Tuesday, June 27, 2017

One love

Matthew 10: 24 – 39 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 25, 2017


         After this week, I hardly know where to begin. The gospel doesn’t normally fare well in an empire, but this week the gospel took quite a beating. Everything from “love your neighbor as yourself”, “love your enemies and pray for them” to “whenever you ministered to the least of these, you did the same to me” was tested and somehow found wanting. We can’t say we follow Jesus and also support leaders and healthcare legislation that hurt the very people Jesus healed and hung out with. We either take care of each other, especially the most vulnerable among us, or we’re not following Jesus.

We can’t say we follow Jesus and argue that Philadelphia’s rainbow flag can’t have black and brown stripes on it because the rainbow flag isn’t about race. But discrimination against people of color within, as well as outside, the queer community is about race. And until black lives matter, no lives will matter, until as a nation, as a world we consciously and conscientiously decide we are all members of one another.

         I can’t follow Jesus and be quiet. I can’t follow Jesus and think that walking the fine line between preaching the gospel and offending someone is what I am called to do. 
And yet following Jesus was never intended to be a popularity contest or a way to win friends and influence people to your cause. In fact, following Jesus may be the quickest way to losing some friends, maybe even family, and becoming, like Jesus, public enemy no. 1. 

         But to look at American Christianity, you wouldn’t think so. Ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America's god is not the God that Christians worship.

We are now facing the end of Protestantism. America's god is dying. Hopefully, that will leave the church in America in a position where it has nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. So I am hopeful that God may yet make the church faithful - even in America.”

         While there are Christians in this country who have hijacked Jesus’ message of peace, justice and unconditional love and made it over in their own image of violence, bigotry and hate, we progressive Christians have not raised our voices enough and all together that the truth of the gospel may be heard loud and clear. The truth that grace is for all people, including bigots and haters and people we don’t like, and that it doesn’t have to be earned nor is it deserved—God’s grace simply is for everyone.

The truth that when we care for each other, for everyone, we all do better. The truth that we can’t hang on to all that we have and follow Jesus. The truth that every person is valuable and worthy of care. The truth that we are called to lose our lives but in so doing, we will find our true, authentic lives—our lives will come alive. The truth that our faith is not only a private thing but a public way of life, because injustice and suffering demand it. The truth that none of this is easy nor can we give ourselves a pass.

         This past week I was invited to speak with Governor John Carney, along with Rep. Paul Baumbach, some folks from a support and advocacy group called Compassionate Choices, and two individuals suffering from a terminal illness, regarding the End of Life Options Act or HB 160. I spoke about a personal experience in which a 79 year old man with numerous cancers, for whom I was pastor, ended his life with a handgun because for him there was no other option except to refuse a feeding tube and slowly starve to death. Much more powerful were the two people in the room who knew their lives would end within a year: a man who had lived with AIDS for the last 20 years but because of a 6 month lapse in his health insurance and ensuing lack of medication was now dying from Kaposi’s sarcoma and a woman with breast cancer that has now metastasized to her liver and bone marrow.

         After we had all said what we had come to say, after the governor responded and thanked us, the woman looked directly at the governor and pressed him: “If this bill somehow miraculously passes both the House and the Senate and it comes to your desk, will you sign it?” The governor replied gently but firmly that at that moment he could not support it but he would keep his mind open and keep listening.

         It took all I had not to press the governor myself with this question: How can you look this woman in the eye, your constituent, your sister, who is asking you for mercy and not give it to her? Because I knew there was a bigger agenda at hand than this one woman’s fate.
Because speaking truth to power means not hitting them over the head with it. Because that sword that Jesus brought with him doesn’t mean we give up on each other, sever all ties, and slam the door. Because eventually we’re all going to be sitting at one table. Because love can be messy and complicated and hard when covenant is involved, and it’s always involved. Though we have a thousand little loves, and even though some of them are overwhelming, God has only one love and it cannot be divided or only for some.

         When the United Church of Christ initially came into being 60 years ago today, every local Evangelical & Reformed church, every Congregational church was given the option to join by congregational vote. Not every church joined in 1957. Many churches took their time, some not joining until 1960, ’61, ’62. The UCC is by no means a monolith.
Though the national denomination is Open and Affirming, of the approximately 5,000 congregations of the UCC, about 1,300 are ONA. And yet we are the Church together. It’s the precious, messy tension between autonomy and covenant, that squidgy place where we all live. Unity with diversity takes time. Evolution takes time. One love takes time.

         Today is also Eid al Fitr, the last day of the holy month of Ramadan. It began last night at sundown, and the feast of Eid al Fitr lasts until Tuesday at sundown. The fast is now over. Now it is time to give as much charity as possible and to show joy and happiness. Our neighbors will have gone early to the Masjid for prayers and, if possible, made their way there on foot. Hours before the sun rose, they had a small sweet breakfast, said a special prayer, showered, brushed their teeth, put on new clothing or their very best, and perfume or cologne.

At midnight, our friend Irfan Patel posted this greeting: “Eid Mubarak! Heartiest Eid greetings - from my family to yours!  Today we completed the month long fasting of Ramadan. As we enter into the festivity mode of Eid celebrations, one cannot help but ponder upon how things have turned out since the last Eid. Fate has played havoc on many lives, and circumstances have forced many to leave the comfort of their homes.
Some who celebrated Eid with much pomp and grandeur last year are looking for safe havens this year. Some have lost their loved ones. And some short on health.  So let's thank the Almighty for all His blessings, let's keep everyone in our prayers and let's try to keep up with the enormous challenge of fighting evil with good!”  He ended with the hashtags #PrayingforPeace, #OneHumanRace, #NotoHate, #IStandWithRefugees.  I wish everyone could know the power of the gospel through the friendship of a Muslim.  If you see a Muslim friend between today and Tuesday, wish them a hearty Eid Mubarak.

This past Friday a colleague of mine was ordering a Philly Pride flag for his church and offered to order one for the New Ark too.  When I asked how I could reimburse him, he replied, "No need."  
And yet I also have friends from seminary who argued vehemently against this flag on a  Facebook post.  I don't think Jesus is asking me to choose one against the other but to choose Jesus.  And Jesus chooses everybody.

Thank God he does.  Amen.

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