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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastoral Sabbatical, Week 2

Updated: May 11, 2019

Sabbatical is about reconnecting with God, and remembering the person God created and is calling me to be. Our relationship with God is personal, and maintenance of the one-to-one dimension between each of us and God is fundamental to following Jesus. However, this God is a communal God. We worship a triune God, meaning relationship is core to God's being. Our personal relationship with God is not enough. Followers of this God gather together as communities to worship, study, and serve. Without a community, we can become arrogant, believing our own limited beliefs and thoughts of God are right. Without the personal, we can lose ourselves in the priorities and habits and whims of the community, believing the communities ways are right, even if they are not what God wants.

Over this Sabbatical, I am attempting to give more attention to the personal, without sacrificing the communal. I am planning on personal prayer and study, in hopes of hearing God's direct word to me, with all its comforts and challenges. I am also planning to attend worship each week with different faith communities in hopes of being reminded of the width and breadth of God that extends well beyond my own mind or perspective, and well beyond the congregation where I serve and community where I live.

Yesterday, Sunday May 5, I attended worship as a visitor at an area church. It is a modern church... band, screens, dark lighting, coffee bars. I struggled to find parking, and had to park on the curb. A greeter opened the door and welcomed me. I found my way to the sanctuary, and the music was loud, fast, and fun. I struggled to find a seat... no ushers, no one inviting me to sit beside them or offering to slide over. Sigh.

We sang a few songs... well, the people with microphones and the swaying hand-clapping choir behind them sang. The congregation mostly listened. The music lowered. We were welcomed by the pastor, who made a few announcements about the capital campaign, and invited us to greet one another. People mostly stood where they were and rotated to shake hands with anyone they could reach. Another song, a scripture reading, a prayer, a call to offering that asked for $1 million dollars above and beyond budget for their new capital campaign project. One last song while plates were passed or phones were used to give. Then came time for the sermon. The band and singers cleared the "stage," and the lights went down, changing to a soft blue.

The pastor preached Joshua and the walls of Jericho, a tough text to understand. He broke it down, verse by verse, pausing to do some definitions and suggest lessons that might fit our lives today. For example, one measure of Joshua's faith was his willingness to do what God wanted, the way God wanted, when God wanted. The preacher imagined our faith being our ability to trust God's wants, not ours, and God's ways, not ours, on God's time, not ours. Thank you. I needed that today.

Later in that text, the walls fall, and the people are instructed by God to kill everyone in the city except the prostitute that helped them spy on the city. I had wondered if he would read that part. He did. I was impressed. The pastor paused, and wanted to talk to us about this violent verse. I was grateful and proud of him for not skipping over it, not avoiding it, not sweeping it under a rug. Then he said roughly these things, from the notes I was taking:

"What do you do with a God who tells his people to march in and completely utterly destroy everyone...? The answer is all throughout Scripture... Leviticus 20 is the most important key... The Lord tells the people about their immorality... witchcraft, adultery, incest, homosexualtiy, bestiality... all said to show God's people the wickedness of these people in the cities... There were multiple moments God gave them to repent but they never did, except Rahab who did, and was saved! The prostitute was saved! Anyone can be aligned to be people of God and be saved... There is a very real and dramatic judgment, and only the people of God will be saved. God is giving every person moment after moment, so there is no excuse, and you can trust and follow the Lord today. But if you do not, there will be judgment similar to this one. Everyone who continues to rebel against the Lord will be destroyed. That is the message of the Gospel of Jesus."

Please, no. Stop. That is not the Gospel of Jesus. In Christ, the violence was not done or permitted by God, but was done by us onto God. The faithful attempted to use violence to defend Christ, but he rebuked them because violence and weaponry are not God's ways. There was no justification of violence in Christ from any person upon any other person. When we insisted on violence, God took our violence onto God's own son, God's own self, and turned it from death into new life. It was never about our ability to believe, have faith, repent, or follow. It was always about his belief, his faithfulness even unto a cross.

This church is four months into the year and has already raised over $2 million dollars. The parking lot and sanctuary were packed. They are splitting to two services until they can expand the sanctuary. They hope and expect to raise over $1 million dollars in five weeks, above and beyond their regular offering. He was getting "Amens" and "Um Hmmms" from the crowd. But this is not the Gospel.

This preacher is telling the crowd what they want to hear. They want to hear they are good, and right, and included, or can be. They want to hear others, their enemies, are bad and will be destroyed. They want to hear God in Christ set some conditions, and they have met them... Repent, be baptized, and be saved. They want to hear their enemies did not meet those conditions, and will die a violent death either at the hands of our swords or at God's final battle. But this is not the Gospel.

Help me God, teach and preach the real you, even if that isn't what they want to hear.

Rev. Joel L Tolbert

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