2007-09-13

T.E.C. TAC TOE: Who will win in "The Episcopal Church"?


I want to start out with a bit of honesty. I have hesitated finishing this article because I did not want to say anything negative about Christ Church leaving the Diocese of Dallas. But, I cannot help it. I feel shocked, saddened, and betrayed by the actions of Christ Church. I feel hurt, like a man whose friend flees when the fight gets too tough. I feel more hurt by them than anything New Hampshire or the national church has ever done, because what they did is more personal. CS Lewis says that the devil sends error into the world in twos, so that by avoiding one you fall into the other. Well, Christ Church has answered the heresy of the national church with schism, and last I checked neither is pleasing to Christ. May God have mercy on us all.

Before Christ Church went into schism; many people asked me what my take is on the crisis in the national church, and what I think our response should be. The words I emailed them then are even more appropriate now in light of recent events. And I want to begin by saying that I have real problems with many people on the "extremes" in the debate. In this debate, there are really four sides, not just two. Here are the key players:

THE REVISIONISTS: These are the folks who advocate a whole host of changes to the way we do Church, including blessing same-sex "marriages" and ordaining actively gay clergy. They do not believe in the Creed, nor that Jesus literally lived, died, and rose from the dead the way Scripture says He did. They do not believe Scripture is God's actual word to mankind, but rather some out-of-date man-made stories about God. They want to revise the faith and they want to shove this revision down everyone's throats by making them accept gay clergy, bad theology, and a whole host of "improvements" to the Christian faith.

THE SEPARATISTS: These are the folks who hold to an orthodox version of the faith (theBible is God's inspired word, and Jesus is God's Word made flesh, the second Person of the Trinity, who really rose from the dead). Yet, they push this orthodoxy in the direction of having a special club of only "pure" believers who are not tainted by any of the sins of the world or of the revisionists. They want to split from the Episcopal Church as soon as possible to create a "pure" Church, free from unrepentant sinners like the revisionists. These folks are very similar to the revisionists in this: they are not interested in dialogue or in fellowship with people who are not like them. They want everyone on their side, or they don't want to have anything to do with them.

THE COMPROMISERS: These folks may or may not have a particular stand on any of the issues. They may believe in Scripture, or not. They may want gay marriage, or not. The main thing is that they just want everyone to "get along". They want to hide their heads in the sand and pretend it is not happening. They tend to be upset with orthodox believers for making such a big deal about everything. Can't everyone just play nice?

THE ORTHODOX: These are folks who have an orthodox, Biblical, historical version of the Christian faith. They do not believe in the revisions of the revisionists, nor do they go along with the quick-to-jump-ship attitude of the separatists, nor do they believe we can pretend it all didn't happen like the compromisers. They think that the split of the Church is a very serious, very sad thing: like having a leg amputated. The orthodox genuinely love their revisionist brothers and sisters, and desperately want them to repent. They want to do everything humanly possible to save the Church from amputation, just as a surgeon wants to do everything possible to save the leg before amputating it. They are also not under the separatist delusion that we can create a "pure" Church by separating from the "impure". No matter how "pure" we try and make the Church, we will still have issues with sin. And if we try to be too "pure" we run the risk of becoming self-righteous Pharisees who are too afraid to reach out to the lost world to share Christ's Love (check Matthew 23 on that). Yet, the orthodox sadly realize that there is a very high possibility that the Church may be split - the better word is amputated - but they do not rejoice and get giddy about it like the separatists do.

Most people make this about the "Liberals" (which includes revisionists and compromisers) versus the "Conservatives" (which includes separatists and orthodox), but I think that is misleading. Both the labels conservative and liberal are so over-used and fuzzy that they have become meaningless. And, as I have shown, they represent people who are very different in what they want out of this Church conflict.

Also, you can see that the conflict is very deep and not as simple as people make it. The conflict is not just about New Hampshire ordaining gays (from one side), nor about "conservatives" being "homophobes" (from the other side). These things are just symptoms of a deeper problem. It is like a foundation problem in a house. When a house gets foundation problems, the first signs are cracks in the wall and doors that won't shut right. Yet, if we just patch the cracks and fix the doors, we will do nothing to actually fix the problem. We have to dig deep and fix the foundation.

The foundation is cracked in the Episcopal Church. Trying to make the walls pretty won't fix anything. Part of the Church is trying to build on Christ and His Word, which is the only true foundation (the orthodox position, cf. 1Cor 3). Part of the Church is trying to build on political correctness and the fashions of this Age (the Revisionist position). Part of the Church wants to build on just getting along and playing nice (the Compromise position). And part of the Church wants to build on the foundation of Christ, but they don't want anything to do with the old building. They want to dig up the foundation of Christ and move it to a new location (the Separatist position). As a result, the house of faith is getting cracks all over the place, and may implode before all is said and done.

I will be completely honest: There is a reason why the position of certain parishes is so confusing when they say things like "we are still under the bishop but we are not part of the Episcopal Church". It is because they don't make sense, and I think their logic is flawed. They have made the logically contradictory statement that they are in communion with the bishop, but they are separate from the Episcopal Church. Now, the bishop is still in communion with the bishops of the Episcopal Church, even if he is not happy with many of them right now. It is impossible to say you are in communion with the whole and not the part. It is like saying "I am connected with my finger, but not with my arm". It is literal nonsense to say you are in communion with the bishop but not with the Episcopal Church.

