Threshold Retreat 2013 Sermon (James 1:17-27)

This sermon was for the opening worship of our retreat for incoming freshman at the University of Indianapolis.

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Learning to Wash Feet: Reflections on a Wedding Gone Right

I rarely enjoy a wedding as much as I did the wedding of Phil and Kelly Hassman. Part of it was my relationship with each of them. Kelly was one of my first students when I started teaching at the University of Indianapolis. She isn’t like every other college student. She speaks with depth and conviction about her commitment to Jesus. And she makes these terribly grounded IMG_1001decisions well beyond the maturity of woman in her early 20’s. She is the kind of young adult that makes you ready for where the church is heading.

She married this brilliant young man that I have had the joy of sharing life with for these last four years. Phil is one of the rare students that understood a call on his life to minister to me even as I ministered to him. His smile blesses me and his difficult questions challenge me. To think of these two amazing young people in mission and witness together is a hopeful thing.

But the pure joy that I get from my friendship with these two wasn’t the only reason that this weekend was so special for me. Both Kelly and Phil were commissioned by the Lantz Center for Christian Vocation that I serve as director. The climax of this formation process is a commissioning service just before they graduate in which I and my chaplain colleague, Lang Brownlee, wash the feet of the commissioned students following the example of Christ and calling them to follow Christ’s example as well.

I have washed both Kelly and Phil’s feet. I don’t know if they have ever washed one another’s feet. But I know that both of them have washed other’s feet both literally and spiritually many times. All of the high school students from Herron High School’s YoungLife, where Phil and Kelly serve, was a great testament to their commitment to service.

The pastor that married them, Jeff Krajewski, brought the image of foot-washing right to fore of their wedding. He challenged Phil and Kelly that one of the greatest ministries that they can have will be the proclamation of Jesus’ Good News as they wash one another’s feet. It will be the ground of their marriage. And their service to one another will tell us all something about Jesus’ love for the Church.

I haven’t had a chance to talk with Phil and Kelly about what was going through their mind as he talked about washing feet. I suspect that they were thinking a great deal more about the person that they were about to marry and wondering what they looked like as they stood in front of those several hundred people gathered. But I’d like to think that as Jeff challenged these two with the Gospel that is both embracing them and calling them to a deeper life, they were remembering the times when they have stooped at another person’s feet, washed their feet, and carefully wrapped a towel with care and compassion.

The call that Jeff gave to Phil and Kelly was also a call for me and lots of other pastors that the mundane things that we do to form persons….eating bread, drinking juice, serving soup, saying the Lord’s Prayer, memorizing Scripture, confessing sins, and washing feet…may come back into their lives as the most opportune time. Don’t forsake the disciplines of the faith, because washing feet may be the best way to learn how to model Christ love for the Church.

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Learning To Wash Feet: Reflections On A Wedding Gone Right

Church Discipline Done Well

In the last couple days, the following blog post about on occasion of church discipline at Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church has gotten a lot of attention.

Mark Driscoll’s Church Discipline Contract

I think a great deal could be said about whether the author has given Driscoll’s church a fair assessment or not. One of my friends mentioned that the author sounds downright gleeful that he has finally caught Driscoll in something so obviously wrong. I’m going to give Mars Hill the benefit of the doubt here and do my best to assume that the author was not generous. I actually hope that the author has exaggerated the case for the sake of this person whom the article is about.

I definitely think that the church made a giant mistake here. The problem is that it is very difficult to explain the ways in which they did it wrong by speaking strictly of the facts. And yet I think I can still say that they got it wrong even from a distance and only having the story from the one who was offended.

I’ll come back to this.

I think the problem is that church discipline is a practice. And, like so many other traditional church practices, it has so fallen into disuse that even when it is picked up again it is usually misused.

I shared this analogy with some students recently. Think about the practices of certain sports. For example, consider the precision required to hit a baseball. Something as small as 1/2 inch different placement of the bat is the difference between a pop-up foul ball and solid contact.  The difference between a ball that simply enters the field of play and one that is well hit (a home run?) is such a small fraction of an inch that I’m certain that I couldn’t explain it. Very minuscule differences exists between baseball swings in which the balls land in very different places. Now a very experienced hitter or coach is able to help a hitter refine what they are doing so that they do in fact make changes of  just fractions of an inch to improve their contact.

Now imagine for a moment what would happen to a baseball player who was trying to hit without help from someone with experience. Maybe you had such an experience the first time that you picked up a baseball bat, tennis racquet, or golf club. The resulting hit was likely no where near where you wanted it to land and you had no idea even what you had done wrong. In fact, if you have truly had no exposure to a golfer who drives a ball several hundred yards down a fairway then you likely will not even know that your rolling the ball 100 feet is not a great accomplishment.

