Baccalaureate Homily

At SPU there’s a baccalaureate service the night before commencement for all the graduating seniors and their friends and family.  Along with a very intentional liturgy of songs, scripture readings, and prayer that’s constructed months in advance, it’s tradition for the Baccalaureate Committee to select two graduating seniors to give reflections on their college experience and relate it to the theme of the service.  The theme of this year’s service was ‘renewal’ and I was deeply honored to be chosen as one of the student reflection speakers.  What follows is the transcript of my speech.  Mind you, I had to speak in front of about 1500 people!  A major milestone in my life. 

 

Seattle Pacific University Baccalaureate Homily

June 13, 2014

Nolan Kurtz

Well hello.  My name’s Nolan Kurtz.  For the last four years I’ve been studying Christian theology here at SPU and I’m finally done!  I chose to major in Christian theology after being pre-med for one whole day.  Theology is one of those fields of study that makes your friends and family and probably your dentist ask you why in the world you picked theology instead of science or business.  For our purposes tonight I’m not going to directly answer that question, but I am going to give a brief reflection of my time here at Seattle Pacific and how I feel God has shaped me through it all.

I don’t know about all of you, but looking back I’d say SPU has caused me to confront a great deal of my weaknesses and insecurities, and that’s something I’m truly thankful for.

I remember coming to SPU and wanting nothing more than to make friends.  In high school and middle school I didn’t find many lasting friendships and really longed for Christian friends. Freshman year here, I found just that and it was wonderful.  The only downside is that I was having DTR’s all the time. You know how it is. Or maybe you don’t, and you’re one of the lucky ones.

Then sophomore year I joined group staff as the drummer.  group is the Wednesday night worship service that meets in Upper Gwinn.  I was the shy guy behind the drums that had dreadlocks covering his face.  I was so afraid to be in front of other people.  I remember getting so nervous to even read a small Bible passage in front of the congregation.  I was even the last one to share my life story on staff because I was so afraid to share my story with other people.  But that community was such a blessing for me because it forced me outside of my comfort zone and something profound starting happening to me that year.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was beginning to enter into a new phase of my faith.  I began to question my own theology and Christian faith a lot, which is ironically what motivated me to apply for the coordinator position on group staff the following year.

Junior year I became the group coordinator, and that experience has formed my character perhaps more than anything else in my entire life thus far.  That year was tough.  Maybe you can identify a year of college that was harder than the rest.  For me, junior year was definitely the hardest. If you know me personally, then you know that chronic insomnia is a big part of my story. Junior year my insomnia crept back into my life and I struggled off and on with really severe fatigue,  which caused doubts in my faith, and deep depression.  I lived in the tension of being this ministry leader and often feeling bereft of hope.  I was unsure of how I could lead this staff of twelve people and lead worship each week if I had all of these questions of faith and pain and depression that I was going through.  Bob Zurinsky, the group advisor, told me something I will never forget.  He explained simply that being a ministry leader doesn’t mean having it all together.  Life is a journey.  Your entire life will be a journey.  And the important thing is to be true to yourself and seek God in the midst of it all.

Being Christian doesn’t mean we have all the answers, and I thank SPU for teaching me that.  This insight empowered me to be group coordinator a second year as a senior, and I’m so thankful I did that. My faith has grown tremendously and I don’t define myself so much by my fears anymore.

So often the faith response is that we know why everything happens, even why very bad things happen to good people.  But being Christian forces us to be honest with the uncertainty of things.  We can’t prove that the Christian story is the right version of the story of the world and we shouldn’t try to.  In fact, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned through my time here at SPU is that, as Christians, we actually embrace the struggles and the ambiguities of life because we are grounded not by knowing the truth about everything, but by our hope that God is in the process of renewing us and will one day establish the kingdom of God on earth.

