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THE TWENTY FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
November 8, 2015
“Two Small Coins”
Just last week at our consistory meeting two actions were taken that, for the most part, were driven by anticipated gifts of money. The consistory did not pass a motion to move forward to pay for a revised plan for the Elevator project. And, we did pass a proposed budget.
Most religious institutions are dependent upon the generosity of the participants for their very existence. How much ministry and mission, or how little, is dependent upon the amount of money that ends up in the treasury.
And so there comes a time when those who are responsible for such things ask donors for a ‘little more.’ If the budget is increased by a certain amount, it is popular to simply divide that increase by the number of givers and to say, we only need an additional $3 a week from each giver. This simple mathematical equation is an easy demonstration, but it isn’t a good way to describe what is needed. For instance, if someone is giving $3 a week now, that suggestion is a 100% increase. Stewardship, unfortunately, is more complicated than simple division.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples happen to be in the Temple. I hear there were 13 containers on the wall in the ‘open air court of the women’ in the temple where people literally toss in their offerings. It isn’t quietly done as during our offertory, no sealed envelopes, no privacy. No one to say, “it’s between you and God.” No, you throw your offering in their right in front of God and everyone.
And Jesus notices that there were some people who were putting large sums into the boxes. These kinds of gifts are what make a difference in the life of the Temple. Jesus does not say that these givers are anything but generous. What he does say is that the ‘poor widow’ who put two pennies in the box gave more than anyone else. She “gave her whole life.”
Now if this were only a story about stewardship, it would be easy enough to launch into discussion about the concept of proportional giving and note that those ‘big givers’ actually give significantly less, proportionally, than this widow. And even though I am not certain this text is actually about stewardship, it is easy to glorify her gift and question the larger givers.
If the message isn’t really about our stewardship, what is it about? I suggest what this text does is predict Jesus’ own stewardship. Just as the widow gives her entire self, Jesus gives his entire self for our salvation. Today we gather about this table of sacrifice and mystery that brings to our remembrance that great gift of Jesus for us. She does what Jesus does, that in her giving she anticipates that it will make a difference in the world beyond herself. In the end, that is truly discipleship according to Mark, that is truly salvation according to Mark, and it is what Jesus portrays according to Mark. But more so, according to Mark, this is the essence of God.
The criticism that Jesus offers in this passage comes before the scene in the temple. Jesus begins this reading with criticism of the religious leaders of his day for their greed, pomposity, and crass exploitation of the poor. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus tells his followers. “They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”
Their piety, in other words, is a sham, and the religious institution they govern is corrupt — not in any way reflective of the God the Psalmist calls a “Father of orphans and protector of widows.”
Jesus notices the religious authorities and tells his followers “beware.” Jesus notices the widow too. He sees what everyone else is too busy, too grand, too spiritual, and too self-absorbed to see. For me, this is the key to understanding this story — that Jesus’s eyes are ever on the outsider, the small, the insignificant, the hidden. And if this story is criticism of the church and commentary on discipleship, then it is pointing us to something much larger than how much I will put in the offering envelope this Sunday or any Sunday to come. Rather, this raises questions about how I steward my whole life as well as the lives of those around me — near and far. Most especially those I haven’t noticed. The difference the church makes in the community should be for the good, for everyone.
Speaking of the needs of the (invisible) most vulnerable in our midst: we read this story in the midst of yet another election season, with local elections just past and next year’s presidential campaign already heating up. As we listen to candidates debate economic issues, we might recall the worn-out question from a campaign years ago, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Such a self-centered question might be better replaced with, “Are the widow and the orphan and the stranger in our midst better off today?”
The questions this text raises are appropriate to reflect upon as commentary on the current lack of a budget from the Pennsylvania State legislature.
Or perhaps we might care so much about one another and our shared life that simply asking, “Are we all better off today?” would lead us to see our futures as inextricably entwined, like those of Naomi and Ruth, (the widow and the Pharisee) and of all Israel itself. [The Rev. Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, November 8, 2015, UCC.org]
I am tempted, because I know how much more we could do in mission and ministry, to beg you to give more of your time, more of your treasure, but begging wouldn’t be dignified, isn’t really the point of the text, and how would I know if the right people would take it to heart? I wouldn’t want to watch the widow put her last two pennies in the plate, but she probably would.
ALL SAINTS DAY
November 1, 2015
“A Present Victory”
Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 5:1-12
When I was in seminary, in one class we had a small group exercise, it was to consider our own death. My friend and neighbor across the hall, Phil, said, “I wake up with Jesus. I fail to see the down side.”
There is some benefit to his way of thinking. Normally we don’t like anything about death. We disdain its sound, its color. We avoid it. Where once the death bed was the same bed that people slept in, it is more frequently now somewhere else; a hospital bed, a room in a long term care facility. There was once the presence of extended family, including children. Now, there may be a nurse present. The sheer distance at which most family has been dispersed across the country prohibits these kinds of gatherings and goodbye’s.
There is this ‘Sunday School faith’ that takes these tender moments and says to us “they are in a better place.” We say this because it is true. Part of St. John’s revelation on the island of Patmos records a word picture of this place, the new Jerusalem, descending from the heavens and from God. It was and is a comforting word given to Christians who were suffering and dying. So this Sunday School faith tempts us to postpone our sense of victory over death ‘until the Lord comes.’
There is a different faith, a mature faith, that offers an alternate response. There is sadness to be sure. Jesus himself wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. On the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises to the ‘blessed’ great rewards in heaven. This we count on, but we also depend on the fact that Jesus promises abundant life, not only afterlife. It takes some effort for us to nurture the faith that says that our victory over death begins here and now. My friend Phil was only partly correct. We wake up every day to Jesus.
The sociologist Christian Smith argues that most religious people in effect live a faith he calls “moral therapeutic deism.” It boils down to this: God wants them to be happy and modestly moral; God makes few demands on them; God promises heaven to anyone who is not egregiously evil; and God is not imagined to be actively part of a person’s everyday life. Religious skeptics rightly ask: What real difference in your life does being a Christian make? [Peter Feldmeier, America Magazine, Aug. 27, 2012.]
My response is that on days like today that our faith has the potential to make a significant difference in our lives, our everyday life, because it directs us back to living. At its best, faith has the power to make us more alive today than we could possibly be without it. We have a present victory.
Have you ever read Anne Tyler’s novel, St. Maybe? The happy Bedloe family is living the ideal existence in Baltimore in the 1960s, until a tragic event occurs and 17-year-old Ian Bedloe blames himself for the accidental death of his older brother.” “Depressed and depleted, Ian is almost crushed under the weight of an unbearable, secret guilt. Then one crisp January evening, he catches sight of a window with glowing yellow neon, the ‘Church of the Second Chance.’ He enters and soon discovers that forgiveness must be earned, through a bit of sacrifice and a lot of concern…” in one scene Ian is driving his nice, his dead brother’s daughter. They talk:
“You think I don’t know what I’m up to, don’t you,” Daphne said.
“You think I’m some ninny who wants to do right but keeps goofing. But what you don’t see is, I goof on purpose. I’m not like you: King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe. … Mess up, I say!” Daphne crowed. “Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you’ve got!”
This niece, Daphne, who teeters on the edge of waywardness, is under Ian’s care. And in her strange way she encourages Ian to reclaim aspects of his life he set aside when his brother Danny died. Rev. Emmett, pastor of “Church of the Second Chance” urges Ian to do the same; not ignoring the rotten events that have brought him to this moment, but to live into and through them.
To do his requires a mature faith that returns again and again to the reality that Jesus is present here and now. In all things. This faith notices God’s presence, perhaps in something as simple as a friend who sits with us, saying nothing, while our tears fall. Usual activities may have a certain void that cannot be filled because someone is absent. But there are others…”who gradually will help us find the road to life again, who will walk that road with us.” [Rabbi Josua Liebman, “Peace of Mind” Citadel, 1998]
What I hope that we remember on this day when we are giving thanks for loved ones, and Saint’s of the church from the past, is that the reason we bring to our remembrance faithful people is that somehow, large or small, in a public or private way, they took what they had and served God in their time. They lived. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions qualities of a live that make this abundantly clear. This condition of blessedness is not something that is awarded posthumously. It is something that is now, and I, for one believe that these qualities are a means, not to salvation, but for the abundant life that Jesus promises.
You know, Jesus insists the Kingdom of God has and is breaking into the world. Seeing it, participating in it, here and now is possible. Thomas Merton, a saintly person in his own right, said: “A saint is not someone who is good. It is someone who has experienced the goodness of God.” That is an experience in the now.
I confess that there are days when this is hard to do. To notice and claim the goodness of God. Yet, I believe, no, I know, that Christ is not done with me, Christ is present in these days, in all things God’s goodness is close by, today, tomorrow, and always. The victory he gives us is to be savored and responded to now. This moment. This day.
WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY
October 4, 2015
“On Reading the Bible”
Today is World Communion Sunday and I wish I could preach a nice sermon on the unity of all God’s people as we gather around the table of the Lord. But I cannot. Once you read out loud this text from chapter ten in Mark’s gospel, you have to say something about it.
I just read parts of this text to a different gathered congregation last weekend. It was at a wedding.
I have a list of suggested texts, taken from our Book of Worship, that I share with couples ahead of time and I ask them to read the texts aloud to each other and decide on two that will be read at their wedding.
The suggested text for weddings does not include the entire portion we read this morning. I didn’t read the part about the Pharisees questioning Jesus. Last Saturday I did not read the part about what the Commandments say. I did not read the part about adultery. What I did read was the part about the unique ‘one-ness’ that comes in any covenant commitment like marriage.
What I was doing was to select a text that supported the ritual that we had gathered to perform, a wedding. It wasn’t terribly important, in that moment, to expand the reading to include what, at first glance seems to be a contradiction. Here it is: The law says it is perfectly ok to divorce your wife with little more than a note that says she may go. Jesus, however, reads into the law and says that if you do this permitted thing, divorce, you are engaging in breaking one of the ‘top ten’ rules, adultery.
I so wish that Jesus had said more about this. I could use some good advice. So I went looking around. In Matthew’s later version of this story, for instance, he adds an exception to the standard regarding marriage and divorce spoken that Mark relates, and if you look to Paul you’ll find yet another. Christians apparently have always struggled with these issues, so should we be surprised that we continue to struggle today?
Some years ago I had a young woman call me. “Can we meet, today,” she pleaded. So we met at the office. She came in, big sunglasses only slightly hiding a black eye. I didn’t assume anything. But the physical abuse she had been suffering came out amidst many tears. I let her vent. Then she asked, “what should I do?” I told her, “you and your children should get out of there to someplace safe.” “Divorce,” she asked? “Yea.” There was a slight pause, and then she looked at me, and I’ll never forget this, she said, “you are not supposed to tell me that, you are a pastor.”
What she was implying was that she expected me to abide by some ancient and antiquated notion of marriage where the wife, during the marriage vows, promised to ‘submit.’ Back then there was no parallel promise in the groom’s vows. She was emphasizing that, and the ‘for better or worse’ part. Emphasis on worse. I stuck by my advice then, and would offer the same in any similar situation today.
You may have heard Pastor Goguts, last Sunday, mention that he and Carol recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Becky and I will be celebrating our 34th very soon. I will say what Pastor Goguts said: “That’s a very long time.”
Whenever someone asks me how long we’ve been married and I say 34 years I generally get some word of congratulation. I am thankful for that, but I usually tell them to compliment Becky because she has put up with me for all that time. She has put up with gun dogs shedding in the house, muddy boots, strange things in the freezer. While it is true that opposites attract, it sometimes makes for difficulties in a relationship.
And difficulties, not abuse, not infidelity, sometimes lead to couples ‘writing’ for divorce. Some of you might know that the law Jesus is referring to allows men to write for divorce of their wives. In this instance, the balance of social and economic power in the relationship tips sharply toward the husband. Divorced women had no other option, other than being on the street, than to remarry as quickly as possible. Jesus is criticizing the men here.
While the social conditions have changed since the time St. Mark recorded this story. The world at large has different expectations about all relationships, particularly marriage. I am not sure people have changed. See, this whole business of Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees reads, to me, like he is telling them that they have been playing it ‘fast-and-loose’ with the law. The only reason for the permission giving the law provides is because people can be ‘hard-hearted.’ God’s creation insists that we do not take relationships lightly.
And so Jesus is calling into question a marriage practice in our contemporary society. Let’s call it serial monogamy. One day, or a string of days, the wife burns the pot roast or the husband doesn’t pick up his laundry; perhaps she yelled at him for something one to many times; or he spent the night out playing poker with the boys again. I don’t know. But these two decide they are just not a good match and get a divorce. Then, they find someone, begin dating, and get married. Then one day the pot roast is burned or the laundry is in the middle of the bathroom floor and the cycle begins again.
What I often tell young couples who come to see me about getting married is that perhaps the single most important element in your relationship is commitment. I am all for the electricity between two people, the greeks called it ‘eros.’ But if that is the basis for a relationship, you are in big trouble.
