The Love that Tears Away Everything – A Sermon on Matthew 18.21-35

And Jesus said, “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”Mark 11.25

Now, before I set in, let’s each take a moment of silence now, and reflect on those times that people have hurt us. It can be something from the past week, or something we’ve been holding onto for a very long time now. It can be one thing or lots of things. Let them come to mind, so that we can bring them to God.

(…)

So I was browsing facebook this week and saw that one of my friends had posted this (rather tongue-in-cheek) status:

“I wanted to ask God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness instead.”

Now, (I pray) the author of that status was just cracking a joke, but I think there’s still a lot in this. It’s funny, because it plays on our culture’s misunderstanding of what forgiveness is, and how it works – especially when it comes to God’s forgiveness. I mean, do we really believe that God would forgive someone this person for stealing a bike, while he still has someone else’s bike. I’m not sure God works that way. So, let’s go back to the parable for today, and see what Jesus has to say:

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

Hmm, well that’s a hell of an ending (no pun intended) – there’s no getting away from that ending – it’s clear that whatever forgiveness is, it’s certainly a very serious matter for Jesus. But let’s go through this step by step. So this slave is called up to meet with the king, and apparently this poor slave owes 10,000 talents – this was an exorbitant amount of money (1 talent was what a laborer made in a year) – it’s possible that this crushing debt is part of the reason the man is a slave in the first place. And the story goes that the king forgave this slave his incredible debt, and sent him on his way. Now the slave was apparently owed 100 denarii from a fellow slave. This is comparatively little – a laborer could earn about 1 denarii per day, so that’s only about 100 days wages, relatively little compared to the 10,000 years of wages he’d just been forgiven. Now, you’d expect this slave would be in a better mood after his meeting with the king had gone so well, but apparently that’s not the case, and he demands payment and has his fellow slave thrown in jail. And here’s where it gets important: the king hears about this and is furious – “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me,” he says, “Should you not have has mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

These are hard words for me to hear. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I can see a lot of myself here in this slave. I can look at my life and see all that I have been forgiven, but extending that forgiveness to others is so hard. And I think there’s a bit of this slave in all of us – we appreciate forgiveness when it’s offered to us, but when it comes to our own debts we want what we’re owed. CS Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” Forgiving not only means moving past the hurt, and opening ourselves up for reconciliation, but giving up the power that comes with someone owing you. If someone has hurt us, its so tempting to want to hold that over their head, or pretend that we are somehow morally superior in the relationship because we’ve committed no such wrong (it’s amazing how forgetful we can be with our own sins!). And all of these things – moving on, opening ourselves up, and humbling our haughty moralism – hurt a lot; they are some of the hardest things any of us will ever do.

It’s so much easier for us bunker down into a hatred for the person, or lie to ourselves, and convince ourselves that we’ve forgiven the person when we’ve really done no such thing. We say things like, “It doesn’t bother me anymore, I don’t need to forgive them,” or “Oh of course I’ve forgiven them – I haven’t told them because we don’t talk much anymore, though.” There’s an old joke in which a priest once asked his congregation to raise their hand if they were willing to forgive their enemies (at least in theory) – and of course everyone raised their hands, except for one old woman in the front row. And the pastor says to her, “Really? Are you not willing to forgive any of your enemies?” And the sweet old woman – I like to call her Bella Jean – replies, “Well, father, I would, but I don’t have any enemies.” “That’s very unusual!” said the father, “how old are you?” “Ninety-three,” she answered. “Oh Bella Jean, what a blessing and a lesson you are to us all. Would you please come down in front of this congregation and tell us all how a person can live ninety-three years and not have an enemy in the world.” And so little ol’ Bella Jean totters down the aisle, faces the congregation, and says: “Well, I outlived the old hags.”

Real forgiveness is hard, and it requires us to give up our right to pass judgment, and choose a continued relationship and reconciliation with that person instead. Now, this has often been mistaught and subverted into coercing people in abusive relationships to remain with their abusers – that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. Reconciliation requires an encounter, and a confrontation with, the wrong that was done – it does not move past it in a non-critical way, and it leaves no room for abuse. Forgiveness does not give free reign to those who wish to do us harm, and it is not an open invitation to take advantage of us – because (and this is critical!) as Christians, forgiveness is not an empty virtue whose meaning can be twisted. We didn’t invent forgiveness, and we don’t forgive just because it sounds like what a “good person” would do, or because we think it will somehow make us happier. Christian forgiveness is nothing more or less than a reflection of the grace God has already shown us – it is radical, and nothing can be the same once you let it have its way. Karl Barth once said, “Do not fear the wrath of God, fear the love of God – it will tear away everything.” Even our grudges, if we let it.

