really a human; he only seemed human, they said. It’s called Docetism.

But to the early Christians, if Christ was not human, they were doomed. His life, death and resurrection had no meaning if he wasn’t human. See, by becoming one of us, we now could become like God. And if he hadn’t become one of us, there was no chance for us to become like God. In fact, they believed, God became part of creation to save creation, both human and non-human creation.

God became human because humans have unique agency to steward creation well or poorly. We can destroy this planet if we want (and we are) or we can be healers, like Jesus healed. We pay the closest attention to Jesus’ healing of humans but, in his godly humanness, his healing work also extended to creation when he multiplied the loaves and fishes, and when he calmed the storm for the well-being of his friends. Jesus, as God-Man, is Lord of wheat and walleye if he is Lord of Walt and Wendy.

But, notice: he becomes Lord of Walt and Wendy by joining the gang. This King of janitors does not stay in his throne room. He becomes a janitor and cleans toilets. Yes, it is love that does this, but it is love that compels it, requires it—or it isn’t really love.

This is important to grasp because it tells us something about how we are to love. I am convinced that one of our biggest stumbling blocks is that we try to figure out ways to love people without really loving them--that is to say, without getting close. In a world dominated by social media, I actually think we often operate as if it’s possible to love others without getting close. But it isn’t and that is what God shows us in Jesus. I believe it is Karl Barth who once said, “Grace must find expression in life or it isn’t grace.” That’s the incarnation.  

This has to do with more than just Jesus. The Church as the Body of Christ is part of this great come-close, sweaty love story. The people of the Church are to be the hands and feet of God’s love.

Love closes the gap and, in so doing, widens your world. Get up close and personal with others this holiday season. It’s what God did with us in Jesus.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

help me be a servant

You, High God, have called me friend—
and so, strangely, the best I can
offer you today is to call you Lord
and me your servant.

You have taken away my shame—
and so I give you honor.

Strengthen me, Lord,
to serve others—
to honor your image
in those I behold with my eyes
and those you bring forward
to see in my mind’s eye.

Strengthen me to serve
and to honor you,
and the people you call forth in friendship
and the beauty of the world you have made.

Help me be my best self,
the self you desire.
Help me be a servant,
humble and reverent,
gentle and giving.

………….

Help Me Be a Servant
by Troy Cady




Thursday, November 16, 2017

church in pauline thinking

I am taking a class in New Testament studies and today the students were asked to pick a topic derived from the apostle Paul's thirteen letters (to churches and individuals). I decided to write on "Paul's view of the church" (or, at least, my perception of Paul's view of the church--ha!). I wanted to share my response with you because I am convinced the church of today needs to rethink what it really means to be the church. I hope you find my nerdy musings interesting and maybe helpful! -Troy

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The Apostle Paul's View of the Church
by Troy Cady

The word “church” predates Pauline usage but Paul creatively redefines it for followers of Jesus.[i] Simply speaking, it means “assembly.” In the history of Israel before the emergence of synagogues, it especially meant an assembly where all Israel gathered to hear and honor the Word of God being promulgated (as we see in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai), and for special national festivals such as Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost).[ii] Matthew records Jesus using the word “church” and in one instance it carries the same sense of “assembly” but it also decentralizes the notion as it references synagogues, which are located in various places.[iii]

Paul’s use of the word “church” draws on this motif: it is a decentralized phenomenon (churches, plural) even as it is a cosmic, heavenly reality (church, singular).[iv] This latter sense carries with it the idea that all believers, everywhere, in every time are “assembled” before God, with Christ, our Head, as Lord and exemplar of the church’s pattern of living (a cruciform life with one another and for the world).

For example, in Romans 16 Paul refers to “all the churches [plural] of the Gentiles” (v. 3b) and to “the church that meets at [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house.” (v. 3a) But in Ephesians Paul uses the word church in a more cosmic sense. The church is his body, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:22) and the church (everyone assembled before God, not just a particular church gathering) makes known “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” the “wisdom of God.” (3:10)[v]

Integral to Paul’s view of church is the coming together of both Jews and Gentiles. Biblical scholar Michael Gorman refers to Paul’s view of church as a “multicultural community.”[vi] This is a key element in Paul’s teaching because it is connected with the eschatological hopes of Israel; namely, when Messiah comes, both Jew and Gentile will be gathered together in his kingdom. Indeed, this is what God had in mind all along: that the Jews would be a light to the Gentiles and all nations would be gathered to the God of Israel. Paul believes that in Jesus this eschatological vision is inaugurated and is coming to fruition. It is happening now, but it is still growing and will reach its fulfillment in the future.

As the Gentiles are not heirs of the Mosaic Law, this begs the question as to how Jew and Gentile will come together in this new assembly. In a typical Jewish assembly (such as in synagogue), the people of God came together to pray, hear the Scripture and be taught what it meant. Gentile God-fearers could participate in this up to a point. If they wanted to be full participants, however, they needed to be circumcised and begin observing certain “boundary markers” that distinguished Jew from Gentile (such as adhering to dietary restrictions and laws of cleanliness). In Paul’s reinterpretation of church for the new community, Paul teaches that Gentiles do not need to observe these Jewish “boundary markers” to be full participants of the new assembly. Instead, the Law of God is written on our hearts by the Spirit, who indwells all those who believe in Jesus. The Spirit of Christ crucified constitutes the new Law by which the people “walk.”

Paul references the role of the Spirit in the church through comparing the church to the temple. To the Jews of Paul’s day, the temple was the locus of God’s presence, but Paul teaches that the new locus of God’s presence is in those who confess faith in Jesus. I Corinthians 3:16 highlights this and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes it clear that both Jew and Gentile (whom God has “made one” by destroying “the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”- 2:14) are being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (2:22)

This new temple indwelt by God’s Spirit serves as the center of life in Christ’s cosmic kingdom. Thus, the church consists of new citizens of a new kingdom being built by God, the kingdom of heaven. Paul’s view of church in that sense represents a kind of “historical chiasm” wherein the people of God:

a- assemble at the Temple in Israel, governed by God’s Law given through Moses
            b- assemble in synagogues, governed by God’s Law given through Moses
            b’- assemble in homes[vii], a household of faith governed by a New Law given by the Spirit
a’- assemble before God in heaven, new citizens of a new kingdom being built by the Spirit

The new kingdom takes its shape in cruciform love, according to Paul. The church is a sign and foretaste of the kingdom as God’s people embody the self-emptying humility of their Lord Jesus Christ.

With that as a basis, I hasten to note that Paul’s mission as an apostle was to “create a vast network”[viii] of churches formed by the Spirit of Christ crucified. In Pauline literature we often see Paul referring to this entire network as “the church” (singular). If Gorman is correct that Paul’s mission was to create a network of churches, we must ask the question: for whom does the church exist? God, itself, others or “all of the above”?

In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, R.Y.K. Fung asserts: “The image of the church as the body of Christ looks inward…and upward…but not outward.”[ix] While this may be strictly true as Paul writes letters to various churches to address matters of internal import, it ignores the apostolic basis of the church. Indeed, the notion of an “apostolic church” bears out the paradox of a church that exists for its own edification and for the glory of Christ while at the same time owing its existence to Paul’s obedience as an apostle to be a missionary to the Gentiles. The church is a community of “called out ones” (literally), but the church without the apostles (“sent ones”, literally) would not exist. A church that is apostolic is by definition a “called out community” of those who have been “sent out.” The church is sent. If she is not sent, she cannot exist.

For that reason, in contrast to Fung, I assert that Paul does view the church as an “outwardly-minded” assembly. The church does need to be concerned with how we live out our faith in the world, not just how we live when we are assembled in a particular place on a particular day with other believers. Indeed, the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas (notice: in Christian community) to establish more churches. In that regard, Paul, Barnabas (and others) embodied the church even as they started more churches. Without that outwardly-minded emphasis, there would be no church. Indeed, this outwardly-minded thrust is predicated on God the Father sending his Son to inaugurate his church of “sent ones.” This is the very point that scholars who promote a “missional” view of the church are trying to make and it has paradigm-shifting implications for churches (and the church) today who yet possess a mindset marked by Christendom. This missional sense of biblical teaching (including Paul’s teaching) sorely needs to be recovered. In that regard, Fung needs to revise his understanding of Paul, I feel.

It is true that when the church assembles (in someone’s home or in another place) it is for the building up of those who believe in Jesus—but it is not true that the church does not concern itself with the relationship between the church and the world. Indeed, in I Corinthians 14, as Paul is addressing dysfunction in the assembly in Corinth, he notes a sensitivity to unbelievers by pointing out that, it is better for the church (and the world) if an unbeliever can understand what is being said in the assembly. (I Cor. 14:24-25)

I propose that Paul views the church as both a witness to one another and to the world that Jesus is the Messiah—and we are to pattern our lives after Messiah’s life by the power of the Spirit in offering ourselves up as a cruciform people (for one another and for the sake of the world).



Notes:


[i] Josephus and Philo use the word ekklesia in connection with assemblies (religious or political) prior to the time of Jesus and the apostolic era. See P.T. O’Brien. “Church” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 124.
[ii] Of significance here is the LXX usage of the word ekklesia in reference to Israel “assembled to hear the Word of God on Mt. Sinai, or later on Mt. Zion where all Israel was required to assemble three times a year.” Ibid., 124.
[iii] Matthew 18:17- “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Biblical scholars note that in this text Jesus is speaking of "church" in reference to the synagogue.
[iv] For instance, in Galatians Paul says that he used to “persecute the church of God.” We know that Paul is not just talking about one church in this instance because we know he traveled all over doing this. Acts tells us he went “from house to house,” dragging off men and women and putting them in prison. In this reference, Paul views the church (singular) as the network of churches (plural).
[v] In a synagogue setting, the “wisdom of God” was made known through reading Torah and the Prophets; then, a teacher would offer an interpretation for the congregation. Paul draws on this tradition and applies it on a cosmic scale. The heavenly church makes known the wisdom of God to heavenly powers. The prophetic and teaching gifts especially come to mind here.
[vi] Michael J. Gorman. Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 41.
[vii] Or, wherever, really. Anywhere the people of God can gather.
[viii] Ibid., 41.
[ix] R.Y.K. Fung. “Body of Christ” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 81.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

blessed are those who listen

Blessed are those who hear as God hears.
Blessed are those who hear the weeping of broken hearts,
the groans of loneliness,
and the grief of loss.
Blessed are those who hear the pleas of the helpless,
the requests of the poor,
the outcry of the harassed and violated.
Blessed are those who listen closely to creation coughing
and heed her cry to be healed.
Blessed are those who hear the story behind the belief,
who close their own mouth to listen to the heart of another,
who see not through the cracked lens of judgement,
but behold with eyes of compassion and understanding.

Blessed are you, Lord, for you hear every voice
and see beyond the surface
to the very heart of it all.
Blessed are you, Lord, for you are
the Deep calling to deep.

Blessed are those who hear God’s voice
and respond simply, “Here I am, Lord; here I am.”

In that spirit today, Lord, I give you
this offering: my eyes, my ears,
my available presence, my entire being,
open and receptive—
body, soul and spirit.

Amen.