Thursday, March 28, 2019

Worship: Are You Experienced?

I noticed that lots of churches today are calling their Sunday gatherings an “experience” rather than a “service”. Changing the names of doing things Christians have done for centuries is a peculiar characteristic of the American Protestant branch of Christianity.  It is one thing that unites both liberal and conservative Christians in this country. It probably has to do with the fact that the United States religious landscape is characterized by competition and we are all trying to get an edge to help our congregations grow.  I understand that changing the descriptor of worship from service to experience is usually done for evangelistic reasons.  The idea of having an experience may seem less threatening than performing a service to people who have demands on their time coming from all directions.

However, worship is the primary action of the Christian community, so we should really take a step back and ask ourselves, is this a good thing?  Does the word experience communicate what we are seeking have happen in our worship?  We should also ask the same question of service.  I would start by taking a looking at our sources and see what they say about what our worship should be.

St. Paul gave a quick model for worship in his dialog with the Christians in Corinth: What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (NRSV)  So, is this experience, service or something different?

To the Christians in Rome Paul would describe worship in the following way: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Romans 12:1 (NRSV) This one seems move us in the direction of service.   One doesn’t just attend worship but presents oneself as a sacrifice.  But still I think there is more than service going on.

In John 4, Jesus has a dialog about worship with a woman at well in Samaria: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  John 4:23-24 (NRSV) Do the words experience or service capture what Jesus is trying to communicate to this woman who was need of acceptance and healing?

If you asked me which term is more biblical overall, it would be the word “service”.  Forms of the Greek verb λειτουργια are used about 15 times in the New Testament and it can be translated as “to serve” or “offer service” and used on several occasions to describe worship.  The English word “liturgy” which traditional churches use to describe worship, is the loan word derived from this New Testament term.

Words that can translated to the English word experience occur 10 times in the New Revised Standard Version.  The King James only uses them 4 times.  No Bible translation uses the word to describe worship.  So, calling worship “an experience” is obviously a modern innovation.  That need not be deal breaker if we keep to the core of what our worship should be but does it?

My gut reaction to using the word experience to describe worship is a negative one.  The word is too passive.   It has connotations of entertainment and its goal seems selfish and unfulfilling.  It is too much like going to a concert or watching a movie and worship should be more.  Yet, I must admit that as a pastor one of the blessings in my current ministry is “experiencing” the ministry of our worship leader and team he has assembled to lead our congregation in song.  On countless Sundays over the years I have had to drag myself out of bed wondering how I could face the congregation I serve, only to have the worship inspire and encourage me to give. So yeah, part of great worship is the experience.

Even though the word service has a Biblical basis, I think it also is lacking.   Worship is not just about what I can bring to God, it is what God can do with, for, and to me.  If it is only about what we do, then worship can become drudgery.   Unfortunately, I have witnessed this happen when we in the church make too many demands of those who attend.   In summary, I suppose we should be careful about limiting the phenomenon of worship to the words we use to describe it or qualify it.

My choice for the congregation I currently serve is to let the word “worship” stand alone. I no longer use words like traditional or contemporary to qualify it.   Keeping it simple helps preserve the idea of majesty and even mystery.  For worship in Spirit and Truth that Christ describes will always be more majestic than our words.   Worship should be “an experience”, but remember we are saved for a purpose which means it should be a “service” to live out our call.   In all its unfathomable majesty worship should encourage, challenge, stimulate, comfort, heal, and all kinds of other things.   For indeed our best worship is when we meet and come face to face with the unfathomable God.

As we come into the church’s great season of worship, I pray that worship in your congregation may be so wonderful as to be indescribable.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht

Thursday, June 21, 2018

3 Misconceptions About a Pastoral Vacancy

A church in a pastoral transition can be an exciting community with a sense of anticipation about how God will work to bring about a fruitful and blessed future, or it can be a place of foreboding where people worry about what has been lost.   Some churches may find themselves stuck in the middle neither going forward or back.  To keep your congregation healthy it is best to lay some myths about churches in pastoral transition aside.   Here are three common ones I have seen over the years.

1. We need to wait for our new pastor to do ministry.

The apostle Peter tells us.   But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9 NRSV) Each person in your congregation is called to his or her own discipleship path, each is given unique gifts by the Holy Spirit to use to help others and give glory to God.   That does not change in a transition of leadership.   Indeed, this can be a time when you can discover gifts you never knew you had.  We can see this during our worship each Sunday.  The word liturgy means service of the people, not just the pastor.   Think if you had a hymn and only the pastor sung it.   It would not be as beautiful as if the whole church sang it together.   Education, Community Service, Evangelism and Stewardship work the same way.  The work of the church belongs to all.  The church that keeps up momentum becomes a more attractive church to potential candidates to be your pastor.

