Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday Message

1 Timothy 6: 6-19
Daniel 9: 3-6, 17-19

Today is the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. We receive ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as a symbol of our penitence for our sins and of our frailty and vulnerability. It is a common practice in Lent for Christians to give up a favorite food or entertainment or other self-gratifying practice as a symbol of our identity with the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. Nevertheless, it is merely a symbol. I do not take symbolism lightly, as I understand symbols to be the primary means that we orient ourselves in proper relationship to God and creation, and so for me to say that lenten sacrifice is "merely a symbol" points to a reality yet more profound.

Indeed, I invite you today to another lenten discipline. I began this practice after M.P. Joseph informed those of us taking his "Contextual Theologies of the Third World" course that 33,000 people die every day of hunger. I had heard such statistics before, but for some reason it never stuck until M.P. said it. 33,000 people die each day of a predicament that is imminently curable. 33,000 people. And so every morning during morning prayer I pray for the 33,000 people who will die during the course of the coming day of hunger. And every evening during evening prayer I pray for the 33,000 people who have died over the course of the closing day of hunger. I invite you to join me in praying for these people. By the time we gather together on Sunday morning for worship 132,000 people will have died. By the time Easter rolls around and we celebrate the resurrection of Christ 1,320,000 people will have died. I should mention, while the church traditionally takes Sundays off from fasting, hunger is not so considerate.

We confess that we have no righteousness to present before God in supplication. Nevertheless, God's mercy is great. May this practice be for us an aid in the pursuit of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. We who have food and clothing should be content with these in abundance but not in surplus. Perhaps this practice will bear fruit in us in the cultivation of a spirituality of "enoughness."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sexual Identity

Some thoughts in response to the argument that homosexuality is bad if it results from nurture but may be all right if rooted in nature:

I'm not sure the nature/nurture distinction is really quite so distinct. Postmodern theorists would argue that all of reality is socially constructed, including sexual identity. While this seems to lead to a nurture viewpoint, it really is an ontological claim about all of reality. Our nature is that we are socially constructed. There is no tabula raza that constitutes our identity prior to whatever social, "nurturing," forces exert themselves upon it.

Now, I'm not entirely a postmodernist, but I don't need to be to escape the nature/nurture distinction. I just have to say that human sexuality is more complex than the binary between homosexual and heterosexual. Queer theology looks at Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and other queer identities. It's not even a linear spectrum; it's more like a color wheel, or better yet a sphere, with some people locating themselves in varying relations to all of the different factors. Research suggests that most "heterosexual" people have homoerotic thoughts at various points in their lives about people of the same sex. Similarly, "homosexual" people have heteroerotic thoughts about people of the opposite sex.

So, what then are we to make of this theologically? I would say that for most people, their human nature is to have some sort of place in the sexual identity sphere that is a mean value but that throughout their lives they will move around a bit within the sphere. This is how God created us and it is indeed good. This is our nature. Our nurture, our social construction, on the other hand, functions to sector off certain sectors of the sexual identity sphere as bad. Evolutionary psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt see this practice as part of human adaptive sensibilities to survive in a sometimes hostile world. Theologically, I would say that the human fall, sectoring off parts of the sexual identity sphere, is a result of and deeply interconnected with the fall of creation that makes creation sometimes hostile to human thriving. Salvation really is with Christ who reestablishes the full sexual identity sphere and overcomes the hostility between creation and human thriving, at least potentially. We are sinful, therefore, insofar as we continue to reject the careful balance inherent to the created world and reestablished by Christ and therefore also continue to reject the fullness of the sexual identity sphere.

This is not a judgment. It is a theological position. I've found it helpful. Perhaps others will too.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

God calls us to unity through love for the sake of the world

A homily delivered at Morning Prayer, Marsh Chapel, Boston University, Wednesday 7 February 2007.

Given the specialized track I have developed for my MDiv studies, ecumenical systematic theology, it should not be surprising that I chose today to be one of the three days I preach this semester when I saw the given readings from the daily lectionary for today. In the text from the Gospel according to John, we find Jesus at the end of a prayer that spans the whole chapter. The first five verses speak of glorification in eternal life. In verses 6-19, Jesus prays that the disciples will be united in the word shared among them and that God will protect them from the evil one who sets the world against them because of the word. In the pericope just heard, Jesus prays that those who will believe in the word shared among the disciples will be united. Notice, however, that the form of prayer Jesus is engaged in here is petition. Jesus is requesting that God ensure the unity. Jesus has shared the glory given to him with the disciples for this purpose and is now asking God to fulfill it.

What is the means by which God fulfills the unity of those gathered in the word? It is love. Love is a complicated word, often misused and abused. I do not want to try to sort all of that out here. But do realize that it is a special word. Notice here how it functions. In the 2 Chronicles text, when the temple of God is finished and all of the people of God have been gathered together into one body, praise is given “for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” The praise of God, the God of enduring love, is the glory of God which has filled the temple “so that the priests could not stand to minister.” Love is what brought the people together in unity. Back in the Gospel text, the love of God indwelling the disciples is the result of the name of God becoming known, a symbol of deep spiritual wisdom. It is not just any love, but the love with which God loved Jesus, and this love is itself Jesus in the disciples. This completes the cycle of indwelling started in verse 21: the Father is in Jesus, Jesus is in the Father, the disciples are in them and now they, Jesus and through Jesus the Father, are in the disciples. God fulfills the unity of the disciples, then and now, by drawing all together in the love of divine life.

Sadly, the Gospel text stops short of the inclusive message we have come to expect. The ecumenical movement loves this text because it binds together ecumenism and mission, or at least seems to. Really it does not. It only works if we read the “believing” of the world through the lens of the Reformation so that engendering belief that Jesus was sent by God is the missiological task with a salvific goal. Here, what is desired is not so much belief as we would think of it, but recognition. This is clearer in verse 23 where “know” is substituted for “believe.” The love that signals salvation in the Gospel of John is reserved to the disciples while recognition of that love in the disciples is the scrap left to the world without an invitation to participation. This great ecumenical text is not a call for mission but a perplexing and disheartening Christian triumphalism. It is a rejection of the world.

Surely this cannot be all? Surely it is not. In verse 20 Jesus prays “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” Belief is not some cognitive assent with salvific effect, it is participation in the word shared by the disciples. Remembering the prologue to the Gospel of John, the word is the very participation in divine life, “the word was God.” The disciples, in whom God dwells and who dwell in God in love, extend the arms to those who recognize the divine love working in them. The word of the disciples is analogous to the Jesus the word of God, a dynamic principle working to bring the world into divine life. This is seen again in verse 26, and now the unity of the disciples in God and Jesus Christ is made manifest because Jesus will make the name of God known through the word of the disciples in verse 20. The prayer really is an ecumenical vision, but not one of reaching out to impose some cognitive uniformity. Instead, it is an ecumenism that gathers ever more diverse elements together in the temple in the presence of the glory of the loving God, and then, when the priests can no longer stand to minister, it opens the arms to more.