Toothpaste and Judgment - thrive UMC Official Blog

Toothpaste and Judgment

Luke 8:26-29

            Before we get into the scripture reading or the sermon today, I have to start off with a couple of disclaimers today. 

            And the first disclaimer is to anyone who might be new here to this congregation.  If this is your first time here with us, or if you’ve only visited a couple of times before, I want you to know that today is something of a deviation from our usual Sunday mornings.  Ordinarily, we like to be nice and well-mannered and all of that, but today we’ve got to try and work through some stuff.  And in all likelihood, it will not all be pretty.  And you’re going to see it.  Now I’m not going to apologize for this, because this is just how things work; but I did want to try to prepare you.  As a church, we’re kind of like a public family –and like every family, we have some issues, and today that is going to come out.

            That leads me to my second disclaimer for the morning. We are all a congregation together, are we not?  And I am your pastor.  And a part of the pastor’s role is to stand up and say stuff on Sunday morning.  And we all already know that sometimes when pastors do that they say stuff that people don’t like.  And today is very likely going to be one of those days where some of you are going to hear things come out of my mouth that you might not support or agree with.  You might feel I’m inviting you into a state of anger.  This is bound to happen, and I personally believe it’s not only okay, but it us a good thing.  Yet my hope here is that we don’t nurture a spirit of animosity in this, but instead I’m stating this disclaimer at the beginning, because my deepest hope is that we can all join together in a spirit of compassion, and be moved a bit out of our own perspective as we confront a very difficult and complicated topic. One that’s way too big to be addressed in the short time we’ll share together today.

            So those are my two disclaimers. 

            Now, over the past two months, we’ve been talking about the prophet Jonah and the gift of admitting you might be wrong.  And about a month ago, we paused our Jonah story to compare the storm he went through to a storm Jesus and his disciples went through.  And we read a portion of Luke chapter 8 to compare and contrast Jonah and Jesus in similar situations.  And today, we’re opening up with the brief passage that follows that, because it has a very important reminder for us today. 

            We, like Jesus and Jonah, are in the midst of a storm.  If you listened to the news, or followed what happened at our denomination’s General Conference this past weekend, you’ll know that we are right now it the midst of some crazy-strong winds, and some huge waves and choppy waters.  So today I thought we’d switch to this story just to remind you that there is another shore beyond the storm.  Storms like this happen from time to time, but if we can hang on and weather them, we should be able to get back to some solid ground.  So let’s read that story. 

            Our reading for the morning comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8, verses 26-29.  It says this:

26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.

            Now, there is already a ton of stuff going on in these 4 verses, and we hardly have time to skim the surface.  But I wanted to bring this passage before you this morning because it continues the conversation that’s going on in the book of Jonah that we’ve been reading.  Jonah was sent to share God’s proclamation to a foreign territory.  And Jesus is doing the same thing.  The land of the Gerasenes was culturally Greek in Jesus’ day, and we know from the records of the Jewish historian Josephus that they rebelled against the Roman empire a while before Jesus comes along.  And the Romans responded by absolutely crushing them, slaughtering every male they could catch. There are a number of clues here in the text that suggest that this whole encounter has starkly political connotations; but we don’t have time to explore that aspect of the story today.

            What I wanted to show you is simply that Jesus comes to this foreign place, in the same way that Jonah comes to Nineveh.  But the two prophets see these foreign places with different eyes.  Jonah looks at Nineveh and sees a whole nation of evil, violent people. And because this is how he sees them, he believes they deserve all the doom and justice God has to dish out.  But when Jesus comes to this new place on the other side of the storm, he sees not evil people, but afflicted people. Now there was some serious bad blood between the Jews and the Greeks back then.  There was an event where a Greek King had stormed into the temple in Jerusalem, disrupted the sacrifices that were taking place, and in front of everyone, he and his troops put up an altar and sacrificed pigs –unclean animals- to Zeus. They desecrated the temple, and shamed the people.  No Jewish person could forget that this had happened. 

And Jesus would have had every right and reason to see that whole category of people as evil and worthy of God’s righteous wrath.  But as soon as he gets off the boat, he’s greeted by a certain man from the city.  And we come to discover that this man is wild, and disheveled, and violent. In other words, his description fits the bill for how all the Greeks were supposed to be, according to all of the stories that were told about them back home.  But Jesus takes one look at him and sees someone who’s naked and homeless and living among the graves.  This is a man who is desperate and has been profoundly hurt.  And this man, in turn, recognizes Jesus –calls him the Son of the Most High God- and he begs him not to torture him. If we keep reading, we’d find out that not only does Jesus not torture or punish this man, but he even ‘accommodates’ the demons within him.  Oh, this is such a crazy, beautiful story! 

But listen again to this part, because this part is a huge deal that you’ve probably never noticed, it says, “Many times [the demon] had taken possession of him, so he would be bound in leg irons and chains and placed under guard.  But he would break his restrains, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.” 

Does that story sound familiar to any of you?  Have any of you heard any other story about someone that was put in chains –forced into slavery- only to break out and end up in the wilderness?  That’s the story of the Hebrew exodus!  The foundational story of the Jewish people.  What that line shows us is –hey, this guy’s story is really the same as… ours.’  The message here is that the people we imagined were our enemy is really our neighbor!  They have been through the same stuff we have. 

And by the way, that’s the same invitation that the end of Jonah gave us.  Remember, we shared it the last two weeks, after Jonah –who’s also suffering alone in the wilderness- gets all fired up at God, God asks him a question.  Jonah wants God to punish the whole city of Nineveh for their violence and evil, and God asks: can’t I have compassion for them?  Can’t I have mercy on these people who don’t know any better? 

‘I mean, come on Jonah,’ suggests God, ‘who created them?  To whom do these people belong?’ 

Was there any other god around that could have made them? Is any other heavenly power responsible for them?  No!  So those people of Nineveh are God’s people too, Jonah –so hey, you’re a prophet, you know the story –aren’t they worthy of mercy? 

And that story leaves the question open. It invites the reader to decide for themselves.  It invites a conversation about mercy and justice.

But Jesus, in an explicitly parallel story responds: yes, absolutely!  Not only does Jesus give the possessed man a new and better future, he even lets the demons decide where they want to go from there!  Come on!

But just this last Tuesday, our own denomination –our own church, when asked if there’s room for mercy to be shown to people who are gay and lesbian, and the entire LGBTQ+ community, the 2019 body of the special session of General Conference decided to affirm again, by a 53% vote: ‘nope!’  All of ‘those people’ are unworthy of the blessings of a holy union and of the station of ordained ministry, and there’s absolutely no way God could ever choose otherwise. 

There is a line, and a limit of God’s compassion and grace, and it stops right before we get to ‘the gays.’ 

And I just cannot believe it!  That is not an accurate reflection of the God I have experienced and worship. The God I know and have my faith in has no limits on mercy or grace.  And not only that, but I have people that I personally love –people in my family, and friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ who are in that group.  And the message they are receiving from the church that raised me up and loved me and encouraged me and blessed my relationship with Kristen, and invited me to serve through ordained ministry that church will not ever extend the same blessings to them.  They are not welcome as I have been welcomed.

‘Oh, but they can still come to church!’

Sure they could.  But that’s like being invited to a birthday party where you’re told you can come, and go ahead and bring a gift, but you can’t have any cake.  And in case you were wondering, when your birthday rolls around, there will absolutely be no party for you.  Does that sound welcoming to anybody here?

I wanted to share with all of you just a couple of emails that were sent to me this past week, both of them were written persons who identify as lesbian or gay.

            A quick note before I share, if you didn’t know what the acronym LGBTQ stands for, it stands for ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer.’  One further note, it is not polite to call anyone who identifies with any of those categories as ‘queer’ unless you yourself are. 

“So many people in the LGBTQ community have felt less compelled to get Jesus in their heart. They feel that they don’t deserve Jesus. They feel that they are such bad sinners and that they’re forever damaged and that having a relationship with God can never happen because they’re not worthy of his love and grace. I personally don’t feel that way…and never have…no matter what anybody has said to me; but for some it’s not that easy.

“Every day ppl struggle with their relationship with God, regardless of their stance on sex and/or gender; but the sad thing is, many of their issues are not with God…sadly, it’s the church.

“Now before this gets ugly, I am not saying that all churches fit this equation…” [she then goes on to share particular people who have meant a lot to her at church]  “Thrive is the first church I have EVER been to where I have never felt hurt or ‘less than’.

“If you know anybody that is struggling with this (gay, straight, etc…) please let them know to never ever give up on their personal relationship with Jesus Christ…even if the church has said otherwise!!!

“With love and hugs to you and yours…”

And I wanted to share one more, and this one really touched me.  It was written by a person who identifies as gay, and who felt called to go into the ministry, and went to seminary, and was refused ordination. 

This person writes:

“Greetings in the love of our Lord Jesus. 

“Oh Jeremy, my heart hurts at the news. But how greater the pain to the heart of our Father God who sent His only Son so that every created person could have the same access to call Him Abba…Daddy.

“As a person who identifies as gay, I want you to know that I first identify as a follower of Christ because my first love is Jesus. And I want you to know that I forgive UMC, as well as other churches in the past which have told me that I would have eternal damnation, that I was not a Christian, that I was welcome to take space in a pew, but never in the life of ministry. I forgive the closest of Christian friends who wrote a collective letter condemning my union with my same sex spouse . I forgive those who cut ties with me in the name of righteousness. I forgive those who have smiled politely, but spoke ill of me behind closed doors because of my sexual orientation.

“I forgive them Jeremy because we have a God that is greater, holier, and more just than any of us can comprehend. We have a God who equally longs for and pursues every single one of us with His love and mercy. 

“If my faith were in a church or a denomination, if it were in a pastor or church leader, then my faith would be shaken with the votes of the General Conference. But it is not shaken because we have an unshakeable kingdom that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. 

“Such deep truths hidden in plain sight within a child’s song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.” I believe by faith because the Bible tells me so. God’s irrefutable, immutable Word tells me that Jesus died for MY sins…not in part, but the whole.

“I am praying for you as I know the General Conference decision puts you at risk. And I’ll be praying for clergy within UMC that identify as gay or lesbian because their life in ministry is also at risk. 

“God makes all things beautiful Jeremy. So take the pile of cow dung that the GC dished out and continue planting the beautiful seeds of love and grace.”

            That was the sermon I needed to hear this past week.  Because for the first time in my life, after this General Conference decision, I felt like the church I grew up in didn’t have room for me any longer.  Because I believe God can and does use people of all backgrounds and ages and races and sexualities to pass on grace and love.  I believe God can and does bless relationships between same-sex couples –because I’ve seen the joy and love they nurture.  And these letters that were sent to me reminded me that the Holy Spirit will keep on moving with or without our institutional structures.  Because God’s spirit always breaks out and releases people from bondage and slavery. 

            On Wednesday, the season of Lent begins, where we’re invited to take the path of the freed Hebrew slaves, and of Jonah, and of Jesus, and of the man possessed, to enter into the lonely, unknown territory of the wilderness.  For there we will again encounter God anew, and invited to change. 

            Let’s pray.