March 2010

By Pastor Marty Troyer
Day 27 of our Learning Christ 40 day reading plan for Lent brings us to one of the most recognizable wedding texts of modern times, 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” “Love is patient, love is kind… love never ends.” Ah, I can smell the sweet aroma of flowers and romance even now, wafting through my office. These Pauline words are romantically right there with “Romeo, O Romeo, where art thou my Romeo?” and “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”

Funny thing though about this text, Paul had absolutely zero (zilch, nada, none) intention of it being about marriage! This passage is a classic example of what is commonly called a “proof text,” taking a text completely out of context and making it mean something the author did not intend for it to mean. The church is often guilty of this way of reading scripture, though here there seems to be value in applying the text also to marriage.

If not marriage, then what is it about? How can we read scripture to find its true meaning? Today allow me to share several “tools” that allow scripture to function as it was intended: to teach us how to live in community with God and each other. These 3 tools apply to any and all scripture passages, I’m using 1 Corinthians as an example.

First, treat the book as a whole and ask yourself why the author bothered to write it. What was the authors’ original intent, his goal in writing? This is why there is so much value in reading entire books, not just short “devotions.” None of the books in the Bible (not even Romans) were written to you and I, or to a “universal” audience. They are all specific creations written by particular authors to a specific audience with specific needs/issues with specific outcomes in mind. Paul had been to Corinth and ministered among them, and functioned in an “oversight” way. They had written him with some questions and concerns, and Paul was addressing those issues.

Specifically, Paul writes to a group with many divisions who are struggling to get along. There is tension over leadership, ethics, theology, worship practices, and newcomers. Paul is writing to Corinth to address these concerns. He addresses those concerns not by telling a story (like the Gospel authors did), singing a song (like the Psalmist), or making wise punchy statements (like in Proverbs). Instead, he chooses to write a letter, and follows the standard letter template of the day.

Second, Pay attention to the wider context of your passage; what’s happening before and after your text? The wider context of this Corinthian letter is clearly fellowship within the church. 1 Corinthians 13 is part of a sub-section of Paul’s letter stretching from chapters 11-14 (our reading for Day 27 is chapters 10-15). Every word in these 4 chapters highlights how Paul values relationships within the community. Let’s take a look.

Chapter 11:17-34 outlines Paul’s concern that the way they were celebrating communion was divisive and unjust. He invites us to “discern the body” in 11:29, meaning the church body, and to eat the meal as equals. IN Chapter 12 Paul addresses the gifts of the Spirit, which are given to every individual for the “common good.” Here he addresses them as a group, not as individuals, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (12:27).” The Corinthian church clearly was not treating everyone as equals, either socio-economically (ch.11) or in leadership (ch. 12). Thus it is here that Paul introduces the love chapter with the words, “I will show you a more excellent way.” Chapter 14 is all about how everyone should have a voice in worship (which our sharing and sermon reflection times intentionally allow for). Everyone’s gifts should function for the “building up” of the others present. So, how does the wider context of the love chapter effect how we read it? It takes his words out of the context of romance, and puts it squarely in the realm of congregational relationships.
Pay attention to Sunday’s sermon to see how important context is for our Gospel reading this week.

Finally, allow the text to read you by asking what does it mean for us today? As I’ve said in the previous two articles in this series, the Bible read properly critiques, challenges, inspires, teaches and paves the way for faithfulness as we enter the story. By relegating the love chapter to romance and weddings, we take a giant leap out of the story. We have to jump back in to be faithful. This is a text about us, our corporate life together, how we deal with differences and how we treat each other as a community of faith. In our Transformation Journey we have said “the Houston Mennonite Church faith community nurtures and challenges us.” Paul would be thrilled and say to us, “Great! You value community? Then I have just the text for you.” Though I said above this text was not written to you and I, it does a stunning job of addressing our issues.

This text, freed from wedded bliss, begins to function as it was intended to function, and as we need it to function: to form Houston Mennonite how to live in community with God and each other. And how are we being called to live? We live, confidently in the Spirit that we have everything we need to be a faithful, loving, open and welcoming, generous, growing congregation that shares Christ in both word and deed with our local community. We live, each with a sense of calling, ministry, and responsibility. “I am called to help our church grow. I am called to invite people and live publicly as Christian. I am called to care for people at HMC. I am responsible to help form the faith of young and old alike. The Spirit of God is empowering me just like everyone else! I have gifts my church needs” We live with love for one another. It is love that sets us apart; love that energizes us as a small congregation; love that binds us together over massive distance; love that beckons us back again each week.

In this final installment about how scripture functions at HMC, what should we say? Let us say boldly and for all to hear, that we are a community that is being transformed. Let’s open ourselves to the written word so that we more clearly will know the living Word! “Love believes all things, hopes all things.” May we, like Paul, come to believe and hope in ourselves as a gospel-formed community.

By Pastor Marty Troyer
I’ve always been Biblically fairly precocious. I have fond memories of reading my picture Bible with dad, flannel graph in Sunday School, Story Book videos, and being the Troyer family Bible trivia champ year in and year out. I also remember being stunned as a freshman in college to learn that the David who killed Goliath as a wily kid was the same David who grew up to become King of Israel. Since that fateful day at Hesston College 16 years ago, I think by my count I’ve read the whole Bible 10 times and the New Testament twice that many times. So hopefully I wouldn’t make such a silly mistake today.

The Christian education I grew up with taught me the stories in scripture. And I knew the individual stories, or lots of them anyway (there are hundreds of individual stories and vignettes in scripture), along with dozens of the main characters. What I, like many, did not know was THE story. It wasn’t until college and adulthood that I realized that the Bible isn’t just a collection of great stories (and it is!), it is moreso a story that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead of the Bible being a collection of individual beads you can arrange anyway you want to, it is a necklace with beads strung together in proper sequence. Only in seeing them together can the single stories about David be transformed from stories about heroes to THE story of God redeeming people.

But the truly astonishing thing about the Bible is not that it is just one story. Oh no! The most fantastic feature of the Bible is that it proves to be our story. We ourselves are characters in the ongoing story of God reconciling the world to itself and the divine. We are invited to participate in the greatest story ever told, to stand beside Abraham and Sarah, Peter, Mary, and Martha as participants in the unfolding plan of God. Some have likened “God’s story” to a play in 4 Acts. Act 1 highlights the story before Jesus; Act 2 is the climax of the story in Jesus of Nazareth; we’re characters living in Act 3; and Act 4 is the fulfillment of all God’s dreams for his creation. It is a story whose end is yet to come.

So, how does Scripture function at Houston Mennonite Church? It functions to invite us in to God’s story, to see ourselves and our own individual stories as being the story of the people of God. My story, our story, is God’s story! Michele Hershberger, Professor of Bible at Hesston College, says it this way: “Choose God’s Story as your own. Out of all the ways of understanding who we are and why we are, we choose the Story of how God has been loving and drawing us through Jesus Christ. This story now defines our identity and our way of looking at the world. We ‘believe’ Jesus (God’s Story, Our Story: Exploring Christian Faith and Life, pg 112).”

When we see God’s story as our own, the Bible begins to read and interpret us. This is the story that reveals us as we truly are, and as we were from the beginning intended to be. Likewise, this story above all others reveals the world as it truly is, and as it was from the beginning intended to be. In other words, it becomes our guide and source book. It no longer describes the actions and beliefs of people back then. Instead it describes the actions and beliefs of us today. This is precisely why we call ourselves “The church of the Sermon on the Mount.” Because we believe that sermon is our sermon; and more importantly, that the preacher of that sermon is our preacher. As Hershberger has said many times, “Jesus meant what he said, and he was talking to us.” Jesus’ call for the disciples to “follow me” is God’s call on our lives. When Jesus said in Acts 1 “you will be my witnesses,” he is looking right at us. When he said “come to me all that are weary and I will give you rest,” he’s thinking about your tiredness and need for care. Paul’s notion about everyone having gifts and needing to share in leadership isn’t just an antiquated way of surviving without a pastor, it’s a challenge we must accept to share the work of ministry at Houston Mennonite. And when Paul says in our upcoming Sunday text that “we are ambassadors for Christ…working together with him,” he’s thinking about Malakai, Rosa, Liza and Lilya- our children who will one day grow up to participate in the ongoing work of God on earth.

As I preach each week I seek to respond to God’s call on us by being faithful to myself, the text I’m preaching from, and our context. As I said last week, the texts we use in worship are not random, but intentionally chosen to center us on Christ by inviting us in to the story. As pastor and preacher this is my ultimate goal- to orient your lives to Christ our center as we navigate God’s story together. May this be so for you as you continue to read the Lenten texts, listen to the sermons, hear God’s word read aloud in worship, and study Scripture together corporately in Sunday School and the Journey.

May you enter God’s story as your own!

By Marty Troyer

In the infamous words of a recent film hero, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.” Would it be fair and accurate to say the same about our Sunday worship? In other words, is our worship, its themes, rituals, texts and sermons random, or is there an order to it all. Someone must be choosing these texts and themes, right? But who is it, and why choose what is being chosen? These next several weeks I’d like to open the curtain and show you how scripture functions in our congregation. Along the way you’ll see how it is decided what texts and themes we worship with each Sunday, how the living scripture calls us to enter the story of Jesus, and a glimpse at how to read/study the text.

Of primary importance for us is the central place that Jesus Christ has in our life. For it is through the written word of God that we come to know the living word of God in our lives and world. Scripture functions to form us into the image of Christ. How does this happen?

First, we are formed by celebrating the Christian year, or what many know as the Liturgical year. The liturgical year invites us year after year to enter the story of Jesus from birth to death, following him and listening in to each message, glimpsing every relationship. At any given point in the normal civil calendar, there is a corresponding point in the liturgical calendar. It begins by anticipating the birth of Christ, and climaxes in the celebration of his resurrection. But the entire year is a feasting on the story of Jesus. The liturgical year, according to Joan Chittister, “sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ. It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God. The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening.”

Second, we center ourselves on Christ by connecting to an ancient Christian reading plan known as the Lectionary. Over the course of three years, congregations who use lectionary will encounter the vast majority of Biblical texts together, a healthy balanced diet. I liken the lectionary to eating at a great restaurant, only you don’t get to choose what you order- they simply bring you the food. There are 4 texts for each Sunday of the year: one each from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and New Testament. The lectionary texts for this coming Sunday are: Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9. Using the lectionary highlights our relationship with the broader Christian community, and is intrinsically Christ-like by being in very nature relational. By having 4 texts, the lectionary is itself a dialogue, and invites us to be, like Christ, people who dialogue. Though we typically do utilize the lectionary, at times we stray, but always with intent and discernment from our leaders. Why stray?. Straying allows us to marinate more deeply in texts (our recent series on the Love of God) or to highlight God’s specific call on our community (last year’s series on HMC’s core values).

Third, we profess our Christ-centered reality by literally and symbolically placing a large Bible at the very center of our worshipping community. From this we read our Biblical texts, and I use it as the Bible I preach from each Sunday.

Fourth, Scripture forms us as we listen each Sunday to the ancient texts being read. We typically read three texts each Sunday, a Psalm as call to worship, the gospel, and either the OT or NT text. And, while there are many great and interesting things for us to talk about, perhaps you’ve noticed that sermons at HMC are distinctly centered on scripture. It is overwhelmingly important for us to hear these ancient words, over and over again, if ever we dare hope to be transformed. And so this Lenten season, we have encouraged everyone to read or listen to the entire New Testament. No small task! But a necessary one if indeed we genuinely mean what we say, that we are being transformed. How is your own reading plan going?

Fifth, our children’s and adults education classes that happen every Sunday morning focus on study of scripture and personal formation. Our primary curriculum is called Gather Round. “Through Bible-based sessions for ages three through adult, Gather ’Round offers learners the opportunity to know and love God. Learners respond to Bible stories with drama, music, arts and crafts, games, reflection, and worship.” All are invited.

To answer the question above, let me say “No!” It’s not accurate to say our worship is a box of chocolates. We do know what we’re getting, and more importantly, why. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” says Paul. Only with a Christ-centered focus on scripture is this possible. So let us be filled with courage to know we are part of a powerful ancient tradition centered on the life and teachings of Jesus. We are not alone! So pick up your written or Mp3 New Testament, and enter the story.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.