Luke, Love, Follow

The call to discipleship is less about certifying our eternal destiny through faith in Jesus as the Christ, and more about becoming followers who continue his work during our earthly pilgrimage.  Jesus was pretty clear about what that means.  To follow him is to love others as he loves us, which is not something we can do if we’re not well informed about how he loves us.  Paul’s oft repeated advice to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5) is not particularly helpful.  Jesus demonstrated what love means by what he said and did, and for that we need to turn to the gospel records.

As the year of Luke draws to a close, it’s time to revisit the question with which it began.  How does what Jesus said and did in Luke’s gospel help us understand what it means to love one another as he does?  It would be naive to believe keeping the question at the forefront of our long study in Luke has helped each of us answer it in new, more profound ways.  In truth, we’re easily distracted by many things, and, if pressed, would have to admit we’ve given it only momentary, haphazard thought when reminded to do so in a sermon.  

The collective we includes me, and I’m the sermonizer who raised the question in the first place, as I do each year on the Sunday after Pentecost, occasionally reminding the congregation of it during our intensive six month study.  If I’m among those easily distracted by many things, consider parishioners whose daily obligations are far away from church and worship.  It’s hard to stay focussed on Jesus’ commandment, even as we promise to do so, which is why we repeat it each year.

I have no idea how the year of Luke has gone for others, but I decided to go back over his narrative, examining again those areas of discipleship I meant to work on, need to work on, will try to work on.  It’s a never ending process with progress incremental at best.  Saintly canonization with never be mine, so with that in mind here are a few of the things Luke’s Jesus has encouraged me to work on:

Struggling with what it means to follow Jesus is a good thing, so don’t stop.

Be more willing to welcome the unwelcome and recognize the good neighbor in the one whom I’ve prejudged to be untrustworthy.  Really see the other, especially the other whom I do not wish to see.

Do good, not evil, even to enemies.  Parenthetically, I’m unaware of having enemies, but there are people I really don’t like, and learning to good for them and with them isn’t easy.

Beyond the pulpit and altar, give those hungry for the Word something to hear, and to those hungry for food something to eat.

More boldly proclaim the good news of God in Christ without flaunting or being a jerk about it.

It may not look like much, but considering it’s an agenda that gets reexamined each year in the light of a different gospel, it’s challenge enough: a rewarding challenge to be sure, but challenge enough.

In a few weeks we’ll begin the year of Mark.  We’ll fiddle around with Mark during Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter, while adding large portions of John and Acts into the mix.  After Pentecost, we’ll enter ordinary time and take our annual six month deep dive into the gospel, asking the same question we ask each year.  If we’re to love one another as Jesus loves us, how does Mark help us understand what that means?  

Trump’s True Believers

Solid Trump voters are a mystery.  Without the slightest hint of guile, they profess him to be the most honest, God fearing, promise keeping president ever, and are proud of all he is doing to make and keep America great.  I was struck by the sincerity of a local man whose letter to the editor made these assertions about the president he so admires:

  • Trump exalts God and seeks God’s guidance for the good of the nation.
  • He doesn’t claim to be pure.  His lies, sins, and locker-room talk can be over looked because we all fall short.
  • He gets his point across, leaving no one in doubt.
  • He’s the most fully transparent president ever, who has done all that is possible to keep his promises.
  • An excellent businessman, he can’t be bought and sold like politicians can.
  • He doesn’t accept favors or bribes.
  • He doesn’t bow to foreign nations.
  • He doesn’t apologize for the U.S.A.: the greatest nation in the world. 
  • He’s trying to make it greater, and with God’s help he will help us turn from our evil ways, innuendos, incivility and become a better place to live in. 

