Sermon: The Paradox of Following Jesus

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On the last Sunday of Lent, I preached from John 12:20-33. It’s the story of Jesus after his entry into Jerusalem, and this passage involves three things. First, there were those who wanted to see Jesus; secondly, Jesus warned that those who loved life in this world would lose theirs; and, finally, Jesus described what following him really meant. I used three phrases to capture these three points: focusing on Jesus, forsaking the world system, and following faithfully. Here’s the podcast of the sermon:

The Lenten Journey: Into the Wilderness

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Our services have been cancelled tomorrow — Sunday, February 22, 2015 — because of snow and ice. But, this week’s lectionary readings are so full of wonderful opportunities for reflection as we begin the Lenten season, that I wanted to share some of my sermon notes with you.

The Texts

The Gospel text for the Year B, the first Sunday of Lent, is Mark 1:9-15. This is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism and the Spirit’s “thrusting” him into the wilderness where he was for “forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Mark’s version is the shortest of the synoptic Gospels. Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer and contain much more detail, including the three temptations from the devil.

The Markan text covers three significant steps in Jesus early ministry: his baptism (v. 9-11), his 40 days in the desert (v. 12-13), and his initial proclamation of the kingdom of God (v. 14-15). A preacher could take off in any one, or all three, directions and not go wrong.

However, because Lent is often imagined as a journey, the desert experience is very appropriate for this first Sunday in Lent. Mark’s dynamic description of the movement from baptism by the Jordan to the desert describes the Spirit as “thrusting” Jesus into the wilderness.

Journey as a Universal Metaphor

The wilderness experience is not just a good opportunity for Jesus, and for us, to step back and reflect on our spiritual journeys, it is an archetypal experience known across cultures.

In his groundbreaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the universal metaphor of the “hero” and his or her mythic journey.  The hero’s journey typically involves three phases — the departure, the initiation, and his victorious return. For this text, we’re concerned with only the first phase, the departure.

Campbell believes that the hero’s movement from the relative safety of the status quo into a wild and scary land sets the stage for the journey. In his rather awkward prose, Campbell writes:

The folk mythologies populate with deceitful and dangerous presences every desert place outside the normal traffic of the village. (pg. 64)

In other words, when you leave home on an adventure into the unknown, it can be pretty scary! And on this journey into the desert, these “deceitful and dangerous presences” are often demons, devils, or human-like creatures that beguile, entice, and tempt. Campbell describes that one of the human-like creatures from Central Africa is said to try to entice the hero to fight. When the hero has the advantage of the ogre, the ogre bargains by saying, “Do not kill me, I will show you lots of medicines,” which means a kind of shamanic power. Sounds very much like what the devil offers to Jesus!

Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is a myth. However, because the hero’s journey is a metaphor known across time and cultures, there must be something to the idea of a spiritual journey or quest.

And that thought brings us back to Lent. Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was necessary for the beginning of his ministry. Likewise, we as his followers also must face head-on the reality of our own demons, and all those spiritual powers that would distract, deceive, and derail our journey.

For years I did not like Lent because I thought it was generally dreary and depressing. But without the experience of victoriously battling our demons and resisting the siren-song of temptation, we cannot take the next steps in our journey. Jesus settled his allegiance to God in the wilderness, and so must we. Anyone can serve God in the bright light of day, but obedience to God when surrounded by darkness is a learned obedience.

I also like the scene in at the end of verse 13 — “He was with the wild animals and the angels attended him.” Not only do we see Jesus resisting the devil, but after he has done so, Mark gives us a hint of paradise restored. For the first time since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a human being dwells with the animals in peace, and God’s messengers shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth attending to him.

During these next weeks leading up to Easter, we must remember that the Lenten journey from baptism to resurrection runs right through the desert.

5 Questions We All Ask About Healing

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I preached from Mark 1:29-39, last Sunday, and chose to address the issue of healing. The 5 questions that I think we all ask about healing are:

  1. Why does illness and suffering exist?
  2. Why did Jesus heal?
  3. Does God still heal today?
  4. Why isn’t everyone healed?
  5. What can we do in the face of illness and suffering?

Here’s the podcast of that sermon where I attempt to answer these 5 questions —

Podcast: The God In-Between

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Here’s the message I preached on Sunday, September 14, 2014, titled “The God In-Between.” The lectionary reading for that Sunday was Exodus 14:19-31, and continues the story of God with the nation of Israel from Abraham through the Exodus experience. Click the arrow to play the podcast —

5 Reasons to Write Books For Your Own Congregation

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Even though we are in the midst of a Christian publishing boom, writers often overlook their most obvious audience: their own congregations. I hate to break this news to all of us aspiring writers, but most of us are not going to write the next Purpose-Driven Life, or Love Wins, or any other bestseller.

But why not write a book for your own congregation? Here are five reasons I think writing for your own congregation is an opportunity waiting to be seized:

  1. You know your audience. I’m talking to pastors and church leaders primarily here, I suppose. I think the Number One reason to write for your own church is because you know your congregation. You know the struggles, opportunities, challenges, and spiritual needs your congregation is facing. You know your church’s theology, its practices, and its short-comings. Few writers get to target so specific an audience because most mass market books are geared for the widest readership possible. But when you write for your own congregation, you can tailor your subject, approach, illustrations, and suggestions to your unique ministry setting.
  2. Writing to congregations is as old as the New Testament. Could there be a better book to make the case for writing for your own congregation than the New Testament? Of course, Paul wasn’t the only New Testament writer to address specific communities. John, Peter, the Gospel writers, and whoever wrote Hebrews (if Paul didn’t) all were targeting specific Christian communities.
  3. You can publish your book for free. In this age of Amazon and Kindle, anyone can publish their book for free. I self-published my book, The Reconciling Community, for next to nothing compared to conventional book publishing costs. Actually, I could have published it for free, but I added some options like registering with the Library of Congress and getting some professional help with formatting.
  4. You can give your book away. I did not write my book to make money or become famous. That’s a good thing because I have achieved neither fame nor fortune. That’s fine with me. I published my book to make my ideas accessible to the widest audience possible. That’s why I’m on Amazon. I also published it to be able to give copies to my church. When my book was published, I offered a print copy free to any member of my congregation who wanted one. My author’s book cost is about $4 per copy, so I could afford to give it away to all who wanted it. I decided to give as many copies away to my congregation as I could because they supported me while I wrote it. The work is mine, but the time and encouragement to write came from them. In addition, a peer-learning group wanted to use it, so I donated 20 copies to our state denominational office for them. I have mailed out about two dozen copies to other individuals who expressed interest. Of course, I occasionally do sell a copy on Amazon. I’m averaging one print book and one e-book purchase per month! Not big bucks, but that small amount has almost paid for the few publishing costs I incurred.
  5. Your congregation will benefit from your writing. Whether you write a devotional guide, a Bible study book, a church history, or Christian fiction, your congregation will benefit from your writing. They will get to know you as an author, in addition to being their pastor. They’ll be able to share your work with their family and friends. And, finally, they will grow spiritually from your helpful writing. Just like Paul, you can offer guidance, correction, instruction, and encouragement, in the form of a book, to those closest to you — your congregation.

I enjoyed the experience of writing a book for my church so much, that in September I’m going to start another one. This time the congregation is going to help me gather information and insights from our church’s 157-year history. Together we’re going to write a new church history. But, this won’t be the typical “buildings, baptisms, and budgets” review. Instead, I have divided the church’s life into 7 eras from 1857 to 2014. We’ll look at each era, and examine the context of world events, local culture, and church life as a whole. The point is not just to record our history, however. The primary purpose is to examine our history in order to reflect on when and how we have been successful in our ministry, and when we have missed opportunities along the way.

The scheme for doing this involves taking each Wednesday night from September, 2014 through May, 2015 for study, presentation, and research. Congregational members will help by providing stories, photographs, and artifacts from each era. In addition, we’re utilizing the research available to us through the Virginia Baptist Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia. The goal is to have a published book containing our annotated church history, plus our dreams for the future.

The working title for this project is Cast a Wishful Eye: The Memories, Hopes, and Dreams of Chatham Baptist Church. I took the phrase, “cast a wishful eye” from the grand old hymn, On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand. I thought it was an appropriate image for our reflection on the past and gazing forward into the future. Here’s a link to the entire outline, if you’re interested in doing something like this in your church.

