The Absent Church

Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.

My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.

Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.

First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.

Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.

To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.

Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.

Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.

The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.

Eucharist

I was thinking about the Eucharist today. Did you know "eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanks?" That's pretty cool. The central ritual of Christian practice over the millennia is to say "thanks."

It has probably been said a thousand times before and more eloquently than I am capable of, but this stands in stark contrast with the global system of capitalism which dictates the rhythm of our lives.

Capitalism's primary animating value is scarcity. This logic, that there isn't enough, pulls every other human value into its matrix of scarcity. Time, money, natural resources, love, companionship, beauty—all these and more are stripped of their ultimate value and defined instead by fear, anxiety, and the will to power. How ironic that capitalism generates so much waste, a surplus so tremendous that no one in an earlier age could possibly imagine it, while so many go hungry. Capitalism's excess and the gap between rich and poor reifies its own myth of scarcity.

Eucharist, on the other hand, is a symbol not just of gratitude for the fundamental fact that everything that is worthwhile in life is an unmerited gift, but it is an expression of abundance. Through this ritual Christians gesture toward the meal saying, "We exist there, in the wheat and grapes, in the broken body of Christ given for us," and we respond "Thanks," content that this will be more than enough—enough to share.

Ramsey 19:16-30

Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, how many campuses does my church need for me to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about church metrics? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, buy his books and seminars.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “the Show; The Legacy Journey; Smart Money Smart Kids; Generation Change; Junior’s Adventures; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, sign up your church for Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for his church didn’t have the budget for that.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, middle-class existence shall be much easier in the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is middle-class to feel satisfied.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved!?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for Ramsey all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. But we don’t have any of his books. What then do we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man has paid down his student loan debt, you who have followed me will also be debt free, pitying other people under the yoke of late-stage global capitalism. And everyone who has houses or credit cards or a car payment or children, will receive a stern talking-to about budgeting, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, so buy Dave Ramsey’s books today."

I Am Not a Progressive Christian

Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW), Lutheran Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints here in Denver, CO was a guest on Fresh Air about a month ago. As a friend pointed out after seeing her speak recently, the theological tradition out of which she forms her ministry is nothing particularly revolutionary. Mainline American Protestant Christianity has preached a flavor of her message since the late 1950s. Her genius is how she says what she says, and that she takes this tradition seriously enough to preach it to people the church has overlooked for decades.

Terry Gross assumes in her line of questioning that NBW must be coming out of a younger theological tradition which has been variously dubbed “Progressive” or “liberal” Christianity. Gross hints at this when she asks,

TG: Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs.

NBW: I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no.

TG: That wasn’t the answer I was expecting.

Gross wasn’t expecting this, because she assumes NBW, as a tattooed, female, swearing pastor preaching to a largely LGBTQ congregation, must also therefore preach about being “radical” and changing the world. But NBW responds:

I don’t monitor people’s behavior, let’s put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about like sort of monitoring behavior and so far it has failed to work as a strategy for making people better… On some level Christianity became about monitoring people’s behavior… like a sin management program. And that almost always fails and often backfires.

To anyone paying attention to American culture, language about sin management systems will bring to mind conservative Christian moralism, especially as it relates to control over what people choose to do with their genitals. NBW speaks to this. But hidden here is also the flip side of the same coin: Progressive Christianity.

Much of Progressive Christianity has defined itself in narrow terms largely interested in the behavior of it's participants. In order to be a "Jesus Follower," and not a mere "religious Christian" (see my posts on the Rohr meme going around 1 and 2) adherents must, for instance: buy local, buy organic, vote Democrat, support full LGBT inclusion, and buy into a community supported agriculture co-op. Personally I'm not against any of these. Indeed, I support them. But I do not support them as prerequisites for full inclusion in the body of Christ.

The Body of Christ—the Church universal and eternal—is a rocketship propelled by the fire of the Holy Spirit. While it may hold a few people inside it, saints and giants of the faith, the fire that springs forth from it is all-consuming, gathering all people, conservative and progressive, all creation, organic and inorganic toward it as it streaks toward heaven. It claims everything for itself, it is irresistible and uncontrollable. As NBW puts it:

My job is to point to Christ and preach the gospel and to remind people that they are absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late stage capitalism, for instance. That they are named and claimed by god and that this is an identity is more foundational than any of the others and that their completely forgiven and all of their mess ups are not more powerful than gods mercy and God’s ability to redeem us and bring good out of bad… I think when people hear this over and over they become free.

The job of a pastor, of our individual churches, is to appear before everyone and point to the rocketship and stand in awe and exclaim with joy, "Look!"

Merely Religion

I find it odd that certain Christian spiritualities preach a so-called “way of Jesus” that is supposed to be available to us outside of the context of religion. This “way” is almost always presented in contrast to “organized religion,” or “the Church,” or “institutionalized Christianity,” or simply “worship.” A Christianity lacking institution would be preferable—Christianity which is not instantiated but which is instead an airy "way of being."

Richard Rohr puts it this way in a meme I see shared often:

We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing’ instead of a religion of transformation.”

There has been tension between the "religion of Jesus" and the "religion about Jesus" for about two millennia, give or take a few decades. Frankly, I think the religion of Jesus—informed as it was by second temple Judaism, the Pharisaic movement, and various charismatic movements (Essenes, etc)—is essentially inaccessible to us in the form proponents of the “way” would have us believe. As readers of the book, we get glimpses of the way Jesus lived, the way he called us to live, but only parabolically—in a thrown-to-the-side kind of way. Our access to the way of Jesus is glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, never grasped. Our spiritualities make attempts to gain focus, to polish the glass, but clear understanding is always experienced as a gift, as apokálypsis, as an uncovering, as revelation. To claim that these ways of seeking understanding are somehow irreligious is simply marketing jargon.

The religion about Jesus and the functional edifice of the capital 'C' Church is a technology for carrying (some would say defending) the message of the gospel and the story of Jesus' life. Rohr's "mere religion" is the vehicle through which the message of and about Christ has been carried through the millennia. Without it, the way of Jesus would not be available to us.

I take an Augustinian view of a church within the Church. People who hear the call toward discipleship and transformation comprise this spiritual body and press the wider Church to conform to the fullness of the gospel. We may argue for a way which seeks belonging and believing, or discipleship and transformation, or fear and faithing, but one way or the other we argue for a religion. Christianity must be instantiated. It must be represented, as God was in Jesus, by something with actual being which claims existence for itself. This is merely religion.

Illegitimate

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In case the comic wasn't clear, each and every person who used their power to exercise their own bigotry in the form of demonizing refugees was wrong. And if they were actually face to face with the Jesus many of them claim to follow, I think they'd have to do so with fear and trembling. The bad kind.

Ethics

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Today’s comic is part of a special series done in conjunction with St. Andrew United Methdodist Church’s Wildflower service. They are doing a great sermon series on doubt, and asked us to cook up a few comics related to the theme for each week. Read the entire series.

So Complicated

Previous Comic  –  Next Comic  | Original art for this comic is available  in our store .

Previous ComicNext Comic | Original art for this comic is available in our store.

Today’s comic is part of a special series done in conjunction with St. Andrew United Methdodist Chrurch’s Wildflower service. They are doing a great sermon series on doubt, and asked us to cook up a few comics related to the theme for each week. Read the entire series.

Beauty & Brokenness

The Behemoth, a product of Christianity Today, is a small magazine which aims to remind readers of “the glory of God all around them, in the worlds of science, history, theology, medicine, sociology, Bible, and personal narrative.” Sort of an effort at a reunion of the various modes of being and knowing torn asunder by the Enlightenment. The claim is that we can know God in tangible ways and that fields claiming authority based upon the scientific method can be used in conjunction with faithful theological reflection to seek understanding.

