Written on Their Hearts (sermon 3/22/15)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. – Jeremiah 31:31-34

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Every so often, ministers have step into their pulpits on the Sunday after some big event that has some major and lasting effect on the church that has to be addressed. Maybe think of the Sunday after 9/11, or the Sunday following “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. Or maybe not something that big and bold; maybe think just from our own Presbyterian viewpoint, the Sunday after our very own Presbytery voted to ordain Margaret Towner as the first female Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, and the uproar that caused – even leading to the formation of a new splinter denomination of Presbyterians who thought ordaining women was contrary to the clear teaching of the scriptures. I’m sure that there are at least a few members of our congregation who have personal memories of that.

Well, maybe this is another “Sunday after the Big Event,” at least as far as Presbyterians are concerned. Our denomination has been voting on a proposed amendment to our Book of Order that would affirm that Christian marriage isn’t limited exclusively to one man/one woman, but that it also includes same-sex couples, too. By now, most if not all of you have seen in the news that although the Presbytery voting is still going on, there have been enough Yes votes that the amendment has passed. The voting will continue, but all along the measure has been passing by more than a 2 to 1 margin.

This is very big news, for our denomination and for our society at large. This change, and the one a few years ago that permitted ordination of LGBT deacons, ruling elders, and ministers of Word and Sacrament, is the culmination of a debate about the place of LGBT Christians in the life of the church that’s been going on in our denomination for more than thirty years. It might not seem to be quite as big a deal to us here at Westminster. We’ve been welcoming to the LGBT community for several years. Our wedding policies were already revised to accommodate marriage equality. And you showed you weren’t just paying lip service to inclusivity when you welcomed a gay pastor to serve the congregation.

The whole issue of full inclusion and acceptance of LGBT Christians is obviously something that I have a personal stake in. Of course, I believe that these recent Constitutional changes in our church are a good thing, a great thing – a thing that moves us all as the church closer to Christ’s message and the truest meaning of the scriptures. This vote makes me want to forget about this dreary, penitential purple stole that I’m wearing for Lent, and to slip on my spiffy new rainbow stole, and get out of the pulpit and laugh, and clap, and jump up and down and pump my fist in the air and say “YEAH BABY, YEAH!!!”

But I can’t do that – well, not much, anyway. I can’t, because I know that as happy as I am, and as happy as many of you are, celebrating this as a great step forward for the church, I know that in other congregations, and in this congregation, there are brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with this vote. People who think this is going in the wrong direction. Good, decent, deeply committed Christians – people we worship with; fellowship with; serve with. People who don’t hold their views out of hatred for LGBT people, but who are just trying to be faithful to God and the written scriptures to the best of their understanding.

I know these brothers and sisters don’t harbor hatred in their hearts. I know that because for most of my life, almost up until the time I realized my own sexual orientation, I shared their understanding, and I knew that my beliefs weren’t based in hate; they weren’t intended to be hateful. I know that there are good, sincere brothers and sisters on both sides of this issue who just disagree. So what do we do with that? How are we supposed to continue moving forward, united, as the body of Christ?

I think that today’s text from Jeremiah gives us a clue. It was a message sent to the people of the nation of Judah, whose country had been overrun, who were living in captivity in Babylon, and who had lost all hope for their future. They thought that even God had deserted them. They didn’t think there was any way forward from the dilemma they were in.

But through Jeremiah, God told them to take heart; that a day was coming when God would make a new covenant with them, when God’s Word wouldn’t just be written on tablets of stone, but directly in their hearts, Everyone would know the heart and will of God, and want to live into it. As Christians, we believe that we’re living at least partially in the time of this new covenant. That the fullest and truest revelation of God is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and that through God’s Spirit, this same Word is written onto our hearts.

So what do we do when we disagree about God’s Word that’s written on stone tablets, or on high-quality paper with gold leaf edging? We look to God’s Word that has been written onto our hearts. But what happens when we disagree about what God’s even written on our hearts? When people are equally convinced that what God has written on their hearts are two totally different things?

Maybe the answer in times like that – times like these – is to focus on the part of God’s Word, written on our hearts, that we agree on. The part that says we’re called to love and accept and be in unity with one another, even when we disagree. That through the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re supposed to share peace, goodwill, and hospitality with each other, treating each other with the love, dignity, and respect that we want for ourselves. Doing this in spite of our differences – and hopefully, not even spiting differences at all, but rather, celebrating them as being a witness to the incredible greatness, and diversity, and wonder of God’s creation.

He was a gay man who had quietly listened to the rejection offered by the church for years. He disagreed with all of those church positions and doctrines directed against him and others like him, but he still stayed faithful because he loved God and felt called to serve God, and called to love and serve the people of Christ’s church. And that included this man. He knew that this man strongly disagreed with the idea of gays and lesbians in the church, and same-sex marriage, and especially the idea of them serving in ordained positions. But as much as he disagreed with the man, he knew that his heart was in a good place. Together, they’d served meals at the soup kitchen, stocked shelves at the food pantry, cleaned up debris in the wake of a flood. Prayed together at the bedside of a dying friend. This man was a good and faithful servant of God, and he felt blessed to know this man. And as the two of them stood together, he felt God’s Word written onto his heart, and he stretched out his arm and held out the plate in front of him and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you.”

As the man took the bread, he thought about the man who’d handed it to him. For the life of him, no matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get his head around how he could interpret the scriptures to say that being gay isn’t a sin, and same-sex marriage is okay, and that gays should be eligible for ordination. It just didn’t compute. But as much as he disagreed with the man, he knew that his heart was in a good place. In a huge leap of faith, he’d begun preparing for the ministry at a time when the church still banned him from ever being ordained, but he’d trusted in God and moved forward trusting that somehow, it would all work out. Together, they’d served meals at the soup kitchen, stocked shelves at the food pantry, cleaned up debris in the wake of a flood. Prayed together at the bedside of a dying friend. This man was a good and faithful servant of God, and he felt blessed to know him. And as the two of them stood together, he felt God’s Word written onto his heart, and he stretched out his arm and held out the cup, and said “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Amen.

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He Came Down (sermon 3/15/15)

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From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. – Numbers 21:4-9

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And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21

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There are things in our lives that we get so used to that they just become part of us. They’re so common, so familiar, we have to think about them about as much as we have to think about breathing, or blinking our eyes. They’re part of our routine. Like the order we do things when we get out of bed – shower, deodorant, shave, brush your teeth, always in that order, day after day. And when you shower, always wash your hair first, then your body, always starting with your right arm. Well that’s my pattern anyway; yours might be different but the odds are that you still have one. Our lives are full of these patterns, these familiarities, these shorthand ways of making sense of the day.

We do it with the Bible, too, or at least parts of it. There are some passages of scripture that we’ve heard so many times that they’re just part of us. We know exactly what they say and exactly what they mean without having to think about it, even before we’ve completely read it or heard it. At least, we think we do.

That’s probably the case with some of today’s gospel text. It starts off with an odd reference to lifting up a serpent, which refers to the even more odd passage from Numbers that we heard this morning, but then it moves into a part that we’ve all heard countless times. John 3:16. We’ve seen the rainbow-haired guy and hundreds of people copying him holding up signs citing it at sporting events. Tim Tebow used to have it printed on his eye black stickers. It might be the most familiar, most well-known Bible verse out there; even the most biblically illiterate people in the country could probably quote it, and almost always in the King James Version. And we know exactly what it means, don’t we?

Well, maybe. One of the things that we’ve done in the Wednesday Noon Study Group and in the Confirmation class is to look at a specific familiar passage from the Bible, and to read it like we’ve never heard it before. It isn’t easy; you have to force yourself to do it sometimes, but to really stop and let every word, every phrase, every detail of a story sink in. And sometimes, when you do that, certain things catch your attention. Certain things stand out. You notice things that you’d allowed yourself to gloss over before. You pick up new things, or you notice that in your mind, you’ve added details that really aren’t there. And maybe there’s some phrase or word that just sticks out in your mind and makes you contemplate what it means in this context. From what I understand, the adult forum is going to discuss that same idea, In a slightly different context.

