Preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 24, 2016
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
South Hadley, Mass
“Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
When we received news that the musical artist Prince had died this week, someone posted this quote. It seemed to me to go all too well with the lectionary texts for today, especially the Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Because we all know that getting through this thing called life is a whole lot easier when you learn to love, dearly beloved.
This is the second time in a month that we’ve heard this quote from Jesus. And you hear it all the time, anyway. Even non-Christians know how to spout it: “Didn’t Jesus say to ‘love one another’?” whenever we fight and argue among ourselves. It’s a familiar, well known text, right up there with the Golden Rule when it comes to Jesus’ best quotable phrases.
But it’s sitting in the middle of a funny group of texts today. Right next to the Revelation vision of a new heaven and a new earth. And right next to Peter’s inexplicably weird dream where God tells him to kill and eat reptiles. (No joke. Go back and read it. I’ll wait.) [pause]
It’s pretty strange indeed, and even stranger is that Peter uses it to explain why he had been eating with Gentiles, which was unlawful for Jews to do. I mean, it was right there in their Scriptures. The Gentiles were unrighteous, uncircumsized, and ate unlawful, non-Kosher foods, and because they were obedient to Scripture, good Jews would not often share a table with a Gentile. It simply was not done.
This led me to think about our own struggles in the Church with inclusion. With people that we put outside God’s grace, people that we believe that it is not lawful to associate with because of what we believe that Scripture teaches. And, as Nadia Bolz-Weber is known to do, it’s led me to write a sermon in three parts.
Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
Therefore, in honor of Prince and Peter’s weird dreaming and in obedience to Jesus, I give you three vignettes from my own life that taught me about love and the welcome of all people at the table.
Part I: The Marine/Priest with a Heart of Gold
When I was in college, one of my favorite mentors was the Episcopal priest in town. Father Jeff was a tall, kind-eyed man a little younger than my father with a goatee and a great sense of humor. He had become a priest after being a Marine, and he was known for his love and welcome of everybody – which was not necessarily true of all the Christian leaders in that small Alabama town.
Once, in a sermon, he explained his mentality around welcome and inclusion to us a little further. He explained that when he was a sniper, their unofficial motto would often be, “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” He explained that when he had become a priest, his life and motto changed dramatically, but his military faithfulness remained the same. The words he now lives by are “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.”
Part II: Gay Pastors and Cakes
I awoke one morning this week to a headline about a gay pastor in Texas who claimed that a homophobic slur had been scrawled across his cake by a Whole Foods employee. Later, it security footage proved that this pastor was lying and that he must have written the slur himself. I sighed heavily, knowing that there is too much injustice and hatred in the world to go making up one’s own. And then I do what you should never do. I read the comments on the news story on my online news feed.
Now, y’all, the comments are the bathroom wall of the Internet. You don’t go there for good content. You go there if you’d like your image of humanity to be lowered even further. For some reason, in an Internet comments section, people are as mean and hateful as they can’t be in real life. Reading the comments is rarely, if ever, a good idea.
Negative comments about the pastor’s sexuality fell into a couple of large categories, including “Wouldn’t you expect a deviant to be a liar too?” and my favorite, “‘Gay pastor’ is an oxymoron anyway.”
After getting my fill of the comments, I did what I usually do when a pastor is on the news. I tried to see how closely I was connected to him via our friends. We had two mutual friends, both roughly Methodist and neither very close to me. I then looked up his denomination, muttering under my breath “Please don’t be Lutheran. Please don’t be Lutheran.” It seems that he had created his own church after not finding other churches welcoming enough — a sentiment that I’m always skeptical of, since I have found plenty of welcome in many churches. Based on this very limited evidence, I immediately labeled this pastor as egotistical and attention-seeking and found myself being even harsher on him because he is gay, and thinking about how he casts a bad light on all gay pastors.
Then the Holy Spirit clocked me upside the head.
Of course some gay pastors are attention seeking. Some pastors are attention seeking. Some of them are even so attention seeking that they’re willing to lie. This isn’t because this man is gay. It’s not even because he’s a pastor, although plenty of straight pastors have lied and gotten caught. It’s because he’s human, and sometimes humans lie, and are attention seeking, and are generally not fun to be around. What’s unfortunate is that we expect minorities to be better than human because they bear the burden of representing their whole group. We do it to women, racial minorities, and others all the time. And it’s never fair.
And that’s when I closed Facebook and got on with my day, realizing that what this pastor has done should not reflect on everyone — on all pastors or on all gay pastors or on “all” of anyone besides himself. Pastors are sinners. Every last one of us.
Because every last one of us is human.
Part III: A 5 foot 3” Giant Retires
On Tuesday, my seminary celebrated the retirement of my friend and mentor, Barbara Day Miller. Barbara served as the associate dean of worship and music, and she taught me so much of what I know about planning and leading worship. Before I graduated, Barbara gave me the gift of a communion chalice from her own collection. Inscribed on it is “United Methodist General Conference 2004.” (It’s the United Methodist equivalent of General Assembly — the quadrennial churchwide meeting.) Only later did I learn the further significance of this particular chalice.
In 2004, at this churchwide meeting, another chalice of Barbara’s was being used to serve communion. This was also when the debates over human sexuality, which still rage today, were really heating up in the United Methodist Church, and the church was deeply divided and the anger of the two sides at each other was palpable. During the service, the presider lifted the chalice and simply let it drop. It shattered.
It seemed to many to be the perfect metaphor for the church. Later in the conference, in a beautiful and theologically sound gesture, Barbara’s chalice was wired back together so that communion could still be served out of it — Christ is present, they were reminded, even in a broken and divided church.
I have no idea if it was her intention, but what I do know is that this new chalice comes from this conference where the other was broken. Out of something shattered had come something new, and Barbara passed it along to me.
Like Barbara, Peter knew what it was like to be on the edge of both great division and something entirely new. He stood between two warring factions — the Gentiles who wanted to be part of the Church and the Jews who didn’t think that Jesus came for the Gentiles and thought that if they let the Gentiles in, then their identity would be compromised. “Those people,” they thought, would contaminate them. And God sent Peter this dream of eating strange animals and said, “Peter, don’t call unclean what I have made clean.” The same Spirit had been poured out on all.
And I can’t help thinking, in the midst of the debate over Gentiles, that Peter must have also remembered Jesus’ words on the night that he was betrayed. He must have remembered his own fear of the future as he listened to Jesus speak these final words before his crucifixion, this new commandment to them: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”
Don’t be afraid, Peter, Jesus says. You don’t have to make the rules. You don’t have to bear the burden on who gets in and who’s left out. That is the role of God, not us.
Peter’s role is to love, and to come to the table with those who wish to gather there. To love ‘em all, as Father Jeff told us, and let God sort ‘em out.
Martin Luther once said that the Law is for the proud and the Gospel is for the brokenhearted. We like to be proud of our actions, to believe we are justified, and to look down on and exclude others. We love to be gatekeepers. Fundamentalist evangelicals get a bad rap for it, but we are all sinners. We all do it, whether liberal or conservative — we like to pick out our favorite people to exclude and divide from the herd. We find all kinds of ways to do it — politics, theology, worship style, ways of speaking, regionalism, denominationalism. But the truth is that each of us, if we are realistic enough to see our own shortcomings, is just as in need of grace as the next person, and the Gospel is available to us all.
Prince once sang these words that echo as true as ever:
“Fair to partly crazy, deep down we’re all the same
Every single one of us knows some kind of pain
In the middle of all that’s crazy, this one fact still remains
If you love somebody, your life won’t be in vain
And there’s always a rainbow, at the end of every rain.”
We love and have love because Christ first loved us. Let us share that welcome far and wide. Like Peter, believe that you do not have to be the gatekeeper, because Christ himself is the gate. Gather in Christ’s name with all who would gather.
Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.
The repaired chalice.