Friday, March 7, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: Why?

I'm not a sports fan so correct me if I'm wrong but it seems to me that there are more hours of TV time devoted to the run up to the Superbowl than to the game itself. I know for a fact that the rehearsal time preceding a school or community theatre play is a lot longer than the amount of performances you give. Movie preproduction can go on for years before shooting begins. The actual filming may take as little as a month or 2. To do something special takes a lot of preparation. Which brings us to Lent.

The special event Lent prepares us for is Good Friday through Easter. In those 3 days, Jesus gave his life to redeem the world, was laid in the grave and then rose from the dead. That is so unprecedented, so pivotal to his plan to save the world, such an amazing demonstration of the extent of his divine love that simply taking a mere week to prepare seems inadequate. So, echoing Moses' 40 days receiving the law from God and Jesus' 40 days being tempted in the wilderness, we spend 40 days thinking about what Jesus did for us and what our moral and spiritual response ought to be.

There are a lot of traditional spiritual disciplines that are urged upon Christians during Lent: self-examination and repentance, for instance. Lent is a good time to take stock of who and what you are and what direction you are going in. And if you need to change that direction, this is a good time to turn things around, the literal meaning of “repent” in Hebrew.

During this time, it is traditional to give something up. Since Jesus fasted during that 40 days, people often give up certain foods. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, Christians are supposed to give up all meat, provided this doesn't endanger one's health. In the West, people give up trivial stuff usually—chocolate or snacks or the like. A recent trend has been to give up electronic distractions, like Facebook or Twitter, which probably is good for one's mental well-being and frees up one to do a lot more with one's time.

Besides self-denial and fasting, Lent is traditionally a time to take on or increase the time devoted to a spiritual practice, like prayer, and reading the Bible. (By the way if you read 1 chapter a day of Mark, the first gospel to be written, and after you've finished that book, 1 chapter a day of John, the last gospel written, that will take up 40 days.)

There is one key practice, though, commanded us by Jesus himself, that I don't see urged upon Christians at Lent, and that is evangelism. Before he ascended, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” The Baptists didn't dream evangelism up. Jesus told us to do it!

This raises questions, which will we deal with throughout Lent. But today I want to start with what I think should always be the first question: why? People ask: why foist our opinions about God and how to live on others? We live in a pluralistic society. Why bother people?

Before I answer that question, I want to look at some of the underlying assumptions that phrasing of the question reveals.

First, there is the assumption that Christians are alone among putting their beliefs out there. That is patently not true. Political parties are not shy about putting their opinions out there. People who are pro-abortion or pro-life are not hesitant to assert their opinions. Pro- and anti-gun control advocates are hardly reticent about their positions. People who are for better nutrition or against child abuse or against domestic abuse or against animal abuse or for clean water or for freedom of speech or a number of other important issues will not remain silent. If we really believe that following Jesus is not merely important but essential for one's spiritual health and healing as well as for the good of society, why are we not at least as outspoken as these other people?

Because we don't want to be obnoxious. Which is a good point but that really speaks to how we do evangelism. As a nurse, I've seen what smoking can do to a person—how it can cause cancer, emphysema, heart disease and other life-threatening diseases. But will harassing every smoker I see be very effective in changing their minds? I doubt it. That doesn't mean I shouldn't ask compassionate questions about how smoking is affecting a friend when he or she coughs and hacks his way through his smoke break. That doesn't mean I shouldn't pass on information about smoking cessation programs when an acquaintance mentions they really ought to stop smoking. That doesn't mean I shouldn't be alert for situations in which it is natural to discuss it such as when someone is pregnant or concerned about their child's asthma or when they see someone else's health deteriorate due to the habit.

The other assumption I want to address is the idea that we are merely foisting our personal opinions on others. That should be avoided, obviously, unless someone asks our opinion. But just as saying smoking is bad for you is not an opinion but a fact, so asserting that loving others and being grateful and having a purpose in life and having a strong faith in God and belonging to a loving community are good for us are not just opinions but scientific facts. Yes, there is plenty of research showing these things are beneficial for both our mental and our physical health. People who do these things and have these attitudes tend to live longer, get sick less, heal faster, have lower blood pressure, and are happier. In one eyeopening study, it was found that even among smokers, those who attend church regularly are healthier than those who don't! That's the impact of the spiritual on the physical.

