Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon: "Church at our best"—Luke 15:1-32

For First Congregational Church, Old Greenwich 

What is church when we’re at our best?

There was a time when the church needed to be a “bulwark never failing.” That time… is no longer.

From Goss and West’s book, Take Back the Word:

Jews have long been subject to rejection, torture, and death on the basis of the witness of the New Testament texts; [American Indians], Africans, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders had their lands and cultures ripped away by Christian European colonizers in the name of taking the “Word of God” to the heathens of the world; African Americans were kept in slavery by pious Christians who believed that the Bible’s view that “slaves should obey their masters” justified the abomination of owning another human being; and generations of women have been abused, burned at the stake, subordinated, blocked from education or leadership by men quoting biblical passages as the reason for their religiously legitimated acts of oppression and victimization.

It is inconceivable to me that any morally conscious person who has taken even a few moments to review the history of Christianity’s use of the Bible could fail to feel extreme discomfort in the seemingly easy complicity of the Bible with regimes of violence and death.

Of course, the Bible itself does not kill people; groups of readers of the Bible do that in its name.

And yet, this book remains—must remain—at the center of our Christian faith.

How can we learn about “who we are” and “whose we are” by turning to a scripture that has been so corrupted by our violent forebears?

How can we be faithful to God and to the world… when the world no longer has ears to hear any message that purports to be even remotely “biblical”?

What if we resemble our ancestors more than we care to admit, and we discover that we must confront our own religious violence?

Let us pray.


In my high school years, I was one of those youth who got involved in everything. It doesn’t seem remarkable now, as we have busy kids and busy parents of kids who are identified by the activities in which their children participate.
·       We have soccer moms
·       Coaching dads
·       PFLAG parent
Well, back when I was a youth, it was unusual for high schoolers to get involved in so many activities.

I did debate, speech, drama, orchestra, choir, show choir, Model United Nations, Student-Faculty Senate, track and field…

My church activities were just as extensive: prayer ministry, missions team, puppet ministry, Bible quiz, choir, praise team… and Promise Keepers.

You remember that, right? Promise Keepers.

Ah, I attended those Promise Keepers rallies many times—including the “Stand in the Gap” event on the National Mall in 1997.
·       You know, the White Christian response to the Black Muslim “Million Man March.”
·       When Promise Keepers were not attending huge worship services, these “men of integrity” would browse the exhibition halls.
o  There were advertisers there like Bibles for the World… the Christian Coalition… Christian colleges and universities… and then organizations that wanted to reach out to people who suffered from unhealthy addictions or “sinful” lifestyles: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous… and then this group called Exodus International.
o  Does everyone know what that is?
o  Exodus is one of those ex-gay ministries. Parents would send their children to Exodus International in order for them to “pray the gay away.”
o  From my view, now, it is the epitome of spiritual violence.
·       Let me back-up even further.

I was one of those tall, gangly third graders who towered above everyone in my class—except Maria Gross. Somehow, Maria beat me by a few inches. I think eating Brussels sprouts really helped me in this part of my life, kids, because I was also the fastest runner.

That year, our family ended up going on a vacation. We took the train from Indiana to New York City to visit my aunt who lived there.

It was the most eye-opening experience. I experienced the Rockettes, the subway, my first taxi ride, going to a black Pentecostal church, seeing two men hold hands, looking into the eyes of the first homeless people I had ever seen…

But something about seeing those men hold hands…

It was sweet. It wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t gratuitous. It wasn’t flamboyant. It wasn’t gross… My heart beat faster, and I had this sense of recognition. It felt like home.

That whole train-ride back to Indiana, I thought about this thing I had no words for. But, as an 8-year-old 3rd grader, I knew that I wanted to hold hands with another boy. A lot.

And so, back to that exhibit hall at Promise Keepers. I remember I had heard about Exodus International before. I had heard my pastor say things like “hell awaited for homosexuals” and “God made Adam for Eve, not Adam for Steve.”

When I heard these things, my heart beat faster, and I had this sense of recognition. It felt like… prison.

That’s what church became for me: prison.

·       Where people would ask me questions like, “So, do you have a girlfriend?” and feeling I had to hide.
·       Where Scripture was read at face-value, without regard to Biblical scholarship.
·       Where Jesus, the one who touched lepers in the Bible, was made into a pious Pharisee by defenders of heterosexuality.

As an 8-year-old 3rd grader, as a high school-age Promise Keeper, I knew where I stood as in conservative Christianity.

It became apparent to me that I would have to compromise all of who I was in order to remain within conservative Christianity—which was the only Christianity I knew.

There were no models of “Reconciling” or “Welcoming” or “Open and Affirming” churches where I came from.

And so I left.

I left Christianity.

I became non-Christian.

And I lost my entire ground of being.

I’ll ask again: what is church when we’re at our best?

Luke 15:1-32

15Now all the tax collectors and “unclean” were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven when “one who was lost” repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who “were never lost.” 
I’m fascinated by the II Corinthians passage in 5:21, which says, “21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Why would Jesus be made “sin”?

This is one of those things that ancient readers would have understood, but it goes over our heads now.

There’s a word in the Hebrew Bible, which I’m sure you’ve heard before: abomination. It means ceremonially unclean.

So, Jesus, by talking to tax collectors, became ceremonially unclean—an abomination.

Jesus, by talking with woman on the street, became ceremonially unclean—an abomination.

Jesus, by touching the leper, became an abomination.

Jesus, by feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, became an abomination.

Jesus, by dying on the cross, became an abomination.

There weren’t many lines Jesus didn’t cross in order to reach the unreachable.

And, as II Corinthians says, he was made to be sin itself.

Where is the good news?

The good news is that Jesus invites us to become a part of him:
·       If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
o  Meaning: we can become new because of the model of sacrifice Christ offers us.
o  Meaning: Exodus International doesn’t mean anything
o  And ex-gay ministries don’t mean anything.
o  Christ made himself an abomination, and behold, all things are new!
·       But that’s not the good news:
o  II Corinthians 5:19 says, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them!!!”
·       Why?
o  “And trusting the message of reconciliation to” WHOM?
·       To us!
·       To us!
·       We are the reason Christ became sin, but we are also the ones to carry forth the mission of Christ here in earth.

You know, in the evangelical world, where I come from, there is such a great emphasis on remembering how Jesus suffered.
·       People say such melodramatic things as “his suffering was worse than anyone has ever known or will ever know.”
o  Have you heard that before?
o  It makes Jesus… almost inhuman.
o  When the whole point of the suffering was to show precisely how human he was.
·       I don’t know what you see, but the Jesus I see in the Bible was fierce.
o  He knew exactly what kind of trouble he was getting himself into.
o  He knew that he was breaking the rules of cleanliness.
o  He knew that, by touching lepers, he was becoming an abomination before Jews.
·       That is what Christ’s death means for us.
o  It is not about some poor soul being victimized on the cross.
o  No, it is about a relentless do-gooder who died for what was right—and sticking it to the oppressive political and religious establishment.
·       What does this mean for us?
·       Let me read II Cor 5:19 for us again, and you tell me:
o  in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
·       What does this mean?
o  (audience response)
·       It means the church is responsible for reconciling with American Indians, Africans, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders.
·       It means the church is responsible for making things right with women have been abused, burned at the stake, subordinated, blocked from education or leadership by men quoting biblical passages as the reason for their religiously legitimated acts of oppression and victimization.
·       It means the church must be the one to heal the wounds it has inflicted through the “textual harassment” of Bible study materials, Sunday school materials, sermons, liturgy, ex-gay ministries, demon exorcisms, and general discussions that have been obsessed with an 8-year-old longing to hold the hand of another boy.

We are ambassadors for Christ.

God is making the divine appeal through us.

God is entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

// But that’s not the good news, either:

Here’s the good news:

For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin… so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God.

·       If the parable said the shepherd left the flock of sheep to gather the one lost sheep, what does that mean for us?
o  Are we reaching out to the ones the church has rejected?
·       If Jesus became an outcast to reach the outcasts, what does that mean for us?
o  To whom are we reaching out—that society has rejected?
·       This is the righteousness of God:
o  To become sin in order to reach sinners
o  To break religious teachings in order to reach those outside the church
o  To welcome people of faith or of no faith
o  To welcome the outcasts of society
o  To celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and intergender individuals
·       The righteousness of God commands us to break our allegiance with religion and politics, especially when religion and politics asks us to exclude rather than include.
·       The good news is that the lost sheep will be included.
o  The outcast will be restored to community.
o  And the one who was hurt by us…
§  The one who was hurt by people of God… will be reconciled to God through the people of God.

Because that is who we are when we are at our best.

May it be so.