The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

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Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

Freed For Slavery

Devotional:

Galatians 5.1a

For freedom Christ has set us free.

Weekly Devotional Image

“No one in the church is going to tell me who I’m allowed to love.” 

I heard the off-hand comment from a stranger in the convention center during the recent Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC. I only needed to take a look at his shirt, covered in rainbows, to get an idea of what he meant with his words. There were a lot of people like him this year, walking around making their thoughts/opinions/theologies known with clothing, words, and with particular votes. 

A friend of mine described it as the “height of tribalism” in the UMC in which we are all constantly trying to make sure everyone else knows how we feel about everything.

Or, to put it another way, we want everyone to know whose side we are on.

It was also during the recent Annual Conference that I happened upon what appeared to be the end of a fight. Two women, of similar ages, were vehemently arguing with one another in the middle of a hallway with lots of finger pointing and eye-rolling. I started walking toward them preparing myself to separate them or, at the very least, try to mediate but then one of the women said to the other. “You’re free to have your opinion, but so am I, and you’re wrong.” And with that she promptly turned around and walked away. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” says St. Paul. And we love our freedom. We love being able to say, do, and believe just about whatever we want without anyone interfering. We spend a lot of time talking about freedom whether its in the cultural ethos, Sunday worship, or in national holidays.

Freedom is who we are.

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And yet, freedom implies that we have been freed from something and for something.

In the US we talk about being freed from tyranny, or being freed from oppressive rules about religious observance or non-observance. And all of that is true. But that’s not necessarily the same kind of freedom that’s at the heart of the gospel. 

Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” And in the next verse he continues his thought in a way that most of us would rather ignore: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

In the church today, we are so often obsessed with freedom that we forget that we’ve been freed from sin and death in order that we might become slaves to one another. And, at times, we are onboard with this theological project so long as we can be slaves to the people we like, or the people we agree with, and the people who look like us.

But what about the other people?

What about the people whose shirts, and bumper stickers, and votes go against our own?

Can we walk away from them or are we chained to them through the love of Christ?

Narrow Hearts. Narrow Minds. Narrow Doors.

Luke 13.18-30

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?

Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…

You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.

Do either of those make sense to you? 

Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?” 

Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner. 

Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.

And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.

But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.

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One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved. 

And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the ground.

The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.

Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.

Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new. 

And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.

Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able. 

It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”

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Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table. 

And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.

Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.

And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.

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The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself. 

We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.

It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us. 

Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.

We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.

For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it. 

It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say. 

It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.

This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.

The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.

And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front. 

And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”

This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.

But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.

AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.

There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.

In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.

While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.

Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new. 

And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you. 

This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.

At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out. 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.

That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.

And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal. 

It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal –  the meal that draws people literally from all directions. 

The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.

Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen. 

God Hates Figs

Luke 13.6-9

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

It was brutally cold in the middle of February as we lugged our recording equipment up to the arena in St. Louis, Missouri. We had somehow hoodwinked the powers-that-be at the General Conference that we were a reputable media organization, and they happily provided us with press passes. So my buddies and I parked as close as we could, but we had to get all of our podcast equipment to the designated Media Area.

We were all shivering, having not packed enough winter clothing, while waiting for the light to change in the sparsely populated downtown streets. Over chattering teeth we opined about what and who we might encounter at the General Conference, and we even wondered whether they’d actually let us in or not.

However, by the time the arena came into view none of us were talking. Instead we were gobsmacked by the presence of representatives from Westboro Baptist Church picketing in response to our called General Conference.

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Our denomination was meeting to discern the future for LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion, and mere feet away from the main entrance were a handful of demonstrators who, by the signs and shouting, let everyone know how they felt about the whole thing.

NO WOMEN PREACHERS!

I thought, “They’re going to be really disappointed when they realize that women preachers were the first to tell the disciples about the resurrection.”

DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, AND GAY MARRIAGE ARE ALL SIN!

I thought, “They’re not necessarily wrong, but so is eating shellfish and working on the Sabbath so…”

BELIEVE ON JESUS THE DESTROYER OF SODOM!

I thought, “Wait a minute, Jesus was born centuries after Sodom was destroyed.”

YOUR PASTORS ARE LIARS!

I thought, “Yep. Just like everyone else.”

AMERICA IS DOOMED!

I thought, “Huh, maybe they’re on to something…”

And the last sign – GOD HATES FIGS

Honestly, even with what felt like subzero temperatures, I started laughing right there in the middle of the street. God hates figs! These people really do read their bibles. Jesus rebukes a fig tree and curses it to never grow fruit ever again, and he tells a parable about a fig tree in which the owner of the fig tree can’t stand its inability to do what he wants it to do.

And so I entertained the thought of crossing the line to the dark side to congratulate the protestors for their astute reading of God’s Holy Word. I mean, I had problems with some of their claims, I could have pulled out the Bible from my bag and showed chapter and verse to contradict their signs. But GOD HATES FIGS? How can you argue with that?

It was only as we got closer, and the yelling through the megaphone grew greater in decibels did I realize how I misread the sign. It didn’t say God Hates Figs. 

It said God Hates Fags. 

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A man had a vineyard and in the vineyard he planted a fig tree. For three years he would wander out to his field of grapes to check on the prayed for figs, only to return to the chateau empty handed. So one day he says to the gardener, “I just can’t take it anymore. This fig tree has been wasting my soil for three years. I want you to cut it down.”

But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Give it another year. I’ll spread some manure on it later today. If it bears fruit next year, all the better. But if not, then you can do whatever you want with it.”

Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned. Unlike my parable of walking to the entrance at General Conference there are no superfluous details, nothing to distract the listener from what the story is saying, and the main thing stays the main thing. 

And yet, even for its simplicity and brevity, there are a lot of weird and notable details in the parable. So many, in fact, that I preached on this exact passage a mere three months ago and there’s still more to say about it. Honestly, I had to look up my sermon because I couldn’t even remember what I said about it three months ago.

That’s the enduring and endearing beauty of God’s Word – it is a never-ending mine of glory from which we can glean again and again and again.

Ah, but back to the matter at hand: Why does the vineyard owner plant a fig tree among all his grapes? Don’t you think he would be worried about an outside plant vying for the nutrients in the ground? Or was he just a sucker for a dry fig every once in awhile? Or what if he was planning to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?

We don’t know. All we know is that the owner of the vineyard delighted in planting a fig tree among his grapes. Maybe its a sign to us that God, as the vineyard owner, rejoices in us, his fig tree, but that we are also not his chief concern. We are not his bread and butter as it were. If that’s true, its all good and well, but it has the rotten luck of showing all of us how we are not nearly as important as we think we are.

But there are still more details – enter the gardener.

In terms of storytelling, it is notable that the gardener, not the vineyard owner, is the one who ultimately displays and offers grace to the fig tree. 

Jesus could’ve told another quick and easy story in which the vineyard owner himself offers grace to the inexplicable fig tree among the grape vines. But that’s not the story Jesus tells. Instead it is the owner himself who can no longer wait idly by with patience hoping for the blasted tree to grow some fruit. He wants to tear the thing down.

It is the gardener who speaks in defense of the speechless tree.

And what does the gardener say? “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” At least, that what it says in our pew Bibles. 

But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN”

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Sound familiar?

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

Parables-of-Jesus

These might be some of the most striking words from the Bible both because they proclaim the apparent forgiveness of the Lord for no reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.

Three years ago this week a gay night club in Orlando, Florida was hosting a “Latin Night.” There were about 300 people dancing in the club when the announcement went out for last call around 2am. And shortly after the crowds made their way to the bar for their final drink of the evening, a man walked into the club and started shooting indiscriminately.

There was the initial barrage of gun fire, a hostage situation in one of the bathrooms, and eventually a SWAT team entered the building to eliminate the shooter. By the end 50 were dead, including the shooter, and another 53 were in the hospital. 

At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history, only to be eclipsed by the Las Vegas shooter a year later. But it still remains the deadliest incidence of violence against LGBTQ people in the history of our country.

And, tragically, this is nothing new to an entire community of people. Nearly a quarter of all hate crimes in the US are committed against LGBTQ people and the number of incidents have increased every year since 2005. Many of those perpetrating the violence regularly cite religious convictions to defend their actions. 

And just this week, a Sheriff’s Deputy in Tennessee implored the members in his church to call upon the federal government to round up and execute members of the LGBTQ community. 

Sometimes it takes decades of hearing a preacher belittle and ridicule people for their sexual orientation, and sometimes all it takes is seeing a protestor with a sign with three terrible words, and then someone can assault two men walking down the street hand in hand, or walk into a night club and shoot into the darkness simply because women were dancing with women and men were dancing with men.

Sometimes it takes a sentence in a book about incompatibility that becomes a shackle around the ankle of a church, a shackle that it is forced to carry ad infinitum.

In Jesus’ parable, there are only two characters and Jesus paints them vividly for us – the vineyard owner, God the Father, and the gardener, God the Son. 

The gardener, as Christ, invites the owner of the vineyard into forgiving the fig tree and to live according to the light of grace. His words here, as we’re already noted, are the very same words from the cross. Words that, if we’re honest, haunt us.

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing. 

All of us, whether we like it or not, live under the decisive reign of forgiveness. And yet, the world usually thinks and is hellbent on acting otherwise. 

The world thinks it lives and spins by merit and reward. The world produces people who can wave signs and sing slogans that, at times, result in people being buried simply because of who they love. The world likes to imagine that salvation comes from a God who rewards individuals for their righteousness, whether its biblical or not.

But the foolishness of God, the one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us, is smarter than that.

The cross with which we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump for us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.

Is there anything more striking in the story than the fact that the gardener offers to dump manure all over the fig tree, all over us? Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, become the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.

It is the horrific nature of the cross, Jesus’ profound death for all eyes to see, from which Jesus returns to us. And he returns marked by the grave and the journey to it – he comes with holes in his hands and feet, bringing along all of the nutrients our roots could possibly need, and he brings them for free.

Jesus does not wait around for our fruit before offering the manure we so desperately need, he doesn’t wait until we master the art of morality. He returns, and he dumps the dung right on top of us. 

Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we are doing. 

For if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all of the world’s problems by now. We wouldn’t have to worry about a young girl being ostracized in middle school for dressing like a boy. We wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of people dancing in a nightclub simply because of who they might be dancing with. We wouldn’t have to worry about a person contemplating ending their life because of what a preacher said in a sermon about who they are and their incompatibility.

But we do have to worry about these things. Because this is the world we live in. We turn on the news reluctantly knowing that we are about to be bombarded not by the joys in the community but by devastation. We see images of violence so often that we become numb to how broken this world is. We hear people shouting from the streets of life about what they believe and we walk idly by not thinking about the repercussions of what they are saying.

We are a fruitless fig tree standing alone in the middle of God’s garden. 

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.

And yet, and yet (!), Jesus looks at our barren limbs and is moved to say the three words we deserve the least, “Lord, forgive them.”

Which is why we come to the table, again and again, knowing that this simple meal is anything but simple – it is, believe it or not, the manure for our soil – it is, believe it or not, our forgiveness – a forgiveness we need because we have no idea what we’re doing. Amen. 

Live Pubcast Announcement – Incompatible

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The Crackers & Grape Juice Team will be hosting our 4th Annual Pub Theology Live Podcast to kick off the beginning of the UMC Virginia Annual Conference. The Pubcast will take place at Ballast Point Brewery in Daleville, VA on June 19th from 6:30pm – 8pm. The topic for the evening is “Incompatible” and we will be joined by friends of the pod Jeff Mullinix and Steve Shamblin-Mullinix.

Jeff is the pastor of Maynard Avenue UMC in Columbus Ohio and his husband, Steve, is a teacher. On the other side of the denomination’s recent General Conference, their relationship and ministries have come into focus and they have agreed to come and share what it’s like to work and worship in a Church that has forgotten that we’re all incompatible with Christian teaching – that’s Christian teaching.

If you want to hear more about the event, and why we think it’s a worthy conversation, you can listen to the bonus podcast episode we made about the event here: Live Pubcast

Otherwise, we look forward to connecting with fans of the pod at Ballast Point on June 19th.

Another Way Forward or: Why Ordination Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

I was kneeling before the entire Annual Conference when the Bishop placed his hands on my head and ordained me in full connection. The moment was overwhelming – the culmination of 15 years aimed toward one particular goal. And when the stole was placed around my shoulders I felt the full weight of the responsibility.

I’ve known no life outside the United Methodist Church. I was baptized in a UMC when I was 19 days old, and spent nearly every Sunday of my life in that particular sanctuary. I was confirmed in that church, played drums for a worship service in that church, felt my call to ministry in that church, and even preached my first sermon in that church. Later I was married in that church and had my son baptized a few feet away from where I had been baptized in that church. 

When I first felt called I felt specifically called to serve the United Methodist Church. Partly because it was the only church I really knew, but also because I was entirely persuaded by our theological conviction of prevenient grace. The God I discovered in worship and in scripture and in community was absolutely the God who offers grace freely to all without any work on our part. I was so moved as a young person by the totality of grace preached in my local church and  that God works through Christ regardless of our morality, or our beliefs, or even our doubts.

It was more refreshing than I can describe particularly when I used to talk with friends at other churches in which everything was whittled down to whether they were doing enough for their faith.

And then when I was 15 years old, I felt pulled to my knees in prayer one night, and when I stood up I knew that I could do nothing else with my life but serve the UMC. I immediately told the pastors at my church and they handed me a snap shot of what the next decade of my life would look like: A Bachelors degree in religion, a Masters degree in divinity, and then at least three years of provisional membership before I could be ordained in full connection. So I finished high school, went to college, went to seminary, got approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry, started serving my first church, and then was fully ordained. 

I am grateful for the journey, as so many of my clergy peers intoned as their mantra during the journey of ordination. And yet, I believe that a lot of the problems facing the UMC today are in large part due to the ways we ordain individuals for ministry.

During the recent Special General Conference I was able to sit down with Bishop Will Willimon and he put it this way: 

“The real trouble started when the General Conference started requiring Mdivs for Elders. It was around 1958. It’s been downhill ever since. As someone who produces Mdivs for a living now, this is a difficult thing. We started adding all these requirements for ministry, and ask any UMC what they’re looking for in a clergy person and, first of all they never mention anything about coitus, and secondly they don’t really care where or whether someone went to seminary.”

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Our ordination process (and it is a process) has become a bloated and institutional mess. It puts so much emphasis (and power) on the institution itself to make pastors rather than the local church.

When I told my pastors that I felt called their first response was, “Would you like to preach in six weeks?” They made sure I had every opportunity to discover what ordained ministry really looked like, they continuously checked in with me while I was in college and seminary, and my home church was constantly praying for me.

I now know that I was an exception to the rule.

In most churches, if someone expresses a call to ministry, they are given a book about ministry/calling and soon they are paired with a clergy mentor (from another church) and begin working with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. And, of course, the local church still has to recommend the individual to continue on the journey, but ultimately the individual is handed on to another group of people who now become responsible for the calling of the individual. 

I fully recognize the complicated nature of discerning a call, and the community’s responsibility for helping identify the call. Additionally, I completely agree with the work of discovering whether someone is theologically prepared for the difficult task of serving a local church. But passing someone along to another group (or to a school or seminary) continues to perpetuate the condition that we currently find ourselves in.

It denies the fundamental role of the local church and instead places even more emphasis on the structure instead of the Spirit.

I could elaborate on how the professionalization of clergy (and the requirement of a Masters degree) has stratified the ordained from the laity, and how the resentment between those two groups has grown and grown and grown. But I can’t argue against theological education – pastors do need to be theological informed, they need to have their thoughts, ideas, and convictions sharpened in order to serve the local church.

My bigger concern is not theological education itself, but the theology in which clergy are being educated. 

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At the real heart of the matter is the way in which the structures of the church whittle candidates for ministry down to a mosaic of arbitrary conditions.

Today, those who go before the board of ordained ministry have to demonstrate that they are prepared for ministry (at the beginning) or they are effective in ministry (after the provisional process). These are important frameworks for the work of ministry, but they also include interludes into whether or not individuals maintain certain moralities that largely deny the point of needing Jesus’ grace.

Which, to be clear, might be the most important theological claim we have to make at all.

And, for what its worth, this is no new thing. My CPE supervisor once told me that when he was attempting to get ordained (decades ago) he had to record himself preaching a sermon on a tape cassette, but was unable to do so in an actual church service so he recorded it while pacing back and forth in his basement. However, he grew anxious during the recording so he started smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves. He sent the tape off to the conference and their only reply was that they could hear him smoking while preaching, and he would need to quit if he wanted to be approved for ordination. 

No comments about the substance of his sermon.

No questions about any of his theological claims.

Just a moral absolute about pastors not being able to smoke.

Fast forward to today and the Special General Conference just approved a new measure that would allow (and in fact require) boards of ordained ministry to look through an individual’s social media accounts to discern whether or not the person is part of the LGBTQIA community. (To be clear, the Judicial Council has yet to rule whether or not this will be constitutionally viable)

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We are now in a place where the process for ordination is far more focused on the model in which it takes place, and our flawed mission statement, than on the work of Jesus. Ordination, and the ways we preclude someone from it, denies the central proclamation of Word which is at the core of who we are supposed to be. 

I have met far too many people who were held back from ordained ministry for things like their obesity, or their divorce, or their timidity, which fundamentally ignores the God who calls people regardless of their circumstances. 

In light of GC2019, I appreciate Will Willimon’s comment that “God is going to continue calling gay people to ordained ministry whether we like it or not.”

In the UMC we are obsessed with making more disciples (as an end) and it has made it necessary to have clergy who resemble Jesus, rather than having clergy who can proclaim the passion with passion because they understand the truth of grace. All of our talk of perfection (for our sakes) prevents us from admitting that no one is good but God alone. 

Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so eloquently wrote: 

“Alas, in the present panic over faddish clerical derelictions, the church can’t see [grace] for beans. Bad enough that its preachers think their sins make them unfit to preach forgiveness. Worse yet by far that the church itself chases offending preachers unceremoniously (and with precious little due process) off the farm… If a sinner can’t proclaim forgiveness, who’s left to preach? Who, for that matter, could preach better, or with more passion? Of all the deaths that are available to us before we’re stone-cold dead, our death in sin is the most embarrassingly convincing share in the Passion most of us will ever have. The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent – even a gleefully aggressive – job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit  that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost – children who can accept their failure as children, crooked tax collectors who can stare at their shoes and say they’re worthless human beings – and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea.” (The Foolishness of Preaching)

Our current ordination process is incompatible with Christian teaching because it expects clergy to be the Jesus in their congregations rather than being the sinners in need of grace who can preach the passion with passion.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Change the ordination process in the United Methodist Church. Place more power on the local church to not only equip individuals for ministry, but also to empower them to express their call in theologically substantive ways. 

Or, at the very least, stop using subjective moral claims as a way to preclude individuals from serving God as an ordained pastor. If the earliest disciples are any indication (Peter perjured and Paul murdered), immorality should be an expectation for ministry, not something that bars someone from it. 

Such a revision or our ordination process would retain the Spirit-driven and prevenient grace-filled faith that is part of our Wesleyan heritage and it would stop expecting pastors to stand on pedestals that always crumble.

The giant wheel of the UMC spins and spins because we have a process not unlike a factory model in which we expect that if we a bunch of different people in through the beginning, they will all come out the same on the other end. 

I suggest we consider the opposite – we take all these people who feel called to ministry and demonstrate to them that God will use their greatest weaknesses and all of their brokenness to express the kind of reckless grace that’s at the heart of the Gospel. We give people the freedom to see and believe that God calls whomever God wants regardless of our subjectivity. And that to deny someone the call that God has placed on their life because of whatever we might deem as incompatible only goes to show that the process has become incompatible with Christian teaching. 

A New Way Forward or: Why Our Mission Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

It’s a sentence that every UMC pastor, and most lay people, should be able to quote from memory. Found in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, the mission of the church is defined by making disciples and transforming the world.

Which, ostensibly, makes sense because disciple making is one of the last charges Jesus leaves with the disciples (Matthew 28). But making disciples, and more importantly world transformation, have hindered the United Methodist Church from its primary mission; namely, being itself – the body of Christ.

Today, disciple making gets confused with the metrics of worship attendance, professions of faith, and even financial giving. It has resulted in the nearly universal push to get more people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the pews on Sunday mornings. This profound focus is part of our obsessions with a 1950’s General Electric model of denominationalism that cares far more about numbers than it does about faith.

And then we get this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission or Jesus’ mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Are we supposed to be making the world a better place?

The church is (supposed to be) defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world. 

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Today we are deeply steeped in a world filled with the allure of large institutions and we believe that so long as we structure the church like other organizations of growth that we will necessarily grow and grow. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But what makes the church the church? Jesus. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the powerful!

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is already the better place because many of us worship other institutions or ideas or even ethical and moral claims the way we once worshipped the Lord. The many ways in which people reacted to the votes at the recent Special General Conference of the UMC (and in particular that some of the highest priority items to be discussed were pensions and disaffiliation plans) goes to show how we have traded in the Lordship of Christ for the institution of the church. Similarly, we follow this never-ending reactive news-cycle of what’s happening to the church to such a degree that we are are more concerned with reading articles about LGBTQIA people instead of meeting them where they are and learning about their faith. 

And worst, we read and repost articles about what can save the church as if those things/organizations are going to bring us the salvation we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus has already brought!

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We have been playing this game of world transformation since the time of Constantine and we are now at a point where we can almost no longer differentiate between the institution and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, then it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

In the last few weeks there’s been a fair amount of anxiety among the pastors I serve with and within the church I serve. Many are unsure about what the future holds for the UMC. There’s rumor of schism, though many are afraid of what that will do to our pension system and our international mission work. 

I appreciate those concerns. I am currently contributing to my own pension and have been on mission trips all over the world. But for all of the talk of world transformation, we neglect the second sentence of our mission: “Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” 

It’s right there for anyone to read in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, and yet what about the state of the UMC today would lead anyone to believe we believe the local church is the primary expression of Methodism? 

Ask people outside the UMC what the UMC is or looks like, and if you hear anything at all you’ll likely hear something about the recent Special General Conference, or a Cross and Flames, or itinerancy. But if those are the primary expressions of our faith, then what kind of faith is that?

One of the problems with our current mission statement is that it’s transactional – it presumes a sort of Constantinian desire to change the world with a measurable system of growth that leaves little room for the gospel. I don’t want the church I serve to be responsible for fixing all of the problems in the world, not just because I know that it can’t but also because it’s not our responsibility. There are a great number of organizations out there that can make the world better, whatever that means, but the church isn’t here to fix the world. 

It is already the better place God has made in the world.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Rewrite the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, or better yet, get rid of it altogether. 

Such a revision, or omission, would retain the kind of Spirit-driven and incarnational faith that it’s part of our Wesleyan Heritage, but it will also remove the exhausting expectation that “it’s all up to us.”

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper behavior, and world-transformation, and lots of ethical and moral claims in something like a denominational institution, are the keys to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do – instead it is about what God did for us precisely because we could not do it for ourselves.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that is either ABG (always be growing) or ABT (always be transforming) or both. 

We have expectations set in place about church growth that persuade churches to abandon the gospel in order to attract as many people as possible.

We have over-programed our churches because we feel ultimately responsible for making the world a better place which has led to burnout among faithful lay people and clergy. 

Here on the other side of GC2019, our mission statement is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To have one at all is to admit how drunk we are with power and a vision of the church that looks more like Sears than it does the community of faith.