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May 2006

In Atlanta

I'm in Atlanta! My first conference in almost a year and a half. I'm excited and looking forward to learning something!

I'm here with my boss, the Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson, Senior Pastor of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. We are attending the Festival of Homiletics. I get to hear preachers all week!

I'm actually quite thrilled. I've always been jealous as my pastors went off to these sorts of things, and am glad that now I get to!

This week I'll get to hear some of the premiere pulpiteers of our times: Barbara Brown Taylor, Thomas Long, Peter Gomes, Barbara Lundblad, James Forbes, Will Willimon, Roberta Bondi, etc. I'll try to keep you posted on all the excitement.

What Is To Prevent Me?

What Is To Prevent Me?
Acts 8:26-40
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
5th Sunday of Easter
12 May 2006

Once upon a time Menelik worked in the palace of the queen. In Ethiopia they called their queens the Candace. The Candace was believed to be the descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

Like many of his kinsman, Menelik was a worshipper of Yahweh. Long had the Ethiopian people shared the faith of the people of Judea. It had been a dream of Menelik’s to travel to Jerusalem and worship Yahweh in the Temple.

But Menelik was only a servant. A eunuch in fact. As a eunuch he was trusted to serve the Candace, but was not treated as a real man by other men. As a young man, when it was clear that he was not attracted to women, Menelik was taken to the court to serve the royal women. His genitals had been mutilated in order to assure that he could not cause a royal embarrassment.

Menelik, however, had proven himself to be a dutiful and loyal servant. He had moved up the through various offices controlling the household and the other servants. The Candace respected Menelik’s abilities and eventually named him the Royal Treasurer. Now he was not just managing the Candace’s household, but the economic affairs of the entire country. A servant had become a prominent, powerful man.

After a particularly successful year, Menelik approached the Candace with a request. Before visiting her, he prayed for God to fulfill his lifelong dream. The Candace granted Menelik an audience.

“Oh great and noble Candace, Queen of Queens of Ethiopia, Conquering Lion of Judah and the Elect of God, you have been gracious to your servant, bestowing upon him offices and titles beyond his worth. With great humility I come now before you to make a request.”

The Candace looked at her trusted official and answered, “My faithful and loyal Treasurer, you have proven yourself worthy of all you have been granted. Because of your diligence, we find ourselves in prosperous times. Speak, that I may hear your request. And be assured that if it is in my power, you will have what you wish.”

These words put Menelik at ease and he asked, “Most noble Candace, it has been a lifelong dream to travel to the home of your ancestor King Solomon and to worship our God at his Temple in Jerusalem. I ask that you allow me to fulfill that dream. May I go as your representative to bring offering to the Temple? In that way I could do honor to your name while fulfilling my lifelong dream.”

The Candace was pleased with this request and approved the Treasurer’s plans. Weeks were spent arranging the caravan, collecting the temple offering, and preparing documents to exchange with Roman and Judean authorities. Finally Menelik left on his trip, full of excitement and joy.

The Ethiopian Treasurer arrived on the outskirts of the great city of Jerusalem, where the crowds were bustling with excitement. It seemed that there was much going on in Judea. He heard rumours of dissidents being hunted by the Jewish authorities, and of rebels being executed by the Romans. But these local political problems didn’t detract from his excitement. As he road into Jerusalem, he marveled at its ancient walls, its bustling streets, and then he noticed the Temple, sitting high aloft the city. It shone with brilliance. People were lined up streaming into the Temple. It was greater than he had ever imagined.

But first he had to visit the Roman authorities. He brought letters from the Candace and gifts of goodwill for the Governor, including some to be passed on to Rome to Caesar himself. The conversations were diplomatic and political affairs, necessary, but not the real reason he was there.

Finally Menelik was free to visit the leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin, including the High Priest. He was bringing a temple offering from the Candace and had gifts and letters to also exchange with these Jewish leaders. He was hopeful that they would give him a tour of the Temple and allow him to participate in the rituals of worship.

Menelik was welcomed into the meeting hall of the Sanhedrin where greetings were exchanged and the offering and gifts were accepted by the religious leaders. They discussed matters of world affairs, the state of the Ethiopian kingdom and its religious practices, and some of the recent goings-on in Jerusalem. Finally, Menelik asked if he could be taken into the Temple to worship God. He told the authorities that it had been his lifelong dream.

The priests and elders looked at one another. Menelik was confused. After a long, awkward silence, one of the authorities looked him up and down and asked simply, “Are you a eunuch?”

Menelik had risen to such authority in his own kingdom that he was surprised by the question. It had been a long time since someone had treated him differently because of his status. Menelik was confused, but felt that he must answer truthfully since these were God’s men. “Yes,” he answered.

Then another man, a scribe, said, “Are you unfamiliar with the Law?”

Menelik answered, “Which law?”

The scribe said, “Why, the Torah, of course.”

Menelik was still confused. He was no scholar, but he felt that he knew the essence of the Torah -- the ancient stories of liberation, God’s covenant with a chosen people, and God’s mighty acts on behalf of those people. Unsure how to answer, Menelik said that he wasn’t a scholar but was just a humble servant of Yahweh.

The scribe lifted a scroll and said, “In the Book of Deuteronomy we read ‘No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.’”