2. We can't do anything new until we get our new pastor.

This is patently false.   A congregation with its ear to the ground can start new initiatives at any time.   For example, if you have previously relied on your pastor to follow up with visitors, the pastoral vacancy is an opportunity to become a more welcoming and hospitable church by having lay volunteers set up a process to welcome newcomers to your community.  In addition if your church does not have a prayer group, a pastoral vacancy is great time to start one.   A gathering of 5-6 people to pray for God to open the door for the right leader is a great step for any congregation in transition.  Committing  to prayer will help the congregation ask the right questions and be willing to look at new possibilities that God may provide for the best possible future.

3. No one will join until we get a new pastor. 

People join churches for many reasons, not just the pastor.    People usually stay in churches because of the connections they make within the congregation.  People that do not have two or three strong connections in the church usually drift away over time.   A church in transition can attract new people to their community if they are hospitable and welcoming.   If there is someone you don't recognize, just ask for his or her name and strike up a conversation.   Your church may have the best location,  size, worship style, Sunday school, youth group, or Bible study for a potential member.  So this is a great time to invite a friend to church, they will meet the wonderful people of your congregation.  A church that prepares to grow will more likely grow than a church that just sits back and does the same old thing.

A congregation needs to prepare for its new pastor.

While it is critical for congregations to look at their finances, the state of their parsonage, and paint the pastor's office to get ready for a new pastor, the most important way to prepare for a pastor is to tend to ministry.  The more things that the congregation can learn to handle during the vacancy will help free up space and time for the new pastor to use his or her gifts for the benefit of the church when he or she arrives.  There is one final myth I would like to bust, which is: a new pastor will grow our church. Churches grow when pastor and people work together to prepare an environment where growth can happen. There is no reason for the people of a congregation in transition to wait to do their part.  The funny thing is s church preparing for the future is more likely to see blessings of the present.   A pastoral transition can be a time of fun and excitement as the people pull together for the sake of the Gospel. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Bible Challenge

I challenge you to read the Bible in 2018. Not parts of the Bible, the whole thing. “We must learn to know the Scriptures once again… as our fathers knew them. We must not grudge the time and work it takes. We must know the Scriptures first and foremost for the sake of our salvation. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

To be a Christian is to be a person of the Word of God. We were called into a relationship with God through the Word. As we say in the Lutheran Church, it is the source and norm of our faith. It is the place we go to find out about how we should deal with the central issues of life. Contemporary culture may not hold the Bible in high esteem, but that is to its detriment; it need not be ours. We have the gifts of God given to us through the Word, we must not throw them away, or relegate them to dust covered bookshelves in the spare bedrooms of our lives. Our life and our salvation is the most precious gift we have, therefore the Word should have pride of place.

Yes, the Whole Enchilada!

While every person of faith has parts of the Bible they like better than others, it is important to read the whole story so that we may know the strengths and weaknesses of our faith. We can at times place ourselves in a spiritual feedback loop, which constantly confirms long held beliefs without question or introspection. This happens often with devotionals that only use individual verses, or churches that only follow a lectionary with narrow range of the wider body of Scripture. Focusing on pieces of Scripture to the exclusion of the whole story of salvation can stunt the growth of a faith life or leave one ill equipped when life brings new challenges. Holy Scripture does not consist of individual passages; it is a unit and it is intended to be used as such (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

Christians are People of the Book

To be a Christian is to be in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We cannot do that without the reading of Scripture. “Consecutive reading of biblical books forces everyone… to put (oneself)… where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of (people).” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together) In other words, God’s story becomes our story, and yes vice versa our lives become part of God’s story too. Regular Bible reading changes who we are and that can be a blessing to others and even the entire world.

As one who reads history often I can tell you that so many of the blessings that we have today were inspired by those who steeped their entire lives in the biblical story. From things such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, to the freedom of individual conscience, the story of God’s salvation inspired those who fought for these things. “The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451) I challenge you to be a Bible person (not a thumper) one who lets God’s story breathe through their life. As you will read in the Gospels, Jesus lived in exactly this way; just look at how many times he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures.

How to Start

If you have not read the Bible regularly before, I encourage you to begin by reading 1-2 chapters continuously of the New Testament daily beginning with Mathew’s Gospel and ending with Revelation. By doing this, you will complete the New Testament in well under a year. As Christians, we read the rest of the Bible through the eyes of Christ, so this is the best place to start.

If you have some experience with the Bible, perhaps a chapter of the Old Testament read continuously, with a Psalm, and when you finished them, a chapter from Proverbs, followed by a chapter of the New Testament. You will not finish the Bible in a year, but will have read the majority of it.

To complete the Bible in a year you can google a plan, there are many available, or you might read 5-6 chapters of Scripture a day. It is important not to get bogged down when you get to those sections of Scripture that can seem monotonous, such as descriptions of the temple furnishings, genealogies, or obscure parts of the Torah. It is important therefore to have a mix of Old Testament and New Testament readings. It is also OK to skim these parts, as long as you aware of what you are leaving out. The goal is the familiarity with the big story of the Bible. I hope that this can be blessing for you in 2018 and you too can let the story of God breathe through your life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Church at the End of Its Power

Does the Church Still Have Power? 

Like most of my colleagues in established so called mainline Christian denominations, I have bachelors and masters degrees, like many I have a doctorate. I also went through a gut wrenching multi year formal process to be ordained in order to serve the institutional church. The thing is that I now find myself serving an institution, which is seeing its power being diffused.   The church up the road has multiple people who carry the same titles as I do, but without the training, degrees, background checks, and accreditation.   Many weddings today are presided over by people who merely paid a fee through Paypal and received a pdf certificate to download.   Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, is not as important to me as answering the question, do we who serve the church still have power?  If so, how do we use it to further the mission of the Gospel.  How do we give hope to those who are hurt by the world if our power seems to be as sand running through our fingers.

The economist Moisés Naim in his 2014 book The End of Power explores the change in the nature of power in our current age.   Power is not ending so much as being diffused through three trends going on in world today.  The first is that there is more of everything, more nation states, more companies, more people, for us in the church there are more types of churches and sects.  The second is that people worldwide are highly mobile.  The growth in immigration  to our own country is just a small part of this. Multicultural cities today are found in surprising places as a result.  Who knew that Ft. Bend County in Texas would be just as diverse as Queens, New York? The result of this is that it is harder to appeal to cultural norms when people come from so many different places. The final trend is that there is a mentality shift going on in the world.  Institutions once seen as a positive good are more and more viewed with distrust.  The individual is more likely to be literate and have a higher education level than previous generations.   Thus, many feel less need to have questions settled by institutions (like the church).   The rise in "alternative facts" seen the past few years is emblematic of the downside of this trend.

Naim calls these three trends revolutions and maintains that they are indeed turning our world upside down by eroding traditional barriers to power.   The upside is that groups that never had power before now have ways to advocate for their needs.  The downside of this is less stability for society as a whole.   People are becoming more distrustful of their government, corporations, schools, mainstream science, doctors, the media, and established religions.

Naim defines power as the ability to direct or prevent the current and future actions of others.  He argues that traditional bastions of power still have it, they just have less of it, and they have more restrictions to using it.   So how we use what power we have left is critical.   Do we use it to protect eroding privileges?  Or do we use our power to fashion a ministry that speaks to the current and future generations?  Using the work of Ian McMillan of the University of Pennsylvania Naim argues that there are four channels of power that those who have power use to influence, guide or control others.   I will outline how the church as I see it is able to use these channels for its remaining power for good or ill.

1. Muscle 

This is a channel of power that seeks to prevent people from behaving in ways the institution dislikes.  It is coercion through either the use of physical force or application of law.  Now there was a time when the church in the late medieval period would field armies to enforce its will, but thankfully those days are long gone.   There was also a time when the church could regulate when people conducted business, or what they could eat and drink.  Now churches have trouble getting even their most active members to show up on time. However, churches still have vestiges of this channel of power in their books.   Most congregations that have constitutions have a provision for the discipline and even exclusion of members, as well as a process for removing clergy and staff.

Most clergy learn pretty quickly that the church has less access to this channel than past generations. When it is no longer a cultural badge of honor to be Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, or even Christian, the threat of exclusion from a congregation means little. We live in a religiously pluralistic world where there is always another faith community down the road.   Often those who are friends with the person excluded have little to hold them to the congregation after the conflict ends.   So the price for a congregation to use this channel is steep.  There are still times when people who are harming the community need to leave, but that has to happen in more delicate ways than it did in the past and that is a good thing.   As communities in Christ we are called to protect the dignity of all, and that is always difficult when using raw coercive power.   Scripture, prayer and conversation should always be engaged when thinking about how we use our power especially in times like these when cultural tensions are high.

2. Code 

The use of tradition and morality to check or influence behavior is one channel of power that the church continually uses to influence not only its members but society at large.   When conservative evangelicals advocate for the abolition of abortion or abstinence from sex before marriage they are making an appeal to a moral code.  When mainline Christian groups advocate for the rights of immigrants they are using the same channel of power by appealing to the moral rightness of their cause.  When I was first ordained, the push for weekly communion was still going on in our denomination, this debate was really about the question of "is this the right thing to do?"  Those who resisted weekly communion also appealed to a moral argument, the need for the local congregation to have the freedom to tailor its worship life to its local community.

