Sunday, May 15, 2011

Glad and Generous Hearts

Just a quick note on today's scripture and the use of blindness as a metaphor in scripture. The gospels are full of disability metaphors since Jesus wandered about healing both physical and spiritual brokenness. It is often difficult to differentiate between the two, but at the very least these stories should trouble our understanding of disability. Two thousand years later we are not so different--we still equate physical and mental disabilities with sin, inferiority, and spiritual illness. All of us are only Temporarily Able Bodies (or TABs); perhaps its time to rethink our understanding of wholeness and wellness and the way we use disability as metaphor.

Sermon, Sunday, May 15, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47

Today’s scriptures are concerned with two important functions of religion: gatekeeping and sharing what we have in community. These aren’t the only two functions of religion (thank God), but they are two that we might speak of in this time in the church. This last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved Amendment 10A to our church’s constitution. This amendment replaces language in our ordination standards that required all ordained officers of the church to be faithful in heterosexual marriage or chaste in singleness. Because our denomination has strictly defined marriage as between a man and a woman, we do not recognize marriages between same gender partners, and therefore queer folk in long term partnerships could not be ordained as officers in our churches. The new language will go into effect in July of this year and reads this way:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
As you can see, ordination standards remain complicated—and this is only one of a very small piece of the ordination process. Each candidate will continue to be rigorously examined by several committees before they ever get to serve in a church; the process takes 3-5 years and includes a three year Master of Divinity degree from a seminary. It is not for the faint of heart, and regardless of who your life partner is, one must still press on through a process designed to test one’s call to ordained ministry.

You can see, though, that two questions jump out immediately in the wake of this news: “How will we navigate the new standard?” and “Can we continue on together as one church, despite our differences?” So Gatekeeping and Communal Living. The passage from John and the passage from Acts. Who is in and who is out? How will we love one another?

These are not idle questions; they are questions we constantly ask ourselves. From birth we evaluate people we come into contact with as either in or out, good or evil, one of us or one of them, sane or crazy—a thousand pairings of acceptable and unacceptable. These days we can add straight and queer to the mix. But in that moment, two thousand years ago, when Jesus spoke of being the shepherd who guarded the gate, there was a specific context: a back story about a blind man.

Jesus had been walking along the road with his disciples, and they saw a blind man. The disciples asked him, “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” There had long been the stigma, you see, that disability was a punishment for sin. So Jesus answered his disciples that the man’s blindness wasn’t about sin, but was about showcasing the glory of God. I can’t say I like that answer a whole lot better—I’ve got plenty of friends with disabilities who would rather NOT showcase God’s glory in that way.

But Jesus made the extraordinary claim that the man had not sinned. And then he took the necessary steps to restore the blind man to wholeness in community: in this case he healed the man’s blindness.

It quickly became apparent, however, that it wasn’t the blind man who was unwell. The blind man who now could see surprised his neighbors, who expected the beggar they had become accustomed to. “How did this happen?” they asked. And the no-longer-blind man told them Jesus had healed him. Scandalized and with “loving” concern, the neighbors brought him to the Pharisees (the religious leaders), and the Pharisees interrogated him and his parents. They threatened to throw him out of the synagogue. They threatened to throw his parents out of the synagogue. The man held fast: this man, Jesus, had healed him. This healing, he said, must be from God. And the Pharisees were angry, for this healing had happened on a Sabbath, against God's rules. They were angry because this healing was unheard of—who could heal a blind man? So the religious leaders drove the no-longer-blind man out of the synogogue and said, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”

When Jesus heard that the man had been driven out of the synagogue, he went and found the man and reassured him and received his statement of faith, “I believe.” Jesus said , “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And this statement made the religious leaders nervous as they began to wonder if they were truly the blind ones—the ones who could not see who Jesus was, even though a miracle had been performed right there in front of them.

So this is the context for our passage this morning where Jesus says he is the shepherd by the gate, calling his own to him. This is the context: a blind man who had been forced to beg to survive in the community was restored so that he no longer needed to beg, and the religious people threw him out of the church, calling him a sinner. All who come before me are theives and bandits and seek to kill. But I, Jesus, bring abundant life for those who see me, believe me, hear my shepherd’s voice.

This passage is taken out of context so often and used as a gatekeeper text to keep the people we are frightened of out of our churches. In doing so, we become like the Pharisees, casting out brothers and sisters whom we can’t possibly see God working through. Or we tell them they can have a place, but it’s a beggar’s position near the door. When the blind beggar rises up and demands a righful place at the table, we are quick to drive him or her out, and when we are called on it by Jesus we are quick to say “you don’t mean me, do you?”

37 years ago, a gay man stood up at the General Assembly meeting. He held up a sign that said, “Is anyone else out there gay?” And this helped start the conversation that has led to our situation today. There are people on all sides (and there are many sides) who believe with deep conviction what they believe. We can all find texts in the Bible or an interpretation we like to support our positions. This has been, and continues to be a very ugly discussion in many ways, punctuated by occasional acts of kindness and grace as individuals reach out to one another. My job this morning is not to convince you how to think or feel about homosexuality. My job this morning is to point out that Jesus heals and restores person to communities. And he heals and restores communities to persons. Was the blind man born a sinner? Was it his parents? Is the gay man born a sinner? Is it his parents? Is the congregation, or the denomination sick? Were they created sinfully? Are we deathly ill and headed for extinction? Is it our fault? In this story of the blind man who is no longer blind we are reminded that Jesus heals and restores. And that those of us who drive others out of community are blind to the healing Jesus can effect. We cannot see the wellness in the other person for the sake of the perceived illness we are focused on.

Very quickly it might be said that the queer folk are driving out the orthodox believers. And just as quickly I can say that the orthodox believers drive out the queer folk. But the reality is that we all have choices about where we go to church, who to associate with and whether we ultimately stay or go. So that those of us who are here in this moment are called by Christ into community. Will we be the ones who cannot see?

What does community look like, you might ask? So I will read to you again the Acts passage:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, beause many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day to day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
There’s nothing in this passage that talks about marital status or sexual orientation. Nothing here that says anything about people having the right kind of sex with the right kind of people. What is here is fellowship, eating together, healing, and holding things in common. The sharing of all they had, opening their homes, eating with glad and joyous hearts. So I suggest that our two passages today are a stern warning as to who is actually the gatekeeper—and it’s not the presbytery or the denomination or an amendment; it’s not the local church or a committee. The the shepherd at the gate is Jesus. Beyond that, we are called into healed and restored community with one another, joyous submission to Jesus Christ and neverending prayer and praise to God.


  1. Beautiful - when someone hurts...

    Unconditional Love and Forgiveness