Friday, April 19, 2019

What Was Good about Good Friday?


Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
Mark 15:16-20

The most common (most frequent and crudest) explanation of Jesus' death on the cross is that God sent him to die for our sins. Someone had to pay for the sins of humanity. Jesus suffered so that I didn't have to. He was perfectly sinless and it was a perfect sacrifice.

That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of the crucifixion, I am convinced it is wrong. It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.

On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday. 

Or so it seemed. 

But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.

Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:
  • The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did. 
  • He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason. 
The Jews did not kill Jesus. We know this as an absolute fact because they did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. We also know this because if he had been sentenced to death by a Jewish court, he would have been stoned to death. The Romans were the only ones with the authority to kill him, and they did.

We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.

So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?

I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.

That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide mission.

Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as an alternative vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice. 

The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, even those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.

When he invited his followers to take us the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love. 

And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to life.




Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 



*An original version of this post was first published on April 5, 2015

Monday, April 8, 2019

It Was Only a Flag


"If the world hates you, 
be aware that it hated me 
before it hated you."
John 15:18

When I arrived at the church this morning I discovered that someone had ripped down our Rainbow flag. Only a tattered fragment remained attached to the frame. The flag had survived less than a week. 

It was only a flag, of course. 

It’s not a big deal. No one was injured and there was no related property damage. 

But now that it is gone it feels like we have lost more than a flag.

How can anyone hate anyone that much?

We became a Reconciling Congregation five years ago. We did not do it sooner because it seemed unnecessary. We told ourselves that everyone already knew who we were and what we stood for, and we did not need to formally declare ourselves open to everyone regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

When we had the meeting to formally vote to become a Reconciling Congregation, several people wondered out loud whether it was really necessary. But only one person spoke against the proposal. She was new to our congregation. She said that she felt she had been sent by the Holy Spirit to tell us that homosexuality was a sin. She not only believed that it was an abomination, she believed literally in the biblical punishment of death, although she conceded that was not possible in the United States.

Those who had doubted the need to take a stand were immediately convinced. As one person wryly observed, “I think maybe she really was sent by the Holy Spirit . . . though not in the way that she believed.”

We announced the decision in our monthly newsletter, we put a statement on our website, and we include a statement in every Sunday’s worship bulletin.

But we did not put out a rainbow flag.

Because. 

Again. 

It seemed unnecessary.

But in the wake of the recent vote at the Special Session of General Conference in St. Louis at the end of February, we felt like we had to do something.

For those of us who are LGBTQIA and for those of us who love and respect our LGBTQIA siblings, the news was heartbreaking. 

The Special Session rejected a compromise that would have allowed each congregation to choose their own path, and by a narrow majority (53% to 47%) delegates passed the Traditionalist Plan which rejects marriage equality and makes mandatory penalties for clergy who officiate at same sex weddings. It strengthens the rules against ordaining or appointing LGBTQIA clergy. It also requires clergy and bishops to sign a loyalty oath stating that they will uphold those provisions of the Book of Discipline.

The new plan doubles down on what was already a bad policy. It is hateful and unchristian and we felt like we had to do something to make it clear that we were not them; that our local United Methodist Church was not in alignment with the vote in St. Louis.

Pastor Carol Reale found a large rectangular piece of fabric that had previously been used in a Sunday School program as part of Joseph’s “coat of many colors” and put it up out front. 

Then last week we got a real rainbow flag and Carol attached it to a frame by the church sign next to the road.

Last night at youth group, one of the kids, who is transgender, told her how much it meant to him to come to the church and see that sign. “It makes me so happy,” he said. “We have to keep it up forever!”

Yes. Apparently we do have to keep it up forever.

The flags are not expensive. We will buy more.

The hatred is a bigger problem.



Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Way We Were: Remembering Bishop White


He has told you, O people, 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?
Micah 6:8

Bishop C. Dale White passed away yesterday, March 29, 2019, at the age of 94.

For many of us the loss is personal, but it is also a loss for our denomination and for the larger church. In remembering Dale, we remember the way we used to be and we remember what we have lost.

In his lifetime he embodied the best of United Methodism. He was a faithful and effective witness for social justice, and a fearless advocate for the core values of the Gospel. He had deep faith and uncompromising integrity. He always spoke the truth, even when the truth was hard to hear, and he always spoke the truth in love, with genuine caring for those who did not see things as clearly as he did.

