To begin, I just want to share that I have some ambivalence about thematic Sunday worship, and by “thematic” I mean Sundays that are designated for lifting up any one issue. For example, this Sunday is “RIC Sunday” or “Reconciling in Christ Sunday” – a day set aside by the ecumenical welcoming community on the last Sunday of each year for celebrating the ministry of welcome to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the church. Next Sunday is the “Souper Bowl of Caring” – an ecumenical movement to lift up both domestic and global hunger concerns on the same Sunday as the Super Bowl. Earlier this week I received materials in the mail inviting us to be part of the “Rachel Sabbath Initiative,” an interfaith movement to support the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal that focuses on maternal health. I could keep going. In the same way that every month of the year has multiple awareness designations, so that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is also Domestic Violence Prevention Month, each Sunday of the year has a multitude of Lutheran or ecumenical or interfaith initiatives that are potentially connected to it.
So I say I’m ambivalent about thematic Sunday worship not in the sense of the word that means “wishy washy,” but really that I’m pulled in more than one direction. One the one hand, I understand the value of focusing our attention on the pressing social justice issues and public health concerns that shape our world. On the other, I have a concern that the tradition of preaching and prayers arising from the cycle of the lectionary of readings that are assigned for each Sunday could be overwhelmed by a sort of “issue of the week” form of worship. I’m a bit of a traditionalist in this way, and I got some ribbing from classmates in seminary over this, but I really believe in the value of a lectionary. I think, left to our own devices, many preachers have a set of biblical texts that are their favorites – a sort of canon within the canon – and that the lectionary structures and stretches us to hear the voice of God across a variety of experiences recorded in the Bible – historical and prophetic, poetic and instructional. The lectionary is a safeguard against any one person’s biases becoming the basis for worship.
As I reviewed the texts for this week though, and held them up against the theme of “Reconciling in Christ Sunday,” my ambivalence faded – because you couldn’t have cherry picked a better set of readings for discussing the issue of full inclusion and wide welcome than the ones the lectionary provides us with this week.
There are two themes running side by side in the lessons from the Old Testament and the New Testament this week that finally come together in the gospel reading from Luke. From the Hebrew scriptures we get the first theme: the prophetic word. The boy Jeremiah receives a calling from God to speak an unpopular truth to power. God tells Jeremiah,
before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations…Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. (Jeremiah 1:5,9b-10)
The calling to speak a prophetic word is a terrifying calling, as it means challenging the established patterns of culture and convention. God tells young Jeremiah that he will announce an end to nations and kingdoms, he will herald a new way of being. And Jeremiah says,
Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy. (Jer. 1:6)
Jeremiah tells the truth about how it feels to be at the front of the edge of change. In the face of the dominant culture, being a voice for change can feel like being a small voice in the middle of a storm, or a small child in the presence of grown ups. Being at the front of the edge of change you learn that your power doesn’t come from numbers of people or conventional wisdom, but from the conviction of your beliefs. So God reassures Jeremiah,
Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you. (Jer. 1:7-8a)
This first theme of the prophetic word is picked up again in the gospel reading from Luke, which is a continuation on the passages we read last week. You’ll remember that Jesus has returned from his teaching mission to his own hometown of Nazareth, where he enters the temple and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18)
Then he sits down and announces to those who were listening, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” So far, so good. Everyone speaks well of him. He has read beautifully from the scroll of one of Israel’s most beloved prophets. Then he starts expounding on what the prophetic word really means. He says,
The truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25-27)
Jesus evokes the names of Elijah and Elisha, having just read from the scroll of Isaiah. He is calling out all the heavy hitters in the history of Israel’s beloved prophets, but his words drive people to rage and they want to throw him off a cliff for blasphemy. Why?
Because in his explanation of what it means to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed, Jesus stops talking about pretty ideas and concepts and starts talking about real-world situations that need to change. This is the prophetic word, a word of truth to people who did not want to hear it. Jesus faithfully delivers the message, and for his faithfulness the people in church want to throw him off a cliff. But, just as God promised to deliver Jeremiah, God in Christ Jesus sidesteps the religious violence of his hometown and goes about his way, refusing to get caught up in their conflict.
The second theme is related to the first. It is the content of the prophetic word, which is the promise that God’s love is shared equally with all people. We hear it first this morning in the passage from Paul’s l
etter to the Corinthians. This is the third week we’ve read from this letter, so you’ll remember that in the chapter leading up to these verses Paul has been addressing a conflict in the church. The community in Corinth is struggling with its diversity. In addition to Jews living in Greece and convinced that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah, the church in Corinth was also full of pagans, who had not grown up waiting for a messiah, who had religious and cultural practices of their own, including speaking in tongues, and who were not satisfied with second class citizenship in the church on account of their backgrounds. The church was divided over the issue of assimilation. Would the newcomers be forced to start acting like Jews in order to be a part of the church, or was this new faith community going to be able to find a way for everyone to bring the fullness of their lives, their cultures, their backgrounds and their practices, into the church? Having just instructed the whole church that the gifts of the spirit are supposed to be used for building up the church, not tearing it down, Paul compares each of them to members of the body, and reminds them that in a body no part is more important than another. In a body, no part can exclude itself, or be excluded by the others. Everyone is essential.
Jesus picks up on this theme. In his explanation of Isaiah’s vision of good news for the poor, release for the captive, sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed, Jesus intentionally brings up the story of the widow of Zarephath, a woman who was not a member of the nation of Isarel, but who gave her last bit of food to the prophet Elijah. God blessed her generosity, and her small bit of food never ran out.
(Incidentally, this is where we get the name of our food pantry – Elijah’s Pantry – though I think we give Elijah too much credit for a miracle that only took place because of a foreigner’s faith. I don’t suppose we’ll ever rename our food panty, The Widow’s Pantry, but it would be more accurate.)
Jesus brings up the story of Naaman the Syrian. Again, not an Israelite, but a foreign military leader that finds healing from God through the prophet Elisha. In both cases, foreigners get a full measure of what the Israelites wanted to claim was theirs alone. Their birthright. But through the prophets Isaiah and Elijah and Elisha and Jesus, God continues to announce God’s prophetic word, the small voice in the storm, the voice on the leading edge of change in front of an obstinate world. God’s love will not be contained by human institutions, religious or otherwise. God’s love knows no boundaries.
And this is why I think these texts are perfect for a Sunday that has been designated “Reconciling in Christ Sunday” by the ecumenical welcoming movement for the full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the church. Because, let’s be honest, except for those rare occasions when it comes up in the lectionary and gets preached on a Sunday morning, when do you normally hear this passage from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13?
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:4-7,13)
At weddings. We most commonly hear this passage at weddings. Even though it was not addressing itself to the issue of romantic love – but actually was a part of Paul’s plea for the church to open itself up in love to those who were radically different from each other – we usually hear this passage read at weddings as a sort of blessing for any two people, who as a fact of their own humanity are radically different from one another, to open themselves up in love to one another.
Do you suppose that today, this morning, we might hear these words as both? As both a blessing for those who wish to be married, and as a fervent hope that the community of faith, full of its own differences, will finally allow that to happen?
In 1995, the year I graduated from college and began teaching junior high in Boston, this congregation took a vote to become Reconciling in Christ. It took Joyce and I a while to find the minutes of the annual meeting in 1995 when that vote took place, but with a little help we were able to track them down. I know that the vote wasn’t unanimous but, by a solid majority, this congregation made a decision to make a public declaration of welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people at a time when many in the church and in the larger society still considered those words impolite.
Fifteen years later, the President of the United States of America is calling for an end to the ban on LGBT people in the military, and a federal court in California is hearing arguments to overturn their state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. My own home state of Iowa, along with the entire northeast, has legalized same-sex marriage. So has Canada, and now parts of Mexico.
Two summers ago, the Sunday morning adult education group read through the entire first draft of the ELCA’s social statement on human sexuality. At the time, all most people wanted to get to was what the statement had to say about LGBT people – whether or not the church would finally allow us to serve as pastors and to have our relationships recognized. But the statement was much broader than that. Framing the issue of human sexuality as both a gift and a trust, the statement spent a lot of time discussing the need for the church to bless and support relationships in which the gift of sexuality could be shared without fear of exploitation or harm. It talked about the sexualization of the media culture we live in, and the commercial exploitation of women and youth. It talked about the plight of many elderly people who, following the death of a spouse, are unable to re-enter into marriage for fear of losing their survivor benefits, and the choice they are forced to make between companionship and self-sufficiency and integrity to their faithful understandings of marriage as the context for sexual intimacy.
After spending about ten weeks reading the entire draft of the social statement, one member of the class shared with the rest of us, “I was worried when we started reading this that you were going to press us on the issue of gay marriage. That’s where I was going to have to put my foot down. But now that we’ve done all this reading on how important the church thinks marriage is for making a safe place for couples to grow in their life with each other, and to be supported by the community, I don’t see how we could deny it to anyone!”
In her testimony, I heard the words of the Apostle Peter, who carried the good news of God’s impartial love to the Gentiles and was so moved by the clear presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives that he cried out, “can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
The text of the social statement that was adopted last summer in Minneapolis says this,
On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that the scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and committed relationships that we experience today. They believe that the neighbor and community are best served when same-gender relationships are lived out with lifelong and monogamous commitments that are held to the same rigorous standards, sexual ethics, and status a
s heterosexual marriage. They surround such couples and their lifelong commitments with prayer to live in ways that glorify God, find strength for the challenges that will be faced, and serve others. They believe same-gender couples should avail themselves of social and legal support for themselves, their children, and other dependents and seek the highest legal accountability available for their relationships.
In our own lifetimes, many of us have seen the failure of “separate-but-equal” arrangements. The church we belong to, the ELCA, has made a giant first step in finally allowing for open service by partnered LGBT clergy in the ordained ministry of the denomination. It has recognized that many in our church see the need for “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-sex relationships” that are to be lived out with the same rigorous standards, ethics, and status as heterosexual marriage.
So, let’s call it what it is. Let’s be unashamed of our full welcome to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in every aspect of the life of this church: baptism, sharing in the Lord’s Supper, confirmation, leadership of every kind – including ordained ministry, and marriage. Let us take the step that is implied in our new social statements. As the church and the world debate just how fully LGBT people will be accepted into the life of the broader community, how about St. Luke’s makes its own position known. We are a community that has been a small voice in a storm, a leading voice out on the edge of where change is happening for fifteen years now. Let’s talk about this without leading anyone to the side of a cliff and threatening to throw them off, but instead with the marks of the church of God gathered around the witness of Christ Jesus that Paul describes: patience, kindness, honesty, forbearance, faith, hope and endurance.
The prophetic word is the promise of God’s limitless love, made known in each new age. Jesus reads that word from history and makes it alive and relevant to the people of his own hometown, challenging them to take the beauty of Isaiah’s words and make them real here and now.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”