That’s quite a list, and the most curious thing about it is that the reverse of each point is demonstrably true, so one is left to wonder how any reasonable person could not be aware of it?  Yet, I suspect this letter writer is, in all other things, a reasonable person.  What would it take for him to recognize that:

  • Trump, basking in the company of certain clergy and thumping the occasional bible, has no idea what Christianity is about, what’s in the bible, and has never been a church going Christian in any place at any time.
  • His lies, sins and locker room-talk are well beyond normal deviation of behavior in American society.  His history of betrayals, cheating and disloyalty to all but himself have been publicly catalogued for years, repudiating all that Christianity stands for.
  • Doubt is precisely what he inspires in everyone with whom he does business.  His word can’t be trusted.  His decisions appear erratic, poorly thought out, and frequently abandoned.  Blame always falls on someone else, and he refuses to accept responsibility for anything that doesn’t reflect a shining light on his ego.  “Never complain, never explain,” attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, is often used by the powerful to avoid being held accountable by lesser mortals.  Trump’s version is, “Complain loud and often, never back down, and never admit being wrong.”
  • His reputation as an excellent businessman lies in tatters for any who take a close look.  Certainly, he’s amassed considerable wealth on top of the wealth he inherited, but at tremendous cost to those he’s cheated along the way, and with some speculation that his holdings are a house of cards held together with foreign debt.
  • He is easily bought and sold by those to whom he’s indebted, on whose largesse his future is dependent.  Banks, Saudi princes, favor seekers streaming to his properties, and wealthy patrons of his clubs all own a piece of him.  He can be bought, or at least rented, with a word or two of fawning flattery, and he assumes the reverse is also true.  Everyone can be bought, and used until their usefulness has expired.  It makes everyone disposable.
  • It’s true that he doesn’t bow to foreign nations.  No president has.  But Trump has insulted and betrayed long standing allies, while cozying up to a variety of dictators that have not been friendly toward the U.S.  He’s destroyed trading relationships, and moved already violent parts of the world toward greater instability and violence. 
  • In the process of not apologizing for the U.S., he’s ignored history, and eroded America’s hard earned respect and place of dignity as a world leader.  Although economically powerful and militarily strong, it’s become an object of derision, no longer trustworthy in anything it says or does. 
  • I suspect God is not amused by Trump’s behavior epitomizing the worst of the incivility that appears to dominate the nation.  Of innuendos he is the king, of moral failure, the champion, of rending the fabric of social harmony, the expert.

The letter writer, and other Trump true believers, are likely to dismiss such rebuttals as the ravings of a left wing lunatic suffering from Trump derangement syndrome.  Whatever evidence is presented is chalked up to “fake news,” or simply ignored as if it didn’t exist.  To them, the world of mainstream media can never be trusted.  Facts and opinions have equal value.  Elected representatives are crooked, and professional staff are “deep state” conspirators secretly running things.  

Trump, and only Trump, remains as the one to preserve their rights and freedom.  In defense of American individualism’s commitment to self reliance and personal freedom unhindered by governmental interference, they’re willing to give up both to the authoritarian rule of a would be autocrat.  In defense of hard working heartland Americans, they turn to a flamboyant playboy whose inherited wealth and tawdry business practices have enabled him to avoid hard work, and any knowledge of what it entails.  The so called traditional family values they cherish have been violated time and again by the one to whom they turn for their protection.  His utter incompetence at managing the affairs of state eludes them.  They live in fear of an imaginary left wing socialist takeover, and are certain they see it in every candidate for office who is not a Trump supporter.  They are, in short, both gullible and dangerous because they won’t be dissuaded until long after the disaster has unfolded around them

The Meaning of the Liturgy

As Episcopalians, we’re pretty good at explaining what the liturgy is, and how it works, but fail at explaining why it’s essential to our ways of worship, or what it’s supposed to mean in the lives of parishioners. It’s pointless to turn to Hachett, Dix, or any of the dozens of academics who have blessed us with their studied insights. Ordinary Episcopalians have no interest in being saddled with erudite tomes. They just want to know what it means.

An old friend wandered away from the Episcopal Church a few years ago, saying the liturgy had become meaningless. He’s recently returned after faithfully exploring other worship opportunities, but I’m guessing still without an understanding of the meaning and purpose of our liturgy. Following in his footsteps, another friend has also wandered off with more or less the same complaint, but added to it an admission that, after thirty years of Episcopal worship, she still has no idea what it means to be an Episcopalian in contrast to any other denomination. We’re fond of saying that what Episcopalians believe is revealed in the liturgy of our worship. Apparently it’s a revelation not all that apparent to many.

It says something about how poorly we’ve guided folks sitting in the pews to a deeper understanding of what it means to be Episcopalian, and how the liturgy functions to enrich the experience of God’s presence. Mea culpa. Adult Christian education was my passion. Well attended classes dove into scripture and traversed the theological history of Western Christianity. Those interested were given the opportunity to learn all about the structure of the liturgy, but I suspect learned little of its deeper meaning.

The whole purpose of liturgy is to serve as a conduit through which participants move, body and soul, from the secular world into God’s presence, there to be fed with holy food and drink, before being sent back into the world to do God’s work. If that’s not what it does, it’s not good liturgy, and if parishioners don’t understand the meaning of their role in it, it doesn’t matter how good it is.

Consider the prelude. It’s not the warm up for the main act, but an invitation to reorient body and mind in preparation for entrance into holy time and space, which we do symbolically through the opening hymn and procession. The intentionality of prayers for cleansed thoughts, songs of praise to God, and collects focusing attention, prepare the way to hear more clearly. Our lengthy readings from the Hebrew scriptures, Psalms, epistles and gospel are intended to help us hear the Word of God speaking through the ancient texts. The Episcopal tradition of relatively short sermons is meant to guide worshipers toward a deeper understanding of the Word revealed in scripture for their own lives and the conditions in which they live.

Affirming the faith of the church in the words of the Nicene Creed draws an extraordinarily large and permeable circle of what we understand Christianity to be. The prayers of the people are elements of a community wide conversation with God, something like a town hall meeting, in which questions and concerns for the welfare of the church, community, nation and world are raised, along with more personal cares.

Our general confession of sins certainly brings to mind personal failures, but it’s really our confession that we, as the community of the faithful, have not lived up to our own standards of loving God and neighbor. We, as the community, ask not only for God’s forgiveness, but for God’s blessing that we might do better. Our first step in that direction is to offer to one another a sign of God’s peace.

My own take is that the announcements that often follow the peace are part of the offertory, an offering of our shared ministries to the glory of God’s name. They are part and parcel with ‘passing the plate’ and bringing the elements of Holy Communion to the altar.

Finally, it’s time to celebrate Holy Communion, that moment to which the liturgy has been leading. We have been made ready to receive the holy food and drink of new and unending life, in which we recognize the true presence of Christ for us, with us, and in us. It is the holiest of our time in holy time and space. Renewed and restored, we are sent out to do the work God has given us to do.

We’re only human. There are some days when our liturgical form of worship renders to us the fullness of all it intends. There are some days when burdened by other concerns it just doesn’t. There are many days when we grasp moments of God’s transcendent presence, but our minds wander hither and yon to who knows where. That’s life.

Looking down on each other: Let’s stop it

If, as my previous column argued, the practice of looking down on each other is a destructive force in American society, the question becomes; what would it take for us to stop looking down on each other?  It’s a problem in every culture on earth going back for centuries.  Like other social issues, it’s only one facet of a complex ever mutating structure of beliefs, attitudes and values (Rokeach, 1968) that defines peoples and places. 

How the question might be answered by others, I’ll leave to them, but as a Christian pastor and priest, I believe God has given us answers we cannot ignore.  Are we destined to put each other down, trying to salve egos, claim status, and gain the advantage?  “He has told you O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6).  It’s not a platitude.  It’s a definitive answer to the question.  Jesus said do it this way, “…love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13).  They are commandments, not suggestions.  If we want to live in harmony and prosperity with one another, it is the way, there is no other.   

The hard part for each of us, and especially for Christians, is our deep attachment to the beliefs, attitudes and values with which we were raised.  They’re so familiar to us that we’re hardly aware we have them;  they run in the background of daily life, invisible but powerfully influential.  As people of faith, it’s easy to assume they must be God’s ways also.  And they seem to be as long as they go unchallenged.  But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, our ways are not God’s ways, and it is God’s ways that give life to creation, and God’s words that will accomplish what they intend (Isaiah 55).  God’s ways will always challenge the social values of our times and places, because our social values will always be corrupted by our need to claim power and status at the expense of others.  

