Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Proof-Texting Scripture

As expected, some feathers were ruffled by me making my views on marriage equality clear in the recent letter to the editor I signed.

And that's okay.  It happens.   And this time, I made sure that the name of my church wasn't attached to the letter so that it wouldn't look like I was speaking in any official capacity--only in a personal capacity as a cleric.

Plus, as I continually tell both myself and my church, if they already agree with everything I'm saying, then I'm not doing my job, because no teaching is actually happening, and I’m always happy to have a dialogue about wshat I say anyway.  I have congregants who agree with me on it and those who disagree with me on it, and I don’t—I can’t—love one more than the other.

The folks who have come to me to talk about it, they usually either ask, “What does Scripture say,” or they’ll outright say, “This is what Scripture says.”

And Scripture is pretty clear.  Same-sex intercourse is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22) that is punishable by death (Leviticus 20:13).

One of the most common discussions on this point, though, is that when we highlight and super-size these verses, we are picking and choosing from over 600 Levitical laws to make a big ruckus about this particular one.

I agree with the logic behind that belief, but I also think that argument is incomplete, because not all Levitical law violations are treated with the same severity or punished in the same way.

So let’s unpack this a bit—what other crimes (besides murder) aside from same-sex relations does Scripture proscribe death for as punishment?  And, what other actions does Scripture label as abominations?

I did a little digging.  This is what I came up with.

Neither list should be considered exhaustive.

The following are punishable by death according to Scripture:

Striking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15, 17, Leviticus 20:9)
Disobeying your parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)                                                             
Sorcery (Exodus 22:18, 2 Kings 23:24)
Worship of any god other than Yahweh (Exodus 22:20)
Working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)
Adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24)

The following are considered abominations according to Scripture:

Consuming meat used for religious sacrifice (Leviticus 7:18, 19:7)
Consuming ostrich, which I am told is actually quite good (Leviticus 11:13)
Unclean animals and birds (Leviticus 20:25)
Defiling a shrine to Yahweh (2 Kings 23:13)
Causing family conflict (Proverbs 6:16, 19)
Lying (Proverbs 6:16-19, 12:22)
Arrogance (Proverbs 16:5)
Incense (Isaiah 1:13)
Adultery (Ezekiel 22:11)
Whatever is prized by humans (Luke 16:15—the only time any Gospel uses this term)

So, like I said, I completely agree that Scripture condemns same-sex intercourse.  It just does.  Multiple times.  I do think it slightly unfair to simply say, “Well, why don’t you follow all the other 600-some laws just as rigorously?” when not all the laws were written equally—some actions were clearly considered more condemnable than others. 

But even when we narrow the scope with that criteria, among those whose condemnation in Scripture is similar, I still think we are picking and choosing.  And I really wish we wouldn’t.

Because honestly, it kind of feels like we are using Scripture to validate views we already hold, as opposed to letting Scripture shape our views.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 28, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Inspiration"

2 Timothy 3:14-17

"But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing.  You know who taught you.  Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is Christ Jesus.  Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good." (CEB)

“What’s Asked in Worship Stays in Worship: Banned Questions About the Bible,” Week One: Is There a Right or Wrong Way to Read the Bible?

It’s the front cover of a Bible that an atheist buddy emailed to me, his buddy the pastor.  He admitted he did for, in his words, “kicks and giggles.”

That should have been my first clue.

That he identifies as an atheist should have been my second.

But I walked right into it, as oblivious to the circumstances as an NFL replacement referee.

It was an actual Bible—which translation I cannot remember, though—but the front cover bore this, in the format of something along the lines of the Surgeon General’s warning on a bottle of wine or a pack of cigarettes.  It said, in part:

"Warning!  This book is a work of fiction.  Do NOT take it literally.

Exposure warning: Exposure to contents for extended periods of time, or during formative years in children, may cause delusions, hallucinations, decreased cognitive and objective reasoning abilities, and, in extreme cases, pathological disorders, hatred, bigotry, and violence, including but not limited to fanaticism, murder, and genocide".

I guess there goes the PG-13 rating for my super-secret movie script—a “Bible: The Musical” production, featuring Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi as a dancing barbershop quartet.

