A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 15, 2015
Luke 6:32-36 CEB
Selection from Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity
By the time I had graduated from college with a major in Philosophy & Religion, and then graduated from seminary, I had been exposed to a plethora of different theologies and approaches to interpreting the Bible. One would think that by the time you spend four years in college and another three in seminary, you would have a crystal-clear conception of what to think, and believe, and how to interpret the Bible. Maybe some do. But such is not necessarily the case. At least, it wasn’t that way for me. Being exposed to so many different theologies and so many different ways to approach and study the Bible can sometimes serve to only muddy the waters of belief rather than providing clear insight into one’s own theological self. In my case, in addition to all the Bible and religion courses I took in college and seminary, I had friends and relatives telling me, “You should study this theologian or you should read that devotional writer,” authors that sometimes were even more diverse and extreme than those of my formal studies. And visiting bookstores doesn’t always help matters either. Because when you peruse the bookstore shelves of religion and Christian devotional writings, you will find a wide range of approaches and interpretations, with all writers telling you this is the truth, but often those writers are in diametric opposition one to another.
And so, it is possible to graduate from college and seminary and find oneself floundering in a sea of theological approaches and beliefs, rather than being self-assured and having a clear vision of what I, personally, believe and hold to be true. Such was my experience, anyway.
But then I heard about this new Christian theologian that I ought to read. So I bought a copy of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and I read it. Upon first reading I found the book to be informative, but not life-changing. A few years later, I read it again. And that reading was life-changing. I can tell you exactly where I was when I read the chapter in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time that proved to be one of those epiphany, light bulb experiences. Mary Lou’s position had taken us to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to plan a special weekend seminary on baseball and religion. As she sat in her planning meetings, I sat in the car and re-read Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. As I read Borg’s explanation of the two prevailing religious emphases of Jesus’ day—that of the politics of purity and the other, the politics of compassion—it was like the floodgates of understanding had burst open. In contrast to the dominant force of the Pharisees, who insisted upon complete purity, Jesus came on the scene as an advocate of the 8th century Hebrew prophets’ message, which was a dedication to the politics of compassion.
Borg went on to explain that “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.”1 (Meeting Jesus Again, 46) Borg showed me that some of the verses in the Bible that often are translated “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 ESV), can rightly be translated “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36 CEB). Furthermore, when we look at the two most beloved parables that Jesus taught—the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son—both of them have at the heart the primary theme of compassion. In the story of the Good Samaritan it is said, as rendered by some translations, “A Samaritan . . . came to where the [wounded] man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion” (Luke 10:33 CEB). And in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is said of the prodigal returning home, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion” (Luke 15:20 CEB). To repeat myself, it was like I had seen a bright light from heaven, as it became clear to me that the heart of the message of Jesus—the heart of true Christianity—is compassion. And the essence of the life centered around the teachings and way of Jesus is a life of compassion. Christian theologian Marcus Borg was the one responsible for helping me gain enlightenment, as it were, and get my grounding and find my voice as a Pastor-Theologian. And for that, I feel that I owe Marcus Borg a great debt of gratitude.
Borg also presented a view of God that resonated with me at a time when I was struggling with my own conception of the nature of the Divine. Borg said, “the word God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us. God is the nonmaterial ground and source and presence in which, to cite words attributed to Paul by the author of Acts, ‘we live and move and have our being.’” (Meeting Jesus Again, 14). In his subsequent book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Borg again presents an alternative way of thinking about God: “God brings forth the universe from God’s being. Because the universe comes out of God’s being, it is in some sense ‘God-stuff.’”2 (Reading the Bible Again, 74) This “model affirms the presence of God within and beyond the universe. . .” Again, I resonated with Borg’s thought and said to myself, Here is a conception of God that I can adopt and work with.
Though I have also realized an affinity in many respects with theologian John Shelby Spong, the approach of Marcus Borg, I believe, is most agreeable with my own approach, and helped me clarify what I do believe, whereas Spong helped me clarify what I don’t believe. Borg became for me, and for many others of our country, the preeminent Christian theologian of our times. In all, I have read six of Borg’s books, I think.
A few years ago, I made contact with Marcus Borg and invited him to come to Oak Ridge and, specifically, this Chapel on the Hill. For a few weeks Borg held open the possibility. But then he revealed that he had received two other invitations from the area, one of them being St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Farragut. Ultimately—since Borg and his wife were Episcopalians—he ended up declining my invitation and accepted the invitation of St. Elizabeth’s and the local Episcopal Diocese and spent a weekend there lecturing. I and a few others from this United Church drove down to hear Borg’s lectures. I am glad I did. Because I was shocked when I heard a few weeks ago that Marcus Borg died on January 21, succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis. The world of Christian theology and biblical studies has suffered a great loss.
Marcus J. Borg was born in North Dakota in 1942, into a traditional Lutheran family, although he would later move to the Episcopal Church where he remained the rest of his life. He attended Concordia College in Minnesota and found himself fascinated by the New Testament. He accepted a fellowship to do graduate work at Union Seminary in New York City where he focused upon the Jewish background of the gospels and Jesus. He did further studies at Oxford, and eventually accepted a position at Oregon State University where he taught religion for about 28 years. Along with his friend, John Dominic Crossan, Borg became a leader in the Jesus Seminar. During his career, he wrote more than 20 books.
In a Christian Century blog, Katherine Willis Pershey shared: “many progressive Christians identify Borg as the person who made space for them to return to—or remain in—the Christian faith. . . . Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time . . . was exactly what I needed to read. . . . We mourn the loss of a biblical scholar, a fine writer, an unexpected evangelist, and a faithful Christian.”3 I could not have said it better.
With the passing of Marcus Borg, we have lost a theological giant. We will sorely miss Borg’s continued contributions to the field of Christian and biblical studies. For those who have never met Marcus Borg and his writings, I would highly suggest Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity.
I thought it appropriate on this Valentine Sunday, a day when we are thinking about love, to pay tribute to Marcus Borg as the one who taught us that the nature of God, the teachings of Jesus, and the heart of Christianity is, pure and simple, love and compassion. Thank you, Marcus. Amen.
1Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.
2Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. New York: HarperOne, 2001.
3Katherine Willis Pershey, The Christian Century online, Jan. 22, 2015.