Word for the Week & Prayers for May 20, 2018
If you didn’t make it to church today, here’s a sermon and some prayers for you. These were originally broadcast on the May 17th show. The sermon in particular is a rough draft, so don’t hold me to the exacts.
Also, I’m trying to figure out how to divide articles without busting the front page. For now, you’ll have to put up with a few long articles.
A stole—the long scarf worn over an elder’s robes in Christian ministry—is traditionally a symbol of ordained ministry.
In fact, I have in my collection a stole belonging to my grandfather, the first of three generations of ministers in the United Church of Christ. It’s a beautiful silk brocade: red to symbolize the flames of the Holy Spirit, embroidered on one side with a descending dove (another symbol of the Spirit), and on the other, a stylized Alpha and Omega.
I reach it out every Pentecost, when Christians commemorate the gift of the Spirit. It’s a way to remember the old man. With it, I invoke his presence in the gathered community.
This is a gesture of reconciliation as much as memory. My grandfather was not always an easy man to know or to love. He was often distant, as if preoccupied by some private worry. Sometimes dark, shapeless conspiracies would cloud him over.
It wasn’t until much later that I came to see how anxiety tied my grandfather down for the majority of his life. It was still later that I understood how my own fears and struggles shaped how I saw him, and myself in opposition to him.
Grandpa tried in his own way. I have vivid memories of him, rail-thin, wearing canvas garden shoes, slacks and a cloth cap, smoking Kools and pacing the immaculate backyard. Every so often he would reach down and pluck up a four-leaf clover to give to one of us. To this day, I wonder how he did it.
My wife has suggested occasionally that I turn in my alb—white is not your color, she says—and pick up a more flattering black gown. She never understands the sharpness of my reaction.
Because, you see, Grandpa wore a Geneva gown, as they’re called. There was always something about his preaching under the cross illuminated with electric bulbs hanging in his sanctuary that I never wanted to imitate.
Because of my own anxiety, I may have misread his faith as pinched, narrow, or judgmental, but perhaps it was a generational divide as much as anything.
Fairly or unfairly, Grandpa’s Christianity always seemed conventional, at heart uninterested in challenging the current order of the world, profoundly backward-looking in some way. It was certainly not a faith that encouraged asking many questions or expressing many doubts.
Again, I mean no disrespect to the old man. These are impressions formed in childhood, and through the lens of my own temperament. My parents, perhaps intuiting what was to come, gave me “Thomas” as a middle name, after the doubter. They have never been shy about reminding me of that.
For the sake of the churches I have served, I should add that I have learned from them the value of connecting with the past. Another learning—sometimes found the hard way: not all Christians want or need to hear the challenge of the faith. Some people need the comfort of the unchanging.
But there is the matter of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promises his disciples “the Advocate”—one who will come alongside them to support and defend them when they are accused by the world.
And then he says something curious. Despite having told the disciples that he has shared with them everything they need to know, Jesus now teaches them: “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.”
When Jesus departs the world, there will be more to hear, more to learn. The Spirit will guide the disciples into all truth by declaring the things that are to come.
Despite the difficulties and persecutions Jesus’ followers will face, one gets the sense in his words that faith in him is an open-ended thing. There are things he has not told the disciples because he could not have told them. You can’t teach to a moment that has not come. There will always be new questions to wrestle with. Jesus must leave so the Holy Spirit can continue into a future that is unwritten, yet filled with the promises of God.
For this reason, Christians over the course of centuries and millennia have often commented, in consternation and delight, that the Spirit blows where it will. This side of the Trinity is never dull.
Which brings us to the mission of this podcast. I must admit, speaking of “Christianity for weirdos” is somewhat misleading, if for no other reason than that I am an unrepentant square, more like my grandfather than any hipster.
But to answer the question I asked earlier, the point is to meet Jesus as a stranger: to listen, as the first disciples did, to his words fresh, to experience them in all their unfamiliar and even, yes, weird majesty.
Jesus calls his disciples to believe in him. I take that less to mean having the idea that Jesus has provided all The Answers than to trust that his Spirit will continue to have an answer, answers, as we puzzle our way through new and unpredictable situations.
If life is a journey, we’re lost. We need to stop and ask for directions. There’s no shame in that.
I invite you along on the journey even if you are not a Christian. Perhaps you can learn something of value.
But there is a special mission, I think, for those Christians who never found a place to ask their questions, whose questions were shushed, whose very presence and person were a question too challenging to be considered by the church. You are all Thomases.
Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin, because we are free to ask questions, to have doubts, without sinning.
About righteousness, because we can be who we are and who are meant to be, even without the presence of Jesus in the world.
Most important, about judgment, “because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
For the ruler of this world, to borrow the language of Howard Thurman, is the spirit of fear, deception, and hate. The ruler disinherits the children of God, isolates them, fools them into believing not just that they are somehow less than, but that they are too weak and too scattered to claim the birthright they have been denied.
What I mean by “Christianity for weirdos,” then, is a faith for those who don’t fit in, or who have been pushed out. But also a faith for those who still have questions, who still have doubts, who still look to the things that are to come. Ask away, because the Advocate has and always will come alongside you to testify to Jesus’ wild, weird, untamed ways.
My grandfather’s stole is a symbol of ministry. Not Grandpa’s, not mine, but the continuing ministry of Jesus who answers every question: “You are God’s child, you are all God’s children.”
That the disinherited find a new family, and that all may be welcome at our table, Christ have mercy.
That all people—believers or not—know the love of God and ours, Christ have mercy.
That we keep on searching, Christ have mercy.
That those in need live in dignity, wholeness, and compassion, Christ have mercy.
That you lead us where we are meant to go, and hear our own needs…Christ have mercy.
Back into the world of the normies. Stay blessed, and know that you are all children of God. Reflection (much briefer) coming on Wednesday.