Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Little Faith Is a Dangerous Thing

This is the sermon I preached last Sunday on Hebrews 11 and Luke 12, per request from someone who needs to cleanse their homiletical palate.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was likely a really good preacher. As a whole, Hebrews feels more like a of a series of sermons than an actual letter. It has the rhetorical rhythm and fire that would be more at home spoken in the midst of people than written by a friend to people far away. The sermon that takes places in Hebrews 11 is about the great figures of the faith from the past and how they are role models for how we should live the faithful life here and now. Like many preachers since, the author of Hebrews begins this particular sermon with a definion “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is one of those words that we struggle to get an accurate definition of. Dictionaries offer a series of definitions for faith, none of which on their own or even put together provide an adequate definition of what we refer to as faith. Dictionary.com defines faith as 1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2. belief that is not based on proof;
3. belief in god or in the doctrines or teachings of religion;
4. belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards of merit, etc.;
5. a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith.
6.the obligation of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.:

For centuries, theologians and philosophers have struggled to come up with a good workable definition of faith. Much of the struggle comes from trying to balance the certainty and uncertainty that comes with faith. While faith involves assurance, it is by no means something that we experience as being totally resolved. By faith we mean something different than fact, at least in the empirically verifiable sense. In this sense, the writer of Hebrews is really on to something. Faith is about things hoped for, yet unseen, it is about a reality that stands just over the horizon, beyond our vision, yet we know it is there. Faith is a hope for the past, present and future that always dwells in tension, a journey that never quite ends. And yet, faith reorients us to that reality that lies just beyond the limits of our vision. Faith insists that what we can see and grasp is not all that there is or even what is most important. It tells us that the things that might seem most important are in truth decaying all around us, and that the truly important things cannot be grasped. It is the belief that the master is indeed coming, even though the return is delayed, while those around us are starting to doubt whether there was ever a master at all.

Frederick Buechner unfolds this beautiful theme, this foundational truth, in his book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons. "By faith," he writes on this text, "we understand, if we are to understand it at all, that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth….Faith is the eye of the heart, and by faith we see deep down beneath the face of things – by faith we struggle against all odds to be able to see – that the world is God's creation even so. It is God who made us and not we ourselves, made us out of God’s peace to live in peace, out of holy light to dwell in light, out of divine love to be above all things loved and loving. That is the last truth about the world."

As an example of ones who lived out this last truth, the writer of Hebrews points to Abraham and Sarah, the covenant father and mother of the Jewish people, among others. Abraham and Sarah, along with their child Isaac and grandson Jacob, epitomize for the writer those who journey with God through uncertain lands and uncertain times. They both epitomize that madness and lostness of the world and stand against it, pointing to a truth greater than themselves, believing in that place that lies just beyond the horizon.

While certainly well known among the great cloud of witnesses shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims, Abraham and Sarah are in many ways unusual role models of faith. Theirs is not a simple, linear story of ones who receive the promise, act in faith, receive their reward and live happily ever after. In the life of faith, happily ever after is not the goal. Faith is not wishful thinking, a naïve belief that everything will always work out for the best. Real faith lies beyond wishful thinking or even optimism, to really confront the chaos of the world and yet insist that chaos is not the ultimate truth of the world.

Abraham was called by God when he was 75 years old. We don't know of his life beforehand, just that he was grasped by this epiphany late in life. He and Sarah had no children when God appeared and made an unlikely promise. God tells Abraham, “Get up and go. Take everything you own, and travel across the desert to a place that I will show you, and there I will make you into a great and wealthy nation with many descendants. I will give you land a progeny, a place and people to call your own.” Abraham and Sarah went seeking the place where they would belong, a homeland.

Abraham and Sarah risk their lives on this promise. They get up and go. They are caught up in the promise of God, look to this realm that lies just beyond the horizon, and totally reorient their lives around this reality that they cannot see, but believe. To an outsider, to one who does not see with the eyes of faith, it was insanity. To those eyes, madness and lostness really are the last word, better to accept it and deal with it rather than set off into the unknown than chase some mirage. In many ways, the opposite of faith is resignation, submission and acquiescence to the idea that nothing every really changes, that the master of the house is never going to return. But Abraham knows the voice of the one who calls creation into being, knows that there is something more, something deeper, than can only be found out there. And so, in faith, they set out to chase the horizon.

This is what is likely to happen when God gives us a vision and a calling. Often, it will seem as logical as setting out across the dessert in our old age. It will seem a little illogical, since God rarely calls us to follow the expected path. We do that quite easily on our own, and don’t need God’s nudge out the door. There will be those who question what we are doing, many of whom will be speaking out of genuine concern. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Seems risky. There are a lot of reasons you might fail. Maybe you should compromise a little.” One of the strange things about working with youth and their parents is the realization that people who are willing to take a leap of faith themselves are often unnerved by their children taking that same leap. A little faith is a dangerous thing, it makes us go into uncertain directions, ones that inevitably will get us into what only can be called trouble.. This is why you should be a little wary of trusting me with your kids, because I will tell them that their crazy leap of faith may just be the thing that God is calling them to do.

This is also why Jesus tells us not to worry. Its is not that what we eat or what we wear is not important, its that these things are not the most important. Our attention, though, should be on those things that are of highest importance. When we lose our focus, our attention drifts from things of lesser importance to things of no importance. It is human nature; we are usually not just worried about our basic necessities, as much as the objects of our desire. Sometimes these desires are for material things, but often things are just an expression of deeper wants, like desire for comfort and security. Jesus exhorts us to focus our attention on the horizon instead, to not be weighed down on our journey by worries or excess baggage.

As is often the case in the journey of faith, for Sarah and Abraham is was not a simple crossing of the desert, but a circuitous and perilous journey. They would not simply arrive at the promised land and be welcomed with open arms. As is so typical of promised lands, there were already people living there quite happily when Sarah and Abraham arrived. Nor did their arrival immediately solve the problem of progeny. Its difficult to have descendants as many as the stars of heaven when one does not even have an heir. Abraham and Sarah proceed to try to find their own way of dealing with these difficulties, all the while trying their best to trust that God will find some way to make it all work out.

This is so often the way with the life of faith. We trust God and we do our best. While we have faith that the promised land lies over the horizon, there is often not a clear road map on how to get there from here. Sometimes it will be able to tell the Spirit's voice from our own and all the others we are hearing. It is all too easy for preachers to promise that so long as we take that leap of faith, God will give us the wings to fly. There are no such guarantees. While that is true some of the time, it is not true all of the time. Sometimes, we get mixed up and take the leap of faith in the wrong place at the wrong time, and wonder why we land on our faces. And sometimes, to be honest, we need to leap and fall just so that we can learn that falling is not the worst thing, that often landing face first is less painful than the fear of jumping. We also learn that God will help pick us up in the end. A true leap of faith is one taken without really knowing the outcome, and yet still being willing to jump. While we are confident that the master of the house will indeed return, it is difficult to know how exactly to prepare for that return, especially when we are not sure when the master comes.

The real irony of the story of Abraham and Sarah is not lost on the writer of Hebrews, who sees their unresolved ending as the very essence of a faithful life. Their story ends, or more precisely, the part of the story that they were able to see in their lifetimes at best inconclusively. If viewed without the eyes of faith, their journey is really a failure. Far from being a great nation, Sarah dies with but one child, Isaac, who goes on to have but two sons of his own. A modest beginning for a great nation when we consider that the average family size in the ancient world would have been closer to a dozen children per family. They also do not become great in the land that was promised to them. They end their journey as they began it, a wandering people living in tents, essentially homeless. At the end of his life, Abraham owns but one small piece of property in the land of promise, and that is Sarah's tomb. After setting out with a promise of land and progeny, all they have to show for the journey at the end of their lives is one son and a burial plot. These results would seem to bear out the opinion of the skeptics that the whole journey was folly and they would have been at least as well off staying where they were.

