Thursday, February 25, 2016

Justice Antonin Scalia and Occasions for Stumbling

Justice Antonin Scalia 1936-2016

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”
Matthew 18:6-7

When I was preparing to apply for college the high school guidance counselor met with me and my parents to talk about the process. 

Given our very modest family financial resources, I had focused first on state schools and I had considered beginning at a community college and then transferring to a four year school. But then my English teacher, Barbara Ford, took an interest in my situation and gave me some life changing advice. “Trench,” she said in her typically authoritative manner, “you need to apply to a school that can give you a scholarship. Have you ever heard of Wesleyan University?”

My guidance counselor knew that Mrs. Ford had been meddling in his business and he wanted to make sure I understood that the Wesleyan idea was not really a good one. Even if I could get a scholarship, most of the other students would have very different lifestyles than mine. They would be skiing in Switzerland and driving fancy cars. And on top of that, a large percentage would have gone to prep schools and they would be way ahead of me academically. 

The bottom line was that he was sure I would be more comfortable with people in my own socio-economic demographic. 

The cautions of my high school guidance counselor came back to me when I read Justice Antonin Scalia’s remarks this past December in relation to affirmative action at the University of Texas in Austin. 

“There are those,” Scalia observed, “who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas [Austin] where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a less -- a slower track school where they do well.” He contended that blacks might to better at “lesser schools where they do not feel that they're being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

Technically, Justice Scalia was not necessarily telling us what he thought, he was only noting what “others” had said and citing studies claiming to prove that point. Underneath the veneer of a soft spoken attempt to sound reasonable, what he was saying something less than a repackaging of the “separate but equal” argument of segregation. Justice Scalia was advocating separate and not equal, and contending that this was better than equality.

And this was not his first venture into a tortured defense of historic bias.

In 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down a law that made consensual sex between consenting adults of the same sex illegal, Scalia wrote a typically scathing dissent.

“Today’s opinion is the product of a Court, which is the product of a law-profession culture, that has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda, by which I mean the agenda promoted by some homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.” 

He went on to say that, “Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a life style that they believe to be immoral and destructive.”

In an earlier decision, his disdain for the LGBTQ community was even more pointed. “Of course,” he began with measured reasonableness, “it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings.” And then he made his argument with remarkable venom, “But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible --murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals -- and could exhibit even 'animus' toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of 'animus' at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct.”

Stephen Carter, a professor at Yale University Law School, reported that shortly after news of Justice Scalia’s death broke, his Twitter feed “began to fill with hate.” And he made it clear that he meant exactly what he said, “Not disagreement or disrespect -- actual hate. He was an ignorant waste of flesh, wrote one young fool. His death was the best news in decades, cheered another. Then there was the woman who just had to tell the world that she felt safer now than she had at the death of Osama bin Laden. And several people expressed the hope -- the hope! -- that Clarence Thomas would die next.”

Carter argues that even those who disagreed with Justice Scalia should be able to respect him as a person and appreciate his many good qualities.

Scalia was a brilliant legal scholar and a gifted writer. Those who knew him say that he was witty and kind. He was a devout Roman Catholic. He had a deep friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, although they were diametrically opposed in their approach to the law. I am impressed by his ability to cultivate friendships with those with whom he disagreed.

But his wonderful qualities do not change the fact that he often used his wit and skill in ways that were deeply hurtful to minority groups. If he had not been so gifted, he would have done less damage to the aspirations of those on the margins of our society.

Justice Scalia was a proponent of Constitutional “originalism.” He believed that his task was to determine the original intent of those who wrote the law and then follow it. A jurist should be like a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes. The umpire does not change the strike zone or add his own interpretation of what is or isn’t a strike, he just calls them as he sees them. 

The problem is that such an approach always favors the status quo. And the status quo always favors those who have power against those who are powerless.

When we consider the original intent of the framers of the constitution, it is useful to remember that they were white male landowners. Many were slave owners. They were relatively rich. And they saw the world from that perspective.

In that context, I find myself more comfortable with Jeffrey Toobin’s critical remembrance of Justice Scalia than with the many gushing eulogies that seem to remember only his positive characteristics. He was brilliant. But he used his brilliance to maintain oppression, rather than to alleviate it.

I want to think of him more positively, but I can’t.

