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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rethinking the Bible's Place (It's Just the Way It Is, Part 2)

There are some Christians who give the Bible godlike homage. It might as well have come floating down from heaven on the wings of angels. Should we ascribe to the Bible divine status?

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

Right now all across Christendom, many Christian leaders are running straight to the Book to decide on whether or not to accept same-sex marriage or to welcome and affirm LGBT persons into the life of the church. If they would first look into the eyes and hearts of their LGBT sisters and brothers and listen to their stories, then they would know what to do and how better to interpret and apply the Book.

Because the Bible was written by flawed and fallible human beings, the Bible gets the will of God wrong about as often as it gets it right. No matter what one’s theory of inspiration, nothing can compensate for the fact that limited, error-prone, biased human beings wrote the sacred documents that constitute our Bible.

I did indeed use the word “biased.” This is not a bad thing or a good thing – it’s just the way it is. No one can escape their biases. We each have biases that we are aware of and biases deeply embedded in our psyches which are often hidden from us. They can be constructive or destructive. We can be biased toward retaliation or forgiveness, retribution or redemption, exclusion or inclusion, etc. There are scriptures that are clearly regressive, that lean more toward the petty and punitive side of life, and scriptures that are clearly enlightened and enlightening - breakthroughs in spiritual consciousness. 

For Christians I don’t know anything more important than the search and struggle to discern and do God’s will. And for that very reason it is vital that we understand the Bible’s place in that process. I suggest giving the following three sources equal authority:

1. Sacred Tradition. At the heart of this stands our Christian scriptures, but included also are our   Christian traditions (interpretations, liturgies, hymns, prayers, litanies, and Christian praxis in various historical and cultural contexts). Included also to a lesser extent are the sacred texts and traditions of other religious faiths. Truth is truth wherever truth is found, and there is perennial truth that spans time, culture, and historical religious expressions and forms. However, as a Christian I believe that all sacred texts, stories, and traditions should be read and interpreted through the sacred story of Jesus. For Christ-followers all decisions about scriptural authority and how the scriptures should be applied need to be filtered through the life of Jesus and the unconditional love he taught and embodied.

2. Mystical Encounter. The heart of mystical encounter is our own personal communion and experience of the Divine (the Really Real, the Christ, Spirit, God, etc.) both individually and communally. Included also are the accounts of mystical experience we read and hear about from others. I have no doubt that Jesus’ understanding of “Abba” (his compassionate, divine father/mother/friend) was largely shaped by his own personal experience of God.  

3. Rational Experience. By rational experience I am referring to understanding, wisdom, and insight gained from science and other branches of human knowledge. Depth psychology, for example, has much to teach us about the ways we hide from our true self where God abides. By rational experience, I am also referring to wisdom and understanding gained from reason, common sense, and our best intuitive sense of what is right, good, loving, and just.

If all we do is go straight to the Book, and the Book takes priority over everything else, it’s quite probable that we will use the Book to justify our beliefs and prejudices for good or ill. We most likely will find what we want to find, even though we think we are being objective.

There is a great need for many Christians to be honest about the scriptures and admit that we do not have a perfect revelation. Our sacred writings are just as broken as we are. And until we can accept the brokenness and fragmentation of the Bible, we will continue to use the Bible to justify harmful biases, and in particular it will continue to be used to spread homophobia that is deeply rooted in fear and insecurity.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr likes to say that how we deal with the Bible is how we deal with reality and how we deal with reality is how we deal with the Bible. Maybe some of us have a difficult time accepting a flawed Bible because we have a difficult time accepting our own flaws or those of our particular group. If we could just let the Bible be what it is without trying to project impossible demands and claims upon it, we would be better able to do the same with our own flaws and failures. Perhaps, then, we would be more honest and humble and confessional about our own struggles as fractured and fragmented human beings.

The purpose of scripture is to prompt the struggle, to get us asking the questions, to evoke prayer, study, self-reflection, introspection, and reliance upon Spirit. It is in the struggle that we meet God and are changed by God. 

Thomas Merton has said that unconverted persons will use scripture in unconverted ways. Unloving people will use scripture in unloving ways. Converted people whose hearts are right and in tune with God will use even the most oppressive texts in positive, transformative ways. Unconverted people whose hearts are cold, closed, unloving, self-absorbed, and egocentric will misuse even the most enlightened texts.

I have invested a large part of my life reading and studying the Bible, and trying to discern how to apply it in life-enhancing and liberating ways. I am well-aware of how I have misused it in the past to justify beliefs and biases into which I was indoctrinated and socialized. By way of personal experience I can say rather confidently that Christians will continue to propagate hurtful teachings and practices and use the Bible in detrimental ways unless they dethrone its god-like status and give the Bible its rightful place in discovering and doing God’s will. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Visions, One Book - that's just the way it is

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan argues in his book, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, that in the biblical tradition, both Old and New Testaments, two incompatible and contradictory explanations of God’s final victory over the evil and injustice of the world run side by side, often in the same biblical books. One explanation is extermination. It is reflected in the Noachic solution to evil in the world, namely, the complete destruction of the wicked. Crossan writes,

"In this vision, God’s solution to the problem of human violence is the Great Final Battle in which good triumphs over evil—and triumphs, let us be clear, by divine violence. The symbolic place of that cosmic cleanup as cosmic slaughter is at Har Magiddo in Hebrew (hence our English “Armageddon”), the mountain pass where the spine of Israel’s hill country cuts westward toward the coast and skirts a great plain suitable for battle."

Examples of this approach can be found in Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16–17 and Revelation 14:20, 19:11–21.

The alternate explanation of God’s final resolution to the problem of evil is reflected in the Abrahamic solution where God calls out a people through whom he proposes to bless the world. In place of a great Final Battle to end all battles, this solution imagines a Great Final Banquet, and its symbolic place is Mount Zion. Examples of this position can be found in Micah 4:1–4, Isaiah 23:6–8, and Zechariah 8:20–23. Crossan says that these texts express the hope that “all peoples and nations will convert to the God of nonviolence in a world without weapons and to the God of justice in a world without empires.”

