A Word That Journeys With Us (Affirming Ministry)
This sermon was preached at Summerlea United Church, Lachine, QC, on Feburary 15, 2009, as part of their Affirming Ministry process.
When I was in seminary in Vancouver, there was this story that was handed down to each generation of students about one of our professors of systematic theology. It went something like this:
“Once in a senior theology course which had ranged wide and deep through volumes and volumes of Creeds, confessional statements, delved into the minutiae of distinctions between personhood, nature and substance of the persons of the Trinity.It was a course in which students understandably experienced brain ache!In the midst of this course, a student asked the professor,
“Professor XXX, we know you know this stuff inside out, and we know you think this is important for us to know too, but when it comes down to it, what is the core of Christian faith?”
The Professor stroked his beard, focussed his eyes on a cobweb hanging from the ceiling in the back of the classroom, rocked from one foot to the other for a few moments while silence deepened in the room, and then he sighed, took a deep breath, focussed his eye on the student and sang:
” Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so” and he stopped.
A few years later, when I was studying in Geneva, I was in conversation with a colleague who had been to seminary in Wellington, New Zealand. He started to tell me this story of one of his professors of systematic theology. It went something like this:
“Once in a senior theology course which had ranged wide and deep……. a student asked…….
the professor stared for a few moments at a cobweb….. and sang…. “Jesus loves me…..”
I was shattered, devastated! My image of my crusty old prof crumbled, my certainty in the truth of the story disintegrated. What I’d believed to have been literally true was exposed as an apocryphal myth that may never have happened! DUPED!!
Well maybe, maybe not.
It is a good story with power because whether it happened to my prof or that other guy’s prof, or not, really is beside the point of the nugget it contains: we may get bogged down in all sorts of questions about the ins and outs of the Christian faith, but it boils down to something quite simple:
“Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”
That’s enough, surely?
Again…. maybe, maybe not.
We know that there is more to Jesus than a love for the little children and professors who sing that song.
We also know that there is more to the Bible than its affirmations of Jesus’ love for me, or you. And that’s the “trouble” Rev. Clark asked me to explore today.
Alongside those texts that tell us Jesus loves us, this Bible contains texts that have been used to terrorize gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual children and adults, in much the same way that texts once terrorized people born or sold into slavery. What do we do with these texts, and with this Book that contains them?
Many of us grew up with a particular story about how we should treat this book –
– as Holy, the Words of God,
– as God’s instruction book,
– as ‘the only rule of faith and life.’
It’s the vision of the Bible most often seen on TV channels, popular culture’s portrayal of “the Christian” – It’s in here. It must be so.
But, we don’t, and not even so-called literalists take it all literally.
If we did, many of you would be husbands of many wives.
And all of you who have ever worked on the Sabbath should have been stoned to death long ago, along with anyone who ever lent money with interest.
Those of you wearing blended fibre would need to leave the sanctuary, now.
And Howard, those of us from the North of England are not allowed to eat black pudding!
If we’ve jettisoned those texts, it’s not surprising that we’re not sure what to do with the rest of the Book.
But this Bible is, or should be, or can be what Swiss theologian Hans von Balthasaar describes as “A Word that journeys with us.”
How it journeys with us is a crucial question.
If this Word is to journey with us,
if this Word is one that declares that “Jesus loves us”
then it needs to be a Word that gives life, hope, welcome, freedom, justice to all, not just some.
The journey we are on in this United Church of ours -the one you’re on here at Summerlea – is that of living into the promise of our public declaration made 20 years ago that we would be a denomination which welcomes into full membership and ministry all God’s children, regardless of whom they love, regardless of their sexual orientation.This declaration was made on the basis of an understanding of God, that comes to us through Scripture:
God who created all things, and declared them all to be good.
Scripture challenges us with a consistent persistent portrait of a Jesus whose love for “us” includes “them” too:
Gay, straight, black, white, disabled, beautiful, tall, tiny, fat, moody, lazy, funny, all the “thems” we don’t know how to or want to love. It’s this Word that journeys with us.
Problem is, every time we get a notion that the Word is inclusive, expansive, inviting, beyond even our imagination, we encounter those who have marshalled an arsenal of “the Bible tells me so” verses to exclude some, but not others, from the kingdom of God’s welcome.
The challenge that faces us in liberal, mainline denominations is often that we have become less versed with the Word, and less confident in our understanding that it is a Word that gives life for all, than are those who find within its pages words of judgment and condemnation.
Often we don’t have an answer to those who march with placards declaring “God Hates Faggots!” with the verse “Lev 18:22” underneath.
We want to say “it doesn’t say that!!” But we know it does, somewhere.
We want to hold up our own placards with our own verse of love and welcome but we’re not sure which it should be.
We want to rise above that ‘tit-for-tat’ proof texting altogether- I know I do -and speak out of a richer, deeper engagement with the whole of Scripture, but we’re not sure how.
Often our uncertainties are closer to home:
We know it says “somewhere” in the Bible that Jesus taught that marriage was between a man and a woman,
but we don’t know if that’s all he had to say,
and we don’t know what the faithful response is to the request for same-sex weddings.
Often we can’t even name our fears because although we don’t mean them to be hateful, they may nevertheless hurt.
What if my questions about homosexuality will hurt a friend whose family member is gay?
What if by becoming an ‘affirming’ congregation we lose people?
What if we get negative attention in the press, from other Christian groups?
Is there a Word big enough to journey with us through these fears?
While it’s useful to explore the seven or so texts most often used to deny full ministry and inclusion of GLBT people,
– from the Creation of Adam and Eve to be ‘fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:27-8 & 2:18)
– to the Holiness Codes of Leviticus 18, ( Lev 18:22, 20:13)
– to the Pauline descriptions of sexual exploitation in Romans and 1st Corinthians, (Rom1:26-7; I Cor 6:9-11) [ other texts: Onan, Gen 38:9-10; Sodom Gen 19:4-5] (And we’ll do that in our lunch time conversation later) for now, in worship together, it’s Gospel we’re after today, a Word that can journey with us.
For this reason, I have chosen these two texts which we heard this morning;
One, a voice from the 8th Century BCE, calling upon people not to abandon justice and loving-kindness and faithfulness to God as somehow expendable luxuries whenever the going gets tough, but to hold on to them as the birthright of the people of God, no matter what. The Second, Jesus’ reframing of that most holy, central prayers of Judaism, the Sh’ma: Love God, with all your heart, mind, soul, strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.
These are just two of countless texts which go to the core of Good News, Gospel; namely that God loves us all; that God requires of us a way of living which enfleshes God’s love for all. From Genesis through to the end of the New Testament texts pile up upon one another like an incoming ocean tide to speak of God’s barrier-breaking love, and to speak of God’s call to us to do the same. [ Is 56, Ruth, 1 Sam 18-2 Sam1; Lev 19:18, John 9, Acts 10, Gal 3, 5:1, I Jo 4:16, etc….]
From the birthing of a Chosen people from the seed of barren seniors through the rescue and restoration of slaves and refugees to freedom and faithfulness, to Jesus’ persistent status-quo challenging welcome into God’s kingdom of foreigners, widows, the ritually unclean lepers, religious outcasts, children, adulterers. The Good News of God is that of love for all, inclusion, reconciliation of ‘others’ with ‘us’. Not just that God loves all, but that God calls us to do likewise.
This is the Word for this Journey.
I want to read you a comment from Desmond Tutu, which goes to the heart of the Gospel we need to hear if this Word is going to journey with us:
“I equate homophobia to the injustice of apartheid, and that’s just so contrary to the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ…. I can’t for the life of me imagine that God would say,
– I’m going to punish you because you are black, you should have been white.
– I will punish you because you are a woman, you should have been a man.
– I will punish you because you are homosexual, you ought to have been heterosexual.’
I can’t, I can’t for the life of me, from everything – everything – I have seen in Scripture, and in my long life, imagine that that is how God sees things.”
[From For the Bible Tells me So.]
He’s not wrong:
Where we see ‘other’, God sees ‘my beloved’
Where we cast down, God lifts up,
Where we say “Be gone,” God says “be welcome.”
Where we hide from fear, God calls us to venture out in love,
Where we say we can’t, we daren’t, we don’t know how,
God says, Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with me.
God says, Love me, love yourself, love your neighbour.
I know this, for the Bible tells me so.
This is the Word that journeys with us.
Thanks be to God.