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Here’s an excerpt from my latest book, which, if you haven’t already (what’s the matter with you?!), you can get here.

The reason I insist that the couples over whose nuptials I preside are people of faith is because they need to believe that the call and response of repentance and forgiveness is the only way they will be changed. I use the passive voice on purpose. The call and response of I’m sorry/You’re forgiven is the liturgy of married life. It’s the back-and-forth of bride and groom by which God sanctifies us. 

Offering forgiveness freely and freely receiving it, we are made holy. We do not grow closer to God or grow more like God through improvement. The language of spiritual progress implies a gradual lessening of our need for grace the nearer and nearer we journey to God. Yet, the God who condescends to us in the suffering, humble, and humiliated Christ is not ever a God waiting for us to make our way up to him. The God who came down to meet us in crèche and cross continues to forsake his lofty throne. God comes down still. He hides behind unimpressive words like, “I forgive you.” 

God changes us through the ordinary means of “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” As much as water, wine, and bread, your wife’s free offer of forgiveness in the face of your sin is a sacrament of God’s transforming grace. The Beloved gets no closer to us than our bride or our groom. The Bridegroom has condescended to us whenever we see our sin in the eyes of our beloved yet hear instead words of unmerited pardon. God not only wears these words of forgiveness like flesh, God uses them to transform us. This is why, to every prospective husband and wife who gushingly tell me how they’ve found their soul mate, I’ve practiced responding, “Big deal.” 

We have so much in common. 

“Big deal.”

She’s just like me in every way.

“Big deal.”

We fit together like two puzzle pieces. [People actually talk like this.]

“Big deal.”

We’re so compatible. 

“Big deal.”

Don’t get me wrong, compatibility sounds awesome. The language of compatibility makes marriage sound easy. The problem my unimpressed “big deal” is meant to unveil is that, to the extent Christian marriage is meant to be a parable of God’s own love, change does not come through compatibility. Change, Christianly speaking, comes through collision. We are not transformed by seamlessly fitting another into our life. We’re not all puzzle pieces strewn across the great cosmic game table. Sorry, no one is The One for you. Another can only become The One for you as you are both made holy. And holiness comes through the rough-and-tumble process of having another reveal our true sucky self to us. 

Before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person. We have an incomplete understanding of our selves. We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well as our spouse eventually will know us; consequently, as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were. And in a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide. You’re exposed. All the veils are pulled away. It’s not that there’s no secrets in marriage. It’s that there aren’t as many secrets as we want. 

It’s the inverse of what I like to call Jason’s Rule, which is really a cribbed version of Hauerwas’s Rule. Jason’s Rule states that You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying. The corollary to Jason’s Rule is that You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married.So once you’re inside a marriage, it’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed. It’s your own.

But notice, it’s not your spouse who’s unveiling your flaws and imperfections. It’s marriage. This is what collared types like me mean when we call marriage “a means of God’s grace.” It’s a means by which God condescends to us to convict us and to change us. Our true self must be revealed through the painful process occasioned by the need to say “I’m sorry” so that through his word of free pardon, God can unveil, by degrees, our transformed self. 

Seldom do we hear about the burden our culture of mass-shootings places upon the undertakers who have to go about the painstaking work of putting the victims back together again for their loved ones to bury.

Friend of the podcast, Thomas Lynch, rejoins us to talk about his new book, Whither and When: On Lives and Living. Thomas is an undertaker and poet whose work has garnered numerous awards, including the National Book Award for his collection of essays The Undertaking: Notes on the Dismal Trade.

Luke 10.25-37

I’ve had it sitting in my sermon file for years, a review of the book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa, by the journalist Daniel Bergner, whose book documents the gruesome aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone. 

The title of Bergner’s book refers to the popular— desperate— belief in the region that certain rituals, going even to the extreme of cannabalism, will guarantee immunity to bullets. Hence, the term “magic soliders.”

What caught my attention in the review is the section that begins with this line:  “What is of value in this book is less what it says about Sierra Leone than about the human condition.” 

Specifically, the reviewer is referring to one human, Neall Ellis, whose story in the book says something offensive about the lot of us. 

Neall Ellis is a white avaitor from South Africa. After a brief stint in the Rhodesian Army, he joined the South African Air Force, where he was awarded the Honoris Crux in 1983, and later attained field rank. 

After retiring from the SAAF, Ellis used his savings and retirement funds to pay the tuition costs for local schoolchildren in war torn Sierra Leone. 

He sent one young woman all the way to England, set her up with lodging, and paid her way through nursing school and, after nursing school, midwifery school. 

He covered all the expenses of another young man’s medical school education in Johannesburg, as well as the extensive plastic surgeries required by a young woman who had been badly burned during the conflict in Sierra Leone. 

And not just her— Ellis raised the funds to construct an entire burn hospital.

I’ve got a c-note that says it’s named after the Good Samaritan. 

Ellis told the journalist that he was building the hospital, “because right now there isn’t a place like that in the whole of Sierra Leone, nowhere a victim can go to get that type of treatment. Seeing such a need, I can’t just pass on by.” 

Admit it— you expect a sermon on this parable to segway into an illustration just like this of some real-life Good Samaritan making good on the lessons we all learned in Kindergarten.

Whenever you hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you expect to hear a story about someone like Neal Ellis. 

Well, here’s the rest of Neal Ellis’ story. 

After he retired from the South African Air Force in the 1980’s, Neal Ellis took a job as a mercenary for the government of Sierra Leone, piloting the sole combat helicopter the nation owned. 

He took the job not for the pay, he admitted to the journalist, but for the work. He loved the thrill of rocketing and machine-gunning from the air, confessing to Bergner:  “It’s better than sex. . . . There’s a lot of adrenaline going. You’re all keyed up, and when you realize you’re on target, that you’ve taken out the enemy, it’s a great feeling.” 

According to Human Rights Watch, they’ve documented dozens of dead and wounded civilians, women and children, in scores of towns that Neal Ellis attacked. The burn victims whose medical bills Neal Ellis covers— Neal Ellis is responsible for their condition. 

They’re in the hospital, because he put them there. 

Even after In the Land of Magic Soldiers went to print, Ellis emailed the author mentioning another civil war that had broken out on the continent and how he was “hoping for a possible contract.” 

Writing about Neal Ellis, journalist Daniel Bergner doesn’t call him a Good Samaritan. 

Instead, Ellis makes Bergner question if there’s any such thing as a Good Samaritan. 

Until the complexity of casting someone like Neal Ellis as Jesus’ protagonist in today’s parable has stuck in your craw, you’ve not really comprehended Christ’s answer to the lawyer.  

———————-

     We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable passes us by.

     It’s so obvious we never notice it:  Jesus told this story to Jews. 

     The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the twelve disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered round to hear about their Kingdom, work. 

    Every last listener is a Jew. 

     And so, when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked, and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. 

     When Jesus says, “So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,” NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like, “That’s outrageous!”

     When Jesus says, “There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch, so he crossed to other side and passed on by,” EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking, “What’s your point? Of course, he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.”

     

     Ditto, the Levite. 

     No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  

No one would’ve been outraged.

     As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking. 

     The priest had no choice— for the greater good. 

     According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. 

     Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.    

     And, if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, (according to the Mishna), the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs. 

     Now, of course, that strikes us as god-awful. 

     But, the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. 

     As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but, exactly, what Jesus says they did. 

     So— 

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable. 

     If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then— no matter how many hospitals we name after this story— the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.  

     If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need, then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway. 

     The takeaway is the who, who is doing the helping.

The point of the parable doesn’t start with the what, but the who.

———————-

     Just like Neal Ellis, this Samaritan has a more complicated backstory. 

    In Jesus’ own day a mob of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke into the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. 

Looted it. 

     And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses, bodies they dug up and bodies killed.  

     Whereas, the priest and the Levite would not touch a dead body in the ditch out of deference to the Law and it’s ritual obligations, the Samaritans made a mockery of God’s Law by vandalizing the Temple with bodies they’d robbed from the grave.

     In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

     That’s why, when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word “Samaritan.” “The one who showed mercy” is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth. 

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. 

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. 

The offense of the parable is that Jesus casts someone like a Samaritan as the protagonist.  

We get it all backwards. 

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. 

I wish. 

How flattering is that? 

It says a lot about our privilege that we automatically identify with the rescuer in the story.

    We get it backwards. 

     Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need. 

Of course, loving your neighbor means caring for someone in need. 

But that’s not what Jesus is doing here. 

———————-

 

Not only do we forget that every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew, seldom do we notice what prompts Jesus’ story in the first place. 

What does Luke tell you? 

Luke reports,  “The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus:  ‛Who is my neighbor?’”

This lawyer is attempting to establish his enoughness before God all on his own. 

This is what Jesus is picking apart with his parable. 

Jesus shows you what St. Paul tells you in Galatians— that, if justification could come through our keeping of the commandments, (if it was as easy as this lawyer supposes), then Christ died for absolutely nothing.

So, what does Jesus do to this lawyer and his self-justification project? 

To this expert in the Law, Jesus tells a story where the hero is the personification of unrighteousness under the Law. 

Jesus skewers the lawyer’s good, godly self-image by spinning a story starring an ungodly sort like Neal Ellis. 

And then, like Jesus does in the sermon on the mount, Jesus amps up the expectations to an impossible degree. Jesus overwhelms the lawyer by crediting to the Samaritan a whopping fourteen verbs worth of compassion and care, count them up.

And finally, in order to blow the lawyer’s self-righteousness to smithereens, Jesus lowers the boom and says, “Go and do likewise.”

Pay attention. 

This is where our reading of this passage tends to run off the rails. What Jesus is driving at here with his, “Go and do,” is heavy, and the demand is the same for me, and it’s the same for you too. 

Go and do like that Samaritan, Jesus is saying, help every single person in need who comes your way, regardless of how busy you are. 

No matter the circumstances, no matter the cost, no matter the safety. Book them a room. Give the front desk your Amex Gold Card and put no restrictions on room service.   

And do it, Jesus is saying, like that Samaritan. Do it with the purest of intentions, with no thought about yourself, without any expectation of recriprocation or promise of reward. Do it spontaneously, provoked solely by the love of God alone, and do not be disappointed when they recidivize. 

Do it just like that— spend fourteen verbs on every single person. Do it no matter if they’re wearing a “MAGA” hat or a “Black Lives Matter” tee. 

Do all of that, perfectly, from the heart, and on your own, all by your lonesome, you will be justified.

How’s that working for you?

This parable is not about helping people in need. 

This parable is about helping you recognize your need. 

For a savior.

YOU’RE THE ONE IN THE DITCH!

And while we were yet enemies, when there was “no health in us” and we were as good as dead in our trespasses, the Son of God condescended to us— he took flesh— and he got down into the ditch with us and he loved you, his neighbor, more than himself, carrying you in his body, lavishing upon you his every last verb, sparing no expense, until his love for you drove him to fall among thieves, bloodied and beaten and ditched by a world too busy to do anything, but pass him by. 

———————-

In his book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers, journalist Daniel Bergner  doesn’t call Neal Ellis a Good Samaritan. 

He calls him “a haunting figure…haunting, because the strange blend of compassion and cruelty in his life is a reminder of what we all carry within us. He’s a reminder of how fragile is our human predicament and of how we are all in need not only of rescue, but also repair.”

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts in Romans, rectification. 

We’re in need not only of rescue, but also rectification.

———————-

We’re the ones in the ditch. 

But before Jesus Christ departed us by Death and Resurrection, he left us not his Discover Card, but his Holy Spirit. 

He left us his Holy Spirit to nurse us back into health. 

He left us his Holy Spirit to rehabilitate us. 

To rectify— to make right— the image in which God, the Father Almighty made you.  

Before he left, he left you his Holy Spirit. 

And his Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians, is the deposit that guarantees the inheritance this lawyer was inquiring about with Jesus. 

Eternal life. 

The Holy Spirit is the deposit of eternity in time.

The Holy Spirit is the present-tense downpayment of the future life this lawyer seeks.

That’s this lawyer’s other error; he thinks eternal life can only begin somewhere down the line past the present. 

As Karl Barth liked to joke—what sort of eternal life would it be if it begins after something else? If eternal life is eternal, it cannot come after anything.

Because it’s eternal, it’s always already and always ongoing, and though it is always also still not yet, the Holy Spirit is the deposit of it in the here and now. 

The Holy Spirit is the deposit of the not yet in the now.

The practices of the faith, therefore, the work we engage in the Spirit:

The sandwiches you make at the mission center;

The tutoring you contribute to at-risk kids;

The service you offer to our neighbors;

The shelter you provide for the homeless, and

The support you send to churches along the border.

They are not ways we in Christ’s stead help the poor. 

They are the ways that Christ’s Spirit uses the poor to heal us. 

They are not ways we rescue the needy stranger. 

They are ways the Spirit rectifies the stranger in need that you call “you.”

They are not ways we go and do likewise— there’s only one way for us to be justified. 

The practices of the faith— they are not ways we go and do. 

They are ways we are done to. 

Done to by the Holy Spirit. 

Until the Holy Spirit has rendered us likewise.

———————-

We’re all born lawyers. 

We need to be made Christians. 

So hear the Good News:

While we were yet enemies, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification to be given to you not as your wage for what you go and do, but as an unconditional gift, no matter where you go or what you do. 

By grace through faith, you already possess irrevocably what that lawyer pursued.

Your justification.  

But your rectification?