Two visions, one book.

Not only can these two visions be present in the same book, they can stand side-by-side in the same passage. In Matthew 22:1-10 we read:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city [this is most likely a depiction of the destruction of Jerusalem added to the parable after 70 CE]. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Think about this for a moment. No distinction is made between the bad and the good. No moral evaluation or condemnation – just y’all come. And they did – both good and bad. It’s hard to get more inclusive than this.

Is this too good to be true? Perhaps for some it is not good at all. Grace looks and sounds great, except when it is extended to those we think should be excluded. Were some members of Matthew’s community not happy with this all-inclusive vision of the kingdom? No worry, Matthew offers an alternative vision in the very next paragraph in 22:11-14:

“But when the king came to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The harsh, severe, vindictive language in the passage above is typical of Matthew. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” used above is found also in Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 24:51; 25:30 (outside of Matthew only in Luke at 13:28), and the phrase “outer darkness” is found in Matt. 8:12. Also, Matthew speaks of “everlasting fire,” (Matt. 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8; 25:41-46) and “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:30) to describe God’s judgment. In addition, Matthew makes reference to hell (gehenna) seven times, whereas the word appears only once in Mark and Luke.   

Anyone familiar with Matthew’s Gospel should be able to observe how these images of divine vengeance stand in contradiction to Matthew’s own portrait of Jesus. It is hard to imagine that the Jesus who shares table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, who speaks of God as Abba, who teaches and embodies unlimited forgiveness, who teaches his followers to pray for their enemies, who brings healing and wholeness to the diseased and demonized, and who condemns condemnation would so mercilessly dismiss, condemn and punish the unrighteous. Theologian Walter Wink has pointed out,

“Matthew’s use of the judgment theme is particularly vindictive . . . The unconditional loving Abba of the Sermon on the Mount (5:45) now wants to settle some scores.  Matthew’s heart will not be happy until ‘all evildoers’ have been thrown ‘into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Matthew, it would appear, has an axe to grind. Two visions – side by side – in the same passage, reflecting two competing visions within Matthew’s church. It’s just the way it is.        

This tends to drive modern people like us crazy, but the early Messianic communities which were modeled after the Jewish synagogue apparently had little problem with it. Jewish teachers loved to debate and argue various positions and interpretations.

The Bible is obviously not a window into a perfectly clear revelation of God. Rather, the Bible is more like a mirror that reflects the human struggle to hear, know, and do God’s will, which we get wrong a lot of the time. Because we are flawed, fragmented, and fractured, our sacred texts are also flawed, fragmented, and fractured. Sometimes a Bible text will take us three steps forward; sometime two steps back. It’s just the way it is.

So here in a single passage, two competing visions. One inclusive, the other exclusive. The inclusive vision was apparently too good to be true for some in the community, so – if you want in you better have the proper attire. And what is the proper attire? That depends on who you ask.

In the church of my upbringing one had to walk to the front of the church at the conclusion of the worship service when an invitation was extended and confess Jesus to the preacher. That was the way in. One had to say, “I want to trust Jesus” or “I want to be saved” or something similar. There was some flexibility on the particular formula, but the confession to the preacher was essential. That’s what sealed it. Every group has their own style of wedding robe – confessions, creeds, rituals, belief systems, etc.

The inclusive vision of the bad and the good together was just too much inclusiveness for some folks in Matthew’s church to accept, and after two thousand years of church history, we can say that for the most part this had been true for most of Christendom. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cutting Through the Snow on the LGBT Question

As a result of the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up cases seeking to overturn decisions that struck down bans on gay marriage, same-sex marriage is now legal in 24 states. And that number is likely to expand in the near future. To celebrate this progress I pulled out my Bob Dylan CD to hear Dylan wail, “The Times They are A Changin.’” The moral arc of history just bent a little more toward justice.  I believe MLK would say, “Amen.”  

The church should be setting the pace. All the wrangling we do over a handful of biblical texts (Lev. 18:22/20:13; 1 Cor. 6:9; Rom. 1:26-27; and 1 Tim. 1:10) that condemn some form of same-sex relations is such a waste of time. In terms of the Christian’s practical discipleship to Jesus, all that matters is how well we love one another.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the handful of texts above which condemn some deviant form of same-sex behavior (like pederasty, master-slave sex, temple prostitution, or sexual excess) actually condemn ALL same-sex behavior. Would these texts then negate Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves? Would they override God’s mandate to emulate Jesus’ inclusive love and compassion? Would they diminish Jesus’ inclusive vision of the kingdom of God? Absolutely not.

If I thought the biblical writers were condemning all forms of same-sex relations, then I would have to argue that the biblical writers were wrong - just as they were wrong about God sanctioning violence and ordering the annihilation of entire civilizations. I would argue that the biblical writers were wrong the same way they were wrong about the validity of patriarchy, the moral inferiority of women, or their support of slavery. I would say: Follow Jesus, strive to love as he loved, and forget about those scriptures.  

In reality, it is virtually impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the biblical authors of these disputed texts actually had in mind. Trying to recover authorial intention is a nearly impossible task, and it is very easy to manipulate the evidence and read into the authors meaning what we want them to say.

What should be clear to everyone is: Committed, faithful, monogamous, same-sex relations are very, VERY different than same-sex relations that are rooted in self-indulgence, manipulation, and exploitation. And, of course, the very same thing can be said of heterosexual relations as well.

Many times I have heard Christians who are against same-sex marriage and the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church say, “We take this position out of love. We are simply being true to scripture.” I don’t buy it. We can read the disputed texts in a variety of different ways, either as a way of excluding LGBT persons or as having no bearing on the issue at all.

