Archive for February, 2014

There are only eight Bible verses that directly speak about same-sex relations. But since these relations create enormous anxiety in many human cultures, the are sometimes called “the Big Eight.” I include my comments, which are a bit lengthy, as a reference for folks who wonder about my reading of the Bible around same-sex relations. This is a much longer piece than I posted earlier, and looks at each of the eight passages, as well as making some contextual observations.


February 20, 2014

 “A Biblical response to same-sex sexual relationships

Vernon Keith Rempel


The general direction of this informal Biblical study is this:  In specific verses, the Bible seems to condemn the expressions of same-sex genital-sexual intercourse to which the writers address themselves.  These expressions of same-sex sexual intercourse occur in the context of generational patriarchy (Hebrew culture), ritual prostitution (Hebrew holiness code), and idolatry and licentiousness (Paul’s letters). 


But for me, a question is raised because I know people who I have every reason to consider brothers and sisters in Christ who are also gay and lesbian, and sexually active in responsible, loving relationships.  In light of this social context – ie. the people I know –  the question opens up: What does the Spirit of Christ, whose character we know from the Bible, say today in our context, specifically in answer to these gay men and lesbian women.  Are there Biblical and pastoral reasons for the modern church to say something in addition to the instances of rejection of same-sex genital-sexual intercourse in the Bible?  I think there are.


The eight primary Bible texts that refer to same-sex genital intercourse

Toward answering this question, I would like to begin by considering the eight direct references to same-sex sexual attraction in the Bible, with preliminary comments about the contexts of the Hebrew and Greek testaments.  The eight passages are:  Genesis 19:4-11; Judges  19:16-26; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13-14; Deuteronomy 23:17-18; Romans 1:26-27; I Corinthians 6:9; and I Timothy 1:10. 


Hebrew Testament context

The  accounts of the creation are of particular importance in understanding the Biblical culture and sexual relations. So before considering the verses that directly address same-sex relations, here are some additional passages to consider.


Genesis 1:27,28.  God created humans in the image of God, male and female.  And they are blessed to be fruitful and multiply.   Not having children was considered a curse in the Hebrew culture.  Making wombs fruitful that were barren was a paradigm of God’s redeeming work (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah).  The absence of marriage and child-bearing was a sign of doom for Israel (Jer. 16:1-4).  To marry and deliberately not have children was unknown in Hebrew culture.  Contraceptive drugs, methods, and surgery would have been alien.  God punished Onan for failing to carry out the levirate law by refusing to bear children with his deceased brother’s wife (Gen. 38:8-10).   In light of these few references it seems likely that “be fruitful and multiply” meant, at least in large part, to perform the sexual seed function of bringing forth offspring.[1]   This was done by the man placing seed in the woman.   Any kind of sexual activity that was not oriented at least in a general way toward procreation (multiplying) was alien to this creation blessing, including same-sex genital-sexual relations.


Genesis 2:20-24.  The woman (Hebrew “ishshah”) is created to be a partner with the man (Hebrew “ish”).  The fabric of creation is that the man and woman become one flesh, to join in a “covenant” with each other.[2]  Here the emphasis is not on procreation but rather on sexual companionship in every sense:  physical, social, spiritual.


Singleness, to deliberately live a single life without heterosexual union, is not reflected here.  To refuse to marry would have been the rare exception to the rule, since marriage was the primary social location, the place of economic and generational well-being.[3]   The creation account does not say “if you’re going to have sex, get married.”  (Paul says that, all the while supporting singleness as the preferred situation.)  The creation account reflects marriage and heterosexual union.  It is a paradigm and background metaphor for the Hebrew text and for Hebrew society.


The Hebrew texts that directly address same-sex sexual intercourse

Genesis 19:4-11; Judges  19:16-26

In the Genesis account, Sodom is a wicked city (Gen. 13:13).  What was its wickedness?  The kings of Sodom behave like the other kings of the region, warring with each other.  But Sodom is singled out because Abram’s nephew Lot pitched tents near it (13:12), and then apparently lived in the city (19:2).  The story of the angel’s visit to Sodom (ch. 18,19) illustrates what’s wrong with the city.  It is a violent, perverse, inhospitable city.  So much so, that all (19:4) the men of the city wish to rape the angels (male – 18:2) visiting.[4]   This incident is an example of Sodom’s wickedness, perhaps a particularly loathsome case for those who included the story in the Hebrew scriptures.  Sodom is then totally destroyed and stands ever after as a sign of how wickedness is punished (Deut. 29:23, Isa. 1:9, Mt. 10:15 etc.).[5] 


Our culture has given the name “sodomy” to any sexual intercourse regarded as abnormal, most often between men or with animals (heterosexual and lesbian intercourse is not ordinarily called “sodomy” even in forms that might be called “abnormal” by popular definition.)


The story in Judges is similar in that men of a town of the tribe of Benjamin wish to rape a male house guest, a Levite (19:22).  This time the host’s virgin daughter and the guest’s concubine are offered.  The men refuse but the guest puts his concubine out to them anyway and they sexually abuse her to the point of death.  In response, the Levite incites all Israel to war against the tribe of Benjamin and it is punished at the point of the sword.


Affectionate same-sex sexual relations obviously are not reflected in either of these texts.  Rather it is same-sex rape.  Historically, victorious men in battle have expressed dominance over the vanquished men by raping them.  This is the type of act contemplated here:  violent sexual abuse of men by other men through sexual rape.  This does not mean the text has nothing to do with sexual desire.  But whatever it is, it is not love, but rather violence that is expressed in this story.


Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Deuteronomy 23:17-18

These three passages all are part of the holiness and priestly traditions of the Hebrew law.  The first, Lev. 18:22, occurs in a chapter on sexual relations addressed to men (except vs. 23b).  It forbids in the strongest terms men having sexual intercourse with men, calling it an “abomination” (toevah).


The second, Lev. 20:13, comes in the context of various sexual offenses deserving the death penalty:  adultery, incest with daughter-in-law or mother-in-law, male-male sexual intercourse.  Several other offenses follow that deserve cutting the offenders off from the people:  incest with sister, aunt, or sister-in-law, sexual relations during menstruation.  Here again, the same-sex genital intercourse is termed “abomination” (toevah).


Toevah[6] is a strong term of rejection.  Depending on the context, it carries ritual, legal, or ethical meaning, including offering of children as sacrifice (Deut. 12:31) and to describe unclean animals (Deut. 14:3 – eg. camel, hare, rock badger, pig).  The question for us today is, of course, what is still legitimately toevah to us, and what no longer makes sense to reject in such strong terms.


The Deuteronomy passage is part of a mix of injunctions.  Chapter 23  begins with an injunction against allowing eunuchs in the assembly and deals with a variety of mixes, imperfections, and uncleanness as well as a few comments on international relations.  In the passage under consideration, “kadesh” is a key  word.  It  is translated “temple prostitute” in the NRSV.  The KJV translation is “whore” (female, 17a) and “sodomite” (male, 17b).  The other word in question, “keleb,” literally means “dog.”  It is translated as “male prostitute” in the NRSV and “dog” in the KJV.  Daughters and sons of Israel were not to be temple prostitutes, nor were they to bring monies earned from prostitution to the temple “in payment for any vow” (NRSV).


The same-sex genital-intercourse described here is same-sex prostitution.  Such acts would have been (among other reasons?) a fixture in certain ancient-near-eastern religions as a sort of “sympathetic magic” aimed at “reactivating the natural forces of life.”[7]



Greek Testament context

With Jesus and Paul, both single men, the Genesis structure of marriage and family is no longer the fundamental social/spiritual metaphor.  This is replaced by the community of the Spirit.  All three synoptic gospels record that Jesus considered his true kindred to be “Whoever does the will of God…” (Mk. 3:35).  This of course does not mean that Jesus rejected marriage and family out of hand.  Rather, it is a point of emphasis:  Jesus’ highest value was God’s community, not ordinary family life.  Where these conflicted, Jesus was clear, eg.:  “Let the dead bury their own dead…” (Lk. 9:60).


For Paul, being single best served the gospel (1 Cor. 7:1-9; 32-38).  He made concessions for the sake of satisfaction of sexual desire (7:9), but they were only concessions, not blessings.  Paul knew the rigors of the radical call of the gospel and believed they were best served with few concerns for “the affairs of the world” (7:33,34).


Not only did family lose pride of place in the Greek Testament, so did Hebrew law.  Baptism replaced circumcision as the defining act of membership in the children of God, thus enfranchising both foreigners (the nations, Greeks) and women.  Food that was an “abomination” to the ancient people was offered to Peter on a sheet to signify that the old Hebrew boundaries needed to give way to the new community in the Spirit (Acts 10).  And a eunuch is brought into the “assembly” after all (this was forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1 but reversed in Isaiah 56:4,5)[8], now by way of baptism (Acts 8:26-40).  In the Greek Testament, Hebrew family and law may continue to exist, but they are no longer the defining institutions.  Rather it is the community of the Spirit of Christ celebrated in a baptism which particularly rejoiced in the breaking down of old divisions:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).


In the broad scope of creation, sin, and redemption, it would not be too much to say that Christ’s redemption results in a new social paradigm and metaphor, that of the body of Christ or community of the spirit.  This replaces the ancient sexual/familial pattern of marital patriarchy as the central definition of human relations in the character of God, now known in Jesus Christ.[9]



The Greek texts that directly address same-sex sexual intercourse

Romans 1:26-27

In his first chapter of Romans, Paul is arguing for the universality of the gospel.  All people may know God through God’s creation (1:20).  So nowhere does wickedness have an excuse.  People could have honored God.  But they did not and became “futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21).  “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images”… (1:23).  “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity”… (1:24)  “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions”… (1:26).  These degrading passions included same-sex intercourse.  The people incurred a penalty “in their own persons” for it.  And furthermore “They were filled with every kind of wickedness”… (1:29).


Here is the only place in the Bible where female same-sex sexual attraction is explicitly addressed.  Male or female, the reason people turned to such practices is because they did not acknowledge God.  As one commentator puts it “What [Paul] discusses here is same-sex practices which are both idolatrous and lustful.”[10]  Paul clearly considers this same-sex sexual attraction to be a leading example of the peoples’ idolatry.


I Corinthians 6:9, I Timothy 1:10

In I Corinthians, the Greek words in question are “malakoi” and “arsenokoitais,” both rendered “sexual perverts” in the RSV and “male prostitutes (malakoi), sodomites” (arsenokoitais) in the NRSV.  The context is Paul’s rebuke of the people for taking their disputes outside the church to settle them.  He calls this “wrong” (6:8) and then proceeds to list other wrongs which will keep people from inheriting the kingdom of God:  fornication, idolatry, adultery, male prostitution, sodomy, thievery, greed, drunkenness, reviling, robbing.[11]


Arsenokoitais” is the word used in I Timothy, translated “sodomites” in the RSV and NRSV.  The context is that some people, desiring to be teachers of the law (vs. 7), have pursued “speculations” (vs. 4).  Possibly this was  a Jewish gnosticism which would promote an elaborate, speculative cosmology over against a practical faith.[12] Against this, the writer argues that instruction in law is good if its goal is “love” (vs. 5).  The law can support acceptable social behavior.[13]  A list of vices, shared by pagan, Jewish, and Christian writers, is included to illustrate wrong behavior.  This list includes “sodomites.” (NRSV)



Summary of the eight passages

All eight of these Biblical passages condemn the same-sex sexual attraction to which they address themselves.  In the Hebrew Testament, two passages concern rape.  One refers to cultic prostitution.  One passage is a general prohibition, as part of the holiness code.  In this passage same term is used to reject same-sex sexual attraction and unclean animals.  In the Greek Testament, all direct references occur in Paul’s letters, none in the gospels.  In Romans, Paul considers homosexulity a result of idolatry.  In other places, it is a part of a list of vices.  It is not discussed, but only listed.



