Proper 7–Year A
June 22, 2014
As a young boy I got to ride the train by myself from Atlanta to Chattanooga to spend a week with my grandparents, which meant spending a week with my grandmother since my grandfather was still working. One time she took me from the train station to see the movie, Its’ a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. I remember how hard we laughed. We worked on a big jigsaw puzzle in the living room and once she took me to a hobby shop where I bought some plastic models of birds to build and paint. There was also alone time when I would explore the walk-in attic and climb a tree in the front yard and look at the city down in the valley.
That house on Missionary Ridge remains my most special house. It has often appeared in dreams in which I would find a hidden room that opened out into a vast amphitheater. The house was heaven to me because it was occupied by a person in whom I experienced unconditional acceptance and love. She told me once I was her favorite—of course later I learned she had lots of favorites.
Even as a kid I was strung tight—but in her presence I was relaxed, I was my truest self, my best self.
James Alison, theologian, Roman priest, and gay man, calls that feeling of being totally relaxed in the presence of another the experience of faith. My faith in my grandmother was generated in me by her gracious, attentive, and understanding presence. I didn’t have to work up this feeling or believe it in my head—in her presence it just came into being.
That’s the gift of faith.
Now, Alison suggests, compare that feeling of being relaxed with how we feel sitting for a job interview. You are anything but relaxed—you’re wearing your best clothes, your best manners, and you’re trying hard to give the interviewer the version of yourself you think will get you the job. It is a harrowing experience and the one word we’d never use for it is “relaxing”. (Of all his wonderful books I am now thinking his course for adults is the best for understanding the gospel. I plan on teaching this course in 2015. Its title is: Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening to the Unheard Voice)
Yet, if we’re honest many of us would say the experience we have of God is more like the job interview than spending time with grandparents.
Unfortunately we come to this dis-trust of God honestly because Christian faith has too often been modelled for us as the project of appearing good in order to get god, family, and friends to like us.
In this script God is the cosmic job interviewer we have to please with a manufactured self.
We too easily forget that the gospel is what God does in the Messiah Jesus to reveal God’s heart toward us.
This is why it is imperative we read, study, learn, and inwardly digest the story of God’s approach to us in Jesus. Otherwise we will be controlled by the dominate story in our head that we must make ourselves good and become worthy before we will ever be accepted by anyone.
This is the story that forbids people to use a cuss word or tell an off-color joke to clergy, lest they get a black mark against their name in God’s book.
This is the same story that tells clergy to put on their manufactured self when around other clergy because we see each other as competitors in the worthiness system.
And it is because of the power of this story that Paul tells us it can’t be overcome with willpower. The only thing that can liberate us is dying to this old story and coming alive inside a bigger and truer story.
He writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
In other words, this is a gift and we are made new by being immersed (literal meaning of baptism in Greek) in his story of death and resurrection. When God looks at us God doesn’t take notice of our inauthentic going-to-an-interview self, but rather God sees us in Christ.
N. T. Wright says: “The challenge to the believer is to ‘reckon’ that this is true, that one has indeed left behind the state of slavery, that one really has come now to stand on resurrection ground.” Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision page 233
So Paul says: “…you…must CONSIDER yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
He is telling us to take the advice the Artful Dodger gives to homeless Oliver: You remember the song:
Consider yourself at home
Consider youself one of the family
We’ve taken to you so strong
It’s clear we’re going to get along
Consider yourself well in
Consider yourself part of the furniture
There isn’t a lot to spare
Who cares?…Whatever we’ve got, we share!”
Who brought that kind of love and acceptance to you? Can you see them in your mind? Can you feel the quality of that acceptance and how you felt—do you feel relaxed and free?
Now imagine that magnified 100 times—
I last saw my grandmother in 1985 lying in great weakness in a hospital a week before she died. I fumbled to try to tell her what she had meant to me and she simply replied: “I love you too.”
But since the negative voices in the head rebel against receiving such love let’s consider those voices. Try this: Consider those daily habits of fear, rigidity, and judgment that we use to make ourselves feel more successful than others. Consider our greed for more—how we focus on the one tiny thing that’s gone wrong today without a moment’s notice to the thousand things that are going perfectly all day, every day.
Consider everything you don’t like in yourself.
Consider the worst thing you’ve ever done.
Now “Consider yourself dead to all that”.
Consider yourself forgiven—forever.
Consider what it feels like to live with Jesus in this place of forgiveness—this place where there is no competition, no over against anyone, no goodness system to get good at—just living in the world accepting everyone as we’ve been accepted.
Consider giving everything we have to build his kind of community here and everywhere.
Jesus also would have us today consider the fact that not everyone will be happy with us stepping over boundaries to create his kind of community. Some people don’t want to include Hagar and Ishmael inside God’s love but Genesis tells us clearly that God even loves those outside the family of promise.
Just as they called Jesus a destroyer of family and religion so too they will call us.
But that’s all right—“For even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
In other words the Creator has you and will not drop you.
Just keep building the universal community anyway because this is God’s way to save the world.