There are so many things that are going on in this world, it is often hard to make sense. Whether it is gun violence, immigration, discrimination, or even political discourse, I believe that the underlying problem of our society is the fact that we have dehumanized our neighbors to the point where we can make the assertion that one life is better than another.
If we really want to be honest about the Ten Commandments, all of them are about being part of the community and respecting others for who they are, and looking inward to ask ourselves how we are embodying the faith that we are called to follow. It is noteworthy that within the Ten Commandments themselves, there is no judgment, just an expectation of how we are called to live.
So, when I was asked to host the Transgender Day of Remembrance in November, I said yes without hesitation. As I walked through the sanctuary, my heart was pained because hanging on the walls were pictures of transgendered people who had been murdered or committed suicide. These were people others had decided were subhuman or not whole—so much so, they could judge them and either exterminate them or force them to kill themselves. What was so disturbing was knowing the history and the role faith has played in so much of that judgment.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have historically had real issues with accepting people of sexual minorities. In our tradition, this discrimination is mostly based in theological writings and practices that are not biblically based. In fact, the “biblical” insights that discuss sexual minorities are a very small number of passages.
The interesting thing about those passages is that their interpretation is often taken out of the context in which they are found. For example, the decree in Leviticus is not in the sections on sexuality, but in the religious practice section, alluding to other common religious practices where sex was regularly part of worship. It is interesting that our denomination, and most mainline churches for that matter, split over these interpretations.
What makes it all the more interesting is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, the first gentile baptized. It was fairly common that royalty would have eunuchs in their court. Often they would have fairly high positions, as is the case in this story, where this man was a court official to the queen.
What I find most interesting thing about the story of the Ethiopian eunuch is how unremarkable it is. At its core, it is merely a story of a man struggling with scripture. The Spirit guides Philip to engage the man, they have a Bible study of sorts, the man comes to believe and is baptized.
As you can see, it is fairly routine. Many of us have had similar experiences when sharing the Good News of Christ. What makes this story so remarkable, beyond the fact that this was the first baptism of a non-Jew, was that he was a sexual minority that would have been excluded from most religions at that time. Some write it off a coincidence, but the Bible always has a deeper meaning in what it is doing. Here it is clear that the point the Bible is making is that no matter where someone is coming from, they can be welcomed into the faith.
This is one of the great tensions of faith: we have to name our prejudice and admit that it is based in our desire for power and control in this world. Unfortunately, the more power and control we have, the more our egos make us act like we are gods ourselves, determining who is worthy and who is not.
It is interesting that my father, who grew up in a very conservative German Lutheran (now Missouri Synod) church, believes that if someone asks to be baptized, they should be baptized right away and that any believer should be able to do it, because it’s ultimately God, not the individual that is doing the baptism. I tend to agree, but this is dangerous, because it means that we have to trust that the Spirit is really at work and put aside our prejudice.
We are called to be the church, a church that is not guided by the whims of individuals but by the discernment of the Holy Spirit—a Holy Spirit that calls us to welcome all, especially the Ethiopian eunuch.
A eunuch is a male who has been rendered incapable of procreation through some form of castration.
Picture is from wikipedia.com and is an Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
Like the Hawaiian greeting "Aloha" or the Hebrew "Shalom," the greeting “Peace be with you” is a common way that Christians introduce themselves into an everyday situation as well as depart from it. I began to think of this phrase the other day when I left the hospital and out of habit, I said, “Peace be with you” to someone who was unconscious. Like many things we do, saying “Peace be with you” is something that I was taught to say, but never really gave a great deal of thought to until I decided to look it up in the Bible.
"Peace be with you" is a quintessential New Testament phrase with the only close relation in the Old Testament found in Job, which, loosely translated, says, "May you find peace in the fact that God is with you." This is not too far off from what the writers Luke and John point to in their use of "Peace be with you." In each occurrence, it is in the voice of Christ and is often linked to a deeper revelation of Christ. In John 20, in each of three appearances, the risen Lord greets the disciples with “Peace be with you.” I hope you realize the humorous nature of Christ’s appearances here, since in each one, they are behind closed doors, in the dark. Obviously, the disciples were not at peace, even though the revelation had come to fruition. Therefore, we can see the spark of irony or even humor that is found here.
Most of the other places in the New Testament this phrase appears are in the midst of the Pauline epistles. In Greek, the word “peace” is εἰρήνη. The Friburg Lexicon defines it as:
εἰρήνη, ης, ἡ peace; (1) literally, as a state of peace (LU 14.32), opposite πόλεμος (armed conflict, war); figuratively, as an agreement between persons (JA 3.18), in contrast to διαμερισμός(division, dissension); (2) as a greeting or farewell corresponding to the Hebrew word shalom: health, welfare, peace (to you) (1T 1.2); (3) as a religious disposition characterized by inner rest and harmony peace, freedom from anxiety (RO 15.13); (4) as a state of reconciliation with God (GA 5.22); (5) of an end-time condition, as the salvation of mankind brought about through Christ's reign (LU 2.14; AC 10.36).
Peace can be difficult to achieve, especially when we place ourselves in the middle of controversy or distress. If there is anything that we learn from Job or the Gospel of John, it is that peace is a function that can only result from allowing God to work his peace in this world.
Some might say, “But I do work for peace,” but here is the real kicker. In order for peace to grab hold, we need to let ourselves be given over to God, no strings attached. Granted, this is virtually impossible in the midst of our society. We operate—myself included—in the reality and complexity of our social structure, which causes us to give up peace in lieu of safety, security, and sometimes, personal comfort.
In discussing grace, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between costly grace and cheap grace. He argues that the grace God offers is a costly one, because in its end, it calls us to give everything over to God, as opposed to a cheap grace which requires nothing. Here is where peace and grace become similar, in that true peace will come only when the whole of the earth accepts and welcomes that peace. Until then, we can only work for peace in our little corner of the world.
Here in our community, putting God’s call for us to work for justice and equal voice among all its residents is one way to bring peace among us. Among many ways to bring peace to our part of the world is to reach out to others and reconcile estrangements. Opening our ears and eyes to see and hear how God is calling us is yet another, as well as changing to meet other people’s needs.
So, when we turn to each other on Sunday morning and offer peace, I hope you remember this note. I hope that you realize when we say, “Peace be with you,” we are making a pledge to work together as a community. Furthermore, we are calling each other to step out of our “box” and let the spirit of God guide us in whichever way God chooses. In this, I say: Peace be with you!
One of the most interesting things that we find in the Bible is the fact that even in its earliest story, the Bible does not trust a singular witness. It gives us back-to-back accounts of the creation; accounts, by the way, that do not really line up. The book of Deuteronomy literally means "second telling," and I can go on. One of the many things this tells us is that what we think we know is not always the whole story and sometimes it may not even be correct.
In doing a deep study of the gospels, many come to a very disturbing realization that, like the creation stories or Deuteronomy, the story does not line up. With the exception of Matthew and Luke, the timeline is not even the same. Many atheists are quick to point this out. The problem is that throughout the history of the Bible and the people of the book, a small segment of people has wanted to read the Bible as if it were a cookbook that needed to be strictly adhered to and was correct in every way. This is problematic, since there are numerous contradictions.
The Bible was written in a way that mirrors life. There is a lot of information and a lot of little things we could focus on, but when we focus on the little things, we miss the picture of the whole. In doing so, we find ourselves disconnected from the faith that we long to have. This is one of those overarching themes of the Bible and especially the gospels. While the interactions and stories of what actually happens changes a bit in the gospels, the message of Christ does not: that we need to put our trust in God first, then we will better understand what is important.
It reminds me of an old friend I had when I first started out in ministry. This man was well into his retirement years, and for the first time in his life, he was finding joy in everything that he was doing. As a young man, he had always been angry and frustrated. He self-identified as a racist, among other things, and as he put it, was a real S.O.B. Today, we might have labeled him a bully, as he was always right and one would need to watch out if they were on his wrong side.
For him, something changed after the birth of his first grandchild. As he said, “When I was younger, I was convinced that I was right and everyone that did not agree with me was wrong and needed to be made right. But I was not happy. When my grandson was born, and I felt this incredible joy, I realized that the only thing that was important was to be with him.” That changed the way he approached everything. As he took a step back from the “facts,” he realized what really was important.
By taking a step back, my friend began to see the world very differently. He realized that many of the things that he based his life upon were not the things he should have; as he said, “They were incomplete understandings.” In one of our last conversations, he let me know that his greatest regret in life was that he spent so much time focused on being right and not on being good to the people around him.
I think that is true of so many things, whether it is relationships, or the Bible, or even ourselves, when we focus on small things, we often cannot fully be who we are called to be. So, take a step back and accept your place as a child of God, and you will see things in a whole new way!
We are Easter People!!!
Every once in a while, you are called to sit back and examine your life. The other week as I was cleaning my house, out fell this obscure picture of a young man. For a moment I did not realize who it was. It was a 12- or 13-year-old in a cream sport coat and a fancy shirt. As I looked harder, this person I did not initially recognize was, in fact, me.
After the surprise wore off, I began to think of how much different I am today than I was back then, not just with physical changes, but in my intellectual and spiritual growth. While in many ways I am the same, there is no way I could ever go back. I know too much, and life’s experiences have taught me lessons that would help me make different decisions.
We are Easter people, people of the Resurrection. When we were baptized, we were initiated into the body of Christ. This means that we have been united with Christ, made one with his fold. While we hope for good in our lives here, we know because of what we have seen and heard and how we have grown in our faith that we are living our lives into the glory of something more.
Being people of the Resurrection, we are called not to be stagnant but to be ardent and active. We are not called to be separate from the world, waiting and hoping; rather, we are ever growing and changing. As it was written in the Hebrew Testament:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.”
Life is full of change and growth. Who we are today is not the same as who we were yesterday or the day before, or even tomorrow. While it is sad to let our old selves go, it is a celebration to grow in our life with Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen