That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God

That Family Resemblance – The “Kin-dom” of God
Ephesians 1:3-14

A sermon offered to the people of God
at Bethesda United Church of Christ
July 15, 2018

It’s wonderful to be back here with you. The last time I subbed for Pastor Dee, many of you were on a bus headed to Baltimore for the General Synod meetings. I am delighted to be giving Dee some well-deserved rest, and I want to commend you on giving your pastor a lengthy time of renewal.

This morning, I want to wander with you in the first chapter of Ephesians. Now, as Biblical scholars love to do, there has been discussion and disagreement over the years as to whether or not Paul actually wrote Ephesians. Was it written by a scribe who took liberties with Paul’s dictation? Is it a restatement of Colossians? Is it from a student of Paul? Or is it from the latter period of Paul’s ministry, written for the struggles of the area surrounding Ephesus?

Honestly? I will let wiser heads than mine go argue about that. What is clear is that this book contains wisdom that the First Century Church needed. Its central message is of unity: one calling. One baptism. One household of faith. The earlier patriarchs decided that Ephesians was part of the written Canon and adopted it. Paul/or the author that only God knows wrote it. I think I’ll land there.

In just eleven verses, however, the writer unpacks some heavy-duty theology! He touches on predestination, creation, atonement and redemption: all those “churchy words” that would take a week to unpack and properly understand. The text declares our place in the Kin-dom of God as “God’s own people.” Oh… and just to make it “fun” for those of us who had to study Koine Greek, he does all that in one extremely long run-on sentence.

But I want to focus on these verses because it focuses on the “big picture” of the “kin-dom” of God. The “kin-dom.” Not the kingdom. You may have heard it before… But if you aren’t familiar with it… it is a word that describes the relational nature of God, the way that the Divine adopts, loves and relates to us. We are adopted Kin! This expression works for the central theme of unity, rather than a top-down, power-heavy structure in “kingdom.” Kin-dom has been in public discourse for many years, but appears earliest in the work of mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and also the writing of Sister Georgene Wilson, a Franciscan nun.

A wise woman I know, Dr. Reta Halteman Finger, suggests that “The Kin-dom of God is a radical political statement. It is Jesus’ alternative to the Roman Empire. It is asking God to set up God’s reign on earth instead of the martial, stratified, and repressive reign of Caesar.”[1] Instead of a top-down, authoritarian government that humans like to set up, there is a sense of communal responsibility and commitment to one another. That’s the kindom! And Paul, teaching this radical re-ordering of government, just might have upset Caesar’s priorities!

Kindom fits this morning’s Epistle reading. Can you hear its familial nature in the first verses of greeting? This concept of unity and community? Paul spends a lot of time defining and declaring the whys and wherefores of our relationship with God. As I reflected on the text, I asked myself, “What was SO IMPORTANT that he wanted to build this painstaking theological foundation?”

That’s where I was drawn as I pondered the text. It would be easier to outline and define each of the big theological words and then go home… and maybe watch a little soccer. But I don’t think that’s the central message. It is, for me, summarized in Ephesians 1: 13-14.

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:13-14

All those conditions and definitions of our relationship with God are for the purpose of cementing in our adoption. Our inclusion in the family of God. Our place in the plan of God from the beginning of time. Not because of anything we do or are. Not because of where we grew up, or who are grandparents are, or where we went to church. But because of grace. We are loved because of grace.

These words applied to the members of a church in the region of Ephesus in the first Century. And they are true for us today. It is because we are chosen, because we are forgiven, because we are redeemed, because we are loved that we are all adopted into the family of God. We are God’s own people. We are all known and loved and covered by God’s grace. Gentiles? Welcomed into the kindom. Jews? No more privileged than the Gentiles. All are part of the beloved!

The problem is, we struggle with what being “the family of God” looks like, acts like, talks like, worships like, eat like, loves like, smells like, and serves like. We have opinions. Definite opinions! “That’s what Church should be!”

Even in a progressive, Christian community.
Even with people who want to be in a church!
Even with a congregation who has deep roots in love, fellowship and service.
Even in an area where we have county, state and federal officials with a progressive bend.

I don’t have to tell you that in our country, the divisiveness and incivility is at epic proportions. Not just on the internet. The highway road rage. The office shootings. The gun violence in schools. The rise in domestic violence. The “bully pulpit” of some politicians who seem bent on dividing any coalitions that threaten his or her own power, and suggest if you don’t do things their way, you’re not really a “Christian.” From County politics to Congress, there’s a whole lot of hating going on!

In all of these situations, grown up people forget what was drummed into their heads in elementary school. You remember some of those truths from the book by Robert Fulghum, All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten.[2] You know… basic human decency? “Take turns. Say please and thank you. Clean up your own mess. Say that you’re sorry when you hurt someone.” And so on…

We forget we are all the same — flawed, forgiven humans. From the outside, we are so radically different. We are fractured by our individual needs and interests. We experience life from such radically different perspectives that it’s hard to have peace in a household, let along in a church. Yet Ephesians brings back to mind our mutual inheritance and redemption. As they say in the South, “we are kinfolk!”

How can we see and celebrate this family resemblance? This kin-dom?
First, by seeing that we are all brought in to this fold by God.

Not a one of us came up with the idea on our own. We were invited, enticed, engrained, enfolded into the fabric of the community by the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s job! We came into the family under difficult circumstances, or privileged ones. We were nurtured by Godself. We were known, loved and wanted before we knew we were known, loved, and wanted. We are a holy, blended family. Our identity is not because we know how we came into our spiritual heritage, but that we were, indeed adopted in. Just like there are many kinds of family (biological, blended, adopted, foster) there are many ways to come to a knowledge of God’s personal love for each one of us. And there is no “one correct way” to come into the family — just like there are many ways to create a human family! Our identity in God is exactly the same.

This should bring forward in us a sense of deep humility. In every way, we are each forgiven much, and blessed with much more. But far too often, it comes out as entitlement. It’s as if our little selfish inner selves are saying, ‘God always DID like me best!’ or churches say, “God likes the way WE worship best!”

I have to tell you that churches and even whole denominations have split over this entitlement. Congregations “bleed out” and die because there are power struggles and cliques! Common goals and dreams are set aside for personal wishes. But God invites us to lay our sense of “earned favor” and accept that it is unmerited, unearned, and unending. The grace of God.

What’s another way to demonstrate that family resemblance? Because it’s not just understanding that we are brought in on equal theological footing. It is to acknowledge that this kin-dom is not built on the expense or punishment or exclusion of others. 

To offer a more modern perspective, I’d like to return to the views of the late Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. She proposes a view of the church and society that is based on Mujerista Liberation theology. She believes that life, in its fullest expression, results in the freeing of families and communities that are not oppressed by others. The Latina culture’s high value of family and community is a result of honoring and promoting the mutual hopes and dreams of everyone. This is the foundation for all societal and spiritual experience. This is how people thrive! She declares that this is multi-generational and in it there is room for all![3]

How many of us have had living situations where the mutual concerns and benefits of every member of the community were part of the decision-making process? Maybe it was your first apartment or rental house with friends from college. Maybe you lived in an intentional community, or were part of a dorm or rooming house where you shared in the rent, the rules and the chores.

Theoretically, this is the same way that the Church could be. I say, “could be” because we all know that there is a difference between being an “organization” and an “organism.” The Body of Christ is an “organism.” But the practical governing and life of the Church is most definitely an “organization.” We have committees and commissions, pastors and church councils. And sometimes we take our eyes off of our common ground, and we forget our family resemblance in our “organism” as the Body of Christ!

Humor me this morning… because I believe that one metaphor we can visualize is to think of ourselves… is a quilt!

