What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?

Matthew has Jesus telling three end-time parables about worthiness when he enters the Temple and his authority is questioned.  

In the first, Jesus talks about a man who had two sons—one who said he would work in the vineyard, but didn’t; the other said he wouldn’t, but did.

The second is the parable of the talents, in which the Kingdom of God is taken away from renters who were supposed to sow and reap its vineyard to yield a harvest.  When they didn’t, the landowner rented his vineyard to others, who produced fruit.

Wedding Garment2In the third parable, we’re told of the king planning a wedding banquet for his son to which many people have been invited but refuse to come.  The king sweetens the invitation by describing the scrumptious food he’s planning to serve.  But still they won’t come.  So, instead, the king invites everyone – good people and bad – to the banquet. 

People come from near and far and enjoy the feast, but one person who’s there isn’t dressed appropriately.  The king asks him why his appearance doesn’t show the proper respect due under the circumstances, but the man has no reply.  He’s thrown outside and banished from the kingdom.

A similar parable is told by Luke; but this particular story appears in Matthew whose audience were Jewish people in an effort to introduce them to Jesus and get them to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

In that context, at least the beginning of the parable makes sense to us. 

God had called a special people to be a nation of priests, witnesses to the one and only God … encouraging others to follow them, mindful of the way. But, despite the cries of prophets, time and again their focus shifted from the Holy One of Israel to their own self-centered desires and idols. 

Then, one day, the Holy One of Israel became one with them … yet, still they rejected Him and his voice.  Ultimately, the stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone and foundation of faith for others.

Understanding the meaning and intent of this parable up to here isn’t all that difficult.  It becomes more challenging, however, when we get to the part about the wedding garment.  And it gets even more confusing with its footnote about many being called but few chosen.

It’s passages like these that almost make me wish I had a Baptist or fundamentalist perspective, because it would make the meaning of this parable so much easier for me to translate.  

Gay people, especially, “get it” when it comes to dressing appropriately for the occasion, wearing white when invited to white parties and leather when going to certain clubs or bars.  There’s a time and a place for “drag,” just as we know when and where we’re expected to wear a suit and tie or business attire.  Personally, I’m more comfortable wearing my bright, bold “street clothes” than priestly garb and vestments, there are times and places you’ll see me with a clerical collar.

The guest invited to the king’s wedding banquet also knows what he’s expected to wear; but, evidently, he deliberately chooses not to.  In effect, he’s looking at the king and spitting in his eye or slapping his face. 

“Yes, I’m here enjoying your food and the festivities,” his attitude seems to be saying.  “But I’ll be damned if I change clothes or what I’m wearing!  I’m here on my terms, not yours.”

From my perspective, this invited guest — who’s been affirmed, included, and welcomed with love and compassion by his host — has committed the unpardonable sin and blasphemed the Holy Spirit. 

Which is why he’s been thrown out and no longer resides in God’s Kingdom.

Whether or not he had a wedding garment to wear really is besides the point.  Some theologians say that kings often provided their guests with wedding garments, while other scholars will tell you that the king only required those invited to come in clean — not dirty — clothes.

Cleanliness, at least, is a badge of honor and respect if not a Christ-covered life of spotless spiritual sacrifice.

Pitying the improperly dressed man and questioning the king’s severe punishment, some of you may ask: does it really matter?

After all, the king’s servants had urged him to come to the banquet: even though he was at the edge of town, on the fringes of society, they still wanted him to join them.  Should a man like this be expected to dress fancily?  And should the king really care so much about what his guests were wearing, as long as they came to the party?

Isn’t God’s banquet, the wedding of the Lamb and the church … the Kingdom of God … all about grace?  And are we not meant to come, “just as we are?”

When we hurl these questions at Matthew’s gospel, an uncomfortable truth stares back at us: There is more than one way to respond unworthily to God’s gracious invitation.  There is more than one way to dismiss the Kingdom of God. 

This is where my Baptist and fundamentalist friends would probably chime in, insisting that the wedding garment represents the blood of Christ, the garments of salvation. 

