Sunday, March 8, 2020

Phil Kniss: Born again (without the hyphen)

Lent 2: “Show us the extent of your faithful, loving presence”
John 3:1-17

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The hyphen has done a lot of damage
to our understanding of salvation.
Of course, it’s not the hyphen’s fault.
It’s our fault, for sticking it where it doesn’t belong.
Hyphens are great. I like hyphens.
But not where they don’t belong.

For a long time,
we’ve put it between the two words “born” and “again.”
It doesn’t go there.
And no, this isn’t a grammar problem.
It’s a theology problem . . .
I suppose you’d like me to explain . . . Okay, I will.

When you take two words
that describe some kind of event or process or story, really,
like the concept of being born . . . again,
and you put a hyphen between those two words,
you turn it from a beautiful, robust, descriptive noun phrase
into a flat adjective: “born-again Christian.”
As all grammar police know,
when you use a phrase as an adjective, it needs hyphens.
A child can turn six years old, without hyphens.
But a six-year-old child, needs hyphens.

But what a shame to hyphenate born-again!
To take a wonderful and messy
and many-textured and multi-layered and richly metaphorical
naming of a complex process of holistic transformation,
and to turn it into something flat and shallow!
A category of Christian!
A box to label people!
Rather than a life-long and deeply defining
process of transformation.
It’s just a shame.

So this morning, my modest aim in this sermon,
is to delete the hyphen, once and for all.
I aim to rehabilitate our love for this
beautiful metaphor that Jesus himself used—
the experience of being born . . . again.

I suppose you’ve observed we don’t talk an awful lot
here in this congregation about being “born again.”
I think we are a little skittish about it.
Probably for noble reasons.
It’s been over-used and over-applied.
And it has, thanks to the hyphen,
come to mean a particular category of evangelical Christians.
And in the public mind this category is often associated
with people who are narrow-minded
and judgmental of others.

Another reason to maybe distance ourselves from the term,
is that it’s been coopted by celebrity culture—
it’s been claimed by politicians, athletes, musicians, actors.
Jimmy Carter, when he was running for president,
was probably the first major politician to go public
that he was a born-again Christian.
That made news in 1976.
And many others politicians followed suit.
Then all manner of other celebrities joined in.
Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Jane Fonda,
Mr. T, Chuck Norris, Anthony Rendon, and many more,
at least at some point, declared themselves “born again.”

None of us know the motivation behind these public declarations.
And we shouldn’t attempt to judge them.
I would guess it runs the whole gamut
from those who sincerely wish to give witness to their faith,
to those who might be just a little bit opportunistic.

The trouble with all these public declarations,
it that it reinforces the use of the phrase as a category,
instead of describing a deep transformation process.
Public figures often throw in the hyphen, and make it an adjective,
identifying with a category: born-again Christian.
They may not go on to describe what this new birth
actually entailed for them, at the core of their being.
They may not tell us what they sacrificed in the process.
They may not get very vulnerable,
and speak about the pain and the mess
that went into yielding themselves to this
“mothering God who gives us birth”
to quote one of our hymn titles.
The birth process is by definition hard labor.
And everyone involved knows it.
The celebrity hyphen creates a category.
It doesn’t tell us a story.
And that’s unfortunate.

So let’s talk about one particular story.
The one we heard from the Gospel of John today.
The night-time encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus.

This is the story where this phrase comes from, of course.
Jesus used the metaphor of re-birth
to describe the process of transformation
that he was inviting Nicodemus to consider.
Incidentally, the phrase Jesus used is sometimes translated
“born from above,” and sometimes “born again.”
Both work. Either way, this is not a casual metaphor.
Birth refers to something hard and painful and messy.

And I’m not even talking about the one giving birth.
We all know that’s hard labor—either by personal experience,
or by hearing someone else’s testimony,
or by watching “Call the Midwife” on PBS.
What I’m saying, in regard to this metaphor of Jesus,
is that being born is no picnic.
From the point of view of the person being born,
the ride down the birth canal is not a joy ride.
It’s excruciating.
It’s hazardous.
It’s messy.
It’s utterly life-changing.
It’s death to the old life, death to the status quo.

First birth, or re-birth, same deal.
It’s a radical reordering of our lives.

I’m guessing Nicodemus already knew something
about how hard this road would be.
Even before Jesus gave Nicodemus those unsettling words
about being born again . . .
Even before Nicodemus came to Jesus with his questions . . .
I think he had an inkling the answers he would get
were not going to be easy ones.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.
It was safer that way.
There is a lot we don’t know about Nicodemus
and his motives for asking those questions.
But as a Pharisee, as a leader of the Jews,
Nicodemus had a lot to protect in his current life.
If he had any intention of keeping
his respected position in the community,
he had better be careful around Jesus.
If he was going to go directly to this rabble-rouser Jesus,
and ask honest, searching questions,
he had better be discrete and private.
You never know who is listening and lurking in the shadows.

Nicodemus was very much like a baby in the womb.
Safe. Secure. Comfortable.
I doubt he was ready
for that excruciating trip from womb to world.

Yes, he was fascinated with Jesus.
The idea, the concept, of becoming a follower of Jesus
was a compelling idea to think about.
And he had thought about it.
That’s why he had questions.
But Nicodemus apparently had too much at stake
to become a disciple just yet.
He was curious,
but not curious enough to stake his whole life on it.

Jesus told him that one who is born of the spirit,
lives in the Spirit,
and the Spirit, Jesus said,
is like the wind that blows where it will,
and you can’t see where it coming from
or where it’s going.
I’m guessing Nicodemus needed a little more stability
than the wind could afford him.
He needed his life to be a little more predictable than that.
Maybe Nicodemus went home to think some more.
John 3 doesn’t actually tell us.

Did Nicodemus ever allow himself to re-enter the womb of God,
and be born again?
We don’t know.
We do hear about Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel.
In John 7, the chief priests and Pharisees
hold an emergency meeting,
planning to arrest Jesus, and Nicodemus pipes up.
He didn’t actually defend Jesus.
But he did bring up a legal technicality
that was in Jesus’ favor.
But even those few words of caution
raised suspicion about Nicodemus.
Then after Jesus’ crucifixion, in John 19,
Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea
in quietly embalming and burying Jesus’ body.

But we don’t know whether Nicodemus ever took the risk
of letting go of the securities of his position as a Pharisee,
letting go of the securities of the womb,
and being reborn as a true and open disciple of Jesus.

Nicodemus may have lived the rest of his life
as a curious and sympathetic Pharisee and nothing more,
because he lacked the courage
to open himself to the possibility of rebirth.
He may not have had the will to submit himself to
the risk,
the trauma,
the vulnerabilities, and
the indignities
of birth.
And then to enter into a new way of life.

Just like many of us.
We too hold a big part of our lives
safely ensconced in the protection of a womb.
Our mothering God is trying
to help us bring to birth new life.
But we have our securities to which we are clinging—
securities that, as it turns out, actually get in the way of life.
They keep us from being reborn into the life we were made for.

If his standing as a Pharisee and a leader in the Jewish community
was the security that held Nicodemus back
from a full-on sacrificial engagement with agenda of Jesus,
I wonder what securities are holding me back?
or holding you back?
I wonder what answer we would give ourselves,
if we would each take an honest and searching self-inventory?
What am I afraid of losing,
by saying a deeper yes to Jesus and his Kingdom agenda?

Of course, a follow-up question then becomes,
“What deeper joy and fullness of life am I already giving up,
by staying in the womb where it’s safe and warm?”