This puts a whole other light on the matter. By spreading the word we are offering people something helpful and healthy. And of course if we really believe Jesus this is something that will not only help them in this life. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In today's pluralistic society, that is usually labeled as exclusive. And it would be if it in fact meant that out of all the perfectly good and basically interchangable groups of believers, only our little club will get to heaven. But this is no more exclusive than saying if you want to get better you need to go to the doctor and you ought to make it the right doctor for your condition. If Jesus is God and we were created through him, and if we are spiritually sick, then saying people need to go to him to get fixed up is no more discriminatory than saying if you broke your custom-made prosthetic leg, you need to take it back to the person who made it. And if our problem is that we are estranged from God because of what we have done, it is not discriminatory to say that we must go to him to get reconciled. Only if Jesus is not who he said he was but just another thinker, and one who was drastically wrong about his central role in the universe, can we disregard what he said about being the only person to go to in order to be saved and to be reunited to God.

So the moral reasons to tell others about Jesus are because (1) we should be concerned for the spiritual well-being of others and (2) because Jesus told us to. I know we don't like to do things just because we are told to but we are talking the Son of God here. If your boss told you to do something you would, especially if he wanted you to tell others that he is here to help them. And that is ultimately what we are telling others. That Jesus is here to help. If they don't want help or don't think they need help, we are not under an obligation to force them to accept help. We are not talking about the Crusades here. We are not making conversions at swordpoint. Nobody is being shanghaied. We are simply telling people that Jesus has helped us and will help them if they'd like, the way you would recommend a good doctor or good car mechanic.

Ah, but what's in it for you, some people might ask. And it's true that there are practical outcomes from our church growing. Our church, like 2/3s of the churches in the country, has less than 100 people. With more people we could do more ministries, like, say, for kids. As it is everyone who is active in this church is wearing more than one hat. It would be nice to have more heads to distribute the hats to. If we had more people we could have more impact on this community. I love Big Pine Key but we don't have much here for the needs of the people in this community. It would be nice to do something for our neighbors like the Food Pantry at the Methodist Church. If we had more hands we could make a bigger difference in the lives of our friends and fellow citizens.

Another thing more people could contribute to our church is money. Ah, there's the ulterior motive, people might say. Religion always comes down to money, they say. But you might as well say that about Wesley House or AIDS Help or the Domestic Abuse Shelter or Heron/Peacock Supportive Housing for the chronically mental ill. If you think commercial enterprises are all about money and non-profits and charities aren't often thinking about it, you really should join the board of one or work for one. Just like a commercial concern, you also have to keep the lights on and pay salaries and get things repaired and do maintenance and buy supplies. You have to have insurance and comply with local and state and federal regulations. Some of that can be done or supplied by volunteers. But a lot of it requires money. And much of what we provide is intangibles, things like hope and faith and comfort and wisdom and guidance and acceptance and love, that are essential but which are not quantifiable. We can't sell more faith to cover a budget shortfall. Movie theaters and sports arenas and museums and theme parks charge fixed prices and people are fine with paying $20 or more to go to them. We don't charge. We ask you to give what you think God would want you to give. Apparently a lot of people think God is a cheap date.

We could go back to the old model of colonial days when people paid for pews and rich people had boxes around their pews to keep others from sitting with them. But we don't. Because as Jesus said, “Freely you have received; freely give.” The gospel, like the salvation it offers, is a free gift from God. I didn't become ordained to become wealthy. Which is a good thing because that ain't likely to happen either. I have no Lexis or Rolex or $1000 suits or million dollar mansion. I don't need them. I do this because I love serving God. And I want to share that joy with others, that good feeling of helping those in need, those in pain, those who are anxious or fearful or grieving. I see lots of people who look like they could use Jesus in their lives. More than I alone can handle. So as Jesus said, we need more workers for the harvest.

There are lots of reasons, spiritual and practical, why we should share the good news of what God has done in Christ. There are a lot of good reasons why evangelism is to be considered a vital spiritual discipline and thus a good thing to adopt at Lent, as well as year round. But what really flummoxes us is how to share it. That's what we will discuss in our next Wednesday service.

Before I close, I want to put this out there for you to think about. Jesus used a lot of metaphors for the Kingdom or coming Reign of God. Many of them were about agricultural things, weeds and seeds and soils. But when he included people in his parables a recurrent metaphor for the Kingdom is a wedding banquet. He did his first miracle at a wedding banquet and he did it in order that the celebration not be spoiled by a lack of wine. And Jesus referred to himself on occasion as the bridegroom. To Jesus the Kingdom of God is like a Wedding Feast, the biggest, most joyful event in the life of a village such as the one he grew up in. So I'm calling this Lenten series “Invitations to the Feast.” Because inviting people to come to Jesus should not be drudgery, but like inviting them to a great party.  

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