Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

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In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.

You Cannot Save Yourself – Sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10

Ephesians 2.1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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Our series on “Back to the Basics” continues this morning by looking at the topic of salvation. We started this series in light of the fact that many of us are deeply rooted in our faith, but some of the basics have perhaps become so routined that we no longer understand what they mean. We began with a call to return to the basics, then we looked at the Ten Commandments and today we are talking about salvation. Here we go.

My friend Josh loved the Christian camp. Every summer he looked forward to returning to the familiar space with young people all growing in their faith. From tubing on the lake, to hiking around the compound, and even just praying at night with his friends, the camp was a place unlike any other; at camp he could be fully Christian without the world judging him for his discipleship.

By the time I met Josh, camp was long in the past though he remembered most of it fondly. Having never gone to a specifically Christian camp I was fascinated by the idea of being immersed in an intentional faith community with other young people and I regularly asked him questions about his experiences. After all, it was at camp where he met his future wife, and it was years later that he made a scavenger hunt at the camp in order to propose.

As a young Christian my faith was largely formed and nurtured by my home church. I was blessed to grow up around a number of people who took their commitment to raising me in the faith seriously. Josh, however, learned a lot about what it meant to be Christian from the counselors at camp, which, like many things, can be a blessing and a curse.

The young adult counselors embodied how you could still be cool and Christian. They made faith so appealing because they regularly demonstrated what God had done for them in their lives. They made efforts to make faith approachable and were able to share the love of God with campers every summer.

Yet, some of them deeply believed it was their chief responsibility to save others and did whatever they could to make that happen.

It would come at the end of an incredible week of building new relationships and ideas when one of the counselors who begin talking about the Roman Road and I imagine it went something like this:

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Your life might feel pretty good right now, you might have a kind family and some nice friends, but what about your eternal life? Do you want to spend life after death burning in the fires of hell? Or do you want to be saved?

“Imagine that you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Being a good person isn’t enough to save you. You can see salvation on the other side of the divide, but the only way you can get there is through Jesus Christ. Try to picture the cross being a bridge for you to safely get to the other side. You have the power to decide your everlasting fate. What’s it going to be?”

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When Josh explained these experiences to me I could sense the amount of manipulation that went into the dialogues. As the summers passed at camp, the conversations remained the same only the stakes became higher: What are you doing to save the people around you? Have you explained the Roman Road to your friends?

My friends, we are now alive though we were dead. Until the great gift of God in Jesus Christ we existed like lifeless bodies wandering around. Part of this came to be because we were guilty of sinfulness though we were also victims of our environment – people and organizations who told us we can save ourselves. But God, rich in mercy, saved us.

In the early church they did not spend their time going around trying to convince people with the Roman Road argument. They did not waste time going through the in and outs of theological proofs of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. Instead the church pointed at itself to prove the miracle. Want to know about death, the cross, and the resurrection? Here they are.

The budding Christian community grew not because it’s leaders were particularly articulate in their ability to save others through words, but because they believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. With the new family that was created in community they experienced a new kind of life with God at the core, a new opportunity that came with the Spirit.

While the early disciples went throughout their surrounding regions, their cries of evangelism did not begin with “Save yourselves!” Instead they, like Ephesians, triumphantly declared, “God saved you, come live your new life!

If we are anything we are a people of resurrection. Not a country club of like-minded individuals, not a political organization, not a club of devoted fans, but a people of resurrection.

Since the time of Christ, those who followed him have found new life, resurrected life, with God. New life has come by many ways – repenting for the wrongs of our lives, being forgiven by God and our friends, experiencing an assurance of the eternal dimension of God’s love and care, and by a number of other life events, even hearing about the Roman Road from camp counselors. However, we must be careful when putting too much emphasis on our power in salvation. Yes, God has opened the door and we must be the ones to walk through it, but the greater act came in the opening of the door and not our power to go through it.

Resurrected life is something that will come when Jesus returns but we can also experience it here and now. Whenever I’m asked about miracles I can quickly describe some of the incredible things I have witnessed, events I attribute to God’s grace. But some of the most powerful miracles, to me, are right here in our midst. I can look out from this pulpit and see people’s lives who have been turned around through Christ’s love. I see and remember stories about things that have happened to you, sinful desires that suffocated your ability to live fully, when God offered you a new resurrected life.

I heard someone once describe their days as lifeless. They went through the familiar motions but it all felt repetitious, pointless, and directionless. This went on and on until someone invited them to a church community. Suddenly people began to care about him without knowing anything about him or his past. It was like he was being seen and treated through God’s perspective. Through a simple invitation and a new opportunity he felt resurrected from the dead, and began living again. 

Salvation is not about receiving a perfect grade that allows us to make the cut into God’s heavenly kingdom. Who among us fulfills all of the laws from the Old and New Testaments? Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving away our possessions? Even the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths is incredibly difficult.

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If salvation was about getting the right grade, I’m sad to say that most of us would be failing. It’s as if the closer we get to visions of God’s glory, the more we realize our unholiness.

We pray to God before our meals and while we look out on the feast before us we are reminded of the many who have no food to eat. We kneel in a makeshift structure in Guatemala being served food by people who have nothing in terms of our materiality but have faith that we could never imagine. We sit on the stoops of a front porch in West Virginia after painting all day and we realize we could be doing so much more.

We were dead through the sins of our lives and we have been victims of our environment. The good news amidst this unholiness is that, by the grace of God, we have been saved. That through God’s incredible act of selflessness, our sinfulness has been forgiven.

Not a forgiveness as a nice plus added to a grade for our performance as Christians, but forgiveness as a completely unearned gift – a gift extended to a prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, a gift extended to a tax collector who only cared about himself, a gift extended to a thief who hung on a cross to die, a gift extended to you, or to me.

By grace we have been saved. 

Grace is like friendship. Josh, the one who shared with me his experiences of Christian camp, is my best friend and was the best man at my wedding. I did nothing to earn his friendship.  If it had been initiated over an exchange of goods (I will be your friend if you do this for me) it would never have become the true friendship that it is today. Friendship, and I mean true friendship, is an act of faith. Learning to trust the other knowing that they could hurt you.

I know that Josh will be there for me at a moment’s notice. He will listen to me and do whatever he can to help. I also know that he doesn’t expect anything in return. That is the meaning of true friendship; a willingness to give because the well-being of someone else matters more to you than your own. My friendship with Josh is an act of faith, but one that I am remarkably thankful for.

Salvation, for us, is the beginning of a covenant of friendship between us and God; between the divine and a sinner. Grace is another way of describing an incredible love story between God and his creation.

We cannot save ourselves. We cannot save other people. No matter what the commercials, advertisements, and camp counselors tell us. Only the Lord has the power to save. Thanks be to God that he came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ to open up the gates of heaven to people like us.Thanks be to God that we are not called to save others, but merely help them to see what God has already done, and continues to do, in their lives.

We were dead but have been made alive through the greatest gift ever given. The question for us, then, should not be, “Am I saved?” Instead we should be asking, “What am I doing with this resurrected life?

Amen.

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On Regretting My Vote

Psalm 13.1-2

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

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Annual Conference always elicits an assortment of emotions for me. At one moment I can feel renewed spiritually and theologically as I listen to some of the great preachers from our conference/denomination as they proclaim the Word of the Lord. At other moments I can feel socially fulfilled as I rekindle friendships with other clergy and laity from Virginia. And still at other times I can feel elated and jovial as I did recently when I witnessed our bishop dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” after we voted to support “Imagine No Malaria.”

However, at other times I can feel deflated and frustrated with our church. Traditionally Annual Conference has been a time of Holy Conferencing when the leaders of the church gather together to have their faith reignited for the kingdom of God. In the beginning of our denomination’s history annual conferences were held to maintain the theological convictions of our connection as the circuit riders were spread other a vast geographical area. It also served to maintain the relationships with fellow disciples as well as a dynamic and life-giving relationship with God. As the decades passed, annual conferences began to focus more on the polity of our church while still providing avenues for spiritual growth. In our contemporary period annual conference is a time when we hear about the focus of the denomination, recommit ourselves to spiritual disciplines, and vote on resolutions that have been put forth for our consideration.

After spending Saturday afternoon deeply entrenched in the reports from various agencies within the church (Report from the Common Table, Report of the Site Selection Committee, etc.) it was time to begin our holy conferencing around the resolutions. We were running behind schedule, as is typical at Annual Conference, and only began speaking about the resolutions at 4:30 pm (thirty minutes before a recess for dinner until the Service for the Ordering of Ministry at 7:30 pm).

It has been no secret that Resolution 1 was one of the most anticipated conversations to take place this year (as was also made evident via the conference hashtag #vaumc14 where many people were anxiously awaiting the resolutions). Resolution 1 was as follows:

 

Resolution 1: “Change Book of Discipline Reference to Homosexuality”

Whereas, as stated in the opening sentence of ¶161F in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” Whereas we declare that the following statement found later in ¶161F in the Book of Discipline “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” is inconsistent with the first statement. Whereas medical science has established that homosexuality is a state of being and not a choice and therefore homosexuals are part of God’s creation. [See Amicus Brief filed by American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and other related organizations, Hollingsworth vs Perry.] Whereas Scripture is not referring to the loving, consensual, victimless relationships we speak of today. Whereas the words used by Paul as applied to homosexuality are the result of translations and interpretations, these passages are therefore open to alternative interpretations. Whereas Christian marriage is offered to sinners, even when the sin is extreme, but we do not offer it to homosexuals who are living out their lives in love as created by God. Whereas the General Conference has failed to explain why a loving, monogamous relationship is inconsistent with Christian teaching. Whereas the current policies, laws, doctrine and practices of the United Methodist church as documented in the Book of Discipline relating to homosexual relationships creates a double standard thereby promoting discrimination and creating the circumstances that lead to the very behaviors among homosexuals that are abhorred in the Bible, both of which are in direct conflict with Jesus’ teachings. [“Judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22: 37-40); and many other references.] Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and the attendant references to and penalties for homosexuality detailed in ¶¶341.6, 2702.1 and 304.4 from the Book of Discipline and all people be accepted into The United Methodist Church to truly embrace “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” as Christ would have us live.

 

When it came time to hear the resolution, a representative stood before the Annual Conference and explained their position in a way that accurately reflected the above written resolution. As is commonly practiced, the bishop then inquired if anyone would like to speak for or against the resolution. In response a leading elder from our conference offered a motion suspending conversation on Resolution 1 indefinitely so that we, as a conference, could gather in small groups over the next year to begin having conversations about how to move forward regarding this “issue.” Two people then spoke in favor of the motion, and two spoke against it.

When the bishop called for us to vote on suspending the conversation, I raised my hand.

As I sat there listening to the murmuring of the crowds while various lay leaders and clergy spoke into the microphones I was overwhelmed by the vitriolic responses from the people both for and against the resolution. It frightened me to see and hear Christian disciples speak so harshly against one another publicly and privately as we gathered to be the body of Christ for the world. When it came time to vote on whether to suspend the conversation or not, I believed that the right and true and faithful thing to do was vote to have the conversation stop. In so voting, I was implicitly hoping and praying that over the next year we, as a church, can faithfully respond to this resolution in such a way that it represents the will of God, not just to be decided by the people gathered at conference (who, in my opinion, disproportionately represent the church).

However, over the last two days I have begun to regret the vote I cast. While reading from the lectionary texts this morning I was struck by the first two verses of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” It seems to me that, as a church, we have been having a conversation about homosexuality for a very long time. People have raised their opinion for the continued language in our Book of Discipline, and others have spoken against it. Moreover, Annual Conference is supposed to be the time that we gather for holy conferencing to experience the will of God and attempt to make it incarnate in the way we live our lives. I have begun to regret my vote because I now believe that I participated in a continual and perpetual denial of the value of the LGBTQ community by putting the language of homosexuality from our Book of Discipline on the back-burner.

This week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. While we methodists continue to ignore the need to address the growing concern of the LGBTQ community, debating whether or not we can officially (which is to say “by Discipline”) regard homosexuals as fully Christian or not, the Presbyterians have moved to grant homosexuals the theological and sanctifying grace we understand as marriage. We have continued to ignore the issue over and over again to the point that we are now more aligned with the Southern Baptists than we are with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions from which we came (more on this at: http://tamedcynic.org/are-methodists-really-mainline-anymore/).

I regret my vote. I believe the time is now for the UMC to faithfully and finally address the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. But, as a conference, we voted to push the decision back, yet again.

It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit abides in us over the coming year as we continue to have holy conferences. And it is my deepest and sincerest prayer that soon, we, along with the LGBTQ community, will no longer have to cry out like the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”