Sunday, June 26, 2016

How Love sets us free (Gal. 5:1, 13-25)

Philip Gulley tells about pastoring a small Quaker meeting not far from where he lived when he was still in college. Several months into his tenure there, an elder in the congregation approached him with the news that a man and a woman in the congregation, both of whom were widowed, had begun living together. This elderly couple had met and developed a deep friendship that blossomed into a deep and mutual affection.

This elder confronted Gulley: “Did you know they weren’t married? I think you should talk to them. They’re living in sin,” he said. Gulley says that like many people of his generation, he’d been taught that couples who were romantically involved and living together should be married. It was a principle he had never questioned, so he agreed to visit them.

Tom and Maggie welcomed Gulley into their modest home, ushered him to the most comfortable chair, and offered him refreshments. Pictures of their respective children and grandchildren lined the walls. Gulley asked about them and received a detailed biography of each family member. They ended by showing him pictures of their deceased spouses.

Gulley seized the opening and commented on their relationship, offering to marry them if they wished. Tom said quietly, “We can’t afford to. We’d lose too much Social Security. It’s all we have.” He was obviously embarrassed and Gulley was starting to feel ashamed for bringing it up. Maggie spoke up, “We know we shouldn’t be living like this, but a person just gets lonely.”

Gulley thought for a moment and then said, “You know, friends, I think God has bigger things to worry about. Let’s just be grateful you have each other.”

The next Sunday the elder asked him if he had spoken with the couple. Gulley told him that he had met with them and then explained to the elder the financial setback marriage would impose. That didn’t seem to satisfy the elder so Gulley suggested that perhaps then he could reimburse their lost income so they could marry. Not surprisingly, the elder declined his proposal.

Why in almost all religious organizations and institutions are there people who set themselves up as the temple police? They see themselves as gatekeepers of the laws and traditions of the faith. But an even greater question has to do with the laws and traditions themselves. What’s the purpose of religious laws and traditions anyway?

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians Paul is confronting Christians who he felt were putting law, elevating rules and traditions over the heart and soul of authentic faith. Paul was instrumental in founding the churches of Galatia, and after he left other teachers had come in persuading these Christians that in order to be right with God they had to keep in totality the Jewish law. Paul was so upset with his brothers and sisters for going along with this he skips his normal opening salutation at the beginning of the letter and tears into them for being so easily deceived.

It’s so easy, it seems, for us to miss what is primary, what is most important, what God cares most about, and focus on secondary things.

Albert Schweitzer was an amazing man. In his life he was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene, Africa. He could not get missionary support because his theology was suspect so he performed concerts in order to raise money to support his work.

In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, The Quest for the Historical Jesus.

The late Fred Craddock, who taught at Candler School of Theology for a number of years, tells about the time he first read the book. He was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. He marked up the book, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds.

Fred was in Knoxville and read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward in the Fellowship Hall and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation.

Fred bought a greyhound bus ticket and went all the way to Cleveland, hoping to have an opportunity to ask him some questions. He laid out his questions on the trip. He was going to go after Schweitzer on his doctrine of Christ.

After the concert Fred was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a little while Schweitzer came in, shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, with a cup of tea and some refreshments. Fred was waiting for his chance to hammer his theology of Christ.  

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because many of my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me.”

Fred said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Fred remarks, “And I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”

Healthy religion, truly liberating religion says that wherever you find compassion at work, care for the sick and hurting, wherever you find people working for peace, welcoming the marginalized and disenfranchised, lifting up the downtrodden, caring for the most vulnerable, loving the enemy, working for the common good, there you will find God – that’s where God is. When we participate in this larger story, when we give ourselves to truly loving our neighbor as ourselves, we are living out the very best of our humanity.

Paul explains that love is the fulfillment of the intent and design of the law. Love is the highest law that supersedes all other laws. The purpose of law is to teach us what love looks like and how to live it and express it.

Some laws in the Bible do this effectively, others do not. There are some bad laws in the Bible, because the Bible is not a perfect book. There are some laws and instructions in the Bible that are attributed to God, that we can say very clearly, in light of what we know of Jesus of Nazareth and our own experience of the living Christ, these laws did not come from God. Sometimes we attribute to God rules and expectations that are simply designed to justify and rationalize our own prejudices and self-serving interests. We interpret Scripture to suit our purposes. We all do this. No one escapes their biases. And the biblical writers were no different than we are. They were just as human as you or me.

This is why Paul says in the passage: Do not use the freedom you have to pursue self-indulgence, because then you lose your freedom, and you become enslaved to your false self, your ego, your disordered desires. Rather, he says, use your freedom to serve others in love, because serving others in love will truly set you free to discover and express the best of your humanity. Then you will find true freedom, which is the freedom to love unconditionally and completely the way God loves you and me. True freedom is always rooted in love.