Sometimes people love another person, and enter into the relationship believing that they can ‘change’ something about that person that they find distasteful, or aggravating. We all change, of course, but to assume you can change another into something or someone you want them to be is a ‘fanciful hope.’
When Becky turned 40, I jokingly said, at the birthday party, that I was considering trading her in for ‘two twenties.’ My mother in law ‘Kitty,’ quickly said in her West Virginia accent, “honey, you aren’t wired for 220.”
Nelson Mandela, father of modern day, post apartheid South Africa, spent 27 years in prison. Two short years after his release Winnie and Nelson separated. I wondered, ‘here is a man who spent 27 years in some of the worst prisons on the face of the earth. He gets out, reunited with family, and relatively quickly says in effect, ‘I can’t handle this.’ Really? Somehow he had the inner strength and fortitude to survive brutality but cannot put up with this woman.
As some Facebook pages identify, some relationships are “complicated.”
So in my reading of the Bible, taking the path of Jesus, I have a hard time sticking to the letter of the law. I am speaking to those of you who think that you have it all figured out now because somewhere in Leviticus or Exodus it says, ‘thus and so,’ you are wrong. Jesus himself doesn’t do that; here he is emphasizing the ‘intent’ of the law. It is not so much that divorce is not tolerated but what he is saying is that trivialization of the human relationship is what has gone wrong.
I want to take a minute and speak to those who might be new in the faith, haven’t thought about this too much, or perhaps have found yourself in this very situation. Whenever human relationships do not reflect the goodness and grace of God we have a responsibility to get things right, and if that is not possible, then there is this one, last, resort. It is a last resort, not a first choice. When chosen, it is sad, in every case, that things turned out this way but good people find themselves in this situation with some frequency. Does ‘sticking it out’ no matter what glorify God? I don’t think so.
We would also do well to remember that the designated passage for this Sunday does not end at 10:12. Instead, we have the brief story in 10:13-16 of people bring children to Jesus, an act the disciples try desperately to curtail. To what extent is the question “to whom does the Kingdom of God belong” (10:14) at the heart of the test posed by the Pharisees? Is the issue at stake less about divorce and symptomatic of the larger subject of vulnerability?
Those persons on the edges of humanity, women and children, and for Mark, any outsider, marginalized by ritual, tradition, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, will find their place in the Kingdom of God. The reality of divorce, of not being married, of not having children, has made all of us outsiders for a time. I wonder if Jesus calling us back to the created order is not simply to hold up an ideal vision of the perfect relationship, but to remind us that to be human is to be in relationship, whatever that relationship might look like. And, that relationship, at its best, does what it is supposed to do: glorify God.
THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 20, 2015
Sermon: “What Makes a Welcome Radical”
I want you to think about the reading from Mark’s gospel this morning. Many times, perhaps because it is inspired, we can read the bible and get its message for us quite easily. At other times, it is easy to get misinformed because none of us can read anything except from our own perspective and our own context.
The saying seems easy. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” So easy to say and to hear we can almost brush it off. Smile approvingly at the children coming forward for the children’s sermon in worship, and check one more thing off our spiritual to-do-list. Welcome little children? Done. We might ask ourselves, “How dense could these power grubbing disciples be to have been to missed so simple a point as this?”
In St. Mark’s day, children occupied an interesting place (for Jews and Romans alike). They represented the future—they would carry on the family name, provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation. But in the present, they were a liability. Small children, especially, were more likely to contract an illness and to die. They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed. Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave. However, the dynamics were more powerful than that. On the one hand, an adult slave could be “worth” more in the present; on the other hand, even the smallest child was a member of the “household”—an honor to which a slave was unlikely (and in most cases unable) to attain.
Children were insiders left on the outside. And they are the ones Jesus commands us to welcome. On the one hand, this is just another instance of Jesus turning the expectations of the world upside down. It is a great reversal in the name of justice, the kind of which Luke’s gospel is famous for (read the magnificat there). But on the other hand, here in Mark’s gospel we also experience something else. With children, at least, the power dynamics are not so black and white—it is not so much a question of who is great and who is not, but instead it is a question of welcome. Make no mistake, Jesus is proposing a radical welcome.
Put another way, Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest or even in who acts like the greatest or looks to be great. Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, compassion, and love.
And so I find I wonder now how it is that we as communities find ourselves able to heed Jesus’ invitation today to ‘welcome.’ I wonder where we get the clarity, the strength, the courage, the confidence, to be and do what is right in this way. It must be more than simply knowing that new people are necessary in order to keep any institution, whether it be an community organization or a congregation, going strong. In fact, if that’s our only motivator, it never really works. At least not in churches. Rather, it must, somehow, come from a deeper love for the last and the least and the lost that we would be willing to give up our space and welcome, focusing always on what matters most of all.
It’s not easy, to be sure, and I do wonder if this is why many congregations are less than welcoming, why so many of us are not growing. And while I have a deeper empathy today for why that is so, I’m still hanging on to the hope that even my seemingly normal self-centered nature can be overcome. It matters too much for it not to be possible, after all.
What I worry about, going into the future, is that the church will look more like the border going into Hungary than the open arms of Jesus. It is understandable that we might fear reaching out and receiving others who are different, and who need the gospel and need to the benefits we enjoy as a community of faith.
What keeps me up at night is the images of children running down a railroad track, desperately trying to reach the border into Hungary. I am troubled when we speak about deportation of children and their families, reducing their value except as being an ‘anchor’ baby. I do not understand the huge inequalities in our educational system that leaves the poorest children bereft of many of the benefits that the wealthiest communities presume. Jonathan Kozal describes the entirety of this situation a ‘current day apartheid.’
Unless we learn to receive and be received by such as this, the least in our communities and in our world, our conversations about church will become empty or simply self-serving. We will worry about appearances and the color of draperies. We will continue to Facebook and Twitter endlessly amongst ourselves about nothing, or ever rehearse the same uninspiring conversations about skills and capacities, what our church is doing or has done recently — and about “who is the greatest” among us.
May the Lord save the church from such an uninteresting preoccupation.
The 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 6, 2015
“Love Beyond Boundaries”
There is an outdoor celebrity whose motto is “Go Where You Don’t Belong.” His name is Remi Warren. Another is Donnie Vincent. The places they go to hunt are often harsh and unforgiving. It is not so much a cultural or ethnic boundary that send the message to Donnie or Remi, “Go Home,” it is the environment. Steep mountain faces, freezing cold, blazing heat. There are no housing developments there, and there is a reason for that.
There are other places where some of us go ‘where we don’t belong.’ A few years ago Kathy Petersen, Steve Young, Nancy Gelsinger and I took some youth down to Old First on Race street in Philadelphia for a mission weekend. Part of that was going into the community to serve. The morning of that service work, our coordinator told us the address of where we were going. I am not real familiar with Philadelphia, but I realized where we were going. Hmmm, I said to myself. We found our way on public transportation to the work site where we were picking up trash in the gutter and in vacant lots where homes had been torn down. Other homes were boarded up. None of them looked like houses around here. The kids did a great job. We met people who lived in the neighborhood and they were very thankful for the work we did. It was good to talk to the people who lived there, because in doing so it was fairly easy to recognize that we share basic human needs and desires.
That evening we ate dinner with some of the guests of Old First’s shelter program. I was sitting with a couple of our young ladies and one or two of the homeless men. One guy asked them, “what did you do today?” They shared that they were picking up every conceivable manner of trash along such and such a street. The man’s eyes got wide and he said, “you went up to Kensington?” “I guess,” the girls sheepishly replied. He then said something unexpected, “I don’t even go up there.”
It is quite natural, because of language barriers, fear of crime, or simply because of ethic differences, there are places where we feel as if ‘we don’t belong.’
Jesus is intentionally traveling in a place, a region, he doesn’t belong. Then, a woman who had everything going against her pushes her way into Jesus’ presence. She was a woman and a gentile from this ‘wrong side of the tracks’ area. She had no right, according to the social custom of the day, to engage Jesus in conversation. Jesus responds in a normal way; he answers as anyone of means, anyone with certain social privilege, anyone whose motivation is not questioned because of who they are would answer. Belonging to the right faith community, and being in the proper socio-economic position he tells her what might seem logical: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The story that follows, the healing of a deaf man, may seem, while miraculous, expected. It isn’t. Surprisingly, it is another story about Jesus going where he should not go. Not so long ago people with any kind of infirmity were not seen as being afflicted by some random microbe or gene mutation. Their condition was viewed as given by God as a consequence of their sin. The blind, the deaf, people with developmental disabilities, folks with mental illness, those with withered limbs were viewed as ‘less than’ and were not valued by society. People were afraid of these physical differences because they did not understand the biology and science of their condition like we do today. These conditions were attributed to demons, or divine punishment. This understanding is why someone once asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2)
In both these cases, the story doesn’t end with the outcome we should expect. Instead, Jesus recognizes the persons intrinsic value as a human being and trespasses several boundaries, in healing them. In these two stories we could add to the motto for Jesus, “Go where you don’t belong, and do what you shouldn’t do.”
A “‘worthless, gentile girl whose mind was devoured by a demon,’ and a ‘good for nothing deaf man who couldn’t even speak clearly’” (Mitzi Minor, The Spirituality of Mark, Louisville:Knox Press, 1996, p. 51) were indeed children of God to be embraced and valued. The woman’s response to Jesus serves as a stark reminder that status, social, religious, economic, is a product of our own imaginations, invisible to God. (Amy C. Howe, Feasting on the Word, Pastoral Perspective: Mark 7:24-37, Year B, v. 4, p. 48)
The point of this text challenges us because it is asking for something more than a casual recognition of the equality of all human beings. It is something more than the recognition that ‘all lives matter,’ police lives, black lives, brown lives, yellow lives, lives that are shrouded in illness of any kind, lives hobbled by some impairment; they do indeed matter to God, but the question for Jesus and for us is ‘so what will you do, in recognizing this fact?’
In an effort to energize UCC congregations to support mentally ill people in their midst, the 2015 General Synod overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Monday, June 29 to develop a network of churches that are welcoming, inclusive, supportive and engaged (WISE) for mental health. Some of the WISE 12 steps involve mitigating the shame and stigma that mental illness engenders. One committee member noted, “As church, we are considered armies of compassion.” With rapidly shrinking public services available, “churches are where those who suffer turn.”
Friends, “The Church of Christ, in Every Age” has met the Syrophoenician woman. The question is, will we listen to her today? Will we understand that “we have no mission but to serve in full obedience to our Lord, to care for all, without reserve, and spread [God’s] liberating word”? Will we listen? Will we respond by offering God’s infinite compassion and mercy to all persons wherever they might be? ‘whoever they might be?’ I pray so.
PROPER 17B – August 30, 2015
In the reading from James this morning, two ideas are contrasted. First there is the idea of the ‘implanted word’ and, second, the idea of ‘doing the word.’ At first you might believe there is a contradiction here, that James is saying that doing is more important than being. But the section as a whole says that for us to be the ‘first-fruits’ of God, Christians cannot be hearers of the word only; they must reveal its working in their lives. It is the gospel Word that has been implanted from which these good works come. These are, then, not so much contradictory ideas as they are complementary ideas that work together.
One commentator on churchy stuff recently said that the fellow who does stats for one (I will not name it) denomination thinks that 400 pastors (I’m assuming that this means 400 pastors from the that denomination and like-churches) will be resigning this weekend due to the Ashley Madison hack (as reported in “Christianity Today.”) There’s lots of internet handwringing on conservative Christian websites about how “everyone” knows “someone” on the AM hack list. As far as I know, I don’t know anyone involved in the hack. (Diana Butler Bass made this comment on FaceBook). My point in repeating this news is simply to note the resignations. Setting aside for the moment, as if we could or should, the grace of God; It seems to me that the internal conversation that permitted participation in this behavior in the first place implies that what you believe is more important as what you do. The resignations serve as evidence (if there are any) that what you do is as important, or at least should be reasonably consistent with, what you believe.
In the gospel lesson, the disciples create their own little issue with the religious authorities by not following prescribed procedures. They do not wash their hands, nor the dishes as they are supposed to. Despite the miracles they have been a part of, what specifically bothers the religious authorities is that they do not follow the rules. They are accusing the disciples of being hearers and not doers.
The irony, of course, and the point of it being recorded in the gospel is that these religious leaders “…pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help. Everything they do is just to show off in front of others. ” (Matthew 23: 4-5a, CEV) Telling this story is pointing out that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ condition most everybody suffers from in one way or another.
Still, there isn’t anything sadder that when someone who we lift up because of who they are, or what we want them to be, falls (or jumps) off the pillar we’ve placed them on. In these days of instant messages and the Internet, (the Ashley Madison scandal, for heaven’s sake), starlets and politicians have little or no chance of not ‘falling from grace’. Every mis-step, every faux pau is quickly printed and published for all to see. Sometimes we think they deserve it. Some people say they are not surprised at all the news about Josh Duggar. Nobody can be as good as the image they project because as the Pharisees and Sadducees can tell you, an image is a difficult thing to maintain. It is hard to be exposed as something you are not, or as not something others want you to be. It is so very easy for our actions to betray our faith. It is hard to be as good a ‘doer of the word’ as we are a ‘hearer of the word.’
