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Equality in Christ

Sermon - 4/03/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Philemon 8:22

The text that I thought I would use for this Sunday, which we've designated as equality Sunday, is Paul's letter to Philemon, which Paul wrote on behalf of Philemon's slave Onesimus. Reading from verse 8 through 22 of that text:

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, 16no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

 

Well, once again, I find myself this morning saying 'huh?'. How did we end up with this theme, on this particular Sunday, quite unintentionally? Sometimes it's just the coincidences of history and lectionary, like last Sunday -- for those who were here, the lectionary text was the story of the woman at the well, you all remember, the woman who had 5 husbands, and now living with a 6th man. And wondering what illustration can I use for that, and lo & behold, Elizabeth Taylor in the news, and made for some interesting reflection. And bless her for her wonderful life in so many ways.

This week, that strange a coincidence that occurred was neither due to lectionary nor history, but rather two different events within the life of our congregation which have converged on this Sunday.

The first came through our open and affirming task force, which wanted to find a Sunday when we could recognize our new status as an open and affirming congregation. That fell to this Sunday simply due to a combination of factors that made it the only available Sunday between now and Pentecost. Then, some kind and good people (that I did not bribe, cajole, or coerce :), decided that this would be the Sunday that we would recognize our 20 years of ministry together which we have just done.

Although I thought the plan was that we were going to do it last Sunday, at least that was the first word that came to me, although I'm quite thankful that it turned out to be this Sunday because I'm just not quite sure how that would have worked -- of any comparison that might have been made to the woman at the well or Elizabeth Taylor. At least I wouldn't make that comparison in my ministry, you might :). And I'm also thankful that it was this Sunday because I couldn't be more pleased to share this Sunday as equality Sunday.

In a broad sense, that really has been a focus of my ministry -- equality. And justice. I'm pleased to say that it's not just my ministry, that it truly is our ministry. So let me say a little bit more about how we got to where we are and what I believe it means for us today.

First, I have to make a true confession. When Judy and I came here 20 years ago, we never dreamed that we would still be here today. It's not that we wanted to go somewhere else, I just didn't know, growing up in the mansion of the pastor, that you could stay that long. Because we always moved every 7 or 8 years. It wasn't until Dad went to Portland that they decided to stay around for more than 10 years.

At any rate, here we are, 20 years later. And I never had any intent, 20 years ago, of leading us to this particular point. Never crossed my mind.

I was curious as to what I preached on 20 years ago -- even though you may remember it well, I don't :). So I pulled out my notes from that Sunday. I don't use a manuscript (you may have noticed that's why I stumble around a lot), and we don't have a recording from that Sunday, so all we have are these notes. Bless Glen Campbell who transcribes my sermons and puts them on the web. But this is how that sermon began: Army reservist; woman loses husband; teenager leukemia; worker laid off; student new school; family new town. I have no idea what I said about any of these things!

It was Easter Sunday, by the way, March 31st, 1991. I thought it was a great Sunday to start a new ministry. The gospel story was the gospel of Mark, the resurrection story. The theme was hope in the face of hopeless situations. I figured that was a good way to start my first Sunday here -- you didn't know me, I didn't know you :).

The illustration that I used later in the sermon of that was the experience Judy and I had living in Germany, and in particular 10 days I had studying and working Auschwitz. 10 days in Poland, and then in a week in Auschwitz. I noted in that sermon that Jews, Gypsies, Communist, Homosexuals, and other 'undesirables' were sent to the gas chambers. Gas chambers in which I stood 40 years later. Let me tell you, you do not have that kind of experience without it changing you. Plus the fact that I was there with Germans, it was part of their working through their history and coming to terms with all of that. Incredibly powerful experience.

I went on in that sermon to quote Paul Tillich, the great theologian of the last century from this country, who in the height of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s said "the belief in the original unity of all human races has become a matter of genuine hope. That hope leads to progress from injustice to more justice, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity, is exactly what the kingdom of God is about". And so Tillich said: "For the kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future, it is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy".