This is a brand-new, four-week sermon series that will take us up to the week of Thanksgiving, and thematically, this new series does a lot, I think, to build upon our previous sermon series, “They Like Jesus, But Not The Church.”  That previous series was based on peoples’ impressions of us that they are sometimes afraid to share, and this series is based largely on peoples’ questions for us that they—or even we—are sometimes afraid to ask, perhaps because church is seen sometimes as a place not to ask questions, only to receive answers.  But, in order to receive the right answers to begin with, we must start by asking the right questions.  And one of my fundamental, non-negotiable beliefs about what church is, and what church should be, is that we must be in the business of encouraging people to ask the right questions, the tough questions.  Not the clichés, not the easy answers that you can recite the same way a child recites their favorite McDonald’s order.  So for this and the following three weeks, we’ll be looking at some of those big theological questions, guided by the book “Banned Questions About the Bible,” which is edited by Disciples journalist and blogger Christian Piatt.  And to kick off this series, today, we begin with a simple but profound question: Is there a right or wrong way to read the Bible?

As my buddy’s atheist-endorsed Bible would indicate, many people think there is a wrong way to read the Bible.  But let’s hear what the Banned Questions book has to say, which is, in part:

"There is a strong tendency to read the scriptures, not in order to hear what the scriptures say (which is the “right” way to read them), but rather to verify what is already believed about the scriptures (which is the “wrong” way to read them)."

In other words, if we’re reading the Bible with a mind open to what God might be saying to us, then we’re getting it right.  But if we’re reading the Bible in order to reinforce what we already think about God—and usually, that involves God agreeing 100% with us on everything…after all, as the Christian author Anne Lamott said, “You know you have made God in your image rather than the other way around when God has all the same enemies that you do”—then we’re doing something wrong.

Which is why there absolutely, positively, has to be parts of Scripture that challenge us and make us uncomfortable.  If we are comfortable with every single thing said in Scripture, then we’ve missed the mark.  We’re worshiping ourselves, and not God.

And that, at its core, is the entire dilemma of Biblical literalism.  Does reading the Bible literally uphold us, or uphold God?  Does expose us to the Word of God?  Or does it turn us into radical, delusional kooks?  Or maybe it’s both?  Is it okay for it to be both?

Jesus was radical, in every sense of the term.  He changed people’s hearts, resurrected the dead, and turned the world upside-down!  But it’s something easy to lose sight of when Christianity is as common in American culture as apple pie.  Sure, we may live on the great unchurched Left Coast—but we’re still the biggest gang in town, if you don’t count the Church of Brunch.

Which means it is odd that Christians might be seen as kooks, because being part of the mainstream means you usually aren’t a kook.  But that’s the power of the stereotype of Biblical literalism for you!

Here’s the thing, though—honestly, if you read the Bible literally because you believe it is the inspired Word of God, then I’m right there with you.  But if you read the Bible literally because you believe it is without error, then we’re probably not reading Scripture literally anymore.

It’s one of the best cases I can think of in reading Scripture to verify what we already believe about it.

This text from 2 Timothy is one of the most frequently cited for claims that the Bible is without error, but if you read it, that isn’t what the text actually says—it says that Scripture is inspired by God, useful for teaching, and capable of showing and correcting mistakes and building character.

It doesn’t actually say that Scripture is inerrant.  But it does say it is God-inspired, or, as I like here in the CEB translation, "God-breathed," the same way in which God gave Adam life in Genesis 2--God breathed it into him, just as God breathes the word of Scripture into us!

Also, keep in mind that this is Paul talking—or one of his disciples or scribes talking for him.  Paul was the very first author of any New Testament scripture—the final forms of the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and all the other letters come about 15-20 years after Paul is martyred.

Which means Paul cannot be referring to the New Testament, because the New Testament as we know it did not exist yet.  Paul could only be referring to the Old Testament—yes, the same Old Testament that many of us struggle with because of the sometimes wrathful nature of God in it.

This of course makes complete sense when you think about it—Paul is Jewish!  He was even educated as a Pharisee.  But it also means that Paul is probably not referring to the same Scriptures that we are thinking of.  This is where we get into trouble with the whole “reading Scripture to validate what I already think about it” bit—we superimpose our meaning upon Paul, rather than let Paul’s—and, by extension, God’s—meaning speak to us.

And it isn’t just us.  The folks who came up with that Bible cover label also probably see what they want to see in Scripture.  It’s really very funny—in a sad clown sort of way—when you think about it: we claim this book to have so much power, so much influence, but in the end, we spend so much of our energy trying to assert our power and influence over it in interpreting it.

If anything, the Bible should present more of a challenge to us each time we read it, rather than less, because with each passing day, we move further and further away from the time and place in which it was written.  The more time passes, the more we become steeped not in the world of ancient Israel, but of 21st-century America, and the two are about as different as can be!