For that, our Rescuer has left his Spirit. 

So all you lawyers, lay all your doings down. 

They can’t cure what ails you still. 

Lay all your doings down.

And come to the table. 

Come and be done to.

Come and be done to by the Spirit of our Good Samaritan. 

Come, and with bread and wine, be done to by the Spirit of the Samaritan, who is determined not only to rescue you from the ditch of Sin and Death, but to bind up all your wounds, heal your every affliction, and strengthen you in your weakness until you are what you eat.  

“Racism is the ideological building block of our nation. Our current politics, our prisons, our inner cities— our system produces exactly the results it seeks by design.”

As we celebrate Independence Day weekend and Democrats re-debate bussing and a new strain of birtherism gets directed at another candidate of color, we talk with with Joel Goza who is a Duke Divinity School alumni and now works as a church planter and for a non-profit in the 5th Ward. His new book is an important one, especially on Independence Day weekend. It’s titled America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics. 

Our awesome producer, Tommie, has also spliced in a couple of tracks by my favorite band, The Drive-By Truckers, one song on Trayvon Martin and another about Charlottesville, as both come up in the course of our conversation with Joel.

Before you listen, help us out. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” and become a patron of the pod for peanuts.

You can also go to Facebook and ‘like’ our page, share something. Or, find us in iTunes and give us a rating and review. Every little bit helps other folks find the program.

God kills and makes alive and through no more frequent means than water. What unsettles us about the Noah story is what God does every time God baptizes, drowning us into Christ’s death and resurrection.

We’re working our way through the alphabet one stained glass word at a time…here’s the latest on Water.

If you’re so inclined, help us out. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, click on “Support the Show” and become a patron for peanuts. Otherwise, go to our Facebook Page and like it and share something. We’d love it too if you go to iTunes and leave us a rating and review.

Luke 18.9-14 — The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

At the first unsuspecting church on which a bishop foisted me— we staged a Christmas pageant during the season of Advent. 

During dress rehearsal that final Sunday morning before the performance, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. 

When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first-grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds—both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men— started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son upside the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

Truth be told, the little church had neither the numbers nor the talent to man a lemonade stand much less mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better— and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman— I said yes.

The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. 

At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: “Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings as though he were wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there. 

Because, of course, he was wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there. 

For some reason, be it haste, laziness, or a dare involving some sum of cash, the mother-in-charge of the pageant had made the magi responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. 

Another wise man was dressed like the former WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik. 

And the third wise man wore a gray and green Philadelphia Eagles bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white fur-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, King Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself a question you all cause me to ask from time to time too. 

Why didn’t I go to law school?

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: “The Gift of Christmas.”

On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me.

His name was Mike. He was an insurance adjustor with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes. He led a Bible Study on Wednesday mornings that met at the diner. He delivered Meals on Wheels. He chaired the church council. He supervised the coat closet. He mentored kids caughgt in the juvenile justice system. He was the little church’s most generous donor. 

And he was more than little officious in his righteousness.

Mike never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. 

Of all the nerve.

I knew immediately what he was implying or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman— a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

The Holy Mother of God was being portrayed by a homewrecker. 

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business to fund his gambling habit. Another wise man was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel— he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. 

His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played by a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

The man playing the role of Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of Jesus’ cousin John, owned a construction company and had been accused of and charged for fraud by several customers in town, including a couple in the congregation. 

He’d bilked them out of thousands and thousands of dollars.

Zechariah— his name was Bill— every first Sunday of the month, Bill began to cry, tears streaming down his sunburnt carpenter’s cheeks, whenever I placed a piece of bread in his rough, calloused hands and promised him, “This is the Body of Christ broken for you.” 

Maybe more than anyone in that little church, he depended on the promise that when Christ says “This is my Body broken for you” you means me, too.

“There’s no conditions,” I’d told him once after the you-know-what with his business hit the fan. 

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. For all of us, that you means me. The forgiveness— it’s for you. You’ve got to take Christ at his absolving word or you’re calling God a liar, which is alot worse of a sin than any you’ve committed. The truth about you is never what you see in the mirror— good or bad— the truth about you is always found in the broken piece of bread placed in your hand. You’re no different than anyone else here.”

Mike, the insurance adjuster, held the program in his hands and read the cast members’ names under his breath. 

Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:    

“Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?’

And because I’m not a brave man (and because I didn’t much like her) I pointed at the mother-in-charge. 

“She did. She cast them all. Blame her.”     

He shook his head in disgust and then he gestured towards Zechariah, pretending now to be struck mute, and he said: “It’s one thing for him to even show his face here Sunday after Sunday without mending his ways but…this?! Do you really think he’s the sort of person who should be sharing this story with our church and our community? What in the hell have you been preaching to him, pastor? Go and sin some more?!”

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary. 

She hadn’t had the energy for any of the rehearsals. She just showed up at the worship service when it was time to perform the pageant pushing a walker, from which hung a black and green oxygen tank.

Mary was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. 

She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his makeshift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod, Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

With the walker resting next to the pulpit, the tube to her oxygen was pulled almost taut. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone.

With her hands bruised from blood thinner, she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but again I was terrified of the mother-in-charge. 

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air: “She shall bear a son…(breath)…and you are to name him Jesus…(breath)…for he will save people from their sins…(breath)…”

Except—

That morning Mary didn’t start by narrating the Christmas story. 

She went off script. 

I don’t know if she went off script because she hadn’t been at the rehearsals or if in her old age she was confused and rambling, or maybe she was just filling time while she tried to locate her spot in the script. 

I like to think she’d heard the scuttlebutt about Mike and his righteous indignation over the likes of the people who populated the parish’s pageant. 

She began by introducing the passage. 

“The Bible tells us about God being born as Jesus,” Mary said, “only after a long list of begats.” And she took a breath from her oxygen mask. “Emmanuel…God-with-us…(breath) comes from a family tree every bit as knotted as ours (breath) a family of scoundrels and unbelievers (breath) rapists and hookers (breath) cheats and those consumed by their resentment over being cheated upon (breath) all the way back to Abraham (breath) who wasn’t righteous (breath) but was reckoned so on the only basis any of us are so counted, faith, alone (breath). Christ comes from a family just like us,” she said and took a breath.  

“He comes from sinners for sinners.”

And I looked over at Mike, who’d been standing in the narthex passing out programs. In addition to everything else, Mike was the head usher too. 

When the pageant began, Mike’s ears had been beat red and the vein in his forehead throbbing so outraged and incredulous was he that we were “telling the story of our savior with those kinds of people,” but, hearing that tiny little women with her Gospel promise, he suddenly hung his head. 

He looked embarrassed— as though, God the Holy Spirit had just smacked him upside the head. 

Humility is only ever something we discover because humility is something done to us.

Katie in the heavenly host nearly made it through the Christmas pageant in the clear, but when the wise men showed up delivering their gift-wrapped boxes she ran to the trash can in the choir loft to deliver into it the last of her breakfast. 

Mary never made it to the next Christmas. She died that spring clutching the same promise she’d preached to us that Sunday in Advent. 

Zechariah left the church shortly after I did, and he became a preacher in a storefront start-up church, preaching the promise that whether we mend our ways or not, when it comes us,  God never mends his ways. No matter what, God will deal with you tomorrow exactly as God dealt with you yesterday, by grace. 

Turns out, he was a good preacher too— only those who know they’re not good realize that the promise is too good not to believe.

After the worship service that Sunday in Advent finished, I stood outside near the front door to the sanctuary, shaking hands as the bell rang and the organ groaned out the last notes of the postlude. Mike was one of the last to leave. In addition to everything else, he always cleaned up the pews after worship and vacuumed up the communion crumbs from the floor. 

His hand felt hot and sweaty in the December air, like he’d been wringing his hands in consternation. 

“We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but I guess that doesn’t stop us from measuring distances does it?” 

But I didn’t catch his meaning because as he started to walk home down the sidewalk, I thought to myself (and remember, this is a long time ago in a county far far away, back in my pre-sanctified days): 

“Thank God, I’m not a self-righteous, holier-than-thou, bookkeeping hypocrite like him.” 

  Two men went up to the temple to pray one Advent Sunday morning, the first a Methodist preacher— a professional Christian— the second a modern day Pharisee named Mike. 

The latter, not the former, went back down to his house justified. 

———————-

But on some other Sunday?

You know as well as I do. 

Under a different set of circumstances, it could just as easily be the former not the latter. Come next Sunday it could just as easily be the tax collector ubering home whilst congratulating himself that he really gets how God’s grace works unlike that holy-rolling bookkeeper who makes himself the subject of all his prayers and gets caught red-handed in his self-righteousness.

All of us— we’re always, if not simultaneously then from one Sunday to the next, at once, sinners and saints. We leave church tax collectors enjoying our forgiveness, yet as soon as we get into the fellowship hall or log into Facebook we’re back to being Pharisees. 

They’re two different characters in the parable, but they’re both in us. 

No matter how hard you try, you will go and sin some more.

That’s why (this might sound obvious to some of you, but I promise you it’s not self-evident to many) the Gospel is for Christians. 

The Gospel is even for Christians. 

The Gospel is especially for Christians. 

We tend to think of the Gospel (the promise that while you were yet hostile to God, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification)— as though it’s for non-Christians. 

Street-corner evangelists stand on street-corners not in church parking lots.

We tend to think of the Gospel of grace as a doorway through which we pass to get into the household of God; so that, we can then get on with the real business of living like Christ and doing as Christ for our neighbors. 

But thinking of the Gospel as prologue to your Christian life, nothing could be more unbiblical. 

The Bible teaches that Christ comes to dwell in our hearts by what exactly? 

By faith. 

And the Bible teaches that the faith by which Christ gives himself to us comes to us how?

Not by doing. 

By hearing. 

Christ gives himself to us by faith that comes to us by hearing the word. 

And not just any word, the Bible teaches, a specific word. 

The promise of grace. 

The Gospel word. 

The Gospel gives Christ himself to us the way a wedding vow gives a bride her groom. 

The Gospel, therefore, is for Christians too not just potential converts. 

The Gospel is for Christians especially because the Gospel that gives you Christ, the Bible teaches, is the same Gospel that grows Christ in you. 

The way to grow in grace is to cling to the promise of it, to return to it over and again. 

Living a grace-filled life is like learning a song by heart— this song.

Because we don’t ever stop being a tax collector one Sunday and a Pharisee the next, we don’t ever stop, we don’t ever advance past, we don’t ever level up beyond needing to the hear the Gospel. 

This good word, the Gospel of Christ— just as Jesus said— it’s the Living Water without which first we get thirsty and then we get exhausted before finally our faith dries up, and we die in our sins. 

The Gospel word that gives Christ to you is the Bread of Life that keeps on feeding Christ to you— that’s what he means by calling himself Manna. 

The Gospel is the Bread of Life, and we’re always one meal away from starving.

And, without that meal, without the Gospel, we have nothing to offer our neighbor, we have nothing to offer the poor and the oppressed, we have nothing to offer them other than what the world already offers them and how the world offers it. 

Which is to say, thank God. 

God has not made us like other people. 

God has made us Christians. 

We are different from other people. 

We are the particular people God has put into the world who’ve been set free by the Gospel to admit that we’re just like other people. We’re publicans and Pharisees all. We’re worse than our worst enemy thinks of us, yet we’re loved to the grave and back.

Thank God, we’re not like other people. 

We’re different in that we have this Gospel that frees to confess that we’re no different. 

And that difference—

A people set freed to know and own that we’re no different than other people…

That difference is the difference Christ makes in a world of Us vs. Them.  

Here’s the final session to our church-wide study on Scripture and Sexuality where we took a look at Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Note, the lecture below and the audio from the class are complimentary but by no means the same. And, you’ve totally got to listen to it because…how often do you hear the Doxology sung to the Mary Poppins’ tune?

Where We Are 

Last week, we started to delve into the good stuff, also known as the “clobber passages.”  We discussed how the naming of them as such also names the powers that hold us captive insofar as we engage the passages to harm our neighbor.  The Sin, the Devil, the Enemy, he cannot be dealt with until we acknowledge that he is indeed at play and at work.  Part of the aim of last week’s session was to try and turn us towards a new understanding of those passages, such that we can attune ourselves to the ways we misconstrue them at the cost of the Church.  

A Note on Purpose and Method

It may not be entirely obvious why I have structured this class the way I have.  I want to clarify this, and in doing so clarify also what my purpose in this class is.  

I wanted to start by rethinking how we read the Bible.  So much of what we discussed in the earlier sessions was meant to frame why the Bible, the Church’s unifying document that teaches the narrative of God’s grace in and for the world, can become such a source of antagonism, dis-grace, division, and rupture for the Church.  I want to urge us towards a deeper understanding, both of Sin, and of Faith, as given in Christ.  By rethinking how we read the Bible, and thus impressing on you the need to re-read it, I want to show what the Bible makes evidently clear: sinners are the only people reading it.  That statement, as obvious as it may be, seems to disappear when we approach the Bible, with all its intricacies and difficulties.  Despite what we may think, the Enemy is always at work in the world, even (and perhaps, especially) when we try to read the Bible.  

For that reason, the lesson on discernment and Bible-reading as a churchwide endeavor seemed the obvious next step.  As individuals approaching the text, it is much harder to identify and see where Sin is working in and through us.  The Church serves this function of accountability.  As a community, we can hold each other accountable to the grace given through the cross of Christ.  The Church is the place where we can learn, teach, and discern the work of God in His grace.  Thus, reading the Bible as a community formed in the image of Christ is the best defense against the Enemy, because the Church is the people through which the grace of God is shown to be at work in the world, by bringing sinners and strangers into communion with each other.  

