Foundry UMC

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Born Again

May 13th, 2018

“Born Again”

Preached by Will Green at Foundry United Methodist Church

Polyphony Series—May 13th, 2018       

 

            As Wesleyan Christians, we celebrate the fact that God peaks not only through Scripture, but through the individual experiences of those with whom we share community. Today I’m humbled and blessed to welcome Brook Dalrymple, one of Foundry’s newest members, to share her witness and experience of the phrase “born again.”

Good morning. As a young girl, I was taught early on, like I’m sure some of you, that once I invited Jesus into my heart, I was born again...a new creation, not the same as I was. While there is beauty to this, it was a very limited, individualistic view of born again. What it instead evolved to mean for me was a very particular image of a “born-again Christian”. And to not maintain this image was out of line, sinful.

 

Being born again meant you were a Christian who quote, “got it.” I remember hearing often the phrase “We are born-again Christians.” And “He or she is a Christian, but not a born again Christian.” Meaning they can’t really be sure, like I could, of their own salvation. To be born again, you needed to talk about Jesus all the time, not miss a single Sunday service, and find any opportunity in conversation to segway into the four spiritual laws. Social justice wasn’t deemed as important enough. Tolerance and co-existing were bad words too, for anyone who lived differently than a born-again Christian was considered a threat.  And though it was preached time after time, that we “love everybody”, what it really meant was that we showed others love, and became their friends, so that eventually they could convert too and be born again.

 

Being raised in this environment, though toxic for anyone, was particularly dangerous for me. I was someone who gave their full attention to religious authority because I thought that’s where my security lied. So... I did all these “born again” things, and proudly claimed the title. And you know what? It felt really good to be in the club. I was praised by pastors and church leaders and there was a felt safety and security, not to mention, reassurance that I was not going to hell.

 

It wasn’t until grad school that my constructed view of being a born again Christian had to be broken down, deconstructed, demolished...and I am still in this space now. I began learning that being born again should be understood within the context of God’s concern with establishing his Kingdom on earth--that being born again meant participating in God’s plan to restore ALL creation. I found that even my colleagues in my counseling program, who--were not under a Christian brand--were doing this compelling Kingdom work.They showed love and acceptance of others, were attuned to those marginalized, and were doing restorative work to improve systems for the flourishing of others. Could I actually experience God more fully from someone who wasn’t a born-again Christian? Could Kingdom work in the world still be done without it being only by a “Christian non-profit”? This rigid line I’d been taught around what is secular versus what is sacred, started to disappear. All is sacred, all is being made new.

 

My early understanding of born again was too small and neglected a much greater narrative: that the Kingdom of God is here, now, and ever-coming. It’s not about operating through life avoiding hell, but finding myself born-again into God’s kingdom, seeking peace and justice now on earth, and addressing the broken systems that are breaking people. Thank you.

 

            Brook, thank you for the gift of your courage and your story. I thoroughly believe that every sermon preached and word proclaimed from this pulpit will pale in comparison to the stories you each bear and the way our shared witnesses empower us as a whole to live into God’s vision for our lives and world. Friends, as we continue opening our hearts to Spirit’s speaking today, let us pray.

Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing, Living Spirit, Holy Wisdom, You Who Hold Us and the World,
Come and sing Your love song to us once more.
Tune our hearts that we might be open to it.
Tune our minds that we might receive it.
Tune our lives so that we might be its witnesses in the world.

Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,
that today we might hear a word from you. Take of this feeble preacher’s words what is worthy, silence that which is not, and use me that—whether through or despite of me—your people might hear a word from You.

Amen.

           It’s happened to most of us, I’d guess. A phone call we know we should have screened. A stranger we wish we’d avoided eye-contact with. The time we knew we should avoid great-aunt Edna this year’s family reunion but we’ve had to too many sweet teas (or, you know, other family reunion beverages) that we didn’t. And then, the question: “Have YOU been born again?”

           Growing up in the backwoods preaching houses of Arkansas’s summer revivals, my relationship with this question has always been…complicated. On the one hand, I am a proud, self-avowed and practicing born again, evangelical Christian. As a Wesleyan by birth and a United Methodist by choice, I have long believed that, as Mr. Wesley himself once wrote,

 

If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two, -- the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth…”[1]

 

           But…and it always seems like there’s a “but” in conversations about our faith these days, right? But I’ve also witnessed the harm it causes when used to prey upon people’s natural doubts and deep desire for belonging. Watched it become a line drawn in the sand and a wall built to insulate us from the careful, rational, and communal interrogation of our faith and belief. Raged as it emerged, slowly but steadily, as a clandestine political marker pointing to racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and trans-phobia thinly veiled behind so-called religious freedom.

           Like so many here, I’ve known being “born again” like our companion Brook—a tool of shame and oppression used to silence the voices of those whom we are afraid to welcome or keep those we have welcomed in line AND a promise of God’s grace which is transformative and powerful. So I approach our shared reflection today with a sense of hopeful indignation, that is a refusal to acquiesce any longer the loss of this phrase which is so vital and necessary for the journey of discipleship and the conviction that there is something about it which is, indeed, worth fighting for.

 

  1. What is “New Birth?”

 

           The notion of being born again, though hijacked in this recent century in all the ways I’ve already named, has long been a fundamental part of the Christian experience. As last week we learned alongside my colleague Mark that Methodists are, in fact, evangelical, we also learned that the evangelical experience—particularly for Wesleyan Christians—is one shaped by the personally transformative power of God’s grace which compels us to action in the world.

           Wesley strongly believed that ‘new birth’ was the product of God’s justifying grace, “…another word for pardon..the forgiveness of all our sins, and …the knowledge of our acceptance with God.”[2] Or, as Pastor Ginger put it in her sermon titled “Bridge,” our “new [and growing] awareness that even when [we are] right in the middle of making things a mess God [still loves us].”[3]

           It is this experience of God’s justifying grace throughout our lives which opens to us the gate of new birth, a moment in which we are able to see ourselves and the world with God’s eyes, to catch a glimpse of the image of God which dwells in all living things, and are so compelled by that vision that we move forward in works of “piety” and “mercy,” that is personal holiness through worship, charitable giving, and the practice of Christian community AND works of justice through direct service and advocacy. ‘New birth’ is a movement of Spirit in which our orientation toward ourselves and others changes, in which there is a conscious awareness that we have been named and known as beloved by God and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it.  

           But perhaps it’s helpful to pause here and ponder what being “born again” is not. When I posed this question to a couple of my friends, most came back with the same answer: Ned Flanders. For those of you who like me haven’t really ever watched “The Simpsons”—we were always more of a Touched By an Angel household, which coincidentally might explain a few things about me—Ned is a regular character on the show who’s  a “born again” Christian that wants you to know it. He serves as a frenemy and regular foil of the series’ anti-hero Homer, often showing up as one who’s overly concerned with the Christian thing to do and reminding other characters that God’s watching.