This is the problem with church discipline. The practice has so fallen out of use that we struggle to even recognize when it has been done rightly.

I’ve not been a part of a church when they disciplined someone well, so I can’t give too much advice. But I can confidently name what the proper aims of this practice should be: reconciliation with God and the church.

Now part of the problem with naming this church’s mistake is that at least in word they understand this is the goal, as evidenced by the consistent references to a person returning in repentance.

The best I can do to explain their error is this: if the pattern that you have established provides many ways that you can find your way out of the church and only one way that you can find your way back into good standing, then something has gone awry. And if the pattern that you have established has a big and wide path towards repentance and reconciliation, only continuing in sin and rebellion should be the path to find your way out.

The church further highlighted their malformed practice when they continued to try to control this person, and even more importantly others in the community, after he had left the church. I actually think that a letter telling the church (vaguely) what had happened would be appropriate, as well as explaining the rationale of the leadership.  But to suggest that members of the church would be setting themselves in opposition to their pastoral leadership if they do not respond “as if he were an unbeliever” is a mistake.

How do we treat unbelievers anyway? Do we refuse to eat meals with them unless they will listen to us talk about repentance?  Of course we don’t. Neither should treating a disciplined church member as an unbeliever result in this treatment. Rather, we would refuse to let unbelievers into leadership in the community and may refuse them full membership.  But they must always be welcomed to worship with you and gather with you.

A friend encouraged me that we can’t critique what they did to try to discipline without offering a positive alternative. I would suggest something like this.

The church did the right thing by creating the series of “meetings” that this person went through. Having ongoing conversations and accountability that help a person put safeguards against further moral failure is important.

Some time away from church leadership responsibility is also important. My denomination would require one year away from church leadership for a minister that made similar moral failure. This man was not an ordained minister, but this might be an appropriate discipline in this case.

You cannot discipline this man without similarly disciplining the woman involved. This is an example of the ridiculous sexism present in Driscoll’s church and movement. Women too have the ability to maintain and “lead” a relationship toward holiness.

This man DID in fact repent. Assuming that the sexual sin did not continue after the initial conversations, this issue should never have gone any further. Matthew 18 only applies to those who do not listen to the admonishment. I suppose that Mars Hill could argue that “listening” would mean following their prescriptions. I would suggest that “listening” would mean responding with a heart of repentance.

I don’t think discipline should require more commitment than other members require to be regarded as faithful. Being under discipline may require more accountability. But it should not require any more involvement than is required for membership of others.

Where are my long lists of Bible verses for the above suggestions?  I don’t have any. Like the baseball coach I can only offer what I have and that is a little experience and knowledge. What we really need is a healthy community which disciplines under the leadership of the Holy Spirit in ways that are life-giving and directed toward repentance. That kind of community could “coach” us.

I don’t think Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill is that kind of community.

Christian Marriage: An Image of the Church

The following is a disputation I wrote on Christian marriage. The form is like Aquinas’ Summa. If you are unfamiliar, only the “I answer” section and below are my arguments. The previous are common arguments that I am in discussion with.
The footnotes are lost in the copy and paste from my word processor. If you would like the full document, then just comment in this post with an e-mail address.

