Getting Right with Each Other

GroupHandsUnityPB_545x277A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “straight church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?”

I’ve had a good many requests for my sermon from Sunday, June 19, quoted above.  It was number four in a series called “Getting right with God,” based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but as I said in the introduction, it’s not getting right with God that’s the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

I’ve posted the full text of the sermon below with a link to the video at the end.  I hope you will read it or watch it, and if you feel like sharing please do.  I think there’s some good news here.

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After worship last Sunday someone asked me why I was spending six weeks talking about “Getting Right with God.”  “Isn’t it fairly simple?” he asked.  I’ve been thinking about that question ever since, and I’ve concluded that getting right with God is not the hard part; the hard part is getting right with each other.

Wasn’t that the problem Paul was dealing with in Galatians?  It wasn’t that God had any trouble welcoming uncircumcised Gentiles into his family; it was that the Jewish Christians had trouble welcoming them into the church.  They thought they should be circumcised first, then they could get their names on the rolls, then they could take communion.  And Paul argued, “No, it’s not circumcision that makes us part of God’s family: it is faith in Jesus Christ.”  That seems so obvious to us now that we could almost fall asleep during a sermon from Galatians.  Until someone comes down the aisle who is not like us.  And then we sit bolt upright in our pews and begin to come up with all sorts of reasons why that person should not be a member of the church.

It happened here on January 3, 1965.  At the close of the 11:00 service two Nigerian students who were attending Virginia Union University came down the aisle to join First Baptist Church.  And why not?  They were the sons of Baptist ministers in Nigeria who had heard about First Baptist Church.  They knew it was the church where the president of the Foreign Mission Board was a member and the former president of the Baptist World Alliance was the pastor.  They encouraged their sons to attend. And so, these obedient boys put on their Sunday best and came to church.  And it must have been wonderful to walk into this place when Dr. Adams was the pastor, and the pews were packed, and the choir loft was overflowing.  These students must have gotten a little giddy from the splendor of it all, and when the invitation was given they came down the aisle.

I don’t know what Dr. Adams was preaching that day.  I doubt that he was preaching from this passage in Galatians that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  But something that he said or something that those students felt in this place made them believe they would be welcome.  And so they walked down the aisle and asked to join the church.  As I heard the story Dr. Adams, who had traveled the globe in his work as president of the Baptist World Alliance, and who had gotten to know Baptists of every kind, would have been happy to welcome them.  He knew that in Christ there is neither black nor white.  But this was 1965, and this was Richmond, Virginia, and Dr. Adams had the presence of mind to welcome them without promising them membership in the church.  That would be decided a few weeks later, after many long discussions with the deacons and a bitter and painful business meeting that practically split the church.  In the end, by a narrow margin, the congregation voted to welcome those students as members.

It’s interesting that our church history is called “The Open Door.”  1965 was one of those times (and our historian says as much) when the open door was tested.  How open was it, really?  Could we welcome black people, as well as white, into our membership?  The answer was yes, and I’m grateful.  When I think about some of the people I might never have known if this door hadn’t been open I almost weep!  The life of our congregation has only been enriched by its diversity.  We can see that now, looking back.  It’s always easier looking back.  We’ve struggled with other questions since then.  Can women be ordained as ministers in this church?  Can Christians from other denominations join without being immersed?  Can people who are differently oriented be members here?  Again and again the open door has been tested and every time it makes us sit bolt upright in our pews.  So, don’t fall asleep during this sermon from Galatians when Paul is working so hard answer the question of who can be a member of the church and who can’t.

For him the door was open—wide open—and I can almost see him on a street corner in Galatia, inviting people of every description into this new life with Christ.  They might ask, “What do I have to do?”  And Paul might answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus!”  “Is that all?” they would ask.  “That’s all!” Paul would answer.  And then, when they had confessed their faith, they would be baptized, not as a requirement for membership in the church, but as a symbol of their new life in Christ.

In those days, in that part of the world, they would strip off their clothes on the riverbank, symbols of the old life, and then wade out into the water to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  When they came up out of the water it was like they had been born again, and when they stepped out onto the riverbank they were given a new, white robe to wear, a symbol of the new life.  And then Paul might say to them, as he says here in Galatians, “Listen, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus!”  And then he would move on to the next little town and start all over again.

But apparently someone was coming along behind him, telling those new Christians that believing wasn’t enough, baptism wasn’t enough, that if they wanted to be part of God’s family they would have to become Jews, they would have to start obeying the Law of Moses, and the men among them would have to be circumcised.  You can probably imagine what Paul had to say about that.  But you don’t have to imagine it.  You can read it for yourself in Galatians 2.  Paul says, “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (vs. 16).  And as far as circumcision goes, Paul reminds us that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, not after.  “He believed God, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vs. 6), Paul says, arguing that Gentile believers stand in that same tradition.

You might ask, “Then why did the Jews even need the law?” and Paul anticipates that question.  He says that the Law was “added because of transgressions,” and what he means, I think, is that we humans have a tendency to stray, that on our way from the Present Evil Age to the Age to Come we might wander off the path and get lost.  Have you ever seen two teachers walking with a group of preschoolers, where the teachers are holding on to each end of a long rope and the preschoolers are holding on in between?  It keeps everybody safe until they get back to their school, and then the children let go of the rope and run to the door.   I think that’s what Paul would say the Law was like—like a good, strong rope we could hold on to that kept us from going astray.  Until.  Until it brought us to Jesus.  And then we didn’t need the rope anymore.  We were free to run to him.  And as Jesus himself once said, he is the door, the door that lets us in to his Father’s house.

Can anybody go in through that door?  Let’s see what Paul says.

  • In Galatians 3:26 he writes: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”
  • In verse 27 he writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
  • In verse 28 he writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
  • In verse 29 he writes: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the Promise”

Can you picture those children of God, still dressed in their white robes, coming into the Father’s house and sitting down around the family table?  Whatever distinctions divided them before have disappeared; they are all one in Christ Jesus.

And Paul says that’s how it should be in the church, but often that’s not how it is.  A few blocks from here there is a church that is made up of mostly black members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the “white church.”  A few blocks in the other direction is a church made up of mostly gay members, because years ago they found they were not welcome in the straight church.  A few blocks in the other direction is a church where most of us would not be welcome, because we believe that women are equal to men.  “O, foolish Richmonders!” Paul might say.  “Who has bewitched you?  Who has made you believe that some are welcome and some are not welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?  I’m telling you he has opened the door, and if you are in him you are in—period!  All you have to do is believe it, to accept the good news that you are accepted.”

And that’s where faith comes in.

Paul uses that word five times in the first four verses of today’s reading.  Count them: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”  Did you get all five?  “Faith, faith, faith, faith, faith!” Paul says.  “That’s what sets us free from the law, that’s what puts us right with God, that’s what makes us part of his family.”  And I want to be careful about how I say this, but I believe that for Paul faith is the new circumcision, the sign of the New Covenant—not some mark in the flesh but a matter of the heart.  So, who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith, and the faith that I’m talking about is the faith that God loves us and wants us for his own.  It’s the gospel Jesus preached.  It’s the message Paul proclaimed.  And most of the time the only thing that keeps us from receiving it is our own disbelief:

“How could God love somebody like me?”

But sometimes others keep us from receiving it.  They say, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “How could God love somebody like you?”  That is at least one of the messages that came out of last Sunday’s shooting in Orlando.  It certainly seems that someone judged those people dancing in a gay nightclub and found them worthy only of contempt.  It’s at least one of the messages that came out of last year’s shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.  Someone judged those people who had gathered for Bible study and found them worthy only of hatred.  They may not have done it with guns and bullets, but there have probably been people along the way who judged you, and found you worthy only of contempt and hatred.  And, God forgive us, there have probably been people we judged, people who don’t come to church here because they believe that if they did they would not be welcome.

Who can be part of the church?  Anyone who has faith.  And who can have faith?  Any one.  Paul would say that it doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  These days he might add some other categories but it wouldn’t change his message: all you have to do is believe that God loves you and wants you for his own, all you have to do is see Jesus standing at the door, begging you to come in, all you have to do is find the courage to take that first step.  “It takes faith,” Paul might say, “but faith is all it takes.  It is the new circumcision, the sign of the new covenant.  It is not a mark in the flesh, but a matter of the heart.”

Have you ever been to one of those conferences where there is a registration table at the front with all the name tags already made up?  They sit there in their shiny plastic sleeves—the names of all those who have registered for the conference.  I sometimes look at them when I ask for my own tag, and sometimes I see the name of someone I know.  “Oh, look!  John is coming to this conference.  Oh, look!  There’s Betty, or David, or Jane.”  But when we take a break for lunch and I walk by that same table, I usually see some name tags that have not been claimed, some people who were planning to come to the conference, but for whatever reason didn’t make it.  If church were like one of those conferences there might be a table out front with everybody’s name tag on it.  Everybody’s.  And when we went out after the benediction we would see the names of all those people who didn’t make it: some who found something better to do, some who weren’t physically able, but some who didn’t believe…they would be welcome.

–Jim Somerville, 2016

 

Watch the video by clicking HERE

 

In Light of Recent Events

gay marriageThis is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 28, setting aside my summer sermon series to address a number of recent events in our nation.  I publish it here by request:

On Thursday Christy and I drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Niagara Falls, Ontario, which means that we waited in line to cross the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of the border. I don’t know why. You can see the falls from the American side. But we love international travel, and it only cost $3.50 to cross the bridge, so we did it. And, besides, we had reservations at a bed and breakfast on the Canadian side. To avoid roaming charges we switched our phones to “airplane mode” and spent a blissful sixteen hours ignoring the news. When we crossed back over the next day it seemed that everything had changed. Christy sat in the passenger seat looking at her Facebook feed and telling me that the Governor of Alabama had taken down the Confederate flag. And then she told me the Supreme Court had upheld the Affordable Care Act and made gay marriage legal everywhere in America. A little later in the day she told me that President Obama had started singing “Amazing Grace” near the end of his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and that someone here in our own town had spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Jefferson Davis Monument just down the street.

Honestly, you leave the country for one day!

But now I’m back, and like most of you I’m trying to discern what these events will mean for America, for the Commonwealth of Virginia, for Metropolitan Richmond, and for First Baptist Church. It’s a complicated question, and I went for a run yesterday morning to sort things out. During that run I stopped at the Jefferson Davis Monument and looked for evidence of the words “Black Lives Matter.” I couldn’t find them anywhere. But I thought about the person whose job it was to remove those words from the monument—James Robertson, a private contractor, a white man. I had seen his picture in the paper before I went for my run. And I wondered: what was he thinking as he scrubbed those words from the stone? Because I wouldn’t be surprised if, even as he was doing it, he was thinking, “But black lives DO matter!”

Every life matters.

I preached in Dallas, Texas, on June 19, at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and I reminded the audience that exactly 150 years earlier Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two-and-a-half years earlier, but most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops. From the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, General Gordon Granger read the contents of General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets after that announcement, but you might imagine that former slave owners did not rejoice. In a single moment they had gone from owning slaves, who worked for free, to having hired hands, who would expect to be paid.

I also reminded the audience that on June 19, 1964, exactly 51 years earlier, the Civil Rights Act had been passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. On that day I’m sure there was rejoicing in the streets, but again, not everyone was rejoicing. And so it was on Friday, when the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a picture of a woman holding a sign that read: “I’m not just gay; I’m ecstatic!” Everywhere on Facebook people were putting rainbow stripes over their profile pictures and celebrating this momentous day in our nation’s history, but again…not everyone.

