There comes a time in the lives of new pastors, young ones in particular, when they experience a rude awakening. The realization that they are different, that they will be forever branded, that they just aren’t as cool as they once thought they were. This awakening can be isolating but mostly it’s just plain irritating because it can put a huge crimp on the individual’s social life and, worse, his dating life. It happens when that young clergy person announces at a party or in a bar
that he is a pastor. You can almost hear the needle scratch across the record or
crickets chirping in the background. It’s what those who are in dating situations refer to as dropping the pastor bomb. The atmosphere literally changes, the mood shifts, an innocent question --- so, what do you do? --- presents a moment of decision for the inquirer. She can either walk away or accept that response with no problem whatsoever but, more often than not, she will respond with, “Oh, really? That’s interesting.” And you can just hear the wheels churning in her head --- “Oh, Lord, what did I say before I knew this? Did I swear? Did I tell an off-color joke? Did I take the Lord’s name in vain?” And then the young pastor, obviously able to read the inquirer’s mind, feels obligated to assure her that it’s OK to swear around him, tell off-color jokes, and good God, yes, take the Lord’s name in vain from time to time. All that pastor wants to be is a normal person, treated like everyone else, particularly in social situations where they can just be accepted for who they are and not for what God has called them to be.
This problem is not limited to clergy, I’m quite certain, though I was talking about
becoming a pastor since the time I was seventeen and therefore have had those proverbial crickets chirping around me for over 20 years now. I would suspect anyone who shares with others that they are Christian or Lutheran or have plans to go to worship in the morning so can’t stay out too late on a Saturday night… I would suspect that that can be a conversation stopper as well… is it? Some people aren’t quite sure what to do with religious folks or even with folks who are spiritual and not religious, who have commitments to a faith community, who believe in a God we
cannot see, a Savior who rose from the dead, and an afterlife that cannot be proven. Religious folks get branded as goody-two-shoes, as Puritans, as people who can’t or won’t let their hair down in social situations. We get treated differently because of the stereotypes people have about Christians, church-goers, religious or spiritual people, whatever you want to call yourself and so we start hiding that aspect of ourselves so that we can go along with the crowd. Can I get an “Amen”?
These days it’s even harder to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a believer in God, because of the story that some Christians are telling. It is a story that seems so foreign, that runs counter to the story we were told as we were growing up or which touched our hearts when we first heard it as adults. It is a story that fuels judgmentalism, even hatred, causing people who had any inkling of joining a church to walk away, not wanting to be associated with that kind of story. It makes people believe that all Christians are like this, leading to a rise in animosity towards organized religion or waves of departure from once-beloved congregations.
It is a story that excludes, that brands others as “sinful” or “evil” --- whether those “others” are gays and lesbians, doctors who perform abortions, or Muslims.
In the name of Christ, this story is told and acted upon through violence or threats of violence, as was recently seen in Gainesville, Florida, in the debate over the proposed mosque in New York City, or in the murder of George Tiller in his own Lutheran church a little over a year ago. It is a story that is told repeatedly, in many different forms, and it is told loudly, so that it seems to be the only
message people hear about Christianity. And those who have a different story to tell are either drowned out or ignored because the loud story that keeps getting told is so repugnant.
But we are called to tell the story, the story that embraces rather than judges, that loves peace and rejects violence, that gives honor to one’s neighbor rather than provokes fear and suspicion. It is the story that the prophet Habakkuk was called to write out on a billboard for everyone to see and that the people of Israel were called to keep in their hearts, tell to their children, talk about with their family and friends. Indeed, it is the story that they were to literally tie to
their hands and forehead, and to write on their doorposts as a constant reminder of what the story was about, a practice Orthodox Jews maintain to this very day. It is the story that Jesus called his disciples to tell on their journey of teaching and healing. If people rejected them or the story they had to tell, the disciples were to continue on their way, undeterred, and to keep telling the story to anyone who would listen. It is the story that we have been called to tell, the story about God’s love and grace offered to us in the gifts of creation, the salvation of Jesus Christ, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of a transformed life, both now and in the life to come. We each have heard and experienced that story in different ways, ways that have changed each one of us and how we live our lives.
And we are called to tell it --- not simply to live it --- I think too often we do more of the living and less of the telling… it somehow seems easier to live the “Christian” life rather than telling others about that life, it seems less intrusive somehow. But what this world desperately needs --- today! --- is the telling of an alternative story to the one that is being loudly proclaimed by those who pervert Christ’s message of inclusion and peace with a narrative of exclusion and hate.
That story was told on September 7 by a group of interfaith leaders, including a representative from the ELCA, our church body, and representatives from the Greek Orthodox Church, the Jewish faith, Evangelicals, Baptists, Muslims, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and Episcopalians. In the telling of the story this group “denounces categorically the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community,” and “announced a new era of
interfaith cooperation.” These interfaith leaders call us away from telling the
wrong story or what is also known as “bearing false witness against the neighbor --- something condemned by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” and urge us to telling the true story, the right story about one another, which then honors our neighbor. We are called to learn about our neighbor’s faith, to learn the truth about our neighbor’s faith traditions, and to create partnerships between synagogues and churches, mosques and synagogues, and churches and mosques so that we can learn together and serve together to address issues such as homelessness and drug abuse.
And our collective, ecumenical telling of that story has its roots in “a common understanding of the divine command to love one’s neighbor.” The group states, “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all see an intimate link between faithfulness to God and love of neighbor; a neighbor who in many instances is the stranger in our midst. We are united in our conviction that by witnessing together in celebration of human dignity and religious freedom; by working together for interfaith understanding across communities and generations; and by cooperating with each other in works of justice and mercy for the benefit of society, all of us will demonstrate our faithfulness to our deepest spiritual commitments…. Silence is not an option.”
We are called to tell the story and to not be ashamed of the story that we have to share…because it is a story of love, grace, and not just mutual respect but mutual honor of those around us. We have an opportunity tonight to tell that story at our Bubble Up event, a time to reflect together the ways that we as a community can tell
that story in the year to come. We will gather together in small groups and talk about the story we are currently telling inside these walls and in our community and we will dream together how we can expand our reach even further beyond these walls with the story of God’s love as each one of us has experienced it. And, yes, we will talk about how much it will cost to tell the story in the many and creative ways that will undoubtedly “bubble up” tonight around our dinner tables… but we will also be encouraged to be creative in how our mission together will be funded. I hope you will join us in that conversation tonight and in the weeks to come. We have a story to tell. A wonderful, amazing story of God’s love and grace, extended to us all, extended to our neighbor, and we will use our voices to tell it and our lives to live it.
In Christ’s name.