Real-izing How Inclusive God Is

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday of Easter + April 29, 2018

Reading: Acts 8:26-40


We’re going to start off today with a little interactive sermon time. But those of you who are on the shy side: don’t worry, I won’t make you talk to anybody. All I’m asking you to do is get in touch with all the memories of Bible stories you have stored up in your brain. Think back through whatever ways you have learned the stories of our scriptures: Sunday school and Bible studies; sermons and your own reading; Jesus Christ Superstar and flannel boards and references in Bob Dylan songs. OK, now I’m going to give you a little Bible trivia quiz — but again, don’t worry, you’ll only be answering in your own head, and nobody’s keeping score. And none of these are trick questions: each one really does have an answer. Ready?

Think of a Bible story with a character who is really, really old.

Think of a Bible story with a character who is really young.

Think of a time the Bible talks about someone who is grieving.

About someone who is poor?

Someone who is rich?

About someone who is African?

About an immigrant?

About someone who can’t have children? Or someone who chooses not to have children?

About someone who is in prison?

About someone who has a lot of doubt?

About someone who feels like they aren’t up to the job they are given?

About someone who feels like they don’t fit in?

About someone who feels like they failed?

Given enough time, and access to experts or Bible dictionaries or Google, we can find a Bible reference to just about any life circumstance — so long as that circumstance also existed when the Bible was written. No Bible stories about misplacing your cell phone and having no one else around to call it for you so you can find it. But for all the really important, timeless things humans go through — things like loss and hopelessness and joy and hunger and wonder; even things like poverty and flawed government — we can find something in the Bible that speaks to that situation. We can find an example of a time that what we’re going through now has been on God’s radar in the past. And that can help us feel like we are on God’s radar now.

It doesn’t always feel like that carries over into the church, though. We might visit a different congregation on a Sunday morning, look around, and immediately feel like: There is no place for me here. Everyone else looks like part of a family, and I’m here by myself. Or, It looks like everyone here can afford to dress much better than I can. Some people might not come to church at all because they feel like — based on the church’s reputation, fair or unfair though it may be — that they don’t have the political beliefs or scientific beliefs or total lack of doubt in God’s existence or the infallibility of the Bible that the church requires. It’s often easy to feel like we have to fit a certain mold to even walk through the doors of a church.

And sometimes the church says more explicitly, “People like you aren’t welcome here.” Today in the United States we still have “white churches” and “black churches” — both as individual congregations and as entire denominations — because for so long in American history African-Americans were told “you can’t worship with us,” or, “you can sit in the pews, but you can’t be a leader here,” or “if you are here, the preaching will tell you that slavery or segregation are the way God wants things to be.”

Many of my friends who are gay look for churches that say explicitly that they are welcome in worship, because experience has made them assume that most churches will reject them – sometimes in hostile ways. Some of my female friends who felt a call to ministry have had to leave denominations where they were not allowed to preach or teach. Families with children with mental or physical disabilities might wonder if they will be welcomed or gawked at it, if sudden outbursts will be tolerated, if special needs will be met or just met with frustration. The church is often not nearly as inclusive as the Bible.

The Bible paints us a picture of God’s Kingdom: where poor and rich have dinner together; where the powerful genuinely care for the lowly; where people who have disabilities are vital parts of the community; where the people society calls “sinners” and people society calls “saints” are recognized as equals; where people of all nations and cultures are gathered together into one People of God. It’s a radical vision for the Church to try again and again to get closer and closer to embodying in our own communities. It’s a vision we have to work actively to keep in our minds and to live out in our lives, because if we are not actively working at it, we will slip into existing just like the world around us.

The biblical writer we call Luke — who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts — focused on helping his readers keep the radical, inclusive vision of God’s Kingdom alive in their minds and in their lives. He was always trying to drive home that God’s work included even more people than we would think to include on our own.

Luke emphasizes, even more than the other gospels, Jesus’s care for the poor and the sick and the sinful and the outcast, and Jesus’s teaching that his disciples should do the same. Luke mentions the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry more often than the other gospels. And then in the book of Acts, that same writer tells the story of how the Holy Spirit broke through the Church’s original boundaries; where at first people had thought the Jesus movement was meant for observant Jews, the book of Acts tells story after story of God moving to include people of other nations and religious backgrounds.

This special emphasis of Luke’s, this emphasis on how God’s mission keeps reaching out past human expectations and social boundaries and religious regulations and national borders — this is probably why he included the story we read earlier this morning, where Philip the Apostle is sent to a eunuch from Ethiopia, and this man is so moved by the story of Jesus that he asks to be baptized immediately.

ethiopianbaptism

Stained glass window depicting the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Hendersonville, TN

This one, brief story tells us so much about how far the Holy Spirit expanding the Church. For one thing, first-century Mediterranean people would have thought of Ethiopia as the southernmost edge of their world, so this story shows how the disciples are doing what Jesus said, spreading the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).[1] But this Ethiopian eunuch also represents a number of groups of people who have been left out of church life — both then and now.

This man was a foreigner, even working for a foreign government. Being Ethiopian, he was probably black-skinned. Because he was reading the book of Isaiah and had traveled to Jerusalem to worship, there’s a good chance that he was Jewish, though it is also possible that he was a seeker, someone curious about other religions, and had come from a different religious background himself. And the fact that he was called a “eunuch” opens up a huge range of possibilities: he may have been a slave or an ex-slave, as many eunuchs were in the ancient world. And as a eunuch – a man who had been castrated — he definitely didn’t fit the gender norms of his day, probably being seen as not-exactly-male, not a “full man,” unable to have children and pass on an inheritance – which was perhaps an even bigger deal back then that it is now.[2] He would have been an outsider to the early Church in so many ways, and he would still be an outsider in most parts of the Church today, and yet it seems the Holy Spirit went out of her way to include him in the spreading of the gospel.

Many people who see themselves as outsiders in the eyes of the Church hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and find themselves included in the mission of God, welcomed into God’s Kingdom.

Lutheran churches hold that the Bible is the “source and norm” for our faith and our life together. Sometimes we have a tendency of taking that in a pretty legalistic direction, focusing on figuring out the “do”s and “don’t”s the Bible lays out for our behavior and our beliefs, and — quite frankly — focusing on what that says about who and what is “out” of the Church life.

But the Bible is more than just laws and teachings. It is also a record of God’s promises to all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, a record of God’s love for imperfect people, and a library of teachings and stories about how God’s mission keeps breaking down human boundaries to include more and more people in the Kingdom of God.

And if that is the “source and norm” for our life together — then we should also be paying attention to God’s promises to the poor, the sick, the people who don’t fit our social norms, the immigrant, the widow, the uneducated, the sinner-with-a-capital-S, and all sorts of people we may not think of in our day-to-day lives, and striving to make those promises come alive in our community. Striving to help all sorts of people see that there is a place for them in God’s Kingdom and here in the Church, and striving to help them figure out that place.

And if the Bible is the “source and norm” for our lives as individuals — that means that when the Church fails us, when we feel left out or unwelcome or unforgiven, we can always turn to scripture to find the story of how God is reaching out to call us in to God’s grace, and God’s transforming Spirit, and the mission of God’s Kingdom.

Let us pray.

God of all people: help us to see your Spirit at work even in the places we least expect, even among the people we least expect. Sometimes, when we don’t feel good enough or right enough, that unexpected place is our own lives. In those times help us to hear your word of grace and welcome anew. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.


[1] Demetrius K. Williams, “The Acts of the Apostles,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 226.

[2] Sean D. Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013). Introduction available online.

Advertisements

Weave us Together

Written for the Women of the ELCA Spring Cluster meeting, March 12, 2016, hosted by St. Andrew Lutheran Church

 “I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery.” –Colossians 2:2, The Message


 

If someone asked you, “What is the story of the New Testament?” what would you say?

The obvious answer is that it is the story of Jesus Christ and his first followers. The gospels tell versions of the story of who Jesus was and what he did. The Acts of the Apostles and the letters tell the story of how his followers told the story of Jesus to others, how they built the church, and struggled to figure out how to be the church.

But as I thought about our theme for this retreat — “Weave Us Together” — I began to realize that that phrase could be another way of describing the New Testament. Throughout the New Testament we see God working to weave us together. We see Christians coming to grips with the reality that they are woven together – whether they like it or not.

In Jesus Christ himself, God weaves humanity and divinity together. And Jesus tried to get us to see that we are woven together with God: that God draws close to us.

Jesus also tried to get people to see that humans are all woven together. He ate with outsiders and sinners that everyone else rejected. He healed lepers and weaved them back into the community. He told people that even those who hated them or hurt them were woven together with them, and they ought to live out that truth: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). In the Gospel of John especially we see that Jesus promoted radical togetherness among his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said over and over at his last supper with them (Jn 13:34; 15:12).

In the book of Acts we can see how the early Church struggled with just who is woven together in the name of Jesus Christ. One of the main struggles was about whether non-Jewish people (whom the Jews called Gentiles) could join the church without first becoming Jews. Did they have to obey Jewish laws? Did they have to take on Jewish customs? And the most talked-about question was: Did the men have to get circumcised — the sign of being part of God’s covenant (Gen. 17:1-14)?

The church was still a very Jewish movement in the time of the New Testament, but the Holy Spirit came to Gentiles, too. For many early Christians the thought of Jewish people being woven together with non-Jews was unbearable. The Jews had struggled for centuries to maintain their identity, separate from the other cultures that moved in on them. So when Gentiles started being baptized and eating with Jewish believers, many controversies ensued (see for example Acts 10-11 & 15).

But for many early Christians, the argument boiled down to the fact that God was already welcoming Gentiles into the Body of Christ. Simon Peter saw that the Holy Spirit had come on the Gentiles; they were speaking in tongues and praising God – even before they’d been baptized (Acts 10:44-48)! So he said to the critics, “If then God gave them [the gift of the Holy Spirit], the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17). Peter, and many others, accepted the Gentiles not because they wanted to, but because they saw that God had already woven them together with the Jewish believers.

Most of the rest of the New Testament is made up of letters written to early Christian communities. These letters encouraged the communities in their faith, taught them, helped set them on the right path. And many of these letters include reminders that Christians are woven together in a radical new way, even across the usual social boundaries of religion and class and gender.

Paul was especially passionate about the unity of the church. He waxed poetic about it; he made persuasive arguments; sometimes he even seems like he’s yelling through the words on the page. For Paul, unity and equality were some of the most important parts of life in the church.

Almost all his letters contain some kind of exhortation to greater unity; over and over he tried to get people to recognize that God had woven them together, and to live like it. Often he tackled the old conundrum about welcoming in the Gentiles (see Galatians, for example). Other times he tackled class issues, like when he came down hard on the Corinthian Christians for leaving out the poor among them (1 Cor. 11:17-34). In his letter to the Colossians — which our verse of the day comes from — he stood against people who claimed they were closer to Christ because they have had visions and special knowledge and because they kept special religious practices (Col. 2:16-19). That’s not right, Paul said. Christ died; Christ was raised. All Christians were baptized into that death and resurrection, and we are all woven together with Christ in our baptism. Period. End of discussion.

The way he stated that message transgressed all social boundaries: religious, ethnic, behavior differences, social class. “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, [savage], slave and free; but Christ is all in all!” (Col. 3:11).

One of the main stories shared by the entire New Testament is the story of God weaving more and more people together into the family of God. God weaves people together despite all the things of the world that try to separate them: social norms, personal preferences, culture, even the law.

It was not easy for those early Christians. There was conflict. Many people were offended. Many were uncomfortable. Many were resentful. A lot of the time the church continued to fail at living out its God-given unity. But when the church people showed how God had woven them together: when women were seen as equal with men, when slaves were seen as equal with their masters; when Gentiles and Jews fellowshipped with one another; when the poor were given a seat at the table of the rich; then the church became a radical sign of God’s love.

Two-thousand years later, it’s still not easy for Christians to acknowledge how we are woven together. We still like to imagine that our boundaries are also God’s boundaries, that God works within our system. We like to think that we know and understand what God wants…even when the Holy Spirit seems to be working in new and even transgressive ways…as it always has.

12657827_10153406663393603_158489286836056959_o

Since this is an election year, our divisions are cut extra-deep. We are encouraged with every news clip to see that group as stupid; that group as immoral; that group as dangerous; that group as second-class citizens. But the politicians and pundits never stop to invite us to ask how God sees all those people, and that is what should matter most to Christians. How does God see Republicans? How does God see Democrats? How does God see Black protestors and Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees? How does God see each of us?

As Lutherans, our answer has to be: God sees us all with grace. As believers in the Bible, our answer has to be: God’s desire is to weave all of us together.

The message “Weave Us Together,” sounds so simple at first, like something everybody can get behind. (“Yay, unity!”) But when we turn from the news coverage and the talking heads to the message of the New Testament, we can see just how radical that message still is. We see that to profess our faith that God weaves us together across all of society’s boundaries is to take a powerful stand against the ways of the world; it is a rebellion.

It is a calling from God that can be hard to bear. Do we dare take a stand for unity in a world that thinks division is necessary for survival?

But imagine it with me: A community where all different kinds of people are woven together. People from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, people with different skin tones, people with different accents and dialects, people with no money and people with lots of money, people with different political views, people with disabilities, people with scars (inside and out) — all joined together in Christ, worshiping with one another, praying together, visiting one another in the hospital, gathering around the table together.

That is the radical sign that God calls the church to be. That is how God desires to weave us together.

Let us pray: Holy God, creator of all people and all the world, Weave us together into a tapestry of love. Help us to see one another as you see us and to love one another as you love us. Make us into a visible sign of your amazing grace for all the world to see. Amen.

Reflections on the Charleston Shooting

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fifth Sunday in Pentecost + June 28, 2015

Texts: 2 Sam. 1:1, 17-27; 2 Cor. 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

This Wednesday Presiding Bishop Eaton asked all ELCA congregations to set apart today’s worship as day of mourning and repentance. She calls us all to reflect on the shooting of nine of our sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel AME Church, to reflect on our culture, to repent of the ways our society still makes it so easy to treat people of color as though they were a lesser sort of people.

When we talk about these things, we often use the word “equality.” The Declaration of Independence stated “all men are created equal.” Since then many, many groups have fought to make these words into a reality that we all can feel.

St. Paul wrote over and over about our equality in Christ. We just heard one example of this in our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. But the equality Paul described there is not exactly like our usual visions of equality: He did not write, “We must all have equal opportunities,” or  “We must all be treated equally,” or even “God made us all equal.” He wasn’t writing, here, about a fundamental inner equality that we must all recognize — though he did write about that in other places (ex. Gal. 3:28; Phm. 1:15-16). Here, he wrote about our differences and our stewardship of those differences. He encouraged the Corinthians to use their differences in light of their faith that all people are equal in Christ.

Paul’s words are a good guide for us as we reflect on the shooting at Mother Emanuel. We offer some justice to the dead and to those who mourn them when we recognize that there are still differences between people who are black and people who are white in this country. We offer justice when we think about how we can be good stewards of these differences.

In this instance Paul was writing specifically about stewardship of money. He was in the process of gathering an offering for the church in Jerusalem, and he sent Titus to the Corinthian church to gather their donations (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-6). But Paul did not simply ask for money for the church in need; he wrote about why this sort of giving is a necessary part of the Christian life. We might say that today’s reading is his “stewardship drive sermon.”

For Paul, sharing what we have with those in need was just part of living in God’s grace. Take a look at today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. You won’t find the word “grace” printed there in some of the translations. But in the original Greek, the word that means grace — charis — is there. Twice. The first time is towards the end of verse seven: “so we want you to excel also in this grace.” Meaning, this grace of giving to those in need. And it appears again in verse nine: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

You can be a part of the work of Jesus Christ, Paul said to the Corinthians. You can be a part of the action of God’s grace, here and now. All that is needed is good stewardship of what you have been given.

This is where equality comes in. Or, as it says in the NRSV, “fair balance.” For though we are all equal in Christ, the reality of this world is that we are not the same. Some have more than they need, while others live in great need. God gives us the opportunity to sacrifice our abundance to the need of others, just as Jesus sacrificed all the riches and power of being God to meet our need for grace. God gives us the opportunity to balance out the economy of abundance and need so that all have enough. That is the state of equality Paul dreamed of: the use of what we have in response to God’s grace so that all have enough. Good, grace-full stewardship.

We are stewards of much more than our money. We are stewards of all that God has given us: our time, our talents, our words, our whole lives. This morning, we look at our lives through the tragedy in Charleston, and our hearts focus in on other areas of our stewardship.

Over all, let us remember that we are now the stewards of the shooting, of the moment when nine lives were taken. We are the stewards of their deaths. We are the stewards of their memories. We are the stewards of the way this story will be told. We are responsible for whether it will be an isolated tragedy, committed by a single man with his own ideas, or whether it will be a meaningful event, a call to change. We are responsible for whether that horrible moment will be a forgotten tombstone or a patch of ground from which something grows. We are responsible for whether they died in vain.

One way for us to be faithful stewards of this tragedy is to reflect on the ways racism is still active in our culture. Pastor Lippard led the way for our reflection in his sermon last Sunday. We must recognize that the experiences of people who are black and people who are white are not the same. People with black skin live their day-to-day lives in a world where they are more likely to get pulled over for going 61 in a 60 zone;[1] where they are less likely to get called in for a job interview;[2] where they are treated differently by real estate agents;[3] where their children come home from school and wish they were a different color; where they are more likely to be looked at with fear; where when another person of color acts badly, it is going to affect people’s opinion of them; and where their experiences of these prejudices are likely to be dismissed.

These cultural trends have a flip side: that flip side is that those of us who are light-skinned benefit in the places where people of color suffer. If a black person is less likely to get called back for a job interview, the necessary flip side is that a white person is more likely to get called back. This is what is meant by “white privilege.” I’m sure I’m not the only white person who gets defensive when I hear that. But these statements are not about whose fault it is that people of color are treated differently, and it’s not a matter of feeling guilty for our privileges. What matters is that these things are true, that there are consistent differences in the lives of black and white Americans, and that we are stewards of these differences. We, personally, did not take our higher place in society by force, but we decide what to do with it. We decide whether to continue a history of hoarding this status for ourselves, or sharing our riches in actions of grace.

To again quote St. Paul: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (NRSV).

Every day God gives us the opportunity to make this vision of equality a reality. Every day God gives us the opportunity to be good stewards, to give of our abundance to God’s continuing work of grace. We can be good stewards of our conversations and of our responses to any racism we hear from others. We can be good stewards of our own thoughts about others, and even our unconscious impulses to treat others differently, unfairly. We can be good stewards of our relationships by actively welcoming those who are different. We can be good stewards of our children and the way they are learning to exist in the world. We can be good stewards of our vote and our political voices. We can be good stewards of our attention by listening to others with an open heart. We can be good stewards of our own hearts by laying down our defenses and opening ourselves to self-reflection and repentance.

In all these things, we can be good stewards of the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ.

In even our smallest movements toward better stewardship of our words and our actions, we are exercising the power of God. Because even the smallest changes we make in response to the shooting of those nine Christians are an expression of Christ’s victory over death. If we are good stewards of their deaths and of their memories, then we are proclaiming the Christian message: “Death is not the end.” Their death will turn to life: not just their eternal life, but new, full life for those still in this world.

When Cain killed Abel, Abel’s blood cried out to God (Gen. 4:10). Now from the floors of Mother Emanuel blood is again crying out, and God raises its call: Join in the victory over sin and death. Let this world hear us proclaim: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).


[1] See Christopher Ingraham’s “You really can get pulled over for driving while black, federal statistics showWashington Post, Sept. 9, 2014 and David A. Harris’s report for the ACLU, “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on our Nation’s Highways,” June 1999

[2] David R. Francis, “Employers’ Replies to Racial Names,” The National Bureau of Economic Research

[3] George Gonzalez, “Racial and Ethnic Minorities Face More Subtle Housing Discrimination,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, June 11, 2013