Text: Mark 8:27-37
Lent invites confession. And so this morning I offer this confessional meditation. I know I have told this story to some of you, but I don’t believe I have shared it in a sermon. And if I have, then quietly raise your hands. I won’t stop but at least I’ll know I’m telling you a story you have already heard. But I caution you. Listen for a different perspective on the story.
Several years ago I was invited to be on a panel at Duke Divinity School. The topic being discussed was homosexuality and the church. No surprise there. The panel consisted of three pastors and two seminary professors. To my knowledge, I was the only non-heterosexual panelist; but not the only participant who supported a biblical understanding of homosexuality that was open and affirming. The audience was Duke Divinity students. Many of them were Methodist but there was a sprinkling of other denominations. There were even a few good Baptist students in the room. One of which was the poor soul who had suggested me for the panel.
The format for the event was communicated to us ahead of time. Each of us on the panel would take ten to fifteen minutes to make an opening statement followed by an open question and answer session. There was a student moderator whose responsibility it was to direct the question and answer session. Each of the panelist did, what I thought, was a good job speaking on the topic as it related to their context with personal stories mixed in. The entire panel supported, at the very least, an open and inclusive approach to the importance of people of faith discussing the issue of homosexuality and the church actually in the church. Not all the panelists were in the same place, there were varying degrees of acceptance and comfort, but all were respectful of one another.
As the question and answer time approached you could feel the anticipation building in the room. What would the first question be and to whom would it be addressed? Well, I can’t remember to whom the first question was addressed to, maybe to no one specifically, but I do remember the question. A young male student stood and said, “But what about what the Bible says about homosexuality? It clearly says it’s wrong.” Again, I can’t remember who, but someone on the panel addressed his question citing the complexity of interpreting scripture. Next question. Another young man rises to his feet and asks, “What about the book of order? It says that homosexuality is wrong.” A retired Methodist minister on the panel took that question. Third question. A young woman asked, “What advice would you give us as young pastors on how to lead our churches in discussing homosexuality?” There were several good responses to her question. Then the next question, another student rises to his feet: “But what about what the Bible says about homosexuality? It clearly says it’s a sin.” Now it’s my turn to respond. I said, “You know the Bible speaks to a very specific context—to a very specific culture, in a very specific historical context.” I was trying to emphasize what all seminary students learn—that when it comes to biblical interpretation there are a number of ways to read the Bible. There is the historical-critical method, form criticism, textual criticism, source criticism, liberationist and feminist approaches, just to name a few. As an example, I offered the fact that the Bible condones slavery but now, in the 21st century, given our historical context we know that slavery is wrong. After that there were a couple more questions before once again another student rose to his feet and said, emphatically, “The Bible says that homosexuality is a sin and we have to accept that.” To which I sat straight up in my seat, leaned forward and said, “And when are we ever going to admit that on some things the Bible simply got it wrong.” There was one lone gasp followed by a deafening silence. And with that exchange all of the air in the room was sucked out. Without meaning to, I had just ended the question and answer session. The student moderator quickly brought the session to a close. As I was leaving, a student said to me, and I quote, “You better be careful walking to your car. Someone might throw rocks at you.” She wasn’t joking.
I learned two things that day. First, when you are invited to speak somewhere know your audience and know the norms for conversation. And second, and a far more important learning is that maybe the Bible doesn’t get it wrong as much as we get it wrong. After reflecting on that experience, I realized that maybe my statement about the “Bible getting it wrong” says more about my skepticism and defensiveness of the Bible than it does about the value of the biblical text. That’s the first confession. Maybe, the real issue is that we make the Bible say what we want it to say by projecting all of our issues on it rather than trying to understand what the people who wrote the sacred text might be trying to share with us. Maybe we are so busy either fussing with the scripture or trying to protect it that we miss the essence of it.
And so, here’s my second confession. I did exactly that when I read this text from Mark. When I got to the part where Jesus rebukes Peter for having his mind set on human things rather than divine things I began fussing with the text instead of trying to listen to it. I began picking it apart rather than taking it as a whole and using the tools of biblical interpretation that I know are important. I immediately began arguing in my head with Jesus who, in this passage, seems to promote a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular—between divine things and human things. Once again, I thought, not only did the Bible get it wrong, but Jesus got it wrong, too. You see, I had come to believe the words of Abraham Heschel, that “The road to the sacred leads through the secular.” There is no sacred and secular. All of life is sacred. And when I read this text, it rubbed all of that belief wrong.
Thomas Merton said it this way: “When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children, when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet, Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash – at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, all these provide a glimpse of the cosmic [sacred] dance.” All of life is sacred.
And yet, as beautiful and inspiring and truthful and persuasive as Merton’s words are, there is still a human tendency to see the world as only open to two possibilities. As one preacher put it, “it starts innocently with sports rivalries like [the Tarheels and the Wolfpack], or ice cream flavors—chocolate or vanilla—Mac or PC, hamburgers or hotdogs. These are of course personal preferences, and no one gets hurt usually by choosing a side. But soon this tendency to examine issues as if they only have two sides takes on higher stakes…[And before we know it] we move beyond simple preferences to opposition.” (Rev. Dr. Tyler Mayfield, assistant professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Louisville Seminary) Democrat versus Republican. Heterosexual versus homosexual. Good versus Bad. Christian versus non-Christian. Sacred versus secular.
In reading this Mark text I can choose to fuss with Jesus for rebuking Peter. I can criticize Jesus for setting up what I consider to be a false dichotomy that is not helpful or accurate. Or I can choose to try and understand the essence of what Jesus might have been trying to help Peter understand, and therefore us. That to follow him means to see both/and – to be fully human, to care about the cares of our world, to grieve the loss of a teacher and friend; AND to be awake to the divine, to know that we are not limited by our physical condition, that we are more than our jobs and our bills and even our dreams.
When I first read the text, all I could hear was the dichotomy – this OR that, human OR divine, save your life or lose your life – and I felt an old, dreaded pressure to choose. But that was me projecting onto Jesus, not what Jesus was saying. Jesus was saying don’t get stuck in the circumstances, don’t get attached to the outcome of today’s events, don’t forget that you are divine, and that in that divinity, you are safe, you are loved, we are together, and God is here.
I wonder what difference it might make in our lives if we saw all things as sacred? If we truly believed that the road to the sacred is through the secular? Or to put it another way: How would we be a different people if we truly believed that the way to set our minds on divine things is to be who God created us to be—fully human? And that the divine things and the human things are inexplicably connected to one another. What if it is through our human vulnerability that we come to know true security in our intimacy with God and one another, and through humanity’s sin that we fully know grace upon grace, and through our human tiredness that we know something about Sabbath, and through our collective pain we come to know inner joy that is not dependent on outer circumstances, and through our human frailty we know God’s strength, and through all that is real and present to us in the here and now we see God and God’s love for us. And is this not the path to saving our souls—to lose ourselves in our own human vulnerability, sin, tiredness, pain, and human frailty so that God’s love, grace, joy, and strength may be made real to us and in us.
As we live in this season of reflection we might ask ourselves, “Where do we promote dualistic thinking in the everyday? How do we divide our lives into sacred and secular? How do we divide ourselves into divine and human? What would it be like to trust that we are both, and that only in our fullest embrace of both can we know either? How would it feel to hold both/and? We are both divine and human. And the path to the sacred is through the secular. It is one.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop fussing with the biblical text. Actually, I don’t think I should. AND, part of my Lenten discipline this year is to fuss less with the details and listen more for the essence of this beautiful and wise text of my faith.