Wetbacks: Following El Buen Coyote

Image by Manfred Werner. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Image by Manfred Werner. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Reading Jesus as a coyote who brings us into God’s reign against the law at no charge, or presenting baptism as making us all equally “wetback” strangers and aliens, are understandings coming directly out of years of working with undocumented immigrants struggling with the constant reality of possible deportation…

Reading Paul with undocumented immigrants, inmates, and “criminal aliens” cam clearly bring new life to worn-out texts.  Reading these Scripture passages in a way that holds onto the radical grace that infuses them requires faith and risk.  Though I am fully aware of other texts that emphasize the importance of being subject to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) and of walking by the Spirit and not by the flesh (Gal. 5:16-26), I do not believe that people always need to be presented with the “whole picture.”  Most people on society’s margins assume the Scriptures are only about lists of dos and don’ts and calls to compliance.  Reading with people whose social standing, family of origin, addictions, criminal history, and other factors make compliance with civil laws or scriptural teachings impossible requires a deliberate reading for and acting by grace.  The good news alone must be seized by faith as having the power to save, heal, deliver, and liberate.  This good news is no one other than Jesus Christ himself, who meets us through the words of Scripture and the sacraments, and through the flesh of his family of buen coyote followers.

Rev. Dr. Bob Ekblad, Reading the Bible With the Damned, p. 179-180, 195-196

 

Prodigal Grace

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c.1663-1665). Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c.1663-1665). Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

The last one hundred and fifty years or so have borne witness to more technological and scientific advances than any other equivalent period of time in human history.  From industry to the internet, from the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to the first moon landing at Tranquility Base, from outer space to cyberspace, we have traveled farther, communicated faster, and dug deeper into the mysteries of the universe than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

In all this time, perhaps the greatest mystery we have encountered is the mystery of each other.  Without a second thought, I can pull a hand-held device out of my pocket and initiate an instantaneous conversation with someone on the opposite side of the planet.  Compare this ability to explorers like Magellan, whose trip around the globe cost him his life, four out of five ships, and all but 18 of his 270 crew members.  Compare it to the life of the average peasant in medieval Europe, who would likely never travel more than 5 miles away from the spot where he was born.  Our experience of the world in the early 21st century is so much more connected and cosmopolitan than our ancestors thought possible.

But it hasn’t been an entirely utopian experience, of course.  This heightened interconnectivity has brought us into contact with people very different from ourselves.  These people talk, dress, think, and worship very differently than we do.  Our knowledge of the world has given rise to more questions.  The most vexing of these questions have to do with religion.  Once the average person became aware of so many different religions on this planet, and especially once they began living next door to people who practice these religions, how are we supposed to make sense of such diversity?  With so many varieties of belief and so many opinions about the ultimate nature of reality, surely someone has to be right while everyone else is wrong, right?

These questions have sparked an ongoing debate about who God is and what God wants that has lasted to this day.  It seems like there’s always some nut-case out there who is more than willing to stand up on national television and claim with unwavering certainty to have the one and only right answer about what God’s will is.  Too many people, longing for something to hold onto in these confusing times, are only too willing to buy into such easy answers.  As we have seen, time and again, these peddlers of snake-oil and easy answers can make their followers say and do the unthinkable.  In exchange for absolute certainty about the will of God, people are willing to hand over the money in their bank accounts, cut off relations to friends and family, and even fly airplanes into buildings.  The philosopher Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”  I like to pray a prayer I once saw on a bumper-sticker: “Lord, protect me from your followers!”

In these times of complication and confusion, the promise of absolute certainty feels like a virtue but turns out to be a vice.  As it turns out, the way we hold our questions with our values is far more important than the answers we come up with.

In Jesus’ time, there was a group of people who claimed to have all the answers.  They were the Pharisees.  Erudite scholars of the Torah, these well-respected citizens seemed to possess a monopoly on the truth market.  Their rabbis fielded questions of theology and ethics so well that they established themselves as defenders of the faith and guardians of family values.  Theirs was a world of black and white easy answers.  Faith and certainty went hand in hand with no room for mystery, doubt, or mercy.

