When family tears itself apart

As I’ve already mentioned this week, I am really struggling with this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, but I’m only now beginning to get a grasp on why.  Prior to now, I had thought that my dislike for this passage had to do with its lack of relevance to 21st century white middle class “mainline” American Christians.  We who are the majority, who have held a place of privilege in this country for 241 years, who were so tied in with the Colonial government that in many colonies one’s tithe was a government required tax, who know nothing of what it means to be persecuted, how can we dare to begin to think that Jesus’ warning to the disciples has anything to say to us?

I really thought that was what was bothering me, until I started to read my go-to sermon resources, and realized that what I’m really struggling with this week is not that this lesson doesn’t apply to us, but instead that Christians are living out both sides of this dire warning.  It isn’t that non-Christian family members are kicking Christians out of their wills, but that the Christian family, writ large, is tearing itself apart.  For eight years, the conservative members of our family saw themselves as the persecuted ones.  As social structures changed to bring LGBT Americans into equal protection under the law, and denominational structures similarly began to understand that God’s love and sacraments should be made available to everyone, many conservative Christians saw their ability to live out their faith being challenged.  Now, with the other party in the White House, more liberal Christians are beginning to feel that same fear.  They see the rolling back of equal rights protections, cutting of programs that care for the poor, and a seeming disregard for the disabled as a direct attack on their faith in the God of love.

In a time of stark political division, the Church has allowed itself to become a pawn in the political machine.  We are tearing ourselves apart by declaring our sisters and brothers in Christ as anathema, which is precisely what the prince of demons, Beelzebul, would have us do.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Church’s intimate relationship with government, which dates all the way back to the Edict of Milan in 313 (culminating in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380), is antithetical to the Gospel.  By embracing the Church’s incorporation into civil governance, Christianity has come to put the love of social order ahead of the love of Christ.  We have given up our ability to preach the sort of peace that divides good from evil like a sword.  We have abdicated our call to take up our cross for the Kingdom by choosing to live as God-fearing citizens of the State.


Today, the Episcopal Church remembers Saint Alban, the first Anglican Christians known by name, and, not coincidentally, the first English martyr, I can’t help but be struck by his willingness to stand up and declare that though the State may have the power to take his life, his core identity wasn’t Roman or Celtic or anything else, but his defining characteristic was “I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”  While his head my have been removed from his body, Alban’s brief allegiance to Christ never wavered, was never corrupted by the idol of power and prestige, which, I’m increasingly convinced, it probably the better place for the Church to exist: the only place from which we can actually speak truth to power.

Origin Story – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge is seeking out the stories of how you came to be a Christian and an Episcopalian.  The fun, or perhaps quirky, twist being that the 120 word abstract should sound like a superhero origin story.  You can find out more by clicking the link at the bottom of this post.  Without any further ado, I offer you my origin story.

I was a senior in High School and it was Young Life Banquet time.  My YL leader, Flecth, had asked several of us to share our testimonies at the tables of some of YL Lancaster’s biggest donors.  I remember feeling some strange mixture of trepidation and relief as I prepared my story.  I was terrified because my story of how God found me is pretty boring.  I was relieved because I didn’t have to tell my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends about the day I woke up in the middle of a corn field with a needle sticking out of my arm and saw Jesus standing in front of me.  I feel a similar strange mixture today.

I grew up as the quintessential first child.  To this day, I am a ruler follower ad nauseam.  When I was 16, I spent three weeks in Germany with my high school German class.  There is no legal drinking age in Germany, but I still only drank once while I was there, and I still feel guilty about it.  The Church and the moral life to which she calls us has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  After the youth group at Saint Thomas crashed and burned as I entered into high school, I spent several years bouncing between the CMA church’s youth group and Young Life.  I remember pulling my Saturn over on Manheim Pike one Friday morning to write down the date and time I had invited Jesus into my life, but the truth is, he had always been there.

My entrance into The Episcopal Church happened when I was three years old.  My dad had been transferred from R.R. Donnelly’s home base in Chicago, IL to a brand new plant built to produce TV Guides in scenic Lancaster, PA.  As the story goes, the Realtor my parents used to find a new house was a saintly woman named Jeanne Ritter.  After selling them the perfect house for a family with two small children, Jeanne said something like, “I go to Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church.  You should try it out.”  They tried it out, and it stuck.

Though I attended an Episcopal Church with my family from early on, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an Episcopalian, to be imbued with the rhythm of life and the words of the Book of Common Prayer really until I entered the discernment process.  It was there that I learned what all those words I could say by heart: from the opening acclamation to the dismissal; really meant.  I guess that’s why I have such a passion for liturgics, Church history, and general church-nerdery these days.  I want everyone to know how these words that seem rote to the outside observer can be living, active, and offer so much more than the rules and guilt that are so often associated with Christianity.

My origin story doesn’t have superhero qualities to it, but I’ve come to realize that that’s OK.  God enters our lives in all sorts of different ways, but most often, it is by way of a simple invitation.  Thanks be to God.

Ask, Seek, Knock

Non-Dispensationalist Christians (go ahead, look it up, I’ll wait) tend to get all uppity about how the Left Behind folks tend to use the Bible and a giant clothes line to justify their world view.  That is to say, they take various key verses, remove them from their contexts, line them up in the particular order of their choosing, and argue that “the Bible says…”  It isn’t a great way to do theology, and it has lead to any number of abuses on people’s finances, families, and lives.  Still, every time I point one finger at someone else, there are three more pointing back at me.  We aren’t as clean as we think we are.

Take Hymn #711 from the 1982 hymnal, for example.  We’ll sing it during at least one service on Sunday.  It is a periennal favorite since Karen Lafferty first paraphrased Matthew 6:33 and set it to a lively tune in 1973.  According to The Hymnal 1982, the original version included only the first stanza and the Alleluia refrain.  Subsequently, verses have been added, as in this version on YouTube.

“Seek Ye First” has grown to sometimes included Matthew 4:4 (cf. Luke 4:4) as well as Matthew 7:7 (cf. Luke 11:9, which is the reason we are singing it on Sunday).  Anonymous sources drew on the work of Ms. Lafferty and cherry picked portions of Scripture that made it work for their theological desires.  Since these authors of stanzas 2 and 3 are anonymous, I can’t say whether or not they are dispensationalists, but I can say that by including the 2nd stanza in our Hymnal, we’re complicit in clothesline theologizing.

All that, to say this, people who grew up over the last 40+ years are fairly familiar with the phrase, “ask, seek, knock.”  It has been turned over and twisted in various ways such that now, it is often thought to read “ask and keep asking,”  “seek and keep seeking,” and “knock and keep knocking.”  I’m thankful to David Lose (gosh, I need to find a different Biblical scholar to offset my David Lose obsession) who builds on his words that I quoted yesterday to say this, “Popular piety has again interpreted this as a call to persistence… It might be more helpful, though, to read Jesus’ instruction as inviting trust – ask, search, knock… confident that you will receive what you ask.  Of course there is no one among those listening that would give a snake or a scorpion to a beseeching child, so how then, Jesus implies, can we not trust that God as divine parent will give us all that we need, including and especially, the Holy Spirit?”

Ask, shamelessly.  Seek, boldly.  Knock, loudly.  And know that the Lord your God delights to give you his best gift, a life of grace in the Holy Spirit.

Do this and you will live!

When the Gopsel lesson is long, well worn, and juicy, the temptation for proof texting is strong.  Part of me want to preach only one line from the great narrative that is “The Good Samaritan.”  As I read it early this morning, and even now a couple of hours later, I’m drawn, strongly, to the saving words of Jesus to the Lawyer “who stood up to test him.”

“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Lk 10.28)

Even beyond that, I find myself wanting not just to proof text this pericope, but even to proof word it.  I’d love to preach and teach and write an exegesis on one simple word, “live.”  It is rich with meaning, as does its noun form, “life,’ which is where our passage begins.

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk. 10.25).

For Luke’s Greek, there are several words to use to talk about life and living: psuche (from which we get soul), bios (as in biology), meno (which means to abide), or, as is the case here, dzaho, which Luke uses in various ways in his Gospel:

  • Luke 4:4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
  • Luke 10:28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
  • Luke 15:13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
  • Luke 15:32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”
  • Luke 20:38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
  • Luke 24:5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
  • Luke 24:23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

This life that Jesus invites the Lawyer to live isn’t just about the great by-and-by.  It isn’t about “your best life now,” either.  Instead, it is the fullness of life that comes through a relationship with the God of all Creation.  It is the sort of eternal life that begins today and lasts forever as it seeks out the dream of the living God.  Life lived in love of God and love of neighbor is abundant life that can be lived today.

You are the man!

What is now an emphatic term of praise, “you da man!”, was once the very voice of disappointment from the mouth piece of God Almighty.  As I wrote about yesterday, David’s actions toward Bathsheba and Uriah were looked upon by God with disdain.  In order to teach David, God sent Nathan to tell him a story.

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”

Rightly and instinctively, David finds the behavior of the rich man unconscionable, shouting, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”  To which Nathan responds,

“You are the man!”

The funny thing about sin is that deep down, we know that we’ve done wrong.  Sin is that which we use to separate ourselves from God.  Sin destroys relationships between people and between us and God.  The consequences of sin can be immediate and rather obvious, or they can take generations to rear their ugly head, but either way, we who were created in the image of a relational God can feel it deep in our bones when relationships are out of whack.  We are that man! Or, that woman!  We seek after our own self interests, leaving all sorts of collateral damage in our wake.  The Good News, however, is that God doesn’t leave us standing atop a heap of broken, smoldering relationships.  God offers us forgiveness, restoration, renewal.  God’s offers us grace, sufficient of all our faults.  Forgive the cheesiness of this last line, God want to turn the accusation, “You are the man!” into praise, “You da man!” through the grace of his Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Poured out to overflowing

The end of the Romans lesson for Trinity Sunday, Year C really got me this morning.  At the end of that big, long, tempting sentence that I begged you not to preach this week, is an image that is too good not to pay attention to.  “…  hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

My mind was immediately taken to the end of Psalm 23, in which the Psalmist declares, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”  It all got me thinking again about the abundance of God.  God pours out his blessings upon our heads so that it runs down our faces, covers our bodies, and even the tips of our toes (an action that was recreated in ancient baptismal rites, but because of prudence, we no longer strip candidates naked and slather them with oil).  God’s love, unfulfilled (this isn’t the right word, but I can’t think of what I want to say) as it was even within the perfect love of the Trinity, overflowed into creation.   God takes that love and pours it into our hearts, but even that can’t contain it.  Ideally, the love of God overflows even our hearts and is poured out into the world through acts of service and compassion, through charity and justice seeking, and through disciples just being present: shutting up and listening to the needs and hurts of another.

God pours out his love into our hearts, but if we bottle it up, we’ve missed the true blessing of sharing that gift with a world desperate for deep relationship.

Completely One

As I read the Lectionary texts for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, I’m feeling less than enthused.  The Acts lesson is an amazing story, but it is, in many ways, self-sufficient.  You could maybe preach on Paul’s “annoyance,” and how even the Apostles were human, but really, is his casting out a demon in a fit of frustration a stronger case for that then, say, his persecution of the Church?  Maybe the whole, post-baptism sin thing that was so important in the middle ages can rear its ugly head again.  The Revelation lesson is probably the weakest of the series in Easter Season.  I’d probably only preach it if I had been doing a sermon series on the book.  Unless I feel really compelled to do so, I never preach the Psalm.  So, here we are, left with the cliche’ of Jesus’ prayer that “we all might be one.”  I’ll try to get myself more enthused as the week goes by.  In the meantime…

We wrap up Easter Season with the tail end of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John.  Our third, straight week there, to be precise.  So far, as I mentioned above, I don’t really see a new point of entry into this text.  It is what it is.  It is a high ideal, to which, the Church, especially in the West, has failed to live up.  41,000 Christian denominations in the world is a lot more than the 1 which Jesus hoped for.  I suspect, however, that Jesus was speaking of something deeper when he prayed

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

A quick BibleWorks search leads me to believe that being “completely one” isn’t quite what we think it means.  The verb, which has its roots in telo, has a meaning more akin to the King James’ Version “made perfect…” or the Young’s Literal “perfected into one…”  It is used by John in four more places:

  • Then Jesus explained: “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work. (4:34)
  • The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. (5:36)
  • I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. (17:4)

  • After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished*, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” (19:28)

I think that rather than Jesus hoping we all might have the same tastes in worship style, he was thinking something closer to what Paul had in mind in his letter to the Philippians (2:5-11):

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If the end (telos) of the Christian faith for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus was humility, obedience, and worship of the Triune God, I think we’d be pretty close to fulfilling (teleo) what Jesus had in mind, no matter how many denominations there were on earth.  But, well, I don’t think we are quite there yet.

* This word, translated “finished” has the same root, “telo” and is used only one other time in John, when Jesus says, “It is finished.”