Every week my ministry assistant combs the church database and sends me the names of people from the congregation who are celebrating birthdays and wedding anniversaries. I contact them during the week, often on the very day, usually by email or text, sometimes with a phone call, and wish them well. Most people receive these blessings with gratitude, sometimes surprise.
Others never respond. It makes me wonder if it was a bittersweet anniversary. Maybe they are hurt that they heard from me and not from their parents or children. Maybe their wedding day was, in fact, the happiest day of their marriage.
“Anamnesis” is the Greek word for the liturgical rehearsal of Jesus’ ministry in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, or Eucharistic Prayer. This is the prayer in which we consecrate the bread and wine to be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Sacrament, we remember God’s faithful presence to Jesus–how God did not allow death to be the final judgment upon him but instead raised him from the dead and vindicated his ministry of grace, acceptance, forgiveness, love, and justice.
By virtue of our baptism into Christ, at the Lord’s Supper we also remember God’s faithful presence to us–how God will not allow sin, failure, dying, and even death to be the final word on our lives either.
But these promises, based on God’s faithfulness in the past, are only experienced and received once again in the present through anamnesis, that is, if they are remembered. Forget to remember, forget the past faithfulness, and soon we forget the promises of the future which are the basis of our hope in the present.
There are some things we don’t want to remember–things we would rather forget. We’re ashamed or they evoke too much pain. Maybe to remember them calls us to an obligation we don’t want to fulfill. But whatever we refuse to remember can’t be transformed by God’s grace. It remains shameful and painful, we avoid responsibility and can’t grow spiritually, and our past does not experience God’s redemption.
Today is the one year anniversary of a disclosure in my family of origin that fundamentally shifted my ground of identity. It has passed without any commemoration, no anamnesis by anyone except for me. My relatives whose ground also shifted a year ago seemed surprised when I reminded them of this anniversary. Far from remembering, they appear to have forgotten.
I have not forgotten. I don’t imagine my experience is more painful than theirs. It might appear that way since they have chosen not to commemorate the disclosure. I appear to be the only one dealing with the grief of loss and questioning the meaning of my past. I don’t do this because I am more courageous than they, or, as I’ve said, that my pain is greater than theirs.
I do it because I believe in redemption. If weekly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper has done anything for me, it has deposited, with each piece of bread and gulp of wine, within my very being the conviction that pain remembered will be transformed into joy. But in order for that to happen, it requires anamnesis.
What I’ve learned this past year about loss, confusion, grief and pain, is that it can be a very lonely journey. Few people are willing to take it, though everyone has occasion. “Though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil for you are with me, O LORD” has become personal on this anniversary, for more often than not, God was the only one with me.
But who better to accompany me than someone familiar with suffering alone? Someone misunderstood by his mother? Someone betrayed by a friend? Someone deserted by the family he adopted? Someone who cried out to know why his father had abandoned him? But who better also than someone who is present to accompany me because his life was redeemed, and whose testimony is the guarantee that all who would follow in his way will experience the same redemption?
This, then, is my hope–not that anyone in my family will remember a year from now how our childhood memories have become soiled like a photograph surviving a fire. But rather that in a year’s time I may see and experience the redemption that follows honestly grappling with the pain of loss, the redemption that follows anamnesis.
Why does Jesus begin and end one of his most famous parables with the word, “Listen!”? Probably because too often we don’t.
- Why continual listening is so important
- The first soil of hardness
- The second soil of shallowness
- The third soil of weeds
- Giving the seed the best chance of being in the fourth soil of harvest
- Questions for discussion and reflection
I think one of the greatest hindrances to our own spiritual growth, and to our growth as a faith community, is that we think we know what God is saying. And then we repeat it in ways less gracious than God himself.
Of the many places in the Bible where it’s clear we don’t know what God is saying, the parables of Jesus are perhaps the most obvious example that God’s Word has multivalent meanings.
Here’s an interpretation of the parable of the sower. It’s only one interpretation, and it may be entirely wrong.
The first soil is actually a path, and the birds come and eat the seeds. There is a hardness here, the result of being well worn. It is bred from familiarity and habit. It is the result of not understanding, according to Jesus’ own interpretation, and that’s the problem.
According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your mind. This means we can’t say to ourselves, “I don’t understand this. I can’t understand this. It’s too hard.” If our attitude is such, we can’t be too surprised when the seed is stolen by birds.
The second soil is shallow, superficial ground. Since the seed can’t grow down into strong roots, it grows up, and quickly. It appears enthusiastic and excited. It’s like the new convert to Christianity who hears about forgiveness of sins and the new life in Christ and says, “Yes! That’s for me!” But it isn’t long before they face the same temptations and distractions so they end up leaving saying, “I guess it doesn’t work.”
In our church, we welcome and love every visitor. We also encourage them to regularly attend worship for 2 months before considering membership. We encourage them build relationship and serve with us for a while. This establishes roots so that when I say something they don’t like in a sermon, or we sing a song they don’t like, they are less likely to wither away.
The problem of the second soil is that people have listened uncritically. They are not skeptical enough. They didn’t dig into the issue deeply enough to, again, understand for themselves.
The third soil represents the seed surrounded by weeds. In his interpretation, Jesus identifies two weeds as the “cares of the world” and the “lure of wealth.” This is forgetful soil—forgetful that God is greater than our cares, and that God is more valuable than wealth.
This is soil that isn’t supported by gardening and “interseeding”—the strengthening of the first seed by the addition of other seeds. In our church we try to interseed often. This is why we read so much scripture in worship (from the lectionary: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm response, a New Testament epistle, and the Gospel). This is why we send the “taking faith home” bulletin insert home with you. It’s why we have the Faith Connection Card responses. It’s why these sermon summaries have reflection questions. And it’s why we have difficult conversations, e.g. same-sex marriage in the church.
We do all this so you don’t have only one seed planted on Sunday morning. Imagine if you only watered your lawn on Sundays. What would happen? The same principle applies with the seed of God’s Word. The more we listen, the better chance this seed has to grow in the fourth soil.
The fourth soil sees the seed yield a harvest: Jesus says a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty. It is obvious that the number-fold of the harvest is not the point; we’re not to be dismayed if we are a thirtyfold or proud if we are a hundredfold producer. The point is that there is a harvest, whether small or large. That is the distinguishing factor of the fourth soil.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Talk about a time when you were sure you knew what God was saying, and then you changed your mind. Or if God ever told you one thing at one time, then something else at another. Or if you have ever known anyone who knew what God was saying and wasn’t very gracious sharing it with you.
- Where in your life do you find the soil of hardness? Where do you dismiss out of hand the words of scripture, a sermon, or a prophet?
- Where do you find the soil of shallowness? What hot topic of scripture or Christianity are you neglecting to study? Same-sex marriage is one in the PCUSA. What about pacifism, immigration reform, military spending, welfare, human trafficking, consumerism in the church, etc.?
- Where do you find the soil of weeds? Which “cares of the world” or “lures of wealth” distract you from attending to God’s Word in your life? Do you believe that God is greater than our cares and more valuable than the wealth of the world?
- How often and in what ways do you “interseed” what you receive in Sunday worship?
- Check out some other thoughts at the “sermon scraps” of this message, or at the summary of a sermon on the parallel passage here.
Here are some scraps that didn’t make it into the sermon.
Here are some other unexplored ideas arising from this parable:
- Jesus’ parables call us to live in the kingdom of God. As such they invite us to identify with any number of facets of the parables. With this in mind, what if you were called to be the sower? How might you sow the seed of God’s Word? It could be studying the Bible with others, but it could also be providing a listening ear to someone in distress. It could be teaching a class to down-and-outers. It could be saying kind words to strangers. It might be offering to pray with someone.
