Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Back in the fall of 1997, William Sloane Coffin was the Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth. In that role, he gave lectures on campus, interacted with students, and generally spread his vital and iconoclastic self across campus. It was such a pleasure to hear him speak in one campus setting and another, to students, to the campus ministers, to anyone who would listen. In one of those lectures, he spoke about homophobia and the importance of recognizing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as the cruel weapon of Christian fundamentalists, especially pernicious because of its apparent basis in Scripture and morality. Clothed in righteousness, homophobia was, in Bill’s words, “the last acceptable bigotry in America”. I thought, at the time, how optimistic he was, how hopeful. I remember wondering if he could possibly be right – that we wouldn’t just make up the next hatred, the next enemy, the next scapegoat. Or worse, once the discrimination becomes socially unacceptable will it, like racism, grow even more dangerous as an underground movement? Still, Bill’s words presented a hopeful view of humanity and history, the possibility that we were living in the last days of the last, socially and religiously sanctioned group-hate.
Now comes the Muslim, the new acceptable pariah. How is President Obama insulted? By calling him a Muslim. How does a modestly gifted Christian pastor in Gainesville, Florida get his fifteen minutes of fame? By threatening to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. How does that hallowed Ground Zero on the southern tip of Manhattan become desecrated? Not by the presence of the New York Dolls Gentleman’s Club, the Pussycat Lounge, or a sex shop with a peep show, but by the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center, which includes, in its design, a place for prayer. As Edward Said, the author of Covering Islam (Random House, 1981) noted long before 9/11, prejudice against Muslims is “the last sanctioned racism.”
What will it be, do you suppose, the last acceptable hatred, the last sanctioned discrimination? As I read and listen to the debate over the cultural center in New York and the gun-carrying Christian minister in Gainesville, I thought of that line in the book of Ecclesiastes, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done - there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
I’ve been thinking about this seemingly endless cycle of hatred, wondering if there will ever come a time when we are finally up against the last acceptable hatred. And that led me to thinking about how old people remain hopeful when they have seen generation after generation demonize groups of people. And that led me to wonder how Christians remain hopeful when our relatively accessible and straightforward faith continues to be perverted and misrepresented. And that led me to thinking about another recovenanting Sunday, my fifteenth as your pastor, when we dedicate ourselves to another program year in our church, reading the same stories about Jesus, singing the same hymns, doing many of the same activities, from today’s picnic to November’s Christmas Market with a Difference and the financial pledge campaign, and Christmas Eve, Mississippi work trip, Lent, Holy Week, meetings and decisions, rehearsals and communion, budgets and personalities and hospitalizations, and church school and prayer groups. It’s the beginning of another year working for justice, trying to enlarge small minds, loving those who are angry, caring for the dying, nurturing the tender hearts of children, battling the demons of indifference, fussiness, and exhaustion, separating the nourishing grains of kindness from the chaff of jealousies, regrets, and egos. Same Old, Same Old
If we were to put together all the things Jesus said and taught with the story of what actually happened to him during his brief years of active ministry, in other words, combine the four gospels, eliminating the repetition, even allowing for the wildly divergent perspectives between them, we would have a fairly brief tale. There just aren’t that many words in the Christian narrative. Is it brevity that leads to such broad differences between us? There is room in the gospel story for those who are literalists and those who want to throw it all out as myth and reconstruction. There is room for incredibly expansive interpretations of Jesus’ baptism, his conflict with the Rulers of Israel and the priests. There is room for an historical read – the small, nearly defeated remnant of a people trying to get along in and with the Roman Empire. There is room for a radically confrontational read – Jesus demanding justice for those who were victims of both Rome and Israel. There is room for embracing the sentimental Jesus who walks in the garden with us “while the dew is still on the roses”. There is room for the Jesus who teaches us to pray, to love, to forgive. There is room for our Savior who, by his death and resurrection, banishes all fear of the unknown that lies beyond the grave. Is it because there is so much room, that some need tight parameters and sharply defined lines?
Jesus told three stories about lost persons, three stories about God’s tireless search of the one lost soul. He had gathered around him the despised tax collectors and a host of other sinners. He had included them in his circle of forgiveness. The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling, as was their habit, so Jesus told three stories, the first about a shepherd who searched for the one lost sheep, in spite of the ninety-nine for which he was also responsible, and then a woman who searched methodically and relentlessly until she found the one coin, small in value, that had been lost, and then a son who had squandered his inheritance and chosen to live a dissolute life until he came to his senses and returned home to his forgiving father. It was not lost on the Pharisees that the seeker in each of these stories is God who relentlessly and even recklessly searches for the one who is lost. It was not lost on them either, that God was portrayed as a low-class shepherd, a woman, and a foolishly forgiving father.
In all three of these parables about lost souls, the stories conclude with a celebration, a party, a rejoicing which, according to Jesus, happens not only on earth but also in heaven. “Rejoice with me, I have found my lost sheep”, “Rejoice with me, I have found my lost coin”, Rejoice with me, my son who was dead, is alive and home again”. In all these stories the final desired outcome was not judgment but restoration, not condemnation but reconciliation. God calls for a party because - as Jesus tells it, I found my sheep, I found my coin, my son has returned.
I wonder if Pastor Terry Jones is preaching on this lectionary text this morning, and if he is, what does his interpretation of the story reveal? These familiar stories about seeking the lost and rejoicing when the lost are found, known to millions of Christians, with which character does Pastor Jones identify, I wonder.
But here is the more important question – when we come back to church today, back on recovenanting Sunday to another year of Christian discipleship, which character do we most closely resemble? I believe asking that question of ourselves, really asking it and taking a fearless and searching look in the mirror is what makes the same old, same old new and fresh and hopeful. The world’s eyes were on Pastor Jones for much of last week. It’s probably time to shift our gaze and look at ourselves. Amen.