Furthermore, it undermines the leadership of the bishop to make such a nonsense statement. We say that the bishop is truly our "head pastor" in the Diocese (and that is what he is- see the prayer book and the Bible when it speaks of "overseers"). If he is the head pastor, then we must wait on HIM to make decisions about what other head pastors and dioceses we are in communion with or not in communion with. He is the one who has the God-given responsibility and authority to make such decisions, not us, and not our priests, no matter how popular they are. And our bishop is a good man and has a lot more wisdom than most priests I know. He will navigate our diocese in the right direction, and that is his job to do so. Not ours. Our job is to evangelize and serve the towns we live in, and let him worry about the national and international stuff. If we would spend as much time in MISSION to our communities as we do GRIPING about the Episcopal Church, imagine the impact we would have!

Yet, some of our local pastors and vestries have taken it upon themselves to make the bishop's decision for him by saying nonsense like "we are in communion with our bishop, but not the Episcopal Church". If they want to do that, they might as well become non-denominational Congregationalists, because that is how they make decisions. If they truly believe that the bishop is not their head pastor, then they should be honest with how they run their church, and join the Southern Baptist convention. But, if they are Anglicans, then they confess that the Church is a unified organism called the Body of Christ. Furthermore, they confess that Christ has ordained bishops to structure this Body like a spine structures our own physical bodies (and we have a bishop who actually has a spine!). Anglicans confess this bishop is our head pastor. He is our "overseer", for that is what "bishop" means in Greek.

I choose to be orthodox and stand with the bishop, and I choose not to be revisionist, separatist, or a compromiser. I choose to dwell in the ruins of the Church with my bishop if that is where he leads us, because I trust him and I have sworn to follow his lead as my head pastor. And if revisionist dioceses will not agree to walk together with the Anglican Communion by acting on the Windsor Report, and agreeing to any Anglican Covenants that may arise from the Report, then I will follow our bishop in the process of sadly severing our connection with those dioceses. But, in the meantime, I will pray it will not come to that.

As far as Christ Church and the separatists are concerned, I will say this:

Too often we confuse big churches, and big attendance, and precise doctrinal statements with faithfulness to the Risen Christ. We forget that often faithfulness to Christ means being called to rebuild the ruins (like Ezra and Nehemiah in the Bible), rather than jumping ship. We forget that all of the prophets of the Bible, including Jesus, preached renewal from within God's people, rather than leaving God's people to go start another tribe. What should that tell us today as God's people?

Between the twin evils of heresy and schism, I trust the bishop. If and when he calls us to amputate the Episcopal Church, I will follow him. If and when he calls us to rebuild the ruins, I will follow him. And if he calls us to wait and have patience, I will follow him. And in the meantime, I will be faithful to the mission Christ has given me in the community I am in, and I will trust the bishop to deal with the national and international situation. There are many priests and parishes who exemplify this, and who are focusing on bringing their towns to know Christ, while allowing the bishop to do his job. May we do the same.

[This article was originally published in 2006 by my old parish (Apostles in Coppell TX), and by my Diocese (Dallas)]

2007-09-07

A TALE OF FOUR GOSPELS

A Sermon For Year C Proper 18
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Based on Luke 14.25-33

SERMON: What is the best news you have ever had? Can you remember a time when you sat around, waiting, wondering, hoping… Just to hear some news- some GOOD news- about something or someone you cared about deeply?

What was that good news? Was it news that someone you liked, liked you in return? Was it news that someone survived, made it through, and made it home? Was it news that all the tests came in, and it wasn't as bad as everyone thought it might be?

Or was it news that you got in! You made it! You got an opportunity of a lifetime!

What was your good news?

I think good news is like the very air we breathe. Without good news- news of hope, news that things will be different and better- without that news we gradually wither and die.

Good news gives us hope, and hope is the oxygen of life. Without this spiritual oxygen, we gradually suffocate on the misery, hopelessness, and depression of a thousand disappointments.

God knows that we need hope to breathe, that we will suffocate without good news. And that is why the central reading of our worship service proclaims to us GOOD NEWS.

In fact, you may not know this, but that is precisely what "Gospel" means. Gospel comes from the Germanic roots of "Gut" (meaning good) and "spiel" (meaning story or news). The Gospel is the Gut-spiel of what God has done for us in Christ.

And that is a pretty faithful translation of the original Greek word for Gospel, which is "e-u-angellion", where we get the word "Evangelism" and "Evangelical". Euangellion is the "good news" that a King's messenger would bring to a town.

This message might be news that the King would be coming to visit, or that the King had won a battle. The good news would be met with feasting and partying and preparation for the King's arrival.

And it is this Good News, this Gut-spiel, this Euangellion, that is the very life-blood, the very oxygen, of our life in Christ. It gives us hope, and that hope empowers us to live a life WORTH living. It is this good news that stops us from suffocating on our sorrows.

It is for this reason that the four books that give us four perspectives on the life and ministry of Jesus, are called "Gospels". They are four proclamations of the Good News that in Jesus, the King HAS come among us - HAS defeated evil through His resurrection- HAS given us His resurrection Spirit to live as He did - and WILL come again to bring all of Creation to fulfillment in Himself.

So, it is with a great deal of irony that we read today's Gospel, which seems to be anything BUT "good news". How is it good news to hate your family? How is it Gut-spiel to carry our cross? How is it euangellion to give up all we possess?

Far from being good news, it sounds like suffocating disappointment.

