224th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — July 5, 2010
Preacher: Earle Fike Jr., former faculty of Bethany Theological Seminary, former executive staff of the denomination, and a past moderator of Annual Conference
Text: Luke 19: 1-10; Ephesians 4:1-8
The scene is at the breakfast table of an everyday home. A mother is preparing pancakes for her two young sons, Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Seizing this teaching moment, their mother said, “You know, if Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.'” After a thoughtful pause, the older boy turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, you be Jesus!”
So we are here this week to think seriously about taking Jesus seriously. It could be risky! A year ago, Archbishop Rowan Williams speaking to contemporary Christians suggested that “we need to open our eyes to what is true about Jesus. Looking at Jesus seriously changes things. If we do not want to be changed it is better not to look too hard or too long.” So we begin in the full knowledge that any encounter with Jesus, fresh or second hand, new or old, can be life changing if we take Jesus seriously.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. It’s not always true, but our text is so familiar that it’s easy to dismiss it. So, let’s revisit it with hearts and eyes open. The story begins in the public square of the city of Jericho. Jericho was like the Las Vegas of the Orient. It was a swinging town, the city with the most in its time. It could have been said, “What happens in Jericho, stays in Jericho. ”
Here, in this social paradise, we find a little man largely miserable. He didn’t go out of his way to like others, and no one liked him. He was despised. While some Biblical authorities suggest that the scripture is not clear that he actually cheated anyone, public opinion was sure he had. We see him more like a prune than a plum; more like a raisin than a grape. We picture him, a wily, wicked, wizened, withered little old man; socially and religiously unacceptable.
Ah, but that isn’t all. First appearances seldom are. Looking deeper we discover that Zacchaeus has a few redeeming qualities. He is tenacious, because he refuses to be put off by what people say or think. He is curious, which means he is still open to new things. Those who can’t abide change have forgotten how to be curious. And Zacchaeus knows, deep in his inards, that his life isn’t really like he would like it to be. Having heard of Jesus, he casts all social propriety aside, takes a huge risk, and actually shinnies up a near by Sycamore tree in order to see and hear. After all, what can he do that will further damage his public image. To see him up there was surely a source of hilarity and derision to those who disliked him. You can almost hear them can’t you? “Just where the old cheat needs to be….up the tree without a ladder. Better up there than down here with us and Jesus.”
But Jesus sees him there. We know it’s not unusual for Jesus to notice and care about the needy, the poor, and the sick. But it’s harder for us to allow and applaud the way Jesus also cared for the socially and culturally rejected. When the gospel writers look at the crowds that gather around Jesus, they often put tax collectors and sinners in the same phrase together. But Jesus has different eyes than the crowd has. It should not surprise us that he sees Zacchaeus; this socially offensive but Jesus acceptable man, and says, “come down, I’m going to you house for dinner!”
The public square is full of all kinds of needy persons. But also very prominent in the crowd are the recognized leaders of the religious establishment, the keepers of the faith. We know them as the scribes and the Pharisees. They were there, not as benign observers. They were there as the protectors and guardians of the faith. They were basically good people, who took faith seriously as they knew it. They knew and understood the law. For them, interpreting how to obey was a worthy calling. But giving new perspective and new meaning to the law Jesus style was unacceptable to them. The keepers of the faith are usually not too open to someone who keeps saying, “You have heard it said of old, but I say unto you…”
So the Scribes and Pharisees were not about to let a new fly by night teacher do damage to the truths which they had studied and know by heart. Outraged, hurt, fearful, they say among themselves, “What good can come out of Nazareth.” The NT is full of the opportunities they took to publically challenge and make Jesus an object of ridicule. . Like a contemporary political announcement in our day, whether true or false, which does as much as it can to discredit an opponent, the Scribes and Pharisees are quick to do what damage they can there in the public square. “See,” they announced, “he has gone to be at the home of a sinner.”
But public opinion now and then underestimates what Jesus can do with good but socially unacceptable persons, with promising souls withered by public contempt who are yet brave enough to seek him. After his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus stood up and made a public pledge that truly rocked the city; “Behold, Lord, the half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if…if I have defrauded anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” A great many people who strongly disliked Zacchaeus heard his speech. But he stood right up and said it. And what he said was not some benign and nebulous thing like, “I’m going to do better since I met you.” This was a man who said something more like, “I want to be what you want me to be.” This was a proclamation of a new person, and the new had teeth in it. He gave the stats for his newness: “Half of my possessions to the poor and four times as much paid back to any whom I have defrauded.” That’s measurably new!
Now comes the hard part. It seems like a wonderful story until we realize that by what he did, Jesus was speaking as much to the crowd as to Zacchaeus. Did you miss the remarkable truth? Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Which means, he too is also one of us; one with you. It means this measurably new person is as acceptable as all the good Jewish recognized keepers of the faith there in the square. Jewish Scholar Geza Vermes in “Jesus the Jew” suggests that “Jesus’ association with social outcasts was the factor that differentiated him more than any other, from both his contemporaries and his prophetic predecessors. Sinners and prostitutes were his table companions and ostracized tax collectors and Samaritans were seen as friends.” And the keepers of the faith, the Scribes and Pharisees were outraged.
So let’s reset the scene and the characters. It is today, and the public square is full of all kinds of persons; everyday rich and poor; everyday sick and oppressed; everyday protectors of the faith; everyday seekers of new light; everyday persons who want to love and be loved by this Son of God who dwells in our midst in spirit and in truth. The Church of the Brethren is there; trying to continue the work of Jesus peacefully, simply, and together. We are all there; bystanders in the public square, trying to understand the life and teachings and actions of Jesus. But as he moves amongst us, we see him look into a nearby tree at a person who wants to know him and be known by him; a person whom many find unacceptable. And Jesus says, “come down, I’m going to your house for dinner today.” And the response of the crowd, our crowd, is painfully familiar. “Look, he has gone to be at the home of a homosexual sinner.”
Unfair you say! You’ve pulled a dirty trick on us you say! It’s not intended as a trick. Years ago when I would notify one of our sons that I wanted to talk with him about something he had done, he’d sometimes say, “you don’t have to talk to me Dad. I already know what you’re going to say.” It was not always true for him then, and probably it is not completely true about what you think I want to say to you now in the rest of this sermon. So bear with me a little on this. You know, as well as I know, that the New Testament is full of outcasts and unacceptables that Jesus accepted. There is the woman taken in adultery, and when the scribes and Pharisees lined up to keep the law, Jesus said, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone” That’s the Old Testament being confronted by the good news. I believe that in that part of the public square known as the Church of the Brethren, there is as much unacceptableness of homosexuals now as there was of assumed prostitutes and real lepers and low down tax collectors in Jericho. Which is to say, uncomfortable at it may seem, taking Jesus seriously will consistently call us to accountability in the way we treat those we brand as socially and sexually unacceptable persons.
Do you remember the first major disagreement in the early New Testament church? Circumcision was an explicit Old Testament law requirement for Jewish males. But it was a social and sexual abomination to non-Jews. The protectors of the law in the early church wanted it to continue to be a requirement for new Christians. It took an annual conference type meeting in Jerusalem to settle that disagreement. And in the spirit of the one who said, “You have heard it said of old, but I say unto you..” the early church began to welcome unacceptable people like you and me, known by the derogatory name of Gentiles. We came down out of the tree of unacceptableness and became followers without having to be circumcised.
The early church made other adjustments to the old law. Paul’s letter to the Romans (16:1-16) is a roll call of many who contributed to the early church. Among the many mentioned, in that male dominated community, two women who ministered are named, Pheobe as a “dikovov” (deacon), and Junia is singled out as an apostle, whom Paul himself says, was “an apostle before me.” Also, often overlooked in what we might consider a roll call of unacceptables is a prominent Ethiopian Eunuch, baptized by Phillip upon confession of faith. Amazing how the early church managed to become measurably new. And equally important, through the openness of the early New Testament church, the role of priests and protectors of the faith became measurably new in what the Church of the Brethren has upheld as the priesthood of all believers.
What I’m trying to say is that we are all in the crowd watching Jesus together. And Jesus is calling us to come with him as surely as he is calling those who reside with us up our trees of unacceptableness. As members of the Church of the Brethren, we live in a New Testament tradition of acceptance of anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior and according to our baptismal vows, we are acceptable, not by following prescribed social or religious rules, but by our desire and promise to live in keeping with the spirit and teachings of Jesus.
I know where my faith says we should be on the issue of homosexuality. I’m not comfortable with tree separations, or any of us who are glad to put persons there. But I do not intend to press a specific resolution of that upon you in this sermon. We are apparently not yet ready as a denomination to declare any measurably new commitments in regard to human sexuality. And that is sad. But I surely hope that sooner rather than later, we will find it in our heart to accept the invitation of Jesus and let his spirit come among us as we try to take him seriously on this issue. In the words of our childhood game of hide and seek, Jesus, the one who seeks us as we hide from this issue is reminding us that He is forever coming to find us and hold us to accountability, ready or not.
I believe it was Martin Marty who said that “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty…locked in and not allowed to grow.” So what I do want to do is call those of us in the today’s public square crowd to an early church suggestion on how to relate to one another as we grow and come together on the way Jesus and the New Testament is encouraging us to respond to issues of human sexuality. I want to call us to the practice of Forbearance. Forbearance is a biblical concept. The Greek words in the New Testament translated as forbearance carry meanings of patience, self-control, restraint, mercy, long suffering, and the refusal to threaten. Examples can be found in Colossians and Second Corinthians. And our text from Ephesians 4 is a charter for the practice of forbearance. It says simply,” I, Paul beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Forbearance is not a mamby- pamby attitude. It involves confrontation, respectfully listening, willingness to be open to new things. My great grandfather Elder Jonas Fike understood forbearance. Presiding at a Love Feast at Maple Spring congregation, he arranged the service so it would be over by 5:00 PM in the afternoon. That action put him up an unacceptable tree. He was called before the Elders to be disciplined for dismissing Love Feast too early. After all, the Elders, the keepers of the faith said, the scripture says that after Judas received the bread from Jesus, “he immediately went out and it was night.” That, according to the Elders meant Love Feast should not be finished in daylight. Great Grandfather Jonas stood before the elders and with tears in his eyes said, “I do not believe the scripture intends to prescribe the time of the Love Feast. I dismissed us early so the farmers would be able to milk before it was dark. But if I have offended anyone, I do must earnestly ask for forgiveness.” He did not agree with the scriptural interpretation and he did not agree to never do it again. And to their credit, neither did the Elders punish him by removing his Eldership. Forbearance does not require one to accept what another believes, but it does require one to listen and try to understand what another believes, and do so without personal attacks, and without acting in any way to disenfranchise the other person.
We don’t often think about how we have practiced denominational forbearance. It’s a mark of who we are. Here are a few examples. Across the years, we have come to accept Annual Conference positions as invitations to community agreement rather than mandates that must be obeyed. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. Take for instance, in 1970 Annual Conference affirmed that all war is sin, and that killing human beings is unacceptable. But most of our congregations preach and teach peace without separating ourselves from those among us who chose military service. Or again, in 1958 Annual Conference approved the ordination of women as ministers. In the spirit of forbearance most congregations do not take punitive action against those individuals or congregations who refuse to follow that decision. Or again, in1983 conference passed a position paper on Human Sexuality. In a spirit of forbearance, most congregations have not taken punitive actions against those individuals or congregations who do not follow that amended decision. But some have, and some seem to want to, and that seems to me to be a violation of our Brethren way of practicing forbearance. Forbearance does not jeopardize or denigrate individual conviction, but it does place boundaries on the quality and character of individual responses to one another while we both seek and wait for agreement. We made a positive step in the practice of forbearance in the passage of the “Resolution Urging Forbearance” last year. Let’s not ignore or back away from it.
Our responses to the issue of human sexuality have revealed a spirit as hard and as punitive as the Jericho crowd in it’s feelings about Zacchaeus. I believe, if we listen, Jesus will have a word for those of us in the crowd. Zacchaeus accepted the invitation of Jesus to join him, and he became measurably new. It is time for those of us in the crowd of bystanders interested in this Jesus who comes not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, to accept his standing invitation to be with us and help us to be what he wants us to be; to become measurably new in the way we treat and accept homosexual brothers and sisters.
Robert Fulghum, shares a story about an experience he had in the airport with a young woman, and since I like his way of saying things, I’ll quote him directly. “Dear Fellow Pilgrim, There you were, Hong Kong airport, end of the summer of 1984, tensely occupying a chair next to mine. Everything about you said ‘Young American Traveler Going Home.’ The backpack beside you bore the scars and dirt of some hard traveling….lucky young lady, I thought.”
Fulghum goes on. “When the tears began to drip from your chin, I imagined some lost love or the sorrow of giving up adventure for college classes. But when you began to sob you drew me into your sadness. Guess you had been very alone and very brave for some time. A good cry was in order. And weep you did. All over me. A monsoon of grievous angst. My handkerchief and your handkerchief and most of a box of tissues and both your sleeves were needed to dry up the flood before you finally got it out…..your plane was about to go and you had lost your ticket.”
“After we dried you off, I and a nice older couple from Chicago who were also swept away in the tide of your tears, offered to take you to lunch and to talk to the powers that be at the airlines about some remedy. You stood up to go with us, turned around to pick up you belongings. And SCREAMED! I thought you had been shot. But no…It was your ticket. You had found your ticket. You had been sitting on it for three hours.” Like a sinner saved from the jaws of hell, you laughed and cried and hugged us all and suddenly you were gone…leaving most of the passenger lounge limp from being part of your drama. And now often when I am sitting on my own ticket in some way–sitting on whatever it is I have that will get me up and on to what comes next–I think of you and grin at both of us and decide to get moving.”1
Ah, my brothers and sisters. Maybe we’ve been sitting on our New Testament ticket that will help us take Jesus seriously. Maybe it’s time for us to stand right up and say, “Lord, behold, I want to be what you want me to be in relation to my homosexual brothers and sisters. Invite yourself to dinner with us, Jesus. Come to our denominational home and help us become measurably new.
Please pray with me:
Lord Jesus, for years we have pledged in our baptism to try to be faithful to you by living in keeping with your spirit and teaching. We really want to take you seriously. Make clear to us as we live and work together, how you would most like us to be in community with those whose sexuality perplexes and scares us. Because Lord, in our deepest heart, when push comes to shove, or better yet, when fist opens to become a handshake, we really want to be what you want us to be. Amen.
1 Fulghum, Robert “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It,” Villard Books, N.Y. 1989 p. 197 ff.
The News Team for the 2010 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel; website staff Amy Heckert and Jan Fischer Bachman; and news director and editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
Go to www.brethren.org/Newsline to subscribe to the Church of the Brethren Newsline free e-mail news service and receive church news every other week.