           Although well-intentioned and often thoughtful, Ned’s bumbling attempts to show God’s love through right practice or belief often leave other characters cold to his faith and unable to connect to the Gospel he’s proclaiming. His confusion about the “how” behind the “why”//// is mirrored in the character of Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading. Revealed to the reader as a “teacher” of Israel—meaning he had a place of religious and legal authority—and perhaps a secret disciple of Jesus—as indicated through his late-night run to Jesus’ digs for some chill theological conversation and his address of Jesus as Rabbi—Nicodemus’ exchange with Jesus is a weak attempt to capture a truth which continually seems to evade him.

           Most commentators interpret the exchange in verses 1-8, particularly Nicodemus’ inaccurate interpretation of the word “anothen” (here translated born again but also meaning born from above or born anew) as a literary device jabbing at the literal interpretation of the law and strict adherence to right practice and or belief as the primary vehicles of our faith. Instead, Jesus says:

 

“T[4]he wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit”

Later saying:

 

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[5]

 

           Jesus insistent argument makes clear to those who would hear that ‘being born again’ is not about conforming to a pre-conceived or conveniently practiced model of kin-dom, but is a movement of Spirit through which God’s love and grace are born into us so that through us others might see and know it too. It is not, as Jesus remarked in verse 17, a tool to be used for the condemnation of those who do not conform to our standards, but a lived invitation to come and see what God can do when God’s love dwells in us.

           Being born again is NOT praying the Jesus Prayer or coming down the altar rails every time you scream that four letter word in traffic or sending that late night televangelist a love offering in three conveniently paid installments of 19.99. It is not about feeling guilt or shame because we fail to live up to the standards set by others. It is not conforming to a singular interpretation of the Gospel. It is not seceding your intellect or knowledge. It is not living without doubt or fear. Being born again is not being holier-than-thou, no matter which side of the theological or political perspective you stand on.

           No, friends! It is about seeing the you that God sees—one who is beautiful and beloved, worthy and worthwhile, deserving of grace and space at God’s table. It is about opening your eyes to the truth of the image of God in yourself and in others and in trusting the words of the Prophet Micah heralded across the ages:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

    and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

    and to walk humbly with your God?”[6]

 

  1. What Is Its Purpose?

 

But why does being born again mean for those of us for whom all the baggage it bears and broken promises it carries matter? For Wesley, it was the gateway into personal and social holiness that so profoundly shapes the Methodist ethos. From it we are invited to cross the threshold into God’s sanctifying grace, the journey we make with God over our lifetimes in which we are more fully caught up by, invested in, and transformed through God’s living grace.

But the two are not to be confused in Wesley’s theology. He makes clear in his sermon titled the new birth that:

 

“the new birth..is a part of sanctification, not the whole; it is the gate to it, the entrance into it. When we are born again, then our sanctification, our inward and outward holiness, begins…”

 

In other words, to be born again is to catch a glimpse of the world toward which we’re working. The knowledge of God’s amazing grace for us and for the world is the blueprint which informs our commitments to things like transcendent worship, passionate advocacy, deep and challenging study, and radical hospitality. Lest we fall into the trap of a rote, moralistic religion in which we are performing the tasks assigned to us by our own ethic or compassion—the new birth reminds us that it is not our own vision, but God’s, toward which we are working.

This birth to God’s vision for our lives and the world can make all the difference. I’ve seen it, in the faithful leadership and witness of our sibling T.C., alongside so many others, who are fighting the homophobic policies of our United Methodist Church. They have not backed down. They have spoken the truth in love. And even in the face of vitriol and flat out rejection by the church they love they have continued to love and lovingly claim the place which we know God has already created for them.

When annual conferences across our connection rejected amendments which celebrated the gifts, ministry, and rights of women and persons regardless of their gender, ability, age, or marital status AND that asserted equity in the eyes of God between men and women, I bore witness to the leadership of women who refused to be silenced by a self-serving patriarchy hiding behind the veneer of “orthodoxy.” And here’s what’s truly shocking. Rather than walking away, or abandoning us to a crumbling system of belief and practice, they asserted with grace and love both their place the table and their willingness to help us—even those responsible implicitly or explicitly—find ours too.

Their lives and leadership bear the mark of new birth and are a witness to us of its place and purpose to the work which lies ahead of us. It grounds us in hope and grace—free from the fetters of denominational policy or politics, and the presumptions placed on us by others—and allows us to step out in, and sustain us through, the work of justice, mercy, compassion, and advocacy to which God has called us.

Not by our own strength—for it will fail. Not by our own will—because it will break. But by the living grace of God which has already claimed us, named us, held us, and called us into beloved community together. Why is the experience of new birth so vital? Because that moment begins a movement in our spirits through which we are able to be born again, and again, and again each day to the knowledge that we are God’s beloved, chosen, called, and gifted—no matter what anyone else might say.  

 

III. Conclusion

 

As a young man wrestling with my backwoods Arkansas revival roots I often thought being born again simply another tool used to control and confuse people. And I’d be lying to you today if I said there weren’t still days it was a hard pill to swallow. But I’ve come to see it in a different like in the midst of my hopeful indignation. Less of a line in the sand and more of a roadmap for what’s possible. A source of strength and wellspring of hope in the midst of this weary land that reminds us we’ve already been saved, gifted, called, and loved—and the sends us to serve not in the strength of our own ability, but in that of the one who saves us, gifts us, loves us and calls us time and time again. And whether you leave here today a self-avowed, practicing born again Christian or not, my prayer for you is that may know and serve in that truth, now and in all your days to come.

 

Come thou Font of Every blessing, make it so. Amen

 

[1] The New Birth, John Wesley, accessed 5/12/18, https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-45-The-New-Birth

[2]Justification by Faith, John Wesley, accessed 5/10/18 at https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-5-Justification-by-Faith

[3] http://foundry.podbean.com

[4] John 3:8, NRSV

[5] John 3:17

[6] Micah 6:8, NRSV

Evangelical

May 8th, 2018

Evangelical

Rev. Mark Schaefer

Foundry United Methodist Church

May 6, 2018

2 Samuel 4:5–12; Matthew 11:2–6

 

2 Samuel 4:5–12 NRSV • Now the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, set out, and about the heat of the day they came to the house of Ishbaal, while he was taking his noonday rest. They came inside the house as though to take wheat, and they struck him in the stomach; then Rechab and his brother Baanah escaped. Now they had come into the house while he was lying on his couch in his bedchamber; they attacked him, killed him, and beheaded him. Then they took his head and traveled by way of the Arabah all night long. They brought the head of Ishbaal to David at Hebron and said to the king, “Here is the head of Ishbaal, son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life; the LORD has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring.”