Menelik’s spirit was crushed. He sat there unsure of what to do or say, humiliated in the presence of these men. One of the priests then said, “So, you see, we cannot admit you into the Temple. You are welcome to pray outside, you are welcome to hire someone to make offerings for you, but you yourself may not enter. It is God’s word.”

Menelik retired to the place he was staying. He was confused and bewildered by what had happened. His lifelong dream to worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem was not going to come true. All his life he had worshiped God, but now he began to question whether he was worthy of God. These thoughts alternated with anger toward God, mixed with doubt about all that he had ever learned. Menelik was experiencing a crisis of faith.

There was a knock at his door. A servant entered and said, “There is a young rabbi to see you.” Menelik invited the rabbi in.

Somewhat nervously the young man said, “Respected Treasurer of the Noble Candace of Ethiopia, I am here because not all of us agree with our leaders. What happened to you today was very upsetting for many of us. We hold to a different view as taught to us by the great prophet Isaiah.”

“And what does Isaiah say,” Menelik asked.

The rabbi quoted

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant –
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them, besides those already gathered.

Menelik began to cry, but they were tears of joy. This young rabbi had saved him from his crisis of faith. These words of Isaiah were a blessing. Menelik, both a foreigner and a eunuch, would be welcomed into God’s temple, a house of prayer for all peoples. Surely he was one of the “others” that Isaiah spoke about.

Menelik hugged this rabbi and kissed him and thanked him. He begged the rabbi to show him the words of Isaiah. With Menelik’s wealth, he was able to do what few were able to do, he purchased a rare scroll of Isaiah from the house of the scribes. He determined to study this scroll during the weeks he would be traveling home.

After a few days Menelik left Jerusalem and was journeying through the south of Judea. As he rode along in his chariot, he was reading the scroll. He had read and re-read the words the rabbi had quoted to him. From there he began to read the passages surrounding that excerpt. Just a few inches away he found some lines that read:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.

These words also spoke to Menelik, but he was unsure of their meaning. These lines were part of a passage that spoke of a servant suffering on behalf of others, “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” This servant was “despised and rejected of others;” he “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” Menelik felt a kinship with this servant who had suffered in many of the ways he too had suffered. What was Isaiah speaking about. Menelik was reading out loud, when suddenly a voice said, Do you understand what you are reading?”

Menelik looked up from his reading and saw a man walking alongside the chariot. He hadn’t noticed anyone there a minute ago. Who was this stranger who was approaching a royal chariot of Ethiopia? Yet, Menelik was not concerned, this man had a spirit about him that made him immediately trustworthy. Menelik responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And Menelik invited this man to sit and talk with him, somehow he knew that this man had the answers he needed.

The man introduced himself as Philip and told a little about himself. Menelik asked Philip who Isaiah was speaking about. Philip smiled and began to talk with excitement and joy. He told of one Jesus of Nazareth. Menelik had heard this name mentioned when he was in Jerusalem. Wasn’t he that rebel recently executed? Aren’t his followers being hunted by the Jewish authorities, especially that guy named Saul? Yes, Philip answered, but there is so much more to the story.

And Philip told the most amazing stories. Of Jesus healing blind men and lepers, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He told about feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves and fishes, of spreading the good news of God’s reign to Gentiles, women, tax collectors, and prophets. Philip kept turning to passages in Isaiah and talking about how Isaiah’s vision of God’s reign coming had finally begun to happen. Philip spoke of Jesus’ baptism in the wilderness and how the heaven’s had ripped open and God’s Spirit had been set loose in the world and how most recently God’s Spirit had come upon all the followers of Jesus and that even now they were being led by that Spirit to spread the good news of Jesus to all the world.

Then Philip said that he too had been led to this place by the Spirit. That he had been preaching a revival in Samaria where many were accepting God’s good news when the Spirit told him to travel this lonely road. When Philip saw Menelik’s chariot, the Spirit had told him to come speak to Menelik.

Menelik heard all of this with wonder and excitement. He trusted this Philip and sensed that God was at work in this moment. So, Menelik decided to reveal his deepest pain. He looked at Philip and told him that he was a eunuch and shared with Philip what had just happened to him in Jerusalem.

Philip looked with compassion upon Menelik. Then he remembered that Jesus once addressed the issue of eunuchs. Philip looked at Menelik and said, “It’s okay. Jesus said that you too are worthy.” Menelik tentatively was filled with joy. “Is this true? Tell me!”

Philip recounted how once the religious authorities were trying to trap Jesus. That particular day they were raising questions about marriage, divorce, sex, and religious traditions. The disciples were also confused and asked Jesus questions. In response Jesus said something even more puzzling,

Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Philip looked at Menelik. "I’ve never understood before what he was saying, but I think I get it now. Just as some men marry women, others do not. Some don’t because they choose not to, others because they have been mutilated and are unable to, and still others because they are born not wanting to be with women. And Jesus is saying that all of these are acceptable, but that many will hear him and not understand. Menelik, I think this means that you are welcome into God’s reign, just as Isaiah and Jesus said.”

By now Menelik was crying uncontrollably. This stranger had restored his faith with this good news. In his excitement, Menelik saw a creek. He looked at Philip and remembered what he had said about baptism and the Spirit of God and said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Philip looked with compassion and said, “Nothing.”

My friends, I don’t know if this Ethiopian was a gay or transgendered man, though he may well have been; there is significant evidence to point that way. My retelling is just one possibility among many.

