Sermon: That’s Me In the Corner

Galatians 1:13-17; 2:15-21 and Luke 18:9-14
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Losing My Religion Sermon Series
May 21, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio.

It’s been about two years since our congregation voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation, meaning that we openly welcome Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered persons into the life of our church.  I think that’s a good thing, but over the years even long before our vote, I’ve been wondering about the quality of the pro-inclusion argument.  Whenever I’ve seen people argue in favor of LGBT inclusion, the main thrust goes like this: Jesus hung around undesirable and marginalized people and so should we.  

 

I get what this message is trying to say, but it feels sort of a flippant answer and not really delving into the question.  Too often, people cherry pick Scripture to find some verse on inclusion and maybe throw in that the rest of society is more accepting of gays and so should we.  But the thing is, it really doesn’t answer the deep questions that issues like this bring up.  Who belongs to God?  And why?  How are we accepted by God?

 

In today’s text, Paul is teed off.  Something is taking place that has hurt the Gentiles who came into the faith.  A leading founder of the church was exhibiting a two-faced behavior.  A delegation from Jerusalem is stirring up dissention.  Paul has to say something to put things right.

 

The problem here is similar to what we talked about last week.  A group of Jewish Christians have come to Antioch to persist that any Gentile Christian must be circumcised to be part of the faith. In some way they are being pushed by events in Jerusalem.  A nationalist movement is coming to fore in Jerusalem and demanding people follow a strict interpretation of the law.  This group is causing trouble especially with the church which had started welcoming Gentiles.  Peter who was in Antioch, knew what was going on back home. He had made it a habit to eat meals with the Gentile Christians.  Eating a meal with someone is a sign of a close relationship.  When, Peter sees these Jews from Jerusalem urging for purity, Peter decides to stop eating with the Gentiles.  Peter probably believed he was doing this to keep the Jewish Christians back home safe from persecution.  But he did it at the expense of the Gentiles who now made to feel like second-class Christians.

 

Paul is seeing all of this and he is mad and calls Peter out.  He rails against what Peter has done and how it led to other Jews to engage in the same hypocrisy.  This is when Paul goes into sharing what really matters in the faith.

 

Now in the past, this passage has been seen in a very simplistic terms.  Pastors tend to see this as Paul repudiating the Torah and saying that all we need is to just believe in Jesus.  In this view, it sets up Judiaism is the wrong faith and that Christianity is the good faith.  But at this point, the church was still a sect within Judaism. Paul and Peter and others didn’t see themselves as starting a new church, but probably more as reforming Judaism.  Paul’s words in chapter one shows he was a faithful Jew and didn’t see himself as leaving the faith.

 

So Paul isn’t arguing for a new faith, but and expansion of the old faith.  Paul is talking about covenant.  If you can remember way, way back to last September, God establishe a covenant with Abraham and the whole Jewish people.  God and Israel would be in a covenant relationship.  So in this way, the covenant was focused on one specific people, the Jews and these Jews would perform works like circumcision. These works were not done to please God, but were a sign to show that they belong to God.  So when Paul says in chapter 2, verse 16 that righteousness doesn’t come by following the law, but faith in Christ, he is not saying what you think he is saying.  The law was a way to mark you as a Jew.  But Christ’s death on cross means that this mark is no longer needed.  Righteousness was no longer limited to nationality, but was for everyone.  

 

When Paul talks about faith, it is again tempting to believe this is about mental assent.  If you really believe in Jesus, then you’re in.  Believing in Jesus matters, but the real nugget is what Jesus has done, not what we have done.  Yes, we should believe, but it is not about beliving in Jesus as much as it is to realize that God in Christ has already done the work.

 

Paul is talking about freedom.  We are not bound to a covenant that is only for one group, but a covenant for everyone. We are not bound to believe enough in Jesus to be saved, but realize that we are saved by God’s actions through Jesus on the cross.

This is why Galatians is called a book about freedom.  We are freed from the different barriers to be able to live as community who realizes it is free in Christ.

 

So, if I was going to talk about LGBT inclusion today, I would say something like this:  they don’t have to give up their sexuality in order to show they belong to God.  Instead, they are free by faith, not mental assent, but realizing that God has already done the work to make them, to make me belong because of what was done on a cross on a hill a long time ago.  Inclusion in Christian terms is not about trying to be hip or trendy or being on the right side of history.  It is about knowing that we, all of us are free. It is knowing and trusting that God has done the work of inclusion because of the work done on the cross.  This is why we are Open and Affirming.  

 

Our second text from Luke, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  You see how the Pharisee comes before God.  He stresses he has done all the things that show that he was a faithful Jew.  Then we see of the Publican or the Tax Collector.  He doesn’t really want to be there.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven and pleads for mercy.  If you remember, tax collectors were not seen as upstanding people because of their work with the Romans and because they could rip people off.  The publican can only rely on the grace of God.  Unlike the Pharisee, he couldn’t talk about all that he had done.  He knew he didn’t have anything that could make him righteous accept the mercy of God.

 

In a few weeks, we will be gathered at Loring Park in Minneapolis with our fellow Disciples churches, First Christian-Minneapolis and Plymouth Creek Christian Church.  We go there not to show how hip or “woke” we are, but to witness to a God that loves all of us, that God became like us and died on a cross for us.  Because of this means everyone is welcome.  I am welcomed, you are welcomed because we place our trust in God and we share that good news with others.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: All the Small Things

IMG_1294

Matthew 10:37-42
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 29, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

Ernie is someone you just can’t forget.

 

Ernie is a man in his mid60s who is developmentally disabled and a part of the community of First Christian in Minneapolis.  Every Sunday, someone from the church would pick him up at his apartment and bring him to church.  He seems to always have a smile on face.

 

But Ernie can be a handful.  For one, he doesn’t really have an inside voice.  This means when he talks, everyone hears.  Which meant you might not want to share you deep dark secrets with him.  Speaking loudly in the hallway before worship service is one thing.  But you see, Ernie also talks like this in worship.  Every so often as the worship service would progress, one of the pastors would say something and Ernie would respond in his loud voice.  When this would happen, we would simply and calmly answer his question and continue with the service.  There are a host of other things I could share about Ernie that would exasperate me.

 

Sometimes sitting next to Ernie was Kevin, a man in his 50s.  Kevin is schizophrenic and it always seemed that he was just on this side of sanity.  It was not unusual during the time for prayer that he would ask for prayers because he was hearing the voices again.

 

After a while we learned something about Kevin.  He was a budding artist.  He drew fantastic drawings in black and white and also in color. Most of his works had a science fiction feel to them, a vision of what a futuristic city looks like.

 

What is wonderful to see is that both Ernie and Kevin are considered full participants in the community.  In the five years I was a pastor at First, no one ever complained about Ernie or Kevin’s antics at time.  People learned to roll with the punches with these two.  I was thankful to have been a part of a church that welcomed folks like Ernie and Kevin and were not embarrassed by them.

 

Churches always say that they are welcoming.  But no matter how much this is true or not, churches are always tested.  It might be the teenager with autism that sometimes starts yelling in the middle of service while his parents have a mixture of embarrassment and concern.  It might be the transgendered person that stays in the homeless shelter for women at the church.  It could be the sex offender that has done his time in prison and tries to reconnect in the community.  Time and time again, our faith communities are tested.  How do we really welcome everyone?  Do we understand what welcoming everyone means?

 

In today’s text; Jesus is giving his disciples some instructions before they are sent on their mission.  Jesus is tells them straight up that they have to put Christ and God’s kingdom first before family.  I always love the translation of the text found in the Message Bible and this time it does not disappoint.  “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy,” the passage begins.  Following Jesus was going to be hard and it would test our relationships with our family and friends.  People would not understand that you are putting Jesus first, so be prepared. Jesus says, “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.”

 

When Jesus calls us like he called the disciples, Jesus is telling us to learn from him.  This process of learning how to be Christlike has name-discipleship.

 

That word has always confused me.  When I do think of it, I think of people reading their Bibles at 5AM or people who are known by what they don’t do: don’t drink, don’t smoke and so on.  Nothing is wrong with reading our Bibles or trying to live a chaste life.  It’s just that discipleship can seem so hard, so impossible.  How can any of us emulate Jesus?  Wasn’t he perfect?  While I hate to admit my weaknesses, I’m sure that I am not perfect and neither are any of you.

