loving our neighbors
The 13th Sunday After Trinity
Joshua 24:14-28, Psalm 104, Galatians 3:16-22, St. Luke 10:23-37
To Count the Cost
Maybe you’ve been following the recent kerfuffle over the Nashville Statement. For those who haven’t, a consortium of leaders of the evangelical churches in this country saw a need to generate a direct and uncompromising affirmation of what the Bible teaches on human sexuality.
They were responding, of course, to the shifting attitudes on the subject in our culture. More and more we read that young people consider homosexuality an acceptable and even “normal” way of life – and that’s not all.
Not a few of these young people were raised in church, even the evangelical church. For our purposes, we’re defining that term to refer to those churches that say the Bible is the inspired, inerrant and authoritative word of God. Still, these young people call homosexuality “normal.” And that’s not all.
Not a few pastors of such churches, including some who lead megachurches and have become famous through books and television ministries, have come around to the same conclusion: God is love; therefore, loving is good and however and whomever people choose to love is, therefore, good.
Those leaders who decided to state plainly and boldly the biblical rationale for human sexuality that is at such a great remove from these misguided ideas came together to produce the Nashville Statement. Many leading lights of orthodoxy in America including Tim Keller of the Presbyterian Church in America and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention are among the signers.
The preamble begins by citing Psalm 100:3:
“Know that the Lord Himself is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves . . .”
It goes on:
“Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.
“By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences.
“The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.”
The statement proceeds in the classic format of such documents to list 14 affirmations, each followed by a denial. Article I reads:
“We affirm that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.
“We deny that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.”
The 13 subsequent affirmations and denials elaborate this picture of how our Creator intends His creatures to have sex. You can find the entire text easily online. I’m not going to quote more of them now because I don’t want to lead you off into the culture wars or even into a lesson about biblical teaching on sex. I have a different purpose, and it relates to our gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The pro-homosexual marriage lobby knew the Nashville Statement was coming, of course, and had both barrels loaded. One example comes from the Rev. James Martin, a Catholic priest and author who is an adviser to the Vatican. He produced his own counter-list, beginning:
“I affirm: That God loves all LGBT people. I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.”
And so on. This response takes us to the heart of the matter I wish to address. The Nashville Statement has many signers but a single author. Her name is Rosaria Butterfield. She brings what we might call inside information to the debate.
Rosaria Butterfield was an English professor at Syracuse University. She holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State. She published a book and numerous scholarly articles. She had all the credentials and trappings associated with academia.
She pursued academic emphases in feminism and queer studies. She lived with a lesbian partner. She reviled Christians. Later, she wrote:
“The word Jesus stuck in my throat like an elephant tusk; no matter how hard I choked, I couldn’t hack it out. Those who professed the name commanded my pity and wrath . . . Stupid. Pointless. Menacing. That’s what I thought of Christians and their god Jesus, who in paintings looked as powerful as a Breck Shampoo commercial model.”
Researching the religious right “and their politics of hatred against queers like me,” she launched her crusade with a piece in a local newspaper condemning Promise Keepers, the Christian men’s accountability group. It provoked a torrent of mail, including a letter from a local Presbyterian minister.
Unlike others who disagreed with her, he took a respectful, dignified tone. He challenged her assumptions without attacking her person. She accepted his invitation to dinner. And Rosaria Butterfield became fast friends with Rev. Ken Smith and his wife Floy.
In relatively short order, her world turned inside-out. But there was more to her conversion than friendship. As a scholar, she was honest enough to read the book that she considered the root cause of that “politics of hatred,” the Bible. Over the course of a year, in fact, she read it several times.
The change in her did not take place in a day or a week or a month, but over time she could not deny the power of the eternal truth she read in those pages. She tried. She dug in her heels. She clung to the people and the ideas she had long held dear. But in the end she could not resist the working of the Holy Spirit within her.
She broke off her lesbian relationship, joined her new friend’s church and wrote “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.” She lives today in Durham, N. C., with her husband, also a Presbyterian minister, and their children. She describes herself as a “wife, home-school mother, author and speaker.”
But the transition was not that neat and tidy, of course. She remained on faculty at Syracuse when her book came out and her colleagues and students reacted in a fashion we’ll call less than enthusiastic. Imagine their outrage over her betrayal. But the reaction from another quarter is more interesting for our purposes.
Certain church-goers urged her to resolve the tension between her old life and this strange new one by continuing as a lesbian and simultaneously living as a Christian. This she could not do. Whether those who sought to advise her had read the Bible or not I do not know, but Rosaria Butterfield had. She knew that to be a compromised Christian was to be no Christian at all.
I cannot help recalling him who came to be called St. Augustine. As he made his way through Manichaeism and then Neo-Platonism he kept a mistress. He, too, picked up a Bible without the slightest intention of mining eternal truth from its pages and received a shock. But he didn’t want to abandon his mistress.
He prayed, “Lord, make me chaste . . . but not yet.”
He would not insult God by pretending to be His disciple while holding onto his fleshly ways. Jesus never called anyone to lukewarm discipleship. As for me, give me an honest pagan over a half-baked Christian any old day.
You know the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A desperate traveler lies in a heap on the roadside, battered, robbed and probably dying. Two fellow Jews – conspicuously religious Jews – pass him by. A foreigner, one of the despised Samaritans, stops to help, and his help knows no limits.
Jesus is teaching a smart-aleck lawyer who has asked, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” They agree that the answer, distilled, is “love God and love your neighbor.” The lawyer, getting cagey, comes back with, “And who is my neighbor?”
The parable by which our Lord answers that question teaches us that everyone is our neighbor, and so worthy of our love.
Some years ago, I heard a man preach in prison. The men arrayed before him wore, head to toe, the dingy white of Texas inmates. The preacher wore khakis, a blue plaid shirt and loafers . . . but he knew his audience. He had worn white for the 34 years he served on a life sentence for murder.
In that time he came to saving faith and resolved that, upon release, he would proclaim the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ behind the wire.
Jesus in me . . . gonna love the Jesus in you . . . and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it . . . You hearin’ what I’m sayin’? . . . Nah, you ain’t hearin’ what I’m sayin.’
You hear me now, you hear what I’m sayin.’ Jesus in me . . . gonna love the Jesus in you . . . and ain’t nothin’ you can do about it . . . You hearin’ what I’m sayin’? . . . Nah, you ain’t hearin’ what I’m sayin’. . .
I think I’m hearin’ what he’s sayin.’ He’s sayin’ Christian love is not contingent on the loveliness of its object.
Some will mock the preacher to his face. Some will crack wise behind his back. Some will hate him for his assault on the worldly philosophies and the fleshly desires and the demonic powers they have allowed to lodge within them.
And the preacher will love them. He has given his oath to his Lord to impose no limits the Lord does not impose. He can do no other.
We, too, will love our neighbors, every one of them – heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, pansexual . . . and vegetarian. But to love them is not to pass them by, succumbing to spiritual death in broken heaps by the roadside. It is not to pretend, as so many would have us do, that God is hoodwinked when men call love what He calls sin.
One lesson we must take from this parable is that Christian love is not disinterested, is not dispassionate. It is not a mere matter of saying and doing the right things in church – of the formal, hollow religion of the priest and the Levite who kept on truckin’ down the road.
Christian love makes demands on us. Later in his gospel, in ch. 18, St. Luke relates another story, this one involving a rich young ruler. He also wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. This time, Jesus runs through the commandments of the Decalogue and the young man says he has kept them all.
Jesus tells him to do one more thing: Sell all his possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor and follow Him. And “he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.”
Following Christ should cost us something. If it does not, we’re telling Him He’s not worth anything.
In our day, many claim to be seeking God. I read something interesting about these folks the other day. Mark Loughridge wrote:
“Here’s something I’ve noticed: It’s cool to search for God, but uncool to find him. People talk about wanting to find spiritual reality and deeper meaning, about wanting to get in touch with God. The idea of looking for him sounds good — the search, the journey — but the reality of actually finding him is too much.”
These folks feel the pain of a knot in their innards they cannot untie or the unyielding mystery of life haunts them. Many bounce from friend to support group to counselor or therapist in search of help. When nothing else works, they decide to try God.
The rub comes when they realize God won’t play the Genie and let them hand Him their problems and go larking off, unencumbered and free as sparrows. He demands that they hand Him themselves.
“It’s cool to search,” Loughridge writes, “but the last thing many want is to find the living God, or be found by him. Maybe we need to ask people when they say they are looking for God, ‘What do you hope to find?’ or ‘Are you ready to find him?’”
God is a Person, full of grace and truth. He enters into a covenant with His people. It requires that they place their trust in Him, and approach Him in faith. And this faith has objective content. If we would give ourselves to God we will love Him and love our neighbor. And that means stopping by the roadside to help, even if so doing costs us a great deal.
The robbers might return and fall upon us as well.
“If you seek him you will find him, for he is not far off,” Loughridge adds, “but we must seek him on his terms, not our own.” He has been discussing seekers but in conclusion he turns to Christians:
“And that applies to Christians too — for we can be as guilty of this as others. We can love talking about our issues — as long as we don’t have to actually do anything about them. We unburden ourselves to those who will listen, maybe going round the same circle of three or four people, keeping moving so that they don’t get time to move beyond sympathy to advice, and then hold us accountable.
“It’s easier to search than it is to work at what God calls us to do. Again we need to ask ourselves —‘Do we really want to find God’s answer?’”
Rosaria Butterfield, an honest pagan, wouldn’t pretend to be a Christian. She would not offer God half of herself. In the end, she really wanted to find God’s answer. Do you? Amen.