For Christians there is no other place to start, no other way to go, and no higher authority to whom one might appeal.  It is not ours to impose our faith on others, but it is our responsibility to demonstrate our faith by following as best we can in the way of Jesus:

  • Be unpretentious about status and power
  • Be honest about our part in the world’s problems
  • Thirst for righteousness
  • Give mercy priority over retribution, reconciliation over revenge
  • Seek peace not war
  • Show courage in the face of persecution
  • Be persons of integrity
  • Live daily life to the glory of God without being a jerk about it
  • Let yes be yes, and no be no without elaboration
  • Confront violence in radically peaceful ways
  • Pray for enemies
  • Live into generosity
  • Avoid rash judgments of others
  • Maintain conversation with God in simple words
  • Show respect and honor for that which is holy

Christians, taking seriously their obligation to follow Jesus, are not going to fix the nation’s problems of polarization.  We are not going to eliminate “looking down” on others as a pervasively divisive practice.  But we can be more intentional about not participating in it.  We can demonstrate a better way.  Following in the way of Jesus requires the courage to confront unrighteousness and injustice with conviction.  Christians are not anybody’s doormat.  But neither can we claim inerrancy for ourselves, nor for our understanding of God’s will.  Our claims to truth must always be provisional.  The best we can do is work with others to do better than we have done to care for creation as stewards responsible for handing it on in as healthy a way as we can to those who will follow.  It’s the best we can do, and we have often failed to do our best.    

Who looks down on Who?

Who looks down on who? One of the standing tropes used to explain Trump’s popularity among working class people is that they’ve had it with urban elites looking down on them.  They demand respect and willingly give their support to him because he panders to their demand.  His pandering appears authentic because he talks and struts like a burlesque imitation of a sit-com version of a working class man who has made it big. Just look at him shoving the elite around, talking trash about the powerful, and bulldozing his way through red tape, regulatory restrictions, and all the refined standards of behavior from which the elite look down on ordinary people. 

It’s pandering because Trump has no affection for, and little understanding of what ordinary people go through in their daily lives.  As long as his adoring crowds vote for him, they’re useful to him.  Otherwise they’re of no use, disposable, every one of them.  The burlesque of his behavior is not in imitation of Archie Bunker or Roseanne Conner.  It’s who he really is.  Ironically, he’s genuine phony, an authentic fake.  He’s transparently dependable like no other president.  He can be depended on to lie, cheat and betray in plain sight for everyone to see.  It’s hard to know how he’ll go down in history, but he won’t be forgotten.  It’s a rare thing to find a charlatan who proudly boasts of his charlantry able to rise to the presidency of a wealthy, democratic empirical power such as ours.  But I digress.

There’s a long history of the working class bogeyman: the foppish urban elite who got their legacy diplomas from Harvard or Yale, and their money from grandpa.  Books, movies, cartoons, and comedy routines are filled  with them.  Magazines hype their lifestyles.  Tabloids exploit their celebrity foibles.  The flood of holiday catalogues promises you too can wear what they wear.  Do they really exist?  Yes, in small numbers who often live isolated lives.

More often, those who have acquired a measure of wealth, success, and power have risen from the ranks.  They’re deeply respectful of the value and talents of the working class because they’ve done the work, making life long friends along the way.  They’re aware of the advantages they were born into, or came their way, and know that dumb luck played a role in the opportunities they made the best of.  Greater in number are millions in the hard working middle class who will never be rich, but are  committed to making life better in their communities and the nation.  They too have nothing but respect for those who consider themselves working class. 

What about the liberals in coastal cities who always vote contrary to the values of real heartland Americans?  Cities are big, whether on the coast or inland.  The millions who live in them are not elite.  They’re working people struggling to make it through life. The greater number came from somewhere else, perhaps the very heart of the heartland.  The values they vote for are for better education, more fair justice, decent health care, a cleaner environment, a more efficient infrastructure, and the like.  Liberal or not, they’re the values of the heartland.  They carry their prejudices with them, just like everyone else, but in a cosmopolitan mix of prejudices, it’s hard to impose one’s own on others.  A mythical white middle class ethos drawn from the post war era has dominated urban and rural areas alike.  It’s lost the domineering power it once had in big cities, but not without a fight still going on.  Smaller cities and rural areas with fewer competing forces can hold on longer, but not forever.  It’s not a new thing.  It’s been going on since the mid 19th century.    

So who looks down on who?  The other day, a friend with a union job on the railroad posted a cartoon.  One half was of a hard working hard hat, the other was of an impoverished fast food worker.   The caption labeled the fast food worker as a graduate philosopher with no practical skills or value to society.  It labeled the hard hat as the true backbone of America, and finished with a sarcastic stab at well educated, worthless people who look down on the working class.  Who looks down on who?

What it tells me is that some who consider themselves in the working class also assign an inferior place for themselves on a social hierarchy that lives mostly in their imaginations.  Their defense is to turn the tables, belittling those whom they consider elite in what ever way they can, to make themselves feel more worthy.  It’s a worthiness already theirs, if they will accept it, widely recognized by those who do not consider themselves part of the working class.  They are the ones believing themselves to be inferior to others.  It’s time to lay it aside, taking pride without prejudice in the work they do.

Five Foundations of Trump Support

Bob Gorrell, a popular syndicated editorial cartoonist, has deftly summarized five key symbols of Trump’s enduring loyalty among a great many voters for whom his questionable behavior can be easily overlooked.
  • The stock market hitting historic highs
  • Unemployment among all groups at record levels
  • America now energy independent and exporting oil and gas
  • Tax cuts and deregulation increase productivity
  • Isis caliphate defeated and its leader dead
They can’t comprehend how, in the face of such heartening good news, Democrats think he should be impeached.  Obviously, Democrats are out of touch with reality and the voting public.

Have Trump supporters built their case on solid rock?

The stock market has been bouncing around its high water mark, holding steady, if one smooths out its wild gyrations.  But it isn’t going anywhere, and hasn’t for the last two years.  To be fair, the Dow rose about 700 points during Trump’s first year in office.  But market indexes are not economic indexes.  As popular as they are, daily reporting on their ups and downs is an odd ball reflection of political winds, economic data, computer algorithms, emotional hiccups, historical trends, and quarterly earnings reports that aren’t always connected to sales and productivity.  What it all means to the average voter is an entertaining mystery.

Unemployment is at an all time low, and that’s good news to be celebrated.  Once more, it’s not a trend that accelerated under Trump, but an extension of one long underway.  As is widely known and felt, much employment is low pay, part time and without benefits.  Making enough to afford a decent lifestyle has not got easier for a great many.  Bold promises of revitalized heavy industrial and coal mining jobs have never materialized.

The U.S. has become an exporter of gas and oil, but it’s not energy independent.  It’s a dramatic change from previous decades, yet for multiple reasons it still imports between 5 and 6 million barrels of oil per day, simultaneously exporting bit more, mostly to Canada and Mexico.  In like manner, we continue to import gas, mostly from Canada and Mexico, even as we have become a net exporter of gas, mostly to Mexico.  It’s a world wide commodities market of buying and selling, trying to make a profit on the spread while fulfilling each nation’s need for fuel.  What Trump supporters are willing to overlook is environmental damage being done now, and extending into the foreseeable future.  No one expects us to eliminate fossil fuels.  We depend on them for too much, but we can become less dependent, and do less damage to the environment in the process.  As an aside, the term ‘environment’ often conjures up something somewhere else abstractly related to nature.  What it really means is human well being in the places where humans live, as well as the surrounding world of nature making up the whole of the world’s existence.