A friend and I were together the other day and he got a call from a colleague at work. He told this other fellow that he was with ‘the Pastor.’ They other man said, ‘you won’t catch me in church.’ I do not know why he said this, but I have my suspicions. It may be that he is afraid he would be judged for some reason. Or, did you know that there are people out there in the community that do not want to have anything to do with church because they think that everyone there is narrow minded and judgmental? Why would someone think that? Why? Because,
For all its loudness, all its exclusion, violence and ubiquity, the faith that is modeled in the public square is often not particularly affecting. It is hard to imagine someone looking on it from outside and musing to herself, “I’d like to have some of that.” (Jimmy Carter’s Image of Faith Truest to What Faith Should Be, Leonard Pitts Jr., Tribune Content Agency on Aug 26, 2015)
If there were any truth in that rumor, it would be because what we do is not consistent with what we say we believe. More likely, however, is that folks who are honest with themselves and their shortcomings are resistant to organized religion because they anticipate judgment. Hard or not, to say we are Christians means to not only hear the good news, but also to be about those things Christ was about.
Our faith is, after all, about believing something so fully that you cannot help but act on it. It is as when someone loves someone so fully that they cannot help but act out their concern. To say you believe in peace, and to continually go off to war reveals what you really believe in. Peace is not founded upon war. To say you are concerned about the poor and to build for yourself bigger barns is evidence you do not really care for the poor. The poor are not lifted out of poverty by special concern for the wealthiest 2% in the nation. “It is complicated,” we say, and it is. But it is not so complicated that our beliefs cannot be measured by the slightest indications of charity, love, and grace. When we revere christians like Jimmy Carter, it is not because they wrote a great theological treatise; it is because their actions were a great statement of faithfulness.
There is something to be said for grand and sweeping mission efforts. But what I think James is encouraging is everyday ministry. Forgiving when I have the opportunity. Being generous where I can. All the while, in little things, hoping against hope that these daily acts of ministry mean something, that they bring the grace of God closer, and make the love of Christ something real; becoming not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts.
Sunday August 16, 2015
“Thanks For Everything”
I once read a letter from a missionary in the Congo. She wrote:
When I was in the Congo recently, I preached in a church-on-stilts in a fishing village. Villagers had set up camp along the Congo River, where they could fish and make some semblance of a living. Fishing means surviving for most of the members of this community. After I preached my sermon, which was translated into Lingala, the local language, I returned to my seat and watched as members of the church danced forward with their offerings. I was overcome by their joy in doing so. I’m serious when I say that they danced! They were thrilled, delighted, overjoyed that they had something to give. This was the highlight of the worship experience.
Just when I thought it was over, the marvelous African beat continued and the people kept dancing. They were invited to give another offering. Another offering? This would never fly in our churches at home! This time people brought forward their gifts for me, the preacher. What? Me? An offering for me? I could hardly believe it. Their tradition is to offer gifts of gratitude for the one who has shared the word of God. It was overwhelming to me. Never had this happened to me in all my travels and visits to preach the gospel. Wow!
Despite my incredulity, I graciously accepted the three fish that were brought forward. And the long branch of plantains, the oranges, the money. I felt strange accepting this offering, I’ll admit. But I know that to honor the giver, you honor the gift. (Amy Gopp, Ecumenical Stewardship Center, Amy is the director of Week of Compassion, a ministry of relief and development through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).)
I am not saying that we don’t do this, I think we do, but our swiveling and swaying is not visible to the naked eye.
Gratitude is a condition that is not always visible. Culturally, people like me, have been trained to not wave the banner of success, or shout out the call of joy.
If we allow ourselves these emotions it is required that they be subdued, that we not draw unreasonable attention to ourselves. All this is fine. It’s fine because to mandate exuberance without a grateful heart is just as ridiculous as feeling gratitude and not expressing it.
It sounds so cheesy and yet, it’s true. Gratitude is a habit.
Without gratitude it is tempting to assign every goodness in life to our own hard work or our own charming personalities. That’s not gratitude. That is nothing more than self-congratulation. When we work at gratitude, it is easy to think it is contrived. At first it may well be. But as time goes on, a gratitude exercise shifts your entire way of thinking. Did you know that what you do can change what you think?
One author talks about a ‘forced’ habit of telling others what it is about them that makes her feel gratitude. She said, “at first it made my skin crawl. It was way outside my comfort zone.” But that’s the point isn’t it?
When life gets hectic and you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a moment to focus on the people and things you are grateful for in life. When you are grateful, other things will fall by the wayside. For example, you probably won’t be able to feel jealous and grateful at the same time. You might even be thankful for someone else’s success or their contribution to you. Being thankful gives you perspective on you situation and brings you to the present moment.
Focusing on good things also helps you see beyond the troubles of the day.
But I want to tell you that it was St. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus that lead me to think about gratitude. And if you are trying to get more gratitude in your life, it is important to be specific, to thank someone. And for us, ultimately, that someone who we tell might be the barista at the coffee shop for their sunny disposition, or someone who holds the door, or complements your work; but keep in mind that who we are really speaking to is God; God is the source of all blessings.
Slightly more recent than St. Paul, a man named Ignatius developed spiritual exercises, the cornerstone of which was called the Examine. It’s a prayer meant to be prayed once or twice per day. In this Ignatius gives us a model for daily gratitude. In practice, the Examen can become so natural that we find ourselves being aware of God’s movements throughout the course of the day. And Ignatius would likely ask his followers to respond to those graced movements with gratitude, not just a once a year, but each day. God gives us good things and when we give thanks for them we give thanks to God.
Not all of us are comfortable with what can be called ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ ecstasy. But here in St. Paul’s advice we are confronted with it. The Spirit’s outward and visible expression in peoples lives, as alarming as it is to some of us, is not the point. The text is hoping for the transformation that occurs when our ‘hearts sing God’s praises for all things.’ This kind of internal work, that looks a whole lot like gratitude, happens on God’s terms and makes us useful in God’s kingdom.
The practical take away of the Spirit’s presence (is there another kind?) is the goal of shaping our attitudes. Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Sociologists, have earned a lot of PhD’s and been awarded a lot of grant money determining what St. Paul already knows: We shape our attitudes by what we bring to it, how we receive it, and how we are in the habit of responding to it. (Marshall, Paul V. Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, p. 352.)