He gave others a “cause for stumbling.” He gave intellectual cover for racism and bigotry, even if he did not feel those things in his own heart.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Donald Trump and the Pope: Walls and Bridges, Faith and Politics

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
Luke 6:46-49

It was weird.

Even by the standards of this year’s very strange presidential campaign, it was weird.

Not long after Pope Francis celebrated mass on the border between Mexico and the United States, and commemorated those who had lost their lives trying to make that crossing, as he was traveling back to Rome, the Pope was asked what he thought about Donald Trump’s proposal to deport eleven million illegal immigrants and build a wall along the border. Could an American Catholic vote for Trump?

On the issue of whether or not a Catholic could vote for Trump, he gave no papal directive, but he did comment on Trump’s proposals.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” said Francis. “This is not in the Gospel.”

When asked “if an American Catholic could vote for a person like this?” Francis responded, 

“As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote,” he commented, “I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that.” 

Then, more reflectively, he added, “We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

Trump’s response was swift and certain. He called the Pope’s comments “disgraceful.”

We will pause now to reflect on the supreme irony and apparent total lack of self-awareness in Mr. Trump calling what someone else said, disgraceful.

This is the same man who began his campaign by slandering all Mexican immigrants, who spoke first of Fox commentator Megyn Kelly, and then of Hillary Clinton, and still later of Ted Cruz, in language that cannot be repeated in polite company. This is the man who said that John McCain was not a war hero and insisted that thousands of American Muslims in New Jersey were cheering as the twin towers went down on September 11. Disgraceful has become the Trump brand.

In his official response, Trump began with an imaginary scenario that sounds like an idea for a television movie:

“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened.”

How weird is that?

Roughly translated, I think he is saying that if the Pope really understood what is at stake in this election, he would be praying for Trump to win the presidency.

Somehow, I doubt it.

In the closing paragraph, Trump tells us what he finds disgraceful in the Pope’s remarks:

“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian . . . . No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

On a positive note, it’s clear that Mr. Trump does not have an army of public relations professionals massaging his statements for either style or content. His written comments, like his speeches, seem totally void of critical reflection.

A few weeks ago Mr. Trump said that he could shoot someone in broad daylight in New York City and his supporters would still be behind him. By that standard, calling the Pope disgraceful is nothing. Not surprisingly, his comments caused no defections from the ranks, and his supporters took to social media to voice their approval. It was a landslide.

As one news commentator summed it up at the end of the day, “Trump 1- the Pope 0.” 

Two serious observations:

First, I don’t think the Pope was questioning Donald Trump’s faith. He was only commenting on Trump’s policy proposals and public statements. We cannot know what is in another person’s heart. Trump is right about that, we shouldn’t question another person’s faith. Public statements and policy proposals are another matter. 

Second, the Pope did not say that American Catholics should not vote for Mr. Trump. He made an important distinction between criticizing some of Trump’s policies and declaring his candidacy off-limits to faithful Christians. Like the Pope, I am deeply troubled by some of Mr. Trump’s proposals. I am also troubled by his bullying tactics. But deciding for whom we will vote is a complex matter of weighing many competing issues, and fundamentally it is a matter of conscience. Though it is tempting, that is a place where we dare not judge.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Jesus Was a Pharisee (Seriously. 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

A few years ago at our New England United Methodist Annual Conference we were debating an issue related to how the church treats LGBTQ persons. One of my colleagues, arguing for inclusion, characterized those on the other side of the debate as “modern day Pharisees.” It was, I thought, an unfair comparison, and I quickly made my way to a microphone to respond.

“That’s unfair,” I said, when the presiding bishop called on me.

“It’s unfair to the Pharisees.”

There was a smattering of laughter, but I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was serious. I admit it was a snarky comment. And it was unkind. Not what Jesus would have said in that circumstance, although it seems possible he might have said something similar in one of his many discussions and disputations with disciples and others.

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.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Syrian children wait to receive aid from humanitarian agencies in refugee camp.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, 
for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

It is not much.

But the United States and Russia have announced an agreement to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian cities suffering starvation after years of civil war. And the delivery of aid would be followed by a temporary halt to the carnage.

Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry repeatedly cautioned that the agreement only exists on paper. “What we have here are words on paper, what we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground," said Kerry.

The BBC reports five major components of the plan:

To try to immediately step up aid deliveries to besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria.
For a US/Russia-led task force to work to achieve a "cessation of hostilities" across Syria beginning in one week's time.
"Cessation of hostilities" will exclude action against so-called Islamic State group, jihadist group al-Nusra Front and other UN-designated terrorist groups.
To work towards an eventual ceasefire and implementation of a UN-backed plan for political transition in Syria.

The agreement does not include ISIS. U.S. allies will continue to bomb ISIS forces. And the cessation of hostilities will not take place for a week, if it takes place at all. As Secretary of State John Kerry observed, “The real test is whether all parties honor those commitments.”

The United Nations has announced its determination to use the temporary (and incomplete) truce to deliver as much aid as possible to besieged cities and towns. And the hope is that this brief respite will be an opportunity for further negotiation aimed at a settlement. Speaking for one segment of the rebel coalition, told reporters, "If we see action and implementation on the ground, we will be soon in Geneva," referring to the Swiss city where the United Nations hopes to broker peace talks between the rebels and the Syrian government.

The cost so far has been staggering. In the almost five years of civil war over 250,000 people have been killed and another 13.5 million refugees have been displaced.

And even in a region known for complicated alliances and allegiances, the Syrian civil war is a special case. Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator who has used chemical weapons on his own people, but he is also part of the Alawite minority and the protector of the Alawite people against the Sunni majority. The rebels who oppose him include many fighting for democracy, but the opposition also includes ISIS and those who sympathize with their goals. Assad has the support of Iran and Russia, both claiming to be fighting ISIS, but their major efforts seem directed toward propping up Assad.

The good guys are hard to find, but the suffering is everywhere.

Peacemaking is always difficult. It is especially difficult in the Middle East, where hostilities and antagonisms have been nurtured over centuries. And even by the standards of conflict in the Middle East, the Syrian civil war is in a class by itself.

And the difficulty of peacemaking is compounded because violence always seems so uncomplicated. As one presidential candidate declared with regard to ISIS in Syria, “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”

Jesus called peacemakers the children of God. He also made it clear that those who waged peace would routinely be slandered and ridiculed. 

When peacemaking fails, we call it naïve. When violence fails, as it has in Syria and throughout the Middle East, we call for more deadly force.

If peacemaking fails, it is evidence that we need more violence.

If violence fails, it is evidence that we need more violence.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”
Luke 19:41-42

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


A Guest Column
By Rev. F. Richard Garland
I have a love/hate relationship with Lent. At its best it can foster a healthy self examination that leads to insight and new possibilities. At its worst it is a long, dark, weary slog through the ‘oughts and the shall nots’ of religion. I seldom go willingly into Lent.
Not long ago, I walked into a sanctuary and, there in the center aisle, I was greeted by a basin of water, behind which was a large mirror, upon which was written, “You are beloved.” It was the beginning of the season of Epiphany. In the bulletin there was offered an invitation for people to pause, touch the water, to remember their Baptism and be thankful. We were reminded that, as was Jesus at his Baptism, we are beloved of God. It is a stark contrast to the beginning of Lent when we are also reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Both are true, and it got me to wondering if Epiphany has something to teach us in Lent. 

What if we spent the necessary time of Lenten introspection listening for the deeper, wiser voice that reminds us that we are beloved of God - a season of light teaching us how to cope with the dark.
In the creation story God says: “Let there be light.” The first voice of creation is the voice of life, overcoming the dark, formless void.

In John’s gospel the Word becomes flesh - a light that shines in the darkness. In Luke’s gospel at the baptism of Jesus there is a voice, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In the Book of Revelation there is a voice from the throne: “The home of God is with mortals.” “I am making all things new.” These are the voices of life, of hope, of Love, of vision - the deeper, wiser voices that bring health and wholeness, physically and spiritually.
In our journey through Lent we are called to listen to these voices - voices that heal, nurture and build up. Otherwise, as Christine Valters Paintner warns: “When we continue to follow the judge or the inner critic, or any of the especially loud and vocal voices inside us, without recourse to the whole range of who we are, we can become depleted by self doubt and insecurity.”
So, where does one start? Where does one go to hear this deeper wiser voice? 

For people of faith there is no better place than the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms was Jesus’ prayer book. The Psalms have been the staple of worshiping people for millennia. The Psalms have been a source book for life from the very beginning. There is no dimension of life that the Psalms do not touch. Throughout the Psalms you will encounter the voice of God, in all of its depth and all of its wisdom. How does one start? By reading them of course! Preferably out loud. Why out loud? Because it slows one down. 
By the way, I found a wonderful website - - where you can set up your own reading plan and receive a daily email that includes the bible text for the day. Try it out - go to the site - click on Psalms - set the time frame [I would suggest 90 days] - and check the box for ‘send a daily email’ and voila! You have a reading plan!
The process of listening for the deeper wiser, voice is really quite simple:
+++ Read the Psalms out loud - make note and be open to the voice and words you hear.
+++ Pray: “O God, what are you trying to teach me through these words?”
+++ Reflect on where this deeper wisdom will lead you in your walk of faith. 

In his wonderful little book “Praying the Psalms,” Thomas Merton observes: “The Psalms establish us in God, they unite us to Him in Christ.” “The function of the Psalms is to reveal to us God as the ‘treasure’ whom we love because He has first loved us.” You are beloved!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Lent Is a Time to Reflect on What Matters Most

Jesus in the Wilderness

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 
Luke 4:1-2

If Lent were a candidate running for President of the United States or President of the ninth grade class, it would come in last. As the pollsters say, it has really high “unfavorables.” Nobody likes Lent. Some of us pretend to like it because we think we ought to, but no one really likes it. 

The observance of Lent among Christians is complicated at best and dysfunctional at worst. In Lent we tend to confirm the worst stereotypes of Christian behavior. We focus on small and petty things. Lent does not bring out the best in Christianity.

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent is always the temptation story. We read it from different Gospels depending on the Lectionary cycle, but the story is always the same. After Jesus is baptized by John, he is led into the wilderness for a time of reflection and contemplation. It is one of those rare occasions when the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke are nearly identical. 

There are two places where we tend to get stuck. The first is with “the devil.” We picture a mythical creature with horns and a tale. And some of us wonder how this can be “real.” Which totally misses the point. Temptation is about what happens inside of us and this was no different for Jesus. In his commentary, legendary scholar William Barclay points out that the struggle takes place within the mind of Jesus, but this does not make it any less real. 

The second place we tend to get stuck is on the last phrase of the second verse in Luke’s account. “He was famished.” And that leads us to the widespread Lenten practice of giving up something we like for Lent. Sometimes it’s chocolate or ice cream or all desserts. If that helps us to meditate on our faith journey then it’s a good thing, but my guess is that most of the time it just makes us grumpy. And grumpy Christians don’t make a very compelling witness.

All three accounts agree on a key detail: it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the wilderness.

Jesus needed a time of preparation, introspection and contemplation. And we need that, too. It is good, between the hurry of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and the busyness of the spring, that we pause and reflect. It is a good time to contemplate our fears and hopes for the future, and to remember the joys and sorrows of the past. And in all of that, to ask serious questions about life and faith. What is it that really matters? What do we really care about? How will we put our ideals and our faith into action?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Saving the World: A Reflection on John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but may have eternal life.”
John 3:16

Several years ago on a Wednesday morning I was planning the worship service with Kim Wertz, our Music Director at the time, and Carol Reale, who was then and is now our Pastor of Christian Education and Family Ministry. 

As we were talking about the sermon, I said something about how the material was pretty heavy going. And Kim said, “Sometimes when you get into what various theologians or scholars think, I feel like I get lost in the footnotes. It’s good to know about Barth and Fosdick, or whomever, but I also want to know what you believe. It’s not that I’m going to believe whatever you believe, but that I want to know where you are in all of this.”

So I wrote this with Kim’s comment in mind. 

I think it’s important to look at where we are in the tradition and where it has taken us over the years. But it’s also important to say that this is what I believe, and this is why I believe it. Before we look more closely at this text, to use a thoroughly non-Methodist manner of speaking, let me put my cards on the table. 

I believe that we come from God and we go to God. I believe that God is the one who gives us life, and in the end, God is the one who calls us home. I believe in what theologians call universal salvation. My guess is that this is really what most United Methodist pastors believe, if you really press them, but most pastors would not say it as directly as I would. 

I believe that no one is ever lost. In the end, we all go home to God.

My friend Kent Moorehead used to say that every preacher has just three sermons. He or she may dress them up in different ways and present them with different illustrations connected to different biblical texts, but it’s still just three basic sermons. 

The truth is that I don’t even have three sermons. I have one sermon. It’s about the grace of God.

In the Bible, there are passages that speak of God’s grace and others that speak of judgment. There is a tension between them. But in the end, we have to decide where we will come down. I believe that the Apostle Paul is right when he says that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” I believe that has happened and it is the truth on which everything else rests. I believe that grace is the last word.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It is a beautiful verse and it is one of the best loved verses in the Bible. But it is also a source of division. 

Unfortunately, it has often been used by Christians to give a message of exclusion. In this judgmental reading of the text, the main point is that those who believe in Jesus have eternal life, and those who do not believe, perish. In this reading, the point is not grace, but judgment. 

It is as if the verse said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who did not believe in him would go to hell.” We can see immediately that whatever else it might mean, it cannot mean that. It cannot mean that the point of Jesus’ life and teaching was to expose non-believers and condemn them.

For God so loved the world

God loves the world. God loves what God has made, even though that world has in so many ways turned against God and rejected him. Nevertheless, God loves the world. For Greeks and Romans, this was an astonishing thought. Pagan gods and goddesses were distant, aloof, judgmental, capricious and uncaring. The notion of a compassionate God was a foreign concept.

God loves the universe; the cosmos. God loves people and plants and animals, mountains and rivers and streams, oceans and deserts and prairies and forests. God loves the stars and the planets. And it is more than just the natural world. God loves art and music, poetry and drama, great cities and little villages. God loves technology and science and medicine. God loves civilization and culture and society. It is not always good. It is not always what it should be, but it is still loved by God. And God loves the process by which it becomes something new and better, the progress of the ages. God loves culture in the same way that he loves human beings. We are loved as we are, but we are supposed to change and grow.

That he gave his only Son,

God sent Jesus to show us what God is like, and to teach us what God expects from us. This is the gift of God’s presence among us. Sometimes this giving of Jesus is interpreted as God sacrificing Jesus for us. In this crude understanding of the Doctrine of the Atonement, the idea is that God is angry with human sin, and there must be a sacrifice to appease God’s anger. Jesus takes our place, and dies for us, so that his death pays for our sins.

This crude theology is morally suspect. 

It is as if you, as a parent, had four children. Three of them were impossible. They were mean and cruel. But the fourth child was perfect and was exactly the kind of person you wanted him or her to be. And you were so angry that you were ready to kill the three horrible children, but you decided that you would kill the perfect one instead. And somehow, killing the perfect child would get rid of your anger toward the other three. 

You wouldn’t do that. No parent would do that. And I don’t believe God would do that, either.

Jesus did not die because God was angry with humanity. He died because his perfect faithfulness collided with human sin. He was faithful, even to death. He gave up his life rather than deny who he was or to whom he belonged. His faithfulness challenged Herod and Pilate, and collided with the empire. He held out the Kingdom of God, and highlighted the differences between God and Empire. He challenged everything that was wrong with the world, and for that he was killed. In that inevitable collision, as Paul said, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” But his death was caused by human sin, not by God’s anger.

So that everyone who believes in him

We speak of believing as if it were the same as thinking or guessing. “Do you believe the Red Sox will get back to the World Series?” That is not a faith question. (Okay, maybe it is a faith question, but you get the idea.) We believe that one candidate would make a better president than another. We believe that we need to get enough sleep and exercise.

But believing, in the biblical sense, is not the same as thinking. And it does not mean agreeing to a set of propositions. It is not giving assent to a doctrine. To believe, in the biblical sense, is to give one’s heart. When we say that we believe in Jesus, we mean that we give our hearts to him. If we live in him, he will live in us.

May not perish but may have eternal life.

Eternal life is the gift which Jesus offers to his followers immediately. They can choose to live the abundant life which God offers today and live, from now on, in the unending presence of God. The alternative is to continue in their old lives. The offer holds within it an element of self-judgment. We have to decide where we stand.

We do not become Christians by osmosis. We do not become Christians by sitting next to other Christians, although it helps. We do not become Christians by going to church or by studying the Bible, or by singing hymns, though all of that helps. We become Christians by asking Jesus to come into our lives and deciding to follow him.

In our choosing, we determine our own experience.

We can choose to live consciously in the unending presence of God from now on. Or not. But our decision does not determine whether or not God loves us, only how we experience that. 

God is saving the world. The whole we world. Because God loves the world.