Sin-talk (Or Tautologically, Hamartiology)


Who is this who even forgives sins?

Sin is a sticky wicket. On one hand, we can hardly deny its existence. We might disagree on what constitutes sin, but on a fundamental level we who follow the Abrahamic God must confess the reality of sin. Genesis reports that sin begins with knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever really thought about that before? I imagine you have, I mean this more as an invitation than an inquisition: think about the fact that our foundational myth maintains that in knowing the difference between good and evil we encounter sin. It is not a simple choice of good or evil; it is not a cut-and-dried division of evil bad, and good, well, good. Good intentions can still lead to evil acts. Evil can have attenuating good. The reason forgiveness is so messy is because sin is slippery.


Sin is in the nuances. Sin is missing the mark, in terms of etymology. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words have the same meaning. A term that comes from archery. To miss the mark. How, though, do we measure this miss? Inches can translate to miles, depending on your metric. A centimeter on the highway is not the same a centimeter on a map. Sin is in the nuances.

We began our talk by weighing hands, and we have not yet considered the other one. Sin-talk can leave scars. Sin-talk too often is spoken in abusive language. Sin-talk plants seeds of self-hatred that blossom into shame. Augustine blathered on in sin-talk. He looked at an infant suckling at a breast and saw a bag of skin filled with sin. John Calvin felt Augustine was too forgiving, and summarized the essence of humanity with two unforgettable words: total depravity. Jonathan Edwards agreed when he described humanity as being held by a gossamer thread over the pits of hell in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps you, like me, know people who use the word “escape” to describe their relationship with the Church. An escape from abuse. An escape from homes in which sin was screamed about but words of grace were barely whispered. When sin becomes an obsession, when the purpose of sin-talk is to spin purchase-less tires in the mud so that they will splatter it over all in its path, when SIN is rendered in capital letters but love is shunned like a four-letter word, we miss the mark. We sin in our sin-talk when it is not a dialogue with love.

Sin is not uniquely an Abrahamic concept; the Hindu notion of karma and the Buddhist concept of dukkha are similar. Both sin and karma are seen as impacting life in this world and the next; both sin and dukkha, which translates best to unsatisfactoriness, hold that humans cause harm because we act with certainty when we should act with trepidation. We mistake the part for the whole. We privilege the ego, the self, the individual. Most religions, on some level, provide practitioners methods to recognize the pain they have effected; to discern the causes of this pain; to offer restitution and seek forgiveness from those harmed; and to commit to methods that will prevent a repeating of the same behaviors, thoughts, words, or deeds. Sin-talk that is aimed at transformation and progress is good talk. But far too often, rare is the good talk of sin.

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Jesus knew how to talk about sin. He wasn’t shy about bringing it up, but always for a purpose. Yes, sometimes he was harsh; for those drunk on religious certainty, Jesus promised a hangover. For those being haughty in their heads—“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”—for them, Jesus might pull out the somewhat passive-aggressive, but always effective story-told-to-one-person-but-clearly-aimed-at-others technique. Simon, I have something to say to you. Jesus brought up sin, but always with the objective of unsticking those who were mired in the mud; no spinning tires, no indiscriminate splattering here. Jesus may have spoken of sin loudly from time to time, but he always bellowed the good news of grace and forgiveness. Who is this who even forgives sins?

In my upcoming book on the Gospel of Mark, I make the argument that early Christian storytellers used unnamed women as paradigms of proper discipleship. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman who tells Jesus about the dogs who get scraps from the table; in the hemorrhaging woman who is healed because she dare break the taboo of touching a man not her husband while she was in her menses; and in the woman with the alabaster jar. We return to the triple tradition—remember that? the material shared by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but once again Luke’s emphases and additions are telling. Only Luke has this story that Jesus relates about the relationship between forgiveness and gratitude. It’s a wonderful story; it makes sense to both ear and heart. Great debts require great forgiveness. Great forgiveness results in great joy. There is little subtlety to Jesus’ approach; we know both about and to whom Jesus is speaking.


But scripture is about more than the events in the story world. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and about the woman, but he’s also speaking to us about us. About our sin. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of that worst sin. Details aren’t important. We should be careful not to brag on our sin. Still, chances are you have it; most of us do: that thing we did. Or said. Or didn’t do or didn’t say. That way we missed the mark by so much the arrow plunged right into someone’s heart. Jesus beckons us to receive the forgiveness that relieves burdens, that lessens yokes, that changes lives. The forgiveness that cancels debts. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the woman. “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He says to her.

He says to us.

The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus’ audacity, but I don’t think that is what Luke is wanting us to be shocked by; I don’t think this passage is ultimately about the Pharisees being judgmental or Jesus being ostentatious. I think it is about how knowing that you are forgiven impacts the way you live.

By all rights, this unnamed woman puts a target on her back the minute she takes it upon herself to touch a man who is not her husband. Add to that the reputation Jesus has as being one who is dedicated to God, and he might as well be a walking X for her. Forbidden. Her very existence is deemed a threat to God by the established authorities; she is the embodied bridge too far. They believe that God cannot reach her. Even if they were to confess Jesus the Messiah, never would it be assumed that Jesus’ holiness could overpower her sin. We can rest assured that all the Pharisees believe that Jesus leaves the building unclean. The fact that she has a reputation for being especially sinful makes this a potent cocktail. Stonings start in such ways. But straight to Jesus’ feet she goes, weeping tears of gratitude and using her hair when no towel is proffered. Of course, it is important that the person to whom she tends is Jesus, but in some ways it really doesn’t matter. She has no verbal guarantee that Jesus will respond positively; she has no assurance that she will not be targeted when he leaves; what she has is an internal knowledge—what the Greeks call gnosis—that she is more than sin. She is more than the ways she has missed the mark. She knows that she is a child of God; with this knowledge, she gives herself permission to love life. To express her gratitude. She does this before Jesus ever utters a word about forgiveness. What he proclaims is not a magic spell; he does not speak something into existence; he merely diagnosis a pre-existing condition. She is forgiven.


Let us not mistake forgiveness for permission. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer called it; that notion that forgiveness exists so that we can continue to create suffering as a result of our selfishness, to look away again and again because of our fear, to proclaim God’s forgiveness with our lips but to close our hearts to what it entails. Forgiveness is a pay-it-forward transaction. We don’t have permission to hurt others just because forgiveness is available. It is a reality that pushes our frame of reference outwards. When we understand that nothing we can do puts us inextricably outside of God’s love, we stop seeking ways to prove God wrong. We still sin, but not in the same ways. We still hurt others, but not without recognizing the harm; not without seeking reconciliation. We see being forgiven as the pre-existing condition, not sin. And this unnamed woman who tends to Christ’s body—the role that we in the Church are to play until God returns, that of tending to the Body of Christ—this woman shows us what living life knowing that you are forgiven looks like. And for that, let the people of the Church say Amen.


