Saturday, March 26, 2016

"God Is Always Creating Something New"

           As an ordained pastor for over 30 years, it seems to me there are always two separate congregations attending Easter Sunday Worship.  The two congregations intermingle and worship together.   Frequently, they are members of the same family, sitting together on the same pew, yet, they belong to separate congregations.  These two congregations are:

1.      The “true believers.”  This group is firmly convinced of the Resurrection and they harbor no doubts that through faith in Jesus they will have eternal life with God.

2.      The second group is the “quiet doubters.” Although they would like to belong to the “true believers” congregation, they have doubts that Jesus really was resurrected from the dead.  However, they are silent about their doubts because it might be considered impolite and it would upset others at the Easter Service.
In my faith journey, I have belonged to both congregations at various time—both the “true believers” and the “quiet doubters.”  So, I think that I know how both congregations think and feel, as they gather for worship on Easter Sunday.

Let me focus on the quiet doubters.  For this group, the resurrection is at odds with what we know from science and real life experiences.  For instance, we know that over the first 3 days of death, the physical body begins to decay and some post-mortem bloating may set in.  This raises serious questions about the resurrection of Jesus.  People are not just resurrected from the dead, as the scriptures claim for Jesus of Nazareth.  “Perhaps,” this group says to themselves, “Jesus was not really resurrected.  Perhaps his disciples just made up the resurrection because Jesus was such a special moral leader.”

The level of doubt may range along a continuum from some persons who completely reject the Resurrection as an actual event to others who basically accept the Resurrection, even though they retain a twinge of doubt and uncertainty in the back of their minds.  “Quiet doubters” may attend Easter services for a variety reasons, but they usually refrain from openly sharing their doubts.

As a pastor, who in the past was a “quiet doubter,” I feel it is important to point out to both congregations that there is a “bright red thread” that runs throughout all four gospel accounts of Christ’s Resurrection.   This red thread is so obvious that it is almost impossible to overlook.  Yet, many Easter services ignore or downplay it. This red thread is that in all four gospels there is profound doubt about the Resurrection expressed by some of Christ’s followers:

Ø  In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus’ disciples meet him on the mountain following his Resurrection, “they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17) 

Ø  In Luke, when the women returned from the empty tomb and their encounter with the two men in dazzling white, their words seemed to the disciples to “an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Ø  And, of course, in John we have the story of “doubting Thomas,” who said:  “‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’” (John 20:25) 

Ø  In Mark’s account of the first Easter morning, when the women arrive at the empty tomb and encounter the man in white, they run away from the scene because they are seized by “terror and amazement.”  (Mark 16: 1-8)  In Mark, when the disciples are afraid, it usually indicates that they lack sufficient faith in Jesus Christ.  For instance, when the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee during a fierce storm, they become terrified.  Then, Jesus calms the sea, reassuring the disciples and asking them:  “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:  40)

Frequently, we overlook the disciples’ doubt in our rush to shout “Alleluia!” and sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”  We ignore the red thread in our rush to plan Easter egg hunts and scrumptious Easter dinners with our family and friends.  Amid the Easter eggs, jelly beans, ‘peeps,’ chocolate bunnies, and Easter lilies, we always manage the avoid discussion of the disciples’ doubts.  Yet, regardless of which Gospel account you turn to, there is always at least one person who has doubts and is not sure about the resurrection. 

I think that we should pay more attention to the disciples and other followers of Jesus who had doubts about the Resurrection.  As a former “quiet doubter” myself, I have always found it easier to identify with “doubting Thomas” and the others who did not initially accept the reality of the Resurrection.

In my Easter message this Sunday, I will share some of my intellectual pilgrimage, as I have moved from “quiet doubter” to “true believer.” 

A key, for me, was to see that Jesus’ Resurrection was not just another unconnected miracle performed by God.  Instead, I came to see the Resurrection as part of the overarching story of God’s Creative work in the universe.  This story begins when God created the whole universe and judged it to be very good.  (At this point a caveat is in order.  I do not believe that one must be a biblical literalist in order to affirm God as Creator.  That is, we can affirm God as the Creator, while at the same time accepting the scientific theory of evolution.  This is because the Bible and modern science are striving to answer separate questions.  On the one hand, the Bible seeks to answer the question, “Why?”  Whereas, on the other hand, modern science seeks to answer the question, “How?”)

For me, God’s work as Creator is not just limited to the beginning of time.  Rather, we know that God wants to engage the world, especially human persons, in a mutual relationship of love.  As the Apostle Paul reminds the Romans, not even death itself can ever separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 8:  38-39).  Therefore, even after the initial Creation, God continues creating, healing and redeeming the world.  When we say that God is the Creator, we affirm not only that God created in the beginning, but also that God continues to create, even up to the present moment. 

But, there is more.  Ultimately, I believe that God is guiding the universe to the eschaton, a time when God’s Reign and Peace will be fully realized throughout the universe and everything will be transformed into a New Creation.  This vision of God’s ultimate plan is described in the New Testament Book of Revelation where it is written:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, …[and God said], ‘See, I am making all things new.’”(Revelation 21: 1-2, 5)  In God’s New Creation, the old will be transformed. 

Viewed from this perspective, Jesus’ Resurrection represents a “tipping point,” in which God begins the transformation of this universe into the New Creation described in Revelation.  In theological terms, the resurrection event represents a “prolepsis;” in other words, the Resurrection is the future already “present and active in the present while remaining future, as exemplified by God’s act in raising Jesus from the dead.”[1]  To reiterate, I have become a “true believer” in Christ’s Resurrection because I see it as part of a larger process in which the entire universe is transformed into a radically New Creation through God’s ongoing work as Creator.

This is just the basic outline of my theological perspective on Christ’s Resurrection.  I intend to develop it further in my Easter message this weekend.  Come and celebrate Easter with us this Sunday, March 27th.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.  On Easter Sunday, we will have an Easter Brunch for everyone between the two services at 9:45.   Come and join us.

 Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Robert John Russell, “Resurrection of the Body, Eschatology and Cosmology,” in Cosmology, From Alpha to Omega by Robert John Russell (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2008), 313.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

"Where Did They All Go?"

           This Sunday, March 20th, we celebrate Palm Sunday in Protestant and Catholic Christianity.  (Our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters will observe Palm Sunday much later, on April 24th.)  Palm Sunday is an important celebration in the Church each year because on this day we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, an event recorded in all four of the Gospels.

            In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem marks the end of a long travel narrative which Luke describes in the course of ten chapters (9:51-19:27).  This journey brings Jesus and his followers up to the Mount of Olives, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  From there, Jesus sends two of his disciples into a nearby village, where they are to find a young donkey—a colt.  Jesus instructs his disciples to untie the colt and bring it back with them to the Mount of Olives.  Before they leave on their errand, Jesus advises his disciples, “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”  (Luke 19: 31)
            The two disciples return with the colt, explaining that everything had been just as Jesus described.  Then, Jesus mounts the colt and begins his entry into Jerusalem.  As he rides, Jesus’ followers begin spreading their cloaks on the road in front of the young donkey.  People began joyfully shouting, “Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  (Luke 19:38)  As Jesus rides, more and more people begin to come out of their shops and homes.  They join in the shouting and singing.  Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem becomes a huge, triumphal parade.
            To be honest, I have always found Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to be a puzzling story.  First, I’ve always suspected that I did not fully grasp the significance and symbolism of Jesus’ triumphal parade into Jerusalem.  Second, it is perplexing that so many people would turn out to cheer Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem, and yet just a few days later all of Jesus’ Palm Sunday supporters seem to have vanished, replaced instead by an ugly mob shouting, “Crucify him!” 
It is likely that many of those Palm Sunday supporters were strong supporters of Jesus, who loved him dearly.  We can imagine that in the crowd that day were persons who had witnessed Jesus' power; others who had been healed by Jesus; prostitutes and other social outcasts who had been affirmed and loved by Jesus were also probably in the crowd; as well as many persons who had listened to Jesus teachings and considered him to be a great teacher.  But, perhaps there were many others who were both in the Palm Sunday crowd shouting, “Hosanna!” and in the crowd later in the week, shouting:  “Crucify him!”
Let’s look at these two issues in more depth.
What was the significance and symbolism of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem?  Biblical scholars believe that each of the four gospel writers carefully structured their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem so that they correspond with entrance processionals by Jewish kings or generals of conquering armies.  These entrance parades were not unfamiliar to the Hebrew people of the first century.  Although the processional for a victorious king would be substantively different from the processional of a general, leading a conquering foreign army, both processionals had some key similarities:
1. The conqueror/king would be escorted by his army or the citizenry of Jerusalem.
2. The parade would include songs or chants or other acclamations
3. After arriving in the city, there is a “ritual of appropriation,” such as a sacrifice, at the           Temple, where the ruler symbolically appropriates the city of Jerusalem.
            Alexander the Great’s entrance into Jerusalem provides an historical example of this grand processional entrance.  According to Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, “…all the Jews together greeted Alexander with one voice and surrounded him… [then] he gave his hand to the high priest and, with the Jews running beside him, entered the city.  Then he went up to the temple where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest.”[i]
            Immediately, we can see some important parallels between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and these formalized grand entries by kings and conquering generals.  Just as the prototype, so also Jesus is escorted into Jerusalem by his disciples and followers.  As he rides through Jerusalem, his supporters pour out into the street from their shops and homes.  Similarly, Jesus’ parade is accompanied by songs and chants of adoration, “”Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
            Yet, there are also two key differences between Jesus’ triumphant parade and the prototypical grand entrance of conquerors.  First, Jesus rides a donkey, instead of the more traditional warhorse—or, war chariot.  And, the message conveyed by riding a donkey is radically different from a warhorse.  Whereas a warhorse conveys power, authority, and war, a donkey conveys humility and peace.  This symbolic difference would not be lost upon those in the streets as Jesus rode by—or, by readers of the four gospels.
            A second difference is that Jesus deviates from the standard model when he passes through the gate and into the city of Jerusalem proper.  Recall that normally the entering king or conqueror would go to the Temple and perform some “ritual of appropriation” of the city of Jerusalem.  Jesus does not follow this part of the protocol.  Rather than “appropriating” Jerusalem at the Temple, Jesus pauses before entering the city gates to weep and lament Jerusalem’s rejection of him as the Messiah. 
When Jesus finally does arrive at the Temple, it is not to make a sacrifice.  No.  Instead, Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives away the merchants.  As he does this, Jesus quotes prophecies from Jeremiah and Isaiah, saying:  “My [God’s] house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers.”  (Luke 19:46)
To summarize, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday follows the basic protocol used by returning kings and conquering generals.  Luke and the other gospel writers intend for us to see that Jesus was a king.  Yet, at the same time, there are significant discrepancies between the standard paradigm and the type of king which Jesus represents.  Jesus was not a king who rode a warhorse, but rather a king who rode a donkey.  That is, Jesus was not a king of power, authority, and war.  Rather, Jesus was a king of humility, servanthood, and peace.
            Where did all the people go?  I believe that the answer to this question is embedded in what we have just discovered about how there are deviations or discrepancies between the standard model of being a king and the kingship portrayed by Jesus’ during his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem.
            In my sermon on Palm Sunday, I will suggest that many of the people who lined the streets of Jerusalem wanted Jesus to be a Messiah in the traditional sense of a powerful and authoritarian king.  Keeping in mind that at the time the Hebrew people had been conquered and subjugated by the Roman Empire, I will suggest that many in the crowd desired a strong, warrior king, who would lead a revolution to overthrow their Roman occupiers.  In other words, they very much wanted a king riding on a warhorse.  Instead, they got Jesus riding a donkey.
            When some of them discovered that Jesus did not intend to be the warrior king whom they were dreaming of, then they rejected and abandoned Jesus.  Having already rejected Jesus, these persons were easily persuaded to move from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Crucify him!” of Good Friday.
            Of course, from our perspective in the twenty-first century, it is easy to condemn those who rejected and abandoned Jesus because he wasn’t the type of pre-conceived Messiah for whom they had wished.  Yet, perhaps we should not rush to condemnation.  In my Palm Sunday message, I will suggest that sometimes even today we have a tendency to turn away from God, when we discover that God is not the same as our pre-conceived image of who God should be.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a regular church home, I invite you to join us this Sunday, as we celebrate Palm Sunday with our own parade through the church building, before our worship begins.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street.  Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] Quoted by R. Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke for the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary series.  Accessed by CD-ROM.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Can I Be a Christian and Gay?

In my March 4th column for "The Messenger," the bi-monthly newsletter at Christ United Methodist Church, I referenced a sermon which I preached 3 years ago, concerning the question of whether homosexuality is compatible with Christian teachings.  As promised, I have uploaded the manuscript for that sermon on this blog:

            It was a critical moment in Christian history.  The Church, including the Methodist Church, was deeply divided over a pressing social concern.  On the one hand, there was a group of Methodists who were convinced that they had discerned God’s Will on this critical social issue, and they were also convinced that God wanted them to prophetically claim their position to the secular American society.  They had built a very, very persuasive argument for their position, based upon careful scriptural research.  And, their diligent search of the scriptures for guidance on this issue revealed many, many scriptural verses that clearly substantiated their perspective.

