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Monday, July 21, 2014

Preaching the Mystic Vision of Saint Paul

Last Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary reading from the epistles was Romans 8:12-25. I picked it up at 8:9. I wanted to share with my congregation the importance of having a mystic vision. I began my sermon by saying:

“I would describe what we just read as part of a mystic vision. I believe Paul was a Jewish mystic. What I mean by that is that he put a priority on direct experience of God. Mystical awareness is an awareness of the Divine pervading all reality that is generated through direct encounter with God. Later in this letter at the conclusion of a section where Paul expounds on redemptive history he exclaims, “For from God and through God and to God are all things" (11:36). That is a mystic vision of reality. He didn’t get this simply through the Hebrew Scriptures, though there are hints of it there, but he came to this through his own direct experience of the Divine.”

I think most Christians today have very inadequate conceptions of God, which make it difficult for them to think of God in such an all-inclusive, universal, non-dual sense. Many Christians, I think, imagine God as a person much like themselves only bigger and greater—all-powerful and all-knowledgeable.

A mystic vision does not deny that God relates to us personally, but God cannot simply be designated a person. At the very least God functions as a person in the way God relates to human persons, but God is certainly more than what we mean when we use the word. Unfortunately, much Christian language and hymnology contributes to the confusion. For example, when we sing, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

But if we take Paul’s mystical vision seriously, then besides exercising the qualities or attributes of personhood, God is also the very source of life that interacts, intersects, and pervades all reality. Everything is connected and everything participates in the ebb and flow of the Divine Life.

I said to my congregation on Sunday,

"We might even think of the universe in all its dimensions being the body of God. That analogy breaks down, however, because God is conscious within that body at all points and in all parts. The Divine consciousness is always present. As the Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr likes to say, there is no circumference, there is only the center and God is at the center. Every point is a center point where God is, where God dwells in full consciousness. If you could somehow magically travel to the farthest reaches of the universe which is still expanding by the way, God would be consciously present there in God’s fullness.
My sense is that all consciousness from the consciousness of a dolphin to the consciousness of an infant to the consciousness of an Albert Einstein is all connected to the Divine consciousness. In Psalm 139 the psalmist expresses this sense of God’s inescapable presence. God is everywhere anyone and anything will ever be.

The Divine indwells each of us. As Christians, we (along with Paul) identify the Divine with the Christ, because this is the way we know God—through the Christ image. You may have noticed in this passage that Paul uses the terms “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” interchangeably. As Christians we know God through the Christ, and we know the Christ through the historical Jesus, or more accurately through the sacred tradition of Jesus that has been passed on to us.
Sisters and brothers, this is where language simply breaks down. Language can’t carry all the meaning. This is why God language is always symbolical language. We have to use symbols and metaphors and images to speak of God and even then we can only approach a particular aspect of God through the symbol, metaphor, or image. God of course is so much more.”

So much of the spiritual life is about awareness—becoming consciously aware of what already is—so that we can live into that reality, so that we can become who we already are, namely, the beloved daughters and sons of God. I pointed out to my congregation that this is all gift,  

“Did you do anything to earn your place in life? Your very existence and your emergence as a human being from development in the womb to birth to infancy to childhood and even to where you are now has been pure grace. There were many factors over which you had no control whatsoever: your place in history, your genetic constitution, your parents or care givers, etc. At some point you began to exercise some responsibility for your personal development, but you didn’t earn your place in the world. Life has been given to you. 
It’s the same in our connection with God. You are a child of God not because you believed or did certain things. It’s pure grace. But once you become aware of who you are and how connected you are to everything else, you become responsible to participate in the process of becoming like the Christ within you.”
I went on to contrast “life in the Spirit” with “life in the flesh” as two different ways to live rooted in awareness and unawareness. I also emphasized that life in the Spirit engenders hope that this world can be transformed (8:18-25).

I said,  
“The Divine within will never lead us to withdraw from this world into our own exclusive tribe or colony or group where we care only about our kind of people, and where we just wait for God to take us out of the world. This is why Rapture Christianity is so toxic, because those who embrace it tend to abandon care and compassion and a sense of responsibility to this world which God loves and wants to transform.
God loves this world and is at work in this world and we are called to participate with God. If Jesus and Paul and the early Christians were right about how much God loves and cares for this world, then the Spirit will always lead us into this world with all its suffering and injustice and oppression where we can be the body of Christ, where the Spirit can flow through us to touch and minister and heal and care for this creation.”
I am convinced that a mystic vision is the hope of our planet. I hope more Christian ministers will proclaim it and Christians will embrace it.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Would Jesus Say to Shawshank Redemption's Samuel Norton?

The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movies list. It is punctuated with great lines and saturated with rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of toxic Christianity.

The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. It becomes clear, however, from the moment he appears in the story that his Christianity is in name only. His faith has holes in it larger than the one Andy Dufrense chiseled through his cell wall.

When Andy and the other prisoners first stand before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. When one of the prisoners asks, “When do we eat?” the warden has him beaten. Holding out a Bible, he says to the captives, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.”

Contrast the scene above with the one in Luke 4 where Jesus, in the synagogue at Nazareth, applies Isaiah 61 to his understanding of his mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In one scene, the warden enters Andy’s cell and lays hold of Andy’s Bible. Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth as if in a Bible ping pong match. The warden does not open the Bible, which is a good thing since the rock hammer Andy uses to tunnel through his cell wall is hidden inside.

When the warden hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.”

Does salvation lie within the pages of Scripture? Yes and No. Much depends on what we focus on in the Bible, how we apply what we focus on, and why we do what we do.

In healthy versions of Christian faith the Bible is employed as an instrument of liberation and transformation. In the hands of Christians like warden Norton it is used to clobber our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and to oppress women, keeping them “in their place” under the authority of men.

For Jesus, compassion always trumped blind obedience to Scripture. Love of neighbor, which included both the oppressed and the oppressor, always claimed precedence over biblical prescriptions and precepts. Jesus clearly read his Bible with a bias toward love. Thus he knew which Scriptures to accept and reject, to obey and disobey, to submit to and to ignore and dismiss.

For example, Jesus completely ignored the laws of clean and unclean in Leviticus 13 and 14 pertaining to leprosy when he touched and healed the leper in Mark 1. (“Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him . . . Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean!”)

Also, when Jesus allowed a woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” to touch him, he clearly dismissed Leviticus 15:25. (“If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days . . . all the days of the discharge . . . she shall be unclean.”)

Jesus completely reversed the laws of clean and unclean in these situations: Instead of Jesus being rendered impure by an unholy touch, the “unholy” touch resulted in the leper and the woman being healed and made whole.

Jesus refused to allow Bible literalists to tell him who he was or what he could and could not do. 

Now back to the warden’s interchange with Andy, which ends with the warden quoting John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion what that verse really means. The warden walks in darkness and is about as blind and un-liberated a person as you would ever find. But he thinks he is a Christian.

Religion can easily become a cleverly disguised way of protecting the ego—a way for us to feel secure, superior, safe, and in control. Jesus saw right through this.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus enjoyed hospitable table fellowship, not with the moral majority, but with the immoral minority? The gatekeepers were invited, but they didn’t want any part of those Jesus kept company with. The religious officials were not comfortable around Jesus, while many “sinners” were drawn to him. 

Those who thought they could see were actually blind, while those who knew they were blind found spiritual sight. 

What would Jesus say to warden Samuel Norton? Perhaps what he said to the religious leaders in John 9 when they asked him sarcastically: “Surely we (the religious elite and gatekeepers) are not blind, are we?”

Jesus said:

“If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Is there a bit of Samuel Norton in all of us? I suspect there is. If we are certain that we see, then we are probably blind, and our sin (our illusions, ego defenses, false attachments, addictions to power, control, etc.) remain.
Healthy religion and authentic spirituality have nothing to do with being correct or citing Bible verses. Nor is it about wearing the right badges or shouting the right pledges. There is no “Roman Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” that lead to salvation. There are no five steps, or six principles, or seven habits for highly spiritual people. 

What we Christians have is Jesus. And the real test of genuine faith is whether or not we have the passion and will to imitate him—to love the way he loved.

There are two dramatic scenes that I like to imagine represent the outcomes of these two different approaches to Christianity (or religion in general):

Scene 1: When the warden’s money laundering is exposed and the authorities come to take him into custody, he looks over at a message hanging on his office wall about God’s righteous judgment coming soon. Next, he pulls the trigger that ends his life.

Scene 2: On a night of heavy thunder and rain, Andy crawls through the hole he has patiently dug month after month, year after year from inside his cell. He reaches a pipe barely large enough for a human body, full of sludge, which eventually empties into a creek beyond the prison fence. With the storm as a cover, he busts through the pipe, crawling through the sludge. When he eventually “dumps” into the creek, he rips off his prison clothes in a moment of jubilation celebrating his new found liberation.

Andy’s experience can be our experience when we follow Jesus into a larger world beyond the prison walls of Bible worship and toxic religion—a world permeated and pervaded by love of God and love of neighbor.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

When Prejudice Disguises Itself as Holiness

Prejudice disguises itself as holiness when passages such as Romans 1:26-27 are employed to clobber LGBTQ persons. The text reads as follows:

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Here is the problem with turning Paul into an anti-gay proponent: Paul, along with most ancient moralists, would have regarded same sex relations as an expression of excessive or exploitive sexual behavior by heterosexuals. It is not likely that he would have had any understanding at all of same sex attraction as a sexual orientation set early in life. Paul’s knowing about sexual orientation is about as likely as his knowing of atoms and electrons as basic elements of our universe. He would have been totally unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has no choice, and sexual behavior over which one does. Paul and everyone else in his day most likely believed that everyone was “straight.” The idea of sexual orientation or the possibility of a same-sex committed relationship were not even on their radar.

If one applied the same reasoning that Paul employed in Romans 1:26-27 to what we know today, then one could very well argue that for same-sex oriented persons to have sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex would mean acting “contrary to nature”—contrary to one’s unchangeable basic sexual orientation.

It is common for anti-gay proponents to argue that gay marriage denies the natural order. This is such a weak and misguided argument. It certainly sounds lame when Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 11: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Does nature really teach that? Are families who have children through adoption (rather than through procreation) perverting the “natural” order of things? Is my Down Syndrome daughter sinful because she has an additional chromosome with the resulting consequence of limited mental ability? Her state is definitely not “natural.”  

But let's come back to the likelihood that Paul would not have had any understanding of sexual orientation as an unchangable state. An example of how limited knowledge impacts the meaning of Scripture (both the original meaning intended by the biblical writer and our assessment of its relevance) is the way the Gospel writers understood and attributed diseases like epilepsy, psychological disorders, and even birth defects and disabilities to the work of unclean spirits or demons. They simply didn't know any different. 

Another example is the way ancient people conceived of the earth as the center of the universe and the way biblical writers believed in a three-tiered cosmology consisting of God’s heaven above the dome of the sky, the earth in the middle, and sheol (the abode of the dead) below the earth.

In holding to these beliefs they were simply echoing the common beliefs of their time and culture. They did not have available the accumulated knowledge we have access to.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it could be proved that Paul did know something about sexual orientation and still condemned same sex relations. Would that settle the issue? Does that mean that God is against such relations?

I have spent my life studying the Bible and it is central to my faith, and one thing that has become crystal clear to me is that the biblical writers got some stuff dead wrong. They certainly got God wrong when they imagined that God wanted Israel to utterly destroy any group of people who got in their way of taking possession of the promised land.

Did God really command Saul to kill even the women and children of the Amalekites as the Bible says in 1 Samuel 15:1-3? (“Thus says the Lord of hosts . . . Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox an sheep, camel and donkey.”) Is this the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies, to pray for them and do good by them? I don’t think so.

Some biblical writers were wrong in believing that women were inherently and morally inferior to men and incompetent to lead as 1 Timothy 2:11-14 teaches (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”)

And let’s be honest about biblical sexual mores: They were all over the place. Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced throughout the Old Testament without a single word of condemnation by any biblical writer. Not a single judgmental word. 

Why not? Because patriarchy dominated in ancient Israel. Even Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”) which Jesus referenced in his argument against divorce was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. They believed a man could become “one flesh” with more than one woman, through the act of sexual intercourse.

Consider the following sexual mores found in the Old Testament (almost always favoring male power and dominance):

  • Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of brides and property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). 
  • A man could not commit adultery against his own wife; he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife. And a bride who was found not to be a virgin was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21). 
  • When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with his eldest brother (serial polygamy?). If he died without producing an heir, she turned to the next brother, and if necessary to the next, and so on. Jesus mentions this practice without any criticism (Mark 12:18-27). 
  • I suspect many Christians would be surprised to learn that the Old Testament nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults, as long as the woman’s economic value was not compromised.
  •  And of course there were those practices considered taboo: sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period was strictly forbidden (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24); nudity was forbidden (2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa 20:2-4; 47:3); and semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them ritually unclean (Lev. 15:16-24).

Does the Bible present a clear sexual ethic? Obviously not. Any honest and sincere interpreter of Scripture who is truly interested in truth should concede this.

And what contemporary Christian would argue today in favor of slavery even though there are clearly some biblical passages that condone and support it? Most interpreters (even those who believe in biblical inerrancy) understand that there is a deeper tenor and ethos of Scripture that emerged from Israel’s experience of the Exodus and from the life and teachings of Jesus, namely, that God identifies with the outcast and marginalized, and God’s passion is to liberate the oppressed.

The same logic should be applied to the handful of biblical texts that condemn excessive and exploitive same-sex behavior and say nothing about committed same-sex relationships.

So why do many Christians today reject what we know about sexual orientation and insist that the Bible is clear and right when condemning same-sex relations? I believe their biblical literalism and their deluded concept of holiness are nothing more than a cover for their entrenched prejudice and fear that they are unwilling to acknowledge.

Every interpreter and faith community must pick and choose which texts will have authority in their lives and communities. The question is not: Do we pick and choose? We all do. The more pertinent question is: What will guide our picking and choosing?

I would advocate that we use reason, common sense, our best sense of what is good, right, just, fair, and loving, and the clear and obvious themes that dominate the Jesus tradition in the New Testament through which Christians should filter all other Scripture.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus says nothing about same-sex relations or relationships?  Jesus, like everyone else in his era, would not have had access to the knowledge we possess today about fixed sexual orientation. Still, Jesus does not utter a single word of judgment. What Jesus does condemn, however, are attitudes and actions rooted in prejudice, greed, and intolerance, and he exhorts us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.

I believe all sexual mores should be critiqued by the love ethic of Jesus. Such a love ethic is mutual, caring, loving, and non-exploitative. Jesus challenges both heterosexuals and LGBTQ persons to question their sexual behavior in light of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and love—that which is truly in the best interest of the other person.

I believe that Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons are not only misinterpreting Scripture and standing on the wrong side of history (like the pro-slavery Christians once were), they are in my opinion betraying the very one they call their Lord.

I suppose we all (I’m certainly no exception) have called evil good in order to justify some bias that we pass off as holiness. We all have blind spots. However, growth in spiritual awareness, sensitivity, and compassion exposes them.

Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons pursue a false holiness they can measure, mandate, and control. They are not interested in the holiness of grace—grounded in honesty and humility and expressed through faithfulness and forgiveness.

The blindness of Christian pro-slavery advocates was eventually exposed. I am hopeful that the day will come when Christian anti-gay proponents will either acknowledge their blindness or else their anti-gay bias will be exposed as non-Christian.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Is On the Wrong Side of History

The church I pastor  (Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, KYis affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group that broke away from the fundamentalist dominated Southern Baptist Convention in 1991.

Cecil Sherman was the first Executive Coordinator of CBF and I distinctly remember the story he told to a small group of pastors that met with him in 1992 who were in much prayer and thought about leading their churches out of the SBC to be part of the new organization (CBF does not call itself a denomination, but it clearly functions as one).

Dr. Sherman told us that he was part of a group called “the Peace Committee” formed at the height of the controversy, which (in theory) was to be a safe place where moderates and conservatives could try to work out some of their differences and coexist. Sherman made, I thought, a generous offer. He said to the conservatives, “Let the moderates have Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and one other school of your choosing and you can have the other four theological schools [that included Southwestern Theological Seminary in Texas, the largest seminary in the world at the time]. We each can do theological education our way.

Prominent SBC Pastor Adrian Rogers, who was also on the Committee said, “We don’t want four of the seminaries, we want all six of the seminaries.” It was that spirit that drove moderate Baptists out of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Last year our church discovered that CBF has a restrictive hiring policy that is condemnatory toward the LGBTQ community. The Coordinating Council adopted this policy in October of 2000, but our church leadership only became aware of it last year. On the CBF website the policy is titled: “Organizational Policy on Homosexual Behavior Related to Personnel and Funding.” It reads as follows:

As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness. We also believe in the love and grace of God for all people, both of those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not. We treasure the freedom of individual conscience and the autonomy of the local church, and we also believe that congregational leaders should be persons of moral integrity whose lives exemplify the highest standards of Christian conduct and character.

Because of this organizational value, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.  

The church I pastor is a welcoming and affirming congregation. We not only welcome LGBTQ persons as members into our fellowship, we welcome their service and leadership (no position of leadership is closed to LGBTQ members). For obvious reasons we found the CBF hiring and funding policy deeply offensive.  

In October of 2013 I sent a letter with the unanimous consent of our deacon body to the new Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter. It read:

Dear Ms Paynter,
Congratulations on your new position as CBF Executive Coordinator. I wish I did not have to correspond with you on such a serious matter, but I must.

Our church recently became aware of the CBF organizational policy on homosexual behavior related to personnel and funding that was adopted in October 2000. We are a welcoming and affirming congregation, and find this policy very disturbing.

The policy “does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice.” Our church would come under that ban since we affirm the LGBTQ community as equal members. The policy justifies this on the basis that “congregational leaders should be persons of moral integrity whose lives exemplify the highest standards of Christian conduct and character,” obviously judging  homosexuals as persons lacking in moral integrity and high Christian conduct and character. We do not believe sexual orientation in and of itself says anything about a person’s “moral integrity” or “Christian conduct and character.”
It was the unanimous decision of our deacon body that I write and express to you our concerns. We have two important questions, the answers to which will determine the level of our continuing support of CBF.

First, is this policy being currently implemented? Secondly, is there any formal discussion going on (committee, group, etc) that could lead to a change in this policy?

If there is I would be glad to be part of that discussion. I believe that change best comes from within, rather than without.  
Your response to these questions would be much appreciated.
Grace and peace, 
Chuck Queen, Senior Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church, Frankfort, KY

The letter was sent and we waited. No response. Did the letter get lost? The letter was sent a second time. In July of 2014 we are still waiting for a response.

It took the Southern Baptist Convention a long time, but finally in 1995 the denomination formally apologized for its support of slavery and racism. For many years the SBC stood on the wrong side of history.

I wonder how long it will take the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to realize that with regard to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers it is on the wrong side of history. How long will it take for them to apologize for their condemnatory policies toward our LGBTQ sisters and brothers? 

Monday, June 30, 2014

It's Time for Evangelicals to Come Out for Evolution

Whenever I engage in conversation with people I meet for the first time I try to avoid being asked the question, “What do you do for a living?” But if I am asked I say, “I am a minister.” Generally, the one who asks then inquires, “What denomination?” or “What kind of church?”

Here is where I always have to clarify, depending on the most recent news headline involving Christian leaders: “I am a Baptist minister, but I am not a science-denying Baptist minister who think that dinosaurs lived alongside humans a few thousand years ago.”

What a strange irony that a 30-foot-long fossil of an Allosaurus will be on display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky where Museum founder, Ken Ham, recently debated science educator Bill Nye. Ken Ham and his colleagues think it defends the book of Genesis and supplies evidence of Noah’s flood. Good grief!

Unfortunately, this is real life, not a Charlie Brown cartoon. According to a recent survey by the Associated Press, 77% of people who claim to be born again or evangelical say they have little or no confidence that the universe began 13.8 years ago with a big bang. And 76 % of evangelicals doubt that life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection.

Evangelical science professors and biblical scholars know better! Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University told Cathy Grossman of the Religion News Service that many biblical [evangelical] scholars do not see a conflict between religion and science. He noted: “The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1.”

That’s right! Straight from the mouth of an evangelical professor.

I suspect that many (if not most) evangelical biblical scholars who subscribe to some form of biblical inerrancy (and sign faith statements testifying to that fact) believe what professor Falk believes.  

They know there are different kinds (genres) of biblical literature. They know that the creation stories are parabolic in nature—that they are spiritual, metaphorical, and theological stories that teach truth about God and God’s relationship to the world—not historical chronicles or scientific reports.

They know that Ken Ham’s claim that “no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record” is utter foolishness, because they know that the Bible is not a science or history book.  

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox tells about the time the student leader of Harvard’s atheist group on campus took one of his theology classes. This otherwise bright student wrote a very weak paper in which he sought to discredit the God of the Christian and Jewish faiths by attacking and dismantling a literal interpretation of the Genesis Flood Story. He thought that by proving the story could not have happened the way the story says it happened, he would thus disprove the reality of God.

Dr. Cox said to the student, “Don’t you know a story when you read one.”

Evangelical professors know that the creation stories were never intended to be history lessons or science reports.

They also know . . .

  • that evangelical Christians need not fear or deny the enormous amount of scientific data supporting evolution (99%of America’searth and life scientists hold to some form of evolution),
  • that the story of evolution and the biblical story are not mutually exclusive,
  • and that a healthy faith welcomes and is informed by science. 

So why do so many evangelicals deny evolution and believe in a literal interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis?

Are they afraid of being shunned or looked down upon by their peers? Are they afraid to rock the evangelical boat? Why aren’t educated evangelical pastors teaching their churches what they know to be true? Are they afraid of facing conflict in their churches or losing their jobs?

Whatever the reason, it’s time for evangelicals who know the truth to “come out” and  proclaim the truth. If the truth sets us free, as Jesus said, then many of our evangelical sisters and brothers need to hear a liberating word from their pastors. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Being Christian When Being Christian Isn't Easy (An Exposition of Matthew 10:24-39: Second Sunday After Pentecost)

In order to appropriate this passage appropriately it’s important to note that this passage is set in a larger context of persecution and end-time expectation where Jesus sends out his disciples as sheep among wolves to proclaim the imminent fulfillment of the kingdom of God. The early disciples believed that Jesus would most likely come  within their lifetime to bring an end to this present age and usher in God’s future kingdom. They also believed that the time leading up to that decisive moment would be marked by great suffering and tribulation, particularly from powers opposed to the kingdom. The early Christians inherited this apocalyptic outlook from Palestinian Judaism. They reworked it, of course, in light of their belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

Of course, looking back from our point in history we know they were mistaken about the apocalyptic schematics. Still, some of us haven’t learned much from it, because we still cook up these prophetic timetables, even more elaborate than the ones that were popular in Judaism around the time of Jesus. “The Left Behind” books were hugely successful selling in the millions, and a significant number of people who read them actually believe that the books reflect what is going to happen according to Bible prophecy.

With regard to the persecution this biblical text speaks of, it is important to remind ourselves that people in other times encountered persecution and today Christians in other places and countries are indeed encountering persecution, sometimes in great severity. Not as a prelude to the end, but it’s real and intense nonetheless.  

And though we live in a country where we do not fear anything that resembles the kind of persecution reflected in our text, there are times when we have to swim against the current with some consequence.

Whether one is facing opposition or not, there are some things we can all glean from this passage. The overriding theme here is that being a Christian means imitating Christ. This theme – of imitating Christ – pervades the Gospel of Matthew. According to Matthew, a Christian is someone who aspires to be like Jesus; a Christian walks in the way of Jesus and obeys his teaching.

Jesus says, “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher . . . If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”

None of us should be surprised that when we stand up for the things Jesus stood for - when we champion the causes that Jesus championed, when we pursue the liberation of the oppressed, when we identify with those Jesus identified with - we can expect some opposition. It’s par for the course.  

And whenever we encounter opposition, Matthew’s Gospel assures us that we need not fear, because the presence of God is with us to sustain us and strengthen us.

* * * * * * * *

The admonition not to fear is an admonition not to harbor fear; initial fear is simply a reaction to a perceived threat and sometimes can be helpful.

There is a story that I hope is true about a man working the four to midnight shift every night. He walked home and his route passed a cemetery. One night he was in a particular hurry, and since the moon was full, he decided to take a short-cut through the middle of the cemetery. The route lopped five minutes off his walk, so he decided to make it his regular path. One night, however, when it was particularly dark, without any moon or stars, he had the unfortunate mishap of falling into a freshly dug grave. He wasn’t hurt but the grave was so deep he was unable to get out. He began to yell, but nobody heard him. Finally, he resigned to wait for morning, when his plight would be discovered. So he pulled his coat up around his neck and huddled in a corner to try to sleep.

He was awakened in an hour or so by the noise of a falling body. A second unfortunate man had stumbled into this same grave. Sleepily, the first man watched his companion frantically try to crawl out. After a few minutes, he felt obliged to comment, “Hey buddy, you’ll never get out that way.” Well – he did!

Sometimes fear helps us discover powers we did not know we had. If fear causes us run for cover to get out of harms way, that is a good thing. But perpetual fear, demobilizing and debilitating fear is not; that kind of fear is life diminishing.

Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Hell is used metaphorically for that which destroys. The point here is that God is the only one who can destroy a person completely, soul and body. The powers that be can kill, they can end one’s physical life, but not one’s eternal, conscious existence. Only God can do that. But that does not mean God “will” do it.

Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

The argument seems to be: God is the only one who can completely destroy soul and body, but we don’t have to worry about that, because God cares so deeply for us. The God of Jesus even cares for a little sparrow that that is hurt and injured and falls to the ground. Is this hyperbole? Maybe. But the point is that the God who can destroy us would never destroy us, because God loves us. God even takes note of the number of hairs on our head – which is a poetic way of saying that we all extremely valued and special to God.

Think of how we value and care for our own children and grandchildren. That’s just another way we reflect God’s image. That’s how God cares for every human being.

It’s not always easy to confront and face our fears, but followers of Christ can count on God’s love and vindication – as Jesus says in the text: “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”

* * * * * * * *

The words about confessing and denying Jesus in this passage also need to be understood in the larger context that envisions persecution. However, these words, too, can speak to us in our present day context

In Matthew’s Gospel, confession is never just about saying words. As part of the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21).

Confessing Jesus means standing with Jesus in what Jesus stood for. It means identifying with Jesus – being passionate about the things Jesus was passionate about. It’s about imitating Jesus. And that can be costly.

Imitating Jesus demands a high level of commitment and in the context of Matthew’s church it had a way of dividing loyalties. Jesus called for a commitment that took precedent over everything else. The peace Jesus wanted to bring called for a radical kind of commitment to the ways of peace. It meant laying down one’s weapons. It meant walking away from situations that would evoke violence.

In Matthew 12 we are told that after Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath the Pharisees conspired and plotted “how they might destroy him.” Jesus’ actions provoked animosity. Matthew says, “When Jesus became aware of this, he departed.” Jesus withdrew to avoid any violence.

Jesus taught nonviolent resistance to the political and religious powers. He told his disciples to love their enemies – to pray for them and do good by them.

It’s not hard to imagine how such teaching would divide families in a time of intense persecution. Think about how divided we are today in our own context with regard to gun violence. We can’t even get common sense gun legislation passed that would demand background checks. Even in this great country of ours we seem to be committed to a culture of violence.

On display in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin hangs an ancient door with a rough hewn, rectangular opening hacked out in the center. Roy Honeycutt, who for many years was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when that school was still a credible institution, told this story.

In 1492, two prominent Irish families, the Ormands and Kildares were in the midst of a bitter feud. Besieged by Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, Sir James Butler, Earl of Ormand, and his followers took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s cathedral, bolting themselves in.

As the siege wore on, the Earl of Kildare came to the conclusion that the feuding was foolish. Here were two families, worshiping the same God, in the same church, living in the same country, trying to kill each other. So he called out to Sir James and pledged on his honour to end the conflict.   

Afraid, as the inscription reads, of “some further treachery,” Ormond did not respond. So Kildare seized his weapon and punched a hole in the door, and in a daring act of peacemaking thrust his hand through. It could have been cut off, but instead it was grasped by another hand inside. The door was opened and the two men embraced, thus ending the family feud. From Kildare’s noble gesture came the expression, “chancing one’s arm.” 

Imitating Christ calls for no less than “chancing one’s arm.” And yet Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

* * * * * * * *

The final verses of our text contain both warning and promise: “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What this text is saying is that if one cannot remain faithful to the values, principles, and cause of God that Jesus embodied, the things that Jesus lived and died for, then one is not worthy to be called a disciple of Jesus.

I certainly don’t think this means that the person who is unfaithful is forever lost or has no chance of redemption. When Jesus says, “whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven,” he is not talking about total rejection or abandonment. Just think of Peter and the rest of the Twelve. They denied Jesus and abandoned him, but Jesus did not abandon them did he?

Those who try to preserve their life in this world end up losing it, says Jesus, they miss out on what real life is. But those who give up their lives for the things Jesus lived and died for, discover what real life is. And that is true now as well as later.

The emphasis in this passage on imitating Christ, which is an emphasis all through the Gospel of Matthew, is about imitating Christ in the present. We are called to imitate Christ now. Salvation is now before it is later. There is “more” to come, much more, an abundance of “more” whatever the more may be. The adventure of faith goes on after death, but it starts right now as we take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Our passage today ends and my sermon ends on this affirmation: That when we live as disciples of Jesus, when we imitate his way of life, when we give ourselves to the principles and values that Jesus gave himself to, when we live as Christians when being Christian isn’t easy, we can expect a kind of richness of life that is not measured in dollars or possessions or popularity or good fortune. Rather, it’s measured in our faithfulness to love as Jesus loved and in our commitment to what is just and good and right.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, grant us the courage and instill within us the commitment to be imitators of Jesus, to be faithful to the values and principles he gave his life for, to be willing to cut against the grain if necessary in order to do your will and be a faithful follower of the Christ. May we not be afraid of what the powers that be can do to us, but let us find strength and boldness and endurance in the value and worth you place on each one of us. As we lose our lives for the sake of your kingdom, may we discover how spiritually rich life can actually be. Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bringing Order Out of Choas (A sermon on Creation - Gen. 1:1-2:4a)

If you have learned anything from me about interpreting Scripture over the years, I hope you have learned that you can take the stories in the early chapters of Genesis seriously without taking them literally. One does not have to deny science or evolution to take these creation stories seriously. And you don’t even have to be a liberal or a progressive like me to do that, you can be an evangelical, though the statistics don’t fair well for evangelicals.

According to a recent survey by the Associated Press, 77% of people who claim to be born again or evangelical say they have little or no confidence that the universe began 13.8 years ago with a big bang. And 76% of evangelicals doubt that life on earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection.

Now, the interesting thing, or rather the sad thing is that evangelical professors in evangelical universities and seminaries know better. Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University told the Religion News Service that many biblical [evangelical] scholars do not see a conflict between religion and science. He said, “The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1.”

Those are the words of an evangelical professor. I suspect that many(if not most) evangelical biblical scholars who subscribe to some form of biblical inerrancy (and sign faith statements testifying to that fact) believe what professor Falk believes.

They know there are different kinds of biblical literature that call for different approaches to the text. They know that the creation stories are parabolic in nature — that they are spiritual, metaphorical, and theological stories that teach truth about God and God’s relationship to the world without being literally true or factual. They know that these creation stories are not historical chronicles or scientific reports.

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox tells about the time the student leader of Harvard’s atheist group on campus took one of his theology classes. This otherwise bright student wrote a very weak paper in which he sought to discredit the God of the Christian and Jewish faiths by attacking and dismantling a literal interpretation of the Genesis Flood Story. He thought that by proving the story could not have happened the way the story says it happened, he would thus disprove the reality of God.

Dr. Cox said to the student, “Don’t you know a story when you read one.” Evangelical biblical scholars know what kind of stories these are.

--They know that the claims made by Ken Ham over at the Creation Museum are really far-fetched.
--They know that 99% of all earth and life scientists accept some form of evolution.
--They know that the story of evolution and the biblical story are not mutually exclusive, and that a healthy faith welcomes and is informed by science.

Evangelical university professors know this, so why does 77% of all evangelicals still deny science and refuse to accept evolution? Why do so many evangelicals insist on a literal interpretation of the creation stories? What evangelical professors know is obviously not getting down to the people in the pew

Are the professors not teaching their students these things? Are they afraid of rocking the evangelical boat? Are pastors afraid of causing conflict in their churches? I don’t know why three-fourths of all people claiming to be evangelicals still deny science; but I do know that evangelical professors in universities and seminaries know better.

I love this story we just read and the truth about God and God’s relationship to the world it conveys. We can only scratch the surface this morning.

One thing this story highlights is the dance between God’s oversight and creaturely freedom. What God causes to be, God’s let’s be. For example, in v. 11 God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation; plants yielding seed,” and so forth. And then in v. 12: “The earth brought forth vegetation” and so for. It’s as if God invests creation with creative power.

There is always this mystery in God’s relationship to the planet between God’s oversight and creaturely freedom. This freedom extends to creation itself and all universal processes. God does not coerce or manipulate or override creaturely and earthly life.

In our own lives in relationship to God there is this mysterious dance between God’s engagement/involvement and the exercise of our freedom and responsibility. God guides, but does not overwhelm or overpower. Grace sustains our very existence, and yet there are things we must do that God cannot do for us.

The creation story bears witness to this interplay between God’s creative involvement in our lives and our planet and our creative response and engagement.

Second, this story highlights the direction or purpose of God’s involvement: God wants to bring order out chaos. The story begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The waters that are mentioned in v. 2 were undoubtedly thought of as turbulent waters in light of the Psalms that mention the chaotic waters in connection with creation. So we begin with darkness and chaos. And these texts (Genesis and the Psalms) are behind the Gospel text of Jesus calming the chaotic sea. A lot of symbolism there.

Scholars tell us that this story probably emerged during the time of Israel’s exile in the sixth century BCE. Maybe that’s what the community of exiles was feeling. Is this not how we feel at our lowest point, when the darkness is so think we can see no form or shape to our lives.

Our exile could be brought on by an illness, or feelings of loneliness, feelings of rejection and abandonment, betrayal, or unemployment. I suspect those in poverty and under oppressive powers that beat them down day after day feel this sense of exile more than the rest of us.

The message for us is that God is present in the darkness and the chaos: The story says: “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Wind can also be rendered Spirit. Wind is often a symbol for the Spirit – remember John 3 – “the wind blows where it will.”

The terms “darkness” and “chaos” make me think about a piece written by Garrison Keillor. Keillor read where Bill Gates had said in an interview with Time that he had better things to do on Sunday morning that go to church. Keillor started playing around with the idea of what would it take to get Gates attention. He wrote:

Bill Gates was the richest person in America, and after he gained a good deal of the world’s resources, God sent Gates an e-mail: “Bill, I saw how you allocated your time last Sunday morning, and frankly, I was unimpressed. Riding a stationary bike while watching people on the Men’s Channel talk about triglycerides and PSA counts isn’t very satisfying. Bill, let me give you three words of advice: Love your neighbor. Ever hear what happened to the rich man who stiff-armed the beggar Lazarus? It caused a general protection fall and he’s been offline for centuries. If there’s anything you’d like to talk about, I’m here. Your Creator, God.”

Gates typed back a reply: “Dear God, Wow. Omniscience—cool. But how do I know you’re omnipotent too? Gates.” The moment Gates clicked on “send,” the entire Microsoft campus in Redding, Washington, went into a great darkness. The air conditioning shuttered to a halt.  Gates’ office was filled with creeping things and birds of the air. His websites were burning after a multitude of hits by Hittites. A herd of crazed swine trotted down the hall by his office, their little pink eyes aglow. Out in the hall a beggar began begging for alms. When Gates gave him a nickel, the power went back on.

Back in his office, Gates found a message on his computer screen, which said, “Hey Bill, that was only the screen savor. There’s more where that come from. Obey my commandments or the information age could come to a halt through a virus in the system. I did a flood once, and behold, I can do viruses. Once people tried to reach heaven by building a tower, so I made their formats incompatible. I can do this again. P.S.: Gates, it’s your move.”

Obviously, I don’t believe that God creates the darkness and the chaos – life does that, people do that, sometimes we are responsible for own chaos, other times it just happens, but what we can do is respond creatively and allow the Spirit of God to hover over us. We can allow the wind of the Spirit to blow over us and we can be attentive to the way the Spirit leads us. Because God wants to bring order out of chaos.

Does that mean God overrides the bad circumstances? No. Sometimes circumstances change sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the sick find healing, sometimes the unemployed find work, sometimes things turn for the better, sometimes they don’t. No one knows why. It’s not about having enough faith or will power or saying the right kind of prayers. This is the great mystery I was talking about earlier. But whatever the circumstances, God can bring order out of the chaos going on within us. There can be peace in the storm.

A third truth this story shines light on is the dignity and value of human beings as divine image bearers. In v. 27 there is a clustering of the word “create” that focuses special attention on the creation of humankind: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” God then speaks directly to the human creatures, which clearly suggests that human beings have a different, more intimate and direct relationship with God than the rest of the earthly creation.

Pages and pages have been written by competent theologians and spiritually astute interpreters concerning “the image of God.” What does it mean to be an image bearer of the divine? Like all other creatures the human creatures have the capacity to procreate, but in the story God bestows on them a special authority. They are told to “fill the earth” and to exercise “dominion” over the earth.

We have successfully “filled” the earth – in fact, we now have to be concerned about overpopulation. We have not successfully exercised authority. What does the text mean when it says, “Let them (the human couple) have dominion over the earth?” (By the way, this is surprisingly, a very egalitarian text. When you consider how patriarchy dominated the ancient world, this is quite amazing. The man and woman are to share in exercising authority.) But what does this mean?

Let me tell you first what it doesn’t mean? It doesn’t mean humans are to exploit or abuse the earth. We have to interpret this in light of what it means for the human creature to be a divine image bearer — to bear the image of God.

If Jesus is the quintessential image bearer then we get our cue from him. What did he tell his disciples when they wanted to be great in his kingdom and sit on his left and right? What did he say to them when they aspired to exercise dominion (authority) over others?

Jesus said, “this is how the people of this age behave, but not so with you. Like me, you are to be servants of others, not lords.”

We exercise dominion by being servants of the creation, by being faithful stewards and managers of the creation — all for the good of the creation. Remember that in Romans 8 when Paul envisioned the future redemption of the world he imagined that redemption extended to all creation.

This creation account says that creation is good and is a blessing. And the human creatures, who enjoy a particularly close relationship to the Creator, are given the responsibility of ensuring the good of the rest of creation. To bear the image of God means that we are stewards and servants of the creation.

Bearing the image of God also means that we have the capacity to hold together both the human and the divine. Our true self is nothing less than God — the Spirit — indwelling us.

When Jesus says, “I and my Father are one” he wasn’t making some extraordinary claim unavailable for the rest of us. He was telling us what is possible for all human beings who bear God’s image. To be united with the divine is our calling. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “We are tabernacles of God, and what happened in the Christ is what is happening in all of us. The putting together of the human and the divine within ourselves is clearly our task and our supreme vocation.”

Jesus invited us to abide in him and his Abba, just the way he dwelt in his Abba. We are invited in. That relationship is available to us, because the Spirit resides in us. We need to consciously nurture that connection. That’s how valuable we are. We who know this are called to make this known to the rest of the world, first and foremost by living it out, by actually loving one another with the love of God and by working for the common good of all people and all creation.

Our universe is still expanding. God is still creating. And one of the things God so much wants to do in my life and your life is pour out God’s love in us so that it flows through us to create a just world. Love is the creative power for good. God wants us to all be creative instruments for the good of the whole creation.

Gracious God, help us realize how important the earth is to you and how we, as divine image bearers, have been given such an important role in creatively working for creation’s good. May we not ignore or excuse ourselves from this high calling, but rather, awaken to our responsibility. Help us to discover our true self – your power and grace at work in our lives so that we will have the wisdom and compassion and love to faithfully bear your image and work for the good all people and all creation. Amen.