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,

Meanwhile, over in Grantchester…

OK, OK, as an Anglican Cleric I confess that I watch Grantchester, that intoxicating mashup of crime mystery, bromance, soap opera and a dash of increasingly potent theology thrown in.

The third season sports an agonizing slow motion collision as emerging liberal Christianity accelerates and traditional faith and morals gets in the way.

The theological issues all locate around (tell me you didn’t guess) S_X. People want to “love” who they want, marital status, gender, age or social status be, well, darned!

It’s presented with some welcome complexity. In episode 3, the Vicar of Grantchester preaches an ueber liberal homily about being ourselves and grabbing onto this life rather than heavenly hopes. I can’t find a video clip but a UK source quotes a line,

“This is the life we are here for, we owe it to ourselves to live it.”

Seriously, that’s the triumphant theology that claimed my denomination and several others over the decades and you can become a priest or pastor by memorizing and spouting fortune cookie stuff like that. I’m guessing that many of you reading this will wonder why I seem to question it at all.

But the show doesn’t shy away from the reality that what follows the sermon, as key characters act on it, is folly and disaster. Families are threatened (the writers go so far as to show a little girl’s mounting trauma as divorce stalks her parents), a spot of December-May adultery gets obsessive, lies abound and along comes all the real stuff that happens when we poo poo the Gospel and take “what we owe to ourselves.”

But the liberal critique of “conservative” hypocrisy is not ignored. The Vicar tries to change course in episode 4, preaching a moralistic harangue about how giving in to temptation leads to suffering, then going off to his lover for more, well, must-be-love.

There is a closeted gay cleric in the series, and we watch in agony as he tries to “be good” on the church’s terms and proposes to a vulnerable woman, only to break her heart.

The bottom line is that when it comes to S_X (why is that the only aspect of life we debate theologically?), we can’t “live the life we owe to ourselves.”

Grantchester illustrates all too well what liberal Christianity does to people – not just the participants in the act but a whole lot of others who become collateral damage.

It also shows how traditional Christians who try to “have it both ways,” preaching Biblical morality while living carnally, generate the same result, harming themselves and all kinds of innocent bystanders in the process.

I’m old fashioned in the sense that I believe we should preach what the Scriptures say, try to live by them and deal with failures as failures, but with gentleness intended to restore the fallen (which includes each and every one of us, all the time),

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. (Galatians 6:1 NLT)

And I believe that people are free to reject Christianity and go do something else – the dice are ours to roll, to be flip about it. If a person thinks the Bible’s plain teaching is nonsense, then don’t claim to live by and represent it. The Vicar of Grantchester seems to have learned that much from the mayhem, taking off his clergy collar and walking away from the church, at least temporarily.

Driven or unloaded?

Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.  Matthew 11:29-30 NLT

Deacon John at HA
Deacon John and I share a moment at Church of the Holy Apostles, Sioux Falls.

I’ll be reading this and trying to offer some comments in Dinka this coming Sunday.   Deacon John came over to our house last night to help me with some pronunciation and understanding.  As my wife said, “That was two hours?  It went by like a few minutes.”  It was a blessed evening of Christian friendship.  Even our surly cat, who avoids company at all costs, made an appearance for Deacon John.

Let me interject that my interpretive bias toward Jesus’ words at the end of Matthew 11 is probably a combination of American farm imagery and liturgical church symbols.  The former associates the yoke with farming, as a contraption to guide dumb animals pulling your plow.  The latter involves the clergy collar and the stole, which represent the yoke of Christ as he guides, well, dumb two-legged animals to do his work.

So my preaching tends to be around the idea of being driven by Christ, which of course presents problems a) because only the clergy wear the symbols and Jesus is speaking to all who follow (not “are driven by”) him and b) because the text emphasizes the weight of the load, not the direction it’s going.

As my wife and I asked John about the Dinka word for yoke, he made clear that it is not something to which an animal is harnessed.  The Dinka culture prided itself on caring for thriving cattle herds, and to harness them for plowing or other work would be seen as “abusing the animal.”  The yoke is something people wear to help carry heavy loads.

The Africa Study Bible comments on the verse include,

20170704_163314
Levantine woman bearing a load.  (Olive wood carving from Israel)

It is common in rural Africa to see a mother, carrying  her child on her back while walking a long distance and carrying firewood or a bucket of water for the family on her head.  Yokes are not only for animals, but the poor or slaves might used yokes to pull loads on their neck and shoulders.

The Apostle Peter used this same imagery when arguing for the church to accept her new gentile converts, contrasting the heaviness of Old Testament Law with the lighter burden of the New Covenant in Christ,

Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.  Acts 15:10-11 ESV

So as pious as it sounds to be driven here and there by Jesus, he’s actually calling us (telling us – the Dinka follows the Greek, in which Jesus says “take” as an imperative) to drop a lot of old crud that we lug around in efforts to be holy (or some virtue signaling secular facsimile), and to take up faith in Him.

He’s telling us to carry the lighter load of faith, the assurance of things not seen.  We carry out – I have a new take on that phrase, for sure – what we learn from him, following him rather than being driven,

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Matthew 16:24 NLT

Rather than being driven to a destination while chewing our cud (or whatever yoked farm animals do),  we discover the direction by walking on by faith in Jesus, learning from the one who’s lightened the burden and imitating his humble, gentle way as we go.  The load will be easy, but the travel will be tricky,

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.  Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.  Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

OK, back to trying to pronounce some Scripture in Dinka.  Pray for me.

Oh, and since this is the internet, here’s that cat I mentioned,

sophia behind me

Tracts with Legs (moved by brains)

Do not let the men deceive themselves and others with the assertion that the “Man of the Lord,” as they call Him, Who is rather our Lord and God, is without human mind”…

…If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation.  For that which He has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved…

…But if He [Christ Jesus] has a soul, and yet is without a mind, how is He man, for man is not a mindless animal?

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 4th century

In the first few centuries of the church, some argued that the Christ came factory equipped with a divine mind so he automatically made the right choices, no big.  Yeah, he had flesh that could suffer and die, but the divine mind had it all under control.

Gregory of Nazianzus fought for the the position that Jesus, in order to save every aspect of human nature, assumed (took upon himself) every aspect of our humanity.  If he did not assume it, it couldn’t be healed and saved in Him.  He could not redeem our brain and transform it to know and carry out God’s will if he did not take it with him to the cross, through the tomb and back to the throne of the Almighty.

Across the millennia, Christians have from time to time disowned the mind.  Ecstatic visions, personal experience, ethnic/cultural/national traditions, feelings and other aspects of our humanity have been identified with the presence of God while the work of the mind has been discounted.

The tendency to disown the mind in our worship and service of God is a denial of the Biblical revelation of Jesus Christ.  It is to miss the reality that he saved us by taking to himself every aspect of our humanity, including our mind, with all of its challenges,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)

To divorce our faith from the work of the mind is to deny the full import of the Incarnation of Christ expressed in John 1:14,

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  (KJV)

If we infer that he did not have our gray matter, or that our gray matter is irrelevant to our life as his disciples in this world and as his transformed brothers and sisters in the next, we deny the Incarnation and do the work of the enemy,

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3 NASB)

I have a brother in Christ who is taking up this challenge in the context of contemporary American Evangelicalism, where cultural conventions and feelings-based-and-targeted techniques have disparaged the devotion of our minds to God.

He goes so far as to call this a sin needing the church’s corporate confession and repentance.

And he’s come up with a provocative approach to starting the discussion in our daily encounters…

Tracts with Legs

Give it a look.  (Even on Facebook). You might wind up a walking tract for our times.

Don’t click away just ‘cuz it’s about “love”

As I reflect upon Sunday’s Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary, I think that Televangelists with great hair are a better testimony to the majestic power of God,

And even the hairs of your head are all counted,

20160529_091828<<<<< than am I. Oh well. Just a musing, not my main point.

Back to Sunday’s Good News,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

It is a troubling passage. After all, the Lord also says that our love of others is part and parcel of the Great Commandment, as necessary as loving God if we are to please God. Sure, he calls love of neighbor the “second” but it is “like the first.”

Love for others is fruit of the Holy Spirit, by which Jesus says those who truly represent him can be identified.

The Apostolic letters of Christ’s New Covenant command love within families and among church members.

We can wax glib (which really means we’re on the wane, IMO) and say, God first, family second, work third.  But such slogans run the risk of Christ’s rebuke, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

The Father’s will is revealed in the Greek word for love that Christ speaks here.  It is philon, the word for affection between equals, as between siblings or friends.  It’s not about passionate feeling or over-the-top sacrifice or miracles,  but about the work-a-day bonds of life that manifest our priorities.

This is continued in the Apostolic teaching of James 4:4,

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship (philia) with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend (philos) of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Leading “normal” life attentive only to the people and stuff we enjoy, without attentiveness to Christ as a friend alongside us, is the adulterous friendship with the world against which James is warning.

So our ueber-friendship with God is not to plunge into religious zealotry, manifested in public displays of piety or “spirituality.”  Rather, it is to take up the cross (daily, as Luke reveals), walking in sometimes uncomfortable friendship with Jesus with the same attention to efforts, empathy and reactivity that we invest in family relationships and friendship bonds.  It is to treat our friendship with Jesus with at least the same intensity that we have for those we enjoy most in this world.

It is to be “on” all the time, not in some “religious” venue apart from the rest of our daily lives.  This friendship with Jesus is loaded with honor,  support and practical direction supplied by the Word of God, 

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philouos), for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

I bolded that last love because in this verse Jesus uses the term agapate, escalating from simple friendship to affection that manifests as self-sacrifice.  As Sunday’s Gospel puts it, Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The Good News is that if we walk as friends with Jesus, his power, not our anxious, straining will and effort, can take our love for other people to a supernatural level.

Reflections on Retail

After a catastrophic season of burnout, I stepped away from parish ministry and took an available job in retail to help maintain insurance and pay the bills.  And to see if I was the POS (pardon the coarse self-reference, but it’s what I felt at the time) I’d come to perceive or if I really did have anything worthwhile to lend to other people and organizations.

Long story short, I’m back to active ministry within the structures of the church, and I’m still with the retail gig.  I’ve received a good bit of healing.  God’s had a hand on everything in this strange passage of my life.

Working in a retail environment provides considerable insight that helps me better understand and witness to the message of Christ.  This week, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints a portion of Matthew 9, including

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

customer-e1278861373711
Lifted from here.

Working in retail camps me out among the harassed and helpless, for whom Jesus feels compassion.  It’s helps me “sit in the pews,” mentally, recognizing more of the stresses and strains that people bring to church.  I still don’t like the toxic ways in which they act them out, projecting them onto the clergy in particular and very often onto the other lay people, rather than receiving the transformation that Jesus offers them.  But I have more compassion than I did a couple of years ago.

I know what it is to give a long week’s effort for a few hourly bucks.  Yes, clergy are way underpaid – but so many folks in the “secular” workplace toil under more stressful, less uplifting conditions for longer hours for as little or less compensation.

I recognize that it isn’t only churches that that suffer busts having little to do with the quality of their efforts.  Folks in retail can do sustained, quality work only to watch hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars leave for a flashy, cheap or geographically convenient place that opens up a few miles away (or on the internet).  And I see how the “losers” in such shifts are helpless against harassing feelings of failure.

I watch managers in the retail setting and realize how much more harassed they are than I was as a congregational pastor.  Pressure from “corporate” to bring in more sales; pressure from customers aggrieved by this, that and the other thing; pressure from well intended laws and policies that force them to be accommodating to even their most lazy and incompetent employees; the normal human pressures from within themselves and their relationships.

I’ve gained respect for the South Sudanese members of one congregation I serve, many of whom work in a meat packing plant for long shifts and still manage to clean up and get their families to church.  I know more of how a work week can exhaust people, and what a precious offering working folks make to take part in worship, let alone all kinds of mid-week church stuff.  And retail is especially guilty of the diminution of Sabbath in our culture – we’ve turned so many aspects of not working into a feeling of added work.

Then there are the experiences that give me thoughts like, “OK, maybe I went a little nuts, but it’s not like the church isn’t a bit of a crazy-maker.”

There’s the reality that “I’ll pray for you” means more when I say it to folks in the retail store than when I said it as the expected (and often unappreciated) thing in church.  I used to keep a discipline of calling church members on their birthdays and asking, “What should I be praying for in your life?”  It became one of my most deflating and eventually abandoned practices, as time and again the reply was something like, “Oh, nothing.  You save those prayers for the people who really need them.”

Now, when I offer to pray at the store, I find myself and the person who wants the prayer huddling between teetering pallet loads of merchandise as our sanctuary.  I see tears in others’ eyes.  I hear sincere “God bless you”s in return for my fumbling words.  I got a heartfelt “God bless you” just this morning for doing a minor favor to help out a coworker.  The apt sharing of Scripture seems to reach people at the store whereas it often bounced off of people in the church.

This Sunday’s Gospel goes on to reveal that where people are harassed and helpless is exactly where Jesus wants his church,

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Working the retail job seems to drop me in that harvest field in a way that the church itself resists.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not rejecting the church; I believe that it is Jesus Christ’s body at work, the Holy Spirit’s Temple on the earth; the royal priesthood ministering to the Heavenly Father. Christians affirm the church as an expression of the reality and mystery of God in our Creeds, and I’m not finding excuse to deny that (which would be heresy on the way to apostasy).

I guess what I’m saying is that this retail job continues to raise questions even as it gives fresh perspective.

I welcome your prayers that I see and speak more of what Christ calls forth, and that I do so as a living member of the church he desires.

Musings on messengers (a prelude to Trinity Sunday)

Dinka ground breaking
Yours truly (right), sent to bless the ground breaking for a Dinka family’s (dad on left) new home in South Dakota.

The Dinka title for the Book of Acts is Dutuuc (DuTOOCH), from a root meaning messenger or someone sent.

This captures the sense of the New Testament Greek apostolos. The church is apostolic, we say in the Nicene Creed. We are sent out by Christ, to make his appeal to the world.

A Dinka pastor friend explained to me, It means we are sent out to bring others in.  Jesus sends us out to bring others into the church.

I wonder if that is informed by the Dinka identity formed in cattle herding.  It would resonate, in that sense, with shepherding images of God such as Psalm 23, John 10 and Luke 15:1-7.

But what first came into my mind was John 20:21,

Jesus said to them again,“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (ESV)

Jesus was sent (apestalken in NT Greek) – that is, he was “apostleized” – and now he sends us.  But there is a big difference –

He is the one fully sent by God, the only complete apostle, according to John.  His mission is eternal, and we are sent temporarily.  The Greek used in so I am sending you is pempoa word of temporary sending like “run an errand” or, physically, “to thrust in.”  John emphasizes this by emphasizing the word disciple and avoiding the title apostle in his Gospel’s references to the members of the church.

The Son is the eternal expression (Logos) of the Father, as John preaches so beautifully in his first chapter.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit (20:22) we are included, albeit in mortal expression, in the life and work of the Holy Trinity.

The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, says the Creed.  And we are mortal, formed of the dust, and to dust we shall return.  Yet we are thrust, full of life in the Holy Spirit, into a dying world as messengers of the eternal Word, that others will come with us to share his eternal life.