(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.]