Paul contrasts true freedom and false freedom, which is really enslavement, by contrasting the fruit of the Spirit (capital S, the kind of fruit God produces in our lives) with what he calls the works of the flesh. The works of the flesh are disordered desires and actions that tear down community and feed self-interest and self-glory. Why he calls these life-diminishing attitudes and patterns of behavior “works of the flesh” is a kind of mystery. He does the same thing in his letter to the Romans. (Quite possibly he is sarcastically using the language of the teachers who were arguing that they had to keep the whole law. These teachers apparently emphasized circumcision as a sign and symbol of keeping the whole law, so this may be a veiled allusion to that, but it’s hard to say. But whatever we call these characteristics, they are the opposite of loving actions.)

The fruit of the Spirit, says Paul, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Love heads the list because all the attributes that follow are characteristics of love. Paul says that against such things there is no law. He also says that those who are led by the Spirit are not subject to the law. In other words, law cannot ultimately produce these qualities. This is the work of God’s Spirit and it is the fulfillment of the real intent and design of law, but the law itself cannot produce this results. The law can say, “Be kind to one another,” but it is the Spirit that generates kindness. Does that make sense? The law can move us in the right direction, but it takes the Spirit to fulfill the law.

Then too, as I have already pointed out, there are biblical laws that do not advance the cause of love, which is why each instruction in Scripture must be critically evaluated and not just accepted as if from God. By just accepting everything a lot more harm has been done in our world than good. The Bible has been used to condemn our LGBT sisters and brothers, keep women as second class citizens, and condone violence. As Christians we should critique every instruction in the Bible in light of the compassion of Jesus and the true intent of love. And, as you well know, there can be a vast difference between what is legal and what is loving. Love will eliminate laws that are oppressive and advocate for laws that are liberating.

So, the Spirit of love will compel us to work on both on our own personal responses to one another and love will compel us to advocate for justice in society. Certainly, life in the Spirit makes us better persons. When we live in the Spirit we will become individually and personally more loving persons, more empathetic, more compassionate, more kind, generous, patient, forgiving, humble, and authentic. We will become more like Christ.

The story that Lisa read about Elisha wanting a double portion of the spirit of Elijah can be read as an illustration of what discipleship is about. We should want a double portion of the Spirit of Christ so that we can reflect the likeness and image of Christ, so that we experience and express the kind of compassion and grace that he embodied. 

But Christian discipleship does not end with our personal character and responses to others in our small communities. No. Our Christian discipleship compels us to work and advocate for the best in society as well. When the Spirit of love fills our lives, then we also become more concerned about our larger society and the laws that govern it, especially when those laws favor certain groups, or reflect the interests of power and wealth, or when they express prejudice and create un-level playing fields.

This sort of freedom to love can take many different expressions. We witnessed a form of this in our nation’s capital in the House of Representatives this past week. Some of our elected officials led by civil rights icon John Lewis staged an unprecedented sit-in contending for a vote on two bills. One simply says that if one is on a no-fly list because of suspected terrorist activity one cannot purchase a gun. The other is simply an expansion of background checks. Ninety percent of Americans want this legislation passed, our police forces and city officials want this legislation passed, most gun owners want this legislation passed, but speaker Paul Ryan feels such pressure from the NRA and his congressmen who are in the pocket of the NRA that he would not even allow a vote. John Lewis and others have said, “Enough is enough. That is not freedom they say, that is enslavement to money and power. Lewis says, “Exceptional times and circumstances call for exceptional measures.” And he would know. He marched with King across the Selma bridge and paid the price for true freedom. No one in Congress has more moral authority than John Lewis.

Early in this passage Paul says that what really matters is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, what really matters he says is faith working through love. When faith produces love that’s when faith makes a difference. If our faith does not lead us to be more loving persons, then our faith is irrelevant and doesn’t really matter. True freedom is love in action.  

Our gracious God, you have set us free in Christ to love as you love, and yet there are times when we fail miserable to experience and express that freedom. We so easily become ensnared and entrapped by our biases, our fears and insecurities, our pride and self-interest, and the negative habits and reactions that we have acquired. But the power is at hand to break free. It is the power of love. It is the power of Christ. Give us the faith and will to nurture a more loving spirit, that we might love others more faithfully and unconditionally. And give us the courage to love others enough to work for peace and justice to make our society better, more fair, safe, just, and good. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Choosing Pigs Over Freedom (Gal. 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39)

When Jesus sets forth his agenda in terms of Isaiah 61 in his synagogue sermon in Nazareth, one of the key aspects of his work is to liberate the oppressed. This story provides a beautiful picture into what that involves.

Here is a lost, tortured, battered soul. We are not shown his descent into this state, so we do not know how he became so tortured, so demonized, so broken and lost. He does not know who he is. He is violent, unpredictable, and alone. I suspect that if one could profile all those who have joined terrorist groups over the years one might something similar. He lives among the tombs, which is to say that he lives in the realm of death. That is, he lives in a state of life-diminishment, a state of dehumanization, a state of alienation and oppression.

It would be a grave mistake for us to think that this was all his own doing. We do not know the travesties and tragedies he suffered through. We know nothing about his life growing up, what events transpired or experiences he had, what demonic forces he has had to contend with. Though perhaps the name given to the demons is suggestive. The name “Legion” was the official name of a Roman battalion, and we know that the Romans could treat their subjects harshly and oppressively. Their means of executing their subjects for crimes against the empire was brutal and public. We don’t know if he suffered under Rome; we don’t know if he was an Israelite or a Gentile. But the whole symbolism of demonization suggests that there are forces inside of us and outside of us (like the militarism of Rome) that would dehumanize us and demean us and diminish us.

We face inner inclinations that would lead us into a state of diminishment, some of which may arise from the way our brains our wired; other patterns we have learned from the ways we were socialized into our context in life. It can all be very complicated, but the point of demonization is to show that there are always forces beyond our control at work. We did not pick our parents, we did not choose our time or place in history, we did not choose the place of our birth; there’s a whole set of forces and circumstances that help form us or deform us over which we have had no control. I am not suggesting that we are not responsible for our choices, but our choices can be greatly limited by our circumstances in life.  

Here is a man so oppressed and dehumanized he has lost his basic humanity. In the movie, Reign Over Me, Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) loses his wife and daughters in the tragedy of 9/11. In the aftermath this once-successful and sociable man becomes a withdrawn, alienated shadow of his former self. The story is about how a college roommate comes back into his life to try and help Charlie reclaim his humanity.

Politicians or anyone who blames the poor for their poverty are typically blind to the demonic forces at work here, and I would bet are blind to their own demons as well. Of course, as I often say, we are all blind to some degree aren’t we?

So, when we struggle with these life-diminishing powers and forces that enslave and oppress us it is never just about our own choices. Our circumstances in life, our education or lack thereof, our early childhood nurture or the lack thereof, our opportunities or the lack thereof, the tragedies we have lived through, all of these things impact us and play important roles in forming us or deforming, humanizing us or dehumanizing us, enriching our lives or diminishing our lives. It’s never just about our own choices.

And who among us, even those of us who have had so many advantages and opportunities, who have been surrounded with loving, supportive families, good education, good health care, opportunities to succeed – yes who among us, even with all of this, do not struggle with our own demons. Even those of us who have had every opportunity life affords still struggle with addictions, anxiety, fear, depression, compulsive behavior, anger and other forms of negative habits and patterns.

In my little book on Progressive Christianity I have a piece on this subject and I tell about the time when Jordan was 7 or 8 and I was coaching his baseball team in Waldorf, Maryland. The whole system was a set up for disaster. It was designated an instructional league and we had to depend on parents for umpires. It was an instructional league, but we kept score. Instead of requiring both teams to provide an umpire at each game, the home team was responsible for the umpires. Generally they asked someone on the visiting side to umpire. But on this particular day when we were the visitors, we weren’t asked. The home team chose one of their coaches to umpire behind the plate and one of their parents to umpire the bases. I don’t know if they had lost three in a row or what, but they were going to win this game. Well, after about the third questionable call, we had a call against us that wasn’t even remotely questionable. And I lost it. I’ve told this before and I tell about it in my book, so I won’t go into the details, but I can honestly admit to you, my church family, who I believe loves me in spite of all my faults, I was possessed. For at least five minutes I lost my mind. Another power, a deadly power, seized me. And I bet some of you can recall episodes or events where this happened to you too.

Do you know what the cure for possession is? It’s possession. It’s a different kind of possession. It’s the possession of a different kind of spirit. It’s the possession of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which is a Spirit of love and compassion and understanding, manifested in humility, kindness, patience, and self-control. That day on the ballfield (or maybe battlefield) I lost my self; I lost my humanity. Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to regain myself, to restore my humanity, to apologize to everyone for my reactions on the field, and to make amends. By the end of the game I was quite ashamed and humbled.

Now, let’s get back to our story in Luke. There is a part to this story that may seem on the surface to be insignificant, but I believe is the key to understanding what is at stake. The demons that come out of the man are permitted by Jesus to enter the swine, which sent the swine rushing down the steep bank into the sea and drowned.

Luke tells us that the swineherds who witnessed this told the story to the people in the town and all about the countryside and Luke says that when they came out and saw this man who had lost his humanity, who had been living naked among the tombs, clothed, and in his right mind, meaning that he had found himself, he had found his lost humanity, Luke says they were afraid. And when the story was told of what happened, how Jesus confronted the demons and healed this lost, broken man, Luke says they “were seized with a great fear” and bid Jesus to leave them and go elsewhere.

What were they afraid of? What’s the point the storywriter wants to make? When Jesus allowed the demons to enter the swine and they raced into the sea Jesus was ridding their land of the demons. (There were two conflicting myths about demons and water. One was that the sea was the haunt of demons, in which case Jesus was sending them home. The other was that the demons couldn’t live in water and so Jesus is destroying them. Either way, Jesus is getting rid of the demons.)

So what’s the point about being afraid? What are the people afraid of? They are afraid of Jesus upsetting their social order. The townsfolk couldn’t really control the demonized man, but out there among the tombs he wasn’t bothering them. They knew where he was so they could avoid him. But Jesus was responsible for the loss of a sizeable herd of pigs. They lost a lot of income. A whole bunch of money went plunging into the sea. Jesus is upsetting the social order. There is a price to be paid for driving out demons and healing the demonized, and they would just rather have their pigs back. When it came to a choice between their economic security and healing the demonized or liberating the oppressed, they chose economic security.

And most of us are just like them. We choose our security and safety over the risk involved in helping restore humanity to the dehumanized and liberate the oppressed.

Why do you think there’s practically no chance of seeing universal health care in America anytime soon? Why are we the only country of the democratic, industrialized nations on earth that does not have universal health care? It’s not because we are better or smarter. In fact, we are the most violent of the nations in the free world. We kill each other at a much higher rate than any other free nation on earth (and yet we can’t even get some basic common sense legislation passed like keeping those on a terrorist watch list from buying a gun).

Here’s why universal health care can’t work here. We do not want to sacrifice our good care so that those who have poor care can have adequate care. Most of us here have access to the best health care available. The poor, of course, do not. Many do not, but we do. We can purchase the best care available. If we go to a universal health care system, that means more equity, more equality, it levels the playing field. We are more like everyone else. We get put on a waiting list. We can’t just go out and buy what we need. Of course, there will still be some corruption and inequity, because a system is only good as those who run the system, right. So whatever system is in place there will always be some who know how to work it. There will always be some corruption. But for the most part, with universal health care, the care would be more evenly distributed. We who have access to the best care available would have to make some sacrifices, and we are not willing to do it. And that is the main reason we don’t want universal health care. We should at least be honest enough to admit it. We don’t want to give up what we have.

And if we are honest, this is also why we resist immigration reform. It’s why some of us want to build walls rather than bridges. It’s why we want to drive the poor out of our cities, rather than set plans and programs in motion to help them get on their feet and restore their humanity. Because after all we have to pay for those programs and plans.

We can say this much about the people who asked Jesus to leave, they understood the social implications of the kingdom of God. They realized that if they took Jesus seriously, Jesus would set in motion humanizing and life enriching forces that would disrupt the lopsided economic and social order they had constructed. They realized they would have to give up some things for others to be healed and made whole.

Paul understood this. This is why when people were baptized into communities called churches it was proclaimed that in Christ there is nether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. All the ways people classify, stratify, label, and categorize people mean nothing in the communities God wants to establish on earth. For in God’s view we are all one in Christ. We are one family, all sisters and brothers, all equals and partners in the journey of life. And this becomes the basis for our calling to serve and minister.

Now, listen carefully because this is really important, and this is where we have blown it in the past and we have to do better. When we serve those who are oppressed, when we minister to those who are demonized, those who have been beaten down in life, those who are most vulnerable, we must serve and minister to them as their equals not their superiors. We must let go of any notion that we are better in some way or that we have all the answers because we don’t. And this is where in the past the Western church in its missionary zeal has really screwed things up and we have got to do better. We must realize that the ones we serve are already in Christ, they are already children of God. Our place is to simply help them trust who they are and become who they are. They are our equals. Members of God’s family. Loved by God ever bit as much as we are. And we can learn from them as much as they can learn from us.

So when we work for justice, when we engage in acts of kindness and mercy, when we work in soup kitchens, or homeless shelters, or volunteer with the red cross, or when we deliver food or water, or help build wells and provide educational opportunities or whatever we do, we need to remember that we are serving our sisters and brothers, we are serving persons who are already in Christ whether they know it or not. We might be able to help them to live in Christ, if we are living in Christ. But what they don’t need is for us to give them a bunch of doctrines to memorize or insist that they have to believe the way we believe or practice their faith the way we practice ours.

And in addition to all of that, we might be able to help people develop a healthier image of God. This can be difficult, because many have had their God image seared into their minds from an early age. When the demonized or dehumanized man first sees Jesus he says, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” Think about this. He sees Jesus rightly as a representative or prophet of God, but then wrongly he thinks Jesus as God’s prophet has come to torment him, as if he is not tormented enough already. His God image is all messed up.

Last week I quoted Mark Wingfield in his article on transgender persons and he pointed out how so many transgender persons have been led to think God is against them. How tragic. One way we might be able to help those who feel lost and alone and alienated is help them see that God is not against them, rather, God is for them and loves them with an eternal love.

Our good God, help us to recognize that we are all one. We are all part of your body, all members of your family, all equals and partners regardless of what others have said. And may we see through the illusions that people in power would feed us about being better or superior. Help us to see we are all one in Christ. And give us the courage and compassion and will to make the sacrifices necessary so others can experience the beauty and fullness of life that so many of us have been lucky enough to enjoy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Voting, working and advocating on the side of compassion

The compassion of Christ compels us to be political.
I’m not talking about engaging in partisan politics.
Read full article at Baptist News Global

Monday, June 13, 2016

What do you see? (Luke 7:36-50)

This is a beautiful and powerful story. We begin with Jesus at table in the home of a Pharisee. This is not insignificant.

At the beginning of the Gospel where Luke sets forth the agenda and program of Jesus, it is clear where Jesus’ focus lies. In the synagogue at Nazareth he defines his ministry in terms of Isaiah 61. He would be about restoring the sight of the blind, setting captives free, liberating the oppressed, announcing good news to the poor, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. 

This reference to the year of the Lord’s favor is an allusion to the year of Jubilee when financial debts were forgiven and land was restored to those who lost it, thus creating more fair and equitable conditions in the land. Luke makes clear that Jesus’ mission and ministry was concentrated on the poor and the oppressed. And yet here is Jesus sitting at the table of a Pharisee sharing a meal. In fact, on three separate occasions in Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus eating with Pharisees. Jesus’ table fellowship with all sorts of people became a primary image and symbol of the inclusiveness of kingdom of God.

Jesus excluded no one. The downcast and outcast, the marginalized and condemned found a friend in Jesus. But so did everyone else who wanted a friend in Jesus. The wealthy and the religious establishment had created a worthiness system that put them in and left others out. They had been instrumental in creating the conditions that led to a large number of impoverished and marginalized folks. Jesus critiqued and confronted that system time and time again. He spoke truth to power. And yet he did not separate or alienate himself from the wealthy or the self-righteous religious leaders. He provoked them plenty, but he always left the door open. Jesus was inclusive in the broadest sense.

The woman who is a key player in this story is identified by Luke as a sinner from the city, which is most likely a polite way of saying that she was a prostitute. She crashes the party. The dinner would have been in the courtyard probably next to a roadway. It was common for passersby to stop and listen to conversations taking place and even to participate in them. This woman, however, does more than listen or even talk.

She enters the courtyard weeping, overcome with gratitude. The implication in the story is that she had a prior encounter with Jesus where Jesus showed her great grace. She felt loved and accepted by God as she was. Jesus became the channel through which God’s magnanimous forgiveness and grace flowed to her freely. She had been on the receiving end of great grace and now cannot contain her thanksgiving and joy.

Luke says, “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” And if that were not outlandish enough, Luke says “she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment” (this was expensive ointment). Clearly this is over-the-top behavior and without question it would have had sexual overtones. And yet Jesus does not seem to be embarrassed in the least.

But the Pharisee sure is. And not just embarrassed. He is offended by her presence, but even more so by her actions. And he is offended at Jesus for allowing this woman of the city who was a sinner to express herself in this way without the slightest disapproval or reprimand.  

Simon, the Pharisee says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” Simon makes a judgment based on his preconceived presuppositions and beliefs about God and righteousness. He assumes that a prophet would condemn this woman the same way he imagines God condemning this woman. Simon and Jesus obviously have very different images of God.

Unfortunately, churches like Simon abound. Simon is a stand in/a symbol for much of the kind of religion that prevails in society. The perspective and attitude of Simon is the perspective and attitude of many churches. And it’s the reason some people have given up on church.

Mark Wingfield is associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. He, like myself, is a monthly columnist for BNG. He wrote a piece last month that went viral. Over a million people read the article. It was titled: Seven things I am learning about transgender persons. I am not going to go through the list. You can access it at the BNG website. It’s an excellent piece.

This month he followed that up with an article titled: Painful lessons from a pastor’s viral transgender post. In two week’s time, Rev. Wingfield exchanged correspondence with more than 400 people. Some people shared their struggles.

He writes:
“Most transgender persons are not against God; many just fear that God is against them. Or, more specifically, they believe the church is against them. Many of them — a vast number in fact — have grown up in the church and are people of deep faith. But they are people who have been asked not to come back, have been removed from membership, have been shunned. And so have their families.”

He mentions a single mom with four kids who were kicked out of their church. Their pastor accused the mom of child abuse for letting her boy dress as a girl. A youth who had been a deeply devoted Bible study leader was asked not to come back after coming out with a non-conforming gender struggle. And so the list goes.

He said that people who shared his post would say things like: “I can’t believe I’m sharing something written by a Baptist pastor, but you’ve got to read this.” Wingfield observes sadly that the church today is most often known for what it is against rather than who God is for. He said he discovered that the transgender community was immediately kinder to him than the church has been to them.

This is why churche’s like ours – churches that welcome, accept, include, and affirm LGBTQ persons are so needed. The invitation to visit our church that went out in the State Journal today, I posted on my facebook page earlier last week. A gay friend who was a couple of years ahead of me in school responded, “I so needed to hear that Chuck. The next time I’m in town I will come to church.”

Wingfield concludes his piece by saying: “So as my 15 minutes of fame in the national spotlight fades, here’s the most important thing I want to say about all this: God loves you, whoever you are, wherever you are. Whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, a traditionalist or a progressive, a Protestant or a Catholic, a male or a female, gay, straight, trans, whatever. God loves you. Now, what are you going to do with that love?’

That’s the great question isn’t it? What are you going to do with God’s love? We can restrict it and limit it and make it conditional the way Simon did, or we can trust that God’s love is much greater and larger than all the restrictions and boundaries we could ever impose. The woman believed (she trusted) in the largeness of God’s love and she was so overcome with gratitude she could not contain her feelings.

However inappropriate her response may appear to us, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind in the least. In fact, he draws a contrast between her actions and Simon’s lack of hospitality. As he turns toward the woman he asks Simon: “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.” Jesus contrasts the woman’s overt spontaneous expressions of joy and thankfulness, with Simon’s failure to demonstrate the customary hospitality.

Do you see this woman? Jesus asks. That question has great spiritual implications. The spiritual life is largely about our capacity to see. What did Simon see? Did he see a child of God who had experienced great love and forgiveness? Of course not. He saw only a sinner worthy of judgment. And because he could only see a sinner worthy of judgment and was blind to this woman’s experience of grace, he couldn’t possibly see his own sin of self-righteousness and his need for great love and forgiveness.

When Jesus says that those who are forgiven little love little he is not suggesting that there is anyone who only has a need for a little bit of forgiveness. Is there anyone who needs just a little grace and forgiveness? Of course not. There are only those who think they need just a little grace and forgiveness. These are those who can’t see.

Jesus affirms publicly what had already been given privately – namely, grace and forgiveness. “Your sins are forgiven,” he says. “Your faith has healed you,” he says. The text says “saved” but it is the same Greek word that is also translated “healed.” In the Gospels it is most often translated “healed” or something like “to be made well.” Jesus healed her, saved her, liberated her . . . from what? Her fear of judgment. Her low self-image. Her lack of self-worth. Her feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. All of these fears and insecurities were replaced by a great love, now expressed in great gratitude. She now is able to believe that she has worth, that she is a child of God, that God loves her and accepts her regardless of what the religious leaders say about her. That is the faith that has made her whole. It is the faith that claims our true identity and heritage as daughters and sons of God.

Former educator and UM Bishop Will Willimon, in a conversation with a group of seminary faculty, remarked what a bad book had been written by a professor at another seminary. He commented that he expected a bad book from someone who was such a jerk. After the group dissolved, one colleague lingered behind. He said to Willimon, “The person who you just trashed was the only person to stick by me in my divorce, the only person personally to offer me help and comfort. But I want you to know that I intend to forgive you for your boorish insensitivity. You are forgiven.” Willimon commented, “Until I got forgiveness for being an insensitive boor, I did not know I was an insensitive boor.”

There are a lot of Christians and a lot of churches who judge and exclude persons who are different, who do not know and cannot see just how ungrace-full and un God-like they are. They do not see. In their condemnation of others they are blind to their own need for grace and compassion. And of course, to some degree we are all blind are we not?

When Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” he is saying, “Do you see who she really is, what she has been through. Do you know how much she is loved and cared for by the God you claim to know?

Sisters and brothers, what do we see? When we look at the transgender person what do we see? When we look at a person with a different ethnicity what do we see? When we look at a person who has had a hard time in life, been beaten down in life what do we see?

Good God, teach us how to open our eyes so that we see what you see, so that we can love with your love, so that we can feel the compassion you feel, so that we bear your image and reflect the light of your grace in this place. Help us as a church to thrive because this community needs a church like ours to thrive. May we experience your forgiveness and love afresh as we join together to eat this bread and drink this cup. Amen. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The lifeblood of the church (Ps. 146; Gal. 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17)

Author and pastor Philip Gulley says that in one of the first churches he pastored they met on one occasion as a church body to decide how best to help a family down on their luck, through no fault of their own. Just as consensus was building to respond graciously and creatively to their need, a member rose to complain about the money it would cost. His argument was, “the church is like any other business. We’ve got to stick to the budget.” A brave soul pointed out that the church was not a business and they had sufficient funds to meet their budget and help this family. Gulley spoke out, “Moments like these are important. Now we get to decide what kind of church we’re going be. Are we going to care more about people or more about the bottom line?” Gulley said that he hadn’t been there long enough for his words to make much of a difference, and when the vote was taken, the bottom line won the day.

I am very grateful that we here at Immanuel have decided to be a church that majors on the compassion of Christ – not doctrine or dogma, not a belief system, not conformity to established patterns – but compassion. That hasn’t been easy. 

We have taken some hits in this process of being an inclusive, grace filled congregation. But I tell you sisters and brothers, this community needs a Baptist church like ours to thrive. I encourage you to be bold in talking about our church and to invite your friends to a place where the compassion of Christ takes precedence over all other matters.

Our Gospel reading today highlights the compassion Jesus had for a widow whose only son had died. Not only did this widow lose an only son, she lost her only source of income and security. Luke says that “when the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” Compassion was the motivating force behind Jesus’s prophetic and healing ministry.

The Hebrew word for compassion means “womb like” which has nuances of giving life, of nourishing, caring, and embracing. God is like a mother who gives birth. God has given us birth. God is the source of all life – both physical and spiritual life. As a mother loves the children of her womb so God loves each of us.

In the English etymology, passion comes from the Latin word that means to feel. The prefix com- means with. Compassion means “to feel with.” To have compassion is to feel the hurt or pain of others, and on the basis of that sense of empathy for and connection to others, to then act on their behalf for their good. Compassion isn’t really compassion unless we act.

A little girl approaches her father, who is typing a report on his computer in his study. At first he doesn’t notice her, but when she clears her throat, he looks over and says, “Honey, what do you want? She says, “Daddy, it’s my bedtime. Mommy said that if I come and stand beside you, you’d give me a hug and a kiss.” “All right.” The father reaches down and gives her a hug and a kiss. “Now, off to bed,” he says. He goes back to his computer. A minute later he looks up from his computer and his daughter is still there. He says, “Honey, I gave you a hug and kiss. What more do you want?” She says, “Daddy, you gave me a hug and kiss, but you weren’t in it.”

One can give a hug and kiss and not be in it. I can preach a sermon and do some good work for someone and not be in it. The compassion of God calls forth a passion that empowers us to be “in” the good words we speak or the good deeds we render on behalf of others.

Divine compassion greets and meets us where we are. It doesn’t wait for us to change. We do not have to travel down the Romans road first, that is, we do not have to obey a set of Bible verses or four spiritual laws before God expresses God’s compassion toward us.

In the reading from Galatians Paul speaks of his conversion by grace. Paul’s conversion was not a conversion from no faith to faith, it was not a conversion from no religion to religion. Paul’s conversion was from a religion of meritocracy grounded in rewards and punishments to a religion of forgiveness and reconciliation pervaded by grace. Paul was converted from an unhealthy, negative, legalistic kind of Judaism to a healthy, compassionate, hopeful Judaism that centered in Christ. Paul was converted from a religion of hate and condemnation, to a religion of love and inclusion.

How did this conversion happen? Was it because he believed the right things or said the right things or did the right things or joined the right group? When Paul encountered the living Christ he wasn’t doing anything right. As he tells it, he was “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” Paul’s encounter did not come through any human source, and that includes the biblical witness as well. In fact, he thought he was obeying the scriptures by ridding his religion of the heretical Jesus followers. Paul’s conversion came, he says, by way of “revelation.” When Paul says that God set him apart before he was born and called him through grace, what he is saying is that God loved him and had compassion on him right where he was – as a persecutor and murderer of Jesus followers.  

God has compassion for us just the way he had compassion on Paul – right where we are. And just as Paul was called to proclaim this gospel of grace that he experienced to to others, so we too are called to be instruments of God’s grace to others. And that means accepting and loving people right where they are.

Quaker spiritual writer and teacher Richard Foster tells about a friend who was in a shopping mall with his two-year-old son. His son lost control and started screaming. This father, instead of shaking or scolding his young son, picked him up and began singing an impromptu love song as he made his way to the car. He told his two year old child over and over how much he loved him and how special he was. By the time they reached the car, his son was completely calm. When the dad placed him in the car seat, his reached out his arms to his and said, “Sing it to me again, Daddy.”

When we are moved by the compassion of God as Jesus was, we experience a nearness and closeness to Divine Love in a way that compels us to be “in” the words we speak and the kind deeds we do for others.

Here I need to ward off a possible misunderstanding. To speak of the compassion of God does not mean that God is like milk toast, that God can be conveniently pushed off to the side and not taken seriously. The Psalmist says that God gives food to the hungry and upholds the orphan and widow. But the Psalmist also says that God executes justice for the oppressed, sets the prisoners free, and brings the wicked to ruin. God is still the judge of the world. And while God always acts compassionately, lovingly, mercifully, and graciously, he also acts justly and judges with equity and fairness.

I personally don’t believe God intervenes in judgment in this life. And people of faith have struggled with this. The prophet Habakkuk questioned the theology of God’s direct involvement in the affairs of the world when he asked God, “How is it that the unrighteous prosper while the righteous meet untimely deaths?” His life experience seemed to contradict the theology that was passed on to him. I see no evidence that God intervenes in judgment in this life. In fact, Jesus taught that God is kind and gracious to both the just and unjust alike.

I have no idea and do not pretend to know what God’s future judgment might look like and be like in the next life. I tend to think that in the life to come God will take a more direct role, but who knows. Maybe this life is one stage in many stages of our spiritual evolution and growth. Who knows? The only thing I am fairly confident of is this: Whatever divine judgment is like in the life to come, whatever form it may take, and however painful or hard or difficult it might be to bear, I am convinced that it will be designed for our redemption and transformation. 

God’s judgment is not about exclusion, it’s about inclusion. It’s not about condemnation; it’s about salvation. It’s not about separation, it’s about reconciliation. It’s not about imprisonment, it’s about liberation. It’s not about retribution, it’s about redemption. I believe that with a great deal of confidence as you can tell.

In like manner, for us to be filled with the compassion of God does not mean that we are passive, milk toast pushovers either. In our Gospel reading Jesus is called a great prophet because he acted in compassion in restoring to life the widow’s only son. But Jesus was also a great prophet because he spoke truth to power, he critiqued and confronted the inequity and injustice he found in the religious and social establishment of his people. This is what got him killed.

In Marcus Borg’s groundbreaking book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, he says this, “For Jesus compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue [though it was that]: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in the community. To put it boldly; compassion for Jesus was political. He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world and advocated what might be called a politics of compassion.”

When Borg says that compassion for Jesus was political he does not mean what some mean when they engage in partisan politics. Compassion will compel us to be political, but not partisan. Whether you are registered a republican or democrat is irrelevant. The issue here is not political party, the issue is justice, restorative justice. The kind of justice (as the Psalmist says) cares for strangers and upholds the orphan and the widow, the most vulnerable groups of people in that culture. It’s the kind of justice that provides food to the poor and liberates the oppressed. And if you recall this is how Jesus defines his ministry in Luke 4 in his synagogue sermon at Nazareth.

What matters are the issues, the policies, the legislation, the practices that prevail in the social, economic, and political realm in which we live. Let me give you some examples which cut across political party lines:

Massive deportations that separate and divide families, many times sending members of those families back into destitution and harms way is not compassionate.

Military drones that drop bombs in pursuit of suspected terrorists, which bombs also kill women and children in the process is not compassionate.

Cutting federal assistance to the poor because a small percentage of those who receive that assistance take advantage of the system is not compassionate.

Regardless of what you think about abortion (you may want to see Row vs. Wade overturned, you may want to keep it legal but see the number of abortions decrease), but whatever you think about it, the fact is, it is legal, and shutting down women’s health clinics that provide much needed low cost or no cost health care to disadvantaged women just because they offer the legal service of abortion is not compassionate.

It doesn’t matter what your party’s platform is or what political party you are registered with. Don’t accept it hook, line, and sinker. To adopt a line from the late William Sloan Coffin that’s like saying, “My grandmother, drunk or sober. That doesn’t get us anywhere." What matters is that we vote, work, advocate, and come down on the side of compassion. And that’s what makes compassion political.

Our God is a God of compassion. This compassion was embodied in the healings, acts of mercy, and prophetic proclamations and actions of Jesus. We are followers of Jesus are we not? We are called to be a compassionate people.

God of compassion, open our minds and hearts that we might be driven by your compassion, that the compassion of the Christ might fill us and overflow into deeds of mercy, acts of kindness, words of empathy, and in engagement in the social and political processes that might make our society more equitable and just. Move us with your compassion for your kingdom’s sake. Amen.