Monday, August 28, 2017

What Jesus Actually Taught

The poor are invited to the feast. Luke 14:15-24
Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

It is time for my annual reflection on Kingdomtide and why it matters.

Yesterday was the First Sunday in Kingdomtide.

At least that’s what it was when I was growing up. In the old United Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.”

It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.”

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was the Gospel. He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating.

The idea of Kingdomtide as a liturgical season began in 1937 and lasted for barely half a century. Kingdomtide just never caught on. Initially, it seemed to have a lot going for it, not the least of which is that stretching out Pentecost, and counting the Sundays after Pentecost, is pretty boring. It also made sense because the fall lectionary texts emphasize building up the Kingdom of God.

And after all, Jesus’ whole message was about the Kingdom of God. That was what he called “the good news.”

But the season of Kingdomtide was doomed by the combined weight of liturgical purity and the concern (which I share) for looking beyond exclusively masculine terms for God.

God is not a King.

When the “new” United Methodist Hymnal was published in 1989, Kingdomtide was gone. I didn’t notice the change for several years. When I saw my error, I briefly surrendered to liturgical conformity and abandoned the season. But it was not long before I changed my mind.

How can we abandon the only liturgical season that is focused on what Jesus actually taught?

Whatever we call it, we need to do it.

Some time in the middle of the last century one of the great preachers said that our most important task is keeping the idea of the Kingdom of God alive in the human spirit. 

In the hyper-competitive winner-take-all culture of the twenty-first century, that task is even more urgent. Notions of economic justice, concern for the poor, non-violence, and simplicity are often seen as na├»ve or un-American. 

We need to reclaim the language of Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is a profoundly political idea. But it does not translate directly into what we popularly associate with “politics.” It is not about political parties or political labels.

As Robert Bellah wrote, "Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."

In these deeply troubled times, it is easy to feel hopeless, but it is precisely in times such as these that we need to be grounded in Jesus’ message.

When his disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he told them to pray first for the Kingdom of God to come on earth. Two thousand years later, that should still be our first concern.

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

*A version of this post was first published on September 1, 2011.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The President's Rally in Phoenix

When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?”
Matthew 26:20-22

Is it I, Lord?

There are many strange scenes in the Bible, but this is one of the strangest.

We commonly call this “The Last Supper.” Jesus is celebrating Passover with his disciples. And he tells them he knows that one of them will betray him. Immediately they begin, one by one, to ask him, “Is it me? Am I the one who will betray you?”

Christians have wondered for two millennia how all of them could be asking that question. How could they not know the answer?

I thought of this scene as I contemplated the President’s rally in Phoenix.

There is an almost (or more than almost) messianic quality to the loyalty and praise he receives from some of his followers. Many believe that he has sacrificed his life to serve the country. They see the Trump White House as a forerunner of the Kingdom of God.

Where Christians might believe that “if Jesus said it, then it must be true,” in a similar way many of Trump’s supporter believe that if Donald Trump said it, then it must be true. So when he says that the television cameras have been turned off, they believe him even if they can see that the cameras are still on. 

And he does seem to believe that he is the Messiah.

But in this case I was not thinking about similarities. I was thinking about a profound difference.

David Smith wrote an article for The Guardian, reporting on interviews he had with Trump supporters at the Phoenix rally. He interviewed nine people, so it hardly qualifies as a scientific study, but the results are interesting.

Most of it was very predictable. They voted for him because he is not a politician, because he is not afraid to say what he thinks, because he will shake things up in Washington, and, amazingly, because they trust him.

One woman voted for him because she “didn’t want someone being investigated by the FBI sitting in our president’s seat.” She did not seem aware of the irony in her statement.

They were asked whether or not they thought that Mr. Trump was a racist. Not surprisingly, they all said no. They did not think he was a racist. In fact, they were certain he was not a racist. 

They knew this because each of them said in one way or another, “he believes what I believe.”

There is logic to it:

“I am not a racist. Mr. Trump believes what I believe. Therefore, Mr. Trump is not a racist.”

When Christians discuss that interchange at the Last Supper, they often marvel that the disciples would have so little self-knowledge that each would think himself capable of betraying Jesus.