God’s chief desire, I bet they would tell you, is to gather worthy guests for his Son’s banquet.  The one who arrives without the right clothes, without repentance and righteousness, is just as unworthy as the one who rejects the king’s invitation outright.

And, you know something?  Maybe they’re right!

Isaiah 61:10 uses the clothing image beautifully: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

Despite their tattered clothing, the others at this wedding understood the nature of the king’s invitation.  Honored by the summons to celebrate with him, they took time to find something to wear, maybe even begging or borrowing to do so.  Doubtless, some still looked like people off the streets; but they rejoiced with royalty because they came prepared to celebrate with their lord at the banquet.

Yet this one guest and his clothes betrayed indifference to the king. 

No, it’s more than indifference … it’s sheer contempt! 

He is there eating the food, drinking wine, enjoying all the mirth and merriment.  But he is just as bad, some would say, as those who rebuffed the king’s rule with a last-minute refusal … maybe even worse.  He is declining to celebrate with the king and he does so while standing in the king’s presence! 

And here, then, is the difficulty:  If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d agree that we sympathize with the improperly dressed man, because we identify with his easy-going frivolity.  We know God’s grace is wide and welcoming.  We know God’s generosity is endless and that God’s mercy endures forever.  Why not just relax and enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom?  Why not come to God’s party just as we are, rather than worry about wearing robes and clothing ourselves with a banner of righteousness and a covering for our sins?

The answer, I believe, is in the parable: The wedding garment is a tribute to the king.  Without it, we are  unworthy wedding crashers, fit more for a trash-lined alley. Because, in the banquet of God, our clothing indicates our understanding of the celebration.  What we wear reveals that we have accepted the invitation and are willing to join the King in his joy. 

Yes, God invites us to come to the wedding just as we are; the invitation is a free gift of grace.  But we’re also expected to remember who invited us and why we are there … and that means we should dress accordingly and appropriately.

This parable confronts us with the paradox of God’s free invitation to the banquet with no strings attached … and God’s requirement of “putting on” something appropriate to that calling. 

It’s the quintessential dynamic tugging between grace and works, of our faith as expressed through our deeds. 

As with all paradoxes, both are true … and concentrating only on one is unhealthy.  The trick is learning to manage the two extremes and, of course, to wear the right clothes and accessories.

Let’s not forget that this passage, as written, was directed at the Jews of Matthew’s time.  But what about today?  Is there some additional “take-away” we can glean from the Scripture?

Perhaps it’s something as simple as stated by motivational speaker Wayne Dyer and amplified here:

“When you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change … and you change the way you look.” 

Then, again, maybe it means that our church bells continue to ring, calling many to worship and follow the Lord … but that it’s no longer the choir robes, shawls, or outerwear garments that matter, but the fruit of the Spirit that signals who we are and what we’re wearing to the Lamb’s wedding? 

After all, Matthew 7:16 says that, “by their fruits, you shall know them.”  Maybe love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – the gifts of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians – are the garments that distinguish us now from being just plain ordinary.

In the end, I submit, it won’t really matter whether we’re gathered in church or at a wedding–but that we’ve changed our clothing and come clean with the LORD!

So, what will you be wearing to the wedding? 

You’re invited, of course!

Me?  I’ll probably be wearing one of my bright and colorful Hawaiian shirts.  But I do hope it will be covered with fruit, that special fruit of the Spirit!

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Closet Christians? Come Out with Full Conviction!

Despite their differences – they’re mostly Gentiles rather than Jews – Paul is confident that the Thessalonians are loved and accepted by God, just as I am equally confident that the same can be said of you, my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ.

Like the church at Thessalonia, our own churches still aren’t really typical of many churches today. Nevertheless, I believe that these churches represent God’s ideal—the type of church God wants every church to become: wonderful places to be!

Koinonia

There’s a church located in one of the largest cities in the country, both in terms of geographic size and population.  A coastal area with beautiful, sandy beaches and a treasure trove of history close-by, there are those who consider it “chic” and “hip,” a rather cosmopolitan city, even with its small-town roots and flavor.  Some say it’s a special place, with its strategic seaport and major highway to other places that runs right through it.

