An Attempt to Hold Back the Sea (post-Amendment One)
Sermon by Michael Usey
May 13, 2012
Thanks to all you who voted this week, however you voted. This is a Baptist church and people follow their own conscience about most things, and I know you did about Amendment One. Whether you voted for or against it, you are welcome here this morning and always. If you didn’t vote and wanted to, there are people here that can help you register to vote in November’s national elections. As on every Sunday, look around and you will see democrats, republicans, and independents; straight, gay and bi folks; pink folk and those with ebony skin and every shade in between; newborns and those pushing the century mark: Christians all who love God with hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.
For me the results of the Amendment One were not unexpected, but still disappointing and shameful. I have to say that I was extremely proud of you as a congregation all the way through this issue. It was last January when the upcoming vote came on my radar, and I started meeting with a group of local clergy to see how we could combat this amendment. Very early on I invited a handful of you to attend, and those four were at every meeting thereafter. At every meeting of Triad people of faith, there were more people from College Park than any other congregation, and you should be proud of that. You created websites and facebook pages; you planned and hosted a huge rally for the city, with over 700 people attending; you helped park cars, set up chairs, usher people in, and were always gracious hosts. Others of you emailed people, and had hundreds of conversations with friends, colleagues and even family. Some videoed sermons and music and shared them with the world. Others of you created ads and fought with the paper to include those ads. Kudos especially to our deacons, who listened patiently to me when I told them about this upcoming vote, and who trusted the congregation to be able to discuss this with kindness and integrity. You did just that, passing a concise resolution, our second since the one this church passed in 1960 about civil rights and the sit-ins. The resolution allowed us to act as a church, doing things like featuring a sign out front, and hosting a rally as our gift to the community. Through all this spring, you’ve worked tirelessly and treated each other with kindness, listening to each other’s discussions and concerns. I’ve never been more proud as your pastor.
You could call this protecting our brand. As you can see from the nation’s reaction to the passing of amendment one, Christianity as a brand is taking a hard hit, but we joined with so many churches across Greensboro and the state to be a witness for freedom in Christ. Because so many equate Baptist Christians with intolerance, this congregation offered a different image, one of thoughtful acceptance and a passionate pursuit of justice and mercy in God’s name. And, as I said, you were a most excellent witness to our city and beyond as a church that doesn’t just talk about justice, but puts herself out there for it. In marketing terms, you protected the brand of Christianity, of historic Baptists, and of College Park. In biblical terms you were a witness. Thank you for this—it is no small thing.
So let me remind us of a couple of truths. First, for Christians, politics are necessary and helpful but are not ultimate. Christians work hard for justice in political arenas, but we know that our citizenship lies elsewhere. We are citizens of another kingdom; we already have a messiah, so we don’t look for one in presidents or leaders. Political setbacks don’t faze us, even when they sadden us, because we fight the good fight with God’s wild spirit inside us. And, if we were to fight against what God is doing in the world, it would be like attempting to hold back the sea. Listen, as much as I hate to say it, there will be a time when America is no more, when even this church and Baptists are no more, when other things we hold dear swirl the drain, but God in Christ will remain with people, and so we shall overcome. Don’t misunderstand me: we need to work hard and fight and lobby and talk and strategize and plan; but whatever the outcome of a particular vote, this is not the end. God’s justice and mercy will have the last word. We serve the risen Lord; even death is not the last word. The Christian church was born and thrived under Roman rule, a vicious dictatorship that lasted for centuries, in which emperors demanded worship as a god, in which religion and empire were one, in which those who worshipped many gods called us Christians atheists, because we did not. So, please, let’s not catastrophize the outcome of one battle in a long fight.
Secondly, basic rights for people who are unmarried, the protection of children, and ending one form of discrimination against LGBTQ persons are what we have been fighting for, and we will continue to do so. These issues will likely be prominent in this election year. But there are not the only issues we fight for, not the only issues by far. We strive to bring the whole gospel to the whole person, which means there is a whole host of problems, pain, and suffering we work on ending here. For example, we work to end homelessness in Greensboro, by building homes with Habitat, and helping our older members with their homes, and by supporting ReStore and Mary’s House, and others.
We fight for food justice which means we are bring cans of green beans next week for food pantry at GUM, and lobby to end the food deserts present in our city, and talk how about what we eat can heal or hurt us, and stuff 48 backpacks of food every week for hungry kids a mile from here.
We are deeply concerned about the coming energy crisis that will change the way we live and work and travel. We learn and pray and give so that people in far-off lands can have clean water, laptops to learn with, animals with which to make a living, silly bands to celebrate life with God. We support missionaries from this very church half a world away who are telling and being the good news on our behalf, to a group of people who go home to God-only-knows-what.
I’ve been participating in a national survey about suicide and how churches can help prevent this, much on my mind since Junior Seau killed himself a little over a week ago. We at College Park know how loneliness can kill people as easily as a machine gun. Some here are doing what they can to fix a justice system that sometimes condemns innocents to death, and sometimes lets dangerous people go free. We are passionate about the education for most precious resource, our children and youth. We are clearly at the ecological tipping point, as well. We join with Jews and Mormons, two unlikely groups maybe, but we reach out to them for our common bonds. I could go and on, both about the problems we face and the wonderful things people in this church are doing to bring the whole gospel to the whole person. As we you well know, we are not a gay church or a straight church; rather we long to be a faithful church to our Lord Jesus. We cannot focus on everything that needs doing to repair the world; there is too much. But neither will we be consumed by a cause celebre. My point is simply this: Seek always to keep a larger perspective. Fight the good fight, but don’t sink at setbacks or sulk in the corner. We must not give up; we move forward. There are several arenas that need our focused attention.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of my favorites, probably because Paul is so hosed with them. Here at the end of the letter are a couple of verses worth noting this week, and memorizing as a matter of fact. Paul wants them to bear each other’s burdens, which I think is what all of us have been trying to do not only with this particular amendment but also in our lives together. Then comes a frightening verse: Don’t be deceived; God is not mocked. What one sows, this she will also reap. This is one of the key verses in our bible that is descriptive of evil and its result. God forgives us, but God does not rescue us from all our bad decisions. Murder someone, and God can forgive you; but God will not bring the murdered one back from the dead. The deed is still done, and this for me is most frightening: our deeds and words have power and effect, much of which we may not know or intend. Because, after all, it’s not our beliefs that makes us better persons; it’s our behavior that does.
Personally I don’t think we’ve sown anything good and true with the passage of this amendment. And we’ve already begun to reap: from the mountains to the coast resorts and hotels are reporting cancellations. A Charlotte county commissioner called for the end of domestic partner benefits the very next day after voting. And this: a clergy friend of mine said she has an older gay couple in her congregation. One of the men went to his chemo appointment, and his partner was to join him later at Cone Cancer Treatment Center. The healthy partner was late, and when he tried to join his partner of over 30 years, he was told he could not go back there since he was not family. They had never had any trouble before. After he fetched the paperwork for their joint power of attorney, there was still some hassle, but finally he was able to join his partner.
Economic impact, domestic partner benefits cancelled, medical hassles: these things will get worse before they get better. Certainly the state’s reputation has taken a huge hit. The quotes in today’s bulletin are just a few tweets from around the country, and they not by far the worse. I skim a number of papers: NYT, Wash Post, WSJ, LA Times, Dallas Morning News. There was not a single positive mention of what was done in NC in any paper I read this week. I’m sad for my adopted state. But I’m not taking any chin music from my California friends; when they’ve taunted me, I just say, yes we were not as progressive as Cali who passed this same ban four years ago.
But the more significant verse in this morning’s text is this one: Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. Listen to that again: (repeat). If I could, I would put this verse on in the corner of every bathroom mirror of every member of this church. I encourage you to imprint this on your hearts, memorize it. Here’s a promise from the heart of God to keep on keepin’ on.
This is why it was so significant for us to hear from our youth last weekend. Our youth and children are the future of our world, and our church, and we heard them articulate, adopt, and adapt the Christian faith—2000 years old, yet fresh in their lives. They reminded us of the larger and wider calling of us as Christ’s church in a fallen world.
I spoke to you about H. Richard Neibur’s models for how Christians can relate to culture. In his book Christ and Culture, he lays out many options—the highest of which in my mind is Christ transformer of culture. In this model, Christians seek to influence culture by their work and witness, creating corporate notions of justice. But to many people such as Stanley Hauerwas, for example, the best model is Christ against culture. In this model, the church isn’t seeking to influence culture as it is trying to be faithful to its understanding of what God wants us to do and be. Monastic communities and the Amish are extreme examples of Christ against culture, but they also show up in Baptist practices too, such as not having a flag in the sanctuary, or not swearing in court, and in keeping religious rites of marriage separate from civil practices. It’s time I think to examine how this model can help us as a church can be faithful to the freedom given us by God-in-Christ. Our personnel committee and our deacons are already talking about some options.
So what’s next for us at College Park, following the passage of Amendment One? Here are a couple of my suggestions in brief. First, let’s keep praying. Most of here believe that our prayers are love energies that surround people and influence reality in ways we don’t fully understand.
Secondly, let’s seek to be faithful to our calling of the whole gospel for the whole person, and remember that there is a ton of things to be done here in Greensboro. Gay rights is not our agenda; our agenda is to follow the person and teachings of Jesus as completely as we can, and because of that calling, gay rights is on our agenda, along with a host of other things that God needs doing here and now. One of the critical criteria we have for starting new ministries is that they should have a BHAG, a Big, Hairy Audacious Goal. They should be nearly impossible.
Thirdly, let’s live with joy . If you’re not experiencing some joy in our lives because of our relationship with God, then seek some help from one of our members or staff. In Wendell Berry’s poem, The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front, the mad farmer says, Be joyful even though you’ve considered all the facts. (This is the same poem from which we get our Easter theme, Practice Resurrection.) Look, we made a difference, and that is something to be joyful about.
Lastly, let’s be gracious . I received lots of wonderful emails from people, and also some nasty ones (and I’m not just talking about the weekly ones from the ushers). Ann has had a few tense run-ins at her work. Adam Team was taking the church trailer in to be serviced this past Thursday, the one with our name on it, the one given in honor of Andrew Russoli, when someone said something nasty to Adam (so the mouthy guy couldn’t be that intelligent to snipe at Adam). I have a friend who’s a retired UNCG anthropology prof who calls me the St. of Lost Causes (as he himself champions these same causes). Our church motto is Micah 6.8: What does the Lord require of you, O mortal, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God? So let us not lose heart in doing good … oh, you know the rest.