Sermon preached September 6, 2009
Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-7; Mark 7:24-30
Memory is fascinating. Why is it we remember some things and not others? Why do we remember so many seemingly odd details from years ago?
When I was a kid, my family owned one of those cabinet stereos, and my dad had someone wire speakers into our basement. I am sure he did not do that himself, given his own shortcomings as a handyman. But my parents liked to entertain and when they did they would sometimes put a stack of records on that stereo – I think it held up to ten records – and let them play through. One group my parents liked to listen to was a folk group from the early 1960s called The Kingston Trio. They had a lot of good songs, among them a song called “Greenback Dollar,” which had a rather daring chorus. And I don’t give a damn about a greenback dollar/Spend it fast as I can/For a wailing song and a good guitar/The only things that I understand, oh boy, the only things I understand. I guess that’s memorable enough, but I also remember listening to KDAL radio one afternoon, at a time when KDAL still played music, and there it was – The Kingston Trio “Greenback Dollar.” Except when the chorus came on, there was a guitar strumming over one word – and I don’t give a strum bout a greenback dollar. Radio stations apparently wouldn’t play the song in its original form. The word strummed over was considered offensive.
Last week, with the death of Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, another memory came back to me, again from something I heard on the radio. There was a time in my life when I tuned into Jimmy Swaggart and I remember listening to a broadcast where he was talking about liquor and its evils. It had never touched his lips, he said, but if it tasted anything like it smelled, he thought it must be awful. Then he began to talk about the Kennedy family, and how they made their money on alcohol and he speculated that maybe there was some kind of curse on that family because of their link to liquor, a curse that included the deaths of John and Bobby, and the reckless behavior of Ted at Chappaquiddick. I think it was the last time I listened to Jimmy Swaggart. I found that theory offensive.
As long as I am recounting memories having to do with offensive words, I retain the foggiest memory of George Carlin’s comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” – but I retain enough of a memory to know that I cannot share any of those words here.
Offensive words. The poet Carl Sandburg was once asked what the most offensive word in the English language was. He said, “exclusive.” What an odd thing to say. Don’t you like getting things in the mail that tell you you are the recipient of an “exclusive offer”? When a baseball player hits over 500 home runs, he is said to be part of an “exclusive club.” Sounds kind of nice to me. Why would someone say that exclusive is the most offensive word in the English language? An exclusive club when one refers to an achievement seems honorable, but try thinking of belonging to an exclusive club when that means no Jewish people, no Catholic people, no black people, no American Indian people, no women (and it is not so long ago in our history that such clubs existed widely) – and try imagining the feeling of being one excluded. However foggy our memories, my guess is that we can all remember times when we were excluded from something, and it felt pretty bad. Maybe Sandburg was on to something.
If our Scripture texts are any indication, the God of the Bible might agree with Sandburg. Three texts, taken from three very different parts of the Bible, all move in the direction of greater inclusion and away from exclusion. In Proverbs we are reminded that rich or poor, God is our Creator. Because of our common humanity in God, we are to treat the poor with generosity, we are to be careful not to crush or afflict those in poverty.
James, too, is concerned with the way the poor might be treated, and with favoritism toward the well-off. Partiality and favoritism have no place in God’s ordering of things. James is writing to the early Christian community, warning them of this tendency in their common life.
We then have the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, a disturbing and wonderful story, a wonderfully disturbing story. Jesus is on the road and is getting quite far from his home base. He travels to the region of Tyre, a predominantly Gentile area extending to the Mediterranean Sea. He is tired, weary, in need of rest – ever been there? He would like to remain anonymous, but that doesn’t last long. A woman, a “clever and determined foreign woman” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible) - Syrophoenecian, a non-Jew – comes to Jesus and asks for help for her daughter. Calling her a “dog” would have been quite derogatory, a slam against her religion, culture and ethnic background. Jesus’ response is troubling. Is he that tired? Is he trying to be clever? We don’t know. What we do know is that the woman is very clever - she takes Jesus’ own words and turns them in a different direction, opening up the possibility of healing – and healing happens. Is Jesus surprised by, amazed at the breadth of God’s inclusivity? The story should leave us amazed at God’s inclusivity.
The God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, is a God who seems always interested in expanding the circle of inclusivity, expanding the circle of people who we should care about, even if sometimes our caring can be little more than sympathetic awareness of their plight. God is ever inspiring us to include in our circle of caring the poor, those whose backgrounds differ from our – whether that difference be race or class or religion. God is ever inspiring us to welcome the stranger, to extend healing beyond our familiar and comfortable categories. All are a part of God’s dream for the world. All have a place in the beloved community.
My guess is that few struggle with this notion in the abstract. We understand that the God of Jesus Christ is a God who invites us, challenges us to reach across boundaries, who invites us, challenges us to break down barriers, who invites us, challenges us to work toward more inclusive communities in our world and to see the human community, at some level, as itself an inclusive community.
Where things get more difficult is when we begin to ask questions about specific barriers in our world, and perhaps one of the more puzzling barriers we confront is that barrier dealing with human sexuality, with sexual orientation and gender identity. Why are so many churches struggling with these issues when they are often difficult and uncomfortable to discuss – GLBT issues? Can’t we just sort of welcome folks and be quiet about it all - - - keep talking about the beloved and inclusive community without getting so specific?
Part of the reason we discuss GLBT inclusion issues is that our understandings of human identity have grown, developed, changed. Abraham Maslow is one of my favorite writers, and a familiar figure to many who took psychology courses in high school or college. Maslow died in 1970 at the age of 62. In 1959 he wrote an essay on the shortcomings of perceiving the world in only an appreciative way, and in that essay said one shortcoming was that people who excelled at perceiving everything appreciatively and seeing the beauty in most everything might, inadvertently, seem to approve of behavior that really out not to be approved, for example, Maslow writes, “homosexuality or crime or irresponsibility” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 123). Sexual orientation is lumped together with criminality and irresponsibility. Yet as we have come to know GLBT people we know they are no more criminal than the rest of the population, nor more irresponsible. Science no longer lumps homosexuality with criminality and irresponsibility. Our understandings have developed. With that comes the responsibility of the church to grapple in new ways with the meaning of faith. When science discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe, Christian faith had to think about itself anew. When science discovered that the earth is more than 6,000 years old, Christian faith had to think about itself anew. So now we need to ask what inclusion means as our understandings of orientation and identity are developing.
More importantly, much more importantly, the church needs to grapple with GLBT issues and inclusivity because there are some who, in the name of Christian faith are willing to speak the most offensive things about GLBT persons. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination recently changed its policy on who could be clergy, allowing for persons in committed, monogomous same-gendered relationships to be pastors in good standing, allowing, then, congregations to call them. Wednesday’s Duluth NewsTribune had editorials by the ELCA bishop of the Northeast Minnesota Synod and by the pastor of the local Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The former made the case that the ELCA also committed itself to “bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound conscience of all.” The WELS pastor declared that “ELCA leaders lack the ability to defend and back their stance with God’s word because they have discarded the belief that it is truthful and authoritative.” Furthermore, he says, “Satan has won yet another battle with false doctrine in a very visible church.” So some in the church tell us that if we believe God’s inclusive community includes GLBT people as GLBT people we have abandoned the Bible and have given in to Satan.
Pretty harsh, but that is nothing compared to the words of the pastor at Faith Word Baptist Church in Phoenix, Steven Anderson. The same God who instituted the death penalty for murderers is the same God who instituted the death penalty for rapists and for homosexuals, sodomites and queers! That’s what it was instituted for. That’s God, he hasn’t changed…. His only solution to the problem of homosexuality was to pour out literal Hellfire and destroy the city as an example of what he thinks about sodomy…. We need a revival of old-fashioned righteous indignation and hatred for sin and perverts.
Now those are offensive words, and maybe Sandburg was right, they are deeply offensive because they represent the ultimate in exclusion, excluding people from the human community. That these words are spoken in the name of Jesus Christ pains me deeply and gives me reason to say we need to struggle with what it means to be inclusive.
As a congregation we have taken a stand. We have said that all means all, that God’s love is extended to all persons and that this love breaks down barriers – of race, of origin, of economic circumstance, of background, and yes, of sexual orientation. We proclaim that God’s inclusive community includes GLBT people. Do we condone everything that happens in the name of GLBT freedom – no. Nor do we condone everything that heterosexuals do. We welcome and accept people as we believe God made them. We believe all people have room for growth in faith, hope and love and we desire to be the kind of inclusive community that offers such help to all. We also welcome and accept people whose opinion on this issue is still in question, who are engaged in honest struggle with these issues.
I remember Carl Sandburg from high school, not the quote about exclusion, but some of his poetry. Chicago: Hog Butcher for the World,/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;/Stormy, husky, brawling,/City of the Big Shoulders:. Another poet I learned about at the same time was Robert Frost, and one of his poems begins: Something there is that doesn't love a wall. Maybe that something is God’s Spirit, that is, when that wall is in our human hearts. Amen