The Offense of Liturgy and President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

A young woman who grew up Christian but had never attended a Reformed or Presbyterian service came with her friends to a church I served. She told me later how upsetting she found the unison prayer of confession:

“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is nothing good in us.”

While the rest of us took the words for granted, they took her aback. She looked up from the worship bulletin and scanned the congregation, all of whom were praying aloud. “I couldn’t believe all these people were admitting this in front of God and everybody!”

To many of us in a liturgical Christian tradition, the attack from the Christian right on President Obama after his prayer breakfast speech last week left us baffled. Former governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore has written that President Obama’s speech was “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime.”

Further, he said that the president “offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Here are the offending words of the president:

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” [Quoted from the Washington Post online]

Response from the Christian right ranged from “that was a long time ago,” to “the Crusades were justified,” to SBC president Russell Moore’s “The evil actions that [Obama] mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.” Well, no.

Most of the offense seemed to come from the fiction that President Obama had intimated that Christianity and ISIS are morally equivalent.

While much of the hysteria can be written off as political crazy talk that naturally emerges when reactionaries hear the speech of a Muslim Atheist Kenyan Communist Black Panther Terrorist-sympathizing leader of the free world, some of it comes from a genuine difference between liturgical and non-liturgical Christianity.

Those of us in the Reformed tradition, especially those of us who are faith-descendants of John Calvin (who did not burn Michael Servetus at the stake, that’s a nasty rumor–he just approved of it after the fact) confess our sin each week in response to the words of Scripture,

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us.”

The universality of sin, especially idolatry, stands at the center of our worldview.

The fact that Christianity has been distorted throughout history (and continues to be distorted to justify murder, kidnapping child soldiers, and discrimination) comes as no surprise to Calvinists. Humans being what we are, we will use every force for good, whether religion or science or psychology as a tool to serve our own ends.

In the Christian tradition that does not include a regular confession of sin, such an examination of our own religion’s history could sound weak and even treasonous. Eric Erickson’s language reveals this profound difference when he writes “When we possess Christ, we possess truth.” In the non-liturgical and fundamentalist Christian tradition, Christ is a tool or even a weapon to be possessed to give us an advantage over others. Rather than a guiding light, Jesus becomes a heavy flashlight to be wielded against opponents.

When one’s own desires stand at the center of faith rather than God’s, whether one’s desire is a ticket to heaven, winning an argument, winning an election, or making more money, that religion becomes self-serving and idolatrous. The words of Jesus and the prophets (“love your neighbor as yourself,” for instance) can get hammered into the oddly-shaped space in the heart of the self-centered pilgrim, but they will not find room to take root and grow.

Self-satisfied Christianity insulates its adherents from those who believe differently. “You seem like a nice person, too bad you’re going to hell unless you believe the same thing I do” tends to put up a wall against authentic and mutual friendship with anyone devoted to a different religious tradition.

For those of us who have Muslim friends, the fact that ISIS and Al-Qaeda are misusing Islam for their own ends is self-evident. Only someone who has no close Muslim friends could believe that Islam is, at its root, more violent than Christianity and that all Muslims are potentially dangerous.

For those emotionally cut off from actual Muslim people, violence in the Koran defines the religion of Islam in a way that violence in the books of Judges and Revelation, for instance, do not define Christianity.

The president’s point, almost lost in the kickboxing match of political competition for the victim badge, seems so obvious. It is, however, no less offensive to us righteous sinners now than when Jesus first said it: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Grace Enough To Spare

I preached this sermon in 2011 when I was pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Sherman, Texas. It is specific to that congregation, and dependent on the exegetical work of many different ministers, including Anna Carter Florence in Lectionary Homiletics.

“I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ Matthew 25:25


The easiest way to deal with a weapons-grade parable like this is to turn it into an allegory—turn it into a story in which each character stands in for someone and each thing stands in for something else. That way, when we get to the part about a worthless slave getting thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, we can make sure that the worthless slave is a stand-in for somebody else, not us.

The challenge we face, though, is that Jesus never took a course in literary forms of biblical literature; therefore, he felt free, and Matthew the writer of this parable felt free, to tell a story that sometimes works as an allegory and sometimes works as a parable.

“The Kingdom of heaven is as if . . .” That phrase begins a creative, imaginative story of a wealthy landowner, and we can easily make the connection, “O.K., wealthy powerful guy who owns everything, I know That Guy, it has to be God.”

We hear about the distribution of talents and we learn from the footnote that a talent is a huge measure of gold, but we make the automatic correlation with talents in the English language and think about the gifts God has entrusted to each of us.

We hear about the three slaves, two of whom do well and one who buries his talent in the ground and by this time, we’re on a roll, this is easy—that first guy is me, the good Christian, the second one is my friend, the first runner-up in the good Christian contest, and the third one, the one who deserves to be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? As I heard someone say in a Bible study once, “I know that guy! He’s my no-good lazy ex-husband!”

That’s always a comfortable way to read scripture – to weaponize it and wield it against somebody else. It may be comfortable, but it doesn’t hold up to a close reading.

The problem begins to arise when we hear the slave’s description of the wealthy landowner, as someone who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter. Maybe the third slave is just mistaken, but that sure isn’t a description of God who created the heavens and the earth. And, at the end, when he tells the third slave he should have invested the talent in the bank to collect interest? Interest is an acceptable way of doing business now, but in the first century Jewish culture, it was strictly forbidden by God’s law. It makes no sense that a stand-in for God would advocate such a thing as the least you can do.

And then, the word “talent.” Our English word “talent” comes from the Greek language in which Matthew wrote, but Jesus did not tell this parable in Greek, (he would have used the Aramaic/Hebrew word kikkar) and besides, the English language had not yet been invented. In its original context, there was no automatic correlation between this weight of gold or silver, 3000 shekels, and our contemporary word for gifts and skills.

So, what’s going on here?

Let’s think about how the parable would have been heard by the gospel writer Matthew’s congregation. This is the second of three parables in the twenty-fifth chapter telling us about a community that is waiting for the return of someone, but they do not know the day or the hour.

For a community that had expected Jesus to return any day, and it had now been forty years, and almost all of the people who had walked with Jesus had died, these parables address the question, “What are we supposed to do now? What do we do while we wait around to die or see the end of the world as we know it?”

This parable, along with the other three parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 25, make this much clear: the Gospel has been given to us, but not for us to have and to hold. Jesus gave us stories that we would repeat them; Jesus gave us his life that we might live for others. He gave us the bread of life and the cup of salvation that we would eat and drink and remember his presence from one day to the next.

We read the slave’s declaration, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’” And we realize, yes, that slave got it wrong on two fronts.

First, the Master he describes is not the One who sent his only Son to die that we might live.

And second, his misplaced fear led him to do exactly the opposite of what the Master desired.

It is human nature to hoard what we value, to try to keep it, save it, preserve it. The surprise of this parable, maybe the shocking recognition, is that the last thing Jesus wants to hear when he walks through those doors and into this sanctuary is, “Look Jesus, we kept it for you just the way it was when you gave it to us!”

It takes energy, intelligence, imagination, and love and all the gifts of the spirit to do what God has called us to do, to put it all out there, to risk proclaiming the gospel with all the assets with which God has entrusted us, whether it is money, or this building, or the new building, or our emotional reserve, or our style of worship, or anything else. It does not happen by accident, it only happens through a commitment and intent to be obedient to Christ even when we are afraid.

Many, many years ago, when I was still the new pastor here, [Covenant Presbyterian in Sherman, Texas] and we did not yet know each other well, I got a phone call from a funeral home while I was on vacation at Nancy’s mother’s house in Pensacola. A family member of an immigrant Hindu family had died, and they wanted to do the funeral service in Sherman where their friends and colleagues could attend. Wynne Chapel was being remodeled, and several other churches with a sanctuary large enough to accommodate them had declined to host a funeral in the Hindu tradition.

I thought, this would be a great discussion for our session to have, but I was thirteen hours away, the clock was ticking, and there was no way to get the session together in time to make this decision. I had to make it, yes or no.

When I thought, “What would Jesus do?” it was very clear to me. The one who told the story of the kind Samaritan, the foreigner who showed kindness to the stranger in need regardless of their religious differences would not hesitate to give them comfort in their time of grief.

I thought of that and all kinds of other reasons that it was the right thing to do as a church, and I tried to anticipate all the reasons people might give for declining to have it here.

I told the funeral home we would be glad to do it, and I ran down to the coffee shop with wifi where I could get an email out to the session that just said I had to make this decision today, here’s what I told them, and here’s why I think it’s the right thing to do.

I did not yet know you well. I feared I might get fired. I thought someone on session might take some disciplinary action against me to the Presbytery’s committee on ministry. I did not know what might happen.

But, I’m not the hero of this story. You are.

Here’s what happened. It turns out I was foolish in my fears. Every single email that came back from the session members said the same thing, essentially: “Good decision, this is who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. We are a people with grace enough to spare.”

A few years later, our daughter Rachel asked me to come and pray and read scripture and pronounce a blessing as she and Lili promised each other that they would stay together as long as they both shall live.

You all know that my views on gay and lesbian partnerships is more liberal than the average Presbyterian. The Permanent Judicial Committee had ruled that Presbyterian clergy such as I could perform such a ceremony as long as I didn’t publicly refer to it as a wedding or a marriage, but we all knew what it was. It was my daughter’s wedding.

I know that many of you have strong feelings on the other side of this issue, just as strongly-held, just as theologically genuine as my own. So, when I wrote to you in the church newsletter [the web page did not yet exist] to let you know what our family was going to Florida to celebrate, I waited with some trepidation for the phone to ring on the day the newsletter hit the mailboxes.

And the phone began to ring. And every single person who called us, regardless of what they thought of gay marriage or ordination, was asking why we didn’t include an address for Rachel and Lili so they could send a gift.

Whatever else we may be here at Covenant, with all our imperfections and struggles, this is something I know for sure: we are a people with grace enough to spare.

There are many, many good things in this world that need our time, energy, prayers, and money. If we supported them all as we wish we could, I fear, perhaps foolishly, that there would be nothing left to live on.

Here’s what keeps me wanting to support the work of this congregation with more money, time, and energy than any other cause. I believe that the greatest need of this world is the grace of God in Jesus Christ; and, I have never known another congregation that is so generous, so profligate, so reckless and Christ-like in extending grace to a world in need.

So, friends, let’s put it all out there, with grace enough to spare. It’s who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. . . . the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

One of my high school teachers had a few verses of scripture memorized that he liked to pull out of its holster and whack us with when the occasion presented itself. When he coached track and cut people from the team, he sent away those who didn’t make it with, “Many are called, but few are chosen!”

And, if someone was late to class, he slammed the door as soon as the bell rang with the proclamation of the Gospel, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you!”

I’m all for dramatic presentations of biblical passages, but I thought it the wiser course of action not to instruct the ushers today to slam the doors at 10:50 and send away the latecomers.

Instead, I thought it better to look at this parable in its context.

First, we can look at this passage in the context of the community that produced the Gospel According to Matthew. The were a predominantly Jewish community, both by ethnicity and in practice, who believed in Jesus as the Messiah described Continue reading