he Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
February 28, 2021
Psalm 4; Luke 11:5-8
This parable is sandwiched between two more popular sections of scripture. Just before this parable Jesus teaches the prayer we now call the Lord’s prayer and directly after is the well loved section about God giving us whatever we ask for in Jesus’ name. It’s obvious why people love these other sections. One is a foundational prayer that we teach our children as soon as we can and say every time we worship together. The section after this parable about asking for things in Jesus’ name just feels great. Anything we ask for!? Really!? It’s like Christmas-morning levels of serotonin.
And between these highly lauded sections of the Bible is a little parable about knocking on a friend’s door when we’re in need. Like all good parables this vignette is supposed to teach us something about God and how we are being asked to behave in the world. These stories help us better understand God and through that understanding better live our lives. We are God’s stand-ins in this world and a big part of our purpose here is to express God’s essence to others, so when we learn something about how God acts, we can also assume God is asking us to do something similar. Therefore, we listen to parables to learn about God and about ourselves.
The parable goes like this: A traveler is heading to a friend’s house. For some reason they are late arriving, maybe the sun was too hot that day and they had to rest, or they got turned around on the road. Whatever the reason, they get to their friend’s house in the middle of the night.
This friend immediately panics. Hospitality is highly valued and the homeowner will seem rude if they do not have something for their traveling friend to eat. This homeowner is not rich, so they do not have extra food stored up to care for the traveling friend. This friend is embarrassingly unprepared.
Fortunately. this homeowner has another friend nearby who does have some wealth so they have extra stores of food. Better yet this is a good friend whom they believe will understand their situation and help. The homeowner goes to the nearby friend and knocks on their door.
The parable asks the listener to decide what is the best way to respond to the knock. Either the person inside will reject the knock and stay in their comfortable bed (it is, after all, the middle of the night and the door is closed which means the family is not receiving visitors anymore) OR maybe the sleeping, comfortable friend will hear the knock and recognize that only someone who is in real need would disturb them and get up to help.
Jesus’ tone gives away what God’s response would be. Jesus says, “Who among you would curl tighter into your cozy bed if you heard a friend knocking and crying out in need, Or (wink wink) would you get up (wink wink) and help them (wink wink). It is obvious in the way Jesus tells this parable that the correct action is to get up and help the friend.
Jesus says praying to God is like this scene. We are the friend who has found themselves in need. God is the one cozy in bed, but is such a good friend that God always gets up to answer a knock at the door. All we need to do is knock and ask for what we need in prayer.
That is what the parable and the following passages say: God answers prayer. We go on to read, “Knock and the door will be opened to you, ask and you shall receive.” This is actually hotly debated about what that actually means. Not many people are comfortable saying ANYTHING we ask for in Jesus’ name will be granted to us. We have a sense that at times people pray for things that should not be given to them.
I have heard people say God does answer all prayers with one of three answers: “Yes,” “No,” and “Wait,” however I’ve always had a problem with this. “No” just does not seem to line up with what scripture says about praying to God. It says in the bible, knock and the door will open, seek and find, ask and you shall receive. That is what we are told. Jesus is telling us God gets out of bed to help when we knock and make our needs known. “No” doesn’t add up with what scripture is describing to us.
A truly loving God would never say “no” when we are in need. And when we pray, even when we ask for frivolous things there is something inside us that is registering it as a need -- a need enough to ask God, to knock on the door and disturb God from their comfy bed. If something inside us feels it is need enough to ask, then how can a loving God just say “no” or even “wait?” Those answers don’t feel loving or even line up with the God we meet in scripture.
But we have all experienced a prayer that seemingly goes unanswered. If God did not say yes, and we see God answers all prayer, how did God answer in these times if not with “no” or “wait?”
I think God gives us one of two answers: “yes” and “tell me more.”
We all want the yes, of course. Yes gets the headlines. Definitively answered prayers are what we want when we pray. We want to get answers, we want to experience miracles, we want to receive the things we are asking for. And sometimes we get “tell me more.”
Tell me more means God HAS gotten out of the comfy bed to come help. Tell me more means God can’t really say yes to our request yet, for some reason, but God wants to problem solve with us to become a partner in the solution. Maybe in the course of telling God more we find something better to meet our need, something God will say yes to. Tell me more allows us to understand better what we are truly in need of.
Take, for example, a child asking for ice cream. We could just say yes or no depending on the situation or we could say tell me more. Tell me more. Are you hungry? Does your throat hurt? Do you just see an ice cream store? Tell me more about why you want ice cream. We may find out the child is hungry and can talk about a better way to fill that need. If we only ever say yes or no, the child never learns when ice cream is appropriate and when it is not. With yes and no, the parent holds onto all the knowledge and regulation of ice cream. BUT if you ask the child to tell us more, it leads us into a conversation that can teach them how to better see and meet their needs.
We can get huffy when God says tell me more. The lack of an immediate yes is a bit of a let down, but the reality is God is more invested with the tell me more option. It means God is not just getting out of bed to throw loafs of bread at us. God is joining us, sitting down with us, listening to us, asking questions of us. Tell me more means God wants to get to the bottom of our needs so that God can say yes to exactly what we need.
God is the friend who will get out of the comfy bed every time when we come knocking in the middle of the night.
To learn this about God encourages us to be fearless in what we ask for. Sure, praying for a snow day may not feel it is on the same level as asking for world peace, but God does not rank prayers. God will get out of bed for you no matter what the ask is. And here is the best part: ask and it will be given to you! Will it be exactly the first thing you asked for? Maybe not, but God will stay up with you as long as it takes to figure out what you and God can agree will meet the need.
To learn this about God also means this is how God wants us to engage when others make their needs known to us. I will advocate for the use of “no” on our part. We don’t have the patience and time and bigger picture perspective like God does to always say yes. We have limits and so “no” has to be a part of our answering options. AND we need to understand the power of “tell me more” and utilize that power as often as we can.
Tell me more can sort out some pretty sticky situations. During World War 2, President Roosevelt was on board the battleship USS Iowa on a long voyage to North Africa. Attached to the USS Iowa was a protective convoy, and one of the member ships was the destroyer USS William D. Porter. To put it mildly, the William D. Porter had not performed well as protection and made some terrible mistakes along the journey.
At one point, President Roosevelt requested an anti-aircraft drill by shooting at balloons. During the exercise, the William D. Porter wanted to clear its shameful name and perform well to prove themselves, but they accidentally fired a ready and armed torpedo right at the USS Iowa.
To make matters even worse, the captain of the William D. Porter didn’t radio the USS Iowa about the torpedo because he wanted to stick to the rules of the drill and use light signals to tell them a torpedo was on its way. When they realized the USS Iowa didn’t understand their signaling, they broke radio silence and warned the battleship of the incoming torpedo. Fortunately, they managed to avoid the torpedo.
Instead of asking tell me more, the USS Iowa assumed this maneuver was an assassination attempt. The USS Iowa pointed all of its guns at the William D. Porter. Thankfully the captain of the USS Iowa did ask for William D Porter to “tell them more” and they sorted out the mess. Afterwards, the William D. Porter was always greeted with “Don’t shoot, we’re Republicans!”
Tell me more is an option we need to utilize. When we cannot say yes, we flip too quickly to thinking no is the only other answer we can give. When we disagree with someone we can too quickly assume they are out to get us. Even when someone is sending torpedoes your way it may be worth asking “tell me more.”
Tell me more allows us to answer the door for more friends than just the ones we can say yes to. There are friends knocking on our doors. Friends scared they will be separated from their children, Friends afraid to run in their own neighborhoods, Friends who are not able to be themselves in their workplaces. Friends who are worried about the policies of this new administration. Friends who stress over their profession being completely upended. They are in need and we might not agree with how they want to solve the problem, yet if we can’t say yes right away we don’t need to reject them and curl up tighter in our comfy blankets in bed. We can ask them to tell us more.
When we seek to understand the needs of others we can partner with them to find solutions. We might not be able to say yes yet, but in the course of the conversation we may find something we can say yes to. We can, and I believe God’s example tells us we should, get out of bed and at the very least ask them to tell us more about their needs.
It is what God does for us with every prayer we pray. When God cannot tell us YES, God says tell me more and encourages us to continue in prayer. And eventually, we, along with God, find a way to YES.