- God, or Jesus, is often identified as the sower. Notice how indiscriminate the sower in the parable is. Can you imagine if Pioneer Seeds yielded a harvest only 25% of the time, and if that harvest ranged from thirtyfold to a hundredfold arbitrarily? They’d go out of business! And yet here we have the sower of God’s Word flippantly tossing seeds everywhere. What does this say about God? About God’s Word? About God’s hope for the soils?
- So often spiritual seeds are planted and we don’t know when they will bear fruit. I went to VBS as a kid and my grandmothers prayed for me throughout my childhood, but I didn’t come into the church until high school. Track down some of the original plantings in your life. How far back do they go? Who planted them? What long term seeds are you planting today?
- Financial gifts early in the life-cycle of a business venture are called “seed money.” Are you planting any financial seeds in the church? God only knows how your donation of even small amounts can grow into something much bigger.
- Some people hear in this parable a threat or a warning. Perhaps that is there. But there is also grace in this passage in at least two instances. First, the sower has a job and it is to sow. He sows here and there, and year after year. Who’s to say that this year’s bad soils won’t become next year’s good soil? Time will tell, but only because the sower is faithful to sow year after year. Second, the sower believes, year after year, that even the bad soils are worthy of seed. He doesn’t assume barrenness of any situation. The sower’s job isn’t to judge first, but to sow in hope. Think about what this implies about God’s perspective of you.
Since the 221st General Assembly concluded June 21st scores of news articles and opinion pieces have been written about the two most controversial actions, namely concerning same-sex marriage and divestment. I have spent several hours reading everything I could find and have narrowed them down to the following articles that I believe are best. Much of what I have read has been inaccurate, misinformed, distorted, or sensational.
The criteria for inclusion on this list include:
- That the articles are respectful, accurate, and fair
- I have given insiders’ (Presbyterian and faith-based sources) perspectives priority over outsiders’ (mainstream press)
- I have generally avoided explicitly advocacy groups
- Many of these articles I have culled from Facebook friends I trust
If you would like to suggest additional articles I should include, please feel free, but only if they contribute something new and generally fit the criteria above. Please check back regularly if you are interested, as I will add articles as I find them. And please feel free to share the link to this list broadly.
I do not encourage you to read any comments that might follow the articles. Generally speaking, the comments depart, often significantly, from the “respectful, accurate, and fair” criterion above.
The list has three sections: the actions of the GA in general; divestment; and same-sex marriage. I have introduced each article with a very brief description of its value.
The official PCUSA news agency summary in bulletin-insert fashion. http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/assembly-in-brief-ga221_combined.pdf
Lengthy, analytical summary. http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/2014/06/abounding-in-hope.html
A pastoral letter to those on the “losing side” encouraging faith and ongoing dialogue. http://improvisewip.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/a-little-open-letter-moving-forward-in-hope-and-love-after-ga221/
A pastoral letter reminding us that the sky isn’t falling. http://helpingmyunbelief.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/should-death-await/
Letter from a Presbytery Executive (regional head) summarizing the most controversial GA actions and reminding us that we are all in this together. http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2014/06/presbyterian_leader_pens_lette.html
NEW: Nice take on how diversity with unity may still prevail. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/henry-g-brinton/presbyterian-church-fight_b_5556035.html
A good summary with the full text of the GA action. http://jhbelljr.net/2014/06/21/pcusa-divestment/
From the NY Times, a general and accurate description. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/us/presbyterians-debating-israeli-occupation-vote-to-divest-holdings.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0
A balanced summary from Israeli paper Ha-Aretz. http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/1.600148
Official letter from PCUSA to American Jews assuring them of our good will and commitment. http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/6/26/open-letter-pcusa-us-our-american-jewish-partners/?utm_content=bufferdd72f&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
A Jewish voice of support and hope regarding GA decision to divest, including an appreciative list of positive statements the GA made. http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2014/06/23/the-presbyterian-divestment-vote-toward-a-new-model-of-community-relations/#.U6yg_QDZiDM.facebook
From a Jewish Rabbi putting in perspective the strategy of divestment. http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2014/06/caterpillar-et-al.html
Perspective from a Jewish organization sympathetic to PCUSA’s decision. http://peacenow.org/entry.php?id=6457#.U7JD_vldWSr
An understanding voice from Lebanon. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Columnist/2014/Jun-25/261466-the-presbyterian-church-takes-a-stand-on-israel.ashx#axzz36Br3TiZg
Though from an advocacy group, it gives helpful details about the three companies from which we have divested. http://presbypeacefellowship.org/divestmentrelease#.U7JEXPldWSo
Other companies from which we’ve divested. http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/mrti/pdfs/2014_ga_divestment_list-long_form-final.pdf
Same Sex Marriage
A letter from conservative advocacy groups in the PCUSA urging faith and patience. http://www.pfrenewal.org/issues/428-pastoral-letter-pfr-fellowship
From the head of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, PCUSA churches that share the same concerns as those congregations that have left. http://pres-outlook.org/2014/06/journey-ahead-us-thoughts-evangelical-remaining-pcusa/
Official PCUSA news agency summary.
