by Pastor Doug Kings
Many of you have likely heard about the kerfuffle at last Sunday’s Easter sunrise service. Some background: for over fifty years, the Anna Maria Island Kiwanis has sponsored a sunrise service at Manatee Beach Park. It’s a simple service with a singer and the clergy of AMI’s churches each taking a part (prayers, reading, sermon). Those roles are rotated from year to year and this time it was my turn to preach.
As I was walking to the beach from the parking lot (in the dark at 6 am), one of the pastors greeted/accosted me. He had just learned, he said, that I was gay. This was contrary to scripture and his beliefs. As a result, he was going to have to issue a disclaimer before he spoke (he was doing the reading). He would tell the audience (of a few thousand) that his presence should in no way be interpreted as condoning the beliefs or actions of the other clergy present. He did so, but in such a convoluted way that most people probably had no idea what he was talking about.
Some people did know, however, and many more soon figured it out. Starting that morning, we received multiple messages (including from other pastors) expressing dismay at his comments and support for our ministry. Apparently there have been other conversations on social media and elsewhere expressing similar views. I have appreciated all of that but especially the support of our congregation council and members who learned of what happened.
Two days later I received an email from this same pastor. This time he challenged the content of my Easter sermon (which you can find on our Facebook page). Here I think we get to the real problem this pastor has with me: my message is too good. He asserts the classic fundamentalist message that humanity is inherently bad, lost in sin, and needs the blood of Jesus to redeem them and save them from condemnation to hell. To all that I simply say: No.
I believe the message of Genesis 1, which is that humanity is created in God’s own image and has been declared, with all of creation, as “very good.” That truth has not been rescinded. As Matthew Fox has said, we start with “original goodness,” not original sin. “Sin” (a word that has lost its usefulness), our hurtful behavior towards others and ourselves, is not the problem but the consequence. The problem is our lostness, our alienation and disconnection from God, who as Paul says is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17).
Salvation, healing, liberation comes with our reconnection with that God, our rediscovery of the Spirit of Love that is the ground of all being and the center of each one of us, our true self. In his teaching and actions, Jesus revealed that God of love, alive in this world and in every person, even and especially when they didn’t realize it themselves. His purpose wasn’t to save people from “God’s wrath,” recruit them for a church, or convince them of the truth of doctrines or creeds. His objective was simply to show people their inherent and infinite worth and how to be fully the people God created them to be. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10).
Unfortunately, churches have often found it easier to rally people by asserting what and who they believe God hates and is against. Fear is a powerful force and, over the centuries, churches have taught people to be afraid of many, many things: Jews, Muslims, gypsies, witches, women, “false teaching”, heathens, Communists, Socialists, democracy, education, science, sex, dancing, drinking, books, games, movies, and yes, homosexuals. But at such times they have forgotten that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4).
Fear and bigotry have always been the easy out. They don’t grow out of “passionate conviction” but out of a lack of conviction, of a real heart-felt core awareness, of a solid center of knowledge, peace and love. Cowardice attacks others they perceive as weaker than themselves, hoping to hide their own hollowness and lostness.
Our world today is filled with hollow, lost, and angry people. This is not at all to condemn or demonize them. Rather it is to recognize a reality that needs our response. Individually, our goal is to introduce them whenever possible to the love of God for them and already within them. Collectively, our goal is to identify and eliminate the cultural forces causing so many people to be marginalized, alienated, and adrift. At the same time, we must recognize the threat such people pose to the vulnerable when they try to find scapegoats for their problems, especially when manipulated by religious and political demagogues.
The second and third goals deal with the consequences of having flawed and hurting people in our midst. Those who they would hurt by inflicting their pain on others, must be protected. The powerful who would seek to manipulate people’s pain for their own benefit must be stopped. In classic Lutheran theology, these would both be considered proper uses of the Law, benefiting society.
Only the first goal, however, is Gospel because it has the possibility of bringing about transformation and new life. However nasty or hurtful people may be, the world’s hope rests on their discovering their true selves as loved children of God. When the haughty rich young man tries to manipulate Jesus into blessing him for his law-obeying life, Mark says Jesus “loved him” and then told him to give away all he had. Jesus knew it was his wealth and the inflated ego it supported that would always keep him from genuinely knowing God’s love. We will only bring about a better world by first being at peace ourselves and then helping others find that same peace within themselves.
Blessings in your life and ministry.