But I think that misses the point. The Disciples doubt themselves precisely because they know themselves all too well. They know their own weakness and moral frailty. And they know the darkness that can cloud the human heart.

When we look back on the great moral divides in human history we often feel certain that if we had lived in that time and faced those issues we would have been on the right side. We would have stood with Jesus against the violence of the empire. We would have sided with the abolitionists. We would have been against child labor. We would have supported women’s suffrage. We would have marched for civil rights. 

And if we had lived in Germany in the 1930’s we would have resisted the Nazis.

In other words, we are certain of our own goodness. 

The Trump loyalists in Arizona were not asking, “Is it I, Lord?” 

“Am I a racist?”

A year and a half ago, before the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump was interviewed about the surprising revelation that he was actually a Christian and that he went to church. Frank Luntz asked him if he had ever asked God for forgiveness and he basically said, no.

Of course not. 

A real Trump supporter would know that’s a pretty silly question.

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Trump Tweets, Confederate Statues, and Our Three Cats

When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!”
Exodus 32:25-26

Once upon a time in our family we had three cats.

Their given names were Duster, Longfellow, and Wamba.

Their nicknames were General Lee, General Longstreet, and the Gray Ghost, Colonel John Mosby. Since they were gray there was some logic to naming them after Confederate officers. Duster, always looked dignified with his long gray fur and a beautiful white patch from his chin down his chest that reminded us of Lee’s beard. Wamba was fast and elusive and somewhat of a guerrilla fighter, so Gray Ghost seemed to fit. And Longy had to be Longstreet.

The nicknames came into being when we were reading “The Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara’s brilliant historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg.

We were reading the book because of an interest in Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who left his position as a professor of Rhetoric and Revealed Religion at Bowdoin College to volunteer for the Union Army. At Gettysburg he led the Twentieth Maine Volunteers to hold the extreme left flank of the Union line against repeated Confederate assaults. Chamberlain’s leadership saved the day, and the battle, and possibly the war itself.

Chamberlain was our hero, but General James Longstreet was the most sympathetic character. Shaara portrays him as a pensive and deeply devout man, shaken by the loss of three children who died in rapid succession in an epidemic of scarlet fever in 1862. He was also a brilliant general who tried in vain to dissuade Lee from ordering Pickett’s disastrous charge.

The nicknames took hold without any conscious decision on our part. They were gray guys and of course they were Confederates.

But when I think about it, it is odd that we did not think it odd at the time.

We were the unlikeliest people to indulge in southern nostalgia.

Elaine and I are Yankees. I am named after my great-great-grandfather, William Crowell Gibbs, who was a Lieutenant Commander in the Union Navy, served under Admiral David Farragut and lost an eye in the Battle of Mobile Bay. And Elaine’s great-grandfather, who was not old enough to fight in the Civil War, was part of reconstruction. He went south after the war to teach former slaves on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina.

We grew up on Civil Rights. We know about systemic racism. We understand white privilege. And anyone who reads this blog knows that racism has been a frequent topic.

But still.

We named our cats after Confederate war heroes.

Which goes to show how deeply the romanticism of the Civil War is embedded in our national psyche.

I was meditating on all of this as I considered the matter of Confederate Statuary. When the President called the statues part of our culture and history, he was only partly wrong. His advocacy against removal of the monuments was wrong and insensitive. But he was right in his observation. Unfortunately, the statues are part of our history and they remain part of our culture. The myth of the “Lost Cause” which says that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is alive and well. We may be against racism, but we still love “Gone with the Wind.”

But there’s more to our family story

In our little gray trinity, I was surprised to learn that both Longstreet and Mosby became Republicans after the war. They actively supported the reunited Union and each served in the government.

Longstreet’s work after the war was particularly significant. He moved to New Orleans where he played a key role in government and civilian endeavors.

His biography in “The Civil War Trust” views his post war years through a hazy mist of Civil War romanticism:

“In 1867, the New Orleans Times asked several leading citizens to comment on the newly passed Reconstruction Acts. Unwisely, Longstreet suggested that Southerners support the Republicans. . . He supported Grant for president, and when elected, Grant nominated Longstreet to be the Surveyor of Customs for the Port of New Orleans. For this last betrayal of the South he was labeled a ‘scalawag.’”
Longstreet became the target of “Lost Cause” advocates such as Jubal Early, William Pendleton, and Rev. J. William Jones among others. They were so outraged by his support for black suffrage and his willingness to command a biracial force against an uprising of white supremacists that they tried to smear his war record and blamed him for the Southern defeat at Gettysburg.

