Sunday, December 26, 2010

Let's Stop Hiding

Here is the sermon I preached at First Congregational Church of Fort Worth on Sunday, December 26, 2010:

Let’s Stop Hiding
December 26, 2010

For many, Christmas is a joyful time.  It is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  In our churches we tell the story and have special activities throughout the season to celebrate and commemorate that glorious event.  Even the secular Christmas is infused with love for our fellow human beings and a wish for peace – both of which are large pieces of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and teachings

This season, we have done some reflecting on the story through the eyes of Mary and Joseph.  The Bible tells us that Jesus’ birth was heralded by singing angels, shining stars, wise men bringing gifts, shepherds coming to the inn to worship him and much rejoicing.  I wonder, though, if this is how Mary and Joseph felt.  They were in a strange city when it was time for Mary to give birth.  There was no place to stay but the barn at an inn and they were all alone.  Mary didn’t have a mid-wife.  She and Joseph had to bring the child into the world all by themselves, and Joseph probably wasn’t a whole lot of help.  Imagine how frightening that would be.  On top of that God placed a huge responsibility on their shoulders.  God told them that this son was going to be the Messiah, the Savior of the people.  It was going to be up to Mary and Joseph to bring the savior into the world and to raise him until he was old enough to do what God meant him to do – to save the people.  This is HUGE because the Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah for a long time.  They were waiting for someone to come and free them from their oppressors – the Romans.

Babies are special and they often illicit feelings of joy.  During my chaplain internship these past several weeks, I have had the chance to visit with many new Moms and Dads and their baby or babies (twins, triplets).  I am always struck with a feeling of awe at what a miracle it is and how each of these little, tiny babies are full of potential.  Babies are cute.  Babies are fun to play with.  But we all know that babies grow up with all of the accompanying challenges.  So even if Mary and Joseph were able to bask in the joy of a new baby, it probably wasn’t long before they were hit with the tremendous responsibility they held.  Imagine how frightening THAT would be – to be responsible for the savior of all of their people!

Then the Bible tells us that King Herod heard about the baby who was to become the “King of the Jews”.  Herod was threatened and vowed to find Jesus and kill him.  An angel warned Mary and Joseph and told them to go to Egypt and hide there until Herod’s death.  So they left in the night and went to a place where they were strangers in a strange land – a place where they didn’t know anyone and where the customs may have been very different from their own.  Again, imagine the loneliness, anxiety and fear they must have felt.  Think of the courage this took.  These two young people were responsible for the protection of this vulnerable baby who would someday play such a huge role in the future of God’s people.  It is hard to imagine what that was really like.  Of course, we all know that Mary and Joseph fulfilled their responsibility and Jesus grew up to do his work. 

Throughout his entire life, Jesus was a Jew.  He never intended to start a new religion.  He was trying to improve the faith of which he was already a part and the faith that he loved.  His teachings showed us how to be in covenant with one another and with God.  He taught us the Great Commandment:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The first Christians were those Jewish people who followed Jesus’ teachings and who found meaning in his death and resurrection.

But there were many other Jewish people for whom Jesus was not the Messiah.  They were looking for someone who was a warrior who would free them from the Romans.  Jesus was not at all what they were expecting, so they didn’t accept him as the true Messiah.  Eventually, the Jewish Christians were forced to break away from Judaism and form their own movement.

Early Christians suffered persecution and we know that they often met in secret.  They had to hide to protect the vulnerable fledgling movement so it could grow.  Even today in countries where religion in general or Christianity in particular is outlawed, the Christians have to hide and meet in secret so as to protect their faith, much as Mary and Joseph had to hide in Egypt to protect Jesus.

Eventually, Christianity was widely accepted, thanks to Constantine and his “conversion”.  And we know about the Protestant Reformation and how there are now many, many different denominations and “flavors” of Christianity. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to group today’s Christians into two general schools of thought.  There are those who believe in following the “law” – often to the letter of the law.  Unfortunately, this can mean their own particular interpretation of the law.  If one doesn’t believe as they do, one is going to go to hell.  I’ll refer to these as the “Followers of the Law”.  The other group is made up of those who focus more on the Great Commandment to love God and your neighbor and they are more tolerant of other ways of looking at things and of other faiths in general.  I’ll refer to these as the “Followers of the Spirit”.

I believe that the “Followers of the Spirit” have been hiding and I’m going to illustrate why I believe that.  As many of you know, I came to Christianity just a few years ago which means that I grew up outside of the Christian faith.  My perception of Christianity for much of my life was based on what I heard and experienced.  As a child and a youth, I had peers who would tell me that I was going to hell because I wasn’t a Christian.  I often heard this same sentiment through the media.  There were, and still are, protestors who hold up signs saying things like:  “God Hates Homosexuals, Liberals, Feminists, Pro-Choice, etc.”  You can fill in the blank.  How sad it must be to worship a God with all of those rules and who would hate you if you did the wrong thing.  But that’s what is out there.  Many of my non-Christian friends can’t understand why I converted because that’s all they see of Christianity as well.

Why did I convert?  I entered seminary intent on becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I also entered seminary with the vow to approach Christianity with an open mind.  There are so many Christians in the world; there must be something more to it than the hateful, bigoted rhetoric we hear so much of the time.  Much to my delight, I found the group of Christians who are “Followers of the Spirit”.  Where have you all been?  Why doesn’t the world hear more from us?  What are we hiding from?  We can’t be hiding to protect a vulnerable child, as did Mary and Joseph, or to protect a vulnerable movement as did the early Christians.  Just why are we hiding?  What are we trying to protect?  If we keep hiding as we have been, Christianity and perhaps the future of our country or our world will be informed more by the “Followers of the Law”.  Oppression will continue as those groups who the “Followers of the Law” have pronounced to be hated by God will continue to be identified.  And since God hates these groups, it will be OK for others to hate them as well and to treat them as second class citizens or worse.

We need to stop hiding.  We need to let the world know that God is a loving and accepting God.  We aren’t all the same – even in our faith – and that is OK.  Diversity is a good thing.  Look at all of the wonderful diversity in the natural world which is a part of God’s creation.  We can love each other and treat each other with respect even though we may not agree on everything. That is the key to a just and peaceful world.  We are all children of God – every last one of us – and God doesn’t make junk. God would be a very small God if there was only one way of believing and everyone else was doomed to eternal damnation.  God is much, much bigger than that.

We need to come out of hiding and start working to eliminate oppression in the world.  I believe that the Kingdom of God is something to be achieved here on Earth.  It is a world where everyone has equal access to resources – food, water, shelter, safety, education.  It is a world void of oppression where everyone has an opportunity to realize his/her God-given potential.  It is a world where we all love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is what the “Followers of the Spirit” can teach the world.  As Christians, it seems to me that those of us who are “Followers of the Spirit” have a responsibility to advocate for and protect those vulnerable groups who are hated by the “Followers of the Law.”  Let’s come out of hiding and start teaching and doing!

Of course, there are pockets of Christians who are “Followers of the Spirit” who are already beginning to do this.  Our own congregation identifies itself as being “open and affirming” as do many other UCC congregations.  Likewise, we’ve had some training and conversation about being open and welcoming to the mentally ill.  But so far, it seems that it has been all talk.  What are we actually doing  about these things?  Perhaps this is something to reflect on as we work to define who we want to be as a congregation in the future.

We can also team up with other groups who are working for the same thing.  To try to make significant change as an individual is almost impossible.  More can be done when a congregation works for something, but even more can be accomplished if several congregations and groups of like-minded people come together to work for a common cause.  There is power in numbers.  One of the things we here at First Congregational have been looking at is taking part in the Room at the Inn program in cooperation with South Hills Christian Church.  This is a good place to start working in cooperation with other groups.  Perhaps that is something we can do this next year. 

I recently attended a conference on Emerging Christianity, and this idea of coming together is one of the themes that I picked up there.  Churches and denominations are going to have to change in the future to survive.  People are not going to be interested in coming to church to serve on committees and work to keep up old buildings that are often not fully utilized.  Instead, folks are going to be more interested in coming together – perhaps even in informal environments – to talk about theology and to share their faith journeys.  It looks like ecumenicalism is going to be part of the wave of the future – especially for folks who have open minds and who are interested in hearing different ideas.

Perhaps the “Followers of the Spirit” have been hiding to somehow protect the Great Commandment.  Perhaps that idea has been vulnerable to being overtaken by the Followers of the Law.  But it is now time to come out of hiding and find each other and work towards realizing the Kingdom of God here on Earth. 

Jesus planted the seed of the Great Commandment.  It is now up to us to help it grow and become a healthy and strong force in the world.

Let us pray:
O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world
Be our Emmanuel, God-with-us, a Spirit of Courage
For those who must flee to safety and opportunity for life.

O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world
Be our Jesus, Savior from the power of sin, a Spirit of Peace
For those who work for Justice, and an end to the violence.

O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world
Be our Wonderful Counselor, a Spirit of Hospitality
For all who welcome the stranger and offer a sanctuary of Hope.

All this we pray in the Name of the One who loves us, calls us each by a precious name and send us forth to spread the Good News.