Testimony Against HB 36


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My name is Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari. I was born in Bowling Green, Ohio in 1976. I have lived in Ada, Cincinnati, and Clifton; my home, though, is Yellow Springs. It is where I graduated from high school in 1994; where I graduated with a B.A. from Antioch University in 2002. It is where my wife helps her stepmother run a business that her father of blessed memory started over 20 years ago. It is where I grew up in a family business, the historic Little Art Theater. It is where I have pastored First Presbyterian Church since 2013. All of my education has been from Ohio schools. I hold two masters degrees from Xavier, where I have been on the theology faculty for a decade. I earned my Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, which is also from where, God willing, I will have earned a doctorate by December 2018. My extended family is deeply rooted in Ohio. My late grandfather Ivan Maurice owned the Union 76 station in Urbana for nearly 40 years; my uncle’s law practice in the same town has been there for just as long. Both my mother-in-law and father-in-law are Methodist lay pastors to rural congregations in the Portsmouth area.  I offer all of this because too often I hear it said that anyone who raises their voices in opposition to legislation like HB 36 are people bussed in from out of state. Agitators from elsewhere. So let me make it abundantly clear: I am a Buckeye born and bred; I live here and I will most likely die here.

I do not have a political motive, at least not in the way that our secular culture defines political. I am not a Republican. I am only registered as a Democrat because we have closed primaries in this state and, frankly, neither party represents me but I have to go with one. I hold some views more in common with the Democrats than I do the Republicans because, I am sorry to say, the GOP to which my grandparents swore allegiance is long gone. But I am not a Democrat in any real sense. I am not here to advance a party platform or initiative. I am here to talk about how this proposed legislation is big government elbowing into the ecclesial matters of Christ’s Church.

With all apologies to my loving and wonderful wife, the single greatest joy of my life is being a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Jesus Christ. I have denominational standing in two Mainline traditions, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Within both of these denominations, there are pastors and laity who are divided on a large number of issues, including same-gender and same-sex marriage. In the past two decades, both of these denominations have lost parishes because of divisions on the marriage issue, but by now we have settled in to the new reality. Those who were going to leave have left. We have held denominational meetings on every level you can imagine, changing Constitutions, bylaws, books of worship. Protestant denominations look different than we did 50 years ago. There is none of us untouched by questions concerning our rights of conscience, our denominational obligations, and what the Word of God says or does not say. The Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and even the Baptists have significant numbers of congregations across the country that reside on both sides of the divide. Christians talk to one another; granted, sometimes we yell when we should be praying, but we talk to one another about our differences.

We call this holy tension; we disagree on abortion, gun rights, the death penalty, immigration. But we know from the testimony of scripture in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ Jesus there is no true division. No Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. We are all one. Now, I’m one of those Christians who believes Scripture matters; I try to follow what it tells me to do. Sometimes I get it wrong. I imagine if you are a Christian, you get it wrong, too. That’s the wonderful thing about grace. It is available to us all for when we get it wrong.

Most pastors are well aware of the free gift of grace, and we apply it to our own lives. We know that conflict is going to happen, so we try to make sure that Christ is present whenever it arises. Without any government intervention or mandate, my colleagues and I have brokered agreements. Those who do not wish to conduct certain weddings send the couples to me, to whom I never say a mumblin’ word about the pastor or the congregation who did not want to host their nuptials. No one holds animosity in their hearts; I feel blessed to have colleagues who are deliberate, honest, and loving even in the face of substantial disagreements. We don’t do this so that the other church doesn’t get sued, we do this because we believe in Jesus Christ and we understand that Jesus did not send people away. We might have legitimate disagreements about Scripture but we do not lose sight of whom we follow and for whom we work. We’ve figured this out on our own, all without government intrusion. And we are not unique. This has happened across Ohio and across the country.

House Bill 36 is an example of government overreach into the authority of Christ’s Church. And, frankly, it is insulting for me as one studying to be a Doctor of the Church that this body feels it has the right or authority to mettle in matters that are clearly ecclesial. This is a Church matter not a State matter.

No one can force any pastor to conduct a marriage they do not want to officiate. This proposed legislation is a solution in search of a problem. I have refused to wed couples because I did not believe they had been together long enough; I advised pre-marital counseling and never saw them again. I imagine they went and got married somewhere else; that’s the thing: We pastors do not make marriages legal. The State does that; we sanctify unions and you can’t purchase that with money. You can’t force it through compulsion or law. There are no legal grounds in the secular codes to provide recourse to someone whom I have denied covenantal consecration; the fact that I am not the only person in the State who can legally seal a marriage contract means that there is no irreparable harm to anyone if I don’t sign their marriage license. I appreciate the concern that seems to be undergirding this effort, but the truth is neither I nor any other pastor needs the legal protections that are being proposed by HB 36.

I fear another motive: defending against the so-called war on Christianity. I have already elucidated my credentials, so I am well within my purview to point out that the “war on Christianity” cry most often comes from pastors and communities that are non-denominational. I am not making any statements about the theology or authenticity of these churches; please hear that clearly. God meets people everywhere, and just because a denomination isn’t there doesn’t mean that God isn’t either. What I am saying is that the lack of a denominational structure shows itself at times like these. Many of the churches desiring HB 36 are not held accountable by national, governing, ecclesial bodies; they often have church structures that begin and end with a charismatic pastor, whose word is held second only to the Word of Holy Scripture. If this pastor says there is a war on Christianity, then the 2,000 members of the congregation have to think there is a war on Christianity. If pastor says pastor needs protection from compulsion to preside over marriages of gay people, then pastor needs protection from compulsion. But that doesn’t make it true; they don’t get to offer alternative facts.

Denominational structure requires Christians who may not agree on everything to work together; to work with each other across race and region, to look into the eyes of a sister or brother and see the image of God. Denominational structures help us love one another even if we don’t particularly like each other. What many of these nondenominational churches are doing, by coming to you and asking for such legislation, is getting big government to do what Church polity has been doing for 2,000 years.