Chicago on the banks of Lake Michigan?  Portland, Maine?  Jacksonville, Miami, or Ft. Lauderdale, Florida?  Long Island, New York?

Thessalonia-MapNo, not quite.  But we can find quite a few parallels between these American cities and Thessalonia, one of the few New Testament cities that still is around today … as well as between the church at Thessalonia and some of our churches here and now.

Each are worthy of praise and thanksgiving to…

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Closet Christians? Come Out with Full Conviction!

There’s a church located in one of the largest cities in the country, both in terms of geographic size and population.  A coastal area with beautiful, sandy beaches and a treasure trove of history close-by, there are those who consider it “chic” and “hip,” a rather cosmopolitan city, even with its small-town roots and flavor.  Some say it’s a special place, with its strategic seaport and major highway to other places that runs right through it.

Chicago on the banks of Lake Michigan?  Portland, Maine?  Jacksonville, Miami, or Ft. Lauderdale, Florida?  Long Island, New York?

Thessalonia-MapNo, not quite.  But we can find quite a few parallels between these American cities and Thessalonia, one of the few New Testament cities that still is around today … as well as between the church at Thessalonia and some of our churches here and now.

Each are worthy of praise and thanksgiving to God.  That’s exactly what Paul was doing – celebrating the church – in his epistles to the people at the church of Thessalonia.

And there are other parallels worth noting, too, between the places where we live and Thessalonia.

Comparable to many U.S. cities and suburbs, it had a mixture of wealthy people, a small middle class, and then a large majority of poor people like us: slaves to the system that surrounds us.

There was tension and turmoil in Thessalonia.  Rampant crime.  Graffiti, obscene and objectionable words and images could be found on the walls of buildings.  Murder was commonplace and divorce frequent.  And, depending on whose standards were the measuring stick, morality, at best, was questionable.

Sound familiar?

Uh-huh: Very much like where we live!

Yet in the self-serving sea of crime-ridden culture was the Thessalonian church, a little island to the glory of God.

I like to think the same can be said about some of our churches.  No doubt it pleases God that diverse bodies of Christ come together to worship, pray, and praise the glory of our loving Creator. 

Another profound parallel for me … perhaps the most critical and striking one in terms of similarities, is that the Thessalonian church was a new and different kind of church, made up of new and different people

Thessalonia-New and Gay ChurchesJust as Thessalonia was the first church whose congregation essentially comprised non-Jewish people, many of our open, progressive, inclusive, and affirming churches among the first churches in their neighborhoods ministering to LGBT people and their fair-minded, open-hearted allies.

What makes our churches and that one in Thessalonia so special? Let’s take a quick look and discern what we can from I Thessalonians 1:1-10:

During his second missionary journey, after picking up Timothy along the way, the Apostle Paul arrived with Silas in Thessalonia in 48 or 49 AD.  They left about a year later. In the midst of trials and tribulations, persecution and hostility, Paul writes his letters to this church which he’s obviously very fond of, while still living in Corinth.

(Much of the history of the Apostle Paul’s missionary trip to Thessalonia is found in Acts 17.)

In I Thessalonians, Paul launches into what might be the longest section of thanksgiving found anywhere in the entire New Testament.  He is absolutely pumped about the church in Thessalonia. Although he is obviously quite pleased with this church, there’s another reason I suspect that he spends so much time expressing his thanks: the members of this church lack confidence in their personal salvation.

Thessalonia-Salvation InsecuritiesFor me, that’s another parallel between the Thessalonian church and today’s churches that minister to LGBT people.  As a pastor who’s listened to the doubts and concerns of more than a few of you, I know there’s still some hesitation, a lingering doubt, about whether God really does love and accept you “despite” your sexual orientation … just as you are.

With all my heart, I believe that God does!

For his part, the Apostle Paul spends time affirming those in the church of Thessalonia. 

In verses 2-3 here he writes, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers, constantly bearing in mind the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father.”

