Hands on the Plow

No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Plowing season has been thrust upon us – the urgency of the moment is upon us. Can there be no better time to get our hands dirty.

In Dobbs v’s Jackson the Supreme Court enshrines a specific moral and religious worldview, that a supposedly biblical and reactionary understanding of Christianity can be imposed upon wider society. Of course this is not stated, but is concealed behind the legal fig leaf of Originalism – an approach to the Constitution that mirrors a literalist reading of the Bible.

The overturning of Roe comes at the end of a week in which the Supreme Court also declared that state law cannot restrict second amendment rights, and that conservative religious schools are entitled to state money to support their exclusionary agendas – thus preserving the gravy train of public funds. The reversal of Roe v’s Wade is the third ruling in a week that makes clear the direction of the conservative Justices in future rulings.

I want to offer one fruitful line of response – namely the renewal of a progressive and inclusionary understanding of Christian discipleship among Christians of the mainstream – a term covering liberal and progressive interpretations of the teachings of Jesus.

There is a phrase: every-person ministry. Every-person ministry means the fitness of a Christian community for God’s purposes depends on the investment of each person in its life of discipleship.

The contours of discipleship vary from person to person. God not only calls us as we currently are but also as the persons, we have the potential to grow into becoming. What that looks like is a matter of individual temperament, individual gifts, passions, and concerns – these are the lenses through which God’s call is illuminated in each of us.

But in most churches of the mainstream membership rather than discipleship characterizes our relationship to Christian community.

Members are concerned with supporting the organization to which they belong:

  • Members see themselves as supporting the clergy and others to whom they look to perform the ministry.
  • The demands of membership are intentionally kept low so as not to discourage people from joining, and to encourage people to remain by asking little of them.
  • Members notoriously vote with their pocketbooks and ultimately with their feet when they don’t get what they want or feel their specific needs are not being met.

Disciples see themselves as active participants in the Church’s ministry and not just supporters of the organization:

  • Disciples are invested in their relationship with God.
  • For them building a strong church is the most effective way of making a difference in the wider world with which they feel deeply involved.
  • Disciples are spiritually fed by lives of prayer, study, and reflection.
  • They experience deep gratitude for the good things they enjoy, seeing them not as things to own, but hold in trust.
  • Disciples express their sense of gratitude in generous lives of service and a passion for justice.

One Christian is no Christian according to the early church father, Tertullian. By this he means Christian identity is a group not and individual thing. We respond to our call through loving God and loving the people among whom we live out our lives, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, one breath at a time. In short, as Christians, we respond to God through participation in lives of discipleship within Christian community.

A Christian community ideally is a pilgrim community – a community on a journey towards the greater realization of the kingdom of God. The relationship between individual disciples and the community of disciples is one of mutual strengthening. As disciples we are strengthened through participation in the pilgrim community. The community is in return, strengthened by our participation as individual disciples. If you think being present for the breaking of the bread or being active in the work for justice represented by communities like St Martin’s is a matter of personal option, think again. We are now seeing the deep consequences of failing to appreciate the extent to which the community is weakened by our lack of or lukewarm participation in the life of discipleship of a pilgrim community.

Pilgrim communities are spiritual communities that encourage, equip, and sustain us to work together to become the change we long to experience in the world around us. I think we are all gripped with a sense of the urgency for change. The thing about gripping – if we grip or are gripped too tightly – the result is paralysis.

In reversing Roe, for the first time the Supreme Court has taken away an established constitutional right from millions of Americans – on the spurious justification that the right is not spelled out in the Constitution. On this basis there seems no reason to trust they do not intend to further roll back constitutional rights the Court has extended for same gender marriage and sexual identity equalities. Afterall, as has been already demonstrated, their word is hardly their bond.

The purported love for the yet to be born is an easy way to avoid acknowledging your part in the perpetuation of injustice in the world.

The Methodist Pastor David Barnhart writes:

The unborn are a convenient group to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them because they cease to be unborn. … They are in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus, but actually dislike people who breathe. Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible.

Jesus said: Follow me. The response he got was straight out of the mainstream Christian playbook. Lord, let me first go and bury my father – in other words sorry Lord I’m really busy. Jesus said: Let the dead bury their own; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. But what he heard was: I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say goodbye to those at home. To which Jesus gave and instruction: No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God!