So why do so many Christians read them in a condemnatory and exclusionary way? I think there is still a lot of disguised and concealed homophobia in the church. Yale University Professor Dale Martin contended in his book “Sex and the Single Savior” that a lot of scholarly interpretation of these disputed texts is homophobic. He wrote, 

“I am not claiming that these particular men are themselves homophobic. Rather, I would argue that their writings about homosexuality participate in a cultural homophobia, an irrational fear and loathing of homosexuality . . . that pervades much of Western culture and expresses itself in discourses about sexuality, institutionalized marginalization of gay and lesbian people, and social structures that discriminate against them.”

Clearly since Martin made that statement in 2006 the tide has shifted. However, this “irrational fear and loathing of homosexuality” is still quite prevalent in Western culture and in the church in particular. Some Christian groups seem to be entrenched in homophobia.

Until Christians can come to a place of acceptance of same-sex marriage and full inclusion (acceptance and affirmation) of our LGBT sisters and brothers in our churches, then we will continue to fail miserably at fulfilling Jesus’ mandate to love God and neighbor and at being the body of Christ in the world. I honestly admit my personal daily failure to love my neighbor as myself and to incarnate the love of Christ; I would never point to my own life as an example of what this should look like. However, I also would not appeal to scripture to justify my failure to love as I believe opponents of same-sex marriage and full inclusion do.

Paul got it right when he said: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

If the church cannot change and become welcoming and affirming of our LGBT sisters and brothers, then I’m afraid the church will be reduced to a noisy gong and clanging symbol, rather than what I believe God intends for it to be – an outpost for God’s kingdom of love and justice in the world.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Toward a Modern Day Jesus-Inspired Sexual Ethic (Three articles as they appeared in the Frankfort State Journal - Aug.; Sept.; Oct.)

Part 1 (Aug., State Journal)

Today and in my next two articles I will be exploring the question: What should a modern day, Jesus inspired sexual ethic look like for Christians who aspire to follow Jesus? Jesus, of course, does not address this subject directly in the Gospels. But he does speak to it indirectly.

By way of introduction we should first ask: Does the Bible as a whole teach a clear sexual ethic? It does not. The sexual mores condoned and practiced in the Old Testament Scriptures almost always favor patriarchal preferences and prejudices. Consider the following examples:

(1) Polygamy (having many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced and accepted as normative in the Old Testament without a single word of condemnation by a biblical writer.
(2) Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary in patriarchal biblical times as a safeguard for the virginity of brides and property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7)
(3) In the Old Testament a man could not commit adultery against his own wife (because she belonged to him); he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife. And a bride who was found not to be a virgin was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21).
(4) And nowhere in the Old Testament are sexual relations between consenting unmarried heterosexual adults prohibited.

I could go on (the above examples are not exhaustive), but the point should be obvious: The sexual mores accepted and practiced in the patriarchal culture of the biblical world favored male power and interests. If anyone tells you that the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics is clear, they either do not know any better (they are simply passing on what they had been taught), or they are being intentionally dishonest. 

As I said, Jesus does not approach this subject directly, though he does teach some things that are certainly related to sexual mores and practices. So where do we begin? We must begin with that which constituted the critical core of all Jesus’ teaching.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the law, he responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).

And lest we look for some wiggle room in the way we define “neighbor” Jesus closed that door by teaching that the neighbor even includes the “enemy” who wants to do us harm (Matt. 5:43-48).

For Christians, this love ethic as taught and embodied by Jesus provides a guiding beacon, a compass that can be used to chart the course of God’s will for human beings.

I believe that everything Jesus did and said ultimately relates to this essential demand: Love God with the totality of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Value the well-being of the other as much as you value your own well-being.

In light of the importance of this foundational teaching, I believe that any contemporary Jesus inspired sexual ethic must be filtered through this love ethic that was central to Jesus’ life and message.

In my next two articles I will apply Jesus’ love ethic to three specific sayings (Matthew 5:27-30, Mark 7:21-23, and Matt. 19:1-12) that relate to this subject. Watch this space (Sept. 7; Oct. 5). 

Part 2 (Sept., State Journal) 

What should a modern-day, Jesus-inspired sexual ethic look like? In my first article (Aug. 3) I pointed out two things: (1) In the Bible sexual mores were quite diverse, but generally they reflected patriarchal practices that favored male prejudices and preferences. (2) Any Christian sexual ethic must be guided by the love ethic (Matt. 22:37-40) that was foundational to Jesus’ life and teaching. Here I want to explore how Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matt. 19:3-9) relates to this.

Jesus argued against divorce, but I do not believe he considered divorce a greater sin or evil than any other betrayal or failure that divides people and harms relationships. In Matthew 19 Jesus is not the one who brings up the subject. I am convinced that why Jesus said what he did is even more important than what Jesus actually said. Let me explain:

In the patriarchal culture of Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’ world only men exercised the right to divorce and they could do so on any grounds. Deuteronomy 24:1 (“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce . . .”) was commonly understood by many Jewish leaders to mean that a man could divorce his wife on the slightest whim. 

This was simply disastrous for women who were then considered damaged goods and had few options. Some without family to take them in were forced into lives of prostitution simply to survive.

When Jesus was asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause, he objected by appealing to Genesis 2:24: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

(Sometimes opponents of same-sex marriage argue that Jesus was here affirming heterosexual marriage over/against same-sex marriage. Clearly, Jesus’ appeal to Gen. 2:24 was for the express purpose of arguing against divorce. And clearly, the affirmation of heterosexual marriage does not in any way imply the condemnation of same-sex marriage, which Jesus says nothing about, and would have made no sense in a culture that knew nothing about same-sex orientation.)

Jesus’ critics raised an objection: “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” In response Jesus said: “It was because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8).

