This past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Detroit, approved pastors being able to marry same sex partners in states where same sex marriage is legal. According to Presbyterian polity, it still has to get the approval of the majority of presbyteries (there are 172) before it becomes the law.
Judging Facebook and Twitter there were a lot of comments about how good this is and I agree with them. But will this action, coupled with the approval of non celibate gays to become ordained a few years ago save the Presbyterian Church? Will it save any church?
After serving growing churches, I know that people have been attracted to our church because we upheld LGBTQ rights. This is why we can grow, because of this decision:
Young adults overwhelmingly support LGBTQ rights. According to Pew Research, about 70% of Millennials support marriage equality. Guess what? The 30% is probably already going to another church. So, it’s a good plan to focus on the 70%.
The old-school evangelical church is declining because of their attitudes towards LGBTQs. For many years, people have told us evangelical churches were growing because of their doctrinal purity. But, as a refugee from the conservative Southern Baptist Church, I can tell you, homophobia combined with asking women to “graciously submit” and not use birth control pills, is not a strategy that will hold up with… almost anyone.
We’ve watched the exodus of younger generations. We’ve seen emerging churches mature. We’ve witnessed a movement of evangelicals embrace a more compassionate faith. Now the Southern Baptists are grieving losses as well. I don’t want to sound smug about this. Leaving my Baptist roots was the most painful thing I’ve ever done and I’m distressed when someone leaves church. I’m just saying that so-called doctrinal purity is causing decline in many cases, not stemming it.
I would like to believe this, but my own experience tells me that this reasoning is too good to be true for a few reasons. First, I think everyone wants to pin the blame on something they don’t like as the reason for church decline. If you’re a conservative, you will blame those loose liberal values. If you’re a liberal then you think it’s because of the strict morality preached from conservative pulpits. Either way, it’s the other side that is causing the ruin of mainline churches.
I don’t think that the reason mainline churches are losing members rests soley on embracing liberal theology and practice. Yes some folk do leave for doctrinal or theological issues, but I don’t think that captures all of the problem. Some of the “fault” lies in a changing culture that is far more secular than the 1950s Mainline Protestant dominance. Loses within the Southern Baptist Convention could stem from the fact that many Millenials don’t have a presence for any religion. Are Millenials leaving the SBC because of the gay issue? Probably. But it also could be that the youth have lost interest in the adult world. It could be having to work to pay off student loans which takes time. We don’t know all of the why it’s happening; we only know that it is happening.
Also, if the gay issue is the thing causing people to either leave or join the PC(USA), you would expect massive shifts from more conservative denominations to liberal ones. That’s not happening. The splinter groups that became denominations never get a huge chunk of followers. The same goes with the reverse: if people are upset at the SBC, you would think there would be a massive uptick in the mainline denominations. In both cases, what probably happens when young people stop coming is that they stop coming to church, period.
The thing is, while votes to change policy are very good and necessary; there is something about this belief that mainline churches will now grow that seems half-baked. Progressive Christians believe that if they take some official position on gays or women or the economy that will cause people to consider their churches over evangelical ones. Yes, it’s good that churches are becoming more open to LGBT folk. But the thing is, the job is only half done. Maybe some people will darken the door of a church because of a positive vote, but not everyone. What will bring people is when members of LGBT-friendly churches do some old-fashioned evangelism. They need to go to a LGBT friend and tell them about their church and how welcoming it is to them. They need to tell LGBT people of how God loves them. When that happens, then maybe, just maybe the numbers in mainline churches will grow.
Methodist blogger Sky McCraken wrote two years ago, that the reason for decline in denominations has little to do with it’s stance on homosexuality and more on making – or failing to make- disciples:
Changing the stance on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination. It’s at best a red herring and at worst a lie to espouse otherwise. The Southern Baptist Church continues to lose membership; they are in their fifth year of decline, and they have a very decisive, very clear statement on their opposition to homosexuality. On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church also has a very decisive and clear statement on homosexuality, where they bless and celebrate same-sex unions as they do male-female marriages, even though doing so separated them from the Anglican Communion. Did it help them gain members? Their membership is now lower than it was in 1939.
The loss of membership in both denominations, as well as in the UMC, can reasonably point to one reason: failure to make disciples. We can blame society, we can blame the president and Congress, we can even blame MTV. But we can’t blame our stances on homosexuality. The fact that I hold an orthodox view on this issue and agree with my denomination’s stance doesn’t let me off the hook for anything – that has nothing to do with a failure to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. And yes… that is what it says in Greek: μαθητεύω - to make a disciple - it’s a verb, aorist tense, imperative, plural, second person. And as Dallas Willard reminds us, we are more often guilty of the Great Omission: once we baptize folks, and/or they have been converted to follow Christ, we seem to forget the rest: “teaching them to do everything that [Jesus] commanded you.” That’s discipleship. We have failed at discipleship – we suck at it! – and have for several generations.
If gay people show up at a local Presbyterian church and ask to be married, that’s a great thing. If they end up attending, that’s even better. But what do we do once they are there? Is our job over, and we can now relax? How are we helping them become better followers of Jesus. As McCraken notes, Americans Christians have done a poor job of making disciples; people who want to follow Jesus.
I am glad that this vote passed. What I hope is that those Presbyterians in churches near and far not only welcome LGBT and Allied people into the church, but then help them become disciples of Jesus as well.
*I wanted to add that not being nice to gays won’t save your church either, but that would have been a crazy long title.
This is a sermon I preached on Easter evening in 2005. It is the text I will be preaching on this Sunday for the Third Sunday in Easter.