Only with such an understanding of the depth and difficulty of the task of reading could we begin to approach the Bible anew and afresh, with the openness to hear the Spirit speak.  In reopening the Bible, I am not seeking to convert or evangelize.  Despite what the WCA says about me, I am not part of the gay mafia, and I am not trying to push a liberal agenda.  

Positively speaking, I am trying to get us to realize that, as a Church called and formed by grace, I am seeking simply to show that it is possible to live in community with others who think differently than us.  The work of discernment is how we open ourselves to God, such that, through our baptism, we allow ourselves to be in communion with each other.  

 

Romans 1: 18-32

Last week, there was one text we left out of the discussion of the “clobber passages”: Romans 1:18-32.  The reason I did not include Romans in our discussion is that it does not particularly fit into the category of “clobber passages” in the same way as the others do.  As we saw, the “clobber passages” are notable for the ease with which they occupy our ideological language.  The “clobber passages” are those with which we can effortlessly and comfortably, fundamentally attempt to excise God’s active work in the Church, while also being persuaded that what we are doing is God’s work.  

This is a diagnosable problem on all sides, from the most conservative to the most leftist.  To throw Sodom and Gomorrah at someone, without regard for who they are made to be in light of the cross (physical, embodied symbols of God’s grace), functions in the same way as blinding someone with the colors of the rainbow, disregarding that the Church holds true that it is the cross that makes us equal (in our sin), not the terms of secular ideology.  It is not by chance that Paul’s focus in Romans 1 is also on the work of the cross, cutting against our attempts at self-righteousness.  

Romans 1.18-32 is the key scriptural text that Christians on both sides of this debate must wrestle with when it comes to homosexuality. It is the only passage in scripture that treats the subject in more than an illustrative fashion, and it is the only passage in scripture that reflects on it in theological terms.

No matter what you conclude about this passage and its understanding of homosexuality, the theological context is crucial. That is, we have to understand what Paul is doing, not just in these verses, but in the first chapter of Romans, and the epistle, as a whole.  In the first chapter, Paul is attempting to demonstrate how the Gospel, rather than a set of philosophical precepts or moral teachings, is the power of God active in the world and, in fact, acting to overturn the world (the incarnate God is not an apolitical agent – though his politics are not like our own).

The Gospel, for Paul, is where the very righteousness of God is present.  And if it is present, it is active.  That is, Paul understands God’s righteousness not as a noun or adjective, but as a verb.  The Gospel – the story it tells about the work of God in Christ on the cross through the Spirit – is God’s way of making righteousness present and at work in the world.  

Thus, Paul sees that Jesus is the active embodiment, the incarnation, of God’s righteousness, and in chapter 1 of Romans, he is taking it as his task to detail the vast difference, the abyss between the righteousness of God disclosed in Christ, and the particular unrighteousness of fallen humanity.  Paul’s work in Romans is to diagnose the theological problem that makes the world the world.

Verses 19-32 serve for Paul as his exhibits of the evidence for the unrighteousness of the fallen world. Paul catalogs homosexuality as part of his thesis. Homosexuality’s inclusion in this series of illustrations should not obscure Paul’s larger rhetorical point. As verse 21 indicates, the cited sins all fall under the more general, and more damning, indictment that these fallen sinners have failed to honor God and render him his due thanksgiving. The sin Paul is zeroing in on, in other words, is idolatry.

In what way does Paul understand homosexuality as idolatry?

A majority of biblical scholars and cultural historians concur that Paul has in mind not monogamous homosexual relationships as we might know today, but heterosexuals in the wider Greco-Roman culture who engaged in homosexual acts purely for the sake of sex. That is, his focus is not, say, marriage.  His focus is, instead, sex taken from its place as a unitive and reflective theological motion.  This means that Paul is critiquing those who have made sex an end in itself, unattached to any sacred or intimate relationship of trust. In Paul’s mind, sex has become (or, is one example of) an idol.  

It is also necessary that readers do not miss Paul’s larger argument and the implications it bears for how we think of homosexuality. Paul, in chapter 1 of Romans, is not warning his readers of God’s wrath to come if they should engage in such sinful, idolatrous acts.  Paul’s point is, rather, that the world has already come under (and been delivered from) God’s wrath.  The presence of the idolatry of sex is not cast as a sin deserving of God’s wrath, but rather as proof of God’s wrath.  This may sound harsh, and it would be so, if not for the cross.  

God’s wrath, displayed in the death of Christ (of Godself) on the cross, exposes sin for what it is.  For Paul, then, the inclusion of the language of homosexuality is not meant to single out homosexuals as particularly deserving of God’s wrath (which is, by the way, exhausted on the body of Christ).  Rather, in diagnosing the theological condition of humanity, Paul sees the idolatry of sex, of which unfaithful homosexual acts are an illustrative example, as proof of God’s wrath.  Again, the indictment here, as I see it, is not against homosexuality proper, but against the idolatry of sex.

While this may be cold comfort to gay Christians, it should preclude Christians from singling out homosexuals as peculiarly deserving of God’s wrath. Indeed, if one is faithful and literal to the text of Paul’s argument, homosexuality is no more grave a sin than those who are “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” 

Paul, quite intentionally I think, provides an exhaustive and all-inclusive list. After all, his point is that all of creation is groaning in rebellion to God and we are all victims of and participants in unrighteousness.

On the other hand, and to be fair, Paul’s theological point in Romans also gives grist to the argument that many Christians make, that homosexuality violates God’s creative intent for humanity. I do not want to skirt by this; after all, my aim here is not to convert anyone to any particular view.  While gay Christians may feel that they were created so, readers of Paul can make the theological claim that homosexuality is a sign of how Sin in our fallen world has distorted God’s aims in creation. Nothing in creation, some might posit, presently resembles what God intended in the beginning.

Readers must remember, as well, Paul’s claim in 2 Corinthians 5.17, that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”  That is, the old narrative of creation is left behind.  The creation and intention of God for creation is not only made new, but is made right through the rectifying power of God’s righteousness, incarnate in Christ. 

Paul’s writing in Romans is dense and difficult. Readers should not forget that Paul’s argument is a theological one, not a moral one. To be faithful to the text, the arguments and conclusions one makes about homosexuality, at least in terms of Romans, should be theological ones, and they should be theological ones couched in the exhaustive list of sins Paul enumerates in verses 29-31.

Another word of caution to those who debate these matters, and the word of caution comes from Paul. As Paul’s reasoning continues into chapter two of Romans, Paul warns that, “You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (2.1). 

The Grafting of Gentiles

In his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays acknowledges that the New Testament provides no definitive, applicable “rule” on homosexuality. The New Testament, as in the case of Romans 1, offers only theological principles against homosexuality, yet Hays stresses that scripture’s negative prohibitions regarding homosexuality be read against the larger backdrop of the male-female union, which scripture presents as the normative location for love and intimacy. 

However marginal or unclear are the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality, the scriptural canon clearly and repeatedly affirms that God made man and woman for one another. Any contemporary discernment over homosexuality must struggle with this positive norm that is the overwhelming witness of the scriptural narrative

There is, however, another way of thinking about homosexuality that can serve to help balance our present discernment in the bounds of scriptural cannon and tradition.  We should remember here the advice of David Fitch: grounding our discernment in the stories of real people, in the reality and complex materiality of sexuality.  And we should also heed the advice of Luke Timothy Johnson, who notes that, “The burden of proof required to overturn scriptural precedents is heavy, but it is a burden that has been born before. The Church cannot, should not, define itself in response to political pressure or popularity polls. But it is called to discern the work of God in human lives and adapt its self-understanding in response to the work of God.”

To those who would worry that this advocates turning the Church into a replication of modernity, fear not.  Johnson’s advice is not advice to rush ahead and simple acquiesce to culture at every turn.  What Johnson gives us is the possibility of a hermeneutic of openness within the Church.  That is, Johnson’s advice is to maintain a posture of humility to being open to listening to the stories of God’s people with intent, grace, and the full armor of tradition.

Because scripture consistently adopts a negative view of homosexuality and affirms the heterosexual norm, we should listen to Hays, who argues that any change to the Church’s traditional teaching must come only “after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful.” 

This agonizing is not dissimilar from the work Paul does in all his corpus, but especially in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians to understand theologically the grafting of the Gentiles into the body of Christ.  As in the famous line, Paul writes that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3.28).  That is, in Christ’s death and resurrection (and the grace and salvation poured from there), the distinction between opposed groups is abolished.  For Christians, that means that each person in the body of Christ becomes an occasion for grace.  

Referring back to our notes on marriage, relationships are made possible by such work along Christological lines.  Relationships, of which marriage is the pinnacle, are opened to the work of Christ, precisely because God has made the relationship of the Trinity accessible to us in the incarnate Body of the Son.  

Eugene Rogers takes this to be the foundation on which gay and lesbian Christians in monogamous relation with one another, can be grafted into the body of Christ.  He posits that the relationship into which we are grafted through our baptisms is precisely the relationship Paul highlights in the adoption of the Gentiles into God’s salvific work, noting, “The sting is this:  In saving the Gentiles, God shows solidarity with something of their nature, the very feature that led the Jew Paul to distinguish himself from them.”  

The nature with which God shows solidarity to the Gentiles is the same nature with which God shows solidarity with the Jews: their sin and excess.  It is on the basis and mutual affirmation of our sin that God shows solidarity in adopting us into the life of the Trinity.  On the grafting of the Gentiles, Rogers writes:

The baptismal formula is not merely descriptive of the eschatological community, but normative…the salvation of almost all Christians, those who are not ethnically Jews, and do not observe the Torah, depends on taking [Romans 11:21-2] seriously, not only because it reflects on the cause of their salvation in God’s gracious grafting of an unpeople into God’s people, but also because it regulates relations within God’s people.”

Rogers, in analogizing this to the grafting of gay and lesbians Christians into the Church, concludes that it is only by affirming our baptismal relationship to each other that we can seriously think through the issue itself.  Our baptismal relation, which unites us in our death, allows us to discern the relations we ought to affirm and engender in our own community.  

Conclusion

Rogers also offers a simple question for us to ponder: how can we deny the Spirit, when it moves right in front of our eyes?

What Rogers is implying with this question is that we open our eyes to the work of the Spirit in gay relationships.  What he means by the work of the Spirit is the opening of grace to two sinners called into mutual life together in monogamous marriage.  If marriage is a site of grace, then the Church ought to consider whether gay marriage can also be such a site.  The grace of God in Christ knows no bounds.  What the Church needs to consider is whether, given all that has been said, we ought to affirm grace in the relationships of gay Christians.  

For the fourth year in a row, the podcast posse hosted a live pubcast to kick-off annual conference, this time at Ballast Point Brewery in Roanoke where we had over 200 folks attend. Our guests were Jeff and Steve Mullinix, who shared with us their story of growing up in the closet, attending Bob Jones University, and eventually finding one another and marrying. Jeff is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Steve is a teacher. As Steve told us in an earlier podcast, “I am incompatible with Christian teaching because of my relationship with another man; his name is Adam.”

If you’d like to get your own “Incompatible” glass that we passed out to partcipants that night, go to our website www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to order your own.

While you’re there, click on “Support the Show” and become a patron of the podcast.

Sunday’s lectionary epistle is from Galatians 5, an oft-misunderstood and frequently misapplied text.

Just to make it clear at the get-go: The fruit of the Spirit are for your neighbor. 

     When you hear Paul’s list as Law, you think that this is prescription for who you must be and what you must do in order to be right before God. But the Gospel is that Christ by his obedience has fulfilled all the righteousness that the Law requires of you. 

     He’s fulfilled the demands of the Law for you. And he bore all your failures to follow the Law upon the cross. Because of Jesus Christ, though you are not, God reckons you as righteous. God credits Christ’s righteousness to you as though it were your own. 

     The Law, Paul has said, no longer has any power to condemn you. 

     There is now, Paul says in Romans, no condemnation for those who are in Christ and to whom his righteousness has been imputed. 

     Your sins are forgiven, once for all. You are fit for heaven just as you are: impatient and unkind, frequently faithless, and often harsh and out of control. You are Christ’s Beloved by faith and all that he has is yours now. 

     Every work of faith has already been done for you. 

     As gift. 

     And its yours by faith not by works. No work you do, no fruit you yield, adds anything to what Christ has already done for you. Everything. He’s done everything already.

     Therefore- 

     God’s not counting. God’s forgotten how to count.

     The God who no longer counts your trespasses isn’t counting your good works either (thank God).

God’s neither a score-keeper nor a fruit counter. 

The Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith. Alone.

Ergo-

The fruit of the Gospel is not for your justification. It’s for your neighbor.

     It’s a community garden the Spirit is growing in you. 

     God doesn’t need your love or your peace or your patience. God certainly doesn’t need your generosity. God doesn’t need any of them, but your neighbor does. 

     I mean, Paul’s repeated it like 100 times thus far: For freedom Christ has set you free. 

     Christ didn’t set you free for fruit. 

Christ freed you for freedom. 

Not for a return on his investment. 

Christ freed you for freedom. 

Not so you can clean yourself up and get your act together. 

     Christ freed you for freedom. 

     Not so you can go out and earn back what he paid for you. 

     And not so you can build a Kingdom only he can bring. 

