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.

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KOH2RVA: Day 184

don't hateLast night I went to something called an “Interfaith Friendship Dinner” in the Adams Room at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. There were about 30 people there, mostly Episcopalians, with a generous number of Muslims, Baptists, and Presbyterians mixed in (the Jewish delegation had to cancel at the last minute due to illness).

Why interfaith friendship, and why at a Baptist church? I stood at the podium last night and explained it like this:

“There is a story in the Christian tradition about a time when an expert in the law of Moses asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus said, ‘You’re the expert. What do you think?’ and the lawyer said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘Good answer!’ Jesus said. ‘Do that and you will live.’ But the lawyer asked (and I’m sure you’ve heard this part before), ‘Who is my neighbor?’ And Jesus told a story in which the example of ‘neighbor’ was a Samaritan: someone who shared a common religious ancestry with the Jews, but who was of another faith. And that’s us, isn’t it? Jews, Christians, and Muslims can all trace their religious ancestry back to Abraham. Although our paths have diverged since then and we claim different faiths I think Jesus would say that we are still ‘neighbors’ and still bound by the obligation to love each other. But we can’t love what we don’t know and that’s why we’re having dinner tonight: to get to know each other so that we can come to love each other.”

Several others stepped up to the podium after that including Bill Sachs from St. Stephens Episcopal Church who has been doing interfaith work for years. “Those of us who invited you here tonight don’t have any master plan,” he said, “no grand design. Our goal is interfaith friendship.” Wallace Adams-Riley from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church echoed those sentiments, as did Ammar Amonette from the Virginia Islamic Center and Alex Evans from Second Presbyterian Church. But Imad Damaj, a professor at VCU and a tireless advocate for interfaith understanding, said, “We do have a master plan. We want to see Richmond united. And one of the things that threatens to divide it is religion.”

That’s true, isn’t it? The same kinds of tensions that once existed between Christians and Jews in this country now exist between Christians and Muslims, and some of the emails that are forwarded to me by well-meaning church members don’t help. But what we did last night helps. Sitting around the tables, breaking bread together, talking about our common struggles, bursting out laughing—these things help us get to know each other and as we do the possibility emerges that one day, if we keep it up, we might learn to love each other,

Just as Christ commanded.

KOH2RVA: Day 83

hands-with-plantBack in September I had coffee with Jeremy and Monica, church planters who are working here in Richmond. They had visited First Baptist several times and appreciated our emphasis on reaching the city with the love of Christ. That’s what they’re trying to do, too. They are a delightful young couple who don’t look at all like you might expect “church planters” to look. It’s just one of the things I appreciate about them.

When we had coffee I asked them if they would be willing to partner with us on our year-long, every-member mission trip. I said, “We’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and it sounds like you are, too. We can’t offer you money, but we can pray for you and encourage you.” They said that would be perfect, and when I left that meeting I had this wonderful feeling that in addition to all our members who were out there bringing heaven to earth we had Jeremy and Monica, too.

Here’s the latest update from them:

Some of you may have heard from us about an Egyptian Muslim family we came across last month. We were waiting to meet a friend at a festival, and this lady and her two sons sat next to us as a table. They started asking us about what we thought about Jesus, the Bible, the Koran, Mormons, Islam, culture, Egypt, American and global politics. This conversation went on for about an hour then they gave us their contact info and we invited them over for a meal.

Now, they were previously complaining that Americans never “hang out” for more than an hour, so we had them over for 4 hours and just enjoyed a wonderful meal while talking about many of the same issues at more length. Finally, the mother shared her frustration with “American Christians,” so we decided it was time to share the gospel with her and help her remove her focus from “American Christians” to the person of Jesus Christ. We unpacked many elements of what it means to be forgiven by the Lord through the work of Christ, we talked about the Trinity (as they had been asking about that!), and we talked about eternal life based on grace (not based on works).

At the end of the conversation one of the sons said, “In Egypt, we could never have these conversations without everyone getting angry and screaming at each other.” And they went on to say that they were very appreciative of being able to have those conversations here in our home with freedom, grace and charity. No one was yelling, no one was being rude, we were all just taking turns sharing and asking questions and LISTENING!

