Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Problem With "We're All Sinners"


Throughout my life, I have heard (and I am sure you have as well) the phrase "hate the sin, love the sinner" bandied about as though Jesus said it, which He didn't--apparently, that phrase was originated by Saint Augustine nearly 1,600 years ago.  It, like many cliches, became a crutch, a trite, Hallmark-y expression of Christian compassion couched in accountability.

I also stopped using it years ago.  I got on the wagon of recovering from using "I used to say 'hate the sin, love the sinner'" and haven't looked back since.

Why?

Because saying "hate the sin, love the sinner" still implies a certain moral superiority of the person saying it, an almost patronizing sense of paternalism, sort of how you still love your dog even after he has peed on all of your furniture.

(I don't know that from personal experience or anything...)

Perhaps because of that--or because of any number of reasons--what I instead hear now from Christians, and doubly so after the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court last Friday, is, "We still love GLBT people...after all, we're all sinners."  Or, "the Bible says all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."  Or, "We all need grace."  Or...well, you get the idea.

And on a theological level, yes, all of those are absolutely, 100%, completely true.  We're all sinners in need of grace because we all have fallen short of God's divine glory.  I still maintain and believe in the premise of sola gratia, that we are saved by God's grace alone--there is nothing that we can do or say to earn that grace.

But here's the thing: we can all confess our own individual sins, whatever they may be.  It's barely 10:00 am and already today I've cussed twice, honked at another driver once (unrelatedly), and double-parked in the Home Depot parking lot.  But it's perfectly legal to cuss (except on television, and even then, only certain four-letter words) or honk your horn.

Similarly, divorce is legal, adultery is legal, and frankly, far bigger (in order of magnitude of the number of lives affected) like the exploitation of the poor and the immigrant are either legal or turned a blind eye towards.

So if we are going with the "we're all sinners" tack, why aren't we all trying to make our different individual sins illegal?  If we cannot abide by the government endorsing and enabling sin, well, let's start with us.  Make my inveterate cussing illegal.  Make irritability, sarcasm, and the maintaining of a messy office illegal.  I'd add my imbibing of scotch to the list, but the United States already bought a ticket to that particular movie, and it sucked.

Let me try to put it a different way--I have Christian friends and colleagues who love to remind me that when faced with the woman caught in adultery in John 8, Jesus didn't just say "He who is without sin, cast the first stone," He also said to the woman, "Go, and sin no more."  But that sort of "Go and sin no more" transformation doesn't happen overnight for anybody, even after conversion or repentance.  Often, our struggles against sin are exactly that--a struggle.  And if you view same-sex relationships as a sin, why do you require gays and lesbians to remain celibate while you are free to continue struggling with, say, your anger management, even though the Bible even goes so far as to say an easily-angered person should be disassociated with (Proverbs 22:24), just as we have taken it upon ourselves in our churches to disassociate ourselves from same-sex couples?

Do you begin to see the double standard we have erected all over again?  Instead of "hate the sin, love the sinner" and then "loved" GLBTQ people by actively trying to relegate them to second-class citizen status, we now say, in true Animal Farm fashion, "we're all sinners, but some sinners are more equal than other sinners."

To borrow from the Christian author Rachel Held Evans's recent Searching for Sunday memoir, "'Let's not forget that Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more," some like to say when they think the church is getting too soft on other people's sin.  To this I am always tempted to respond, So how's that working out for you?  The sinning no more thing?  Because it's not going so well for me."

If the sinning no more thing isn't quite in your wheelhouse, do you want your particular sins and peccadilloes to be made illegal?  Would you want to be denied the right to marry or adopt children based solely on your predisposition towards selfishness or conceitedness, snobbishness or shallowness, even though all of those things may well have a larger effect on your marriage or parenting skill than your sexuality?

If not, please, I beg of you, ask yourself why, truly why, you are continuing to resist, in the wake of this most recent Supreme Court ruling, the tides and turning of history towards the equality and justice of a people who for decades have wanted only that.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Image courtesy of tribute.com.pk

Monday, June 29, 2015

Here You Stand...In My Rearview Mirror

After seeing the flood of rainbow-colored tears of joy and happiness and deeming it a genuine threat to society, civilization, and bacon-flavored lip balm, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has come out with a statement in "dissent" against the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all fifty states.  In an exercise of hubris and ego that is not entirely Biblical--after all, the Bible says that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6)--they have named this statement "Here We Stand," a modified version of Martin Luther's (that chap over there on the left) "Here I stand, I can do no other" when his church accusers ordered him to recant his reform-minded teachings.

That the statement's authors would even invoke this comparison is saddening, for two reasons: one, Luther was focused firmly on moving the church forward; the statement's signatories, meanwhile, seem to only care about pulling the church back into a more halcyon day when we either bullied gays and lesbians or just ignored them altogether.  Secondly, though, REALLY?  You're going to say you cannot move on something that the Bible devotes four, maybe five verses to?  You'll move the goalposts on the welfare of the poor, the welcoming of foreigners, and any number of other controversial topics, but on marriage equality you can broker no changing of the heart or conscience?  A saying about straining out gnats and swallowing camels comes to mind.

But let's see some of what you have to say (italics are quoted, verbatim, unitalicized text represents my responses).

The outcome of the Supreme Court’s ruling to redefine marriage represents what seems like the result of a half-century of witnessing marriage’s decline through divorce, cohabitation, and a worldview of almost limitless sexual freedom.

Except that the whole reason lawsuits like these were brought before the courts was that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters didn't want to merely cohabitate together, or to engage in limitless sexual freedom--in fact, quite the opposite: they wanted their living together to mean something more, and they wanted to commit themselves to a soul mate for life and eternity.  That this inference is even made is a thinly-veiled throwback to the old, hurtful stereotype that gays and lesbians are inherently promiscuous when in fact they are no more or less promiscuous, or more or less capable of sexual misconduct like adultery, than straight people.  The number of heterosexual Christian and American leaders with known sexual affairs pretty well belies this point.

The Bible clearly teaches the enduring truth that marriage consists of one man and one woman. From Genesis to Revelation, the authority of Scripture witnesses to the nature of biblical marriage as uniquely bound to the complementarity of man and woman. This truth is not negotiable.

I mean, I guess if you cut out vast swaths of Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, and the entire book of Esther, then yes, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible clearly teaches the enduring truth that marriage consists of one man and one woman.  There are an awful lot of asterisks, though...

Abraham had sons by both Sarah and Hagar
Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, and had sons by both of them plus their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah
David married multiple women: Michal, Abigail, and Bathsheba, among others
David's son Solomon had literally hundreds of both wives and concubines
Esther's entire story is predicated on her appeal to the Persian king Xerxes, for whom a refusal to parade nude before his drunken partygoers was enough grounds to divorce his former queen Vashti, and whom has a harem that would make the aforementioned Solomon blush

...and this is to say nothing of the fact that Deuteronomy 21:15-17 deals specifically with protecting the rights of inheritance of a son born to a polygamous family.

Nor does this get into the proverbial hornet's nest of "complementarity" versus egalitarianism in marriage, but that's another can of tuna.

The Lord Jesus himself said that marriage is from the beginning (Matt. 19:4-6), so no human institution has the authority to redefine marriage any more than a human institution has the authority to redefine the gospel

Like much of Jesus's teachings about marriage, this is being taken out of context by the statement's authors.  First, Jesus is replying to a query from the Pharisees that is designed to "test" Him (Matthew 19:3), indicating that this wasn't a teaching of students or a good-natured give-and-take of ideas, but instead a trap set for Him in bad faith.  The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus into giving an undesirable answer.

Secondly, this entrapment was predicated on the question of divorce, not same-sex marriage.  If the Here We Stand crowd were saying such a thing about divorce, they might have a case, but they're not.  Instead, what they're doing is taking a sentence out of a larger teaching on an unrelated subject and making it the basis for their appeal.  It would be as though you said that yellow is the best color in the world because the brick road in the land of Oz is yellow--it might be true, but it ignores the larger point.

