Tuesday, November 21, 2006

11/19/06, Sermon

Charlie Hawes says that when he was the Episcopal Campus Minister at UNCG, he would occasionally go for lunch at the cafeteria, and in that huge dining hall, there would be in one area, tables with athletes eating together, in another area, there would be people from the Psychology Department eating together, in another area, black students would be gathered, eating, in another area, art majors would be gathered, eating. All over the dinning hall, groups of people would be collecting around common interests. All of the people there would have a connection with the university. All of the people there would share a common experience of being hungry. Yet, within their larger identity, they would be eating with, and talking to, people with whom they shared a more intimate bonding.

None of the groups gathered for lunch ever tried to, or probably even thought of, expelling any of the other groups because the other groups weren’t their kind. Because they were sinners and shouldn’t be allowed to eat in a dining room with the chosen ones of God. The Psychology Department never rose up against the Music Department. The Athletic Department never challenged the English Department about its right to be in the lunch room, or a part of the University. All the people in the room, and all the departments within the university, recognized the right of the other people to be in the room, and the right of the other departments to be a part of the school. And, no one ever tried to get them all “together,” to eat around the same table, to take the same classes, to agree about the same principles, and be of one mind about everything pertaining to life on campus.

This past week North Carolina Baptists said you can’t be Baptist and gay. Said you can’t be a Baptist church in the North Carolina system and have a gay member in your church. Said, in a manner of speaking, if you have long hair, or a tattoo, or a nose ring, you can’t eat in the dining room. Said, in a manner of speaking, if you don’t take the oath and swear to be like the rest of us, and look like the rest of us, and talk like the rest of us, and act like the rest of us, you don’t belong in the lunch line.

This morning, we have baptized a gay woman, and welcomed her and her partner into the membership of the congregation. The timing is one of those coincidents of life that make you think, “This couldn’t possibly be coincidental. Some Higher Power, with nothing better to do, like ending the war in Iraq, or waking the Bush administration up to what is decent, and loving, and just, and good, must have arranged the baptism for this particular Sunday as an expression of Christian irony and to give Jim something to say.” It is the nature of coincidence that it couldn’t possibly be coincidental. That is what coincidence means. Very low likelihood.

But, back to the point. You couldn’t ask for a better arrangement of the extremes in one week than here, with what the Baptists have done and we are doing. The question the arrangement brings up for me doesn’t have as much to do with gay rights as it does with how we are going to eat together in the same room. We all claim to be Christian, but the Baptists say to the homosexuals, “You can’t be Christian and act like that!”, and we are tempted to say to the Baptists, “You can’t be Christian and act like THAT!”

The question is how can the church be more like a college dining hall and less like an exclusive club for members like us only. How can we create the church as it ought to be without implying that it is restricted to people who think, and believe, and act as we do? How can we bring ourselves into focus, clearly defining who we are and what we are about, knowing what we stand for and what we stand against, without cutting ourselves off from, or thinking that we are superior to or better than, those who are different from us? How can we believe what we believe and make room in the dining room for opposite beliefs? How can we be truly inclusive, open-minded and home for all souls?

Through-out the history of the religion, proponents have declared that, in order to be a member of the religion, in order to be Christian, people have to behave and believe in certain ways. There are Presbyterians this very moment in this very town who can be overheard saying (like their Baptist counterparts), “You can’t belong to the church of Jesus Christ and be gay, or ordain those who are gay to office in the church.”

And, at the same time, through-out the history of the religion, there have been those who have followed Paul’s lead in saying, in effect, that at the Communion Table, and in the church, “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” (Gal. 3:28). Or that, “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…Indeed, the body does not consist of one member, but of many. If the food would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And, if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be. If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? …If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:12-31, portions). The work of the church is working out what it means to be different and together.

Being “one in the Lord” is a lot like being a student at UNCG. Students at UNCG are all over the place in their beliefs and behavior, but they are all students at UNCG. They eat together in the same dining hall but they don’t think alike. How much uniformity does the church require? How much diversity can it tolerate? How different can we be and still be the church? We have to see to it that we can be very different!

When Claude Ashin Thomas was here, he talked about the importance of belonging to a community of like-minded people. It takes a community of like-minded people to ground us in our own sense of value, and form our identity, and develop our perspective, and bring to consciousness, into awareness, who we are and what we are about—as long as that community listens with compassion and acceptance and understanding to us, and grants us the room, and the permission, to say who we are and what we are about, even if that is contrary to ideals and ways of the community. Like-minded-ness is not agreement, is not mindlessness, is not thoughtlessness, is not blindly following the leader, is not walking in step, is not reading from the same script, is not wearing the same clothes (And so, Vance Arnold’s warning about those red shoes!), is not becoming invisible and indistinguishable from everybody else in the room.

Like-minded-ness is about what holds us together as a community. It is, simply put, our granting one another the right to see what we see, and say what we see, and live in light of what we see without imposing our views on anyone else. We are like-minded about our freedom to see whatever we see, however we see. The right kind of community guards the right of individuals making up the community to be true to themselves, to their perspective, to their sense of the good. Yet, at the same time, the perspectives of the individuals making up the community shape the community, define the community, and create the community identity. And, the more narrowly the community is defined by the perspectives of its members, the fewer members it will have. Narrow perspectives are self-limiting and communities, even the right kind of communities, are forever limited by the perspectives of their members. How to be inclusive, open-minded, and home for a wide variety of souls is always the essential question with which the right kind of community constantly wrestles.

How do we define ourselves without becoming so narrow that we become radical extremists who are no more inclusive than the North Carolina Baptists? What are the safeguards against exclusive-ism? The new bumper sticker on the rear table reads: “Coexist,” written in the symbols of various religions and positions on various issues. How do we do that? How do we respect one another in our different-ness? How do we all eat together in the same dining room?

I think two things are required: consciousness and confession. We have to be mindfully aware of the times and places and ways we cut ourselves off from others in defining ourselves. We have to be clear about who we are without dishonoring other people for being who they are. We have to catch ourselves in the act of presuming that we are the way, the truth and the life, and that no one can come into the kingdom without doing it the way we do it, believing the way we believe, thinking the way we think, and calling good what we call good, and calling evil what we call evil. And we have to confess our failure to respect and honor all people, and live humbly, with compassion and justice toward all living things, while remaining true to our selves and our own values. It is the hardest thing there is. And so, the cross exists before us as a reminder of the price we pay to be inclusive, open-minded, and home for all souls.

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