There is one final note to make about how or what we take the Bible to be—it is often a good litmus test for seeing what we believe God to be.  Many of my same atheist or agnostic friends tell me that they simply cannot believe in a deity so petty and wrathful that he would condemn people to hell for going to the wrong church, or for not reciting a particular version of the Sinner’s Prayer, or for voting for a particular political party.

To which I simply reply, “Has it occurred to you that maybe I don’t believe in that deity, either?”

If that were the only choice—angry, petty deity or no deity at all—I might well turn out an atheist too, because I don’t think I could handle being a priest of Ba’al and having to cut myself as a sacrifice in order to get it to rain.  Sorry, but I’d just as soon start studying for the LSATs.

But I thank God instead for Scripture, for the revelation of a God who rules not through sacrifice, but through redemption, who demands not one-dimensional fear, but all-encompassing love.

That is the sort of revelation that I will gladly take literally, single-mindedly, and gratefully.  Because that is a revelation, a revealing, of a God who gives me hope.  Hope for my own salvation, hope for God’s love for all of you, and hope for the world that we live in together.

It’s what the content advisory label on that Bible was missing—a warning that this book can also give you great, great hope, so open it and read it only if you dare to be open to such emotionally and spiritually uplifting possibilities.  By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 28, 2012

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Organic Systematics: Twelve Thoughts on God...'N Stuff

I have long since realized that I’m just not a systematic person.  Never have been, never will be.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate order, rules, and ethics.  Sometimes too much!

But I also thrive in a certain amount of disorganization. 

I tell people the reason I enjoyed my dig in Israel so much is that I had been doing archaeology my entire life—to find anything on my desk requires an excavation, so I had already had years of practice.

I almost never write my sermons with any sort of prefabricated outline anymore.  I begin with a sort of thesis statement: what I want the sermon to boil down to in a single sentence, and then I just pray, study, and write (not necessarily in that order).

And the books on my bookshelves adhere to only the barest possible sense of sorting by topic.

All of that works for me.  But it also means that when it comes to trying to nail down exactly what I think and do, I often fall short.  I don’t know how to nail my organic, growing beliefs down.

Which means that I’m really, REALLY bad at systematic theology, which, especially in many traditions, is very much about nailing down—exactly and orderly—what one thinks.

It’s why there are so many different creeds floating around out there.

It’s why we have silly debates like "Is President Obama a Muslim?!" over what constitutes a Christian.

But I realize that I cannot stand from the outside and throw stones at the people who claim to somehow know exactly what a Christian is beyond the believing-in-Jesus-Christ-as-the-Messiah bit.

So…this is a short, haphazard attempt at putting some of my beliefs into single sentences.

Call it a creed if you’d like, but as this is hardly all-inclusive, I wouldn’t dare call it that.

Instead, consider these twelve ideas simply food for thought.  Possibly nutritious, like broccoli, but more likely to be the spiritual equivalent of FunYuns:

*There might be many gods in existence, but there is only one God worthy of worship.

*God is not omnipotent.  Nor did He create the world in six literal 24-hour days.

*In fact, we are still living during the seventh day of the creation.

*Jesus Christ was a radical leader, far more divine in form than any person who has lived before or since.

*His tomb was found empty not because His body had been taken, but because God gave Him new life.

*There is such a thing as hell.  But it does not necessarily consist of fire and brimstone.  Nor, with apologies to Kevin Smith, is it the state of Wisconsin.

*Similarly, there is such a thing as heaven.  But it may not necessarily be fluffy clouds and harps.

*God’s awe-inspiring grace is not the same thing as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

*The Bible in its original form—divine words—is probably inerrant.  But as soon as we humans started getting involved in its dictation, that changed in a big damn hurry.

*It does, though, contain all the necessary instructions for having a right relationship with God.

*There will be a final judgment, but I honestly have no idea when or what it will look like.  Nor do I care that much, since I have basically gone all-in on this one hand.

*And that's okay.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Letters to the Editor: Redux

(Back from a week of continuing education, and I'm hard at work on several new posts that will start showing up here over the next couple of weeks.  It is good to be back!  -E.A.)

This is not the first time I have sent off a letter to the editor of The Daily News, Longview's local paper, but I am sure this second time is apt to be the more controversial one, since I and four other wonderful local clergy co-wrote and signed the letter with were speaking of Referendum 74, the marriage equality measure that is on the Washington state ballot this November.  The letter, which is in part a response to TDN's own editorial which declined to support marriage equality, is reprinted here below, and you can also find the letter on the TDN website here.

While this is a strongly-held opinion of mine that is shaped by my faith, I do not pretend that my word is ever the last word.  What do you think of the argument we made here?  How could it be improved or critiqued?  Perhaps most importantly, does it speak to you?

Yours in Christ,

Clergy for same-sex marriage

It goes without saying how divisive marriage equality is right now in Washington — and in America. We take to heart the belief in your editorial of Sept. 28 that "there are sincere, intelligent, and responsible people on both sides of this issue." However, as clergy serving in Cowlitz County, we have arrived at a profoundly different conclusion.

We surely know our Scripture, and what Leviticus and Romans say about same-sex intercourse. Nevertheless, Scripture does not explicitly instruct regarding same-sex marriage, and as clergy, we see our role in instituting marriage as a role of endorsing love, not merely sexual relations. To reduce marriage to an endorsement of sex cheapens marriage. It is, and must always be, a celebration of love first and foremost.

We disagree with the TDN editorial board that legalizing same-sex marriage between two loving, monogamous partners is a marriage "variant" that would inevitably lead to polygamy. That sort of "slippery slope" argument has been utilized against all sorts of social progress throughout history, including, it should be noted, interracial marriage in the 20th century. Monogamous love is something that marriage can and should uphold, and ordaining marriage for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ would not change that.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Rev. Meghan Davis
Rev. Rene Devantier
Rev. Kathleen Patton
Rev. Shelley Willem


Sunday, October 14, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Human Traditions"

(A programming note--as I will be attending a regional conference this week, there will likely not be any new posts here until I return.  Look for new posts beginning next Monday or Tuesday! -E.A.)

Mark 7:1-9

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me; 
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (NRSV)

“They Like Jesus, But Not The Church: Insights From Emerging Generations,” Week Six: They Think the Church is Full of Fundamentalists Who Take the Whole Bible Literally

A funny thing happened yesterday (in case it isn’t obvious, I scrapped the original bit I wrote!).  I was at my alma mater, Lewis & Clark College, down in Portland, helping out with a tournament the debate team to which I belong was hosting.  Mostly, it was an excuse to see a number of old friends who I do not get the chance to see very often anymore.

And no fewer than three different people commenting to me—all separately and independently of each other—how I am the only Christian pastor they manage to be able to listen to.

This isn’t a pat on the back.  I’m trying to convey this as humbly as possible—in one of my forays far outside the realm of the church, where most of my friends are actively nonreligious, a pastor is as rare a sighting as a unicorn.

And that isn’t by accident—it is, in fact, by design.  It is people knowing exactly what they are doing—pushing any sort of organized religion far, far away.  And it is precisely because of the stereotype that one of my friends—unknowingly, but succinctly—put to me:

“Atcheson, you’re the only pastor who I’m not convinced is a total (insert expletive of your choice here)!”

So it goes.

This is a sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that took us from September and into October.  It challenged and maybe even distressed us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church.  In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts.  And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases.  In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us.  And none of those stereotypes are good.  Each week we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it.  And so we began the series with a message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda, and “They think the church is judgmental and negative,” followed by, “They think the church arrogantly claims that all other religions are wrong.” Then we turned to the theme of, “They think the church is dominated by males and oppresses females,” and last week the theme was “They think the church is homophobic.”  The last and final theme, then, that sums up so much of what we have talked about over the last five weeks is, “They think the church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.”

As Dan Kimball describes him, Gary is a thirtysomething young man who sings “in a local band and works in a print shop…(He) grew up in the church but stopped going when he was a teenager.  He felt that the church pastor was using the Bible to express his angst and his agenda.”  This is what Gary had to say about Jesus and Scripture:

“Jesus stood for strength and character.  He plowed the path to do right.  He was more than a Gandhi, I believe he was raised from the dead.  Jesus was a fusion of the power of good and flesh that had a message for people to do what is right and loving.”

He continues:

“I tell you what is scary…it’s the fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally and go on crusades and campaigns to verbally beat the hell out of those who disagree with their particular interpretation.  I bet Jesus is pretty pissed at them when they go and smugly claim Jesus is on their side and behind all they say and do.”

Now…show of hands, how many of you have, in the week between now and the last time we worshiped together, gone out on a crusade or campaign to verbally beat the hell out of people?

But that’s what we’ve been up against all this time, and it is something I was reminded of when venturing out to another circle of friends outside the church for the first time in a long time.

But Christian fundamentalism is in many ways the Pharisaic way of doing Christianity—something that sprang up in response to perceived threats to the faith.

The Pharisees felt threatened by messianic leaders—especially Jesus—who claimed to have the direct ear of God, because that implied that people no longer needed the temple priests!

Christians felt threatened, starting in the 19th century, by the Enlightenment and the increasingly progressive nature of academic Biblical scholarship.  And that mentality still persists today, with students at Liberty University, founded by the late Jerry Falwell, being told that they should not be educated beyond their obedience.  In other words—that too much education is harmful!

It’s something that the Pharisees had a distinct interest in, too—to keep their populace dependent on them, and their educations, and their interpretations.  It’s why Martin Luther ended up becoming such a problem child for the Roman Catholic Church—if you have everybody reading Scripture as opposed to just the priests, who the heck knows what they’ll come up with next?

So let’s revisit this story from Mark 7 in that particular light.  The Pharisees, it should be noted, are not doing this out of any altruistic concern for the health of Jesus and His disciples—the notion of hand washing as a hygienic practice was still many centuries away.

No, what the Pharisees are talking about here is the religious ritual of purification, which they elevate in importance here to try to discredit Jesus and His disciples.

Why would they bother doing this if they weren’t worried about Jesus and His radical message?
More to the point, why are they afraid of Jesus and His radical message?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it until the day I die, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s fear!

And that’s what fundamentalism is created out of—it’s created not out of faith, but out of fear.  Out of our own human fears, we create new traditions that we claim are divine in origin, but in reality are anything but.

There’s no Scriptural reason to celebrate Christmas on December 25—it’s something we arrived at ourselves.

There’s no Scriptural basis for the rapture—it’s something we cobbled together by proof-texting Paul’s letters and the Book of Revelation.

And there’s no Scriptural basis even for something as minor as wearing robes to preach!

We create these traditions and say that they honor God.  And they may well do exactly that.  But in doing so, we have to always be asking ourselves if we are doing it for God or for ourselves.

Because when we do the latter, that is when we get into trouble.  That is where our traditions risk taking us further away from God, because at that point, the church doesn’t exist to glorify God, it exists, like the Pharisees did, to keep hold of what power it has, and it creates threats in order to be able to do so.

Threats like the ordination of women.  Or gays and lesbians.  Or anyone who isn’t like us, really.

But Jesus did not rely on threatening those not like Him.  He couldn’t—nobody was like Him!

And nothing else is like the Church.  Nothing else can do what we do—offer people the grace and mercy and redemption and love of God as revealed by Jesus Christ.

And when God is so great, why should we feel threatened—or be threatening to—those not like the Church…which is to say—everybody and everything?

Because when we do so, what are we revealing about ourselves?  Our character as Christians, the substance of our beliefs, or, perhaps most importantly, the strength of our very faith itself?

After all…faith that can be threatened by one person saying something we don’t like probably is not very strong faith at all.

Such is the faith of the Pharisees.  Let us turn instead, as ever, to the  faith of Jesus Christ instead.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 14, 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

"Bite-Sized Pancakes" 

At the cafe hall on my seminary's campus was, for most of my first two years there, a titanic giant of a fellow named Don, who would make the breakfast dishes for folks--pancakes, hash browns, omelets, that sort of thing. He had a quirky sense of humor and would often vary our portion sizes as a way of good-naturedly messing with us. To that end, pancakes that I would get from him would come in all sorts of shapes and sizes--sometimes I'd receive a tall pile of small, dollar-sized pancakes, other times I'd get just a couple, but they'd be as big as my face. Or, a combination of all sizes in between the face-sized behemoths and the bite-sized lilliputians. But all of the above elicited consistent joy from me. 

As I began to get settled at seminary, I began to see the bite-sized pancakes as metaphors for all of the little, brand-new aspects of my new life at seminary--the things I quickly became very grateful for that stuck out to me as a stranger in a strange land, but were so small that they might have been taken for granted otherwise. 

And I've felt the same sort of thing at work in my first year here--that as I've continued to grow accustomed to living and ministering here in Longview, I have had those sorts of bite-sized moments that stand out to me as things to cherish rather than take for granted or write off as inane--like seeing that giant squirrel statue on my way to work, or being able to write sermons down by the lake on a sunny day. 

So if you were to ask me what has helped me grow into my role here as your pastor, I would tell you...it has at least partly been the bite-sized pancakes. 

What are those little things that keep you going and remind you of God's joy and presence in your life? 

Yours in Christ, 
Pastor Eric

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

High Park's on Fire: Continuing the Conversation

Unsurprisingly, the feedback from the congregation following my sermon this past Sunday was--and is--more extensive than I think any other sermon I have previously given, here or elsewhere.

I anticipated this.  I was nervous.  Very.

So far, at least, though, it has turned out okay.

People pulled me aside after worship when they might otherwise have shook my hand and said, "Good sermon, preacher."

They came here during my office hours to talk with me about what I said.

We wondered and wrestled with God's Word together.

And it was fantastic.


I don't claim to have all the answers.  The minute that I do, the church had better fire me, because I will have clearly done a nutty.

But this is as close to a definitive, absolute, black-and-white truth as I have for you:

God wants us to talk about Him.

Not in any sort of a needy sense, that God craves attention for its own sake.

But because when we do talk about God, we have fantastic power.

For both good and bad.

And God wants us to use that power for good.

I am continually amazed and humbled by the deference people are sometimes willing to give my opinions simply because I am a pastor.  Me, I think I'm just this kid from Kansas with a sarcastic streak and an unfortunate tendency to run his mouth when asked.

My opinion is not the closing argument.  When I speak, the debate does not end.  My sermon is not the final word, it is a springboard.

That is as it should be.

But by God, I do think we have used our ability to talk about God for bad when it comes to our gay and lesbian neighbors.

And there is no excuse for it.  We don't get to hide behind Scripture on this one.  Leviticus and Romans say to not engage in same-sex intercourse, they do not say that we get to bully, discriminate, exile, or harbor prejudice because of it.

I say this because that has been one of the most frequent questions folks have come to me with in the past 48 or so hours: "What exactly does Scripture say about gay marriage?"

And the honest-to-goodness answer is: "Not a damn thing."  The Bible addresses the intercourse itself.  Not the question of marriage.

There is an old Disciples maxim of "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak.  Where the Scriptures are silent, we must be silent."

It's tough to apply in today's day and age, but the profound humility that sentiment conveys really does matter to me a lot.

The Bible doesn't say a thing about gay marriage.

Which means we have only the Holy Spirit to move and guide us.

And I am so, so grateful for the conversations that have begun, precisely because I can see them being born out of the love we have for one another here.

So the Holy Spirit moves and guides.

(If you want a more fully-fleshed representation of my reflections on marriage equality and the delineation between sex and marriage, you can find it here.)

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 7, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "High Park's on Fire"

Isaiah 1:9-17

If the Lord of heavenly forces had not spared a few of us,    we would be like Sodom; we would resemble Gomorrah.

10 Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom.
    Listen to our God’s teaching,
        people of Gomorrah!
11 What should I think about all your sacrifices?
    says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts.
    I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from you,
    this trampling of my temple’s courts?
13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
    Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
    I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
    They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands,
    I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
    I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
16     Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
    Put an end to such evil;
17     learn to do good.
Seek justice:
    help the oppressed;[b]
    defend the orphan;
    plead for the widow. (CEB)

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations,” Week Five: They Think the Church is Homophobic

My college friend’s email to me was kind, but direct and to the point: “We are so close to the High Park fire.  Our home is fine, but I have friends who have lost their homes, and that is sad.”

There isn’t really a way to mince words or pull punches when describing something like the wildfires that devastated Colorado earlier this year.

High Park’s on fire.  A town, a city, is on fire.

In the past—heck, even very recently—that would be the opportunity for preachers to leap forward and proclaim that such disasters were God’s punishment visited upon the world for whatever sin of the day we were complicit in.  Jerry Falwell famously blamed 9/11 in part on feminism.  Pat Robertson claimed that the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake happened because Haiti’s leaders had made pacts with Satan.

And there are, I know, pastors who will tell you that these disasters—fire in particular—have to do with the radical notion of being open and accepting to all people.  After all, they say, wasn’t it Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by fire for their sins?

Indeed it was.  But what those sins were…well, therein lies what Christianity now wrestles with on a seemingly daily basis.

This is a sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that, as it takes us now through September and into October, I imagine will likely challenge and maybe even distress us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church.  In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts.  And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases.  In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us.  And none of those stereotypes are good.  Each week we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it.  And so we began the series with a message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda, and “They think the church is judgmental and negative,” followed by, “They think the church arrogantly claims that all other religions are wrong.” Last week, we turned to the theme of, “They think the church is dominated by males and oppresses females,” and this week the theme is—and probably most challenging theme of Dan’s entire book is—“They think the church is homophobic.”

