Talk Is Cheap

(sermon 10/1/17 – World Communion Sunday)

yes no maybe

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

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As a Lenten study series this coming year, Cathy L______ is going to do an educational offering on the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting and informative session, and I hope you’ll try to attend it when it comes around. Once, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Give me five minutes with a man’s checkbook, and I’ll tell you what he really believes.” Momentarily putting aside the male bias in the words, which just reflect the age he was writing in, and the fact that the youngest generation of adults today has probably never even had a checkbook, I think the point still comes through – that the way a person spends their money, and even more broadly, the things that they actually do, illustrates what they really believe, far more accurately than what they might say they believe.

There’s a lot of that same idea in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text. In this lesson, Jesus is in the middle of yet another confrontation with a group of religious leaders who aren’t happy with what he’s been teaching. A lot of what he’s said runs counter to their teachings, and in this exchange, they’re trying to pick him apart, to get him to say something that contradicts their official orthodoxy that they can then use to discredit him. And after a brief back-and-forth battle over words, Jesus tells this short story about a man with two sons; the first one says he’ll do what the Father wants, and then doesn’t do it; and the second one says he won’t do what the Father wants, but ultimately goes ahead and does it anyway; and that it’s the second son who was pleasing in the Father’s eyes. He tells the story to make his point clear: having and saying the right words is all well and good, but what really matters – what actually accomplishes the will of the Father, to use Jesus’ terminology – is actually doing the right things, carrying out the intentions behind the words. In this little exchange, Jesus is saying, in essence, that talk is cheap If those words aren’t enfleshed, if their meaning isn’t made real in the world, then the words are meaningless at best, and just weapons used to divide us at worst.

This is an idea that goes to the very heart of our faith. We say that in the beginning, before even the beginning of measurable time, was the Word – the creative power and essence and wisdom of God, and that God knew that the best way for us human beings to understand God, and God’s will, is for that eternal, spiritual Word to become enfleshed – so that we could see, and know, firsthand, what all the written words about God that only partially and imperfectly pointed toward God, actually were trying to say.

Of course, those religious leaders who were trying to trip Jesus up with words were far from the last to go down that path. The divisions across the full spectrum of the Christian faith over words, over theological jots and tittles run deep. We’ve argued, and divided over, issues like what precisely, scientifically, is happening when we celebrate and embrace the mystery of Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Or whether Jesus is divine and eternally coexistent, uncreated, with God the Father; or divine, but still nevertheless created by God the Father. Or whether the Holy Spirit emanates “from the Father,” or “from the Father and the Son.” Or whether, if God is supposedly trinitarian, how that works – are those making up the Trinity “beings” or “persons;” or are they distinct “parts” of God that only together make up God; or if they’re really just like “masks,” or parts in a play, that the same, unitary God just appears through at various points in time.

Did you keep up with all that? Probably not. And yet, we Christians have debated, and divided, and argued, and excommunicated, and tortured, and killed, and fought wars over those exact things. And just as bad, we didn’t limit our awful behavior to just other Christians. We persecuted people of other religious faiths, and those of no religious faith, because they didn’t accept the correctness of our own particular Christian theology – because they had their own “words” for defining how to love and serve God and humanity, and how they fit into the universe. And through all of our division and dissension and especially the violence over words, God must have been disgusted and heartbroken – and must still be when we do the same things today.

Jesus didn’t say in his story that words aren’t important. They are. It’s a good and proper and important thing for us to try to understand and comprehend God as deeply and correctly as we can with our words. But as Jesus points out here, having the right words isn’t enough. What matters most is whether we’re putting our words to use, to advance God’s will for us, and for this world. And taking that one step further, if we are putting our words, our beliefs into practice, and they aren’t really achieving God’s intentions, then maybe we don’t have the right words, the right beliefs, at all.

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a time when Christians across a wide spectrum of theologies and beliefs – a wide spectrum of words – all commit to come together to celebrate Communion – the Lord’s Supper – on the same day, as a sign of unity in God’s Spirit. It’s a statement that regardless of the details of our words, we’re committed, together, to do the will of the Father in the world – to love God with all of our essence; to love all people as we love ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. World Communion Sunday is a global joint statement that as a tenet of our common faith, talk is cheap without follow-through.

And this Sunday, we need to recognize that while World Communion Sunday is a particularly Christian observance, its message of us turning our words into actions doesn’t stop at the threshold of Christianity. God’s will is that we extend those same loving and gracious and accepting attitudes to all people, because we’re all God’s people, regardless of our particular religious beliefs – regardless of our “words.” In a number of ways, through a number of Springdale’s different mission initiatives funded through our annual general offering – through our “checkbook,” thinking back to C.S. Lewis’ comment – we’re trying to do exactly that.

A man had two sons. Or three. Or three thousand, or seven and a half billion billion. The number wasn’t important. What was important wasn’t what any of them might say, because he knew that at any given time they were likely to say just about anything, and at one time or another, probably have. His question was “Regardless of the words, will they do what I want them to do? Will they love one another? Will they accept one another? Will they treat one another with justice and always strive for peace? Because whatever they might say or not say, *that’s* what pleases me. *That’s* what makes them my children.”

So will they do it? Will we?

Thanks be to God.

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God Isn’t Fair!

(sermon 9/24/17)

unfair god

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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Today, we heard two really deep and rich texts; you could do a month of sermons on either one of them, but I wanted to look at these two texts and think about the one commonality they share. In both of them, we’re looking at things where people perceive that God was not fair. God just wasn’t being fair. You heard that first story; you know the story of Jonah and all of his trials and tribulations as he did what God had called him to do, and of course we’re picking this up at the very end of the story – he’s very upset, because ultimately, at least, Jonah did what God had asked of him; he’d gone to Assyria and told the people of the city, “Forty days, and you’re history – God is going to overthrow you; you’re going to be destroyed. And of course, we know the outcome of that story, that hearing that terrible thing that was about to befall them, they repented and asked for God’s forgiveness and mercy – and God relented. God did not do what was originally the plan. And of course, Jonah is upset at this, for a couple of reasons, I suspect. First, I imagine he just felt like a fool. He told the people of the city what was going to happen to them, and all of a sudden it doesn’t happen, so he’s got a bit of egg on his face. But also the fact that these are the despised Assyrians, the sworn enemies of the Israelites, in our equivalent they’d be like North Korea and Iran and al Quaeda and ISIS all rolled into one; if anyone deserved receiving the wrath of God it would have been them, and it didn’t happen. So Jonah was complaining, he was grousing, he was saying, “God, you are being unfair!”

Then in the second story, this is one of Jesus’ parables, we’re told that the Kingdom of God is like this story, where the workers in the field who were there and worked just an hour are paid the same as the ones who were there working hard all day. The first workers looked at the situation and said, “This is unfair!” And yet, we’re being told that this is the way that the Kingdom of God is. Unfair. And I suppose that’s true; God is unfair, especially if you’re looking at these two stories from one standpoint versus another. If you’re experiencing the first story through the eyes of Jonah, it certainly looks unfair. If you’re experiencing that gospel lesson, the parable, through the eyes of the people who started working at the beginning of the day, it certainly seems unfair.

I think it’s kind of interesting, whenever we hear these kinds of stories from the scriptures – I know I do this, and I suspect most of us do – we tend to experience the story through the eyes of the “good guys.” We tend to automatically put ourselves in the place of the people who are doing what we think God wants of us; we’re the ones who are working hard; we’re the ones who are adhering to what God wants us to do, so we deserve the reward, and the others deserve something else, or something less. We’re the good guys.

But what if that isn’t the case? And frankly, I suspect it isn’t. I suspect that if we look at our own situations, we’re probably like the people who receive the undeserved benefit of God’s unfairness. We’re the ones, like the people in the city of Nineveh, who needed to be reminded, who needed to have it pointed out to us, that where we were headed wasn’t really God’s direction. We are like the latecomers in the parable. From that standpoint, God’s choices don’t seem so bad, do they? We’re benefitting from this unmerited, gracious, extravagant kind of unfairness on God’s part.

I think that’s an important point of both of these stories. They both tell us something about what God is doing in the world; that God’s sense of fairness is somehow different from the way we might perceive it or want it to be. That God is calling each of us into a new and different kind of existence, with different rules. God is actually trying to create a new kind of community. A new kind of being together. Almost a new kind of family, if you will. Through God’s turning things upside-down, God’s changing the world through this new way of understanding and being, God is establishing what we call eternal life. That isn’t just something out in the future, in the sweet by-and-by; God is saying no, I want this to be the way that you live in the here and now, and that means some new rules, some new ways of looking at things and understanding things are going to apply.

One of the things that happens in order to usher in this new way of being is this right here. This – the church. I don’t mean the roof and the walls; I mean you and me. God is calling us into a new way of experiencing life. We’re being called into a new way of being a family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the church lately, for a few reasons, but one of those reasons was that, as you know, we’re beginning to kick off our annual stewardship campaign, “ENGAGE.” You’ll be seeing and hearing more about that in the coming weeks. As I was thinking about the stewardship campaign, I was considering the reality that there are two primary reasons why someone will support a church with their time and financial resources. The first is that to do so is just the way we were raised; we were taught that this is just the right thing to do; you support your church – it’s a sense of duty; of obligation. And that’s correct; for us, as Christians, it is. The second reason why someone might support a church congregation is because of what it means to us. What is the significance; what’s the benefit; what’s the importance of this group of people in *my* life?

We know that the church gives us opportunities in several directions. First, it gives us a place to explore and deepen our faith; our spirituality; both as an individual and as parts of a larger group, as we work this faith journey out together. It also gives us a good and easy way to engage with the world around us and to do something positive, taking concrete steps to make the world a better place and to improve the lives of the people within it. It gives us a place, and a way, to roll up our sleeves and really make a difference, and not just talk about it, and not just worry about it, and not just share pictures on Facebook about it, but to actually do something about it. And I think the third important thing that the church is to us is that it is this new kind of community. It is this completely illogical, irrational, new way of understanding what the word “family” means.

Family. We’re a family that is brought together not by blood relationship. We’re not brought together by shared socio-economic status. We’re not brought together by race, or ethnicity. We’re not brought together by any of those other categories that the world normally thinks about. We’re called together in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Called – think about that. Each and every one of you have been called by God to be part of this family. What does that mean to you?

He was a young man, in his late twenties. He was the very definition of his generation. If there was some hot new electronic gadget, he had it. He lived in a city. His parents lived 500 miles away. His siblings and his high school and college friends all lived at least that far away. He saw them all routinely, virtually, on the computer screen, on the phone, on the tablet. He was connected with them through Instagram, and texting, and yes, even Facebook, even though he didn’t like it much but that’s where he could connect with his parents so he did it. He was connected. When he talked about the issues of the day, he did it online, with people from around the world. When he wanted some recreation, some downtime, he grabbed his gaming controller and his headset, and he teamed up with someone from Germany, and someone from Sweden, and someone from Australia, and together they joined up and zapped aliens, or wrestled with trolls, or whatever the online game called for. He’s connected. He is more connected than any other generation that’s ever been – virtually – but then again, he really isn’t. And he knows it. Because he knows that someday, the batteries will die, and when they do, he’s going to be sitting in his apartment, alone. And his parents and his friends are still going to all be hundreds of miles away. And he knows he’ll still be stressed out, because he has to work two jobs just to be able to barely make ends meet, to pay the basic bills and to make payments on his student loan to pay for an education that was a thousand percent more expensive than that of his parents, and he isn’t able to save anything for his future. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and there’s no one around him that he can share all this with. He’s alone. He is part of the most connected generation ever, and he’s still alone.

