Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Church's Job Description

Sermon Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
by the Rev. Sheri Hostetler, Pastor, First Mennonite Church of San Francisco

The popular Biblical scholar Marcus Borg often asks his students at Oregon State University to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity. He’s been doing this for years, and he says that they consistently use five adjectives to describe Christians: generous, non-judgmental, thoughtful, prophetic, passionate. No, sadly, that is not the five adjectives they use. The way his students consistently describe Christians is: literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, bigoted.

One could argue that this is just one person’s experience, but a book that came out several years ago called unchristian: What a new generation rally thinks about Christianity and why it matters, supported Borg’s story with objective research. The three-year study found that an overwhelming percentage of young people aged 16 to 29-years view Christianity with hostility, resentment and disdain. They think that the following words represent present-day Christianity:  antihomosexual 91%; judgmental 87%; hypocritical 85%; out of touch with reality 72%; boring 68%.  What’s more, these deeply negative views were based upon their real experiences with real Christians – it wasn’t just a superficial stereotype with no basis in experience. It would be hard to overestimate, says the study’s author, "how firmly people reject — and feel rejected by — Christians.”

Actually, probably most of us know that that’s true. Some of us think of Christians in those terms, too. Many of the 20 and 30something in my congregation say that it’s hard for them to “admit” to co-workers or friends that they attend a church. If they do mention it, they feel like they must instantly follow that admission with “But I’m not like those other Christians.” I felt a bit of that myself several years ago when I moved to a new city – Alameda – and started to meet some of my new neighbors, people who would form the neighborhood or village for my son, Patrick. For the first time in my life as a pastor, I found myself feeling a bit shy about stating my profession. Would they think I was a homophobic bigot? Would they think I was judgmental, insensitive, boring? And, here’s the kicker, would they not invite Patrick over to play because of me? Because I’m, you know, Christian?

Wow. People used to think of other things when they thought of Christians. The earliest Christians broke down social barriers, following the example of their teacher. They subverted normal social hierarchies of wealth, ethnicity, religion, and gender in favor of a radical equality. They ate with anybody – prostitutes, lepers, the unclean. They took anybody into their homes. These were shocking things to do at the time. And outsiders noticed.  In the 2nd century, the theologian Tertullian summarized the appeal of the Christian community to outsiders looking in: “Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign. . . See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other."

People used to think of other things when they thought of Christians. In the 1960s, thousands of African-American Christians, inspired by their faith, put their lives on the line to end decades of legalized segregation in this country. They were jailed, beaten, spat upon, hosed.  Some outsiders looked in and described them as “just” and “courageous -- and some of these “outsiders” -- Jews, agnostics, Buddhists – even linked arms with them in common cause, and sang their spirituals as they marched together down the streets of the segregated South.   

When the church is being homophobic, bigoted and hypocritical, those outside the church notice. And when the church is being who it is called to be, people notice that, too.

This passage today from Isaiah is more than 2500 years old. It was written in a very different time and place from our own – to people who have experienced horrors that I’m guessing (I’m hoping) few of us here have experienced. Isaiah is writing to a people who had been defeated by the Babylonian army, their temple – the seat of God on earth – had been destroyed, and they had been taken in chains to Babylon, forced into exile. Like I said, a very different time and place and situation. And yet, this passage is a job description for anybody – in any time, in any place -- who would call themselves people of God. It’s as much of a job description for the exiled people of Israel as it is for us Christians today.

This job description for God’s people is twofold: First, the servant of God restores his or her own people. In the case of this passage, this restoration means returning the thousands of Hebrew exiles to their homeland and restoring a destroyed and demoralized nation. (This happened.)

But this task of restoring one’s own people alone, says God, “is too light a thing.” It’s not enough. There’s more to do. There’s a second part to this job description and that is to be “given as a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Freedom, restoration, liberation – these are not for the chosen tribes of Israel alone. This promise is for all people, every nation. Even, ironically, for the nation that had oppressed the Hebrew people – the Babylonians. Ironically, these Hebrew captives are to be carriers of hope even to their tormentors. They are to carry the light of God’s salvation to all the earth. So says the job description.

When you look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil rights movement – you see a people who were very aware that their job was not to restore African-American people alone. Yes, segregation needed to end. Yes, systemic oppression and institutionalized racism needed to end (and they still need to end). But they were working for the liberation not only of themselves – that was “too light a thing.” They were working for the liberation of the country from the prison of prejudice. Martin Luther King Jr., knew that by calling on America to end the oppression of some people, he was freeing the entire country – freeing it to be to be true to the values it held most dear, restoring its soul. “I have a dream,” he famously said. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and women) are created equal.’”

I have long been a part of the movement for lgbt justice in our Mennonite church. I applaud you in the Episcopal church, who are so far ahead of us – we look to you to see where we need to be, and thank you for the pathfinding/pathclearing work you’ve done. I’ve noticed over the 20 years I’ve been a part of this that this liberation movement that it has moved from seeing itself as liberating and restoring lgbt people along to their rightful place in church and community – that is too light a thing -- but to see that we are called to liberate the entire church – to free the church to be who it is called to be, to restore its soul.

I was talking several years ago to a man from a Mennonite church in Florida – a church that had hired an openly gay man as a pastor – in the Mennonite church, that’s still considered pushing the envelope, sadly. For this, the church had been kicked out of their conference and, thus, the denomination. This fact had gotten quite a lot of publicity in the Sarasota newspapers. And after they had been kicked out, people started knocking on their doors. He told me about a single mother named Tina who had two developmentally disabled children. When she was looking for a church to call home, she sought out the one who had an openly gay pastor because, as she said, she figured that would be the church that would truly welcome her and her family.

When outsiders look in and see a Christianity they find attractive, rather than repulsive, it’s because they see a Christianity that is being true to its job description. They see Christians eating with prostitutes and lepers and see in that a hope that the walls that divide us are not as great as the love that unites us. They see Christians pulled off of seats at segregated lunch counters, beaten and kicked, and not striking back, and they see in that a hope that violence is not the only answer to injustice. They see Christians flinging open their doors to welcome everybody and see in that a hope that the light of love can illuminate the darkest places of fear and ignorance. When the church is fulfilling its job description, “outsiders” will describe us as welcoming instead of antihomosexual; open-hearted instead of judgmental; authentic instead of hypocritical; aligned with a greater Reality instead of out of touch with it; and certainty never, ever boring.

If we can help the church be true to its job description, then maybe in the years to come, my nine-year-old son, Patrick, will not feel shy about saying “I am a Christian” if that is what he chooses to be. If we can help the church be this church, then perhaps, in the years to come, we won’t need to say “But I’m not like that” when we say we are Christian. Because, in the years or months or weeks to come, outsiders will look at us and see a light to the nations. God of mercy, may that day come soon. 

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