By Pastor Dave Mourn, Rocky Ford Mennonite Church[A sermon given by Pastor Dave Mourn at Emmanuel Mennonite Church and Rocky Ford Mennonite Church on September 11, 2016.]
Rocky Ford Mennonite Church felt the tremors of at least two seismic shifts this last year. As I wrote my “Pastor’s Annual Report” I went back and forth, writing and starting over, being brave and then cowardly. Ironically, I turned in the cowardly report only to find our lectionary texts pointing me into the more challenging report on the very next Sunday, September 11, 2016.
The first seismic shift this year came in the form of abandoning our old questions about our will and resiliency to change and attract a new generation as our only hope for survival. In the last year two more dear ones have passed away and several have stopped attending finding conference discussions on LGBT issues intolerable. We are old, barren, and failing health casts longer, darker shadows on the coming year. It seems a seismic shift to ask a new question–how do we go about dying gracefully? This is an emotional question. It seems our cherished Anabaptist heritage of holding Jesus at the center, that servanthood and cruciform love and grace conquers evil and injustice, not violence, all moving toward new creation, should thrive here in the lower Arkansas valley and our world.
Recently, Jean and I shared a conversation about faith with a couple who asked what we believe as Mennonites. I replied with the heritage I just mentioned. Her quick response was as foreign to me as likely mine was to her – she believed in praying to intermediaries, personal and of the church, “which have proven time and again to yield the fastest and most assured results.” We seemed to hold faith on opposite ends of a spectrum. I may be out of balance in it all yet I am so thankful for the Anabaptist heritage we represent. It should not die, but if dying is our trajectory, can we change it? Can we choose the right kind of change?
On this, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we see the broad ripples of social change and economic ramifications spreading globally resting heavily on the vulnerable, poor, and our earth. The loss of life, suffering, and destruction over the past 15 years continues. Unveiled as the heart of change birthed by 9/11 is fear, and that fear compounding distrust, hatred, and cycles of retribution; bad, terribly damaging change.
Yet, where is the change across stark differences which the gospels push for, those which garner trust, grow understanding, express love, and brings about healing and good?
That kind of change is central to the walk of faith. I came to RFMC four years ago not thinking I would change, but here with you, through tears and laughter, with tender worship, your lives and faith have changed me. In my weekly study of scripture and seeking its essence and voice I’ve encountered whole new faces, realms and clarifications of God’s character, purpose, and mercy. I have a shelf of new books which changed and shaped me. I have met and known a couple dozen incredible pastors working through faith, church life and struggles; the thick and hard along with the joyous and serene. That changed me enormously. If you are not changing then I dare say you are coasting, withdrawn, maybe resisting the Spirit, or possibly in a settled, comatose, or even dead faith. The world is changing, as is our understanding of it, so God is never done changing us.
The second seismic shift for us this year demands a stepping back to recognize dramatic change is often demanded by God upon human constructs of faith. Few regret our faith has changed beyond the day of Moses, 1st century Palestine, the early or medieval church, and the Reformation. The Spirit’s revelation of Christ continues. Our lectionary readings today are accounts of change in process.
In our 1Timothy reading Paul tells of his collision with the patient mercy of God in Jesus Christ. He was transformed from a zealously faithful Jew and persecutor of Jesus followers to become a world-changing advocate for Jesus the Messiah, and him crucified. What a change!
Change was the earthshaking challenge Jesus presented to the powerful and prestigious Pharisees and all of Judaism. There are multiple layers of cultural and religious implications in our reading from Luke 15, but note the Pharisees are disgusted at Jesus as he eats with unclean sinners. No way is he fit as a rabbi or a hopeful messiah! Keep in mind a meal in Jewish culture was a defining fellowship establishing honor and status–we say you are what you eat, for them, as the rule, you are who you eat with.
That is not lost on most cultures. Even as I met with the homeless for 5 years in Los Angeles, few things would light up the eyes and touch the heart of a homeless man like the sharing of a meal. On one occasion I greeted a homeless man I knew as he sat begging, pan-handling we called it, while sitting with his legs folded before him on a sunny sidewalk entry to a 7-ll store. I went on into the store and bought several hotdogs and a couple drinks (but not beer he would have preferred.) I scooted away the cigarette butts to sit down beside him on the concrete, decorated as it was with dry dirty black dots of chewing gum. We ate the hot dogs together there on his home turf. He seemed so beside himself, amazed, and I enjoyed the very rare treat of a heart clogging hot dog. He actually showed up to church the next Sunday. I wasn’t preaching so we sat together on the front row in a packed sanctuary, though he did fall quickly asleep between our vibrant and loud praises in music. Soon thereafter we began investigating together treatment options for his addictions. Meal times are special and often where lives can grow in knowing and trusting one another.
What Luke does with this pharisaical criticism of who Jesus ate with is nothing less than genius. Jesus addresses these authorities with three parables, two in our reading today, the third one which follows is that of the familiar prodigal son story. Stepwise the parables go from 1 sheep of a hundred is lost, then 1 coin of ten, then 1 son of 2, and when each lost item is recovered there is rejoicing and celebration by family, friends, even God and heavenly hosts. But wait, the prodigal story has a hitch, a different ending. For sure the focal matter of the whole three-parable set is the matter of the 2nd son who refuses to come to the table of celebration and subsequently that parable omits the celebration in the heavens. It would not be missed upon the Pharisees–they are the second son who is not coming to the table to celebrate though the invitation to the kingdom like banquet remains open. But will they join? Will they rejoice? Will they embrace a humbling change in their sense of honor and status alongside the prodigal sinners Jesus brings to belong and share life with at his table? The heavens await to rejoice.
Too often the church shares much in common with the Pharisees. It is haunting. We too are educated, can read and write and study the scriptures, can cherry pick parts to judge others and minimize parts which challenge our own traditions, power, status, or way of life. In short, we choose a particular way of reading our sacred writing. Today, for many, it is as if a KJV bible was delivered from the heavens by a stork, a printed dictation from God. Well, with further thought, perhaps God held the minds of the many authors totally captive as they wrote. It is called God’s word after all, right? But the physical and literary realities strongly suggest humanity, with cultures, contexts and biases, are key elements in its writing–which is a relief because if God were to copyright a “rule book” I would hope for something a bit more concise, definitive, less confusing, and without contradictions or inner tensions.
For sure, scripture seems a grand narrative of inspired people seeking God and faith while making many mistakes along the way. Yet it climaxes in a clear revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth who puts flesh and word to God. He is fully human in his pain and joy, his faith meeting doubt, his anxieties sweating out prayer, his temptations yielding co-suffering love, and his reluctance to suffer and die. Yet he is divine in his cosmic victory over evil, in his unconditional love, mercy, and continual longing not to destroy, condemn or coerce those through which evil works, but always to restore, forgive, and bring wholeness and fullness of life through grace. Without this climactic good news I would put scripture aside along with all other sacred writings. With it, well, the world makes better sense and there is direction for hope.
Different ways of holding scripture surely complicates matters and so we come to that second seismic shift which I cowardly pulled back from reporting. It is controversial, complex, and everyone is exhausted by the subject, but let’s ask if recent conference decisions on same sex attraction represents a helpful and needed call for change? Did the floor just shake a bit because scripture calls that sin, right? And besides, well, YUK! There is a tremendous force of the inner yuk factor for many heterosexuals–naturally so–some of that seems neurologically hard-wired within one’s orientation and much is the way we have been socialized to respond. But regardless of who we stereotype and label as a worse and yukkier (I made up a word there) sinner than the next, have we lost the open table of mercy Jesus practiced? Have we lost that longing to bring others across all barriers to our table to proclaim you belong! You belong within our love, you belong within Jesus’ love, you belong on this journey in Christ with us which leaves none of us the same in our mutual brokenness! Or are we the religious ones who won’t sit with those we judge with certain sins, rejecting them from a distance with a sin label?
My greatest faith challenge in the last year comes through many relationships and conversations, near and afar. What I’ve witnessed were those who vocalize a passionate judgment on these gender issues based on a list of scriptural infractions, were those, with a few exceptions, from whom I also have heard clear and outright slander and gossip, faith and racial based stereotyping and prejudice, the approval of violence to confront counter-voices, and little concern for the plight of economic, racial, and faith based injustices. I also have witnessed this hypocritical judgmentalism dishearten and drive away some of the most insightful, wise, loving, spiritually gifted, peace-building and Christ-like leaders I have ever known. It has made me ask–can I follow Jesus but not associate with this religion called Christianity? I sit on that edge still and I’m not alone. Fortunately not all faces of Christianity are this counter intuitive to a Jesus shaped people and a Jesus-like God. The change our recent conference decisions have made brings hope for a more holistic reading of scripture which welcomes others who have been put into another class. The challenge for us is like unto that the Pharisees met; they sincerely and passionately thought they had their scriptures and theology rightly understood with the sinners rightly sorted. Sadly, in the process they even had Jesus wrongly sorted.
I haven’t slept well since I began wrestling with this message. I started over several times moving to the uncontroversial. I awoke several nights, and even this morning at 2 AM I awoke suddenly, with a jerk, getting up and asking–I’m about to say what? in this sermon later today? I felt like I was coming out of the closet or something. But I pushed on only with the thought that if our leadership can boldly risk so much, so can I. What about this 93% of our leadership which supports this change? Can I trust them? Who are they?
When I want to fix my wife’s car, our computers, or have my own body taken care of, I will often do what I can on my own. Thanks to google that works most of the time though costly lessons have been learned. Especially with doctors, though, there is great peace in trusting a doctor you know who is on top of the game, has studied every angle, has turned 180 degrees on many older treatments and understandings, has vast experience and your best interest at heart. Our spiritual caregivers are every bit as crucially important.
These are dedicated faith leaders in whom I’ve seen great humility and who have studied this change for many years. Most have advanced degrees and shelves of books which do not support any such proposal for change. Some have preached or taught against it for many years. But these are also folks who have studied scripture with great intensity while asking hard and difficult questions about its complexities and have expanded their reading to explore more contemporary understandings of scripture and human sexuality. Though still central, scripture cannot be our fundamental anchor as language fluid and easily manipulated. The call to love as Christ loves is our anchor.
Indeed, those who are merely exploring diverse ways of experiencing pleasure are not our focus here. In real life counseling situations our leadership finds hurting, struggling, confused, and oppressed individuals who did not choose their same sex attraction and who seek help to continue faith in Jesus but have not met a Jesus in the church who sits with a hotdog alongside them, right on their turf to share their understandings. Many have met a church that says the bible is utterly clear, so some have yielded to a group of church leaders performing multiple exorcisms of the demon within them, while others are sent to undergo “change” therapy which rarely yields success and more often exacerbates serious, suicidal depression. And others still are told you are okay, just don’t act out your confused, perverted sexuality. Why so very different responses if the Bible is so clear? We can hardly deny the truth of Genesis 2 stating it is not good that man be alone, or a female, but what if the helper who nurtures the deepest emotional longing to love and be loved, and who authentically shares life most fully in all its struggles and joys–is not the norm for some, not the opposite sex? Though singleness is a gift from the Spirit for some with great reward, it is not a gift all have been given.
Our leadership realizes many personal anecdotes, along with the witness of contemporary books and that from antiquity, how those with same sex attraction, though not a choice they made, are often categorized by church and society to feel sinfully subhuman. No wonder depression and suicide so often prevails in this group which is outside the norm. Does that sound like the mercy of Jesus at work?
Very importantly, our leadership has bothered to study extensively both sides of the issue, has examined how scripture can be an idol, out of control–like the Torah tradition which Jesus confronted–and has become disconnected from the Grand Narrative culminating in Jesus who came not to condemn the world, but save it, to make it whole and new again using us. A great hurdle for those fixated on how clear scripture is on this area of “sin” is a fear and unwillingness to explore a fuller understanding which challenges the comfort of their moral certainties. We fiercely embrace the security of our certainties.
Our leadership, and I as one of them, has asked: “How do we journey with Jesus alongside those struggling within the complex physiological phenomena which same sex attraction presents? How does our love usher in Jesus to bring about wholeness and fullness, both spiritually and relationally, as much as we possibly can? That is our passion and purpose for the whole of our community and world.
With hearts and eyes wide open to our mutual brokenness, our leadership has pushed our “polity” toward an open table of belonging and diversity. Not recklessly, not saying everything is okay, not allowing promiscuity or covenant infidelity which can deeply damage and destroy which even heterosexuality too often does, but seeking fullness and wholeness of life for those with a foundational element of their humanity, a sexual orientation they did not choose but is outside the norm. And can such people in the purity of covenant and committed faithfulness also possess the amazing gifts of God’s Spirit and thus deserve a place of spiritual leadership? Can they sit at our table as such? Are they not invaluable having experienced life and struggle in a way most of us never will?
I don’t align completely with everything Billy Graham presented, but I’m with him when he said it is God’s job to judge, the Spirit’s job to convict, it is our job to love.
To be human, tightly interwoven spiritual, physical, and sexual beings, is not by birth or environment the norm for some as it is for others. So as we meet that which is not the norm, when not harmful or damaging to self or others, we might be called to consider a change toward that which garners trust–not fear, grows understanding–not exclusion, and expresses a love which brings healing. Can we embrace same sex attraction as a gift of God some have been given, though outside the norm? Can we appreciate how it engenders a deep, committed love just as it can in the heterosexual? We might be surprised how such change will find everyone, ourselves included, more intimately embraced by the mercy of God and belonging at the table with Jesus. Do we set such a table? Might such a table bring new life to dying churches? The heavens await to rejoice.