Walking on the Boardwalk last week we stopped for a second and watched as a caricature artist was doing a very interesting portrait. A good caricature artist accentuates features both pleasant and unpleasant to make a comical work of art. The good artist also might ask for a sport or activity someone likes, but by design there is a lot about a person that is left out of a caricature drawing. But that is the point! We pay someone to get a good laugh or maybe to get an insight into how others see us. It is easy to compartmentalize the caricature artist and say that is something for the fair! But the reality is that often we are our own caricature artists, especially when it comes to God.
Take the “atheists” as a group. Yes, I know a dangerous thing and a caricature of that group. When listening to them talk about God, often what you hear is a narrow opinion, often highlighting the negative aspects, but forgetting or reasoning away the positives, often leading to the logical assertion that there is no God.
At the same time you could take the religious zealots, again a dangerous thing to take as a group. However, often when you find a meeting between the zealots and the atheists you will see that the zealots have just as much of a caricature of God, having a singular always-positive understanding and image.
As you might see, as with the caricature of a person, not seeing the completeness of God can and does create real problems. Almost always when you see cults develop they do so using a caricaturized version of God. Some people really love this because it often the God they think they need.
In our tradition one of the first things that happens in seminaries is a challenge to everything the incoming student knows or think they know about God. For many first-year students in seminary this is a painful experience, especially those who thought they picked a school that would only affirm what they already knew! But the importance of this cannot be missed, because especially as a pastor it could be easy to have a singular caricaturized version of God. While that is great for growing congregations, it really does not do much for developing or growing disciples.
Step back for a second and think about that. When you hear people say they believe in a cause, they are often spouting a political agenda or myopic view. I am not saying this is good or bad; in fact, many times it can be very good! Take the Black Lives Matter movement. At the beginning it brought awareness to an issue and helped many in our community who don’t understand the plight of many African Americans to understand and have a way to help. BUT we know that the problems are not just about the respect and dignity of Black Lives, but a need for a deeper, more systematic correction to the relationship between police and the whole community. The problem is that it is hard to introduce the bigger issues when the cause is so myopically focused.
This is true when we think about God. If our view of God is merely the God we want, or don’t want, we are not really having a full image of God. The God who we are imagining is only the God we want to see. This means that many times people come to our churches with the same mindset, choosing churches that will affirm their beliefs and not challenge their understanding of God. Our challenge is to help them to see that God is much bigger than the caricature they have, and when we see God more fully, then we can have a real relationship with Him and understand a deeper, fuller faith.
It is no surprise that that education has been a central to the life of Presbyterians. While not the wealthiest denomination, it is one of the most educated. Like today, not all of the church supported education but the line of theologians that inspired the reformation all held high regards for it. So it is no surprise that it was imbedded into our reformed DNA through John Calvin’s support of free schools in Geneva where he was the city planner. John Knox, who brought Calvin’s reformed tradition to Scotland, also brought the concern that schools be provided for all children in Scotland.
In colonial times, Presbyterians joined with other churches in providing schools for children in whatever community Presbyterian churches were to be found. Academies and colleges were established to continue the tradition of learned clergy and to encourage the general development of all youth. A comparable commitment has characterized Presbyterian mission outreach in the United States among the non-European communities including notable historic Black colleges.
But often, as the Public School system in the United States took over, the Presbyterian Church relinquished their parochial schools to become public, believing in the need for a good education for faithfulness and understanding.
As Presbyterians, we believe that “an education of high quality for all children is an obligation of society and indispensable to the political and economic health of our democracy,” and that “we are called to respond in every possible way with measures that seek to evidence love and justice in the education of children and youth.” --A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education (199th General Assembly, 1987)
However, to understand public education today, it is important to explore how it evolved and why. Understanding the roots of our public education system can help us understand the problems we face today.
•As more immigrants arrived toward the end of the 19th century, education was primarily perceived as a social mechanism to change children into productive workers. Law and order, righteousness, and civil duty were stressed. The familiar descriptive metaphor of the melting pot is grounded in this influx of immigrants.
From these roots, our system of public education has branched out in an attempt to accommodate an increasingly diverse and varied population. Each branch, from secondary education to vocational education through segregation to desegregation to bilingual education, and so on, has emerged in response to the needs perceived by those in power. Our problems today, and the challenges we recognize for tomorrow, must be evaluated in that light.
An overture to the 216th General Assembly in 2004, "On Improved Education for African American and Other Students placed at risk for an Excellent Education," called for action to address the concern that some children, particularly poor children, children of color and others on the margins continue to be left behind. Among its recommendations:
That Presbyterians be called upon to confront the stubborn continuance of racial prejudice, particularly the persistence of societal attitudes that discourage academic achievement among economically disadvantaged and children of color students and others at risk.
This Sunday we continue that tradition as we celebrate Public Education Sunday with the teachers in our congregation and for all of those who are in the Public Education system in our community. Their jobs continue to be complicated on a variety of levels, but the fact that remains that our children are our future. The investment in our future is crucial!
