The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “with…” #GC2019
Two weeks ago I had the privilege to learn from Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi from Baylor University at the recent session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Learning from Professor Cardoza-Orlandi was a challenging experience. We were challenged on multiple levels about our understanding of Christianity in the global south. The lesson was very timely the week before General Conference.
One lesson has rung through my mind the last few days. The good professor taught us that the world’s Christians do not have the same privilege that I had in my community as a child. When you’re not the dominant religion in an area, some assumptions of both the world around you and your own traditions can shift. I keep hearing the question “Who is your Jesus?” It has been running through my mind.
I want to be clear. I appreciate the Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi enough to note that his opinions are not my opinion. I also want to be clear that my opinions do not need to be shared by everyone else in the body of Christ and this is alright with me. There’s enough room in the Kin-dom of God for there to be diversity.
So, who is my Jesus? My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.
My Jesus is the Jesus whom Paul comes to know and eventually says “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
My Jesus is the Jesus who throws the door open to a larger kin-dom (kindom) than imagined. My Jesus used the Apostles to share the gospel beyond traditional bounds. In Acts 8:26–40 the family is stretched to include a eunuch, which lest we forget is absolutely forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1. Why shouldn’t you be baptized, Eunuch of Ethiopia? Well, because: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” I guess that rule did not apply anymore.
My Jesus reached out to Romans and other Gentiles through Peter who is unequivocally told in Acts 10: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” My Jesus was there in the Holy Conferencing that took place in Acts 15:6-29 which opened the doors further. By the way, the Holy Spirit continued to pour itself out on those who engaged in fornication, hence we still have children’s moments where children born of believers come to be blessed. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church has not attempted to remove folks who are married and have children from leadership like several other major Christian denominations.
What’s more and what keeps ringing through my head is the story of the woman accused of adultery. In John 8:1-11 we read the story of a woman who is accused of an extramarital affair. Jesus tells her accusers that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.
Nobody stones her. Nobody there is apparently without sin. Jesus says “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” Now, first of all, yes Jesus says do not sin again. To be entirely fair, she is very fortunate Jesus is there to offer this moment of protective grace. I may prevent a child from being beaten up in a parking lot on an afternoon, but if the child keeps walking through the parking lot when I am not there… There is more than one way of looking at that second sentence.
What is amazing is that in all the readings of this scripture, one thing was never pointed out to me. Jesus says “I do not condemn you.” Who is the one who has the ability to condemn sins? Who has the authority to forgive sins? If it is Christ, Jesus’ words “I do not condemn you” hold divine authority. She is forgiven.
What’s further, in a crowd full of people who have sin (including the woman accused of adultery), it is this woman alone who leaves forgiven of her sins. Hebrews 10:4 says “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The folks may leave to go and make an offering for their own sinful behavior, but it is Christ alone who forgives.
Now, I cannot say that God’s love does not extend to these folks. Judgment is God’s alone, but I can say that in this moment there is only one person in the crowd we can claim is absolutely forgiven by Christ’s own words. The woman accused of adultery is the only one explicitly told “I do not condemn you…” We can even go further to point out Jesus did not stop the crowd from leaving by saying “Wait! Hold on! God understands and your sins will be forgiven. Throw those stones!”
My Jesus is the Jesus who forgives. My Jesus is the one through whom I baptize children into the Kindom of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My Jesus is the one who accepts those children even before they grow up into whatever person they may become in their adult days.
My Jesus is the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors. My Jesus hangs out at Alcoholics Anonymous and in rehab centers. My Jesus sits with the homeless in the cold. My Jesus does a ton of caring through the children of the Kindom who bring food for community suppers, supply food pantries, donate towards medical supplies, walk alongside LGBTQIA+ folks as they struggle with depression and expulsion, cry with those imprisoned falsely in jails, mourn with those who are imprisoned fairly, and do every sort of thing they can in order to be with God’s children. Yes, all children are God’s children.
My Jesus is a pretty awesome Jesus. My Jesus is the reason I did not give up my faith after I grew up into adulthood. Some behavior that I have seen recently does not square up with that Jesus, but I need to be clear: My Jesus is worth following down the narrow path of life. I most certainly will follow that Jesus and will not be one of those who trample “under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?… It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:29-31, NASB)
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,Hebrews 10:4-31, NASB
“Sacrifice and offering You have not desired,
But a body You have prepared for Me;
In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure.
“Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come
(In the scroll of the book it is written of Me)
To do Your will, O God.’”
After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws upon their heart,
And on their mind I will write them,”
He then says,
“And their sins and their lawless deeds
I will remember no more.”
Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Today’s lectionary readings contains one of my favorite passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. The lectionary reading contains the call of God on the life of Abram which includes his wife Sarai. Here is what Genesis 12:1-3 says: (NRSV)
“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
I adore this story for several reasons. Allow me to list a few:
- I’m an itinerant preacher. I am drawn to stories where God says “Go to the place I will show you.” It is my hope that God would lead me in the same way.
- I adore the fact that the blessings Abram will receive will be from many people and the curse will hopefully only fall on one entity. I love the optimism of that promise. Unfortunately, verse 3 has been translated many different ways. I remain optimistic and still find hope in these words, especially as my preferred translation (NRSV) has lines that fall in “pleasant places for me.”
- Abram’s life will become symbiotic to the world around him. As a result, his life causes “all of the families of the earth” to be blessed. This is about as far from an exclusivistic promise as one can get in the scriptures. All families means all families.
I love this story, but not everything is “sunshine and rainbows” between me and this verse. I struggle with this story for several reasons.
- Sarai is an important part of Abram’s story. She’s his partner. Her child will be a beloved part of the promise. It seems as if Adonai makes an assumption that Sarai and Abram will understand her role. What happens when you assume? A woman named Hagar is abused. Ishmael comes into being, which is wonderful for Ishmael’s descendants, but there are less abusive ways to bring life into the world.
- Abram’s call divides both Sarai and Abram from their families. I would like to say that the call of God does not require sacrifice, but that would be a lie. I am saddened that these sacrifices are required, but sometimes they are necessary.
While there is nothing that I can do about the second challenge, I will say that an awareness of the first challenge can easily bear fruit. What if we use Sarai’s exclusion from the call as a spur to ponder our own words, our own thoughts, and our own prayers? What if we take this as a reminder to focus on something beyond ourselves and beyond our own perspective?
I was recently invited by a friend to the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library Book Sale in Ithaca, NY. While perusing the shelves I found a book called “Prayers for an Inclusive Church” by Steven Shakespeare. In that book, on this Sunday the following collect can be informative. I’d like to share a prayer in order to analyze the form, structure, and word choice. It is based on John 14:1-14:
whose way is love,
whose truth is searching,
whose life is freely given
in Jesus Christ our Lord:
As you have opened for us
your house of many rooms,
so may we make a place
for the rejected and unloved,
and share the work of peace;
Through Jesus Christ, the image of God
It is a very solid prayer and well written. I would recommend most of my clergy colleagues think of this as a good resource. Regardless, in taking Reverend Mr. Steven Shakespeare’s prayer as an archetype of a prayer with inclusive tendencies, we can note several things about the prayer construction: (Please note I’m using the etiquette recommended by the Church of England who ordained Mr. Shakespeare. Their etiquette is different than standard American etiquette)
- Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer refers to God with a gendered designation, but one which refers to a being in the Christian tradition which includes the image of humanity in all forms of gender. It isn’t perfect, but English is also not a perfect language.
- In Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer Jesus Christ is referred to as Lord, but this makes sense as Jesus Christ is generally considered male. The Lordship of Jesus is less of a challenge than the Lordship of God as Jesus is strongly identified with a particular gender, but not always. There are various books available about trans-theology including “Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach” by Virginia Mollenkott which explores other interpretations of Jesus’ gender and how that affects our view of gender.
- Mr. Shakespeare clearly makes an attempt to open the borders of the blessing. If Abram and Sarai are called to create a blessing to all of the families of the world, then this prayer sees that blessing as being inclusive. God’s way is love, God’s truth searches, and God’s life is given freely. Jesus’ blessing causes people to make space for the rejected and the unloved. There’s room for Ishmael and Hagar in God’s blessing. This blessing extends that grace.
- Mr. Shakespeare extends God’s welcome to us into the act of working towards peace. In a world which is filled with lives that often become insular to outsiders, Mr. Shakespeare’s prayer invites the blessing to become manifold in the work of our hands.
With these ideas in mind, I believe we can use Sarai’s exclusion as a spur to inclusion. Here are a few first steps:
- Be careful of gendered words. Be careful even if you think these concerns are hogwash. If you pray in public, think through your word choices. There is generally no need to stir up unnecessary trouble between sisters and brothers in the faith. Complications complicate things and life is complicated enough without doubling down on trivial matters.
- Consider the scope of your prayer. If you are praying with or for a small group, work an expansive vision into that prayer. If you are praying with a large group, include the vastness of their impact into your prayer. Why pray that an individual would be a blessing in their family when they could be a blessing in their family and neighborhood? Why pray for a church group to get along when you can pray that they get along and expand their love into the community? Prayer changes things including what we ourselves deem possible.
- Be wary of the barriers that you might unintentionally erect in your prayers. Does God see things your way? Does God see that town-line, those railroad tracks, or that border as a barrier to blessing? If not, why do you? Sometimes your prayers and thoughts may be the very thing blocking your ability to see the leading of God. Sarai couldn’t see that her disbelief was a barrier. She laughed when God’s inclusion stretched out to include her. Be wary.
All of this being said, if you are involved in worship planning, I believe you should get a hold of Mr. Shakespeare’s book. It is quite lovely and a good resource.