Friday, July 22, 2016

Theology of the Riparian Zone

 For the past 17 years, I have been a theologian.  It's more than just a calling.  It's also my profession.  Early in my career, a well meaning parishioner told me one Sunday, "Now, don't you go off and let that seminary change you."  I understand what he was saying, and I respect the fact that he was afraid that seminary would make me unapproachable and less the people's pastor.  Well, seminary did change me, but not in the way that he feared.

Before seminary, though, my background was in the sciences.  I know, it's still kind of funny to me, too.  I hold an Associate of Science and a Bachelor of Biology.  Most of the time those two parts of me live rather independently of each other.  My focus for my undergrad work was primarily fisheries biology.  Instead of sticking around one more semester to take the one final class I needed for a fisheries degree, I opted for an elective and finished with a degree in biology.  I was one class away from a degree in fisheries, but I needed to get on to seminary because I was already the old man in class.

In fisheries systems, the Riparian Zone is the margin where land meets water.  It's basically where two worlds collide.  It's also an ecosystem all to itself.  There are animals who thrive in the Riparian Zone because they require elements from both worlds to survive.  They may breed in the water, spend their early life as aquatic animals, but then move onto land as adults.  There are species of plants that grow only in the Riparian Zone.  There are insects that you may only encounter along the margin between land and water.

Why is this important?  Well, to most folks it's probably not, and if you're still reading this you're either really bored or curious as to how it will all tie together.

As a theologian, with a science background, I understand the reality that not everyone lives in the same world, even though we inhabit the same planet, country, state, or community.  In the space where more than one world collides, things can tend to get complicated...and sometimes, ugly.  People living, sometimes, within a few miles of each other can experience the world around them in totally different ways simply because of the environment in which they exist.

I saw this yesterday.

A friend of mine called me out on something I said yesterday on Facebook.  It happens a lot, actually.  It doesn't mean that I have any hard feelings toward anyone who does it.  It simply means that we don't necessarily agree on whatever the topic is.  And...that's ok.  How boring would this world be if everyone agreed on everything?

Basically, I was accused of race baiting, was told that as a community leader this was inappropriate, and that my comment and the hashtag #stopthehate both bred division at a time when I should be calling for unity.  I respect that opinion.  I don't agree with it, but I respect it.  Here's why...

It was a call to unity.

In my 45 years I have never seen racial tensions as high as they are now.  I missed the Civil Rights movement of the 50's and 60's by just a few years.  Today, people are afraid, and some maybe rightly so.  But racial tensions are not the only tensions that exist now.  There is fear and religious tension between Christians and Muslims.  There are tensions between straights and gays.  My own denomination is struggling with that right now.  Forget the fact that it's an election year with all of the political tension that's been added to the mix.

But I'm a theologian...a pastor...and a community leader.  So, what am I to do?

If I follow the example of Christ, I'm to spend more time in the proverbial Riparian Zone than in my comfort zone.  I feel that I'm to stand up for those living in the margins.  I feel that I'm to be a voice for those who feel as if no one is listening.  I feel that it's my responsibility as a follower, to be an agent of change, and to call out those systems that keep people marginalized.  If race is the issue, I feel that it's my obligation as a leader in the church to use my position to bring equality.  Whether we want to admit it or not, white privilege exists.  What I can't do is ignore the voices from those on the outside.              

Unfortunately, sometimes that's not a very popular stand.

See, a lot of folks have an image of Jesus as this passive guru who never raised his hand to anyone and only talked about grace.  He talked about grace...a lot...but societal injustices evidently infuriated him.   He died for people on the margins.  Everything he did pointed to the fact that as long as there were injustices, and there were, God's kingdom had not yet come.

Well, the truth is...there still are.

So, though I've never considered myself an apologist for my faith, in that I've never really felt the need to defend my faith, today I am.  I think very carefully about the words that I use because I know the weight they might carry simply because of who I am. my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection in the UMC, a red stole was placed on my shoulders, representing the mantle of Christ.  That's something I take very seriously.

Until something as divisive as a #stopthehate hashtage is no longer needed...
Until those who feel their voices don't matter are heard...
Until violence no longer begets violence...
Until people feel safe in their own neighborhoods...
Until there is no longer an "us" and "them"...
Until the day when the human race can finally come together as one...I will continue to use my calling and my position to stand up for those on the margins.

A quote from the late Father Dan Berrigan has haunted me from the moment I first heard it:

"If you're going to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood."

Thursday, July 7, 2016

I Am Philemon...

