"Divine or Human Things?"

by Sheila C. Gustafson

First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe, New Mexico

February 23, 1997

Mark 8:31-38

Since I have been old enough to be conscious of the larger world around me, there have been two things for which I have prayed regularly and consistently. They are peace in the Middle East and justice in South Africa. Now it appears that-- though fraught with conflict and progress is at times very shaky -- in both countries, a process is in place to bring about justice. For decades there seemed to be no hope for another situation. In both situations there appeared to be sudden and miraculous breakthroughs to solutions, but in reality there were, and still are, in both areas of the world long and painful processes of personal and corporate growth. Both stories have their martyrs, their courageous leaders, and their casualties.

Many years ago, a white South African by the name of Alan Paton wrote a novel called Ah But Your Land is Beautiful. Long before there were many public signs of change, Alan Paton created a white protagonist with the courage to stand up to at least one manifestation of apartheid. Robert Mansfield was the headmaster of a white school who resigned his post when his school was barred from competition with a black school. He knew he was making himself a target for criticism at best, hatred and violence at worst, by taking the stand he did, but he did not feel he could, with integrity, continue to violate his own system of values. After Mansfield's resignation he was visited quietly one day by a black man by the name of Emmanuel Nene. Nene said he just wanted to meet a man of courage. In the conversation, Nene revealed that he himself intended to take a step toward justice for South Africa by joining a multiracial political party. Mansfield warned him of some of the consequences of taking such a step. Nene replied in a now often quoted statement of Christian commitment.

He hesitated and went on . . .

When our lives are ended, what wounds will we have to show for ourselves? I don't mean those wounds we sustained fighting for success, or for power or to get our own way. I don't even mean those wounds we inflicted upon ourselves by our own stubbornness or wrongheadedness. I mean: what wounds will we have to show for our efforts to live as followers of Jesus Christ, to manifest the values which reflect God's best will for humankind? How would we answer the question "Was there nothing worth fighting for?"

That is essentially the question which is being asked in our scripture lesson for today. These few verses from the eighth chapter represent the turning point of Mark's gospel. Here the standards for human behavior are laid out and a choice is demanded. There are basically two contrasting ways of life* reflected in Mark's story. Everyone chooses one or the other -- we either live the way God wills for people, or we live the way we want for ourselves. Some of the characters in the gospel have chosen one way, others the other. The disciples, according to Mark, vacillate back and forth. In today's vernacular, they don't get it! They show a measure of commitment to Jesus' cause by leaving their work and their families behind them to follow -- but on very significant occasions they seem to think they will be rewarded with fame and glory by associating with him.

Mark uses the disciples as a way of speaking to the people for whom he is writing his gospel -- people who are discovering that there is a cost associated with taking Christ seriously. Peter becomes a foil for addressing the mistaken notions of some members of the early church who thought they had signed up on the winning side. Some were not prepared for the hostility with which their life styles were being met by those representing the status quo.

Mark sets his key dialogue in a setting described as "on the way." This conversation is one that every Christian probably needs to have somewhere along his or her spiritual journey. This scenario represents the big question. This is "fish or cut bait" time. The question is asked of Peter, and his answer is crucial -- quite literally. "Who do you say that I am?," Jesus asks.

At first hearing, Peter seems to get the answer right. "You are the Messiah," he says. We, the readers, know that Jesus is the Son of God because we are told as much by Mark in the first verse of the first chapter of his gospel. But Jesus acts negatively to Peter's response. This seems mystifying until we realize that the title "Messiah" had very specific connotations in first-century Palestine. Although the word only means "God's Anointed"--which Jesus certainly was--it was a highly politicized word. It was a word, when people heard it, that immediately evoked images of a political liberator, a royal king, who would take over the government and rule justly in the name of Yahweh. It was a word that Peter, frankly, liked! If Jesus became royalty, then he, Peter, could be the King's right-hand man.

But Jesus sternly ordered them not to use the term Messiah in connection with him. His mission did not include political power, or wealth, or status, or popularity. On the contrary, he began to teach them that his choices in life would inevitably lead to suffering--not because there was anything in his value system which promoted pain or suffering, but because his way of life would run counter to the values of those who had chosen a different way. And the reality was, and still is, that the folks who had chosen a different way were the ones who had the power. This was certainly not what Peter wanted to hear. He took Jesus aside and told him as much.