As Dan Kimball describes her, Penny “works at a local newspaper as an advertising director.”   She “was born and raised in England, where she went to an Anglican church during her childhood.”  She is also openly gay, and this is part of her story:

“It seems that homosexuality is one of the main things churches consistently and publicly condemn.  So picture being gay and wanting to seek counsel or spiritual advice.  Why would I go to a church?  They have already thrown heaps of guilt on me and condemned me before I’ve even stepped my foot in the door.” 

She continues:

When I was volunteering at the gay center, I would be on the phone talking to teenagers in trouble and feeling I was making a positive difference in the world.  But then I’d go out to my car and find tracts which would utterly condemn me left by Christians on my car windshield.  I’d look at these heartless words with little pieces of Bible verses quoted out of context and wonder, why do they hate me so much?  Why don’t they even have the decency to come in and talk to me rather than leave anger and hate on my windshield and run?”

I am so very, very grateful that we held toasts for my ministry last Sunday, because I fear that this Sunday, you will want to take it all back!

Far too often—and I think this is part of why the mainline church has declined over the years—I think we in the church are apt to, when there’s a divisive political controversy a-brewin’, to pretend it isn’t there until the whole thing passes.  And this head-in-the-sand strategy might work in the short term, but I think that in the long term, it's like an anesthetic: it may numb the pain in the short term, but then the pain returns, and sometimes even worse. It turns the church into a space where it isn’t safe to talk about, and seek guidance on, important issues of the moment, just as much as a church that tells its congregants how to vote and that if they don’t, they’re going to hell.

Even mainstream churches actually do this.  The Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Illinois, made a video last month telling his flock that voting for Democrats because, in part, of marriage equality, puts your salvation, in his words, “in serious jeopardy.”

In any case, it would be naïve for me to pretend that this sermon does not take place in front of the backdrop of Referendum 74, which puts forward the question of marriage equality to Washington’s electorate.

But I also think it is profoundly unethical to use a sermon to tell you how to vote.

More to the point, I will never, ever tell you that your salvation is dependent on how you vote.

But I do want to talk with you about what the church’s place and role is in all of this.  After all, a lot of people will tell you that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is all about homosexuality, including Jude, who writes in his epistle that they were destroyed for their sexual immorality.

The Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel also write about Sodom and Gomorrah.  But what they say destroyed the town was not sexual immorality, but a sin far more profound.
Ezekiel 16:48-9 reads: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and needy.  They became haughty and did abominable things in front of me.”

Before you leap to conclusions about what “abominable things” is, keep in mind that Leviticus, in chapters 7, 11, and 20, refers to certain animal sacrifice practices as “abominations.”

And that is what Isaiah leads off with--it is he is talking about here, in chapter 1 of his book, when he refers to his listeners as Sodom and Gomorrah—not sexuality, but the inappropriateness of animal sacrifices!

Ezekiel condemns Sodom for not being hospitable to the poor and the needy.  Isaiah does so for their sacrifice practices, and says that instead of acting like Sodom, we should “seek justice.”

And as it relates to Sodom and Gomorrah, whose inhabitants were so inhospitable to Lot and his family that they forced sexual relations on them, so much of that justice, that practice of being hospitable to everyone, the radical, difficult, loving notion that “all means all” begins at church!

Because it is, in part, Christian prejudices that made it acceptable, when I was in school, for my classmates to use words like “gay” and “fag” as insults.

Because it is, in part, Christian prejudices that have created a world where gay and lesbian teenagers are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.

To be inhospitable to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ is, I believe, much closer to what Isaiah and Ezekiel condemn than the relationship that two consenting adults might share.

Which means that it is not enough to merely tolerate the presence of gay and lesbian persons in the “I do my thing, you do yours; leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone” sense, because I believe that, in the church, gay and lesbian believers are not always on that neutral footing.  In other words—we have ground that we have to make up.  And this church can help do that.

It is my hope, my belief, and my prayer that this congregation would not only allow a same-sex person or couple to become members and for us to respect the integrity of their relationship, but also, if they had the spiritual gifts for it, to serve in any lay leadership post of the congregation.  And if Referendum 74 passes, I will obey the law and treat same-sex couples as I would any heterosexual couple who came to me asking me to marry them.

It is, in many ways, the same dilemma we tackled last week—and that our denomination tackled decades ago—on the place of women in the church, that despite what Paul wrote in 1 Cor 14, on balance, we believe it is Biblical and right to ordain women to ministry.  We realized that we had taken individual verses out of context against women and super-sized those verses’ importance compared to the rest of Scripture.  What if we have done the same thing against gays and lesbians?

