upper room daily devotions

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A plea to liberal Christians: Utilize better biblical exegesis. Stop decrying "Pharisees"

Oh, friends. I really don't want to write this post. It is difficult to challenge those with whom one mostly agrees, but I've come to a point at which silence has become untenable.

"Liberal Christians" (whatever that means), in your attempts to "correct" the theology of those you deem "conservative," please use better biblical exegesis. Have a better historical understanding of the scriptures you quote. For the love of God, don't be lazy when referring to scripture to uphold a theological point.

In the wake of the verdict against Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist clergy convicted in a church trial for conducting a same-sex union, liberal commentators have rightfully taken to social media, blogs, and other forums to express disappointment and anger. I, of course, share their pain for this decision and for the church's continued stance relative to LGBTQI people. However, I feel compelled to challenge my friends and colleagues on their lazy exegesis. So, here I go...

In particular, please refrain from comparing an unjust church and its practices to "Pharisees," which today is known as rabbinic Judaism, or, just Judaism. Even worse is the way the word "Pharisaism" is used in a sneering way as though it sounds like a disease for which a round of antibiotics might be in order. Yes, "Pharisaism" appears in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. Its first definition is "the doctrines or practices of Pharisees." The second, and problematic definition reads, " pharisaical character, spirit, or attitude :  hypocrisy." In the New Testament, Pharisees serve a prominent role, but that role is not what Christianity has made it out to be. Pharisees were biblical experts, interpreters of law. They were not the bogeymen of the Bible. Pharisees were one sect of Judaism. In fact, Jesus shares much of their theology; this is what makes them a relevant partner in arguing texts, law, and Jewish life. Moreover, within Judaism, the use of argument does not signify enemy status. Rather, arguing is part of the spiritual practice of arriving at new understanding.  Jesus speaks about resurrection, like Pharisees. He is well versed in Torah, like Pharisees. He wears tzittzit, worships in synagogues, and adheres to Jewish law (more on that in a moment), like Pharisees.

One of the main missteps that Christians take in putting Jesus over and against Pharisees is that they contrast purity with compassion. Pharisees champion purity; Jesus champions compassion. This practice has to stop. In the book "The Historical Jesus in Context," Amy-Jill Levine writes:

...complicating the discussion is a popular view that Jesus sought to replace the Jewish purity system -- seen as creating class-based distinctions, filtering funds to the Temple (itself seen as a corrupt institution), marginalizing women (who would be in states of impurity because of menstruation and parturition), and concentrating piety and so [sic] power in the hands of the Pharisees -- with a system of compassion. This false distinction (the opposite of purity is impurity, and of compassion, the lack of compassion) is based on a variety of factors: the equally false distinction sometimes drawn between Law and Grace, the reductive equation of ritual impurity with sin, a presumption that first-century Jews followed the Mosaic Torah fully, literally, and uniformly, ignorance of purity's import to Gentiles, the false assumption that men were not concerned with or subject to ritual impurity, the equating of purity and class (the high priest can become ritually impure; a peasant widow can be in a state of purity), basic misunderstandings of the ancient sources...and, occasionally, Christian apologetic (31-32).

In doing this, Christians miss a deeper understanding of Jesus and his historical and theological contexts. Levine goes on to say:

Both the Jesus of the Gospels and the Rabbis of Mishnah and Talmud...alleviate any hardship created by following the more literal sense [of law]. Exemplifying this process in the Gospels are the "Antitheses" of Matthew that follow the formulaic structure, "You have heard that it was said...But I tell you..." While the interpretation of Matthew 5:44, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," is novel...the means by which the Gospel derives this interpretation are not:...the word "neighbor" can be stretched to include "enemy" because the terms in Hebrew share the same consonants; only the pronunciation differs.

That is, Jesus uses word play to show that the difference between neighbor and enemy is one of emphasis. Or, to be clear, there is no actual distinction.