The Bible doesn’t actually say that Moses allowed for divorce because of the hardheartedness of the people. This was Jesus’ interpretation—his critical/spiritual reading—of the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 (quoted above).

Jesus interpreted Deut. 24:1 with a bias toward love—toward the good and well-being of the women who suffered from divorce. By arguing against divorce, Jesus was providing some leverage for women who were generally devastated by divorce. He was trying to level the playing field.

Undoubtedly, Jesus’ love ethic provided the context for his argument from Scripture against divorce. Why did he do this? Because what he cared most about was trying to make the situation livable for women trapped in a patriarchal system that often treated them as commodities to be disposed of at will by men who considered themselves naturally superior.

Jesus did not argue against divorce because he was inflexibly committed to some divine law or ideal plan that was encapsulated in Genesis 2:24 or because divorce is a greater sin than other sins involving a breach of trust or act of betrayal. I am convinced that he argued against divorce because he first and foremost cared about the plight of Jewish women entrapped in a patriarchal culture that oppressed them. Luke 4:18 emphasizes Jesus’ mission as one of freeing the captives and releasing the oppressed.

What can we appropriate from this in our contemporary setting? By following the trajectory of Jesus’ teaching we can conclude that a Jesus-inspired sexual ethic for both heterosexual and same-sex couples will always be characterized by mutuality, equality, and what is genuinely good for and in the best interest of both partners in the relationship.

Part 3 (Oct., State Journal)

This is part three of: What should a modern day Jesus-inspired sexual ethic look like? In part one I argued that any Jesus-inspired sexual ethic must be grounded in Jesus’ love ethic that was central to his life and teaching (Matt. 22:37-40). In part two I concluded from Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matt. 19:3-12) that all sexual relations (heterosexual or same-sex) worthy of Jesus will be marked by mutuality, equality, and what is genuinely good for both partners in the relationship. Here in part three I want to look at what Jesus says about sexual excess and exploitation. .

In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

In the interests of love Jesus sometimes intensified the Jewish law, other times he abolished it. Here he intensified or radicalized it.

What did Jesus mean by looking at a woman lustfully? Was Jesus condemning sexual desire? Of course not. The Greek text behind the translation suggests that the looking is for the purpose of using the woman sexually. What Jesus was denouncing was sexual desire that objectified a woman as a man’s personal object for sexual gratification. 

As in the passage on divorce, Jesus spoke directly to men, because in his culture it was patriarchal men who sexually exploited women. And once again, Jesus does what he can to safeguard women against sexual oppression and exploitation.

What follows next is a warning by Jesus to the men who sexually exploited women that is the most vivid, intense, and severe of any warning Jesus ever uttered: 
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29-30).

Jesus was certainly employing hyperbole (it would be absurd to interpret such a text literally), but he fully intended to shock his hearers. Jesus wanted to derail sexual exploitation at its origin—in the heart.

Jesus made this point in Mark 7:21-23 where he traced sexual exploitation along with a host of other harmful and evil attitudes and behaviors to their source: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

The word translated “fornication” is a very general term that is often simply translated “sexual immorality.” Immoral sex is sex that objectifies and exploits the other, sex that is non-mutual, manipulative, and self-absorbed.

Authentic transformation involves a transformation of the heart. This is why the Hebrew prophets envision the future day of the world’s redemption as a time when the will of God is written on the minds and hearts of God’s children (see Jer. 31:31-34). When the royal law of love fills hearts and minds, then holiness codes and legal stipulations become obsolete. 

So what happens when we apply Jesus’ love ethic to sexual desire and the sexual mores of our culture? Sexual desire will not be denied, denigrated, ignored, or abhorred. It will be welcomed as a gift, an inseparable part of our humanity that God calls “very good.” The external shape of a Jesus-inspired sexual relationship may take different forms in our culture, but without question this relationship (heterosexual or same-sex) will be characterized by mutuality, equality, fidelity, humility, honesty, compassion, and a magnanimous love that truly pursues the good and well-being of one’s partner.

On Tuesday, Nov. 11 from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Community Room of the Paul Sawyier Library I will be leading a workshop on “Why Jesus Would Say ‘Yes’ to Same-Sex Marriage.” This is a workshop on why the church should be welcoming and affirming (committed to full inclusion) of our LGBT sisters and brothers. It is free to the public. One can access all three parts of this series at my website: It’s titled: Toward a Jesus-Inspired Sexual Ethic.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Real Tragedy Is Not What You Think It Is (Matthew 21:23-32)

Keep in mind that stories and particularly the parables of Jesus may mean different things, have different emphases in different contexts. It’s certainly possible that a story in the original life-setting of Jesus meant one thing, and then in the life-setting of the church years later meant something else. And no doubt these stories were modified and altered as they were orally passed down several decades before taking a particular written form. This is why New Testament scholars remind us that it is very, very difficult to speak with any certainty about the original form of a story, because the story has been modified through the many retellings of the story.

It is helpful, I think, to consider this story about the father and his two sons (which is very different than Luke’s story about a father and two sons) in light of its placement in Matthew’s Gospel. Just prior to this story Jesus has engaged in three prophetic acts – he led a peaceful procession into Jerusalem on a donkey, he staged an act of protest in the temple, and he denounced a fig tree. All three of these acts were performed out of a sense of his own prophetic authority. Now after all of this, he comes back to the Temple and is teaching, and the chief priests and elders say, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus, of course, knows they are trying to entrap him; he knows that they are looking for some justification for getting rid of him, and so he very cunningly avoids answering the question by throwing a question back at them about John the Baptist, which they are afraid to answer. Then he tells this parable. So the parable, very likely, according to Matthew’s placement of the parable in this narrative, has something to do with Jesus’ authority in our lives.

