Well, wasn’t last Tuesday amazing? If you weren’t here or haven’t heard, on the day after Labor Day we gathered on 5th Street just out the front doors of the church to welcome the neighborhood with a good old-fashioned pizza party. Many volunteers worked together to make dough, slice toppings, set up tables and chairs, stoke coals, and provide warm greetings to our guests for the evening, many of whom are new residents in the neighborhood. We had fun, we fed hungry stomachs, we made new friends, and we enjoyed the beautiful late summer evening as the sun set behind the trees. That evening, as I biked away from the church down 5th Street, I couldn’t help but think, “This must be what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Tonight, I saw true Christian discipleship in action.”
As I made my way through downtown toward my house in South Minneapolis, I stopped at the Central Library to pick up a couple of books, for writing this sermon in fact. I left the library and biked down Nicollet Avenue, which was bustling with activity that night. And when I pulled my bike to a stop at the red light on 7th Street, I saw him. He was standing on the corner, literally on top of his soapbox, with a crowd of onlookers around him. I’d seen this young man before, and many people like him, one hand holding a Bible the other pointing a finger at the crowd around him with a sign that read “For the Wages of Sin Is Death.” He was reading straight from the Bible, yelling at the crowd. What the verses were I don’t remember, though I’m sure their message was something to the effect of “Repent Now for the End Is Near.”
As the light turned green, I was tempted to yell “God loves everyone” to the people around him, though I’m sure that would’ve had little effect. He would’ve kept on preaching his gospel of judgment and sin regardless of any comments from the peanut gallery. As I biked away down Nicollet Ave., I couldn’t help but think, “This guy is everything that is wrong with Christianity. He’s the farthest thing from a Christian disciple that I can think of.”
If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately about religion in America, you’re well aware that the U.S. is in a state of flux when it comes our faith demographics. A recent Pew Study of over 35,000 Americans found stunning shifts in religious affiliation and practice in the U.S. over the past 30 years, with a noticeable downslope in mainline Protestantism, and noticeable spikes in Hispanic Catholics, immigrant Muslims, and the religiously unaffiliated. Nearly 4 out of 10 married Americans are married to someone of another faith and 35% of Americans combine the religious practices of more than one faith into their own spiritual lives.
With all this religious variety in America today many progressive people of faith are moving beyond “religious diversity” to “pluralism.” What’s the difference? Harvard religious scholar Diana Eck explains, “Diversity is just plurality, plain and simple – splendid, colorful, perhaps threatening. Pluralism is the engagement that creates a common society from all that plurality.” Here in Minnesota we have a long history of working toward religious understanding and common society, with organizations like the Minnesota Council of Churches working on interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, which unites Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants in work for the common good. And even my own seminary, United Theological Seminary, which was the first Protestant seminary in the U.S. with an ecumenical charter and which welcomes and engages Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Unitarian-Universalist, Buddhist, Jewish, and even a few UCC students. With all the religious tension in the world causing wars and suffering, it is reassuring to know that there are some of us working toward religious harmony and acceptance.
It would be easy then to look at the ending of Paul’s letter to the Romans and realize his message is not for me or us. If the issue for Paul was that churches be welcoming and accept religious differences, then he has little issue with us. Those churches in Rome in the first century faced strikingly different concerns than progressive, mainline Protestants in America today.
They were a group of small, persecuted churches, comprised of Jews and Gentiles fighting over who had authority in their fledgling church. In Paul’s eyes, they were busy judging one another’s religious practices, such as diet and holidays, instead of offering one another true Christian welcome.
For progressive Christians today, it seems to be quite the opposite. The mission of radical welcome and religious diversity is central to our understanding of the gospel. No matter who you are or where you are on your journey of life and faith, you are welcome here. We celebrate religious differences, teaching our children about Ramadan and Passover, we honor baptism and communion for whoever feels called to partake, and we incorporate practices like yoga and meditation into our spiritual lives.
Reflecting on the level of welcome and religious acceptance in churches like the UCC, it seems clear that I can write off Paul’s suggestions in Chapter 14 and go about my day.
And then I think about my friend on his soapbox downtown. I think about the judgment and disdain that clouded my head as I biked on by. How ashamed I was of my Christian brother for preaching a gospel I don’t agree with. I was almost to the point of shouting at him (even though I would’ve shouted a message of God’s love). Just because the Romans’ problems with being welcoming were about holidays and diets, doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own issues when it comes to welcoming my conservative siblings in Christ.
I truly believe that in this era of interfaith dialogue and ecumenical understanding among progressive churches like the UCC, we have a major blind spot when it comes to Paul’s appeal for welcoming our friends in Christ and resisting our urge to pass judgment on their faith and practices. Conservative Christians, with their charismatic praise and worship style, their stances on political issues like same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, and their constant need to be evangelizing to those who aren’t Christians, are often the practices and beliefs that cause us to pass judgment and deny welcome in the larger fellowship of Christ.
In fact, I think we spend more time positioning ourselves over and against conservative Christians, showing the world “not all Christians are like that,” yelling at each other across the rotunda at the Capitol or, maybe worst of all, completely ignoring their existence, than actually engaging with them on a mutual level of Christian love. When was the last time a liberal church and a conservative church sat down for community meal together? Or partnered together to build homes for Habitat for Humanity? It happens I’m sure, but it seems like the only time I meet fundamentalists face to face is when we are on the opposite sides of a picket line.
Let me say that I am fully aware of the hurt and the harm that fundamentalist Christians preach today, as I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of it. Racism, homophobia, and militarism cloaked in the words of the Gospels deserve to be confronted. But Paul is not asking us to agree on everything. He is asking us to welcome each other into the family of God regardless of our differences.
Theologian Karl Barth writes, “Receiving does not mean confirming their point of view, agreeing with them. But neither does it mean just ‘putting up with them.’ It simply means what it says. As people who in their way share in the common faith, regardless of this peculiar way of theirs, they ought to belong to the Church and be treated accordingly.” What a beautiful, frustrating tension that is.
I often like to compare the church to a family, in good ways and bad. And don’t we all have those family members with whom we disagree on everything political and religious, whose lives make no sense to us, and who say things that boil our blood before they even come out of their mouths, and yet somehow we sit down together at Thanksgiving dinner, hold hands, and pray with them, and discuss the few things we have in common between bites of turkey.
Paul says in Verse 8, if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. That is Paul’s ultimate message. Yes, diets and holidays are important. Pizza parties that invite the neighborhood are important. Telling a crowd in downtown Minneapolis that they are bound for hell if they don’t repent, that’s important. But ultimately, regardless of our practices and our opinions, we all belong to God, and need to treat our siblings in Christ with that same welcome. As Joann Haejong Lee writes, “Too often, the church becomes a haven for the like-minded. There is room for difference and diversity in God’s church. We just have to be willing to make space for it.”
In the summer of 2012 I stood in the capitol rotunda with about 100 others to express my opposition to the proposed Voter ID amendment. As many of you know, if passed, the amendment would have required all voters to present government-issued identification in order to vote. There were some problems, though. Research revealed that about 1 in 10 voting-age Minnesotans didn’t posses proper identification, and getting the ID was seen as an unnecessary burden, especially for college students, the elderly, and lower income Minnesotans, many of whom are people of color.
I stood shoulder to shoulder with those in opposition, listening to speaker after speaker. And toward the end of the rally, I noticed a middle-aged man in a suit proceed to the stage that I recognized. He was a pastor of a church in Minneapolis, a leader in the fight against the Voter ID amendment, as well as one of the leading voices in support of the proposed Marriage Amendment that would have placed into the Minnesota Constitution a ban on same-sex marriage.
I listened to that pastor speak eloquently about the need to defeat the Voter ID amendment, with my jaw clenched. I expressed judgment and honest-to-God anger, crawling just below my skin. Seeing this man speaking about an issue of justice when it came to voting rights, and knowing that he was at other times speaking in opposition to the issue of justice for same-sex couples, made me question just how someone with such conflicting opinions could truly see himself as a follower of Christ. Doesn’t he see his contradictions? Doesn’t he realize that his fight for justice is also a fight against it?
Paul never said it would be easy. Paul never said there wouldn’t be times of tension and discomfort. It’s not that these issues don’t matter, they do. What Paul wants the church in Rome, and the church in the Twin Cities to remember is, ultimately, when it’s all said and done, after the last debate over same-sex marriage, and voting rights, and sacramental controversies, and whether or not the wages of sin is death, all of us, each and every one, is held in God’s gracious, loving arms. We are a family. My brother in Christ, standing on the corner of Seventh and Nicollet, included.