But what I do know is that this story in the Book of Acts is there for a reason, and its purpose is to convey the welcoming, universal, inclusive nature of God’s reign. The story speaks loudly across the centuries, “Even Ethiopian eunuchs are welcome, so are you.”

Christianity was deeply embedded within Ethiopia. It was the national religion for thousands of year, with a church that can claim to be as ancient as the Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox. It is the church historian Eusebius who calls this Ethiopian “the first fruits of believers throughout the world” and records that he was the first person to return to his home country as a missionary of the good news of Jesus.

And Will Willimon, who ignores the queer reading of this text, writes, “in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people.”

So, this is what we can draw from this story. A twofold truth. First, that we, no matter who we are, are welcome in God’s reign. And secondly, that we must be open to the Spirit leading us to share this good news with the most surprising sorts of people.

What prevents your life from being filled with God’s power and glory? Nothing outside of you. Though others may try to rob you of these gifts, in truth, they cannot. God’s power and glory are yours if only you will open yourself up to them. Like Philip and the Eunuch you must submit yourself to becoming a follower of Jesus. That means becoming a part of the compassionate, grace-filled, liberating community of faith, engaging in genuine fellowship and friendship with one another and true ecstasy of worship. This story teaches us that our own salvation comes when we learn to love one another as God has loved us.

Two OBU Things

First, Dean Warren M. Angell died over the weekend. His funeral will be at OBU tomorrow. Though Dean Angell left OBU long before I was there, he visited occasionally and was one of those people who left a big mark.

The other thing.

Basically every week this semester the Bison has been running articles or letters to the editor discussing homosexuality, the Equality Ride, Lauren's outing in Newsweek, etc. Though there has been disagreement, it has been disagreeing but from the same basic anti-gay viewpoint (with a few exceptions).

Since I've been meeting weekly with OBU students, they asked me to write something. After a few weeks of thinking about it, I finally did. Instead of trying to argue any point, I just wanted to bear witness to the fact that there were those who share their faith heritage who disagree. So, here's my letter. What appeared in the Bison was basically this, though they made a few slight editorial changes:

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading the Bison and following the discussion of sexual orientation. There’s not any one letter I want to respond to; I simply want to give a different voice than what has been heard at this point.

I am a gay man, an OBU grad, and an ordained baptist minister. We do exist; there are quite a few of us, in fact.

I grew up in Miami, Oklahoma, a fourth generation member of the First Baptist Church. As an Oklahoma Baptist “preacher boy,” I went to school where Oklahoma Baptist preacher boys go – OBU. I was a student from 1992-1996 and was very active on campus. I’m a summa cum laude graduate of the Joe L. Ingram School of Christian Service with majors in Religion with a Bible emphasis and in Philosophy. The School of Christian Service named me as the Outstanding Senior in Philosophy and gave me the awards for Senior Achievement in Theology and in Greek. I’m the John Wesley Raley Scholar for my class, which is the highest honor that OBU grants to a student. I was Vice President of Student Government, Vice President of my class, an active member of the Campus Activities Board (I co-directed The Kermit and Miss Biggie Show in 1995), a three year Tri-W, a member of the Religious Life Committee, the Student Life Council, and the University Planning and Analysis Committee. Many of the gay students from my time at OBU were, like me, very active in school, though none of us was publicly out at that time.

Since graduating I was ordained a deacon at First Baptist Shawnee, where I served with many faculty, staff, and administration; though I was not out. I’ve been an Associate Pastor at baptist churches in Arkansas and Texas, and now I’m pastor of the Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City, which is in talks to join the United Church of Christ, though my ordination continues as a baptist. There are quite a few baptist churches which have openly gay ministers, staff, and deacons; there just aren’t any in Oklahoma that I know of.

So, why am I writing? Because there seems to be a sense in almost every letter in the Bison that I’ve read that everyone who takes the Bible seriously from a baptist perspective should have only one view on the very complex issue of human sexuality. There are many of us who are deeply committed Christians, loyal to our baptist heritage, who affirm that scripture is our “guide to faith and practice,” and who believe differently.

If you want a good resource, check out my friend Bruce Lowe’s website. Bruce is a 92-year-old retired Southern Baptist minister. He’s a straight man, by the way, but he is actively committed to gay rights, once he decided to study the issue when he was in his eighties and then changed a lifetime of opinion. His website is


Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones, ‘96

By What Power?

By What Power?
Acts 4:5-12; John 10:11-18
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
4th Sunday of Easter
7 May 2006

My first full-time ministry position was in Fayetteville, Arkansas as Associate Pastor for Student and Family Life at Rolling Hills Baptist Church. I loved Fayetteville and would refer to it as paradise. It was a progressive, beautiful city, with wonderful life and great people. I was a new minister, fresh out of graduate school, learning as I went.

Fortunately, I got connected with our local Ministerial Association. We were one of only two baptist churches in town who participated in this group. At one point and time the Ministerial Association had decided to become an inter-faith group, inviting in non-Christians, instead of simply being an ecumenical group of Christian ministers. When the group made that decision, the conservative churches in town, mostly baptist, left the Association. I guess having lunch with a Buddhist once a month was too much for them.

Unlike our little coffee group here, the Fayetteville Ministerial Association was an organized group with real meetings, officers, programs, etc. We had a television show on local cable access stations. My first year in the group, I was asked to be the coordinator for the tv show. So, I can honestly claim to have produced a television series.

