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)

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)

Jesus left that place…

[What follows are my thoughts for an upcoming visit with the Dinka congregation at Church of the Holy Apostles, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.]

Go Yecu jaal eeti  (Matthew 15:21, Dinka, from the Gospel for the Sunday closest to August 17th, Revised Common Lectionary) Then Jesus left that place…

Jesus and his disciples were healing and answering questions near the Sea of Galilee, where he grew up.  He was with his own people, near his own home, speaking his own language.

Go Yecu jaal eeti – then he left that  place and went to what is now Lebanon, the District of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus and his disciples were in a different culture.  Some of the people were called Canaanites, the pagans that the Jews’ ancestors fought agianst for the land.  Sidon was the home of Jezebel, the Queen to Israel’s King Ahab, who together led another generation of Israelites to pollute the land with idolatry, oppression and bloodshed.  His disciples did not think well of the people there.

But Jesus went there and, through a hard conversation with a local woman, gave his blessing and opened the way for his Good News to come to people there.

The Dinka people lived for a very long time in South Sudan.   Much violence came to their land and culture.  Some of the Dinka then left that place.  Like the disciples of Jesus, they must have been confused as they traveled to other parts of Africa, and then to many other places around the world.  They were called Lost Boys and Lost Girls.  But Yecu Kritho walked with them.

Some came to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  This was not easy.  It gets colder here than any Dinka ever experienced in South Sudan.  People here speak a different language that is not easy to learn and do things very different from Dinka traditions.

But I believe that the Dinka are here not just for their own safety, although that is good.  And not just to help other Dinka, although that is good.  And not just to keep Dinka culture alive, although that is good.

The Dinka are here because Yecu Kritho walked with you here to help Americans know him better.  The Dinka are here as Dutuuc – his apostles and witnesses – to help Americans hear God’s word like it is new – Lek Jot de Yecu Kritho.

This is what Jesus promised his church would do.  The Holy Spirit – Jandiit Lajik – would provide power to Lost Boys and Lost Girls to travel all over the strange world with Jesus and to share God’s glory wherever they went.

We bi rier loom te cii Jandiit Lajik ben enan week, ku we bi ya duleekcie ne Jeruthalem, ku Judaya, ku Thamaria eben agut piny thok eben.  

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  (Acts/Dutuuc 1:8)

Sioux Falls is the end of the end of the earth where Jesus brought a Dinka congregation.  He is with you here so you can help all of your strange new neighbors learn about him and have new life, here and cen de Nhialic, the kingdom of God.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZ

Jesus took three of his apostles with him, went up a mountain, and, for a moment, was transfigured from their familiar rabbi into the glorious Son of God.

And, like us, they were transformed by his presence… Nah.  Like us, they were sleeping through the whole thing,

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.   (Luke 9:32-33)

Ironically, the same thing happens when Jesus displays his vulnerable humanity in the Garden of Gethsemane,

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  (Matthew 26:39-40)

Like us, they were transformed by his Passion… Nah.  You get the picture.

People say things like, “If God would just tell me what he wants… If God would just be less mysterious… If God would just appear to me…”

He did all that.  Still does, through the Word as written in the Scriptures.  But it doesn’t matter if he shows up in glorious miracles or in the depths of human suffering.  We are “weighed down” with the weakness of our sin-dissipated human nature.  Our thoughts turn into day dreams and pipe dreams.  We sleep through his presence.

Nothing to be done for it, really.  Sure, we can “try harder to stay awake,”  but you can ask my wife how well I do with that after a long day at work.

Jesus Christ’s love for us is so great that he transforms our weakness to share his glory.  He has done and continues, through the Holy Spirit, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Through his perfect offering and eternal intercession for us, we are delivered from the sleep of death to share the unending day in the joy of our heavenly Father.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (Collect of the Transfiguration, Book of Common Prayer 1979)

Guess Who’s Coming to Church

I’ll make a long story short by linking to my own care giving blog, where I describe how my son with autism accompanied me on a preaching road trip.

To make the drive more pleasant, I pulled out our collection of hits by 60s/70s Canadian rock band The Guess Who.

