Nice House. Who Built It?

Listen to the audio here…

Before I begin, I want to offer a few words of gratitude and background.

First, thank you for welcoming me to your congregation and this pulpit. I appreciate the trust that Deb and Steve have shown along with the Elders of Central Christian church.

Second, I’ll let you know how much I have admired the varied ministries of this congregation, from your thoughtful integration of modern technology into a very traditional sanctuary and worship service, your engagement with the community through the dog park, community garden, theatre programs, nesting of a young congregation Spanish language congregation, ….

Lastly, I’ll note that Deb filled me in on some of the big decisions that you all are facing as a congregation. While these are challenging times for all churches, your particular decisions are quite striking. They really do significantly impact the long term direction of the congregation. Let me say at the outset that whatever decision you make, God can and will still continue to be at work in and through you wherever you find yourselves if you will humbly yield yourselves daily to seeking the Lord in all things. Beyond that, I would not presume to suggest which direction is preferable. Even before Deb shared this information, I was intending to preach from the Lectionary. How interested I was to find that two of the four texts make mention of the construction of places of worship. I invite you to be curious with me as to what these texts might have to offer you, and us together as part of the One Church, in the midst of this Emergent/Missional shift.

The importance of our houses: Do you notice the builder’s signs in the yards, or the ads in the newspaper or online and even on billboards? They are all around a growing city, in urban, exurban, suburban and rural communities. Whether it is a large national builder like David Weekly or a local one like M. Christopher, Bella Vita, or Robert Elliot, for many people the name brand recognition of the designer and builder matter. It has become like the brand of car we drive or the shirts and shoes we wear or purses that women carry. Who designed and made it matters. Certain names denote attention to detail and quality.

Even the archaeology research of prehistoric man suggests that we have, as a race, always cared about the places we lived, and have customized them beyond mere functionality. We have carved niches in cave walls to hold small figurines, and have painted murals to tell stories of what matters most to us in our life. It is no surprise then that when humans turn to creating other kinds of spaces for other purposes, they would follow the same practice. And the more important the story, the more significant in our lives the relationships, the more effort goes into the construction and decoration of these spaces. Often it is believed that the space not only tells the story, but literally impacts how we experience life in relationship.

And we are not the only creatures who carefully construct homes, nor the only ones who decorate them. After all, there is a reason we use the phrase “feather your nest” to describe bringing into a home items that offer comfort.

Only humans create worship spaces: While we are not the only creatures to carefully craft homes, we may be the only ones who feel the need to do the same for God. And this seems to be a universal human need found in all cultures among all races. David and Solomon felt this need to create a permanent worship place. The Jews in Israel and everywhere they went build synagogues out of this same desire. Even spiritualities that do not really “worship a god or gods” such as Buddhism still put wonderful creativity and effort into constructing houses of prayer and meditation. Spaces and places matter to us.

Our two texts for today, both of which actually are appointed lectionary texts, may have something to say about this topic. Let’s listen for the word of God in our Scripture Readings from  1 Kings 8:22-30 and Luke 7:1-10.

The Second Temple – From 1 Kings 8:20-30 – regarding Solomon’s Temple  – the first Jewish in Jerusalem.temple

If we go back in this story to 2 Samuel, we read about David’s desire to build a temple, and the Lord’s instruction that he should not, but that his son may build it. It is interesting to note that the LORD never commands that the temple be built. Rather, he permits that which the king desired to do. David is motivated both by a sense of guilt that he dwells in such a fine palace while God only gets a tent, as well as desire for pride among the neighboring nations with their gods. David, and Solomon after him, are interested both in doing something nice for another, as well as maintaining stature in the community – i.e. keeping up with the Joneses. Moses and the prophets us a similar argument with God when trying to persuade the LORD to save the people, basically asking, “What will the other nations say about you if you can’t even save your own people?”

And who built the Temple? From where did the craftmen and laborers come, along with the materials?  Hiram of Tyre was the lead metalworker. The timbers came from the cedars of Lebanon. The King of Tyre send the materials, along with laborers to join the Israelites and the Gebalites in the work of building the Temple. It was paid for with grain stores from Israel, but much of the work, and the artistry, were done by non-Jews.

And you may recall that Nebuchadnezar destroyed the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem (2Kings 24-25). 70 years later, Cyrus of Persia sent the Israelites home from Babylon, and he and Darius provide for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the construction of the Second Temple (Ezra). This time the wealth of Persia paid for the construction of the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem.

The Synagogue at Capernaum  – Now let’s shift forward and hear from Luke 7:1-10 – an account mentioning.synagogue

Obviously the focus of this story is the healing miracle that Jesus works in response to the faith of this unnamed centurion. Yet in the midst of that, given as a justification for why the citizens are so motivated to support the centurion’s request, this brief notice: “he built our synagogue.”

Wait a minute. Let’s back up. Capernaum is a provincial sea-side town, filled with fishermen and trades. It is a town where people go to and from the gentile territories of Gennesaret. That means the town is diverse in culture and religion – far more than a place like Nazareth, for instance. It is a happening place, a place to which people want to move.

Centurions were Roman citizens. This man was clearly wealthy enough to be a benefactor, and he had some kind of interest in helping the Jews. Perhaps he was like Cornelius of Caesarea about whom we read in Acts 10 when Peter goes to visit him, prompted by the Holy Spirit. There Cornelius is described as “a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” (Acts 10:1-2) Maybe our centurion of Capernaum from Luke 7 is a similar kind of fellow.

Tear down and rebuild: Where I live in Collin County, most of these homes are in new neighborhoods, where all the neighbors have the same builder. Here in the Park Cities areas, they are frequently tear down and rebuilds, where people pay up to a million dollars for a small house on a lot, only to destroy it and build a new one lot line to lot line. Interestingly enough, in studying the history of churches and synagogues, we find that this is often the case. A new structure will be built on the remains of the old one, raised either by war or natural disaster, or perhaps by forward looking planners who see opportunity and possibility where others only see heritage and legacy.

Have you ever had the experience of entering a restaurant, looking around, and walking out, simply because “it didn’t feel right”? The ambiance, the ‘vibe’ was all wrong. There is a homestyle restaurant chain here in the Metroplex that we love. We tried a new location several years ago. Very same food, but we will never go back because the space was awkward and uncomfortable. We never felt at ease. Why do they remodel a perfectly good restaurant or store space when it is not deteriorating in any way? Because our tastes and attitudes have changed, or because they are trying to reach a new demographic who is attracted to a different kind of atmosphere.

Let me review and highlight a few themes that I think arise from these texts:cccdt

1)    God does not dwell in buildings. Even Solomon understood and affirmed that. Buildings are tools that serve our need, not God’s. God often says yes to our buildings, sometimes God says no or not now or not here. Ultimately, the buildings are for us, not for God, no matter what we tell ourselves.

2)    Houses of worship have often been designed and built by people who did not worship in them. They have even frequently been funded by those people, as in the case of the second temple in Jerusalem and the synagogue at Capernaum.

3)    Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Rebuilding and starting over are common themes related to these worship spaces. In the case of both the temple and the synagogue, multiple structures were built over the centuries, with the previous ones being destroyed or dismantled, and the materials repurposed.

4)    The worshipping community always finds a way. The absence of a “place” may have temporarily disrupted but never eclipsed the people of faith.

5)    And one final thing, that you all have demonstrated time and again, and that is also found in both texts. The work of God is not contained within the walls of a building. Our buildings are hospitals and schools – places to heal and places to train. Both of these activities are ministry in themselves, but they serve the greater purpose of preparing us to go out, into our community and world, to proclaim in word and deed the Good News that in Jesus Christ we encounter the fullness of God’s redeeming and reconciling and all-consuming love.

Whatever you discern, I think it will probably be ok. Decisions open some doors and close others. David was not permitted to build the temple because he had too much blood on his hands from all the wars he fought. Yet had he not been victorious, Solomon would not have ruled a peaceful land where the Temple could finally be constructed. And be open to the miraculous ways that God might use others outside Central to help you fulfill whatever you and God set your hearts upon, so long as your intent is to honor God and build the Kingdom.


OTHER NOTES:  This Sunday, July 2nd at 11am I’ll be preaching at Central Christian Church4711 Westside   Drive, in Dallas.

The scriptures for the sermon will be 1 Kings 8:22-30 and Luke 7:1-10. The Kings text templedepicts Solomon at the dedication of the Temple which he built for the LORD. The Luke text is actually a story about healing, with a surprising aside that the centurion featured actually built the synagogue in that community.

Churches over the last 150 years have taken on increasingly elaboratsynagoguee building complexes – think Prestonwood Baptist Church or even Lakewood in Houston. As our ministry has focused more on programming, we have built structures to accommodate this work. We are now moving deeply into an emerging/missional era of church history, where we hear God calling us out into the community away from our buildings and property, back to the streets, cities, and neighborhoods where we live.cccdt

What do these two texts from thousands of years ago tell us about their contemporary communities’ relationship to their religious buildings, and what might they say to us about our own property? What are your experiences of church property? How have facilities enabled ministry? How have they limited or hindered it?

Though I’m not going to address the politics, I am certainly mindful of the 2012 political conversation between the President and the Republican Party. He was trying to make the argument that even wealthy business owners who are “self-made” had immense help from various forms of infrastructure in our nation, from education to roads to utilities. The Republicans defended their view that in fact much of what they have they did build, with their own hard work, discipline, creativity, risk-taking, etc. What is true? BOTH! (Read more:

I introduced the theme of this sermon on a previous post:


Evangelical Godly living

A friend of mine sent me a New Year’s greeting email letting me know he was thinking of me. That’s nice, I thought. He said that what brought me to mind was listening to an online broadcast of a very popular evangelical preacher who was talking about the importance of, and means of, living a godly life. The friend went on to offer some encouraging words for the year ahead and to muse on the past year’s transitions.

Yes, it is nice to be thought of. So, though I had some hunches, I decided to go listen to the broadcasts mentioned to see if I could determine what particularly had prompted his reflection.

I want to say at the outset that I went in knowing I’m not a fan of this particular teacher. You’ll soon learn why. And, though I disagree with him substantively, I also claim the label evangelical, though I do not mean by that word what many others mean.

The word evangelical (lower case e) comes from a Greek word meaning “related to the sharing of good news”. In common Greek, it can be used about any telling of any good news – if you just got a raise, or got engaged, or learned you are going to have a baby, then you might become evangelical about that.

From a Christian and Biblical perspective, the word relates to the good news, Good News, or Gospel, of/from/about/regarding Jesus. (Prepositions in Greek are somewhat ambiguous when being translated over into English.) The Gospel gets articulated in multiple ways in the New Testament (and often those are with allusion to the Hebrew Scriptures – First or Old Testament). In its essence, I believe, the Gospel is that in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the one called the Christ, humankind encounters God’s restoring and reconciling love. This love is described as proclaimed by Jesus (Luke 4:16-30, quoting Isaiah 61), embodied in Jesus (John 1), and accomplished through Jesus. The Christian Bible, as we have it today, is a human record of the faith experiences, blessings and struggles prompted by encountering Jesus. John 10 records Jesus saying these words, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The Good News is a rich, full, abundant life that is revealed and accomplished in/through Jesus and received/ experienced by believing in him. An abundant life as described in Luke & Isaiah (the Hebrew word is “shalom”) means freedom from captivities, the ability to provide for one’s family and participate in the community, and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) which is like setting an economic and social reset button – debts canceled and the lost restored. Jesus consistently named this incoming reality the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. It often brought a reversal of fortunes – those who were rich and powerful were brought low, and those who were poor and lowly were elevated. I think this is a vision worth giving one’s life for – it is the vision that Jesus gave his life for – the restoring and reconciling of humanity to one another and to God in creation.

Now, to be fair, our unnamed preacher was working from Paul’s writing, not the Gospels. In particular, he focused on Romans 12:1-2 – “1 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. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Said preacher then proceeded to spend an hour talking about how the sinfulness and debauchery in our country is increasing compared to his memory of days gone by. His almost exclusive illustration of this was sexual immorality. Though he did not identify any particular incident, to my ear he was stirring the crowd in response to recent news and pop culture stories.  I don’t know this for sure, but that’s how it felt to me.

Either way, I think his viewpoint is unfortunate and in error. I am a proponent of sexual morality, and even of the church teaching people how to think about what it means to live out our sexuality in healthy, God honoring ways. That said, using the bible as our ONLY source of information and guidance is naive at best. The vast majority of marriages described in the bible were polygamous, and were understood as economic exchanges rather than a loving covenant between equals. I’m not sure that’s the foundation upon which we want to build today’s marriages or families. And I agree with him that the more crass illustrations of sexuality in our popular culture do have a negative effect on relationships – I am well aware of their impact on me as an adolescent, and we work hard to help our children live thoughtfully in this regard.

Here are my concerns, though, with his message as I heard it (not in priority order, necessarily).

1)      Misreading scripture, or more accurately misspeaking for scripture. Paul describes explicitly what he means in Romans 12:1-2, and he does not mention sexuality at all. Instead, he says this:

3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

He sounds to me like he is talking about how we live in community, in relationship with one another, and using our talents, abilities and spiritual gifts to be a blessing and work together. Paul calls us to not exalt ourselves above others, but rather to live out what the prophet Micah says in 6:88 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

2)      Circumscribing a narrow circle of ‘truth’ around only a portion of what concerns and interests God as revealed in the Bible.  He speaks as though “a Godly and pure life” were only about sexuality and private moral failings like, “spending too much time at the bar,” which he says at one point. While healthy sexuality and avoiding destructive and addictive personal behaviors (like alcohol or other chemical additions) are important, they are by no means the only or even the primary concerns of scripture. Simply read the prophets, the Psalms, Proverbs, the Mosaic law, and the four Gospels. The primary concern is Justice. Rightousness – i.e. right-relationship-ness, is about living a humble, honest and just life in community. You can be pure as the new-fallen snow sexually and still be as wicked and corrupt and ungodly as any of the worst kings in Israel.

3)      Misremembering history – While sexuality is more public, and even aspects of it that he and I would agree are destructive to individuals and families and thus society, these things are by no means new. Men objectifying and using women is unfortunately not new, though now it seems more visible, which likely affects its impact. Promiscuity is not new, though it certainly is more acceptable to discuss openly and even admit – again, I would agree that this is a negative thing. These things being true, the world is not going to hell in a hand basket and we are not racing headlong to become Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19). We are increasingly becoming intolerant of sexual relationships that include abuses of power, whether by an abusive spouse, rape by a stranger, or sexual molestation of a child by an acquaintance. We are gaining courage in speaking about these things, shining light in dark places, and empowering victims to become survivors and thrivers.  In addition to all these gains specific to sexuality, vast improvements have been made in the areas of justice – though we arguably still have a long way to go.

4)      Conflating God and Country These two messages from our preacher sounded very much like patriotic concerns as much or more than faith concerns. I am a patriot, and I love my country. I do not believe that we are in any way God’s special nation, nor that the fortunes of the United States or US culture are to be equated with the increase or decrease of God’s “kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our primary citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) even while we may celebrate and support our earthly nation-state. While one can love both, we are called to love God and God’s kingdom more. Confusing the two leads to dangerous loyalties that can make us blind to the justice claims of our neighbors and the love claims of our enemies (Luke 6).

5)      Using fear to motivate – Fear is a strong motivator, and a powerful rallying cry is built around US versus THEM arguments and harkening back to the good old days. The problem is that this is the same argument used by the Hebrews when they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt rather than forward into God’s blessings. Would the journey forward be difficult? Yes. Would there be dangers and challenges? Yes. Did Moses or the prophets or Jesus use nostalgic fear as a motivator? No. Honest assessments of the future risks of the current path? Certainly. But always with hope and promise of blessing and peace.

6)      The presumption of exclusive truth – The preacher explicitly said, “They will come to us, because we have the answers.”  The implicit presumption here is, “If you disagree with us, you are wrong, because we are right about everything.” To his credit, he did earlier state, “Many things we may never fully understand…” Why then presume to say that he is right about what he thinks he does understand. Obviously, if I hold strongly to a position it is because I believe it to be true – this is logical. And yet, I can hold to my understandings in such a way that room remains for me to be humble before the truth claims and understandings of others. I heard none of this humility.

Ultimately, Godly living as witnessed to in the Christian Bible is holistic in nature. It will encompass every aspect of life. No one sermon can address all of this. However, any sermon that presumes to address “Godly living” certainly needs to clearly acknowledge the breadth and complexity inherent in the concept. Now that I think about it, perhaps my friend sent me the link because he does not know what I believe about these things – because I have failed to speak clearly and consistently when called upon to speak the truth as I understand it. Or, perhaps he does know, and is concerned for me because I hold these views. Either way, as I said, it is nice to be remembered. And I am grateful for the prompting to think critically about these issues, attempt to articulate my positions clearly, and to enter into conversation about them. I only pray that this energy and effort put forth might serve to edify and build up those who seek the shalom which God has always intended for us. God’s dream is our wholeness, and the entire biblical witness reflects this dream and human encounters with God’s efforts to work with us to bring this dream to fruition. And, finally, that along with our best and in spite of our worst, God will redeem, restore and renew us all. We will dwell together in perfect harmony with self, others, creation and God. And that, my friends, is Good News. See, I’m and evangelical after all. Who knows, I might even reclaim the big E!

Update on My DMin Program

With gratitude for the support of the Elders, Board and congregation, I started my Doctor of Ministry studies at Perkins School of Theology at SMU in June of 2012 with two 3 week classes that ran concurrently, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Two major papers were due a week later.

In the Fall 2012 semester I have been enrolled in a course entitled Feminist, Womanist and Mujerista Theologies – the subtitle is simply “Women’s Theologies”. The primary focus of the course is on what develops when women do theology from their own point of view, rather than simply receiving without critical reflection what a male dominated church hands to them. The bible was almost entirely written by men, the cannon formed by men, and the primary interpreters of the bible for Christian theology have almost all been men. It is widely accepted that women and men experience the world differently, view their situations differently, even use language differently. So what happens when these differences are honored in the tasks of listening to scripture and doing theology. I explained in a sermon series during August how I was choosing to enter this class experience as a way to develop my ability to listen, hear, and ask questions of others (Learning to Listen ~ Learning to Hear, Learning to Ask Questions, and another related post about my school work and our church conversations: Learning to Listen revisited). My final paper for the class is entitled “Evangelicalism and Feminism in Conversation” and it explores the ways in which women find their voice and describe their experiences from within an evangelical church context.

My next classes are January 8-18. I am scheduled to take:

Evangelism and Discipleship for a Missional Church (DM9374)  – 8:30 to 11:30 AM. This course provides a foundation for the theory and practice of evangelism and disciple formation in congregations grounded in a missional ecclesiology. With Dr. Elaine A. Heath


The Ministry of Spiritual Guidance (DM9368)  – 1:30 to 4:30 PM. Spiritual Guidance is not simply a dimension of parish ministry. It is the key to recovering the mission of the church. This course offers a diagnosis of the situation faced by the church, the theological basis for change, the vocational assumptions necessary to that change, and conversations about the ways in which those changes might be effected. With Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt

I believe that these two classes will be important aids for us as a congregation as we think about deepening our ministry of discipleship here, including our conversation on the scope and sequence of our teaching ministry. The course on evangelism will help us to think about having spiritual conversations with our neighbors as a way to open space for the Holy Spirit to work in and through us to share Christ with those around us.

Speaking of preaching, my plan is to take Preaching from the Bible: Paul (PR8303) on Thursdays from 9-11:20am with Dr. Brad Braxton. As I noted last spring in my sermon on March 4th, I have been in an intentional season of reflection on my preaching. I have been preaching weekly since November of 1997. This class should provide a chance to both reflect on my present approach, as well as exploring other approaches.

The thesis phase of my doctoral work should begin next summer and take 1-2 years.

I began this Doctor of Ministry program because I believe in the ministry of the church in this community and wanted to further my education to strengthen that ministry.  I believe in what we are doing here. I believe in the promised future of this congregation.

We may be like Zechariah and Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren when God moved in their lives to bring them a son, and through them prepare the way of the Lord. We may be like Israel who groaned in Babylon for what felt like far too long. It has always been this way for God’s people. When things seemed most bleak, God appeared. Jesus brought Lazarus from the tomb, though Mary and Martha had all but given up hope.

Wondering about Evangelical Feminism?

As I embark on this Fall 2012 semester journey into Feminist, Womanist and Mujerista Theologies, (@ SMU|Perkins ) I am wondering about the conversation between evangelicalism (in its own diversity) and feminist theories (with their diversity). I consider myself evangelical, in that I believe that the message of the Gospel is Good News for all people and that we are called to proclaim that message in word and deed. My theology is more open and progressive than that professed by mainstream evangelicalism. I also am very interested in the voices of feminist theologies. So, I am curious about the conversation within and between evangelicalism and feminism as traditionally understood. A partial reading list under consideration follows. I have tried to choose a sample representative of various voices in the conversation between Evangelicalism and Feminism. If you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them. And of course, if you have thoughts on the conversation itself, I’d love to engage those as well. I don’t really have any of my own formulated yet.

Evangelical Feminism: A HistoryPamela D.H. Cochran

Women Called To Witness: Evangelical FeminismNancy A. Hardesty

God Gave Us The Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with FeminismChristel Manning

Becoming God’s True WomanNancy Leigh DeMoss -(Editor)

Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism and the Theological AcademyNicola Hoggard Creegan (Author), Christine D. Pohl (Author)