Dale was my first District Superintendent. He called me to go to my first appointment, in Mansfield, Massachusetts. And I called him for advice more times than I have called all of the District Superintendents since then. And he was always patient and helpful. Just before he left for the Jurisdictional Conference at which he was elected Bishop, he called and asked me to go to Mathewson Street in Providence to work with Bill Ziegler.

In an article in UMNews, Linda Bloom reports that Jaydee Hanson, a longtime friend and former staff member of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, described Dale as having a “gentle fearlessness” that engaged people. “Dale had an abundance of vision but offered it in a way that people could adopt it,” he told United Methodist News Service.

Dale was genuinely pained by the way that the causes he advocated so relentlessly were unsettling and disorienting to those who were stuck in old paradigms. He knew the cost of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly in the ways of God.

After his retirement as a Bishop he preached at our Annual Conference about the role of the pastor in the life of a congregation. One of the most difficult aspects of our calling, he said, is the responsibility to always be ahead of the curve on issues of social justice. If we are faithful we will always be in the lonely position of advocating for causes that have barely entered the consciousness of many of the people we serve. 

Retired Bishop William Boyd Grove, a friend and colleague of Dale’s, spoke of his interest in interfaith relations, international affairs and the lives of people everywhere which landed him in some unusual places. In the early months of the Iran hostage crisis, Grove recounted, Dale was part of a seven-member U.S. delegation that traveled to Iran in hopes of helping the situation by “reaffirming and restoring friendship between the American and Iranian peoples.”

Grove observed that one of Dale’s most significant contributions was the 1986 public statement of the United Methodist Council of Bishops called "In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace."

More than any other bishop, said Grove, Dale was responsible for that pastoral letter and study guide. “It was Dale’s idea and he chaired the task force, and it was really his baby.” And it had a profound impact on the church and beyond the church, by moving the nuclear arms debate beyond politics and foreign policy.

In 1996 Dale joined with fourteen other United Methodist Bishops who chose to break their silence and speak out in opposition to the prohibition of LGBTQ persons serving in ordained ministry.

Not surprisingly, Bishop White was not just the embodiment of everything that the church has traditionally stood for, he was also the incarnation of everything the right-wing groups have opposed.

If you knew Dale, you knew him to be a person of deep faith. But for those who equate faith with right-wing politics and quasi-fundamentalist theology, they could not believe that he was a “real Christian.” He was frequently asked if he was “born again.” He would smile and say, “Yes, just this morning.” Faith was, for him, a constant process of renewal and rebirth. We are continually being made new.

Finally, or maybe we should say, “firstly,” there was his marriage to Gwen. Gwendolyn Ruth Horton and Clarence Dale White were married on August 25, 1946. They were married for more than 70 years before Gwen’s death in 2017. They shared the same deep faith and the same openness to the spiritual journey. Together they raised six children and left a legacy of shared love and discipleship.

The way they were is the way the church ought to be.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Jesus Was a Pharisee (Really. He Was.)


At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Luke 13:31

Why were the Pharisees warning Jesus?

Weren’t they his enemies?

Like everyone else in my generation and like almost everyone who went to Sunday School and grew up in the church, I learned early on that the Pharisees were the bad guys. They were self-righteous and hypocritical, obsessed with observing the letter of the Law, yet utterly tone-deaf to its spirit. They were rich and powerful, and they colluded with the Romans in opposing and eventually killing Jesus. They were ritually clean, yet morally corrupt.


And I learned in seminary that they were the perfect foil for preaching. Every narrative needs a good villain, and the Pharisees were the perfect villains for almost any preaching topic. 


It was perfect, with the slight problem that it was wrong.


The Pharisees were reformers.


They had a three-fold belief that God was a loving father, who loved humanity so much that he gave us the Torah, the Law, so that everyone who followed the law would have eternal life (fellowship with God, now and forever).


Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John 3:16 will see the parallelism of construction. And beyond the similarity of form, the substance of the first and third points is basically identical. Each speaks of God as a loving father and each points toward eternal life. The difference is in the way. The Pharisees believed that following Torah was the way: John’s Gospel sees the way as believing in Jesus as the Christ.


