Entering Jerusalem

This sermon was delivered March 24, 2013 at Condon United Church of Christ. Listen to it here.
Getting off their private jets the executives, in their crisp white shirts and well-tailored Italian suits, were ushered to waiting black limousines for the journey to the downtown hotel.
***
Getting out of church, the people in their holey socks and their out-of-fashion Sunday-best, moved to the parking lot where they prepared to walk to the downtown hotel where the oil executives were meeting.
***
Arriving at the hotel, the executives were ushered into the lush room, where they were served a delectable meal topped off by the pastry chef himself serving the flaming dessert. As the executives, in their crisp white shirts and well-tailored Italian suits, lingered over coffee, they looked out the window. If they’d looked down they would’ve seen the ragtag church group arriving at the hotel.
***
Gathering in the church parking lot, the people, in their holey socks and their out-of-fashion Sunday best, ate sandwiches and grapes. Their meal was topped off as a Tupperware container of Aunt Ernestine’s homemade chocolate chip cookies was passed around.
As the churchfolk, and others who had joined them, began their walk downtown they held signs high and shouted, “Out of South Africa!” and “Hey Ho! Apartheid Got to Go!” They stopped at multiple Shell gas stations along the way to shame patrons who bought their gasoline from a business that perpetuated the racist apartheid system in a country far away.
Nearing the downtown hotel, the people, in their holey socks and out-of-fashion Sunday best, walked through canyons of skyscrapers where their singing and chants for justice echoed off banks and luxury hotels.
***
The executives, in their crisp white shirts and their well-tailored Italian suits, giving little thought to those far below, moved into the well-appointed meeting room. The oil executives met high above the people, in their holey socks and out-of-fashion Sunday best. The oil executives met faraway from the women and men and children in South Africa as they looked at financials and strategies. Profits and risks.
Immersed in power, they couldn’t imagine any rational reason to stop doing business in South Africa just because a few whiny churchfolk didn’t like apartheid. Far below on the street, the justice-seeking churchfolk and those who joined them, imagined a world where, in the words of the prophet Amos, “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 
And in the end, those who ate sandwiches and grapes topped off with Aunt Ernestine’s homemade chocolate chip cookies applied enough pressure on those who ate delectable meals topped off by the pastry chef himself serving the flaming dessert… In the end they applied enough pressure and changed the course of history.
The majority in South Africa and their justice-seeking allies around the world could not be silenced because they knew that even if they were silenced, the stones themselves would shout! In the end, they applied enough pressure and the racist system of apartheid fell.
***
Our gospel passage this morning is a rich tapestry with many layers of meaning. I suppose that’s a good thing as we hear this story in one form or another each year. It is a part of all four gospels. Most respected scholars believe that Mark was written first. The writers of the other gospels used Mark as a resource as they wrote their interpretation of Jesus’ life. 
Luke has his perspective as do each of the other gospel writers. Sometimes the facts of the gospels vary. For example, did Jesus preach the sermon on the mount or on the plain? Did magi or shepherds visit young Jesus? And today, did the people wave palms or did they lay their cloaks along Jesus’ path as he entered Jerusalem? Or perhaps they did both.
Worrying — or worse, arguing — about factual details, however, can distract us from God’s voice. Either way, the details each gospel writer chose to include give us a hint of how he or she experienced God. An interesting aspect of Luke’s version is that those who cheer are already disciples of Jesus. That is, though it is more than the twelve apostles, the people of Jerusalem do not come running out to embrace and cheer on Jesus. 
In fact, it is the religious leaders of Jerusalem who tell Jesus to silence his followers. Hear verse 39 again:
Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” Luke 19:39 CEB
Jerusalem was believed in the Jewish tradition of the time, to be “the point of contact between heaven and earth.” (FOTW, loc. #5565) Here’s my point, or rather Luke’s point, the religious leaders in the holiest city were offended by the loud praise Jesus’ disciples were heaping on God. They were bothered by people praising God. In verse 37, 
 They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. Luke 19:37b CEB
And the religious leaders didn’t like it. They tell Jesus to tone down the rhetoric of his people. The people of Jerusalem — who did not come running out to greet the arriving Jesus — are unable to hear God’s voice through Jesus. The story for Luke, according to one scholar is “not about God’s kingdom but the reality against which Jesus proclaims God’s kingdom.” (FOTW, loc. #5585)
And, so, our Palm Sunday processional is about praising God in difficult times. It is about doing God’s work even when all those around us seek to hush us.
I think about the UCC’s brave action — the wider church’s voice of justice that spoke out early on behalf of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers because they perceived it as where God calls this denomination.
I think about those who occupied Wall Street because they perceived the Spirit calling them to protest economic injustice, because they believed opportunities are for all of God’s people not just some.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus is not greeted with accolades and joy from all. In fact, he rides a colt into a hotbed of resistance. That is bravery. That is listening to the luring voice of God even when there’s a risk. That is taking God seriously.
And, so, when the religious leaders tell Jesus to control his disciples, to quiet down their praise of God, he says, No. He tells them that even if his followers were quiet, the stones themselves would be shouting praise.
Though I don’t believe Jesus knew all the ins and outs of how the next week would play out for him, he knew that it’s risky to follow God’s will. But he also knew who to trust. He knew that that in the end, God’s extravagant love always wins.
And so, just as my story of the oil executives and the protesting churchfolk, offered two very different paths to the downtown hotel, the writer of Luke offers us a glimpse of two very different paths into Jerusalem.
Prefect Pontius Pilate, in the rigid and harsh uniform of an oppressor, entered Jerusalem accompanied by horses, chariots, and soldiers in gleaming armor. The Roman leader stayed in a palace and maintained his power with force and wealth.
I suspect that Pilate was focused on maintaining order as people flooded into Jerusalem for the Passover. He also probably was convinced that with the army he’d brought with him, he could — and would — maintain order. He could — and would — maintain the status quo of Roman oppression in Israel.
But on the other side of town, in an ordinary robe and sandals, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem riding a colt. His ragtag disciples are overcome with joy. They praise not him but God because of all that they have witnessed. They praise the One from whom all things flow. While in Jerusalem, Jesus will stay in a commoner’s home as a guest.
He was focused not on himself, not on keeping order but on God and he willingly followed the Divine claim on his life. He knew that whatever would come over the next week, that God’s extravagant love for him would win in the end.
Beginning this holy week, may we fully trust in the One who beckons us through difficult times. May we trust that despite betrayal, humiliation and torture, despite whatever may befall us, that God’s love remains with us.
May we reflect that love to everyone with whom we meet. May we seek God’s justice for all and love with abandon.
Amen.

Imitation & Transformation

I preached on Philippians 3:17-4:1 at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, February 24, 2013. Listen to it via this player or read the text below.

It was time. The scripture read, the congregation looked expectantly at the girl, a young woman really. She stood up, all 5 feet of her. Her long ginger hair flowed from her head and framed her young, fresh face.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation smiled at her. They expected great things out of this girl. You see they’d been here on the Sunday when her parents and godparents came forward and she was baptized in the name of the Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit swirled among them on that day. They remembered the smiles of joy as the congregation promised to support parents and child in a journey of faith.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation remembered how when she was but three-years old she wrote a poem following her great-grandmother’s death. They remembered the funeral. They remembered how she stood next to her dad in this very sanctuary as he read the words she’d recited as mantra after her Great Granny died,

Flowers bloom in the springtime, 

Sometimes you die, 

Flowers bloom in the springtime.

Yes, they expected great things out of the now fifteen-year-old who was so wise at  three.

As she made her way to the pulpit on this Sunday in which the youth led worship, the congregation wondered what warm and fuzzy thing she would say. They expected great things out of this girl. You see they’d been here on the Sunday when she, wearing her white robe, read her confirmation vows. If they’d been a little more Pentecostal, they’d have sworn that they saw the Holy Spirit descend upon her that day.

Reaching the pulpit, she stepped up onto the stool, so she could be seen. She was a short fifteen-year-old. Expecting much from this remarkable young woman, the room became silent, every face looked toward her with expectation.  And the red-headed prophet spoke these words to the people who had raised her up to follow Jesus the Christ…

The fresh-faced prophet spoke these words to men with grey hair, to women with a few wrinkles, and to the smattering of young mothers and fathers with their children sitting beside them…

The prophet spoke these words, and I quote, “The church sucks!” The prophet’s parents looked at one another. This was not the sermon they’d heard at home before church. Holding hands with one another in the pew, they wondered if they would have a church home after their fifteen-year-old daughter was done.

After her shocking opening words from the pulpit, the prophet continued. She talked about the church’s functional if not outright hatred of gays and lesbians. She told them about her friend who committed suicide because of being bullied for being too effeminate.

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. He ate with the outcast and sinner. He loved all people but called out those who used their power to hurt others. Others like her now dead friend.

She talked about the inconsistency between the country’s war policy and the teachings of Jesus.

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. Why, she asked her faith mentors are you not speaking out for a better way?

She talked about drugs and alcohol. She talked about how she and her friends had easy access to drugs a block away from their school. Why, she asked, is the church silent when her friends overdose?

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. 

She talked about her friend who was sleeping around with boys because she didn’t have the kind of love from her parents that she deserved. Where is the church?

That, the teenage prophet said, is not imitating Christ. 

She challenged those who had raised her in the faith to be consistent. “Open your eyes and hearts,” she said, “you’ve failed too many of my generation.” With a determined look on her face and a tear welling up in her eye, she sat down.

The sanctuary was silent. The sanctuary was silent and though it was not in the church bulletin, the pastor stood up to speak.

“We’ve heard some hard words this morning. We’ve heard some words we’re not used to hearing in church but we need to listen and we need to act.”

Nothing significant changed. Now thirty years old, that teenage prophet is no longer a churchgoer.

***

Hear Paul’s words to the church at Philippi:

Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Phil. 3:17-18 CEB

Imprisoned, most likely in Rome, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. From a prison cell in Rome, where he would be awaiting his last appeal, something he was entitled to as a Roman citizen, Paul wrote to his beloved friends, the Philippians. The Philippi United Church of Christ was a church that had supported Paul’s ministry, probably on an ongoing basis. By all accounts they were a “good church” and a “successful church.” They were growing slowly but steadily.

In the middle of the first century, five decades after Jesus, Philippi was not the biggest city in its district. However, it wasn’t just a part of the Roman empire either. It was a Roman colony. This meant that its citizens had “great privileges…enjoy[ing] considerable property and legal rights.” (New Interpreters Bible, p. 470) Because the Philippi UCC was in a colony, its members would’ve been Roman citizens themselves. Their Roman citizenship would have been a point of pride and something of value to protect.

The still-young Philippian church of the mid-first century existed in a time when being a Christian was far from easy, however. The Roman gods and Roman values were dominant among the faithful of the city. Though different religious groups were tolerated by the dominant Roman cult and Christians didn’t have to worry about outright persecution, it didn’t mean all groups received equal respect.

At least one scholar contends the religious culture in Philippi was syncretic, meaning people were accustomed to picking a little of this from one religion and a little of that from another religion to meet their own tastes… And in the process avoiding the hard things that God demands of them in any of the religions.

Imagine striving to grow a church community in a culture of instant gratification, pain avoidance, and anything goes when your church is about loving sacrifice and sharing of resources.

For the Philippians in a Roman colony, there was a constant tension between the values of following Jesus and a culture with contrary, sometimes even hedonistic, values. And many in the church undoubtedly were tempted, as Jesus was in the wilderness, to compromise. To take the easy path.

And so, the apostle Paul writes to affirm and warn the struggling Philippians,

As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. Phil. 3: 18-20 CEB

Imagine striving to educate your young and attract members in a time when the culture teaches values contrary to those of your faith. When the culture is filled with those Paul calls “enemies of the cross.”

***

Can you? Can you imagine striving to educate our young and attract members to the Condon UCC when the culture teaches values contrary to those of Jesus the Christ? When even some other churches teach adherence to dogmas that exclude and lead to hatred of “the least of these”?

It seems to me that though Christianity is still the dominant religion in our time, secularism and capitalism and individualism have far more sway over our children than the church does. Sadly, our culture reflects a faith in acquisition more than in sharing. In winning more than in being community. While we all believe in hard work, some in our culture take that to an extreme anti-biblical position. They suggest the survival of the fittest and rugged individualism when our upside down Savior teaches that the meek shall inherit the earth and that peacemakers are called children of God.

***

The teenaged prophet challenged those who had raised her in the faith to be consistent. “Open your eyes and hearts,” she said, “you’ve failed too many of my generation.” With a determined look on her face and a tear welling up in her eye, she sat down.

The sanctuary was silent. And nothing significant changed. Now thirty years old, that teenage prophet is no longer a churchgoer.

***

What are we to do? We live in an era when fewer and fewer people are members of a church. According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census released last year, 80% of Americans claim to be Christian but less than 49% are members of any congregation. In Portland only 36% are attached to a religious body be it Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian. Many media outlets called Portland the least religious city in the country, based upon this data.

But what about us? What about Condon? Well, of the people in Gilliam county only 26% are attached to a religious body. Twenty-six percent! That means three-quarter of the people in this county are without a faith community. We live in a time when the church of our youth is but a shadow of what it once was.

And despite prophets that have cried out to us for decades we keep doing the same things. We keep waiting for people to come back through the door. We think theologically shallow music or flashy screens will recreate the crowds of the 1950s. And, while good music and technology can be important tools in doing Christ’s work, they are not the answer in and of themselves.

Neither is offering a simplistic faith without obligation. Our faith is a sacrificial faith. It is one in which we are called to joyfully give up the earthly for our citizenship in the realm of God that began to unfold with Jesus.

Hear the words of the apostle Paul,

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil. 3:20 CEB)

And, so, when we offer an easy or simplistic faith, we are not offering Christ. We’re offering something else. And why do we do it? Well, I suspect we think expecting little is the way to increase numbers. And, you know, a good number of churches have successfully grown in number with easy answers.

But our calling is not to fill pews. It’s not even to save the institution called Condon United Church of Christ. We’re called to make disciples. We’re called to spread the Good News of the One who breathed in the Divine, and breathed out extravagant love. A love so powerful that it can and does overcome death.

Dietrich Bonhoefer, a theologian writing as the German churches failed to stand up to the Nazis called this kind of faith, “cheap grace.” Writes Bonhoefer,

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Dietrich Bonhoefer in The Cost of Discipleship)

Our faith is a faith in which we think about the whole community not only ourselves. Following Jesus means self-care and other-care. Remember, our Savior told us to love others AS ourselves not more than ourselves.

Following Jesus means leaving these walls and being Christ’s loving arms, hands of justice, and feet of action in the world as a response to the love that overcomes death.

***

So what do we do? Well, as I’ve said once or twice, we need to pray. We need to pray as individuals every single day. And we need to ask, what God wills us to do in this time and place. We need to prayerfully read our Bibles regularly seeking the still-speaking voice. We need to worship together as community because our faith is not a solitary act. And while I can’t say when you will hear God’s voice or how God’s voice will manifest to you, I know God will respond. Our God is a dependable God.

But what do we do?  For now, as we journey toward Easter we need to get into the habits of daily prayer, of Bible reading, and regular worship as community. Then, sometime after Easter we need to gather as community. We need to gather in retreat. We need to pray together, read scripture together, and plan together with the Holy Spirit.

We need to be open to the transformation promised by our God. If our God’s love is so abundant and so extravagant that it can overcome death  than God certainly will lead us to a transformation in this time and place.

Hear the words of the apostle Paul,

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord. (Phil. 3: 20-4:1 CEB)

Heroic Wife Kills Dust Bunny

Mosier, Oregon—Despite differences of opinion with her husband about killing bugs, an Oregon chaplain hunted down a long-legged creature. What she captured and killed turned out to be something very different. The chaplain’s husband witnessed his wife capture a dust bunny in a tissue. 

Said the husband, “I was nagging her to leave the poor bug alone as she reached for a tissue. She defended herself by telling me it wasn’t an ant, that ‘it’s one of those multi-leg things that freak us out.’ Of course I had the last laugh.” 

The wife captured the invading creature only to discover it was a dust bunny. Just lint. She said of the experience, “I wasn’t impressed by Tim’s sarcastic remark about feeling safer. Maybe he should sweep the bedroom more often!”

***

Not everything is what it first seems to be. Not every perceived threat is real. Like interracial marriage before it, marriage equality for LGBTQ peoples is one of those dust bunnies. It will not harm my marriage of nearly thirty-three years. It will not result in the crumbling of western culture or spur God’s fiery vengeance on America.

We are presented with choices every day of our lives. Will we respond to others out of love or will respond out of fear and hatred? I choose love. God will undoubtedly hold me accountable for many failures and sins. I am very human. I am convinced, however, that acting out of love will not be one of those sins.

The Rainbow of Humanity

When you say that marriage is only for one man & one woman, that who someone loves is a sin, or to wait for justice, I think you must know a different God than I do. When you say these things I hear that in your eyes, my family, my friends, my most beloved in Creation are somehow not worthy of God’s love. Well, I’m here to tell you I worship a God who loves extravagantly. I worship the One who is love. I worship the One who created the rainbow of humanity in all its diversity and promise.

Hospitality & Resurrection (The Truth about Sodom & Gomorrah)

I preached this sermon at Hood River Valley Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on May 20, 2012. The scripture lesson is Genesis 19: 1-25

Our friends didn’t always appreciate our sense of humor. I remember one particular evening at the IHOP when the rest of the group moved to another table because the two of us – supposedly – were giggling too much. Bill had that effect on me. We were best friends. We were in high school. That meant it was his job to get me to snort my soda. 

At the end of the evening, I pulled into his driveway and turned off the car. We always talked one-on-one at the end of an evening with our friends. Our giggles out, the tone would become more serious. As two young men growing up in the late seventies, this is when we talked about girls, about our families, and about all the things that mattered most to us.

***

We all have that relative who we love dearly. You know the one who’s a good person but always seems to find trouble? (My brother had some years like that.) You just wish Uncle Joe or cousin Millie would live up to their potential. You just wish they’d stop making bad choices, sabotaging themselves, and hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Lot seems to be that relative for our patriarch Abraham. He’s a good guy. He wants to do right by God. He really tries but somehow he always finds trouble.

***

So, before our reading begins today, Abraham is walking with God and God’s two messengers — the NRSV describes them as angels –though that’s not a perfect translation. Messenger, still not a perfect translation, seems to fit their role in this story better. 

Now, this is after God’s bombshell visit to Hebron, a visit in which the righteousness of Abraham and Sarah is evident in their hospitality. This is immediately after that bombshell visit in which God tells Abraham and Sarah that, despite Sarah’s old age, she’s going to have a baby. 

So God, perhaps sensitive to the enormity of the news just dropped on the elderly Abraham, debates whether to discuss with him what’s next on the agenda. Ultimately, though, God decides, to tell Abraham.

“I must go down” to Sodom, God tells Abraham, “and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” (Genesis 18: 21 NRSV)

I can imagine Abraham rolling his eyes. I would if I were him. Not out of disrespect to God but because Lot had found trouble…again. Lot has fallen in with a bad crowd. He’s moved to the plains, to Sodom. That place that, according to Ezekiel 16, had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things.” (Ezekiel 16: 49b-50a NRSV)

Abraham intercedes on Lot’s behalf. He barters with God, what if there are 50 good men, will you save the towns? Of course, Abraham probably expects God to offer a higher number. Maybe 100 good men? As some commentators have suggested, however, God surprises even Abraham with his mercy. 

God does not want to punish the righteous with the wicked. 

***

And so we arrive in Sodom in the evening along with God’s messengers. What happens next is familiar in our culture, at least vaguely. Even if you’ve never read Genesis, you’ve probably heard about Sodom and Gomorrah. As told in secular and in many church settings, this is the story of a God who punishes two cities because of their evil ways. 

God gives up on their ability to change or transform. Evil now, evil always. No resurrections. 

In this interpretation God rains fire on Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexual acts. This ferocious god — fed up by the disobedience of the townsfolk — saved Lot and his two daughters only because Abraham interceded on their behalf. As a result of this we even use the term sodomy and Sodomite to refer to a kind of sexual behavior and those who engage in it.

Of course, the problem with allowing the secular culture to interpret the Bible for us is that we miss the nuance. We miss hearing God’s loving voice. We fail to allow the Holy Spirit to envelope us and guide us. Our sacred text must be read and studied prayerfully or we will be led astray. 

Perhaps even turning its meaning on its head.

***

Imagine Lot…

I remember that evening well. The sun was setting when I noticed the two men near the town gate. Why had no one offered to put these strangers up for the night?  

Well, I know what my kin Abraham would do; he would offer hospitality.  Like Abraham, I love our Lord, the maker of all that we see, the one who led our people out of Egypt, the one worthy of our worship. 

And, so, I did what my God requires, I approached the two strangers and offered to put them up for the night. At first they hesitated but I insisted. They were strangers and didn’t know how hostile this town could be to those from the outside. As an immigrant myself, a resident alien with some rights, they still reminded me from time to time when I got too “uppity” that I wasn’t “from around here.” 

So, I brought the strangers home and made them a feast! We were lingering over coffee and my wife’s famous cherry pie when I heard the commotion outside. There were so many of them! Sounded like the whole town. They called to me, “Lot! Lot! LO-OT!”  They were getting louder. 

“Give us those strangers! They don’t belong here. They probably don’t even speak English!” I feared they wanted to dehumanize my guests…rape them…treat them as women. I hoped my guests had not heard their hateful words because it was my job as host to protect my guests.

I went to the door. My guests followed and closed the door behind me. I stood on the front stoop and looked at the townsfolk. They were ticked —  no, worse than that — they were in a frenzy of hatred and hostility. Some of ‘em had been drinking. It really was the whole town at my door. 

So, I put on my most charming voice, my most respectful voice,“I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly,” I said. And, though I’m ashamed to admit it, I offered them my daughters. It was horrible to do so, but I am under an oath sworn to God to protect the vulnerable, the stranger. Hospitality is just that important.

Fortunately for my daughters, the townsfolk were too intent on the foreigners to take me up on the offer. They weren’t trying to satiate their sexual desires; they wanted to inflict their evil on the outsiders!  And now I had just enraged them even more. They reminded me that I wasn’t one of them, either — that I was an alien, an immigrant –and they were prepared to do even worse to me! 

I had failed in my duties of hospitality when the two men had to protect me. They pulled me inside and — somehow? — blinded all of the wicked townspeople so that they could not find the door.

***

I don’t know about you but I get angry when our sacred text is used as a weapon. The Bible is a powerful testament of our ancient kindred’s experience of the Divine. When it is used for hatred, stumbling blocks are put before people. 

Recent surveys have shown that those under 30 associate Christianity with hatred. Is it really any wonder… when we let the media and the secular culture define us and interpret Jesus? Jesus: our upside down savior? We let the voice of abundant love that overcomes death be drowned out by those who don’t study the Bible prayerfully and thoughtfully.

According to the U.S. Religion Census released on May first, Portland — our Portland — is the least religious city in the country. Religious is defined as having an affiliation, even marginally, with a religious body of some kind. Only 32% of Portlanders are connected to a church, mosque, or synagogue. We’re not much better. In Hood River County only 38.4% of people are associated — even slightly — with a religious body. 

We’re failing to teach the loving core of our faith. We’re failing to teach the Bible and make it relevant to the twenty-first century. We’ve allowed the secular culture to limit God’s extravagant love. In the case of the narrative of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we’ve allowed others to tell people that it is a story of punishment for homosexuality. 

It is not. 

This is a story that reveals the truth about the importance of hospitality to the stranger, to those who are not like us. As Disciple scholar Rick Lowery puts it, this narrative is a reminder that, “When you declare war on the poor and the vulnerable, you declare war on YHWH,” on God. We should all be appalled that one of the stories of our faith has been used for hatred when it is about the importance of love. When it is about radical hospitality.

Jesus himself referred to the meaning of this story in the tenth chapter of Matthew. As he sent the apostles out to teach, Jesus said, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10: 14-15 NRSV)

*** 

College came and I went away to school. On my weekends home from college, our friends would still gather. And Bill and I would still end the evening in his driveway.

It was in Bill’s driveway that he told me about the girls he dated, and how it never seemed to last. It was in Bill’s driveway that I first told him about the girl in the college cafeteria. The one with whom I flirted — religiously — after every meal. It was in his driveway that I would later ask him to be my best man.

One weekend home from college we pulled into Bill’s driveway. This night, Bill stammered and hesitated. His nervousness — his fear? — filled the car. Eventually, he got out what he wanted to say to me. Bill came out to me. My best friend told me he was gay.

It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that a best friend’s love is unconditional. It didn’t matter to our friendship. 

It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that I grew up in the church. Heck, I was born in the Disciples of Christ’s Vatican City. I was ushered into life in Indianapolis where my dad served Speedway Christian Church.

I threw paper airplanes made from church bulletins off the balcony at First Christian Church in Salem. I went on hay rides on a Missouri farm with the youth group. I went with my grandfather — who wore his perfect attendance pin — to the Disciple church in Irvine, Kentucky. I gave my Good Confession at a storefront Disciples church on Palm Sunday because I know a god who loves all of God’s people extravagantly. 

And, so, I accepted my friend for who he was because that is what Jesus taught me.

AMEN.

Guest Post: Pushing the Gospel

The following is a guest post from my wife, the Rev. Magdalyn Sebastian. It was originally published as part of the GLAD (Gay, Lesbian, & Affirming Disciples) Easter Writing Project. GLAD is an advocacy group within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

As a straight woman, I get mistaken for gay a lot.  When I was in the museum field, I was a member of the Alliance for Gays and Lesbians in the American Association of Museums.  One year I went to their breakfast meeting and “my pals” at my table made me stand to give our collective feedback on an issue. That evening I had two women try to ask me out and although very flattered, I thought “why does everyone assume?”

Years later, a woman in seminary told me she thought I was a lesbian because I had short hair.  Really? Years after that (I’m getting old) a gay woman in the congregation I served invited a friend to church describing me, her pastor, as “you’d think she’s one of ‘the family’ but she’s not.”  I have a personal investment in the church being Open and Affirming.

While in seminary, I served a church in upstate New York that had previously been served for over 24 consecutive years by gay men.  Before seminary, when I was “just a member,” my anger boiled when I saw the humiliation my pastor endured by “pretending” to be straight.  Most of the people in the congregation knew he was gay, but it was a charade that they played to make the congregants feel more comfortable.  “Let’s pretend Woody is just a bachelor.” After his retirement, I pastored the congregation while in school.  Almost four years later and two weeks after they ordained me, I was told to hit the road.  While I think the major reason was my stand on the war, I knew in part it was because I pushed on “the gay issue.”

The church I served in West Virginia welcomed gays and lesbians – up to a point.  They were more comfortable if no one mentioned the word ‘gay’ or acknowledged that we had same-sex couples in the congregation.  However, something about the ethos of the congregation allowed the GBLTQ community to feel relatively safe. Cool. The GBLTQ folks who came into the church were the best evangelists in the congregation, once joking with me, “Hey Mag,  we’re on our second pew!”

But the push back on “the gay issue” eventually came. It forced the elders to do the Listening to the Spirit study which I thought went well.  Unfortunately, I never could get a group of the most vocal anti-gay congregants to engage in the same study. Blow ups about a lesbian couple teaching Sunday school and a lesbian preaching in my absence eventually helped push me into counseling and anti-depressants.

In the end, among my other “sins” on a list of complaints handed to me, the “gay issue” was the one that no one would let go of.  “You know they call us the Gay church in town!”  Personally, I was thrilled but, ultimately, I resigned.  I wanted to leave while I still loved them.  Knowing that the following summer we planned to move to the Northwest made it easier as well.  I left without a job in hand, trusting that God’s love would get us through and extravagant Divine love did.

Wisdom.  Speaking out for inclusion and justice is hard, hard work that must be done.  We who have taken sacred vows to preach the Gospel and conduct ourselves in ethical ways must speak with prophetic voices and be braced to be hurt, angry, and sometimes unemployed, because every time we push a little harder, the conversation moves a little further.

The church I served in West Virginia is not the same congregation as when I was called to it almost eight years ago.  An openly gay man served as deacon without incident during my last year.  Even as frightened as some were when I resigned (“what if the new pastor hates us”), most of the GBLTQ community in the congregation are still active members. Thank you, Lord.

Challenge.  When we moved to the Northwest, the place where we found the most welcome and the presence of the Holy Spirit was not a Disciple congregation.  It was the Portland Metropolitan Community Church where each Sunday we were met with extravagant love.  Where each Sunday, as we came forward for communion, someone prayed for us individually after we partook.  We were the only straight couple in the room most Sundays and no one cared two shakes about our sexual orientation.

Now, we have not jumped ship.  I am a member of a lovely Disciple congregation in the Columbia Gorge where we moved to ultimately.  As lovely as they are, I long for Sundays when we can drive the 60 miles to feel unconditionally welcomed and loved by my other church family at MCC.  Where I am greeted with hugs by people that a large part of “the church” would condemn out of hand.  My MCC family doesn’t care if I’m straight.  They just love me.

Shouldn’t every Disciple church strive for the same – to love everyone no matter if they are gay, straight, transgendered, queer, lesbian, or questioning?  Isn’t that the gospel message?

 ***

Rev. Magdalyn Sebastian is a Clinical Chaplain at Providence Hood RIver Memorial Hospital.  She and her husband, Tim Graves, live in Mosier, OR where they watch eagles dance and rainbows appear over the Columbia River. Lots and lots of rainbows. She can be reached at maggie@revmother.org  and has a blog: www.revmother.org

Facts Matter

I just finished reading “This Is What I Think: Traditional Marriage Perverts the Tradition of Marriage
http://goo.gl/yMsk

I am reminded after reading this blog post from 2008 regarding the historical facts about marriage, that the political discourse we are all subjected to by the media’s reporting is about opinions. Facts have no place in what we are often expected to swallow. How often are Democrats or Republicans or someone else challenged for stating a blatant untruth by the reporter? Why do the old media outlets emphasize two sides to every issue when life is so much more complicated than that?

Facts matter.
Politicians of all political stripes schmooze, distort, and outright lie at times. Most of us realize and expect that to be the case. Much of what passes for our protectors within the old media, the folks who used to do investigative reporting and fact-checking, either no longer do so or they fail to share it with us. (Yes, there are some exceptions of good reporting available but I’m ranting here.)

It seems to me that in the current environment if a politician said the sky was really green, he or she would be given equal time with an opposing politician who stated that no, the sky is indeed blue. Both positions do not deserve equal time because one is factual correct and the other is not. The facts can and should be independently investigated by our media.

Sadly, we have significant challenges facing us in this country and this world and we should know what the facts are as we seek to determine how to respond. Alas, until we stop feeding the media outlets that give us opinions rather than facts, I fear we will continue to be polarized as a nation.

OK, my rant is over.