Friday, April 27, 2012

Inclusion Revisited-Comments That Deserved A Response

In his comments on my last blog, Jeremy raised some important questions that I thought deserved a response that went beyond just a 'return comment.'  This is that response.  I'd invite you to read his comments, they make a lot of sense.

One of the major questions that Jeremy raised has to do with safety...particularly safety for those we care about.  A good example of this is those congregations who are struggling to find ways to help sexual offenders to re-integrate into society and to give them an accepting place to worship and grow in their faith. Being an "accepting place" for recovering sexual offenders does not mean sacrificing the safety of a congregations children or other vulnerable persons.  In fact, to not look out for those safety issues is to betray fidelity to both the vulnerable ones in the congregation and to the recovering offender.  This is why congregations that engage this ministry well maintain communication with therapists, Probation Agents, etc. as well as having designated members of a support team for the offender and enter into a Covenant with the individual as a congregation.

The call to Inclusion is a call to intentionality, discernment, self examination, and deep prayer. It is NOT a call to naivaete' or masochism.  It is a time when Jesus' command to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" comes into full play; particularly when we are dealing with those who have done great harm (this may not be limited to the notorious, but may include those who engage in "socially acceptable" forms of harm to other).

Then there is the call to Inclusion that is the call to move toward those who are marginalized, outcast, different.  Homeless, poor, persons with special needs and/or disabilities, transgendered persons, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, members of fringe groups of all kinds.  People with politics radically different from our own.  People from different social groupings, racial groups, religious persuasions.

Inclusion is more than just saying that "(fill in the blank) is okay," it is to acknowledge the ways in which we are connected, related, alike.  It is often to say, "there but for the grace of God go I."  It is to move...often gradually, over long periods of time, from inclusion to relationship.

This process, I believe, begins in prayer.  The fact that we're even thinking about a particular group or person is a sign that the Spirit of God is working in us and on us to change us.  So we begin in prayer, honest prayer; "O Lord, You know how much trouble I have with (fill in the blank), but You have begun moving in me around this issue.  Give me the strength to look at them through Your eyes."  Maybe that's all we can do for a very long time....just pray.

I believe, however, that our prayers are our "yes" to God about continuing the process.  And as that process moves on, we may find ourselves moving from Inclusiveness in prayer to acknowledgment of commonality; from that acknowledgement to seeking understanding; from that seeking to an openness to dialogue and to experiencing this person in some way.  In the case of those who have harmed us, it then may lead us to confrontation, the conversation about restitution, to forgiveness, to reconciliation, to relationship.

None of this happens overnight.  The Church has spent over 2000 years struggling with the questions.  For me, quite often, the closest I can get is "Lord, let me see them through Your eyes."  That vision alone drives me to my knees.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Now What?-The Series Continues

My Post-Easter sermon series, "Now What?" goes on.  Hopefully there is a message building; and it looks something like this:

My conversion,  my turning to Jesus, brings me forgiveness for my sins an dstarts me on a healing journey in regard to the wounds I have suffered in this life.  Now, instead of being sources of defeat and death, those wounds become place through which God enters my life and sources of compassion and empathy for others.
Out of my own experiences of healing and forgiveness I hear Christ's call to :feed my sheep," to go to thos for whom He also came and died-just as He did for me-with the same Spirit that lead Him.  This calls us to the same Radical Inclusion that Jesus practiced as a sign that the Kingdom of God has come among us.

So the four sermons are about Forgiveness, Healing, Inclusion, and Love.  This week is a look at what I would call Radical Inclusion....inclusion that goes to the root of what the Kingdom of God, the New Creation is all about.

The stories of Philip and Peter (Acts 8:26-40 and Acts 10:1-48) that the sermon will be drawing from are expressions of this Radical Inclusion.  But this isn't something that Peter and Philip dreamed up on their own; it is a strict adherence to the teachings of Christ and to the behavior of Jesus in His ministry while they observed him responding to those around Him.

So when churches like Commonwealth put a sign out front that says, "All Are Welcome-No Exceptions," this isn't some piece of 'pop-culture christianity' or an attempt to be politically with it...no, this is an attempt to be faithful to the teaching of scripture about the nature of the Kingdom of God.  The task of inclusion is a never ending struggle because the world keeps trying to write new people out of the story...to designate a new set of folks as "other" "different" enemy."  Radical Inclusion is the ongoing attempt, in fidelity to the Gospel, to say "No" to this sin of exclusion.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a painfully profound story.  This man had journeyed to Jerusalem to worship.  But he wouldn't have been allowed anywhere but the outer court of the temple because he wasn't Jewish. Also, Deuteronomy stated that, "no eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord."  This man has come because of his great hunger, his great desire, to a place that would basically write him off.

And so, when Philip tells him about Jesus....this Jesus who was crucified, but who welcomed all...and he says to Philip, "look, there's water over there; is there anything that would stop me from being baptized?"  we can here the pain and the fear in his voice.  "Can I be accepted here?"  "Does your Jesus write me out of the story?"

I spend a great deal of time around folks who believe that they've been written out of the story of God's redemptive action.  Either because of how they were born, or some behavior, or some other reason they think they're outside of God's loving embrace.  And historically the church has all to often followed the culture in telling them that this is true.  But it isn't.  God's love excludes no one. No one at all.  Scary thought, huh?  Imagine who that means we might have to sit down at the Table with in the Kingdom....that is if we want to be there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Now What? Part I-Forgiveness

I want to begin here with where the last blog left off...sorta.

I'm writing this on the 3rd day after Easter Sunday; and I want to raise the "Now What?" question.  Now what...since Jesus is risen?  For many pastors, the answer to "now what?" is "now I get to go on vacation."  After a build up through Lent toward Holy Week, and after an exhausting schedule through Holy Week that ends with sometimes more than one Easter Sunday service (not to mention the Community Sunrise Services, the Easter Egg Hunts, the Easter Pancake Breakfasts) most, if not all, pastors I know are wiped out.  Consequently many go on vacation the next week.  Some denominational groups (like my own Alliance of Baptists) schedule their yearly gatherings to match this vacation time in hopes of drawing more attendees.  But that's not the "Now What?" I mean.

I mean, what happens next for us, and for the Christian church.  I believe that Easter marks a beginning.  It is the beginning of the coming of the Kingdom of God (or if you prefer, the Kingdom of Heaven or New Creation) "on earth as it is in heaven."  Easter is NOT the Hail Mary pass with 15 seconds left on the clock; or the mid-court jump shot at the buzzer to win by one point.  Easter is a call to you and I to live as partners with God in Jesus Christ to bring the victory of the Resurrection to bear on life today. It is a call for us to go out there and live what Jesus was trying to teach us all this time in the Gospels.  Resurrection is proof that the dream is indeed the reality; and that the "dreamer" was right, that "all power in heaven and on earth" has been given to Him...even power over death.....so we need to get to work.

Like a good preacher with a 3-Point Sermon, I've devided the answer to "Now What?" into 3 parts:
Part I-Forgiveness
PartII-Healing
Part III-Inclusion
And I'll be dealing with them over the next three weeks.  The truth is that there's more and that I can only begin to talk about what it means that the Kingdom of God has begun.

"Now wait a minute," you might (quiet reasonably) ask. "There far too much evil and pain and other crud going on in the world to say that the Kingdom has begun."  And you're, at least, part right.  There is an aweful lot of aweful stuff going on.  But notice, I said begun not culminated.  The New Creation isn't finished.....but it's in route.  And you and I are the 'gardeners' who are to be tending its growth.

One of the first signs of the New Creation is forgiveness.  Remember our last blog when we talked about things that change relationships forever?  Things from which there is no going back?  Peter was our primary example.  He fell asleep when Jesus needed him as a friend to watch and pray with him.  He resorted to violence in the garden out of his fear.  He denied knowing Jesus, not once but three times.  If anything should have wrecked his relationship with Jesus, this should have.
But if you go to John 21:1-19 you find an absolutely remarkable story.  Jesus is going to ask Peter three times, "do you love me?"  Jesus is going to give him a way to 'stairstep' his way into repentance and renewed relationship.  Whereas Peter had to have viewed news of the resurrection with some dread and shame....what would he say to this Risen Jesus that he's denied?  Jesus offers him a job: "feed my sheep"....'engage in the job I was training you for'.....'nobody's fired you Peter, if you love me, come back to work.'

But there's something more.  Something that I think shows up in the words used for "love."  The first two times, Jesus uses the word "agape" which is used for a high level, sacrificial kind of love.  It matches up with Peter's claim that 'I'll follow you to the death, even if everyone else leaves, I'll still be here.'  But the last time, Jesus says "do you 'philios' me?"  Now some scholars think that this form of love (which is 'friendship love' or 'brotherly love') is something less than agape.  But listen to what is happening here.  Jesus is saying, "Are we still friends Peter?  We can be you know...it's up to you.  The intimacy of our relationship is still an option.  Are you my loving friend Peter?"

This is the question that would have driven me to my knees.  Jesus hold out to Peter the thing that he thought he had lost forever....the close, intimate, loving friendship with Jesus.  As we follow Peter over the next three weeks (counting this one) we're going to see that the healing and the inclusion which become part of Peter's living out his experience of the Resurrected Jesus flow from this moment...from this experience of forgiveness and restoration.

The same is available to you and me.  Though we think we have destroyed all hope of relationship, Jesus builds a bridge that traverses the giant gulf of our shame and failure.  But it is a relationship and a restoration that comes with a command: "feed my sheep."  We are re-united with the Jesus who loves us, with the God who made us and we are told, "just as this is here for you, with all you've done, it is there for others....ALL others...they too are my sheep....feed my sheep....care for those I also love."

Forgiveness openned Peter up to be a conduit of the Kingdom, the New Creation in incredible ways.  He would repeat many of Jesus' miracles; he would open the faith to gentiles (look at the book of Acts, Paul may have been the primary missionary to them, but Peter is the first to open that door-we'll talk about this in Part III); and finally, he would follow Jesus in death.

Where will our forgiveness lead us?  The Kingdom has begun.  We have been offered this incredible relationship and this marvelous job.  Now what?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Meditation on Good Friday, Crucifixion, and a Silent Messiah

It may seem strange to begin a meditation on Good Friday and Jesus' crucifixion with a quote from George Orwell's 1984, but here it is.  It is Julia's confession to Winston that she betrayed him under the force of psychological and physical torture:

'Sometimes,' she said, 'they threaten you with something -- something you can't stand up to, can't even think about. And then you say, "Don't do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to So-and-so." And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn't really mean it. But that isn't true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there's no other way of saving yourself, and you're quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don't give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.'

'All you care about is yourself,' he echoed.

'And after that, you don't feel the same towards the other person any longer.'

'No,' he said, 'you don't feel the same.'
There it is.  The place where, despite our wish that it wouldn't, fear takes all but the bravest among us.  To that place where nothing matters but ourselves.  Peter knew about that place.  He went there in the courtyard when a servant girl said, 'you're one of them, aren't you?'  He had seen the crosses line the road to Jerusalem; watched the condemned die in agony.  He could not deal with the possibility that this might be him.  The Roman warning to all who opposed them worked very well on Peter.

And after this betrayal it is no wonder that Peter goes back to fishing in an attempt to forget.  That the risen Jesus would not leave it at that is a meditation for another time....but don't forget how contrary to our human experience it is.

And then there is Jesus....he's seen the crosses too.  He is tortured.  Do we think about the fact that Jesus, subject to all the human possibilities that we are, made a decision not to betray others?  It certainly gives a different flavor to the Isaiah quote so often used to describe Jesus before his tormentors, "Like a sheep before its shearers is dumb, he opened not his mouth."  Jesus could have done something different.  He didn't.  Of all the options, all the possibilities, he took the ones he took.

Nor did he let the betrayal and fear of Peter and the others have the final word.  God, in Jesus Christ, would have the final word...the Final Word....the Word that will shape all Final Things.  But for that to happen, Jesus has to endure without betraying.  And he does.  Right up to the end where he forgives those who kill him and welcomes a criminal into his Kingdom.

I could not have done it.  I would have been like Peter.  I would have run.  There is a limit to my courage...as much as I hate that limit, I know that it is there.  This is why the passage from Orwell has stayed with me for over 40 years since I first read it.

Orwell's character says, "after that you don't feel the same toward the other person any longer."  Jesus never stopped feeling the same towards us.  It's an amazing thing.