The three-fold belief of the Pharisees gives rise to the animating question of Matthew, Mark and Luke: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If the way to fellowship with God now and forever is found in following Torah (the way), what does it mean to follow Torah? What specifically must I do? And the answer is the same in each of the three Gospels: love God and love your neighbor.


Every three years on the second Sunday in Lent, the Lectionary has us reading about how some Pharisees came to warn Jesus that Herod was after him. And after cycling through that text a couple of times I began to wonder. Why were the Pharisees warning Jesus? Weren’t they his enemies?


Two possibilities presented themselves in my mind. The first was mildly unsettling, given everything I had learned up until that point. What if the Pharisees and Jesus were not such bitter enemies?


There are many occasions where he judges them harshly. At one point he tells his followers to listen to what the Pharisees say, because “they sit on Moses’ seat,” but be careful not to imitate what they do. On the other hand, there are also instances in which they invite him to dine with them. Some are attracted to Jesus and believe that he is the Messiah, and the Book of Acts records occasions on which the Pharisees protect early Christians.


The second possibility was even more unsettling. What if Jesus himself was a Pharisee?


If you grew up, as I did, with the image of Pharisees as self-righteous hypocrites, it may be hard not to reject that idea out of hand. 


But think about it.


We know that it was Jesus’ custom to go to the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and we know that the Synagogue was a Pharisaic institution. Jesus and the disciples are in the Synagogue a lot.


We know that the Pharisees believed in the two-fold concept of the Law as written and oral. The written law was understood to be eternal, but the oral law had to be reinterpreted for each generation. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus first declares that he has not come “to abolish the law or the prophets.” On the contrary he says, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Then he seems to contradict that by launching into a series of teachings in which he says first, “You have heard it said,” followed by a commandment, and then, “but I say to you,” followed by a new teaching. It only makes sense when we recognize that in the first statement he is reciting the written law, and in the second statement he is giving a new oral interpretation.


Finally, we know that Jesus was called rabbi. And we know that rabbinic Judaism grew out of the Pharisaic movement. As one of my rabbi friends said, “If he was a rabbi, then he was a Pharisee.”


The Pharisees gave birth to two great religions, Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, the only form of Judaism to emerge from the ancient world. They gave us the animating question for the synoptic gospels and the belief structure for the fourth gospel. They also gave us a model for Bible study and for the focus on scripture as part of the worship service.


Clearly, Jesus did have many arguments with the Pharisees as individuals or in groups. And he criticized the movement as a whole. But those disputes and disagreements should be understood as internal to the Pharisaic movement itself, just as Christians disagree with other Christians and sometimes criticize Christianity as a whole.


And Jesus was not the only Pharisee looking critically at the movement. His scathing criticism in Matthew 23 are mirrored almost exactly in a passage in the Talmud which records a description of seven different types of Pharisaic behavior, only the last of which is an example of the high standards of belief and practice to which they were called.


1. The “Shoulder Pharisee,” who wore his good deeds on his shoulder.

2. The “Wait a Little Pharisee,” who always put off doing good deeds until a later time.
3. The “Bruised Pharisee,” who shut his eyes to avoid seeing a woman and was bruised from stumbling and falling.
4. The “Humpbacked Pharisee,” bent double by false humility.
5. The “Ever Reckoning Pharisee,” who was always counting up his good deeds.
6. The “Fearful Pharisee,” always quaking in fear of God’s wrath.
7. And finally, the “God-loving Pharisee,” who lived with faith and charity, whose deeds matched his professed beliefs.

Whether or not one believes that Jesus was a Pharisee, how we view the Pharisees is very important for modern Christians. 


Apart from the basic idea that historical accuracy matters, a reassessment of our attitude toward the Pharisees is critical for two reasons.


First, when we can see more clearly the Jewish context of Jesus’ life and ministry, we can better understand his teachings. We can see him as a rabbi advocating for his people against an occupying empire, rather than as a religious iconoclast rebelling against religious traditionalists. His religious and political views both come into sharper focus when can see him in his Jewish context.


The second point is also of great practical importance. Many Christians do not understand that modern Judaism, across the spectrum from the Orthodox to Reform and even Reconstructionist, all have their roots in the Pharisaic movement. When Christians slander the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, they are also implicitly criticizing modern Judaism. This is oddly ironic, since both Christianity and modern Judaism share a common beginning in the Pharisaic movement. Although the irony may be amusing, the practical result is that the historic Christian slander of the Pharisees has contributed to anti-Semitism.


A more accurate historical appreciation of the Pharisees can give us a clearer understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry and open the way to a more helpful relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


*An earlier version of this post was published on February 16, 2019.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Traditional Plan and the Bible: Even the Devil Can Quote Scripture

Jesus Is Tempted in the Wilderness
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Luke 4:9-13

The Lectionary text for the first Sunday in Lent provides a good excuse to revisit the biblical argument with regard to the Traditional Plan and same sex relationships.

The problem is not with the scripture, but with how it is used, by whom and for what reason. The use of scripture to control and manipulate others is a great temptation for people of faith, and it is made even more tempting when it appears to come with deep sincerity and the best of intentions.

In Luke’s version of the temptation story, the devil quotes scripture when he presents the last temptation. 

This is worth noting because the original story must have come from Jesus himself. There were no other witnesses. He was alone in the wilderness, fasting and praying. Shakespeare authored the famous quotation: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” But the idea originated with Jesus.

The importance of the detail is not diminished by the fact that the struggle was taking place within Jesus’ mind and soul. The devil or “tempter” was not some external spiritual being, but an inner experience of the spirit. It is useful to remember this story when we contemplate what the Bible says about homosexuality. It is widely accepted that “the Bible condemns homosexuality,” but the reality of the biblical witness is more complex and nuanced.

The problem is not new. In the decades leading up to the Civil War the Abolitionists and the slave owners both cited scripture. The Abolitionists built their case on the teachings of Jesus and on the broad themes of the prophets. The slave owners countered with the numerous specific references to slavery in the Bible. There are, in fact, 375 references to slavery, 82 of them are in the Gospels and another 58 are in Paul’s letters. Not once is the institution of slavery condemned.

If we reduce everything to biblical literalism, then the slave owners win, 375 to 0. But one would be hard pressed to find a Christian today who would argue in favor of slavery, and no serious student of the Bible would agree that the Bible is pro-slavery. The great themes of the Bible move in the opposite direction, toward freedom and mutual respect. Jesus’ simple commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (taken from Leviticus 19:18) outweighs all 375 references.

The assertion that the Bible condemns homosexuality is built on just 7 references. Three are in the Hebrew scriptures and four are in the New Testament. These are the passages typically used to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

The late Walter Muelder, who was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology for many years, and a pioneer in the discipline of Christian Social Ethics, was adamant that when we go to the Bible for ethical direction, we cannot pick and choose. Seven passages are not enough to construct an ethic. They are not irrelevant. But they cannot be determinative. On the other hand, if you believe in biblical inerrancy, and you believe that each verse is equally inspired and authoritative, then you cannot question the authority of even a single verse, let alone seven passages. I think it is a useful exercise, just to be clear on what those passages actually say and mean, rather than to assume that we know. 


The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49 

The first, and certainly the best known passage, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. My guess is that when most people think about the sins of Sodom, they do not think about having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” and an unwillingness to “aid the poor and needy.”

But there it is.

We go to the Bible, looking for self-righteous moralisms and end up with social justice. Again. When it comes to the question of how we should be living our lives, it’s always about social justice. Or as Jesus summarized it in the Great Commandment, it’s about loving God and neighbor. (Loving God means loving your neighbor. And loving your neighbor is loving God.) We should keep Ezekiel’s commentary in mind as we review the narrative in Genesis. 

The story begins with a happy episode. Three strangers come to visit Abraham and Sarah, who are living in a tent by the oaks of Mamre. The men are messengers from God, angels, who have come to reaffirm the promise that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. They speak with Abraham outside of the tent. Inside the tent, Sarah laughs, because it seems preposterous that at her age she could have a child. And there is a wonderful interchange in which the men chastise her for laughing. She insists that she did not laugh and the episode ends with one of the men saying, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Then the men set out toward Sodom, and Abraham goes with them to show the way. God tells Abraham that the men are going to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy the cities, because there has been such a great outcry over their sin. Abraham then begins to bargain with God. What about the righteous who live in those cities, will the LORD sweep them away with the guilty? Abraham drives a hard bargain, and God agrees that if they can find ten righteous, then the cities will be spared.