     Paul’s not blinking and he’s not BS-ing.

     For freedom Christ has set you free. 

     There’s no one else you have to be before God. And there’s nothing else you have to do for God. 

     But for the sake of your neighbor…

     God will yet make you loving and gentle and joyous. 

     You see, the question that the fruit of the Spirit should provoke in you is NOT “What must I do now that God has saved me?” 

     No, the question the fruit of the Spirit should lead you to ask is this one: “What work is God doing in me and through me-in spite of sinful me- for the sake of my neighbor?” And the answer to that question can only come to us by the same route our justification comes: by faith alone. 

      The fruit of the Spirit teach us that not only are you justified by faith apart from your works, very often you’re justified by faith apart from your everyday experience. 

     By faith apart from your feelings.

     Forget Christmas and the resurrection, in no small part, what it means to have faith is to believe about you what your feelings can’t seem to corroborate. 

     The biggest obstacle to faith isn’t science- only an idiot would think that- the biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror. 

     I know it about a whole lot of you. Surely you know it about you too. 

     You’re not always kind or patient or generous. 

     Yet the Gospel promises and the Gospel invites you to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work like a patient Gardener to yield in you and harvest from you kindness and patience and generosity. 

     And that’s an even bigger leap of faith than it sounds because because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular. 

     As in, it’s all one gift: Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest.

     God’s working all of it, every one of them, in you. 

     Even though you might feel at best you have only a few of them. 

    God’s working all of them, every one of them, in you. 

     Which makes the Spirit’s work in you is as mysterious and invisible as what the Spirit does to water and wine and bread and the word. 

     The fruit of the Spirit is a matter of faith not feeling. 

     By your baptism in to his death and resurrection, you are in Jesus Christ. 

     You are. 

     No ifs, ands, or buts. Nothing else is necessary. 

     And if you are in Christ, then the Spirit is at work in you. 

     No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications. 

     No matter what your life looks like

     No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

     No matter how up and down, there and back again, is your faith 

     No matter how bare feel your basket to be.

     If you are in Christ, Christ’s Spirit is in you. 

     And the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you what your eyes cannot see and what your feelings cannot confirm.  

     God works in mysterious ways, we say all the time without realizing each of us who are in Jesus Christ are one of those mysteries. 

The lectionary epistle reading this coming Sunday is from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, easily one of the most important books of the New Testament. Galatians 5, however, no matter it’s cross-stitched popularity, can prove quite problematic if it’s abstracted from the larger context of the letter.

When we hear Paul’s list in Galatians 5 as telling us who we should be or what we ought to do we replicate the Galatian error. In Paul’s terms, we twist this from Gospel back into Law: As a Christian, you should be generous. As a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, you ought to be patient and kind. Become more gentle and joy-filled!  

     That way of hearing turns this list into the Law. 

     This list is not the Law. 

     It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive. 

     It’s proclamation; it’s not exhortation. 

     They are indicatives. They are not imperatives. 

     Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” 

     Paul does not say: “Become more patient.” 

     To turn the fruit of the Spirit into aspirations or expectations of who you will be or what you will do as a Christian is to stumble back into the Law just like the Galatians.

     As Paul said earlier, if the Law is in any way necessary for us to follow then Jesus Christ died for absolutely no reason. 

     To hear this list as goals or, worse, a code of conduct is to hear it as Law, and the Law, Paul says, always accuses, reminding you of who you’re not, what you’re lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete you are. As Law, this list just reinforces the message you see and hear in ads 3,000 times a day: You’re not good enough. 

     If it’s Law then this just accuses us because there’s always more money you could’ve left in the plate, there’s always someone for whom you have neither patience nor kindness, there’s always days- if you’re like me, whole weeks even- when you have no joy. 

     But this list is not Law and your lack of joy or gentleness does not make you an incomplete or inauthentic Christian. 

     Because notice- 

     After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do—

Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’ 

Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’ 

     No, he changes the voice completely. 

He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit.

     He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith. 

     You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue. The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches. 

     When Paul speaks of our life lived in light of the Gospel, he shifts to a passive image. 

     What you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort. 

     Except the Gardener. 

     Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy. 

     To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point- his point that, apart from Christ’s bleeding and dying for you, you are dead in your sins. 

     Apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ you are a dead plant, but by your baptism you have been made alive such that now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit. 

     This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel. It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s not what you do but what the pardon of God produces in you in spite of still sinful you. 

     In quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity. 

     It’s counter to much of Christian culture too. 

     On the Left and the Right, so much of Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit.

It’s all about behavior modification. 

     But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven. 

     This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth. 

   

We’re doing a church-wide Bible study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. In addition to the crowd at church, literally thousands have downloaded the class notes or audio. It’s encouraging to see so many people from so many viewpoints earnestly want to learn.

THE CLOBBER PASSAGES AND CREATION (AKA: “THE GOOD STUFF”)

Where We Are

Last week, having solidified our understanding of Bible reading as a communal enterprise, we started to talk about sexuality through a positive, substantive understanding of marriage and its theological purpose:  to reflect the mutual joy and vulnerability that constitutes the life of the Trinity. 

And Now… the Good Stuff

After three weeks of re-learning how to read scripture, I know you are all anxious to get to the texts in contention. The day has finally arrived.  The “clobber passages” are finally here.  Just by the name, we must note the violence these passages have done, not only to certain LGBT people, but to the Church as a whole.  The “clobber passages” have done harm to the body of Christ called the Church not only because we throw them at each other with such disdain for the other, but because when we do so, we resist and reject the idea that reading the Bible is a Churchwide enterprise for the purpose of discernment, not destruction.

That is, when we read these passages and (1) take them out of context, (2) use them to hurt one another, and (3) refuse to open ourselves to any interpretation other than the one we supposedly conclude on our own, we preclude God from working through the process of discernment.  Like David Fitch told us a few weeks ago, such actions are the simple reiterations of cultural antagonisms.  

Thus, the fact that we have even coined the term “clobber passages” belies our captivity to the ideology of the world, and the need for the freedom Christ’s grace provides.  Before we even begin, then, we need to set out, once again, our communal assumptions.  Doing so provides a consistent reminder that keeps us framed well within both tradition and the concrete world we inhabit.  The interpretation of Holy Scripture is one of the most important tasks assigned to the Church, and in such a tumultuous world, this very activity of discerning the work of the Spirit in scripture and our lives can show the world the alternative that is Christ.  

By the same token, narrow, closed interpretations cannot do justice to the complexity of the issue at hand.  It is inadequate discipleship to approach this issue with a “the Bible says it’s wrong” attitude. Such a closed attitude treats scripture as a dead letter, and it fails to ask what the Holy Spirit might be speaking through the Word of God to the Church today.  

It is also insufficient to respond to this issue with the contrary attitude which says, “Well, I know how I feel about this matter.” Such an individualistic attitude fails to take seriously the testimony of the larger Christian community, both past and present. The Church is a community, and its testimony is predicated not on individual suppositions, but on the community’s work in discerning God’s work.  

With that, allow me one more remark about the nature of what we are doing here. Homosexuality is an issue that strikes at God’s intention for our relationships. Whatever answer one gives to this debate, it is clear that God intends for our conservations and discernment to be marked by mercy, humility and love.  This study, which we are undertaking for the sake of the Church and in the assurance of the Gospel, must be undertaken with the conviction that our world, being a profoundly polarized world, needs a sanctuary, a place where complex issues can be discussed, where God’s will can be discerned, and where such dialogue is guaranteed to happen with a love born of grace and a hospitality tempered by humility.

This conviction necessarily takes every side of the issue with sincerity and with the assumption that each person comes seeking God and what God is doing in the world.  It is inadequate to assume otherwise. If we treat this issue with silence, we do a deep injustice not only to LGBT people in our congregation, but to the Church as a whole. Christ came to forgive all sin, not to keep his people silent.  

With that, let’s remind ourselves of the guiding parameters from the first session: 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance, of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (”I know Jesus said, but I say to you.”). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriage was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

The Good Stuff, Part 1 – Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis 19.1-29 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a familiar, yet little understood passage that many insist is a clear moment of God’s wrathful judgment levied against homosexual activity.  Clergy, laypeople, and theologians often make reference to this story to shore up their accounts of the absolute heterosexual proscription of the Bible.  

In the story, a mob of men from the city bang on Lot’s door. Their apparent intention is to gang-rape Lot’s visitors, whom the reader already knows are really angels. No reason is given in the text for why the men of the city should be so moved. Rather, their threat stands as a sort of symbol in the story for the city’s general wickedness.  That is, the specific intention of the mob is a byproduct of the city’s captivity to sin.  

The angels rescue Lot’s family and later pronounce the city’s destruction. Despite the propensity of some to read this narrative as an anti-homosexual text, no where in the story itself or in the rest of scripture is Sodom’s sin identified as homosexuality. Instead of homosexuality, the prophet Ezekiel identified Sodom’s chief sin to be: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16.49). In discerning scripture’s will for homosexuality, it is prudent for the Church to look to other texts.

Further, reading the text in this fashion forces one to draw an analogy between gang-rape and consensual homosexual relations. This is a textual and a logical stretch, at best.  Especially, in light of the work we have done in the past few weeks to resituate our communal understanding of marriage within the life of the Trinity, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah could hardly function as an example of such relationships.  If there is some condemnation of homosexual activity here, it is most certainly not of the kind that concerns the Church.  There is nothing that even remotely resembles the faithful, monogamous kind of nuptial relationships that are under consideration here.  

Bonus Note:

The activity of the mob is, as the text tells us, one unnatural to the human condition. That is, there is nothing about the people in the mob that naturally inclined them to gang-rape. Whether or not you believe being gay is a matter of nature or nurture, gay people are who they are, and that will not change. 

The attribution of the mob’s acts to their nature, and thus the blame of judgment on homosexual activity, does not hold.  After all, the members of the mob had wives.

The Good Stuff Part 2 – The Household Codes

Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 belong to a portion of Leviticus referred to by scholars as the “Holiness Codes.” If you read them, you will see that they clearly prohibit male [but not female— because the texts are most interested in preventing unclear lines of inheritance] homosexual behavior. They seem straightforward and clear. Case closed, right?  

As clear as these texts are, however, they are not satisfactory texts for many Christians. The Holiness Codes, after all, contain many moral admonitions that have been ignored by Christians since the days of the early Church. These are matters related to food regulations and the ritual necessity of circumcision. Both “Acts” and “Romans” confirm for us that these codes do not apply to the life of the Church.  It is inconsistent with the larger Christian tradition to pull these texts out of Leviticus for the purpose of debate when the communal consensus has been that they belong to a code that is no longer normative for followers of Jesus. In fact, even the biblical literalist would have to acknowledge that while Leviticus prohibits male homosexual behavior, it makes no mention of female homosexual relationships. Indeed, such a jump to the condemnation of all homosexual relationships would be outside the bounds of a strict interpretive lens.  

As interesting and provocative as these passages are, they are not binding to us unless we also do not eat bacon.  

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear Paul’s Gospel announcement that “for freedom [from the Law] Christ has set us free,” I first think of bacon.  

The Good Stuff Part 3 – The New Testament

As we noted in our list of assumptions, the Gospels show Jesus teaching within the bounds of male-female normativity.  That is, Jesus does not denounce homosexuality, but he does not condone it either.  He is strongly within the bounds of male-female relations.  To be fair, Paul does reinterpret some of Jesus’ teachings, but he does not question those bounds.  

Beyond the Gospels, homosexuality and homosexual behavior receives few mentions.  For now, we will leave Romans 1 aside.  We will pick up on that next week.  

For now, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10. 

The First Letter to the Corinthians is a corrective that Paul issues out of frustration over their illicit actions.  The Corinthians, as bible readers and church-goers will remember, believed that they were already enjoying the exalted resurrection life. They concluded, therefore, that traditional moral conventions no longer applied to them. An aggravated Paul calls the Corinthians “wrong-doers.” To illustrate what he means by wrong-doer, Paul very helpfully provides them with a list of the sorts of people he is including the Corinthians among: “…fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.” 

For us, as Bible readers, it is important to note two things: 

  1. Sodomy does not equal homosexuality.  Sodomy is a particular sexual act, while homosexuality is a sexual orientation.  The two are not exchangeable, equivocal terms.
  1. Where we find homosexuality, especially in lists like this, it is often serving a rhetorical purpose, more so than being treated as a topic in itself.  

1 Timothy makes a similar move.  Timothy presumes that homosexuality is wrong, but 1 Timothy is not concerned with examining it in its own right. Instead, Timothy provides a list of behaviors and vices that are opposed to the Gospel, such as: “fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers.” 

In an earlier lesson, we talked about approaching scripture with a larger hermeneutical frame through which we interpret specific passages.  In passages like these, such a hermeneutic is requisite for proper ecclesial interpretation.  As much as these passages declare homosexuality as inconsistent with the Gospel, the broader theological condition that the New Testament diagnoses is that we are all incompatible with the Gospel.  

That theological conviction aside, the acts described here are, again, not the kind of relationships that concern the Church presently.  While it may seem like I am side-stepping the problem here, it is important to reflect on what kind of questions we want to ask, as a community, when it comes to this issue.  The nuptial vows we take in our wedding do not reflect individualized actions and vices that occur outside the bounds of our relationships, but rather the life and grace of the Trinity that has the possibility of being reflected in our relationships. Such distinctions are important when we interpret passages like this.  