I loved this group of ministers and faith leaders. Before this point in my life, I had not had that much interaction with other faiths, and had even not had that much ecumenical interaction. A good amount of my growth in that two year period was the result of my relationships in the Ministerial Association. My second year there they elected me Vice President of the group. Remember this was only my second year in ministry, so I felt really embraced by these friends.

We met once a month at the Mt. Sequoyah Retreat Center. Mt. Sequoyah is the highest point in Fayetteville, a beautiful spot with stunning views of the surrounding city and hill country. At the top of Mt. Sequoyah is this retreat center that is owned and operated by the United Methodist Church. It is a wonderful place to drive up to and can bring peace to the middle of any hectic day. Maybe some of our Methodist members have been there? It is peaceful, with tall trees, and simple landscaping.

I want to tell about a particular moment I experienced there. But first I need to introduce the three other people involved. One was Lowell Gresham. Lowell was an institution in Fayetteville, representing the public voice of liberal, progressive Christianity. Sorta like the role Robin Meyers plays in Oklahoma City. Lowell was the rector of the Episcopal Church and an excellent minister, one of the best I’ve known. Lowell had a great feel for the community and what role a minister should play in urging a community along. He had an impeccable sense at getting free publicity; my observation of him in this area has been helpful in my work here. And he had such a good read of Christianity in America and where the future was leading. I wish we were still in close contact. When I told him I was moving to Texas he sent me an e-mail begging me not to go. He was afraid I’d find a Texan to settle down with, and he couldn’t think of anything more horrific.

Another person involved in this story was Geoff Oelsner. Geoff was ethnically Jewish but was a practicing Buddhist. Geoff looked something like an old hippie, and there are many of those in Northwest Arkansas. He was a calm personality who had a strong desire to improve our community, especially for young people. He was avid about interfaith dialogue and the benefit it would bring to people. Geoff was a musician and participated in a local open mic night that I attended faithfully, but only as an observer. On my last night before moving, he dedicated a song to me and my ministry among the young people of Fayetteville.

The last person involved was Talat Halman. Unfortunately, I had not yet developed a friendship with Talat. He was a professor at the University of Arkansas and a Sufi Muslim. Not being a minister, he was not originally a part of the group, but had been invited to join after 9/11 when we were committed to developing closer ties with the Muslim community. In fact, it was Lowell who had searched out Talat. On 9/11 Lowell was ashamed when he realized that he had no Muslim or Arab friends, and he was determined to make one. I appreciated Talat’s willingness to teach us and help us be better ministers in the post 9/11 world.

So, one day after our ministerial association lunch meeting, the four of us, Lowell, Geoff, Talat, and myself, were the last people to leave. We walked out of the cafeteria and toward our cars. The sun was shining and filtering down through the trees; everything was lush and green; it was a lovely day. Geoff told Talat that he had written a song that he wanted to play for Talat. The song was about Rumi.
Jalal-addin Rumi was the founder of the Sufi branch of Islam, to which Talat is an adherent. Rumi lived in the thirteenth century in the Persian Empire in what is now Afghanistan. Rumi left a great legacy to human civilization. He was a poet, and in all probability a gay man. His poetry expresses a deep and powerful mystical spirituality. This spiritual artistry was inspired by his love for Shams of Tabriz, whose disappearance and likely murder, inspired the great depths of insight from Rumi. In the 1990’s there were fresh translations of his work into English, and for a time he was quite popular. You might remember that Madonna when through a Rumi phase before her Kabbalah phase.

I had personally found great value in Rumi’s poetry and that of the other Sufi mystics, like Hafiz. My favorite Rumi poem at the time was one entitled “Love Dogs,” which I thought would be a great name for a rock band. Here’s the poem:

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing
you express is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Rumi’s poetry is sensual and spiritual. It is playful and deep. It gives evidence of how humour can open up deep truths. Another thing about Rumi is that he wrote often about Jesus. He was deeply influenced by the Christ. Listen to this poem entitled “Spring is Christ” that is quite fitting for our Easter season:

Everyone has eaten and fallen asleep. The house is empty.
We walk out to the garden to let the apple meet the peach,
to carry messages between rose and jasmine.

Spring is Christ,
raising martyred plants from their shrouds.
Their mouths open in gratitude, wanting to be kissed.
The glow of the rose and the tulip means a lamp
is inside. A leaf trembles. I tremble
in the wind-beauty like silk from Turkestan.
The censer fans into flame.

This wind is the Holy Spirit.
The trees are Mary.
Watch how husband and wife play subtle games with their hands.
Cloudy pearls from Aden are thrown across the lovers,
as is the marriage custom.

The scent of Joseph’s shirt comes to Jacob.
A red carnelian of Yemeni laughter is heard
by Muhammad in Mecca.

We talk about this and that. There’s no rest
except on these branching moments.

So, I’m walking on Mt. Sequoyah in Fayetteville with Lowell, Geoff, and Talat, when Geoff tells Talat that he has written a song about Rumi that he wants to play for Talat. Geoff goes to his car and gets out a very interesting instrument. I don’t remember what it is called, but it was some sort of Middle Eastern instrument that one played seated cross legged with the instrument in your lap. It involved keys and the plucking of strings. The sound it made was a haunting, magical sound.

Geoff began to play this piece he had written and to sing. He was singing about Rumi and Rumi’s great love for Shams. Geoff’s voice had this evocative, mystical power. The song was incredibly lovely.
Talat had been standing on the grass in front of Geoff. As Geoff sang, Talat became overwhelmed with a sense of worship. Talat then got down on his knees and began to genuflect, going through the rituals of the Muslim daily prayers.

Lowell and I stood by watching, transported to a place of deep spiritual connection. We both felt overwhelmed and grateful to have experienced this moment. To this day it still gives me chills. A Buddhist who was an ethnic Jew, singing a love song about a Persian Muslim poet; a song that compelled its Arab hearer into the ecstasy of worship; all while a baptist and an Episcopalian looked on and participated.

Last week my main point was that we grow closer to God by engaging in the missionary command of Jesus. But the way we grow closer is by sharing of our story and listening to other’s stories and discerning the work of the Holy Spirit in places outside of where we have experienced it before.

After the sermon, someone said that I was a pluralist. That’s not true. My theology remains distinctly Christ-centered. I can with complete integrity and conviction say that Jesus Christ is the highest revelation of God to humankind. What I said last week was that we should listen for how the Christ appears in other cultures. This is not a radically new idea. Writing only 120 years after the death of Jesus, St. Justin Martyr wrote:

We are taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have shown above that He is the reason (Word) of whom the whole human race partake, and those who live according to reason are Christians, even though they are accounted atheists. Such were Socrates and Heraclitus among the Greeks, and those like them. . . . For all authors were able to see the truth darkly, through the implanted seed of reason (the Word) dwelling in them.

In fact, Christian teaching was quite quickly interpreted within the intellectual concepts of Greco-Roman philosophy. It was an attempt to express Judeo-Christian truth within the language of a different culture. We are heirs of that culture, so we are unlikely to see how much of our theology is descended from Greek philosophy instead of the Hebrew prophets.

When the disciples were asked by what power they preached and healed, they answered Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter’s statement is “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” I believe that the Christ is the path to salvation for this world. But I don’t think it means that every person must agree with my interpretation. As Jesus makes quite clear in the gospel passage, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. . . . And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Surely this means that through the Holy Spirit, the message of the Christ is heard by other people, and that the grand vision is a unity of all centered in Christ.

In Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church struggled with how to interpret its teaching in the context of the twentieth century. One of the core doctrines of the Church had been that salvation is only in the church and that everyone outside the church was anathema, condemned. Yet the relationship with other world faiths had caused the leaders of the Church to reexamine this classical doctrine. In the Vatican Two document, Lumen Gentium (or Light of the Gentiles) the Roman Catholic Church taught that

All men are called to this universal unity of the People of God . . . And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.

The Roman Church teaches that God’s salvation through Jesus Christ and the Church extends outward to all Christians, to the Jews, the Muslims, the practitioners of all religions, and, ultimately, all persons of goodwill.

But what is this “salvation” we are speaking of. Baptist theologian James McClendon offers us an understanding of Christian salvation within the mission context. He states that “any doctrine discloses its meaning only within the practices and convictions of the community that embraces it.” What does that mean? He writes, “So what Christians call “salvation” is not simply another word for what Hindus call deliverance (moksha), or simply another word for what Buddhists call realease (nirvana).” Instead each of those terms has a unique meaning that only can be understood fully by understanding the practices and convictions of these separate communities. McClendon writes that Christian salvation isn’t simply becoming a better person, it “is not just any experience of success or religious attainment, but is having a share in the liberation and healing associated with the rule of God Jesus proclaimed.” So, we can only understand the Christian doctrine of salvation within the narrative tradition of Christianity or the Buddhist doctrine of nirvana within the narrative tradition of Buddhism, etc. As such, there is something unique and different in these religions, despite their commonalities.

So, on the one hand it is true that we have something unique to share in the Christian story. On the other hand, it is also true that the Holy Spirit will help us to discern the work of the reign of God in these other cultures and in those who are different from us.

John Robinson was the pastor of the Pilgrims. He stayed in Europe, instead of coming to America on the Mayflower. His parting sermon to the Pilgrims included these words that still guide his spiritual descendants to this day:

Brethren, we are now erelong to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more. But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels to follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy word.
It is this sermon from the 17th century that guides the spirit of the United Church of Christ’s campaign that “God is still speaking.” Or, as Gracie Allen said, “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”

For those of us who are disciples of Jesus the Christ who have committed ourselves to the church, there is a clear, powerful image of the lives we are supposed to live. We are supposed to be a people who practice forgiveness, humility, courage, peace, love, grace, compassion, inclusion, justice, service, and hope. Among other things. We are supposed to take up our crosses daily and follow in the path of Jesus. Our goal is a restored creation, a unity of all God’s daughters and sons. This vision can only be accomplished if we are faithful at following the path of Jesus. We can do these things because we are filled with a great power. Filled by God revealed in Jesus and present in us as the Holy Spirit.

What Easter does is give us a glimpse of that power. Resurrection. New life where once there was death. The ultimate triumph of God’s reign over the powers of this world. It declares that truth, goodness, and beauty will be the ideals of creation. The Resurrection is the source of our hope.

All that power which we glimpse in the resurrection, all that glory of the risen Christ, is ours. It comes upon us through the Holy Spirit. We need to only to grasp it and claim it.

