Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Word For the Week

Matthew 10:24-39

Last fall, my wife and I got a phone call from the children's home where our goddaughter lives. An alumna of their program, a good friend of the goddaughter's, had died. Would we come to the memorial service?

We would have anyway, but it didn't hurt that the goddaughter was singing at the service.

And not just singing, but singing. We didn't know until the kid opened up her mouth that she was going to do an a cappella rendition of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." Wow! It wasn't technically perfect, but she sang it loud and clear. More important, she sang it with heart. There was no mistaking the message: His eye is on the sparrow, and so is mine.

I don't know how the kid made remembering a dead friend an act of defiance, but she did. Mrs. Pastor and I were dabbing away tears by the time she was done.

Remembering that story helps me put together the disparate parts of this morning's lesson. It's a collection of sayings stitched together to make a point, which is not unusual in the gospels. The first half of the reading is reassurance of God's love and protection; the second half an assurance that disciples are going to need that love and protection.

About that second half: it isn't so much that Jesus wants to run around blowing up families (quite a message for Father's Day). Instead, as one of my commentaries explains, disciples will inevitably have to make decisions about their priorities. To follow to Jesus' radical path leads inescapably to conflict, even within one's own family.

It's important to step back for a moment and remind ourselves that these words were not written for us. They were written for a group of people committed to beliefs that walked that fine line between "radical" and "insane." It was crazy--and contentious--enough to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. But on top of that, they added the completely insane idea that that reflected God's preference for the poor and dispossessed!

Early Christians, in other words, challenged the conventional wisdom in both religion and social priority. These folks were a menace to the status quo.

We can try to live out their faith, but I doubt we'll ever be pulled into the kind of conflict they must have experienced. Still, there are people who come close.

Norman Kansfield, for one:

SCHENECTADY, N.Y., June 17 - In the first trial of a minister in 100 years, the general assembly of the Reformed Church in America found Friday night that the Rev. Dr. Norman J. Kansfield, a leading Protestant theologian, had violated church law by officiating at the marriage of his daughter, Ann, to her partner, Jennifer Aull, a year ago.

The delegates also voted to suspend Dr. Kansfield, 65, from the ministry until he changes his views to fall in line with church doctrine, and to strip him of his standing as a professor of theology in the church.

Dr. Kansfield said the decision was "going to be very hard to deal with.

"My life," he said, "has been the ministry." But he was encouraged that at least one-third of the delegates - those who did not vote against him - were willing to consider a "far more open stance on the inclusion of gay people."

Dr. Kansfield's "family" here is not his own biological family, but the extended family of his church. One might fairly charge that he "loved his daughter more than Christ," but I don't believe so. Kansfield in fact acknowledged Christ before the world in testifying to his love and grace in uniting his daughter and her partner in a sacred bond.

You don't even have to claim that these two women face special challenges in the world, though of course they do. Any two lovers entering into matrimony face an uphill battle these days. Newlyweds are automatically qualified for sparrow status--especially, I think, when they get to their first arguments about who's going to balance the checkbook and who's going to make dinner after a long day at work.

My goddaughter would hate hearing this--she doesn't believe in same-sex marriage--but her example of fidelity, and Dr. Kansfield's, help to bolster my resolve when things get contentious. What she's too young to understand yet is how love for a friend or a family member is often a springboard for more abstract concern.

So it's her example, among others, that strengthens me when read about someone like Albert Mohler attacking the United Church of Christ again.

See, a few conservative churches in New Jersey have put up a resolution for the denomination's national gathering in July. It's a stalking horse; while on its face, there's nothing objectionable about it, if it is accepted, it will trap the denomination in the same kind of fundamentalist crap that overtook Mohler's Southern Baptist Convention twenty-five years ago. He says:

The resolution proceeds to remind the denomination that the UCC Constitution states that the body "claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers." Accordingly, the resolution "provides an opportunity for General Synod to unashamedly, unabashedly proclaim that the UCC is a Christian denomination where Jesus is Lord."

Believe it or not, the resolution has attracted significant opposition, and some observers do not expect it to pass. Consider this reaction from a New Jersey pastor: "Religiously speaking, it sounds like apple pie," commented Rev. Raymond Kostulias of the First Congregational Church of Park Ridge. Nevertheless, he's not a supporter of the statement. He described the resolution as having "a judgmental quality to it that implies very strongly that those who do not agree with us are condemned or damned or hopeless -- and that's exactly the thing that UCC is against."

Well, Rev. Kostulias, that's what the Apostles and the early chuch called the defining line between orthodoxy and heresy -- between genuine faith and a false gospel. A denomination that cannot stand together in affirming the Lordship and deity of Jesus Christ is a denomination that has set itself against Scripture and the faith of the Christian Church.

But as Chuck Currie explains,

Mohler's interpretation of the resolution is misleading. He bears false witness to the United Church of Christ. Why would we actually oppose such a resolution?

    The UCC respects freedom of individual conscience, and there are no "tests of faith" mandatory on our 1.4 million members, but we do honor the historic testimonies of our spiritual ancestors as they explored the Bible and applied its insights.

The resolution as worded would create a "test of faith" and in doing so would violate our church polity. In short, the resolution is an attempt (which I hope will fail) that seeks to make the UCC adopt a fundamentalist view of scripture that is common in Mohler's denomination. Click here to learn more.


The United Church of Christ is a denomination quite obviously committed to the Christian faith. We are not, however, a doctrinal church. Our members are not required to sign pledges that align us with one theological school or another. We trust our members to be faithful disciples and feel forcing dogma on them does nothing to further that discipleship. We put our faith in God before we put it in human tests of faith.

To which I can only add two things. First, that we also put our love in people before we put it in human tests of faith. Principles are no match in our church for the face of God in the face of a brother or sister.

Second, and more important, is this: in our very "Basis of Union," the agreement that brought the UCC into being, we declared that

denominations exist not for themselves but as parts of [the greater Church], within which each denomination is to live and labor and, if need be, die

It was originally meant as a commitment to the ecumenism that drove the formation of the UCC, but it is a reminder as well that the work we do is not our own, but Christ's.

And the last time I checked, Christ's eye was definitely on the sparrow, not theologically "sound" doctrine that happened to exclude whole categories of people from the grace and love of God in Christ Jesus.

So it's the sparrows I'm willing to take up my cross for, for whom I would lose my life and would be glad to lose my denomination's. I owe it to my goddaughter, and the memory of her friend.

Screw orthodoxy.

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