Monday, June 19, 2017

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Risky Family Business

Sermon from College for Bishops "Living our Vows" Residency

Richmond, VA

June 2017 

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Faith and Culture- June 2017 Diolog

Faith and Culture

A missional church is forever pondering how we engage with, reject, immerse, or flee from the cultural context in which we find ourselves. We believe that God is reconciling the world to God’s Self and that we are active participants in God’s mission. This realization forces us to wrestle with how we most appropriately envision and engage the world around us.  

Certainly, the Episcopal Church, like the worldwide Anglican Communion, has varied opinions on the matter. Perhaps no theologian, historian, or cultural exegete has influenced Episcopal clergy more than H. Richard Niebuhr is his seminal work, Christ and Culture (Harper & Row, 1975). The book has long been considered a historical, literary, and religious masterpiece as it surveys over one-and-a-half millennia of Christian history in an attempt to understand the different ways that Christians have pondered God’s mission and it’s relation to culture. Any student of history or literature would love the book.

Niebuhr begins with, “Belief in [Christ Jesus] and loyalty to his cause involves men in the double movement from world to God and from God to world” (29). He defines culture as a combination of “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values” (32).  Niebuhr then offers different ways in which Christians have gone about engaging the culture around them in an effort to be faithful to God’s mission.

The first he calls Christ Against Culture. In this model, an immovable wall separates the Christian community and the surrounding culture. Historical figures who exemplified this position include Tertullian, Leo Tolstoy, the Mennonites, and many of the earliest monastic traditions. Niebuhr is quick to critique this perspective because of its failure to honestly face the impact and fluidity that culture plays in the life of Christian community. It is also prone to legalism, scapegoats culture, and misses out on God’s interventions within human history, and thus within culture.

The second model he offers is Christ of Culture. In this view, Jesus is immersed in culture as a great wisdom teacher. The vocation of the Christian community is to take Jesus’ place as such within the wider culture. Jesus is seen as “the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace” (92). This view lends itself to a civic-oriented God who is identified with the goals and objectives of the state. Niebuhr cites the ancient Gnostics, Abelard, Albrecht Ritschl, and much of Protestant liberalism as falling in this typology. However, there is a problem with this perspective in Niebuhr’s view. Namely, Jesus is quickly coopted by the culture and the church quickly succumbs to idolatry (110).

We then arrive at Christ Above Culture. Niebuhr delineates between two postures within this one perspective. Some thinkers, like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas, focused on reason, redemption, and nature. Others, such as Martin Luther and Sören Kierkegaard, emphasized revelation, redemption, and grace. Niebuhr rightly saw the manner in which this model easily fell into unnecessary dualisms, not to mention a passive acceptance of the culture, which Christ was seen as being somewhat removed from.

Niebuhr’s last foray into the subject is Christ the Transformer of Culture. Here God is clearly seen as being above culture: judging, acting, and moving to transform people, culture, and the world. Theologians like John Calvin and F. D. Maurice represent this position. Creation is broken, but God is moving within culture to redeem and make all things new.

My brief synopsis does not do Niebuhr’s text justice. My hope is simply to bring to light the different lenses by which we are prone to see and thus engage the culture around us. With respect to the question of which model is most faithful to God’s mission, Niebuhr rejects the idea of a “Christian answer.” He even says that all of our missionary efforts are in the end “fragmentary.” (236) I suspect that Niebuhr is right, and I wonder about how different contexts influenced the different ways people saw and engaged the world. It is with this thought in mind that I wish to ponder the context in which we find ourselves right now.

I believe that we are still coming out of a great age of Christianity called “Christendom.” Modernity is giving way to postmodernity, where the institutional church is no longer the center of the culture. We are in an environment that the institution has not faced in recent memory. Our current systems, forms, knowledge, and tools are inadequate for our context. Furthermore, choosing just one of Niebuhr’s models will not help us be faithful to Christ’s mission in this new and foreign environment.

We live in a world where Christianity is seen as simply another brand in a long line of religions and political perspectives where both “truth” and “alternative facts” are produced. Indeed, in our context “anything goes” because all macro-narratives that seek to capture the fullness of reality are rejected the moment they make such a claim. Many experience our world as fragmented, and I fear that we may need to fall deeper into volatility and uncertainty before hitting the metaphorical bottom.

Yet, we know that God calls us to engage the world. Like fisher folk standing at the Sea of Galilee with the risen Lord urging us back into the mission field, we are not sure where the journey and walk with Jesus will take us. We are unclear what sacrifices will be asked of us. It is from this place of genuine puzzlement that we stand and survey the world around us. We know that God in Christ Jesus has invited us to partner with Him in mission, and so we take our first brave and courageous steps from this unknown place where the future is uncertain.

As we engage the world around us we can be certain that we will find all kinds of hate, fear, brokenness, depravity, greed, and every manner of sin. But we will find joy, too. We will find love. We will find people to share our hope with and people who will give us hope. We will find that our God is with us and we will see mighty and miraculous deeds done by God and in God’s name.

At the end of the day, faithfulness to God’s mission is not about choosing the right model for engaging the culture. It is about being the right sort of missionary, people willing to risk getting it wrong time and time again because we love the messy journey of partnering with God in mission as we engage the world that Christ is critiquing, immersed in, above, transforming, and above all else saving all at the same time. 

The June Issue of the Diolog is available to read here. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Expanding and Contracting Church Mission

Pentecost Sermon, June 4, 2017 

St. David's, Austin

Grace, Georgetown 

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball