Excavating toxic Christianity

Meteora, Greece

Meteora, Greece

by Pastor Audrey

As so often happens for a number of us here at Willow Avenue Mennonite Church, the real work of the Sunday sermon happens after the worship service during Sermon Talk – a chance to sit with the preacher and anyone else who wants to have conversation, ask questions, and explore concrete application and implication of the sermon (and anything else in the service) for our lives.

Mark Baker preached on Luke 6:46-49 this past Sunday, August 11:

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeplyand laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.

 You can listen to Mark’s sermon and other past sermons here: http://willowmennonite.org/sermons

This is one of Jesus’ parables, stories with a twist or maybe even a punch (yes, we’re still a pacifist church).  This parable also appears in Matthew 7:24-27:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

When a story or a parable appears in more than one place in the Bible, we tend to conflate them, to blend them together.  I suspect part of this tendency is because we get nervous when it feels like we’re being confronted with an instance in which the Bible is internally inconsistent or disagrees with itself.  

Lately, however, I’ve been feeling like these differences between biblical texts are like little gems. Having heard and read these stories my whole life, it can be incredibly difficult not to tune them out anymore. My brain thinks it’s conserving energy by shutting down because it thinks it already knows this part.  Or something like that…

So the little gem from this past Sunday that sparkled and caught my attention – and indeed, was a gift – was the phrase from Luke’s version of the parable “dug deeply.”  I had never noticed that part before!  The wise person digs deeply to build the house’s foundation on solid rock.  But some excavating needs to be done first.

I think a lot about the future of the church.  Not just our own congregation here on the corner of Willow Avenue and San Gabriel, but THE church.  I’m reading Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why and finding great comfort in what so many of us are experiencing as deep, unsettling, seismic shifts in the foundation of the church – and indeed in the world.  The premise of the book is based on the observation by Mark Dyer that “about every five hundred years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” 

Luke’s parable has another feature that Matthew’s does not: a river.  Rivers carry sediment.  They have a way of carving out and excavating canyons.  So in Luke’s parable, the river does its thing, washing away the sand and everything else built on top of it.  But there’s a deeper foundation that is solid, reliable, trustworthy, and safe. Thinking about this parable in light of this moment in the history of the church, I’m reassured that the solid rock foundation is of course Jesus.  And our Anabaptist faith tradition would go further saying that the rock is the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection – and following that example in our daily lives.

What about the sand? Again, in light of this moment in the history of the church, the sand is everything that has built up over time. The layers of history, culture, social mores, politics, etc. — things that we’ve conflated with God and God-with-us in the person of Jesus.  Many of us also acknowledge a particular toxicity as well.  There’s a version of Christianity that is based on guilt, shame, and fear that has poisoned us.  It’s poisoned and warped our hearts and minds and made it hard to think straight about God, Jesus, church, and religion in general. 

Many of us need to dig deeply and excavate ourselves – individually and corporately – from the toxic Christianity that has poisoned us.  But we can’t do it alone.  We need each other.  We need each other to recite new narratives of God’s radical love (which is not new) when we forget the storyline ourselves.  And no matter what changes lie ahead in the shifting sands, we can be assured of the solid rock of our foundation.

[If you’re interested in reading The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why with Pastor Audrey, email her at audrey@willowmennonite.org]