Changing the Christian Story
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Genesis 12:1-4a
Last Tuesday, we started our Bible Studies. One in person and one on Zoom. By the way, it’s a drop-in group, so feel free to come whenever you want. Anyways, we had a good turnout and wonderful conversation. And I was surprised by the direction of the conversation. Every lesson from the lectionary is on the table for discussion.
Side note: for those of you who don’t know, the lectionary is a three-year schedule of readings from the Bible: one from the Hebrew Bible as well as a psalm, one from the Christian Testament that isn’t the gospel, and a gospel reading. Through these three years, we hear a lot—though not all—of the Bible. And when I say lessons, I just the passages of scripture. Like we hear every Sunday.
Anyhow, on Tuesday I was surprised. I guess I expected everyone to want to talk about Nicodemus and the gospel. But they didn’t. There was a little Nicodemus talk, but not much. The evening Zoom group talked more about the psalm and Genesis, and the morning in-person group also spun out from Genesis.
The Lord said to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Of course, we got a little hung up on God cursing people. Because we don’t want our God of love to curse people. We want to stick to the blessing part.
But if it’s not God cursing us, then it’s our religion. This institution of Christianity has been the curse. That’s where the conversation went.
This curse took root at the very beginning. It wasn’t malicious, just some Jews reinterpreting their own faith according to their experience. And then, in a lovely and honestly revolutionary turn, those Jews who believed Jesus was the Christ, the anointed one, invited Gentiles into that experience. Together, they created intentional communities in which resources were shared and the vulnerable were cared for. We hear about all of this in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. The way they lived was so compelling that the faith grew fairly quickly throughout the Middle East and into Greece. So far, so good.
But then, humans being humans, this group of Jesus-believing people eventually got distracted from their purpose of loving Jesus and loving their neighbor. First, by fighting about whose beliefs about Jesus were “right.” Which to them meant their Jewish forebears needed to be “wrong.” A stance that has led to two millennia of Jewish persecution by Christians.
Within its first centuries, Christianity got involved in politics. Bishops started courting rulers. And eventually they got into the ear of none other than Constantine, the Emperor of the Roman Empire. Now most of you have heard me say, “Where would we be without Constantine?” Because it was Constantine who made it permissible for Christians to practice their faith throughout the Roman Empire, after decades of Christians being suppressed and sometimes persecuted, and then he became an active supporter of the faith. Christianity got tied up with state power.
But it is exactly BECAUSE Christianity was formally adopted by the Roman Empire that it was able to spread and spread and spread. It just might be the reason we’re here today.
But being tied to state power means needing to have One True and Correct Faith so that it creates the unity, we’ll say if we’re being generous, or the conformity, if we’re being more realistic, needed to have a state faith. A faith that maintains state power must be pretty black-and-white, pretty legalistic to function.
I’ll compress the rest of our faith’s somewhat cursed history. “Correct” belief became the name of the game from here on out. The Crusades were about eliminating those with the wrong faith from the Holy Land. Two million people died. Wars were fought in Europe after the Reformation. Did the Roman Catholics practice the one true faith or were they heretical, as the Protestants believed. The Troubles in Ireland, an extension of those wars, only ended in 1998.
Of course, none of these conflicts are just about belief. They all are also always about maintaining worldly power.
And now our fellow Christians professing the “correct” belief are banning books, restricting access to healthcare for transgender folks and women. They’re trying their best to erase Black and indigenous history. Today, we call that political assertion of “correct” belief Christian Nationalism. Those Christians are our siblings, whether we like it or not. And we are our brothers’ keepers.
But here we are. I imagine that litany of violence in our history makes you squirm just as much as God promising to curse people who curse Abram. We don’t need God to curse us. We are perfectly capable of carrying out our own curses against each other. Our history has been a long wilderness of curses.
But still, here we are. Christians in a Christian church practicing our Christian faith on Sunday. Despite the violence. Despite the power-grabbing. Why?
Because of this part of the Genesis scripture: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
A great nation did come of Abram, who later became Abraham. And it’s a rich and complicated nation. A nation of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
Do you know who was great throughout this long, cursed history? The people living their faith simply and authentically and lovingly every single day during all those centuries. Just going to the synagogue or mosque or church to be with their community, praying everyday, tending to their neighbors. Those who every single day acted in ways that were a blessing to the world, as God blessed them to be.
That is also our history. That is also our lineage. And isn’t that our hope now? That by living our faith daily, in the simplest ways—which is not to say the easiest ways—is how we create the blessing for those to come, how we continue this great nation that was begun with Abram.
It’s not about being right or correct. It’s not about having worldly power. Those are distractions. I just listed the destruction that being pulled along by our distractions can inflict on people, on those who are marginalized and oppressed, on the planet itself.
And if I’m being really honest, I’m sick of people thinking that our faith is about bringing guns to libraries to protect children from drag queens who want to read them stories. I’m sick of people thinking that our faith is about hating gay and lesbian and trans and gender noncomforming folks. I’m sick of people thinking that our faith is about who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving of love and care and thriving and who’s not.
This is why our Lenten practice is to work with our distractions. It’s not a trivial practice. Because, like those earliest Jesus-followers, sometimes it’s hard to recognize when something in our lives is turning into a distraction that turns us away from living the love Jesus taught us.
So it’s not just an important practice—it’s a critical practice. It’s an urgent practice. And it’s not just an individual practice. The way you shape yourself, the way you live your faith in Jesus Christ each day, shapes what our world looks like.
So how is your practice, how is your faith, how is your life shaping this world?