So it isn’t surprising that the most recent issue features a thoughtful piece on the theological significance of beauty. The basic argument goes that beauty cannot prove the existence of God, nothing can, but it can give an observer clues about truth.

The author quickly moves past the problem of evil: “How can there be a good God when there’s so much evil in the world?” He then suggests a “problem of beauty.” In other words: “How can there not be a good God if there’s so much beauty in the world?” Beauty graciously and freely given is a clue to the nature and reality of the divine.

My gut reaction is to reject this notion. Too often this kind of argument about the revelation of God in nature is essentially an appeal to the vague lovely. Given Christianity’s claim that God is ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—the vague lovely as a theological ground just ain’t gonna cut it. I am hesitant in the extreme to move past the cross to the resurrection, to a theology of glory and victory which might deny the reality of suffering and death.

But, embedded in the piece is a part of a compelling argument. If we look at, for instance, a storm that causes destruction, pain, and death and call that a problem of evil, logically we must also allow ourselves to be confronted by the beauty of a cool breeze on a warm day, the quality of light cast through a window, or the way cotton forms around a body. The author touches upon this when he writes about redemption as a sign of beauty: “God also creates beautiful things out of brokenness—unfulfilled dreams, dashed hopes, divided communities, hurting people.” But this doesn’t go far enough.

Beauty does not cease to exist because suffering exists.

Suffering is not easily resolved by the reality of beauty.

The content of faith exists in the tension between beauty and suffering. Indeed, there is beauty not only in our response to the destruction caused by a storm but in the storm itself. A forest fire is not only beautiful because it prepares the way for new life; the fire itself is beautiful and terrifying.

A truth is available in the tension between beauty and brokenness. This is the truth of the cross.

Advent4 & Christmas Day, 2014

We blew right past Advent4 into Christmas. Sorry about that. My 13 month old daughter has been giving us a real fresh reminder at night about what it was like a year ago when she was a newborn. Makes me think about this little guy, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate today.

Go, Jesus! Way to be born.

People take to churches, street corners, and social media to announce the birth. And, irresistibly, we inject the Easter stuff into the manger.[^2] “Christ was born to save,” we crow. That’s all fine.

But then again, Advent4 shows us Mary interpreting her own story. She’s given the news that she will bear a child for God and she busts out in this song. She shows us that her life isn’t solely determined by its utility as the God-bearer.[^3] She places her-self smack in the middle of a cosmic history spanning millennia. And look, I know there’s some salvific language in there, but I don’t know if she’s necessarily making a set in stone determination about who Jesus is going to be and what he’s going to do.

Maybe, ultimately, Jesus doesn’t get to be an end unto himself. His story is bigger than that. But there’s ample evidence throughout the scriptures that Jesus craved the ability to define his own narrative, one not set by empire, religious authority, family, his disciples, and ultimately even God.

Look, I know last week I was talking about how we have to look forward to Good Friday to get a full picture of what Advent and Christmas is about. But on Christmas Day that’s bunk. Whatever soteriology (theory of salvation) works for you or your tradition is all fine and good. But right now he’s just this little baby, you know? Mary and Joseph are too tired to think about the savior of a nation, I can tell you that. Can we put aside our narratives for a moment and dwell there with them?

Happy Jesus, everyone.

Advent3, 2014

This post is late, I know. Advent4 is right around the corner and here I am still on Advent3. Like any good American, I'm too busy to really observe Advent for real. So I write blog posts instead.

Sticking with Isaiah[^1] (as I have in my two previous posts in this series[^2]) brings us to hope, which is appropriate because that's what Advent is. Garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning. These are hoped for in the midst of Advent. And implicit in the Christian liturgical observation is that the child born on Christmas is the garland, the gladness, the mantel of praise. Except right now I can't help but think ahead to Good Friday.

When it was announced that there would be no indictment for the death—ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Investigator—of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Many quoted scripture. Many of them quoted scripture from Good Friday, the day marking Jesus' death on the cross. Advent's hope couldn't bear the burden of suffering. Only the cross could do that.

