When Religion Makes Things Worse

volcanoLet me begin this post with a test.  It’s a true-false test, and there’s only one question, but it may be the most important question you will ever answer.  Ready?  Here it is:

Q: Is your understanding of God true, or false?

Several years ago I got to hear Alan Hirsch speak.  Hirsch is originally from South Africa.  He has worked as a church planter in Australia, and has become one of the leading voices in the missional church movement.  I wrote down almost everything he said.  But one thing that stood out from all the others:  Hirsch said, “If your conception of God is radically false, then the more religious you are, the worse it is.”  Think about that for a minute.  The word radical comes from an old Latin word meaning “root,” and you could picture it this way: if the way you think about God is false at the root, then the trunk will be twisted, the limbs will be lopsided, the branches will be bent, and the fruit you find on that tree will not be the kind of fruit that will do anyone any good.  In fact, it could be poison—bringing death and not life.

All of which makes me want to ask, “Is our conception of God radically true?  Is the trunk straight, the limbs strong, the branches full of good fruit?”  It’s a question I’d like every Christian to consider because many of us have spent our lives going to church.  We’ve been to Sunday school and Bible school; we’ve sat through more sermons than we can count, spent hours in Bible studies and small group discussions; we’ve been on retreats and mission trips.  We should have learned something about God by now, but what have we learned?  Is our conception of God radically true or radically false?  Because if it is radically false—as Alan Hirsch warns—then the more religious we are the worse it is.  But how would we know?  How could we be sure?  In what may be the most important “True-False” test we will ever take how can we be absolutely, positively, one hundred percent certain that our conception of God is true, and not false?

I think that’s the question that got Nicodemus out of bed in the middle of the night, the question that had him up wandering around the house in his pajamas until he finally got dressed and went to see Jesus.  John tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were some of the most religious people who have ever lived.  They had as their motto the words of Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  But they had interpreted holiness first of all as righteousness, which they did by keeping all 613 of those Old Testament rules, and secondly as purity, which they did by separating themselves from anything impure or unclean.  Jesus, on the other hand, ate with sinners and tax collectors, he didn’t always wash his hands before meals, and sometimes he broke the law by working on the Sabbath day.  And yet Nicodemus couldn’t deny that the Spirit of God rested on this young prophet from Galilee, and that the things he did and said seemed uncannily true.

He needed to know more.

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  It was his way of starting the conversation, of acknowledging that Jesus was onto something.  He didn’t come right out and ask, “Do you think my conception of God is radically false?”  But that’s the question Jesus answered.  “Yes,” Jesus said.  “Your conception of God is radically false.  It needs to be ripped up by the roots and replaced with something new.  You need to start from scratch, Nicodemus.  You need to be born again.”  And Nicodemus said, “What?!  Can a man enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” But maybe what he meant was, “Are you asking me to give up my conception of God, the one I’ve worked so hard to acquire, the one I’ve spent my life perfecting?  I’ve been to seminary, Jesus!  I got all the answers when I was there.  I sealed them up in logic-tight compartments.  And now you’re asking me to open those compartments and conceive of God in a whole new way?  I can’t do it, Jesus!  It would be like trying to crawl back into my mother’s womb!”

One of the real problems people were having with Jesus in those days—and it wasn’t just the Pharisees—is that he wasn’t what they were expecting at all.  They were expecting a Messiah, a political and military leader who would run the Romans out of Israel and restore the nation to its former glory.  When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was Peter said, “You’re him!  You’re the Messiah!”  But when Jesus began to explain what kind of messiah he was—that he hadn’t come to conquer and rule but to suffer and die—Peter said, “God forbid, Lord.  This shall never happen to you!”  He said it because he hadn’t been born again yet.  He hadn’t given up his old conception of God, or of God’s Messiah.  But on the Day of Pentecost, after he had taken a few deep breaths of the Holy Spirit, Peter began to say that this same Jesus who had suffered and died had been raised from the dead, lifted up to sit at the right hand of God, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and poured it out upon his church.  “Let all Israel be assured of this,” Peter said to the crowd: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).