April 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
I love good food, and it probably shows.
I consider myself lucky to be born in the family that I’m in, because I grew up with two wonderful cooking traditions. On my father’s side is the African American tradition of the Deep South. It’s a tradition of fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, cornbread stuffing and sweet potato pie. It is all fattening and it’s all good.
On my mother’s side is the Puerto Rican cuisine. I remember coming over to my grandmother’s when she was still alive and eating rice with chicken, or arroz con pollo. Sometimes she would substitute sausage or fish for chicken, but it was just as delicious. When I was little, I used to call it “Orange Rice” and literally thought my grandmother bought orange colored rice. Then I also remember pasteles, a delicacy that is made from plantain. They are little meat pies filled with pork and raisins and olives. My grandmother and other relatives made them and have been known to carry them in my luggage when I leave Michigan bound back to Minnesota.
Food doesn’t just bring needed nourishment to us, but it’s a context that brings people together. I remember eating arroz con pollo and talking in Spanish to my abuela, or grandmother. I remember eating so much soul food that I probably needed angioplasty at a family event in Louisiana a few years back, but it was also a wonderful time to get requainted with my southern relatives.
Today, we encounter one of my favorite stories concerning the ressurection. It’s the road to Emmaus where Jesus appears in disguise to two of his disciples. These disciples were still in shock over all that had happened in the last few days; the shocking arrest, the mockery of a trial, the crucifixion. They had thought Jesus was the one that would save them, and now their savior was dead. They told this disguised Jesus that it was already the third day since his death and in Jewish tradition, this meant that the soul had left the body, meaning there was no hope that Jesus would ever come back. To add insult to injury, the women who were aquainted with Jesus reported that the body was gone. These two had lost hope and were alone. They had placed their hopes on this one called Jesus and it had all ended so badly.
Jesus decides to put a stop to this pity party and open the Scriptures to them. They were interested in what this supposed stranger was saying to them.
When they arrived in Emmaus, it was evening and not a time for someone to be on the road alone, so they asked the stranger to stay with them for the evening. He agreed and shared bread with them. It was when he broke the bread that the disciple’s eyes were opening. Jesus had been revealed and just as mysteriously as he appeared, he vanished from their sight.
It’s interesting that the resurrected Jesus made himself know presumably at a table, breaking bread. In preparing for this sermon, I noticed that some interesting things happened when Jesus was at the table. In the fifth chapter of Luke, there is the story of the calling of Levi, aka Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector, an agent of Rome. Now Jews didn’t take kindly to collaborators, and it was also known that tax collectors not only collected money for Rome, but took a little extra for themselves. So, it goes without saying that Matthew wasn’t popular. And yet, Jesus calls him and as a result, Matthew hosts a big party where all his fellow tax collectors were invited. Well, this didn’t go over with the Pharisees who thought it shameful that Jesus would associate with such lowlife. Remember what Jesus said? He said that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Then there was the time he was invited over to the house of Simon the Pharisee. The story, record in the seventh chapter of Luke, tells of a sinful woman who comes in and washed his feet with her tears and poured purfume on them. Well the Pharisees were shocked. Didn’t Jesus know this was a “bad” woman. Why would he even allow her to touch him? What does Jesus do? He takes Simon and the others, all who were considered high society, to task for not being hospitable to him. Only this woman who was considered and outcast, showed him proper respect and for that, he forgave her sins.
Then there is the story of Zacheus, another tax collector. In Luke 19, we read that Jesus invites himself to Zacheus’ house. Zaccheus is so moved that this one called the Messiah would stay with him, that he repents and repays those whom he has cheated.
Over and over again in the book of Luke and in the other Gospels, Jesus is found somewhere where they is a table and food. What’s interesting here is that these “table talks” give us an insight into who the Son of God is and also what God is all about.
The prior stories all point to the fact that God is one who loves everyone and there are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. Jesus broke bread with tax collectors and other various “sinners.” He also dined with the rich and powerful as well. This shows that Jesus was not a repsector of persons, but welcomed all. These “table talks” remind us that as children of God and followers of God’s Son, we are called to welcome all, regardless of their status in life.
So what does the meal in today’s text mean? Well, let’s go back to the fact that these disciples had lost all hope. They didn’t realize Jesus was alive. As Jesus told them Scriptures they were rekindled with some hope. It was in the breaking of the bread that they realized who Jesus was. In the context of this simple evening meal, they were reminded that death could not silence Jesus. He was alive, he had conquered death, and as a result, we now have new life. Not only is Jesus one who welcomes all to the table of fellowship, but he is one that death can’t hold. No earthly power can hold God back, thanks be to God.
In a few moments, we will partake of the bread and the wine. In Disciple theology, what other call an altar, we call a table. I tend to like that. An altar has a regal image to it, relating more to a king. That’s not a bad reference, since Jesus is a King, but the word table connotes something more basic and common. It represents the Son of God who came to earth as a peasant child, and then as an adult spent time teaching at tables. We still learn from Jesus today at this table. It is here we are reminded of God’s love for us-all of us, regardless if we are black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay. We are reminded that God loved us so much, God became one of us, lived among us and died the death of a common criminal. We are also reminded of his ressurection and know that not even death could hold him and no longer has a hold over us as well.
In closing, go back to talk about food. A few years ago, there was a movie called Soul Food, about an African-American extended family in Chicago. The matriarch, Big Mama, would cook these wonderful meals on Sundays after church and all the family would come over. Now, at some point, Big Mama fell ill and was hospitalized. When she ultimately died, the meals stopped and the family fell apart with certain people not talking to each other.
The narrator of this story, Big Mama’s eldest grandson, schemes to get the family together and concocts a story about some hidden money. Everyone attends and one by one, they all come together and start making the meals that Big Mama used to make. In the end, the family was back together all through a meal. The meal, healed a broken family.
This is the savior we worship, one that is made known to us in meals. The question I want to end with is this: as followers of Jesus, do our meals, at this table and at all of our tables reveal the something about the Risen Savior or do they reflect the table of the Pharisees, which is built on exclusion?
Something to think about. Amen.
Photo: “The Road to Emmaus” by Dr. He Qi ( http://www.heqigallery.com )
The following is a post from June of 2012.
I recently read an interview with Rev. Mel White. Most of you know him as someone who grew up as an evangelical, was a ghostwriter for many big evangelical stars and then came out as gay. I remember hearing about him in the mid-to-late 90s and back then he was kind of the SpongeBob Squarepants of the gay community. I mean that SpongeBob thing as a compliment, because he just seemed so darned positive, when it seems like most gay men were known for snark and bitterness. He was kind of a breath of fresh air to me and I was amazed and applauded his attempts to meet and even persuade his some of the people he used to work for. Yes, it might have been hopeless, but there was something wonderful about how he really tried to do that whole “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talked about.
This leads me back to the article I read. The positive Mel White of old is long gone. What’s left is a man that’s pretty pissed off at the church and when I say church, I mean the whole church. White is angry not just at evangelicals, but also more mainline denominations that either still haven’t voted in favor of equality (like the United Methodists) and those that have recently allowed for non-celibate gays to become ordained (like the Lutherans and the Presbyterians):
For example, in the United Methodist Book of Discipline homosexual behavior is labeled, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Methodists—with their misleading logo, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”—have voted against us for approximately 40 years and yet they are the largest and most progressive of the mainline churches. Changing the basic statement of the mainline churches from anti to pro has been the activist’s primary goal for decades with very little to show for it…
… After debating the issue for almost half a century in recent years the Lutherans and the Presbyterians have finally voted to ordain lesbians and gays, but the United Methodists still refuse to ordain us. In fact, they still have on their books that local clergy can even deny membership to gay and lesbian Christians…
…Again, after at least a decade of futile debate, the ELCA (Lutherans) voted to ordain and marry us, while the Presbyterians and United Methodists continue to deny us the rites of marriage. Even the liberal Episcopal Church is losing local congregations because this most progressive of the mainline denominations appointed an openly gay bishop.
On one level, I can understand his frustration. Many Methodists are upset that even a measure stating they agree to disagree failed, and rightfully so. Living in Minnesota, I know a lot of Lutherans and I know a lot of them either had to live in the closet or face ecclesiastical courts before the ban on gay clergy was lifted.
But the fact is, whether we like it or not, change like this moves slowly. Always does. It moves slowly in society and it moves slowly in the church. It takes a while for people to change their mind or see another way of looking at things. That’s frustrating, but I’ve come to learn that justice comes in its time and till then all you can do is press on making the case for change.
Another thing we have to do is love our enemies. Some times we can love them close and maybe even be friends. Sometimes you gotta love them from afar. White used to at least try, but it seems like these days, he’s just sticking to those who agree with him:
Christian fundamentalists, like fundamentalist Jews or Muslims, read their “holy books” literally. For fundamentalist Christians the Bible is clear: homosexuality is a sin. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Trying to build bridges with fundamentalists is a game I’ve played—a war I’ve fought—for 20 years and I’ve lost almost every battle.
Fundamentalists don’t listen to facts let alone to personal experience. What the Bible says to a fundamentalist Christian parent is more significant, has more weight, than what they see in the lives of their own children. I have stopped even trying to build bridges with fundamentalists. When one of them asks me, “Have you read Leviticus 20?” (a verse when taken literally demands that men who sleep with men should be killed) I reply, “You’ve confused me with someone who cares about what you think of Leviticus 20.”
Evangelicals see salvation as an act of faith, a very personal encounter between the believer and his/her God. The more historic churches see salvation as a sacramental act, through receiving the Eucharist. Most fundamentalists are evangelical but all evangelicals are not fundamentalists. There are many examples of progressive, even open and affirming evangelicals and we should go on trying to build bridges with every progressive evangelical we encounter.
And, needless to say, we should go on trying to build bridges with the liberal or progressive churches but if the label can be trusted, if a church or denomination is correctly described as “liberal” or “progressive” they are already working with us. Unfortunately, we continue to call the historic mainline churches “liberal” and “progressive” when on our issue they are neither.
Okay, but we aren’t really building bridges if we build them with people who already agree with us. It’s not bridge building; it’s building an echo chamber.
I don’t think trying to reach fundamentalists/social conservatives is a waste of time. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have tried to reach out to social conservatives. Some folks aren’t ever going to listen to me and I tend to “love them from afar.” But others, I do try to sit and listen to them and have them listen to me. I don’t expect to change their minds; I leave that up to God. And I truly believe that God is powerful enough to change minds. But that’s not my end goal- my goal is to love them as God loves them even if I disagree with it. That’s not a waste of time to me- it’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.
I can understand some of the bitterness found in White and in many of my fellow gay folk. When you live in fear that people don’t like you or worse, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder and ready to do battle.
Maybe I’m a coward, but I also think that as a Christian, I have to learn how to also learn to love others- even others that might hate and revile me. The Old Mel White had that Christ-like love that allowed him to meet with Jerry Falwell in the long-shot hope that Falwell might repent. It was a foolish and extravagant love that I was amazed to see.