David answered Rechab and his brother Baanah, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, when the one who told me, ‘See, Saul is dead,’ thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag—this was the reward I gave him for his news. How much more then, when wicked men have killed a righteous man on his bed in his own house! And now shall I not require his blood at your hand, and destroy you from the earth?” So David commanded the young men, and they killed them; they cut off their hands and feet, and hung their bodies beside the pool at Hebron. But the head of Ishbaal they took and buried in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.

 

Matthew 11:2–6 NRSV • When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 

 I.        BEGINNING

Friends, I am here to talk to you about Jesus.  The only Son of God, our Lord!  He came to us from heaven, lived among us and died for our sins on the cross!  Can I get a hallelujah?  But the story did not end there, friends, no, it didn’t.  Because he ROSE again.  He came back from the dead so that ALL would know that God has given us a gift of life from the dead, of eternal life through the blood of his precious son, Jesus Christ!  Can I get an amen?

I don’t know how long I can keep that up. That gets kind of exhausting for a Methodist from Upstate New York.

But I am willing to bet that something close to that kind of religiosity is what many of you think when you hear the word “evangelical.” Something about loud, emotional preaching. Charismatic religious leaders with huge congregations or tent revival meetings and altar calls, people weeping in the aisles. Lots of jumping up and shouting “Hallelujah!”

Or maybe your mind goes less to the worship style and more to the implicit theology: exclusivist claims to salvation, an emphasis on individual—often sexual—sin rather than systemic sins like poverty and racism, a preoccupation with whether you’re in or you’re out. A lot of asking, “When were you saved?” (My favorite answer to that question is: “2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem.” Feel free to borrow that one.)

Or maybe it’s the particular set of political beliefs that tend to come with the Evangelical theology: social conservatism, lack of inclusion toward the LGBTQ community, a strong support for law-and-order justice, a strong military, and other traditionally conservative political positions.

However it’s understood, for many Christians who do not so identify, the word evangelical has left something of a bad taste in people’s mouths for a while. In fact, fifty years ago, when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form our current denomination, they didn’t choose to be called the sensible combination of their names—the Evangelical Methodist Church or the Methodist Evangelical Church—they instead dropped the word evangelical and opted to carry over united, instead. (As an aside, this is why it’s preferred to refer to us as United Methodists—so that we honor the EUB churches who joined with the Methodists five decades ago.)

But all of this is to say, that there is a lot of discomfort around the word evangelical. But what does it mean for us, really? Is there a sense of the word that those of us on the other side of the theological aisle can embrace? Despite all of the connotations that we perceive when we hear it, what does the word actually mean?

II.     EVANGELICAL

On a basic level, Evangelical means “Gospel based.” It comes from the Greek word euangelion meaning “good news” or gospel.

Now, at first, this word was meant to be in contrast to those Christians who based their doctrine on things other than the scriptures, specifically, the Catholic Church which derived much of its doctrine from its accumulated theological tradition rather than directly from the scriptures themselves. Thus, Evangelical was a term that meant something like “according to the gospel” as opposed to “according to the church.”

In Germany, for example, the word Evangelisch simply means “Protestant.” (By the way, when I typed that word into the Google translation software to double-check, I still had my translation set to Latin and the site rendered Evangelisch as haereticus “heretic”—so, it appears that the Vatican may still have some lingering feelings about the Reformation, or at least those writing in Latin, anyway.) To this day, the Lutheran Church in German is simply the Evangelische Kirche and its sister church in the US is the ELCA—The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Now, in America, from the 18th century onward, the term evangelical referred to those who affirmed the importance of a personal experience of salvation, known in the heart. This experience of salvation was seen as a central and essential element of Christian faith.

And during the heyday of what was known as the “Evangelical consensus,” there was an agreement that this affirmation of the experience of God was accompanied by a commitment to outward expression of faith, frequently in acts of “piety” and “mercy”—which we would call “worship, devotion, service, and justice.” This was particularly the case among those Christians whose traditions emphasized the assurance of salvation, the new birth in the believer as a result of one’s justification and pardon of sin, and the gradual sanctification of the believer under the power of God’s grace. And especially those traditions whose founder himself had come to this theological understanding after years of tutelage by pietist Moravians who emphasized the religion of the heart and who himself had had the experience of his heart being “strangely warmed.”

So, yeah, I don’t know how to break this to you all. But Methodists are … Evangelical.

Wesley was absolutely convinced of the power of God’s justifying grace to work a change in us that regenerated us or that gave us a new birth. This, in turn, precipitated an assurance of salvation that he believed was every Christian’s birthright. It was these experiences of salvation that was what drove the early Methodists to work for prison reform, seek justice for the poor, establish schools and universities, fight for abolition, and so on. We did these things because we were evangelical, not despite being so. The Social Gospel was an outgrowth of Evangelical Christianity.

Now, in the early 20th Century, the Evangelical consensus began to collapse. The progressive social gospel was viewed with suspicion by more conservative elements and there arose a divide between those Christians who saw sin as a primarily personal issue and those who saw it as a societal problem.

After the Scopes Monkey Trial about teaching evolution in the public schools took place in the 1920’s the term Evangelical arose as an alternative label for a conservative Christian who wasn’t quite a fundamentalist. And the more progressive, Social Gospel Christians were content to let them have the label.

Reeling from the embarrassment of the Scopes Monkey Trial, most evangelicals withdrew from active engagement with public life and opted out of organized participation in politics. This retreat was so great that the language of Evangelical Christianity, disappeared from the collective awareness. Whereas an old Evangelical concept like being “born again”—or as John Wesley would have called it “regeneration” or “new birth”—once made it into Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” now journalists no less respected than Walter Cronkite had to explain to his viewers that they’d looked into it when Jimmy Carter had claimed to be a “born-again Christian” and discovered that this was fairly common.

The mainline traditions that had come out of the evangelical tradition, had not just abandoned the label of evangelical, we’d abandoned the language of evangelical Christianity, such that our sense of being “evangelical” in any way was lost. Evangelical now meant what the conservative Christians had claimed it as: a conservative Christian who wasn’t quite a fundamentalist.

But that is a depleted sense of the word. The term evangelical is not just a subset of a subset—it’s meant to encompass us, too.

III.   GOOD NEWs

What does it mean, then, for us to claim to be evangelical?

At its most basic level, to be evangelical is to be rooted in the gospel—in the good news. To share the good news. But what’s the good news?

In the TV show Futurama, there’s a running gag wherein Professor Farnsworth, owner of the Planet Express delivery service, will come into the meeting room and make an announcement that always begins with “Good news, everyone!” But the announcements tend to be things like:

  • “Great news, everyone! You’ll be delivering a package to Chapek 9, a world where Humans are killed on sight.”
  • “Good news, everyone. Tomorrow you’ll be making a delivery to Ebola 9, the virus planet.”
  • “Good news, everyone! Today you’ll be delivering a crate of subpoenas to Sicily 8, the Mob Planet!”

With Professor Farnsworth there is a disconnect between his assertion that he’s bringing good news and the nature of the news he’s actually bringing.

We see something of that in the passage from 2 Samuel that we read earlier. In that passage we read of the aftermath of the dynastic struggle that follows in the wake of David succeeding Saul as king of Israel. Rimmon and Rechab found Ishbaal the son of Saul and slay him while he was taking his noontime rest. They behead him and ride all night to deliver the head of Ishbaal to David, clearly expecting to be rewarded for this. David’s reaction is quite different:

“As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, when the one who told me, ‘See, Saul is dead,’ thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag—this was the reward I gave him for his news. How much more then, when wicked men have killed a righteous man on his bed in his own house! And now shall I not require his blood at your hand, and destroy you from the earth?”

The men who did this and who reported it thought that they were bringing good news to David, just as the one who brought the news of Saul’s death did. But in neither case was this actually good news. David has enough sense to know that the death of these men—a political rival and his innocent son—might have been seen as politically expedient but can hardly be characterized as “good.” It’s important to understand that news that might be advantageous to you is not necessarily synonymous with good news.

I think this is the case with so much of what is held out as “good news” in contemporary Christianity, and part of many people’s responses to the word evangelical is because the Gospel that is frequently encountered doesn’t seem to be good news.

Somehow, the proclamation of Christ’s victory over death and sin gets translated into an almost Professor Farnsworth version of the Gospel:

  • “Good news, everyone! The overwhelming majority of the human race is condemned to eternal hellfire and damnation!”
  • “Good news, everyone! The key to salvation is intellectual assent to a very specific set of extraordinary propositions that must be believed without any trace of doubt!”
  • “Good news, everyone! It doesn’t matter how loving your Hindu and Muslim neighbors are, because they have not accepted Christ as we do, they can expect an eternity of psychic torment when they die!”

Does any of that sound like good news to you? Sure, it’s good news for the people who happen to fit the narrow definition of the faithful, but it’s hardly the kind of thing that would be understood as good news to anyone else. This sounds closer to the “good news” that brought word of the deaths of Saul and Ishbaal.

Now, if you’re one who is worried about your own eternal fate and someone were to tell you that you have nothing to fear because you are one of those for whom Christ died, then, yes, that would be good news. But it’s hard to see that proclamation being understood broadly in the same way to people who didn’t have that angst. If I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe in God or life after death, telling me that I’m going to hell unless I adopt a particular creed wouldn’t sound like good news in the slightest.

IV.   GO AND TeLL JOHN

So, then,  what is good news? How do we know what counts as good news such that we should proclaim it? As in so many things, it is instructive to look to Jesus. After all, Jesus began his ministry in Mark’s gospel by saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV)

Further, we read in our Gospel lesson earlier that John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus to relay a message from John asking him if he was the one they were waiting for or should they wait for someone else. Jesus’ response is:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

There are two things to note about this passage. The first is Jesus’ answer to how it is they can know whether Jesus is the long-awaited messiah: because, among other things, the poor have good news brought to them.

“Bringing good news” is connected to the poor. If we’re looking for a test to determine what is “good news,” let me suggest that the good news isn’t news the poor would receive as such, then perhaps it isn’t really good news. Or at least, the kind of Good News that the Christian is to be bringing.

Second, all of the verbs are in the present tense:

The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. This means that the good news is not about something that happened centuries ago, but something that is happening even now in our midst.

If we are to be good-news based, if we are to be sharing the gospel, if we are to be evangelical then let this be our evangelion. Let our Gospel be that God is active in our midst. Let our Gospel be that we are the agents of God’s grace and mercy. Let our Gospel be one that speaks powerfully to the needs of the disadvantaged and the marginalized, to the widow and the orphan, to the immigrant and the poor. Let our actions be an illustration that we truly are bearers of the “Good News.” Let our Evangelicalism be about sharing a message of liberty to the captive, justice to the oppressed, binding up of the brokenhearted.

If we claim that as our Good News, there should be no reason to shy away from being evangelical. Nor would we have any reason to shy away from insisting that everyone should have a powerful experience of that kind of salvation, and should know the love and grace of God deeply within their hearts.

V.      END

For a long time, I have argued that the Evangelical Christians have a lot of fervor but don’t always know what to do with it. And mainline Christians are really busy but we don’t always know why. That needs to end. And, mercifully, it’s starting to.

I have worked the last eighteen years on a college campus and have worked alongside a number of different Christian campus ministry communities, including Catholic, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal. And if there’s one thing that’s been consistent over the years is the growing interest in the Evangelical and Pentecostal communities to engage on matters of justice. Many young Evangelicals are deeply committed to environmental justice, racial justice, anti-colonialism, and economic justice for the poor. One of my chaplains representing InterVarsity was in my office talking about the racial justice work he was doing with his students and was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Love your Muslim Neighbor” in English and Arabic. InterVarsity, folks. InterVarsity.

It’s clear that there is a hunger in Evangelical Christianity for the Social Gospel. And at the same time, there is a hunger in mainline Protestantism to connect our concern for justice to some deeper experience of God and of salvation. If you have any doubt about that, look around you: at this very moment you are surrounded by hundreds of people who come here regularly to hear your pastor preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, and then translate that into meaningful social action and sacred resistance to evil, injustice, and oppression. You all know how much Pastor Ginger talks about Jesus—and that only makes your commitment to justice and inclusion here at Foundry stronger.

The two sides of contemporary Christian faith need each other. The Evangelicals are reclaiming the outward expression of faith in social justice. And it’s time that those of us on the progressive side, especially us Methodists, reclaim the title Evangelical.

For we serve a God no less powerful, we are no less convicted of our need for grace, we have experiences of God’s love no less meaningful, no less personal than that of those more comfortable with the label.

It wouldn’t hurt for us to get in the habit of telling people why we were doing the work we were doing, of sharing the good news of God’s liberating power, of being evangelical.

Indeed, it is because of that deeply powerful experience of God, it is because we have come to understand the grace of God’s Son Jesus Christ, it is because we believe in the transformation of the self that is possible through love, the “new birth” of a person who has come to know the depths of God’s love, it is because of all these things that we go out to share a word of power, a word of justice, and a word of hope with a broken and hurting world.

Can I get an amen?

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Saved

April 30th, 2018

Saved

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 29, 2018, the fourth Sunday after Easter. Polyphony sermon series.

Texts: Psalm 119:64-74, Acts 5:12-21

 

Growing up in small-town Oklahoma—the buckle of the Bible belt—I became accustomed to the language of “being saved.”  It wasn’t the language of my own church experience, but kids on the playground used it, in high school I would occasionally get invited to attend a service in which a classmate was scheduled to “get saved” through Baptism, and the language of getting saved seemed to permeate the environment in general.  When I moved back to Tulsa after eight years away it was both jarring and strangely familiar to have a complete stranger in a coffee shop ask me the question:  “Are you saved?”  My go-to response became, “Why yes I am. Every day. Again and again.”

 

I should qualify here that I did grow up in the United Methodist Church and, of course, the saving grace of God through Jesus was part of what I learned about.  It’s just that there is a particular kind of way that the language gets used sometimes that seems to mean something different from what I think it means.  It’s like British folks using the word chips for french fries instead of Doritos.  We are using the same word, but the word signifies something different.  For many, both within and outside the church, “saved” signifies the state of those who will be granted admission to heaven after they die.  In order to achieve this state, the formula described by Tracy is the answer:  hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized.  Unfortunately, it happens from time to time that a person will, with good intentions, do all this, check the boxes, go through the motions, get their ticket punched… and then go to brunch as if that were the end of it—or go back to cheating or indifference or whatever.  The failure to see in the “saved” person any recognizable change in attitude, priority, or behavior is one reason the word has gotten such a bad reputation.  And of course, this word—like righteous and believer—can be used to mark who’s “in” and who’s “out.”  It has become a code word for hypocritical, intolerant, and even hateful judgments against other people. 

 

But the word “saved” is not easily written off by those of us who want to take our faith seriously.  It’s at the heart of our spiritual tradition and all over the Bible.  In Acts, we are given a vision of the earliest Church, a vision in which the community, generosity, joy, and worship of the people engendered goodwill from all who encountered them.  And we are told that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2.47)  In John 10, Jesus uses the metaphor of a gate for the sheepfold—and explains that HE is the gate.  Thieves and bandits—that is, those who would harm the sheep or carry them off to a place that was not secure—are the threat in this metaphor.  But those who enter through the gate that is Christ “will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (Jn. 10.9) 

 

So my questions are these:  What are we saved from?  And what are we saved for?  And what difference, if any, does it make for the life you lead each and every day? 

 

What are we saved from?  I want to begin by exploring the metaphor we find in John.  As I’ve said, the threats in this metaphor are thieves and bandits.  Jesus says “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” (Jn. 10.10)  There are things in this world that threaten to steal, kill, and destroy life—our lives.  What might these be?  I asked this question on FaceBook and discovered y’all have some thoughts!  What steals and destroys our lives?   Fear, greed, apathy, insecurity, jealousy, lust, resentment; violence, injustice and oppression, intolerance, rigid ways of being, small-minded prejudice; distractions of every kind (“life happens while we’re busy making other plans”); nuclear weapons, technologies run amok, plastic; hopelessness, a sense of scarcity, despair, addiction, isolation.  In our culture, consumerism and materialism, individualism, and self-obsession seem to hold sway.  And even those of us who try to live according to God’s Way, are vulnerable to the affects of so strong an assault.  There is no shortage of things from which we need to be saved.  Every one of us will resonate with something I’ve named—or with something else that comes up for you as you consider the question.  We all need to be saved.  And we need God—because what we need to be saved from is too much for human capacity alone…

 

There are times I forget or want to deny this—(very) occasionally when I feel I’ve got things covered (“I’m a strong and capable woman!”) But more frequently when, in my fear of coming off as one of those church people who separate between “us” and “them,” I fail to acknowledge the fact that there are people who live all around us whose lives have been completely stolen from them, stolen by the things already mentioned and much more—they are like sheep without a shepherd, wandering in the dark with no idea how to even find a gateway into real security, much less how to enter the gate.  But every so often I’m reminded of how sheltered I truly am.  Some years ago, a young man I’d met kind of randomly, began attending worship where I was serving.  Eventually, this man who I’ll call Scott, asked for conversation and what followed was quite an education for me.  Tales of gang life, mafia connections and intrigue, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual exploits, twisted and abusive interpersonal relationships, a self-obsessed focus on physical appearance and material wealth—it was all there, for real.  This guy is smart and attractive.  He’d done quite well in his circles.  But he knew his life was a disaster—that it was empty because it was full of all the most destructive things.  It was a privilege to walk with Scott as he began to realize that there was another way, that his life wasn’t lost, that he was a beloved child of God.  It was a gift to see the Church enfold and encourage him.  Through the life of the Church, he began to hear the voice of God calling him and to follow.  Scott’s journey is still fraught with temptation, but through the support of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Church, and a strengthened marital relationship, he who was once lost is now found.  He went on to get a Masters of Divinity and continues to discern his call to ministry.  In a real way, Scott has been saved from all that had stolen his life.  He has been saved from darkness, destruction, and meaningless living.  He now has something to live for that is more than just the next high, more than just the next exploit. 

 

And, while you might say, that is all well and good, but has nothing to do with me, I would say, while this may be an extreme case, I would hope that we might all learn something from the story of Scott’s life.  Some of us will resonate directly with something from his story—some of us here today have been (or are even now) lost in addiction or twisted relationships or crime—some here today have dwelled in the dark.  For those of you who, like me, have always lived somewhat in the fold of the Church, perhaps you can, at the very least, be reminded not to take your experience for granted; perhaps you can remember that the community, hope, faith, and meaning that you have known are not the experience of everyone.  And perhaps you can, as I was, be reminded that there are those around you who, like Scott, don’t know the love of Christ or the power of Christian community, there are those who don’t know there is another way and who don’t have anyone around to show them.  In short there are people who really need Christ, who really need the Church—in order to turn from death to life.  //

 

To be saved is about life and death—after all, that is what Jesus says he came for—to help us have life, the kind of full, abundant life that God desires for us and for all.  If I were to boil it down, I think I’d say what we’re saved from is meaninglessness, destructive ways of living, hopelessness, and needless suffering and anxiety.  I think what we’re saved from is the temptation to waste our best gifts and energies and time on things that are not what truly matters, that are not going to satisfy our deepest need.  And, for those who have been wondering “What about being saved from hell?”  I’d respond:  don’t meaninglessness, destruction, hopelessness, needless suffering and anxiety, and a squandered life sound like hell to you?  If a thief or bandit has stolen your life and led you away from God, the very source and sustainer of all life and love, doesn’t that sound like hell to you?  The point is that to be saved isn’t only about something that happens to a disembodied soul at the time of death.  Instead, I would argue that to be saved is to begin really living—and that can happen in this world, even this very day. 

 

But what about the second question:  what are we saved FOR?  Again, the metaphor from John is instructive:  if Jesus is the gate, we might infer that God the Father/Mother is the gatekeeper.  Those who pass through the gate would be those who seek to live through Jesus Christ—ostensibly you and me.  In verse 2, Jesus says, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”  While in other places, we are given the image of Jesus as the shepherd, in this metaphor, you and I are the shepherds.  In other words, as we respond to the voice of God who invites us to enter into the fullness of life through the Way that is made in and through Jesus, we become the shepherds, we become caretakers of others, we become those who can share love and guidance, who will sacrifice for the sake of others, who have some sense of the dangers afoot and of the path toward safety and good pasture.  You see, THAT is the extraordinary thing about the Church when it is at its very best:  the Church at its best is a community of love and sacrifice that doesn’t do what it does for its own sake but rather for the sake of those who are suffering, those who are lost, those who are in despair, those who are wasting their lives, those who have hit rock bottom, who are overwhelmed by the shadows and temptations and empty promises of thieves and bandits.  And the Church at its best is not busy deciding who is in and who is out, who is “saved” according to some formula or who will be “left behind.”  The Church at its best, is busy loving and studying and caring and feeding the hungry and praising God together.  At our best we don’t worry about gaining possessions and goods for ourselves, but are rather intentionally sharing what we have to make sure that all have what they need.  The Church at its best is a sign and a wonder—because it is so unusual for human beings to live together in this way—and because through the life of the Church, lives ARE saved, as we see in the life of Scott and countless other lives.  This kind of life together, a life of love, generosity, compassion and joy, is who we are called to be as the Church.  This is what we are saved for, to share this life with and for others.  You are the shepherds—and God knows you by name.  You are the ones who can invite others to share in the life that Jesus Christ came to reveal, a life of hope, meaning, joy, and purpose.  If you don’t do it, who will?  //  So what difference does any of this make in your life?  Listen for the sound of God’s voice leading you.  Take your rod and your staff for the journey and set out.  I believe you will find your answer on the journey.  And you may just discover something more about what it means to be “saved.”

 

Believer

April 22nd, 2018

Believer

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 22, 2018, the third Sunday after Easter. Polyphony sermon series.

Texts: Psalm 119:64-74, Acts 5:12-21

 

Describing the process of an infant learning to communicate with the sounds of her voice, author Kathleen Norris writes, “Eventually the rudiments of words come; often ‘Mama,’ Dada,’ ‘Me,’ and the all-powerful ‘No!’ An unqualified ‘Yes’ is a harder sell, to both children and adults. To say ‘yes’ is to make a leap of faith, to risk oneself in a new and often scary relationship. Not being quite sure of what we are doing, or where it will lead us, we try on assent, we commit ourselves to affirmation. With luck, we find that our efforts are rewarded. The vocabulary of faith begins.”[i]

 

It’s easy to make things more complicated than they are.  And when we are talking about God things can really get out of hand. So I love Norris’s reminder that faith—at least its vocabulary—begins with simply saying “yes.”  We “try on assent” and “commit ourselves to affirmation” and this risky leap of faith is done in the context of relationship.  We all know something about this.  Someone says “yes” to me—am I willing to respond with my own “yes?”  Someone reaches out to me in relationship, will I affirm that action and that person by reaching back?  Such a move will change your life, will lead to new experiences—and to places you’d never imagine.  Through the experience of human relationship, we learn about love, trust, commitment, friendship. We also learn the pain of betrayal when our trust is broken, we learn the frailty of our own constancy when we fail to be a good friend or partner, we learn the heartbreak that follows when one we have loved deeply must be released into the arms of death.  These experiences teach us about real love and commitment and help us identify what and who is worth risking our “yes” for.

Folks have often said that Jesus is God’s “yes” to us and to the world—that is to say, Jesus is God’s affirmation of us and the sign that God believes in us even with so many good reasons to just pack it in.  God, it seems, loves us and is determined to hang in there with us even when we’re at our worst.  God, it seems, continues to reach out to us to offer encouragement, friendship, correction, and guidance along our journey.  God evidently will forgive us time and again to help us live and love more freely, wisely, and lovingly in relationship with others. That is the Gospel, the good news of this life we share as followers of Jesus.

 

Kathleen Norris says, such news, such love, such a God “is not readily understandable.”  I imagine many would find that an understatement.

 

One of the great perversions within the Church is the teaching—either explicit or implicit—that if you have doubts you’re supposed to pretend you don’t, that if you struggle with teachings of the faith or with issues in your life, then you don’t really belong in the Church.  I can think of nothing further from the truth.  Sadly, there are those who stay away from the life-giving experience of Christian community because no one has ever convinced them that they don’t have to have all the answers—or that they don’t have to blindly go along with what they’ve heard or been taught about the Church, about Jesus, about the Bible.  Also, sadly, there are those who have been part of the Church for years who have never felt it was OK to admit what they don’t understand.  And so they never ask their questions and so they are never able to develop or deepen their faith.

 

Every week you hear me say “no matter what you believe or doubt” you’re welcome to come and bring it!  And even though I say that pretty much without fail, I imagine there are still folks who struggle to trust that their doubts and beliefs are really welcome.  There are plenty of good reasons for this difficulty.

 

Norris writes, “The word ‘belief’ has been impoverished; it has come to mean a head-over-heart intellectual assent. When people ask, ‘What do you believe?’ they are usually asking ‘What do you think?’ I have come to see that my education, even my religious education, left me with a faulty and inadequate sense of religious belief as a kind of suspension of the intellect. Religion, as I came to understand it, was a primitive relic that could not stand up to the advances made in our understanding of human psychological development or the inquiry of higher mathematics and the modern sciences.” She goes on to share “When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey…I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over Christianity…I was a bit disappointed—I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow.”[ii]

 

This is quite different from what lots of folks will imagine or experience of the Christian perspective on doubt and belief.  So many who write Christianity off do so because they think, as Norris did, that it requires them to believe ridiculous things.  Others reject or abandon the faith because they get a taste of a form of Christianity that is so narrow and legalistic that there is little or no room for questions, for freedom to explore the depths of a wondrous God, for space to wrestle with themselves in the safety of divine love.  Some Christian tribes do emphasize strict adherence to their understanding of the Bible or theological concepts as a requirement to be counted among the “believers.”  This more legalistic approach can lead to a great deal of fear and guilt that you aren’t thinking right or feeling what you’re supposed to feel or doing the right things.  It can end up feeling like a very dysfunctional—if not abusive—relationship.  But the word most often translated “believe” in the Bible—pisteuo in the Greek—is not defined as only what you think or as blind surrender to a questionable relationship

 

Pisteuo means several things including “thinking to be true,” “place confidence in,” and “entrusting or being entrusted with a thing.”  One resource says, “The verb πιστεύω works two ways like the English verb ‘commit.’ If you commit yourself to someone, then you are entrusting yourself to them… At the same time you are supporting them. The two sides are really the summary of a covenantal relationship.”[iii]  (“I believe in you”…)  Kathleen Norris says that “at its Greek root, ‘to believe’ simply means ‘to give one’s heart to.’ Thus, if we can determine what it is we give our heart to, then we will know what it is we believe.”[iv]

 

What I want to suggest today is that to be a “believer” doesn’t mean you are without doubts or that you’ve sacrificed your critical thinking.  To be a believer doesn’t require you to pretend you understand things that baffle you or to act in ways that challenge your sense of integrity. A believer is one who as a result of thinking there is something somehow True about the Gospel message, places confidence in God, and entrusts their heart to God.   A “believer” is simply one who—in one way or another—has been drawn to the love of God and has decided to say “yes” to the journey. 

 

The book of Acts in the Bible is the story of the people who first risked saying “yes.”  The lives of those who traveled with Jesus had a first-hand experience of what it feels like to be perfectly loved and forgiven.  Lord knows the apostles had asked questions, had doubts, missed the point, failed spectacularly in trying to do what Jesus did.  And yet because Jesus believed in them and didn’t give up on them and loved them, they kept walking the path, kept trying to follow and to learn.  They witnessed the wonders of the risen Jesus who appeared to them, proving they didn’t need to be afraid, even of death.  Their changed lives and the story they had to tell and the power of love that flowed from Holy Spirit through them was powerful and healing.  It must have been amazing to see them, these simple, uneducated people—without title or standing in the community—risk so much (even jail!) to share their story and to care for those whom others ignored or cast out.  This is what the apostles did and, through them, other people learned of the good news of God’s love and mercy and meaning and came alongside to travel the way of Jesus.  

 

An angel (literally messenger) of God comes to the rescue of the imprisoned apostles and relates this charge: “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.”  Notice, the angel doesn’t set them free to go and tell the “rules” or the “ideas”…they’re encouraged to tell the whole message about this life. 

 

“This life” is the life they had been given—a life of loving and just relationship with God and other people, a life that is meaningful and purposeful.  It’s a life that says “yes” to love, that says “yes” to compassion, that says “yes” to forgiveness, that says “yes” to vulnerability, that says “yes” to risk and trust and generosity and solidarity… For centuries it is this life that has drawn people to embrace the Christian spiritual path.  That path is well-worn and there are sign posts along the way in the form of spiritual practices, theologies born out of the crucible of experience, prayers, songs, and stories, all resources to help you grow more strong and free, more wise and kind, to help you discern the ups and downs, twists and turns of this life.  We are encouraged to bring our intellect and questions to all of it, to engage the resources and words and images of our faith with the curiosity of an explorer and the wonder of a child.  

 

What if we perceived a “believer” not as someone who has all the answers but who trusts God enough to sit in the ambiguity and frustration of the questions?  What if we perceived a “believer” not as someone who thought a certain way, but rather as someone who lived a certain way, as someone who loved a certain way?  What if being a “believer” is a willingness to entertain Spirit as a companion along your journey, to make yourself available in the spaces where Jesus reportedly shows up (along the margins, among the poor and disenfranchised, with the sick and grieving), and to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty that is guaranteed when we stumble into places like this one?

 

What if?  I don’t have all the answers.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

[i] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 1.

[ii] Ibid., 62-63.

[iii] http://www.torahtimes.org/NewTranslation/concordance/pisteuo_definition.html

[iv] Kathleen Norris, 62.

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Abomination

April 15th, 2018

Abomination

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 15, 2018, the second Sunday after Easter. Polyphony sermon series.

Texts: Proverbs 6:16-19, Luke 16:13-15

 

When you hear the word “abomination” what immediately comes to mind?  I imagine that for many people in the general population the word abomination conjures something related to sex or intimate relationships.  There are heavy religious overtones to the word and, in my experience, in Christian contexts, it is most often used by those who are uncomfortable with or downright hateful toward LGBTQ people.  There will be many here today who have been told directly or indirectly that their attraction to persons of the same gender or their own gender identity is abomination or—even worse—that they themselves are “an abomination.”  So what comes to mind when these beloved ones hear the word may be a painful memory or a sharp pang of anger, fear, or clinging shame. 

 

The temptation for me today is to attempt a full-scale apologetic treatise against the mis-interpretations and applications of scripture related to LGBTQ folks—to highlight the ways that the Bible has been used as a sword instead of a plowshare, as a “weapon of oppression rather than as a tool for liberation.”[i]  But, thankfully Pastor Will has, at the ready, a list of books for personal study, and there is currently a Wednesday evening class you can join here at Foundry exploring this very topic—and in a way that will be much more helpful than what I could manage today.  My goal instead is to help us look at this one word “abomination” and explore whether there is any good use for such a dangerous word that has been used to do so much damage.

 

I began my study by looking at all 113 instances of the word translated “abomination” in English in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  In both Hebrew and Greek (it appears mostly in Hebrew) the word means something like “detestable or loathsome things or acts.”  I decided to organize my findings into categories of context including 1) any direct reference to sex, 2) religious impurity, 3) idolatry, and 4) injustice/harm.  In which of these categories do you think the word “abomination” shows up most frequently?

 

The runaway winner is idolatry.  Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that the first of the ten commandments is to “have no other God before me.” (Ex 20:3-4) For some, that may sound kind of scary and controlling—like jealousy of the icky kind.  But here’s the preface to that commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex 20:2) That, not to mention the full sweep of the biblical story, clues us into the fact that God’s jealousy is not about holding us hostage but setting us free.  God knows that the promises of life, mercy, and hope are fulfilled as we receive God’s love, love God back, and love others as God loves us.  Idols are dead, their promises are empty.  And yet, our religious history reveals that the rulers of Israel consistently turned to idols, putting their trust in wealth, foreign powers, military might, pagan gods, and themselves instead of God.  It generally didn’t end well.

 

In 2 Chronicles we read of one king who tried to remedy this, “Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel, and made all who were in Israel worship the Lord their God.” (2 Chr 34:33)  The abomination here are the idols.