I am not going to go as far as some scholars and posit that Jesus was a Pharisee. If one reviews social constructs of many movements, one will find that Jesus shares traits with many without fully subscribing to any (Levine, 12). However, the biblical reference to Jesus as Rabbi is the first reference to any man as a rabbi. Uttered by Mary, the first one to encounter the risen Christ, Jesus becomes the first person in literature referred to as "Rabbouni," or "teacher," "rabbi." Interesting for someone who is "obviously" opposed to rabbis, teachers, i.e., Pharisees.

The other argument that repeats itself when liberal Christians talk about Jesus and social change is that Jesus "broke the law" and so we can to. Frequently, they point to Jesus "breaking Sabbath law." In order to make this claim, Christians might refer to Mark 2:23-28 or Mark 3:1-3. In the Mark 2 story, Jesus' disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. Questioned by Pharisees (why were they out in the field with Jesus and his disciples???), Jesus refers to a story about David who entered the house of God to get consecrated food for his hungry men. In the next story in Mark 3, which immediately follows the story in the field, Jesus, in a synagogue on Sabbath, heals a man with a withered hand. This time Jesus is the one who challenges the Pharisees by asking them which is more lawful, to do good or to do evil. There is a story in Luke where Jesus heals the "bent over woman" (Luke 13:10-17). Again, challenged by "the leader of the synagogue," Jesus replies that all people work on the Sabbath in taking care of their animals. Isn't, he asks, this woman worth as much? In all three of these "Sabbath law breaking" stories, Jesus is broadening people's ability to participate in Sabbath. With food, with healing. In none of them can those who challenge Jesus bring any kind of charge or apply any kind of punishment. This reveals that first century Judaism, even first century Pharisaic Judaism in particular, was fluid and open to interpretation. Indeed, the process of debate and argument rests at the heart of Pharisaic Judaism; it is used to wrangle an idea forward. Debate often ends with disparate opinions; this remains is true today. Moreover, in the story from Luke, even though the synagogue leader (never identified as a Pharisee) challenges Jesus, the assembly "rejoiced at the wonderful things he had done" (Luke 13:17).

What we learn about stories relative to Sabbath is that Jesus was in synagogue on Sabbath "as was his custom." He read scripture. He wore tzitzit. And, he performed acts that would open people to a more full and expansive experience of Sabbath. He was, indeed, challenged, but those challenges do not imply that Jesus per se "broke the Sabbath law." Rather, they point to differences of opinion regarding law, important differences that helped the early Christian community better identify how it would relate to Jewish law and better understand Jesus' role as an entry point into Sabbath, an entry into God's gift of law and grace.

So, in the same way that I implore you to stop comparing unjust church actions with "Pharisaism," I implore you to stop molding Jesus into something you want him to be. Stop saying that he "broke the law." Unless, of course, you want to talk about Roman law...

Where did the Christian conflation of hypocrisy and the Pharisees originate? Anti-Jewishness quickly arose within the Christian movement. As Jews expelled Christians from their synagogues, a family fight escalated. By the Protestant Reformation, acrimony was strong between Jews and Christians (the Crusades did not help!). In his invective against the Roman Catholic Church, its abuses and excesses, Martin Luther compared the church to Pharisees, and the practice stuck.

Good biblical exegesis can be used to further the efforts to widen the church doors, to move us as a people into work that rights wrongs, creates justice, and helps to usher in God's holy realm. Let's not be lazy. Let's not caricature certain groups in order to bolster the esteem of our own. Let's not create bogeymen and further divide one from another.

Jesus was a healer. Let's talk about that. He restored communities. Let's lift up those stories. He did indeed challenge religious leaders; we can say that. In fact, I think that using the stories that highlight debates between Jesus and other Jews regarding their own laws of identity can be instructive for us in our own debates about identity and communion. Jesus was a provocateur. It's fine for us to show that. He went to the heart of the place of power to speak a different word. He indeed claimed, or at least his community claimed for him, titles and authority that were supposed to lay elsewhere. All of these are ways which we can look to scripture for wisdom and guidance.

Good anthropology is important. So is good sociology. Good theology is imperative within a theological movement. So is good biblical exegesis. "Three out of four ain't bad" just won't work here. Christians insisting on change must embrace a rigorous exegetical practice if we are to be different from those with whom we disagree. We cannot castigate others for poor biblical literacy and then utilize poor exegesis in the composition of our own positions.

God's Holy Creation: a Sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25 (Nov. 17, 2013)

Recently, there has been an increased presence of homeless people coming to the church seeking shelter, warmth, access to electricity and other things we take for granted, and the basic necessities of food and water. While Wall Street has rebounded since the economic downturn, many people are feeling the effects of the sequestration that has left vulnerable women and children with less money for food and health care, seniors who depend upon meals on wheels with decreased funds, and cuts in most of the programs that feed, clothe, house, and care for the most vulnerable in our society. This quiet desperation is largely ignored in the press, which focuses primarily on stocks, GDP, and the housing market, all of which are important but largely divorced from the suffering of those at the margins of our society.

This is true, even in Seattle, which has rebounded faster and more robustly than much of the rest of the nation. A man came to the church this past week and wanted an hour alone in the sanctuary. He told me that as a homeless person, his access to warmth, to fresh water, and to bathrooms is always predicated on being in someone else's company. Shelters provide no privacy. Feeding programs are done in groups. Bathrooms are public. And so on. He said to me that he missed the dignity that comes with the simple luxury of being able sit in a warm place all alone, to be in the bathroom alone, to sleep alone, to eat in quiet, and to have access to these things without a thousand questions from social service providers. And so, he sat in our sanctuary alone for an hour. Without the noise of other people talking to him, around him, at him. He sat out of the cold and wet. In this room, he found something sacred - actual sanctuary.

Interestingly, some of the most poetic and moving words in the Bible were written by people who, like our visitor this week, existed in the midst of struggle. Comfort is a powerful soporific lulling our senses so that the world comes to us just as we expect without high highs or low lows. Discomfort, however, puts us on edge and awakens us to every curse and every blessing. That is why change is rarely sought by those in power, living in ease with money, support systems, and privilege. Change is sought and pushed for by those who are left out, left alone, and left defenseless.

But, not only do those on the margins push for change, they are also the ones who help us to see with new eyes the simple beauty of this world. They are the ones who can bestow hope because they are the ones who understand, in their marrow and spirit, the transformative power of hope. They are the ones who know the life-giving power of joy. Because they are truly alive.

The reading from Isaiah comes about two generations after the Israelites had returned home from exile, somewhere around the year 475 BCE. Jerusalem had been largely destroyed, and while hope spread before them, the former glory of their city no longer existed. They were in the midst of rebuilding their city. There were those who wanted to rebuild things as they once had been. There were those, like our poet and prophet, who understood that streets, homes, and marketplaces in ruins could serve as an invitation to build things differently, to reimagine society and its systems differently. He offered words of hope that, despite their wait and struggle, God is at work "to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." Through the prophet God says, "Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight." Such beautiful words for a people hungering for a future they could almost but not quite see or even hope for.

And then, the prophet gives us new creation that is freed from the curses of Genesis 3, the curse of the banishment from the Garden of Eden, in which woman's childbirth becomes painful, human labor becomes toil, and the serpent strikes the heel of humankind. In this new creation, the sorrow of the past will disappear; work on the land becomes a joy; exile (or banishment) will be no longer; children will not be born for calamity; offspring will be blessed.  In this new creation, natural enemies (or unnatural enemies, as animals did not devour one another in the original creation) comfort for one another. Here the prophets gives us one of the most enduring hopes of our faith - the hope and vision of the peaceable kingdom.