Some of you may not have thought of this last point, but this proposed legislation will make it harder for me as a minister. Let me explain. There is no reasonable argument to be given that these legal protections are necessary. There are not hordes of gays, like barbarians at the gate, lining up to begin massive influxes into conservative churches in order to bankrupt them through lawsuits. Even the people who cite these fears have to admit that they are hypothetical, meaning that any law will be based upon the conjecture of a small group of people. Even if it were to occur that a couple or couples deliberately targeted for lawsuits a parish that did not wish to sanctify a marriage, there is no legal standing to lodge a complaint. These cases would be thrown out and with extreme prejudice. I can guarantee you, a large number of us who are pastors that do solemnize same-gender marriages would rally to the sides of our colleagues on the other side as it pertains to religious freedom. Again, this is what denominationalism does; it helps you to see God’s Church is not meant to be an echo chamber. I have colleagues that I have seen on the opposite side of a picket line as me on Saturday, with whom I have then worshiped on Sunday. We can figure it out. Pastors don’t need protecting, except from those things that will interfere with our ability to preach the gospel. If you vote for this legislation, what are you saying to that gay kid wanting to give Jesus a shot, or to that trans* woman of color who is looking for a safe space, or to any other person who is clearly being targeted by this legislation? You’re saying that the Church needs protection from them. You are saying that their love is a sin, and you don’t get to do that; that is not your purview. If you personally believe it is a sin, that’s fine but you do not get to use your privilege as duly elected representatives of the people to advance your religious beliefs. You do not get to vote for this and say you are protecting me as a pastor. You are not; in fact, you might be interfering with my ability to preach the gospel. First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs is the only More Light PC (USA) congregation in the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, meaning that our ministry is to provide safe, loving spaces for Christians who also identify as GLBTQ+.

I often tell my students at Xavier University that I may be terribly wrong about what I believe; that’s what faith does, or at least it does for me, it cuts down on the arrogant certainty that I sometimes display because I am afraid. So I try to keep my self-identification as simple as possible. I am a native Ohioan and a proud follower of Jesus Christ. You might not agree with my perspective on Scripture, but I hope you will respect me as an ordained minister. I am asking you to stay in your own lane. Do the work of the people; help us to repair our infrastructure, to address our heroin epidemic, help us find more money to help the people Jesus prioritized: the blind in need of sight, the deaf in need of hearing, the lame in need of walking, the poor in need of hope. In my view, HB 36 is a violation of the separation of Church and State; it is big government overreach; and it is unnecessary secular action where ecclesial structures suffice. And it appears to be political in motive. I leave you with the words of a colleague, a fellow member of clergy; if you won’t listen to me, perhaps you will listen to Rev. Billy Graham: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Thank you for your time.

Church Stories (or, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ Two-Woman Show)

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For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the Gospel of Luke and its relationship to the Gospel of Mark. We’ve noted that the author or authors of both Matthew and Luke’s gospels use the Gospel of Mark as a narrative template, so there is a sizable amount of material the three have in common. This shared material is called the triple tradition. As we are following the Narrative Lectionary, we have had several recent opportunities to look at how the author of Luke uses, edits, and presents the triple tradition in order to say something important about Jesus.

This week is different; the healing of the centurion’s slave is not found in the Gospel of Mark. It is, however, found in the Gospel of Matthew. This allows us to discuss another of the central theories in biblical studies: the two-source theory. Now, I don’t want to turn devolve into a lecture, so we’ll keep it as straight-forward as possible. Scholars long had been trying to figure out the literary relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, called synoptic from the Greek, “with the same eye.” This is known as the Synoptic Problem. The theory of Markan Priority holds that the Gospel of Mark was written first. The authors of Matthew and Luke use Mark as their narrative framework, accounting for source number #1. Matthew and Luke have a sizable amount of material which is exactly or nearly exactly alike, but is not found in Mark. Scholars believe Mt and Lk could not have arrived at that material independently of one another, so they must have had a common written source. Scholars have constructed that source through meticulous study and debate, and have named it Q, short for Quelle, the German word for source.

Biblical scholars are ingenious in some regards, and really disappointing in others. Really? “Source”? That’s the best we can do? Why not, “super secret awesome Jesus stuff?”


So, today’s passage comes from the Quelle source, numero dos in the two-source theory. Q is not a narrative gospel like the canonical gospels. It is a discourse gospel, like the Sayings Gospel of Thomas: a collection of sayings that contain the teachings of Jesus, and a few teachings about Jesus, but there is no mention of a sacrificial death or blood atonement. What is important is what Jesus says and does. Collections like these sometimes are called gnomologia traditions, literally “words of wisdom.”

Bear with me for just a few more points; I promise you that this information will come in handy as we discern together what it might be that God is wishing us to see. Early Christianity was not uniform, but the elements of worship were developing. We have always been a people who gather around the Word. But the Protestant model does not do a good job in approximating our ancient counterparts. There is too much personality of the preacher in Protestant homiletics. For better or worse, I’m present in each and every sermon. Two thousand years ago, presenters of the word were storytellers. They did not have a single Bible to which they could turn; they assembled stories from other story tellers, from texts they had read (if they could read; perhaps a majority could not), and they would go from community to community. They were apostles, which literally means “ones sent out.” And at each place the storytelling apostles arrived, they would discern the needs of the community and would tell stories aimed at using cultural and context clues familiar to audience so they could better see Jesus.

While there are many different theories about biblical storytelling–and perhaps the greatest scholar in the field of performance criticism is Dr. Thomas Boomershine, who teaches at United Theological Seminary where I study–a prevalent theory holds that the tellers arranged stories into “types.” Miracle stories. Conflict stories. Healing stories. Parables. These narrative types have been identified and discussed by biblical scholars within other sub-disciplines, most often called criticisms. All of this to say, what we encounter today is a familiar story type with some unfamiliar contours.

Let’s start with the cast of characters. A Roman centurion is not anyone you would expect to be caring about a slave. Also unusual would be a Roman centurion, which is the equivalent of a sergeant-major, providing personal money to construct a synagogue. The Romans had a complicated relationship with religion. William Barclay notes: “As Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said in a famous sentence, ‘The various modes of religion which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.’ But this centurion was no administrative cynic; he was a sincerely religious man.” So religious, in fact, that he dispatches Jewish messengers to assure Jesus, a Jew, that he need not risk becoming ritually unclean by entering into a Gentile home, a violation of Jewish law. The conversation happens by proxy, not because Jesus believes the Jewish law should be binding, but because a Roman centurion, whose entire education would have been based around enforcing the supremacy of Rome and the degradation of the occupied, has such great respect and belief in Jesus he uses his power to show humility.

Without question we should be uncomfortable about how tacitly Scriptures approve of slavery, but that is a conversation for another day; what is remarkable about today’s pericope is the context of the proxied conversation. The centurion communicates the content of his faith basically like this: I give commands and they are followed; I command my slave, and it is done. How much power must Christ have, then, to act in the world?

Jesus’ response is telling: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

There are many ways we could interpret this story; many ways that it has been used across history. We don’t have time for them all, so let us develop more fully just one. For a Roman centurion to become the paradigm of faith toward the Jewish God and a Jewish Messiah would have been shocking, for audiences both Gentile and Jew. But this  relationship is not one-sided: the Jewish officials of the town show a genuine love and support for the centurion, and there is no indication of power abuse. Both sides have moved beyond the stereotypes and pain, and have been united in a love for God. This is huge. This is like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis doing a two-woman show. This is Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr going to Bill Goodman’s Gun and Knife Show together. This is the Hatfields and the McCoys getting a time share.

The point of the story, dear beloved, is not that the slave is healed. Not the literal point, anyway. The healing is the finger pointing toward the moon, with the moon being the power of faith. It is the power of faith to bring together people who have been taught to hate one another. To bring together people who have reason to hate one another because they have experienced violence and prejudice. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which the centurion built the synagogue (was it with Roman money and under Roman orders?), but the fact is the local Jewish community feels enough regard for him to acts as emissaries, not on his behalf but on the behalf of his slave.

Remember when we talked about story types? Well one of the story types concerns the formation of community; the fancy terms is ecclesiology. Who and what are we to be when we gather around God in Christ? This pericope is a perfect example: a Roman in a position of power, along with Jewish leaders willing to see God work in others, come to Jesus because they believe he can transform a slave. Think about that: Gentiles and Jews pooling their time, talent, and treasure in order to connect a slave to Jesus. The Apostle Paul uses slavery imagery throughout his epistles, so it is clear that this language is foundational to our faith story. But here the imagery is potent: Jewish and Roman powers demur to Jesus, who responds to such faith by transforming a beloved slave?

Isn’t that pretty much the whole purpose of the Church?

In fact, I think the story about Jesus raising the widow’s son makes essentially the same point. Widows were incredibly vulnerable members of society, largely because of patriarchal structures. Losing her only son meant she had lost any status or protection she once had; this funeral might as well have been her own. She is in a procession of death, but Jesus, with his disciples, come as a procession of life. He is moved by compassion—the same things that causes God to respond to the Hebrews in Egypt: their cries of affliction move God’s compassion and pity—and he raises the boy. Jesus restores his life, and in turn her social standing.

We can absolutely take these stories literally, but that’s not the direction offered this morning. Let us think about how God is calling us to come together; how God is reminding us that the rules and regulations that keep us from seeing another person’s humanity can get in the way of transformation. Of resurrection. Let us hear the ancient story teller in our sanctuary selecting what to say, only to alight upon these two narratives. These two tales that remind us that whether we are powerful or on the margins of society, God sees us. God works in us. God calls us together in defiance of what keeps us apart and says, “Do not weep. I say to you, rise.”

“Do not weep. I say to you, rise.” So let the people of the Church say…

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Deporting White Jesus

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(These are remarks given at a rally in Springfield, Ohio on 2/4/17)

There is no physical description of Jesus in the New Testament. Sometimes people point to Revelation 1, but if we take that seriously then Jesus literally has a two-edged sword as a tongue and furnace fires as eyes; I think more people would have written about his appearance if this was the case, don’t you. But they didn’t, and do you know why? Because in Jesus’ time, it did not really matter what you looked like, what mattered was what you said and what you did. That’s why the gospels report what they report: the sayings and deeds of Jesus.

In a way it is lamentable that we Christians did not follow the lead of our maternal faith, Judaism, or our sibling faith, Islam, and not try to capture the image of God in art. History might have been a bit less violent had we Christians been prevented from drawing Jesus. Maybe not. Now, as an avid collector of iconography I rejoice in the richness of religious art; I think we would be missing so much if we did not allow our spirits to express themselves through art. Think about it: every culture that has been touched by the story of Christ has fashioned a Jesus that looks like them. Dark skin, light skin; curly hair like wool or flaxen hair like wheat; wide nose, narrow nose; sallow cheeks, bearded cheeks; emaciated body, muscular body: Jesus has been depicted in just about every way imaginable. We humans have offered a response to the declaration of Genesis: we have created God in our own image.

Taken in isolation, this is not bad. We know from studies that seeing positive representations of someone who looks like you in television, books, films helps in the development of self-esteem and confidence. Seeing a representation of God that matches you, maybe not perfectly, but matches you in significant ways can have profound impact on your spirituality. But what if you are told that God doesn’t look like you? Specifically doesn’t look like you? And you have neighbors who say, God looks like US and therefore, we are better. Many of you do not have to imagine what it is like.

The European dominance within Christianity propelled a version of Jesus that is far removed from the historical person—a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern man most likely around 5’5”, who right now would likely be detained at an airport, was replaced in popular imagination by a fair-skinned, long-haired, blue-eyed, 6′ man. Now, in itself, the vision of a white Jesus is fine, as long as you recognize that it is not historically accurate, and if you accept that every other follower of Christ has the right to fashion an image of Jesus who looks like them.

But it is not okay when you take an imagined Jesus and through violence both physical and spiritual, try to convince the world that you are right. That Jesus does not look like the people you are oppressing in the name of God. Here’s what concerns me as a Christian pastor who is in intentional relationship with my Muslim siblings here in Springfield. We have Christians who claim to be biblical literalists, but they follow a White Jesus who allows them to be hostile to non-Whites. They celebrate Christmas, but somehow miss major elements of the story. In both Matthew and Luke, the hold family is acted upon by unjust governmental forces. In Matthew’s account, the family is in Bethlehem because Caesar is conducting a census; none of the family are Roman citizens, so this census is for the purposes of taxation and the glorification of the Emperor’s ego. Let me repeat that: It was a executive decree  that caused great upset in the lives of average persons for reasons that benefitted only a few.  Huh. I wonder what it is like to live in a place like that? An insecure, erratic, egotistical leader wreaking havoc in the lives of citizens and noncitizens alike for asinine reasons? Must be hell.

In Luke’s story, the family are fleeing the despotic Herod who kills all of the children under the age of 2 in his kingdom. As often is the case in ancient history, we don’t hear the stories of the families impacted. Of the mothers and fathers who screamed and begged as their children were being slaughtered because of the insecurities of one sad, old, pathetic man who wanted desperately to be liked. He is known as Herod the Great to history, but history is sarcastic. No one called Herod great but those made to by Herod. Herod’s whole life was about making Herod great again.

So regardless of the story you choose for your Christmas, whether you are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, you are faced with a brown-skinned family on the run from governmental powers, forced to rely upon the goodness and protection of those who were willing to risk themselves to assist.

There should be no reason to even mention race when it comes to helping those in need. But, sadly, this is part of White Supremacy culture. Jesus has been made White, and White Jesus is used to justify indifference or outright hostility to non-Whites. While I agree that God does not have a race, Jesus most certainly did. And it ain’t mine. No matter how you look at it—historically, theologically, ethically—there is no way to support anything but a brown-skinned, refugee Jesus who when he grew up said, “How you treat the least of these among you is how you treat me.” I now speak specifically to the Christians in the crowd: it is up to us to lovingly engage our fellow Christians in conversation and to dispel some of the misinformation out there. It is our duty to learn, pray, educate, and follow-up. We have to be present and we have to be willing to be uncomfortable; this is literally a matter of life and death.

I come to you today as a proud Christian pastor, and a staunch ally and friend to the Muslim community here in Springfield. I don’t live here or vote here, so I appreciate y’all letting me talk, but we are neighbors. These county lines were not drawn by us; these artificial separations can’t keep us from loving one another, from taking care of one another, from understanding that loving your neighbor means knowing your neighbor. To you, Clark County, I say that I am proud to be your neighbor, I am proud to stand here with you in solidarity with our most vulnerable, and to say that Allah means God, so may Allah bless you and may Allah bless the United States of America.

Biblical Literalism, Jack Bauer, and Trump’s EO: How Fear and Anti-Intellectualism Got Us Here

At Xavier University, everyone has to take a course called Theological Foundations. Theo 111. Instructors receive some general goals and objectives of the course from the Department of Theology, but the design of it is really up to each individual prof. At any one time, you could have 20 different sections of the course going simultaneously. I find that this is one of the strengths of the department: while everyone is required to take the class, there are a variety of options to help each student find the one right for them.

After a three year hiatus from teaching the class–last semester I taught Christian Doctrine I–I am back with a new subtitle for my Theo 111: God From the Margins. We began the class with an examination of the Book of Exodus. Last week while I was out for my doctoral seminars, we did our class units online. I had them watch two documentaries and then write a paper. We began the discussion today.

The first documentary is James Cameron’s The Exodus Decoded, which is even worse than you might think it is; the entire film is like two-hour clickbait. You’ll never believe what happened next!

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The film is genius, though, in representing a fundamental problem we face in our society: the devaluing of the expert and the attenuating anti-intellectualism that soon becomes normalized. To wit, the very title of the documentary harkens to Dr. Robert Langdon and symbology, a totally made up field that apparently enough people thought was real to justify the writing of this article.

Treating the Exodus like The DaVinci Code just doesn’t work out well for anyone.

James Cameron and his partner Simcha Jacobovici, an investigative journalist, believe that their “outsider status” will help them to see past the limited orthodoxy of traditional scholarship and present–for the first time ever!–the true story of the Exodus. Indeed, they believe that the discussion is between those scholars who believe the Exodus is fact, and those who regard it as a fairy tale.

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Now, I gotta tell you that I just about have a stroke any time I hear someone say something this demonstrably false. It is something Trump would say. First, myth is the most ancient form of literature. Period. Oral storytelling and written language both begin with myth. Myths function on many levels, but in the main we can say that myths attempt to bring order out of chaos. In the deep, seemingly ceaseless mystery that is life itself, we require answers. We want to know who we are, where we came from, the purpose of life, the meaning of death, the possibilities of immortality; on some level, we human beings have been asking these questions–and more–and answering them through mytho-poetic language.

Fucking fairy tales don’t come along until the 17th century.

So while Cameron and Jacobivici interview scholars for this film, they undercut the scholarship with a wink and nod; when an Egyptologist says, We cannot just start moving events hither and yon; 10 years in one direction or the other is the most we can change dates, the esteemed filmmakers go ahead and move the dating of the Stele of Ahmose 100 years, and conflate an event in which people were expelled violently to the exodus of the Hebrews. In so doing, they have “proved” that the exodus happened in 1500 BCE, something those silly scholars couldn’t realize, but our plucky duo, with only a tube of chapstick and a dance belt, have managed to decode one of the greatest ancient mysteries. Yay! (I encourage you to watch only the first 10 minutes of the documentary, and then cleanse yourself with this erudite, documented, reasoned rebuttal.)

So why have my students watch something patently false? Well, I then had them watch National Geographic‘s The Exodus Revealed to see how science and faith can be treated responsibly, without each side feeling their disciplines have been cheapened. I see the comparison as a microcosm of what’s been happening in religion (and public conversations about expertise) since the European Enlightenment. Take, for example, the Jefferson Bible.  Thomas Jefferson employed the same basic philosophy that propelled Higher Biblical Criticism, primarily in Germany: that is, the Bible should be treated as any other text, and approached from a wide variety of perspectives. Such biblical criticism examines language, redaction, historical context, literature types, archeological evidence, theories regarding transmission, theological hermeneutics shaping the text, and a whole host of other details. Jefferson cuts to the quick by excising references to the miracles, Jesus’ divinity, and any other supernatural elements. Indeed, the proper title of the work is The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, a copy of this was given to members of Congress until the 1950s, with the practice periodically resurrected. There is debate regarding when it began.  For Jefferson, Jesus was a philosopher; his Bible thin, but filled with wisdom.

Meanwhile, there was an equal and opposite reaction in both Europe and the Colonies. With Enlightenment principles suffusing the founding principles of our republic and mandating a separation of Church and State, a distinct brand of anti-intellectualism began to gain steam. Dedicated study of the Bible, placing it on the level of Homer’s Odyssey or the Vedas, was seen as sacrilege; such endeavors were the tools of the ruling elite meant to pull God out of the hearts and minds of the average person. Biblical literalism emerged as the viable alternative; this made it accessible to everyman: while a scholar has to read thousands upon thousands of pages to gain even a modicum of expertise in the field, the literalist need only read the Bible for its plain meaning. It is either fact or it is a fairy tale.

Science cannot be removed from the equation completely, though. Nope. Not for those who have a disdain for scholarship and intellectual rigor. If the Bible is inerrant, then it must be science that is wrong; move a few decades here or there is essentially the same thing as moving a few millennia here or there. That may seem hyperbolic, but it isn’t.*  They play fast and loose with details that have been meticulously researched and discussed for decades by hundreds of exhaustively-educated scholars. Seriously. I could not cut it as a biblical scholar, at least not on the level of my colleagues. I am a pastoral theologian with significant training in biblical scholarship, and I have published peer-reviewed articles and a book on one specific text: the Gospel of Mark. Egyptologists, Hebrew Bible and New Testament scholars have language training and expertise that I couldn’t achieve.

The Exodus Decoded sets forth notions that have been debunked by scholars, but one will only know it if one bothers to read. So they present a “scientific explanation” to the exodus that gives fuel to the literalist who wants to play scientist and biblical scholar. They do not hold themselves to the scientific method, but require that any critics have as their base assumption the infallibility of the Bible. One can see how literalism and anti-intellectualism merge to form quasi-scholars, misinformed as they may be. The lack of universal, reasonable standards means that one can just shape any evidence to fit the thesis rather than developing the thesis based upon the evidence. Exhibit one: Ken Ham.

This phenomenon, in a nutshell, is the same as that going on in response to Trump’s Executive Order regarding Muslims.

Stay with me on this, please. Above the argument is this: the Bible is being made too complicated by a bunch of elite scholars who wish to convince you that you can never know God; Scripture is either fact or fairy tale. We know it’s fact, proponents say with a wink and a nod, so here’s so wildly dubious “evidence” to use, and you just go in there and demand that you be heard in the discussion. And when people ask you if you have read the established scholarship, denounce it as propaganda. Demand that your own evidence be considered, but don’t allow them to point to the already established scholarship. It is tainted. Because you are not brainwashed by the Academy, you can see the pieces fit together, so go right ahead and condescend to those who oppose you.

For Trump, it is this: those who say that Muslims from the 7 targeted countries have no reason to be targeted, given that there is zero evidence of any attack after 1975, are ruling elites who don’t understand the real situation. They are too stupid and politically correct to see that terrorists skip generations. They are already here and our inept government has not a clue! Haven’t you ever seen 24? We’ve gotta give Jack Bauer the help he needs in order to get a hold on this elusive terrorist threat. It doesn’t matter that people from all political perspectives who are experts in terrorism prevention are denouncing the move; it doesn’t matter that this sort of one-sided action, with no consultation with the legislative branch, is the mark of the insidious, dictatorial power President Obama was accused of wielding by the very people who elected Trump. None of it matters because truth is simple, clear, and brutal.

God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it. Muslims are terrorists because terrorists are Muslims.

Trump has already displayed an open disdain for intelligence experts; he has sided with Russia as it concerns the most recent presidential election, but he has already launched an investigation into the patently false, delusional claim that 3 million “illegals” (seriously; how is a person illegal?) voted, hence why Der Fewer lost the popular vote. His supporters believe that the media is biased and untrustworthy, largely because it does not support their guttural assessments of complex problems; it is easier to believe that minorities and immigrants are draining the government of resources than it is to acknowledge that other white men in positions of power have betrayed them, and that the forces of capitalism have long since become more protected by law than are individual rights; or that there is anything of worth to be found in academia. They do not believe themselves to be ignorant because there are enough sources that have elbowed their way into mainstream discussions that they are accorded the, “you have to consider the other side.” It has happened with Intelligent Design, despite it being smacked down by a Bush-appointed judge. It happened with the Tea Party claims of death panels, President Obama’s citizenship, sharia law in the United States, and a whole host of other nonsensical issues that have conspired to give mendacious lies equal weight with learned considerings.

Trump’s ban on Muslims–and don’t try to convince me it is otherwise, for the president himself said during the campaign that he would call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” (yeah, that’s from his own website)–feeds well into the Jack Bauer school of counterterrorism: based on intelligence information known by only a few, we must act swiftly and without political correctness to make the people safe. It is only softhearted and softheaded academics who will get in the way, but the real American patriots don’t have time for that; the threat is right among us, hiding in plain sight. And that threat is always Muslim and always brown- or black-skinned, despite all actual evidence to the contrary.

Clearly, this analysis is not exhaustive or definitive; I do not claim it to be so, but the progressions and developments are there for anyone to see. In the majority religion of this country, Christianity, the most popular and influential expression is decidedly anti-intellectual; it elevates social wedge issues by providing dubious scientific evidence that is used by adherents to distract and frustrate legitimate scholars (that Neil DeGrasse Tyson should be expected to answer someone like Ken Ham is downright lamentable); and it supports politicians who gleefully declare themselves “deplorable” and promise to rule as an id, proudly devoid of an ego or superego. The rest of us are seen as threats to the faith.

The truth is, the sort of ideas dominating in the religion and politics which have assisted and empowered Trump perish in academia not because of liberal bias; they don’t flourish because they are terrible ideas. The irony is that the scientific method itself prevents the very things that Trump and his ilk fear: ideology tainting or polluting facts. Any academic field worth its salt is based upon rigorous testing and verification, and includes voices from a wide variety of perspectives to deepen understanding. Without question, academia is imperfect. There are certainly prejudices and faults, but these often are exposed by people who believe in the pursuit of pure knowledge. Academia has put forth some awful ideas, to be sure; but invariably, they are rooted out because they cannot survive continued testing. If you want to eliminate, or at least reduce, ideology, subject the ideas to peer-review.

We find ourself in a place and time in which we have normalized willful ignorance, rewarding it with equal consideration to expertise; we decry the “political correctness” of calling racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and all manner of prejudices by their proper names–it ain’t Alt-Right, it’s Nazism–yet we accept the notion that it is elitist to say “you must know at least this much to enter this conversation.” Our president has only a passing relationship with facts, providing all the validation followers need to continue their assault on ideas at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Idiocracy is a modern Remembrall, a prophecy understood only with the passing of time.

*The Exodus Decoded can be turned into a drinking game only if we want cases of alcohol poisoning, and there need be only one rule: drink each time some for of “it has always been a mystery, UNTIL NOW” is uttered. You’ll be shitcanned by the fourth plague.

And God said, “Thou Shall Not Strand Thy Neighbor at the Airport,” A Sermon

Read this: Luke 6:1-16


It used to be that the Sabbath was a big deal. It meant something. When the sun started plunging into the horizon, the streets would begin to empty. As the last vestiges of light seemed to meander from the west down to the east, only an isolated few figures could be seen, hustling home or to the synagogue. Anyplace, really, where God was invited in. Yup, used to be that Sabbath was done right. But not anymore.

Some things don’t change, and romanticizing the past is one of them. It’s almost hardwired into us. We’ve created our own “age.” Like the “bronze age” or the “iron age,” we wax philosophic about the “golden age.” The problem is, most of the time when we’re living through what will later become “the golden age,” we are distinctly unhappy; we think the times have gone crazy, and we reminisce about an even earlier period being the “golden age,” which itself was most likely, when it was no longer the future and not yet the past, deemed a terrible, horrible, no good, awful, bad age.

The opening illustration can just as easily describe the time of Jesus as it can be used to describe our own present day.


It cannot be said enough times that Roman occupation was brutal. Fear was the default emotion for most with their necks held down by the sandal of Rome. The late, great scholar Marcus Borg suggests that during difficult times strict adherence to Law becomes the vehicle through which people transform their fear into strength. Ideally, this points one toward compassion and a desire for loving community; but in the time of Jesus what emerged is called by Borg a “politics of holiness.” The theology held that strict adherence to Levitical codes would render first the individual and then the whole community clean; God would look favorably upon the people and smite Rome. This viewpoint was held in Jesus’ day by the Pharisees.

The Sabbath was perhaps the most important focus of the Pharisees. The Jewish people had literally fought—often through nonviolent resistance—for the right to practice their faith throughout Roman territory. It cost them in blood and taxes, but Sabbath observance was recognized and allowed. Therefore, it is understandable that they would want the people to recognize the depth and breadth of the sacrifices made by some so that all could continue to follow God. Because for the Pharisees it was in the communal, strict adherence to the Law that would bring about divine redemption.

Which brings us to today’s pericope. Cast your mind back, if you will, to last week in which we talked about how the Gospel of Luke is dependent upon the Gospel of Mark for its narrative structure. In other words, Luke—and Matthew as well, actually—used a copy of Mark in writing their own gospels. The material shared by these three, later called the Synoptic Gospels because they all see Jesus “with the same eye,” is termed the triple tradition. Last week, Luke deviated a good deal from Mark; the same is true for us today.

Sabbath controversy stories, like most stories about Jesus, have meaning much more often in the subtext. The so-called plain meaning of the text cannot necessarily be discovered through a literal reading. For example, think about the context of this first confrontation. Look at the setting: Jesus and his disciples are walking in grainfields, which is a violation in and of itself. In plucking the grain, they are harvesting; in rubbing the grain, they are threshing; in eating, they have prepared food: all violations of the Sabbath. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

But let’s ask a question: if it is a sin to be walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath, what are the Pharisees doing in there themselves? I mean, this is like the Robert Burns poem come to life: “If a body meet a body, comin’ thro’ the rye.” Some people will say that it is evidence that the Pharisees were corrupted and filled with demons, and to that I say hogwash. Utter hogwash. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were Jewish. They were beholden to the same codes and expectations, but interpreted them very differently. When we read of Jesus criticizing the Pharisees, it most often has to do with the ways in which following the letter of the Law squeezes out the Spirit of the Law and leaves people on the outside looking in. The Pharisees in return  regard people like Jesus as having prolonged the duration of Roman occupation because they do not show strict adherence to halakha, Law.


The Pharisees most likely are present in the grainfield as a storytelling device; their presence could be about innate and rank hypocrisy, but once again we should seriously question the historicity of this claim. If we dig deeper, we find better answers. In both Sabbath controversy stories featured in today’s pericope, the conflicts present the same question: what do you think is most important to God? Jesus asks: Does God want people to go hungry amidst an abundance of food? Of course not, he says, citing the example of David with the consecrated bread. Before healing the withered hand, Jesus asks: On the Sabbath, is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to destroy it?

What do you think is most important to God?

The Pharisees followed a theology of fear, at least as they are represented in the story. We must cross every t and dot every i if we want to be safe and protected. We must separate ourselves from those we have deemed unclean. We must draw lines, demarcate what is ours and what is forbidden. If we do all of that, God will see that we are serious. It is a theology that regards other people as a threat; a theology that says one can simply look at another’s life circumstances and know where they stand with God. Sick, poor, lame, sinner. But it is a theology that makes sense, especially if you feel a nearly total loss of control in most areas of your life. This sort of theology provides purpose and comfort for those able to follow it.

But it is hell for most everybody else.

On the most sanctified day of the week, Jesus walks through grainfields. He waltzes all up and into a synagogue and heals a hand. Why? Because there is a need from people. Jesus believes that the restrictions of the Sabbath have become so onerous, so antithetical to their original purpose, the only way he can rattle people out of their stupor is to engage in some religious civil disobedience. He works on the Sabbath to show that God made the day for us, not us for the Sabbath day. The day of rest is meant to bring us together: to unite us with God, our families, our friends, our communities. To connect us to ourselves.

We hear a lot about making America great again. We hear people wax nostalgic about the “good old days.” The golden age. But the whole of American history is filled with horrors for a great many communities that are not within dominant culture. Slavery, broken treaties, governmental limitations levied because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or creed (and if you seriously need links to prove any of what I just said, I suggest stepping away from Breitbart and turning off the Fox News). Yesterday, at airports around the world a politics of fear kept families from reuniting; it kept refugees who have been through ordeals most of us cannot fathom from taking one more step toward reclaiming their lives; doctors, scientists, translators, university professors, grandmothers, breadwinners, all human beings who have followed the rules and procedures, who have done what our Pharisees say to do, are living in chaos right now. This is not greatness. This is a politics of fear and death.

A mosque in Texas burned to the ground on  Saturday morning. Muslims living in our country, in our neighborhoods, are frightened and uncertain. I think it is time to walk through some grainfields and to start healing some hands. What this looks like for each one of us may differ; I have reached out to a local imam; he and I are meeting during the week to talk, to pray, to go to God for strength and solidarity. For you, it may be attending one of the actions that will occur in the coming days. For others, it might be giving money to aid agencies that can help people who will literally be killed if they return to their country of origin. It might be simply smiling and saying hello, as my colleague Rev. Bryan Fleet said at a recent Beloved Community Project event.

Right now, no intentional act of kindness is too small.

Today, Christian celebrate the Lord’s Day. It is both the first and the eighth day of the week, another of the many contradictions in our faith tradition. So, let us ask: what are God’s intentions for this day? What will our connections with and to both God and each other mean when we get up tomorrow? What will we do to keep walking through grainfields and healing hands? As Christians, we have a divinely-mandated responsibility to not turn away from injustices and oppression. We are commanded to not be afraid and are to step forward when stones are being thrown. We have a divinely-mandated obligation to not turn away from injustices and oppression; for our God makes it pretty clear what we are to do: build longer tables instead of higher walls. Amen.


People Fishing in Trump’s America: The Challenge of Progressive Christian Evangelism

Take it up and read: Luke 5:1-11


Scholars believe that the work we refer to as the Gospel of Mark should be regarded as the earliest canonical gospel. Dominant theories in the field maintain that Mark provides the narrative template for Matthew and Luke. The material shared by these gospels is known as the triple tradition. There would not be much to study if the triple tradition was simply a verbatim transcription from one source to another; luckily—or perhaps unluckily, if you are someone who does not like contradictions between the gospels—each of the evangelists shape the stories in their own ways. Sometimes the changes are subtle: a minor rearranging of words or a synonym inserted here or there. But in other places, like today’s passage, the changes tell us a lot about how, from the very beginning, we Christians have understood the same stories in vastly different ways.

To make sure we’re all on the same page about what scholars are saying, let me be more specific. The theory of Markan Priority argues that a written copy of the Gospel of Mark was utilized by the author or authors of both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. It is important to remember that none of the Evangelists were writing so that their texts would be included with others; none of them wrote with the dreams of one day being canonized; we don’t know who wrote any of the gospels, as the names are assigned later. That can cause confusion. For example, the Gospel of John is not written by John of Patmos, who is credited with penning Revelation. But names help us differentiate more easily than saying, “you know, that one with the thing in the place with that guy.” The work we call the Gospel of Mark was clearly popular and circulated between communities. At separate times and in separate places, the author or authors of the Matthew and Luke narratives had access to the Gospel of Mark. And they both used it, extensively, for the framework of their own gospels.

So, when we refer to the triple tradition we are talking about material shared by each of the evangelists. As I remarked above, how the material is presented says a great deal about not only the author or authors, but also the communities that gathered around the texts. We should never forget that these stories survived only because they made a difference to people. Because they make a difference to people. In people. Part of what is so wondrous about studying Scripture is that when we read closely and carefully, we see an ancient, yet ongoing conversation about who God is through Christ. Who Christ is through God. Who we are through both.

Mark and Matthew render the fishing for people story basically the same way. Jesus, fresh from baptism, temptation, and an incident in a synagogue, is walking along the shoreline. He sees two sets of brothers, one pair is mending their nets: Simon whom he will name Peter, and Andrew; the other set, the sons of Zebedee, John and James, are working in a boat with their father. Both Mark and Matthew describe Jesus as calling Simon and Andrew first, with the enigmatic promise of having them become fishers of people, before continuing to gather John and James, who violate the fifth commandment and leave their father high and dry in the boat. There are some subtle language differences between the Mark and Matt, but they are infinitesimal compared to the large changes wrought by Luke.

Luke takes Jesus away from a tranquil seaside stroll and instead places him amidst a crowd so large that he is backed into a boat; this is how he meets Simon, which almost seems like something out of a buddy comedy. A vaunted celebrity jumping into an unknown car and saying “Hit it!” to the unknown driver, who will soon become our hero’s BFF.

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With Jesus on board, Peter pushes off from shore and gives Jesus some breathing room to teach. With the lesson completed, Jesus asks Simon to make way for deeper water and instructs him to cast out his nets. Simon responds that all night he has been casting, but only emptiness has been caught.

Let’s pause here and acknowledge the wonderful story that Luke has created around the call of Simon Peter; but let’s also note what has been lost. No Andrew. Just Simon alone with Jesus in the boat. Also, in both Mark and Matthew there is the detail that Simon and Andrew are mending their nets; upon being called, they drop their nets. I have preached before about how the Christian life concerns knowing when to mend the nets that help us catch our blessings, when to drop the nets that ensnare us in ugliness and anger, and how both are necessary to pick up the crosses that we bear in our communal walk with Christ. Luke largely removes this imagery. Gone as well is the detail about John and James leaving their father in the boat, which may have been done because it is an embarrassing element, this notion that God would ask us to leave our parents in the lurch; but we should take notice of these changes because it will help us to see what Luke is wanting us to see.

What is a simple, yet powerful call story in Mark and Matthew quickly becomes a miracle story in Luke, a sort of flash-forward (prolepsis) to the miracles of the loaves and fishes. Instead of mending nets, Simon and his partners are dealing with nets that burst from God’s abundance and blessings. Two boats eventually are weighed down with the heaviness of bounty, to such an extent that one boat begins to sink. To this, Simon responds by dropping to Jesus’ feet and saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Luke tells us that Simon responds out of amazement, and is joined by his partners, John and James, named for the first time, and also by an untold number of others present. Jesus then delivers the punch, the ultimate, the coup de grace: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Once they reach shore, the three named men abandon everything and follow Jesus, an ending much like that in Mark and Matthew.

What are we to make of this refigured narrative? Jesus displays God’s goodness through this plentiful catch, but soon it becomes overwhelming. It strikes fear into Simon’s heart; the boat itself is sinking, and Simon’s response is to cast away Jesus because of his own sin. We can see the theology here: sometimes we don’t know what to do when things are going exceptionally and unexpectedly well, do we? You ever felt that way? Like, this is too good to be true? I’m just waiting for it to go bad. Simon’s version of that sentiment is, get out of here, my sin is too much to receive these kinds of blessings.

Jesus’ response is fascinating. He does not negate the existence of Simon’s sin. He provides words of assurance but not the ones we might expect; don’t be afraid, he says, because I’ll have you fishing for people. And I imagine that many of us have heard this phrase dozens if not hundreds of times, this fishing for people. But have you ever thought about it from the fish’s perspective? Being pulled out of the water and suddenly finding it hard to breath? Being packed in with hundreds of other fish, all slithering and flopping in vain attempts to wrest themselves from the nets? The slow death that comes when lungs not meant for air run out of water. This death occurs for the fish so that life can continue for those who consume the fish. The death gives way to life. The great circle.


Such is the nature of the Christian walk. At least it has been for me. A continued dying, sometimes submitted to willingly and sometimes experienced as a fight to the finish. It seems clear that Simon, James, and John are Jesus’ first catches. Simon will soon die to his old name, and become Peter. James and John die to their family business, leaving it all behind to follow Jesus. They do this so that they can continue the process with others. No longer just fish, they are now fishermen, too. Such is true with us all; sometimes we are caught, sometimes we are catching.

In the country, we can see that there are those who feel like dying fish fighting for the end, and there are those who are cheering for the perceived abundance. Those who celebrated Friday, and those who marched on Saturday. The sad truth is that it will not be possible for any one church to serve all people. Not completely. This is a conversation that congregations must have; we are called to radical hospitality, but we must understand that there come responsibilities with inviting marginalized communities into worship. To congregations who made explicit dedications to safe, nurturing space for LGBTQ+ persons: We cannot ignore the deep homophobia and racism that exist in our country. It is a challenge that we face as Christians and as members of a religious community to responsibly weigh what it means to be welcoming while never forgetting those whom Jesus tells us to prioritize. Those whom we have told it is safe to come here. We cannot just think that sitting next to one another in the pews is going to be okay with and for everyone; I don’t know many people who want to sit next to a person who questions their right to exist or even their status as a human being.

And I understand that people will not want to sit in pews if they feel judged from the pulpit or by those around them. But yesterday’s marches throughout the world show that there is great fear. While it is dangerous to make assumptions about a person based on a particular political vote, we cannot ignore the fact that the VP of the United States has advocated for so-called conversion therapy for gay teens. This is widely and truthfully recognized as nothing short of self-hating torture. As a pastor, I cannot ignore that; I cannot say to frightened members of the GLBTQ+ community, “Oh, well. It is just a difference of opinion.” Hearing this may make us uncomfortable, but it is a conversation we need to have with one another. There are lots of churches making it clear that GLBTQ+ persons are not welcome. For those who have said otherwise, that is a covenant that cannot be qualified. While we certainly should always be looking for ways to bridge the chasm, it cannot come at the expense of those whom we have offered safe sanctuary. If this seems hyperbolic, I will gently say you are not paying attention to the very real fears of the community.

Like Mark, Matthew, and Luke see the call story differently, we in our own religious community will see things differently as well. We should seek to point out the differences and discuss them, trying to understand why we make the choices we do and to extend the same respect to others. But it is equally important to understand that when you go fishing for people, you have a responsibility to usher them through their death as fish and their rebirth as fishers. And not every fish can go in every boat; it is a mistake to think that they do. One church cannot be all things to all people. Neither can one pastor.

Let us continued to be caught so that we may catch; let us remember that no sin is so great that we cannot be put to work by God. Let us commit to hearing one another but let us not try to stand for everything, lest we stand for nothing. But let us never mistake following the gospel as being intolerant or inhospitable. Amen.