What it is that we are after is a concrete, positive understandings of relationships in the life of the Church – relationships formed in the image of grace.  

Reframing Normativity – Genesis 1

When the “clobber passages” have worn themselves down, the conversation usually turns to Genesis and the account of creation.  Genesis 1 details the story of creation in pairs, and the heteronormative, supposedly binary creation of Adam and Eve, along with their complementarity, is used to support the doctrine of marriage.  

There is no denying the force of the Creation narrative on discussions of relationships, marriage, and human sexuality.  The beauty of the creation story seems bound up in the duality of the pairings.  More negatively, such a binary view necessarily flows into an interpretation that sees non-heterosexual relations and people as a result of the Fall.  

However, the narrative of creation is not primarily about the pairs that mark its ends.  Creation, as St. Gregory of Nyssa argues, is the script of the revelation of God as love.  Insofar as that is true, there must be a relationship of congruence between the Creator and creation.  Along with Christ, creation is the “primary act of God’s self-expression and an important part of God’s self-revelation to us.”  

With this frame, we can posit the creation narrative not as a strict narrative of ontology (a fancy word for the nature and existence of things), but rather,as a broad libretto that delineates the ends of the diversity creation inaugurates.  

Creation, in other words, is “non-binary.”  

The mystery such a conception of creation reveals is the notion that the pairings given in Genesis 1 are each “spectrums within which a variety of expressions occur.”  

Take light, for an example.  

Just as with day and night, light and darkness do not name the only possible options available within God’s creation. It’s not, that is, either light or dark. As I write this essay, it’s dusk.

The first act of creation is the creation of light and, as we know from quantum physics, light is “itself one, but with variety that’s visible when it’s passed through a prism.”  Further, if creation is an expression of the triune Creator, then, of necessity, it cannot be contained by binary sets of parameters.  Creation must reflect the full spectrum of the goodness of God.  

The phrase “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” thus, has force only as a rhetorical insult, with little interpretive basis behind it. The phrase assumes an absolute doublet pairing, lacking the room of diversity reflected in every pairing of the preceding creation narrative.

A non-binary conception of creation, despite how counter-intuitive it might strike us, actually proceeds from the source of creation:  God as Trinity, a unity of oneness that makes room for diversity.  The cosmos mirrors such diverse unity, and the demarcation of creation as such with pairs, indicative, but not wholly descriptive of its inner diversity, opens for us a new way of seeing the pairing of Adam and Eve: descriptive, normative, but not proscriptive, nor exhaustive.  

In Conclusion… Procreation?

You are probably wondering about the command ordered to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.”  This is not an incidental question, for most orthodox Jews even today will name “Be fruitful and multiply” as God’s very first commandment to his creatures. 

As the ancient wedding rite makes clear, a willingness for a married couple to welcome children into their life (without condition— this is why Christians are against abortion) is an attribute constituitive of any understanding of Christian (or Jewish) marriage. After the clobber passages are set aside, Christians will often cite the inability of gay Christians to bear biological children as a disqualification of their marriage as Christian marriage. While this point is more constructive than resorting to the clobber passages, it often inappropriately elevates the role of child-rearing as a Christian vocation and, in doing so, dismisses the vocation of single Christians and adoptive Christian parents. Still, the command to create like our Creator is an important one for Christians to address.

I want to conclude by commenting briefly on this and bringing us back into the original frame of our conversation.

The command, so often thought to bear only on Adam and Eve, is really a creative command issued to all of creation for the sake of creation.  That is, the procreative act is a necessary byproduct of creation’s contingency, which is a fancy way of saying that creation, unlike its Creator, does not have itself as its foundation, and thus must have certain procreative capacities to ensure its continuity.  Moreover, the command to procreate comes after the declaration of everything as “very good,” which means that the diversity of the continuum of creation is imputed a goodness in its relation to God prior to any requisite necessities.  

What does that mean? 

It means that the inherent created “very goodness” of those who constitute a Christian marriage is not invalidated or insufficient by marriages which cannot have childrenor choose not to have children. Logically, this would apply to gay Christians every bit as much as it would apply to infertile Christians. 

Christian couples are required to welcome children into their marriage (should children come); they’re not required to have children. 

Further— and this is key for it’s oft forgotten— Christians believe the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is now a closed commandment. 

The fullness of creation, in terms of Christian doctrine, is fulfilled in its entirety in the coming of Christ. That is, as Paul declares in Galatians and Romans, Christ fills all commandments, including the procreative command. What’s more, the need to fill the earth is no longer necessary, for, as the Bible declares to us in Ephesians, the Fullness of Christ is a Fullness that already now fills all of creation precisely because it is God condescending into His creation itself.  The Creator enters creation, and in so doing, fills creation to its absolute core.  

The crucified and risen Christ is in all of creation; such that, all of creation is a sacrament, rendering the command in Genesis not just closed but obsolete.

Our discussions of sexuality, keeping within the interpretive frame set out above, must acknowledge the coming of the Creator as the fulfillment of the world, and with it, the final completeness of the creative act.  The love that inaugurated the world, the love that every Christian marriage has the capacity to reflect, was made flesh.  

Friend of the podcast, the wild and crazy Dr. David Fitch is back to talk about his latest book, “Us vs. Them: “Freedom from a Faith that Feeds on Making Enemies.” Fitch talks with us about how ideological functions to shape our reading of scripture, how we can read scripture locally as community, and how we discern where God is leading us in a way that avoids cultural antagonisms.

Before you listen, help us out! Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” to become a patron of the podcast for peanuts!

If you’re getting this by email, click here to find the audio.

 

The breath of God, the voice from heaven, wind and fire…baby-momma Dr. Johanna is back and so is (Her)Men*You*tics to talk about our latest stained glass word in the alphabet: “Voice.” That’s right, Johanna had a baby (Elin Lucy) and yours truly is the proud godfather…

Before you listen, go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” to help us out and pay it forward.

 

Here’s an excerpt from the new book. You can find it here.

We like to be more in control than the free offer of forgiveness affords us. To be in the right with another is to do right by them might put me on somebody’s shit list, but it at least leaves me in the driver’s seat for what will fol- low; whereas, to be in the right with another is to be declared right by them takes away everything from me and leaves me empty- handed. Faith alone in your promise of forgiveness is a disavowal of my own performance to merit it.

If I have to earn your forgiveness, then at least I’ll accrue evi- dence external to either of us to which I can point and justify myself later. If I have to earn your pardon, then I can simultane- ously be on the lookout for anything I can use as leverage against you should you withhold forgiveness. Look at all that I did to make it up to you and still it wasn’t enough, I’ve griped to more than just my wife. But if forgiveness is free, then, like on my wedding day, I’ve got absolutely nothing to hold onto but you. I’ve got nothing to hold on to but my trust in you.

Those who mimic Christ’s unconditional promise by marrying one another in his name take a bigger risk than they realize. Those who say “I do” agree to forget how to count. Bride and groom not only forsake all others from their bed and their hearts, they forsake the calculators we all carry with us and with which we balance the sums and subtractions of our relationships. We’re left on our wedding day with no recourse but to take the other at their word. To trust that you forgive me is to have faith you won’t use my debt later to burn me.

Forgiveness isn’t cheap, Robert Capon says. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

Yet the bitter irony that makes every marriage a beautiful risk is that this free forgiveness could cost you everything. More so than the person with whom you share your bed, the graver risk of fidelity in marriage is letting your lover’s promise of forgiveness leave you empty-handed. In marriage you trust that, having been forgiven of it, your wrongdoing won’t boomerang back onto you. You trust your lover won’t wield your wrong later as a weapon against you.

We continued our church-wide Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality by looking the Song of Songs.

SESSION THREE: MUTUAL VULNERABILITY AND DELIGHT— SONG OF SONGS AND MARRIAGE AS A PARABLE OF TRIUNE LOVE

WHERE WE ARE

So far, we’ve done little to deal with the actual portions of the Bible that mention sexuality.  Purposefully, the first two sessions were meant to try and reframe how we approach and think about the Bible.  In the first session, we discussed how the reading of the Bible is a churchwide endeavor.  That is, the Church is the means by which we mediate our understanding of scripture, because it provides the communal frame through which we can interpret the particulars of scripture.  

  In the second session with David Fitch, we doubled-down on the importance and difficulty of reading as a community.  David helped introduce us to notions of ideology and banners, concepts that help us to identify what happens when we start throwing scripture at each other; that is, David helped us see when we turn the grace of God as communicated by scripture into the Law as dictated by the antagonisms society envelops us in.  When antagonisms are the basis of the Church’s (Read: the community’s) use of scripture, the Bible becomes a weapon, an instrument of ideology.  

David left us with the question of how to discern what it is that God is doing on the ground in the Church.  Discernment on our part requires an active participation in the life of Christ by forming our discussions in the same way that Christ forms us through the cross.  Discernment means beginning in a space of brokenness – the only space from which God enters the scene.  It begins, then, with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, opening up the community to seeing collectively where God is present and where God is working among them and outside of them.  

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Once again, since I want to make sure this sinks in for everyone, I’m going to reiterate the assumptions and premises to help us navigate this question and open ourselves to how God is shaping us through it.  (Notice: the emphasis here is on what God is doing.  We cannot proceed unless we can first get to a point where we acknowledge our need to be led, to be taught, to be humbled in the work of God in this community.)  

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses, which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

SONG OF SONGS AND MUTUAL, MATERIAL JOY

First, take a look at the ancient wedding rite as found in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rite obviously assumes the male/female norm, notice what the liturgy names as the first purpose of Christian marriage:

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of  God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and
this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and  first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us
the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture  in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

In the debate over sexuality, verses are plucked from various and different contexts to corroborate one position (and by the very same token, denigrate the position of another).  Think Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, to name a few.  

The most neglected book of the Bible in this discussion, and perhaps the most neglected book generally in the Church, is the Song of Songs.  Perhaps, this is because it is the most openly erotic book of the Bible.  Perhaps, it is because the love song uses language many of us would never dream of saying in the bedroom (nor would we want to hear it). 

Given the openly amorous language, I wonder why this does not get the attention it ought to receive in debates about sexuality.  

It is a love poem, but a love poem of a different kind, something not found in the whole of scripture.  Ancient Jewish interpreters of this poem understood it to be a love song conveying the relationship between God and Israel.  Reading in that legacy, interpreters in the early Church understood the poem on two levels: on the interior relationship that constitutes the trinity, and the relationship between God and the Church.  For ancient interpreters, rarely was it the case that this scripture was referenced to refer to marriage as we know it.  

The Song of Songs was not a song of human marriage, but of the marriage of the divine, through which human marriage finally became intelligible to early Christians (Paul, famously, advocated chastity and asceticism before marriage).  It should be indicative even from the name of the poem, which takes a superlative, genitive form.  It is the Song from which all other songs proceed, which is to say that the relationship disclosed in the Song of Songs is the primary relationship of focus for those in the Church.  

The Song of Songs shows us that, in the life of the Church, marriage becomes intelligible only on a tertiary level.  The Song of Songs, in primarily disclosing the relationship that constitutes the Trinity, reflects the focus that Christian marriage is meant to reflect: the unmitigated, continuous exchange of grace and love between partners.  The relationship that the Song of Songs most ardently expounds is the relationship of grace that marriages are meant to reflect.  

Marriage, then, is a signifier of the one-way grace and love of God for the world, given in Christ through the power of the Spirit.  

Take this passage from Song of Songs 5: 1-8

  1. I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
  2. I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
  3. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
  4. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for
  5. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
  6. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
  7. The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
  8. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

Obvious innuendos aside, the centerpiece of this passage is the opening and closing to the Beloved.  The whole dramatis of this section relies on the climax that occurs in verse 6.  Read as the relationship between the Church and the Lord, this can be identified immediately as a statement begrudging the lustful desire of the Lord’s flock and instead turning her to seek after him properly.  

Beneath this, though, is a deeper meaning.  The theologian Robert Jenson writes in his commentary that what is revealed in the oscillation of open and closed is moreover the laying out of the recurring pattern of Israel’s salvation history.  This history is laid clear by the shifting nature of the love the woman has for the Beloved, shifting from seeking after him, to desiring him, to knowing him properly.  

Deeper still, there is something revealed about the nature of the Trinity here.  The same oscillation between lust and love, between eros and agape, is representative of the continuous exchange of love and grace, and the transformative, active power therein, that makes the Trinity’s inner communion distinct.  

The song, in its ebb and flow, tracks and maps the exchange of love that constitutes the unity of God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

And notice (this next part is important for the rest of what I am going to say):  The kind of love and desire described, the kind of actions used illustratively, they are all embodied acts.  

BABETTE’S FEAST

The cult classic film, Babette’s Feast, is a helpful example in attempting to understand the grace God gives, which is the same grace that makes God, God.  In the film, which takes place in a small town in Sweden, the two female leaders of a struggling congregation that declined after the passing of its founder, find a woman on their steps needing a place to stay.  She was fleeing persecution from the French, who had killed her family.  The women agree to let her stay, and in return she cooks and cleans for them, providing meals for their services and maintaining the church.  One day, she happens to receive the winning ticket of the lottery, worth $10,000.  After notifying the two sisters, she insists that they celebrate her winnings with a large feast, which she offers to prepare.  She leaves for a while to get everything necessary for the feast.  When she returns, a boatload of food arrives with her, and she prepares a full meal in French style, with which the locals are unfamiliar and on first taste, unsatisfied.  But as the feast progresses, the gathering becomes more and more lively, the food tasting better and better with each bite.  

At the end of the feast, the two women, fearing that she will leave since the feast is over, ask the lady what she plans to do.  She replies by saying that she is not leaving, for she spent all her winnings on the feast.  “That is the cost of a meal for friends at Café Anglaise,” she states.  

The story is a story of unmerited grace, where the Christ-figure both upsets and reconciles.  The narrative, which shows a lot more Gospel than cultural criticism will allow us to admit, tells us a several things.  

  1. The human Jesus really was a human, who appears to us in the state of brokenness and need. Therefore, the redemption offered in Christ is one offered through a body.
  2. The price of grace can be paid only by Christ: It is inaccessible without him.
  1. The promise of grace is never revoked, for it promises bodily resurrection and rehabilitation.

TRINITY, THE BODY, AND MARRIAGE

Before we start judging gay people for the supposedly distinctive unrighteousness of their marriages, straight Christians need to first have a positive understanding of what marriage is and what it does.  And for us Christians, that means taking the resurrection seriously.  In fact, taking the resurrection seriously is the only way that the Christian view of marriage makes any sense.

The resurrection, we confess in the creeds, is bodily; the Christ who leaves the grave on Easter morning is not only alive, but he is alive and breathing. The resurrection we profess is embodied, which makes the marriage of two people not simply a sign of invisible grace, but a physical embodiment of the promise God gives in Christ, the only promise that could ever be unconditional.  

As we saw in the Song of Songs, the relationality of the Trinity is what marriage ought to point to.  And insofar as one person of the Trinity is, in fact, a Person (albeit with a capital P), then the relationship expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, provides the necessary centerpiece of the physical bond we call marriage.  

In fact, without that piece, marriage is simple a soluble spiritual bond that cannot sustain itself, and that will inevitably not take seriously the importance of the body.  That is, without the resurrection, Christian marriage becomes unintelligible, because the body becomes meaningful. 

In the ancient world, between the 1st and 4th centuries, a proto-religion called Gnosticism came out of the early Christian tradition. You’ve probably heard the name before.  In fact, you’ve probably been a practicing gnostic before (don’t feel bad about it; its America’s religion, really).  There were two central things, thematically speaking, that made Gnosticism different from the early Christians: their conception of the body, and their notion of salvation.  The latter, for Gnostics, informed the former.  They thought of the body as encumbering the soul, the freedom of which is the ultimate salvation.  

We may not want to admit it, but we (as a society) are much more prone to thinking of bodies in this way, in this negative light that ties the body to a negative materiality.  For Gnostics, salvation ultimately ended in the release from the body and the ascent of the pure soul.  

Despite its ravaging popularity, even to the point of being a distinct part of our philosophical inheritance, the Gnostic notion of the body is utterly different from the one offered in Christ and in our marriage to Him.  

The marriage rites, which quote from Genesis (something we will talk about next week), tell us that the couple “cleaves” to each other.  The couple, that is, literally physically attach to each other (yes, that means what you think it means).  The resurrection and the ascension, the moments in which God raises both Christ and humanity with Him, are bodily acts, and in that vein give our bodies a substantive meaning – a positive meaning.  

Further, the ascension, which is the visible sign of the unity of the Trinity in which all of humanity is invited to participate, actually makes our material lives good.  The goodness of the body of Christ, raised into active participation in the unity of love and grace, raises our bodies into that goodness as well.  When Christ returns from the dead in the physical body that was nailed to the cross, the bodies we have were given a good meaning. 

The resurrection, assured in the ascension, makes the bodies we have important conduits of grace.  Grace comes not in a disembodied, vaporous form, but in the substantive body of Christ. That body was made naked and vulnerable to us, such that we might “see the Father” (John 14:9).  The vulnerability of Christ’s body is a sign to us of the goodness of our own vulnerability.  And remember, the body the disciples see after the resurrection – it’s still vulnerable.  Jesus urges Thomas to “put your finger here; see my pierced hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).  

Nowhere is the vulnerability of our bodies more evident than in marriage.  

Thus, all the acts of marriage, and especially sex, are the truly parabolic moments that signify a couple’s reflection of the Trinity.  We have to remember that the Trinity, whose love we attempt to reflect in marriage, is the constant self-disclosure and love and grace to itself, which requires of it an absolute vulnerability.  Each of the members of the Trinity is always already open and vulnerable to the others.  

When we open ourselves to others (literally and metaphorically) and become vulnerable, our three-way relationship with us, our partner, and God becomes intelligible.  Our nakedness takes on a theological meaning, because it reflects the same nakedness that binds the Trinity together.  

Thus, marriage is not only an outward sign of an inward grace, but a physical sign of a bodily grace.  God, who is all in all through Christ in the unity of the Spirit, cannot help but raise our bodies, too.  It is only from that stance that we can begin to evaluate, in a Christian sense, the goodness, or not, of nuptial unity.  That is, if we are to evaluate marriages as a church, then this positive understanding of the goodness of our bodies and the reflection of the Trinity that is a centerpiece of the sanctifying function that marriages serve for the community called the Church.  

That grace, moreover, is the means by which marriages become sanctifying bonds given as a gift to the Church for its edification.  More on that next week.  To end, I want to offer you a “Charge for a Wedding,” written by Eugene F. Rogers, a theologian who was my first teacher at UVA, which does not depend on male-female normativity for the coherence of Christian marriage:  

“Dearly beloved: we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of these God’s human creatures, [x and y], in Holy Matrimony.  Marriage signifies the mystery of the love that God bears for human beings, in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith with us.  That love is mysterious to us in that, unlike us, God just is love, an interior community, never lonely, already rich.  That love is open to us in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith in God’s very self, as these two desire, befriend, and keep faith with each other.  And God’s Spirit internally witnesses and blesses and keeps faith with the love in God as today we externally witness and bless the love of these two human creatures in God’s image.  Today the celebration, blessing, and witnessing of this wedding catch us up into a parable of the inner love and life of God.” 

God Gone Wild

Jason Micheli —  June 16, 2019 — Leave a comment

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued with Jesus’ macabre little drama in Matthew 22.1-14

Last week, some of your lay leaders and I were emailing each other back and forth regarding what we should do about a homeless, undocumented man who’s been sleeping outside near the trash bins at our mission center on Heritage Drive. 

“You should see how he’s dressed— the custodians are creeped out by him.”

And so we exchanged emails, weighing the merits of shelters and county services against our concerns about safety and liability on the one hand and the police and ICE on the other hand. 

At some point during the Reply All email thread, Eldon Hillenbrandt, who— if you don’t know him— is a wonderful, earnest, sincere man without a sarcastic or cynical bone in his body (in other words, he’s everything I’m not) replied with a wonderfully earnest and sincere question. He asked us: “What do you think Jesus would do?” 

WWJD— what would Jesus do?

Totally sincere question, not cynical or sarcastic in any way. 

And probably Eldon had in mind a parable like the sheep and the goats. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What would Jesus do about the stranger sleeping against the dumpster in his stinking, shabby clothes? 

And because I’m the way my Maker made me, when it came to Eldon’s completely earnest and sincere question I couldn’t help myself. 

Like those salmon who swim upstream in order to mate even though doing the deed will be the death of them, I couldn’t help myself. 

Just as some artists work in oil or watercolors, I work in saracasm and middle school boy bathroom humor. 

I couldn’t resist typing in reply: “WWJD? Cuff him! Hand and foot! Torture him! Kill him! Throw him in Hell!” 

Fortunately, as I gazed upon my computer screen, the cursor still blinking at the end of my adolescent quip, I suddenly had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity and thought better about sending it.

In case you haven’t met her, I call that moment of clarity, Ali. 

So I deleted the comment and instead sent out some prosaic pastor-speak.

But the problem is— 

We can’t backspace our way away from the Jesus who tells this parable today.

———————-

As liberal mainline Protestants, we’ve all been conditioned into believing that Christianity boils down to being nice and doing nice; therefore, if we have any religious convictions at all it’s that God is nice too. And maybe at first you thought that’s where Jesus’ story was headed. 

An evite goes out for a great extravagant party, but those in the VIP queue— the fat cats and country club set, the season ticket holders and the keto dieters, the cronies of the rich man— mark the invitation read and forget all about it. 

So the rich man says, “Hey, I’ve already paid the photographer. I’ve got a Costco’s worth of beef tenderloin under the broiler, and the DJ’s already started playing the Electric Slide. Go out beyond the suburbs and bring in the folks from the Halfway House— and don’t forget those guys who loiter around the 7-Eleven too. Let them come into my party. The 1% don’t deserve my generosity.” 

Probably as Jesus’ story was being read at first you thought you liked it. You like the idea of God going out like Bernie Sanders to the marginalized and the poor and the dispossessed and inviting them to a fine china, cloth napkin, open bar party. 

It’s a nice thought.

And it would be nice if Jesus just left it alone right there, which is sort of the way Jesus tells it in Luke’s Gospel.

But Matthew? 

I mean— all this festival of death needs to be more terrifying are creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, and Jesus with a hatchet saying “Here’s Johnny.” 

And maybe a ginger kid too— a ginger would make it scarier. 

What gets you about Jesus’ story in Matthew is not the graciousness of the King esteeming the lowly onto his guest list, as in Luke. 

What gets you is this King’s totally inappropriate and excessive behavior. 

“Oh, the A-Listers couldn’t be bothered to open the Paperless Post? Some clicked ‘Maybe?’ Really? Well then, I’ll tell you what, Alfred. I want you get some of the hired help and I want you to cross them off the guest list permanently, if you know what I mean. No, that’s right, you heard me correctly, hand and foot. Send them to a place worse than Cleveland! They’ll regret sending their regrets when I get through with them!”

Then, as if the body count wasn’t already high enough, in a flourish only House Lanister could love, there’s Jesus’ finale. Among the good and bad gathered into the King’s party, this panhandling vagrant off Braddock Road makes it past the maitre’d only to get himself shipped off to one of Dick Cheney’s black sites allbecause of the way he’s dressed. 

“You there— yeah you.” 

Actually, the word the King uses in Greek is hetaire, which means, basically, “Buster.” 

“Hey how’d you get in here dressed like that? We’ve got beluga on ice and Chateau Branaire-Ducru uncorked. This party is black tie and tails only, buster.”

“Well, sir, I was sleeping outside next to the Mission Center trash bins only an hour ago, and they don’t stock formal wear in the church’s coat closet.” 

And the “gracious” King responds: “Really? Well then…Bind him, hand and foot! Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

———————-

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible…

———————-

I know you—

It really bothers you that the formerly sweet baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers would tell a story like this to nice, well-mannered people like you. It bothers you to hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world roaring like a lion at…

At what exactly? 

Failure to RSVP? 

A party foul?

What gives?

Admit it—

We all want a God who says of our flagged but unopened evites, “Oh, your kids have a soccer game? You were up late last night? You can catch it online? That’s okay, I know you’re busy. We’ll miss you at the party but no biggie. Raincheck?”

We want a God who is as cool and dispassionate about us as we are about him.

We don’t want this irrational, incongruous God. 

We don’t want this God gone wild. 

We don’t want this King who is ferociously determined to celebrate his free party. 

No matter the costs. 

I mean— that much is obvious, right? 

As much as it tightens our sphincters and gives nice types like us acid reflux, for his macabe little drama Jesus rudely casts his Heavenly Father as this bezerk, damn-the-torpedoes, party-or-bust King. 

Which puts us where in the story?

———————-

Who are we supposed to be at this party?

The A-list?

Does Jesus mean for you to identify with those at the top of the King’s guest list? The ones who for whatever reason (or none at all) don’t accept the King’s invitation? Actually, the Greek in verse three isn’t as neutral as it sounds. The word is amelsantes, and it means literally, “They didn’t give a damn.”

“The King sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the party, but they didn’t give a rip,” Jesus says.

Maybe that is who Jesus means us to be in the story because he conjugates the VIPs’ apathy in the imperfect tense. 

It’s: “They were not giving a rip…” 

That is, these A-Listers’ snubbing of the King’s call is an ongoing rejection; as if to say, the world will always be full of idiots who refuse to trust and enjoy a good thing when they hear it. 

Free grace, dying love, unqualified acceptance, and unconditional forgiveness for you— it might as well be a prostrate exam given the way some of us respond to it. 

Is that us?

Obviously, you all give a rip. 

You wouldn’t have dragged yourself out of bed, showered, and shown up this morning for a subpar sermon if you didn’t care. 

But maybe like that first group of invitees, you make your way in life assuming that God’s good, gracious nature means you’re free to ignore his call upon your life until after you’re finished with all your better plans. 

Maybe that’s why Jesus repeats the word call every other verse, from the top of his story to the bottom. 

As though the King’s call is a countdown. 

Going once. 

Going twice…tick tock.

What about that second batch of evites? 

The King sends out his servants a second time to those on the guest list. And they deliver the message: Look this party is off the hook! The oxen and the fatted calves (plural!) have been in the smoker since last night. The keg is tapped. Come on already! 

Notice—

It’s not that those guests can’t be bothered. 

It’s that they’re too busy. 

Some, Jesus says, are too busy with their farms to celebrate the King’s party. 

Others, Jesus says, are too tied up at the office to join the King’s party. 

It’s not that they don’t give a rip. 

It’s that they give too many. 

Farming, business— those are vocations, good works God gives to us for our neighbors.

These guests are so wrapped up in the good work God has given them to do for others that they ignore the King’s individual invitation to them. 