She was well past retirement. She’d lived a long and productive and happy life along with her husband, but he had died five years ago. And she got out of the house from time to time, but it was different now, being just her. Not experiencing life with the person who was connected to you for decades. And when she did get out, she’d often have the experience shared by so many older people – other people, younger people, and they were almost all younger people, actively avoiding her, maybe not wanting to be reminded that someday they, too, will be older. More often than the active avoidance, though, she experienced that feeling of invisibility that so many older people experience. To walk through a room and have no one notice. When she was home, she was alone. She realized that it had been a month since she’d known the simple, wonderful gift of another human being’s touch. A hug. A hand on a shoulder. The stroke of a cheek. She longed for that. She was set financially, she didn’t have to worry about that, but what she wanted the most was just simple human contact. She was alone.

The two of them both found what they were looking for here – in church. As different as they were on the surface, they ended up being part of the same groups and classes, and volunteering for the same mission projects around town. He sat in one pew; she sat in the pew just behind him. Over time, this odd couple struck up a friendship. They cared for one another; they watched out for one another. They found the personal, human connection that they’d both been hoping for. Through the church, they became family. She danced at his wedding. He cried at her funeral.

They knew what was special about this – the church. They knew the great gift that the world has given to the world, and to us by treating us unfairly, in a way we needed but didn’t’ deserve, by establishing the church and uniting us in the Spirit to be part of it. They knew the great extravagance of the God who calls us together.

So, is God unfair? Friends, you should shout it from the top of your lungs, “YES!!! God is unfair!!!” And for that,

Thanks be to God.

It’ll Teach ’em a Lesson

(sermon 9/17/17)

forgive

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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When I was maybe five or six years old, I remember a short little animated TV commercial made by the Mormon Church that usually ran on Sunday mornings. The animation was very simple, just a step or two above stick figures. It told a story about a poor, struggling farmer who lived next to a rich cattle rancher. The narrator of the commercial said that one night, out of desperation, the farmer tried to steal a steer from the rancher in order to feed his family – but he got caught. The ranch hands who caught him took him to the rancher, who was in no mood for mercy, and he tells the ranch hands, “String him up – it’ll teach him a lesson.” Then the story shifts, and the narrator explains, “Well that very night, the rancher dreamt that he died, and he stood before his Maker in judgment.” – and at this point, you see the rancher standing there, nervous, hat in hand, fumbling with the brim, a big bead of sweat running down the side of his face – and the narrator continues, “And as he stood there awaiting his fate, he heard a voice say, ‘Forgive him – it’ll teach him a lesson.”

That simple little commercial that I’ve remembered now for fifty years was actually teaching a similar sort of lesson as this parable of Jesus’ that we just heard. This is what’s known as the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant. As you heard in the story, a servant owes the king an astronomical amount of money – ten thousand talents. A talent was a unit of money equal to 70 or 75 pounds of silver – so based on this past week’s price for silver, ten thousand talents would have been a debt of around 200 million dollars. It was an absurd, unrealistic amount, so it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is just making the point that it’s a debt that would have been utterly impossible to ever pay off – and that to forgive a debt like that would show grace and forgiveness of an infinite magnitude. By comparison, the amount that the second slave in the story owed the first slave – 100 denarii – would have been comparable to 14,000, maybe $15,000 dollars today – clearly, nothing like the first slave’s debt, but still, far from pocket change. It was a debt that most average people would be hard put to just let go. It wasn’t something trivial to just write off; to forgive that amount would definitely be felt.

Based on Jesus’ explanation, we can see the king as representing God, and that we’re being warned not to make the same ungrateful mistake as the first slave – that, in gratitude for the full magnitude of God’s living forgiveness of us, we need to offer similar, even costly forgiveness to others.

I know, most times that’s easier said than done. Even though Jesus framed this story in financial terms, I think the people who are the hardest for us to forgive are the ones who have hurt us in other ways. Non-financial ways. Ways that are offenses to our own sense of personal dignity, or offenses against people we love, or offenses against our sense of fairness or justice. Those are the hard things to forgive.

There’s a well-known story told by Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who was a young girl during World War II, and whose family considered it their Christian duty to hide Jews in their home from the Nazi occupiers. They did so until they were eventually caught, and the entire family were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. All of her family died there, and it was only through a miraculous clerical error that she was released. After the war, she wrote about her faith and her experiences, and was a popular speaker. She was speaking to a church group in Munich several decades after the war, and after her speech, a man from the audience approached her. Even though he was older now, she recognized him immediately as a former SS guard at Ravensbruck. He introduced himself and said that he had been a guard there, and that after the war he’d become a Christian. He said that he knew in his heart that God had forgiven him for his actions, but it would mean a lot to him if she could forgive him.

This was a man who oversaw the deaths of her entire family. She was dumbstruck. Even though she’d just given a big speech on the importance of forgiveness, here she stood with this man and she didn’t know if she could forgive him. But, thinking about God’s own forgiveness of her, she realized that as much as she didn’t want to, she needed to forgive this man. She recognized that forgiveness wasn’t a feeling but an act of the will. So she offered a simple prayer, telling God that she would offer her hand, a physical, unfelt gesture, but if there needed to be any emotion or anything else, it was going to have to come from God. So taking all the strength she had in her tiny little frame, she mechanically reached out and took the man’s hand. And when she did, she said she felt an indescribable peace, a warmth, and she was able to let go of the anger and hatred and bitterness that she’d felt for him. The man had asked her for forgiveness so he could have some healing and peace, but in the process, she received healing and peace, too. I think that’s precisely why Jesus stresses the importance of practicing this kind of radical forgiveness – the kind that we don’t want to offer and that the other person doesn’t deserve – the kind of forgiveness described in this parable.

We don’t want to forgive someone when we think it would mean the other person has gotten away with something, or it would make us feel like a doormat, a patsy. Jesus is saying through this parable that forgiving others, especially those that are undeserving of it, as counterintuitive as it might seem, is really the only way that we’ll be able to truly know the healing and peace that God wants us to have.

So sometimes we don’t want to forgive because it would seem to be an affront to our dignity, or justice. But other times, I think we can’t forgive others because there are things in our own lives that we haven’t forgiven ourselves for. Sure, like the former guard, we know that God has forgiven us, but *we* haven’t forgiven us. And because of that, we can’t be gracious and forgiving of others. Or maybe we really can’t imagine God forgiving us for something – some terrible thing we did, or didn’t do; some way we hurt another person.

Friends, we need to accept our forgiveness from God, and to accept that if God has forgiven us, then we have no reason to not forgive ourselves. We need to let go of that guilt or shame and accept that we’re the recipients of God’s love and mercy beyond our wildest imaginations. We need to accept the truth of that bit of the service that we do every single Sunday, the Assurance of Forgiveness – that in Jesus Christ, we are really, truly, forgiven; and that God has forgiven us far more than even the king forgave in this parable. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that. There is absolutely no reason to question that. The only question that I might have in all of this, I suppose, might be just *why* God would choose to forgive us with such illogical extravagance – and when I consider that, the only answer I can come up with is that God must think it’ll teach us a lesson.

Thanks be to God.

Eugene Carson Blake, Where Are You Now?

eugene carson blake arrested 7-4-63 baltimore

This photo depicts one of my favorite moments in Presbyterian history. I’ve shared it before; the events of recent days have made me think about it again.

This is the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk – the top church executive –  of the Presbyterian Church from 1951 until 1966. This is a photo of Blake being arrested while protesting a segregated amusement park in Baltimore in 1963.

During his time as Stated Clerk, Blake was a strong advocate for Christian unity, being a major voice of the ecumenical movement and calling for a merger of ten mainline denominations into one body. His focus on church unity led him to also serve as the President of the National Council of Churches while serving as Stated Clerk, and later, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

But his focus wasn’t exclusively on Christian unity, and it certainly wasn’t on unity at any cost. Blake was head of the denomination during the civil rights movement, a time of intense division in the church.  He knew all too well the differing, and often heatedly debated, opinions within the denomination’s membership over matters of racial equality and justice. These were explosive issues, and any statements about them coming out of the head office – regardless of content – had the potential for further division, and possibly even denominational schism.

And yet, fully aware of that reality, Blake took a strong, uncompromising stand in favor of social justice. He wrote and spoke powerfully against racial discrimination and segregation, and calling for civil rights and equal justice under the law for all people. He stood up for racial equality and non-discrimination in the church as well, against many who appealed to wrong-headed interpretations of scripture to defend their impassioned arguments supporting the racist status quo.

It’s funny; I remember being a young boy in the 1960s and hearing my own Presbyterian relatives bemoaning the “radicals,” who were probably even closet Communists, who had gotten control of the church and who were turning it away from God and toward the very gates of hell itself. Only years later would I do the math and realize they were actually complaining about Eugene Carson Blake and his unabashedly progressive anti-racist theology.

It was precisely that theology that led him to protest racial discrimination, and yes, to even be arrested for his beliefs. It was that strength of character that led him to help organize, and to participate in, Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It was that clarity of prophetic witness that caused him to speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day, just a short while before Dr. King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in that march, and gave that speech, all the while worried in the pit of his stomach that his participation would lead to further strife and division in the church – and yet, he was convinced that this was where God had called him, and what God was calling him, and the church, to do. There he stood; he could do no other.

For the most part, Presbyterians today are on the forefront of matters of battling racism and white privilege. In fact, our current Stated Clerk and our two Co-Moderators – the top three officers in the denomination – are all direct beneficiaries of Blake’s forward-thinking and uncompromising stance against discrimination based on race or gender.

However, the denomination still has internal divisions, these days largely over the matter of the place of LGBTQ individuals in the church. I don’t have polling data from Blake’s time regarding civil rights to use as a comparison, but with the church membership currently supporting LGBTQ equality in church and society by an approximate 2 to 1 margin (and trending upward), I suspect the division is significantly less than Blake had to navigate. We have, thanks be to God, amended our constitutional documents to permit the ordination of LGBTQ Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and to permit our ministers to officiate – and be part of – same-sex marriages.

As wonderful as all this is, it’s still only a partial victory. While our constitution allows LGBTQ equality in pulpit and pew, that same constitution permits presbyteries (regions) and congregations to decide for themselves whether to accept it. That means that there are many places within the denomination where LGBTQ people remain unwelcome. This compromise, made in the name of denominational unity, has resulted in a situation within the church where LGBTQ Christians are something akin to the 3/5 of a person that the U.S. Constitution originally considered slaves. Our memberships and ordinations all come with an asterisk – our acceptability for membership or ordination changes not by virtue of our profession of faith, or our preparation and qualifications, but simply by virtue of having crossed a geographical boundary. We are the only group that the denomination allows to be discriminated against by reason of a biological characteristic. To use another historical parallel, we’re living a supposedly separate-but-equal Plessy versus Ferguson existence in a Brown versus Board of Education world. In trying to save the denomination from splitting in two, this compromise has merely established two under one roof.

Would Eugene Carson Blake have supported acceptance of LGTBQ Christians openly participating in the full life and leadership of the church? I’m pretty certain that, in his own historical context, he most assuredly wouldn’t have – in fact, I’d be surprised to learn otherwise. But as firmly as I believe that, I’m just as convinced that if he were alive today, and knew what we now know, that he would be working, and writing, and speaking as courageously for us as he did for others in his own time.

A few days ago, Rev. Dr. Blake’s denomination – my denomination – issued a response to the “Nashville Statement,” the vehemently anti-female and anti-LGBTQ document issued by a number of conservative Evangelical Christian personalities. I’ve addressed the Statement in an earlier post.

Since its release, non-Evangelical Christians, as well as people outside the church, have been issuing an unending flood of denunciations of its backward, hateful content. Really, opposing the content of this theological train wreck is as close to a slam-dunk, no-brainer as things get in the church world – or at least, you would think so. After a couple of days of thoughtful deliberation (we Presbyterians don’t rush into anything), the denomination released a response. Unfortunately, it was an intensely disappointing, dull thud of a response.

There were a number of positive elements in the statement, which can be read here. And it does refer and link to the “Denver Statement,” an excellent and sometimes witty response to the Nashville Statement. But overall, it ended up being just a timid document that shied away from a bold stand for social justice in order to not offend the denomination’s most conservative members, while apparently being less concerned with offending and hurting a large number of others who found themselves once again somewhat under the bus. This was not, you might say, a Eugene Carson Blake moment.

Yes, I hope that someday, we have a courageous, denomination-wide affirmation of LGBTQ people in the full life and leadership of the church in the same manner the we’ve done with women and persons of color. But at very least, the statement could have strongly defended our position that one can be a faithful Christian while holding LGBTQ-affirming views – a position that the Nashville Statement pointedly denies in its Article 10. The Presbyterian response makes ambiguous mention of the Nashville Statement staking out positions “that go beyond anything the PC(USA) has officially taken a stand on.” But this is not one of those things. By our decision to consider both positions equally faithful, we have indeed taken a stand on this particular matter and consider the claim made in Article 10 of the Nashville Statement to be sinful nonsense. The fact that the denomination couldn’t even make a strong denunciation of this point – that it opted for a unity-over-justice position – was hurtful and insulting, and shows that despite the progress we’ve made in the denomination, we’ve still got a long way to go.

I would willingly be arrested defending the civil rights of the current leadership of my church. Given this less than enthusiastic response to the Nashville Statement, I have to wonder if they would they do the same for me.

I have tremendous respect for our denominational leadership. I’m proud of them. I love them. They hold exceedingly difficult jobs, and I’m convinced that they try to do their best to lead wisely, to find the right balance between Christian unity and prophetic witness. And on a personal level, J. Herbert Nelson, our Stated Clerk, rocks an awesome bow tie; not everyone can pull that off. Beyond that, I am genuinely, personally grateful for the strides made in recent years, even if I’d wish for more, which allow me to serve as an out gay ordained minister. But in this case, by way of an overly timid response to this ugly scar on the faith called the Nashville Statement, our denomination has blinked. We’ve missed a major opportunity to do the right thing – to decisively, boldly defend social and ecclesiastical justice for LGBTQ Christians both within the denomination and beyond, against forces within Christianity that would reject and harm us. I grieve over this lost opportunity. Somewhere, I believe Eugene Carson Blake does, too.

Nashville Noise

Jesus-facepalm

You may have seen that a few days ago, something called The Nashville Statement (click the link, if you must) was issued by some group that calls itself “The Council for Biblical Manliness and Womanliness.” Really, I’m not making this up; that’s what they’re calling themselves. It sounds like a secret club started by the Little Rascals after they grew up and the He-Man Woman-Haters Club fell apart, not for lack of woman-hating, but because, well, sex.

gimme the high sign

As silly as the group’s name is, it’s clear that it’s supposed to sound like some respected, august body of religious leaders dripping with gravitas, who, one might assume, somberly gathered together in Nashville to contribute some profound insight into a grave and urgent crisis of our time. In reality, I suspect its list of original 150 signers – which included only a scant few more women than the H-MWHC – was far less such a gathering, and much more something like Tony Perkins having simply texted out the statement to everyone in his phone’s contact list one day, and them texting him back a thumbs-up emoji.

The statement itself is remarkable – but only for its unremarkableness.

It’s really nothing more than a bunch of the usual suspects and self-appointed mouthpieces of so-called Evangelical American Christianity repeating their harmful anti-LGBTQ understanding of the faith, as if people hadn’t already heard those views ad nauseum. The group must have been thinking that they hadn’t gotten enough media coverage lately, so they repackaged their hate and ignorance in the confession format used by many religious groups who were speaking to past historic crises.

In the days since its release, there have been countless responses and counter-statements issued – I’ve read at least half a dozen, and actually signed two. I haven’t had time to offer any thoughts about it until now, because a.) I have a day job, and blogging isn’t it; and b.) I wondered, and frankly still do, if responding to these dead-theologians-walking only served to give them more attention than they deserve. Watching the massive human tragedy unfolding in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey makes me additionally ambivalent about the appropriateness responding to these theological and moral pygmies .

One of the responses that I read was John Pavlovitz’s, titled The Nashville Statement (A Plain Language Translation). I like John’s writing, and this was a good piece, but I have to admit I was thinking based on its title, the article would be more of a point-by-point translation of the Statement’s various Articles out of religious jargon and into plain language that people other than theology nerds could clearly understand. Since he didn’t go in that direction, I thought I’d try to do that now. So here goes. The original Nashville Statement text is in lavender, the definitive gay color, just to tick off its homophobic authors; the translation follows in black.

Article 1

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

[Translation] God designed marriage for the purpose of conceiving and giving birth to children – so you gays can’t have a legitimate marriage because you can’t have kids.

Don’t remind us that many heterosexual couples choose not to have children, and we consider their marriages valid. Same with heterosexual couples who can’t have children due to age or other biological reasons.

Don’t tell us that every day, we accept as valid the marriages of heterosexual couples who got married in entirely secular settings, or in religious traditions other than our own, and we consider them perfectly acceptable. We’ll plug our ears and say “LALALALALALALA!”

Don’t point out to us that the concept of an unchanging, universal definition of marriage in the Bible is a complete myth, or that Biblical characters’ marriages were completely at odds with modern American cultural norms, or that there are many Christians even today whose understanding of marriage is very different from our own. Plugging our ears again. Just stop it.

And don’t talk to us about gay couples who adopt, providing homes for the unwanted children of heterosexual procreation. Really, just don’t go there, because it’s better for those kids to grow up without loving parents than to be exposed to gay couples living in ways that will make the kids think we’re crazy when we claim that their parents’ lives are immoral and ungodly. Don’t show us the mountain of research that shows that kids raised by gay parents are just as psychologically well-adjusted as those raised by straight couples. Besides, we really know all those homos just want to have sex with those children, and recruit them into their immoral lifestyle.

Article 2

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

[Translation] Sex bad, except within straight marriage, and as we define it. Any other expression of our sexual selves – man, we hate to even say the word “sex” – is absolutely unacceptable. If we have to live our entire lives saddled with guilt because we went all the way with Tammy with the big boobs in the back seat of our car after our Young Life meeting when we were teenagers; or because we’ve been secretly engaging in sex in department store men’s rooms and out-of-town gay bathhouses in order to maintain our straight conservative religious public image, then we’re going to drag you right down into the guilt-pit with us. And while those of us who are straight at least have marriage as an acceptable avenue to enjoy sex, you gays get no such option. You are, by definition, immoral, so you shouldn’t have any moral or legal way to express your chosen lifestyle. We’re going to keep trying to get you to feel that guilt, whether you interpret the Bible the way we do or not, because we make our livings by setting ourselves up as the authority figures who must be revered and obeyed in order for us to use our special mojo with God to absolve you of all that guilt that we’ve instilled.

Article 3

[NS] WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

[Translation] Despite the overwhelming, incontrovertible scientific evidence to the contrary, we still stick our heads in the sand and believe that the allegorical biblical creation accounts first composed by pre-scientific nomadic tribesman is historical, scientific fact that tells us everything we need to know about human origins, biology, and anthropology, and God’s attitude about that in complete detail.

We refuse to accept the fact that every year, in one out of every 2,000 births worldwide, the child is born intersex, with genitals that aren’t clearly either male or female. Beyond so-called intersex cases, we refuse to accept the overwhelming positions of medical, psychiatric, and other professional organizations that affirm that gender identity is not decisively determined by physical plumbing; and that it isn’t an exclusively binary reality.

We believe that the Bible mandates a God-designed system where men are at the top of the pyramid (men must be created most in the image of God, since the Bible calls God “he”), and that women must defer and be subservient to men, and that we can treat women as unequal subordinates in countless ways; while simultaneously claiming that aren’t treating them unequally at all, just differently, and we can claim that this is treating them with dignity. We’re tempted here to use the term “separate but equal,” but that language didn’t work out well for us in a previous attempt to treat another group of people “differently.”

Article 4

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.

WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

[Translation] Even though we believe God is omnipotent and that God’s being and image transcends actual sex and gender, we believe that when setting out to create human beings in the divine image, he (see?) is restricted to only two options, despite the scientific evidence previously referred to regarding actual human sexual orientation and gender. It’s just a black and white issue, because of the whole Adam-and-Eve-is-science thing, so don’t confuse us with your so-called facts, by so-called experts who all graduated from godless, secular institutions rather than the good, conservative, Bible-based institutions we prefer.

Also, we have to say that we disagree with the belief that transgenderism is a now a biological reality different from God’s original plan in creation as a result of “the Fall”/the entry of sin in the world; and that we now need to establish new rules to lovingly accommodate this new reality.

We have to say that we disagree with this idea because we know that some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters have carved out this “Plan B/new reality” way to still cling to the idea of biblical inerrancy, while finding a way to justify being more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

In reality, though, we know that most (alleged) Christians who are “welcoming and affirming” to LGBTQ people have long since moved past that position. They’ve come to the shameful conclusion that there is nothing sinful whatsoever about people being, and living authentically, as LGBTQ; that this is simply part of the normal variation seen in the full spectrum of humanity – all of whom have been created in God’s own image. That is unacceptable heresy to us; you cannot believe this and be considered by us to be a real Christian. Refer to Article 10.

Article 5

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.

[Translation] As we said, gender is a black and white thing – and God doesn’t make mistakes. Don’t confuse us with medical reality. And don’t raise the question that if God doesn’t make mistakes, how do we explain any number of birth anomalies, and why do we routinely engage in surgery and other interventions in order to fix these things without denouncing them as second-guessing God’s will. Stop now, or we’ll plug our ears again.

Article 6

[NS] WE AFFIRM that those born with a physical disorder of sex development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image-bearers. They are acknowledged by our Lord Jesus in his words about “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” With all others they are welcome as faithful followers of Jesus Christ and should embrace their biological sex insofar as it may be known.

WE DENY that ambiguities related to a person’s biological sex render one incapable of living a fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ.

[Translation] If we have to grudgingly admit to the reality of people being born intersex, then our advice is to just do your best to be a man or a woman – until we disagree with the way you’re doing it. And if surgeons opt to give you the genitals of one gender but you end up feeling like the other, we don’t want to hear about it. Just suck it up and act as we tell you, since it’s all just a choice anyway.

We have to say that a person’s gender identity doesn’t preclude them from living a “fruitful life in joyful obedience to Christ” because a.) we don’t understand that our opponents don’t even remotely believe this; and b.) part of “joyful obedience to Christ” in our eyes is you not living as LGBTQ, since we think that’s a choice that’s contrary to Christ’s teaching. As we said, it’s a choice, and a sinful one that you need to get rid of if you want to be obedient to and accepted by Christ and God, but if you just pray hard enough and live right, God will take away from you. We refuse to recognize the appalling number of suicides of religious youth and adults who, wracked with guilt over being LGBTQ, had tried to “pray the gay away” for years – and when that didn’t work, came to believe that God had rejected them, so they killed themselves.

None of that matters, because upholding our concepts of religious orthodoxy and never admitting that we might be in error trump any evidence to the contrary gleaned from human existence that contradicts our interpretation of scripture. You just have to get right with God, the way we tell you, and God will fix you – and if he doesn’t, it’s your fault.

Article 7

[NS] WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.

WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.

[Translation] Yes, we know we’ve already been making these exact same points in previous Articles. But we had one stubborn person who threw a tantrum and refused to sign the statement unless we used his language, so we threw it in here just to placate him. Plus, if we have more Articles, it makes us look like our argument is more complex and thoughtful than just saying we’re homophobic and want to be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people once and being done with it.

Article 8

[NS] WE AFFIRM that people who experience sexual attraction for the same sex may live a rich and fruitful life pleasing to God through faith in Jesus Christ, as they, like all Christians, walk in purity of life.

WE DENY that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God’s original creation, or that it puts a person outside the hope of the gospel.

[Translation] If you feel attraction for someone of the same sex, it’s inherently evil and you must never physically express that attraction. You can live a “rich and fruitful life pleasing to God” just like us, as long as you deny and push down those feelings and never act on them, no matter how miserable, psychologically and physically unhealthy, or even suicidal, it may make you feel.

We uphold this belief, which is at the core of all “Reparative Therapy” programs, which have been denounced by all responsible medical, psychiatric, psychological, and other professional organizations as dangerously abusive and unnecessary; and which have been banned in multiple states as health threats. We still hold this belief because we don’t really trust in any findings based on higher learning or professional expertise when they contradict our own narrow believes about the nature, authority, and interpretation of the Bible.

Article 9

[NS] WE AFFIRM that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenant and toward sexual immorality — a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality.

WE DENY that an enduring pattern of desire for sexual immorality justifies sexually immoral behavior.

[Translation] We know that people have what we would call sinful – and others might simply call unhealthy or inappropriate – sexual urges and attractions. We choose to consider homosexuality and transgenderism as merely other forms of unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful sexual expression, because they aren’t part of what we’ve been raised and taught to understand. We refuse to consider that our ways of understanding and interpreting the Bible might be wrong, because that would create uncertainty and anxiety in our lives that would cause us to question other matters of faith that we consider essential. Without that certainty, we aren’t sure what our own lives even are, so we will force you to repress and feel guilt over your reality in order to preserve feeling good about our own.

Article 10

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

[Translation] Not only is being LGBTQ sinful, being welcoming and inclusive and approving of LGBTQ people is, too. It puts a person outside the pale of being a Christian – you simply cannot approve of LGBTQ people living full, honest, authentic lives and consider yourself a Christian, period, let alone a good Christian.

Article 11

[NS] WE AFFIRM our duty to speak the truth in love at all times, including when we speak to or about one another as male or female.

WE DENY any obligation to speak in such ways that dishonor God’s design of his image-bearers as male and female.

[Translation] Don’t talk to us about “preferred pronouns.” We demand the right to speak to you and about you in whatever way we want, regardless of whether it offends you or isn’t the way you wish to be referred to. We will call you a he or a she, a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, based on what we believe, not what you or health care professionals say. We’ll do it while telling you we love you, and that we’re just administering “tough love.” We’ll do it, with all the smug self-righteousness of saying that we’re carrying out God’s will, and upholding God’s standards in a sinful world, because we know best. And if you don’t like it, too bad.

Article 12

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and that this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ is insufficient to forgive all sexual sins and to give power for holiness to every believer who feels drawn into sexual sin.

[Translation] This is another one of those places where we’re repeating ourselves in order to placate a cranky signatory. We’ve covered this territory already, but yes, to repeat, what LGBTQ people are doing is wrong, and they need to stop it, and God will change them if they just pray long enough, hard enough, and in the right way.

Article 13

[NS] WE AFFIRM that the grace of God in Christ enables sinners to forsake transgender self-conceptions and by divine forbearance to accept the God-ordained link between one’s biological sex and one’s self-conception as male or female.

WE DENY that the grace of God in Christ sanctions self-conceptions that are at odds with God’s revealed will.

[Translation] Really, just rehashing the same point here again. This whole thing masquerading as a confession is really just a sermon filled with red meat for our followers, and we think that the main point of a sermon needs to be repeated several times in order to drive it home, so here it is again.

Article 14

[NS] WE AFFIRM that Christ Jesus has come into the world to save sinners and that through Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins and eternal life are available to every person who repents of sin and trusts in Christ alone as Savior, Lord, and supreme treasure.

WE DENY that the Lord’s arm is too short to save or that any sinner is beyond his reach.

[Translation] And to us, every good sermon has to end with an altar call, so here’s ours. Cue Just As I Am, without One Plea. Or in this case, maybe not that particular hymn.

***

Religious people seem to love putting out these kinds of confessions and statements. Some of them are good. Some of them have been milestones in history. Others, like this one, are just mind-numbingly tired, boring, hateful, and counter-Christian statements made by self-righteous blowhards who want to pose as the defenders and arbiters of the True Faith.

For some reason, we religious folk seem inclined to name these pronouncements after the city that gave birth to them. This time, it was Nashville, a fact not at all appreciated by the city itself. In 1924, a group of Presbyterian church leaders issued the Auburn Affirmation, having been drafted at the Presbyterian seminary that existed in Auburn, New York at the time. The Auburn Affirmation was a scathing denouncement of the beliefs that Fundamentalists and Evangelicals considered mandatory to orthodox, true, Christian belief. The first of those teachings – the inerrancy of scripture – is at the root of modern-day Evangelicals’ harmful attitudes toward LGBTQ people and their refusal to consider what’s become obvious to so many others: that LGBTQ people, in the totality of their being, including their sexual orientation, are created just as much in the image of God as anyone else; that God blesses them in their sexual expression and their committed covenantal relationships equally with heterosexuals; that God blesses and encourages transgender people trying to become the people they were intended to be regardless of the vagaries of merely physical characteristics – and finally, that the beliefs expressed in the Nashville Statement are just reheated nonsense, served up by people desperately trying to shore up their relevance in a world that has left them and their beliefs behind.

Robert, Meet Robert.

robert-gagnon

I saw a news story this evening that, after years of controversy, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Dr. Robert Gagnon have parted ways.

Gagnon, who had been an Associate Professor of New Testament at the seminary, is best known as being perhaps the most strident anti-LGBTQ voice within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and well beyond. He has written – voluminously and passionately – in support of his scriptural interpretations that homosexuality is sinful choice, and sexual perversion. His views are clearly out of line with the overwhelming majority of the denomination he’s part of, whether considering the beliefs of ordained ministers, ruling elders, seminary faculty, or the general membership. What’s surprising isn’t that he and the seminary have split, but rather, that it didn’t happen sooner.

While a student at PTS, Dr. Gagnon was one of my professors, teaching me Pauline and General Epistles. I can say that it was a strange experience.

One of the things that I remember most from the class was that Dr. Gagnon seemed extremely pleasant, kind, generally soft-spoken, and genuinely concerned with the well-being of his students – he was, in short, about the last kind of person that anyone familiar with his writings would imagine him to be. At no time during the class, which included covering epistles containing several of the go-to anti-gay “clobber verses,” did Gagnon seem to push his own interpretations of those verses.

That was important to me, since by that time (it must have been 2009 or 2010), my own study and understanding of the scriptures had already led me to believe that the traditional anti-LGBTQ interpretations of scripture were wrong. From the moment I learned that I’d be in Gagnon’s class, I was concerned that I’d be punished for not agreeing with his well-known anti-gay stance. I worried that either my grades would suffer because of being honest about my beliefs, or that I’d have to hypocritically hew to Gagnon’s hermeneutic in order to pass.

What actually happened was quite different. Dr. Gagnon conducted that class in a way that was entirely appropriate, and taught the material – covering the origins of, and underlying issues being addressed in, the epistles – in a way that did not particularly sell his interpretations regarding sexuality over opposing views. Only once or twice did I sense even a trace of bias, and it was never something that came up in exams.

The only real complaint I had with Gagnon’s teaching was with the nature of the exams themselves. They were designed to be impossible to authentically pass, or frankly, even to effectively study for. They were completely inappropriate for the nature of the course, and as far as I could tell, they only served to reinforce to the students that Gagnon was the smartest guy in the room. Raw exam scores were abysmal, and were then simply curved to bring them up to something actually usable. I specifically remember one exam when I scored a 22%. It was the second-best grade in the class (the best was a 24), and this was not an uncommon grade range for the exams. On that particular exam, Gagnon had jotted a note on its front, complimenting me for my “rigorous scholarship.”

There’s no way anywhere other than Bizarroland that a 22% on any appropriately-prepared exam could possibly illustrate “rigorous scholarship.” I could never understand why he didn’t just design exams that were realistic gauges of the students’ understanding of the actual depth of material that the course was intended to convey.

Other than that, I had no significant complaint with him or his classroom activity.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole story with Robert Gagnon. Whatever positive qualities he may have exhibited face to face in the classroom, his other, almost schizophrenic, side was never more than a mouse-click or two away. Everyone sitting in his classroom knew about his writings, which are not merely anti-affirming, they’re vehemently, almost rabidly, anti-gay.

I shudder to think about the scores of LGBTQ students over the years who sat in his classes, being treated civilly in person by someone they knew actually considered them sinful deviates who had no business in his class preparing for the ministry. I think the unfiltered bigot or homophobe who openly expresses his feelings is preferable to the one who smiles to your face while actually loathing you.

Professors are more to their students than just their classroom presence. Their entire public persona is providing instruction and sending messages to them, and Gagnon’s sent a terrible and personally harmful message to a significant minority of his students. It was comparable to having a professor on staff who was able to speak kindly and graciously to his black students in the classroom, while openly maintaining a white supremacist website in his free time.

In this country, we’re currently in the midst of a national debate about statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy and its leaders. A lot of that debate has involved discussion of another Robert – General Robert E. Lee. Lee most assuredly had a number of admirable personal qualities, but the evil that he chose to uphold by force overwhelmed those attributes and ruined the positive legacy he might have otherwise had – something that we’re only now, far too belatedly, coming to terms with. In the same way, the terrible harm that Robert Gagnon’s obsessive anti-LGBTQ polemic has caused overwhelms the professional goodness in him that I personally experienced. That’s a shame – but just as with that other Robert, it’s a shame that he’s caused himself. Unlike my sexual orientation, Gagnon’s anti-gay stance is entirely his choice.

 

Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.