It is that power which fills Peter and John and sends them preaching into the temple where they are arrested. It is that glory which surrounds them as they proclaim Christ’s reign to the authorities. And it is this that we must boldly do. As followers of Jesus we should live our lives in such a way that they bear witness to the radically new life that Jesus proclaimed.

There is a Christian church in Shiraz, Iran that has the following words by the poet Rumi carved over their door:

Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather.
We are a door that’s never locked.

If you are suffering any kind of pain,
stay near this door. Open it.

So, the wisdom of the ages tells me that I’m living the life of Christ when . . .

I respectfully observe a Buddhist and a Muslim in worship, fully aware that God will gather all the sheep into one flock.
Or when we welcome people among us who make us uncomfortable.
Or when we stand up to the powers that be and speak the truth.
Or when we treat our enemies with respect and dignity and love.
Or when we are hospitable to the stranger and alien among us.
Or when we gather in the rain to prepare a home for a new homeowner.
Or plan to build a wheel chair ramp for our brother.
Or when we pray for each other.

I encounter so many people who put up so many stumbling-blocks to living the life of faith. It’s not that this is an easy journey; it is not easy at all. It is quite difficult to be a disciple of Christ. But people think you have to overcome all these obstacles before you can even get going on the journey. The truth, however, is that we are a door that should never be locked. No matter who you are, or where you in life’s journey, you are welcome here.

And it is precisely that spirit of welcome that will open us up and allow God’s power and glory to work through us.

A Quandary

Because of Oklahoma's outdated election laws, I'm in a quandary. I'm finally getting around to registering to vote. In Texas I didn't have to pick a party. When you registered to vote, you didn't have to pick a party. You could show up at a primary election and request any party. I liked that system, especially since I became an Independent in 2003.

So, what to do? If I pick Independent in Oklahoma, then I'll never get to vote in a primary. That's not fair. I despise both parties and don't want to be registered as a member of either one.

The determining factor is that in the upcoming primary, I want to vote in the Democratic primary for my State Congressperson and State Senator. Maybe if in the future I want to vote in a Republican primary, I'll just have to remember to change registration ahead of time? That's annoying.

So, I may be registering as a Democrat, something I've NEVER done before and hate doing, but I'm not a Democrat. Please God, NO!


Over the past week I've been celebrating various first anniversaries -- moving back to OKC, starting at CoH, meeting various people for the first time, etc. Hard News Online did a feature story on my anniversary. You can read it here.

Gay Rights Guaranteed in Europe

This from the Advocate on-line:

New residency regulations that went into effect throughout the European Union Tuesday allow same-sex couples to live anywhere in the region and to have their relationships "facilitated" even in countries that do not have same-sex partner laws. Only five of the EU's 25 member countries have ratified the new requirements, but European justice commissioner Franco Frattini reminded national governments that the law is “immediately applicable,” whether or not it is ratified.

While only the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain allow same-sex couples to marry, Britain, Germany, and several other western European countries allow varying forms of civil partnerships. Other states have limited partner rights, but some central and eastern European countries offer nothing to same-sex couples—it was those nations to which Frattini's warning was issued.

He said couples denied their rights can demand enforcement in national or EU courts or ask the European commission to take up their case. (Sirius OutQ News)

On another note, Sir Ian McKellen attacks the British civil unions law for creating a special status in the law that is not available to straight people who might want their unions recognized but not want to marry.

You Are Witnesses of These Things

You Are Witnesses of These Things
Luke 24:36b-49; Acts 3:12-21
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
Third Sunday of Easter
30 April 2006

In tonight’s gospel text we read the following command from Jesus, our risen Sovereign and Friend:

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

Christianity and Islam are unique among the great religions of the world in that they hold a missionary impulse to be central to their teaching and practice. Other major world religions are accepting of converts, but do not, generally, devote great time, energy, thought, or resources to the spread of their faith. For example, you don’t hear about the New York Jewish community sending missionaries to China to convert the Chinese to Judaism.

The missionary impulses of Christianity and Islam have been major forces in world history. The history of mission in each faith contains some of the high points and clearly some of the lowest points. Plus, the competing missionary impulses are the source of constant conflict between the two religions over the past 1300 years.

The Christian mission was at its best in the earliest days of the church, when the faith spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world. It spread as people shared their stories, formed communities, and suffered persecution and martyrdom. Unfortunately, after Constantine made Christianity the established faith of the Roman Empire, the Church has been all too likely to use the power of the state in spreading the faith. Military might, physical intimidation, and economic and political oppression have all too often been wedded to the Christian missionary impulse. This all became quite confused in the heyday of European colonialism where economic, political, military, and religious interests became so intertwined.

The abuses of the missionaries have been recorded memorably in books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible or Chinua Achebe’s magnificent Things Fall Apart. The latter is the story of how the Ibo people of Africa had their culture destroyed by the coming of the white man. One character, Obierika shares the following with his friend Okonkwo:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

For much of our history, we Christians have been arrogant in our conduct of missions. We have been disrespectful of other cultures and traditions. We have been condescending and treated non-Christians as our inferiors. We’ve maintained a sense of moral and intellectual superiority that has cut off meaningful dialogue and often led to violence. In the process, we have destroyed people and their cultures.

Fortunately for Christianity, despite our history’s negative side, indigenous peoples appropriated the faith and separated it from the abuses of the European and American nation states and have developed thriving new forms of Christianity. The majority of Christians are now outside of Europe and North America, as Africa, Latin America, and Asia are experiencing what may be the greatest revival in the history of the Church.

Plus, the story was always more complicated than the image in The Poisonwood Bible, as even Chinua Achebe acknowledges when he talks about the hospitals built and the better missionaries who actually engaged in discourse with the indigenous people. Indian theologian R. S. Sugirtharajah records that when British Christianity arrived in India it quite rightly criticized some elements of the Indian cultures. He lists “untouchability, caste distinctions, polygamy, female circumcision, and widow-burning.” In many cultures it was those who were the outcast and despised who first converted to Christianity. Fortunately the liberating theme of the faith still found some expression, despite abuses.

Clearly, any Christian mission in the contemporary world must replace arrogance with humility, a humility that is respectful of other persons and their traditions and cultures.

So, how does all of this relate to us? At the root of this gospel text and its missionary command is the issue of how we relate to those who believe differently than we do.

The question of how we relate to others who believe differently than we do is a difficult, yet highly important one, to address these days. We live in a global society, where there is lots of interaction between cultures. Even in our own city, we have many cultures represented. We are, also, an increasingly secular society. Probably many of our friends don’t practice any religion or only nominally practice the faith of their birth. Many of our acquaintances may even question the entire enterprise.
Plus, in America we find such completely different views of Christianity that we almost must relate to one another as practitioners of different faiths.

The topic may be most important because it is really a life or death issue. In this first decade of the twenty-first century, we find our country locked in a great struggle with fundamentalist Islamic forces. Once again the relationship between Christianity and Islam is being scarred by violence. Is there no other way to relate to each other? Surely there must be.

The world has also changed in another way. At the dawn of the modern age, European intellectuals thought that they were finally on the verge of establishing solid foundations upon which all of human knowledge could be built. The funny thing was that each thinker had a different view of the foundation and powerful criticisms of the competing views.

Over the last century or so, it has become apparent that human knowledge cannot be established upon a certain foundation. In fact, the entire enterprise is suspect. As we have heard the voices from different cultures and oppressed minorities, we have awakened to reality.

We live in a postmodern age in which there is no central, unifying force, no foundation for human knowledge. Instead, what we have is an indefinite number of competing discourses, of differing narratives. There is no pure objectivity divorced from our own perspective. Even when we read a text like the Bible, we must be aware of the conscious and subconscious ways that the writers of the texts used these written words to suppress others who disagreed and how all interpretations, even our own, are affected by our own perspective.

The implication for Christianity is very important to grasp. No longer can we view Christianity as a set of doctrines to be believed. Instead what it means to be a Christian is to commit oneself to a community that engages in certain practices that are rooted in a narrative tradition. In other words, to be a Christian is to acknowledge oneself as a follower of Jesus Christ as a part of the Church, engaging in the practices of the Christian life as those are discovered in the stories of scripture and Christian history.

But, then, what it means to be a Muslim is to be a follower of the faith revealed to the Prophet Muhammed as a part of the Muslim community, engaging in the practices of the Muslim life as those are discovered in the Koran and Islamic history. If all we have is competing narratives, then how do we communicate with each other? How do we not descend into relativism? If all of these various narratives intermix and influence one another, then what does it mean to be a Christian? And what are we to make of this command of Jesus to proclaim the faith?

Let me read an extended quote from the Indian, Christian theologian R. S. Sugirtharajah that will help us to understand the mission task of the twenty-first century. He uses the term “postcolonial” to refer to one aspect of what I mean when I use the term “postmodern.”

When one is exposed to others who profess a different faith, speak a different language and draw inspiration from different texts, one realizes one’s own provincialism and limitations. One is faced with new realities. One such reality is that the communities we belong and live in are no longer groups of people with shared concerns but persons with competing interests who try to accommodate each other’s concern and endeavour to arrive at amity and accord. It is almost a cliché to say that we live in a world of diversity and disagreement. . . . It seems that God values variety and variance, and God seems to want a world where we have to work out with others the truth. The colonialist mode of interpretation offered a simple choice between truth and falsehood. If one is right, the other is invariably wrong. What postcolonialism does is to force us to choose between truth and truth. The validation of one does not depend on the negation of the other. What postcoloniality makes us realize is that the divine has made an impact on people in diverse ways, thus occasioning a variety of legitimate responses to that experience. It is here that one must strive for answers which have no precedents in the text or tradition. It is here one has to be daringly original and true to one’s experiences and visions.

Sugirtharajah tells us that we are in new territory, that there is a level of adventure in exploring these questions for the twenty-first century. He also gives us a roadmap. When we encounter those who are different from ourselves and each of us shares our stories and our perspectives, then we all learn, we all change, we all grow. And in the process we become more attuned to God’s work in the world.

This fits my own experience. You’ve heard bits of this story before, I’m sure. I grew up as a small town, Oklahoma, Southern Baptist boy. All that tells you quite a bit about me without saying anything else. Now early on, I loved the Bible and began to soak up everything I was hearing from my Sunday school teachers. This made me rather obnoxious at times. My parents’ Sunday school class used to get together for parties and play the game Bible Trivia. I’m sure that’s not the preferred method of partying for any of us here, but that’s what my parents did. Anyway, as a kid I used to wander around while they were playing and answer the questions before the adults could. See what I mean. Obnoxious.

Now I was also a “preacher boy”, meaning that I was preparing to go into ministry. So, by the time I graduated high school, I thought I knew quite a bit about the Bible and felt pretty confident in my beliefs.

Not to say that I didn’t have questions. I always had questions. I asked tons and tons of questions. I now feel sorry for my youth ministers. The baptist youth ministers of small town Oklahoma were generally just not prepared for my questions.

As an Oklahoma Baptist preacher boy I went to school where Oklahoma Baptist preacher boys go – Oklahoma Baptist University. Arriving at OBU, I thought I knew quite a bit. Well, it only took the first week of Survey of the Old Testament with Rick Byargeon for me to realize that I knew very little and that much of what I thought I knew was wrong.

By the end of my freshman year, my world was in flux and would grow only moreso in the year to come. When I came to college, even to as homogeneous a place as OBU, I encountered all these people who were different from me and had different stories to tell. There were the kids who grew up in moderate and liberal baptist churches who had a different perspective on our shared heritage. There were those who had even more conservative religious views than mine, views that generated fear and suspicion in me. I met young women who were called to the ministry. And eventually friends began coming out.

Couple these new experiences of the world with what I was learning. I was reading literature that gave me different perspectives. My philosophy classes called for changes in my worldview. I traveled abroad and encountered other cultures. And, most importantly, my religion classes demonstrated my ignorance and compelled me to learn more.

As I have long described it, I came to college with a solid belief system built upon a strong foundation. My freshman year professors took sledgehammers to that foundation. For a while I kept trying to create a new foundation out of the remnants, until I realized that there was no foundation to build. I needed to cobble together a few pieces, just enough to create a raft to float on. And there was the realization that that raft would be ever changing. Never again would I have that solid system of belief, that there would always be change and adventure.

That has held true in the decade since college. Though I feel like I’ve settled various intellectual and practical questions, there are always new questions and new issues. Plus, I find myself constantly changing on all sorts of topics. As I experience more, I learn more.

So, let’s go back to Jesus’ words in this text:

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

As I looked at this text and puzzled over how to interpret it for us this week, one question that arose was: What does Jerusalem have to repent from? Baylor University professor Charles Talbert indicates that Jerusalem needs to repent of not seeing the reign of God in Christ and executing him. If you look at today’s Acts passage you see one example of this message being preached in Jerusalem. Peter calls for the people to repent of killing Jesus. In doing so he speaks of a “time of universal restoration” that God announced through the prophets. A little later in the text he speaks about how God told Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through him. These seem to be keys to interpreting this missionary command.

Here’s what I think we are supposed to do. We are supposed to share our individual stories and the Christian story. You and I have encountered the Christ in our lives in a way that is good news, and we should share that with other people. We should also share the great Christian stories, not only the stories of scripture, but the stories of the great saints like Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa, because we find inspiration and guidance from these other people who have also been witnesses to the work of Christ in their lives.

When we share our stories, our goal should not be to convert, but simply to share, out of a spirit of humility that acknowledges that our position isn’t superior and that we do not possess all the truth. Not only should we share, though, we should also listen. Because as we hear other people’s stories, we might discover that the Christ is speaking to us through their stories and their experiences. For example, many Christians have found great spiritual insight in the practices of Yoga. Even here in our own church, we have adapted this ancient Hindu practice and used it to help us in our lives as Christians.

I believe that as we share the Christian story, it will affect those who hear it. Sugirtharajah said that the Christian story brought to light negative aspects of the Indian cultures. Jesus says that we should proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sin. Talbert indicated that in the context of Jerusalem that meant the authorities needed to repent of not seeing that God’s reign had begun. Here’s where I connect the dots. When the stories that reveal God’s reign of compassion, grace, and inclusion are proclaimed in any culture, then the aspects of those cultures that are not compassionate, that do not extend grace, and that exclude people will be brought under criticism. The preaching of the reign of God is like leaven within a culture or like a computer virus. It will work to change the shape of that culture.

This doesn’t mean that the message of Jesus will take the same shape in each culture. In fact, our history informs us that it does not. Christianity finds various expressions in different traditions around the world.

To continue using India as an example, Mahatma Gandhi claimed Jesus Christ as one of the great influences on his life and one of the sources of his nonviolent practice. I think Gandhi’s work in India was a work of the reign of God breaking into this world. One reason we know that to be true is because we have benefited from Gandhi’s teaching as it was then appropriated by the Quaker Bayard Rustin and used in the American Civil Rights Movement.

At the end of his commandment, Jesus informs the disciples to await the coming of power. That power is the Holy Spirit that will descend upon the disciples at Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit that inspires and empowers us to complete Jesus’ mission. It is our task to discern where the Holy Spirit is at work and get on board. But we can only discern the Spirit’s work if we are humble and listening to each other. I think the more we are open to the new work of God, the more likely we are to be transformed. In my own story that is true. As I have changed over time, I have grown closer to what it means to be a follower of Jesus the Christ.

So, if you want the glory and power of God, then you’ve got to start by being open to the Spirit’s work, which is a mission work. For today the lesson is, share your story with humility and respect and listen to the stories of others with humility and respect. This allows the Spirit to work in you and clothe you with power from on high.