Our decision relative to other denominations’ positions. http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/06/19/3451183/nations-largest-presbyterian-denomination-now-allows-same-sex-marriage/
Summary of GA action and how we compare to other denominations on the topic. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/19/presbyterian-church-gay-marriage_n_5512756.html
Address by Mark Achtemeier who wrote The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage. Provides a very brief outline/introduction of the book. http://covnetpres.org/2014/06/will-know-fruits/
A post from a friend who recognizes as I do that the new minority can learn from the new majority on how to be in a church despite disagreement. http://mollyfide.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/hoping-through-the-pain/
From an expert on young adults on whether we will ultimately decline or grow as a result of these decisions. http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2014-06/why-pcusa-can-grow-because-marriage-equality
People sometimes ask me if, as a Presbyterian, I believe we have free will. I respond that, even though it makes life harder, yes, we do.
- Jesus’ hard words and why he spoke them
- The relationship between justification and sanctification
- The freedom of the will
- How to experience salvation today by living the sanctified life
- Questions for discussion and reflection
We often forget that Jesus spoke hard words, words that even drove people away. Jesus’ teaching about communion in John 6 is example. There he says, “I am the bread of heaven,” and “you must eat my flesh and drink my blood to have life.” When his audience became uncomfortable, Jesus assured them that his words were “spirit and life.” This “difficult teaching” was too much for some, and John tells us that ” many turned back.”
The verses from Matthew today conclude a sermon in which Jesus preached hard words to his disciples. Included among this difficult teaching is the fact that Jesus sends his disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves. They will be arrested and physically tortured, even martyred. Family bonds will be tested and broken. Jesus assures them that what happens to him will surely happen to them.
Embedded in this sermon, however, are some words of great comfort, words many of us know but probably didn’t know their context. It is here Jesus says the hairs on our head our numbered; God is with us through these trials. So, Jesus urges, “Take up your cross, loose your life, and follow me.”
Christ’s call to discipleship reveals the fork in our spiritual road. We will either hear and respond, or deny, argue, or leave. The conclusion of the sermon is that, “Those who welcome a prophet as a prophet will receive the prophet’s reward.” Jesus calls us not to deny, argue, or leave, but to hear and respond.
Christ’s call to discipleship also reveals our freedom. Paul’s favorite sermon topic was freedom. In Galatians 5:1 he says, “For freedom Christ has set you free.” Or as we have it today’s passage from Romans 6, “You are not under law, but under grace.” And for Paul, our freedom is predicated on baptism (see the first half of Romans 6). We are free because of our union with Christ.
In Reformed Christianity, we often talk about two movements of the spiritual life: justification and sanctification. Justification basically is the forgiveness of sins. On account of Christ’s faithful obedience to God, we have been forgiven of our sins. This is done, accomplished, completed—all by Christ, there is nothing we can add to it.
