Friday, 29 June 2012 00:00

"God is Always There", June 24, 2012

“God is Always There”
Psalm 41
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 24, 2012
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Yesterday morning I walked through the maze of people and booths at the Pride Festival.  It’s always fun to people-watch at such a place.  There are people from all walks of life: people in leather, strollers, young, old, colorful and conservative. There were great numbers of activists gathered with orange stickers to vote no on the marriage amendment.  And if you didn’t have your requisite sticker, it means you didn’t sign a card yet.  If you said no to the first one, you would have likely been hounded by another hundred.  Better to get your sticker and move on.  I always enjoy seeing friends and church members and former church folks.  It’s an extrovert’s dream and an introvert’s nightmare.  The purple section near St. Mark’s Cathedral is where our booth is located.  We’re nestled in with lots of other Welcoming faith communities. Right across from the Lutherans, down the path from the Catholics and the Methodist and caddy-corner from the atheists.  By now, we are an institution in the Pride festival. Religion-alley is an expected piece of the rainbow.  But there is often a raised eyebrow or two when they get to our Baptist Booth.  Is it because we don’t look friendly enough or people don’t like our pens, or think our candy has some bad juju in it? There’s always people who see the Baptist name and do a double-take.  Are there really GLBT-friendly Baptists?  Howard Johnson gently thrust a copy of our marriage equality statement. They do another double-take.

Some have left the church because of its exclusionary rhetoric.  They did not find God there.  And they wondered whether God existed.  If they couldn’t find God in church, therefore, God did not exist.


Some stop by and tell their story to us.  The same story we have heard over the years, told by a different person.  How they loved the church, loved the songs, loved the people, and then someone said something hurtful and they left and lost faith in God.  They are strangely warmed by our presence.

These are the growing ranks of the de-churched.  Mary Hammond from Peace Community Church in Oberlin wrote a whole book on ministry to and with the de-churched.

We see a sea of them at the Pride Festival.  Not all of them are de-churched, but many have felt the sting of exclusion from their church families.  Or they have felt it from their biological family who blamed their narrow-mindedness on faithfulness to God.

I would like to share with you an article by Rachel Held Evans.  She wrote this right after North Carolina passed their amendment to the state constitution restricting the freedom to marry from the LGBT community.

“How to win the culture war and lose a generation”

When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:
“The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays...has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”

Later research, documented in Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends.  Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this  is one reason why.

In my experience, all the anecdotal evidence backs up the research.

When I speak at Christian colleges, I often take time to chat with students in the cafeteria.  When I ask them what issues are most important to them, they consistently report that they are frustrated by how the Church has treated their gay and lesbian friends.  Some of these students would say they most identify with what groups like the Gay Christian Network term “Side A” (they believe homosexual relationships have the same value as heterosexual relations in the sight of God). Others better identify with “Side B” (they believe only male/female relationship in marriage is God’s intent for sexuality).  But every single student I have spoken with believes that the Church has mishandled its response to homosexuality.

Most have close gay and lesbian friends.

Most feel that the Church’s response to homosexuality is partly responsible for high rates of depression and suicide among their gay and lesbian friends, particularly those who are gay and Christian.

Most are highly suspicious of “ex-gay” ministries that encourage men and women with same-sex attractions to marry members of the opposite sex in spite of their feelings.

Most feel that the church is complicit, at least at some level, in anti-gay bullying.
And most...I daresay all...have expressed to me passionate opposition to legislative action against gays and lesbians.

"When evangelicals turn their anti-gay sentiments into a political campaign,” one college senior on her way to graduate school told me, “all it does is confirm to my gay friends that they will never be welcome in the church. It makes them bitter, and it makes me mad too.  This is why I never refer to myself as an evangelical. Ugh. I’m embarrassed to be part of that group.”

I can relate.

When Tennessee added an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage (even though it was already illegal in the state), members of my church at the time put signs in the yard declaring support for the initiative. From my perspective, the message this sent to the entire community was simple: EVERYONE BUT GAYS WELCOME.

Dan and I left the church soon afterwards.

Which brings me to North Carolina and Amendment One.

Despite the fact that the North Carolina law already holds that marriage in the eyes of state is only between a man and a woman, an amendment was put on the ballot to permanently ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. The initiative doesn’t appear to change anything on a practical level, (though some are saying it may have unintended negative consequences on heterosexual relationships), but seems to serve primarily as an ideological expensive, destructive, and impractical ideological statement. Conservatives in the state—who you would think would be more opposed to tampering with constitutions—supported the amendment, and last night it passed. Religious leaders led the charge in support of the amendment, with 93-year-old  Billy Graham taking out multiple ads in publications across the state supporting the measure.

As I watched my Facebook and Twitter feeds last night, the reaction among my friends fell into an imperfect but highly predictable pattern. Christians over 40 were celebrating. Christians under 40 were mourning. Reading through the comments, the same thought kept returning to my mind as occurred to me when I first saw that Billy Graham ad: You’re losing us.

I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again...(though I’m starting to think that no one is listening):

My generation is tired of the culture wars.

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

Regardless of whether you identify most with Side A or Side B, (or with one of the many variations within those two broad categories), it should be clear that amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church.
So my question for those evangelicals leading the charge in the culture wars is this: Is it worth it?

Is a political “victory” really worth losing millions more young people to cynicism regarding the Church?

Is a political “victory” worth further alienating people who identify as LGBT?

Is a political “victory” worth perpetuating the idea that evangelical Christians are at war with gays and lesbians?

And is a political “victory” worth drowning out that quiet but persistent internal voice that asks—what if we get this wrong?

Too many Christian leaders seem to think the answer to that question is “yes,” and it's costing them.  

Because young Christians are ready for peace.

We are ready to lay down our arms.

We are ready to stop waging war and start washing feet.  
And if we cannot find that sort of peace within the Church, I fear we will look for it elsewhere.

So in this context, what does today’s Psalm have to teach us?

In the psalm, we hear of the fears of someone who has experienced discrimination and misunderstanding:  “My enemies wonder in malice, when will I die, and my name perish?  And when they come to see me, they utter empty words while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad.”  Sounds like someone is being outed, or falsehoods are spoken about them.  Like no children can be healthy with gay parents.  Or gay marriage is going to destroy heterosexual marriage.

“They think that a deadly thing has fastened to me.”  In other words, we have become like a leper, an outcast.  “Even best friends conspire against us.”  It’s enough to just give up and surrender.

But the pride festival is the time to cling to the fact that God has not left us.  For here comes the assurance in verse 10:

“God be gracious unto me and raise me up.  By this I know that you are pleased with me; because my enemy has not triumphed over me.  You have upheld me in my integrity and set me in your presence forever.”

The truth is that God is always here, even when enemies camp against us.  I saw a Facebook post that said, “May you live your life with such integrity that Westboro Baptist Church will protest at your funeral.”

We know theologically that God is always there, the ever-present source of hope and comfort, but how do we experience that presence?  Where are those places that it moves from an intellectual concept to a felt experience?

How do you feel God?

I know that I feel God when I see people stand in solidarity.

I see God when we share the peace and look into each other’s eyes.

I see God when we take on the waters of Baptism and partake in communion.

I see God when we gather around someone who needs support and we offer them our strength.

I see God when people stand up to bigotry and remind people at a booth that God has not left them comfortless.  And even if they have left the church, there are those of us here still fighting the good fight, making sure that there is a place at the table for everyone.

I see God in people helping people in Duluth this year and Fargo/Moorhead a few years back.

I see God in the persistence resistance to exclusion and judgmentalism.

I see God in the radical acceptance of all people, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

I see God in the courage and comfort of faithful people willing to take a stand and buck the mainstream trend.

Where we do any of that, we declare that God is here.  That’s the work of the church.

Fred Pratt Green put it so well in his hymn “God is Here”

God is here! As we your people meet to offer praise and prayer,
May we find in fuller measure what it is in Christ we share.
Here, as in the world around us, all our varied skills and arts
Wait the coming of your Spirit into open minds and hearts.

Here our children find a welcome
in the Shepherd's flock and fold;
Here, as bread and wine are taken, Christ sustains us as of old.
Here the servants of the Servant seek in worship to explore.
What it means in daily living to believe and to adore.

Sovereign God of earth and heaven, in an age of change and doubt,
Keep us faithful to the gospel, help us work your purpose out.
Here, in this day's celebration, all we have to give, receive;
We who cannot live without you, we adore you! We believe!