You never know…

This morning one of the readings made me wail and lament my mixed motives and weak efforts as a disciple of Jesus,

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (I Corinthians 2:11-15)

But God’s mercy is great where my works are puny. My book, through a friend of a friend of a friend, found its way to a pastor in Texas. Even though his is not a family with autism, God used one of the reflections in the book to help him find the Scripture on which to build his most recent sermon. And it helped him in a week that presented challenges to him, personally, and to the people he serves.

Here’s the sermon. I thank God who, in the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, uses our efforts above and beyond our limitations as he makes us ready for an eternal reward.

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More than a symbol

September 14th is Holy Cross Day.  Like many church calendar days it has uncomfortable entanglements with legends and claims that go beyond the Gospel message, and the content of prayers and commemorations vary across Christian traditions.

That said, the cross of Christ should always draw our attention, and not as a mere symbol of a religion,

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  (The Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 1:17)

The cross is full of power, he says.  Verses like that can get us into the shadowy border of faith and magic, of course.  Yet our contemporary way of thinking does empty the cross of its own, distinct power, turning it into a mere symbol to support this or that cause or claim.  It becomes one more noise maker in our din of conflicting opinions proclaimed as life and death truths.

Sometimes other cultures can help us reconnect with what the Spirit reveals through the Bible.  The late missionary Marc Nikkel shared this report from Africa,

In April (1997) Kakuma (a refugee camp in Kenya, extended “home” to many displaced persons from Sudan and South Sudan) was hit by an epidemic of cholera, the result of poor hygiene due in part to contaminated water containers.  While official reports state that some twenty people died, several NGO (non-government organizations) staff and educated refugees vow that over a hundred expired during a five-week period.  Diagnosis of the disease and measures to stem its spread were slow in coming, with at least four deaths daily over several weeks.  As camp officials struggled to put health measures in place, refugees became increasingly frightened, and Kakuma’s ECS (Episcopal Church of the Sudan) women assumed spiritual authority.

The women report how, one day in May, they banded together in a force of some 520 to lay siege against the powers of death.  Carrying their hand-held crosses, they marched around Kakuma’s main hospital compound where some 108 people were understood to lie ill with cholera.  Praying and singing they converged at the heart of the complex.  There, with the permission of hospital staff, they planted a long, wooden cross in the earth and called on God to restore life to the dying.  This, the cross of Christ, they likened to the bronze serpent erected by Moses in the desert, which brought healing to all the afflicted who looked on it (Numbers 21:8-9; John 3:14-15).  Indeed, as they narrate events, divine grace was imparted, the plague of cholera ceased from that day, and all 108 returned to health.

This was the first in a series of marches initiated by the ECS women in which they seek to supplement apparently impotent hospital care with initiatives of the spirit and transcend their sense of helplessness through united action.  Because these events are conducted in the Jieng language, non-Sudanese NGO staff have sometimes felt threatened by them, interpreting them as aggressive, politically styled demonstrations.  Undeniably, resolute masses of marching women, singing buoyantly, crosses thrusting in rhythm, have a military flavor.  For them, however, their processions are literal battles of the spirit in which they are supplanting the powers of death and oppression, as a composition they sang reveals,

“We are carrying burdens that oppress us; Great Lord of peace help us!

“We bear loads that lead us astray (from your way): Great Lord of peace help us!

“We accuse the enemy in your presence.

“Great Lord who has power, come near and help us, Christ help us upon the earth.

“O Protector against evil, our Helper O Father.  Christ help us!

“The suffering you suffered shows us how to live upon the earth.

“Come near and help us, Christ our Helper, our Father upon the earth!”

Dinka+church+cross+(1+of+1)
Dinka women carrying the cross.  From here.

To recent marches here in the U.S., in which flags symbolizing enslavement and genocide were waved as tokens of freedom; masks were worn as if able to conceal the free floating juvenile anger animating violent actions, or costumes resembling body parts were donned to celebrate the self, the demonstration in Kakuna, neither vilifying nor exalting any group on earth but seeking the well being of those who suffered, contrasts the power of the cross of Christ.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.  (Collect for Holy Cross Day, Book of Common Prayer U.S. 1979)

Don’t Call Us

There’s a bit from my book over at my care giving blog. A publisher’s page ran an excerpt. The book expresses our reliance on a greater caregiver,

“Jesus, the good gardener, teaches us that, as insufficient as we might feel, his care for our lives and the lives placed in our care is sufficient. He tends fruitless trees and gives them new seasons in which to flourish.”

Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

Our publisher’s site features a bit from our book today.

If you are grappling with frustration, especially if it’s born of perfectionism and the constant setbacks of care giving, you might find this little selection useful.

pathetic-7If our efforts to raise houseplants have been hit and miss, imagine some of the misadventures of raising a son with autism. Caregiving provides instant and constant experiences of inadequacy. Just as we’ve tried various strategies to keep the plants growing, we’ve sought out an array of therapies, settings, medications, specialists, diets and more to bring out the best in Joey’s life. And even with all that help, there are plenty of withered efforts to report.

It’s not all gloom and doom.  Some of the spiritual uplift (we hope) of the book comes in as well.

Hoping you have some good growth and blooming amid all your fails and weeds today.

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Naughty Parts

Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  (Romans 13:14, from the assigned readings for Sept. 10, 2017, Revised Common Lectionary.)

This is a verse that can get us away from the Good News of Jesus in a hurry.  It can be read as a Christian version of the ancient gnostic heresy, the denial of material reality in an effort to be “spiritual.”

It can of course be wielded as legalism, damning just about any pleasures we experience as “of the devil.”

But the New Testament does not discount our physical reality or disconnect it from our spiritual life.  While Jesus told us not to spend our lives worrying about material needs, he was clear that they are human needs and that God cares about meeting them,

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

When the Apostle Paul wrote negatively about “the flesh” in Romans and other letters, he did not mean our physical body in and of itself.  In the verse heard this Sunday he uses the Greek word sarkos, which does refer to our physical body but also carries the sense of our body driven solely by its own self-serving desires for pleasure and security.  The Greek philosopher Plato wrote of “the appetites,” a natural part of who we are but destructive when not guided by spiritual virtue and logical judgement.  We describe brutal or vulgar people as “acting like animals,” and “the flesh” might be called our “animal nature,” acting on impulse without direction from higher qualities such as a moral code or devotion to God.

Paul gives a more detailed description of this in Galatians 5:19-23,

Now the works of the flesh [sarkos] are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NRSV)

Notice how these works reveal our self working to crowd God and neighbor out of the picture; they are all about being pleasured, trying to control everything (idolatry – creating our own gods) and everybody (sorcery), fight-or-flight responses based on the perception of others as threats or rivals (envy is on that spectrum – “Hey, your antlers are bigger than mine.  Let’s fight.” – and various efforts to distort reality, even temporarily, to dwell in deluded comfort (drunkenness, carousing, and things like these).

These works of sarkos can feel good in the short term but destroy their practitioners over time.  Paul warns (and makes clear that it is a warning worth repeating) that those who live by the works of the flesh will not be part of the new heavens and new earth promised by God.

Forgive me a bit of word play here, but sarkos is from the same Greet root as our present medical term sarcoma,

Soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer that begins in the soft tissues of your body.

Soft tissues connect, support and surround other body structures. The soft tissues include muscle, fat, blood vessels, nerves, tendons and the lining of your joints.

Soft tissues are necessary parts of our body.  They connect, support and surround other body structures for the good of the whole body.  A sarcoma is these otherwise good cells turning malignant, warping and then vaunting themselves, destroying the body of which they are part and with it themselves.

The New Testament presents the church as a living body,

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV);

…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (I Corinthians 12:25-27 ESV)

Works of the flesh, like cancer, exalt an individual part and destroy the body, and ultimately the individual as well,

God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you [the Greek is plural, referring to all members of the church together] are that temple.  (I Corinthians 3:17 NLT)

There are good reasons for churches to have and exercise discipline over members. It is for the good of the church overall, but it is also a form of compassion, protecting members from fatal temptations.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells the church,

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  (Matthew 18:18)

It’s another Bible verse that people twist into all kinds of strange meanings, but it’s pretty clear from the surrounding verses that it is simply Jesus giving his church the authority to exercise internal discipline, always with a view to keeping the church together in love, regaining those who’ve given in to the flesh, and making its gatherings a true appearance of the presence of Christ.

I have friends involved in Benedictine communities.  One of their disciplines is to have a community reading from the rule of Saint Benedict, and then confess to one another, in the gathering, how each has broken or fallen short of the rule.

It is a way for all to share in the exercise of discipline, which is what Jesus authorized and what his first followers encouraged in the church,

Paul wrote, My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.  (Galatians 6:1, NRSV)

And James taught,  …remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.  (James 5:20 NIV)