Phrases Churches Must Stop Saying

Excerpt from Spring Cleaning of Our Mouths for The Farmville Enterprise

wash+mouthBecause words have tremendous power, there are many words that I believe churches need to stop saying.

We’ve never done it that way before and You are in my seat?

When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean that “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” These words espouse a “This-is-my-church-my-house philosophy. And any words espousing that this is our house and not God’s house have the power to kill a church.

The Bible clearly says…

Whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous. People who use this expression are usually thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!”

Love the sinner and hate the sin.

These words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.

If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

When we infer that we should follow Jesus only to selfishly receive some award instead of punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said: “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said: “Follow me and carry a cross.”

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons or God doesn’t make mistakes or God will not put any more on us than we can bear or It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.

These words have caused countless people to leave the faith. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”

I believe too many churches have tried to teach the Christian faith while avoiding the pain and suffering of However, when we move too casually through the season of Lent to get to Easter, when we move too quickly through Holy Week, and sometimes even overlook Good Friday, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: Our God is a God who suffers. God is not seated on a throne far removed from the creation, pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always working for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, painfully doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

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Saving the Soul of the Church

These days, churches are not only in danger of losing their members, many are in danger of losing their souls.

There are some pastors who look at their pews on Sunday mornings and assume that the reason they are empty is because the vast majority of people today have rejected Jesus, as they believe much of this world is going straight to Hell. However, I believe that many who avoid church these days have actually accepted Jesus. They love Jesus and even want to follow Jesus. The problem is that they simply do not see Jesus in the church, and believe it is the church that is on the way to Hell.

I believe you can go to any main street in the heart of downtown of any city in America and ask people the following question: “What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the word: “Jesus?”

People everywhere will respond: “loving,” “forgiving,” “compassionate,” “hospitable,” “selfless,” “sacrificial,” “humble, “radical.”

Then ask those same people: “What is the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the word: “Christian?”

They will respond: “mean,” “judgmental,” “insensitive,” “unwelcoming,” “selfish,” “self-centered,” “holier-than-thou,” “boring.”—words that describe the very antithesis of who Jesus is and who Jesus calls us to be as his disciples.

And sadly, those of us who are a part of the church know that there are many good reasons for these thoughts.

The church’s mission is to make disciples, to make followers of Jesus. How is that possible when many in the church are not following Jesus?

If the church wants thrive in these days…no, let me rephrase that… if the church wants to survive in these days…no, let me rephrase that once more… if the church these days wants to avoid going to Hell, then the church must answer Jesus’ radical call to be his disciples, to live as he lived, lovingly, graciously, compassionately, hospitably, selflessly, sacrificially, humbly and radically.

 

Ten Things that Must Change in Church

Follow Jesus. If we make it about anything else, then it is not church.

Welcome all. Jesus never discriminated against anyone, nor should we.

Be real. God created human beings. We should not be afraid to act like one. We must openly confess our shortcomings and never act like we are better than anyone else.

Embrace mystery. No human being can grasp the full meaning of God. If we think we can, then our concept of God is far too small.

Love unconditionally. We are to love others expecting nothing in return without any reservations. Jesus never said to love “some” of our neighbors.

Practice forgiveness. Loving the sinner and hating the sin will not cut it. Love simply keeps no account of wrong-doing.

Be ministers. We don’t pay clergy to be ministers for us. We are all caregivers, grace-givers and hope-givers to one another.

Never judge. Jesus did not misspeak when he said: “Let those without sin cast the first stone.”

Focus outwardly. It is not about getting people to come to our buildings, participate in our programs, believe our creeds and support our institutions. It is about going out and loving others where they are.

Take risks. Jesus’ love for others got him killed. If we make church about sanctuary, comfort, safety and security then we have missed the whole point of who Jesus calls us to be, where Jesus calls us to go, and whom Jesus calls us to love.

Church Is Not About Us

Its not about usThe following is an excerpt from Renewing Our Discipleship Mission to be published in the Farmville Enterprise.

I believe one of the reasons many churches are losing members today is because, for many, the church does not look like Jesus. I believe people still love Jesus and want to follow Jesus today; however, the church does not look like a group of people who have decided to follow Jesus. Church members do not look like a group of people who are on a mission for others but look more like some type of religious club created for the members in order to make them feel holier and superior than others.

Mike Huckabee, former pastor, Arkansas governor, and presidential candidate, wrote about why he resigned from serving as pastor of a church to enter politics. He states: “I had been growing restless and frustrated in the ministry,” As a young minister, he said he envisioned himself as “the captain of a warship leading God’s troops into battle.” But he said, what the people really wanted was for him “to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was having a good time.”

This is perhaps why the first thing Jesus says we must do once we decide we want to follow him is to “deny ourselves.”  We must learn that this thing called “discipleship,” this thing called “church,” is not about us. It is not about achieving a good, happy and successful life or even an eternal life.

Discipleship is not about receiving a blessing. It is about being a blessing to others. It is not about feeding our souls. It is about feeding the hungry. It is not about finding a home. It is about welcoming the outsider. It is not about acquiring spiritual riches. It is about giving everything away to the poor. It is not about getting ahead. It is about sharing with people who can barely get by. It is not about triumph. It is about sacrifice. It is not about gaining eternal life for ourselves. It is about dying to ourselves.

I believe the reason that many churches struggle today is because, in our attempt to entice, excite and gain new members, we have made the church all about us. We have said, “Come, and join our church where we have programs that are certain to benefit your life!” Instead of saying: “Come and join our church where you will be given opportunities to give your life away. Come and join our church where you will be encouraged to sacrifice and to serve expecting nothing in return.”

Happy 47th Birthday Bobby Hodge, Jr.

In many of my sermons and writings, I am quick to point out what is wrong with the church today. I have even defended some who are not a part of a church by saying: “They have not given up on Jesus. They love Jesus. They want to follow Jesus. They simply do not see Jesus in the church. All they see in the church are hypocritical and judgmental people who think they are more righteous than those who do not think, act and look like them.” And sadly, a part of me realizes that I can preach love and grace every Sunday, and I can write about it every day, and I will never be able to change the minds of many who have given up on the church.

This is why I wished everyone could come to First Christian Church of Farmville, NC, for at least one Sunday, and worship with Bobby Hodge, Jr. who suffers with cerebral palsy.

I wished they could come into the front door on the corner of Church and Main at 10:55 am on Sunday, walk through the narthex, make an immediate right, and be greeted by Bobby who they will find sitting faithfully in his wheelchair, ready to worship and to give thanks to his God. I wished they could see his smile, experience his joy, shake his hand, and hear him call their name, as he does mine, “Good morning Jarrett Banks. It’s good to see you today.”

I wished they could hear Bobby, who has never been able to walk, who has always had trouble which his speech, who has always been in constant pain, ask me to pray during the service for his caregiver or for a neighbor who has not been feeling well. I wished they could hear Bobby remind me before the service to make an announcement about the CROP walk to raise money for those who are hungry.

I wished they could hear little Bobby sing the great hymns of faith and pray the Lord’s Prayer in unison with the congregation. I wished they could share the Lord’s Supper alongside of Bobby, listen to Christ tell Bobby and tell them, “This is my body which is broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.”

I wished they could watch Bobby as he listens intently to the sermon. I wished they could be there on a Sunday when I say something about God’s love that strikes a special chord within Bobby and hear him shout out loud: “You got that right!”

I wished they could speak to him after a sermon I may preach about spiritual gifts, about God giving all people, regardless of who they are, gifts to serve others through the church, and hear Bobby say: “I have served as a deacon. I have served on committees. I have raised more money for CROP walk and the hungry than anyone. I can do anything for God I want to do, and I do it all from a wheelchair.”

I wished they could hear Bobby speak to someone who has just joined the church as he says: “We are so glad to have you in our church. Please call me day or night and let me know if I can ever do anything for you.”

Yes, I wished every person, who thinks Jesus is not in the church, could come to First Christian Church of Farmville at least one Sunday morning and worship with Bobby Hodge, Jr.

Thank you Bobby for the way you reveal and share Jesus with so many. Thank you for being what is right with the church today. And Happy 47th Birthday!

Issues of Homosexuality and the Church

INTRODUCTION

I am a heterosexual male born in 1966 to Southern Baptist parents who raised me in a conservative farming community in northeastern North Carolina. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Wingate College, a North Carolina Baptist school, in 1988. I then attended The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky where I earned a Master of Divinity Degree in 1992. After serving as a pastor for over ten years, I received my Doctor of Ministry degree from Gardner-Webb University in 2005. I was married to my wife of 26 years in 1988 and have two children. My son is 19 and my daughter is 17. I am currently ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister and am the senior pastor of First Christian Church in Farmville, North Carolina.

The only thing that sounds strange to me in the introductory paragraph above is the word “heterosexual.” This may be the first time I have introduced myself as a heterosexual. When I meet another person for the first time, I never mention my sexual orientation. The word “sex” or any word containing this powerful, three-letter word is never used during any introduction.

Thus, before I begin this article on the topic of homosexuality, I wish to state how uncomfortable I feel when identifying other people with terms such as “homosexual.” First and foremost people are people. They are human beings. They are our family, our friends, our co-workers, our neighbors; and for those of us who belong to a church, they are our sisters and brothers in Christ. Their sexuality helps to define who they are; however, it is not the only thing that defines them. Furthermore, I am also uncomfortable using the term “issues” to discuss homosexuality, because in most situations, I do not believe there should be any “issue.”

I am writing this formal statement in response to a recent request from an old college friend. Earlier this week, I received the following message on facebook: “Jarrett, I pray all is well with you and yours. Over the past few months I have read many of your posts with interest regarding the issues of homosexuality as it relates to church and a life of faith. As I continue to dig and examine my own stance on these and other issues, I was wondering if you would mind spelling out your stance and the basis for it. I would appreciate it. Thanks in advance.”

I replied: “Although I have many thoughts on this subject that may appear in some of my sermons and writings, I have never written a concise statement dedicated solely to this issue. So thank you for encouraging me to do so.”

As a pastor since 1992, the fact that this is my first attempt to “spell out my stance” on the issues of homosexuality as it relates to church and the Christian faith reveals not only the complexity of these issues, but also my fear of the powerful emotions that these issues invoke in others, especially in people of faith. As a pastor who lives paycheck to paycheck and seeks to avoid unnecessary conflict within the church that could stop a paycheck, there is a part of me that is fearful of the possible consequences of “spelling out my stance.” Yet, there is another part of me that believes that making such a statement is a necessary risk. Then, there is another part of me that realizes that the risk that I am taking by honestly and openly sharing my beliefs is insignificant when compared to the enormous risk my LGBTQ friends and family have taken through their honesty.

Thus, it pains me when I consider that my stance on these issues has changed very little since my seminary days in the early 1990’s, yet this is the first time I have “spelled them out.” During seminary, I was very aware that I would need to develop a stance if I was going to be a pastor the 21st century. Therefore, as a student I studied the scriptures and read all that I could read on the subject to develop a stance. However, for over twenty-five years, for purely selfish reasons, I have kept my stance rather private. There have been times when I have touched on it in informal conversations, alluded to it in sermons, led a brief Bible study or two on it, and posted or tweeted a snippet here and there; however, I have never “spelled it out” in black and white in a manner that is fully visible to the public. So, to all of my LGBTQ friends, and to family members and friends of LGBTQ persons, I sincerely apologize.

PREFACE

The first title of my blog Stumbling, Fumbling and Bumbling Behind Jesus aptly prefaces any “stance” that I take on any issue as it relates to faith. When it is about faith and theology, I do not have all the answers. I have not “arrived” as a Christian or Christ-follower. I like to think that I am on my way. Yet, along the way, I have the propensity to make many wrong turns and even break down on the side of the road. I have come a long way, but I still have a long way to go. For me, life is as mysterious as it is miraculous. The existence of God and the revelation of God through Jesus Christ is even more miraculously mysterious. God, the creator of all that is, is so large that I will never be able to wrap my mind around God. But I am comfortable with this. As Harry Emerson Fosdick has shared, I am at peace living “in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than living in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”

My mind is not only small, but I believe it is also flawed. Whether one calls it “original sin” or “the Fall of Humankind” or just a “messed-up planet,” I believe that all of creation is fragmented. Consequently, as a creature on this earth, I will always understand God and God’s will for the world as “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13).

Yet, to give my life meaning, purpose and fulfillment, I choose not to believe that God is completely unknowable. I believe life is in an inexplicable gift of grace, and I am compelled to express gratitude for this gift through a life of faith in the Giver. I have chosen a meaningful life of faith in God opposed to a meaningless life of agnosticism, and I have specifically chosen a life of Christian faith in God. I often wonder if I would have chosen this faith if I was born to parents in a part of two-thirds of the world’s population that are not Christian. Nonetheless, I am glad that I have had the opportunity to make this choice, and I am grateful for the way that this choice informs my beliefs and enriches my life.

Consequently, my limited understanding of who God is, how God acts and what God desires is derived from the words and actions of Jesus as revealed in scripture. This understanding continues to grow, change and mature, even through my doubts, as I “stumble, fumble and bumble” behind this Jesus with others who are on the same journey.

Therefore, any “stance” that I take on any issue as it relates to the church and the Christian faith is flawed and incomplete. Yet, I believe that it is always beneficial to articulate current beliefs with the purpose of sharing them with the wider community of faith so those beliefs can be tested, challenged and grow.

ISSUE OF CHOICE

I begin with what I believe is the obvious presupposition that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice. I believe most homosexual persons would rather live heterosexual lives if there was a choice involved. In fact, I have never met a homosexual person who did not tell me that at some point they wished they were attracted to the opposite sex to avoid the severe pain of rejection and condemnation from their friends, families and communities. I believe avoidance of this pain is the reason many homosexual people date and even marry someone of the opposite sex. I also do not believe in any psychological therapy or religious ritual that can change a person’s sexual orientation.

One day I had lunch with a self-professed, former homosexual man who had been through a Christian program to become “reoriented.” During lunch, he proudly announced that he had been “reprogrammed” by God to be attracted to women, and he was currently “happily married” to a woman. However, during the conversation he also shared, “Now, don’t get me wrong. I am still tempted almost daily by men I find sexually attractive.” As a heterosexual man who cannot fathom being sexually attracted to men, I did not deem his reprogramming very successful.

ISSUE OF SHAME

I believe any discussion on homosexuality and the Christian faith must acknowledge the shame that is associated with sexuality within many Christian faith communities. Outside of the church’s traditional definition of marriage, all sexual acts, including masturbation, are often characterized as vulgar, nasty, and just plain wrong. Even sexual desire and arousal are regarded as something indecent or lewd.

Many churches denounce sex education to children in public school curriculums, yet they have been too prudish to have any open and honest conversation regarding human sexuality in the church. The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, which is filled with descriptive sexual encounters, is seldom, if ever, read in the church as many find such content embarrassing, to say the least. As a preacher, I have upset people in the church by using the word “pregnant” to describe the mother of Jesus instead of simply saying “with child.”

At home, many Christian parents avoid the “birds-and-the-bees” conversation with their children until it is much too late; that is, if they do not avoid it all together. Even living in a world saturated with mass media inundated with sexual images, Viagra and Cialis commercials running 24/7, many Christians are more comfortable living in some puritanical state of suppression or denial than acknowledging that our sexuality is an innate part of who we are as human creatures. Consequently, sexual sins are widely regarded by people in the church as more heinous and more perverted than other sins, and the thought of same-gender sexual contact stirs up strong emotions of detest and disgust.

The church must recognize the disproportionate weight that it assigns to perceived sexual sins and honestly accept that humans are sexual beings created to experience ourselves and love others sexually. However, for this to happen, the church must learn to become willing to have an open discussion about our sexuality without shame and a misguided charge of emotions. Furthermore, many in the church should honestly admit that it is the perceived vulgarity of the images in their minds of same-sex genital contact that fuels part of the disgust they feel for homosexual persons.

ISSUE OF CELIBACY

Many people in the church teach that homosexuality is not a sin; however, homosexual acts are regarded as sins and should be avoided. Thus, they accept a homosexual person’s orientation, but they disagree with their lifestyle. Consequently, they encourage homosexual persons to abstain from same-gender sexual contact and to commit to living a celibate lifestyle. Although I believe there is a small fraction of a percentage of the human population that can, and probably should, commit to such a lifestyle, I believe it is wrong for any Christian, especially one who enjoys the intimacy and pleasures of sexual love, to encourage celibacy based solely on one’s sexual orientation. I believe it is blatantly arrogant to say, “You’re gay, so you can’t do that.”  It is also a preposterous suggestion. I believe that the studies of the struggle with celibacy among Roman Catholic priests and nuns teach us something very valuable about the importance of sexual love to a person’s mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.

ISSUE OF SIN

I often hear people say, “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” This implies that the sinner is somehow separated from the sin. Sin is reduced to a specific action that can be avoided. However, I do not believe sin is something that human beings living in a fragmented creation can avoid. Members of the church have asked me: “Pastor, if I go to Vegas and play the slot machines, will I be sinning?” My response is: “Even if you manage to somehow miraculously avoid walking through a casino while you are in Vegas and read the Gideon Bible in your hotel room every night; you will not be any less of a sinner than you already were.” Sin and brokenness are so much a part of this world and our lives, that there is no escaping it. The Jews once believed that sin could be avoided if 613 laws were obeyed. Not only is that a formidable task for any human, I believe Jesus would say even if one obeyed all 613 laws, they would not be any less of a sinner than the one who broke every one.

I have heard many people in the church use the euphemism “sexually-challenged” to describe homosexual persons. Every time I read or hear that, I want to respond: “Aren’t we all?”

I believe the church must understand that sin is a part of all of us, and there is no way we can escape that truth by avoiding certain acts or suppressing certain desires. I believe this is why Jesus said that those who have lust in their heart are just as sinful as those who commit adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). This is also why the Bible-believing religious people dropped their stones before the poor woman “caught in the act of adultery” when Jesus said, “Let those without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

ISSUE OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

Scripture is very important to me as I seek to follow the Christ that I believe is revealed in scripture. This faith in Christ begins with my reading and understanding of the written words. However my faith is not in the written words themselves, but in THE WORD that the written words reveal—the same WORD that was with God and was God and became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1).

I do not believe the Bible was ever meant to be read and followed by picking certain verses out of their context. I am fully aware of the seven passages in the Bible that some Christians pick out of context to condemn same-sex love, as I have studied them extensively. I am also aware of many more passages in the Bible that have been picked out of context to support slavery, Jim Crow laws, apartheid, the suppression of women, and even genocide. Reading and interpreting the Bible can be a dangerous exercise. It should be done carefully while prayerfully keeping in mind the overall message that is being revealed.

Historical and Cultural Context

There are several ways that I interpret scripture. One way is in the light of the historical and cultural context in which the words were written. Although the Bible states that God made the sun stand still (Joshua 10:12), I realize that was written in a time when the sun was thought to circle the earth, so I interpret the passage accordingly. Although the Bible speaks of the earth having four corners (Isaiah 11:12), I realize that it was written at a time when the earth was believed to be flat. Although the Bible describes epileptic seizures as demonic possession (Mark 5), I realize that was written at a time before the advent of psychology in the 19th century.

As a Christian I do not denounce science, but believe science to reveal truth about our world. Since I believe God to be the source of the world, I believe God to be the source of truth. Therefore, in the 21st century, I do not argue that the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. I also do not practice demon exorcisms, and I do not believe for one minute that my college friend who suffers with severe epilepsy is possessed by a demon.

There was no knowledge of homosexuality as an orientation during the time period the Bible was written. Therefore, the word “homosexuality” does not occur anywhere in the Bible. Only words describing homosexual acts occur. In an age that was centuries behind any psychological or scientific understanding of sexual orientation, I believe some of the passages against same-gender sex were written with the understanding that all people are born with a heterosexual orientation. Therefore, the homosexual actions that are being condemned are actions of heterosexual persons. Thus, all homosexual acts were considered “unnatural” (Romans 1). Furthermore, such sexual acts were often committed to humiliate or dehumanize others. Thus, I believe some of the passages which are used to condemn homosexuality are actually condemning violent acts of degradation; not acts of self-giving love by two people of the same gender who are committed to loving one another.

I believe this is the sin most evident in the story of Sodom that we read in Genesis 19. The story reads:

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2He said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.’ They said, ‘No; we will spend the night in the square.’ 3But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house;5and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’

In the story, Lot extends gracious hospitality to two visitors (angels). These are considered to be unwelcomed outsiders or strangers by the people of the town. Verse four reads that “the men of the city” came and asked to “know” these men. “Know” is a biblical euphemism for sexual relations. Lot then “begs them not to act so wickedly.” Therefore, many have said that the wickedness of Sodom was homosexual behavior.

However, when one considers “both young and old, all the people, to the last man,” then it becomes obvious that this is a story of heterosexual persons desiring to have homosexual sexual relations for evil purposes. They desire to gang-rape these two outsiders as an act of humiliation to punish them for coming into their city. The wickedness of Sodom was violent acts of degrading inhospitality. Ironically, it is the same wickedness of many in the church who desire to mistreat and dehumanize homosexual people.

In the cultural context of scripture, I also understand that many of the laws of Moses (Leviticus 18, 20) were written to build a nation and to ensure that the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied. Therefore, since homosexual actions did not produce offspring, it was obviously condemned in the law. Semen, which was considered to be the source of future generations was understood as something very precious and was not to be wasted. This is why we read in Genesis 38 the story of God killing Onan for letting his ejaculate fall to the ground. Do I believe God really wants men to die if their semen is not always used for procreation? Of course not.

Jesus as a “Filter” in Interpreting Scripture

The main way I interpret scripture is as a follower of Jesus Christ. I confess Jesus as my Lord. This means that Jesus guides my interpretation of life itself. Jesus, then, becomes my criteria or my “filter” for interpreting all scripture. For me, Jesus is the fulfillment of all scripture (Matthew 5:17). Therefore, if a scripture passage is not in accord with the words and the works of Jesus, then I understand it as unfulfilled revelation.

There are countless examples of what I call “unfulfilled revelation” throughout the Bible. Because I seek to follow the way of Jesus, if my teenagers disrespect me, or I smell beer on their breath after they break curfew, I will never follow the scriptures’ command by having them stoned to death in the town square. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 reads:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

When I conduct pre-marital counseling sessions, I never advise the groom to stone his wife to death if it is discovered that she is not a virgin on their wedding night. Deuteronomy 22:20-21 reads:

If, however, this charge is true, that evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

I also do not believe adulterers should be stoned (Leviticus 20:10), nor someone who marries his mother-in-law (Leviticus 20:14), nor someone who belongs to another religion (Leviticus 27:29), nor anyone for that matter as I cannot envision Jesus stoning anyone. Therefore, when I read that homosexual acts are an abomination and those who commit such acts should be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:13), I simply say, “Thank God Jesus has taught us a better way.”

Although the New Testament admonishes women to remain silent in the church (1 Cor 14:34), I dare not ask the women in my church to keep quiet. Not because I do not want to be fired, but because I do not believe Jesus wants them to remain silent. The Jesus revealed in scripture continually liberated women, making them disciples, allowing them to even sit at his feet (a place reserved for only male disciples of a Jewish Rabbi) as he interpreted the scriptures. Furthermore, although the New Testament admonishes slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18) my faith in Christ who loved and valued all people does not permit me to argue for the institution of slavery.

Throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus continually lifted up the lowly, stood on the side of the marginalized and outcasts, ate and drank at the table with presumed sinners, and offered unconditional love, extravagant grace and unearned forgiveness to all. Therefore, when I read scriptures that command the hate and stoning of homosexual people or the marginalization or oppression of any group of people, I understand it as being unfulfilled as it is in disagreement with the words and works of Jesus my Lord.

ISSUE OF NATURAL THEOLOGY

Natural Theology is widely used by Christians as an argument against homosexuality. Natural theology argues: “If it is natural, it is good. If it is unnatural, it is sinful.” This is why some Roman Catholics do not believe in contraception and discourage masturbation. Sex is for natural procreation; not unnatural recreation. However, I know of no one who believes that the only purpose of human sexual relations is for procreation. Most all understand that “making love” is important for intimacy and bonding in the relationships of persons committed to one another. There is no denying that my wife and I are closer and are more connected because of our sexual relationship. There is a good reason we call it “making love” as sexual intimacy makes the bond of love stronger. This is one reason we do not want our young teens to have sex. It is not only the risk of pregnancy that we fear, but also the risk of them becoming emotionally connected to another before they are ready for such intimacy and love.

The Natural Theology argument that heterosexuality is good because there exists a natural opportunity for procreation also falls short when one considers the violent act of rape. This argument follows to the logical conclusion that if the rape is heterosexual, and there are no contraceptives in place, then it is natural, and thus good.

The reality is that not all heterosexual acts are good. Some heterosexual acts are pure evil, such as rape and the exploitation of trafficked persons. Other heterosexual behavior, albeit non-violent, can be degrading and selfish. The church and society has been guilty of overlooking this reality. It is a tragedy that when I married my wife in 1988, it was still legal in the state of North Carolina for a man to rape his wife.

CONCLUSION: ISSUES OF GRACE AND LOVE

It is not the flaws in Natural Theology or even using Christ as the criterion for scriptural interpretation that truly informs my stance on this issue in the light of faith. For me, it comes down to my faith in the extravagant and oftentimes offensive grace of Jesus.

In Ephesians 1 we read these words: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”

I believe the entire Biblical witness testifies to this grace. It is a grace that lavishes. It is a grace that is extravagant, offensive and even appears overdone. The following are words I gleaned from a sermon by William Willimon:

Cain killed his brother Able in the very first chapters of our Bible. And what does God do? God lavished Cain. Cain is exiled from the community because of his actions, but God promises to go with him to protect him (Genesis 4).

Moses killed an Egyptian, breaking one of the big Ten Commandments. But God chose that murderer to reveal those commandments to the world and to lead the Israelites out of bondage into the Promised Land (Exodus 2).

David not only committed adultery, but killed the husband of his mistress (2 Samuel 11). Yet, Matthew proudly announces David in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1).

When it comes to forgiveness, when it comes to grace, when it comes to love, God lavishes. God always seems to overdo it. The riches of God’s grace are extravagant and even offensive.

The story of Jesus’ first miracle is a great example. When the wine gave out at a wedding party, what does Jesus do? He turns water into more wine. Not just some water into a little bit of wine. He makes, according to John’s estimate, about 180 gallons of the best-tasting wine they ever had. That sounds very gracious and extravagant to me. It also sounds like he may have overdone it a bit.

Then, there are all those stories that Jesus told. A farmer sows way too much seed. Most of it was “wasted,” falling on the wrong type of soil. But I suppose when sowing good seed in bad soil, you have to overdo it. You have to lavish the dirt with seed. And the seed that did manage to take root produced a harvest that is described as abundant.

The father of the prodigal son didn’t just welcome his returning son (who had committed untold sexual sins). That in itself is extravagant. But the father lavished the son. The father said to his servants, “Quickly bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on my son; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate!

It wasn’t that the Good Samaritan stopped and helped the wounded man in the ditch. It was the way he stopped and helped. It was the way he lavished the man pouring expensive oil on his wounds. Then he put the wounded man in his car. He took the man to the hospital and told the doctors, “Forget about filing insurance! Here’s all my credit cards, my checkbook, everything. I’ll be back in a week, and if that’s not enough money to treat the man’s wounds, I’ll give you even more!”

The reason that so many of us attend church at Easter is because God lavished us. When God offered us the very best gift that God had to offer, the gift of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, we reciprocated that gift with the very worst that we had to offer, the cross. But three days later, God not only raised Jesus back to life, but God gave him right back to the very ones who nailed him to a tree.

There’s something built right into the nature of God, it would seem, that tends toward extravagance and abundance and excessiveness.

As people who have been called to inherit this nature, as the Body of Christ in this world, how do we live?  Are we stingy with our love?  Are we miserly with our forgiveness?  Do we scrimp on grace? Are we tight-fisted with the good news? Do we truly believe that the greatest commandment is to love God and our neighbor as ourselves? Do we truly believe that the greatest gift of all is love?

For me personally, the issue of homosexuality as it relates to the church and faith all comes down to the following:

I am an imperfect man living in an imperfect world. I have chosen to give meaning to my life and to others by deciding to follow Jesus as a disciple. My discipleship is not perfect.  I stumble, fumble and bumble behind Jesus. I do not have all of the answers, and while I am attempting to follow Jesus, I am bound to make many errors in judgment. However, if I am going to make an error when it comes to loving, accepting, and embracing another, especially one who has been marginalized and demonized by society and the church, I have chosen to err on the side of grace, even if I overdo it.

There are two things I do every Sunday morning that informs my theology. One is praying the Lord’s Prayer. The second is sharing the Lord’s Supper. I pray “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I drink from a cup and remember Jesus’ words: “This cup is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” I pray for forgiveness and I drink forgiveness and am reminded and challenged that as I am forgiven, I am called to forgive others.

Even if other Christians believe that I am wrong, and they firmly believe that in God’s eyes homosexuality is “an abomination,” I believe the overall message of the Bible persuades them to choose not to condemn, but to forgive. Choose not to hate, but to love. Choose not to restrain, but to lavish. Choose grace. Always choose to err on the side of graciously overdoing it.

Furthermore, for the very life of me, I can think of no harm that can come to the world or to the cause of Christ by overdoing it on the side of grace. I know of no lives that have ever been destroyed by overdoing it on the side of love. However, I am very aware of the irreparable harm and the deep wounds that come from withholding grace and restraining love as countless lives have been destroyed and lost to murder, war and suicide. The church has been embarrassingly and tragically guilty of doing tremendous damage to the world, as well as to the mission of Christ, by failing to follow Jesus’ simple command to love one another.

Of any human institution on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of grace, love and forgiveness. Without fear of being judged, condemned and ridiculed, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness. And receive grace. Receive love. Receive salvation. And then share it with others.

ISSUE OF CHURCH LEADERSHIP

Sadly, the majority of churches exclude homosexuals from church leadership. Current leaders of countless churches have judged their lifestyles as sinful, and thus unfit for leading others to love others. However, because I believe all Christians are sinners, yet God calls all people to do ministry, then I do not believe there is any issue whether or not a homosexual person can be a leader in the church.

There is no doubt in my mind that homosexual people who have been mistreated and condemned by society and especially by the church, have a very powerful message of love and grace to offer the world. I believe they have something very valuable to teach all of us about the love and grace of Christ, as well as what it means to be fully human.

ISSUE OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE       

“Biblical marriage” is convoluted to say the least. As far as we know, Jesus was not married. The Apostle Paul did not recommend marriage (1 Corinthians 7:8). Polygamy is endorsed by the Old Testament as a valid lifestyle for men (not women). The Old Testament is also full of archaic laws treating the woman as property in marriage. One law states that the wife is to be awarded to the husband’s brother in the event of the husband’s death (Deuteronomy 25:5). The Ten Commandments even treat the wife of a husband as property (Exodus 20:17).

Jesus spoke of marriage (Mark 10), but whenever he did, he did so to forbid divorce in order to protect the rights of the woman. Jesus valued women not as property but as children of God. Thus, when Jesus spoke of marriage, he was more concerned about the injustices that had been perpetrated against women within marriage than he was setting forth a prescription for marriage. Jesus spoke more about the importance of loving and upholding the rights of our vulnerable partners in marriage more than he spoke about males and females loving one another in marriage.

Many argue against same-sex unions stating that the purpose of marriage is for procreation. However, I cannot count the number of weddings I have officiated for couples who have surpassed the child-bearing age or are otherwise unable to have children. I have never said in any marriage ceremony that the purpose of the union is to bear children. What I do say is that “God has ordained the institution of marriage to guard, hallow and perfect the gift of love.”

If two adults love one another and desire to make a commitment to God to remain faithful to one another, to selflessly love and to cherish one another in a monogamous relationship until death parts them, to guard, hallow and perfect love, I cannot envision the Jesus that is revealed to me through scripture condemning such a desire nor preventing such a commitment. I have yet to officiate a same-sex marriage ceremony. However, in this fragmented world filled with such hate and loneliness, I will never stand as an obstacle to love.

ISSUE OF CIVIL RIGHTS

People in the church are using the Bible today in the 21st century to support the discrimination of homosexuals with the same type of biblical interpretation that people in the church used to support slavery in the 19th century and the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century. As a follower of the Jesus who continually stood up for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, I believe the church should do everything in its power to stand up for the rights of all minorities, including homosexuals.

ISSUE OF TRANSGENDERED, BISEXUAL, ASEXUAL, QUESTIONING PEOPLE

This issue probably deserves another 6,000 words. However, because the original question that I am addressing is regarding homosexuality, I am going to sum my stance in only a couple of short paragraphs.

We live in a fragmented world. I believe each person in this world, including me, is fundamentally flawed. This is why we need grace. This is why we need love. This is why Jesus said he came into the world to save it, not condemn it (John 3:17).

The Southern Baptist Convention recently voted to condemn transgendered people, as they have homosexuals and bisexuals (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2014/06/the-southern-baptist-convention-throws-transgender-people-under-the-bus/). Southern Baptists do not think they have made an error. They have no doubt about it. As I previously stated in the beginning of this document, I am hardly ever that sure of myself. However, I am sure of one thing. I believe in love. I believe God is love. I believe Christ exemplified and commanded love, especially toward those considered to be different, those that society marginalizes. I believe we were created for such love.

Again, if anyone thinks I am in error in dealing with this issue, I am perfectly okay with that; because if I am going to make errors in this world, I am always going to err on the side of love. I am going to err on the side of grace. And I am going to overdo it. I am going to do my best to love God and all of my neighbors. And all means all.

 

Locked Doors

lockJohn 20:19-31 NRSV

On the evening of the first Easter, we find the disciples of Jesus cowering together in a house. Windows shut, shades pulled, curtains drawn, shudders closed and the doors have been locked up tight. It is nighttime, a dangerous time in any city, but this is Jerusalem, and here, on this night, the disciples had some pretty good reasons to lock the doors.

The most obvious reason their doors were locked was the fear that the institutional, religious authorities who organized and began plotting from the very beginning to put an end to Jesus and his message were quite possibly even now plotting to put an end to them.

So the disciples locked the doors.

And then, there may be another reason, earlier in our text we read where Mary Magdalene has told them, “I have seen the Lord.”  And what do they do?  They locked the doors.

After denying that he even knew who Jesus was, I’m sure Peter felt like locking the doors. After fleeing and deserting Jesus, leaving him to die alone between two thieves, I’m sure many of the disciples felt like locking the doors.

This image of locked doors has had me thinking all week. As I have pondered this image, I cannot get the words of my home pastor out of my mind. Every Sunday, during the Invitation, he always said the same words: “The doors of our church are now open for membership. If anyone here would like to be received into full membership into our church, you are invited to come down during the singing of this hymn.

Remembering these words this week has caused me to ask a question, a question that I believe is imperative for the church in the 21st century to ask: “Why do you suppose so many people today, especially people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, when it comes to church membership, also feel like locking the doors, locking the doors to even the thought of becoming a part of the church?”

From asking this question to countless people all over this country who have given up on the church since I was ordained in 1992, this is what I have discovered:

The reason that most young people give for locking the doors to even the very thought of being associated with the church is that they simply have no trust in organized, institutional religion. In fact, they regard the church the same way the disciples cowering behind closed doors regarded the religious system of their day—as a threat to Jesus and everything for which Jesus stood.

They hear some of their friends, the ones who do proudly profess to be a part of a church, on a tirade protesting against such things as equal rights, social justice, equitable healthcare, and any criticism about the gap between poor and the rich. They hear their church friends make scornful remarks about minorities of every persuasion, and they know just enough about Jesus and his affinity for the poor and the marginalized to know that something is terribly wrong with this picture.

Many young people today in no way want to be associated with the words of many in the church who make heinous claims on the behalf of God, such as: tornadoes are God’s way of getting our attention, the Haiti earthquake as well as Hurricane Katrina were directly linked to Voodoo or Catholicism; the Japan earthquake and tsunami and the South Asia tsunami were directly linked to Buddhism or Islam; or the events of 9-11 and the subsequent deaths in the War on Terror are God’s judgment on abortionist and homosexuals.

Young people today do not want to be associated with a religion that has preachers and congregations who picket the funerals for our soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice, yelling hate-filled rants declaring that their deaths are the will of God.

They hear preachers declare from their pulpits that either the American President or the Pope is the anti-Christ. And they look at institutional, organized religion these days and think that we may be the ones who are anti-Christ. So, like the disciples distancing themselves from self-righteous and judgmental organized religion, young people are locking their doors to the church.

And secondly, as the disciples also hid behind locked doors avoiding Jesus, there are some who are not simply avoiding organized religion; they are avoiding God. When they lost their grandparents, their parents, or some, their children, the response from their Christian friends was that God took them. God needed another angel, another flower in the heavenly garden.

The response of some in the church was that all of their loved one’s pain and suffering and their subsequent death, that their child’s untimely and tragic death was all part of some purpose-driven divine plan. So they lock the doors, wanting absolutely nothing to do with a God like that.

Whatever the reason for the disciples’ fear, the irony of our gospel lesson is that the judgmental, organized religious authorities were not trying to get to the disciples to arrest them and Jesus was not trying to get to them to punish, condemn them or take their lives. As I said at the Sunrise Service last week, Jesus was trying to get to the disciples in order to give them the word that they needed more than any other word—the very first word of the Easter story.

On Easter evening, the Risen Christ returns to his disciples, the same fearful followers who denied, forsook and abandoned him and pronounced “Peace!”  It was the same word that was proclaimed at his birth by the angels in the beginning of the gospel.  “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!”  And it was one of the last words from the cross when he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And here, the first word of Easter to the fearful disciples cowering behind locked doors is “Peace.”

THIS is what I believe all people need to hear from the church, and it needs to be the very first word they hear from us.

The first word they hear from the church should never be judgment, condemnation or some loud, angry, hate-filled rant or protest. It should never be that God took her or snatched him, or is punishing them, or trying to get their attention because of some sin. No, the first word they need to hear from us is “peace.”  They need to hear God say, “Peace. My peace I give to you. You are my sons. You are my daughters, I have always loved you.  I still love you. I will love you forever. I am here with you and for you, always working all things together for the good.”

I believe people in our world who have locked their doors to the church are thirsting for this peace. They are thirsting for a group of people in our world that have the audacity to truly live as the embodiment of Christ in this world offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world through selfless, sacrificial love and service to others. They are thirsting for a church that seeks to be, not an institution, but the living embodiment of Christ in this world, serving the poor, and those whom society has marginalized, offering grace, acceptance, love and peace.

Several Easters ago, we went to visit my parents in Elizabeth City.  We had a nice dinner, watched the Masters, and then ate some leftovers before heading home. It was late when we arrived back home, about 11:00.  And guess what?  We were locked out. In a hurry to leave after church, I had accidentally grabbed the wrong set of keys.

As Lori and Sara sat in the car, twelve year-old Carson and I checked every window on the first floor.  All locked.  “I guess I’ll break a window.”

“Wait a minute,” Carson, who has always had a lot more patience than me, said. “I think the window in the middle dormer upstairs is unlocked.” I grabbed my extension ladder that was much too short for the job.  I stood it almost straight up and asked Carson to hold it at the bottom as I climbed up.  Got myself on the roof in front of the dormer, but before I could reach it, because of the pitch of the roof, and the dew that had gathered, I began to slide off.  Came down, feet hit the ladder, almost knocking it over. I put a death grip on my shingles with my hands. Grabbed the top of the ladder with one foot and straightened it out with the other as Carson helped at the bottom.  I don’t know if he was more scared that I was going to fall and kill myself on the brick steps below or fall right on his head.

After one more idiotic try to climb on the roof, it occurred to me, “Maybe I can peel the vinyl ceiling back on my back porch just enough to climb up into the attic. Got my pry bar, and went to work.  Less than five minutes later, I was inside.

Now, was my wife happy?  Was I the hero of the night?  Was she proud of my resourcefulness and my persistence?  No, she was absolutely horrified by how quickly I broke into our securely locked house. “If a preacher can break in, anyone can!” she said.

This is the good news of this Easter Season. Our securely locked doors are not a problem for Jesus.  Here is the promise of Easter for each of us today. Just as the risen Christ was not stumped by the locked doors behind which the disciples cowered, so I promise you that the risen Christ will not be deterred by the locks that any of us or anyone else has put on our own doors.  Our God is wonderfully resourceful, imaginative, persistent, and determined to get to all of us.  Even in our lostness, even in our betrayals and denials, even with all of our past failures, Christ is ever determined to share his peace with us in this world.

I believe Christ is as alive today as he has ever been. I believe he is on the loose, even here in Farmville. He is moving and working and he is as determined as ever to get the word out…the very first word of the gospel proclaimed by angels, and the last word proclaimed on the cross and the first word of Easter: peace.  The question is: will he be able to use us? Will we allow him to breathe the Holy Spirit on us and send us into the world to help him share that word—a word of unlimited grace, unreserved forgiveness and unconditional love for all God’s people, especially to those who have locked the doors to the possibility of being a part of the church.

Will he find a group of people here that have the audacity to truly live as the embodiment of Christ in this world offering the first word of Easter, the peace of Christ to a fearful world through selfless, sacrificial service to others?

From what I have learned about you over the last seven months, and from what I what I see in you every week, I believe the answer is ABSOLUTELY!