Archive for October, 2003

Reading Scripture in Conflicts

Sunday, October 26th, 2003
Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

Last Sunday I spoke about divisive moral conflicts that have serious religious dimensions, mentioning for purposes of illustration the issues about abortion, homosexuality, and the war in Iraq. Christians of good faith are in deep conflict with one another about these and other issues, and I argued that the conflicts should be addressed within the Church. Christians need to hold their divisive passions in check and work through the issues together. A university pulpit such as this one at Marsh Chapel has a special obligation to provide analysis and guidance.

Today I want to consider the role of scripture in such deep moral conflicts because scripture is the first authority for Christian discussion. Although in a reflective sense the Bible bears upon all moral conflicts in ways mediated by traditions of analysis, the Bible does not directly address abortion or the war in Iraq. So I will discuss the biblical background of homosexuality as our test case, and next week will discuss non-biblical aspects of conflicts about homosexuality within church debates.

To discuss homosexuality from the pulpit is dangerous. Although I will treat no topic half so risqué or violent as the standard fare on evening network television, we should note that in a University Church there are few if any small children who might be confused or offended; any small children glued to the radio for morning worship have this preacher’s permission to go play elsewhere and return when they hear the next hymn.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was long taken to be the definitive condemnation of homosexuality. (The Bible speaks only of homosexual acts, never of homosexuality as a lifestyle or orientation.) The Sodom text is Genesis 19, and it is printed in the bulletin insert. You will remember that Abraham’s nephew Lot was visited in Sodom by two angels who looked like men. All the men of the town, young and old, gathered outside Lot’s house and demanded that the angels be sent out to them to be raped. Lot offered his two virgin daughters instead. When the townsmen started to break down the door the angels struck them blind and led Lot and his family out of town while God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. In time, the name Sodomy became synonymous with homosexual and some disapproved heterosexual acts, but that time, surprisingly, was not until the European middle ages, about the tenth century. I commend to you a book by the scholar Mark D. Jordan called The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, for a documentary history of how the story of Sodom and Gomorrah came to be associated with homosexuality. In biblical times and long afterward it was associated instead with a brutal violation of hospitality. Raping a person under the hospitality protection of a town-member was about as bad as inhospitality could get. A parallel to the Sodom story, similar in language and plot, is in Judges 19 according to which a visitor to Gibeah was taken in by a townsman, the men of the town demanded he be sent out to be raped, his concubine was sent out instead, and she was raped to death, leading to a disastrous war. In those days, hospitality was valued so high, and women’s lives so low, that protecting one’s guest, even when a stranger, was worth sacrificing women you love. Westerners do not share that balance of values now. That the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was taken in biblical times to be about violations of hospitality is confirmed by Matthew 10:5-15, also on your insert, in which Jesus says it will be worse in the last judgment for the towns that are inhospitable to his disciples than for Sodom and Gomorrah.

Let me remark here on an important point for biblical understanding. The authors of the biblical books shared with their intended readers a particular imaginative background or context in which what they wrote made sense. This imaginative background contained cultural assumptions, such as the high premium put on hospitality, the low premium put on women, and the acceptability of slavery. It also contained scientific assumptions, such as that if you go up far enough you get to heaven and that there is a world of angels and spirits to which we have access. Most of us in the West now have a vastly different imaginative background from that of biblical times, especially regarding matters such as physical cosmology, the spirit world, slavery, the role of women, and even hospitality. Many contemporary Christians in Africa engage the world with an imaginative background rather like that of biblical times, sharing assumptions about spirits and women, for instance. For them there is little cognitive and emotional dissonance over such matters. Most of us Westerners, however, feel sharp cognitive and emotional dissonance with much of the ancient imaginative background. We always have to distinguish the religiously binding truth in scriptures from the cultural and scientific assumptions in the ancient imagination that we reject, for good reasons. We need to work around elements in that imagination to which we believe our own moral and intellectual world is superior, say, about slavery as an evil, the equality of women, and scientific cosmology. We can dismiss the biblical readiness to sacrifice women in order to protect the honor of hospitality as deriving from a cultural assumption that we reject. The contemporary Islamic societies that sacrifice women for honor strike us with horror. How shall we read what the Bible says condemning homosexuality? Does it come from mere cultural assumptions that we rightly reject? Or is it religiously authoritative?

