Thursday, October 16, 2014

Houston’s Subpoenas, Driscoll’s Resignation, and Preaching Authority and Accountability



Two religious stories hit social media like a firestorm this week. The first was the report that the City of Houston had subpoenaed the sermons of some pastors who were fighting for repeal of an ordinance known as Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which gives protection to members of the LGBT community.

The second was the resignation of Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church, a church he founded. Driscoll’s resignation comes after allegations of plagiarism, but also concerns over his leadership style, which even many of his church members called arrogant and authoritative.

Both of these stories raise the question concerning preaching and the authority of preachers in the pulpit. Yet, they also raise the issue of accountability preachers must be held to be effective leaders to their congregations.

I have written before on the importance of the separation of church and state from both a theological as well as a constitutional position. Our constitution demands this separation, but from a theological perspective, the church must remain separate from the state so that the church can speak prophetically to the state.

The report about Houston subpoenaing sermons from pastors is troubling in this regard. I am sure the full story is yet to be known, and some reports coming out today suggest a backing away from this action by Houston’s mayor, but let’s assume that the facts are true concerning the initial requests. If so, then this not only infringes on the First Amendment rights of these pastors, it also places constraints on preaching as a prophetic practice that has always been important to this country, particularly at crucial moments in our history.

Let me be clear, preaching is and always has been a political exercise. Mark 1:14-15 says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” John had been arrested by the state for his preaching, and Jesus comes preaching the coming of the rule of God. How much more political can one get?

Pastors have a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to speak politically. This does not mean, however, that particular political candidates or parties can be endorsed from the pulpit, for they should not be. The law is clear on this. But it does mean that pastors have the right to speak on any political issue they deem worthy of a sermon, and they have the right to take a stand on that issue, even if the state does not agree.

Barring the endorsement of a candidate or a political party, the preacher has the right to exercise free speech, even if such speech is disliked by the state or challenges a particular law. Indeed, and I am to the point of physical illness as I write this sentence, but the preacher has the right to say anything he or she wants from the pulpit, without fear of being sanctioned by the state, so long as the preacher does not promote violence or harm of others. What I have heard from some preachers disgusts me, but the state should not interfere with the preacher’s right to preach.

That being said, pastoral authority must be held accountable. Such accountability lies with the congregations and to some extent with the denominations, depending on the type of church governance a church is under. Pastors and preachers who stand before their congregations each week to bring a sermon must understand that they do not speak the word of God.

Sermons are interpretations of scripture and applications of those interpretations, and preachers who make these interpretations and applications in the sermon are fallible human beings. Neither their training nor their authority gives them carte blanche from the pulpit when it comes to their proclamations on social, political, or theological issues.

This means that parishioners who gather to hear Sunday morning sermons should come with critical minds to engage with what is being said by the preacher and they should feel free and safe with calling out the preacher for speech that is not worthy of the gospel.

While the state has no business censoring a sermon, those who hear the sermon have every right to confront a preacher whose comments in a sermon verge on bigotry and hate or that limit the rights of others regardless of the preacher’s disagreement with those rights. While preachers may feel strongly about an issue, they must not take the position that their view is equated with God’s view, and they should not force their views onto a congregation. That is the abuse of pastoral authority.

Pastors and preachers who consider their words to be infallible and their authority unquestionable should not be held accountable by the state for what they say from their pulpits so long as their words are within current laws regarding political endorsements and tax exempt status, and so long as they do not encourage harming others. However, the congregations that they lead and to whom they preach must keep pastoral egos in check by always questioning what is said in a sermon.




Thursday, September 25, 2014

Jesus’ Miracles in Mark and God’s Numinous Presence


In a previous post I discussed how the Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as the one sent from God. In doing so, Mark’s story sets Jesus in relation to God as the one who represents God on earth. As God’s envoy, who carries God’s authority, Jesus takes on the vocation that is only meant for God. Thus, what Jesus does on earth is to be viewed as God’s actions; actions done on behalf of God. The literary presentation of Jesus as miracle worker is a good example of this, particularly in the responses to Jesus’ miracles in Mark.

The motif of wonder in response to Jesus’ miracles is frequent in Mark, and is expressed through various terms relating to fear, astonishment, or amazement. Such responses to the miracles in Mark carry significance for the presentation of Jesus as personifying the numinous presence of God.

In the exorcism of 1:22-28, the crowd is not only said to be astonished at the teaching of Jesus, but in response to his casting out of the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue, they are said to be amazed. While it is true that they see the teaching of Jesus as that which has authority, it is the act of exorcism that seems to cause their amazement in 1:27.

In 2:12, the crowd is said to be amazed at the healing and forgiving power of Jesus in healing the paralytic. Moreover, their acclamation of God’s power in the healing and forgiveness given by Jesus, and their claim to have never seen anything like this before, also serves to highlight their encounter with the divine.

In 4:41 the audience finds the first reference to the astonishment of the disciples. In a miracle in which they are the only witnesses, and indeed the ones whom Jesus saves, these disciples see for themselves the power Jesus possesses, power to calm the wind and the waves, something that God alone can do. The narrator tells the audience that in response to the calming of the storm the disciples "were filled with great awe", which demonstrates their great wonder at what has just happened.

The story of Jesus casting out the unclean spirits in 5:1-20 presents two different reactions that fall under a response of wonder. The response of 5:15 is from those who see the man who was possessed by Legion restored to his right mind. Their fear is over Jesus’ power to transform the man whom no one to this point could subdue. Thus what others could not do, Jesus, as the one filled with the power of God, acts to demonstrate the new revelation of God by doing what could not have been done. 

The second response in 5:20 is in response to the proclamation of the once possessed man. His instructions from Jesus are to go and tell all that the Lord has done for him, and he carries out this proclamation. On hearing the message, and seeing the man who was once possessed by the evil spirits, “everyone” was amazed. Clearly their amazement is a combination of seeing the man in a new state, and hearing how this was done. Thus, their wonder is directed at that which Jesus alone could do, and at the new revelation God was executing in Jesus.  

The healing of the woman who touches Jesus’ garment and the raising of the daughter of Jairus (5:21-43) are linked through a number of verbal and thematic similarities. There are also reactions of wonder found in both stories.

In the healing of the woman of her perpetual bleeding, she alone is the one who responds in fear (5:33). Her fear, however, is not as a result of what Jesus may do to her, seeing that she has transgressed the law as a result of her touching Jesus. Rather, her fear is in knowing that she had been healed of her disease, which doctors have failed to do for her, and that she had experienced an encounter with divine power. 

Likewise, the raising of Jairus’ daughter presents the onlookers with a sense of God’s new revelation. The audience is set up for the newness of the experience when Jairus is asked why he should bother the teacher any further. The people indeed understood that no one could raise the dead. But Jesus’ coming and his actions in raising the dead girl confront the witnesses with the presence of God’s power through Jesus’ miracle working. Thus, they were overcome with amazement (5:42).

Upon seeing Jesus open the ears and loosen the tongue of the deaf mute in 7:31-37, as well as hearing the man speak, the witnesses of the miracle are said to be astonished beyond measure. This is further presented to Mark’s audience by the choral response in verse 37. The response echoes what Isaiah spoke of when he prophesied that the ears of the deaf would be opened (Isa 35:5). Thus, in this miracle, like the others where a response of marvel is narrated, Jesus is presented as the one who brings the new revelation of God.

In using the miracles in this way, then, Mark narrates his presentation of Jesus as an aspect of his presentation of God. In Jesus’ miracles, he acts for God by being God’s numinous presence. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"The Lord is with Us": Joseph and the Providence of God


The following is a shortened version of a sermon I preached from the Narrative Lectionary reading of Genesis 39:1-23 for Sunday, September 21, 2014.

The story of Joseph in Genesis is one which raises, in my mind, the question of God’s good providence. Many of us know his story as Joseph dominates the final fourteen chapters of the book of Genesis, and if we know his story, then we also know that Joseph’s life is a paradigm of the up and down life.

Joseph’s father loves him more than his other eleven brothers, most likely because he is the first born of his favorite, but second wife, Rachel. In fact, Joseph’s father gives him a fine garment, making his other brothers jealous of Joseph’s place in their father’s heart.

If that is not enough, Joseph tells about two dreams he had, one in which eleven sheaves of wheat bow down to his, and the other dream in which the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. Joseph interprets these dreams as foretelling his future as ruler over his family.

It is little wonder why his brothers could not stand him and why they decided to put him in a pit until they sold him to a group of Midianites, who then sold him to Ishmaelites who were headed to Egypt (Gen. 37:12-36).

Once in Egypt it seems that Joseph’s life was not getting much better, as the Ishmaelite traders sell him as a slave to Potiphar, a wealthy Egyptian merchant. Yet, we find tucked away in this story of Joseph’s decline from being a beloved son of his father to being tossed into a pit and then sold into slavery a statement that serves to guide the narrative: “The Lord was with Joseph.”

Theologians call this providence, God’s intervention in the world and in the lives of humans to guide God’s plan toward God’s intended goal.

And yet, even though the story tells us that the Lord was with Joseph, and because Potiphar recognizes leadership potential in Joseph and promotes him, it is not very long before Joseph returns to another very low point in his life.

Potiphar’s wife saw Joseph as attractive and tried to persuade him into a compromising position. Yet, Joseph refuses, and when he continues to refuse, she accuses him of something he does not do, and Joseph is thrown into prison.

But, “the Lord was with Joseph.” At least that is what we are told.

If we were to visit Joseph in prison, some of us well-meaning Christian folk might say, “Don’t worry Joseph, God’s got a plan.” “This has happened for a reason.” “Trust in God’s providence.”

I get providence from a theological perspective, and I think there is indeed something comforting, even perhaps necessary for us, when we hold to the idea that despite what happens in our lives, God has everything under control.

Yet, I wonder what Joseph thought as he experienced the epitome of the up and down life. You see, we must be reminded that we are in a privileged position that Joseph was not in. We get to see behind the curtain of his story, as the narrator tells us three times about how the Lord was with Joseph.

It is easy for us as readers to see the whole story and see how everything worked out, and how God, as the story emphasizes, was with Joseph.

But, how did Joseph feel about God’s providence during these low points?

Here was a guy who seemed to understand, at least through the dreams he had, that God was going to do great things for him. Yet, he is thrown into a hole by his own brothers and then sold into slavery in Egypt, where he ends up in prison. Not exactly evidence of God’s good providence.

If our good Christian were to say those nice Christian things about God’s good providence to poor Joseph as he is in prison, Joseph might respond, “If this is God’s providence, then it is not so much good as it is scandalous.”

And who could blame him, for we have all been at periods in our lives when we cannot see behind the curtain, when all that we thought was right with our lives was shaken, and our lives were turned upside down.

Out of nowhere comes something that almost destroys us, and we must wonder, if God, in God’s good providence, saw this coming, then why did God not stop that something from happening?

It is certainly a philosophical question of theodicy, but more personally, these times always present, if we are honest with ourselves, existential crises of faith. And yet, in the depths of our hearts and souls, it is possible that during these times we become aware of the presence of God even in the lowest points of our lives.

Although suffering will come our way, as it came Joseph’s way, we must hold onto to what we might interpret from the story of Joseph as not only a statement of fact, but also one of promise: The Lord is with us.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Flood Story and the Vulnerability of God

This past Sunday I started preaching through the Narrative Lectionary, and we began with the story of Noah and the flood.

Noah’s story is familiar to most of us who grew up hearing the narratives from the Hebrew Bible. As a child, I mostly heard the story about the rainbow God placed in the sky as a sign of God’s promise.

What stands out for me as an adult who reads this text with modern eyes, however, is the unbelievability of this story. Let’s face it, how is it logically possible for a man and his sons to build an ark so big that two of every living creature, as well as Noah’s family, can not only fit on the boat, but live for as long as they did on that boat?

Perhaps it is not our place to read this with modern, scientific minds. Indeed, I think we must read it as the ancients understood it. Regardless of whether the facts of the story are true or not, and I doubt that they are, the story has something to say about the writer(s) understanding of God and God’s relationship to humanity.

There were other flood stories from other peoples of the ancient world. The ancients viewed the world as either ordered or in chaos, and floods of some size would cause them to think that chaos had taken over the ordered world. From an ancient person’s point of view, such chaos must have been caused by a divine force or being.

So, if the writer(s) of Genesis 6-9 are telling their version of a flood story, what are they trying to say about God and humanity through this story?

For one thing, the author(s) view the flood as God’s judgment, but that judgment does not come because God is capricious and loses God’s patience with humanity over petty things. God is not judging the creation over just any sin. Rather, God sees something very specific that causes God to call humanity wicked.

Genesis 6:11-13 tells us that it is humanity’s violence that has brought about God’s judgment. The earth was full of violence. For God, it seems, the wickedness of humanity is most surely seen in the violence humans carry out against other humans and even against creation itself.

The back story of why God sees violence as the grave sin of humanity from Genesis’ perspective is the creation story of Genesis 1-2. The pinnacle of that story is the creation of humans in whom God breathes the breath of life into the man, making him in God’s own image. Being made in the image of God and having received the very breath of God means that human life in the sight of God is valuable.

Violence against other human beings is the most gravest of sins because it mocks the climax of God’s creation and it attacks the very spirit and image of God that exists in every single human being. It is that the earth is full of violence that brings about God’s judgment.

Yet, what does this act of judgment say about the character of God? Does God appear to be a bit capricious in God’s judgment? Are we to view God as angered by the sin of humanity and thus God must carry out retribution against the wicked? This seems not to be the case.

In fact, in Genesis 6:6 we are told that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” God was sorry. God grieved.

The word translated as grieved carries the idea of anguish. God grieves over our sinfulness. God anguishes over our rebellion. Our sin is painful to God.

This is not the anger of a parent whose child has disobeyed. This is the disappointed and sadness of a parent over the actions of a rebellious child who is deeply loved by the parent.

But notice something very important in this story. Although the flood is interpreted as God bringing destruction on the earth to rid the earth of the violence, God is not completely starting over as if God is creating a new Garden of Eden and a new Adam and a new Eve.

Yes, Noah can be seen here as a symbolic new Adam, but in finding favor with Noah, God chooses to continue God’s relationship with humanity without completely starting over from scratch.

In fact, in Genesis 8:21, God says,
“I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

It seems to me that God regrets having done what God has done in destroying the earth, for it seems that in God’s statement to Noah, God has resolved never to destroy again despite the inclination of the human heart toward sin. In a sense, God will not give up on humanity, despite the presence of human sin.

This is the thrust of God’s command to Noah to “be fruitful and multiply,” echoing the command given to Adam and Eve. God is not done with creation and God is not limiting humanity to Noah and his family. God will take a risk with humanity for generations to come, even if the human heart is inclined to sin.

What a powerful message of divine love and vulnerability. God not only grieved over the sin of humanity; God also grieved over the destruction God brought to all of creation. And, instead of wiping out all living creatures, God chose to continue in loving relationship with God’s creation.

Indeed, in Genesis 9:8-17, God enters into a covenant with Noah, his family, his descendants, and all living things to never bring destruction again. This covenant is not an agreement between two parties, as if God is agreeing not to destroy the earth again if humanity keeps its side of the covenant.

No, God establishes this covenant with Noah and all of creation solely by God’s choosing, and despite the sinfulness of humanity, God will never again bring this kind of destruction on the earth.

Of course, one of the more familiar bits of this story has to do with the sign of the covenant that God sets in the sky- the bow. Our traditional interpretation of this passage is that when we see a rainbow in the sky we are to think of God’s covenant with humanity promised to Noah. But that’s not how the text reads.

The bow in the sky is not to remind us; it is to remind God. The bow reminds God of God’s promise to Noah, his descendants, and all living things. The sign of the bow in the sky, which may be symbolic of a warrior putting away his bow, reminds God of the promise God made to never destroy creation again.

Yet, I don’t think this is God resolving to the fact that humans are evil and God must live with it. I think it is perhaps that God has faith in us; faith and long-suffering through which God is patient with humanity.

This means that God has chosen to be vulnerable and suffer through our rebelliousness and sin, but God will never give up on us. God will continue to open the divine heart of love toward all humanity.