Monday, June 7, 2021

Faith and Family

Jesus takes a swipe at faith and family in this week's Gospel text, but why?

June 6, 2021—The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5B)

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
Psalm 138
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

 © 2021 Seth Olson

Holy One, let my words be your words and when my words are not your words, let your people be cunning enough to know the same. Amen.

A couple of years ago Progressive Insurance Company launched an all-too-relatable advertising campaign. In it a comically fictitious self-help expert named Dr. Rick advises new homeowners in the fine art of how to not become like your parents. Have you seen these ads? This guru in one memorable spot asks some of his students, “Do we really need a sign to help us to ‘Live, Laugh, and Love’?” They respond in a brainwashed monotone, “YES!” Dr. Rick compassionately shoots back, “The answer is no!” Then, he helps a woman throw away the kitschy sign. While these commercials are funny, they are so because we all too often feel as though we are becoming like our parents, and sometimes in all the ways in which we wish we were not!

Now, I do not have a problem with hanging a “Live, Laugh, and Love” sign in my house, but I like many other southerners live not by those three L’s, but by five F’s. Faith, Family, Friends, Food, and Football. While I say this partly in jest, the first three F’s stand out as crucial ingredients in experiencing a satisfying life. However, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus appears to do to Faith and Family what Dr. Rick did to the “Live, Laugh, and Love” sign. 

After reading this passage, we might be wondering if Jesus was struggling to not become like his earthly family as well. Going even further than the commercial’s self-help expert, Jesus called out both his religious leaders and his own kin, undermining two of the most important pillars of societal life. But, why? Why was Jesus so aggravated by the scribes, his mother, and his siblings? And what can we learn about our relationship with God and each other through these confrontations?

To answer these questions, we first need a bit of context. You may not have realized it, but today we find ourselves in a completely different Gospel account. The last couple months of months we have heard from the Gospel according to John with its high view of Christ, rich theology, and abundance of metaphors. Mark relayed his good news in a different way than John. Everything here in Mark is immediate. Rough edges stick out, and they may snag us; however, these jagged places reveal new ways to follow Jesus. Also, within Mark everything moves so very quickly that by today’s text so much has already happened.

Here is a brief recap: Jesus received his baptism by John the Baptizer, overcame temptation in the wilderness, and after John’s arrest began to proclaim repentance as the Kingdom of God had come near. Then, Jesus called his first disciples and began to heal people at such a breakneck pace that it required him to hide from the crowds. When Jesus healed a paralytic man lowered through a roof by his friends, the scribes began to grumble—not because Jesus healed someone, but because he forgave the paralytic man’s sins—a blasphemy according to the religious leaders. Next, Jesus called Levi (a tax collector) to be a disciple, which drove the scribes crazy as did eating with sinners. To top it all off Jesus would not stop his healing mission even on the Sabbath allowing his disciples to pluck the heads of grain on the day of rest and healing a man’s withered hand on the solemn day. By the time Jesus called the rest of his disciples and headed back to his hometown, the stage was set for the confrontation we heard today—of course, it was not just one confrontation—it was two—Jesus challenged both his religion and his family.

Now because of the way in which Mark told his version of the Good News, everything is connected. These two seemingly independent conflicts against family and religion are interwoven, not unlike how multiple conflicts get complicated in today’s world. Mark used a particular storytelling shape to tie together events that might otherwise appear disconnected. Did you notice a pattern in today’s reading?

It began in Jesus’ hometown with Jesus’ family confronting him. (Let’s call that A) Then, the scribes berated Jesus (B). Jesus told a strange parable about a home invasion. (C) Before, clapping back first at the scribes (B revisited), then his family (A revisited). So, it went A. Family B. Scribes C. Parable. B. Scribes. A. Family. ABCBA. Y’all still with me? So, now that we have a bit a context, why did Jesus so strongly rebut the scribes and his family? Let’s start with his family.