The book of Leviticus is clear in condemning homosexual acts. Chapter 20 repeats and expands upon a list in chapter 18, saying you should not lie with a male as with a woman in a long agenda of proscribed acts having to do with adultery, incest, bestiality, child sacrifice, sex during menstruation, witchcraft, and cursing one’s father or mother. Scholars know this list as the “Holiness Code.” Death is the punishment for adultery, child sacrifice, cursing father or mother, incest with mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, bestiality, and lying with a man as with a woman. Banishment or barrenness are the punishments for the other forms of incest, sleeping with a menstruating woman, and using mediums or wizards. All the laws are directed at men even when women are involved in the proscribed behavior and are punished. Women were not regarded as sufficiently important moral agents to be addressed in law.

Does anyone today accept the Holiness Code fully and literally? Few of us would put to death people for the acts Leviticus proscribes. The violent gay-bashers who kill people such as Matthew Shepard do follow the biblical commandment to put to death men who lie with men as with women; nevertheless such gay bashers are regarded in the United States as murderers. That we reject or seriously modify the biblical approach to punishment means we do not follow a purely biblical rule for morals, and that we already make discerning judgments about what to accept. We in the West do not believe in witches and would be very slow to believe that cursing parents deserves the death penalty. Concerning the proscription of lying with a man as with a woman, should we liken that to child sacrifice, which we condemn, or to consulting mediums or making love during menstruation, which we do not?

Turning to the New Testament, no mention of homosexuality or homosexual acts is ascribed to Jesus, although he repeatedly condemns adultery, divorce, greed, and other sins. No author in the New Testament except Paul mentions homosexuality unless the author of 1Timothy is someone other than Paul, which probably is t
he case. In 1 Corinthians Paul clearly lists homosexuals in what scholars call a “vice list” along with fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers. In 1 Timothy the list includes the lawless, disobedient, godless, sinful, unholy, profane, those who kill parents, murderers, fornicators, slave traders, liars, and perjurers. You have the texts in your insert. The word used in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy for homosexuals is arsenokoitai, which is a rough Greek translation of “lying with a man as with a woman.” 1 Corinthians uses an additional word, malokoi, which means “soft” and probably referred to the passive, perhaps younger partner. Paul has other vice lists that do not include any reference to homosexual acts or desire (Galatians 5:19-21; 1Cor. 5:10-11; Romans 13:13).

In Romans 1, which the only biblical mention of homosexuality as more than an item in a list, Paul says that all nations know that God is creator, but that people suppress that knowledge with idolatry, become confused by sin, and “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural,” women with women and men with men. This is the only mention of female homosexuality in the Bible. Scholars have debated what “natural” and “unnatural” meant in Paul’s world, based on Greek philosophy that I will discuss next week. Part of what is meant is the hierarchical ordering of things Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11, also in your insert. God is the head of Christ, “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife.” (11:3) A man is the image and reflection of God, and woman is the reflection of man. “Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” (11:7-9) In Paul’s culture, although not all Hellenistic culture, sexual relations reflected those hierarchical relations between the sexes. Sexuality was conceived always to have dominant and submissive partners. It was natural for a man to dominate a woman, but unnatural to dominate a man who was supposed to be his equal. A sexually passive man is unnatural because men are supposed to dominate in sex. Similarly with women, the active sexual partner is unnatural because women are supposed to be sexually dominated. It is not the case today, I should note, that homosexual, or even heterosexual, relations always have dominant and submissive partners.

In many parts of the world the hierarchical dominance of men over women, in sex as in other matters, is enthusiastically asserted, often on these or other biblical grounds. Some traditional Asian, African and Islamic societies are close to this biblical tradition. For most Americans, however, that dominance relation has been successfully challenged by an ethics of equality and reciprocity that largely has been written into law. Although feminists might claim that true equality is yet to be achieved, our current American customs and law are very far from the oppressive biblical model. Most liberal, moderate, and even conservative Christians reject the extreme cultural model of male dominance and female subservience expressed in Paul’s writings. Even Paul qualifies his own hierarchy by saying, in our 1 Corinthians text in your insert, that men and women are mutually dependent and that really both come from God. He says in Galatians 3 that gender differences like ethnic and slavery differences make no difference for those in Christ. The gospels are filled with stories of Jesus treating women as equal to men in deserving respect and attention. The dominance hierarchical model is in strong conflict with the model of reciprocal love already present in the Bible, which applies to sexual love as well as friendship and social roles. To the extent that Paul regarded homosexual acts as unnatural because they perverted the so-called “natural” hierarchical dominance relations between men and women, that sense of unnaturalness is to be set in opposition to the biblical ideal of being one in Christ and friends among whom true leadership or dominance is a matter of service. Whereas hierarchical dominance might be natural in the sense of being the customary way, that cultural assumption was criticized and rejected, however unevenly, by the biblical ideal of the unified community of God’s children.

The few biblical references to homosexuality need to be understood as part of a larger cultural imagination defining the relative roles of men and women in a dominant relation that includes sex as well as other matters. Our contemporary Christian brothers and sisters (Islamic as well) who share some of those assumptions of male dominance are likely to share the Levitical and Pauline condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural to the hierarchy. I count myself among those who reject that part of the imaginative background of the ancient world and find it troubling in contemporary society anywhere in the world. The women’s movement has introduced a reformation to the Christian church far more profound than the Protestant Reformation that we also commemorate today. The women’s movement is global and all religious cultures are feeling its effects. It is the only element of moral progress in civilization that matches the scientific progress of the last several centuries.

Not everyone agrees, of course, with the ideals of equality and reciprocity among men and women, and the argument in that respect must take into account many considerations other than biblical ones. With regard to the Bible, however, I believe that the liberating gospel itself is so central to the great drama of creation and redemption that it thoroughly trumps the cultural assumptions of hierarchy. With that, the Levitical and Pauline condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural, because it confuses the hierarchy, falls to the ground. The explicit condemnations of homosexual acts in the Bible stem from a hierarchical culture that denigrates women and forces all people into relations of dominance and passivity. That culture is incompatible with the larger themes of the Christian gospel. Therefore I see the explicit biblical condemnations of homosexuality as merely reflective of a culture against which the Church should witness, and as non-binding in any authoritative way on our current moral reflections, unless extra-biblical considerations prove the contrary, a topic for next week.

Let me close by reminding us of the larger scale of the Christian gospel, the grand story of creation and redemption. Created with the infinite bounties of God’s grace, we are rich beyond measure and yet have let ourselves be estranged from God. This estrangement affects everything we are and do, including our sexuality. Our redemption in Christ, for which God be praised, allows us to overcome estrangement and, in sanctification, redeems our lives in all aspects that can be corrupted. Is homosexuality nothing but the corruption of heterosexuality, as Leviticus and Paul can be read to say, and therefore to be given up as part of redemption? Or is it a form of sexuality subject to alienation but also capable of being redeemed, and therefore to be lived out in a holy way by those whose impulses are for same-sex love? The scriptural case for the former is ruined by its connection with the corrupted hierarchical dominance model of human relations. The scriptural case for the latter celebrates the goodness of creation and the sanctifying grace of redemption.

Redemption also means, however, engaging with love and respect those Christians who share the ancient world’s assumptions about hierarchical dominance and persuading them that those assumptions are counter to the central trajectory of the gospel. If my conviction is mistaken, it is the obligation of those who oppose it to engage those of us who hold it and persuade us lovingly of the error. That would be the way to engage moral conflict within the Body of Christ. Amen.

-The
Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Are Ye Able?

Sunday, October 19th, 2003
Job 38:1-7

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

We at Marsh Chapel extend a special welcome to all our guests who are at Boston University this Parents’ Weekend for Homecoming. College years are probably the most vivid memories we have. They are usually the first big break from home, we make new friends in large numbers all at once, we encounter a range of culture unimaginable from the perspective of high school, and we are forced to discover who we are, or rather, to balance discovery with making the choices that constitute who we are. We come to college as the products of our background and we leave with the responsibility to contribute to the background in which we and others will live. In college we learn to take responsibility for what we stand for and for the communities and causes with which we affiliate. So I hope that all of you participating in homecoming remember the good times with vivid clarity and that you have turned the bad times into fables that no one will believe, including yourselves. You parents watching your children, note how awesome their experience here is. Welcome home.

The gospel this morning contains the line made famous by the popular hymn, “Are Ye Able,” written here at Boston University in 1926 by Earl Marlatt who subsequently became dean of the School of Theology. We’ll sing it in a few minutes. Marlatt’s verse begins, “’Are ye able’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me?’ ‘Yea,’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee.’ Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine. Remold them, make us, like thee, divine. Thy guiding radiance above us shall be a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.” Marlatt’s hymn is straightforward Wesleyan theology, which does not always agree with the Reformation emphasis on divine initiative alone. Wesley held that although God’s grace saves us we have to receive it, and in receiving it we have the responsibility for sanctification. For Wesley, if not for Luther and Calvin, salvation has to transform actual character. Marlatt sang “Our spirits are thine. Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.” That’s a clarion plea for holiness that centers our faith through times of trouble.

Mark’s gospel is subtler than Marlatt’s hymn, which indicates the complexity of the passage only by calling Jesus’ interlocutors “sturdy dreamers.” In the gospel story, James and John, who are identified as the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus in private with an adolescent request. In Matthew’s account of the story, it was not James and John themselves, but their mother, who made the request. I would guess from this that they were very young disciples, perhaps college age, perhaps a freshmen and sophomore repesctively, identified by their father’s name and spoken for by their mother. In Mark’s account the boys first asked Jesus to promise to do for them whatever they asked. Jesus sidestepped that and asked what they wanted. They answered that they wanted to sit on his right hand and left when he reigned in glory. How presumptious! Perhaps both were sophomores. They surely were dreamers!

In a sermon on Jesus as friend, Professor Wesley Wildman of our School of Theology has pointed out how gently Jesus responded to them, not ridiculing their dreams nor rebuking them with a lecture about servant ministry as he later did the other, presumably older, disciples when they had a jealous fit about James and John. Rather, Jesus gently told them they did not know what they were asking. He asked whether they were able to drink the cup he would drink and be baptized with his baptism. By the “cup” he meant his destiny to be crucified; later in the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed that this cup would pass from him, but affirmed the courage to drink it if it were his true destiny. By his baptism he meant following his Way, what would later be called the Christian Way, which was subject to much persecution. Mark’s gospel was written about forty years after the crucifixion in the midst of Roman persecution, and his readers would know what those expressions meant, but the boys did not have a clue. As sturdy dreamers, they answered, “We are able!” Jesus must have sighed at the innocence of these young disciples he loved. He told them only that it was not his right to grant who was to sit at his right hand and left.

Mark pictures Jesus as a lonely man, surrounded by enthusiastic followers who do not understand the horror to come or why that has to be borne. Peter had proclaimed him the Messiah and then rebuked Jesus for gloomy talk about persecution, death, and resurrection; Jesus responded, “Get behind me Satan.” Young James and John had no better understanding.

The fate of the disciples, in fact, was to drink Jesus’ cup of suffering and to be baptized with his Way that brought persecution. According to Acts, James was killed by Herod Agrippa in a great persecution of the church. Tradition has it that John, who was identified as the Beloved Disciple, escaped with his life to live to a very old age on the island of Patmos, writing his gospel and the letters bearing his name. However romantic and innocent their sturdy dream that they were able to follow Jesus, in point of fact they were able. And through the vicissitudes and persecutions of the church they, like Jesus, were made perfect through suffering, to use the phrase from the Letter to the Hebrews.

For ourselves, the situation seems to be dangerously similar. Christians don’t have Romans out to persecute them these days, although Christians in many parts of the world do practice their faith in jeopardy of their lives. The specific danger I have in mind, however, is moral conflict that has the power to distort, pervert, and ultimately ruin Christian faith and practice. By moral conflict I mean issues on which good Christians take opposite sides, issues so identified with the heart of their faith that the intense passion of loving God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves—that passion gets transferred to their moral stand. Transferring infinite religious passion to moral stands is dangerous. Consider three examples, out of the dozens that could be called to mind.

Abortion is a moral conflict so old to Americans that it has been reduced to slogans, pro life versus pro choice. How could such a complicated issue be reduced to slogans? It raises questions about the role of law in regulating medicine, about the morals of medical practice, about communal responsibility for the care for families and for people born without families, about the institutions and various conditions of marriage, as well as the obvious questions of freedom and self-determination, the definition of human life, the claims of human life on legal and social protections, and the responsibility of religion to think through such complex issues and to protect the weak.

The important thing to notice is that the issue is one of balancing competing values. Even the slogans, pro life and pro choice, show that the moral conflict is over how to balance values that nearly all people share. Who could be against protecting prenatal children? Who could be against women’s rights to determine how their bodies are to be used? Yet instead of approaching the abortion debate with humility, fear, and trembling at its complexity, often Christians leap to choose crude sides with demonic passion.

The second example is homosexuality, conflict over which has reached the Supreme Court of the United States. Moral conflicts in politics have centered on anti-discrimination protections and legal rights of homosexual partners likened to marriage; this fall the highest state court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will decide on the legality of gay marriage. Reli
gious denominations, especially the Protestant Christian ones, nearly all are in desperate conflict over a number of issues concerning homosexuality. The most recent is the response of Episcopalians to the denomination’s election and confirmation of a gay bishop in neighboring New Hampshire. Again, the moral conflict is a matter of balancing values that are nearly universally held. Who can be against the right of gay and lesbian people to fulfillment and happiness? Who can be against social responsibility for the moral structures of such institutions as marriage and ministry? Passions in the moral conflicts about homosexuality are so high that surely more than sexual ethics is involved. It seems a matter of religious identity.

The third example is the series of moral conflicts that have arisen in connection with the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While seemingly topical issues raised by events such as 9/11, the conflicts have raised to consciousness deep divisions about fundamental political values. What are the conditions that should be met to justify the United States becoming an aggressor nation as it has? Have they been met? Patriots on one side justify the use of overwhelming force by the righteousness of the cause. Patriots on the other side condemn the use of force because the cause is not righteous. These conflicts have not even begun to be articulated with the subtlety and complexity they obviously need. And yet Christians in good faith are divided against each other with holy passion.

Are we able to follow the Christian Way while we are persecuted by our own divisions on these and the many similar issues that divide Christians?

Two tempting strategies exist that I believe will lead to disaster. One is to treat religion as a private matter and refuse to address in church public issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and war and peace. In practice, this is what many Protestant pastors attempt to do, for the obvious reason of maintaining harmony within the community. The ongoing life of religious communities has many more values than just the resolution of these hot-button issues, and the cost of addressing them within the community is very high. Nevertheless, religion is not merely private, and when it deliberately blinkers itself against the issues about which people feel so passionately it makes itself irrelevant to the real religious issues.

The other disastrous but tempting strategy is for the church to address issues like these without a solid theological base, as if they were merely political or moral issues. Without its theology, Christianity has nothing in particular to offer to the resolution of deep moral conflicts. Many preachers, however, get so excited about taking a “prophetic” stand on moral issues that the self-righteous fact of their convictions pretends to excuse them from justifying the convictions. Yet surely, the convictions need to be justified with careful argument, with sensitivity to the ways people with conflicting convictions weigh values, and with humility based on the plain recognition that our judgments are fallible at best. Only careful theology can put the measuredness of moral analysis and judgment in ultimate perspective. The justifications need to be theological to address the reasons for putting infinite religious passions on moral convictions.

However much pastors would like to avoid conflict, the riveting moral conflicts of our time need to be brought into the church so that we can live them through with intelligence and love. A university pulpit such as this one—especially this one with its history of moral leadership—cannot escape the obligation to articulate, analyze, and offer guidance, with all humility, on the issues that shape our watch. I shall be preaching about these issues from time to time, beginning next Sunday with a reflection on how to read scripture when it offers support to more than one side in conflicts, using homosexuality as the test case.

I invite you into the arduous task of sustaining a congregation in the midst of deliberately addressed conflict. If you agree with my analyses and judgments, I hope you shall do so with arguments at least as complex as mine, and that you will share with us your better ones. If you disagree with me, I hope you take that as a special sign that you belong here to correct me and those whom I might mislead; to stay away in anger, or because of the pain of conflict, would be to fail the community. You are invited to the Sunday Theology Class that meets here at 9:30 to discuss the previous week’s sermon; let your voice be heard in addressing issues of importance. You can get a copy of the sermons from our webpage or by calling the Chapel office. I invite you into a theological conversation that will not run from divisive issues but will incorporate the process of dealing with divisions in pursuit of truth into the life of the community. This church should be one you can come home to in order to address the religiously weighted conflicts of our time, not a place that suggests you escape. As Jesus said, the Way leads to crucifixion, and to many in the Church these moral conflicts feel like that. Beyond the crucifixion, however, is the new life of resurrection. Like love in a family, love in the Christian community can bear up through the realities of conflict. Because this is Christ’s family, resurrection love calls us to the joy of being real when faced with conflict, staying in love with those with whom we struggle. A Christian community that embraces and works through conflict with brothers and sisters shines with the redeeming light of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Are we able to sustain the Christian Way when it engages the flesh and blood issues that command conflicting religious passions? I invite you to answer, We are able! Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Sharper than a Two-Edged Sword

Sunday, October 12th, 2003
Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

The topic of today’s lectionary readings and of this sermon makes me extremely uncomfortable. I preach about it with reluctance and only because it would be worse to avoid it. The passage from Hebrews states the theme: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

The phrase, “the Word of God,” has many meanings in Jewish and Christian history. In Genesis, for instance, “the word of the Lord” came to Abraham and Moses, telling them to do something. Throughout the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible, “the word of the Lord” is what the prophets hear and then proclaim, and often it is of a critical nature regarding what the people are doing. In the New Testament the “word of the Lord” or “word of God” is used to describe the gospel, the content of Jesus’ preaching. In another sense of the phrase, the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” After saying that the Word is the agent of creation, John goes on to say that the Word became flesh, and this is Jesus.

When the author of the book of Hebrews talks about the word of God, living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, he does not mean the high metaphysical notion that John used, nor does he mean it to apply directly to Jesus. Rather he means something like the word of the prophets. Jesus’ treatment of the rich man is a case in point, as described in the text from Mark. Matthew’s version of the story says the man is young, and Luke’s says he is a ruler. The rich young ruler ran up to Jesus as Jesus was setting out on a journey, probably surrounded by his followers. Boasting of neither his wealth nor political power the young man knelt at Jesus’ feet and said, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He seemed a model of earnestness and humility. Jesus, alas, must have been in some kind of negative mood about himself because he snapped at the youth for calling him good, saying that no one is good except God alone. This is odd: the young man probably only meant “Good Teacher” as an honorific title to indicate that he thought Jesus would have good advice, and Jesus was rude. On other occasions Jesus claimed great importance for himself and his message, putting a high price on those who would follow him. At any rate, on this occasion Jesus dismissed the appeal for advice, telling the rich young ruler that he already knew the commandments. Jesus listed a few in an off-hand manner, probably still distracted by the need to get his entourage under way.

Then something dramatic happened. The young man said quietly that he had kept the commandments from his youth. Jesus looked at him suddenly, probably paying attention for the first time. If the young man had kept the commandments and still came asking how to inherit eternal life, he already knew that keeping the commandments is not enough. The young man knew that Jesus’ offhand response to his earnest question was not enough. And Jesus knew that he himself had given a wrong answer: keeping the commandments is not enough. In this way the word of God came to Jesus, piercing as if to divide his soul from spirit, joints from sinews. He knew that in this instance he had not been a Good Teacher and he was shocked out of his self-indulgent sulk.

Then what did Jesus do? Looking at the young man, he loved him. Why did he love that young man whom he had just met? Perhaps it was because, even with his wealth and authority, the young man was winsome, humble, and so very earnest about eternal life. Perhaps it was because the man was serious when Jesus had been dismissive. Perhaps it was because he unwittingly had become the teacher and Jesus the chastened student. Perhaps it was because Jesus was grateful for the ever-so-humble correction. Perhaps it was because love was what Jesus felt toward people to whom he paid serious attention. I think all of these factors were involved.

Looking at the young man with love, Jesus knew immediately what was wrong and what he needed to do. For all his genuine virtue, the young man had identified himself with his wealth and station, and needed to give them up. This diagnosis was confirmed in the youth’s response, which was to be shocked and to go away grieving. How Jesus must himself have grieved at that response! Jesus was by no means against wealth and he did not demand that all his friends follow him around; witness his friendship with Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the household of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Those people were not in bondage to their wealth. The rich young ruler was. We do not know what happened to him subsequently. Perhaps he did sell his possessions and come back to follow Jesus. Perhaps he lived in denial of his bondage to wealth. Perhaps he knew Jesus was right and simply could not bring himself to act upon the truth. Perhaps in fact he was Joseph of Arimathea and developed a different relation to Jesus without disposing of his possessions. The point is that Jesus’ diagnosis and remedy was the word of God that cut him like a two-edged sword.

That sword hurts, does it not, when it cuts us? Most of us here or listening on the radio are rich in comparison with destitute people in the many hellholes of our planet. Like the young ruler we have more control over our lives than people do in many places, especially Afghanistan and Iraq, given recent events. The word of God points out our privilege and also our attachment, our identification with it.

Permit me a side comment here. If you feel guilty about your relative wealth, I have a wonderful suggestion: give generously to Marsh Chapel—practice tithing. We do good work here, and yet because we are a university church only a few people understand that we need support just like a parish church, with activities and ministries to fund and a building to keep in repair. Contributing to Marsh Chapel will do wonders for your guilt. I hope you are awash in guilt about your wealth.

Alas, however, salving guilt is not the same as abandoning attachments, like the rich young man’s, to the identity of being wealthy and powerful. What kept the man from eternal life was not his wealth, his authority, his virtue, or even his charity. It was that he let those things define him so that he was in bondage to having them. We too are often in bondage to wealth and power, and to many things besides. We need our jobs to give us identity, or our controlling roles in family, or our serving roles in community. Of course jobs are good, the exercise of authority in family nurture is good, and serving others is so good that many people believe it to be the essence of religion. Yet we all know people who pour out their lives in service to others for the sake of being recognized as doing so. We know people who go to church too often to display their piety, who send too many cards of condolence so as to be recognized as sympathetic. We all know people who use virtue for the sake of gaining importance in the eyes of others and in their own eyes, not for its own sake. We might be people who do that. Service should be invisible; piety should be inconspicuous, seen only by God, sympathy should be genuine and spontaneous. Charity should be for the sake of the need, not for the appearance of generosity. The word of God cuts especially sharply into the bones and sinews of good people, church people, the people who would run up to Jesus, kneel at his feet, and ask how to obtain eter
nal life.

The reason for the pain of the two-edged sword is that it makes us see ourselves suddenly in God’s ultimate perspective. The word of God tells us that how we appear to others does not matter ultimately. The word of God tells us that the fables we rehearse about ourselves to bolster our egos, about our virtues and our vices, about our successes and also about our troubles, do not matter ultimately. What matters is what we do and who we are in God’s eyes. If we possess wealth and exercise power for the sake of status rather than because of the good they can do, we cannot accept God’s perspective until the word of God cuts the bondage of attachment. If we perfect virtue and practice generous charity for the sake of the recognition it brings rather than their intrinsic worth, we cannot accept God’s perspective until the word of God cuts the bondage of attachment. By all means be economically productive and exercise responsible leadership. Perfect the virtues of humane living and don’t forget Marsh Chapel. But we should not be bound by these good things any more than we should be bound by sin. The sharp word of God is not only for the evil-doers and sinners, for the despairing and lost. It is for winsome people like the rich young ruler. And ourselves.

Jesus’ remedy for the rich young man was to ask him to become a follower, and to free himself up so that he could do that. The young man recognized his bondage when he realized how much it hurt to give himself to God, and grieved. As your preacher, I ask you to give yourself to God. We already belong to the Creator, and giving ourselves to God merely acknowledges that truth. That truth strips us naked of self-serving pretenses, but naked is how we come into the world and how we will leave. Does something hold you back? It might not be money or power; it might not be a need for reputation or anything I can imagine. You will know it when you hesitate. If you don’t understand it, you can find help in discernment, perhaps a lifelong process.

I don’t know what giving yourself to God means in your case. It might mean becoming morally serious for the first time, or truly committing yourself to your relationships, or abandoning a false patriotism, or finding more socially useful work, or giving up on feeling sorry for yourself. You can tell when you have given yourself to God because you love God’s creatures for just what they are, not for what they pretend to be or for what they do for your benefit. You take joy in praising God for the glories of creation and also for the troubles of your life, knowing that had the rich young man followed Jesus he would have arrived at the cross, not at social or political victory.

The rich young man knew right where to come to find the word of God for himself. God has graced the world with countless witnesses to the word. But the young man turned away from it and grieved his own bondage. Isn’t that our trouble too? When Jesus and his disciples discussed the young man later, Jesus said it is almost impossible for the rich to shed the baggage that keeps them from God. But then, he said, with God all things are possible. So I invite you to the throne of grace. Please leave behind your wealth and also your poverty. Leave your power and also your victimization. Leave your virtues and also your vice. Leave your good fortune and also your troubles. Leave your pleasures and also your suffering. Leave your successes and also your failures. Pray without baggage for a word of God that lets you see yourself as God sees you, however sharply that sword bites.

Jesus looked at the rich young man, and loved him. That is God’s regard for us. Can we accept that love which, like a two-edged sword, severs the truth about us from the pretences to which we are bound? With God, all things are possible. Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

Who Comes to the Table?

Sunday, October 5th, 2003
Job 1:1; 2:1-10

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark: 10:2-16

I grew up in a Midwestern Methodist Church that celebrated the Lord’s Supper because it had to, and only because of that. The Methodist rules in those days said each congregation had to serve communion once a quarter and most of the people in my church thought that was much too often. A great many stayed home on Communion Sundays because the service was too long, running over into the Sunday dinner hour. My parents used the excuse that my brother and I would fidget too much if we tried to sit through the service. Perhaps this was after he and I poured grape juice on each other from those little cups that were in vogue then.

The Eucharist, along with baptism, is a nearly universal sign of the unity of the Christian movement despite the diversity in how it is done. Christians of all kinds have celebrated some form of the Lord’s Supper in every culture since the beginning. The only exception I know is the Salvation Army which does not use that rite but considers every member to be part of the communion loaf. Some Christian communities celebrate the Eucharist daily, others weekly, monthly, or quarterly. The forms of the liturgy have varied greatly, as well as the languages used. The theologies explaining the Eucharist have also varied, and often been at odds with one another. Some Roman Catholics believe the elements are changed into the very blood and body of Jesus; some Protestants believe the service is just a memorial; some Orthodox believe it is an enactment of heaven; and there are many positions in between. In point of fact, the Eucharist is a symbolic act with many meanings all interwoven, and to single out any one as theologians like to do nearly always results in a distorted abstraction. Whatever our theologies, nearly all those meanings are operative in the soul of individuals and communities when they come to the Eucharistic table.

The placing of the table itself has variable theological significance. More common when I was young, and more among Roman Catholics and Anglicans than liturgically free Protestants, was the practice of putting the table against the wall at the back of the Choir. The presider at the Eucharist, that is, the minister or priest in charge, turns his or her back on the congregation to face the table, usually called an altar, and enacts the sacrifice of handling the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood. The theological significance of this is that the presider leads the people to God and reaches up at the moment of consecration. God descends to meet the people in the consecrated elements. The wisdom in this way of performing the Eucharist is that it breaks the congregation’s sense that it is whole and complete in itself. No matter how harmonious, no congregation is complete in itself. No matter how cozy we are with the confidence that God is in our midst, we should know that God is wild, not a tame lion as C. S. Lewis warned in his Narnia books. We need to reach up beyond our boundaries to hope that God comes. And when God comes that is a mystery breaking in upon us that is not entirely predictable, not entirely contained in the consumption of bread and wine, and not entirely safe. That’s the good part of the Eucharistic practice of leading the people to God. The difficulty felt with this form of the Eucharist is that it seems to make the presider too special a person, a mediator, who in fact separates the people from God. The presider, a priest or minister, is a specially trained and accredited representative of the people, but only one of the people, not someone more holy than the people.

The more common Eucharistic form now is to move the altar forward and call it Christ’s table with the presider and helpers behind it, beckoning the congregation to come sit at the table as at a dinner party, or at least as close as can be arranged in a large group. This form runs the risk of domesticating God as a foodstuff in our midst. The Lord’s Supper is not merely a gathering of pals to remember good old Jesus. The virtue of this form, however, is that it symbolically establishes the context of the Eucharist as Christ’s table. Jesus’ dinners were the context in which he taught, learned, and practiced the love among friends that was his ideal and lesson. We are invited to go to dinner with Jesus, and though you might think rightly that we ministers have been a sorry lot of substitute hosts these last two thousand years, this still is Jesus’ table.

His table was no ordinary one, and never entirely domesticated. Like God breaking in upon a worshipping community, Jesus broke boundaries with his dinners. He ate with friends, but also with strangers. He brought tax abusers and prostitutes to his table. He ate with rich people and poor people. He ate with strange women, which Jewish men were not supposed to do. He healed Peter’s mother of sickness so she could cook his dinner. He ate with at least one man he had brought back from death to life. A woman washed his feet with tears and dried them with her hair at the table. Another poured embalming perfume on him. The crumbs under his table healed people. He washed his disciples’ feet before dinner. It was at the table that he asked to be remembered in the form of his bloody death, with bread as his broken body and wine as his spilled blood. At the table, the last night, as the Beloved Disciple lay against him, he told his friends that the community of love they had formed was what his whole work was about, that it was made possible because of God’s love which he had taught them, that this community of love would sustain them through troubles and persecutions, and that they should extend the circle of loving friendships around the world. It was at the table that Jesus said goodbye to his friends, knowing they would betray, deny, or desert him. Jesus’ table broke all the rules about who could eat together and what table fellowship means. God was at his table making all things new.

So we are all invited now to Jesus’ table set in Marsh Chapel on October 5, 2003, with just this present company. Some Christians believe that special requirements of confession and good faith with God must be met before coming to the table; our ritual has a confession, absolution, and a passing of the peace to symbolize a renewed people. But we do not require that you be right with God before you come. Jesus did not do that at his table. Some Christians insist that participants be baptized members of the community before being allowed to receive communion, and that is a conventional assumption. But Jesus had no such strictures for his dinners. Following John Wesley, the Methodist founder, who taught that the Eucharist is a means of grace, not only a privilege of membership, we say that Jesus’ table is open and invite you all.

If you feel guilty for sexual thoughts and misdeeds, there is an honored biblical place for you at this table. If you cheat and exploit others in business, crooked tax collectors were at the table before you. If you are an outsider, unused to our ways, remember the strange diversity of Jesus’ crowd for which he was criticized. If you are a devoted friend of Jesus, lean on him here. If you think Jesus has some good reason to judge you harshly, know that instead he invites you to dinner, leaving you free to mend your ways or not. If you feel uncomfortable with all these unlikely people Jesus has brought to the table with you, you need to laugh at your own discomfort when Jesus breaks the rules. This is not a domestic table. This is the table of a new world. God comes to this table. Come lean on him, and know that you are touching something holy. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville