The Law of Unintended Consequences

December 27, 2009

Clay Nelson

Christmas 1     Luke 2:41-52

Video available on YouTube, Facebook


I can’t believe I’m back in this pulpit again this week. Nor can I believe anyone is here this morning. Boxing Day sales are still on and the beach is beckoning, but since you are you can enjoy along with me God’s sense of irony. After the ruckus “The Billboard” caused, I get to preach on what the church has proclaimed the Feast of the Holy Family. Although I suspect many think our billboard has said more than enough already about the Holy Family’s family life. So I will give it a pass even though I love the story of Jesus being a precocious scamp who misbehaves. I seriously doubt it happened, but it still sounds “true” to my ears.


Instead I want to ponder in my heart the holy family here at St Matthew’s. 


Have you ever heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences? No, it’s not really a scientific law like laws of gravity, but instead a humorous expression according to which any purposeful action will produce some unintended, unanticipated, and sometimes unwanted consequences.


The law was in full force last week. The intended purpose of the billboard was to have a little fun laughing at some notions of God that really don’t stack up anymore for many, but also to cause people to think about and discuss a deeper meaning of Christmas. By all indications it appears we were successful beyond all expectations. We have discussed this already in the media and here in church so there is little need to elaborate further.


It is the unintended consequences that have got me pondering in my heart, in particular the level of offense taken around the world. Some online polls suggest that we have offended half the planet give or take a few percentage points. While initially email tended to be overwhelmingly positive, as the story got legs we heard from more and more of the offended. So let me say clearly, offense was not our intent. However, I’m not sure that was the intent of those who commented on the website, emailed, wrote, faxed, texted and called to express their outrage. Many went beyond being offensive to abusive and threatening. This must be the “two wrongs make a right” school of Christianity as opposed to the “turn the other cheek” school I attended.


What has brought me up short was not how nasty believers can be but why I was surprised. I realize now it is because of you. St Matthew’s long before Glynn and I arrived on the scene has been unafraid of controversy and new ideas.


I will never forget Palm Sunday in 2006 when I proclaimed for the first time in the pulpit a belief I have long taught in private: Jesus was just a man. That was the same week the new website and iGod went live, so I knew I was going out on a limb, one that might be used to burn me as a heretic some day. My heart was in my throat. My anxiety was probably quite evident in my delivery. Then a miracle happened, you not only didn’t burn me, you were incredibly supportive of the sermon even if you didn’t agree with it. What’s more, you challenged me to keep it up.


I have done my best ever since, with your encouragement, to preach my truth unafraid. I’ve taken on biblical literalists, creationists, homophobes, Republicans, theists, Anglicans, Brian Tamaki, and traditional understandings of creeds and even the appropriateness of corporate creeds themselves. I’ve taken to heart the brief I gave M & C Saatchi, if the billboard could go up easily in front of any other church it isn’t for us. Likewise, as I reflect on the readings while preparing a sermon, I try to look at them from outside the box. I avoid preaching them the way they have traditionally been preached. The downside of this approach is it is impossible for me to plagiarize other sermons — a not uncommon practice in the church. The sermons I want to preach are hard to find. Sometimes I wonder if you are just giving me enough rope to hang myself from that limb I’m out on. If so, it may now have worked.


Before the billboard Glynn and I were flying under the radar. Although our progressive theology has been out there for all to see and hear on the website and in iGod podcasts, apparently the only people who were paying any attention were those who were appreciative of our different take on Christianity. Since the billboard went up an unintended consequence is our opponents have discovered us, scouring the site for heresy and calling for our heads.


While I know Glynn and I are intentionally “out there,” we are not blazing new ground theologically or scholastically within the Christian community. We follow in the footsteps of theologians and scholars like Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossans, David Jenkins, Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering, Jack Spong, and the folks who make up the Jesus Seminar and the Center for Progressive Christianity to name only a few of the more contemporary trailblazers. Those who criticize us know of these people and their scholarship. They may not agree with them, but they know we are not outside the big tent of Christianity that includes them. What I think annoys them most is that we are telling you and the world about a dialogue occurring outside the imposing wall protecting the church’s doctrines and dogma. Our sin in their eyes is inviting everyone into the discussion, not just theologians.


However, that said, as I read their comments, I realize they are right. We don’t belong to their flavour of Christianity anymore. Because we have been evolving together as the holy family of St Matthew’s we have not noticed how far we have strayed from traditional Christian beliefs. Like Jesus, we have not noticed that the extended family left without us while we were asking questions of the priests, scribes and Pharisees. When rebuked by parental authority we have challenged their preconceived notions about where we should be. We are truly naughty, but unlike Mary’s memories of Jesus, we are not likely to be any more obedient in the future. We think that at the heart of Christianity we are called to ask difficult questions and seek a truth that makes us one with the divine not a human institution; that like Jesus we might grow in wisdom and in divine and human favour.

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