When preparing a sermon, preachers have often been encouraged to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. (Karl Barth) Because as Christians, we are called to look at the world, to encounter the world through the lens of God’s story. Because if what you are saying about the Bible doesn’t matter to, or relate to, what is going on in the world, well then, “Who cares?”
Granted I don’t hold many newspapers in my hands these days, as much as I read on the computer I am holding my hands, but as I was reading different newspapers this week, there was one subject that just kept coming up, over and over again – same-sex marriage.
As you just heard in the announcements, last week the ELCA Southeastern MN synod assembly, of which we are apart, voted to oppose the current Marriage Amendment in Minnesota. The amendment would define in the MN constitution that only the union of one man and one woman can be recognized as marriage. When the resolution to oppose the Marriage Amendment passed, some people felt an overwhelmingly sense of joy and affirmation. Others felt hurt and confused, disappointed and angry.
Then on Tuesday, the state of North Carolina voted on a similar Marriage Amendment. The amendment passed. Again, some people felt an overwhelmingly sense of joy and affirmation. Others felt hurt and confused, disappointed and angry.
And finally, on Wednesday, President Barak Obama announced his support for legalizing same-sex marriage, and expressing that it is his Christian faith that helped him come to his opinion. Yet again, some people felt an overwhelming sense of joy and affirmation. Others felt hurt and confused, disappointed and angry.
I’ll be honest, when the thought of preaching on this topic, my first reaction was to run in the other direction. In fact, at this very moment, I am a little nervous to stand up here and speak about this issue. Because it is so divisive. Regardless of which side you fall on with this issue, we can all agree that this topic is divisive and hard to talk about. It tears apart communities. It divides families. It divides congregations. But that is why we must talk about it…
This is such a hard conversation for Christians because faithful people who worship the same God and read the same Bible come down on different sides on this issue. So how are we supposed to understand it? How do we understand which is the work of God and what isn’t? Was it the work of God that our synod voted to oppose the Marriage Amendment, or was it the work of God that North Carolina voted to pass it? Is God on one side or the other? How do we begin to talk to one another about this topic?
Perhaps, a place to start is to move from the newspaper in one hand to the Bible in the other. As I was reading the text for this week, I realized that conflict is nothing new for the Christian Church. Since the very beginning, the Christian church has dealt with conflict and disagreement. In fact, we can find one example in our reading from Acts today. One of the great debates way back when is whether the promises of God revealed in Jesus applied to only the Jews – the Israelites, God’s chosen people – or if it could be spread to the gentiles. The outsiders, the non-Jews. The people you weren’t supposed to talk to or associate with. In fact it was against the law for Jews and Gentiles to interact. And rules are rules. So can the promises of God be spread from the Jewish community to the Gentile community?
In our short reading from the book of Acts, the apostle Peter has all sorts of people gathered around him – both Jews and Gentiles, and he is preaching to them. As Peter’s sermon goes on and on, suddenly the Holy Spirit comes and falls upon all the people there. Just like that. And you know what? The Jews couldn’t believe it. That the Holy Spirit would come down not only on them, but on those outsiders, those people whom the law said they weren’t even supposed to interact. And now, all of sudden, all of them, Jews and Gentiles, are blessed and anointed with the same Holy Spirit. The family of God just got a whole lot bigger. And the Jews weren’t all that comfortable with it.
In fact, when Peter returns to Jerusalem from his preaching tour, he even get interrogated by some other Jews, who holler at him, “Now why did you go and eat with those outsiders? They’re not a part of us!”
Divisive issues in the church – they’ve been with us a long time.
I think Jesus knew how divided the church could be. At least, I think he knew how divided his disciples could be. In our reading from the Gospel of John, it is Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ last night alive and he has all his disciples gathered around the table and he is giving his farewell speech. He knows these are the last words he’ll be able to say to them, so he’s saying goodbye and telling them how to live. And he knows what’s about to happen to him and how it will send his disciples scurrying in different direction. Judas will go off and betray Jesus. Peter will deny Jesus three times. Eventually, many will end up hiding in a room behind a locked door out of fear of what might happen to them. And anytime people start to get afraid, people start to separate and divide.
So what does Jesus do before all that? The night before his crucifixion, he pulls them all together and reminds them of who they are and what they have been called to do. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends.”
Who are these disciples? They are a community united by Christ’s love for them. No matter what future lies ahead, they are bound together by Christ’s love for them. And together they have been given a job to do – to love one another as Christ loves them.
In the midst of a divided world, what holds us together is not our agreement on tough social issues – like same-sex marriage, or abortion, or capital punishment or immigration. What holds us together is Christ’s mutual love for us. That we are friends of Christ called to love one another as Christ has so loved us.
Last week, we were brothers and sisters in Christ. This week: friends in Christ.
About a year and a half ago, I had the great joy of performing the wedding for my college roommate, Niels, and his partner in life, Martha. At Niels’ bachelor party, I met his best friends and groomsmen – Chris, Tony, and Luke. What was so great about these four guys is that each one of the them is very outspoken on their political views and none of them fully agree with one another. In fact they have the whole spectrum represented. As Niels put it, you’ve got Luke on the far left, Niels a little more left-center. Tony is towards the center but on the right. And Chris is on the far right. Rarely do the four of them all agree, but in the end all four of them are the best of friends and stood beside one another at each other’s weddings. I asked Niels, “With politics so divisive, how do you four do it?” He said, “In the end, you don’t forget that the core of that person is your friend whom you have cared about for a long time.”
I think this is who we the church are called to be. People who, in the end, don’t forget that the core of each person is your friend in Christ, whom Christ has cared about for a long time. So that when faced with an extremely difficult, complicated, and divisive subject as same-sex marriage, we can speak to each other honestly and in love, knowing that we are held together by something much stronger than shared political affiliations – we are held together by the love of Christ – we abide in Christ’s love.
Divisive topics are nothing new for the church. We’ve survived many of them. We are still having others. And we are still here. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about same-sex marriage. But let’s do it differently. Let’s share our stories. Let’s be honest about our convictions. Let’s not enter this with the hope that we can change each other’s mind. But so that we can learn from one another. So that together we can bear the weight of this complicated time in history through mutual respect and discussion. So that everyone can have a voice at the table and so that we can freely be ourselves when we are at church.
This fall, I will lead us through a 3-session conversation in which we will discuss same-sex marriage and how we can best engage in this difficult discussion. But I hope you won’t wait until then to start the conversation. In fact, I hope you’ll talk about it with your families. With your friends. With me. With people that you might not agree with.
We are called to hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. To discern how God’s word for us matters to what is happening in the world. It isn’t easy. In fact, sometimes it just down right painful. But I think it is what we are called to do. And as we do, may we trust that the abiding love of Christ which holds us all together will see us through. AMEN