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Quilt block from one of my grandmothers

We are stitched together. All of us unique parts are brought together with the whole design in mind. Each quilt, each local Body of believers, are unique and beautiful, and each part of the pattern repeats in a way that brings harmony, beauty, and warmth. The quilt is pieced in patterns of shapes and colors, (like this one, made with squares and diamonds, or like this quilt, made up entirely of hexagons.)

Creating quilts in my grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ day created community. Women gathered around frames a “quilting bees.” Their shared efforts provided a piece of practical household furnishing. Quilts take what’s left of scarce resources and make something new.

IMG_4455
My grandmother’s quilt. 

There is an unproven legend that quilts pointed the way on the Underground Railroad. Maybe it’s true! As Anna Lopez, an education coordinator at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Michigan said to Time magazine, “What I tell kids is, who writes history? Men do. Mostly white men. Then I ask, who made quilts? Women did, and a lot of black women made quilts and passed on their oral history. No one wrote down their history, so who knows?”[4] Maybe those quilts were used to guide people to freedom.

Quilts memorialize events or people. How many of you saw the NAMES Project, the quilt which remembers AIDS victims? Families and friends created a 3×6’ panel and they were stitched together into huge blocks. In 1995, the quilt covered the entire National Mall. Now it would blanket it many times over.

Perhaps when you think of a quilt as an image of the Body of Christ, you think of this lovely one made by my grandmother. And you think to yourself, “Yes! The Church! Decency, order, variety and diversity! Blended together by God and stitched together in unity and love!” God is that comforting presence, that warmth that welcomes us.

As the poem in our bulletin this morning suggests:
I think God is a quilter
Who takes His needle and thread
To piece our world from nothingness
And give it form instead.

Well… yes.
And no!

First, I think if God is a quilter, then God should be represented as a “She.” I think I have met one male quilter in my life… No offense to the anonymous writer on the internet. Just sayin… it should say she takes HER needle and thread…

I actually think the kin-dom of God is a little more wild and rambling and creative, and a little less controlled and boxed-in. I think the work of the Spirit is freeing, not confining. I think the actions of the Church are passionate and varied and beautiful. I think there are times for the kin-dom of God to be beautiful and decent and well-ordered enough to make any introvert happy.

And then… the Bapticostal side of me says… No… the Holy Spirit is a crazy quilt!

 

crazyqlt
Created by my great-grandmother.

Here’s the real picture of each of us being grafted in, adopted, changed and molded into a whole. Here there are threadbare places and misshapen pieces. There is imperfection! There is chaos. Wildness. There is random order. It is unified, but unique. They are all stitched together in this crazy quilt called a “church.” Apart by ourselves, there is no sense. Put together, it is a beautiful thing. It is a legacy, a promise, a dream of what is to come. It’s a dream of God might do, if we could get along. Like the “hope chests” of old, there is the possibility of what is “not yet.”

The Body of Christ, the kin-dom of God that is represented by this crazy quilt, is a church that knows there is hard work ahead. Its a church that says, I will do everything I can in this process of loving and caring for one another and our world will take everything we have. It will only be as successful as our least-attached piece, as our least committed member.

In the writing of Ephesians, Paul (or pseudo-Paul), was attempting to bring unity to a deeply divided people. A people who had other gods and religions practicing right on their doorstep. A culture which denied women the rights of full citizenship, and allowed slavery. (And even told slaves how they should act!) Ephesus, though a modern seaport in its day, was not so good at showing love and compassion to one another. The writer’s words were full of encouragement, of unity, of love, and of understanding.

And in these words, may we see and know for ourselves that we are each a piece of God’s divine plan in the world. We are each chosen, beloved, adopted and blessed. We are each stitched into the kin-dom of God. May our lives be a response to God who loves us, and may we together bring the praise of God’s glory.

Thanks be to God!

Gracious God,

We who are comfortable, forget those who feel discomfort. We who are healed, forget those who are wounded.  We who need you, forget that your Holy Spirit would change us and mold us and meld us and loves us in ways that we cannot even fathom. May the words that have been spoken be like arrows to our hearts, for you are a Great God who can do all things… in Christ, we pray. Amen.

 


[1]From Kingdom to Kin-dom and Beyond. Christian Feminism Today, https://eewc.com/kingdom-kindom-beyond/Accessed 6/29/2018.

[2]Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Villard Books: New York, 1990, page 6-7.

[3]Chapter 9, “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal,” by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (p 171-190). Valentín, Benjamín. In our own voices: Latino/a renditions of theology.Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, © 2010. Accessed: June 29, 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.31279.0001.001.

[4]Stacie Stukin (2007-04-03). “Unravelling the Myth of Quilts and the Underground Railroad”TIME. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1606271,00.html  Retrieved June 27, 2018.

Reflecting on a week of preachers

I just spent a week at the Festival of Homiletics. This year’s theme was “Preaching and Politics.” It was all it was billed to be: inspirational, educational, and relational, building connections with others who are passionate about communicating the Gospel.

Every day, I was up earlier than my normal workday to commute into DC. I’m not a morning person. This was a true test of my will! But the speakers and the worship services were worth it. I grabbed a few books for my ever-growing “to-read” pile. I had many, many good conversations with old and new friends. I purposely went to hear preachers and speakers who were as un-like me as possible. It was worth every dollar I invested to attend, especially given that I don’t get reimbursed for these conferences by my job or my church. (When I heard people talk about their “books allowance” and “travel allowance”, I confess I was pea-green with envy. I funded the whole thing, including my vacation days.)

One of my preacher friends who has attended many of these conferences noted that she often gets “preacher envy” after attending these events. I totally get that. But festivals like this renew one’s appetite for the discipline of study and application of scripture. It also made me realize that I am more of a storyteller than expositor, more of a pastor than an executive. I have great appreciation for those with their churches in the thousands, but my heart remains with leading a solid local church of a couple hundred. I appreciated the heady and brilliant professors among us, but connected more with the hearts of those who tend the wounded and hurting. It was inspiring and encouraging to be in this work.

My last day of attendance culminated by attending a prayer service for the Reclaiming Jesus movement. Billed as “A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” its intent was to bring solidarity around specific justice issues of our time and lament and repent of our self-absorption in “political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries.” We left the service and walked in a candlelight procession for a few blocks to the White House in a silent display of solidarity and hope, praying for our nation, our churches, and ourselves. This was inspiring, too. But I was left with a few sticking points with the whole Reclaiming Jesus movement:

  • There was a lack of clarity on the full inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ persons. While the Reclaiming Jesus statement did affirm that all persons as made in the image of God (Imago Dei) there were limited statements of support IN WRITING for LGBTQ persons. While it was implied in Article 21, it was not specific. It could be implied, and it was clearly spoken to from the pulpit, but it was not in writing. I am disappointed that the leadership of this movement did not take the opportunity to affirm their LGBTQ siblings who are serving in churches as pastors and lay leaders, as seminarians, parents, and youth group members.
  • There was a lack of clarity on the role of women as pastors and leaders. It was implied but not stated, and women who were leaders in their individual denominations were present and spoke from the pulpit. However, since many of us in the Baptist tradition have had a long road to fully embracing and engaging our Calls in the local church, and particularly with the singular rejection of conservatives towards women in ministry, it would have been an easy step. To their credit, the statement does address misogyny and abusive relationships. But they could have done much more.
  • There was a lack of inclusion of other denominations and Christian social action groups in the statement. Were they not willing to sign-off on the statement as it was presented? Or were they not invited to the table for discussion and reflection?  Specifically, I wonder about:
    • the Alliance of Baptists (my theological home)
    • The Poor People’s Campaign
    • Metropolitan Community Churches
    • Faith in Public Life

I’m hopeful the leadership of the Reclaiming Jesus movement will address these questions in the future, or at the very least, be more transparent about the process of writing the statements. I look forward to reading more and participating in the movement because I believe it will be shaped by our interest and activism.

When Nature Grieves With You

I walked past the grand ornamental cherry and thought, “It looks like it’s weeping flowers…” Since I had just left a family grieving over the death of their matriarch, it seemed appropriate.

Sometimes Nature does the best job of explaining our feelings and fears, so I’ll shut up now…

The Rock Piles of Ministry: Who Knew?

 

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Behold. A rock pile.

Not just any rock pile. Oh, no! It’s taken years to get this pile of rocks.

There was a decent start to the pile when we moved in 22 years ago. As I dug new garden beds, I’d find rocks and add them. When we added a retaining wall, the landscape crew added to the rock pile. When we did a major remodeling of our home, the builder found even more. And when I installed a simple spiral labyrinth in the back yard, there were incredible amounts of rocks to toss on there, too.

Everyone was glad to have a place to discard the rocks. It was a lot easier than taking them to the landfill. Each contractor looked at me askance (at first) when I said, “if you find large rocks, I want them.” But since it was cheaper to reuse rather than remove them, there were no arguments!

I learned a lot along the way because of these rocks. Patience. Perseverance. Techniques of rock removal (yep! there are some!) Reality checks. And seeing progress and naming it for the hard work it takes.

 

 

Some of these rocks made my new landscaping projects very frustrating. At the start of building the labyrinth, I bent every single hand tool I owned because they were not up to the task of chiseling large rocks out of clay!

So now… those rocks are no longer discards!

It was with a bit of irony that I had to haul loads of these rocks back down the hill to grace the edges of a water feature we just installed this spring. Three wheelbarrows of rocks. (Yes. I counted.) And as I heaved and hauled and placed them, I had to laugh. Here they are. Being put to good use. Finally in their right place.

pond

It made me ponder a perverse truth about Calling and ministry…

For any of us who battle ourselves, our environments, our churches, our relationships to be finally FINALLY brought to just that right moment of ministry… it’s seems like it will never work. We interview. We candidate. We preach. We study. We try to do our best, battling the odds like rocks in hard clay. We set things aside for another day, making a muddy hillside into a landscaping feature of a retaining wall of cast-off rocks. We try to see the beauty in what we do. We keep adding to the pile. And then… and then!!!!

Those rock piles of ministry are put to use. Those mossy, ignored, strengths that we have set aside in obedience, or sometimes, out of necessity and not by choice, they suddenly become relevant. And they are beautiful, in their right setting, at the right time.

I hear you, friends. I know your sense of relief. And a bit of wonder, too, that though we felt like we were forever gathering moss, perhaps even feeling useless, we will one day see a change!  For now… NOW is the appointed place and time God has for us. There’s stuff to do – even on a rock pile. And greater things are ahead.

And if you are still waiting, like me, marking time on the rock pile with a prayer of fatigue and longing, know this…

You are not a cast-off.

You are not a mistake.

You are not in the way.

You are called… press on!

…for such a time as this…

 

Friday Prayer; Look up and see

Cross-posted from RevGals.

This week’s prayer flows from the tending of my own heart to combat the discouragement that seems to brew inside me with the least provocation. I return again and again to the promises Christ made and the challenge to wait with anticipation at what God might do next. I am reminded of Christ’s encouragement to the disciples:

25“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.” (from Luke 21, Common English Bible)

O Holy One
Sometimes the clamor and the smell of humanity’s stubbornness overwhelms me.
I forget that you are walking ahead of me,
that your grace surrounds me,
that your Presence holds me close.
I forget to look up and see…
…the beauty in an early spring evening,
…the promise of summer’s greenery and fall’s harvest
…the gentle safekeeping of my heart
…the comrades of the Faith who share burdens and hold up mine
I forget that what I fear
is but a whisper on the wind,
a temporary battle,
a shifting of wills.

Sovereign Lord,
I look up and see
grace upon grace,
hope upon hope,
and life, abundant life.
And always…
You are there!

Amen.
And Amen!

P.S. Here’s a song to inspire and encourage you: Darlingside’s Hold Your Head Up High