Does it always have to come to this? Big decisions by the government that split the country into two groups: those who are rejoicing and those who are not? Does it always have to divide us as a people? Will this latest decision divide us as a church? I hope and pray that it will not, and to that end I thought it might be helpful to spend a few minutes talking about just what is at stake here.

First of all: marriage.

In the Bible, as far as I can tell, marriage is the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and raised. It is the logical outcome of the first commandment ever given in the Bible, Genesis 1:28, in which God says to the people he has just created, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” In the very next chapter the Bible says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” This is how humans multiply. A man and a woman “cleave” to each other. Biologists call it sexual reproduction.

This appears to be the primary purpose of marriage in the Bible, and for that reason it is necessarily between a man and a woman. But not only one woman. Early in the Bible we have the story of Jacob who married first Leah and then Rachel and then had children by their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. Ultimately he produced twelve sons and who knows how many daughters. He was fruitful. He multiplied. He fulfilled the first commandment. But I don’t know many people these days who argue for that kind of biblical marriage. Instead they talk about a lifetime of love and commitment and I agree. That’s a better model than pure procreation. But I’m not sure where we get that. Not from the Bible, certainly, where Jacob may be the only example of someone who wanted to get married because he was in love. Most of those marriages were arranged by parents who made the best matches they could for their children and then waited for the grandchildren to come. It wasn’t about love; it was about multiplication.

But these days we talk about love and commitment. A woman gets married because she falls in love with a man and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. A man gets married for the same reason. And while he may want a family at some point it’s hardly ever the main point. That became clear to me on the day I did a wedding for a couple in their eighties. They were so precious! And each had survived the loss of a spouse after more than fifty years of marriage. When I asked the groom, “Do you take this woman in sickness and in health?” I saw the tears come to his eyes, because he had nursed his wife through a lengthy illness. And when I asked the bride the same question she did the same thing. She had sat by her husband’s bed until he drew his last breath. These two knew what they were getting into! But they weren’t getting into it to start a family. They were lonely, and they had come to love each other, and they longed for human companionship. How could I deny them that?

So, our understanding of marriage has changed since biblical times. It’s not just about multiplication anymore. It’s about love and commitment. And our understanding of human beings has changed since biblical times. We know now that while most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, some people are attracted to members of the same sex. What we don’t know is why. Is it genetic? Is it something determined at an early age? Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be a choice. I can still remember the day I discovered that I was attracted to the opposite sex: it was in fourth grade, and her name was Bamma Donohue. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. But I didn’t choose to be attracted to her; it just happened. People who are attracted to members of the same sex report precisely that kind of experience.

And so the Supreme Court has decided that, since marriage is no longer strictly about multiplication, but rather a matter of love and commitment, and since people don’t seem to choose whom they are attracted to, but rather discover those attractions at an early age, then who are they to tell two adults that they can’t share their lives with each other? That they can’t have joint ownership of property and joint custody of children? The Supreme Court has decided that marriage is a civil right, and that withholding that right on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is unconstitutional. But what about us? We are not the Supreme Court. We are, most of us, members of First Baptist Church, and when it comes to marriage the separation of church and state prevails. No one can force me to do a same-sex wedding: all they can do is ask.

And so far, no one has.

But surely, someday, someone will, and so, when same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia a few months ago, I asked our deacons where we stand on the issue of homosexuality. I passed out little slips of paper and put four points on the spectrum: 1) we condemn homosexuality and exclude homosexuals from our church, 2) we tolerate homosexuals under an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, 3) we welcome homosexuals as members but we do not ordain or marry them, or 4) we extend to our homosexual members the same rights, privileges, and blessings as any other member. I asked the deacons to write down the number that best described First Baptist Church and the average was 2.5—somewhere between tolerance and welcome. And then I passed out more slips of paper and asked them to write down where we should be and this time the average was 3—welcome. We weren’t drafting policy. We weren’t making decisions. We were just finding out where we were on this issue and not everyone was in the same place. There was at least one 1 on those little slips of paper and a few 4’s. As I’ve said before, this church is a big tent. It has all kinds of people in it. The only common denominator is our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Which brings me back to my first thoughts on this topic.