Jesus makes his meaning plain: No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Every person ministry requires the participation and energy of everyone. There is no room for those who stand on the sidelines expecting others to do the work. No use huffing a puffing about the audacity of the religious right if you are not going to do the work needed to preserve and defend a more authentic Christian vision.

Christian community can be a force for good, but as we see Christian community can also be a facade for more pernicious doctrine and a defense of the indefensible. A lot hangs on what the exact nature of being organized involves and the goal for which we organize. Is the rallying cry back to the future or is it working for a future different than the past?  

Jesus has a habit of cutting to the quick by employing more than a little hyperbole. His words in Luke 9 need to be heard in the context of urgency. Jesus has turned his face towards the road to Jerusalem. This is the road of discipleship and if we are willing to travel with Jesus on this road, we will learn what it means to move beyond the commitments of membership to embrace the urgency of discipleship.

On the discipleship road to Jerusalem the first lesson we learn is that there is no time to lose; there is no room any longer for hesitation. The second lesson of discipleship is that there is no yesterday and no tomorrow – only today. Whoever puts a hand to the plow and looks back is lost. Imagine what we might achieve if we really take this to heart.

Once again, the assertion of patriarchy – the fear-fueled maintenance of gender inequality – casts its dark shadow across the bodies of America’s women – trans as well as cisi gendered – with clear implications for members of the LGBTQ community and other minorities who do not identified in the text of the Constitution.

No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Plowing season has been thrust upon us – the urgency of the moment is upon us. Can there be no better time to get our hands dirty.

Happy Coincidences

This past week Al and I have been glued to a drama streamed on Prime pay to view set at the height of the Cold War and concerns Russia’s return in 1956 of the Porkkala Peninsula to Finland – a peninsular that Finland had been forced to lease to Russia along with ceding the province of Karelia as part of the peace treaty that ended what the Finns refer to as the Continuation War – the second Finno-Russian war from 1941-44 – actually a sub-theatre of the larger conflict between Nazi Germany and Russia after 1940.

With the Russia-Ukraine war very much in our minds today – Shadow Lines offers a glimpse into the perpetual struggle of Russia’s European neighbors against its neo-colonialist and imperialist designs. Shadow Lines give us a glimpse not only into Finnish-Russian relations at the height of the Cold War but also into the tensions between pro-Western and pro-Soviet factions within the Finnish political establishment – playing out against the background of Moscow’s own internal tensions with the rise of Khrushchev and the defeat of the Stalinist faction led by Molotov.

In Shadow Lines there is depicted a brief homosexual affair between an American CIA agent and the nephew of the head of the Finnish Security Service. It’s a very short interlude – yet it captures the spark of hope that comes in a moment when perhaps for the first time it’s possible for these men to imagine liberation from the crippling isolation resulting from the oppression and persecution that characterized societal attitudes towards the love that dare not speak its name. This is 1956, and of course the affair is doomed. It no sooner sparks then it’s over. To provide more detail would simply be to spoil your viewing experience.

On June 19, 1865, the Black dockworkers in Galveston, Texas, first heard the news of Lincoln’s Emancipation order. Chris Manjapra writing in the Tahlequah Daily Press notes: The arrival of Union troops in Galveston brought the promise of freedom for the enslaved. There were speeches, sermons, and shared meals, mostly at Black churches, the safest places to have such celebrations. The perils of unjust laws and racist social customs were still great in Texas for the 250,000 enslaved Black people there, but the celebrations known as Juneteenth were said to have gone on for seven straight days.

By a quirk of the local calendar, in Providence this year, Gay Pride and Juneteenth celebrations fall on the same weekend. Two themes link the gay interlude in Shadow Lines and Juneteenth. The first is the theme of hope that is sparked in the oppressed in a moment of epiphany when the dark clouds of persecution part to allow a glimpse of rainbow of liberation to seep through. The second is the illusory nature of the first flush of promise. Like all epiphanies it’s no sooner here than it’s gone. The persecution of gay men not only continued but increased in ferocity as the 1950’s progressed.  The shocking white collusion against black liberty known as the era of Reconstruction maintained the literal if not the legal enslavement of African Americans until the challenge of the black led Civil Rights movement in the middle of the 20th-century.

The era of agitation for change beginning in the late 1960’s gave birth to two great emancipation movements – Gay Liberation and the black led Civil Rights. Looking back over 50 years we can see the huge inroads these protest movements made into institutional and societal oppression and persecution of LGBTQ  and African Americans. Yet, we are living in a period when the forces of reaction are once again rallying to roll back the gains of the civil rights era not only for the African American and LGBTQ communities, but also for women, for the movement for Women’s Rights was also a fruit of the larger civil rights struggle.

Pride is the official term that came to identify the movement for what was then known as gay liberation. Although not an officially adopted title for the black and women’s liberation movements, pride – the experience of claiming the full stature of one’s God given human dignity – is the underlying motivation in all three liberation movements. Although the gaining of civil and legal rights is paramount in making inroads into societal attitudes of discrimination and oppression – at the heart of the liberation struggle lies the experience of pride, as in, the experience of a profound reordering of an internal sense of self.

LGBTQ persons, African Americans, and women are emblematic communities of representation for all communities of race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation who once again find themselves in the cross hairs -literally as well as metaphorically – of domestic terrorism – both individual and organization led.

The convergence of Pride Weekend and Juneteenth celebrations in Providence this weekend is a coincidental reminder that at the heart of this weekend’s celebrations of gay and black pride there has never been a more vital need to continue to demonstrate and to protest the forces of reaction whose trademark is domination implemented through violence.

At the end of the N.T. reading for Pentecost 2, we find prophetic words from the Apostle Paul. Paul was not always prophetic. Paul was a man who understood well the societal and political limitations of preaching a message of liberation for all in a world violently conditioned by male patriarchy and economically dependent on a culture of slavery. More often than not – his social message is veiled as a result. But every so often the power of the Holy Spirit overwhelms him as it does in chapter 3 of his letter to the Galatians where he proclaims that within the community of the baptised there is no longer the oppression rooted in gender inequality, racial superiority, and the economic subordination of one human being to another. For all are made one in Christ. To: no longer male and female, no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, had Paul been writing today he might have been inspired to proclaim the abolition of a fourth category of sexual identity discrimination – neither gay or straight, neither gender fixed or trans-gender.

Paul begins his abolition of discriminations supporting oppression with: For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves in Christ. Today we baptize two young boys, Giovanni and Masiah into the family of Christ in the world – incorporating them through baptism into the community that strives to seek to be more fit in this world for the purpose God calls it to.

As a preparation to witness Giovanni and Masiah’s baptism, we will be asked to renew our own baptismal promises. In the Baptismal Covenant we will promise to – with God’s help – seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, striving continually for justice and peace among all people by respecting the dignity of every human being.

As the church, we are the community bearing witness to God’s love for the world. That love is not a sentimental or hippy-dippy kind of feeling. Christian love is always a verb – as in to love – as the living out of love through lives lived striving for the betterment of our world.

On the weekend of Gay Pride and Juneteenth fall together, it is good to be reminded that love as Jesus modeled it – is a social movement with a finely tuned radical agenda – and justice is its name.

In the Image of —

The Bible may not explicitly speak of God as a trinity – a divine community, but Christian experience of God became fundamentally contoured by it – mystery whispering to us through the Scriptures.

The Trinity means a lot to Episcopalian-Anglicans. I mean – who knew? My first sermon at St Martin’s was on Trinity Sunday in 2014. I preach on this anniversary each year with a sense of the poignancy of the Trinity lying at the heart of my love for this community.

Despite its popularity as the dedication for many of Episcopal-Anglican churches – the Trinity is poorly understood if not downright incomprehensible to most of us. Even the Lectionary struggles with suitable readings for The Trinity because – yes you guessed it – there is no explicit mention of The Trinity in the Bible – although John’s Prologue and Genesis 1 hint at it.  We find the clearest statement of the Trinity of God in the Nicene Creed – so in other words – clear as mud to most of us.

Despite the incredulity of our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, we Christians believe that God is one. It’s just that for us the one God is a divine community and not a solitary being. How do we know that God is community and not solitary? We know it through our experience of God. We know that God is the creator – the source of all that is. We also know that in Jesus, God the Creator entered underneath the tent of creation – showing us that in a human face and in a human life – all that is essential to know about God is revealed to us. We know through the indwelling of the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit – the divine energy’s infiltration of everything in creation. We are saturated with the inflation of the Holy Spirit, whom the first Christians clearly associated as the Spirit of the risen Christ – empowering them to collaborate with God in the ongoing healing of the world.

