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Too Independent – Refusing a Gift

The second hardest life lesson I’ve had to confront is asking for help. The hardest one has been actually accepting the help. (Note: I haven’t mastered either one yet.)

I’ve always been a capable person with the full calendar and resume to prove it. But ever since our oldest daughter was born with life-threatening complications, it was like having someone press my nose into the mud of my personal weakness and hold it there. It was a shock to discover how incapable I could be. It forced me to examine why it was so painful to accept that I need help. Why is it so humiliating to ask for and accept that help? It appears that I am not alone. Once I started looking for it, I discovered that this thread of I-don’t-need-help independence weaves through the American national identity and it influences how Christianity enters and merges with that national identity.

So begins Joy Bennett’s poignant piece: “Independence: The False Gospel Destroying Christianity“.

Her prose is compelling, insight significant, but I was most struck with her story of independence. It was her struggle with what she knew to be true, but couldn’t bring herself to face. That we aren’t able to do everything ourselves. And we aren’t supposed to.

I think we ought to sit for a second with that idea. We aren’t supposed to do it all. We aren’t supposed to be truly independent.

  • We value independence, despite Jesus’s direction to work together as one.
  • We shun dependence, despite Jesus’s coming as a helpless baby.
  • And we trade interdependence for individualism, despite Jesus’s presence promised for community.

Our bull-headed individualism runs counter to the gospel. And it threatens our society and values. We need look no further than the recent Hobby Lobby decision to see that a person’s independence is more important than the thousands of people whose very lives and health are dependent upon them.

I have shared my own fear of not being independent before, but a different story came to me yesterday.

Special K

A long time ago, my parents left the country on a sabbatical. I must have been a senior in high school or in college at the time. I was old enough to take care of myself.

A parishioner, who knew my parents would be gone for 6 weeks and all I had to live on was the money I was making at a summer job, asked me how she could help.

Like a good Midwesterner and rugged individual, I told her

I’m fine, thanks.

“It’s no trouble,” she said. She wanted to help.

No, I’m good

I told her. I didn’t want her to put herself out.

“It’s no trouble,” she assured me.

No

I kept saying. Each time, her expression dropped with the corners of her mouth and the happiness in her eyes.

After six or seven protests and assurances, and in complete exasperation, she asked

“What do you eat for breakfast? You need to eat,” she added.

Special K. Thanks.

“OK,” she said. “I’ll get you two boxes.” She walked away.

That afternoon, I found two boxes of Special K cereal on my porch.

Receiving Gifts

Some two decades later, I replay that story in my mind with such sadness and anger at myself. My need for independence and self-righteousness. My need to prevent this caring woman from helping me, allowing me to receive her gift.

I’m not sure if its true, or if the insight came much later, but this is how I remember it:

From that moment on, I vowed to accept gifts given to me. A person gets one perfunctory “you don’t need to” before they receive a “you shouldn’t have.”

This is the stake of our independence and re-framing of the gospel to suit our cultural preoccupations. The hurt and indignity and arrogance that comes from doing it alone.

This struck me so much because I often feel that we are breeding this in our churches; with our people and with our leaders. I have fallen into that same trap. I like to call it “over-functioning” as if this were just a pretty word or some simple mistake. But it is something much worse. It is doing alone what must be done together.

The hard look in the mirror isn’t around the theology of this. Any reading of the gospels shows we are so very wrong about it. It is around this as our expectation for ourselves and for others, coming out in our leadership and in the way we treat our leaders. That we believe our lives can even be lived without mutual dependence or interdependence is foolish and dangerous.

For the very nature of faith, society, and all that we value in this world can only be maintained by a persistent belief in our interdependenceFor, with only individualism, there can be no society or community. Which means there can be no Kingdom of GOD.

The protagonist is Jesus, but the story is about the disciples

what we see

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I love talking with my Dad about church. He’s a priest. I’m a priest. Both of us are very traditional in many ways; very untraditional in many ways. And the best part is that they don’t always match. I greatly appreciate the way we talk, argue, explore, wrestle with our mutual vocations.

Our talk last night was about the Revised Common Lectionary: how it jumps, how it breaks context, how it sometimes fails to assist the congregation in actually knowing our story. Perhaps, most strangely, encouraging us to not know our story.

This week, we skip ahead a chapter. We jump from Matthew 10 to 11, then 13. And the struggle I had with covering Matthew 10 is that we were already taking it out of its context, making it sound like a group of Jesus aphorisms, totally unconnected, then cutting the big finale in half. And yet the voice of chapter 10 was of building up the disciples, naming them apostles: with all of the gifts they need to take on the world.

In 11, Jesus moves on, seemingly alone, to visit John the Baptizer. We then get this teaching, which is totally about discipleship and relationship. John serves as a great metaphor for that relationship, that trust in the Spirit, in Jesus.

In chapter 12, we get more Jesus with disciples, beginning with the Sabbath. This is certainly one of my favorite teachings of Jesus: the breaking of Sabbath law to keep the Sabbath. Then the chapter moves into the crowds and Jesus and signs and the reader could be excused if she got lost in it . More seemingly unconnected and strangely opaque stories. Most clergy don’t want to have to wrestle through this material, anyway, so maybe the team that produced the RCL is onto something.

The chapter ends with a most provocative moment of Jesus hearing that His family is waiting to see Him and Jesus says

Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”

Then saying these people here are my true family. An idea we’ve recently already explored.

So here we come to 13, this week’s gospel story. Most of us will start and end with what is read here. And yet I don’t know how we can approach this conversation about the seeds and the sower without talking about the vision laid out in chapter 10, without all that Jesus describes in 11, and without all that mixed up stuff in chapter 12. Because the vision of discipleship that this writer we call Matthew paints is not depicted by watching the disciples in action, but by watching Jesus in action.

We see Jesus to see the disciples.

Don’t be confused by Jesus’s central presence in the story. This looks like a life story of Jesus. And we often read it like a biography (or more strangely, an autobiography). But this is really about those disciples, raised up, named apostles, and taught how to do ministry.

Apostles that go and do while Jesus is visiting with John the Baptizer. Apostles that take Jesus’s teachings so seriously that they are willing to break Sabbath law, knowing the consequences. Apostles that were closer to Jesus than His own flesh and blood.

These are the seeds we’re talking about. The seeds that grow from good soil; soil cultivated by working and following their rabbi through inhospitable environments. This isn’t just some metaphor about our going out and finding good people or excusing whatever BS excuse we use for being Christian in name only, or in sincerely held belief only, but without commitment, action, or participation in a community of believers.

For this is the gospel we’re talking about this weekend. This is the metaphor, the parable, the teaching of Jesus: that it isn’t just about seeds or the soil or the sower. Our faith isn’t just about us or our church or even Jesus. It is about it all, all of it! Our work, our faith, our commitment to a path that sometimes sucks and sometimes brings such profound joy that our tears of pain are mixed with tears of happiness and thankfulness.

We celebrate Easter every single week, not because something happened 2,000 years ago, but because something is happening with us, through us, within us every moment we give ourselves as a sincere gift. Not one that brings us joy in giving, but is genuinely given without expectation, without any hope of response. A gift to GOD that doesn’t help us. It doesn’t sustain us. It doesn’t rescue us. It doesn’t make us feel happy or warm our hearts. A gift we give of devotion that comes without the least bit of ego, because that is where we find the gospel.

Sunday, you’ll hear a lot about seeds and sowing. Speculation about what Jesus really means with this metaphor. Who the seeds really are or what/who the soil must be. Making GOD the sower, or maybe its the disciples. I am certain this Sunday’s preaching will be full of people turning a metaphor into an allegory.

This time, this year, you won’t hear it from me. Of course, I’m not preaching this Sunday, but that isn’t why. Why is because this passage can’t survive on its own. And trying to make it so certainly leads to a simplistic Christianity if we simply cast the parts of this tiny piece of scripture as if it were a play.

What it is is our story. This is about us. Our discipleship. Our work. Our faith. It is about seeing past Jesus to His disciples. To see how Jesus empowers them, forms them, builds them up. And then unleashes them to build upon the very elements of a contagious faith.

There’s still hope – Jesus, the yoke, and all of that shouting!

a Homily for Proper 9 A

Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

a man playing a flute

Photo Credit: akarakoc via Compfight cc

Dance, Puppet!

“It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”

This is how Jesus speaks to “the current generation,” His generation. Returning from seeing John the Baptist who summoned Him, to question Him. John, asking Jesus of Nazareth: Are you the one? As in Capital T, Capitol O: The One. Asking Jesus because he’s worried. He’s starting to believe that Jesus isn’t The One. That he was wrong. If that’s the case, he seems to be thinking, then I’ve got some more work to do.

What Jesus finds in John at the beginning of chapter 11, he finds here in the crowds. Questions and doubts. But it isn’t the questions or the doubts that are the problem exactly. It isn’t the content of their minds or their hearts that is problematic. It is what they’re actually saying to one another; how they’re treating each other that’s the problem.

[L]ike children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, `We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

I did this and you didn’t respond. They seem to say.

Fickle. The one who doesn’t eat is full of sin. The one who does eat is also full of sin. With these children, there is no way to win. No way to avoid the abuse. Condemnation comes regardless; the public shaming, the brutal vision of human justice. I did this and you sat and watched, the people say from their seats. All sitting. All condemning the other.

Bad Communication

So familiar, this armchair quarterback, this freelance culture critic is. You really need to work on this, she says. Or we were here; where were you? The accusations, the bullying. So familiar to our families, to our church. Too familiar here.

This week we’re given yet another vision of communication, which has been a common theme for weeks. This one is about what we do, intentionally or not. The image Jesus uses is vivid, of children in the marketplace, sitting and shouting at another person, also sitting, also shouting. I told you to jump and there you are, sitting on your bum! I said “jump!” so get up and jump!

Always outward, external. Not dialogue. All one way. No directions, only expectations. Unrealistic expectations. I played music, why didn’t you dance? We cried, why didn’t you join us?

Jesus holds a mirror to our ridiculous and abusive tactics which neither communicate our needs or proclaim the Good News of a risen Christ, our Liberator, our Redeemer, our Lover. How could we be so foolish and arrogant? How can we expect so much of others and so little of ourselves? How can I preach this message, when my own expectations may not be understood?

What of the volumes of words not spoken, but expectations held regardless? Needs never raised, prayers never requested, hope never delivered? What of all of the ways we continue to sit on our hands, when all Jesus has asked is to lend one of them to our neighbor?

Naturally Paired

We start by remembering that Jesus is fond of children. Jesus loves children. And Jesus tells His adult followers to be more like children than the world-weary adults that they are. This image He offers here is not negative, then, for being childlike is good. It is a sign that we don’t understand GOD’s ways because we are always learning, always becoming, always growing. This is a positive thing.

This image is also much less abstract and generic than it sounds. It isn’t one person, the bad apple shouting at a crowd, but about two: the pair: I played, why didn’t you dance? The story is full of pairs: I/you, Jesus/John, even the yoke. As Sonja Olson describes

A yoke is a wooden crosspiece placed over the necks of two animals, fastened and then attached to a cart or plow that the two animals are to pull. A load so great it takes at least two animals to pull. How can that be light? Is there any significance of the many pairs listed? The flutes playing along with the dirges being sung. The demons being laid down beside the gluttonous drunks. John walking beside Jesus. The Father is linked to the Son. The Son stands among those to whom he is revealed.

All these pairings, this yoke, these children in the marketplace, this burden, all of this work looks so heavy and when we proceed alone it is. All by ourselves, pulling a cart alone, the burden is too much. It is a double portion, poured for two.

Our partner in life and work and ministry is always GOD the Holy Spirit if we let Her carry the yoke for us/with us. If we aren’t too proud or stubborn or distrustful.

Never Alone

There is always room for two, not because we need the space in case a second one shows up or because the Holy Spirit follows us like a trained dog, always at our side, always commanded.

There is always room for two because yokes are designed for two. With two, we can make sense of this world, of this work. If we marry, we have a life partner who alters the burden and shares its weight. When GOD calls us into ministry, we are bound to serve with others. Nothing about church, nothing about faith, nothing about prayer, nothing about preaching, nothing about presiding at the table, nothing about serving, nothing about living in this world, nothing about Jesus the Christ Himself is solitary. Nothing about us is alone. We do this together or not at all.

We don’t sit on our hands and bark commands, we share. We must ask for help to receive it just as we must repent to receive forgiveness. Jesus reminds us of this all the time and then expects it of us. Just as He invites us to welcome and expect welcome in return.

In this way, we are all still children because we need to be taught, shown what GOD wants. We need to learn, to keep learning. Our mistakes, our negligence, our immaturity, is so easily revealed. Even our eldest members are not immune.

Thank GOD! That means there’s still hope for every one of us. Even you. Even me.

 

What does Jesus communicate?

I have this feeling that we all live with a paradox about Jesus. On the one hand, we feel confident, every one of us, that we could actually answer that question What Would Jesus Do? And, at the same time, when pressed on what Jesus’s most important message is, we shuffle our feet, look at the sky, and whistle “She’ll be comin’ ‘round the mountain”.

How is it that we can be so very confident that we know what it means to follow Jesus and yet so unable to speak about it? Or be specific? Perhaps it is because we often have an easier time saying what Jesus is not about than what He is.