When I was still wondering whether I should address these recent events in today’s sermon I thought I might just say something during the welcome. I might say, “There have been a lot of changes in our country in the last few days, but as the author of Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever’ (13:8). So, maybe we should spend some time sitting at his feet in the next few weeks, listening to what he has to say about all this.” But then I gave it some more thought. What does Jesus say about gay marriage? Nothing at all. What does he say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing. What does he say about the Confederate flag? Nothing. What does he say about black lives? Nothing that I can recall. But he does say something that could be extended to all lives. He tells us to love our neighbors, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that the people or groups of people we have the hardest time loving are also our neighbors. Samaritans were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ time, but the Samaritan in his story stopped and helped a Jew who had been beaten and left for dead.

“If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said, “then go and do likewise.”

What would he say to us in these days when some people have been shot because their skin was black and others have been allowed to marry even though they are gay? I’m fairly sure he would say, “Love your neighbor.” And I think he might add (although I don’t want to put words in his mouth) that the commandment to love applies to everyone with no exceptions, that those of us who follow Jesus must love our black neighbors, our white neighbors, our gay neighbors, our straight neighbors, our Christian neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and even the neighbors who borrow our tools and forget to return them. Leave the work of judgment up to God and the Supreme Court. Our job is not to judge; it is to love. And it is to love everyone.

Because every life matters.

____________________________
Watch video (available after 6/30)

KOH2RVA: Day 248

tearsI can’t imagine a more beautiful day has ever dawned on the city of Richmond than this one. I’ve just come in from a run on Monument Avenue, where the light was golden, the world was in bloom, and the love of God was in the air I breathed.

Last night was a different story.

Because of some confusion among our members about the intent of my April 28 sermon, I stood before the deacons last night to explain that I am not on a crusade to turn First Baptist into a gay church, that I am not planning to ordain a gay minister, and that I am not hoping to perform a gay wedding. What I am is a pastor, and because I am I often sit in my study and listen to people pour their hearts out, often through tears, and sometimes what they tell me is this: “I’m gay.”

But here’s the problem: because I am a pastor I can’t share that secret with anybody else. I can’t talk about the person; I have to talk about the issue. And when I talk about the issue people sometimes assume that I have a gay agenda—that I’m trying to turn First Baptist into a gay church, or that I plan to ordain a gay minister, or that I hope to perform a gay wedding, when the truth is that I’m thinking about _______________, who sat in my study with tears in her eyes, wondering if the church would still love her if they knew the truth about her.

I wanted to say, “Of course they would!” because I know the people of First Baptist Church. I’ve never known a more loving congregation. If I told her story from the pulpit they would rush to put their arms around her and reassure her of their love and our deacons would lead the charge.   But homophobia cuts both ways. It makes people afraid of homosexuals and it makes homosexuals afraid of people. They keep their secret to themselves.

Because not everybody is so loving.

I tried to explain all this to the deacons last night. I don’t think I did a very good job. During the question and answer period someone asked me if I were planning to do a gay wedding. I said no. He told me later that it wasn’t really his quesion.  He doesn’t have a problem with gay people.  He needed to ask, he said, simply because so many people had been asking him. He wanted to have an answer for them. “Tell them this,” I said. “Tell them I’m a pastor. Tell them that I care about people, and that some of the people I care about are gay.”

But they aren’t the only ones I care about.

I care about the ones who have a real problem with this issue, the ones who have been sitting in my study nearly every day in the last few weeks telling me they just can’t ignore what the Bible says about homosexuality. I tell them I can’t ignore it either, and that this is what makes it so hard for me. I would love to tell homosexuals they can do whatever they want, but I can’t, not anymore than I can tell heterosexuals to do whatever they want. The Bible won’t let me. But the Bible also won’t let me hate. I have to love. I have to love people who are gay and I have to love people who flinch at the very mention of the word.

I’m a pastor.

KOH2RVA: Day 236

Portrait of young boyNot long ago I had coffee with a church member who put it bluntly: “What do you think about homosexuality?” We had been talking about the recent decision of Ginter Park Baptist Church to ordain an openly gay man and she wanted to know where I stood on the issue.

I was caught a little off guard, so I asked, “What do you think about it?” She said, “I think it’s a sin.”

And that got the conversation started.

I can’t remember everything I said in just the way I said it, but I’ll try to capture the gist of the conversation below, and maybe even add a few thoughts. I said:

“I don’t think it’s a sin to be homosexual, but the Bible is pretty clear about homosexual behavior. It condemns it. But it also condemns a lot of heterosexual behavior, including adultery and fornication.”

I said, “Some people believe that homosexuality is a choice—that people choose to be gay. I suppose that’s possible. We humans are born sinners. We’re capable of almost anything. But in my conversations with gays and lesbians I haven’t talked to anyone who said they chose to be that way. They sometimes ask me, ‘When did you choose to be heterosexual?’

“The answer, of course, is that I didn’t. I didn’t choose to be this way; I discovered it, and, frankly, when I did I was mortified. I couldn’t believe the thoughts I was having about girls. I had always thought of myself as a ‘good Christian boy,’ but the thoughts I was having didn’t seem good or Christian. They seemed sinful, shameful. In those days I underlined long passages from Romans 7 in my big, green Living Bible, including this one: ‘I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway’ (vss. 18-19).

“That described me perfectly.

“I wept over my sin in those days. I prayed over it. I asked God to forgive me. Now imagine if my sinful, shameful thoughts had not been about girls, but about boys? What would I have done then?

“I don’t think homosexuality is a choice; I think it is a discovery. The question, then, is this: if you discover you are homosexual, what do you do with your homosexuality? It’s not that much different than asking, ‘If you discover you are heterosexual, what do you do with your heterosexuality?’ For me it was the biggest challenge to my Christianity, or maybe just the most obvious one. When the preacher talked about sin I would swallow hard and look away. I knew what he was talking about. But at least I had this promise in front of me: that someday I could get married and express my sexuality in a God-honoring way. The church (and the Bible) would bless that union. The minister would tell me I could kiss my bride. My friends and family would throw rice—a symbol of fertility—a subtle way of telling me to ‘get on with it!’

“But again, what if my thoughts back in those teenage years had been about boys and not girls? There would be no promise of future happiness, no hope of expressing my sexuality in a God-honoring way. I would have to do what I did then—suppress my thoughts and feelings as best I could and tearfully beg for God’s forgiveness when I couldn’t—for the rest of my life.

“That doesn’t seem fair, but my commitment to the authority of Scripture won’t allow me to dismiss the Bible’s teaching on homosexual behavior any more than I can dismiss its teaching on heterosexual behavior. The same Bible that says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” says, “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

“I have to deal with that.

“But I also have to deal with this: the young man who grew up at First Baptist Church, who went to Sunday school here, who learned to sing, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so’—this young man who sits in my study and looks up at me with tears in his eyes, asking, in a trembling voice, ‘Am I an abomination?’

“What do I say to him?”

KOH2RVA: Day 234

black eyeYesterday’s post generated lots of discussion, and a number of important lessons:

The topic of homosexuality is red-hot. There were 1,588 views on my blog yesterday, the second highest number since I’ve been writing. It wasn’t because the post was so well written; it was because I was writing about homosexuality. I discovered once again that everybody has an opinion on this topic, and the opinions tend to be strong.

Never assign motives to another person. I did that yesterday. I said that I was trying to imagine why 15 churches were thinking about pulling out of the Richmond Baptist Association and the only reason I could come up with was fear. One of the people who commented on my blog wisely pointed out that I could have asked someone from those churches, rather than making up motives. She was right, and I apologize.

Fear is not the only factor. When I did talk to someone from one of those churches yesterday I was assured that there were several reasons a church might consider such a move. Identity was one of them: you might get to a point where—without any animosity—you simply sensed that “these just aren’t our kind of people” anymore. Fidelity was another: where, in order to be faithful to your understanding of Scripture, you might choose to distance yourself from those with a different understanding.

People can disagree respectfully. Although there were a number of different views expressed in the comments on my blog yesterday, they were expressed with courtesy, and even with Christian love. I especially appreciated the one that began by addressing a fellow commentator: “I love you. You’re my sister in Christ.” While opinions were strong, they were never used as weapons.

It’s easy to be distracted. I have to admit, I spent a good bit of time yesterday checking my blog, reading the comments, answering email, talking on the phone, meeting with people who had questions or concerns, and in all of that, I’m sure I neglected much of the other work of the Kingdom. At the end of the day I went to RVA United, in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church, where a group of young, committed Christians had been working for days to create an incomparable worship experience for 20-30somethings in our city. They weren’t distracted. They were focused. And it showed.

You would think that by now I would have learned all of life’s important lessons, but I haven’t. There’s still plenty to learn. And yesterday I learned some things.

I hope you did, too.

KOH2RVA:Day 233

confusion4I got a call from Mary Ann Delano yesterday telling me that people had been “confused” by Sunday’s sermon. Mary Ann is the chair of the deacons at First Baptist. When she calls I listen. But I did wonder what people were confused about. I thought the sermon had flown like an arrow through the air toward its crystal-clear conclusion, which was this:

Bless my heart, every time I hear this story (about Peter and Cornelius) it forces me to deal with the possibility that God is willing to accept people I am not, and every time I hear it I need to ask, “Lord, am I calling something ‘unclean’ that you have made clean? And if so, would you show me?”

But I did refer to gay people in the sermon, as an example of those we might have difficulty accepting, and that reference came just a few weeks after I spoke up for a church in the Richmond Baptist Association that ordained an openly gay man. Put those two together and you might jump to the conclusion that the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church was on a crusade of some kind.

Let me be clear: I am not.

But every time I preach from Acts 11:1-18 (the lectionary text for the day, selected months and years before the recent meeting of the Richmond Baptist Association) I seem to get in trouble, and it’s because the text forces us to consider those people we think of as “unclean.” In fact, someone sent me a copy of (Pastor Emeritus) Jim Flamming’s sermon on this same text from 2004—“Who Is Unacceptable to You?”—where he talked about the sheet that came down out of heaven in Peter’s vision, the one with all those unclean animals in it. He said it becomes quickly evident that the point of this vision is not animals but people. “Which people or groups of people do you consider ‘unclean’?” Dr. Flamming asked. “Who would be at the center of your sheet?”

But he didn’t preach that sermon a month after the Richmond Baptist Association had voted to maintain fellowship with a church that ordained an openly gay man, and he didn’t speak up for that church in that meeting. I did, and I can see how some people would make a connection, and think that I was on some sort of crusade.

Let me be clear: I am not.

I don’t think the two are unrelated, but when I spoke up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I was speaking up for the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association. I was trying to say, “Let’s not let the action of one church derail our mission.” Baptist churches are autonomous. We can’t tell them who to ordain and they can’t tell us. But we can work together in spite of our differences for the greater good and that’s what I was arguing for. I was thinking about Camp Alkulana and the three Baptist centers in Richmond that do such good work. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose Ginter Park’s contribution to that mission.

But now I understand some 15 churches are considering leaving the Association because we voted not to kick Ginter Park out. I called the pastor of one of those churches last week—a big church—and asked, “Is it true? Are you going to let the action of one small church cause you to abandon your long-term commitment to the mission of the Richmond Baptist Association? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?”

I tried to imagine why his church would even consider such a thing and in the end decided that it must be fear. The churches that are thinking of pulling out are afraid that if they don’t they will become guilty by association—quite literally—and that everyone will assume they affirm gay ordination. They are afraid that by working with a church they consider “unclean” they, themselves, will become unclean.

That fear of contamination was the same fear that kept the early church from having anything to do with Gentiles until that day on a rooftop in Joppa when God told Peter not to call unclean what he had made clean. Suppose Peter hadn’t gone to the home of Cornelius? Suppose he had been too afraid? God’s mission could have stalled out right there, the Richmond Baptist Association would have never existed, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I don’t want God’s mission to stall out, and I certainly don’t want it to stall out because of fear, but I also don’t want it to stall out because of confusion. I’ve tried to be clear about why I preached what I preached and why I did what I did. If you have questions or comments please post them below.  In the meantime, let’s get on with our mission.  This is Day 233 of KOH2RVA:

There is good work waiting to be done.

KOH2RVA: Day 211

argument-380x258I had coffee yesterday with a pastor from the area who said some unkind things about me in one of his recent blog posts. A friend in town asked me if I had seen it. I hadn’t, but when I read it my first thought was, “Well, this man just doesn’t know me!”

So, I called him and asked if we could have coffee sometime, and that’s what we ended up doing yesterday afternoon, at the Starbucks on the corner of Broad and Bowe.

The conversation was cordial. We spent some time talking about our families and about our ministry, but eventually we got around to the subject of his blog post, which was the recent decision by the Richmond Baptist Association to allow Ginter Park Baptist Church to maintain its membership, even though it had ordained an openly gay man to the ministry. His argument was that by speaking up for Ginter Park Baptist Church I had affirmed gay ordination.

I didn’t see it that way at all.

I told him that what I was speaking up for was missional partnership, and that it was something that had been reinforced through KOH2RVA. On this year-long, every-member mission trip I have discovered that there are a number of other churches, organizations, and agencies that have a similar mission—in their own ways they, too, are working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, for example, just across the street from First Baptist, has a food pantry for hungry and homeless people. St. Mark’s does church differently than First Baptist. They have some different beliefs than First Baptist. But one of the things we agree on is that hungry and homeless people need to be fed; we both see it as a way of bringing heaven to earth.

So, do we have to agree on everything in order to work together? Not at all, at least not where feeding hungry people is concerned. But I wouldn’t invite the rector of St. Mark’s to teach a class on our core beliefs at First Baptist and he wouldn’t invite me to do that at St. Mark’s. Our beliefs are different enough that it wouldn’t be helpful.

So I was telling this pastor as we had coffee yesterday that I didn’t think we had to agree with everything Ginter Park did in order to partner with them in mission—sending inner-city kids to Camp Alkulana in the summer, for example, seemed like something we could both get behind.

But he didn’t see it that way.

He talked about tribal identity, and said that what Ginter Park had done really put them outside the boundaries of the Baptist “tribe,” and that they could no longer be considered part of us. For that reason we could no longer work together; we were too different.

He had a point. I’m guessing he wouldn’t invite the pastor of Ginter Park to teach a class on core beliefs at his church, and the pastor of Ginter Park probably wouldn’t invite him to teach that class at hers. But couldn’t they agree that inner-city kids need to go to Camp Alkulana in the summer, and couldn’t they pool their resources to that end? Do we have to agree on everything in order to work together?

I’m afraid that what’s going to suffer in this dispute is not his church or her church, but those inner-city kids. And isn’t that always the way it is? We Christians start arguing about doctrine and neglect our mission,

And children suffer,
And people go hungry,
And the good news isn’t shared,

And Jesus sighs.