What would Paul do if….?

Paul’s writings will raise the question of the acceptability of same-sex sexual attraction most forcefully for Mennonites, who have high regard for the priority of the Greek Testament over the Hebrew Testament (although we have also tended to give the gospels, especially the sermon on the mount, priority even over Paul, if not formally, then in practical usage).


So regarding Paul, and as another way of framing the question, I think it is interesting to ask: “What if Paul knew of a same-sex couple who was apparently of the Spirit of Christ in their every intent and commitment?  As I stated at the beginning of the study, this is my experience.  So I wonder, how would Paul have responded?


First of all, it is possible that Paul would consider same-sex sexual attraction a moral defect in an otherwise Spirit-filled person.  In that case I think he would argue that the person should abstain from sexual intercourse.


Or, secondly, as with eating meat fed to idols, he might consider it not intrinsically immoral, but as potentially dangerous to the life of the community.  The issue of meat was a question of cultic law.  Same-sex sexual attraction, while not only that, was perhaps partly that.  If it was like meat fed to idols to the extent that if it was not clearly a moral defect, it would be morally debatable and would have to be debated on grounds of what sustains and what endangers community.  In this case, seeing a person with same-sex sexual attraction and also Spirit-filled, he might not consider same-sex sexual attraction a moral defect but rather a hard to understand expression of nature.  He may have counseled forms of restraint or some accommodations.


He might then proceed by discerning what is best for the community.  Here he would have at least two choices.


1) He could conclude that same-sex intercourse is dangerous in a given community in light of various pastoral and mission concerns, just as he did with certain worship actions of women (eg. 1 Cor. 14:34).  In this case, he would again argue for abstinence.


2) Or, it is possible he would articulate a covenant in which people sexually attracted to their same-sex could properly enjoy sexual intercourse.  This would be a concession for same-sex intercourse, just like the one Paul gave for heterosexual intercourse, which he thought was a detraction from full concentration on the promotion of the gospel.


3)  I think it would have been outside of Paul’s ethical framework to simply affirm joyful sexual union, as we do for opposite-sex marriage (union) (and might for same-sex union).  His understanding of the urgent time in which he lived would not permit what to him seemed to be the distraction of any sexual union.



A biblical basis for loving same-sex genital relations

In a proper reading of the Bible regarding a particular issue, I think it is important to address carefully any direct references to the issue, however marginal or infrequent they may be.  The eight verses examined above do not constitute a major argument or direction in the Bible – they are only eight verses.  But they do clearly offer windows into the Biblical writers background attitudes to same-sex genital intercourse.


But what about a broader reading of the Bible?  What is the “direction of the text” or the “sense of the whole?”  Such a re-reading of the text should be familiar to Mennonites who have had to defend their rejection of violence against the panoply of violence in the Hebrew Testament, making arguments of the priority of the life of Jesus and the evidence of the first church.



Reading the Bible

First some general notes on reading the Bible.  One question is how to give the Bible authority in our lives.  Often, people have attempted to shore up Biblical authority by making assertions about the nature of the text – that it is inerrant, inspired, etc.  Some of these approach the common orthodox view of the Koran – that it is of divine origin passed untouched through human vessels.  Better than making assertions of this sort about the Bible, I think that we honor and experience the authority of the Bible when we care for what it says.  We demonstrate our care by the amount and quality of attention that we give to the Biblical text.  Amount of attention means taking time to read the text and thereby to know its content.  Quality of attention is defined by how free we are to let the text speak to us in its own terms, how much we are aware of our own context (bias), and how much we are willing to put forth effort in our reading.  Simplistic “it’s obvious” readings do not strengthen Biblical authority.  Neither des overly complicated scholarly sophistication that at the end of a large pile of words seems to have forced a meaning onto the text.  Simple, winsome readings that resonate with the authority of the Spirit of Christ are the proper goal of good interpretation.


Another consideration is that of experience.  The “three-legged stool” of authority in the Roman church was scripture, tradition, and reason.  To this, John Wesley added a fourth – experience – thus defining the Methodist quadrilateral.  Mennonites have tended to plead that we are only Biblical, offering ourselves only a one-legged stool (which certainly keeps you awake, but isn’t very stable).  But I want to apply the fourth “lateral” of Wesley to the question at hand.   Regarding same-sex sexually attracted persons, as has been also the case of divorce and remarriage and leadership by women, experience is a critical question, I think. 


I would argue that experience is always a guide to Biblical interpretation.  There have been no Bible readers anywhere, ever, that have not brought their own bias, based on experience, to the Bible.  Some students will freely acknowledge this and factor their bias into their consideration of “Biblical truth.”  Others make a claim to having absolute, heaven-sent, word-for-all-times-and-places truth.  I think such a claim is completely unsupportable.  It looks and sounds solid and important.  In fact, it amounts to nothing more than pleading for a bias, because of a desire for certainty or to support a desired social requirement.  In all human endeavors, whether religion, politics, or science, there is this reductionist impulse: “Let us discover an unarguable truth that needs no further discussion.” I do not think human beings are granted access to any such truth. Instead, we are invited to bring all of ourselves – our experience – to the table.  And then we may struggle to craft a community of understanding out of that meeting.