Please pray for Jeremy and Monica as they continue to build their friendship with this family, and consider their example of inviting your Muslim neighbors over for a meal, not so much to look for ways to convert them, but simply because this is what Jesus tells us to do—to love our neighbors. I believe that in the context of true friendship you will have plenty of opportunities to share your faith as well as to ask questions and listen, just as Jeremy and Monica did.

Interested? Look for tomorrow’s post: “How to have your Muslim neighbors over for dinner.”

KOH2RVA: Day 59

How do you bring heaven to earth on Election Day?  You start by voting.

I got in line at 6:00 this morning, a long line, where I stood shivering in the cold with my neighbors. It was good to see them, actually. We often talk about loving our neighbors but on Election Day there they were, all standing in line with me. I could see who they were and what they looked like.

The one standing right in front of me lived a block away from the polling place. He had left his wife and children sleeping when he walked over to vote. He was wearing a VCU sweatshirt and holding a VCU travel mug which gave me an easy “in”: I asked, “Did you go to VCU or do you just advertise their products?”

That got the ball rolling.

He asked me where I went to school and I told him that I had graduated from Georgetown College in Kentucky. “Oh!” he said. “My dad went to UK” (the University of Kentucky, that is, in Lexington, just twelve miles away from Georgetown). That helped to establish some common ground, which was something I was thinking about just yesterday.

This campaign season has been so bitter and divisive; Democrats and Republicans growl at each other openly and threaten to tear down each other’s campaign signs. But we are all Americans, aren’t we? And at some level we all want the same thing—to live in a great nation. We just have very different ideas about how to get there.

So I was thinking about how we could build “islands” of common ground with our neighbors by talking about all the things we have in common. This guy who was in line with me, for instance: He lives in Richmond’s Museum District. So do I. He’s married. So am I. He’s the father of two children. So am I. He has to go to work today. So do I. Now, he doesn’t look like I do; it turns out he was born in Nepal.  But by the time we parted ways to cast our votes we had almost become friends. I was this close to inviting him over for dinner sometime. And all of this without asking him who he was voting for, because, the truth is, if I had asked him, and if he had said he was voting for the other guy, that might have ended our conversation right there.

Isn’t that a shame? That we would let something like our political differences keep us from being friends? On this Election Day maybe we could bring heaven to earth by remembering how much we have in common even with those people who are voting for “the other guy,” and not let partisan politics come between us.

I’m not sure about this but I believe that when you look at Earth from Heaven you can’t even see the lines of division between countries, much less people. All you see is this beautiful, blue-green planet, and on it all the beautiful children who make up the family of God.

My neighbor, for instance.

KOH2RVA: Day 28

Yesterday I went to Guardian Place, a retirement community a few blocks west and a few blocks north of First Baptist Church. I wanted to talk to our members there about our year-long, every-member mission trip, and how they might get involved.

But I was told we didn’t have many members there—maybe three. And so there wouldn’t be much of a crowd. That didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t looking for crowds; I was simply looking for a way to get every member involved in this mission. So, imagine my surprise when I walked into the dining room at Guardian Place and found some fifty people sitting there, eager to hear from the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church!

It turns out that many of them watch our telecast on Sunday mornings, and feel a strong connection to the church. So, it wasn’t out of place for me to talk to them about “our” mission. As I said repeatedly: “This is a big job. We need all the help we can get!”

What kind of help can they give? Well, I asked them that. One of them said, “We can love our neighbors!” Yes, and as it turns out, they have some neighbors right there in the retirement community who could use some love. “We can pray,” someone else offered, and I said, “Yes, you can!” I asked them to pray especially for the peace of our city, which just had its deadliest month in five years. And then, as we talked, several of those people began to offer other things they could do—small, practical things that would make a big difference.

I looked at Inez Cocke sitting there, Inez, who is one of our most faithful volunteers at First Baptist. I’ve teased her about having a cot in the church basement where she sleeps because I see her almost every day volunteering in one capacity or another: sending out CD’s and DVD’s to people who request them (including my parents), helping out with Wednesday night dinners, offering hospitality at funerals, ushering on Sunday mornings in the balcony. I’m sure those are only the most visible things she does, but if everybody at Guardian Place did what Inez did, the Kingdom of Heaven would have come to Richmond a long time ago, or at least to that part of Richmond.

It’s touching to think that–for the rest of this mission year–whenever I mention KOH2RVA on television some fifty people at Guardian Place will think of yesterday’s visit, and think of how they agreed to join us on this mission trip. They may bow their heads and say a prayer for the peace of the city. They may make a special effort to love their neighbors during Sunday lunch. Or, if they are like Inez, they may roll up their sleeves and get to work, and the kingdom may come, and God’s will may be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Surviving the Hurriquake

Since my last post I have survived a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far north as Boston, and felt the gusting fury of Hurricane Irene, which ripped up a half dozen ancient oaks on my street and left most of the city without power. 

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but as I stood in my study last Tuesday watching the light fixtures swing back and forth, as I felt the floor shaking beneath my feet and the wall trembling behind me, I remembered the prayer I used to say in Washington, DC, in those days just after 9/11: “Lord, if this is my day to die, let me do it with faith and courage.”

It wasn’t so bad during the hurricane, but at one point I looked out the window and watched as a giant tree toppled toward my side of the street, missing my daughter’s car by inches.  It made me gulp, and think about how vulnerable we are, how quickly the flame of our fragile lives can be snuffed out.  I survived the storm, but according to this morning’s newspaper at least 20 people didn’t.  What were they thinking in those last seconds of earthly life?

When the earthquake came it took me a full fifteen seconds to figure out what it was.  At first I thought someone was pushing a heavy cart across the floor above me, but as the rumble grew deeper and the building began to shake I knew that couldn’t be it.  When I saw the light fixture begin to swing back and forth I thought, “This is an earthquake!” and at first all I felt was wonder.  I’d never been in an earthquake before (“So this is what it’s like!”).  But then I realized that the floor above me could fall on top of me, crush me and kill me, and that’s when I began to pray. 

It seems to be my instinct, in such “moments of mortality,” to make my peace with God, to make sure that things are OK between us in case I should find myself suddenly standing before him.  But then, in the next second, my mind reaches out toward the people I love, toward friends and family, making sure that things are OK between us in case I should die before I have a chance to say “I’m sorry.” 

Is this why Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and others?  Did he know better than most of us just how fragile life is, how quickly it can end, and how important it is to tend and nurture our most important relationships?  Because an earthquake could come, a tree could fall, and you might not have time in that “moment of mortality” to make your peace with God or say you’re sorry to others. 

Maybe that’s why it felt so right to go to church yesterday morning, after the storm—to spend some time with God and others—to make my peace and say my prayers and hug some people who are dear to me and who need to know it.  If those moments of mortality serve no other purpose they serve that one: they help us remember what matters most.  And for that, among other things, I am grateful.

It’s going to be a beautiful day today.  The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 83 degrees. 

If I’m not careful, I’ll forget everything I learned.

Liking—Not Loving—My Neighbor

It was during the Epistle reading on Sunday that I realized: I do not love my neighbor as myself.

Lynn Turner was reading from Galatians 5, where Paul says, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (vs. 14).  Even as she was reading I wondered if I love my neighbor as I love myself, that is, exactly as much as I love myself. 

I thought about something that had happened a few evenings before.

I had gone outside to water the plants that were wilting in the heat, and as I watered I noticed that my neighbor’s plants were also wilting.  I live in a duplex.  My neighbor and I share a common wall.  So, the plants in front of her house are right beside the plants in front of mine.  I knew she had been out of town lately, and in an impulsive gesture of neighborliness I turned the hose on her plants and washed the dust off the leaves.  They looked better immediately, and even seemed to perk up a little bit.  I sprayed until the leaves were dripping and the dry mulch beneath the plants was wet, but then I turned back to my plants, and back to the serious work of soaking the roots so they could make it through the next day.  I sprayed a little more water in her direction before I coiled the hose, but I did not  water the plants that were out of easy reach on the other side of her steps.  I justified it by thinking that anything I had done was better than nothing.

But sitting in church on Sunday I realized that I had not loved my neighbor as much as I love myself.  If I had loved her as much as I love myself her plants would have gotten exactly as much water as mine.  But they didn’t; they got a good bit less. 

The measure of our love is not always so quantifiable, but last week it was.  It forced me to realize that while I like my neighbor I don’t love her, at least not as much as I love myself.  I’m going to think about that the next time I go out to water the plants and, if Jesus has his way, I will probably think about it the next time I see someone standing at the corner, holding a cardboard sign that says, “Hungry.  Please help.”