These are thoughts that have crossed my mind in recent weeks,
as I held my newborn grandson Huck in Ohio, and
as I held my newborn grand-nephew Luis last week in Sarasota.
Those babies don’t have the capacity for conscious reflection right now,
but those small little bodies,
just weeks ago were wrapped in protective warmth
and darkness and life-giving fluid,
and everything they needed they received
automatically, continuously, and without effort.
Now, they are being assaulted by a world
of bright light,
loud noises,
cold air,
hard surfaces,
and empty space for their limbs to fly around unprotected.
They are being forced to learn to inhabit this new and wild world.
They don’t know it,
but that is the only path toward life.
Holding onto the womb would be a path to slow death.

So why do we fight it?
Well, we know why.
We are afraid to let go,
and allow our mothering God do the work of giving birth.

I’ve been getting by email the daily reflections of poet and pastor
Steve Garnaas-Holmes,
who blogs at

His lectionary-based poems often inspire.
And his poem a few days ago on being born-again was no exception.
Let me read it, in conclusion.

He begins by quoting today’s Gospel, John 3:4
“Nicodemus said to him,
‘How . . . can anyone be born after having grown old?’”

Then he writes:

I’m sorry. There is no how.
There is no jump, leap, crawl,
climb, push or swim.
There is only allow.

Being born again
isn’t something you can do.
It’s something your mother does
for you.

Breathing in and out
you descend into that dark tomb
that only when you enter
is a womb.

Much you can’t save,
you must shed to fit,
surrender to become
a fracturing seed
like broken bread.
What you leave behind in the grave.

Dying is your only choice,
surrendering your only how.
The rest is gift and mystery,
and God’s work, not yours.
There is only allow.

Well, he is right.
There is only “allow” — not figuring out “how.”
But, the “allow” is challenging enough for us
who would prefer the safety and security of the womb.

In what part of your life,
is God inviting you to let go and enter into a new space?
A space that may feel threatening right now,
but is actually the path to a deeper and richer life?

I invite us all into a few moments of silent reflection
on these crucial questions.

Where, in my life, is God inviting me into a new birth experience?

What am I afraid of losing,
by saying a deeper yes to Jesus and his Kingdom agenda?
What I am I holding on to?
And what would move me toward “allowing” God
to birth me into a new and transformed life?

—Phil Kniss, March 8, 2020

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Sunday, March 1, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: Gifts of the Wilderness

Lent to Easter: “Show Us”

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

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Gifts of the wilderness

A few years ago our family travelled from our home in PA to Taos, NM for an intentional time of wilderness experience.  We wanted to do some hiking, camping, and canoeing as a family.  John and I wanted to engage in reflection pertaining to faith, life, and vocation.  It was a wonderfully challenging space for family relationships, earth discovery, and some good mid-life refocusing for John and I. 

Taos is in the north-central region of New Mexico in the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  The ground appears mostly arid, with sagebrush growing like grass and dry bundles blowing across the landscape.  The air is drier than we were accustomed to and we were instructed to be extra mindful in staying hydrated.  There were many deciduous and a few coniferous trees in the mountains, but on the platous the trees were spread out, leaving the landscape barren looking at many places. 

Not surprisingly, where trees and life flourished the most were by the sources of water. But it isn’t so evident when looking at the landscape from afar.

Our family did a multi-day backpacking/camping trek where we hiked in one day, spent a couple of nights at the same campsite while doing some day hikes and activities in between.  One of those days, I spent a morning in retreat by myself.  I hiked up a trail that meandered along a small mountain tributary.  Free of anyone else setting the pace, I began my hike wanting to cover as much ground as I could.  My goal was to get to a lookout point. 

As the trail crisscrossed the tributary I began to notice little flowers and ferns and tall aspen.  I began to stop and use my phone’s camera to take pictures of the blooms.  One bloom led to another which led to noticing more specimens of life around me.  In what I felt like was such a dry and barren land, began to unfold into a landscape of beauty and complexity.  It took me slowing down and noticing the small things to gain appreciation for the larger landscape.

