Reading Luke with Dr. Thurman: When God Sees You, Look Back

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The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a pastor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurman was a pastor to King in every sense of the word, but today I want to talk about his influence as a pastoral theologian. A theologian whose thought animates as a pastor, gives the sense of a lived faith, a directional ministry, a spiritual connection to both God and humanity that becomes a raison d’etre. A reason for living. Perhaps even more than his own father, Rev. Martin Sr., or Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was King’s closest ministry partner from the Montgomery Bus Boycott on and pastored in Cincinnati at Revelation Baptist Church; perhaps even more than them was the influence of Howard Thurman on Dr. King. Thurman was the first ever African-American Dean of Rankin Chapel at Boston University. In 1944 he left a tenured position at Howard University to start the first truly multifaith, multiracial, intentional community, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which is still open today. Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited inspired those like Dr. James Cone to develop what is now called Black Liberation Theology. Howard Thurman, the grandson of slaves, who helped Dr. King see Jesus as being bigger than Jim Crow. Howard Thurman, who spoke often of how he learned the truth about God from his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who learned it from a minister, who like her, was enslaved.

It was rare that enslaved preachers were allowed to preach in the open. Most often the Bible was controlled and interpreted by the landowner, or a local white preacher who was brought it. The message was always one of submission, of divinely-ordained bondage Reading the Bible on their own, or hearing it as told by another slave was considered dangerous; Christianity was used by slaveholders as a tool of oppression, but it was turned through righteous rebellion into a source of strength. Negro spirituals are the original texts of Black liberation theology, songs about deliverance at the hands of a faithful God. Religion can sometimes be a surreptitious act. Every now and again an enslaved preacher would get to take the pulpit publicly. This could put the preacher in danger if the wrong people heard God’s Word, if they actual heard it and understood that it was an indictment of them; they couldn’t punish God but they could punish God’s messenger. In the pulpit could be danger, but take the pulpit these preachers did. Miss Ambrose, years later, with young Howard at her feet and snapping beans, told him about one time when a minister said to us, You are not a slave. That is not who you are; you are a child of God. Thurman writes later in his life, “it gave to them a sense of roots that were watered by the underground river of existence.”

This unknown minister, in about a dozen words, was able to cut through the mental chains and provide a viable identity to rival the one constructed by the oppressor: You are not a slave; you are God’s child. I imagine this minister, who could not have known that these words would plant themselves inside the soul of the greatest pastoral theologian since Martin Luther, learned the revolutionary truth by listening to the stories of Jesus.

Once again Jesus is teaching in parables. Two men. One wealthy, dressed in the finery of purple robes. The other, clad in rags held together by pus from purple sores. One tended to in life by servants, the other by dogs. But then, the great equalizer. Death. Angels come not for the rich man, but for poor Lazarus who goes to be with Abraham. The wealthy man does not fare so well. To the underworld he goes, tormented and in agony. He calls across the divide to Abraham, asking for mercy, when he sees Lazarus. Lowly Lazarus. The rich man begs for help, but none can be forthcoming; not because Lazarus is unwilling, but because the actions of the wealthy man have fixed a chasm that cannot be bridged or traversed. His alienation is of his own doing; desperately wanting to save his affluent family members from the distresses, the moneyed man requests a messenger be dispatched by Abraham as a herald. Alas, the patriarch declines. God has sent more warnings that we can count, and it never does any good.

Imagine in the time of Jesus, being poor and hearing this parable. Yes, it might give a feeling of giddy satisfaction that bullies eventually get a comeuppance. Yes, it might help you feel that suffering does not have the final word. But underneath that, there is a profound message: God sees you. God does not see you as a mass of sores or one without two coins to rub together: God sees you are one to be carried away by angels. You are not a slave; you are a God’s child.

This parable often is interpreted as being about the afterlife; a continuation of the ideas expressed in Job and Daniel. A shining example that one reaps what one sows. And perhaps it is; there is certainly ample evidence for that being the case. But I think Howard Thurman would want us to see the underlying theology. First, it was the greed and selfishness of the wealthy man that contributed to and compounded Lazarus’ suffering. Each day one experienced plenty and the other want. Second, wealth and poverty did not prevent the men from dying. Nothing we do here can thwart our demises. Three, there should be no confusion about how to live. The wealthy man cannot claim ignorance, and neither can we. Moses and the prophets, understood here both as historical figures and also as metaphors for parts of the Hebrew scriptures, are available to all. We know that God requires mercy, kindness, compassion, and love. We know that we are our siblings’ keeper.

It might be argued that the theology here is straightforward: we should do nice things for others so we don’t go to hell. Again, maybe. But I think the message is more profound: we must be aware of the ways in which our behaviors might cause others to suffer. All of us, on some level, contribute to the suffering of others. That is just the nature of human experience. The question is, are we aware of it? Do we do it knowingly? Willingly? And how do we discern God’s presence in our lives? Or evaluate whether we are living authentically? Do we look at the wrong things and declare that we have God’s favor? Do we mistake temporary, material wealth with knowing that God sees us and we see God back? Because that chasm is ours to build. And while I don’t think hell is at the center of the earth and we go there after we die, I do believe that hell is very real. I believe that we create it here and now, and we do so with our words, thoughts, and actions; hell, as St. Augustine said, is distance from God. It means not being seen; it means believing lies about yourself and others. It means believing that you are a slave.

I don’t think that fearing hell helps us see God. Maybe it does for you, and if so that’s great. It doesn’t help me and I know that it doesn’t help a lot of others, and Jesus is in the business of helping people. I think that each one of us wants to feel valued. Understood. Loved. Most of us desire peace, comfort, adequate food, and a safe place to live surrounded by those we love. God helps us see that if this is our desire for ourselves, we must work in this world to make it possible for others. Wealth and poverty only exist in relationship with one another; we cannot get rid of one without addressing the other. And while the Bible is not a textbook on economics, it does contain truth about the dangers of greed and serving mammon. And these dangers have long-lasting effects that go on after our bodily deaths. God tells us this not so that we will fear, but so that we will love. Fully. Radically. Unabashedly. For that is the only way to cancel a chasm. Amen.

A Anno ad Bibendum

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Regular readers of the blog will know that I have a history of being very confessional in this space. Some unfortunate incidents over the past year culminated in my making a very public (and perhaps overly-dramatic) declaration that I was taking time to reconsider how much I share. Ditto on Facebook. I pulled back.

What I now share is the most personal thing I’ve offered since then: today is my one-year alcohol sobriety anniversary.

So, an asterisk before I move forward. I don’t actually know when my “true” sobriety date is, which is actually a really good thing. Two years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and after years of trying I finally found the absolutely perfect therapist. I know projection onto your psychologist is not a good thing, but I love him. He is one of the most significant relationships in my life and I am able to write this today in no small part because of him. He is adamant that I not share his name, so I won’t. In the first 6-9 months, we focused on meds and sorting out the disorder. It then because obvious I had to quit because we spent almost every session talking about drinking because I was bringing it up.  My first attempt, I had about four months without drinking when I arrogantly thought that I could just have “one or two.” After a three day bender, I stopped again but refused to start counting the days. By the time I was encouraged to by others, I honestly couldn’t remember. So I picked this date as being the most logical knowing that the only count that ever is matters is that I never, ever have another day one.

I don’t really want to write too much about my drinking. I’ll share this: while it is now abundantly clear to me that an overwhelming reason for my history of substance abuse is my mental illnesses, I certainly lived fully into reckless behavior. I also have amazing memories that heavily feature alcohol; some of my favorite moments in life are with Mimi, in our favorite bars, pumping $30 into the jukebox, and hanging out all day. I miss that, and sometimes it is the hardest part; Mimi would NEVER ask me to break my sobriety. She has been awesome, and I have absolutely no problem being around her or others when they drink. But it is those memories that tug at me. Really, really good times. I sometimes lament that I’ll never have another one.

But that’s the disease talking. Let me be frank, I was a drunk. Again, it is not that I am dishonest about what I did and how I behaved, it is just I’m not at the point where I can joke about it. I can’t say I’m thrilled about many of the things I did when I was drinking, and I’m working on that stuff in therapy. I just can’t share it. It would be too much to have out there given the fact I pretty regularly have people who simply go off on me online; my darkest secrets will be shown light in other ways. However, I’ll say that I needed to quit drinking, and I know there are more than a few people in my life who are genuinely glad to see me one year without alcohol. I was always a lover when I got drunk, not a fighter. Except to myself. A depressive with a drinking problem is a depressive looking to die. At least, that how it was for me. My uncle committed suicide. So did my brother. I was just doing it more slowly.

I don’t go to AA. I don’t offer to be a mentor for anyone in their sobriety. At the encouragement of a few friends on Facebook, I wrote this just in case there is some reading who is looking for their last day one. Or someone who has some days behind them and are wondering if they can do it. Yes, you can. But I didn’t do it alone. I joined an online AA support group and read way more than I posted (actually, today I marked my anniversary, which was my first post since my introductory past nearly a year ago); I saw my therapist and didn’t lie or avoid; I had myself put on a medication that will likely cause seizures if I drink. The med is for my bipolar, but I sought out a specific side effect as a motivator. I told the bartenders at my local to not let anyone buy me drinks; to a key few, I asked them to grill me if I ever asked for a drink. I didn’t want to put it upon them to refuse me; I just wanted to give them permission to look me in the eye and say, “What’s up, Aaron? I know you don’t want to do this, so tell me what’s going on. Can I call Mimi?” I made them accountability partners.

Every morning I wake up and decide that I am not going to drink today. I might drink tomorrow, but not today.

Someone on the FB page gave me the best blessing: “Here’s to a life filled with 24 hours in which you decide not to drink.”

 

The Other Logan

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I am one of those guys who loves Gilmore Girls. And not just because Lauren Graham is almost completely and totally my “type.” She’s skinnier and taller than I generally date, but that wit and smile just melt me. After the fourth season, I distinctly disliked her character Lorelai, but it didn’t matter because there was Sookie. And Paris. And Lane. There was the whole town–very White town, to be sure–filled with people I’d love to sit and have tea with once a week. Plus, the troubadour is Grant-Lee Phillips and for ’90s indie rock geeks like me, this is gold, Jerry, gold!

And there was Rory. Rory with her books and her snark, her confidence that belied a deep hurt. Rory who was obsessed with coffee and food, and had the best repartee. Rory who was caught between a grandmother and mother who lobbed pithy, brilliant insults like water balloons. Rory who had a sweet first boyfriend Dean who did all the wrong stuff I did as well: get clingy, possessive, and give ultimatums. Made the relationship about him, not her. Rory then fell in love with the bad boy Jess, who I wanted to hate but just couldn’t because his mix of James Dean and Hunter S. Thompson made me want to be as cool, even though I am not.

Then there was Logan. I really, really dislike Logan.

Let me stop and say I know this is ridiculous. These are fictional characters. This is a world that is so far removed from what is really going on, it seems a waste of time and energy to even be writing this. I have a dissertation to write, and I am already stretching an extension farther than it should go. What I am writing is stupid and trivial, but somehow it feels important. My friend Shannon wrote a letter to Rory upon learning that there may be another “Year in the Life” episode. I’ll let you read that one for plot details. I love what Shannon wrote, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, “If she’s really pregnant by Logan, I have some words for him.” Shannon said I should write it, so I am.

Again, I know how trivial this is so if it irritates you, maybe stop reading? I’m not really in the mood for responses about how this is privilege or insignificant. I get it. But I can’t focus on the ugliness of the world all the time. Cool? Cool.

Logan,

I don’t like you and have said so for years. I imagine that you would have little use for me. I think the Life and Death Brigade is the epitome of rich people thinking they can throw money at anything, or that true adventure means being cultural tourists of the worst sort. You are entitled, arrogant, aloof, and a snob. I understand that your Dad is an ass. While my father is certainly not Mitchum Huntzberger, I know what it is like to have heavy expectations. Now, my Dad loves me and while I doubted it as a teenager, that was my baggage, not his. My heart does go out to you in some regards; your life has not fully been your own, so your acting out makes sense. But dude, you’re in your 30s. It is time to grow up.

I am a sober alcoholic and I have a sordid history with drugs. I share this because I don’t think that I am better than you, and I know what it is like to have lots of inner turmoil.

But you are a user of people. You use your money to get what you want; you use your troubles with Daddy to justify reckless and selfish behavior. You’re not deep, dude.You’re an ass. While you arguably are the one person who completely accepted Rory as she was through college and adulthood, you enabled her to avoid responsibility. You helped her to have an inflated sense of self-importance because you have one as well. You now are engaged to be married and Rory has a boyfriend she treats worse than I’ve seen in junior high relationships, yet you share a bed. I am not a sexual prude. I’m a pansexual pastor, brother. I like sex, what I don’t like is a complete and total disregard for others. Are you both so important, so deep, so misunderstood that you can be horrible to others and not face consequences?

Because there have not been consequences for either of you. Not really. And while you can continue to hide behind your money and your privilege, while you can continue to surround yourself with vapid, sycophantic people, you will not live a life worth telling. You, good sir, will have to accept that you played a big part in being another man who has sabotaged a smart woman. Rory is responsible for Rory, yes; but real relationships are about bringing out the best in one another, not pushing one another toward mediocrity. Your self-hatred and fear have disguised themselves as love, and I wish that Richard were still alive because he would put you in your place.

You are about to be a father, it looks like. You have helped actualize Lorelai’s worst fear, and I think you’ll end up being Christopher without the charm. You don’t have to be, though. You can break off your engagement. I’m not saying marry Rory, I’d honestly prefer if you didn’t but that isn’t my call. What I am saying is that you are unfit to be a husband or a father right now. And while very few people are ever really ready, you are starting with more deficiencies than most. You have shown again and again that you will put yourself first in every situation. You should know that money doesn’t buy love. It also doesn’t buy common sense or a moral compass.

Take this or leave this. I don’t know if I will watch the next season because I don’t really like any of you anymore. You seem so White. So removed. So self-involved that in my few hours of escape, I don’t want to see your world. We all love a good redemption story, though. Perhaps there is still a chance.

With really no affection,

Aaron

 

Sin-talk (Or Tautologically, Hamartiology)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Click this and read

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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?”

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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.