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The World I Live In – a poem by Mary Oliver
You might have noticed that the PRIDE doors we’ve had displayed on the front lawn are down. June is long over, and since we painted those little rainbow beauties specifically for PRIDE month, we knew that it was time for them to come down and move on to their next home. We’ll be keeping the purple door and passing on the rest to other open and affirming churches in town. And the good news on that front is that we have to make choices. We have more open and affirming churches than we have doors. It wasn’t always the case.
There’s a reason, you know, that we fly a rainbow flag off our sanctuary, and placed six doors on our front lawn, and carried them on wheels through the PRIDE parade, and marched in the PRIDE parade for the umpteenth year in a row. We are so public about our stance on LGBTQ inclusion because it’s a pretty major issue in the church today and we want to be clear on which side of the debate we fall. We want people to know that this is a safe place to be LGBTQ, or an ally, AND be Christian. More and more people are abandoning the church, or the church is abandoning them, and we want them to know that the answer they’re getting isn’t the only one. AND we want them to know that abandoning one part of a closed system theology, say the orthodox position on gay people, will invariably mean a change in how you relate to God or Jesus, or the Bible. This is what makes our “debate” on LGBTQ inclusion so difficult in our churches – it isn’t just how we interpret a few verses from the Bible, but how we read the Bible itself, and how it has authority for us. Our rainbow flag outside is a symbol of more than just our stance on LGBTQ persons, but also our stance on the rights and dignity of allpersons. It is an indicator that we subscribe to a kind of open source theology which sees God, Jesus, the Bible, sin, salvation, communion, prayer, forgiveness, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera in a very different way than many other churches around us.
“Open and affirming” means, to me, much more than the welcome of LGBTQ persons into our church. It is rooted in an understanding of our faith lives – is this “way of Jesus” and open door or a closed one? What do I mean by an open door or a closed one? Let me explain it to you in this way. In non-relativistic classical mechanics, a closed system is a physical system that doesn’t exchange any matter with its surroundings, and isn’t subject to any net force whose source is external to the system. I’m glad to have cleared that up for you. A little more? Well, how about this – a closed system can exchange heat with another system, but not matter. In other words, nothing of substance. An open system, however, can exchange energy and substance. An open system is one that interacts with other systems, and changes because of it.
In my research, my education and my experience, Christianity is an open system. It thrives on relationship and interaction. When we practice it, we exchange not only energy with our neighbor, but substance as well. This is why Jesus tells us that we should love not only our neighbor, but our enemy as well. What good does it do to love only those who love you, he asks? That’s an exchange of energy only. When you must try to love your enemy, that’s when you learn to give of yourself, something of your substance to the effort of love. When we close the way of Jesus, making of it an exclusive path, open only via a specific set of beliefs, interpretations and dogma, we render it inert. If it is a closed club, welcoming only those who believe the right way first, we are loving only those who are already lovable, closing that system down to a recycling of the same energy. The power of the way of Jesus is not found in right belief, nor even right action, but in right relationship, in wrestling with the big questions of life and existence and seeking meaning in the nooks and crannies all around us. This is why we come back to the Bible, why we continue to wonder about God and God’s role in life, why we come again to the table or say The Lord’s Prayer yet another Sunday, because our interaction with these things, our wrestling with the transcendent, our metaphorical chewing on the bread of life creates meaning, it helps us make choices about who we are going to be in this world.
And ultimately, at least for me, the choice comes down to this, are we going to be open – open to new ideas, new concepts, new identities, the newness of a God who we claim is still speaking – or are we going to be closed – trapped in tradition, closed to innovation, unwilling to grow or change ourselves because we believe that we possess the truth, final and unedited?
When we hear this passage from John, and we hear it a lot, I think, it can sound pretty exclusive. That’s generally the way that I hear it interpreted, from a literal position. But you can’t pluck it from the chapter in which it is held, nor can you use a highly symbolic and metaphorical gospel like John to make wooden and literal points. In Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem, no one thinks that when she speaks of “angels in your head” that she is speaking literally. I doubt anyone would try to make an assertion that one must acquire and maintain “head angels” as the only way to develop a notion of a wide and amazing world based on this language. Rather they understand it as poetic – angels in our heads taking it’s place in our imagination like President Lincoln referring to the “better angels of our natures.” John’s language, too, is poetic, not literal.
The sad thing to me is that I think this passage is meant to be an inclusive one, and we’ve turned it into an exclusive one. John’s Gospel is full of cultural hooks that we don’t get – we’re not first century, Greek-speaking, Jewish-influenced Mediterranean people after all. We hear Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father but through me”, and think that this, of course, means that Christianity has a firm and total grip on the keys to St. Peter’s gate. Sorry, everyone else. The poetic language, however, builds on a Hebrew concept, present heavily in Proverbs, of wisdom as “the Way” – a wisdom that isn’t intellectual but habitual, found in a well-worn path of behavior that infuses in us an internal disposition, a transformed heart. This, Jesus says, is the way to God. It is found in being like Jesus, we would say as Christians. But believe me when I say that I know so many Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and people of no faith tradition at all who act more like Jesus than many of his self-professed followers. Are we really going to place stock in a faith that claims those who have been through a little ritual but remain exploitative, rude and even cruel to the creation around them are in, but those who have not professed Christ and yet live in a Christ-like manner are out?
Peter Rollins, who is a theologically rebellious, beer-drinking Irish philosopher (I love him already) tells a parable about leaving church – an exit parable he calls it – and it goes like this: A man dies and he goes to heaven and arrives at the gates in front of St. Peter, just like we’ve always been told. And Peter opens the gates wide and spreads open his arms and says, “Oh, Dominic, great to see you! Welcome!” And he’s just about to step into heaven and he notices that some of his friends are there – Amal, who is Muslim, Naomi, who is Jewish and Bet, who is a Buddhist. And he says, “Peter – what about them?” And Peter replies, kind of sheepishly, “Oh well, you know the rules…” Dominic stops for a moment. And he thinks about his own life, his own faith, and he remembers the rebel Jesus, the outsider, the one who is always eating with the sinners, sharing what he has with the downtrodden and oppressed, standing alongside the cast-out and he says, “You know what? I think I’ll just stay out here with them.” And a smile slowly breaks out over St. Peter’s face and he says, “At last you understand.”
The reason that we claim this title “open & affirming” began with an invitation to the Gay & Lesbian communities to be a part of our congregation, fully and completely. And then we found out if we’re going to do that effectively, that we had to change. Then the “gay & lesbian” community became the LGBT community, and more expansion of our hearts and minds. Now the LGBTQIA+++ community, which is evolving every day it seems as we expand the idea of human potential and identities. And so, too, our hearts and minds must grow. But it doesn’t stop there, for the arrival at this place of growth, at a desire to expand and welcome, begins with an open system and a deeply formed realization that the image of God is broad and expansive, like the galaxy, not limited to our capacity to see our understand. It means, to me, that the age of monopolies on God are over, and that the sustainable and healthy path forward will necessarily mean that we walk together, acknowledging and even celebrating our difference. That is the kind of trust in God’s creation that Jesus displays, and if we have the same kind of trust it won’t be shown in the number of Bible verses we have memorized or the size of our church buildings. They’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Another famous passage from John says it like this, again through the power of poetry — For God so loved the world that God came to be in it – that God took the form of flesh, like all of us, and lived the fullness of incarnation, embracing those we have called unclean, leaping across the social barriers we have carefully constructed, healing the sick, loving the enemy, tending to the broken, speaking truth to power and telling us again and again that the way to God is love. When we do these things, we experience God. When we live these things, we know Jesus. When we trust in these things, we walk in the Spirit. And that, my friends, is the way, and the truth and the life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.