The days are indeed evil. And by that I mean that the world is often going its own way and not the way of Christ. Asking anyone to ‘give thanks in all things,’ is a nearly impossible task – unless we remember that the continuing effort to do so is not an ‘ought’ but is ‘as you are able.’ I simply want to suggest that one reason the world is the way it is, is that there are many great things in life for which no thanks to God is offered. Our faith, our discipleship, is worse off because of this omission. (ibid, p. 354)
That’s really what all the excitement is about, here at the table Christ sets for us, here where we receive the bread of life. It’s about remembering, and giving thanks.
“Sing and make melody–make music–to the Lord in your hearts, always giving thanks…for everything, always giving thanks, giving thanks for everything,” in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
August 9, 2015
“Truth is not Enough”
25So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference.
He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.
My mother always told me to tell the truth. As a parent myself, I have pointed out to my children that telling the truth from the get-go avoids having to try and remember the story that you told to avoid the consequences of that truth in the first place. Not telling the truth is sometimes rooted in avoiding either punishment or pain, pain inflicted by that truth.
And that is why the truth is sometimes very hard to tell. The consequences of telling it can be less than desirable.
People can get mad at you. Anyone, in any significant relationship, knows this. Your significant other is getting dressed in the morning. They ask, “how does this look?” This is, of course, a subtle variation of “does this make me look fat.” And this is one instance where telling the truth can be the source of friction in a relationship.
The truth, even in the most self-evident situations, can be misinterpreted. I was in Boscov’s or Kohl’s, I don’t remember which, and I was being the dutiful husband, waiting outside the dressing room while my wife was trying on a garment of some kind. There was another guy there, twiddling his thumbs too. I thought to myself, so this is what it has come to; standing in the mall waiting for our wives, holding their purse. His wife came out first. She said, “how does this look?” He said, as far as I could tell, truthfully and enthusiastically, “Great!” She pouted and said to him, “you are just saying that.” “What are you saying,” he pleaded. “You’re just saying that so you don’t hurt my feelings!” “No I’am not!” “Yes you are!” She said, “I knew when I put this on it didn’t look good.” He muttered, to me I guess, “well, why did you ask me?”
There are times where brutal truth telling is all that is left. Speaking the truth to power, so that the powerful cannot claim “I didn’t know” is one time when the harsh and unadulterated truth should be told. When the Cushite tells King David of Absolom’s death, he does not say it straight away, but there is no mistaking the truth of the situation. A better example is the prophet Nathan from last week’s reading who tells, first, a parable of a rich man who takes advantage of a poor man by basically stealing his meager resources when his own resources could have easily sufficed. King David identifies quickly the gone-wrongness in this situation. It’s a little harder to accept when Nathan tells David “you are that man.”
And often, telling the truth is an excuse for venting our own frustrations or hurts, which may or may not be beneficial to anyone. The truth of some small matter can be so hurtful if told the consequences far outweigh the benefits. The truth of large matters is sometimes not told because it horrifies everyone.
In the movie “A Few Good Men,” An enthusiastic, inexperienced, Navy lawyer named Kaffee is called upon to defend two marines who are up for court martial, indicted on murder charges. While on the stand, the Base’s CO, Colonel Jessup, under intense questioning by the young defense attorney is finally unnerved. The Colonel says, “You want answers?” Kaffee says, “I want the truth.” Jessup shouts, “you can’t handle the truth.”
I have a colleague who selectively pares down this scripture, who snips out the parts they don’t like, to make Paul’s words support truth telling in a way that makes it a weapon. I called him on it. He quoted that old saw, ‘the task of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ I replied, ‘yes, but it doesn’t say to afflict everyone.’
The letter to the Ephesians insists that we are members of the same body, and therefore we have a responsibility toward one another. And that applies as much to the way we speak to and about one another as to any other facet of life. From this perspective Ephesians says that our words should convey “truth” and “grace” to each other. By “truth,” I don’t think it means a theoretical approach—it’s not about a courtroom inquiry, or academic research, or philosophical contemplation.[Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 512] Rather “speaking truth is a practical matter. And by practical, I do not mean practical in the same sense that Colonel Jessup understands it. From this perspective, “speaking truth” is a way of fulfilling our commitment to relate to one another in ways that promotes peace and justice. When that is the case our words “convey grace”, they “become a vehicle and demonstration of the very grace of God.” [Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 520]
The truth of our existence is that we really are each other’s keepers. We have an obligation to one another—particularly in the context of our mutual faith—to relate to each other with love and kindness and compassion. Make no mistake: it grieves our loving creator when we fail to do that. It grieves our creator when we act in ways that positively destroy the fabric of humanity that the Spirit weaves among us. [Alan Brehm, http://www.thewalkingdreamer.blogspot.com August, 11, 2009]
At the present moment there are multiple conditions present in our society that call for truth telling.
If people have no sense that there is a truth larger than themselves, their individual self interests reign supreme; without ethics the social fabric of society deteriorates, and random violence and polarizing rhetoric, sexual obscenity and public incivility, rampant greed and disregard for the common good escalate; without a workable truth [philosophy of life] beyond themselves people find no lasting meaning;
without truth [purpose] there can be only increasing anomie and passivity and rage that erupts in more violence. [Dawn, Marva “The Sense of the Call” Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006, p.4.]
But ‘telling the truth is not necessarily a solution to anything.’ For me, the polarity of thinking evident in the public sphere, on racism, marriage equality, gun violence, trophy hunting in Africa, is exemplary of some of the problems of ‘just tell the truth.’ Anger, even death threats, are shot like canon volleys across lines. So each camp circles the wagons a bit tighter, draws clearer lines around their version of the truth, and digs in.
I am not suggesting that there is no truth to be told. I am not supporting the idea that, in every case, some sort of ‘situational ethic’ be employed to define our reality. What I am suggesting, as is St. Paul, that there is no way forward for humanity if we insist upon killing one another (figuratively and actually) over the truth. Truth, as we experience it alone, is not enough for God’s people.
In this case, Paul is using the word truth in a very specific way. Truth is not some evidentiary fact. Here it has to do with the truth of God’s love and grace shown in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ. By its very nature, truth cannot set free anyone without its companions, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Without these qualities, even this truth is just another tool the jailer uses to hold others hostage.
Recently we received an ‘anonymous’ letter from a ‘long term member,’ who voiced displeasure over the suggestion of and process for the welcome center/elevator project. This letter was full of inaccuracies about how our campaign progressed and how certain funds were used. The letter suggested that moving ahead with the project would cause us to lose more members.
I told one of our leaders that I am unwilling to respond to anonymous complaints of any kind. Why? Because anonymity does not allow for any relationship. Compassion, kindness, and forgiveness, cannot be exercised universally but are qualities of specific relationships. I cannot be compassionate for the poor in Haiti in general; I can be compassionate if I advocate for them and donate to them specifically. I cannot forgive in generalities; I can forgive someone who, because of differences of thought or belief has derided my character. But none of these gifts of the Spirit can be exercised outside of some sort of relationship, apart from a commitment to community.
That is why I have been feeling pretty down, nearly wanting to cancel my newspaper subscription, and turn off the tv. My strong introvert personality is begging me for isolation and withdraw. But I have an ever stronger force tugging at me; I believe the gospel, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, because they remind me of the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness God has given me.
And still, those five words at the beginning of chapter five, they intimidated me. “Be therefore imitators of God.” They intimidated me until I realized that that is all I am ever asked to do, to be a once off imitation, to do my best, to marshall up what limited amounts of compassion and kindness and forgiveness I have, to be an imitator. That is what disciples of Jesus do, after all.
THE 18th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
August 2, 2015
“God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.” Fredrick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking”
“Hello, Sinner!” Rev. Nadia Boltz Weber’s favorite greeting.
This reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus can be, well, a little discouraging. It is possible to hear these words and because of who we are and what we know of our limitations, to believe that surely, St. Paul must be talking about someone else.
One of the great paradoxes of this life of discipleship is that God chooses to work through feeble human beings. Paul’s language, Apostles, Evangelists, Prophets, may make us think about the miraculous; and so our thoughts turn to big events like Moses parting the Red Sea or when Peter and John, at the gate called ‘beautiful’ (because it lead to the temple), who healed a man who could not walk since birth. Big names. Big roles. Big events. Yet a closer observation of lives of these people, Moses, Peter, or John, reveals they were far from perfect and yet God found them worthy to be agents of God’s work in the world.
I was once visiting a church. It was summer, and you might be surprised to know that when I am on vacation I usually go to church. On that day they had some special music. They brought in this tenor to sing during the offertory. I overheard the buzz in the pews before worship. He was known to these folks for his beautiful voice. During the piece he sang, there were a series of high notes that I am quite sure he had sang perfectly a hundred times before. But on that day, well, they weren’t so good. I heard two people in an adjacent pew reviewing the offertory: “well, he really flopped today. But what do you expect? He’s only human.”
He’s only human? I wonder what people said in their comments all the other times he sang that same piece but hit every note. “Well, that was wonderful. But what do you expect, he’s only human.”
See there is something strange in our assignment of cause to every faux pas to the human condition. What about every success? What about all the times that the gathered community of faith is actually agents of God’s healing and reconciliation? Do we chalk it up to luck? Coincidence? What is going on here?
It is as if, because Jesus has ascended into heaven and so he cannot be assigned the task; it is as if God simply chooses somebody nearby who looks like they might just possibly do. God uses people to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, and often these instruments are as surprised at their being chosen as anybody else. It was as if God “put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.” (Buechner, Fredrick “Wishful Thinking”)
The church, at its best, is a rather ragged gathering of imperfect people who God has tapped on the shoulder for various kinds of service. This identification can easily be shrugged off because each of us know that at the moment we are hardly capable of fulfilling any such ‘high calling.’ But the miracle is that the service we are called to, to be Christ to each other and the world, is not and never has been accomplished by perfect people, save one.
What disciples of Jesus do, what any church does, in real life, is to
help us to believe that life can be abundant and free. They encourage us to trust that we can always begin, or begin again, no matter what has happened to us, no matter what we have done, and no matter what we have failed to do. (Rev. Dr. Guy Sales, “In Repair,” Day One.)
Some years ago I was part of an ecumenical program called the ‘weekday school of religious education.’ It was basically Sunday school, but it wasn’t on Sunday. We got permission from the school district to allow elementary students to ‘elect’ to be released for an hour in the school day and we put them on the bus and took them to one of our churches and taught them bible stories. The children left the elementary school building as if shot from a cannon. I suspect some saw this as another hour of recess. Some of the behavior was so bad that one day a Borough police officer was moved to pull the bus over, because there were screaming children hanging out the windows. So we began ‘chaperoning’ the bus. Adult volunteers rode the bus to and from the classes.
I was trying to manage the circus we called a bus ride one day. My strategy was to sit with the child who was acting out the most. They were usually sitting in the back. One day I sat down next to a child who for all purposes could have been ‘Dennis the Menace,’ or ‘Calvin,’ from the old ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoon. I sat down next to him and albeit briefly, his antics stopped. I said, “my name is Jon Fogle, what’s yours?” He said, ‘Dickie Howser.’ I paused a moment. The name sounded familiar. I said, “Do you have a grandfather with the same name?” The boy hung his head and said, “yeah, the bishop.”
I asked him about his behavior. He said point blank: “everybody knows I am just a bad kid.” My heart broke. So I asked him another question, “is that what your grandfather, the bishop, says about you?” “No,” Dicky said, “he tells me I am a child of God. But I know better than that.” I told him, “I think your grandfather was right. You are a child of God.” And then I told him, “some expectations are easier to live up to than others.”
And so if you start to think that this person or that person is not worthy of inclusion in God’s family, think again. More importantly, remember even you, too, are included. When we say “all are welcome,” pause a moment and say to yourself ‘I am welcome.’ I am called. I am welcome here. Paul begs the Ephesians to live up to his expectations for them. But this cannot be done if we believe they are too high, or mistakenly assigned. Our worthiness is not a product of our spiritual perfection. Our worthiness is not a consequence of hard work. Our worthiness is not an end, but rather what, when believed, allows us the freedom and grace to be the people that God has already created us to be. Each of us, are worthy servants of God, with our own particular and peculiar gifts that God has given us. No exceptions.
The poet Mary Oliver says it this way:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”
This is the good news of the Gospel.
One of the benefits of having friends who attend our UCC General Synod is that they bring me back stuff. Sometimes is is ‘kitsch.’ Other times it is something that stimulates my thinking. That happened this year.
A friend gave me a brief paper written by Rev. Dr. Bob Thompson, president of “Faithful and Welcoming Churches.” This paper was thoughtful, well written, and I suspect representative of the position that many people take on the whole marriage equality issue.
There is very much in it that I appreciate and admire, even if I am not in agreement. While demonstrating a gracious and generous spirit, it is also clear he is writing to give voice to (and for) people who do not support marriage equality.
In this paper, (titled “Rethinking Homosexuality”) I see Dr. Thompson laying down his principle reason for opposition as being based upon the Genesis account. Some advocates, however, interpret this creation as the need for ‘companionship’ and community. Much of the rejection of LGBQT has focused on the sex ‘act,’ or procreation. I would not want to take such a narrow reading of the creation story(s).
That being said, the rest of the document discusses why Christians should not be so absolute in their rejection and condemnation of LGBQT folk. In citing such not-controversial qualities as self-denial, calling, sins, compassion, unity, humility, and prayer, Dr. Thompson does an excellent job of describing the essential requirements of any Christian community with respect to any divisive issue. He does not take up an affirming position but reinforces ‘welcoming’ as normative.
It is interesting that while he cites John 17 and the unity of the church, his discourse finally comes down to a very pragmatic concern: “…essentially we’re saying to half or more of the world around us, ‘if you want to find a relationship with God and Jesus, don’t come here.’ I have a similar concern about growing intolerance in the UCC for anything but a very progressive theology. As I heard it, the “Faithful and Welcoming Churches” folk wore t-shirts that said on the back, “I am Welcome Here.” I would hope so.
To be clear, I personally support marriage equality and believe that a Christian church should be ‘affirming,’ not just welcoming. And, affirming does not remove one from the realm of ‘faithful.’
I did not come to this position overnight. It represents over 25 years of ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ, much of it during the same period the denomination grappled with the issues of ordination and full inclusion of LGBQT folk. As Dr. Thompson said so well, that as a pastor in the reformed lineage of our UCC “I am always rethinking everything.” I agree with Dr. Thompson who also affirms that there are some absolutes in terms of faith. The reality is, however, that if we insist upon a very narrowly defined dogmatic we ‘ipso facto’ exclude many from the family of faith.
In terms of individual congregations, especially middle to larger congregations, a narrow dogmatic denies the diverse reality in the pew. Forced allegiance is not helpful, in part because issues like these are rarely solved by better theology or better exegesis. Thompson acknowledges: “…Christians down through the years are now almost universally acknowledged to have read the bible wrong on a plethora of topics.” Issues such as this are usually emotional and relational. Dr. Thompson is right on target when he recognizes that “where people make up their minds, slam their opponents, and separate into ever-narrowing cliques of the like minded…” and essential element of the church of Jesus Christ is lost.
Some months ago I attended a training put on by an ecumenical cast of leaders. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, and Equality PA, were there to teach about a process called “Building an Inclusive Church.” It was (to me) a great event. I was the only straight, tall, white, CIS, heterosexual, married to the same woman for 34 years, in the room. During the break, one of the leaders questioned me. I think he was concerned I was some sort of ‘plant.’ He asked, ‘why are you here?’ This question helped me frame a little better in my mind, not only why I was in attendance but, why embraced inclusion.
Ironically, I must confess, I do not understand what has come to be called the “gender spectrum.” Either by nature or nurture, I identify in very traditional ways. In terms of attraction, again I identify in very traditional ways. Still, there was and is something that bothers me about assigning a certain ‘gone wrongness’ to others who do not identify as I do.
When I was in high school I was involved in sports. Up the street from where I lived I had a classmate who suddenly ‘disappeared.’ I learned that he was at home in a deep, dark, depression following a failed attempt at suicide. I went to see him. He told me that he was gay. In the mid ’70’s, that was disturbing to me; but not as disturbing as the reality that this athletic, funny, smart, young man nearly killed himself over it. I stumbled through words and actions in the days and weeks ahead that I hoped would demonstrate to him that this did not mean I would cease to be his friend.
Early in my ministry the United Church of Christ voted to affirm LGBQT folks as candidates for ordination. I was a member of my Association’s Committee on Ministry. We labored to create a statement affirming that GS resolution. I was the primary author. The gist of that paper was that a persons identity as LGBQT was but one element of their whole identity. That, any more than a persons identity as a woman, did not immediately exclude them from the ordination process. However, just because you fall into this category or that category qualifies no one for ordination. Still, at every ‘town hall’ meeting we held in the association, I got barbecued.
Once, the Conference asked me to be part of a public discussion held at one of our churches. Another pastor from the conference who opposed ordination for LGBQT folk was also asked to participate. I found myself on the podium at this church with my colleague by my side. He spoke, then I spoke. He answered my questions. I answered his questions. After about an hour of this we wrapped it up. I turned to him and said, “I think that went pretty well.” He said, “I wish you had not said that.” Shortly thereafter ‘all hell’ broke loose and these nice ‘christian’ people were at each other’s throats. Everything but fists were slung in every direction. My colleague, as opposed to one another as we were, slinked out of the building, together.
The central issue that I was supporting then, and now, is that a person’s sexual orientation does not, ‘ipso facto,’ disqualify anyone from ordination. Another more recent example is the Boy Scouts of America’s policy which provides room for LGBQT leaders. I suspect that they enacted this policy with the understanding that there are many qualities that disqualify someone from being a Scout leader. One’s sexual orientation is not one of them.
I would stand with Dr. Thompson; I hope he would stand with me, knowing that I would be Welcoming, Open, and Affirming. If a couple came to me, requesting a wedding in the church, and it was a same gender couple, they would be subject to the same questions and process that every other couple gets from me. Are they members? Is the extended family active members? Are they willing to attend premarital counseling (it’s required). Do you recognize that this is a worship service of the church, and not a ‘production?’ And, in that counseling, are their major relational issues (e.g. violence, abuse, addictions) that would not allow me (in good conscience) to conduct this wedding? To me the issues that are problematic (sinful even?) are not in the realm of identification but are relational.
Not too long ago, a family left our church. I was heartbroken. I met with them and discovered the main reason was that they felt I was ‘pushing the gay agenda.’ So for a couple of hours we talked. I offered a book to them, which they accepted, by Mark Achtemier titled: “They Bible’s Yes to Same Sex Marriage.” Finally, I said, “I wish I could talk you out of leaving.” There was, of course, nothing I could say to change their minds.
See, what I hope to be ‘pushing’ is not the gay agenda, but the Christian agenda. Recently, the lectionary lead me to re-read a letter, written a long time ago, while a pastor was sitting in jail. He said,
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19, NRSV, emphasis mine.)
Paul’s hopes for the Ephesians, a people who were once outside the ‘family of God’ with no way in, and who then through Jesus Christ had access, is the same hope I have for all God’s children. In that, together we may be ‘rooted and grounded in this love that is for all God’s people.’ This ‘condition’ is not an end point or a goal for faithful christians, but a desirable starting point for all we do. I think that is what Dr. Thompson hopes for too.