Friday, November 21, 2014

The Daughter-in-law from Heaven.

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, November 22, 2014
(Credit: As usual, I accessed the Bible through Blue Letter

Text: The Book of Ruth

Once upon a time there were two young lovers—Eli (Elimelech) and Naomi. They lived on a farm near the town of Bethlehem. They had two boys, Mahlon and Chilion. Life was good.

But as you already know, from the way this story begins, something bad is going to happen. You don't know what's going to happen, but if the story begins with everything wonderful, you know something bad is going to happen. Because wonderful does not last forever, not in this world.

The boys were still toddlers when the drought started. Crops failed. It became a hungry country. Eli and Naomi had enough stored grain to make it for another year, but then . . .? Well, if rain came, everything would be okay. Otherwise . . .

Eli proposed they sell their surplus, take the money and emigrate to Moab. Eli had heard things were better there.

So Eli and Naomi emptied their storehouses. They sold everthing, and given the elevated prices because of the famine, they made a good profit. They took their cash and headed southeast toward Moab.

In Moab, things were better. Perhaps Eli was a trader, a born salesman? However he made his living, it appears the family prospered. The boys grew up. Life was good.

But you it can't last. It's too early in the story. “Life is good” doesn't last forever, not in this world.

Then the great horror happened. Eli died. The prosperous trader, the head of the household, the pillar of the family died. Naomi was devastated. Eli was the light of her life, her protector, her economic security. Now what? She couldn't just quit living. She was a mother. She had two boys who needed her. She pulled the family together. They continued the family business. The boys were old enough to be real help, to act as the public front of the family. The boys got married. Local girls. Moabite girls, not Jewish girls. But they were good girls. Naomi loved them. They loved her.

Naomi looked forward to a houseful of grandkids. She was beginning to fill the void left by Eli with new joys, new anticipations. Life was good.

But you know what's coming. “Life is good” doesn't last forever. Not in this world.

The boys died. Before either of them had children.

This was the bottom, the bottomless abyss, the black chasm. When Eli died, Naomi still had her sons. They needed her. And she could count on them. They were still a family. And when she looked at her sons, she saw their sons and their daughters. She saw a future worth staying alive for. But now?

Naomi looked at her daughters-in-law and didn't see a family. She did not see a future worth staying alive for. She saw young women who needed husbands and families—something Naomi could never provide. She saw young women who would never have Naomi's grandchildren. Naomi could no longer take care of people she loved. In fact, she was now a burden, an impediment. Whatever chances these girls might have of getting married again—Naomi's existence in their lives would be a problem. What man in his right mind would want to marry a girl who came equipped with an ex-mother-in-law?

It was time to split up. “You girls need to go back home. Maybe your fathers can find you another husband. You are both beautiful and good. I love you. You have been the best daughters-in-law a mother could ever hope for. Now, go back home. And may God be as kind to you as you have been to me.”

She hugged the girls. They all clung to one another crying and crying. This was not the way life was supposed to go. But what could they do?

Orpah was the first to speak. “Naomi, I'm not leaving. You are my home. Who will take care of you you if we leave? You are my mother. I love you. I'm not going to leave you.”

Naomi argued. “Look, I have no more sons. I cannot fix you up with a husband. What are three women going to do? How will we manage? You've got to go back to your father's house. I'm headed back to Bethlehem—back to my father's house, I guess you'd say. You should do the same.”

Orpah cried some more. Protested. Cried. Finally, she gave Naomi a last hug. “Okay. I guess you're right.” She pulled herself away and headed down the road toward her father's house.

Naomi turned to Ruth. “Okay, Orpah went home. It's time now for you to go.”

“Don't even say it,” Ruth said. “I'm not leaving. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!

Naomi knew Ruth. She could see the fierceness in her eyes. Naomi capitulated. What else could she do?

The two women headed down the highway toward Bethlehem.

Imagine for a minute watching this as a scene in a movie. We watch Naomi face the reality that her life is over. She has lost everything—her husband, her sons, her livelihood. Her two daughters-in-law are all that is left of sweetness and light and she cannot allow them to stay. The only way to give any shot at all at a future is to send them home.

Watch her arguing with Orpah. Finally Orpah goes. Now she turns to Ruth. Once Ruth is gone, Naomi is going trudge down the road back toward Bethlehem, going home to die. It is a sadness beyond endurance. We feel the length of the road, the hopelessness, the loneliness.

Then we watch the happy fierceness in Ruth's voice. We realize there's a chance Naomi will not be left alone. We hear the words of Ruth's adamant refusal: Don't even think of asking me to leave you. I'm not going away. Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. In the cemetery, my plot will be right next to yours.

The camera follows as the two women together start down the long road. And the tightness in our gut relaxes just a bit. Ruth is the daughter-in-law from heaven. Naomi is not going home alone. Even without the rest of the book, the story is transformed from abject tragedy into a heroic tale.

19 So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? 20 And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me? [Ruth 1:19-21 KJV]

Bethlehem was a small town. When the two women showed up, the entire town was abuzz with the news. Naomi is back. And did you hear, Elimelech died. And Mahlon and Chilion, too. Terrible! All she has left is her Moabite daughter-in-law.

The way Naomi saw it, she was the target of some pique in heaven. God had gotten ticked off at her. It was God who soured her fortunes, who turned her blessings upside down and cursed her. Naomi knew this for sure. She was wrong. But still that's what she knew. Hard times were proof God was against her. Naomi believed this with all her heart.

And she was wrong. And we are wrong when we interpret our hard times this way. But it's so natural to do. Why me? We shout at the sky when things go terribly wrong.

God was not mad at Naomi because she was a woman. She and Ruth are the principal characters, the heroes in this book.

God was not mad at her because she had gone to Moab. There is no hint in this book that Eli and Naomi were wrong to move to Moab. To contrary, the grand climax of the book is that God makes Ruth the Moabitess, the great grandmother of David, the archetypal ancestor of the Messiah.

Ruth and Naomi got settled in on the old farmstead. It was barley harvest and within a few days of arriving back in Bethlehem, Ruth proposed that she go and glean. Naomi approved, and Ruth set out.

In the first field she approaches, the foreman welcomes her. She went to work, carefully staying out of the way of the workers.

Sometime during the morning, the property owner came by to check on the progress of the harvest. He noticed the stranger gleaning. Remember this was a small town. Everyone knew everyone. A stranger stood out.