The tax cut legislation continues to be touted as a great victory, even as it’s been revealed as a total bust.  Most benefits accrued to large corporations and the very wealthy.  It produced no new investment, did little to help raise low end incomes, and did not stimulate the economy to greater growth.  Productivity took a nosedive in 2016, recovered in 2017, and has dribbled along since then, dipping a little in recent periods (which may not signify anything).  The point is, productivity hasn’t shown any trend that can be associated with tax cuts or deregulation.  Which brings up another question: Deregulation of what?  Of things protecting human health and safety? 

Indeed, the caliphate is gone, and its most recent leader killed.  Isis is not gone, and like many polycentric groups, new leaders will arise with revenge in their hearts.  Would that it were not so, but it’s the nature of terroristic movements motivated by religious fervor.  It should not go unnoticed that the very people and institutions Trump has blasphemed are responsible for this hard and dangerous work.

It adds up to Trump loyalist convictions anchored in the shifting sand of factually true events given meaning they can’t bear, and credit to Trump for achievements that aren’t his.  They dismiss his immoral and criminal actions as behavioral shortcomings no worse than any others.  They deny the damage his trade negotiations and international policy blundering have done to American honor and credibility.  They cannot see his ignorance and incompetence.  They remain steadfastly blind to his betrayal of the Constitution.  To them, he is a political savior defending American pride, and they cannot be shaken of their convictions.

Telling the Story through Biblical Metaphors

The Way of Love is the theme of the Episcopal Church, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (of royal wedding fame) is its most compelling advocate.  It resonates well with the general public, but not always in realistic ways.  It may be that the phrase itself implies a naively rosy outlook in the face of obviously troubling times, or maybe a doormat meekness lacking the strength to confront evil. 
It’s too bad, because The Way of Love is grounded in the practice of following where Jesus has led, and that means walking with courage straight into the valley of the shadow of death.  In the Episcopal tradition it is the way of the cross, which we understand to be the way of life and peace.  It requires trust that in that valley there will be a table prepared by God that nourishes and refreshes, with our enemies sitting down to eat with us. 
While that paints a vivid word picture for most Christians, it’s completely opaque to the greater number who have no idea what meaning biblical metaphors such as The Way, Valley of the shadow of death, the Way of the Cross, or a table set before us might have, because they’ve never heard of them.  Nor are they familiar with any of the other biblical stories through which Christianity is revealed.  It’s not a recent phenomenon, it’s been true for fifty years or more, but Christians remain puzzled that their treasured stories are so utterly unknown.
Christianity once maintained a thin veneer over contemporary social values, but it’s gone.  Western society is more secularized than ever.  One reaction is to blame the government for allowing it to happen, and insist that (Christian) godliness be legislated back into the public arena.  Proponents have a point.  A vague, watery Christian gruel was once imposed on public school students, and mumbled in public assemblies.  It never produced any Christians, and was blatantly unconstitutional, but it had one redeeming value: biblical stories and metaphors were known, if not understood.  Now they’re not.
Another reaction is to be honest about how poorly the depth, breadth and strength of the faith was passed down within the church from one generation to the next.  Some part of it can be laid at the feet of clergy, and some at the feet of parents who went to church as little more than a social obligation.  That, I suspect, is the greater truth.
If we are to recover Christian momentum, we must be able to tell old stories in new ways.  What makes Jesus different from other respected prophets?  For that matter, what makes him different from the variety of mythological saviors that populate recorded history?  Why should anyone care?
Door knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons may be anathema to many, but they have an opening gambit to be considered.  They ask if they can tell a story with the assumption you have never heard it before, and have no idea how to understand its meaning.  They start with metaphors common in popular culture, metaphors about national loyalty, hopes and dreams for a better life, guarantees one can depend on, and use them to introduce texts and the unique metaphors that make up their story.   More doors are slammed in their faces than not, but now and then their story can be told in compelling ways.
Episcopalians, and other mainliners, are never going to be door knockers, but learning to tell their stories, starting with popularly understood metaphors, is a way to become comfortable about sharing the “good news” that “the kingdom of God has come near” in Christ Jesus.  But you must have a story that’s authentic and feels comfortable without being door knockingly offensive.  Learning your own story has to begin with the old core metaphors of the Christian faith as recorded in the gospel records.  Maybe the greater pubic doesn’t know them, but we do, or should, because they’re essential to knowing who we are.
A recent diocesan gathering worked on it by refreshing our memories about who and what we are: dry bones, lost sheep, mustard seeds, vines and branches, trees of good fruit, sickness and injuries healed, pearls of great value, and all the rest.  They’re metaphors for instruction because they say something important about who we are as followers of Jesus.  Participants began to discover how they helped to focus on how God has been present to them in the ordinary issues of life everyone faces.  For instance, no one has ever been in the belly of a big fish, but everyone has felt what it is to be closed in, trapped, unsure of a way out.  Many have experienced what it means to be forgiven, strengthened to endure, and the freedom of deliverance from captivity.  Sharing their experiences of living into biblical metaphors helped illuminate how important shared congregational life and worship are as sources of support and hope.  In other words, it gave sharable substance to what it means to be part of the church. 
It’s one thing for each person to have an authentic individual story to tell, but what story commends the church of which they are a part?  Twenty-one groups working independently discovered they had a shared metaphor: we are branches on a vine whose life comes from the root to which we are connected.  In one sense we are also the fruit of the branch.  In another sense, those to whom we reach out also join us as bearers of fruit.  To be Christian is to be connected to God through Christ, through Christ to one another as the church, through the church to the world.
Nevertheless, it remained an insider’s story that helped explain to other insiders who and what we are, but offered little of value to outsiders who remain unfamiliar with our core metaphors, and would find little reason to value them if they did know.  Why should anyone pay attention to followers of an itinerant preacher and wonder worker whose short career ended in crucifixion over two thousand years ago?  There are plenty of other prophets and teachers around.  Many of them lived long lives.  Some started religions that have endured.  Why not listen to them, or to a modern prophet, or to one’s self?  What makes Jesus so special?  Yes, he was a great teacher, a person of uncommon wisdom for one so young, a teller of stories, a healer.  It’s even said he came back from the dead.  So what?  There are lots of others like him, even some who were said to have come back from the dead.  
How are we to respond?  It begins with recognition that most people, even many self proclaimed atheists, have a sense of the holy, a belief in a higher power of some kind, a vague idea of God, and a conviction that there is something more to life that comes after death.  We are not without a place to begin.  Taking a lesson from Paul’s speech to Athenians, we might say, “Friend, I see you are aware there is something more, something holy, something yet to come.  What you are seeking, I boldly proclaim to you.  It is the God who created everything that is, seen or unseen.  In God we live and move and have our being.  It is God whom we know through Jesus, not because he was a teacher or performed a single miracle, but because he is the Word of God made flesh.  There is no authority higher than he.  He willingly endured the humiliating death of crucifixion to demonstrate he wasn’t a myth or trickster.  He rose from the dead not as a resuscitated body, but fully revealed for who he was and is, the manifestation of all that God is.  Who is God?  What is God?  All that is true of God is revealed in Jesus because he is all of God that can be represented in human form.  So pay attention.  There is no other.”
Following Jesus is the way of love and life.  Following Jesus is to be connected: root to vine, vine to branches, branches to fruit.  Following Jesus is to become an agent of God’s redeeming love in a broken world, inviting others to join in that work.

The Athenians laughed at Paul, ridiculing him as a babbler of religious nonsense.  But not all of them.  For those who listen to us, the old stories can be told, and the old metaphors given new life.  We know little of what the other apostles and disciples did.  Peter and Paul were executed around the year 65 c.e., others died earlier from the same fate, and many others later.  It wasn’t a promising start.  Nevertheless, by the end of the first century, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.  Two thousand years of stress, trials and tribulation, including centuries of ecclesiastical corruption and theological misdirection, have not diminished the power of the Word of God made flesh to lead followers into the abundance of life for which they hunger.  The deep hunger remains, and we have the holy food and drink of new and unending life that will nourish them.