That's what we're about. That's creating those moments. Creating that place, that visible, tangible manifestation of the kingdom of God at work, transforming this world into that world desired by God, practiced by Jesus, proclaimed by Paul, that is what we are about. It's what we have been doing all these years. It's why we took that step to become an open and affirming congregation as one piece of that larger picture. Affirming the gifts that all people have, and including all in the life of our ministry, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation and the like.

But why make such a big point out of this one issue? People have asked us that. And the reason is quite simple, as Tara Wilkins told me (who is the head of Welcoming Congregations, a parachurch congregation that works with congregations on these issues). We were conversing this week about a possible future workshop on marriage and what that means in light of all of this. And she said to me: "If you're gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, the one message you hear over and over and over again, from Christians and churches, is that you are a sinner and you are not welcome, unless you change".

And we saw that last week, in the incredible editorial in the Register Guard on Sunday, written by Desiree Bone. Desiree is a daughter of lesbian mothers. She writes: "Through the years, although the country may seem to be accepting homosexuals more, the people around me have started to reject and hurt homosexuals more and more". She goes on to write about her experience in school, and the ridicule endured by her gay friends. When one of her friends confessed to her some suicidal thoughts, she learned about how suicide rates among gay and lesbian youth are alarmingly high -- much higher than any other population. And she says, "Knowing this, it only makes it worse when children ask me stupid questions in front of their closeted peers. It could be as simple as 'How were you born?', or as cruel as 'Don't you know your parents are going to hell?'. And my homosexual friends around me start to put up walls. These children, and remember they are still children, already are vulnerable enough without people preaching hate to them".

Desiree is an eighth-grader. She writes with the wisdom, and the courage, of someone three or four times her age.

This is the predominant experience that we have heard from all of our gay and lesbian friends in this congregation. It is the experience of almost all homosexuals. And often includes on top of that the rejection by their own family and their own church. I know of no other group that experiences that kind of prejudice and discrimination, and that's why it's important for us to talk about it and to lift it up.

Three years ago, our Vision Team developed our future story and our Strategic Plan. The bulk of that was written while I was on sabbatical. It was a lay-led process that was guided by our consultant (Dick Hamm). It including in it a goal to form this task force for the purpose of exploring the possibility of becoming open and affirming. Dr. Hamm had advised us that the time was right to do this, and we did. And I mention that, because we're all too familiar with those strategic plans that are so finally written, and then are immediately 'implemented' by putting them in a file cabinet never to see the light of day again. But we have been working on that plan for the last three years. And we implemented that one step (although we were one year late).

That process of becoming open and affirming, like the strategic plan itself, was lay-led. It including input from over a hundred of our members through surveys and listening gatherings with every possible group of the Church. The task force worked incredibly hard to get as much input as possible, to offer opportunities for everyone to express themselves, and a variety of educational events. And the one major concern that seemed to be the theme they heard over and over again was the fear of dividing the church. We don't want to take a vote on this, because votes just create winners and losers.

And so we developed the consensus process that we used at our Annual Meeting that involved more listening, and sitting at tables and listening to each other. And opportunities for everyone to participate. At the end of the day, we came up one voice short of consensus. One person not willing to stand aside, who was brand new in the church, had not gone through that process with us. We thought we had failed, and were beginning to strategize with what to do next, and when that person found out they were the only one, graciously then agreed to step aside. And so we achieved consensus.

Now, please know that consensus does not mean everyone agrees. Indeed, people still have questions, doubts, concerns, maybe disagree. And all are welcome here. Consensus means that those who are not in agreement are willing to stand aside and will not undermine our sabotage the will of the body for the good of the whole.

So throughout this whole process, while obviously I have been in support (as April is as well), I intentionally did not devote a sermon to the topic. I did not want to use the pulpit as a campaign tool, so that the process would remain as something owned by the congregation.

Now that we have made our decision, do you think it's OK if I share with you my views? Can I speak freely? :).

Let me approach it this way. Thursday I had an editorial in the paper, on behalf of workers at McKenzie-Willamette hospital who have been working without a contract for almost a year (I spoke at their rally that night). Friday, I was back up in Salem for the Caesar Chavez event for farm-workers, in the Governor's office, a proclamation by the Governor declaring last week 'Farm-worker Awareness Week', that was read by Kate Brown (they had asked me to come up and 'MC' the ceremony). Yesterday, Eliza had that wonderful article in the Heart-to-Heart column in the Register Guard, very gracious, quoting many of our interfaith friends.


Eliza Drummond delivering gifts to Dan on his 20th anniversary with First Christian Church in Eugene.

 

It may not be obvious, but you see these are all connected for me. They are all part of that same issue. And it goes back to those gas chambers in Auschwitz, where all of those undesirables were equal in death. Executed by the state, just as was Jesus.

Equality. Justice. Unity. Fairness. Civil Rights. Human Rights. All these things that stand against racism, and sexism, and xenophobia, and homophobia, are central to the gospel It is summed up in that vision for the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. You simply cannot profess belief in the love of God for all people and then condemn some to hell for who they are, or require them to change their most fundamental identity as a prerequisite for receiving that love.

And I don't care if you're talking about gay or lesbian, Jewish or Muslim, documented or undocumented, it's all another form of works-righteousness if we say 'you have to change before you can be part of us', before you can be like us and can receive that love of God. That is contrary to the core of the gospel.

So here are the three principles that guide my beliefs and actions, clearly evident (I think) in Paul's letter to Philemon.

First of all, spiritual equality leads to social equality.

Onesimus, a slave, is a brother in Christ, says Paul, and concludes therefore that his status as a slave of Philemon is incompatible with his status of being equal in Christ.

Second, voluntary action based on love is always preferable to involuntary action base on coercion.

It would be much better for Philemon to free his slave by his own will than for Paul to command him to do so.

But third, when voluntary action is not sufficient, justice may require outside intervention for the common good.

Justice is the social form of love. And Paul makes clear he expects justice to be done in the case of Onesimus, because if Philemon does not act freely, Paul is coming to visit, he will intervene.

Now, keep all that in mind as I remind you of that verse I use so often, and in many ways one of the themes of my ministry, of Galatians 3:28: "In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, all are one in Christ".

Now, we're not sure in what order Paul's letters were written. They didn't number them for us, right? There are no dates for them. So I wonder -- did Paul's grandiose vision of unity and equality in Christ come before or after his encounter with Onesimus?

Could it be just as Paul argued before the elders in Jerusalem (described in Acts 15, and a slightly different version in Galatians 2), that the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles (which Paul argues was sufficient evidence for their inclusion into the body of Christ without any need of any other requirement, in this case circumcision or observing a kosher diet) so too, I suspect, he learned from his experience of working with slaves, and with women. That the holy spirit, present in them, was evidence of their full equality in Christ.

So there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that if Paul read that editorial from Desiree, if Paul heard that testimony that we heard from our own gay members and their family members at our Annual Meeting, if Paul knew the people that we knew -- fine, Christian, devout, people who just happen to be gay lesbian -- if Paul knew that, then he would have also said "In Christ Jesus there is neither gay or straight, all are one".

And once you accept that spiritual equality, then social equality is no longer optional. It is required as a fundamental matter of justice. So whether we're talking about justice for racial or religious minorities, justice for low-paid hospital or farm workers, justice for hetero or homosexuals, it is the same issue.

When we dare to open ourselves to listen to the pain and suffering of others because of their sexual orientation, or because of their immigration status, or because of their race, or because of their religion, and we discover that they are good, decent people, who have the same hopes and fears, the same joys and grief's, the same beliefs and doubts as we do, how can we then deny them the same privileges and benefits that we have in the kingdom of God, or in society on earth?

This is my belief. It's the conviction I've tried (however imperfectly or inadequately) to put into practice these 20 years. That here in this place, we are called to live out that equality in Christ, working for God's justice in the world.

Amen? Amen. [Applause from the congregation]

 


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