Often, we describe the bond between family members saying blood is thicker than water. And yet, this Gospel points to Jesus seeing his mission on earth as something that was an even higher calling than the love shared with biological family. When the people of his hometown worried about him, Jesus’ family rushed in to intercede—to talk some sense into him. Make no mistake Jesus’ mission was intense. They did not have time or space even to eat—a family could worry. However, the way in which Jesus’ family went to help him could have been a little more tactful, as they seemed to agree “He ha[d] gone out of his mind.” Instead of supporting Jesus’ mission, his family seemingly wanted to halt it altogether. The scribes, waiting for a moment to pounce, jumped on this train.

Right at this crisis moment with Jesus’ family, the religious leaders claimed that Jesus was not an agent of God, but instead his power comes from an evil place. “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons,” they said. Here is a moment, not of wondering if Jesus is out of line, but of calling him satanic and opposed to the will of God. It would make sense, then why Jesus would so strongly push back against the scribes.

So, during an already frantic mission, Jesus was confronted by not just his family but his life-long religion as well—two groups that held so much sway in his life. Together they said, “You’re crazy” and “You’re evil.” At this point my question of why Jesus would respond so strongly to his family and his religion seems silly. Why wouldn’t he forcefully push back against these untruthful claims? To understand what we can learn about our relationship with God and each other though, we must look closer at how Jesus responded to these two groups.

First, Jesus employed a cutting question to wonder how and why Satan would work against himself. “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself it cannot stand.” The same is true of a household. It’s like asking, how can a quarterback intercept his own pass or a batter catch his own fly ball? It would not happen. While this sort of division is bad, there is something more sinister at work. The scribes dangerously claimed that God’s good work was evil—more on this in a moment.

For now, let me ask you, is there a particular analogy you like to utilize when thinking about Jesus or God? Maybe the good shepherd? The loving father embracing the Prodigal Son? The woman searching for her lost coin? How about a plundering robber tying up a strong man? We do not typically think of this last analogy, the one from today’s reading.

In it, Jesus compared himself to a thief during a home invasion. It’s not too different from Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but in this case, Jesus was stealing the souls of those swayed by the evil one to now serve in God’s reign. I am not for theft, but in this case plunder on Jesus! Plunder on!

This parable helped Jesus to express that part of his work of building the Reign of God was undoing the work of evil. Jesus was not entering into an unoccupied territory—he was going to take from Beelzebul what is rightfully God’s. And, this brings us back to the trouble with calling good evil and evil good.

When Jesus faced off against the scribes, he claimed they had committed an unforgiveable blasphemy. This is not the same thing as one of us stubbing our toe and taking the Lord’s name in vain. When we do this, it’s not great, but what the scribes did was something else entirely. They saw the work of God and called God’s goodness evil. They saw God’s work and attributed it to Satan. This is so important for us to get. It’s not that God does not love these scribes and God will always always always love us! However, it’s critically important that when presented with the truth—when looking at this world we call goodness goodness and evil evil.

This stands out as an enormous takeaway from this text. We as people of the Church must discern carefully with Christ. We must work together as we read Holy Scripture, learn from the Church’s tradition, experience worship, so that we can form a truthful lens.

So, what can we learn from Jesus disavowing his family? Jesus had just been told by his family that he was to stop his mission because he was crazy. Seeing Jesus look around at his students, his followers and calling them his family is both a poignant and a cutting moment. This is not Jesus rebuking family as an unnecessary institution, nor is it evidence for us to turn our backs on our families without good reason. Still, Jesus here pointed out an important truth: even though the biological bond of family is crucial, the bond of one’s spiritual family is the most critical.

Following Jesus is supremely difficult. Jesus told us things like sell all your possessions and give your money to the poor, love your enemies and turn the other cheek, and I came to save not the righteous but the lost. Christ Jesus’ way is counter-cultural and not just in a cool and fun way, but in a way that will challenge us to the core. Are we willing to give up things, even really good things so that we can have the best thing? Are we willing to point out when our faith or are family are out of step with what Christ challenges us to do and who Christ calls us to be? Are we able to live into Christ’s radical love such that we see all that unites us and binds us together?

We do not have to live as a house divided. We can come together in God’s House. We do not classes on how to not be like our parents, just as long as we are like Our Heavenly Parent. Jesus calls us to follow him giving up even really good things so that we may take hold of the best thing—God’s way of love. Amen.


Sunday, May 30, 2021

Bad Analogy Sunday

 

Despite what my childhood self would have wanted, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit do not come together to form God, like a mega-robot in Voltron or the Power Rangers (that's Partialism), and just one of the many Bad Analogies preached today!

May 30, 2021—The First Sunday After Pentecost—Trinity Sunday (Year B)

© 2021 Seth Olson 

Holy and undivided Trinity, One God, let my words be your words and when my words are not your words, let your people be cunning enough to know the same. Amen.

Good morning and welcome to Bad Analogy Sunday. Or, as it is also known Trinity Sunday. This is a day when preachers hop into the pulpit and do their best… not to commit heresies or theological atrocities. This is a day when we try to say just the right things about who God is. Often in the process the sermon-giver bores the congregation into submission and all leave displeased or upset.

Maybe this is a good time to say hello to everyone who is coming to All Saints for the first time, WELCOME! Perhaps you are looking for a church home after the pandemic or trying to make meaning out of the last fifteen months. Now usually on Sunday mornings we do not celebrate a theological doctrine, nor do we attempt to simplify the immense nature of God into a ten or eleven-minute homily. Still, it feels fitting to be talking about the complex nature of God in this complicated world in which we live.

Just like it is nearly impossible to easily explain the challenges we have lived through during this pandemic, it’s nearly impossible to easily explain the nature of the Trinity. Still, we preachers try, and we do so with terrible analogies. For example, that God is like the three states of water: ice, liquid, and vapor. This, of course, is Modalism, which is a heresy that wrongly claims God is not three distinct persons, but rather takes three different forms. Or, we say that God is like a star that creates light and heat, which is Arianism. Arianism is another heresy that wrongly attests that the Son and the Spirit are subordinate creatures of God the Father.[1] Or, my favorite bad analogy, to become God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit must come together like a mega-robot in Voltron or the Power Rangers (That’s Partialism). There are many other bad analogies wheeled out today (keep reading you might spot another), for today preachers try to explain our infinitely transcendent and indelibly intimate God who is Father, Son, and Spirit!

Now, your being here is not all bad. Watching homilists on this day is sort of akin to watching an athlete, like a gymnast trying a never before completed vault or a steeple chaser trying to clear the big water jump. Part of what is captivating is knowing that at any moment the competitor could crash and burn. But, why is that? Why is talking about the Trinity so tough?

In the Western world, we do not do well with ambiguity, such as God being three-in-one and one-in-three. The West craves certainty. We want to know for sure. We desire certitude beyond a shadow of a doubt! But, let's face it, we have reached an age of laziness when it comes to pursuing the truth. When we want to know now, we just google it, right?

Nowadays, what matters most is not actually gathering evidence, but rather fighting for the position, the candidate, or the side that we feel is right. So many are too entrenched in one way of thinking to see beyond the way they have always seen things. So, what happens? Either/or thinking emerges.

We see the world in binaries, dichotomies, black or white thinking. And we say things like, “One of us is right and the other is wrong. It is either true or false. That person is either gay or straight, male or female, black or white, Christian or not, American or not, us or them.” Not only this, but a moralistic overlay gets placed on top of this way of seeing the world. And people believe that one way—their way—is good and the other is bad. So, to talk about the Trinity is not only precarious—because I might put my foot in my mouth—but it is also subversive and even a little dangerous because it runs counter-cultural opposing this either/or way. Usually in the Church we have an authority on challenging subjects and turning to it, you might wonder, what do our Holy Scriptures say about the Trinity? 

Often our Biblical passages throughout the Sunday Lectionary (the readings we hear each week) provide us with clarity. However, today it is a bit more challenging. When the Books of the Bible were written the Church had a very primitive articulation of the Trinity. God as Father, Son, and Spirit did, does, and always will exist, but the early Church’s expression of the Trinity was in its theological infancy.

So why shoehorn a complex idea into the Sunday after Pentecost? Why cobble together bits of Holy Scripture that barely mention the persons of the Trinity? What is the point of this day when we celebrate God as three-in-one and one-in-three? For one, we do this because it is God’s eternal nature. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. God has always been this divine community that is forever and always both distinct and united at the same time. But, given our current context of either/or, us/them, my tribe/your tribe existence the concept of not two, but three-in-one and one-in-three challenges the black or white lens through which we so often see the world.

This bucks against our desire to talk about God in a definitive way, but when we do this we can fumble and stumble too. Like saying that God’s nature is akin to an egg—whites, yoke, and shell—which is actually Tritheism, or the belief that there are 3 gods who share the same substance. Working out what we believe about God is good and right so to do, as is saying something conclusive.

And, as much as I am poking some fun at historical heresies, individually we will struggle to fully articulate the indescribable nature of God. So, when other people say something different about who God is, what if, instead of immediately casting them out as wrong, we listened? I wonder, how will we learn about the complexities of God if we only rely upon how we individually see God? How will we learn of the nuances of each other if we have already made up our minds about who the other is? The Divine Community of the Trinity teaches us that something can be multiple things at the same time, even if you or I can only see one of those viewpoints.

The mysterious nature of the Trinity makes sense one moment and defies our feeble minds the next. God is Father, but God is also Son, but God is also Spirit. God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer all at once. While none of these is the other, they are all God, and they are all one. One equals not the other, but all equal God. To see this truth though we cannot simply see things with our either/or, literal minds. This is what got Nicodemus stuck, at least for a time.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we heard Jesus say that one must be born “again. The word for “again” is also the word for “from above.” Jesus was talking about both at the same time. Nicodemus only heard “again,” and thus was stuck. He could not get the full grasp of who God was in that moment, for he was seeing through a literal lens.

We too can see get stuck seeing God or other people with either/or vision. However, this will only allow a very limited view of God or the world. A view that will keep us thinking only on the literal level. Now, here’s the thing, we need the literal level, but to see the immensity of God we need both/and vision. We really need beyond both/and vision—sort of like having beyond 20/20 vision. We need three-and-one vision. We must be willing to be mystified, stupefied, and astonished by God being THREE—Father, Son, Spirit—AND ONE—God.

The gift that Trinity Sunday provides us is not good preaching—by now you all clearly know that. Rather, the gift is an opportunity to wonder about the ultimate reality of who God is. God and the multiverse that God creates goes far beyond a literal, either/or existence. The Trinity and our wrestling with this BIG theological idea gifts us with a chance. A chance to see what is on the surface and what runs much deeper. It helps us to see that we need each other’s viewpoints, especially today as we come back together and discern who God is calling us to be beyond this pandemic. In God’s very nature we are gifted this opening to dream beyond the either/or thinking that pervades so much of society. We are invited to see that God’s essence is divine community, which is what we are called to be as well. May we expand our vision to see the beauty, the enormity, and the complexity of each other and God who is one-in-three and three-in-one. Amen.



[1] “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” Lutheran Satire, published March 14, 2013, accessed May 30, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw&t=99s.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Give Me Your Unconditional Love

 

What does unconditional love really mean?


 

May 9, 2021—Easter 6B 

Acts 10:44-48  Psalm 98 1 John 5:1-6 John 15:9-17


The title track off of Donna Summer’s 1983 album She Works Hard For The Money was a huge hit. It topped the Billboard R&B chart for three weeks and reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It remains one of Summer’s most well-known tracks, played around the world and streamed tens of millions of times.

The second single off that same album was a commercial disappointment, only reaching #43 on Billboard’s pop list. I am sure Summers and Mercury Records were upset by the lukewarm reception of this track. However, the late Donna Summers would be happy to know that the youth of our diocese love this song, which is entitled, “Unconditional Love.” If you were in church last week, you heard it:

Don't take too long to find/True love transcends all time/That non-reacting, everlasting love

Give me, your unconditional love./The kind of love I deserve/The kind I want to return.

Until Youth Sunday, seven days ago, when Charles Youngson, on his way out the door for his sabbatical, said something about this song, I had no idea of the genesis of this classic camp hit. When Charles revealed the original singer of this song, and I was so confused. “’Unconditional Love’ was sung by Donna Summers? Like, ‘Bad Girls’ Donna Summers? ‘Last Dance’ Donna Summers?” After googling and going on Spotify to make sure Charles had not prematurely left on his sabbatical with that statement, I explored a little more. 

Discovering that this song had a less than stellar reception amongst critics and radio listeners alike actually did not surprise me. We prefer to put our energies into working hard (for the money) instead of receiving and giving unconditional love. This is true not just about Donna Summers’ songs, it is true throughout life. Of course, we in the Church love love.

We love talking about love. We love putting love in our mission statements—"revealing God’s transforming love in the world”—but what do we really mean by unconditional love, transforming love, or in the Greek agape? Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson gives us some clues as to the immensity and the difficulty of participating in God’s love.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love,” Jesus told this to his disciples on the night before he died. Sometimes we believe that God loves us because God is Our Heavenly Father (or Mother or Parent depending on your piety). However, that is getting things backwards. As a fellow priest and friend once preached, “God doesn’t love us because God is our heavenly parent. [God] loves us because that’s who God is, and it is the love that God has for us that makes us God’s children—not the other way around.”[1]

Think about it this way, most of us probably believe deeply that we love our grandparents and parents, our children and grandchildren no matter what. We may even strive to practice unconditional love with them, so that when they hurt us profoundly, we still come back with the same unabashed affection. This is wonderful, but it is actually another form of love, sometimes referred to as storgē, which is the Greek word for familial love. Jesus was calling his disciples (and us) to abide in this other form of love, agape. This sounds great, but what does this love look like?

Agape is revealed in keeping Jesus’ commandment. What was Jesus’ commandment? To love one another as he loves us. [puzzled look] Okay, I know. This is as though we are walking through an M.C. Escher painting in which we reach the top of the stairs only to realize we are back at the bottom. Jesus’ words are a bit circuital. He essentially says: “Love one another as I have loved you. Do this by abiding in my love. You will know that you are dwelling in my love if you follow my commandments. What are my commandments? Oh wait, there’s just one and it is to love one another.” Oh, Jesus!

This snake eating its tail sort of logic is frustrating; however, digging deeper into what Jesus meant by this love may leave us even more frustrated, or at least more challenged! After Jesus told his disciples that his commandment was to love one another he gave them a real-world example of this: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We sometimes bypass these words too quickly, so let me read them again, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus not twenty-four hours later lived these words out—or perhaps better said, he laid his life down to prove these words perfectly true.

How do we even attempt to live into this sort of love? That same priest I mentioned earlier also pointed out that there are two surprises within these challenging words.[2] The first is right in front of us: Laying down one’s life for another is not simply an act of ending one’s mortal life.
 

Another sort of “martyrdom” exists. We celebrate this example in the Church Calendar when we put up white liturgical hangings for Saints’ feast days. These Saints did not die because of their faith, instead they lived for it. In the musical Hamilton the character of George Washington put it more simply, “Dying is easy, living is harder.” John in a passage from his First Letter that we read a few weeks ago expanded this concept even further. When we sacrifice resources, we would otherwise use and give to God’s work in this world here too we are laying down our lives. So, this is the first surprise—the agape love of giving up ourselves is not just about death, it happens any time we sacrifice for God’s work in this world.

The second surprise is undetectable in our English translation. The sentence “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” is much more interesting in the original language. The word for friends is philos and there is a specific type of friendly or brotherly love in the Greek, it’s philia (see: Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love). So, is that what Jesus said? NOPE! Jesus used another word for love, and it is—you guessed it—agape!

Why is this important? It would have put those listening to this Gospel on notice. To truly follow Jesus’ commandment, to abide in him, to be his friend is not about brotherly love—love that is complementary or a mirror response to how someone else treats us. Instead, it is about agape—that non-reacting, everlasting love. Alright, again this all sounds nice, but what’s this look like, laying down our life for someone else?

In the middle of last week at the Men’s Bible Study (on Wednesday mornings at 7:00 AM both in person and on Zoom… contact me if you are interested!), and someone asked a wonderful question along these same lines. We were talking about love in action, where the rubber meets the road, and wondered, “How do we live in love when we have conflict with someone else?” I have been pondering this question off and on since I heard it.

Agape is a gift of God—we never have to work hard for it—but when we do not have it, how do we cultivate it? Do we become doormats or pushovers for others? Do we give of ourselves completely such that we become empty vessels—dry and parched? Do we follow the example of Saints who lived for Christ by giving away everything and surviving on the charity of others? Maybe. However, Jesus’ example paints a different picture of agape.

Jesus was not a doormat. He was not a pushover. He pushed over tables in the Temple. He told people no. He even said to his own family, you are not my family—those who do my Father’s will are my brothers and sisters and mother. He stopped healing people in one town, so that he could share his message elsewhere. He paused for prayer. He loved his enemies, but by challenging them. And in these and many other ways, he showed us an example of being “boundaried” in our approach to dwelling in God’s love and sharing it with others. The fully divine and fully human Jesus had good boundaries—he set limits even as he expressed God’s limitless love.

So, maybe living in agape is not so much about being pushovers, running ourselves ragged, and giving everything away, but instead it is about finding times and places to fill our cup with God’s love, like Jesus did in prayer. So that then, that love overflows from us to others, like Jesus did in truly seeing and healing others. And yes, God calls us to give sacrificially of ourselves, but in ways that enrich our lives and others—not just for the sake of suffering. Jesus did not just die to die, he died so that we may live in love.

Remember you are a beloved creature of this love, and not a robot that can work without rest and restoration. God’s love is not an invitation for others to take advantage of us or hurt themselves. God’s love is not a mythical “perfect love” that does not exist in real life. Agape does exist in reality.

God is always more ready to give us this gift than we are to receive it. Some moments we will dwell in this love and it will emanate from us to others. Other times we will be broken vessels that leak the little bit of agape we feel like we have inside. In all these moments may we not shame ourselves or tear each other down for that only prevents us from seeing God’s way of love.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, we see this way: the transfiguration of human weakness by God’s strength, non-reacting, everlasting love as a response to violence, the trappings of death gone and the tomb empty.

In this way, may we sing with Donna Summers and the youth of our diocese:

Give me, your unconditional love./The kind of love I deserve/The kind I want to return.

And when it feels hard to return that love to those with whom we disagree or have conflict, may we rely upon God to sustain us, as we set good boundaries, trusting that in the end God’s resurrecting love always wins! Amen.


[1] Evan D. Garner, “To Love As We Are Loved,” [http://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2018/05/to-love-as-we-are-loved.html, posted: May 6, 2018, accessed: May 5, 2021].

[2] Garner, “To Love As We Are Loved,” [http://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2018/05/to-love-as-we-are-loved.html, posted: May 6, 2018, accessed: May 5, 2021].