Sunday, July 22, 2012

More, More Light - On the 15th Anniversary of Sixth Presbyterian Church's decision to become More Light

                                               image from

Matthew 5: 1-12

5When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In 1997, I could fill up my Ford Escort for ten bucks. In 1997, the Spice Girls were still telling us what they want, what they really, really want, and I paid 5 bucks to see Titanic in the theaters. You can decide whether that was a deal or not... In 1997, I was a senior in high school. I was fresh off of the Young Life evangelical turnip truck, and I was praying for the salvation of my prayer-filled, devoted Catholic mother.  I was earnest.  I was hopeful.  I was idealistic. I was aching for some answers, some assurance.  And I was an Evangelical Christian who wanted all to know Jesus for the sake of their salvation.  I came to one of my really good friends in high school, when he told me he was gay, and I said what many of you have heard before, “hate the sin, but not the sinner.”  In 1997, while you were taking the risk of becoming More Light, I was shutting doors on my friends.  I knew another friend was struggling, and was actively separating herself from me, but I had no idea that she was struggling with her sexuality.  In 1997, while you were choosing to be an open and inclusive community, I was oblivious to how much I was hurting people in the name of my idealism, in the name of “my” god.
And I was a kid. I was trying to make my way through this complicated world, and I was struggling to cope as my idealism ran smack dab into the realities of the horrors of this world.  I had few tools with which to parse through my commitment to the gospel and what seemed to be opposing ideas from “the world.” All I had were my boxes, my ability to separate and divide, to draw lines, to say what belongs and what doesn’t. And I had my fear.  My fear that I wouldn’t fit in.  My fear of the Other.  My fear that if they found me out, they’d know that I was doubting and phony and terribly lonely.
Fast forward almost 10 years.  10 years.  2007ish. And a lot has changed.  Gas is at least three dollars a gallon, it costs 12 bucks to see a movie, we’re thinking about a recession, and we’re neck deep in two wars.  And I’m different, too. I’ve gotten a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, gotten married, and have experienced a lot more life. I’ve felt betrayed by almost every form of Christianity.  I’m new to Pittsburgh, and I need hangers and laundry detergent, so I’m trying to navigate these crazy streets and hills and rivers, in search of a Target.  I’m lost.  I’m depending upon Mapquest directions I’ve printed up from the internet.  And I pass by Sixth Presbyterian Church.  In the middle of a bustling intersection.  Waving a rainbow flag with a cross on it.
I think to myself, “If they are accepting of the LGBTQ community, maybe they’ll accept me, with all of my doubts and my questions and my heresies.  Maybe they’d forgive me for who I was and what I believed.”  
When I think of the Beatitudes, this part of the Sermon on the Mount in our reading today, I immediately think of that Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian. If you haven’t seen it, and you are of the heretical persuasion, it’s a hoot.  There’s this scene in the movie where this huge crowd is gathered around Jesus, and Jesus is giving his famous Sermon on the Mount.  But you can’t hear exactly was Jesus is saying, because the movie focuses in on the crowd in the way way back, furthest away from Jesus.  These folks are going back and forth between straining their ears to try to hear what Jesus is saying, and then interacting with each other.  They’re arguing with each other as they repeat what they think Jesus is saying. One says, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” They respond, “cheesemakers, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” and one man, obviously wealthy and educated-looking responds, “Well, we aren’t to take it literally. He means all producers of dairy products in general.” Ahhhh they all nod.  (Sound familiar?) 
Then another repeats, “Blessed are the Greek, for they shall inherit the earth.” And the rich man says, “The Greek? Which one? Did he mention a name?” Meanwhile, two arguers are missing everything Jesus is saying, working themselves up into a fist fight. Chaos ensues and everyone is distracted by the fight breaking out off in the periphery, and no one is hearing a word Jesus is saying.  
Now my homiletics professors would scoff at my exegetical work here.  But isn’t this scene from The Life of Brian what seems to go on so often in our denominations?  We’re so busy with our own little fights, our own ideologies, our own need to be “right,” or our own pet projects, that we miss what Jesus is saying entirely?  We get so absorbed in our fights that we miss what is most important.  

And how amazing it was, and still is, that you all took the time to carefully wade through the fistfighting crowd to discern what it is that Jesus is saying.  That you came to the decision in 1997 to become More Light.  That you adopted the mission statement of the More Light organization of churches: 
“Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”
You sat with Jesus at the top of the mountain and listened to him.  You looked upon the crowds and saw the broken and the tired and the outcasts and you saw them for who they are.  You saw them as you. 
  • Blessed are the poor in spirit
  • Blessed are those who mourn
  • Blessed are the meek
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Blessed are the merciful
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are the peacemakers
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted.
  • Blessed are you...
  • Blessed are YOU.
This image of Jesus on the mountain teaching the disciples is a direct reference to Moses on Mount Sinai, expaining the law to the Israelites.  But instead of getting a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts, a list of what gets you “in” and what keeps you “out,” we get a list of who we are. We are poor.  We are meek.  We are hungry.  And we are blessed.  We are invited to see the crowds below us, not as a burden, or a strain on resources, or as a bunch of lazy dirt-caked alcoholics, or even as a bunch of idiots who’ve got their theology all wrong.  We are invited to see these fighting, hungry, dirty, misguided crowds as us. 
      When I woke up this Friday morning and heard the horrible news of the Aurora, Colorado shooting, I was as upset and shocked as everyone else.  As I was plowing through facebook posts about the subject, I was particularly struck by one comment.  Someone said, “This makes me want to avoid crowds altogether.”  
But isolation isn’t the answer.  Holing up in an apartment, never encountering others who are different from you is exactly what the alleged shooter did for at least six weeks before the shooting.  Isolation only creates more “others.” More separation.  More desperation.  Disconnect.
The mission of the More Light community of Presbyterians gets this.  We strive to “make the Church a true community of hospitality.” From those members of the LGBTQ community who come to Sixth, I get a clear sense that Sixth has become that community of hospitality. We see the value in welcoming who we thought were “the others.”  And we praise God for that.  
But how can we become more More Light?  
How can we hear Jesus’s words to the Disciples anew?  
Who do we need to welcome?  How can we further live out Christ’s command for radical inclusion?  Radical hospitality. So radical that people might think we’re a little bit crazy.
When I drove by that flag in my search for the Target, I thought, “If they feel that way about the LGBTQ community, maybe they’ll welcome me, too.”
Who else might have thought that same thing? Who else might have thought, “maybe they’ll welcome me, too.”
- The drunk?
- The guy who begs for quarters down Murray Avenue?
- The kids who hang out on our steps and leave trash in the bushes?
- The college drop out?
- The single mom living on foodstamps and in section 8 housing?
- The political and Christian conservative who is a creationist and believes in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus?
- The 17 year old girl, straight off the evangelical turnip truck who tells her friends that she “hates the sin and not the sinner?”
And if they haven’t thought that, if they haven't thought, "maybe they’ll welcome me, too" then why not?
Today we celebrate our radical inclusion of the LGBTQ community.  The radical inclusion that started long before 1997.  And it doesn’t feel so radical now.  It’s comfortable.  It’s who we are.
But we are called to ever more radical inclusion.  We do “More Light” really really well.  Let’s celebrate that.  But let’s not get stuck there. Let’s not get too comfortable. Let’s continue to work toward the radical inclusion that is behind the mission of being More Light.  
It may take 10 years for hearts to change.  It may take more.  For some, it may never happen at all.
But can we say, “Blessed are you,” anyway? 
Can we say, “Blessed are you” to those with whom we disagree?  Can we say, “Blessed are you” to those who may take advantage of us, to those who smell, to those who are missing their teeth, to those who have made bad choices, to those who think differently about politics or theology or any number of hot button subjects?  
Can we invite those we consider “other” into our home? Into our lives?  Into our church? 
When I walked through those doors so many years ago, you all embraced me with open arms, and you’re still supporting me now. 
Could you embrace my seventeen year old self?  Could you have that kind of hope in me then that you have in me now?  Could you forgive me? Could you forgive those who are now where I was then?  Who are now where you were then?  
When Jesus said, “Blessed are you,” it wasn’t “blessed are who you’re going to be sometime in the future,” or “blessed are those who understand me fully,” or “blessed are those who “get it.”” He didn’t say, “blessed are those who have it all right, right now,” or even “blessed are those who grasp how fully, radically inviting I am.” He said, “Blessed are you.” Present tense. You, now. In the midst of your own failures and fears and need to carve out your own island of self-righteousness.  In the midst of your addictions and weaknesses and frailties.  Exactly where you are.   Blessed are you.
Can we say it too?  We did and do say so to the LGBTQ community.  
Now, who is next?  Who else can we invite into our community?
Who’s next?
It’s painful.  It’s hard. It makes a big ‘ol mess. It often doesn't make much rational sense.
But when we say, “blessed are you,” when we really live it out, when we really believe it, we will realize that we’re not so different. We come down from the mountain.  We stop striving to be right. We stop worrying about what everyone else thinks of us. We step out of the theological, political, polarizing rat race.  We step into relationship. Community.  Communion.
And the “otherness” between us starts to dissolve.  The kingdom of God starts to solidify.  We get a glimpse of how difficult and yet how beautiful true community can be.  
Blessed are you.  Blessed are you.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

We are what God is doing in the world.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

My brother and I got into a Facebook fight the other day.  Ok, so it wasn’t really a fight exactly.  In fact, it was a pretty riveting argument.  He’s what you might call a “secular humanist.”  For my brother, everything comes down to science and genetic make up. He doesn’t believe in a soul or a spirit, but believes that we are genetically made to help those who are less-fortunate.  My brother would probably deny it, but he has a huge heart, and cares deeply for people.  But he sure doesn’t want to have anything to do with organized religion.  So we were going back and forth via Facebook messaging, in this heavy theological and scientific discussion about humanity.  
As many of you know, getting into a “discussion” like this can get pretty heated, pretty fast.  At one point, my brother said, “look, calm down, this is just what I think; I don’t mean to offend.”  And I replied, in all honesty, “no, no, I’m having fun!”  But we did try our hardest to “trap” each other in our respective lines of reasoning.  We’d have moments of sudden glory, virtually shouting “AHA!” at each other when we felt that we’d caught the other in a logical fallacy or reasoned misstep.  
This is the dynamic of our relationship, though.  And, my brother would be embarrassed to know that I adore him.  Soon after we get into this heated theological debate, we’re joking about the new casting changes on Trueblood and our toddlers’ similar fascination with running naked in the backyard.
This is sort of like our context between Jesus and this lawyer.  Or at least it’s the context from the lawyer’s perspective.  He’s ready for a theological debate, an academic discussion, and a oneupmanship of intellect.  This lawyer has come to Jesus loaded with his academic credentials and his commentaries, and with his systematic theology muscles flexed. He is ready to be right.
If we were there, my brother and I would be leaning in, making bets, waiting for the intellectual boxing match to begin.
But this isn’t how Jesus works, of course.  In response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?,” Jesus tells him a story, a story, in fact, that doesn’t directly answer his question at all.  
He starts with “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho...”
He might as well have said, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Or, begun with one of those scenes from those crime dramas - you know the ones that start with the woman clutching tightly to her purse while she walks alone through the dark alley in the middle of the night.  No one in their right mind would have gone from Jerusalem to Jericho by themselves.  You just know that they’re going to find trouble.  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was full of caves - perfect places for robbers and bandits to hide, and people travelled the road in caravans, big groups, in order to protect themselves and their goods.  Everybody knew this.  The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for bad people, bad situations, bad news.  So what the heck is wrong with this guy who decides to travel this road alone?  What a moron!  He should know better!
So they’re all crowded around Jesus, waiting for the hero to swoop in and save the day.  They want Batman or Spiderman or Wonder Woman and her gold bracelets to fall from the sky and rescue this poor idiot.  
But nope.  No one comes.  
There is no superhero.  No batmobile. No Cyclops death rays.  No swift costume changes in phone booths.  Jack Bauer doesn’t even land his helicopter on the roof and come down to at least kick the snot out of the robbers and avert nuclear annihilation.
The poor knucklehead gets beat up, robbed, and is left for dead.
No one is there to stop it. 
Nope.  The only ones to come around - too late to prevent anything if they wanted to - are those who can’t or won’t get involved.  First there’s a priest - high in the hierarchy of Jewish culture.  And he passes by.  Next in the hierarchy is the Levite, who also just passes by.  So the crowd around Jesus is ready to have a devout, but average, Jewish “Joe” come and save the day.  
But no.  That guy doesn’t even show up. 
Nope. There’s just a Samaritan.

We may want to see ourselves in the Samaritan.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, don’t you think we’re more like the Levite or the Priest?  What do we think when we see the equivalent of a guy in trouble in a ditch?   The panhandler on the side of the road, or the woman in tears on the bus. We think, “if we help him, he’s just going to manipulate or take advantage of me.” Or we think, “What can I do?  There’s no helping this woman. She’s a lost cause.” Or, “well, if I help him now, he’s just going to become dependent and keep comin’ back for more.” Or maybe, we think, “What if I make him angry, or offend him, or help him and just make things worse in the long run?” So we just pass by on the other side.
We aren’t the hero of this story.  
It’s the Samaritan.
But we could be.
The relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews was antagonistic at best.  After the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, the Assyrians settled non-Jews in that region, so the Jews saw the Samaritans as half-breeds or foreigners.
And here Jesus uses a Samaritan as the hero of the story.  This is a Samaritan who symbolizes the destruction of their homeland.  The Samaritan who has tainted the pure Jewish line.  The one who doesn’t believe any of the “right” things. The immigrant.  The illegal alien.
And to top it all off, just one chapter earlier, Luke describes an incident where Jesus and his disciples are kicked out of a Samaritan village.  This makes the disciples so mad that they ask Jesus if they can “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them.” 
 And here, with all that background baggage, Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story.
It’s not just a nobody who is lauded as the hero.  It’s the hated nobody.  In our time, it’s the guy who cheats on his taxes or the woman who mails monthly contributions to Rush Limbaugh.  It’s that rich kid who drinks and drives and habitually wrecks his parents’ car.  Or the deadbeat dad who won’t pay for child support, or the person who makes those signs for Westboro Baptist Church.  
This isn’t the kind of savior we want. In fact, if we were the guy in the ditch, we’d seriously consider lying there in our pool of blood to wait for a more attractive savior to come by and rescue us.
But that’s not how the story works. That’s not how God works.
We’re invited to be the Samaritan. 
Jesus says, “Go, do what he does. Be that guy.”
It’s an invitation.  And it’s a command.
Be that guy. 
We can be what God is doing in the world.
Go and be what God is doing in the world.
Be that guy.  The Samaritan.
And that means we’ll be rejected in the world just like God is. Just like Jesus was.
And we’ll have to keep saving the same bonehead from the ditch over and over again.  And because we need the savior just as much as the next guy, we’ll realize that we’re the bonehead who gets saved from the ditch over and over again.  
But that’s what’s so amazing about the Gospel story.  We get to be the morons, the ones writhing in the ditch, the ones who make stupid choices, the ones who fail, the ones who make poor judgments and live by prejudices and even try to help and end up making an even bigger mess.  And yet. God redeems it all.  God embraces us all.  And when we choose to be the Samaritan - to do what the Samaritan does - to care for the least of these, to realize, at the same time, that we are the least of these - we are what God is doing in the world. 

It doesn’t matter if we know the right answers.  It doesn’t matter if we can hold our own in a theological debate, or if we know how to spell “Ezekiel” or “Philippians” or can rattle off all the books of the Bible.  It doesn’t even matter if we know how to help.  What matters is that we’re here to help. We’re trying. We’re stepping up.  We’re willing to get our hands dirty.  Willing to waste some time listening to the ramblings of a drunk guy, or standing in line with a woman at the county service office.  Or trust that the five bucks we hand to the charity or the church or the homeless man will be used well.  What matters is that we’re willing to get in the ditch.  Willing to see that we’ve been in that ditch all along.
We can be what God is doing in the world.
Thanks be to God.