The Church & Cultural Cocktails

The problem isn’t that the American church is hopelessly out of touch with the larger culture; the problem is that we have bought into it hook, line and sinker.
We too are staggering drunk on a cultural cocktail of consumerism, radical individualism, and western imperialism; all while proclaiming the Christ who eschewed worldly possessions, preached a radical love for our neighbor, and said that those who live by the sword will die by it.

It’s like your friend, stinking of booze and sobbing on your shoulder, swearing they’re not drunk. The only dilemma is deciding which is worse: their liquor problem or the fact that they’re lying to themselves about it.

Sermon: A Community From the Future

Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 comprise the single largest body of Jesus’ direct teachings that we have recorded in the New Testament. These chapters combined are commonly referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount” because Jesus gives this entire discourse from the, well, side of a mountain. Although the title may not be super creative, the text itself is controversial, poignant, and provocative. Here’s a few verses you may recognize.

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard it will be measured to you.” (7:1-2)
“Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (7:7)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘ An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (5:38-39)

But like all great texts this manifesto has a beginning and so it’s there that I would like to focus today.

Read Matthew 5:1-12

Makarios
The word repeated multiple times in this section is the word blessed, which in other translations is rendered happy, though I think blessed is to be preferred. They’re both translating the greek word makarios which in the New Testament communicates the idea of being supremely blessed because one is in the position of receiving the favor of God. What is repeated throughout this passage is that those who find themselves in the circumstances described: poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for God, giving mercy, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted, and reviled are, despite all appearances to the contrary, in the place to receive the Yes of God.

Now of course there’s a certain ironic tension in the passage because so many of the circumstances described don’t sound like someone who has the favor of God. I grew up in the mildly charismatic wing of Christendom so notions of the blessing or favor of God were a common topic of conversation. However, we often associated the favor of God with outward signs of worldly or spiritual success. Thus, if someone received a promotion at work they had the favor of God; or if they were a very good speaker or singer they had the favor of God. In other words, if things make sense and seem to be going well then surely that’s God and if not, well… And that’s exactly what makes the blessings of Matthew 5:1-12 so shocking, they utterly undermine the very things we want to proclaim are signs of God’s favor.

Where we prize external wealth, both physical (Luke 6) and spiritual (Matthew 5), Christ says it’s those who are destitute who have his blessing. Where we point to those who are happy and whole, Christ says it’s the mourners that he’s close to. Where we we prize the movers and the shakers, Christ says it’s only the meek that can be entrusted with care of the earth. Where we appreciate a certain moderation in our spirituality, Christ says it’s those racked by hunger and ravaged by thirst for righteousness who will be satisfied. Where we appreciate a world in which the guilty get what’s coming to them, Christ says it’s the merciful ones who see clearly. Where we find someone with a misty eyed purity to be a bit naive of the way the world really works, Christ says it’s they who will ultimately see God. Where we value a certain machismo that returns a punch with a punch and a bullet with a bullet, Christ says it’s the peacemakers who are His sons and daughters. Where we think a little religion is helpful, maybe even to be admired, appropriate for the private sphere; Christ said it’s those whose faithfulness brings them into opposition with the powers that be who will receive the kingdom.

All this begs the question: what sort of logic is operating here? Is he calling darkness light and evil good? Is Jesus, for example, with the statement poor in spirit claiming that bone crushing poverty or spiritual despair is a good thing? Is he claiming that people wracked with grief over the death of a loved one should be smiling at their loss because it’s a delightful blessing from the good Lord?

Think Future
No. Rather Jesus is thinking, and you’ll have to forgive the fancy theological term here, eschatologically. And by that I mean he’s thinking of the future, of what the Bible calls the last days, the time when God will be all in all. In the Scriptures the books that deal most prominently with eschatology are Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, the Gospel of Matthew, and of course the often misunderstood book of Revelation — though eschatological ideas are in the background of nearly all of the Christian Scriptures even if they’re not referred to explicitly.

Now most people, perhaps many of us sitting here this morning, have a very pessimistic view of the world because our eyes are open. We see our friends pain, we know our own struggles, we are not naive of the senselessness and brutality that human beings are capable of. We know the things that destroy individuals: greed, rage, adultery, jealousy, alcoholism, abuse. We understand the violence and the lies that entire nations are built upon, systems of racism, slavery, economic exploitation, war. You do not need to tell us the horror of the world. We get it. It’s dark out there. Yet, not just out there, it’s dark in here, in us. At a core level we resonate with the rhetorical questions asked by a soldier in the war movie “The Thin Red Line”:

“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth?”

Now young people are starry eyed and they think they’re going to change it. They’re going to end all this brutality and senselessness. But the older folks know better. They know that young people have always thought that. And thus what begins as a certain shock at the world’s horrors and a frenzied effort to change it, as we age turns into a creeping cynicism that says this is all just natural, it’s just the way things are and always will be. Of course, we don’t think of it as cynicism, we call it realism.

However, to be Christian is to be given a new story, and in this story God does not abandon us. The Old Testament prophets called it “The Day of The Lord”, Jesus referred to it as the kingdom of Heaven, and the Apostle Paul called it New Creation but they were all pointing to the same thing — the moment of the in-breaking and rupture of God in the world, the point at which all of history has been driving at, the time when God acts decisively to wipe all tears from all eyes; that time when as the prophet Isaiah foretold “the lion will lay down with the lamb… they will beat their spears into plowshares, and their swords, into pruning hooks, when nation will not up take up sword against nation, and they will not train for war anymore”; that time when as the book of Revelation so stunningly says in chapter 21 verse 5 “Behold, I am making all things new.” or as 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.”

So to bring us back to Matthew 5, what we have to realize is that we are an eschatological people, an alien people, a people from the future, a people operating according to a different logic, a people living not according to what is, but that which will come. We are living a different story. And it’s a story that turns all our notions of what’s realistic and natural on their heads. In this story, it’s actually the poor, the mourners, the gentle, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers who are the realistic ones. And I think what Jesus would say is this: don’t be surprised if in the midst of a violent and fear ridden world you find yourself persecuted and reviled.

Think Communally
Now, you may be thinking that these descriptions of people sound great — these peace loving, merciful, gentle Christian people — but it’s not you. You couldn’t possibly live up to the standards that Jesus lays out in Matthew 5:1-12, much less the entire Sermon on the Mount. Which brings us to point number two and our conclusion for this morning.

As westerners we tend to read every passage as though it’s written to us individually, when really the Scriptures are nearly always directed to communities of people. In fact, the way this passage began is by Jesus speaking to his 12 disciples and a crowd of people. Also, the pronoun that’s repeated over and over throughout these verses are “they”. Blessed are the poor in spirit for they… blessed are the gentle for they… etc. My point is that though there’s certainly a high standard of Christian discipleship being voiced here, we have to keep in mind that we are all together the body of Christ. In other words, no one of us will live this out perfectly, but together we are the hands and feet of Jesus. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas says in his book The Cross Shattered Church, “So look around you, expect to see those who are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and the persecuted. Jesus does not say that we should try to be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, persecuted. Rather he says that you should not be surprised that those called to serve in his cross shaped kingdom will find among you those who have learned to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

Let us pray.

Karl Barth On Prayer

As I’ve slowly worked my way through Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics this year one of the spiritual disciplines I’ve been able to return to half way consistently is that of prayer. Coming out of a strong charismatic tradition I had felt a certain aversion to prayer for some time, because it felt like a return to the, somewhat angsty, faith of my teenage years. Though I had a certain thirst for God then, my path to finding Him was full of guilt and striving after something that felt unattainable. I felt a pressure to feel something that I suspected I wasn’t feeling. Though I talked a big game as far as the grace of God was supposed to go, deep down I was about as Pelagian as they come: work work work, pursue pursue pursue, try try try.  The reason revival tarried was because I wasn’t on my knees long enough. Prayer was like a witches brew; an assortment of magical ingredients including rocking back and forth, forced emotion (hopefully tears because surely that’s the Spirit), clinched fists, and most important of all – time to simmer. Five minutes of prayer was for babies. Twenty minutes of prayer was for small children. Thus it was one hour of prayer or bust. Of course, I found one hour of prayer to be rather boring and difficult — though I could never admit such a thing — so the reality was I spent most of time feeling guilty for my lack of prayer. I was really quite insane.

But Karl Barth has somehow nudged me reluctantly back into this world through his description of prayer as something very childlike and simple. He wrote, “To pray is to ask.” (1) That’s it? I wondered aloud. Barth continued,”A request, or even a series of requests, is soon uttered if it is close to our hearts. Hence true prayer may and must probably be short rather than long.” (2)  Short rather than long? I was confused, but it was a good confusion. The passages haunted me for days. Until one morning, I found myself on my knees again. No great man of God. No spiritual genius. Just me, Brett, like a child – asking. Asking that my kids would not grow up and hate me, but that they would be kind. Asking that my brother and sister in-law would not be so sad anymore since they lost their two little boys. Asking that my wife still love me, and I her. No rending of the heavens occurred. I did not cry. But something about it seemed pure. “I think I will pray tomorrow.” I thought to myself.

 

 

1 – (CD III.4 – pg.91)

2 – (CD III.4 – pg.112)

One Lord (Sermon)

Here is a link to the video version of the sermon: http://vimeo.com/75723695  Below is the manuscript I wrote prior to the sermon. While similar, it’s not exactly like the spoken version.

Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is Lord.

How does that phrase ring in your ears? How does it resonate in your heart?

For many this phrase elicits a “Hallelujah” and a “praise God.” For them it contains echoes of hope and notes of grace. For them the fact that Jesus is the Lord, the King; the fact that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Him (Colossians 1:19) means there’s hope for their lives. They are willing to shout from the rooftops that Jesus is Lord because they have invited the king of glory into their hearts and he rules and reigns there. For them the statement elicits feelings of hope. They are right, I think.

However, for others the phrase sounds like noisy gongs and clanging symbols – just so much religious noise. Perhaps at one time it meant something, but all we have now is a meaningless echo. Jesus is Lord is just another cheap phrase casually gracing the front of too many Christian t-shirts. Jesus is Lord is simply another phrase mindlessly mouthed from too many pulpits and Sunday School classes each week. Jesus is Lord  is a Christian cliche, a phrase so overused that it has lost all meaning. Perhaps at one time this meant something revolutionary. Perhaps at one time this meant something deep and profound, but that meaning seems to be lost to us now. They are right, I think.

But there is a third group, and this may come as a surprise to many of us, but there are people of other faiths and no faith here this morning; there are people of color and/or different nationalities who hear the phrase “Jesus is Lord” and experience a certain anxiety in their hearts. Why? Because they know that this phrase carries in it’s history the idea of Christian triumphalism and colonialism. In other words, we (as white Europeans or white Americans depending on the country) are the kings kids and the kings kids have a — perhaps you’ve heard the evil phrase — “manifest destiny”, a destiny to conquer these lands and their native people’s in the name of Christ. Historically the people with the words Jesus is Lord on their lips, have had their hands covered in blood. Thus for a small, but no less significant, group of people this statement elicits feelings of anxiety and fear. They are right, I think.

So this morning I want to invite you to re-imagine and re-think this ancient phrase by meditating on two statements – the first of which is this:

If Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not.

Today when we ascribe the title Lord to Jesus we generally mean something purely religious. What we often mean is that Jesus is the Lord of our hearts. The heart here serves as a metaphor for our inner, private, and religious lives. It is the part of us that we nurture when we come to church, pray with our children, or read the Bible. It is that part of us that only our closest friends and family know. It is the solitude and inwardness we bring to a time of personal prayer or some other religious ritual that we have. That is what we often mean by heart, and thus what we often mean when we say that Jesus is our Lord. He is the Lord of our private, inner, religious lives. However, this stands in stark contrast to our Facebook selves. By that I mean our public and external selves. What we often don’t mean when we say Jesus is Lord is our political selves. What we often don’t mean when we say Jesus is Lord is our business selves, our financial selves, our community selves, our PTA selves, our Saturday morning kids soccer selves. You see those are all things which participate in the public sphere, and in America today there’s a large segment of the population which views religion as pertaining to the private sphere. This is why it wouldn’t be unusual for someone to say something to the effect of “Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.” Thus, when we come to verses like the following all we can hear are theological statements that pertain to our private lives.

(Rom. 1:7) “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

(1Cor.1:10) “Now I exhort you brothers in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

(1Cor.2:8) “…for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”

(Rom.10:9) “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”

In other words, all we can hear in these verses are spiritual truths to be meditated on during a quiet time, however what may surprise us to hear is that for the earliest Christians, including the Apostle Paul, the statement “Jesus is Lord” was a deeply political statement. Now let me unpack that a bit.

During the first century — the time of Christ, the earliest Christians including Paul, and the time when the NT was written — there was another gospel (good news) that was gaining in popularity throughout the ancient world known as the Pax Romana or Roman Peace. Now this may sound wonderful, and for a small percentage of the people at the top of the Roman Societal food chain it clearly was, but to the eyes of the Jewish people who were under Roman occupation it was an oppressive situation. Imagine if you woke up one morning, peeked out your window, and saw tanks rolling through the streets. Imagine if you heard a knock at the door, a door you cautiously opened, only to encounter a man pointing a machine gun at you and his first words were “I bring you peace.” I’m sure you might feel a wee bit differently about his interpretation of the situation. In other words, this Roman “peace” was the same version of peace offered by every empire from time immemorial, it was a peace founded on coercion and violence. It was a gospel that did not ask or invite it’s hearers into new ways of thinking and being, but demanded it. It was a gospel (euanggelion) that promised salvation (soteria) for the whole world. And at the head of this religious movement was one they called the prince of peace, emperor, and Lord: Caesar Augustus. Here’s an excerpt from an inscription chiseled into the side of a Roman government building dated 6 b.c. It’s obviously propaganda, but see if you can catch some of the New Testament language coming through.

The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura;  Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all . . . The beginning of life and vitality . . . All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year . . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order;  and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest /PHANEIS/, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times . . . the birthday of the god (Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of good news /EVANGELION/ concerning him.   (Shane Claiborne, JESUS FOR PRESIDENT, p 70)

Savior, god manifest (god among us), good news: these are all words from the most popular religious movement at that time known as the Roman Imperial Cult. It was a religion that deified Caesar Augustus thus solidifying his right to rule the known world, and generally served as a unifying force in the empire because nothing brings people together like a common religion. So if you walked up to some random person in the 1st century and asked “Who is the Lord?” without missing a beat they would have answered “Caesar is Lord.” If you had asked them, “What is the gospel?” they would have answered that Caesar and his promise of peace for the world was the good news. With this historical background in mind it becomes more clear that common New Testament words like gospel and salvation, or phrases like kingdom of God and Jesus is Lord, which we hear as cute biblical sayings and spiritual niceties were actually high treason. To proclaim that the cross dead and resurrected Jesus is Lord, is to imply that Caesar is not. In other words, Jesus is Lord was an incredibly profound theological statement and a deeply subversive political statement.

So here is the question we have to ask ourselves: who are the Caesar’s of our day, and who are the Empires of our day? If you’ve ever read the Old Testament you know that mankind has been fashioning idols for thousands of years. The god’s mentioned in those pages were god’s of power, fertility, and tribal identity, they were god’s with the names of Molech, Baal, Astarte, and Amon. Now it’s easy for us to laugh at those ancient ones with their silly gods. In fact, maybe we even find the notion of an emperor casting himself as a god slightly humorous. Who could believe in such silly notions. And yet, if you scratch the surface you find that we continue in the deity business with the god’s of Nationalism, Race, Class, Consumption, and Profit. These are the structures for which people die. These are the structures for which people kill. These are the notions that oppress and tear our world apart today. And these are the deities that as Christian’s we must realize that Jesus dethrones. In other words, if Jesus is Lord than America or any other nation that sets itself up as supreme is not. If Jesus is Lord then racism is not. If Jesus is Lord then global capitalism with it’s notions of class, consumption, and profit are not.

Can you see now why this was such a scandal to 1st century listeners. Now I recognize that I’m stepping on toes. In fact, perhaps stepping isn’t the right word, I realize I’m jumping on toes, but I believe it’s not until we squirm in our seats that we’re beginning to understand the shock and scandal of the statement Jesus is Lord to 1st century ears.

Now I think this first point addresses the concerns of the 2nd group, which I mentioned earlier, however I haven’t addressed the third group’s concerns. Aren’t we just setting Jesus up as the new Caesar here? Aren’t we simply replacing one oppressive notion of god with another? This brings us to the second statement which I’d like to submit for us to meditate on:

Jesus the crucified is Lord.

I was recently reading my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, when I came across about twenty pages where he discusses the atheist german philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote books with the titles of “Anti-Christ” and strongly critiqued Christianity, so his analysis really surprised me because what he basically says is that Nietzsche got Christianity in a way that even the most faithful of Christians often miss. In his book “The Genealogy of Morals” Nietzsche sums it up this way (of course I’m paraphrasing). In the ancient world, before Christianity, people used to be awesome. By awesome I mean that people used to value power, glory, victory, and warfare. The coolest kid on the block was the strongest kid on the block. Before Christianity came along people wanted to be winners. People wanted to conquer. If you wanted something then you took it. If you wanted to conquer a people or nation then you did, and you didn’t even feel bad about it. Yes indeed, those were the good ol’ days Nietzsche thought but then something terrible occurred. A notion so deplorable, so reprehensible, but for some reason so contagious, that it changed everything. The notion was this “GOD – ON – THE – CROSS.” This was a monstrosity! This was an embarrassment. Who ever heard of a God hanging naked, humiliated, and weak on a cross. Who ever heard of a God broken and bleeding. No No No! God is supposed to be like Caesar: powerful, victorious, violent. God is not supposed to be humble, forgiving, and lowly.

Now on this point Nietzsche wasn’t much different from ancient Roman’s like Cicero who were quite offended and scandalized by the notion of a God hanging on the cross. But what Nietzsche saw with stunning clarity is that this notion of God-on-the-cross meant a revolution in the values of people who believed that Jesus, the crucified one, is Lord. In other words, he realized that this would mean a community of people who were radical champions of the helpless, the neighbor, and their fellow man (Barth). These were not going to be people who valued only themselves and their own sovereignty as individuals – the captains of their own ship, the masters of their own fate, the people living life as Sinatra said “My way.” No, taking their cue from the cross, these were going to be communities of people who loved all things lowly and despised: poor people, old people, very young people, sick people, physically handicapped people, and mentally ill or handicapped people. Of course, Nietzsche with his infamous ‘Will-to-power’ wanted nothing to do with this type of ethics, but I wonder do we who call ourselves Christian’s embrace this perspective?

I believe this notion of God-on-the-cross is also the crucial insight for the apostle Paul. He writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18-28 (Read passage). Paul realized that in the eyes of most people of his time the cross was a shameful thing, but that what is shameful and weakness in the eyes of man, is actually the glory of God on full display. So to address the concerns of the doubters, the group who knows that Christendom itself can often become itself an evil empire: oppressing the weak and vulnerable in the name of God, we need a theological perspective that has the cross right at it’s very heart. We are called to the be community of the crucified – the cross bearing people.

Let us pray.

Reflections on a sexist society

Below is an excerpt from a comment left in my last post that reflects on my experience of coming to grips with patriarchy and sexism.

You and I are sexist not because we “mean” to be, not because we feel in our hearts that we are, not because we’d ever in a million years admit to such a thing, but because we were raised in an incredibly sexist society. It’s not something you have to try really hard to learn, it’s the default. This is especially true if you grew up in the church where men have all the power and women watch the children. This is especially true if in your home men were the “rational” ones while women were the “emotional” ones, if men were seen as natural leaders while women were natural homemakers, if men could come home, kick their shoes off, and be served all evening while the women (who also worked all day watching children, cleaning the house, etc.) now has to scuttle around feeding and cleaning up after the man until she collapses exhausted into bed (then rinse and repeat for the next 60 years). Now in this scenario a man is sexist not by virtue of being extraordinarily mean to his wife, but by simply participating in a sexist society – by speaking and living in ways that reinforce a sexist system. Of course, the trick is that as a male he is almost completely blind to his privilege. I say almost because it’s normal for him to have a bit of a guilty conscience about some of this, although he’s normally able to tell himself a story about how good he is to his women by comparing himself to some wife-beater down the street. Also, even if he does begin to become open to the idea that he just may be operating in “slightly” sexist ways, as a person of privilege in this scenario he completely and utterly fails to realize just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Which is why he desperately needs women, especially so called radical feminists (who he might formerly have ignorantly called “femi-nazis” or some other garbage – of course he’d never so much as cracked one of their books) to help him see the world through the eyes of an oppressed women. Of course, he can never fully identify but slowly he begins to notice just how pervasive and difficult it is to root out his sexist ways of thinking, speaking, and being in the world. These roots go deep. They’ve been en-culturated in him since he was a child. The fact is, he’ll probably never fully recover. The best he can hope to do is to try his best to pay attention to himself, and to listen humbly to the women in his life and those willing to speak to him through books & articles. But there has to be a level of trust here. He has to trust these women and their stories, because honestly it’s an outsider conversation to him. He simply hasn’t experienced the world in the way they have. He’s operated his whole life, at least in this area, as a privileged person. That means he’s simply not in the position to criticize women and feminists. He simply can’t tell them how they should go about working for their freedom. In fact, he needs to see any tendency within himself to do just that as deeply suspect, as potentially part of a latent sexism that told him that if he had an opinion about women then he had every right to say it and they sure as hell better listen! If he feels compelled to help in some way then he needs to go to women and ask how he can help in the larger cause. Not because he’s giving them permission to take the reigns in the conversation. It’s actually the opposite. He needs their permission to support them. Why? Because frankly they don’t trust that a man can follow, that he can overcome his sexist upbringing and truly operate as their social “lesser” in this situation.

Towards a Racially Reconciled Church (Sermon)

(Note: This sermon was delivered to Journey Church in Dallas TX on June 9, 2013)

Joel 2:28-29 “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions, Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”

Acts 2:5-6 “Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.”

So most of us probably know the story of Acts 2, it’s the story of that little community of the crucified, instructed by the risen Lord to go to Jerusalem to a room and wait. For what? For the Holy Spirit of course, that Spirit of Christ, that mystery of His continued presence among us. It’s the reason we can say today that because two or more are gathered here – Christ is here. It’s the reason we say that everywhere the thirsty are given sparkling cold water, the shivering naked are clothed, and the swollen bellies of the starving are fed – Christ is there. It’s the reason we can say with confidence that on this earth, our hands are Jesus’ hands, our feet are Jesus’ feet, and that we are now the agents of healing and reconciliation for a world desperately in need of such things. Not because of some pietistic inwardness that makes us worthy to make such outlandish statements, but rather because like little children we have received the gift of the Spirit. But who is this Spirit?

The Spirit & Filioque
One of the more famous doctrinal disputes that contributed to the split between the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic & Protestant) churches, is a controversy about the nature of the Holy Spirit, that’s often referred to as the (Fily-o-kwe) Filioque controversy. Filioque is Latin for the phrase “And from the Son”, so the dispute centered around the addition of that phrase into the Nicene Creed. The original Greek version of the Nicene Creed reads “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, from the Father proceeding” while the later Latin rendering is “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who from the Father and the Son proceeds.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. Who the heck cares? Seriously, this is the problem with theology right? These stupid theologians have no lives and so they spend their miserable existence getting all bent out of shape about some obscure doctrinal point that ultimately ends up splitting the Church! Good grief. Now there’s a grain of truth in that, because there was certainly a political power struggle going on there, however at the risk of being lumped in with people who don’t have interesting lives, I’m going to suggest that this does offer a helpful clarification, and here’s why.

The Spirit at Barnes & Noble
Walk into any Barnes and Noble and you’ll see a whole section devoted to New Age and Spirituality. Apparently, the idea of the spirit and a vague notion of spirituality is extremely popular in our culture. We all know the folks with a sort of pseudo western Buddhist notion of how “like everything is one man, and how you, like, just need to get into the spirit and you’ll see that we’re, like, spirit too. Like, everything is spirit.” And I think sometimes we need to be reminded that the Spirit spoken of throughout the Scriptures isn’t just any spirit, but the Spirit that proceeds from Christ. So whatever it was that Jesus was up to: bringing people who normally tried to avoid each other around tables for meals, expanding our concept of who we call our “neighbor”, or announcing that the family of God is bigger and more expansive than we ever thought possible, then the Spirit of Christ will be up to very similar things. In other words, this Spirit is the continuation and expansion of the reconciling, healing, and unifying work of Christ in the world. And of course, that’s exactly what we find in Acts 2. We get this expansive stunning picture of a God poured out. But there are two important questions that need to be answered.

Where is the Spirit Poured Out?
First, where is the Spirit poured out? Notice that it isn’t in the opulant or powerful places of the world. There is no talk of palaces, temples, or holy places. Instead this is a Spirit of the common people, one who is found literally in the streets. Which again, makes perfect sense if this isn’t just any Spirit but the Spirit of Christ; the Christ who had harsh words for the high and mighty but was known as the friend of sinners, beggars, and ragamuffins. If that’s true then it’s no surprise that Spirit isn’t found where incense burns and candles flicker surrounded by clean people whispering hushed words, but instead right in the middle of the world. Right in the middle of a crowded corner: with the shit of donkeys as her incense, the broiling heat of the sun for light, with dope dealers on the and the the yelling of merchants hawking their wears as the background for this momentous occasion. This tells us something very important about who this God has always been. He has always been God-with-us. With us in our fleshly, smelly, bodily lives.

Who is the Spirit Poured Out On?
But the second question is who is the Spirit poured out on? Notice, it’s not King Herod, or the Jewish religious or political leaders, as the Old Testament precedent had been. Instead, there is this eruption, this excess of God that overruns every border and boundary we could set up. The Spirit, as echoed in the book of Joel, is poured out on men and women, young and old, slave and free; but it doesn’t stop there. The Spirit of Christ begins to break down every cultural and racial border that we as humans erect. She is given to ‘Parthians, Medes, and Mesopotamians from the East, Libyans and Africans from the West, Romans and Asians from the North, and Egyptians and Arabs to the South. The Spirit is poured out on all known peoples at that time, and this is perhaps the most timely and prophetic point one could draw from the text in our 21st century context because let’s face it – we live in country with roots of racism that go deep into our collective subconscious. And unlike the expansive and diverse picture of the church we see operating in Acts chapter 2 the truth is that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

Talking About Race
Of course, us white folks don’t like to talk about race. It makes us uncomfortable because we desperately want to tell ourselves a story about how we as a society are post-race; how we’re beyond all of this. We want to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a day of remembrance for a battle fought and won long ago. We want to read about issues of race in musty history books, as if it were a problem of the ancients. We want to point to our black president as an example of our progress, sort of a “but my best friend is black!” type argument made on a national level. Yes, we really are quite progressive on this topic; certainly far superior to our racist forefathers. That is until we are accused of racism ourselves. Until we are accused of participating in racist structures and systems of thought. Until we are told that our privileged position as white people in a racist society makes us utterly blind to the suffering of people of color. Until we are told that it is our utter silence in the face of 1,000,000 young black men locked up in prisons, and millions more wasting away in ghettos all over this nation, that condemns us. Then we get downright defensive. How many of us have said ourselves, or heard our supposedly “non-racist” friends & family blurt out “Don’t blame me for the slavery my great grandparents participated in. Don’t blame me for the segregation and dehumanization among black people that occurred during my grandparent’s lives. Don’t you dare try to make me feel guilty about ghettos, violence, and despair occurring today.That’s not my problem.” But it’s the defensive tone that betrays us. The mark of a guilty conscience.

Reverend Wright
An example of how we’re far from post-race as a society is seen in how we as white Christian America responded to accusations of racism from the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church. If you’ll recall he was the pastor of President Barack Obama who came to national prominence during the 2008 election for his famous God Damn America comments, which he made during a sermon at his mostly African American Church. Here’s his famous quote in full – and let me warn you – it’s angry, biting, and incredibly courageous and true.

“And the United States of America’s government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”

Now the reason this quote is so helpful is because it’s an honest description of what many people of color feel in this country but aren’t able to say openly. And we must begin in honesty. We must begin in the truth as defined by the suffering of the oppressed and marginalized communities. In other words, we as a white progressive type Christian’s must relinquish control of this conversation. We don’t get to set the terms of the debate.

What must I do to be saved?
So this is our dilemma. We live in a racist society with profound inequality between whites and people of color. We all know this. Also, we have a complicated history going back hundreds of years. Oh, and finally we have no clear way forward. Which inevitably leads to the question uttered by Cornelius in the book of Acts and by countless Christians since then, “What must we do to be saved?” How do we move forward? How do we live into the powerful vision given us by Acts 2 that’s so blatanlty contradicted by our on-the-ground experience of the American Church? Well as the old saying goes, for every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s usually wrong. In this case, I think that answer is a sort of easy appeal to becoming a multi-cultural church. In other words, we put on our brochures, website, or whatever that in the Spirit of Acts 2 we’re open to all of God’s children attending our services. While certainly well intentioned, I think the reason this strikes me as the wrong direction is because it casts us in the role of leaders and heroes. We come off looking oh so generous as we invite other people to join our culturally set thing. Of course, that’s not how we think of it, but that’s the reality. What if black people, Latinos, or other marginalized groups struggling for survival and a sense of identity don’t want to join our thing? Would we quote Acts 2 at them and condemn them for the boogey man” of reverse-racism?

Instead, I think we should cast ourselves in the role of the learners, the listeners, and the followers. In other words, rather than being the “get-things-done” white Jesus people, perhaps we should realize that we are part of the problem and we may actually have little to no clue on how to solve this. Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is to admit that we have no answer. That we have no idea how to live into this Acts 2 vision. That as people who have been part of the ruling class in this country we really aren’t in the best position to judge how best to solve this problem. To me, that would be the radical move. To go to church leaders of other cultural traditions and admit, “Look, we don’t knw how to fight against a system that we’re complicit with, can you please help us?” So at least on an institutional/church level that’s how I think we proceed. But what about as individuals? Here are three things we can do.

First, admit that racism isn’t just an issue for some people out there, but acknowledge that having been born into a racist society we often function in ways that contribute to and perpetuate racism in America. In other words, we are the problem.

Second, listen earnestly to people of color and let them set the terms of the debate and propose the ways we move forward. In this conversation we are the learners and the listeners – not the finger shakers and soap box ascenders.

Third, branch out in terms of media/arts exposure. This means listening to diverse music, reading books by diverse authors, and getting our news from sources outside of Fox or CNN. If you’re on twitter follow people of color and learn from them. If you read blogs, don’t just read blogs by white people.

And maybe, just maybe after we’ve done that for awhile we will come to understand the ways in which we might live into the reality given us by the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. Let us pray.

Holy God, forgive us for the ways in which we’ve contributed to the hurt and pain in the world. Help us become a humble people: quick to listen and slow to speak. Teach us to weep with those who weep, and how we might best stand in solidarity with people who’s voice has been marginalized. And we take hope with us too: that in a world of Fridays, Sunday and resurrection is coming.

Amen.

The Self Emptying of God – A Sermon

Philippians 2:5-11

Verse 5: Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

Now there are two primary ways this phrase has been interpreted, each with it’s own nuance. The first is how I just read it above, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” The emphasis here is on imitation. Jesus had this particular attitude, this mind, and so we should try and emulate him. However, the second, and I think better translation, is something to this effect “Think this way among yourselves which also you think in Christ Jesus.” In this translation, the emphasis is on the location of the believer. We exist in the fellowship of Christ. We are members of his body, and on that basis we think in certain ways. It’s sort of the difference between your father saying that you need to act like your mother because she’s a really humble person, and him saying that you’re part of the family, and the ethos of this family is that we have a way of being in the world – a way that’s exemplified in your mother.

Verse 6: who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

As children of the enlightenment, the modern era, we’re a people of rights. It’s built right into our constitution, that as humans we have certain ‘inaliable’ rights. Rights that can’t be stolen. You’ll recognize rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or perhaps in the capitalistic world we might say that the capitalist has a right to his profits, or that the worker has a right to a living wage. I’m not against this language of rights per say, it certainly has it’s place, however the example of Jesus models something very different for us because Philippians 2:6 says that Christ was equal with God, however he didn’t see this equality, this position, as something to be held onto; a right to be defended at all costs but rather, as something to be released for the sake of the liberation of others.

vs. 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
vs. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

First, what’s evident here is that Paul doesn’t see the incarnation (God becoming Man) of Jesus as an upward move, but rather a downward move. In other words, he doesn’t begin with this man Jesus and how he was such a religious genius that God ended up highly exalting him. Instead, he begins with the pre-existent Christ who then empties (Ekenosen – kenosis) himself, not of his deity or his God-ness, but an emptying/humbling that allowed him to take on the form (morph-n) of man. So in terms of direction we see a downward movement from pure Spirit into flesh and worldly life.

The other point of interest is to pinpoint exactly what this emptying and humbling consisted of. To do that though, I think we need to understand what it means to be human. There’s an old dead German philosopher named Martin Heidegger who in 1927 published a famous book named “Being & Time.” In that book, he explains that if you want to understand human beings, and specifically if you want to understand what distinguishes us from all other living creatures, then you need to understand that we are ‘Being-Towards-Death’. In other words, what distinguishes humans from all other creatures isn’t simply that we die, but rather that we know we will die. So what’s interesting about Philippians 2:8 is that Paul seems to agree with this analysis and in effect says that this is what the self emptying and humiliation of Christ consisted of, precisely that he not only took the form of human, but that he actually subjected himself to death. But it wasn’t just any death was it? No, it was one of the most humiliating deaths a person can undergo: stripped naked, exposed, humiliated, abandoned by his closest friends, and if we take his cry on the cross from Mark 15:34 seriously then we’d even say he experienced being abandoned by God.

vs. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
vs. 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
vs. 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I recall a friend pointing to a crucifix (You of course, know the difference. A cross is empty, while a crucifix displays the corpse of God.) and telling my brother and I that that crucifix is the difference between us and the Catholics – “the Catholics want to keep Jesus on the Cross.” That crucifix is the difference between us and the Catholics – the Catholics want to keep Jesus on the cross. Now my friend’s anti-Catholic bias came out a bit there, but still I have to admit that this was really insightful theological analysis. Because while I don’t think Catholics deny the resurrection, I do think our crosses tell us something significant. So rather than taking a swipe at Catholics, let me cut at myself, my own tradition, for a moment. The reason we don’t like crucifixes is because for us theologically the resurrection is the negation, the erasing, of the cross. The cross is the humiliation of God, the resurrection is the exaltation. The cross is the humbling of God, the resurrection is his glory. The cross is the moment of loss, when it looked like all was lost, but the resurrection is where God declared that we would not be the losers, but the winners. But that’s not what this hymn seems to be pointing to. Instead the idea is this: in the cross we see the glory of God. That the weakness and humility of Christ was in fact His greatness.

The way we know this is the word “Therefore” (or ‘For’ or ‘Wherefore’ depending on your translation) at the beginning of verse 9. If we were writing the text we might have used the word “Yet, God highly exalted…” or “In spite of this humiliation…” but the text says ‘therefore’. In other words, this self-emptying (kenosis) this self-humiliation isn’t a compromise of His deity, but rather the very expression of it. It’s interesting that in other texts Paul speaks that he’s not ashamed of the Gospel and I wonder if the cross is what he has in mind. That Paul isn’t ashamed by the cross, isn’t ashamed by a God who is for us precisely in his death, a God who’s power is expressed through weakness. A God who’s moment of self humiliation is in fact his glory. As Karl Barth wrote in his wonderful Church Dogmatics, “He is not a God who is what He is in a majesty behind… this cross on Golgotha. On the contrary, the cross on Golgotha is itself the divine majesty…” (C.D. II.1 – pg. 517)

So perhaps our Catholic brothers and sisters have something to teach us with that crucifix, at least insofar as it exists as a symbol that reminds us that we serve not simply the God of glory, omnipotence, power, might, and strength… but that we serve the crucified God. The God who’s strength is not the strength of this world, but is in fact expressed in weakness. The God who’s might is not the might of a Caesar Augustus, or a Barack Obama, or a President Bush, but who’s might is shown in his furious humility and humiliation. The God who’s victory is achieved not by worldly systems of coercion and force and violence, but by sacrificial love. That word ‘therefore’ in verse 9 is so extremely important because it stops us from importing all of our very human and worldly concepts of power, victory, and glory into the text. In other words it stops us from reading verses 9-11, in isolation from verses 6-8.

Reflection & Application

There’s a story towards the end of a popular Christian book that came out a few years ago that’s stuck with me for quite some time. The story is about a small group of Christians on the secular campus of Reid College in Oregon. This college was known as a major party school, and they had a week called ‘Ren Fair’ where all of the students just went crazy: lots of partying, excessive drinking, drugs, people running around literally in the nude – it was pretty wild. So what these Christians were pondering is how on earth they might make an impact during that week. In other words, how could they witness to the reality of Christ in a godless, largely post-Christian environment. So here’s what they came up with: they decided to setup a confessional booth, but not so that the students could confess to them, instead the Christians would confess to the student. And so they did. They built the confession booth right in the middle of campus, they dressed up in robes like monks and when people walked in they’d say something to this effect. “This is a confession booth. It’s a place where confessions are heard, and if you don’t mind I’d like to begin.” And then they would. They’d confess the short comings, the failures, the weaknesses of the church. They confessed their irrational fear and violence towards people in other religions like in the crusades, they confessed their failure towards people of color in this country, they confessed they’re failure towards the LGBT community, they confessed they’re failure to look after the people Christ said to always be on the lookout for – the poor and the needy. On this day, they were the confessors.

To me this is the kenotic – self emptying – move. It’s not about a formula, or a quick list of do’s and don’ts, that ensure you’re sufficiently humble and Christ like. Instead it’s a posture, an invitation to think our faith through the lens of the cross, through the lens of a life poured out. I think that’s what Paul is doing in this passage he’s grabbing our shoulders, looking right into our eyes, and asking us “Do you see? Do you see the implications of the humiliation of God? Do you get what this means for you politically? Do you understand what this means for your patriotism? For your views on war?  For your posture towards the lowly and despised in society? Do you understand, Brett?

This passage in Philippians 2 is an invitation to think our lives, and our churches, in light of the unsettling memory of the crucified God.

Let us pray.

A Time to Embrace – part 3

Based on William Stacey Johnson’s book A Time to Embrace in part one of this series we covered a handful of cultural-philosophical arguments leveled against same sex marriage. In part two we turned to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and reviewed a few of the more prominent verses that touch on ancient homoerotic practices, explored their historical background, and speculated on how they may or may not inform our perspective of same-sex relationships today. In this third and final post we’ll dig a bit more into how we approach the Scriptures and why the church needs to begin affirming same-sex relationships, however a brief word is in order on the context of this post before we jump in.

This argument will not convince the hardened skeptic among us; instead, it’s pointed at those within the church who find themselves on the fence of the “gay marriage” debate. It’s for those stuck between a powerful majority prepared to invoke the clobber passages at the drop of a hat on the one hand and a smaller but equally passionate group calling for full inclusion of their LGBT friends on the other. It’s meant as a cup of cold water for those in the parched desert of indecision – a barren place if ever there was one. It’s for the pastor or church leader who, while sympathetic to the plight of LGBT persons in our culture, hesitates in speaking out at the risk of splintering their congregation.

Our Approach to Scripture

I’ve often reflected on how I can be so confident about my decision to never attend a church again where my wife couldn’t be fully embraced as a women every bit as capable, mature, and called by God to lead and teach as any man on God’s  green earth – because truth be told – this wasn’t always the case.

I can still recall various conversations with other men through the years on this topic (it’s interesting that these conversations always took place with other men in much the same way the LGBT discussions are nearly always held without LGBT people). We’d normally begin with some non-sense about women being too emotional to lead and top it off with a discussion of 1 Timothy 2 (women should keep their heads covered, hair long, and mouths shut). I admit to being a bit shocked later on when I learned the cultural background of those verses and others like them but it wasn’t enough to convince me; I was a Bible believing Christian after all and couldn’t risk 2,000 years of church tradition over an issue like this. And so it might have continued to this day had not fate intervened and led me to join the staff of a church that, while relatively conservative on every other matter, happened to embrace women at every level of leadership. And what did I observe? Women were thriving. Seriously, they were kick ass teachers, counselors, pastors and elders. In many churches I’d either attended or heard of, women were second class citizens of sorts, free to run the bake sale (anything food or children related was normally within their domain) but not much beyond that and this either frustrated them, at which point they were often labeled “strong” women – which wasn’t a compliment, or it turned them into docile mousy women who embraced their oppression and even thanked God for it. Neither of those seemed very healthy to me, however now I observed them as equals, now they had a place at the table and it was exhilarating to behold. This experience was incredibly formative for me because from it I gained the following hermeneutic (method of interpretation) that’s guided me ever sense: any interpretation of Scripture that results in oppression, suffering, discouragement, and pain in people’s lives is the wrong interpretation.

I believe this is what Jesus was getting at in his encounter with the pharisees at the end of Mark chapter 2. Jesus and the disciples were walking through a wheat field on the Sabbath and as they went they ate a few heads of grain. When the pharisees saw this they chastised the disciples for breaking the Sabbath laws (aka working on the ‘day of rest’) and Jesus responded with the most interesting answer: he said, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, the purpose of the law is to be a life giving force for good in people’s lives. It’s not about arbitrary rules sent down from on high “just because”, rather it’s purpose is to encourage “Shalom” (peace, wholeness, goodness, health) in human society. What Jesus’ critique reveals is that the very Scriptural commands meant for the flourishing of men and women can, with the passage of time and the tradition of interpretation that springs up around those passages, be used for their oppression. The perfect example of this type of process are Jesus’ commands around divorce. It’s pretty clear that Jesus forbids divorce except in the case of adultery but a little historical research shows the “why” behind this. The situation in the 1st century is that men were leaving their wives over nothing – “You burned dinner again! I’m outta here.” – which resulted in the impoverishment and suffering of these women. Jesus doesn’t like this, not one bit, and so he gives this command that the only reason a man can leave his wife is in the case of adultery. Now fast forward 2,000 years and what do we see? Abusive men use this passage all the time as a power play to prevent their wives from leaving the relationship. In fact, even pastors will encourage a women in an abusive relationship to “make the best of it” because unless the man commits adultery, biblically speaking, she’s forbidden from leaving. In other words, the very passages Jesus’ meant as a protection for women are now being used to oppress them. It’s actually pretty sick if you think it.  This is why as Christians, as people who live and move and have our being in the midst of the God who is known to us as love, we absolutely must have a hermeneutic, an interpretative approach to the Scriptures, of love itself. Otherwise we run the risk of taking the very passages originally intended as something life-giving and beautiful and turning them into demonic structures that bring pain and misery to people’s lives.

Hopefully it’s abundantly clear at this point that although technically we’ve been discussing women in leadership and the biblical parameters for divorce, really we’ve been talking about same-sex marriage all along. Having said this, coming to the place as individuals where we can embrace same-sex marriage is different than coming to this conclusion as religious institutions, communities, and churches. What rational can possibly be provided for church leaders to ‘step off the cliff’ so to speak and begin to openly affirm their LGBT brothers and sisters as denominations and church communities as well? Wouldn’t it be better for the revolution to occur on an individual basis rather than risking schism by pressing the issue at a communal level?

Naming God’s Activity in the World

There’s a part of my evangelical heritage that I love, a piece of spiritual insight that’s not only stuck with me but actually increased through the years even as I’ve drifted from my conservative roots in other ways, and the insight is this – God is up to something new in our world. In this vision, God is much more than a word or abstract concept, He is living and active, interested in much more than simply preserving the past but always moving us forward. This is why we get in small groups and ask questions like, “So what has God shown you this week?” or “What is God doing in your life?” because the expectation is that He is in fact up to something. Of course this raises an excellent question – how exactly do we spot God’s activity in the world?  Or put another way, how do we know when it’s really the Spirit? Here’s what my churches taught me. Wherever the good and the beautiful and the true are occurring – that’s God! In other words, the little seedlings of God’s Spirit aren’t in big things like political power, prestige, fame, or riches but rather are evidenced in little things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, and self control. So when I look out into the world what I’m looking for are these little shoots of the presence or activity of God – these little moments of grace, those startling encounters with generosity and kindness. This is why the single most important factor in someone making the switch from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it is to actually be in relationship with LGBT people. Why? Because as we encounter them as individuals and as couples we begin to recognize these seedlings of God’s presence in their lives and relationships. We realize that they aren’t the demonic caricatures portions of our culture have made them out to be. They are every bit as capable of love, kindness, and compassion as anyone else and their relationships are capable of just as much beauty as more traditional marital relationships.

Now having said this, it’s wonderful as individuals to learn to see God in unexpected places but what I’d argue is that it’s an absolute non-negotiable for us as churches. As church leaders, I believe that one of our most profound duties is to recognize the activity of God in the world and help communicate that to people both within and outside the church. But  frankly, we’re failing to do this on the questions of same-sex marriage and the full inclusion of LGBT persons in our church communities. I believe the reason this is the case is because we currently only see risk from one perspective – the risk of moving too quickly, of being too hasty. In other words, we’re on the defensive when it comes to these questions because we’re afraid of the misstep, the wrong turn, and the mis-interpretation. In short, we’re being driven by fear. However what often goes unnoticed is that we have a profound risk in the opposite direction – the risk of failing to name the new things God is up to in the world, the risk of refusing to recognize the good, the beautiful, and the true in same-sex relationships. It seems right now that all we’re conscious of is what we have to lose by stepping out: who might leave, what might go wrong, and what we might lose; rather than what we might gain, what justice might be done, what positive example we might set for those within and outside the church. My point is, there’s risk in both directions, so the questions is, which one will we choose? And let’s not kid ourselves either, by failing to do anything we are in fact making a decision in favor of the status quo.

So as Churches here’s our situation: we have people wanting to get married, raise children, and join our churches.  They’re asking that we trust them and believe in their relationships. They’re asking us to affirm the activity of the living God in their lives. I believe it’s up to us to not merely tolerate them but to name what God is up to, celebrate it, and consecrate it. We need to declare that the days of second class citizenship for our LGBT brothers and sisters are over. That we refuse to give into fear and hesitation and that we affirm the good, the beautiful and the true wherever it is found and that these relationships bear the evidence of God in them. God is doing a new thing, a thing we might never have guessed or foreseen, but to turn our backs on them now would nothing less than  sin.

A Time to Embrace – part 2

While some may find the arguments from part 1 compelling, for most Christians wrestling through this issue their main sticking points are the texts of Scripture which mention certain homoerotic acts. What follows won’t be a comprehensive review of every Scripture, for that you’ll need to purchase A Time to Embrace, however I will touch on some of the more popular texts. My goal is that by the end of this post you’ll have a feel for how Bible believing Christians (as we say in the South) can interpret old texts in new ways and be empowered to not only love their LGBT brothers and sisters but come to see them differently than say, an alcoholic or someone struggling with a sexual addiction.

On this topic one of the first statements Johnson makes is, “…it should be clear that the biblical passages invoke by prohibitionists have nothing explicit to say about the relationships of mutually and exclusively committed same-gender couples.” In other words, there’s no story decrying the evils of two men or two women who devoted themselves to one another in marital love and quietly served their family, neighbors, and faith community to the end of their days. Instead, what we see is exactly what we’d expect from a religious book centered around love of God and neighbor, a critique of cultural practices that promote sexual promiscuity, violence, and cruelty. This is the crux of the welcoming and affirming viewpoint as it relates to the Scriptures, however it doesn’t preclude us from wading into the text so let’s begin with the controversial story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Sodom and Gomorrah

In this story God hears an outcry from the city of Sodom and sends angelic messengers to investigate. Upon arrival they’re taken in by Abraham’s nephew, Lot, but then things begin to go south. The men of the town surround Lot’s house and demand that he offer up his visitors so that they can rape them. As a trade of sorts Lot offers up his virgin daughters instead. In this version God blinds the men of Sodom so both the angelic visitors and Lot’s daughters are saved, however in a parallel story in Judges 19 the women offered up to save the man isn’t so lucky – she’s abused all through the night. Clearly these are dark and violent stories that have thoroughly embedded themselves in the western consciousness and my hunch is that for prohibitionists this story is in the back of their minds whenever the topic of same-gender marriage comes up. Thus, it’s here that many prohibitionists take their stand, arguing that this sexual behavior is clearly condemned by the Scripture, and of course they’re absolutely right. Yet the question must be asked whether the nature of the acts mentioned here are despicable because of their same-gender character or because they’re violently abusive?

In the stories of Sodom and Gibeah I believe it’s something other than the same sex character of the conduct that makes it wrong. Rape is violent and destructive no matter the gender. Growing up in the South I’d always heard the story of Sodom and Gomorah invoked to condemn same-gender love. It was the perfect picture of how we imagined ‘the homosexuals‘ – filled with violent lust, a danger to others, a people completely out of control sexually speaking. The Bible couldn’t have been clearer in it’s condemnation than that story. Which is why I was shocked when I came across this passage from Ezekiel 16:9 which clearly states that the sin of Sodom is… wait for it… “…they did not help the poor and the needy.” In other words, what jumped out to the ancient writer about this text wasn’t the same gender nature of the abuse but rather the lack of hospitality shown to the visitors. Surely Ezekiel was mistaken! Or might the issue be that we have an amazing capacity to read our own cultural assumptions into the biblical text? Two other sets of passages from the book of Leviticus figure strongly in the non-affirming case.

Levitical Passages

Leviticus 18:22 states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination.

Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

Clearly these passages forbid certain homoerotic acts, however the questions we’re asking as people committed to the authority of text is the what and why of the prohibition because these types of questions are always at the heart of interpreting any Biblical text. The reason, and this is something we all readily admit when it comes to other Old and New Testament passages, is that it’s easy to read our own cultural assumptions into the text; thus completely bypassing the cultural assumptions of the writers themselves. In fact, as you’ll see below Johnson argues that prohibitionists, tolerationists, and accomodationists do just that.

Based on what scholars know of the ancient world at this time one of the major reasons for the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20 is that this type of homoerotic act was often practiced by one socially superior male on a social inferior; normally a slave or some other subordinate member of the household. The social superior would never have identified themselves as a homosexual and certainly didn’t intend to begin “a romantic relationship” with their social inferior. In fact terms like homosexuality (a medical term that didn’t come into use until the 1850′s) or same gender relationships would have been completely foreign to ancient cultures. Instead the purpose was pure sexual gratification, similar in a way to masturbation, it just happened to be with a person the socially superior person could take advantage of.

A second incredibly sinister cultural practice that is squarely in the sights of these Levitical passages is the mistreatment of prisoners of war. In the ancient world a conquered people were often subject to various forms of torture and humiliation at the hands of their captors. For example, the Assyrians were notorious for impaling their victims on poles and abandoning them to a slow and gruesome death. However, another common practice was to rape (sodomize) the enemy soldiers now under one’s control. Again, this can’t be confused with a few soldiers engaging in some sort of gay lifestyle, rather the purpose was the humiliation of your enemy. The thinking seemed to go that now that they had forced the enemy to submit in physical combat, the enemy should now be forced to submit sexually, thus furthering their shame by turning the vanquished into symbolic women. Obviously, this type of historical background is important to know when approaching the Levitical texts.

Romans 1

Romans 1:27 Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.”

1 Timothy 1:9-10 “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine”

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

The Roman 1 passage is coming out of the hedonistic practices of the Roman world and are grounded in certain cultural assumptions about proper male roles There were two incredibly popular, but nonetheless destructive, sexual practices going on in his era: rampant male prostitution and the freedom for social superiors to perform sexual (and often homoerotic) acts on their social inferiors without their consent. Imagine today if employers were not only free to sexually abuse their employees but it was actually expected of them? While it’s an analogous situation, it gives a better feel for the cultural situation Paul is speaking to.

Another pernicious activity was the sexual slave trade of boys and castrated young men. These were often prisoners of war who would be sold into a life of exploitation and abuse. Johnson believes this is almost certainly the context behind 1 Timothy 1:10 which condemns, “fornicators, men who have sex with men, and slave traders.”

The phrase “men who have sex with men” in the 1 Corinthians 6 passage is the Greek term “arsenokoitai” which breaks down into arsen (“male”) and koite (“bed”) which is literally “males who go to bed with males.” Yet again, in the ancient world this word came to be associated with certain hedonistic homoerotic practices that were widespread in the Roman Empire – practices often performed by social superiors on their inferiors or male prostitution. It’s these practices that Paul doesn’t want to see infiltrate his fledgling religious communities built on a love of God and neighbor.

In my final post I’ll cover how Johnson encourages us to move from a place of prohibition to liberation and consecration.

A Time to Embrace – part 1

For thoughtful Christians wrestling with questions of sexuality and same gender relationships I really can’t recommend William Stacey Johnson’s book A Time to Embrace highly enough. As both a theologian (Princeton Seminary) and a lawyer he’s uniquely situated to offer insights into the complex world’s of not only church history and biblical interpretation but politics and the interpretation of law as well.

One of the more helpful moves Johnson makes is to bring some much needed nuance to the various arguments on the issue of same gender relationships. He notes that the broader cultural level debate, likely for political reasons, is often cast in simplistic terms: you’re either for gay marriage or against it, period. It’s polarities like this that get people to the voting booths or the protests downtown. Unfortunately it’s not a helpful way to spur discussion or wrestle through questions for churches. To that end he outlines 7 positions that he feels most Christians would find themselves within on this issue as it relates to the church:

  • Prohibition: does not approve of and would bar same-gender unions
  • Toleration: does not approve of, but would not prosecute or reject gay and lesbian people
  • Accommodation: does not approve of ordinarily but would allow for exceptions on a “lesser-of-the-evils” rationale
  • Legitimation: wants to include gays and lesbians in the community, and wants to prevent them from being singled out and condemned unfairly.
  • Celebration: believes same-gender unions should no longer be scorned but affirmed as good.
  • Liberation: perceives societal attitudes concerning gays and lesbians as being caught up in wider injustices, which need to be remedied.
  • Consecration: argues for the full religious blessing of same gender unions.

Johnson fleshes out each of these seven positions chapter by chapter, however for the sake of brevity I’m going to focus on the prohibitive stance which is supported by four interconnected layers of argument: marriage as an order of creation, arguments from nature, arguments from tradition, and arguments from Scripture – although this last one (Scripture) will be covered in a separate post.

Marriage as an Order of Creation
The first argument for the prohibitive stance is institutional in nature: marriage as an order of creation. The point here is that a marriage between a man and a woman is the only context for a healthy and appropriate sexual relationship. Obviously, this position draws on the early chapters of Genesis as a way to establish the marital norm and then goes on from there to invoke other verses in the Old and New Testament that reflect this structure.

Johnson’s major push back here is that while it’s perfectly acceptable to understand the early chapters of Genesis as establishing some sort of theology of marriage, what’s impossible to establish from the biblical record is, as the resoundingly un-biblical conservative bumper stickers announce, “MARRIAGE = ONE MAN + ONE WOMAN.” What we find in the biblical record, especially the Old Testament, are the following arrangements:

  • marriage = 1 man + 1 wife
  • marriage = 1 man + many wives
  • marriage = 1 man + many wives + many concubines

Based on this these arrangements we’re assuming good Christian women won’t object if their men embrace a truly biblical stance on this topic.

Arguments from Nature
The second argument draws on the natural-law position from the ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers -  which was later picked up by Saint Thomas Aquinas and made normative in the Roman Catholic tradition. The argument goes something like this: a marriage creates a “one-flesh” union between a man and a woman that is by definition committed, exclusive and indissoluble.  Within this context the sexual relationship is, what the natural-law philosophers call, an intrinsic good. This means it’s something good in and of itself, as opposed to instrumental goods which are pursued for some other good external to themselves. In this way of thinking masturbation, sex outside of marriage and gay sexuality are all instrumental goods because their only purpose is to seek pleasure, however marital hetero-sex (I’m not sure if that’s a word – but it should be) is an intrinsic good because it promotes a one-flesh union that intrinsically brings new life into the world. Johnson writes, “In short, the purpose of marriage in the natural law tradition is procreation.” Incidentally, this same argument is used by Roman Catholic leaders to denounce birth control because by effectively ending the procreation aspect of marital sex you’re changing it from an intrinsic to an instrumental good.

Here’s the push-back. Although this is a legit philosophical argument, to really work it has to be made consistently. In other words, while many conservatives are quick to embrace it in relation to the gay marriage debate, most balk at the idea when it’s used to argue against the use of birth control by hetero-sexual couples. Why? Because most of us don’t really believe sex is solely for procreation. Also, keep in mind that Thomas Aquinas believed masturbation was more evil than rape because a “sin against nature” was less serious than a “sin against reason.” Needless to say, for all his brilliance on other theological issues I’m afraid Aquinas got slightly screwed up on this issue by his appropriation of Aristotle, so I’d encourage a wee bit of caution prior to jumping on board with anything Aquinas has to say about sex.

Arguments from Tradition
The third argument prohibitionist’s appeal to is one from tradition. They say that for thousands of years the Christian and Jewish traditions denounced homoeroticism in the strongest terms. Yes, a quick review of church history would seem to indicate that the argument from tradition is on the prohibitionist’s side but I’d offer two short responses.

First, queer studies/theology has done some really interesting work the last few years to dispute the idea that the church has been monolithically against same gender relationships since Jesus rose to heaven. Google the names Serge and Bacchus for a good historical example and checkout this book for a more detailed analysis.

Second, and I think this is the strongest of the two arguments, is that the statement “But this is how it’s always been.” isn’t particularly Protestant or Christian. As Christians we are people of the Spirit, people grounded not just in what God has done in the past, but what She might be up to in our present day. The perfect New Testament example is the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church. As Johnson states on page 142:

“In the 1990′s some Christians, among them New Testament scholars Luke Timothy Johnson and Jeffrey Sikers, began to ask whether the movement of the Holy Spirit among gay and lesbian people was analogous to the early church’s experience with gentiles, among whom God was performing ‘signs’ and ‘wonders.’ The earliest Jewish Christians had assumed that, if gentiles were to enter the fellowship of the church, they could do so only by first becoming Jews, that is, by observing the Jewish laws concerning circumcision, dietary requirements, and so forth. This assumption was based on texts such as Genesis 17:9-14, which demands circumcision of all males, including foreigners. From their experience of gentile conversion, both Peter and Paul came to a different conclusion: gentiles were permitted to enter the church as gentiles without being circumcised or conforming to kosher laws, though they were of course expected to put aside immorality.”

In the next post we’ll move to the biggest sticking point for most Christians – arguments from Scripture.