Christian forgiveness is not something we initiate, it is always responsive – it is always lived out in the wake of this incredible love that changes everything around it, even us. God has forgiven us and so we forgive one another – that’s why, every Sunday we first have the confession (Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you… and so on), and immediately after we pass the peace. God forgives us, and then we forgive each other. We remember the incredible grace we’ve been shown, we allow it to change us – to stifle that impulse we share with the slave to always demand what is owed to us – and we share that grace with one another.

All of that is to say, Christian forgiveness is communal, it changes us, and we can’t help but change the world. It leaves no room for the continuation of oppressive power structures and practices. Fear the love of God; because when we see – I mean really see – how deeply each and every one of us has been loved and forgiven, it’s bound to have consequences. One of the most tragic things about the state of the world is that this is not the case. Henri Nouwen writes:

“It is tragic to see how the religious sentiment of the West has become so individualized that concepts such as “a contrite heart,” have come to refer only to the personal experiences of guilt and willingness to do penance for it. The awareness of our impurity in thoughts, words and deeds can indeed put us in a remorseful mood and create in us the hope for a forgiving gesture. But if the catastrophical events of our days, the wars, mass murders, unbridled violence, crowded prisons, torture chambers, the hunger and the illness of millions of people and the unnamable misery of a major part of the human race is safely kept outside the solitude of our hearts, our contrition remains no more than a pious emotion.”
Forgiveness or a recognition of God’s love that remains merely a pious emotion is not forgiveness or a recognition of God’s love for us at all, but nothing more than a lie we tell ourselves.

However, equally, we can’t get so caught up in our work for reconciliation and social change that we start to make it all about us, and forget that forgiveness started with God – we forgive only because God first forgave us, if he hadn’t we wouldn’t even know what forgiveness is. We still only barely know what forgiveness is. At the beginning of the reading, Peter proposes what seems – to us – to be a rather generous offer: “Should I forgive my neighbor 7 times?” And we read along and think, “Ok, 7 times seems pretty reasonable, I can do that.” But, as usual, God is better than we can imagine, and replies that we ought to forgive 77 times. Obviously God is not suggesting that we all run out and buy a notebook, and start keeping count till someone hits 77 offenses, and after that we get to cut ties and quit the hard work of forgiveness. He’s just turning a phrase, please don’t go out and buy notebooks. The hard work of forgiveness never ends, but the good news is that God is hard at work right alongside us, and he will show us what to do.

In “A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World,” Ron Lee Davis retells the true story of a priest in the Philippines, a much-loved man of God who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. He had repented but still had no peace, and no sense of God’s forgiveness.

In his parish there was a woman who deeply loved God and claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ. The priest – like us – was skeptical. To test her he said, “The next time you speak with Christ, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” The woman agreed. A few days later the priest asked., “Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?”
“Yes, he did,” she replied.
“And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?”
“Yes.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“He said, ‘I don’t remember'”

And, friends, is the Good News – our sins aren’t remembered, our slates have been wiped clean, and so let us pray for the grace that we might strive to do the same.

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‘Life is Sacred’ Is Not A Christian Premise, And We Need To Stop Pretending It Is

Christians in the public sphere who don’t know what Christians actually believe are a constant source of frustration for me. One of the most prominent examples of this recently has been this strange phenomenon of save-the-baby’ers who frantically cling to whatever heartstring-tugging abortion-stopping tagline they can find. In many ways, this is politics-as-usual and should be expected from a democratic system – where it becomes frustrating is when some of these save-the-baby’ers turn out to be Christians – turning their own religion into a childish parody of itself in order to create an emotional sensation. They do this by claiming that their faith – the faith of the apostles, the church fathers, and the martyrs – teaches that life is ‘sacred.’