Sanctification, the second movement of the Christian life, refers to our living as forgiven sinners by the power of the Spirit. Justification and Sanctification appear throughout Paul’s writings. Here are three passages that present the two movements:
- “Forsaking what lies behind (justification), I press on towards what is ahead” (sanctification) Phil. 3:13
- “The old life is gone” (justification) the new life has come” (sanctification) 2 Cor. 5:17
- “We have been buried with Christ in his death (justification) in order that we may be raised with Christ to newness of life” (sanctification) Romans 6:4
Having been justified by Christ, we now are free to live by the Spirit. We have free will. We are free to choose. This isn’t consumeristic freedom to choose—we like and choose this, we dislike and reject that. This is freedom choose to be disciples. We are free to choose sanctification.
So as Galatians 5:1 says Christ has set us free, verse 13 says, “Use your freedom to serve others in love.” Or in Jesus’ words from John 13:34, “I give you a new commandment—that you love one another.”
Justification is the work of Jesus and the gift of God. But we have a part to play in sanctification. We must exercise this freedom, we must choose sanctification. Consider how Paul continues to talk about sanctification in the passages already listed above:
- “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”
- “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”
- “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”
Our salvation is dependent upon God (justification), but our experience of salvation depends on our freely choosing sanctification. We have that freedom because of our spiritual, baptismal, union with Christ, and so sanctification ultimately depends on God also. But we still must choose it.
In the confessions (historic statements of faith) of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the tension created by our freedom to choose sanctification is cast in terms of a “war.” This war has been declared won by God (justification), but we still battle “remnants of corruption” (Westminster Confession on sanctification). Unless we engage these battles, our experience of salvation risks becoming like what we are seeing in Iraq today. The war there was declared won, but all we did was pacify a particular enemy. Had we continued to engage—to rebuild and even redeem the country—Iraq would not be in jeopardy of civil war today.
How do we begin to choose sanctification? How do we welcome the words of Jesus the prophet on his terms, and receive the reward he offers? The obvious first place is to remember our baptism, that we are justified and called to sanctification. In Jesus’ baptism, he prayed for and received the Holy Spirit. So it is for us—following our baptism we pray for the Spirit’s presence and power to live the sanctified life. Next, we must listen for God’s Word, and receive it as “of a prophet” or “of a righteous one,” no matter how hard it is.
But if all that is too much, Jesus ends this sermon with the promise that if anyone offers even a cup of cold water to the thirsty, they will not lose their reward. In other words, taking the first step on the path of sanctification is as easy as finding a person in need and meeting that need.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are some examples of Jesus’ hard words to you? What made them hard to receive? Were they words of judgment, words of grace, words of direction, or some other kind of words?
- How do the two-movements of justification and sanctification help you understand the roles Jesus, you, and the Spirit play in your salvation?
- What are some of the “remnants of corruption” present in your life? When you next encounter them, how will you respond?
- What are some next steps you can take towards the sanctified life?
Most people know that the word “gospel” means good news. That’s only half of the story.
In this narrative description of “the gospel” according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples into villages where they are to minister if they are welcome. They are to “proclaim the kingdom of God,” which includes not only good news but good acts as well. This is a depiction of the whole gospel—not just the good news about God’s kingdom come in Christ, but the enactment of that kingdom in the healing of the world.
After this mission, Christ invites the disciples to Bethsaida for a time of rest. Mission and ministry must be balanced by Sabbath rest and restoration. However, their rest doesn’t last long, for the crowds hear about their location and come with their needs. Jesus teaches and heals them. It is a confirmation of both aspects of kingdom—good news and good acts.
A further message to us today, beyond the gospel being both good news and good acts, is that we can trust God’s providence when needy people approach us. The Sabbath planned by Jesus for the disciples is interrupted when the needy crowd comes. Jesus trusts this interruption and cares for them. He doesn’t view it as an inconvenience; it is a divinely orchestrated opportunity. He helps the disciples see it this way, breaks down the ministry into manageable tasks (“have the crowd sit in groups of fifty”), and feeds the multitude.
