A Word from the Lord

medicare-coverage-helpline-make-sure-featuring-joe-namath-large-5

Luke 4:14-29 NRSV

Tom Long tells the story of an incident that occurred in a church one Sunday morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. The minister had just finished reading the scripture lesson and was taking a deep breath before launching into the sermon when suddenly, a man, a complete stranger, stood up in the balcony and startled everyone by proclaiming in a clear, loud voice: “I have a word from the Lord!”

Shoulders tensed and heads swiveled around and upward to see the source of the interruption.

What “word from the Lord” did this man possibly have to bring to the people on that day?

Well, no one will ever know, for the ushers, says Long, “bounded like gazelles” up to that balcony, and before the man could utter another word, they had escorted him down the stairs and out the front door.

Now, with Long, I don’t blame them. I understand. The apostle Paul said we ought to do things with some semblance of order, and his was way out of order. Who knew what this guy had in mind. But it does cause me to wonder a little bit.

Isn’t it strange? Sunday after Sunday countless preachers in innumerable pulpits spread out their sermon notes, clear their throats, and begin their sermon, saying, or at least implying, that they have a word from the Lord. And nobody tenses. No heads swivel in alarm. No ushers leap into action. Instead, people sit back in their pews, crease their bulletins, silently check their watches, and settle back for the sermon. For that is what you came here for, right?  A sermon. Not a word from the Lord.[i]

This is exactly how it was on that Sabbath day in Nazareth. Joseph’s son Jesus was home for the weekend and had been asked to read the scripture lesson from the prophets and to preach the sermon. The congregation knew Jesus well. They knew his parents and remembered him as a little boy. They were no doubt proud of the reports that had filtered down from Capernaum and other towns about his preaching and teaching. So, they settled back in their pews to hear what this articulate young man had say. What were they expecting? A sermon. Right? Not a word from the Lord.

Part of the reason I believe we expect a sermon instead of “a word from the Lord” is that as much as we do not like admitting it, we really would prefer not to hear such a word. We prefer a simple sermon. We prefer some nice religious words, some nice sweet thoughts to help get us through the week. What we expect is a little “chicken soup for the soul.”  Some good advice to help make our lives run a little more smoothly, some encouraging words to help get us through the week.

A word from the Lord is completely different. A word from the Lord is disruptive. A word from the Lord is uncomfortable. A word from the Lord can be painful.

A sermon can be can be easily forgotten and even completely ignored. But, a word form the Lord must be heeded. A word from the Lord is sharper than any two-edged sword. For a word from the Lord is news, real news. It is news that turns our whole world upside down. A word from the Lord changes everything and forces us to adjust our lives to that change.r

It has been said that most people who pick up the newspaper every morning or watch the evening news are not so much interested in the news as they are in confirming that the world is pretty much the same as it has always been. “Democrats are still not cooperating with the Republicans and vice versa.” “Politicians are still lying.” “The New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl, again.” Yep, that’s the way the world is, it’s the way it always has been and the way it always will be.”

I am afraid that is why many of us come to church. We do not go to church to hear any real news. Instead, we go to church to have the things that we have always believed about God confirmed. We listen to the sermon to have the way we have been practicing our faith all of these years affirmed. We’d really prefer not to hear anything new. We’d rather not hear anything that challenges our beliefs, calls the way we practice our faith into question or creates any urgency to change. We are really not interested in hearing any real news.

For real news is unexpected. Real news is surprising. Real news is disturbing. Real news means the world is not the same as it was yesterday; therefore, I cannot live my life in the same way. A word from the Lord is real news.

It is news that demands change. It is news that demands a complete reordering of priorities. It is news that causes us to see the whole creation in a brand new way. It is news that moves us and mobilizes us to take some kind of action. It is news that often requires sacrifice. It is news that necessitates us doing things that we do not want to do and going to places that we do not want to go.

So, thanks but no thanks. Preacher, I think I’ll be just fine with a simple sermon instead. Either say some words to reaffirm what I already believe or maybe give me a little antidote that might help me live a happier, healthier life. Give me some good ideas that might fix some of the things that are ailing me.

I am afraid that, for some people, going to church is like heeding the advice of Joe Namath by calling the Medicare Coverage Helpline. People go to listen to the preacher tell them about all of the benefits they deserve, benefits they are eligible for as a Christian.

By the way, “Does anyone really believe Joe Namath needs rides to  medical appointments?”

I am not exactly sure, but I suspect that is what many people were probably expecting when they showed up to hear Jesus’ first sermon back in hometown Nazareth. They came expecting a sermon, to have what they already knew reaffirmed or to find out some benefits God offers them that they didn’t know about, maybe to get a little pat on the back, a little stroke of the ego, a little feel-good-pick-me-up to get them through the week, not a word from the Lord.

So, when Jesus stood up and began to speak, no shoulders got tense. No ushers tried to muscle him out into the street. People smiled and whispered to one another how proud they were of this their product, and how Mary and Joseph must be tickled pink to have such a fine son.

They came expecting a little sermon. But instead of a sermon, they got a word from the Lord. Jesus began to say things like, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

The crowd gets really quiet!  Someone whispers, “I know he didn’t say ‘hard,’ did he? I thought God was all about making things easy! I thought sermons were about making us happier.”

Jesus continues:

“Love your neighbor, including your enemies. Be a blessing to the poor and to all who hunger and thirst for justice. Stand up for the liberty of those oppressed and bullied by culture. By the way, people will persecute you for that, utter all kinds of evil against you for that, but pray for those who persecute you. Forgive those who have wronged you. Don’t judge. Accept others as I have accepted you. Deny yourself. Pick up your cross and follow me. Die to yourself. Don’t just hear these words, but do these words.”

And then, his words began to sink in. “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today.Not yesterday, not in times gone by, not someday, but today.  Fulfilled.  Not read nicely, heard sweetly, or barely remembered, but fulfilled. In yourhearing. Not in somebody else’s. Not just in Abraham’s, Moses’, Elijah’s, and Deborah’s, but in you.

And the Word of the Lord was also not just for them. Jesus said it was for all people. It was also for outsiders, foreigners, those marginalized by society, widows and lepers and others who were not a part of their synagogue, their faith, or even their culture.

And it then became obvious that this was not just another simple sermon. This was a word from the Lord. This was news. Real news. God had come. God is present. Here. Now. Today. God is here, and God’s love is for all people, even for the lepers of Syria in and the widows in Sidon.

The world was now changed, for the Word of God had come, and the Word had come for all people. The Word of God had been made flesh and was now present in all its demanding fullness. And you could fight it, you could try to hurl its presence off a cliff, or you could accept it, you could follow it, but there was no way on earth you could ignore it.

Each Sunday morning, our worship should be about the gospel truth, the amazing good news, that God is alive and present to us this day, as alive and present here as Jesus was to those worshippers in Nazareth. Thus some shoulders here this morning should be a more than a little tense, for God has work for us to do!

God is here! God’s kingdom is now! God speaks words of love and of grace, of mission and of purpose, of vocation and of duty, that are fulfilled in our hearing. Words that, if we listen and respond, will send us out from the pews into the public square to transform our world.

[i]https://www.cathedral.org/worship/sermonTexts/tl080601.shtml

 

Responding to Their Cries

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Matthew 15:21-28 NRSV

This week, someone made an observation about me as a preacher. He said: “You seem to be biblically conservative. You have certainly preached the Bible these past two weeks.” Then he added: “I find it interesting that someone who is as conservative as you can be so inclusive.”

I said that’s because the entire biblical witness commands us to love inclusively—from Abraham who graciously welcomed the strangers by the Oaks of Mamre (Gen 18) to John’s great portrait of heaven that we find in Revelation:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, [all] peoples and [all] languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9).

