Listening to One Woman’s Voice

The subject of abortion is once again topping headlines, with the recent passage of restrictive legislation in several states. Much is now being written and said about this, by voices in all sides.

One of my current spiritual heroines, The Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson (Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly of the PCUSA), wrote on Facebook: “FWIW, I’m super okay with men not talking right now, just for a little while.”

To honor Pastor Denise, I would like to shut up and welcome this guest post on the subject by another one of my spiritual heroines: The Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee (Co-Moderator of the Schmidt-Lee household from 2004-present… my partner).

The following words are Sarah’s, slightly edited for continuity and shared with her permission, from a private online conversation we had with an evangelical seminary classmate.

SARAH: I grew up pro-life and I’m still inclined toward treating conception as the beginning of life, mostly because I want to affirm to women who have experienced miscarriages and still births that their loss is real and their motherhood counts. So all the debate over when life begins and how we read passages of the Bible about breath=life or being known in the womb, etc, are not particularly interesting to me.

Where I come down is that no human life trumps the bodily autonomy of another person.

Now, I know that some people turn this around and say a pregnant woman’s life shouldn’t trump the bodily autonomy of a fetus growing in her body, and that because of their vulnerability/voicelessness, the woman should not have the right to cause them harm.

But that fetus does not yet have the ability to exist independently of the woman.

And there is no other situation in which we would force a person to make huge donations of their time, energy, health, future, and risk their own lives to save the life of someone who was unconscious, unable to communicate, and medically dependent upon their organ donation, blood or plasma donation or other donation.

As a Christian pastor, I would counsel a person asked to donate blood marrow or a kidney to a dying family member in the hopes they would make the choice to donate and save another human life, but I would still consider it a choice.

And I would never support legislation that would make such a donation required, or the refusal to donate a crime punishable by incarceration.

In a similar way, I would (and do) work with pregnant women to find ways for them to continue their pregnancy and bring a human being into the world who can live independently from their bodies. But I consider it the woman’s choice whether to offer her body in that way.

Now, my father, for instance, makes the case that a pregnant woman is responsible for the existence of this completely dependent life in a way that the organ donation illustration does not parallel.

Because, presumably, she chose to have sex, knowing that conceiving life was a possible outcome.

But, 1) that’s presuming a lot. It doesn’t take into account rape, lack of sufficient sex education, inadequate education in how to effectively use contraception, or those cases when the contraception fails.

2) There is also a man who is, presumably, equally responsible for the creation of this new life, but who cannot share in the donation of his own body and risk of his own health in the nine months necessary to nurture that life to independent existence. It is absolutely unjust for the woman to be legally required to bear sole responsibility for that shared decision.

I think the only piece I have to add is that criminalizing abortion is not (and has never been) effective at curtailing abortion rates. It does, however have a profound impact on mortality rates among women seeking abortion. And poverty of women and children. I found out a couple years ago that in the decades before Roe v Wade, there was a national network of safe, vetted abortion providers, and the network was led by mainline clergy. It was called the Clergy Consultation Service, and was formed by clergy in urban settings who were tired of finding out that poor women in their outreach ministries and congregations were dying from sepsis and other complications from backalley abortions. They were hearing horror stories of doctors who would charge women huge sums of money and perform illegal abortions, but then rape the women at the same time and the women could not report the assaults because they would get in trouble for seeking an abortion. These clergy ended up working with women in their churches to visit known abortion providers, going undercover to test their safety, sanitation, and ethics. And they would help women travel across the whole country to get to providers they could ensure were safe. You can learn more about this network through this book, among other resources: https://offercompassion.com/author/offercompassion/

I posted a couple days ago about shifts in state laws and federal law about fetal personhood that mean that the overturning of Roe v Wade (or “chipping away” at it, as some politicians suggest) would leave already vulnerable women in our society far worse off than they were prior to Roe v Wade.

And concerned clergy across the country are already beginning to organize in case something like the Clergy Consultation Service becomes necessary again.

Do I believe life begins at conception? Yes. Do I value unborn life as fully human? Yes. But legislation that prioritizes the rights of unborn lives over the bodily autonomy of women only causes harm to women and children, and I believe, our society as a whole.

One of Us

sermon – what if god was one of us?

When Rev. Rachel invited me to speak this morning, she jokingly said that I could be her “token Christian” and talk about Jesus. So, that’s what I intend to do today.

In a Unitarian Universalist context, it would be easy to talk about Jesus as a teacher of wisdom or the leader of a movement, but I decided to take a slightly more interesting path and talk about one of the distinctive theological principles of the Christian spiritual tradition: the divinity of Christ.

Before I jump into this subject, I think a certain disclaimer is in order. Something I have long admired about you, my Unitarian Universalist friends, is the way that you create a safe haven for so many people who struggle with and/or experience exclusion from other religious communities. This “love beyond belief” is an amazing gift that you offer to the interfaith community, and I heartily thank you for it. The fact is not lost on me that many who find their way to a Unitarian Universalist congregation come as religious refugees from Christianity, the very tradition I represent here today. I stand before you with a sorrowful awareness that Christians have deeply wounded some of you in the name of Jesus. Speaking as a Christian, I am ashamed and angry at these injustices that continue to be heaped upon others in the name of my religion. The greatest threat to Christianity in the world today is not Islam, secular humanism, or Communism, but Christians who refuse to practice the principle of unconditional love taught by our Lord and Savior.

For many of you, it is entirely possible that the path of healing is dependent on this faith community, where the acceptance of traditional Christian dogma is not a requirement for membership. I want to reassure you, at the outset of this talk, that this cherished aspect of your church is not about to change. I am not here this morning to convert or convince anyone toward any doctrinal position, Christian or otherwise. What I intend to do today is explore one way that the Christian spiritual tradition might be able to provide useful tools in the joint, interfaith cause of justice and compassion in this world. I hope these words of mine will be helpful to people from any or no religious background, including Unitarian Universalism.

In the song we just listened to, Joan Osborne asks a significant question: “What if God was one of us?” This is the very question Christians have been asking for almost two thousand years. Since the beginning of our movement, we have sought to take the idea of the Divine out of the heavens and give it flesh and blood on earth. In the theological language of our tradition, we call this attempt the mystery of the Incarnation.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is more than just an historic teacher and leader. Whether or not we take literally the biblical claims about his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is, for Christians, the eternally living embodiment of the Divine. Christians call him “God incarnate,” which literally translates as “God in-the-flesh.”

One of the most well-known titles for Jesus in the Bible and early Church is Son of God. This Messianic title, far from being a commentary on the historical Jesus’ parentage, is a statement about who Jesus is and what he reveals to us. Christians call Jesus the “Son of God” in the same way that others might look at a child and see reflections of the parent in that child’s face or personality. When I look at my seven-year-old’s features, I see my father-in-law staring back at me. When I hear my nine-year-old shout, “Look at me!” during a performance, I say to myself, “She is her mother’s daughter!” In the same way, Christians look into the loving eyes of Jesus and understand what God must be like. That is why we call him the Son of God.

This, I think, is the unique contribution that Christianity can make to interfaith dialogue: We find God in a person. Other religions encounter the Divine in sacred books and rituals. The prophet Muhammad (pboh) was the vessel through which the Qur’an was revealed; the Buddha taught the Eightfold Path; Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching. But Christianity is unique among the world’s religions insofar as we believe that Jesus Christ was not simply God’s messenger, but also the message itself.

Why is it important that Christians find God in a person? It’s important because you relate differently to a person than you do to a text or ritual. You can agree or disagree with a text; you can observe a ritual or not; but a person must be loved in an intimate way. I married my wife in a ritual; I abide by the limits set by the rules of monogamy; but the real substance of our marriage is in the love that is shared between us, as persons.

It is the same for Christians in our spirituality: we look into the eyes of a person and find there the embodiment of everything that is good and true. We look at Jesus of Nazareth and find in him the meaning of life.

One does not need to be a Christian, or even believe in God, to benefit from this kind of spiritual practice. Jesus himself never criticized someone for their theology, but thanked them for their trust. In the words of Jesus himself, the true measure of our faith is not in our religious observance, but in the way we treat one another.

Jesus’ followers once asked him,

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

And Jesus said to them, in Matthew 25:40 (look it up): “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Later in the New Testament, Jesus’ biological brother James, a bishop in the early Church, said to his congregation:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (James 2:14-17, 18b NRSV).

Christians believe the meaning of life was revealed through a person, therefore real people out to matter to us; Christians believe God took on material flesh, therefore matter ought to matter to us. Jesus taught us that the way we treat one another is a reflection of the way we treat God, therefore we are honor-bound to show our neighbors the kind of respect and sacredness we would show to God’s own self.

I would invite you this morning to turn to the person next to you, whether that person is your spouse, or a stranger, or anything in between. Look deeply into that person’s eyes. Try to imagine in that person what the early Christians saw in Jesus Christ. See in your neighbor’s eyes the meaning of life itself. Try to see in them everything that is good, or noble, or true. Continuing to look into that person’s eyes, hear in your ears the great wisdom of Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39).”

Friends, this is the great contribution that Christianity can make to the world around us, whether people follow the Christian religion or not: that God (or the meaning of life) can be found in people. Each of us carries a spark of the Divine within us, and therefore deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion.

As a Christian, I look at the seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism and find in them a helpful guide for living the faith that Jesus taught:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, I hope that you are able to leave this place today and find in the eyes of your fellow human beings the source of goodness, truth, and meaning for life. I hope that our time together today has inspired you to treat your fellow “strangers on the bus” with all the respect and dignity they deserve. And finally, if you can accept the term (in whatever way makes sense to you), I hope you have found the faith to answer Joan Osborne’s question in the affirmative: “Yes, God is one of us.”

Your Greatest Gift is You

Preaching on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI.

Click here to read Luke 2:15-21

Your greatest gift to the world is you.

Do you hear me in that?

Your greatest gift to the world, the Church, or your family is you.

This is an important truth that we are in grave danger of losing in the world. We live in a world that measures the “worth” of human beings in terms of the money they earn, the possessions they own, the positions they hold, or the degrees on their wall.

In a negative sense, this world judges people based on categories like race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We dismiss the ideas of our fellow human beings because they come from someone of a different political party or religious tradition. We project all our self-hatred and insecurity onto people who live with a disability, mental health diagnosis, or criminal record.

When we meet new people at cocktail parties, our first question is usually something like: “So, what do you do?” I would be far more interested to ask, “So, who are you, really? What makes you tick? What thrills/hurts you? What brings you enough hope to get out of bed in the morning?” (And that’s probably the reason why I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties…)

Truth is always inconvenient. Someone has said, “The truth will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.” As broken people living in a broken world, we are not predisposed to face the honest truth about who we really are. We are afraid that we are nobody, or that we are so ugly, stupid, and boring that no one could possibly love us, if they were to see us as we really are. So, we hide. We try to cover ourselves with the paltry fig leaves of our accomplishments and failures, thinking that we have successfully tricked the world into believing that this nobody is somebody, but secretly fearing that the truth about our inner nothingness might one day be found out.

Brothers and sisters, I come to you this morning with good news that these deep fears of ours are entirely unfounded. Beneath the tattered rags of the false identities we have constructed for ourselves is not an ugly emptiness, but the glory of the Divine Image that has been revealed and redeemed for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord. Today’s gospel recalls the eighth day after the Nativity, when the infant Messiah was brought to be initiated into the community of God’s chosen people through the rite of circumcision. Today is the day when the name of Jesus was first spoken out loud to the world.

There is tremendous power in a name. Names tell us something about who we are. Doctors put a lot of energy into diagnosis: accurately naming an illness in order to treat the patient. Parents know that if you raise a child, calling names like “bad, stupid, ugly, and worthless”, that child will grow up believing those things about him/herself and acting accordingly. In the Bible, names are of the utmost importance: the patriarch Jacob is given the new name Yisrael, meaning “he wrestles with God” after struggling all night for a blessing from an angel. Avraham, the exalted ancestor of Jews. Christians, and Muslims, is so-named because he is “the father of many nations.” Jesus names his disciple Petros because he is the “rock” upon which the Church will be built.

In today’s gospel, our Lord is given the name Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, which means “salvation, deliverance, or liberation” because he is destined to free God’s people from slavery to sin. The name of Jesus was not an arbitrary label attached to this person after-the-fact, but was first whispered into the Blessed Virgin Mary’s heart at the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel. At that time, the angel said of Jesus:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 NRSV)

The Holy Name of our Lord is a statement about who Jesus is. Behind and beyond the rough exterior of an uneducated, working-class carpenter, born in the parking lot of a Motel 6, in a backwater town of an occupied country, deeper than all of that: we can see with the eyes of faith the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

As millennia have gone by, the Church has continued to ponder the full meaning of Jesus’ identity. Bishops and theologians have met repeatedly in great Councils, endlessly tossing the question back and forth while the answer eludes them. After two thousand years, all the Church can really say is that the mystery of Jesus’ identity is a question that can never be answered. He is fully human and fully divine in a way that transcends human understanding. Anytime people have stood up and claimed to have the final solution to this problem, the Church has been quick to tell them they are wrong. Christian orthodoxy is not a matter of holding tightly to unquestionable answers; Christian orthodoxy is a matter of standing in reverent awe before unanswerable questions.

