Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Way Out of No Way

Last week was a difficult one: a challenge on scales both grand and global, and intimate and local.

It’s been a difficult week for the progressive church as our Roman Catholic brothers – I can’t hold the sisters accountable as they have no voice – our Roman Catholic brothers call a pope who ran the church office formerly called the Inquisition, who says that homosexuality is “objectively disordered and homosexual practices are sins gravely contrary to chastity,” who sees no way forward for women in the church and finds church teachings on contraception more important than the lives of millions of the world’s poorest who will die of AIDS.

Closer to home, Sen. Frist went on TV to tell the nation that progressives are out to filibuster faith – whatever that pernicious phrase means.

All of this is deeply troubling on a large scale. It is enough for the week, to be sure.

But this has also been a deeply troubling week on an intimate scale as well, as we have struggled to help our children with the reality of a bus wreck that struck very close to home. Our children were not on the bus the crashed in Arlington, but it carried some of their close friends and classmates, several of whom were hurt and hospitalized.

It’s been a difficult week in our household, and, for many progressives, it’s been a difficult week in the household of God.

The question for me this week then is this: is there a theological renewal possible that is both large enough to answer the challenge of a conservatism that borders on fundamentalism, and intimate enough to speak to the broken hearts of children and families?

It is perhaps providential that the lectionary placed before the church on Sunday one of those baseline places, one of those foundational passages of scripture. If we are to renew theology and the church we must not merely account for such passages but, indeed, we must be guided by them.

That’s a steep challenge for the progressive church when the passage includes John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Unfortunately, this passage is one of those billboard pieces that conservatives too often use to build a barbed-wire fence of orthodoxy around the garden of faith.

If we are to imagine and then articulate a theology and a vision of church that is expansive enough to respond to the challenge of fundamentalism and also intimate enough to respond to the suffering of grieving families we’ve got to spend some time dwelling in the garden of faith; we’ve got to tear down the fences around it; and we’ve got to embrace the rich and wondrous variety of creation that springs from its soil.

So, what then are we going to do with a passage that is so well known, so often used – and, let’s face it – so often abused that it shows up on signs at baseball games? I’ve got a radical suggestion this morning: let’s take it seriously. Indeed, let’s take it literally – more literally than the literalists and, perhaps, more fundamentally than the fundamentalists.

“I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus.

This is one of those passages often used as a weapon by evangelists of a certain stripe. It was a motto of the crusades, it was no doubt used by the Inquisition, and it still gets used today by some Christians to construct the gates for the club of the saved and keep out the riffraff who don’t fit the mold of a particular conservative orthodox creedal perspective.

You remember the Rainbow Wig Man who used to show up at sporting events with Bible verses plastered on signboards? He used John 14:6 almost interchangeably with John 3:16 – “for God so loved the world …” In interviews, the Rainbow Man said that he was spreading the good news about Jesus to save those souls who were condemned to hell for all eternity if they did not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to use the words of the church’s most ancient confession. He seemed to know quite well who was in and who was out, who was us and who was them, who was saved and who was condemned.

But the funny thing is, in this wonderfully rich passage from John, Jesus doesn’t say a single thing about creedal statements or confessions. He simply says, “I’m going to fix a room for you, and believe me, Dad’s house has plenty of space: there’s a room for you there. You know the way: just follow the road.”

When Thomas gives voice to our question – which road is that, Lord? – Jesus simply says, “I am the road.”

No particular church or confession or dogma or denomination or faith tradition is lifted up here. Simply Jesus himself, his very life, a life marked by the breaking of barriers and the breaking of bread; eating with the tax collectors; touching the lepers; breaking bread and breaking silence with women of less than sterling repute; welcoming first the children and claiming a special place for them in the household of God.

Rather than creedal confession, rather than guardian of orthodoxy, Jesus offers relationship. Truth is found in relationship with God, Jesus is telling us. The way of his relationship to God – a way of deep prayer, of utter self-giving, of absolute obedience to the will of God – this is the road to the household of God.

Truth lies not in orthodox theology but in deep relationship. Cardinal Ratzinger would probably tell me that such thinking begins the slippery slope toward the tyranny of relativism, but I’m just trying to take Jesus at his word here. If Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, then the way is one of heterodoxy, the truth is manifest in relationship, and the life is one of such excessive exuberance that no creed can capture it.

Come to think of it, saying “Lord, Lord; I believe, I believe” might be a whole lot easier than following this way of Jesus. This way of Jesus might take us into places where we’d rather not go: to places of heartache and suffering, to place of deep doubt and fear, places of loneliness and persecution, places of poverty and brokenness.

That’s often the case when we are called. For although our true calling will be a place of deep joy, it is almost always also a place of deep suffering and pain, for we are called to respond to the deepest needs of the world.

Sometimes those places of deep need are quite public. These days, as Pope Benedict XVI begins his reign, one place of deep public need is for the witness of progressive Christians speaking out for the full inclusion of all women and of all men – no matter their sexual orientation – in the full life and leadership of the church catholic. Also these days, as Senator Frist takes to the airwave in support of the American conservative effort to hijack Christianity in the name of a narrow partisan agenda, another quite public deep need is for the witness of progressive Christians in the public square and on the phone to the offices of elected officials to remind them that the language of faith has no place in a partisan fight over Senate rules.

At the same time, many places of deep need are quite personal: the needs of young people for support and mentoring as they navigate the often overwhelming path of adolescence; the needs of families as they struggle with the many and manifold challenges of raising children; the needs of young couples trying to chart a way forward. And this week, in particular, the needs of children and families in our community trying to cope with an unfathomable loss.

The conservative orthodoxy embraced by the Roman church today and its Protestant twin upheld by American conservative evangelicals fails these tests. It fails because in the face of the heartbreak of the AIDS pandemic it offers nothing but death; in the face of the overwhelming and obvious giftedness of women leaders and gay and lesbian leaders, it offers nothing but flatfooted literal readings of ancient texts; and in the face of grieving families, it too often offers up a remote God of atonement theology who sacrifices a child for the sins of the world, a God whose purposes too often require human suffering. Such a god would surely not hesitate to snatch away two young children for some cause that we cannot discern, and, if you listen, you will surely hear such a god attested in many conservative pulpits in the face of tragedies as massive as the tsunami and as local as the bus accident.

To all that the progressive church must say “No;” for such a god is not worthy of our worship. But we must also say much more than “No.”

A progressive theology, a progressive church worthy of the name of Jesus Christ, must be capable of responding to each and every one of those needs. For the way that we follow is a way of compassion, the truth that we uphold is one founded in a relationship of love, and the life that we seek to emulate is one filled with grace and trust, love and justice, passion and compassion.

We follow this way, because the road that Jesus walked took him always first to the places of deepest need, to the dwelling places of those who had the most difficult time imagining for themselves a place in the dwelling place of God. Those dying from AIDS, teenagers – gay and straight – struggling to come to grips with their sexuality, women barred from the priesthood, pacifists in the midst of war, the street people looking for a handout or a hand up, families isolated in grief, children to whom the world seems so large and scary and impossible to understand. These are the ones to whom Jesus went first preaching good news.

These are the ones with whom Jesus wept in the face of deep grief, saying by his very presence, “you are beloved, you will be restored, you will be made whole.” By his very presence he acknowledged the reality of their pain and reassured the broken hearted that God was not the author of their suffering but rather offered a way through which that suffering might be redeemed.

Perhaps Jesus simply understood that in those places and times of desperation, people are more apt to recognize their need for salvation – for wholeness and healing and communion, as the Latin roots of the word salvation connote.

Let that understanding beckon the progressive church. We live in a time of often deep desperation. The world stands in need of salvation. In ways both grand and global as well as those local and intimate, creation stumbles in the dark, lost and searching for a little light by which to find a way home.

To a desperate world seeking more than anything a way home, Jesus says, “fear not, for there is room for you all where I am going.”

Christ bids us to follow the way into relation with the Holy One whose dwelling place has many rooms. The way is one of joyous service. Christ bids us to follow the truth expressed in his life: that we are the beloved ones of God. Christ bids us to follow the life he led – an abundant life of overflowing cups, of breaking bread and breaking barriers.

The way, the truth and the life: they will make a way out of the no way of weeks like this past one.