This is particularly problematic because it looks like something Christianity could almost teach: new life comes from God, killing is contrary to every shred of gospel imperative, it would seem that Christians could very nearly almost believe that life is a sacred thing, and is therefore something to be preserved above all else – the problem with this train of thought is that Christians do not believe this. In fact, it is directly contrary to what Christians actually do believe about the value of life.

The proof of this is in the story of Jesus’ life and the lives of (as I said above to highlight the irony here) the apostles, the church fathers, and the martyrs. The vast majority of these people – presumably you know where I am going with this – willingly accepted death as consequence for refusing to give in or recant on some commitment they considered to be worth dying for. Not one of these exemplars of the faith held life to be sacred, rather, they all died because something else was more valuable than their own lives. If life really is considered to be a sacred thing – to be honored and revered above all things mundane – then presumably what is meant is that nothing is worth dying for (at least, nothing non-sacred). What we see again and again in Christian history, however, is that Christians have repeatedly found many things to be more valuable than their own lives. As it turns out, a quick survey of the martyrs (and whatever commitment they died for refusing to recant/stop doing) reveals an impressive list of things which Christians accept as being more valuable than life.

As a matter of fact, the early Christians under Roman persecution actually took their children with them to the stake to be martyred,* because it was considered better to die a Christian than to be raised a pagan. Scripture is clear and history illustrates that though we seek to protect the lives of others as part of seeing them as icons of Christ in the world, we do not consider human life in and of itself to be an overriding good, and in fact we believe there are many fates considerably worse than death.

Believing that human life itself is an overriding good is a tempting position because it so nicely suits our modern sentiments that there is nothing in the world (or at least very little) that is worth dying for – it perfectly underwrites our own narcissism that we are special and our lives are of immeasurable value. But this is a modern, cultural belief – not one that is derived from either Scripture or apostolic tradition. On the contrary, Christians throughout history have found much to be worth dying for – I find Hauerwas’ description of Christianity as “extended training in dying early” very persuasive. 

This is not to say that Christians cannot be pro-life, simply that we need to be more creative about arguing for it from a Christian – rather than a cultural (and specifically American) – perspective. The “I can do what I choose with my body” is similarly a premise which is utterly nonsensical to Christians. In baptism (and this offering is repeated at each Mass), we offer ourselves – our souls and bodies – to Christ and are made parts of His body. The reality is that in accepting the sacrifice of baptism, we die to ourselves and no longer belong to ourselves, but to Christ. So no, Christians cannot claim bodily autonomy – we belong to Christ in all that we are. 

Once again, I am not attempting to argue that the Christian position on abortion is either pro-life or pro-choice (in fact I hate those terms, and think that any serious Christian must have a more nuanced view than either of them), merely that Christians – especially when speaking as Christians in the public sphere – need to be more intentional in insuring that they are using arguments that do not completely contravene what Christians actually believe.

*Stanley Hauerwas, “Abortion, Theologically Understood”

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A Marian Rosary for Episcopalians

This is a great way I found of praying with Anglican rosary! I recommend starting with the cross, then the invitatory bead, then the first cruciform, praying through the weeks (I recommend going around the circle two or three times), then exiting by praying the Concluding Prayer on the first cruciform bead, then the invitatory bead, and finally ending on the cross.

A Marian Rosary for Episcopalians

On the cross:

V. O God, make speed to save us.
R. O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever. Amen.

The Invitatory:  The Collect (BCP 243)

God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Cruciform 1:
V. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived by the power of Holy Spirit.

Cruciform 2:
V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done unto me according to your Word.

Cruciform 3:
V. And the Word was made flesh.
R. And dwelt among us.

Cruciform 4:
V. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

On the weeks: The Hail Mary
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

(on the last time through)

Concluding Prayer (on the first cruciform bead):
Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Invitatory:  The Collect (BCP 243)

God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

On the Cross:
V. I bless the Lord (or “Let us bless the Lord” in a group setting)
R. Thanks be to God

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Stephan Freeman on Modern Christianity

“The drive for evangelism in its modern form was always somewhat heretical. The gospel was mutated into a Churchless Christianity, devoid of sacrament and structure. This minimized gospel was easily and quickly adaptable to various cultural needs, but for the same reason, completely vulnerable to cultural forces. Evangelism is a gospel imperative, but the “making of disciples” entails their full enculturation into the Christian faith and not a single experience. Walking the aisle does not make you a Christian – it requires walking the way of the Cross. Mission is equally a gospel imperative, one that the Church has slowly and steadily fulfilled. Some areas where the Church was once planted now require the Church to be replanted. Some places, such as America, where a gospel has been preached, [are] almost entirely ignorant of the gospel – this will be proclaimed in time by the Church…

A Christianity that is largely without doctrine and sacrament is a Christianity of slogan and extravaganza. A “Churchless” Christianity is simply, a heresy. It is a strange reading of the New Testament with conclusions as novel as they are effective. It is also destructive of the long term health of the Christian faith. Many who grow tired of its slogans and extravaganza do not turn elsewhere – they turn nowhere. The fastest growing religious group in America is the unchurched.

The truth and richness of the Christian faith is only found in the deep-woven fibers of the historic Church. The life of sacrament, rooted in a thoroughly Christianized network of families, parishes and monasteries, is the normative existence of the Christian faith. This is the faith that converted the Roman Empire and the barbarian ancestors of people like myself. From it grew a great civilization, one that has been challenged and dismantled at many points, but which has yet to disappear.

It is probably the case that only a vibrant fullness of the Christian Church, that is itself sufficiently mature to be the bearer of a Christian ethos, is capable of surviving the onslaught of modern secularism. A Christianity of slogan and style will find itself swept away by more attractive slogans and styles. The promise of God regarding the gates of hell is given only to the Church – not a parachurch movement.”

Fr. Stephen Freeman, “America and the Perversion of Christianity

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Would We Walk On Water?

A reflection on last week’s gun control debate

Early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” ~Matthew 14.25-31

For those of us following the national gun control debacle, last week was interesting, to say the least. For those not following it as closely, last Wednesday the Senate failed to pass a bipartisan bill which would have required gun retailers to perform a background check on the people they are selling guns to. As it stands, background checks are required for people buying guns at a gun shop, but not for those who prefer to purchase their weapons online or at gun shows. This makes perfect sense – it is totally illogical that the standards for gun purchases are so different depending on where you do your shopping, and I cannot understand why anyone would not want to check to ensure that people buying guns online are not felons and/or have a debilitating mental illness. A CNN poll found that 90% of Americans approved of the bill. Everything considered, it was not a big change (the bill would not have required background checks for gun sales between individuals), but it was a small step – and it represented an undeniable movement towards a bipartisan, common-sense solution to gun control.

But the Senate froze, and couldn’t take even this small, simple step towards sane, bipartisan gun laws.

In the Scripture I opened with, we find Jesus walking on water. This imagery is nothing new – after all, this is not the first time Scripture describes God moving over water. God has walked on water before – namely, at the creation.

Jesus means business. He is walking on water again – he is about to start creating once more, but this time is different. This time, Jesus calls to the disciples in the boat to move over the surface of the water with him. Jesus calls us to begin the creation of God’s new world order alongside him.

This is our Christian duty: to step out of our comfortable boat and join the creation of a brand new world alongside our God. Jesus calls us to be signs of the world that is to come, and to witness to the radical new kingdom that God himself is creating in our midst.

But that is hard, and stepping out of the boat is too much for Peter – as it is for us today. God calls us to participate in the new creation with him, but creating a new world takes a lot of bravery – and even more faith that God will make sure everything turns out alright.

The new world God has planned involves more that just a handful of gun control laws – after all, God has every intention of turning our world upside down. But ensuring that we are doing all we can to keep instruments of violence out of the hands of people who should not have them is a step towards creating the world God wants for us.

Last week God called the US Senate to step out of their boat and join the new creation, and they sunk. They had the opportunity to take a baby step onto the water with Jesus, and begin the creation of God’s peaceable kingdom right here and now, and they failed.

But there is hope for us yet, after all, Jesus is still calling. And as Christians, we cannot allow ourselves to be passive observers of this debate any longer. We must write our Senators and tell them that an insane lack of common-sense weapon control is not the world God wants. We must let them know that they do not represent us, and that we will elect Senators who do. We must step out of our boat, and, hopefully, we will walk on water.

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We Wish To See Jesus

A Holy Tuesday Sermon

Texts: Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 71.1-14, 1Corinthians 1.18-31, John 12.20-36

 
And Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

It looks like Jesus is at it again. He just won’t leave us alone! Even as his death looms ever-nearer, he still has the audacity to tell us that he’s going to change the world – he even dares to tell us how to live our lives! Just who does Jesus think he is? Doesn’t he know what waits for him on Good Friday? Doesn’t he know that at the end of this week all his fighting and idealism will amount to nothing? Doesn’t he know?

And yet, Jesus preaches on. He continues to imagine a better world and tell us that things don’t have to be the way they are. In the face of his own grave waiting for him on Friday he continues to insist that the grave will not have the last word.

Jesus is so… foolish.

We know better, don’t we? We know not to get caught up in Jesus’ idealism, we know that we can’t change the world and we know that trying only gets you hurt. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care what we know. Jesus calls us to join him in his ridiculous plan to change the world. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus calls us to “walk while we have the light,” to “believe in the light,” and to “follow him” into this new world that he claims to see just beyond the corner. And Jesus doesn’t stop calling us to follow him into this new reality – even as he hangs from the cross.

Even perfectly reasonable people like us are bound to find Jesus’ call to foolishness just a little compelling – if only because he seems so assured of his new reality in a way we’ve never seen anyone be so certain of anything.

We are called to be fools because our God is more foolish than we could ever dream of being. Christ looks at a broken world and sees reconciliation; he looks at a grave and sees new life. Paul tells us that God has taken the cross and used it to turn the world upside down. He has taken the power structures of the world and even death itself and flipped them on their heads. God has taken the darkness that we place ourselves in and turned it into light. And now He calls us to do the most foolish thing we can imagine: He calls us to believe what he has already done.

God calls us to be every bit as foolish as Christ – rejecting unjust power structures even if any sensible person knows that doing so will get you killed; feeding the hungry even though we know full well they will just be hungry again tomorrow; ceaselessly proclaiming that the way the world is is not the way it has to be – God calls us to be ridiculous.

And even though God has already flipped the world on its head and asks only that we act like we believe it – many times even that proves too difficult for us. Believing the good news is harder than it seems and we are so afraid – so afraid that at the end of our lives we will look back and find that all our efforts were for nothing. This fear is logical, it makes sense, and it causes us to do responsible things like ensuring our own security first, not giving as much to the poor as we really could, and not speaking out when it might get us hurt. We are afraid – for good reason – that if we follow the foolishness of Jesus in the end our struggles will get us nowhere.

I recently saw the film “The Grave of the Fireflies.” The film follows the lives of two young children – Seita and his baby sister Setsuko – living in Japan during the Second World War. The children’s father is away fighting in the Japanese army, and after their mother is killed in an air raid and the stresses of wartime strip the children of their relationship with their aunt – we find the children living on their own waiting for their father to return. Most of the film follows the day-to-day struggle for survival the children endure, but gradually, over the course of the film, despite their best efforts the children grow steadily thinner and sicker. At the end of the movie the children discover that their father died at war before the beginning of the film, and the pair – stripped of all hope and motivation to carry on – die soon after.

The power of the film lies in its brutal portrayal of this basic fear of ours: that ultimately, despite all our work – despite all our envisioning – if we really imitate the foolishness of Christ at the end of our lives all our efforts will prove just as futile as those of Seita and Setsuko – that we too will die exhausted, starved, and terribly alone. Isaiah speaks for all of us when he cries: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” We all cry out alongside the psalmist when she pleads, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent… O God, do not be far from me; O my God make haste to help me.”

This is the fundamental fear of the human condition. Our reason and logic tell us that if we forgive those who hurt us we will only be hurt again and if we try to change the world we’ll only end up spending our strength on a system that is too large to change and hopelessly broken. Our wisdom tells that if we want to avoid wasting our energy and being hurt time and again we should insulate and protect ourselves from the world.

But still, in the face of this perfectly rational fear, even in the face of the cross looming on the horizon, Jesus insists that there is another way. His way is foolish, it goes against everything we know about protecting and preserving ourselves – it calls us to open up – to make ourselves vulnerable – to give all we have in commitment to Christ’s vision for the world, and most importantly, it promises us that our efforts will never go to waste, that Christ himself will refresh us when we are weary, and that, as a people walking with our God we will not be led astray.

And despite all our rational concerns for our own safety and well-being, there is still a persistent, incurably foolish part of us that wants to believe him. There is a still, small voice in each of us that resonates with the Greeks in today’s gospel when they say, “We wish to see Jesus.” No matter how illogical and downright stupid it may be, that still small voice remains. Don’t we all wish to see Jesus? In spite of everything we know we still feel compelled to follow Jesus’ foolishness.

Jesus calls us to a commitment to a better world. He calls us to reject the evils that pervert God’s creation and love our neighbors as ourselves – not despite, but in spite of the risks. Jesus never promises us that proclaiming his new reality in the midst of our present darkness won’t get us crucified alongside him. But he does promise us that our efforts to bring God’s new kingdom into the here and now will never be in vain. He promises us that Good Friday is not the end of this story. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be foolish enough to believe him.

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Lemme Talk About Marriage

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about my thoughts on gay marriage/theology/whateverelse lately, so I decided to write up a short bit about gay marriage and celibacy.

First, when dealing with marriage, it’s important to notice that Christians have forgotten what Christian marriage actually is. The simple fact that the divorce rate in this country is over 50% is ample evidence that Christians (at least those in America) have no clue what Christian marriage even means.

Marriage is not – though many “conservative” Christians seem to think it is – a priest giving a couple permission to have sex. It’s not institutionalized sex. It’s not blessed sex. It’s not sanctioned sex. The focus of marriage isn’t sex – no matter how many people seem to think it is – and that’s where we start to go terribly wrong.

In Matt. 19 Jesus gives a wonderful, complete, and explicit account of what marriage should be. Though Jesus was speaking to a particular people at a particular time and therefore uses male and female pronouns to refer to the two people involved in a marriage, I shall abstract away from that language a bit to underscore the theological framework he is setting up. Jesus makes clear that marriage is an economic, physical, spiritual, emotional, permanent union between two people in which nothing is held back. Both parties are to give everything to each other.

This brings us to what Jesus intends marriage to be: a teaching tool of the faith which allows people to experience (in a physical, concrete way) what the unconditional love of God is like. Marriage is to be an institution which gradually, over the course of the two people’s lives, transforms the eros (sexual love) that brought them together into the agape (unconditional love) that keeps them together, holding nothing back from the other long after the original sexual spark of the relationship has faded. Of course, God loves us with this agape – this unconditional, eternal love – but we cannot experience it fully in our current state, separated from God and from one another. Marriage is an institution through which we can learn not only how to receive this love, but how to give it as well. Of course, celibacy is an equally valid option for Christians, and monastic vows and monastic communities accomplish this same end of teaching agape.

This brings me to my final point. Marriage is necessarily procreative. I have said before that the love of a marriage gradually comes to reflect the love that God has for us and for God’s self. And we can see from history that God’s love creates and restores and renews constantly. God had no need to create the universe and he has no need to sustain and renew it, but he does! The love of God (agape) cannot help but to create – it overflows and joyfully brings new things into being to share in this wonderful love that it has. Marriages – if they are to reflect the love of God – must do the same. Traditionally, this has been interpreted as the necessity of a married couple to bear children (which would exclude same sex couples), but procreation doesn’t necessarily imply children (lest we invalidate sterile heterosexual couples). A marriage can be procreative in many ways – through community service projects or creating a better life for an adopted child. Further, the world hardly needs more children – a Christian bearing a child with the world at its current population may very well be contravening their duty to be stewards of the earth. We should not get too caught up in equating the terms ‘procreative’ and ‘child-producing’ – after all, the Trinity did not create God-children like itself, it created the world and humanity. Procreative love finds many ways to create.

In this framework I have derived from both Jesus’s statements in Matt. 19 and the Church’s traditional understanding of nuptial theology, it should be noticed that there are no requirements placed on the genders of the two parties engaging in the institution of marriage, nor do I see any need for there to be. I cannot imagine how, exactly, two men or two women could not fit into the theological framework Christ develops. And so I am inclined to conclude that the gendered pronouns used by Christ are little more than an artifact of the culture he was speaking to. Of course, there is still the question of what other Scriptural passages have to say about homosexual relations, but a post addressing those will have to wait for another day.

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