"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

Archive for the ‘Church/Academy’ Category

The Usefulness of the Gospel

22 March 2015
Philemon
Ballard Vale United Church, Andover, MA

[The sermon was preached as part of the Lenten series “The Doctrine of the Incarceration.”]

How many of you upon hearing Philemon this morning wondered, “What in the world is going on, why is this in the Bible, and what it’s supposed to mean for us?” One of my favorite things in teaching is to encourage students to linger for a while in the bewilderment rather than trying to move directly to the “one right interpretation” (so if you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what this letter really means, it’s not going to happen, so let’s get that disappointment out of the way). Especially with texts held as sacred, we can both expect and desire a coherent message that is immediately and clearly meaningful for our lives. But I would contend that meaning is made, that what is meaningful is not always self-evident but becomes meaningful in the process of trying to figure things out. After all, our lives are continually unfolding processes of working to figure things out, figuring out how to makes sense of and live in the world around us.

And that’s where we might start with Philemon: in this text, Paul and Timothy write to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the assembly that gathers in their house as a matter of working out the dynamics of what it means to live in Christ. We might say that the prevailing question centers on what difference faith in Christ makes for living together. How are relationships and practices informed by the gospel? But here’s where I want to be careful. It is far too easy and far too common to jump immediately to the conclusion that Paul presents a glorious vision of equality and oneness in Christ. Maybe. Maybe that’s the idea in theory. But we might want to ask further about how that plays out in practice.

So what is actually happening in this letter? What’s at stake “in practice”? Honestly, it’s not entirely clear. We know that Paul and Timothy send a letter to a group of people who meet together in a house, presumably for some kind of worship. We know that some man named Onesimos has been with Paul during a time of separation from Philemon and that some kind of relationship of affection and usefulness has developed between Paul and Onesimos during that time. But who is this Onesimos? What’s he doing with Paul? And why does Philemon care?

Onesimos is apparently a slave since Paul abjures Philemon to welcome Onesimos back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave” (v16, CEB). Onēsimos in Greek means “useful.” Calling someone by describing her or his functionality was a common practice for naming slaves. Paul even makes a pun of the name, saying that Onesimos “was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us” (v11). We’ll come back to this issue of how Paul and Philemon relate to Onesimos, but we should keep in mind the fundamental idea that Onesimos’s very name signifies that he is someone to be used, that he is valuable not on his own terms but as far as he is beneficial to another.

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Made Free

26 October 2014
John 8:31–36 / Romans 3:19–28
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Wilbraham, Massachusetts

[This sermon was the delivered on the occasion of the celebration of Christ the King Lutheran Church’s decision to proclaim itself a Reconciling in Christ congregation.]

I bring you greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a blessing and honor to be with you this morning as we celebrate this church’s decision to join with a broad movement of communities of faith in the ELCA and beyond to declare the full welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer children of God. When discussing with Nathaniel potential dates for this occasion, I did ask with some concern whether it would actually be all right to have a Methodist in the pulpit on what is also Reformation Sunday. Since I’m here, I guess you really are serious about making a radical witness to God’s inclusion! But still, I feel the need to assure you: after four years at Luther College, I do claim Lutheranism as part of my spiritual heritage. And to go a step further, perhaps the most important expression of religious devotion I could make to legitimate my place here likewise grows out of seeds planted at Luther, particularly during my first year when Nathaniel and I were roommates: I also claim a real love for the Red Sox. So all of this is to say that I think we should all get along just fine.

One thing you should know about me upfront is that I’m a doctoral candidate at Harvard studying New Testament and Early Christianity. That is to say that, at best, this sermon may be somewhat interesting. And at worst, it may be quite laborious and boring. We academic types are not known for scintillating public speech. But I’m going to try to hold your interest by starting with what may be a provocative assertion. It’s quite exciting and appropriate that celebration of your Reconciling status coincides with Reformation Sunday. You are bearing witness to the continued Reformation impulse toward faith known in direct relationship with God, not mediated by religious elites and ecclesial rules and regulations. But if the central motto of the Reformation might be expressed by Paul’s words to the Romans read this morning—”For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28)—I would be inclined to say that the Reformation has been somewhat of a failure. We are still obsessed with the law; that is, Christians continue to be caught up in concerns for general rules that ostensibly help us sort out who really has faith and who doesn’t.

But then I’d also have to say something that is a kind of personal mantra for me—and a familiar refrain for us academic types: “It’s complicated.” Neither Paul, nor Martin Luther, nor most anyone who would advance the argument that we are justified before God by faith rather than works would say that absolutely anything goes, that there are no standards for what it means to live well in relationship to God and one another, that how we live doesn’t matter in any way.
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When did we become so boring?

I recently posted on Facebook that I clearly need to get out more in the present since I had to stop and think about whether it’s appropriate to refer to the peoples and texts from the past which I primarily study as “ancient.” I was being silly… but also kind of serious. Windows into the first few centuries CE — through writings and material remains — showcase vibrant, complex, interesting social and religious dynamics that don’t feel to me like old, outdated ways of being, beyond which we have so obviously progressed.

In fact, when I turn from the pages of the long past and look at the present, quite frankly, we appear pretty boring! Especially in the church! There are ways in which we have progressed in terms of sex, gender, and sexuality (for which I am thankful), but our conversations and imaginations can also be so incredibly limited and limiting.

There is all sorts of modern discontent over the language we use to talk about about the Divine. If we call God “He,” do we mean that God is literally gendered male? And is the implication then that there is something inherently more valuable about maleness? Or is “he” a generic term that we use for convenience while we admit that God transcends gender? And if we assert that God is beyond our understanding of gender, can we transgress our gendered boundaries when we imagine God?

The questions I raise are part of a long and continuing debate, and there are certainly a lot of diverse, beautiful ways that people today address and express the Divine. I do not mean to dismiss or diminish the creativity that is unmistakably alive in contemporary discourse and worship practices, but when I read writings of old (not all of them being “ancient”), sometimes I want to say, “I’ll support the next candidate for bishop who speaks like THAT!” In general, we are comparatively boring!

We might be able to talk about God as both male and female and/or neither male nor female, but when is the last time you’ve heard someone think about the femaleness of Jesus? In our rational, scientific ways of thinking about bodies, we might tend to say, “No, Jesus was anatomically a man. Having been a human male, it would not be appropriate to identify Jesus as a woman.” But some earlier Christians had more lively imaginations, which I would argue animated livelier spirituality.

Take, for example, Origen. Origen lived from around 185 to 253 CE, and he was an incredibly prolific writer, composing works largely dealing with interpretation of scripture. While there was a later time he was considered a heretic, Origen was an incredibly influential theologian. Don’t let the heretic label fool you. That was about differences of opinion over such theological matters as the nature of the Trinity, matter, salvation; it was not that Origen was some revolutionary figure when it came to gender.

Yet, Origen talked about his relationship with Christ in ways that no Christian would dare speak today if wanting not to rock the boat. Contemporary Christians caught up worrying about the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks in the church and society do not tend toward imagery that could remotely be considered homoerotic. But Origen, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, read Jesus in the role of the Song’s Bridegroom and himself in the role of the Bride. What we get, then, is a kind of spirituality characterized by gender bending. (more…)

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