Headlines from First Thoughts

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wedding Rehearsal

In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding for God’s Son. God has invited people to join him at the wedding feast of his Son Jesus Christ. Who would refuse an invitation like that? Surprisingly, the first ones invited did. God sent his servants to ask even more to come. By implication, Jewish people were the first two groups to receive invitations and Gentiles the third. Another surprise awaited.

Jesus indicated that accepting an invitation, knowing the groom as a “friend” (22:12-13), and attending the wedding are not enough. One must be clothed correctly, or prepared through one’s obedient living, in order to enter the feast (Garland, Reading Matthew, 225).

The customs of an ancient wedding banquet are analogous to the modern wedding rehearsal and dinner. Even though our weddings do not last for a week, we rehearse the parts, prepare for the event, and feast together the night before the big day. In a rehearsal, the coordinator positions the attendants, practices the processional, coordinates the instrumentalists, and prepares for the big day. As the rehearsal goes, often so does the wedding itself. In the same way, believers prepare for the wedding of Christ to the church each time we gather for worship and serve others. The bridegroom (Christ) has invited all people to come to his celebration. The guest list is open-ended; he has sent people to invite everyone because most of the first invitees refused to come.

When we gather in a church, the service functions like the wedding rehearsal. When we worship, serve, and study, we are learning our parts. We learn how to be obedient. We learn more about the groom and discover the others in the wedding party. We meet the other members of the family who are also on the bride’s side. We study the groom’s story (the Bible). We serve in other ways, too. We visit people in nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, and prisons
who wish they could attend the rehearsal.

The problem, however, is that most people are too busy to come for the rehearsal. They are busy getting ready for other things. They are either at the office working extra time on Sunday morning, going to the ball game, golfing another eighteen holes, or simply staying at home. In essence, many refuse the invitation. It’s their choice. And it is none of our business to worry about their choices. Most of their decisions come naturally to them, and they would not think otherwise.

God says that in order to come to the wedding, though, we must accept the invitation and be prepared when we arrive. According to the parable, some who attend the rehearsal (called
“friend,” 22:12-13) will not be at the wedding, just as there are plenty at church who are not fully prepared for the end.

To be prepared, we need the right garments. The clothes are not a description of the required attire for a worship service. They are the symbols of obedience. Righteousness is clothing for the feast. It’s not merely enough to accept the invitation; we must live appropriately
as well.

(A selection from Sessions with Matthew available now from Smyth and Helwys.)

Secret Students

Which is more surprising? That Pilate's wife sent him a note or Joseph of Arimathea lived past the burial of Jesus?

According to some scholars, wives of procurators were not even allowed to travel with their husbands. The government wanted the magistrates focused on their duties-- not on their families. Pilate's wife appearance in Jerusalem is shocking.

Joseph of Arimathea possibly risked death to ask for the body of Jesus. If it had not been Passover season, the Romans might have just left the bodies on the poles to be picked off by birds. Most people would not risk association with a crucified criminal publicly.

When both of these characters appear from the backstage of Matthew's dramatic account, suddenly secret practices have real meaning. These people, who have studied Jesus' life privately, have eternal insight.

Pilate's wife listens to her dreams, echoing the dreams of the magi who went "home by another way." Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the same religious establishment responsible for Jesus' arrest, reveals that he has been on Jesus' side the entire time.

You never know who might be lurking-- or learning-- behind the scenes of good vs. evil.

Secret Justice

Lent gives us the opportunity to work secretly—behind the scenes—to do justice. For these six weeks, we go backstage to carry out Jesus’ commands to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. This kind of work is happening in Macon County, Tennessee. While other agencies have backed off, Christian people are going to work to do justice and to bring hope. Here’s one first hand account from our own Sharon Vandergriff after she returned from one of the groups organized by 1B.

“We were in an area about 7-9 miles from the heart of town. The path of devastation was like all the things you hear and see about tornados – one house leveled and the neighbors, untouched. When we first arrived at our assigned location, I thought, there is nothing very fulfilling about picking up shingles, glass and every piece of debris imaginable in a pasture. I was amazed how my feelings changed over the course of the day. The surrounding area where we worked showed plenty of damage including nearby houses and a mobile home leveled to the foundation. We weren’t at the location of someone’s house - we were in a pasture with lots of tree damage and debris and the final resting spot for the partial contents of someone’s house. The occasion to walk over dried manure was a reminder that this pasture wasn’t home to people, but to other living things… Perhaps means to someone’s livelihood.

“I still can’t seem to get my head or my heart around the things I saw and felt yesterday. Many questions continue to race through my mind…ones that come without easy answers. Do you own your stuff or does your stuff own you? What prevents people from helping others? What is most important to me? If this happened to me, how would I respond…how would I feel? How do you pick up the pieces? If someone found the contents of my life in a field what would they be able to tell about me – what judgments would they make without ever knowing me? How do you pick-up the pieces and start to function? How do you learn to walk in shoes that don’t feel like your own? You find comfort in and through the support of people that will stick by you and help you on the journey.”

More teams are on their way to do justice until Easter weekend. Feel free to pass along this secret.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Update on Disaster Relief

FBC Knoxville continues relief, clean-up efforts in Macon County

KNOXVILLE, TENN. -- First Baptist Church of Knoxville is coordinating teams of volunteers every Friday and Saturday, beginning this week, to go to Macon County and assist in clean-up and relief efforts.
Volunteer teams will depart from the FBC Knoxville parking lot on Friday mornings at 5:30 am, spend the night in Carthage, Tenn. at the Carthage United Methodist Church, and return after working Saturday. Persons interested in working only one day are welcome to provide their own transportation and meet–up with work teams from FBC Knoxville.

Marion Graybeal, onsite coordinator, is enlisting teams and coordinating work efforts. He can be reached at (865) 607-7721 or by email to disasterreliefvols@fbcknox.org. Volunteers must be prepared with work boots, gloves and appropriate safety gear for clean-up and debris removal.
The church is not receiving any donated supplies and materials at this time per the request of local officials in Macon County. Should that change, notification will be made by email and
through local media as well as on the church’s website, www.fbcknox.org.

Ongoing assessments of longer term needs are being made by the church’s disaster relief coordinating team. As details regarding what the church will do to assist in recovery and rebuilding are known, they will be disseminated through all communication channels.
Donations, payable to First Baptist Church of Knoxville and clearly marked “Disaster Relief-Middle Tennessee,” continue to be received by the church. As of Monday, Feb. 18, over $11,500 had been collected for direct relief in Middle Tennessee.

For more information, please contact Sandy Wisener at (865) 803-3093, Wanda Edmondson at (865) 567-5994, or Carol McEntyre at (865) 363-6372. Send email to disasterreliefvols@fbcknox.org.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Macon County for Valentine's Day

I am still overwhelmed with yesterday's experience in Macon County. Thanks to WBIR Channel 10, the people of East Tennessee responded to our call for supplies and cash. In one day, we raised $5,000 for Macon county relief and a 26 foot truck-full of cleaning supplies, toiletries, salt, sugar, oil, and pillows. Another 16,000 bottles of water leave tomorrow. Russell Biven with WBIR's "Live at Five" program led the charge communicating to the community all day Wednesday. On Thursday, he followed us to this hard hit area.
We were at Carl Trent's home in a neighborhood that lost 11 people in the tornado. Carl saved the lives of 3 grandchildren and 1 other child during the storm. With little warning, he placed the children under a couch and held the pillows on top of them as they rode out the storm. This picture is taken from what remains of his front porch. His house is in the rubble behind us. He was in that rubble during the storm.
I can't say what a privilege it is to be able to work with Russell, WBIR, this fine team, and this church. The group pictured with us came from Beaver Dam, Lenoir City, and First Baptist all to help. Michael McEntyre led the chainsaw team, and we helped pick up the pieces--literally-- of Carl's home and place them near the curb where the army truck could go by and haul away his stuff. After the lot is cleared, he will receive a FEMA trailer to live in while his house is rebuilt.
Go to www.fbcknox.org and www.wbir.com to view pictures and learn how you can get involved.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Macon County Relief

First Baptist Church of Knoxville coordinating collections
for victims of Middle Tennessee twisters

KNOXVILLE, TENN.—First Baptist Church of Knoxville is receiving disaster relief supplies to be delivered to Lafayette (Macon County), Tenn. for those affected by a tornado that ripped through the area on Feb. 5.

Non-perishable food stuffs and supplies will be collected on Wednesday, Feb. 13, from 6:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. at the corner of Walnut and Hill Streets in Downtown Knoxville for delivery on Feb. 14. Items requested include:

· 1 lb. canned hams

· Sugar

· Corn Meal

· Flour

· Salt

· Plastic buckets

· Laundry baskets

· Pillows

· Cleaning supplies

· Empty shipping boxes and packing tape

“The devastating loss of life and property is overwhelming to those directly affected by this disaster. Beyond praying for those whose homes were lost, we are going to do our part to help our neighbors in Middle Tennessee,” said Bill Shiell, senior pastor.

The church is also coordinating teams of volunteers to travel to Macon County on Thursday, Feb. 14, to work that day in clean-up and recovery. Additional teams of volunteers will be posted to Macon County as the needs warrant additional volunteer labor in weeks to come. Information about volunteers will be posted to the church’s website www.fbcknox.org.

Monetary donations will also be received by the church. All funds collected will be forwarded directly to recognized, responsible providers of assistance in Middle Tennessee. Checks should be made payable to First Baptist Church of Knoxville and clearly marked “Disaster Relief-Middle Tennessee.”

For more information, see www.fbcknox.org or call (865) 546-9661.


Save us Under the Trees

In Lent, we move closer to holy week, a tradition that has been adapted from the Jewish feast of Passover. Their feast reminds us of the Exodus from Egypt to deliverance at the Red Sea. Jesus entered Jerusalem to join the Passover celelbration; and crowds hailed, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."

But what do palm branches have to do with Passover? Moses did not give instructions to "take your palm branches with you." The Israelites did not wave them at the drowning Egyptians.

They were significant, but I contend they had very little do with the Passover. People used them quite often for the old Jewish festival of sukkot, or what we call the Festival of Booths. When the Israelites arrived at Sinia, people constructed booths made of wood. The roofs were made from freshly cut willow branches or palm branches that would have grown naturally in the desert oases. Their festival tradition was to go out, live in tents, and like the Israelites who made these tents and then built them at the base the mountain when God gave them a law to purify their lives. Out in the wilderness, the children would sing a song that reminded them that God would protect them. It was the song “Ho-shanna,” God save us. The children put a little celebration twist on it because for them, they believed that God would do it and had saved by providing the law. Despite being in the desert, they were ready to sing to God knowing ahead of time that he saved them.

(FMI on sukkot see Stephen Wylen, The Jews in the Time of Jesus: an Introduction, 101)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Christmas Trees and Palm Branches

It seems sort of odd that we’re at the beginning of Lent. We’re still in the shadow of the manger, aren’t we? No sooner have we broken the Christmas toys, put up the Christmas tree, and taken our stuff to the neighborhood swap meet, than we’re watching Jesus try to ride into the city of Jerusalem on top of broken palm branches.

That’s exactly how it’s supposed to be this year, and I'm grateful that Matthew understands this. The first Gospel does not get past the magi's first toddler shower for Jesus until lives are disrupted by the shadow of suffering. The magi brought myrrh-- a burial ointment-- of all things for a baby present. Ominous. Foreboding. When Herod hears about Jesus, he takes his paranoia out on every 1 year old in the neighborhood. Joseph and Mary flee as the memories of the Hebrew matriarch Rachel gush forth in sorrow.

Matthew doesn’t let us get very far into the Christmas story without reminding us that the Christ child can only be understood from the perspective of God's suffering on the cross. So if Lent seems to come a little early, don't be surprised. In Matthew's world, the cross should loom large this close to Christmas.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Acting out for Lent

“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare, but Jesus knew that the moment he walked out from behind the curtain onto the global scene. He saw actors a few miles down the road in the nearby village of Sepphoris. Herod built a huge outdoor arena for the great plays of the ancient world. Actors donned the masks and became someone else. They called them "hypocrites" in Greek or our word in English "actors."

The Pharisees and religious leaders' actions seemed eerily similar to the stage of Sepphoris. The same language of the theater lies behind his warning to us in Matthew 6. It’s the language of the theater. It’s the same experience that you and I could have on Broadway and for a moment imagine a whole new reality. But when acting invades the life of the pious and religious, you have is just a bunch of rubbish.

Lent and Easter can turn into an act. Put a little ashes on the forehead, show off your good stuff, be present and accounted for the next 40 days or so. But all we’ve done is stood in front of the curtain and arranged for all to see us, masking an inner sham.

Matthew 6's secret practices of lent are prayer, fasting, and giving. They actually function as a kind of backstage pass for us. To go into the secret place--behind the curtain--and see where the real action is.

All those fancy things out front-- fancy religious language-- just covers up stage fright. Backstage, we see Jesus at work in us.

When I was on the stage crew at my high school, I learned that the actors not only performed, they built the sets. The janitor came in and fixed lights. The stage crew had to repair things. That’s when you rolled up your sleeves, and the dirt got all over you. The dirt was not just a smear on the forehead or the palm, but all over. You really hadn’t worked on the stage crew until you really were dirty all over.

The same applies for the Christian life. The backstage of life is where Jesus works behind the scenes. It was behind the scenes of the dirt of the Roman rabble, and Jewish corruption, and religious intrigue that Jesus said, "This is for the forgiveness of sins."

Lent tells us you can’t be out in front of the curtain until you've understood the power of dirt. You can’t preach, teach, worship, or put on your Sunday best without rolling in the dirt, understanding your sinfulness, and then a receiving a good spiritual bath of forgiveness that no one can see. You wouldn’t want them to see that anyway. That’s just between you and God. Behind the curtain.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Keeping Secrets

Down here in the real world, it's not the Super Bowl or Super Tuesday, it's Lent. 40 days of slogging through the wilderness of repentance. Secretively. Christians did not make the news again on Wednesday. We were too busy praying for Union University and other tornado-ravaged areas. But for the next few weeks, please don't pay any attention to us. We'd prefer to just go about this business in private.

In Matthew 6, Jesus suggested three practices of the heart that could be verbal icons (to use Charles Talbert's term) into faithful piety. They are giving, praying, and fasting. No doubt Jesus observed their abuse in 1st century Judaism. The public squares were full of the giving for donor recognition, praying at ball games, and fasting for the biggest loser. So Jesus listed them with one condition-- do things that you cannot tell anyone about.

Pray in the closet, and don't come out of it.
Give with such poor communication in your body and organization that your left hand doesn't even feel the right hand.
Fast so that others never recognize it.

No doubt there will be more calls to pray, give, and surrender something over the next 6 weeks or so. But Jesus-- who wasn't much for making headlines-- says, if you pray so much publicly, how long do you need to pray behind closed doors? 7 times, 70 x 7 hours? And if giving is about the IRS and plaques on the wall, how much can you give anonymously this time of year? Can you send the flowers without signing the note? And on the fasting bit, you might need to fast from something chic like email or cell phones. That will certainly inconvenience everyone else-- and they'll know about it. But if you want to do it secretively, try fasting from a sin, addiction, or lust that only you and God know.

Can you keep all that a secret until Easter?

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