One of the monuments that the city of New Orleans now proposes to remove is dedicated to the white supremacists that General Longstreet put down in 1874 with an African American militia. It would be fitting to replace that monument with one that honors Longstreet, not for his Civil War exploits, though they were extensive, but for the service he rendered to his country after the war.

Mr. Trump is right that the Confederate statues are part of our history and culture. But we need to reclaim that history from the romantic imagery of the Lost Cause and recognize it for the evil that it was.

William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

In this case, it is long past time to let go of the past. We cannot and should not forget it. But we should stop celebrating it.

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

With Nazis There Is No Moral Equivalence

"There is blame on both sides."
"There were very fine people on both sides."
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. 
I John 4:20-21

“They are Nazis,” Jurgen Moltmann declared, “and when you are confronted by Nazis you must defeat them.”

Nothing else matters, he insisted, until you get rid of the Nazis.

Moltmann, perhaps the last of the great German theologians of the twentieth century, made that prophetic declaration half a century ago. He was visiting the United States for a theological conference and he was talking about the segregationists in the south.

As my theology professor told the story, Moltmann had insisted  to his fellow theologians that they had no business discussing theology until they had first done something about the Nazis.

I remember thinking that although the segregationists were certainly bad, it was hyperbole to call them Nazis. But the events in Charlottesville this past weekend have proven me wrong. They call themselves Nazis.

Jurgen Moltmann grew up in a secular family in Hamburg. As a teenager he was drafted into the German Army near the end of the war. He was captured by the British and spent several years as a prisoner of war. During that time his captors presented him with descriptions and pictures of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and he was overwhelmed with guilt for what his country had done.

While he was held prisoner an American Army Chaplain gave him a New Testament and it transformed his life. “I did not find Christ,” he would later say, “Christ found me.” After the war he completed a doctorate in theology and his reflections on Nazism and the war led him to develop “A Theology of Hope.”

Moltmann could see, as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others had made clear before him that the absolute claims of Nazism were theological as well as political. And that those absolute claims made it antithetical to Christianity. 

When Moltmann insisted that there could be no theological discussion until Nazism had been addressed, he wasn’t introducing politics into theological discourse. He was recognizing that until they were dealt with, the absolute claims of Nazism made authentic theological discussion impossible.

I think we can say with absolute certainty that Donald Trump has not read Jurgen Moltmann, or any of the great theologians who could see the dangers of Nazism long before the first concentration camps were built. But one doesn’t need a deep understanding of theology and ethics to make a judgment on the events in Charlottesville.

When it comes to Nazis there are not two sides.

After the violence and death last Saturday, the President condemned the hatred and violence “on many sides.” And for emphasis he paused before repeating, “on many sides.”

On Monday he responded to forty-eight hours of nearly universal bipartisan criticism by “clarifying” his Saturday remarks to say that he unequivocally condemned the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, and the white supremacists. He was reading a script and looking very uncomfortable, but he stuck to his text. 

He did not try to spread the blame.

As CNN’s Dan Merica wrote, Tuesday’s news conference was a different story:
“The news conference laid bare his unvarnished view of who was to blame for the violence and what he thinks about the nationwide effort to remove statues of Confederate leaders. Trump's comments were the latest in what has been a jaw-dropping saga ever since the President made his first vague statement on the violence, blaming the conflicts on many sides.’ The comments also made clear that Trump's speech on Monday -- which vociferously blamed the violence on the ‘alt-right’ and neo-Nazi groups who initiated the protest -- was largely a sterilized version of his view.”
David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, felt vindicated. In a Twitter post he said, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth.”

White nationalist leader, Richard B. Spencer, who like Duke participated in the demonstrations over the weekend and has promised to continue protesting the planned removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, tweeted that, “Trump’s statement was fair and down to earth.”

