Christ the King

(sermon 11/20/16)

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Interior of the historically-black Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, Greenville MS, destroyed by arson

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”- Luke 23:33-43

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So today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be the culmination of the church year, just before we restart the cycle with Advent and our spiritual reflection and preparation for observing the coming of the Lord into the world. It’s meant to be the ultimate, full, shout-it-from-the-rooftops affirmation that God entered our existence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus’ mission in the world was successful, and that Jesus is indeed the Lord and King of all. Given that intent for the meaning of the day, this might seem to be an odd gospel text to hear. If we’re meant to focus on the Reign of Christ, the reality of his Kingship, why not pick some other passage? Why not maybe one from Revelation, with cherubim singing, and saints prostrating themselves on the ground, and Christ returning to earth riding in the clouds; something like that? Why not something that shows a King of power and might, and setting things right? No. Instead, we get this dreadful passage that details the lowest, worst moments of his earthly life. Why?

Well, I think that maybe it’s meant specifically to point out the very different kind of King that Jesus is, and the very different kind of Kingdom that he reigns over. We talked a bit about this idea of Christ the King last week, and how that should play out in our lives, and this gospel text today speaks even more to that point. Christ is the kind of King who stands for God’s compassion for the world, and all who live within it. The kind of King who upholds that message even when it’s unpopular. Even when it’s dangerous and will be opposed by the rulers and powers of this world. And I think this passage reminds us that Christ is the King of a Kingdom that will lose many battles in this world, as his own crucifixion attests. And yet, it’s those same battles that he calls us, his people, to engage in, as a part of our faithful response to professing Jesus Christ as our King.

I think that the next several years are going to be crucial ones for us as Christians in this country. I think that we may find ourselves in a serious time of crisis, one that transcends partisan politics or ideology, or any particular individual leaders or political parties. This crisis lies in many of the policies that are currently being floated as potential directions for our country – and which apparently have a large block of support within the general population. I’m talking about policies that run absolutely, irrefutably contrary to the core teachings of our faith. Policies that would bear down unjustly on immigrants, refugees, and their families. Policies that would permit our government to engage in what the world community considers torture. Policies that would harm women, people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and others.

These are all policies that must be absolute non-starters to anyone who professes Christ as King. Upholding justice, defending the weak, the powerless, the publicly scorned and rejected – these are absolute, non-negotiable, bedrock essentials of our Christian faith. This is what Christ our King teaches us. This is what Christ our King demands of us.

And I believe that standing up and speaking out, and working to stand up for these members of our society, and opposing these policies, might cause us difficulties. We might be opposed by individuals, we might be opposed by groups, we might be opposed by governmental leaders and even some in the religious community. If we faithfully stand up for these core principles of our faith, we might very well find ourselves in the same unpopular position as those who were part of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in the 1930s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of nationalism and the overreach of state authority, and who gave us the powerful Barmen Declaration, part of our Book of Confessions. We might find ourselves in the same position as those who were part of our own American Presbyterian tradition in the 1960s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of racism, sexism, and other social ills in our own country, who gave us the profound Confession of 1967. We might find ourselves in the same unpopular position as the black church in South Africa in the 1980s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of apartheid and racial segregation, and other justice issues as well, and who gave us the prophetic Belhar Confession.

In all honesty, I look at the current situation in our country, and I truly wonder if we’re on the verge of the next time of crisis that will end up producing our next major confession – or at least will lead to an energized movement of Christian witness against the popular heresies and sicknesses in our society that will make us just as unpopular as those earlier movements were when they began.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was at our Presbytery meeting. Before the meeting began, there was a brief presentation and discussion about the Belhar Confession, and in that session, I read again some of its closing lines. I want to read those lines to you this morning:

“We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things [commanded by Christ], even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.”

In other words, Christ is King.

We are currently living in strange times.

We’re currently living in a time when a successful, well-dressed, native-born Asian-American attorney driving a luxury car, living in an affluent community can be harassed and taunted by an affluent, white man at a gas station in that same community, telling the man he doesn’t belong here in this country, and that he needs to go back where he came from. We’re living in a time when a gay senior citizen in Florida can be jumped and beaten by a man who all the while yelled at him that now that we have a new President-elect, it’s OK to kill all the faggots. We’re living in a time when black churches and mosques are burned, and synagogues have their windows bashed out and swastikas painted on the walls. We’re living in a time when people feel emboldened to harm others in ways like this. These are not normal times.

I believe that in order to be faithful to our profession that Christ is King, all of us – each and every one of us – are very possibly going to have to get out of our own comfort zones and stand up to oppose these and other things, and to protect and help those being attacked, either through policies or personal attacks. I believe that we’re going to have to stretch ourselves spiritually to rise to what Christ, our King, is calling us to in these times. What we may have been doing in the past in trying to be obedient to our King may not be sufficient for the living of these days.

We may have to speak out, loudly, maybe even forcefully – even the most soft-spoken and quiet and shy among us. We may have to protest. We may have to take actions to support God’s love, and mercy, and compassion, and justice, and the other key teachings of the gospel that might not seem to be decent and in order at all.

Is this what we’re facing in the next few years in this country? I don’t know.But I do know that if it comes to that; if you and I have to take some unpopular stand in order to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God by standing up for God’s justice for all, especially for the most discriminated against of God’s people; if we face the scorn and rejection of people for doing it – whatever happens, we can remember this awful, dreadful passage from Luke that reminds us that our King suffered for this Kingdom, too. This was the way that our King modeled how we should live, even in the face of opposition, even in spite of defeats. This, according to Luke, is what we mean when we say Christ is King. And we can have hope, because yes, Christ is indeed the King of the cross – but thankfully for his sake and ours as well, he’s also the King of the resurrection.  And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

#lazaruslivesmatter

(Sermon 9/25/16)

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Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, being arrested during a Civil Rights protest, July 4 1963. Click image above to view video.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”  – Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

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He was living the good life. There wasn’t any question that he’d worked hard in his life, and his hard work had paid off. Now, here he was, at the peak of his life. He had a nice home, good food. He was able to travel, see different and interesting places from time to time. He could afford to wear stylish, up to date clothes, and to get new ones whenever the fashion gurus changed their minds about what was the hot new color or the right width for a necktie. He certainly didn’t consider himself rich; he was just comfortable, even though he knew others considered him rich. Of course, he knew there were plenty of others who didn’t have it nearly as good as he did, but in most cases, he thought to himself, if they’d have just worked as hard as he had, and applied themselves, they’d be doing well, too. After all, our laws set up a level playing field, didn’t they; with all the opportunity out there, if they weren’t successful it was their own fault. And yes, there were some who weren’t physically or mentally able to succeed in life, but that’s what charities are for. Most of the time the unsuccessful ones, the have-nots, were just lazy. They had a poor work ethic; they wouldn’t accept responsibility for their own lives. And what’s worse, they were constantly getting into trouble with the police. If they’d just abide by the law, like good, decent people, half of their problems would disappear overnight. It really is a shame, he thought, as he reached for a second helping of potatoes in what he didn’t realize would be the last meal he’d ever eat, but there’s really nothing I can do about it. That’s just the way life is – always has been, always will be, for all eternity.

Or maybe not, according to Jesus. His story, this parable we heard this morning, was meant as a warning to the people in this world like the rich man in the parable – people who have relative peace, and security, and justice in their lives. Jesus’ warning was that for them to enjoy those things while depriving them to others is clearly not God’s will, and it that was their way, then they needed to change those ways. That was certainly true any time the comfortable were directly harming the have-nots, but it was also true when the harm was indirect, passive, through simple neglect or obliviousness, as was the case in this parable – the comfortable man never did anything directly to Lazarus to hurt him; he just ignored him.  Jesus was saying to his listeners through this story that, to borrow some language from our own time, Lazarus Lives Matter. That any of us who identify more with the comfortable man in the story than we do with poor, sick, homeless Lazarus, have an expectation – a charge – from God to use our money, our minds, our voices, our hearts and hands and feet, to enable all the Lazaruses of our lives to enjoy the same peace, stability, and justice that we do.

The problem of the rich man and Lazarus, the problem of the haves and have-nots is still a big problem; you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. And right now in our country, we’re seeing that problem playing out in terms of haves and have-nots, where the haves are those who have peace, and security, and justice in their lives, and the have-nots, who don’t. And due to the particular history of our country, for us, it’s a problem that’s deeply intertwined with issues of race. Race. The issue that from an actual biological, genetic standpoint means nothing – less than nothing. Really; if you analyzed my DNA, it could very well have more similarities with the DNA of Desmond Tutu than, say, (white male parishioner). Race is not biology; it’s a social construct based solely on a person’s physical appearance. It’s nothing. And yet, in our society, it seems to mean practically everything. Race determines in large part where we’ll live, how we’ll live; where we’ll worship and how we’ll worship. It will determine the quality of the education, and healthcare, and public services we’ll receive. Cutting to the chase, it determines whether we’ll be treated as full and equal citizens, receiving the same Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law that other citizens receive. From a purely secular standpoint, the unfair, unjust, and unequal treatment of members of our society based on race – based merely on their physical appearance – is  unconstitutional . By way of this parable, Jesus tells us it’s unchristian. From a logical standpoint, it’s institutionalized lunacy.

And yet, it goes on and on, day after day, year after year. Our hearts break, yours and mine alike, when we turn on the television or look at the news feed on our phones and we’re subjected to the latest dashcam and youTube videos of yet another police shooting of yet another black man; and CNN plays the video in a continuous, 24/7 loop of violence porn. And we see more city streets filled, day after day, night after night, with protestors crying out for justice – and not just justice regarding the particular incident, the tragedy du jour, but for *real* justice, and peace, and security in all aspects of their lives. Protestors crying out, in essence, “How long, Lord?”, and demanding that we recognize that their lives matter just as much as everyone else’s.

We watch it all, and it makes us wonder what in the world is going on, Why are all these tragedies happening? It’s like the wheels are falling off of our society; why? In Jesus’ parable, the rich man’s life was so far removed from the realities of Lazarus’ existence that he just didn’t, couldn’t, fully understand. He couldn’t see that he and Lazarus were living within a system of two completely different sets of realities and possibilities – rules and realities that made it possible for the rich man to enjoy life’s goodness, and that simultaneously made it extremely difficult if not impossible for the Lazaruses of his world to do the same. In this parable, where the rich man doesn’t learn the reality of things, and what God’s desires are, until after he dies, Jesus is telling us that this kind of situation is absolutely unacceptable for us as his followers, as people of the Kingdom of God. It is absolutely unacceptable.

One of the great moral voices of our time, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, has said that we’ve experienced two Reconstructions in our history. These were times when large numbers of people from different races, religions, and other classifications, recognized the problem of the Lazaruses in our society – particularly, the Lazaruses based on race – and they understood that they needed to work together to achieve greater justice and equity for them; to get the nation to live more truly and genuinely into the words and promises of its own founding documents. The first Reconstruction was in the decade or so immediately following the Civil War. The second, Dr. Barber says, ran from 1954, the start of the Civil Rights Movement, until about 1980. In each of these Reconstructions, we, the Church, played a major role in achieving the progress that was made, specifically because we understood Jesus’ meaning in this parable. And now, Dr. Barber suggests that we’re in the midst of a Third Reconstruction, where once again a broad and diverse group of people are coming together to advance justice and equity in our society once again. That’s what we’re witnessing being born, that’s what we’re witnessing unfolding on the television news. And, because we do understand this parable, we, the Church, needs to be a part of this Reconstruction, too, just as we were in the past.

But how do we do that? How do we get our hands around an issue that can seem too big and complex to solve? And, being completely honest, how do we come to terms with the conflicted feelings that all of us, you and me alike, sometimes have when we think about issues of race?

Here at Springdale, we’ve already done some important work. We’ve studied our Confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession, these incredible historical confessions, part of our denominational Constitution, both of which expand on the message of this parable and make it clear that the work of racial equality and reconciliation is work that God calls us to and expects from us. It isn’t an option for us to ignore it. Next, our upcoming Issues Class is going to have a guest speaker who will tackle this same issue. Then also next month, the Presbytery is sponsoring a workshop on racial reconciliation. It will be held on Saturday, October 22, at Fourth Presbyterian Church. There’s a flyer out in the Gathering Space about the event. I’ll be there, and I hope to see many of you there, too. And in addition to those things, a couple of us are beginning to work on a multiple-part educational offering that will dig deeper into the issue of race in our society; there will be more information about that in the near future.

Those are all good starts, and we should all be a part of them. But one thing that we can’t do is just get together in a big room full of only comfortable white people to sit around and try totalk about the issues of race in our society. I couldn’t imagine a bigger waste of time. I wouldn’t attend another meeting like that myself. We can’t understand the problems faced by other people if we don’t sit and talk with them, truly listening to them, in open, candid, and loving conversations in a mixed, multi-racial setting.

Another thing that we can’t do is leave our work at just the level of talk. Conversation is important, but it’s a means to an end; it isn’t the actual end itself. We need to find ways to turn our talk into positive, constructive action. And I don’t know specifically what that looks like; it may look like something different for each of us. It might be working together with existing community groups working for social justice in our community and society. Most of these groups include a large number of people of faith already; people who understand the meaning of this parable. For some of us, dare I suggest that it might be taking part in non-violent but loud protests calling for social justice improvements, just as we’ve done in the past. .

Whatever we do, it won’t be easy. But there’s a bit of good news here for us because, unlike the rich man in the parable, we know we’re supposed to be doing it. And also unlike him, we actually do have the benefit of someone having been raised from the dead to remind us of this reality, this expectation – and not just to remind us of it, but who remains with us, emboldening and empowering and strengthening us to actually do it.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

A Letter into a Black Hole

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I got a piece of mail today from the Presbyterian Lay Committee, seeking a financial contribution. If you aren’t familiar with the group – and if you aren’t Presbyterian, there’s really little reason why you should be – it was formed in the mid-1960s as a reaction to what they saw as an inappropriate, supposedly non-scriptural, liberal shift in the theological direction of what’s now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The denomination had been embroiled in a bitter divide in the early part of the 20th century, in a debate known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy“. The controversy had to do with the way the Bible was to be interpreted, and whether the denomination’s clergy were required to adhere to a specific shortlist of doctrinal issues. The issue had been rather decisively settled in favor of the Modernists in the 1920s; the more or less simultaneous playing out of the infamous Scopes Trial, which pitted essentially the same arguments against each other in a courtroom and on the national stage, instead of as part of a church assembly, served as a fitting symbol of the Fundamentalists’ defeat and loss of control within the denomination.
In 1967, the denomination adopted a confessional document – a statement of faith – called, imaginatively enough, the “Confession of 1967.” It was in this document, known as “C67” for short, that the church – brilliantly and decisively, in my opinion – first put the “Modernist” understanding of biblical interpretation in any official confessional statement.
The Presbyterian Lay Committee was formed to fight adoption of C67 as part of the denominational constitution. It lost in this effort. Long after that loss, the PLC continued to promote its views through the ensuing years, never really conceding defeat – kind of like those stories of Japanese soldiers from World War II holding their position in some cave in the Pacific and not crawling out until  decades after the war had ended.
Eventually, the PLC did crawl out of that particular cave – never really conceding their position, but deciding to focus on a target more current and relevant than C67 itself. They found fertile ground to re-energize their conservative base, and to raise funds, by fighting against the denomination’s gradually more welcoming stance toward acceptance of LGBTQ Christians in the full life of the church, including its leadership, and in the most recent times, against same-sex marriage – and particularly, permission for Presbyterian clergy to officiate them – as it’s been becoming the law in more and more states. This group may have been the most strident opponent of these developments within the PCUSA over the past two decades, and probably the loudest crap-stirrers finding any excuse, real or imagined, to bash the denomination and call for people and congregations to disaffiliate with it. Their reaction to the denomination’s recent move to permit its ministers to officiate same-sex marriages borders on the apoplectic.
If you know anything about me, you can probably imagine my thoughts when I received their plea for a financial contribution.
Frankly, I’ve gotten many these junk mailings in the past, and I’ve just thrown them in the trash and forgotten about them. And now, with the denomination’s acceptance of LGBTQ folk being eligible for ordained offices in the church, and with PCUSA ministers being permitted to officiate same-sex marriages in the states where they’re legal, I should really care even less about the PLC’s increasing irrelevance. For some reason, though, this time I felt some crazy, admittedly futile need to reply…
Carmen Fowler LaBerge
President, Presbyterian Lay Committee
Dear Ms. LaBerge:
I received the Layman’s letter requesting a contribution to your organization in the mail today.
I am the Interim Pastor serving the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York. Auburn is the original home of Auburn Theological Seminary. It’s the city that gave birth to the Auburn Affirmation of 1923, which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a critical document in the history of American Presbyterianism – and which I’m also sure you’re aware, calls for a way of understanding what it means to be a Presbyterian, in terms of doctrinal standards, freedom of conscience, and ordination requirements, which is very different from the one your organization is calling for.
Beyond Presbyterian history and theology, Auburn is a city steeped in the history of social justice in this country. It was the hometown of Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, whose home sits directly across the street from our church, and who, along with his family, were strident abolitionists – in fact, his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman’s home is just down the street from here; in fact, for a time, she was a member of our congregation and was married here. From its beginnings, our congregation was inextricably connected with the issue of social justice with regard to the abolition of slavery. The congregation was formed when its organizing pastor was fired from his former post for requesting prayers for John Brown, and being “too abolitionist.”
Auburn is also noted for its involvement in the struggle for women’s rights. The noted women’s rights pioneer Martha Coffin Wright lived just around the corner from our church. Working together with her sister, Lucretia Mott, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they spearheaded the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 – the very first women’s rights convention in American history, and which was hosted by the First Presbyterian Church of Seneca Falls, just next door to Auburn.
Clearly, Auburn is an area that throughout our nation’s history has taken a strong stand toward progressive understandings of a number of social justice issues, and more often than not, by way of progressive religious doctrine which was considered by some to be extremist, dangerous, unorthodox, and sometimes even heretical. And the Auburn Affirmation, which speaks so eloquently and strongly against the positions that, almost a hundred years later, your organization continues to espouse, is one of the crowning achievements of this city’s proud history.
Your recent mailing referred to “the disaster that comes with incremental revisionist, progressive liberalism;” considering this to be an “assault on Christ and His Word.”
Frankly, I couldn’t disagree with you and your organization more strongly. I believe that the social justice advances that I’ve alluded to, in which Auburn has played such a vital part, are unquestionable success stories made possible in large part by progressive strains within Christ’s Church. These are successes – and other examples could be offered – which, in their time, were fought tooth and nail by the more staid, conservative strands of the faith as being contrary to the supposedly clear teachings of scripture. These repeated failings of the conservative wing of the church to see what time has proven to have been the path most consistent with God’s will, Christ’s teaching, and the fullest meaning of scripture, have become utter embarrassments in the history of the Church; shameful bits of history for which repentance is called for.
Continuing this city’s proud history of working for social justice for an ever-expanding circle of God’s people; and recognizing the ongoing disputes within our denomination over questions of the role of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the Church, including serving as ordained servant/leaders; a number of years ago the Session of the Westminster Presbyterian Church adopted the following statement of inclusion:
“Westminster welcomes everyone, no matter where you are on your faith journey or your life journey. In faithfulness to our understanding of Christ, Westminster affirms the full inclusion of all God’s people in the life and ministry of the church. We welcome persons of every race, gender, age, sexual orientation, family status, and economic status into full participation in our faith community. We value questions as much as answers. We encourage curiosity, discovery, and honest struggling with questions of faith.”
Since its adoption, Westminster Church has not merely paid lip service to this policy, but it has lived it out, in faithful obedience to Christ, in any number of ways – not least of which is the fact that the Session has entered into an Interim Pastor agreement with me – an ordained Teaching Elder, a deeply committed Christian who loves the Lord and works each day to proclaim the gospel in word and deed and to serve and lead this congregation, who also happens to be openly gay. Further, without trying to sound immodest, I believe the congregation overall is quite pleased with my pastoral service to them, and is perfectly convinced of my qualifications and the validity of my call to ordered ministry – something that you and your organization would flatly refuse to accept.
Thanks be to God, every day more and more Christians are coming to see the error of our past understanding of LGBTQ-related issues within the church. Most significantly, this is a phenomenon seen across nearly the full spectrum of Christian traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant; Mainline and Evangelical, Liberal and Conservative. With God’s help, I believe that this will be a complete, or nearly complete, non-issue within the Church within a single generation’s time.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will finally see this situation for what I, and many, many other Christians believe it to be: evidence of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, bringing us all to an increasingly accurate understanding of God’s will, just as we had to painfully learn from the Church’s erroneous positions with regard to those other issues from the past.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will recognize the thoroughly and unnecessarily negative and divisive role that you are occupying within the Church, and that you will repent of your actions.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will come to understand the immense damage that the Church’s traditional understandings have caused in the lives of millions of LGBTQ people, both within and outside of the Church, over the course of the past 2,000 years. I hope that you finally feel the weight – the evil – that we, the Church, have either perpetrated directly or enabled through others in the lives of these people, all of whom were created in the very image of God, including the sexual orientation with which God chose to bless them.
In light of my strong opposition to the stated mission of your organization, and my doubts that any kind of reversal or repentance on your part is likely to occur any time soon, it’s also my sincere prayer that you don’t hold your breath waiting for a financial contribution from me.
Conservative and Progressive brothers and sisters in Christ are called to work together, serving as a check and balance against excesses of either tendency. I humbly suggest that at this point, the Holy Spirit is making abundantly more clear every day that in this matter, the misguided excess – the error – is found in the positions that your organization is fighting for.
I pray God’s fullest and deepest blessings upon you.
Rev. Dwain W. Lee
Interim Pastor
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Auburn NY

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.