No matter where life ends up taking you once you leave here, no matter what job you end up taking or what state you end up living in, your vocation in the world will always be the same.  Your role is to live into that kingdom of restoration and redemption and complete love here and now as best as you can as if your destiny is already your present reality. And that’s who we are as the church, as the People of God. We are a people living for the redemption of our world and we believe in our reconciliation with one another with all of our hearts.

It’s my prayer that as we graduate from this institution we go out into the world as both a people honestly aware of the brokenness of our world, the injustices and sin all around us, and also as a people secured in the hope of God’s victory over it all.  Are we prepared to give our hope to the world, even though the world may often give us reason to feel hopeless?

Thank you.

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Same-Sex Marriage and Scripture’s Radically Inclusive Ethic

We live in a time where same-sex marriage is a heavily debated moral issue in the Church.  As Christians and as human beings in general, we all come to this issue with a deep set of presuppositions and convictions that cause us to lean one way or the other on the issue.  Sadly, this has caused a great deal of separation and division amongst the Church, which was never God’s intention.  I speak from experience, knowing a handful of same-sex couples that have been excluded from their church’s worshipping community.  This has always seemed problematic to me, seeing as we serve a God who is never pushing people away from salvation, but gathering people in as a manifestation of God’s promised future—something we call New Creation.  As believers, we can’t be oblivious to the fact that we have pushed homosexuals away from the community of God.  This comes from a deep-seated belief that homo-sex and same-sex marriage are inherently sinful.  These are realities that must be addressed theologically, in light of our scripture, since we can never know for sure what God thinks about an issue like same-sex marriage until the eschatological end where God reveals all as the narrator of our entire existence.  Of course, we should not be so excessively protestant that we attend only to Scripture for answers in regards to moral issues like same-sex marriage. However, it is important to know what Scripture has to say about moral issues such as this because this is our unifying text that we wrestle with as the global Church.

Let’s begin by making it very clear that the issue here isn’t over homosexuality.  That is a biological characteristic of someone, not a psychological error.  It is simply incorrect to say that homosexual individuals are confused, or to assume that they must have been sexually abused or parented poorly.  By asserting any of these things, we are removing ourselves from the conversation by our mere ignorance.  But, perhaps most important of all is that even if we ultimately decide that homosexuality is naturally sinful, meaning not part of God’s will, and that same-sex marriage should be illegal for this reason and otherwise, our end goal should be to love homosexuals as God’s beloved creation, not hate them.  But, just as we don’t say that someone’s very nature of being heterosexual is a sin, so we don’t claim that someone’s homosexual orientation is inherently sinful.

The presumption throughout Scripture is that God has a preferential option for heterosexual relationships, but at the core God values a certain aspect of relationship.  God urges against the disruption and damage of loyalty between people in relationship with one another.  The sexes involved in the relationship aren’t the issue; the values that are upheld in that relationship are what God is concerned with.  (Acts 4:32-5:11)  In Acts, the Holy Spirit breaks down previous barriers.  (Acts 10:14-15)  Peter says, “Lord, I’m kosher!  I’ve done the right thing!”  But the Spirit speaks to him and assures him that it’s okay to eat meat.  This was crazy because Jews were supposed to be Kosher.  It’s how they displayed their commitment to the Christian faith.  Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).  The Holy Spirit proclaims that nobody is born apart from God.  Nothing is impure.  What matters in a person is his or her faith and commitment to God.  There is no mention of the sort of sexuality that one must have.

Keeping with this unifying aspect of the Spirit as seen in Acts, Paul’s letter to Philemon emphasizes a similarly radical ethic that seeks to unite Christians regardless of their previous or present place in society.  Paul urges Philemon to accept Onesimus, his former slave, as a fellow brother in Christ.  This is synonymous with Paul’s vision for the church as a “koinonia of believers” (v. 6), which entails a partnership and unity amongst all believers.  Those who were once “far off” from the salvific qualities of God have now been reconciled and brought near through Christ into one household (Eph. 2:11-13).

