Tag Archives: Jesus

Understanding those Hard Texts

I began this class at the request of several folk who said something like  – “I still feel beat up by those texts in the Bible that preachers have used to put down LGBT folk.”  I had not thought to offer this kind of class again – which is strange now that I think about it.  The first session – last Tuesday, Nov 18 – we had 30 or so people. A very rich conversation.

Let me share a bit about what I presented. First I asked why people had come – and what they were looking for. I was struck at the 2 main answers I heard. They are coming , you are coming, in part to heal deep woundedness, and in part to find a way to defend yourselves when others attack you using these texts.

Part of my goal in offering this class is not just to offer new ways of interpretation for these texts, but also to help us all increase our own sense of authority to not let others tell us that who we are is wrong and sinful and abomination. We must own our own life experiences. We must remember that all of us are made in the image of God – not just those who think they know best. I believe the church – and I am including my self in this – has been quiet and lacking courage for way too long.  So I urge each of us to find new courage and to find our own sense of authority to claim who we are as loving and good – and blessed by God.

We started with the very familiar story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Instead of reading the text from the Bible, I opted to tell the story in a version I found in the book The Children are Free. It goes like this: “Abraham had a nephew named Lot who moved to Sodom. At the time, Sodom was considered a comfortable, modern, sophisticated city, and Lot thought it would be a better place to raise his family than out on the plains with Abraham, who was a nomad. Unfortunately, the city was also full of wickedness, and God told Abraham that it would soon be destroyed. Two angels were sent to assess the situation in Sodom, and when Lot saw them in the town square, he invited them to his house for dinner and lodging. He did not recognize that they were angels. He seems, however, to have felt a responsibility to be hospitable to strangers – perhaps because he remembered having been a stranger himself.

That night, when the city dwellers learned Lot – a recent stranger himself – had welcomed strangers into his house and into their city the people gathered at his door. They demanded that Lot deliver the two men to them so they might “know them.” (To know in biblical language often refers to having sexual intercourse.) Lot pleaded with his neighbors not to do such an evil thing. In a despicable act, he even offered them his virgin daughters instead, but the men persisted. Finally, the anels struck all those outside with blindness and warned Lot and his family they should leave the city because God would soon destroy it for its wickedness. The very next day, fire came down from heaven and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants.”

Since the Middle Ages, this text has been used to say that homosexuality is abomination detested by God. But what is the evidence? Are we saying that all the men of Sodom were gay? That seems very unlikely to me. The text did not say that certain men from Sodom wanted to have their way with these strangers, but that all of them did. What do we make of Lot offering his virgin daughters – besides the fact that this is so reprehensible that none of us want to even imagine it. But would he make such an offer if he thought all the men in the town were gay? That makes no sense at all. And who would know the people of Sodom better than Lot? Surely not the fundamentalist preachers of our day and time. And not even those of us more moderate to liberal who have held our tongue for way too long.

So what was the motivation of the men of Sodom? What comes to your mind? Might it have had nothing to do with sexual pleasure at all, but instead the use of sexual violence to degrade and humiliate another person? Rev. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, authors of The Children are Free, share another story to offer a more current day possibility.  In 1997, in New York City, two white police officers were strip-searching a Haitian immigrant – a black man. These officers grew angrier and angrier with this man – for reasons not given. So they dragged him to  a bathroom where one officer repeatedly rammed a broken broom up the man’s rectum. While doing this, both officers yelled things like “we’re going to teach you n****rs to respect police officers.

Now, what was the motivation of these two officers? Was it sexual lust? Was it that they both were gay and wanted to have their way with this Haitian man? Or was it something else? What do you think? What comes to mind? Might it have been hatred and fear?

Now there are many other questions and interpretative skills we can bring to thinking about this text, but it seems clear to me that we already have good  evidence that neither story is about homosexuality.

My assignment to the class this week is to go home, read the story over and over again, but without letting it continue to beat you up. Raise your voice to the story. Put down the hatred and fear that seems to overload the story, and refuse to let those old interpretations have any power over you at all. Instead, be imaginative, be creative in how you question the text. Bring your own life experiences to the story. Don’t let this story  – or any interpretation – demean your own authority of your own life. Be bold and brave. See if you can find another way to bring forth meaning from this old story. This is where we will begin next Tuesday. Trust who you are and what you know. Remember – you are born of God. Each and every one of us  – born of God. Just because someone who has credentials like a minister is given status in our society, don’t let their thoughts have more weight than your own experience. Trust what you know. You are not – and never have been – abomination in the eyes of God.

I ended the class with another story – an affirming story – from a book called The Book of Andrew. It is a book that I have come to really appreciate. The author has now died. But he wrote the book as a witness of a gay apostle. He wrote it as a past-life memoir. I would imagine that many of us might wonder about such a memoir – about someone saying, “I had a previous life.” But there are many people in the world who think like this. I recently met someone that I felt immediately very close to. But I had never met her before. She and I talked about it, and she said – I am sure we knew each other in a previous life. Well, I don’t know enough to say one way or another. What I did know was – this woman is so familiar to me, I must have met her sometime along the way. That is enough for me to read this book with an open mind – at least to learn a new telling of a gospel story that could be true – or could have a significant amount of truth in it. I know many people of faith who have been very open to such thinking.