Regarding same-sex sexual attraction, then, I think we need to speak in a self-disclosing manner from our own experience of sexuality and from our relationships with others.  If our only experience of same-sex sexual attraction is of the chaotic, libidinous extremes that fit well into our sensationalism-addicted media environment, then the Biblical connection between “their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:21) and same-sex sexual attraction makes sense.  Or if the only gay or lesbian folks that we know personally are manipulative whiners or “poor souls” or angry cynics, then it will be more difficult to see a challenge to the Biblical understanding (although those conditions may make some sense in the midst of a society that is full of hateful speech and behavior toward gay and lesbian people).  But if we know people who seem to be wonderful, creative, constructive people who explicitly want to live Christ-like lives and at the same time are lesbian or gay in sexual orientation, then a clear challenge is posed.  The Biblical prohibitions don’t seem to fit this experience.  Experience here stands in tension with the text.


What I bring to the study of same-sex sexual attraction, among other things, is the experience of gay and lesbian friends who seem to me to be as a good or better candidates as many others to be faithful bearers of Christ’s witness in the world.  Their sexual lives are characterized by emotional and relational health.  They are contributors to church and society.  They are people I want to know and whom I want my children to know.  I want to experience their presence and gifts in my community.


This experience, then, stands as a fundamental challenge to the Biblical rejection of same-sex sexual attraction as outlined in the eight texts examined above.  I do not see my friends sexual experience reflected in those eight passages.  Rather, my mind’s eye turns to such passages as Galatians 3:28 (In Christ there is neither male nor female….); Ephesians 2:11-19 (you who were far off are brought near); Luke 10:29-37 (the good Samaritan) and so on.  In other words, I think that the Bible moves in a direction which opens the experience of Christ to all people in ways that reject many old definitions. 


And furthermore (and this is critical), the Bible does not reflect the completion of that task in the church.  What Christ begins, the church continues.  The church is in its infancy in the books that comprise the New Testament witness about the church.  It is only beginning to form. The reason we have the books that we do in the Bible is that they were close to the source, close to Jesus Christ and the first followers of Jesus Christ. But it was not the end; rather it was the beginning. It is the foundational and first word of our tradition, but not the total word. For that, we must look to our daily lives as we seek to live out the Word in our communities and relationships today.


In our day, in our turn as members of this movement called the church, we ask ourselves how we may live in the same Spirit as the early church.  What will we reject and accept?  Which old barriers are false?  What is harmful in our day?  Who do we want to embrace as bearers of the Spirit of Christ in the world today?

            1) It is possible to interpret “be fruitful and multiply” in a more general sense, but this does not seem to me to be the sense of the text

            2) Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation commentary) p.47

            3) One example of this is the legal protection of widows and orphans, who were economically marginalized without family, and therefore required special care.

            4) This story is a particularly terrifying account of the place of women in that society.  Lot offers the rapacious men a true prize, two virgin daughters.  That he offers them, even in their prized virginity, is a sign of his hospitality to his guests.  But it is also a sign that the daughters, although prized, were subordinate and could be countenanced by Lot as “bargaining chips.”  Phyllis Trible discusses both this and the story in Judges 19 in her book Texts of Terror.

            5) Usually the reference is to the sin of “Sodom and Gomorrah.”  These were apparently twin cities of the region.

            6) Brown, Driver, Briggs, p. 1072

            7) Ronald E. Clements.  Deuteronomy in New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 462

            8) Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (Old Testament Library), p. 313 makes this connection.  Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says that eunuchs “shall not be cut off”, if they keep God’s commands, whereas this was the law in Deut. 23:1.

            9) See Walter Wink’s discussion of Jesus’ challenge to what Wink calls “The Domination System”, including the domination by patriarchy in families – The powers that be, pp. 75ff.

            10) See bibliography:  England, p. 32

            11) See Markus Barth’s discussion of “catalogical parenesis” or “exhortation by catalog”, in Anchor Bible “Ephesians 4-6, pp. 550ff.

            12) Harper’s Comment. p. 1238

            13) Harper’s Comment. p. 1238

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Thursday Circle Focus Piece – February 13, 2014


Everything is Going to be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

—Derek Mahon, New Collected Poems, 2011.



Bible passage

Psalm 16:4-11 (vkr paraphrase)

When we choose illusion and distortion, we multiply our sorrows:

trying to take satisfaction in violence,

controlling and dominating each other

       with secrets and manipulation.


I want to take the deep reality of life as my food and drink;

Your holy reality is my fate and my life.


My place in life has become most wonderful.

I live in such a joyful stream of life.


I am glad to learn from what is true, from the True One;

Even in the night when the heart wants to be afraid,

       I learn good lessons from my sacred Teacher.


This is what I always pay attention to:

the Holy One of love beside me,

I will be strong like a calm rock in turbulent water.


Therefore, my heart is glad,

and my soul rejoices;

my body also rests secure.


In this great love, I will not ever be lost,

nor given up to a blank and empty end.


You show me the path of life.

In your presence there is fullness of joy;

In fact, in this great love, there will be goodness forever.



Questions for reflection

1) What great love or sense of “everything is going to be all right” do you have in your life today?








2) What fears do you tend to carry with you? Is there one thing you can do, one person with whom you could connect to help diminish one of your fears?







3) “There will be dying”; there is also “a riot of sunlight”. What do these sort of meditations bring to mind for you today?







Created by Vernon K. Rempel, D.Min. 2014 vkrempel@gmail.com


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Theme: Hope of things to come

Meditation title: Alienation or Hope?

6th Sunday after Epiphany; February 16, 2014

For First Mennonite Church of Denver

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2014


Bible reading: Romans 14:7-8 (vkr paraphrase)

We do not live alienated and alone, and we do not die alienated and alone. If we live, we live in the shared Spirit of Christ, and if we die, we die in the shared Spirit of Christ; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we remain with the great fellowship of the Spirit of Christ.


Inspired by Speaking Christian, chapters 19-21




Rapture Games

Before there were the Hunger Games

       there were the Rapture Games!


When I was in 6th grade,

       I went to church camp at Scott Lake state park

              in north-western Kansas (north of Garden City,

                      if that helps you!)


There, we were given a friendly but firm

       dose of what Marcus Borg calls “Heaven-Hell”

              Christianity, in his book Speaking Christian.


We heard presentations from missionaries to Africa

       who told us about bringing the light of Christ

              to the unsaved.


They invited us to consider whether this might also

       be our calling.




I considered tropical climates with

constricting or poisonous snakes

              and large spiders to not be my calling.



At least I hoped not, and I had a very hard time

       truly remaining open to the calling of God

              on this subject.


They reinforced their point by bringing the excitement

       of giant boa constrictor snake skins

              and showing pictures of happy people

                      in alternative forms of dress

                             and alternative housing.


None of this made the case for me.

       But the point was, they needed Jesus

              or they were going to hell.


And the point was also made – so were we.

       We were going to hell, unless we confessed our sins,

              and invited Jesus into our hearts.


This was reinforced nightly at campfires,

       which were a time of light-hearted skits,

              and also insistent reminders of the fires of hell.


This point was helped by having the campfire warmly

       burning in front of you.

              It was fine from a distance,

                      but you don’t want God dropping you into it!


The really neat thing, however, was that if you believed,

       then when Jesus returned to earth

              for something called the rapture,

                      you would have your ticket to heaven.




The rapture was a big deal.

       It was the end of all this mess.

              And right believers would go to heaven.


And the clincher was that if you didn’t repent and believe,

       you would be left behind.


We even sang a Larry Norman song

“I wish we’d all been ready”

which had the haunting line
       “You’ve been left behind”

                            to help get the full picture

in our heads and hearts.


It was at this camp that I learned that

       you could play rapture as a prank

              on your cabin mates.


The way it worked was that everybody

       except one person

              (and I truly hope it was not a person

              who already felt bullied; I’d had enough

              of that myself in 4th and 5th grades)


again, everyone was in the plan except one.

       On the chosen morning, everyone would

              get up extra early


for some reason, the rapture was most effective

       as a first thing in the morning kind of event –

              probably because the rapture was for hardworking

                      early-to-rise Christians

                             not late-night party animals


So everyone would get early,

       fold their bed-clothes on their beds –

              again, the rapture is for the orderly hard-working types

and leave the cabin.


Then, ideally, there was a trumpet to sound

       or at least some good imitation.


The victim of the prank would jump out of bed

       think he’d been “Left Behind”

              -just like the song!-

                      and would have a momentary freak-out

                             until everyone came piling back in

                                    for a good laugh. Ha… Ha…


This is the sine qua non future scenario

       for “Heaven-Hell” Christianity.

              We learned it well.

                      It got more than one youth to say

                             words of belief.




Left Behind

More recently there’s been much for

       extensive play made with the rapture

              in the popular Left Behind book series.


The interesting thing to me is that there seems to be

       a much more interesting story on evil violent

              earth than in loving heaven.


Always the case, I guess.

       Like Leo Tolstoy wrote:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina)


You don’t hear of anything interesting from those

       who were raptured. They just hang

              out and eat grapes.





But there’s a lot interest on earth! War! Violence!

              Best of all, it’s redemptive violence

by those who repent

                            against Satan and evil forces.


Even better, Jesus is back, and this time he pulls out

       the big weapons, gets that cosmic soldier thing going.


Kind of like Lord of the Rings for “Heaven-Hell” Christianity

       only with Jesus instead of Gandalf,

              and a lot more power on the side of good…


None of this sending a couple of hobbits into

       Mordor, the heart of evil,

              using weakness to destroy evil power.


That would actually be like the cross of Christ.

       Love that refuses violent dominance

              in order for love to show what it is –

                      it’s love.


And you don’t get there by smacking

       everybody down. You get their by love.

              Love is the path. Not just the end of the path.


But in the Left Behind series with its fever dreams

of post-rapture tribulation,

Jesus takes down evil like Captain America

                     takes down evil – shock and awe, baby.


Borg points out that the whole idea of the rapture

       is a recent idea in Christianity,

              originating with John Nelson Darby

                      and his Scofield Bible

                             with it’s history divided into dispensations.


There were various dispensations,

       such as creation, the law, grace in Christ,

              the church, but the final one was rapture.





I call our old rapture game

“Fear, and fun in the face of fear”

       And it was all about us versus them,

              part of the big fear scenario.


The thing about the rapture theology is that

       it emphasizes that humanity is divided in two.

              There are those taken and those left behind.


Kind of like the old song
       One door and only one and yet the sides are two

              I’m on the inside, on which side are you?


Yikes! “I’m on the inside.”

       Like a mechanic listening to a sputtering engine,

I want to “There’s your problem”.


“I’m on the inside!” Don’t know about you.

       Now to be fair, I know that the people who

              taught this song in my childhood

                      were kind, only meant the best,

                             and were great-hearted in hospitality.


But what lyrics for a children’s song!

       The goal of course was to promote

              being on the good path, rather than

                      the path of destruction.


But inside and outside. That can quickly grow up

       and morph into a church were we can exclude some folks

              because “we’re on the inside” and they

                      don’t deserve to be on the inside.




It can quickly grow up from being a children’s song

       taught by kindly people into

              a church that owns Jesus Christ,

                      and maybe also America is better

                             than everyone else.


We’re on the inside of democracy.

       On which side are you?



Dichotomy is a dangerous thing.

       Like I noted last Sunday,

              groups of people always land on the outside:


Women, people of various sexual orientations,

       racial/ethnic minorities, even majorities like

              the majority of very impoverished or relatively

                      impoverished people in the world.


Those on the inside of the global economic system

       are not a majority excluding a minority,

              but rather a powerful few getting it

                      and hanging on to it.


As Borg notes, God’s dream is not punitive justice,

       but distributive justice (p137)


Punitive justice likes dichotomies.

       You figure out who’s on the outside and

              needs to be punished and then you go after them.


Distributive justice is a much more difficult

       and much more satisfying process

              of seeking the good for many,

                      in fact seeking the good for all


Because which one of God’s creatures

       will not God seek to love and support

              in transformation?


And will this love end shortly?

       Will God really leave us with a permanent

              rapture-inaugurated eternal dichotomy?


As Borg says “I think not.” (p195)

       He puts this point perhaps most strongly of any points

              he makes in the book:

He writes: “There will be no rapture. Christianity’s goal is not escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better.” (p193)


So rapture is dichotomy, complete with punishment,

       and what’s worse, it can support lack of care

              for the world.


Ultimately, the fate of the world matters not,

       because Christians get in their escape pods

              and head for the sky,

                      kind of like the wealthy people

                             in the movie Elysium.





So, the question is what gets the youth to believe

       if the rapture is not presented in all its

              fearsome glory?


And not only the youth, but any of us?

       As one pastor honestly asked Borg at a seminar,

              if we don’t have heaven and hell, what’s our product?


The question gave Borg the chance to clarify

       his own understanding.

His answer: “Our product is salvation as the twofold

transformation of ourselves and the world.”


All of us experience the existential malaise of alienation:

       what the philosophers various called numbness (Lifton), nausea (Sartre), isolation (Murakami)


We desperately need the transformation of a new

       and powerful love in our lives.

              We always drift away, always need the renewal,

                      we need to live by the stream of living water.


We do, and so does the world.

       But instead of being on the inside,

              and witnessing to others on the outside

                      we realize that change always starts with us.


As I always say, I have been amazed at how much better

       everyone else gets, when I am finally able to

              take some steps to strengthen my own

                      work and life and love.


My family gets better, friends get better,

even congress gets better!


My rabbi and teacher Ed Friedman used to say to us

       if you are preaching a sermon that the congregation

              needs to hear, throw it away.


Only ever preach sermons that you need to hear.

       It’s find if they also hear it.

              But make sure you need to hear it.


That’s a word, I think for any form of Christian witness,

       any form of change campaign,

              any call on others to do this or that.


The first question always needs to be

       to paraphrase Paul

              “Am I making peace as far as it depends upon me?”


And the deep insight is one that I’ve heard over and over

       from Parker Palmer: “We’re all in this together.”


It’s the anti-rapture insight! “We’re all in this together.”

       So how then are we going to live so that we

              can all best get on with living?


Now, it doesn’t mean we have to put up with addictions

       or passivity, or laziness, or bossiness, or cruelty,

              or abuse or anything else.


But the search for the solution is no longer

       about escape or about clearing someone out

              through excommunication or killing.


We’re all in this together. So what can we do about it?

       That’s Christianity as the twofold salvation of

              transformation of self and the world.


That’s what we have to offer our youth,

       and what we have to offer our adults,

              and anyone.





Finally, what about what happens to us when we die?

       If it’s not the rapture, what’s going to happen ultimately?


Some non-traditional scholars and leaders will say

       this doesn’t matter much.

              What matters is how we live now.


For me, how we live now is certainly at stake

       But it is inextricably woven into how we

              imagine our end and our ultimate fate and situation.


As Borg points out, in “Heaven-Hell” Christianity

       the point is to fear hell and love Jesus

              so that you can escape death and 

                     get into heaven.


He offers his alternative, which I think is lovely

       and is very much in tune with my own

              spirituality as I have come up through the decades

                      of my faith and life.


It is reflected in our Bible passage for today,

       which Borg quotes in his chapter on “heaven”

              and which I paraphrased for our use:


We do not live alienated and alone, and we do not die alienated and alone. If we live, we live in the shared Spirit of Christ, and if we die, we die in the shared Spirit of Christ; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we remain with the great fellowship of the Spirit of Christ.


In Borg’s simplest affirmation, he writes:

“What I am convinced of is this. When we die, we do not die into nothingness, but we die into God.” (p201)

And he continues:

“We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.” (p201)


And my own emphasis, which is not different from Borg’s

       but addresses the character of God:


We die into love.

We die into divine love,

the kind of love that is so far

beyond our imagining and hope,

that though we feel bathed in generous love now,

we may say, as Martin Luther did

              that we now as little about the love we will die into

              as babies knows about the life they are about

              to be born into as they come down the birth canal.


It is a great mystery. But it is not a blank mystery.

       It is a mystery in God; a mystery in love.


That is what we may affirm,

       perhaps all that we may know,

              and in its delight and joy,

                     all that we need to know.


Let’s sing together a little bit:


There’s a land that is fairer than day,

And by faith we can see it afar;

For [our Dear One] waits over the way

To prepare us a dwelling place there.



In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore;

In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

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Sin & Forgiveness

5th Sunday after Epiphany; February 9, 2014

For First Mennonite Church of Denver

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2014


Bible reading: Mark 1:14-15

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.


Speaking Christian chapters 11-17


I’m essentially going to think about the questions:

What is sin?

What is forgiveness?

And reframing those a bit.




Jesus in our gospel says repent and believe in the good news.

       But half the time, we’re not getting good news.

              We’re just feeling half bad for half living our lives.


Feeling vaguely guilty and worried

       even though we don’t really believe in hell anymore.

              Feeling stuck in some old embarrassments.


We desperately always need a real gospel

       that has the strength of love to bring joy

              back into our lives over and over.


Borg says the old heaven and hell thing

       just isn’t going to do it anymore.

              So what’s the good news and the good repentance

                      that connects us with the good news?


To begin exploring this, here is a story…


Anna Holdeman turned 90 last month.

       And part of the deal in our congregation

              is that for your 90th you get to suggest

                      a sermon or meditation topic.


Her request was the topic “white lies”

       and she has a key memory to go with this request.


First of all, let’s just do a quick cultural unpacking

       of “white lies”


The term white is fraught, in this day of the shooting

       of Trayvon Martin who was said to have “black” skin

              and was wearing a “black” hoody.


White and black are deeply and painfully racialized terms.

       So the old designation “white” lie stumbles into this

              racial context.


It’s really from the old Lord of the Rings-type universe

       in which there is Gandalf the White

              and Sauron lives in a black land


and these terms mean evil and good.

       But we’re just going to have to mix that up now.

              Because “white” and “black” are getting us

                      in big trouble these days

                             (as they have for a long time).


So let’s say a “penny” lie instead

       a lie that means no harm but is often

              done to preserve someone’s feelings.


So Anna’s story. I will read what she so

       graciously sent me.


“In the early days of my acquaintance with my husband Ivan, in my hometown of Thessaloniki (Greece), my friend Maggie invited us to her parents’ home for tea. I was very anxious for Ivan to visit her house and meet her parents. In my eyes, they had the most interesting house of all my friends. It was full of imported decorations and furnishings. I had been admiring their chandelier hanging from the foyer’s high ceiling. It was one of those chandeliers with lots of crystals hanging from it, and as soon as you entered the house, they shone like hundreds of stars reflecting from the outside light.


“After we had our visit, we all walked towards the door and stood under the chandelier. I couldn’t resist, and did not think it wrong to ask Ivan in my friends’ presence, if he didn’t think the chandelier was beautiful. He did not answer, so I asked him again, and again he did not answer but started figiting.


“Rather disappointed, I apologetically bid them good-bye and we both thanked them. Puzzled, I asked him why he did not respond to my question. His answer was that I should no be asking him questions like that…. He did not like the (expletive) chandelier! He never liked gaudy chandeliers!


“I thought I had learned my lesson then.


“Many years later, as we approached the age of the ‘wiser citizens,’ I would find my mirror rather unkind to me, and as this became rather repetitious, for consolation I asked Ivan, ‘You used to think I was cute in the early days of our marriage. Do you still think I am cute?’ He never gave an answer. He kept silent!


“(Lesson learned!).”

(And she included a picture of that kind of chandelier.)


Clear what is at stake is the difference between rules and intention. The absolute “no lying” versus the contextual question of feelings.



But there is no bright line where it’s okay and it’s not okay.

       Think about this continuum of lies.


       what are the seeds of intent

              hiding a Christmas present

                      hiding an work-place crush

                             hiding a gambling debt

                                    hiding an affair

                                           hiding a financial disaster.


At some point, it’s really wrong. But at some point it’s really okay (hiding the present – deception!)


Implication – it’s all about relationship

       More than formal rules

              It is about caring for each other’s feelings

                      at the most deep and long-lasting level.


Rules are the basis of an early form of morality

       an immature form that is not yet

              quite ready to understand relationships

                      and their implications


We need rules to begin teaching us,

       but they are not end in themselves.


In which development phase?

       Rohr stage 2 out of 9 (focus on external behavior)

       Peck stage 2 out of 4 (order)

       Fowler stage 2 out of 6(mythic-literal)

       Gilligan (between preconventional and conventional)


The question in these early stages of faith is

       Am I following the rules?


But as we mature and grow in faith, the question becomes

       are we signing up to do the work and care

              and find the joy of deep and loving

                      transformation of ourselves

                             and to act for this for others.


Loving self and loving neighbor as self, as Jesus put it.


But there is no bright line.

       Where do you draw the line?

              I have heard that so many times over the 26 years

                      I have tried to welcome folks with the

                             various sexual orientations to church.

1) there is no line, and line-drawing itself

       always leaves whoever the system is privileging

              on the inside and some good swath of

                      God’s children on the outside.


2) who am I to even think I am welcoming?

       I’m the one who needed the welcome always and today.

              Just as much as anyone else

                      the institution of having a church that is mine

                             to which I either welcome others or not

                                    is a falsehood itself


It is God’s church always and today

       and I am at the foot of the cross with everyone else

              seeking goodness and transformation


I don’t even think it’s the best theology to say

       that God welcomes us, as if God has some

              restrictive sphere into which we may or may not

                      be welcomed.


God says c’mon, what are you talking about?

       Of course – mi casa is su casa

              My house is your house.

                      It was always your house to begin with.


That’s how I create stuff. Generous and for all.

       When I rested on the 7th day, it was to take a break

              so that I could laugh and rejoice

                      at all the fun we were all going to have together.


This great loveliness and generosity

       invites us out of our early stage faith

              into something greater.


And along with this, comes a more sophisticated investigation

       into sin, into lies.


The social lies we all are telling

       Our addictions, to fossil fuel, to nuclear weapons

              to economic disparity, to hyper-security



The lies we tell that we don’t even know we’re telling.

       Our shadow selves, and the shadow of our congregation,

              and of our neighborhoods, and our nation,

                      and even the human race.


We do so like to bury things, ignore things,

       tamp down the unsavory bits.

              And then like dog kept in a sad dark kennel,

                      they jump out to bite us!


Mature faith acknowledges the unsavory bits,

       accepts the complexity and the mix,

              and takes the dog out for walk,

                      takes it all out for a walk,

                             an examination,


an “examen” as it’s called in spiritual direction.

       Getting the spiritual house in better order,

              shining some light here and there

                      planning for a stronger day tomorrow.

                             (Ignatian discipline)




And so we need to repent

       in order to find something more constructive

              more loving.

                      Daily, big repentances or new directions

                             several times in a life.


But what is repentance?

Sinners in the hands of an angry God –

Jonathan Edwards-style?

Dangling over the fiery abyss?


I’ll tell you when I have felt that:

       When I am in deep conflict     

              Or feeling like I’ve betrayed someone.


That’s an abyss now. Will God make that permanent    

       if you don’t say the magic words of belief?


I think that says horrible things about God’s character

       It’s not that any abuse or betrayal or atrocity

              is okay or easily forgivable.


It is that the universe is a lot larger, and long-lasting

       not just the physical universe

              but the universe of love


There’s just so much more there,

       that I think we can hold in abeyance our desire

              for eternal revenge and punishment.


In fact holding these things in our hearts

       actually damages our capacity to live with

              a sense of joy and being whole.


The desire and longing for revenge and punishment

       in this life and the next is like acid

              that turns our soul into a “jagged soul”

                      a soul that rips and froths

                             rather than rejoicing.


Repentance cannot be about that.

       That is repentance as part of a retributive

              cycle of violence – if you don’t shape up,

                      you’ll be punished.


Not that change is needn’t; isn’t required.

       It most certainly is.

              But what’s wanted is change, not punishment.

                      Change, not retribution.


This is an almost bizarre concept

       in a society so in love with punitive justice.



Our large and powerful society still has the death penalty.

       It seems to be a requirement for being a super power.

              We and Russia have the death penalty.


And a smattering of additional states from around the world

       that I would characterize as having an enlarged

              capacity to abuse their citizens.


But we as a super power, as a supposed light for the world

       in democracy and freedom, remain addicted to

              the death penalty as if it were our

                      psychic and social drug.


It’s like a version of the old Homer Simpson quote.

       Homer said “Beer is the cause of, and the solution to

              all of mankind’s problems.”


We might just say along with that:

       Violence is the cause of and the solution to

              all our problems.


From our criminal punitive justice system

       to our punitive God who will

              let burn the fires of hell.


It’s like, at the end of our lives,

       or perhaps at the end of time,

              the action movie is,

                      God’s back, and this time he means business.


You can’t even really effectively

       represent the female metaphor for God in this scenario.


I think this demonstrates what a train-wreck

       the traditional focus on repentance is.

              You repent or you die. Burn in hell….!

                      at the hands of the angry man upstairs.



But what if that utterly misrepresents the character of God?

       What if God is so much larger than, so much

              more loving than our wounds and injuries

                      and violent cycles, and male warrior metaphors?


So that if we let ourselves in for even a small touch

       of the love that is there

              we find the ground for our violent imaginings

                      swept out from under us?


Kind of in a version of the end of Job,

       where God might say to us,

              Where were you when I created the foundations

                      of the earth?


As we plot and emote our violence

       in revenge movie after revenge movie:

              As we imagine the holiness and righteousness

                      of our wars, of our crime and punishment,


Where were you when I created the foundations of the earth?

       Do you really know so much that you can

              wade in punishing?


Now, I’d rather have our justice system than

       a lot of systems. It has functioned in a stumbling

              way to reign in punitive impulses.


But we also know that it has been on the watch

       of our nation

              to have slavery, to have lynchings,

                      to support the massive incarceration

                             of people of color

                                    all out of proportion.


And regarding the death penalty

       the voice of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings

              echoes the voice of God from the book of Job:


“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”


Again, do we really want a punitive approach in theology?

I think that says horrible things about God’s character

              It’s not that any abuse or betrayal or atrocity

                     is okay or easily forgivable.


It is that the universe is a lot larger, and long-lasting

       not just the physical universe

              but the universe of love


There’s just so much more there,

       that I think we can hold in abeyance our desire

              for eternal revenge and punishment.


In fact, we can begin to recognize what a

       cul de sac and dead end and distortion all that is.


But Marcus Borg asks:

“if the Christian life is not about measuring up [in order to avoid eternal punishment and damnation], then what is it about?”


And he answers: “It is about liberation from that concern so that we can participate in God’s passion for transformation – of ourselves and the world.”


Do you want to change, or do you want to punish? Do you want the world to be transformed by God’s love, or do you want the world to be punished?


Now it is understandable that some people

       cry out for punishment. The atrocities

              and abuses, genocides, tortures, cruelties




based on sex, race, sexual orientation, religion,

       south, north, you name it

              they have all been there.


Miroslav Volf, reflecting on the pile of injury

       and atrocity after the Serbo-Croation war

              says “All peoples stories may be said to begin with the cry ‘Once we were injured.’”


So we see brave American colonists

       redress their injury from England.


Israel is created as a hard and violent state

       born out of centuries of horrific anti-semitism

              at the hands of Christians.


Mennonites start with a martyr story

       of our own injury

              and sometimes it has scared us out of the world

                      left us saying the world with all its pain

                             is not our department.

                                    We keep to ourselves.


Die stille im lande; the quiet in the land.

       Waiting for the judgment of God on all the nations.

              Threatening each other with excommunication

                      for the purity of an isolated church.


“All peoples stories may be said to begin with the cry ‘Once we were injured.’”

       But we must finally ask ourselves,

              do we want punishment or do we want change?

                      Do we want the world to be punished

                             or transformed?


Out of the layer upon layer of the piled atrocities

       someone cries “love.” Love, love, love.

              That is God’s character. Not punishment.

                      It is the pathway out.


It is restorative justice, not punitive justice.

       The actual practice of restorative justice

              or RJ as it’s called among practitioners,

                     has left victims and offenders even of murder

                            sitting together and weeping

                                    and stumbling toward higher ground.


This is a different kind of medicine

       than the thin soup of revenge

              promised by attorneys providing

                      for a family’s suffering with the death penalty.


It is chicken soup rich and healing

       for the jagged and threadbare soul

              of the one who has been so violated.


That is strong stuff.

       And you don’t get there by punishment

              in this life or the next.


You get there by a deliberation practice

       of taking steps to transform the situation,

              transform lives, transform future possibilities.


There are pathways out of

       the cycle of retributive violence.

              They are the stern and demanding

and joyful and amazing pathways

                             of love willing to sign up for change,

                                    willing to sign up for transformation.


Love that says “we’re all in this together,

       so what can we do about it?”

              Not who can we punish, who can we excommunicate,

                      who can we kill?


so that we will once again be made clean.


No, instead, let us make a dramatic turn

       toward the possibilities of love,

              that transforms.


Love that transforms.

       That is the good thing.

              To repent and turn toward that.

                      That is the good news.


Let us rejoice in it!

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