About 90 minutes into the drive, while I was absorbed in worries about how my son would do at a strange (that is, new to him, no value judgement on the very kind congregation) church, the song Hang On To Your Life played.  I’d forgotten that the album cut ended with singer Burton Cummings’ lugubrious offering of Psalm 22:13-15 (King James Version),

They gaped upon me with their mouths
As a ravening and a roaring lion
I am poured out like water
And all my bones are out of joint
My heart is like wax
It is melted in the midst of my bowels
My strength is dried up like a potsherd
And my tongue cleaveth to my jaws
And thou has brought me into the dust of death

According to some sources I’ve consulted (OK, Googled), Cummings was having fun with his agony from a bad case of sunburn.  Just the same, hearing it as a Christian, my mind turned away from my anxious thoughts and toward the cross of Christ, which this Psalm foretells and from which Jesus quoted the first verse, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Such is God’s grace that playing The Guess Who as tranquilizing background music led to a behind-the-wheel contemplation of the cross of Christ, preparing me to preach him and to break the bread in proclamation of his death until he comes again.

Just for info’s sake, here’s a video of the song.  The Psalm is quoted at about 3:40.

There’s only two kinds of people…

How many jokes rely on the “two kinds of people” opening?

Our Gospel this Sunday isn’t funny, but Jesus presents a story in which humanity is divided into two kinds of people: children of the kingdom and children of the evil one.

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus represents the children of God’s kingdom as wheat and the children of the evil one (that is, the devil) as weeds. You can’t tell them apart much of the time. The wheat and the weeds of the time and place where Jesus first told this story look alike until the weeds bloom and can be identified as a toxic plant.

We are prone to shrug off some types of evil and say, “Hey, I’m (or he’s or she’s or they’re or we’re) only human.” The plants in the field in Jesus’ story are like that – they all look like wheat until a ripe moment in which the true nature of each plant is revealed.

Because of that, Jesus warns us against trying to rip out the weeds too soon. When the slaves (they represent the church, by the way) want to go pull the weeds, Jesus says, No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

Jesus promises a day when he will give the order to angels to separate the children of the evil one to go “home” to the fires of hell, and preserve the children of the kingdom in “God’s barn,” the peaceful and abundant heavens.

Meanwhile, we are to be patient and gentle in dealing with the human race, knowing that some sinners will turn out to be saints and some saints will turn out to be sinners beyond salvage.

While we wait for the great revealing, there are some qualities for which to watch in ourselves and others, indicators of those who are bearing the good fruit of the Spirit as children of the kingdom and those who are toxic with works of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Drawing from our lesson from Romans and the Gospel, here are some of those qualities:

  • Children of the kingdom are led by the Spirit of God; Children of the evil one live according to the flesh.  The Apostle Paul explains this in detail in Chapter 5 of his Letter to the Galatians,
    • Now the works of the flesh 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.  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
  • Children of the kingdom often suffer while doing right – Paul says we share Christ’s sufferings; children of the evil one seem to get away with murder.
    • They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.  Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. (Psalm 73:4-6)
  • Children of the kingdom long and hope for the kingdom, in fact, we pray thy kingdom come every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer to our Father in heaven;  children of the evil one care only for their current gratification, as the struggling and misguided priest in the British series Grantchester preached in a disastrous sermon, This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.
  • Children of the kingdom practice patience, going gently in the world as we wait for Jesus to return and render the justice that he alone is fit to dispense; children of the evil one inflict all kinds of harm on the world, often while claiming to do good, even justifying their actions as “the will of God.”

That’s stuff we can see in the here and now.  We won’t see the final verdict until Our Lord returns.  At that time,

  • The children of the kingdom will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father; the children of the evil one will burn in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I had a visit from a long time friend last week.  He shared about his experience in a church that appeared to be full of children of the kingdom – and, in fact, probably is – but which also practiced the rash judgment against which Jesus warns.  It was one of the Protestant churches that is harshly anti-Catholic.  My friend had a Catholic grandmother who, by his new church’s statements, was an idol worshiping child of the evil one.

His objection, although not in these exact words, pointed out how his grandmother showed all the signs of a child of the kingdom:

  • She was led by the Spirit, starting every day early with prayer, especially prayer for other people.  Yes, she prayed using Rosary beads.  But her daily routine and attitude were clearly fruit of the Spirit.
  • She suffered while doing right.  Illness and age took a toll on her, but her focus remained on the well being of others.
  • She longed and hoped for the kingdom, praying daily for it’s arrival and inviting others into the Christian life as she understood it through the Roman Catholic Church.
  • She was patient and gentle in a world of family squabbles, harsh judgments and her own pain.

My friend and brother in Christ understood intuitively (or, more accurately, in the Spirit) that his grandmother was one who would shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father – in fact, that light was shining from her mortal life as well.

May we be guided by the Spirit to hear Jesus’ story and Paul’s teaching and live our lives in the Gospel’s truth, with acceptance of our share of suffering, even when it seems unfair, with hope for the kingdom to come and with patient gentleness toward others, praying for them to shine like the sun in the perfect kingdom without end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

On the other hand, there’s Clint’s advice,