But you see, that’s a radically different conception of messiah than the one Peter had started with, and he couldn’t take hold of the new without letting go of the old.  I think that’s what Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus: that his old conception of God won’t allow him to be part of the new things God is doing, and that he can’t just modify that old conception, he’s got to give it up.  In another place Jesus says it like this: “You can’t put new wine into old wine skins” (Mark 2:22).  When the new wine begins to ferment and bubble it will blow those old, brittle wine skins to pieces.  You’ve got to put new wine into new wine skins.  You’ve got to open up those logic-tight compartments and get a fresh conception of God.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You’ve got to be born again, friend—born of water, born of spirit, born from above.  You’ve got to let God’s spirit blow where it will instead of trying so hard to control it.  You’ve got to learn to follow, not lead.”  I think Peter got that in the end.  The Spirit led him into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus had led him into a true understanding of who God was.

Which brings us to the Doctrine of the Trinity.

May 22 is Trinity Sunday, and as preaching professor David Lose likes to say it is nobody’s favorite day to preach.  “But,” he argues, “behind all the convoluted doctrinal, philosophical, and hermeneutical concerns that found expression in the Trinitarian controversies of the third and fourth centuries pulses the more concrete and urgent desire to describe the [true] nature and character of God.”  In other words Trinity Sunday is that one day each year when the church looks at its conception of God and tries to be sure that it is not radically false, to be sure that it is, in fact, radically true, and we do this by looking at God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As I’ve suggested, the Spirit led Peter into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus led him into a true understanding of who God was.  David Lose says, “Perhaps the best way to approach the Trinity, then, is to think of it backwards. It is through the power of the Spirit that we can receive Jesus as God’s surprising and unexpected messiah who reveals to us the gracious and loving nature of the Father.”[i]

He focuses on one verse in particular, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  “What is striking about this verse,” he says, “is that everywhere else in John the word that is translated here as ‘world’—kosmos—describes that entity which is hostile to God. So we would not be remiss to translate the opening of the verse, ‘God so loved that God-hating world that he sent his only Son.’”  He says, “This verse has profound implications as, according to the Fourth Evangelist, all of God’s work in Jesus through the Spirit is to save us from our own folly and penchant for self-destruction. In fact, as it turns out God has no particular designs or plans for our punishment or rejection.  Instead, God only plans and works for our salvation and health. God desires for us only life, life in all of its abundance here and now as well as in the age to come.”  In other words, he concludes, what we learn about the Father from the Son through the Spirit, is that “God is, above all else, a God of love.”[ii]

Now, let me ask you: what kind of tree is going to grow from the root of love?  What kind of trunk, and limbs and branches will it have?  What kind of fruit will it bear?  If your conception of God is radically true, then the more religious you are the better it is—for you and for the world.  But if your conception of God is radically false, then being religious will only make things worse.  And there are some radically false conceptions of God in the world.  One of the more popular among them seems to assume that he does have particular designs and plans for our punishment and rejection.  This is one of the reasons I led a Wednesday night workshop for my church on the doctrine of the Atonement, trying to understand how the death of Jesus can make us “at-one” with God.  It’s a difficult doctrine.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  But at one point I said to the people who sat there listening, “I’m telling you all this because I don’t want you to be afraid of God,” because there are some theories of the Atonement that can do precisely that.

The worst is the one I’ve come to call the “Virgin-in-the-Volcano” theory.  When my daughter Catherine was studying abroad in Costa Rica she took a side trip to Nicaragua and visited an active volcano that her tour guide described as one of the “seven entrances to Hell.” In primitive times the people of that region thought that some angry god inhabited the volcano, and when it would start to rumble they would throw virgins or young children into the volcano to appease it.  That’s unthinkable, isn’t it?  We reject that as primitive, pagan superstition.  And yet there is a theory of the atonement that sounds almost exactly like that.  It suggests that our sinfulness so offended God’s holiness that he was on the verge of destroying us, and none of us was perfect enough or pure enough to appease his anger.  But then along came Jesus—the sinless Son of God—who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.  And that did the trick; God was no longer angry.