            Yet, on the other hand, there was another group of Methodists who were equally convinced that they had discerned God’s Will on this critical social issue and through their discernment this second group was thoroughly convinced that the first group was absolutely, positively, dead-wrong on the issue.  Still, like the first group, this second group was also convinced that God wanted them to prophetically champion their position to the secular American society.  And, like the first group, this group could build a very, very persuasive argument for their position, based upon careful scriptural research.  Further, their diligent search of the scriptures for guidance on this issue revealed many, many scriptural verses that clearly substantiated their perspective.

            The year in which Methodists were so deeply and passionately divided was ….1855, and the pressing social issue was….slavery.  Eventually this hugely divisive issue would split Methodists into two separate denominations, one Northern and opposed to slavery; the other Southern and in favor of slavery.

            Today, in 2013, we are once again one United Methodist Church.  Yet, at the same time, we are once again divided by a critical social issue.  This time, the question is:  “Can I Be a Christian and Gay?”

            Through a faithful and careful reading of scriptures, some Christians of good will believe that homosexuality is immoral and incompatible with Christian teachings.  Their position is grounded primarily upon eight scattered biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexuality as morally corrupt and evil.  David Kinaman and Gabe Lyons take this position that homosexuality is sinful in their book, unChristian.  Yet, they hasten to draw a distinction between a “sin” which they hate and the “sinner” which they continue to love.  They also point out that each and every Christian continues to be afflicted by their sinfulness so that all of us stand in need of God’s constant forgiveness.  For these authors, homosexuality is no greater sin than stealing or pride or jealousy or selfishness.  Jesus himself cautions his followers from obsessing too much on other persons’ sins, which ignoring or minimizing our own sin, when he asks in Matthew 7:  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”  All of us stand in need of forgiveness, and God calls upon us to love everyone, regardless of who they are or what they have done. 

            They write:  “It is one thing to be against homosexuality, to affirm that the Bible rejects the practice of same-sex lifestyles, but it is another to be against homosexuals, to let  your disappointment with their behavior spill out in your feelings and words toward them as people.  It is unChristian to lose your sense that everyone’s fallen nature affects all aspects of his or her life…”. (p. 84)

            By contrast, through a faithful and careful reading of scriptures, other Christians of good will are not so sure that the Bible condemns or rejects same-sex relationships, so long as these relationships are loving and mutually affirming—just as heterosexual relationships should be.  For these Christians, the authority of scripture is just powerful as it is for Christians who condemn homosexuality.  However, these Christians interpret scripture differently.  In the first place, it is not clear that those 8 scriptural passages are condemning a mutually affirming, loving relationship between two gay men or women.  For instance, two of the passages in Genesis 19: 1-11 and Judges 19: 22-26 are about gang rape as acts of violence towards strangers.  Certainly, Christians would condemn these acts as evil, regardless of whether it was homosexual or heterosexual rape. 

            It is also important to recognize that strong biblical arguments can made that support slavery—as we saw in my introduction this morning—the subordination of women to men—especially in the church—and sexual ethics.  Commenting on sexual ethics, Adam Hamilton has observed:  “The [Bible] condones polygamy, concubines, and the forcing of slaves to sleep with their master in order to bear him children.  Do these practices represent God’s timeless will for sexual ethics?  I hope not.” (p. 60)  Two of the most explicit Biblical condemnations of homosexuality appear in the “holiness code” of Leviticus: 18:22 and 20:13.  However, biblical scholars point out that interspersed between these two condemnations in chapter 19:19 is a prohibition against wearing any garment made from two different types of fibers.  These scholars note that most of us frequently wear blended garments made of cotton, wool, polyester, and other fabrics, yet we never think of that as a heinous sin. 

            So, what emerges here is a question of consistency in how the Bible is interpreted.  Why do we reject slavery, the subordination of women, and the use of concubines, even though they are biblically justified, while condemning homosexuality?  Why do we believe that it is permissible to wear blended garments, even though the Bible prohibits that practice, yet we believe the Bible condemns loving, mutually affirming gay relationships?  How is that consistent? 

            There is a third perspective concerning how we should view, treat, and respond to gay and lesbian persons.  Some people believe that homosexuality is such a heinous sin that there is no possible hope for gay and lesbian persons.  This group fervently believes that “God hates fags.”  This perspective is epitomized by the Westboro Baptist Church.  Some of you may have seen and encountered some Westboro members who were protesting in front of our church this morning. 