You can imagine then that when Jesus came along, he really messed with their worldview.  We read in the opening verses of this morning’s gospel passage that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners.  The Pharisees were quite offended by this gesture, since eating with someone in that time and culture implied that you accepted that person just as he or she was.  From their point of view, Jesus was sending the wrong kind of message for an upstanding citizen and an acclaimed rabbi.  In response to their offended sensibilities, Jesus told them a story.  It’s the famous story we now know as the parable of the prodigal son.

The story begins with a fictional man with two sons.  One day, the younger of the two decides that he doesn’t want to sit around and wait for his father to die before collecting on his inheritance.  He asks for it ahead of schedule.  Basically, this move was his way of saying to his dad, “You’re dead to me.”  And his father, in spite of what must have been immense heartbreak over this rejection, acquiesces to his younger son’s demand.

The next thing we learn is that this son takes his share of the estate and burns out on the party scene of some far-away city.  But when the good times stop rolling, the son is hard-up for cash.  He ends up taking the most disgusting job possible for a young Jewish person: feeding pigs.  He was do hungry that even the hog-slop was starting to look and smell pretty good to him.

Finally, in a moment of desperation and clarity, the son selfishly cooks up a half-decent apology in order to get himself back into more stable living conditions.  And then he makes his way back home with his tail between his legs.  He wasn’t really sorry, mind you, he was just miserable enough that he would do anything, put up with any amount of humiliation, if it meant a warm bed and three square meals a day.

This is where the story gets really interesting.  Jesus says, “…while [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  Taken aback by this enthusiastic greeting, the son nevertheless begins his feigned apology speech, but his father never lets him finish.  He cuts him off by calling for his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals.  He kills the fattened calf and prepares a celebration feast.  In this moment, we get a clear picture of this father’s true nature as a man overflowing with love and generosity for his children.

Most tellings of the story end here, with the prodigal son’s redemption via forgiveness.  But that’s not where Jesus ends the story.  He keeps going.

Enter the older brother, the father’s firstborn son.  He has been the dutiful heir to the estate.  He has his stuff together, so to speak.  He has always done everything right.  But he’s not the hero of this story, not by a long shot.

It turns out that this older brother, in his quest to be the perfect son, has severely misjudged the kind of person his father is.  When he sees the welcome that his younger brother receives, the older brother gets angry and shouts at his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”  He thinks his father is a cranky old miser who demands absolute obedience without question.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Jesus’ cautionary tale about the older brother is a biting indictment of the leaders of the religious establishment in his day.  Like the older brother in the story, their devotion to certainty and obedience has led them to believe that their God is just as judgmental and small-minded as they are.

On the other hand, it is the tax collectors and sinners around Jesus, no strangers to imperfection and doubt, who have the keenest insight on the nature of reality.  Through Jesus’ acceptance of them as they are, warts and all, they are coming to have faith in the power of grace.

What is grace?  Well, a theological dictionary would define grace as “unmerited favor” but here’s my favorite definition of grace: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s how we end our sermons here every week.

But more than that, grace is one of the central religious values of our Presbyterian heritage.  In the 16th century, when established religious authorities once used guilt and fear to manipulate and control the people, the Reformers countered that there is nothing a person can do to garner favor with God.  Grace is a given.  It is God’s basic orientation toward human beings.  All we have to do is decide how we’re going to respond to it.

Will we, like the older brother and the Pharisees, storm off in a huff over the scandalous nature of grace?  Or will we, like the younger brother and the sinners, open our hearts to this undeserved love?  Will we allow it to transform us from the inside out, until we start to look like Jesus?

When I look around our world in the 21st century, I see a planet in desperate need of grace.  We’ve had more than enough of pompous, self-righteous fanatics who claim to hold all the right answers to life, the universe, and everything.  What we need now is a deep, abiding faith in the mystery of grace.

