In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I almost never accept invitations to go out to dinner or to go partying on Saturday evenings. But last Saturday I made an exception. It was for the yearly Oktoberfest party hosted by a coworker of my husband Mike – and there was beer and wine and Jaegermeister and sausages and pretzels and German potato salad – lots and lots to eat and to drink. Now – as usually happens at this annual party, all of the United Airlines flight attendants and pilots were grouped together hashing over the joys and frustrations of their jobs – and the rest of us – spouses, friends, and dates – sort of had to fend for ourselves. So, there I am leaning against a door frame filling my face with some gooey chocolaty things, and one of the non-airline people comes up to me and says, “Hey, you’re the Lutheran pastor.” “Guilty,” I mutter. “You’re gay, right? And married?” “Guilty again.” “I used to go to church,” says this tall, dark, handsome guy. “What happened?” I ask, though I knew pretty much what his answer would be. “Get real,” he answers. “The whole gay thing.” I nod, roll my eyes, and say, “Tell me about it.” And so this guy took that as an invitation and starts to tell me about it; it was the same tragic story I’ve heard hundreds of times – at parties, at bars, at businesses, at coffee shops, at meetings – all those places I hang out at doing ministry. Though LGBT people are not the only ones to experience horrific spiritual violence in church, they more than others seem more prone to reject what they see as a violent god – a god, who, they have heard, needs to have his son killed in order for this god to get over being angry at human beings – and of course, if you’re transgender or being intimate with someone of the same gender – well then that god is especially angry at you, and not even god killing god’s own son is going to get you off the hook on that score. But here’s the thing – and I told my friend this last Saturday night – all sorts of people of every calling and station have experienced spiritual violence in church – there are many people who can’t quite swallow the notion that God needs the Son to suffer, bleed, and die in order to quit being angry at humanity.
And so I did with this guy as I often do – I pulled my crucifix out from under my shirt – and I pointed to the crucified body, and I said, “This is God. This is the God who endures human hate and violence. This is the God who turns the other cheek to those who hate this gentle God who most-un-god-like likes to hang out with the underdogs of the world, who loves to death the outcast and the sinner. This is the God who refuses to be some interventionist, score-evening, nose punching messiah come to make one particular nation or another the top dog of the world. This is the God who is put to death precisely because violent humanity can’t stand the notion of God’s mild arrival on the scene, who can only conceive of a vindictive deity of condemnation. And this God on the cross – this is not only God turning the other cheek, this is the God who in dying proclaims forgiveness to the whole world. This is the God with opened arms who loves and forgives – not one who hates and needs blood sacrifice to get over some divine temper tantrum. This is the God who forgives – who forgives all people – without exception – but who though risen remains on the cross to remind all humanity of our continual rejection of the God who turns the other cheek.”
“OK,” said my friend. “God forgives, I get that. Sort of. But I can’t forgive what the church has done to me. It’s just too painful.” Again, I said, “Tell me about it. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry and unable to forgive – and not just about the gay thing – but angry at a church that keeps on talking about an angry father-god who is nothing much more than a cosmic child-abuser.”
And this God on the cross – this is not only God turning the other cheek, this is the God who in dying proclaims forgiveness to the whole world. This is the God with opened arms who loves and forgives – not one who hates and needs blood sacrifice to get over some divine temper tantrum.
My friend smiles wryly at that. “So,” he said, “how’d you get over being angry?” “Who says I’m over being angry? I have plenty of days when I get pissed off at the church and the stupid stuff that gets said. But there are other days too. Other days when I’m reminded that God isn’t the unforgiving, blood-thirsty deity that human nature seems to want. I’ve been especially fortunate that for me there have been all sorts of people and all sorts of places where I’ve heard about the God who turns the other cheek, the God who forgives those who murder God, the God who loves me – even me — just as I am. That’s why we have church – not to buy God off for another week – but to be reminded over and over and over and over that God doesn’t hit back – instead the suffering, dying God forgives all humanity for we know not what we’re doing. And I need to be reminded that when God rises from death, it’s not to come back and get even – rather it’s to say to the whole world, ‘Peace. Peace be with you – my peace that the world cannot give you. I am at peace with it all – even though a part of you will never quite learn it or trust it. And that I forgive you too.”
“So why,” said my friend, “why haven’t I heard this before.” And indeed that is the question of the hour. You know, speaking the Good News of God made manifest in Christ is not just up to those of us with the word Pastor before our names. It’s about all of us being the new tenants of the Garden – albeit a rather crazy garden – one filled with all sorts of disreputable types – the ones especially loved by this scandalous God – this non-interventionist, non-violent, soft-hearted, unconditionally loving God. We are the tenants who invite people to come and to hear and to receive the scandal of the cross, the cross where God’s true heart is revealed for all time and all people; we are the tenants of the vineyard who invite other to come and to hear and to receive the scandal, the stumbling block of God’s resurrection peace for the whole cosmos. This scandal is the cornerstone of the true Church, Christ’s body in and for the world Christ came to love unto death. And we’ve got to tell that story. We’ve got to. I’m so damn tired of the hurt I see in people eyes – people who have been told so many lies about a mean, cruel, blood-thirst tyrant of a deity. It’s up to all of us to tell the true Gospel story, this admittedly ridiculous story about the God of unconditional love and forgiveness – and to bring others to this place to hear the story over and over and over and over with you and with me, so that hearing the story often enough they, you, me, all of us, might just begin to trust that it is truly so – as for me heaven knows that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. Rather it is the Holy Spirit who has called us, who daily in this Christian church abundantly forgives all our sins. This is most certainly true. And it’s why I keep coming back and back and back and back . . . . and . . . . back . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In the Holy and Exalted Name of Jesus. Amen