The parable turns on the different responses of the two sons, which are not initially what they seem. The first son appears to present the biggest problem. When the father tells him to go work in the vineyard, he says, “I will not.” But then later, he has a change of mind and heart, he repents, and ends up in the vineyard. The second son is actually the biggest problem because he deceives the father. He tells the father what the father wants to hear, but then doesn’t do it. This son is a master of avoidance.

It’s always a tragedy in a household when the children and the parents never meet. I girl went home after school with a friend. The friend and her mother got into an argument, a very heated argument – it got pretty loud and intense; so much so, that the girl decided she better leave. Later that evening the friend called and apologized. The girl said to her friend, “I love the way you and your mother fight. My mother lets me have it and then walks away without bothering to listen to what I have to say. Your mother takes you seriously.” It’s not a tragedy when parents and children have rather strong disagreements; it’s a tragedy when parents and children are not close enough or do not connect enough to have disagreements.

When we think about our spiritual lives, we cannot grow and become more by living in denial and avoidance. I wonder if this is not what some Christians do with the Bible. When I point out to some of my inerrantist friends the inconsistencies or contradictions in Scripture, I sometimes hear accusations that I pick and choose what to accept.

And my response to that is, “Well, of course I do and you do too, only you won’t admit it.” Every one picks and chooses what Scriptures are going to have authority in their lives. We all pick and choose. The only difference is: some admit it and are intentional about developing a sound process of picking and choosing, whiles others do not. We all decide what Scriptures will have the most authority in our lives, and we can either deny that we pick and choose or admit it, but we all do it. And to follow that up, we can either go about our picking and choosing randomly in order to uphold without question some set of doctrines or beliefs handed down to us, or we can develop an intentional, reasonable, common sense, Spirit-led approach that allows us to hold these things handed down to us tentatively as we question and seek the truth for ourselves.

But you see, as long as one denies that one has to pick and choose what will have authority in one’s life, one can live in denial of all the inconsistencies and tensions that are present in our holy Scriptures without acknowledging that they exist. That way one doesn’t have to confront these inconsistencies or struggle with them and make tough decisions. Living in denial and avoidance is much easier, but it doesn’t help one grow and become more Christ-like either. Generally, it just makes one more defensive, fearful, and angry.

And when one denies the inconsistencies in Scripture, it is much easier to deny the inconsistencies in one’s life. Once again, we all have our inconsistencies – the main issue is whether we can own up to them. Our holy Scriptures mirror human life, they mirror the tensions, struggles, doubts, inconsistencies, and contradictions that characterize all of our lives. They reflect the human condition.

A few nights ago Melissa and I watched the 2013 film “Words and Pictures.” The lead character, Jack, who is a writer and school teacher, has a drinking problem. His drinking problem is destroying his life: it’s diminishing his ability to write and teach, it’s about to get him fired, and it’s destroying his relationship with his son, but he is still unwilling to acknowledge that he is an alcoholic and get help. It’s not until his drinking severs the relationship he has with a woman he has fallen in love with does he finally admit his alcoholism and join AA.

The tragedy is not that we are addicts. We are all addicts. We are not all addicted to alcohol, obviously, but we are all addicted to something – to work, play, certain negative ways of thinking and reacting, conflict avoidance, money, power, control, perhaps even to American exceptionalism. The tragedy is not that we are addicted; the tragedy is our unwillingness to see and admit and confront our addictions and engage in a redemptive process that brings healing and restores life.

The second son simply avoids all conflict and honest struggle, but in doing so chooses death over life. This son was only concerned with outward impressions, how he appeared to the father. He didn’t want to have to confront the father, so he told his father what his father wanted to hear.

Some years ago in the days of the local drug store, a young man went in and bought 3 one pound boxes of candies. The owner commented to the young man that it would be cheaper to buy one 3-pound box of candy rather than three 1 pound boxes.

The boy explained that he had a date that evening and the three boxes of candy were part of his strategy. He said, “If she allows me to sit close to her she gets one box. If she lets me put my arm around her she gets a second box. If she lets me kiss her she gets the third box.” That night he was having dinner at her house and he asked if he could pray before the meal. He prayed the most fervent prayer. After dinner on the way to the movie his date said, “I didn’t know you were  so religious.” He said, “Well, I didn’t know your dad owned the drug store.” 

I suppose there are reasons, some quite vain I’m sure, others perhaps more noble, why we want to appear certain ways before other people.
How many of you, if you know someone is stopping by your house start throwing things under the bed, in the bath tub . . . wherever? There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we want to know God and live for God and participate in an honest struggle to know the truth, then we will need to go much deeper than appearances. That will require some vulnerability and honesty and humility, and some digging into our real intentions and motivations. It will require some honest, sincere soul work.

I think it is interesting that in the postscript to the parable where Jesus comes back to the question he posed about John the Baptist, the word for “believe” occurs three times. Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Three times in this postscript the word “believe” occurs.

I think this tells us something about what faith is. This parable is about which son actually does the will of the Father. This is a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus teaches with authority and the question is: What are we going to do with it? Are we going to obey what Jesus says? Or are we going to avoid what he says or find some way to dismiss what he says so that it doesn’t apply to us? At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father” (7:21). It’s all about doing the will of the Father.

Later while Jesus is teaching the crowds, his mother and brothers appear, wanting to talk to Jesus. Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother” (see 12:46-50). You see, it’s about doing the will of God. It’s about loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It’s about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about actually confronting the status quo and working for the liberation of the oppressed. In Matthew’s Gospel believing is about doing. 

I think that in Christendom as a whole - in Christianity and the church at-large - we have a lot of fans of Jesus, who are just not that serious about actually doing what he says or emulating his life.
I want to be careful, however, about being too judgmental, because there have been seasons in my life where that has been true as well. 

I’m a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats, but I don’t bleed blue. I’m just not that committed. I’ve told this before, but it’s too good not to tell again. I heard about a woman who was an avid UK fan sitting alone at Rupp arena as the Cats were warming up to take on the Louisville Cardinals. There was an empty seat next to her. Someone asked about it and she explained that the seat was her late husband’s - they were season ticket holders and he recently passed away. The inquirer then rather brashly asked, “Couldn’t you have offered that seat to a friend or relative so they could have enjoyed the game too?” She said, “Well, I would have, but they are all at my husband’s funeral.” There are fans and there are fans – right?

It’s easy to be a fan of Jesus. Very easy. There are churches on just about every corner. I only live three or four miles away I guess, and I pass four churches on my way here – two on each side of this little stretch. It’s relatively easy to be a fan of Jesus. It’s much harder to actually do what he says. It’s much harder to actually love the way Jesus loved. It’s much harder to forgive the way Jesus forgave. It’s much harder to courageously take on the status quo the way Jesus did. It’s much harder to give of our selves the way Jesus gave. It’s much easier to just be a fan.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, believing is not about doctrines or facts or certitudes. It’s about doing the will of our Father in heaven, who incarnated what that looks like in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Believing is about struggling with the authority that is expressed through Jesus – surrendering to that authority and doing what he says. That’s what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. Confessing Jesus as Lord is not first and foremost a confession about Jesus’ nature or deity; it’s first and foremost a confession about our relationship to Jesus. It’s a confession of our willingness to follow Jesus and do what he says.

This parable acknowledges that this will not be easy. Like the son who said, “No” when confronted with the father’s will, Jesus’ teachings are not easy to obey. Loving the way Jesus loved, loving the way God loves, involves a lot of work and effort and sacrifice. There is nothing easy about it.

The tragedy of the first son in the parable, which is the tragedy of too many religious people, too many Christian people, is not that we fall and fail – the real tragedy is avoiding the struggle.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, help us to honestly consider and confront what it means to be a follower of Jesus. You know how we struggle with this. You know how difficult it is for us to stop hiding behind our excuses and denials and to actually surrender control of our lives to you. Give us the faith and courage and will to actually do what Jesus says and commit to love the way he loved when he was among us. And we believe that you are among us now, working in our hearts and lives, wooing us and prodding us to let go of our ego needs and wants and to allow your love to fill us and flow through us. Help us to be a people where your inclusive love and magnanimous grace have the day. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Be Who You Are and Help the Church Be the Church

Vickie Beeching, the widely acclaimed Christian songwriter and performer who recently came out as gay, is a superb example of how LGBT Christians can help the church be the church. The path forward, however, will not be without setbacks, obstacles, and many twists and turns. 

Brian McLaren recently attended a forum on global human rights for LGBT persons where he recommended finding ways to help religious leaders move incrementally along a spectrum with four spaces:

Zone 1: Promote violence against and stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
 Zone 2: Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
 Zone 3: Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
 Zone 4: Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality in the name of God and religion.

Blogger Fred Clark (Slacktivist) has noted that these zones do not reflect “a good, better, best spectrum” but “a spectrum that runs from monstrous to awful to slightly less than awful to adequate.” He summarizes the stages as:

1. Violent exclusion
2. Exclusion
3. Semi-reluctant exclusion
4. Inclusion
Inclusion is the only “adequate” position for the church that wants to model the inclusive love and compassion of her Lord. There is much, however, that impedes movement toward inclusion.

For example, three professors of biblical counseling in Southern Baptist seminaries recently gave advice to families with gay or lesbian children. They urged Christian families to create a culture of honesty where family members “can come out of the closet.” But the culture they have in mind is not one of acceptance and affirmation. It’s a culture where they can “confess their sin and ask for help.” One of the professors warned, “Ultimately this (the gay or lesbian) loved one’s eternal destiny may rest in their family’s willingness to confront sin.”

It’s ironic that these leaders speak of showing “unconditional love” to lesbian and gay family members, but clearly, their love has conditions. They think they are “infusing people with hope” by telling them “that Jesus always changes those who come to him in repentance and faith.” In actuality they are creating a climate of hopelessness, because sexual orientation does not change. These Christians are operating somewhere between zones 2 and 3 on McLaren’s map.

One cannot fault any of our LGBT sisters and brothers for their dislike of Christians and their churches. However, as Paul wrote, there is “a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31b).

Vickie Beeching is one example. Beeching is best known for her worship songs that are sung in churches throughout America, Great Britain, and in other English speaking countries.

As a little girl she began to have an attraction to other girls her age, which only increased as she grew older. She also soon became aware of the negative and condemnatory attitudes toward such an attraction surrounding her in her Christian culture. So she bottled it up. She wanted to be attracted to boys, but she couldn’t. By keeping this all to herself and by denying her true feelings, she found herself in inner turmoil. She says,

“Realizing that I was attracted to girls was a horrible feeling. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. It became more and more of a struggle because I couldn’t tell anyone.”

She was musically gifted and began performing worship songs at services in front of hundreds by age 16. By then, too, the shame and isolation she experienced for being gay were escalating. She was also a bright student, and spent as much time on her own as possible, pushing friends away at school and working hours in the library alone. She said it was too painful to be around people who didn’t understand. All her energy went into making good grades and developing her musical skills. At age 23, her songwriting took her to Nashville.

For the next six years, Beeching lived in the heart of Christian conservative America, recording albums and spending a lot of time in evangelical churches. To avoid facing her inherent sexuality, she would perform endlessly, filling up her hours as much as possible with work.

By 2008, at age 29, she moved to California, the year that proposition 8 - the state law to ban same-sex marriage - was to be voted on. The Christian lobby galvanized and Beeching was booked frequently to perform at mega-churches throughout California. She found herself performing at events that were basically anti-equal marriage rallies. This, of course, added to her inner tension and anguish.

One day she noticed a white line down her forehead. The scar grew and became inflamed. She was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease (linear scleroderma morphea) – a degenerative condition where soft tissue turns to scarring – a very serious condition that can cause blackouts, epilepsy, and be life-threatening. The treatment involved extensive chemotherapy. Medical professionals told her that usually this disease is brought on by some deep trauma. Her body was attacking itself.

She knew it was the stress of living in denial of her sexuality, and realized that she had to come to terms with it. She set a goal that she would come out by the time she was 35. This past Easter she came out, first to her parents, and then publicly.

Today she says,

“What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people. When I think of myself at age 13, sobbing . . . I just want to help anyone in that situation to not have to go through what I did, to show that instead, you can be yourself – a person of integrity.”

When she was asked why she just didn’t discard the church that considered her sinful and wrong, she responded,

“It’s heartbreaking. The church’s teaching was the reason that I lived in so much shame and isolation and pain all those years. But rather than abandon it and say it is broken, I want to be part of the change.”

Amazing! – that she would choose a more excellent way (1 Cor. 13). I realize that some of my LGBT sisters and brothers have been so hurt and abused by the church that they view any invitation to be part of a faith community with repulsion. I understand that. And the last thing I want to do is impose any guilt for feeling the way they feel. Those feelings are justified.

But to those who are able, to those who can receive it, may I offer a personal word: The church needs you. You may be the very ones to help a church reach the place of full inclusion. Your very presence in a faith community is a gift to that community.

Yes, it will take faith, courage, compassion, and endurance. Even in more predominantly progressive-minded congregations there are likely to be some members who have yet to come to a place of full inclusion, and they can be a “thorn in the flesh.” 

If the church can be the church, if the church can become “more” than what it has been, if the church can become welcoming, accepting, affirming, and empowering of our LGBT sisters and brothers, then the church can play an important role in moving the moral and spiritual consciousness of our species forward.

How does it happen? One church, one faith community at a time. Why not make a difference?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Welcoming (or Protesting) the Latecomers (Matthew 20:1-16)

The stories Jesus told enabled him to both conceal and reveal truth. There were people in the high ranks of the Jewish religious establishment who were completely closed to Jesus’ teaching – they were set on getting rid of Jesus at the first opportunity. The stories Jesus told had a way of conveying truth in a kind of veiled way. On the other hand, there was perhaps no better way of trying to get through to people who had their defenses up.

One of things that often blocks spiritual teaching – one reason we do not receive spiritual teaching very well - is because of our assumption that we already know. And this is why direct teaching that counters what we think we know hardly ever gets through, because we react in anger and defensiveness. It may be teaching that we need to hear, but we can’t hear it because we think we already know, and the first thing we want to do is prove the other person wrong.

So Jesus tells stories. We are naturally drawn into a story. And the stories Jesus tells are about common things - not religion, not God — not at first anyway, that is, not when you first hear the story. You don’t think it is about God — until after the story has become a part of your memory and consciousness. So that when you let down your defenses, the story is still there, and it works on you and at some point you realize that it is about God and about God’s kingdom and your place in it.   

Jesus’ teachings often turned on elements of surprise and shock; he loved to employ hyperbole as a way of embedding the image in our consciousness. He employs common conventions in unconventional ways to reveal to us a different world, to evoke us to imagine an alternative reality. And the common way he does that is by upsetting the status quo. This story upsets the status quo doesn’t it?

One scholar has compared the hearing of the parables of Jesus to looking through the glass of a window. We look through the window at the world outside. The window is clear, therefore we see through the window to the world. But then there comes the moment when, looking through the window, we can catch a reflection of ourselves in the glass. The window also acts as a mirror. The stories of Jesus are both windows into another realm and mirrors that enable us to see ourselves in relationship to that other realm. We read or hear the story and it is not about us, but then, at some point, perhaps even days later, we realize that it is about us.  

Where do you see yourself in this story? Do you find yourself protesting with the workers who bore the heat of the day and got the same wage as those who only worked one hour? Or are you rejoicing with those who only worked one hour and received an entire day’s wage? Where are you standing in the story?

I think we would all have to admit that the protesters had something to protest didn’t they? Given a modern setting in our culture we would have to say that the first-hired workers had every right to picket the landowner for unfair economic and business practices. I can see them now wielding signs that declare, “Management Unfair to Labor.” And they would have a case wouldn’t they? I could see myself joining them. This isn’t fair is it?

And that of course, is the point, I think. The story impinges on our sense of fairness. It disrupts our system of meritocracy that governs everything in our lives. Systems of merit run the world and we are all a part of these operating systems. It’s the way everything works – from business to education to religion.

The landowner says to the grumbling workers, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?”   Did you see that coming? They had a contract. This was agreed upon. But the landowner made no contract with the other workers. In fact, they were totally at his mercy. He simply said to them, “Trust me. I will give you what is right.” And really the story turns on that phrase doesn’t it? I will do for you what is right, he says.

Would you like God to give you what you deserve? How many of you hope God’s kingdom operates on a system of meritocracy? And yet if someone gets what we think we should have gotten because we earned it and they didn’t, we will be the first to complain.

The landowner says to the grumblers, “Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Now, that’s the question isn’t it?

You know, Jesus upset many of the Jewish teachers of the law who functioned as gatekeepers of a popular system of holiness that determined who was in and out, who was included and excluded. Jesus bypassed that whole system and opened the gates so all could come to the table — sinners of all kinds, prostitutes, those who did not even pretend to keep the law, and even the notoriously despised tax collectors who in their greed buddied-up with the enemy and took advantage of their own countrymen to get ahead. No one was despised more than a Jewish publican/tax collector. Jesus welcomed them all as they were. That doesn’t mean he wanted them to stay that way, but there were no hoops to jump through to get to Jesus. I’m sure this parable speaks to that context, but it is by no means limited to that context.