The New Mel White is not so foolish. Some would say he has the righteous anger that Jesus had turning over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. I would agree we need that passion at times. But we also need that crazy, stupid love that White showed towards his enemies as well, and I think the world is poorer for losing that Mel White.
A Presbyterian Pastor reflects on the British Science fiction series Dr. Who as a modern fairy tale about fighting monsters and then relates that to Jesus:
I remember after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 how much I wanted to just march into Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere really, and just blow things up. I wanted to cause someone the pain we as a nation were caused. I think many people felt that way. Toby Keith certainly expressed it in his song Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue. Do you ever feel that way? After the shootings at Newtown did you just want to cause that same kind of pain to the shooter? What about yesterday, did the monster come out in you in the presence of that monstrous act?
Jesus defeated the monsters in our life without becoming one. He stayed true to his identity in God. He loved. He had compassion, and suffered with us. He spoke the truth. He challenged the monsters but never became one. He didn’t take on the form of power, or revenge, or pain. He didn’t take the form of military might or monstrous fear. Instead, Jesus took the form of a servant. Jesus took and held the form of love and mercy and hope. Jesus was and is a light in the darkness, a light the darkness cannot overcome.
We are called to be lights too, and not give way to the darkness. We are called to fight the monsters without becoming one. We do that by following Jesus and his example. We do that by having a cruciform faith and living a cruciform life, and fairy tales like Doctor Who help remind me what that might look like today, Daleks excluded.
My thoughts these days are drifting towards relationships, or the lack thereof in churches.
I’ve been thinking about this in light of a recent blog post on CivilPolitics.org on the dearth of cross-party friendships. The post linked to a longer article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the issue. The author, Neil Gross notes that such friendships have benefits for the whole of society:
President Obama last month took a group of Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington, to discuss the sequestration crisis and a wide range of other policy matters. The next day he asked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential candidate, to lunch at the White House. Another meal with Senate Republicans is planned for April 10. The goal of those meetings? To score PR points—but also to build personal relationships that might erode partisan gridlock.
It’s too early to tell whether the president’s outreach will work, but social-science research suggests that friendships that reach across the political aisle may be good for democracy: They facilitate cooperation by reducing extremism and enhancing trust. In a 2002 study, the political scientist Diana Mutz assessed the effects of political diversity among friends. Study participants who reported friendships with those who were unlike them politically had a better grasp of why people on the other side held the view they did. Those participants were also more tolerant…
The problem is that, in both Washington and the country as a whole, friendships that cross party lines are becoming rare. The political scientist Robert Huckfeldt and his co-authors found that in 2000 only about a third of Americans who supported George W. Bush or Al Gore for president had someone in their political-discussion network who backed the other candidate. And in a study of wider acquaintanceship networks, the sociologist Thomas DiPrete and colleagues discovered that such networks are segregated by politics as well.
It should not surprise anyone that such a lack of cross-party friendships are lacking in the church as well. I’ve noticed more and more how liberal Christians tend to stick with each other, while conservatives keep with their own kind as well. In a post from last year, I explained that this wasn’t always the case:
It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.
The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.
I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.
What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.
As I move within my different circles, I’ve noticed how liberal and evangelical Christians don’t talk to each other at all. They don’t see to like each other and say not-so-nice things when they are in their own groups. Since I work for the Presbyterians and pastor a Disciples church, I’ve seen how we all self-select or how we wish we could not have to deal with “those” people. I’m reminded of talking to another pastor a few years ago after a difficult vote. The pastor wished our denomination was more like the United Church of Christ, our sister denomination that tends to be far more liberal. I was privately irked by the pastor’s comments, because what was being said is that life would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with “those” conservatives.
In our society, it is becoming easier and easier to not have to hear diverse viewpoints. As much as I like social media, it has the tendency to shelter folks from other opinions and reinforce our own views. It’s been interesting to see people on Facebook who seemed more temperate in the past become more zealous over time. People will put up the latest graphic that makes fun or demonizes the other side.
We are less interested in trying to build bridges, than we are in setting the damn bridge on fire. In the name of social justice or orthodoxy, our places of worship are becoming less graceful.
Recently, social conservative writer Rod Dreher shared his experiences meeting the well known gay blogger Andrew Sullivan. The two have tossled more than once on the issue of same-sex marriage, and yet something surprising happened over time: they became friends. Here’s what he said, responding to Andrew’s take of an evangelical church he attended where a mutual friend’s funeral took place:
It will not surprise anyone to learn that Andrew and I will simply not be able to agree on theology. It may surprise some to know that I can live with that, because Andrew is a decent and kind and very much alive person (though I can see his difficult side too; we all have them, as did — very much — David Kuo; as do I). Listening to Andrew speak with passion the other night about his love of Jesus Christ, and his experiences of Christ’s presence, was moving, because so genuine. Hearing of him speak of his own deep suffering as a child and as a young man — stories I hope he will be able to tell one day in his writing, because they were incredibly powerful, and gave me a new perspective on him and why he believes and feels the things he does — deeply reinforced for me the Gospel interdiction on withholding judgment from others. We really don’t know what others have endured, and how they have managed to hope in spite of hopelessness. I found myself back at my hotel room that night praying for Andrew, that Jesus will help him carry the things he has to carry, which to a degree that startled both of us, I think, resemble some of the heaviest burdens I myself have to carry.
If that makes me a squish, well, it makes me a squish. The older I get, and the more I become aware of my own frailty, my own vanity, my own hard-to-govern passions, my own weaknesses, and the more I come to grasp how freaking hard life is, the more inclined I am toward mercy. It’s not out of big-heartedness, necessarily, because unlike my sister Ruthie, I am not big-hearted. I am petty and jealous and quick to anger. My worst fault is my unbridled tongue. Rather, I think any inclination towards mercy on my part comes from a recognition of how much I need it myself.
The words that are most important here is that Rod could live with not agreeing with Andrew’s theology. Live with. Tolerate. Knowing that you might never change another person’s views and coming to a place where that’s okay. To know that sometimes, it’s better to be loving than to be right. Grace.
What I wish for the church today is that we could live with a little more grace towards each other, especially when we don’t see eye-to-eye. We need to get to a place where we can disagree and argue and still hug each other afterwards.
Maybe if we were more merciful we would be willing to hear each other. Methodist pastor Stephen Rankin wishes that people not refer to things with the various political adjectives that keep us separated:
We absolutely must enact a moratorium on political labels as identifiers for the “kind of Methodist” that someone thinks she or he is. Calling a particular theological position “progressive” or “conservative” perpetuates (ironically) the very groupthink that we often say we deplore. These words are code that do nothing more than allow people to decide whether they like the theological idea or not without having actually to engage the idea itself. It thus stops necessary reflection even before it gets started.
Using political labels, therefore, like “progressive” and “conservative” and, in some ways “evangelical” does nothing but short-circuit and maybe even ruin the possibility of important and serious conversations. Let us please stop using them, at least long enough actually to talk and listen to one another without these maddening distractions. I am not naive to think that we’ll stop using them altogether, but let us please become very self-aware and spare in our use of them. And we should agree never to use them as conversations stoppers in public debate.
Our society is so fractured, and our churches mirror this sin. What needs to happen is for Christians to not always work so hard to be right. I’m not saying we give up our views, but to know that relationships matter, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye.
I know this will seem weird to others, but I hope one day to become friends with a social conservative. We won’t agree on the issue of sexuality. We might even think the other is sadly mistaken. But I want to have a friendship with someone I don’t agree with to learn to love someone for more than their having the right viewpoint. I want to love them as Christ did and does: with grace and mercy.
So, if there are any social conservatives who have always wanted a sassy black gay friend, I’m available.
A sermon from Good Shepherd Sunday 2006.
“On Pastors and Pastures”
John 10:11-18, Psalm 23
May 7, 2006
Lake Harriet Christian Church
I have to “blame” our Associate Minister, Tammy Rottschaefer for this sermon. For a while she has commented on the problem with parts of the church today in that we don’t know how to be church together. Somehow, all that talking about being church, sunk into me. For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be church at this time and place. I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to be a pastor, a question that has been on my mind since I was ordained nearly four years ago.
Well, I usually like to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I found out that today is called Good Shepherd Sunday, hence all the sheep you see on the table. The text today all focus on God as the Good Shepherd. We just heard Dan read probably one of the most well know Biblical texts, Psalm 23. In the gospel text, we see how Jesus calls himself a Good Shepherd, that lays down his life for the sheep. Now, sometimes when people see this text, they think it might relate to people like me: pastors. In fact, the word pastor is derived from a Latin word which means shepherd. So from early on in this history of the church, pastors were thought of as people who took care of a flock or congregation. And there is a lot here about how a pastor should act: giving their lives in service to others. But that would be a limited understanding of the text. As Christians, which means, followers of Christ, we should see this text as a key to understanding what it means to be a community of faith. And I think it gives great insight as to what it means to be church in the early years of the 21st century. And it’s important to ask what it means to be church in light of the current time, not what happened 20 or 50 years ago. This is a question we must continue to ask as the years go on.
This week, I came across two things that relate to current events. The first thing I stumbled across was a speech given by former Senator John Danforth. Danforth, is a lawyer and represented Missouri for several years in the US Senate. He is also an ordained Episcopal minister, and as of late, has been concerned at the mixing of religion and politics, particluarly in the Republican party, of which he is a member of.
In a speech to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian organization, the former Senator and current pastor, expressed dismay at those who use issues and events, like gay marriage, abortion and the Terri Schiavo case to divide Americans. He notes that the very meaning of the word religion comes from the same root as the word ligament, meaning that religion should be something that brings us together, not tear us apart.
Which leads to the other event that occurred this week. I was listening to public radio and there was an interview with another Episcopal priest who was planning to talk about the Good Shepherd and another major event : the verdict and sentencing of Zacharias Moussaoui, who had some role in the 9/11 attacks. He was sentenced to a life term in a SuperMax prison in Colorado. If religion is something that should bind us to each other and to God, Moussaoui was the living embodiment of the opposite. He bragged about wanting to hurt Americans, he taunted the families of victims. He made a mockery of the Islamic faith, by associating it with his homocidal fantasies. As he was sentenced, he made one final taunt saying that America had lost and he had won. The judge in the case, exploded, probably after holding her rage in for several years, condeming Moussaoui and saying that he “would die with a whimper.”
What is religion all about? What is faith all about? What is church all about? Is it to bring people together to each other and to God, or is to drive people apart, splitting the so-called holy and so-called profane?
I think if we look around the world today, these questions are being asked in various ways by various religions, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and so forth. I tend to think that at least within the framework of Christianity, the way these questions are answered depends on how we look at God and how we look at the other.
In today’s texts, we see that God and Jesus are looked on as shepherds that take care of creation. When I read these texts, you see a God that is willing to give up God’s life for his sheep. In the twenty-third Psalm, we see how God is with us through the good and bad times of our lives. The God we see here isn’t one of a judge that is waiting for us to slip up, but of a caring being, who is gentle and loving. I don’t know about you, but that gives me comfort. When I was younger, I was told by adults, not my parents, that you better be good because any slip means God was going to get you. To know that there is a loving God that care for a messed up sheep like me, gives me hope. But I think these passages have much more to say than about God being a caring shepherd. Since we are called to follow Jesus, these verses tell us how we a community are to live in the world. I believe that we are called to be shepherds to each other, to give of ourselves for the other, regardless of who that person is. I think that is what bothers Rev. Danforth: those who profess loudly of their faith aren’t living that out in service to the other.
Mr. Moussaoui wants to sacrifice his life: but only to hurt and divide others, NOT in service to others.
To be church in this time and place means being a community that welcomes people regardless of where they are on their walk in life. It means being hospitiable instead putting up walls. It means reaching outside these walls and being in service to others, even if they don’t believe the same things we do.
It also means responding in love to the whole world. Why? Because the Good Shepherd cares for the sheep. God is loving and in Christ gave of godself on the cross. And that’s not easy. I have to admit, it’s not easy wanting to love or forgive someone like a Zacharias Moussaoui, who wanted to hurt people. The minister interviewed on public radio said as much. We all knew where we were on the dark day nearly five years ago. And this congregation was touched by that day: a former member’s son and a nephew were either in or near the World Trade Center that day. A girlfriend of the son was on the 106th floor of one of the towers. She didn’t make it. We have every right to be angry, that’s human. To be a follower of Christ doesn’t mean we put of happy faces and ignore our own feelings of injustice. But we hold those feelings of righteous anger in tension with God’s call to love-even the enemy.
There is an argument going within religion in general, and Christianity in particular. The argument is whether religion is to bring us together or rend us apart. There are those who see God as less than a caring shepherd, than as vindictive judge, looking to punish those that don’t follow a particular dogma, which usually mirrors the dogma of those people. Sadly, these people want to limit who is welcome. In the extreme, some want to physically hurt people. Others seek to hurt people emotionally, which may not leave scars we can see, leave damage nonetheless.
Lake Harriet is the midst of its Stewardship Drive. Now, on one level, this about how much we can pledge for the coming year to fund various ministries of the church. But on another level, it’s also about what kind of church we want. Do we want to be a church, that follows Christ’s examples and seeks to love and serve the world, or will we be a church that closes the doors, not to mention our hearts, to others.
What does mean to be church? What does it mean to be a shepherd to others? Let us discern as a community those questions. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This is a sermon I gave at an ecumenical service in 2010.
“A Tale of Four Marys”
April 2, 2010
Central Lutheran Church
When I was asked to speak on the three Marys, I have to be honest that nothing was immediately coming to mind. What could I say about these women? And then I realized something: my mother was also a Mary. My mother, born 76 years ago in Canonvanas, Puerto Rico was given the name Maria, Spanish for Mary. Her name reminded me of a time when I was in pretty bad shape. I had just moved to Minneapolis a few months earlier and came down with the flu. That flu turned into pneumonia. My parents were back home in Michigan and Mom kept asking if they should make the 13 hour drive to Minnesota. Well, when you are having trouble breathing, and you can’t keep anything down, you want your Mommy. And I wanted my Mommy. Mom and Dad came to Minneapolis in the dead of night during an icestorm and took care of me. What I remember most of that time was on a Sunday night when I had a temperature of 105 and was in and out of consciouness. Mom was wondering how to get the fever down and I remember telling her to pray for me, which is what she did.
A few days later, I was admitted into the hospital. The thing that I treasured most were the nurses, both male and female who took care of me. The doctors for the most part would come in, assess the situation and leave, but it was the nurses who made sure I was doing well, and when I finally got my appetite back, they were able to give me tons of orange juice.
It was remembering the Marys in my own life that I realized the importance of Marys of scripture. We know a fair amount about Mary, the mother of Jesus and a little bit about Mary Magdalene, but nothing about the other Marys. What we do know is that Mary of course, took care of her son, while Mary Magdalene was a women who helped finance Jesus’ ministry. And we know that the women were going to tend to Jesus body after Passover ended.
Even though these women don’t have a big role in Scripture in the same way that Peter or John has, their role was not any less important. They were the living examples of the servanthood that Jesus was asking of his disciples and of all of us.
It was the night before at a meal in an upper room that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Peter was shocked that Jesus would stoop to such a lowly task. But Jesus told him that this is what it means to follow him; they have to be servant like him. The Bible doesn’t tell us that the Marys were there, but I’d like to believe they were since they were a part of his ministry. I have to believe they got the message. The next day, when most of the disciples had fled, it was those women who stayed with Jesus at the cross. Even though it seemed pointless to do so, they were there with Jesus in his last hours. That’s what a servant does; stay with the dying, tend to the sick and clean dirty feet. The men were a little slow in getting it; the women understood it.
On this day that we remember Christ’s death, we have to do more than simply remember the agony and the pain, but we must also remember what Christ was while on earth. As the second chapter of Phillipians says, Christ didn’t take his role as the Son of God for granted, but became a servant and was obedient to death, even death on a cross. The women, understood. They lived it out. One has to wonder if Christ learned servanthood from them or visa versa or maybe a little of both.
Please understand, I am not making an excuse for “keeping women in their place.” My strong Puerto Rican mother did not raise a son who disses women. What I am saying is that women, both in the Bible and today, tend to understand what it means to be a servant to our sisters and brothers more than we men can.
My mother (and my father) were willing to drive 13 hours in bad weather to take care of their adult son . Jesus had a mother and an aunt and countless other women who were there at the cross, standing by Jesus in his darkest hour.