Don’t you just love it?  I don’t know about you, but three little words – faith, hope, and love – literally jumped right out at me, recalling that beautiful passage so many people are fond of from I Corinthians 13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”

Despite their differences – they’re mostly Gentiles rather than Jews – Paul is confident that the Thessalonians are loved and accepted by God, just as I am equally confident that the same can be said of you, my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Like the church at Thessalonia, our own churches still aren’t really typical of many churches today.  Nevertheless, I believe that these churches represent God’s ideal—the type of church God wants every church to become: wonderful places to be!

The Thessalonians became a living example to other believers, we’re told in verse 7.  In other words, it’s not enough to just live our lives among other welcoming, inclusive, and affirming Christians … in isolation.  Sometimes, we’re called to be more direct in using and channeling our influence with others.

For most people to believe in God, or to believe in God anew — especially people within the LGBT community — the personal touch is needed.  That means we need to be forthcoming about what we believe, sharing our faith with full conviction that we are truly loved by God and that our God is worthy of all praise!

Too many LGBT people have turned away — or been turned away — from church and, in the process, find themselves turned off to the God that created them and continues to love them unconditionally.

Hurt, bigotry, judgmentalism, condemnation and rejection from much of the religious establishment indeed are what brought many of us to new and different kinds of churches focused on love.

It’s up to us now to be goodwill ambassadors of Christ from churches like ours … to share the good news, sensitively and sensibly, with our brothers and sisters.

After all, isn’t that what affirming our “Pride” is really all about?

Thessalonia-Another-Christian-Who-Happens-to-be-Gay-Rainbow-Pride-CrossIt’s not enough to be “closet Christians” who come to church and worship for an hour or so among ourselves on Sundays.  We’re expected to tell others the gospel truth about God’s love for them … inviting them to experience this amazing grace and spiritual connection for themselves.

And, yes, it is difficult to talk to others about something so sensitive and personal as religion. 

That much we share with our straight friends in churches across the spectrum. 

It’s much easier to hand someone a brochure, point them to a Website, or ask the pastor to intercede by conducting a cold call.

For us, especially – for you and for me – it’s even harder to talk about the God we believe loves us … much less admit that we do go to church.  It’s not unlike coming out of the closet again … something many of us already did in terms of our sexuality and now are being pressed to do about our spirituality.

Still, we’re called to speak with full conviction, aware that God has given us a very special mission field to which few are called and even fewer choose to go.

People saw a change in those who worshiped at Thessalonia.  They had become better people – more loving, compassionate, giving, and thankful – because of their faith and their beliefs. 

We all know what happens when people are branded as being different: they’re talked about … and lots of people talked up the church at Thessalonia, telling others about the amazing things that were happening there. 

Thessalonia-Your Faith Is Known EverywhereThe history of the Thessalonian church is a story about what can happen when everything goes right, the way God wants it to be: Paul and his team quickly planted a vibrant and healthy church that reached out to others, touching and turning many lives around for the better.

My own hope is that we can be churches like the one at Thessalonia, places people want to be … because God is here among us, helping and healing and loving and blessing and making us a community of believers to praise.

Elizabeth’s Disgrace: An Affirming Mother’s Day Story for All of Us!

At one time or another we, like Elizabeth, can feel barren and unproductive … empty … lacking … bereft. Sometimes, God has reasons for not answering our prayers—or not answering them when or how we want them to be answered. Being human, it’s hard to wait … and wait … and wait … for our prayers to be answered. So, I could tell you to do like Elizabeth: Go about your daily life and business, loving all the people God has placed in your life, while never giving up your faith or hope.

But the more I read about Elizabeth, the more I find myself riveted on her words of redemption, in Luke 1:25: “The Lord has done this for me … he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

https://bhjoffe.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/elizabeths-disgrace-an-affirming-mothers-day-story-for-all-of-us/

Koinonia

Elizabeth‘s story tends to be eclipsed by Mary’s, since it’s hard not to focus on the virgin birth. But the barren Elizabeth has a miraculous birth as well, finding herself pregnant well beyond the time to have children.