Which ultimately means that likewise, I believe it is Biblical and right to treat our gay and lesbian neighbors as full members in the body of Christ, without reservation or hesitation.

May it be so.  If this be against divine will, may God have mercy on me.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 7, 2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

An Open Letter to American Churches

"Is not this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke?

Isn't it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly.  Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the Lord's glory will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer.  You will cry for help, and God will say, "I am here!""

Isaiah 58:6-9

Hi, y'all.

It's me.  Eric.

I know you're probably struggling right now.  A lot of us are, including my church.

We want nothing more than to fill the pews on Sunday, so that people have a chance to praise God and hear His Gospel proclaimed.

But, if we're honest with one another, we want those pews to be filled with people who are mostly like us.

You know, people who are generally middle-class, with polite manners and proper etiquette, who know that church must include coffee and who can navigate even the thickest hymnal like a pro.

We forget that with growth inherently comes change.

As Christianity has grown, so too has Christianity changed.

More importantly, as the influence of God Himself has grown in the world, so too has that influence changed.

We used to hear God speaking to us through a burning bush, calling and redeeming an exiled murderer to become the liberator of God's children.

Now we claim to hear God speaking to us through a bishop who says that voting for a particular political party puts your eternal salvation at risk, or through the hundreds (if not thousands) of anger-led pastors participating in yet another "Pulpit Freedom Sunday."

What happened?

When did our salvation become dependent upon how we vote?

Instead...and I know this is a radical notion, even though it is fully in line with Scripture, why don't we agree that doing what God wants is what our salvation is dependent upon?

Because...in Scripture, that gets spelled out for us pretty well.

There's Micah 6:8, that says what God requires of us, is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him.

There's Matthew 22, where Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind," and to "love your neighbor as yourself."

And there's the passage from Isaiah that begins this letter.

So maybe...just maybe...we get God's attention not so much by how we vote, but by actually living the values we purport to preach.

After all...if we live out the Gospel...if we are transformed by it and redeemed because of it and renewed for it, then we will, in fact, share our food with the hungry.

We will, in fact, share our shelter with the shelterless.

We will, in fact, share our lives and love with those who have known only hate and degradation.

And for that, Isaiah says, we will be forever healed.  We will, I believe, find salvation.  For when we cry out to the Lord, He will reply with what have to be three of the most assuring words of any language:




How did this turn into my colleagues threatening you with your salvation over your vote?

Yours in Christ, from someone who believes in you,

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What I Wish I Read Before Starting Seminary: Nine Necessary Reads

Via Rachel Held Evans, I found this blog post from Dr. Michael Bird, an Australian professor of New Testament.  His point—which is probably well-taken—is that seminarians should have a bit more background in their religious tradition before attending seminary, and to that end, he recommends ten books that he wishes every seminarian had read before beginning their studies.

Bird’s list is an interesting one from my perspective, and one that I am honestly fairly agnostic on, because I have mixed feelings about a number of the most prominent scholars to make his list (especially N.T. Wright).  But it is an introspective exercise for me as someone recently out of seminary who still feels like there are plenty of holes in his knowledge of the Divine Word!

So, I took part of this morning to work on my own list of books I wish I had read before taking the plunge into ministry.  Like Bird’s list, these books are (mostly) written primarily for laypeople, and though some came out after I began seminary, I still wish I had read them nevertheless!

In no particular order:

Intro to Scripture: “Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked-About Book of All Time,” Kristin Swenson (HarperCollins, 2011)

Old Testament: “How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now,” James Kugel (Free Press, 2007)

New Testament: “Jesus, Symbol of God,” Roger Haight (Orbis  Books, 2000)

History: “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us,” Robert Putnam and David Campbell (Simon and Schuster, 2012)

Systematic Theology: “A History of Christian Thought,” Paul Tillich (Touchstone, 1972)

Practical Theology: “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith,” Rob Bell (Zondervan, 2005)

Pastoral Care: “Here if You Need Me: A True Story,” Kate Braestrup (Back Bay Books, 2008)

Worship: “Redesigning Worship: Creating Powerful God Experiences,” Kim Miller (Abingdon, 2009)

Social Justice: “Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?” Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder (Zondervan, 2009)

I’ve left the list at nine.  If it were to be an even ten, what should the tenth book be?  What would your top-ten list of Christian or religious literature look like?

Yours in Christ,