Monday, May 14, 2007

Guest Commentary - "There Goes the Neighborhood"

by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Washington, DC, as delivered May 6, 2007, the fifth Sunday of Easter.

Note from Christian Democrat - sometimes I get emails with a variety of topics. This one gets the difficulties of an inclusionary church down sweetly and offers scripture towards a better understanding:

Just a few weeks ago First Baptist Church hosted a talk by Buzz Thomas, a licensed attorney and Baptist minister who had written a book called Ten Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can’t Because He Needs the Job). Some of those things had to do with the Bible, miracles, other religions, and the role of women, but one of those things had to do with homosexuality, and of all the issues confronting the church today that one may be the most controversial.

As Buzz and I talked after the reception we agreed that most ministers don’t avoid that issue because they are afraid they will lose their jobs, they avoid that issue because they love their congregations, and not everybody is at the same place. The 23-year-old woman who just moved to Washington from San Francisco thinks that homosexuality is no big deal, while the man who moved here from rural Tennessee back in the forties thinks it’s a very big deal indeed. We come from different backgrounds, different generations; we’ve had different experiences. It would be miraculous if we all held the same opinion on this or any other subject. But this is one of the ones we need to talk about, and especially in this part of town, which is home to such a large percentage of Washington’s gay community.

For years I’ve wished this church could create a safe place to hold difficult conversations. I’ve even dreamed up an event called “Sanctuary,” where we would invite people to come together and sit down, maybe at those round tables in our Fellowship Hall. We would say a word of welcome and offer a prayer, and then spend the biggest part of our time getting to know each other. “Tell us who you are and where you’ve come from,” we would say. I believe that if we could do that eventually the old man from Tennessee would say to the young woman from San Francisco, “Well it’s no wonder you feel the way you do about homosexuality—look at where you’ve come from!” And she would say the same to him.

Our opinions are shaped by all manner of things: they’re shaped by the places we grew up and the people we grew up with; they’re shaped by our families of origin and others who may have had authority in our lives. Chances are good that the fellow from Tennessee—who may have grown up in a little country church—had a preacher who told him that homosexuality is an “abomination.” And because he loved and trusted that preacher he believed him. But the girl from San Francisco may have gone to high school with a boy who was gay, and nobody could tell her that he was an abomination. He was just Kenny, her best friend in the whole world.

Do you see the problem? We tend to form our opinions on the basis of our experience, and no two of us have had exactly the same set of experiences. So, here’s a man from Tennessee who believes there are some very good reasons for thinking of homosexuality as an abomination trying to have a conversation with a young woman from San Francisco who believes it’s just the way some people are. How will these two resolve their differences? How will they carry on the conversation? And, most importantly, how will they do it without coming to blows?

When I was in seminary my theology professor once wrote the word God on the board. Under it he wrote the word Scripture, and under that tradition, and under that experience. “This,” he said, “is the hierarchy of authority.” What he meant was that when Christian people are trying to resolve difficult issues experience is the bottom rung on the ladder. It’s fine if you’re talking about what color the pew cushions should be, but if you’re talking about how to celebrate communion you might have to climb up to the next rung, you might need to see what the church’s tradition has been through the years. When you get to an issue like this one, like homosexuality, you have to climb up at least one more rung—to the level of Scripture—but even there we seem to have problems. Some people point to those biblical passages that explicitly condemn homosexual behavior while others point out that there is no place in the Bible that condemns homosexual orientation. So, what are we going to do?

We’re going to appeal to a higher authority.

That’s what Peter did when he was criticized for baptizing a bunch of Gentiles. The church was just getting started in those days, and its members were mostly God-fearing, law-abiding Jews who had also accepted Jesus as lord and savior. They hadn’t even thought about accepting Gentiles as members of the church, since Jews and Gentiles didn’t have anything to do with each other. But God had other plans. Peter said he was up on the roof praying one afternoon when he had a vision of something like a sheet being lowered by its four corners. As it came closer he looked inside and saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air—all of which were considered unclean by the Jews. But then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat,” and it sounded like the voice of God. So Peter answered, “By no means, Lord, for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” And then the voice said, “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” Peter said this happened three times and then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

And then he said to the church, “At that very moment three men from Caesarea knocked on the door, asking me to go with them to the home of their master, Cornelius. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"