After the bargain is struck, “the LORD went his way,” and Abraham returned home, and “the two angels came to Sodom.”

At this point, things go downhill in a hurry. The strangers (angels) are met at the gate of the city by Lot, who insists that they spend the night with him. He makes them a feast, and they enjoy the meal together, but before they can lie down for the night, a crowd gathers outside. “The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.” The crowd demands that Lot send out the strangers, “so that we may know them.” In other words, so that we may have sexual relations with them.

Lot goes out to argue with the crowd and even offers to let them rape his two virgin daughters, rather than give up the men who have come “under the shelter of my roof.” But the crowd is undeterred and threatens to do even worse to Lot if he does not give up the strangers. At that point, the strangers reach out and pull Lot back into the house with them, and strike “with blindness” all those in the crowd, “so that they are unable to find the door.”

In the morning the strangers send Lot and his family away to safety, and fire rains down on the cities until they are destroyed.

It is a dark tale. There are rays of light, but they are not easy to find. No one would count this among their favorite Bible stories. It is not the Sermon on the Mount, or the Good Samaritan. It isn’t the Twenty-third Psalm, or the Ten Commandments. It isn’t Micah or Amos or Hosea or Ruth. It isn’t even on a par with Esther.

The story is not just Patriarchal; it is deeply misogynistic. It’s good that Lot offers hospitality to strangers, and it’s good that he tries to protect his guests. But in his attempts to dissuade the men of Sodom from attacking the strangers, Lot offers to let them rape his daughters. And the story implies that the gang rape and humiliation of women is not as bad as the gang rape and humiliation of men.

It is difficult to claim ethical guidance from a story which is fundamentally immoral. One of the challenges in reading and interpreting the Bible is separating the timeless truths from the stories that simply reflect the prejudices and limited perspectives of a primitive people. The story of Sodom clearly falls into the latter category. We need to recognize it as such, and let it go.

Alternatively, we can focus, as Ezekiel did, on the guilt of Sodom that (apparently) first led to God’s judgment: “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” That is a biblical truth which stands the test of time.


Two Verses from the Holiness Code 
in Leviticus

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. Leviticus 20:13

Little Good Harbor sits on the southeastern coast of Georgetown Island. It is a charming place with an equally charming name. It is a small harbor, but contrary to what one might expect from the name, it is not very good. It is too shallow and has too many rocks. Though it looks inviting, it is almost useless. So it is of “Little Good.”

The Priestly Code of Leviticus is in many ways the Little Good Harbor of biblical wisdom. It is not as shallow as Little Good Harbor, but there are lots of rocks. In the storms of life it does not provide safe haven. The idea of a guide for living that sets God’s people apart, is a good one, but the actual code is deeply flawed.

Leviticus has two almost identical verses of condemnation. The first passage, verse 22 of chapter 18, says simply, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second passage, printed above, adds the penalty of death, and notes that those who commit such acts are responsible for their fate; “their death is upon them.”

The condemnation is clear and unmistakable.

Here, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see reflections of a patriarchal and misogynistic culture. To lie “with a male as with a woman” was to treat the male as if he were female. This was the ultimate humiliation. Judaism and Christianity have moved toward gender equality, but the subjugation of women remains deeply imbedded in Middle Eastern culture. The condemnation of male homosexuality is a reflection of the patriarchal devaluation of women.

“Abomination” is a strong word. And it is not used often. In the Priestly Code of Leviticus, it is an abomination to eat an eagle, an osprey, or a vulture. It is an abomination to eat a burnt offering after the second day. And it is an abomination to eat anything unclean. Eating such things may be unappetizing, but it hardly seems “an abomination.”

The death penalty is serious. In Leviticus, it is mandated for murder, for adultery, for blasphemy, for cursing one’s mother or father, and for “wizards and mediums.” In Exodus and Deuteronomy, the death penalty is invoked for breaking Sabbath, as well as for outsiders who come near the Tabernacle. Looking back across the millennia, that seems a little harsh.

We know from historical research that the death penalty was seldom used for these crimes. At this point, the Torah uses the language of death, not literally as a legal sentence, but metaphorically, to indicate the seriousness of the offense. Just as in our less enlightened moments we might say, “anyone who does that ought to be shot!”

