The Gamaliel Test

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In the fifth chapter of Acts, as the disciples of Jesus are really beginning to pick up some momentum, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem gathers for a meeting.  The agenda is their growing concern with a small sect of Jews who have begun to follow the Way of a disgraced Rabbi named Jesus.  Their first response was to arrest the leadership of the Way on charges of heresy.  So, they put the apostles in jail, and overnight, and angel came, freeing them and commissioning them to proclaim the Gospel.  Next, the leaders decided to confront the apostles face-to-face.  “We told you not to preach Jesus anymore,” they said.  “We must obey God,” the apostles replied. Finally, fully frustrated and enraged, the council was ready to just put them all to death when a Pharisee named Gamaliel spoke up and said, among other things, “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

This wisdom has become known as the Gamaliel test.  It is a temperance move to avoid rushing to conclusions about the ongoing revelation of God in the world.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t much used by the Christian Church in the first four centuries as Christians became fond of declaring others heretics and putting whole sub-sects of people to death, but it is a test worth using as we who think we have a full grasp on what God is up to are almost universally wrong.  God is always unveiling something new for us to come to understand.  I cannot claim to live a faultless life in this regard, as I’ve been happy to jump up and down and shake my fist at innovations like Enriching our Worship and the growing trend of communion without baptism. It would behoove us all to practice patience and to use the Gamaliel test as our standard.

Title and 330 word introduction to the contrary, this post isn’t really about Gamaliel, however, as he wasn’t the first to utilize spiritual waiting as a tool for discernment.  In the first half of our Gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus provides for his disciples an example of the same principle.  While we stare down the barrel of 984 more Sundays after Pentecost, Sunday’s lesson hits about the mid-point of Luke as a post-Transfiguration Jesus “sets his face for Jerusalem.”  As a result of this new revelation of his ministry, old patterns of behavior were going to change.  No longer would Jesus and the disciples be taking long, meandering walks from place to place.  Now, Jesus was on a mission.  So, when they pass through a Samaritan city that would not welcome them, the disciples are ready to rain down holy hell on those poor Samaritans.  Jesus, in his wisdom, however, knows that it is God’s desire that the press on.

Rushing to judgment.  Assuming that my understanding of God is the only right answer.  Seeking violence and destruction.  These are not the ways of those who follow the Prince of Peace.  Instead, with Jesus as our guide and Gamaliel as an example, we ought to practice patience, to pray, listen, and discern, and to seek our place in God’s ongoing revelation in the world.

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Preaching to myself

My wife and I have often joked that we have the two most guilt-inducing careers for outsiders.  SHW is a dental hygienist.  When folks find that out, they immediately start into their excuses for not going to the dentist or uncomfortably laughing at their inability to start a proper flossing regiment.

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When they find out that I’m an Episcopal Priest, the excuses about why they don’t go to church as often as they think they should are surprisingly similar to the reasons they don’t go to the dentist, and I hear all kinds of ways in which they find God in trees or are spiritual but not religious.

One thing we both also hear is how people can’t imagine doing the jobs we do.  “I couldn’t look inside peoples’ mouths,” they say to her.  “How can you think of something to say each week,” i get in response.  While I can understand the desire to stay away from the general ickiness of the average person’s unflossed mouth, I don’t really get this fear of writing a sermon.  First, if one is doing their homework, praying, and listening for the Spirit, sermon topics tend to eventually show up.  It’s not that there aren’t weeks when I wish they’d show up earlier, but I have found that if I am faithful to the homiletical exercise, God will give me something to say.

Moreso, if I am doing the work, God will show me what it is in my own life that needs to be addressed, and often, that thing is pretty applicable to the wider world.  Truth be told, more often than not, I’m preaching to myself.  This is true this morning as I read the lessons appointed for Sunday and found Jesus pushing back against would be disciples who wanted to follow Jesus on their own terms.  “I’ll be right there” is not the an acceptable answer.  That is to say, that comfortable Christianity, though commonplace in contemporary American society, isn’t really a thing.

I know this to be true in my own life.  For all intents and purposes, I’ve got it pretty easy.  I’m serving a congregation that is full of people who want to serve.  I’m well paid.  I have a great staff.  We could very easily do the comfortable Christian thing of minding our own business, writing a few checks to outreach organizations, and patting ourselves on the back for years to come, but that’s not what God would have us do.  It would have been much easier, when Jesus came to sleep on our porches to say, “You can’t stay here,” while writing a nominal check to HOTEL, INC., but God calls us out of our comfort zones.  When Catherine Meeks called to ask if I would take part in a week-long Justice Pilgrimage aimed at racial healing, it would have been way easier to find some kind of excuse.  When the Bishop invited me and two lay leaders to attend a conference to rethink stewardship, it would have been easy to look at our income statement and think, “nah, we’re good.”  But God is not interested in our easy answers and paltry excuses.  God calls us to growth, to change, and to deeper commitment to the Kingdom of God.  So, here I sit, in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina ready to once again listen to where God is calling us to go next, reasonably uncomfortable in the reality that this morning, I’m called to preach to myself.