The Supreme Court’s ruling to redefine marriage demonstrates mistaken judgment by disregarding what history and countless civilizations have passed on to us

Sometimes, disregarding what history and countless civilizations have passed on to us is the right thing to do.  See also: slavery.

Evangelical churches in America now find themselves in a new moral landscape that calls us to minister in a context growing more hostile to a biblical sexual ethic.

This sounds more like cause for wondering why there is hostility to this "Biblical sexual ethic."  Not that I'm saying majority rule is always right--as I wrote last time, a decade ago, I was the one firmly in the minority of public opinion.

But consider this for a moment: one of the statement's signatories is Matt Chandler, the lead teaching pastor for The Village Chuch in Texas.  He and his church were in an awful lot of hot water recently for singling out a woman, Karen Hinkley, nee Root, who divorced her husband after he confessed to her he was a pathological user of child pornography.  Karen was placed under church discipline for divorcing her husband, while her predatory ex-spouse remained a member in good standing.  (To his credit, Chandler later apologized.)

Discrepancies in treatment like this make it frankly pretty easy to understand a growing hostility to a "Biblical sexual ethic" that is being taught today.  Of course, considering that Scripture also teaches that if a man falsely accuses his wife of not being a virgin, he must pay the wife's father 100 shekels, but if in fact the wife is not a virgin, she is stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:15-21), so such disparate and horrifying treatment between the genders may well be part of a "Biblical sexual ethic" after all.

In the coming years, evangelical institutions could be pressed to sacrifice their sacred beliefs about marriage and sexuality in order to accommodate whatever demands the culture and law require. We do not have the option to meet those demands without violating our consciences and surrendering the gospel. We will not allow the government to coerce or infringe upon the rights of institutions to live by the sacred belief that only men and women can enter into marriage.

Religious liberty is not an all-encompassing right.  There is a long line of case law going back to Sherbert v. Verner in 1963 concerning the state's compelling interest in not allowing every single form of religious expression, just as there exists case law which establishes that the freedom of speech does not extend to things like obscenity, threats of violence, libel and slander, and child pornography.  The statement's authors cite elsewhere their need to follow the common good, they should remember that at times, the common good does indeed need to come first.

The gospel of Jesus Christ determines the shape and tone of our ministry. Christian theology considers its teachings about marriage both timeless and unchanging, and therefore we must stand firm in this belief. 

There is nothing inherent in theology that dictates that teachings about anything besides the existence of God and Jesus Christ need be timeless and unchanging.  In fact, theology is by definition always changing, because theology is a thought process, and worldview, and such views and thought processes are forever subject to change, modification, and advancement...though hopefully for the better.

And, in truth, I think our theologies will continue to change for the better, just as I pray and keep praying that we as a people in general continue to change for the better.

I pray the same for the Here We Stand signatories.  Because they may choose to stand right where they are, but they will increasingly be doing so, I believe, in the fast-departing rearview mirror of God's kingdom.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, June 28, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Movement"

Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness.


36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.

38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.” (Common English Bible)


“Whole: A Call to Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Four

You don’t need me by now to tell you what happened eleven days ago at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  You know the horrific, barbaric details.

What I want to talk with all of you about is the why.  Why it happened.  Why we reacted to it the way we did, with many white people reactively defending the marks of their own culture, like the Confederate battle flag, even as their neighbors staggered in shock and grief at the gunning down of nine souls by a single gunman.  Why we have already gotten defensive over this hate crime, rather than springing forward to offer more than only prayers, but genuine efforts at healing and at justice.

I want to talk with you about why we, as a nation, as a community, as a church, are not in the harmony that we ought to be, why we do not move in step and in time with the world we live in as we ought.  I want to talk with you about how we can be more like Christ in moments like these, and less like Pilate, or Caiaphas, or any of the legion of naysayers who eventually cost Jesus His life.

And I want to talk with you about all of this because that not only goes to the heart and soul of what it means to be a Christian, it goes directly to the heart of the matter of what it means to be a church, a church that must now do more than simply open up its doors and hope that the people come in. 

Open doors is no longer enough, we must have an open, completely open, mission to live out too.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and to start off with, we talked about the nature of the Lord’s table, before moving on to the theme of welcome and then wholeness itself.  Today, we’ll be going on to the chapter entitled “Movement,” springboarding from this excerpt from said chapter in Pastor Sharon’s book:

During the last century in the United States and Canada, throwing open the doors of the church and offering an extravagant welcome for whoever came through those doors represented the best practice of a faithful, vital congregation.  In the middle of the twentieth century, people were looking for a church.  Churches simply needed to be ready with a great offering of programs when discovered.  Attraction was the name of the game.

But times have changed.  We may build it, but they will not just come.  Other activities have taken priority on Sunday and Wednesday nights, formerly the sacred time for church.  Social norms no longer include weekly attendance at worship services.  Churches cannot just open the doors and wait anymore.  Those doors swing out, and we have to follow the arc of that swing.  We have to exit the church building, going beyond the parking lot into all those unexpected places where Jesus might have gone—including on the road, at the beach, around the most unlikely people’s supper tables.

It is not about attraction anymore, it is about action!  The church needs to heed Jesus’s advice.  “Go!” says Jesus.  Go into the entire world!  Go!  Make disciples!

But making disciples is not the end goal, even though we in the church often treat it as such—I’ve seen churches brag on social media or in their promotional materials about the number of “salvations” they have achieved in a given year, as though getting someone to recite the Sinner’s Prayer is the be-all, end-all of what it is we are doing here.

No, that be-all, end-all isn’t *simply* to save people, it is to turn them into people who, like the original Twelve, are disciples, not merely believers.  Followers of Jesus, not merely His roadies.  There is a world of difference between the two, and that difference comes through in Matthew 9.

“The size of the harvest is bigger than you can possibly imagine, but there are few workers.  Plead with the Lord of the harvest to send more workers for His harvest.”

The harvest, in this passage, are the people who are crying out to Jesus in desperate and dire need of Him and of what He brings: healing of illness and affliction, wholeness out of brokenness, love in place of neglect and apathy.

They also are not people we tend to think of as a part of the Lord’s harvest, because there is nothing in it for us.  Churches tend to like for people to stride through the door with their checkbooks and calendars of days wide open for volunteering, but the truth is, that isn’t how life—and life here in Longview especially—works anymore.

Church is for the broken and the broken-hearted, the sick and the silenced, but who the church has historically laid out the proverbial red carpet for are those who are not helpless, who are the exact opposite of the troubled and helpless crowds Jesus encounters here, who have so many means that it can stagger your imagination if you let it.

And we can and should absolutely make disciples out of our big rollers, because such means can be such a terrible, terrible obstacle to hearing the Gospel—just look at the rich man who came to Jesus asking for eternal life and going away despondent because Jesus instructed him to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor.

But that is sometimes what needs to happen to become a disciple—one has to give up all of their trappings in order to truly begin to follow Jesus.  Which brings me back to Charleston.

Can we, as a predominantly white church, move forward by shedding some of the trappings of our own beliefs and culture surrounding race?  Because that is exactly what the New Testament church had to do in Acts of the Apostles—as a predominantly Israelite church, it had to shed some of their trappings, like requiring circumcision, to, welcome in Gentile Christians.

You may say that giving up circumcision is not so much a sacrifice—hey, Joey, guess what?  We aren’t going to take a Roncko Great Grater to your giblets!—but make no mistake: to Israelites steeped in the tradition of their fathers and forefathers which dictated that circumcision be a sign and a symbol of one’s covenant with God, in a world where none of their enemies would adhere to this practice, so much so that calling a Jew “uncircumcised” was a horrific insult, it was a big deal.

But slowly, over the course of the church’s new life, they welcomed in the new cultures, new peoples, new ways of life, because they were all united by one singular truth: that Jesus Christ was indeed the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that by believing in Him, we both have and give life in His name.

What life will we give to the families and friends and congregants of the Charleston terrorism victims?

What life will we give to the people—complete strangers until we get up the gumption to get to know them—who walk through our doors?

What life will we give to anyone and everyone in our lives whom we see, as Jesus did, being troubled and helpless, sheep in need of a shepherd?

What life will we give to the world itself, the world God made and gave to us but that we beat up and beat down out of selfishness and greed?

We are called to be life-givers, not life-takers, and yet when push comes to shove, the life we look out for the most is our own, our tribe’s our clan’s.  Just look at the reality that in the wake of Charleston, six other predominantly African-American churches have been reportedly the victims of arson.

That is why, in a nutshell, I think so many of us have focused on playing defense after Charleston rather than on playing openness.  And it is slowly, painfully, profoundly harming the church.

It is slowly, painfully, profoundly harming us all.

We have to remember that at some point in our lives, even if we were raised in the church from our baby cradles onward, that we too were one of the people Jesus is encountering here, in such great need for the Good News of the kingdom of God, that the need is physically palpable, that you can see the need in the eyes, in the soul, in the speech, that you can almost reach out and touch.

Which, in fact, we are meant to do—reach out, and touch.  It is how Jesus healed the sick and the injured, and it is how we too can heal the spiritually sick and morally injured today: by reaching out to them, rather than reaching inward only for ourselves.

Gone are the days when we can afford to be so self-centered, to simply throw open our doors and assume that others will come to us rather than us being humble enough to go to them.  Now is the time to reach out.  May we prove ourselves worthy of that great task.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 28, 2015

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Eleven Years in Exile

Yesterday was a day of national history, but in truth, nations are nothing except people acting nationalistic.  I cannot point to any one building, be it the White House or the Capitol, the Supreme Courthouse or the Pentagon, and say, "This is the nation of the United States."

No, we all are that nation, which means our national history is made up of hundreds of millions of personal histories.  Mine is but one of those hundreds of millions, but  I want to share with you briefly a story of it.

Eleven-some years ago, in my senior year of high school, the student newspaper put out a pro/con-style column debating equality for same-sex marriage.  The column's arguments against equality for same-sex marriage--that gay and lesbian couples don't procreate, and that basically their sex was gross--so infuriated me that I wrote an impassioned letter to the editor about it that got printed in the following edition.

As I sat there, the completed letter before me, I thought to myself, "You know that if you send this, everyone will think you're gay.  Do you really want to do this?"

And I thank God that there was a stronger, louder voice in my head that said, "Screw them if they think that.  It's their problem, not yours."

Thus this codified that which had already been the basis for a not insignificant amount of bullying I had faced in the Shawnee Mission public school district to that point: that Eric Atcheson was a closet homo.

In writing that letter, I planted myself firmly outside of the mainstream of my school, my hometown, my entire environs save for my immediate family and my church family.  Eleven years ago, I went into exile from the approval of American public opinion, joining the millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people and their allies who had been far more courageous, far more hurt, and far more deserving of change than I ever was.

They, and I behind them, emerged from exile yesterday.  That is why yesterday was so important.  Millions of people were welcomed back into the mainstream of public approval, acceptance, and, dare I say it, maybe one day affirmation.

While in exile, I heard the stories and narratives of people so profoundly moved by their faith and hurt by their churches, all because of their sexuality, that I considered it a badge of honor to even be invited into their lives to begin with, even though I secretly worried that I might be the biggest bad luck charm for them...

I moved to Portland, Oregon in the summer of 2004.  That autumn, Oregon voters passed Measure 36, a same-sex marriage ban.

I then moved to Berkeley, California in the summer of 2008.  That autumn, California voters passed Proposition 8, their state's own same-sex marriage ban.

I moved to Longview, Washington, in the autumn of 2011.  A year later, legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage appeared on the Washington ballot as Referendum 74.  I campaigned openly for it, even at the genuinely saddening expense of losing a household or two in my congregation over it.

But Referendum 74 passed.  And I began to see, firsthand, what it looked like to see God's children emerge from exile, like the Israelites out of Babylon, headed for their Promised Land where they could experience love and home and family.

Yesterday, Babylon was emptied, at least this once.  There are plenty more Babylons left to overthrow, not the least of which is the Babylon that still puts GLBTQ youth at a 4x higher risk of suicide and a 2x higher risk of homelessness than their straight counterparts.  There's the Babylon in which it is still legal to be fired for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in a majority of states.  And there is still, lest we even begin to forget in the midst of our celebrating, the towering, forbidding Babylon that fashioned a white racist into a terrorist who killed nine brothers and sisters whose bodies our nation's President buried in a profoundly moving fashion yesterday.

That is the way of empires of evil: they do not surrender after merely losing one group of their prisoners.  As long as they still hold captive the others, they can still dig in against our peals for liberation.

And make no mistake--that liberation is still awaited.  It will not be fully and truly realized until God returns to earth, be it in the form of a homeless carpenter, or in the form of the flame and dove, or in the form of the Creator who made all things seen and unseen.

But in the meanwhile, we can and must continue to bring back our brothers and sisters out of exile.  Think of the gay and lesbian friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues you may have.  Add up for each of them the number of years they have spent in the closet, fending off harassment, enduring threats, and otherwise being forced to live outside the American mainstream until yesterday.

Now take that number, and multiply it several millionfold.

That is the sort of exile we are talking about ending.  My own experience in exile pales in comparison to that of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  I never had to fear for my life due to being transgender, or had to be told I couldn't adopt due to being gay or lesbian.  I never had my identity stripped away from me by others until it was in tatters.

No wonder, then, the return from exile in Babylon is treated by some of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible as the turning point for rejoicing in their nation's story: that identity of theirs that was likewise stripped away painfully and humiliatingly until it was in tatters was finally, after fifty-some years in exile, reclaimed, restored, and lived out in spirit and in truth.  Returning home didn't mean the work was over, not by a long shot--the people had to rebuild the temple, reseed the land, reconstruct their dwellings, but it was a start.

And this can be a similar start for us now, if we let it.

Welcome home, you who were once living your lives in exile.  Welcome home.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Hermeneutic of Totality

I get asked an awful lot--by prospective churchgoers, by fellow pastors, by nonreligious friends, basically by everyone who doesn't have the profound blessing/curse of putting up with me on a weekly basis--what I think about the Bible.

Here's the problem with that a question: that's like asking a doctor what they think of medicine, or a construction worker what they think of brick or lumber.  You're asking me what I think about something that is the fundamental basis for my entire trade: the documentation of God's relationship with humanity.  Of course I think the Bible is going to be the best thing since Prometheus gave us fire: it is what informs, wholly and deeply, my vocation.

What I discover that folks are really asking me, though, is this: "What do you think the Bible is?"  You have people who say it is the inerrant and infallible word of God and that every single word of it is true, you have people who say it is a collection of fairy tales in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen, except not as well-written.  Most of us fall somewhere on that spectrum, myself included.

Notice, though that I said "people who say...," not "people who think..."  In my experience, people who say they believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible don't actually think that--they are just as eager to do mental somersaults to get out of Jesus's command to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor as I am to get out of "you shall not sleep with a man as with a woman" in Leviticus 18 and 20.  By the same token, people who say the Bible is all horsepucky are still more than happy to follow two of the most fundamental and foundational teachings of Jesus Christ: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 7:12 and 22:39, respectively).  At both ends of the spectrum, we end  up following our interpretations of the Bible rather than what the Bible actually says.

So let's be honest with ourselves about what we really think about the Bible, yeah?  I've spent a lot of time back from vacation this week trying to do that (in addition to, you know, emptying my inbox and catching up on my regular dosage of facilities minutiae), and this is what I have come up with:

I can finally label my own hermeneutic--my own view and interpretation of Scripture.  I realize that admitting I have to this point been unable to do that probably disqualifies me from professional ministry in some peoples' eyes; at the very least, it puts me firmly in the back of the pack of many Christians who call themselves Sola Scriptura Christians, The Bible Says It/I Believe It/That Settles It Christians, Red Letter Christians, Burnt Siena Letter Christians (okay, nobody I know calls themselves that), and so on.  But I don't claim to be a precocious pastor or Christian; if anything, I am only slightly better at this than all of you, and yet you let me teach you.  Suckers.

But I have finally figured out how to label my belief about Scripture: it is a belief of totality.  Not the totality of every chapter and verse--I believe that's impossible for any modern-day Christian, and anyone who claims they follow and believe every chapter and verse isn't because I know they're lying, and that violates at least one verse: Exodus 20:16, the commandment (one of the Big Ten Ones) banning false witness.

No, what I am talking about is the totality of Scripture as a singular expression of God's love.  The main thing holding me back from that view was the argument--completely well-reasoned and well-founded, I believe--that the Bible isn't a singular expression, it is 66 different books pretending to be one book, that we shouldn't view the Bible as "the Good Book" but as "the Good Library."

But here's the thing: separate volumes can still be written by the same author or sets of co-authors.  And God is a co-author, in some form or fashion, of each of those 66 books that make up the (Protestant) canon.

When one looks for God in each of those books, then, I believe in looking at what carries over from one book to the next.  Yes, one can reach for one of the half-dozen or so verses condemning same-sex relations, but they don't carry over from one book to the next: basically, they start in Leviticus (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with gay sex and anyone who says otherwise is full of it) and then skip over the entire rest of Scripture to land in Romans, and that's basically it.  There's no arc to that particular lesson, no form or emphasis.  We get away with doing this because we treat individual verses as fully-formed thoughts when often they are not--which isn't something we do with any other book which lacks verses.  In essence, the chapter-and-verse setup (which was not a part of the original manuscripts, but which was added much, much later) enables our butchering of Scritpture into not just bite-sized pieces, but nonsensical crumbs off the table.

In contrast, let's take another Levitical law: the one commanding us to not oppress foreigners and to treat the foreigners in our midst as citizens (Leviticus 19:33-34).  It is just as vulnerable as the Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 bans on same-sex relations to being taken horribly out of context, but unlike the same-sex relations verses, there is an arc and emphasis to this particular lesson: the Levitical law cites the Hebrews' own status as foreigners in Egypt, Isaiah teaches that God will gather the foreign believers to him just like the Israelites (Isaiah 56:6-8), Jesus fraternizes with foreigners and teaches parables such as the Good Samaritan parable in which the protagonist is a foreigner, and Peter eventually welcomes the Gentile Cornelius into the church and proclaims the Gentiles as loved and a part of the covenant as the Israelites (Acts 10).  Heck, the entire book of Ruth centers around the welcoming of a foreigner whose name is attached to the story itself!

Do you see the difference between the two?  One is largely outside the scope and arc of the Bible's narrative while the other is interwoven frequently into Scripture.

A hermeneutic of totality requires me to consider as fundamental to my belief that reality, that one lesson that gets cited over and over may in fact not be a genuine part of the totality of Scripture while another lesson, in fact, is.

This is why I care so much, and write so much, and teach so much on issues of welcome, hospitality, economic equality, social justice, and innate identity: the totality of Scripture dictates that I must.

That doesn't mean there aren't exceptions to a totality.  Take that very same example of treatment of foreigners, for instance.  Even as the Bible contains stories like Ruth's, and Cornelius's, it also contains stories of the foreigner initially being turned away, like the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30).  But those instances tend to be remedied, including the Syrophoenician woman's.

Additionally, any story as lengthy as the Bible is bound to have contradictions within it.  The Harry Potter series is fundamentally about love, sacrificial love especially, for one another, but that doesn't keep some of its characters from exhibiting discriminatory behavior towards house elves, or from exhibiting hateful behavior to one another.  But nobody could reasonably claim that Harry Potter endorses discrimination or hate.

Well, the same is true of the Bible.  Scripture may depict stories of, say, discriminating against foreigners, or denying the identity of a hero (like the bestowal of a Babylonian name to the Israelite Daniel), but that does not mean the totality of Scripture calls for such action, because the totality of Scripture moves in the opposite arc of such sentiment and sin.

This is something that, like I said, I have thought an awful lot about and have finally found a way to put into my writing for you.  I hope that my explanation of my understanding of the Bible makes sense to you and that, if you feel so inclined, you will be able to apply it to your own study and love of Scripture.

Now I've just got to turn this post into a 30-second elevator speech..."Have I told you about the good news of (my hermeneutic of) Jesus Christ?"

That'll get 'em running...

Yours in Christ,
Eric

(image courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Praying For Charleston: Do We Know What Saying That Means?

When you pray, do not pour out a flood of empty words.

Matthew 6:7

I cannot tell you how many people I've seen--verbally, on Facebook, on Twitter, all over--say that they are praying or will be praying for Charleston and Mother Emanuel AME Church in the wake of the racist terrorist attack that claimed nine souls last week (nope, still not done writing about it. #sorrynotsorry).

I'm glad so many people have said that, I really am.

But do we really know what it means to pray?  I mean, not just to talk to Jesus, or to hand off our latest Christmas wish list to our Santa in the sky (at a church my mom took me and my sister to when we were very little, the ladies in the women's small group she was a part of would talk about how God had led them to that really terrific sale on their new sofa or somesuch.  Mom started taking us to a different church after several weeks of that).

I'm talking about prayer that is genuinely life-changing, mind-altering (the good kind), heart-turning, soul-rebuilding spiritual exercise that forces oneself to change on behalf of a God who calls us to nothing less.

Even though I am a pastor, a Christian who has gone pro, and who prays freely and extemporaneously every Sunday in leading worship, I have to tell you that by the genuine standard that we should be holding our prayers to, I am terrible at it.  I am terrible at praying.  It is not a spiritual exercise I am even remotely gifted at.

Why?

Because my own prayers are often unable to conjure in me that which prayer is meant to achieve--as Soren Kierkegaard puts it, "The function of prayer is not to change God, but to change the one who prays."

We don't pray to change God.  We pray to change ourselves.

A lot of our prayers, though--mine included--are of the "God, I ask you to do/for..." variety.  They turn us into passive recipients of an active deity, pawns or marionettes in the hands of a divine puppeteer.

When what we need to be, must be, have to be asking for is for God to act upon us and within us.  It's one thing to ask God for healing and for presence, but that prayer cannot simultaneously be our abdication from providing healing and presence ourselves.  Put a different way, James, the brother of Jesus, in the second chapter of his letter in the New Testament, writes:

Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. (2:18)

If our only faithful action after Charleston is prayer, we have in fact been unfaithful, because our prayers will not have had their desired effect: they will not have changed us into a people ready to finally perform the faithful action of pursuing genuine reconciliation and social justice over a history and tradition of institutionalized racism that has long been denied such treatment--and towards a people who have long been denied such treatment.

The recent chorus of politicians calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse is a positive step, but it cannot be the only step.  What we're talking about here, what we're facing down, is much more than a piece of fabric fluttering high atop a flagpole.

What we are talking about concerns the very nature of one of Jesus's two great commandments: to love your neighbor as yourself.

What we do not consider, at least nowhere near often enough, is the identity of that neighbor.  It is why Jesus made the protagonist in one of His parables a Samaritan, a person belonging to a demographic loathed and despised by the Jewish population in Judea.

One of my congregants has a lovely young elementary school-aged daughter who recently saw a man passed out on the side of the road with a group of people surrounding him.  This daughter couldn't see much of the man himself, but prayed for God to bring an ambulance quickly to rescue him.  Someone in the crowd had called for an ambulance, and it arrived almost immediately.

It didn't matter to her who this man was, only that he needed help.  And so she prayed for it.  And seeing her mama recount that story to me, I know it changed her.  Someone had lived out what her daughter had prayed for, and now a person in danger was being saved.

It didn't matter to the Samaritan that the man whose life he was saving was a Jew.  When life and death is at stake, you don't defend your own culture, you try and save the other.

In Charleston, life and death was (is) at stake.  Will we defend our culture, fellow white Christians, or will we live out our prayers of healing and try to save our brothers and sisters of color?

Hopefully, when we pray now, it will be to in fact love our neighbors--and their identities--as much as we love our own identities.

At the price of the lives of nine souls, though (to say nothing of the countless more who have come and died before them due to racist ideologies), what a steep ransom for this new spiritual exercise it truly is.

Let us, then, try to do honor to that ransom, so far as we are able to.  Let us pray as we have been taught, not as we care to.  And let us, at long last, be thoroughly transformed by our spirituality--not just by our decision to follow Christ, not just by our decision to be a Christian, for, after all, a great many Christians throughout history were racist and used Christianity to defend their racism (hell, one of the reasons the Southern Baptist Convention even exists is because of its split with the American Baptist abolitionists over the issue of slavery in the 19th century).

Let us pray, not with a flood of empty words, but with a waterfall of loving and passionate actions that show our faith and, most importantly, how our faith and our prayers have indeed changed us.

For, in the end, we claim to have encountered God through prayer.  How could anyone walk away from such an awe-inspiring experience entirely the same?

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Let's Be Honest, White Christians: We Dislike Accountability

I'm not done yet writing about the terrorism in Charleston, not by a long shot.  And I'm definitely not done with writing about how we continue to react to it.

Every time I heard some politician, talking head, or stuffed shirt on the telly say, “We’ll never know/understand why he did this,” or "could this shooter have been motivated by religion/faith/tin foil hats?" instead of just being honest, I wanted to reach into the television and smack the pixels of that person’s face.

We know exactly why this terrorist did what he did—he spelled it out for us, broadcasted it, shouted it from the rooftops, he did everything short of walking into our bathrooms and writing it on the fog of our mirrors.

It is because he is a racist.

Period.

Full stop.

And when we say “We don’t understand why he did it,” we’re acting like we couldn’t possibly countenance someone being racist in 21st century America, even though far too many people, in fact, are racist, and are racist in no small part because we continue to tolerate circumstances that allow them to be racist without punishment.

We chalk up racist attitudes as aberrations without looking at where those attitudes come from, without recognizing that such attitudes come from somewhere, that we don't come out of the womb racist.

We dismiss the stories and personal testimonies of people of color and their experiences of racism as "that couldn't have really happened," or "I'm sure they weren't really racist."

We fly the Confederate battle flag alongside (edit: originally and mistakenly read "atop" -E.A.) a statehouse in full defiance of the treasonous, racist heritage that flag represents.

We attribute racist attitudes not to being a despicable human being, but to mental illness.

We let our police officers kill black men with criminal impunity.

And I’m not using the royal ‘we’ here, talking only about myself.  I’m talking about all of us whiteys.  We tolerate all of this because we benefit from it, directly at the expense of our neighbors of color.

How do we benefit from such racism?

We benefit from it because we don't have to have the same set of fears people of color do: fears of racial abuse and harassment for attending a pool party, fears of being pulled over for driving while black, and fears of being shot and killed while at a church built on the name, existence, message, and resurrection of the Prince of Peace.

We benefit from it because we not ever accused of "race-baiting" or "playing the race card" because we have no race card to play or ever need to play.

We benefit from it because we live in a country, great though it is and may one day be, that was built on white men's visions and black men's enslavement, and you can't undo that in just the fifty years since the now-gutted Voting Rights Act was passed.

And we can talk, talk, talk in our homogeneous churches about the virtues of accountability, and how it is necessary to hold one another accountable in the name of Christ, but we are a lot better at talking about holding all those OTHER people who are ruining America—atheists and gays and lesbians and, yes, those social-justice-preaching black churches and pastors—accountable rather than holding ourselves accountable for all that we have done and, in some cases, purposely left undone.

We conveniently forget that as recently as fifty years ago, “race riots” didn’t refer to Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, but to white racists bombing black churches and setting flaming crosses on the front lawns of black families’ houses.

We conveniently forget that as recently as fifty years ago, the right to vote was conditioned on patently racist measures like literacy tests and poll taxes…and that we have resurrected poll taxes in another form today with voter ID laws, requiring voters to hold a government-issued ID—an ID that, surprise, surprise, costs money to maintain.

We conveniently forget that even the great bastion for defending minority rights against the oppression of the majority--the judicial system--for centuries ruled against African-Americans in shameful rulings like Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson before getting to the glorious rulings like Brown v. Board.  (And to be honest, if you don't know what each of those rulings entailed, that's part of our problem.)

And when something like what happened in Charleston happens, we forget what communities of color ask us to do to be in solidarity with them and instead immediately rush to defend the trappings of our own culture—the Confederate flag, guns, and the like—rather than stepping forward to offer to heal the culture that was just brutally and lethally assaulted.

We forget all of these things because we don’t want to be held responsible for them, even though we continue to benefit from them, even though they are a part of the context in which Charleston happened, even though to forget history is often to repeat it.

And that sort of forgetfulness, on such a grand scale, is indeed a sin.

We are sinners, fellow white people.  Not because we are white, but because we don’t hold ourselves accountable for what our whiteness has afforded us.

And until we do, to borrow Morgan Freeman’s characterization of the word “rehabilitated” in The Shawshank Redemption, “accountability” is going to just be a bullshit word we tell ourselves in our churches.

Let us finally, at long last, begin to change that sad reality.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Which Jesus Wept? On Charleston and the Divine Identity

And when He thus had spoken, He cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!"

John 11:43

Okay, I lied when I said I wouldn't be writing during this week of vacation, but that was before the devil came to ground and loosed a hail of gunfire and death in a venerable African Methodist Episcopal AME) congregation in Charleston, South Carolina.

We know now that the devil took form in the shape of a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Storm Roof, who is now wanted for the hate crime murders (edit: domestic terrorism murders, really--and to my discredit, I should have referred to this as such from the outset) of 9 people and remains presently at large.

What we don't know, and as far as I can tell haven't the slightest interest in discovering, is whether we're actually willing to follow Christ not merely to the cross, but to take down the cross as we take down His bullet-torn body.  For, in the end, if the church is as we say it is, the body of Christ, then an assault on this congregation is an assault on Christ Himself.

Which Christ, though?  A common refrain I have seen from my friends and colleagues lamenting the news of this massacre is, "Jesus wept."

That refrain comes from John 11:35, which says that Jesus wept upon being taken to the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

But Lazarus would soon live and breathe again.  Jesus would call out to him in his ensconced tomb, "Lazarus come forth!"  And Lazarus would do exactly that.  Jesus would order the shroud and Lazarus's death garments removed from his decaying, but now living, body, demonstrating visibly and profoundly that those who hear the Lord's voice have no business wearing the clothing of death.

Lazarus lives, at least for now, but the nine souls who perished in the burning fury of gunpowder and metal live now not on earth as Lazarus, but in heaven.  For we have no bodily Jesus to undo what has been done.  The blind remain blind, the differently abled remain incapable of walking, and we see it all and shake our heads mournfully and say that Jesus must have wept.

Our Jesus, the Jesus of white American Christianity, the Jesus whose trim figure and pale skin (perhaps dressed up in brown hair instead of blond nowadays) evokes not so much the Middle East but instead an Abercrombie model, would have wept.

He also would never have then raised Lazarus.  He would have said something about not wanting to mess with the fundamental nature of the world, as unfair as it might be, because he as a white man would live longer and wealthier and healthier than, say, a black Lazarus.

The Jesus of the minorities and the margins, though, the Jesus who truly, as John the Evangelist wrote, came to earth and made His home among us, that Jesus did raise Lazarus, precisely because He could not and would not be content with the hurtful and painful ways of the world.

He could not and would not tell Martha that she would only see Lazarus again at the very end of time, which Martha herself had come to believe.  He believed in righting this wrong now, not in the distant era of the far-off future.

Will we do the same thing?  Can we do the same thing?  Can we tell the Marys and Marthas of the Charleston victims--their immediate family and friends, but also their fellow African-American churches and believers in congregations across all manner of racial lines--that we will not simply weep as our Jesus did, but stand up with a bold voice as the true Jesus did and say, "Lazarus, come forth?"

For a hate crime that took place in a state whose flag still contains the Confederate battle flag, can we do more than simply mourn and lament?  Can we say, "We don't just want you to be safe in the sanctuary of church, we need you to be safe, because if you're not safe, we're not safe?"

Can we say, "We aren't going to tell you to bring open-carry guns into a church built on the existence of a Messiah who told His disciples to put away their swords?"

Can we say, "We are so sorry for continuing to foster an environment that puts you and your children and families in a disproportionate amount of harm and prejudice because of the color of your skin?"

Can we say, "We don't just acknowledge your pain, we we acknowledge our part in it, and we want to do something about it?"

Because make no mistake, dear readers, we *have* a part in this pain and in this environment of danger and racism.  If Dylann Roof were black, I am certain there would already be white talking heads on Fox News lecturing about the evils of black-on-black crime.  If Dylann Roof were Latino, I am certain CNN would already be assembling panels of stuffed shirts to talk about immigration.  But Dylann Roof is white, and we as white Christians do not put on ourselves the same burden of soul-searching and reflection that we demand of our racial minority neighbors.

But if we cannot engage in such soul-searching now, humbling though that might be, perhaps it is time that we got out of this business of being Christian, and admit that we are no different than the cast of characters in Acts like Ananias and Sapphira, Simon and Bar-Jesus: that we are pretenders, fake heirs to a tradition that demands and craves authenticity, mere husks compared to the One whom we claim and keep claiming to follow.

Repeatedly we are told by Christ and by subsequent epistle writers that God gives grace to the humble and humbles the proud.  White American Christianity, can we reach out for God's grace and humble ourselves to make right our historic and systemic sins?  Can we live out the maxim of Jesus's brother James that by our works, God shall know our faith?

In the end, which Jesus are we, the Jesus who we take out of context as only weeping, or the Jesus who both wept with His neighbors but then righted their pain?

Weeping is not enough, my brothers and sisters.  We have to be ready to call forth Lazarus, lest we become as dead in faith as he was in life.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, June 15, 2015

Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Graduated Seminary

(This will be my only blog post this week--I am going on a much-needed week of vacation to attend a wedding and to see my parents.  I'll be back next week, on the 22nd, with new posts for you as well as the continuation of our current sermon series!  Be well. ~E.A.)

Congratulations, graduates of seminaries across the country.  You are simultaneously exiting God School and entering into job searches, processes of search and call, and all in the hopes of finding a first call that is meaningful and right for you, wherever you may be.

I know you have probably heard that first calls are especially tough--I definitely did while I was in seminary.  That shouldn't discourage you, and in the interests of making your first call just a tick easier, here are five things I wish I knew when I graduated from seminary four years ago:

1. Your education has prepared you to think like a minister, not how to do ministry.  

Here's a non-exhaustive list of things I received literally zero classroom time on:

Family, youth, or childrens' ministry (seriously)
Outreach or ministry via the internet, social media, or a church's website
Allowing gifts from credit cards or online processing
Staff oversight
Fundraising
Property, facilities, or building management

Now, maybe some of these aren't something you or I think pastor should spend a lot of time doing, but almost all of us solo pastors do.

On the other hand, here's a similarly by-no-means-exhaustive sampling of some of the things I did receive classroom time on in seminary:

Preaching the lectionary
Liturgical dance
The theology of a boatload of dead white guys
Guided meditation
Basket weaving (okay, not really)

None of this is meant as a knock on my alma mater in particular--anecdotally, based on what I know from my colleagues' own seminary educations, many divinity schools are stuck in this same rut: can you notice the nuts-and-bolts difference between these two lists?  All of the items on the first list I either had to learn from personal experience/internships, or on the job here in Longview, completely from scratch.  The second list may have helped produce the right mentality for tackling the first list, but omitting the first list still makes one's seminary education woefully incomplete.  We're still cranking out pastors on the basis of a 1950s model of ministry, 55 years after that particular decade ended, a model based on a pastor who mostly preached, taught, married, and buried people.

Oh, what I would give on especially stressful days to have that sort of job description...

2. You won't know what you're doing, get used to it

#1 feeds directly into #2.  I honestly don't recall very fondly my honeymoon phase here at FCC Longview--not because my new people weren't lovely (they were, and still are), but because I was secretly petrified.  I was petrified because I had no idea what I was doing or how I was supposed to do it.  I came to a church with a defined mission and vision statement, and I had my own vision for the church.  I had no idea how to do it.

Now, nearly four years later, I'm proud to say we have executed significant portions of that vision (new mission work in the community, establishing a children's church, creation of more home groups and home groups for young women in our women's fellowship, etc), but I still have no idea what I'm doing.  Even as I have gotten better at the leading, teaching, and preaching bit, I'm still wretchedly awful at the administration and building maintenance bit and I continue to learn on the job every step of the way on that count.

3. You will disappoint people, including yourself

I'm rapidly realizing that the nature of personality-focused ministry, which seems for better or for (more likely) worse to be the default in American Christianity right now, inherently lends itself to rapid buildups in stature followed by even more rapid falls from grace--see also: Ted Haggard, Doug Phillips, Mark Driscoll, and many more similarly larger-than-life personalities who climbed to the mountaintop only to find themselves hurtling downward, entirely as a result of their own hypocrisies.

But the vast majority of us, we don't get into this line of work to harm other people, much less disappoint them.  But we end up doing so, whether it is as a result of being placed atop a pedestal, or of unfair expectations, or even our own misperceptions of ourselves.  Regardless of the why, the question is one of "when," not "if" we end up disappointing someone.  Which is on the one hand demoralizing to admit, but it is also, in a sense, liberating because realizing that truth means we shouldn't fear it quite so much.

4. Doing ministry is way harder than studying for it

Seminary was so much easier than ministry, it's not even close.  I could ace my papers and exams on pastoral counseling, but being there when someone is dying and having the emotional intelligence to read the room and know when to speak (and what to speak) and then go straight from that to, say, a worship planning meeting, is an entirely different kettle of fish.  It flips mental and spiritual switches in ways that are not even remotely healthy.  The unstructured nature of seminary, where I didn't have to be anywhere at any time except for my classes and my internship, may have lent itself to unhealthy habits as well, but the work itself was far easier and more straightforward.

Put a different way: getting an A in preaching?  That was a walk in the park, a softball that I belted into the upper deck.  But crafting a sermon, coaxing it out of nothingness, weaving into a tapestry of words, stories, exhortations, and meaningfulness?  That's some acrobatic tap dancing there.  Some Sundays, I nail my tap dancing routine, but others?  I need that long, hooked cane to drag me off the stage before God starts throwing rotten vegetables at His devoted, but slightly deranged, servant.

5. ...But the rewards are also much, much greater

I had no idea when I graduated seminary just how amazing it would feel to hold a congregant's new baby as I dedicated that new soul to God, or how overwhelming it would be to embrace someone as I lower them into our baptismal and lift them up a new creation in Christ.  I learned what an honor it was to be entrusted with committing a departed soul to God and to be allowed in to counsel a husband and wife on their brand-spanking new marriage.

It is exhausting and demanding work, but it is soul-sized work.  Whatever obstacles you or I may face in our ministries, we are facing them because of our belief in doing the work of God.

It is easy to forget that.  Don't.

Ever.

Congratulations, and go be love to a broken and hurting world.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Sunday, June 14, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Wholeness"

Matthew 20:29-34 

As Jesus and his disciples were going out of Jericho a large crowd followed him. 30 When two blind men sitting along the road heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Show us mercy, Lord, Son of David!” 

31 Now the crowd scolded them and told them to be quiet. But they shouted even louder, “Show us mercy, Lord, Son of David!” 

 32 Jesus stopped in his tracks and called to them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 33 “Lord, we want to see,” they replied. 

34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they were able to see, and they followed him. (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Movement for Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Three

He’s one of those billions of people who, by definition, you wouldn’t know from Adam—the teeming seas of humanity swell so great now that with over 7 billion souls at present dwelling on this tiny little rock, you’ll never know who the vast, vast majority are.

But we know a few things about James Harrison.  He’s an Australian gentleman with a genuine discomfort for needles and blood, and yet in spite of this phobia, he has donated plasma over 1,000 times in his 78 years of life, because he has an antibody that out of those 7 billion people, perhaps only several hundred are known to have: an antibody that prevents babies from dying in utero as a result of rhesus disease.

Why does that matter to James, and why did he donate to begin with?  And why does that matter in a sermon?  Well, I’ll let the health experts at CNN who know this stuff better than me explain it:

Nearly every week for the past 60 years he has donated blood plasma from his right arm.  The reasons can be traced back to a serious medical procedure he underwent as a child.

“In 1951, I had a chest operation where they removed a lung—and I was 14,” recalls Harrison, who is now aged 78.

“When I came out of the operation, or a couple days after, my father was explaining what had happened.  He said I had (received) 13 units (liters) of blood and my life had been saved by unknown people.  He was a donor himself, so I said when I’m old enough, I’ll become a blood donor.”…

His blood, (doctors) said, could be the answer to a deadly problem…Harrison was discovered to have an unusual antibody in his blood and in the 1960s he worked with doctors to use the antibodies to develop an injection called Anti-D. It prevents women with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during pregnancy…

Harrison’s blood is precious.  He and Anti-D are credited with saving the lives of more than 2 million babies, according to the Australian Red Cross blood service.  That’s 2 million lives saved by one man’s blood.

Two freaking million.  To put that in perspective, that’s over three times the population of Portland.  It’s nearly twenty times the population of Cowlitz County.  About the only person whose blood has saved more people is probably Jesus Christ Himself, and I’m only being slightly facetious here.

One man can heal and make whole millions of mothers and babies simply because of one thing his body can do without even trying.  Imagine how many souls you could make whole if you did try.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and to start off with, we talked about the nature of the Lord’s table, before last week, where we moved on to the theme of welcome, and now, today, we will be talking, finally, about wholeness itself, springboarding from this excerpt from the next chapter in Pastor Sharon’s book:

The Hebrew word shalom describes something about God’s best vision for the earth.  English translations often define it as “peace.”  In reality, however, shalom depicts a more complex notion.  It comes from a root word that means “whole,” as in “complete” or “safe”…Shalom does not indicate a passive harmony or a mere absence of conflict, as the word peace sometimes does.  Shalom evokes a situation that is actively good, where the circumstances offer opportunities for individuals and communities to flourish.

Shalom implies that God did not intend life to be a zero-sum game where one person moves forward only at another’s expense…(indeed) the opening scene of the Bible itself shows God weaving wholeness into the original fabric of creation…these very first chapters in the Bible establish the basic assumption for all that follows: humanity is a single family.  The distinctions of race, language, and culture—and the all too frequent attendant dysfunction—come later.

In God’s original intention, humanity is undivided.  Whole.

A vision of wholeness emerges repeatedly throughout scripture.  The prophets who painted the vision of shalom were not blind to a broken world in need of repentance and repair.  They had hope in spite of the world’s fragmentation.

Much like the South African concept of Ubuntu that I talked about last week, shalom is one of those concepts that has no direct English translation or English equivalent—which I maintain still says a lot about what we value as a people, for if we value something, we create a word for it, or several different words for it.

But we haven’t, not for Ubuntu, and not for shalom.  Even though both are entirely a part of a genuine Christian worldview, morality, and ethos.  It isn’t enough for Christians to avoid wrong or evil, we have to actively seek to do good as well.  It isn’t enough for Christians to create, then, an absence of violence that we often refer to as peace, no, Christians are called to make peace themselves.  As Christ Himself says in the Beatitudes which open His Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Today’s passage, though, comes from a passage in Matthew 15 chapters later and, at least on the surface, may seem to have little to do with peace.  But it does, because it has everything to do with wholeness.

The men Jesus is healing are blind, and blind in a world where there is no disability insurance, no social security for disabled people, and no real safety net to speak of.  Matthew is gentle here in his characterization of what we find these men doing: sitting at the roadside.  Let’s be clear: they’re beggars, not at all unlike the folks we see at intersections or parking lot entrances.

And they’re begging precisely because they are blind—after all, who back then would hire a blind carpenter, or a blind stonemason, or a blind fisherman?  Even if these are men who were not born blind, but had mastered a trade before becoming blind, their livelihoods were still taken from them.  The peace and balance of their lives was ripped out from underneath them.  They lost any sense of shalom in their lives, of not just an absence of strife, but of a presence of actually thriving.

And Jesus, Matthew says, has compassion upon them for this.  As should we all, although I think we often tend not to.  We all know the stories of people who give to beggars, and that money immediately gets turned around and spent on drink or drugs.  We’ve become hardened by those stories, but it shouldn’t keep us from being willing to offer food, or a hot coffee during the winter months or a cold soda during the summer months.

But what about when someone comes to our church, or to us as Christians, not materially begging, but spiritually begging?  What about the person who is in desperate need of being made whole, only to find themselves damaged by the church instead?  Do we even feel prepared to be able to help them?

Well, we should.  Because even if we are not Christ-like in so, so many ways, we are at least Christ-like in this: we, like Jesus in this passage, are fully capable of showing compassion to another human being.  If we choose not to show that compassion, it is precisely that: a choice.  Nobody is putting a gun to our heads and telling us to be cruel to one another, we choose to be cruel to one another.

James Harrison didn’t have to donate his plasma over 1,000 times—he would have been well within his rights to say, “Sorry, find someone else out of the few dozen people in Australia with my antibody.”  It would have been cruel of him, but he could have chosen that path.

He didn’t.  Nor do we.

Like I said—he’s saving lives and making parenthood whole for hundreds of thousands of moms simply through something his body produces naturally, through no extra effort on his own.

Think of how many people you can make whole by making it your life’s effort, by trying at that as hard as you try at anything else—being a parent, or an employee, or a spouse.  Think of how many chains of strife can be broken, of how many people you know could go from merely an absence of discord to actively flourishing.

God gave us the chance and the choice to break loose our own chains when He gave us Jesus as the freest and greatest of gifts so very long ago.

The very least we can do in return is to duplicate that chance for others, others whom Jesus loved and lived for and died for in equal measure to us, so that they too, one day might be made whole.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 14, 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, On the Rocks

(...or, on the specially polished soapstone rocks my sister gave me for a Christmas present.)

I rarely work anymore without something beside my books and computer to sip on, be it coffee, or orange juice, or ice water, or, in this case, my favorite single-malt scotch.  I think it's a part of my obsessive compulsiveness, being able to have things just so and in the same way when performing a particular task.

Except that when that task is sermon writing, things often do not go just so.

I reach over with my left hand for the tumbler that is sitting next to my stack of books for this week's sermon writing process, and my gaze flickers to the callus I have had next to the knuckle below my index finger, a callus I have had ever since accidentally slicing that part of my hand open with a Swiss Army knife in Cub Scouts.

My vision is diverted from my work only for the briefest of moments, though, as my eyes flicker back to the screen on which there exists a blank Microsoft Word canvas, waiting to be filled with the color and verve of my words.  And then I see my face in the reflection of the screen.  I look up towards the scar on my forehead that I received from the chicken pox at the age of four.  I realize that I don't remember what my face looks like without that singular blemish.

I look back at the one book I have opened so far, and I begin to read out of it with eyes that have seen the world only through eyeglasses for the past 2+ decades, ever since my parents noticed that I was squinting to read the road signs from a distance when in the car with them and realized that I needed glasses.

As I begin to pray and ponder in a half-mumble, half-whisper what exactly I am supposed to be distilling from this study, my callused hand reaches up to rub my shaved head, almost out of habit, as though my head were a Buddha's belly, capable of bringing luck or, at the very least, some minimal comprehension of God's Word.

And my head remains shaved, as it has for the lion's share of my twenties, because I began going bald as a teenager.

I begin to realize that even a predominantly mental and spiritual task like working on a week's sermon still involves my taking notice of a great many of my physical imperfections,

In this way, my sermon writing, I have come to know, is in fact a holistic process--while I am in the midst of honing in on spiritual imperfections (my own included) to correct, I find myself taking notice of the parts of me not considered ideal in the physical realm as well as the spiritual.

I am not ideal except through God.  I am not whole except through God.

It is a reminder I have to tell myself, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly--that I cannot make myself whole on my own.

That I have to keep relying on God.

It's an easy trap to fall into, even for--hell, especially for--pastors.

But it's also a simple trap to sidestep rather than to spring.  We just tend to choose to let the trap do its thing.

The cooled scotch feels and tastes amazing; on this hot June day, it's exactly what I need.  I don't have the best palate, but I can taste the different elements that make it such a glorious thing for me and a disgusting thing for a lot of other people (hey, I'll admit, scotch is an acquired taste).  The peat and the brine break way for vanilla sweetness...in much the same way, I hope, that sometimes we all do, our saltiness for the earth creating sweetness in one another.

I realize then--it's funny, a drink that we have created in fact has more wholeness than we ourselves often do.  It encapsulates, personifies, incarnates that which I am continually striving to do, for myself and for others.

If we can create something whole and complete, why can we not, eventually, create ourselves to be whole and complete?  That's the whole idea of having a relationship, right?  To be made whole, in God's image?

But for now, the moment has passed.  I down the last of my drink, crack my knuckles, and slowly exhale.

It's time to start writing again.

Yours in Christ,
Eric

Monday, June 8, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Welcome"

Matthew 25:31-40 

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left. 

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ 

 37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’" (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Movement for Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Two

Down in Phoenix, something pretty frightening, disturbing, and amazing is happening.

An anti-Muslim event in Dallas saw the killing of two residents of Phoenix by Dallas police officers, and one man decided to retaliate by holding an armed protest outside of an 800-member mosque in Phoenix.

And by “armed,” I mean with sub-machine guns, military camouflage, the whole nine yards.  About 250 such protesters showed up.

Imagine, for a moment, how we as Christians might react if our venerable church building were the site of such a protest, if a quarter-thousand people armed to the nines showed up to protest us.

We’d call the police, slam the door, do anything we could to ensure our safety, right?

But for the Muslims—a group far more a minority than we as Christians will likely ever be in the United States—that wasn’t the option they took.  Instead, they invited the protestors in.  Many chose not to take the mosque up on the invite, but a few did, and here is how the Washington Post reported what happened afterwards:

Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing (a) profanity-laced shirts, accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque, and said the experience changed him.

“It was something I’ve never seen before.  I took my shoes off.  I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people.  We all got along,” leger said.  They made me feel welcome, you know…”

Paul Griffin, who had earlier said he didn’t care if his t-shirt was offensive, assured a small crowd of Muslims at the end of the rally that he wouldn’t wear it again.

“I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt,” he told one man while shaking his hand and smiling.  “I won’t wear it again.”

Usama Shami, the president of the (mosque), invited anyone to join him and the 800 members of the mosque for a prayer.

“A lot of them, they’ve never met a Muslim, or they haven’t had interactions with Muslims,” he said.  “A lot of them are filled with hate and rage…so when you sit down and talk like rational people, without all these slogans, without being bigots, without bringing guns, they will find out that they’re talking to another human.”

Finding out that you are talking to another human?  That's about as basic a side effect as possible from basic, profound, but still incredibly difficult gesture: offering welcome.  And that's what we'll be talking about today.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything.)

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and last week, we talked about the nature of wholeness itself, before today, where we move on to the theme of welcome, with this excerpt from Pastor Sharon about a missionary couple, Millard and Linda Fillmore, who came to the Disciples from Habitat for Humanity (yes, the very same who built a home for our Dave and Donna!), and their extraordinary mission in the sub-Saharan African country of Zaire:

The Disciples appointed the Fullers as missionaries to a little brick-making project in Mbandaka, Zaire, bricks that could be used to build houses.  Zaire was a land of complicated relationships between rich and poor, a land of extraordinary natural wealth and even more extraordinary corruption and despair.  However, Mbandaka was the seat of a strong and thriving Disciples church.  From within that community of Zairian Disciples, using bricks from the brick-making project, (a) Habitat for Humanity community was begun.

The Mbandaka Habitat for Humanity account is the story of a community transformed.  It is also a symbol of hope for a world renewed.

The plot of land given for the initial Habitat project in Zaire was available because of its checkered past.  Named Bokotola, it had long existed as the no-man’s land, the “sanitation zone” between wjhite and black Mbandaka of colonial times.  The name itself meant “the person who does not like others.”

As Zairians and international volunteers working together built house after house, however, it became clear a new community was developing.  Bokotola needed a new name.  In beautiful contrast to the old meaning, the new name selected was Losanganya: “reconciler, reunifier, everyone together.”

This is a very powerful, profound, and commonly important sense of community in Sub-Saharan Africa: there is such weight placed on the state of being in community with others that in South Africa, they have a word that has no direct English translation, a word I learned when I went there on mission through our denomination in 2006: ubuntu.  The best translation we can create out of it is: “I am because you are,” but there is no direct word-for-word translation like there is for, say, the word ‘chair’ or ‘bowl.’

And that matters, because our language tends to reflect our values.  We create more words for things we value, and neglect to create more words for things we do not.  We have all sorts of words for money: cash, currency, capital, coinage, and even slang terms like bread, dough, and moolah. But we don’t have a word that means the unconditional regard for other people, the closest we come in English maybe is ‘compassion,’ or, I think in this case, ‘welcome.’

Living out the meaning of welcome in its most radical sense is really very difficult, even though that is the task we have assigned ourselves by posting our “Everyone Welcome” sign out front!

So how do we go about doing that?

Again, I am way late in actually getting around to the Biblical text in this particular sermon, but let’s talk about what Jesus is really saying here in Matthew 25.  He makes it a bit confusing by talking in the third person like the Hulk, but when Jesus is saying “The Son of Man” ascending to His throne, He’s referring to Himself.  And so, as king, Jesus separates the sheep from the goats: those who gave food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and welcome to the strangers, and those who did not.  Those who do these things for the least of us, Jesus says, we have done for Him directly.

Put that in your proverbial pipe and smoke it the next time you’re tempted to dismiss that homeless addict or that illegally immigrated alien as worthless, or, at least, unworthy of your compassion.

Okay, so why sheep and goats, though?  Why not, say, Seahawks fans and 49ers fans? (ZING!)  Because both act as sacrificial animals (where do you think our term “scapegoat” comes from, after all?).  Well, sheep belong to a shepherd, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  If we belong to the Good Shepherd, we must be sheep who do as our shepherd teaches us to do here: to welcome strangers and give to those who come to us in need.

Believe it or not, the protestors outside that mosque in Phoenix came to their Muslim neighbors in need as well—in need of understanding, and of compassion, and it was shown to them, and given to them, and a precious few of those protestors did choose to reach out and partake of that goodness.

Because that is what welcome looks like.

Because without them, you or I cannot be.

Jesus calls us into right relationship with Him, and such a huge, unbelievably huge part of achieving that is by likewise being in right relationship with one another.  It’s a big enough deal that the entire Bible deals with this very issue of welcome, not just Jesus—Abraham is rewarded for welcoming three angels disguised as human strangers, Solomon speaks of the importance of welcome in his proverbs, and the author of the letter to the Hebrews famously says that we should, indeed, must welcome strangers, because those who have done so have unknowingly welcomed angels.

Are you ready for the next time an angel might enter your own life, dressed up as a sinner or as a saint, as an Uncle Moneybags or as an Oliver Twist, as an atheist or as a Muslim? 

Are you ready for an angel who will likely look nothing like how you could ever imagine them to be?

And if you are not yet ready and willing to sit down and break bread with them, ask yourself, “Do I realize that what I am doing to them—or not doing for them—I am doing to my Lord and Savior?”

It isn’t, then, just What Would Jesus Do—it’s What Would We Do to Jesus?  What would we do to a Messiah we say we have welcomed into our hearts, but not to our tables, into our souls, but not into our lives?

Hopefully, then, we will learn to welcome Him into our homes as well.  Hopefully, that is what we would do to Jesus in the end.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 7, 2015