What would Paul have thought about same-sex marriage?  We know that Paul is concerned with the qualities of the relationships within the Church.  His letter to the Ephesians emphasizes a social ethic and insists on the solidarity of the Church body being formed into the image of God.  (Eph. 4:1-6; 4:17-32; 5:1-5)  Essentially, he believes in reconciled relationships.  This has echoes of the Holy Spirit’s inclusive work in Acts 10 where it is revealed to Peter that God desires to save all people, and in fact nobody is apart from God.  Paul is in the process of continuing the Spirit’s work of breaking down barriers within the community of believers.  In his mind, the People of God are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who lead holy lives.  It doesn’t matter what one’s ethnicity is, or where someone resides in the class structure of society, or what one’s sexual identity is.  What matters is one’s full commitment to God in all circumstances.

It remains true to Paul’s ethics not to condemn one’s sexual orientation.  Just like heterosexuality, homosexuality needs to be rightly ordered in order to abide by the holy values that God desires in relationships.  Sin does not reside in orientation, or even in the marriage per se, but in whether one’s life is rightly ordered.  They must think about other people in a way that reflects God’s grace, and mercy, and compassion.  All throughout Ephesians it’s evident that Paul has a deep conviction that one of the most important effects of Jesus’ dying and rising is a new humanity, a new sociology, where people that were once outsiders are now part of the community of God.  We are therefore called to reconcile relationships with one another and be an inclusive sort of people.  (Eph. 4:29-32)  A good marriage in God’s eyes upholds these values.  It brings together people that are dedicated to living out this way of life as a testament to the reality that God’s New Creation is starting now as a byproduct of God’s grace.

Jesus testifies to this in Matthew, and since Jesus Christ is God made flesh in the world, we need to pay most careful attention to his words.  We see that Jesus is clearly interested in the inward nature of people.  (Matt. 6:6)  The fact is that no single person has control over his or her sexuality, and so we should not be telling homosexuals to change the way they feel on a biological level.  This has caused so much pain for homosexuals.  I’ve heard firsthand accounts of this from close friends of mine that have been formed by churches for so long as people that regard the very nature of who they are as inherently sinful.  That’s quite an injustice.  We need to get far away from this idea that someone’s biology, the very thing that cannot be changed about a person, is what God wills us to change.  What we need to do is directly address the moral issue of same-sex marriage because, again, the issue isn’t homosexuality; the issue is the way in which gay people live, and the same is true for heterosexuals.

The qualities of a holy relationship, of a holy marriage, are the heart of the issue.  The beatitudes teach us how we are to be inwardly thinking about other people, and we can use this information to extract what constitutes a holy covenant relationship between two people.  Now we will take a look at Jesus’ moral vision for good relationships and holy thinking as made evident in this sermon, and begin to extract its relevancy for the issue of same-sex marriage.

Jesus quickly asserts his moral authority and gives a radical reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai.  Jesus makes it clear that he is interested in the inward nature of the people.  It is not just the act of following the Commandments that Jesus is concerned with.  In his mind, the very way in which people think about others is what God cares about.  For example, Jesus brings up the law that prohibits adultery and immediately says, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).  Jesus is presenting a sexuality of the heart.  He is proclaiming modesty rather than lust.  Jesus teaches us that what’s at stake in our sexuality is the way we regard other people.  (Matt. 5:27-28)  In his mind, the sin is in objectifying other people as merely sexual objects, and disregarding their feelings, their experience, their own wants and desires, and God’s profound love and intent for them as humans put on this earth for a reason.

Jesus even partners adultery with marital divorce.  “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32).  What’s so interesting is that Jesus isn’t looking at marriage as a social institution.  He is viewing marriage as a relationship, and as a certain kind of relationship with holy qualities.  The people involved in the marriage are to remain faithful to one another.  They are to enjoy sex with one another only.  This is key to Jesus’ moral vision for a marriage, and a same-sex marriage should naturally abide by the same holy values.

Following in light of Jesus’ values on holy relationships, we now focus our attention on James—a believer who comes after Jesus and a biblical text of profound moral density that can speak both to the issue of same-sex marriage and to the issue of excluding same-sex couples from the Church.  James is particularly passionate about holy speech—a sort of taming of the tongue in order to bring about redemptive relationships and communities.  One of the key issues that James speaks to is false worship.  He says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9).  The issue is that often there is no evidence that our worship transforms us into people that resemble the God we worship.  James is asking us, “Where is the evidence that our worship moves us from where we are into a world of complete restoration, grace, and love?”

To use the language of James, “speaking up” about same-sex marriage is problematic when it actually excludes same sex couples from the Church because doing that covertly trains the entire congregation to hate homosexuals in their hearts.  Nowhere does Scripture encourage us to hate anyone.  In fact, Scripture is a profoundly uncomfortable text because of its grand message to seek complete unity with other people in the world, even to the extent that we love our enemies.  (Matt. 5:43-44)  Like James says, “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal” (James 3:3).  If Scripture is about forming in us a holy conscience that is able to discern God’s will in any given situation, then the Church, as a liturgical institution that teaches Scripture as its main ethical resource, will be forming Christians that wholly believe that God doesn’t love homosexuals if it is choosing to exclude homosexuals from its community.  I have no reservations in saying that excluding same-sex couples from our Churches is a sin because it is doing absolutely nothing to seek the community of unity that God intends for us to live into as a microcosm of God’s kingdom.

The fact is that we don’t know what God’s will is for homosexuals; therefore we have no place in excluding them from the worshipping community of Jesus Christ.  James is communicating that too often we assume that we know what the will of God is for a moral issue, such as same-sex marriage, when the reality is that we’ll never know for sure, and thus we ought to focus primarily on how we love others in a way that harvests shalom even if they may be very different than us and believe very different things than us.

I find it fitting to end this biblical exploration into the moral issue of same-sex marriage with the ethics of Revelation—the final book of the Bible.  Like James (James 1:1-21), the Book of Revelation, written by an imprisoned believer named John, is written to Christians in trial and suffering for their faith.  There are lots of polarities in this book, lots of directly contrasting images—the self-indulgent city Babylon versus the pure city Zion; the Beasts who rule this world now versus the Lamb who will one day be crowned king (i.e. The faithful woman and her children versus the anti-God Dragon in Rev. 12 & 13).  What they do is force the readers to make a choice about which side they’ll take.  And it’s not merely a book with future implications, but one in which our very actions in the present are influenced by if we let them.  The overall message is that God will take all of the brokenness of our world and heal it, transforming and restoring our reality, as we know it now.  (Rev. 7:15-17; 8:15-17; 21:22-28; 22:1-5)  Therefore we are called to identify ourselves in that coming reality and live into that eschatological end as if our destiny is already our present condition.

It’s my contention that this speaks to how we are to treat homosexuals.  If we truly believe that God’s will and ultimate plan is to bring us all together and reconcile our relationships, then we cannot live any longer as a body of believers that pushes homosexuals away from God’s community.  Jesus’ description of the eschatological City of God (Rev. 22:7-16) is intentionally spoken with present tense.  We need to be the sort of people that recognize all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, as part of the family of God.

It’s probably obvious at this point that I have a deep conviction that regardless of whether we believe same-sex marriage is a sin or not, we should be welcoming same-sex couples into our Churches because, like James and the rest of Scripture teaches us, what’s really at stake in the Christian life is the qualities of our relationships and our inward thoughts towards other people, not our sexual orientations.  (James 3:13-17)  We can never say for sure how the Holy Spirit regards same-sex marriage or any other issue, for that matter.  But, how are we showing concern for the qualities of people’s relationships and are we being too quick to say, “You’re wrong and I know one hundred percent that God agrees with me, so I’m going to close the Church doors to you”?

The issue isn’t about the sexes involved in the marital relationship; the issues are the qualities of the relationship.  God’s will is that marital relationships are the basis for covenant-keeping—those in a martial relationship are to be obedient to the will of God.  They are to be the homogenous sort of people that pursue the kingdom of heaven (Matt 6:33).  They are to be truly repentant towards God’s ethics and kingdom (Matt. 6:19-21).  And like I said earlier, the presumption throughout Scripture is that God has a preferential option for heterosexual relationships, but at the core God values certain values of relationships.  God urges against the disruption and damage of loyalty between people in relationship with one another.  The sexes involved in the relationship aren’t the issue; the values that are upheld in that relationship are what God is concerned with. (Acts 4:32-5:11)

So, to close I will say that considering the array of scripture that I’ve focused on thus far, I believe that one’s sexuality ought to be consecrated through an exclusive, committed covenant, blessed by the Church because, from what we know from Scripture, this is what practicing resurrection, the complete unity of believers in the kingdom of God, looks like.  Deep down I am in support of same-sex marriage because I cannot fathom that God would create anything that is inherently sinful.  This would make absolutely no sense from what we know about the nature of God, even in the context of the first book of the Bible—Genesis and the story of creation.  God creates the world, animals, and humans and God proclaims it “very good” (Gen. 1:31).  God loves all creatures great and small, woman and man, homosexual and heterosexual.

Same-sex marriage is not an issue; the issue is whether or not people are living in a way that maintains their covenant with God as God’s servants to live out of the hope of God’s kingdom and to work for the holy ends of that reality.  And one of the most profound things that I’ve discovered from studying Scripture and listening to the stories of my gay friends is that the act of excluding anyone from one’s worshipping community profoundly contradicts the radically inclusive values of the Spirit evident throughout Scripture.  It seems clear to me that the theology of Jesus is to love the outsider.  In Jesus’ time these outsiders were the lepers, the blind, and the sick.  It was the Samaritan woman and the Canaanite woman.  It was every ignored and scorned outsider of society that Jesus welcomed into his community.

Our core belief as Christians is that God loves the whole world and that God desires to save the whole world from sin.  God isn’t the sort of god that drives people away from salvation.  These universalisms of our faith push us to include people in the community of God rather than drive them away.  But, whether you agree with me or not that same-sex marriage is holy, we both have the same mission as God’s people.  When we, as Christians, confront the reality that in our world there are homosexual people in love with one another, we must stand up and be the sort of people that embrace homosexuals as God’s beloved children, regardless of whether we believe same-sex marriage is a sin or not.  Who said the Church was ever supposed to be a community of clones that believe the exact same thing?  No, we are called to be the kind of community that wrestles with these issues as a community, placing the greatest emphasis on the qualities of our relationships, not the sexes involved.  And at the end of the day, may we worship under the same roof united in our hope that one day God will bring our differences to end and carry our similarities to life as equals in the kingdom of God.

Recovering the Liturgical Intentionality of the Church

In many aspects Christian worship has become something very different than what it was in the early Church. In ancient Israel, worship was a way of perceiving the world, not just a way to feel good on a rainy afternoon. It was not an escape from the world, but a way of imagining the world, giving the worshipers eyes to see. We see this in Chronicles with the careful attention to detail within the temple of the LORD. King David establishes a profound sense of holy space, holy time, and holy personnel that permeates the temple in such a way that causes the reader to take notice and ask, “What’s the importance of Christian liturgical practice?” Chronicles teaches us of the importance of Christian liturgical practice for forming habits, rhythms, and rituals for the worshipping community that develops a cultivated conscience and love of holiness within its individuals.

Religion and liturgy are deeply embedded in Scripture. In fact, they are so deeply rooted in the biblical text that Christians often glance over it. A closer look at a text like Chronicles shows that the goal and task of a Christian institution is formation rather than (in)formation. Towards the end of his life, king David tells his son Solomon how he would like the temple of the LORD to function as a liturgical institution. He insists on having committed people at work in the temple at all times. David has the Levites of at least thirty years old counted and then makes a detailed ordering of who will work in the temple saying, “Of these, twenty-four thousand are to be in charge of the work of the temple of the LORD and six thousand are to be officials and judges. Four thousand are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the LORD with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose” (1 Ch. 23:4-5). In other words, there’s going to be constant work being done at the temple. Broadly speaking, this is often referred to as “perpetual liturgy.”

James KA Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), picks up this fascinating idea from Augustine, which simply says that human beings are primarily affectional creatures, rather than intellectual beings. Simply said, “We are what we love.” This gets straight to the point of what the Chronicler is getting at with the attention to detail with regards to the temple of the LORD. David finds much importance in developing a holy institution that is dedicated to the formation of disciples who think critically and carefully about the world in which they participate in out of a cultivated love for God and God’s plan for the world.

In Chronicles, David’s emphasis for the temple is on the actual temple practices, which suggest a kind of liturgical habit, a liturgical lifestyle. He goes on to explain what sort of role the Levites, the musicians, the treasurers and other officials have in the temple. In this way, the Chronicler is portraying David’s desire to establish an ideal community that won’t make the mistakes of the past. This is the basis for the new community post-exile. And at the core, this community is one that takes liturgical practice seriously. Before he passes the task of building the temple over to his son Solomon, David says, “LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you. And give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, statutes and decrees and do everything to build the palatial structure for which I have provided” (1 Ch. 29:18-19). David wants nothing more than his son to carry out his vision for the establishment of a temple that enacts the will of God in its worship and helps to re-narrate Israel’s identity as the People of God. And this re-narration is towards the overarching Christian story, tracing the universal trajectory of creation towards its complete eschatological restoration, and locating the mission of the Church directly in the middle of that story as the people who live in the hope and vocation of redemption here and now.

Following in his father’s footsteps, King Solomon, as depicted by the Chronicler, is one who takes the nature of the temple very seriously. He values the grandeur, splendor, and beauty of God so much that he insists on emphasizing that in the very architecture of the temple. “The temple I build must be large and magnificent” (2 Ch. 2:9). He urges us to see that church worship is not a time to disregard liturgical competency. We learn how to relate to the world on a subconscious level through the liturgy of our worship services. Our vision of “the good life,” our vision of the Kingdom of God that we are pressing toward, isn’t something we’re born with. It’s a horizon of our reality, a set of affections that is built in us over the course of our lives. How we present a holy space that directs our attention to the heavenly is very important and requires every aspect of our imagination and attention to detail.

Today, the Protestant Church is somewhat allergic to the idea of habit because of its fascination with spontaneous worship. But we have to get over our reservations for repetition. We think repetition – engaging in habitual practice – is bad in the Church, but as Chronicles teaches us, we are liturgical ritualistic creatures and our desires are built. A clear issue today is that the form of the North American Church is neutral and the content is central. Churches are centered around sermons that are often constructed around three points, which begin with “cute” and what follows is a worship service that is disjointed because the lyrics of the songs are communicating ideas that often contradict one another as well as the sermon and the overall structure of the service. The reality is that we are not merely brains on a stick! We are highly influenced by the form! We’re not pre-programmed to love a particular thing; we learn to love. And how we learn what to love doesn’t come primarily from textbooks and sermons, but from the mundane habitual practices of our lives.  I think if we know why we’re doing what we’re doing as Christians, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, then our habits can have global implications. We will have a particular story and message that we identify in, and one that we can articulate to other people not merely through forced evangelical words that teach us and the community that our particular Christian vocation is to “save” everyone around us, but through the very manner in which we live our lives as a testament to our hope that this world is not yet as it surely will be.