The church has always had a communication problem. Primarily because in the gospel accounts, Jesus very rarely answered specific questions for His followers. Instead, he told stories and taught them to come at the problem from a different way.

We also receive in the stories about Jesus, moments that were not direct teaching for His followers, but moments in which He confronts the religious authorities or crowds based on how they interpreted Holy Scripture. Usually challenging their hard-hearted approach or blindness to hypocrisy.

In the end, Jesus didn’t build a church, elect a vestry, write up by-laws or canons, or register as a non-profit with the federal government. Just like the way He taught, His expectation was that He would teach people how to bring the Kingdom closer, give them the authority to do it, and it became their responsibility to actually do it. He showed them a pattern of relationship that they could follow. And they did.

That pattern can be found in Jesus’s parting words (according to the writer we call Matthew):

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Jesus’s presence or saving grace isn’t the thing, but the thing remembered. The thing is making disciples of all nations. In the wrong hands, these words become abusive, coercive, and destructive: demanding obedience to a particular doctrine. However, in the right hands, they reveal the very character of Jesus’s ministry, with the conviction that we are to do the same.

This way Jesus communicates the Gospel means that we primarily communicate through discipleship, after we become disciples. For we can only know Jesus’s intent as we better know Jesus. The same, then, can be said about our church.

Many communication problems are actually intimacy problems. These are times when we aren’t following Jesus together or making new disciples. We aren’t taking on the Great Commission for ourselves or wearing the very character of the apostles.

Trying to see Jesus’s expectation for us by rote memorization or simplistic platitudes is like teaching your child to ride a bike with posters from Successories.

so helpful

so helpful

The funny thing, however, is the child’s learning only comes through doing. She has to move the pedals and propel the bike and make her muscles work. She has to build the patterns herself. Less teaching at and more teaching with.

It is through these postures and practices that we can better understand what Jesus is talking about in the parables and get a better picture of Jesus’s view of the world.

Jesus teaches us that the Good News is heard and shared. We learn and teach. We follow and bring in other followers. The communication isn’t the thing, the intimacy is the thing.

Step one: find someone to learn from or teach. Then we’ll worry about step two.

Hobby Lobby decision restricts religious liberty

Today’s decision does not expand religious liberty, but restricts it. In a Darwinian example of the rights of the powerful expanded on the backs of the weak, the Hobby Lobby decision is a boon, not to Christians, but to corporations and a particular kind of pro-corporate Christian.

a gavel

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The Decision

Despite the media coverage of the Hobby Lobby case and today’s decision, we aren’t seeing an expansion of religious liberty under the law. We’re actually seeing the opposite. In siding with Hobby Lobby (and Conestoga Wood Specialties), the Supreme Court has used religious liberty as a means of expanding corporate power. In the argument for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito writes:

“A corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends. An established body of law specifies the rights and obligations of people (including shareholders, officers, and employees) who are associated with a corporation in one way or another. When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people.”

Nothing here speaks to religious liberty, but notice that Alito expands the protection given by Citizens United to suggest that a corporation is not actually a thing in itself, but a collection of individuals. So it is their personhood that the court is protecting. Except that in this statement, Alito even admits that, in collecting individuals in this way, the law “specifies the rights and obligations of people…who are associated” with it. This is not so much corporations as people, but as accounting gimmicks to game the system.

It means corporations grant people super powers under the law. It’s like personhood 2.0.

I don’t see, then, how the corporation can be afforded any rights or even standing if it is an empty apparatus to protect the true plaintiffs: David and Barbara Green. If Hobby Lobby actually is a corporation, and itself a legal entity with standing, bound by the “rights and obligations” of the law, it would certainly shield David and Barbara Green. However, it would also protect its employees from David and Barbara Green under those same rights and obligations.

Hobby Lobby can be the Green family or it can be a corporation, but it can’t be both.

Except that now, somehow, it is.

This is great news for the Greens because they suddenly have a ton of extra power. And it is great news for others in that very same boat. Chic-fil-A, you don’t want to be outdone by Hobby Lobby, do you? However, this is bad news for religious liberty.

The court has now given an organization started by a religious family the same status as actual religious organizations, only they have different rights and obligations. So, instead of granting individuals any rights or expanding the already considerable protections given to churches and religious institutions, this shields for-profit corporations from normal restrictions they receive under law for being corporationsJustice Kennedy is cool with that, because apparently he doesn’t think the law’s authors worked hard enough.

If the Greens want Hobby Lobby to be a religious organization, I think they have every right to be. They just have to stop being a for-profit corporation and actually be a religious organization under existing laws that govern actual religious organizations.

Restricting religious liberty

Since this case that The Religious Organization Known As Hobby Lobby brought is about restricting employees’ access to particular medications, it cannot expand religious liberty. It is not a positive expression of religiosity, but a negative one. The case actually enshrines the infringement of the employees’ religious liberties.

In making the case that the Green Family was being restricted from restricting others, and that such a restriction infringes on their rights, the court accepts as lawful a religious exemption for infringing upon others. In this case, the religious liberties of those who not only see family planning as a human right, but an honest expression of their religious faith.

By granting TROKAHL the right to restrict other people’s religious expression as their religious expression, the court is setting a dangerous precedent for how religious organizations, members of religious organizations, and free-range religionists interact. Considering this particular religious expression runs counter to the beliefs of the vast majority of Christians, how are they so comfortable calling this a case of religious liberty? Would the court be so cavalier if the Green Family were restricting the faith and practice of their employees if the Greens were from a different religious tradition?

And further, if the court is not willing to allow different infringements, including religious restrictions not related to contraception, then what kind of religious liberty are they actually enshrining? What is the purpose of allowing these particular people to restrict the religious liberties of these other particular people for this particular reason if this isn’t the very legal framework they will adopt for virtually any other case of religious liberty?

It restricts our faith

Contraception, family planning, women’s empowerment, and reducing infant mortality are all part of a broad sense of mission work, recognized by my most Christians. This work comes from a great spirit of service and giving to those less fortunate, and more over, those with less power and fewer opportunities. These, along with the eradication of extreme hunger, the promotion of gender equality, combating disease, ensuring environmental sustainability, and global partnership for development form the bedrock of the Millennium Development Goals; a global initiative supported by millions of people of faith all over the world. It is a broad coalition of people, who, for more than a decade, have sought to make these goals a reality.

So many more people of faith in this country and throughout the world have stood up and articulated the need for broad support of those with greater economic insecurity, those without easy access to life-saving materials or medications, those without the circumstances that would allow them to gain, not only the ears of the powerful, but put them within a hundred miles of those ears and with a such a voice as to be heard. We have spoken time and again to the importance of contraception and access to family planning as necessary to producing a faithful and just society.

The Court’s decision actually restricts how faith and religious expression is understood under the law by making it about individual conscience, but without the conviction or support of religious community or the weight of religious tradition. In other words, they made this ruling be about the individual faith of the Green Family and their individual right to express it negatively. This is an ironically Protestant understanding of faith coming from a five Catholic majority.

In fact they showed little respect for either the religious traditions or the science that under-girded the merits of the case.

What the decision does, however, is raise an individual’s right to infringe on another because of his/her faith and restrict access to contraception above my entire denomination’s public support for the use of and access to contraception. For, if this actually were a case of expanding religious liberty, the court would be concerned for any Episcopalian or other person of faith in the corporation whose access to religiously sanctioned and encouraged methods of family planning were being violated or restricted. If this were honestly about religious liberty, the people of all faiths would have been protected from the Greens.

Instead, the court protected the Greens, and worse, carved out a completely new expression of religious liberty. The freedom to cause pain.

Because, I guess, God wants them to.

This doesn’t expand religious liberty, nor is it a victory for religious liberty. One family has more power, and their thousands employees in over 500 stores have had their religious liberty infringed.

But you and me and our entire religious traditions? Our history and our teaching? The weight of institution and movements? And all of those moments in which churches stood up to the powerful and vile and destructive and the selfish and said “No more! Not here!” and brought down slavery and moved for equal rights for all sorts and conditions of people, and who continue to push for the full equality of those marginalized and ostracized, we the inheritors of a grand and ancient tradition of prophecy and concern will continue to stand up.

Even if a single family can simply claim religious exemption and be treated as our equals. This new for-profit religious organization will never be the church as long as it continues to be the tool of empire. For we know the difference. It is now our job to help the Supreme Court see it, too. Because the Kingdom Jesus speaks of can never be found if we are only individuals.

Nor will it ever be found if all we are is a collection of individuals. Incorporated for profit. And GOD, too. But definitely profit first.

Welcoming is Loving

Why the word you want is proclaim, not communicate

a Homily for Proper 8 A

Text: Matthew 10:40-42

a couple

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight cc

Getting into it

I struggled with this text a lot. Way more than any text in months. You wouldn’t guess that three little verses would be so hard. And you certainly wouldn’t expect a lectionary text about welcoming and sharing and giving to be a hard text to preach on Social Media Sunday, either. When I first read it, I said to myself “perfect!” Adding the kiss of death “Well, that should be easy!”

The reason it was hard to write is not because of my need to do too much (though that played into it). It was not because the subject matter is all that hard in itself (though it is more complex than it looks). It was because I wanted the perfect story to go with it. I just couldn’t find it.

This part of the gospel story is Jesus preparing His disciples to go out into the world, doing the ministry He gave them authority to do. Ministry that would take them all over the world, healing and restoring people and communities. Ministry that would take them into bad places and good places where the disciples would face serious conflict and may even lose their lives. He was teaching them that they don’t need to worry about what they are to say when on trial because of their ministry, for the words will come to them regardless.

Then He tells them about the Divine Household and how different it would be from their own homes. That they may be separated from their parents because their parents wouldn’t understand that family doesn’t come first and never comes first, for only GOD comes first. That parents will want you to think it is about family and about what they want from you and the disciples must be prepared to say “no.” That to GOD, we are all children, little ones. That we give a cup of water to one another as children, not as the other’s servant or master or even parent.

We struggled with some of this last week, of course. This week we get the conclusion of the big speech. Welcoming another person is welcoming GOD. We get prophets, righteous, little ones, and disciples. We get welcome, share, give: a whole host of signature Christian ideas. This is fertile soil for preaching.

I struggled with how to communicate that this is a gospel about communication without actually saying that. Because we’re told that people need stories and relatable tips. They need to hear how this relates to their personal lives. But the very subject of this story is story! The very subject is their lives!

Here’s how we’ll do that today.

Gospel -

Who remembers what the word gospel means? [Good News.] There are no books called gospels and no writers of gospels, but writers who witness to the Gospel. That’s why we call this book The Gospel According to Matthew.

So already, we’re not talking about the particular words, the semantics, the logistics, the details, the harmonizing of all the stories about Jesus into one absolute literal truth because we have no means of getting there from here. What we have is a story that reveals a part of the Gospel, the Good News of what GOD is doing with the world.

Proclaim -

Next, we have proclaim. What does it mean to proclaim the Good News? At its most fundamental, proclaiming is about revealing what GOD is up to in the world. Sometimes in words, but always in actions. Welcoming is one of those actions.

Communication -

This is not a church word, but we use it and misuse it all the time: communication. If I were to say “up” you would say…[down]. Why? All I said was “up”! I didn’t ask for an antonym! In fact, I didn’t give you much instruction at all! So why did you say “down” and, more importantly, why did I know you would say down?

We do this because we were taught that the only proper response to saying the word “up” is to say its opposite, its antonym, “down”. We aren’t born thinking that. There wasn’t a subject in school that taught us to do that. Our families taught us. And perhaps most importantly, Jesus did not.

We are social creatures

The word communication is loaded because it means too many things. The first five definitions of the word according to Wiktionary reveal how many ways we really use it. We use it to speak to the subject, the method, and the act. We use it hierarchically (as in top-down) and laterally (between peers). We use it as sending out (monologue) and as a back-and-forth (dialogue).

We most often confuse communication with being social. With interacting with one another and sharing what we want or need or hope or give thanks for. Being “in-the-loop” is not about communication, but about location: being in the midst of the interaction. About locating one’s self into the loop. Hearing, saying, and sitting and being with other people. These needs are matters of social connection, not communication methods.

We aren’t called to communicate about GOD, but proclaim what GOD is doing in the world. Which includes who GOD is building us to be.

Sharing the Good News

The scary thing in today’s excerpt from the story is that Jesus prepares His disciples to get out and get social with strangers and people that they don’t know. Pushing them out and saying “You’ve got what you need. See you when/if you get back!”

He speaks to the welcoming of the prophet and the righteous, both. The prophet speaking the hard words of GOD and the righteous speaking the just words. The welcome of outsiders and hope-bringers and justice-seekers and the diligent and the different and the troublemakers and the provokers and all those bringing the Divine Household is assured, which is great if that’s who we are! Scary if we are called to welcome all of that riff raff here in our midst and thank GOD continuously for them, sharing, giving, loving them.

That is welcoming in a nutshell. It isn’t about patting our friends on the back, but inviting in those who challenge us and push us, and more, meeting them where they are at. But it is also about expecting them to offer the same welcome in return.

That’s why this news is good: it’s not about the differences between us, but the love we share with one another. For love is the Good News and the expression of the Good News. It is how we receive the Good News and how we give the Good News. It is even how we know the Good News.

So today, the invitation is simple. Look for the love, the Good News. Then share the love. And keep sharing it. With your friends and with the world. For the love is here. To be captured in pictures and in stories; in prayers and thanksgivings; in hopes and even in 140 characters. These people, all of them, need our love.

Our welcome to them, in all of its forms, is our love.

 

My neighbor has a strange view of GOD

You can’t save yourself, but…

A couple of months ago, my neighbors put out a simple yard sign with an open book and block letters across it. The sign read:

The wages of sin is DEATH!!!

the sign kind of looked like this one

I drove by it many times, each one thinking “I know which neighbor I don’t need to invite over for Christmas dinner.” Or maybe I do and just probably won’t.

Then, after some time, they started changing the words on the sign. Apparently the text is re/movable. I noticed this on the way in:

By grace ye be saved, not by WORKS!!!

same with this one

Another popular protestant phrase. And I was about 100 yards further when it dawned on me. Do they not see the conflict between these two signs?

In one sign we have actions leading to condemnation.

In the other, we have actions having no merit in the matter of grace.

I had never noticed how strange this, quite popular theology actually is. That works can lead to death, but not to grace.

You can only talk yourself into a ticket.

I was told once that you should not over share when you are pulled over by a police officer. Let them tell you what they want. Let them ask questions. Respond only when spoken to. The reason is that they have, more often than not, already decided whether or not to give you a ticket. You are not likely to talk yourself out of one. But you may talk yourself into one.

You can only talk yourself into a ticket. Is that really how GOD operates? Like a cop who only cares about the rules and is on the lookout for opportunities to think you are being too obnoxious to get away Scot free? Are these not the same ones who insist we refer to GOD as father?

A strange view of GOD

I wonder how many Christians believe GOD works that way. That GOD is already planning what is going to happen to you. That nothing you can do could delight or please GOD more. But you could certain earn GOD’s hate.

What parent wouldn’t love their child unconditionally? And yet what father is incapable of being proud or thankful for a child; lacks the wisdom and love to ever become more pleased with their child; yet they certainly could hate them more? What kind of monstrous parent is so fickle and vile? What kind of horrible parent is this GOD?

As a parent, I am constantly pulled into love with my kids. The drawings, the sayings, the calls to come play. My love is not finite and fixed. It isn’t on the lookout for opportunities to viciously condemn. It is constantly surprised by the sweetness and beauty of my children.

I think, in that way, these signs are both wrong, despite their churchy sound and scriptural hat-tips. They don’t resemble the loving GOD who calls the children close and speaks, not only of disappointment, but surprise in their ingenuity. A GOD that would come to us in the form of a child, vulnerable, to know us, to be with us.

Sometimes a yard sign is just a yard sign.

blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy

This is what I need to read. How about you?

The Divine Household – Jesus, division, and a sword that cuts injustice

a Homily for Proper 7 A

Text: Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus paints a picture of the divine household that appears frightening: talk of swords and a divided family. But it isn’t the household that frightens, but the realization that our homes aren’t the the true household.

 

Listen to the Voiceless

Photo Credit: Joybot via Compfight cc

Scripture’s many doors

This morning’s part of the story is like a building with many doors. Each lets us in with a different, disturbing welcome. Different wall hangings, pictures, floor. Each troubling and confusing. Yet each will eventually bring us to the same room. If we aren’t distracted or if we don’t turn around and leave, that is.

Each door reveals things about the room, but none defines the room. They provide passage to that room. A room built for us.

These ways in are all so distracting. Things here about slaves and masters, whispers and shouts, sparrows and hairs on your head.

Scariest of them all is there, in the middle, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Visions of a violent Jesus, splashed across the wall, contradicting His own teaching, seeming to reveal His own hypocrisy. He divides us, or excuses us for our own division; our separation and creating an entire culture of “us and them”. This way, the text is an inoculation, a vaccine shot to protect us from all the other times Jesus implores us to come together or condemns our division.

Jesus as The Great Divider

I struggle with these readings, particularly when there is so much here; we swim in their contradictory waters, pulled/pushed and tossed.

And we read this excerpt, or we hear that particular part about the sword as just such a defense of violence. But this passage reminds me of another: Jesus’s trip home. There He warns that a prophet is never welcome in his home town. Indeed, Jesus is rejected and the crowds move to get their hands on Him. At that moment, we also see how Jesus feels about family: mother, sisters, and brothers all try to save Jesus from the angry mob. Jesus tells them that in that moment, that action, they are not His real family. His family is this group of disciples around Him.

Jesus’s redefining family is hard to hear in that passage, I think, in precisely the way that its hard to hear in this one. That Jesus sets child against parent. That our foes may be our parents or children. I worry that is too true the case for many of us.

I have never felt like the foe of my parents. But as a youth and young adult, I often felt like I was seen as an obstacle to the church. A commodity to be counted, but never used. A voice to be heard, but never one to teach. Certainly not an equal. I was always the disciple, taught to serve–which mostly meant serving a church full of teachers. Never were the table turned, never did our elders wash our feet; never did they take thatrole of Jesus’s.

Dysfunction is not normal to GOD

We can choose to see dysfunction in this text as normal, or defended by Jesus. Just as we use the line “the poor will always be with you” as an excuse to ignore the system that continues to increase poverty. Or we can take Jesus more seriously here than we do.

Each of these pieces: about the servants and the sparrows and the hairs and the hell: is about the household. A household kept and built by GOD. A household which embraces equality and rejects hierarchy; embraces public devotion and rejects private belief; embraces the worthless and successful; naming their true worth the same.

The division Jesus announces is a division between the household we inherit and GOD’s household. For our parents and their parents built a house where the poor are worth less than the wealthy, the sick are less than the healthy. Worth and place is built upon accomplishment and our desires to punish are much stronger than our will to teach and our hope to rehabilitate.

The division Jesus describes is between those who actually want the divine household, the Kingdom of GOD and those who seek to maintain the old one; those traditions of privilege which already legislate difference and separation.

The Household of GOD

The Good News in a gospel story about division may seem hard to glean, particularly when it calls for changing the way we believe, work, and behave. Especially for those of us with standing in the old household. Standing because of family name, ethnicity, income, gender, homeownership, education, any of the ways many of us are privileged by the household of empire. Perhaps worse is to think of our own parents as part of the wrong way. As for many of those of us here, that as parents, we were building the wrong household.

Except that Jesus’s household is ever coming closer as we continue to engage it; pulling and dragging it into this world. A household that never expects a child to submit simply because we “say so” but raises her to be more loving than we could be, more generous than our own parents were, more thankful than our grandparents were for GOD’s blessings. A household that is truly as much hers as ours. A household that doesn’t hold GOD above it, but expects GOD to join them, inspiring them to hope and give and play, creating the world GOD dreams we’ll build rather than the one we’re expecting GOD to fix.

This can happen. Right here. We are the laboratory for the divine household. A people of participation and love; of honesty and proclaiming the Good News–that Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not; of struggle and thanksgiving.

Jesus never said it would be easy. In fact, He suggests it is more like a matter of life and death. A life that can only be found if we embrace a new way: the household of GOD. That isn’t just good news for us, it’s great news.

Making a church for all

My entire life, I’ve felt lesser. As if my opinion didn’t matter.

In church, that is.

In the world, it was a completely different story. I was a good student, Honor Society and all that. In high school, I co-chaired a youth initiative for the regional community foundation and served the state on its youth service board. I don’t need to go on; you get the gist. I was listened to in school and in the community.

But at church, my voice was … well, ignored. Like an echo, bouncing around an empty cathedral searching for ears that would be open.

Even today, in my mid-thirties, seven-years ordained and serving as leader of the church, when I sit in a mixed group of people, my elders prefer to tell me what they think I’m thinking. They say young people aren’t in church and young people want this kind of music or that kind of experience.

Sometimes even looking right at me. Or past me, I suppose.

This is my experience, but it is an all-too-common one for many young Gen Xers and Millenials. And the next generation, unnamed, in our middle and high schools? Well, who wants to give them a seat at the table?

A Church for All2I do.
And I expect that they are more than capable of earning it.
They just don’t need another person depriving them of the chance.

I’ve written a manifesto, called A Church for All: Engaging Youth in Church and I want you to read it. To get a copy, go ahead and click the image or this colored text, and I’ll get it to you.

If you’ve already signed up for the mailing list, just put the info in again and you won’t be doubled up. Otherwise email me at drew@drewdowns.net and I’ll get you a copy.

I believe strongly that our youth and young adults have the capacity and the desire to be the church. They already are.

The problem is us. The problem is our desire to control.

Please read this e-book and share it with anyone you think needs to receive it. For this is our church. All of us. And we want that “all” to mean something.

Get the book.

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