“Who's that?” Boaz asked the foreman. Actually, what Boaz said was, “Who does she belong to?” In that society, every woman belonged to man—either as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a servant.

But Ruth did not belong to a man. And the foreman, honoring that reality answered by telling Boaz who she was instead of who she belonged to.

“Oh, that's Ruth, the Moabite girl who came back with Naomi. She' s been hard at work all morning.

Boaz had heard the story of Ruth's loyalty to Naomi. Loyalty inspires admiration. Boaz went over to talk with her. “Listen,” he said, “I've heard about your kindness to Naomi. Don't go to any other field. Work here near my servant woman. I have commanded the men not to touch you. You'll be safe here. And feel free to help yourself to water from the jars the men have drawn from the well. Don't go to any other field.”

Ruth blushed. She was amazed that an important person like Boaz would take notice of her. I think it's clear already there is chemistry between these two. Sparks. This is love at first sight, supported, of course, by Ruth's reputation, which had already spread through the entire town.

At lunch time, Boaz was back at the field and pointedly gave treats to Naomi.

When Ruth got home that evening, she told Naomi about her day. Naomi's eye's widened. “Boaz is one of our close relatives. He is qualified to redeem our property. You do what he says. You work only in his fields.”

Ruth worked all through the harvest. First the barley harvest, then the wheat harvest. I imagine there were other evenings when Ruth came home with stories about conversations with Boaz.

Near the end of the harvest, Naomi figured it was time for a strategic intervention.

She instructed Ruth, “Tonight, get yourself all dolled up. After sundown, go down to the threshing floor. Wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking. When he's good and happy and lies down to sleep, sneak over, lie at his feet and ask him to spread his cloak over you.”

Ruth does as Naomi says. Boaz was not just sleepy when Ruth lay down at his feet, he was asleep. Sometime in the night he woke up enough to realize there was someone lying at his feet. He startled and sat up. “Who's there?”

“It's me, Ruth. Spread you cloak over me.” If this were a modern movie, she'd say, “Kiss me.”

“Ruth! Really?” Boaz was flustered. What do you say when a beautiful woman who've been watching all summer suddenly wakes you up in the middle of the night and proposes to you? Boaz goes all formal. “The LORD bless you, my dear girl! You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor. Now don’t worry about a thing. I will do what is necessary, for everyone in town knows you are an amazing woman.”

There was one possible complication, Boaz said. There was another man, another relative, who had a higher claim on the family property than Boaz. “I'll talk to him.” Boaz said. “If he exercises his right, I'll have to step aside, but if he doesn't I will gladly make you my own.

“Stay here with me tonight. In the morning, I'll send you home before first light. Don't tell anyone you've been here, but you can count on me. If that other guy doesn't exercise his prior claim, I will certainly marry you.”

Ruth stayed with him through the night. I imagine both of them trembling with eagerness and fear. They both wanted this marriage. They were in love. But in that society love did not trump other considerations, like property rights. Ruth belonged to Naomi's property. Whoever owned the property would own Ruth. Ruth wanted to belong to Boaz. Boaz wanted Ruth to be his.

Just as the blackness of the eastern horizon began to touched with light, Ruth headed home. When she got home she bubbled over telling Naomi all about her night. Naomi said, “Don't worry, he will not let any grass grow under his feet. He'll take care of it today.”

And he did.

There was a wedding. Nine months later there was a baby boy.

At the shower after the birth, the women gathered around Naomi who was holding the baby.

Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the LORD, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!”

This son was Obed, the grandfather of David, the archetypal king of Israel, the model of Israel's vision of the Messiah. The movie ends with this scene of Naomi cuddling her grandson. In the background, her daughter-in-law from heaven and her new son-in-law.

But did you catch that last line spoken by the women gathered around Naomi and baby Obed? “Ruth, your daughter-in-law is better than seven sons! What a celebration! What an affirmation!

In a society where every women was the property of a man and sons were the names recorded in genealogies, Ruth is declared to be more precious to Naomi than seven sons.

And it was true.

Early in the story, we saw dramatic evidence of Naomi's goodness. Her daughters-in-law, even after their husbands have died, even when it was clear their mother-in-law had absolutely nothing of this world's goods to give them, both Ruth and Orpah clung to her. Naomi must have been the mother-in-law from heaven. What Ruth saw of God in the face and life of Naomi must have been glorious, indeed.

Then the tables turned. Ruth saved Naomi. When Naomi thought all that was left to her was to trudge home and die. Alone. Ruth fiercely refused. I will not leave you. I will go with you.

Then through her family connections Naomi is able to provide for Ruth the husband Naomi had thought it utterly impossible to provide.

And Ruth—the charming, hard-working, winsome lass—won Boaz's affection and now provided Naomi the grandson she knew she would never have, and a home where she will be loved and sustained in her old age.

It was the perfect Thanksgiving scene, a family at peace. Connected across the generations, in spite of the losses and tragedies, in spite of the chaos of life.

Who has been a Naomi in your life? Representing the very face of God? Who has shown you that God is love? Who has given you hope and affection and love?

Who has been a Ruth in your life? Refusing to accept your own capitulation to defeat? Has someone given you back your life when you did not think living was possible?

This week as we approach Thanksgiving, I invite you to search your memory for the people who have blessed your life, people who have been the goodness of God for you. And I invite you to spend some time in prayer, asking God to help you find ways to be the face of God, the goodness of God, for someone else. Complete the circle of beneficence that flows from heaven in blessings and returns in thanksgiving.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Adventist Church and Homosexuals

If I had a magic wand, I would have the Annual Council vote something like this:

God's ideal for humans as portrayed in the first two chapters of Genesis is that every man and every woman find a happy, life-long home in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage that produces good children who will in turn have grandchildren. The church is committed to doing everything we can to support people in pursuit of this ideal.

We recognize that not every person can live this ideal. There are childless couples, people who are single for decades in spite of their preference, divorced people, homosexuals, people who have been married several times. These people are members of our churches. They respond to our evangelism. How should we respond to these non-ideal lives?

Here is what I would require, if I were writing the rules:

  1. Any clergy serving in leadership above the local congregation must be married only once and not divorced. They must be parents and if the majority of their children have rejected the church, this should be seen as a major impediment to continued service in any position above that of a local congregation.
  2. Single persons would not be qualified to serve in leadership at administrative levels above the local congregation.
  3. The church would not ordain homosexuals to the clergy.
  4. Adventist clergy would be prohibited from solemnizing homosexual marriages, just as Adventist clergy already are forbidden to perform marriages in which only one of the persons is Adventist. (And just as there are pastors who quietly disregard the rules regarding “mixed marriages” there would be pastors who would quietly disregard the rules regarding homosexual unions.)
  5. The denomination would forbid use of its churches for forbidden marriages.
  6. The denomination would refrain from promulgating rules for how congregations manage their response to homosexuals and to people who divorce and remarry. Congregations would be allowed to respond on a case-by-case basis to these situations. 

My rationale for the above set of policies.

There is already precedent for allowing exceptions to full agreement with the doctrines of the church.

There is a loud clamor in official church circles these days declaring that belief in 6 days/6000 years is an absolute requirement for being Adventist. Ted Wilson declaims, “If you don't believe in a short chronology you are not Adventist.” But I have personally heard Fernando Canale say that if a scientist believes all the rest of our doctrines and keeps Sabbath and pays tithe, he would baptize such a person into the Adventist Church. Michael Hasel was present and did not demur.

If this doctrine can be set aside in exceptional cases, why can we not, in exceptional cases, set aside our doctrine about the absolute necessity of heterosexual marriage?

This approach requires from homosexuals an acknowledgment of the church's ideal of marriage—which is heterosexual, life-long marriage. Homosexual unions are other than this ideal. This approach requires from traditional members a recognition of the fact that the ideal is not possible for all people and that non-traditional relationships are righteous even if not ideal.

The inhumanity of enforced celibacy.

We rightly lament the damage to persons that flows from the Catholic requirement of celibacy for participation in the ordained ministry. Yet we require life-long celibacy by homosexuals as a requirement for participation in church life. This is inhumane. The inhumanity of this requirement is highlighted by the fact that church officials who vote on the doctrines and policies intended to impose this obedience on homosexuals have themselves typically been active sexually for at least twenty years. Even the homosexuals we promote as advocates of celibacy have had decades of sexual engagement.

But something further needs to be said. The requirement of celibacy is not merely a restriction on genital activity. It requires sexual beings to carefully avoid deep friendships and real intimacy because of the “threat” these kinds of close relationships inevitably create. The Bible declares it is not good for man to be alone. Yet we say to a whole class of men: you must remain alone for your entire life.

If God calls an individual to such a solitary life, let's us support them in that strenuous calling. But it is evil for us to impose this when we know that we ourselves could never bear it.
Jesus said something to the Pharisees about laying burdens on others. It was not a compliment. It is the height of spiritual arrogance to teach others there is an onerous requirement for salvation that they must meet—a requirement which we ourselves have never even contemplated attempting.

Even-handed church law

If we are going to bar practicing homosexuals from our congregations we ought to bar divorced and remarried people from our congregations. Then we ought to bar from being elders and pastors all who come short of Paul's requirement: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him.”

For now.

What I have written is not some final destination. It is a description of a place where we might be able to live together for awhile. I expect that over time the church will follow society in learning to place homosexual relationships within a moral framework analogous to the moral framework for heterosexual relationships. Attentiveness and loyalty will be affirmed. Promiscuity and unfaithfulness will be condemned.
We will come to see the picture in Genesis—a man and woman together in a life-long, happy monogamous marriage that produces children—as an ideal, not a standard. Our rules will be informed by this ideal and by the actual reality of available life.

My sermon on Matthew 19 can be found here:

An article I wrote for my church newsletter that explains the foundation for my theology can be found here:

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Foundation of Good Religion

Some preliminary thoughts in response to a thoughtful question from Nicholas Miller.

To be human is to be religious.

The earliest homo sapien sites known to science give evidence of ritual.

In the last century, the societies that tried to eradicate religion ended up creating rituals, pageantry, and even “deities” that mimicked religion. (For example, Stalin in the Soviet Union, Hitler in Nazi Germany, and Mao in China.)

Most readers of this paper will be religious. Even those who label themselves “spiritual but not religious,” generally are religious if we use the word in its broad sense. Their self-chosen label is meant as a protest against what they see as distortions and errors in dominant religious institutions and an affirmation of what they see as valuable at the heart of humanity's religious instincts.

Given the variety of religions, where do we start in figuring out what is right and best?

I begin with creation and assertions about the character of God and the character of humanity.

(Footnote 1. I do not start with the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are legislation. They are appropriately negative and specific to a particular time and place. They are founded on universal principles, but not all the details of the Ten Commandments are universal. For instance, the references to donkeys in commandments four and nine, the reference to the “land” in commandment five, and the prohibition of the making of sculptures or statues in commandment two.)

The Character of God and Humanity

The Bible begins with the dual assertions that God and humans are not identical and that God and humans are similar. God made humanity in his image.

Humans were male and female, so no single individual embodies the totality of humanity. Humanity in its fullness exists only in community. Christians understand this to point back toward God: God is not an individual, but a community with a perfectly coherent purpose. This is the heart of the Adventist doctrine of the Trinity.

Adam and Eve were to serve as lords of creation. They were sexual beings designed to create good children who would in turn create good grandchildren. They were to live in an unbroken union that sustained and completed each of them. This is the “image of God.” This was the Creation ideal.

In the Creation ideal there is no hint of a “single adult” or a childless pair. Aloneness is merely a preparation for joyous union, and childlessness is merely preliminary to fruitfulness.

God delighted in creation. He looked at what he had made and said it was very good. He created Sabbath as a sign of his pleasure.

Then Adam and Eve sinned. The world was no longer the way God intended. What does God do? God begins bending, accommodating the new realities of humanity.

Cain is the first single person—wandering alone. He is cursed for murdering his brother, but he is protected in his singleness. God put a mark on him so no one would kill him. (Note: God's response to murder is stern condemnation, but not capital punishment. Approved execution of murderers is linked in the Bible with making slaves, polygamy, prohibiting shaving and mixed fibers in clothing, and executing rebellious children.)

Then Adam has another son, Seth, and the Bible makes explicit the notion that God is like a father. The Creator was not merely an artist. The Creator is a Father. So every human action, even the most egregiously evil actions, are traceable back to God. God fathered the wrong doer, so while wrong doers are morally responsible for their actions, God also takes some measure of responsibility. This is the foundation of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. We are all in this together—and the “we” includes God. The strong and weak, the smart and the mentally disabled, the righteous and the unrighteous, the wage earner and the diaper-wearer, the divine and the human—the Bible's view of the universe puts us together. This communal view of humanity stands in radical opposition to the unrealistic individualism epitomized by Ayn Rand.

The Character of God

Influenced by Ellen White, Adventists frequently refer to the law as a transcript of God's character. This can be used in two very different ways. Do we begin our thinking about law by meditating on the character of God as revealed in Creation and Jesus? Or do we begin out thinking about law by focusing on some “model legislation” such as the Ten Commandments?

Some Adventists take the second approach. I take the first.

Taking the second approach, we insist that God the Father will eventually annihilate the vast majority of his children because they used the gift of free will to rebel against God and goodness. Taking the first approach, I argue God will eventually save the vast majority of his children because that's what good fathers do. 
Taking the second approach, married theologians living in Adventist ghettoes, casually write legislation for the conduct of single people and pairs incapable of having children and homosexuals--legislation that imposes on others obligations the theologians would never consider taking on themselves. This reminds of the words of Jesus to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 about loading burdens on others. It stands in stark contrast to good fathers who always impose stricter more burdensome obligations on themselves than they do on their children.

The second approach begins its systematic approach to religion with the assumption that the Ten Commandments are the preeminent legislation. The first approach begins its explication of religion with the ideals of Creation and moves to the revelation of the character of God in Jesus. Only as a third step does it move to legislation.

You get different religions depending on how you rank the value of these different perspectives on law. (Just to be clear: I believe the church as a social organization needs legislation. I just argue that as a spiritual community, legislation must be strongly informed by the vision of God's character provided by Jesus.)


Legislation is concerned with tolerable limits of behavior, not ideals. God's ideal for humans is that every man and every woman should be married and have children. The question to be answered by church legislation is how should we as a church accommodate those persons for whom this ideal is not possible. What do we do with people who cannot live safely with their spouse? What do we do about people who cannot marry? What about couples who cannot have children? What do we do about 80 year old widows who have fallen in love with 80 year old men--who, if they marry, will lose their pension and thus their housing? In short, how do we respond to the exceptional cases? Does bending to accommodate exceptional cases destroy the ideal? I think not. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Legally Dumb

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, October 28, 2014

Texts. Leviticus 19:9-19
Matthew 19:1-15

Yesterday I got home a little before 5 p.m. As I got out of the car I was spotted by a few beady-eyed expectant chickens. I carried some stuff into the house. When I came back out, I could scarcely get off the back porch. Thirty chickens were clustered at the bottom of the steps. A few more were running my direction.

I felt like a rock star. I pushed my way through the mob and headed for the barn, barely avoiding stepping on chickens that crowded my feet.

It was dinner time.

I got a scoop of chicken feed and headed to the back side of the barn where I feed.

I made little piles here and there trying to reduce the amount of squabbling between hungry birds.

Once the feed was on the ground I could hear the sounds of birds snatching food bits from the ground. Every now and then a bird would look my direction to see if I was going to throw out any more food. For a very few minutes, I enjoyed a certain sense of magical power.

I think it was something like this with Jesus.

Everywhere he went, people clustered in expectation. They were going to receive good stuff. Recall the words Dianne read a few minutes ago.

Jesus left Galilee and went down to the region of Judea east of the Jordan River. Large crowds followed him there, and he healed their sick.

Of course, they followed him. Of course, they clustered around him.

In a world without morphine, he offered relief from pain.
In a world without antibiotics, he cured infectious disease.
In a world without wheel chairs, he restored mobility.
In a world without Braille, he gave sight to the blind.
And sometimes he fed them.

No wonder the people thronged him everywhere he went.

But Jesus was also a problem. He was a problem for theologians and the clergy and the civic authorities. He threatened the established order. Jesus made these guardians of the established order in religion and society nervous. Since Jesus drew huge crowds, the theologians could not ignore him. In fact, they hounded him constantly.

The people came for healing. The theologians came to try to limit the impact of Jesus teaching.

The people came hungry for healing and wisdom. The theologians came to argue.

Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: "Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?"

Scholars tell us that among the Jewish theologians at that time this was a lively question. Some conservative Jewish theologians believed divorce should be completely illegal and some liberal theologians argued divorce should be legal in all situations.

The Pharisees figured if they could get Jesus to take sides in this debate, it would be a fine rhetorical trap. If he sided with the conservatives they could ask about extreme cases. What about when there was a real threat of bodily harm or even murder? Should divorce be illegal even in those cases? What if the woman could not have children? Surely he would not expect a man to forgo having children just because his wife was sterile.

On the other hand, if Jesus sided with the liberal theologians, they could accuse him of undermining the very institution of marriage, the foundation of human society. You can't go squishy on something as vital as marriage.

"Haven't you read the Scriptures?" Jesus replied. "They record that from the beginning 'God made them male and female.' And he said, 'This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.' Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together."

Jesus sides solidly with the conservative position. No divorce. When people get married, they create a new, divinely-blessed entity called a couple. If you split a marriage, you are going counter to the purpose of God. Jesus even cites the Bible to back up his stance. He references Genesis Two.

The Pharisees are taken aback. They did not expect this. Jesus was a liberal. He was always expressing mercy and understanding for human weakness. The Pharisees themselves were not prepared to live this ideal. Jesus' words caught them off guard.

"Then why [they sputtered] did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?" they asked.

Jesus quoted the Bible in support of the fundamental permanence of marriage. The Pharisees quoted the Bible back in support of divorce.

This highlights something about religious arguments. We can almost always find support in the Bible for whatever rule we want to impose on others or for any loophole we want for ourselves and our friends. The Pharisees were not looking for wisdom. They were looking for an argument. They wanted Jesus to define a rule so they could then debate the fine points of that rule.

Jesus refuses to play their game. He goes straight to the fundamental principle that undergirds marriage—God's ideal for humanity, according to the creation story, is for a man and woman to marry and to have children—and to live happily ever after. That's the way it's supposed to go.

Jesus continued:

"Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. (this last phrase reads literally, it was not so from the beginning.)

Then, just in case they didn't get it, Jesus pushed it further:

And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery--unless his wife has been unfaithful."

So there you have it. Unless your wife has run off with someone else, you're stuck. :-)

If your wife puts poison in your soup, that's no excuse. If she beats you black and blue or hires her brother to do it for her, sorry, you're stuck. If there are no children. If she gets tired of you bossing her around and starts answering back. . . .

If you're looking for rule, there it is: once you're married, you're stuck. The Pharisees might have been inclined to argue further because they were not there to learn. The disciples, on the other hand, took everything Jesus said with great seriousness. They thought Jesus was setting up a new law and they worried it would be impossible to keep.

"If this is the case, it is better not to marry!"

In responding to his disciples, Jesus finally acknowledges he is not actually setting up some new law to replace the law of Moses. He was reminding people of the Creation ideal: a man and woman together forever in a harmonious union. A relationship that was so free and confident the two persons could be naked together with no risk of shame. This is the ideal. It is not always possible.

"Not everyone can accept this statement," Jesus said. "Only those whom God helps. (or, “but only those to whom it is given.”)

Jesus goes on to make a cryptic statement that no one really understands:

Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."

Whatever the details of meaning lie behind this statement, what it says on its face is this: human sexuality cannot be neatly prescribed by any law. We cannot go back to the Creation story and try to write a law for today. There were no eunuchs in the Creation story. This kind of human aberration were clearly not part of God's original plan for humanity, but Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven included even these folks.

You can almost see the Pharisees sputtering with more questions. But, but, what about polygamy? What about the stories of King David and his many wives? What about the rules in the Old Testament about men marrying the widows of their brothers? What if a woman can't have children? There were all sorts of questions Jesus didn't address. All kinds of rules to argue about. But Jesus was ready to move on.

If the Pharisees wanted a rule, he gave them one: no divorce. Ever. Period.

But if they understood the principles of the kingdom of heaven, they would know that God meets us where we actually live, not in some hypothetical state.

Let me say this to you:

God's ideal for humanity is for a man and a woman to marry and have children. That's the creation ideal. And the Kingdom of God—and the Church of God—has lots of room for people who cannot live that ideal.

If you are getting beat up at home—get out and get help. If your spouse or parents or children are abusing you, tell someone. Tell me. Tell one of the elders here in the congregation. We will help you. We will find help and protection for you.

If you are living in a marriage that is less than the creation ideal, a marriage where sometimes you have secrets, where sometimes you are not happy, where sometimes you are tempted to call it quits. Don't run too quickly to explore your legal options to get out. Do all you can first to rekindle the early fire. Do all you can to pursue the ideal of heaven.

If divorce must come, make sure it comes only after every other option has been tried.

If you fit into that mysterious category of “eunuchs”--and here I'm using the term metaphorically to refer to those whose sexuality is not congruent with the model presented in the creation story—if you are one of those eunuchs, know that Jesus made a place for you, too, in the kingdom of heaven. Don't let the Pharisees impose their rules on you.

One last point here, before we move on. When the Pharisees asked about a rule for divorce, Jesus said the only exception to the rule against divorce was adultery. Which was a little holy humor because in Matthew 5, Jesus had said that looking at a woman with desire was already adultery. Taken literally as a legal precedent, this would mean that every woman here is free to dump her husband. And if we are even handed, most of the men would also be free to dump their wives. Jesus is not writing legislation here. He is pointing us to ideals that are higher and nobler than any law could ever hope to be.

If you want wisdom for your life, Jesus reminds you of God's ideal for humanity—a life-long, happy marriage. If that is not possible for you, then aim for the place in life that is closest to that ideal.

If you are looking for rules to cover all the cases where that ideal is not possible, Jesus refuses to go there.

Rules are necessary in any community. They are necessary in the church. But rules are a statement of the lowest tolerable level life. They do not embody our dreams. They embody our fears and concerns.

Jesus calls us higher.

We began with a picture of crowds gathering to Jesus. Jesus drew them irresistibly.

The theologians show up and try to slow the momentum of hope and healing by asking complicated questions about rules.

I was reminded of these theologians by one of the chickens yesterday afternoon. After I put out the piles of food, one of the roosters, Archie, ran around chasing some of the birds away. They did not deserve to eat. There is one rooster in particular that Archie will chase if that rooster is anywhere in sight. Archie will run fifty or sixty feet across the yard to chase that rooster away from the food. I have to sneak this rooster food around the corner of the barn where Archie can see what we're doing.

It was like that with these theologians. They wanted to make sure that no unauthorized people enjoyed the favor of God. They wanted to make sure everyone had passed their standards.

Jesus did not let these theologians get away with their effort to write the rules for the kingdom of heaven. Jesus explicitly opened the kingdom of heaven to people who were formally excluded from full participation in Jewish worship.

After addressing the theologians, Jesus turned his attention to the really important people.

One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. But Jesus said, "Let the children come to me. Don't stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children." And he placed his hands on their heads and blessed them before he left.

Why did the disciples send these parents away? Because that's what they thought Jesus would want. In that culture kids were not important. Half of them died anyway. Don't get too attached to them. Parents with kids were certainly not worth taking the time of the Messiah, a preacher who was constantly surrounded by crowds of thousands.

But the preacher said otherwise. “Let the children come. Don't stop them. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.

Jesus confronts the devout religious culture of his day.

The theologians said that women had no status. A man could dump his wife at will, because the man's will, the man's judgment was supreme. Jesus said. No. Just because it was legal to divorce at will did not make it moral.

The devout religious culture of Jesus' day knew without any question that people with sexual irregularities were properly excluded from full inclusion in the worship of God's people. Jesus included them in the kingdom of heaven.

Even the disciples of Christ dismissed children as beneath the concern of the Messiah. Jesus corrected them.

What about us? Will we pat ourselves on the back because we do not murder, don't rob banks or cheat on our spouses or on our exams? Or will we allow Jesus to spur us to dream of doing truly great things? Will we seek to build together relationships that mirror the dreams of God in creation? Will we join Jesus in touching the world with hope and healing? Will we welcome all of God's children?


Monday, October 20, 2014

Countermanding the very Words of God - revised

Countermanding the Very Words of God:
Biblical Guidance for the Church
in its Ministry to People with Sexual and Gender Irregularities

By John McLarty

Sometimes, to do right we must countermand the very words of God. This sounds blasphemous, but it is plainly taught in the Bible.

Example one: Jesus in Matthew 5

Jesus declares, “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” So Jesus supersedes the words of God in Deuteronomy 24:1 with his own dictum.

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ “But I say to you, do not swear at all . . .“But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” Here Jesus contradicts the explicit language of Numbers, warning people that if they follow literally what God said in Numbers regarding oaths, their words will be “from the evil one.”

Finally, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Here Jesus contradicts God's prescription for justice, a prescription that is stated three times in the Pentateuch. Jesus calls instead for radical mercy.

You might counter, Jesus was God. As God, he had the authority to contradict or supersede words God had previously spoken. But if we mere mortals dared to challenge God that would be blasphemy.

My response: Not always. Consider the story of Abraham.

Example two: Abraham and Sodom

God tells Abraham he is going to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah. The implication is that judgment (doom) is at hand. God does not ask Abraham for his opinion. God simply announces his intentions. Instead of bowing and agreeing, Abraham challenges God, accusing him of injustice.

Surely you wouldn't do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn't do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” Genesis 18:24-25.

Abraham does not approach this conversation with God as a sycophantic courtier. He is not the president's lawyer inventing legal justification for “enhanced interrogation.” To press it further, Abraham does not respond to God with an “Oswald Chambers-like” submission. Abraham knows God has the power to do whatever he wants, but having the power does not automatically confer the right. For Abraham, God's overwhelming power does not confer indisputable authority. God must conform himself to justice.

God readily agreed to Abraham's conditions limiting God's freedom to act destructively against the cities, and when the investigating angels couldn't find even the ten righteous inhabitants specified by Abraham, God honored Abraham's scruples by evacuating Lot and his family before the fire fell (Genesis 18, 19).

We could appropriately argue that God intended Abraham to act the part of “savior” in this story. God announced an investigation, Abraham knowing the moral plight of the Sodomites, stepped in to plead for them. In this story, God was deliberately setting up Abraham as a type of the Savior. Interpreted this way the passage makes my point even more strongly: The mission of Christians is not to join God in his work of “investigating” and “condemning.” Our job is to join the God the Savior in advocating for mercy.

Example Three: Moses and the Idolatrous Israelites

The people of Israel were camped at Mt. Sinai. Moses was up on the mountain communing with God. After Moses had been on the mountain for weeks, the people began to fret. They wanted a visible god to lead them. So Aaron made a golden calf and the people began dancing around this idol in worship. God informed Moses of this problem and then gave him a direct order,

Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” Exodus 32:10

In the case of Abraham and Sodom, Abraham challenged God. Here, Moses defies God. He countermands the very words of God. There is no hint of diffidence or ambiguity in God's command. Moses understands it perfectly. But instead of obeying and getting out of the way, Moses questions God's judgment. “God, I don't think you really want to do that. If you do it, you'll be sorry.” Later, Moses upped his protest. “I will not step aside. To kill them, you're going to have to go through me.”

God backed down.

Both Abraham and Moses are celebrated as righteous men. Their challenges to the very words of God are recognized as acts of righteousness. These leaders were honored by God for their obedience and also for their bold challenges.

Example four: Joshua and the Gibeonites

The people of Israel invaded Palestine. At Jericho, acting on orders from heaven, they annihilated every man, woman, child and animal—except Rahab and everyone in her hotel. After Jericho, the Israelites destroyed the city and people of Ai. Both of these savage exterminations were ordered explicitly by God. When tribal groups throughout Palestine heard the news, they formed a league to fight the invaders. The Gibeonites, however, tried a different tactic. They sent a delegation to ask for a peace treaty with the Israelites.

When the emissaries arrived, Joshua interrogated them. “Who are you? Where do you come from?”

The ambassadors answered, “Your servants have come from a very distant country. Stories of your exploits have reached even as far as our country. We've heard about what your God did to the Egyptians and to Hesbon and Bashon. We have come offer ourselves as vassals. We're prepared to pay tribute. We just want to be on your side. We want to connect with the God who is able to do what your God does.”

Joshua responded, “God has forbidden us to make treaties with any one in this area. How do we know you live far enough away for us to even consider making a treaty?”

The Gibeonites managed to convince Joshua and the elders that they did, in fact, live far away. Joshua and the elders agreed to a treaty. A few days later the Israelites discovered they'd been fooled. The Gibeonites lived only three days away from the Israelite camp. The Israelites were outraged. They marched to the region of Gibeon to annihilate these deceiving Canaanites.

Once in the Gibeonite neighborhood, however, Joshua restrained his army. “We gave our word,” he said. “When we make a promise, we keep it. Even to pagans. Even if they tricked us.”

The army was outraged at Joshua's refusal to exterminate these worthless people. They threatened mutiny, but Joshua was adamant. “Yes, they are Canaanites. Yes, they fooled us. Yes, they are on God's extermination list. Yes, God forbade us to make a treaty with people like this. But, no, we are not going to break our word. A treaty is a treaty. An oath is an oath.”

Joshua summoned the Gibeonite leaders. “Why did you deceive us, saying you lived a long way away?”

The Gibeonites answered, “Your servants had heard definite, detailed reports about the command your God gave you to wipe out all the inhabitants of the land. We've seen your God's power in Egypt and in the battles against Sihon, king of Hesbon, and Og, king of Bashon, and Jericho and Ai. We are helpless against you militarily. We did the only thing we could think of to save our lives. We are in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right.”

So Joshua saved them. He imposed severe “tribute.” They were consigned to serve as temple slaves in perpetuity. But they were alive.

God's command to wipe out the people of Canaan was so emphatic, so clear and unmistakable, the pagan people themselves had memorized it. There was nothing fuzzy in God's directions. God had ordered the Israelites to exterminate these wicked people. When Joshua saved the Gibeonites, he was countermanding the very words of God. Was he right to do so?

A few generations later, King Saul violated the treaty Joshua had made and tried to carry out God's command to exterminate the Gibeonites. During the reign of the next king, David, God sent a famine to punish Israel for Saul's effort to obey God's extermination decree. To atone for Saul's actions against the Gibeonites David executed seven of Saul's descendants. Only after this act of retribution against Saul's family did God revoke the famine decree. Whatever else we make of this story, it clearly demonstrates God's endorsement of Joshua's contravention of God's explicit command regarding the peoples of Canaan. Joshua, a type of Christ, disobeyed the divine command and saved the condemned people. Saul, a type of Satan, attempted to carry out God's verdict of condemnation. Is there any question about which of these leaders is a more appropriate model for leaders today? (For an example of the righteous breaking of an oath for destruction see the story of Jonathan and the honey in 1 Samuel 14.)

Doing right is more important than obeying God.”

Of course, as believers, we would say this differently. We would say that doing right is the truest, purest interpretation of God's words. If obeying God's words leads someone to mistreat people, we would argue the perpetrator has misunderstood God, that God's words didn't really mean what they thought. But I put it the other way, because sometimes we are so sure we know what God meant by what he said, that our consciences are anesthetized. When American Adventists expressed support for the American use of torture during the Iraq war, they imagined they were merely showing respect for Paul's words about the ruler and his sword. The whole world could see that American practices of rendition and torture were evil, but some of my own church members thought they saw justification for these things in the Bible. When Charlie Fuqua, an Arkansas Republican, proposed legislation that would allow parents to seek the death penalty for an incorrigible child, he was attempting to be faithful to his understanding of the words of God recorded in the Bible.

These examples of people misusing the words of God show that it is not enough to ask, “What did God say?” Sometimes a better question is, “What is right?” Adventists are champions of God's Law. We see the divine law as an explication of eternal principles. The foundation for the law is so universal, so noble and exalted, God himself is not free to violate it. Obviously, if God is bound by the eternal law of love and justice, we mere mortals not free to violate it even if the Bible orders us to do so.

If our consciences—feeble and scarred as they are—warn us against an injustice, courageous leaders among God's people will join Abraham and speak up, even if there are words in Scripture which can be cited in support of the injustice. We will not allow traditional understandings of the explicit words of God to seduce or coerce us into complicity with institutional or societal injustice. We will refuse to be seduced into imagining that our cooperation with injustice is the will of God.

In the Bible, one criteria shows up repeatedly for countermanding the words of God: mercy. Abraham argued to save Sodom on that basis. Moses saved Israel from the understandable wrath of God. In the case of the Gibeonites, Joshua faced two contradictory, legally-binding claims: God's verdict of destruction and his own oath of protection. Certainly customary justice would privilege God's command over a human's oath. However, mercy triumphed, setting aside the very command of God.

Example five: Jesus and the Sidonian Woman

When the pagan woman from the neighborhood of Sidon asked for Jesus' help, he ignored her. When this did not dissuade her, Jesus announced that helping her would violate his God-given mission. Then Jesus compared her to a dog which meant the gospel was not to be preached to her (See Matthew 7:6). Jesus could hardly have been more explicit about her place outside God's favor. In face of this reiterated, explicit rejection citing God as the authority, the woman refused to yield. Instead of submitting to plain meaning of Jesus' words, the woman turned them back against him: even dogs get crumbs. Finally, Jesus capitulated. Jesus (God) bent to the insistence of this mother who demanded mercy for her tormented daughter. To dramatize the divine capitulation, Jesus said to the woman, “May it be for you as you wish.” (Not “as I wish.” Not “as God's wishes.” “As you wish!”)

We believe Jesus' words expressing exclusion were a dramatic set up for his eventual gracious response to this mother. We believe his initial rejection was only apparent. Its purpose was to demonstrate all the more powerfully the universality of the kingdom of heaven. God was speaking through the mother when she rejected the explicit words of Jesus and demanded mercy. Her words, not the initial words of Jesus, were the truest expression of the purpose of God. (Of course, Jesus was deliberately eliciting her words.) Which brings us back to the truth captured in Jesus' twice repeated quotation from Hosea: “You would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'”

Some real-life applications

Occasionally, devout, conservative Christians talk to me about their quandary regarding their homosexual friends and children. They read the Bible's explicit condemnations of homosexual acts. On the other hand, they have a gut sense that our condemnation of all homosexual unions is wrong. They know the words of Romans 1 do not describe their homosexual friends. What to do? How can it be righteous to set aside the explicit words of the Bible to accommodate this virtually unalterable human condition? I point my devout, conservative friends to the story of Joshua and the Gibeonites. Yes, like Joshua's soldiers, we can quote words of God to justify condemning the class of people we call homosexuals. Or we can act like Joshua and put the full weight of our influence and leadership into protecting and welcoming these vulnerable people who seek sanctuary among us. Surely Joshua, a type of Christ, is a more righteous model for us than his soldiers.
When we ask if there are any words in the Bible that can be used to justify excluding people, we are acting like Jesus' disciples who wanted Jesus to send away the Sidonian mother. We are acting like Joshua's soldiers who wanted to be God's enforcers. The Bible is crystal clear that it was Joshua and Jesus who did right, not the soldiers and disciples. We are called to follow the example of Joshua and Jesus.

Our treatment of homosexuals cannot be separated from the lessons of Christian history in regard to slavery. The Bible explicitly condones and regulates slavery. For centuries, Christians used these words of the Bible to justify the status quo of slavery. We now know they were tragically wrong. No matter what Deuteronomy or Ephesians says about the legitimacy of slavery, Christians now decry its immorality. Even though there is no explicit warrant in the Bible for abolition, Christians now agree this non-biblical stance is right. What was explicitly allowed by the words of the Bible is now universally condemned as immoral.

Something similar has happened in regard to the death penalty. The Bible prescribes death by stoning for Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, rebellious sons, homosexual unions, women unable to prove their virginity at their wedding, blasphemers, witches, and rape victims if the rape occurred within the city limits. The people of God rightly judge any attempt to impose these Bible commandments in our day as barbaric and immoral.

We fail to cooperate with God when we use his words as weapons for defending the privileges of the privileged or as cudgels for keeping less-privileged people in their place. We partner with God when we use the Bible as an instrument of mercy or as a device for opening prison gates. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read Isaiah's words as his mission statement:

The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to
the poor;
He has sent Me
to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to
the blind,
set at liberty those who are oppressed
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.

When the people fully realized what Jesus was saying, when they understood the full measure of his radical mercy, they rushed to throw him off a cliff. I pray we will not be equally offended by the radical mercy of God in our day. I pray that we will instead rush to join him in his mission, welcoming the unattractive, protecting the threatened. To reference another of Isaiah's prophecies (Isaiah 56), we are called to participate with God in providing sanctuary for even the eunuchs and aliens in God's house of prayer.

John McLarty is senior pastor of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Seattle, Washington and author of Adventist Spirituality for Thinkers and Seekers published by Review and Herald.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jon Henderson Chaplain PUC

Jon's sermon title Adam and Steve was wonderful beyond any words to describe. It went way beyond dealing with the issue of homosexuality, it was an exquisite, charming, true presentation of God and the Gospel.

I hear good preaching at my church every month on the weeks I don't preach. Still, this sermon transported me like nothing I've heard in a very long time.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kindness of Barbarians

Kindness of Barbarians
Sermon Manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, October 4, 2014

Texts: Joshua 6:16-23
Matthew 1:1-6a

And Joshua saved Rahab the harlot alive, and her father's household, and all that she had; and she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day; because she hid the messengers, which Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. Joshua 6:25

By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. Hebrews 11:31

Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? James 2:25

About three thousand years ago, a woman named Rahab ran a hotel/brothel in the city of Jericho. Jericho is perched in the hills on the west side of the Jordan River. And the town was buzzing with rumors about a wild bunch of people called the Hebrews who were moving north on the east side of the river. The Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt, the world super power of the time. Some forty years ago, their God had rescued them from Egypt through a series of astounding miracles. Now these Hebrews were not far away on the other side of the Jordan River.

So far, no one had been able to resist them. Not the super power, Egypt, or the smaller desert kingdoms.

Jericho was ready. Their army was on full alert. They had impregnable walls. Still, given the success of the Hebrews and the rumors about their terrible power, the whole city of Jericho was on edge.

So one evening when a couple of strangers showed up at Rahab's establishment, it didn't take Rahab long to figure out they must be Hebrews. Others suspected the same and the authorities were notified. Rahab knew the police were coming and she managed to get the men away from the other guests without creating a scene and sneaked them into hiding up on her roof just before the police showed up.

“Yes, the men were here,” she told the police. “They left just a little while ago headed back out of town. If you hurry you will probably catch them.”

The police believed her and took off after the fugitives.

Later that evening when things had calmed down, Rahab went back up on the roof to talk to her visitors.

“I know the LORD has given you this land,” she told them. “We are all afraid of you. Everyone in the land is living in terror. For we have heard how the LORD made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt. And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River, whose people you completely destroyed. No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! No one has the courage to fight after hearing such things. For the LORD your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below. “Now swear to me by the LORD that you will be kind to me and my family since I have helped you. Give me some guarantee that when Jericho is conquered, you will let me live, along with my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all their families.”

“We offer our own lives as a guarantee for your safety,” the men agreed. “If you don’t betray us, we will keep our promise and be kind to you when the LORD gives us the land.” Joshua 2

The Hebrews crossed the Jordan River. They marched around Jericho every day for a week. Then on the seventh day, the walls miraculously fell down. Joshua, the Hebrew leader, had given very strict instructions: slaughter everybody. Destroy everything. Except for Rahab and Rahab's house. And everybody in Rahab's house.

Curiously, later Bible writers ignore the genocide. They do not remind us of what the Hebrew army did to the people and animals of Jericho. The prophets do invite us to remember the fierceness of God's wrath toward Jericho or the savagery of the Hebrew army. The prophets draw no lessons from the stories of slaughter in the books of Joshua and Judges. The stories remain. They are part of the history of the people of God. It is a dark history, a caution against pride. Our religion came from a people who at one time made genocide part of their religion. We are not proud of that, but it is the truth. So the stories remain in the Bible, but the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament find no inspiration in them, no wisdom.

Except for the part about Rahab—her story is a source of bright, exalted theology.

She was a barbarian, a Philistine, a pagan, a prostitute. She has become of the richest examples of the work of the Messiah!

And there's more.

Rahab is introduced at the beginning of the story as a prostitute. According to Jewish law, that made her worthy of being stoned to death. Identifying Rahab as a prostitute makes a strong point: Rahab comes into the story with an ignominious reputation. No glory. No honor. Shameful.

Then she saved the spies. A single act of heroic kindness. After that prostitution is never mentioned. Instead, she is accorded the highest honor a Jewish woman could think of: She is identified as one of the “mothers” of the Messiah. The Messiah, the hope of Israel, the Son of God, will come from her descendants.

Rahab begins the story as twice condemned—Canaanite and prostitute. Her kindness creates a new identity. She now has full citizenship among the people of God and the exalted status of mother of the Son of God.

And there's more.

Rahab was a woman, obviously. In classic Jewish legal thought a woman's legal standing flowed from her father or husband. Rahab has no father and no husband in this story. She is a single woman, running her own business.

Because of her one act of heroic kindness, she is given the status of head of household. Joshua does not spare Rahab merely as an individual. Everyone who comes under her roof is granted protection as a member of her family. She becomes perhaps the most exquisite model of the work of Christ in all of Scripture. King David is viewed as a model of the royal identity of the Messiah. The high priest is viewed as the model of the priestly function of the Messiah.

Rahab is the model of the role of the Messiah as the head of the church. Just as she created a refuge, a sanctuary, a safe place in a dangerous and doomed city, so Jesus calls his church to be a refuge, a sanctuary, a safe place in a dangerous and doomed world. Rahab's kindness saved not only the spies, it saved her family and friends and neighbors and continues to save people through the inspiration her kindness gives.

Rahab becomes a model of the heart of God.

What is the purpose of God's house? To be a beacon of hope. Here, we practice being kind, confident that the better we learn the lessons of kindness, the better we will understand God.

The story of Rahab cautions against becoming so enamored with our religious or national identity that we are blind to the obligations of kindness.

This weekend, there is a group of men meeting in Fresno, California, with the specific intent to oppose the ordination of women to serve in church leadership. They are sincere, of course. But they have failed to learn the lesson of Rahab.

They would have opposed honoring Rahab for her work in saving the spies. They would have opposed treating her as the head of household, capable of providing sanctuary for all who came under her roof. They have fallen for the most seductive temptation in religion—the notion that defending particular religious traditions is more important than showing kindness. They are attempting to use all the power of their religion to protect the privilege they enjoy.

It is a tragic failure of moral vision.

On the other hand, there are health professionals from Loma Linda University working to save people from the Ebola virus in Africa. Their kindness is the very highest testimony to the God we worship.

The highest truth is not the particular details of theology in our particular religion. Those details, those distinctive beliefs have value. I happily preach them and teach them. They find their highest validity when they fuel our kindness, our radical commitment to human well-being. When our religion fuels kindness for strangers, when kindness is the inevitable, natural outgrowth of our religion, then we can have high confidence in the validity of our religion.

Kindness is God's highest value. Don't believe those who imagine that God is more concerned with his glory or authority than he is with the blessedness of his children—all his children.

Let's practice kindness and remind ourselves that the more thoroughly kindness pervades our outlook, the closer we are to knowing the heart of God.