 

But here’s the thing, we might be called at times to do difficult things, like those who took part in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, all the while facing angry mobs of people.  But most of the time, it involves doing a small thing.  This is why Jesus talked about how great an act was of giving someone a cup of water.  Jesus didn’t say you need to go live in a yurt in Mongolia.  Jesus said give someone a cup of water.  We will face the more challenging aspects of discipleship, but we start right here with some H2O in a styrofoam cup.  When we do something like welcoming the Ernies and Kevins of the world we are doing more than just being nice.  We are representing who God is, a God that loves us all, good and bad, straight and gay, Democrat and Republican and so on. When we start with cold water, don’t be surprised if you start doing other things.  Once we learn to welcome people, it can be hard to stop.

 

My full-time job during the week is working as the IT guy at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist in Minneapolis.  At one end of the church building, there is a small chapel named Border Chapel.  Across from the doors to the chapel is a display.  You learn that the chapel was named after a church Border Methodist Church in Minneapolis.  Border was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown.  At some point, the church was being torn down to make way for a freeway.  This could have been where the story ends; the church closes.  However, it doesn’t.  A short distance away was Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, the big downtown church.  Hennepin heard of the struggle facing their sisters and brothers  at Border.  Hennepin decided to do something that seems rather mundane; welcoming the folks at Border to become members at Hennepin.  What was the big deal of this invite?  This was the 1950s and churches were still very segregated.  Whites went to one church, blacks to others.  What was happening between two churches in Minneapolis was not normal.  Things like this just weren’t done.

 

The display has articles from the New York Times about this event.  This was huge.  There’s a story that I heard that wasn’t in the display.  On the Sunday that the Border people would come to Hennepin, the large white congregation decided to do something that was hospitable and God-infused.  As the African-Americans from Border came into the sanctuary to become part of Hennepin, the members from Hennepin stood up, welcoming their new members.  A cup of cold water made the difference.

 

This weekend, First Christian is participating with two other Disciples of Christ churches- First Christian-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy in Lakeville in staffing a booth at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis.  Some of us have volunteered yesterday and some will do so today.  The booth has brochures from each congregations, fan and beads (people love beads) and a place where people can take communion and pray.  As I was handing out fans yesterday, more than once I heard someone say “Thank you for being here.”

 

I don’t think I was doing anything heroic in standing in this booth at a city park on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Handing out fans doesn’t seem like much; but it makes all the difference to people who might have been ostracized from churches because they were gay.  It says that there is someone, someplace that accepts them and sees them as children of God.  A cup of cold water makes all the difference.

 

Jesus calls us to be disciples.  God doesn’t start by telling us to go to seminary and learn Greek.  No, God starts by calling us to do simple things; like welcoming a person with developmental disability, or a person dealing with mental illness, or people of a different race or ethnic group or someone who is gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender.  If we can welcome one these children of God, then we are well on our way as faithful disciples of Jesus.

 

A cup of cold water can make all the difference.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Fear Factor

indianaLike a lot of folk I’ve been interested in the goings on in Indiana.  As you know, the state legislature passed and the Governor signed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Depending on who you talk to, the law is no different from the federal version of the law passed in 1993 or will allow religious owners of businesses to refuse service to gays.  I’m frankly a bit confused as to what the bill will actually do. Proponents see it as a bulwark against a radically changing culture.  Opponents see it as the second coming of Jim Crow.

As I was discussing this with a Methodist minister, he used a word that seemed to describe the whole situation: fear.  It’s not a surprise that I tend to think the proponents of the law are fearful of a changing culture, one where homosexuality is becoming accepted and where their views, which once ruled the culture are no longer in vogue.  But I also think my side of the debate is also operating on fear and distrust.  Like a lot of oppressed groups, it is hard to have any concern for your former oppressors.  As I’ve read responses, the attitude seems to be “let the bigots hang.”

What is interesting about all of this is how much this seems to have become a zero-sum game.  Religious conservatives seem intent on gumming up the works of progress on same-sex marriage.  Gays and liberals seem to not want to give religious conservatives any inch on religious practice.  Both sides seem to think that to win, one side must lose.

David Brooks wrote a couple of weeks ago that we live in a more uncertain age and that has changed the tone of politics.  Gone are win-win situations where compromise was possible, and coming in its place is the quest for power.  Here’s what Brooks says:

National elections take place within a specific global moment. In the 1990s, there was a presumption that we were living in an age of rapid progress. Democracy was spreading. Tyranny was receding. Asia was booming. The European Union was building. Conflict in the Middle East was lessening. The world was cumulatively heading toward greater pluralism, individualism, prosperity and freedom.

Today it’s harder to have faith in rapid progress. Democracy is receding. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia are marching. The European project is decaying. Economies are struggling. Reactionary forces like the Islamic State and Iran are winning. The Middle East is deteriorating.

In this climate, the tone and focus of politics change. Politics is less about win-win situations and more about zero-sum situations. It is less about reforms that will improve all lives and more about unadorned struggles for power. Who will control the ground in places like Ukraine and Syria? Will Iran get the bomb? Will the White House or Congress grab power over treaties and immigration policy?

It’s hard not to see the fight that is taking place in Indiana and many other places as tribal battles.  Religious conservatives feel under fire as liberals go after bakers and wedding photographers.

This clash of rights, between the right to marry and the right to religious freedom has always been difficult for me.  I have fought for the right to be able to marry my husband Daniel and to have that recognized by the state, which is what happened when we had our legal marriage in 2013.  But as a Christian, I also think people should be able to follow the dictates of their faith without interference from the state.  So on some level, I’ve never been as bothered by bakers not wanting to bake my wedding cake.  I just thought I’d go to another baker.  The baker had the right to refuse service, and I had the right to not go to that baker and tell others not to go either.

I know that it bothers some of my compatriots that I might sympathize with folks who don’t think I should get married to my partner.  But two things have guided me on this issue: my belief in Jesus dictum to love our enemies and my libertarian belief in liberty; that I can do what I want and you can do what you want so long as my rights aren’t curtailed.

Loving my enemy means that I have to look at that person as human being.  I have to at least try to understand their viewpoint and give them the space to do what they see as right, so long as I am not profoundly impacted.

Of course, my enemy should be able to look at me as a human being, a child of God and give me the space to do what I think is right.  (Translation: If religious conservatives want to be treated with respect, treat those you disagree with the same respect.)

As the various RFRA laws come up in various states, both religious conservatives and LGBT communities have to find a way to make room for each other.  Not because they like each other.  Not because they agree.  But because for a democratic society to flourish, we have to find ways to accomodate the Other. Because we must heed the call to love and respect our enemies.

Before all of the focus was on Indiana, some media attention was given to what was happening in Utah.  Dubbed the “Utah Compromise,” gay rights groups and the Mormon Church came together to support legislation the protected LGBT persons and also offered exemptions on religious grounds.  It is far from a perfect law (but what compromise is perfect).  But this seemed to be a place where the culture wars made a truce. A Wall Street Journal column explains how the Mormon Church, who not that long ago was bankrolling the effort to ban same-sex marriage in California, reached out the LGBT community:

The Mormon leadership reached out to the LGBT community, which was willing to reciprocate despite initial doubts. Although there were roadblocks early on, trust gradually developed. Neither side allowed the best to become the enemy of the good. Both came to see that protections for LGBT individuals and for religious conscience needed to be enacted simultaneously, as a package.

There is a lesson here for both sides.  For religious conservatives, it is to at least acknowledge LGBT persons.  You don’t have to approve of what we do.  But you do have to at least see us as persons created by God and deserving of respect.

For the LGBT community and our allies, it means respecting the faith of religious conservatives.  Within reason, no one should have to compromise their faith to live in the wider society.  We need to honor their consciences even if we think that their beliefs are wrong.

In late 2010, libertarian writer Jonathan Rauch wrote about how the tide was turning in the favor of those of us who support gay rights.  Because we were no longer on the defensive, our tactics must change.  He wrote:

…we—gay Americans and our straight allies—have won the central argument for gay rights. As a result, we must change. Much of what the gay rights movement has taken for granted until now, and much that has worked for us in the past, is now wrong and will hurt us. The turn we now need to execute will be the hardest maneuver the movement has ever had to make, because it will require us to deliberately leave room for homophobia in American society. We need to allow some discrimination and relinquish the “zero tolerance” mind-set. Paradoxical but true: We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.

Not giving them that room to deal with the changed landscape has its consequences:

…gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.

So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:

Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.

They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.

At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.

Of course, this is exactly what religious conservatives are doing now.  So maybe the best way to defeat this kind of thinking is by not trying to shut them up, but by acting differently.  Maybe if we show that we will give them the respect they never gave us, maybe things could change for the better.

I don’t know what will happen in Indiana.  I do know I can do something to hopefully lessen the fear and increase the peace.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

We Call Ourselves Disciples

My wife Jan and I have been members of First Christian Church of St. Paul for nearly 20 years.  We love the congregational focus.  We particularly embrace the dedication to the principles of wholeness and inclusiveness of the Disciples of Christ, that welcome everyone to the Communion Table with no exceptions.  We have recently rededicated ourselves to mission based activities.  Our work with food banks, homeless shelters, and job programs is very important to us.  If we are making sandwiches for the homeless, staffing a homeless shelter, packing food for the hungry, or just raising money for local support organizations, it helps us realize our goal of furthering God’s plan and Christ’s love in our communities, local and world wide.  When someone asks about our church we say, “Open, active, and loving.”

-John Paulson, member of First Christian-St. Paul.

IMG_1294This past weekend, First Christian-St. Paul did something we’ve never done before: took part in the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis. Joining two other Disciple churches in the area, we shared a booth and handed out fans and information to the passersby. It was great to see our little church on the hill take part in this joint effort.

But we were doing more than just handing out fans. I mean, yeah we did hand out fans; but it was for a far greater purpose than getting our name out there. What we did in Loring Park on a warm weekend in June was an act of evangelism, telling the good news of Jesus to people passing by.

Evangelism is something that tends to scare people, especially those in moderate to progressive congregations. We fear it because of the stereotype that plays in our mind’s background. We envision someone yelling at people and making them feel bad. I get that. The actions of a few have kind of ruined that work for many.

And yet, we are called to evangelize. Actually, we are called to make disciples, followers of Jesus. Handing out fans at a gay pride festival doesn’t seem like evangelism, but in God’s economy it most surely is.IMG_1292

You see, to be an evangelist is to be someone that tells the good news: the news that Jesus is with us and worked to set things right through his life, death and ressurection. We tell the good news of a God that loves, because we have seen it in our own lives and want to see it in the lives of others.

Some of the people who passed by the booth might have kicked out of their church after admitting they were gay. Maybe they were told that they were going to hell or something. Our handing out brochures and fans helped them to see that this God that they thought hated them, welcomes them to the Welcome Table. The body of Christ is truly for them.

We small d- disciples are called to live like Jesus and sometimes that meant being in places we haven’t planned for. Disciples of Jesus are called to share the love of God with others and remind them that this Jesus who lived, died and rose again is concerned about YOU. This is a God that loves everyone and we called to make more people become disciples of a loving and caring God.

I don’t know if we will get people to come to church. That would be nice, but that’s not what mattered. We are called to do more than that; we are called to love the other as if he/she were our only kin.

Evangelism isn’t about getting people saved (though that does happen). It is about relationship; about knowing that this God of the universe does truly love us.

I say to those who volunteered, thanks for letting God speak through you. We aren’t done yet. We have more work to be done to show people God’s kingdom.

-Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Crossposted at the First Christian Church of St. Paul website.

Sermon: “The Healing Power of Collard Greens”

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.

Luke 24:13-35
April 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN

I love good food, and it probably shows.
emmaus
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 )

By the Time I Get to Arizona

ArizonaAbout a week ago, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage and how those of us who support it should act towards those that oppose it.  Can we be good winners to the losers?

Some of the response to that post got me thinking (and agonizing) over this issue.  In two states, Kansas and Arizona, bills have made their way through the state legislature that would give people the right to refuse service to gays.  I think both bills are unconstitutional on their face and bring to mind the dreadful memories of Jim Crow.

That said, these laws are the signs of a way of being that is passing.  I as said in my previous post, those in favor of same sex marriage have won.  But there is still something nagging me.  How do we live with those who are the losers?  How do we deal with those who say their opposition to gay marriage is based on religious teachings?  Do we ignore them?  Do we try to stamp them out?  What is deemed as religious (even if we think it is weird) and what is not a religious practice?

The issue of a baker or florist refusing to serve a gay couple brings out conflicting emotions.  I do think at some level there is the potential of bigotry behind that refusal.  I also think that having laws where people can refuse service could cause chaos in our economy.  But then I think about how someone who is a social conservative would see this.  There’s something about compelling someone to do something they don’t agree with because of their interpretation of the Bible that bothers me deeply.  Those of us on our side tend to see this simply as case of bigotry.  Bigots don’t deserve protection and they should shut up and do their job.  After all their “religious objection” is just a smoke screen for their hate.

But the thing is, seeing homosexuality as a sin was considered the normative teaching in our society until recently.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong, but we have to take in account that tradition is not something that you can easily dispose of.

The tactic that I have shared at times is that it’s okay to believe what you do in private, but in public you have to set your beliefs aside.  But upon thinking on this, I found this reasoning to be bothersome.  We are basically saying that their faith is a hobby that can be pursued at other times, but not when we enter the public square.  For the faithful, religious belief is not something that is private, but very public.  It orders every part of one’s life.  I think it would be difficult for someone who might think that same sex marriage to have to set their belief aside.  In fact, it wouldn’t make sense.  Why would they knowingly put themselves in a position to sin?

About three years ago, writer Jonathan Rauch wrote about the change that was heading our way on marriage.  He called on the LGBT community and allies to not immediately try to challenge the other side when it came to issues like refusing service to a gay couple.  To do so would be to make social conservatives fears come true and would basically play into their hands.  He writes:

…gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.

So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:

Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.

They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.

At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.

He continues writing what should be our response:

In a messy world where rights often collide, we can’t avoid arguing about where legitimate dissent ends and intolerable discrimination begins. What we can do is avoid a trap the other side has set for us. Incidents of rage against “haters,” verbal abuse of opponents, boycotts of small-business owners, absolutist enforcement of antidiscrimination laws: Those and other “zero-tolerance” tactics play into the “homosexual bullies” narrative, which is why our adversaries publicize them so energetically.

The other side, in short, is counting on us to hand them the victimhood weapon. Our task is to deny it to them.

I think we have to decide what level of discrimination is acceptable and what is off limits. As James Antle notes in his latest article, that at least according to the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, there has to be a compelling interest for the state to force someone to violate their religious conscience:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 seems to have this much right. Freedom of conscience isn’t absolute. But the government can only override religious conscience to serve a compelling interest and then must pursue that interest using the least coercive means available.

So even if there is a compelling public interest in ensuring access to contraception, if contraception can be made affordable and readily available through means other than forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception or contraceptive coverage, than those other less coercive means should be employed.

The same logic would seem to apply to participation in same-sex marriage services. If we can allow conscientious objectors to refuse to fight in wars, we can surely make some allowance for people to who don’t want to bake cakes, provide floral arrangements, or take photos at a particular wedding. A case could also be made that same-sex couples should prefer to send their business to vendors who share their values.

A sense of proportion matters here. It’s unlikely that we are talking about very many businesses, and even fewer large companies. In some parts of the country, at least, vendors who take this stand risk being picketed out of existence. A few news stories about a same-sex couple who was refused service in their town could easily attract a flood of free wedding cakes, floral arrangements, and photography offers from other more supportive businesses.

He also brings up something that I’ve been thinking about. The analogy that has been used likening these proposed laws to segregation doesn’t really work:

Should gay business owners be forced to provide services to Chick-fil-A, Phil Robertson or organizations that lobby against same-sex marriage? Should gay advertising executives be compelled to write ads in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act? Freedom of conscience applies here too. So does the market’s ability to punish irrational discrimination and a business’s willingness to turn away paying customers.

If a Muslim fundamentalist car dealer refused to sell automobiles to women on religious grounds, even if it was not against the law, he would almost certainly go out of business. (If he didn’t, then immigration laws might need to be revised rather than the First Amendment.)

This is where the Jim Crow analogy, used by Kirsten Powers and others, fails. People often argue for or against the civil-rights laws of the 1960s on the basis of abstract principles, pitting generic equality against generic freedom of association, but they were in fact a reaction to a very specific set of circumstances.

Jim Crow was a system of extensive discrimination, not isolated incidents. It relied on the state enforcement of laws requiring racial separation and the non-enforcement of laws banning private acts of violence when the victims were black. It denied blacks’ constitutional rights and was rooted in state government coercion and social customs so powerful they were largely impervious to market forces. The federal government had repeatedly attempted to remedy these problems through more modest measures.

It is theoretically possible that allowing a New Mexico photographer to refrain from taking pictures at a same-sex wedding ceremony—or more plausibly, allowing the Kansas legislature to enact the previously mentioned bill—would create conditions like this for gays. But it is not very likely.

I would agree. On the surface the two seem the same, but not in context. The Jim Crow that my father lived through in Louisiana was not simply one person refusing him service, but an entire system that was placed into law. There is a difference between the two, not that refusing a gay couple is okay, but it is not backed by a system of laws, at least not in every state but Arizona it seems.

The point of my rambling is that those of us in favor of same sex marriage and those opposed have to find a way to tolerate each other.  Those who have a traditional understanding of sexuality have to understand that being gay is becoming more and more normative.  LGBT folk and their allies have to understand that the other side isn’t going away anytime soon and in many cases they are compelled to follow what they interpret to be from God (even if we think this is pure hogwash).  We have to learn to coexist, because this tit for tat war of stigmatizing is futile and for those of us who are Christian not very Christ-like.  We have to learn to love the other even if we think they are wrong.

I want to end with the words of fellow pastor Trevor Lee who has this to say about tolerance:

Tolerance now means completely accepting viewpoints that culture, and especially the media and TV/movie industry deem correct. Many of these viewpoints are against traditional moral stances. So those who hold to the “outdated” views are intolerant. Yet this has almost nothing to do with tolerance. In fact, very often those who rail against those “intolerant people” are being intolerant in the process. Here’s what it comes down to…

You do not tolerate someone or something you agree with.

The dictionary defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from [emphasis mine] one’s own.” So the only people and opinions we can logically tolerate are those we disagree with. If we change our opinions and beliefs we would now be tolerant by continuing to respect and treat with dignity those we used to agree with. I am for tolerance (really I’m more for love than tolerance, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but this is teetering on the edge of being a useless word in our culture.

I pray for more tolerance in our society. On all sides.

Beyond the Bitchy Queen?

There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you inside

-Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter

I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to be the oddest gay man around.

bitchMaybe it’s because of my aspergers, but I don’t tend to carry a whole lot of bitterness that some gays and lesbians that I know have.  The uses of the Bible to justify homophobia didn’t leave me afraid of the Bible.  I don’t doubt that God loves me and always has.  I just don’t live with the anxiety that many gays and lesbians have inside of them.

Maybe that’s why it’s hard to relate to people like John Shore.  For the unitiated, Shore is a gay man who leads a ministry helping gay Christians that have been kicked out of their churches.  Some of his writings tend to be full of bitterness, the result of how he has been treated and seeing others treated the same way.  One his most recent posts includes a letter he received from a lesbian that is trying to live out her faith holistically.  She writes that at times she still feels nervous and even finds it hard to read her Bible.  Shore responds in his blunt style.  A lot of what he says is realistic, LGBT persons do feel a lot of anxiety when it comes to the church because of past experiences.

What bothered me was Shore’s own ambivalence about the church.  He can get Jesus, but wishes he could just give up on Christianity.

Again, my Asperger’s makes me process things differently.  When I faced difficulty in church for being gay, I could see that being the fault of one person or a church, but I didn’t somehow see this as a sweeping indictment of Christianity.  I could see the tree in the midst of the forest.

My way is not how most deal with this.  One bad experience can make people think all churches are bad and that experience lives with them for years.

I can’t really say that others are doing it wrong.  But if I had magic powers, I would try to help LGBT folk only focus on the good people who care and not see all the church as rotten.  I would help them know that God loves them even when the church has issues.

I think that at some point we have to let go of the anger and fear and trust God.  But I also know that is easier said than done.  My experience was pretty tame compared to others.  But I still think we have to learn to let go of the pain, not because we should be abused, but because it does tend to be rather corrosive on our souls.

Maybe I’m speaking out of my element.  Anger has its uses.  But too much of a good thing can be harmful.