Sunday, June 29, 2008

Burnt offerings, not required

Sermon Delivered – Palisades Presbyterian Church
© Ray Bagnuolo, June 29. 2008

Lectionary Readings: Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42

With thoughts on the General Assembly…

The headline might have read: “Father prepared to sacrifice son.”

This is a hard text. It reflects a time a bit worse than our own. Quite a bit worse.

It was bad enough that animals were sacrificed in religious rites and still are in some places; but it was an ancient time with a fairly distributed practice of human sacrifices to assuage the deities.

Fortunately, we can historically distance ourselves from other gods and religious practices to satisfy those gods, but when it comes to God the Almighty, the One God, the God that we worship, the God we are told spoke to Abraham – it becomes a very difficult passage to accept as a reflection of the loving God we have come to know in our lives.

It’s a story from Genesis, written long after it occurred. It’s a story that is referred to in all three faiths that stemmed from Abraham: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Each has its own and multiple interpretations – from Abraham being tested by God, to some suggesting his imagination got the better of him, thinking he was called to such an horrific thing.

Some excuse Abraham’s actions, believing he knew that Isaac would be fine, since God had already promised him that Isaac, the sacrifice, would be the father of many. Since that had yet to happen, Abraham had nothing to worry about. One way or another, Isaac would be saved, revived, or resurrected.

Others say this is a more symbolic passage, using the father of the faith to put an end to human sacrifice, with the imprimatur of God. They say it was a condemnation of such barbarism.

And, some interpretations see this story as foreshadowing a time when God would sacrifice God’s only son Jesus, to make amends for the sins of the world – still not such an easy notion to grasp.

Other details…according to all three traditions of faith, Isaac was an adult at the time of the story – certainly able to resist, had he chosen to. Islam, actually, believes it was not Isaac who was the sacrifice – but Ishmael.

And what of Sarah? I had friends in seminary who suggested that it was Sarah who had followed a strangely behaving Abraham around, and that she was the one who actually called out to him, snapped him out of his trance that prevented Isaac from being killed.

If I had to guess, because that is all it would be, I would side with the symbolic aspect of the writings – this being one of those early instructional stories about how to behave or not, teaching the emerging nation as it went along. Or, I could side with a story about a declining centenarian-at-least Abraham, acting strangely in his well-advanced age, nearly committing a terrible tragedy, written into the Torah in ways that took a real and embarrassing event, giving it broad and formative meaning.

I don’t know, really.

However, I simply cannot accept this being a directive from God that orders the sacrifice of human life. Certain theologians hold fast to the idea that if God chooses, God can take life. I can accept that; unsure if God participates in our world in that particular way, but I can accept that.

However, I cannot accept that God uses others as surrogates to commit murder to please or calm God – or for any other purpose.

Were that so, this world would be even more of a strange place than it already is.

You may disagree, and I respect that. It is just that I have taken so long in moving from a vindictive, punishing, unpredictable God, brandishing guilt and long-suffering - referred to over and again in the Old Testament, that my exegetical exercises, more often than not, lead me to the broader hermeneutics, the side of the narratives with strong instructional guides imbedded in their scripts.

Still, much is conjecture, inspired by the work and study of Scriptures. I could find no definitive information that suggests that child sacrifice in the Hebrew tradition ended following this story – nor can I find any indication that it continued – other than some suggesting Jesus was the next and ultimate sacrifice of God for humanity:

A way of showing such love that God sacrificed God’s only son to heal the world.

However, I think that is much different. God who inspires one with Godsself in such a way that they are willing to follow the path of faithfulness and love – right into the arms and dangers of their oppressors – that is a love story between God and God’s Son – one from which we all can learn.

It is always interesting to consider our readings from the lectionary against the backdrop of current events. This week at the 218th General Assembly there was an opening for the Spirit to “get windy” and, indeed, it did. Over the period of ten days or so, the committees and plenary sessions voted to delete G-6.0106b from the Book of Order; to delete previous AI’s that referred to homosexual behavior as sin; initiated the process to revise the Heidelberg Catechism and its references to homosexuality; and it overturned the ruling of the GAPJC which set G-6.0106 apart as an essential tenet that could not be scrupled.

A windy and great Spirit – refreshing old and “not so ancient” practices in light of a loving and inclusive, radically so – God.

I’ve ordered summaries of the actions of this GA for the congregation and will have them available in the next few weeks. In the meantime, visit for all the details.

In terms of deciding to actively seek changes from where we were just a short time ago these are as major initiatives—even prophetic. It was here in our Session at Palisades Presbyterian Church that the first of the Delete B overtures originated for this General Assembly.

And rightly, we share joy with others for the chance to create a more just, inclusive, and loving church, acknowledging that these proposals have at the same time, created terror for others who believe these changes will mark the end of their beloved church.

There is no victory here, for that would suggest we have no choice but to be divided. It may be that we are at the moment, but I cannot accept that will always be the case.

More than changing the constitution or even creating a more just church, these decisions allow us to now enter into a space of conversation, prayer, and being with one another – required, as a result of the GA’s actions. We have been given an opportunity, within a timeline, for all of us step back and observe the “see-saw.” It’s the same one we have spoken of before, the one that has kept us on opposite sides in the forever rising and falling of the church around the lives of people affected by the choices we have and will make. We have the chance to set the pivot aside and then step forward and embrace, yes, embrace one another as sisters and brothers in baptism, created by the same God, called by the same God, to be one – with our differences. We have been given the chance to end the sacrifice of one group or another to satisfy a God some believe demands such things. We have a chance to be of faith: vulnerable, present, honest, compassionate, accepting, and humble.

This is the time to step out and into the light and God’s will for this church.

There is probably no group that can help in healing others more than those who have survived being the object of such oppression. To survive the oppression and to have the courage and desire to use such wounds in healing and loving others is the most powerful demonstration of the Spirit. It is the most powerful demonstration of the inherent wrongs of such oppression, sometimes first seen when the oppressor loves the other. This is the foundational love, the only force in my opinion that will end this struggle once and for all.

I believe it is time for us to step aside and agree to vote out these amendments together – not out of agreement or disagreement, but out of love, so that we may return to ministering in a broken world that has such incredible needs.

Therein, I think, is the difference between the stories of the Old Testament, the Torah, and Q’uran about Abraham – and the new commands of God through Jesus in the New of Second Testament. No longer are we to sacrifice oneor many of our own to satisfy a testing and testy God. Rather we are to love one another as God loves us. From there, we will be able to get along just fine.

The sheer welcome of this morning’s reading of Matthew underscores that even the smallest acts of hospitality in the Name of Jesus, welcomes one in the name of God. The welcoming acts of our lives, our Christian lives, are direct extensions of the presence of God in our world reaching out and through us to one another, saying, “Come. You are welcome. You are neither above nor below us – but with us as, in the name of the one who calls us all.”

Wouldn’t it be something if we were able to frame our mission in such a way that we voted, instead, on love? Do you think it could be a unanimous vote? Wouldn’t that be something?

The quote on the front of this morning’s bulletin is from The Secret Message of Jesus by Brain D. McLaren.

“…if Jesus does his job successfully, if Jesus effectively proclaims and introduces people into the kin[g]dom of God, he bequeaths to his successors not the same situation he inherited but rather a radically new situation—with new problems, new questions, new opportunities, and new requirements.”

It seems to me that this is where we are. This can no longer be a teeter-totter time of one side over the other, but instead an agreement to clear the obstacles to unity in a way that really brings us new problems, opportunities, and requirements – for the world and our hearts are in need of such healing. And, I think that is the gift of this GA – the chance to heal and love one another, as God loves us. Let us ratify that by whatever we might do.

Let this be so as we move forward. Let us give thanks for all our sisters and brothers, and, thanks, especially to you your faithfulness, courage, and love for all whom God has created and called.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Myth 5: We Can Accept Compromise...

My purpose in writing this series of essays has been to share with you my personal and critical process in thinking through, again, the need for deleting G-6.0106b from the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I do not write on behalf of any progressive group. I recognize each of the organizations, supporting some positions more than others. Still, I persist in reiterating the need and responsibility we have for all progressive groups to be one family for justice as the Church of Jesus Christ – especially at this General Assembly. I hope this and my other pieces over the last three months have been helpful in your reflections and processes, as well.

As a gay man and an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament, I know first-hand the struggle to navigate our system weighted heavily against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Community (LGBT/Q2). As an openly gay candidate who refused to abide by G-6.0106b and was, nonetheless, ordained, I understand and accept the consequences of such moral decisions. I have been witness to the power of a presbytery refusing to accept unjust standards against others and me. I have been touched by the courage of a community to call me and initiate my ordination, saying to others who they were in the process. I have been part of what takes place when we step out of the way of the Spirit and join together – differences and all -- to practice our faith in worship, prayer, voice, and action. I have watched differences fade once they were rejected as obstacles to justice. I have seen more love and more light emerge. And, I know there is much more to do.

Aside from the difficulty we have had in joining together as one progressive group, what is it that makes anything other than the deletion of G-6.0106b a just recommendation to the committees and the plenary? Why not one galvanized presence? Aren’t we the best ones to offer such a call to action? I wonder even more what makes some groups willing to propose recommendations that involve more processes and litigation rather than simply eliminate the dividing line? I wonder how any of us can survive more violence against LGBT/Q2 folks as an acceptable expense on the way to one day becoming truly inclusive.

I have always believed that if we could just find the singular strand that has been the coiled bondage around justice – that once removed -- Justice (the Holy Spirit) would flow freely and with real winds for change.

So what holds us back from coming together as one? Why continue to dodge the Spirit?

I’ve asked and attempted to address this before. Even now, I keep trying to hone in on the causative factor that separates us in our positions and degrees of (im)patience for change.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the real cause of the challenge to full inclusion is such anathema to the idea of being Christian that we refuse to or simply cannot see it. It is at the root of our church, systematic and pervasive. It is more than homophobia or gender bias. It is a sickening, pogramatic, and institutionally endorsed disdain and fear of folks who are LGBT/Q2. It is so deeply ingrained in the institution of the PC(USA) that we accept G-6.0106b in our Book of Order and resist constitutional change with alternatives or dismissals. The fear and disdain toward the LGBT/Q2 community are so matter-of-fact a part of the order of church business that they have become very nearly indiscernible from the institution, itself. If we are seeking reasons for the flight of many from religion and the irrelevancy of the church in the lives of the masses, I would start here as the primary source of the exodus. Folks outside the church often see our own bigotry more clearly than we do.

To be a church and to have laws on the books used to exclude LGBT/Q2 folk as fully integrated families and members, refusing them equal access to the benefit and servanthood of membership and leadership within the church – says much that is unfaithful about us, I think.

It is a disease of fear that surrounds us. A sickness perpetuated by the institution. And whatever hope we have for changing this illness hinges on what we do in the next two weeks about G-6.0106b.

I’ve tried this, always with the same results. Try naming a reason for considering the prospect of keeping G-6.0106b in the Book of Order that isn’t fear-based in one way or another. If you think you find one, please send it to me:

I have come to an assessment that the reason we have alternative proposals and overtures to offer this assembly is, in part, to address the different levels of fear. Are we trying to find an acceptable level of fear? Are we afraid of the consequences of embracing the Holy Spirit and placing everything at risk as a sign of our faith and trust? Are we committed to such a degree for those we have been called to set free?

We simply cannot be limited by fear.

Yet, we are, I think. We chart slower more involved paths: propose scrupling, differently worded amendments, test court cases, additional language to assuage the fear – alternatives so we don’t scare anyone away. We become a chorus of different voices with a tune no one can follow well; the same strategy, by the way, which is often used by some to undermine progress.

We know that the only real neutralizer to fear is Love (God).
  • Not “We love you but hate your sin.”
  • Not, “We love you, just give us more time to trust you.”
  • Not, “We love you, so if you can find a way to make it through these hoops that no one else needs to get through, then we will ordain you.”

And certainly not, “We love you, and so does God,” for love that excludes can never be equated with the Love of God.

The courage of Love is the answer. That’s the best I can do. We are really engaged in an epic struggle between love and fear. Every tenet of our faith calls us not to worry and trust in God. Still, many resist.

Simply, the human and spiritual price is too high for this church to accept fear, unwittingly or otherwise demanding that our LGBT/Q2 sisters and brothers live their lives in suffering, seated patiently at the table as a sign of faithfulness to God.

That’s not the table Jesus set. That’s the table Jesus overturned!

The choices: Fear (Sickness) or Love (Justice). Will this be the assembly that re-energizes the course of Love or builds up the walls of fear?

For me, anything other than the deletion of G-6.0106b is a step toward ensuring Fear’s dominance in the PC(USA). It is a sad day, indeed, every day that G-6.0106b is in our Book of Order.

How am I so sure? Well, it always comes down to this for me:

If we are able to look our LGBT/Q2 sisters and brothers in the eyes, and from deep in our hearts say to them, “Just wait a while longer” or “G-6.0106b should remain because…” then we, too, have been dulled by fear. We have forgotten the price of being LGBT/Q2 in this church. For me, once that memory is gone, anything goes.

So, once again, I pray for an act of the Spirit to bring all the progressive groups together at the General Assembly and with one voice call simply and clearly for the deletion of G-6.0106b, along with related guidance and interpretations that group people who are LGBT/Q2 into the category of: “To be feared.”

I believe that the most important work in the history of the progressive movement for LGBT/Q2 folk and this church will begin following a vote to change the constitution. We will need to organize and travel to every presbytery and church that will have us to show how we are ministers of Love and Hope and Healing. Let us finish this, so we can begin being mission to all.

Please, accept no compromise or other name for fear – even for the smallest of whiles. God bless you all in these and the times ahead.