May we be persistent enough to ask “tell me more.”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 21, 2021
Leviticus 19:13-118; Luke 10:25-37
He is famous. His name is everywhere. It is on hospitals. It is on long-term care facilities. It is on businesses. It is on organizations that serve the poor and the hungry. It is on websites and counseling centers. It is associated with a particular set of laws. Newscasters regularly refer to him. So who is this famous man about town? He is the Good Samaritan. Yes, that’s right, the Good Samaritan. There are Good Samaritan hospitals, hospital systems, retirement communities, rehabilitation clinics, organizations that serve the needs of the poor and counseling services such as Samaritan Counseling which operates in our own building. In addition there are Good Samaritan laws which protect passersby from being sued when they help someone in need. And on news broadcasts whenever someone stops to assist another person, they are called good Samaritans. What is fascinating about these associations of the Good Samaritan name is that they are made by or to people who probably don’t know the Samaritan’s origin story. They have no idea he is a character in a parable once told by Jesus. But just so that we are all on the same page this morning, let’s return to the story and remind ourselves of the purpose of the parable.
The story begins with a religious lawyer testing Jesus as to the rules for gaining eternal life. Jesus, being Jesus, asks the lawyer about the Torah’s requirements for entry. The lawyer replies correctly that it is to love God and love neighbor. Jesus agrees. But then the lawyer asks a second question, a question that was in fact always under debate in Judaism - who is my neighbor? This is when Jesus tells his parable which begins with a rather foolish man who walked the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho by himself. This road was also known as the bloody road because of the crime and violence that occurred on it. The foolish man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Over the course of time a priest, going home from his annual duty at the Jerusalem Temples, passes by the man in need. Next a Levite, someone who is sort of support staff for the priests at the Jerusalem Temple, walks by the beaten man and does nothing as well. Then a foreigner, an enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, stops, has pity on the beaten man, and then takes care of the man, both on the site of the robbery and then later at a local motel. As the story concludes, Jesus asks, which of these men was the neighbor? The answer given by the lawyer is, the one who showed mercy. Thus, the Good Samaritan passes from parable to legend and becomes the prototype for caring.
The conclusion that has been drawn over and over again from the story is the correct one, that we are to be Good Samaritans, helping those in need because everyone is our neighbor. But what if Jesus is trying to tell us more than who is our neighbor? What if this parable contains more than that simple, yet powerful lesson? I ask that because I believe that Jesus is indeed trying to teach us a second valuable lesson, which is, how does someone become our neighbor? To understand this let’s take a second look at the story and the location of the three travelers who come across the man who has been beaten. First there is the priest. He passes by the beaten man on the other side of the road. In other words, he does not get close enough to see who this man is or what is wrong with him. Next comes the Levite. He too passes by on the other side of the road and so cannot see the exact condition of the man lying just off the road. Finally, the Samaritan arrives. The language Jesus uses to describe him implies that he too is initially on the other side of the road, but then “he came near.” In other words, the Samaritan moved from the other side of the road to be close enough to the beaten man to see his condition. It was in this near proximity that the Samaritan’s pity is evoked for this man who was in need. Next, the Samaritan “went to him,” meaning the Samaritan moves even closer, so close in fact that he treats the man’s wounds, bandages them, places the man on a donkey, carries the man to safety, checks him into a Holiday Inn Express, gives the Clerk a credit card saying, this man’s stay is on me. This is how the Samarian made the foolish man his neighbor.
Your response might be something like, “Well, John, that’s all well and good but I know that everyone is my neighbor. Why should I need to know how to make someone my neighbor?” My response would be that we usually do not cross the street. We stay on our side of the road because that is the natural human tendency. Or, to put it another way, we segregate. And let me be clear that this tendency to segregate is not just an American tendency, or a Detroit tendency, but a human tendency. After all, birds of a feather…right? Think about it, we tend to want to gravitate to people who are like us; so, we segregate according to language and ethnicity. We segregate according to wealth and class. We segregate according to race and religion. We segregate by ability and disability. And though we truly believe that everybody is our neighbor, because we are walking on one particular side of the road it becomes hard for us to make people on the other side of the road our neighbor. I would argue that this is why Jesus tells this parable, because crossing the street to care for others was as difficult in his day as it is in ours.
But this is what Jesus challenges us to do, not just to intellectually agree that everyone is our neighbor, but to cross the road. So why did the Christian cross the road? To get to the other side to make someone our neighbor. And I have to say that this is one of the gifts of Everybody’s Church; we try to offer opportunities to go across the road. We have done so through our work at Alcott where we go and make a difference in children’s lives. We have done so through our Rejoicing Spirits community and our work with Angels’ Place homes. Many of you who have been delivering food to families in Pontiac are crossing the road because you have come to know the families you are assisting. We crossed the road with our hosting of the South Oakland Shelter, where some of you befriended those who stayed as our guests. I believe we have done this in our work in Kenya, where we drew near, saw, and worked side by side with our brothers and sisters there to build a church and a school. And many of you are crossing the road in ways the rest of us are not even aware. The challenge for us is to keep at it. It is to remember that we are not called by God to walk on the far side of the road, but to cross over, to listen, to see, to love and to serve. So the question I would like each of you to ask yourselves this week is this, how am I crossing the road in order to make someone my neighbor?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 14, 2021
Jeremiah 29:10-14; Philippians 2:1-13
In 2015 the book, The Purpose Driven Church was, according to a poll of pastors, second only to the Bible in popularity. Initially written as a Doctor of Ministry Project by Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, it influenced and continues to influence thousands of church leaders and church planters. It contains nuggets of wisdom on how to focus a church’s life and work so that a church can develop active and faithful members. This morning though I want to focus on one chapter and that is the chapter on recruitment. At the heart of that chapter is the advice, backed up by years of research, that a growing, successful church can only be built upon a homogenous community. In other words, a growing church requires recruiting people who look alike, think alike, live alike, and share a common view of the world. Any attempt to create a church that is heterogeneous, meaning where not everyone looks, thinks, and acts alike is bound for failure. The reason being that people only like being around people like themselves.
I have to say that this chapter and the research on which it was based was in the back of my mind as the session (the board of ruling elders of this church) adopted our moniker of Everybody’s Church. When we adopted Everybody’s Church as our statement of identity, we tried to be clear as to what it meant. It meant that our doors were open to everyone as our inclusion statement makes clear. “As Everybody's Church we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” We also knew what being Everybody’s Church didn’t mean. It didn’t mean that we believed anything and everything, or that everybody would want to come to our church because not everyone would approve of or appreciate our inclusion, our worship, or our witness. And that was fine. But we adopted this statement of our identity because we believed that a church ought to reflect the entirety of the kingdom of God, rather than one small slice of it. We believed that it was possible to bring together people who didn’t think, look, or act alike and create a dynamic Jesus community. What none of us could have foreseen, however, was 2020.
Each of us carries within us our own particular impact of this past year. It was the year that put this nation in a pressure cooker that had the potential to break down our political, economic, relational, and religious connections. The Covid-19 pandemic with its deaths and lockdowns, continuing racial strife in our streets, a political campaign and aftermath unlike any I have ever experienced, have stretched the bonds that have held families, communities and churches together to the breaking point. We carry around within us fear, anger, frustration, depression, loneliness, and foreboding. And these events have taken a toll on teachers, students, peace officers, pastors, doctors, nurses, first responders, communities of color, small businesses, and on this church. The question before us is, has the pressure cooker of 2020 proved the research right and that we cannot be a heterogeneous church? Or is it still possible for us to be Everybody’s Church? I would answer the latter because we are of “the same mind.” Let me explain.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he was writing to a church in which there were divisions. Unlike the church in Corinth where Paul made us aware of the causes of that church’s division, we are not sure what was tearing the Philippian church apart. What we do know is that there were people dividing the church and Paul took great pains to urge the church to remain united. In his efforts to do so he wrote, “Be of the same mind…being in full accord and of one mind.” What is interesting about this phrase, having the same mind, is that over the centuries since Paul wrote, this phrase has come to mean that all people are to believe the same thing and that same thing is dictated by either the church or a pastor. In other words, to have the same mind means to be a homogeneous church, without dissention or discussion. Everyone does the same line and believes the same things. While this understanding may still be true for many churches today, it is not true for us Reformed folks. First, it is not true theologically because we believe three things about anyone dictating to us what we must believe. First, we believe that God alone is Lord of the conscience…meaning that no one can dictate what we believe. Second, we believe that councils do err…meaning that sessions, denominations, and church leadership can be mistaken. Third, we believe that Christians can disagree and still be faithful…meaning that there is often no one, right answer and so we embrace those with whom we disagree as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The second place where this belief in being of the same mind meaning everyone agreeing on some set of doctrinal principles falls apart, is in the passage itself. I say this because in the passage Paul told us that the same mind we are to have is the mind of Christ; a mind of humility and sacrificial service. As I have noted before when speaking on this passage in Philippians, the passage is not intended as a statement about Christ’s divinity, but about the mind of Christ as an example of where our minds ought to be and where unity can be found. Our minds are first to be found in humility. Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” What this means is that we are to approach everyone we meet as an equal worthy of our attention, our love, and our compassion. One way to think about humility is that it calls us to be willing to engage in active non-judgmental listening, even when we disagree with someone. And we engage in these active non-judgmental relationships because they reflect the humility of Jesus Christ, who “being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.” In other words, to have the mind of Christ is to humbly sacrifice ourselves for those around us, even though they, like we, are less than perfect people…even though they may be people with whom we may disagree.