When we read that it is an abomination and that it calls for the death penalty, we read it as a very strong condemnation. But that reading is at least somewhat tempered by the recognition that many of the other offenses that are described with that same harsh language do not seem as “abominable” to twenty-first century readers.

Leviticus is tough going. More than one well-intentioned and sincere Christian setting out to read the whole Bible from cover to cover has struggled through the long narratives of Genesis and Exodus, only to come to a grinding halt when confronted with the strange list of arcane laws that make up the Priestly Code of Leviticus. In order to understand it, we need to avoid getting lost in the details.

If we set out to construct a sexual ethic on the foundation of the two condemning verses in Leviticus, then we need to explain why we are picking and choosing those verses and not also including the admonitions about the ritual purification of women after menstruation and many other similar laws. And we need to explain our use of a code which is patriarchal and misogynistic. Its purpose is to set the people apart from the surrounding pagan culture, yet in its attitudes toward women it generally reflects that culture.

The premise of the Holiness Code is that God’s people should be holy as God is holy; that in our daily living we should remind ourselves of who we and whose we are. When the rabbis read these laws, they read them with that end in mind. The details are flawed, the product of a primitive world view and a pre-scientific understanding. But if we can focus beyond that, on the vision behind the details, then we can find light for our journey.

Paul told the church in Corinth that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. When it comes to the study of Torah, Rabbi Paul echoes the ancient rabbinic insight that God is found in the white spaces. Leviticus is about a people set apart and called to be different. The details may confound us, but the greater vision is of a life shaped by the calling of God.


Four New Testament References

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:26-27 

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. I Corinthians 6:9-10

This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching I Timothy 1:9-10 

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7 

As a Christian, I find the New Testament passages more troubling. We claim the whole Bible as our sacred story, but we also want to believe that Jesus brought a cosmic change in our thinking. Rightly or wrongly, I think we expect more enlightenment when we read the New Testament.

The passages from Hebrew scripture are more easily dismissed. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly primitive. And no one takes Leviticus seriously.

Although Christians sometimes over-emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus’ teachings, he did bring a new perspective on many issues. He also deepened and expanded insights previously found in the Prophets. And he revealed great truths about human beings. But he did not change human nature.

Regardless of what we may believe about the inspiration of the biblical writers, we know that the actual words were written by human beings. The people who wrote the Bible (who put the letters and words on the page) were not perfect. And they were subject to the influences of the surrounding culture.

When Paul wrote his letters, he did not write them as sacred scripture. He was writing to specific people in specific places, offering advice and counsel intended for their situation. He did not know that two millennia later Christians would be studying those letters and reading them in worship as sacred texts. And the same is true for the unknown authors of the other New Testament epistles.

Of the four texts cited above, the last three can be dismissed rather easily. The last two, from the First letter to Timothy and from the Letter to Jude, were written fifty to one hundred years after Paul’s death, and do not carry the same authority as a letter from the Apostle. The Corinthians passage, like the passages from Timothy and Jude is written with ambiguous language which makes the meaning unclear. These texts are talking about some sort of inappropriate sexual behavior, but it is not clear what it is. What is certain, is that they are not talking about a loving, consensual, committed same sex relationship between two adults.

The Romans text is more difficult. We know with nearly one hundred percent certainty that it was written by Paul. That makes it hard to ignore if you believe as I do that Paul was the greatest Christian theologian, that all subsequent Christian theology is a footnote to Paul, and that his inspiration and brilliance were the driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

These two verses from Romans have probably done more to harm Christian attitudes toward homosexuality than anything else in the Bible. So what do we make of this?

First, Paul’s primary interest in this passage is not homosexuality, he is writing about what happens when we turn away from God. When we turn away from God, says Paul, we do “unnatural” things. The sexual relations which Paul describes are the result and not the cause or our turning away.

Second, his apparent reason for rejecting same sex relations is that they are “unnatural.” But our sense of what is “natural” is not fixed. In the nineteenth century, it was thought “unnatural” for blacks to be equal to whites. A hundred years ago it was “unnatural” for children with learning disabilities to be in public school. Fifty years ago a majority of Americans believed that marriage between blacks and whites was “unnatural.” Our sense of what is natural has changed. Is it unreasonable to believe that if Paul were alive now, he would see things differently?