We need imperfect people, full of doubts and faults, whose lives have nevertheless been touched by the knowledge that they are loved, no matter what.  Such people know how to love in return.  Theirs is the only message that can successfully defend against the attacks of judgmentalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism.

Their scandalous message of grace, never popular or pragmatic, applies equally to liberals as well as conservatives, Muslims as well as Christians, North Koreans as well as North Americans.  Grace is the great equalizer.  Grace is the central value by which we know that we can never out-stay our welcome in the kingdom of God, and it is the enlivening force that empowers us to go out from this church this morning, saying to one another (and to the whole world):

“I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Of Messes and Miracles

De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)
De Visitatie by Frans Francken (1618)

Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect (or the pressure to appear to be perfect, even if you are not)?  This pressure comes down on us in many different forms.  For some, it might be related to performance at work or at school.  For others, it might be the pressure to have a perfect body.  It might also be the pressure to live up to a strict moral code or to be the perfect churchgoer.

For some strange reason, I think many of us have this vaguely-defined idea in our heads about what it means to “have it all” or “have it all together.”  We tend to think that if we want to be accepted, then we have to be acceptable according to some outside standard of beauty or performance.

I’d like to test this theory this morning as we examine the lives of two people whose lives were far from perfect.  The first is Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest, and the other is Mary, who we all know as the mother of Jesus.

Elizabeth, we know, was a good-hearted person, but she had a problem: she was getting on in years and she couldn’t have children.  While this can be devastating for families in any place and time, it was doubly-painful for women in first century Judea.  The most pressing concern for people in that society was the welfare of their nation as a whole.  They thought of themselves as the chosen people.  The most important thing, then, was to keep the chosen people going.  Anything that interfered with that process was most troubling.  So, if a woman was unable to bear children, people would see it as a sign that God had rejected her as a mother of the Jewish nation.  It wouldn’t have mattered that Elizabeth and her husband were honest people with good reputations, most people would assume that they had committed some kind of unspeakable act that brought this dreadful curse upon their family.  The village rumor-mill would have concocted all kinds of tantalizing tales of speculation over what that act might have been.  According to Jewish law at that time, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, would have been well within his rights to divorce her because of this.  Elizabeth, because of her inability to have children, was certainly an object of shame and ridicule in the time and place where she lived.

Elizabeth’s life and family were about as far as one could be from perfect in first century Judea.  Yet, even in her old age, after all hope had been lost, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and informed him that they could soon expect the arrival of a son, who would be named John.  What’s more is that this was not to be any ordinary baby, but a prophet who would prepare the people of Israel for massive change.

As painful as the stigma of childlessness must have been for Elizabeth, it put her in the perfect position to help her cousin Mary, whose period of shame was just beginning.

As her story opens, Mary seems like she has it all together.  Biblical scholars estimate that Mary was probably about 13 or 14 years old at the time.  This was the typical age for young girls to get engaged in that society.  They believed that women should start having children as soon as they were biologically able.  We read elsewhere in the New Testament that her fiancé, Joseph, was a kind and just working man who loved her very much.  Mary’s entire life was in front of her and things were looking pretty good.

Than an angel named Gabriel showed up and informed Mary that she was about to have a baby, just like her cousin Elizabeth.  It’s ironic that the very news that took away the disgrace of Elizabeth would heap disgrace upon Mary.  While Mary herself knew that she had committed no indiscretion, she had a hard time convincing others of that fact.  Even Joseph didn’t believe her at first!  Not only could Joseph call off their wedding, but he could have her legally put to death as an adulteress for fooling around with another man.  As the weight of this news settled upon Mary’s shoulders, she packed up and made a hundred mile journey on foot as a lone, unwed, pregnant teenager to the only other person she knew would understand: Elizabeth.