Hope is a work of love. It takes energy and effort to hope, especially in the midst of suffering. But as we hope for the child to deliver garland, gladness, and praise, we do well to remember that his life was not without ashes, mourning, and perhaps even, at times, faint spirit. We remember this not to increase the burden of suffering in the face of hope, but to take full stock of the world the Child enters.

If we hope only for the bright, nostalgic kitsch of nativity scenes, Santa, and holiday cards, we hope for an empty nothing. We deny the full power of the claim that the divine has entered the world in a barn, as the son of an oppressed people yearning for freedom, who truly realized the weight of the world, and who preached gladness but ultimately experienced pain.

Advent1, 2014

We go immediately from the the secular, civic celebration of Thanksgiving to the deeply quiet divinity of Advent. There is no thanksgiving, nor celebration, and for American Christians God feels far away. I know because in response to the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri I have repeatedly witnessed the following sentiment from Christians on Facebook: “Jesus just isn’t getting through to us.”[^1]

Let’s leave beside the fact that this is a reductive statement that discounts the complexity of American racial issues and the nature of sin. Let’s also leave unanswered for a moment the following questions: what Gospel, which Jesus, what message, whose interpretation?

My immediate response to this sentiment is no kidding, do you think he’s gonna get through to us? I don’t know what magical way people expect Jesus to use to get in touch with us, but it probably ain’t gonna happen in a morally superior Facebook comment. My utterly polarized social media feed, which thrashes me back and forth between emotionally fraught opinions, political stances, and activist outcry, is certainly evidence that hardly anyone is undertaking a quiet inward or outward search for Christ.

But it’s appropriate that God feel distant at Advent. The Old Testament lectionary text for Advent1 is Isaiah 64:1-9. The divine felt distant for Isaiah too. He implores God to tear open the heavens and come down, to make the presence of the divine known when it so often is hidden. He also knew, as we do, that the winds of current events and public sentiment pull us away from the divine attitude and that those who call on the name of God are few.

Not a big surprise at this time and in this place that Jesus isn’t getting through to us. For that we’d have to listen. But to whom? Well, it's Advent and we're looking forward to the incarnation of God. So we better do this listening incarnation style. If we listen, really get low and listen to our fleshy, frustrating neighbors who make errors[^2], who suffer, who hunger, who thirst, who reside in prison,[^3] who rage, who burn, who pray on the street, and who mourn the loss of their sons—if we listen to them we might hear Jesus whispering to us from his lowly birth in the manger.

Or go ahead and turn up the volume on the Christmas tunes. Maybe Jesus is kickin' it there.

  • [^1]: Actually, this is a direct quote.
  • [^2]: Read, “sin”
  • [^3]: Matthew 25: 34-40

Rejecting Christ

In Toronto there's a sculpture of Jesus depicted as a homeless person just outside Regis College, a Jesuit school, at the University of Toronto. But it found its home there only after being rejected by St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It has been reported that rectors of both cathedrals were enthusiastic about the piece but higher-ups in the New York and Toronto archdiocese chose not to install the sculpture.

Timothy Schmalz, the artist, was told that the sculpture could not be installed because it was "inappropriate." The word "inappropriate" suggests offense.

Except those churches, the one in Toronto and the one in New York, being Roman Catholic, have multiple depictions of Christ inside the building where he hangs, dead or dying, from a cross. Do the decision makers in the archdiocese of New York and Toronto not take offense at Christ crucified?

Is the humble depiction of Jesus as a sleeping homeless person more offensive than Jesus on the cross? That depends on why the sculpture is offensive in the first place. Perhaps it's the depiction of Christ as less than divine, a simple human, and a homeless one at that. The sculpture says more about the viewer than it does about God. The sculpture challenges what we think about ourselves, and about those around us who we may not see or who we chose not to see. It is personal. Meanwhile, the cross has come to challenge what we think about God more than it personally challenges we who stand before it. But our reaction to the cross is what faith is all about, and we have lost the ability to really see it.