Whether it is better for a Christian not to marry
Argument 1 It would seem that it is better for a Christian not to marry. The ascetic practice of celibacy is considered not only an act of worship unto God, but also prevents the body from becoming dependant on lustful desire. Denying the body of pleasure seems to strengthen the spirit and bring one closer to God.
Argument 2 Again, the goodness of procreation that is found in the command to be fruitful and multiply is not necessary for the Christian. New Birth has replaced the biological birth as entrance into the people of God. New Birth is how you entered the Kingdom of God and how all who will believe shall enter the Kingdom, therefore procreation is no longer necessary.
Argument 3 Again, as the Apostle has said, “the time is short” and “the world in its present form is passing away.” It is better for a person not to marry because the aim of one who is unmarried is to be devoted in both body and spirit. The married Christian is devoted to pleasing his or her spouse. The devotion of a Christian should be undivided.
On the contrary, marriage is one of God’s holy institutions founded at the creation of the world. It is good for a person not to be alone. For this reason, marriage is like a sacrament of the Church. For in marriage the grace of God is shown in and through the marriage partner. Marriage has three goods: the restraint of sexual lust, faithfulness is nurtured and grown, and procreation and the blessing of children. It follows that it is better for a Christian to marry.
I answer: Christian marriage functions as a smaller and more intimate form of the Church in both mission and function. When God created man He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” He created woman and brought them together so that neither man nor woman would be alone, and He said that the two should become one flesh. It is also written that “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” God had created them in perfect union with one another in such a way that no enmity was between them. When the created choose to sin, the consequence was that perfect fellowship was broken. For God spoke to woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” It is also written, “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Therefore, God created humanity with a desire that they would be in close community with one another and those relationships would be a blessing to them.
God instituted the church to be the reconciling agent in humanity. For the Lord Jesus Christ said, “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The relationships that Christians have with one another would be a great testimony of God’s love for the world. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “let (the) Kingdom (of God) come on earth, as it is in Heaven” and He said “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” He proclaims that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated and that is still to come. The Kingdom of God is here, and the Kingdom of God is yet coming. The perfect restored Kingdom of God on earth would have creation in perfect harmony with itself, as in the Garden of Eden story. This New Heaven and New Earth is the blessed hope of all who call Jesus “Lord.” He is coming to make all things new. If the Kingdom of God is yet coming, in what way is the Kingdom of God already at hand? This is the role of the Church in the earth. The Church is to be loving one another and trying to achieve that perfect fellowship of God’s created order. As God’s chosen communion, the Church is to be a reconciling agent of God and a witness to God’s love.
In the same way, marriage is to function as a witness to God’s perfect love for the church. For the Apostle said, “For this reason a man should leave his father and mother and be united to his wife–the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery–but I am talking about Christ and the Church.” God’s plan for marriage is to be like a small cell of the church that gives testimony of God’s love. Where the Church gives testimony to the whole world, it is surely flawed and will surely give testimony to the sinfulness of humanity as well. The marriage has a smaller witness, for it is limited to those who know the man and the wife, but the small is able to be greater, for the intimacy of the marriage is greater than that of the Church. The husband and wife are able to trust one another more fully and give themselves to one another more wholly, for “there is one flesh, there is also one spirit. Together they pray, together they prostrate themselves, together they fast, teaching each other, exhorting each other, supporting each other.” Even our local congregations recognize a need for greater intimacy to give a more full testimony of God’s love, for we continue to make smaller and smaller groups in which the church is represented, so that the levels of intimacy are greater. Where the modern church institutes small group ministries, God has already instituted the smallest group ministry of all, marriage.
On the first point: Ascetic denial of the body is acceptable for a time for the Apostle, to devote one’s self to fasting and prayer, but, unlike the Gnostic, the Christian professes the inherent goodness of both sex and the body. God created the body and he gave marriage for the two to enjoy perfect fellowship with one another. Only in this relationship can the two be truly “naked and not ashamed.” The sexual relationship of husband and wife brings glory to God as the two exist in perfect fellowship with one another.
On the second point: While it is true that the Kingdom of God no longer advances by the biological growth of the Church, growth is the inherent effect of a healthy, thriving Church. The telos of the Church is not growth, but rather loving one another and restoring that community that was lost at the fall of humanity. However, a healthy Church that is moving towards its end of loving each other will grow as an inherent effect of that healthy community. In the same way, procreation is the inherent effect of the healthy, thriving marriage. In modern times, certain people are unable to have children because of physical abnormality. This does not negate the good of the marriage, for its telos is love and witness. This inability to procreate is a consequence of the deterioration of creation that was caused by the fall of humanity. For some congregations, growth has become their telos, causing those congregations to lose their true telos. For some marriages, procreation has been said to not be a inherent effect of their relationship, denying the need for or blessing of children. Neither of the these positions participate in God’s full intention for the institutions of sacramental community.
On the third point: Celibacy is a viable option for the Christian, precisely because the telos of neither the Church nor marriage is procreation. As the Apostle has said, celibacy is a gift of God that allows the gifted the opportunity to give his or her whole self to the larger community. When the celibate gives themselves wholly to the community, the celibate fulfills the call to fellowship of marriage and the Church. The Apostle does not argue for celibacy so that the celibate can be alone for reasons of selfishness. Celibacy provides the celibate the opportunity to better serve the church, because the need is urgent. But, the Apostle recognizes this as a gift of some, not all. For he says, “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God.” In their service to the whole community, the celibate is also able to give witness to the world of God’s great love for creation. “Both marriage and monasticism are for sanctification; both involve a commitment to living with others in which one cannot escape being transformed.”

Related Post: Double Standards, Women, And The Church

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