They’re so focused on doing good works for their neighbor that they’ve neglected, and thus put at risk, their personal relationship with the King— the very relationship to which their good works were meant to be a sign not a substitute. 

Their busyness lulled them into forgetting that their personal yes to the King’s invitation is an urgent eternal matter of life and death. We can be so bent over busy in our religious, deed-doing lives that we lose them. 

And maybe they don’t answer the King’s invite because they assume they can get past the bouncers at a date they name later, on the merits of all their hard work and not on the King’s gratuity. 

Perhaps that’s who Jesus means us to be in the story. 

Or what about that poor bastard who’s caught without a cumberbund and patent leather shoes? Does Jesus mean for us to be the guy dragged off by the King’s SWAT team because of a wardrobe malfunction? I mean, even Janet Jackson got a second chance. 

Is that who we are in the story?

Are you supposed to hear this parable and worry?

Worry that, yes, all are invited to the party of salvation, gratis, but if you don’t meet the dress code? It’s outer darkness for you. 

In other words: yes, yes grace, but…

Yes, salvation is by grace. 

But, your faith better bring something to show for it when you get to the party. 

Yes, all are invited, gratis.

But, only some get to stay. You better show up wearing your three-piece suit of obedience, your gem-covered gown of holiness, or your mink of compassion. 

Yes, yes grace, but…

Nevermind for a moment the not minor point that as soon as you attach a but to grace, it’s no longer grace, such a worrisome takeaway ignores the fact that whatever fancy duds these riffraff at the party are wearing, they’re clothes the King has given to them. 

Free of charge. 

Upon arrival not prior to departure.

So their ability to remain at the party is not conditioned upon the presence or absence of anything they brought with them— not their closet full of loving works and not their suitcase holy living.

The King gave them their garments upon arrival. So for whatever reason, this eyesoar who’s still in his streetclothes and bound for darkness, he didn’t put on the bow tie and tux given out to all the other guests who got there on the same free ticket as him. 

This guy didn’t change his clothes. 

He refused to change. 

Is that it?

If he’s who Jesus means us to be, then is the takeaway for us that, yes, we’re invited but once there we better change and get our act together?

That might be one way to interpret Jesus’ story if Jesus’ story were told by someone other than Jesus, and if Jesus told this story at some point other than three days before he died not to improve the improveable or reform the reformable but to raise the dead in their sins. 

And the only thing the dead do is stink. 

So the takeaway today can’t be that we need first to apply deodorant before we’re allowed onto the dance floor. 

The Cross is Exhibit A.

Jesus saves us in our failures not just in spite of them. 

“The gifts and invitation of God,” the Apostle Paul says, “are irrevocable.”

And the word Paul uses there is repentance. 

The gifts and invitiation of God are without repentance.

Therefore, the moral of this parable is not that God invites us to the party called salvation but we better shape up or we’ll get shipped off. 

No, the parable doesn’t have a moral because it’s a parable. 

It’s not about you. 

It’s about God— that’s why the King and his staff get all the verbs in the story. 

Notice— no one else in the story even speaks.

You can’t ask of a parable, “WWJD?”

You can only ask, “Who is this God who does to us in Jesus Christ?”

But that still doesn’t answer where are we in this parable?

———————-

Last week the Atlantic Magazine published an article entitled Parents Gone Wild: Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School. The story’s about Sidwell Friends School, the Harvard of DC private schools whose Quaker motto is “Let the light shine out from all.” 

Bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. The article details the shocking and over-the-top behavior of some of the school’s parents, which has led to 2/3 of the school’s counselors leaving their jobs. Attempting to help their children get a leg up in the college admissions competition, parents at Sidwell Friends School have engaged in what the school’s headmaster calls “offensive conduct.” 

Among the excessive behaviors, parents have verbally assaulted school employees, secretly recorded conversations with teachers, made badgering phone calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Some parents have even circulated damaging rumors about other parents’ children in order to give their own children an advantage over their peers. 

As one college dean of admissions explained it: 

“When you’re talking about the love a parent has for their son or daughter, the plan they have for their child and all the work they’ve done towards that plan— it can lead to some pretty wild and inappropriate behavior. You could choose to focus in on the crazy behavior, or you could choose to see the parent’s love behind it all. Either way, if you get in the way of that kind of love, if you get in the way of what a parent has planned for the child they love without condition, watch out.”

———————-

If you get in the way of what the Father has planned for the Son…

That’s it. 

You and I— the baptized— we’re not in this parable. 

We’re not.

We’re so hard-wired to turn the good news of grace into the grim pills of religion that we go to Jesus’ parables asking what we must do, or we leave Jesus’ parables worrying about we’re not doing. In doing so, we turn the Gospel into the Law; such that we miss completely the fact that, according to Jesus himself, we’re not in the parable. 

Yet. 

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

Jesus told us at the top of the story. In response to the chief priests and the Pharisees who begrudge his relationship with the Father— his relationship with the Father— Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like…what? 

The Kingdom of God is like a King who gave not just a party but a wedding banquet. 

A wedding feast for his Son. 

His Son to be married to whom?

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

You and I, and all baptized believers, we’re still waiting in the wings, offstage. 

We’re not in the parable. 

We’re in the parlor. 

A friend’s putting a finishing gloss on our fingernails while the curling iron gets hot and the string quartet warms up and the photographer shoots some candids of everyone getting ready and the white dress hangs uncovered from the curtain rod. 

This isn’t a horror story about what God will do to you if you don’t get your act together and get your ass to his party. 

No, for you— this is an absurd romantic comedy about the wildly excessive, inapprorpriate lengths the Loving Father will go to have every last detail of the party perfect, every seat filled, and everyone dressed to the nines with the custom-tailored clothes he’s given away to every undeserving guest to celebrate his Son’s marriage. 

To you.

All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation— the whole world is invited to celebrate at Chez Yahweh, celebrate the Father’s Son’s marriage.

To you. 

No wonder he acts so bezerk. 

This parent has planned this party for his Son since before the foundation of the world, the Bible says. 

Watch out if you frustrate this Father’s feast-going. 

He’s not going to let anything get in the way of a five star celebration for his Son’s marriage to you. 

Jesus left it assumed and unsaid in this story because he’s already said it. 

I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you will be also, Jesus already promised. That’s wedding language.

In my Father’s house there are many mansions, Jesus promises. That’s wedding language.

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me— that’s wedding language too. 

Not to mention, the word Jesus uses today for wedding banquet, gamos, guess the other place in the New Testaments it gets used— the freaking climax of the Bible, at the very end of the Book of Revelation where the angel declares “the marriage supper of the Lamb has been made ready” and Christ comes back to his Church who is prepared for him as what?

As a bride for her bridegroom.

———————-

So Eldon, I don’t know if you’re here today or not, but What Would Jesus Do?

Welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry— that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. 

Because Jesus the Bridegroom would take his hand and pick him up and carry him across the threshold and say “My Beloved, let’s dance.”

———————-

Hear the good news—

You’re not the one who blows off the party. 

You’re not the do-gooder who’s too busy to attend the party

You’re not the eyesore who wears the wrong garment to the party. 

Though at times you might resemble all of the above, you’re not any of them.

Because the party’s for you. 

By your baptism—

A promise signed by the Father and sealed in the Son’s blood and delivered to you by water through the Holy Spirit, you are the betrothed. 

You are free to do the things that Jesus did and you are free not to worry about how little you’re doing or how much you’re leaving undone. 

Because what God has joined together no one— not even you in your pathetic every day run-of-the-mills sins— can tear asunder. 

No, you are his. 

And with all that he is and all that he has, for better, for worse, no matter if your faith feels rich or if it is poor, he will cherish you. 

This is his solemn vow.

Jason and Taylor sat down with Joshua Retterer to talk about the late Robert Farrar Capon and his work. Their conversation touches on a number of subjects including eschatological nerve, an affair with a happy ending, laughing in church, and being overwhelmed with morality.

Before you listen, head over to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com. Click “Support the Show” and become a patron of the podcast for peanuts.

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My new book, Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work Between I Do and Death, just released. You can order it here.

Here’s an excerpt from it, on the house:

Strike what I said earlier against advice-giving because heres some. But this isnt just marriage advice, its Christian advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the gospel. Here it goes: seeing others as Ali sees me, as bound and unfree, is the easiest way to find patience and empathy for others. Its when you mistakenly think people are free that you get pissed off at them. When you see people as active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the crap decisions they make, you can confuse what they do for who they are.

And I know this: youre just like me. You have your own Angelinas, your own jars of pickles, and your own bags of Cheetos you cant stay away from. Youre not an enigma, but you have plenty of them in your life. Every spouse knows it already. The only consistent thing about you is your inconsistency. Youre just like me.

The only fix for what ails us in our life with another is our willingness to receive and reciprocate a mercy that is as unmerited as it is unexpected, which means often it will stick in your craw, striking you as somewhere between uncomfortable and offensive.

When you vow I doto another, you are not promising I can.Youre not asserting an ability innate to you. Instead of the tit for tats that come so naturally to us, by your I doyoure pledging your willingness to volley and serve a grace that comes so unnaturally to us that it first had to come to us as God in the flesh.

The love that can make marriage work between I doand death, in other words, is the love with which Christ loved usa love that died for us while we yet sucked.

Marriage is a means of Gods grace. God gets to us with his grace through the grace our beloved gives us. Forget what all the be-fruitful-and-multiply-family-values people vomit onto your TV screen, for my money this is the only Christian foundation to any formulation like Christian marriage. Like John the Baptist pointing his long, bony finger away from himself and onto Jesus, the forgiveness offered to you by your lover is a sacrament of that permanent forgiveness provided by Jesuss passion. And just as I say with bread and wine at the altar table every week, the promise of his passion is that it delivers us from captivity to our propensity to screw things up.

(Un)Like a Virgin

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2019 — Leave a comment

We continued our summer sermon series through the parables with Matthew’s story of the ten virgins, preached by the summer minion, David King.

The Bridegroom Cometh,” but that came too late.  Better than coming too early, I guess.   

The parables are stories Jesus tells about himself. That is, the parables make no sense apart from who Jesus is and what God does through Jesus on the cross.  So, you can imagine my surprise when Jason told me last week that I was preaching on the parable of the 10 virgins.  

I mean, talk about a first impression.

In all seriousness though, if the parables are stories that both are made sense of through the cross and shed light on the mystery of the cross, then the story we have in today’s scripture presents a difficult passage to make sense of.  

Like last week’s scripture, this parable is categorized as a parable of judgment.  And, on the face of it, the parable reeks of an inhospitable bridegroom shutting the door in the face of the virgins.  In fact, the story tells of all doors being shut to the foolish virgins.  And before we start associating ourselves with the wise virgins, remember to whom and for what purpose Jesus tells this parable.  Jesus tells it to the disciples, knowing full well that they will fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a chapter later in Matthew’s narrative.  

The parable of judgment – this parable of the kingdom – it presupposes the disciples unfaithfulness to Christ.  

Why, then, do we so often read the parables of judgment as parables of condemnation, as verses and stories declaring the sorting out of the faithful from the unbelievers that we think will happen at the end of days, that great and glorious time when we can whet our tongues with the wine of heaven while all the non-Christians weep and gnash their teeth?  

Stories, parables like these, we so often read them to satiate our need for validation of our faith in a world that often feels hostile to it.  However, the image of the virgins, the fact that there are ten of them, indicates to us that the people being judged are members of the church.  Their virginity is symbolic: it indicates their preparedness to be married to the bridegroom who is Christ.  As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”  

Already, then, the popular interpretation of this as a judgment levied against non-believers is moot.  The virgins are united in a community called ‘Church,’ their virginity imputed to them as a symbol of grace.  

Further, what this shows to us is that this parable of judgment, it needs to be read through a frame, a lens, that presupposes the gift of grace.  We read the parables of judgment not with condemnation in mind, but with, as Robert Capon insists, a hermeneutic of inclusion-before-exclusion.

This is all the more important since the parable begins with the ever important word, “then.”  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom using the phrase, “The Kingdom will be like” x, y, z.  But here, Jesus begins by using the word “then,” indicating to the disciples that this is not a parable of judgment preceding the cross.  Jesus is speaking of what the kingdom in the wake of the cross is like.  

The wedding has happened – the grace has been offered.  The virgins are preparing to celebrate their marriage.  

What, then, is all the fuss about the oil?  Fleming Rutledge, who I will only mention once since she’s really Jason’s gal, asks the pertinent question: what really is in those lamps?  

Before I answer that question, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures is listening to bad Christian talk radio.  You know, the all love but no Jesus kind of Christian talk radio.  You know, the kind that prides itself in its acceptance of saints but rejects the sinner.  The kind of Christian talk radio that will couch an hour long sermon on judgment in between two hours of financial planning “from a biblical perspective.”  I love that stuff.  

So, as I was driving in to work here this week, listening to Christian talk radio, learning about how I can plan my retirement in accordance with biblical standards of stewardship and bookkeeping, the oil and the lamps finally made sense to me.  

St. Augustine, in his sermon on Matthew 25, notes that “the foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, wish to please by that abstinence of theirs by which they are called virgins, and by their good works, when they seem to carry lamps.  But wishing to please human spectators, doing praiseworthy works, they forget to carry with them the necessary oil.” 

