The other night I stumbled upon a tail-gate at the Grove Park Inn. It's not the first place I'd expect to find a group of burly men grabbing cans of Busch Light from a cooler. The Grove Park Inn is bougie—Presidents stay there. Retirees sit on balconies overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains drinking twenty dollar cocktails. But it turns out that Duke Power sent down a group of linemen from Indiana to help the state of North Carolina deal with the hurricane Florence aftermath and put them up for a few nights in the nicest place in Asheville. On this day, these ordinary, beer-drinking linemen from Indiana were the guests of honor.
The contours of belonging change when a hurricane is barreling through your state. Status disappears and suddenly we belong together—all of us—and not because we subscribe to a particular religion or political ideology or we have a specific race and socio-economic status. We belong together because we all have beating hearts—we are human beings created for community.
It’s unfortunate that we’re at our best only when we are most in danger.
The Church might learn something here, in the midst of the wrath from wind and water, about the ways we place parameters on belonging. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a table—and I suspect it to be one where a can of Busch Light is sitting next to a flute of champagne.
Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence notes how we've created two different frameworks for belonging: “believe-behave-belong” and “belong-behave-believe.” The Church has long operated with the former, or the assumption that one’s belonging in a Christian community only takes place after one’s beliefs and behaviors are in order. Churches place strict boundaries on what we must believe—whether that’s the Nicene-Chalcedonian Creeds or the Fundamentals or a ‘literal’ resurrection—and then you must set your behaviors in line with those beliefs. Get your head and heart straightened out, a pastor will put some water on you in the name of the Trinity, and you’re one of us.
Too often Christian orthodoxy often functions as nothing more than an ‘in-out’ boundary marker instead of the Church’s historic endeavor to share the best and most faithful kind of news of how God was in Christ restoring the world unto God. And part of the fracture in the Methodist Church today is a result of a framework that tells us we can belong to each other only when we believe and behave in uniformity.
This isn’t good news. There are profound cultural, experiential, and personal reasons for believing what we do and to demand a strict and unwavering belief in a set of propositions as a prerequisite for belonging is antithetical to Gospel. I’ve noted before that believing harder doesn’t work. After all, Jesus didn’t ask his followers to memorize propositions; he asked a clan of disciples to drop their nets and follow even though they would fail to fully grasp their Rabbi’s identity and significance. Still, somehow our intellect has become the chief signifier to our belonging.
We'd even do well to ask the question whether our actions are a better signifier of our identity than our beliefs. Soren Kierkegaard muddies the water when he asks whether a ‘believer’ who lives in ‘untruth’ is more truthful than an ‘idol worshipper’ who lives ‘in truth’. He writes this:
“If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes are resting upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth? The one prays in truth to God although he is worshiping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshiping an idol.”
As followers of the way, we’re also to pay at least equal attention to our discipleship as our mental assent to dogma. And if that’s the case, there are plenty among us who talk a game that we don’t walk. What’s more faithful for a Jesus follower?
Tickle shares that a postmodern understanding of religious believing and Christian discipleship reverses the order. Let’s start with the assumption that we belong to one another and then we can brew our theologies together as we continue along the Way of following this crucified and risen Savior. But the only precondition to your acceptance into the family of God is God—God loves you and there’s nothing you can do, or should I say believe, to earn that. Grace is enough. This is true whether you believe in classical theism or the latest fashion. Your identity as God’s beloved is not dependent upon a belief in a particular metaphysic about Jesus’ divine and human atoms. God can even use our brothers and sisters who don’t believe in a literal resurrection to participate in God’s healing of the world.
Sure, belief matters. To speak otherwise is to ignore the schism and death suffered as a resistance to bad God-talk. Beliefs, especially those founded in the ancient creeds, give us our location, boundaries, and frameworks to profess our faith, begin building theologies, and state historically unhelpful ways to speak about God. We don’t get to reinvent the wheel and that’s incredibly liberating, even if we're still tasked with theologizing in our own historic situatedness. Still, doctrine functions formationally when it's at its best and not as the primary or most important determinant of your relation to God and the Church.
This is the good news: you are more than your beliefs.
We might garner something from our sacramental theology here, particularly baptism, because it joins us to a community. We baptize infants and not because of their intellect, but because God claims us before we are able to rationally comprehend and pronounce a creed. Belonging is always primary because we depend upon a community that promises to join us on our way toward our affirmation of faith. Children will grow and then start asking really hard questions about the Christian faith. Don't be scared of the questions; God's not. The great tradition and its commentators will be your friends as you develop your beliefs together. There’s a sense, as Anne Lamott quotes Ram Daas, that “we’re all just walking each other home."
Shall our churches be more exclusive than Jesus? Luke’s Gospel gives us this story: there was one Sabbath when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, or a place with people who likely believed all of the right things and tried to elbow their ways into the place of honor. During the meal Jesus told them a story, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face." (The Message)
In God’s kingdom, we’ll surprised by who gets the spot of honor so we should never be too confident with our lines of demarcation. It’s often the outsider, the misfit, and the excluded who end up getting Jesus’ attention first. If the Grove Park Inn taught me anything that night its that we're all in desperate need of belonging and not only when a hurricane is colliding against the coast of our country.
He might as well have told us that the kingdom won't grow unless it's buried in the dirt.
The kingdom of God begins in a womb of darkness where there's no air to breathe and life is pressing in from all sides, leaving the seed trapped with no escape. The weight of the world bears down upon it. Plus, if the dirt is any good then it's called compost, which is a fancy word for manure that's been aged long enough to become black gold. The seed is emptied into a world entrenched in violence, division, and deep loneliness. It takes root in the heart of the mourners, the meek, the poor. God's trajectory in Jesus is fundamentally down and he is only lifted high when he's put on a cross. The kingdom of God isn't this far of place; it's here, in the manure of our world.
If your life is imperfect and broken, then that's the kind of soil God prefers to be planted in.
God seems to have a propensity for small and insignificant things. When God creates there is only chaos and a dark void, but then there's light and order. God chooses the little nation of Israel amidst the world's powerful kingdoms. And when God lifts the veil to truly reveal Godself, we don't see a soldier or a king on a throne. Instead, God becomes a seed placed in a poor, teenagers body, Mary. Here's a list of synonyms for God: I Am Who I Am and an infant in a feeding trough; the Lord and an itinerant rabbi; El Shaddai and an enemy executed by the state.
The word we use to describe God is omnipotent, or all powerful, and that's a fine thing to believe, but God's almighty kingdom doesn't take the shape of a kingdom like Rome. The Kingdom of Rome was compared to an eagle flying at high speed, crashing into its prey, and latching its talons into its flesh. God's kingdom is less assertive--just a mustard seed. Shall we put this on our flags? We are as strong and mighty as, well, a seed.
Jesus' metaphor should restrain us from conflating God's kingdom with the United States.
My mom has this mustard seed necklace--a simple gold chain with a kitschy little heart that holds a mustard seed levitating in the center. It's so simple that she almost threw it away, but said to herself, "how can you throw away the hope of a mustard seed?" A seed, at least, is a promise that there will be something more. Wherever there is a seed buried in the dirt and the manure there is also hope. A tiny thing can become a bigger thing. A little seed in the ground. A little yeast in the batter. Michael Pollan, a food writer, said that ancient cultures used to think that bread-making was magic. You’d start with a little ball of dough and yeast, but the yeast feeds on the starches and releases carbon dioxide. The gluten traps the carbon dioxide. Then, your bread somehow doubles in size overnight creating enough sustenance for the entire family. It’s a miracle akin to the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus says we have this small seed, but when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants.
Here's the problem: this is, to put it generously, not true. A mustard seed does not become a mustard tree. It grows into a mustard shrub, no bigger than, say, 20 feet with a single nest of birds. Ezekiel compared a mighty kingdom to a cedar tree, large enough for birds of every kind to nest and find shelter. But Jesus compared his kingdom to a mustard shrub, which to the original listener, was a weed. The Kingdom of heaven is like a weed. It's a nuisance like kudzu. It grows and spreads and you can't seem to get rid of it. God plants it in your heart and it takes over until it no longer belongs to you. It started so innocently--you joined a church and a few years later you're on the church council, member of the choir, and the soup kitchen team. It appears that your life is no longer your own. We think that God makes no discernible difference in our world, but at the end of a long day or year we may look back and realize that something has grown resiliently and obstinately through the rocks, thorns, and hardened soil.
Can we please have our garden back?
This is why, I presume, Jesus was arrested by the state. He was a nuisance and a threat to all of our manicured gardens. But you can’t get rid of the Kingdom of God with a bottle of Roundup or a cross. It's just not that easy. The powers of the state locked the seed into the darkness of a tomb and sealed the stone tight. But we know that the darkness is fertile soil for something new to grow. Three days later, new life began to peek out of the ground taking shape and sprouting new branches for the birds of the air to nest. Now the seed is planted and will one day grow in every heart and atom of creation. And if you look closely, you'll spot the seed hidden in all the world's crosses, the lives that are falling apart, and the crises that are too big for such a small seed. It's there, germinating, and waiting to burst into new life.
A man had two sons. A sower went out to sow. A man was preparing a banquet.
Someone had the nerve to ask Jesus a question and now everyone is subjected to this mystical, middle-eastern Rabbi ramble on about wheat and weeds. We call these tales parables, meaning a short story that draws from local customs to say something about who we are, what’s really important, and how we might make sense of the world. The Greek word here is paraballein, which means to throw alongside. In other words, Jesus meets his listeners contextually by throwing down wisdom about God and God’s kingdom alongside dining tables and banquets. Turns out that the kingdom of heaven can be found in the most ordinary, mundane tasks of life if we only develop eyes to see.
We should pay attention to the way that Jesus teaches because it’s intentional. Pharisees, lawyers, tax collectors—whoever—come to Jesus and ask a concrete question like, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” These absconders from the truth are looking for justification regarding what they already know and the ways they imagine the world. Jesus doesn’t tell them to memorize five propositions in the Torah and read over a catechism of the faith. He says instead, let me tell you a story.
Socrates believed that the teacher is like a midwife who helps the student give birth to the truth that resides within. Jesus, on the other hand, tells a story and confronts his disciples with something that they could never discover for themselves. He tears down their world and then constructs a new one by talking about leaven or mustard seeds or a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. Barbara Brown Taylor says that a parable functions ‘more like a dream or a poem,’ changing the will instead of the mind. Too often, his listeners walk away confused, angry, and short-changed. They came seeking truth, but instead the truth confronted them.
There is, after all, a difference between possessing the truth and encountering it. Most of us prefer the former, discovering only the truth that fits into our comfortable constructs and world views. Facebook, for instance, knows this and they have an algorithm that gives us only what we want. Whether a statement is true or not doesn’t seem to matter as long as it insulates preconceived ideas or subdues another into our imagination of the world. It's the weaponization of 'facts.'
Though seeing, we do not see; though hearing, we do not hear or understand.
I had a professor who had been formed by Jesus’ teaching style—the kind that reminds you that what you know doesn’t really matter. This was prophetic in a place like Duke University where bullies wear tweed jackets and it's a badge of honor to name drop the most obscure theologian. He was teaching us the Gospel of Luke, but the problem was that he refused to answer our questions about this second century Messiah who was making unrealistic demands on our lives. A student asked something like whether Jesus really meant it when he said we should sell our stuff and give the money to the poor—surely, this was hyperbolic like when he told us to ‘turn the other cheek.’ This professor shrugged his shoulders, or like a gadfly, asked a more difficult question--maybe, he told a story. What if Jesus really meant what he said? It wasn’t much longer until I started taking medication for stress induced heartburn.
It took a full semester for me to realize I hadn’t wasted a few thousand dollars. Theology and God-talk isn’t only about the acquisition of the material, though it can be important; the formation of a Christian disciple is more crucial. If you’re striving to become the master of the narrative, then you’ve got it all backward. The narrative exists to point to the God who wants to shape you. The question that really mattered at the end of the semester was this: were we looking at the world through Luke’s eyes? If we were, then we had encountered Jesus and our professor had done his job.
Maybe this is why Jesus told parables, at a least a third of the time. It pulled his listeners from the ivory towers of the mind with the smell of freshly baked bread into what Karl Barth names, “the strange new world of the Bible.”
Here’s what we can learn from Jesus about teaching: it’s wholistic—less about the information and more about the formation of a person. Jesus pushes against the logic of domination that insists we can master God and God’s word by squeezing it into our pre-formed mental or philosophical or political constructs. If one can intellectually master God, then you can hold all of life at a distance instead of inviting the mystery and difficulty—the defining commitment to God and others into your life. Instead, it’s Jesus, who through life and parable, disrupts and upends all of our narcissistic ways of being in the world. We’d do well to remember that the drive to know in order to control is written down as the first sin.
When we engage the text as a mirror instead of a handbook, we are invited into a narrative that conjures up confusion, self-examination, greater self-awareness, and perhaps existential grappling. These stories give us the eyes to see ourselves, our world, more clearly—warts, scars, and all. It hurts, but it’s the pain that wakes us up from of a fixed world where God's kingdom is too commonsensical.
I’m struck by the amount of preaching today seeks to explain God away—how hard we work to defend people from questions and mystery or the foolishness of Christ crucified. A sermon easily slips into a thirty minute lecture about why God is rational and palatable in a pluralistic and post-modern world. There’s even an accompanying bulletin insert with three easy, fill-in the blank take-aways. It’s easy to swallow and a shield against the piercing blade of the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. We should wrestle with hard questions and give our best answers, but if we leave the sanctuary feeling really confident with this God thing, then we’ve just traded places with God.
The problem is that we can know the information, but still not change the ways we’re living. I’ve yet to change my life because I could describe the hypostatic union in Christ or perichoresis, though it might make me feel like I have a better hold on God. So how do we come to know the transcendent God who is beyond our words and intellect? Sometimes we tell a story. A story helps us release God out of our brains, if only for a minute, and let the Spirit seep into our hearts and through our bones. Parables won’t necessarily make you smarter, a great theologian, or the best at ‘sword drills.’ But they might make you a follower of Christ.
Take this question for example: how should one describe a God who is profligate in grace and extravagant in pursuit of us? Here's a story:
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
And this is as beautiful, or mysterious and challenging, as anything else Jesus has ever said.
He who has ears, let him hear.
So how do we as preachers pull people into a different reality? What would happen if folks show up for worship not with pens and notebooks prepped for a lecture, but also with the fear that they might see and be seen?
Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School has a poster on his office door that reads “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Ask him about it and he might tell you, “It would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but you have to start somewhere." One would suppose we could agree on this modest proposal, if we could agree on anything.
We live in fractured world where division is the air we breathe. Turn on any news pundit and they’ll say, “Well, we’re just so divided now.” It’s deeper than partisan politics. We are a people of tribes—country clubs and civic clubs; Walmart or Target or the Asheville Mall; Ingles or Aldi or the farmer’s market. We are as divided by the logos on our shirts and the food in our pantries as we are by where we live and go to school. By the way, will Duke University and the University of North Carolina fans ever find a way to unite?
My own denomination, United Methodism, has a dubious relationship with unity. We began as a movement within the Church of England blending together strains of Anglicanism, German pietism, Catholic mysticism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Wesley’s ecumenical spirit led him to take the best of other traditions and juggle them together creating a hodgepodge theology of grace.
But schism is in our DNA. We’re Protestants, after all. Wesley, who vehemently opposed schism with the Church of England, eventually laid hands on Thomas Coke and sent him to America. Today, my ordination is traced back to John Wesley and no earlier. There have since been other splits and mergers. Schism, like divorce, seems to get easier with each iteration. The people called Methodists, and the holiness movement, morphed into pentecostalism and other forms of methodism. Most recently, we nominated ourselves a ‘united’ church only fifty years ago when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical Unity Brethren in 1968. We’re due for another break up.
There’s an old motto that circulates attributed to John Wesley, which he never said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity." The problem is that we can’t agree on essentials and rampant liberty isn't a viable option to create a covenant together. Some doctrines and practices are so antithetical to the good news of Christ that they merit division, even if it’s to our lament.
The problem for me, at least recently, is this letter to the Ephesians. It’s really inconvenient, isn’t it, that we’re handed this letter when American politics are the juiciest and denominational split seems so appealing. Even when I want the denomination to fall apart and banish political foes to the innermost layer of hell, I read Paul's words and have to bite my tongue. There was no greater cultural or religious divide as that between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) and Paul (or whoever wrote this) is pleading for God’s chosen people to start getting along with Gentiles who were the eleventh hour workers, the prodigal sons, the ones begging for crumbs on the floor like dogs.
Here’s a miracle that’s about as unbelievable as resurrection: Christ has created a new humanity—a third race, as the church fathers used to say. The person and work of Jesus is about tearing down walls beginning the wall between heaven and earth. Jesus forgave our sins, breaking down the wall between us and God. His own body accomplished this work, holding together both God and flesh—immortality and mortality—divinity and humanity. In his ministry, he crossed over into Samaria and invited the ‘far off’ to come home, like the prodigal son.
There’s no other sensible reason to sit across the table from someone you hate, unless you believe that Jesus Christ is present in the power of the Spirit breaking down barriers. If it’s true, then there’s a reason to have church. If not, then we should continue to sit with insiders and scapegoat and complain about those on the outside. Let's build another wall because who cares. But the Jews and Gentiles shared a table and broke pita and drank wine. Together, the different notes blended to make a harmony that neither could make alone.
Unity doesn’t exist where there is uniformity; diversity is the key ingredient.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
It’s a unity based in the very nature of God. There's oneness, but there’s a complexity within the one. God is one, but God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one person is separate from another nor is one consumed into another, but each is held in communion in a divine dance of love. It’s the love of a community that spills out to create, redeem, and sanctify the world.RSS Feed
A theologian I admire reminds us that we have one Bible, but it’s infinitely complex. Total consensus is never the chief end, not even in the Scriptures. There are diverse voices, contexts, opinions, and theologies that are all inspired by the same Spirit. The early church canonized four different Gospels with four different christologies, or imaginations of the significance of the person and work of Jesus. When an early Christian named Tatian tried to harmonize all four Gospels into a coherent, uniform story called the Diatessaron, the church called it a heresy. No one wants a drab, watered down story of Jesus that has no context and thus, no courage to say something meaningful to particular people in real times and places.
Can we belong to one another despite our differences in this fragmented world? Our Bible does this. The early church did this with the power of the Holy Spirit that blowed on them and set hearts on fire at Pentecost. Jesus does this in his body and his mission. God does this in God’s self. It’s much bigger than one denomination’s struggle over articulating human sexuality; it extends to our idolatry of political ideologies and even more so to our unwillingness to look a stranger in the eye and listen, have a hard conversation, and admit that we're sinners who might be wrong.
It’s amazing that we still care about this in our culture with our current squabbling. Division may be warranted and lamented as an order of preservation, especially if we disagree over the basic essentials of the faith. But other folks are obstinate in their love for the church with a pigheaded hope that we might become the foretaste of God’s kingdom that will include every race, nation, economic, and ethnic group. And it’s a profound Methodist thing not to believe in some vague sense of Christ’s imputed unity, but to pursue it and allow it be imparted by the Spirit among us today. We’re not there yet. There’s always a tension between where we are and where we are headed—the already and the not yet—and we have an optimism that God’s grace can close the gap.
I also think I'm sure of this: if we will ever bear witness to unity, it won’t be a result of some political ideology spouted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or a Bishop's prophetic stance, and definitely not a blog. But it might start with us and the ways we live our lives as every day Christians--in our churches and in our communities from the grass roots. It's worth a shot. After all, Paul tells us that peace has come and we’ve seen it. It’s Jesus. It’s the body Christ. It must be us.
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