September 23, 2012
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
I have a number of friends who wonder how I can be both a Christian and yet still be friends with them. Some of them are allergic to church. For some, they were raised in a church that allowed for no questions, and they were too smart not to ask questions. For others, church has condemned them in one way or another, because they have too much ink on their bodies, because of who they are attracted to, or because they didn’t fit somebody’s idea of “nice” or “normal.”
In a recent poll by the Barna Group, those between 16 and 29 were asked to sum up Christianity in one word. The top five answers were:
- Too involved in politics
Some of my friends would agree. But being allergic to church, the examples that they get of Christianity are those that make the news. You know, the ones who protest soldiers’ funerals. Or the ones who believe they are being persecuted because they cannot impose their values on others. Or anytime there is a scandal.
I almost miss Jerry Falwell. I agreed with almost nothing that he ever said, but at least you knew where the man stood. And you knew this because whenever a news program wanted “The Christiant Perspective,” they called Jerry. They would line up preeminent scientist on one side of a debate, and then call Jerry for the other.
Never mind that he represented one corner of a far extreme of the theological bandwidth in our country. He was always on TV. I fear part of it was his entertainment value, and part of it was ignorance by the TV producers of the spectrum and width of the Christian church and the nuances of any debate.
One of the phrases that always popped up was “family values.” Did you know that every family has family values? So then they would say “Biblical family values” or “Christian family values.” This was code language for “follows the rules we like, doesn’t bother with the rules we don’t like, and looks and sounds and votes a lot like us.”
If I asked you to describe a woman in the Old Testament, what would you say? When we use words like submissive, obedient, and maybe threw in barefoot and pregnant, it means we have had a little too much of TV Christianity and not enough Bible.
The passage in Proverbs does not speak to a shrinking violent or a Stepford wife. She is an entrepreneur. She runs not simply a house, but a business. She is not simply a trophy for her husband nor a maid for her kids. She is her own person. She works hard and expects the same from her employees.
She is a whole person, and one of character.
She’s out buying land and negotiating trade deals. She is capable and strong in her own right.
What creates such character in a person? Is it like Shakespeare’s definition of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, while others have greatness thrust upon them? Is the same true of character?
Paul puts it this way:
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
Character has to do with how we face suffering. What we go through in life can become the basis of compassion and hope, or it can become the basis of fear and despair. For the woman described in Proverbs, and for Paul, and so too for us, it is the love we are given by God, and the trust we have in God, the love and prayers of the people around us, that can allow us to endure suffering.
As usual, the Gospel presents the disciples as foils for our own failings, our own difficulties. Once again, Jesus is laying what will happen – being handed over, being killed, and on the third day, being raised.
And no one said a thing, because they didn’t get it. Later, they are busy talking amongst themselves on the road. And Jesus asks, “What were you discussing?” We might assume they were talking about this crazy scheme Jesus had laid out for them. But no. They were arguing over who was be greatest, which one was the best disciple.
This would be the opposite of character: They were in denial about suffering. This would be the opposite of faith: They were focused only upon themselves.
And Jesus says it so plainly that even a child could get it:
If you want to understand the kingdom, if you want to be great, if you want to be like me, then make yourself a servant. Receive children, not because they look like you or act like you or vote like you or pray like you, but because they need you.
When we help someone who cannot return the favor, that is character.
When we don’t let all the differences get in the way of the love that God offers to all, that is faith.
When we receive God’s children, whomever they are, however different they are from us, the way Jesus receives us, that is being a disciple.
Living this love and this compassion gives us the kind of character people want to be around. Acting like the disciples and arguing over lesser things gets us described like we are in that Barna poll.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.
Thanks be to God.