Cornelius the Centurion

In Acts 10:34-43, Peter announces that God’s amazing grace is on the move, breaking down traditional boundaries (and barriers) between the Jews and the nations (gentiles).

Through his encounter with Cornelius, Peter comes to realize that “God shows no partiality” … but in every nation (albeit geographical, cultural, or social), anyone who fears God and does what is right is accepted by God.

WOW:  God shows no partiality!

Think about how that statement challenges and undermines our tendency to confine God to the comfortable categories of our own “religion” or religious beliefs.

Consider Cornelius:Why might God have chosen him and his household to be the first gentile converts to Christianity?

From Scriptural accounts, we know that he’s a centurion, a notable leader of Roman soldiers.  He’s described as “God-fearing,” someone who loves the Lord, prays regularly, and helps the poor.  We’re told that he even built a synagogue for the Jews.  We even know that he lives in Caesaria, was part of the Italian regiment, and that his entire “household” – kinfolk, friends, and servants – worshiped God.

Given the time, place, and Cornelius’s position, this was truly radical!

Even more radical, though, is that I believe Cornelius is the same man referred to either as “a centurion” or “the centurion” whom we’ve met elsewhere in the Gospels.

In Matthew and Luke, we’re told that, at the crucifixion of Jesus, “When the centurion and others keeping watch over Jesus saw … what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).  Luke (23:47) adds, “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’”

I suspect this centurion was Cornelius, paying his last respects to the extraordinary man and teacher who earlier had healed his servant.

Frankly, I believe that the centurion we’re introduced to in Matthew and Luke was Cornelius.  Remember the story about the centurion who sought Jesus to heal his servant “who was dear to him”?

Let’s take a look:

<< Luke 7 >>
World English Bible
  1 After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. 2 A certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for you to do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.” 6 Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. 7 Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” 10 Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well.

The story as told in Matthew’s Gospel is pretty much the same … except that the centurion, himself, personally approaches Jesus rather than sending others on his behalf.

In either case, many people – including Bible scholars who have analyzed the words “dear to him” in this passage – believe there was a very special relationship, a deep, loving relationship, between the centurion and his servant.  And I believe it was this special love that touched Jesus’ heart and motivated him to reach out and heal the man’s servant. 

(Not to mention, accept the relationship between the centurion and his servant!)

If you were an exalted soldier of rank and power, respected by your own people, would you beseech help from a wandering rabbi of a foreign religion for a mere servant of yours?  Would you forsake your own god or gods and humble yourself in front of the supposedly ignorant natives who were your subjects, just to cure someone who worked for you?

Not likely!  Not if you were a Roman Centurion.  You would not, could not, risk the ridicule … even if you were in love with another man, as was often the custom among Roman men such as this at the time.

As the centurion made his way toward Jesus, I’m sure he was concerned that Jesus, like other Jewish rabbis, would condemn his “dear” relationship.  But he probably decided that if Jesus was able to heal his lover, he was also able to see through any lies or deception.

In response to the centurion’s love and his honesty, Jesus said without reservation: “Then I will come and heal him.” 

The centurion replied there is no need, that Jesus’ word was sufficient.

Instead of Jesus saying, “he is healed … go and sin no more,” as he did to the adulterous woman, he said, “I have not found faith this great anywhere in Israel,” and held Cornelius up as a man of real faith.

It’s apparent to me that the Lord was already working in Cornelius’ life, preparing him for the events which would occur to him and his household in Acts chapter ten.

Rather than debate and explain those “clobber verses” we so often hear, I claim this Scriptural account as an affirming one.

For centuries, the church has insisted that loving, homosexual people are nowhere to be found in the Bible and, certainly, never presented in a positive light.  Many Christians refuse to believe that God would include a positive story about a manly centurion who loves another person of the same sex.

I believe that our Creator is doing a new thing today … revealing another dimension to what it means to be loved and accepted by God.

A wild and winsome force, God’s love still can win over the hearts of centurions like Cornelius.  It says, “Bah-humbug” to the conventional categories of who’s deemed “in” and who’s cast “out.”  It eats with sinners, washes the feet of ordinary men, associates with prostitutes and other people of ill repute, and upholds loving one’s enemies as a commanding new norm.

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Sunday Sermon, 02/08/2020

Confronting Our Core Beliefs:
How We Feel When Presented with New Ideas

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe

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Sunday Sermon: 26/07/2020

‘How much are you selling the eggs for?’ the rich woman asked.

The old seller replied, ‘Twenty-five cents an egg, Madam.’

The old seller replied, ‘Come take them at the price you want. Maybe, this is a good beginning because I have not been able to sell even a single egg today.’

She said to him, ‘I will take 6 eggs for $1.25 or I will leave.’

She took the eggs and walked away feeling she had won. She got into her fancy car and went to a posh restaurant with her friend. There, she and her friend, ordered whatever they liked. They ate a little and left a lot of what they ordered. Then she went to pay the bill: $45.00 She gave $50.00 and told the owner of the restaurant to keep the change.

This incident might have been not unusual for the restaurant owner, but very painful to the poor egg seller.

The point is:

Why do we always need to show that we have the power when we buy from the needy? And why are we generous to those who don’t need our generosity?

I once read somewhere:

‘My father used to buy simple goods from poor people at rather high prices, even though he did not need them. Sometimes he even paid extra for them. I was curious about this and asked him why he did this? My father replied, “It is a charity wrapped with dignity, my child”.’

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Without a prescribed religious service or liturgy, People of Faith Online Congregation has no creeds, confessions, or collections … no pulpits, pews, or processionals … no altar calls, prosperity preaching, damnation-orientation, celestial choirs, books that we worship, or “holier-than-thou” critics.

Instead, we’re a home-based, nondenominational online congregation that’s spiritual rather than religious, organic over organizational, personal beyond institutional, here-and-now oriented instead of hereafter.

From Portugal and Spain, we gather online to consider and celebrate the sacred journeys of our lives. All are welcomed, appreciated, and affirmed … no matter where in the world you are located!

Whether you’ve attended church (but feel alienated), or if you’d enjoy meeting other wayfarers seeking this type of progressive spiritual experience, please join us and other progressive people of faith. Here’s the link to our group on Facebook:

www.facebook.com/groups/FaithCommunityOnline

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Of Human Bondage

What is it about mankind that causes us to exert our superiority by forcing others into servitude, slavery, bondage … to inhabit a lesser, parasitic, symbiotic status?

After watching Netflix’s recently released documentary, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, I felt wretched.

Wretched. Disgusted. Ashamed. Despondent. Dirty. Guilty.

Not just because of this arrogant man who considered himself privileged and entitled; but, because of the entitlement that’s engendered part and parcel of our heritage and history.

The four-episode miniseries chronicled an arrogant, egotistical, self-serving man without any moral compass, who – through money, manipulation, and blackmail – became a billionaire with all the trappings that designation implies: rich, powerful, connected colleagues and “pals,” who enabled and empowered his human trafficking of underage girls—hundreds of them in Palm Beach, New York, his private Virgin island, Paris and Spain … catering to the most base and primal human degradations through a network of the rich, famous, and powerful around the globe.

What began with disgust for such a loathsome man, quickly gained traction with the personal involvement and of other well-known figures, all of whom denied any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Why did Bill Clinton lie about being hosted by Epstein, when eyewitness accounts placed him on Epstein´s private island, as well as plenty of free trips on Epstein´s private jet(s)? Why did Prince Andrew maintain he had “no recollection” of intimacy with at least one adolescent girl younger than his own daughters, when rumors of his predatory sexual appetites had been circulating for years? And Donald Trump: who among us would expect anything other than lies and denials, claiming he´d had nothing to do with Epstein for “more than 15 years,” when the record clearly shows otherwise?

But this is bigger and more important than a story about one man, his accomplices, and victims—it’s the history of us all, taking and maltreating that which isn’t ours: body snatching and sharing.

It’s all about human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is the trade of humans for the purpose of forced labor, sexual slavery, or commercial sexual exploitation for the trafficker or others,” states Wikipedia.

It’s as old as the battles for superiority between Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Esau, Peter and Paul, Joseph and his brothers—who sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt and into servitude.

Remember the anecdote about Moses being told from a burning bush to go before Pharaoh and insist that he let those who had emigrated to Egypt at the beckoning of Joseph – but later were held in bondage, enslaved to do the ruler’s bidding – to “let my people go!”? Read all about it in Exodus, the second book of the Bible.”

From “In the beginning …” to its last “Amen,” the Bible is filled with episodes of social injustices—including killing men, raping women, abusing children, and carrying them off to foreign lands.

“To the victor go the spoils.”

That could have been the “vicar,” as well.

How many people were tortured, persecuted, killed, and enslaved during the Crusades and the Christian Inquisition? Yet, to this day, our hymnals are filled with rousing renditions of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “Lift High the Cross,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

How many youngsters have been sexually abused by pedophile priests, while the institutional hierarchy closed its eyes and ears? Don’t think just the Catholic church at fault. Almost daily, we learn of hypocritical evangelicals grandstanding on social media and broadcasts against the “heinous sin of homosexuality,” while they’re pandering to their own libidos on sites like “Grindr.”

Until they´re caught …

Wherever there’s warfare, human bondage and trafficking are sure to follow. History is replete with such accounts.

From its earliest days, USA colonists confiscated the land of Native Americans, banishing them to ghettos referred to as “reservations.” Slavery, our national sin, was followed by lynchings, rapes, and denial of rights to people of color—who continue to be treated unfairly and unequally. The Brits are complicit in slave-trading, too.

Which is why, indeed, “Black lives (must) matter!”

Elsewhere, European and international elite politicians, judges, and celebrities are alleged pedophiles who buy children from a “child supermarket” disguised as an orphanage in Portugal.

“Portugal is a pedophiles’ paradise,” said Pedro Namora, a Casa Pia orphan who witnessed 11 rapes on fellow orphans and now a lawyer campaigning on behalf of the Casa Pia victims. “If all the names come out, this will be an earthquake in Portugal. There is a massive, sophisticated network at play here–stretching from the government to the judiciary and the police.”

“The network is enormous and extremely powerful. There are magistrates, ambassadors, police, politicians–all have procured children from Casa Pia. It is extremely difficult to break this down. These people cover for each other because if one is arrested, they all are arrested. They don’t want anyone to know.”

Human trafficking also includes treating people inhumanely … as in the garment “sweat shops” where many perished, or in coal country where many miners contract, suffer, and die from “black lung disease.” Unions played an important advocacy role.

Immigrants who used to be welcomed to our melting pot are now eschewed and spit out, their children separated from them at the border and held hostage in crates and unsafe, unsanitary conditions. Only if we “need” them to trample down the grapes of wrath or do work few Americans are willing to do, are they abided.

Nations rising against each other, corrupt institutions, atrocities in the name of religion, powerful people and corporate criminals with big bucks used to buy and sell other people – especially women and children – as something that’s owned (property or chattel), traded, and abused are fountainheads for human misery and trafficking.

But human trafficking also hits much closer to home.

A friend in an industrial city north of Chicago co-founded and serves as executive director of Fight to End Exploitation, whose purpose is to end human trafficking in Wisconsin. Formerly known as the Racine Coalition Against Human Trafficking, it is a “network of local resources collaborating to increase communication among providers, identify gaps in services for victims, and prevent conditions that foster human trafficking in Wisconsin.”

No, we´re not in Kansas anymore.

Nor can we make believe this barbaric activity doesn’t exist.

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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.

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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! 

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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?

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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!”

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Doing Church Differently

I’m looking for a church:  A place where “religion” is more than rote and ritual.  Where prayer is spontaneous and heartfelt, rather than recited from a prescribed book—whatever the edition.  Where spiritual fruit, not religious nuts, is cultivated.  And where the God whom I pray to is acknowledged as personifying all people … not just a blessed, biased, and/or bigoted old man somewhere in the sky.

denominational diversityI’m seeking a house of worship that’s truly welcoming, inclusive, and affirming—a church focused more on God’s love, compassion and forgiveness than the wages of sin and a whole bunch of “thou shalt nots.”  I need a place where resurrection is the focus, not crucifixion.

I guess it comes down to this:  I’m looking for a spiritual community that’s doing church differently.  One based on beliefs which don’t necessarily resonate with other churches that I know: a mustard seed growing in a place where a Christian’s old wine skins may no longer be fitting.

Unfortunately, there’s no church in the ‘hood where I live that echoes my list of imperatives and beliefs:

Ask more questionsFaith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma.  Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right, nor does any human hold all the answers.  Religious absolutes of dogma, legalism, and strict doctrine can become stumbling blocks and litmus tests for who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace. They’re tests Jesus never required that get in the way of truly believing and following the Lord’s teachings.

Following Jesus is counter-cultural, radical, and disrupts the status-quo. The Brand - Christianitygood news of the Gospel is intentional in its inclusion of those who are traditionally marginalized, refused or rejected by Mainline Christianity.  I believe that each of us has been created in the image of God and, therefore, we are called to welcome, accept, and affirm each other.  Denominations, churches, and individuals who judge others and find them unacceptable, deficient in their own prescribed rule book, don’t speak for God or the Church envisioned by Jesus Christ.

The words of Jesus found in the Gospels – specifically, what he states are the greatest commandments: “Love God with all of your essence and love your neighbor as you should love yourself” – are to be the focus for all of his followers. Other than that, Scripture can be considered mostly sacred commentary that reflects the history of a particular people, the Israelites, in the Old Testament … and an emerging community of Christians in the New Covenant.

Creating fellowships and communities dedicated to lifting up, affirming, and equipping one another for God’s work calls us to stress being active in peace-making, striving for justice and equality of all people and nations (Micah 6:8), loving those who are labeled by our government, society, and – at times – ourselves, as “enemies,” caring for God’s creation, and bringing hope to the poor and poverty-stricken, the hungry and the hostages.

faith and reasonGod created humans with a brain capable of discovery and reason. God does not require us to “check our brains at the door,” along with our coats and hats in order to be a part of the faith. Faith and Science are not in conflict; they can work together in harmony.

The Church is not a four-walled institution, but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything, everywhere.

Jesus’s central message is about radical inclusion: everyone should be welcomed to participate in the congregation without judgment or forcing them to conform to our “likeness” or subscribe to any creeds in order to be accepted. We are to invite and offer all a place at the table – no exceptions.

Until there’s a church here in my ‘hood that practices and preaches these beliefs, please join me here — online — with our virtual congregation and church.

Visit us at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/FaithCommunityOnline

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Eunuchs

4For thus says the LORD,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,

5To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.
“–Isaiah 56:4-5

Imagine if you were a special “type” of person … someone who belonged to what might be called a “sexual minority” … a person who would be conveniently used by others when your special gifts and talented were needed … yet, although you were good-natured, attractive, talented and trustworthy, you were despised and damned by many people.

Not too hard to imagine, huh?

Well, that’s exactly the predicament faced by a group of people known as “eunuchs” in the Bible.

Image

Rembrandt’s Baptism of the Eunuch

Eunuch. 

Even the name, itself, sounds strange.  Be that as it may, some scholars say there upwards of 40 Old Testament verses containing a word – in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic – used to mean “eunuch” … while, in at least two New Testament passages, eunuchs are at the heart of the message.

So, what, exactly is a eunuch?

Simple: A eunuch is someone who has no physical attraction to people of the opposite sex.  Back in the Bible, eunuchs didn’t have sex with women and they didn’t have children.  Since they had no children, they had no vested interest in leaving a fortune to the next generation.  Therefore, they had no reason to be crooked or seek advantage for their own offspring.

Some people were just born that way.  Others were made that way surgically in order to serve their masters.  Still others chose to deny themselves and be celibate in order to focus entirely on God.

Translated to English, eunuch essentially means “keeper of the bed chamber” or “overseer of the household.” 

Put another way, a eunuch was an “emasculated man.”  Many historians believe that eunuchs were homosexuals.

In other words, people living thousands of years ago all across Europe and Asia acknowledged a certain category of men as different from the norm.  Their difference consisted in the fact that they had no sex drive toward women and that difference was conceived of as natural and inborn.  We know, too, of ancient cultures where there were women who, by nature, had no lust for men. 

Does the island of “Lesbos” ring a bell?

The ancient Hebrews didn’t practice castration. The Law excluded eunuchs from public worship, partly because self-mutilation was often performed in honor of a heathen god, and partly because any maimed creature was deemed unfit for the service of Yahweh.  That ban, however, was later removed.  The kings of Israel and Judah often followed their royal neighbors in employing eunuchs as guardian of the harem and other official posts. 

Apart from castration, eunuchs were naturally incapacitated, either for marriage or for begetting children.

Eunuchs were common in other cultures featured in theImage Bible.  Remember Potiphar, who managed the household of a high-ranking official in Pharaoh’s court?  He was a eunuch.  Maybe that explains why the official’s wife made a play, instead, for Joseph, he of the coat of many colors.  Joseph tried to escape and left the woman holding his garment (but that, my friends, is another story).

Eunuchs were trusted around the women who were married since they weren’t a threat in committing adultery with another man’s wife or engaging in pre-marital sex with a household of women. 

In fact, eunuchs were exalted to such positions that they watched over the harems of the kings they served.  Both boys and girls were sold into slavery as eunuchs by their parents to give their child a better life or to provide for the rest of the family.

Eunuchs could be extremely beautiful and attractive.  Some say that Daniel – along with his friends Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego  — were virile and handsome men who were castrated before being banished into captivity by the Babylonians and sent to serve Nebuchadnezzar.  First century historian Josephus asserts that Daniel and his three friends were made eunuchs.  Even before that, the writer of 2 Kings 20:18 predicts, “And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood that will be born to you, will be taken away and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

While in exile, Queen Esther – the wife of Persian King Xerxes – had a eunuch assigned to serve her personal needs, showing that in this time period it was common for such women to be attended by “men who didn’t pose a sexual threat.”  According to the Book of Esther (1:10), the king had seven eunuchs who served him.

The New Testament also refers to eunuchs.  Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, sent one of her eunuchs to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, God of the Hebrews.  As the eunuch was drawing close to Jerusalem, the Apostle Phillip, one of the leaders in the early New Testament church, was sent by God to explain and preach the gospel to him. 

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.  (You can read the entire story yourself in Acts 8:26-31.)

Ironically, some could say that the Apostle Paul was a eunuch in that he remained single and celibate to fully concentrate on his mission for Christ.

What’s really important here is the idea that even a eunuch could be baptized, draw close to God, and become part of God’s family. 

I believe this reaffirms the impartiality of God. 

“Whosoever believes,” says the Scripture … and that includes eunuchs.

Which brings us to what Jesus has to say about these extraordinary people.  Let’s take a look at Matthew 19:8-12, where Jesus and his disciples are discussing marriage and divorce, and the conditions under which it is permissible to divorce:

8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 10The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” 11Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriagec because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

In this context, Jesus is saying that some people aren’t suitable for marriage.  His reasons are lumped together under the category of being a eunuch. 

The Lord himself expanded the meaning of eunuch to include those who are unmarried for a variety of reasons.  Some are made this way by others.  Some are born this way.  They are unable to get married because they have no natural inclination to have sexual relations with a mate of the opposite sex.

It is highly unlikely that Jesus is referring to a straight, but impotent, male … or a castrated one, for that matter … when he talks about eunuchs. 

Why?

Because castrated and impotent men still can be attracted to women. 

A eunuch is a man who can’t reproduce, not necessarily a man who isn’t sexual.  Some men were castrated specifically so they could stay young and pretty and be sexual with other men.

We’ve all heard the joke about the pamphlet entitled, “What Jesus Said about Homosexuality.”  Open it up and it’s blank.  Of course, that’s true. 

Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, per se. 

But as knowing and wise as Jesus was – or, as the fundamentalists like to say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) – wouldn’t you think that he’d know there would one day be a terrible problem in his church, in Christianity, and in culture over homosexuality, gay rights, and same-sex marriage?  Then, why didn’t he say anything specific?

I believe he did: 

Jesus said, “Let the one who can accept this accept it.” 

Not everyone can accept this. 

So, I have to wonder: Is Jesus talking to us, preaching to the choir?  Or is he talking about others in his church who need to understand and accept what he’s saying here about eunuchs … about those of us who don’t conform to society’s norms about gender identity and sexual orientation?

Eunuchs were foreigners to God’s temple when Isaiah made his prophecy, due to one of those damning Deuteronomy verses (23:1): “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” 

But Isaiah here states that God Almighty will wipe away the bonds of the Mosaic Law through his love, mercy, and grace.

It is, therefore, very clear that eunuchs not only have a place in heaven, but are given “a name better than sons and daughters.”

Can it get any better than that?

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