God speaks to the broken city and calls forth newness. God has not stopped holy creation. God is still at work in and among us coaxing this forth. This dream is not only a utopian vision, but it is a promise that God is laboring here among us in our world in the midst of our brokenness. God does not send us someplace different to find newness. God pulls newness out of our despair, out of our ruins. This is so very difficult for us to see or to trust because all we see is the devastation. Whether we are talking about violence in the world, empty pews in our churches, or sorrow in our hearts, trusting God's holy creative acts is hard. It is so much easier to think or hope or imagine that God will create something new in a different world, the world after we die, another city, someplace else. But that is not the word the prophet gives us. It is not the vision that God extends to us. God not only creates newness here; God creates newness in the heavens as well. God is making all things new. As the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: "This poet...knows that Yahweh's coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible. And although the work of urbanization is hard and daily and concrete, that work is situation in a vision unscarred. What this poet imagines for his treasured city, the subsequent people of faith have regularly entertained as a promise over every failed city. Here the old city is submitted to the wonder of the creator, who makes all things new."

I invite us to lean in to the difficult work of trusting that God - in our city, in our church, in our lives - is molding and shaping us in the joy and delight that we were made to be. I know it's hard. It's hard when the evidence around us is so very contrary to this vision. But God is down in the ruins of this world and the ruins of our lives. God is right here making all things new. God finds ways to use our ruins to help us look beyond the constructs we would erect. God provides sanctuary, sometimes just for a little while, and in the sanctuary moment of rest, trust, and safety, God's holy creative work can be found making all things new. Right now. Today. Beautiful. A delight. As it - we -were intended to be. Amen.

Peace: Back to our roots

As many within the United Methodist Church sort through reactions and responses to the recent trial, conviction, and punishment of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, I return to a prayer from our Anglican Methodist roots. The second Collect in the Morning Prayer is the collect for peace, which reads:

"O GOD, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen." (Book of Common Prayer)

Sometimes, in order to see our way forward, we look back; we look back for wisdom that is ageless, hopeful, profound, grounding, and true. We need peace. We need it every day. Some need it especially this day. 

I find this prayer especially meaningful because its language is not part of our vernacular. The words do not come easily or naturally. They stand as reminders that peace may require a different language, different thinking, a different approach. This linguistic interruption, by its very awkwardness, ties us to our past, awakens us to the "difference-ness" that prayer introduces in our lives, and helps us distance ourselves from the "normal" of our world.

Of particular meaning for me in this prayer is the word "concord." I defy you to recall a moment when you wrote or spoke it without alluding to a plane, a comedy group, or a grape. "Concord," hosever, refers to harmony among people or groups of people, something many may believe is beyond the power of us all, even (perhaps) God. 

And so we pray. We plead with one another, with God, with our own souls to make the awkwardly unimaginable real. Right here. In our broken covenant. Within broken relationships. In a broken world. We pray. We pray for the wisdom of our heritage to move us into an harmonious future. And, for those times when concord eludes us, we pray for perseverance and protection. For all of this, and so much more, we pray.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Oh, the gay thing once again. Here I go...

As The United Methodist Church continues to struggle with divisions within our connection that strain the fabric of our covenant, once again I feel the need to speak up and out.

This blog post will not cover the "rights" and "wrongs" of biblical exegesis relative to sexual orientation. I have already expressed my feelings of futility for that approach. Rather, this is to serve as a public witness of who I am and how I intend to minister.

First, to all of those who are bone tired of fighting, I apologize on behalf of a church that is making you weary. Our inability to conclude this decades long struggle has taken a toll on everyone - on those who advocate for "traditional" marriage and understandings of gender and sexual orientation as well as on those who continue to press for wider and wider inclusion and a more generous expression of acceptance within the church. No one is exempted from the pain of this fight. However, while many may be exhausted, I only apologize to those who are LGBTQI and their allies. As the ones talked about, derided, judged, called names, shut out and down, and set on the margins, your pain is especially acute. Your weariness is especially overwhelming. I am sorry. I am sorry that your church can feel like a foreign place, that policies of exclusion do not match the generous and supportive community found in your local congregations, that your core selves and your most precious and holy relationships are denied, ignored, and marginalized in the one place that should most honor, support, and uplift them.

As I pray for those who feel as though there is not enough energy left in them to take the next breath, I am reminded of the beautiful poetry from the prophetic tradition of Isaiah,  which was probably written near the end of Babylonian exile for a people in need of hope and comfort.

 Why do you complain, Jacob?    Why do you say, Israel,“My way is hidden from the Lord;    my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,    and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary    and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary,    and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;    they will run and not grow weary,    they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:27-31).
As much as you feel alone, dispirited, weary, and dejected, you are not alone. This path that is fraught with disappointment, frustration, exile, and struggle stands among many such paths toward homecoming, safety, justice, and new life. You are not alone historically. Our sacred story is one of exile and homecoming, of death and new life. And, you are not alone today. There are many, like me, who stand with you and who can hope for you when hope seems so very elusive.

Second, I want to be clear about one thing. This pastor will baptize, confirm, comfort, welcome into membership, minister with and to, marry, and bury people who identify within the LGBTQI communities. I will do all that I can to ensure that your spiritual community is safe, boundaried, healthy, and mature. I will listen to your pain. I will challenge you to live faithfully with God and your loved ones. I will pray for you. I will help you prepare for marriage and I will stand unapologetically with you and offer God's blessings upon your life shared together. I will baptize you and your children. I will treat your relationship as normative and wonderful and beautiful. I will visit you in the hospital and hold hands with you and your partner in times of distress. I will anoint you with oil and pray for your healing. I will wait by your bedside until your last breath is exhaled. And, I will stand by your grave and offer God's blessings upon your life lived in eternal peace with Christ and the saints who have gone before you. 

These actions should not need to be considered prophetic. This is the calling of a pastor. We are called, trained, and set apart to bear witness to life's most precious moments. We hear people's stories of deep guilt. We bear witness to the wounds of shame. We see humankind from birth to death and through all points in between. This is a holy vocation. And, while we are called to be prophetic, these acts were never supposed to be prophetic. Yet, as a consequence of abiding marginalization, the deeply pastoral is today something also essentially prophetic. If someone were to ask me if I perform such and such action "out of a political stance or a pastoral one," I would have no honest answer except, "Yes." Sadly, the pastoral is also prophetic for pastors in this church - for pastors who dare to bear witness to the fullness of life's holy, painful, and wondrous moments that visit the lives of LGBTQI parishioners and community members.

As marriage equality becomes more prevalent in the United States, more clergy will be forced to come to a peace about how he or she will be present in the lives of people who are LGBTQI. Will they preside over weddings of same sex couples? Will they welcome families with LGBTQI members? Will they baptize, confirm, and welcome into membership LGBTQI people and their families?

Peace visited me on these issues years ago. I am not tired of the fight because I am not fighting. I am at peace. My calling is clear. How I will minister is without struggle or confusion. I am completely at peace with how to minister with and to people who are LGBTQI and their families and friends. If the United Methodist Church seeks to punish me, I am at peace with that process. If the denomination seeks to silence me, it will be disappointed. If I am wrong in my theology or exegesis or anthropology, I trust in the compassion and mercy of God, but I do not think that I am wrong. The church is.

To my colleagues facing trials, administrative processes, and uncertainty, please know that I pray for you, for your families, your congregations, and your vocations. As an Elder in relationship with you, I hold you in my heart.

I pray for the day when the words of Isaiah's prophetic tradition sound like simple poetry that points to a quaint and distant time. But, today, they are poignant and needed. Exile is not forever. Our exhaustion will never overwhelm the goodness and strength of our Creator. The tumultuous path toward justice and compassion may be walked by us, but God goes before and behind us. God has not disregarded our cause. God has not abandoned us to the wilderness alone and vulnerable. And, in our most despairing moments, we can take comfort that God gives us wings like eagles that we might soar to new heights and glimpse new vistas as yet undreamed of by our limited and constrained imagination. God is with us all leading us home. God is with us leading us to new life.

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