The Impossibility of Offense

Perhaps the men who rejected the sculpture in question stand before the cross and, through a work of faith, do not choose offense. Soren Kierkegaard tells us that "the possibility of offense is precisely the repulsion in which faith can come into existence—if one does not choose to be offended."[^1] It is possible that the same people who reject Christ depicted lying destitute on a park bench do not reject Christ in his abasement on the cross, but it ain't likely. It's likelier that something else entirely is going on.

The sculpture is genius because it delivers the possibility of offense back to us. The image of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, the Human One, the beloved one of God tortured, hanging from a bloody cross is not offensive to us not because of our faith but because the offense of the cross as been obliterated by time and the ubiquity of an image that says "here is a church."

Christ says, "Blessed is the one who is not offended at me." But it is not a blessing to find oneself in a situation where offense is impossible. To bring in Kierkegaard again, one must be confronted with the possibility of offense, must move through it, in order to have faith.

So I ask myself: why do I accept the sculpture of Jesus as a huddled homeless person? Does my acceptance come from a genuine belief that God is truly incarnate in the least among us? Or does acceptance come from a knee-jerk, right-headed, progressive liberalism in which Christianity is "stirred in as a seasoning"?[^2] Or is the possibility of offense impossible, because the existence of God has been rendered impossible in this secular age?

The Valley

There was a wide valley that contained within it two towns. One town lay by a lake. The other lay by a river. The two towns were separated by a great forest.

The people of the lake and the people of the river arrived in the valley together. Some of them settled by the lake. Some of them settled by the river.

The valley was a good place to live. The soil was good. The sun was warm. Clouds rolled over the mountains, visited the valley, and went on their way. The forest was alive and gave its game and supplies to the people of the valley. The water each town bordered brought great abundance upon the people.

The people of the lake built close to the shores. They worked the water in boats: casting nets, traveling across the lake, making wood into lumber, building roads through the town. They traded with each other. They shared meals and songs.

The people of the river built their town along the banks. They also cast nets, fished, accepted the gifts the flow the river brought with it. They built mills powered by the river, traveled down its waters, traded amongst each other, and shared meals and songs.

In the years following their founding in the valley, the two towns prospered equally. But they started to differ. The increase in the fortunes of the towns were discovered by the world outside the valley. Outsiders visited the town by the lake and the town by the river seeking trade and fulfilling curiosity.

The river brought newcomers as it flowed. The people of the river welcomed the others as the river flowed by just as they welcomed the gifts the river had given them before. They traded with the newcomers. They shared freely the gifts the river had brought. Some outsiders simply passed through, others saw that the town by the river was good and stayed. They were no longer outsiders, but people of the river as well. The outsiders brought change, new customs, new languages, and funny ways. It was not always easy for the river people to get along with the people who came from outside the valley. But the river had brought these guests just like it had brought abundance, and the river town celebrated its newfound abundance and its new friends.

The lake also attracted newcomers. Visitors traveled on the roads the lake people had built. Some came only to visit, and to trade. Others, though, saw the goodness of the lake. They wished to cast nets, to fish, to travel across the waters and to share meals and songs. And so they aimed to build on the shores of the lake, as the people before them had done, and to become lake people themselves. But the first lake people grew jealous. They coveted their lake and its riches. They looked at the roads they had built and resented that others would use them. The newcomers were foreign and different. They spoke different languages, sang different songs, ate different food, and caused difficulties for the lake people.

The people of the lake set up tolls on their roads to extract wealth from newcomers. They claimed not only the shores but also the lake itself and all its riches as their own and no one else’s. Their stories became stories of their right to dominate the lake, the roads, and the forest. They began to claim that the valley was their valley alone. The good soil was theirs. The warm sun was theirs. The clouds did not visit the valley itself, but the people of the lake instead. The songs the lake people sang over meals were angry songs. They cast out the newcomers they could, and insulted those they could not.

Fourth of July

Independence Day was just three days ago. Summer holidays are kind of different from winter holidays. Something about the heat kind of gets inside you. Summer holidays are all about spreading out, getting out of your place. We have big, outdoor get-togethers that mostly involve eating something that was cooked outside.

For Independence Day we hang red, white, and blue decorations around. We eat off of red, white, and blue plates, and wipe yellow mustard off our faces with red, white, and blue napkins. We pay a little bit more attention to our red, white, and blue flag that is a symbol of our country – of the United States. We pause and reflect on what that flag stands for. We ask, why do we continue to raise it and what does it say when we do?

One of the things we do on Independence Day is honor the veterans who have given their lives to service, who have lost their lives in battle, and who struggle with coming home. Some of them sit right here with us today, whether physically or in our memory. On Independence Day we also honor other Americans who have given their lives to make America great for all people. We honor women who struggled all over the country for the right to vote, we honor those who sat at lunch counters, and on busses, and marched for equality, we honor those who fight for the right of all to love and marry who they will.

America exists somewhere in the forest between the two towns in the story I began with today. And on Independence Day, of all days, I think it’s worth asking, which town are we?

It’s a very simple story – I know – and it misses all of the complex issues that are a part of living in this country. But I want to say that we are not one town or the other. Instead we are in the forest, in the valley. The forest is the complexity we face together. America is not one thing or another, not one town or another, but since the beginning has been attempting to see itself through the trees.

Our red, white, and blue flag, for its part, stands for many things. It stands for liberty, freedom, independence, sacrifice, generosity, speech, openness, equality, and opportunity. I am sure you can think of more. The red, white, and blue flag has flown over this country for more than two centuries and it has seen all of these values expressed every day. Unfortunately, it has also seen us fall short of those values, fail to live up to them, deny them to others. Here at home, the red, white, and blue flag has flown over slavery, the civil war, Japanese internment, segregation, racism, and homophobia. Abroad the flag has flown over war, colonialism, and terror.

The flag is a symbol as complicated as America itself, not just for Americans but also for those outside of America. We are truly in the trees.

Beyond the Valley

I love America. I love the flag and much of what it stands for. I love America’s energy, dynamism, its multiple stories, peoples, backgrounds, religions, and races. I love the history and the people who have fought in various ways for the ideas that America stands for. But in the passage for today, Jesus calls us beyond the valley, though it may be good.

We are called by Christ, as individuals, beyond our own selfish interests. We are called to go beyond the bounds of loyalty to our families. We are called to go beyond the limited local view of our communities. We are called beyond even our nation, to see ourselves as part of a world of others.

The good rain, Christ says, falls on you, and your neighbor, and your enemy alike. It pays no heed to you, your family, your city, or your nation. The rain does not only visit our valley, but the clouds also roll beyond it.

We are called to do likewise.

There are interpreters of the Beatitudes – the section of the sermon from which this passage is taken – that argue the demands Christ makes are actually impossible. They say that the point Jesus was trying to make was that because we fall short of the perfection of the divine, we need grace. They argue that it is only because of grace that we are even capable of striving toward these lofty ideals, and that when we fail, grace will catch us, bear us up, and allow us to try again.

Christ says that we are not only called to go beyond our valley to embrace people like us. We are called to love even our enemies. The red, white, and blue flag of America symbolizes many things, but loving our enemies is not one of them.

That symbol. There. The cross... symbolizes love for the enemy, the stranger, the immigrant. It has no color and stands for no nation. It flings out its arms wide beyond the limited valley and calls us forward to it. It symbolizes the grace necessary to go beyond the valley ourselves.

The rain falls beyond the valley, and a forest grows there as well. We may not know it as well as our own. It may be harder to find our way. We may even be entirely lost there. But by the grace of God, the command of Christ, and with the courage of the spirit we are called to go.