Elizabeth knew what it was like to bear the disgrace of the community for no good reason.  Furthermore, Elizabeth also knew what it was like to be pregnant for the first time under unusual circumstances.  And so, sure enough, it was Elizabeth who was the first to greet Mary by speaking a blessing over her pregnancy.  Elizabeth was the first to realize that Mary’s baby was a miracle, not a mistake.  She said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  In Mary’s darkest hour, when the rest of the world was ready to reject and stone her, Elizabeth called her “blessed.”  This blessing must have had a profound effect on Mary.  In the text, she immediately breaks out into a song of praise, just as if this was some kind of Broadway musical.  In the song she sings, Mary says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed”.  The support and acceptance she received from one person was enough to transform her entire experience of pregnancy into one of blessing.

During the next three months that Mary stayed with Elizabeth, the two women became a support network for each other.  Each of them was God’s gift to the other in the midst of messiness and chaos.

We can see the miracle of Christmas working itself out in their lives, but it looks nothing like we would expect in polite society.  We learn from Elizabeth that miracles don’t just come to those whose lives are seemingly perfect or put together.  We learn from Mary that miracles don’t necessarily turn our lives into inspirational success stories.  The message here is that ordinary miracles happen in the midst of ordinary life, however painful, broken, imperfect, or messed up it may be.

Here in the nostalgia of the secular holiday season, it can be easy for us to get caught up in illusions of having the perfect family, the perfect gift, the perfect Christmas dinner, etc.  Too often, the Christmas story itself gets presented with all of the messy parts carefully removed.  For example, you walk by a beautifully crafted crèche sitting on a church lawn and see the newborn Christ lying in a manger, but do you ever think about what stables really smell like?  Not very good.  In fact, they stink just about as much as our own messy lives sometimes stink.

The world into which Christ was born was this world, the same one we live in now, only two thousand years ago.  As Eugene Peterson writes, God “took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood”.  Your neighborhood, just as it is.  As we draw to the close of this Advent season, we are not just preparing to celebrate an event that took place “once upon a time”; we are preparing to celebrate the good news that Christ meets us right here in the midst of our messy and imperfect lives.  And what’s more is that our messiness does not prevent something good, beautiful, and miraculous from being born in us and through us.

Mary and Elizabeth knew that.  They accepted it.  What’s more is that they accepted each other in the midst of their mutual messiness.  That, more than anything else, is what put them in the perfect position to witness the miracle of the first Christmas.  They were a safe place for each other, a community of acceptance.

When I dream about what it is that our church is meant to be and do in this community, I think about Mary and Elizabeth.  I dream about a safe place, a community of acceptance that is truly open to all and reaches out to the world in love.  I dream about a church of people who are so accepting of themselves and their own mess that they can’t help but be gracious toward the messiness of those others who come looking for a place to belong.

There is so little of that in the world today.  Every authority figure, from teachers to bosses to the police car in the rearview mirror, seems to be looking over our shoulders, just waiting for us to mess up at something.  So, we mind our P’s and Q’s, dot the T’s and cross the I’s, and make sure to keep an eye on the speedometer.  On a less official level, we also feel like we’re constantly being evaluated by our peers for what we wear, what we drive, how we look, and who we know.  That pressure is enough to drive us crazy.

Sadly, our churches are not immune to this judgmental tendency.  In fact, we’ve developed something of a reputation for it over the years.  Too many churches have turned the gospel of Christ into just another system for judging people based on dogma and morality.  Too many churches have become houses of exclusion rather than communities of acceptance.

But our Presbyterian heritage teaches us that we are saved by grace: the unconditional love and unmerited favor of God.  There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation or get ourselves on God’s good side.  Not a single one of us has any grounds for looking down on or passing judgment over anyone else, even if we disagree with their opinions or disapprove of their behavior.  We are all sinners, saved by grace, loved by God, and welcome in this church.

This faith in grace as unconditional and unmerited acceptance is the biggest gift I believe our church has to offer our local community.  Ours is a church of grace, a community of acceptance: “open to all and reaching out to the world in love,” as it says in our church mission statement.  We have many neighbors in this town who need to hear this good news.  Their hearts are yearning for a place to belong, a place where none are judged and all are welcome.  We can be that place.

What we need to do in order to help that dream come true are three things:

  1.  Accept ourselves as we are.  We are not perfect.  We never will be.  We are full of faults and fears.  We don’t always live up to the values we espouse.  We need to recognize and accept this messiness in our own lives.  We need to get comfortable in our own scarred and wrinkled skin, knowing that we are loved in spite of our many messes.
  2. Extend that grace to others.  When you are able to accept yourself as you are, it’s only natural that you gradually start to become more tolerant and accepting of other people.  Their successes no longer threaten you.  Their failures give you no pleasure.  Their opinions were once the yardstick by which you measured yourself, but once you’ve stopped measuring yourself, you don’t need the yardstick anymore.  You are free to see and accept them as they are, faults and fears included.
  3. Spread the good news.  Let folks know about us.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people from places all over this country say to me that they’re looking for a church like ours.  I refuse to believe that none of these people live in Boonville.  Souls here are hungry for acceptance and a gospel that really is “good news.”  Our job is to share that good news with them in word and deed.  Just as you’ve often heard me say before: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”

This Christmas, don’t worry about finding the perfect tree, the perfect gift, or the perfect ham.  Instead, focus on cultivating this kind of self-acceptance based on your faith in the immeasurable, unconditional love that holds us from birth to death and beyond.  This acceptance of self and others is ultimately what makes for a happy home, a growing church, and a merry Christmas.

The Experience of Grace

You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!

Paul Tillich

A Moment of Grace

‘Grace’, Painting by Krassimira Vidolovska. Used with permission under GDFL.

What really happens in the worship experience?  Regardless of one’s theological orientation – humanist, theist, Buddhist, pagan – there is often an unspoken encounter with an unseen order.  For the theist, that order is the reality of God.  For the Buddhist, it is an awareness of no separation between self and everything else.  For the humanist, it may be acknowledging our individual roles in the larger body of humanity.  For the pagan, it is the spiritual reality within the natural world.  Wherever one places one’s faith, the deepest experience that happens in worship is often unseen.  A worship leader can follow the prescribed steps in preparing for worship, and the result can still be uninspiring.  The candles can be lit, the incense smoldering, the words written down carefully, the scripture thoughtfully exegeted – and there can still be no transformative moment in the service…

At a transformative moment, a constellation of tradition, relationships, meanings, hopes, and fears is present in the worshiping community.  There is the covenant that each individual has committed to honor and engage as a member of the community.  There also has to be something that none of the practices, preparations, and participation in covenantal community can create – and that is a moment of grace.

Wayne Arnason & Kathleen Rolenz, Worship That Works, 139-140

Sola Gratia

King Street in Boone, NC. Image by Jeremy Mikkola

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian

Click here to listen to this sermon

1 John 3:16-24

Back when was in college, I lived in a little town in western North Carolina called Boone.  It’s nestled way back in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form part of the ancient and gentle Appalachians.  Once you get up into the High Country of Christmas tree and tobacco farms in the hills around Boone, let me tell you: you will meet some “interesting” people.  We had one guy named Joshua who lived in a tent in the woods and sold poetry on the street corner.  We had Satanists, Neo-nazis, drug dealers, apocalyptic conspiracy theorists, and fire-breathing preachers galore.  Don’t forget: this is the same region of the country that produced snake-handling churches.  I think there are even a few folks left in that region who (still) might not have read the memo saying that the Civil War is over.

One such “interesting” person that I had the singular privilege of knowing was a guy named Mike.  Mike was a reformed drug user who lived in a trailer way back up in the woods.  He attended a particular church that holds the unique belief that theirs is the one and only true church left on planet Earth.  All others have either forgotten or corrupted the true gospel of Christ.  They believe that strict adherence to the dogmas and morals that constitute the membership requirements for their one, true church is what could secure one’s status as “saved” in the eyes of God.