At the conclusion of the news conference, as he was leaving, Mr. Trump was asked if he was planning to visit Charlottesville. He answered with a question, “Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”

Actually, he owns a winery.

"I mean I know a lot about Charlottesville," said the President. "Charlottesville is a great place that has been very badly hurt over the last couple of days."

He added: "I own actually one of the largest wineries in the United States, it is in Charlottesville."

Even by the strange standards of this administration it was bizarre and unsettling. His defenders will say that he is not a traditional politician and we need to get used to a very different style. But it was appalling by any measure. And deeply troubling.

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

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Core Message of Christianity

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15

I grew up believing that when Jesus proclaimed the “Gospel,” he was talking about his life and death and resurrection. That was the “good news of God.”

Imagine my surprise when my New Testament professor said that the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus was actually about the Kingdom of God. (Of course if I had paid attention to what I was reading rather than just assuming I knew what it meant, I would have already known that.)

My first thought was that the professor must be wrong. My second thought was that this changed everything.

I thought about that transformational learning as I read a blogpost by Alisa Childers on “Five Signs Your Church Might Be HeadingToward Progressive Christianity.” She lists the five signs as: (1) A Lowered View of the Bible, (2) The Emphasis on Feelings Over Facts, (3) The Reinterpretation of Essential Christian Doctrines, (4) The Redefinition of Historic Terms, and (5) The Heart of the Christian Message Shifts from Sin and Redemption to Social Justice.

These “Five Signs” can be summarized in what she sees as the fatal flaw of Progressive Christianity: A failure to take the Bible literally.

And by literally, she means her understanding of the literal meaning of each story and verse in the Bible. It is, of course, a selective literalism which allows one to make the claim of literalism while ignoring, for example, significant sections of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And making believe that there is only one Creation story, rather than two. And one account of Noah’s Ark, rather than two.

Biblical literalism claims to take a high view of the Bible, but in reality it denies central elements of the biblical witness. The symbolic language of the Bible is not less than literalism; it is more. Literalism limits the meaning of the text to the words on the paper. An ancient rabbinic teaching says that God is found in the white spaces that surround the black letters of the text. Biblical literalism sees only the letters. For the literalist, there is nothing beyond the text.

Paul said that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (II Corinthians 3:6).

But this isn’t just Biblical Literalism, this is Selective Biblical Literalism and the problem is most evident in her last complaint, that “The heart of the Christian message shifts from sin and redemption to Social Justice.”

Childers explains it this way:

“There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. This is a very real and profoundly important part of what it means to live out our Christian faith. However, the core message of Christianity—the gospel—is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed.”
She is correct in saying that the Gospel is both personal and social, but she has the order and the priority reversed. And her assertion that the needs of the oppressed are primarily spiritual rather than material reminds one of the question posed in the First Letter of John, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)

Jesus’ preaching was focused on the Kingdom of God. That was the heart of his message. He proclaimed it as a present reality and a future hope. He said it was among us, around us, and within us.

The Romans crucified him for sedition. His invitation and challenge to his disciples was to “take up the cross and follow me.” He was inviting them to be part of the Kingdom of God rather than the Roman Empire. In this new reality, the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down. In this new reality the normalcy of violence is replaced by peace and justice. Everyone has a place at the table and everyone has enough.

Jesus stands in a prophetic tradition that sees sin and redemption primarily in social terms.

In Matthew 25, those who have failed to be faithful ask,

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

And the Lord will answer them,

"Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The final test is not about what we believe. It is about what we do. Specifically, it is about what we do for those who are on the margins. And so that there can be no mistake in the meaning of the parable, Jesus makes clear at the beginning that the nations will be judged. In other words, this final test is about social justice.

If your church is becoming more focused on Social Justice, then it is following more closely the life and teachings of Jesus.

Faith always begins with the personal and Jesus spoke to his disciples and his listeners in personal terms. He called them to a personal commitment to follow him. But for Jesus, as for the prophets before him, that commitment led to social justice. 

Micah declared God’s commandment to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” And Jesus referenced Micah’s proclamation when he told his disciples that God desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” Without a commitment to social justice God is not moved by our worship.

Christians have always been tempted to reduce sin and redemption to personal issues. It is easier and less controversial. And no one was ever crucified just for being a good person.

By reducing sin and redemption to personal terms we also reduce the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Walter Rauschenbusch was right when he observed that,

"Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B. C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A. D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins."

If your church is focusing on social justice, that’s a good sign that they are trying to be more faithful.

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Hiroshima and the Prophetic Vision of Harry Emerson Fosdick

"Blessed are the peacemakers, 
for they will be called children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

“War is essentially the denial of everything Christ stood for.”
Harry Emerson Fosdick

One of our summer traditions is going to the Patten Library book sale. The books sale is part of “Bath Heritage Days,” a festive occasion of craft fares, displays and sales. A few years ago I found a wonderful little book of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick called, “A Great Time to Be Alive.” 

Fosdick looks better and better to me as the years go by. When I was in seminary, I thought he was a theological and intellectual lightweight. In my estimation, opposing Fundamentalism was obvious. And didn’t he spend his whole career at Riverside Church, bought and paid for by Rockefeller money? But now, when I re-read “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” I am struck by its relevance for our time. 

Fosdick’s liberal theology, which seemed so pale and lifeless when I was in seminary, now looks both profound and prophetic. Truthfully, I held those negative opinions based almost entirely on what other people had said or written. My opinion changed as I began to read Fosdick for myself. 

Still, I was put off by the title of the book. I assumed that “A Great Time to Be Alive” would be a sugary recitation of happy insights from the 1950’s. Optimism pretending to be faith. A mid-twentieth century version of Joel Osteen. I bought it because I have a small collection of Fosdick books, but I did not expect much.

I was surprised to find a prophetic and remarkably hopeful collection of sermons written and preached during the Second World War. Fosdick’s hope takes account of the stark reality of war, but also looks ahead to the possibilities beyond the war. 

The book was published in the summer of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, when the outcome of the war was not yet certain. He believed it was “A Great Time to Be Alive” because so much was at stake for the future of humanity and every decision mattered existentially and spiritually.

Fosdick had the courage, in that perilous time, to declare that war is always at odds with Christian teaching. It may be necessary, but it is never good. 
“Whether one thinks of what our enemies have done to us—of Warsaw, Lidice, Rotterdam, Coventry—or what we have done to them—‘We literally drop liquid fire on these cities,’ says one expert in air warfare, ‘and literally roast the populations to death.’”
He assumes that we will win the war. Hitler will be defeated and Imperial Japan will be 
vanquished, but the real challenge will be to win the peace, to create a world which is worthy of the human lives lost in war. “Many Americans,” he writes, “would love to save the world if only they could save it without changing their isolationism, without changing their ideas of absolute national sovereignty, without changing their racial prejudices and their economic ideas to fit the new interdependent world.” Sadly, those words are still relevant. We still want to save the world without giving up anything.

In many ways, we did “win the peace.” The Marshall Plan was an incredible effort to rebuild the nations we had defeated, and it led to decades of post-war prosperity. Although we still have a long way to go, we have made great strides in race relations. And the United Nations, for all its shortcomings, is still at the center of maintaining peace in the world. In other ways, we are still struggling to recognize the ties that bind us together and embrace the interdependence of God’s world.

Today, on the anniversary of dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as we contemplate a chaotic foreign policy and the threat of long range missiles in North Korea, Fosdick’s vision is particularly relevant.

In 2009 the Boston Globe described the Hiroshima bombing this way:
Targeted for military reasons and for its terrain (flat for easier assessment of the aftermath), Hiroshima was home to approximately 250,000 people at the time of the bombing. The U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay" took off from Tinian Island very early on the morning of August 6th, carrying a single 4,000 kg (8,900 lb) uranium bomb codenamed "Little Boy". At 8:15 am, Little Boy was dropped from 9,400 m (31,000 ft) above the city, freefalling for 57 seconds while a complicated series of fuse triggers looked for a target height of 600 m (2,000 ft) above the ground. At the moment of detonation, a small explosive initiated a super-critical mass in 64 kg (141 lbs) of uranium. Of that 64 kg, only .7 kg (1.5 lbs) underwent fission, and of that mass, only 600 milligrams was converted into energy - an explosive energy that seared everything within a few miles, flattened the city below with a massive shockwave, set off a raging firestorm and bathed every living thing in deadly radiation. Nearly 70,000 people are believed to have been killed immediately, with possibly another 70,000 survivors dying of injuries and radiation exposure by 1950. Today, Hiroshima houses a Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum near ground zero, promoting a hope to end the existence of all nuclear weapons.
It is sobering to remember that the United States remains the first and only country ever to have used an atomic bomb. The Daily Mail published a stark pictorial of the immediate aftermath of the attack showing horrifically injured survivors wandering through the desolation, picking their way among the corpses just hours after the bomb was dropped. It is particularly chilling to realize that every person pictured would have died of radiation exposure in the weeks and months following the attack.

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Maybe We Need Less Hot or Cold and More Lukewarm

And to the angel in the church of Laodicea write: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Revelation 3:14a, 15-16

Long ago and far away, when I was in seminary, we were sure of almost everything and one of the things about which we were most certain was that the principle problem with the church was that it was lukewarm. 

And nothing could be worse than lukewarm.

The Laodiceans lacked commitment. They were middle-of-the-road moderates. They were the ancient equivalent of modern cultural Christians, observing the forms of Christianity without the content. They had no passion.

Today I take a more tolerant view of that church.

And sometimes when I consider our current impasse over the issues of LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion, I think that in the United Methodist Church we could use a little more of Laodicea.

When the first talk of schism began in earnest a few years ago, I believed that it would not happen. Not because I expected that we would have a sudden epiphany, but because I thought our lukewarm bureaucratic polity would move so slowly that the issue would be settled long before we ever got to schism.

That now appears unlikely.

One of the things I have loved about the United Methodist Church is that historically we have always had a big tent. We could accommodate George Bush and Hillary Clinton, George McGovern and Dick Cheney. At our best we worked together toward common goals. Sometimes we worked both sides of the same issue and at other times we focused on very different concerns. But in all of that we respected each person’s commitment.

Some of us wanted to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and others wanted “Once to Every Man and Nation,” but we agreed on “Jesus Loves Me.”

In our current conflict there is a sense in which the very visible issue of LGBTQ exclusion or inclusion serves as a proxy for a conflict that is really about doctrine and biblical interpretation. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, and the Confessing movement all want to take a much more literal approach to the Bible and to the ancient creeds.

And they want everyone to agree with them.

More than two decades ago I mentored a young man in our church who wanted to be a United Methodist Pastor. When he was turned down at one point in the process, I wrote to the Board of Ministry and pressed hard for his inclusion, arguing that we needed diverse theological positions and that this was an essential part of who we were as United Methodists.

A colleague applauded my efforts and then added a cautionary addendum: “You know, Bill, that’s great that you want Tom to be included. But you need to understand that if they get the majority they will want to have you thrown out.”

And that’s basically where we are.

I’m not sure whether the traditionalists are hot or cold in the sense we see in Laodicea, but they present a faith that is brittle and narrow. And they want me to see it all the same way that they do.

For more that forty years we United Methodists have been doing harm to the LGBTQ folks in our midst, and we have contributed to the broader “Christian” cultural condemnation that surrounds them. We need to stop harming folks. But beyond that we should not expect everyone to conform to the same point of view.

The traditionalists fret about the church “condoning sin” when we elect a gay bishop, ordain LGBTQ clergy, or marry same sex couples. 

But what traditionalists experience today is certainly no worse than what progressives went through fifty years ago when we saw churches and clergy within our denomination perpetrating the sins of racism, segregation, and voter suppression, contrary to positions we took as a church in our Book of Discipline. Today in our Social Principles we support a living wage, gun control, collective bargaining, universal health insurance, immigration reform, and we support programs to combat global warming, but we tolerate opposition by churches and clergy and we do not sanction those who advocate antithetical positions.

Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter proposed an amendment at the 2012 General Conference that ultimately failed, but it described our choice this way:
“We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.”
And then they concluded:
“We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and above all, we pledge to seek God’s will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, ‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.’”
I know that many United Methodists reject the possibility of “respectful co-existence” as no better than that lukewarm church in Laodicea, but I see it as an affirmation that we are held together by something more than the Book of Discipline.

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