The Myth of the Melting Pot

As shown in Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad, a ton of damage was done to the future United States of America through the preaching that happened on ships like Arbella as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1630.  Setting the colonial experiment up as the choice grain, sifted from the evil chaff in England and planted by God in the New World, the foundational narratives of colonialism (and therefore the United States from which they were born) has been one of eisegesis, presupposing God’s blessing upon the colonies and a fictional biblical narrative for our expansion and development.  As such, it isn’t too far of a stretch to see how some of Paul’s most famous words, found in Galatians 3 and appointed for this Sunday, have been used to create this image of American homogeneity, commonly referred to, at least since 1908, as “the melting pot.”

In the play, “The Melting Pot,” that popularized the term, the Galatians 3 passage is expanded upon to include all kinds of ways in which we might divide ourselves as people. “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—/Jew and Gentile—/Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross…”  The vision of David, the play’s hero, is a world in which all ethnicity fades away such that we are all one in the “Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”  In contemporary society, we often hear this dream articulated by those who “don’t see color.”  While I would agree that the telos of racial healing is a world in which we all share power equally and in which all are born with the same opportunities available to them, this idea of a melting pot falls short when the base into we are all expected to melt is white, male, heteronormativity and all other cultural expressions are expected to just evaporate away.

Despite Paul’s deep Jewish roots, I think it is safe to say that his image of being one in Christ Jesus isn’t based on an assumption of assimilation to a prevailing culture. Rather, as we hear through his letters and the stories about him in Acts, Paul seems quite comfortable adapting the message of Jesus to the cultural context in which he finds himself. So, as you prepare to preach Galatians 3 this week, dear reader, please be careful not to assume Paul is defining Christianity exclusively in a way that looks, acts, sings, and loves like you do. Rather, I encourage you to lift up the vast diversity that is welcome within what it means to be one in Christ Jesus.

He did not live in a house

It can be easy to dismiss the stories of the Bible because of how far removed from it all we seem to be.  Events that happened 2, 3, even 5,000 years-ago can feel like they haven nothing to say to us now.  We like to think that we live in a society that is more civilized.  Technology is certainly more advanced.  Science has taught us much about what was thought to be supernatural.  Since Darwin first published On the Origin of Speciesthe church has struggled to keep the Bible relevant and active despite places where the story of scripture doesn’t seem to match the story being revealed to us.  Some, like Jesus Seminar Scholars have tried to throw the Biblical narrative all away as myth.  Others, like the car I saw on Sunday with a bumper sticker that says “Evolution is a Lie” have made the choice to throw out science.  Neither have been very successful because theology and science aren’t zero sum games.

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The reality is that we live in a world where God is constantly being newly revealed to us both in scripture and in science.  God’s story continues to intersect with our story even more than a thousand years after the canon was finally established.  This came to light to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac is a story about which we have changed our understanding due to advancements in psychology, but we can also very much relate to the situation.

A man who is clearly suffering from some kind of mental illness has found himself outside of the bounds of normal society.  Likely after years of his family trying to support him, finally the man’s struggles had burned every bridge and, as Luke tells it, “he did not live in a house.”  As I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would about the root causes of homelessness, I’ve heard a version of this story quite often.  Mental illness, left untreated for a variety of reasons, eventually self-medicated with street drugs, is the story of some, not all, likely not even most, of those who have found themselves experiencing homelessness here in Bowling Green.

While we don’t have the ability to just cast that which possesses folks into a herd of swine, we can still learn a lot from how Jesus interacts with the man he met on the lakeshore.  First and foremost, Jesus saw the man and engaged him.  He didn’t cross tot he other side.  He didn’t put up a “no panhandling” sign filled with dubious “facts.”  He didn’t shake his head and say “somebody should do something about that.”  No, Jesus met the man, in all of his difficulty, face-to-face.  He heard his story.  He had compassion.  And then, because there is no compassion without action, Jesus did something about the man’s situtation. This is where the rubber meets the road for those of us who follow Jesus.  We are called to action.  We are called to seek ways in which all of humanity can be restored to right relationship with God and one another.  It isn’t easy work.  In fact, as in this story, it can be downright messy, but it is the work to which we all have been called.