This isn’t quite the landscape that Jesus was sent out to experience in the wilderness.  We associate the wilderness as a place with few resources.  Sun and heat are plentiful, water is not.  It is a place with a barren landscape where shelter may be hard to come by.  The basics of life are challenging to keep up with. 

From a distance it seems as though it was a raw and unforgiving place for Jesus to be sent to.  However, I would like to back up a little more to consider the fuller landscape. Jesus was led to the wilderness directly after his baptism. In 3:16-17 it says, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (4:1) “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness…” where he fasted for 40 days.

I don’t think we should underestimate how hugely formative these experiences were for Jesus.  Jesus’ time with the Spirit, for it says the Spirit of God descended upon him and led him, was a time of strengthening Jesus’ inner being.  I see this time as one where Jesus became so intimate with God, that no amount of hunger or earthly vulnerability could tempt him.  Thus when the devil came to test Jesus’ earthly vulnerabilities of priorities, power, and possessions, Jesus’ strength in his identity and faith formation was evident in his ability to not waiver. 

Instead of seeing Jesus’ time in the wilderness as Jesus’ most vulnerable point, I have come to view this time as where he became the strongest.  Maybe not strongest physically, but certainly strongest spiritually.  He knew who he was.  He knew whose he was.  And he knew what his life was to be about.  For from this point, Jesus began his public ministry.

The Genesis account of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s orders not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, resulted in the consequence of knowing. Knowing they did what they were asked not to do. Knowing they were different from the rest of creation.  Knowing that their comfort and security they had with God was now replaced by needing to cover up and hide.

A commentary written by David Lose, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota who served at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, referenced two writers in his reflections on our Genesis and Matthew passages.

One was Blaise Pascal, a 17th century french philosopher who “spoke of the condition of being human as one of having a ‘God-shaped hole’...not seen as a flaw, but rather as the means by which God keeps us tethered to our life-giving relationship with God.”

Second was St. Augustine, a 4th century African Bishop that wrote in the first lines of his Confessions, “God created a restlessness in our hearts that can only be satisfied when we rest in God.”

Lose goes onto say, “read in light of these classic theologians, the Genesis narrative indicates that before there is "original sin" there is "original insecurity." Adam and Eve, then, are tempted to overcome that original insecurity not through their relationship with God but through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit that in that moment looks to be shaped just like their hole.”

In the midst of a picture of plenty in the garden, the serpent preys on Adam and Eve’s vulnerability in painting a picture of incompleteness and distrust in God the creator.  Their security was called into question.  Their hole was revealed.  Their belonging was challenged.

This sounds so similar to what the messages we receive from advertisements.  Their job is to convince you and I that we need to own or look or be a certain way in order to be secure.

Jesus refused the security of the things of this world.  The experience of his baptism and knowing that he was God’s beloved in whom God was well pleased, provided a foundation from which he grew in, in the wilderness. In what initially is seen as a place of weakness turns out to be a place that drew strength.

I have heard that there is a shadow side to our strengths.  I want to say at the outset, it is good to develop our gifts and call out strengths in ourselves and others.  Encouragement is positive.  It is okay to feel good about what we do.  However, when our strength becomes that which we lean on for our identity, security, and rely on for our self worth, there inlies the shadow where temptations are present.

If we tease this out a bit it may look like this…

Where is your identity and security tethered?  Where do you spend most of your thought space or time?

Maya Angelou said in an interview with Bill Moyers, that “you are only free when you realize you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high.  The reward is great.” Jesus discovered his freedom in the wilderness, tethered to God’s spirit for security, identity, and a sense of belonging which is no place but found in every place.  For it isn’t out there to be discovered but rather internally to be tapped.

We have voices all around calling, leuring, trying to convince us that our security is found through our profession, bank accounts, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the hairdo, makeup, and gym membership we have.  We are told our identity is found in our skin color, our gender, our sexual orientation, family history, political party, or any group designation. These are things identified outside of our inner being. Now they certainly inform our inner being. However, there is a caveat to each of these.  You are secure if fill in the blank. Your identity is fulfilled if fill in the blank. You belong fill in the blank.

Adam and Eve revealed our own temptation to listen to the voices of insecurity surrounding us. 

Jesus not only showed us but gives us the opportunity to claim God’s love for ourselves, just as we are, no designations needed.  Each of us is a beloved child of God.

Jesus experienced the wilderness as the landscape in which he grew into his belovedness in such a way that he was willing to stand alone resisting the temptations.  

The wilderness has been sought out for spiritual pilgrimages by people from different faiths over the ages.  This wilderness is not just physical but an internal spiritual pilgrimage.

I am drawn to Brene Brown’s thoughts on wilderness.  Brown is a sociologist who has done extensive research on people in relation to vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame.

Brown acknowledges that “theologians, writers, poets, and musicians have always used the metaphor of the wilderness.”  The commonalities “are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest.” The wilderness is “an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared.  The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it...But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”
When God is a part of our wilderness, filling our God-shaped hole, there is a deep sense of security.  When we live from our belovedness, then we no longer have to prove to anyone our worth or belonging.

Lent is a time to enter into this wilderness.  A time when we are invited to take a journey as Jesus did, challenging us to rely on God for our security and identity rather than the messages that swirl around us.

Lent has a tradition of giving up or taking on a discipline that we may dedicate the same amount of time in prayer or contemplation.  This has meaning for some and for others it has become dogmatic and lost meaning.  What I challenge you with this week is to reflect on what it is in your life that draws your attention away from or toward living into being a beloved child of God?  And what difference does it make for you?

When we stand from a place of God’s strength and security, our perspective changes.  Fears are kept in check, convictions of lifestyle shift, possessions loosen their grip. 

There should be a warning though, as Jesus did, we risk our lives living into God’s belovedness for us.  It is a place of risk, but one of great meaning and reward.

Here would be another opportunity for reflection, to experiment each day by saying these 7 words to yourself 5 times, emphasizing a different word each time.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.
    I am a beloved child of God.

We will never keep temptation fully at bay.  Ash Wednesday was a day to remind us of our mortality.  However, even in the most barren of places, God’s love endures forever.

And so we acknowledge our constant need for God’s presence to be with us on this wilderness way.  I invite us to pray together in song, When we are tested and wrestle alone, acknowledging our need for God to be with us on this journey.

Hymn: When we are tested and wrestle alone
(to be sung to the melody of ‘Be thou my vision’)

When we are tested and wrestle alone,
famished for bread when the world offers stone,
nourish us, God, by your word and your way,
food that sustains us by night and by day.
When in the desert we cry for relief,
pleading for paths marked by certain belief,
lift us to love you beyond sign and test,
trusting your presence, our only true rest.
When we are tempted to barter our souls,
trading the truth for the pow’r to control,
teach us to worship and praise only you,
seeking your will in the work that we do.
When we have struggled and searched through the night,
sorting and sifting the wrong from the right,
Savior, surround us with circles of care,
angels of healing, of hope, and of prayer.

Ruth Duck © 1996, Hope Publishing Company

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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Moriah Hurst: God’s household

IN IT TOGETHER: The Church As Family (in a world of lonely people)
1 Cor 12:12-26; Ruth 1:14-18

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God’s Household
            Families, this should be an easy topic, right. We all have families, they are all over the place. In our church the group that has young families or children still at home is supposed to be my specialty area, or so my resume tells me. This should be a piece of cake. (Deep sigh), how did you like my pep talk?

            Here is a little secret about me, I don’t like being given topics to preach on. I like being given Biblical texts. With the text as my starting place I can see what emerges as I study the bible. When I am given a topic it often means that I have to find my texts and weather it is my training or my personality, this always feels like proof texting or making the Bible say what I want it to say.