Mike himself was an intense and energetic loner who felt drawn to their form of religious belief and practice.  Their robust conviction and die-hard certainty was attractive to him.  However, Mike was a person who struggled in many ways.  He wrestled with substance abuse and mental illness.  His church, unwilling to bend their strict rules in the name of pastoral sensitivity, was constantly excommunicating him and then readmitting him to membership.  Whenever I would bump into him in public, Mike’s customary greeting was, “I got saved again!”  Mike believed that his status before God was constantly in a state of flux because of his inability to adhere to his church’s code of faith and conduct.  That inflexible code, I think, only served to increase Mike’s anxiety and make him feel alienated from the Source of life and love that could truly help him on his quest to become a better person and a more faithful Christian.

Now, I don’t think many of us are likely to find ourselves in Mike’s position.  While we too might very well wrestle with problems like addiction and mental illness, this church does not exclude or condemn people for being human.  However, we do live in a time when it is quite likely that you will encounter someone (in person, online, or on TV) who will try to send you the message that you’re not “saved” or “born again,” which is to say that you don’t count as a “real” Christian or a child of God.  Let me tell you right now that I think that’s a bunch of baloney.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I should probably take this opportunity to also tell you flat-out that I am a universalist.  What that means in theological terms is that I believe in the doctrine of universal salvation.  What it means in plain English is that I don’t believe in hell.  I find the idea of eternal punishment after death to be completely incompatible with the nature and purposes of the God of Love who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  This means that I believe everyone, everywhere, regardless of their religion or their behavior, is “saved.”  I’m going to come back to this point later, but I think it’s important that I lay it out now, just so you all know where I’m coming from and where I’m going with this.

Those who try to draw lines in the sand between us and them (i.e. the saved and the damned, the religious insiders and the secular outsiders), typically do so using one or both of the following criteria: belief and behavior.  They might say that there are certain ideas you need to accept before you’ll count as a “real” Christian in God’s eyes.  They might also say that there are certain things that you need to do if you want to be “saved.”

Folks like this have been around for a long time.  In fact, I think it’s probably fair to say they’ve been around for as long as organized religion has been part of human society.  We can definitely see their tendencies emerging within the pages of the Bible itself.

In the earliest decades of Christianity, there were two influential groups that developed within the church, each with its own ideas and ideologies.  The first group is now known as the Judaizers.  These were folks who had a very high degree of respect for Christianity’s roots in Jewish religion and culture.  So great was their love for this heritage that many of them began to insist that every new Christian should become Jewish first.  They thought this would limit the amount of cultural perversion and assimilation that might happen among Christians.  The Judaizers insisted that Christian believers of all ethnicities should make certain that they follow all 613 of God’s commandments in the Jewish Torah.  The leaders of the early church, however, decided together that the doors of the church should be flung as wide open as possible in order to welcome people from every tribe, language, people, and nation into the community of Christ.  Christianity’s honored roots may have been Jewish, they said, but its future would be international and multicultural.  You can read about the details of this conversation in chapter 15 of the book of Acts in the New Testament.  The apostle Paul confronted this controversy head-on in his Epistle to the Galatians (also in the New Testament).  He had a lot of passionate things to say about it (he was against the Judaizers).  Even though the issue seems to have died down in the later part of the first century, we can still hear echoes of that conflict in today’s reading from John’s First Epistle.  John’s words about “obey[ing] the commandments” may well have been a reference back to the controversy with the Judaizers.  With their strict emphasis on following the commandments, one can easily see how the Judaizers were the ones who said that there are certain things that people need to do in order to count as “saved” in God’s eyes.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through behavior.

The second influential group in the early Christian church was actually a collection or series of different groups that had common characteristics.  Collectively, they are now known as the Gnostics.  These were folks who came into their Christian faith from the Greco-Roman side of the equation.  They brought with them a love of philosophy and wisdom as part of their cultural heritage.  As they began to explore their newfound Christian faith, they tried their best to understand Christianity through the lens of philosophy.  Popular philosophical thought at the time saw the physical world as completely evil and the spiritual world as completely good.  The Gnostics saw Jesus as a kind of divine messenger who floated down to earth and appeared to take on human form in order to teach humanity the secret knowledge that would allow them to transcend above the realm of the physical and enter the spiritual realm, where God lives.  The early church leaders, especially the author of John’s First Epistle, were extremely uncomfortable with the idea that this world is totally evil and Jesus wasn’t a real flesh and blood human like you or me.  With their emphasis on “secret knowledge” as the source for salvation, the Gnostics were like those who insist that a person has to accept certain ideas or interpretations of scripture in order to count as a “real” Christian.  We could say that they believed in self-salvation through belief.

Now John, writing as a pastor to his congregation in his First Epistle, challenges both of these false assumptions, but he spends a lot more time being concerned about the Gnostics (probably because that was the bigger issue with this congregation).

John counters these ideas with one, huge, over-arching principle that trumps both belief and behavior: Love.

John is the writer who famously wrote, “God is love.”  God’s love, given freely and unconditionally to those who neither deserve nor earn it, is the basis of all authentic Christian faith and action.  Another word for this kind of unconditional love is “grace.”  That’s what we mean when we sing, “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”  The Protestant Reformers, our forbears in this church, were following in John’s footsteps when they leaned heavily on the principle of sola gratia or “grace alone” as one of the central foundations of their faith.  In theological terms, grace is the “unmerited favor” of God.  In plain English, it means “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

For John, the Protestant Reformers, and all of us in this church, the primary revelation of God’s love is in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus embodied love.  He lived and died for others.  He set for us an example of what love looks like and what the power of love can do in this world.

According to John, the only way to respond to this free gift of unconditional love is to give love freely and unconditionally.  When we love like Jesus, we remind ourselves and others that love is the Ground of our Being.  Love is the heartbeat at the center of the universe.  When we love like Jesus, our hearts beat in time with the cosmos.

Love is so much simpler, yet so much more difficult, than following a list of prescribed beliefs and behaviors.  We would much rather have an itemized creed to which we demanded adherence from everyone.  That’s way easier than loving.  We would much rather have a code of conduct that spelled out every possible contingency and application for each regulation.  That’s way easier than loving.

Love is a fluid and unpredictable thing.  Love keeps us creative and flexible.  Love is difficult, but it’s also so sorely needed.

You and I live in a society where dogmatism and litigiousness run rampant, but real love and community are on the decline.  Just as the Beatles found out that “money can’t buy me love,” we’re finding out that we can’t legislate it either.  It would be so much easier to simply draw our lines in the sand over belief and behavior, keeping us in and them out.

The one thing that’s lacking in this land is a sense of love and community.  People are longing to belong.

In spite of our exponentially accelerated rate of communication and information exchange in our culture, folks are feeling more isolated than ever.  This is a time when the recovery of love as our central principle for faith and action is needed more than ever.

Because of this great need in the world and the great love that is in us as the people of God, I am ordaining and commissioning you all this morning as evangelists and missionaries of love to Central New York and the North Country.  I’m not asking you to go proselytize your neighbors or try to win converts at the grocery store.  There are enough folks out there doing that already.

At best, those “missionaries” and “evangelists” are only trying to get people to “believe that” certain ideas about Jesus are true (i.e. that he is the Son of God who was born of a virgin, died on the cross, and rose from the grave).  Those pamphlets of religious literature can never really get people to “believe in” Jesus in a real way.

I can say “I believe that” about any number of facts.  I believe that I am standing in a pulpit right now.  I believe that there is a stack of paper in front of me.  I believe that I can see our organist from here.  All of those are simple statements of fact.

But to say “I believe in” takes a much more personal commitment.  I believe in this church.  I believe in you.  It’s a statement of personal trust and relationship.  It goes way farther than simply giving intellectual assent to a list of statements on a piece of paper.

Into this isolated and isolating world that knows so little of real love, I want to send you all as evangelists and missionaries of unconditional love in word and action.  Show your faith in love through loving deeds, not creeds.  Help people to believe in that love which we hold most sacred.

I commission you in the words of another, more famous, American Universalist named John Murray, who preached during the 1700s:

Go out into the highways and by-ways.  Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Other Voices on the Quest for a Better Gospel

 

As many of you superfriends and blogofans already know, my personal spiritual journey is one of constant searching for alternatives to the Bad Old Good News that is typically propagated by most traditional expressions of western Christianity (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Fundamentalist Protestantism).

One of the stops on this journey was with my former roommate from seminary (If you thought of Dark Helmet as soon as I said “former roommate,” you get 3 extra points).

Aaron Blue is the founder and Director of the Charis Project, an outreach organization that supports holistic and sustainable community development through orphanages in Thailand.  Click the link above to learn more and support it.

While Aaron’s ecclesiastical roots lie in the early Vineyard movement, his is a theology that defies categorization.  What made me gravitate toward him in seminary is the fact that he doesn’t seem to live by the same rules that everyone else does.  A rather Christlike quality, if you ask me.  Aaron would describe himself as follows: “While everyone else is trying to win the Superbowl, I’m questioning the validity of the NFL.”

Aaron’s journey has taken him in some interesting directions.  We disagree on a lot, but that’s okay with us because we both believe that dogmatic conformity is probably the single worst criterion for evaluating the quality of one’s spirituality.

He keeps a blog of signposts from his metaphysical travels:

In Search of a Shameless Gospel

I recommend starting with this post:

Running from a Shameful Gospel – Part 1

This post is particularly reminiscent of conversations that Aaron and I were having about this time seven years ago.  Those conversations played a big part in helping me talk about the Bad Old Good News in terms that are as ridiculous as the theology itself.  Here’s how I like to say it:

The Bad Old Good News

You were such a horrible person that God had to torture and murder the only person in the world who didn’t deserve it.  If you don’t think this is the best idea ever, God will torture you forever along with most of the rest of the human race.

Another favorite rendition:

Telepathically tell the zombie that he’s your master and you get to live forever.

That kind of “good news” is neither good nor news.  It’s either silly, offensive, or both.  Aaron and I both set off on our separate quests for a better Gospel.  The journey has led us in very different directions, but we continue to share notes.

Aaron Blue

 

A Frame of Reference

Here’s an inspiring passage I found in on pages 19-20 in Douglas F. Ottati’s book, Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species (Geneva: 2006).

Will the mainline churches in America hold together or split apart?  Will liberal Protestants criticize the excesses and the idols of contemporary American culture but also remain open to the lessons and wisdom that nevertheless seem present in the wider society and culture?  Will liberal Protestants simply disappear?  Will the United States find positive, realistic, and responsible ways to exercise power in a multilateral world?  What shall we say and do about racism, sexism, and homophobia; about urban policy, transportation, and education; about matters of war and peace?  Can we ever become stewards of our natural environment?

These are among the important questions we face.  Nevertheless, for Christians and their communities, the more basic question is this: How shall we center a faithful witness?  The function of Christian theology is to help us answer this question, and I propose that we answer it in a single sentence: We belong to the God of grace.

Once we are clear about this, a number of things follow.  First, we live in assurance, refuse to set limits on the extent of God’s faithfulness, and refuse to exclude anyone from the scope of grace and redemption.  We then work for an inclusive church, support a ministry of reconciliation, and invite everyone everywhere to lay hold of the assurance and confidence that come with the knowledge of a gracious God.  Second, we acknowledge the human fault and, without losing hope, maintain a realistic attitude toward the present age and its daunting challenges.  Finally, we affirm that all people have worth, and we commit ourselves to public practices, policies, and leadership that respect persons, pursue equitable opportunities for the poor, and care for those in need.

We belong to the God of grace.  This simple confession will enable us to interpret the many threats and conflicts and issues and promises of our day in a definite theological frame of reference.

The Politics of Grace

A 375-Year-Old French Bank Forgives Debts of Paris’ Poorest

Link to article in Good Magazine

For all you theological types out there, reflect on this article in conjunction with this passage from the Torah:

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.

In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbour or buy from your neighbour, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbour, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop-years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.

You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely. Should you ask, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.

– Leviticus 25:8-24