It is difficult for us to understand the next bit of the story because we are told that Jesus turned his back on Peter and said to him a very harsh thing. He said, "Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human beings." It doesn't seem consistent with what we know of Jesus to call anyone a name, least of all someone as close to him as Peter. We need to remember that Mark is recounting this conversation to strengthen wavering Christians during a time of severe trial. Just as Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness to make easy choices--to compromise his standards and play to the values of the crowd, so these early Christians must have been tempted to capitulate under the pressure to conform and to stop bucking the system.

As the biblical story unfolds, Jesus widens the circle of his teaching to include, with his disciples, the crowd which always seemed to be at his heels. He suggested a substitute title for the one he had dismissed from Peter's lips--not "Messiah" but "Son of Man," or as I mentioned a few weeks ago, more recently translated "The Human One."

Just as "Messiah" had certain associations taken from the religious history of Israel so did "the Human One" have associations taken from a style of religious literature well known to Jesus' contemporaries as apocalyptic, or the study of end times. "The Human One" in the book of Daniel was the advocate for true justice. The Human One comes into court at great personal risk to vindicate the innocents against the ferocious beasts which represented the powers of the world. The Human One was not royal, not powerful in any way except in conviction and commitment. The Human One was vulnerable to all of the same pain and suffering that other humans suffered. If stuck, he bled real blood. But he had chosen God's values over human values and that gave him a glory for those who have eyes to see. The Human One was a representative for humankind.

Jesus chose for himself those associations connected with the Human One. This title, rather than the more glamorous and political one, fit his identity as he understood it. But he knew that, even as the Human One he would inevitably come into conflict with the power waiting for him in Jerusalem. The choice was to claim his identity and risk losing his life, or to preserve his life and take the risk of losing his identity. He understood himself not as a king, but as an advocate for others.

For Mark, the way of the world, the quest to maintain power and status, is motivated by fear. Read his gospel through. The Jewish and the Gentile authorities are afraid. Herod fears John the Baptist. Pilate defers to the crowd. The Jewish authorities fear Jesus' popularity. They fear losing their positions as a result of Jesus' activity ... To protect their power and status the authorities destroy others.

By contrast, people who follow Jesus' standards receive the blessings of the kingdom, and are willing to relinquish life, status and power in order to bring the good news of the kingdom to others. This way of life is made possible by faith . . . + People who live by faith do not need to be immobilized by fear of consequences for they know that life for them includes resurrection and life eternal in the age to come.

Somewhere on the way of our own faith journeys, the question comes to us. Is there anything worth fighting for, anything worth being wounded for, anything worth dying for? If our answer to that question is "no" we might ask ourselves another -- is there anything worth living for? What meaning do our lives have in the larger scheme of things?

This has been a rough week for me in that regard. Last Sunday night, the Moderator of the 208th General Assembly, John Buchanan, asked me to accompany him to a meeting at Plaza Resolana of the combined Boards of the Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns and the More Light Churches (those are the churches in our denomination who have declared that they are open to gay and lesbian persons without restrictions). I had a first-hand opportunity to observe the kind of line a moderator has to walk these days to keep this denomination together.

John is the pastor of a large metropolitan church which has quietly, and without fanfare, ministered to gay and lesbian people -- as well as to thousands of heterosexual people -- for years. Gay and lesbian people are among their leaders in rough proportion to their presence in the congregation. There are countless Presbyterian churches across the land that could say the same. To John and to me, and to many of our colleagues across the length and breadth of the church, that is the way it should be. We are not anxious to make an issue of anyone's sexuality -- either to glorify it or to condemn it -- we would rather simply accept people as they are and welcome them into the fellowship of Christ's people.

But last Sunday night we were confronted with the conflict that our silence was allowing one part of the church to succeed at putting language into the constitution of our denomination which could have the effect, if put to use, of purging the church of gay and lesbian people. Those supporting Amendment B would say that is not true. They would say that the amendment does not keep homosexual persons from being members of Presbyterian Churches -- it only keeps them from holding any office in the church; they could not be elders, or deacons or ministers of the word. But I'm not sure I could be a part of any church that told me that my very being was unacceptable to it -- that there was one class of membership for me, and another class of membership for everyone else. The fact that so many gay and lesbian people are willing to hang in there with us under these circumstances seems to me a miracle -- and a phenomenon which makes me humble -- and ashamed!

