Will you pray with me: Gracious and Loving God, be with us now and as we hear your word, help us to interpret its meaning for our lives today. Amen.
Choice is the common theme throughout today’s passages from scripture. We all have choices or if you so choose to call it, free will which defines how we live out our calling as Christians. Will you choose life or death, God or ideals? Will you follow Christ or will you meander down the path of materialism and prejudice? Will you open your heart to the stranger or will you be mired in wall-building fear and self-interest? Our ancient text asks us what we place first in our lives, the gods we can control or the God who challenges our judgmental stigmata and way of life in light of God’s vision for us of peace and love.
The Psalmist shouts out in Psalm 96…
1O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
3Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
These poetic words remind us that God’s love nurtures the whole of the earth. Devastation comes when Creation turns away from the Divine’s vision. We can love our nation but we must put God first, not the god who endorses our prejudice and separation but the God who challenges us to balance love of nation with love of the earth and all its people.
Ours is the choice to support or deny the loving hospitality and care for the vulnerable and the marginalized.
Brandan Robertson is a noted evangelical thought-leader, humanitarian, and commentator, working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal. He is the author of "Nomad: A Spirituality For Traveling Light." Acclaimed as one of the most hope-inspiring young Christian leaders, Brandan is a sought-after speaker and consultant to churches, denominations, conferences, and universities. He is the founder and executive director of Nomad Partnerships, a consulting firm and resource center to equip and empower faith communities to improve their public witness and impact the world.
Recently, Brandon composed a letter to the church, an institution, which at one point saved him from despair. I will read the opening two paragraphs of Brandon’s letter here, and then weave portions of the remaining pages throughout the message. Brandon writes…
Hello. It’s Me.
You know. The heretic. The one who walked away. The backslider.
Hello from the other side.
You know. I’ve loved you for a long time. Ever since I was twelve years old, when I walked down the aisle of the old Baptist church.
I didn’t have an ounce of hope in my soul. At the time, I was the son of an abusive alcoholic father. I grew up in a trailer park where a vision for the future wasn’t our focus. We were just hoping to get to next week.
At twelve, I was crushed. I had no plans for my life. I felt worthless. But as I made my way down that aisle and fell to my knees at that altar, tears washing down my face as the congregation was singing
“Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, Oh Lamb of God, I come.”
I felt a love so powerful. So transformative, so redemptive, from a Heavenly Father who loved me more than my earthly Father ever could. I heard a Gospel that was truly good news for my young soul. I felt, for the first time, the spark of hope. I believed, for the first time, that my life
had a purpose, had a meaning.
A similar theme within the letter that The Apostle Paul wrote to the young Christians at Galatia. Paul wanted to remind them that their lives too had a purpose which was not to fall to the false Gospel their society generated, but to hang on to the true Gospel Jesus freely offered. Paul demanded that they make a choice.
Jesus, as Paul claimed, lived and died to break down the barrier between Gentile and Jews, outsider and insider, sinner and self-proclaimed righteous. Grace overturns every human division. Paul urged them to refrain from the teachings of their time and place.
The great 20th Century Educator, Parker Palmer once wrote in his work, To Know as we are Known:
I have come to see that knowledge contains its own morality, that it begins not in a neutrality but in the place of passion with the human soul. History would suggest that our knowledge stems from two sources: One is curiosity, the other is control. Curiosity sometimes kills, and our desire to control has put deadly power in some very unsteady hands.
Think of what we know about Luke’s centurion soldier, and how Palmer’s words, on one rare occasion, do not fit this Roman leader’s persona. Text books and commentaries would suggest that this man of power should exude an air of intimidation and oppressive tendencies. Yet Luke’s author describes his character as deeply religious, a man of strong faith and values who had an unusual attitude toward his slave and toward the Jewish people. A man of great humility who couldn’t bear to approach Jesus himself but spoke through Jewish advocates. Jesus acknowledged the Centurion’s request of him and healed his slave and in so doing knocked down cultural bearers to highlight that God wishes to save everyone. The story of the healed Roman slave dispels bigotry and places a spotlight on Divine Grace.
Returning to Brandon’s Letter…
Dear Church, you taught me so much about what is to be a follower of Jesus. I’ve seen your love poured out on me, like 8the time when dozens of people showed up at our dilapidated trailer unannounced, offering to do renovations, replacing floors, buying groceries, and handing a wad of money to us to help my struggling family get by another week.
I’ve seen you reach out to people experiencing homelessness. I have seen you advocate on behalf of the voiceless. I have watched you preach the Gospel to the most lost and hopeless individuals, and I have seen new life spring forth because of you. I’ve given my life to serve you. I love you and believe in you. I believe you have the power to transform the world.
So today we have been reminded that even a centurion, an agent of the oppressor can have faith. Faith emerges in all sorts of disguises and despite our differences, faith unites. This soldier of Rome was not the first to approach Jesus and he will not be the last. Like the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus seeking her daughter’s healing, the centurion crosses borders seeking healing for someone he loves. Like her, he recognizes he is among the unclean and unworthy, but those distinctions ultimately do not matter to God. So why should they matter to us? If God welcomes otherness, when will we choose lives of inclusiveness?
Dear Church, my heart beats for you.
But something has happened recently and everything seems to have changed.
You taught me that I was created in the image and likeness of an eternally expansive, diverse, uncontainable, and indescribable God. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that I would be unique, diverse…different? Doesn’t that mean that we
should not be seeking so much uniformity, but instead seeking out uniqueness?
So that when we come together as a whole, we make up a big, beautiful, diverse body that mirrors that image of God.
Why then, have you told me that I can no longer truly reflect the image of God because I’m queer? Where has the image of God gone? Isn’t it still here. Don’t I still bear it. Doesn’t God delight in me, just as I am?
Or was that just part of the sales pitch?
Fear is a major factor of oppression. Often we let our fears guide are action. The early Galatian Christians allowed their desire to be sojourners of their culture overshadow their understanding of who they were as children of God. The early church theologian, Teresa of Avila offers to them and to us:
Let nothing disturb you; let nothing make you afraid:
All things pass; but God is unchanging.
Patience is enough for everything.
You who have God lack nothing. God alone is sufficient.
Think of a time when you were truly afraid. What were the factors fueling this fear? How did you overcome your fear? Did you recognize the compassion of Christ? Remember our human nature for curiosity and control? I would also claim that our need for control and our curiosity in judging the unknown also fuel our fear. It is easier to be curious and controlling and much harder to show the compassion of Christ to another.
Dear Church, why is it that the moment when I feel most truly authentic and most truly connected to God, that you have pushed me away and said I am invalid? What’s changed? That I’m more honest? More authentic? More devoted to Christ than ever before? Yet nothing is the same between us. Instead of a beloved member of your community, I’m a stranger, exiled in the house of God. The place where I once found a warm embrace has now become a place of rejection and scorn.
Again from his work, To Know as we are Known Parker Palmer writes:
Here is the insight most central to our spiritual experience: we are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us, known as members of a community of creation that depends on us and on which we depend.
Such love and compassion is beautifully depicted by Theologian and Catholic Priest, Henri Nouwen when he says:
In order to be of service to others, we have to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgement, because judgement creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.
In his letter to the church Brandon continues…
Dear Church, you tell me you only do this because you love me. But love doesn’t check a person’s sexuality or gender identity before embracing them. You shame me. Rebuke me. Condemn me. Without ever actually talking to me. You seem to no longer care for me as a person. No one should have to face such condemnation. Especially from those who bear the name of the Christ who proclaimed- “I have not come to condemn, but to redeem.”
Much to your surprise, I still have a deep relationship with God. I still read the Bible. I know what this book says. I know what God wants for me. And just because we’ve come to different conclusions about how I live my life and serve our
doesn’t mean that I need to be your next evangelistic effort. There can be space at the table of God’s grace for both of us. Christ heals divisions. He calls us to set aside our differences- yes, even differences about what is or is not sin.
Dear Church, what are you so afraid of? Doesn’t the perfect love of Christ cast out all fear?
The church can often provide that larger community in which we can explore our faith, test our beliefs, find support and challenge, and be inspired to act together on behalf of others. What can the church learn from the faith of the Roman Centurion? What should the church learn from Brandon Robertson’s letter? How can we as this community of faith reach out to others in true compassion?
Dear Church, where is your love?
The centurion trusted that God loved him and his servant. This is a trust that requires courage. Henri Nouwen in his book, The Inner Voice of Love, once said: “Somewhere along the way, in the life of the maturing Christian, faith combined with hope…grows into trust.” As people of faith, we all have choices to make. How we choose to interpret the choices we make reveals the trust we have in our God.
Brandon concluded his letter to the church, to us…
Dear Church, God is Still Speaking! Amen.