ImageRemember Elizabeth?  Mary’s cousin whom she visited while pregnant with Jesus?  Despite living pious and faithful lives, Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, couldn’t produce a child.  Then, almost too late in life (like Sarah before her), an angel told Elizabeth she would bear a son who would become known as John the Baptist.  Incredulous, Zechariah lost his ability to speak; Elizabeth’s child, yet in her womb, jumped with joy when Mary visited … recognizing the Lord, even before birth.

Barren means more than just infertile; it means unproductive, unfruitful, dull, empty, devoid, lacking, bereft.

At one time or another – maybe even many times! – we…

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Elizabeth’s Disgrace: An Affirming Mother’s Day Story for All of Us!

Elizabeth‘s story tends to be eclipsed by Mary’s, since it’s hard not to focus on the virgin birth. But the barren Elizabeth has a miraculous birth as well, finding herself pregnant well beyond the time to have children.

ImageRemember Elizabeth?  Mary’s cousin whom she visited while pregnant with Jesus?  Despite living pious and faithful lives, Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, couldn’t produce a child.  Then, almost too late in life (like Sarah before her), an angel told Elizabeth she would bear a son who would become known as John the Baptist.  Incredulous, Zechariah lost his ability to speak; Elizabeth’s child, yet in her womb, jumped with joy when Mary visited … recognizing the Lord, even before birth.

Barren means more than just infertile; it means unproductive, unfruitful, dull, empty, devoid, lacking, bereft.

At one time or another – maybe even many times! – we, like Elizabeth, can feel barren and unproductive … empty … lacking … bereft.  Sometimes, God has reasons for not answering our prayers—or not answering them when or how we want them to be answered. Being human, it’s hard to wait … and wait … and wait … for our prayers to be answered. 

So, I could tell you to do like Elizabeth: Go about your daily life and business, loving all the people God has placed in your life, while never giving up your faith or hope.

That would have been a fine and fitting ending to this story.

But the more I read about Elizabeth, the more I find myself riveted on her words of redemption, in Luke 1:25:

“The Lord has done this for me … he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Elizabeth did nothing wrong.  In fact, we’re told that she did everything right.  Right from the beginning, we learn she was “blameless” in front of the Lord.

Yet her society judged her to be shameful, disgraceful, lacking in God’s grace … as if there were something wrong with her, or that it was her fault she hadn’t conceived and given birth to any children as expected.

Because we don’t exactly conform to society’s norms and expectations, don’t we feel that way sometimes, too

“Do I deserve this, because of who I am?” we ask ourselves.  “Why was I created this way?  What should I do now to feel better about myself … and not so barren or empty?”

When I began to come to grips with my own gender identity and sexuality, I already knew that I didn’t make myself this way … nor did I believe that my environment or other people caused me to become the person I am.  I regretted that I wasn’t like everyone else: It certainly wasn’t easy to make believe, hide in the closet, and try to deny the person I was meant to be.

Yet because some in our society deemed it wrong, shameful, disgraceful, with an ugly stigma attached to it, I – like Elizabeth — felt barren … empty … unfaithful … and void.

I remember going to a “Coming Out Group” led by a Christian man named Paul.  “But … how do you reconcile being gay with all those ‘clobber verses’ in the Bible?” I asked him.

ImageHe smiled, oh-so-sweetly, and told me that the God he worshiped loved him … just as he is … and that – no matter what other people might tell me or what could be taken out of context from the Scriptures – it’s really all about grace.

Amazing grace!

It’s got nothing to do with what we do or don’t do that earns us God’s love and our salvation. 

It’s not about rules, regulations, and restrictions that lead to heavenly rewards or rejection.

Nope, it’s all about grace.  Even now, I’m still coming to understand and accept the depths of this profound truth.

Being loved by someone whom I deeply love in return helped me to feel somewhat better about myself … yet I still can feel alone, if not so lonely anymore.

It wasn’t until I met God more intimately – not someone else’s idea of God – and spent time in God’s company that I began to truly feel better about being myself … and not quite so empty. 

God’s grace and my belief that God purposefully created me to be exactly the person I am has turned my life around—blessing me and making me barren no more.  Actually, I have “given birth” to a part of God’s Kingdom in my own personal way.

ImageListen carefully, again, my friends, to the redeeming words of Elizabeth as found in Luke 1:25: 

 “The Lord has done this for me … he has shown his favor … and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Each and all of us should affirm these very words now as applying to us, as well! 

Church Brands

Marketing experts will tell you that, in business, “branding” refers to what makes your products or services so special … and what sets them apart from the competition.

be uncommonChurches also offer services … they compete for business (members) … and promote a unique, extraordinary product.

We call that product, “God.”

In fact, godliness is our byproduct, evidenced by the changes we experience as we grow in grace and increasingly exhibit the fruits of the spirit sown and cultivated in communities of faith.

Churches come in all different shapes, sizes, and … brands: Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran … the biggest and most powerful one, your corner community church, churches that speak in tongues and churches that don’t … churches that believe we’ll be raptured before the great revelation and other churches that maintain Christians will be still here to suffer along with everyone else … there are churches that worship on Saturday, the Sabbath, and those that worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. 

So, I can’t help but wonder whether the God that all these churches worship is the same One as mine.

For me, it’s important to understand my own brand of faith and to purposefully live it, because it reinforces who I am and what I believe … as well as what attracts others to, come, follow me.

HRC JesusWhich is something we’re all called to do as disciples of Jesus, isn’t it? 

Come, follow me! 

(No, not me … but Jesus!)

So, when I was called to pastor a church in Jacksonville, Florida, it was crucial that I understand what it believes and stands for … to identify its brand.

 “A Rainbow Spiritual Community,” the sign outside the church said.  That I understood.  Yeah – wink, wink – I got it!  We know about rainbows and pride parades, unicorns and drag queens.

But, “Innovative Ministry in Service to God,” the church’s vision statement … imprinted on letterhead, envelopes, business cards and brochures?  What did that mean?  Sounds great on paper; but what do you do with it?

Churches where LGBT people are welcome use “code” words that speak to their audience.  People know what words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” and “affirming” really mean.

Saying you’re a welcoming, inclusive, and affirming congregation means more than just repeating these three words and using them as a slogan or mantra.  It means that you’ve got to embrace and abide in those words which name qualities of God’s goodness and justice that, as Christians, we’re expected to live. 

Welcoming, inclusive, and affirming are vital signposts of the Way of Jesus and the way we are called to be.

I Corinthians 13How many churches claim in their advertising and on their signs outside, “Everyone welcome here!”?  Yeah, right!  Everyone welcome, except …. you, and you, and you.  Fill in the blanks. It’s not too hard to figure who’s not really welcome and why.

Remember Sodom and Gomorrah?  No, it wasn’t a sin of same-sex attraction.  In fact, it wasn’t about attraction at all.  Quite the opposite.  It was about rage and rape, about taking advantage, a lack of hospitality to others.  Especially strangers.  The people of Sodom and Gomorrah weren’t welcoming; in fact, they were totally clueless of the angels in their midst.

That’s why Jesus warns of a worse judgment for those who don’t show hospitality to his followers, when he dispatches us to share the Good News:  “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” he says in Matthew 10:14-15.

Welcoming churches are spiritual communities that show love and kindness, compassion, friendship and hospitality, to those that they know … and to those that they don’t.  People at such churches can actually feel the touch of God’s love tugging at their hearts when they greet each other, pray together, and share the peace of the Lord through word and deed. 

 Next on our branding list is “inclusive.”

a place at the tableAn inclusive church beckons all to come in and be part of its communion.  Oh, I know that calling a church “inclusive” is a not-too-subtle euphemism, a clue that it accepts LGBT people.  That’s how it should be.  But it also should be so much more!

Black and white, old and young, single and married, mentally handicapped and physically challenged, afflicted by all sorts of illness, demons, and distress, people who speak Spanish and English or Pig Latin, those with willing spirits but weaker flesh – whosoever! – an inclusive church should be the mortar that binds us together and to God.

Look at Jesus: Who did he hang around with?  Certainly not the religious zealots presumed to be the “good guys.”  Nope.  He could be found with prostitutes and charlatans, tax collectors and publicans, a Roman centurion who loved his male servant, in every sense of the word.  When push came to shove, Jesus called people rejected by others to come and be with him.

For me, that’s a major difference between the Old Covenant and the New: The Hebrew Testament was exclusive; its long list of rules and regulations was designed to keep out all but a few.  Those allowed in were to be a nation of priests, a light to the nations.  Except that they weren’t.  Instead, they worshiped idols and were so self-centered that they put themselves first … even before God … time and again.

All that changes in the New Covenant, where everyone – good and bad and in between – is invited to the wedding banquet to celebrate the marriage blessing between Creator and creation. 

Whosoever believes.” 

That’s all it takes to be invited to feast at the tabernacle of faith and welcomed into the Kingdom of God.

But we continue to build fences, keeping people out simply because they don’t believe this or won’t accept that.

How silly is that … and, oh, such a shame!

God wants us all to be one: “Echad,” that composite unity, is like a cluster of grapes or one team with many players.  The Hebrew scriptures cry out and testify, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God … the LORD alone!”

Fences around AgapeStill, we prefer to worship around our differences, the creeds and dogma and doctrines that separate us … rather than those things that, as Luke put it, we so assuredly believe among us.

Is that so wrong, such a bad thing, to want to have a special relationship – a covenant, if you will – with certain people in given places along God’s way?  No, not in and of itself.  But, when it excludes people from participating and treats some as better, more holy and righteous than others, then it’s exclusive and contrary to God’s will, I believe. 

Asked which of the commandments is the greatest and most important, Jesus was quick to reply: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your mind, and with all of your might.”  And then, in the same breath, he tacked on this addendum: “Love your neighbors as you, yourselves, would be loved.”  It was at that point in Luke’s Gospel, Luke 10, that Jesus shares the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We’ve all heard it, I hope, and we all know what it means: that even those people we don’t particularly care for or would rather not be around should be treated with dignity and considered our neighbors!

Which brings me to the final word in this holy trinity of words reflecting qualities I believe God would brand our hearts to be: affirming.

Lots of churches claim to be inclusive and welcoming.  And I don’t doubt their sincerity.  But it’s one thing to invite people into your building, letting them sit in the pews.  That doesn’t mean, though, that the churches are supportive and positive about you, asserting and expressing their commitment to you as a truly beloved child of God.

Just as you are.

More than recognizing that we exist and acknowledging that we’re people with feelings, thoughts and, perhaps, something to contribute, affirming churches actually endorse us as made in God’s image and worthy to be celebrated in all that we do!

jesus on a tree-crossAffirming means saying “yes” rather than “no” … looking for the positive, instead of the negative … lifting up, not tearing down … accepting not rejecting … believing rather than denying or condemning … seeking and approving the good over the bad. 

After each act of creation, what does God say? “It is good!”

It’s there in the Scriptures, friends.  We only need to look for it, focusing on the good news in the message instead of the bad.  Remember what the Apostle Paul said about love? 

That it doesn’t dishonor others and isn’t self-serving … but rejoices with the truth.  Patient and kind, love doesn’t boast and isn’t proud.  It always protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres.  In a word, therefore, love is always affirming!

In my humble opinion, there’s way too much bad theology out there, misguided Christianity that nails Jesus to the cross and crucifies him repeatedly, instead concentrating on the more powerful message affirmed by a risen Lord. 

The world may have said “no” to Jesus when it rejected and crucified him … but God Almighty said “yes,” resurrecting him – and us! – to newness of life.  Now, it’s up to us to spread the good news of God’s everlasting and unconditional love!

Showing hospitality comes from the heart … it’s the desire of our soul to be welcoming, loving and compassionate to others.  To affirm the goodness of God and God’s amazing creation.

To be inclusive is to be just and to put justice into practice.  It’s a matter of the mind, deciding that we’re not going to show preference for one over another.

 So, give somebody a helping hand.  A heartfelt hug or embrace goes far to demonstrate fellowship (fillyship?) and friendship.  Reaching out and shaking hands is symbolic of greeting someone and using our body language to say, “howdy!”  Even putting your hand in your pocket and reaching down deep to provide for God’s Kingdom is a matter of might, of physical effort.

Every one of us is created in God’s image … but, over the years, through socialization and worldly influences, we have lost our God-connection and ceased to act as God would have us do.

Love, compassion and forgiveness can be abstract concepts that we talk about, yet don’t do enough or put into practice.

But by living welcoming, inclusive, and affirming lives, we become more loving, compassionate, and forgiving people transformed into God’s body and image.

Unfortunately, human nature is such that – even in churches – it’s easy to be seduced and fall into the trap of saying “Stay away!” or “Keep out!” rather than, “Come join us; we’ll make room at the table for you” … it’s more comfortable to form cliques and circles around those we know best and longest, instead of venturing outside our comfort zone to get to know a stranger better … we find ourselves more likely to shout, “No, you can’t!” than to echo, “Yes, of course, we can!”

Welcoming.  Inclusive.  Affirming.

Or:  Alien.  Self-centered.  Denying.

Which three word sets brand your church?  Which words brand the church of Jesus Christ?

A Bigger and Better God

Have you ever met people who question your beliefs, assume that you can’t possibly really believe in God because of your “lifestyle,” or, worse, imply or declare without reservation that, “God couldn’t — wouldn’t — love you because …”????

Silly questions, huh?

I believe what they’re saying, in effect, is that their God isn’t big enough to include people like me.

Someone I know, a Seventh Day Adventist, had emailed me Bible verses, all the “usual suspects” plus Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in his image – male and female he created them.”) and Genesis 2:24 (“For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.”).

Apart from not agreeing with the translation, I found myself getting a bit irritated by her insistence on setting me straight.

After asking why she had felt compelled to send me these Scriptures and being told that she and her religion disagreed about the ability of two men to live together, truly love each other and be blessed by God, I gently made my case:

“You know, I grew up Jewish,” I began, relating to her own hard-and-fast beliefs about worshiping on Saturdays and keeping kosher in diet.

“Be that as it may,” I continued, “the God I believe in is less concerned about the letters of the law you’re so focused on, than on us loving our neighbors, whosoever they may be.”

Whosoever they may bebecause God’s grace is unconditional.

DogmaI certainly didn’t mean to pick on Seventh Day Adventists—every religion, every denomination, every Bible believer I know tends to place limits on what’s acceptable to God and what’s not.

Some examples:

~The Bible, the King James version at that, is literally the infallible word of God.

~Creeds – Nicene, Apostles’ or otherwise – accurately affirm and testify to the veracity of our beliefs.

~We must use wine/not grape juice for communion  … or, no: we must use grape juice/not wine.

~You’re not “saved” unless you’ve answered an altar call, been baptized … and filled by the Holy Spirit—as evidenced by speaking in tongues.

~Some people are predestined to be “saved” … God purposely excludes others.  Or, God loves us unconditionally vs. God loves us when or if …

~If you believe the Bible and faithfully confess what it says, but an expected blessing doesn’t come to you, the problem must be your own lack of faith.

~Jesus will return for his “second coming” either before, during, or after the Great Tribulation.  When, specifically, is the stuff of denominational division.

Fitting God in a BoxBecause we’re human and finite, all of us tend to limit God and make God smaller to ourselves as well as to others.

We need to be cautious about attempting to capture and control the parameters by which we define God. 

The Holy One of Israel is Almighty and always has had a way of eluding human attempts to be restricted, restrained, or retained.

When all is said and done, our ‘gods’ are too small; God is bigger than our beliefs.

So, rather than argue or debate the religious fundamentalists over their select agenda of Bible verses and interpretations, I now simply say to them:

“My God is bigger – and better – than that!”