That may sound familiar to you.  It may sound like something you learned in Sunday school.  But think about what it does to your conception of God: it teaches you that God is angry with you and wants to destroy you, and that the only thing that will appease his anger is the sacrifice of his sinless son.  If we were still talking about the god of the volcano we might say that there wasn’t a virgin on earth perfect enough or pure enough to satisfy him.  That in the end he had to give the people his own son, so that they could throw him back into the volcano, so that his anger could be appeased.  Can you see how twisted that logic is?  And can you see that if your conception of God is anything like that then the tree that grows from that root will be similarly twisted, its branches broken, and its fruit rotten?

But here’s the good news:

A Trinitarian theology won’t let us get away with that kind of thinking.  To speak of one God in three persons is to insist that Father, Son, and Spirit work together, that they share a common purpose.  You can’t have one person of the Trinity angry with us, eager to destroy us, while another person of the Trinity loves us, and steps in to save us.  No, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit work together tirelessly toward the goal of our redemption.  As it says in John 3:17, “God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,” and it must mean to save it from something other than God’s wrath: I think it means to save it from us.  We’re the ones who keep threatening to blow the world to smithereens.  We’re the ones who keep going to war with each other.  We’re the ones who can’t seem to love our own neighbors, much less our enemies.  We’re the ones who don’t love God as we should.  And maybe it’s because—at the heart of it—we don’t love ourselves.  We look in the mirror and what we see is not a beloved child of God, but a miserable sinner who deserves no better than death.  It’s not hard for us to believe that God would be so angry with us that he would want to destroy us.

“Enough of that!” the Father says to the Son.  “Go and show those people how much I love them.”  And Jesus does.  He comes and loves us and loves us and loves us.  And some of us can’t accept it.  We reject it and we reject him.  We put him to death on a cross.  And he goes willingly, not so God will finally stop hating us, but because he wants us to know that God has never stopped loving us, and that there is nothing he wouldn’t do to show his love.  Not long ago I went to a friend’s ordination service, and at the end of the service communion was served in the Baptist way, with deacons passing out little pieces of bread and little cups of juice.  I’m usually up front leading communion.  I don’t often get to sit out there and contemplate its meaning.  But on that Sunday afternoon I did, and as I looked down into that little cup I didn’t see the blood of sacrifice, I saw the wine of celebration; I saw Father, Son, and Spirit loving me enough to forgive my sins and restore our relationship; I saw the Holy Trinity raising a glass and proposing a toast to our now-and-forever friendship.

Now, you tell me: what kind of tree will grow from that root?  What kind of trunk will it have, what kind of limbs will it lift up, what kind of fruit will it bear?  Is it the kind of fruit that will nourish the world God so loves, or the kind of fruit that will make it sick to its stomach?  This is a “True-False” test, and as I suggested earlier:

It may be the most important one you will ever take.

–Jim Somerville

[See the video! Click HERE]



[i] David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, from his comments on the Trinity Sunday reading for Year B (John 3:1-17) at the Good Preacher website.

[ii] Ibid.

Can Anything Bring Us Together?

politicsExcerpts from a sermon preached on January 31, 2016, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

The title of today’s sermon is: “Can Anything Bring Us Together?” And let me be clear that when I use the word us I’m not talking about us as a church: I’m talking about us as a nation.


Other than the recent unpleasantness some people call the Civil War has there ever been a time in history when we, as a nation, were so divided? I think I could understand division between Democrats and Republicans, but watch the debates and you’ll see that there is division within the parties. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen so much finger-pointing and name-calling. And when it comes to the issues themselves—things like immigration, gun control, and same-sex marriage—everybody in America has an opinion, and instead of listening to each other to see what we can learn we seem to spend our time shouting at each other, trying to drown out the voices on the other side.

Before I say another word let me assure you that this is not going to be a “political” sermon. When I interviewed with First Baptist, Washington, years ago someone asked, “How do you feel about politics?” It was a good question, especially for a church in that city, where politics is in the very air you breathe. But I said, “I am about the least political person I know. I’m almost apolitical.” And they said, “Good! That’s just what we’re looking for!” Because they had made it a rule years before to check all partisan politics at the door.

It was a good rule for them and I think it’s a good rule for any church. Politics can divide us in ways we don’t need to be divided. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). And so, as his followers, our job is to do whatever we can to bring heaven to earth, which is more about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work than standing around debating politics. And when it comes to that maybe we could lay aside our own interests and discern the will of God, and then vote for those people and policies that line up most closely with His will, not that any of them will do it perfectly.

My friend Don Flowers is a pastor in Charleston, South Carolina, and this morning he’s preaching on one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not murder.” It seems clear to him that it is not God’s will that we should murder each other, and so he’s putting five white crosses on the church lawn to represent the five people who have been murdered in Charleston so far this year. He wants his congregation to think about those people. He wants them to hear their names. He believes those people were precious to God and that God didn’t want them to be murdered. But I don’t have to think about it very long to imagine what kind of backlash will come, about how many people will assume Don is talking about gun control and trying to take away their Second Amendment rights. If I know Don he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s rights; he just wants the murders to stop. The gun owners I’ve talked to want the same thing. On either side of most issues are people who love their country and want the best for it. They simply have different ideas about what the best is and how it might be accomplished.

We forget that sometimes, and instead of treating each other like fellow Americans we treat each other like enemies. Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post in which I tried, unsuccessfully, to blame it all on talk radio. Someone who commented on that post said: “I think it is too simplistic to blame it on talk radio. Surf the internet for a while and read comments people leave after various articles and talk radio begins to sound like a Sunday school class. It goes beyond those as well. Newspapers, magazines and television all contribute. We have become a deeply divided nation and it only appears to be getting worse. Why? Could it be that in our modern age when we can find out about events happening on the other side of the world faster than what is happening down the street that we are on “information overload?” Are human beings really wired to handle the constant barrage of information that comes our way? Could it be fear that causes us to recoil and back into our safety zones, simply because we can’t process everything fast enough? Safety zones are useful. They are the places where we know and are known, touchstone places where we can process and understand without feeling threatened. Might not the church be a good place to begin the healing of the division?”

Well, it might. But then again it might not.

Not all of you made it to church last week but I talked about that time Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue and said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” I talked about how it’s easier to preach that passage in some places than in others: easier in the homeless shelter, for instance, than the country club. But I said, “Here at First Baptist Church we seem to be such a close-knit family that good news for any of us is good news for all of us. When Jesus says he has good news for the poor, our wealthy members rejoice, because they know and love our poor members. They are part of the family. They want them to hear good news.” But it wasn’t like that in Nazareth. After Jesus preached that sermon the people carried him out to the edge of town and tried to throw him off a cliff, because what they heard him saying was that he had good news—but not for them.

I went on to talk about Paul’s metaphor of the body from 1 Corinthians 12, where he says that we Christians are the body of Christ and individually members of it, that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” any more than the head can say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” We all need each other in the body, and when any member of the body is suffering we all suffer together, whereas if any member of the body is rejoicing we all rejoice together.

It’s a beautiful picture of the church and I think it applies to this one, but Paul used it with the Corinthians because they were divided; deeply divided. They were like the disunited states of America. And apparently it came down to this: that some of them spoke in tongues and others didn’t. And the ones who spoke in tongues began to think of themselves as special and different from the rest. “You only speak in the tongues of men,” they would say: “I speak in the tongues of angels.”

That’s why Paul spends all that time talking about the body in chapter 12: he’s trying to convince these Corinthians that just as the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” the one who speaks in tongues can’t say to the one who doesn’t, “I don’t need you.” He wants them to love and care for one another just as the whole body bends down to minister to a stubbed toe. “All of you make up the body of Christ,” he says, “and all of you are members of it.” He’s not just painting a pretty picture in this chapter; he’s trying to put the dismembered body of Christ back together again. And believe it or not that’s what he’s doing in 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love” chapter.

We often read this text at weddings, mostly because it has the world love in it. “Love is patient, love is kind,” we say, and then smile at the blushing bride and the handsome groom and hope they will have that kind of love for each other. But this text might be better suited for a session of marriage counseling than for a wedding ceremony. It was written for people who were going around thinking they were better than others in the church simply because they had the more obvious spiritual gift. God forbid! Paul writes (with enough force to break off a pencil point): “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love? I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal! And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love? I am nothing! If I give away all my possessions, or even offer my own body as a sacrifice, but do not have love? I gain nothing!”

Can you begin to hear what Paul is getting at? He’s talking directly to those people in the Corinthian church who think they are better than everyone else simply because they have certain spiritual gifts. In another one of his letters he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and says, “The fruit of the spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22). And I might add it’s not only the first of the fruits, but the one by which the entire tree is known. “Love is patient,” Paul says (in full admonishment mode): “it doesn’t push and shove its way to the front of the communion line like some of you. Love is kind, it doesn’t step on other people’s backs to get to the top. Love is not envious (as you are) or boastful (as you are) or arrogant (as you are) or rude (as you are). It does not insist on its own way, as some of you do; it is not irritable or resentful, as some of you are; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, Love rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

“But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. [All these spiritual gifts you’re so proud of; they’re not forever, they’re for building up the body of Christ! So stop going around acting like you’ve achieved perfection.] For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child [just as some of you are now doing]; but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. [I want you to do the same!] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, [we don’t have the full picture], but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part [I’m only human, after all]; but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So, what will be left to us, when tongues and knowledge and prophecy come to an end? Faith, hope, and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

That’s a good word, and the more I’ve thought about Paul’s closing argument the more I’ve thought that these may be the three necessary virtues of the church in our time as well as his.

  • Faith, Paul says, and that’s what I find myself wanting to say to people who get so exercised about politics, as if this or that election were going to make us or break us. “Have a little faith,” I want to say; “not in politics, and certainly not in politicians, but in God—the One who made heaven and earth, and who has watched over the rise and fall of empires for millennia now!”
  • Hope, Paul says, and I want us to have a little of that, too; not hope in the future, but hope for the future. Things don’t have to get worse and worse, necessarily; they can get better and better. We can help them get better and better. But not if we’ve lost our hope. I look at this church, at this country, and wonder why our very best days can’t be ahead of us. We’ve got to hope for that, we’ve got to pray for that! But most of all, we’ve got to…
  • Love, Paul says. And this is not only the greatest of these three virtues, it is the real test, because Paul makes it clear that he is not asking us to love people who are just like us, or people who are members of our chosen political party; he is asking us to love those who are not like us; he seems to believe that this is the only thing that can bring us together.

And it’s worth a try, because whatever else we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. America is more divided than that church in Corinth, with the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you,” and the head saying to the foot, “I don’t need you.” There has to be a better way. Maybe that’s why, after Paul has exhausted the metaphor of the body, he says, “There is a better way”: it is the way of love, and it looks like this:

It is patient; it is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends.

There’s not a political candidate out there who could get elected on that platform, but don’t you wish there were? Don’t you wish someone would stand up and say, “Enough of this. We’ve tried every other way; let’s try the way of love!” Well, someone did, and they crucified him, and yet—2,000 years later—we are still talking about him. His way was the way of love, and something in us still knows it is the only thing…

That can bring us all together.

–Jim Somerville, 2016

In Light of Recent Events

gay marriageThis is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 28, setting aside my summer sermon series to address a number of recent events in our nation.  I publish it here by request:

On Thursday Christy and I drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, which means that we waited in line to cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the border. I don’t know why. You can see the falls from the American side. But we love international travel, and it only cost $3.50 to cross the bridge, so we did it. And, besides, we had reservations at a bed and breakfast on the Canadian side. To avoid roaming charges we switched our phones to “airplane mode” and spent a blissful sixteen hours ignoring the news. When we crossed back over the next day it seemed that everything had changed. Christy sat in the passenger seat looking at her Facebook feed and telling me that the Governor of Alabama had taken down the Confederate flag. And then she told me the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act and made gay marriage legal everywhere in America. A little later in the day she told me that President Obama had started singing “Amazing Grace” near the end of his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and that someone here in our own town had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Jefferson Davis Monument just down the street.

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

But now I’m back, and like most of you I’m trying to discern what these events will mean for America, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, for Metropolitan Richmond, and for First Baptist Church. It’s a complicated question, and I went for a run yesterday morning to sort things out. During that run I stopped at the Jefferson Davis Monument and looked for evidence of the words “Black Lives Matter.” I couldn’t find them anywhere. But I thought about the person whose job it was to remove those words from the monument—James Robertson, a private contractor, a white man. I had seen his picture in the paper before I went for my run. And I wondered: what was he thinking as he scrubbed those words from the stone? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, even as he was doing it, he was thinking, “But black lives DO matter!”

Every life matters.

I preached in Dallas, Texas, on June 19, at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I reminded the audience that exactly 150 years earlier Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two-and-a-half years earlier, but most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops. From the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Gordon Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after that announcement, but you might imagine that former slave owners did not rejoice. In a single moment they had gone from owning slaves, who worked for free, to having hired hands, who would expect to be paid.

I also reminded the audience that on June 19, 1964, exactly 51 years earlier, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On that day I’m sure there was rejoicing in the streets, but again, not everyone was rejoicing. And so it was on Friday, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a picture of a woman holding a sign that read: “I’m not just gay; I’m ecstatic!” Everywhere on Facebook people were putting rainbow stripes over their profile pictures and celebrating this momentous day in our nation’s history, but again…not everyone.

Does it always have to come to this? Big decisions by the government that split the country into two groups: those who are rejoicing and those who are not? Does it always have to divide us as a people? Will this latest decision divide us as a church? I hope and pray that it will not, and to that end I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes talking about just what is at stake here.

First of all: marriage.

In the Bible, as far as I can tell, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised. It is the logical outcome of the first commandment ever given in the Bible, Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the people he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In the very next chapter the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply. A man and a woman “cleave” to each other. Biologists call it sexual reproduction.

This appears to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman. But not only one woman. Early in the Bible we have the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately he produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters. He was fruitful. He multiplied. He fulfilled the first commandment. But I don’t know many people these days who argue for that kind of biblical marriage. Instead they talk about a lifetime of love and commitment and I agree. That’s a better model than pure procreation. But I’m not sure where we get that. Not from the Bible, certainly, where Jacob may be the only example of someone who wanted to get married because he was in love. Most of those marriages were arranged by parents who made the best matches they could for their children and then waited for the grandchildren to come. It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.

But these days we talk about love and commitment. A woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while he may want a family at some point it’s hardly ever the main point. That became clear to me on the day I did a wedding for a couple in their eighties. They were so precious! And each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage. When I asked the groom, “Do you take this woman in sickness and in health?” I saw the tears come to his eyes, because he had nursed his wife through a lengthy illness. And when I asked the bride the same question she did the same thing. She had sat by her husband’s bed until he drew his last breath. These two knew what they were getting into! But they weren’t getting into it to start a family. They were lonely, and they had come to love each other, and they longed for human companionship. How could I deny them that?

So, our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times. It’s not just about multiplication anymore. It’s about love and commitment. And our understanding of human beings has changed since biblical times. We know now that while most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. What we don’t know is why. Is it genetic? Is it something determined at an early age? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. I can still remember the day I discovered that I was attracted to the opposite sex: it was in fourth grade, and her name was Bamma Donohue. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But I didn’t choose to be attracted to her; it just happened. People who are attracted to members of the same sex report precisely that kind of experience.

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional. But what about us? We are not the Supreme Court. We are, most of us, members of First Baptist Church, and when it comes to marriage the separation of church and state prevails. No one can force me to do a same-sex wedding: all they can do is ask.

And so far, no one has.

But surely, someday, someone will, and so, when same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia a few months ago, I asked our deacons where we stand on the issue of homosexuality. I passed out little slips of paper and put four points on the spectrum: 1) we condemn homosexuality and exclude homosexuals from our church, 2) we tolerate homosexuals under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 3) we welcome homosexuals as members but we do not ordain or marry them, or 4) we extend to our homosexual members the same rights, privileges, and blessings as any other member. I asked the deacons to write down the number that best described First Baptist Church and the average was 2.5—somewhere between tolerance and welcome. And then I passed out more slips of paper and asked them to write down where we should be and this time the average was 3—welcome. We weren’t drafting policy. We weren’t making decisions. We were just finding out where we were on this issue and not everyone was in the same place. There was at least one 1 on those little slips of paper and a few 4’s. As I’ve said before, this church is a big tent. It has all kinds of people in it. The only common denominator is our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which brings me back to my first thoughts on this topic.

When I was still wondering whether I should address these recent events in today’s sermon I thought I might just say something during the welcome. I might say, “There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few days, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8). So, maybe we should spend some time sitting at his feet in the next few weeks, listening to what he has to say about all this.” But then I gave it some more thought. What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all. What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing. What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing. What does he say about black lives? Nothing that I can recall. But he does say something that could be extended to all lives. He tells us to love our neighbors, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead.

“If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “then go and do likewise.”

What would he say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay? I’m fairly sure he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our gay neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Christian neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and even the neighbors who borrow our tools and forget to return them. Leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court. Our job is not to judge; it is to love. And it is to love everyone.

Because every life matters.

Watch video (available after 6/30)

What I Want for Richmond

black-and-white-hands-e12810219397001I am not a regular reader of the newspaper. I am not a regular watcher of television news. Even so, I have heard plenty about Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, and Cleveland, OH in the last few weeks. I know that there is racial unrest in our nation that is registering on the Richter Scale.

I haven’t preached about it. Although Karl Barth famously urged preachers to step into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other I tend to leave the Times behind. I preach from the Bible, and I’m amazed at how often its timeless truths seem as fresh and relevant as the morning newspaper. Anyone who is listening to its pleas for justice, mercy, and humble walking with God will hear the names of “Ferguson,” “Cleveland,” and “New York.”

But I’m not thinking about them this morning; I’m thinking about Richmond.

What I want for Richmond is a different kind of reality. I don’t want us to be the next Ferguson. I want us to be a place where God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. And I can’t imagine that it is God’s will for there to be enmity among his children, and especially not because of color or class.

So, what if, in Richmond:

  • We went out of our way to be kind to each other?
  • We greeted each other warmly, sincerely, with the sign of the open palm, proving that we meant each other no harm?
  • We visited each other’s churches, celebrating the truth that we have the same Heavenly Father, which makes us all sisters and brothers?
  • We took the time to call or listen to those who may feel especially vulnerable in this time of unrest, those who are thinking, “That could have been my son,” or, “That could have been me”?
  • We tried to be patient with those who learned prejudice from their parents or grandparents or other trusted elders as they struggle to learn a better way?
  • We prayed for police officers, who regularly risk their lives in the line of duty, and who live with more fear than they would ever want us to see?
  • We tried hard to see in the face of every other human being the face of Christ, and tried to love one another as he has loved us?

That’s what I want for Richmond. I know it’s a lot to ask, and I know it seems to leave out those who are not part of my tradition, and who may not be willing to look for “the face of Christ” in others. But can we at least see the face of a neighbor in the other, and recognize that this is our city, together? That it rises or falls on the basis of how we treat each other?  And can we make a silent promise, right now, to treat each other with love and respect?

My friend Ben Campbell has said he wants “the former Capital of the Confederacy to become the Capital of Racial Reconciliation.”  That’s a good and worthy goal and I embrace it, but I realize I want even more than that:

I want it to become Heaven on Earth.

Time for A Phone Fast?

My friend John Ballenger put me on to this YouTube video about us and our smartphones that makes me think it may be time for a phone fast.

Nick Bilton writes:

The two-minute video, which has been viewed more than 15 million times, begins with a couple in bed. The woman, played by the comedian and actress Charlene deGuzman, stares silently while her boyfriend pays no mind and checks his smartphone.

The subsequent scenes follow Ms. deGuzman through a day that is downright dystopian: people ignore her as they stare at their phones during lunch, at a concert, while bowling and at a birthday party. (Even the birthday boy is recording the party on his phone.) The clip ends with Ms. deGuzman back in bed with her boyfriend at the end of the day; he is still using his phone.

Ms. deGuzman’s video makes for some discomfiting viewing. It’s a direct hit on our smartphone-obsessed culture, needling us about our addiction to that little screen and suggesting that maybe life is just better led when it is lived rather than viewed (New York Times, September 1, 2013).

So, that’s what I’m planning to do tomorrow.  It’s my day off, and I’m going to switch off the little screen, get out there, and live some life.  I’m going on a phone fast.

I may tell you how it went afterward, but there won’t be a YouTube video.

I promise.

KOH2RVA: Day 290

CBF General Assembly

After lunch today I’m getting in my car to drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I remember my first meeting.

It was in 1991, shortly after I had been called as pastor of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina. For the ten years I had been a Baptist—and for all the years I was in seminary—the Southern Baptist Convention had been engaged in a bitter conflict between the “moderates” and the “conservatives” where all we seemed to do at our annual meetings was fight over things like the authority of Scripture, the role of women in ministry, and the question of who would control the world’s largest protestant denomination. Long before 1991 I was ready to be done with the fighting. So when I heard that a group of Baptists were meeting in Atlanta to give up the fight and get on with the mission, I was eager to learn more. I drove from Wingate to Atlanta and was there at the Omni with 6,000 other Baptists when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed. On the cover of the program were those words from Isaiah 43: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” I was ready for a new thing, and when I drove home from Atlanta I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that at last I could quit fighting denominational battles and get on with the work Jesus had called me to do.

22 years later I’ve gotten on with my work, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has gotten on with its work, and the Southern Baptist Convention has gotten on with its work. And, praise be to God, I believe we are all doing good work. Richmond’s First Baptist Church has not aligned itself with either the SBC or the CBF, but it does support missionaries through both entities. From time to time we get to hear some of those missionaries speak and tell us about the work they’re doing around the world. And when I hear them speak I can tell where their hearts are.

To a person, their hearts are in the right place.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is trying to be the presence of Christ in the world; the Southern Baptist Convention is trying reach the world for Christ; Richmond’s First Baptist Church is trying to bring heaven to earth, and part of the way we do it is by supporting SBC and CBF missionaries. The other way we do it, of course, is to roll up our sleeves and go to work right here where we are—as missionaries.

I’m going to leave that job up to you for a few days while I go to Greensboro. I won’t be blogging on Thursday or Friday. But if you’d like to know what’s going on at the General Assembly you can click HERE, and even if you don’t you can say a prayer for the work of all kinds of Baptists all around the world. Pray that it would be the kind of work that would make Jesus proud.

And thank God that the fight—at least, that fight—is over.