We’re All Heretics

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I was recently asked to answer a question in writing for a Pastor Nominating Committee. It was a pretty good question, with implications broader than even the initial question itself. After I submitted my answer, I thought it might make a halfway decent blog post, and that it would offer a bit more insight into my personal theology; so here, with only a few small tweaks, is the original question and my response.

We are a very liberal and theologically progressive congregation with an exceedingly wide interpretation of the Trinity – from those who believe in Jesus as Christ, fully human and fully divine, to those who question and may no longer believe in a literal interpretation of the Trinity. How would you preach to and engage a congregation such as ours, most of whom share very liberal beliefs, but includes those whose beliefs are more conservative?

Whether as Christ-followers we consider the nature of God, traditionally understood via the concept of the Trinity – or the nature of Jesus, as simultaneously fully human and fully divine – there is a broad diversity of understanding, within any congregation. These theological concepts were derived by believers trying to understand and describe things that by definition transcend all human understanding, and working from within their particular temporal/geographical/cultural contexts. What these early church fathers came up with were theological doctrines defined by statements that were challenging, to say the least: How can one sentient being simultaneously have two distinct and different natures, with neither nature diluted, diminished, or alternatively assumed; as orthodox Christology defines? Or how does a person define the concept of the Trinity, staying within the conceptual boundaries laid out in the ancient Athanasian Creed without tripping into one heresy or another? Goodness knows I’ve tried, and the best I’ve ever come up with is to just restate the words of the doctrine, and then to offer words that perhaps sounded educated and profound, but which ultimately boiled down to “that’s just what it is, and what we’re supposed to believe; it really can’t be explained.”

And so on a personal level, I do, in fact, believe. While my personal theology is overall quite liberal/progressive, I continue to ascribe to the traditional understanding of the Trinitarian God and the dual divine/human nature of Christ.

I do so in part because I understand that we’re considering matters of faith, and matters of faith often can’t be truth-tested merely by means of human logic, so the apparent illogical or irrational nature of these theological principles are not automatic intellectual deal-breakers to me.

I also believe these doctrines because I understand the dilemma faced by those who originally devised them. They were trying, with the noblest of intentions, to find a way to grapple with and explain eternal mysteries through the limitations of human grasp; and with those noble intentions, they probably did the best they could. I believe them because I think I understand the larger point they were trying to make with them. For example, in considering the dual nature of Christ, Bishop Spong writes as he considers the question of the literal nature of the birth accounts of Jesus:

“This was the early church’s way of saying, ‘What we have met and experienced in Jesus the Christ we do not believe human life alone is capable of creating. He must be of God. If God can be met, engaged, and embraced in and through the adult life, the death, and the resurrections of Jesus, then surely God had to be in this Jesus…. We cannot meet Jesus without experiencing God.’ “[1]

In a way, I also believe these theological concepts by default: I can’t personally devise a better way to explain their underlying beliefs, without creating explanations that have different, but just as many, problems. I also recognize that a significant part of my belief of them is due to my own social/cultural location – I have no doubt that if I’d been born in a different cultural mix, my sincere desire to express love for God and others would almost certainly been expressed in very different ways, even completely non-Christian ones, orthodox or otherwise.

Finally, I have to ask myself what would happen to my faith if any of these doctrinal concepts were in some way to be scientifically, historically, incontrovertibly proven to be false – I’m not quite sure how something like that would actually be possible, but let’s grant that for the sake of discussion. Would that fact change in any way my faith and trust in the God I’ve experienced, and in the Christ I’ve encountered, in countless ways in my life and which give me life and hope? I have to say that no, it wouldn’t. My trust in God, and in Christ, is something that transcends those concepts. If that were to happen, I’d simply find another way to try to explain the faith that dwells within, that is in some way consistent with that new contextual reality – which is exactly what those early church fathers were doing, in their own place and time.

All of that is a rather long-winded preface to say that because of the inherent difficulties of these theological principles, all Christians actually believe some form of heresy regarding the Trinity or Christology (not to mention other orthodox Christian doctrines), whether they  know it or not – and this is true whether the individual, or the congregation, is the most conservative, or the most liberal.

That means that the question that you pose is not at all unique to your own context – that of being a very liberal/progressive congregation, with some difference of belief regarding these two specific theological points. Frankly, a pastor in any typical Presbyterian congregation has to be a pastoral presence for a gathered body whose theological range is quite broad. In fact, given your self-description, the full spectrum of theological belief within your congregation may well be even narrower than the average!

The impossibility of getting one’s hands completely around these theological principles means that I will not – I can not – negatively judge anyone who follows Christ yet who does so with unorthodox understandings of the Trinity or of Christ’s nature. To me, to try to judge someone as “in” or “out” of the Body of Christ by the litmus test of adherence to doctrines whose own creators admitted were ultimately inadequate to fully explain the mystery of God and Christ, is the height of Pharisaic arrogance, for which Jesus himself reserved his harshest criticism. If a person can say, as Bishop Spong wrote, “If God can be met, engaged, and embraced in and through the adult life, the death, and the resurrections of Jesus, then surely God had to be in this Jesus…. We cannot meet Jesus without experiencing God”, that seems to be a sufficient profession of faith, and a sufficient understanding of the mystery of Christ to me. Everything else is detail, upon which we can, and do, and will, disagree. Discussing and debating those details may make for interesting conversation and intellectual engagement, but in the end, they matter very little in shaping the way we live for God and others as followers of Jesus. In considering others, we need to remember that in one way or another, we’re all heretics, and all nonetheless recipients of God’s grace.

So how would I serve as a pastor to a congregation like yours? I suppose that I’d do so just as I would serve any other congregation – with love, and compassion, and a balance of pastoral and prophetic voice, and with respect for the freedom of conscience of every believer who can agree with that most ancient and simplest of professions of faith: “Jesus is Lord.”

My own journey of faith has taken me across almost the fullest possible range of Christian belief – beginning in an extremely conservative, Evangelical/Fundamentalist strand, and moving to my current location as a liberal/progressive pastor. At every point along that journey – conservative, liberal, or otherwise – God has blessed me by placing me in relationship with people who were sincere, devout, committed, and loving followers of Jesus. I have personally known their compassion, their friendship, their mentorship, and their support, even when we disagreed theologically. Because of that personal experience, I have little tolerance for bigotry within Christ’s church, whether it is conservative bigotry against progressives, or progressive bigotry against conservatives. While I strongly advocate for the church to move in a more progressive direction, I can still reach out to many conservative Christians, many of whom would put the level of my own faith and devotion to shame – and who, frankly, were the ones who led me into the faith to begin with.

I hope that through this reply to your question, you can see that wherever someone in your congregation finds himself or herself theologically, my primary approach as pastor would be one of acceptance and love, and walking the rest of their – and my – faith journey forward, together. That pastoral principle served me well while I pastored a small, extremely conservative, rural congregation. It’s serving me well now, as I pastor to a large, moderate, suburban congregation. And I’m convinced that it would be just as effective in serving as pastor of your congregation. I hope that you agree, and that we would continue our conversation regarding that possibility.

 

[1] Spong, John Shelby. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 216.

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Even Greater than These (Sermon 5/18/14)

 

Oh, The Places You'll Go! by hazyoasis

(Oops… there was apparently a recording glitch when this sermon was delivered – but you can listen to at least most of it, in two separate clips – here, and then here. )

John 14:1-14

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

*****

I first met Helen a number of years ago, when I first started pastoring. She was in her mid-eighties then, and every Sunday morning as I stood in the pulpit delivering that week’s version of what I hoped would be The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached, Helen would be sitting just a few rows back from the front, staring intently at me, looking very serious – and ever-so-slowly shaking her head back and forth and giving the impression that I was just a huge disappointment. It really bothered me, since it seemed like no matter what I did, or what I said, week after week it just didn’t seem to please her. She just looked at me with those piercing eyes and slowly shaking her head, and given her traditional background and my more progressive leanings, I could just imagine what she must have been thinking: “It’s just a shame what they’re letting into the pulpit these days. Why, old Pastor Cohee would never have said anything like that! And what’s with all the movie references? It’s just dreadful; dreadful, I’m telling you. What a shame.” It will probably sound a little odd, but I was actually very relieved when a few months later I learned that Helen actually did like my sermons, and the head-shaking was a side effect of a medication that she was on.

Helen was a sweetheart; she was a joyful person and I loved her dearly. When I told her that story later on, she got a sparkle in her eye and just laughed and laughed. She was a small, frail woman even in the best of times when I knew her, and she became even more frail during her stay in the nursing home in the months before she died. But in those last days of her life, Helen gave her family a great gift. She made great efforts to sit and talk with her family, telling them all sorts of things from her long and often difficult life. Funny family stories, and family secrets that she’d kept for decades but felt that others needed to know. And she made sure that everyone in the family knew how much she loved them, and that she was OK with the realization that she would be dying soon. And that when she did, she wanted them to be strong, and live long and wonderful lives after she’d gone. And as the family sat around her bedside, crying and laughing and singing Helen’s favorite old hymns, the pastor realized that as he was there with them in these moments, he was standing on sacred, holy ground.

It must have been something like that during this conversation that Jesus was having with his followers in today’s gospel passage. This is part of the fourth gospel’s account of the Last Supper, and these words are part of Jesus’ farewell, his last instructions, to his closest friends and followers. By this time, everyone knew that Jesus was going to die. They didn’t know exactly when, or how, but they knew his time was just about up. And most likely with the same holy blend of joy and sorrow that formed a circle of compassion around Helen’s bed, Jesus was giving them all some last-minute words of both challenge and encouragement.

He certainly packed an awful lot into the little bit of time they had, offering just a handful of words that have generated lifetimes of theological thought and head-scratching. Just in this little snippet of the conversation that we read today, Jesus talks about what life after this life is like. And how, in some mysterious and inexplicable way, he himself could be understood in terms both human and divine. And how he’s the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, a phrase we hear all the time but quietly wonder what that really, truly means. And he says that everyone who enters the kingdom of God does so through him, his efforts, by his decision. Hear that. Jesus said *he* is the way; that no one enters into the kingdom of God but through him – not through anything that we say, or do, or even believe, for that matter, as if any of us could get all of that right in God’s eyes. It’s entirely through Christ – by living, participating in, being caught up by the way of life Jesus embodied, and through which he illustrated God’s will. That was his “Way.” And if that’s the case, then it could be entirely possible to be on Christ’s way, with his mark upon you, without ever having heard of Christ – and because of that you might even be on  your way to God, even if you might not even *believe* in God. It’s an interesting thought.

Well, after Jesus makes all those challenging comments, he makes another very intriguing claim, near the end of this passage. For as many great and amazing things that he’d done during his lifetime, Jesus said, those of us who do follow his way will do even greater things than those.

That’s an amazing claim. When you allow yourself to say it, it sounds arrogant, maybe even blasphemous. But as wild as it sounds, that’s exactly what Jesus himself said. Those who live through him – living the life of self-giving love and dedication to God and others that Jesus’ own life revealed as being God’s way – they would do even greater things in this world than Jesus did himself.

Whether it sounds blasphemous or not, I suppose it’s undoubtedly true if only because there have been literally billions of us trying to follow that way of living since the beginning of human history, compared with just one Jesus being here on earth for just some thirty-odd years. Really, just think of all the good, all the love and compassion, that’s been offered in the course of human history because that’s what we believe would please God. Hungry people fed. Homeless people given shelter. Hospitals built and staffed. People educated; children adopted; lonely and suffering people befriended. Medical and dental brigades going into the most remote backwaters of the world. That’s God’s way, Jesus’ way. Well, yes, maybe that’s true, all well and good, someone might say, but is that really greater than what Jesus actually did during his earthly ministry? I mean, what about all of his miracles, things like that?

What, just what about that? I admit, I haven’t seen anyone turn water into wine lately – and some days around here, that could sure come in handy – but we’ve all seen some pretty amazing things. Seriously, take stock of what you’ve seen and witnessed yourselves. Medical marvels, reconstructing the human body, transplanting organs or tissue, replacing body parts. In the Old Testament, Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbock River all night long, and God couldn’t prevail over Jacob until finally he hit Jacob on the hip and wounded it so badly that the scriptures say Jacob walked with a limp the rest of his life. If that happened today, we’d just give him a new one made out of titanium and plastic. The New Testament tells us about Jesus raising three people from the dead, but today there are countless people who have died or who were certainly going to die without the wonders of modern medical techniques, who are resuscitated every single day, whether it happens in a hospital trauma bay or patient room, or even right here in our own center aisle.*

I don’t know about you, but if those aren’t miracles from God, I don’t know what is.

You’ve probably seen that Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! that he wrote for people who were graduating and moving on into the next chapter of their lives. You could say that these amazing words of promise that Jesus says here are his version of that book, and the encouragement inside it. Two weeks ago, we recognized 15 new adult members of this congregation. Last Sunday, we recognized 31 new Confirmands. This Sunday we recognize both graduates and those who volunteer in this congregation, and we baptized two children into the faith. I think that Jesus’ words are especially appropriate to consider in light of all these new beginnings and activity in the church.

Oh, the places you’ll go. That was Helen’s message to her loved ones gathered around her bedside. And it was Jesus’ message to those disciples gathered around him that evening, and to every disciple who has followed afterward: Oh, the places you’ll go. The wonders you’ll see; the things you’ll do, Jesus says – if you allow my Way to be your way.

Thanks be to God.

* During the previous week’s service, a gentlemen in attendance suffered a medical emergency and was unresponsive, and was resuscitated by medical professionals in attendance.

Doors and Walls (sermon 5/11/14)

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Listen to this sermon here:

John 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

*****

There’s a great poem by Robert Frost called “Mending Wall;” maybe you’ve run across it at some point. In the poem, Frost describes walking along the stone wall that separates his field from his neighbor’s one Spring, him on one side and the neighbor on the other, and as they walk, they pick up and reset the stones that had come loose and fallen out of the wall in one way or another over the Winter. And as they’re going through this annual ritual, it dawns on Frost to wonder why they even need the wall at all. Maybe it would make sense, he says to the neighbor, if they had livestock that they needed to keep fenced in, but they don’t. Their land is all in trees, and it wasn’t like his apple trees are going to wander over and bother his neighbor’s evergreens. In spite of all of Frost’s reasoning, the only answer his neighbor offers up is to repeat the old line, “good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost is feeling a little ornery, and he keeps pushing through that answer and asks *why*that’s true, or if it’s even true at all – and he points out that even nature seems to dislike walls and tries to dismantle them, as they can see at the end of every Winter freeze cycle.

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, every wall does have two sides, an inside and an outside, and along with that, they can be put up to make it clear that you’re being kept out of someplace you want to get into – maybe a football stadium, or some trendy nightspot. Or, they can be put up to keep you in someplace you want to get out of – like the old Berlin Wall, or even a boring business meeting, maybe.

Today’s gospel passage is about walls too, and especially about the door through a wall. It’s actually part of a longer conversation that Jesus is having, and in the very next snip of this conversation beyond what we heard today, he talks about being the Good Shepherd, who leads all of us, his sheep. But before he says that, he says what we heard here that he’s actually the gate, or the door, that we, the sheep, will flow through out into the freedom and what he calls the abundant life, which is waiting for us just outside the walls that have us penned up and confined.

It’s a pretty important distinction that Jesus makes here as he paints this word picture, in terms of how we understand our faith. We aren’t on the outside of a wall that he’s going to lead us through, into some smaller, more exclusive place. He says that we’re penned up on the inside of a wall, and he’s leading us out into the abundance, the wideness and openness of the outside that God wants for us. It isn’t like getting into the country club; it’s more like a prison break.

Some of the stones in this prison wall that Jesus wants to be the door out of are things that we have little or no control of – being the victim of poverty, disease, discrimination. And some of those stones, those obstacles to God’s abundant life, can be emotions – feeling unloved, unlovable, unworthy of God wanting anything good for someone like us. But then again, a lot of those stones are put in place by our own hands. We try to redefine abundant life as simply having more stuff, and we prioritize our lives accordingly. So some of the stones in our walls can be things like bigger houses. Nicer cars. Fancier clothes. Newer technology. Heftier bank accounts. PBS did a documentary once, tracking how over the course of the past century, advertising for consumer goods shifted from talking about the quality or features of the actual product, and moved toward claiming that just having the product would bring you a better life. That it would bring you the kind of personal fulfillment and inner contentment that in the past, people had sought out and found in religious faith, or involvement in charitable work, or similar things.

That documentary was right, and we all fall for it, all the time. Really, just turn on the television. It seems like half the ads we see are just depictions of fit, trim, happy people who never seem to have to do anything to earn a living, but somehow they’re still dressed in the hippest clothes, have all the latest tech gadgets, and live in a McMansion, but they’re almost never there because they’re always out running a marathon or working out at the health club, or eating in the trendiest restaurant. The point of the commercial is that this is the real definition of a full, meaningful, abundant life, and these people have it – and they have it because they use this company’s product – and usually, until they splash the brand name on the screen for the last two seconds of the commercial, we don’t even know what they’re selling!…but we’re pretty sure we want it.

They aren’t selling a product; they’re selling a state of mind. They’re selling a kind of fullness of life that in the end, they really can’t deliver. Culturally, the abundant life became a commodity that we can supposedly get on amazon with a credit card and a mouse click.
To buy into that message – that redirection, that redefinition of abundant life away from the way God defines it, and trying to achieve it in our own way, is to have been misled by the thieves and bandits that Jesus talks about in this passage. They jump over the wall that’s already keeping us from the wide open spaces and abundance that’s waiting for us on the other side, and then they hand us the stones and mix the mortar to make the wall even higher.

The great news for us is that no matter how high that wall gets, and no matter whether someone else set the stones or we did it ourselves, Jesus is still the door through it all. And he isn’t talking about leading us out into that life sometime later, when we die. Yes, there’s something even greater waiting for us in the future, but through Christ – by understanding God by looking to Christ, and putting what we see into action in the way we prioritize things and live our lives – we can know that amazing, liberating, good life – the *real* abundant life – right here, right now.

Before Jesus is the Good Shepherd, he’s the Good Door, and when we go through that door, out into the fullness of God’s kingdom, we see how much bigger and more expansive this thing really is, compared to just our own personal experience of it. Out in the openness beyond the wall, our faith and our very understanding of God, starts to be changed, deepened, by all the other sheep that Jesus has led out there along with us, all of them created in the very image of God as much as us. The poor grandmother from China. The HIV-positive child from Honduras. The unconventional Pope from Rome. The gay Evangelical from Wichita. The grieving widow from Ramallah. These Confirmands, who are going through this door today, too.

Of course, human nature being what it is, it seems like no sooner do we go through this door, leaving our walls behind us, than we start looking around for stones to start building walls all over again, to separate ourselves into clusters of people like us from those who aren’t, as if God actually cares. Walls to line out rich from poor. Urban from rural. White from Black from Asian. Liberal from conservative; Mainline from Evangelical. Presbyterian from Methodist from Lutheran from Baptist from Catholic. Out of discomfort, or maybe worry about how the experiences of all these other sheep in Jesus’ flock might change our own preconceptions about God, we start to build walls to separate the apple trees from the pine trees, when they’re really all God’s trees.

Robert Frost’s neighbor said that good fences make good neighbors. I suppose that maybe, sometimes, they might make good neighbors. But I know they don’t usually make good Christians. And I’m pretty sure that’s why Jesus calls himself the door through a wall, and says “Follow me, all of you – forget about the walls and come on out here to the other side, where God wants you, and where the life is truly good!”

Thanks be to God.

*****

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

God and the Gay Christian: Some Thoughts

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A few years ago, Matthew Vines faced a major life crisis. He’d grown up as part of a very conservative Presbyterian church congregation in his native Wichita. Now, as a twenty-something Harvard undergrad, he’d reached this moment of painful truth. For years he’d been more or less blissfully oblivious to it, and later, as discomforting realization began to creep in, he tried to repress it. But on this particular angst-ridden evening, standing in the toothpaste section of a convenience store, Matthew Vines finally admitted to himself, “Oh crap – I’m gay.”

This kind of self-realization poses enough worries and resultant problems for anyone, but for a devout Christian who is deeply ensconced in the conservative Evangelical branch of American Christianity, it’s all the more difficult. In the midst of this newfound self-awareness, and the inevitable opposition to the news that he encountered from family and friends – all of whom loved him deeply, but who, based on their interpretation of the Bible, were not open to the possibility, let alone the acceptability, of being simultaneously a deeply committed Christian and gay.

This led Mathew Vines to do something drastic. He put his undergraduate studies on hold, and began a lengthy and very detailed scholarly study of the biblical texts which the church has traditionally interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Not a biblical scholar himself, he turned the work of many very well-regarded Bible scholars, from across the full spectrum of Christian thought. In the process, he discovered that the traditional, “non-affirming” position, which has been the prevailing interpretation of these texts for most of Christian history, is far from the only interpretation of them. He discovered that not only was the non-affirming interpretation not the only theologically and scholarly rigorous interpretation, but he came to believe – as others have – that all of the best and most rigorous biblical scholarship shows that the traditional interpretation of these passages has been simply wrong. In this process, not only Matthew, but also his deeply conservative and traditional parents, came to accept the validity of the non-traditional, affirming interpretation of the scriptures.

Following up on this in-depth research, he gave an hour-long presentation summarizing his findings to an audience gathered in a local Methodist church (his home congregation denied him a venue). This presentation was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezQjNJUSraY  where it went viral – to date, it has been viewed by at least three-quarters of a million people. It was this video that first introduced me to Matthew Vines. And now, Matthew Vines has written a book, God and the Gay Christian, in which he details the arguments in favor of an affirming interpretation of the Bible and weaving in parts of his own personal story, while he makes his larger point: that a person can identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian, holding to the full authority of the Bible, while also ascribing to an affirming interpretation of the scriptures.

I was especially struck by his scholarship and the video because his research regarding the church’s stance on homosexuality very closely paralleled my own. Matthew Vines grew up in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a congregation that has since, sadly, voted to leave the denomination largely over its decision to allow openly gay and lesbian ordained ministers, elders, and deacons. I am a long-time member of the same denomination, albeit in a significantly less conservative congregation than his. My original entry into Christianity was via a very conservative, non-Presbyterian strand of the faith, and I’d retained this conservatism, and the traditional, non-affirming stance toward gays after becoming a Presbyterian. I’d been disturbed at my denomination’s gradual movement toward an affirming, inclusive stance with regard to LGBTQ issues. At the time, I thought that the denomination was being unfaithful to the Bible, throwing out the scriptures in favor of a position defined more by current secular thought than the Bible. In my mid-forties, I discerned a call to the ministry, first as what the Presbyterians called a Commissioned Lay Pastor, and later as a seminary-trained Minister of Word and Sacrament. During the coursework to become a CLP, I’d dug into the scriptures, their origins, and the interpretive methodologies that we Presbyterians had historically adopted more deeply than I ever had before. At the same time, the denomination was loudly arguing about “the gay issue” and whether to amend our constitution to be more affirming. It was also around this time that I first encountered a person who was simultaneously deeply Christian and openly gay, and the cognitive dissonance that this set off in my brain led to many questions. Still very conservative theologically at that point, I set out on an in-depth study to refute the non-traditional, affirming biblical and theological arguments that were being put forth. At the end of my efforts, however, I ended up at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of the matter, and I had to grudgingly and sheepishly admit to myself, “Oh crap – they’re right.”

Since that time, I’ve moved from identifying as a conservative Christian; to a Christian with progressive beliefs, but who still valued the “conservative” label to the point that I argued that my views were actually the “truly” conservative views; to now, as an ordained Presbyterian pastor who proudly identifies as a progressive Mainline Christian. In that regard, I am not like Matthew Vines, who continues to identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian – and it is precisely that fact that makes his new book so remarkable, and so threatening to a number of conservative, non-affirming Christians. Still, our research, and our conclusions, were almost perfectly parallel. I actually remember being so amazed at his video, which laid out almost precisely my own research and beliefs like no other single source, that I pointed a number of people to the video, via Facebook sharing and other avenues. This sharing was not universally appreciated; by the time the video was uploaded, I had already been serving as pastor to a small congregation for a number of years, and I remember one parishioner in particular who was especially perturbed by the video by this young gay man, who apparently was claiming that “we can say the Bible means whatever we want it to,” and complaining that watching the video resulted in losing an hour of her life that she’d never get back.

I had the pleasure of actually meeting Matthew Vines in October of 2013 in Chicago, while attending a conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. He presented one of the many workshops that I attended there. I was lucky enough to bump into him a couple of times during the breaks, and I shared a dinner table and some very enjoyable conversation with him and three or four others one evening. Since that time, I’d been very much looking forward to the release of his book. Now that it’s arrived and I’ve finished reading it, I can say it was definitely worth the wait. God and the Gay Christian is a very good, and very important, book.

By his own admission, the scholarship presented in Matthew’s book is not new, and not original to him. The interpretations and arguments presented have mostly been around for quite some time. The magic of this book, though – and which I suspect will cause it to have a major effect on attitudes within the conservative Evangelical world – is that it’s probably the single best source for all of these interpretations to be presented together in a single, cohesive location. It does so in a manner that is immensely readable and accessible to the general reader, without diminishing the depth and logic of the arguments. And he provides an abundance of footnotes for even further depth, to satisfy the exegetical/theological nerds among us.

As mentioned earlier, part of the importance of this book is that it’s someone who is still within the conservative Evangelical tent making the case for affirming biblical interpretation. Of course, Matthew isn’t the first to do this either, but in some of the previous instances, the Evangelical movement largely considered these people to be poor deluded souls at best, or liberal turncoats at worst, and in either case effectively shut them out of the Evangelical identity. Only time will tell if the same thing happens to Matthew.

In a number of ways, Matthew has written specifically for the Evangelical – wherever possible, he cites scholars who are more popular within traditional Evangelical circles, rather than others who may be seen as being aligned with progressive Christianity, and whose opinions would be held suspect. Also, most of his biblical citations are taken from the NIV, a translation favored by Evangelicals, with only occasional citations from the NRSV translation officially favored by the PCUSA and other Mainline traditions (both are actually very good translations, with only minor differences where translators were faced with a kind of linguistic fielder’s choice – still, one of the quickest ways to know whether a PCUSA congregation is more progressive or conservative is to see which of these two translations has been chosen for the pew Bibles). These are relatively minor things that a general reader may not even notice, let alone care about, but they make the arguments within the book somewhat more potentially acceptable to a conservative Evangelical than might have otherwise been the case. This is a very good thing.

Another very good thing is his detailed discussion about the dreaded two words in New Testament translation and exegesis, malakos and arsenokoitai. These two words show up in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the passage that has traditionally been interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Their translation has bedeviled people for centuries, and while many non-affirming Christians may cede the field regarding the Old Testament same-sex “clobber verses,” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, containing these two Greek words, is perhaps the non-affirming “ground zero.” Matthew makes a very strong and succinct presentation of the scholarship regarding the meaning of these terms – and especially their meaning when paired together – and the reality that they were not being used to denote the meanings applied to them by twentieth-, and twenty-first, century non-affirming Christians. And the subsequent chapters regarding biblical arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, and the significance of humans – all humans, straight and gay – having been created in the imago Dei, are equally powerful and particularly timely given the ongoing legal and judicial environment, as marriage equality and other LGBTQ equality issues continue to move across more and more states.

As I’ve said, this is a very good and important book. It is very well written and in all likelihood its publication will become a major milestone in the changing of many hearts and minds within conservative Evangelicalism. Without taking anything away from that, there was something that I noticed that I thought was a bit unfortunate. On the very first page of the book, Matthew refers to Christians who currently hold an affirming interpretation of the scriptures, and who support LGBTQ inclusion in the church and same-sex relationships:

To be fair, many Christians now support same-sex relationships. But those who do tend to see Scripture as a helpful but dated guidebook, not as the final authority on questions of morality and doctrine.

That is not my view of Scripture.

To be frank, neither is that the view of scripture held by most progressive Christians, or Mainline Christians in general, whether they hold LGBTQ-affirming views or not. I consider myself a progressive Christian, and I travel in circles of other progressive Christians – including some who are far more progressive than I am – and I may have bumped into one or two people who held out the extremely loose view of scripture that Matthew describes. But it’s simply not true that progressive Christians view the Bible as little more than a quaint book of ancient poetry and fairy tales. In fact, the vast majority of progressive and other Mainline Christians believe that, to use Matthew’s words, “…all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life. While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)” The extremely small number of extremist progressives who hold such a highly dismissive understanding of the Bible are no more representative of all progressives than are extremist Fundamentalists who hold an absurdly literalist view of the Bible representative of Evangelicals. Portraying progressives in this cartoonishly flat and inaccurate manner does a disservice to both progressives as well as the spirit of civility and unity, in the name of our common Lord, that I know Matthew strives for. It is doubly unfortunate because while having the Evangelicals’ ear, he could have used the opportunity to dispel this unfortunate caricature, but instead, he reinforced it.

In truth, the way that progressive Christians and conservative Christians understand the nature, authority, and even the interpretive methodologies of the scriptures, are very similar. In most cases, it is only a difference of how and where the interpretive methodologies are considered applicable or appropriate. A progressive Christian would not say that the scriptures are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the sense that these terms are defined in our current society. But virtually all progressive Christians would agree that all of scripture is inspired by God, not only in its writing, but in its redaction, editing, and compilation into the canon – and that scripture is indeed authoritative for our lives. In fact, we PCUSA Presbyterians would say, as we state in our Confession of 1967, that “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.” And this is found in the confessional statement that some deride as being the most “liberal” of our confessions. The ironic evidence of how similar the two camps view the scriptures is this book itself: the vast bulk of the scholarship and interpretive arguments presented by Matthew in the book, which he holds out as being consistent with the Evangelical understanding of scripture and interpretation, are exactly the same arguments made by progressives, who also consider them completely consistent with their – our – understanding of the nature, authority, and interpretation of scripture.

Some people within the world of Evangelicalism have said that God and the Gay Christian is a dangerous book. They’re right. Anyone who holds a non-affirming interpretation of the scriptures should feel extremely discomforted, possibly even threatened, by this book – just as countless others in the past who held interpretations of the Bible that were subsequently shown to be not just incorrect, but harmful, felt threatened. Ultimately though, the arc of the moral universe spoken of by Dr. King will continue to bend toward justice, and therefore, toward a higher understanding of God, a truer living out of God’s will, and a more accurate understanding of the meaning of scripture. Most likely within a generation, certainly no more than two, conservative and progressive Christians will look back on our time and wonder why we were so slow to comprehend the more true, more loving, more scripturally correct, understanding of the relationship between God and the gay Christian. We can only wish that day were already here, but I’m sure that Matthew Vines’ book will help to get us there sooner.

Solvitur Ambulando (It Will Be Solved in the Walking) – Sermon 5/4/14

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Luke 24:13-35

 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

*****

You’ve all heard this story from scripture many times – at least part of it, anyway, because of the several options that our Book of Common Worship offers as a welcome and invitation to the Lord’s Table for Communion, I almost always use the one that mentions this story. These two disciples were walking out from Jerusalem to the little village of Emmaus on that Sunday afternoon after Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s an interesting story. First, we don’t even know both of their names. Luke, and whoever was his original source for the story, only tell us that one of them was a man named Cleopas, and we can only assume that they mentioned him by name because in the ensuing years after it happened, Cleopas must have become a well-known person, probably a leader, in the very early church. It was a way of validating the story itself to Luke’s original audience, a way of saying “Cleopas himself was there and attested to this so we know it’s true.” On the other hand, I feel a little sorry for the other poor guy who was with him, the other disciple who was just as much a part of this amazing story but whose name is lost to the ages. I can picture him thinking “Hey, what about me, I was there, too!”

Some people have wondered what these two were doing, why they were going to Emmaus that afternoon. We’ll never really know, of course, but I suspect the real reason they were going to Emmaus is that that’s just where the road happened to go. Jerusalem was still clogged with Passover pilgrims and Roman occupiers, and there was no doubt a great deal of chaos within the group of Jesus’ followers as they went through the grief, and anger, and confusion over what they should do next, now that Jesus was dead. Should they all just go home and forget about it all, or what? And so, in the midst of all that, I suspect Cleopas and his unknown friend just needed to clear their thoughts, to sort things out in their heads. So they picked a road out of town to just go for a walk and get away from everything, and the road they picked just happened to be the one that led out to Emmaus. There’s a phrase in Latin, Solvitor Ambulando – “It Will Be Solved in the Walking” – and I think that’s what these two were trying to do.

We do that same kind of thing at times, don’t we? Things start to press in on us from all sides sometimes, and the only way to deal with it is to disengage. To take off for a couple of days. Maybe to go on a retreat. There’s actually a very well-known three-day spiritual retreat that a lot of people take called “The Walk to Emmaus,” designed to help people clear away the cobwebs, to deepen their spirituality and their relationship with Christ, and to help them discern a path forward in their lives.

Usually, though, our walk to Emmaus isn’t anything that in-depth or structured. More often than not, our Emmaus walk is a walk through a Metro Park. Or going to Grater’s for a double scoop of Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip by ourselves. Or getting in the car and driving, without ay particular destination in mind. We each have something that we do when we want to step out of the moment to get some clarity in our lives, to step up onto the balcony, as it were, to be able to see the bigger picture, get a clearer view of what’s going on.

Cleopas and his friend certainly got a clearer view of things on their walk, more than they’d ever dreamt of. Luke tells us that in some way, these two disciples, who had spent many hours, days, maybe even years, with Jesus, didn’t recognize him when he approached them on the road, and as he walked with them and opened up the meaning of the scriptures to them. People have sometimes suggested that maybe the two were just so grief-stricken that they just weren’t paying attention and weren’t really looking at Jesus, and that’s how they didn’t recognize him. Personally, I think that in some way, a physical, but transformed, “resurrection body” must be different in some way, in that its appearance can vary – and that Jesus, the resurrected Lord of all Creation, was just being ornery and was having a little bit of fun with them, the same way that he was in other scriptural accounts where some of his closest friends didn’t recognize him in certain post-resurrection appearances.

One of the reasons I like this passage so much is that if you think about it, it’s actually a model of what our experience as followers of Jesus is supposed to be like, and what the church is really supposed to be all about. We begin on a spiritual journey, and there’s an explanation of the scriptures, and a communal meal, and in those things we encounter Christ; and then we’re sent out to tell others the good news we’ve had revealed to us.

In this model of what our spiritual life, and our life as the church can be like, we all start out on this journey, not completely sure where we’re going, not sure where we’re going to end up, like Cleopas and his friend had done. Full of questions, looking for answers, maybe even caught up in some inner conflict, turmoil, grief and seeking some comfort. And somehow, in the process we encounter the risen Christ. We don’t even necessarily recognize him at the time, in the moment. As we participate in the life of the church, we hear words, catch impressions, get a word of comfort or an insight that suddenly strikes us and we hadn’t thought of before. We’re worshiping as part of a group, singing together, hearing a sermon together, but we might walk away feeling in some way we really can’t explain that the whole message of the day spoke just to us and our heart. Sometimes, it’s only in looking back on those experiences that we realize that in those moments, we actually experienced the presence of Christ, in the same kind of hidden way that Cleopas and his friend had.

Maybe that’s an important part of our spiritual journey as Jesus’ followers. Maybe our gradually recognizing Christ’s presence in our lives is an important part of our discipleship, and the deepening of our own spiritual lives, and for Jesus to be present with us clearly and unambiguously, without any hiddenness at all, just horning his way into our lives and demanding our attention and obedience, would destroy it all. I think that the deepening of our lives in Christ relies on Jesus’ not crashing down the gate and blowing his way into our daily lives. Rather, I think it depends on this ongoing, gradual discovery of his presence, through worship, through sitting at table with him, and with Cleopas, and with his unknown friend, in the Lord’s Supper. In our spiritual lives, things are solved in the walking, because it’s in the walking that we really come to understand who it is that’s walking alongside us – and because Christ is indeed right alongside us in all of our walking, through good days and bad, and because he’s always reaching out for us, moving in our lives, and waiting for us to recognize it’s him who’s doing the moving because he loves us so deeply and dearly, we can all say

Thanks be to God.