With this description of the gospel in mind, we see that the Lord’s Table is the hinge in the gospel. Here it is that we remember the good news of the gospel of Christ—how God came to us in Christ, lived with and taught us, died in obedience to the kingdom of God, freed us from sin, and rose from the dead. This good news is what we rehearse in obedience to Christ’s command to “do this in remembrance of me.”
But this Table also sends us forth, into the villages of our lives, where there are people who need us to perform the good acts of the gospel. This is why the Table is necessary to the church’s worship. The gospel isn’t just good news for the church, it is good acts by the church for the sake of the world. The Table reminds us of and equips us for this ministry. The Lord’s Table is the “Bethsaida” of the church today, the place where Christ gathers us from our ministries in order to restore and feed us for our ministry in the coming week.
When I loose my faith, how can I find it again?
It was a year ago, right here at Mo Ranch in Hunt TX, that I had an insight while serving communion during a worship service. It was that after years of theological education and pastoral experience, after reading scores of books on Christian doctrine, historical theology, comparative religion, philosophy, and arguments for and against faith, that despite all my questions, doubts, reservations, skepticism, and evidence to the contrary, I could not deny the profound and personal connection that characterizes the moment when I say, “The bread of heaven; the cup of salvation” to people coming to the Lord’s Table.
I take it as confirmation of my phenomenological epistemology that, while I can argue myself into and out of the various answers to questions of Bible interpretation, Christian theology, and the role of religion, I can not deny the spiritual union of that moment when according to Christian theology God’s Spirit effects union with Christ and with one another. Since then, this has been my anchor: no matter what, there is the bread and the cup.
This year at Mo Ranch, I am having a new insight informed by the “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and love. When faith wavers, as mine often does, there may remain at least the hope of faith. When I don’t believe, I may at least hope that what I don’t believe may still be true. I may at least hope that someday I myself may once again believe that it is true. I don’t mean to reduce faith to belief, for faith is much more (trust, fidelity, orientation, and outlook, e.g.), but belief pervades faith in its many aspects. When my faith as belief wanes, falling back on the hope of belief allows me to trust, be faithful, orient my life around the presumption of God’s presence, and envision the world from that perspective.
But what about if hope fades? What about when the distance from faith is so great that it diminishes even the hope for faith? What if the doubts are so overwhelming, or circumstances so dark that they extinguish the light of faith and hope? In those circumstances, which I have not experienced myself but only heard about, I suspect that the third virtue of love is the Plan C, and that this is why Paul says, “Faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.” I suspect this is why Jesus unites the two greatest commandments into one, because when you can’t love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength because you can’t find God or even believe that God exists, you can find and love a neighbor. The greatest of faith, hope, and love is love because it alone is ubiquitous and eternal.
From this perspective, love is both the fruit of faith and hope, in that faith in God and hope in God’s kingdom lead one to love of neighbor. I think this is how most people hear the list; as a progression from faith, to hope, to love. But love can also be the root of faith, when faith and hope are gone and we have nothing left available to us but to love our neighbor.
Which brings me back to communion. We “do” communion in order to “remember” Christ. Remembering Christ means to remember that God loves us. As dinner guests receive invitations because their presence there is valued, so God invites us to the Lord’s Table, because God wants us there. Remembering Christ also means to remember that Jesus loved God. Out of love for God Jesus preached and lived God’s kingdom, leading to his execution on the cross.
But remembering Christ means also to remember that Jesus loved his neighbors. He welcomed social and religious outcasts into his circle. He embraced the untouchables. He fed the hungry and lived in solidarity with the poor. He proclaimed grace and forgiveness to alienated and guilt-ridden souls. He promised redemption to the lost, and paradise to the dying. He chastised religious leaders for their lack of love.
I pray I am less like those religious leaders, being one myself, who lacked love. I pray that when my faith is stable and my hope is strong, I will love also. But now I see that when my faith is weak or is suspended for a time, or should my hope for faith ever fail, I can still love another and in doing so, find my way back to God.