 

And the prophetic texts are clear on this point as well.  Jeremiah writes, “the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.” (Jer 7:30-31)  In the context of idolatry, abomination refers to both the idols themselves and the practices related to idol worship. 

 

Our Gospel passage today is a direct descendent of this ancient struggle.  The temptation to make wealth and prized possessions an idol is a perennial challenge.  Jesus taught simply, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Based on this teaching here are some contemporary idols and practices related to idol worship: greed, the hoarding of wealth, the sacrifice of workers’ health and the health of the environment on the altar of shareholder profits, tax policies favoring the rich, payday lenders taking advantage of the already struggling, the usury of credit card interest rates, advertising schemes that convince us to spend money on things we don’t need, health insurance companies who drop coverage for those who need it most, somehow finding plenty of money for sports and bombs and not enough for education and senior services and mental healthcare, and on and on it could go. Human possessions that become idols promise life and hope and joy and all the while steal those things. That idolatry and the practices of wealth worship are detestable… abomination.

 

The second highest category in which the word “abomination” appeared is in passages related to injustice and unrighteousness.  Our passage from Proverbs is a good example of how this shows up in the Bible. Here are the seven things listed as abomination to God:

 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
   and hands that shed innocent blood,
 a heart that devises wicked plans,
   feet that hurry to run to evil,
 a lying witness who testifies falsely,
   and one who sows discord in a family.

 

Did any of that come to mind when you heard the word abomination?  And where are all the folks who say they are fundamentalist and “Bible-believing” when it comes to calling out those who are arrogant, who lie, who do violence to the innocent, who scheme in back alleys and backrooms, who don’t resist but embrace evil, who slander others and stir up conflict? The bible clearly says these are abomination.

 

Coming in third on the category list is religious purity—this is the usage in heavy rotation in the book of Leviticus.  It is that book to which folks often turn when they want to assign the word abomination to LGBTQ people.  But what is abomination really about in Leviticus? 

 

“Leviticus 20:25-26 captures the meaning of ‘abomination.’ It reads:  ‘You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not bring abomination on yourselves by animal or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples to be mine.’ Evidently, ‘abominable’ is just another word for ‘unclean.’  An ‘abomination’ is a violation of the purity rules that governed Israelite society and kept the Israelites different from the other peoples.”[ii]

 

There are a variety of things that contributed toward something being categorized in ancient Hebrew culture as clean or unclean, pure or “dirty”—perhaps some of them based on the social norms of the day, the perception of primitive science, the understanding of health or safety, or the association with pagan rites (not all of which were benign dancing about with flowers in your hair, but rather could be brutal).  Regardless, the general concern of these ancient purity rules seems to be keeping Israel different from the Gentiles through adherence to a set of norms derived from a worldview that is beyond our full comprehension today.  

 

We may recoil at that and want to focus on what brings us together rather than what makes us different.  But healthy communities do have boundaries and practices that give shape to shared life. The early church stood out in the culture in which they lived because they were trying to be different in a good way.  Grace, mercy, forgiveness, love, generosity, the valuing of women and children, the boundary crossing welcome and embrace of Gentiles, the emphasis on the dignity and value of every member of society regardless of class or caste or ethnicity, covenantal marriage relationships that were loving and just—all of these things were particular marks or at least aspirations of early Christian community—things that made Christians different than other groups.  The old rules governing a person’s inclusion in the people of God shifted dramatically among Jesus’s disciples. In the book of Acts, Peter has a vision clearly shifting the Levitical purity rules around food (Acts 10:9-16) and then later declares, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)  Why do some Christians still call other people “unclean” or “abomination” when the Bible is so clear that’s not OK?  It seems to me that behavior is what steps outside the boundaries set by Jesus; calling another person abomination makes one impure in the technical sense if “impure” is that which sets you at odds with the Christian identity embodied by Jesus.

 

So, abomination in the Bible is most often associated with idolatry, then with injustice and doing harm, less with impurity, and finally…at the bottom of the list and with only the paltriest number of references is anything to do with sex.  I imagine that most folks would find that surprising.  It is true that pagan practices likely included sexual activity, temple prostitution, unjust and manipulative sexual relationships between adults and young servants or slaves. So this might be inferred in some passages related to idolatry. The few direct references however are found in the concern over what is clean and unclean.  As one scholar points out, we might be able to wrap our heads around this by thinking of what we call “dirty.”  “What a culture considers dirty is usually something that makes its members uncomfortable.” Uncomfortable feelings can arise for all sorts of reasons—something is different from what we expect, a thing stirs something within us that we don’t understand, we witness others become uncomfortable… “Being ‘dirty’ does involve uncomfortable feelings—and those feelings [can be] learned…”[iii]

 

The sad truth is that in our culture lots of us are uncomfortable with our bodies and with sex and so from an early age we pass on the idea that parts of our bodies and sex in general is “dirty.”  And when you then add to that an awareness of the reality of sexual attraction outside the historically accepted cultural “norm,” you multiply the level of discomfort.  Let’s face it, our Christian tradition has not done a good job of helping us claim our human sexuality as “clean” and as a gift. Wittingly or unwittingly our supposedly incarnational spiritual tradition has created discomfort around physical intimacy and desire and then not done a good job of helping folks work through that discomfort. Christianity hasn’t helped us engage what Carl Jung termed our “shadow” or understand (much less embrace) the variety of created natures human beings embody.  And so we zero in on the fear and “abomination” gets assigned to the thing that makes us most uncomfortable…And then some people pick up the word and use it as a weapon to keep the fearful thing or person away or separate or ashamed.

 

This behavior, however, is abomination.  It is doing harm.  And as is so often the sad, exhausting case, Christian people expend precious energy hurting members of their own family instead of turning together toward the clear source of concern, that is, toward the biblical revelation of what abomination really is:  a culture marked by rampant idolatry that manipulates our priorities and values, separates us from intimacy with God, and leads to gross injustices and harm toward others and the planet. //

 

It was enlightening for me to do even this cursory biblical study of this word. Abomination is never going to be considered a beautiful word like “grace” or “love.”  But there is a good use for it in all its challenge. When we speak of abomination at Foundry let’s be clear that, as a Bible-believing congregation, we’re speaking about idolatry and injustice.  And that any other use is, well…abomination.

 

 

 

 

[i] Marilyn Bennett Alexander and James Preston, We Were Baptized Too: Claiming God’s Grace for Lesbians and Gays, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), xvii.

[ii] Daniel A. Helminiak, Ph.D., What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, (New Mexico: Alamo Square Press, 2000), 56.

[iii] Ibid., 62.