That is, the parable, the oil stored up by the wise virgins, it can’t be good works because, as Augustine sees, that would make their entrance to the wedding celebration a matter of payment, a payment that no sum of works can make.  It is for this reason that the foolish virgins fear for their selves.  They ask the wise virgins for the oil, saying, “give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”  They fear, that is, that their works will be insufficient, and rightly so! For they think that the oil the wise carry is something that can be transferred, something that can be given or earned.  

You see, the foolish virgins misunderstand the purpose of the oil.  They misunderstand its nature, and in so doing, represent for us the fundamental misconception we so often make when it comes to the Gospel: that anything besides the grace of God could possibly give us entrance on the final day of judgment.  They misunderstand what the wise get right: that the oil is their sin, transformed by the grace of the cross and not by their works.  Truly, then, the oil is non-transferable, nor is it refundable.  The oil is that which can be taken up by one person: Christ the bridegroom.  

Notice, too, what the text says: “but while they went to buy the oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.”  Matthew does not say that the wise virgins go in with the bridegroom because they had extra oil, nor does he say they go in because their lamps are lit.  Matthew does not accredit their entrance to any act that they participated in to distinguish them from the foolish virgins.  

Matthew tells us that the wise virgins enter in strictly because they were ready. The readiness of the wise virgins is qualified not by their own glorification or righteousness, but by their readiness to lay their sin, their oil, before the bridegroom who is Christ.  Their readiness is the posture of the Church in light of the cross.  

The foolish virgins rightly feared, for they misunderstood the nature of the oil.  They did not bring extra oil precisely because they thought they had enough of the oil of good works.  The wise, however, brought extra, because they knew that the preparedness for the wedding celebration, the celebration of the already-given grace of the cross, required but one thing: their sin, laid at the foot of the cross, given to the bridegroom.  

The foolish, however, bring what they think is enough oil to get to the door, the gate of judgment.  But they despair and fear for when the bridegroom arrives, and indeed they flee to seek extra things, to buy their way in. And in doing so, they miss his arrival.  They leave the place already prepared for them, exemplifying the misconceived notion that they could in any way seek elsewhere, and merit, their ticket to the celebration.  

The oil we anoint babies with in their baptism – it is an oil not of our works but of the work of God in Christ.  The oil represents not what we can do, but the forgiveness of sins which can never be merited.  The oil is the blood of Christ that has cleansed our sins. The oil the virgins bring is the oil with which we are baptized: the oil that is the blood of the lamb, the ointment for the disease we are born into and cannot escape.  

You see, the bad Christian talk radio made the parable clear: it matters not if you state the name of Christ at the beginning of your designated radio hour if what follows is not a message proceeding from the grace given in the cross.  To declare one’s belief in Christ, and to immediately follow that with all the requisites for one’s own sanctification, is to go only halfway in believing the good news embedded in His name.  

This is what makes sense of the judgment cast on the foolish virgins.  The foolish virgins, returning in the dark to the door of the party, having found no works to pay their entrance, encounter a Lord who claims not to know them.  They call his name, “Lord, Lord!” and he responds with “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  

The word for knowledge used in the Greek is “οἶδα.”  It is a word that comes from the root of the verb that means, “to see.”  The bridegroom, we ought to note, literally says he cannot see them.  They, the foolish virgins, have sought the light of grace where it could not be found, and in so doing, miss the very point of the message. 

Notice, again, that the text never tells us that the extra oil is used.  The wise bring the extra oil, but we are never told if it is used.  The bridegroom comes, not when the extra oil has been used, but when the ones who think can be bought have left.  

That is, the judgment levied, the door closed, is against those who obscure the judgment of the cross, the judgment of God on God’s self, for the sake of all humanity.  

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.  

I’m leading a Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. For the second session (since I was traveling), participants watched a video conversation I had with Dr. David Fitch of the Northern Seminary about how Christians can discern the debate around human sexuality without participating in the antagonisms which exist outside the Church in the larger culture.

Here is the video and the session notes distributed for the class:

Reiteration of “Yes, but…” Conversation Parameters: 

Just to make sure we start from a place of continuity, I want to reiterate the “Yes, but…” parameters set out last week.  These allow us to maintain a posture of grace and humility when discussing such a fraught subject.  Since this is a subject we approach as a community, formed and read on the level of discernment (more on this later), it’s important to keep each of these in mind going forward. 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned, it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes, which have been supercededby the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized, instead, that their reading* of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.  *Note to Jason:  added emphasis

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

 

Recap from Session 1:

Last week, we started off our discussion by focusing on how it is that Christians approach, read, and appreciate the Bible, and attempting to place this within the larger discussion of how we, the Church, ought to read the Bible together.  For us Christians, the sacred nature of the Bible can often be forgotten when we approach it to justify our previously arrived at conclusions.  This is part of the meaning of the term “sinner.”  To package the Bible up and, in essence, read it for ourselves, is a mode of self-justification that belies the underlying problems facing us as readers.  Further, searching the Bible for particular passages on particular issues places us at the wrong starting point, the whole while* assuming that the Bible is meant to be used in the fashion of proving people wrong. *Note to Jason:  Urban for: “all the while”

The Bible (and, especially, the New Testament), the great narrative of God’s grace visited to the world through the flesh of Christ and the witness of the Spirit, was written for and speaks to the primary duty of the Church:  The apostolic proclamation of the Gospel.

And just so we are clear on what exactly that Gospel is: “For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).  

As we said last week, the broader plot, the narrative that undergirds it all, should determine how we read (i.e., interpret) the particulars.  Thus, we should approach the Bible not in search of particular self-justifications that we can hurl at other pews, but rather with a larger hermeneutic (a fancy word for ‘the lens through which we read’) that makes sense of the particulars.  

That hermeneutic* is none other than the grace offered to us endlessly through the cross of Christ. This means that when we read the Bible, we approach it as sinners postured by grace. Note for Jason: added emphasis 

 

Some Notes on David Fitch

We ended last week by talking about how sexuality, and scripture, is something to be approached at the level of community, formed by the discipline of tradition and informed by the context we inhabit.  

David Fitch, as we see in the interview, provides us with a way of conceptualizing (a) why reading the Bible well is so hard in modern culture (a culture opposed to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord), (b) what makes reading the Bible on a communal level so difficult, and (c) the ways our cultural divisions, ideologies, and arguments find their ways into the Church, tailoring how we interact with, perceive, and understand our relations to one another.  He posits in his book that the Church has been consumed by the “us vs. them” version of faith, one that guts the Gospel message at its very core.  Subsequently, Fitch notes, the Church is subsumed by the “enemy-making machine,” feeding off our own fears, anxieties, and ideologies.  

Fitch argues that when we as a Church engage in this kind of reading and line-drawing, we simply reiterate the cultural argument, stymieing any attempt to preach the Gospel and blocking off anything God might have to say on the matter.  

In short, when we approach scripture with the divisions of culture already inscribed into our eyes, we preclude both God’s presence and, logically, our ability to preach that presence.  

Fitch’s argument borrows a lot from ideology studies, which is a dense and complicated field that mixes philosophy, critical theory, and sociology.  One of the claims that is central to what we are doing here is that ideology is bigger than the Church.  That is, ideology tends to dominate our modes of thought, and since we are Christians, it is particularly obvious in the way we think about, interpret, and use the Bible.  

In modern studies of ideology, the concept of “antagonism” dominates.  To be clear, this is not the colloquial notion of “antagonism.”  An antagonism is the process by which we make someone an enemy by turning them into an “Other.” An “Other” is what we turn people into when we dissociate them from their concrete reality and identify them by monolithic abstractions.  To turn someone into an “Other” is to distance them from who they are by not allowing ourselves to be present with them.  It functions on us, too.  The defensiveness and hurt we feel when labelled particular names which bear particular connotations (such as sayings like, “You’re just a liberal,” or “You’re stuck in the 18th century.”) is a result of the simplification and monolithic abstraction that is a patent mark of “Otherness.”  

The antagonism, displayed in the process of othering, is precisely what occurs when we see people in our image of God, rather than in the image Christ made them to be.  When we turn people into objectified “Others,” we do violence to that Christological imprint.  

Fitch notes, importantly, that we do not knowingly start antagonisms; the genesis of the antagonism is ideology – it is a product of our social and cultural life and thought.  Fitch wants us to realize that when we are functioning essentially as an “us vs. them” church, we are presupposing the antagonism.  

The concrete way this functions is through what Fitch calls “banners.”  Banners are an ideological product that extract in-life practices and means of navigating the world and turns them into abstracted identity markers.  Banners signify a monolithic, abstract structure that conveys a simplistic model with no (or, virtually, no) relation to the complexity the thing has in its concrete form.  These banners tend to lead to a thing ironically called a “master-signifier.”  These master-signifiers do not actually function to show any relation occurring in reality.  They serve only to confuse. 

For example, when we label someone “progressive” or “conservative” and proceed from there to bash our Bibles over their heads, we are participating in the “banner.”  The banner, then, is in the service of a dichotomization, a crystallizing of who the enemy is and what they stand for.  This is the antagonism we spoke about earlier.  

The banner, with its abstracted simplicity, removes the material reality from people and the church.  It obscures, under the guise of “us vs. them” the ability to physically discern what God is doing.  

 

Speaking Christian:  Discernment

Sexuality, it turns out, is one of those things we use banners for all the time.  Sexuality is not, as we pretend it to be, a singular issue.  Presenting it as such necessarily presumes that there are different opposing camps, only one of which can be right.  Sexuality is, however, bound up in a world of complexity.  In fact, it is bound up in the world.  

Just as we cannot talk about who we are without talking about the world in which we live, sexuality cannot be abstracted from and discussed apart from its material reality, which is found in people, in all people.  

Reading the Bible and searching for answers to a particular question (like sexuality), ignoring the larger narrative, and approaching the text with a microscopic hermeneutic, are each signs of reading the Bible ideologically; that is, it is a sign of reading the Bible through the lens of antagonism.  The Church, then, is assigned the task of discernment.  Discernment is a “local” project; it involves the Church being first open to seeing what God is doing.  From there, discernment involves being led (Note, the passive voice) by God to learn how to speak Christian in a culture that rejects Christ.  

What, you might ask, does discernment at the level of the Church really involve?  The active components of discernment are myriad, but Fitch offers a couple crucial points from which to begin.

  

  1. Discernment begins from a space of brokenness:  The Church is a collection of sinners, not saints.  The process of discernment begins, then, not from a hierarchical positioning, but with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, no matter the argument.
  1. Discernment reduces the language of positions:  The Church is caught up in its “position” on x and its “policy” on y.  This language is not only foreign to the Gospel, but it is the reproduction of cultural norms.  The language of “positions” is bound to treat people as objects instead of faithful Christological subjects.  Further, policy and position leave no room for God to work in the world through our brokenness.  

According to St. Paul, the Church is the “fullness of Christ,” which means that the Church submits both to Christ’s reign and, consequently, His presence.  A resulting tenet of the Church is that Christ is the only alternative to the “antagonisms” of our time.  Antagonism, violence, banners, master-signifiers:  They are all tools of the one Paul calls “the Enemy.”  

Each of these tools from the Enemy’s toolbox requires a constant stream of new enemies because – pay attention here – the enemy-making machine has no positive definition.  That is, the only way it exists is by constantly defining itself by what it is against.  

But, the Church cannot exist like this.  If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then Jesus, in his fullness, provides the Church with what the Enemy’s enemy-making-machine cannot:  a substance and sustenance that does not run out, a “well-spring that never runs dry.”  When Jesus commands us, then, to love our enemies, it is not just a challenge to our virtues as a Church; it signifies the endless love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness God gives through the death and resurrection of Christ.  We cannot learn to love, much less love each other, if we have not first learned of how Christ has loved us (unto death on the cross!).  

So, part of the work of discernment is asking the question: “Can the banner we use make sense apart from describing who or what it is against?”  If it cannot, then there is no room for God’s work, argues Fitch, partly because we have tied our own self-definition to the definition of our enemies.  However, concrete, mutual discernment can combat the enemy-making machine, not least because it opens us again to be able to see where God is working, even in conflict.  

Scripture teaches us a thing or two about God working in conflict.  He does not recede from the scene; in conflict, God intensifies his work of healing and restoration.  Focusing only on the determinative point set by the Enemy does not allow us to recognize what God is doing in the midst of our disagreements.  

 

Some Suggestions

At the end of the video, David Fitch offers some tips for how to deal with talking about this.  I’m just going to reiterate and clarify them a little here.

 

  1. Tell stories.  Don’t start from an argument, but a story.  Stories allow us to avoid a confrontational beginning by humanizing the situation.  Stories remind us of the concrete reality from which our discussions arise.  They also mimic the way God tells his story in the narrative we call the Bible.  They allow us to begin in weakness and vulnerability.  In dislodging ideology from below, stories provide a substantive referent, rather than the exhausting extraction and abstraction of the “banner.” 
  2. Ask good questions.  Banners, ideology, antagonisms, master-signifiers:  They always mask a contradiction.  Good questions lead to the discovery and inquisition of these contradictions.
  1. Provoke…sometimes.  Provocation can, when used well, take the existing wisdom to its extreme, thereby laying bare what the contradiction is that upholds such wisdom.  Use sparingly.
  1. Always look for a place of agreement.  Note:  This is not looking for agreement, but a place of agreement.  The subtle, but important, difference is that the former is about arguments, while the latter is about people.  The emphasis is not on theoretical agreement disjointed from subjects in the world, but on relationality and community in which agreement takes the form of a connection made possible by Christ.

Happy Pentecost!