I believe Jesus said it best: “On this hangs all of the laws and message of the prophets, ‘you should love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 22:40). It is as if he was saying, “If you don’t get anything else from the Bible, you need to get this: “Love your neighbor and love your neighbor empathetically—as yourself, put yourself in the shoes of another.” In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Now, of course people have always tried to use the Bible to support their hate and exclusivity. For centuries, the Bible has been used to support sexism, racism, even slavery. It is being used today to support all kinds of bigotry. But to support hate with the Bible, I believe one has to arbitrarily lift verses of scripture out of their contexts.

But that is not how the Bible should ever be read. One must always look at the entirety of its message.

I believe the point could be made that this morning’s gospel lesson is a microcosm of the entire Bible. If one arbitrarily lifted verses from this passage, one might argue that Jesus was a selfish, sexist bigot. But when we look at the whole story, a very completely different message emerges, a message that cannot be more relevant for us today.

Just then, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 

We hear this cry everyday. Yet, we really don’t hear this cry. We don’t understand this cry, nor want to understand this cry. We don’t like this cry. Thus, we never truly listen to the cry. To our privileged ears, it’s just shouting. Strange, foreign shrieks that, frankly, we find offensive.

They are cries of mercy for a child tormented by demonic evil.

They are hopeful cries for a safer, more loving and just world.

They are moral cries for equality.

They are cries for equal access to a quality education, for equal protection of the law, for fair wages, for access to equitable healthcare.

They are prophetic cries against injustice.

They are cries against racism, against discrimination, against predatory loans, against voter suppression, against Gerrymandering, against oppressive government legislation. They cry out that their black lives matter.

Jesus’ first response the cries is the most common response: it’s one of silence.

We know that response all too well. Silence, just silence.

If we ignore their cries, maybe they’ll go way. Responding will only stir things up, make things worse, uncover old wounds. And responding might cost us something. We may have to give up something, change something.

The second response comes from the disciples. It’s shocking, but not surprising. For it’s as familiar as silence: “Send her away.”

It’s the response of fear: fear of the other; fear that causes defense mechanism to go up; fear that breeds selfishness, anger, and hate.

Then, they blame the victim.

“What about her shouting?” “She keeps shouting.”

“What about the way she is behaving?” “She needs to be more respectable.” “She’s only making things worse.” “She needs to go away, get a life, get a job, go volunteer somewhere.” “She needs to learn some personal responsibility, stop begging for handouts and learn that God only helps those who help themselves.”

“She is what is wrong with this country.” “These girly girl snowflakes need to grow up, toughen up and shut up.” “And they need to learn that all lives matter.”

Jesus breaks his silence, but like the disciples, with words that are all too familiar. Words that are culturally popular; not biblically informed.

 ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

“We have to put our people first. We have to look after our own interests. We need to do what is fair for us. We can’t include you, especially if you have needs. If you don’t possess the skills to help yourself, how can you help us?”

She continues to protest. In an act of defiance, she kneels down.

He answered (again with language culturally-accepted; not biblically inspired), ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 

But the good news is that is not how the story ends.

The foreign mother from Canaan persists. She keeps shouting. She keeps fighting. She does not lose heart or hope. She believes that justice will come, truth will prevail, and love will win. She speaks truth to power saying: “Lord, at my house, the dogs eat at the same time we eat. Lord, at my table, there’s room and enough for all, especially for those tormented by evil.”

And here is the really good news. Jesus listens to this outsider, and although he was neither Canaanite, female or a parent, Jesus empathizes with this mother from Canaan.

Jesus is able and willing to do something that many are unable or unwilling to do these days; that is, put ourselves in the shoes of the other. Jesus is able to see the world as she sees it, bear the pain of it, experience the brokenness of it, sense the heartache and grief of it, feel the hate in it.

And because he is listening, because he is paying attention, I believe Jesus is outraged. I believe Jesus begins to suffer with her, offering her the very best gift that he has to offer, the gift of himself, which is breaking before her and for her.

Jesus loves her. He loves her empathetically, authentically, sacrificially. He loves her unconditionally, deeply, eternally.

And loving like that always demands action.

After hearing her cries, listening to her pleas, empathizing with her pain, becoming outraged by the demons that were tormenting her child, Jesus announces that her daughter will be set free from the evil that was oppressing her.

However, she will not be liberated by his love alone. She will be liberated from her oppression, both by the love of Jesus, and by the persistent faith of this mother, this mother who will not give up, back down, shut up or go away.

Now, I could pick and choose and lift verses out of this passage and twist words to say some hurtful and evil things. But if I allow the overall message of this story to speak to me, inform me, guide me, this is what I believe:

When we hear the cries of people our culture considers to be outsiders, instead of responding with typical silence, instead of criticizing their shouting, their protesting, their marching and their kneeling, instead of blaming them for their situation, if we will follow the biblical mandate to love them as we love ourselves, if we will listen to them and allow their cries to penetrate our hearts, if we will empathize with them, if we will put ourselves in their shoes, walk in their steps, experience their plight, feel the sting of the hate directed toward them, then a place will suddenly become open at our table for them.

Outsiders become family. The underprivileged become equals from whom we can learn, be led, and change. They will become sisters and brothers.

And then, together— together, because the miracle we need today can not happen unless we come together— together, with the one who is no longer a foreigner, no longer feared, no longer ignored, no longer ridiculed— together, in community, side by side, hand in hand, with faith in God and with faithful persistence— we will stand up, we will speak out, and we will fight the demonic evil that torments God’s beloved children.

Of course, there will be great cost involved, for the Bible teaches us that love is always costly. But the cost of refusing to love is greater.

I love reading what happened next (“the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say). It’s the story of justice coming, truth prevailing, and inclusive love winning.

Beginning with verse 29…

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet and

without asking any questions about where they were from, what they believed, or what they had to offer,

he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel (Matthew 15:29-31).

Hallelujah. Amen.

 

Invitation to the Table

The good news from our sister from Canaan is that there is room and enough at the table of the Lord for all. Thus, all are invited to share this load and this cup.

As we prepare to eat from this table with our sisters and brothers, may we pray that the love demonstrated in this meal will give us the strength we need to stand up, speak out and fight the demonic evil that is tormenting the children of God in our world today.

Why the Christmas Tree Is Still Standing in January

Chrismon TreeEphesians 1:3-14 NRSV

There are many influences in this world that guide our lives, inform our thinking, and give us direction and meaning.

One of those influences is the distinct seasons of the year. Seasons result from the yearly orbit of the Earth around the Sun, the center of our universe, and the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis. In other words, the changing of seasons means that the entire world is changing. Seasons change us in a powerful way, because the world changes. Winter, spring, summer and fall influence the things we wear, the things we eat, our hobbies and recreation, even our general mood.

The proprietors of capitalism realize the tremendous power and influence the seasons have over our lives and culture. Notice how they have manipulated them in the name of profit. For example summer begins not on June 21st but with Memorial Day sales in the department store and the opening of the tourist season. Autumn begins not on the 23rd of September, but with Labor Day sales. And winter did not begin on December 21, but actually on the day in November we call Black Friday.

A long time ago the Christmas season began on Christmas Eve and then was celebrated for 12 days until January 6 when Jesus’ baptism was observed. However, the money makers understood that there would be a greater payback if they could convince us that the Christmas season actually begins the day after Thanksgiving and lasts through New Year’s Day.

This is the reason that Christians in mainline churches that observe the Christian calendar are often a bit frustrated during Advent and this second Sunday after Christmas. Christians, who have been influenced and conditioned by the world, wonder why we have to sing those painful, solemn, anticipating, waiting hymns of Advent instead of the more cheerful Christmas carols during those Sundays after Thanksgiving. And we wonder why on earth the Christmas tree is still standing in the sanctuary and we are still singing carols days after the black-eyed peas have been consumed. After all, we have been taught by our world to believe that having any Christmas decorations up after New Year’s is, well, tacky.

However, what guides our lives, informs our thinking, and gives us direction and meaning is not anything that is of this world. The main influence on our lives is the birth, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians we read:

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:13-14).

Like winter, spring, summer and fall, Jesus change everything. When we embrace Jesus as our Savior and Lord, it is like the whole world tilts on its axis. Our whole world revolves around Jesus the Christ who is the center of our universe. We live for the praise of his glory. We believe Christ is God’s plan for all time.

Thus, our new year does not begin on New Year’s Eve watching a ball drop in a square shining bright with the lights of commercialism and materialism joyfully singing Auld Lang Syne with a few friends. Our new year has its beginning on a dark November morning around a simple Advent wreath, lighting one meager candle solemnly singing Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.

Our new year does not begin with a celebratory toast commemorating our accomplishments of a past year. It begins with a small cup of juice confessing our sins and our shortcomings, recognizing our need for repentance, forgiveness, and a savior.

Christmas is not about the exchanging of many gifts or even the love our family and friends have for us. Christmas is about one special gift of God’s self in the birth of that Savior revealing the love of God for all people.

The first Sunday in January is not about putting Christmas and an old year behind us and looking forward to a new year. It is about reflecting on the influence the birth of the Savior has on our lives, our community and our world.

The month continues with the season of Epiphany where we witness this Savior go down the banks of the Jordan River to begin fulfilling God’s plan for all time through his public baptism.

We watch with amazement, as although he is the Savior of the World, he is still driven into the wilderness where he experiences the trials and temptations of this world, the same ones we all experience.

Then, astonishingly, we hear our names called when he calls the names of Simon, Andrew, James and John asking them to drop everything to follow him wherever he leads them. And with the other disciples, we follow. We follow courageously, anxiously, unwittingly, even somewhat reluctantly. But we follow.

We were with him when he healed the sick. We were there when he gave sight to the blind, touched and restored a leper, brought peace to a man possessed by demons, defended and forgave a sinner. We were with him when he lifted up the poor and challenged the establishment by speaking truth to power. We were there when he became angry at the religious people and turned over tables in the temple of organized religion.

The month of February features Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. It is a season of acknowledging that we were also with the disciples when they deserted him. We, too, left him in the garden of Gethsemane when he was arrested. We acknowledge our association with Peter who denied that he ever knew him, and we confess our connection with Thomas who betrayed him on that dark night.

Lent is the season that our need for forgiveness is most fully revealed, as is our need to renew our mission to deny ourselves, to pick up our own cross and die to self.

And on Good Friday, we learn that if we give ourselves away, if we die to self, if we join Jesus in that prayer to our God, “not my will, but yours be done,” when the evil of this world throws everything that it has to throw at us, when evil comes to destroy us, when evil finally seeks to take the very life from us, evil does not and cannot win. For what it has come to destroy has already been given away. Our lives have already been placed into the hands our God who holds them for all of eternity.

During the season of Easter, we celebrate this good news. We celebrate the good news that God is always working in this world working all things together for the good. God is always wringing whatever good can by wrung out of life’s most difficult moments. God is always lavishing our sins with grace, transforming our sorrows into joy, our despair into hope, our defeats into victory and our deaths into life.

During the season of Pentecost we celebrate the good news that Christ continually comes to us through God’s Holy Spirit. God continues to guides this world. We believe that the same grace and love that Jesus taught and lived out throughout his ministry is still alive in this world today.

Then we enter into a season that the Church calls “Ordinary Time.” It is a season to reflect on what the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of the Lord mean to us and our world. However, when one truly does that, one discovers that there is no such thing as any ordinary time. All time, when Christ is influencing it, guiding it, informing it, giving it direction and meaning, all time is extraordinary. There is no secular time. There is only holy time. When our lives are directed by Jesus, even our darkest, most dreadful, difficult days are divine days.

And our year does not end on December 31, but on a Sunday in November we call Christ the King Sunday. We celebrate the good news that when it is all said and done, in the last analysis of it all, Jesus Christ, the God who is fully revealed in his birth, life, death and resurrection, is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Thus, the good news for all of us this day is that it is January 4th, and the Christmas tree is still standing, the lights are still burning, and it is not tacky or even strange. Because like winter, spring, summer and fall, when Christ came into our lives, the whole world tilted on its axis and everything on this earth, including us, changed forever. We are no longer on the world’s clock, on the world’s schedule or calendar. Our hope and our calendar is set on Christ, God’s plan for all time, and we live for his glory. It is Christ, and only Christ, who guides our lives, informs our thinking, and gives us direction and meaning. Thanks be to God.