In this passage from John, Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, who has come under cover of darkness to speak with him, and they’ve been having a conversation when we get to this passage. In all honesty, we don’t know if this is supposed to be Jesus’ words that he speaks to Nicodemus, or if it’s the gospel writer’s commentary on the scene. The ancient Greek language didn’t have quotation marks, so we can’t really be sure which is the case. But either way, let’s listen to that one verse, John 3:16, just by itself, as if we’ve never heard it before:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”  

Early this past week, I read through this passage, and especially this verse, and I just kept re-reading it and thinking about it. And what my brain kept coming back to was that phrase “believe in.” What does it mean to say that a person “believes in” this Son that God sent into the world? And just what does it mean to say that that’s the reason that God sent him? Is it saying the same thing to say that someone “believes in” the Son as to say that they’re a “Christian,” or are those not necessarily the same things? And if God’s whole purpose for sending the Son into the world is strictly that people would “believe in” him, and *that’s* how people gain this everlasting life, then what does that say about all the theological doctrines that say that God sent the Son into the world in order to die and pay some cosmic price or ransom or sacrifice, in order to earn our everlasting life through the shedding of Jesus’ blood?

What I’m talking about here is what theologians would call “atonement theory” – trying to understand just how it works, the nuts and bolts of it, that we’re saved, reconciled, redeemed, justified – choose your favorite term – through Jesus Christ. Or why “He Came Down,” as the hymn we’ll sing in a little while puts it. We were just talking about this subject in the Confirmation class a couple weeks ago, and we’re going to be looking at it in greater depth in the Wednesday group right after Easter. Did you know that there are at least six different ways that the writers of the New Testament explain how this works? And theologians from ancient to modern times have teased out those scriptural passages into complex theological theories about it. A number of these theories would seem to require Jesus’ death and bloodshed to work. In others, that isn’t a necessary component. In the tradition of Western Christianity, coming out of Rome and then the European Reformation and then on into America, the idea that Jesus had to die in order to save us has been a longstanding one. “We’re washed in the blood of the Lamb.” “There’s power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lord.” “Oh! precious is the flow/ That makes me white as snow; / No other fount I know,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” And on and on. But the idea of God demanding the shedding of innocent blood in order to save us implies something really, really monstrous about a God we believe is the definition of love. Some have said that the two ideas are absolutely incompatible. Personally, I agree with them.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God sent the Son into the world to die, to be the victim of violence, bloodshed, and murder, in order to save us. In fact, that idea doesn’t show up in a single verse of this entire gospel. The closest this particular gospel writer gets to that is to say that in Jesus being lifted up, that others will come to believe in him and they will be drawn to him, but that doesn’t mean that that “lifting up” is a necessary part of all this. John 3:16 says that God sent the Son into the world for people to see him, and hear him, and to believe in his words, to believe in his message. In this version of atonement theory, the bloodshed and suffering of Jesus on and leading up to the cross isn’t necessary for this everlasting life to be given from God. We know and enjoy that life, this verse says, just by “believing in” him. Believing his message, his teaching. And what is that message? According to Jesus, it’s what we’ve come to call “the Greatest Commandment”: Love God with all of your being, and love others in the same way that you love yourself; in the same way that Jesus loved his disciples. Do this, and you will know eternal, everlasting life, Jesus says. Hearing and acting on that message is apparently what Jesus thinks it means to “believe in” him. It isn’t believing something “about” him. It isn’t believing something particular about “how” he unites us with God, or how it’s only through him that people come into God’s presence. It seems that according to the writer of John’s gospel, this particular atonement theory, Jesus says that receiving everlasting life is hearing and believing his words, to love God and love one another. And that this could be the case even if Jesus had never been crucified, even if he settled down, had a family, and lived a normal life. Maybe Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t some unfortunate but still glorious thing that we say we’re grateful for, because it was needed to reconcile us with God; but rather, it’s a huge, totally unnecessary tragedy, the biggest miscarriage of justice in human history. Something we should mourn.

And if all this is the case, can someone who’s part of another religion, or even no religion at all, “believe in” Jesus in the sense that it’s meant in this verse? Can someone who rejects Christ’s divinity and rejects, maybe even hates, the Christian Church, still “believe in” Jesus in the way that it means here? Those are some pretty big questions. As we continue through Lent, I invite us all to think about those questions as we ponder the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and the cross. And just think: all these deep, ponderous questions, all come out of looking at just one simple phrase, in one familiar verse, of the Bible.

Thanks be to God.

Fooling Around (sermon 3/8/15)

“…For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  - 1 Corinthians 1:25

(In order to understand one reference in this sermon, you need to know that part of the Children’s Message earlier in the service included dancing and wearing foam rubber clown noses)

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For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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The character of The Fool is a time-honored tradition in plays and other theatrical presentations. It goes way back, to biblical times and earlier, and it continues even now into our own time. The Fool is always a person who doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the crowd, they’re a bit of an outsider, who can make discomforting observations that everyone else seems to have missed, or who can make criticisms or poke holes in the puffed-up egos of their superiors, that no one else could get away with. A prince or a bishop could criticize the king and lose his head for it; the Fool could make the exact same point, just in a more crafty way, and all he’d have to do is smile as he said it, and the king would let it slide. Today, the Fool might be the quirky sidekick to the main character in a movie or TV show, but whether you find them at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or the Auburn Movie Plex, their role is basically the same – to bring laser-sharp wisdom in ways that everyone else considers foolish, and to wield power from what others would consider a position of weakness.

In today’s Epistle Lectionary text, Paul is writing to the small church in Corinth. It’s a very cosmopolitan, highly commercialized city in ancient Greece, and the Greek love of wisdom and learning, at least their version of it, was a very important thing there. And the Christian message that God shows love for all people, and saves all people, by way of an unschooled Jewish peasant, a nobody, who’s convicted and executed I the most humiliating way imaginable, and who then is supposed to have risen from the dead… well, it was just a ridiculous thought. It didn’t make any sense at all. It was monstrous, and insulting to a person’s intelligence to even think about. It was pure foolishness.

The members of the church in Corinth seem to have been wavering in their faith, starting to worry about whether it stood up to public scrutiny and conventional wisdom and the proper rules of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. They seem to have been worried that staking out a position for the church that the rest of the city considered one of weakness was the wrong path. Maybe they should adopt a strategy, a different mission plan, one that sounded more consistent with the way most of their neighbors understood the world.

But Paul’s point was that God is wise enough to not teach the great truths of the Kingdom of God by way of the supposedly wise, or rich, or powerful. Instead, God makes the point, reveals the truth, offers the real wisdom, in a way no one would expect. It was the greatest of wisdom originally seen as foolishness, the greatest of power originally seen as weakness.

We often face the same kind of concerns. I mean, we want to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent people, and let’s face it, our faith is focused on the life of Jesus, a story that’s quite unusual to say the least. And the whole emphasis that the Christian faith places on meekness, and peacefulness, praying for our enemies and turning the other cheek and not returning violence for violence, it really is a hard pill to swallow sometimes.

But Paul says to stay strong in the faith, because the wisdom and power in the message of Christ crucified is more wise and more powerful than the wisdom and power understood by the world. That strength put into action through love – which was often seen, in ancient Corinth and today as disgusting weakness – is actually the greatest wisdom and strength of all. It’s capable of moving mountains in the effort to make the world more like Christ, more like the kingdom of God.

That was how the church originally spread so rapidly, you know. The one thing that people in the first years of Christianity noted about Jesus-followers was their seemingly unbounded way of peacefulness, forgiveness, and love for others, even their most dangerous enemies and persecutors. Even their enemies said that about them. When the church keeps true to those characteristics, it always grows. When individual Christians are true to those characteristics – put another way, when they play the role of the Fool, as the world would see it – their faith always deepens and they always become powerful forces for the gospel and all good in the world.

This isn’t just how the church grew, either. The exact same principle can be seen in many different times and places throughout the history of the church and the world. The strength and wisdom of Christ crucified was exactly what empowered those people who, fifty years ago yesterday, walked unarmed, peacefully, two-by-two over the narrow sidewalk of the Edmund Pettus Bridge into the face of state and local police armed with guns, and billy clubs, and dogs, and horses, all literally hell-bent on preventing them from advancing any further. These were people who knew what was likely to happen to them. And yet, they still marched over that bridge and into the living rooms of people all over this country and into history. They had been trained to turn the other cheek, to remain peaceful in the face of violence, to not return evil for evil. Many of them paid a heavy price for doing so. But by remaining peaceful, and not returning violence for violence, the images of that horrible, brutal day made a far more indelible impression on millions of people who finally said “enough!” and who began to accept the idea of racial equality. It was utter madness in the eyes of the world. They were Fools. They were, indeed, and thanks be to God for it. The wisdom of their foolishness, grounded in the message of the gospel, changed our country, and the world, forever.

Fifty years later, in addition to the ongoing fight for equal rights for all, there are other battles, other issues, other missions that the church, collectively and as individuals, is being called to take up in the name of Christ, too. And time and again, history has shown us that the greatest strategy to achieving gains in those battles is the way of the cross – taking up, and focusing on, and implementing the wisdom of the cross as opposed to the wisdom of the world. As we continue through Lent, and as we continue to reflect on the full meaning of taking up our own cross as we follow Christ, let’s realize that God is calling each one of us, in some way, to advance God’s will by concretely implementing the wisdom of the cross – by being a Fool for God, as a witness to the world. Let’s take the time to pray, and ask, where it is that God is calling us to speak the wisdom of the Fool into the world around us. And once we know where that is, let’s not be afraid. Be bold. Stand up in whatever way God is calling you. For the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God, don’t be afraid to dance when the world says not to. Don’t be afraid to be a Fool for God. Foam rubber nose is optional.

Thanks be to God.

Connected

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While scrolling through Facebook this morning, I found links to two recent articles from the New York Times that had been shared by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. The first one, “Alabama’s Dangerous Defiance,” dealt with the absurd situation playing out in Alabama, with the State Supreme Court defying a Federal Court’s finding that the state’s refusal to grant same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. The second one, “States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples,” deals with the current rash of state legislatures rushing to try to enact copycat laws that would permit private businesses – including not just wedding photographers and cake-bakers, who seem to be getting an awful lot of attention in these arguments, but pharmacists, doctors, real estate agents, bankers, etc.-  to discriminate against not just LGBTQ folk, but literally anyone who runs afoul of the individual’s “deeply-held religious beliefs.” This same attempt at legalizing discrimination goes even further in some states’ versions of the bills, including not just the private sector, but public employees, as well – from doctors to firefighters to teachers to clerks of court to bus drivers, any of whom could refuse service to you because of some perceived conflict between you and their personal religious beliefs.

I was born in 1960. The civil rights marches, protests, and violence that ripped our nation apart in that decade are things that were going on only on the vague fringes of my childhood awareness and memories – I knew there was something going on, but I was too young to really comprehend a lot of it or feel that it really had anything to do with me. As I got older, I came to understand more about its significance, and I wished that I’d been just a bit older and could have been involved in it – while at the same time, wondering if, at that time in my life, I’d have been on the right side of the debate. I want to think that I would have been, but I’m ashamed to admit that given the cultural soup we were swimming in during those years, I’m not absolutely sure I would have.

Now, fifty years later, not only are we seeing an erosion of some of the gains won during that movement, we’re also seeing many parallels between the current battles for LGBTQ equality and those earlier ones. The issues involved here are an ugly replay of the same kind of shameful bigotry and intolerance, not to mention Constitutional ignorance, that was fought against back then; in this particular instance, some of it is even being waged over the same geography. The idea here, that individuals, by way of the ballot box, have a right to violate other people’s Constitutional rights, and to have those violations shored up by state courts and publicly elected officials who claim the superiority of so-called states’ rights and sovereignty over the overarching federal Constitution as it’s interpreted by the federal court system, are some of the exact same arguments that were used to try to justify denial of civil rights to blacks, women, and other groups, and even to justify slavery itself.

When Abraham Lincoln helped to dedicate the national cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863, he talked about those soldiers who had been buried there, saying that they’d died in order for the nation to have a new birth of freedom, and so that we would remain a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people;” people who were created equally and who have equal rights. Lincoln said that it was the duty of us, the living, to dedicate ourselves to continue, and hopefully complete, their unfinished work.

Over the years, many have done just that, continuing to speak, and write, and protest, and die, in order for our country to live more fully into its founding principles. Now, in 2015, we’re fighting another ongoing battle in the same long war, having to push back against the exact same tired and hateful arguments that the federal courts have ruled time and again are unconstitutional in past battles. No, ballot boxes do not trump Constitutional rights. No, state courts and judges do not trump federal ones. No, religious freedom is not absolute. There is no inalienable right to engage in hatred based on so-called “deeply held religious beliefs” outside of one’s church doors. It’s wrong and immoral enough to do it inside those doors, but at least within their boundaries, you have a Constitutional right to be an intolerant bigot if you wish.

So now, in my fifties, I have the opportunity for a do-over of sorts. I wasn’t part of the historic struggle for equality that took place when I was a kid. Now I can be, and I am. Yes, this particular struggle affects me much more directly than the one fought In the 60s. Even if it didn’t, though, I’m glad to know that I would have chosen to be on the right side of both God’s love and history, and would have worked and spoken out for full LGBTQ equality in society, and in the church, even if I weren’t gay myself.

Roy Moore and George Wallace are connected in this battle. But I feel very much a part of who, and what, has gone before me, too.  I feel connected with those who stood up for the exact same issue In the past, whether the actual physical battlefield was Christopher Street in the West Village, or a Birmingham jail cell, or a Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls, New York (google it), or Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg.

Or Alabama.

What If? (sermon 3/1/15)

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Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”    – Mark 8:27-38

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(In passing, I suppose you need to know that earlier in the service, I did a Children’s Message based on the classic kids’ story “Stone Soup.”)

A good story has a good structure to it. It has twists and turns, and highs and lows, calculated to add intensity and emphasis to the storyteller’s point. Today’s gospel text is the high point, and the turning point, in the overall story that the author of Mark’s gospel is trying to present. It’s the end of the first part of the story, that tells people about Jesus and points to who they’re supposed to understand him to be, culminating with Peter’s proclaiming here, in this passage, that he’s the Christ, God’s specially blessed and anointed one. That’s the peak of the whole gospel. And then it turns, and becomes all about Jesus’ journeying to Jerusalem to be crucified.

In this passage, Jesus and the disciples have traveled to the area of Caesarea Philippi, north of the Sea of Galilee. This is the site of the origin of the Jordan River, and for many years it had been a place of great significance to the worship of numerous deities. It was a place of religious pilgrimage, and talk about the various gods who had temples or other places of worship there was commonplace. And that provides the setup for Jesus’ famous question to the disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?’ and then, “Who do *you* say that I am?” followed by Peter’s statement, making him the first person in the entire gospel to call him the Messiah.

But right after that, Jesus starts to talk about all the trouble that’s going to come his way; that he’s going to be arrested and killed, but that then he’d rise from the dead. And Peter scolds Jesus that he shouldn’t say those kinds of things, that people would think he was nuts, that saying things like this was going to have a negative effect on recruiting new believers into the fold. It just wasn’t going to look good.

And here Jesus turns the tables and scolds Peter, saying that he needs to stop seeing things from a human perspective, but rather, from God’s perspective. And that God’s perspective includes some hard truths, hard realities, things that people were just going to have to accept if they want to be among Jesus’ followers. According to the writer of the gospel, Jesus put it in terms of taking up one’s own cross, just as he himself was going to take on a cross for the sake of God’s kingdom. He said that if you worried too much about saving your own life, you’d have missed the point of his message, the whole point of the kingdom of God, and that people who lost their lives for the sake of God’s kingdom would gain real life in that same kingdom.

It’s hard to read this passage and not think about the Christians who were kidnapped and executed by ISIS recently. Or the countless other Christians around the world who are persecuted every day for their faith – and I’m not talking about the ridiculous claims of persecution by some crybaby Christians in this country who claim persecution because they want the right to pray a Christian prayer at the beginning of the school day in a classroom filled with kids from all sorts of religious backgrounds; or who claim they’re being persecuted for their religious beliefs when they’re told they can’t use their religious beliefs to discriminate against people in the public workplace. I’m talking about real persecution; life and death persecution. It’s hard to not think about the fact that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in this century than in all the previous centuries combined since the beginning of the faith.

From our own place of relative safety, we tend to understand Jesus’ words as allegorical, metaphorical. We don’t have to think about losing our lives for the sake of our faith. But maybe during Lent, and the deeper reflection of the meaning of Christ’s life and our relationship with God that we’re called to be having during this time, we might ask ourselves if we were in such a place of risk, what would we do? Would we have the strength of faith to do it? What if Jesus were serious about us needing to be willing to lay down our lives for the faith? It’s a very difficult question to think about, let alone to try to answer. I’d like to think that I would have that strength, but in the actual moment, would I? Or would I find some way to justify why it’s better for my family, or my congregation, or whatever, that I should survive, so I should do what it takes to save my life? And in so doing, would I have just lost my eternal life? What if Jesus was serious about that?

Maybe, as part of that process of reflection, we could ask a related, but more manageable question: even if we don’t know if we’d give up our lives for our faith, how much would we be willing to give up? How much of our comfort are we willing to sacrifice for the kingdom of God?

How much of our financial security would we give up? A lot? A little? Did you know that this year, the congregation is budgeted to run a bit of a deficit, but that if every pledging household committed to giving just another eight dollars a month, the deficit would disappear. Eight dollars a month; not even an extra hundred dollars for the year. Would we be willing to sacrifice and discomfort ourselves to the tune of eight dollars a month? What if Jesus was serious about that?

How much of our time and effort would we give up? Would we be willing to designate space, and to participate in fundraisers and donate our time to take the first bay of the basement in this building, level the floor up, put in a dropped ceiling, and let it become the place where the congregation re-starts its youth ministry, showing the current youth that we believe they matter, and showing the kids in the Children’s Worship Center that they have something to grow into, to look forward to as they get older? As the church, the scriptures tell us that we have an obligation for the nurture and development of disciples in the faith, especially including the youth, who aren’t the church of the future but who are the church of today, and they need every bit as much attention as part of the congregation as anyone else. Would we be willing to put ourselves out to that degree? Jesus said following him wasn’t always going to be easy or comfortable. Jesus said take up our cross. What if he was serious about that?

And what if we did make that space, and we had another bitterly cold winter like this year? What if someone suggested that at least a couple of days a week, when the youth weren’t using it, that we could open that room up for homeless people to at least come in and get warmed up for an hour or two, and maybe get a bowl of soup and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Would we be willing to be discomforted enough to make something like that to happen, to help the neediest in our community? Jesus said to take up our cross. What if he was serious?

I’m offering those scenarios as reflection exercises, in order to spur the Lenten reflection, “How far am I willing to go personally for my faith? How much am I willing to be discomforted personally in order to follow Jesus, the one I profess to be my Lord and Savior? Where are my personal lines in the sand? And is that where they should be drawn? Because the truth is, I think we all realize that yes, Jesus was serious about that. None of us are likely to risk death for our faith, like many others are. But where are our supposed sacred cows, or our lines in the sand of comfort or familiarity that we aren’t willing to go beyond? These are extremely important points to consider, certainly for our own lives, our own awareness, and our own personal spiritual growth, but they’re also very important things to ask ourselves as a congregation, especially right now as the Mission Study Team is in the middle of its work, and as you’re getting your surveys to help the Team identify our congregational mission into the future.

Keeping our congregation vibrant, and keeping our own personal faith healthy, always requires stretching outward into new areas, into areas that can and will initially cause discomfort. The townspeople in the Stone Soup story I shared with the kids today didn’t originally want to share their own vegetables and meat for the soup. But once they did, they ended up experiencing the joy of having done something good, and that the whole community benefited from. By allowing themselves to be stretched into a place they didn’t originally want to go, their lives, and the lives of others, were made better. That was the high point of the kids’ story today. And it’s the high point of the kingdom of God, too.

Thanks be to God.