I read this story – a very short excerpt from the book. Take a breath, listen with your heart. Be aware of how it feels to hear this gospel story: One day, when Jesus was alone, I (Andrew) went to see him. “I do not know how to say that which I would say, Rabbi.” Jesus smiled. “Then I shall say it for you, Andrew. You want to know whether you may tell Philip of your love for him.”

I nodded, feeling the blood rush to my face and ears.

“If you do,” Jesus said, “he will be very glad to hear it, for his own love for you is as strong. Long before  your eyes were opened to your love for him, Philip knew that he loved you.”

‘If that is true, Lord, why has he not spoken of it?”

“Being devout, would Philip disobey those teachings which he believes to be the word of God? Can you not understand hat he too suffers from the same doubts and fears that have so tormented you? A great battle rages within his bosom, yet he would rather have your friendship than risk your scorn. How can he know that you might not abandon him forever if he spoke of this?

“Though words of love for you have never passed his lips, surely you have read the message in his eyes. As he has followed your lead in all other things, so will he follow your lead in this.

“I tell you that your love for Philip and Philip’s love for you is holy so long as you love in God’s name.”

(The editor of this book will be speaking at First Congregational UCC in Asheville at 4pm Feb. 15.)

How does this image of Jesus seem to you? How does it feel to imagine Jesus blessing your love for another? Ponder that this week. Share your thoughts on this blog. I think there is a lot of power in this story. And remember, t here were a lot of gospels that were never included in the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Mary. Why not a gospel written by someone who was gay? It is at least worth our time to imagine, don’t you think?

I hope to hear from you – and to see you next Tuesday at 6pm, room 101.

Rev. Joe Hoffman, Senior Minister, First Congregational UCC, Asheville


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BIG Stories of the Bible: Jesus and Zacchaeus

The Monday night Bible Study group explored the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus last night, and even though this is a familiar story, we learned a lot from each other. I want to share a few of our learnings – and invite you to join the conversation.

Luke is the only gospel writer to tell this story. It comes as Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, and traveling through Jericho – which is like a border town. It is a place for a group to  gather and re-group for the final stage of the journey. And Jericho was a place that the kings of Israel would come once a year, in ordinary clothes, and then walk back up the mountain to Jerusalem – a ritual that reminded them that God is in charge of life, and we follow in God’s ways.

The story starts out as a comedy really. Jesus is passing through town. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector and a rich man, wants to see Jesus. But the crowd is large, and he is small in stature. So Zacchaeus runs around the crowd and climbs up in a fig tree in order to see Jesus as he passes by. We talked about running – what would make an important man run through a crowd? It had to be an eagerness, an excitement, a curiosity. But we also learned that in that culture, running was considered embarrassing and shameful. Adults – and particularly important adults – simply did not run. Perhaps you can see the comedy in your mind.

Let me go back and say – in Luke’s gospel, Jesus spends a good bit of time with tax collectors. He eats with them. He spends time with them. They are marginalized folk and he seeks to restore them in community. But Zacchaeus is also a rich man. And the rich are not so well treated in Luke’s gospel. Just a chapter or so before this story, a rich man asks Jesus – what must I do to inherit eternal life. And after some conversation, Jesus says – you are right. Do this, and also give away all that you have, and come follow me. But this was too much for the rich man. Then Jesus said – It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the realm of God.

Zacchaeus does not fit into any easy category. He is marginalized as a tax collector. He is complicit in the systems of corruption. He is rich and that sets him apart. One of our participants last night suggested – Maybe Jesus chose to go to Zacchaeus house because he had the biggest house – and Jesus had a lot of people traveling with him. It is a good point.

Zacchaeus was glad to offer hospitality to Jesus. And while we don’t know what these two men talked about, we do know it was a transforming experience for Zacchaeus. He offers to pay back anyone he might have defrauded, with the designated penalties written into the law. But he says -“If I have defrauded anyone…” We talked about how sometimes we hurt others without knowing we are doing so. What do you think? Did Zacchaeus know he was defrauding or hurting others?

In the end, Jesus says – salvation has come to this house. Salvation means wholeness, being well, being healed. And Jesus calls Zacchaeus a son of Abraham – reinstalling him into the community. Salvation came to his whole household.And Jesus says – the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. This reminds us of earlier parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son. And suddenly we see that at first Zacchaues was seeking Jesus, but in the end we know that Jesus has also been seeking Zacchaeus.

There is good news when we know that whatever our mistakes, our blindness, our struggle, God continues to offer us a radical grace and a healing. We all have the qualities of being disciples – even if they are not our most visible qualities. Each of us is called to let go of whatever gets in our way of living a life of love and grace, to be transformed, and to become part of the community again. Conversion has personal, domestic, social and economic dimensions.Luke never talks about it as a condition of the soul alone. Following Jesus means living differently.

What are your thoughts on this story?

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