Luke 13:18-21: “What is the Kingdom like? A quantitative and qualitative analysis”

On Sunday I preached for our sister church, Christ Presbyterian Church, Fairfield again as part of their sermon series on the parables of Luke. I preached on Luke 13:18-21 where Jesus, challenged by the religious leaders, responded by pointing out that their expectation of what the Kingdom of God would be like was too small. The leaders were looking for a kingdom that was basically more of the same, but better for them: a kingdom that looked like their ethnic/religious/tradition/political tribe, but with power (rather than being subservient to Rome). Jesus’ Word continues to speak into our context to challenge our expectations that God’s Kingdom will fit our expectations of looking “like us, but but with more stuff” with the reality that His kingdom is quantitatively and qualitatively better, bigger, fuller, both here-and-now and in eternity.

Luke 10:1-21: Jesus’ Authority and Ours

On Sunday I preached for our sister church, Christ Presbyterian Church, Fairfield again as part of their sermon series on the parables of Luke. I preached on Luke 10, about Jesus authority and our authority as authority is a major theme in Luke’s parables. Jesus both claims, and bestows enormous authority in this passage. We should note, however, that the enormous authority given to his followers is to be wielded within the same framework of constraints Christ places on his own authority: whether used in the Church, or in our vocations, it is to be exercised in humility, not for the sake of the wielder, and always for the building of the Kingdom.

A Morning in Maine

Our family have long been Robert McCloskey fans, but I made a new discovery today.  We have Blueberries for Sal and Time of Wonder, but had not had the chance to read One Morning in Maine until we got it from the library last night.  I read it to the kids before bed, and noticed that the heroine’s name is the same as in Blueberries–so while Mommy was at a brunch this morning I suggested to the kids that while the babies were napping we spend the morning in Maine, reading Blueberries for Sal, then One Morning in Maine to see her as a toddler and then as a “big girl,” then read Time of Wonder just to keep in the vein.  When we finished Blueberries, however I read the biographical sketch of McCloskey at the end and realized his books are autobiographical!

He was born in Ohio in 1914 and raised there; and Lentil is set in a small Ohio town in what appears to be the late nineteen-teens or early nineteen twenties…

… he won a scholarship to Vesper George Art School in Boston in 1932, where he no doubt received the inspiration for Make Way for Ducklings which is set in Boston in what appears to be the 1930s…

… then he lived most of his adult life in Maine where he and his wife, Peggy, raised their daughters Sally and Jane (of One Morning in Maine fame).

My guess is that they lived on the mainland at first, where Sal’s mom drives a car to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries with Sal (in Blueberries for Sal,before the birth of Jane), and later moved to the island from which Sal and Jane’s father rows them across to Buck’s Harbor for ice cream and to fix their outboard in One Morning in Maine.

The next surprise that began to occur to me as we read (okay, the kids didn’t make it all the way through this one as their attention was starting to wain…), was that Time of Wonder is the McCloskey family a few years later as the story follows two girls, probably around ten to fourteen years old, from spring through fall as they live with their father, mother, and dog (who looks like Penny from One Morning) on an island near Buck’s Harbor in a world populated with some of the same characters as One Morning. This book, which was a gift to us from our friend Joel, also contains two allusions to God’s watchful care over His children: the pair of eyes watching over all, above the hundred pairs watching you as you row back to the dock in the night (Ps. 146:9, Jer. 1:12, Zech. 2:8); also the rainbow cast by the moon toward the end of the storm, “a promise that the storm will be over soon” (Genesis 9:13-17). I don’t know what McCloskey’s specific religious views were, but he has done a masterful job of weaving these comforting biblical images into a beautiful book.

Given Time of Wonder ends with the family departing the island “for the last time this year” it appears that the island home is not their permanent home, so maybe the car-accessible house in Blueberries is their destination… Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed our morning in Maine, and I want to heartily recommend  McCloskey to all.

Luke 3.21-4.13: Who is Jesus? What can he do?

On Sunday I preached for our sister church, Christ Presbyterian Church, Fairfield as part of their sermon series on the parables of Luke. I preached on Luke 3 as an overview of the book, looking at what Luke is saying about Jesus: In this passage the Father identifies Jesus as the Son of God, the ideal Adam, the ideal Israel. Jesus then goes into the wilderness to prove his faithfulness where Adam failed, and where Israel failed, showing his victory against Satan over fear, in identity, and in trust. Because Jesus shows His victory over the fundamental human struggles of faith in Israel’s history, He offers victory over those same struggles in our lives.

Marriage and community in Brooklyn

When Abby and I watched Brooklyn (a really great film, by the way), maybe because I had preached on marriage the previous Sunday, it made me think about the importance of the community in a marriage: we make vows before witnesses because our feelings are remarkably fickle as a means of keeping us true to vows–which are actually the means of keeping us “happy” in the older and fuller sense of the word: fully flourishing.

[Spoiler alert!] Eilis Lacey and Tony Fiorello took vows in private; she loves him, is most happy with him, should be with him; but when she goes back to Enniscorthy, (Ireland,) to visit her mother she has community pressure to accept Jim Farrell’s pursuit of her, take Rose’s old job, and have the local version of the “good life” she may have desired growing up. She hasn’t said she’s married at first because she doesn’t want to let people down: there was to be a public wedding at some future time, maybe when more family could be involved, so she keeps the marriage secret, and the community works against it since they don’t know about it. When Ms. Kelly confronts her about the one shred of community involvement in the wedding (Kelly is distantly connected to the family Eilis and Tony randomly bumped into at the Brooklyn court house) the community does its work [in a way this is like Smith’s invisible hand] even though the connection was so tenuous and the intentions of the person who was the actual instrument were not honorable. Eilis’s declaration “I’m Eilis Fiorello” places her back in her correct place in the universe again; publicly the wife of the husband she loves, bound back to the new home she has made in Brooklyn…

(The fact that Tony’s family’s plan is to build a neighborhood on Long Island and extricate themselves from the community they are part of and settle in a place that requires ridiculous amounts of infrastructure to maintain, and where there is no community to join seems to actually break the continuity of the narrative since it means their goal is really to escape Brooklyn; but the film is putting authenticity over narrative on this point since it’s a historically accurate—if ultimately unhelpful—goal.)

Isaiah 66: God’s Resolutions and How He’ll Keep Them

I got to preach for our sister church, Grace Pres. in the Hamptons on Long Island at the end of December. I preached on Isaiah 66 and, thinking about New Year’s resolutions, how we often want simple rules to follow so we can feel like we’ve taken care of things ourselves; so we can feel like God needs to relate to us on our terms. But God demands humility and obedience, and will produce these in us Himself.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the coming Kingdom of God

I found the text of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech today to read to the kids – I hadn’t realized that Isaiah 40’s picture of the fruition of the Kingdom of God is directly quoted. I’ve quoted the “I have a dream” portion of the text below, but wanted to make a few comments:

First, because of the historical context of the speech–desegregation of schools was less than a decade old, and had not been fully implemented in some places, and Jim Crow laws were still on the books in many places, particularly in the Deep South–the speech is oriented as a call to the South to change. While this was appropriate, we need to remember today that this is not a “Southern problem.” As a child of New Englanders raised in Georgia the narrative we tended to use saw the North as “not-racist” and the South as “racist.” There was certainly more “on the books” in the South, and there were bigger hurdles to cross, legally, in the South, but racism is a human problem born of fallen human beings trying to build their identity in their tribe. The reality that we are beings made in God’s image and for His glory is out-of-accord with our experience of suffering and our own causing others to suffer–but to admit the need for something beyond ourselves strikes our pride, so we begin to insert other identities and narratives that make us feel better–like “I’m better than you because I’m racially different from you.” The pastor of our anchor church, Preston Graham at Christ Presbyterian Church, New Haven, had an excellent sermon examining this dynamic yesterday that you can find here.

That human problem–racism–wasn’t and isn’t limited to the South. Northern whites exercised and exercise racist attitudes toward blacks though at a less institutional level than happened in the Jim Crow South. That is not to say that institutional racism did not exist: in our town of Milford, CT, as well as many towns along the Connecticut coast, we used residence-only beach parking permits, or parking permits for non-residents that could only be purchased during limited week-day hours to prevent blacks from New York City from using our beaches. While this could be understood as a residents vs non-residents issue rather than a racial narrative, Edward T. O’Donnell, host of the podcast “In the Past Lane,” makes a good argument for the explicit racial nature of this problem in this interview with Historian Andrew W. Kahrl about his book, Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline.

In our denomination we saw this difficulty during an action at our General Assembly in 2016 to repent of sin in our denomination’s past with regard to the Civil Rights Movement: I heard a number of Southern pastors confess how their churches had hurt African American communities in their cities and how formal, institutional repentance was needed to address that. I also heard several Northern pastors say, essentially, ‘this is something we’ve dealt with or weren’t part of, let’s move on.’ Those of us in Northern churches who are white need to not let Martin Luther King Day be a time when we look south and say “those people did bad things.” We need to examine our own attitudes and look for where we are placing our identity in some form of white tribalism rather than admitting our brokenness and, by the power of Christ in us, repent and embrace our African American brothers and sisters.