But it only suffocates if we do not have a clear idea of what "good" is in the first place. So, today I want to tell you a tale of four Gospels. Not the four books in the Bible, but four ways of interpreting the meaning of the "Good News" found in them.

The first gospel is the gospel of "I'm OK, your OK". It is the "good news" that God loves you the way that you are, BUT God does not want to change you at all.

It is the gospel of "self-esteem". And, in this gospel, Jesus is the supreme prophet of loving yourself. In this gospel, Jesus would never say anything unkind or judgmental. He just sits little children on his lap and hugs them and tells them "You are good enough, and smart enough, and gosh-darnit, I like you!"

God would never judge us, or impose anything on us that would make us uncomfortable, or cause us to question ourselves. In fact, in this gospel, the only people we can judge are those who might judge us.

So, this gospel winds up being something like a child's security blanket. My daughter has a pink security blanket, and she takes it everywhere she goes. It is not long enough to cover her, or useful enough to keep her warm, but it makes her feel happy.

And this is what the "I'm OK, you're OK" gospel does for people. It surrounds them with this pink, cuddly assurance that God will never judge them, and that they will go to heaven in the sweet bye and bye when they die.

But, when life's pain comes crashing in, and rips away all our hope, and leaves us to suffocate, this gospel won't cover us. It leaves us cold, hopeless, and vulnerable.

And when we read a passage like today, we cannot make sense out of it. How could the cuddly security-blanket god ever speak of hate? How could he want us to sacrifice? Why would he want us to surrender?

Not only does the "I'm OK, you're OK" gospel leave us without tools to live life, it leaves us without a way to understand the REAL Jesus. God may love us the way we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way!

So, we move to our second gospel. It is diametrically opposed to "I'm OK, you're OK". We could call it the gospel of "home improvement".

In the gospel of home improvement, Jesus comes to us like a home inspector. He takes a look at our foundation, at our roof, and inside our walls, and tells us what is wrong with us.

His "good news" is that we can finally fix what is wrong inside us! Jesus gives us a set of tools- moral platitudes and spiritual principals- that, if followed correctly, will lead to an abundant life.

This gospel winds up looking like a blueprint, or even a recipe book, to ensure "your best life now", and to assure you that God will have a mansion waiting on you in heaven if you jump through all His hoops.

All you have to do is master the five purposes, the seven principals, the ten steps, the twelve fundamentals, or whatever other recipe you can squeeze Jesus into.

And, on good days, this gospel works great. When the world is right, and your schedule is good, and nothing out of the ordinary happens, you feel great about yourself. You are successful, and getting better every day in every way.

But, this gospel cannot make sense of why Jesus would use the word "hate" either. Aren't we supposed to be successful and well liked? And this gospel can't make sense of why we would have to "carry our cross". Isn't your best life supposed to be filled with pleasure and prosperity?

And, this gospel utterly fails when our world falls apart. That means that for 99% of us, 95% the time this gospel is a pipe-dream. Because we live in a world where our lives, our relationships, and our families are torn apart by forces we do not understand, and cannot control.

And in the face of that, a gospel of home-improvement seems laughable. For those who have struggled for years in failure after failure despite their best efforts, this gospel is suffocating.

We just can't do it on our own. We don't need a God who is merely our "life coach". We need a God big enough to take our burdens onto Himself, and go with us through our despair and pain.

The third gospel is one way of dealing with this, and I call it "Easy believism". Easy believism takes it for granted that life is hard and painful, and also that we will fail even in our best efforts. And it also sees the need for God to directly help us, to pull us out of the ditch.

So, the solution it proposes is that Jesus took all of our sin and suffering into Himself on the cross, and died for us, so that we can be forgiven and get to heaven. All we have to do is believe in Him.

That's it. That's the good news. Life here WILL be hard and uncertain. You WILL fail and sin. But Jesus will be waiting for you at the end of it all, to comfort you, and make you feel better.

If we believe, we have a ticket to heaven. If we refuse to believe, we earn a ticket to hell. Either way, this world is going to hell in a hand-basket… So repent and believe while you still have time.

But "easy believism" cannot make sense out of our Gospel passage any more than the others. According to our passage, Jesus says we are supposed to "carry" our cross, "build" our lives, "fight" a war, and "give up" our possessions. These are things we DO, not just things we BELIEVE. And this happens NOW, not just in the sweet bye and bye.

Now, don't get me wrong. Belief is a necessary first step. We do not go to a college without first believing that college is worth going to. We do not marry a person unless we first trust them. And we do not LIVE for Christ unless we first BELIEVE that He is the Risen Lord, and thus worth living for.

Let me give you a fourth way to look at the Gospel, and lets call it the Good News of the Great Physician. To understand this version of the "good news", we have to understand that the "bad news" is not primarily a lack of self-esteem, or a lack of obedience to God's principals of success, or even a lack of belief.

To be sure, problems of self-image, lack of obedience, and unbelief flow from the primary problem (along with evil, suffering, and death). But, at the core of all of this is the fact that we all have been infected with a disease, a cancer, that is selfishness and sin.

This cancer eats up society, eats up relationships, and eats up individuals. It is a spiritual disease that kills souls, just as sure as a physical cancer that kills bodies. Once we have the disease, there are things we do that can make it worse- lifestyle choices, relationship choices, and belief-system choices.

But there is nothing we can do, in ourselves, of ourselves, to cure it. We need medicine. We need a Physician, who can reach inside us, and take all of the cancer out.

Think about what happens in the course of recovering from cancer. First, the sick person has to realize that they are sick. This can be a tough process, with lots of denial involved.

One they realize they are sick, they have to put their trust in a certain physician, who has the cure they need. Then they have to surrender to the surgery or chemotherapy that this physician prescribes.

Finally, after the surgery, they have to co-operate with the physician to recover and stay healthy. This will mean un-learning some unhealthy choices (like not smoking five packs a day), while learning healthy ways of life (like eating vegetables and fiber).

With the spiritual cancer of sin, the good news is that Jesus IS our cure. He has put our death to death on the cross, and overcome it by His resurrection. And if we trust Him to open us up and do radical surgery- and remove from us the tumors of idolatry, deception, selfishness, and hate- then He will inject us with His resurrection Spirit, to enable live a life WORTH living.

And once the Physician performs this radical surgery, there will be some things we will have to do to recover and stay healthy. We can't smoke five packs of sin a day, without expecting to have another round of spiritual surgery or chemotherapy!

But, recovery is hard. It will be like tearing down our old life, and building something entirely new. And Jesus is asking us "Are you ready to build WITH me?" It will be like waging a war against the selfishness and self-deception that used to rule your life. And Jesus is asking us "Are you ready for the conflict to come?"

Recovery will require us making a decision to put Him at the very core of our lives. To do that, we will have to get rid of lots of things that act as "gods" for us. For some, it is our possessions that are our "gods". We can't bear to be without them. That is why Jesus says that if we want to be healthy, we must give them to Him.

For others, it is our relationships that are our "gods". We worry more about what our family and friends think about us, than we worry about who God made us to be. Our desire to please or impress others is a cancer that eats away at our souls.

And that is why Jesus tells us to "hate" our family and friends. Because, compared to our love for Him, all lesser loves must be despised. And the paradox is, that if we make Jesus the sole love of our lives, we will love others MORE than we ever did when our own self-worth depended on whether or not they liked us.

This Gospel of the Great Physician, is the only Gospel that can make sense out of passages like this, and show us how this too is "good news": Because radical surgery- even if it is painful- is always good news to those who KNOW how deadly their disease is.

BENEDICTION: And now may put your whole trust in the Great Physician. May you allow Him to remove from you the cancer of sin, and fill you with His resurrection Spirit. And may you embody His Gospel of Healing with everyone you know. Amen+

AFFIRMATION: And now, let us affirm together our Faith in the Great Physician, joining our voices with all who have been healed by Christ in all ages, as we recite together the Nicene Creed…

2007-09-05

On the Difference Between the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church

One of my college students asked me the following question:

I went to a reformed Episcopal church on Sunday. The church was beautiful but the service was so different. I noticed that the BCP 1928 seemed to be a lot different than what I was used to. whats up with that? Just wondering.

My answer is as follows:

The short answer is that the Reformed Episcopal Church is a split-off group that formed as a reaction to: (a) Growing liberalism in the Church, especially in denying chief doctrines of the Protestant Reformation (such as the total corruption of human sinners, and Christ's sacrifice as a substitutionary payment for our sins); (b) Growing Catholicism in the Church, especially vestments, ornate ceremonies, and the recovery of "catholic" liturgies that emphasize the Incarnation and the Church, rather that the Cross and the sinner.

A longer answer requires a short refresher on "Reformed" theology (i.e. that theology that flows out of John Calvin and Zwingli in Europe, and out of Thomas Cranmer in England). Reformed theology is usually summed up in the acronym "TULIP":

T=Total Depravity. Humans are completely useless and worthless due to sin, unable to offer God anything of value, nor even respond to God due to the damage of sin in them. All are bound for hell.

U=Unconditional Election. Because of His mercy, God elects some out of this mass of perdition and misery to be saved. Because we cannot do anything to save ourselves, it is infinitely merciful for God to elect even one person to be saved and re-born. (One might ask: "If God can elect one or some, why not All, if He loves them?" But don't let logic or Scripture get in the way of a good theological system).

L=Limited Atonement. Christ's death on the cross was a "substitutionary propitiation" for our sins. It is substitution, because in it, He takes the punishment we deserve. It is a propitiation because a "propitiation" (also called "expiation") is an offering that turns away wrath. It is "limited" because it is only applied to the elect. Everyone else is S.O.L. Christ's death on the cross is thus kind of like a "deflector shield". God the Father wants to utterly destroy us because we have rebelled against Him, but Jesus stands in our place and takes the wrath for us. Another picture is that of the court-room: God is the judge who declares us guilty and gives us the death sentence, and then takes off His robes and dies for us. But this is only if you are elect. Everyone else is screwed.

I=Irresistible Grace. Those who God elects, and who Christ atones for, will inevitably be drawn to receive Christ. The Holy Spirit will get inside them and "regenerate" them, so that they can hear the Gospel, understand it, and respond in faith (and be saved). Without this regeneration, everyone else is doomed to die and go to hell. One may ask: "How are they condemned if they cannot understand how to be saved?" But, don't ask questions. They only screw up a good theological system.

P=Perseverance of the Elect. Those who are elected, atoned, and called, will be brought through life to receive heaven. "Once saved, always saved". God's power will keep them from loosing faith. And, the flipside is also true: Those not elect will inevitably, despite anything else, inherit damnation.

OK, so this TULIP is what makes the "Reformed" Episcopal Church reformed. Thus, in their liturgy and preaching, you will notice the following:

1. Usually minimal vestments. A few robes. No really ornate stuff (some are different, but this is a general rule). The idea is that they want as few distractions as possible from hearing the Gospel of the Cross.

2. Many of the prayers are very sin-centered. They are centered on making us ponder what miserable sinners we are, who do not deserve even the least attention from God. In the new 1979 Prayer Book, there is much more emphasis on how we are loved by God just the way we are. In the 1928, there is much more emphasis on our need to humbly repent.

3. Much of the service is cross centered. The liturgy (and usually the preaching) centers on the "great transaction" where Jesus took our sin for us, and has given us His righteousness and forgiveness. In the 1979, we tend to focus more on the Incarnation of Christ, rather than on His death. We tend to focus on how God became one of us in every way- including death- by becoming incarnate. In the Reformed EC, the emphasis is on the cross as God's primary saving act, whereas in our Church (and the Catholic Church) the emphasis is on the total incarnation- from birth, to death, to resurrection, to coming again- as the primary saving act.

4. Because the newer liturgies in the 1979 BCP have taken on a more "catholic" flavor, and an older ordering, the R.E.C. rejects the 1979 BCP and sticks with the 1928, which reflects a more "Reformed" theology, and a more "Reformed" way of ordering the service.

The basic difference in the Liturgy could be summed up this way:

1928 BCP: Confession of sin and unworthiness --> Focus on the Cross as our salvation --> Sacrament reminds us of cross.

1979 BCP: God made us to love and share Himself with --> Focus on the Incarnation as the ultimate embodiment of God's Love --> Sacrament shares the Incarnation with us here and now.

Many of my critiques of the R.E.C. are apparent in this essay. But I would like to add the following:

A. I think that the REC is partially right in stressing our sin and need to repent. This is something we often overlook, and we ARE sick with sin, and we DO need to repent and return to the Lord to be healed.

B. I do think that there is a substitutionary aspect of the cross and Incarnation that we need to emphasize that we do not sometimes because of our horror over "deflector shield" or "courtroom" images of substitution. But, the real nature of the substitution is that Jesus is a physician that has infected Himself with our disease (and death) so that He can find a way to cure us. And that cure is in the resurrection. His substitution is that God so loved us that He took upon Himself the natural consequence of our sins, so that we may be healed.

C. I do think that the normal preaching and liturgy of the REC would dispose one to think of their relationship with God as a legal transaction, instead of as a love affair with God. And, due to the weaknesses of Reformed theology (the TULIP), I think it would be very hard to change that "legalistic" assumption that is present in nearly all they do.

There… Probably more than you wanted to know… But that's what I think.

May Christ fill your life,
Nate

2007-09-02

INTOLERANT ABOUT HOSPITALITY

A Sermon For Year C Proper 17
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Based on Hebrews 13:1-8 and Luke 14:1-14

SERMON: Did you ever watch cartoons on TV when you were a kid? How about last night on cartoon network?

I loved cartoons. Every afternoon in third and fourth grade I would race home after school to watch my all-time favorite cartoon series: G.I. Joe- a REAL American Hero!

Like most kids growing up in Arkansas at the time, I loved guns, tanks, bombs, and explosions. And G.I. Joe supplied that yearning with an endless conflict between "the good guys", and bland, non-descript, faceless enemy called Cobra.

They were always locked in a properly-neutered, politically-correct, no-one-ever-really-dies war which never seemed to end… but which did seem to spawn the production of really cool gadgets and playsets, which my dad would pay hundreds of dollars to buy.

Looking back, it was kind of the macho equivalent of "Barbie Dolls".

But, G.I. Joe had one thing that Barbie never got until the late 90's: DIVERSITY. Whereas Barbie has had a whites-only policy at the dream house until recently, G.I. Joe always featured a rainbow of diversity, that joined together to fight against the forces of evil.

Every week on G.I. Joe you would see red and yellow, black and white / joined together for the fight / battling evil with all their might! I think G.I. Joe may have been he first place where women served on the battlefield. G.I. Joe was a beacon of "progressive thought" for me.

And now I have a nearly-three-year-old daughter, and she likes to watch cartoons. And the values that were "progressive" 25 years ago, are commonplace today.

It is almost as if every show has to fit a certain rubber stamped model of inclusivity and toleration to be put on TV. It is totally predictable. If there are four kids on the show, then two have to be boys, and two have to be girls.

One of them has to be of African heritage, one has to be of Hispanic heritage, one has to be Asian, and then there is the token white kid. If there are five kids, the last one has to be in a wheel chair. And then, almost as if by law, the Hispanic kid has to drop in one Spanish word for every two or three sentences of dialogue.

Now, if this is supposed to teach my daughter to be tolerant of diversity, and to respect people's differences, then that is a good thing. A very good thing… But, somehow, I get the idea that precisely the opposite is going on.

You see, the only thing that is really different about any of these characters is that they are colored differently, and occasionally use a Spanish word. Other than that, they talk the same, dress the same, act the same, and share the same values and assumptions.

In short, they are all are stereotypes of a certain cultural vision that is very "modern", university-educated, wealthy, sterile, and western-European. It is like "we want you all to be diverse, but diverse in a way that makes wealthy western intellectuals comfortable."

The vision of "toleration" they are committed to is deeply hypocritical, and acts as a cultural steamroller that destroys or ignores true differences between people.

Where are the poor people? Where are the mentally handicapped? Where are those who are not considered beautiful? Where are the fat people? Where are the people who speak in a dialect you cannot understand? Where are the dumb people? Where are the elderly and infirm? Where are the "closed-minded" folk who zealously believe things that are outside of the politically correct norm?

Oh, I forget. These people are all the villains.

And it isn't just the world of cartoons that is stuck in the open-minded hypocrisy that is "toleration". It is the cultural air we breathe, especially in an "enlightened" place like SMU.

I was at a conference for college students recently that had a four hour long segment on "toleration". It featured a huge group session that dealt with stereotypes, followed by small group discussions on the virtues of toleration.

What was interesting is what was NOT present in the discussion, and how the students reacted to diversity training.

What was NOT present was any mention of people "not like us". Sure, we hit all of the requisite categories of race, gender, sexuality, hair color, and even religions that we are comfortable with (such as Christianity, Islam, and atheism… but no one who sacrifices chickens).

But, the underlying assumption was that we would only have to tolerate people who are around the same age as us, from the same western-european dominated culture as us, who are roughly the same level of wealth and social standing as us.

There was no discussion of the disabled, the very old, the very young, or anyone not in the general category of beautiful people.

Interesting, right?

Wrong. The student reaction to this spiel on toleration was profound boredom. "Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. People are different from me. I leave them alone, they leave me alone, and we can all talk about how enlightened and tolerant we are."

"We know the drill…"

And I just sat there thinking: There has got to be something BEYOND mere toleration. There has got to be something BEYOND just grinning and bearing each other's differences, as long as we are different in very narrow, socially prescribed ways.

And there is. There is a profound practice, that flows straight from the heart of God, that takes all that is good about "toleration", and cleanses it off all its hypocrisy, and raises it to new life in Christ.

Jesus speaks of it today in our Gospel reading, and the author of Hebrews gives it a title: Hospitality.

Hospitality differs from toleration in five major ways:

First, toleration is based on an absence, where as hospitality is based on a presence. Toleration is the mere absence of hatred, of prejudice, and of injustice. It tries to get rid of hate, but it does not replace it with anything.

But hospitality is the presence of Love: unconditional, unselfish, unstoppable Love. The Love found in Jesus. The Love defined in First Corinthians 13. It goes beyond merely getting rid of bad passions. It replaces them with a greater passion. And only a greater passion can drive out lesser passions.

Second, toleration is based on a profoundly undefined core of pluralism. Why is toleration good? "Because it is." But why? "Because it makes sure nobody gets hurt." But why is it good that nobody gets hurt? "It just is good. Now stop asking questions before we label you as a narrow-minded bigot!"

Tolerance for its own sake cannot even define why it is a virtue at all. But hospitality has a core that is defined. That core is a God who is Love, and who commands Love because it flows from who God is.

God is profoundly self-giving, self-sharing, self-sacrificial Love that deeply enjoys those who He shares Himself with. That Love is embodied in Jesus, who is God in human flesh.

Only this Love can form a foundation that can bear the massive weight of a life of Love, a lifestyle of hospitality. If we try to base such a life on a profoundly ambiguous concept like pluralistic toleration, it will crumble into hatred and apathy.

This is one reason why it is so profoundly important for us to personally give ourselves to Christ… to surrender all we are to the God of Love we find through Him. Only He can fill us with the power to Love God, Love others, and Love ourselves with true hospitality.

And if you have not consciously given yourself over to Christ to be filled with His Love, I invite you to tonight: Right here, right now.

Don’t wait. As you come forward tonight to receive Holy Communion, use it as a time to give yourself to Christ for the first time, or the fiftieth. He will welcome you with true hospitality.

Third, toleration is accomplished largely by big, impersonal programs, lawsuits and lawmaking, and a media culture, designed to mold us into a culture that has just the optimal amount of diversity, so that we can all be good consumers.

Toleration seeks to make us all "nice" people so that we can create an efficient consumer economy, and stable political power base, to ensure the most "pleasure" for the most people… Except of course for the people who don't count. But we don't mention them.

Hospitality, on the other hand, is profoundly personal and relational. It is about you and me, as individuals, reaching out to others, as individuals, to share God's blessings with them.

Hospitality cannot be accomplished by passing a law, or creating a mandatory diversity workshop. It can only be accomplished by you choosing to be the hands and feet of Christ reaching out to hurting and forgotten people.

Fourth, toleration demands nothing of us, other than that we shrug, and smile blandly at each other, and say "that is nice… we are soooo diverse".

But, Hospitality demands sacrifice. In fact, it demands a radical re-orientation of our lives from the idea that "It's all about me", to "It's all about Love".

And the paradox is that if we seek ourselves, and live in bland toleration, we will end up with profoundly bland lives. But, if we give our lives to Christ, and seek to radically live out His agenda of hospitality, we will end up having an abundant life… and incredible life… an outstanding life.

For those who seek their lives will loose them, but those who loose their lives for Christ and His Love will find true life.

Finally, toleration is actually limited in scope to who we will tolerate. Only people who fit certain guidelines are worthy of toleration. All of those who are too young, too old, too poor, or too useless to fit in the category of toleration are simply forgotten, or not tolerated.

But hospitality does not limit the scope on who we should reach out to. Our readings today tell us to reach out to strangers and wierdos, convicts and prisoners, those abused and tortured, those who lead and those who follow, the crippled and disabled.

Jesus says for us to surrender our places of honor, and give them to others, so that we can have a banquet with "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind". Only then will we be blessed, because though they cannot repay us, we will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

The Kingdom of God is a Party of Radical Hospitality, where everyone is invited, whether the world considers them valuable or not. And the only way to get prepared for that party is to start partying like that right here, right now.

"For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Will you humble yourself tonight, and choose to join Jesus' Banquet of radical hospitality?

BENEDICTION: And now may you move past toleration to hospitality. May you get over yourself, and get into Christ's Love. And may you live every moment as the hands of Christ reaching out to your world. Amen+

AFFIRMATION: And now, let us affirm together the faith of Christ's followers in every Age, of every tribe and tongue, of all races and walks of life, in the words of the Nicene Creed…

AN UNWELCOME SERMON

A SERMON FOR Proper 16 Year C
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Based on Hebrews 12:18-29 and Luke 13:22-30

As I stand here, I can't help but grin because of the situation. Here I am on the first Sunday back after a summer break, and I am nervous about getting Canterbury going again. Lots of things to get done. Tons of new people to meet, including many of you.

And there you are. You are beginning a new school year with tons of courses, and a to-do list a mile long. For some of you it is your first time away from home. For others it may your first time to walk into an Episcopal worship service.

And I am supposed to preach a welcome sermon. A sermon to help you get acclimated to your new semester, and hopefully to your new family of faith away from home.

And to do that, I must use the Bible readings appointed for today from our lectionary. For those of you who do not know: The lectionary is a cycle of Bible readings for every Sunday, designed to help the Church read through most of the Bible every three years.

In many ways, it is great. It keeps me from preaching from on my five favorite Bible passages every week. It makes the Church listen to, and struggle through, all that God's Word has to say.

But, then there are days like today. In any sermon, particularly a welcome sermon, there are three types of Bible texts you DON'T want to preach on:

First, you don't want texts that have obscure Old Testament references that you have to explain.

Second, you don't want texts that are complex and difficult to read.

Third, you don't want texts that scare the hell out of people.

CONGRATULATIONS! We hit the jackpot with all three!

So, instead of a fluffy non-descript message that tells you all what you probably knew already… How about we tackle this obscure, difficult, and scary passage, and see if we can make some sense out of it?

I know that is a challenging assignment: But I figure that if you could make it into SMU, you are up to the task!

We start with our passage from Hebrews. The first thing you need to know about Hebrews, is that it was written to Hebrews. It is a letter written by an un-named Jew- possibly even by a Jewish woman named Priscilla- to other Jews in an attempt to convince them to follow Jesus as their Messiah.

Thus it uses a whole lot of images and stories from the Hebrew Bible- what we call the Old Testament- to convey the importance of who Jesus is, and what He did for humanity.

Just like we might speak in the language of our culture to make sense of Jesus- by comparing Him to Aslan from Narnia, or Harry Potter, or Neo in the Matrix- so also they used the language of Moses and the prophets to make sense of Jesus.

The writer of Hebrews- I am going to assume she was a woman because I like that theory- she begins in verse 18 by talking about the mountain of "blazing fire" that Moses received the Ten Commandments on.

You know the mountain: Vast and terrible. On top, Charleton Heston with a white beard hangs out with God, who writes the Ten Commandments on two slabs of rock. Then Charleton- AKA Moses- takes those slabs down the mountain with his rippling biceps and gives them to the Nation of Israel. For Moses, its just another day at the office, right?

Wrong. Moses was terrified. The Jews were terrified. Like wet-your-pants terrified. God was awesome and vast and spoke with a voice that would split you in two.

Now, I get in lots of conversations with people who either reject God's existence, or are on-the-fence about the Supreme Being. And one of the frequent requests I hear from them is this: "If God would just SHOW Himself in power and might, THEN I would believe."

But they don't know what they are asking. God HAS done just that very thing on this "terrible mountain". Sure, everybody at the bottom of the mountain believed, but out of fear, not out of love. And belief out of fear never works in the long run.

It didn't work in the Jewish Story either. While Moses was on the mountain, they made idols to worship. While they were traveling to the "promised land" they rejected the God who led them. And when they made it to the promised land, it got worse.

Belief based on fear- whether fear of the muzzle of a gun, or fear of the flames of hell- doesn't stay belief for long. It becomes bland indifference. It doesn't work.

In fact, a great many of the Stories we read in the Hebrew Bible are illustrations of what DOESN'T work. But it isn't because God is on a learning curve, and needs to experiment before he gets it right.

It is because God knows that we need to know what doesn't work, and often we need to experience failure before we will appreciate what DOES work. Think about it. Most of us have a bad habit of having to learn "the hard way".

We continually deny what we know is right, and do what we know doesn’t work. We think if we just manipulate things a little better, or use people a little more, or get really wasted this time, it will all turn out better. And it may for a while. And then it bites us in the butt. It never works long-term.

And we promise we will never do it again. Until next time…

But God wants to get us out of the loop of failing over and over. God wants to move us past what doesn't work, into His abundant life. He wants to fill us with His Love, a Love that overcomes all our fears.

So after God shows us terror doesn't work, He arrives in our world in a totally different way. A way you never could have guessed in a million years. He arrives not in power and glory and terrible thunder.

Instead, He arrives powerless, in tattered clothes, in the cry of a baby. God empties Godself and becomes one of us in Jesus Christ. And in Jesus, God pours Himself out, and invites us to become one with Him in Love.

In fact, this Love is the reason why God is called "a consuming fire" in verse 29. This is because when you love someone with your whole heart, you can't just Love them a little. Love consumes you. It becomes a fire burning within. And that is how God feels about you: He is consumed with Love for you, and longs for you to become consumed with Love for Him and His children.

When we become one with God through Jesus, we become part of His Body, which we call the Church. The Church is not a place, it is a people: A people who Love God through Jesus Christ… A people who live to share that Love with everyone… A people who are the real hands and feet of Jesus reaching into a hurting world.

In verse 22 the author uses Hebrew images to describe this new reality we have come to in Christ: She calls it "Mount Zion" (which is where the Temple was built); "The city of the living God" (which is Jerusalem, where the Temple resided); "The heavenly Jerusalem" (reminding us that Jerusalem is not something that can be pinned down on a map, but a spiritual reality beyond the physical city).

The author says that this "Zion-City-Jerusalem" reality is what we have come to. But what does that mean? Does it mean heaven, as in a place we go to after we die? NO, because the author says that we are there NOW. We don't have to die to get there.

Instead, we have come to "the assembly of the firstborn". This gathering of people may be "enrolled in heaven", but they live now on Earth. This assembly is the Church: The Body of Christ, the community who lives in communion with the God of Love.

The Church has a unique way of describing this God of Love. We describe God as a communion of three Persons eternally sharing in one other: God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. And the author says we have come to communion with all three:

In verse 23, she says we have come to "God the judge of all". The idea of "judge" carries baggage for us. We tend to think of a judge as someone who imprisons us and declares us guilty forever. But Jews would have heard "judge" in a completely different way.

When the Jews heard "judge" they thought of the Book of Judges, and the heroic "judges" that God raised up to deliver his people from oppression. While we tend to think of a judge as an oppressor, they thought of judge as a deliverer: Someone who judged oppression and defeated it.

She is saying that we have come to our God and Father, who judges all of our sins and addictions and oppressions, so that He can deliver us from them all, and bring us into His Love forever.

She goes on to say that we have come to "the spirits of the righteous made perfect". This refers to the work of God's Spirit within the spirits of those in Christ's Body.

Within our spirits, God's Spirit does two things. First, the spirit makes us "righteous". This is not "self-righteous", as in "I-am-a-super-religious-holier-than-thou-zealot-who-is-better-than-you". Rather, righteous means to be "made right", or "put in a right relationship".

It means to straighten out our lives, from the inside out. That's what

God's Spirit does in the spirits of God's children: The Spirit straightens us out, so we can have right relationships with God, others, and ourselves.

The second thing God's Spirit does in our spirits is "perfect" us. This doesn't mean perfection as in "flawless hair, rock hard abs, and a glowing smile". This means perfect in Love. It means being able to love others the way God loves us: completely and unconditionally.

So, when the author says we have come "to the spirits of the righteous made perfect", it means we have come to the community where God's Spirit is at work, straightening out lives and enabling us to love like God loves.

Finally, she tells us that we have come to "to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel."

A "mediator" is someone who stands between two alienated parties and brings them back together. Jesus- God the Son- is the one who stands between us and God.

The problem is that we have fallen from God's Love. We don't love God or others the way we should. We walk past people who we should help, we hate people we should forgive. And we forget God all the time. I do it. You do it. It alienates us from God, and from the very reason He gave us life.

So Jesus stands between us and God. He mediates for us. He leaves the Spiritual realm and becomes one of us, to enter fully into our lives, and go through everything we go through.

And when I say go through everything, I mean everything. All of the suffering. All of the pain. All of the frustration and humiliation. Even death. God loves us so much that in Christ, He went through our death and died for us, so He could defeat death forever by His resurrection.

This is why His blood "speaks a better word" than the blood of Abel. You remember Abel, right? Genesis chapter four. Two brothers: Cain and Abel. Cain gets jealous of Abel and can't have what Abel has, so Cain kills Abel in cold blood.

Abel is the first of billions of people murdered by human greed. And all of their blood cries out "Useless! Useless! Why did we die???"

But through the resurrection, Jesus' blood speaks a "better word". His blood cries out "By my death I have destroyed death, so that everyone might come within the embrace of God's Love!"

Jesus is the mediator who holds our hand, and holds God's hand, and brings us back together. And THIS is the God who we have come to: Not a God of terror, but a God who enters into our lives as Father, Son, and Spirit to share all He is with us.

This God is the only One in Whom we find the meaning of life. This God is the only One who has the power to deliver us from our selfishness and hopelessness. And this is the reason why the author warns us not to "refuse the one who is speaking".

To refuse Him is to refuse our very self. It is like saying we can live without Him who is life, or love others while denying Him who is love. It is a contradiction, and we can only live in a contradiction so long before it is shaken away.

Perhaps this is why today's Scriptures about judgment are so scary to us. Christ is not arbitrary in describing the consequences of denying God. He is describing natural consequences. For if we deny Him who is joy and purpose, we will eventually be shaken by our own misery and meaninglessness.

And so, we enter into yet another year at college. For some it is your first. For others it is your last. But one thing is for sure. It will shake you. It will challenge you. It will topple your illusions.

As you are shaken, may you cling to Christ who is your unshakable foundation. As Jesus says, may you "strive" to enter into His reality and His salvation. And in Canterbury House may you find a community who will help you strive for Christ, and live upon His unshakeable Love. Amen+

And now, let us affirm together our unshakable faith in an unshakable God through the words of the Nicene Creed…
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.