Friday, June 26, 2015

Marriage, Fidelity, And Reflecting Christ's Love For The Church

Today, in an admittedly split decision, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of gay persons to marry.  For many of us it is a cause for celebration.  We've watched those we love struggle with the difficulties of not having their marriages afforded the most basic rights that heterosexual couples get, and we've wept with them as families and churches have shunned them, or worse.

For other Christians, this is a time to dig in; entrench themselves in the scriptural interpretations they've been holding on to, and declare that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and it's being led there today by SCOTUS.

But the truth is (at least it seems to me) that neither of these stances is enough to deal with the question now in front of the church.  I'm a Baptist.   Can't be anything else.  I've tried and it just don't fit for me.  So as a Baptist, and a Baptist pastor, I would like to suggest some possibilities.  They are not original with me; my guess is that many congregations that would call themselves "Third Way" are doing some version of many, or all, of these.  But it's helpful to me to spell them out and perhaps get some feedback.

  1. We have to keep talking.  I'm watching family members (my family) "unfriend" each other declaring, "someone who thinks that way isn't anyone I want to have contact with."  This is happening from both sides.  The members of Christ's Body CANNOT AFFORD to stop talking.  As I tried to say in last week's blog, this is about more than marriage equality.  It is finally, in the Church at least, about who is welcome at the Table of Our Lord.  We cannot afford to just go to our corners and pout. We cannot afford to write others out of the story because they still reject same sex marriage or because they agree with it.
  2. We need to focus on basic questions and on commonality.  Questions like are you willing to pass this person the bread and say "the Body of Christ, broken for you" ?  Questions like can you hear the words of division coming out of our mouths (from either side of the argument) coming out of the mouth of our Lord? I believe that one of the few things that might be able to keep someone out of the Kingdom is an unwillingness or inability to welcome someone else in.  And again, this applies to both groups.  Do I have the love and patience to let my Brother or Sister in Christ have the time they need to open their hearts to the Other? Or do I insist that they have to change....right now....if they want to be part of the church where I am?
  3. What would happen if churches focused on developing programs for both straight and gay young christian couples that focused on fidelity in all the full meaning of this word (beyond just "don't sleep around?).  Could we, by doing this, strengthen the quality of ALL the marriages in our congregations?
  4. We need to ask ourselves whether we believe that the important thing that Paul stressed about marriage is possible within a same sex union.  What is that thing you ask?  It is this: that the relational quality of that marriage should reflect the love that Christ had/has for the Church, and in so doing, bear witness to Christ's love for the whole world.  If we do, then how do we strengthen ALL the marriages in our congregations to reflect that, and in so doing provide a counterpoint to the way the world views marriage?
  5. We need to remember and acknowledge that there are gay Christians.  People who made deep, heart felt decisions to follow Jesus. We also need to remember that there are good, committed Christians who still struggle with this whole issue.  Neither of them are second class citizens of the Kingdom any more than any other sinner saved by grace (and remember that "there is none rightous, no, not one" applies to all of us).  If we can respect that (regardless of how we feel about the marriage issue) Jesus called them to Him same as He did you and me....maybe we've got a chance to stay at the table long enough to really get to know each other.
I am convinced that, for the church, particularly for Baptist churches that are willing to struggle with all of this, the real work has just started.  Are we ready for it?

Shalom

Friday, June 19, 2015

Charleston Murders, Caitlyn (Bruce) Jenner, and Who Is Welcome At The Table

This has been a deeply painful week.

While our Wednesday night Bible Study was discussing the two feeding stories in Mark 6:33-44 and 8:1-10, and exploring the fact that these two stories demonstrate that Jesus' compassion and miracles were available to both Jews and gentiles....leading us toward an understanding that we are called to include ALL people in the embracing love of Jesus....even as we were doing this, Dylann Roof was murdering 9 of our brothers and sisters in Christ as they prayed and studied the Bible.....because their skin was a different color.

This was not an anomaly....the result of a lone individual's mental illness.  I grew up in South Carolina, and the undercurrents of racism have always been present in both subtle and not so subtle ways.  This does not mean that everyone in S.C. is a racist.  It DOES point to a systemic issue that needs to not be kicked to the curb.  From the continued flying of the confederate flag to the kinds of subtle racist, bigoted humor that passes unchallenged in politer society...and the raw hatred that echos among those who embrace neo-facist ideals.....these things function as the slow burning embers of a low fire.  And when that fire bursts suddenly into flame because a spark has caught in the mind of a Dylann Roof, we should not be suprised.

This got highlighted for me this morning when I recieved a text from a close relative in S.C.  The humor in the text was directed, in what I consider an inappropriate fashion, at Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner.  I told my relative this and requested that they not share this kind of humor with me again.  What I got back was a lecture on "political correctness."  Now this relative would never assault a transgender person.  They would never advocate violence toward people different from them.  But they fail to see that certain kinds of humor ae a sharp weapon in the battle to make those who are Other less that themselves.  And when the embers burst into flames as they did in a rash of violence towards transgender women in Washington D.C. last year, they will not see that they helped blow on the coals.

Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor,  Rev. Clemta Pinkney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myara Thompson.  These are then names that should be remembered; but the name of their killer will, unfortunately be heard more often in the coming days than theirs.

Though Charleston is but the latestest in a string of racially motivated murders, it is, finally, not about race, or gender, or religion or ethnicity for those of us who seek to follow Jesus.  These are the painful expressions of a larger issue.  That issue is this: "Who gets to set the table in the House of God?"  Jesus claims that authority for Himself and Himself alone.  He spends a HUGE chunk of time in the middle of Mark trying to make it clear to His disciples that His table has room for everyone.  It took Peter years to get this, and he still crapped out on at least one occasion.

What would happen if, instead of trying to deal piecemeal with each new group of "outsiders," we trusted Jesus and said, "this is Christ's table and all are welcome here."  We cannot say this about the Communion Table unless we are also willing to say it about all the "tables" in the life of our culture.  The only requirement for a seat at the table is that we don't get to decide who else is welcome here.

Christians have always been called to a "counter-narrative," a different story about how the world is and who matters.  That story is based on the life of Jesus and His inclusive welcome.  By claiming that story we affirm that no matter who you are, regardless of your race, gender, ethnic group, or whatever other catagories the world uses to separate you out.....in our eyes as Christians your defining characteristic is "child of God."

I grieve with my brothers and sisters in Charleston.  May they move into the glory of the Kingdom in heaven, even as we labor to see it come here on earth.

Shalom

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Storms

This is the second week I'm writing about the passage from Mark 4:35-41.  In my last blog I wrote about how we deal with the storms that life throws at us as individuals and how we deal with our fears and anxieties about that.  Now I'd like to take a little bit different tack, though not totally removed from the previous conversation.

Let me acknowledge two things before I begin: 1) I believe that there was a storm and that Jesus stilled it. I believe that it happened in a particular time and place as a sign to those who could see it that Jesus, in His life and teaching, was expressing the power of God in specific, concrete, identifiable ways.  Many of the Psalms use the power to calm the sea and to rescue those struggling there as proof of God's power to care for God's own.  Here, in this incident, Jesus claims and expresses that power...identifying Himself as the incarnation, as God with skin on.
2) I believe that this story speaks to you and me about God's care for us in the personal and terrifying storms of our lives.  I believe it speaks to our freedom to cry out to God in our fear; as well as our need to trust that God is present and will still the storm (though I must admit that sometimes "stilling the storm"  means bringing us to a place of acceptance of lose or pain rather than fixing what we think is wrong and giving us what we want.

But I want to ask a question about Mark and his writing.  That question is, "Why did Mark tell this particular story?"  Why was it important to Mark that his hearers got this story?  We know that there were stories Mark didn't tell that are included in one or more of the other gospels.  And we know that Mark doesn't seem to waste words or to do anything by accident.  So Why this story? And what does that contextual 'why' have to say to us and teach us about our relationship with Jesus and our journey of faith?

 Let's start with verse 35 when Jesus says to the folks whose boat He's been teaching from all day, "let us go over to the other side."  Now on its face, this may not mean much to us.  But to those hearing the story read in worship in the day of Mark, they realize that Jesus is going to cross the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile side of the water!  This is a very big deal.  It's born out by the fact that right after the storm is stilled, Mark 5 begins with the words, "They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes." 

Whatever else you may believe about Jesus' life and teaching, He spent a great deal of time crossing boundaries and bearing witness to the fact that there are no boundaries that God's love will not cross to get to us. 

Now the sea in Jesus and Mark's day was seen as the home of chaos and of the demons that resided just beneath the waves.  You'll notice that in verse 39 Jesus "rebuked" the waves, this is the same language Mark uses to talk about Jesus casting out the demons.  He rebukes the demons.  And the word actually implies that He screamed at them.  Jesus screamed at the demons.  He screamed at the storm.  "Enough! Stop It! Shut Up! Be Still!.....and it was.

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that when Jesus moves to cross the great boundary between Jew and Gentile that the demonic would become disturbed; that chaos would seek to sink His ship.

This was, in fact, the very situation that the early church for whom Mark wrote was facing.  To include, or not include, Gentile converts.  And it was kicking up a storm; a storm that many feared would destroy the early church before it could even get started.  So Mark tells this particular story from Jesus' life about boundary crossings, reaching out to the Other, and God's care in the middle of all that.

Mark's hearers probably could not help but remember another storm story....about a prophet who was told to cross a boundary of nationality and hatred...and who ran away.  Jesus in this story is the opposite of Jonah.  Jonah is quietly lifted up as a warning of what happens when we refuse to cross the boundaries God directs us to cross and refuse to embrace our neighbor.  Jonah is vomited up on the beach by a whale.  Jesus is given the power to quell the very raging waters of the sea.  Mark's message to the early church was very, very clear.

We as 21st century gentiles may not get just what a big deal this was.  We can be helped if we remember the storms that the Church has faced around the issue of boundary crossings in fairly recent past:  slaves; non-whites; women; gays.....just to name a few.  It may be that the particular group is not the most important thing.  Perhaps the most important thing is to remember that God is always calling us to cross the boundaries that separate us.  There will always be some new boundary that God is calling us to cross is love and obedience.

Take an imaginary journey with me 1000 years into the future.  Aliens have landed and build communities in the uninhabited desert areas of our world.  We live in peace....but we don't trust or like each other much.  They look too much like insects to suit us, and we look too much like grub worms to them.  I will promise you that God will call us to cross the boundary and find the place where we can speak to one another about God's love for us....love expressed in our world by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

Now come back with me to today and let's ask ourselves, "what are the boundaries we are being asked to cross?"  For some churches it is the boundary between straight and gay; straight and transgender.  For others it is the boundary between races (even still today).  For others it is making a place at the table for the huge variety of theological expressions that are out there.  I happen to think that the biggest gulf, the hardest boundary that the church has to cross in our day is the cultural one of economics.  We often have an easier time welcoming differences as long as folks are "mostly like us."  But when the cultural differences engendered by economics arise, it is far harder.

The storm is raging....it rages every time we seek to cross the boundaries and follow Jesus.  The demonic has no desire to see us bridge these gaps.  But Jesus stands by us and speaks to the storm....Enough!  Because Jesus wants us to get to the other side.

Shalom

Saturday, June 6, 2015

They Feared A Great Fear

I have the luxury of not preaching this week.  This means that I have the double luxury of taking two weeks to prepare my next sermon and of writing twice on the scripture passage that I'll be using.  It's Mark 4:35-41. 

The story is one that many of us grew up hearing.  Jesus asleep in the boat when a storm comes up....the fear of the disciples....Jesus wakes and calms the storm....everyone is amazed.  The message I heard was simple: "don't be afraid, Jesus is there and everything will be all right."  And that is true....in the final analysis.  God will have the last word, and that word will be Love.  So be not afraid.

The problem is that this isn't the whole story; for the disciples in the boat or for us.

I am often a very anxious person.  I hate this about myself.  It makes me feel ashamed.  Consequently, this story often makes me feel ashamed.  I should have better faith.  I'd like to think that I'm good at hiding my anxiety from all but those who know me best (and I think I usually am).  But sometimes I'm reminded that I don't do it as well as I think.  This morning I asked a friend to be praying for me because I'm anxious about a piece of my future.  She said she would pray; then said, "you're always anxious about this."  Now part of her response is that she knows me very well and that she's one of the folks with whom I can be brutally honest about my fears and anxieties.  The other part, I fear, is that I'm no where near as good at hiding my anxiety as I think I am.

My guess is that I'm not alone in this.

Our anxieties are rooted in real life experiences of failure, abandonment, of having been let down, of having let down others.  In other words, they didn't just come out of nowhere. 

The disciples on the boat (at least some of them) were seasoned sailors and fishermen.  When these men get anxious about the storm, you know something is up.  The scripture says that "the waves beat into the boat and the boat was already filling."  That would certainly scare me.  These seasoned sailors had seen boats go down.  They knew what could happen.  This was not some delusional thinking on their part.  And we're told in the Greek that "they feared a great fear."

Waves are interesting....often scary, but interesting.  They can land with the impact of a stone; but they cannot be grasped.  Dealing with an incoming wave is the very definition of powerlessness.  Often the best you can do is to turn into it and hope that you're able to ride it.  You certainly cannot take control of it.

Our lives often feel like we are being smacked around by forces that land with great, crushing power...forces that we can't grasp, that we have no control over, that we can't even deflect.  There is a truth in this picture that reflects what life is sometimes like.

Maybe, though, at least one of the Big Truths of this story isn't "don't be afraid."  Maybe it lies in the fact that the disciples went and woke Jesus up.  Maybe there's a lesson in the fact that they brought that fear straight to Jesus.  Yes, Jesus said, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith."  But He said it AFTER He'd stilled the storm.  Jesus did not berate them for coming to Him.  Even coming to Him saying, "don't you care that we're dying here?"

One of the things that is a growing edge for me (I'd like to think I'm getting a little better, but maybe that's just my ego) is learning to bring my anxiety and my fear to God in all its rawness, all its trembling frailty.  That's hard.  It's a struggle for me.  I grew up believing that this was somehow a failure of faith and climbing over that spiritual roadblock is an ongoing struggle.

Maybe one of the lessons of this story, at least for me this week, is that it's okay to pray, "Wake up Jesus! Don't you care that I could be dying here?  This is real stuff Jesus, not just some imagined danger, this is the real thing!"  Instead of trying to pretend that I (or we) are not really afraid and that we are just calmly praying in the middle of the storm.

I know people who're able to pray calmly in the middle of life's storms.  And sometimes I can pray calmly in the middle of them too.  Usually it's when it's a storm like one that I've been through before.  So maybe one of the other lessons (at least for me this week) is to remember the storms Jesus has already brought me through; the ones He's already calmed. 

We worship a God and follow a Savior who commands the storm.  We need to trust that.  But we also worship and follow a Jesus who told us to "cast your cares on God because He cares for you."  Maybe that can give us freedom to speak our anxiety honestly to the God who loves us.