(This document is based on excerpts from the Presbyterian Church Mission Agency website https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/publiceducation, and “A Call to Church Involvement in the Renewal of Public Education,” The Education and Congregational Nurture Ministry Unit, Presbyterian Church (USA.), 1987)
When was the last time you thought about what and how you eat? A few years ago I sat in on a nutrition class. To start the class, the instructor gave each of us a peanut, telling us not to eat it, just to hold it and feel it; slowly she began to instruct us to peal the shell, then eat, making the most of every chew, making note as to how the flavor changed as the salty exterior mixed with the fatty nut. This took almost 5 minutes! But there was a method to her madness, as we say. Her point was that much of the nutrition problems happen because we are not mindful of what we eat. We throw anything that looks good in our mouths, often while multitasking and without thought or concern for what we are exactly eating.
This week’s passage is as much about mindfulness as it is the sacraments. The “Jews” identified in this passage were raising issues about Jesus’ call for people to eat his flesh; was he talking about cannibalism? Obviously not! Jesus is playing them for fools in that they miss the point of what he is saying. To eat his flesh and drink his blood is an acknowledgment of a faithful person’s desire to become one with Christ. When we eat of Christ, or accept him into our hearts, we are grafted into Christ and are one with Him.
But more than that, this is an example of how Christ is calling us to be mindful of what we “eat” as it comes to faith, since many of the doctrines and practices of the time actually had very little to do with faithfulness to God and had much more to do with power structures and traditions.
Jesus’ call to be faithful is to be mindful of one’s spirituality, understanding that when we eat, it is not to suck down the most food or even to get full, but when we seek faithfulness we must eat the right food with a mindfulness in our focus.
I have been thinking a lot about food lately! Because of the ulcer, and the need to change my diet, I have really had to think about what I was eating and why. Needing to mostly cut out fats and carbs has been easy since that called for the opposite diet to the one I was on so anything I would naturally go to I needed to stay away from. But something else came up as I thought about the things I have been eating and why. I began to think about how quickly people clamor to gorge on new spiritualties and feel good faith to fill voids, but often fall away in time because there is nothing more then surface feelings. In the opposite way I think of how often those who tout righteousness and judgment often are miserable or self-loathing.
Again, it hits on a certain level of humility to maintain faithfulness in Christ. Even in partaking in the act of community is to say I need something more than myself, so yes, I will welcome Christ into my heart because He is in me, and I am in Him. But there is more, and here is the challenge for you: when was the last time you took communion and really thought about that? When was the last time when you ate the bread and drank the cup did you really think about what you were doing, and really what does that mean for your faith?
Some will say that the Bible is an old, outdated book because there is no way that it could relate to the situation and life we have today, especially since the modern world is so much more complicated. Well, contextually things are different, but the themes and truths are consistent over the years. Nothing is a better example than Paul’s letters to the Early Church.
We must note that Paul was not writing to a new church as we often say; he was writing to this group of people who converted to a new sect of Judaism that would eventually become Christianity. So while the focus had changed, many of the practices and traditions of the Jewish world became part of the new churches. We see some of those today, but along with those traditions came the problems.
For the people from Ephesus and many other churches at the time, understanding what the church was to be and how this new sect was to operate was central to their faith and practice. Last week we encountered one of those core passages for understanding how the church is to be made up and the role of everyone within the church.
That pericope told us that the church should resemble a body. This was shown by each piece of the body doing its own part, no one part of the body outperforming the rest and so on and so on. This week the passage moves from how the body is constructed to the very real issue of the how we are supposed to live in community together. This was a problem that we see over and over in the early church
This passage is fairly blatant about what is going on: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. (Ep 4:31)” In the body of Christ there is no room for that and if you think about it, in any successful venture there is no room for that because when that creeps in, the focus is always on that and that alone. Just think how quickly you get negative, fight getting negative, or get frustrated with negativity when you are around it?
Paul, in many of his letters and especially here, sets out to humble his community reminding them that they are not God. Moreover, fighting themselves is neither going to get them closer to God nor is it going to create a God-like community. To make his point he reminds them that when they accepted God, they also accepted a God-like life that is based in forgiveness, not judgment, personal gain, or power.
This is not to say that this life is hard. We see people say the dirtiest things when they don't get their way or are trying to further their agendas. We see people who go out of their ways to show where people might have gone wrong in the past or try to destroy individuals' lives instead of finding ways to lift them up or lift up the community. Moreover, it is hard to let go, forgive and move on.
But there is a very good reason for that: forgiveness is hard because it requires us to give away a part of our own identity. It requires me to do that because I have to admit that (with some exceptions) I may have had a part in the very thing I need to forgive. Sometimes it is out of weakness or possibly being complicit in some way in the very thing I have to forgive another for. Of course, there are times that there are no obvious things that we did, but those are rare.
All in all, to forgive, we have to give something of ourselves, whether it be acceptance of our abilities, telling the truth about our relationships, or losing some of our sense of security. But as Paul says, when we live this life and we become fully vested in God, our whole lives take on something new, and each of the things we give up we gain tenfold with the love and promises of God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen