Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 13, 2012

(Read: A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza)

Love is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Children know that. Biology isn’t the point. Love is the point. A Mother for Choco reminds us that mothers come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and appearances. It’s a story that clearly shows what makes a mother a mother: it is love.

All or other readings for today also point to the truth that love is the point. It isn’t biology that makes a church family either. Just like Choco’s startling realization that Mrs. Bear could be his mother, today’s reading from the book of Acts shows the early Christians discovering with surprise that God doesn’t follow the usual rules for who belongs with whom. The early Christian Church was born among blue-collar Jewish followers of Jesus, himself a Jewish carpenter. The disciples were mostly fishermen from Galilee. They were not prepared to welcome upper-class Greek-speaking-uncircumcised Gentiles into their faith community. The text says they were “astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out EVEN on the Gentiles”!

But Peter says, “Why not?” and today’s reading ends with a giant baptismal party. I’m sad to say, however, that this broadening welcome began the tradition of church in-fighting. There were supporters of Peter and the Gentile Christian community, and there were Jews-only Christian communities, and both sides criticized the other for being untrue to the Gospel. I don’t know if it’s depressing or hopeful to see that we moderns didn’t invent the tendency to fracture Christ’s body into little pieces. The only thing that has changed in the church since the first century is who is considered “us” and who is considered “them.” The essential issue remains the same–WE aren’t sure THEY belong with us. WE aren’t sure THEY belong with God at all. THEY are different from us–whether the difference is language or social class or culture or immigration status or being part of the pro-recall/anti-recall Walker camp or membership among the 1% or the 99%…. Whatever way we slice it, we keep slicing up the body of Christ! The tricky thing is, as a pastor told me when I was young, “Whenever you draw the line between US and THEM, remember God is on the other side of that line too.”

No matter how carefully we define us to erect protective walls around OUR truth, the Holy Spirit has no intention of honoring the boundaries we create. God is as intent on knocking down those walls now as in the first century, when the Holy Spirit did indeed come upon the Gentiles.

Knocking down walls is what Jesus was after in the Gospel lesson today, too, when he COMMANDS the disciples to love others as they have been loved. He doesn’t suggest it. He doesn’t recommend it. He knocks down the wall of resistance by commanding them: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He tells them this is how people will know that they are his followers: if they love one another.

Wouldn’t it be great if love was what Christians were known for?

It isn’t though. A Barna study found that the most frequently-chosen adjective young Americans associated with Christians was “anti-homosexual.” We Christians aren’t known for being loving. Just the opposite. We’re actually becoming known for being unloving. And this week, as we watched the state of North Carolina vote to deny loving couples the right to marry if the partners were of the same gender, many people said it was their religious convictions that caused them to vote as they did. One more example of US versus THEM. Just as it was the last time the state of North Carolina changed its Constitution—that time to declare mixed-race marriages illegal. Both times, persuasive arguments were made using the Bible to condemn THEM, while shoring up US and OUR rights/righteousness.

In the midst of all this rhetoric, how can anyone hear the persistent voice of Jesus saying: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”?

Yes, it’s true that the Bible says some nasty things about homosexuality. It also true that the Bible has passages that prohibit men from cutting their hair, and that forbid anyone from wearing mixed-fiber clothing, or planting two different kinds of seed in their fields, or eating shellfish. The Bible also commands slaves to obey their masters, parents to stone unruly children, and upholds as heroes of the faith men with multiple wives and concubines.

That is one of the reasons I am so grateful that Dr. Martin Luther upheld the idea of a canon within the canon. As Lutherans, we don’t give each part of the Bible equal weight. Luther described the Bible as “the cradle of Christ.” The whole book contains the story of God, but some parts touch the baby more closely than others. In Luther’s mind, the Gospels were of the greatest significance—which is why we stand when the Gospel is being read in worship. Other parts of the Bible are further away from the baby. It seems to me that the Levitical purity laws so often touted by those who want to deny GLBTQ people their rights are pretty far from the baby. But how do we determine that?

One way is to notice what Jesus says and does. It’s worth noticing that Jesus uses forms of the LOVE verbs (agapao, phileo) 57 times in the Bible! If we add to that all the times he uses the word FRIEND (which is the translation of the Greek philos) AND if we add in the fact that the primary disciple in the John’s Gospel is an unnamed character called “the Beloved Disciple,” we might get a sense that Jesus is a single-issue Savior. Jesus has an agenda and that agenda is love. That’s why the foundation and core of our faith is summed up so well in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” That’s why I’m convinced is fair to say that the parts of Scripture that deal with LOVE are the ones that are closest to the baby.

Our young people know this. Months before President Obama made the news by announcing his support for same sex couples to marry, our confirmation class took that position. They asked me if we could write a letter to the government in support of gay marriage as a class service project. I was thinking we might plant trees or something, but I listened. I asked why. They pointed out in clear, prophetic ways, that God created all people in God’s own image, and that God loves all people, and wants all people to experience love. They are firm in their convictions that portions of the Bible are misused by some people to oppress other people. And they disapprove. They intend to be advocates for love. They are clear that being Jesus’ disciples means being Mrs. Bear to every Choco. They are committed to being agents of love.

And they began their advocacy work right here: they asked me if I would take their letter to our church council so that the adults could also sign it. Our council said yes. In fact, our council has also determined that it is time for Trinity Lutheran to initiate the process of becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation, officially. That is the Lutheran designation for a church that is publicly welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people. That isn’t to say that we aren’t already a safe place for gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to be. It just means that we will be making that claim loudly and publicly. We will be saying, in no uncertain terms, that we are tearing down that particular wall of division. That we are openly in favor of love.

In the coming months, we will be having conversations about what becoming a reconciling congregation would mean for us, for our neighborhood, for our city, for the Big C Church, for our state, our nation, and for the world. I hope you will participate in this process with your questions and your hopes, your Biblical understanding, your experiences, and your theological points of view. I hope we will engage this process with love in our hearts and on our lips. Let’s practice together what it means to love one another as God in Christ has loved us.

We enter this process knowing, of course, that sometimes we will fail to be loving. We are simply not able to love one another as God has loved us. We are not always capable of laying down our lives, our self-interest, our protection of US against THEM (whoever “we” or “they” are) for the good of another. We do not always bear the good fruit of a tree rooted in and washed clean in the baptismal waters of love. Individually and as a group, we keep building the walls, keep drawing the line in the sand.

The Good News is that Jesus knows this about us. And Jesus loves us anyway. We are not left alone to negotiate what it means to abide in God’s love. Jesus will not abandon us to our own devices until we get it right. Instead, he comes to us again and again, in Word and in Sacrament, in songs and in prayers, in the voices of children and in the touch of a mother’s hand. Jesus announces to us over and over, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. Abide in my love.”

Jesus is not waiting to come to us until we have kept all the commandments. Jesus is here! Now! Jesus is in the very love we share. Jesus is in our desire to become more loving. Jesus is our Mrs. Bear, welcoming each of us Chocos home. Jesus is in us and we are in him. Even as we labor to discern how to be more faithful, hopeful, and loving people, we are all wrapped up in God’s faith in us, God’s hope for us, and God’s love for us. Thanks be to God! Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

[Update: The message in this sermon was featured in a story in The New York Times on May 14, 2012.]

6 thoughts on “Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 13, 2012

  1. I felt particularly welcome when I saw a sign outside a URC church saying that it welcomed, among others, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, and the mentally ill and disabled. I found the same welcome inside. The welcome needs Proclaimed, or I might just not try the church.

  2. Clare, thanks for sharing your experience. I am grateful that there are churches everywhere that extend God’s love to all.

  3. When I first came across this sermon, I was hesitant about making any comment. I recognize that many see those who believe God’s word when he speaks against sexual immorality, as intolerant and unloving. But I realized to remain silent gives an impression of approval and would risk not contending for the faith.

    Please recognize that not all who oppose homosexuality are Christians. That not all who are hateful or unloving are Christians. But some are!

    Thank you for alerting all of us to our Lord’s command to love. I too, am appalled at actions taken against those who are not like ourselves or believe as we do. Christ loves each of us with a tender, encompassing, amazing love that none of us can ever deserve! Thank God for our merciful heavenly Father who recognized there was no other way for us to have salvation than through the shed blood of Christ. We are all called to love people. But even Christ’s love did not give approval to sin. In that tender, compassionate, and forgiving scene of Christ with the woman accused of adultery He told her to “Go and sin no more.” What kind of love would our heavenly father have for us if he just left us in our sin, knowing the consequences it would have on our lives? The sinner does not walk in freedom because he is bound by the sin he serves. Our God is greater than that and has so much more for us than for us to remain in the sinful state in which he found us.

    All who encountered the risen Lord were forever changed. He calls us to let go of those things we feel we cannot. He urges us with such love to give it all up to him and he will honor our obedience with more than anything we could imagine.

    I’m sure you know that some of the commands you called into question from the Bible were issued under the Old Covenant to the nation of Israel and are no longer binding. Some commands were for a particular people for a time to show their desire of a higher commitment to God. God desired His people to be separate unto himself. The Bible, however, clearly, both in the old and new testament condemns all forms of sexual immorality of which homosexuality is one. Can the church really affirm and condone it? REALLY?

    How can we interpret Jesus words differently in his description of marriage, when he said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?”

    But maybe we don’t want to call sexual immorality, sin.

    Someone aptly stated, “We don’t change God’s message, His message changes us.”

    None of us come to Christ and believe in him and accept his love without being asked to give up our favorite sins. Those who have addictions I’m sure, feel they cannot live without that fix. Yet God asks us to abide by his word, trust him and he will give back to us in abundance in ways we cannot imagine. To ask God to love a sinner and not release him from his sin would be to settle for second best.

    I have every intention of loving people in all kinds of circumstances of life with the love of Christ. I would encourage all to do the same. But to love without sounding the warning of consequences to those who do not know, is no form of love that I recognize.

    Please, please, think long, hard, and most of all prayerfully about what is being proclaimed by our president and now from your pulpit.

    2 Timothy 4:3 3For the time is coming when people will not endure sound a teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. ESV

    It has not been my intention to offend, but with all love and concern to share what a great deal of thought and prayer and scripture has revealed to me. Thank you for allowing me to share my comments

  4. Dear Rad Change,
    Thank you for your sincere sharing. I realize that there are many ways to interpret Scriptures, and I appreciate your willingness to engage with me (and others) on this subject.

    We agree that, as Christians, the Bible is authoritative for faith and life, but I suspect we may read the Bible differently. As I mention in this sermon, Lutherans embrace the idea that the Bible is the “cradle of Christ” and the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (some unclear passages of Scripture might be made clearer through other passages). Not every part of the Bible carries equal weight, whether it is in the Old or New Testament. Additionally, I believe that context is crucial.

    Some texts need to be considered in light of the texts around them, as well as in light of the historical and cultural events taking place when they were being written. Conditions that existed then may be so different now that they no longer apply. Many interpreters suggest that the reason we often find “homosexuallity” on lists of sins is because the only type of same-sex relationships that the Biblical authors would have known about were pedophilial relationships between older men and young boys and/or temple prostitutes. The Greek word in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 usually translated as “sodomites” refers to this particular impure activity. But did the Biblical authors know anything of same-gender relationships between full-grown, mutually consenting, loving adults? Probably not. Obviously pedophilia is to be condemned, along with any other sexual conduct that belittles or humiliates anyone. But if we take into consideration the scientific evidence that homosexuality may be, at least in part, biological in origin, and if we acknowledge that many same-sex relationships are loving, nurturing unions, we have to be open to the possibility that passages that talk about “unnatural” behavior apply differently to them. For some people, it would be “unnatural” to be in a relationship with a person of the OPPOSITE gender, as their hearts incline toward those of their own.

    Furthermore, in passages like Romans 1:18-32, it is important to note that what is at issue here is the fruits of idolatry. Exchanging what is “unnatural” for what is “natural” might be read as a condemnation of same-sex relationships, or it might be referring to what is merely conventional and socially acceptable at the time. The Greek word for “natural” is not a synonym for creation. It also leaves no room for the possibility that one’s sexual identity could be anything but a choice, while hundreds of years of medical science override that view.

    All of this is to say that I am not at all convinced homosexuality is sinful. But I do offer this food for thought: what if it is? What then? What if God really did intend marriage to be between one man and one woman? What if the only acceptable form of family is a mother, a father, and kids? What do we preach to those who are adopted? Or to single people? Or to those who live in group homes? Perhaps there are ways to live faithful Christian lives outside of the structure God initially designed.

    I may be wrong about all of this. I may be totally misconstruing the Bible. But I’m willing to stake my life on the possibility that God is more gracious than I can ask or imagine. And I am convinced my calling is to preach that reality. If I am making a mistake, I throw myself on God’s mercy, and still urge my congregation to err on the side of love, every time.

  5. Articulate and uplifting. Keep preaching love, Sue! (hello from Yve’s sister in WA state)

  6. Ah, Pastor Schneider I suspect we will never see eye to eye on this. I believe there is also scripture that does address homosexuality as it is known today and our Heavenly Father’s disapproval of same. I love my Lord and Savior dearly and believe you do as well. I respect your vocation and your committment to it but will continue to respectfully disagree with you regarding this matter. I too will choose to err on the side of love as many eternal souls are at stake. God’s Blessing to you!

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