My sermon from last Sunday (5/13/12):
"I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another." Jesus says these words in the context of his "Farewell discourse." They are among the last words his disciples will ever hear from him before his crucifixion. They hold a key to understanding Jesus' message.
All of Jesus' commands and teachings were in order to cajole, prod, and sometimes even shame us into loving each other. Jesus did not come to replace the laws of the Hebrew testament with a new set of regulations, he came to found a community of love based on his own identity as the second person of the Trinity. He called us to service in his name to those we often consider unlovely. Real Christian love is costly, irrational, and lavish. And it is meant to be directed at those who we may not want to love.
Two weeks ago, Mother Mary-Marguerite Kohn, co-rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Elicott City, Maryland and church secretary Brenda Brewington were shot by a homeless man who had been asked to limit his visits to their church food pantry. He was later found dead in the woods outside of a self-inflicted wound. Ms. Brewington died that night. Mother Mary-Margurite was kept on life support for several days according to her previously-stated wishes so that she could maximize her organ donation. The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland reached out to the family of the shooter, offering a funeral and burial in a church graveyard at a choice of several different churches in the diocese. It was a move that echoed the response of the Amish community to the school shooting in Pennsylvania in 2006.
This kind of stuff makes the news, and it astounds and baffles the non-Christian world. How can we offer such costly forgiveness? What drives us to risk ourselves for others? This is especially hard to understand because it goes up against how we are perceived by the society at large.
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christian youth, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. Not love, not compassion, not service, not hope, not even Jesus, but "antihomosexual." For 91 percent of youth outside the church, the church is seen to exist solely to condemn certain people. Even more shocking? The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)
People often wonder why we don't see more young people in church. But we know there is a huge age gap in attitudes towards issues of human sexuality. Same-gender relationships are simply not an issue for a vast majority of younger people.
The Barna reseach also shows that One of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their friends with same-gendered affections. Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this is one big reason why.
It doesn't matter where you stand on issues of human sexuality - whether or not you believe people in same-gender relationships should receive blessings or be ordained to ministry. You should be alarmed and scandalized by these statistics. Young people think the primary point of the Gospel as the church proclaims it is what statistics tell us they as a generation perceive as an outright denial of civil rights. Whether or not we older people hold the position that this is a human rights issue, young people from all political persuasions increasingly do. With things like Amendment One in North Carolina being wrapped in partisan Christian rhetoric, there is a real possibility that those who push this speech will win a battle in the culture war, but will lose an entire generation to Christ.
The world desperately needs to the Gospel, but can't hear it over the politics. To people outside the church, Christianity has become a one-hit, or maybe two-hit wonder, and those tracks are rapidly falling off the charts.
The same concern is growing among young conservative evangelicals.
Young conservative pastor Dave Richmond writes:
"I’m tired of politics. I’m tired of bills designed to ‘protect’ marriage. I’m tired of politicians saying what is expedient rather than what is necessary. I’m tired of the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that is so prevalent in our culture. I’m tired of being told how to vote because I am a Christian and certainly anyone who loves Jesus will vote a certain way.
I’m tired of everyone who believes homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle being labeled a ‘homophobe’ or ‘bigot.’ I’m tired of Christian friends who feel that the government can endorse whatever type of ‘marriage’ they want to ... being labeled as ‘liberal’ or ‘heretical’. I’m tired of friends who struggle with homosexual attraction being labeled as ‘lost’ and ‘hell-bound’ by people who don’t know them or their struggles.
No one is going to "win" the culture war. We have been struggling with issues over definitions of marriage and issues of human sexuality since our creation, and we will continue to do so until Christ returns. Christians of good will, faith, and intelligence come to different readings of the same Bible over this issue.
Our obsession with it as Christians can only lead to loss for everyone. Loss to those people of same-gender attraction who are scarred for life by angry speech from mouths that should be speaking love in the name of Christ. Loss to the the church of an entire generation. Loss to America, as the church's moral voice for the downtrodden becomes increasingly sidelined in public speech. And a loss to Humanity, as Jesus' saving Gospel, the most relevant and powerful story in the world which should be transforming our society, is made irrelevant in order to win an increasingly pointless battle.
In Acts, Peter beholds a thing that shocks him. Gentiles, non-Jews, are receiving the same gifts of the Holy Spirit that Jews are. This is inconceivable to Peter and the other disciples, who think that Jesus' Gospel is just for Jews. But he can't deny the reality of the situation. Echoing The Ethiopian Eunuch from the reading last week, he cries out in amazement:
"Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"
What is the Gospel OF Jesus Christ to us? Is it a book of hand-picked platitudes that reinforce what we already believe? Or is it a story that challenges us to costly love? Does it call us to condemn those whom we fear? Or does it call us to embrace them, even if it costs us like Mother Mary-Maurgurite Kohn? What would it be like if actions and sacrifices like hers were thought of by young Americans as what Christians primarily did, instead of as a puzzling discrepancy in an otherwise politicized agenda?
The choice has everything to do with the survival of the church as an institution. The Gospel will survive - Jesus is the Word and He is eternal. But the institutional church is not necessary for that - God can spread the Gospel in new ways - the institutions we love and treasure are ours to save or let fade into irrelevance.
We have received our warning - young prophets from all over the political spectrum in the church are out there telling us.
Rachel Held Evans writes:
Young Christians are ready for peace.
We are ready to lay down our arms.
We are ready to start washing feet instead of waging war.
And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the Church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere.
"I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."