Confused language

It’s been almost 15 years since I started posting the text of my sermons on a blog. It’s been more than 5 years since the congregations I’ve served have had the ability to record audio. We’re still ironing out the kinks in video recording at Christ Church. The intent of each has been to allow those not able to attend Sunday services to be a part of it. In my tradition, at least theologically, the sermon isn’t the pinnacle of the service, but in survey after survey, we hear that what keeps people coming back to church and what they look for in their clergy is good preaching. So, since we can’t have the Eucharist celebrated in every living room every Sunday, we share what we can.

With each successive technological advancement, we’ve gotten closer to sharing the fullness of the sermon experience. With just the text, we lose all kinds of cues that the person in the pew can use to interpret what’s being said. [This is especially true of blog posts which raise hackles like yesterday’s did. Many of y’all were not on board with any kind of critical reflection on the practice of wearing red on Pentecost.] With audio recording, one can at least hear some of the nuances of delivery, but so much of communication is non-verbal a lot is still missing. With video, we can see those non-verbal cues, but even so, we miss the energy in the room and the shared experience of the homiletical event. Even those who are sitting in the nave in a Sunday morning can interpret the sermon in vastly different ways.

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The confused nature of communication that we experience on a daily basis has its origin story in the Tower of Babel, which is an optional lesson for the Day of Pentecost.  One need not believe that this myth is the actual story of how various languages came to be to understand the truth that the confused nature of language has been a challenge to the human condition since we first began to communicate in something other than tonal grunts.  In fact, one could argue that the source of much of the interpersonal strife in our world, outside of larger fights over power, money, and privilege, is based in our inability to communicate clearly with one another.

Part of the task as Christians who aren’t readily gifted with the Spirit-fueled ability to speak clearly in any language is to work to speak and hear one another with clarity so as to avoid, as best we can, those moments of misunderstanding that lead to hard feelings, anger, broken relationships, and sin.  As a writer, a preacher, a husband, and a father, I can tell you, this work is a full-time job.  So, dear reader, in a variation on the words attributed to Saint Francis, let us seek to understand and to be understood, for such is the way of love, dignity, and respect.

Pentecost Kitch

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall a discussion once held in one of my liturgics classes.  We were talking about manual actions and the celebration of the Eucharist and the difference between anamnesis, the active remembrance of an event in the past, and mimicry, the acting out of that remembrance.  For example, as we remember the death of Jesus in Rite II, Prayer A (Expansive Language Version), the Celebrant says, “Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  It is unhelpful, yet, unfortunately not uncommon, for the celebrant, standing behind the altar, likely within sight lines of a cross, to also extend his (let’s be honest, it’s often dudes doing this) arms in a kind of pantomime of words being said.

 

These kinds of things tend to happen when we are either a) uncomfortable with the power of our words, or b) unsure what to do with them.  When talking about Jesus offering himself on the cross, these words have deep theological impact, and they can make us really uncomfortable.  So, we take the attention away from the words and put it on ourselves.  A similar thing happens at the fraction, when, in language that is foreign even too many priests, we talk of Jesus as the Passover, but often deflect it by way of a huge fraction motion.

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This is an ad from a Community Church. So, it isn’t just Episcopalians who are guilty.

There is no place that this tendency to pantomime away our discomfort is more apparent than on the Principal Feast which we will celebrate on Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.  Now, I’m not here to be a buzzkill over the wearing of red or the decorating of your nave with doves and flames.  I get that we need to make worship available to all of our senses, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.  I would, however, caution clergy and their worship committees to be careful in making those choices, and to think theologically about why they are being made.  Are the dove kites going to enhance worship that day, or make it easier for us to avoid how little we [want to] understand the power of the Spirit.  Is encouraging folks to wear red a symbol of our unity in the Body of Christ or simply a photo opp for the congregation’s Instagram account?  Is the tradition of having the Acts lesson poorly read in many languages in any way edifying, or is it meant to keep us distracted so the preacher can preach yet another sermon on Jesus’ commandment that we love one another?

The active remembrance of the foundational stories of our faith is vitally important.  Too important, in fact, to be reduced to kitchy reenactments.  So, feel free to wear red this Sunday to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, but as inheritors of that same Spirit, also be ready to hear the powerful story of the Advocate’s arrival with power and might upon the disciples gathered in prayer.

The Reconciling Work of Baptism

A man was once rescued off a desert island after 20 years all alone.  As the rescuers came ashore, he ran out to meet them, so very excited to see another human being for the first time in two decades.  “Come, come!” he shouted with joy, “You must see the civilization I’ve built during my isolation.”  He brought them to a row of three buildings.  The first building, he pointed to proudly and said, “This is my home.  It isn’t much, but I built is with my own two hands.”  At the next building, he brought them inside to show them all around.  “This is my church.  In 20 years of being lost on this island, I’ve found my faith in God brought me hope when it was easy to feel hopeless.”  Finally, they stopped out front of the third building.  The man pointed over his shoulder and said, with a bit of a scoff, “This is the church I used to go to.”

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed over his disciples.  He prayed that they might be protected by the Father.  He prayed that they might be guided by the Spirit.  And, he prayed that they might be one as Jesus and the Father were one.  Despite the prayers of Jesus himself, somehow, from almost the very beginning, the Church that tries to follow the Way of Jesus has been broken.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church were written to address, among other things, disputes over who was worthy to receive communion that threatened to tear it apart.  The letters of John were sent to deal with a group of Christians who claimed to be the only true believers and were willing to cast all other followers of Jesus into outer darkness.  By the early fourth century, Christians were killing one another, each claiming to understand the nature of Jesus better than everyone else.  Fast forward to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia and the number of different Christian denominations in the world was counted at a whopping 33,830 (thirty-three thousand eight hundred thirty).  I know of a few new Anglican denominations that were founded in the United States since then, so that number only continues to grow.  We are so very far from the dream Jesus articulated in that prayer at the Last Supper, it is lamentable.

As William Reed Huntington, my spiritual mentor from the turn of the 20th century, would ask, what kind of damage have we done to the Kingdom of God when we spend our time and energy fighting amongst ourselves over things that the world sees as frivolous like music, vestments, candles, debts versus trespasses, or the age of baptism?  How can the Church possibly be an agent of blessing in our communities when we are so caught up in being right that we are willing to walk away from those whom Christ would have us call sisters and brothers?  As we heard in the prayer Jesus prayed, our unity as Christians is meant to be a symbol for the world of just how deep and wide God’s love is for the whole creation.  Our disunity keeps the world from knowing that out of love, God sent Jesus, the very Son of God, to live and die as one of us, thereby saving us all from death in sin.  I’m pretty sure that all those who live outside of the Christian faith can see is yet another group of human beings who have totally lost the ability to live together in our differences.

Even as our disunity may feel disheartening, there are glimmers of hope on days like today.  As we welcome into the Body of Christ Turner Hawkins this morning, we do so hopeful of a future in which all Christians are able to work together toward the building up of the Kingdom of God.  [At 10 o’clock,] In just a few moments, we will act out that hope of unity by making a lifelong commitment to young Turner.  Mother Becca will ask us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”[1] In the split second between that question and the answer “We will,” I hope we can ponder for a moment about what that promise really means.  As a child in a military family, young Turner will likely know several different congregations in his lifetime.  His family may worship in an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but he’ll spend plenty of time at his Presbyterian pre-school.  He’ll be raised alongside children whose families are Baptists, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, you name it. The promise we make today is not merely on behalf of the 10 o’clock crowd who will bear witness to this joyous event, but we commit alongside godparents, alongside grandparents, Vicki and David Cole, and their usual 8am crew, alongside Episcopalians and Anglicans, and alongside Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe who may one day be called upon to support Turner’s growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

I am under no illusion that this simple promise is going to fix the shredded fabric of the Body of Christ that is denominationalism.  Today’s baptism will, I hope, have a profound impact on Turner and his family, but it can’t bring all of Christianity back under one roof.  It can, however, have an impact on us as individual disciples of Jesus.  What if supporting Turner in his life in Christ means modeling behavior that can lead us back toward unity?  We can model unity by holding our identity as Episcopalians with humility.  We can change the way we talk about those who live out their Christianity differently than us.  Rather than looking down our noses at “those evangelicals” or “those Baptists” or “those Roman Catholics,” perhaps we can show Turner what it means to work toward unity.  We can seek ways to work alongside our siblings in Christ in tackling larger issues in our community like poverty, hunger, racism, addiction, and income inequality.  We can show Turner what it means to be one in Christ by loving our neighbors, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In baptism, each of us given the gift of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to lead us into all truth.  On this day, as we rejoice in Turner receiving that same gift, may we strive toward unity and work to make the church that Turner inherits something closer to the dream Jesus had for it as he prayed for his disciples on that most holy night.  Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be one as you and the Father are one so that we might be models of your love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, 303.