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My social media feeds have been dominated by three stories over the past week, first and foremost, of course, is the massive and overwhelming destruction and suffering in South Texas, the response, the heroes, the impact of poor planning, the second-guessing. But two others have made a big splash, at least in the circles in which I socialize. First is the account that Pastor Joel Osteen’s megachurch, Lakewood Church, was not more engaged in storm relief efforts, particularly housing refugees. Also appearing at almost the same time was a statement from evangelicals in Tennessee, asserting their belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman, and condemning the acceptance of so-called “homosexual immorality or transgenderism.” It was called “The Nashville Statement”, almost as if it spoke for all of Nashville, or all of Christianity, or as if it were being handed down from Nicea. Almost as offensive as the homophobia has been the attitude that they speak for all of Christianity or that if you don’t support what they support, you are out.
I do not condone Pastor Osteen’s theology, a theology many identify as a highly individualized and pretty self-serving “prosperity gospel” teaching of a God who wants you to be successful, almost always characterized in economic terms, and who has a “plan” for you and your life. It is a theology that is pretty widespread, as an effective short-term numbing for the anxiety, but in the face of a hurricane and massive flood it reaches it’s theological limits pretty quickly. What does God have to say in the face of such destruction and suffering? Think positively? Turn your frown upside down?
We are living at a time when the earth is shaking where it used to not shake, where hurricanes are frighteningly intense, where nuclear war is again on the table and the visage of hate again marches in the streets. The prosperity gospel and the theological absolute of the Nashville Statement both offer certainty. And in times of crisis, we want some certainty. There’s nothing wrong with that…not a thing. But there is a difference in our theology, our “God-talk”, and God. Just like God and the Church are not the same things, when we theologize, we are talking about God, and none of us paint a complete picture. When we talk about God we are talking about our capacity or our willingness, none of us can grasp the fullness of the force that created the universe with our words or concepts. So perhaps what we all need, especially at times of crisis, is a hermeneutic of humility, for we are all interpreting God, and all partially, like the group of blind people describing an elephant.
In the Nashville Statement, a group of at least 150 evangelicals have essentially re-stated what they have stated a zillion times before, and, at a time of great division and turmoil, during an unprecedented environmental and humanitarian crisis, have chosen to again express a particular reading of scripture, and a double-down on exclusionary theology. I’d tell you to Google it and read it, but you don’t need to read it…it’s the exact same as the last 50 years of evangelical theology, from Jerry Falwell to Oral Roberts to Pat Robertson. And here’s where I’ve arrived as far as all that goes. If you are down with that theology, if you are down with blasting away at LGBTQ people despite the fact that Jesus never once condemns or criticizes anyone for their gender identity or sexual orientation in the whole of his life and ministry, then there’s probably not much I can do to change your mind. If you cannot follow the Prince of Peace without a handgun, I probably can’t change your mind on that, either. If you think that despite the myriad of other stories that we have in holy scripture that the one model of marriage that God ordains happens to exactly match the same one you use, then I can’t help you. But I can say who I think that God is.
Theology matters. I wholly and fully affirm that. I also wholly and fully affirm that theology – ANY theology – is a partial, incomplete attempt to describe or articulate a God who defies all of our attempts to do so. The God whose name is best states right here in this line from Exodus, which in Hebrew reads, ehyeh asher ehyeh, a phrase that itself defies translations. It is traditionally translated as, “I am that I am”, but is more accurately translated as, “I will be what I will be.” And therein, as Shakespeare once wrote, lies the rub. Because our sin, as far as scripture and tradition goes, lies not so much in how we are interpreting it as it does that we won’t own up to the fact that we are all interpreting it, and we tend to interpret in a way that agrees with our already established lens. So, can we just have some humility about that?
Because here’s the thing about humility. It allows us to be wrong. And being wrong, when it comes to God, makes all the difference. It means that God’s grace has room to work, and that we discover that being loving is far more important and faithful than being right. And it means that we recognize that one of the primary things that Jesus taught us is that we aren’t saved by having the right information, we are saved by trusting in the God who defies all of our boundaries and loves through all our limitations. God is who God will be and the prophets, including Jesus, teach us that must mean that people come before piety, because you can’t have piety when God’s potential actions are an unknown variable in any of our theological equations.
When Moses encounters this burning bush, he is not in crisis. In fact, he’s pretty comfortable. Having fled the house of Pharaoh and Egypt to escape his fate after murdering an Egyptian who was beating one of his fellow Hebrews, Moses has found refuge with a family, he has found a wife and he’s just “keeping the flock”…you know, hanging out, watching the sheep or the goats, and life is pretty good.
What the “angel of God” offers to him is crisis. Moses thought that his one act of violent retribution was his part in the injustice against the tribe into which he was born, but no. God has other plans. God wants to send the shy, socially awkward Moses, who is a wanted felon in Egypt, to the halls of the Pharaoh, to demand the release of his people. And Moses replies, “Say what? Look, God, I’m sympathetic and all that, but these sheep aren’t going to watch themselves and besides, I don’t do the talking so good.”
But I’ll be with you, Moses, which might feel to Moses a lot like they’re in front of a scary, dark cave and God is saying – “You go first. I’ll be right behind you.” Throughout the accounts in Exodus, Moses is full of ambivalence, inhibitions, fears, and doubts, as he seeks to discern the direction of a God who will be “what I will be.” Moses is getting ready to embark on the mission of his life, the founding story of Israel by walking back into the belly of the beast he escaped and announcing to people he doesn’t know of the will of a God they will not recognize. This will be so foreign even to the Hebrews themselves that Moses needs God’s name for credibility…he’ll need to say to them early and often that he has been sent by, “…the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you” The God who is named, “I AM.”
Two things seem to always happen when we have a major crisis – we pull together and cross all of those lines that were previously in place, caring for one another as human beings first and foremost AND we draw those lines even more sharply, usually from far outside the crisis zone, doubling-down to secure the hierarchies that some of us think are ordained. I happen to think that the crisis-mode is ordained, that God wishes for us to relate with the compassion and care that we see in the rescuers’ actions, the first responder’s efforts, the supply chains, the “cajun navy” and the ways that Mother Nature can bring out the best in human nature. And that’s a choice I make, something that both guides my theology and is guided by my theology. But it is a choice, because none of us have the complete answer about God or the nature of divinity and we have to discern, to make the best choice we can with the information at hand. For me, that means erring on the side of love. If I believe that God is love, (a scripturally supportable position, by the way) then I must figure out what love looks like and do that. So, what does love look like? Perhaps something like Paul mused to the Romans?
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all….Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We too have a chance to step into people’s oppression and say that God has sent us to announce their freedom. That God does not wish them to be trapped in interpretive scriptural dogma, or limited to a theology, but freed to experience God’s grace and love in the world wherever it will show up, for I promise you if you expand your line of sight, God’s love will show up where you least expect it. God, the great, “I AM”, has another name – Love. And we know this because God has told us this through Jesus, who came to teach another trapped people of a God who they did not know, and who wants us to be free.
So, this morning let us go back to the table, the table where all are welcome, there is enough for everyone and the meal feeds the highest in us – generosity, kindness, love and grace, trusting in a God who is Love itself, come to set us free from the alluring trap of certainty into the graceful, compassionate world of trust .