Paul wrote about what he saw in the context of his own time and place. What may have been true in his time is not necessarily true in our time. One of the great biblical truths from Abraham and Sarah onward is that God always calls us into the future. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.”



Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 


*The original version of this post was published in January of 2014 as our congregation was in the process of becoming a Reconciling Congregation.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Rebuking the Demons of a Faithless and Perverse Generation

On the next day, when Jesus and Peter and James and John came down from the mountain, a great crowd met them. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
Luke 9:37-43


When they had come down from the mountain

Fifteen years ago on Transfiguration Sunday when I preached on this text, we had just gotten home from a Mission Trip with our Youth Group to the Rural Mission on John’s Island near Charleston, South Carolina.

John’s Island is a place of incredible natural beauty and yet it is also a place of devastating poverty. We had worshiped the previous Sunday with St. James United Methodist Church and it was wonderful, as it is every year. To sing James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with a Black congregation was an incredibly moving experience. When they sang, 

“Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the days when hope unborn had died,”

I could not help thinking that the people in worship with me were, in fact, the great grandchildren of those who had been sold at the market in Charleston, just a few miles away.

I came to church on that Transfiguration Sunday emotionally exhausted from an experience that maybe gave just a glimmer of what the disciples experienced with Jesus. I think I felt some sense of what they felt when they came down the mountain.

Every great experience ends and we have to go back to life as it was. Whether it’s a retreat, or a summer camp, or a terrific vacation, or an anniversary celebration, or a graduation, or even a memorial service; eventually it ends. We go through those high moments of insight and inspiration and emotion, but eventually we have to come down. Peter wanted to make dwellings there, but you can’t stay on the mountain top. The experience ends, and you have to come down.

“Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”

When you come down, reentry is difficult. That’s what happens for Jesus and the disciples. They come down, and they find a crowd gathered. There’s a man whose son has a demon and he wants desperately to have that son healed. “My son,” he says, “my only child.” And he describes what happens to the boy: “It seizes him and mauls him and throws him to the ground, and sometimes he foams at the mouth.” Can you hear how deeply and desperately this man cares for his son?

You know what that’s like.

One of Jesus’ great gifts and one of his expectations of us is to care just as deeply as the father. To care just as deeply as the parents; not only for that child, but for all the other children across the whole human family. 



“You faithless and perverse generation!”

The desperate father; the disciples powerless to do anything; and Jesus says, “You faithless and perverse generation! How much longer must I put up with you?” Words that are eternally contemporary. I suspect that Jesus is just as frustrated with us as he was with them.

You come down from the mountain and the world is still crazy. There are still problems and still issues to address.

I checked my email when I got home from the Mission Trip and there was an invitation to a press conference on Tuesday morning for religious leaders supporting equal access to marriage; supporting Gay Marriage.

I read that and I said to myself, “I do not want to do this.” I walked into the kitchen, and I said to Elaine, “I’ve got a decision to make.” And I explained the situation. She said, “What’s the decision?” I said, “Well, I need to decide whether or not I’m going to go.” And she said, “Why would you not go?” “Because,” I said, “I don’t like to make people unhappy. It’s a controversial issue and it will make some people unhappy.”

“So,” she said, “You don’t want people to be uncomfortable.”

And then after a pause she said, “Some people have been uncomfortable their whole lives.”

I told the congregation why I had decided to go.

I said I knew it was controversial and I knew that some people saw this as a threat to marriage. But for me the threats to marriage were lack of commitment, lack of communication, and lack of trust. The fact that there were people of the same sex who want to make that commitment was something that we should celebrate. 

It was a good thing. For years the gay community has been criticized for promiscuity and yet there has been no avenue for a legal and sacred commitment. In an age when it is so hard to get anyone to make a commitment about anything, and at a time when commitment is in such short supply in the heterosexual community, I found it incredibly moving to see gay and lesbian couples lining up to promise their lives to each other.

I asked myself, “What would Jesus do?” And the question is answered as soon as it is asked. Jesus is always on the side of compassion.

Jesus says to the people, with great frustration, “you faithless and perverse generation!” 

Why is he frustrated? It’s not because they were good when he left and they’ve been bad while he was away, and now he has to correct them and get them back on track. The problem is not that they were good and now they are bad. The problem is that they are just the same now as when he left. 