"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archipus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
(Philemon 1:1-3)

Last month I brought a series of messages at Grace Church LaCenter called, "The Stories We Haven't Heard."  The title was a tad misleading, in that most of them were stories we had indeed heard, we just don't hear them often.  A better working title would have been "Obscure stories," but someone had already done that one.

I pulled a couple Old Testament texts, and a couple from the New Testament.  I had a few others in que, just in case one or more of my choices didn't pan out.  It turned out to actually be a fun series to write, because it took more research than usual.

One of those messages on one obscure story was from the Book of Philemon.  I'm not sure we can really call it a book, since it was only one page, one chapter, and only 25 verses.  I'm not even sure we can call it a short story, much less, a book.  It is, in fact, a letter.  It's a letter that Paul wrote to a specific group of people, in a specific geographical area, at a specific time in history, for a specific purpose.  As we read these sacred texts all of these years later, that is one thing we absolutely must keep in mind.

I told my congregation that even though it was a letter written to a group of people who, by the way, wasn't us...there is still much it can say to us.

To get the gist of the letter, in case you haven't read it lately, Paul is writing to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus.  The hand of fate had somehow brought Onesimus into Paul's company, and they had evidently become quite close.  Paul calls him, "my own heart."  That's a pretty endearing phrase.  In that culture, Philemon had the legal and social right, from what I understand, to kill Onesimus simply for running away.  Paul is writing to discourage that, and to encourage Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not as a slave, and certainly not as a runaway slave.

It's Paul at some of his best writing.  It's a beautiful letter, tender, gentle, and written from a pastor's heart.  You can see that in almost every word Paul writes.  It's not head heavy with theology that no one can possibly understand, but instead, addresses something that many of us may have experienced, or at the very least, have been made aware of lately.  How?  Social media can do wonders for letting you know what's going on in the world.

As I read one post after another from my news feed, and as I studied that little letter from Paul (If indeed Paul wrote it) something hit me...

...I'm Philemon.

Let me explain.

My news feed actually represents a more diverse group than most folks would expect from me.  My social media "friends" are white, black, gay, straight, undecided, rich, poor, country, city, conservative, liberal, ultra conservative, ultra liberal, some hold several degrees, some barely graduated high school, addict, clean, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent, Northern, Southern, East Coast, West Coast, somewhere in between, yuppie, redneck, and I could keep going.

What that means is that I see posts representing every possible opinion, and honestly, I respect them all.  I don't agree with some of them, but I still respect them.  Here's what hit me as I let those two things (my newsfeed, and my reflections on Philemon) come together.

I'm Philemon.  I have no clue what it means to be Onesimus.  None...whatsoever.  To bring that statement forward nearly 2000 years, all I know (and I mentioned this in my message about this text) is life from the perspective of a middle class, white, heterosexual, fairly educated, southern, Christian, male perspective.  I have no idea what it's like to be gay, or black, or female, or non-Christian, or any of a number of other things that would make me anything but a white guy, middle class, straight, southern, and Christian.  I have no idea what it's like to be hated because of the color of my skin, or because I love differently than the majority.

I am Philemon.

Now, here's why that's important.  As a Philemon character type, I (and others like me) have something that some do not have.  Stay with me for a minute.  I (we) own the ability to welcome any who are not like me (us).  We (I) also own the ability to NOT welcome any who are not like me (us).   Is that fair?  No.  Is it a reality? Yes.

How will anyone who is not like us know which we will choose to do?

For one, they'll read our posts.  If we post to social media anything that sets us above another for whatever reason, we have chosen not to welcome them.  (and just because we can post it doesn't mean we should)  That doesn't mean we aren't entitled to our opinions, we are, and I respect yours, but when we choose not to welcome instead of welcome we are setting ourselves as judge.    

So today, I write as Paul wrote.  Not commanding that we welcome...but urging, in the name of the risen Christ.  If you use scripture in your posts, do your homework.  Check the context.  Read the whole chapter.  Understand that there may be other interpretations but your own.  Realize that we weren't even intended to read much of what we know as the New Testament.


The words contained in those pages are words of welcome, grace, second chances, and forgiveness.

So to my friends who are black, gay, or in any other way marginalized by those in the church, I apologize, from the depths of my soul.  The God who created you has called me to love you just as I love myself, and though I may screw it up from time to time, may it never be said of me that it was done intentionally.

To my brothers and sisters in the church universal, is it better to be right...or to be gracious?

I wish desperately that we were given the rest of Philemon's story. leaving it open ended, I choose to believe that Onesimus was welcomed back as a brother...not as a slave.