As uses of power that attempt to restrict our behavior code and muscle often work together.   For example when churches advocate for causes by organizing demonstrations, they try get as many people as they can to show up.   Provocative signs with slogans designed to put the opposition off balance are carried and rhythmic chants to fire up the crowd may be devised.  These demonstrations with some very rare exceptions are non-violent.  This does not mean they are without some muscle. In order to get the attention of the wider community a little muscle is required.  Remember even Jesus used code and muscle in combination when he overturned the tables at the temple.

While many Christians have qualms about the church using force,  they may not see the dangers apparent in appealing to code.    Sometimes the codes that our communities construct can damage the very people we are trying reach.  Speak with those wounded by the church, and one will often find that it was the community's traditions, attitudes and arbitrary standards that caused the pain.  Early in my ministry, I had console a low income mother who had just been accosted because her child wore beat up sneakers under the acolyte's robe.   These were the only shoes he had.  My unproven thesis is that more people have been pushed away from Christian community because the abuse of code than any other power channel.

It is clear that our communities need to appeal to a code of how to live a proper life within that community, but care should be taken in communicating what the code actually is.   Any code we come up with has to be in line with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.  The Sermon on the Mount or John 8 come to mind as aids along with prayer and witness to help decide if our traditions and codes are clear, inclusive, and merciful. 

3. Reward 

Sometimes when we need to encourage behaviors we like, we use rewards as a tool to make it happen. Parents teach their children to take out the garbage in return for an allowance; sales managers give bonuses and commissions.   When death was more up close and personal for people the promise of heaven as the ultimate reward, could and did change behaviors.  But in a time when people live longer and longer lives of increasing comfort, the spiritual rewards can seem less present than they have in past generations.

There is an old joke that goes: "What's an Episcopalian? A Lutheran with money."  This showed that there were social, as well as material rewards in addition to the spiritual rewards for belonging to certain congregations.  In the Puritan colonies of New England church leadership was a well trod path to political power.  People still do join religious congregations for networking reasons and to be with the "right sort of people" but many of us are seeing this dwindle as the popularity cultural Christianity continues to wane.

Despite current trends, this channel for power is still used regularly by many pastors and their congregations.   The most obvious, the "prosperity Gospel," which promises financial and material blessings for right belief and right behaviors.   The church growth movement of the late 20th century used marketing tactics to offer rewards to congregants such as food courts, exercise classes, day care and the like to encourage people to attend and contribute to their community.  Many mainline church startups geared towards immigrants use ESL classes as the hook to get people to be a part of their congregation.   Every congregation can appeal to some type of reward for being part of their Christian community.  The question is are these rewards given as grace?  Or are they used to manipulate the faithful?

4. Pitch 

"Perception is reality" the old saying goes.  Changing how people see things can give them new incentives to adapt behaviors or change directions. Advertisers can make a pitch to make us think that we need something and then we go and buy it. I really don't need a smartphone, but somehow I have come to think I can't live without it. I brought into the tech world's propaganda.  

The more perceptive among us may argue, is this not what we do when we get up to preach every Sunday?   Are we not working with a Biblical text to encourage our audience to see the world and God in different ways? Yes, we are.  In fact, this is what I am trying to do by writing this essay.  The goal of this piece is to consider what kind of power our communities have, and how can we use it in ways that help people. We are making a pitch.   This is the most important channel of power we in the church have. St. Paul wrote in Romans 10:17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (NRSV)   We are using words to change reality.

As the Gospel does this, however so does the world.  Part of the reason we are where we are is that people have made a pitch and many have believed it.  People have heard the pitch men and pitch women of the world claim that only material matters, or only what is practical is important, or it's all someone else's fault,  or they are not as deserving as you, or we are exceptional and others are not, or you can have whatever god you want.   The devil knows how to make a pitch, he's been doing since the garden.  The devil suckered Eve, and she suckered Adam.  Viral marketing is much older than we think.

However, the Word that Jesus is Risen, changes things for real.  The Gospel, that we can be part of the kingdom has the power to renew our lives for the better.    Our most precious gift is the promise of the Gospel.  There is a single common humanity. Jesus became human to prove God is with us in our humanity.   Instead we believed the pitch of world and put him to death.   God raised Jesus to prove, that we will not be let go so easily.  God will love us no matter what.  We can be with God and others in wholeness and peace, even into eternal life.  We can love others by giving them hope.

Yes, the church still has power, but that power does not belong to us, it is the province of God.   So our most important work is tending to life of the Gospel in our congregations.  Proclaiming it to our neighbors, while living it out ourselves.   Our preaching will continue to be vital.  It must be sourced, prayed over, and worked at.  Because we are are making the Pitch.  This is not our Pitch, but God's and its heart is John 3:16-17.

We in the church will always have power because we have hope in the Gospel. We will need to demonstrate the truth of our pitch by living it ourselves, so we need to feed the hungry, pray for the sick, uphold the dignity of those despised by society.   It is what the church has done at its best whether it has temporal political, economic, social power or not.  Indeed the temporal manifestations of our power will wax and wane over time, but the power of the Good News of Jesus Christ never ends.  I am advocating that rather than lament earthly power lost we embrace God's power won by the cross and resurrection.  Indeed this is the day the Lord has made, and we are called to seize it.

Be blessed

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What's your Luther Movie?

Next Tuesday PBS will be presenting the film,  Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World and I will probably stream it sometime after it comes on line.  I have seen two previous films dramatizing Luther's life.  I remember the countless screenings of the the Film Martin Luther (1953) in the church of my childhood.  The reels were brought out with care and shown on the congregation's 16mm projector.  In 2003, the film Luther starring Joseph Fiennes was released as an independent film with funding by Thrivent. We held DVD showings at the church I was serving at the time and for a few years we watched it during confirmation sessions.

These three films are all in the same genre.  With wardrobes that that appear to be made from draperies that have come from the sale bin at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and a location that eerily looks like Epcot, the actors enthusiastically speak the dialog in British English to underscore the immense seriousness of it all.  With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I would like immagine what a more creative reboot of the Luther story could be.

1. Reformation: The Final Frontier (space opera) 

The Diet of Worms would be set on a space station in geosynchronous orbit of the planet Worms, which is named for the the giant creatures who burrow under the sands of its surface.  House Habsburg holds the Diet in the Zero-G court room   When asked to deny his writings Luther says "Here I stand!"  Von Eck the papal cyborg with a positronic brain, in laconic inflection, simply states "Sir, you are floating"

Losing the debate on a technicality, Luther screams "Eck!" in his best Wrath of Kahn voice as he is whisked away by a recognizable action star and his fuzzy alien sidekick to the Wartburg system. When Luther expresses doubt about the structural integrity of the getaway vessel, the swashbuckling pilot replies "It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. I've outrun Imperial starships!"

2. You've got Beer (romantic comedy) 

Katie and Martin are set up on a blind date by a couple of colleagues from dissolved monasteries. Although he arrives with flowers, Martin's oafish nature grates on Katie. While Katie's concern for minutia drives Martain crazy as he with increasing intensity constantly tries to get her to listen. They leave the Bierstube despising each other.  

Throughout the film they keep running into each other at awkward moments.  As Martin and Katie go on series of dates with other prospective partners they begin they realize something is missing.  Katie's fashion conscious male friend tells her to suck it up and get her man.  After many ups and downs the film climaxes with a wedding montage scene with a romantic pop song in the background. The film ends with Katie, Martin and their golden retriever living happily ever after. 

3. West Saxon Story (musical)

Come on! If they can make a musical about the failed parisian revolution of 1830 why not the Reformation? The Sharks (Roman Catholics) and the Jets (the Reformers) battle it out in dance on the Wittenburg Markplatz.  The forbidden love of Marty and Katherine gives plenty of  opportunities for heart wrenching solo vocal performances.  Can you say "Oscar and Tony!" 

4. Weekend at Marty's (bromance farce) 

During an alcohol fueled party with loud Funk music in the background Phillip Melancthon storms into Charles Vth"s bedroom and startles Marty and Katie from their embrace to let them know that they can't wake up Fredrick the Wise.   

With Fredrick dead the entire reformation is in jeopardy.  Phil and Marty decide to grab a pair of sunglasses and a wheelchair and drag Fred from party to party throughout the Holy Roman Empire.  With so much low brow humor, one countless acts of physical comedy, no one will remember the plot anyway.   Would love to cast Vince Vaughn as Luther and Adam Sandler as Melanction, or we could just hand the project over to the producers and cast of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 

5. Night of the Living Peasants (zombies!) 

The evil arch-villain Thomas Müntzer camps out in Southwest Germany and develops a potion that turns good Christian peasants content to serve both their temporal and heavenly masters into flesh eating zombies.  Camped out in a Thuringian pub, Luther and gang crack jokes and kill zombies in all types of creative ways.   When Luther sees zombie Martin Bucer riding in from Strasbourg, he tries baptizing his old friend in a desperate frenzy to save him. As Bucer regains his senses and returns to his normal annoying self,  the gang breaks out the liturgy and some fire hoses. Germany is saved!