Do you see what Peter does here? He appeals to a higher authority: he appeals to God. The Bible is quite clear about which foods are clean and which are unclean: good Jews aren’t supposed to eat pork or shellfish or any of a dozen other prohibited foods. And the Bible is quite clear about Gentiles: Peter says to Cornelius and his household, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile.” It was in the Bible. And if Peter had let the Bible be his final authority he might never have entered that house, Cornelius might never have heard the Gospel, never received the Holy Spirit, never been baptized, and you and I might be a lot of places this morning but we wouldn’t be here, in a church full of our fellow Gentile believers. But Peter wouldn’t let the Bible be his final authority. Even though the Bible said Gentiles were as non-kosher as a jar full of pickled pigs’ feet Peter said God had showed him that he shouldn’t call anyone profane or unclean. “And who was I,” Peter said, “that I could hinder God?” When his accusers heard this they were silenced. But soon they began to praise God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”

They had it on good authority.

Do you know there was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t find many black people in white churches? White people, who had used the Bible to defend the institution of slavery, used it again to defend the exclusion of black people from their churches. A Baptist preacher named Clarence Jordan, working down in Georgia during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, couldn’t find that kind of teaching in his Bible. He certainly couldn’t find it in the words of Jesus. And so he began to work on something he called the “Cotton Patch Gospel”—a version of the New Testament set in the American South. Listen to the way Jordan renders this part of Acts 11, beginning with verse 2: “When Rock got back to Atlanta (that is, when Peter got back to Jerusalem), some who believe in segregation tore into him. ‘You went home with folks who aren’t white,’ they shouted, ‘and you were eating with them!’ So Rock then got going and laid the matter out for them just like it happened.” Verse 15: “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came over them, just as it had over us at the beginning. [And I thought], if God’s gift to them was exactly the same as ours when we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ what right did I have to argue with God?” When [the segregationists] heard this, they came down off their high horse and started praising God. ‘Then it’s a fact,’ they said, ‘that God has given to the Negroes the transformed life.’”

It sounds funny to our ears, doesn’t it? It sounds old-fashioned and outdated to talk about God letting “even the Gentiles, even the Negroes” into the church. But even more than that it sounds offensive and unchristian. How long will it be before it sounds that way to say that God has let “even gay people” into the church? Buzz Thomas said, “Aren’t we going to be embarrassed when we find out that sexual orientation is genetically determined, that it’s just the way some people are born?” I don’t know. It seems pretty clear that skin color is genetically determined, but that hasn’t stopped us from discriminating against people of interesting color for hundreds of years. Baptist historian Walter Shurden has said that homosexuality is the civil rights issue of our time. Is it possible that, thirty years from now, those in the church who stood up for their gay brothers and sisters will be just as celebrated as those who stood up for their black brothers and sisters during the Sixties?
We might want to think about that, because we have some gay brothers and sisters. We have some gay sons and daughters. We have some gay friends and neighbors and co-workers. My guess is that there isn’t one of us in this room who doesn’t already know and love someone who is gay, whether we know it or not. And in my experience many of those people are believers, who have “received the gift of the Spirit just as we have.” So, what are we supposed to say to those people? That they’re not welcome in the church, that we won’t baptize them, that they can’t have communion? Peter’s final word on the subject in Acts 10:28 is that God has showed him he shouldn’t call anyone profane or unclean.


When we’re trying to talk about difficult issues in the church it might help us to remember that most of our opinions are the result of our experiences in life, but those experiences are not the final authority. Church tradition is not the final authority. Even the Bible is not the final authority. We might compare Scripture passages all day and at the end of the day shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, God knows.” God does know, and God is the final authority, but until we know what he knows I think it would make him glad if we could keep on having the conversation, and if church were a safe place to do it. I think it would make him glad if that man from Tennessee and that woman from San Francisco could get up from the discussion table, embrace like brother and sister, and then come to the communion table…together.

—Jim Somerville


Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW! Fantastic post! It would be great if the church felt more comfortable discussing these issues.

Specifically about the topic of homosexuality, I really appreciated the views expressed, as I have several gay friends whom I'd gladly die for (and Jesus did). It's an inner struggle between my background, which taught that being gay was wrong, and my friends, who I want to love and support. I really appreciated the thoughts on this in the post!

5/15/2007 10:44 AM  

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