Even after all these years, the unanswerable question of Jesus’ identity continues to haunt and bless the Church on earth. We can never claim to fully understand it, but we can give testimony to our experience of it. And we express this experience in poetry, story, ritual, and song: that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, eternity has become embodied in time, heaven has taken up residence on earth, and divinity and humanity are now one.

Jesus reveals the mystery of his identity to us by entering into full solidarity with the human condition. In today’s gospel, Jesus enters into solidarity with the people of Israel through the rite of circumcision, which Jews today call a bris. The closest equivalent to this rite of initiation in the Christian tradition is the sacrament of baptism, which Jesus would also receive later in life, at the hands of his cousin John.

In baptism, we Christians receive our identity. That is, we learn who we really are in Christ. The water is an outward and visible sign of the washing away of the false identities we construct for ourselves. In the Church, we are no longer presidents or panhandlers, no longer grad students or gangstas, no longer trust-fund babies or crack babies, no longer doctors or drag queens. In baptism, all of these constructed identities are washed away: “We renounce them.”

In baptism, we are stripped of our fig leaves and stand naked before our Creator.

And this, brothers and sisters, is the Good News: that underneath the stained and tattered rags of ego is not the ugly nothingness we feared. In the moment of baptism, we stand beside the font, dripping and shivering like a toddler fresh out of the bathtub, and hear the voice from heaven saying to us what it said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son (Daughter), the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth about who we really are. This is the truth that God reveals to us by taking on our humanity and dwelling among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I dare you today to allow this truth to soak into the marrow of your bones. Allow it to transform you from the inside out. Allow it to turn upside-down the way you look at the world.

In baptism, Jesus liberates us from all our false, constructed identities. If you wash away everything you have, every one of your accomplishments and failures, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been said about you, what would be left? Only a mysterious voice from heaven saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved.”

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Jesus gives us eyes to see it. Jesus gives us the ability to see ourselves and our world through the eyes of God. This is how St. Paul is able to say, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)

This is why we make the promise, in our Baptismal Covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being”. We promise this because Christ is in all persons and every human being has an eternal dignity that deserves to be respected. You reflect the image and likeness of God in a way that is utterly unique, that has never been seen before in all of history, and never will be again. Without you, and without each and every person around you today, some small part of God would remain unknown forever.

And that is why I tell you today, brothers and sisters, that your greatest gift to the world is you.

Fully Human

Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church of Paw Paw, MI.

Click here to read the biblical text.

There are two great mysteries that are central to the Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles. As mysteries of the faith, they cannot be proved by philosophical reasoning, but can be experienced directly and expressed through intuition and imagination in the stories and practices of our tradition.

The first is the mystery of the Trinity: we believe in one God who exists co-eternally as three persons, traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The main thing we learn from the mystery of the Trinity is that God is relational. God exists, not as a monolithic object in space, but as network of relationships between individual persons. It would not be too much to say that God is a relationship. This is how Christians are able to say, in the words of 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”

The second great mystery is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we are gearing up to celebrate during Advent and Christmas. Christians believe, in the words of John 1:14, that God “became flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ. In other words, God is one of us. Jesus Christ, according to the Church, is both fully human and fully divine, at the same time. According to the mystery of the Incarnation, everything Jesus is, God is. Jesus Christ reveals the Divine to us. If we want to understand what God is like, we look at the human person Jesus.

These two mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are central to the Christian faith. They are also central to understanding today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells us a story of the Final Judgment. At the end of the age, the Son of Man (literally “the Human One”, Jesus’ favorite title for himself) will come to Earth in all his glory and divide the people of the world into two groups. One group, whom he calls “sheep”, and another, called “goats”. The “sheep” will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” while the “goats” will “depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

The basis for this final judgment, contrary to what we tend to hear from popular “evangelists” in the media, is not a test of theological doctrine or church attendance, nor is it a question of whether one has received the Sacraments of the Church or “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” The basis of this final judgment, according to Jesus himself in Matthew 25, is how we treated the most vulnerable people among us in this life.

Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

With a look of confusion on their faces, the righteous ask when it was that they did all these things, and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

What Jesus says here is firmly rooted in the central mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

From the mystery of the Incarnation, we learn that God is fully human, so Jesus asks us, “Are you fully human?”

From the mystery of the Trinity, we learn that God is relational, so Jesus asks us, “Are you relational?”

Much of the imagery that Jesus uses in this story comes from chapter 7 in the book of the prophet Daniel, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In that chapter, Daniel has a vision of four empires, which he envisions as vicious monsters that destroy and devour people with their violence. But then, Daniel says, “I saw one like a human being (literally “a Son of Man”…get it?) coming with the clouds of heaven.” And this “Son of Man” will repeal and replace the monstrous empires with the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. And Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.”

According to Jesus and Daniel, this is God’s ultimate vision for the human species: for a truly human kingdom to replace the monsters and empires that have the power on earth for now.

So, how did we get into this sad state of affairs? What happened?

Well, the Gospel tells us that our Triune, relational God created a relational universe and invited human beings to take our part in harmonious relation to the whole of creation, but we were not satisfied with this gift. We humans wanted to be the center of our own little worlds. We were ambitious to become gods, but became monsters instead. We destroyed and devoured one another in our lust for power, and set up exploitative systems that oppress our fellow creatures in the name of “law and order”.

God kept trying to reach out to us, to show us that there is another way, but we were unwilling to listen. So, God “took on flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ, showing us that to be fully human is to be fully divine. Jesus loved us, bringing healing, wisdom, and forgiveness into our midst.

But we were still unwilling to listen. Clinging to our old delusions of grandeur, we rejected Jesus and turned on him with all the monstrous might of imperial power. We crucified and killed this God-made-flesh in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up.

But Jesus wouldn’t take No for an answer: he rose from the grave on Easter morning, conquering the power of death and hell, and declaring peace and forgiveness to his deniers and betrayers.

After his resurrection, Jesus gathered his community of followers once again and breathed into their hearts the Holy Spirit, the very presence and power of God. Jesus made the Apostles into little incarnations of the Divine.

These Apostles were sent out to say and do the same things that Jesus said and did: gathering communities of lost and broken people, blessing the little ones, teaching, healing, forgiving; baptizing, confirming, and ordaining, human beings to be the hands and feet of God in the world.

These gathered communities, the Church, gradually spread and grew to the ends of the earth, continuing the Apostles’ mission, right up to this very day in Paw Paw, Michigan, where we have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit as the apostolic people of God in this place and time.

All of us have come here today to hear God’s Word and be fed with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, to give thanks, to pray, to give, and to be sent back out into the world, that we might take our part in the advancing kingdom of heaven on earth, saying and doing the very same things Jesus said and did when he walked among us in the flesh.

We are called upon today to live as citizens of the kingdom of the One who is fully human (and therefore fully divine).

This kingdom of heaven-on-earth is advancing here and now, just as Jesus and Daniel said it would. The kingdom’s advance is not always readily apparent, but it is real. In every age, women and men have risen up to demonstrate to the monstrous empires of this world the truth that there is another way to be human. We call these people “Saints”. But saints are nothing more than further examples of what life in this world could be, if we would but set aside our selfish, ego-driven agendas and pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

The marching orders of Jesus, our commander-in-chief, are clear: Feed the hungry, slake thirst, welcome foreigners, care for the sick, and visit incarcerated criminals.

The quality of our spirituality (and our divinity) is measured, not by our religious observance or theology, but by the quality of our relationships with hurting, broken, and vulnerable human beings, without stopping to ask whether they are worthy. This is what it means to live in this world as citizens of the kingdom of the truly human one, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, which is our clear and present hope.

Jesus asks these things of us, not because they work as effective policy in this world, but because they are right. Jesus asks these things of us because they make real to us the presence and power of our fully human and relational God. As a bonus, this strategy happens to make God real to others, as well.

Jesus asks these things of us because the kingdom of heaven is real and advancing across the broken terrain of this Earth. In every age, the saints of God have taken their place in this kingdom, living on Earth as if they were already in Heaven. Today, we are invited to take our place in this kingdom as well.

Our God is relational, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you relational?”

Our God is fully human, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you fully human?”

To the extent that we can answer Yes to those questions, we can honestly say that we are living in the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, and we are finally fulfilling humanity’s oldest and greatest ambition: To become divine.

Sharing the Keys

One of the blessings that Christian faith brings in a person’s life is a sense of purpose. God has created, chosen, and called each and every one of us. Some are called to do this as bishops, priests, and deacons. Some are called to serve ministries within the Church, such as the Vestry, the Choir, or the Sunday School. Some are called to serve the community outside the walls of our parish. All of us are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.

To fulfill this calling, we need the Church to raise us up “to the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13 NRSV). Through the Church, Christ baptizes and confirms us, reconciles us and heals us, enlightens us with the Word, feeds us in the Eucharist, and empowers us for ministry.

When new people come into the Church, they aren’t interested in simply being consumers of a product, nor are they interested in filling a pre-defined slot on a committee. They want to discover and realize that deep sense of purpose that God has placed in their hearts.

Christ understood this truth and used it to empower his apostles for ministry. He said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:19). Do you remember getting the keys to your first car? Your home? Your office? With keys comes power. By giving away the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Christ is willingly stepping aside to make room for others. He shares his divine power so that others can participate in building God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 5:10). We, as members of Christ’s Body in the world today, must do the same.

This can seem like a scary thing for long-time parishioners. We wonder, “What if the person with whom I share power proves to be inept or irresponsible? What if their vision for the Church’s worship and ministry differs widely from my own? What if my own parish becomes unrecognizable to me?”

These are indeed frightening questions, but the alternative is even more terrifying. We might ask instead, “What if our parish ceases to be a dynamic force for good in our community? What if there are people in my neighborhood who do not yet know the love of Christ, or the deep sense of purpose that life in Christ can bring? What if one such soul were to visit us and find only a stagnant institution that is wedded to its own comfort, rather than invested in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

Questions like these should chill us to the bone. To be sure, there are many parishes in the world today that fit this sobering description. I remember speaking once with an older parishioner (not at St. Thomas) who had a moment of clarity during a congregational crisis, when no new leaders could be recruited to continue the basic functioning of the parish. She was in her late 70s, speaking to a clergyman in his 30s. She observed, “When I was younger in the Church, I remember the older generation intentionally stepping aside to let us lead the Church in a new direction. It occurs to me now that my generation has not done the same thing for yours.”

To be clear, I don’t think the situation in our parish is nearly that dire. We are already making room for newer and younger people in leadership. The word “Youth” appears prominently on our signage, not because we have a large program for teenagers or young adults, but because we invite younger people to be present in all areas of parish life: Staff, Vestry, Altar Chapter, Choir, Sunday School, and Summer Breakfast Program can all point to persons under the age of 40 in their leadership. This is a great start. The next step is to learn from them, listen to them, and let their ideas and concerns challenge our status quo.

There is no competition here. We need each other. The solution is not for older or longtime members to go away or stop serving, but for those who currently have the power to share it willingly with those who do not. What we need from learned, experienced, and wise elders is mentorship.

Younger and newer members need the wisdom of their elders to guide them along the right path. Longtime parishioners need the dynamic energy of the young to drive them forward. If the Church was a car, the young would be the engine and the elders would be the steering wheel. Lose the steering and you have a dangerous wreck; lose the engine and you have a useless hunk of metal.

Christ taught his apostles saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:25-26).

Let us lead by becoming servants to one another in Christ. Let us make room for one another in the leadership of the Church. Let us share with one another “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” as Christ did with St. Peter. Let us set aside our power, our privilege, and our preferences and invite one another to fulfill the high calling that God has placed in our hearts.

you want it darker: on race, Trump, apocalypse, and the need for more prophets than priests. (reblog)

The demonic that is being manifest in America right now has been here since the beginning. But these spirits are uniquely acting out. Perhaps the best thing we can hope for, in such dark times, is that these are the convulsions of a spirit that, now that it is in the open, can yet be exorcised from our collective consciousness.

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I Am a Mainline Protestant Under the Age of 35. Yes, We Exist.

By Olivia Whitener

Reblogged from Sojourners.

I am a Mainline Protestant under the age of 35. Yes, we exist.

I spend (most of) my Sunday mornings sitting in a pew at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, singing old hymns, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer which I have had memorized since before I went to school.

At age 22, I make an effort to get my dose of word and sacrament before heading to brunch on Sunday mornings. Though I love the beach, I found greater joy in singing songs and leading Bible studies at a mainline church camp during my recent summers.

I love the sound of an organ.

Unlike 35 percent of my age-group peers, I hold much of my identity in my Christian tradition. But while many are losing hope in the church as a community and institution, I experience a place where I can struggle alongside others and find support. There are many ways the church has failed us; religion is often used to justify gross injustices, leaving many feeling abandoned by the place where I have found a home. And sometimes being a Christian and being a member of a worshipping community is hard, because it is another responsibility on our shoulders and it requires us to give back.

It isn’t always convenient, but here’s why I stay…

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Level Up

super-mario-bros-pc-game-_imagenGrande1I am very much a product of my generation (the 1980s). I’m right on the tail-end of Generation X, not quite a Millennial.

The generation right before mine (my parents) was the first TV generation. They grew up watching television, instead of listening to the radio or reading books aloud. I remember my grandparents being scandalized by television: they thought Elvis Presley’s hip-gyrations were obscene (I’m thankful they didn’t live to see Miley Cyrus’ twerking).

The generation after mine (my kids) is the online generation. They don’t remember a time when the internet didn’t exist. Their experience of watching TV is totally different from mine as a kid. They never have to look at a TV guide or be home at a certain time to catch their favorite show, but my three-year-old already knows the difference between Netflix and Hulu (and has very strong opinions about which one is better).

My generation, on the other hand, is the Nintendo generation. We grew up slamming plastic cartridges into consoles and sitting almost motionless in front of screens for hours at a time, while our thumbs flew over the controllers at the speed of light. When Mom thought we’d had enough, she would send us outside to play in the fresh air (at which point we would simply run down the street to play Nintendo at a friend’s house).

When you grow up as part of the Nintendo generation, there are certain concepts that you just kind of instinctively understand in the marrow of your bones. Video games have shaped the way we look at reality. One such concept is the idea of ‘leveling up’ or ‘going up to the next level’.

In the Nintendo world, when a player completes a challenge (i.e. solves a puzzle, defeats an enemy, completes an obstacle course, etc.), she or he then moves on to the next challenge/puzzle/enemy, which is inevitably more difficult than all the previous ones. This is what we mean by ‘leveling up’ or ‘going to the next level.’ When you’ve successfully completed all the levels in a given program, then you can say that you ‘beat the game’.

[Notice that I didn’t say ‘win’. Nobody ever really ‘wins’ a video game because there’s no lasting reward. After all that effort: hours of stress and focus, all you really get is the bragging rights to say to your friends, ‘I beat that game.’]

Now, I want you to keep this idea of ‘levels’ and ‘leveling up’ in your mind as we turn to look at our gospel text from this morning…

Once again, we meet John the Baptist, who we previously encountered in our readings during the season of Advent. John is kind of an odd duck. John is a prophet (more like a monk, actually): he lives a simple, celibate life out in the desert, preaches to anyone who will listen, criticizes the culture around him, and invites people to take part in this cleansing ritual called ‘baptism’.

People would come to hear him preach and anyone who felt moved by what he had to say could come forward to be baptized. Their participation in this ritual washing was a sign that they wanted to commit themselves to the kind of ideals that John was talking about.

John represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the civil religion of his culture. For most of the people around him, being Jewish was just part of being an Israelite: it was the religion of their culture. John wanted people to take their faith seriously. He thought faith should be a decision that affected the way they lived.

John called his fellow Jews back to the roots of their faith. He wasn’t impressed by their appeals to cultural pedigree. He said to them:

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

John was a reformer, just like the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah before him (in the Old Testament) and Martin Luther and John Calvin after him (in the Protestant Reformation).

Jesus, on the other hand, represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ that was entirely different from John’s. While John preached a message of conversion (i.e. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance”), Jesus preached a gospel of grace and inclusion.

Jesus’ ministry was one of acceptance toward those who were rejected and despised by polite, religious society. It was the “tax collectors and sinners” who Jesus chose to befriend. In the case of Zacchaeus, Matthew Levi, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears: Jesus’ modus operandi seems to be “forgiveness first, then repentance”. Jesus dared to assert that salvation begins, not with human effort toward moral goodness, but with the sovereign grace of God reaching out to embrace sinners.

This message certainly scandalized the Pharisees and Sadducees, who eventually conspired to have Jesus killed, but it also confused John the Baptist himself. Sometime after John was imprisoned and Jesus’ ministry got started, John sent a message to Jesus, wondering whether he really was the promised Messiah they had been waiting for. John had expected a powerful moral leader who would “baptize with fire” and carry “his winnowing fork in his hand… to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

John thought that Jesus’ ministry would look much like his own, but bolder and more effective on a large scale. What he saw instead was a gentle Messiah, a “Prince of Peace” who revealed the heart of God to the world as Love.

Just as John had represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the Jewish civil religion of the first century, so Jesus represented a kind of ‘leveling up’ from the message of conversion to the gospel of grace. Jesus’ message includes John’s (just as John’s message included the Torah and traditions of the Jewish elders), but went far beyond it. The Gospel of Christ is ‘the next level’ in the religious development of Judaism, which started with God’s covenant with Abraham, continued through Moses and the prophets, and concluded with John the Baptist.

When I look around at our society today, I give thanks for the many preachers like John the Baptist who call the people of our own culture to take their faith more seriously. Like John before them, these fiery preachers rail loudly against immorality and preach a message of conversion. You can hear their message pretty much anytime you tune the TV or radio to some religious programming.

These preachers are obviously having an effect (just like John): their parishioners talk about their conversion like a “line in the sand” that separates their old life from the new. People testify about overcoming various addictions and compulsions, leaving behind lives of crime and vice, rising above challenges and limitations… all thanks to their newfound faith. Make no mistake: this is a good thing and we should thank God for it. These people have ‘leveled up’ in their understanding of God, their commitment to faith, and in their overall quality of life. John’s message makes a difference.

However, I think it would be a mistake to think that the Christian journey ends with conversion. Conversion is only a beginning. There is another kind of ‘leveling up’ for those who continue to journey with Jesus and discover in the Scriptures and the Sacraments just how deep and wide God’s love really is.

Do we dare to believe that the love of God would still embrace us, even if we had never turned ourselves around or listened to John’s message of conversion? Can we picture ourselves as the sinners who Jesus loves unconditionally, before we even have an opportunity to confess or repent? Is it possible that we really are “saved by grace alone” as the Protestant reformers so boldly declared in the 16th century?

These are big questions that have the capacity to shake the Church to its very foundations, just as it shook the religious establishment in the time of John and Jesus.

The most amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus is that you ‘level up’, not by becoming a better Christian, but by being a really bad one. It is not our spiritual success, but our failure that reveals the deepest heart of God to us.

The moment when we truly see the face of God in Jesus is that moment when we collapse at his feet, dressed only in the filthy, tattered rags of our own self-righteousness. Salvation comes to us when the saint within us is finally killed off by our inner sinner’s failure to live up to impossible moral and spiritual standards. Those are the moments when Jesus comes to us, picks us up, and carries us to the next level of spiritual growth.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only system I know where you succeed by failing. I have heard it said that all religion is humanity reaching out to God, but the gospel is God reaching out to humanity. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a Christian from the second century, said it this way: “In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God became human so that humanity might become divine.”

This morning, as we welcome several new members into our church community (two of whom are being baptized), I want to invite you to reflect again on the meaning of this sacrament:

God accepts us, claims us, saves us, cleanses us, and washes us clean in the waters of baptism. This happens long before any of us has the capacity to say or do anything to influence God’s opinion of us. The love of God in Christ is absolute, unconditional, and universal. I invite you to meditate on your own baptism today, whether you remember it or not: Imagine the water of grace surrounding you, washing you clean, and hear in your heart the voice from heaven speaking to you, just as it did to Jesus:

“You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Doubting Thomas

Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas#mediaviewer/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg
Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas#mediaviewer/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg

Religion, for me, has always been an exercise in pain management.

And faith has always been a struggle.

My friends and family all must have the spiritual gift of patience, seeing how they’ve walked with me through each new crisis of faith and theological discovery: Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Universalist, Liberal, Benedictine… it seems like I’m always dipping my toes into another tributary of the great Christian river. I’ve never quite felt at home.

As such, I feel like today is a holiday for Christians like me: the Feast of St. Thomas. Thomas, colloquially referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’, is famous for his struggle with faith after the resurrection: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But just as surely as he lagged behind his fellow apostles in believing the truth of the resurrection, he also charged ahead of them when it came to confessing the divinity of Christ: he was the first to address Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”

In my experience, a faith that is open to struggle often ends up being deeper and wider than a faith that simply accepts what it is given without question. I wonder whether Thomas would have had his insight into Christ’s divinity had it not been for his struggle with Christ’s resurrection?

For people like Thomas and me, faith is always an open-hearted struggle, not because we are stiff-necked unbelievers, but because we so desperately want to see Jesus.