living tradition

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I know. The picture with this post makes it looks as though it is going to include a recipe, but it is a story about a recipe. If you want the recipe, give me a call. When you read the sermon, you’ll understand.

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One the times I miss my mother most is when I am cooking for Thanksgiving, and one of the reasons I miss her then is because of a tradition we shared that came about without much forethought.

When I worked as a youth and college minister in Fort Worth, Texas, I found out that several students didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving, so I decided to host them, which meant I didn’t go to my parents’ house in Houston. As I was preparing the meal, I called my mother to ask for her cornbread dressing recipe, which was the dish I liked the best. It’s not a complicated recipe, but it was the one I wanted.

My dinner for the students was a success, so I did it again the next year and the year after that. Each year, as I would realize I had not kept the dressing recipe, so I would call my mom and she would read it to me over the phone–along with side comments, because how it was written down was not exactly the way she made it.

I think it was after the third or fourth year she said, “Promise me you won’t ever write the recipe down so you have to call me every year. This has become one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving.”

I promised, and I called her every Thanksgiving until she died in January, 2015. And I also wrote it down.

When it came to that first Thanksgiving without her, I felt her absence in particular because I couldn’t call her. Then my phone rang and I heard the voice of my niece-in-law, Marissa, say, “Uncle Milton, I don’t have a good stuffing recipe. Do you have one you could share with me?”

She knew the story about my mother and me. I teared up and told her I did. I read her the recipe, told her how much the call meant to me, and then said, “Please don’t write this down and call me every year, “ which she does. She called on Thursday.

Because one of the traditions we choose is the liturgical calendar, today is the last Sunday of the church year. Advent begins a new year next Sunday. If you aren’t sure what the liturgical year—or the church year—is, it is a way of using the passing of time to tell the story of our faith. Its roots go back to the fourth century. Neither Jesus nor any of his followers knew anything about Advent or Lent or the Revised Common Lectionary.

Over centuries, as the world changed along with our theology and our circumstances, some of those traditions have continued, some have faded away, and others have been added. Some stay full of meaning and others become motions we go through because we have forgotten to tell the stories of why they matter. Others change—or need to—as our language or circumstances change.

As you can see on the cover of our order of service, this last Sunday of the church year is called “The Reign of Christ Sunday,” or “Christ the King Sunday” in its oldest forms, but it is not that old. Though it sounds like it goes back to early Christianity, Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 because he thought the world was out of control: Stalin had taken over in Russia, Mussolini’s fascist government was ruling Italy where the pope was, and Hitler was on the rise in Germany. He was trying to do something to remind people that God was more powerful than all of those things.

His edict is new, by historical standards, but it just sounds old because the desire for Jesus to be a ruler who will finally take charge and make things go more smoothly—to make things feel like we are finally going to get to be on the winning team—is an old desire. But our scripture for this morning, which was written when Rome ruled the western world, has themes that run deeper than mere power.

Listen to our reading for this morning from Ephesians 1:15-23:

I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength. God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future. God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.

We can hear that Paul is trying to comfort and encourage people in a dangerous world. He repeats words like power, authority, and strength and talks about God putting everything under Christ’s feet. Paul’s world was as overcome by oppressive governments as Pope Pius’, but though Paul used the ruling metaphor, he didn’t simply picture Christ as the Greatest Emperor of Them All. He saw Jesus as the one who could teach us how to love each other. That’s a different kind of power; it’s relational power—and it is a more lasting power. Which view we take—whether we expect Christ to be King or Connector—has a huge impact on what God can do in and through us, as well as what kind of people we choose to be in the world.

In his book How to Know a Person, which is a book about the power of relationships, David Brooks looks how we what we mean when we say a person had good character, and then he presents two contrasting traditions about how that character develops that helped me think about our passage today.

The first perspective he calls the warrior/statesman model, which he says has come down through centuries, where a person of character looks like the ancient heroes from history—kings and generals and political leaders. This model says we show moral character by our self-mastery, by the way we use our will power to control our passions, by the way we master our virtues: honesty, courage, determination, humility. It is also an individualistic model: we can build our character on our own.

The second perspective Brooks calls “the illuminator,” and it begins with the understanding that we, as people, need recognition from one another to survive. “People,” he says, long for someone to look into their eyes with loving acceptance. Therefore, morality is mostly about the small, daily acts of building connection—the gaze that says, ‘I respect you,’ the question that says, ‘I’m curious about you,’ the conversation that says, ‘We’re in this together.”

Character building happens as we get better the daily tasks of attending to one another. What matters most is not how strong our willpower is but how deeply invested we are in our relationships.

When I read Brooks’ words I thought, “That’s what Paul was saying!” It’s not about Christ being king—as in a king who is going to win all the battles, keep us safe, and put us in charge. It’s about the presence of Christ in our lives having the power to create unity and foster love where it might otherwise not seem possible.

Misguided power and oppression are not going to be overcome by larger shows of force. Violence is not a viable solution to violence, whether we are talking wars between nations or quarrels between ourselves. The real power is love—love that thrives in the details of our dealings with one another.

How do we recognize the gifts other people have to offer the world? How do we affirm and support them? How do we learn from them?

Our verses this morning came from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In Chapter Three he offers a prayer that illuminates what we are talking about. Listen:

When I think of the greatness of this great plan I fall on my knees before God (from whom every group of people, earthly or heavenly, derives its name), and I pray that out of the glorious richness of God’s resources God will enable you to know the strength of the spirit’s inner reinforcement—that Christ may actually live in your hearts by your faith. And I pray that you, firmly fixed in love yourselves, may be able to grasp (with all Christians) how wide and deep and long and high is the love of Christ—and to know for yourselves that love so far beyond our comprehension. May you be filled though all your being with God!

Paul’s image of Christ is not so much one who was in charge of the world as much as one who was in love with it. And that is our call as well—which takes me back to my mother’s dressing recipe.

Even though I copied down what she told me each year, I never made it exactly as she did. I use chicken stock where she used hot water. I leave the onions out because of Ginger’s allergy. I added bacon. After I read the recipe to Marissa, she sent a text to say she had a favorite cornbread mix she was going to use for the base of the recipe. I am not a fan of mixes, but that is not essential to the tradition. What matters are the relationships that have been nurtured and fed by our years of phone calls.

We come back to our traditions to remind ourselves what matters and to ask if those traditions still do that. Tradition is not just repeating ourselves. It is using words and actions that hold meaning to keep our faith alive, to remember what matters, and adapting our recipe to feed our moment in time.

What matters is that we are created to love one another. We are created to live together: to attend to one another, to love like it’s our job, to dig into the details of one another’s lives and share the load. We belong to a God who became human to show us what love looks like—to show us how to be human and to humanize one another. May we be among those who trust that God’s boundless love is worth our lives, and who find ways to show that love to all those around us in small and powerful ways. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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