Our gospel for Trinity Sunday comes from John 16. At verse 12 we encounter a very significant sentence in which Jesus explains to his disciples that there remains much he does not have time to explain to them. He recognizes that they have already had their worldview blown open – consequently they have no bandwidth for more. But Jesus goes on to make them a promise. He tells them that when the Spirit of truth comes, they will be guided into all truth.

The Bible may not explicitly speak of God as a trinity – a divine community, but Christian experience of God became fundamentally contoured by it. At the heart of their experience of God they were guided into further understanding – a process gathering momentum until by the 4th-century Christians were ready to give expression to their fundamental experience of God in the Nicene statement.

We believe in one God, the father – the creator of the world; we believe in the Son who was with God in creation and became one with the creation in becoming human; we believe in the Holy Spirit – the giver of life.

At the heart of our understanding of God is the mystery of relationship. This relationship has been traditionally referred to in the gendered terms of father, son, and spirit – the spirit carrying the male pronoun he/his. But gender here is a red herring. At the heart of the traditional language of the Trinity is the notion of relationality. Taking relationship to be the essence of Trinitarian language, today we can avoid the gendered overtones by referring to God as lover, beloved, and love-sharer. Relationship not gender is the key characteristic that identifies the Christian experience of God.

The Christian experience of God as divine community whispers to us through the Scriptures where we find in Genesis the extraordinary statement Let US make humanity, in OUR own image. And so, it was – humanity, male and female, fashioned in the divine image.

The divine image lies at the center of our human experience.

Our modern development of a psychologically informed understandings of human nature identifies us as relationship seeking beings. From the first moments when the newborn reaches for the mother’s breast – the impulse for connection – relational seeking – can be witnessed. All therapeutic work – regardless of theoretical school has a single aim – to repair our broken experience of relationship by equipping us with more successful skills in future relationship seeking.

We experience love through relationships. Our relationships are nurtured in community beginning with the community of the family and moving outwards from there. No one is an island – as John Donne reminds us – because we are not fashioned in the image of a solitary deity. We are fashioned in the image of a God who enjoys love as the fruit of mutual relationship within community.

In Western art the Trinity has been largely depicted diagrammatically as a triangle or as overlapping or concentric circles without beginning or ending. The eye follows towards the completion of the circle only to find itself back at the beginning.

Western depictions of the Trinitarian nature of God depict the divine unity but miss the essential truth that God is relational and communal. It is to the Eastern Christian Tradition of Orthodoxy with its deeply mystical-devotion to the Trinity that we find the most complete depiction of the essential nature of God. This is a picture not for the mind, but for the heart.

Rublev’s famous depiction of the Trinity as three identical persons, lovingly gazing upon one another reflects the conversation about human creation we hear in the first chapter of Genesis. In Rublev’s icon we see three individuals, but our eye is drawn to their essential oneness – for in the face of each, reflects the faces of the other two. Rublev’s icon is the fruit of his prayerful heart’s enthrallment in the endless mutual gaze of divine love.

Contrary to modern depictions of self-discovery as an internally driven, autonomous process, we discover who we truly are reflected in the gaze of another looking back at us. The newborn experiences itself firstly through finding itself reflected in the mother’s face as she lovingly gazes upon her infant’s face – flooding its developing senses with the hormones of wellbeing.

Jesus tells us that we will continue to be guided into all truth. In 14th-century Moscow, Andrei Rublev was guided by the Spirit into all truth. His was not a truth of the mind but of revelation of the heart – an enthrallment in the mutual gaze of divine love – leading him to depict each of his three faces absorbing and reflecting one another.

The mutuality of love ricochets within the divine community before radiating outwards as the energy – the metaphysical -metaphorical raw material for creation. We are made as relationship seeking creatures – discovering our personhood in relationship with others. The Trinity not only whispers to us through the Scriptures but echoes in the DNA of our human nature. What is the whisper? What is the reverb echo?

That to live lives of mutual love through relationship – is to be most like God.

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