            So here we go – pick texts to talk about family, the family of God. (flip through bible) I don’t know the Bible super well but I do ok and nothing is coming to mind. There is not a go to text for families. There are lots of families in the bible but I’m not sure many of them are ideal. There are brothers killing each other, families scheming and tricking one another, troubling sexual acts between relatives. And what about the problematic texts where women are considered property or useless unless they can deliver a child, preferably a male one.  This feels kind of like choosing a text for a wedding ceremony, there are not ideal couples in the Bible that are easy to base a wedding sermon off of. We can talk about love – there are good passages on that! – love is patient and kind. Or we draw on the Ruth passage that was read today – but that is not between a loving couple. It is a daughter-in-law speaking to her mother-in-law after all of the intimately related males in their life have died.

            Being a product of my generation I went to my wise advisor Google for some help. Here is what the internet handed me:  

(Exodus 20:12 
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Ephesians 5:25
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
Proverbs 6:20 
20 My child, keep your father’s commandment,
    and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

Matthew 19:19
19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Colossians 3:21 
21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.
Proverbs 22:6 
Train children in the right way,
    and when old, they will not stray.

1 Timothy 5:8 
And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Psalm 127:3-5 
Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the sons of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has
    his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Proverbs 1:8
Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
    and do not reject your mother’s teaching;

Colossians 3:20 
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.

Psalm 68:5-6a 
Father of orphans and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
Proverbs 17:17 
17 A friend loves at all times,
    and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.

1 John 4:20 

20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.)

There you have it our tidbits of texts with a good dose of teaching from Proverbs.
(hold up Bible) Here we have a book about God entering into the messy complexity of our lives and relationships and showing us what it is to be loved, to love and be transformed by the love of God, right there in the mess of it all. If I had to categorize families and relationships from the Bible I’d probably just say, it’s complicated.

            Maybe this is a bit of a relief because really who has the rosy Hallmark family. Lets think back to Christmas with our families. I adore my family and yet holidays are hard. Equal parts wanting to soak up every minute with my family and at the same time longing to have my own space again and wishing that relationships weren’t so complicated.

            Even what comprises a family is complex – single parents, step families, grandparents raising a grandchild. It’s not a cute family unit and was it ever?

 “In Bible times, a family was much more than a private haven of affection: it was a productive unit spanning generations. Nancy Pearcey, explains:
Before the Industrial Revolution, the home performed a host of practical functions. It was the place where people educated children, cared for the sick and elderly, ran family industries, served customers and the community, and produced a surplus to help the poor. The home reached out to the wider society.”
Marjorie J Thompson in her book Family; The Forming Center notes that as our social fabric tears and traditional structures of family crumble we can succumb to our cultural habit of idolizing the biological family unit. (p.134) Families are not perfect but they are so important.
A problem for us as Mennonites that we share with some in biblical families is our insider-ness. Who was in the family or people group and who was not – how should outsiders be treated. Mennonites can feel like a big family. When we go to the Mennonite Church USA convention it can feel like a family reunion especially for those of us who have lived in Mennonite dense communities or studied at Mennonite institutions.

            We play the Mennonite game – following family lines trying to figure out how we are related or how people fit together. I had someone come up to me at church and say we were almost related. When I looked at her with surprise and some skepticism she traced the line of connection, my sister-in-law’s sister is married to her husband’s cousin. 10 points if anyone can figure out who that is.
The problem with having insiders is that that puts some people on the outside. One of my friends in seminary raged at how often people would look at him oddly when he’d say his last name. They would comment “Hickman isn’t a Mennonite name”. He would forcefully reply back “well it is now!!”

            When things become complicated reading the bible we often look to Jesus – let’s look at what he says. Jesus himself was a contradiction.  Jesus lived a single life, called his disciples away from their families but used family imagery, terms and illustrations in his teachings. “His direct naming of God with such an intimate family term strongly suggests a familial dynamic at the heart of the Holy Trinity.”(Thompson, Family; The Forming Center,  p133) Jesus goes on to bless marriage at the feast at Cana, bless children and names them as having qualities that are a gateway to the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches with stories of families, explaining unconditional love as a father and son in the story of the prodigal.

But there are a number of difficult texts when we look at what Jesus said about family
In Matthew 10:35-37 – Jesus says:
35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[a]
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

And later in Matt 12:46-50
46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Again quoting Thompson “In a single sentence, Jesus has redefined the family from core to periphery: A true family is one whose center is unswerving allegiance to God alone and whose parameters expand to include everyone who delights in God’s will. Jesus is interested in inaugurating a new community. Yet even this community of grace is described in family terms” (Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p.134)

So much of our faith formation happens in families. We learn about God from the significant people in our lives. Our theology is shaped and refined in the love, commitment, trust, grace and forgiveness, or the lack there of that we experience in our families.

Yet the church community should be the place where our understanding of love, acceptance and a call to service is extended. Jesus seems to tap into this idea with some of the “radically disturbing things (he has) to say about the place of natural kinship” (Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p.132)
As humans we long for connection, but have we lost the art of connection. In our over sexualized society we project romance onto all intimacy and then put pressure on families to have it all together on their own. Is Mom, Dad and 2.2 children ideal? What about support systems? What about single people? What about the elderly? The single parents, the youth who have aged out of foster care system? How do they all fit into our loving networks? Do we as churches fall into following age and stage in our relationships only befriending the people who are at the same life stage as us? How do we all find our space of belonging?

It may not be that we are not connected but that we are over connected – a mile wide and an inch deep. If we are connected across so many communities, all our many commitments and networks, are we really known and held by any of them? “We’re busy, but disconnected. Our relationships are several, but superficial (frequent social media use either has no effect or a negative effect on loneliness).”

Even in families we are lonely. A number of recent headlines point out how lonely we are becoming.
“Surgeon General Says There’s a Loneliness Epidemic” “Young People Report More Loneliness Than the Elderly”
“The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness”

We live in a society that values our individualism yet we are persons in community – wired for connection.

“loneliness causes “an insidious type of stress” that leads to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

“Like Jesus, we exist for relationships. Created in the image of a triune—and therefore eternally relational—God, to be fully alive means to live in relationships. If Jesus was history’s most “fully alive” human, it shouldn’t surprise us that a person can’t become fully human without a community.”

We are members of a body, the body of Christ here in Park View. As we read the New Testament we see a breaking open of the bloodline and family systems of the people of Israel. Jew, Greek, slave, free, man, woman, young and old all drawn in. No longer do you need to be born in, to find inclusion or grafted in by marriage. We are part of God’s family and household, a chosen people through grace, faith and baptism. Members of one body with all our varying gifts.

“The kinship family is viewed primarily as a biological and sociological entity. Within the church, however, the family becomes more than the most efficient unit for human propagation, nurture, and ordering of society. It becomes part of the larger, transforming kinship of those bound together in baptism to the body of Christ”(Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p 135)

Can we live together creatively and faithfully? Families are those we feel stuck with but also deeply known by and who hold us through it all. As we call each other brothers and sisters, siblings in faith can we treat each other in that way? Can our church family be both biological and a chosen family bound to one another?

I know I have quoted this before but it seems relevant to hear it again: If you love community you will destroy it, if you love people you will create community.

Can we as a church prioritize forming authentic community.

Not wanting “our church family” to morph into “a church for families”. But one where people who show up in all stages of life, family, singleness or marital status are drawn into discernment and networks of mutual care and mission.

Jesus came and brought connections between people who had never shared the same social arena and now called each other brother.

“Early Christianity scholar Joseph Hellerman puts it well in When the Church Was a Family:
Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain contented with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay grow.”

This is hard work but may we, like Ruth, say to our chosen family…Where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people. And your God shall be my God.

May it be so with us as we embrace this family of God.

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