And yet we know that their story does not when their lives end. Abraham has become the spiritual father of generations of Jews, Christians and Muslims, including nearly 4 billion people today. Abraham and Sarah are not the great exemplars of faith because they got their happily ever after, but because they chased the horizon on the dangerous road of God's vision. They were faithful travellers seeking where God would lead them.

A wonderful prayer by Thomas Merton captures the uncertainty of the faithful life quite well. It is a prayer that would have been at home on the lips of Abraham or Sarah or the writer of Hebrews. As we seek to be God's people in this time, let us make it our prayer as well. "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How Do We Understand This Thing? Pt. 2--Finding the Text

One of the things I found most shocking while in seminary was the processes by which the thing we call the Bible came to be. This is something that I had never thought about before. I was mostly concerned with reading the text and having it apply to my life today. While I didn't exactly think that the book just came down from heaven as is, I assumed it was something at least like this.

As I studied, I found out how convoluted the process was and is. First off, there was the process of deciding on the canon, which books were to be considered Scripture and which weren't. There was not consensus early on about which books would be included, or even if Christians would continue to look to the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative.

In the class last Sunday, we looked at a different part of the puzzle, specifically how we go from the original events of Scripture to the words we have in our English Bibles today (for my notes from the class, please visit http://projectbraintrust.com/cogburn/sundayschool/hdwrttall.doc). This is once again a much muddier process than most would like to believe. Unfortunately, we don't have any autographed copies of the books in the Bible, New Testament or Old. Instead, we have copies of copies of copies. And even the best of these copies don't agree completely with one another. This is not surprising. For two copies to be perfectly alike, a scribe would have to copy one perfectly, without making any errors, writing by hand. The best copies we have include minor variations, like spelling errors or skipped lines or words, to larger errors, words, phrases or even whole lines of text added. With some of the intact manuscripts, scholars can see how these changes took place later in the cycle. What we can never know is what changes were made to the text before our oldest manuscripts came about. Just one example of the problem here can be found in Mark 16, where the Gospel has three endings, at least one of which was not original.

On top of this is the issue of translation. Moving from one lanuage to another is complex, even for those with fluency in both languages. Going from the ancient Greek used in the New Testament to contemporary English is enourmously complicated (in addition to the fact that the old manuscripts generally did not use spacing or punctuation). Any student who has wrestled with the intricacies of Hebrew and Greek can testify to the fact that it is not a simple process.

Learning all this extinguished any lingering inflexible literalism that I may have had. To say that "God said it, I believe it" is to practice selective ignorance that is intellectually dishonest. A more nuance literalism says that the texts were indeed perfect in their original autographs. But this too for me is ultimately unsatisfying. I just see too much humanity mixed up in the process (there's that total depravity again).

So, back to the original question, how do we read this thing? The complexity of how Scripture comes to us often leads to either denial or paralysis. One option is to simply deny that there is a problem, choosing ignorance and calling it faith. Another possibility is to become so overwhelmed by the complexity of the interpretive task that we become paralyzed.

The third way is the way of faith. Seeking to understanding the complexity, we still trust in the Holy Spirit that the Word will be revealed to us among the words. We need to do the work to understand where the text comes from so that we can see where it is going. We will inevitably run into our own limitations, being limited creatures as we are. Ultimately though, we trust that God will reveal God's self to us through the stories, the letters, the poetry of the ancient text. If we will be read with open minds and open hearts, we will encounter the living God.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How Do We Understand This Thing? Pt. 1

Starting in a couple weeks, I will be teaching an adult Sunday School class at UPC on the authority and interpretion of Scripture with LSU philosophy professor Dr. Jon Cogburn. The two issues are quite related. Ones understading of the authority of Scripture determines what types of questions one brings to its interpretation, while reading and interpreting Scripture impacts the way we understand its authority. Part of the argment about Biblical authority hinges on the interpretation of various texts that talk about the value and centrality of Scripture.

One of the resources we will be using is a document "Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture" (avalaible athttp://www.pcusa.org/oga/publications/scripture-use.pdf). It provides a pretty good introduction to Reformed principles of interpretation and the variety of opinions in the church on the understanding of authority.

One of the issues around this topic that bothers me most is the number of people who claim to take the Bible literally. The "God said it, I believe it" mentality is all too common in our culture. Regardless of whether one thinks this is the way we should understand Scripture (and I don't, but that's a seperate series of posts), it is obvious that no one does. A few examples will make my point:
1. There are parts of the Bible that are clearly metaphors, such as the parables of Jesus. While the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, no one thinks it is an actual mustard seed that grows into a plant where birds roost. Jesus compares God to a mother hen, but no really thinks that God lays eggs. The problem arises when words are used in such a way as they can be meant either literally or metaphorically. When Jesus tells us to pray to "Our Father", does this mean God is a literal father or that God is like a father?
2. There are parts of the Bible that are clearly intended to be taken literally that no one does. While there are those who will argue that I Corinthians 14:34a ("...women should be silent in the churches") should be taken literally, very few would aruge that Paul's longer discussion of head coverings in the church (I Cor. 11:2-16) is meant to be taken literally for everyone for all time. Many of the legal stipulations in the Old Testament fall into the same category. I've known many a teenager who has cursed their father or mother, but never encountered anyone who thinks that they should be put to death for the offence (Lev. 20:9). We all realize, whether we admit it or not, that some things are (at least) applicable for some times and places but not all. Biblical precedent exists for this in the way that the early church dealt the issue of Gentile converts having to follow Jewish ritual law such as circumcision and dietyary restrictions. The question then becomes which things that are stated literally will we apply literally.
3. Everyone ultimately has a personal "canon within the canon". This is the practical application of total depravity to our understanding of Scripture. We all bring our own experiences and biases, our conflicts and our desire for justification with us when we read the text. Even when we try and think we are not doing so, the basic frailty of the human situation appears in that we are never full aware of our own motivations. The extent to which this applies to Scripture itself is a subject for a different post.

So, that just leads back to the basic question, "how do we read and understand the Bible?" That will be the subject of the class and (theoretically) future posts here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Giant's Side of the Story

This was last Sunday's sermon on the David and Goliath text from I Samuel. Hat tip to Dan Clendenin for his essay on the subject andthe Niemoller story.

At first sight, the two texts for this morning make it easy on the preacher. The passages are pretty straight forward and the sermon more or less writes itself. The story of David and Goliath tells us of God’s victory over the destructive forces of oppression in the world, that the Lord is the Lord over history and that God’s will is towards justice for God’s people. To emphasize the fact that the victory belongs to God, the young David is sent out with armor or heave weapons, but with the simple tools of a shepherd. David slays the giant and gives birth to one of the oldest clichés in the book. It also brings home the point that God works just as well through the small as through the mighty.

The story from Mark dovetails nicely with the story of David and Goliath. Jesus and the disciples are on a boat crossing the sea. Jesus tired from teaching and healing the crowds has fallen asleep. During the crossing, a storm arises. The disciples begin to panic, even though some of them were fishermen and should have been well able to cope with the storm. The terrified disciples wake Jesus, who promptly calms the storm around them. The message hardly needs to be spelled out. The winds, the waves, the storm itself symbolic of the powers of chaos and death in the world obey Christ’s words.

The stories compliment each other very well. Goliath is the representative of human evil while the storm stands for the chaos of the natural world. But God is bigger than the giants and the storms. Have faith, for God can defeat the giants and calm the storms, providing peace and assurance to God’s people. End of sermon, say a prayer, sing a hymn. We'll beat the Methodist to Father's Day lunch.

Certainly that is part of what we should take from each of these stories. The trouble is that this is not entirely the point that either story is trying to make, and it ignores the subtlety of each. In fact, with both stories, additional reflection yields some troubling ideas, either by what is contained in the text, or what is not. As I’ve wrestled with the texts this week, the problem of Goliath has stuck with me. The aspects of the story that are most troubling are the ones that are not in the text. The Philistines are seen as both evil and monolithic, the classic always evil that is so common in fantasy literature. Goliath is literally the Big Bad, the biggest and most dangerous of all the bad guys. Its this lack of nuance that troubles me. The whole story seems to be an example of the victors writing the history books.

It’s a story familiar to everyone who has gone through Sunday school as a child. It appeals to a certain childlike desire for fairytales. The big giant is defeated by the little man and everyone lives happily ever after. Everyone that is, except the giant, and his friends, but they are all bad anyway, so they don’t count.

In recent years, a new genre in publishing has grown up around turning fairytales on their heads. I first encountered it in John Gardner’s novel Grendel, in which the mythic antagonist from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beolwulf takes center stage in a retelling of the story. In recent years, Gregory Maguire has published several novels and short stories in this vain, most famously in the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which was famously turned into a musical of the same name. (Be honest, how many of you have ‘Defying Gravity’ running through your minds right now?) These stories exemplify the fact that there is always another side, that the villain is usually the hero in their understanding of the story, and that whomever we see as the hero and the villain is largely dependent upon our own point of view.

Goliath’s story, in many ways, is ripe for this kind of retelling. The Philistines were a people came from somewhere else in the Mediterranean who settled the coast of southern Canaan, just north of Egypt, establishing a group of five city-states which included, ironically, all of what is now known as the Gaza Strip. The Philistines were rising in power at the same time another power in the region was emerging, the nation of the Israelites under their judges and later their first king, Saul. All this in a land that had already been settled by previous nations going back hundreds if not thousands of years. Conflict between the Philistines and the Israelites is a constant feature of the Old Testament histories between the death of Moses and the conquest of the entire region by the Assyrians a few centuries later.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a Philistine. For those of us who spent most of the last week pretending to be Romans, this should not be too hard. Your people have come from across the sea to settle this coastland. You have prospered and grown strong. As is so often the case, your prosperity has brought conflict with your neighbors. War has been part of your life on and off for decades. Finally, a champion arises in your midst, a great warrior who literally stands head and shoulders above everyone else, particularly your enemies. He strikes fear into the hearts of his foes, but brings courage and pride to his own people. Goliath may be a giant, but he is our giant, who defends us and carries our banner forward.

Like most soldiers, Goliath is not a philosopher or even a king. He is there to do his job, defend his people and act in their best interest. Larger questions of politics, religion and morality are not really his concern. War and conquest were just the way the world worked. Goliath was the champion of the Philistines and excelled at one on one combat. He was greatly respected, in part because his victories in one on one combat as the two camps stood in opposition may have actually prevented battle and deaths on both sides of the conflict, at least temporarily.

Like with many such conflicts, the war between the Philistines and the Israelites is mostly about control of territory and the resources that go along with it. But also like many other conflicts, it gets tangled up with other issues, particularly religion. The Philistines, like most ancient cultures, were polytheists. When they arrived in Canaan, they quickly adopted the gods of their neighbors. The Israelites worshiped the one God, and the conflict between them was often cast in terms of this religious conflict, especially in the sacred history.

So when the fateful day arrives, Goliath, cheered by his fellow Philistines, goes out to the battlefield to await a champion from the Israelites. He challenged the people of Saul, whom he expected, like most days, to just sit in their tents. But on this day, something unexpected happens. The Israelites send out a young man. He is no warrior, without armor or heavy weapons. What is this, some kind of joke? It’s laughable, so Goliath laughs. He taunts not so much David, but Saul for sending out a small, defenseless young man. The young shepherd talks about the strength of his God and insists on the fight. So Goliath goes out to meet him. Strangely, the text never really mentions Goliath attacking David. Then a single stone, David slays the great champion.

For David, this is his crowning moment of awesome, which he would use as a PR tool for the rest of his life. To put an exclamation point on the victory, David goes on to decapitate Goliath, a moment which is usually left out of the story on Sundays, but would most definitely figure in were to story made into a film. For the Philistines, though, it is a disaster. With their champion defeated, the Philistine army flees and the Israelite army pursues, leaving a trail of wounded for miles.

The really troubling part of the story, to me, is the notion that God takes sides in the messiness of human conflict. God is on the side of the Israelites and David, and stands against the Philistines. This notion was the norm in ancient societies, where wars between nations were often depicted as wars between their gods. Even if the combatants ultimately shared a common understanding of the workings of the gods, it was still a battle between one patron god and another. See Homer’s Iliad for just one example. The Crusades were justified as a battle between the gods of Christianity and Islam for control of the Holy Land. In the American Civil War, preachers and theologians on both sides proclaimed messages about how their side would ultimately be vindicated by divine providence.

We live in a time where violence in the name of God has had a striking and perhaps surprising resurgence. The list of recent conflicts is long and includes most of the world’s religions. This week in Iran, as the conflict over their recent election grew, both the protesters and the regime appealed to divine favor to bolster their legitimace.

It has become all too common for atrocities to be justified by the righteousness of God. David’s decapitation of Goliath brings to mind the similar treatment of American businessman Nicholas Berg in Iraq by members of Al Qaeda. Is the line between a heroic victory that will be retold by school children thousands of years later and an act of unconscionable brutality simply a matter of our point of view?

David would return to his victory over Goliath later and write a Psalm in honor of the victory. In it, he would claim that the victory was a sign of divine favor, a sign of his righteousness (David’s, not God’s), and sign that David’s enemies were in fact God’s enemies. One of the real problems these texts pose for us is that they are in our sacred story. While it is easy to dismiss modern attempts to justify violence in the name of God, it is something else to read a text like this as “the Word of the Lord.” Whether ancient or modern, divinely sanctioned violence has few boundaries. The righteousness of the divine cause justifies any level of brutality, the divine favor showed to the combatant washes away even the most horrific of sins.

In an essay on this text, Dan Clendenin talks about David’s slaying of Goliath as an act of sacred terror. And like me, he struggles to make sense of it in our time, to find the divine in the midst of the story’s humanity. He also struggles with the legacy of sacred terror perpetrated by all religions. Ultimately, he finds solace in the New Testament:
“Whereas the Old Testament contains violence that is divinely sanctioned, at least according to its writers, in the New Testament I can think of only two examples when the followers of Jesus wanted to use violent means for his cause — when James and John wanted to call down fire upon the Samaritans because of their unbelief (Luke 9:51–55), and in the Garden of Gethsemane when his disciples tried to prevent His arrest (Mark 14:47). In both instances Jesus rebuked those who tried to show their allegiance to him through violent means. Instead, he insisted that God causes the sun to shine on both the wicked and the righteous. Jesus told us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us, because in the end the ultimate measure of my love for God is my love for my neighbor."

This in no way excuses the history of violence perpetrated by Christians in the name of the prince of peace, but it does make clear that we cannot, under any circumstances, appeal to Christ as a justification for destroying our enemies. The reality is that whenever we appeal to God to be on our side at the expense of our enemy, we our showing our own unfaithfulness. Christ’s teaching to us though is that love of God includes loving our enemies.

Perhaps the person who put it best was German pastor Martin Niemoeller, leader of the confessing chruch in Germany and was eventually arrested, and then imprisoned for eight years at Sachsenhausen and Dachau . I have actually been to Dachau and seen the cells where Niemoller and his fellow pastors were held and the room in which they shared communion together among Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox. Niemoeller once confessed, "It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. God is not even the enemy of his enemies."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Statement on B

As promised, here is my argument before the PSL in regard to amendment 08B. I have taken out the person's name in the last paragraph because, while I got their permission to use the example before the presbytery, I did not ask about publishing in on the internets.

Sisters and brothers in Christ,

I rise to speak in favor of amendment 08b. I do so first and foremost as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The new amendment B returns Christ to his proper place at the center of our ordination standards. In the life, death, resurrection and abiding presence of Christ, we find our only hope and our only standard for right conduct as believers and officers. Jesus taught us that all the law and the prophets hang on the command to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus Christ, his love and grace should stand at the center and at the height of our standards, and amendment 08b returns Christ to this rightful place. The current G6.0106b makes no mention of Christ and conflates the roles of Scripture and the confessions, raising the confessions to a status equal to Scripture, and assigning to the confessions the role of defining sin. The new amendment will restore the historic Reformed emphasis on obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, through the instruction of the confessions as the standard for ordination.

I also speak in favor of amendment 08b as a student of St. Paul, of John Calvin. Paul taught us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that we are justified by God’s grace as a gift. Calvin taught us the doctrine of total depravity and our radical dependence on the grace of Christ alone, and not our works. Sin does not discriminate; thankfully, grace does not either. G6.0106b denies this historic tenet of the Reformed faith, as if our righteousness and fitness for ordained office depended on our ability to refrain from sin. Brothers and sister, all of human history, as well as the recent events in the life of the Presbytery of South Louisiana, witness if nothing else to the reality of human sinfulness. If the purity of the church is dependent on the ability of its officers to remain sinless, if it depends on us, then we are without hope. The Good News is that the peace, unity and purity of the church, and of each of us as individuals, rests on the grace of Christ alone. The new amendment B returns humility to our ordination standards, acknowledging that though we may strive for perfection we are yet sinners.

I also speak in favor of amendment 08b as an advocate of Reformed polity. This amendment returns to governing bodies the responsibility of determining the fitness of a candidate for ordained ministry. It is the local governing body that is in the best position to discern whether or not a candidate for ministry, with all of his or her gifts and shortcomings, is qualified by God’s grace to fulfill the office to which they have been called. This is not new, but is the norm in our historic practice as a church.

Finally, I speak in favor of amendment 08b as a pastor of many men and women, gay and straight, called by God to ordained office for whom g6.0106b is a symbol of the pain and exclusion they have received at the hands of the church, who nevertheless continue to serve Christ faithfully. One of those people is a member of UPC named ****. **** is a social worker and was part of the LSU social work faculty at the time of hurricane Katrina. As LSU was turned into a triage center following the storm, **** found herself providing for the needs of those who were brought to campus. One of the needs she saw was that the people arriving by helicopter from New Orleans did not have Bibles. They needed and indeed were crying out for the consolation of God’s Word. She called UPC and we teamed with other churches in Baton Rouge to provide Bibles to those the floodwaters. This is just one part of ****’s ministry of mercy and compassion following the storm. My friends, we expect deacons, to minster to those who are in need, to the sick, the friendless, and to any who may be in distress. I have never known anyone to embody that ministry of diakonia as much as **** did following hurricane Katrina. It impoverishes us as a church to deny ordination to one who so clearly lives out God’s call.

Therefore, I humbly ask you to vote in favor of amendment 08b. Thank you.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Closer, but...

The Presbytery of South Louisiana voted today on amendment 08b. The amendment was defeated 42-55. Thanks to everyone who spoke in favor, especially Kelly who spoke with incredible grace and courage. I'll post my statement later, but I'm exhausted after a full day meeting. We did defeat amendment A, and the amendments seeking to strip voice and vote from certified educators.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight: Amendment 08-B

I just made it official that I will be giving the "for" presentation in regard to the Presbytery of South Louisiana's vote on Amendment 08-B. I'll be studying up on all the published arguments from folks like More Light Presbyterians, Covenant Network and That All May Freely Serve, as well as looking at some of the 'con' arguments that are out there. If anyone has any suggestions for other resources or arguments that have not yet appeared in print, please let me know.