Looking for wiggle room

The good news is that soon there will be an Associate Rector here at Christ Church.  The bad news is that she won’t arrive in time to preach this Sunday’s really difficult Gospel lesson.  I should have looked at the Lectionary more closely while negotiating her start date.  Yesterday, I was able to use our Vacation Bible School curriculum to deftly avoid the whole “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” and everybody’s Father’s Day favorite “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”  It seems that this Sunday, I’m stuck preaching the hard stuff.

I suppose you can’t blame me, though, for looking for some wiggle room in Jesus’ continued difficult teaching to the disciples turned Apostles who are preparing for their first missionary journey.  To be fair, Jesus is doing exactly what any good leader should be doing.  He is preparing his disciples for the hardship they are going to experience.  Certainly, they have seen the mixed reaction to Jesus during their time with him.  Only a fool would think that taking his message out would mean being welcomed with open arms and joyful acceptance.  Still, rather than sending them out with false hope, Jesus offers a clear warning that the message of the Kingdom of God is going to be unpopular with some; and that difficultly might start in one’s own family.

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You too can put all your family in debt in order to buy an ill-fitting suit

Like a college student selling Cutco knives, the disciples would logically begin their evangelistic tour with family members.  It would make sense that one’s family, those who have seen what a difference Jesus made in their life, would be open to the Good News of God’s saving love in Christ.  However, like the Cutco knife example, there are likely just as many hard feelings and a begrudging sense of obligation.  These disciples had dropped everything to follow Jesus.  Imagine being Peter’s wife’s family.  Sure, Jesus had healed their matriarch, but what about the wife (and children?) left behind that they had to take care of.  Or, what about the other son’s of Zebedee?  Losing two members of the family fishing crew couldn’t have been an easy thing to overcome.  Even Matthew, the “author” of this Gospel, must have worried about how he might go home to a family that was no longer able to live comfortably off his tax collections.

It is no wonder that Jesus spent so much of this time dealing with family dynamics.  Surely, he knew how difficult it would be for the twelve to share with family the story of God’s Kingdom when it seemed like it had left them all behind.  Now, how does this preach in 21st century America when the more likely version of this story is the children of devout church members who will never darken the door of a church again?  I’m still working that out.  Like I said, I’m looking for some wiggle room this week.  Unfortunately, I’ve not found it yet.

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Losing philadelphia

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Stevie Williams in Philadelphia’s Love Park

“Let mutual love continue.”

In the Greek it is only three words long, but it might be the most powerful homiletical imperative ever written.  Scholars squabble quite a bit about the origins of the Letter to the Hebrews.  While it was initially attributed to Paul, by the turn of the third century, Origen was already questioning if Paul had actually written it.  While it is often called a letter it really reads more like a sermon or even a series of sermons.  It is thought to be addressed to Jewish Christians living in the Diaspora, but even that can’t be known for sure.  Yet, despite all of the uncertainty over its authorship, style, and intended audience, it is still one of the most powerful texts in the New Testament Canon.

Unlike most of the other New Testament letters, the “Letter” to the “Hebrews” is written in a much more general style.  It speaks not so much to the particularities of a church in a time and place, but serves a theological backbone for the Church catholic that will continue to grow in the 1900 years since its writing. As the “Letter” comes to a close, the author begins to offer short reflections on the life of faith; exhorting his hearers to continue to live following The Way, despite the persecution that has been, is ongoing, and will continue to come, and it can all be summed up by this three word Greek sentence that opens our Epistle lesson this Sunday, “Let mutual love continue.”

That love that the author writes about is different from the love we hear about most often in the New Testament.  Instead of admonishing us to agape, self-sacrificial love, the author invites us to philadelphia, brotherly love.  We are to love our fellow disciples as if they are our sisters and brothers.  As Bryan Whitfield noted in a 2010 commentary on this text, “We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.”

In a world where there is a church designed to meet every possible whim and fancy of ecclesiastical taste on every street corner, this idea of treating our fellow disciples as brothers and sisters is fairly foreign.  Rather than seeing the church as a family with which we stick through thick and thin, more often than not these days, if something doesn’t tickle our fancy in our church anymore, we pick up and move.  Sometimes the reason for leaving is theological, but 99.9% of the time, it is adiaphora – things indifferent.  Whether you are no longer in love with the preaching style, the musical style, the choice of Tawny Port over Welch’s Grape, or the ongoing open question about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, our inability to “let mutual love continue” has created a culture in which there is no longer philadelphia in most churches.  Rather, we simply pick up our ball and go home.

The persecuted Church of the turn of the second century didn’t have that luxury, and, I would argue, neither should we.  Instead, let mutual love continue, learn to live in disagreement and find God in discomfort, and remember, that even when the music changes, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The Very First Bad Thing

If we learned nothing else in the early 1990s, it is that being left alone to our own devices is not a good thing.  The success of the Home Alone franchise was built on the two-fold reality that kids have always thought it’d be cool to make their family disappear and the imagination of parents thinking about the worst that could happen if a child were left alone.

Of course, this fear of being alone is nothing new.  In fact, the first thing that is ever said to be not good in the Bible is being alone.  This Sunday, Track 2 readers will hear the tail end of the second creation story from Genesis.  Our opening line from verse 18 reads, “The LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”  And so, in this version of the creation story, which is very different from the first version that makes up Genesis 1, God sets out making all sorts of creatures to serve as man’s partner.  Young’s Literal Translation (1862) translates this Hebrew term which combines the word for “like” and the word for “in front of” or “opposite to” as “counterpart,” which I find fitting for the 21st century reader.

If the goal is to remedy the less than desirable situation that man is alone, it is only fitting then that God would makes a counterpart, that which closely resembles but is not a clone of the original.  Traditionally, this has been the basis for marriage between a man and a woman: women are like but not clones of men; however since the Supreme Court decision of July 26, 2015, this seems equally applicable to marriages of two women or two men.

Beyond marriage, however, the reality of what God is doing here in Genesis 2 is establishing relationships as the norm.  One need not be married to have deep relationships that fulfill God’s desire that one not be alone.  These bonds can be found in one’s family of origin: brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins or in one’s circle of friends.  No matter where these relationships are formed, their end is to rectify the very first back thing – it is not good that the (wo)man should be alone.