And those supporting Amendment B would also say that gay and lesbian persons could even be elders, and deacons, and ministers if they would agree to live as celibates -- to never have any relationships in their lives. Heterosexual persons, according to the wording, must be chaste in singleness and faithful in marriage; homosexual persons must be chaste in singleness, period. Marriage can only be, according to the wording of the amendment, between a man and a woman. There is no room for any other kind of sanctioned relationship, whatever we call it -- no matter how faithful, how monogamous, how durable.

One of the persons at that meeting last Sunday night said to the Moderator and, lest I thought I could get off the hook by being a fly on the wall, to me: "It is time for our allies to come out of the closet." The silences were long. The tension was unbearable. The tears flowed fully. The Moderator, aware of how every word that comes out of his mouth can be used in this political time, endured the silences in obvious pain.

On Tuesday evening I, along with the members of Santa Fe Faith Communities Against Hate Crimes, watched a film called "It's Elementary," in which teachers were trying to teach children, third grade and older, to treat homosexual persons with the respect due to every human being. It was horrifying how many hate and ridicule messages even the youngest child has been exposed to from the media and their communities. The words "gay" and "faggot" are used countless times every day in every elementary school in our country against little girls who are best friends, and against little boys who might sling an arm over the shoulder of a buddy. The teacher who brought the film to us explained, "All we are trying to do is to keep children safe from the verbal and physical violence that comes with being identified (whether real or not) as a homosexual."

And all week long I have been living with Mark 8:27-38.

I need to come out of the closet this morning. I declare myself a heterosexual ally of gay and lesbian people in our church and in our society.

Let me tell you what I mean and why I say that.

For twenty-five years I have studied the Bible almost every day of my life. I have studied the six verses from Genesis to Revelation which mention homosexuality and, for reasons which have been reiterated by scholars over and over again, I believe they relate to ritual prostitution and pederasty. I do not think they apply to sexual orientation or identity as we understand it today. Many do not agree, and you may be among them.

For ten years I have received every issue of the Harvard Medical School Mental Health Letter and I have read every article on research into the origins of homosexuality. The research is not 100% conclusive, but I believe the preponderance of evidence is that children come into the world predisposed to either a heterosexual or a homosexual orientation. I do not believe it is a conscious choice, because I know and have known of too many people who have turned themselves inside out and have undergone horrendous pain trying to be heterosexual when they are not.

Homosexual orientation is not necessarily homosexual behavior. That is true. And I have known many homosexual persons who have chosen celibacy. Celibacy is an honorable choice for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. It is a gift, I believe, that some people have. Singleness is a choice for many people who, nonetheless, live creative and meaningful lives. There are many people, whatever their sexual orientation, for whom the right person simply never came along -- and they have lived creative and meaningful lives. But celibacy is only partially about not having a sexual relationship. The one greatest thing, in my experience, that gay and lesbian people want heterosexual people to know is that sex is just as large a part of their relationships as it is ours -- and no larger. The relationship of a man and woman in marriage is about sharing a life, and a commitment, and ordinary everyday tasks, and our vulnerable places. It is about support, and caring, and love. It is about trying to make a better future, and hope, and respect. Chemistry may get us together, but it takes a whole lot more than that to keep us together -- and in the end, it is frosting on the cake. Gay and lesbian people choose their partners for all the same reasons that heterosexual people do. Today is my husband's birthday. I cannot imagine my life had I not known the richness of a wonderful marriage. How could I condemn anyone to a life of solitude?

I know gay and lesbian people who have been in committed relationships for 25, 30, 40 years. And how I do not know. Because they have never been taught how to have a healthy and loving homosexual relationship. They have no public positive role models. They have no support from the church or the society. They have no place to go as teenagers to test out their fledgling feelings -- places with chaperons, and boundaries so that they can, like heterosexual teens, do that safely. And all society has to offer these people are gay bars where life can be risky and dangerous and long-term relationships are not on the agenda. Should the church not be promoting faithful, committed, loving relationships rather than abandoning people to the streets?

Amendment B has been in the process of ratification by the Presbyteries of the church. For weeks the vote has been close, a vote on one side or the other ahead. But this week the support vote has pulled ahead significantly, and those who watch these things are predicting it will win. It looks its if Amendment B will become part of the Book of Order. And we, like every congregation across this church, are going to have to decide what we are going to do about it.

I am not anxious to make a big deal out of this. The church needs to go on doing what it does: preaching the gospel, caring for people, nurturing our children. But we should be aware that it would not be surprising if at least some of those children, the ones we have baptized and taught in Church School and confirmed, are homosexually oriented -- because some of the children of this congregation and of every other congregation in the land, always have been. Even though, if they heard anything about homosexuality from the church, it was most likely to have been threats of hellfire and damnation. We are going to have to decide if we are going to exclude some of God's children, some of our children, from full participation in our fellowship -- and I suspect that we are going to have to be intentional about that. Our church is smack dab in the middle of a community where, I have been told, nearly ten thousand of our citizens are gay and lesbian people.

What does it mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus? I searched this week for a definition that would help me to understand and I found this one --"our cross is a burden voluntarily assumed in love for someone else." I respect your right to disagree with me for all the reasons that the world and the church have for so long disagreed. But if I am ever asked, "Was there nothing worth fighting for?," I would like to say -- without being melodramatic about it .. because being an ally is nothing compared to the risks gay and lesbian people feel every day of their lives -- "Yes, this is worth fighting for -- that the community of the church be open to all who would seek a relationship with Jesus Christ. This is even worth being wounded for, if need be."

*Insights and quotes from David Rhodes, "Losing my Life for Others in the Face of Death," Interpretation, October 1993, vol XLVII. No. 4.

+Ched Meyers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, Orbis Books, 1988.


February 23, 1997

God Almighty, whose covenant with us is as old as human community, we turn to you for renewed hope. You are the one who turns defeats into victory, our failures into success, our weakness into strength, our doubts into abiding faith. We turn to you on a morning when we are struggling with difficult things. We are used to singing "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide." But we find that once is not enough. It seems that we are constantly having to re-examine old certainties and it is painful. Once we were taught that slavery was your will and that the Bible supports accepting that fact -- and our church split in disagreement, north from south for over a century. Once we were taught that the races should never integrate in our country because the Bible said that black people were cursed and inferior -- and our ministers and elders marched in Selma and were thrown out of their churches for creating trouble. Once we were taught that the earth was only a few thousand years old and was created in seven literal days because the Bible said it was so, but our scientists began to find fossils and rocks that they said were millions of years old and we became confused. Once we were taught that women could not teach in the churches because the Bible said it was so, and then we realized that there wouldn't be much teaching going on in the churches if women did not teach. Once we were taught that homosexuality was a terrible perversion, and wickedly chosen, and now we are trying to integrate knowledge that some people seem to be simply born that way and probably don't have a choice and can be wonderfully loving, creative, and valuable people and that they are just like everyone else in wanting to live in relationship and in community. And we struggle with the Bible verses that forbid and condemn. It is difficult to be so flexible, O God. When our deep-seated beliefs are challenged we become angry. Help us to work our anger through. Help us to ask ourselves questions, Why have we been so often wrong in the past? And why have we seemed always to make some group of people suffer in order to keep our boundaries in place?

Why is it that we believe our task to be to ration out your grace to the appropriate people -- as if we were the deserving ones in charge of your love? Why did Jesus seek out those outside of the establishment, on the margins of life, with whom to eat and drink and teach? We rail at you -- what does it mean then to be good, to obey the rules, to conform to your expectations? And we keep reading in the Bible. Let justice roll down like waters. Sometimes we want to shut our ears, go somewhere else. We don't want to have to think about this.

How thankful we are that you do not give up on us! We remember with gratitude the sacrificial love of parents. We rejoice in the playfulness of children. You bless us time and time again.

Draw us to your side, where our view of life is expanded. Draw us to Christ that we may dare to take up our cross and follow. By your spirit, draw out the best in us, that all people may come to know themselves as heirs of your promises.

All these things we pray in the name of the One who taught us when we pray to say...
Our Father -

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