And my friends I know we are of one mind because over the past twelve years I have watched us have a mind of humility and sacrificial service. I have watched people who fundamentally disagreed on issues, listen, and love one another. I have watched people who fundamentally disagreed sacrificially serve each other and serve others together. And so there are several things that I passionately believe. I believe passionately in what we are doing here at Everybody’s Church. I believe passionately that the world needs to see that it is possible to be a church in which there is loving disagreement lived out in Christ-like humility. I believe passionately that the world needs to see that there can be a church with people from all walks of life, all political and theological viewpoints, all genders, all races, all sexual orientations and all abilities and disabilities that exhibits Christ’s mind of humility. I believe passionately that we are fully capable of humility, sacrifice, and service, because I witness it week after week here in our church. My friends, we are a gift to the world.
My challenge for you this week is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I living with the mind of Christ, both inside of and outside of Everybody’s Church?” And allow this question to continue to make you and us a gift to the world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 7, 2021
Exodus 12:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32
Once every quarter it would pass in front of me and I always wanted it. Once a quarter plates of bread and cups of juice would be passed by my parents one to another and then to other adults down the pew. After each quarterly communion service, I would ask my parents why I couldn’t have any. They patiently explained to me that I would need to go through a communicants’ class to partake. When was that I would ask? They would reply, “When you are in seventh grade.” Ultimately, I wore them down and in fifth grade I was allowed into the communicants’ class. We had to memorize The Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Beatitudes and the first question and answer in the Westminster Confession. Then all of us stood in a line in front of the pastor who had us recite our answers. I managed it all pretty well except the Beatitudes, but I think the pastor thought it was so cute that a fifth grader wanted to be in the class that he let it slide. Then, I was ready. I wish I could tell you that taking communion that next Sunday was a life changing moment…but it wasn’t. I suppose because in the end, it was just bread and juice.
The first question before us this morning is, why has the church, and why do most churches, still insist on some sort of communicants’ or confirmation class before children can come to the table? Why aren’t children welcome all the time? The answer can be found in two places: tradition and scripture. The tradition of only allowing older youth or adults at the table is an ancient one. In the early church, which was continually under threat of persecution, it was important to weed out any spies who might be in the community’s midst. The way to do this was to have a three-year process of catechesis, of teaching on the mysteries of the faith before an individual was allowed to partake of the sacred meal. Second, there were Paul’s words in his first letter to the church at Corinth. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” The understanding of these words slowly became that to examine one’s self was to examine one’s self over the meaning and purpose of the meal; that if one didn’t understand what one was doing at the table, then one was bringing judgment against one’s self. Thus, this interpretation of Paul’s words reinforced the tradition that only adults, or adolescents, were capable of understanding communion, so children were not welcome at the table.
This then leads us to our second question of the morning, which is why do we in the Reformed tradition and here at Everybody’s Church, not only allow, but invite all children to the table? The answer once again comes from two sources: scripture and tradition. First scripture. We too point to Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians as support for a fully inclusive table. We do so because the context of Paul’s words was a situation in which the wealthy in the Corinthian Church were not sharing with the poor in the community. What would happen is that the wealthy would arrive at church early with a picnic lunch and wine, then eat and get drunk. Then when the poor would arrive, they would have nothing. So, when communion came around, the wealthy would still have bread and wine aplenty, but the poor would have nothing for the meal and the wealthy wouldn’t share. Thus, only a part of the community could partake in the sacred meal. And while that sort of behavior might be acceptable in Roman society, Paul says it is not acceptable within the Jesus community. Thus, Paul castigates the wealthy for this, telling them that they needed to examine their actions in the light of Christ’s love for all.
The tradition portion of the answer is also Biblically based in the Jewish understanding of Passover. As we read this morning, Passover was the meal of remembrance of God’s freeing the Israelites from slavery. And the tradition of Passover is that it is a family meal. Passover is not only shared by old and young alike, but children play an essential role in the meal. In fact, it is such a family meal that children ask questions during the meal and receive answers from the adults. In a sense it is real-time catechesis. I would argue that it is this tradition of Passover that would have informed Paul’s understanding of communion; that it is a family meal in which men, women and children are all not only welcome, but ought to have a learning place at the table. And for those of you who have joined us since the onset of the pandemic, this is tradition we have here at Everybody’s Church, that the children participate at the table, as an integral part of our sacred meal.
One of the ways to understand this meal is through the term, the Eucharist, another name for communion. The meaning of eucharist is “thanksgiving” meaning this is a thanksgiving meal. So for a moment think of a good Thanksgiving meal you have attended…not one in which people fought about politics, but one in which everyone ate and laughed and gave thanks together. At my family Thanksgiving meals there was often a children’s table where children were allowed to eat everything the adults ate, without having to explain all the details of the original Thanksgiving feast. All were welcome to eat…and the same is true for us.
This morning then, know that all are welcome at this table. It is a family feast in which Jesus sits at the head and the rest of us gather. It is a family meal in which we learn through participating. It is a family meal in which old and young and in-between are welcome. It is a place where those with questions as well as those with answers are welcome. I hope today you will partake of this family meal, as together we remember the height, depth and breadth of God’s love for the world.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
January 31, 2021
Jeremiah 31:1-9; Acts 10:9-33
1946…...1946 gave us the first meeting of the United Nations. The Philippines gained independence from the US in 1946. and the New York City Ballet was established in 1946.
It is hard for me to imagine a world where these institutions don’t exist. New York without its own ballet company. The Philippines as a territory. Yet they are all only 75 years young. The world I find hard to imagine was exactly how the world was until recently.
There is something else that happened in 1946 I want us to recognize today. In 1946 a new translation of the Bible was published. The Revised Standard Version, RSV. This translation was the first time the word homosexual was in the Bible. Let that sink in. Seventy-five short years ago was the FIRST time ANY Bible included the word homosexual.
As hard as it is to imagine the world without the United Nations. It is just as hard to imagine Christianity without its theology around homosexuality, and yet they are both only 75 years young.
We have been using these first weeks of 2021 to remind ourselves of how far the church has come, how we have followed the urgings of the Spirit to reform into a better understanding of God. This sermon feels a little different. It is a confession that sometimes we fail at this task. That sometimes the changes are not Spirit led.
Before I get too far into this I want to invite you all to a Facebook Live I will be doing tomorrow at 7pm. It will be on the church’s Facebook page. During that time I will be answering questions. If you have any questions throughout this sermon please email them to me firstname.lastname@example.org. I will keep them anonymous. I will go through the questions I receive the best I can and you can ask live questions in the chat. Even if you don’t have questions, join us!
I will also be loading up my manuscript with extra resources. Lectures about the history of homosexuality, websites with more Biblical support than I have time to give today, and news information about a documentary coming out later this year about the RSV translation. There will be tons of ways for you to continue learning on this topic. The Spirit is talking to US about this issue so let’s listen and take action.
The section of scripture I just read to you is a great place for us to begin listening. It’s an incredible story about Peter, the rock of the church, learning who the gospel is meant for and who God calls worthy. This is a story about God calling us to be in community with those who other Christians would turn their backs on. This is a story of radical reformation and stunning inclusion.
In this story Peter takes a moment to meet with God in prayer. During this time he gets hungry and God sends down a picnic blanket of animals for Peter to eat. Peter is shocked to see animals the Torah forbids to be eaten, unclean animals. He refuses the heavenly meal three times. Every time he refuses, God says, “How dare you call what I have made clean, profane.” These things are God given and yet Peter cannot break free from the theology and rules he has learned from other people. Peter’s stubbornness wins out and the picnic blanket is taken back up to heaven.
Peter is then interrupted and told someone is looking for him. As he gets up to go see who it is, the Spirit stops Peter and urges him to hold off judgment. She says, “No matter who this is, I want you to at least go and hear them out.” Peter agrees to do this and immediately regrets it because the people looking for him are “unclean;” they are Gentiles. They are outside of God’s salvation; they aren’t God’s chosen people, but the Spirit’s words ring in Peter’s head and he agrees to go see why he is being summoned.
When he arrives at the Gentile’s house it gets worse. A whole crowd of Gentiles have gathered and they beg him to tell them about Jesus. The picnic from God finally clicks for Peter. Do not call profane that which God has made clean.
Peter thought he knew the mind of God. He thought he had interpreted scripture correctly to exclude Gentiles. There are scriptures that speak about excluding foreigners, so Peter’s theology is not an ignorant one. What Peter’s theology does is neglect to include the wholeness of God’s word. He forgets that in the first chapter God creates all of humanity and says it is very good. Not just good, which is what everything else in creation is called, humanity is very good.
So if God says humanity is very good, it would also track that humanity would be put into the clean category and not seen as profane by God. To God, humanity is very good, clean, and to prove even further which category humanity is a part of we get a special gift, the image of God is given to all of humanity, not just some, all of us.
The image of God is expressed through our unique identities. God has many interests and each one of us expresses a different part of God’s image. God is not bound by gender so we express the vastness of God’s gender in our own individual identities. God is extrovert, introvert, ambivert, all in one, but we express God’s image in one of those ways.
I express this part of God’s image in my identity as an extrovert. This past year has made it painfully obvious how much my health depends on my ability to be among other people. I tried to change this part of my identity. I tried to revel in the solitude: to read more, to call more people. I even tried taking walks in parks where I knew I would at least see another human, but nothing I did made me feel like I do when I am with other people. I cannot change my identity no matter how much I want to because it is wrapped up with God’s image in me. I am made to express this part of God to others.
If being an extrovert became unacceptable in our culture, the pain I went through last year would become my life. Sure, I could cover it up. I could claim to be an ex-extrovert. But when we suppress a part of our identity it makes us rot from the inside out. When we deny the image of God to shine through us it festers as shame and guilt.
This is because we are calling something profane which God has created clean. Humanity is created very good with God’s image printed on our identity. Sexuality is a part of our identity. Part of the gift God gives us when we become image bearers. Doubt me? Spend the next week trying to not love who you love, not being attracted to who you are attracted to. No, don’t do that, it is painful and futile. We cannot change our God given identities because they are the image of God we have been entrusted to carry, and our God given identity is very good. Our identity is something God has made clean.
Peter’s understanding was wrong. By offering Peter animals that would be classified as unclean, God wanted Peter to see there is nothing inherently profane about what God has created or gifted to him. And when God sends Peter to the Gentiles, God makes Peter put this into practice. Peter gets it right this time, including the people who everyone else had declared profane because God had shown Peter they are created, and very good, and clean too.
For the past 75 years we have been falling into the same hole Peter was stuck in. Peter could only see the verses about excluding Gentiles until God reminded him about the rest of scripture. Christians have been ignoring stories like Peter’s revelation about inclusion to instead focus on other verses that have all been influenced by a bad translation of ONE verse.
The mistranslation happened to 1 Corinthians 6:9. In that verse there are two words that appear next to one another, but were combined by the RSV translators to make it say homosexual. The two words are malakoi and arsenokoite (Are-seno-koi-tie). Malakoi literally means soft and is widely used in reference to self-control and cowardice. Arsenokoitai means…….well we have no idea. This is a word Paul makes up. It is not found in any other Greek writing ever, nor does Paul ever use it again to clarify what he meant. He derived the word we think from two words, arsen, meaning “male,” and koites, meaning “bed.” Paul pulls these two words from Leviticus where it talks about a male not laying in a bed with another male, but what we see in Leviticus is a power imbalance. The words translated into “male” are not the same word. The first time it is a word meaning an adult man and the second word means boy. So the best translation of Leviticus, the scripture Paul is referencing is, “A man shall not sleep with a boy.”
I hope we can all agree that pedophilia is very different than two adult homosexual men in a loving, mutual consentual relationship. The writer of Leviticus knew the difference because he clearly chooses the words man and boy to explain the abomination. And no one knows what was going on with Paul when he made up this new word.
But when English translators sit down to translate they have to make choices that make sense. In 1946, the translators thought the word that made the most sense was homosexual.
This chouce could have been influenced by an implicit bias slipping into their work, but the more realistic reason is that they wanted to make their fear and prejudice against homosexual people something God agreed with too. Anne Lamott has said, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Shortly after the RSV translation was published a seminary student wrote a letter to the translators saying that their word choice in 1 Corinthians 6:9 could be used by “misinformed and misguided people to be a sacred weapon.” That student received a letter back saying, “There may be something to what you say,” and then the exchange was filed away.
It breaks my heart every time I think about this. That a group of people who claimed to love the Bible so much they wanted to retranslate it would knowingly allow their translation to continue to be published with a mistake. Their pride or their agenda against the LGBTQ community outweighed their faithfulness to God. They ignored the urgings of the Spirit in the letter from the seminarian and stuck with the claim that homosexuals were profane, which in reality was something God had created clean.
This is one verse, one word in one verse, but because we are supposed to use scripture to interpret scripture this one mistake impacts our understanding of other verses. Since 1946 anywhere from 6-12 other verses have been used to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality. I do not have time to unpack them all, I will do that tomorrow night on Facebook live. But I will say they all fall under one of these categories. They are either mistranslated, not meant to apply to us anymore since Jesus’ sacrifice, or talking about very specific circumstances. I will also say NONE of them talk about loving, mutual consensual relationships between adults of the same sex.
There is a wrong assumption out there that people who argue for LGBTQ inclusion are twisting scripture to make the gospel appease our culture, when in reality we are the ones who have truly wrestled with these words. We love scripture and know its power to change lives.. When we see a disconnect between stories like Peter’s revelation about what is clean and what is profane and 1 Corinthians, we ask questions of the Spirit.
Those questions have caused a whole generation of Biblical scholars to dig and pull on strings and argue and reveal the truth. The ones who sought to appease the culture were the ones who literally twisted a word in scripture to create a legacy of terror for LGBTQ people. One word has caused parents to turn their children out on the streets, caused people to die by suicide, and turned scores of people away from a church pew.
The damage it has done is immeasurable. And it has only been 75 years. Which means we can turn this around. For the majority of the existence of Christianity this has not been our way. This theology is fresh and new and can be thrown out just as quickly as it has infested our churches. And that is what we will do.
We no longer will allow our sacred scripture to be used as a weapon of terror. We will educate ourselves. We will root out the toxic theology that lives inside us. We will not pass this on to our children and it dies with us. This toxic theology and all beliefs that do not produce the fruits of the Spirit need to be removed so the Church can get back to producing more good fruits. We will stop calling profane that which God has created clean.
Lord, in your mercy, help us make it so. (Resources below)
Video: The Bible: A queer positive book | Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo | TEDxToronto
Video: Kathy Baldock: Untangling the Mess - The Reformation Project in Los Angeles
Article: Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion from the Reformation Project
Article: Has 'Homosexual' Always Been in the Bible?
Website: Documentary (not yet released) 1946: THE MISTRANSLATION THAT SHIFTED CULTURE
Website: More Light Presbyterians’ Resources (Books, Bible Studies, and more)
Website: Queer Theology (Books, Bible Studies, Message Boards, Online Groups, and more)
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 24, 2021
Genesis 1:26-27; Galatians 3:23-29
It seemed like a good idea at the time. When Rev. Bethany and I were discussing this sermon series it seemed like a good idea to add the issue of race to all the other issues over which the church has struggled and changed. But as I have discovered since the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, talking about race can be an issue fraught with emotion; pain, anger and guilt. Talking about race can stir feelings that many of us were not even aware of. The discussion about race can also be seen as a divisive issue that perhaps, like the old saying about religion and politics, is not to be addressed in polite company. And so I have to say that for a moment, I considered finding a less controversial topic. Yet in the end choosing this topic for this week appears to be rather providential considering that not only did we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last Monday, but that this week a Black Asian woman was sworn in as Vice- President of the United States, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Dr. King’s former congregation was sworn in as only the 11th Black senator in US history. This sermon will be a bit different than my usual sermons. It will be divided into two parts, the “then” and the “now” with two seemingly contradictory images in each.
We begin with the then. In her book “Caste,” Isabel Wilkerson, tells the story of a Presbyterian Elder out riding in one of the slave holding states, prior to the Civil War. As he is riding, he hears a man screaming out in pain. Riding toward the sound he sees a Black man strung up by his hands with a chain slung over a tree branch, suspending the man in the air. The slave’s feet are tied to a post in the ground so that he cannot move. He is being brutally whipped. The elder then saunters over to the man doing the beating and asks what the Black man had done. The response is that the master of the plantation had told the slave that the rows of corn the slave had planted were not perfectly straight. The slave had responded by saying that the same amount of corn grows on crooked rows as on straight rows. The flogging was in response to that inappropriate response. The Presbyterian Elder, in his diary, said, “That was enough,” meaning that was certainly enough of an outrage for this punishment. The contradiction here, at least in our minds, should be that this incident took place in a nation whose founding documents declared that all men are created equal and are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
How did this contradiction come to be? It came to be because Europeans had created the concept of race and had used the Bible to justify not only the concept of race, but to use race to enslave and annihilate entire peoples. What do I mean by the concept of race? What I mean is that race is not a Biblical or a biological concept. It is a human construct intended to create a hierarchy of humanity in which certain people, who look like me, are set on top of the hierarchy and given power over those whose skin is different from mine. We can trace this concept of race back to Pope Nicholas V, who in 1452 declared that Europeans could capture, kill, convert and enslave for perpetuity any person in Africa, which began to create a hierarchy based on skin color. The rise of race continued during the European exploration of Africa. Even though the explorers encountered civilizations rivaling those of Europe, the explorers brought back tales of wild, animal-like creatures that looked like human beings. These tales slowly began to take root in European imaginations spawning a pseudo-science of European superiority. As Europeans came to the Americas, they brought these concepts with them. And when the south needed cheap labor, the concept of race came in handy. Planters were allowed to perpetually enslave Africans under horrific conditions because they were of an “inferior race” and importantly for us this morning, because the Bible said slavery was an acceptable institution. This claim, that slavery was an acceptable institution, was made regardless of the fact that slavery in the Bible was very different from slavery in America. Slavery in the Bible had nothing to do with the color of someone’s skin and was often a condition from which a slave could buy or earn their freedom. Other slavers argued that slavery was also Biblically based because Africans were not descendants of Adam and Eve. They were an entirely different “race.” This belief was called polygenesis, meaning that God had created multiple species of human-like creatures, but only one race of people that were the true children of God, meaning white people. And while we may find this odd, it was a powerful “scientific theory” held by Voltaire and many others. Thus, whites were superior to all others and all non-whites could be treated in any manner whites so chose.
We continue with the now. We begin with the fact that this nation twice elected a Black man, Barack Obama, to the Presidency and now has elected Kamala Harris, a Black Asian woman to the Vice Presidency. Additionally, the state of Georgia has elected the 11th Black US senator in the Reverend Raphael Warnock. All these events would have been unimaginable to that Presbyterian Elder. Yet, at the same time we also have a three-year investigative report by Newsday of housing discrimination in Long Island, New York. Newsday spent three years investigating why Long Island is one of America’s most segregated areas. In this experiment, Newsday sent couples paired with either a Black, Hispanic or Asian couple to visit local realtors. The couples would then ask to be shown homes all across the area. The interactions were videoed and reviewed by experts in housing discrimination. The results were that Black buyers were discriminated against in comparison to white buyers 49% of the time, Hispanic buyers 39% and Asian buyer, 19%. Examples of this discrimination included showing buyers of color fewer listing, demanding that buyers of color and not white buyers prequalify before seeing listings when white buyers were not asked to do so and then “steering” buyers of color away from majority white neighborhoods and toward mix race neighborhoods. To get a different perspective on this story, I passed this article by one of my cousins who is a very successful Realtor in Houston. She said it shocked her because those actions not only violate the law, but the conduct to which Realtors are to follow. But at the same time, she wrote, it did not surprise her because of what she called “subconscious bias” which we will look at in a minute. So how did we get here?
The positive part of how we got here comes because of our giving scripture its due. We listen to Genesis 1 and acknowledge that it declares that all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin, are created in the image of God and contain within them the very breath and Spirit of the living God. We listen to the Apostle Paul when he says that in Jesus Christ all worldly differences go away; that there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free; nor in our case one race or another. We have also made God’s freeing of the people from slavery as our controlling narrative rather than that of Paul’s views on slavery. In other words, we have made progress. Slavery is gone. Jim Crow laws are mostly gone. Yet, somehow, we are not there yet; meaning we are not yet to a place where the concept of race does not affect how we see and relate to one another. This can be seen in the work of Harvard Professor David R. Williams.
In an interview for the book “Caste,” Williams says that a variety of studies show that up to 80% of whites and 33% of Blacks hold unconscious, let me repeat, unconscious biases against African Americans and other people of color. When asked what kind of a person would hold these biases, he responds, “This is a wonderful person who has sympathy for the bad things that have happened in the past.” He continues, “So, despite holding no explicit racial prejudices, they nonetheless hold implicit bias that is deep in their subconscious…though self consciously they are not prejudiced, the implicit biases nonetheless operate to shape their behavior” (pg. 187). How is this possible? It is possible because we are what we consume. To illustrate this, Professor Williams, in a Ted Talk (referenced below) refers to a study that looked at all books, magazines and journals from the last 25 years, that an average college educated person would read, and then asked what words are most likely to occur in connection with white people and Black people. Here they are. With white people the words are wealthy, progressive, conventional, stubborn, successful and educated. With Black people the words are poor, violent, religious, lazy, cheerful and dangerous. His conclusion, based not just on these studies, but on hundreds of studies is that even the best people, people who care about the mistreatment of people of color, who work hard to treat everyone the same, who believe the scriptures that we are all created in God’s image, still carry within them these unconscious biases that affect how they respond to others in multiple situations. This is how we can find ourselves with these contradictions.
Where does all this leave us? I believe it leaves us with hope. We have hope because we as Christians have learned to listen more carefully to the scriptures and their embrace of all human beings as beloved children of God. I believe there is hope because we see that the world can and does change when we allow the Spirit to lead us. I believe there is hope because much of the church, including ours, has made a commitment to learn about and to do our best to deal with the issues of implicit bias and racism. I believe there is hope because we are Reformed and always reforming under the word of God such that we can have an ongoing conversation with the scriptures and learn new things. I believe there is hope because the Spirit of God is at work in us, in the church and in the world, creating new possibilities for all human beings to come together in the one family of God.
My challenge for you then is to take the time to look inward, to explore and find those places where subconscious bias might live, then acknowledge and work on them.
“Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson, Random House Books
(Newsday study on race and housing) https://projects.newsday.com/long-island/real-estate-agents-investigation/
(Dr. David R. Williams, on How Racism Makes Us Sick) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzyjDR_AWzE
(Subconscious bias test) https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 17, 2021
Judges 4:1-10; Romans 16:1-7
Three moments in time. The first was when I was doing continuing education at a Catholic seminary in San Antonio. During a break, one of the priests asked our lecturer, Sister Sarah, what she thought about the Pope’s latest pronouncement. Her response was, “You mean my response to the thing that I am not allowed to talk about?” All the priests around her smiled and laughed. She then said, “I can’t talk about it.” The second deals with a wonderful Baptist church close to where Cindy and I used to live in San Antonio. I had known about it because one of my mother-in-law’s neighbors was part of their choir. But one day they made the San Antonio paper, not for their choir, but because they had been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention. The third event happened the year I graduated from high school. In 1973, a significant number of churches from the PCUS (my original denomination), or old southern Presbyterian Church, disaffiliated themselves and formed a new denomination, called the Presbyterian Church in America. So, what do these three moments have in common? The answer is women in church leadership.
Sister Sarah, along with all other Catholics had been ordered to not even speak of having women deacons or priests. The church in San Antonio had the audacity to ordain a female seminary graduate as a minister of education. And finally, the PCA was formed because the PCUS had decided that not only could churches ordain women as deacons, elders and pastors, but that they should. This was too much for hundreds of congregations. Though our church has, and will later today, ordain women to be deacons and elders, and pastors such as Rev. Bethany, most churches in the world still do not do this. Why is that? I would argue it mainly has to do with male dominated traditions, but those opposing women in leadership would argue that this prohibition is Biblical, meaning the scriptures expressly prohibit placing women in positions of leadership. That being the case the question is why do we ordain women to positions of leadership? To explain why we do so, we will apply my Biblical interpretive proposal from last week to this issue. So, this morning let’s begin in the trenches and then take to the higher ground.
Those who seek to prohibit women from church leadership, will quote several verses, but in reality, there are only two verses that speak directly against women in leadership in the life of the church. These are 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34. These say, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” And “…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.” These are the main passages used to prohibit women from church leadership. Fine, but from our trench we can load up at least twenty verses that imply that women are to have equal opportunity to lead in the church. I will only reference two of those scriptures, the ones we read this morning. First, we have the judge Deborah. A judge was the leader of God’s people and the people respected, supported and relied on her for leadership. Thus, God chose a woman to lead God’s people. The second reference here comes from the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In it he commends Phoebe who is a deacon, Prisca and Aquila, who are a husband and wife church leadership duo, and Junia, who is an Apostle, which means that not only does Junia lead a single church, but that she has authority to oversee multiple churches. Though people want to claim that Paul prohibits women in leadership, he certainly seems supportive of it here. Now, on to the higher ground.
For those of you who were not with us last week, the higher ground refers to looking at issues of Biblical interpretation through the entire scope of scripture. God is the giver and lover of life, and we are those who are to be God’s co-workers in making life and love the framework for interpretation. Let’s begin with God as the giver and lover of life. In Genesis, God is described as the one who creates all of life, including men and women. When God creates them, God creates them in complete equality. In fact, in some Jewish rabbinic traditions it is believed that God only created one being, which was part male and part female, carrying characteristics of both genders. And even in the second creation story in Genesis 2, when God creates Adam first, God realizes that Adam is incomplete and so creates Eve to complete him, and the sharing of the “rib” links the two together as a single person. This concept of equality extends into the New Testament when it is made clear that the Spirit of God not only sees men and women as equals but gives spiritual gifts to both in equal measure. In fact, nowhere in scripture does it say that God only shares the fullness of God’s gifts and love with only men and not women. I would even go so far as to argue that to assume God would only give the fullness of life to men would be antithetical to God’s nature as revealed in the scriptures.
The second thing we are to look at is who we are supposed to be. As I said a moment ago, we are to be those who are God’s co-workers in creating a world in which God’s life and love flourish. What this means is that we are to be those who take the spiritual gifts we are given and put them to work; that we as men and women are to not neglect the gifts we have. An interesting historical note is that the first churches to ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops were the Montanists in the first and second century. These were Christians who believed that the Spirit empowered all persons to fulfill the Apostle Paul’s vision that all persons are spiritually gifted, and not simply one group of men. But if we listen to Paul, we hear him saying, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:5) or the Apostle Peter, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” In addition, Jesus accepts female disciples such as Mary, who sit at his feet and learns. This allows us to understand that we are supposed to see ourselves as men and women, gifted by God with the fullness of life and the ability to serve, lead and teach. In other words, if a woman, or a man for that matter, is gifted by God to help others reach for the fullness of life, they would be doing a disservice to God and to the church, by not leading.
It is with great joy this morning that we ordain men and women into service and leadership. It is with great joy that we welcome their gifts into the life and work of Everybody’s Church. And I have to say, it is always with great joy that I am able to share in leadership here with Rev. Bethany, Cindy Merten, and all of our deacons and elders, both men and women. My challenge is to all of us as we answer the congregational questions for the ordination and installation of these elders and deacons, that we celebrate their willingness to share the gifts they have been given.
More Scripture References
Paul said, when “brothers and sisters … come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. …” (1 Cor 14:26)
The Apostle Paul said, when “the whole church comes together … if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin …. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Corinthians 14:23-25; see also 1 Cor 11:5, 14:6, 20)
Paul said “you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (1 Cor 14:31; see also 14:23-25, 26, 39-40; 11:5; 1:1-2)
Paul said, to women and men, “… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord ….” (Ephesians 5:18-20)
The Apostle Peter said, to women and men, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. ….” (1 Peter 4:10-11)
Paul, recommending his example to women and men, explains that when the whole church comes together, he would “pray with my understanding; …. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.” (1 Cor 14:5, 12-17; see also 1:1-2; 14:6, 23, 26)
Paul said, “I praise you …. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head …. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? … For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.” (1 Cor 11:2, 4-5, 13-16)
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:24-26)
Likewise, teach the older women (presbytidas) to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:3-5) (presbytidas is the feminine version of the Greek word that is translated elders in Titus 1:4)
Female prophets include Anna, who prophesied in the Temple to men (Luke 2:36-38), Deborah (Judges 4-5), Philips’ daughters (Acts 21:8-9), Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), and many others (e.g., Isaiah 8:3; Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor 11:5; 1 Cor 14:1-39).
Peter said “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 (see Joel 2:28-29))
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 10, 2021
Psalm 119:9-16; Luke 4:16-30
This past Wednesday, Cindy and I tuned into an event we had never watched before. This event was the counting of the electoral college votes. We were interested because we knew there was going to be a debate about accepting, or rejecting, some of the votes. But as the event wore on, we watched in horror as rioters stormed the capitol, intent on disrupting the counting of the electoral votes and possibly overturning the election results. Though we knew that the counting of the votes would be contentious on the floor of the House and Senate, the violence of the insurrectionists was beyond our imagining. What made it even more concerning to me was to learn that as the rioters entered the building, many were chanting, “We love Jesus.” It was a powerful reminder to me of the ways in which Christians have used and abused this book for the last two millennia. It reminded me that the Bible has been used to defend enslaving people because of the color of their skin, oppressing women, jailing members of the LGBTQ community, dehumanizing persons with disabilities, killing Jews and Muslims and exterminating entire races of people. And last Wednesday, the Bible and the faith derived from it, were being used to justify an attack on our capitaol, where one Capitol Hill police officer was intentionally killed, and many others injured. The question before us then is how ought we, as people who believe that the scriptures are authoritative, interpret the scriptures in a way that does not lead us to these same conclusions?
In order to answer this question, I would like to make a proposal. This proposal is not the only way to answer this question, but it is a way I believe is faithful to the scriptures and to our tradition. This proposal comes in three parts. Here is part one: we get out of the trenches and view the scripture from the high ground. When I say trenches, my image is of the trenches in World War I, where soldiers on each side hunkered down and shot at one another. In terms of scripture, this is what I find many people doing. They hunker down in the trenches of their tradition and load up their spiritual six-shooters, or perhaps their spiritual machine guns, with Biblical bullets, meaning individual cherry-picked verses, that they then shoot at each other, hoping to either morally wound their opponents or to at least disable them so that they can be victorious. They say this verse says this about women. Or this verse says this about LGBTQ persons. We hope that if we hit our opponents with enough Biblical bullets our opponents will give in. Instead of doing this, what I suggest is that we leave our bandoleros of Biblical bullets behind and move to the higher ground. The higher ground here is not some moral ground, but it is the place where we can survey the entirety of the Biblical story; where we see the scriptures as a single story, rather than as a series of divisible verses selectable for every attack.
Now for part two. Part two is that when we are on higher ground looking at the scripture as a whole, we see that it tells us two things:. These are who God is and who we are supposed to be. Let me say this again. When we look at the whole sweep of scripture, we see that it tells us two things; who God is and who we are supposed to be. Let’s look at these two discoveries. The scripture tells us who God is. God is the giver and lover of life. God is the one who brings life into being and loves it; loves all of it. There is not a part of God’s creation that God does not passionately care about. We see this when the story begins with God declaring that all of creation is “very good” and ends with God recreating the world in such a way that all of life is invited to flourish. What this also means is that God is displeased with everything and everyone that attempts to diminish or destroy any part of this creation. And not only that but God acts in ways that liberate oppressed creation to flourish.
If we want to see twhat this looks like, all we have to do is look to Jesus, for in Jesus we see the fullness of God in human form. Jesus is God with us. Now listen again to Jesus’ words in his first sermon. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there with words about God setting people free to flourish. He continues with two stories that get him into trouble. These are the stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman. These are stories of foreigners, of enemies, who are liberated by God, meaning God’s love of creation is unlimited…which is why his audience wants to throw him off a cliff. God is the giver and lover of all of life.
Next, we learn who we are supposed to be. Again, from the beginning to the end of the scriptures we are called to be those who are God’s co-workers in loving and liberating God’s creation. From Genesis where Adam is entrusted with taking care of Eden to Revelation where human beings are to remember their first love, meaning love of God and neighbor, we are to be those who have been entrusted with being God’s hands, feet, voice and arms. We are to be those who create communities in which all people can flourish in the process of discovering their true selves as God has created them to be…and we are to oppose those powers that diminish and destroy God’s creation, including human beings. Again, if we want to see what this looks like all we have to do is look to Jesus. We can look to Jesus because not only is he God with us, meaning fully God, he is also fully human, meaning he is who we are supposed to be. If we look to Jesus what we see is God’s co-worker. We see the one who heals the sick, casts out the demonic, feeds the hungry, welcomes the strangers, eats with all the wrong people, forgives people for breaking the rules, and ultimately, on the cross sets humanity free to discover the abundance of life. This is who we are supposed to be.
Finally, the third part of my proposal is to make a pair of Biblical interpretation spectacles…or glasses Into the frames I want you to fit two lenses. The first lens is the image of God that we have discovered in our sweeping view of the scriptures. The second lens is the image of who we are to be, as we have discovered in our higher view of the Bible. Then once we have those spectacles in place, we view all scripture through those lenses. We ask ourselves of every scripture we read, or Biblical bullet that is shot at us, how should we interpret them through these two lenses. In other words, we are to ask ourselves, does this interpretation align with a God who gives and loves all of life, or does this interpretation diminish and destroy life? Does this interpretation align with me being a coworker with God in loving and liberating life, or does this interpretation cause me to be in allegiance with those who diminish and destroy life?
We live in a moment of time filled with hate, fear, lies and violence. The tendency of human beings in times such as this is to return to our trenches. Our tendency is to reload our spiritual six-shooters with our Biblical bullets and begin to attack those with whom we disagree. The challenge for us is to stay on the high ground; to continue to see the scriptures as a whole story in which we discover who God is and who we are to be, then allow those understandings to not only drive how we see scripture but how we interact with the world around us. My hope, then, is that on this day my three step process for interpreting scripture will assist you in seeing what is in this book (the Bible) through new eyes and find in it God’s love story for creation and God’s love story for you. I hope as well that it will allow us all to come out of the trenches and continue to work for the wonderful world God desires for us.
My challenge to you then is this, to find a book of the Bible that has long disturbed you and reread it this week through the lenses of who God is and who we are called to be, and then let me know if your new glasses allowed you to make new discoveries in your understanding of the scriptures.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
January 3, 2021
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 16:12-15
We are starting a new sermon series to kick off 2021. We are calling this series “always reforming.” As you may know the Presbyterian church became possible because of the reformation over 500 years ago and we have a phrase we like to use to describe ourselves which is “reformed and always reforming.” This series will highlight some of the issues we have reformed over the years. Things like the church’s stance on divorce, slavery, women’s leadership, and LGBTQ inclusion. On some of these topics, before we even talk about why the church changed, you might give a resounding “Thank God.” For other topics, you may find yourself still on the fence. That’s totally okay. The Church on the global level is still on the fence about divorce and women in leadership and slavery, and LGBTQ inclusion too.
For a church like ours that proudly affirms we are of the reformed tradition, Jesus’ words here in John 16 are a root from which an always reforming church gets nutrients. Jesus is facing the last day that he will be with the disciples in the same way he has been for the last few years. The next time they see Jesus alive he will be something altogether different, something resurrected. He knows this will change their relationship and how they listen to him, SO in the final hours Jesus tells them this.
Jesus is making an introduction to the disciples on behalf of the Holy Spirit, passing off the torch of authority so that when the time comes they will trust the Spirit. Jesus expects the disciples to continue to grow in their understanding of who God is. That growth will be facilitated by the movements and inspiration of the Spirit.
Jesus had three years….three years to teach and minister to the disciples. Hold that against the 13 years of learning we insist that our children get of public education and four more years of higher education that we value, and it makes us wonder what Jesus was able to get across to these people at all. If you went to a doctor and they said, “Don’t worry. I have studied for three years,” you would run the other way. We would not want someone with three years of experience attempting to fix our bodies. So why do we surrender our souls to the writings of disciples who only had three years of instruction, or worse, three minutes? Paul never met Jesus in the flesh yet his writings make up most of what we have in the second testament.
We surrender our souls to these writings because we also have the Spirit. An authority that has been with God since the beginning of time, and an authority sent to us with the blessings of Jesus. The task of the Spirit is to guide us to things when we are ready and able to understand them.
When it comes to children, we understand what Jesus means when he says, “You cannot bear to hear this now.” Just pull out any children’s Bible and you will find giant holes, stories missing, words ignored. It’s obvious why...they cannot yet bear them. We offer to our children that which they can bear and trust they will learn more later.
We recently had a group of adults in this church go through the confirmation journey again. All of them, every single one, learned something they could not have born in years prior. Things they needed certain life experiences to help them know God better. I will venture to say they also heard something discussed that maybe stretched them past what they were willing to tackle now. I love facts that can stretch our minds.
For example, Cleopatra lived closer in time to the moon landing than she did the construction of the great pyramids. I’m sure the math works out on that, but it is still hard to comprehend.
Or my favorite fact, if you free fall for 38 minutes you would cover the distance from the north pole to the south pole. For that one the math doesn’t even seem to work out, but it’s true. And it’s mind blowing unless you are ready for it.
These kinds of facts can derail a person's whole learning experience. Imagine if we explained in detail the crucifixion to a four-year-old. It would be very damaging and shape their entire relationship with faith and Jesus. With the disciples, Jesus knew he had to stick to the basics to get the foundation set in those three years. Jesus was okay with this because he knew the Spirit would step in and lead God’s people into each new reform of faith and theology.
It is a great tragedy that some Christians only believe that which is explicitly written about in the Bible. These writers were worthy but not sufficient. If they were, we wouldn't need the Spirit. If all we needed were the words between these covers, the Spirit could have stayed cozy with the rest of the trinity. But we need the Spirit to guide us into ALL THE TRUTH. Especially the truth no one was ready to discuss when the Bible was being written.
Now some will hear that and shout blasphemy! God is the same yesterday today and tomorrow...and I agree. GOD is the same, but we have not been and will not be the same. Our understanding of God has improved and will continue to improve. And with the power of the Holy Spirit as our guide, it will be a knowing closer and closer to the trueness of God that Jesus wanted to reveal but could not because of the limitations of the time. God is the same, we are not.
Neglecting the movements of the Spirit is blasphemous. Jesus never wanted our goal to be to KNOW but to be on a journey of knowing, improving our knowledge. In many ways, this book can become an idol pulling us away from what the Spirit is trying to lead us to if we give too much value to words. And yet we can’t get rid of it because this book is a tool the Spirit uses to show us God never changes. It is us, our understanding, that changes. And the Spirit reveals new things in the living scripture. While we go through this series we will see the verses that supported slavery, kept women from leadership, and torn life from LGBTQ siblings. And we will see scripture that outright condemns owning humans, lifts women up as called leaders, and affirms LGBTQ siblings are a gift of God’s own giving. It’s all in there. The only difference is our readiness to learn what the Spirit is teaching us.
Now some will hear that and point fingers saying you can not cherry-pick scripture, but brothers and sister and siblings, we all do it. We have to because there are things in here we are not yet ready to understand. To test this out, spend the next week reading Song of Solomon. I guarantee every day you will throw the Bible down and insist “That was not there before.” How does a religion with a history of a prudish sexual theology also have in its holy scripture blatantly erotic poetry? We cling to the scripture we can understand, that with which we are comfortable.
It’s not wrong, but it also means we can never declare, I’m DONE! We can never say I KNOW what that scripture means. I understand exactly how God behaves. There must also be a healthy dose of humility that maybe we cannot yet bear those lessons now. Maybe there is something in here I keep overlooking because the Spirit knows I’m not ready for that level of understanding.
SO we cling even tighter to the Spirit. The way the early church experienced the Spirit can help us know how to hold on. In their encounters with the Spirit, they either experience the Spirit in community, or in the fruits.
The Spirit’s entrance on Pentecost is to the community. It is at a gathering of the disciples that the Spirit arrives. Everyone receives the Spirit and together they are able to achieve the purpose of proclaiming the gospel. Together they knew the way forward because they all had a similar inspiration. They felt the same urgings to speak to all people in their own language.
So the first test is to see if multiple people are having the same encounter with the Spirit. Yes, I said test. Scripture tells us we are allowed to test the Spirit. Testing the Spirit within the community sorts out the confusion of a powerful individual making claims of the Spirit with which the rest of the community does not agree. If the Spirit is asking the community to make a change, the Spirit will inspire more than one person and convict them of the truth the Spirit wants them to learn.
This action of the Spirit is recognized in the Presbyterian church and is why we use committees and councils to make decisions. Even if I, as a Pastor, wanted the church to make a change, I don’t have that power. It is up to the Session, the gathering of elders, to make changes. If they collectively feel the Spirit’s movement, they will agree and vote to make the change.
This holds true for our national church where big changes happen as well. If someone calls for a change to our constitution, like we did when we added the Belhar confession, which speaks against racism, we begin a process of discernment. A process designed to feel the Spirit’s movement. It can be frustrating at times, but a decision is never made quickly in the Presbyterian church. We purposely slow things down because we want to avoid the failings of following a whim. We always leave time for the Spirit to move. There are years of learning, teaching, discussing that happens before a vote is even brought up. When enough Presbyteries agree the change is something the Spirit wants of us, we vote. For the vote, commissioners are chosen and told to vote their conscience. This means they cannot be told how to vote by any other person, especially those in authority. They must remain open to hear the debate on the floor and feel the Spirit’s movement to vote how they think the Spirit is leading the church.
Usually, this is decided by a majority or ⅔ vote but there is a wave happening now of people who think all decisions should be made unanimously. We shall see how the Spirit leads the church on this matter in years to come.
This first test, checking within the community, is necessary when it is a community change. However, it does work with personal belief and growth as well. Talking to others who have faith can help us sort out which feelings are the Spirit’s calling and which are fears that we harbor.
Another test that can be very helpful to us in personal or communal reforms is “Looking for the fruits of the Spirit.” Scripture lays out the fruits of the Spirit for us. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And Scripture says wherever these things are is where God resides. God loves to be among the fruits and also brings the fruits to us so they are like a bread crumb trail that leads us to God.
The fruits of the Spirit can help us test all kinds of things in our lives: a pastor’s teachings or a community's theology. If the thing is producing fruits of the Spirit, it is of the Spirit. If not, then there is a reform that needs to be made so those fruits can improve. The fruits of the Spirit affirm the presence of God. If we see them in places we did not expect, we need to begin asking why. Why are they there? And why did I assume the fruits would not be there?
I want you to conjure in your imagination the image of a motorcycle biker gang. Make them the baddest roughest group of bikers you can think of: face tattoos, worn-in leather, furrowed brows all with questionable lifestyles and hard-lived days. Now imagine a nine year-old girl in a pink tutu standing in the middle of them, and place them in the middle of a courtroom. This is the image I saw on a website recently. So I clicked to see what was up. The biker gang was there escorting the girl to a court case against her abusive father. The gang had learned that kids often do not give good testimonies when they have to sit in front of their abusers because they become fearful. The biker’s solution: befriend the child and go with them so the child knows they have 10 other scarier, bigger adults who are their friends who will protect them against their abuser. That was not what I expected to read. I did not expect to read about love, gentleness, kindness, and self-control when I saw that biker gang. I had to reform my assumptions about biker gangs because I found the fruits of Spirit in their midst.
Some will say this acceptance of “worldly” things is inappropriate. That when reformed churches allow divorce or LGBTQ inclusion it takes the easy way out by giving in to the culture and creating a digestible gospel. This is not an easy route. It is not easy to admit we were wrong. It is not easy to say we used scripture to allow slavery. It is not easy to say we have committed genocide in the name of God’s glory. It is not easy to admit we have torn families apart and driven our children to suicide because six verses seem to suggest, in our reading, that homosexual relationships are wrong.
It would be so much easier to say we do these things because The Bible made us do it. It would be easier to lock scripture into the understanding of the previous generation before we were ready to bear it and not learn anything new. But we are ready to bear more. And it is not faithful to ignore the Spirit and turn our backs on the Fruit even when they pop up in unexpected or uncomfortable places.
We need to listen to our community and find the similar inspirations the Spirit is planting inside us. We need to follow the trail of good fruits wherever they lead us. Even into the center of a scary biker gang. If in 500 years we are the same church we are now, how demeaning that will be to the Spirit’s presence to completely ignore all the work that was planned for us. We are able to bear more and must continue to reform until we have brought the kin-dom of God to earth. That is the plan. To grow, more and more into God’s people and better understand the truth of the gospel.
Let us become able to bear that, to bear the full truth of the gospel. Lord hear our prayer.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 27, 2020
I want you to think about the last drive you took from point A to point B. it doesn’t matter what points A and B are. They could have been from home to work, or the store to home, it is not all that important. What matters is that along the way you passed by homes, stores, shops and perhaps parks, and yet, if you are like me, they were just markers along the way. They were simply the stuff you had to pass by to get from point A to Point B. They were of no particular interest to you and so there was no reason to give them a second thought. Ever done that? If you have then you understand how I feel about this morning’s text. I say this because this is the way I have always thought of this scripture about Jesus’ family and its adherence to Jewish rituals, as well as the story of Simeon and the baby Jesus. These are interesting but are merely markers along the way from point A, -Jesus birth to point B, -his ministry and nothing more. They are hardly worth examining because we need to get to the meat of the Gospel as Jesus teaches, heals, dies and is raised. But what if there is more here than meets the eye? What if there is something here that we should not miss because it turns out to be critical not only to the rest of the story, but to our lives as well? This morning then, I invite you to put your car in park, get out and take a closer look at this story.
I realize that at first glance there is nothing of note here. As good Jews, Mary and Joseph know what is expected of them at the birth of a child. First, they have him circumcised on the eight day. Second, after Mary is declared ritually clean following the birth, they bring their child to Jerusalem in order to redeem him for God, meaning that they are to make an appropriate sacrifice at the Temple. In this case the sacrifice of the poor which was a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. So far there is nothing unusual in the story. But even when things take a turn toward something out of the ordinary with this guy named Simeon, we readers know that what happens next isn’t unusual at all. As a reminder, Simeon is a man who regularly comes to the Temple looking for the messiah and believes he will not die until he sees the savior. When Simeon sees Mary, Joseph and Jesus, he takes Jesus out of Mary’s arms and gives thanks to God for sending this child, whom Simeon believes to be that messiah. Again, while this is a bit out of the ordinary, it doesn’t surprise us at all because we know who Jesus is. Again, nothing out of the ordinary except one word…Amazed. “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.”
The word amazed in the Greek means to wonder greatly about, or to be astonished out of one’s senses, or perhaps to marvel about something that is completely unexpected. It is this response of marveling amazement that should cause us to take a closer look. I say this because Mary and Joseph should not have been amazed by this at all. In order to remind ourselves why this is so, let’s recap Luke’s story. First, Mary meets an angel who tells her that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a child who will be a king in the line of David and will rule forever. Next, Mary visits Elizabeth who asks, “Why should the mother of my Lord come and visit me?” In Matthew’s telling of the story it is not only Mary who receives an angelic visit but Joseph has one as well when he is told that his son will save the people from their sins…a messianic task if there ever was one. Then, on the night of Jesus' birth shepherds arrive with the same message that Jesus is the messiah. And finally, there is the visit of the astrologers from the East who bring gifts fit for a king. We might figure then that Mary and Joseph get it; get it that there is something special about their son and that he will be the savior of his people and of the world. So why are they still amazed, astonished and marveling at what was said? Perhaps because that is the reality of Jesus…he is always someone who is supposed to amaze.
We can see this in that Mary never fully understands her son. She is amazed when he wanders off in the Temple to visit and learn from the teachers of the Law. She is so amazed when he begins his ministry that she and her other children go in search of Jesus in order to bring him home because, as the Gospel of Mark puts it, they believed him to be out of his mind. The disciples don’t do any better. The disciples are always amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he eats with the wrong people; they are amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he feeds the hungry; they are amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he speaks of humility and forgiveness that they are amazed that he means it. It doesn’t matter how many miracles he does; they are amazed. And finally, regardless of how many times he speaks of his resurrection they are amazed when it happens. No this is the way that Jesus is…he is the one that amazes.
The problem with many of us, me included, is that we have become so accustomed to Jesus that we miss how amazing he really is. What I mean by this is that we have domesticated Jesus. We have turned this amazing, life transforming, world changing messiah into someone that doesn’t make us nervous, that doesn’t challenge us, that doesn’t push us into being more faithful God followers. If we are conservative, we have made him into a conservative. If we are liberals, we have made him into a liberal. If we desire to be comforted, he becomes a warm blanket. If we need a friend, he becomes our buddy. If we need someone to forgive us, we turn him into someone who doesn’t really care about our sins, but just let’s them slide. And in the process, we are no longer amazed. We are no longer amazed that Jesus changes lives, transforms lives, recreates lives; that Jesus is capable of doing far more in us than we can imagine. We are no longer amazed when Jesus changes and resurrects churches; that Jesus can give new hope and meaning to what it means to be a community of believers. We are no longer amazed when we experience the absolute height, breadth and depth of God’s love that can change the entire world; that is capable of offering reconciliation across lines of race, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality and ability. A domesticated Jesus cannot amaze. But the fact is that Jesus is still the one who can and does amaze. Jesus is the one who has done, is doing and will continue doing what should amaze us all.
My challenge then for each of us in this coming new year, is to set aside our domesticated Jesus and go in search of the Jesus who still amazes; the Jesus who can do amazing things in us and in the world, asking ourselves this question, “How is Jesus amazing me?”