I would encourage you to consider writing for your own congregation. Both you and your members will benefit. And, you won’t have to ask all your pastor friends to write a review on Facebook. That’s reason enough for me!

Podcast: It Wasn’t You, It Was God

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This is the message I preached on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Taken from the lectionary reading, Genesis 45:1-15, it’s the story of Joseph and how God intervened to save both Joseph and the nation of Israel. It’s a great story with wonderful insight into how God transforms us and our circumstances as part of God’s plan for our lives. The podcast is about 26 minutes. Hope you enjoy!

Communion Sermon: You Should All Eat Together

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This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 1, 2014. The point of the sermon was to address an issue in the way we were observing communion. Our children were downstairs in Children’s Church, and when communion was served, they all wanted to participate. I thought that parents should be involved in deciding whether or not their children took communion. So, in this sermon I address the history of communion from the early church in 1 Corinthians 11 through the Reformation and the formation of Baptist congregations. While I believe that you can make a case from Scripture for including children at the Lord’s Table, my point is that this decision ultimately is up to parents. If you prefer to listen to the sermon, the podcast is here

A Problem With Our Practice

This morning, if you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. This is not the lectionary reading for today. But, I want to address a concern that I have because an issue has come up in our observance of the Lord’s Supper here. It particularly has to do with our children. I’ll explain more about that momentarily. But, let me tell you what has prompted this message, and why we’re having the children join us for the communion portion of the service today.

As you know, our practice has been that we do not have a children’s time on communion Sunday because Communion takes an extra amount of time in the service. In the past, our children have stayed downstairs during the entire service, where they have their own Bible study, activities, and snack. [However, the result was that both children and workers missed communion.]

A couple of years ago, our deacons started taking Communion to the nursery and to the adult workers there — which I thought was a very good idea. And, because we had older children in children’s church at that time, the deacons would also serve communion to those children who had been baptized, per our Baptist tradition. And that seemed to work for awhile.

However, Erica came to me several weeks ago with a concern. She said the problem they were having was that all the children wanted to take the bread and the juice, too, along with the adult workers.

I remember when our granddaughters were younger than they are now. Maggie and Vivian were in the service sitting with Debbie one communion Sunday. Maggie was about three years old at the time, and as the bread passed her by she wasn’t very happy. Then, as the juice passed her by, she looked at Debbie and said, “Little children like juice, too!”

So, the issue of whom to serve communion to in the nursery became a very difficult issue for our deacons. And they did what I would have done — they did not refuse anyone who wanted to partake of the bread and the juice when they served communion downstairs.

But it concerns me that our children are not involved in the worship context of communion. It is one thing to have a quick, standup distribution of the bread and the cup, as a deacon reads from First Corinthians. But, it is another thing altogether, I think, to be here with the full community of faith as we go through the ritual — and I use ritual here in a very positive sense — as we go through the ritual that we observe, very carefully handling the elements and distributing those; and, singing; and, reading the words of Scripture; and, then reading responsively the litany during our observance of communion.

That’s the issue that has brought this to our attention in the service today.

After this message about communion and after the choir sings, all the children will join their families here in the sanctuary. And, together families will decide what is appropriate for their children as we take communion together. That is the bottom line that I’m coming to this morning.

Celebrating Communion The Wrong Way

Let’s read what Paul says about communion in his letter to the church in Corinth:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further directions. — I Corinthians 11:17-34 NIV

 We have these words of the apostle Paul, giving instruction about how the Lord’s Supper is to be conducted. This is, for all practical purposes, the only glimpse we have into the New Testament church about the manner in which they conducted and received communion.

Paul is making two points, I think. The first point is that the Lord’s Supper is a communal experience. The second point is that they aren’t observing it in a worthy manner.

Apparently, in the first century Corinthian church, they bought more than just bread and wine to communion. Paul said they brought the equivalent of a covered-dish lunch. Because the Corinthians were primarily pagans before they became Christians, they had not come out of Judaism. They had no shared history of the Passover meal. They did not understand the symbolic nature of that meal, and consequently when they came together for communion, they brought a lot of food.

Obviously, Paul says rich members were bringing more food than those who were not wealthy. Some of the Corinthians apparently brought nothing because they were poor. Then, rather than sharing, every family had their own little picnic lunch. One group had a lot to eat, while other groups had nothing, as they are celebrated together the Lord’s Supper.

Paul said, “That’s not right.” And he says, if you do that, you are eating and drinking the Supper in an “unworthy manner.” When we take the Lord’s Supper, we think of examining ourselves, and we often think that means examining our own life and understanding our shortcomings.

But, primarily what Paul is talking about here is their relationship to each other. He is concerned that they were not aware of each other. When Paul writes about not recognizing the body of Christ what I think he means is not recognizing each other in the communal context with which they were taking the Lord’s Supper.

This whole passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is about taking the Lord’s supper by recognizing that the individuals gathered are the body of Christ. To take the Supper in a worthy manner is being aware of others, so that everyone has equal access to the table of the Lord.

Communion Foreshadowed In the Gospel of John

With that backdrop, I want to talk a little bit about communion. You know from reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke — the synoptic Gospels — we have pretty much the same picture. The Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples is the Passover meal. It reflects the Old Testament record of God’s deliverance of Israel. When Jesus celebrates the Passover, he does so as a Jew, as a participant in the Jewish heritage he shares with the disciples.

But then, during that Passover meal he does something different, very much like he did when he talked about the law. Jesus would say, “You have heard that it has been said…” and he would talk about whatever commandment that was. Then he would add, “…but I say to you…” and he would have them look at it in a new way.

Jesus is doing the very same thing with the physical elements of Passover. He reinterprets them so that the bread becomes his body, and the wine becomes his blood. It is a symbolic re-imagining of what this Passover meal will mean for those who are his followers.

The Gospel of John has a very different take on the Last Supper than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John does not record any of the “Eucharistic words” that the other Gospels have. He doesn’t have Jesus breaking the bread and saying, “This is my body, take and eat.” Nor does he have Jesus say about the cup, “This is the new testament in my blood. As often as you drink this, you show forth my death until I come, again.”

John doesn’t record any of those details. What John does is very interesting, however. John’s Gospel was written after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is the latest gospel written, just as the Book of Revelation, also written by John, is the last book written in the New Testament.

What John does is present Jesus and the Supper in a different way. That last encounter with Jesus and the disciples goes on for several chapters. Their last time together included the Passover meal. What Jesus does there, though, is talk about the place he is going to prepare for them in John 14. Then, he talks about the coming of the Spirit in John 15. Then, he prays for their unity in John 17. And in the midst of all that, he washes their feet and talks about servanthood. So John gives us a very different picture of what happens in that Passover meal.

But look back at John 6, where John does several things that are interesting. The sixth chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000. John 6:4 says, “the Jewish Passover feast was near.” I’m convinced that the Gospel writers say things intentionally. I don’t think John just was telling us what day it was on the calendar. I think John connected the feeding of the 5,000 to the Passover meal.

In effect, what Jesus does when he feeds the 5,000 is a Passover meal for common people. He takes the elements that God has provided of the five loaves and the two fish in the little boy’s lunch. Despite the lack of faith of the disciples, and the puzzlement of the 5,000-plus who were gathered there, he breaks the bread and blesses it.

Then, the disciples distributed the bread and fish to the congregation gathered on the hillside. And you know the story: everybody had plenty to eat. Afterward, they gathered up 12 full baskets of leftovers – one basket for every disciple who said he had no idea how to feed that many people.

That is a picture the abundance of the kingdom of God, the provision of God, and the feeding of God’s people by God. It is not explicitly communion, but many biblical scholars believe it prefigures the experience of communion.

The Christian church would understand this idea contained in the feeding of the 5,000 because John was writing later in the first century after the Church was established. They would understand that it was about Jesus being the bread of life, and they would remember that at their own observances of the Lord’s Supper.

Later, in John 6:26, Jesus and the disciples went to the other side of the lake, and the crowd followed him. Jesus answered them in verse 26: “I tell you the truth, you’re looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for that which spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give you, on whom God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

In John 6:32, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who was giving you the bread from heaven which was manna, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. So they said, ‘From now on give us this bread.’ Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life…” You can read the rest of that passage where Jesus said those who eat this bread have eternal life. John takes us to communion by way of the feeding of the 5,000, which in addition to men, included also women and children.

Then, Jesus says in John 6, “Unless you eat this bread and drink this cup you have no life in you.” That is a very important symbolic act.

Communion Changes Over the Centuries

By the second century in the New Testament church, however, communion has become something very different. It has become what one of the theologians will call “the medicine of immortality.” The elements are transformed from being symbolic to being supernatural. They are believed to really become the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. Roman Catholic theologians call this transformation of the bread and wine, transubstantiation — a kind of a mystical alchemy. They believed that even though the elements still appeared to be bread and wine, but they were supernaturally transformed into the real body and blood of Christ.

From that change the church decides that it must limit those who can take the body and blood of Christ. Church services where communion is offered become exclusive. The priests eliminate those who are not fit to receive communion, whether they are Christians or not. Those who have violated church law in the judgment of the priest, are banned from the communion rail.

Eventually communion is restricted even further to the point where the priest alone takes the wine and distributes to the worshippers only the bread. That is done to avoid accidentally spilling the blood of Christ.

Now back to us Baptists. Baptists, after the Reformation, took a different tack. Baptists decided that in addition to the reforms the reformers brought, that only believers could be members of a church. Baptist further believed that each church was separate and independent. So Baptists believed that once a person was baptized, then that person could take communion. But every Baptist church was an entity unto itself and was not answerable to any other church. That’s where the idea of closed communion came from. Communion was closed because each Baptist church believed that you should only take communion with your own congregation. They literally would close the doors of the church to keep out anyone, including other Christians, who were not members of that particular congregation.

In the 20th century, some Southern Baptist churches continued to practice closed communion, but most moved toward open communion. In open communion, anyone who was a baptized believer, whether from that church or not, could receive communion. Ultimately, many churches like ours, invited all to the Lord’s Table. That’s a very brief history of communion.

Children and Communion

So then, what should be said about children and communion? There is ample evidence in the history of the ancient Church that children participated in communion. Saint Augustine said of babies, “They are infants, but they are His members. They are infants, but they receive the sacraments. They are infants, but they can become participants at His table so they may have life in themselves.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, infants have long received communion. And Pope Innocent I said that little children should be given the Lord’s Supper. He even tells them how to do it: “in a liquid form of the Lord’s blood or in the form of bread crumbled and mixed with water.” (These historic examples are from the book, Take Eat, Take Drink: The Lord’s Supper Through the Centuries by Ernest Bartels.)

That sounds very different to us because Baptists have said historically that only those who have been baptized should receive Communion. That, of course, usually excluded our youngest children.

However, I think there are a couple of things we need to remember about communion. First of all, it is meant for community. We talked about the manna that Jesus referred to from the Old Testament. That was God’s gift to the whole community of Israel. Secondly, the feeding of the 5,000 included men, women, and children. I’m sure they fed the boys and girls because the lunch came from a little boy.

After Pentecost, when the early church met together there were no nurseries or preschool departments. I’m sure their children were with them when they “broke bread.” Many scholars believe that “breaking bread” meant sharing communion. I believe, although I can’t prove it, that because children were considered part of the family of faith they shared in communion. If households converted together, like the Philippian jailer’s household, I believe they took communion together.

In Conclusion

In closing, there are three things I want you to remember about communion. First, it is a community experience. While it has meaning if taken individually, it is primarily an experience for the church gathered together.

Secondly, communion is supposed to focus on Jesus, not only whether the elements become something or not. The focus is on the elements as representative of the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Third, I think the intention is to include rather than exclude people. Two things lead me to that conclusion. First, Jesus’ practice of table fellowship when he ministered was inclusive.

Communion originates directly from table fellowship at the Passover. But in Jesus’s earthly ministry, he was accused by the religious leaders of his day of having table fellowship with those who were unrighteous and unclean. Jesus ate with the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the outcasts of society. His table was open to everyone.

The second reason is Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about children. At one point, parents brought their little children to Jesus to have him bless them. The disciples were trying to keep them away because they thought Jesus was too busy for children. But Jesus set the disciples straight, and I think there is no getting around Jesus’ attitude toward children. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me, and do not stop them, because of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

So, where does that leave us? I think that leaves us right back where we started earlier. I think we ought to celebrate communion as an entire church. So the boys and girls are going to join us after the choir sings in just a moment. I believe it is up to your family, not to a tradition, which may or may not — depending on how you read Scripture — have a biblical basis.

I see the table of Christ as inclusive, not as exclusive. Boys and girls may not understand everything we are doing. But, by inviting them to that celebration, they feel included. And, they grow up knowing that they are a part of God’s family, the community of faith.

If that is not what you believe, that’s fine. That’s why I want to leave it to the families of our children to decide whether or not they want their children to participate. I am not going to keep a child from taking the bread or the cup. But, you as parents may have very good reasons for wanting your children to wait. That is a question that I think we must experiment with and try out together.

So, today this is an experiment. If you have strong feelings about this, please talk to me later. But we’re inviting our children to join us today. And during this service, parents, that will be your decision as a family as to how your children participate. They will be in here participating with us, but it will be your decision as to how they will participate.

Let’s pray together.

Podcast: “You Should All Eat Together”

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The Apostle Paul criticized the church in Corinth for the manner in which they observed communion. Last Sunday, I preached from Paul’s letter by reading I Corinthians 11:17-34 in which he accuses the Corinthians of failing to be aware of the body of Christ around them while they took communion. In this sermon, I also address the issue of children taking communion. How does your church practice communion, and what are the theological and historical assumptions behind your tradition? Here’s the sermon —

The Supreme Court Redefines Civic Prayer

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If you think the Supreme Court’s ruling on public prayer is an unqualified win for Christians, you might want to reconsider.

On May 5, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “ceremonial” prayers opening government meetings do not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment.

The justices split 5-4 into the familiar conservative versus liberal wings, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the deciding vote and writing the opinion.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy noted that prayers at public events enjoy a long and accepted history in this country. He also noted that these “ceremonial” prayers are part of the pomp-and-circumstance of government proceedings, and are meant to lend an air of solemnity and gravitas to the occasion.

My own community of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, along with many others, will find much to applaud in today’s Supreme Court ruling. Several months ago, our local Board of Supervisors faced a similar challenge when it was sued for allowing sectarian prayers to open the meetings of the Board of Supervisors. Now that the community of Greece, New York has been vindicated, many will believe a celebration is in order.

But before we join the party, shouldn’t Baptists everywhere be concerned with the ruling’s fine print?

Historically, Baptists have struggled to keep government out of religious practice. However, with the Supreme Court’s ruling today, the majority of justices not only redefined prayer as part of the ceremony of civic life, they also set limits on its place in the public square.

Justice Kennedy referred to the prayers in question as “ceremonial.” In the written opinion he states, “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”

Do we as Baptists define public prayer as part of the ceremony of the moment?  Is civic prayer a public protocol like the Pledge of Allegiance or “Hail to the Chief?” Or do we Baptists, along with other Christians, define prayer as the invocation of Divine presence, blessing, or guidance?

Furthermore, I have never heard a Baptist or other religious leader suggest that the purpose of public prayer is to acknowledge “religious leaders and the institutions they represent.” But Justice Kennedy writes that this is the acceptable “purpose and effect” of civic prayer.

If that were not enough to cause us concern, Justice Kennedy draws clear lines defining the acceptable content of public prayers.

Kennedy writes, “In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no con­straints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative ses­sions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites law­makers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

In other words, civic prayer has to fit a pattern of acceptability as defined by the Supreme Court. This test of acceptability includes prayer’s place in the opening ceremony, its “tone,” its content, and its purpose.

While polite etiquette might rule out prayer that is not “respectful in tone,” Justice Kennedy also ruled out prayer meant to call lawmakers to confession and repentance. The prophet Elijah would find himself unwelcomed to offer prayer in Greece, New York, just like he was unwelcomed to offer judgment on King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in his day.

Before we celebrate a victory for prayer today, we need to ask ourselves as pastors and religious leaders if we find it acceptable to craft our public prayers by criteria defined by the Supreme Court.

With the Supreme Court’s ruling, Christians are now in an ironic position — we have the right to offer public prayers which have no heavenly purpose.

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