The problem is that they have not changed. They have not grown. And over and over throughout the Bible, that is the problem. The people of Israel want to go back to Egypt because they are uncomfortable moving forward through the wilderness. Growth is always uncomfortable. But, like the people of Israel, we need to move forward.

The next step is always hard. And honestly, sometimes people just need time. Over time, we meet people, we experience things and we live through it.

I believe with all my heart and soul and mind and strength that the benediction I pronounce on Sunday morning is true, “that God loves us and accepts us just the way we are.” But I also believe just as deeply that God does not expect me to be in the same place today that I was yesterday. 

The purpose of God’s unconditional love and acceptance is to give us room to grow. We cannot take the risk of growth unless we know that love is there. That’s why it’s so important that children feel loved and accepted. We don’t want them to stay eighth graders forever. When they are three and four we may feel like we want them to be preschoolers forever, but we really don’t. And heaven knows we don’t want them to be teenagers forever. We want them to grow. And God wants us to grow.

The frustration Jesus has with this group of people is that they have not changed. They have not grown. And isn’t that the problem with the Traditionalism? The wilderness is hard and they want to go back to Egypt.


Jesus rebuked the demon, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Jesus expresses his frustration and then he rebukes the demon. The language is hard for us. It seems very strange to speak of demons, but it’s a symbolic way of speaking about the evil in our lives. And it says something that we know is true: there are demons in our lives. Materialism, greed, the lust for power, and selfishness; those are all demons in our lives. Racism and xenophobia are demons. 

And homophobia is a demon. 

The demons seize us and convulse us and sometimes they even make us foam at the mouth. There are times, many times, when those demons must be rebuked. 

And all were astounded 
at the greatness of God.


When the demons are rebuked and we are healed it is astounding. It is testimony to the greatness of God.

In our United Methodist Church on this Transfiguration Sunday in 2019, we are not there yet. We are still mired in the demons of a perverse and foolish generation. We need to move forward. We need to rebuke the demons.


Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Losing My Religion


Thirty years ago I mentored a young man who wanted to be a United Methodist minister.

He and his family came to the church looking for Christian education for the kids. They had no real church background. It was all new. They loved the church right away and were soon at the center of church life.

Tom (not his real name) asked lots of questions. He asked about the Bible and about theology and we had some great conversations. He was smart and inquisitive and totally captured by Jesus. He wanted to be a disciple in every possible way.

It was not long before he spoke with me about becoming a candidate for ordained ministry. I remember the excitement we felt when the congregation voted to support and affirm his candidacy.

He left his job and went to seminary full time.

I was convinced that he had the gifts and graces for ministry and that he would be a great pastor.

It soon became clear from our conversations that Tom was becoming much more conservative in his theology and that he was trending toward a much more literalistic reading of the Bible. In my mind, that was less than optimum but I still could see him as an excellent pastor.

But the Conference Board of Ministry did not see him as I did. They turned him down. They continued him as a Local Pastor but they would not recommend him for ordination.

I was outraged.

I made phone calls to everyone I could think of, including the Bishop, to plead his case. I wrote letters and the church wrote letters.

There was plenty of room for Tom, I thought, in the big tent of United Methodist theology.

And I had many conversations about it with friends and colleagues.

One of those conversations imprinted itself in my brain.

My friend and colleague Kent Moorehead listened attentively as I told him what had happened to Tom and how zealously I had advocated on his behalf.

After a short exchange, Kent smiled and told me that he admired my loyalty and my efforts. Then he said this:

“That’s great, Bill, but you do realize that if they are ever in the majority, those people will vote you out in a heartbeat.”

And yesterday in St. Louis that is exactly what they did.


Tom was not there. He drifted  around some very conservative churches in our conference and then into other denominations. But his soul mates were in St. Louis. And by a slim margin they voted to make United Methodism a rigidly literalistic and judgmental denomination with no room for dissent.

They chose law over grace.

They put the highest value on obeying the rules.

They will talk about biblical authority, but what they mean is that everyone should agree with how they read the Bible: with narrow judgment focused on the narrow issue of LGBTQIA exclusion.

That’s it.

Technically, I have not lost my religion. I can still be a Christian. But I have lost my denomination.

I will not go gently.

I will not comply with the demand for a loyalty oath.

And I will work for a new and better church rising from the wreckage.






Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.