Maybe in Matthew’s church there were some long standing members who were grumbling over the special care and consideration that was being given to “newcomers” who hadn’t paid their dues. I pastored a church one time that didn’t have any written policy on deacon elections and they didn’t want to have any new elections. The same deacons had been deacons forever. That liked being in control and didn’t want any new blood. 

If the truth were known some people don’t really like grace, unless they are the ones getting it. Jennifer Jones won an academy award for the title role in the movie, The Song of Bernadette. Bernadette received a vision of the Immaculate Conception and became something of a celebrity. An older nun became consumed with envy. She prays, “Why her?” Her thinking was, “No one has prayed harder, worked longer, and suffered greater than I. So why her and not me?” Later in the story Bernadette collapses while scrubbing the floor. After being examined, the doctor talks to he older nun. He asks, “Has she never complained?” “No,” says the older nun, “she just quietly does her work.” The doctor says, “That’s amazing. The affliction she has, she has had a very long time and the pain is unbearable.”  Later, the older nun repents of her envy and prays for forgiveness. She says to God, “Thank you for the opportunity to serve the one you have chosen.” We are all chosen, though that involves different roles.  

Why can’t we let go of our comparisons and judgment and resentment and simply rejoice in the truth that we are chosen too – that we are all loved by God with an eternal love? Why can’t we be overwhelmed with gratitude for being loved the way we are loved? I hope we all have some experiences that melt our resentment and evoke such gratitude. Experiences of great love can do that.

In a story by Wendell Berry, Wheeler Catlett is an attorney for an old farmer named Jack Beechum and they had become good friends-. Jack died, leaving Wheeler in charge of his affairs. The only family Jack left behind was his daughter, Clara Pettit, and son-in-law, Gladston Pettit, who had no interest in farming - their only interest was in the money. Jack and Clara never agreed on anything, but of course he still loved her.

It was Jack’s wish that his farm go to the young couple, Elton and Mary Penn, who had been living on Jack’s farm for about eight years, taking care of the land and taking care of Jack. Jack loved them as if they were his own children. He wanted the Penns to have the land and the land to have them and Wheeler knew this was what Jack wanted. Jack’s will stipulated that his daughter Clara, would get the land, but he left the Penns enough money to buy the land from Clara. What Jack forgot to consider was his daughter’s greed. 

He had communicated this to Clara, but he failed to establish this in his will. So Clara decided to sell the land at public auction, anticipating a larger profit. Bidding began at $200 an acre, and the Penns, of course, were nervous. Wheeler, however, inspired by old Jack’s spirit and the desire to help urged the Penns to keep bidding, because he knew what Jack wanted. When it was over the Penns ended up with the land, but the price was considerably more than the Penns could afford. So Wheeler covered $65 an acre, almost $10,000 out of his own pocket.

Elton Penn, being somewhat of a proud man, said to Wheeler, “You’re saying there’s not anyway to get out of this friendship.” “No,” said Wheeler, “you can get out of it. By not accepting it.  I’m the one, so far, who can’t escape it. You have it because I’ve given it to you, and you don’t have to accept it. I gave it to you because it was given to me, and I accepted it.” Here he is talking about the friendship that Jack gave him. That’s how grace works.

But I need to issue a warning. Grace cannot be presumed upon or it ceases to be grace. Jesus never lowered his high expectations for his followers. When Jesus knew that he was going to be killed, he didn’t try to protect his followers. He said, “If you want to be my follower, then you will have to deny your instinct for self-preservation, take up your cross and get in line behind me.” Jesus said, “You need to be prepared to die too.” Grace doesn’t lower the expectations.

For us, at the very least, this involves dying to our ego-driven and ego-dominated self, the little, false self that we spend so much of our lives protecting and projecting. And I have to be honest. I don’t do that very well much of the time. I can be proud and stubborn and want things my way. I really like to win. I’m not real good at ego-denial and walking in the way of the cross, which is the way of suffering love. But Jesus doesn’t lower the standard. Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, Chuck that’s okay if you can’t carry the cross today, if you can’t say “no” to your stubborn self-will and pride today, that’s okay.” Jesus never says that. Jesus says, “If you want to be my follower, then you better learn how to die to your pride and greed and selfish ambition and your need for honor and recognition and all the rest. Jesus says, “You have to let go of all that to be my disciple.” So grace doesn’t lower the expectations.  

We can’t presume anything, but we can live by grace, rather than by a system of meritocracy that leaves us looking over our shoulder to see who is going to beat us to the prize.

Here’s what I think. I think everyone of us when we consider what we really deserve are all latecomers, we are all in the group that worked for one hour and got a full days’ pay – everyone of us. We have all received more than we ever deserve. 

I know I need grace — everyday. I usually need a lot of grace. And I think I know most of you well enough to know that most of you need about as much grace as I need, and some of you need more, but I will suspend judgment. 

All of life is pure gift, and any notion that we have earned all that we have is pure illusion. That doesn’t lower the expectations of discipleship, nor does it justify our lack of effort. God expects our best effort. But hear this sisters and brothers, even our capacity to extend effort, to give our best – that too is grace. And when we see all of life as gift, there is simply no place for jealousy or envy or resentment or bitterness – just gratitude that we have been included, that we all have been included – for we are all latecomers. And whether you work 1 hour in the shade or all day in the hot sun, whether you have easy job or a hard job, you’re in, you have been chosen, you are included – not because you deserve to be, but just because you are. Thanks be to God.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, Forgive us for all the times we expect grace from you, but when it comes to our brothers and sisters we want you to treat them differently. Forgive us of our pride and envy and for thinking that we are better or deserve more than someone else. Help us to live by grace so that we won’t forfeit grace to a life of meritocracy. As we have received so may we share with others out of the forgiveness and grace we have experienced from you. And may we learn to rejoice with the latecomers rather than resent the grace you have given them. May we be reminded of your amazing grace as we eat this bread and drink this cup and inspired to be instruments of your grace in the world. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen.