170611 – Bar None

Affirming Ministry Theme ~ Romans 15:1-7

We’re celebrating today, and we here at Faith United are so blessed that we have so much to celebrate! There is a special, energized, positive, spiritual vibe about this place – and it’s not just because we’re anticipating the pot luck lunch that awaits us. I felt it the moment I walked in here 10 years ago – and I repeatedly hear people make the same comment: It feels spiritually positive here.bar-none

That doesn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t part of the architectural drawings. We didn’t pay extra and order the super-sized box of positivity from the good vibes catalogue. The only way to ensure a positive, spiritual environment is to grow it – to work on it – to prioritize it – and to resource it. We do all those things. And it works.
Faith United is a good place to be.
Faith United is a healthy, vibrant expression of the body of Christ.
That’s worth celebrating.

It’s also worth sharing. And that leads us into our pondering time today. We are in the midst of a journey of learning and awareness called the Affirming Ministry process. Affirming ministries began to address the challenges that lesbians and gays experienced when interacting with churches and church people. Unfortunately, and sadly, many well-meaning church folks took a troublesome mixture of cultural norms and bad theology and used it to exclude, insult, belittle, and bar people whose sexual orientation was different than the majority.

And that’s what this ultimately is – the majority having to wrestle with how to treat minorities. But before I go there I need to back up and unpack a couple of things I just said.
A few months ago I preached a whole sermon about how the bible has been misused and incorrectly interpreted in regards to lesbians and gays. I’m not going to repeat that sermon – I encourage you to read it if you missed it back in January, it was called “A Firm Faith”. I also know that some folks had trouble with that sermon, and maybe will with today’s as well.

Here’s why I think that is.
If you were born a person who is attracted only to the opposite sex, and you’ve never had the faintest sense that you were anything other than the male or female person your body indicates you are, then you are part of the vast majority of people in our society and in our churches.

Add to that a culture that has taught us over and over again that we who are in the majority, we who have the power, are “normal” and anyone not like us is “abnormal”.
And now add to that a view of the bible that tended to read literally (when it suited us) – and you get an environment that creates barriers for those not in the majority, and uses “common sense” and “God’s word” to reinforce those barriers.

The challenge before us is that we have to unlearn a lot of things that we grew up thinking were true, but aren’t.
The first is the idea that being gay is a choice.
It is not.
It’s like being born left-handed, or red-headed – not a choice, but definitely a minority.

If you’re part of the straight/heterosexual majority this whole thing may not make any sense to you. But I would argue that we can no more understand the challenges of being part of the gay minority than we who are white can understand being part of an ethnic or racial minority. We’ve always had the power, so our ways became the only ways.

Then we had bible passages to seemingly back us up. This is the second thing we need to unlearn.
There are two key issues there.

One is that cultural norms in biblical times were very different from now. If you don’t believe me try selling your daughters as slaves this afternoon and see what happens! They made rules and pronouncements that fit their time, their context, but they don’t necessarily apply for all time.

The second key issue about the bible is that by saying “it says so in the bible” we’re picking and choosing which verses should be literal and which shouldn’t.
Those of us who are not gay are quick to point out Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman they shall be put to death.
It’s an “abomination,” the bible says.

It’s funny though how those of us who have some money (which is everyone in this room) never seem to want to bring the same biblical authority and literal reading to a verse like Luke 18:22 – something Jesus himself said.
If Leviticus 20:13 is God’s final word, then so is Luke 18:22, right?
Jesus says, Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.
Until you show me the receipt you are forbidden from throwing biblical quotes at anyone!

The problem is that we (straight people, the majority) can feel it in our bones that being gay is wrong – but that just means it’s wrong for us – not for everyone.
Just because someone is born into a minority doesn’t mean those of us in the majority, who have the power, can deny their reality.
It is a scientific fact that one’s sexual orientation is as optional as one’s skin colour. Just because that may go against what some of us grew up “knowing” doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means we still have stuff to unlearn, and learn.

Even seemingly innocuous bible verses, because they were translated and edited several decades ago, or more, can be really problematic for us today. Here’s an example.

I chose Romans 15:1-7 for the reading today. Listen to the first verse:

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

The strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak.
That is the majority voice being annoyed by the minority.

Now listen to this translation, which is absolutely authentic to the meanings of the Greek words but makes some very different editorial choices:

We who have the power are obliged to carry/bear the lack of power of the powerless, and not just satisfy our own needs.

What a difference!
It’s not about putting up with other’s failings – it’s about carrying people who don’t have power.
Which one sounds more like Jesus to you?

And here’s the grand finale of the passage, v.7:

Welcome [or, more correctly], (enthusiastically receive) one another (with great personal interest), therefore, just as Christ has (enthusiastically received) you, for the glory of God.

And that brings us to one of the main questions we hear about this whole affirming process:
“We’re already enthusiastically welcoming – why do we need to do this?”

And the simple answer to that is that WE know we’re welcoming, and we are, but the people out there, especially the ones who’ve been on the receiving end of the church’s condemnation just because of how they were born as a minority, they don’t know we’re welcoming.
They think we’re hurtful and judgmental.
We have to work hard to convince them otherwise.

Churches are naturally a reflection of the culture because we who make up the church live in that culture. In the past that has meant that churches slammed the doors of the church in the faces of those in the minority – all sorts of minorities.
It is an ugly part of our history.
How do we, the powerful majority, treat those in the minority? In the past the answer has been “not well”.

Can you even imagine how it would feel to want to go to church to grow spiritually and worship God and to be told you are not welcome?

Imagine if you were hurt, or lost, or hungry, and had no cell phone or money or resources available. Would you knock on a stranger’s door?
How would you choose the door?
What would repel you from some doors and attract you to other doors?
If the first door you went to was slammed in your face, how would you approach the next door?

Now put the shoe on the other foot.

What would make a stranger think they would be welcome at your door?
Your own knowledge that you’d welcome them in is a secret as far as that stranger is concerned. Your door, more or less, looks like all the others.
And, what if the stranger had been treated poorly at the previous houses they knocked on? Would they be in a hurry to try your house?
And what if they were in a wheelchair? You might be willing to bend over backwards to make things work, but would your home accommodate them? Could they even get to the door?
And what if they were a different ethnicity? Would you care?

What if they were lesbian or gay? (how would you know?)
And what if they had some other uniqueness? (trans, queer)

So far today I’ve been talking about minorities, and focusing on lesbian and gay interactions with churches, but the only reason I haven’t mentioned the rest of the LGBTQ groups until now is because generally speaking we haven’t had much opportunity to exclude them yet because they’ve learned from the experience of the LG folks and they won’t come near us. How sad is that!

Romans 15:1, and 7
We who have the power are obliged to carry/bear the lack of power of the powerless, and not just satisfy our own needs.
Enthusiastically receive one another, therefore, just as Christ has enthusiastically received you, for the glory of God.

Being an affirming ministry is about removing barriers, and more than that letting people know that you’ve removed them.
The trouble is we’re not very good at that!

love-hands-heart-rainbowFor example, we’re pretty proud that this church is fully wheelchair accessible – but do we advertise that? Why not? Shouldn’t we communicate that mobility is not a barrier here? In many churches it is a barrier – not here. Shouldn’t that be on our sign?

Think of all the ways we accommodate people who are in the minority here.
We offer gluten free bread for communion, we discourage scents and flowers and nuts because of allergies, we offer large print bulletins, we have hearing assist.
These are wonderfully welcoming and inclusive things!
We are knocking down barriers!

But if you had bad allergies, or mobility, or hearing, or sight issues and you’d been frustrated at churches before and were excluded from participating because of the barriers would you even bother trying to see if Faith United was different?
Or would you just assume this church is like all the others and give up?

How would you know unless we told you?

How do we indicate we have accessible parking?
How do we indicate our church is accessible?
How do we indicate we have hearing assist?

We advertise it. We put up signs or bulletin announcements.
We communicate to people that inclusivity is a strong core value for us and that we are striving to eliminate barriers for anyone who wishes to grow in Christian faith and be part of our community.

The affirming movement is not to make us an “activist” church or a “gay” church – it’s to make us a barrier-free church!
It’s one of the ways we love people.

Now here’s a hard thing to hear.
We are all comfortable here, and we probably never give this a second thought, but do you want to know how we advertise that we are NOT welcoming?
rainbow-flag-crossWe are screaming it out loud without even realizing it.

Outside, on the wall of this church, is a giant cross.
WE know that it’s a symbol of love, and spirituality, and acceptance, and transformation. But to a person who has been wrongly condemned because of how they were born, to a person who has had doors of churches slammed in their faces, that cross says “it’s dangerous for me in there. Stay away!”

So, am I saying we should take the cross down? Absolutely NOT!
I’m saying that it communicates one thing to us, but it might communicate something entirely opposite to some people out there.

So that means we have to work extra hard at communicating with people out there that we stand for something different than their hurtful experiences may have shown them:
That we stand for radical inclusiveness – that we are not judgmental – that God’s love is for everyone – that whether you are LGBTQ, or differently abled, or any kind of minority, or of any social class, age, or experience that there are no barriers for you here at Faith United – that anyone who wants to grow in faith is welcome to journey with us – bar none.

Just being welcoming, and knowing that we’re welcoming, is never going to remove those perceived barriers. We will need to say it out loud and say it often to convince people who’ve been hurt that we won’t hurt them.
It’s unfair that we’ve been included in the stereotype of a nasty church – but that’s our reality.
Our challenge is to communicate our love and our openness, and to overcome that perception.

I recently heard a story about a woman who because of a marriage breakdown was forced to leave her very conservative evangelical church. They shamed her and kicked her out. You don’t have to be LGBTQ to be hurt by a church!

Feeling abandoned, that woman was passing by a United Church and saw the rainbow affirming ministry symbol on their sign. She didn’t know exactly what it was, but she knew that rainbows are associated with acceptance and safe space for LGBTQ people.
Remember, she’s straight, but that sign made her think that “if that church is safe for LGBTQ folks it’s probably safe for me” – and she went in.

We who have the power are obliged to carry/bear the lack of power of the powerless, and not just satisfy our own needs.
Enthusiastically receive one another, therefore, just as Christ has enthusiastically received you, for the glory of God.