Christmas Begins in the Wilderness

TheGriswoldFamilyChristmasTreeMark 1:6-8 NRSV

When does Christmas begin for you? Was it on Black Friday at the mall, or while watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Was it last Sunday morning as the first candle of Advent was lit in this place? When does it start? When do you begin to realize the good news that is Christmas? Where are you when it happens? On the Town Common during the annual Christmas tree lighting? Walking down Main Street during the Taste of Farmville? Going caroling with the children from church? Maybe it is not until Christmas Eve, as you light your candle and sing, Silent Night. Perhaps it is when you are alone at home, listening to Christmas music and decorating your own tree.

For Mark, the good news of Christmas begins in what most of us would call a strange and unexpected place. Unlike us, the good news of Christmas does not start with some warm sentimental scene. And unlike Matthew and Luke, for Mark, the good news of Christmas does not begin with heavenly visitations, choirs of angels, the worship of shepherds, a star rising in the East, or Magi bearing gifts. For Mark, Christmas does not even begin with a little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

For Mark, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the good news of Emmanuel, God with us, the good news of Christmas, begins somewhere out in the wilderness. And he is not talking about some snow-covered winter wonderland where the Griswold’s find their family Christmas tree.

For Jewish people aware of their history, Christmas begins in that place that was experienced somewhere between slavery in Egypt and the Promised Land. Somewhere out in that place of testing, trial and temptation, somewhere out in that place of doubt, dread and despair, that place where you do not know if you want to live or die, that place with the Red Sea swelling before you and Pharaoh’s army advancing behind you. That place where Elijah fled to save his life from Jezebel’s army and then prayed for God to take his life away. That place where even Christmas himself would be haunted by wild beasts and tempted by Satan. For Mark, Christmas begins in the most strange and unexpected place, a raw, dangerous place called the wilderness.

The beginning of the good news that is Christmas occurs in that place where God seems to be against you, or appears to be so far away that you doubt God’s very existence—suffering in an intensive care unit at the hospital, laying in utter misery in a nursing home, holding the hand of a parent with Alzheimer’s, picking out a casket for a spouse in a funeral home, at home anxiously trying to pay your monthly bills, in the middle of a fight with a loved one, in Pearl Harbor 73 years ago this hour, in any place where people are overtaken by tension and terror, overwhelmed by despair and disappointment, or overcome by sin and shame.

Last weekend, I was at home trying to get my own Christmas started as I do every weekend after Thanksgiving. However, this year it began a little differently, you might say it began strangely and unexpectedly.

Instead of decorating my tree this year with Christmas music playing in the background, I decorated it while watching the local news. As I hung ornaments, I listened to the tragic story of a high school student killed in an automobile accident outside of Pinetops. As I turned on the lights of the tree, I glanced up to see pictures of mothers with their children escaping from war-torn Syria into refugee camps in Lebanon. I saw images of many children: some starving, others injured, some dying, others sick, all very afraid. I saw gruesome images of parents holding the lifeless body of their child. And I thought to myself, “I need to turn this depressing mess off and put on something a little more Christmasy.”

Then it occurred to me. This may be as close to Christmasy as it gets, for this is Christmas in the wilderness. The Good News according to Mark concurs that this is Christmas, raw Christmas. This is where Christmas truly begins. This is Christmas untamed and undecorated. For Christmas began when God came into a depressing mess.

And no matter how hard we try, no matter how much energy we expend or how much money we spend; we cannot escape the raw truth of it. Christmas begins, says Mark, with a “voice crying out in the wilderness.” And there is no music, no matter how Christmasy, that we can play loud enough to drown out this voice. There are no decorations glitzy enough and no lights bright enough to temper this voice.

This voice can be heard throughout every refugee camp in Lebanon and by every parent mourning the loss of their child. It can be heard in every intensive care unit, in every nursing home and funeral home. This voice can be heard in every wilderness, in every depressing mess on earth.

Through the good news of Christmas, God is crying out: I am for you; not against you. I am with you; not away from you. And I am more real, more alive, and more at work in this world than you can sometimes believe. As the prophet Isaiah said: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isa 43:19).

The good news is: Christmas does not begin with us. It does not begin when we get the house all decorated or get all of our shopping done. We do not have to host a Christmas party or even go to one. We don’t even have to go to church, light a candle or sing a carol. Christmas begins with God and with a voice crying out in the wilderness, in those places where we may least expect it, but need it the most.

Some of us know that Luke tells his beloved Christmas story in chapter 2 of his gospel. However, I believe he perhaps tells it more poignantly in chapter 10.

A man was traveling down a wilderness road that was so dangerous that it was sometimes called “the way of blood” or “the bloody pass.” And there out in the wilderness, the man fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, leaving him half dead on the side of the road. As the man lay on the roadside, somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho, somewhere between life and death, wanting to live, but also maybe wanting to die, he is ignored by two religious leaders who are also traveling down the same road.

God only knows why these men who you would expect to stop and help ignored the man. Perhaps they thought the robbers were still nearby, or maybe they thought the man lying on ground was only pretending, playing some sort of trick, so that when they came near him, he would beat and rob them. For whatever reason, they believed it was much too risky for them to stop.

Then came this one, Luke calls him a Samaritan, which means this was someone who was despised and rejected by the religious establishment, someone who was often misunderstood and rarely respected, someone who knew something about pain and brokenness, betrayal and abandonment, God-forsakenness; someone who had spent many days and nights in the wilderness himself, tempted and tried.

This one who was the least expected to stop and help, saw the man. He saw the man’s wounds, saw the man’s fear, saw the man’s despair and was moved with mercy and compassion. And there in the wilderness he risked his own life, as he sacrificially came to him, selflessly bent himself down to the ground, and joined the man.

The man did not have to do anything to make this one come to him. Out of pure love, unconditional and unreserved, this one just came. He then touched the man where the man most needed touching, pouring oil and wine on the man’s wounds and bandaging them. He then picked the man up and safely carried him out of the wilderness. He stayed with him, at his side through the darkness of the night. When morning came, he paid for the man’s debts, and made the promise: “I will come back. I will return.”

Of course, we call this “The Story of the Good Samaritan.” However, I believe it should be called, “The Story of Christmas.” A story that begins with a voice of mercy and compassion crying out in the wilderness, in those strange, dangerous places where we least expect it, but most need it.

Hospice caregivers will often speak of a dying person “rallying” for a brief time right before death. A person who has been non-responsive will begin to talk. One who has been confused or disoriented will become suddenly coherent. And those who have not had any food for sometimes days may request something to eat or drink. As a pastor, I have seen this “rally” more times than I can possibly count. I am not sure exactly why it happens; I just know that it happens, and it happens often.

My faith tells me that it is Christmas. It is God seeing one lying in the wilderness in their weakest, most broken state, seeing one in their most desperate, most vulnerable need, and it is God being moved with mercy and compassion for that one. It is a voice crying out from the heavens into the wilderness: “I am for you, not against you, I am with you, not away from you. I am Emmanuel. I will risk my own life for you. I will give my all to take care of your wounds and to pick you up, to forgive all of your debts. And when you are ready, I will come back, and I will take you unto myself, so that where I am, you will also be.”

The good news for us this day is that Christmas comes to us all when we confess that we are all half dead, lying on some wilderness road east of Eden, beaten up so badly by this sinful world that no one can tell whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, black or white, slave or free.[i] Whenever we confess our brokenness, our sinfulness, and our need for a Savior, a voice from heaven cries out in our wilderness and Christmas comes. Christmas always comes.

When does Christmas begin for you? When does it start? Where are you when you begin to realize the good news that is Christmas? The good news, according to Mark, is that Christmas begins when and where you may least expect it, but need it the most.

[i] This sentence is adapted from words spoken by Frank Tupper in one of my theology classes at Southern Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, 1989-1992.

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!