Ok, so you've seen these movies before.  That is the point of this post. I have seen this Luther movie before.  "That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; (Ecclesiastes 3:15 NRSV) The best way to commemorate the Reformation will be figure out how to be the faithful church in the future, because if you studied the Reformation, you know that is what it was all about.  A Film about the diversity of our church today would be much more exciting.

Be blessed.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dave's 95 Theses

A Devotional Exercise

The 500th anniversary of the reformation is this October 31st.   On that date in 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 theses for an academic debate discussing the fundraising practice of granting indulgences used by the Roman church at the time.    The issue he raised in this debate was the spark that enabled the Reformation of the church to quickly spread throughout Europe and transform the theological, historical, political, sociological, economic, cultural and artistic landscape of western civilization.  

As my way of commemorating this milestone, I decided to come up with my own 95 theses.   (A word of warning, mine are a lot more random and less focused than Luther's) Basically, I tried to say 95 things about my faith.   Each one is sourced with a biblical reference to show that the statements I made spring from up from the wellspring our faith and are not my mere opinions.   I would not call them facts either, because other people of faith will read these verses and come up with different conclusions than I have.  What they are is my humble attempt at a witness to the work of our Lord Jesus Christ and the challenges he calls us to consider. This was harder than I thought it was going to be, and I hope that by sharing it can be a blessing to you. 

1. Since Jesus is the way the truth and the life, Christians are called to act as if Jesus meant what he said and that his words truly matter. John 14:6

2. Jesus doesn’t belong to me; I belong to Jesus. John 10:11-18

3. Jesus understands me because he is human. Galatians 4:4-5

4. Jesus can save me because he is God. Colossians 1:15-16

5. Jesus’ humanity means that God can identify with anyone’s life situation, classification or identification. Jesus’ divinity means that these things can be transcended. Colossians 3:11

6. God wills that we can rejoice in the life given to us no matter what happens. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

7. God is acting in today's world. Psalm 121:4

8. We are called to love God above all and to love all people as we love ourselves. Matthew 22: 27-40.

9. Consuming religious services or products is no way to be confused with actual discipleship of Jesus Christ. Mark 8:34

10. There is a single common humanity created in the image of God. Upon this fact all teaching about salvation rests. Genesis 2:27

11. Religious, political, cultural, gender and racial classifications do not affect anyone’s value in God’s eyes. Galatians 3:28

12. Diversity is a tangible expression of God’s good creation. Colossians 1:16-17

13. Monocultures lead to destruction. Genesis 11:6

14. Those who equate a political, cultural, gender, religious or other humanly created identity with actual faith in Jesus Christ betray the Gospel, divide the body of Christ and torture the consciences of the faithful. Revelation 7:9

15. Those who hold a different political, cultural, religious or other identity than ourselves are to be treated with love, dignity, and respect. Matthew 5:43-48

16. Using degrading or abusive language to put down or gain advantage over a person of different political, cultural, gender, religious or racial identity is in all circumstances sin. Matthew 5:21-26

17. Followers of Jesus are called to love, care for, and provide acts of mercy for those of different, religious, political, cultural, gender and racial classifications than themselves. Luke 10:37

18. The church should care for its own as well as serving others. James 5:13

19. We are to witness Jesus Christ to all people without exclusion. Matthew 28:18-20

20. God understands your fears and will not discount them 1 Peter 5:7

21. People are always good and bad mixed up. Every individual has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23

22. There is no such thing as a completely pure or innocent person. Psalm 51:5

23. If we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, we must learn to forgive others as God has forgiven us. Matthew 18:21-35

24. If we are truly followers of Jesus Christ we must commit to living a life where we do not continue to sin. Romans 6:1-4

25. When we sin, followers of Jesus Christ are not to hide the truth, but bring our situation to God and other people for healing and forgiveness. 1 John 2:1-2

26. We are called not to kill because life belongs to God. When we make allowances for killing for any reason we subvert God’s will. Leviticus 17:10-12 & Exodus 20:13

27. War, capital punishment and abortion are always expressions of humanity’s bondage to sin. Christians should work to minimize their occurrences while demonstrating love, forgiveness and mercy to both those who commit and are affected by these actions. Matthew 5:38-42

28. A commitment to God means providing for others in need at every stage of their lives. Luke 6:27-36

29. A commitment to God means a commitment to the poor. Galatians 2:10

30. A commitment to God means a commitment to the sick. Matthew 25:35

31. A commitment to God means a commitment to the hungry. Matthew 25:35

32. A commitment to God means a commitment to the homeless. Isaiah 58:7

33. A commitment to God means a commitment to the imprisoned. Matthew 25:36

34. A commitment to God means a commitment to the refugee. Leviticus 19:9-10

35. A commitment to God means a commitment to the immigrant. Deuteronomy 26:5

36. If you give to others to make yourself look better; you may be doing more harm than good. Matthew 6:2-4

37. No one is entitled to grace; it is always a gift. Ephesians 2:4-6

38. Good works do not make good people. Galatians 3:10

39. People are created to do good works. Ephesians 2:10

40. People don’t get credit from God, only grace. Romans 3:21-26

41. Debts to God are not satisfied but forgiven. Colossians 2:12-15

42. In the end, love and justice will amount to the same thing. Galatians 5:13-15

43. In the end, Christ is the only judge who matters. Revelation 20:11-15

44. Good works may not save us, but they reflect our faith, spread the Gospel and let our neighbors know that they are loved. James 2:14-17

45. God is completely free to act in any way that God chooses. Isaiah 45:7

46. God is not subject to any theology, interpretation, expectation or abstract concept. Isaiah 45:7

47. Collective human actions stand under God’s judgement as much as individual actions do. Amos 2:6-8

48. Only God decides what justice ultimately is. Isaiah 28:17

49. Worship without a commitment to justice is not worship at all. Isaiah 58:6

50. How our actions affect the most vulnerable in our society is the most important criteria for making moral decisions.. Isaiah 10:1-2

51. Worldly prosperity or success is not necessarily a mark of genuine discipleship, evidence of faithfulness or of God’s special favor. Matthew 5:1-12

52. Our weaknesses, hurts and faults make room for God in our lives. 2 Corinthians 12:9

53. No individual has the exact same spiritual gifts as another. 1 Corinthians 12: 4-6

54. Exploiting the work, bodies or assets of others violates the will of God. Isaiah 65.25

55. Those who rejoice in the troubles of others damage their relationship with God. Proverbs 17:5

56. Suffering for remaining faithful to the teaching of Jesus Christ is a mark of genuine discipleship and evidence of faithfulness. 1 Peter 3:13-16

57. Our practices of faith are virtuous when they seek communion with God and hope for our world. Matthew 6:1-16

58. Our faith practices are required to be understandable to all and welcoming to everyone so that each person we encounter has an opportunity to hear the Gospel. 1 Corinthians 14:21-25

59. Our houses of worship are to be called be houses of prayer and not market based institutions. John 2:16

60. A genuine life of faith is lived in community with other people. 1 Corinthians 12:27

61. Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to be a blessing to the local communities where they live. Jeremiah 29:7

62. Leadership in the body of Christ should be focused on service rather than power. Luke 14:10

63. Leadership in the body of Christ is to be shared among all the faithful. 1 Peter 2:9-11

64. Leadership in the body of Christ requires exemplary conduct. 1 Timothy 3:1-12

65. Leaders of the body of Christ should expect to be called to pray for others at any time. James 5:14

66. Where your ultimate concern lies, there is your god, no matter whom you may confess to worshiping. Matthew 5:19-23

67. Like individuals, the church is both good and bad mixed up. Acts 15:1-11

68. A complete Christian life includes worship, community, education, and service to those in need. Acts 2:42-47

69. Faith belongs in the home just as much as the church. Acts 2:46-47

70. Government led prayer is not sanctioned by Jesus. John 18:36

71. Praying for our government is commanded by scripture. 1 Peter 2:11-17

72. A disciple of Jesus is to be part of the public life of his or her country. Romans 13:7

73. Demons cut off people from the rest of the people of God. Mark 5:2-5

74. Healing requires social inclusion. Mark 5:19

75. Sexuality should be expressed within a boundaried relationship 1 Corinthians 7:9,36

76. Every follower of Christ is a priest. 1 Peter 2:9

77. Jesus was a victim of mob violence. Mark 15: 11-15

78. Jesus was killed with the help of the law of the land. John 18:30

79. The Holy Family were refugees Matthew 2:13-15

80. The Holy Family was homeless. Luke 2: 7

81. The Word of God is much more than Bible trivia. Hebrews 4:12-13

82. If it has to be proven, it can’t be faith. Hebrews 11:1

83. Jesus was killed because people who knew better did not stand up for justice. Luke 23:24

84. Jesus did not go to the cross because we were good; he went because we are loved. Romans 5:6-11

85. Compassion that leads to physical and tangible acts of assistance to the vulnerable and rejected is the norm for expressing our faith. Matthew 25:45

86. Persecution is not an excuse for withdrawing compassion, if it were, then Christ would not have died for us. 1 Peter 2:21-25

87. One can’t love God without loving other people. 1 John 4:20-21

88. No one can count the number of all who are saved. Revelation 4:11-14

89. Those inside the church need to hear the Gospel just as much as those outside of it. Revelation 22:16

90. Of course divorce is a sin, which means it can be forgiven. Matthew 19: 7-9

91. Renewal through Christ is not a one time event, but a lifelong process. 2 Corinthians 4:16

92. Being wealthy is not evidence of competence or superiority. James 5:1-6

93. Neglecting to address the physical and tangible needs of the vulnerable and focusing exclusively on the spiritual is sin. James 2:14-17

94.The best prayers are when we pray from our inner voice. Matthew 6:5-6

95.Jesus is inviting you to be in relationship with him. Revelation 22:16-17

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Serving Christ in Polarized Times

It is a sad fact that often the church can become bogged down in the political movements of the times.   The reason for this is certain, churches are made up of people and people are political animals.   One recent trend reported by sociologist Robert Putnam is that when there is a conflict between one's politics and the teaching of their religious community, most people will resolve the tension in favor of their political views.  They will leave their congregation and find one where their personal political views can be affirmed.

As one who loves theology and talking about the faith, the fact that for this generation, politics seems to trump theology is distressing.   Yet, looking at how people are coming together these days it is not surprising.   We are all retreating into our bubbles where we all agree that the problems of world are someone else's fault.   There seem to be few of us who want to learn why do other people think differently than us.   Everyone seems to want to talk, prove and sell their point; few want to listen, learn, and change.   Don't get me wrong there are people doing this but they seem not get much press.

Some will advocate that the church follow a hands off rule and never speak of politics ever and attempt to spiritualize everything.  While I certainly understand the impulse, there are two problems with this.   The first is a very practical one, by not speaking up one affirms the status quo.   Now this certainly alright if the status quo is something you feel God is calling you to help maintain.   However, if it comes merely from a wish to avoid any of the hard work of dialog or difficult conversation, one may be actually shut oneself off from where God is calling us all to be.

The second problem is that we are confessing that the Word of God has nothing to say about politics right or wrong.  This reasoning ultimately confesses that God is about the world to come and not about the world we live in now.   This is not what Scripture teaches us,  God's Word speaks to our lives now, it has something to say about our world today. So how do we navigate these polarized times? We do what we always do; look to Jesus.

Historians know that the lists of the names of Jesus's disciples reveal a diverse group of people who likely held opposing political views.  Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot may have been part of groups seeking the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation.  Matthew was a tax collector working to uphold same said Romans.  Phillip had a Greek name so may have been from a cultural accommodationist family.  Johanna the wife of one Herod Antipas' (a Roman puppet ruler) court functionaries helped provide resources for Jesus's ministry in Galilee.  Peter Andrew, James & John were working class fishermen. What brought this diverse group of people together was Jesus and the promise that the kingdom was near.

As we enter into Holy Week and read the accounts of Jesus' last days politics are everywhere in texts. The council wants to get rid of Jesus out of fear of the crowd on one hand, and the Romans on the other.  The Roman governor wants to appease the mob at their town hall meeting.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees try to make Jesus a pawn in their fight for supremacy over each other.   Jesus ends up rising above their pathetic petty power plays to reveal the truth about the love of God.

When Jesus enters into Jerusalem he is at first hailed as a political messiah and then condemned as a political sacrifice to appease the Romans, with an ironic political insult nailed on a sign above his head. But notice how many people Jesus ministers too along the way.  He teaches in the temple about the true nature of God,  he reminds the disciples on the last supper they will never be alone.  He heals the ear of a man sent to arrest him,  he makes sure John and his mother Mary have each other to rely on.

Jesus calls us not so much to rise above human politics as to move beyond them with love.  The heart of the witness Christ is to help reconcile our relationships with God and each other.    This politics can never do, because in the end it will be all about a competition for resourses, power, or fame.   In the end we serve Christ in polarized times by holding to proper priorities.   We hold to our relationship with God in prayer, we show love to those who differ from us, and we work to protect the vulnerable.   This can be done by conservatives, as well as liberals, progressives, and libertarians.

As a pastor I can only advise that if your politics are grounded in prayer, thoughtfulness, respect for others, and love, it doesn't matter so much where you come out.  It is the process the counts.   It we have healthy ways of discernment, we can hold together a diversity of political views and identities under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.   The reason for this is if we are connected to Christ we will be humble, because Christ is humble.   If we are humble then we are open,  and if we are open, we may see the solutions God has for us staring us right in the face.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht