The Tiny Dog Now…

(sermon 7/22/18)

doug the pug
Just for the record, this sermon actually has nothing to do with dogs.

Mark 6:30-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

=====

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” If you grew up primarily speaking and writing English, and you’re older than, say, 25 or so, you probably know that sentence. You know it because when you were learning to write cursive, you likely had to write that sentence over and over again, because it contains every letter in the English alphabet. It’s a silly, maybe even absurd statement, but it’s a useful device that helps us to understand or remember something; it’s a means to an end. We use those kinds of devices in a number of aspects of our lives. We remember the names of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES – for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. In music, we remember the lines of the Treble staff by remembering Every Good Boy Does Fine; or the Bass staff lines, Good Boys Do Fine Always.

Today, I’m going to very briefly introduce you to another one of those devices, one that many preachers have been taught as a tool to help them organize and structure and stay on point as they develop a sermon. There are all sorts of ways to prepare a sermon, but this is one common tool. It’s the sentence “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine.” TTDNIM. Here’s what those initials represent:

The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine

Today, I want to focus on the “N” in that list – what existential human need does the text speak to, both within the story itself, and by extension, in our own lives?

We heard in this gospel story that Jesus and the disciples had been working hard, and they were being besieged by people coming to hear Jesus, and to be healed by him. As the story begins, Jesus tells his disciples that they all needed to get away for a bit to enjoy a little bit of downtime – similar to a text we looked at a few weeks ago. But the people still followed them, and we end up with this story of Jesus feeding the multitude with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. A lot of people get caught up in the miraculous aspect of the story, and in all honesty, it is a curiosity to wonder about, how it all happened. I suppose if it had happened here, around this time of year, it might have been a lot more believable if instead of fish, they’d started out with a few zucchini, since those seem to just multiply beyond all human comprehension this time of year.

Putting the miraculous aspect aside though, at least for today, can we focus on Jesus, and the disciples and all those who had gathered to be there with Jesus, and see what’s going on here as a model for the church, in this sense: Like us, they all had gathered in that place, coming with different backgrounds, different motivations, different thoughts, different energy levels; bringing all of their own particular problems and stresses and needs. And there’s the key word – they’d all arrived with their own particular needs. And together, in that time, in that place, their particular needs were being addressed, being spoken to. They were being taught. They were hearing God’s good news that they were loved. They were being healed. They were being fed. They were being reassured that they mattered to God, in a world that often told them they didn’t.

And ironically, considering that Jesus and the disciples had originally intended to escape from the crowds, maybe their existential needs were being addressed, too. Maybe in that moment, when they were feeling exhausted, and worn down, they had begun to wonder if they were really making a difference in anyone’s life at all. If they were making a dent. If it was all worth it. Now, in this moment, this existential need of their own, to know that they really were making a difference in people’s lives, was being addressed, too, when they saw how these people’s lives were being affected in this dramatic, truly miraculous way. Maybe their existential need at the moment was validation, and they definitely got that in a big way.

So does this idea that this story can be seen in at least one way as an illustration of what the church is like hold water? Personally, I think it does. We all come here without own stuff and stresses. We all come here with our own needs, not wants, and for the most part, not material needs, but rather, emotional and spiritual needs. Maybe we have concerns about our health – a troubling diagnosis, or a long recovery. Or maybe we have concerns at work – maybe the boss is a jerk, or maybe they can’t keep their foot out of their own mouth, and that’s going to create instability and stress. Or maybe we’re dealing with a strained family relationship. Or we’re battling loneliness, or we’re feeling like we’re insignificant, that the world has passed us by. Or we’re just burned out and exhausted by the chaotic, divisive nature of our public discourse these days, and you just want to get away from it all.

All these things, and so many other examples we could come up with, create deep, existential need within us. And in most of the examples I could think of, they all seem to boil down to the need to know these core, essential Christian truths:  a.) That the God who created all this, and us, too, is really present and caring for us, even when it’s hard to see or feel that presence; b.) That we’re loved by that God and by others around us; and c.) That our lives matter to that God, and others around us. 

A part of our Presbyterian Constitution, part of our Book of Order, is a list of the six “Great Ends of the Church” – what the Church is supposed to be all about. One of those “Great Ends” is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” We the Church, were established to be the original “safe space” for people. We haven’t always lived up to that, but we can, and sometimes do. We were established to be a literal “sanctuary” where we can sometimes get away from all the craziness and negativity and hopelessness and uncertainty outside our walls, and where this existential need of ours is answered by proclaiming, and reminding, and reinforcing those three truths: God is present and caring for us even when it doesn’t feel like it. We are loved. We matter.

And like the gospel story we heard this morning, together, we help to meet that existential need for one another – bringing all of our own stuff and stress and baggage, along with our goodness, along for the journey, and somehow, with God’s help, melding ourselves into a community who has committed to love and accept and support one another through it all, and to let one another know just how loved and important they are. We make this happen, together, when we truly are a “safe space” for one another. While we can’t, and we aren’t supposed to, just ignore what’s going on in the world outside of these walls – some of those other “Great Ends of the Church” make that clear – we need to be able, sometimes, to set all that outside stuff, and craziness, aside and simply enjoy the fellowship that we have here, among ourselves. To provide one another with the kind of love, and acceptance, that maybe isn’t possible anywhere else throughout our week. We need to be what the Church always is when it’s at its best – a real, genuine, intentional, mostly non-biological family.

We love one another not in spite of, but because of, our differences and diversity, instead of hating and mistrusting one another because of them, the way so much of the world seems to be geared right now. Here, inside these walls, we recognize one another as God’s people – all different, all flawed, all in our own way a little weird and funky and half-baked – and if you think you aren’t, you’re mistaken – your friends are just keeping a secret from you; trust me, we all fit the pattern. But that’s OK, because we’ve all committed to loving one another, with God’s help, just as we are; and because God already loves us, just as we are.

That’s a different way to live than the world says is normal. It’s a strange way. Some would say it’s an absurd way. And maybe it is absurd – maybe it’s as absurd as a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. But by living that way, absurd though it may be, we end up seeing the face of God in everyone around us – and maybe, if we’re lucky, in ourselves, too.

Thanks be to God.

Advertisements

Living on This Side of the Stone

(sermon 4/1/18 – Easter Sunday)

empty-tomb

They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. – (excerpts from John 19, 20)

=====

Imagine that scene – that first Easter morning. Walking out to the tomb in the still and the calm and the cool of the morning, your heart and your mind and your feet so heavy with grief and disbelief over the events of the last few days that it’s hard to even keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Then, finally, arriving at the tomb only to find what appeared to be one more shock, piling grief on top of grief, discovering that apparently, crucifixion wasn’t humiliation enough, now someone had even taken his body away.

Imagine the emotions of learning the reality of things. Imagine the confusion of finding these two strangers in white inside the tomb, where no one had been just moments before. And then, the joy of encountering the one you’d seen with your own eyes to be stone-cold dead, but now standing in front of you, face-to-face, every bit as alive as you were yourself.

This is the defining moment of the Christian faith. Resurrection. To be honest, the ethical teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, most all of the major religions of the world, only differ to a very slight degree, But the most significant difference between Christianity and all the others is the issue of Jesus’ resurrection, and if it happened what it meant, and if that’s what it meant, what implications that has for humanity. The resurrection is truly a miracle.

This is where we, as people of faith, can get into trouble. We understand that faith in God, trust in God, is based on hope, on things that are unseen, and not based on physical evidence. At the same time, we honor and value education, facts, evidence, the scientific method; and we know that the universe operates on a set of established scientific and physical rules, a system where miracles really have no place.

So how do we square this contradiction? How do we live, as people of faith, in the tension of these two things?

I started off by asking you to imagine what it was like to be at the tomb on that first Easter morning. But in the truest sense, we really can’t imagine it. We’re people who are living entirely on this side of the resurrection; on this side of the stone at the entry of Jesus’ tomb. We can’t fully understand it; even the people who were really there couldn’t understand or explain what was really happening on that morning. They did their best to explain it, to put words to something that there really aren’t words for. And ever since, we and literally billions of other people have wrestled with the question of what these words were really describing, every bit as much as the people who were there struggled to find words to describe it.

Despite that struggling to understand, though, make no mistake – Jesus’ resurrection is absolutely, unquestionably real. It is as real as the earth and the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. It’s as real as the immutable scientific facts that water is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, or that paper cuts hurt way out of proportion to the actual  injury, or that all church pews get really uncomfortable after about twenty minutes. More to the point, the resurrection is as real as the fact that love is real.

How do I explain what physical, scientific, biological processes took place in Jesus’ resurrection? I can’t. More importantly, I don’t really care to; I don’t even think it’s an important question to ask. I know that I’ve said this before, but if tomorrow, archaeologist found a tomb marked with Jesus’ name, and that held his bones, his high school yearbook, his library card and a W-2 Form that proved beyond any doubt that these were Jesus’ physical remains, would it do anything to shake my faith in resurrection? I don’t really think it would. It wouldn’t, because despite that hypothetical box of bones, it’s absolutely, incontrovertibly a fact that resurrection happened that resurrection is real. Without having any idea what happened at the molecular level on that first Easter Sunday morning, we know that something unexplainable – something miraculous – happened that day. Something so powerful and convincing that couldn’t be doubted or denied; something that proved that death and the tomb weren’t powerful enough to contain or defeat Jesus. These people who knew Jesus in the flesh best, and who saw him die with their own eyes, encountered a living, loving, very real Jesus. And at some point not long after all this happened, whatever the details of what God did at that tomb on that Sunday morning, it was so real, so miraculous, that people who had never seen Jesus, or met him, or even heard of him, also came to believe what would otherwise have been unbelievable, and became followers of Jesus. And that evidence, that miracle, is repeated every time God works within the life of any person and gives them the faith to profess that Jesus is Lord, and to see the change within their lives that it causes.

Yes, despite all the nay-sayers and all conventional wisdom that would say otherwise, the resurrection is real. It’s a sign that points to God’s good news for us all – that God loves us, and has reached out to us, and in that love, calls each one of us worthy of being united with God, and called God’s own.

For all of us living on this side of the resurrection – all of us living on this side of the stone – the reality of the resurrection means that the God who created us loves us, and through Jesus, has experienced life like us, even injustice like us, and even death like us. The resurrection means that at every step of the long journey of our lives – every joyful, exciting, hopeful, uplifting step; every fearful, stressful, grieving, soul-crushing step – *every* step along the way, we are *never* without hope. We are *never* without love. We are *never* alone, because the God who somehow made the impossible possible, and the unbelievable believable, walks every one of those steps with us.

*That* is the great reality; *that* is the great truth; *that* is the great miracle that we celebrate today, as we say

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!

Amen.

The Peaceful Heart

(sermon 12/10/17 – Advent 2B)

Fallingwater-resized

Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA, 1935 – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

=====

One of the true masterpieces of modern architecture, not just in this country but in the world – and arguably the most recognized house in the history of modern architecture – is Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for the Kaufman family, built over a waterfall in a beautiful wooded area in southwestern Pennsylvania. This house is the definitive illustration of what Wright called Organic Architecture – the idea that a building design should respect and spring from, and be uniquely tied to, its site. At Fallingwater, you can see this in a number of ways – as just a few examples, a large boulder on the site stayed in place and became an integral part of the main floor. Terraces cantilever out over much of the site, making its actual footprint on the land less imposing. Windows are set at a level that makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. Stone walls are laid up using native stone quarried onsite, and in a pattern reminiscent of the natural stone outcroppings that are found around the site. You can see one small symbolic way that Wright expressed this respect for nature, as an integral part of the design, near the entrance of the house. Wright designed a trellis, a series of concrete beams, that spans over the entry drive and ties the house together to an exposed ledge of stone that crops out of the hillside on the opposite side of the drive. But as it turned out, there was a tall, thin tree that was growing right in the path of one of the trellis beams. So instead of just cutting the tree down to make way for the beam, Wright had the beam built to bend and go around the tree, deviating from its straight path and giving the tree room to grow.

Fallingwater trellis with tree-resized

It makes for an interesting design detail, while making an important statement about  incorporating the natural elements of a site into the overall design of a building.

Of course, it only takes a moment or two to realize that trees don’t stop growing just because you’ve built something close to it. Over the next number of years, the tree eventually got too big for the bend in the trellis to accommodate it. It had to be cut down anyway, and another young, thin tree was put in its place to keep the design intent intact. In fact, I’d imagine that it’s been probably been replaced several times since the house was originally built, but I suppose the idea is the important thing here.

For whatever reason, the image of that tree, and how it caused the beam to bend off it’s intended path came to mind when I read today’s gospel lesson – Mark’s account of John the Baptist, calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; to make the paths straight and clear for his arrival.

John was offering that message to people who were in many was a lot like us. Most of them had been raised to know about God’s goodness, and God’s love for them. Most of them knew about the prophets who called them to a certain way of treating one another with compassion and mercy, caring for the orphan and the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the resident alien – and that this was the purest and most pleasing way, in God’s estimation, to worship and show love and gratitude to God. They knew the Ten Commandments, and in their hearts, they knew the simple, profound truths found in what we now call the Beatitudes, long before Jesus was even born to teach them – they knew the Hebrew scriptures, so when they would eventually hear Jesus’ teaching years later, they’d know that there was very little if anything in his words that couldn’t already be found in those scriptures.  For the most part, they knew the way of the Lord, and for the most part, we do, too. The path that John was calling us to return to really isn’t too hard to see.

But if it isn’t hard to see, it can still be hard to follow. For the people who came out to hear John, and for us, the concrete experiences of life can sometimes collide with its abstractions. Boulders and trees, of one definition or another, can obstruct the way. Concerns about living life “in the real world” can cause us to make compromises, deviations, from the straight path. And then, as it always works, one deviation will lead to another that builds upon the first, and then another, and another, until eventually we’re so far in the weeds, removed from that straight path that we know in our hearts, that we can’t even see it any more.

And then there are other things that can cloud our vision of the straight path that John called people to, also. Just like those people who came out to the banks of the Jordan River, our minds can get overwhelmed, bogged down, preoccupied with what’s going on in the social, cultural, and political surroundings, the landscape of the times. In thinking, worrying, fearing those kinds of things, we aren’t necessarily led any further away from the right path that God desires for us; they just tend to cloud our eyes so that we can’t see the path through the fog of the 24-hour news cycle and all the worries and anxieties that it can bring.

John’s stark words, and yes, no doubt his slightly scary appearance, cut through the fog and the deviations in the lives of the people who came out to hear him, and across the years, his words can cut through all that for us, too.

I think that often, when we hear his words, what we hear is challenge. We hear yet another “to do” list, a bunch more things to worry about, that we’re somehow supposed to add to everything else we have to get done. We hear more things to take on. More work, and hopefully, all that additional work will make God pleased with us.

But I think that the reality of John’s message for us can be heard a little differently. Instead of it being a challenge to do *more* in order to please God, I think it’s more of an invitation to do *less,* to let go of all those fears and distractions and deviations, in order to see that God is already pleased with us. God already loves us, and to whatever extent that it’s necessary, God has already forgiven us for our shortcomings and failures and deviations from that path, because God knows, literally firsthand, how difficult it is, that it’s truly impossible, for us to completely stay on that path, living in this broken world.

Hearing John’s words as invitation instead of challenge can help to create a peaceful heart within us instead of just adding anxiety on top of anxiety. And after all, isn’t peace, and a peaceful heart, what God desires for us above everything else? Living a life of true shalom, true contentedness and peacefulness through our relationship of love and gratitude with God, and compassion and connection with one another? Isn’t peace what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born? Isn’t peace what Jesus repeatedly wished for his disciples after his resurrection? Isn’t having a peaceful heart, and being at peace with God, the entire reason for God’s choosing to enter our world, to live, and laugh, and cry with us, to work, and play, and die with us, so that we can have the peace of heart and mind that comes from knowing that God is truly with us?

Observing Advent is, in a way, our creating a “safe space” where we can help one another live into John’s invitation, and to let go of those things that cause us to lose sight of God’s path, and, like the concrete trellis at Fallingwater, to bend, to turn back around, and to get back on that original path. In this season, we’re trying to hear God’s Spirit speaking to us, enabling us to rediscover our own peaceful heart and to rediscover God’s path of love, mercy, and compassion, the path of hope and peace. In part, we observe Advent to help us to no not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks be to God.

Hell Has Indeed, Apparently, Frozen Over

Eugene Peterson.  Screenshot from Youtube

Eugene Peterson, perhaps wistfully wishing he’d never granted that recent interview.

At least, I suspect it must have, because I find myself in the extremely rare position of agreeing with Albert Mohler.

Well, kind of.

Mohler is the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, and a high-powered bullhorn for conservative Evangelical Christian theology. Without giving a list of particulars – it would be long – let’s just say that it would be hard to find someone whose understanding of Christianity differs more from my own.

Still, I will give Mohler credit for at least one statement that he made that I think is absolutely spot-on, even while I disagree strongly with his ultimate conclusion.

In recent days, the best-selling Evangelical author/retired pastor Eugene Peterson created a stir in religious and some broader social circles when he gave an interview to Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. Peterson has recently announced that he’s leaving the lecture circuit, slowing down, and taking life easy from this point on. And at 84 years old, why not? The man has clearly earned it.

Given that, and his long string of best-selling books, this interview should have been a fluff ball – a victory lap of sorts for Peterson; a nice, feel-good piece that offered no big news or controversy. What actually transpired, though, was something else entirely.

Merritt asked Peterson about his views on homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular from the context of the Christian faith, and whether his views on these issues had changed at all over time. Even though Peterson’s popularity has largely been within conservative Evangelical circles, he was actually a long-time pastor and is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the most progressive of mainline denominations and one that, thanks be to God, has affirmed LGBTQ individuals’ place in the full life of the church – including ordained positions, and the appropriateness of church-blessed same-sex marriages.

Merritt’s question arose out of comments that Peterson had made in recent years that he’d changed his mind and had become affirming of LGBTQ people – including in this appearance at Western Seminary in 2014.

To be honest, I thought Peterson’s answers to Merrit’s questions in the interview were a bit lukewarm in their support. His comments were couched in phrases like “I didn’t have much experience with that,” or referring to a lesbian couple in his congregation that “didn’t make a big deal out if it,” and so on. I could almost imagine him saying that he could accept LGBTQ parishioners as long as they “didn’t shove it down my throat;” that great cliche that seems to mean “It’s OK if you’re gay; just don’t do anything that might publicly show that you are. Don’t say or do anything, either as an individual or as a couple, that straight people do with regard to their lives and relationships without any problem. Don’t talk about your significant other, don’t hold their hand, and certainly don’t kiss them where anyone else could see you.” That was the sort of tepid support I heard in most of Peterson’s answers. Still, they were several steps ahead of the typical conservative Evangelical party line. And he did, simply but clearly, say that he’d officiate a same-sex wedding if asked.

Of course, to have someone as influential as Peterson come out (sorry) and say these things was big news for conservative and progressive Christians alike, for obvious and opposing reasons.

Within 24 hours, though, Peterson felt forced to release a clarification and retraction of what he’d said in the interview. People across the full spectrum of American Christianity were confused by this bizarre flip-flop, what had led to it, and whether it was a good or bad development. Had an 84-year old man simply gotten confused in the moment and said some things that he didn’t really believe? Had conservative backlash – he was blowtorched by conservative Evangelical mouthpieces within hours –  and threats to book sales (LifeWay, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian publications, and an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to stop sales of all of Peterson’s books) led to his overnight reversal?

In the wake of this bit of theological whiplash, many people have offered their thoughts about the issue. And here’s where Albert Mohler enters the picture.

As would be expected, Mohler firmly occupies the conservative, traditional, exclusivist, non-LGBTQ-affirming understanding of the Christian faith. Mohler himself would define his views as the “biblical” position. I refuse to grant him that semantic bit of theological high ground, since it incorrectly assumes that the Bible “quite clearly” calls for anti-LGBTQ theology; and that those who have reached LGBTQ-affirming understandings of the faith have done so without, or in spite of, the scriptures, a position that is categorically false.

But I digress.

In an article he wrote about the Peterson kerfuffle, Mohler criticizes Peterson for what he sees as indecisiveness – not offering clear-cut, definitive, conservative Evangelical answers to LGBTQ questions, and sticking to them. Perhaps Mohler sees Peterson’s initial answers as having been an attempt to curry public favor by adopting more socially acceptable positions; a situation of society inappropriately influencing one’s understanding of the faith. Maybe he sees it as a legitimate theological struggle within Peterson’s heart and mind. Or maybe he sees it as something else. Whatever the explanation, Mohler says that indecision is a problem, and not only for Peterson. He writes:

“First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage,” he says; at its core, the real issue is having a decisive understanding of what one believes to be the will and purpose of God with regard to human sexuality and gender, based on sound scriptural interpretation.

“Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.”

And on this score, he’s absolutely right.

Mohler and I would clearly disagree on what “sound scriptural interpretation” would be. In fact, I couldn’t even agree with some of his wording in the quote above; hence my partial paraphrasing. But we both agree that we need to have studied and prayed about the question of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, and we need to reach a solid, scripturally consistent answer to the question, and then be willing to stick with it. Of course, Mohler and I diverge radically from that point on, but on this, we agree.

This isn’t a question about which a person can be ambivalent, ambiguous, both/and. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit affirming (or non-affirming). Affirming theology hinges on a person’s core beliefs about God, creation, human anthropology, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. In order to work out where you are regarding LGBTQ people, you need to have first determined in your heart and mind whether homosexuality is a sin. If it is sin, is it a sin of choice, or a part of so-called “original sin” and therefore, impossible to eliminate from human existence? If it is a type of unavoidable “original sin” as a result of “the fall,” what is the proper response of God and humanity to that? Or, is homosexuality merely a normal variation within the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and therefore of having been created in God’s image? And if this is the case, is refusing to be accepting and affirming toward LGBTQ people refusing to accept and affirm the One in whose image they were created? If you believe that homosexuality is a sinful choice, is it possible to affirm same-sex marriage? How about if it is part of “original sin;” can same-sex marriage be accepted and affirmed as the best possible “option B” for people who don’t have opposite-sex marriage as an option to still have loving, committed, sacrificial unions that are blessed by God? And if you believe that homosexuality is just another variation in human creation, can you somehow not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?

There is no meaningful way that individuals or faith communities can accept these divergent theologies as equally valid options for believers. Each one inherently negates the possible validity of the others. Just as it is impossible for a person, or a faith community, to claim that it’s equally valid and acceptable to both accept and reject slavery, or segregation, or the subjugation of women, so it is also with this issue. It goes to the fundamental way that we understand God and human creation, and whichever way you believe, logically, it’s a package deal – you’re either all in, across the board, or you aren’t in at all.

There really is no middle ground with regard to affirming LGBTQ people, except as a transitional place while moving to a final position. For virtually everyone who has adopted affirming theology, myself included, the process has been a journey with several interim stages.  That’s understandable. But to be partly affirming of LGBTQ people, accepting this part of them – whether in the life of the church or society in general – but not some other part, just isn’t viable long-term theology. On this score, Mohler is absolutely correct.

He’s also correct in saying that a person needs to be ready, when asked, to give a decisive, consistent , cohesive explanation of what they believe about LGBTQ people – because if you try to voice some waffling middle-of-the-road theological stance in order to try to please everyone, it will be immediately obvious to everyone, and you will end up being rejected by those on both sides of the issue.

The price that Eugene Peterson has paid in the last week shows how fraught with risk the transitional, middle places of such a journey toward LGBTQ affirmation can be, and how important it is to  move toward the final destination as quickly as possible. Ironically, I don’t think Peterson himself is still in the process of making that journey at all – I think that in his own way, he’s already completed the journey to full affirmation, despite his written retraction. If Eugene Peterson has indeed retired from the public eye, and if this was his last interview, the final lesson he seems to have inadvertently offered the faithful is just how important it is to have the courage of  one’s convictions, and of standing up and voicing them clearly, boldly, and publicly even in the face of opposition.  It’s an important lesson for all of us. I hope we don’t have to wait for hell to freeze over again before Peterson learns it for himself.

“What Concern Is That to You and to Me?”

(Sermon 1/17/16)

wedding at cana icon

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:1-11

 =====

The party had been going on for some time, apparently. The best man had offered up his awkward toast, the couple had had their ceremonial first dance and smashed cake in each other’s faces a couple of hours earlier, and the celebration was still going strong, when the unthinkable happened – they ran out of wine. Maybe the couple didn’t have much money, or they’d limited the amount of alcohol to keep some of their rowdier friends in line, or maybe everyone was just thirstier and happier than anyone had anticipated, but for whatever reason, the party had suddenly gone dry, and it was a problem.

And when it did, Mary went to Jesus about it. Who knows what she thought he’d do about it. Maybe some of the non-scriptural stories of Jesus’ childhood were true; maybe Mary had seen Jesus performing miracles before, as he was growing up. Maybe she knew that he’d be able to conjure up a good Merlot without breaking a sweat. Or maybe she was just voicing her concern, what a pity, what a shame, recognizing the social fallout this major faux pas would have on the couple and their families. However she said it, maybe Jesus was just about to give the punchline of a joke he was telling to some friends, or maybe he was just about to have another bite of chicken parmigiana, and without hardly thinking about what he was saying, he blurted out his answer to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?”

In my own mind, I can picture it happening that way. And I can also picture Jesus recognizing almost before the words had left his lips that it probably wasn’t the best thing to say. Seeing some hurt and I’ll bet even some anger in Mary’s eyes. And in that moment, I can picture him asking himself, wait a minute – is it my concern? I mean, granted, this certainly wasn’t any life and death situation, but still, these people were in a bind. And I can imagine the gears turning in his head, asking himself who, exactly, has God sent him to proclaim good news to, and what that was really supposed to look like. Who was he supposed to speak with, to work with, to minister to? Who had he been sent to help? A bunch of bloated, pompous, overpaid religious leaders wearing silly robes and ridiculous-looking hats? Or people like the ones he was sitting with in that moment? People who were struggling to just get by in life, people who needed some kind of good news for a change, people who needed to catch a break in any number of ways. I don’t imagine it took Jesus long at all to see that these people’s problems – and not just the big, cosmic, theological issues of their lives, but also how they lived and got along in life, right then and there, was indeed his concern after all. And so, maybe feeling a little embarrassed for his first response, and maybe feeling a little ornery as he thought about how to make amends for it, with a smile and a wink he told them, fill the water jars; then call for the wine steward.

Almost two thousand years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in jail for organizing non-violent protests against racism, segregation, and discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. While he sat in jail, eight local clergymen wrote a letter to the local newspaper denouncing the civil rights workers’ efforts and denouncing Dr. King for, among other things, being an “outsider” who had come to Birmingham and only stirred up trouble, making things worse than they already were. In short, in this criticism of Dr. King, they were asking, “What concern is the situation in Birmingham to you?”

Dr. King replied to their criticisms by way of his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one of the most powerful writings to ever come out of the American church, and America in general, for that matter. In the letter, Dr. King reminded these clergymen that when one person suffers, we all suffer; when one person isn’t free, no one is free. He reminded them that beyond secular law, that the same point that we see in Jesus’ actions at the wedding in Cana is an essential tenet of their shared faith- that God has made a place at the table for all of us; that God cares not only about big, eternal matters, but also our immediate, day-to-day needs and struggles; our need for justice and peace and equality; and because God cares about these things, we need to care about them, too. Dr. King reminded them that in God’s eyes, there is no longer any such thing as “outsiders.”

Of course, this is the weekend that we recognize the life and work of Dr. King, and I hope you’ll try to be part of the special worship service this afternoon, and the celebration at the Auburn Public Theater on Monday. Whether you attend those events or not, I think the most important thing we can do to remember Dr. King’s legacy, and what it means to all of us who profess the same faith in Christ along with him, is to think and pay about how we can faithfully make other people’s concerns and struggles our own concern. Jesus didn’t have to be part of the wedding party in order to make their problem his problem. And we don’t have to be black, or female, or gay, or an illegal immigrant, or a victim of human trafficking, or a Syrian refugee, or a homeless person, in order to make their problems ours.

But how can we walk with them in their struggles? What can we do, how can we help them in the best way we can – in the way God calls us to? And just as importantly, once we know what we should do, are we ready to do that if it means it will come with consequences? For example, could we stand together with, say, the local African-American community to oppose some racist government official, if that same person happened to be a neighbor of ours, or if our kids were friends with their kids, maybe on the same sports team, and we saw each other socially all the time? Or could we, as a congregation, take a public and vocal stand for some social justice position – whatever the actual example might be, you can fill in the blank any number of ways – that was unpopular in the community; something that would result in people turning against our church? I mean, we’re no different than anyone else; we like to be liked and held in high esteem; we like some organization or another recognizing us with plaques and proclamations and so on; that’s perfectly normal and natural. Could we take a stand about something we know is right in the eyes of God if we realized it would create friction between us and the influential people in town? Would we be willing to take a stand about something that could end up resulting in having a brick thrown through our front door? We need to always remember that these are the kinds of things that happened to people and congregations who stood with Dr. King back then. We have to ask ourselves these questions, friends, because the people and situations that God has called us to stand up for, and to take on as our concern, are almost always those people and situations that are, almost by definition, going to be unpopular, and sometimes even risky to ourselves.

When considering this story about Jesus at the wedding in Cana, someone once said that it was important to notice that when Mary told Jesus that the wine had run out, he didn’t just write a check and send someone to the liquor store. He actually took matters into his own hands; he put down his fork and rolled up his sleeves, and did something about it himself. His point for the church is clear enough, that while giving money to various causes is good as far as it goes, it isn’t all that Christ calls us to. God has called us to ante up not just our money, but our actual efforts, our elbow grease, and to do so not just as individuals, but together, identifiably, as the church. Because if all we do is go out and volunteer our time with various causes as individuals, then what does anyone need the church for? How do people outside our church family get to know anything about what we, the church, stands for, what the church is all about? Taking these kinds of stands, taking on these tasks, these missions, and taking them on specifically as an intentional group of the people of God – that’s how we avoid becoming seen as a meaningless institution in people’s daily lives. And that’s how we avoid falling into the trap of asking that question, “What concern is that to you or to me?”

So think about that question – how can we continue Dr. King’s legacy, how can we live out Christ’s commission to us, working together to help those in the world who need us to stand up for them in ways large and small? If you think about that question, and come up with an answer, then maybe the next time you’re at a wedding reception, making small talk at the table about some situation in the news, and someone next to you says “Oh, what concern is that of yours?” you’ll be able to say “Well, let me tell you – but better yet, let me show you.”

Thanks be to God.

A Literal Problem

Article originally published in the Auburn (NY) Citizen 11/8/14, titled “Westminster Presbyterian: The Bible Wasn’t Always Taken So Literally”:

Pope Francis

In a recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Pope Francis boldly restated the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, and the origin and diversification of life through evolution, is not incompatible with the Christian faith. As he put it, God was not “a magician with a magic wand.” I’m very glad that he weighed in on this subject.

This can be a sensitive topic. A significant number of Christians in this country would claim that the Bible must be understood in a highly literalistic way. This leads to the belief that in order to be a good Christian, a person has to believe in a literal reading of the accounts of the creation of the universe found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible: God created every aspect of creation distinctly and uniquely, with no reliance on evolution. Many of them hold that the universe was created by God in six literal Earth days. Others grant that the “days” may be metaphorical and not literal 24-hour periods, but that otherwise, the Genesis accounts are a literal accounting of how we all came to be.

I empathize with and respect these fellow Christians. In fact, I used to be one of them. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand the Bible differently — and, I’d suggest, in a way more consistent with the overall history of how the Bible has traditionally been understood.

The belief that the scriptures must be understood to that degree of literalism — that they are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the way that these Christians would define those terms — is actually a relatively new development. It only started to take off in this country in the 1840s. My own Presyterian denomination was a major proponent of this understanding of the Bible in the late 1800s, until it renounced the viewpoint in the late 1920s.

In reality, from the very beginnings of the faith until now, the vast majority of Christians have not understood the scriptures to be read and understood that way. Of course, some portions were, and are, considered literal, but overall, the Bible has always been understood to be in many places allegorical or metaphorical. It was never intended to be as factual as the morning newspaper or a technical report. The Bible is the collected traditions and writings of a number of pre-scientific cultures, all trying to convey great, transcendent truths about God and us. These days, my own denomination puts it this way: “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.” (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) “Confession of 1967”

Why does any of this matter? Simply this: studies have shown that American students continue to lose ground in overall education levels compared against their global counterparts. There are multiple reasons for this, but one important reason is that some groups demand that high school curricula and textbooks minimize teaching of these scientific concepts that are for all practical purposes universally accepted as fact, while also demanding that other, far less scientific theories are taught — “pseudo theories,” as Francis put it — all stemming from a desire to bolster a highly literal reading of Genesis. Constitutionally, this is bad because it imposes the religious beliefs of one subgroup of one religion upon the entire, diverse student body. It’s also bad because it hobbles these students’ academic development — something that our country needs, and that they themselves will need in order to compete in the ever-shrinking global village.

Pope Francis is absolutely correct. In accordance with the way that most Christian traditions — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — understand the Bible, there is no inconsistency or conflict with being a Christian and accepting the reality of the Big Bang, or that life began and diversified via the process of evolution. Our human drive to understand our universe more deeply, and the knowledge gained through scientific endeavor, are gifts from God — not something evil designed to confuse us or draw us away from God. It’s been said, rightly, that God works in mysterious and wonderful ways. I believe that’s correct — and that the Big Bang and evolution are two of those ways.

God and the Gay Christian: Some Thoughts

ImageImage

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.