The second point I’d like to make has to do with a beautiful book called Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha (illustrated by Colin Bootman). We read it to the kids this morning and it’s a great way of introducing children to Civil Rights history. My two criticisms are that the book focuses on the narrative of racism as a Southern problem (see above), and that the last line of the book is, “Those days are over.” This suggests that the problem the Civil Rights Movement was addressing is essentially solved. It is wonderful and appropriate to celebrate the change that last line specifically refers to: that discrimination can no longer be written into law (separate white and black water fountains, restrooms, waiting rooms; whites only businesses, etc.). That said, we don’t want Martin Luther King Day to be a celebration of what has been accomplished only. There is still much work to do in racial reconciliation. The reality that we are in our essence ‘neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free… but all are one in Christ’ (Galatians 3:28) is a reality that has not been worked out fully in the world yet. Sadly, often the institutional churches themselves have been part of the problem of denying that reality.

I noted that Dr. King cited Isaiah 40’s depiction of the Kingdom of God coming to fruition. The promise of Isaiah 40:4-5 began to be realized in Christ’s entrance into history, death, resurrection and ascension; but it’s a promise that will not be fully realized until He returns. We may take steps, we may make progress; but the problem Dr. King was drawing attention to is deep. It’s not a problem some legislation will do away with. It’s a problem only Christ can fully, fundamentally and finally solve when he comes to make all things new (Revelation 21:5). The problem is as deep as the human heart; and its reality should drive us to deeper dependence on Christ as we surrender more and more of ourselves to Him and as we see more and more fully how much we have to repent of. As we reflect on Martin Luther King Day we don’t want our reflection to only be celebration of what is already accomplished, but a call to engage in the work of racial reconciliation that is still to be accomplished, to acknowledge–and repent of–the depth of the problem that we cannot accomplish on our own, and to long and pray for the day when Christ shall make that dream final, ultimate reality.

An excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (the speech is 2-3 times longer):

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Here’s the whole speech:

Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween

has written a very thoughtful and helpful post,”Why Christians Should Celebrate Halloween,” which explores the history of the Church’s interaction with the ancient European autumn harvest/death festivals. For both the Romans and the Celts, autumn marked a time to celebrate the harvest, and prepare for the oncoming long darkness of winter; the former by enjoying the abundance of food, the latter by offering sacrifices, performing incantations and, in some cases, dressing up to appease or ward off the evil spirits of death and darkness.

The Church stepped into this milieu with a message of hope: the God who had created all, and was therefore the source of all good things, had come into the world and defeated death! The darkness no longer need be feared for Christ’s light had conquered it!

All Hallows Eve–the night of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s victory for all the saints–became a time to engage the pagan celebrations by dressing up as the things which had been feared; no longer to appease them, but to mock them and death for their impotence before Christ’s victory.

While I think more work is needed to build a convincing argument of a link between Noah’s sacrifice after the flood in Genesis 8:18-9:1 and the pagan festivals (seen in this argument as a source for the festivals which then corrupted the purposes of the sacrifices that were initially intended as worship for the true God), it is an intriguing idea. I’m not convinced that the mere fact of Noah’s offering sacrifices is a sufficient basis of suggesting that the autumn pagan sacrifices have that event as their source–but the reminder that all worship is both a quest to fulfill the nature God has placed in his image-bearers as beings made to worship Him, as well as a means of repressing the truth that longing reveals, is well-taken.

The article, and the video she links from, are excellent insights Christians should consider as they work to engage the longings of our culture.

Reformation Then and Now, Here and There:

In a post at The Gospel Coalition, Dr. Dan Doriani of Covenant Theological Seminary, reflects on a recent trip to Singapore to speak for Reformation Day. He reflects on the cultural gap between the post-medieval Europe of Luther’s day and modern Singapore. What is so helpful in this reflection is his honesty about his own cultural biases. “My meditation on the distance from Luther and Singapore led me to ask if the gap between Luther and America might be just as great.” What was initially seen as a gap between “us” (descendents of Europeans) and “them” (non-Europeans) is really a gap between “us” (post-modern, global Christians) and “them” (our mutual Christian forebears). Additionally, and importantly, this new distinction preserves the nuance of cultural difference, and the lens of Singapore becomes a useful means of examining the cultural predispositions of modern American Christians. Meanwhile, the varieties of cultures which participated in the Reformation are seen in some of their diversity, helping to distinguish the multitude of ways God uses various cultures’ assets to build His Kingdom.