That servanthood. They Marys got it. Do we?
It’s Holy Week, so that means I’m going to hear a number of pastors use their blog space to talk about how they don’t buy atonement. They don’t believe that Jesus died for our sins, they don’t like using the cross which is considered a symbol of violence, they don’t like the focus on blood, and the list goes on.
For someone like myself, this abandonment of the concept of antonement by some progressive Christians is somewhat un-nerving to me. I grew up with the concept of what is called substitutional atonement. In the African American churches I grew up in, I remember hearing songs about Christ’s blood. There was one particular song that I heard during communion:
I know it was the blood,
I know it was the blood,
I know it was the blood for me.
One day when I was lost, he died upon a cross.
I know it was the blood for me.
I sang songs about how Jesus came to die for my sins and I never really questioned that I was a sinner.
Now, none of this means that my views on Jesus death haven’t changed, but the basic foundations are still there. But among some of the writers I read it is Christ’s death has been deatched from its Biblical foundations; focused on the material world instead of the spiritual one. Theologian Bruce Epperly notes that the “orthodox” view of Good Friday seems anachronistic in our modern world:
Like many progressive Christians, I grew up hearing the mantras “Jesus died for our sins,” “Jesus died so that we might have eternal life and escape God’s wrath,” “Jesus paid the price for our salvation,” and “sin deserves death and Jesus stood in our place.” Recently, I saw a billboard with the stable and manger and three crosses in the background, with the description “born to die.” Without reflecting, many 21st century Christians, who regularly use iPods, ponder photos from the Hubble telescope, go to Sikh and Hindu doctors, and believe that humankind emerged from a multi-billion year process of evolution, assume the following:
- Human sin brought death into the world.
- We are born steeped in this original sin.
- Human sin deserves divine punishment.
- Jesus came to break our bondage to sin.
- Jesus’ death was foreordained and Jesus lived his adult life knowing he was going to die on the Cross.
- Jesus’ death is God’s way of securing our salvation.
- Only a divine sacrifice can free us from sin and insure eternal life, rather than eternal damnation.
- The only pathway to salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus, demonstrated by an explicit affirmation of our sin and the sole salvation of Jesus Christ.
Although these “orthodoxies” may have provided assurance for us once upon a time, to many of us they no longer make sense, nor do we believe in a God who requires the death of “his” son to secure our salvation. We also see divine grace operating in other religious traditions and in the experience of faithful agnostics. Still, many of us attend Good Friday services; some of us even preach at such services, despite our theological and liturgical reservations. Can we as progressives “redeem” Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?
The point for Epperly is that it doesn’t make sense in the 21st century to believe in such things as divine punishment or original sin.
For Christian Piatt, the atonement was one of those things that led him away from the church. When he returned, he didn’t change his dislike of blood atonement:
Can God really create humanity in such a way that there is something in their nature even God cannot tolerate?
If sin was such a big problem that even God could not bear to be in its presence, why give humanity free will in the first place, assuming you believe we have free will at all? And if you believe that life has no real meaning without free will, why create humanity to begin with if we were destined to fail?
What is it about the shedding of innocent blood that makes anything better? This seems to go against everything the Bible points toward, such as mercy, love, compassion and peace. Was it really more a matter of “just this once and never again?” Is God so weak or inherently flawed that God actually needed this in order to offer forgiveness to humanity?
I have to admit some of the criticism against the atonement don’t make sense to me. But the questions behind them are questions that need to be answered or at least responded to. Epperly’s question about holding on to such beliefs in a modern age isn’t out of line. In an age where we interact with people from differing faiths, what does this concept mean, if anything? How can it be reconciled to our modern times?
Piatt’s questions are even more basic: why did God create us with free will? What difference does blood make?
Richard Floyd does a great job explaining the need for the atonement and if you have some time, I’d encourage you to read the post. I don’t think he will persuade those who don’t like atonement theology, but it does present in layman’s terms why the atonement matters. I don’t have the theological chops that Floyd has, so to explain the atonement in my own terms….I’m gonna use zombies.
Back in January, I shared that I had finished reading the zombie apocalypse novel Warm Bodies. I shared that this was a novel about hope and resurrection. A few weeks back, I finally went to see the movie. The movie has some of the same themes, but it did something different that basically wrapped Good Friday and Easter into one event. The two main characters, a zombie male named R and a human girl named Julie have struck up an odd relationship. Over time, R starts changing, becoming more alive. His change affects the other zombies as well as slowly but surely they regain their humanity. At the climatic zenith of the movie, a number of “bonies” zombies that totally lose their humanity and become monsters are ganging up on R and Julie. It looks like the end for our odd couple. R notices an open door that leads outside. He persuades his Julie to hold on to him as they go through the door and into nothing. They fall into pond, with R breaking Julie’s fall. At some point R wakes up and Julie realizes he fully human. As they kiss, her father, leader of the human settlement shoots R in the shoulder. As Julie pleads for R’s life, she notices that he’s bleeding. Normally that should be a cause of concern, but for R and Julie it was a moment of joy. As the blood spilled into the water, we realize that R is human again, the blood was a sign of life.
I know that won’t stack up to Barth, but I think this story explains the crucifixion in a very graphic way. Just as R protected Julie from the impact of a fall, Jesus stood in our place and took the punishment. Second Corinthians 5:11-21 talks about how Christ reconciled God to creation and allowed us to live for others:
11 So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord. We are well known by God, and I hope that in your heart we are well known by you as well. 12 We aren’t trying to commend ourselves to you again. Instead, we are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us so that you could answer those who take pride in superficial appearance, and not in what is in the heart.
13 If we are crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we are rational, it’s for your sake. 14 The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. 15 He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.
16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.
Paul and other early Christians saw the similarities between the ritual sacrifice of an animal and the sacrifice of Jesus. They knew this death meant something more than the death of another failed revolutionary. They had read the stories from what we call the Old Testament and saw how God was working through the Jews and from that particular people came a particular person who brought salvation for us all.
Like I said, I’m this isn’t heavy duty theology. All that I can say is that the death of Jesus was more than just unfortunate. It wasn’t about appeasing an angry god as much as it was God becoming flesh and living and dying for us. If we strike the atonement, we don’t really have much of a faith, or at least a faith that is Christian.
Anarchism, to me, amounts to an expectation of miracles: political, economic, sociological, psychological and spiritual miracles. It isn’t the way the world normally works. I believe in miracles and I love the idea of them, but scripture and church history suggest to me that we are not to replace our daily duties of shalom-making with hopes that God will specially intervene to do all the tough stuff for us. Instead, I think we’re supposed to garden – and gardening, as we all know, means getting your hands dirty, doing the best with what you’ve got, doing violence to pests, dealing realistically with the constraints and opportunities of the situation and taking the long view – with hope of a good harvest to share.
So says Canadian theologian John Stackhouse in an article to Christian anarchists wanting to be “like Jesus.” Even though I’m not an anarchist, I loved reading this article because it’s nice to read something for once that talked about being a Christian in a world of mortgages, messy houses and long commutes. Here was a writing talking about discipleship in the Monday-Friday world.
If there’s something that I’ve grown tired of is the whole trend in American Christianity to be “radical.” We don’t want some meek and mild Jesus; no sir. We want a Jesus who is kicking ass and takin’ names like he did in the Temple when he threw out the money changers. We want a radical Jesus and we want to be just like him; radical and taking no prisoners.
There is so much wrong with this. Let’s start with the most obvious problem. I am not Jesus and neither are you. Yes, Jesus was tough on the proud, but, how I can put this gently? Jesus was God, we are not. His overturning the tables was as much about judgement as it was Jesus being pissed. The second problem is that I don’t think people know what they are asking for. You want a wild and crazy Jesus? Yeah, it’s nice when that Jesus is going after those folks who you don’t happen to like, but what happens when he comes and looks at you and your shortcomings? What about your compromises to consumerism, your stinginess in giving to help the poor?
Yeah, it’s not so funny when it’s your applecart getting overturned by the Son of God.
The thing is, this desire to be like Jesus, to be “radical” is a fools errand. Yes, we should be Christ-like, but know that you, I , all of us are going to fall short. We can’t approach the holiness of Jesus because, well, last I checked, I can’t turn water into wine and I haven’t rose from the dead.
Which is why I like Stackhouse’s essay with his emphasis on seeing the Christian life more like gardening than a revolution. I’m not a great gardener, but I do try as the Minnesota winters move into spring. I like planting flowers and looking for the right soil to keep my plants healthy and beautiful. I like watering them and trying to get rid of all the weeds that could choke the life out of the flowers. Gardening is an art, it’s hit and miss. Not every Christian is called to be a rebel. Some of us are simply called to do the best we can with what we have. We are called to cultivate, to be faithful disciples that tends to our friends, neighbors and community with the light of Christ. I work with Jesus, when he’s not overturning tables, as together we plant and weed and feed.
The wild Jesus comes and judges us. We face a test where there is no winner. But Jesus also comes as the gardener who prunes and waters us; giving us grace.
The church where I serve as Associate Pastor is discerning becoming and Open and Affirming congregation. As we talk about this, I have been grappling with how to view this theologically. I don’t consider myself the greatest bible scholar or theologian, but I do think that as Christians we have to give a clear response to why being inclusive to LGBT persons matter theologically.
A lot of the times when I hear people talking about a church become more welcoming to gay folks, the reasoning can be pretty thing and sometimes feels barely Christian. You will hear things like “Jesus hung out with scandalous people” as if Jesus was kind of like Pippi Longstocking. (Anglican Philip Turner has a good post on the weakness of what has become the working theology in mainline churches.)
But I think I might have found at least the beginnings of what could be a solid theology of inclusion. Ian Mosby, a British Anglican Emergent Priest writes about his experience seeing John 4 as a tale of the Trinity working to do Mission and be Inclusive:
I love it that God seeks out the excluded and the lost, those that are hated within their own cultures. Why it gives me a hope that someone like me can be acceptable to God with all my faults, insecurities and complexities. But this time there was more. The Woman, was exposed to the reality of the Trinity. Christ is present as the Redeemer. Then in verse 23, But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. Beautifully Jesus finishes off the Samaritans question about the Messiah as coming with the words ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’.
So in this encounter, the Woman experiences Jesus as the Redeemer, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in the worship of the Father. It doesn’t get more Trinitarian than that, with a woman he was not supposed to speak to, and with a people the Jews despises as unclean. So what does Jesus do – he goes into mission mode, loving them into understanding, and then stays with them for two days – something a Jew was banned from doing. I love it. This is the radicalness of Christ and the New Testament. A radical love that seeks to restore all things into restored relationships. This is the context of real mission, and it inspires me to keep going when I feel so inadequate and crap so much of the time, in a dysfunctional church and a broken world.
I have to say I’ve also loved this story for some of the same reasons. There is something in this story that makes inclusion more than just a Benneton ad and more than just something that nice people do. It is the very movement of God that draws people in, makes the circle wider and changes that person and the entire community for the better.
Hmmmm…I might have to share this on Sunday….