            I believe that our scripture reading this morning offers some helpful guidance as we struggle with this question, “Can I Be Christian and Gay?”  1 Corinthians 13 is nicknamed the great love chapter in the Bible.  Very often, couples will choose this passage as part of their wedding ceremony.  It feels as though the Apostle Paul wrote this passage specifically for weddings because it captures so beautifully the romantic love between two individuals.  Yet, weddings were not what Paul was focusing on, when he wrote this passage.

            The early church in Corinth, to whom the letter was addressed, were a consistent problem for the Apostle Paul.  This church was deeply divided by several different factors.  There was a deep rift between wealthy and poor Christians.  And, there was an especially deep schism between different factions, based upon who possessed the most important spiritual gifts.  Some thought that speaking in tongues was the highest spiritual gift, while others thought that it was knowledge.  There was just a rampant jealousy that was tearing up the church.  So, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul seeks to address these divisions and bring healing to the congregation.  In the 13th Chapter, Paul uses a rhetorical device called an encomium.  Now, in Paul’s day, an encomium praised an individual or a virtue, admonishing listeners to emulate this ideal.  Each encomium followed pre-set outline with a prologue, a discussion of the virtue, a comparison with other virtues, and a closing appeal for emulation by listeners.

            The first three verses form the prologue.  In these verses, Paul reminds the Corinthians of his authority as the supreme model of Christian discipleship.  But, he presents himself hypothetically as a negative example.  He begins, “If I speak in tongues…but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I have all faith…but do not have love, I am nothing.”  In verses 4-7, Paul describes what love is.  He writes, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way ; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Continuing, verses 8-13 offer a comparison with other virtues, culminating in Paul’s famous line, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three but the greatest of these is love.”  In 14:1, Paul concludes with the call, “Pursue love.”

            What does it mean to pursue love on the question of homosexuality?

            If we take this passage seriously, it seems to me that the first two perspectives have much more in common with each other than they do with the third perspective, represented outside our doors this morning by Westboro Baptist Church.  I believe that it is imperative that Christians  who may disagree on the morality of homosexuality, stand together united in their condemnation of this third position of hatred, represented by Westboro Baptist Church.  I believe that Jesus Christ in Heaven must surely weep because of the hatred spewed by Westboro Baptist Church in his name.  Although the two perspectives may disagree on their interpretation of the scriptures and the morality of homosexuality, we must stand united in rejecting the third position of hatred, which is clearly incompatible with scripture and is simply not Christian belief.

            Throughout this sermon series, I have felt that as your pastor it was important for me to share my personal, theological position on each of these doubts.  Before sharing my position on homosexuality, however, it is important that I explain the official position of the United Methodist Church.  As a denomination, we have taken the first position, which sees homosexuality as morally wrong and sinful, while at the same time recognizing that gay and lesbian persons are children of God, whom we are called to love and accept just as God does.  To quote our official position, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship…[Yet] The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

            That is the official position of my church.  But, I believe that my church is dead wrong on this issue.  For the question, “Can I Be Christian and Gay?” my personal response is “Yes.”  I do not believe that a loving and affirming relationship between two gay men or lesbian women is incompatible with scripture or Christian teaching.  It is very, very, very difficult for me to stand in opposition to my church on this issue.  There was a time, when I thought very seriously about leaving the United Methodist Church over its stand on homosexuality, and I must confess that I was heavily, heavily recruited by a United Church of Christ pastor to “switch teams” and transfer my ordination credentials to that denomination.  Ultimately, I discerned that God was calling me to remain in The United Methodist Church and work for change in this denomination, which has been spiritual home since the day I was born. 

            Yet, regardless of whether you agree with me or agree with our denomination, we can unanimously agree with each other that guiding principle on this question should be love.  1 John 4: 19-20 reads:  “We love because God first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 

            Last month, I had a conversation with a parishioner, who told me about a gay couple whom they knew.  They said that they really respected these two men, and had gotten to know them very well.  In talking with this gay couple, they learned that the two men would really like to join a church and attend together as a couple.  When I heard this, my first reaction was to say, “Well, why don’t you invite this couple to come to church here at Meriden, with you?”  But, I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything.  You see, even though I was eager to welcome this couple to my congregation, I didn’t know how the rest of you would react.  I didn’t know for sure, whether you were ready to welcome a gay or lesbian couple into our community of faith. 

            I still don’t know and that’s my question to you.  What about it?  Are you ready to welcome a gay or lesbian couple into our community of faith?  Are you ready to take 1 Corinthians 13 seriously?  Are you ready to take The United Methodist Church’s position seriously, when it calls upon us to welcome gay and lesbian persons?